Wednesday 9 June 2021
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
UK Steel Sector: Supply Chains
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 the UK steel sector and its supply chains.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Graham. Hon. Members taking part in the debate today will recognise that this is not the first time that we have sought assurances from the UK Government that they are sincerely committed to supporting the British steel industry. Indeed, by my calculations, since 2015 Labour MPs have secured 19 debates and urgent questions on steel, made 51 speeches on steel, asked 54 oral questions on steel, and intervened on or responded to Ministers 103 times on the future of our steel industry. A pessimist may ask, “What’s the point?”. After all that pressure, the British steel industry still faces a range of serious challenges, and the UK Government are continually failing to provide the necessary level of support to allow the UK steel sector to compete.
In spite of those powerful headwinds, I am optimistic about the future of our steel industry, because I believe that covid-19 has completely reset the way in which the British people think about the sort of country they want to live in. The public want a Britain that can stand on its own two feet and that is more resilient to external shocks. The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses and vulnerabilities that lie at the heart of our economy and our society. The pandemic has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that if we wish to address those weaknesses and vulnerabilities, we must commit to and invest in a renaissance of modern manufacturing in our country.
British manufacturing has been in decline, dropping from 30% of GDP in the 1970s to just 9% today. The UK’s shift towards a city-centric, service-based economy means that it is now the most geographically unequal country in northern Europe. We have the richest area in the whole of northern Europe—London—but also the five least prosperous areas, with west Wales and the valleys the poorest of all.
Today, our country stands at a fork in the road, and the choice is clear. Are we going to continue to allow our manufacturing sector to wither away, constantly eroded by the sort of policies that have come to define the last decade and which are advocated in the book of the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, “Britannia Unchained”: “Let the market rip. Let the City of London call the shots. Let globalisation and deindustrialisation ride roughshod over our communities.”? Or are we going to truly understand the pandemic as a clear and unambiguous warning that we cannot go back to business as usual and that we must strive for real enduring change; that we must stand on our own two feet by reducing our dangerous over-reliance on imports from China; that it is time to recognise that the collapse of British manufacturing is the primary cause of the grotesque inequality that exists between the wealthiest and the poorest regions of our country; and that a modern manufacturing renaissance is our only route towards a fair and just transition to a cleaner, greener future?
Our manufacturing base can be rebuilt only if it is based on a strong and healthy steel industry, because steel is a vital foundational industry that is critical for our security, prosperity and green resilience. Our economic and national security are underpinned by steel. Every military vehicle, major infrastructure project and power station requires steel. In a world where strategic competition between democracies and dictatorships is intensifying on an almost daily basis, it is crucial that as much of that steel as possible is produced here in the UK.
Our prosperity as a nation is also dependent on steel as a vital foundational industry that feeds into our entire manufacturing sector. Steel jobs are good jobs that pay an average annual salary of £36,000, which is 36% higher than the Welsh average, and the Port Talbot steelworks in my Aberavon constituency provides 4,000 such jobs, alongside thousands more through the supply chains.
Home-grown steel is also the only route to tackling climate change. Steel will play a critical role in greening our economy by building the electric cars of the future and providing vital components for solar, wind and tidal power. Moreover, British production processes have half the carbon footprint of China’s far less decarbonised steel industry, and shipping steel from the other side of the world is obviously more carbon intensive.
Whether we look at the British steel industry through the prism of our national security, regional prosperity or planetary sustainability, we draw the same conclusion: there can be no sustainable post-pandemic economic recovery without a strong and healthy steel industry. The arguments are compelling, irrefutable and over-whelming, so it is difficult to understand why the UK Government have been so slow to act, but the pandemic has put rocket boosters on the need for a modern manufacturing renaissance underpinned by the rebirth of our steel industry.
The Government must now take the following steps. First, they must reject the recommendation of the Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate regarding steel safeguards, and must ensure that all 19 of the safeguards remain in place. Those trade defence measures were put in place to guard against import surges caused by President Trump’s section 232 tariffs, and it is essential that they are retained until such time as the section 232 tariffs are dropped by the Biden Administration. The TRID’s recommendations are tantamount to dismantling the flood defences just as the tidal wave is about to hit. Will the Minister assure us that she has made the position of the steel industry, steel unions and steel MPs clear to her colleagues in the Department for International Trade?
Secondly, the Government must as a matter of urgency address the issue of our industrial energy crisis. British steelmakers pay 86% more than their German competitors and 62% more than the French. Over the past five years, that disparity has cost the UK steel industry an additional £254 million. Those additional costs represent funds that should and would have been directed towards critical capital investment, including decarbonisation projects. Will the Minister please assure us today that her Department is truly committed to tackling the root causes of the UK’s astronomical industrial energy prices, and can she set out her urgent action plan for doing so?
Thirdly, we need a patriotic procurement policy. It is absurd and inexcusable that the Ministry of Defence is buying Type 26 frigates for the Royal Navy that are built with Swedish steel. We need procurement that gives the right weighting to local value. Let us look at big opportunities such as High Speed 2, with 2 million tonnes of steel. How much of that steel is going to be British? Can the Minister assure us today that every Government Department and HS2 will be signed up to the steel charter by the end of this calendar year?
Fourthly, we need a Government who are truly committed to rebuilding our manufacturing base, and who believe in partnering with industry to do so. Some say that steel is a sunset industry, but nothing could be further from the truth—it is at the cutting edge of innovation. Indeed, the vast majority of the alloys that are used in steel these days did not even exist 10 years ago. It is absurd to have a Government who have utterly failed to support the Orb plant in Newport—I look to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden)—which could play a major role in electric vehicles.
It seems that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, which is precisely why co-ordinating forums such as the Industrial Strategy Council are so important. Can the Minister please explain why the Industrial Strategy Council has been closed down by the Business Secretary, and can she please tell us whether she thinks that decision will be a help or hindrance to the future of the British steel industry?
British steelworkers are a strong, proud community of men and women who make the best steel that money can buy. They are certainly not looking for anybody’s charity, special treatment or favours. They are simply seeking the opportunity to compete without having one hand tied behind their back. They are simply asking for a level playing field. Since 2010, successive Conservative Governments have let them down by leaving the flood gates open to heavily subsidised imports from China; by failing to close the energy price gap; by declining to develop a patriotic procurement policy; and by failing to grasp the vital role that a home-grown steel industry must play in driving the green industrial revolution forward.
Receiving a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work is as important to steelworkers as it is to every other working person across the length and breadth of our country. However, working people are motivated by far more than money. Above all, they are driven by the sense of pride and dignity that their work gives them, and steelworkers are certainly not an exception to that rule.
Steelworkers do long shifts in challenging conditions because they want to make a contribution. They are fiercely proud of the fact that steel is the basis of the houses we live in, the offices we work in and the cars we drive. They are steelworkers because they want to do their bit for their country, for their communities, and for their families. They are steelworkers because they want to be part of something bigger, but they cannot do this alone.
They need a Government who will back them to the hilt; a Government who will put policies in place that attract investment, rather than drive it away; a Government who truly believe that a country should be able to stand on its own two feet. Our steelworkers need a Government who are genuinely committed to reversing the decline of manufacturing in this country. They need a Government who are truly invested in swinging the pendulum from cities to towns, and from London and the south-east to the rest of the country. Britain needs its steel, and our steelworkers need a Government who are on their side.
I should inform all participants that due to a technical problem, all those participating virtually did not catch the first three minutes of the debate. That has now been resolved, but I pass on the apologies of the staff who have been working to resolve the problem.
There are a lot of Back-Bench participants on the call list. If it is possible for them to keep to about five minutes, we should be able to get everybody in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Graham. I thank the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this important debate. As I am a fellow steel MP, I agree with him on many of the issues that he has raised this morning.
The steel sector has seen tough times and this Government have been proactive. In Scunthorpe, we put in hundreds of millions of pounds to keep our blast furnaces going. I myself come from a steel family, so I know that when times get tough, it is not only the steelworks that are threatened but the steelworkers— people like my granddad, who worked in Scunthorpe steelworks for 30 years—and the 20,000 supply chain jobs in my area, as well as the towns that grow up around the industry.
Steel is, indeed, a foundation industry that is crucial to national security. Our ability to manufacture and produce steel is critical in ensuring that we are self-reliant and insulated from global steel shortages. The Minister will recognise that there is competition between Governments in providing the best environment for a steel industry to thrive and there is much that we can do to provide a better competitive environment for UK steelmakers.
Rather than continuing to provide support in times of crisis, as this Government have undoubtedly done, we need to continue to look further and harder at long-term steel measures. Indeed, the glaring flaw in the preliminary recommendation by the Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate is that it did not make a sufficient industry-led assessment. Our steelworks produce many products across the categories assessed by TRID. These products are linked back to the production of crude steel and steelworks need a certain base level of production to be profitable. An increase in imports in an unprotected category could affect the viability of another steel product, and there is a real risk that the UK will be increasingly vulnerable to imports if steel safeguards are removed. I urge the Minister to work with her colleagues from the Department for International Trade to prevent that from happening.
We must also address the high cost of energy prices. Our steelworks currently pay almost twice as much for energy as French and German steelworks. On steel procurement, there has been progress and many in the industry have welcomed the overarching principles of the Government’s recent paper. The central tenets, especially on considering the overall social value of procurement and providing more flexibility for decision making, are absolutely right. The procurement of steel from the UK generates social value for our communities. Steel does indeed create well-paid jobs and has a part to play in levelling up areas such as Scunthorpe as manufacturing and logistics powerhouses.
However, challenges remain and I hope that the Minister will consider them. Steel procurement often involves an internal supply chain process. A contracting authority for an airport, for example, may appoint different subcontractors for different parts of the project. Each subcontractor may then appoint a sub-subcontractor on smaller bits and the sub-subcontractor may in turn, given their much smaller brief, procure the steel they need for their section of the development from an overseas producer without a tender—for example, one they have an existing relationship with.
That means that the same steelmaker may have to pursue, through multiple channels, contracts that are ultimately for the same project. That also makes reporting of the origins of steel difficult, which flies in the face of another fantastic tenet of the Government’s procurement proposals, which is transparency. Most importantly, in our national projects, this situation could cost the taxpayer more, due to the fragmented supply chain, the administration, the bureaucracy, the increase in supply lead times and the margin that each level of the steel supply chain commands.
We will see whether the proposals go deep enough and I hope that the Minister will say how she will work with her colleagues in the Cabinet Office to ensure that sub-sub-subcontractors uphold the high standards that the Government are looking to set for contracting authorities.
I believe that the British people want to see the Government use British-made steel in large-scale Government projects such as HS2. They want to see every bit of steel that we have the capability to produce being produced here in the UK. Indeed, I hope the Minister will consider what she can do with the traditional supply chain to explore whether contracting authorities can make steel procurement a separate tender, so that our steelworks can bid for large parts of the steel required in a steel-intensive national project.
That not only fulfils the core tenets of the Government’s procurement proposals but makes commercial sense. Our steelworks are well equipped to deal with the different products needed and have dedicated supply teams to provide technical management and supply chain steel expertise. I hope that the Minister can explore this approach with her colleagues in the Cabinet Office.
I come from Scunthorpe. I was brought up so close to the steelworks that we could hear them making steel when we lay in bed at night. This matter is personal to me and to many of my constituents. The hon. Member for Aberavon is absolutely right—none of us could live a single day of our lives without steel. This Government have a proud record in supporting the steel industry in places such as Scunthorpe. I look forward to hearing from the Minister and working with her on behalf of our world-class steelmakers.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I am very frustrated that we are here once again; I hope my speech will explain why. The British steel industry has huge potential, but the long-term failures of the Government to address the underlying issues continues to hold it back. Since I was first elected in 2012, steelworkers in my constituency have faced a seemingly endless cycle of crises with lingering uncertainty, not only for them but for all those throughout Rotherham, where the local economy and people’s livelihoods depend on the sector. That uncertainty has continued with Liberty’s announcement that it is selling its speciality steels division, which includes the narrow strip mill at Brinsworth in my constituency.
Throughout the recent difficulties at Liberty, the Government have promised much but, to date, delivered little in the way of practical support. That cannot continue as the sale progresses. Any sale must safeguard the long-term future of the plant and must hold Sanjeev Gupta true to his word that no plant will close on his watch. Liberty must run a transparent sales process and engage with all concerned parties, including the trade unions. The Government must carefully scrutinise any deal and ensure that it includes clear safeguards for the future of both the plant and the steel jobs. They are crucial assets to our economy and they cannot be lost as the result of a fire sale to secure finances for GFG’s other businesses.
While the sale of speciality steel is concerning, Liberty’s ongoing commitment to its Aldwarke plant in Rotherham is encouraging. The plant can lead the way in our drive to decarbonise our steel industry. Decarbonisation presents challenges but also offers huge opportunities to grow our economy and create new green jobs, but that would take sustained support from the Government and a viable long-term plan—something that, to date, has been lacking.
I urge the Government to recognise this opportunity to work with the industry to create the greener future we all want to see. None of that can happen while the Government continue to shy from confronting the sector’s underlying issues—issues that are well understood, but remain unaddressed. The Government had long argued that EU rules prevented state aid for the steel sector. Those rules no longer apply, and it is high time that the Government developed their own system to regulate subsidies and support investment.
The public sector is British Steel’s largest single customer. Tendering processes must consider the impact on domestic jobs, as already seen in France and Germany. I see no reason why this Government’s procurement process cannot favour UK-produced steel, not least because it is the best in the world.
With British Steel paying an average of 86% more for electricity than its competitors in Germany, action on damaging high energy costs is essential if the industry is to hope to compete on an even footing. We must also defend our industry from being overwhelmed by cheap foreign imports. It is deeply disappointing that the Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate is arguing to slash safeguards on nine out of 19 product categories, which runs the risk of cutting the industry off at the knees. I urge the Secretary of State to reject its recommendations.
The steel industry can have a bright future if the Government engage with these issues and work with the industry to provide the support that it needs to grow and thrive. However belatedly, I really hope the Minister will listen and that the Government will act to protect our steel industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this important debate, and I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
British steel was once the envy of the world. From Newport to north Lanarkshire, steel making supported hundreds of thousands of jobs and inspired a fierce and well-earned pride in all involved. In January 1980, the Thatcher Government provoked a strike at the British Steel Corporation—the first national strike in the industry for more than 50 years—to break the union and pave the way for privatisation and under-investment. We are paying the price for that today, as the future of the industry hangs in the balance. Unable to compete on the international stage, the economic output of British steel fell by a staggering 30% in 2016 alone, and last year the Government’s brazen refusal to step in and save the Orb steelworks in Newport led to the historic site closing after 122 years in operation.
Now, the crisis at Liberty Steel threatens not only the livelihoods of the steelworkers themselves but those of more than 3,000 workers in the wider supply chain. Some argue that the British steel industry is doomed to terminal decline—just another in a long line of industries sacrificed to deindustrialisation. I could not disagree more. If we made the right investment now, I believe we can not only secure work for generations to come but re-establish the UK as a world leader in sustainable steel production. Technological advances, such as direct reduced iron technology and hydrogen power, have the potential to transform the industry. It currently accounts for about a quarter of all UK industrial emissions, but it can be part of the green industrial revolution and once again become a force to be reckoned with.
None of that is possible without direct Government support. There have been many encouraging steps so far, such as the re-establishment of the UK Steel Council, the creation of the £250 million clean steel fund and the commitment to founding two industrial clusters by the mid-2020s. Very good, but I fear that we are failing to go far or fast enough in decarbonising the sector. Hydrogen-based steel making is already being piloted in at least 23 sites across Europe, so the UK risks being left far behind by our European neighbours. Whether it is Scunthorpe or Port Talbot, these are the very communities that the Government promised to level up, yet they will be the ones that pay the price.
The British steel industry faces a stark choice: decarbonise or wither away. That is why I call on the Government to heed the calls of the industry leaders and environmental groups and begin trials of hydrogen steel without delay, with a view to fully decarbonising the sector by 2035, as recommended by the Climate Change Committee. That is an enormous challenge, but without that scale of ambition, we cannot possibly hope to compete with our international competitors.
This is not just about decarbonising steel. If we are going to revive this vital industry, the Government also need to take advantage of our departure from the EU’s regulatory framework and ensure that the procurement policy actively benefits British steelmakers. Over the next 10 years, an estimated 7.6 million tonnes of steel will be needed for public infrastructure projects. The Prime Minister must honour his promise and ensure that British steelworkers are at the very front of the queue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this debate and on his excellent analysis of the challenges facing the steel industry. He, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) referred to the problems of trade defence measures, and that is what I will concentrate my remarks on.
Last month, the Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate published a draft recommendation to withdraw half of all trade remedies on steel. If that happens, the consequences could be disastrous. During the Committee stage of the Trade Act 2021, I argued that there should be an independent body to make recommendations on trade remedies, which would also take into account domestic economic considerations, but the recent recommendations by TRID show that the regulations that were set out in its mandate, which now also govern the newly established Trade Remedies Authority, are simply not fit for purpose.
Steel manufacturing is a critical national asset. Steel produced in Britain is used to make ships for the Royal Navy and wind turbines to meet our climate obligations. The construction of a nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C is using Welsh steel, and 1.3 million tonnes of steel are required for the construction of High Speed 2. The sector directly employs more than 30,000 people, supports a further 41,100 jobs in high-value supply chains, makes a £2.8 billion direct contribution to UK GDP and supports a further £3.6 billion in its supply chains. Steel is a vital asset—we must protect it in the national interest. However, in making its draft recommendation, TRID failed to take into account the reality of the steel supply chain.
The full spectrum of measures is designed to protect the viability of steel as a whole, not just individual production lines. Removing safeguards would mean that the manufacture of steel sections, tubes, wire rods and plates in the UK becomes unviable. It seems almost certain that the European Union will retain its section 232 tariffs beyond 30 June, meaning that any global overproduction of steel will likely flood the UK, crush domestic supply and have potentially catastrophic consequences for the industry and communities here in Britain.
That existential threat to the industry is a strong argument for maintaining all existing trade defence measures for steel, but TRID, and now the TRA, is forced to prioritise the unimpeded functioning of a global market because that is what it says in the regulations which direct their decision making. The regulations do not envisage the maintenance of the safeguards that domestic producers should be able to expect from their Government—these take second place for our trade remedies body. Hence the recommendation by them for the removal of some safeguards. The economic tests which TRID and the TRA must apply, according to their own regulations, do not provide the Secretary of State for International Trade with the ability to take into account wider factors of strategic national interest when deciding whether or not to reject a recommendation from them. The Business Secretary said he was
“committed to a strategic presence of steel in the UK.”—[Official Report, 25 May 2021; Vol. 696, c. 233.]
The International Trade Secretary said that she will do
“whatever it takes to protect our steel industry.”
The two Secretaries of State must keep their promises and allow the safeguards to remain beyond 30 June while the weaknesses and trade remedies regulations are fixed—they promised to do this. Members on all sides will work with the Government to support jobs and communities. The existential threat of lifting half of the safeguards means there may be just 21 days to save British steel.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this important debate.
Steel is a foundational sector across the UK and never more so than in Neath Port Talbot county borough. Upon these strong foundations, economies and supply chains are created. Port Talbot’s steelworks reaches all the surrounding communities. Thousands of Neath constituents have worked there, know someone who works there, or work in its supply chain—my father did. To say it has been a difficult few years for the steelworkers in Neath Port Talbot would be an understatement. Competing in a global market, the absence of anti-dumping tariffs, the lifting of lesser duty rates and rising UK energy process have conspired to create uncertainty and fear. Over 2,000 local jobs have been lost since 2014. Steel and the steel industry are vital to Wales and its economy.
The idea that the steel sector does not have a future is unthinkable, but our steelworkers are as robust as the steel they make. They have bounced back from every adversity so far—but the situation is about to get much worse. The recent Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate recommendations on the existing steel safeguards could be catastrophic for the UK steel sector. Only 10 out of 19 product categories are recommended to have safeguards extended, leaving sites in Llanelli, Cardiff, Gateshead, Sheffield and many more without the protection to limit sudden increases in imports. The lifting of safeguards would open up UK markets to trade diversion and have a negative impact on the remaining measures. The interconnected nature of UK steel means that a threat to one product category will have consequences for the others.
Steel imports increased by 25% between 2013 and 2017, before the original EU steel safeguards were introduced. The current circumstances of global overcapacity and import restrictions in other countries make it highly probable that steel imports will again escalate should safeguards be removed. It is probable that the EU and the US will continue to provide safeguards for their industries and place measures on UK steel imports. It is astounding that the UK Government would provide open access to our steel market. The market remains volatile and delicate during the continuing pandemic, which has seen steel demand drop by 16% during 2020. The steel sector needs stability to recover and to adapt to a post-covid world. Safeguards are crucial to provide stability. The steel sector will continue to face many challenges—decarbonisation, subsidy regulation post Brexit, public sector procurement, energy price disparity—but it is the removal of steel safeguards that poses the biggest existential challenge, given the interconnectivity across the sector.
This is the first major trading test for the UK in post-Brexit times, and the UK Government must establish a fair trading environment for the UK steel industry and our communities. In contrast, the Welsh Labour Government have been standing up for steel, making an £8 million commitment to help secure a £30 million power plant at Port Talbot; offering £17 million of support for skills development; investing in energy efficiency; planning to reduce carbon emission; and offering research and development funding for new product development. At critical times, the Welsh Labour Government have provided direct financial support to sites right across Wales, protecting our jobs and communities.
Well done to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this important debate. He is both the Member for Port Talbot and our chair of the all-party parliamentary group for steel and metal related industries. He gave an excellent analysis, setting out the issues yet again.
My hon. Friend mentioned that we have had 19 debates on steel in this House over recent years. I feel I have been there with him in many of those, making the same points over and over again. I do so because steel has always been at the very heart of the community that I represent, with many workers in both the steel industry in Newport East and down the road in Port Talbot, and in supply chains, making world-class automotive steel for BMW, Jaguar Land Rover and other projects at Tata Llanwern. We also have the Celsa site in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), which is one of the largest producers of rebar; and Liberty, which produces hot rolled coil for domestic and export markets for use in construction and is at the cutting edge of modern steel technology. On that note, I know that we all want the future of all Liberty Steel businesses secured, including Newport, and I know that hon. Members for steel constituencies will hold Liberty and the Government to account and make sure that we uphold that commitment to the workforce and our industry going forward.
On behalf of that industry, those businesses, those workers and the unions in my constituency, I say again what steel MPs have been saying here for many years: steel should be a cornerstone of a comprehensive, forward-looking industrial strategy in this country. It has an absolutely pivotal role to play in our recovery from the pandemic. The economic value of the steel sector cannot be overstated. The industry makes a £2.8 billion direct contribution to GDP and supports a further £3.6 billion through its supply chains, while the average salary is around 36% higher than the regional average in steel heartlands such as south Wales and Yorkshire. If the Government are really serious about levelling up across the UK, they should look to steel as a foundation to build on.
In his response to me at Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions last month, the Secretary of State said that the Government were
“committed to a strategic presence of steel in the UK.”—[Official Report, 25 May 2021; Vol. 696, c. 233.]
Although I welcome that assurance, it is now time that the Government backed it up with meaningful action to support the industry.
As others have said, we need a change of direction on procurement. The Community union, plus Unite, GMB and others—I pay tribute to them for all the work they do on behalf of their members—have campaigned for decades for contracting authorities to effectively deploy social and environmental clauses in tendering processes in order to support domestic jobs in industry, just as they do in France and Germany, but little has changed in practical terms since 2016, when there were a few measures, and home-grown steel companies are continuing to miss out on important contracts, despite rhetoric from the Prime Minister about being at the front of the queue. The most recent Government data on how much steel is sourced in the UK includes only 160,000 tonnes, which is somewhat less than the estimated 800,000 to 900,000 tonnes of steel that their forward-looking pipeline indicates is used by central Government each year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon said, we need a patriotic procurement policy.
The case for sourcing UK steel is overwhelming. Every 1,000 tonnes of UK steel used in a public project delivers 4.5 jobs in the steel industry, and 10 jobs when the supply chain is included. As others have said, in addition to the economic boost that that provides, there are real environmental benefits from not importing steel from the EU or China respectively.
Energy prices are a prevalent problem. Ministers may have grown tired of steel MPs banging the drum about this over the years, but it remains critical for our industry. The oft-quoted evidence s is stark: UK steel producers pay 86% more for electricity than their competitors in Germany and 62% more than is paid in France. That is a £54-million-a-year cost burden to the UK steel sector and a huge competitive disadvantage. The targeted charging review led by Ofgem is set to make matters worse, as the review’s proposals would leave our producers paying 156% more in energy costs. Obviously, that would be devastating. I urge Ministers to do what they can on that, too.
As others have said, we need Ministers to work urgently to prevent the Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate from slashing our steel safeguards in half. The case was excellently argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). The safeguards are vital to providing a stable environment for the sector and protecting against unprecedented import surges, especially at a time when we are seeing significant global overcapacity in steel.
I also specifically ask the Minister to look again at the issue of bonded warehouses, which effectively undercut UK producers by waiving duty on cheap foreign imports. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) has led on this issue, and both of us have written to Ministers to convey our concerns and the concerns of unions and management in Newport and in Tredegar at Liberty. Will the Minister here today look into the matter?
As my hon. Friend has said, we saw the cost of doing nothing at the Orb works: we lost the only plant making electrical steels in the UK at a time when we are going to need electrical steels. The Government should have stepped in then. Orb steelworkers knew what was at stake, and I was proud to stand alongside them and their unions in the fight to save steel jobs.
As a country, we just cannot go on making huge strategic mistakes when it comes to our steel and manufacturing sectors. We need to utilise our steel assets and invest in our greatest strength, which is the indomitable, passionate and highly skilled steelworkers we have. We need the industry to have a level playing field. We need to have the right backing to drive this forward. We ask again for the Government to step up, to address the issues raised again today and to come up with a viable long-term plan to protect our industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. Like everyone else, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this very important debate today.
This year marks the 125th year of production at Shotton steelworks on Deeside, which is a remarkable achievement. I hope and trust that we will see another 125 years. I doubt I will still be here to celebrate that, but we all live in hope. Order books are good and Shotton continues to produce high-quality value-added products, which is a great credit to the workforce and the management of the plant, yet we only have to look at Shotton’s history to understand the highs and lows that the industry faces as a whole. In 1980, more than 6,500 jobs were lost on a single day— at the time, it was the largest redundancy at a single plant in the history of western Europe. Those jobs have never come back. The plant today is still efficient and profitable, but Shotton cannot function on its own—it relies on Port Talbot for its steel—just as the industry cannot function as individual plants.
The UK steel industry has been in a fragile state for many years, seemingly lurching from one crisis to another. We have a Government who talk about their support for the industry going forward, but their actions—or, rather, lack of action—tell a very different story. Only when a plant or business is on the verge of collapse do they seem to show any interest in the steel industry, and they lose interest again when the plant either is saved in the short term or has collapsed. If steel is to have a future in the UK, we need a Government who recognise that we have to have a long-term plan to support the industry.
It is no good saying simply that steel needs to modernise or decarbonise its business, or that somehow hydrogen will save the day at some point in the future. That will not happen if we do not support and maintain a viable business today. Hydrogen might well be the future, but it is some way off and we cannot just use it as an excuse to do nothing now. That means addressing what many other colleagues have mentioned—the ludicrous situation where steel manufacturers here pay 62% more for electricity than those in France, and 86% more than those in Germany. That is not a new problem; it is something we have been banging on about year in, year out, but—shock, horror!—nothing changes, nothing happens. All we are told by the Government is to take it up with Ofgem, but we all know the answer we will get. All Ofgem says is that there is nothing it can do. I would argue that Ofgem seems intent on making the situation worse, rather than better. How can we seriously expect the industry to invest in the future when it has both hands tied firmly behind its back?
We were always told that nothing could be done and that, as with so many other things, it was all Europe’s fault. The same public procurement argument was constantly wheeled out, as a number of colleagues have said. Other European countries managed to do something, but for some unknown reason we could not. Even that excuse has gone now, however, and the UK Government need to step up to the plate.
The UK steel industry supplies only about 10% of public sector current requirements. That needs to increase dramatically. The Government need to work with the industry to make that happen. The Prime Minister talks a lot about infrastructure projects, shovel-ready projects post covid. I had the pleasure of speaking in the restoration and renewal debate the other day, and I said that this place should be the very starting point of using UK steel. UK steel must be the centre of any recovery. It must be not an afterthought, but at the very heart of such projects.
We cannot carry on as we are now. We need the Government to step up and to support our industry. It needs support now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I will start my remarks as others have, by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for calling this debate and for making such an important opening speech, in which he gave voice to many of the concerns felt by so many colleagues here. I thank him for that.
The fact that so many colleagues from across Wales are speaking in this debate demonstrates the strength of feeling that local people back home have when it comes to steel, the future of steel and the steel industry more generally. Like other colleagues, I am concerned about the recent recommendation on steel safeguards from the Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate—now called the Trade Remedies Authority. I totally agree that it represents a potentially hugely damaging decision for the UK’s steel sector. Let us not forget that that sector provides jobs, fuels our country’s economic success and showcases British skill, talent and expertise.
As has been mentioned by others, the Trade Remedies Authority has recommended extending the UK safeguard measures on just 10 out of 19 product categories. That would, or at least could, open the UK’s markets to significant levels of trade diversion and undermine the effectiveness of the measures that remain in place. Divergence appears to be the rule of thumb from this Government. I urge Ministers to remember the age-old adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. They would do well to keep that in mind.
The United Kingdom has had steel safeguards since 2018 as a result of our then membership of the EU, and those protections were transitioned and carried over into UK law in January 2021. The measures were introduced to limit further increases in imports because of a dysfunctional global trading environment for steel—namely, global overcapacity of steel, trade diversions resulting from the US introduction of steel tariffs, and the increased use of trade defence measures globally. It is clear that the Biden Administration, and indeed our friends and neighbours in Europe, will probably retain those equivalent measures if the United Kingdom unilaterally removes or weakens its measures. That will open our market to import surges as the sector recovers from the impact of covid-19 and, crucially, at a time when our exports to the EU and US will still be subject to tariffs and quotas. This is the first test for the UK as an independent trading nation, and is an opportunity to demonstrate that the UK will use its new-found trade policy independence to provide a fair trading environment for the UK steel industry. People in all parts of the United Kingdom will be looking to see if the promises made by the Tory Ministers are put into practice.
No steel industry in the world can manage the transition to net zero production without substantial Government support, but a recent report by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit revealed that while 23 hydrogen steel projects are either planned or under way across Europe, none is currently in progress in the UK. Will the Minister comment in her wind-up speech on whether she thinks that is a satisfactory state of affairs?
Steel production has been largely lost from my constituency of Newport West, so I am here today to make sure we do not lose it from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and from other parts of Wales. I am also here to stand up for my constituents who work in the steel production industry across south Wales. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon for securing the debate today and grateful to have had the opportunity once again to pay tribute to the steelworkers who keep Britain’s steel industry thriving. This is an important debate and I am glad that steel is once more before the House.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this debate. I remember his debate in the old Westminster Hall—perhaps I should say we are in the new Westminster Hall. I supported him then and I am back to support him again. The title of the debate is “UK Steel Sector: Supply Chains”, and I want to give the Northern Ireland perspective. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). I thank her and the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for their contributions. Newport West and Newport East are well represented here today.
The issue is of great interest to me because, over the past month to six weeks, the supply chains and the construction sector in particular have been an issue for my constituency of Strangford. I have lived in the Ards peninsula for a long time, and many of the companies there are small and medium-sized businesses. Those companies employ people locally and are very important to the local economy. The supply chain of steel has become critical for them. Others have referred to the high price of materials, and steel has been mentioned to me by two companies that contract to build homes. They price for £150 per square foot of finished steel, but are now looking at an increase of a third, up to £200 per square foot. This will cripple the construction industry, undoubtedly having an impact not only upon the construction sector and those small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency, but on jobs, so it is very important.
In 2020, the UK steel sector contributed £2 billion in gross value added to the UK economy, equivalent to 0.1% of total UK economic output and 1.2% of manufacturing output. There are some 1,100 businesses in the UK steel industry, and the industry supported 33,400 jobs in the UK in 2019—0.1% of all the jobs in that sector, which is quite substantial. On top of that, there all the other construction sectors which are tied into it. The construction companies told me that it was not just the price of steel, but the prices of wood of piping that were an issue for them. However, steel is critical for the strategy going forward, especially as we come out of the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2019, the UK produced 7 million tonnes of steel, whereas China produced 996 million tonnes, and the EU produced some 157 million tonnes—8% of the world total. The UK was the eighth largest steel producer at that time. The differential and degree of reliance is clear, and this must be what we work to change. Our great nation, which was once the industrial force of the world, must return to self-reliance. To do this, our Government—the Minister in particular—must invest to enable us to produce our own steel. Government contracts must be at the top of this, bound to buy only British steel. Earlier, the hon. Member for Aberavon referred to the Ministry of Defence contract for Swedish steel to build ships. Why was it not our steel? That is the question that he asked, and it is a question I ask as well.
We know that covid has a role to play in terms of shipping and raw materials, with shipping companies raising prices massively. The cost of shipping a 40-foot container from Asia to northern Europe, for example, soared from £1,061 in the summer of 2020 to more than £5,873 in May 2021. The increases are astronomical, even more than a third. It is a significant, and sometimes unbearable, factor. The questions must be asked: where are the containers and is this price rise justifiable in the long term? I do not believe it is, which is why I look to the Minister and my Government to address this issue. I put it to the Minister that in any strategy considered, looking into the increase in shipping which is affecting every product on the shelves and every product on the construction sites must be a priority. I would be interested to gauge the Minister’s opinion on what the Government is doing to tackle the cost, which is putting small businesses into bother at a time when we must be rebuilding.
One builder said to me,
“How can we rebuild after covid, Jim, when I literally can’t afford the rebuilding materials— what happens to my team members whilst I renegotiate contracts with developers to cover the astronomical price rises?”
These costs are going to hit the construction sector. These false prices will have to fall, and there will be some crash when they do. House prices in my constituency have risen by 20%. We are seeing at first hand the cost of relying on others when once we had the finest steel industry in the world. We can, and indeed must, return to this, providing jobs and a quality product. It is time for the Government to once again put steel into our backbone and to back our own right here in the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—better together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. My congratulations to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important and timely debate.
I was first elected to this place in 2015 and have since lost track of the number of debates I have taken part in and the questions I have asked regarding the UK and Scottish steel industry on behalf of the Scottish National party. In the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency, we produced steel. Motherwell was known as Steelopolis and Motherwell FC is nicknamed The Steelmen, but all that is left is the Dalziel works, which rolls steel. Ravenscraig, our integrated steel mill, was closed in 1992 as part of the deindustrialisation of Scotland under the Tory Government led by Maggie Thatcher. Now this Tory Government are determined to see steel production suffer all over the UK as a consequence of a Brexit deal that Scotland did not vote for.
At the end of 2020, the UK transitioned the EU steel safeguards retaining vital protection against trade diversion and import surges for 19 different steel products produced in the UK. The preliminary decision by the Department for International Trade is to remove a large number of safeguards designed to protect domestic producers from a flood of cheap imports. According to UK Steel, that
“needs to be urgently rethought.”
The Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate recommended extending the measures on 10 categories of imports for three years from next month. It also suggested that measures on nine categories be revoked. These plans are being described by UK Steel as “a hammer blow” that risks damaging the sector long term. That is exactly what they are. UK Steel has also said that the UK would become
“a magnet for huge volumes of steel imports…It is beyond worrying to consider the damage this could do to the UK steel sector and its long-term viability.”
The main union of steelworkers, Community, has said:
“This is the first test of the Government’s commitment to our steel industry post-Brexit and they’re failing it.”
UK Steel said the removal of the protections will have an adverse impact on the manufacture of steel across the UK, as attested to by hon. Members representing steel-producing constituencies across England and—it has to be said—mainly in Wales. The original safeguarding measures were designed to protect the viability of an entire industry, not individual production lines.
The Scottish National party is clear that the UK Government must extend steel safeguards beyond their current June 2021 expiry date. If the UK Conservative Government unilaterally remove the measures, they will open our market to import surges as the sector recovers from covid-19 and, crucially, at a time when our exports to the EU and US will still be subject to tariffs and quotas.
If the UK is serious about global Britain, it must remove the £54 million extra in energy costs that UK companies pay compared with companies in Germany. Over the past five years, that has cost the UK steel sector £254 million or 130% of annual capital investment. Consistently higher UK electricity prices increase production costs, reduce available capital and deter inward investment.
It is time for the UK Government to put forward a bold programme of support for the sector to level the playing field, as the all-party parliamentary group for steel and metal related industries has been continually calling for. Time and again, UK Tory Governments have failed to understand manufacturing. They talk about plans that they do not follow through; they do not even seem to realise that their vision of global Britain will never become a reality if we let down a foundation industry such as steel over and over again.
Scottish Government action in supporting GFG’s steel and smelter operations shows commitment to those sectors in Scotland. The Scottish Government helped Liberty Steel reopen Dalzell in my constituency and direct job numbers have recovered. In Lochaber, direct jobs have been saved. The Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise supported Liberty’s acquisition; the UK Government must support UK steel industries across the board.
Scottish Enterprise recognises the challenging environment for businesses in Scotland right now and the significant economic benefit Liberty Steel brings in jobs, the supply chain and future safeguarding of Scotland’s steel industry. The Scottish Government work hard to protect jobs and promote Scotland as a place to do business. Indeed, Scotland has bucked the trend and the amount of foreign direct investment in Scotland is growing as international investors increasingly see Scotland as a welcoming place in which to invest. An EY survey of 570 international business decision makers found 15% ranked Scotland as the most attractive part of the UK in which to establish operations, behind London, but with a huge shift in the past two years. London’s vote as most attractive region had almost halved since 2019, while Scotland’s had more than doubled. That is what happens when a Government believe in their people, not just their friends and cronies.
Following the initial decision on safeguards, the Secretary of State for International Trade must decide whether to accept or reject the measures by the end of June. A rejection can only be made on the grounds that the Government believe the recommendation is not in the economic or public interests of the UK. A rejection would mean that the entirety of the safeguards would expire. Removing safeguards may see UK steel consumers receive some modest price reduction in the short term, but that will not last. This Tory Government must understand what is at stake. They must continue safeguards and actively support steelmaking in the UK, or they risk the UK being unable to supply its most basic steel needs in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Graham. May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this important debate and for his powerful opening speech on the future of this vital foundation industry, which is important to our history and our economy? I congratulate him and colleagues across the House on their work through the all-party parliamentary group for steel and metal related industries.
I also congratulate all hon. Members who have spoken powerfully in the debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Neath (Christina Rees), for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Newport West (Ruth Jones), for Newport East (Jessica Morden), for Rotherham (Sarah Champion)—particularly on working with Liberty Steel on the sale of the Stocksbridge and Brinsworth plants—and for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), as well as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who made a powerful speech.
UK steel is at a turning point. A lack of strategic focus from successive Conservative Governments has inevitably resulted in reduced resilience against external shocks and fierce international competition. Our shared goal must be a sustainable future for UK steel and its supply chains, and we need the Government leadership that that demands. Steelmaking must decarbonise, and the long-term future of the industry is in supporting green jobs at the core of low-carbon economy. Steelmaking is a highly-skilled industry and a national asset, and it has a clear opportunity for continued growth, with procurement policies that could also help to increase the contribution of UK steel to UK manufacturing, products and infrastructure.
Currently, 60% of steels are imported, and there is no assessment of the carbon footprint of those imports. Across the UK, there are around 1,100 businesses in steel and around 75,000 jobs, whether directly supported or in the supply chain. Those jobs are at the centre of our economies. In my speech, I will say a few words about supporting our steel industry today, about the need for a vision and plan for the future, and about ensuring a fair and just transition.
The Labour party and the UK steel industry have been united in rejecting the recent draft recommendations of the Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate to remove almost half the safeguard measures currently protecting UK steel producers from the surges in imports that threaten the sector. We hope that the Trade Remedies Authority will listen to the reasoned explanations as to why all current safeguards must stay in place beyond their June expiry date, not least in the light of the other huge pressures faced by the industry at this difficult time.
UK Steel’s criticisms of those recommendations have highlighted a failure to recognise the interconnectedness of the steel industry. One part of the supply chain cannot be damaged without damaging the industry as a whole. As an example, Celsa Steel UK has 28 product categories, with much interconnection between them, but 10 of those have been affected by the revocation of safeguards, while 18 have not—a situation that is inexplicable to Celsa and others. UK Steel has put together significant evidence to challenge the data used by TRID in producing its recommendations. I would be grateful for the Minister’s assessment of that industry evidence.
The process has exposed a worrying gap in Ministers’ ability to act in the national interest, and has illustrated the flaws that the Labour party warned about during the process to establish the UK’s post-Brexit trade remedies regime. We also warned about the lack of representation of UK producers in unions such as Unite and Community, and the risk that it would exacerbate those failings. Worryingly, the current legislation does not allow the Secretary of State to retain existing safeguards or introduce new ones against the advice of the Trade Remedies Authority, even if to do so would be overwhelmingly in the public interest.
The fate of large parts of the steel industry and of thousands of jobs currently lies in the hands not of elected representatives, but of an unelected body that cannot be overruled. Even if the TRA reverses the original recommendations this month, we cannot find ourselves in this position again. We are therefore willing to work constructively on a cross-party basis to amend the trade remedies legislation to allow for a wider range of public interest tests to be applied in these decisions. In the interim, we call on the Government to do everything necessary and permissible within the law to extend all the current steel safeguards. The Minister must also make those intentions public at the earliest opportunity to provide the UK steel industry with the certainty that it badly needs.
We urgently need a truly ambitious vision for the sector that puts the UK at the cutting edge of green steel-making technology, and we need a plan to go with it. We need to see better progress on the industrial decarbonisation strategy and the acceleration of the clean steel fund. That £250 million fund was announced in 2019, but the spend from it is not set to start until 2023. I would be grateful for clarity from the Minister about why there is a delay.
The UK seeks to decarbonise by 2050, but blast-furnace investments operate on a 20 to 25-year timescale, so we need a clean steel innovation programme now. As the Materials Processing Institute highlights, delaying until 2024 shows a lack of co-ordination between the Government’s timetable and the reality of the industry’s investment cycles.
Although we accept that it is necessary that UK steel continues using coking coal for the next decade until technology is in place to provide for decarbonised steel, with the right strategy, investment in renewable technologies can create three times as many jobs as those in fossil fuel industries—jobs that are long term, highly skilled and high wage. Hydrogen could also play a huge part. Trials of direct reduced iron technology are already happening in Germany, Sweden and China. The Government should act quickly to prevent the UK from being left behind with this technology too.
As the price of energy hinders progress, we need a clear industrial plan. We have heard how the gap between German and UK electricity prices is placing an extra £54 million a year additional cost on the UK steel sector. As the sector seeks to decarbonise, the price disparity is a major barrier to transitioning. All low-carbon options available are much more energy intensive. The Government have always said that the EU is a barrier to action. Now that we have left, they must take decisive action to address that price disparity.
We also need a plan for capital investment for future productivity. Plants that I have visited have demonstrated that they have a set of clear transformation business plans ready, with detailed assessments of returns on investment and alignments of goals with national priorities. In the short term, the challenge of working capital also remains. Viable businesses with multi-year order books, such as Stocksbridge, need urgent support to be able to purchase the supplies they need and get the products that are demanded by their customers into production now.
Priorities for a fair and responsible transition to low-carbon steel making must include long-term planning, as the Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures, Community union and Prospect have begun to outline. Protecting jobs and steel communities also means that transition must seek to retain our capabilities and high skills, include retraining and avoid hard redundancies.
Our manufacturing renaissance, infrastructure and green economic recovery depend on steel. In 2015, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee argued that the relative decline of UK steel production was partly down to the fact that other European countries have better valued their domestic steel industry. That has to change. Labour is determined to safeguard the UK’s steel industry, and with industry operating on the basis of lengthy investment cycles, the future of industry is dependent on investment now to support our green transition. We need a strong steel industry fit for the 21st century that can compete on a level playing field, with the capability to make a full range of steels over the long term.
The Government have said that they are committed to supporting and securing a future for UK steel, but recent events do not back that up. It is vital that the Government do more now to bring forward a long-term plan to support our proud British steel sector and the UK manufacturers that are their customers. We must secure this industry in our national interest, to protect jobs, livelihoods and our economy.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing the debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss this incredibly important topic. It is encouraging to see so many hon. Friends and hon. Members participating. I am delighted to see the passion demonstrated by everyone this morning. That is a true reflection of the role that the steel sector plays in communities, and its importance as a foundation industry in the national economy.
Although ministerial colleagues and I are consistent and passionate advocates for the steel industry—hon. Members will know that I have a background in manufacturing—the topic of the debate is not within my policy portfolio. Should I fail to answer specific questions, I will ensure that they are responded to in writing by relevant Ministers or officials.
I thank the hon. Member for Aberavon for high- lighting safeguard measures. Hon. Members might be aware that the Trade Remedies Authority will make a recommendation on whether to extend or revoke the UK’s steel safeguard measures that are due to expire on 30 June 2021. The TRA is an independent body and the recommendation will be based on evidence, following consultation with interested parties from the steel sector.
As mentioned, the Secretary of State for International Trade can accept or reject the recommendation but not modify or partially accept it. She cannot extend the measures if the TRA does not recommend that. If the Secretary of State rejects the recommendation, then all the measures will expire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) highlighted, my Department is working closely with the Department for International Trade on the issue.
The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) spoke of the regulations governing the TRA. The Secretary of State for International Trade has spoken about her plans to review whether the UK’s trade remedies framework should be strengthened. I fully recognise that the global economic conditions continue to be challenging for the steel industry. Global overcapacity in the sector is a significant issue, and was estimated at 625 million tonnes in 2020 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The excess in capacity produced globally depresses prices and harms UK steel producers’ profitability.
The hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) raised the topic of bonded warehouses. The Secretary of State has agreed to meet the management teams at Liberty Newport and Tredegar. As referred to by the hon. Member for Aberavon, the covid-19 pandemic has clearly had a disruptive impact on the steel sector. Recent supply shortages of steel have temporarily increased its price. However, that is unlikely to be sustained as the markets readjust.
Although the economic context is challenging, hon. Members should be in no doubt that the Government are committed to the UK steel industry, as the Secretary of State has reaffirmed on numerous occasions, and to a sustainable future, supporting local economic growth and our levelling-up agenda. To that end, our unprecedented package of covid-19 support is still available to the sector, to protect jobs and ensure that producers have the right support during this challenging time.
Beyond covid, the hon. Member for Aberavon mentioned the Industrial Strategy Council. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Chancellor have outlined how we are taking forward its best elements in the plan for growth. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that the Government are working closely with industry and trade unions to understand how together we can create a sustainable steel sector in the UK. On 19 May, the Secretary of State co-chaired the second meeting of the UK Steel Council, which he reconvened in March this year. The council provides a forum for Government, industry and the unions to work in partnership, to develop a plan to support the sector’s transition to a competitive, sustainable and low-carbon future.
The second meeting of the joint industry and BEIS steel procurement taskforce was held yesterday afternoon. That was first launched in March and is chaired by Lord Grimstone. It explores what Government and industry can do to address the challenges the sector has reported when competing for and securing public contracts. I would like to reassure the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) that work is continuing to develop on the subsidy control regime.
Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), have rightly focused on climate change, with welcome passion. In addition to our continuing close engagement with the sector, I can reassure the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) that we are taking action across a broad range of policy areas, including decarbonisation, energy prices, international trade and procurement. These actions aim to boost the sector’s competitiveness in the short term and to support long-term investment and transformational change that will increase efficiency while aligning with our goal of a net zero economy by 2050.
To reach our ambitious net zero target, we will need the UK steel sector to decarbonise. Our new industrial decarbonisation strategy sets out for the first time the Government’s comprehensive assessment of how industry, including the steel sector, can decarbonise in line with net zero in a way that supports both competitiveness and clean growth. The strategy includes a commitment to work with the UK Steel Council to examine the implications of the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation to set targets for ore-based steelmaking to reach near zero emissions by 2035.
In 2019, we announced a £250 million clean steel fund to support the sector to transition to low-carbon iron and steel production through the new technologies and processes, which could potentially include supporting hydrogen-based steelmaking. Other recent and ongoing work to support the sector includes the £350 million industrial energy transformation fund, which aims to support businesses with high energy use to cut their bills and reduce carbon emissions. As part of the industrial strategy challenge fund, we are also providing up to £66 million to help the key foundation industries, such as steel, develop innovative technology to reduce energy and resource use.
The hon. Member for Birkenhead made an important point about technology. Science and innovation have been made a priority by the UK Government, in recognition of the strong economic benefits of public investment in science and innovation and the capacity to leverage private investment. That is why we will increase R&D investment to £22 billion per year by 2024-25. We plan to establish a net zero hydrogen fund, with £240 million of capital co-investment until 2024-25. That will support at-scale hydrogen production projects, allowing steel producers the potential to access suppliers of low-cost hydrogen.
As we support the UK steel industry’s decarbonisation, we must do so in a way that enables us to compete globally and across Europe. Several hon. Members have raised the issue of industrial energy prices. We of course recognise that they are currently higher in the United Kingdom than in other competitive economies.
The hon. Member for Newport East mentioned the Ofgem targeted charging review. As she will know, network charging is a matter for Ofgem as the independent regulator, and decisions on its targeted charging review are for it to make. However, the Government continue to engage with Ofgem in order to inform our understanding of the reforms’ policy implications. We have provided more than £500 million in relief to the steel sector since 2013, in order to make electricity costs more competitive.
Finally, I turn to procurement and supply chains. I welcome the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe. We are working hard to ensure that UK steel producers have the best possible chance of competing for, and winning, contracts across Government projects. I previously mentioned the steel procurement taskforce, but I can also assure the hon. Member for Rotherham that the Government have recently consulted on an ambitious package of major procurement reforms, with the aim of creating a simpler and more flexible regime that works much better for British businesses, including our steel businesses.
The Government are also working the with industry to ensure that Departments and other sector organisations follow guidance to account for social and environmental benefits when buying steel. That includes publishing details of upcoming national public infrastructure projects every year, so that steel businesses can plan for future demand.
The steel pipeline shows how the Government plan to procure 7.6 million tonnes of steel over the next decade for infrastructure projects such as the expansion of the offshore wind infrastructure, the construction of Hinkley Point C, as has been mentioned, and the maintenance and upgrading of the UK’s motorway network.
I will, of course, pass on the hon. Gentleman’s question.
I will move on to Liberty Steel. The hon. Member for Newport East rightly highlighted its importance to many Members and their constituents, and its recent financial difficulties, which were also raised by the hon. Member for Rotherham. As the Secretary of State reaffirmed to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee in an oral evidence session, we continue to monitor the situation closely and engage with the company, trade unions, local MPs and the wider steel industry. Liberty is important.
Does the Minister appreciate that there is a need to work to support plants that are viable—such as Stocksbridge and Brinsworth, which purchase their supplies from Rotherham—and provide the working capital that is needed for orders that are there and products that are there to be made?
I thank the hon. Member for her contribution. Again, I will pass that on, with the passion that she has shown, to the relevant places.
I return to Liberty Steel. We continue to monitor the situation closely and to engage with the company, trade unions, local MPs and the wider steel industry. Liberty is an important supplier of steel and provides highly skilled jobs. The Government believe that Liberty sites can be viable and we remain hopeful that the commercial issues can be resolved to ensure future success.
It is, however, first and foremost the company’s responsibility to manage commercial decisions for the future of the organisation, and we welcome the dedicated efforts being made by Liberty to find solutions. I hope that I have reassured hon. Members, who have displayed sincere empathy for our steel sector today, that the Government are working tirelessly with the industry to secure its future through difficult times.
Focusing specifically on Tata Steel—I know that that is of great interest to the hon. Member for Aberavon, and I have saved discussion of it for my summing up—I can assure Members that the Government will continue to work closely with the company and the unions as they shape the business strategy to support the future of high-quality steelmaking in Port Talbot.
I have set out a wide range of actions that demonstrate that the Government fully understand the vital role that steel plays for communities, for our economy and as a foundation supplier for our manufacturing base. UK industry will continue to need high-quality steel, and British steel is among the best steel in the world. As we level up our country, we are actively considering where there is scope to go further to support our steel industry.
We are committed to sustainable decarbonisation, decarbonising a globally competitive future steel industry in the United Kingdom, and I look forward to working with Members towards achieving that goal.
I thank all hon. Members present for a really constructive and useful debate.
I thank the Minister for her response, but there is a chasm between the rhetoric that the Government are deploying and the tangible actions that we need to see. Safeguards are now of the utmost urgency, but we are in an absurd situation whereby the Secretary of State for International Trade is not being given the option of modifying the recommendations that we have discussed; it is simply, “Take it or leave it”. If the decision is to reject the recommendations in their entirety, all the safeguards will fall. That would lead to a massive import surge, which could be crippling for our industry. I urge the Minister to go back to the Department for International Trade with the greatest urgency. The recommendations appear to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding about how the steel industry actually works, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) so eloquently set out.
On procurement, we need concrete actions. We need targets for how much of the steel in public infrastructure projects should be British steel, and we need clear supply chain plans so that procurers are obliged to set out precisely how they will maximise the input of British steel. We have been calling for this for years, and we need to see specific actions.
On price disparity, we should be looking at the French-German model for network cost reductions, increasing the renewable levy exemptions and providing exemptions from capacity market costs. Again, those are all things that we have been calling for over several years.
Finally, on the green transition, a recent report by a think-tank, the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, showed that there are 23 hydrogen steel projects happening across the European Union, but absolutely none in this country. It feels as though we could be behind the curve in that regard. Politics is about choices, and I urge the Government to make choices that actually favour our British steel industry.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
House Building Targets: North East Bedfordshire
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of housebuilding targets in North East Bedfordshire constituency.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham; it is a particular pleasure. I am grateful to the Speaker for granting this debate at this time, because it enables me to engage directly with the Minister on the existing impact of high levels of house building in my constituency ahead of his finalisation, with the Secretary of State, of the forthcoming planning Bill.
I place on the record my thanks to the Minister for his willingness to meet me on multiple occasions—I have lost count—to discuss the particular effects on my constituency of development from a wide variety of sources: the construction of East West Rail; the creation of development corporations; the 2017 Oxford-Cambridge arc proposals—highly questionable, in my mind— from the National Infrastructure Commission; road improvements, including on the A1 at Black Cat roundabout; and the processes of the local plans for Central Bedfordshire Council and Bedford Borough Council. The Minister has always been open to discussions, and I am grateful for that.
In this short debate, I will cover the Conservative party manifesto commitment to “infrastructure first”; the Department’s view on housing consequences from East West Rail and other transport decisions; environmental impacts of particular concern in areas where local authorities are having to meet housing growth targets that are well above average; and some critical requests for consideration by the Minister in the forthcoming planning Bill.
Let me let me start with some context. My constituency is already recording housing growth at roughly three times the average of the constituencies of all Members of this House. The National House Building Council provides some statistics: in 2018, North East Bedfordshire’s figure for new homes registered was 2.2 times the national average, in 2019 it was 2.9 times the average and last year it was 3.5 times the average. We anticipate that that rate will continue to increase in relative terms. Moreover, the Office for National Statistics states that in terms of absolute population growth, in the decade to 2026 the local authority of Central Bedfordshire, which covers part of my constituency, ranks second only to Leicester of all local authorities outside London. The population of North East Bedfordshire is already growing fast, and that rate of growth is getting faster. The absolute growth in population will be one of the highest in the country.
The effects of this house building are already having an impact on the availability of local services. Difficulties in accessing GP services are already being felt across my constituency: from Arlesey and Stotfold to Biggleswade and Sandy to Harrold and to Sharnbrook, residents have contacted me to say how increasingly difficult it is to access GP services. This is not to do with covid; it is directly to do with population growth. A House of Commons report on changes in the numbers of GPs, trainees and locums for clinical commissioning groups across the country records a 6% decrease in the number of qualified permanent GPs for the Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes CCG since 2019. In that CCG, which covers my constituency, there were 2,112 patients per full-time equivalent GP as of December 2019, compared with 1,722 in England as a whole. There is already a disparity in access to GP services, which is only likely to grow, given the growth in housing numbers.
The Minister and I—and indeed you, Sir Graham—stood on a manifesto commitment of “infrastructure first”, pledging that we would ensure that new roads and services were in place before people moved into new homes. Does the Minister acknowledge that securing access to GPs and school places is a crucial principle of our “infrastructure first” pledge? Will he commit to an urgent review, with his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and in the Department for Education, to assess the current and projected requirements for my constituency and plans for improvements?
Let me turn to other aspects of infrastructure: roads and railways, of which my constituency has many, in part thanks to a 2017 National Infrastructure Commission report entitled “Partnering for Prosperity,” which was chaired by Lord Adonis. The report stated, with reference to the area between Oxford and Cambridge:
“Without swift and determined action to overcome the area’s housing crisis, it will fall behind its international competitors and fail to attract and retain the talent and skills it needs.”
I will not question that, although I feel that it was a bit tendentious in its expectation. This technocratic report went on to state:
“If the arc is to maximise its economic potential, current rates of house building will need to double—delivering up to one million new homes by 2050.”
However, the target of 1 million homes was wrong. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. The target included an allocation of overspill of 230,000 or more from London. It was based not on the fulfilment of the projections, but on the over-fulfilment of the highest projection of growth for the area. In short, it was a number plucked out of thin air by Lord Adonis, to get a PR-ready headline, but it bears only a tangential relationship to reality. Yet this “one million new homes” figure remains a potential threat to the already successful plans for housing growth in my local authorities of Central Bedfordshire and Bedford Borough Council. Can the Minister reassure me that this fantasy figure of 1 million new homes in the OxCam arc no longer plays a role in housing targets for the area?
From my discussions with CPRE and local environmental groups in Bedfordshire, I know there are considerable concerns that the rate of growth of housing means that biodiversity and access to green spaces are threatened. Does the Minister recognise that these frequently heard concerns, which I know concern him as well, are even more important in areas of considerable housing growth? Will he commit to requiring developments in Central Bedfordshire and Bedford Borough Council local authority areas to embed environmental considerations from the very start of the planning process, rather than making them considerations somewhat later down the track? I believe we need to prioritise access to our environment for residents where housing development is considerably above the national average. The Minister and the Department need to take action to move forward those considerations right to the start of the planning process.
A key part of the National Infrastructure Commission report was the creation of the east-west railway, linking Oxford to Cambridge and to points beyond them on both sides. This project is well under way, but the process has created concerns and confusion for many of my residents. I do not want to draw the Minister into transport-related matters, but can he advise me on a couple of points?
First, in the discussions with local authorities about the East West Rail project, were any considerations of consequential requirements for additional housing ever made by his Department or by the Department for Transport? If so, what were those additional requirements? Secondly, the Minister may be aware that, in part at the request of the leadership of Bedford Borough Council, the east-west railway is now planned to go via the town centre and then north across my constituency. That was a considerable surprise for many of my residents, partly because Bedford Borough Council’s recommendation was put into the consultation without the Mayor or the leadership letting the councillors know that. They did not even have a vote on whether to put it into the consultation. It was a surprise, because people saw that route and thought it was longer, more costly and hillier than alternatives.
I am agnostic on what the route decision should be, but I am not agnostic on the facts that underpin decisions when they are made. As we know, with very large infrastructure decisions, it is important that local communities understand and see that the process is transparent, and understand and see the data underlying any decision.
Given that surprise, will the Minister advise me—not on transport matters, but specifically on housing ones—whether that particular route decision to go through the town amended any expectation of consequential housing growth over any other route options? He may not have answers to my two questions today, but if he would commit to writing to me about them, I will be very grateful.
As I mentioned, my constituency has multiple changes planned or in progress, yet I am advised by local authorities that the level of co-ordination between Departments—over changes in water routes, railways, roads and other utilities—is extremely poor. That causes greater uncertainty in the preparation of local plans and greater disruption for residents. Will the Minister pay particular regard to improving such co-ordination in his forthcoming planning Bill? Furthermore, I encourage him in his efforts to reform CIL, the community infrastructure levy, as part of the effort to give local authorities the resources they need to fund required infrastructure.
The planning Bill offers a positive vision to enable housing developments to proceed more effectively and with more, not less, local community involvement. Does the Minister agree that any future changes in planning regulations should include, and indeed enhance, the involvement of local people in shaping and protecting their communities? Does he share my desire that the voice of local residents, easier access to proposed developments in their areas, the empowering of neighbourhood plans to have real teeth, promotion of micro-scale developments, encouragement of more smaller local builders and the closing of loopholes for creeping developers to exploit should be clear objectives of his plan and his Bill?
From discussions with town and parish councillors, in Potton, Upper Caldecott, Everton and Harrold in particular, I know that those are aspects of reform that are crucial to them. Reassurance of the power of democratic involvement in the planning of local communities is particularly important to North East Bedfordshire given the scale of change. Will the Minister also advise me what his Department sees as the respective roles of the spatial framework, development corporations and local authorities in setting and meeting housing targets in my constituency?
Finally, I have some further points on the planning Bill. Given the market failure in house building, greater recognition of the social contract is needed in fulfilling the country’s ambitions of making home ownership more accessible. The Local Government Association states that there is already planning permission for more than 1.1 million homes. Currently, there are no real penalties for failure to build when permission is granted. That free ride should end, with existing approvals given a “build by” sunset clause on planning rights and all new permissions issued with a build and council tax schedule.
Without such action, the ability of local authorities to fulfil their part of the social contract—from the national Government’s objective to the local plans for housing, the neighbourhood and parish council’s control over what happens in their communities and builders building what the country demands and requires of them—will be fundamentally undermined. I hope that the Minister will bear those particular concerns of North East Bedfordshire in mind.
The value of the debate for me has been in being able to demonstrate to the Minister that in one of the constituencies in the country that is facing some of the most considerable change—potential and current, of which house building is a crucial part—his Department and his ambitions for the planning Bill can have real impact and real contact. I hope that he will take away some of the points that I have made as he finalises his preparations for the planning Bill.
It is a great pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and a great pleasure to reply to the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), who is a doughty champion for his constituents. I am grateful to him for his kind words. He is right; we will always continue to engage in dialogue to make sure that we get planning reforms right, particularly for his constituency. I think I am speaking to him and his Bedfordshire colleagues later today. We will continue to maintain that dialogue.
I begin by reminding hon. Members that our country does not have enough homes. The average house price in England is about eight times higher than average gross earnings. In London and other parts of the country, including parts of the OxCam arc, it is around 12 times higher. I am pleased that the figures from 2019 to 2020 demonstrate that housing supply increased by some 244,000 new homes—the highest increase in more than 30 years—but we have an unwavering commitment to build more and, by the middle of this decade, to deliver at least 300,000 new homes each year, to ensure that we address the housing challenge.
We have already brought forward a number of proposals with the planning White Paper to improve housing supply—changes to permitted development rights, for example, and changes to use class orders, which make for a more flexible and responsive system and which will allow for the more gentle densification of urban and suburban areas, meaning that the weight can thereby be taken off some of the greener spaces that we all want to protect and enjoy.
We have a bold and ambitious vision for the future of planning and house building in our country, much of which was set out in the White Paper. We will bring forward the planning Bill in this Session of Parliament, which will make the planning process clearer, more accessible and more certain for all users, improving the quality, quantity and speed of home building.
Engagement, as my hon. Friend said, is absolutely crucial. It is not just about building more homes; it is also about engaging more people, and I will say a little bit more about that later in my remarks. We must ensure that the right homes are delivered in the right places for communities across our country and that new development brings with it the schools, hospitals, GP surgeries and transport links that local communities need and that my hon. Friend champions, while at the same time protecting our unmatchable natural environment.
My hon. Friend made a few remarks about local housing need. Let me just say in context that the local housing need numbers for his constituency remain those that we posited back in 2018. They have not changed as a result of the consultation we undertook last year. I also remind him that the standard method for local housing need calculation does not set a target; it is simply a starting point in the process of planning for new homes. Local authorities will still need to consider any constraints that they face locally to assess how many homes can be built in their area, as opposed to how many the local housing need calculation may suggest. I point him to my “Dear colleague” letter—from memory, I think it was on 18 December last year—which makes that very clear. I congratulate him on the work that his own council is doing in making sure that homes are built.
The “Planning for the future” White Paper, which we published last year, sets out our vision for the planning system. We had some 44,000 responses to the consultation, which was a very substantial amount of interest. We are working our way through them and consulting stakeholders big and small, as well as colleagues in the House, to ensure that we fully understand the feedback and that we represent and reflect it as best we can. We want to get this right; we do not want to just get it done quickly, and we are taking our time to address the feedback.
Our proposals for reforming the planning system will make it simpler, quicker and more accessible for local people to engage in, which is what I think my hon. Friend wants for his constituents. Now, something like 1% of local people get involved in local plan making—1%. That is not many more than the planning officials in a local authority and their blood relations. The number who get involved in an individual planning application rises to a whacking 3% of the local population. Yet, after what is oftentimes a very tortuous process—planning applications can take five years to go through—nine in every 10, 90%, are passed. That suggests to me a system that is not particularly engaging and not necessarily a very democratic one, in which communities have a real say in what is built around them. We want to change that with our reforms. We want to modernise the system and, through digitalisation, local communities can have a much clearer say in what is built for them, how it looks, where it goes, what the infrastructure should be and what the design of the buildings should be, too.
My hon. Friend pointed out the importance of “infrastructure first”. We agree with that. I will certainly be very happy to take forward his request with my colleagues in the Department for Education and in the Department of Health and Social Care, but let me say that the infrastructure levy that we propose is designed to ensure that developers pay for their fair share of affordable housing and infrastructure through a simpler, faster and more transparent infrastructure levy. We all know that section 106, which takes up the lion’s share of developer contributions, is slow, rather like the planning system; is opaque, rather like the planning system; and results, rather like the planning system, in outcomes that were not necessarily expected by the local community at the outset of their expectations.
The levy will be collected and spent at local level, with up-front infrastructure priorities such as schools and GP surgeries being at the heart of the proposition. It will also, incidentally, enable the speedy introduction of our First Homes initiative, which will enable local first-time buyers, including key workers, to get on the housing ladder by providing them with discounted properties. In constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, and nearby constituencies, where the cost of housing is oftentimes significantly above average earnings, that will be a mechanism to help his local constituents stay local, get on the property ladder and achieve their aspiration of having a stake in the country.
That is outwith the national home building fund, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced at the spending review and also at the Budget. It will be some £7.1 billion of funding for infrastructure, which we reckon will unlock something like 860,000 units for housing development across our country.
We also want to create more beautiful places by asking local authorities to develop their own design code, setting the standards that new developments will be expected to meet. One of the biggest concerns that many of our constituents have about new development that is proposed around them is what it will look like: “Is it going to look the way I would like my community to look?” Giving local people and local stakeholders much more say in what those design codes will be will make our planning system that much more consensual. It will also make the design of new builds really coherent with the local community, doing away with the “anywheresville” development that perhaps too many places have suffered from for too long.
We will publish the responses to the White Paper as soon as we can. However, as I said, we want to get this right and get it done quickly. There will be plenty of opportunities for colleagues across the House to continue to talk to Ministers to ensure that we get the proposals right.
My hon. Friend raised a number of questions about the OxCam arc. Let me say in introduction that we believe the OxCam arc, over quite a period of time—to the middle of this century—can support the creation of 2 million extra jobs and add over £110 billion a year to our economy. It is one of the fastest growing economic areas of our country, so there is a real opportunity to engender prosperity and growth for people. However, I am conscious that he has some concerns, so let me say that the ambition to build 1 million homes in the OxCam arc was a recommendation of the National Infrastructure Commission’s “Partnering for Prosperity” report. While we want to see more homes built, and let us remember that the OxCam arc is not a small space—it stretches from the north of Northamptonshire right down to the border with London—let me be clear that the 1 million homes number is not a specific Government policy or indeed a target. However, we do want to maximise the number of homes that can be built across the country.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the importance of the environment. We want to ensure that we are baking the Environment Bill’s requirements for biodiversity net gain and nature recovery networks into our planning reforms. We are working out how most effectively to do that as the Environment Bill becomes an Act and we need to take it into account.
My hon. Friend also mentioned East West Rail. The railway will pass through North East Bedfordshire. I point him to the commitment that the Government have made to explore new settlement opportunities around stations such as Tempsford and the St Neots area so that, subject to appropriate community consultation, development can be delivered in the right places and in the right way. We are supporting Bedford Borough Council to develop its locally led vision for the realisation of the full benefits of East West Rail. I am sure that my hon. Friend has contributed to the consultation, which closes today, and I encourage anybody else who still has the time to do so. However, may I reinforce the message that while we are working with places, including Bedford, to understand opportunities for more housing and what advantages East West Rail will bring, housing targets continue to be determined by planning policy and by local plans?
My hon. Friend also asked to hear a commitment from the Government about the involvement of local people and local communities in the planning process, and when changes are made their voices need to be heard. Let me agree with him. It is absolutely our intent to engage more people in the planning process at an earlier point in the process so they can have a real say in how their communities are designed—what should go where and what it should look like. We believe that the proposals, which we are refining and will bring forward shortly, will achieve that purpose of more engagement and more say where it counts.
If I have not answered my hon. Friend’s remaining questions, I am happy to write to him, meet him or speak to him through whatever forum to allay any concerns or address any ideas he has. May I congratulate him on securing this important debate for his constituents? I hope that he and you, Sir Graham, will see that the Government are committed to delivering a planning system that will truly level up for all communities in our country; a system that is fit for purpose and that works for all. It will deliver a faster, more transparent and more predictable outcome for everybody, so that we build the homes that we need, to the design that we want and to the standards that we expect, with the infrastructure that communities need, and we can all be proud of our planning for the future.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No.10(6)).
Human Rights in Hong Kong
[Ms Nusrat Ghani in the Chair]
[Relevant document: e-petition 585237, Sanction Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights violations.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. I remind Members participating that they must remain here for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members are attending virtually and have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Members attending physically should clean 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 unless you are speaking. Members attending physically who are in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move on to the horseshoe when seats become available. Members can only speak from the horseshoe, where there are microphones.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in Hong Kong.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have initiated. It is a privilege to speak, and I am grateful that this debate has been selected. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will understand it when I say that I wish I was not here. I wish none of us was here today to discuss this matter. This debate was entirely avoidable had international obligations been met.
Let me say at the outset what this debate is not about. It is not about colonialism or interference by a former colonial power. In his final act as Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten telegrammed London to announce,
“I have relinquished the administration of this government.”
The 156 years of British rule over Hong Kong ended on 1 July 1997, and we are not here to debate taking it back.
Hong Kong was handed over to China following an agreement that took the form of an international treaty lodged at the United Nations, which both the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China entered into freely. It is right that we consider whether that agreement—the Sino-British joint declaration on the question of Hong Kong—is being upheld and whether it meets our and Hongkongers’ legitimate expectations.
The joint declaration was signed in December 1984. The text sets out the basis on which Hong Kong would be returned to China. It states:
“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication. The laws currently in force in Hong Kong will remain basically unchanged.”
It goes on to say:
“The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”
I submit to you, Ms Ghani, that all those rights and freedoms have been diminished in modern-day Hong Kong.
Last year, China passed a national security law for Hong Kong that created a number of chilling measures. A new security office with its own personnel has been established by China in Hong Kong, outside local jurisdiction. Some criminal cases can now be tried in mainland China. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive has the power to appoint judges to hear national security cases.
The law includes many broad-brush offences, including
“provoking by unlawful means hatred among Hong Kong residents towards the Central People’s Government or the Government of the Region, which is likely to cause serious consequences.”
Given the extraterritorial nature of the legislation, it might well apply to those of us participating in this debate.
However, this debate is not about history, rules or what might happen to Members of Parliament; it is about people such as Donna Kong, who has lived in Hong Kong her whole life but has decided to take the difficult decision to leave her family behind and move with her husband to Liverpool. She says:
“Nowadays, we have to be careful what we say on the streets.”
Her husband adds:
“Hong Kong is going from a free, international city to just another Chinese city.”
It is about people such as Jimmy Lai, who was jailed in April 2021 for his participation in a peaceful protest in 2019. In reality, it was because he has the temerity to publish a newspaper that criticises the Government. It is about people such as Martin Lee, a barrister and member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong for over 20 years, who is regarded and revered as the father of democracy in Hong Kong. He has been silenced by the national security law. He has stopped his public activism and is no longer granting media interviews. He has also been sentenced for participating in an unlawful assembly, although his sentence was suspended.
The crackdown on human rights in Hong Kong has been all pervasive, and I will give some examples. The legislature has passed an immigration Bill to restrict freedom of movement in and out of Hong Kong. The police chief has floated the idea of a law to target so-called fake news, and he has called for the closure of Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily, the last pro-democracy publication. Police have censored a website belonging to a Taiwanese church. The Government have attacked the Hong Kong Bar Association and fired 129 civil servants for refusing to sign an oath of allegiance. The local broadcaster, RTHK, has purged its online platform of any shows over a year old but given Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, her own television show, which is shown four times every day. So-called national security education is to be embedded across the curriculum in all secondary schools.
The examples I have given are from April 2021 alone—just one month in the life of Hongkongers—so I welcome the steps taken by the Government in response to China’s actions. The Government have suspended the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and extended to Hong Kong the embargo on certain military items already imposed on mainland China. I particularly welcome the new visa route to people from Hong Kong who have British national overseas status and their close family members. It is a generous offer that befits a global Britain that takes this issue seriously, and I am pleased that the Home Office has announced that it has received 34,000 applications for visas in the first two months of operation.
The Government recognise that there is an ongoing breach of Chinese obligations, and I ask whether further measures might be taken. Is there scope to work with allies and partners to ensure a co-ordinated approach? I read recently that Germany will not accept BNO passports as identity documents, and it is important that democracies take a common line on such matters. We continue to have British judges sitting on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal—a position that perhaps looks increasingly untenable as the current situation continues. As we are able to identify officials in Hong Kong who are guilty of human rights breaches, I ask whether it is time to consider targeted sanctions against them, or at least to assess their effectiveness. Previously, the Minister has kindly indicated that he would be willing to meet me and fellow members of the all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong to discuss this subject, and I am very willing to take him up on that offer.
There is no dispute resolution clause in the Sino-British joint declaration, but it is a living document, and the United Kingdom is party to it. This country has a duty to protect the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers. Until such time as those freedoms are restored, I expect that the voices from this island will only get louder. I look forward to hearing some of those voices this afternoon.
What we are seeing in Hong Kong is a two-pronged assault on truth. First, China attacks the source of truth—reporting—by threatening and expelling journalists who expose the extent of China’s authoritarian behaviour. Secondly, China creates an Orwellian alternative narrative in which those who tell the truth are the liars, and those who commit violent acts of repression are the liberators.
China’s leaders hate journalism. At the end of March, the BBC’s China correspondent was driven out of Hong Kong. Plain-clothes goons followed him and his family to the airport. This was not an isolated case. Most independent foreign correspondents have now been expelled, as Beijing proceeds to eliminate the last vestiges of Hong Kong’s freedom. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising to see China being ranked by the World Press Freedom Index as one of the worst countries in the world for media freedoms; it is ranked a dismal 177th.
Once upon a time, some thought that Hong Kong could be a beacon for China, spreading its values to the mainland. Instead, the opposite has happened. Under its current leader, China has become ever more controlling and hostile to the truth. Hong Kong is merely the latest victim of a malign system that has trampled on press freedoms, democracy, cultural and religious minorities, and once independent nations, as the downtrodden and oppressed people of Tibet, the Uyghurs and many others can testify.
Journalistic censorship is paired with other despotic trademarks, disinformation being the foremost. In the digital world in which we live, it is not enough for the Chinese leadership to stem information coming from legitimate news outlets; information from normal citizens must also be quashed. China employs what is sometimes called the 50 cent army, so-called because of their meagre daily pay. Thought to number millions, these Communist party drones track online activity and work to sway public opinion with disinformation both inside China and outwith. Bots counter unfavourable reports and conversations about the Chinese regime.
It is a tactic deployed by the Kremlin, too, and it is spreading across the globe. During the recent onslaught against Gaza by the Israelis, there were mounting reports of another onslaught—the mass reporting by pro-Israeli groups of Palestinian posts from Gaza. This is a new world in which social media is weaponised by the powerful.
What can we do when faced with this bleak descent into untruth? We must champion journalism; we must speak up when we are told that there are “alternative facts”; we must steel the resolve of social media companies when they crumble under the weight of totalitarian pressure and their own avarice; we must speak the names of those who are bullied, arrested and imprisoned; we must honour the memory of those brave young people crushed by the Chinese regime in Tiananmen Square; we must assert the rights of the Uyghurs, and call out their detention and torture; we must champion the right of Tibet to self-determination; and we must never accept Hong Kong’s slide into the grim and oppressive reality faced by so many in mainland China, because we promised its people better.
Ms Ghani, it is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your stewardship.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) for securing this debate, on what is indeed the issue of the moment. It has not gone away; it will not go away. The debate is timely, because the G7 starts its meeting tomorrow and, frankly, if its major conclusion is not that China has become the greatest threat to liberal democracy here and around the world, it will have failed. It is as simple as that.
Today, we are talking about Hong Kong, but we could just as easily be talking about the suppression—nay, the genocide—of the Uyghurs; or about the suppression—nay, the genocide—of Tibetans; or about the increasing pressure on the Inner Mongolians, the Falun Gong or Christians. This is a regime that is intolerant, dictatorial and brutal. It accepts no difference from its dictated opinions and views, and any attempt to question it is treated with brutality and incarceration, without any possibility of a free or serious trial.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling is quite right to have made the point that this regime has now trashed a particular international agreement. It has broken what it agreed to do regarding the rights, privileges and freedoms in Hong Kong under the “one state, two systems” model. I suspect that the real reason for that is that the Chinese Communist party signed the original Sino-British agreement only because it believed that it would act as a magnet for the reintroduction of Taiwan completely under the umbrella of its state authority. The problem is that the elected Government in Taiwan rejects that future. On that basis, China can see no reason why it should continue with this troublesome area in Hong Kong, where people have been campaigning —we would say legitimately and freely—for the right to express their views, for a free press, and for democracy. For the Chinese Government, that is no longer necessary. The suppression that has followed has been swift, but in a way somewhat predictable; without the reason for Hong Kong to exist in this separate state, it must now be crushed.
It is quite interesting to see what they have done in the past month. They have fired civil servants and the rest of the leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement; introduced national security education for children as young as six; amended Hong Kong’s electoral system to bar pro-democracy parties from running; and passed an immigration law that would allow officials to restrict freedom of movement into and out of the city. Arrests, prosecutions and jail sentences have been happening behind closed doors.
I question why British judges are still earning a living in Hong Kong. I believe it is no longer possible for them to argue that they are modifying or ameliorating the situation. All they are doing is giving, in a sense, a bit of succour to a brutal, intolerant and debased regime. The Bar Council here should speak to those who are earning a living in Hong Kong and say, “It is time to draw stumps and come home.” I call on them to do that.
The arrests and prosecutions are staggering: 10,000 people have been arrested and 2,300 charged since the anti-extradition protests started in 2019. Imprisonment for 10 years to life is now the norm, and subversion, secession, collusion with foreign political forces and terrorism are the new laws. They could have just put down terrorism because they are going to find them guilty anyway, so they might as well make it simple; I don’t know why they bothered with the others. However, they have gone through this prolonged process—no doubt they think it somehow persuades people.
I am worried about the way this is going. Children as young as six are being taught to memorise the four crimes under the national security law that I have just mentioned. Schools are to inform police and parents about incidents involving political propaganda, and Hong Kong universities have now fired pro-democracy academics and cut ties with their student unions, following direction from Beijing.
The real question is: what can we do? We have already done a lot, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling has mentioned. The BNO passports are key, although the Chinese are threatening not to recognise them, nor to allow people to leave the country on those BNO passports. I am saddened, but not astonished, by Germany’s response. I do not know if the German Government will one day wake up to the idea that no matter how much they appease the Chinese, it never works. The idea that they depend on Chinese manufacturers for their own requirements and therefore do not want to upset the Government is one of the grave errors taught to us by history. Once started down that road, such a dependency leads further and further, so I hope they will review that.
I want more Magnitsky sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials, and I would extend those further to those involved in the dreadful Uyghur massacres. We must also offer assistance to Hong Kong residents born after 1997. The BNO visa scheme currently does not cover Hongkongers born after 1997, including many young Hong Kong students who are now vulnerable to arrest. I say to my hon. Friend from the Foreign Office, the Minister for Asia, that we should work with like-minded partners to ensure that there are lifeboat schemes for these young Hongkongers.
Ministers should ensure that Hong Kong is on the agenda at the G7—I started with that point and it is vital, so I want to come back to it at the end. I want the Government to review the rules around UK investment in companies that are complicit in human rights abuse and to be much more explicit about the supply chains, so that every single business or investor in the UK or abroad knows what the links are to the main companies all the way down the chain. That has not happened and it must happen.
I believe that this is the single biggest threat facing liberal democracy that currently exists. We are being complacent. We have run to China to do business and, across the western world, we have therefore turned a blind eye to the abuses taking place for too long. The lessons of the 1930s tell us that if we assume that what Governments say is not what they mean, then we are destined to be trapped in the reality of what they do. That is where we are now.
At the G7, which starts tomorrow, I would like my Government to insist that by the end of the meeting we make a clear, unequivocal, united statement that we will no longer put up with the abuses and the nature of the Chinese Government in their attacks on their neighbours and on their own people who live in China. If we do that, then just maybe we will have started the beginning of the change that will secure and rescue our own democracy and our own people’s freedom.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) on bringing this important and vital matter before the House. It is always an honour to speak after the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who made an excellent speech. If ever, as a country and as a people, we should be thankful for our freedom to worship and to think openly—our freedoms generally—it must be today when we consider the weight of the matter before us.
I speak as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong. I will focus my comments specifically on article 38 of the Hong Kong national security law. If we look at that law and its full effect, it makes this meeting of Parliament and every single one of us here today, as well as those who are watching the proceedings, guilty of breaching that national security law.
Under article 38, the global extraterritorial jurisdiction remit, those measures mean that each of us could stand accused of collusion, sedition, terrorism and subversion against China with a foreign country. Just think of that: China has reached into this country and effectively passed a law that says that what we dare to talk about today is unlawful and that we could be held accountable for it if we went over to Hong Kong or China. Anyone who has lobbied us about this matter would also be guilty under that law.
Even friends of Beijing—there may be some MPs who are attending this debate or watching it who are openly or secretly friends of Beijing—are vulnerable because they have spoken about, participated in or associated themselves with the seditious practice that article 38 of the national security law brings about. As an officer of the APPG on Hong Kong, I certainly would not expect to go to Hong Kong anytime soon; neither should any hon. Member attending the debate.
This is a human rights issue that not only affects Hongkongers but affects anyone who dares to speak out or address some of the seditious issues that are ongoing. It is a breach of freedom, including freedom of religion. As we heard from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), it is a breach of freedom of expression by journalists. It is a clampdown on the right to worship, whether people are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Hindu, or practise any other religion. That freedom of worship is now officially to be oppressed.
It saddens me that I cannot mention in public, or in public prayer or in any of my speeches, my friends in the various mission groups that I have worked with in the past in Hong Kong. Hongkongers who wish to profess the name of their saviour can only do so under fear.
As parliamentarians, we have a duty to speak out. I agree with the hon. Member for Gedling that under the G7 our Government have signed up to article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. That is a right to the freedom of religious belief and expression and a freedom to worship.
If my Hong Kong friend and pastor, whom I know very well but whom I will not name because that would be unfair because of the effect it could have on his family, were to come here and preach in one of our local churches in Northern Ireland, or even in his own church in Hong Kong, he would do so under the fear of breaking this national security law. That law can be interpreted only by Beijing. This is persecution and torture, and it is via the long arm of the state.
The bamboo curtain on freedom and toleration is falling, and fast. Our nation must speak out about the freedom of religions, journalists and businesses to practise in the way they wish without being tortured or in fear of being tortured in future.
The UK potentially faces a tsunami of millions of Hongkongers coming to Europe. I welcome the decision to grant the Hong Kong British national overseas visa, I must say; I think I cheered out loud when I heard that the Government had shown the courage to do that. However, this potentially puts massive pressure on the UK Government, and it is a pressure that we must be prepared for. The UK has a duty to place each part of this country into a state of preparedness, so that we have sufficient school places, housing locations, jobs and opportunities for these people, who will have a right to be here and whom we should welcome with open arms, because we should be a place of refuge for the persecuted. We need a plan, and we need it now. I hope that the Foreign Office and Home Office will bring that home soon.
Finally, I respectfully ask, urge and implore China to respect that Hong Kong is different from mainland China. I urge our new consul to make a strong case for the Hongkongers. I call for the release of the peaceful protesters who are already in jail and face persecution. I call on the Government in China to fulfil the Sino-British joint declaration on freedom and the rule of law. I challenge HSBC, as others no doubt will in the debate, not to do the dirty work of Beijing, clamping down on people for making a living and having their rights. I will leave those thoughts with hon. Members. I hope the debate goes some way in expressing the anger and contempt for what has happened to these dear people in Hong Kong.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani? I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) for securing this important and timely debate on Hong Kong and add my voice in support of the arguments he made so powerfully this afternoon.
Last Friday marked the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when the Chinese Communist party brutally repressed pro-democracy protests in 1989, killing thousands and causing panic among Hongkongers, many of whom were refugees from Chairman Mao’s purges and feared authoritarian communist rule. That was five years after Margaret Thatcher had signed the Sino-British joint declaration with Deng Xiaoping, agreeing to hand over Hong Kong to China in 1987. In 1982, Deng told Mrs Thatcher that he could
“walk in and take the whole lot this afternoon”
if he wanted to, to which she replied, if he did,
“the eyes of the world would now know what China is like.”
Well, the Tiananmen Square massacre showed the world what China was really like, and its disregard for the rights of its own citizens.
The Sino-British joint declaration was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s freedom, the rule of law and a way of life unchanged for a period of 50 years. It was a legally binding treaty, lodged at the United Nations, underpinning Hong Kong’s mini- constitution and provided the Basic Law with freedom of expression, a free press and an independent judiciary, and the right of Hongkongers to participate in free elections. However, the national security law introduced by Beijing is nothing less than an all-out assault on the autonomy of Hong Kong and its freedoms and a complete violation of that treaty. The pace of the decline of one of the most open and international cities in Asia is shocking and should alarm each and every one of us.
As the co-signatory of the joint declaration and the guarantor of Hong Kong’s autonomy, Her Majesty’s Government must take more determined action. First, there must be a punitive cost for the Hong Kong and Chinese officials who are guilty of dismantling the city’s autonomy and are engaged in cracking down on the pro-democracy movement. All individuals involved in the destruction of democracy in Hong Kong should be subject to co-ordinated Magnitsky sanctions, with the Government working in tandem with our allies.
Secondly, we must do more to support those brave young protesters, many of whom face the prospect of arrest under the draconian law but do not qualify for the Government’s BNO visa scheme. We should make an exception for those born after 1997 who cannot come over as dependants. Thirdly, the Government must stand up for the pro-democracy activists in jail who have British citizenship. The British Government have a duty and responsibility to defend British citizens from Chinese Government oppression. Finally, the Government should not allow the United Kingdom’s chairmanship of this week’s G7 summit to go to waste. Hong Kong must be on the agenda, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) made clear. It is both the right time and the right forum to press for co-ordinated action from the world’s leading democracies. That should include the creation of a UN special rapporteur for Hong Kong.
The crisis in Hong Kong represents a substantial challenge to the idea of global Britain. The people of Hong Kong look to the United Kingdom, as a once-proud Crown colony, to lead the international response. Her Majesty’s Government simply cannot let them down.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Ghani. The UK Government have abandoned the people of Hong Kong, who once shared much of their national identity with ours. That is shameful. Over the past year we have had countless debates on the atrocious actions of the Chinese regime, but its human rights abuses continue, and we cannot condone that. Magnitsky sanctions have rightly been placed on Chinese Communist party officials responsible for the horrors of the Uyghur genocide, but there is no such action for their counterparts in Hong Kong.
We must not stand by as Beijing violates the independence of Hong Kong, imposing the oppressive national security law, manipulating the electoral system so that pro-democracy politicians cannot stand, expelling judges and ruthlessly arresting and abusing people who wish to challenge them. After years of the Chinese Government stripping Hong Kong of its basic access to freedom and democracy, we must show Hongkongers that we will not leave them high and dry. A year ago, Hong Kong Watch launched its international lifeboat scheme, and called for the UK to join international partners to provide refuge for those fleeing Hong Kong.
Extending the BNO visa to those wishing to leave Hong Kong was most welcome. Recent figures show that that has been taken up by nearly 35,000 people. However, it does not go far enough. We must make provision for young people from Hong Kong born after 1997, who are just as entitled to UK support and protection as their parents, and for the protesters who have bravely risked safety to challenge Beijing’s authoritarian takeover and now face serious criminal charges. We cannot just pull up the drawbridge.
Growing up in Hong Kong is dangerous not only for those activists; children as young as six years old—my child’s age—are being taught the national security doctrine in school. There are restrictions on what students can learn and discuss in universities; they are growing up with more and more limited access to neutral news sources. I ask the Minister, what will Britain do to fulfil our obligations to those children and young people? Will he join me in saying that we must not just stand with Hong Kong but stand up for Hong Kong? That means action. What action will the Government take?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) for securing such an important debate.
Today marks two years since the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, which were attended by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds. That mighty display of people power symbolised an unwavering belief in civic values, hope and optimism for change, and a refusal to be cowed by the Communist party in Beijing. Two years on, however, every single person in the free world has a duty to feel horrified about the events taking place in Hong Kong, a supposedly free society.
Beijing detests dissent of any description, and in the past few years, it has tightened its stranglehold over free Hong Kong. The final straw was the huge protests against the extradition Bill. Almost immediately, Beijing imposed a security law straight out of the mainland Chinese playbook. What is most disturbing is that that repression was not discreet and creeping as one might have expected; instead, the Chinese are so brazen that they have turned Hong Kong into Shanghai overnight, banning vigils, destroying controversial books and libraries, and making mass arrests. It has sent a chill through society in Hong Kong. The grotesque policing of attempts to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre are testament to that. If that overnight transformation of society can happen in Hong Kong, it can happen anywhere.
There is no doubt in my mind that Britain is solely responsible for Hong Kong’s fate. We have a singular and enduring responsibility toward the people of Hong Kong as a former ruling power and the guarantor of the freedoms secured in the Sino-British joint declaration. Regrettably, we have not covered ourselves in glory in that role. There are no other examples of a leading democracy handing over a free society to an authoritarian regime that clearly could not be trusted. We failed again in the 1990s, when we made a grave and unforgivable mistake by granting Hongkongers a bespoke class of British citizenship in the run-up to the handover, abdicating our responsibilities. We have not done nearly enough to challenge China and make it pay for its actions.
Hundreds of thousands of British nationals have been left to their fate, and Asia’s brightest light is going out, with many fearing that Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city. We cannot stand by and watch. This is not only an attack on the people of Hong Kong, but a direct Chinese insult to the UK as a signatory of the joint declaration. In many ways, we have failed Hong Kong, and that failure occurred the moment we trusted China’s empty promises. That failure is evidenced by Hongkongers’ wholesale rejection of the PRC and everything it stands for, and their continued association with Britain. Hongkongers of course have their own proud sense of identity, but they also look to us as a guarantor of their freedoms and as a beacon of democracy.
I welcome the fact that this Government have somewhat corrected that previous folly by providing a pathway to full citizenship for British nationals overseas—that is commendable. I greatly look forward to welcoming Hongkongers to Britain, where they will make a hugely positive contribution to our society, but we could and must do so much more on all fronts.
What can be done? First, we must review British involvement, and the involvement of British nationals, in the Hong Kong police and judiciary, as we must not be complicit in Chinese oppression. Secondly, we must support Hongkongers who do not qualify for the BNO scheme. One of the few things that Portugal did right in Macau was to guarantee full Portuguese citizenship to all Macanese people. We have implemented that for our overseas territories, so we must look at it again for Hong Kong. Thirdly, we must marshal a strong and co-ordinated international response against China to make the Chinese think again. They must realise that this conduct is not acceptable anywhere, whether in the south China sea, Tibet, Xinjiang, the Indian borders or Taiwan.
Fourthly, and most importantly, we must never trust China again. The one country, two-systems model has been proven to be lie, and we must not be swayed by short-term financial dividends when dealing with China, as we know that by doing so, we will pay dearly in the long term. Lastly, young Hongkongers are the future of the city. We must do everything in our power to support them in their resistance, both here and in Hong Kong. I am certain that if we put those policies into action, freedom will once again reign from Gloucester Road to Victoria Peak, from Stanley to Aberdeen, from the Admiralty to Lamma Island, and from Kowloon to Queensway.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Ghani. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) on securing this debate. One of the things that he was quite right to say in his introduction was that this should not be about the history of our relationship with Hong Kong, and it is certainly not about recreating some sort of imperial past.
I think our own recent history with regard to the territory is worth reflecting on. The position in which we find ourselves today has not happened overnight; it is the product of three decades—possibly more—of British foreign policy and our determination to put commercial interests over human rights. I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong with Baroness Bennett, and I am also a patron of Hong Kong Watch. We have seen a repeated pattern of people telling us, when we speak about human rights, “Maybe just wind your neck in. There is another deal coming. There is a delegation going. There is going to be a visit or a conference.”
In the years since we completed and entered into the joint declaration, we have essentially sent all the wrong signals, and that has brought us to where we are today. I am genuinely delighted that the Government have taken the action they have on BNO passport holders. How much better and stronger might our position be if we had done that at the point of handover in 1997? That was surely the point at which we could have sent a signal that we intended to stand with the people of Hong Kong. Our failure at that time was seen by the Chinese Government as an indication that we perhaps did not mean the things we said in the joint declaration.
That is ironic, when one considers that we entered into the joint declaration because of our experience in relation to the Falkland Islands. That was another instance where we had sent the wrong signals to a despotic regime, which then thought it could take advantage of that. We tried to avoid the same thing happening again by entering into the joint declaration, but we do not seem to have learned the lessons.
There are a couple of issues I want to touch on briefly. The first relates to the position of the BBC in Hong Kong and China. Its relationship with Radio Television Hong Kong as its local partner is becoming increasingly problematic. On 1 March this year, the new head of RTHK, a career civil servant, Patrick Li, took charge. He pledged editorial independence, but he said that there cannot be “freedom without restraint”. George Orwell would have been proud of that one. With the World News TV channel taken off air in China, and the blocking of news channels and internet provision for years, we have to look at what more we can do to support the World Service, which is still the blue chip standard in broadcasting around the world.
Secondly, I would like to hear more from Government about what we are saying to financial institutions, such as HSBC and Standard Chartered, that have come out in support of the national security law. That we allow them to continue to operate as normal in this country seems to contradict what we say of our intentions towards Hong Kong. It has been reported that there have been no fewer than 16 private meetings between the Treasury and those two banks in the six months from July to December 2020. What was said at those meetings, and why are we still engaging on a business-as-usual basis?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) for securing his first Westminster Hall debate on such an important issue.
I have just visited a school in my constituency, Oasis Academy South Bank, just over the river on Westminster Bridge Road. Students, ranging from year 7 to year 13, spoke to me about issues across the world and why it is so important for us in the UK to call out human rights abuse. We cannot, as a country, say that we stand in support of democracy if we do not call out the injustices that are happening right across the world.
Many of my constituents have written to me because they are concerned about what is happening in Hong Kong. There is no doubt that what is occurring is a severe breach of human rights. In 2017, activists Alex Chow, Nathan Law and Joshua Wong were given draconian prison sentences for taking part in democracy protests. The protest movement has been driven by disfranchised young people who just want representation, like our young people in this country do. A year ago this month, the Chinese Government introduced the national security law in Hong Kong, which gives Beijing the power to interpret laws in Hong Kong independently of any judicial or local policy body. Since then, the law has been used to crack down on pro-democracy activists and politicians. That is not right and cannot be happening in 2021.
In January, 55 leading pro-democracy figures were arrested for simply exercising their legitimate democratic rights. On 30 March, the election laws were changed to vet those running in the elections according to their patriotism. Taken together, those incidents suggest a really worrying trend in the rapid and dangerous erosion of human rights for Hong Kong nationals. There is no sign of that stopping, which means that the current sanctions are insufficient to deter China from its chosen path of action.
As a signatory to the joint declaration, the UK is in a unique position to guarantee a high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong until at least 2047. As a country we must therefore redouble our efforts to protect the people and the sovereignty of Hong Kong. When he responds, will the Minister outline what further steps the Government are taking to protect the basic human rights that we are all guaranteed, and will the Government impose sanctions on the Chinese officials who are responsible for the crackdown on pro-democracy campaigners?
It is always difficult and frustrating to identify what effective role we MPs can play when there is abuse of human rights across the world. My view is that we can at least bear witness to what is happening and then mobilise for action, whether it is in Gaza, Yemen or Hong Kong. At least we can call it out. In the few minutes I have, I want to bear witness to what is happening to my trade union colleagues—they have become friends during campaigns over the years—who are part of the Hong Kong 47 trial.
I have worked with Lee Cheuk Yan, the general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. Carol Ng was the chair of the trade union confederation until her imprisonment in February. I worked with Carol in the British Airways dispute, when she was a Unite rep. Winnie Yu is chair of the health workers’ union—one of the new unions formed in late 2019—which had a five-day strike in January 2019 against the Hong Kong Administration’s early covid complacency. They are all up before the courts and in prison. What worries me is that at the hearing on Monday 31 May, the Department of Justice declared its wish to move the trial from the district court to the high court. That implies that the sentences for the Hong Kong 47, which includes my friends, will exceed the limit of seven years that the district court is limited to. The maximum sentence could be up to life imprisonment.
At Monday’s hearing, my friends’ defence attorney asked for clarification that the trial would be conducted in an open court with a jury, and the prosecutors refused to give that assurance, so there is a real possibility that the judges will be able to convict without press or public scrutiny. The next hearing is on 8 July, at which it will be decided whether the trial will be public and whether there will be a jury. It is critical that we maximise pressure through our own Government, and through civil society here and internationally, and seek at least the openness of that trial.
Lee Cheuk Yan is still bravely agitating from jail. His sentences for illegal unauthorised assembly are piling up. So far he has accumulated 20 months, but there are more trials to follow. As with all trade unionists engaged in international dialogue, the regime might at some stage deem his work there a coalition with foreign powers and in breach of the national security law. That is my fear. Another prominent target of the regime is Leung Kwok-hung, widely known as “Long Hair”. He is an avowed left-wing socialist in the League of Social Democrats and so far has accumulated at least 24 months—and it just goes on.
I have listened to the other speeches, and of course I support the calls for Magnitsky sanctions and the accommodation of younger BNO passport holders born after 1997. I also agree with those who have pointed out the role that British companies are playing, and we have to address this matter. They lobbied the Prime Minister to try to get him to tone down the Government’s criticisms. Swire, the company that owns Cathay Pacific, led the way in sacking staff who supported the democracy movement. We know about HSBC and Standard Chartered bank, of course, but what about Jardine Matheson? They supported the national security law, and—I say this to colleagues in other parties—they were also Tory donors. We have a duty to call out UK corporations who are the sponsors of the Chinese regime’s repression in Hong Kong.
The Chinese Communist party has continued to dismantle Hong Kong’s autonomy at a worrying pace. This month marks the 32nd anniversary of Tiananmen Square and the second year that the Hong Kong authorities banned a vigil in memory of the atrocity. It would have been a meaningful show of solidarity had the British consulate in Hong Kong put candles in its windows to commemorate that anniversary, as the US and EU consulates did. It is disappointing that that did not happen.
We must condemn the arrest of Chow Hang Tung and continue to do all in our power to support those fighting for democracy. Western democracies need to show a united front against the Chinese Communist party’s attempt to silence historical truth. British foreign policy must be even more vocal in standing up for human rights. I urge the Minister to push for the creation of a UN special rapporteur for Hong Kong to monitor the human rights situation in the city, as we have heard about today.
Perhaps the biggest thing the UK can do to help Hongkongers is to make it easier for those with BNO status to make their lives here. The number of people who applied in the first 10 weeks of the citizenship scheme was about 35,000—more than a tenth of the 300,000 that the Government expect to apply in the first five years. The Government’s offer to open their doors to Hongkongers is welcome and supported by all parties.
Allowing people to come is one thing, but giving them the opportunity to make a good life here is another. What steps are the Government taking to support those from Hong Kong who want to make their lives in the UK? A survey conducted by Hongkongers in Britain showed that only half of those who responded have friends in the UK, and even fewer have family here. It is not easy, even in the best of circumstances, for someone to move to a new country thousands of miles away, where they may not know anyone, and to find a job and settle into the community. Imagine how difficult that would be in the middle of a pandemic for someone whose English language skills were initially not so good. From finding employment to using public services and placing their children in schools, many BNOs will need additional assistance to make their lives here in Britain.
Many BNOs in Hong Kong remain fearful that they will not be able to find employment when they reach the UK. The £43 million integration fund to help BNOs and their families settle here is extremely welcome, but there are reports that the UK Government have hugely underestimated the take-up of the offer and concerns that that money will not be enough to meet the scale of the challenge. What additional support will the Government offer to those born after 1997, many of whom have been at the forefront of fighting for democracy in Hong Kong? Can the Minister assure Hongkongers born after 1997 who are claiming asylum in the UK that they will not have their applications rejected and will not face deportation?
Today’s debate is a stark reminder that human rights are under threat in many parts of the world, and increasingly so in China. The plight of Hongkongers, whose history is closely linked to Britain’s, needs our urgent attention. We need to do even more than we have done so far.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Ghani. I know that if you were not in the Chair, you would be here on the Floor of this Chamber making your viewpoints known. I am sure you would like to be doing so, but it is good to have you here in spirit. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) on setting the tone of the debate.
The Chinese authorities have committed many human rights abuses in Hong Kong. However, Hong Kong is not an isolated case, and those human rights violations are situated in the context of some of the worst atrocities of the 21st century. Whether it be the forced organ harvesting of practitioners of Falun Gong or the mass incarceration of Uyghur Muslims, the Chinese Communist party has inflicted untold suffering on its citizens. I believe that those concerns must be considered together, because how a state treats its minorities is a reflection of its attitude towards democracy and human rights in general. Just as in Myanmar, with the military’s genocidal treatment of Rohingya Muslims, a minority community has suffered human rights abuses in China. I see all the things that are happening and I despair.
I declare an interest: I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I will cite a couple of other issues that the Chinese Communist party has influence over. The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy has said that the severely deteriorating human rights situation in Tibet has reach the level of a crime against humanity, as a result of the CCP’s forced assimilation policies. There are also concerns that up to half a million Tibetans are involved in forced labour in China. Deeply distressing though those reports are, they should not be a surprise to anybody who has been following the plight of the Uyghurs, who have been rounded up in the largest arbitrary detention of a religious group since the holocaust. Nor should it be a surprise to anyone familiar with the China Tribunal’s judgment that China’s campaign of forced organ harvesting against innocent victims is a crime against humanity. The Falun Gong have been central to that. I believe that constitutes one of the world’s worst atrocities.
Hong Kong authorities have used the same rhetoric and have increasingly adopted mainland China’s vague definition of national security to restrict the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and association. I welcome the commitment from the Government and the Minister to sanctions against a number of human rights violators in China, but I note that there are many other key figures, such as Carrie Lam in Hong Kong and Chen Quanguo in Xinjiang province, who have thus far avoided sanction by the UK. I ask the Minister to give us some assurance today that those two reprobates —I do not think that is a bad word; the word itself tells a story—will be made accountable for their activities.
The Minister must take the opportunity presented by the upcoming meeting of the G7 to collaborate with international counterparts to take decisive action. The public have called for the 2022 winter Olympics to be moved from Beijing. It would be unthinkable for a state that is actively engaged in crimes against humanity to be allowed to host such a major international event. Demanding that the winter Olympics be removed would send an extremely powerful message.
I also call on the Minister to establish a commission of inquiry on human rights abuses in China. I welcome the Government’s call for Beijing to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights full access to Xinjiang, but China has thus far refused that call and is unlikely to change its position. I believe, as Human Rights Watch has stated, that UN inquiries into abuses have shown that investigations can be comprehensive and credible, even without the Chinese Government’s co-operation. There is ample evidence of the impact of the Chinese Government’s policies on human rights in Hong Kong and elsewhere. A commission of inquiry can be established outside the UN Security Council, and therefore can avoid China’s veto. Let us do the things that we can do and bite these people where it hurts.
We should first introduce sanctions against all violators of human rights in Hong Kong and China; secondly, publicly call for the 2022 winter Olympics to be moved from Beijing; and, thirdly, push for a UN commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in China. Those are three things that I believe this Government—my Government and my Minister—can do. I wish them to do those things. We have a responsibility to speak for the voiceless, who have nobody to speak for them. We are all here united. We want action, and we want our Government to take it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I, too, warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) on an excellent speech, and I am glad to agree with its tone and content. There has been a number of constructive and strong contributions from across the Chamber.
The reality is that we are bound to the people of Hong Kong in a way in which we are not to a number of other people in other places. We owe them a debt of empire. It is a special case. We also owe a legal debt, in that the UK is a part-guarantor of the Sino-British agreement guaranteeing one country, two systems. Hong Kong’s autonomy is guaranteed partially by the UK, and yet the national security law was passed.
Since that law’s passing, more than 100 pro-democracy activists—there were plenty more before that—have been arrested. They face 10 years in jail on trumped-up charges. Joshua Wong has been sentenced to 10 months in prison for attending a peaceful vigil. In a particularly worrying development, on 20 May, Tong Ying-kit was informed that he was not entitled to jury trial for trumped-up terrorism charges. That is significant for everyone under detention.
On academic freedom, the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong have shut down their student unions and massively curtailed freedom of speech on campus, in stark opposition to the activities of Confucius institutes within our boundaries. And it goes on. As we have heard from many right hon. and hon. Members, the situation is deteriorating daily in every way.
The UK has not been idle. It would be churlish of me not to recognise the fact that UK diplomats have been active. In particular, I applaud and recognise the significance of the BNO scheme for the Hongkongers themselves. That is a major, significant commitment. However, I honestly struggle to think of anything that Beijing has refrained from or reversed because of UK Government pressure, be it in Hong Kong or, indeed, anywhere else. The reality is that one country, two systems is dead and it died on the watch of this Government. In the face of Beijing’s wolf warriors, the UK’s tiger has, I am afraid, been somewhat toothless.
As for concrete suggestions, we have heard a number of suggestions today and I will also make some. I echo the call for more Magnitsky-type sanctions against individuals. We have had that discussion before with the Minister. We are not looking for speculation; we are looking for announcements. I appreciate that there will not be speculation, but across the House we want to see progress. The financial assets and business dealings of a number of UK companies need more scrutiny, in particular the actions of the banks and, in that case, especially Standard Chartered and HSBC, which have on occasion acted on behalf of the authorities under very dubious legality.
Speaking of dubious legality, UK judges should absolutely withdraw from the Hong Kong judicial system. They are lending a veneer of credibility and respectability to a system that simply does not merit it. As I and others have said, the Confucius institutes active within the countries of the UK must have far greater scrutiny of their actions than has been the case to date.
I echo calls for a UN special rapporteur on Hong Kong. That would assist in broadening the coalition, which already exists in part, and give it greater focus in scrutinising events in Hong Kong. I also echo those who have said that the G7 is an opportunity to make progress and achieve a wider international alignment—in particular with our friends in the EU, the US and Canada—on sanctions and transparency on Hong Kong and the actions of Beijing.
To conclude, there has been a lot of good agreement across the Chamber, as well as a number of good suggestions. If our Minister takes concrete action, he will continue to have SNP support in his endeavours for the rights of the people of Hong Kong. They are a special case—we are bound to them and it is right that we keep them on our agenda.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ghani. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) on securing this extremely important debate, and I pay tribute to all those who have contributed. It is striking to see how united we are across the Chamber in our condemnation of the behaviour and activities of Beijing. I hope that the Minister will note the united message that he is hearing. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for their powerful and passionate contributions.
The Chinese Government’s assault on Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and their ongoing persecution of pro-democracy activists is a scar on the conscience of the world, but it is of particular importance to our country. Beijing’s actions represent a flagrant violation of international law via the multiple breaches of the Sino-British declaration, including the introduction and application of the national security law. They show contempt for the Hong Kong Basic Law, riding roughshod over the one country, two systems framework, and represent a relentless crackdown on established universal rights and freedoms, such as the right to free speech, media freedom, judicial independence and the right to peaceful protest.
We have seen opposition lawmakers being forced out of office and then a new law being imposed to prevent critics of Beijing from standing for office. We have seen Lee Cheuk-yan, the trade union activist, sentenced to 18 months in prison, simply for attending democratic protests, and others like him have also been targeted. And we have seen Jimmy Lai, the media owner, being jailed for more than a year on spurious charges, while Radio Television Hong Kong’s independence has been compromised, and BBC world radio has been taken off the air following the banning of BBC News in China, which itself came as a result of the BBC’s outstanding and important investigation into the persecution of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.
Perhaps most tragically of all in Hong Kong, we have seen the arrests and sentencing of scores of liberal pro-democracy activists, including brave young leaders such as Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow, and the Hong Kong eight. Increasingly, trials take place in secret and without a jury, utterly undermining the basic foundation of judicial independence upon which Hong Kong’s rule of law is built. In short, the Chinese Government are doing all they can to crush the democratic rights of the Hong Kong people and to assert their own authoritarian and despotic system.
Let me be clear that the Labour party will stand up for democracy, human rights and the rule of law everywhere, and will call out violations wherever they take place. We apply these principles without fear or favour, and we will always encourage the Government to work in partnership with our international allies to defend the values that we cherish.
It is, therefore, a matter of real regret that the UK Government have at times left us in a position of weakness. Consecutive Conservative Governments since 2010 have been naive and complacent in their dealings with the Chinese Communist party leadership. These successive Conservative Governments have eroded the UK’s leverage and influence: first, by leaving the British economy over-reliant on Chinese imports and supply chains, as, shockingly, 57 of our critical national infrastructure supply chains are now reliant on China; and secondly, by failing to form or maintain the alliances on the world stage to defend our values and interests.
In 2015, David Cameron and George Osborne, with enthusiastic support from Boris Johnson, who was then London Mayor, proclaimed a “golden era” of UK-China relations, a strategy designed to open up UK markets to Chinese business and investment, in the expectation that China would fall in line with international norms on trade and human rights. The opposite has happened. Uncompetitive market behaviour by state-backed Chinese firms has contributed to the £19 billion deficit that we are still running with China and, in short, the Chinese Government have failed to align themselves with any of the values or norms that the “golden era” was supposed to be based on.
We have seen the compromising of national and economic security by increased reliance on China, and we have also seen a concerning tendency towards lack of consistency across Government. Of course, we saw the divisions on the genocide amendment to the Trade Act 2021. The UK Government chose to block it, which was a matter of profound regret to the Labour party.
We therefore need a long-term strategy. The Prime Minister has a unique opportunity to deliver this at the G7. It means rebuilding our strategic independence by reducing our exposure to Chinese investment in supply chains. It means addressing the national security issues, particularly around Taiwan. And it really does mean looking at areas where China holds a de facto global monopoly, particularly around rare earth metals, for example.
In the shorter term, we must do more to support the people of Hong Kong. We need more Government support for British nationals overseas, including language support and access to GPs and to housing. We must see a clear route to citizenship for Hongkongers born after 1997 and we must not give up on those who are still campaigning. We need the Magnitsky-type sanctions that have been mentioned by many hon. Members. We need a judge-led inquiry into police brutality, and we need—as the Labour party is calling for—British judges to leave Hong Kong.
British judges are simply lending a veneer of credibility to the undemocratic, broken system. Have the UK Government made an assessment of whether UK judges are protecting the rule of law in Hong Kong or simply legitimising an authoritarian regime? Will the UK Government join the Opposition in taking a clear and principled position? We also need to see action on banks such as HSBC, which, as hon. Members have said, appear to be doing the dirty work of the Chinese Government.
There are so many important actions that the Government can and should take. We should bear in mind that democracy is in retreat across the world. A recent report showed that, for the first time since 2001, authoritarian regimes outnumber democracies. We should take very careful note of that. Hong Kong needs the free world, and the free world needs Hong Kong. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on these important issues.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) for securing this debate and to right hon. and hon. Members for their passionate and well-informed contributions on this subject, which we have had an opportunity to debate several times. I am sure this will not be the last time that the issue of Hong Kong is brought to the House. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
I will try to respond to as many as possible of the points raised. As I have said during previous debates on this issue, and as I have written to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and other members of the all-party parliamentary group, my door and the offices of my officials at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office are always open. We are very keen to discuss the issues on a one-to-one basis. We have a depth of experience and knowledge on King Charles Street and we are more than happy to share it, so I hope we will be able to follow up on that.
As has rightly been said, this has been and continues to be the most concerning period in Hong Kong’s post-handover history. As Minister for Asia, I deeply regret not having had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong in better circumstances—some of my predecessors have been able to do so. In saying that, I share the deep concern of this House. That is why we have taken clear and decisive action. We have extended the existing arms embargo on mainland China to include Hong Kong. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that we have suspended the extradition treaty with Hong Kong and are creating a new visa route for British nationals overseas, which I will come on to shortly.
As colleagues will know, the Sino-British joint declaration was registered with the United Nations on 12 June 1985. They will also know that the declaration is a legally binding international treaty that remains in force today. This agreement between the United Kingdom and China made clear that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms would remain unchanged for 50 years from 1997, a point that has already been made by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi).
In the agreement, China undertook to uphold the freedoms of speech, of the press and of assembly. It also agreed to keep in force the international covenant on civil and political rights and to maintain the independent judiciary and rule of law. For more than two decades after the handover, those rights and freedoms underpinned Hong Kong’s prosperity and way of life.
Right hon. and hon. Members will also be aware that in 2019 and the early part of 2020, Hong Kong experienced a period of deep turmoil and widespread unrest, triggered by proposals that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. We were clear from the outset that the solution to that unrest must come from within Hong Kong and must not be imposed from mainland China. Instead, the Chinese authorities have shown an increasing propensity to breach their obligations in relation to Hong Kong. I think that on that, we are all agreed.
Since last June, Beijing’s actions have led us to declare three breaches of the joint declaration, including significant erosions of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the rights and freedoms of its people. The national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing last June contains a slew of measures that directly undermine those rights and freedoms. China’s own Basic Law for Hong Kong makes it clear that the territory should put forward and enact its own security legislation, so the direct imposition of the national security law is in clear contravention of that.
Senior Chinese Government figures claimed at the time that this law would target a “tiny number” of criminals who seriously endanger national security, but everybody in this room and watching this debate realises that the law has been used systematically to restrict freedom of expression. It has been brought up today by just about every Member present. We see in the courts the ongoing trials of 47 pro-democracy politicians and activists for their alleged roles in unofficial political primaries last year. Those cases and others demonstrate, in the starkest way, that the national security law is being used to stifle political dissent.
As the Minister is clearly on the section of his speech relating to legal and judicial matters, does he agree with me and, I think, many other Members here today that the continuing presence of British judges in the Hong Kong judicial system is simply lending a veneer of credibility to a completely broken system, and will he today give us a guarantee that the British Government will be using whatever means necessary to bring that practice to an end?
The hon. Gentleman rightly raised that in his remarks, as did many other right hon. and hon. Members. British judges have played an important role in supporting the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary for many years. We really hope that that can continue. However, the national security law poses real questions for the rule of law in Hong Kong—basically, the fundamental protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, which were promised by China in the joint declaration. It is therefore right that the Supreme Court continues to assess the situation in Hong Kong, and that will be done in discussion with the Government.
I am conscious that I have to give my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling a few minutes to speak at the end, so I will try to get through my points and the rest of my remarks in order to allow him to do so. It is clear that the authorities are pursuing politically motivated prosecutions under other laws and against a range of pro-democracy figures. We have heard today about the cases of Joshua Wong and Jimmy Lai. On 11 November, China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress imposed new rules to disqualify elected legislators in Hong Kong; those rules contain vague criteria, allowing a wide interpretation. On 30 March, we declared this to be another breach of the joint declaration as it undermined Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the right to freedom of speech, guaranteed under paragraph 3 and annexe 1 of the declaration.
On 11 March this year, the National People’s Congress unilaterally decided to change Hong Kong’s electoral system without prior consent from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, giving Chinese authorities greater control over who stands for elected office and over the removal of elected politicians whom the authorities deem unpatriotic. They also reverse China’s promise to Hong Kong, in its own Basic Law, of gradual progress towards universal suffrage and hollow out the Legislative Council even further. As several right hon. and hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Aberavon, pointed out, these developments amount to a systematic and determined effort by Beijing to bring Hong Kong under its control. They erase the space for alternative political views and legitimate political debate.
What we are really asking for, with respect, is action from our Minister and our Government. Would it be possible to call publicly for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be removed from Beijing; for an independent UN commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in China, which could be held even with China’s veto; and for more sanctions against those violators?
No decision has yet been made about diplomatic attendance at the Olympics, but I can tell my right hon. Friend, as the Minister responsible, that that is very much at the forefront of our minds.
We responded quickly and decisively to the enactment of the national security law. The day after the law was imposed, the Foreign Secretary announced to Parliament that, after discussions with the Home Secretary, the Government would introduce this bespoke immigration route for British nationals overseas and their dependants, providing a new path to citizenship. This opened on 31 January, and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has implemented a welcome settlement package for those who wish to take up the offer. Prior to that, on 20 July, the Foreign Secretary announced the indefinite suspension of our extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and the extension of our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong. The extradition treaty will remain suspended until we have safeguards to ensure that it will not be misused under the national security law.
We have also led action in the international community, holding China to account through our presidency of the G7. I will be very surprised if this issue is not discussed either on the agenda or in the corridors of the G7 meeting taking place this week. On 6 October, with Germany, we brought together 39 countries to express our grave concern for Hong Kong and Xinjiang in a joint statement at the UN General Assembly third committee. The Foreign Secretary, in his high-level segment to the Human Rights Council on 22 February, called for the UN to respond, and he undertook to continue to raise international support. More recently, on 5 May, he called on China to act in accordance with its international commitments and legal obligations and to respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms.
I acknowledge that many Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), and the hon. Members for Vauxhall and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), called for sanctions in respect of the events in Hong Kong. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, with the experience of our sanctions regime in Xinjiang, we do not speculate on listings, as to do so would potentially undermine their impact.
In the time I have left, I would like to address some of the points that Members have made. On the issue of young people born since 1997 without family ties who are not eligible for the BNO status, these individuals can still apply using our existing routes to live, work or study in the UK. Specifically, Hong Kong nationals aged between 18 and 30 are eligible to apply to our youth mobility scheme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling raised the prospect of Germany not recognising BNO passports, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. We have raised our concerns with the German Government; they have assured us that all UK passports, including BNO passports, are recognised for the purposes of entry and stay in Germany. I have only a minute left. There are a number of issues I need to respond to, so I ask hon. Members to take up my offer of coming to see officials and me in the FCDO and I can address them then, or write to them following this debate.
While the turmoil on the streets of Hong Kong may have lessened since 2019, the underlying situation has certainly deteriorated further. After three breaches of the Sino-British joint declaration in nine months, since March the United Kingdom has considered Beijing to be in a state of ongoing non-compliance with it. There is a stark and growing gulf between Beijing’s promises and its actions. We must and we will continue to stand up for the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. I give my assurance as Minister for Asia that we will continue to work hard and in good faith towards that goal. We will hold China to the obligation that it willingly undertook to safeguard the people of Hong Kong and their way of life.
I am grateful to all the hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon. When I was preparing for this debate, I reread the Hansard debate on the joint declaration in December 1984. I was struck by the fact that although there were some concerns about immigration status, there was unanimity across the House that, at the time, that was the best deal that could have been obtained for Hong Kong.
As the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) and the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) have identified, there has been a similar unanimity today across the Chamber on this issue. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) observed, many other human rights abuses have been committed by China in the region. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) said, this is the issue of the moment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) said, today we are discussing the decline of the most international of Asian cities.
The speeches we have heard today have illustrated the breadth of China’s actions in Hong Kong—brazen actions, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford). We have heard about the manipulation of election rules from the hon. Members for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi).
The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has spoken passionately about his comrades in the trade union movement who have been affected, and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has spoken about how even basic things like professing one’s faith have been hindered by the actions taken by the Chinese Government.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) spoke about media clampdowns. At one of the most interesting and distressing meetings that I attended while involved in this subject I listened to Hong Kong journalists who had to be identified as witnesses 1, 2 and 3 because of fear of persecution. They underlined well the issues that they faced.
As the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) observed, democracies have to put on a united front. I am grateful to the Minister for his statement and what he said, and we would be encouraged if this matter were raised at the G7 this week. It is a matter that needs to be raised, and I am grateful for the clarification.
I will conclude by quoting from the six-monthly report on Hong Kong that is produced by the Foreign Office. The latest one said:
“It is not too late for the authorities to reach out and start to heal divisions, however complicated and difficult that might be.”
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights in Hong Kong.
Environment: Sittingbourne and Sheppey
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. I remind Members participating that they must remain here for the entire debate. I remind Members that they are visible at all times, especially to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks at email@example.com. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room.
I call Gordon Henderson to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered environmental matters in Sittingbourne and Sheppey constituency.
First, may I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani? Let me begin by making it clear that I fully endorse the Government’s long-term commitment to be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it. With that in mind, I want to highlight some of the local environmental issue causing concern in Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
My constituency has a unique and varied natural environment. On the Isle of Sheppey, we have the Elmley nature reserve, a thriving coastline and some fantastic habitats for birds, including marsh harriers and a variety of wading birds. On the mainland, the bustling town of Sittingbourne is surrounded by a mixture of rural and built-up villages, all with a character of their own, including Iwade, which has its own nature reserve, attracting an abundance of wildlife throughout the year. All this wonderful countryside provides us not only with an enviable environment, but with many challenges for local communities. I want to address a few of those challenges.
When people contact me with concerns about our local environment, those concerns fall into a number of categories. Two main concerns revolve around the scourge of fly-tipping and littering. The impact that both of these thoughtless acts have on our local environment is huge. Not only is the discarded rubbish unsightly; it can be harmful to both humans and animals. I believe we need harsher punishments for people who are caught littering, with local authorities given more powers to clamp down on the offenders, as well as the resources needed to enforce those powers. However, fines are not the only answer. We also need to educate people about the antisocial nature of littering, most of which is caused by adults, who then set a bad example to their children. Those children pick up bad habits learned from their parents, which is why I set up the Litter Angels charity in Sittingbourne and Sheppey over a decade ago. Its sole purpose is to educate children about the harm associated with litter, and I am pleased to say that the charity has now extended the project into a number of other constituencies in Kent.
I turn to fly-tipping, which is littering on a larger scale. It is becoming a huge problem in Kent, including in my constituency. It places a financial burden on local landowners and farmers, who are seeing an increasing number of incidents in which lorry loads of rubbish are dumped on their land. They then have to pay to have the rubbish removed and disposed of, costing them hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of pounds.
I believe there are a number of reasons for the rise in fly-tipping. Two important causes are, first, the decision taken some years ago by Swale Borough Council to charge for the removal from homes of large items of waste, and, secondly, Kent County Council’s policy of restricting commercial companies’ access to its waste sites. I said at the time that both decisions were short-sighted and would lead to an increase in fly-tipping, and I was right. I appreciate that both decisions were taken for financial reasons. In my view, however, any cost saving made by our local authorities has been more than offset by the cost of cleaning up council-owned sites where fly-tipping takes place.
I believe the situation could be improved very quickly by reinstating the free collection of bulk waste and the free disposal of commercial waste at household waste recycling centres. Although this is an issue for the local authorities to resolve, I hope that Ministers will consider making the free collection of bulk waste and the free disposal of commercial waste a statutory requirement, backed up with the resources needed to implement it.
There is another environmental problem that last year blighted the lives of a number of residents in and around Iwade, the village I mentioned earlier. It became apparent that land in an area called Raspberry Hill Lane was being used to process building waste. For weeks, my constituents were subjected to the foul smell of melting rubber and burning, in addition to the noise and dust associated with the process. One result of this incident, which I believe is still taking place today, is the misuse of U1 exemption.
I had got to one of the results of the incident, which I believe is still taking place today. It is the use of U1 exemptions to take waste from that site and dump it off the cliffs at the top of Warden Road on the Isle of Sheppey. I believe that the U1 waste exemption is a loophole that is open to abuse and should be closed.
According to the Government’s website, the U1 exemption allows for the use of suitable waste, rather than raw materials or items that are no longer waste, to be used in construction projects. For example, it would be in order, under the exemption rules, for crushed bricks, concrete, rocks and aggregate to be dumped to create a noise barrier around new development. Under the rules, it could then be topped off with soil and landscaped. It is also permitted to use road planings and rubble to build a track or path. Those are proper uses of the U1 exemption.
However, what is being done off the cliffs north of Sheppey is not a proper use. It is creating problems for residents who have to use the surrounding roads, and it harms the local coastal environment. That is the true danger of fly-tipping, which is a selfish act of throwing unwanted construction rubbish over a cliff. It appears that nothing can be done to stop those people, which is beyond belief. Apparently, because of the U1 exemption licence, the Environment Agency can do nothing. It does not seem to have the resources to monitor the terms of the licence to ensure that they are being observed. The problem could be solved by making the Environment Agency responsible for authorising, issuing, monitoring and enforcing the proper use of U1 exemption licences. I urge the Minister to look into this matter urgently.
While talking about the north Sheppey cliffs, I would like to highlight another ongoing problem: the plight of residents at Surf Crescent, in what is called the Eastchurch gap. The first anniversary recently passed of an incident that saw part of Surf Crescent fall into the sea, taking with it the home and possessions of a family, leaving them homeless. Many more of my constituents were moved out of their homes for their own safety, and they are concerned about their future in the homes that they have loved for so long.
The problem of the erosion of the north Sheppey cliffs is not new. I have raised the subject before, including in a Westminster Hall debate in December 2017. I will continue to raise the matter until something is done to save the properties that are under threat. Unusually, solving the problem is not about money. There are groups on the Isle of Sheppey that have put forward schemes to reinstate the cliffs, at no cost to the taxpayer. However, they come up against intransigence on the part of Natural England, which has stated publicly that it will oppose in principle any proposal to stop the erosion of the cliffs.
Natural England’s reason for its stance is that the cliff erosion is on part of the Sheppey coastline that has been designated a site of special scientific interest. Let me clarify what that means. The SSSI is in place not to protect land, which I could understand, but to protect the loss of land, which I find bizarre. I have asked in the past for SSSI designation to be lifted so that the homes of my constituents can be saved, but I was told it was an EU designation. We are no longer in the EU, so I urge the Minister to look again at the situation and see if the designation can now be lifted. If not, what other steps can be taken to protect my constituency?
Finally, I want to address another major issue that is having an impact on the local environment, which is housing. Kent has seen major housing development over the past couple of decades, which has seen too many of our green spaces concreted over. In addition, the increased population has put tremendous strain on our infrastructure. In many areas, the additional traffic created by those homes has harmed our environment, not least by worsening the already polluted air in our towns and cities.
My constituency in particular has taken more than its fair share of that increased housing, and its geography, demography and local environment have changed beyond all recognition. Sittingbourne and Sheppey has seen a tremendous increase in our population, without having the necessary infrastructure put in place to support those people. Now, we have overcrowded roads, over-subscribed schools and increased waiting times for health services because of a lack of doctors.
Under the current Government-imposed housing targets, my local authority, Swale Borough Council, is under immense pressure to build more houses, and there is mounting concern from local people about a number of proposed developments involving thousands more houses in our area. We are facing a proposed planning Bill that will increase further still the number of homes in Kent. No doubt Sittingbourne and Sheppey will be asked to take some of that total housing. More housing will mean more air pollution—[Inaudible.]
I am sorry—it is the technology, I am afraid. I will repeat what I was saying.
Now, we are facing planning Bill that will increase further still the number of homes in Kent. No doubt Sittingbourne and Sheppey will be asked to take some of that total housing. More housing will mean more air pollution and even fewer green spaces. That will be a disaster for our local environment, which is why I want to use my speech to forewarn the Government that I will be unable to support the planning Bill unless it protects my constituency from any more unsustainable housing growth.
I do not apologise for highlighting what might be considered parochial issues. It is right that we have priority areas set out in law, including air quality, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste production—all those things are mentioned in the Environment Bill, which is now in the other place—but I hope Ministers recognise that those measures go only halfway towards solving the issues that real people face on the ground. My constituents want an assurance that the basics, such as protecting their local green spaces and agricultural land, solving the problems of littering and fly-tipping, cutting regularly the grass on the verges of trunk roads such as the A249, and managing ground and air pollution, will also be taken care of.
In an ever-changing world in which the Government talk about building back to improve lives and livelihoods, please do not ignore the plight of those whom I have highlighted. Let us use this chance to make lasting changes for those people.
Thank you so much, Ms Ghani. I do not think that I have had the pleasure of serving with you in the Chair—it is really very good to see you.
I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for his impassioned speech and for standing up, as he always does, for his constituency. We have seen him in every way today: in vision, out of vision, on mic and off mic. It has been a pleasure to hear what he has to say, and I thank him for securing this debate on a topic that is important in particular for his constituents.
My hon. Friend highlighted a number of a really important environmental issues, such as littering, fly-tipping, the illegal dumping of waste off the north Sheppey cliffs, the problem of cliff erosion in Sheppey, and the adverse environmental impacts, including pollution, of what he considers to be unsustainable housing developments. He covered a whole raft of subjects. He will be pleased to know—and I am sure he is aware—that our landmark Environment Bill, which is the first of its kind for 20 years, will really help to deliver, as I hope he feels, the future prosperous and sustainable environment that I believe we all want, including his constituents.
My hon. Friend referred to the Bill, which is currently progressing through Parliament. The legislation will deliver transformative benefits, including cleaner air for all, the restoration of habitats, increased biodiversity, a resource-efficient economy, and better management of our precious resources in this changing climate.
Climate change is creating many challenges, and the Government are tackling them head-on with a strategy to reach net zero by 2050. On the other side of that coin is nature adapting to the changing climate that we face, some impact of which is being felt off the coast of my hon. Friend’s constituency.
On the issue of waste, many of our constituents share my hon. Friend’s concern about litter and the people who choose to spoil the environment that we all share with rubbish. I understand his concerns, but I want to outline the things that we have done already to tackle the issue and the things that we are going to do, which I hope will reassure him. We have introduced new penalty notice powers for councils in respect of fly-tipping and littering from a vehicle so that if a passenger in a vehicle throws something out of the window, the driver will be responsible for that person’s littering. We have also raised on-the-spot fines for littering and given councils powers to stop, search and seize the vehicles of suspected fly-tippers. On conviction, those guilty of littering can already face a fine of up to £2,500, but we have committed to strengthening fly-tipping sentences.
We have provided funding worth almost £1 million to help councils purchase new litter bins. That might seem a small thing, but having the right bins in the right places makes a difference. I agree with my hon. Friend that education is really important. That is a key part of our litter strategy for England, and I thank him for the work that he does in this space, as does the Litter Angels charity in his constituency.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs continues to support “Keep it, Bin it”, the anti-littering campaign launched in 2018 with Keep Britain Tidy. It does so much good work to tackle littering. We would like to see more children and, indeed, everyone participating in national clean-up days such as the great British spring clean. I got involved with a team of people in Taunton last week. I am sure that you also get involved in those things, Ms Ghani, as I know does my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey. Those things do have an impact in our local areas.
The main way to tackle frequently littered items and fly-tipping is to reduce the amount of waste that we have in the first place. There are measures in the Environment Bill that really will make a difference to our waste. We have a big emphasis on reuse, repair and recycle, and we are introducing new measures, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, including the extended producer responsibility scheme, which will focus on plastic packaging initially, because that is our biggest littered item. It will make the people who manufacture and use such packaging ultimately responsible for its end of life. They will not want to see littered items if they are responsible for it.
We are also consulting on the deposit return scheme, which sets out an incentive to dispose of in-scope materials that can be returned, and we are working on consistent collections through our local authorities, so there is a raft of measures. Last year, I held a roundtable with the fast-food retailers, because they are responsible for a huge amount of our litter, to understand what actions they are already taking. In fairness, lots of them are taking action, but I made it very clear that further action from them is necessary.
I noted my hon. Friend’s concerns about the charges at household waste recycling centres for certain types of waste, and I hope he will be pleased to hear that we will review those services and the controlled waste regulations. Subject to consultation, we will amend them to ensure that they remain fit for purpose and that charges are fairly applied.
We are aware of the ongoing issues on the north coast of Sheppey, particularly the U1 exemptions that my hon. Friend referred to. The EA is currently investigating and working with Swale Borough Council, so we cannot discuss active and ongoing investigations. However, we have consulted on reforming that particular exemption—I hope that will give him some reassurance—as well as others of concern, and we hope to publish the Government’s response later this year, setting out our proposed reforms to the waste exemptions regime that he referred to.
We are developing proposals to reform the waste carrier, broker and dealer regime, and we intend to consult on that. Other key measures are being introduced through the Environment Bill, which include mandatory electronic waste tracking, so that we know what is in the waste system, who is dealing with it and where it is going. Once we have much better data, we will be able to crack down on a lot of fly-tipping, which my hon. Friend is rightly concerned about. Mindful of the problems of fly-tipping, we got an allocation in the 2020 Budget of £2 million to do some work and to support innovative solutions to tackle fly-tipping, and that is under way. In April 2021, we commissioned a research project to consider the drivers, deterrence and impact of fly-tipping, which will be completed by the end of the year. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that we are moving on with a lot of work in this space, because fly-tipping causes an enormous amount of upset and heartache. I have touched on the other measures we are taking to cut down the amount of waste in our society altogether.
I will move on to coastal erosion, which is a very serious issue for residents in Sheppey, as was seen in the incident referred to by my hon. Friend. Flooding and coastal erosion can have devastating consequences for the people it impacts upon, whether in respect of their business, their home or their environment. In recognition of that, between 2021 and 2027, we are doubling our investment in flooding and coastal erosion funding to £5.2 billion. That will ensure that a further 336,000 properties are protected.
We see the sea levels rising, so we are inevitably getting further coastal erosion. We defend the coastline where it is sustainable and affordable to do so, and let it function naturally where that is not the case. Our national strategy for managing erosion and flooding stresses the importance of resilience and adaptation in the face of change. On this relatively undeveloped part of Sheppey, the long-term approach agreed with Swale Borough Council, the Environment Agency and Natural England in the shoreline management plan is to allow coastal processes to enhance the natural environment locally and elsewhere. On the Eastchurch coast, Natural England’s view is that any development or activity that restricts natural processes is likely to damage the features of the geological site of special scientific interest that my hon. Friend referred to—that is Sheppey cliffs or Minster cliffs, as it is also called.
Just for information, the SSSI designation is a UK protection. The designations were made under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981—it is not an EU designation. My hon. Friend did hold a debate about this issue with the previous Environment Minister. As a result, the whole issue was reviewed, but in 2017 Natural England advised against interfering with the natural processes and the features that they produce. Importantly, online proposals to manage erosion and landslip in this area have faced major funding challenges, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, with cheaper interventions in recent years proving ineffectual.
The Environment Agency is working with coastal authorities on a £1 million refresh of the shoreline management plan that I referred to. That will ensure that it is up to date, using the best evidence in its recommendations. It will focus attention on priority areas for investment and adaptation. Through this exercise, Natural England and the Environment Agency will continue to work closely with the South East Coastal Group and Swale Borough Council, as they work with local residents and businesses to develop local adaptation initiatives. I am sure my hon. Friend would be welcome to be involved in that. Those initiatives will enable us to reach the long-term goal of a naturally evolving coastline, with local communities, that is resilient, rather than vulnerable to change. There are many places around the coast that are facing similar challenges right now.
My hon. Friend is rightly passionate about the risks of erosion facing some parts of his constituency. He has raised this issue many times, in particular via a parliamentary question in January. At that time, the Environment Agency provided me with information showing that its Medway estuary and Swale flood and coastal risk management strategy has developed adaptation options to relocate or compensate affected properties. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify that the strategy recommends that the adaptation options to relocate or compensate affected properties should be considered, but does not provide for any developed options.
On the housing issues that my hon. Friend raised, we do, of course, have an existing national planning policy, and it is clear that local plans should take a strategic approach to maintaining and enhancing habitat networks, and identify opportunities for enhancing natural capital. One of the policies states that new developments should not contribute to unacceptable levels of air pollution, which my hon. Friend raised. The Environment Bill will require the Government to set targets on air quality, including on fine particulate matter, which is the most damaging to human health. That is a Government priority, and it will of course impact on choices made about where houses are delivered.
In addition, one of the objectives of the proposed planning reform is to protect and enhance the environment. The Government have made a clear commitment not to roll back on our high standards for environmental protection. Indeed, DEFRA is working very closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on these planning reforms and the “Planning for the future” White Paper. As my hon. Friend knows, they have received many responses.
We want to see more homes built, but it is possible to do that in an environmentally friendly way. The Environment Bill makes biodiversity net gain mandatory for every development granted planning permission, so every development will have to put back 10% more nature than was there when it started. That will make a big difference around the country to the amount of nature that we see in relation to our housing. I see that as a very positive measure, and I hope my hon. Friend agrees.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising all those really pertinent issues relating to his constituency. I hope that I have provided him with some reassurance about what we are doing, particularly on litter, fly-tipping and a number of the measures coming through in the Environment Bill. He talks about real people, and of course we are mindful of real people all the time, but we hope we are putting in place the right policies that will enable them to have a sustainable, green and prosperous future.
Question put and agreed to.
Menopausal Symptoms: Support
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of the debates in Westminster Hall and that they are expected to remain for the entire debate. I remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times to us in the Boothroyd Room. If they have any technical problems, they must email firstname.lastname@example.org. Those Members attending physically must clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall, unless you are speaking.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for people experiencing menopausal symptoms.
It is a pleasure to be opening this important debate in person, Ms Ghani, and to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Chamber engagement team for their support in creating a dedicated webpage for anyone impacted by the menopause to share their experiences with me ahead of the debate—this is a fantastic service available to us all in the House—and the responses that I have received have been honest, insightful and true examples of why we need to open up the discussion and remove the stigma that still surrounds the menopause. In total, 728 people responded to the public survey and I will share some of their experiences with Members later.
On World Menopause Day in 2018, I made a speech in the main House of Commons Chamber calling on the Government to commit to make a difference to the lives of all women experiencing symptoms of the menopause. At present, approximately 13 million of us in the UK are either perimenopausal or post-menopausal. That is almost a fifth of the entire population. In that debate back in 2018, I spoke of the need for changes in the curriculum to better educate our young people; improved public education to help women who are suffering and those closest to them; better training for GPs to ensure that women are correctly diagnosed and given the right treatments; and mandatory workplace menopause policies, so that women may continue to work through what can be the most difficult time of their lives.
With many pressure groups and the media now shining a light on issues to do with menopause, we are starting to talk about it more, but now we also need to start taking action. Education is key here, both public education—so that women understand what is happening to their bodies and feel confident in making informed decisions about the path they choose—and professional education, which is severely lacking.
A recent survey on menopause support revealed the shocking truth about training in medical schools. An astounding 41% of UK universities do not have mandatory menopause education on the curriculum. Menopause will, at some point, directly affect half of the population, and yet it is completed overlooked when training the people that we will all turn to for help.
Women are suffering unnecessarily, and while some barely notice any changes, for others the suffering is unbearable—stressful, debilitating and completely life-changing. Despite that, many doctors complete their training and leave university with absolutely no education about menopause at all. I am fairly confident that no other medical condition set to impact the lives of more than 50% of the population would be left out in that way.
The Royal College of General Practitioners states that menopause is included in the curriculum, although not mandatory or standardised. Bearing in mind that we know more than 40% are not providing mandatory training, however, women who are suffering and turn to their GP for help cannot be assured that the doctor they visit will be competent in recognising their symptoms, let alone to provide them with the treatment plan and medication they need. In our public engagement survey, Gillian shared her experience, saying that her GP told her to ask her mother as her experience would be the same:
“I walked out with a leaflet…no support, no advice, no understanding”.
Far too many women are still being misdiagnosed and prescribed anti-depressants, and they suffer extreme symptoms without the correct treatment and support. This needs to change. GPs should follow up-to-date guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence on the menopause and hormone replacement therapy, and they should recommend such treatment if it is appropriate. Sadly, far too many women are denied this path, because many doctors are unaware or ill informed. Even those who are lucky enough to visit a GP who recognises their symptoms and understands the benefits of HRT treatment still face barriers.
In Scotland and Wales, prescriptions are free to everyone, but unfortunately women in England are forced to pay £9.35 per item. For some, their treatment may include multiple items every time. Lisa responded to our survey by saying:
“Free HRT prescriptions are needed. I’m currently charged two prescription charges for one box of medication.”
“It’s a process of elimination getting the correct medication. It’s so expensive and I have found it very difficult to pay for the prescriptions.”
That is not something to be taken lightly. It is not just the odd hot flush or moment of forgetfulness. Menopausal symptoms can ruin women’s lives, and until something is done to improve the standard of diagnosis and treatment, they will continue to ruin even more.
Women deserve so much better. They are giving up their careers and ending relationships because of the severity of their symptoms and the impact on their physical and mental wellbeing. It is no coincidence that suicide rates for women peak between the ages of 45 and 54, which is the average age that most women reach the menopause or experience perimenopausal symptoms. This cannot carry on. I do not want to be standing here in another two and a half years talking about the same things.
Education on the menopause, which is slowly being incorporated into the curriculum in secondary schools, is a positive step forward, but it is just one part of a much bigger picture. Public health guidance, standardised compulsory training for those in the medical professions, and fully funded HRT treatments and workplace policies need to follow. Women should not feel inferior or incapable of doing their job because of the effects of the menopause on their health and wellbeing, but, sadly, too many do.
The situation could be so easily rectified. Simple changes in the workplace, such as flexible working hours, relaxed uniform policies and adaptations to the working environment, could all make such a difference. Dinah talked about this in her survey response. She explained that in her workplace, she was
“surprised to find no menopause policy whereas we have policies for most conceivable events.”
She added that she told her manager about her menopausal symptoms and how she felt that they were interfering with her capacity to do her job. She said:
“I was offered no support, we just talked about how I could stop making mistakes.”
The Government have alluded to that in their call for evidence for the women’s health strategy. One of the areas being considered is maximising women’s health in the workplace, with menopause being one of the female-specific conditions mentioned that impacts on women’s participation in work. I urge anyone affected to complete the public survey before the deadline of 13 June, and details can be found on the Government website.
None of the things I have mentioned are big on their own. They are all easy to rectify, but the lack of them all is having a devastating impact on so many lives. We have the power to change that, and we must seize the opportunity. I plan to set up an all-party parliamentary group on menopause support over the coming months. I have already had colleagues from across the House express an interest in joining, and I would be delighted to hear from more MPs and peers—both male and female—who I know share my passion to make a difference.
Women should not be left to suffer through a lack of awareness, inadequate support or financial restraints. Every woman experiencing menopausal or perimenopausal symptoms should be confident that they will be able to access the right treatment and support in every aspect of their lives. Women deserve to see medical schools providing appropriate training so doctors can diagnose and prescribe appropriately. Women deserve to have mandatory menopause policies in their place of work. They deserve to be given the reassurance that they can access treatment without worrying about how to pay for it and they deserve to be assured of all the support and care that they need. Women have been suffering in silence for far too long. This debate has given them a voice. Now it is up to us to listen and act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Ms Ghani. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), the deputy leader of the Welsh Labour party, for securing the debate today and for all that she is doing to raise awareness of this and many other women’s health issues.
Menopause will affect the vast majority of women, with some experiencing menopause earlier as a result of cancer or other health conditions. I have friends who have gone through it who then have the added stress of having to explain to others why they are unable to have children, or to share their medical histories. There seems to be such a lack of awareness and understanding of issues around the menopause. It can still feel like a bit of a taboo subject.
The menopause is, of course, a women’s health issue, so quite why the House of Commons titled today’s debate
“support for people experiencing menopausal symptoms”
is a bit of a mystery, particularly when the House of Commons Library report uses the word “women” throughout. Like all mostly women’s health issues, there is often difficulty with our being able to access the right help or support, or even the most basic information. Like many women in Parliament, I am in the age group most likely to be experiencing menopause and, like most women I know of my age, we rely on personal and professional friendship groups for sharing information and our own experiences. We talk to each other and usually find that every one of us will have had some similar, but also some very different, symptoms. It is often hearsay, rumour, second-hand or third-hand stories, shared articles or scraps of advice that are our main source of information about this major life change and huge change to our bodies.
My constituent, Elizabeth Ellis, started her campaign group 50Sense and the campaign “Know Your Menopause” to inform women after she could not get any help and support when she was first going through the menopause herself. How many times do politicians meet people like Elizabeth, who have used their own life experiences to become an expert and a champion in order to help others?
50Sense’s Pausitivity campaign produces a variety of really useful information, as well as posters that people can print out and put up in their workplaces and ask GPs to display. I encourage anyone who wants to know more to find the pausivity.co.uk website and download the great resources, including questions to ask GPs. Of course, that includes men. As husbands, partners, friends, colleagues and responsible employers, they ought to find out as much as they can, too, about this big event in the life of almost every woman they know. I hope hon. Members will note that I left sons out of that list, as, if I am being honest, I know that mine really do not want me to discuss my menopause with them, as lovely as that might sound.
Elizabeth, my constituent, and so many other women like her, should not have had to go back and forth to the GP for almost four years, with symptoms that she now knows were quite obviously the menopause. She was sent to A&E with heart palpitations and was even asked more than once if she was a cocaine user. If she had seen one of the Pausitivity posters she has now produced, it would surely have saved her a huge amount of distress, not to mention the NHS a lot of money. Another constituent, Michelle, had a surgical menopause and, because of the horrendous symptoms and lack of NHS treatment, was forced to go to a private consultant and spend a lot of money because the support she needed was not there. These women are not alone. Menopause cafés such as those mentioned by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), in the last menopause debate are popular places for women to support each other and share stories. It is extremely common for many women to become almost suicidal with the lack of understanding or help available.
We need to end the postcode lottery or luck element of menopause support. All GP surgeries should have someone available to advise or support women, or should display a poster, so that they know what they are going through is perfectly normal. GPs and healthcare professionals can inform women about local support groups and menopause cafés. We need easy access to fully funded HRT treatment. Men too should also familiarise themselves with some of the facts. After all, most people in the UK are female and at some point will go through the menopause. I urge everyone to log onto pausitivity.co.uk or watch the excellent documentary produced by Davina McCall for Channel 4 recently.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this important debate and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing it. I know that menopause is shrouded in mystery and certainly used to be a taboo topic, but this is changing and it needs to, as its impact can be complex and numerous as regards health outcomes for women. I will speak on one aspect of menopause—its link with osteoporosis. I do this as co-chair, with Guy Black, Lord Black of Brentwood, of the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on osteoporosis and bone health.
A key factor in women’s health is the protection of bones. Menopause is a crucial time to protect our bone health. When women reach the menopause, oestrogen levels decrease, which causes many to develop the well-known systems of hot flushes and sweats. According to the Royal Osteoporosis Society, a decrease in oestrogen levels also causes a loss of bone density—so the menopause is an important cause of osteoporosis.
Everyone loses bone density and strength as they get older, but women lose it more rapidly in the years following the menopause, losing up to 20% of their bone density during this time. With that loss comes reduced bone strength and a greater risk of breaking bones. According to a survey by the ROS, a fifth of women who have broken a bone break three or more before their osteoporosis is diagnosed. Breaking a bone normally means significant short-term pain and inconvenience, but it does not stop there. Many people with osteoporosis who break a bone live with long-term pain and disability, especially if their back is affected. The reality of broken bones and the fear of falling impacts on everyday activity, stopping people from doing the activities they love. As women lose the protective effect of oestrogen at the menopause, it is a critical time for their bone health and a time to consider many factors, whether that is positive life changes to help maintain bone strength, having a health bone assessment or considering whether osteoporosis drugs are needed to strengthen bones and reduce the risk of fractures. A number of medications are available for those with a significant fracture risk, including hormone replacement therapy, which, crucially, reduces bone loss and the risk of fractures.
It is tragic that the loss of bone strength, and the associated pain and disabilities that fractures cause, is preventable in so many cases, and that is why it is important that around the time of menopause women receive the support needed to consider whether they have a fracture risk that needs treating with osteoporosis medication. To support this, the Royal Osteoporosis Society is calling for GP surgeries to be incentivised routinely to use digital tools to assess risk and prevent fractures, as recommended in the NICE guidelines. Frustratingly, accessible digital solutions already exist and are not integrated properly into IT systems in GP surgeries.
Sadly, many GPs and other healthcare professionals lack the confidence to manage osteoporosis, missing opportunities to identify people at risk early and to prevent that important first fracture. A recent study showed that 75% of older women seen in primary care at high risk of fractures were not given the medication they needed, due partly to a failure to diagnose osteoporosis. These IT solutions can identify people with risk factors for developing osteoporosis before that first fracture. Patients found to be at higher risk can be offered anti-osteoporosis treatment proactively, with a personalised pain management plan comprising medication, lifestyle advice, vitamin D supplementation and fall prevention strategies. That is why it is essential that around the time of menopause, women are properly supported to assess their risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Provided that we support GPs with education and training, including on menopause and bone health, test those at risk and provide preventive medication such as HRT and vitamin D, the vision for early intervention can become a reality.
Diolch, Ms Ghani. It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins). I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing a debate on this incredibly important issue, and I echo her comments on the need for greater Government action and support; for improved education in GP surgeries, the workplace and schools; and to remove the stigma.
I am pleased to see so many hon. Members from across the House participating in this debate, and I am especially grateful to those who are sharing their personal experiences with the menopause. I, too, have some familiarity with the enormous impact that the menopause can have, on not only physical health but mental health. As is the case for many people across the country, my road to motherhood was far from straightforward. I knew early on that my best chance of carrying a child was through IVF—in vitro fertilisation. What many Members may not know is that the hormones and medication that you need to take as part of the IVF process often mean that you begin to experience a kind of early menopause. I had it all, from hot flushes and headaches to fatigue and terrible concentration. My mam, who had experienced all this before, was my absolute rock.
I know that, for many women, the menopause can be an incredibly difficult and lonely time. I was lucky: I had a very supportive employer, and my fertility story thankfully has a happy ending—after just one round of IVF, I fell pregnant with my wonderful son. But I know that, tragically, for many women that will not be the case. The last thing these women need is to feel that they must deal with the symptoms of menopause alone.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) is completely right to raise the brilliant Pausitivity campaign and the excellent resources that it provides. Everyone who has experienced menopausal symptoms, whether they are medically induced, as in my case, or part of the natural ageing process, will know at first hand how big an impact they can have. But we are far from alone. Around one in 100 women in the UK will experience menopausal symptoms before they turn 40, and it is estimated that in total about 13 million women are currently perimenopausal or menopausal in the UK. This is a normal part of life, but sadly, many women feel a huge amount of stigma and experience difficulty in talking about and dealing with these symptoms.
I am a very proud member of Unison and a long-time supporter of its menopause awareness campaign. I know from my own experience just how much of an impact simple changes such as paid leave, flexible working policies and temperature control in offices can have when women are experiencing menopausal symptoms. Nearly eight out of 10 menopausal women are in work. Many of them will have decades of experience and huge amounts of knowledge to share. Surely it is in employers’ best interests to introduce comprehensive policies to support them staying in their jobs.
The UK Government have a vital role to play in ensuring that the protections are put in place. We were promised an employment Bill in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, but more than a year has gone by now, so where is that much-needed legislation? Worse still, we find no mention of a forthcoming employment Bill in this year’s Queen’s Speech. That legislation would not only enable the Government to introduce their long-promised policy of paid leave for parents of babies receiving neonatal care, but give us all the important opportunity to introduce protections in the workplace for women experiencing the menopause. I ask the Minister to please work with her colleagues in Government to bring forward such legislation as soon as time allows. All of us taking part in the debate today know that the menopause is far from a niche issue. It does not take a genius to work out that it will affect about half of us in our lifetimes. It is absolutely necessary that this issue is taken seriously by the Government.
Incidentally, it is the same half of the population who have periods, and while we are on that topic, may I take the opportunity to congratulate the UK Government on once again following where the devolved Governments in Wales and Scotland have led in making sanitary products free in schools?
I am very glad to say that in recent times we have seen real moves forward on visibility and awareness of the impact that the menopause can have. I have no doubt that Davina McCall’s fantastic and taboo-breaking documentary on the menopause last month will have had a major impact on the millions of women who may have been suffering in silence. But today’s debate makes it clear that far more needs to be done, so I urge the Minister to take forward the concerns and ideas of colleagues across the political divide and work with her colleagues in Government to address this all-important topic.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, I believe for the first time, and I very much thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing such an important debate.
In preparation for this debate, I looked up the definition of menopause. There was a very short phrase that just described it as a natural process of ageing. Really? It does not feel very natural when you are going through it, I have to say. It also stated that there was no specific medicinal treatment. Treatment is aimed at “decreasing the signs and symptoms”, which is a very vague, non-specific definition.
I wonder why, even today, there is such a lack of knowledge and communication about such an important topic. There is lots of communication about puberty and pregnancy—they are well documented and well discussed, so people know what will happen before they experience them. It feels like menopause is the last taboo.
Having been a physiotherapist in my previous life, I thought that I knew all there was to know about the menopause, but nobody prepared me for the mental health aspects. My husband can testify to several meltdowns on my part, which left him completely taken aback, as was I. Obviously, once we realised what it was, we could put solutions in motion. But it is important that we know what is happening before it actually happens. Support is needed, whether at home or at work—I certainly benefited from the support of colleagues in the workplace—for all who go through the menopause, including before they go through it.
I feel privileged to have worked in the NHS in Wales on the menopause policy, which was issued in December 2018. The working group was all women of a certain age plus one very embarrassed man, but they produced important policy and guidance, offering specific and practical solutions for dealing with the menopause. They include simple things such as opening a window, relocating a desk or sorting out uniforms—simple things that just need to be put in practice. I urge the Minister to look at those sorts of practical solutions, because that is what we need to publicise.
In conclusion, I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East for highlighting this important topic, and I urge the Minister to do all she can to make sure that people experiencing the menopause are supported, both here in this place and in the wider world outside Parliament, because this really is a time for action and not words.
First of all, I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this debate. She and I have been in so many debates together that I have almost lost count. I have always supported her and, to be fair, she has always supported me.
I am here for two reasons: to support the hon. Lady but also because my wife has gone through this in the last wee period of time. Although I cannot begin to comprehend physically what it means to a lady for it to take place, I think that, as a dutiful husband, I am able to make a wee contribution to this debate.
I am also here because I am the Democratic Unionist party’s health spokesperson. I take a particular interest in all health issues debated in this place, whether in Westminster Hall or in the main Chamber, including Adjournment debates.
Although I will never experience physically the difficulties outlined today by every one of the hon. Ladies who has spoken, I have supported my wife through her journey, and from the outside looking in, it has been a tough time. Describing it as “the change” is very apt—there are so many changes, so much change—and with change there must be support. Also, at that time my wife lost her mother. So, in addition to having the menopause, she lost someone who was very dear to her and who we all miss greatly. Those were difficult times. My wife had to go to hospital as well. My mother helped her in that regard, because I was over here and so was unable to assist her directly.
I believe that there must be a wider understanding that all of those things that are different are so difficult to understand. There may be a list of symptoms, such as anxiety, low moods, poor concentration and memory, hot flushes and night sweats, insomnia and so on. However, knowing that they things may be symptoms is one thing; dealing with them is very different. So, it is about how we deal with these things.
In Northern Ireland we have only two menopause specialists. The service is understaffed and in dire need of funding and attention. I believe that every trust must have dedicated specialised clinics to deal with the menopause and to provide information, medication and support. Women, especially those in Northern Ireland, have a “grin and bear it” mentality about most things in life, but I believe that that is not enough to see you through. We need to have the conversations and have them heard, not simply woman to woman, but with men, husbands, partners and sons—although I understand that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) may have a slightly different opinion on that. I suppose the question is how to help them understand and to offer them support that makes this cosmic shift bearable.
I employ seven staff—four part-time and three part-time. I have six ladies and one gentleman. As an employer, I have to be aware of my duty and understand, sympathetically and compassionately, where we are. I have learned over the years that we—and in this case I—can step outside our comfort zones when needed. This message must be clear. I believe that these discussions are needed and have to take place. I stood with my wife as she went through a particularly tough time, and I have realised that things are only as awkward or as uncomfortable as I make them. A simple, “Is there anything I can do to help today?” means the world to someone who feels they are battling the world and their own body.
I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East for raising this issue and all the hon. Ladies who have spoken. I look forward to hearing those who will follow me, especially the Minister, as I always do. We need these conversations. We also need a dedicated programme and funding. I look to the Minister, who does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland but who always answers well, to outline how the Government can ensure that we can do better—and that means everyone, male and female.
I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this important debate. It should be clear to all of us that we do not speak nearly enough about the menopause, and that needs to change.
For far too long, a polite veil has been drawn over this and other issues facing women, young and old, so any mention of menopause, as if it were not a perfectly normal states of affairs, has been seen as a little bit distasteful. For women of a certain age, myself included, that is not okay. I am heartened that the SNP is committed to a women’s health plan and has plans in place to work with women’s organisations and the Scottish Trades Union Congress to identify areas in relation to menopause where action is needed.
Specifically female health issues have been silenced for far too long. We have recently been climbing a mountain in discussing sanitary protection. There is still more to do there, but bravo, as the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) said, including to the Scottish Government and the women who pushed for change, which meant that Scotland became the first country in the world to have free period products. We need to take the same approach to menopause. Things will not change if we do not have that opportunity and take the initiative in discussing it.
That dialogue will matter, because the veil of secrecy that too often surrounds discussions about the menopause is damaging women’s lives. Why is that the case? Half the population will experience menopause. A great many of them will be unclear about symptoms, treatments and where to go for support. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) mentioned the work of menopause cafés. The Menopause Café in Newton Mearns was admired by the people who attended it for the frank, open and supportive discussions held. That sharing and sharing alike on menopause is really helpful.
Some employers are making important moves to increase awareness and support for the menopause, including my local council, East Renfrewshire Council, which I know is discussing that at the moment. That is really important. If employers do not take that initiative, they are in grave danger of losing out on talent and experience, as well as treating women in a way that they simply do not deserve.
As the hon. Member for Swansea East said, that is one of the reasons we wanted to see an employment Bill. Equality matters, and while employment law remains reserved to the UK Government, the Scottish Government will continue to provide and promote fairer work practices for employers to look at. We need these powers to be devolved so that we can get on with job if it is not being done here.
I accept that conversations in the workplace will not be entirely straightforward. Policy development is never straightforward or clearcut, particularly on this issue because menopause is not linear. It can be extremely variable in terms of symptoms, duration and physical and emotional impact, but women need us to tackle this, none the less. At the moment, many feel unable to seek support about the menopause at work. However, the very fact that it is so complex means that it is all the more vital that we make progress.
We all know, or perhaps we are, women who have experienced uncertainty, miserable confusion—symptoms of all kinds. I thought it was really interesting, but not in a good way, to hear the hon. Member for Swansea East talk about the challenges of being unable to afford some of the necessary prescriptions. That is not an issue for women in Scotland, who are able to avail themselves of free prescriptions. There is so much more to be done, in terms of understanding, and her points about the education of the medical profession were absolutely spot on.
Women must be able to seek assistance and support. Although some will sail relatively serenely through menopause, there are often health and wellbeing implications which, if they are acknowledged at all, are just dismissed as women’s troubles. I have to tell hon. Members what women’s troubles actually are. They are the kinds of troubles that it suits folk for us not to talk about: periods, hot flushes—I could go on. The reason we have not historically talked about them is age-old: pure and simple sexism. Let us not have that anymore, thanks very much. I know that colleagues across Scotland and across the UK are doing great work to stamp that out, and I commend them all.
As we travel down that road, and with all the challenges it brings, let us continue to talk and to push for improvements in education and employment. Let us talk about the menopause and how we can practically improve things, and about periods, too. It would be sensible for those things to be part of our normal, everyday discourse. The menopause is normal, and it is time we stopped pretending that it is not.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ghani. I must begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for bringing forward this important topic for debate. She has done an excellent job in helping to raise awareness and to reveal the further changes we can make to ensure that our society is more supportive of menopausal and perimenopausal women.
The menopause is natural—indeed, normal—and is experienced by more than half of the population. It should not be embarrassing or taboo, yet nor should women be required to declare when they experience it. With around 5.1 million women in the UK currently aged between 45 and 55, the menopause affects a huge population at any given time. We should seek to be a society that understands and accommodates the symptoms that menopausal women experience as a standard part of our life cycles. We should recognise that every woman experiences menopause differently, and that 1% of women experience premature menopause, before the age of 40, sometimes induced by medical procedures such as surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy. As they have longer years of post-menopausal life, they are at increased risk of health problems such as the early onset of osteoporosis, as detailed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), and heart disease.
We should also recognise that the menopause also affects black, Asian and minority ethnic women, who are too often overlooked in awareness campaigns that do not feature women who look like them. They are disproportionately likely to be diagnosed with menopausal-related conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and depression. What plans does the Minister have to address that?
Nor should we forget that some menopause treatments are incompatible with medicines taken by some disabled women, putting them in a particularly difficult position and hampering their ability to live normal lives. Can the Minister offer anything on specific support for disabled women?
Similarly, LGBT people, including trans men, may have specific issues with being able to access support and appropriate healthcare services if they are experiencing the menopause. What measures will be taken to ensure access to everyone who needs those, regardless of gender or sexuality?
The cornerstone of normalising menopause is, of course, education in schools, including in relationship and sex education classes. I welcome that those were added to the curriculum in 2019 and would like to hear from the Minister details of how widespread that teaching now is. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East important details about alarming gaps in medical school training. Some 41% of medical schools do not teach about the menopause, and we can only imagine how many misdiagnoses that produces. I understand that a third of women do not even seek to discuss the menopause with their GP. Let us hope that better training will lead to increased confidence. This is clearly something that needs to be improved. Will the Minister set out what steps the Government will take to require such training for doctors?
It is similarly clear that we can do better to ensure that GPs fully appreciate the benefits and proper use of HRT. Women deserve to have clear and up-to-date facts when they make such important medical decisions about their bodies. They must not suffer a postcode lottery if some GPs have unhelpful prejudices. How will the Government ensure that?
We have also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East, for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for Newport West (Ruth Jones) and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) about how women in Wales and Scotland benefit from free prescriptions, including for HRT treatments. Will the Minister tell us the cost of making HRT available for free across the UK to address symptoms that come naturally for so many women? Is that something the Government are considering?
As retirement ages have risen, women are spending more years in the workplace during their menopausal and post-menopausal years. The average age for menopause is 51, but the retirement age for women is 60, so many women will work for at least a decade while experiencing symptoms of perimenopause and menopause. Workplaces now quite rightly have maternity policies, but too few focus on how to support and retain menopausal women. There are many reasonable adjustment that employers can make, as recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists—for example, considering workplace temperatures, designing uniforms to limit the impact of hot flushes, and being flexible with working hours so that people experiencing these symptoms are not required to travel during rush hours. Those should all be common-sense considerations without being intrusive. They will be of benefit to individual women workers and will help us unlock productivity gains as our workplaces become safer and more equal, with the talent and experience of women able to be realised much more fully. Will the Minister commit to such measures?
I would like to end by asking the Minister what is being done to hear the voice of perimenopausal and menopausal women in the women’s health strategy, which closes next week. Can she guarantee that the strategy will address the discomfort faced by perimenopausal women at work?
I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this really important debate. It is our second session today, and I think she knows that there is nothing she has brought forward in the House that has not had my full support. I mentioned in our previous meeting that, when it comes to women’s health, and particularly in relation to the menopause, there is no place for politics. Women’s health is above that.
I congratulate and thank the hon. Lady, and I hope she will not mind if I use her debate, once again, to talk about the women’s health strategy. The reason is that we have had more than 100,000 responses to the call for evidence, which is just amazing. Many of the responses were from perimenopausal women, women experiencing the menopause and post-menopausal women, like me—I will not go into my own experiences but, like most women’s, they were not pleasant. As the menopause is a feature of the women’s health strategy, I urge people here today, and those listening who have networks, to send the link out, because it closes on the 13th, which is Sunday, so we have five days to go. We need as many women as possible to respond, because that will give us a mandate of more than 100,000 voices, and give us the evidence and data that we need to proceed with the development of policy.
I would also like to put on the record my sympathy for all women who have felt that they have not been listened to when discussing, or even attempting to discuss, the menopause with their healthcare providers or employers. The hon. Lady said it is referred to as “women’s troubles”—there is this taboo. There has actually been a taboo about women’s health issues since Aristotle—or since the beginning of time. It has been ingrained in the system and into us as women that it is something that we do not raise or talk about, yet we all suffer from it at some stage or another.
The hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) raised osteoporosis. I will come on to some of the health conditions that women can experience as a result of the menopause, but I thank her for raising osteoporosis. Sadly, women are more susceptible to osteoporosis, because bone loss becomes more rapid after the menopause as a result of the reduction in oestrogen levels. So many of our problems in the menopause are a result of the reduction of oestrogen levels. Additionally, women tend to have smaller bones than men and a slightly longer life expectancy. But although women live longer than men, we live a longer period of time in poorer health. Declining oestrogen levels when we are perimenopausal, and a lack of oestrogen when we are menopausal and beyond, contribute to that poorer health.
The hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) raised the issue of mental health. Again, having talked to leading doctors in the field of menopausal treatment, we know that women will be given half a dozen prescriptions for anti-depressants before getting a prescription for oestrogen, even though what they actually needed was the oestrogen replacement.
I heard the point made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) about employer-led facilitation of the menopause, but one of the things that I hear a lot from women is, “I don’t want a fan on my desk. I don’t want special treatment at work. I want the HRT. I want the oestrogen, because when I have the oestrogen, I am the same as everybody else. I want to laugh again. I want to live again. I want to feel normal again. I want to have the same energy levels again, and the only way I can do that is if my GP will listen to me and give me the HRT that I want—the oestrogen.”
Today I spoke to ex-servicewomen who were talking about the menopause and wearing heavy clothing. If they were on HRT, the thick jumpers and uniforms would not be an issue for them, because they would not be going through the hot flushes. There are many women’s voices and experience of the menopause to be heard, and I am afraid it is not just as simple as saying that we want employers to give leave or to put fans on desks. One woman said to me, “I’ve been told that I can have my desk moved to be near the window, which is a prime position. I don’t want that; I just want my doctor to give me HRT.” That is actually the nub of the issue with HRT and the menopause for many women, particularly when it comes to osteoporosis. We are hearing evidence, and we will hear more, that HRT delays the onset of dementia and so many other things. Some of the research that doctors are now using to set guidelines for HRT is from 2004 and earlier.
The hon. Member for Swansea East chose a really opportune time to have this debate. I hope that she continues to take this campaign further, because we need someone with her—I hope she will not mind my saying this—flamboyancy, tenacity and ability to get gender issues to the top of the agenda. I really hope that she will continue and take this issue forward, because that is what we need. We need women like us—women on the Back Benches, women in my position and women such as the hon. Member for Swansea East—to raise this issue, because the only way we can break down taboos is by making them no longer taboos. We need to talk about this issue, and it needs to stop being something that no one wants to discuss. Women have to do it.
We are consulting on the women’s health strategy over the summer—it closes on 13 June—and the menopause is playing a huge part. We will sift through the information over the summer period, and we will come back with our findings in October/November, when officials have the time to sift through it, take up the themes and get the evidence out. That will be an amazing collection of women’s experiences and what they have gone through—not being listened to, being closed down, and not being given the treatment they want—with most of it within the healthcare arena. We know that women are not listened to in the healthcare arena. As a result of the Cumberlege report, the Paterson report and so many other reports, we know that this is the case.
To help ensure that women receive the best possible care, NICE published guidelines on the diagnosis and treatment of the menopause in 2015. It states that clinicians should adopt an individual approach or stages of diagnosis in the investigation and management of the menopause. I was accused of possibly patient-shaming when I said that women should feel empowered to be able to stand up for themselves and to challenge decisions that are made about their healthcare. I know myself, I know other women and I have heard from many women as part of the women’s health strategy who say that they know they are menopausal or perimenopausal, but their doctor insists on giving them a prescription for anti-depressants. One woman was told by a doctor to take a walking holiday before going back to him. Women know they are perimenopausal and should feel empowered to speak up about their situation.
NICE guidelines are not mandatory, although health and care clinicians are expected to take them fully into account. That is something that we need to continue to raise. Women may view various risks differently, according to their medical history, and the impact of the menopause symptoms on their daily lives.
In 2019, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency published updated safety information to enable women to make informed choices about whether, and for how long, to use HRT. Despite that, as I said, I have heard that many menopausal women seeking treatment are not receiving either the appropriate advice or the medication that they need to manage their symptoms.
I am committed to looking into that further. One of the reasons why I said that I hope the hon. Member for Swansea East, with her profile and her ability to take on difficult issues, will continue to champion this is that it will help everything we do in this place—all that women do in this place will help.
We are committed to supporting women at all stages of their lives to enable them to reach their potential. Half the population will go through the menopause, obviously, but one in four women in the workplace are menopausal or have completed the menopause, and 53% of women state that menopausal symptoms impact on their work. That is why I raised the issue of those women who were not given the treatment that they seek. What they say is that they just want treatment so that there is no impact on their work. We have to do more to combat that, for the sake of women and of our economy.
A number of organisations are working to change the approach to menopause in the workplace, such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the Faculty of Occupational Medicine and the NHS Staff Council’s health, safety and wellbeing partnership group, which has produced guidance on the menopause for employers. I encourage employers to refer to that guidance. I would be interested to know how many employers do refer to it, do develop policies in their work- place on the back of it, or even know that it is there.
Hon. Members asked about education in schools. In order to break down the taboos about menopause, there must be access to high-quality information to produce productive conversations. Health education is compulsory in all state-funded schools. From September 2020, relationship education became compulsory in all primary schools, and relationship and sex education became compulsory in secondary schools. Pupils are taught about intimate and sexual relationships, including facts about reproductive health and sexually transmitted infections, as well as facts about menstrual health, fertility and the menopause. That is a landmark step to ensure that all the population are educated about women’s health issues from an early age.
That was a challenge. When I was growing up, I had never even heard of the menopause. I do not think that even my daughters, now in their young adult life, had heard about it when they were growing up. It was just not discussed. Now, it is being taught in schools, which is a huge step forward.
Hon. Members know how brilliant our NHS staff are. This year, they have provided amazing care in the most difficult and testing circumstances. However, training is important at undergraduate, medical school and all levels. Individual medical schools set their own medical curriculum, which must meet the standards set by the General Medical Council. The GMC monitors medical schools to ensure that those standards are maintained. Importantly, all new qualified doctors must be able to recognise how normal human structures and physiology apply or change at significant age milestones and at the menopause. From 2024, the GMC will introduce the medical licensing assessment, which all UK medical students will need to pass to join the medical register. I am pleased that assessment includes knowledge of the menopause.
Things are moving and things are changing, but it is too slow. I think I said to the hon. Member for Swansea East that it is like turning the direction of a tanker on the ocean—it takes not just a Government, a Minister or a person; it takes all of us as women to start talking about the menopause and to start campaigning here. From my perspective, the women’s health strategy is my start.
I am excited to tell the House about a new menopause pathway improvement programme led by NHS England and NHS Improvement . The programme brings together key stakeholders and partners representing clinical colleges, menopause specialists, the workforce and women to develop evidence-based care pathways for women, aligned to NICE guidance and accounting for all demographics, to increase access to and delivery of optimal perimenopause and menopause care for women. It includes plans to increase access to education packages for clinicians who provide menopause care and a workforce support model that will be pioneered in the NHS and shared with all other industries and sectors. This programme of work feeds into the all-staff retention programme board, supporting the retention work specifically for those at risk of leaving the workforce—namely, female nurses aged 50-plus.
I again thank the hon. Member for Swansea East for securing the debate, and I am grateful to hon. Members for their invaluable contributions on this really important topic. While there is some good work under way, I am determined to make rapid progress to improve the support available to women experiencing the menopause and end the stigma that still surrounds many areas of women’s health. Following analysis of the call for evidence for the women’s health strategy, we will draw the work together and take an end-to-end look at women’s health from adolescence to menopause. That approach will ensure that women have better, more open conversations about their health and receive important treatments, including during the menopause.
Thanks from me and from every woman out there who is suffering. I totally agree with the Minister that there is no room for politics in women’s health. Together, those of us in this room and in Parliament can make a change. We can, and we will, create a menopause mandate, and we will transform menopause support and services going forward. Of that, I am confident.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for people experiencing menopausal symptoms.