Thursday 22 April 2021
[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
Religious Minorities: Land Rights
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be a short suspension between this debate and the next one that starts at 3.15 pm. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and are expected to stay for the entire duration of the debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times to each other and to us here in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address—they will have had an email this morning with the address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they leave the room after using them. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered land rights for religious minorities including Baha’is in Iran.
First, I place on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate. I also thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for co-sponsoring this debate in his capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Baha’i faith. He had hoped to be here, but unfortunately he has other things to do, so he is unable to be here. Others who wanted to participate have not been able to attend, either. None the less, the issue is of great importance. When I and others have made our contributions, hon. Members and the Minister in particular will understand how important it is.
I am pleased to see my good friend, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), in his place. He is always very faithful and attends not only in his role as a spokesperson for the Scottish National party, but because he has a deep interest in these issues, as has the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). I very much look forward to the Minister’s response. It is good to see him in his place as well.
I am also a member of the all-party group on the Baha’i faith, but I speak today primarily in my role as chairperson of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, a group that we have had in Parliament for some time. My interest in that particular APPG is significant. We have more than 130 members and peers from the House of Commons and House of Lords, so it is a deep interest for many people. The issue of the Baha’is has come to our attention for some time and we very much want to put the issue on the record. As I and others will explain, there is gross persecution of the Baha’is in Iran.
In March this year, the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief published its third annual “Commentary on the Current State of International Freedom of Religion or Belief”. It includes reports on the state of freedom of religion or belief in 25 countries and territories, including Iran, and offers recommendations for UK foreign policy, which is why it is so important to have the Minister here to see what the Government can do to respond in a positive and helpful way.
In the foreword to the report, three leading experts in the field, Professor Sir Malcolm Evans, Dr Nazila Ghanea and Dr Ahmed Shaheed observed the following trend—this is their opinion in relation to Iran and the Baha’is in particular:
“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that for many, the pandemic has provided a backdrop to a further deepening of the repression and suppression which they have been facing – as some states have taken the opportunities presented by the ‘eyes of the international community being elsewhere’”—
as they obviously were during the covid-19 lockdown—
“to return to their oppressive practices.”
Today, I will illustrate clearly that those oppressive practices are alive and, unfortunately, exceeding the boundaries of what is legally and morally acceptable in Iran.
I have met the Baha’is on many occasions. I can honestly say that they are some of the nicest, most generous and genuine people anyone could ever meet. They have a pleasant way with them, as well as a smile and a handshake that matches that pleasantness. Today, I wish to highlight one facet of why the Baha’i community in Iran are facing increasingly oppressive practices, and the particular injustice of the denial of land rights to the rural community of farmers in the small village of Ivel in Mazandaran province.
We all know the problems in Iran, its position in the world and how the world looks on it, but there is specific, physical targeting of ethnic and religious minorities, particularly the Baha’is. From the information available to the APPG and to my office, it is clear that the expropriation of land in the village of Ivel was the first indicator of a deepening pattern of escalating repression of the Baha’is in the province of Mazandaran at the hands of Iranian authorities. When we hear what has happened, we will know clearly where we are in relation to this.
Beyond Iran, the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief has, in recent weeks, heard evidence and testimony, which I will touch on, about how religious minority communities face denial of land rights in other states, ranging from the restriction of public goods necessary for agriculture to attacks on cultural heritage, even burial sites. Baha’i graves have been desecrated, which I will explain properly later on. I bring these issues to the attention of the Minister—my Minister—and to the Government—my Government.
There has been a Baha’i community in the village of Ivel in northern Iran for around 160 years. Many generations ago, shortly after the foundation of the Baha’i faith in 1844, the majority of the community were farmers, working for their subsistence through the hard discipline of an agricultural life, a way of life recognised by rural people in every culture and land across the world. The same families have tended the land for generations.
Some members of the Baha’i faith live in my constituency and a neighbouring constituency, and I have had the opportunity to meet them at home. They are so proud of their heritage, culture and where they are, and I know they wish me to speak on their behalf. The Baha’i community was committed to their farms, to their families and, very much, to their faith. They were also committed to service to their neighbours and to their nation. Anyone who meets the Baha’is will see that they are not just about themselves, but about others. I have been impressed by that.
From the earliest stages of the Baha’i presence in Ivel, they contributed resources and time to the social, economic and cultural development of their community, a commitment that is shared by so many people of all faiths and none. At the very beginning, the Baha’is reached out to those of other religious faiths and groups to ensure they created relationships that benefited from the pluralistic society, which unfortunately no longer exists.
They built schools and bathhouses that were open to all the people of the village—the Baha’is, the Muslims and those of other faiths. They contributed towards the care of victims of conflict and earthquakes. Despite their industry and service to others, these Baha’i farmers have been singled out for unusually persistent levels of persecution. From 1983 onwards, the post-revolutionary Government made repeated efforts to expel them from the village and displace them from their lands. What has been happening has been specific and it becomes much more worrying, as you will hear from my comments as we go on.
In June 2010, those efforts extended to the authorities sending bulldozers to demolish some 50 Baha’i homes in the village. Since 1983, the Baha’is have used, and exhausted, every possible legal channel to defend their legal rights to their properties and lands. Their frustration is that something is happening that is truly wrong, evil and vindictive, and which specifically targets them, and they do not have the protection that they should have from the legal system in Iran.
Reports from the Baha’i international community reveal that on 1 August 2020 branch 54 of the special court for article 49 of the constitution of Iran ruled that the ownership of farmland by a number of Baha’is in the rural village of Ivel in Mazandaran province is illegal. Imagine if someone came along to you, Dr Huq, and said, “We’re going to take your house and you have no way of stopping it,” or said to the Minister, “We’re taking your property away as well, and legally it’s impossible to do very much about it.”
A further ruling from the court of appeal on 13 October 2020 ruled against the legitimacy of the ownership of land of 27 Baha’is. Members will see who are the targets. It appears to be the final step in the actions of the Iranian authorities to dispossess those Baha’is of their homes and lands in Ivel. There has been a movement across the free democratic world for those in authority to stand up for the Baha’is, and to do their best to try to raise awareness.
The judgment of branch 54 of the special court for article 49 of the constitution, issued on 1 August 2020, and a further extraordinary session of the court of appeal on 13 October 2020 appear to have closed off any final opportunities for the Baha’is of Ivel to defend their right of ownership to their land—land that they have cultivated and lived off, and that others have lived off as well. That land is their source of economic sustenance. Their lives, and their efforts and energies, have been poured into that land over the years.
It is also of note that on 13 October the appeal court order endorsed the decision in favour of the execution of Imam Khomeini’s order, known as EIKO, in the city of Sari to sell the farmlands owned by the Baha’is. Again it seems to me, and I suspect to everyone else, that it was specifically directed at them, and it was done, as I will illustrate, because of a certain religious belief. The Baha’is now look to the voice of the international community, including Members of Parliament and our Minister, as the only recourse to defend the rights of this community of innocent rural farmers.
We have the privilege in this House of being able to speak up for those who have no one to speak up for them. I know that you, Dr Huq, the Minister and others have done so regularly, because we see wrong in the world and we want to speak up for other people. We do it because it is right and because we have the opportunity to do so in this House. I assure the Baha’is that today’s debate is for them. It is a debate for those people we may never meet in this world. It is a debate on behalf of the Baha’is, whom I have a passion for and believe I should speak up for.
I record my appreciation of the tweet issued by the Minister of State, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, on 12 February, expressing deep concern at the expropriation of land from the Baha’is in Ivel. I am very encouraged by Lord Ahmad, a voice so often for those who have no voice to speak up for them. In his tweet, he said:
“The UK is deeply concerned by reports of expropriation & repossession of land owned by Baha’i communities in Ivel. This follows a worrying escalation in long-standing persecution against religious minorities in Iran. We will always stand up for people of all faiths & beliefs.”
Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, an imam from Leicester and the chair of the Virtue Ethics Foundation also released a statement, in which he said:
“I am greatly alarmed to learn about the prejudicial ruling of two courts in the Islamic Republic of Iran confiscating land belonging to the Bahá’ís in the rural village of Ivel.”
Importantly—if it is being done because of religion, which it clearly is—he also said:
“Islam does not permit a government to confiscate land from citizens just because they follow a different religion or ideology.”
He went on to say that
“the verdicts must be confronted and overturned.”
Clearly, world opinion and religious opinion is very concerned.
The Baha’is’ lawyers were given no opportunity to see the court documents, to prepare a defence, or to present any arguments back in October 2020. This case could set an alarming precedent in nullifying Baha’is’ right to ownership of land. This is the latest in a pattern of persecution for the Baha’is in Ivel. The community has experienced taxes on their properties, arson, imprisonment, and expulsion as direct consequences against them. Numerous official documents reveal religious prejudice as the motive behind land confiscations, and some records show that the Baha’is have been told their properties will be returned to them if they convert to Islam. If they convert—do away with their own religion and take another—they are told that it will be okay, so this is very clearly direct action against them that is politically and religiously motivated.
Others across the world have supported the Baha’is in Ivel. The former Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, is among a group of more than 50 high-ranking legal professionals who have written an open letter to Iran’s chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi. The letter condemns the court ruling to confiscate the Baha’is’ property and violations against the Baha’i community. It states that
“Under the current Iranian government, Bahá'ís have experienced home raids, attacks on properties, confiscation of possessions, dismissals from employment, denial of access to higher education, imprisonment, and execution”—
it can be as final as that. The letter also states that
“Bahá'ís have sought legal remedies, but to little avail”,
“The 2020 rulings now establish a dangerous constitutional precedent of judicially sanctioned confiscation that nullifies legitimate property interests based only on the owners’ religious affiliation, thus departing not only from international human rights standards but also from the text and intent of the Iranian constitution itself.”
Germany’s federal Government commissioner for global freedom of religion issued a press release as well, calling on the Iranian Government to
“recognise the Baha’i as a religious community and to respect the rights of all religious and faith minorities.”
Officials, including politicians from Brazil, Sweden and Canada, have also expressed their support for the Baha’is, so this has taken on an international flavour now, which I think is very important.
In the Iranian province of Mazandaran, persecution has escalated. The APPG warns in its report that the crisis of the covid pandemic could provide a backdrop for a ratcheting up of repression of religious minorities, and that appears to be taking a more ominous shape within that province, in which the village of Ivel is located. I have expressed concern about this in the Chamber to other Ministers before: I have always felt that countries that are indiscriminate in how they target ethnic groups or religious minorities can do so under the cover of the covid pandemic. On 9 March 2021, the Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’homme—that is a good Ulster-Scots go at French—an international NGO, issued a press release that gave notice of a directive that reveals plans by authorities in the Iranian province of Mazandaran to intensify their suppression of Baha’is and other religious minorities. It is not just the Baha’is: if someone is of a different religion from Islam, the state religion, then they are targeted, but today we want to speak specifically about the Baha’is.
The text of a directive from the Commission on Ethnicities, Sects and Religions in the town of Sari in Mazandaran, dated 21 September 2020, which has the authority of the highest levels of the Iranian Government, calls for the rigorous control of the Baha’i community in virtually all aspects of life. They can no longer practise their religion; they can no longer have individual thought. According to the Iranian Government, they have to rigorously adhere to what that Government want them to do. It worries me when I read and observe what is going on. This directive mandates the identification of Baha’i students in order to bring them to Islam—in other words, they cannot be a Baha’i and cannot have a different faith, but have to have the faith that the Iranian Government want them to have. The economic strangulation of the Baha’is is another way of making that happen.
These sinister instructions are similar in nature to documents that Members who follow the plight of the Baha’is in Iran will recognise. The language draws directly from the Iranian Government policies to suppress Baha’is found in an infamous 1991 memorandum on “the Baha’i question”, and in the 2005 letter issued to the highest levels of the security forces for monitoring and identifying all Baha’is. This came from the top: the order to take on the Baha’is came from the highest level. Both documents were confidential communications that were uncovered and brought to light by the former UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief: the late Maurice Copithorne of Canada, and the late Asma Jahangir of Pakistan. I pay tribute to their memory and their service to human rights.
In recent years, the Baha’is in Iran have faced increasingly harsh treatment. Attacks on homes, businesses and personal and community property are reportedly increasing. Baha’i cemeteries have been desecrated, seized and bulldozed. Family connections with former generations, and with the land that they love, are being bulldozed as well. In January 2021, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman—in conjunction with the APPG on Pakistan minorities, which I chair—published a report outlining human rights concerns in the country. Among other issues, the special rapporteur noted deep concerns that discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities persists, including forced evictions and land confiscation in minority areas. It is probably easier to do it in minority areas, because there are not many people there. In 2020, hundreds of people were reportedly arrested for resisting land confiscation and house demolitions—as anyone would if someone was taking their house—despite presenting evidence of ownership. Even when someone owns a house and shows their ownership, they still do their worst.
The report notes that in November 2020, over 100 Iranian security agents undertook raids, without cause, against the Baha’is, reportedly demanding deeds and confiscating items. Their protection from the security forces and authorities is zero, which has led to longer-term fears about the widespread and unlawful seizure of Baha’i-owned property. In a statement to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021, Javaid Rehman said:
“I am disturbed at the harassment, arbitrary arrests and imprisonments of religious minorities, particularly members of the Baha’i faith who have experienced a new wave of house raids and land confiscations in recent months.”
A global campaign calling for an end to the persecution of the Baha’is, and the return of ancestral lands that were confiscated by an Iranian constitutional court in August 2020, has also been gaining international support in the last few months. Today’s debate enables us to highlight these issues and then ask the Minister to respond on the Government’s behalf.
The September 2020 directive calls on the Mazandaran authorities to review the latest status of the “perverse Baha’i sect”—their words, not ours, obviously—and states that the Baha’is are to be rigorously controlled. My goodness—it scares me to think what that means. The directive proposes a detailed plan at the highest level for cultural and educational institutions. These are ominous and alarming developments, representing a sharp acceleration in a range of pressures on the Baha’is in Mazandaran. If the collective voice of the international community does not deter the Iranian authorities from the unjust repression of innocent citizens from a minority community, there must be concerns that the invidious rise in persecution could widen to other regions of Iran, or indeed to other religious minority groups in other parts of the world. It is clear to me and my colleagues in the APPG on international freedom of religion or belief that the plight of the 27 Baha’is in a village in northern Iran echoes the experiences and travails of many people of various faiths and communities across the world, and we have seen that escalating throughout the pandemic.
In March of this year, I chaired a webinar with the Baha’is to explore this subject, and I wish to share two further case studies of the pressures on the land rights of religious minority communities. The webinar was helpful but reinforced our fears about cases that reached beyond Iran. At a webinar on 4 March, Pablo Vargas of Impolso 18, a human rights organisation, gave testimony about concerns in Mexico. Mexico is an inherently pluralistic country with a large Catholic population and a small Protestant population. Despite that, there have been cases of human rights infringements against religious minorities, especially people who are members of indigenous communities and also from religious minorities.
Article 24 of the Mexican constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief, yet Christian Solidarity Worldwide, one of those excellent organisations that speak up for Christians and other religious groups across the world, has expressed concern about a culture of impunity and a reluctance to prosecute those responsible for criminal acts such as violations of the freedom of religion or belief. Mr Vargas reported expulsions of indigenous Protestant Christians from ejidos, areas of communal land used for agriculture, which families are granted the right to cultivate. There are also reports of seizures of land in Mexico.
Again, for the benefit of this debate Christian Solidarity Worldwide kindly supplied my office with a case study of the phenomenon that Mr Vargas describes. It states the following:
“In Cuamontax in the state of Hidalgo, a family was expelled from the community on 20 July 2019 for belonging to a minority religion. Their home was looted and destroyed, and their ejido”—
their property rights—
“were taken away. In August 2020, the community leaders harvested the crops that this family had been cultivating on their land. This was a demonstration to that family that the family is no longer recognised as part of the community and almost two years later the family is not even allowed to enter the community.”
Imagine that happening—every one of us will feel angst in our souls, our hearts and our minds for those people.
Another powerful testimony was offered at the webinar by Max Joseph, a researcher on Iraq for minority rights groups. He spoke in depth about the plight of the Assyrian Christians and noted that land ownership is one reflection of shifting demographics, whereby Assyrians, Yazidis and other ancient Christian communities have suffered repeated land seizures as a process of ethno-nationalism, particularly across the 20th century, which has manifested itself in crimes as severe as genocide. We are extremely concerned about that.
One example was a case in 2018 where Christian MPs submitted legislation to the Iraqi Parliament calling for the return of over 60,000 properties in Baghdad alone, but to no avail. One comment by Mr Joseph captures the injustice of the theft of land rights for many minority communities. He observed:
“Land theft is something that the vulnerable suffer from the dominant.”
That sums up the situation really well, and it is happening in Iran, Iraq and Mexico.
The final speaker that day, Stephen Powles, QC, of Doughty Street Chambers, expressed the hope that what is lost may one day be retrieved. Certainly, the purpose of this debate is to try to make that happen. But how much better it would be if the lands, farms and rights of the Baha’is, the Christians, the Muslims and all communities of faith and belief facing persecution in our world today were not lost in the first place. It would be great if that was the case, but unfortunately it is not.
In conclusion, I have some requests to make of the Minister. Bleak as this situation is, I wish to record the hopeful signs of global solidarity. I am encouraged when I realise that those of standing in 50 countries across the world are prepared to sign a letter and voice their opinion and express global solidarity for the right of freedom of religion or belief, which these cases have elicited. The Baha’i community has received an extraordinary wave of support in response to these injustices. The global outcry has included the voices of Government officials, parliamentarians, civil society organisations and faith leaders of all faiths, which is really important. It underlines that this situation is wrong, morally and legally, and we need to speak up.
It is notable that prominent among these voices are prominent Muslim organisations and learned Islamic scholars who are speaking out. That is really important, because it shows the solidarity of the world among those of different religious persuasions who see the danger and are speaking out.
There have also been statements of support from the American Islamic Congress, the Canadian Council of Imams and a respected faith leader known to many in this House, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, a visiting Imam to De Montfort University. He has called upon the Iranian Chief Justice to address this injustice, adding:
“Islam does not permit a government to confiscate land from citizens just because they follow a different religion or ideology”—
and, I want to make clear, nor should it.
Those of us who labour in the sphere of freedom of religion and belief understand full well that there are bonds of friendship and solidarity between Baha’is, Muslims, Christians, Jews and people of all faiths and those of secular and humanist beliefs. This is not a clash of religions. This is a struggle for all people of faith and belief to enjoy the rights enshrined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, against the abuses and the persecution carried out by those in authority who deny them the right to believe and live by their beliefs. Parliamentarians of all parties here and in the other place share the view that informed and calibrated accountability for abuses of religious minorities has a place in bilateral and multilateral efforts to dissuade authorities in Iran, Iraq, Mexico and elsewhere from acts of persecution or from granting impunity to forces that commit such acts.
I welcome a commitment from the Minister—I am in no doubt at all that it is forthcoming, but it is good to have it on the record—and any public statement that Ministers and ambassadors of the UK Government might make on these issues, to continue the process of accountability. I also thank the Foreign Secretary and Ministers and civil servants of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I know they are very aware of these matters.
It is time for us in this House, collectively, from all political parties and from all religious views, to stand up and show the Baha’is that we are standing by them. The fact that other Governments and parliamentarians from across the world have done the same should encourage us. It should encourage the Baha’is. I know whenever the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief first started, we recognised that it was our job—I believe it is my job, as a Christian—to speak up not only for those of Christian beliefs, but for those of other beliefs and, indeed, of no belief. Today, I am standing up for the Baha’is. I hope that our Minister and our Government will do the same and show solidarity for the Baha’is, who need our help at this time.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this afternoon’s debate, Dr Huq. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate on land rights for religious minorities, including the Baha’i community in Iran. I thank him for his typically detailed and passionate speech on behalf of yet another voiceless minority group around the world. We have relied so much in this Parliament on his good work.
We heard about the issue of minority communities and the access that they have to their traditional homelands. As he pointed out, it is a real, live and relevant issue, nowhere more so than in the middle east, particularly in Iran and Iraq. I will address the Christian and Yazidi minorities there, too, a little later.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman made specific mention of the Baha’i community in Iran. There is overwhelming evidence that the 350,000-strong Baha’i community, which constitutes the largest non-Muslim community in the country, continues to suffer systematic persecution simply because of their religious beliefs and their decision to exercise their fundamental right to practice their faith.
Like the hon. Gentleman, many of us will have Baha’i communities in our constituencies—I know I do. I have met them many times in Helensburgh. I know the people they are, I can see the good work that they do and I am proud to call them my friends.
For more than 30 years the Iranian authorities have been absolutely determined to marginalise and remove the social and economic rights of the Baha’i community, with instructions from the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council explicitly stating that official dealings with the Baha’i community should be conducted in such a way
“that their progress and development are blocked”.
It is a remarkable and appalling indictment of the Government in Tehran that they behave in such a manner.
As a result, the Baha’i community is regularly demonised in the official state media and by clerics from the pulpits in the mosques. The authorities have actively and officially encouraged blatant discrimination—discrimination that, as we have heard, all too often has led to violence, murder and the confiscation of property and land. Just last year, in a further escalation of the official Iranian repression of the Baha’is, the Government in Tehran officially barred Iranian Baha’i citizens from holding national identity cards. In effect, that stripped them of their basic rights and access to the most fundamental services as citizens of their own country.
There is little argument that Iran’s Baha’i community is among the most persecuted religious minorities in the world. As the 2019 report of the United Nations rapporteur to Iran says, in the eyes of the Iranian Government the Baha’is are considered to be “unprotected infidels”, leaving them very much at the mercy of the state and of the Government. As a result of this state-sanctioned repression, in recent months the Baha’i community experienced a whole new wave of house raids and land confiscation. The hon. Gentleman highlighted that, like so many other regimes, the Iranian Government used covid as a smokescreen to cover their actions. In November last year, without warning the Iranian security forces raided the village of Ivel where the Baha’i community make up about half the population and have been settled for more than 150 years. Among their other crimes, the Iranian security forces unlawfully seized Baha’i property, with hundreds reportedly arrested for resisting house demolitions and land confiscation even though they presented proof that they were the legal owners.
The Baha’i community in Iran is not rich. It is not powerful. The Baha’is do not have deep pockets and they do not have influential friends. The Baha’is are often hard-working, low-income agricultural workers with no other assets or means of earning a living aside from their homes or their farmlands. This means that state-sponsored, court-sanctioned land theft takes away everything they have.
What happened in Ivel was not just the judicially sanctioned confiscation of property and land based solely on the owner’s religious affiliation; it was a flagrant breach of international human rights that also flies in the face of the Iranian constitution. Article 13 of the constitution provides protection of named minorities such as the Zoroastrians and Christian and Jewish communities, but it specifically excludes the Baha’i. Article 19, however, says explicitly that
“regardless of the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong”
everyone in Iran has equal rights. That is reinforced by article 20, which says:
“All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights”.
Yet we know that the reality is very different. The Baha’i community, despite the protections afforded by the constitution, is afforded absolutely no protection in Iran.
What is happening to the Baha’i community in Iran is deeply concerning, and we in the SNP strongly believe that freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental right that cannot be taken away from an individual by any Government. Iran has to know that the world is watching. While we have known for several years that Iran seems to care very little about its international reputation or how it is perceived globally, that does not mean that we can stop applying pressure where we can and when we can. We will continue to support in any way possible any initiative that will bring pressure to bear on the Iranian Government to cease this awful persecution of a peaceful religious minority. We hope that as well as the Minister highlighting to his Iranian counterpart the things that have been said this afternoon, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, will take the matter directly to the Prime Minister, and seek for urgent diplomatic pressure to be exerted by the UK Government on the Iranian Government to fulfil the human rights obligations that they have signed up to. Perhaps we could ask the Minister to consider following the example of the German federal Government commissioner for global freedom of religion, who has called for Iran to recognise the Baha’i religion under article 13 of the Iranian constitution.
As the hon. Member for Strangford has said, land rights for religious minorities is not solely an issue for the Baha’is or Iran. The atrocities perpetrated by Daesh in Syria and Iraq in the last few years, and the chaos in the aftermath of its military defeat, had a devastating long-term impact on minority religious communities across the region. In Iraq, Christian, Yazidi and even Jewish communities that once flourished alongside their Muslim neighbours are decimated and dispersed—unable or, in many cases unwilling, to return, because of security fears. Persecution and bloody sectarian violence have reduced the number of Christians living in the Nineveh plain and the Erbil region from 1.5 million at the start of this century to a mere fraction of that number today.
The Yazidi community, likewise, have for centuries lived and worked on the land around the Sinjar and, after the most awful genocide at the hands of Daesh, when their people were murdered and forced to flee, their population, which was about 700,000 a decade ago, is less than half that today. Given that the security situation is so fragile and that almost none of the Islamic State perpetrators of that Yazidi genocide have been brought to justice—and still, today, 3,000 Yazidi women and children are missing—how could they, and why would they, go back to their homes? Also, tragically, the Jewish community has of course all but disappeared, having been forced out of Iraq over many years.
On Tuesday night I was privileged to be asked to chair the launch of the Aid to the Church in Need 2021 report on religious freedom in the world. It is an extremely important and detailed piece of work running to several hundred pages, and I commend it to all colleagues with an interest in freedom of religion or belief around the world, and in the basic human right to exercise the freedom to worship and freedom of expression. One of the speakers at Tuesday’s launch was Archbishop Nathanael Semaan who joined us from the diocese of Erbil. He gave a first-hand account of how minority faith groups have been systematically cleared from Iraq in recent years, and made the point that although Daesh may have been beaten militarily, the mentality and mindset that allowed it to flourish in the first place has not gone away. He also pointed to the Iraqi constitution, which despite recognising the right of non-Muslim faith communities to exist, relegates them to the status of second-class citizens, because it gives constitutional recognition to the supremacy of Islam.
The archbishop made the very relevant point that the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all have long and deep roots back to the land that we now know as Iraq. Abraham himself was reportedly born in the town of Ur Kaśdim in the south of the country. As the archbishop said, Iraq has a rich history of religious diversity, and an Iraq without that rich diversity is simply not Iraq. Although he was speaking specifically about Iraq, his words could easily be applied to many other countries in the region and indeed across the world, where many faith groups and communities have lived side by side in mutual respect and tolerance for many years. In too many cases, that is something that has gone completely, and in other areas we can see its final disintegration. It is incumbent on us to speak out, just as it is on Governments to do what they can to defend the human rights of minority communities who face oppression and discrimination for nothing more than holding fast to a faith or belief.
In conclusion, I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford, for securing this debate, for once again shining a light where it needed to be shone, and generally for the tireless work that he does day in, day out on behalf of religious communities around the world as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. The world is a better place for the work that he does and for having him in it. I am grateful to him.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dr Huq. I want to echo the comments of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) and give my warmest congratulations to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate and for his detailed and passionate exposé of the situation faced by the Baha’i community in Iran. It is important that we have these kinds of debates because the voice of the British Parliament is strongest when parliamentarians, irrespective of parties, speak as one. It is significant that I agreed totally with what has been said by the hon. Members for Strangford and for Argyll and Bute. No doubt I will agree also with what the Minister says. It is important that we put aside our political differences on a raft of issues and speak with one voice in defence of religious freedom and give maximum support to the Baha’i community in Iran.
A lot of people do not realise that the Baha’i religion was founded in Iran in the last century but one. Iran has the largest non-Muslim religious minority: some 350,000 people adhering to that faith. Yet that religion is not mentioned in the Iranian constitution, even though other religions are. It is not a question of simply ignoring that religion. A green light is being given for a host of different persecutions.
As has been referred to already, in 2019 the annual report of the United Nations special rapporteur for Iran said that Iran regarded the Baha’i faith as something that was beyond the pale, and it referred to Baha’is in particular as “unprotected infidels”. That has meant we have seen the most appalling persecution of Baha’is for the past 40 years and more. We have seen persecution, intimidation, and hundreds of Baha’is imprisoned and even executed. They have been excluded in large numbers from higher education and have been prevented from finding work in many parts of the country. We have even seen Baha’i cemeteries being desecrated. That is totally and unequivocally unacceptable and needs to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
Significantly, the situation was referred to in a statement made to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021 when Javaid Rehman stated:
“I am disturbed at the harassment, arbitrary arrests and imprisonments of religious minorities, particularly members of the Baha’i faith who have experienced a new wave of house raids and land confiscations in recent months.”
Those land confiscations are something that the hon. Member for Strangford rightly focused on.
In the village of Ivel in the province of Mazandaran in northern Iran, a Baha’i community has flourished for the past 150 years, but in June 2010 the Iranian authorities sanctioned the demolition of 50 Baha’i homes, and we have seen evictions and people cast out as a consequence. The international community, and the United Nations in particular, is extremely concerned about the situation. Mr Brian Mulroney, a former Canadian Prime Minister, to whom Members have referred, recently signed a high-profile open letter signed by more than 50 judges, lawyers and former Attorneys General addressed specifically to Iran’s Chief Justice, Ebrahim Raisi, stating that the court ruling that apparently has given sanction to the demolitions was a departure
“not only from international human rights standards but also from the text and intent of the Iranian constitution itself.”
That was a telling statement from someone held in enormous international esteem. Strong statements have followed from Canadian politicians, in particular, Swedish politicians and German politicians. We have even seen a powerful seminar held in the European Parliament, where the unanimity of concerns was noticeable. I hope that Britain will add to the huge groundswell of opinion that is in evidence, and articulately and forcefully place our condemnation on record.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate and I am sure that, given Britain’s consistency on human rights and our adherence to international law, he will make a strong statement, sending the message from the British Parliament that all politicians, irrespective of our political differences, are strongly in favour of religious freedom and are firmly behind the Baha’i religious minority in Iran.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Dr Huq.
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate. I pay tribute to his considerable efforts and his tirelessness, not just as a member of the APPG on the Baha’i faith but as chair of the APPG on freedom of religion and belief.
I echo the words of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who was right to say that the world, including Iran, should take note of the fact that from every corner of the United Kingdom and every political corner of the House there is unanimity of voice on the importance of the issue. I am glad that he made that point at the conclusion of his speech, enabling me to echo it at the start of mine.
The issue of inequality in land rights affects millions of people around the world, and it is of particular concern, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, to the most vulnerable and minority groups, including religious minorities.
The UK Government support good land governance as a key pillar of inclusive and sustainable economic development around the world. Securing land and property rights is necessary to release other human rights: the right to food, the right to water and the right to housing, to name just a few. The UK Government fund development efforts to support effective protections against forcible evictions and to facilitate responsible investment in land, which we believe are integral to economic growth, rural livelihoods, conflict prevention, environmental sustainability and fundamental human rights.
The House is well aware that we monitor human rights in Iran very closely. The recent deterioration in the land rights of religious minorities in Iran is deeply troubling. Our bleak assessment is that Iran continues to violate human rights across the board, including, sadly, the right to freedom of religion or belief. While some faiths in Iran, most notably Christianity and Judaism, benefit from constitutional protection, in truth, there is widespread discrimination against all religious minorities, but it is markedly worse for unrecognised faiths, including the Baha’i.
The Baha’i community in Iran faces systematic discrimination, as the hon. Member for Strangford outlined. They face harassment and targeting. Baha’i-owned shops and businesses have been forced to close across the country by the Iranian authorities, and the state’s efforts to identify, monitor and arbitrarily detain Baha’i people show little sign of abating. Those patterns of repression extend beyond property rights. We have seen Baha’i students, as the hon. Gentleman said, pressured to convert to Islam or be denied an education altogether.
The Government share the view of the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. Discrimination against the Baha’i community is legally sanctioned by a lack of constitutional recognition in Iranian law and by the absence of other meaningful legal protections. Alarmingly, our assessment suggests that there has been a rapid and severe decline in the rights to freedom of religion or belief in Iran over the last year, particularly for the Baha’i community. Arrests of Baha’i followers have increased. The sentences handed out have been arbitrary and disproportionately lengthy. Meanwhile, the Iranian authorities at local and national level have appeared to intensify plans to suppress religious minorities.
In late 2020, we understand several court judgments in Iran ordered the seizure of farmland from Baha’i communities in the village of Ivel in Mazandaran province. These lands have been farmed by Baha’i families for more than 150 years. While the Iranian Government have reportedly been attempting to expel the farmers since the 1980s, the recent court ruling against the legitimacy of Baha’i ownership of land has had a profoundly negative impact. It presents serious wider implications for the property rights of other unrecognised religious minorities.
Members will be aware that the UK is committed to defend the freedoms of religion or belief for all and to promote respect between different religions and non-religious communities. We have concerns, and when we have such concerns we raise them directly with Governments, including at ministerial level. We do not shy away from challenging those who we believe are not meeting their obligations, whether publicly or in private. We remain deeply concerned about the violations of the freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world, including in Iran. Where this right is under attack, other human rights are almost always under threat as well.
In response to the reports of persecution of the Baha’i, the Government have taken the following steps in recent months. At the Human Rights Council, the UK called on Iran to end the discrimination and persecution of religious minorities, which continue to persist, particularly towards the Baha’i and Christian converts. On 12 February, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon issued a statement expressing deep concern about reports of expropriation and repossession of land owned by Baha’i communities in Ivel. The UK continues to co-sponsor the UN Third Committee resolution on the situation of human rights in Iraq. The resolution expressed serious concerns about Iran’s violations committed against unrecognised religious minorities, including the Baha’is. Our efforts ensure there remains widespread global support to highlight and call out these issues.
In October 2020, we made a national statement at the UN Third Committee, focusing particularly on our concerns about the lack of freedom of religion or belief in Iran, and the treatment of religious minorities. The Government have consistently made clear to the Iranians our concerns at persistent violations of freedom of religion or belief, and many other human rights. Iran must comply with its treaty obligations to uphold human rights of believers of formally protected religions and of unrecognised ones.
We will continue to hold Iran to account on a wide range of human rights issues, including land rights, both through bilateral contacts directly with the Iranian Government and on the international stage, including using our membership of the Human Rights Council and at the United Nations, alongside like-minded partners.
On our broader action to support freedom of religion or belief, on 20 December 2020, the Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment by appointing my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) as his special envoy. Mrs Bruce works with Ministers, officials and other parties to deliver the Government’s aim of seeing everyone, everywhere able to have and practice a faith or belief, or to have no religious belief at all, in accordance with their own conscience. In fact, her first joint external meeting, alongside Lord Ahmad, was with representatives of the Baha’is.
The Government have excellent links with the Baha’i community in London and more widely, and we continue to work with faith leaders to advocate for the rights of their communities in Iran and elsewhere. In November 2020, the Minister responsible for human rights, my noble friend Lord Ahmad, further underlined the UK’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief for all at a number of international meetings. These included speaking at the ministerial meeting to advance freedom of religion or belief and at the Ministers’ forum of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. I hope the House is reassured that we will continue to call out such violations for as long as Iran continues to commit them.
While we rightly discuss Iran’s violations towards religious minorities and its citizens, in response to a number of points raised by hon. Members I would like to take this opportunity to set out our wider engagement with Iran. The Government have been consistently clear that we want to put the relationship between the UK and Iran on a better footing, as we continue to hold Iran to account for its human rights record, including on the freedom of religion or belief.
We strongly believe that maintaining diplomatic relations will help to achieve our vision for a non-nuclear Iran—an Iran that acts as a responsible regional power and an Iran that does not pose a threat to UK and the UK’s interests. We maintain that that diplomacy is also the best way to secure the release of all arbitrarily detained dual British nationals. The Government will work with all international partners to deliver those shared goals and to keep our diplomatic door open for discussion on a wide range of UK interests.
Let me end by reassuring the House that our commitment to defend freedom of religion or belief for all and to promote respect between religious and non-religious communities endures. Let me also assure hon. Members that we will continue to monitor and assess the threats to the Baha’is and other minorities, including through violations of their land rights. We believe that one of the most effective ways to tackle injustices is to encourage states to uphold their human rights obligations. I assure the House that the Government remain committed to encouraging Iran to respect human rights, and calling it out on the international stage when it fails to do so. We will continue to make representations on those issues at every level, at every opportunity.
I thank the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) and for Caerphilly (Wayne David), and the Minister, for supporting the Baha’is very clearly in word and, I believe, in person. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute referred to how Iran needs to know that the world is listening. The hon. Member for Caerphilly said that there must be a strong message from Parliament, and I think that the Minister gave exactly that. He outlined the Government’s position and strategy, and Baha’is across the world should take some solace from the fact that this House has rallied to their cause, heard their pleas and responded in a positive fashion. I appreciate that.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute referred to the land grab as real and relevant, and to the fact that we all have Baha’is in our constituencies. It is not just that. We recognise that, but the people of the Baha’i faith in our constituencies tell us what they want us to do, and bring it to our attention. Today, we have brought it to the attention of all other countries. I think he referred to shining a light where it needs to be to shone, which he did. The hon. Member for Caerphilly referred to the importance of Parliament in what it does here, and to the prominent legal authorities that have made a statement. If people of legal standing in all countries across the world do that, legally it speaks volumes.
I am particularly heartened by the Minister’s response. I never doubted that it would be good, but he did exactly what I think we all wanted, and it is on the record. It is not just words, by the way; it is actions, which our Government and our Minister are doing with passion and belief. I take encouragement from his comments about bringing up human rights at the UN, and highlighting FORB issues wherever they can.
It is also important—it is very good to have it on the record—that the Government want to have a wider engagement with Iran, and a better relationship to maintain diplomacy. The Minister spoke about the grabbing of the land rights, but it is not just that; it is the Baha’is’ right to water, education, food, health and jobs. All those things interact. There are fundamental human rights issues, and a pattern of oppression.
Clearly, the UK is committed to freedom of religion and belief, as has been said. We hope that the Baha’is in Iran, and those who are colleagues and constituents, will be encouraged. Land theft is something that the vulnerable suffer at the hands of the dominant. We want to change that, and today this House has made it happen. Thank you, Dr Huq, for chairing the debate. It is not often said, but I thank all the staff as well for what they do. They make it happen. I have no idea how the technology works, by the way, but I know that they do—and thank goodness they are doing it and not me.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered land rights for religious minorities including Baha’is in Iran.
Covid-19: Social Care
[Derek Twigg 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 are also suspensions between each debate.
I remind Members attending physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of the Westminster Hall debates. 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 before they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered social care and the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and to speak in this debate in person—for me, for the first time in the Boothroyd Room. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate, and to my co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adult social care, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), for co-sponsoring it.
The APPG on adult social care has a working group of representatives from the social care sector, including not-for-profit care home providers, sector-wide bodies such as the National Care Forum and Skills for Care, and people with lived experience of managing their own care at home. From the start of the covid-19 pandemic, the working group met weekly to discuss the experience on the ground of each of the membership organisations and the individuals represented on it. I am also grateful to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), and to the Minister herself for meeting the working group during that time.
Week by week, those meetings gave a vital live insight into the multiple devastating impacts of the covid-19 pandemic on the care sector. They often provided a reality check against what the Government were announcing. The right hon. Member for Ashford and I felt strongly that it was important to bring the weight of this collective experience before the House so that it may inform urgent discussions about the future of social care.
At the outset, it is important to acknowledge the diversity of the social care sector, as there is always a tendency to focus mainly on care homes for older adults when we talk about social care. It also encompasses care homes for working-age adults and people who receive all types of care in their own homes and in supported housing.
The covid-19 pandemic took a dreadful toll across the whole sector. Perhaps the most shocking figure, well reported, is that between March and June 2020, 40% of all deaths from covid-19 were care home residents. The deaths have continued, with a further 12,000 deaths of care home residents since January 2021 alone. More than 34,000 people with dementia have died from covid-19, and tens of thousands more have seen their condition deteriorate at an increased pace due to limited support and contact with loved ones. Those figures mask a human story: the tens of thousands of families grieving the loss of a precious loved one, remembering the full richness of the lives they lived, and the thousands more families grieving the loss of precious time that they cannot get back with loved ones whose dementia has deteriorated.
At least 850 social care workers have died due to covid-19. That figure is likely to be higher given the lack of availability of testing to confirm diagnosis in the early weeks of the pandemic. The vast majority of the care workers are women, many are black, Asian and from other ethnic minorities, and many had dedicated their lives to looking after other people. Each one leaves a grieving family, and we must acknowledge their service and sacrifice.
The figures also belie the diversity of the social care sector, because they do not include the impact on people receiving care in their homes, who were often vulnerable to coronavirus infection from carers visiting multiple homes. Sometimes, they felt unable to receive care at all, due to the risk of infection, resulting in untold hardship and difficulty. The figures also do not include the impact on unpaid carers, often left isolated and unsupported, or the impact on people living in unregulated supported housing.
Each week, the APPG working group heard of the problems accessing personal protective equipment and covid-19 testing. Providers were operating in the dark, with their hands tied behind their back, unable to know who was carrying covid-19 in their care homes and without access to full infection control measures.
Covid-19 ripped through many care homes, as the access to testing and urgent need to free up hospital beds for covid patients meant that undiagnosed covid-positive patients continued to be discharged from hospitals into care homes. The completely unacceptable blanket use of “do not resuscitate” orders for care home residents further speaks to the disregard for the most vulnerable members of our communities at the start of the pandemic.
I pay tribute to social care workers who stepped up to do extraordinary things in these horrendous circumstances —staff who moved into care homes, leaving their families in order to avoid the risk that they were a source of infection; staff who, again and again, held the hands of the residents in their care as they lay dying, when their loved ones were unable to be there; and staff who went out of their way to facilitate FaceTime calls to maintain contact with relatives who could not visit. Social care staff must be recognised for their immense contribution during the pandemic.
I will dwell for a moment on the mental health impacts of the pandemic, in the light of the situation that I have described. It is easy to forget that care homes are communities. Staff look after the same residents week after week, and relationships become like family. Many staff who watched residents and colleagues dying from coronavirus have experienced the trauma of bereavement many times over during the past year. I recall listening to one social care worker describing the first time in many weeks that residents with dementia in her home were able to come together for a music therapy session. One resident, looking around the room, said, “Where is everyone?” not understanding that so many residents had passed away. It is heartbreaking.
Contrary to the words of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, there was no protective ring around care homes or other vulnerable residents receiving social care at the start of the pandemic. The need for urgent reform of social care has been known for a long time. We have had more than a decade of detailed cross-party work on social care. The funding gaps are quantified. The international best practice is well understood. The range of options available for reform are known. What has been lacking is the political will at the very top of Government to deliver it.
Despite the Prime Minister promising in July 2019 that a plan was ready and that he would begin cross-party talks, there has been no progress nearly two years on. The Government have published the NHS White Paper, which barely mentions social care. We are told that there will be a 10-year plan for social care, but for all those working in social care, and relying on social care day by day, reform is long overdue. They are struggling to understand why the Government have dragged their feet so much for so long, for a sector that has such a profound impact on quality of life for so many people every single day.
From the perspective of the APPG working group, what are the priorities for the Government as we reflect on the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on social care? First, the promised public inquiry on the covid-19 pandemic must include a separate strand on social care, so that the lessons can be learned for future pandemic planning and social care can be better protected the next time we face such a terrible challenge.
Secondly, the Government must start the long-promised cross-party talks. Social care needs long-term reform, based on cross-party agreement. That will not be achieved by the Government announcing plans at short notice and simply expecting everyone to vote for them. It needs a process, properly resourced and entered into in good faith, to secure that agreement.
Thirdly, it is vital that co-production is at the heart of social care reform. Social care reform must be delivered in partnership with those who live and breathe social care every single day as residents in care homes, people who manage their own care at home, older people and working-age adults, social care workers, unpaid carers and local authorities. The Government must set out a process for co-producing reform with those who have the most knowledge and experience to contribute.
Fourthly, reform must address pay and terms and conditions for social care workers. Social care work is highly skilled and demanding and can be very rewarding, but there is not a route to social care reform that avoids the issue of pay. As well as making a huge difference to the lives of millions of people every day, social care contributes £46.2 billion to the UK economy each year. However, in many parts of the country it is still possible to earn more at the local supermarket than in social care. That cannot continue.
I pay tribute to Unison for its work in establishing the ethical care charter, which guarantees domiciliary care workers the real living wage, and an end to zero-hours contracts and 15-minute visits. It has been adopted by many councils, including Southwark, which covers part of my constituency. It not only benefits care workers, but helps build resilience in the social care system. This should not be left to the discretion of individual councils. There is a chronic shortage of social care workers, and the trauma that many have experienced during the pandemic is likely to make the situation worse. Social care must be seen as a rewarding career in which everyone is paid a decent wage. There has been no commitment from the Government to increase pay for social care workers, and I call on the Minister to change that urgently.
On long-term reform, the Government’s proposals must be comprehensive. In the discussion of social care, all too often there is a failure to acknowledge the diversity of the sector and a dominant focus on care for older people, which ignores the needs of working-age adults, who account for almost half of all spending on adult social care. It also ignores the unregulated provision in which much care and support is delivered, and the needs of unpaid carers, who save the economy a colossal £132 billion each year.
We need a social care system that makes high-quality care and support available to everyone who needs it across a wide range of different settings. Although I hope the Minister will respond on the urgent need for long-term reform, there are also some very pressing short-term concerns that are important for the social care sector right now. The first is the question of additional funding for infection control. Social care providers have faced huge additional costs as a consequence of the need to use personal protective equipment and employ additional staff to cover for sickness absence, or to avoid agency staff travelling between care homes. Despite the anticipated release of covid restrictions in June, it is highly likely that the need for enhanced infection control in care homes, and for domiciliary care workers, will continue. However, the current funding allocation runs out in June. Can the Minister confirm whether ongoing funding will be provided for infection control in care homes beyond June?
Secondly, many care providers have raised with me the very restrictive nature of the 14-day quarantine requirement for residents who leave care homes, which means that if a resident leaves a care home, even for only a few hours, they have to quarantine for 14 days. Having entirely failed to protect care homes from coronavirus infections at the start of the pandemic, the Government are now applying a much more restrictive standard to care homes as restrictions are lifted elsewhere. Can the Minister please explain under what legislation the guidance could be enforced? What are the implications for the deprivation of liberty?
Importantly, what will be the implications for care home residents who wish to vote in local elections on 6 May? Requiring residents to isolate for 14 days after attending a polling station will surely deter many from exercising their democratic right to vote. In anticipation of the guidance, there has been no dedicated effort to encourage residents to vote by post, or to make them aware of the implications of it, and it is now too late to sign up for postal votes. Will the Minister consider moving to an approach based on testing, vaccination, social distancing and PPE in order to enable care home residents to leave their care homes for voting and other essential purposes?
In conclusion, I thank each and every social care worker for their immense contribution during the past year of the coronavirus pandemic, and I remember each worker, care home resident or vulnerable adult whose life has been lost. I pay tribute to the scientists and NHS workers who have delivered the vaccine roll-out with such rapid speed, so that we can now see the beginning of the end of this terrible pandemic. However, acknowledging the immense contribution of the social care sector at the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic can be done properly only by making a firm commitment on the funding and reform that social care so desperately needs, and I hope the Minister will take the opportunity to do that today.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate with you in the Chair, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing it and on the way she opened it. It is the first time I have spoken in a Westminster Hall debate in the Boothroyd Room as well.
The covid-19 pandemic has exposed the failings of our social care system. With more than 30,000 deaths of care home residents, the care sector has been hit very hard over the past year. Of course, it is not just care home residents who have died from the virus. We know that people with learning disabilities were around six times more likely to die from covid-19 than the general population. Every single one of those deaths was a tragedy that we must never forget.
Beyond that appalling death toll, there are staff who worked far beyond what would normally be expected of them, many of whom have also been hit hard by the deaths of people they have known for years. There are also care home residents who have been cut off from friends and family for months on end and other care users who have gone without vital support in order to avoid contracting covid.
The Government made the fundamentally flawed decision at the start of the pandemic to allow local authorities to overlook their obligations under the Care Act 2014. While these social care easements were used by only a handful of local authorities, and have now been withdrawn, the reality is that many people using social care saw their services cut back.
Over two thirds of people with learning disabilities reported that they had their care packages cut in the first wave of the pandemic. The vast majority of these will not have lived in areas that implemented Care Act easements, meaning they should not have seen changes to their care packages. As a result, four out of five family carers have been forced to take on more unpaid care for the person with a learning disability. Nearly nine out of 10 people with a learning disability have not had all their social care reinstated, so their family members and carers are still having to increase the care they give.
Where services were still provided, restrictions on visiting often failed to consider the damage that isolation does to people’s wellbeing. I accept that there were times when visiting had to be paused, but the use of blanket bans and maintaining restrictions beyond those imposed on the rest of society left residents isolated and seriously impacted their wellbeing. The issue is exemplified by the current guidance on visits out of care homes, as referred to by my hon. Friend.
The Government have finally relented on allowing the over 65s to go on visits out of their care homes, but they are expected to isolate for two weeks on their return. As I raised with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care this week, a traveller from Brazil or India must isolate for only 10 days when they arrive in this country. Are we seriously saying that an older person on a visit, who sits outside for an hour or two with a family member who has tested negative, is more of a threat than someone coming from a country that is seeing a hundred times more covid cases than the UK? In addition, as my hon. Friend rightly raised, the issue of residents having to isolate after voting must be sorted out before election day.
Earlier in the pandemic, there was a blanket ban on visiting for people with learning disabilities living in care homes or those living in supported living settings. Many of the people covered by these bans lived alone in their own homes, with carers coming in to support them but, because of the lack of clear guidance, they were told they could not form a support bubble and they could not have visitors. This was disproportionate and it risked creating closed cultures in some services, because neither family members nor Care Quality Commission inspectors were able to visit to monitor the development of any inappropriate practices. At its worst, I heard from the mother of a young person with learning disabilities that the social worker had to ask care staff to bring the young person to the window to prove he was still alive.
I am glad that we have now moved away from the position of blanket bans, but people living in care homes and in supported living settings need a concrete reassurance that they will never again be denied fundamental rights, such as contact with family members. If this means implementing robust testing procedures for some time yet, that is what should happen.
I want to turn to care staff, whose work and commitment have gone above and beyond over the last year, because they deserve better support. As my hon. Friend said in her opening speech, at the start of the pandemic we heard about care home staff leaving their families to move into care homes full time, so they could ensure they did not unwittingly bring in the virus. Care staff also took on additional roles, because NHS staff switched to online consultations or were unable to visit due to ongoing covid outbreaks. Much of what care staff did was involved with end-of-life care.
The Select Committee on Health and Social Care heard from one member of care staff who told us this:
“We have done things that are on a par with other medical professions…we have a duty to care, and we do the job for a reason.”
If the crisis of the pandemic showed us anything, it was that without the hard work and commitment of care staff our care system simply would not work. We must remember the 470 social care staff who died from covid, including Jane Rowbotham, a care home manager in my constituency. Despite all that, care staff remain chronically underpaid and undervalued, with poor recruitment and retention rates. There is, rightly, outrage at the idea that NHS staff will get a real-terms pay cut this year, but most care staff will not get any rise either. The reality is that most of them will be asked to accept a pay freeze, at best, despite rising workloads and all the additional responsibilities.
There are 112,000 care job vacancies, and the turnover rate is 30%: those workforce issues cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. Without extra funding, care providers are not in a place to provide extra support to their staff. Since the start of the pandemic they have taken on extra costs, from extra PPE to deep cleaning, while there has been a drastic decline in the number of care home residents. They were struggling to make ends meet before, and the additional funding provided by the Government simply has not been sufficient to meet their needs.
The Local Government Association estimates that adult social care services have faced additional costs of £6.6 billion in tackling the pandemic, with PPE alone costing more than £4 billion. The National Audit Office has reported that many local authorities will have to rely on reserves to balance their budgets this year, and there is little confidence about the setting of budgets beyond that, to meet needs that have increased during the pandemic.
It is clear that since the emergence of the virus last year, the social care sector has often been overlooked by the Government. Ministers claim to have put a protective ring around care homes at the same time as hospitals were actively discharging covid patients into care homes, without testing them. Care homes, in turn, were not resourced for the measures that they needed to control an outbreak. Residents have gone without contact with their friends and families because of limits on visits, which still involve a longer quarantine period for a care home resident who spends an hour sitting outside with a family member than there is for an international traveller coming back from a red-list country. Staff who have done so much to keep the care system going are rewarded only with the offer of a CARE badge. There is no pay rise or bonus as offered to care staff by the Welsh Labour Government.
All that is not good enough. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that we shall get more than warm words for social care. We need solid commitments. The pandemic has to be a turning point in the way we treat care staff. In the past year we have all seen that the work done by care staff—whether in a care home, providing domiciliary care, or in supported living—is every bit as important as the work done by NHS staff. It is time for social care staff to have parity of esteem with NHS staff, and for a workforce strategy for social care that has better pay, conditions and training for the staff who have given so much. It is way past time for the Government to take action to fix social care funding as they have promised to do repeatedly in the past 10 years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. As others have said, this is my first speech in the Boothroyd Room, although I reflect, as I look at the wall and see those steely but friendly eyes staring at me, that I have been around long enough to remember that happening live in my first Parliament, with Madam Speaker, as she then was, in the Chair. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), my co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adult social care, for obtaining the debate. I should declare that I am chairing an investigation of social care by Public Policy Projects.
There are two halves to the debate. Obviously there is the covid-19 aspect, but there is also the question of the future of social care more generally, and they clearly come together in important ways. But I shall start with the specific covid-19 aspects. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood said. In particular, urgent action is required to facilitate voting by people in residential care homes, on 6 May. That obviously needs to be done in the next few days, and I hope that the Minister can take that message away from the debate.
We have seen the most terrible year ever in care homes —the figures have been put out already, so there is no point in my repeating them. It has been terrible not just for covid victims but for other residents and relatives who have seen the terrible toll of what has happened inside care homes. Happily, we have now moved on from the worst days of this time last year, and the current covid-related issues in care homes tend to relate to access for visitors and the opportunities for residents to make visits outside. Both are hugely important issues for the wider mental health of those living in care homes.
I have a lot of sympathy for my hon. Friend the Minister, for other Ministers and, indeed, for care home managers. The paramount concern must be safety at all times and I can see that there is an extremely difficult balancing act. The solution surely lies in vaccination—not just of residents, but of staff. Through discussions at the APPG working group that we have heard so much about already, I am aware that there is a great disparity of view about how best to encourage vaccination take-up among care home staff.
People argue strongly that threatening to make vaccination compulsory might not be the most constructive approach, and the Government are consulting on that. I await the results of the consultation but, whatever the best system, it is imperative that the percentage of those who work in care homes and who have daily contact with the most vulnerable people in the country should be higher than the national average and not lower, as it is in too many places. That is an urgent aspect of the current situation.
I have fallen into talking about care homes, but domiciliary care is equally important. People move from house to house where there are vulnerable people so the same thoughts apply to that sphere. Those who look after a loved one—“unpaid carers” in the sector jargon—are equally important, and they should be vaccinated as well. I urge my hon. Friend to move fast and get our care workers vaccinated as quickly as possible for the sake of those who need care as well for the comfort of loved ones who will then be able to visit. That will also help to create a sense of normality for those who will then be able to leave the care home that they may have felt trapped in over the past year. That is clearly an important mental health issue.
The crisis over the past 12 months has shone a fierce light on residential social care and has drawn public attention to it in a way that has never happened before. It could scarcely have happened in more tragic circumstances, and the only sliver of consolation from the awful death toll has been the developing consensus that we simply cannot go on putting sticking plasters on to an increasingly fragile system.
It is getting on for a quarter of a century since the first in a list of Prime Ministers said that social care was an urgent issue that needed addressing. I have done some research and I think Tony Blair said that at a Labour party conference in 1997. All his successors have agreed with him, but the problem is that none of them has yet met words with action. That is not for the want of trying.
Under Gordon Brown, Labour produced proposals for a national care service that foundered when it was dubbed a “death tax”. David Cameron put through the Care Act 2014 and a version of the Dilnot proposals. Shaky Government finances meant that was never implemented. In 2017, a new version was proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). It was dubbed a “dementia tax” with not great political results. Here we are in 2021 without a solution on the table and the problem is still with us. Later this year, we are promised a sustainable solution in the comprehensive spending review. Let us hope that we see it.
There are many problems to be solved, and some have been mentioned by previous speakers. At the root of them all is funding. The Health and Social Care Select Committee estimates that £7 billion extra is needed to put the system on a sustainable footing. The most intractable problem, as it has been over the past quarter of a century, is how it is raised. If it is all raised from taxation or national insurance, working-age people will, by and large, end up paying for their own care, perhaps later in life, and that of their parents’ generation. That will rightly seem unfair to them.
More promising models offer a mixture of extra public spending and more contributions from individuals—through an insurance system, through a Dilnot-style system or through variations of those models. I argued in a paper for the Centre for Policy Studies that we should look to the pension system for an example of universal state provision being successfully supplemented with private savings. As we have seen with pensions, we have established cross-party consensus under Governments of different parties.
Even when the Government come to a conclusion on how to find the extra money needed—let us hope that it is not from council tax, which is not suitable for funding care—there will be other intractable problems, including workforce planning. The demographics will dictate that we need more workers, so we must make it a more attractive sector to work in. Pay levels have already been mentioned, but the development of a proper career structure for care workers—it can be seen in the NHS, but it is much less easy to see in the care sector—is hugely important.
So much technology of all kinds is available that would improve the daily lives of those receiving care, but I fear that there is no discernible strategy for introducing and experimenting with it.
Housing is a key issue. If we built differently we could keep far more people in their own homes longer, which would make them happier in themselves, most importantly, and be less expensive for the system. I agree very much with Anchor, one of the providers, which says that there should be changes in the planning system that include older people’s housing in local plans and the creation of a new planning classification for retirement communities. That and other ideas are very worth considering.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the whole issue of what integration we want of the care system and the NHS. I am delighted that the Government produced their recent paper on integrated care systems. It will not be easy to make a reality of that, but it will be absolutely vital.
I make a plea for two things, the first of which is that the voice of the care sector is heard not just in debates on ICSs but inside ICSs when they are introduced. At present it is not clear from the White Paper that that would happen. As a subset of that, simply having local authorities, vital though they are, around those ICS tables is not enough. There are many independent, third sector and profit-making providers whose voices need to be heard.
Secondly, I completely welcome the long-term plan for the NHS—the 10-year plan—but equally it is important to have a 10-year plan for social care that fits with it so that it is seen as a system on its own. It clearly has to mesh very closely with the NHS: it has as many and as complex needs as the NHS and ought to be treated as just as importantly.
I am aware that that is a formidable set of challenges, but 25 years is too long for reaching a decision about how to tackle them. I hope and profoundly expect that this is the year when we will finally see determined and sustainable action on this front.
It is a delight to be able to participate in this important and timely debate, and to do so under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing the debate. As a vice-chair of the all-party group on adult social care, I must pay tribute to both Members for their commitment in this area and their leadership of the APPG.
Care workers have made an extraordinary contribution, particularly through the hugely difficult circumstances of the past year, doing all they can to help people to live comfortably, safely and with dignity up and down the country. Here in Somerset, at the onset of the pandemic, I had the privilege of working with Gracewell of Frome care home, and I have to say that the dedication and professionalism of Jemma Griffiths and her staff have been tremendous.
Care workers such as those at Gracewell and in similar settings across the country could reasonably be called the unsung heroes of this crisis. They have worked throughout to keep the most vulnerable among us shielded from the virus, and to provide their residents with comfort when their families and friends have been unable to visit them. I hope that today’s debate is also the beginning of our showing appreciation for the vast number of people who work across social care settings: the caterers, the cleaners, the drivers, the porters, the assistants who have supported people in their own homes, and of course the unpaid carers, supporting their own loved ones.
However, sadly, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the fragility of our social care system, which is all too harshly demonstrated by the shocking loss of life in our care homes that we have been hearing about since last March. Although covid has perhaps made social care reform unavoidable, it is clear that many of the issues it has exposed have existed for years, if not decades. We see this through staffing shortages, with Skills for Care research highlighting over 100,000 vacancies across the social care sector at any one time, and we see it through the impacts on the NHS, with lack of capacity in the social care sector causing too many people to remain in hospital unnecessarily. Surely, this is the opportunity to learn the difficult lessons from this period and create a sustainable future for social care.
Let us be clear: that sustainable future for social care is dependent on sustainable funding. The LGA estimates that adult social care services face additional costs of over £6.6 billion in tackling the pandemic. Increased staff, personal protective equipment, cleaning and overheads have been the areas of most pressure, and while the social care grant has been extremely valuable, I am concerned that it is not enough to address the situation, or indeed the future. I am sure that the Minister will comment further, but Mencap’s figures suggest that at least an additional £3.2 billion of funding is needed to stabilise the social care sector before a longer-term settlement can be achieved.
Over the past year, as we have been hearing, we have all been concerned about the situation around visitation and the confusing policy advice there. Obviously, since 12 April, there have been welcome changes to the guidance, but safe access for social care workers to visit people in care and health settings continues to be difficult, even with the successful rolling out of testing and the vaccine.
Should—perish the thought—new restrictions be required in the future, I very much hope that social care settings will get quick and clear guidance from the very start; as with so many sectors affected by the pandemic, this is really about certainty. One thing I hear again and again from people in the social care sector is the perceived lack of appreciation for what they do. We have all rightly praised the NHS throughout the pandemic, but parity of esteem for the social care sector is vital. If we are to see social care improve and provide better outcomes and better health, it must not be the forgotten frontline.
As such, I very much support a comprehensive social care workforce strategy, much as we have a people’s plan for the NHS, to drive forward skills training, professionalism and better pay and conditions for our social care workers. Such a strategy should be anchored in the vision of improving the quality of life for the people who access care and support. With the introduction of integrated care systems in England, this is more important than ever. Truly integrated care means that we need a truly integrated approach.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on such a scheme and a funding boost for social care, along with, of course, a long-term and sustainable funding solution that is equitable and fair for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.
I commend the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) for securing this debate, and I particularly commend my right hon. Friend for his work to develop long-term policy solutions for many of the challenges that we see, which are not new but which have been brought into sharp focus by the experience of covid and its impact across the social care sector. We have all seen large numbers of constituents, for example, who have been enormously distressed by the restrictions on care home visits, which has had a hugely significant impact, and it is welcome that we are able to see a lifting of restrictions, so that families can get together at long last.
However, when we look across the whole of the UK, we recognise that even in places where there is a relatively high level of demand being placed on the care sector, less than one in five of the population will make use of it during their lifetimes, including children’s social care, adult social care and social care for older people. It is a sector that is often not well understood. In fact, because most people do not engage with it during their lifetime, unlike the NHS, the police and other emergency services, people often do not appreciate how it works or indeed recognise that for most top-tier local authorities—those with social care responsibilities—social care will consume around 70% of their budget. It is far and away the biggest area of local authority expenditure in England.
I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to the work of Sir Paul Carter, formerly the chairman of the County Councils Network and the leader of Kent County Council, who has been looking internationally at models of care, particularly for older people, and ways of funding care that represent a move towards sustainable and long-term funding. This is a topic that I will come back to my closing remarks, but when 70% of the typical local authority budget is being spent on care, there is clearly a serious risk that unless we find a long-term solution, it will consume the rest of the budget.
Many of those other services, such as libraries, parks and leisure services, which support the wellbeing of the wider community and in many cases represent the infrastructure that our communities need, will genuinely be in financial peril unless we find a long-term financial solution. Indeed, the only area of local authority expenditure to have increased in the last decade is expenditure on children’s social care, which has been achieved largely at the expense of other areas of local authority expenditure, rather than through tax rises.
A number of ideas have been put forward. I know that many in the local government sector—I speak as a vice-president of the Local Government Association—have welcomed the opportunity to raise a council tax precept specifically for social care. However, even when I consider my own two local authorities, which are London boroughs, there is enormous variation within the same type of council and within the same type of city in what that precept can contribute to boosting social care budgets. It ranges from the maximum precept being implemented —in the City of London, an additional 0.02% on the budget—to the other end of the scale, in the London Borough of Richmond, where much more expenditure is raised directly through council tax and where there is an additional 1.8% net. When we take into account the variations across the country, it is clear that precepts are not a long-term solution to social care funding. We need to find a different way of looking at this issue.
The second issue, which seems to me absolutely critical, is that we need to consider the success or otherwise of the joint working arrangements put in place under schemes such as the better care fund, whereby the NHS and local authorities come together to manage local services. When we look at those ventures, it is very clear that it is the local authority-led elements of them that have consistently delivered against the targets that they have been set and the outcomes that we are all seeking to achieve. The NHS has found it considerably more challenging.
That demonstrates that we need to look at a local authority-led model for social care, because it is already clear and established that it is more efficient, more focused on delivery for our residents, and more likely to achieve the outcomes that we want to see. Because the vast majority of social care for children and adults of working age is well outside both the remit and the capacity of the NHS—indeed, it is not something that would normally be a priority for the NHS—it is clear that that bigger picture needs to remain firmly in view as we look at a long-term solution. A key element of likely success in social care reform will be in ensuring that it is managed and controlled by local authorities, who are in the best position to deliver against that.
Moving to conclusions, it is clear that in order to be effective and to address the issue around the discharge of patients from hospital, which causes such concern, a new model of care needs to have a very direct form of input, particularly from acute NHS services when it comes to the discharge of patients from hospital and rehabilitation services, which are a big part of this. We also need to ensure that general practitioners are able to work closely with the system so that the needs that they see emerging among patients in their surgeries can be taken into account. What we need most is a stable and consistent funding model, and there have been different attempts at developing that.
In his recent work, Sir Paul Carter looked at how the German operation is funded and structured through a form of social insurance. To an extent, what matters is not that we try to find a perfect solution. We need a solution that providers of social care and local authorities can rely on to ensure stability in the system and to avoid either the large-scale collapse of parts of the social care system, as we have seen with some providers, or a continued shortfall between what people need and expect, and what local authorities and their partners in the NHS can provide.
It seems clear from everyone who has spoken today—I am sure the Minister has grasped this message—that stability and consistency of funding are critical to provide a long-term solution for social care in England and the wider United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to take part in today’s debate, Mr Twigg. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing it. May I start by paying tribute to all the care staff who have worked so hard during the covid crisis, tackling issues on the frontline and coping with the loss of residents to the virus? I extend my deepest sympathy to all who have lost loved ones.
Members will be aware that social care is a devolved matter, and in Scotland we do things a little differently, which means I often feel like a foreign observer during such debates. However, there is no doubt that we have faced many of the same challenges over the past year. The challenges of covid have been quite unprecedented in the sector. I have commented in a few debates that there are often lessons that we can learn from each nation and good practices that can be shared. I hope that on this issue that proves to be the case.
There are lessons that we must learn for the future from our covid experiences. We know from the Office for National Statistics data for England and Wales and the National Records of Scotland data that our nations pretty much experienced the same rates of care home deaths per head of population. Such deaths account for approximately a third of all covid-19 deaths, and that represents a national tragedy. Undoubtedly, hindsight tells us that there are things we would have done differently if we had known then what we know now, but real-time decisions are made without that luxury. Instead, we have to be content that the decisions taken were thought to be the best at the time, and we must learn from the experience. I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to hold a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic by the end of this year.
On a positive note, Scotland has achieved almost complete vaccine uptake among care home staff without making the vaccine compulsory, which I think we can all welcome. It can be done. Like the NHS, social care has faced huge pressures during the covid pandemic. In Scotland, the SNP Scottish Government have taken action during the covid outbreak to support the social care sector and its workforce. Going forward, we are committed to creating a national care service, increasing social care investment and scrapping non-residential care charges to ensure a rights-based approach to care.
Throughout the pandemic, the Scottish Government continued to prioritise the health, safety and wellbeing of their health and social care workers. That included working with partners to ensure a range of wellbeing and psychological support, with measures such as the national wellbeing hub, a national 24-hour phone line for NHS and social care staff, and committing £5 million to establish a health and social care mental health network to enhance existing support and provide more funding for local support.
Social care providers in Scotland can currently claim back PPE costs over and above their usual amounts due to the pandemic, and can access local PPE hubs for emergency PPE supply if their existing supply routes fail. That support is available to social care providers across the sector, including unpaid carers and personal assistants. Those arrangements, introduced in March 2020, were due to expire in March this year but have been extended until June.
The most significant changes going forward, though, will come from the findings of the independent Feeley review of adult social care in Scotland, which contains 53 recommendations for the future of social care provision. The SNP is committed to implementing the recommendations of the Feeley review, including scrapping non-residential social care charges. The report, which was published on 3 February this year, provides a foundation to enhance adult social care provision across Scotland.
This independent review has found many aspects of Scotland’s adult social care system that are worthy of celebration, such as the introduction of self-directed support, the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016, and our commitment in legislation to integrate health and social care. Scotland is proud to be the only country in the UK with free personal care, which was extended in April 2019 to all those under 65 who need it.
I believe that social care services, just like healthcare services, should be provided on a truly universal basis, free at the point of use. An SNP Government will abolish all non-residential social care charges for those who need support. Health and care integration has been progressing in Scotland since 2014, and the SNP Scottish Government’s commitment to develop a national care service will ensure equity across the country.
On 16 February, the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of a motion that commits to establishing a national care service in law, on an equal footing with NHS Scotland, to provide national accountability, reduce variability, and facilitate improved outcomes for social care users across the nation. The creation of a national care service will also involve reviewing the number, structure and regulation of health boards and other related delivery services to remove unwarranted duplication of functions and make the best use of the public purse.
Social care staff in Scotland are already paid better than those in England and Wales, and the SNP has pledged to introduce a new fair national wage for care staff and national pay bargaining for the sector. For their extraordinary service in the battle against covid, social care workers were included by the Scottish Government in the £500 bonus thank-you payment.
The £500 thank-you payment is for Scotland’s NHS and social care workers employed between 17 March last year and 30 November, including staff who have had to shield or who have since retired. It includes final year nursing students who worked on temporary contracts during the pandemic—like all staff, it will be paid pro rata—as well as community pharmacists in Scotland, NHS bank and NHS locum staff, who work on NHS contracts at NHS rates of pay, and staff employed on a seasonal basis for GPs, dentists, pharmacists and optometrists.
That investment of around £190 million will see nearly 400,000 staff gain some benefit from the payment. The SNP has repeatedly called for the UK Government to allow the payment to be exempt from income tax. Sadly, the ability to exempt the bonus in that way is not within the current powers of the Scottish Government; it is a power that we shall soon have with independence. The UK Government should follow Scotland’s lead and make a commitment to a national care service for England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and very nice to see so many people present in person. One of the things that we have all missed during this pandemic is human interaction, possibly even in Parliament.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate and on her brilliant speech, every word of which I agree with. I thank her and the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) for their work on the APPG. Every week, I have read the readout of their discussion, even if I have not been able to attend, and that real-time information has been hugely important. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), who was the shadow Minister for Social Care before me and from whom I have learnt a great deal over many years.
I will say something about the impact of the pandemic on the users of services, staff, families and the wider community, who have not been touched on so far. I will also talk about the underlying reasons why we have failed to prioritise and secure longer-term reforms to social care. We cannot deal with a problem unless we understand why it is there; that is how we get progress.
As other hon. Members have said, the emerging tragedy in social care over the course of this pandemic will be etched on all our brains for the rest of our lives. To see 41,500 care home residents dying from covid-19, including those residents who ended up dying in hospital, has been brutal for every single one of those people, their families and all the staff who have gone through unimaginable horror caring for people at this difficult time.
The sad reality is that the proportion of care home residents who have died in England is higher than in almost any other country that we have data for, especially in Europe, where it is surpassed only by the proportion who died in care homes in Slovenia, Belgium and, unfortunately, Scotland—despite what the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) said. Scotland has had one of the highest rates of care home resident deaths. That is a serious problem. I will come on to why, whatever Ministers said, I think that a protective ring of steel was not put around care homes. That is related to the deep-seated problems and our fundamental challenges. We must ensure that it never happens again.
People living with dementia have been particularly badly hit by the pandemic. A third of all covid-19 deaths have been of people living with dementia. Also, the deaths of people with dementia even where covid-19 has not been present have been significantly higher. I will say something about this later, but I think the fact that so many people in care homes have been prevented from seeing their loved ones means that those with dementia have gone downhill fast. When people lose their memory, which is what dementia is, their family is their memory. No matter how hard care home staff try, family are the ones who know what films people liked or what music they liked to play, and without their absolute involvement and interaction, we have seen many care home residents with dementia go downhill fast.
I also want to touch on a point made continually by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South: the impact of covid-19 on people with learning disabilities. They are six times more likely to die than the general population and, horrifically, for those aged 18 to 34, they are 30 times more likely to die. To be honest, however, that should come as no surprise to us, because we know that people with learning disabilities have far worse health outcomes and are more likely to die early because of their lack of proper access to care.
Everybody has rightly paid tribute to the amazing work of care staff, who have given more than almost anybody during this pandemic. Tragically, they were twice as likely as the general population to die from covid-19 during the first wave. That presents two really big issues.
There was an appalling lack of access to PPE, especially in the first wave. I met frontline care workers who told terrible stories of having only one mask to last the whole day, from client to client, when seeing clients with dementia, who cannot help but spit on to the mask when they are talking, so the care worker thinks, “I haven’t got another mask to see my next client.” A survey by GMB found that 85% of frontline care workers said that they were worried about the risks to their own health and that of their families, and that one in five thought about quitting cause of the lack of PPE.
That has been compounded by the low pay and poor terms and conditions of frontline care workers. We have heard time and again that many workers who needed to self-isolate or shield were forced to take unpaid leave or rely on statutory sick pay, leaving them desperately out of pocket, unable to pay their bills and facing an awful choice between going to work or being unable to put food on the table. A Unison survey found that those are absolutely essential issues that must be addressed. One care worker said:
“I was Covid-positive after contracting it at work and was off for three weeks. I have a mortgage to pay and bills, and I don’t know how I’m expected to survive. I put my life on the line, survived and was repaid with SSP.”
Three quarters of frontline care workers do not make the real living wage. Many do not even make the minimum wage at the end of the week because they are not paid for travel time between clients. We cannot deliver a better system of social care without transforming the pay, terms, training and conditions of the care workforce.
On families, there are two issues. One is unpaid family carers, who have done so much more to care for their elderly or disabled loved ones during this pandemic. There were 9 million of them in the UK, but since the pandemic struck, there have been an extra 4.5 million—it is astonishing that we have not heard more about that during the debate. They are providing even more care than usual, without breaks, and their own physical and mental health has suffered as a result. Families are as important as the paid workforce in delivering care in this country. We need a new deal—a partnership between families and the Government—to support those carers in doing their best to look after their loved ones.
We then have the families who have been banned from seeing their loved ones in care homes, and who are now also unable even to take their loved ones out for a walk or a cup of tea, because they would have to self-isolate for 14 days. We have to completely rethink that. Since June, we have been arguing that families should be treated as key workers and have access to all the testing, PPE, vaccinations and so on, so that they can safely visit their loved ones. That is not just a term or a gimmick, however; they actually are key workers. We cannot have good-quality care for older or disabled people without families’ involvement.
I urge the Minister, as I have done many times when discussing this topic, to have a rethink about this. The guidance still is not working—it is wrong on the 14-day self-isolation—and we may have to look at legislation to enshrine the rights of care home residents. They are not prisoners. Quite frankly, if we all think that, when we end up in a care home, we will be banned from seeing our family and will not be allowed out, what kind of future is that? It will be a future that we fear, rather than a future for which we look forward to getting older, and that must change.
On the wider community, one of the positive things from the pandemic—I am very proud of what has happened in Leicester, the city that I represent—is how many voluntary groups and mutual aid groups have sprung up to try to do things such as helping older people with shopping, delivering it quicker than either the local authority or the private sector ever could. That support for the wider community—ringing older people to help them if they are isolated—has got to be part of our future social care system, too.
Let me move on to why we have seen the problems that we are all relating here. The immediate and glaring issue, as the Alzheimer’s Society has said, of why we have seen such problems in the care sector, is that the pandemic struck at a time when social care was already overstretched and undervalued. Local authority care budgets have been cut by £8 billion in real terms since 2010 and that has pushed many to absolute breaking point. It is not morally right, but it does not make economic sense either, because if staff are not paid properly and there is high turnover and vacancy rates and family carers are not supported and their health suffers and they end up in hospital, that costs us all far more.
It is also the failure to put in place long-term reforms, as the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said. Why is that the case? It is a big challenge, but it is not rocket science, to ask for older and disabled people to live as normal a life and as full and fulfilling a life as possible, with help to get up, washed, dressed and fed, maybe go to the shops, with help for a disabled person to live independently and maybe have a job. It is not that complicated, yet we have ended up in this crisis. Why?
First, when the NHS and the wider welfare state was created, average life expectancy was 63. Now, it is 80. We did not live in a world where people lived for so many years, and so we have been scrabbling to catch up ever since, with a fragmented and piecemeal system. Secondly, in many ways we have left it to families—“This is a family issue; families should look after elderly or disabled relatives.” Yes, and they want to. They want to do all they can, but they need help and support, especially in a world where women work; they want to work and balance their family lives. Thirdly, it is about caring and caring is women’s work—undervalued, underpaid and yet some of the most important work in our society.
What that all adds up to is a failure to understand that a third of our lives will now be lived aged over 65. We have got to transform society—not just the care sector, but housing, transport and planning—because getting older should be something that we look forward to with hope and optimism, not fear. It is my lovely mum’s birthday today. She is so worried about the pandemic, but I am afraid, when I was discussing this debate, she said, “You know what, Liz? You know what we feel? At best, ignorable; at worst, expendable.” That is not a country that any of us want to live in.
The legacy of this pandemic must be to transform services and support so that every older and disabled person can live the life they choose. It is politically controversial and my strong advice to the Government would be to bring forward proposals early on, because the closer we get to an election, the worse it will be. The Labour party was accused of a death tax; the Conservatives have been accused of a dementia tax. In the end, it is not us who suffer. It is the people who use services and their families.
We need a long-term settlement for older and disabled people that pools our resources and shares our risks and has a fair balance of funding across the generations. That is surely within our grasp. I know Opposition Members will continue to do everything they can to secure a better future for all.
I will do so. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I wish the shadow Minister’s mother a happy birthday today.
I thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) for securing this debate on social care and covid and for the work they do as co-chairs of the APPG on adult social care, bringing the sector together and being a voice for it in Parliament and beyond.
As the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend said—as, in fact, all speakers today have said, and as we all know —the pandemic has been cruel to those who receive social care, especially those living in care homes around the world, here in the UK, and indeed in England. Sadly, both residents and care staff have lost their lives, and each one will be missed by friends, family, and those who love them. I thank those working in social care—staff in care homes, home care workers, those supporting people in extra care and supported living, personal assistants, social workers, and millions of unpaid carers as well—for all they have done during the pandemic, and are continuing to do now, to care for those who rely on their care and could not live without it.
Members have spoken about the many challenges the sector has faced during the pandemic. I want to outline some of the things that the Government have done to support social care, with a level of intervention—a level of support—that is unprecedented for social care, and rightly so in the circumstances of the pandemic. First, the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood spoke about the extra costs that social care has faced during the pandemic. We have put in £1.8 billion of specific, ring-fenced covid funding for social care during the pandemic, including £1.3 billion for infection control measures, and providers have told me what a huge difference this support has made to them and how essential it has been all the way through the pandemic.
Secondly, the Government have stepped in to provide PPE to the social care sector, and PPE has been available free for many months via a portal to meet the covid needs of social care providers on demand. Over 2 billion items of PPE have been supplied to the social care sector, and the Government have committed to continue PPE supply through to March 2022.
Thirdly, social care has been prioritised as our testing volumes have increased. Last summer, we introduced weekly polymerase chain reaction testing for care home staff, and since December, that has been supplemented by twice-weekly lateral flow device tests. That has made a difference, because we can not only quickly identify when a staff member may be covid positive but, through the introduction of the LFD tests, we are able to identify whether a member of staff is covid positive before they set foot in the care home. During this time, we have sent out over 28 million PCR tests and 47 million LFD tests to the social care sector across care homes, home care, supported living, and other parts of the sector. We have also made rapid tests available to visitors, supported by £288 million of funding for the staff costs involved in that testing, to help people see loved ones. I will say more about visiting in a moment.
Fourthly, many hon. Members have spoken about the impact of the pandemic on the social care workforce. Again, we cannot thank care workers enough for what they have done, and how they have gone the extra mile time and again. Through the virtual visits I have made to care homes and the conversations I have had, I have seen what staff have done, particularly to step in and support residents at a time when visiting has been restricted.
I also know the difficult experiences that some care workers have been through. We have specifically advised care providers to use some of the funding for paid sick leave for social care staff who have had to isolate due to covid. We have also put in place mental health support for the social care workforce, seeking as far as we can to mirror the mental health support offer to NHS staff, and we will continue to see how we can support staff through the mental health impacts of the pandemic.
As hon. Members have said, we know that there are workforce shortages within social care, and at times covid has made that harder, with staff rightly taking time to isolate. Recognising that, we provided £120 million of funding for the workforce capacity fund, which was passed to local authorities to boost staffing for the sector during the second wave.
To increase the voice of the social care sector and to give further leadership—particularly clinical leadership—to the social care workforce, we appointed the fantastic Deborah Sturdy as the chief nurse for social care. She is already doing brilliant work with the sector and the workforce, and contributing to plans for the workforce of the future.
To increase our understanding of the social care situation on the ground, we created a social care data dashboard as a single point of information for the system. We came into the pandemic with relatively small amounts of timely data about social care; as hon. Members know, it is a highly fragmented system, with over 25,000 different providers. We have built a way of having up-to-date information and self-reported data from providers, which has given us truly valuable information to which local authorities also have access. It gives a good sense of what has been happening on the ground.
We have also established a regional assurance team for social care, as this is now the Department of Health and Social Care. They are a group of people with great experience in the sector who have been able to reach out during the pandemic, working with local authorities, directors of public health, providers and others, to understand some of the challenges being faced and provide more localised support.
On visiting, on many occasions we have developed an iterated visiting guidance, responding to requests from the sector for a steer on how to manage the challenge of wanting people in care homes to be visited while acknowledging the risks to residents of more people coming through the door. We have drawn a huge amount of clinical guidance from the deputy chief medical officer of Public Health England on how we can enable safe visiting. Clearly, we have substantial caution because we know the great risks to care home residents when covid gets in and how difficult it is to stop an outbreak from spreading through a care home, even with the PPE, the testing and the other things I have outlined. One reason why we introduced visitor testing was to reduce that risk.
Since 12 April, care homes have been able to open up to two visitors, and the essential care giver scheme addresses particular need. I look forward to care homes being able to continue to open up, step by step, through the combination of lower infection rates and vaccination, to enable people to once again spend much more time with their loved ones.
Several hon. Members spoke about visits out. I recognise the importance of both having visitors at care homes and being able to leave—to go out and about. This applies to older people, but particularly to families who have relatives of working age in residential settings, who I have spoken to. Often, somebody of working age might come out every weekend to spend time with their mum and dad, and their family. Clearly, they have not been able to do that during the pandemic.
I ask other hon. Members with an interest in this subject to listen to the Joint Committee on Human Rights sitting held yesterday, when I was asked about this. With me was Dr Éamonn O’Moore from Public Health England, who explained in some detail, which we do not have time for today, the reason for the caution around visiting out and the clinical reasons for the requirement to isolate for 14 days on return. To respond to the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South, I should say that that is not the same as somebody coming from overseas to the UK and quarantining, because of the particular circumstances within care homes. There may be people who are very vulnerable. In the event that someone brings covid into the care home, that can lead to an outbreak, which can lead, sadly, to people dying. Therefore, rightly, the issue is taken seriously.
I assure colleagues that, as Dr O’Moore said to the Health and Social Care Committee yesterday, I have asked Public Health England to provide advice on how to make more visits possible—particularly those with lower risk, such as those outdoors—and on what could be done to reduce quarantine requirements afterwards. I am mindful of the May elections and of those who might want to vote in person.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford rightly said that vaccines are the answer to allowing more visiting and for much of life to come back to normal, for those who receive social care. We prioritised the social care sector for vaccinations—and particularly care homes, who were top of the list. The vaccine was offered to all care homes by the end of January, on time. Soon, all residents who can be vaccinated will have been offered their second dose.
The impact of vaccination is already being seen, with the rates of covid coming right down in care homes. There are still some outbreaks and I would caution those listening to the debate that the vaccine is not 100% effective. Many residents have had their second dose but others are still only on their first, and it is important in that situation that the precautions continue. For instance, we are continuing to urge care homes to make sure that staff use PPE and infection control measures, even when everyone has been vaccinated. However, there are far fewer outbreaks and the consequences are much less serious. I want to use this opportunity to thank the NHS vaccination teams, and the social care workforce, who have been involved in the tremendous and lifesaving effort to vaccinate so many thousands of people in social care.
Many hon. Members spoke about the importance of reform, and how the pandemic has shone a light on the social care sector and the need for reform. I truly welcome the support for reform among hon. Members who have taken part in the debate in this room and virtually. Some steps have begun, and I urge the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood to look again at some of the social care content in the health and social care White Paper, including the voice of social care in integrated care systems—and I agree with the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford that it is not just about a local authority voice, but the wider sector.
The White Paper also proposes the introduction of a new oversight and assurance system for social care, which I see as an important part of building on the experiences of the pandemic, to give us more oversight and the ability to drive quality and outcomes more strongly for those who receive social care. It also includes steps to support better use of data and data sharing for social care.
Those things are, however, just the beginning and we need to go further. We have committed to go further and to publishing a long-term plan for social care this year.
As the Minister is talking about the White Paper, I wanted to point out that we have talked quite a lot about unpaid carers in the debate, but they are not mentioned once in the White Paper. Carers’ organisations took that in a bad way and felt that all the efforts that unpaid carers put in during the pandemic were not recognised at all. The Minister and the Health Secretary need to address that.
The hon. Member makes a really important point, and I really appreciate how she has spoken about unpaid carers during this debate. I absolutely recognise the crucial role of unpaid carers, the things that unpaid carers do and the demands on and challenges for unpaid carers during the pandemic. I absolutely see unpaid carers as part of the breadth of the social care system that we must consider for the reforms as we go forward.
I very much welcomed the expertise, in the room and virtually, on social care reform. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford reminded us that the reform debate has been going on for nearly 25 years. He has extremely valuable experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) has great experience from local government and flagged the work of Sir Paul Carter, whom I know because he is the former leader of Kent County Council and I am a Kent MP. I will indeed be looking at the work that my hon. Friend mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) called for a social care workforce strategy. Yes, absolutely, as part of the reform work, we need and plan to bring forward a strategy for the social care workforce.
I am conscious of the time and so that is probably as far as I can go today, but broadly, I truly welcome the support for social care reform expressed during this debate. I assure those in the room and all those listening to the debate that we are determined to seize this moment. We have supported social care at an unprecedented level during the pandemic; on the back of that, we are determined to bring forward the reform that we know social care needs.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate today. It has been a reflective debate and one full of immense experience and knowledge of the social care sector, and that is very welcome.
In the couple of minutes that I have, I will push back slightly on some of the Minister’s comments. It was disappointing that she mentioned additional funding, PPE and testing and talked only about the things that the Government did later on in the pandemic—the very deep trauma experienced by the social care sector with regard to a shortage of PPE and lack of access to testing was in the early months. I feel that, by failing to mention it, she does a disservice to those workers and residents in the social care sector who really suffered the impact of the Government’s failure to plan ahead of time for a pandemic and their failure to deliver and get swiftly off the blocks when the pandemic hit.
The point that I would like to make about the health and social care White Paper is that it talks about integration, but without talking about social care reform, and that cannot happen. We have an NHS, which is a well organised national system, founded on a statutory basis; and we have social care, which is not a system but a fragmented and diverse set of organisations and individual families all struggling and all brought to breaking point by the lack of funding, the lack of organisation and the lack of overall structure and accountability.
If there is to be integration, it has to be integration on the basis of parity of esteem, and that involves the Government getting to grips with the question of reform. I urge the Minister just to take seriously the voice of the APPG and the sector, to continue to engage and, most importantly, to start a structured process for cross-party talks, so that together we can deliver the change that the social care sector so desperately needs.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered social care and the covid-19 outbreak.