Thursday 27 May 2021
[Ms Nusrat Ghani in the Chair]
World Press Freedom Day
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered World Press Freedom Day 2021.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. World Press Freedom Day, which falls on 3 May, is a reminder to Governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom; a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics; and a day of support for media workers who are targets for the restraint or abolition of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for having granted time for this debate today, which has been the first opportunity to hold it since the start of the new parliamentary Session. I also declare my interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, which is supported by Reporters Without Borders.
This debate comes in the wake of last Sunday’s hijacking of a civilian aircraft by the Belarusian Government in order to kidnap the journalist Roman Protasevich, an outspoken critic of President Lukashenko’s illegitimate and oppressive regime. This is one of the most audacious attacks on press freedom we have seen, but it is just another example of the increasingly brazen way in which Governments seek to oppress legitimate journalism with increasing impunity.
In 2018, we saw the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi Arabian Government in the grounds of their own consulate in Istanbul. In 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a campaigning journalist who investigated corruption and organised crime and delved into visa-for-sale schemes, energy deals and Caribbean offshore companies set up for Maltese politicians, was assassinated by a car bomb planted by a professional hitman.
According to Reporters Without Borders, 50 journalists were killed around the world last year, and a further 13 have already been killed in 2021. These include Sadida Sadat and Shahnaz Roufi in Afghanistan, who worked for Enikass TV’s dubbing service and were gunned down in an alley in Jalalabad as they were walking home at around 4.30 pm. Their colleague Mursal Waheedi was shot in the rickshaw she had taken to go home. All three women were aged 20 or 21. Furthermore, in 2020, 387 journalists and media workers were held in detention: 117 of those were in China, and 34 were in the next highest country, Saudi Arabia. In the Philippines, in the five years since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power, 16 journalists have been killed in connection with their work, the latest of whom was beaten to death in May 2020.
Media freedom is being threatened not just by violent physical attack, but by the use of dubious legal procedures to intimidate or close down journalists. In the Philippines, Maria Ressa, a journalist and the chief executive of the digital news service Rappler, has been under repeated legal attack since the election of Duterte. Rappler has tirelessly investigated human rights violations and the country’s increasingly authoritarian Government, and Ressa, whom I am proud to serve alongside on the Real Facebook Oversight Board, currently faces 10 open charges against her, relating to nine separate cases. Some of those have been brought retrospectively through new laws created since the alleged offences occurred.
In this country, too, our legal system is being used to intimidate legitimate journalism through lawfare—the misuse of legal systems and principles against an opponent by seeking to damage or delegitimise them, wasting their time and money—and what is known as SLAPP, a strategic lawsuit against public participation. Such actions are intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of legal defence until they abandon their criticism of the opponent. The initiator of such a lawsuit does not usually expect to win, but to wear down the defendant until they succumb to fear, intimidation and mounting legal costs or exhaustion, and cease their otherwise legitimate criticism. A current example is the journalist Catherine Belton, author of “Putin’s People”, which was published last year by HarperCollins, who is facing lawsuits, along with her publisher, filed in London by four Russian businessmen, including Roman Abramovich.
Mr Abramovich has also recently forced apologies from British newspapers—The Times and The Daily Mail—for stating that he gave a yacht, Le Grand Bleu, to Eugene Shvidler, a Russian-American oil billionaire, despite the fact that Mr Shvidler had stated this himself in English court proceedings on 14 November, 2011, during the hearing of the Berezovsky v. Abramovich case. I also understand that in 2019, Mr Abramovich’s lawyers were also successful in preventing the broadcast of a BBC “Panorama” investigation. It is interesting that Mr Abramovich, who is not a resident of the UK, has not visited the country since 2018 and has not been granted a new UK visa, can nevertheless retain the services of the London law firm Harbottle & Lewis and has full access to the English courts.
Data protection legislation is also being routinely abused to make multiple requests against investigative journalists and corporate research and intelligence companies, for any information that they hold on any individual or organisation. In Australia, the Protection of Public Participation Act 2008 seeks to
“protect public participation, and discourage certain civil proceedings that a reasonable person would consider interfere with engagement in public participation.”
In the USA, high-profile public figures are also limited in their access to the courts to pursue such cases. It is time we looked at whether such reforms are required in the UK, and also to review the GDPR legislation to prevent it from being used to intimidate those engaged in legitimate investigations acting in the public interest.
We also have to consider the commercial pressures faced by the news industry today, which pose perhaps one of the greatest threats to the freedom of the press. In 2019, the Cairncross review, commissioned by the Government, highlighted that the sales of both national and locally printed papers have plunged. They fell by roughly half between 2007 and 2017, and are still dropping. In addition, print advertising revenues, which used to carry much of the cost of producing news, have fallen even faster, declining in that decade by 69%. To cut costs there have been mergers, as well as heavy cuts in staffing numbers of frontline journalists in the UK, and in that period those numbers have dropped from 23,000 to 17,000, and the numbers are still falling.
These pressures came to light recently in Australia, where an investigation by its competition authority has highlighted that for every $100 of online advertising spend, $53 goes to Google, $28 to Facebook, and $19 to everybody else. This creates enormous pressure on other organisations, particularly news companies and publishers that have in the past relied on advertising revenue to pay their journalists and investigations. The decline in ad revenue for publishers is a direct challenge to the news industry itself, which has already led to the closures of a great number of publications, and many of those that have survived have had to make significant cuts and reductions.
In order to preserve the future of public interest journalism, the Australian Government presented the news media bargaining code to oblige companies such as Facebook and Google to enter into commercial arrangements with the news industry to ensure fair renumeration for their content. It was only because they legislated to require this, and to give a regulator the power to mediate and set the term of renumeration if no deal was done, that Google and Facebook eventually did move. We have to consider what the role of journalism is in the digital age, where people increasingly use the internet as their primary source of news and information. The most recent Ofcom “Media Nations” survey, published last summer, showed that around 35% of people now regularly get their news from Facebook.
News media and the freedom of the press face a constant assault every day. Direct challenges are issued, through social media, against “the mainstream media”, which is used as a derogatory term, seeking to persuade the public that they should not believe the so-called mainstream media on anything they write, whether critical or praiseworthy, and putting people in a position where they simply do not know what they should believe anymore. In the world of social media, where algorithms of engagement drive content through those platforms, often it is the misleading or the downright lies and conspiracy theories that gain a bigger audience, are more interesting and are actively promoted by those platforms. When Parliament considers the online safety Bill later this year—it is currently in draft form—we must take into account the impact of harmful disinformation, spread through and sometimes amplified by social media, which is undermining news and, through that, democracy itself.
We need to protect journalism and the freedom of the press if we are to remain an open and democratic society. We need to recognise that those values are increasingly under attack from authoritarian Governments around the world who actively and deliberately target journalists, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes economically, but always with intent to suppress their necessary work. We need to ensure that our modern media landscape, driven by social media platforms and their engagement, still works to provide fair remuneration for journalists creating content, because if journalists cannot be paid for what they do, few will do it. The people who will win in that situation will be those who fear legitimate investigation and questioning.
I compliment the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for securing the debate and on the way in which he introduced the subject. It is absolutely crucial and essential to all our lives that we think seriously about what press freedom actually means. In any free society, the right to know, the right to speak and the right to assemble are important and precious, and indeed are encapsulated in the 1948 universal declaration of human rights.
In considering press freedom, we should also look at media ownership and control, and the concentration of media ownership into a small number of global companies that impose news values on their outlets, which are not necessarily very open and which are often not interested in many of the poorest parts of the world but only in celebrity and the goings on in the wealthiest parts of the world. It is important that we recognise the importance of the right to know, and therefore the importance of diversity of ownership and diversity of access to the media.
As the hon. Gentleman quite correctly pointed out, many people now get most of their information from online sources, through social media and associated outlets. Many people simply do not buy newspapers and do not access newspaper websites or anything else. They rely completely on news that they believe they select themselves from various websites around the world, but they are often unaware of the complex, complicated and very efficient algorithms used to drive people in certain directions on certain stories and news issues.
We must look not only at the freedom of journalists and the importance of independent ownership of all media outlets, but at making social media accessible to everyone. Social media companies have shown themselves to be very happy to operate with authoritarian and oppressive regimes and close down access altogether to certain individuals. For example, in the middle of their strike action in Delhi, Indian farmers suddenly found that they had no access whatsoever to social media, which was a crucial outlet for them. Social media is restricted in a number of countries, and Google and others are quite happy to do deals with national Governments in order to restrict access to information. These things have to be looked at seriously and carefully. We need international agreement on this, which I will come on to in a moment.
I have in front of me the “White Paper on Global Journalism”, produced by the International Federation of Journalists, of which I am a member, in the sense that I am a member of the National Union of Journalists in Britain. This report makes for chilling reading. Since 1990, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, 2,650 journalists have been killed around the world. Those are the ones we know of—there may well be more. A good friend of mine, Anabel Hernández, a Mexican journalist, launched a book called “The Sorrows of Mexico” with Lydia Cacho and others at the Edinburgh international book festival three years ago. I was there. She described what she had gone through in preparing the book and in writing about the power of drug cartels, corrupt police forces and the role of the military. She described the threats made to her:
“Ever since, I have lived with 24 hour protection, if you can call that living.”
The threat never goes away. On 21 December 2014, a dozen men, armed with AK47 rifles and handguns, closed off the street where Hernández lived, and started asking her neighbours in which house the journalist lived. They deactivated the security cameras in the immediate area, including those installed in her house. She was lucky that day, because she was not at home; she was away. That is the kind of life that she and other very brave journalists live in Mexico, in Colombia, in Egypt and in other countries where journalists are consistently under threat.
We mourn those who have been killed, but there are many others in jail and the threat of jailing journalists is a form of censorship. Many of the world’s Governments know that by consistently threatening journalists, they will either tone down their reporting or simply not report what is going on where corruption, drug cartels and so on are involved. There is a kind of league table of journalists who are in prison. Globally, there are 235 of them in prison—those are the ones we know of —including 67 in Turkey, 21 in Egypt and 20 in China. They are all people who have been imprisoned because they were trying to report the truth.
The hon. Gentleman quite rightly pointed out what happened to Roman Protasevich. Obviously, it is appalling that the plane was effectively hijacked and he was taken to Belarus because he had been writing stories that were critical of its regime. Obviously, action should be taken. I am a member of the Council of Europe and my fellow members and I will make our views very well known at subsequent meetings. Unfortunately, Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe; it is the only European country that is not a member.
Our complaints and objections about the way in which Roman Protasevich is being treated would be far more credible if the London Stock Exchange was not at the same time hosting financial servicing arrangements and opportunities to raise cash for the Belarussian Government. If we are serious about press freedom and freedoms in general, we must think very carefully about what financial institutions and others are doing.
The terrible events in Gaza and the west bank over the last few weeks and the loss of life of people both in Israel and in Palestine are obviously shocking and appalling. It is also very clear that the bombing was very effectively and efficiently targeted in Gaza. Two towers were taken out completely; they were demolished by targeted bombing. They included the offices of al-Jazeera and a number of other journalistic outlets in the region, so they could no longer effectively report what was happening in Gaza. Some brave journalists managed to use satellite phones and so on to keep in communication, but they were reporting while under fire from Israel that was quite clearly targeting those places where journalists were trying to report the reality of what is going on. And Yousef Abu Hussein, a young journalist, was killed during that whole process.
In this debate I hope that we can reflect on the bravery of journalists around the world—those who seek to speak truth to power and who try to tell us the truth about what is happening around the world. We all love newspapers; we all love news and information. However, we need to make sure that those who collect and gather that information—irritating as they often are to politicians; that is the world in which we live—are a crucial part of any democratic society.
The work done by the International Federation of Journalists and others in trying to get global agreement on the protection of journalists is very important. It is also important that the United Nations Human Rights Council continues its work on protecting journalists, and that we have an effective protection mechanism for journalists all around the world. Too many have died, too many are in prison and too many are frightened to report the news they ought to be reporting, because they are scared of what will happen to them if they do so.
We should not be complacent about our own society, either, because often in Parliament we have this sense of complacency that bad things—
I apologise, Ms Ghani. I was not aware that there was a time limit. I will briefly say this. In our complacency, let us not forget brave people who have blown the whistle on the truth around the world. I think of Julian Assange and the work he has done in exposing what has happened around the world in preparation for war and other things. In some countries, he would be called a hero for being a whistleblower; here, he is called something very different. We should think of what news values and freedom of speech values are actually all about. Thank you for the opportunity to speak, Ms Ghani.
I have been practising the black arts of journalism for the best part of 50 years. In that time, I have had quite a few dodgy moments, but I have never been arrested, I have never been tortured and, patently, I have never been murdered. I have published and reported on stories that politicians have not liked, but I can honestly say that I have not been subjected to political pressure and I certainly have not suffered from the online threats that, sadly, today’s journalists suffer from.
I recognise that around the world there are very brave people going where I, frankly, would have feared to go in the interests of publishing and truth. It is right that we say “Thank you” on occasions to some people in power. I recognise the initiatives taken by the Foreign Secretary in pursuing this issue seriously through the global conference in London and as co-chair with Canada of the Media Freedom Coalition. Last December, the world press freedom conference highlighted the cause again, and I hope that it will be raised at the G7 in Cornwall, when we sit in the president’s chair.
We do not often say “Thank you” to civil servants, so perhaps it is right that we recognise the work of Kanbar Hossein Bor, Louise Savill, Michelle Webster and Justin Williams, who head up the media freedom teams at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. We also ought to thank Rebecca Vincent of Reporters Sans Frontières, who I understand also provides the secretariat for the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom. They are doing valuable work, and we must be grateful to them.
During my time with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, we pursued this issue vigorously. My friend and colleague Lord Foulkes was, and still is, stalwart in seeking to defend media freedom. The appalling case of Roman Protasevich, which was instigated by Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, and the equally vile murder of Jamal Khashoggi, at the behest of the Saudi Arabian Government, are frightful. However, every day there is ongoing oppression of journalists in the Russian Federation, in China, in Azerbaijan, in Ethiopia, in Myanmar and most certainly in Turkey. BBC World Service reporters are under desperate pressure in Hong Kong and in Persia, and sadly, because of some careless words uttered by a previous Foreign Secretary, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is languishing in an Iranian prison on a trumped-up charge of teaching journalism—as if that was something that should not be done.
I have four questions to put to my right hon. Friend the Minister, and I hope he will be able to answer. First, will the subject of media freedom be on the G7 agenda for Cornwall? Secondly, will the Government of the United Kingdom be prepared to use Magnitsky sanctions in cases of breach of media freedom? Can my right hon. Friend assure us that the BBC’s World Service funding, which at the moment is under an extension due to end in September, will be continued? That contribution to media freedom is vital. Finally, will the Government of the United Kingdom be prepared to back the call from Reporters San Frontières for a UN special representative for the safety of journalists?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for securing this debate. It is appropriate that we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, because press freedom is fundamental to our democracy. It is a basic right. We all know that knowledge is power and that, equally, its absence endangers us. Press freedom allows us to expose totalitarianism, often in the face of danger, as other Members have said.
I was privileged to know James Pringle, who returned to my old constituency to vote in the Scottish referendum back in 2014. He regaled me with tales about, first, having served in the Dominican coup and then having been the first western journalist into Cambodia under Pol Pot, after the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. I pay tribute to his courage.
Press freedom is vital to democracy. I remember reading Professor Henry Milner’s book, “Civic Literacy”. It is a study of what motivates turnout in elections. A critical factor is not whether it is as easy to vote as to buy a tin of beans in a supermarket; what matters in particular is understanding, and a quality media is fundamental to that. If people do not understand the issues, they will not participate and vote. That factor is normally shown in this country in turnouts being higher in referendums, when there is a clear understanding of the issues, than in wider elections, where turnout can be significantly lower.
As other Members have said, there are obviously ongoing issues—in Saudi Arabia and Belarus, and indeed closer to home, with Julian Assange. I sympathise and agree with the points made by others across the political divide that these people require protection.
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe, who was correct to point out the changes that have happened in the media. I have been writing for the Scottish media for several years now. The decline is significant. There are actions we have to take to address that and to protect the valuable newspapers that are undermined by other platforms. We should also remember that in many instances now, social media is just as important as the mainstream media.
We have looked in this country at what happened in the Arab spring. It was not the mainstream media that was the outlet letting people know, both within the countries that were part of the Arab spring, and in the wider world. It was not the papers, held by the regimes. It was social media bloggers and just people tweeting, or writing on their Facebook pages or whatever else. The hon. Gentleman was right to warn about dangerous disinformation and the challenges that we face as a society to protect our democracy. Equally, we also have to remember that it is important that we support that.
That brings me to my own situation within my own jurisdiction of Scotland. It is many years since I first studied law. I have had 20 years practising as a lawyer and seven and a half years as Justice Secretary. I never thought I would face a situation where I was condemnatory of actions that have been happening against the press in my own country.
Since the days of learning about the Gordon Airs case, HM Advocate v. Airs, I always assumed that those who were seeking to put forward information that was appropriate and fair would be protected. Yet in Scotland, in the fallout from the Alex Salmond affair, we have seen Mark Hirst, a journalist, prosecuted. The case, in which he was supported by the NUJ, was rightly rejected by the presiding sheriff in the borders. We have seen Craig Murray, a blogger and former British senior civil servant, now facing a prison sentence of eight months. That is not only shocking, but drives a coach and horses through a position brought in by the Scottish Government that there be a presumption against a sentence of imprisonment for less than a year. Their absence of criticism and their failure to comment has been quite shocking.
It is not simply cases brought by the Crown. It is the cases that have been pursued by the police, where people so much as tweeting anything that might be seen as possibly identifying a witness have faced a knock on the door from the police. That is fundamentally damaging to Scottish democracy. It is not what I expect and it has not come about by happenchance. It has been deliberate. It has been targeted. It is being driven by the Crown Office. If we are to have a free press, there has to be free reporting. That has to apply to bloggers as much as it applies to the mainstream press.
That people have been charged in Scottish courts and have faced possible terms of imprisonment for simply doing exactly the same as the mainstream press has done but not faced prosecution is simply unacceptable. There is also a reason that I am required to raise it here: it is that the position of the Lord Advocate of Scotland is no longer tenable. There has to be a separation of powers of having one individual who is both a legal adviser to the Scottish Government and also the head of the prosecution service in Scotland. That is no longer appropriate and I am disappointed that the First Minister did not seek to make it faster. It is something that has to come back to this Chamber because as a result of the Scotland Act 1998, the Lord Advocate is enshrined in statute by this Parliament. Action must be taken here as well as in Holyrood.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I welcome this debate called by the hon. Member on world press freedom. We should be proud to live in a democracy where the press exercises a high level of freedom to highlight the truth and hold the Government to account. That does not mean we do not still face challenges in relation to the press in the UK and their reporting, in particular towards Muslims and minority communities.
Thankfully, we do not live in a nation where the regime in Government blows to smithereens the towers housing internationally renowned journalists such as in the AP building. Yes, I am speaking about the callous and totalitarian attack by the Israeli military a week or so ago in the tower housing both AP and al-Jazeera journalists. Much will be said in this debate about world press freedom relating to China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea or Iran, for instance, all of which our nation and I too share concerns about in regards to press freedom. However, just over a week ago, we watched the Israeli military blow up a mainstream media outlet, which the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had he seen no evidence for. Despite such a devastating attack on press freedom, given the scale of the attack, the response by the so-called defenders of free speech was deafening in its silence, and the outright condemnation by our Government seemed to be written in invisible ink.
The latest siege on Gaza and targeted Israeli air force attacks have destroyed the premises of 23 Palestinian and international media outlets, according to some reports, in a single week. A statement by the nine experts to the United Nations Human Rights office stated:
“The indiscriminate or deliberate bombardment of civilians and towers housing civilians in Gaza and Israel, as well as media organizations and refugee camps in Gaza, are war crimes that are, prima facie, not justified by the requirements of proportionality and necessity under international law. All parties who engage in such attacks must bear individual and State responsibility as appropriate.”
Let me state just one example. At approximately 4.30 am on Wednesday 19 May, Israeli war planes targeted with three successive rockets, without prior warning, the fourth and fifth floors of the home of Muhammed Abdul Qadr Muhammed Abu Hussein, 63, consisting of five floors over an area of 120 square metres and located on Al-Gala Street near Sheikh Radwan junction north of Gaza City. Yousef Muhammed Abdul Qadr Abu Hussein, 32, a journalist who worked as a broadcaster for the local Voice of Al-Aqsa radio station, a husband and a father of three, was killed in that attack.
All that I have stated is a reality of Israeli regime in only the last few weeks. Even after the ceasefire, AP reported that 17 journalists in Gaza had confirmed their WhatsApp accounts had been blocked. When 23 media houses are obliterated, journalists killed and social media networks blocked, where is press freedom? The question is whether the Government will still support the International Criminal Court investigation into the situation in Palestine, given Israel’s repeated attacks on media outlets and journalists. I also remind the Minister of a statement from his colleague Lord Ahmad on the matter of press freedom. He said:
“Ultimately, we need every country to recognise that attacks on media freedom are beyond the pale. And just like any assault on human rights, and I speak as the UK Human Rights Minister, we must hold abusers accountable, both legally and financially.”
I agree that we need every country to recognise that attacks on media freedom will not be tolerated and legal and financial accountability will be the consequences. I say to the Minister that the mounting evidence of the Israel’s alleged crimes is before him. If the Government truly want to support press freedom worldwide, they should support the investigation by the International Criminal Court into Israel’s actions. At the very least, they should use today’s debate on world press freedom as an opportunity to condemn the totalitarian actions by Israel and to support journalists within the region.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this important debate to mark World Press Freedom Day 2021. It could not be more pertinent at a time when attacks on press freedom across the world and in parts of Europe are intensifying. Authoritarian Governments across the world have yet again demonstrated that, before all other things, they fear the power of the written word.
I start by paying my respects to Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian blogger and journalist who was captured by the Lukashenko regime in an aeroplane hijack last Sunday. Roman faces charges of terrorism in his native country for the pivotal role that his Nexta blog played in instigating and co-ordinating the peaceful pro-democracy protests of last year. Belarus is the only country in Europe that retains the death penalty, which is a very real threat that Roman may now be facing. I believe all Members present share my deepest concern for Roman’s wellbeing, and I insist in the strongest possible terms that the UK Government do everything in their power to help secure his immediate release.
Thirty-four journalists are now in prison in Belarus, and dozens of independent media outlets are being prevented from operating freely. This week, Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree that erects even more explicit legal barriers to the freedom of the press, including a prohibition on news outlets making live reports on unauthorised mass gatherings, new powers for the information ministry to order the closure of media outlets, and a ban on the publication of opinion polls that are unauthorised by the Government. The Belarusian police recently raided and shut down TUT.BY, the largest independent Belarusian media outlet, as a follow-up to revoking its media credentials last year.
There have also been reports of personal blackmail and the intimidation of journalists, such as the journalist Arina Malinovskaya, who works with the Belarusian independent TV channel Belsat. Arina, who is currently abroad, is reported by the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza to have received threats from the Belarusian police that unless she returns to Belarus and presents herself at a police station, her sister and grandparents will suffer the consequences. Such tactics are designed to silence and intimidate even Belarusians in exile, and to prevent them from reporting systemic human rights violations in their home country. In August last year, the Government in Belarus removed the accreditation of two BBC journalists, meaning they are no longer able to work for the BBC legally. They are both Belarusian nationals who have worked for the BBC for a number of years. The BBC has called on the Belarusian authorities to revoke the decision and to allow the two journalists to continue to do their jobs.
Another part of the world where press freedom is undergoing a catastrophic deterioration is Hong Kong. Since the introduction of the national security law, the Government of China have been accelerating a full-scale crackdown on Opposition political activity and press. Last month, journalist Choy Yuk-ling was found guilty of making false statements and obtaining public information as part of an investigation into the perpetrators of a violent attack on protestors in a subway station in 2019. Choy was collecting the data as part of a documentary for the public broadcaster RTHK that also explored the conduct of Hong Kong police during last year’s protests. Chris Yeung, the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, expressed himself plainly when he said:
“The government sent a reporter to the dock, she was found guilty and the fourth power is under threat. Press freedom in Hong Kong is dying.”
As citizens of a liberal, democratic state, we are privileged in many ways to have access to an independent press and extensive civil liberties, and to have the freedom to use our voice to speak up for those whose voice has been denied. I hope that we are able to reflect, as parliamentarians today, on how we can assist the many thousands in Hong Kong, Belarus and across the world whose voices are being silenced.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship Ms Ghani. I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing this important debate.
Press Freedom Day comes at an important time: not only have we just witnessed the bombing of the building of two major outlets—al Jazeera and Associated Press— we have also just witnessed the latest example of wide- spread misreporting on the crisis between Israel and Palestine. The systemic violence against Palestinians and the continued illegal Israeli occupation is an international atrocity. Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestine territories have been identified by the United Nations as being in breach of international law, but across the British and western media landscapes the crisis is too often reported as a conflict, yet it is not a conflict between equals. It is about the occupier and the occupied. The Gaza strip is effectively an open-air prison, with 97% of the population having no access to clean water, and each bombing campaign further eroding living standards. It is a colonial war. The British empire was instrumental in the displacement and subjugation of the Palestinian people.
The UK and western press either fail to report on atrocities against the Palestinian people, or label the abuses as clashes and consistently misreport the systemic aggression, dispossession and violence directed at Palestinians. Such framing serves only to legitimise and obscure the scale of oppression in occupied Palestine. It is encapsulated by the case of US journalist Emily Wilder, who was sacked by Associated Press after it was unearthed that she had previously supported Palestinian rights. I urge the Independent Press Standards Organisation to do much more to ensure the accurate, contextualised and fair reporting of the crisis. A strong, diverse and independent media is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy and society.
I am also concerned by the continued imprisonment and attempted extradition of Julian Assange. That case presents a real danger to the freedom of the press. It extends the judicial reach of the US Government, and it deploys the US Espionage Act against a journalist for the very first time. We must oppose this attempt to criminalise journalism that involves reporting on classified information. If not, it could set a chilling precedent with grave implications for the functioning of our democracy. I believe that the US Government must drop the attempted prosecution, and the British Government must do all they can to halt a process from which there can be no satisfactory outcome for the freedom of the press.
A free press is essential for our public life, but sadly much of our press is really not free at all. A 2019 study by the Media Reform Coalition found that just three companies—News UK, the Daily Mail group, and Reach—dominate 83% of the national newspaper market, and that has actually increased by 11% in just four years. Looking at who owns those outlets, the right-wing bias in our media ecosystem becomes clear: five billionaires own around 80% of all UK media, and two billionaire press barons own half of the UK’s top ten daily newspapers. The fact is that since 1979—a period spanning 11 general elections—no party has been able to reside in Government without the explicit backing of a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Polling shows that the British press is the least trusted press in Europe. That is corrosive for our democracy. It is crucial that we support public interest journalism, including through charitable status for some local, investigative and independent media outlets. The BBC is of course an important institution, which we must defend from privatisation, but as recent weeks have shown, the BBC is far from perfect and much must be done to make it more democratic, representative and independent. The BBC must also be wary of amplifying the world view that is shared among the right-wing press. In the light of funding cuts and the loss of investigative reporters, too often it is billionaire-owned media outlets that set the agenda for our public service broadcaster.
I fully support the National Union of Journalists and the rights and conditions of workers in our media. Empowering journalists, such as by enabling them to elect editors and have seats on boards, is beneficial for our entire public discourse. To see a world defined by the imbalance of wealth and influence propped up and obfuscated by a compliant media system is intensely disempowering. Let us take as an example yesterday’s explosive testimony from the former chief adviser to the Prime Minister. It should not have taken a disgruntled Government employee to expose this Government’s deadly handling of the coronavirus. That was a damning indictment of our media ecosystem and revealed the cosy relationship between Government and client journalists. I believe that must end. Following this year’s World Press Freedom Day, let us strive to build a vibrant media that is democratic, representative and truly independent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ghani. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) for securing this debate to celebrate World Press Freedom Day.
The debate comes at an important time. Mere weeks ago, the world watched in horror as the Gazan offices of al-Jazeera and Associated Press were razed to the ground by Israeli bombs in a brazen attack on the media. The International Federation of Journalists reported that, at the same time in Jerusalem, Israeli police were deliberately and systematically assaulting, beating and firing stun grenades at Palestinian media workers. Today, I add my voice to the calls, including by the IFJ, for an end to impunity for these war crimes and for the shameful attempt to silence the media and reporting on the ground. These events followed two complaints submitted by the IFJ to the UN special rapporteurs in December 2020 about Israel’s systematic targeting of journalists working in Palestine and its failure properly to investigate killings of media workers—reminding us that the threats to journalists working in Palestine are consistent and stretch beyond the bombing campaigns.
The diversion of a flight and the arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich just days ago in Belarus, bringing the country’s number of detained journalists to 24, further increases the urgency of this debate. President Lukashenko has also taken action to harass and block the country’s most popular news website and has passed authoritarian measures relating to the media law.
Will the Minister call on the Government of whom he is a member to use every means at their disposal to compel the Israeli and Belarusian authorities to bring an end to the attacks on journalists? It is the case that 2,658 media workers have been killed globally in the last 30 years; that is about two every single week. And 84% of journalists who were killed in 2020 were knowingly targeted and deliberately murdered; that was a significant increase from 63% in 2019. In nine out of 10 cases, the killings remain unpunished.
Press freedom in conflict zones is an absolute necessity, but concerningly there is an increasing trend of journalists being killed in countries considered to be at peace; it accounts for 68% of all those killed. We can say in no uncertain terms that this is a crisis of impunity. In the last year, Turkey, Belarus, India, Myanmar and China implemented brutal crackdowns on their media. Nearly 400 journalists and media workers were being held in detention at the end of 2020. That is a historically high level. The number of women journalists imprisoned in 2020 increased by one third.
At home, the UK is ranked 33rd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, with our own record marred by restrictions on freedom of information, the detention of Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange, and active threats to the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland. These figures are shocking, and a concrete solution is desperately needed to reverse this dangerous trend. Will the Minister take up calls from the IFJ and media representatives on every continent for the establishment of a UN convention on the safety and protection of journalists, to ensure implementation of existing UN mechanisms, hold states accountable for their obligations, and end the impunity with which attacks on the press are currently conducted?
I will conclude by paying tribute to the bravery of journalists across the globe who work in dangerous circumstances to keep power in check. We must not mark World Press Freedom Day merely with words, but renew our efforts to ensure that threats to press freedoms everywhere are combated with decisive action, because press freedom protects us, and we must strive every day to protect press freedom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on having secured today’s debate. In the heart of Europe today, a brave young man named Roman Protasevich languishes in jail. His face is now familiar to all of us from a video he was forced to make by his thuggish captors: puffed and swollen from beatings and looking scared, he told us that he was being treated well. Journalism at its finest speaks truth to power; that is why tyrants the world over hate journalists. Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, was so desperate to silence Roman Protasevich that he was prepared to hijack a plane and force it to land in Minsk, the capital of his dark regime.
I am proud to be a journalist. It is all I ever wanted to be, so sometimes I am a little bit surprised to find myself here, offering opinions and certainties rather than asking questions. My dad remembers that as a kid, I used to lie on our tenement hall floor and read the broadsheets. Too wee to hold them, I would lay them flat and read them column by column, poring over reports from far-away, impossibly exotic places. I remember reading the fearless reporting from Vietnam, and also fearless journalism of a different type from Watergate. I loved the writing of Neal Ascherson, the taut forensic skill of Brian Walden, and the flamboyant showmanship of Robin Day. Charles Wheeler’s lugubrious delivery heightened the brave passion of the civil rights movement. James Morris wrote about war as a man and then, as Jan, inspired as a woman, writing with grace about her transition.
I have done a bit of foreign affairs correspondence, and I have anchored some dramatic moments, none more memorable than the horrors of 11 September. I was on air when the twin towers were attacked, and had to find the words to describe the unspeakable brutality and cruelty of the unfolding events. I kept my cool, I think, during the hours of live broadcast, but I wept when I got home. Some of the images that we could not show that day, such as the people jumping from the towers, will be forever seared into my mind. However, my work has mostly been confined to political correspondence—a safe place for journalists, even at Westminster.
Journalists working elsewhere in the world have very different experiences. Reporters Without Borders reports that only 12 countries worldwide are rated “good” for press freedom. Almost three quarters of countries have constrained press freedom. Fifty journalists were killed last year, and 387 were held in detention, which is a historic high. Unsurprisingly, the worst offenders are the most brutal, despotic regimes, with Saudi Arabia and China leading the rogues’ gallery. Fourteen journalists are currently detained for telling the truth about covid, and more than 1,000 have died of it.
Not only did the recent onslaught by Israel against the Palestinians trapped in the Gaza strip see the slaughter of 67 innocent children, who were killed outright or buried alive by bombs fired by a military superpower that claims that it uses precision bombing, but that same Israeli bombing campaign targeted journalistic outlets that were determined to report on the carnage. Israel—a country that describes itself as a western democracy—used fighter jets to bomb the building housing Associated Press and al-Jazeera in Gaza. No journalists in the building were killed, but we remember that in a previous Israeli onslaught in 2003, James Miller, a freelance Welsh cameraman, was killed by Israeli troops who continued to fire on him even after the reporter he was with shouted, “We are British journalists.” An inquest concluded that he had been murdered, but no Israeli soldiers were prosecuted.
There have been so many killings of journalists that it seems almost invidious to single out individuals, but we all remember Marie Colvin, the celebrated Sunday Times correspondent who was killed when Assad troops, who were almost certainly targeting her, shelled the building in Homs where she was sheltering as she covered the Syrian regime atrocities. Closer to home, it took the shooting of Lyra McKee by IRA thugs in Derry to get Northern Ireland’s recalcitrant political leaders to issue a joint statement condemning her murder as an attack on the political process and democracy. Although Frank Gardner, the BBC security correspondent, survived an al-Qaeda attack, we are forever reminded of the price he paid when we see him on our screens, reporting uncomplainingly and with grace from a wheelchair. They are brave and fearless, every one of them. Armed only with a pen, microphone or camera, they were killed by cowards bombing and shooting from afar.
Of course, as we have heard, the threat to journalists takes many forms. The spread of disinformation through social media, and attacks on professional journalism, are perhaps the most insidious new ones. The lies disseminated by Putin and Assad, to spread disinformation about the murder of journalists and political opponents, to disguise their responsibility for gas attacks and to blacken the name of, among others, the White Helmets, are amplified online by the malevolent and the naive.
Here today, we honour a fine craft. I hope that, whatever our politics, we as parliamentarians resolve to affirm the right of journalists, whether at home or abroad, to scrutinise and examine, and to probe and uncover, without fear or favour.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and to follow what has been an excellent debate. In an unusual opening gambit for a shadow Minister, may I first pay tribute to the Minister who, in Opposition as well as in Government, has made this issue a priority? I know it is something that he really believes in.
I also pay tribute to my good friend, the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who gave a fantastic opening exposition. He spoke about news deserts, and other hon. Members also spoke about the problems of local news and media. He also mentioned the importance of not forgetting online news and disinformation, on which I know he has done so much work in the past. It was a fantastic introduction.
Let me say first of all that we have to get our own house in order, starting here in this place, in Westminster. Too often, there is a tendency to attack journalism. It is still a matter of shame for me that four or five years ago, Laura Kuenssberg felt that she had to have a bodyguard to attend the Labour party conference. Once again, I send my apologies to her for that. More recently, a Conservative Minister caused the Twitter pile-on of a journalist who was asking perfectly innocent questions, and we have heard some unhelpful comments from the Prime Minister attacking all journalists. We have got SNP Members who attack the BBC because they do not like the way it covered the independence referendum. Plenty of Conservative MPs are always undermining the BBC and calling it for it to be defunded. We have Democratic Unionist party MPs who have a beef with Stephen Nolan and attack the BBC and its integrity. Those attacks need to stop. By all means complain about individual broadcasts, but stop undermining independent journalism.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) mentioned, the UK is ranked 33rd out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Restrictions on freedom of information and active threats to the safety of journalists in Northern Ireland continue to mar the UK’s press freedom record. We heard about the murder of Lyra McKee and her search for the truth. She was shot in 2019 during the riots that took place in Derry. It is truly shocking that on our shores journalists still face such a hostile environment.
The situation in Northern Ireland, incidentally, is becoming increasingly hostile. I heard recently the horrific story of Patricia Devlin, who has been subject to continuous and serious threats and abuse in recent years. In 2019, she reported receiving a Facebook message—I hesitate to say this, but I will—that suggested threats of rape against her baby. That is to a journalist in the UK. In a case in Barrow-in-Furness, Amy Fenton was run out of town by far-right gangs. We still have something to do in the UK. We need to make that a priority.
The focus of the debate is international. Numerous hon. Members referred to the disgraceful case of Roman Protasevich, which, frankly, was an act of piracy by the Belarusian Government. To those who would suggest that Mr Protasevich is not a journalist but merely a citizen blogger, when all the press in Belarus is so tightly controlled and not independent, citizen bloggers become the only source of independent information and, as has been mentioned, an essential independent voice.
In the debate, we heard that the number of journalists being killed is at an all-time high, with 387 being detained and 50 journalists killed around the world in 2020. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe mentioned the gunning down of the three female media workers in Afghanistan. In fact, the past decade has been the deadliest one for the profession, with a total of 1,059 journalists killed in the past 10 years simply for doing their job. That has to stop. Every year, every statistic, has a human side—the death of a mother or father, a brother or sister, a community left without information, denied that human right to be properly informed.
Let us not forget that the threat does not come only from authoritarian Governments. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) talked about Mexico, a country that he knows well. Journalists have been murdered for investigating powerful organised crime groups and drug cartels. Reference was made to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, with suggestions that elements of organised crime were working in concert with Governments. I ask the Minister for us to do more than simply condemn the detention and killing of journalists all around the world. More must be done to support those who are being silenced.
The BBC World Service does a fantastic job of projecting and promoting not just British values, but truthful and honest journalism. That is known throughout the world. Given those who say that we need to cut the BBC licence fee, I remind hon. Members in the Chamber and elsewhere that 70% of World Service funding comes from the licence fee—be careful what you wish for.
The BBC World Service is under threat. In China, the BBC World News TV channel has been banned by the Chinese authorities. In Hong Kong, the BBC World Service has been removed from the airwaves, after criticism of the BBC for its reporting on coronavirus and the persecution of the Uyghurs. World News distribution in mainland China was limited to international hotels; nevertheless, its loss is symbolically significant. John Sudworth, the BBC’s China correspondent whose reporting exposed truths about the Xinjiang detention camps, including sexual violence against Uyghur women, has now had to move to Taiwan, following pressure and threats from the Chinese authorities.
In Myanmar, BBC Burmese correspondent Aung Thura was taken away and detained along with a colleague towards the end of March, while reporting outside the court in the capital. The licences of media companies have been revoked and nightly internet shutdowns have been used to restrict news coverage and access to information.
Russia is also becoming an increasingly hostile environment for journalists. In recent years, many independent news organisations have closed down or curtailed their operations. Legislation governing the media is extensive and strict. The Russian authorities have made it clear that any action taken against the Russian state-backed TV channel RT in the UK will result in similar measures being taken against the BBC in Russia. Of course, there is the problem of the continuing harassment of BBC Persian staff, and their families, by Iran. It is deeply troubling and continues to escalate. The Iranian authorities have targeted Persian journalists, the BBC and their families since the service launched satellite television in 2009. Intimidation of the family members of BBC Persian staff in Iran is a regular occurrence. This takes various forms, including arrests, detention, questioning, threats that jobs or pensions will be lost, confiscation of passports and asset freezes. I ask the Minister to reflect on the situation of BBC Persian journalists, and ensure that they and their families in this country and abroad are safe.
I refer briefly to the question on the bombing of the news premises in Gaza, mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North and many others. What happened is an absolute outrage. The building was deliberately targeted and that cannot be allowed without massive criticism of the Israeli air force.
Finally, I reflect on an increasingly problematic matter, mentioned by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), the question of SLAPPs—an acronym that I think came first and the words to fill it after—strategic lawsuits against public participation. It is a real problem. Legal threats against journalists are far from a new phenomenon. Yet increasingly, media outlets and freelance journalists—even those with no links to the UK—report receiving letters from London law firms acting on behalf of the people they are investigating. The high costs and long time periods involved in fighting legal threats in the UK pile significant pressure on individual journalists or media outlets to withdraw or refrain from publishing their investigations, even if they believe them to be accurate and in the public interest. Taken usually by powerful or wealthy individuals and entities, the intention is not to address a genuine grievance, but to stifle investigations into matters of public interest through intimidation, and by consuming the target’s financial and psychological resources.
These types of vexatious legal threats can also come hand in hand with orchestrated smear campaigns, offline surveillance and other forms of harassment against journalists. Some of the recent examples include lawsuits filed by Russian billionaires against Catherine Belton; by the allies of the Malaysian Prime Minister against Clare Rewcastle Brown; and a lawsuit filed against OCCRP and its co-founder Paul Radu, by an Azerbaijani politician. Perhaps even more shocking is the involvement of UK legal companies who actively advertise such services to their clients. The UK is the leading international source of these threats, almost equivalent to those stemming from EU countries and the US combined.
To protect media freedom at home and abroad, the UK must take action to address two interlinked trends—first, the role that London continues to hold as an international libel capital, despite reforms to English and Welsh law in 2013, and the impact of such legal action, or even the threat of it, in the UK on journalists around the world; and secondly, the impact that the UK’s facilitation through its financial and legal systems of illicit finance links to political elites in countries with poor democratic records has on media freedom there. It is not surprising that countries with higher rates of corruption tend to have the fewest protections for journalists and the media. The so-called SLAPPs damage the UK’s reputation as a haven for free speech, and I urge the Minister to look into that issue.
It is clear that press and media freedoms are under threat around the world. For a country that is part of the global Media Freedom Coalition, there is a long way to go to promote and protect press freedom. I know that the National Union of Journalists advises that there should be a new convention, which is stronger than the demand solely for a special representative. A new convention would systemise and detail existing obligations, enhance the visibility of the journalists and the protection required for journalism, and codify multiple texts into one comprehensive document. We need to value journalists and their contribution, protect their livelihoods and stand up for universal rights and freedoms, democracy and the rule of law everywhere, and against violations wherever they take place. That must support freedom of expression, and specifically media freedoms.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) on securing the debate and on his work to promote media freedom. I am particularly grateful to him for taking over as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, which I chaired until February 2020.
A lot of Members have focused on dreadful abuses of media freedom in different countries around the world, and so to some extent Members might have expected a response from a Foreign Office Minister. The Minister who has specific responsibility for the subject is my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, who is doing a great job championing media freedom internationally. He is obviously prevented from taking part in this debate in our House, but I work with him closely.
It is encouraging that there has been widespread recognition across this Chamber that media freedom is a crucial component of an open, democratic society. We may not always like or agree with what is written about us in the press, but the role of a free media in holding Government to account, in exposing corruption or malpractice and in providing trusted, reliable information and reporting has never been more important. However, media freedom is under increasing threat across the world. A number of Members pointed out that 50 journalists were killed last year while doing their job. According to Reporters Without Borders, which does a terrific job of monitoring that and campaigning, already this year 13 more journalists or media assistants have been killed, and there are currently 439 in prison. The summary analysis of its World Press Freedom Index 2021, published in April, said that journalism is completely or partly blocked in 73% of the 180 countries ranked in the index; that the coronavirus pandemic has been used by Governments as cover for blocking journalists’ access to information; and that journalists find it increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories, especially in Asia, the middle east and Europe.
I join a number of those who have contributed in paying tribute to the courage of journalists working in some of the most difficult, dangerous and challenging parts of the world. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) reminded us of our own Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria along with her photographer, French journalist Rémi Ochlik, in 2012. I am sure he heard, as I have, Paul Conroy, who was also badly injured at that time, talk about how the shelling that killed Marie Colvin and her colleague was deliberately aimed at them because they were journalists.
It is because media freedom is so important that the Government have championed the cause of media freedom around the world. As has been mentioned, in July 2019 the UK hosted the Global Conference for Media Freedom, which led to the establishment of the Media Freedom Coalition of like-minded countries that pledged to collaborate to improve the media freedom environment across the world. The UK continues to co-chair the coalition. It is still a relatively young body, but it is growing and currently has 47 members. This year the coalition has already issued statements about China, Belarus and Myanmar, as well as a statement marking World Press Freedom Day. We are working on giving the coalition more impact on the ground by encouraging local collaboration in countries with those who are better able to engage with Governments and lobby them directly.
A number of countries have been mentioned, but I think it is important to speak about the most recent appalling example of the danger faced by journalists, which is of course the hijacking of an aeroplane and then the detention of Roman Protasevich in Belarus. In 2018, I led an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Belarus. There was no question: the country was not democratic or free, and journalism was under terrific pressure. We met independent journalists operating there. Reporters Without Borders has assessed Belarus as the most dangerous country in Europe for media actors. I am pleased that the Government are supporting independent media organisations in that country, and we have already committed £2.7 million of support for independent media in Belarus. Alongside the Government, the IPU has been very active in championing media freedom and organising conferences, and I can remember listening to the relatives of journalists operating for the BBC’s Persian Service. The Persian Service is not able to operate in Iran. Its journalists broadcast from London on the BBC, but their relatives in Iran are being subjected to harassment and intimidation. We will continue to high- light that and to put pressure on the Iranian Government to respect their freedom.
As I said, the World Press Freedom Index, which several Members have referred to and which was published in April, showed that the UK had risen by two places, to No. 33. It is obviously good news that we have gone up in the rankings, but to some extent that is because other countries have gone down. It demonstrates that we undoubtedly still have a lot of work to do. The death of Lyra McKee, a journalist in Belfast, is happily a very rare example of where a journalist in this country has lost their life in the course of their work, but there is no question that journalists in the UK still suffer dreadful harassment and abuse.
The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) mentioned Amy Fenton. I have met and talked to her about the abuse that occurred, which led her to have to seek police protection. It was for that reason that we established the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, which brings together senior figures from law enforcement, the police, the prosecuting authorities, the campaigning organisations, the Government, and both the Society of Editors and the National Union of Journalists. The aim was to demonstrate a shared commitment to ensure that journalists are free to carry out their vital role without threats of violence.
We have now published the first ever national action plan for the safety of journalists, which sets out the actions that all the partners will take to protect journalists. Every police force will have a dedicated officer to whom journalists can make a complaint, or whom they can contact in the event of abuse against them. The police will be trained, particularly about the importance of safeguarding journalists. Employers will provide extra training, and the platforms where a lot of the abuse occurs have said that they will establish designated journalism safety officers.
There is still more to be done, and one of the first things that we want to do is to get more evidence about the scale of the problem. We will shortly be publishing the call for evidence, and I hope that any journalist operating in the UK who has suffered in such a way will respond to it. I am delighted that our work on that has already been praised at the Stockholm Conference on Media Freedom in the OSCE region, and has perhaps contributed to the promotion in the ranking of the UK on the World Press Freedom Index.
In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), I can confirm that the UK is using our presidency of the G7 to highlight the importance of media freedom. We will be asking G7 members to reconfirm their commitment to defend media freedom and to provide practical, technical and programmatic support to journalists and media, including through the global media defence fund. The fund was set up with the help of the UK and UNESCO, which currently manages it, and we continue to support it. In 2019, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office pledged £3 million to the fund over the next five years, and we are delivering on that commitment. To date, the fund has supported a variety of activities, such as pursuing strategic litigation with the goal of challenging laws and regulations that infringe on media freedom in Zanzibar, and investigative journalism that is focused on cases of threatened, prosecuted, imprisoned, attacked or assassinated journalists in the Philippines.
I thank the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom for its contribution to international efforts to promote media freedom. We are now working through all the recommendations of its report, with a view to responding.
Just before I finish, I will touch on an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe and by the right hon. Member for Islington North—the threat to sustainable journalism, especially traditional media, as a result of the growth of social media and the power of the online platforms. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that issue; it is a matter of considerable concern. As he well knows, we have received a number of reports highlighting the need for action. He will also be aware that we recently established the Digital Markets Unit in the Competition and Markets Authority, which will bring in mandatory codes of conduct to ensure that the relationship between publishers—in other words, media—and the platforms is not abused by the over-dominance and anti-competitive practice of the platforms.
There is still a lot of work to do, but I am determined that this country should address the concerns that have been rightly expressed today about what happens in the UK, and I am also determined that we should continue to champion media freedom wherever it is under threat across the world. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe for giving us the opportunity to show that this House is united in that ambition.
Thank you for calling me again, Ms Ghani.
I thank all Members for their participation in what has been a really excellent debate. We have heard many harrowing stories of attacks on individual journalists, many of whom have lost their lives, for seeking to speak truth to power, to make citizens aware of abuses of power, and to campaign for change.
In my 11 years as a Member of Parliament, I can think of so many issues that I have been involved with, personally or as a member or Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and coverage of so many of them was initiated by the work of investigative journalists, bringing to the attention of Parliament and politicians serious issues that needed to be addressed. So journalism is a vital part of a vibrant democracy, and we should take any attack against the media and journalism anywhere in the world incredibly seriously.
A number of Members, and indeed the Minister, too, raised the serious challenges that exist in the digital world. As the Minister said, it is right that we create the infrastructure to safeguard journalism in the future, through the operation of the draft Online Safety Bill and in particular through the Digital Markets Unit, to ensure that there is not an abuse of market power that will undermine media and could effectively turn journalism into a behind-closed-doors product that a few people pay for but many citizens are simply not exposed to at all. That would be a terrible outcome.
The final point that I will make, which I and others—particularly the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson)—made during the debate, is the important one about abuse of the legal system in the UK to shut down legitimate journalism and legitimate inquiry with lengthy and expensive lawsuits. We have seen examples of that and it is another important area where we need to safeguard journalism in the UK, too.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered World Press Freedom Day 2021.
Green Homes Grant Voucher Scheme
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2019–21, Energy efficiency of existing homes, HC 346, and the Government response, HC 135; Oral evidence taken before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on 9 February, 16 March and 20 April 2021, on Decarbonising heat in homes, HC 851; Written evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, on Decarbonising heat in homes, reported to the House on 5 February, and 13, 27 and 29 April 2021, HC 851; Oral evidence taken before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on 13 April 2021, on Work of the Department and Government response to Coronavirus, HC 301.]
Sorry for the slight delay due to technical problems. I ask Members attending physically whether they would not mind cleaning their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall other than when speaking.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the Green Homes Grant voucher scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Robertson, albeit remotely. Apologies if I am improperly dressed. I thank the Chairman of Ways and Means for allowing the debate to take place, because it was postponed as a result of Prorogation happening a day earlier than previously planned. I am grateful for that flexibility. I am moving the motion because, as Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, I have a particular interest in energy efficiency and the contribution that it needs to make to enable the country to meet our net zero obligations.
The green homes grant scheme was announced with some fanfare in July last year by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as the centrepiece of the economic package of emergency measures to aid our economic recovery from covid. It was announced as a £1.5 billion scheme, not previously flagged as part of the manifesto commitment from the previous general election, with a very welcome ambition to improve 600,000 homes by March 2021 and in so doing create some 100,000 jobs.
The scheme did not open for applications until late September last year, which in itself led to an unfortunate hiatus in orders for energy efficiency improvements, as householders intending to proceed with some improvements stalled orders while they awaited the prospect of grant funding. The financial grants on offer to install energy efficiency measures and some types of low-carbon heating such as heat pumps were capped at £5,000 per property but up to £10,000 for fuel-poor households—but accessing the grants proved extremely difficult. I am sure others will come to that.
In November, the green homes grant scheme was extended for a further year to March 2022 due to the demand for applications. That was welcome, because one of the shortcomings of the scheme had been its short duration. The scheme was intended to mobilise the energy-efficiency supply chain, but as a consequence of intrinsic problems in its application and implementation, it had a perverse impact, with several installation companies seeking to use the scheme having to lay off staff because of the difficulties consumers had had in gaining access to it.
Prior to the voucher scheme’s closure in March this year, it had received more than 113,000 applications— 10 times as many as under the coalition Government’s green deal—so it was clear that there was demand. By 5 May, the last date for which statistics have been published, some 57,500 vouchers had been issued and 15,500 measures had been installed. Some 1,880 installation companies had expressed interest in becoming accredited under the scheme, but only 1,021 were classed as active, so barely half of those installers who had been interested in participating in the scheme had done so. I suspect that was in large part due to the varying uncertainties surrounding the scheme.
The Environmental Audit Committee held an inquiry on the energy efficiency of existing homes, which we launched in May last year—before the scheme had been announced—and concluded in March, a week before the scheme was scrapped. I am pleased to see my excellent Committee colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), in his place for the debate; I look forward to his contribution. The Committee made recommendations about necessary improvements to the scheme. We wanted to see it overhauled and, crucially, extended to make it more effective. We certainly did not want to see it scaled back or scrapped. I will not dwell on the shortcomings of the scheme any more than I have already—they were manifest, and I am sure others will point out some of the specific challenges—but focus my remarks on what is needed in the future.
It is hard to overstate the scale of the challenge presented by the need to improve the energy efficiency of our homes. The UK has one of the least efficient housing stocks in Europe. Domestic properties account for almost a fifth of the UK’s carbon emissions. There are 29 million homes across the UK, 19 million of which do not meet the energy performance certificate C rating. Even those that do, in many cases, do so without effective insulation and so could do better. The Climate Change Committee has said that the UK’s legally binding climate change targets will not be met without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from UK building stock by 2050.
Failure to address, with urgency, the energy efficiency of the country’s homes could seriously jeopardise our emissions, now enshrined in statute to be net zero by 2050. The Government know that, having been elected on a manifesto that allocated £9.2 billion to be spent during this Parliament on improving heat in buildings, only a third of which has been allocated now that the green homes grant scheme has been ended. The funding needs to be deployed in new, more flexible, more enduring and more realistic schemes, as I shall touch on when I conclude my remarks.
The task is colossal. In England alone, more than 10 million owner-occupied homes and more than 3 million private rented sector landlords need to upgrade the energy efficiency of their homes to become at least EPC C rated by 2035. In the Government response to our report, the suggestion was made that the target will be brought forward to around 2030. I would just like the scale of that to sink in with the Minister, who I know is not normally responsible for this area. If that acceleration were to happen, 13.6 million homes in England would require retrofitting over nine years. That is equivalent to 1.5 million properties a year or 125,000 properties a month, each and every month between, say, the end of this year and the end of 2030.
This will be at the same time as the construction industry, which is by and large responsible for this work, is supposed to be delivering 300,000 new homes a year. For context, I should say that the green homes grant scheme achieved 15,500 installations in six months. That is a fraction of what would be required every month from now until the end of the period.
The good news is that this is a colossal business opportunity, including for many small and medium-sized enterprises, for whom, as small business Minister, my hon. Friend has responsibility. For contractors to seize this opportunity, they need to have their confidence restored that the Government have a coherent plan, with support available, to be clearly established once the domestic renewable heat incentive scheme ends next March, which is currently the only scheme available.
The Government have been dropping hints that they will mandate energy efficiency at the point of sale or renovation of a property. We expect that to be spelled out in the heat in buildings strategy. Homeowners need support to get there. I would find it very challenging for the Government if minimum standards of energy efficiency were brought in for owner-occupiers without some financial support, given the scale of work required. It is not just buying a heat pump; it requires significant insulation, in particular to properties that are in isolated rural locations. Rural, stand-alone or elderly properties are often much harder to insulate with a retrofit and it is therefore more expensive. If no support is available, there is a genuine risk of blight on millions of homes.
What can we learn from the green homes grant scheme? Demand for the scheme was there. Our Committee received no evidence that covid was causing a problem, which at one point the Government hinted at. That was evidenced in the consumer survey that the Committee conducted: covid was not referenced as a problem at all. The good news is that there is demand there from home- owners.
The Government redirected some of the green homes grant funding to the local authority delivery scheme, which is welcome, but it will not reach all those who need help as only some local authorities have had successful bids. It may not help SMEs in the sector, where support for jobs is needed, since local authorities will often award projects to larger construction companies or to their own in-house workforces.
An example is E.ON, which recruited some 100 permanent roles to deliver the local authority scheme. That is good for those who were employed, but it does not help SMEs. We need to see support available to homeowners across the country—and with it, jobs. Bringing all homes up to EPC C would achieve more than the 100,000 jobs that the Government were talking about; one of our witnesses at the Committee, the Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group, indicated that it would support 150,000 jobs from the moment it began.
I want to see a long-term replacement—certainly five years and preferably 10 years—for the green homes grant scheme. It should be funded as one of the spending review announcements. A replacement scheme needs to be as free of bureaucracy as possible, consistent—obviously—with the need to beware of the risk of fraud. Government and industry need to work together to design a scheme. Sadly, that was not the case with the green homes grant scheme from the point of inception. The scheme needs to be long-term to give the right signals to the sector, to train the people required to do the work, and to enable them to have confidence that they can afford the accreditation process.
Above all, the scheme needs to be easy for the public to understand. It needs to cover a simple hierarchy of measures and to be flexible enough to cope with the individual requirements of individual properties. No two properties are identical, and the notion of having two different tiers—in which some work has to be completed under one tier before being able to move on to the other —was far too complicated and put many people off.
The Government should look to other solutions to improve domestic energy efficiency. In our report, our Committee called for a reduction in VAT on renovations that improve energy efficiency. That would be a simple way to incentivise work. We already have zero rating on new homes, so why not zero or 5%, depending on the item, for those that need improving as well?
We feel that the Treasury has taken a sceptical approach to such measures. It ruled out changes to VAT or stamp duty rebates, which is another suggestion made by industry that we think has significant scope: the rebate would be spent on getting the building up to energy efficiency standards. The UK Green Building Council published a report this week containing a revenue-neutral proposal for just that: a stamp duty rebate to encourage energy efficiency, and I strongly urge the Minister to encourage his colleagues at the Treasury to look at such a scheme.
We welcome the fact that the Government are working with lenders for green mortgages. That has real potential, and there is a lot of enthusiasm in the mortgage industry for attaching green mortgages to their product portfolio. Again, we need to be wary that if we raise standards without providing support or mechanisms to allow people to improve their properties, potential buyers of properties that do not meet the standard may not get access to mortgages. That could have a significant impact on those properties’ value. The Government should also look to the national infrastructure bank to provide finance. The Government have said that the bank’s remit will be established this summer, and we hope that this will be included within it.
I will touch briefly on the energy performance certificate regime. The certificates were originally designed to provide a basic indicator of the energy cost of running a home, but they now underpin a range of Government policies and targets—including not only the legally binding fuel poverty targets, but the ambition to have as many homes as possible at grade C by 2035 or earlier, as indicated by me, and the minimum energy efficiency standard for private homes.
EPCs have a range of flaws, as was demonstrated to me by an assessor who I met last week. I asked to be taken through how the algorithm works. It is now undertaken through a centralised Government website, where the assessor puts in the parameters of the property and out comes the result. Just to illustrate to Members how perplexing this is, for a rural three-bedroom cottage currently fuelled by domestic heating oil in my constituency, where we had all the details, replacing that heating oil with a heat pump and doing nothing else would increase the EPC rating by two points. It is necessary to move by nine or 10 points in order to move up a rating, so doing so barely moves the dial on its own.
The EPC rating penalises off-grid and rural homes in particular, as too much weighting is given to fuel costs. If a person is on a domestic heating oil system because that is the cheapest method of heating their home, but they then introduce energy efficiency measures, that does not move the rating, and they cannot adopt a non-fossil fuel system if it is more expensive. The EPC methodology is therefore not addressing the fundamental challenge, so we recommend that it is fundamentally overhauled to support low-carbon heating measures by indicating in its headline rating not only the fuel cost of heating a property, but its energy and carbon metrics. This must be done before we set minimum efficiency standards for homes. Eye-catching top-line targets for heat pump installations are welcome, and raising minimum energy performance standards for homes is all very well, but what is desperately needed is a coherent plan to achieve the targets that are being set.
Homeowners need to be made aware of the benefits for the planet, but also for their pocket, as reduced energy demand will reduce energy bills. They need to be given the confidence to invest in energy efficiency and low-carbon heating. My Committee and I remain of the view that a replacement scheme for the green homes grant is needed, and that this should be announced and funded in the next spending review.
This replacement scheme will need to endure for several years and be free of bureaucratic obstacles. Alongside that, an overhaul of energy performance certificates is needed to make sure that progress towards decarbonising our homes is not penalised. The Government’s recent response to our report frankly raises the stakes for the heat in buildings strategy, which is due to be published; it has been much delayed, and we would like to see it published as soon as possible. We very much hope that we will not be disappointed by that strategy, and that tangible action to implement it, backed up by Treasury funding, is taken as soon as possible after its publication.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Robertson. Before I begin, I declare an interest: my wife works for the Association for Decentralised Energy.
Today’s debate is a timely one, not just because of its necessary focus on the failures of the green homes grant scheme and the lessons we should draw, but because of the foundational importance of energy efficiency to the success of our net zero targets. It was therefore a pleasure to sponsor the debate application, and I commend the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) on his and his Committee’s leadership on this issue. His Committee was instrumental in highlighting concerns about this scheme earlier this year, and I am grateful for the seriousness and detail of their ongoing work in this area, not least in opening today’s debate.
We on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee are nearing the end of a major inquiry looking directly at how Britain can meet the challenges posed by decarbonising heat in our homes, in addition to monitoring our overall progress as a country in meeting our net zero targets at home as we seek to lead abroad by example at COP. There is little point decarbonising the heating in our buildings if those buildings are not energy efficient, and we will not meet our net zero targets if we do not decarbonise how we heat our homes, so these issues are inextricably linked. Those decarbonisation targets present huge opportunities for citizens right across the country, from reducing our energy bills at home and making our homes more comfortable to live in to creating consumer demand for small and large businesses in every community, and creating green jobs for the workers who will be needed to go into each and every one of our homes over the decade ahead.
That was the key impetus behind the green homes grant scheme announcement when it was unveiled last year, and rightly so. It is therefore critically important that the grant scheme’s failure, and that of its predecessor initiatives, does not put paid to that ambition but provides us with an opportunity to reflect and reboot. At the same time, the scale of the green homes grant debacle—which, as has been pointed out, the Government scrapped after enabling fewer than 6,000 installations, or less than 1% of its stated target—underlined the importance of fully investigating its failings to ensure that they are not repeated.
The right hon. Member for Ludlow and his Committee drew out in welcome detail how a panoply of design flaws led to an approvals framework that proved burdensome for builders and installers, impenetrable to homeowners, and saw installations run up against regulatory muddle and paralysing delays. Shipping out the delivery of the scheme to the lowest pay provider was neither realistic nor sensible, and realising the importance and capacity of local authorities to deliver better than Whitehall in my view is key.
Too easily, however, that experience could give way to miserablism and receding ambition, so as we interrogate the causes of the scheme’s failure, I will stress the importance of getting back on track quickly. Lifting energy efficiency standards in homes remains the key short-term measure of success in decarbonising, not only because the quality of our existing buildings is often so inadequate but because real progress is feasibly deliverable, with the Climate Change Committee putting the per-home cost at under £10,000.
In spite of that, our progress to date in decarbonising buildings has stalled, with emission reductions in the sector sitting stagnant for more than a decade. The single biggest impediment to substantial private sector investment, however—most importantly, to remedy Britain’s skills shortfall in this area, which continues to put a ceiling on our capacity to deliver—remains the Government’s hesitancy.
Last month, my Committee heard evidence about the kind of time and financial outlay that smaller businesses confront in getting accredited to take on those jobs. For businesses to believe that such investments are justified, it is incumbent on Ministers to provide certainty that the Government will be in it for the long haul. We have seen far too many false starts. It is past time for a properly funded strategy, sustained over the coming decade and beyond, and I therefore associate myself with the calls of the right hon. Member for Ludlow.
In that spirit, my biggest worry is that the green homes grant experience typifies the pervasive lack of strategy running through the Government’s attitude to climate policy. The fanfare that accompanied the scheme’s unveiling last year was of a piece with a now-typical approach: far-reaching targets, soaring rhetoric, but a failure to follow through. Targets, however ambitious, are no substitute for delivery. The scheme’s premature demise is an object lesson in the importance of getting the basics right.
I am confident that we can rise to that challenge, and create a sense of hope and opportunity for the British people as we move towards our net zero target, but we must be honest with ourselves, learn the lessons and step up to meet that challenge in the first place. I hope that the debate, the work of the respective Select Committees and the preparation of Ministers to put forward a replacement for the green homes grant in advance of the Budget later this year provide the space and opportunity to get this right once and for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
The debate is an important one, because when we talk about climate change, we tend to focus a lot more on transport than we do on buildings, and yet buildings are our second biggest cause of emissions. Domestic buildings are 30% of our energy use and 19% of our emissions overall.
Ultimately, I would like to see more of what I have in my constituency, from Greencore Construction, which has built homes that are net zero in both build and use. It sold them to housing associations at the same price they would pay for other houses. It has continued to innovate and, with recent modifications, reduced the carbon emissions by a further 40%. Those are now carbon-positive homes. I have taken the Secretary of State for BEIS and others to see them, because what the company is doing is really impressive. In July, it will be talking at my pre-COP summit for Wantage and Didcot constituents.
More broadly, I welcome the commitment on the future homes standard to reduce the amount of emissions by 75% to 80%. That is very positive but, again, that is about new homes and we know we have an issue with the homes that have already been built.
I was excited by the green homes grant scheme. I was excited by the ambition to make homes more energy-efficient. I was also excited by the jobs that I hoped it would stimulate in the supply chain. I was very disappointed when it was cancelled due, at least in part, to lack of take-up, although there were clearly other issues with it.
We have a heat and building strategy coming. We will have to see what is in that—I hope it will tackle some of the issues we are discussing—but as of today, I would support another scheme. I will quickly offer some observations on things that I have seen as a constituency MP which we would need to retain or change if we were to have a new scheme.
First, I thought it was really important that we gave more financial support to low-income households. That is the fairness aspect that shines through in the Climate Assembly report. We do not want policy decisions and judgments to be made by the most affluent in society; we should not judge everything that those on low incomes are doing without giving them the support to make changes that they may well want to but just do not have the means to make.
Secondly, price hikes very definitely took place once the scheme had been announced. Constituents wrote to me to say, “I know what that should cost because I looked at the price last week, and suddenly it has gone up.” I am not sure that there is a lot the Government can do about that—they had price guidelines for applications to the scheme. I suspect this kind of thing always happens, but I think it would be positive if we did whatever we could to avoid price hikes.
Thirdly, there was debate about the kitemark. I defended the use of the kitemark for the tradesmen, because it is important that we do not have cowboy tradesmen—for want of a better term—doing shoddy work. I know there is a debate about whether TrustMark was the right one for this. Maybe it was not, but I think it is important to have that kitemark.
Fourthly, there is a broader issue—not just for this scheme but for our strategy as a whole—relating to historic listed buildings. I have four towns in my constituency, but 64 villages. The homes that are built in Didcot are of varying quality, but they are new, whereas the homes in the villages are often protected in various ways and face a whole bucket of issues. Many of the people in those villages are keen to make their own contributions to combating climate change, but there is a range of things that we have not yet got to grips with, from the fact that some of those homes can use only oil for their heating because they are off the gas grid, to whether they are allowed to have solar panels. There is also lime rendering, which was something about which I did not know very much, but which certain types of home need as part of the insulation process. That can only be done at certain times of the year, and there are not many tradesmen who can do it.
Those things feed into the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne): if we are going to have another scheme, it needs to be over a long enough time period that we can get those things right. We need to make sure that prices are not hiked too much, that we are using the right kitemark, and that tradesmen see it as in their interests to get that kitemark because of the length of time that it will cover. We also need the scheme to cover enough seasons that those things that can be done only at certain times of the year can be included. We might even train more people who have experience with older, historic buildings, because that issue left rural areas at a considerable disadvantage in the short timeframe the scheme was to designed to cover.
We will probably still spend a lot more time talking about the cars we drive and the plane journeys we take, but unless we can make the progress we need to make on buildings, we will continue to hamstring our ability to tackle our net zero goals.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) for securing this important debate. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
In the summer of 2020, I joined Members from across the House, along with trade unions, industry leaders and environmental groups, in welcoming the announcement of the green homes grants scheme. It represented a welcome opportunity to support the construction industry at a time of immense economic hardship, to slash energy costs and tackle the scourge of fuel poverty, and to create thousands of high-quality jobs in left-behind communities such as my constituency of Birkenhead.
Less than a year later, however, the scheme has been consigned to the scrapheap and businesses have been left to pay the price. Ministerial infighting and bureaucratic incompetence has doomed to abject failure what was supposed to be a shovel-ready project. Of the £1.5 billion originally allotted, around £1.4 billion has gone unspent, and a measly £300 million has been reallocated to the local authority delivery scheme. Instead of creating the 100,000 jobs that were promised, the TUC estimates that the scrappage of the green homes grant will cost 13,000 jobs across the north west, in a shameful betrayal of the very work of small businesses that the scheme was supposed to support.
We should not be surprised. The scrapping of the scheme is just the latest in a long line of Government failures to live up to promises on climate change—failures that have left the UK widely off course to meet both our fourth and fifth carbon budgets. If we are serious about tackling climate breakdown, we need urgent action to reduce household emissions. However, this is not just about the environment. The retrofitting of homes and the transition to low-carbon heating systems such as heat pumps and hydrogen boilers also has a vital role to play in delivering on the Chancellor’s promise of a green jobs revolution and creating badly-needed jobs in towns such as Birkenhead, which for far too long have suffered a chronic shortage of work and training opportunities.
It is imperative that the Government now reflect on the many failings of the green homes grant scheme and get us back on track to meeting our targets for retrofitting homes. That means working with industry leaders and local authorities to design a plan that is both ambitious and achievable and puts job creation and training opportunities for young people at its heart.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also an honour to speak in the debate called by the excellent Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), and I am delighted to support him here today.
With every good intention, the Government launched this scheme to a fanfare, as we have heard, in September 2020. Of course, one has to applaud the efforts to help households improve their energy efficiency, placing them at the centre to decarbonise our homes. However, there is no doubt that the scheme has been beset with problems. The take-up has been well short of any expectations, but then, as they say, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Launching a scheme without having anywhere near enough approved installers—as we heard, just 1,021 active companies—meant that the issues under the green homes grant quickly became apparent. My constituency office has tried to help many people who struggled to access the grants. It did not help, obviously, that we had further lockdowns and an apparent reluctance of home- owners to see installers come into their homes. However, that finding was not included in our Environmental Audit Committee report. We will give the benefit to the Government on that, and I know that they cannot be blamed for those further issues, but we did not see evidence of that.
I welcomed the drive to create jobs with the scheme, especially in the construction and property renovation sector that drives a lot of our economy. The drive to improve the energy efficiency of low-income households, reduce fuel poverty and work to phase out high-carbon fossil fuel heating is all laudable. Decarbonising our homes is a key priority in the race to net zero, and through the 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution and the energy White Paper, the Government have set out how they plan to decarbonise our buildings. However, I want to make a point here about a preoccupation with retrofitting, which has led to my Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into the sustainability of the build environment. The green homes grant is focused on reducing carbon emissions in the operating efficiency of an existing home, but we have hardly touched on the build environment. The materials that we use in the construction sector account for 11% of emissions that contribute to climate change. Concrete and steel production is dreadful for the environment. We need to look at more sustainable materials such as engineered wood and other more organic materials, which are far more prevalent in Europe. It is my hope that my inquiry will shine a light on that.
I wish that in the green homes grant scheme conception the use of natural materials such as lambs’ wool insulation had been given far greater weight. Natural materials are growing in prominence, but the Government must further incentivise consumers to drive their take-up. The green homes grant could have been the perfect launchpad to do this, which is why I welcome one of our findings—that consumers should be incentivised with a VAT cut.
I applaud every intention of the scheme. I recognise, with fairness, its shortcomings. Some of them could have been foreseen; some should have been foreseen; and some were exacerbated by extraordinary circumstances. Nevertheless the intentions and the lessons are valuable. The idea behind the scheme was not a bad one, but schemes involving vouchers—I should know this from being an ex-retailer—sometimes take a long time to bed in. We must have people ready to go.
So, having learned those lessons, I hope that instead of scrapping the scheme entirely, there is the appetite for another attempt, learning from where we went wrong. If we are to get anywhere near the targets that we need to reach with our homes, the incentives in the scheme must be kept going. The findings of the EAC need heeding, because the demand was there; that was proved. Reducing VAT is a very strong idea and I again echo the thoughts of the Chairman of the EAC in saying to the Minister, “Let’s try to extend the scheme, rather than have a full-scale scrapping of it”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson; I think that I do so for the first time.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) on securing this hugely important debate, on his Committee’s leadership on this issue, and on keeping alive the idea and the ambition of the green homes grant. I hope that there will be many future conversations about it, and that this will not be the end of it; I hope that the green homes grant will not slip away silently without our learning from it.
I think there is also some cross-party agreement here, which I always welcome. There is agreement about the need for the scheme; a general welcoming of the scheme’s ambition; agreement about the need to learn from and improve on the scheme; and agreement about the need to bring it back in some form. I hope that this debate will contribute to its return.
Like other Members, several constituents have contacted me after trying and failing to get a green homes grant. One of them wanted to have improvements in tier two but not in tier one, so they really wanted to make a change to their house, which was very commendable, but they could not get into the scheme. And others, in trying to access it, had to go back three times for new quotes. Thankfully, they were very persistent—they really wanted to do this—but they still have not heard about their application, despite making it in early October. That shows some of the frustrations that have arisen, and that the scheme was set up with barriers inside it that stopped it from working. I will go on to say more about those barriers.
In total, 40% of UK carbon emissions come from UK households, with over half coming from heating and electricity. As the Committee on Climate Change has made clear, those emissions need to be reduced by 44% by 2030 if we are to meet the UK’s fifth carbon budget. As was said earlier, that is a huge challenge.
If we look at the 15,500 successful applicants to the scheme in the six months that it was running, and if we look at the 10 million owner-occupied homes that need to be retrofitted and brought up to environmental standards, we can see that at that rate it will take us 323 years to deliver the change we need. In a climate emergency, we simply do not have that time.
Last month, I held an all-party parliamentary group on sustainable resource roundtable with leaders from the energy and buildings industries, company leaders and other representatives, to get their views on the ending of the grant and what we can learn from it. They were incredibly disappointed at its closure and believe that we need it back as soon as possible, so there is willingness from the industry to see the scheme work in a future form. As has been said, demand was definitely there. More than 210,000 applications had been made to the scheme by the time of its closure, and I think there would have been even more if the application process had been easier.
There were certainly problems with the design of the scheme, but the overwhelming enthusiasm with which it was met by householders is very striking. That willingness to pay for home efficiency improvements, if it could be encouraged with some financial help in conjunction with Government schemes, should not be squandered now. We should press on.
Those in attendance at that meeting felt that ending the scheme after just six months of operation suggested an inconsistent approach to energy efficiency and a lack of faith in Government policy. In fact, the owner-occupied market may now be disincentivised as a result, which is why it is even more important that, as well as looking back to learn, we quickly move on and address people’s willingness to take this up.
It is absolutely critical that we act fast. Whatever comes next, we must, as a minimum, include the following. First, as has been said, the scheme must last a minimum of 10 years, to allow industry to develop the necessary skills, provide investor confidence and meet objectives over a sustained period. Those skills could be built up and delivered by local colleges such as mine, which would love to be part of the green jobs revolution that this could bring about. If the Government committed to a 10-year grant programme of home insulation and renewable energy improvements, suppliers could expand to meet that demand, knowing that there was time to invest.
Secondly, a future scheme must cover all homes. As well as social housing, the Government must support owner-occupied homes and private landlords in the energy efficiency transition. That will require the Government to implement and co-ordinate a range of concurrent schemes to suit the different markets. The Government must think big on this.
Thirdly, the scheme must be easy to access for my and all our constituents across the country. People are willing to access it, but they will put off by any barriers put in their way. If it is really difficult to access, the scheme will fail. It must be easy to access.
Fourthly, a future scheme must expand the accredited supplier base. Inviting a small number of companies to deliver the grant was a mistake, as they were overwhelmed by demand at a time when the number of people wanting to do DIY on their homes increased massively during lockdown. The British Board of Agrément accreditation service provides quality assurance for all the relevant building sectors: insulation, wall cladding, floors, heating, ventilation, walls and doors and roofing. All of those accredited suppliers need to be able to participate in the scheme.
Fifthly, a new cohort of inspectors must be created and trained. This was a limiting factor in the previous scheme. Grenfell sadly demonstrated just how dangerously unregulated the building industry has become. Creating a new body of locally based and easily accessible inspectors, who would also inspect the delivery of grant scheme installations, would provide the dual benefit of building safety and fraud avoidance.
Finally, it is vital that the Government work with the building industry right from the start of the scheme’s creation. They did not do that last time. It has been suggested that they could easily work with the industry through the Construction Leadership Council. They must also work with financial services, including mortgage companies, to ensure that the system is deliverable. This must include providing financial incentives to homeowners, for without the grant, decarbonising a home is very expensive. Some of my constituents in Putney received quotes, as required by the scheme, of up to £20,000 to properly decarbonise their home. Financial support needs to be made available to deliver that, and more financial support needs to be made available to people on low incomes. That could involve grants or personal tax relief, although that would not incentivise all households. We need to invest in public engagement to raise consumer awareness of the additional benefit of reducing heating bills.
I would like the Minister’s assurance that he will listen to the voices of the building industry, environmental groups and potential consumers—householders, lease- holders, landlords and local authorities—when designing whatever scheme comes next. We were all desperate for the green homes grant scheme to succeed and were desperately disappointed at its closure. We simply will not achieve net zero without green homes. COP26 will provide the perfect opportunity to announce a viable, long-term approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from homes. The Government must not miss this opportunity.
We have had an excellent debate, with a very high degree of agreement among those taking part, not only about the failings of this particular scheme but about the imperative at the heart of what we have been talking about this afternoon. That is the imperative of ensuring that, within a very short time, we have secured in this country a massive uplift in the energy efficiency of homes across all sectors of housing—not just the easy-to-treat homes but the ones that have single cavity walls, for example, and are difficult to treat. We have to put into those homes different forms of heating to go along with the energy efficiency uprating, and the reason why we have to do that is of course to decrease very substantially the emissions from buildings, which contribute so substantially to CO2 emissions overall, which could lead us well away from our target of net zero by 2050. Indeed, buildings in the UK emit some 19% of emissions overall, and the vast, and a substantial, majority of that is in residential homes, so the targeting of schemes to uprate energy efficiency in homes is vital.
The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), made an excellent contribution. By the way, I congratulate his Committee on its hard work in looking forensically not just at this particular scheme, but at the things we need to do in order to get to where we want to go on home insulation. He mentioned the figure of 13.6 million homes—not new homes but homes of all kinds. As he said, all homes have different requirements when it comes to their retrofit. There are 13.6 million homes that will basically need work to be done on them over the next nine years. He estimated that that equates to about 1.5 million properties a year over the next nine years needing to have those measures.
Although I welcomed the Treasury’s initial announcement in summer 2020 that what looked like a substantial amount of money would be made available for retrofitting homes, we have to understand that, even at that point, it was substantially less than the sum required to meet the ambition set out in the energy White Paper to make all homes EPC conform to EPC band C. I fully accept the Environmental Audit Committee Chair’s strictures about the use and accuracy of EPCs. Nevertheless, the ambition is that all properties should be band C or above by 2035. That date, I think, should come further forward, but that is the area that we are looking at.
The idea that we could make some reasonably rapid initial progress with a scheme in the private sector involving vouchers was a welcome start. I think that the only lesson or conclusion that we can draw from the allocation of this particular fund, the particular way it was done and the subsequent requirement placed on BEIS to draw up a scheme is that we should never do it in this way again, as far as our targets are concerned. Perhaps there is a lesson from what has happened over the last few months.
I am interested to hear from the Minister about this. My understanding of how the scheme progressed is that the Treasury, without any idea of what was involved in the process, announced that money would be made available—£1.5 billion, with £500 million for the local authority delivery scheme—with about as much detail as I have set out this afternoon. The Treasury then said to BEIS, “Go away and work up a scheme to make it happen, and we want it on the ground as quicky as possible.” Had I been a fly on the wall during those discussions, I would have hoped to have seen BEIS kicking back at the Treasury and saying, “Look, this is ludicrous. You can’t do it this way. You can’t expect a scheme to be worked up in this way. And, by the way, you can’t expect a scheme to be conceived, put into operation, undertaken and closed within a year. You just can’t do it that way.” That is what BEIS should have said to the Treasury. Instead, it rapidly produced a scheme and, in so doing, undertook the services of a consultancy company based in America which had no experience of doing these sorts of operations.
Frankly, the scheme was doomed not to work from the start. Indeed, that is what happened. The final figures, which came out in May, show the frankly pathetic number of measures that arose from the scheme. We also heard, while we ran through that period, dreadful stories of building companies that had geared themselves up to do the work but did not get paid for it. There were immeasurable layers of bureaucracy involved in getting voucher schemes going, even though many householders desperately wanted to take advantage of them.
I have the figures from the end of February, which were released before the final figures were made available. At that point—the scheme was still going but it was nearing its end—123,000 vouchers had been applied for, but only 28,000 had been issued. What was the company running this organisation doing by working out the scheme in such a way? There were only 5,800 installations at that point, and of those, only 900 or so were for low carbon measures. This scheme was not just a pathetic failure; it has put the cause of retrofitting homes back substantially. Companies that wanted to do the work were burned yet again and will perhaps be reluctant to undertake further work. Disappointed householders were grievously misled on the energy uprating process, and precious time has been lost for getting to grips with this. To say, “This is a lesson learned in how not to do it,” is a bit of an understatement.
I hope that the considerations raised by every contributor this afternoon will be at the heart of the lessons that the Department will take on board for future projects on energy efficiency uprating. The scheme has to be serious. It has to have the right amount of money to make a difference. The timescale has to be long enough for people to be able to do the work properly and have confidence in the system, and for the variety of necessary measures to be put in place, including, as the Chair of the EAC said, measures that suit the different circumstances of each household and the time required to get the work done.
We also ought to take lessons from the element of the scheme that had some purchase—namely, the local authority part, which has been a relative success. Although it made local authorities adhere to breakneck timescales, they were nevertheless often able to deliver because they were not an American consultancy firm trying to do things by numbers overseas. Rather, they were on the ground with their local communities, engaged in the work. That is another lesson that we ought to draw from this fiasco—give it to local agencies that can actually do the work properly on the ground and make it happen on a daily basis, rather than run it remotely from the centre.
We can draw some valuable lessons from this fiasco. I am tempted to say that it is such a dreadful catastrophe for the cause of energy efficiency activity that, in the words of Stanley Holloway,
“someone’s got to be summonsed!”
It is a shocking failure of Government.
I hope that the lessons will have been at least partly learned by the time the heat in buildings strategy comes out, which, as hon. Members have mentioned, has been delayed on several occasions. I should not say this as a shadow Minister—it should be for the Minister to say this—but I am confident that it will come out shortly. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that it will come out in the next few days or weeks and that it will contain a number of the lessons mentioned this afternoon for bringing forward the ambition of energy efficiency.
All of that is contained in the energy White Paper. I hope that the heat in buildings strategy will address itself to the width and depth of the task in front of us. We know that that we have not appreciated the scale of the task, but I hope that the strategy will, finally, address what we actually need to do to achieve our energy efficiency targets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. Rest assured that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) will have plenty more than two minutes to summarise the debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on securing this debate on the future of the green homes grant scheme, which has been conducted in a conducive way despite concerns about the scheme.
It is really important that as we discuss the future of the green homes grant scheme, we also discuss the wider future of decarbonising our country’s 30 million buildings to meet our target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. As hon. Members know, the Government’s aim is to reduce emissions by 78% from 1990 levels, which is one of the most ambitious targets in the world and is supported by our sixth carbon budget, which limits the volume of greenhouse gases emitted over a five-year period from 2033 to 2037, taking the UK more than three quarters of the way towards reaching net zero by 2050.
The carbon budget will ensure that Britain remains on track to end its contribution to climate change while remaining consistent with the Paris agreement temperature goal to limit global warming to well below 2° C and pursue efforts towards 1.5° C. In the energy White Paper, as has been mentioned, we set out our ambition and approach to get as many homes as possible to energy performance certificate band C by 2035, which includes our aim to deploy 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. We need far more households to heat their homes without burning fossil fuels such as oil and gas.
My right hon. Friend talked about the EPC, which is a widely available, standardised means of assessing sustainability. We will not be getting rid of the EPC, but none the less we will continue to make improvements to its accuracy, as outlined in the action plan as a result of the consultation we have undertaken.
Other ways and means of tackling climate change are outlined in the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, which sets out how we will mobilise £12 billion of Government investment, and potentially three times as much from the private sector, by 2030. That will level up regions across the UK and support up to 90,000 highly skilled green jobs across the UK in this Parliament, and up to 250,000 by 2030. The UK is committed to taking advantage of the huge economic opportunities that the transition to a green economy offers, including large-scale job creation and even more jobs being supported in the green economy.
In addition, as we have heard, 2021 is one of the most important years for global Britain as we host the G7 presidency and the UN climate change conference, COP26, in Glasgow in November. We know that the world is watching as we lead the way in reducing carbon emissions from homes, businesses and public sector buildings.
I welcome the news from my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) about his pre-COP26 conference in his constituency. It is excellent that as well as doing the countrywide conference that brings global attention to the UK, and Glasgow in particular, we all do our bit as champions within our constituencies. I congratulate him on that.
We are making excellent progress across much of that investment; substantial sums have already been spent on schools, hospitals and social housing as well as in privately owned or rented homes, particularly in partnership with local authorities. Just one part of that is the green homes grant voucher scheme, which was launched to help householders offset the cost of installing energy efficiency measures in their homes. Despite the fact that the scheme received many applications, as we heard, it did not deliver at the rate and scale that we originally hoped. As a result of that, and because the Government remain committed to reaching our ambitious goals by 2050, we had to look again at how best to support householders in decarbonising their homes at a rapid pace. We took stock and considered our approach. We reviewed our options and made a decision to close the voucher scheme, which ceased taking new applications at 5pm on 31 March.
As we have heard, the Government have already issued more than 62,000 vouchers, worth more than £262 million, and we continue to process more each and every day. No one who made a valid application by that closing date will miss out, but clearly, as we have heard, that does not mean that our work is finished. We are now refocusing our efforts and substantial funding on alternative approaches.
The Government will of course reflect on the lessons learnt from the closure of the green homes grant voucher scheme. In response to the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), we will learn those lessons, but our ambition is not diminished and we will very much listen to everyone who will be involved with us in the collective drive towards net zero, especially on decarbonising homes, which is so important. Other elements of the work on decarbonising homes have seen great successes. The local authority delivery element of the green homes grant scheme, for example, aims to support measures such as insulation and low-carbon heating. Of around 50,000 low-income households, both privately owned and rented, it is important, as we have heard, to make sure that we can address and support the people who cannot otherwise go about this very easily.
To date, the scheme has allocated £500 million of funding across the English regions. That investment is already being felt in constituencies across the country. For example, Bristol City Council has been awarded £2.6 million to retrofit 275 homes, reducing energy bills and creating warmer homes for low-income households. That project plans to install solar and solar thermal panels and underfloor insulation to keep residents warm through the winter months. The scheme, alongside the social housing decarbonisation fund, has now seen the Government commit an additional £300 million to green homes upgrades. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) talked about “only” £300 million, but we cannot dismiss telephone number figures of investment. I think that in most contexts many people in this country would look askance at “only” alongside £300 million.
Such investment means that for the financial year 2021-22 we are investing more than £1.3 billion for energy efficiency and low-carbon heating up and down the country. That not only ensures that we continue to cut carbon, but supports tens of thousands of jobs across the country and reduces heating costs for those most in need, helping to build back greener and level up in one go.
I was pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) about the work that he is doing on sustainable materials. Yes, we can decarbonise homes and have retrofitting, but it is important that we plan for the future. We are embedding new practices with new materials, or newly purposed materials, because wood is hardly a new material, but it is very sustainable if we get it right. My hon. Friend’s contribution is important to our thinking and to our drive to net zero, so I thank him and congratulate him on his work.
As the world looks to recover from the impact of coronavirus on our livelihoods and our economy, we have the chance to build back better and invest in making the UK a global leader in green technologies. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow once again for securing this debate. I appreciate all the comments that have been made, and we are listening. My colleagues, the Energy Minister and other Government Members, will reflect on the words said today as we redouble our efforts to make sure, as I have said, that we keep to our ambition as we drive to net zero by 2050.
I want to start by thanking the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for his wind-up speech and for undertaking to listen to the contributions in this debate, and indeed to the submissions made by the Committee that I am proud to chair. Before I respond to the points made, I also want to thank others who have participated, particularly the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), the Chair of the BEIS Select Committee, who co-sponsored this afternoon’s debate with me. We work closely together on climate change issues, and it was good to see his characteristically measured and impressive contribution to the debate. We look forward with great interest to the results of the inquiry that is being undertaken into energy efficiency measures.
I also want to thank other Members who participated in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) made an impassioned plea for contractors in his constituency. Notably, he called for future measures to help those who are fuel-poor, as did the hon. Members for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley).
In the debate, although we were talking about an issue that is, let us face it, not the Government’s finest hour in implementing a new support scheme, it was particularly striking that there was not a great deal of party point-scoring. The measured tone of the debate was about learning lessons to ensure that in future, whatever scheme is put in place to replace the green homes grant scheme, it is effective and can deliver on what is, frankly, and clearly from this debate, a very shared objective. In that respect, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), who speaks for the Opposition, was characteristically measured in his tone, too, for which I am very grateful.
On contributions, I cannot wind up without thanking for his comments my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who plays such a valuable role on my Committee. He focused much of his remarks on ensuring that, when we look at energy efficiency measures, we give due credit to the embodied carbon impact of the materials used. He makes a very good point: we cannot just carry on using materials that in themselves create enormous carbon cost in their production. That is why he was persuasive in encouraging our Committee to undertake a new inquiry, which we have just launched, into the sustainability of the built environment, looking in particular at construction materials, in which he has such an interest.
To conclude, I encourage the Minister, in his discussions in the Department and with the industry, to ensure that we do not seek just to introduce headline-grabbing measures. This week there has been a rumour that the Government are thinking about scrapping gas boilers, introducing an end date for their installation. That would be as striking for domestic buildings as the ban on internal combustion engines in the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 will be for that industry.
There is a major difference, however: the motor vehicle industry has been working on alternative-fuel vehicles for many years and has hundreds—literally, I think, this year 100—of new models coming into its showrooms, for people to start buying now. We are not in that position in domestic heating. In 2019, the last year for which figures are available, 1.7 million gas boilers were installed in our homes. In the same year, 30,000 heat pumps were installed. That is 56 times as many gas boilers as heat pumps.
As we have discussed, just installing a heat pump will not cause a home to qualify for a higher energy performance certificate band. The technology is there, but what is not there yet is what will be required for a new scheme: it should only be introduced, in my view, when the technology is available and affordable and when it is achievable to replace such a significant part of the construction industry’s standard operating practice with something that can be installed because enough people are skilled to do so.
These measures are not simple. A great deal of thought is needed for their introduction, and work with the industry to ensure that any successor scheme to the green homes grant has a real prospect of restoring confidence to the industry and to consumers, so that it can be adopted. I very much look forward to what the heat and buildings strategy will say, and to the spending review this autumn.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the Green Homes Grant voucher scheme.