Tuesday 13 April 2021
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Global Human Security
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered global human security.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. First, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting me this debate. The extraordinary experience of the pandemic that we have just lived through has shown us, if anything, that we need an honest discussion about the threats that put all our lives at risk. For years, we have thought that security is about the risks to our nation from hostile actors. It is, of course, important that we are properly aware of and knowledgeable about those risks and equipped to tackle them, but as long as we continue to define security in those narrow terms, we risk neglecting our duty to our constituents to keep them safe now and for generations to come. The world around us is changing, and we must scrutinise our core conventional security assumptions. Ranging from emerging artificial intelligence, cyberwar and organised crime to pandemics and the climate emergency, threats to our security are becoming more complex and more diverse.
The term “human security” was first championed by the United Nations Development Programme in its annual report on human development. It is about security for people: it covers economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security; it puts the experience and wellbeing of the individual at the centre of security policy. Because the challenges that we face are increasingly transnational, human security prioritises international co-operation over competitive national strategies and emphasises the shared security of all humanity.
We cannot continue to seek 20th-century solutions for 21st-century problems. There is no starker reminder than the past year of the impact of the growing range of security threats on people’s lives. It was a virus, not a hostile actor, that brought our lives to a standstill overnight. It was a virus, not a hostile actor, that threatened businesses, jobs and livelihoods. It was a virus, not a hostile actor, that killed more than 120,000 British civilians in the space of a year. With more than 134 million cases worldwide, the truth is that many countries were simply not prepared for the covid pandemic. Our Governments, institutions, policy making and planning need to focus on how we become a lot better at detecting and responding to pandemic threats.
Conflict and crisis prevention are even more important than crisis management. Scientists are already warning that we face an increased threat from pandemics, in terms of both their size and their frequency. Many agree that our behaviour—from deforestation to our encroachment on wildlife habitats—is helping to spread diseases from animals to humans more frequently. In the past 20 years alone, there have been no fewer than six significant threats: SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian influenza, swine flu and covid-19. In the words of Professor Matthew Baylis,
“We dodged five bullets but the sixth got us.”
As the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response says, we must now learn the lessons of covid-19.
The human security approach is about addressing the root causes of vulnerabilities and taking early action on emerging risks. With the tragedy of covid still in our minds, we must use this opportunity to prepare ourselves better against the biological threats that we face. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office should use the G7 and other international gatherings as an opportunity to transform biological security across the board. After all, we do not know what the next covid-19 will look like.
By now, we have had plenty of warnings of the climate and ecological emergency, which has the potential to be even more devastating than covid-19. It is nearly 50 years since the UN’s first major conference on international environment issues in 1972, yet successive Governments have failed to take the climate emergency seriously. In just under 30 years we need to cut all our carbon emissions worldwide to net zero. Although we have known about the threats for decades we have failed to act decisively for far too long. Rises in temperature are now accelerating at a faster rate than most scientists anticipated. It might already be too late to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5° C.
Rising temperatures will lead to widespread natural disasters, environmental degradation, food and water insecurity, rising sea levels and shrinking amounts of land for humans to farm and live on. They will further exacerbate the huge inequality between the global north and south and could lead to large-scale migration and become a catalyst for new conflicts that will threaten international peace and security at a level as yet unknown and unquantifiable. Here in the UK there will be more frequent and severe extreme weather. Higher temperatures will mean increased flooding, property damage and pressure on public services. Crucially it will be those in the poorest communities who will suffer the most.
We are not just in the middle of a climate crisis. Nature is in crisis too. Our way of life, especially in developed nations, is exploiting our global resources in a way that is becoming increasingly unsustainable for our planet. As nature declines, so does the quality of human life. Pollution and poor air quality alone cost millions of lives every year across the globe. We in the UK are not excluded. Those things all beg the question whether the way we currently look at security policy limits the extent to which Government can keep us safe.
Threats to human security such as climate change are predictable and are incrementally destructive, but consecutive Governments have failed to do anything meaningful about them because the worst impacts of climate change stretch well beyond average election cycles. Short-termism leads to long-run costs for short-run savings. Issues of widespread consequences are neglected in the agenda in favour of matters that seem to be more immediate and easier to manage before the next election comes along. That is why the UK should lead the way by looking beyond short-term political cycles and should introduce a wellbeing for future generations Bill. That would reset our approach to the way we plan for long-term crises.
As the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for future generations, I am a champion of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (No. 2) Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). It has the support of more than 100 organisations. That Bill would enshrine in legislation a long-term approach to security so that we could foresee and plan for growing risks, including nuclear proliferation, climate change, and risks from future technologies such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology. It would ensure that Governments would publish a long-term vision for a better UK and put together a national risk assessment, looking forward to the next 25 years after each general election.
Many countries have already started to address damaging short-termism. Examples are the Finnish Committee for the Future and the Singapore Centre for Strategic Futures. Closer to home is the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. However, there is no such body in Westminster. Adopting a Bill designed specifically to mitigate the worst effects of climate change would set the UK up as a trailblazer at COP26—the first UN country with such legislation. An Act dedicated to safeguarding the wellbeing of future generations would set a gold standard for having preventive safeguards in place before it is too late.
During the pandemic we have seen the UK’s health and wellbeing inequalities playing out in real time, and threatening financial and health insecurities. We Liberal Democrats believe that someone in the Cabinet must be responsible for the wellbeing of the British people. A wellbeing budget, following New Zealand’s example, would help to inform the Government’s decisions on what would improve the wellbeing of people across the country. This year’s integrated review has come at the middle of one of the most disruptive global crises in living memory. It is encouraging that for the first time it defines whom our security policy is trying to keep safe. However, for all its talk of long-termism, co-operation and future technology, it is deeply rooted in the old logic of competition.
It is hugely disappointing that the review reneges on previous decisions to reduce the UK’s nuclear stockpile. Instead it increases our stockpile by more than 40% only a month before the next non-proliferation treaty review conference. This not only undermines our record on nuclear disarmament but makes it significantly more difficult for us to make a compelling case in encouraging other NPT-recognised states to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, let alone states outside the NPT.
Today I urge the Minister not to allow this integrated review to be a missed opportunity for setting a course for a sustainable future, and to provide an operational plan that assesses the implementation of the integrated review, based on how it improves global human security. Such a plan must permit us to monitor and evaluate who will benefit from the review, and what impact it will have on their security and wellbeing.
The scale of global human tragedy is alive in our minds. There is no better time than now to put in place long-lasting protections to safeguard current and future generations, focusing on the security and well-being of the individual worldwide, abandoning strategies based solely on competition between nations and ensuring long-lasting global co-operation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing this debate. We could not be further apart politically speaking, but she is right to raise this issue in a Westminster Hall debate, so that we can discuss how we can go forward in creating new ways to tackle this matter and to deliver on behalf of not only our own citizens but citizens around the world.
It is interesting to read United Nations resolution 66/290 from 25 October 2012, in which the UN outlines human security as something that tackles “survival, livelihood and dignity”, with an interest in restoring communities. I want to talk about dignity because, free from poverty and despair, having a people-centred approach and ensuring that we can provide peace, prosperity and development around the world is an important issue and one that I think the United Kingdom has been a global leader on.
Of course, that is somewhat in contention at the moment, because of some of the other issues that have been raised over the course of this pandemic, most specifically that of gender-based violence. I apologise to the Minister, because I think that every time we have come across each other in a Westminster Hall debate, I have raised this issue. However, what we have seen in the course of the past 13 months is a systematic rise of gender-based violence—the persecution of women, of men, of boys and of girls across the world. It is a pandemic that was here before the current Covid pandemic and it will be here long afterwards. Gender-based violence is an issue that is not just dealt with by or due to the nation state; it is a crisis that impacts humanity across the world and it must be addressed.
I make the point that the United Kingdom has shown global leadership on this issue, because we helped to pass the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. However, in recent years we have seen the systematic increase of gender-based violence becoming all the more pronounced. In 2017, 87,000 women were killed, which equates to 137 a day, and the UN has suggested that last year alone about 242 million women and girls would be victims of sexual abuse. Of course, at the moment there is no remit to bring perpetrators to justice. We rightly talk about dignity and about the ability to help those most in need across the world, but where is the dignity if we stay silent on this issue? Where is the dignity in our responses and our ambitions if we fail to tackle this pervasive and increasing horror, which is a gross human rights violation?
We have been retreating on these issues, and I have heard time and time again from the Government about the fact that the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative continues to thrive from place to place, and continues to involve itself in different regions of the world. Yet at present in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where some of the most appalling human rights violations—including sexual violence—are going on, the PSVI has not been deployed. The PSVI is no longer being used for the very purpose that it was set up for, so I have to question in this important debate on this important subject why we are not using the tools that we have at our disposal to help those who are most in need.
My second point should not be a surprise, given the point I have just made. It is the fact that one of the ways in which we can tackle this issue, and one of the ways in which we can show global leadership, is by retaining the 0.7% target. This is something that I have long seen as a tool in Britain’s diplomatic arsenal, a tool that allows us to be a global leader in development, and a tool that we have been able to use in our diplomatic network. To be able to tackle the valid points raised by the hon. Member for Bath, which I am sure others will raise as well, we must retain that number so that we can show our commitment to the world and continue to fund programmes and show global leadership
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given the current signals from the Government, we are setting ourselves up against other nations rather than wanting to work with them? That is not a good way of seeking co-operation across the board on such important issues as women and violence.
The hon. Lady makes an incredibly important point. I think we are stepping back where we should step forward. The UK has form in leadership, but we are not doing that. The Minister can shake his head—I am sorry to be against him on this issue—but when it comes to sexual and gender-based violence and aid, we are expected to play a part. Nations do not accept that we are doing that at present, so we must take a step forward.
I know many Members wish to speak in this debate. We have a duty to the world’s poorest, a duty to those in despair, and a duty to those who are suffering. As conflicts and crises rage around the world, we are seen to be mute. I hope the Minister can correct me on where I am wrong and can tell me that our units are going out to Ethiopia to help victims of gender-based and sexual violence, but nothing has shown me anything different from what has been suggested already. We often confuse movement for action. Following this debate and many others that we will have in this Chamber, I hope we will be able to address this issue and recognise that it is not just about the nation state, but about how we respond to human crises around the world in a way that we can rightly be proud of.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. My heartiest congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing this debate. As is typical, she has covered most of the points that I intended to make, including the one about the number of nuclear weapons that this country proposes to have in future.
My hon. Friend made the point that human security is not just about armed forces, but about what has happened recently. She pointed out that the huge number of deaths in this country has been due to the virus, and that has led, we think, to a 20% drop in our GDP. As my party’s defence spokesman, I want to pay real tribute to our armed forces and the role that they have played in recent times. I have on several occasions pressed the Secretary of State for Defence on their deployment in terms of testing and the roll-out of the vaccine, and I give credit where it is due. I have had straight answers from him and have seen with my own eyes the good work that has been done.
Having served, not with any particular honour, as a private soldier in the Territorial Army, I know that the armed forces, once they have been trained and are ready, spend a lot of time waiting when nothing much happens. From the conversations that I have had, I know that the armed forces personnel who took part in testing the vaccination actually enjoyed the work. They saw it as something different and felt proud that they were playing a role in defeating the deadly virus.
As I represent a constituency that is subject to more extreme weather than many other parts of the United Kingdom, I know all about global warming, which has already been mentioned. The armed forces also have a big role to play when we have a landslip. God forbid that we do, but, alas, when we do and something goes wrong—when a railway line is blocked or a road goes over the edge—they too can help out, and indeed they do. Again, as in fighting the deadly virus, they actually enjoy the work, and it gives them experience of using their machinery to see what they can do with it.
For that reason, I am bound to make this one political point: I deplore the proposed cut in the number of military personnel. Yes, we can do things very cleverly with computers, to which I will turn in a minute, but at the end of the day we need the human bodies and the skills out there to fight and defend our human security in the widest possible sense, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bath has outlined.
I turn now to cyber-security. As I have mentioned before, during the armed forces parliamentary scheme the year before last, when I joined the 3rd Battalion Yorkshire Regiment in Estonia, it was made clear to me by a colour sergeant that it would be extremely dangerous for me to turn on my iPhone that close to the Russian border. He said, “Quite simply, they will triangulate in on you right away and in no time at all hack into your iPhone”. We were told in almost blood-curdling terms, “Do not use social media. If you take a picture, don’t send it anywhere at all”. Despite my TA experience a long time ago, this shook me and showed that the threat to this country via cyber-attack is very real indeed.
I want to take this point one step further. It is easy to think of Russia attacking us in this way, but let us remember other enemies are out there—China, North Korea and others have been mentioned several times. Alas, we live in a dangerous world and we have to defend ourselves.
This is not just about an attack on an institution, such as the House of Commons and our own defence systems. It can, sadly, be on an individual. We have seen the spread of antisemitism and all sorts of unfortunate messages being pushed, possibly from Russian bots, possibly from other countries, we know not, but it is done with malevolent intent, make no mistake of that.
I close with two small examples of the connected-up nature of this. It is no accident that RT—Russian Television—uses its services to try to undermine some of the things that we hold most dear in the United Kingdom. I want to put on record today that I absolutely deplore Mr Alex Salmond’s refusal to accept the disgraceful, horrific nature of the murder and attack in Salisbury. I do not think this man realises that he is the unwitting pawn of Russia’s chess game to undermine the United Kingdom. I know that the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), has lived in Northern Ireland. As we see events unroll in Northern Ireland right now, how do we know that the hand of cyber-security is not in some way linked to this? Perhaps I am scaremongering, but I am also realistic as to the threat that this nation and the world face.
I look forward to the Minister’s reply with great interest. What does he feel about the connected nature of cyber-defence, not just in defending our institutions such as the House of Commons, the banks and defence systems, but also at the lower, individual level where somebody could be taken out via a nasty cyber-attack? How can we manage with fewer armed forces personnel?
This debate is very valuable and important. It should have been held before the Government launched their review of this country’s security arrangements and before their statements about future levels of expenditure on overseas aid and defence. We put defence expenditure up by £24 billion and cut overseas aid expenditure, which surely gives a very bad message to the rest of the world.
Issues of real security need to be addressed in a fundamental way. What is security? Security for a human being is the ability to be able to live peacefully, to eat, to be educated, to have health care for them and their children, and to live a full and fulfilling life. That is surely something that we all want for ourselves. The UN recognises it is an important benchmark for human development. Indeed, our Ministry of Defence recognises that as well, because it has a department dealing with issues surrounding human security.
However, we then have to look at the reality of the world as it is at the present time. Broadly speaking, western countries have a fairly high standard of living, albeit with massive inconsistencies and inequalities, but other countries, mainly in the global south, have less access to health care, almost no access in some cases to free education and shorter life expectancy. Surely those factors are major drivers of world insecurity and the conflicts we presently have. We should be looking at human development in the future and how our overseas aid expenditure can help that; how a fairer trading system could reduce tensions around the world and raise living standards; and how we can deal with the food distribution crisis around the world that results in so many people living in hunger.
We must also look at the human rights crisis in many parts of the world in which women’s rights, children’s rights and the rights to free speech and assembly are denied. Those, too, are drivers of injustice and inequality.
The other factor in global affairs has to be the overwhelming need for us to take the present issues of environmental disaster and climate change very seriously. The rate of global warming is not slowing—it is increasing. We are not going to reach net zero by 2050 at the current rate of affairs, yet we need to reach net zero by 2030.
The opportunities coming up for us to contribute to this are numerous. One is COP26 later this year, at which we need not just to set an example of our activities in this country—where, yes, we are generating more electricity from renewable sources—but to go a lot further. We also have to ensure that we do not export pollution by importing goods made from polluting sources. COP26 is a huge opportunity that we must not miss to reach net zero by 2030, if at all possible, and to ensure that the technology to achieve that is universally shared.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and the UN proposals on a global ban on nuclear weapons are also coming up. Yet instead of fulfilling our obligations under the NPT, we are proposing to produce even more nuclear weapons in this country. That will not make us safer, it is illegal within the terms of the NPT, and we ought to be leading the way towards a nuclear-free world by co-operating with the UN proposals, and with other countries.
The third area of great insecurity is the number of refugees around the world. There are 70 million refugees who are products of environmental disaster, of wars, and of human rights abuses. They demand somewhere to live; they demand the right to contribute to our world. Instead of using threats against them, we should recognise the problems that have led them to seek refuge in the first place. There are major issues around the world: a war in Yemen, a war in Afghanistan—albeit relatively low level—and the huge number of arms sales that we make to Saudi Arabia and other countries, which actually contribute to those conflicts.
I would hope that we could have a more thoughtful approach to the longer term. I have no truck with human rights abuses anywhere in the world, be they in China, in Russia, in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else. Our contribution ought always to be arguing for the UN universal declaration and for human rights-based foreign policy. That, surely, would help to bring about peace in the future.
However, if the rhetoric from Government is always about ratcheting up a cold war with China, ratcheting up a cold war with Russia and pouring more arms into every area of conflict around the world, that will not bring us peace, and our armed forces could be put in harm’s way.
To follow what the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said, I have met some of our armed forces who saved lives in the Mediterranean by pulling refugees out of the sea off the coast of Libya who were in danger of drowning while they were seeking a place of safety, or helped people dealing with the Ebola crisis, and they told me it was the most useful thing they had ever done. Our armed forces have enormous skills to protect us from cyber-security attacks, but we also need to ensure that those skills are used to bring about a more peaceful world.
Lastly, there is now a real danger of an even worse conflict developing in Myanmar, where there has been a coup to take over the Government and where the army is now in charge. Surely we must do everything we can to bring about a political solution for all the people of Myanmar, including the Rohingya people who have been forced into exile in Bangladesh, so that we can make our contribution to bringing about a much more peaceful world. Surely the crisis of the environment, of human rights and of refugees around the world ought to be the big signal that, post covid, the world needs to work together to conquer disease, poverty and inequality. Increasing arms expenditure and arms sales will not bring about that more peaceful world.
I want to record my thanks to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for her thoughtfulness in introducing this debate and for her excellent early-day motion. She has made a great contribution to the House today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I very much welcome today’s debate and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for tabling this discussion, in which I want to raise a number of key points.
Fundamentally, this is about a reconceptualisation of security, away from essentially—in some respects, almost purely—national security towards human security. Historically, international law and security have largely been framed through the lens of the nation state. Threats have been considered in terms of the effect of aggression, or things such as economic warfare, on the autonomy of states. Obviously those are still realities in many respects, both for the UK and other states around the world. None the less, it is important that we change our assessment of threats and do so in a way that reflects our changing values.
Many speakers have referred to the importance of human rights. If we are to conceive human rights as genuinely universal, that cannot be just a theory. We must try to live that out in practice, and that means having a serious conversation about what it means to be secure. There are multiple dimensions to that, including someone’s personal autonomy and dignity, their economic prospects and prosperity, the most fundamental of which is their food security, and their opportunities, not least in education—educational opportunity for girls is a theme that many Members have been keen to stress—as well as basic freedoms and rights, and also more recently, with the realities of climate change, environmental security.
But this is not simply a question of altruism. We have to recognise our interdependence with what happens in the rest of the world—with our closest neighbours, but also with those much further afield. There are three major interlinking themes, which we are all very conscious of at present. One is the looming climate change and the climate emergency, and what we need to do by 2050 to ensure carbon neutrality. We cannot simply view that through the lens of the UK alone; we have to ensure that the world is moving at the same pace. The UK has a particular responsibility, as one of the states that industrialised first and that has historically been one of the greater polluters, to show leadership and bring others with us. We also have issues with migration flows and how destabilising they can be, so we must understand the reasons why people are often pushed to flee from their own societies.
Then we have the issue of pandemics. We do not know what lies in the future, even whenever we think beyond covid, but that reinforces the importance of seeing health security in a global sense, because the UK can never be fully safe unless the rest of the world is properly vaccinated. It is therefore important that the UK builds upon what I acknowledge to be strong leadership through COVAX and does more to try to ensure that the rest of the world is keeping pace with the UK.
Over the last number of decades, we have seen a range of conflicts and war zones around the world, and many of those have involved gross abuses of human rights right through to ethnic cleansing and genocide. We have to be honest that at times there has been a certain selectivity in terms of how different states around the world have responded.
I remember growing up in the 1980s and seeing the images from Cambodia on TV screens, and how that conflict was essentially parked by the great powers because it did not suit anyone’s interests to get involved. In effect, genocide occurred as we looked on with a degree of futility. More recently in the 1990s, we saw the situation in Rwanda where it was blatantly obvious what was happening and a full-scale genocide took place within a matter of weeks, but the world looked away because it was not viewed as an issue of national interest or people had been exhausted by interventions that had taken place elsewhere.
Other conflicts, even the situation in eastern Congo through to Yemen today, have not received the same degree of attention that other war zones have received from the international community because other interests have come to pass. Often where we have intervened or sought to use our influence, these have not been the ones where the greatest loss of life has occurred. Of course, where we have taken action has been important and was the correct decision to make, but we have at times turned a blind eye because we did not have either the capacity or the will to address certain situations. When we have intervened, it has been due to overspill issues or where the UK has had historical interests and relationships, or what used to be termed the CNN effect where TV cameras have shamed the world into action—leaving other situations where TV cameras perhaps have not been present without proper due attention.
I am not being naïve in suggesting that we move away entirely from the traditional national security lens. Clearly, there are huge threats out there that we would have to be alert to and address, and those are in many respects state-based threats from both Russia and China. However, the balance needs to change and the integrated review should be a pivot in that respect. We need to see a greater focus on international aid and humanitarian assistance, as well as on UN peacekeeping.
It is important that we return to the responsibility to protect doctrine that was developed by the United Nations in the early 2000s. Intervention has become somewhat scarred and undermined by a number of missteps that have occurred in more recent years, but it may be important that we return to that concept and see how it can be reapplied. We need to look at how we can ensure the sustainable development goals are properly developed and fully implemented by 2030.
On a more conceptual basis, we also need to think through what needs to happen in evolving international law, moving away from its roots in national security and issues around nations. We need to reform the United Nations and reconceptualise the concept of national interest.
I apologise for not being here on time, Sir Christopher. I am dependent on the flight from Belfast. We had to de-ice and as a result we did not get away from Belfast in time. I have let the Speaker’s office know and I apologised to the Minister in advance as well.
I am very happy to speak in this debate and I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for setting the scene. I am sorry I was not here for it, but I am quite sure that I would endorse her comments as I am very interested in this subject.
We do not know what future threats to human security will look like. It might be another pandemic or something completely different. However, the good news is that if we know what many of the most extreme risks are, then we know how to best prepare for them—I am the eternal optimist and believe in the glass half-full. That is why I am looking forward to the Minister’s response and—putting no pressure on him—I am seeking some assurances, which I understand other speakers have asked for as well.
One thing that I would underline immediately is that people need each other. We have to realise that and that is where I come from. Nations need nations. We all depend and can support each other, and with that being the premise for where we are, we can start from that. Human progress does not go in straight lines, instead there are rare moments in which decades worth of progress can be achieved in a matter of months. The supreme example of that is one we have lived through in the last year—the covid vaccine. Our scientists and those with expertise and knowledge were able to come up with the vaccine to save lives and preserve lives. That has been a marvellous achievement within how we have dealt—and how the Government have dealt—with covid-19.
Technological progress since the industrial revolution has ultimately increased the risk of the most extreme events occurring, putting humanity’s future at stake through nuclear war, climate breakdown and other events. We cannot survive many centuries without transforming our resilience. We cannot ignore—I will not, and I hope that neither the Government nor anyone else would—the issues of the environment, climate change and all those things that are real to the people in my constituency who contact me on a regular basis.
I am also the human rights spokesperson for the Democratic Unionist Party, and often speak on these issues. Other hon. Members that I have heard so far, and those who will speak after me, also talk about human rights. Human rights are critical for me as an individual and for my constituents—it is one of the biggest mailbag issues—so I get questions about them and there are issues to speak out on. I have spoken out on those issues and will continue to do so.
Covid-19 has given us a sense of the devastating impact that extreme risks would have on our health and our economy. We do not know what the next extreme risk will be—we do not yet know whether we are out of the present one in its totality, although we are going the right way—but the odds that we face, or that our children will face, are uncomfortably high. As a grandfather of five, I very much want to put in place a system that preserves for them a future that we can all endorse. That is why we are all here—to meet that issue.
The good news is that we know what many of the most extreme risks are and how the Government can best prepare for them, both at home and internationally. That is why we are here today, and why I and others are calling for an international treaty on risks to the future of humanity. I am concerned, as others are, about what those risks will be.
Some of the most serious risks, such as climate change and nuclear weapons, are covered by at least some international law. However, there is no regime of international law in force commensurate with the gravity of extreme risks such as global pandemics—I wonder whether that is something we might need to look at right now; I believe that we cannot ignore it, because we have lived through 13 months of it, and are going into the 14th, so we need to look seriously at those issues—or that has the breadth needed to deal with the changing landscape of risk, as there are so many other things happening as well.
A new treaty on risks to the future of humanity has been recommended by—this is an Italian name; I will try to get it right, but am sure that in my Ulster Scots accent it will sound totally alien to most people—Guglielmo Verdirame, a QC and professor of international law at King’s College London. We need a new global framework for identifying and addressing those risks. That is what he asks, and I ask the same.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that so many of the issues that he describes are linked to our short-termism? Will he therefore consider the Bill on wellbeing for future generations, which I am supporting, as something he would support, so that we can ensure that Governments look to the long term and get away from short-termism?
I thank the hon. Lady for her wisdom and for her intervention. She makes a valid point, which I would endorse. Of course, I would need to go over the Bill, and I serve under a Whip, as the hon. Lady does, and I must follow that whatever my own inclinations may be. However, I have every sympathy on the matter that she has mentioned. If it was up to me, then yes, but we have to discuss these matters, as we always do.
We need the new global framework to identify the risks. We know that this is not a challenge that can be left to a specialist institution or a body of experts, and international diplomacy and domestic politics must be engaged at the highest level.
I say to the Minister that these are not things to do on our own. We cannot do them on our own; we need to do them with others. That is why I said earlier that this is about nations working with nations; it is people working with people. Those might be people who have very diverse politics and diverse cultural and historical views, but who are working together to the greater good of everyone. I would like to hear what we are able to do on that, and I recognise that the Government, and the Minister in particular, have made a commitment to it.
Global Britain also has a diplomatic ability to make this happen. We are held in high esteem across the world and, with that in mind, our position, our role and our influence will be important. Such a treaty would provide a framework for identifying and addressing such risks, and international diplomacy on domestic policies must be engaged at the highest level to achieve that. How do we do it? Perhaps the Minister can tell us.
A new treaty should be linked to UN Security Council resolutions to place this new framework on the strongest legal footing, so it is not just words, but actions—a legal framework that can actually make changes for everyone, for their betterment, with penalties for those who choose to remain outside the new legal regime or to flout it, so that the legislation has teeth.
I commend the Government’s recently published integrated review, which announced a much needed new approach to preparedness and response to risks. In the light of that, I urge the Minister to follow the encouraging promise of global Britain and lead calls at the G7 for a new treaty on risks to the future of humanity. There is, I believe, scope for the UK to take up a position of global leadership on the issue, and start to build an alliance, moving towards a treaty with like-minded countries with which we could do things. Will the Minister tell us whether there have been discussions with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and other great powers?
We should use the opportunity to forge a new pact between nations, to ensure that none are committed to jeopardising the whole of humanity. This is about accountability. If we all move forward in a spirit of co-operation, we can find a solution. We also have a duty as individuals; I say that for myself, for others and for Government. We have a duty to be good stewards. I believe that we need to step up and I look to the Minister to underline the next steps.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee and the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for enabling this timely and hugely important debate.
As many have noted in the debate, the way in which our lives, and the lives of everyone across the world, have been turned upside down over the past year has brought the need for global human security into sharp focus. However, it should not have taken a virus that, worldwide, has resulted in nearly 3 million deaths and counting, inflicted vast economic damage at home and abroad, and exacerbated inequality globally to force us to take more seriously the challenges and threats the world faces.
Furthermore, our renewed attention on health security and the necessity for pandemic preparedness, having been caught off guard this time around, cannot mean that we take our eye off the ball in the other dimensions of human security. If there is one lesson to learn, it is that the pandemic illustrates the interconnectedness of the modern world and the interdependence of health, environmental, economic, food, political, community and personal security.
What began as a health crisis in China has had previously unimaginable impact on the livelihoods of each of our constituents and on the wider world. Surely we must now know that we cannot pick and choose which threats to take seriously, prepare for and attempt to prevent. A holistic approach, based on the UN sustainable development goals, a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people on the planet, now and in the future, is the only way forward, building back better from the pandemic and ensuring that, truly, we are leaving no one behind.
For too long, security has been seen through the lens of traditional models of defence and military strength. That led to decades of prioritising a narrow concept of security over a whole-of-society approach. Defence is a vital component of our national security, but it forms only one part of this. We must look to re-evaluate what security means.
The UK Government’s recent integrated review could have provided an opportunity to do that, and the forthcoming G7 summit, to be held in Cornwall, and the UN climate change conference, to be held in Glasgow, provide the UK with an opportunity to bring the issue of global human security to the forefront. At this watershed moment, prioritising global human security cannot be just something that is proclaimed and paid lip service to; it has to be the lived reality.
What have the UK Government decided to do instead? The complete opposite. Any effort to improve global human security has been fundamentally undermined by the UK Government’s decision to cut aid spending from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%. The reality of that cut is a reduction in the UK’s aid budget of £4.5 billion, or a 30% reduction relative to 2019. That is money that has saved lives and supported the poorest and most vulnerable people living in the most fragile places in the world, yet at the time of greatest need in the midst of a global pandemic, the UK Government are pushing through this ideologically driven desire to reduce aid and development spending. They are prioritising a windfall for the defence budget and look to use what is left of the aid budget to further trade.
Yemen was described by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. There are 16 million people being put in hunger, 5 million civilians facing starvation and more than 3 million people being displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict, yet the UK Government are cutting their aid contribution by 50%. Mark Lowcock, head of the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, was blunt in his assessment of that decision as an act of medium-term and long-term self-harm. He warned that to balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen has consequences not just for Yemenis now, but for the world in the long term.
In Syria—a country ravaged by a 10-year civil war on terrorism and a contributor to the global refugee crisis—the UK Government have slashed by a third their funding for the Syrian refugee programme. According to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, more than 13 million people need humanitarian assistance to survive this year, yet the UK has decided to make devastating cuts.
How can the Minister seriously stand here and talk about global human security when the Government condemn millions to hunger, provide the weapons used in Yemen and create fertile ground for extreme poverty, increased violent extremism and conflict over control of scarce resources? No matter the amount of polish that is applied, the direction taken by the UK Government is not going to shine.
As a result of covid-19, development trends are being set back decades, with 2020 witnessing the first rise in global poverty since 1998. The UK’s integrated review recognises that. It also adds that it is estimated that absolute poverty will be almost eliminated in Asia by 2030, although Africa will increasingly be left behind, and by 2045 it is likely that around 85% of the poorest billion people will live in Africa. Despite that, the UK Government are intent on pursuing an Indo-Pacific tilt to their international outlook.
Furthermore, a leaked Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office report last month revealed that officials are considering slashing aid programmes to Libya by 63%, to Somalia by 60%, to South Sudan by 59%, and to Nigeria by 58%. That will not increase global human security; it will undermine it. By abandoning their moral duty to assist the world’s most vulnerable, the UK Government are increasing the likelihood of hunger, disease and political stability in the most fragile places in the world—risking instability not only abroad, but at home. Therefore, the Scottish National party will continue to oppose the aid cut and the devastating impact it will have.
As an independent country, Scotland will act as a good global citizen, committed to the internationally agreed 0.7% percent target and following the UN’s sustainable development goals to peace and prosperity for people and the planet. Indeed, Scotland is already proving itself a world leader and contributor to global human security through its international work on climate change. Climate change is the greatest security challenge we face, and it is an urgent and complex global problem that no one nation can tackle alone. It increases natural disasters and competition for basic resources.
The destruction of habitats will lead to famine, disease, conflict and displacement, which threatens to undo decades of development gains and increased prosperity throughout the world. The poor and most vulnerable are the first to be affected by climate change and will suffer the worst, yet they have done little or nothing to cause the problem. The least developed countries and the most vulnerable people will be hit first and hardest by climate change, and many are already suffering devastating impacts. We therefore cannot be serious about global human security if it to be is undermined by the destruction caused by climate change.
The SNP-led Scottish Government have put biodiversity and ecological strength at the very heart of their policy making and in 2012 were the first Government in the world to set up a dedicated climate justice fund. Climate justice was put front and centre in the International Development Committee’s 2018 climate change report, as a recommendation to the UK Government, and the UK Government must focus on that type of global human security challenge going forward. They should follow Scotland’s lead, rather than pursuing cuts and vanity projects.
Finally, there is no greater illustration of the UK Government’s disjointed approach to global human security, and of how their priorities differ from those of the SNP and an independent Scotland, than their recent decision to increase the number of nuclear warheads by more than 40% while cutting life-saving aid around the world. Rather than investing in global health and human rights, providing support to fragile and conflict-affected areas, providing nutrition to those who are starving or helping the poorest in the world, the UK Government have decided to increase their weapons of mass destruction. That not only demonstrates the UK’s complete moral failure, but perfectly illustrates the UK Government’s inability to comprehend the threats in the modern world and the need for global human security, and highlights a desperate clinging on to the idea of the UK as an imperial global superpower.
If the past year has shown us anything, it is that we must consign those outdated models of security to the past. Indeed, to honour the millions who have lost their lives and livelihoods to the pandemic, we must put people and our planet first, and take seriously the very present threats that we face.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Christopher, and I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing this important debate on global human security. The world has entered a period of rapidly accelerating insecurities. From the climate emergency to infectious diseases, and from conflict to the subversion of human rights and persisted poverty, catastrophic crises now occur simultaneously, putting at grave risk the health, wellbeing and security of people around our interconnected world.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) made an incredibly strong argument focused on dignity. He challenged his own Government on their appalling cuts to the aid budget, and on observing our duty to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, rather than turning away from the provision of desperately needed leadership. Multiple crises across the world combine at catastrophic human cost. From climate and conflict to covid, those crises all need action. There has never been a more important time to think strategically about how we approach them.
The hon. Member for Bath spoke of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. I am proud to have been instrumental in introducing that ground-breaking Act in Wales when I was a special adviser to the Welsh Labour Government. We introduced the Act to focus on the social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing of Wales. In delivering the Act, I saw at first hand how it can help to bring about the changes we need. It puts in place seven wellbeing goals, and forces decision makers and organisations to think more about the long term; work better with people, communities and each other; look to prevent problems; and take a much more joined-up approach, which is desperately needed across the UK. The Act helps us to create the country that we all want to live in, now and in the future.
Unfortunately, the cornerstones of human security—freedom from fear, want and indignity—are being chipped away, and there appears to be little appetite in this Government to change course. The gap between the Government’s rhetoric and their actions is large and growing. We do not have to delve far into the catalogue of Government errors to find the cut of a third in the aid budget. Aid is our first responder to crises and our last line of defence, so the cut is dangerous and costly. Instead of the Government’s hasty retreat, we must shoulder responsibility and pool resource, knowledge, expertise and finance if we are successfully to reverse the drivers of those crises and chart a course to a sustainable and restorative future that protects the health of people and planet, and reduces the inequalities and insecurities that threaten us all.
In recent months, I have spoken to Rose and Eva, remarkable women from Uganda who shared with me their horrifying experiences of devastating extreme weather, with families uprooted from homes and their livelihoods lost. Just last year, I had similar conversations with constituents of mine who had been affected by flooding. Climate change affects the most vulnerable, wherever they are in the world.
As we have seen with covid, what happens in even the most distant communities reverberates back to our shores; what happens in Kampala is felt in Cardiff. That means confronting the challenges of our time, abandoning outdated assumptions about security and playing a responsive role in the world—unlike this Government’s approach, exemplified by the “Competitive Age” integrated review.
Labour is aligned with President Biden, but we cannot afford a strategy focused only on competition. When the threats to our world are felt equally, we are either all winners or all losers. It is a zero-sum game. As covid has taught us, only through co-operation in science, research and development, and data sharing have we been able to get a grip on this virus, to develop a vaccine and now, we hope, to be on our way to defeating it. Collaboration not competition—that highlights the nonsensical, ridiculous £250-million cut in aid to vital UK and global health research amid a pandemic.
When we talk about security, that must include climate, food and health. As the Secretary-General of NATO said recently, we need a “broader, more integrated approach” to security and resilience to keep people safe. The challenges that we must overcome are existential threats to humanity. Our approach must be more human-centred and holistic. We are all less safe as health and climate challenges aggravate existing forms of insecurity and as new forms of insecurity are created. They require different forms of action that this Government are failing to meet and which, with the aid budget, in effect they are abandoning.
Climate breakdown, with devastating drought and scarcity, drives conflict and is central to the humanitarian crisis in places such as Nigeria and Lake Chad. According to research conducted by the International Red Cross, the planet has witnessed a 35% increase in the number of climate-related disasters since the 1990s. There is also health breakdown, where biodiversity loss threatens not only the species with which we share the planet but our own health, forcing parasites to look for alternative hosts—75% of emerging infections in human populations come from animals. Professor Peter Piot from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine warned of an “era of pandemics”, brought about by humanity’s treatment of the natural world. That is what makes this Government’s cuts to aid, their abandonment of principles and alliances in their willingness to break international law, and their shocking lack of political will to foster long-term strategic thinking in policy making so very dangerous.
Do not take it just from me. Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, said that the Government’s current approach to security fails to acknowledge fully the depth of challenges—economic, political and military—that will face the UK in the coming years. Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief, who was instrumental in the Paris climate agreement, warned:
“There are raised eyebrows among world leaders watching the UK.”
Achim Steiner of the UN Development Programme said that the cut to aid “does not enhance” confidence in the UK internationally.
I therefore hope that the Minister can explain what the Government are doing to ensure that long-term thinking is taken into account. Will his Government consider introducing, as in Wales, a measure similar to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015? What assessment have his Government made of the short-term impacts of aid cuts on immediate crisis response and associated threats and of the long-term impact of that failure to prevent future risks or build resilience? Crises overlap and combine to drive poverty, and health and climate insecurity. They cannot be solved in isolation, so will the Minister explain how the Government concluded that structuring the UK’s development response into seven siloed core priorities will tackle overlapping crises?
Finally, Labour would introduce statutory duties to plan, audit and invest in pandemic responses. Will the Government confirm whether they will introduce a more human-focused and holistic health security policy to ensure that we address all those challenges? We are experiencing an abundance of shattering threats, but a shocking scarcity of necessary action from the UK Government. We must maintain our commitment to holistic forms of security, which protect people at home and abroad, and tackle insecurity and injustice at their root.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Christopher. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for securing this debate and also for the contributions made by Members across the House. I will try and cover a number of the points raised. Even though we have a fair amount of time, because the contributions have been wide ranging, I am not necessarily going to be able to give all elements the justice that they deserve.
As a number of contributors have mentioned, we live in an increasingly competitive, dangerous and, as the hon. Lady said, complex world. The integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy highlighted three broad and significant challenges including, first, the challenge from autocratic regimes that seek to undermine human rights and open societies; secondly, the challenge of rapidly developing technologies which, while often bringing huge benefits, also bring new dangers from states, from terrorists, from criminal groups and individuals who would do us harm; and thirdly, the challenge of existential threats, such as pandemics and climate change, both of which have been discussed significantly this morning.
In response to this challenging context, the integrated review sets out the Prime Minister’s vision for a stronger, more prosperous Union in 2030. It has, at its heart, the protection of the interests of the British people, our sovereignty, our security, our health and our prosperity. It sets out a comprehensive and holistic approach to our security. We should not forget, however, that the threats from terrorism and conflict remain. That is why a hard-edged security and intelligence capability is a recurrent thread in the integrated review, which we have underpinned with our increased investment in defence to 2.2% of GDP and our cherished security and intelligence agencies, particularly our work with NATO and Five Eyes.
A number of Members have mentioned our Official Development Assistance commitment. I remind them that despite the unique and extreme financial pressures imposed on us by coronavirus, the UK remains, in both percentage and absolute terms, one of the world’s most generous aid donors. The world is changing and we need to adapt to it. We must ensure that we have the capabilities and systems, not only to respond to today’s threats but to anticipate and respond to the threats of tomorrow. Our integrated review commits us to work to solve global challenges, to invest in science and technology, to act as a force for good, championing free trade, individual freedoms, global prosperity, and to take a more robust approach to security and deterrents.
After all the Minister has heard this morning—we could only touch on so many of the issues—does he not agree that the balance we have to strike about global security has to shift away from just arming ourselves again as a country, as if it were about the national threat, and looking at how we can work together globally and internationally? The signals we have been setting out in the past year or so about our strength and using international aid for our advantage as a country are going in the wrong direction. Does he not agree?
I will address the points that the hon. Lady has raised in my speech, if she will bear with me. On the point about how she frames our use of international aid for the UK’s advantage, it is completely wrong. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and, in fact, the whole of Government have made it very clear that we are committed and determined to be a force for good in the world and to work with partners to address global challenges. Our foreign policy is on behalf of the British people, but our development work is to be a force for good in the world, not for narrow self-interest.
We had a debate in Westminster Hall before the recess to do with non-governmental organisations and faith groups. There is a role for Government to partner with faith groups, Churches and those who want to help, and perhaps fill the gap or shortfalls between the moneys that the United Kingdom gave in the past and what it gives now. Will the Minister indicate, either now or by sending all of us details, how faith groups can partner Government to help, and how they can engage and achieve a better result for all of us?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of formal and informal faith groups, and the huge role that they play around the world in alleviating poverty and addressing difficulties and harm. The Government absolutely recognise the important role that they play. We work through a number of partners around the world, some faith-based, others secular, to try and deliver on that “force for good” agenda. He is absolutely right: faith organisations play a huge and important role in delivering humanitarian policy.
To help us deliver the agenda that we set out in the integrated review, we have brought together our diplomatic network of 281 posts in 178 countries with our aid budget and development policy to create the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. That joined-up approach is helping to build partnerships and secure the opportunities that we need to tackle global challenges as part of the global community. We are making good progress against many of these challenges. The UK has been at the forefront of the international response to covid: helping to protect others and, in doing so, helping to protect ourselves. UK scientists developed the first effective and widely affordable vaccine. Our Prime Minister, Ministers and diplomats have consistently pushed for equitable global access to vaccines and therapeutics, and we have pledged £548 million of our aid budget to help to distribute 1 billion doses of coronavirus vaccine to 92 developing countries. To support the fastest route to national and global recovery, we have committed £1.3 billion of UK aid to help cushion the health and economic impacts of the pandemic around the world. We must learn the lessons of covid-19. Last year, the Prime Minister outlined his five-point plan for preventing future pandemics.
The Minister is absolutely correct that the roll-out of the vaccines is good news and is a success story. As I said in my contribution, our armed forces played a role in that. The point I want to make is a money point: the help with testing and vaccination provided by our armed forces takes the pressure off health professionals. It means that the money spent on the armed forces actually helps to relieve a budget in other parts of Government. I intend to explore that argument in the future, with regard to my unhappiness about the number of armed forces personnel being cut. If they are maintained and deployed properly on other things, that can help other budgets.
I hear and understand the point made by the hon. Gentleman. While it goes beyond the remit of this speech, I draw his attention to the Defence paper that was published and its focus on the greater agility, adaptability and deployability of the armed forces that we have. I hope that that goes some way towards addressing the concerns that he has expressed.
In March, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister joined leaders from more than 20 countries who, alongside the World Health Organisation, called for a treaty on pandemic preparedness and response. That would be an important step towards increasing global co-operation and strengthening global health security. We will use our G7 presidency to work with other Governments, with industry and with international organisations to cut the target for developing and deploying new vaccines to just 100 days, addressing the point made by the hon. Member for Bath about working in co-operation, not in competition, with other countries.
I would also like to address the claim that the hon. Lady made about short-termism, which I have to reject. Climate change is a much longer-established existential threat than the pandemic to which we are currently responding. I remind her that in 1990, at the second world climate conference, Margaret Thatcher said:
“The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”
I remind the hon. Lady that the Conservatives have a multi-decade track record of thinking about future generations. We are using our presidency—
I will make more progress. We are using our presidency of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year to get countries to commit to credible plans that will enable them to meet the commitments that they made under the Paris accord. We are also using the summit to boost co-operation and climate finance so that countries can adapt and build resilience to the evolving climate threat. The UK has pledged £11.6 billion of international climate finance over the next five years, and we will spend a significant proportion of that on building resilience in vulnerable countries. In January, the Prime Minister launched the adaptation action coalition to galvanise momentum on climate adaptation ahead of COP26 and beyond it.
We have also worked to secure more international attention on the overlap between climate change and security threats. In February, the Prime Minister chaired the UN Security Council open debate, which was the first-ever leader-level discussion on climate change in the Security Council. We are also addressing the interlinked climate and security challenges through NATO.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) raised the issue of cyber. Unlike pandemics and climate change, advanced technologies bring with them significant benefit, but they also have embedded in them significant risks. Artificial intelligence, for example, has the potential to help to tackle global challenges but, as AI technologies such as facial recognition continue to develop in sophistication, we need to ensure that such technologies are not used as a tool of repression. The UK Government believe in responsible technological innovation that benefits everyone, but this is a fast evolving area, with a dearth of international agreement. That is why we are working with industry and like-minded countries to enhance responsible development of AI and to ensure that the use of data is safe, fair, legal and ethical. The UK Government will soon launch a national AI strategy, which will help to make the UK a global centre for the development and adoption of responsible AI.
The UK is also at the forefront of demonstrating that there are meaningful consequences for malicious cyber-activity. Last year, working with the EU—this is another example of the international co-operation that we engage in—we imposed cyber sanctions on 12 entities and individuals from China, Russia and North Korea through the EU cyber sanctions regime. We will continue to work closely with international partners to impose sanctions through our own autonomous cyber sanctions regime. The National Cyber Security Centre has played a pivotal role in responding to cyber-incidents and is acknowledged as a global centre of excellence. The resilience of our allies is also critical, which is why, since 2012, we have invested up to £39 million in international cyber-security programmes and projects, working with more than 100 countries to build their cyber resilience.
The integrated review is a blueprint for navigating this more competitive and dangerous age. It identified the need to build our resilience, which we will address in greater detail in the new UK resilience strategy to be developed this year, looking at domestic and international challenges.
The Minister talks about the integrated review providing a blueprint for a long-term strategy to deal with the conflicts and crises of the world. Will he tell us how he thinks cutting the 0.7% aid budget fulfils that long-term strategy, or that commitment to the world’s poorest, or that commitment to some of the most challenging regions in the world?
The integrated review makes a specific commitment to get back to the 0.7% as quickly as possible. The Conservative Government are immensely proud that we were committed to that 0.7%. I remind my hon. Friend and others that even 0.5% makes us one of the most generous aid donors in the world and is higher than in almost all years under the previous Labour Government. The most important way to get the UK back to the position where we can be as generous as we would naturally wish to be is to ensure that the UK economy recovers quickly. The faster the economy can recover, the more quickly we can get back to 0.7% and, in absolute terms, the larger that 0.7% will be.
Let me conclude by making a pledge on behalf of the UK Government to continue to defend and promote the interests and wellbeing of the British people. The integrated review provides a framework to address the manifold threats that imperil our nation and our national security. While the challenges are significant, the UK is playing a leading role in finding global solutions. The diversity of our economy, the depth and breadth of British expertise, our targeted investment and the reach of our international networks mean that we are well placed to adapt and respond to the challenges ahead. As the host of G7 and the COP climate summit later this year, with our international allies on our side and the blueprint provided by the integrated review in hand, we are well placed to help the world to build back better from coronavirus and create a greener, fairer, more prosperous and more secure future for us all.
Many Members have made good and important points today. I am grateful for all the points that have been raised. I hope that this debate is not the last that we have, but the beginning of a discussion about how we view national and international security in the round. This is about tackling the climate emergency, the threat of global pandemics, upholding international human rights, global inequalities, and how we help poorer countries and do not exploit them.
As the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) said, this is about a reconceptualisation of how we think about security. The UK could be a global leader in this, but I fear that the current Government have not recognised this opportunity. Here in the UK, the Wellbeing of Future Generations (No. 2) Bill would be a good start. I urge the Government to consider bringing forward legislation that reflects the ideas that are embedded in it. Will the Government look at a wellbeing budget, as supported by the Liberal Democrats? That would be a good start. Abandoning the plan to increase our nuclear weapons arsenal would also be a good start.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. I hope it is only the beginning of a debate on how we rethink global security.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered global human security.
Bay Local Authority in North Lancashire and South Cumbria
I beg to move,
That this House has considered a proposal for the Bay local authority in North Lancashire and South Cumbria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.
I called for today’s debate because I believe that the current local government reorganisation process is being carried out in the wrong way and conducted at the wrong time. It is a rushed process, which councils are responding to at a time when they are also dealing with the pandemic. The reorganisation decisions that are about to be made will have a lasting impact on the Lancaster part of my constituency and how it is governed for generations to come. After all, it is 47 years since the last major review of local government in our area, which tore up the historic county of Lancashire and, I believe, got it wrong when removing Lancashire over the sands—that is, Barrow-in-Furness—from the rest of Lancashire. It could be another 47 years before we return to this topic, so we must get it right this time, both by creating effective structures and respecting cultural identities.
I would be grateful if the Minister could explain in his response to the debate why Cumbria was invited to put forward proposals and Lancashire was not. In September 2020, Lancashire County Council submitted a request to the Government to be in tranche 1. By consulting only on Cumbria and not Lancashire, the Government have limited the opportunity to develop solutions that work across both areas, despite their repeated claims to want to enable locally-led solutions.
When the consultation opened in February, it was unclear on the consultation website whether residents in Lancaster were entitled to respond at all, because the consultation only mentioned Cumbria, despite one of the options involving Lancaster. I am grateful that, thanks to the lobbying of Councillor Lizzi Collinge, some of the wording was finally amended a few weeks ago. However, it is still unacceptable that, without those changes, Lancaster may have faced a once-in-a-generation change in governance without its inhabitants being meaningfully consulted.
The consultation website is also difficult to browse, loaded with jargon and confusing, particularly for my Lancaster constituents. I am that the Minister will tell me that the consultation meets the minimum standards required by the relevant legislation, but let us be frank: a poorly designed consultation, rushed through in a pandemic, is no way to make a decision of this magnitude, and nor is it the locally-led, bottom-up process that the Government claim it is.
In Lancaster, there is a long-held view that cross-county options for local government should be considered. As I have said, the current county boundaries were imposed in 1974 and do not reflect local geography or local identity. I support Lancaster City Council’s wish to work with neighbouring councils in Morecambe Bay to develop a proposal for a new council. I am grateful to our local councillors in Lancaster and south Cumbria and in particular to the leader of Lancaster City Council, Councillor Dr Erica Lewis, for her work to encourage people in Lancaster to engage with the consultation and consider the options.
Joint working between Lancaster, Barrow and South Lakeland is very well developed in the Morecambe Bay area, which is already recognised as the functional economic geography of the area, with a footprint for public services such as the NHS that makes sense. The Bay councils developed their proposal in record time. Despite the time constraints, they have put together a strong proposal and demonstrated strong local support for it. I hope the Government will give the Bay proposal proper consideration.
However, the approach so far from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government does not seem even-handed. The legislation, and the invitation, for local government reorganisation proposals expressly allow for a type C proposal from councils in neighbouring county areas, yet Lancaster has not been treated as a full participant in the process.
The process that the Government are following is flawed. A type C proposal is a legal proposal, yet the consultation treats Lancaster City Council, Lancaster’s residents and local organisations differently from their equivalents in other areas where proposals are being put forward. I would like the Minister to give a categorical assurance that the views of Lancaster residents will be given equal weight in this process.
The Bay offers a positive vision of investment, skills and jobs growth, tackling the climate emergency, and protecting and enhancing natural resources, infrastructure such as roads, flood defences and housing, and services that meet real need across adult and children’s services. The Bay area has 13,000 businesses, with 18,000 jobs in advanced manufacturing, 4,300 in agriculture and 25,000 in tourism and hospitality. Some 30 million people visit Lancaster and south Cumbria, contributing £2 billion to the economy. It has five major wind farms, oil and gas operations, and two major nuclear power stations. It also has two universities, both already effectively co-operating across the Bay.
The Bay has the capacity to tangibly improve people’s lives and is a place that works in the real economy. Council spending would be on the same footprint as the NHS, providing clarity and focus. The proposal addressed previously missed opportunities to create a council structure that reflects the economic, geographic and population realities of the area. This proposal will strengthen rather than undermine people’s identity and affinity with the area.
Changing administrative borders does not change people’s identity and affinities. The people of Lancaster will always be Lancastrians. Many people in Barrow, despite being administratively in Cumbria, consider themselves to be Lancastrians too—indeed, as I was born in Barrow, I very much consider myself a Lancastrian—but they are also from the Bay and from the north-west.
What will change is locally focused services, with decisions made close to where people live, and a greater, more meaningful role for communities and town and parish councils if they want it. Throughout this process, the three councils of the Bay have said that they want young people to be part of shaping what is in their community and their future. To secure a job with long-term prospects and find a home that they can afford, some young people feel that they need to move away from the Bay. I want every young person to feel that they can have the opportunities and the future that they want in Lancaster and across the Bay. Can the Minister reassure me that the views of young people will be considered in making a decision on local government reorganisation?
This should not be about party politics. The Bay proposal is based on the natural affinity of the three councils and the communities they serve. It transcends party politics locally and is based on the long-term interests of the people who live, work and invest in the Bay area, not short-term political advantage—a sentiment also reflected in the surveys conducted as part of the consultation.
I was disappointed to see the Lancashire County Council response clearly split on political lines. In weighing this as a consultation response, I hope the Government will reflect on the fact that, although Lancashire County Council is divided on these issues, there is strong cross-party support in Lancaster, Barrow and South Lakeland. Lancashire County Council Conservatives are completely wrong to claim that the Bay does not enjoy local support. The Government will see in the consultation process that there is still very strong local support. This has already been evidenced by independent polling. This is not a Labour proposal, or a Lib Dem or Conservative proposal. It has been supported by parties on all sides in all three districts, because they recognise that it is the best solution for the communities across Morecambe Bay, and it is not hard to understand why. We are a community tied by history, family, work and education.
The Bay would allow councils in the remainder of two-tier Lancashire to consider their own future, develop new authorities and move to a position where all of Lancashire has a single-tier local government. The Bay also creates an opportunity for a new north Cumbria council. With an affinity with neighbours in the north of England and southern Scotland, there is potential for enhanced borderlands working.
The Government have set out three tests for proposals. I will address each and set out why I believe the Bay meets them. On the first test, the Bay will improve local government and service delivery, and provide stronger leadership and more sustainable structures. There is a public service imperative to focus on what public services need to do to respond to today’s society and needs. The Bay proposal is about reform as much as reorganisation. Mature joint working between the three councils and alignment with health services is a strong basis for creating the new council.
On the second test, the Bay has strong local support. It is the only proposal on the table that has very clear local support from the public. It is not clear how the assessment of local support will be made by the Department. Can the Minister reassure me that he will not place the self-interested opposition of Conservative councillors from the other end of Lancashire above the wishes of local people in the Bay area?
The third test relates to population. The Bay is within the range proposed by the Government and has a credible geography. There is obviously a lot of work to do to develop the detailed plans for any new councils that are created, whether that is bringing together current district services or county services. There is also work to do with the police and fire authorities to develop arrangements. Can the Minister assure me that the Government will not put the district-led proposals, and specifically a type C proposal, at an immediate disadvantage? It would make nonsense of the invitation for a type C option if the Government were to rule it out on the alignment of police and fire authorities. There must be a pragmatic approach, and it must be recognised that there is an opportunity to work out new arrangements in the transition to a new authority. Those could be worked out locally and, indeed, the Government can intervene if they wish to.
Local government reorganisation must be about more than rearranging the deckchairs. On issues such as social care, public health, climate change and youth services, more of the same will not be good enough. The Department commissioned a research report from Cardiff University that concluded that size is not a detriment with respect to performance, and the implications for performance should be evaluated in the context of the reform proposed for each local area. The Bay is a chance to shake things up and to do things differently, on a geographic footprint that makes sense for services and local people.
Finally I want to say a word about democracy, which should be at the heart of the discussion. I agree with the Government that our current two-tier local government arrangement does not work. Routinely people do not know which council provides which services, who they should hold accountable for them, or where they should turn for help. I assist thousands of constituents with their issues each year as their MP, and I feel their pain. A change to unitary local government is welcome and in principle it has broad political support, because it would simplify services for residents and businesses. It would vastly improve the accountability of councils and councillors, and by doing so it would improve local people’s ability to understand and have a say in decisions that affect them. However, that sense of connection to local government will be realised only if the authority reflects the local identity and local patterns of living and working.
I believe that only the Bay will deliver that for Lancaster, South Lakeland and Barrow. Unlike proposals for county unitaries it operates on a scale that works, and unlike such options as greater Blackpool it represents real geography that will centre all the residents in decision making. The feeling is clear, from surveys, opinion polling and representations that have been made to me. Residents and businesses in Lancaster say that they would feel distant from a one Lancashire or greater Blackpool authority. The Bay would give leadership that local people would identify with, and enhance local democracy rather than weakening it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) on securing this hugely important debate. We strongly welcome her interest in ensuring that her constituents, the businesses, local organisations and voluntary groups, and everyone who lives and works in the area, can have a real say about the future of local government reform. It is hugely important. Of course, all the hon. Lady’s constituents can continue to contribute to the consultation, which is still open. If they have not had the opportunity to do so I certainly encourage them to join the process.
Perhaps it is right for me to begin by setting out the Government’s policy. We consider that locally led changes to the structure of local government, whether in the form of unitarisation or district mergers, can be an appropriate means of improving local service delivery, saving taxpayers money and improving local accountability. We are clear that any reform of an area’s local government is most effectively achieved through locally led proposals put forward by those who know the area best. That is the essence of localism, to which we are committed. There is no question of any top-down imposition of Government solutions in that area. That brings me to the proposals that we have received from councils in Cumbria for local government reorganisation.
On 9 October last year the Secretary of State invited all the principal councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset, including the unitary councils, to submit locally led proposals for unitary local government. The councils in those three areas had been developing ideas about restructuring local government for some time, and were well advanced, which is why they were selected. We consider it right that Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset councils had the opportunity to present their local proposals for unitary reform. Late last year, on 9 December, we received four proposals from Cumbria councils: one from the county council proposing a single unitary council for the area, and three from different groups of district councils, each proposing two unitary councils.
As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood outlined, one of the two unitary proposals is from Barrow Borough Council and South Lakeland District Council, which they have developed with Lancaster City Council. Under the current statutory process, only councils which have received an invitation can submit a proposal. However, that proposal may cover areas outside of those councils. That is the case here, where the proposals submitted by Barrow Borough Council and South Lakeland District Council include Lancaster City, an approach that the city council supports.
On 22 February this year, we launched a consultation for proposals in line with the statute, which requires that before implementing a proposal a Secretary of State must consult any council that would be affected by, but did not submit, that proposal, as well as such other persons he considers appropriate. That closes on 19 April.
I know that Lancaster City Council has been working closely with Barrow and South Lakeland on their proposal, which includes Lancaster City as an area outside Cumbria that is part of Lancashire in terms of the statute. As the hon. Lady has outlined, this is known as a type C proposal. While Lancaster City supports this proposal and has been playing a part in its development, the position under the statute is that Lancaster City is not a proposing council.
We are consulting Lancaster City Council and Lancashire County Council on all the proposals put forward by the Cumbria authorities. We are also consulting the Lancashire police and crime commissioner and fire and rescue authority, along with the PCC and fire and rescue authority for Cumbria. It is also important to stress that residents and organisations in Lancaster can comment on the proposal, just like the residents and organisations in Barrow and South Lakeland.
That is extremely important feature, and the fact that hundreds of people in Lancaster City have already commented shows that the process is working; it is open, it is available, and it remains open until 19 April. In fact, we checked this morning, and—as an example—well over four fifths of email responses alone are about the Bay proposal, and nearly two thirds of the total emails for Cumbria are from the hon. Lady’s “Back the Bay” campaign. I think it is clear that we are encouraging views from anybody who is interested, whether that is businesses, the voluntary sector, organisations, or local residents in Lancaster and elsewhere in Cumbria, Lancashire and beyond.
The hon. Lady asked for confirmation that young people’s views will be taken into account, which is absolutely right and vital, and I can certainly give her the reassurance that they are submitting to the consultation. The Secretary of State has a responsibility to weigh up all the representations he receives, including from young people, and we have specifically asked proposing councils to actively increase awareness of and access to the consultation. Clearly, that would include young people as well, and they are able to use their resources to do that. In the case of Barrow and South Lakeland, with the help of Lancaster City Council, that will no doubt include raising awareness in those groups, and among those who live and work in Lancaster.
The hon. Lady also mentioned access to the consultation through the website, and she is right to highlight that the consultation website meets the commonly applied web content accessibility guidelines to help it be more accessible to a wide range of people. If she thinks there are ways that can be improved further for future consultation, of course we will be happy to listen to that.
On the wider point of access to the consultation, we ask all councils to facilitate the widest possible awareness of the consultation. We believe it is right that the councils that know their communities best and understand the requirements of local people are best placed to generate interest from a wide range of organisations using the connections and information that they have. For example, that could include a council making both the consultation and the proposal available digitally or in other accessible formats. It is also important to put on record that people can respond in writing or by email to the consultation, and the details of that are available on the consultation website. Councils can, of course, use that to promote access to the consultation, including to the groups that the hon. Lady has highlighted.
I just want to touch on the elections. As the hon. Lady will be aware, this year’s elections to the principal councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset have been rescheduled to May 2022. There is precedent for such a one-year postponement of elections where unitarisation is under consideration. For example, the same occurred in the Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire unitarisation exercises.
Rescheduling those local elections avoided creating a situation where the electorate would be asked to vote for councils a short time after being consulted on proposals that, if they are implemented, would result in the abolition of those councils. Rescheduling the elections also avoids members being elected to serve for potentially very short terms, a maximum of two years, where a shadow authority is established.
The order that postpones the elections also extends for a year the terms of office of councillors who would otherwise have retired following the May elections this year, and makes consequential provisions to ensure that by-elections to vacant seats can still take place. The order postponing the elections has been made without prejudice to any subsequent decisions on the unitary proposals that are under consideration, and does not affect the police and crime commissioner elections, the town and parish council elections or any other scheduled by-elections, which will still occur on the 6 May.
In practice, that means that elections to Lancashire County Council will go ahead in May this year, unlike elections to Cumbria County Council. That reflects the fact that, whatever Cumbria proposal may be implemented, there is no possibility of Lancashire County Council being abolished. In May of this year there are no ordinary elections to the city council.
Following the consultation, the Secretary of State will carefully consider the proposals and has a duty to take into account three criteria if the proposal were to be implemented: whether it would be likely to improve local government and service delivery in the area; whether it would command a good deal of local support; and whether it would lead to unitary councils covering a credible geography. The representations that the hon. Lady has made today and throughout the process will be taken into account as part of that.
The Secretary of State will then decide, having regard to all of the representations he has received on the proposals, including those received through the consultation exercise, and all other relevant information available to him, which proposal, if any, to implement. We envisage those decisions to be taken and announced before the summer recess.
If the Secretary of State decides that a proposal should be implemented, he will seek parliamentary approval for the necessary secondary legislation. Clearly such an order would need to be considered and approved by each House. If Parliament approves legislation implementing any proposal, the rescheduled elections in May 2022 would be cancelled. It is envisaged that they will be replaced in May 2022 by elections to either the new shadow authority or a continuing authority, which is to be the new unitary authority.
The expectation is that any new unitary authority would take on the full powers of a unitary authority from 1 April 2023. Those elected to the shadow or continuing authority in May 2022 would continue as members of the new authority, most likely serving a total five-year term, one year as members of the shadow or continuing authority and four years as members of the full unitary authority.
I am grateful we have had the chance to have this debate and to the hon. Lady for her speech and for putting on record all of the points she has made. I hope she understands that I cannot comment on the individual representations that she has made about the quality of any of the submissions, because the process is ongoing, and I encourage people to continue to take part in that until the 19th of this month.
By submitting their proposals for unitary local government, councils in these areas have an important opportunity to move forward with reforms, which can open the way to significant benefits for local people and businesses, delivering service improvements, facilitating economic growth and contributing to the levelling-up of opportunity and prosperity across the country.
Question put and agreed to.
Vagrancy Act 1824
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
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.
I 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. I would also like to remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall. One Member has notified me that he has to leave for another very important debate in the main Chamber, and I have made provision for that.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered repealing and replacing the Vagrancy Act 1824.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am delighted to have secured this extremely important debate on repealing and replacing the Vagrancy Act 1824, and I thank hon. Members present for putting in to speak. I know from my mailbag that constituents, businesses and visitors to the Cities of London and Westminster are concerned about rough sleepers and share my desire—and that of the Government—to end rough sleeping for good.
As the title suggests, this debate is not just about repealing the Vagrancy Act, but to consider what should replace it to respond to the 21st-century reasons people find themselves on the street. I believe that the Government share my wish to see the Act repealed following the response from my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary to my recent question in the House, where he confirmed his belief that the Act,
“should be consigned to history.” [Official Report, 25 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 1138.]
The Vagrancy Act 1824 is an antiquated piece of legislation originally introduced to deal with soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars. With no public services available, many ended up on the streets begging and sleeping rough. It is now used by police and councils to tackle the small minority of rough sleepers involved in persistent antisocial behaviour.
Similarly, powers under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, including public space protection orders and criminal behaviour orders, are increasingly used. Yes, we must challenge anyone involved in antisocial behaviour, but rather than criminalising a rough sleeper, I truly believe that the better outcome for both the individual and society is to address the reasons they are on the street in the first place, and provide the help and support they obviously need.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. Does the hon. Lady agree that, with over 50 housing and homelessness organisations supporting scrapping the Vagrancy Act 1824, the Minister and the Government must consider alternatives? They must acknowledge that many of these charities work with people experiencing homelessness directly, and that they see how it presently fails to end rough sleeping, instead pushing people into worse positions, and their circumstances must be respected and considered. The Government cannot ignore 50 housing and charitable organisations.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I do not know a charity involved in rough sleeping and homelessness that does not agree that the Vagrancy Act should be repealed.
If we get this right, it will end the revolving door that too many rough sleepers currently experience, whereby they accept outreach help and are placed in accommodation, but too often find themselves back on the street because their underlying mental health issues or addictions have not been tackled. Even on the coldest day of the year and during adverse weather conditions brought on by the likes of the “beast from the east”, a considerable number of people chose to ignore the no-questions-asked help of a hot meal and a roof over their head, whether from a local authority, a church, a community centre or a mosque. They are so fearful, mistrusting or mentally unwell that they prefer to remain outside in below-zero temperatures, where they feel safest.
There are more than 400 beds available on any given night in Westminster alone for rough sleepers. However, we must not just offer a bed. The accommodation available rarely comes with the vital health services required to help turn a person’s life around and address often years—sometimes decades—of abuse, poor mental health and addiction. But there is a clear solution: replace the Vagrancy Act with a new approach that places the preservation of life at its core through assertive outreach, alongside social care and specialist medical support, all attached to the safety of a bed. We need addiction counsellors, psychiatric help and medical support for those who have suffered years of sleeping rough.
The Government’s Everyone In strategy, in response to the covid-19 pandemic, saw an incredible 90% of rough sleepers accept accommodation, demonstrating that when central and local government work together, we can achieve impressive results, but what about the other 10%? Throughout the first lockdown, about 100 people in Westminster refused all help and remained on the street. I saw many of them myself. They were clearly very ill, with serious addiction and mental health problems.
Having witnessed what I have, and having spoken to former rough sleepers, outreach workers and other experts, I know that it is clear that if we are to end rough sleeping for good, a fundamental shake-up of mental health services is required. Charities including The Passage, Crisis and St Mungo’s have highlighted that outreach workers today find it near impossible to secure mental health assessments for rough sleepers. Even when one has been secured, often the vital missing piece of the jigsaw is a specialist bed for that person.
People on the street with the most complex needs often lack the mental health capacity to make decisions for their own wellbeing or accept help from others. At present, a rough sleeper’s mental state has to become so acute that he or she is self-harming or at risk of doing so for the police to take emergency action, and only then might they have a mental health assessment. By that stage, it is far too late, which is why we need an assertive outreach approach. We need outreach workers working in partnership with specialist homelessness mental health teams that can undertake mental health assessments under the Mental Health Act 1983, as well as other types of assessments on the street, with rapid access to specialist bed spaces. We then need the health services required attached to the bed that the rough sleeper is referred to. I would welcome it if the Minister can address that point and consider reintroducing street-based mental health services.
Of course, none of that can happen without the backing of long-term sustainable funding. I again ask the Government to give due consideration to extending the time period of funding allocations for such service to at least three years, preferably five, rather than the current annual basis.
As we slowly and carefully begin our journey out of the pandemic, much is in flux. However, we now have a golden opportunity to build upon Everyone In, to learn from that initiative and to reshape our response, so that we have the services we need to achieve our shared goal of ending rough sleeping. The Government, I believe, are willing and able to end rough sleeping. Repealing and replacing the Vagrancy Act, longer-term funding attached to mental health services and accommodation and re-establishing street-based mental health services will do just that. I look forward to the contributions of other Members and to the Minister’s response.
Sir Charles, it is a privilege and honour to serve under your chairmanship. Members will be aware that this is an issue of great interest to me, and I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for securing this important debate. Before the pandemic began, I volunteered each Sunday at Charles Thompson’s Mission in my constituency to help serve hot breakfasts to over 350 people who were then homeless across Merseyside. For me this was not a chore, it was a privilege.
The causes of homelessness are many and complex. Everyone I met at the mission had a different story to tell. Some were casualties of the housing crisis and a cruel and often incomprehensible welfare system, and some had fled domestic violence. Many struggled with substance abuse and mental ill health, and all were victims of a decade of brutal spending cuts that has left frontline services struggling to survive. The decade of austerity led to a staggering 165% increase in the number of rough sleepers in England. That is a shameful legacy and its victims deserve support, not punishment. No one deserves to be criminalised simply because they have nowhere to call home. Seven out of 10 local authorities continue to use some form of enforcement against homeless communities. In Merseyside alone, nearly 300 proceedings were brought under the Vagrancy Act 1824 in 2019.
For those who fall victim to this pernicious piece of legislation, the consequences can be devastating. Fines can sometimes be as high as £1,000—a whopping amount that will only plunge people further into dire poverty. It makes any chance of escaping the streets impossible. Just the threat of being fined or moved on by the police can drive many homeless people away from places of visibility. That puts them out of reach of frontline services and third sector organisations that could help them. It increases the likelihood that homeless people, who are already 17 times more likely to be victims of crime, will be subject to violence, abuse and criminal exploitation.
The Vagrancy Act traps homeless people in a vicious circle of criminalisation and marginalisation. I was therefore heartened to see the Communities Secretary tell the House that he thought the Act should be scrapped, at last adopting the position my party has held for many years. Nearly 200 years after the great abolitionist William Wilberforce first condemned this spiteful Act in the House, we now have the opportunity to right a wrong that has endured for too long.
However, we must go further. In place of the Vagrancy Act, we need a compassionate and holistic approach that tackles the root cause of homelessness, rather than simply giving homeless people a one-way ticket to the criminal justice system. That means restoring funding to frontline public services, which do vital work helping homeless people battling with mental ill health and substance abuse. It means giving local authorities the resources they need to tackle this issue with a public health-focused approach. We must write off all the debts incurred over the pandemic and restore funding after 10 years of austerity. Above all, it means tackling the housing crisis by ending the right to buy and launching a massive council house building scheme that creates homes fit for the 21st century and ends the blight of homelessness once and for all.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for calling for this important debate. As the Secretary of State and the Minister often point out, street homelessness is primarily a health issue. The hon. Lady bangs that drum all the time, and it is extremely important that we are to understand this. We constantly hear that homelessness is all the fault of the evil Government and the bedroom tax or whatever else. I know there are big issues around housing and lots of people who are homeless but not on the streets. That must be addressed, but to conflate those groups does nothing to help the street homeless. If we are serious, it is time for all those organisations that use the street homeless almost like a showcase group to highlight those other areas, to bang the drum and to hit at the Government, to stop doing that or we will not get anywhere. Repealing the Act may be an opportunity for a wider effort by both the Government and the Opposition.
The Act makes it an offence to beg. While I would welcome any changes and getting rid of the Act, we must preserve that in one way or another. I have met a lot of rough sleepers who freely admit that they are begging in order to find the cash to buy drugs or alcohol. The fact that they have received this generosity from the public keeps people on the streets much longer than they would be otherwise. I have often cited the example of a guy at St Mungo’s—I did not meet him; St Mungo’s told me about him—who had been around Covent Garden for many years and who had ended up having his leg cut off because of the long-term impact of sticking needles in his arm. This guy apparently says that if the public had not been so generous, he would have been off the streets an awful lot earlier.
A few years ago, when I did my last programme, I remember sleeping around the back of the “goods in” entrance of the McDonald’s by Westminster Cathedral with all the people who had taken spice. It was awful. There was one guy who clearly was not on spice—he was a drinker—and I slept next to him. He was called Andy; we made friends. The reason Andy is on the street is because that is the only way he can get money to get beer. Many of the people that my hon. Friend spoke about are on the street, despite the extraordinary success of Everyone In, because they need money to buy drugs.
If someone needs £150 or £200 a day to buy heroin, and is ill because they have been heroin addict for a long time, it is going to be hard for them to find any other means of paying for the drugs than by begging. People can make a lot of money begging. Some 25 years ago there were groups begging in Regent Street—what we call walking begging—that were getting £200 in a day. It is the same for some people in towns such as Winchester, particularly at the height of the tourist season. My appeal is that if we do something about the Act, we should keep the provisions on begging.
At some point we have to think about what we do for these people who are addicted to heroin, for whom I have a huge amount of sympathy. They have got to buy the drug somehow or they have to get some sort of treatment. To go slightly against what I am saying, if people are not begging for the money, they may be stealing for it. We need to have an honest discussion, at some point, as to whether we should medicalise the problem for people who are firmly committed to taking drugs. I end there, but I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster for securing the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I believe for the first time in Westminster Hall, Sir Charles. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing the debate. I congratulate her on her question to the Secretary of State that elicited the excellent response that he was minded to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, especially given that there has been considerable opposition from the Government, over an extended period of time, to repealing that legislation.
I have lobbied many Ministers responsible for upholding this Act to sponsor its repeal and to encourage the Government to repeal it. The Minister is new and when he replies to the debate I am sure that we can look forward to the announcement of the timetable for introducing the legislation necessary to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824. I declare my interest as co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness. It is in that capacity, and in my role as a member of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, that I have been investigating the causes of homelessness and trying to put this right over many years in this place.
We know that every person who is homeless is a unique case. We cannot put people in pigeonholes or say, “It is because of this or because of that.” There are some frequent reasons why people become homeless in the first place. The ending of a private sector tenancy is still the most common reason, but another is relationship breakdown, which very sadly leads to many people being forced to sleep rough in the first place. Before the passing of my Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, single people would not receive any help whatsoever from local authorities. I am glad we have put that right.
Another reason is people becoming unemployed through no fault of their own. They may be made redundant or lose their job because a company goes out of business. It could be that they have suffered an accident and are no longer able to work. Additional reasons, as others have mentioned, include addiction to drugs, alcohol and gambling, and substance abuse also must be taken into consideration. It is fair to say, therefore, that there is no one single cause for someone becoming homeless in the first place.
We also know that during this pandemic private sector rent arrears have increased dramatically. The National Landlords Association estimates that 7% of those with a private sector lease are in rent arrears. That may not sound like very much, but given that 3.5 million people are renting properties, that means that 245,000 people could be made homeless when the moratorium on evictions comes to an end. Indeed, they could be prevented from getting another lease if a county court judgement is made against them. Many of them may end up being street homeless if we are not too careful.
Clearly, we have come a long way with legislation over many years. Looking back, we can see that 1977 was the first time that local authorities had a duty to house those in priority need. It is easy to think now that of course local authorities should have that duty, but it was not that long ago that there was no such requirement. That reform was welcome.
In 2016, I had the opportunity and privilege to promote a private Member’s Bill, which subsequently became the Homelessness Reduction Act. I am very proud of that. It was done on a cross-party basis, with pre-legislative scrutiny carried out by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, and supported by all parties in the House of Commons. That went on the statute book in April 2017, just before the general election, but it did not come into force until April 2018. Its most important duty is the duty to refer people who are threatened with being homeless to a local authority for assistance, but that did not come into force until October 2018. More than 30,000 people have been prevented from becoming homeless as a result.
The vast majority of people who become homeless in the first place say the same thing: “All we need is help and advice to get ourselves into an alternative property.” When being triaged by a local authority, however, they would frequently be greeted by the same response: “Sorry, we can’t help you. Go and sleep on a park bench or sleep in a shop doorway, and hopefully one of the housing charities will come along and help you.” People sleeping rough for the first time are extremely vulnerable, and sadly, those sleeping rough die at a very early age. The average age of men dying on the streets is 46. We have to combat that.
We should congratulate the Government on the Everyone In programme and celebrate its success. It is extremely welcome that it has taken more than 30,000 people off the streets and put them in safe accommodation. It is now time, however, to review not just the success of that policy but how we go forward. I congratulate the Government on providing money for move-on accommodation and on ensuring as far as possible that those people do not return to the streets, unless it is their absolute choice to do so. In addition to discussing the Vagrancy Act, we should also review all housing legislation and make sure that obstacles are not being placed in the way of assisting people into proper and decent accommodation.
I am a great advocate for Housing First, meaning that we take people off the streets, provide them with secure accommodation, and then build a network of support around them. The main reason for that is that it is no good just giving someone a property to live in when they have suffered from addictions or other problems. They actually need help and support to rebuild their lives, and it is only once they have a secure roof over their heads that we can do that. The trials and pilot schemes have been very successful and we should aim to roll them out so that this becomes a means of prevention, rather than cure, which is always the best approach.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster rightly pointed out, the Vagrancy Act was introduced in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, during which men in particular had been crippled. There were no jobs for them, no national health service and no welfare state. We are now in a much stronger position and should deal with people who are homeless on the basis of their health and enable them to rebuild their lives.
It is right, however, that we have legislation to deal with aggressive begging in particular. My advice to anyone who asks me has always been: “Don’t give money to someone who is homeless and unfortunately living on the streets—give them help and support. Direct them to a charity where they can get the help and support they need to rebuild their lives, rather than potentially fuel their addictions”.
Surely now is the time that, above all else, we should say to the people of this country that people who are homeless should not be arrested but assisted. By assisting them we can help them rebuild their lives and rebuild the dignity of people across the country. We do need to build more social housing and provide a rental basis that people can afford. That is not a debate for today, but let us hear from the Minister the actions that the Government are going to take to repeal this legislation. Although we will need legislation to deal with aggressive begging, we need to make sure that people who are homeless do not feel threatened by the police and those in authority but realise that they can be assisted to rebuild their lives. Thank you, Sir Charles, for allowing me to participate in this excellent debate.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this important debate.
The Vagrancy Act, which was introduced in 1824 after the Napoleonic wars, continues to this day to punish vulnerable people who are begging or sleeping on the street. Since 2009, Leicestershire police have brought proceedings under the Vagrancy Act against 126 of our residents. While that relatively low figure further underlines the pointlessness of this legislation, it means that 126 too many Leicester residents who have been punished for the crime of being poor. Rough sleeping is a searing indictment of societal failure. Every person we see forced to survive on our streets while avoiding dystopian anti-homeless spite demonstrates how basic human needs have been sacrificed on the altar of neoliberalism. Rough sleeping in England increased by 141% between 2010 and 2019, while deaths more than doubled in the recent five-year period. Sadly, that is not surprising but rather the inevitable consequence of cruel Government decisions.
Over the past decade, Conservative Governments have implemented an ideologically driven programme of austerity that has left our public services weakened, vulnerable and underfunded, which has escalated insecurity at work and brought about a long and continuing squeeze on living standards. Rising rough sleeping figures are an inevitable consequence of such rampant inequality. On top of this, the Government have introduced a new set of immigration rules that make rough sleeping grounds for refusal or cancellation of permission to stay in the UK. Seventy specialist organisations working in homelessness have expressed concern that that is as counterproductive as it is morally abhorrent, as the rules will push people further away from seeking support and leave them far more vulnerable to exploitation.
The new rules do not include protection for asylum seekers and refugees or for people who are illegally evicted from private properties. That is of particular concern, as a disproportionate number—26%—of people sleeping rough are non-UK nationals. It is especially callous for the Government to introduce these changes during a global pandemic. Following pressure, at the start of the covid-19 outbreak the Government introduced the Everyone In scheme, which helped temporarily house thousands of vulnerable people. While the scheme was commendable, it should not have taken a global pandemic for us to decide to take the issue of rough sleeping seriously. It is a matter of great concern that the support has already been scaled back.
The Government must recognise that rough sleeping is not a static problem, but rather a constant conveyor belt of misery. Throughout this pandemic, the injustice of the “no recourse to public funds” policy, the inadequacies of covid-19 support packages and universal credit, spikes in domestic abuse and the failure to cut rent and cancel arrears continue to leave more and more people vulnerable to homelessness. Between April and June 2020, almost two thirds of the 4,227 people recorded as sleeping rough in London were doing so for the first time, representing a 77% rise from the previous year. Shockingly, that includes an 81% increase in children and young people. This indicates that the economic fallout from the pandemic has pushed vulnerable people on to the same streets that the Everyone In scheme had temporarily vacated.
The pandemic has also led to concerns that the number of rough sleepers has been dramatically under-estimated in official figures, which are predominantly collated by a count-based estimate of the number of people seen sleeping rough in a local authority on a typical night. The National Audit Office has expressed alarm that between the end of March and November 2020, 33,139 people were given accommodation through the Everyone In scheme—a number almost eight times greater than the annual snapshot of rough sleepers. The Government must therefore urgently revise how they measure rough sleeping. Even more importantly, they must revoke the discriminatory new immigration rule and set in place a plan to permanently eradicate rough sleeping.
The Government have pledged to end rough sleeping by 2024, yet to achieve that they must invest much more than the £750 million earmarked for the next year. To put the issue in perspective, that is 3.4% of the £22 billion that the Government have spent on the failed, bloated Test and Trace system, which has had a negligible impact on covid-19 cases while lining the pockets of Tory party donors.
With the Vagrancy Act 1824 approaching its 200th birthday, there can be no better way to mark the occasion than to finally repeal this appalling, outdated legislation, along with the Government’s latest discriminatory immigration rules. We must stop punishing our most vulnerable members of society and instead focus on addressing the causes behind their misfortune.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for securing this important debate. We want to talk openly and transparently about many of the issues relating to rough sleeping because, unfortunately, many of our constituents face these problems. Unless we talk openly and with honesty about these challenges, we risk not facing up to them.
The circumstances under which many find themselves rough sleeping can vary enormously. There are many individual factors, such as mental health problems, bereavement or experience of the criminal justice system. Individuals can face problems through no fault of their own, such as family breakdown, issues with friends or physical abuse from other members of their household. There can be a variety of causes, but none is any less important than another. That is why I welcome this debate.
In my constituency, like in most of the country, rough sleeping is a problem. It is also a problem in neighbouring Bradford and across the wider Bradford district. I therefore welcome the work being done to deal with these problems in my community. For example, Homeless Not Hopeless is a fantastic local organisation, which I have visited in Keighley, that does a lot of work in the Bradford district. It recognises that both mental and physical challenges can exist among those who are homeless. A team of compassionate volunteers provide support to those who most need it. Last Christmas, I was delighted to see groups across Keighley and Ilkley showing support for their work. The 5th Ilkley Brownies group collected items to donate to Homeless Not Hopeless, and staff at Airedale General Hospital donated over 200 gift-packaged shoe boxes to the charity.
There are also local charities that help those suffering from the symptoms of homelessness. For example, the charity Project 6 helps those in Keighley who are suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. People who sleep rough often fall foul of the misuse of those substances. The impacts can be life-crippling. Vicki Beere and her team at Project 6 provide vital support to people suffering from those problems. Preventing homelessness is vital, but help must also come to those who are sleeping rough. That makes the work of local charities like Project 6 so important.
I am pleased that the Government are providing support to help vulnerable people get off the street for good. The £212 million support package provided through the rough sleeping accommodation programme will help local authorities provide the funds to tackle rough sleeping. The Next Steps accommodation programme will support new tenancies for people who need them most.
Of course, more can be done to support those who are rough sleeping. The Vagrancy Act is almost 200 years old. Two centuries later, it stands unfit for purpose. The time has come for it to be replaced. That is why I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has said that it should be repealed. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster on her work and on bringing forward this debate.
Of course, this a difficult issue to tackle. Unless we speak about it in places such as this, we are not doing all we can to bring it to the forefront, so I welcome this debate. It is also heartening to see all the work being done by local charities. The repealing and replacing of the Vagrancy Act is a step in the right direction. I support that move but long-term solutions are also required, including longer-term funding, street-based mental health services and a targeted approach that addresses the root causes of homelessness in their entirety. I look forward to supporting the Minister’s hopeful remarks on the Government’s aspiration to repeal and replace this Act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this important debate, and I thank colleagues from across the House for taking part.
My goodness, it has been a long time coming, but it does look as though the Vagrancy Act might finally be scrapped. My simple question for the Minister is: when? How long do we need to wait for this review finally to be published? How long do we need to wait until this blight of a law is finally repealed?
As many have already said, the Vagrancy Act is an antiquated piece of legislation from 1824 and it has no place in modern society. It is 2021 and we are still criminalising people for rough sleeping. For years, the Liberal Democrats and colleagues from all parties have been urging action, and the price of inaction is high. Rough sleepers will continue to be arrested and prosecuted for being homeless.
I am told by those with lived experience that outside the official figures, there are many more people who may not be charged but who are threatened with the Act to get them to move on. From 2009 to 2019, 131 proceedings under the Act were brought by Thames Valley police alone. How much longer are we going to wait, and how much longer will the Government let this go on?
I started the campaign to scrap the Vagrancy Act in 2017, but the credit needs to go to the compassionate young people of Oxford. The genesis was a petition started by Oxford University students’ union and Oxford-based homelessness group On Your Doorstep. It arose in answer to the needless criminalisation under the Act of dozens of rough sleepers in Oxford. In February 2018, I introduced the Vagrancy (Repeal) Bill and raised it at Prime Minister’s questions.
Together with campaign lead charity Crisis and supported by Homeless Link, St Mungo’s, Centrepoint, Cymorth Cymru, The Wallich and Shelter Cymru, we officially launched the cross-party “Scrap the Act” campaign at an event in Parliament, with a 41-page report detailing the case against it. That included, critically, a lawyer-led review of the other Acts already in place to prosecute fraud and aggressive begging. MPs and peers from all parties heard stories from people who had lived experience of rough sleeping, and whose lives had been affected by the Act. It was heartbreaking, and we all resolved to do more to get the law repealed for good.
In August 2018, when the review was announced, we welcomed it as massive progress. Then we waited and waited. In January 2019 we debated it on the Floor of the House. It was again raised at Prime Minister’s questions with the then Prime Minister that February, and the Bill was introduced again in March 2020. When I heard the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government say on the Floor of the House in February this year—four years on from the introduction of the original Bill—that the Act should be scrapped, the word I said was “Hallelujah!”
Here we are in April 2021. The law is archaic and should be consigned to history, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State has said that he agrees. What now? The campaign has come a long way from its Oxford grassroots origin, and this debate is proof of that. I am saddened that the Secretary of State could not commit to a timetable in a letter to me last week. Will the Minister do that today? Will he guarantee that the repeal of the Vagrancy Act will be in the Queen’s Speech next month? This is the moment. I also agree with hon. Members who call for more, although I hope the Government will not use that as an excuse to delay the repeal.
The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 was a step change, and I commend the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for leading that work. I have been so grateful for his support in this campaign.
I also congratulate the Government on the Everyone In programme. I can tell the Minister that it has had a transformative effect on those who finally, for the first time, have a stable abode. I was told by council officers in Oxfordshire that the programme meant that, for the first time, many people engaged with the wraparound services that are available, and because for the first time they had the peace of mind of knowing where they were going to sleep night after night, it was possible to engage with them. That is why I believe that the “housing first” approach is certainly the way to go. We have had months of a pilot, in effect, during this pandemic. As outlined in the Public Accounts Committee report on the issue—led by me and the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan)—that approach also saves money. It is not just the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do.
Above all, repealing the Vagrancy Act would indicate a step change in approach by the whole of society. I am sure that Members from all parties remember the death of Gyula Remes in Westminster underground station in 2018, one of the two deaths that year at the very feet of Parliament. How did Parliament react? By erecting a new gate, further down the entrance to the tube station, and pushing the homelessness out of our way—out of sight and out of mind. That will not do, but it continues. Just this morning, a member of my staff saw British Transport police moving on some rough sleepers from outside our tube entrance. When the staff member asked the police officer what had happened to the homeless people, the officer said, “We told them to get lost, in a nicer sort of way.”
We need a step change in our response to homelessness. Our response needs to be more holistic and more compassionate, and it has to start by repealing this cruel and needless law, which continues to be used to punish the homeless. It is a disgrace. We have produced the work detailing why the Government can move forward quickly. The Bill exists, so just pick it up. It sounds as though the review that the Government commissioned has come to the same conclusions as we did years ago. I ask the Minister to do the right thing. Let us act now together. Let us scrap the Vagrancy Act, and let us make up for the nearly 200 years of hurt that it has caused.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Charles.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this absolutely vital debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on her campaigning work with Crisis and other organisations. They are both absolutely right—indeed, all the hon. Members who are here today seem to have made the same case—that it is time the Vagrancy Act was scrapped. We have covered a lot today, including many of the reasons why that matters and many of the alternatives. I am grateful to colleagues for adopting a cross-party approach to address this topic constructively, and I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response.
As others have done, I am going to quote the Secretary of State. When I searched in Hansard for his references to the Act, I landed on his response to a question from the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster during the ministerial statement on rough sleeping on 25 February. The Secretary of State said:
“We have reviewed the Vagrancy Act and will be saying more in the weeks ahead. I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. It is my opinion that the Vagrancy Act should be repealed. It is an antiquated piece of legislation whose time has been and gone. We should consider carefully whether better, more modern legislation could be introduced to preserve some aspects of it, but the Act itself, I think, should be consigned to history.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 1138.]
That statement contains a lot of what has been covered in the debate today. I would be interested to know whether the Secretary of State met the hon. Lady, but rather than put her on the spot I will ask the Minister if he has any further update for us all.
The Labour party’s position is clear. The next Labour Government will repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, which criminalises begging and rough sleeping. That is because we believe our priority should be to support, not criminalise, those who are sleeping rough or begging, and to end rough sleeping for good. This Georgian-era legislation is unnecessary—I will explain why shortly—for dealing with genuinely antisocial behaviour, because a number of other civil measures exist in modern legislation, including civil injunctions and various orders.
Crisis, the homelessness charity, says that the Vagrancy Act
“gives the police in England and Wales the power to issue a formal arrest if someone has been offered shelter and continues to sleep on the street.”
The problem is that, as most of us who have spent time with people living on the streets know, there are often very real and genuine reasons why they cannot use any shelter that is available.
Rough sleeping is a criminal offence under section IV of the Act and is defined, in very quaint, 1824 language, as
“wandering abroad and lodging in any Barn or Outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied Building, or in the open Air, or under a Tent, or in any Cart or Waggon...and not giving a good Account of himself or herself”.
I am sure that is etched on the memories of everyone in this debate, but I am sure too that many people we serve would be surprised to hear such antiquated and mostly completely irrelevant language being used to deal with the problem in a 19th-century way—in fact, not even that—when we have 21st-century ways available to us.
The Vagrancy Act 1935 amended the 1824 Act to introduce the condition that an individual can be charged with rough sleeping only if alternative shelter is available. However, as I have said, that fails to account for the lack of knowledge on the part of many or the fears that some have about the alternatives, such as unsafe, overcrowded hostels. According to the homelessness charities, the offence of being in an enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose is also used to challenge rough sleepers.
Interestingly, the number of prosecutions and convictions under section IV of the 1824 Act has declined, to the extent that in 2019 there were 183 prosecutions and 140 convictions, only four of which were for the offence of sleeping out. Convictions for begging under section III have also fallen, although they are higher than those under section IV. In 2019, there were 926 prosecutions and 742 convictions. These are criminal offences whose use is clearly declining, but more importantly, are they solving the problems they were introduced to solve or those that cause them? Do convictions under the Act solve the underlying problems of destitution, rough sleeping, extreme poverty and the other contributory causes of rough sleeping?
Let us look at the underlying problems and take, for instance, the sharp end of poverty, destitution—when someone has literally nothing to live off. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published last year, which I am sure the Minister is aware of, presents data from 2019 that shows a worsening picture of 2.4 million people, including more than half a million children, destitute at some point in the year, an increase of around a half compared with 2017. Obviously most of them will not end up on the streets, but we do not want there to be destitution either, and if we are to tackle the root causes of rough sleeping, that must be part of it.
Over the last 10 years, wages have fallen in many sectors, jobs have become more insecure and the cost of housing in the private rented sector has increased, with very high rents across the country, particularly in parts of London, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster will know, and the south-east. This is a toxic combination that needs a totally new approach to secure work conditions and decent pay.
Meanwhile, what of the safety net that we all believe anyone who falls on hard times should be able to turn to? I am afraid that, again, in the last 10 years there has been bad news for some people who turn to the state for help. As many have found this year, although the safety net has been there for some, it has not covered everybody. Many people found that it was not there when they needed it, and certainly not to the extent of preventing homelessness and the risk of homelessness. People in the private rented sector in particular have found themselves on the brink of disaster, which is often due to the toxic combination of high rents and insecure wages.
As the chief executive of Crisis has said:
“We understand that councils and the police have to strike a balance between the concerns of local residents and the needs of rough sleepers, and where there’s genuine antisocial activity, it’s only right that they should intervene.”
Homelessness charities therefore understand that, but we know that there are alternatives, such as the range of powers that public bodies have under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which include civil injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance, criminal behaviour orders, community protection notices, dispersal powers and public spaces protection orders. I am sure that the concerns that the hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) raised are covered by that Act. Unfortunately, however, the Government do not collate and publish statistics on the use of those powers, or not that I have been able to find. Will the Minister commit to publishing that data, which would be really useful, and any evidence about the impact of those powers? That might help to inform our debate about ending the 1824 Act.
Homeless people, as I think everyone in this debate has said, need help, not punishment—as the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said, assistance not arrest. Rather than criminalising rough sleepers, Labour would support them, with a real emphasis on the housing-first approach that many have referred to. We agree with Crisis that enforcement measures are not an effective way to engage rough sleepers, and with the other homelessness charities that have been mentioned, which were well listed by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). I thank them for their sterling work. Does the Minister also agree with them that it is time we got rid and scrapped the Act?
If we are to prevent homelessness in the first place, even before coronavirus, poverty was rising, and that included in-work poverty, with poor pay and insecure work a primary cause, as well as expensive living costs. It cannot be right that so many people on low incomes are spending more than half their income on rent, particularly when that is so often in low-quality accommodation. A lot of those people are at risk of eviction under section 21 of the Housing Act 2004, which the Government committed to repealing. We had the renters’ reform Bill in the last Queen’s Speech; can the Minister tell us now whether it will be in the next one? Will it get parliamentary time so that we can debate constructively how we will reform the rights of people living in the insecure private rented sector?
The hon. Member for Harrow East said that now is not the time to talk about all the surrounding issues. He is right. We cannot go into them in detail, but it is worth mentioning that as we come out of this crisis getting people into good, secure jobs and secure housing will help prevent the sharp end of homelessness that we want to prevent when we talk about the Vagrancy Act and will also do so much good in the housing industry. If we invest—if we build the homes that we need, install the energy efficiency we need for net zero housing, and retrofit—that will create jobs. If we really want this, we should invest in council and housing association homes and, yes, homes to buy. Across all tenures, we need a mass house building programme that deals with the root causes and the 4.8 million shortfall in the amount of housing that the Minister knows that there is. Will the Minister update us on what work he is doing with his counterparts in other Departments to do that building back, and to ensure that we are building the future that we really need in this country?
Finally, the Act is unnecessary. Between us, we have made that case. The Act criminalises a form of homelessness, and I think that is immoral in this day and age when, as Members across the political spectrum have said, people need assistance, not arresting. The Act does not tackle the root causes—the lack of affordable housing, the shortfall in supply—and does not even deal with the symptoms. It is in fact a symptom of the broken housing system and it does not deal with the health needs mentioned by the hon. Member for Gravesham .
It is high time that the Government followed through on the commitment made by the Secretary of State—I know that he said it was his opinion, and did not commit to it as Government policy, and I hope the Minister will satisfy our curiosity on that. It is high time that we conducted a mass house building programme to create the truly affordable homes we need to buy and to rent, including council houses and housing association homes as well as those in the private sector. It is time that the Government prioritised the prevention of rough sleeping. It is time to bring in reforms to the private rental sector, to those sharp practices that hurt tenants, good landlords and the wider economy as people spend more of their money on poor-quality accommodation, even when they are in good jobs. I know of people who have spent a fortune on poor-quality accommodation in this crisis. It is time to focus on a housing-first approach with support for substance misuse, mental health and employment. It is high time that we got rid of this Act, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, although I hope I will be forgiven for saying that it is not as much of pleasure as it was to hear your pint of milk speech, of which I am a huge fan.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing the debate, and other Members on their contributions. We clearly have broad consensus across the political spectrum. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) talked about his time serving homeless people. Immediately before I came to Parliament, I worked for YMCA Birmingham, a charity for young homeless people, and, like him, I feel that it is a privilege to serve them and work with them. Common cause indeed.
As has been made clear during the debate, the causes of rough sleeping are complex and multifaceted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, it is critical that we not only provide a bed for individuals but provide support alongside accommodation for those individuals with complex and overlapping needs. Covid-19 has made that reality even more evident. It means that rough sleeping cannot be tackled by one agency alone. Effective multi-agency working has been critical to protect rough sleepers during the pandemic, and we have seen some truly creative and innovative solutions. For example, Bedford Borough Council quickly moved hostel residents into a hotel and provided a covid-safe environment that meant that people were not sharing communal sleeping facilities. It redeployed its rough sleeping team to work directly at the hotel, and staff were able to offer key services, including on substance misuse and health, to provide the holistic support that many Members have said is important. That has resulted in high-level engagement and has really turned around some rough sleepers’ lives in the past 12 months.
We know that this is not just about the initial intervention to bring people in. I again stress that it is critical to provide the right support and intervention that will successfully and sustainably move people away from life on the streets. That is why we have committed £433 million over the course of the Parliament to provide 6,000 vital homes for rough sleepers through the rough sleeping accommodation programme—the largest ever investment of its kind in this country. It is crucial to tackle the root causes of rough sleeping so that we prevent anyone from facing the damage and trauma that they have experienced from falling back into rough sleeping after having been given a helping hand. We are therefore also investing in high-quality support so that the vulnerable people helped through the programme can recover and maintain tenancies.
The data clearly demonstrates that our approach is working well. The rough sleeping statistics published this year showed a 37% fall in the number of people rough sleeping on a single day, compared with the previous year. This is the third year in a row that that number has fallen, which is a fantastic achievement. It is now incumbent on us to sustain the momentum and not just continue to reduce rough sleeping but end it for good.
It would be remiss of me not to briefly highlight the brilliant multi-agency work being pioneered by Westminster City Council and its partners to tackle rough sleeping. I know from conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster and Councillor Rachael Robathan, and simply from walking a few minutes from this building down Victoria Street, that Westminster faces significant and complex homelessness issues. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her exceptional dedication, both as the Member for this constituency and as the previous leader of Westminster City Council, to tackling these issues.
The dedication of the teams in Westminster means not only that beds are provided for those my hon. Friend described as fearful and mistrusting, but that the right support is provided alongside the accommodation. For example, the rough sleeping initiative-funded assessment project at Holly House, run by St Mungo’s, which I had the honour of addressing a few weeks ago, offers rapid initial contact for rough sleepers and provides a quick triage assessment with an offer of accommodation followed by effective follow-up support, ensuring that needs are identified and met. That is a pioneering approach for others to follow.
We are here to talk particularly about repealing and replacing the Vagrancy Act. My hon. Friend and others across the House have been determined advocates of the need to look closely at that legislation. The Government wholeheartedly agree that the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act. As many Members have said, no one should be criminalised simply for not having anywhere to live. As the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said, and as others have quoted, the Act is “antiquated”, and its
“time has been and gone.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 1138.]
The Vagrancy Act is quite literally a relic of the 19th century and clearly needs to be replaced to reflect the civilised, compassionate society that this Government are committed to as we build back better. That is why we have committed to review the legislation. The review has, for understandable reasons, been delayed by the pandemic. I fully appreciate that, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) said, it was started some time ago, but we have unfortunately been knocked off course since then, partly by a general election, a change of Prime Minister and 12 months of a global pandemic. Clearly, it has not been smooth since then. However, with our world-leading vaccination programme forging ahead and our road map for cautiously easing lockdown restrictions in place, I am determined to take that work forward at pace.
At its heart, the review has been about the experiences of those on the frontline, including the police, local authorities and the homelessness sector, and, most importantly, those with experience of rough sleeping initiatives. It has been crucial to understand the full picture of why the Vagrancy Act is used and what impact any changes to it will have. It is vital that the legislation creates the right environment in which to deliver effective services, enables our police to operate effectively on our streets and engages constructively with vulnerable people. We are currently finalising the conclusions of the review and will announce our position shortly.
Of course, that is only part of the solution. Many of the individuals we have heard about face tremendous challenges, and we must ensure that their individual needs are front and centre in this national endeavour.
I will shortly speak about the support we have invested in making sure that the health needs of rough sleepers are adequately addressed, but I will first speak briefly to the points made so compellingly about what happens when an individual refuses critical care and treatment. Decision making in those situations is covered by the Mental Capacity Act 2005, which exists to protect those with a lack of mental capacity and facilitate the expression of their rights and freedoms. When a person who is sleeping rough refuses care and treatment that others, including medical and outreach professionals, see as vital to survival, that is not on its own enough to demonstrate a lack of mental capacity.
We recognise, however, that some people who are sleeping rough lack the relevant mental capacity to make decisions about their care and treatment. In those circumstances, the 2005 Act provides for a best-interest decision to be made by relevant professionals, including those supporting rough sleepers. That is never easy, but it is sometimes necessary. That is why we have previously written to local authorities to remind them of their powers during a period of severe cold weather, and of the need to ensure that outreach teams working alongside mental health services can pre-assess those who choose to remain on the streets and to alert police when mental health may be a factor.
Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster rightly highlighted, the most important thing is to ensure that the root causes of the individual’s health needs are sufficiently supported before it gets to that stage. We know that the health needs of rough sleeping cohorts are significant. A survey published by my Department in December found that 82% of respondents who had slept rough in the last year had a mental health vulnerability, 83% had a physical health need, and 60% had a substance misuse need.
People sleeping rough often have complex and multifaceted needs, making the requirement for comprehensive wraparound support all the more crucial. That is why we are tackling this head-on, by delivering £52 million in this financial year to provide substance misuse treatment for people who are sleeping rough. That will provide the specialist support that so many of those individuals need to rebuild their lives and move into long-term housing. In addition, the Department of Health and Social Care is investing £30 million in the NHS long-term plan to support specialist mental health services for people sleeping rough.
In his brief contribution, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned that 50 organisations are seeking to see the back of the Vagrancy Act. As I think we have heard this afternoon, there is also cross-party consensus on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster suggested that three-year funding would be appropriate. Unfortunately, that decision is above my pay grade, but I am sure the Chancellor is listening to this debate and will have heard her comments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) said that we need to address begging, so it is a question not just of repealing the Act, but of considering what is necessary to replace it. Certainly, as he said, there are examples of people for whom begging is a way of earning money to spend on drugs and alcohol. During my time with the YMCA, we found it incredibly frustrating to have people begging outside our establishments. I would go out to them and say, “You’re giving us a bad reputation. We’re here to provide the sort of support that you are conveying that you need. We could find accommodation and support for you.” They would say, “No, I’m quite happy where I am, thank you.” Sometimes, the people we see on the streets are not necessarily there because there is no opportunity for provision and accommodation.
Several hon. Members mentioned the Housing First programme. Obviously, I am a very big fan of that programme in the west midlands, which Andy Street championed from the start of his time as Mayor—pilots are ongoing. Although many hon. Members have, I am sure, seen good work come from that, we need to allow the review to continue so that we can get a detailed summary of what has worked best and then determine how to move forward based on the commitment that the Government made in our manifesto.
The only point that I would mildly take issue with is the one that the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) made about the new asylum legislation. I disagree with her point simply because that legislation is to tackle those who persistently engage in antisocial behaviour but refuse to engage with the support offered to them, so I do not think the Government are being particularly harsh or using legislation in an inappropriate way. I think there would be general consensus among the public that people who behave in that way and refuse to engage with support should be tackled, and should be subject to the law.
The renters reform Bill is clearly an important piece of legislation, but given that we are just coming out of the pandemic, the Government will have to decide which things they need to bring forward in legislation to get the country back on its feet. Again, that is a decision above my pay grade, but it is something that I personally will be pursuing in my ministerial role regardless of the legislative programme.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is very courteous. He says that it is above his pay grade to decide whether that happens, but will he be making the case for the renters reform Bill to be in the Queen’s Speech? That is really what I am asking him to commit to.
My job as a junior Minister in the Department is to support the Secretary of State in identifying important legislation that needs to be considered. It is then the job of the Department and the Prime Minister to prioritise things appropriately, based on the collective need of the country.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) called for a significant house building programme. Personally, I think the £12 billion that the Government have committed to house building is significant, and we are determined not only to hit the target of 300,000 houses a year, but more importantly to do that across a mix of tenures. Before becoming a Minister, I chaired the all-party parliamentary group on shared ownership housing. It is not just a question of allowing people to have places to rent; many people have the aspiration to buy. It is up to us to try to support those people as well.
It has been a real privilege to take part in a debate that I feel so passionately about, given my professional background before coming to Parliament, but more importantly in which there is such cross-party consensus across the House. I feel confident that in due course we will make significant progress with this legislation.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this important debate and the Minister for his response. It is clear from what we have heard from Members across the political spectrum that we are all of one belief: that the Vagrancy Act is no longer fit for purpose to deal with any issues surrounding rough sleeping in the 21st century. If we are ever to ensure that the Government meet their welcome ambition of ending rough sleeping for good, one of the first things they need to address is the Vagrancy Act, as well as long-term funding. Local authorities and charities cannot be expected to put in place the services required to support more rough sleepers off the streets without longer-term funding. It is just not possible.
The Minister made some very good points about the Mental Capacity Act 2005, but the problem is that we do not have sufficient capacity in homelessness mental health teams to go out on to our streets. Therefore, we need more funding, and more long-term funding, so that local authorities can put that in place. I honestly do not believe that it is a police officer’s job to have to move rough sleepers off the streets. I want police officers to be going after the bad guys, preventing crime before it starts and taking action against those involved in crime, not moving on rough sleepers. Therefore, I ask the Minister to ensure that the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government work together now. There is a brilliant opportunity, a golden opportunity, now, as we come out of the pandemic, for the three Departments to work together, with the cross-party support of hon. Members and charities in the rough sleeping sector, to ensure that we can repeal the Vagrancy Act and replace it with what is required in the 21st century.
I will end by mirroring what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said. We have to move away from arresting rough sleepers to assisting them. They are the most vulnerable, damaged people in our society, and they need and deserve better. And the first way to do that is to scrap the Act.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered repealing and replacing the Vagrancy Act 1824.
Criminal Cases Review Commission
I beg to move,
That this House has considered strengthening the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
It gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak this afternoon about the Westminster commission on miscarriages of justice. As someone who has been in the House for a very long time, I have to admit to you, Sir Charles, and to the Minister that this is my first time doing a Westminster Hall debate in this way. I was delighted yesterday to manage to come physically into the House of Commons after a year to pay my tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh. Please bear with me if I make any mistakes and do correct me if I put a foot wrong.
As you know, Sir Charles, I have been in the House for a very long time; and long before you were in the House, I was deputy shadow Home Secretary to the shadow Home Secretary, Roy Hattersley. All those years ago, at the time of the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and all those very controversial cases, I was quite intimately involved—well, rather on the periphery, but certainly involved at that rather interesting time in British politics—with what was happening in terms of alleged miscarriages of justice, so this has been a long-term interest of mine, an interest over a long period of time.
A very great friend of mine, Glyn Maddocks, who very early on was a research assistant of mine in the House of Commons, has over the years, as a lawyer—a solicitor—made miscarriages of justice one of his central areas of interest; and over those years, I have helped in individual cases when they have been brought to me as worthy of having a look at and perhaps giving my support to. We have had some very great successes, but I want to stress that many people, including many of my constituents, would not know very much about how we handle miscarriages of justice in our country. It shocks many people when they realise. We have a system that is not bad—not bad at all. When miscarriages are discovered and resolved, the wrong is put right to some extent. However, not many people realise that someone can serve 15 or 18 years in prison and it can be found that they have been wrongly imprisoned for all that time, but, when they leave prison, they get not one penny of compensation. Indeed, we can compare that to the situation of a convicted criminal who has been in prison, perhaps for murder, for a very long sentence—say, 12 or 15 years—and who comes out. They get rehabilitation and support to get back into the community, but if someone is found to have been wrongly convicted, they get nothing of that; there is no compensation, so this is something that has been a great interest of mine.
Back in 1997 we introduced the Criminal Cases Review Commission—the CCRC—and everyone thought at the time of its introduction that we had absolutely sorted the problem. To give you the background, Sir Charles, you will know as well as anyone that, even in the best criminal justice system, mistakes are made. If we look at countries similar to ours with good justice systems, throughout the world a good justice system also has the capacity to look at miscarriages that might occur. We all know—we are human beings—mistakes and errors are made in the criminal justice system for complex reasons.
Over the years of the CCRC working, it has done a good job, but we increasingly see evidence of a lack of cases being referred for review and that has been a worry. In my short speech today, I want to give some idea of the problem. I am a campaigner and I know that one of the greatest assets in a campaign is to have a good all-party parliamentary group. Two years ago, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and I started an all-party group on miscarriages of justice with very good membership in the Lords and the Commons. After some good seminar discussions and identifying the problems, we resolved that we would try to put together a commission to look at the issue, not only to give it some reputation, but to take written and oral evidence and to see if we could make good recommendations, not to criticise or be negative about the Criminal Cases Review Commission, but to assist it and make it even more effective. That is the background to why we founded the commission.
Very often, all-party groups can be extremely good, with very good seminars, but there is always one member who steps outside and we overhear them say, “That was a really good discussion, but it was just a talking shop”. We did not want this APPG to be a talking shop, so we founded the Westminster commission on miscarriages of justice and then we struck lucky, because Lord Garnier and Baroness Stern in the House of Lords—people with an enormous reputation in the criminal justice system—agreed to co-chair the commission and a commission of inquiry.
What I am putting forward in this debate through this strange online link is the fact that we very carefully and positively, on an all-party basis, tried to look at a problem that emerged and to come up with some good suggestions for improvement and reform—all in a positive spirit, but with an underlying passion. Miscarriages of justice do dreadful things to people who are wrongly imprisoned for long terms. They ruin their lives and their families’ and friends’ lives, and their communities are deeply damaged when a real miscarriage takes place and is not put right. In that spirit, we set course not only with the all-party group, but with the commission.
The commission has now published a report, which Lord Garnier and Baroness Stern gave the title, “In the Interests of Justice—An inquiry into the Criminal Cases Review Commission”. I want to briefly mention what we think the problems are. One is known as “the real possibility test”. We believe that the predictive nature of the real possibility test encourages the CCRC to be too deferential to the Court of Appeal. It seems to act as a brake on the CCRC’s freedom of decision and we believe that needs reform. We urge the Government to take that recommendation seriously.
My second point is something that not many people really know of. Those of us who care about our justice system have been very positive, and we know that justice is not a cheap commodity, but the Ministry of Justice has experienced the biggest cuts of any Department in the past decade. There is no doubt about that, and there have been serious effects in relation to miscarriages of justice. When that overall lack of resource for justice is combined with covid and its dreadful impact in delays in the courts of justice, we know that the justice system has been going through a tough time, and there has been an impact with miscarriages of justice in particular. At a time when the CCRC has been more needed than ever its budget has been slashed too, and we believe it urgently needs more resources to fulfil its role. The figures are not extraordinary; they are very modest with respect to what is needed to put things right.
The third issue is investigative powers. The inquiry revealed one instance where the CCRC had waited 1,000 days for a public body to comply with a disclosure request. What is the point of the CCRC’s having special powers to request public bodies to disclose evidence if it cannot enforce its requests? That seems extraordinary. The case taking 1,000 days was extreme, but in many cases there are serious worries about lack of co-operation. It is good for everyone in the justice system if there is transparency. The principle of open justice is at the heart of the system; but for that we need accountability and transparency, and the CCRC needs to do better on both counts, to maintain public confidence in its work.
We have done our job very well. The all-party group visited the CCRC. Not many people know this, but it is based in Birmingham. I am very much in favour of putting civil service jobs and Government jobs out in the provinces, as I am sure you are, Sir Charles, but the CCRC in Birmingham is somewhat out on a limb and a visit was important, so that we could see how those good, dedicated teams work. However, the all-party group was rather shocked by the fact that the team is small, commissioners’ remuneration has declined quite steadily—they are paid on a per diem basis as consultants rather than as full-time employees—and they find it hard to recruit some full-time staff because of the general level of pay and conditions. We saw a really good bunch of men and women, working hard—everything that I am saying today is what we say in the report—but they were restricted by the resources at their command. Also, we believe that the move away from more full-time people towards having part-time people working on a per diem basis has not been very good for the organisation’s overall effectiveness.
The last point that I want to make—and strongly—is that we believe the cut in resources has also affected communication with applicants. It is important for those appealing about a miscarriage who are in prison, and their families, to be kept in the loop about what is happening, and the stage that their application for a review has reached. We took evidence from people who had been wrongfully imprisoned and then released and from their families and friends. While the CCRC has made important efforts to make itself more accessible to potential applicants, it must communicate better during the case reviews. That is most important. It is a stressful time for many people and is made worse by silence or infrequent, hard-to-understand updates from the CCRC.
Sir Charles, this is a unique report, in the sense that it is very high quality. I do not think anyone could fail to be impressed by Lord Garnier and Baroness Stern’s commitment and the hard work they put in, or the quality of the report that we have subsequently published. I am sure the Minister and the Government have seen the report, but I ask today that they look at it in a positive spirit. Every inch of the way we have tried to say, “This is a very good organisation. It could be much more effective and it would be good for our justice system, and for its reputation as a high-quality justice system, if some modifications, along the lines of our recommendations, were made.”
We did not find any of the staff involved in the report to lack the commitment or desire to do a better job, and I know the report has been warmly endorsed by those delivering and working for the Criminal Cases Review Commission. We have worked hard, on an all-party basis. We believe we have come up with something that is useful to the Government. Would it not be nice if we could see that hard work, across the Commons and the Lords, produce something effective to improve the situation in our justice system?
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this important debate on strengthening the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out in his opening remarks, miscarriages of justice have terrible consequences for all those involved. He highlighted defendants, and their families and friends, and he was right to do so. He might also have added the impact on victims, because for a victim to go through a criminal justice process, only to find out that the wrong person has been convicted, is a cruel blow indeed. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for fighting this fight, for railing against injustice and for shining a light on the risk of miscarriages of justice. We are proud, as I think he is, of the work of the independent CCRC, which, on its establishment in 1997, was the world’s first statutory publicly funded body set up to review alleged miscarriages of justice.
It is worth pausing to reflect on the international context. Before the debate, I read an excellent paper by Kent Roach from the University of Toronto faculty of law. He noted that
“most common law jurisdictions have yet to create new institutions and procedures to correct miscarriages of justice and still rely on the political executive to order new appeals.”
In other words, they petition the Home Secretary or their equivalent to refer a case to the Court of Appeal. He adds:
“Most Australian and American states continue to rely on unfettered executive discretion on applications for mercy or clemency as their exceptional means to correct miscarriages of justice.”
Some have referred to that as a sort of conservatism of the legal system, which emphasises the finality of the process. In parts of the world where there is an embryonic form of CCRC, often the test for that threshold is much higher. For example, in North Carolina an establishment of factual innocence is required before a referral can be made. I make that point because we should not lose sight of the fact that the CCRC, although now of some antiquity, remains an international pioneer.
In September 2020, the CCRC referred its 750th case for appeal, meaning that it has referred one case every eight working days since it was established. Of those cases, more than 450 appeals have been allowed by the appeal courts, and each one of those represents a conviction or sentence that would have stood if it were not for the diligent efforts of CCRC commissioners and their staff. Given the commission’s vital role, it is absolutely right that we should ask whether we are doing all we can to support the CCRC in its work.
I join the hon. Member for Huddersfield in commending the authors from the Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice, which as he rightly indicates was a distinguished panel headed by Lord Garnier and Baroness Stern. We recognise that they have given their time to shine a light on this matter. They produced an extremely worthwhile report, and I thank them for it. I also pick up on the hon. Gentleman’s point about the spirit in which they produced the report. I was reading the foreword, in which I found the remarks that their conclusions were advanced
“in a spirit of constructive criticism, admiration and goodwill.”
That reflects the points that the hon. Gentleman made. We accept those observations in that spirit. Before I move on to some of those recommendations, let me emphasise that I sincerely thank the members of the commission for their clear analysis and detailed conclusions.
The report makes more than 30 recommendations, covering a broad area. I hope the hon. Gentleman, and indeed you, Sir Charles, will forgive me if I do not reflect on each individually, because time does not allow for that. I can say that the MOJ will consider each recommendation made for the Department in detail. I know that the CCRC will do the same for the recommendations that the report makes for it. He will have seen that it has responded already, albeit in a summary fashion. No doubt there will be a further response in due course.
The report highlights areas where there have been criticisms of the CCRC. One is the rate at which it has referred applications to the appeal courts in recent years, a point touched on by the hon. Gentleman. In fact, in the past 12 months, the CCRC has referred 70 cases to the appeal courts. That is more cases than in any previous year. It is important and fair to note that a significant proportion of those relate to the Post Office Horizon case, but none the less, it is right to emphasise that each case must be considered on its merits, with careful consideration of the evidence that exists in each specific case. We suggest that this is a significant achievement, delivered in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, when staff and commissioners have had to adapt to new ways of working.
While there must rightly be a focus on ensuring that those cases with merit are referred to the Court of Appeal or, indeed, other appellate jurisdictions, I agree with the CCRC that the referral rate cannot be the only measure of its success. There will always be factors outside the CCRC’s control that affect the number of applications and, indeed, referrals it makes in a given year. It is important for public confidence and for applicants that cases referred to the CCRC are reviewed thoroughly and objectively. The CCRC continues to closely monitor its referral rate, and it works with practitioners and academics to make sure that it is aware of any potential new cases of miscarriages of justice. I will return to that point in a moment, if I may.
Specifically on the CCRC’s performance, there have been significant improvements. By way of example, in 2017, it closed just over 70% of cases within 12 months. That figure has now risen to 83%. In the same period, the average duration of a review, from allocation to decision, has decreased from 40 weeks to 36 weeks currently. The hon. Gentleman referred to question marks over whether the budget somehow inhibits its having a proactive role. The CCRC takes a proactive role in reaching out to people who may need its services. Of course, it can only review cases that come through its front door, so to speak, which is why its work to reach those who may want to make an application—whether in prisons or elsewhere—is important. This outreach work is taken seriously. It has continued throughout the pandemic, taking place through planned updates to the website and a marked increase in the use of social media. In normal circumstances, it is done through visits to prisons, a stakeholder forum, working with other leaders in the sector, whether Barnardo’s or the Howard League, and other forms of targeted outreach.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the real possibility test. For those listening who might not be familiar with it, this test must be crossed before a case can be referred. The test is whether there is a real possibility that the appeal will overturn the verdict. That test is unchanged from the CCRC’s inception, and as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, there have been some criticisms of it. In using it, however, the CCRC is applying the express will of Parliament. I am aware that the Westminster commission’s report concludes that the test is problematic. It says, in effect—I hope it will forgive me for the shorthand—that it creates too much deference to the Court of Appeal. In effect, the bar is set too high. Let me make a couple of observations. First, changing the test has wider implications for the work of the CCRC. Indeed, in 2015 the Justice Committee, no less, recommended that any change would have to be undertaken in the light of a change to the Court of Appeal’s grounds for allowing appeals in total.
It is also worth pointing out that the mere possibility that the Court of Appeal will overturn the verdict is likely to be too low a bar, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would accept. Equally, real possibility is a far lower bar than exists, for example, when the Crown Prosecution Service has to make a decision about whether to charge someone. There has to be a probability that a tribunal of fact, properly directed, would convict. So it is some way short of probability, but of course above mere possibility. I accept that this is an inexact science, but it is not immediately clear to me how amending the test would make a material difference. As I say, we will keep the matter under review.
It is not appropriate for me to comment on how the CCRC, as an independent body, applies the test, but the current chief executive officer told the Westminster commission that she does not feel that it inhibits the ability of the CCRC to make referrals. I am confident that the CCRC will continue to adopt a professional, impartial and objective approach in deciding whether the test has been met in each case.
Let me turn to appeal mechanisms, although the hon. Gentleman did not refer to them in detail. The report recommends changes to the criminal appeal mechanisms. Current legislation already allows the CCRC to refer a case to the Court of Appeal in exceptional circumstances, and it also allows for appeal outside the 28-day limit if the Court considers that there are justifiable reasons for the delay. In simple terms, if a defendant seeks leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal outside the 28-day period, but he or she has good reasons for that delay, he or she can put those before the Court of Appeal, and the Court of Appeal has shown itself well able to make a fair decision about whether extending time is appropriate in that individual case. To be clear, we do not currently have plans to review or amend legislation on criminal appeals, but we acknowledge the points that have been made.
The hon. Gentleman referred to resources. The Westminster commission considers that the CCRC is under- resourced. Decisions about funding are made by the Ministry of Justice annually in consultation with the CCRC. Funding figures for the MOJ in 2021-22 have not been voted on by Parliament and will be released in spring. In considering the funding settlement, it is important to weigh in the balance the fact that the MOJ has provided the CCRC with substantial capital funding over the past two years so that it can upgrade its IT systems and improve its casework processes. That investment alone totals more than £1.5 million, and it will support the CCRC in delivering high-quality casework.
Of course, it is the case that to make fair decisions, good people are required. I absolutely accept that. No amount of technology is going to address that, but it makes an important contribution to the smooth running of the CCRC. Although the hon. Gentleman deprecates the per diem approach, it can mean that the CCRC can potentially recruit counsel to work as commissioners where they might not necessarily want to be full-time employees. It allows the CCRC to recruit high-calibre people to act as commissioners, and it seems to me that that is something to consider properly.
The report also refers to strengthening the CCRC’s leadership and independence. There is no question but that the independence of the CCRC is of vital importance to the public’s confidence in its work. I welcome the High Court’s finding in July 2020 that the CCRC is both operationally and constitutionally independent of the MOJ. The judgment found that changes made as a result of the tailored review undertaken by the Department did not represent a diminution of the CCRC’s independence or integrity. I am confident that the chair, assisted by commissioners and senior management of the CCRC, has the strength and leadership to continue to deliver and improve the work of this vital part of our criminal justice system, and crucially to do so without fear or favour and entirely independently.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned legal aid. We absolutely recognise the importance of legal aid: it is a critical foundation stone of a fair criminal justice system. Significant sums of money are being put into the criminal legal aid system, not least through the first stage of the criminal legal aid review, which has injected up to £51 million into the system. There is an independent review of criminal legal aid taking place at the moment, tasked with securing the sustainability of the criminal legal aid system.
The CCRC remains something of a pioneer by international standards, despite being founded in 1997. It is a highly valued feature of the criminal justice landscape. We will continue to work constructively to strengthen and enhance its vital work. Reports like that of the Westminster commission provide an important challenge and help us to do just that. I will close by thanking the CCRC and paying tribute to its staff for their efforts to investigate miscarriages of justice. Their work strengthens justice and the rule of law, and makes us a fairer nation.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
UK Asylum System and Asylum Seekers’ Mental Health
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK asylum system and asylum seekers’ mental health.
There has been a long-overdue shift in the way in which we approach mental health; we are now rightly encouraged to be open, to talk and to seek help when necessary. However, this Government are less willing to talk about the causes of poor mental health, and when we consider our asylum system there is little acknowledgement of the Home Office policies that contribute to a situation where asylum seekers are five times more likely to have poor mental health than the general population.
The Mental Health Foundation has found that the increased vulnerability to mental health problems that refugees and asylum seekers face is linked both to their pre-migration and post-migration experiences. People who have fled persecution, violence and war hope to find safety and security in the UK. Tragically, the current UK asylum system often exacerbates their suffering, with long waits for asylum decisions, poor accommodation and a ban on working all contributing to this situation.
The backlog in decisions has been worsening for years. The most recent immigration statistics showed that the number of applicants waiting over six months for a decision about their asylum claim was the highest on record, with many people waiting years for a decision about their status. Among unaccompanied child refugees, the situation is critical. Following the deaths of four young Eritreans over a 16-month period, Helen Johnson, the head of children’s services at the Refugee Council, said:
“For many refugees, the misery and distress resulting from their experiences do not always end upon reaching a safe place. Those who have left their home countries as children and experienced such a lot in their short lives are particularly vulnerable. Most of us can only imagine some of the horrors children have witnessed or experienced themselves.”
Of course, there are times when society truly sees refugees as human; we all remember the images of poor little Alan Kurdi on a beach in Turkey. However, I gently point out that when the Home Secretary talks of a two-tier asylum system and only accepting those who come through so-called “legal routes”, that is not how fleeing trauma works. When we see desperate families risking a dangerous sea journey in a rubber dinghy, it is clear that safe routes are not working.
Here in Glasgow, we have direct and personal experience of working with asylum seekers. Glasgow is the only dispersal region in Scotland and it is the largest dispersal local authority area in the United Kingdom. Despite that, the city receives no funding from the UK Government. We take our responsibilities with the asylum seeker community very seriously and Glaswegians are proud to offer those fleeing trauma a home. However, current Home Office policies mean that those in organisations working with this community are effectively operating with their hands tied behind their back.
Very early on in the pandemic, Glasgow MPs were alerted to the fact that asylum seekers had been moved by Mears, an accommodation provider, to emergency hotel accommodation. The small asylum support of £5.66 a day was removed. These individuals have effectively become prisoners, with their freedoms controlled, little money for essentials and limited access to support services—even the internet.
In May 2020, Glasgow MPs and the leader of Glasgow City Council raised concerns with the Home Secretary in a joint letter, but our concerns were not heeded. The situation took a tragic turn in June with the stabbings at the Park Inn hotel. Prior to that attack, fellow hotel residents had expressed concerns about the attacker’s mental health. The attacker, of course, was shot dead by the police. I have since spoken with another resident of Park Inn at that time, who described his days as being filled with utter despair and hopelessness.
However, in Glasgow we have a new concern with a mother and baby unit. Mothers and young children have been moved from their flats into camps—ill-equipped bedsits—by Mears Group. Testimonies from these mothers are alarming. Some were told they were allowed to take only two bags and had to forfeit their remaining belongings, and any parent with young children will know how difficult it is to go anywhere with less than two bags. Others report cramped conditions, poor ventilation and indefinite social isolation. Mothers are cooking meals on small stoves beside babies’ cots due to lack of space.
These examples point to a more sinister shift from community-based accommodation to an institutional accommodation regime. The use of dilapidated Army barracks to house asylum seekers is a very worrying step. Last month, a joint report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration stated that Army barrack accommodation demonstrated
“fundamental failures of leadership and planning”
by the Home Office. The same report described living conditions as “filthy” and “impoverished”.
The impact of these appalling conditions on asylum seekers’ mental health is clear. Dr Jill O’Leary of the Helen Bamber Foundation assessed the same barracks in Folkestone. She said:
“We have consistently seen the threat these former military sites pose to the physical and mental health of residents. We have witnessed a devastating Covid-19 outbreak due to the dormitory-style accommodation, not to mention mental health crises, self-harm and suicide attempts as a result of the unsuitability of the environment.”
However, the Home Secretary shows no change in ideology, with the news today that asylum seekers have been moved back into these barracks.
Earlier this year, I was due to present a Bill that would give asylum seekers the right to work. This was not possible due to the pandemic, but I wish to raise a few points here. Most European countries, and even the United States, allow asylum seekers to work. Currently, asylum seekers may apply for permission to work only after 12 months, and even then they are restricted to roles on the shortage occupation list. There is therefore effectively a ban on working for a majority of those seeking asylum. This policy makes no sense economically and is counterproductive to both asylum seekers’ prospects of community integration and their prospects of living new lives with positive mental health and wellbeing. It is, quite simply, an ideological attack aimed at breaking and dehumanising those who most need our help.
A member of the Glasgow-based Maryhill Integration Network shared their thoughts on how the right to work and mental health are linked:
“The right to work is precious. It improves self-worth and esteem and provides social connection, independence and money to travel and meet new people. Without this, many people’s mental health deteriorates.”
Contrary to certain strains of inflammatory and divisive rhetoric, the vast majority of asylum seekers in this country are willing and committed to work. I always find it slightly ironic that the same people who talk about asylum seekers claiming benefits are those who talk about asylum seekers taking jobs.
There are some points that I hope the Minister will respond to today and take to the Home Secretary. First, the reliance on institutional emergency accommodation such as hotels and barracks should be ended. There must be investment in more community-based housing that is appropriate to people’s needs.
People seeking asylum should be given the right to work six months after lodging an asylum claim, unconstrained by the shortage occupation list. The Home Office must gather the right information from asylum seekers during interview and use it to make correct decisions the first time around.
I close by acknowledging the outstanding work of grassroots organisations that support our asylum seeker communities—organisations such as the Maryhill Integration Network and the Scottish Refugee Council, which offer a lifeline to those struggling with the institutional harm inflicted by the Home Office. That vital work should not, however, be shouldered by third sector organisations alone. It is essential that the Government take those issues seriously. It is common to see the slogan “Refugees welcome” around Glasgow. That absolutely remains the case, but we need a fresh approach in Home Office policies to enable us to support those in our communities more effectively.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) on securing this important debate. The asylum system in this country is failing. In the year ending September 2020, the number of people waiting for an initial decision on their asylum claim reached 60,548, a record high, and 76% were waiting six months or more. That cannot be pinned solely on the covid-19 crisis: waiting times were already rising dramatically prior to March 2020, and the number of asylum applications actually fell by 80% during that year. I have a constituent, originally from Yemen, who claimed asylum in June 2019. He was told by the Home Office that he would be contacted about a substantive interview within six months. He is still waiting almost two years later and has had to forgo a PhD offer, which he is unable to accept while his application remains pending. That perpetual process can only be seen as a deliberate part of the wider hostile environment towards migration pursued by the Government.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 123,000 asylum seekers and refugees in the UK at the end of 2015. Asylum seekers and refugees face unique and complex challenges related to their mental health, and they are often at greater risk of developing mental health problems. Research commissioned by NHS Leeds has shown that 61% of asylum seekers will experience serious mental distress, and they are five times more likely than the general population to have mental health needs. They are less likely than the general population, however, to receive support. The conditions connected to the process of seeking refuge—whether it be a protracted, processed asylum claim or separation from the family, or other common concerns such as poor housing—lead to higher rates of depression, PTSD and other anxiety disorders.
The Government could and should take immediate steps that would have a significant impact on the positive wellbeing of asylum seekers in Britain: immediately ending detention in unsafe, overcrowded accommodation such as Napier barracks, which we all can see is one of the clearest expressions of the disdain with which asylum seekers are treated by them; giving asylum seekers the right to work; preventing them from being left in limbo while they wait for a decision that could take years; ending the conditions of no recourse to public funds; and increasing benefits support for asylum seekers from the current paltry sum of £39.63 a week. The Government also need to set out a strategy to clear the backlog of asylum cases, because the delays are adding to the existing trauma. Ultimately, it will be refugees who continue to suffer while the Government remain intent on stoking anti-migration sentiment as part of their wider culture war.
I would like to start by thanking all those who work with and help asylum seekers and refugees in Newport. They include The Sanctuary project, the Welsh Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, iNEED, Feed Newport and all the other organisations and individuals doing so much good work.
The Government have been keen to cultivate an image of being hard-line on asylum. The Home Office’s decision to house asylum seekers in the cramped, unsafe Penally barracks in west Wales during a global pandemic ignored both the welfare of asylum seekers and the concerns locally about the conditions and the unsuitability of the accommodation. The Home Office then abruptly emptied the camp, resulting in a flurry of people needing accommodation and support with inadequate measures in place. That just highlights the lack of dispersal accommodation and the need for the Government to properly help public bodies deliver services. I have to say, it stands in contrast to the approach of the Welsh Government.
That is important because, as has been said already, we know that asylum seekers and refugees are especially at risk of developing mental health issues. Research from the Welsh Refugee Council shows that refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the UK population as a whole. The factors that contribute to this are not hard to identify. Before arriving in the UK, refugees may have lost loved ones, experienced violence or persecution or seen their livelihoods fall away, and in many cases will have made a perilous journey overseas. These traumas are often compounded on arrival in the UK by financial insecurity, the inability—as has been spoken about—to gain stability through work, issues with accommodation, the constant fear of deportation, the sense of isolation that comes with family separation and the all-encompassing stress of wrangling with a complex asylum system.
I have seen the last point at first hand through my casework in Newport. I pay a special tribute to my long-standing and excellent caseworker Sarah Banwell, who has much expertise in this area and many friends in the communities in Newport. Lengthy Home Office delays add to the stress by allowing the uncertainty to linger. Over the last few months, my office has dealt with constituents who have been waiting up to two years for their asylum interview after claiming asylum in the UK, while others are still waiting for their biometric residency permits to be issued six months after a positive outcome of their UK Visas and Immigration application. There is a real human cost to this.
On the delays, I know Home Office staff work really hard, and I appreciate that, in a pandemic period, adjustment will be needed. However, there should have been more decision making, and that is down to leadership and oversight at the top. The additional pressure caused by the delays is being heaped on individuals, inevitably resulting in greater strain on already hard-pressed mental health services. Liz Andrew, head of adult psychology for the Aneurin Bevan health board, which covers my constituency, has pointed out:
“It is hard to offer help when someone does not know if they are going to be granted leave to remain. They will remain in a state of threat and worry and this will make it harder to process trauma memories.”
Nor does it help that support services have struggled to provide home visits and face-to-face services in the pandemic, which leads to more isolation, or that accessing remote services is difficult for those who do not speak English as a first language and also because of digital exclusion. That has an impact on the ability to communicate about someone’s case, but also limits their ability to access things such as English as a second language classes. I hope Ministers listen to the concerns today. It is time for them to look again at their approach.
It is a pleasure to contribute today with you in the Chair, Sir Charles, and to do so as a representative of Sheffield, the country’s first city of sanctuary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) on securing the debate and on the powerful and comprehensive way in which she opened it.
The Home Secretary recently said that our asylum system is broken. She is right, although it is perhaps worth remembering who has been running it for the last 11 years. However, it is broken, above all, for those who come to this country seeking refuge, and too often it breaks them. The Government’s new plan for immigration encapsulates the approach of Ministers, framing asylum seekers as the problem rather than addressing the problems they face, dehumanising those who seek the refuge provided under international law and the treaties to which we are proud signatories, and talking about them as illegal migrants.
The move towards detention on arrival in the Government’s new plan is deeply worrying, particularly after the experience of Napier and Penally barracks, which others have mentioned. Reception centres where asylum seekers will be sent as they enter the UK look dangerously like becoming detention by another name. We have seen with immigration removal centres how facilities established for one function quickly develop another: long-term detention.
Moving towards detaining on arrival would shut down community links and create isolation. Those who seek asylum, with all the trauma associated with the persecution or conflict from which they are fleeing, which is often added to by the journey they have had to make, have that trauma exacerbated by detention. I co-chaired the 2015 cross-party inquiry into immigration detention, when detainees told us that it is “worse than prison”, because prisoners count down the days to their release, while those in detention count them up with no certainty about their future. Experts told us that those who were detained for over 30 days, as so many were—many for months, some for years—had significantly higher mental health problems.
There is a solution, and the Government have piloted alternatives to detention. I have met with previous Ministers who are genuinely committed to those alternatives, recognising that detention is inhumane, inefficient and expensive, but I understand that, instead of being expanded, these programmes are being wound down, with Action Access already finished in March. As the Government have committed to evaluating the programmes, I would be grateful if the Minister told us in winding up when the reports on those pilots will be published.
This morning I heard from the Snowdrop Project in Sheffield, a brilliant charity providing long-term support to survivors of human trafficking. It talked about the delays and indecision in the system, which traumatise survivors of trafficking. One victim supported by the project was exploited in the UK in domestic servitude until she managed to escape. She claimed asylum and was recognised as a victim of trafficking in the national referral mechanism. She was not granted the discretionary leave to remain, to which she was entitled as a recognised victim, despite multiple requests.
The Home Office delayed making a decision on her case for some years, despite legal and political representation highlighting the impact of that delay on her mental health. After four years, her asylum application was refused, but the case was appealed successfully and finally, after five years, she was granted protection in the UK. Those years of uncertainty had a profound impact on her mental health. She suffers from severe anxiety, depression and PTSD, and receives support for suicidal intentions. Someone who had been accepted as a victim of human trafficking should have been given leave to remain on that basis and that experience should have been avoided. The Snowdrop Project is right that it is not acceptable to keep someone’s life on hold for five years.
Like many colleagues, I regularly hear from those who are living in limbo, awaiting the outcome of a Home Office decision. They are all victims of what the Home Secretary described as a “broken system”. In conclusion, I hope the Minister will spell out what the Government plan to do to ensure that the Home Office ends the limbo inside and outside detention that is so damaging to the mental health of asylum seekers.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am going to do something that I have never done before in this place. I am going to read a letter—it is such a good letter that it is worth quoting from. This would be easy but for the fact that I dropped my reading glasses outside my constituency office and a passing motorist drove over them. I hope colleagues will bear with me. The letter is from Christina Livesey who lives in Caithness. She says:
“While I appreciate that we must, as a nation, have a care for our own security when considering requests from people seeking asylum, this should not mean that Asylum Seekers are ‘Guilty until Proven Innocent’ and then treated far worse than convicted criminals in our gaols!
There have been reports from credible organisations such as Amnesty International, The Scottish Refugee Council, and Freedom From Torture that Asylum Seekers have while in the care of the British Government:
(a) been denied access to proper medical care, both for physical and mental health.
(b) have been driven to suicide by their circumstances and the lack of care they have experienced.
(c) have been housed in unsuitable places such as former Barracks, where they were unable to socially isolate (and where Covid-19 was spread).
(d) have been held in isolated locations where they had no access to legal advice or any other support services,
(e) have suffered immense trauma before arriving in the UK, and are often separated from their families, if indeed they have any family remaining alive.
This sounds more like the war torn, ravaged ‘Third World’ countries many of these refugees are fleeing from, rather than the civilised, proudly independent nation we claim to be!
I am aware that the Home Office are launching an online consultation of their new proposals (most of which have already been tried and which were later abandoned as unworkable) which will run until May 4th.
Among the measures proposed are to withhold or restrict appeal rights against a refusal of asylum if someone has entered the UK without prior permission. This is much like what Michael Howard did in 1999!
There is a proposal to build new asylum reception centres and withhold financial support from people on the basis of how they entered the country. David Blunkett’s first Immigration Act included each of these measures in 2002!
Britain is surely meant to be carving out NEW measures to build up the country and its people, not merely re-hashing outworn, unworkable policies from ages past. These are NOT policies we can be proud of.
We have an opportunity and an obligation to shape the future of all our citizens, as well as potential future citizens. Let us strive for better, not worse, conditions and for inclusive, not divisive, policies.”
Sir Charles, this is an uncompromising email. She does not mince her words, but she is exceedingly eloquent. I have spoken to her several times prior to deciding to read this letter here in the House of Commons. I often think that policy on this front—perhaps on all political fronts regardless of political colour—can sometimes be wrong. I do not doubt the good intentions and kindliness of people who attempt to do their best by refugees.
I will conclude with two points. First, I believe that the UK has a very proud tradition of accepting refugees. We generally agree that they very much better the nation. I am myself in part descended from Huguenot refugees who left persecution and found safety here in Great Britain. Secondly, in my constituency in the highlands of Scotland, there is a long tradition of strangers being welcomed, taken into the community, and we value the contribution that they make. I have probably said enough, though I have not taken up six minutes. I thank my colleagues for their forbearance in listening to me read an email rather badly, but I think it is worth considering what Christina Livesey said.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for setting the scene so very well, and I thank my colleagues for all their marvellous contributions. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). He plays himself down when he says he does things rather badly. On the contrary, he does things rather well. I think we all enjoy his contributions—I certainly do—whether they be in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber. He always gives his thoughts very clearly, and I think every one of us appreciates his comments.
I will begin with this quote from the Henry Jackson Society, because I absolutely agree with what it has to say: “Those that need our help the most are not the young men with the means to reach Britain, but they are the poor, the weak, the vulnerable trapped in conflict.” For me, that encapsulates where we are. I am not saying that we are better than anybody else, but my nature is one of wishing to help other people.
I am my party’s spokesperson on human rights, on health and on the Department for Work and Pensions—in a small party there are a whole lot of things to do, but I love the subjects I have been given and they are matters of interest. I am concerned that we could be throwing the baby out with the bath water, in our well-intentioned attempt to prevent abuse of the system. I know the Minister is a man of compassion and understanding, and a person who wants to help other people. I know that because I have had a friendship with him for many years, since before he was a Minister. Our friendship is the same; it has not changed.
We look to the Minister for the answers and to understand what the Government are trying to do. I understand that they have to control and oversee immigration, and when I asked the Secretary of State this question, she came back with a good answer. I ask the Minister the same question and I would appreciate a response: how can genuine cases involving women and children be addressed under this legislation? The people I refer to are the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.
During the pandemic, I highlighted the need to ensure that asylum seekers had access not just to services, but to food and clothing. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West has spoken about this, as have her colleagues. A report from Refugee Action stated that asylum support rates are currently set at £39.60 per week or £5.66 per day. My goodness, how on earth could anybody survive on that? I mean that honestly. People cannot live on noodles or the 99p specials in the shops all their lives. The money does not go far. What if they have a family? The problems are horrendous. The amount that these people are forced to subsist on is 73% below the poverty line. Again, I ask the Minister to outline the rationale behind this level of support and if there is an intention to ensure that anyone that lives in this country is able to eat and be clothed regardless of the reason they are here.
I want to give the Minister and the Government a plaudit; it is important that we recognise good things. It is not about asylum seekers, but we did have a scheme that brought people from Syria. Half a dozen families, who were persecuted Christians, came to Newtownards town and have settled, with the help of Government, local government and whole lot of individual bodies in Newtownards. Imagine what we could do if we made the same effort for everyone.
The backlog in decision making and the length of time that it takes to get a decision from Government is having a detrimental effect on mental health. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) gave the figures earlier on about the applicants waiting over six months. I will not repeat them, but can the Minister outline his intention to increase staffing and support so that people can have peace of mind in a timelier manner?
Every one of us has experience of how the pandemic has affected us, not just as representatives but through our constituents, both physically, through all the things that have happened, and in terms of the impact on mental health. I am very fortunate as I live on a farm. Whenever I go home at night, I can go for a walk in the fields with the dogs and get some respite. What about all the people who are living in flats and houses? I have thought about them many times, and I say to myself, “How on earth do they stick that?” How much harder is it for asylum seekers, who are living on a small wage, have lost their family and are living with the trauma of all that has happened in the country they have fled from, to look for support? I recognise that the Government and the Minister are wishing and willing to help. I am not saying the men are not important—they are—but for me the issue is the mothers and the children. We need to have some action for them and some responses from Government about what we are to do.
That is very kind of you, Sir Charles. I expect I could speak for about six hours, but I shall do my best to confine myself.
We are at a pivotal moment for our asylum system, which is in a fragile state and in danger of breaking, because it is in desperate need of investment and of policies to improve it. Instead, the Government propose to take a massive hammer to it. They are not fixing it, but crushing it beyond repair. It is on that rather sad note that I offer congratulations and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing such a crucial debate about the mental health of asylum seekers, some of the most vulnerable people we have responsibility for, whether or not they become refugees, and the impact that the asylum system has on them. I congratulate my hon. Friend, and all the hon. Members who have taken part, on their speeches, which amounted to a pitch perfect critique of where we are at. As we have heard, too often people’s experience of the system is grim, and makes the mental health of already struggling people even worse. Those are people who have fled persecution and endured traumatising journeys, and too often are made even more ill by a system that should be helping and supporting them.
The debate has also reflected the fact that the situation works on two levels. First, there are policies that in principle we would all support, but the problem is that in practice they have been starved of resources or implemented in a faulty way, to the detriment of asylum seekers’ mental health. Secondly, the Government have made deliberate policy choices that are designed to tackle the big flying pig that they always point to—the so-called pull factor. In short, they choose to treat asylum seekers here, often, outrageously cruelly and inhumanely, to deter other people from coming here to claim asylum. As a point of principle that is thoroughly objectionable.
Depressingly, the Government’s so-called new plan for the asylum system will make things a million times worse, leaving even more people in limbo facing endless uncertainty and restricted rights. That is a fast track to an upsurge in mental ill health among asylum seekers. That is all on the pretext of a manufactured crisis in numbers, when in reality in international terms the UK receives a tiny number of asylum applications here, that it should be capable fairly easily of processing swiftly, efficiently and fairly. Rather, the crisis that we face is in Home Office resourcing and competence.
That brings me to the huge list of policies that the Government should fix, instead of destroying the asylum system altogether. Each of those could, as I have said, merit a lengthy debate in its own right. First, hon. Members have rightly mentioned the issue of decision making. First and foremost, it is too slow, as several Members have pointed out. That, of course, has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but it was already bad, and getting worse, beforehand. Secondly, too many poor decisions are made. About 40% of appeals against asylum refusals are successful. We need proper resourcing and training to resolve that.
A further issue is the dispersed asylum accommodation model, which has been thoroughly analysed in several Home Affairs Committee reports. It is right in principle to house asylum seekers in communities; but that approach is struggling in practice, thanks to the model of outsourcing where asylum seekers are placed in inappropriate accommodation and sometimes in altogether poor conditions. Ministers regularly complain that one of the issues is that not enough councils take part. I agree, but lots of councils that would want to take part are put off by the way that that process works. If the Minister wants me to, I shall happily arrange a meeting between him and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—and I am sure that the Local Government Association would want that too—to discuss the barriers to new local authorities getting involved. They include financing, and a them having a proper democratic say in how asylum seekers are treated and where they are placed in asylum dispersal areas.
We have heard mention this afternoon of the level of asylum support. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked how anyone could survive on it. It is a disgracefully low level. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West has championed the right to work through a Bill and on various other occasions. To use her words, excluding asylum seekers from the labour market altogether makes no sense at all. Work is hugely important for self-esteem and self-worth, and the implications for mental ill health of leaving folk out of work for months on end are obvious.
We have heard about the military barracks, and I have spoken about that absolutely disgraceful episode previously. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) was absolutely right to ring the alarm bells about the move to institutional reception centres that lies ahead. These military barracks seem to be a prototype of that. That would be a horrendous road to go down.
On family reunion, the UK has already been criticised for its restrictive rules for children who are here and for adult children who are abroad. My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) sought to fix that with his private Member’s Bill, but now things are set to be worse, with family reunion rights restricted for those who come to claim asylum here.
I barely have time to mention the new immigration rules. Restricting the admissibility of claims is just going to lead to asylum seekers being left in limbo for a further six months. An attack on the appeals process seems to be proposed in the Government’s new consultation document.
Ultimately, what this boils down to is that the Opposition want to put in place an asylum system that is designed to protect people and assumes that they have fled persecution. We should address abuse with fast decision making so that abusers do not benefit from trying to game the system. The Government seem to have a presumption of abuse, and therefore they intend to make the system as painful as possible to deter it. That is just a thoroughly inhumane way to go about things.
It is a pleasure, as always, to speak with you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) on securing this important and timely debate. She made a number of really important points. Although we are limited in time this afternoon, as others have said, this debate is timely because we have had the Government’s policy statement and new plan for immigration, and there is no doubt that, during the passage of the sovereign borders Bill, we will have to return to some of the really important points that she made.
On the asylum system and the mental health of those seeking asylum, it is hard to know where to start in the time that we have. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, we agree with the Government that the system is broken and is failing everybody, but I politely remind the Conservative Government that they have been in power for 11 years and are, I am afraid to say, the architects of that failure.
A number of really important points were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who raised the backlogs in the Home Office and made the powerful case for returning the right to work, as others did. That is a point that we will return to. The Minister will remember our exchanges and our support for that campaign during the passage of the immigration Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) spoke passionately about the importance of co-ordination and the need for quality dispersal accommodation. We will need to return to the inadmissibility rule changes, passed in December, which will only trap more people in the system for longer. The reference to reception centres in the new plan and policy statement only further blur the lines between detention and initial accommodation.
In the time that I have, I will focus my remarks on contingency asylum accommodation, in particular, and specifically the former MOD sites at Napier barracks and Penally camp, which represent a callousness in decision making that has been nothing short of inhumane. The Government initially claimed that the use of those barracks was due to the unprecedented pressures of the pandemic, yet the equality impact assessment that we have seen, conducted by the Home Office in September, revealed that the use of that particular type of accommodation was not borne out of necessity but was a political choice. It suggested that providing nothing but the absolute bare minimum to those seeking asylum is in the interest of community relations, but even the bare minimum should surely have meant safe. The Government’s reluctance to provide anything deemed to be beyond what is necessary has seen people, including those with leukaemia, diabetes and tuberculosis, housed 28 to a single dorm, sharing limited toilet facilities and communal areas that were cleaned only once a week during the pandemic.
We wrote to the Minister’s colleagues back in December 2020 calling on the Government to commission a review of covid safety in all establishments being used for asylum accommodation—a request that was ignored.
On 8 March 2021, in a report already referenced by others, the then independent chief inspector of borders and immigration published initial findings from site visits to Penally camp and Napier barracks in mid-February. They confirmed that, given the cramped communal conditions and unworkable cohorting at Napier, a large-scale outbreak of covid was virtually inevitable, which is exactly what happened: there were 197 positive cases of covid at Napier barracks between 1 January and late February.
The Kent and Medway clinical commissioning group’s infection prevention report undertaken at Napier, which we secured through a freedom of information request, also confirmed that the site does not facilitate effective social distancing.
The ICIBI report raised serious safeguarding concerns about those who were most vulnerable, stating that there was inadequate support for people who had self-harmed and that people at high risk of self-harm were located in a decrepit isolation block that was unfit for habitation. Even more distressing was a survey conducted by the inspectors that found that one resident in three at Napier barracks had felt suicidal during their time there. That clearly demonstrates the damaging psychological impact that our asylum system is having on vulnerable individuals who require specialist medical care and need to be housed in suitable and safe accommodation.
In evidence provided to the Home Affairs Committee last month, the Government claimed that they had been following guidance in every single way, but the CCG and ICIBI reports make it explicitly clear that at no time has that been true. The barracks are just one element of this system, which is failing everyone, but they represent the recklessness of this Government at their worst, putting their desire to be perceived as hard-line on immigration above what is right, fair and safe.
We know that dispersed accommodation, with local councils and communities working alongside Government to make much better choices, will be the way forward. We are part of a valley of sanctuary in Halifax where organisations such as St Augustine’s are instrumental in supporting those seeking asylum and refugees, and facilitate integration within communities.
Ordinarily, a political choice to use barracks as asylum accommodation would lack humanity and compassion, but in a pandemic it is unforgivable. There is an opportunity, with the upcoming legislative changes, to build a fairer and swifter asylum system that does not have a detrimental impact on a person’s health and wellbeing, but instead unlocks a person’s potential. However, that will require a significant shift away from some of the proposals outlined in the policy statement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing this debate on the UK asylum system and asylum seekers’ mental health. It is timely, given our wider debate on the subject.
It is important to underline at the start the fact that our United Kingdom has a proud record of helping those facing persecution, oppression and tyranny. We stand by our moral and legal obligations to help innocent civilians fleeing cruelty around the world. As part of that, the UK resettled more people through planned resettlement schemes between 2015 and 2019 than any other country in Europe. In addition, the UK Government, as has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in relation to the contribution that his own area made to this work, have delivered on their commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees directly from the relevant region under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, despite the obvious challenges presented by the pandemic.
However, we recognise that significant improvements are needed to protect our asylum system from being gamed or abused by those who are actually economic migrants, while ensuring that it offers protection and fairness to those in need of our support. That includes, as a number of hon. Members have made clear today, a need for much more prompt decision making.
Through our recently announced new plan for immigration, we are committed to increasing the fairness and the effective operation of our system, so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of our protection, while deterring illegal entry to the United Kingdom by those coming from safe and democratic countries with functioning asylum systems. That is about breaking the business model of people-smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those whom they endanger, including through dangerous and unnecessary sea crossings.
We must do all we can to stop the criminal activity, which is putting lives at risk, while ensuring that we still play our part in the international effort to support those who are fleeing war and oppression in other parts of the world. I therefore urge all who have an interest in the issue to take part in the consultation on the new plan and to help to shape the future by creating a fair but firm system.
I note the concerns raised about the type of accommodation being offered to asylum seekers. To put that in context, we have seen an increase in demand for accommodation during the pandemic of about 30%, resulting in more than 60,000 asylum seekers being provided with safe and secure accommodation while their claims are considered. The challenges encountered throughout the pandemic have led to the use of contingency accommodation, including hotels and Ministry of Defence sites, and to some people being accommodated in such accommodation for more than a brief period. We are working closely with local authorities across the United Kingdom and with our contractors to procure more housing, reduce our reliance on this type of accommodation and minimise the time individuals are housed in it, when it is necessary to retain it.
Despite the challenges we have faced, we have consistently met our statutory obligations towards destitute asylum seekers. That has included, at times and where appropriate, continuing to provide accommodation when support would, in normal times, have ceased. We have also recently increased support payments for people in dispersal accommodation. Support maintenance payments are calculated using a methodology that the courts have considered sound, and the most recent increase of around 5% is above general year-on-year inflation of 0.8%.
However, as mentioned during oral questions, we need further commitment in this area in communities not only across Scotland, but across the rest of the United Kingdom. Put simply, passing motions, making statements of solidarity and sending letters does not provide the Home Office with options to house people seeking asylum. I was interested to hear the comments from my SNP shadow, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). In that regard, discussions between the Home Office, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Government continue—work that I hope will be strongly supported by Members from Scotland who contributed today. That action forms part of and supplements the ongoing work of the Glasgow joint partnership board.
Across our United Kingdom, some very welcome progress is being made. I reference in particular the renewed commitment to providing dispersal accommodation in Wales. As I have noted, that is important because it helps to reduce our reliance on temporary, contingency and initial accommodation, allowing us to exit some sites we have been using, including Penally barracks.
All asylum seekers and refugees can access mainstream health services wherever they are in our United Kingdom, in line with the resident population, with these services being mostly devolved matters, alongside other aspects of health policy, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Within the asylum process, we take all possible steps to identify potential safeguarding risks at the earliest opportunity, while acknowledging that, because of their journey and history, asylum seekers are not always ready or particularly willing to declare mental health issues to Home Office officials. When they first encounter the Home Office, asylum seekers are given the opportunity to declare any vulnerabilities that might impact on the way we manage their claim.
We also fund a charity-run help line, managed by Migrant Help, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for all those in the asylum process to seek advice and guidance, including when they are concerned about their own health or the health of a family member. Migrant Help will also provide an interpreter if required and escalate any issues of concern to the Home Office asylum safeguarding hub, which provides a link to the organisations with statutory responsibility for asylum seekers’ care, such as medical professionals and social services. That helps to ensure that there are clear, straightforward means through which concerns can be raised with the Home Office, and then with relevant professionals as required, case by case.
For those destitute asylum seekers who are supported by the UK Government in accommodation, our providers are contractually obliged to deliver welfare support, including staff appointed as welfare officers. They will also engage the emergency services where an immediate risk exists to the health of the individual or another person and deliver ongoing support while they are accommodated. Supported asylum seekers also receive a comprehensive induction in a language they understand, which details local and national support services available to them, as well as information to help them to settle into the UK.
Wherever we accommodate asylum seekers, we support their mental health and wellbeing through close working with local health services and, where practical, the provision of on-site activities such as sports and language training. We understand that some asylum seekers need more specialist support for their mental health. We therefore established a mental health forum, bringing together colleagues from across the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and NHS England, alongside several non-governmental organisations, to discuss improved access to health pathways and alternative opportunities to support wellbeing throughout the asylum journey. We are looking at extending that group to involve counterparts in the devolved nations. We are keen to continue supporting vulnerable service users to prevent harm to them or others, and our ongoing engagement with civil society and broader health services provides that opportunity.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West under- standably highlighted the situation in Glasgow. It is right that I put on the record how grateful I am for the support that the whole community in Glasgow provides through their continued participation in the asylum dispersal scheme. As has been mentioned, Glasgow is the largest local authority dispersal area anywhere in the United Kingdom, and it is playing a key role in enabling us to meet our legal obligations.
I thank in particular Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Refugee Council for the support they provided to those who were affected by the tragic incident at the Park Inn hotel on 26 June last year. A significant amount of work has taken place to ensure that we are doing all we can to minimise the risk of a similar incident taking place again. An internal evaluation was commissioned and undertaken to determine whether asylum seekers accommodated in Glasgow were in accommodation that met their needs, in line with the contract, and whether appropriate wellbeing and mental health support was in place during the covid-19 pandemic.
The review looked at whether the accommodation provided to asylum seekers during covid-19 was suited to their circumstances. It explored moves from other contingency accommodation to hotels, including how specific needs are identified and addressed. It also looked at training needs, risk, and safeguarding, as well as considering whether any systemic issues extend beyond the arrangements made to accommodate asylum seekers during covid-19.
The report makes 20 recommendations and identifies key areas for improvement. I am pleased to say that significant progress has already been made in relation to the recommendations, including a review of catering arrangements in hotels, cash payments being made to those in hotels and section 4 and section 95 support, and individuals involved in the incident receiving bespoke support.
Several of the report’s recommendations require collaborative working between the Home Office, Glasgow City Council, COSLA, and Mears, the accommodation provider for the region. My officials advise me that fortnightly meetings take place between those organisations, when the key issues discussed in the report are taken forward, such as hotel moves and use, and the safeguarding and wellbeing of asylum seekers in Glasgow. I would expect Glasgow MPs to receive feedback on that work. If they do not, I will ensure that they do.
This area is complex. As I mentioned, my officials have already approached the Scottish Government and COSLA on a number of occasions about widening dispersal and opening up further areas to dispersal, to help to ease the pressure on Glasgow and the hotels in that city. We certainly look forward to taking that work further over the coming months.
The United Kingdom, particularly the city of Glasgow, has a proud record of giving refuge and sanctuary to some of the world’s most vulnerable and oppressed people. The UK Government remain committed to ensuring that asylum seekers and refugees receive the support and care that they need, even in the challenging circumstances of a global pandemic. Our focus, as we take forward our new plan for immigration, will remain on supporting the most vulnerable, ensuring their fair and humane treatment, and working with all our partners on matters relating to asylum seeker health, and mental health in particular. Ultimately, we want to build a system that is firm against those seeking to abuse or game it, but fair in offering the support that this country should offer to those who genuinely need to flee war and persecution.
I thank all Members who have taken the time to contribute to the debate. Some of the very personal testimonies that we have heard are important—people need to hear more of them. A phrase that I thought was quite useful came from the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), who talked about people being considered guilty until proven innocent. That is something that many of us who deal with asylum seekers in our communities would recognise.
The Minister spoke of his concerns about the system being gamed or abused. Well, there are many things that the Government could do to ensure that the system was neither gamed nor abused, but they are not doing them. One thing they could do is allow swifter decision making, using accurate information. The Minister also talked about criminal people smuggling. If we are tackling criminal gangs, we must recognise that there are innocent victims of those gangs, and if there are innocent victims, we must put in place support for them, but that is not happening just now.
Finally, I again thank all the organisations working throughout the UK to support refugees and asylum seeker communities, particularly here in Glasgow, where we have such a lot of asylum seekers. Glasgow is a city that is very strong and it will always state that refugees are welcome, but we need the Home Office to support us on this, so that we can help those who need our help.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UK asylum system and asylum seekers’ mental health.