Tuesday 22 June 2021
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Covid-19: Religious and Ethnic Minority Communities
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Before I call the Member who will move the motion, let me say that yesterday the House of Commons Commission said that Members who are not on the Westminster Hall call list but who are physically present will now be able to come along and make interventions. Today, we do not seem to have Members who wish to make interventions, despite their being able to see on the Order Paper that there is only one Back Bencher on the call list beyond the hon. Gentleman whose debate this is. This is a very important subject, so I just want to make it clear to those observing from outside the House that I am sure there would be a lot more participation but for the constraints and inflexibility of the rules, which do not allow Members who have not given advance notice and are not on the call list to come along and participate by making speeches. I do not think that the message from yesterday’s meeting of the Commission that they can at least come along and make interventions has got through.
I would also like to say that this is a one-and-a-half-hour debate, this is an important subject and the Chairman of Ways and Means made it clear, when the Chairmen’s Panel last had a meeting with her, that she thought it desirable, in a debate in which there was not that much participation but a lot of time, that the Minister should be willing to take as many interventions as there are, rather than feeling constrained to refuse interventions. I just mention that because I know that the Minister we have today is assiduous in taking interventions, so I hope that today he will be able to set an example to some of his colleagues.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on religious and ethnic minority communities throughout the world.
As you rightly say, Sir Christopher, this subject matter is of the utmost importance, to me but to others as well. I know that it is a matter that the Minister is greatly taxed about, and I am pleased to see him in his place. As always, I am sure that the response to the debate will encourage those of us who have a burden in our heart for this issue.
I want to make an apology, if I may, on behalf of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who, unfortunately for this debate, has a meeting every Tuesday at this time with, I think, officials from Downing Street. She sent me a wee text message to tell me that, because she would love to have been here. Her heart, like mine, has a burden for this issue, but unfortunately she cannot be here, and she wanted me to record that.
There are others who cannot be here. It is a pity that I had not known about the current situation, because not everybody can come to be here. For instance, I am the only one of my party colleagues who is over here in Westminster this week. The daughter of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) is getting married on Thursday, so he has other things to be involved in. Of course, he has also put his name forward for the leadership of our party, so he has a lot on his plate at the moment. Otherwise, he would have been here to participate.
Why is this issue important? I often say this when I have these debates, but the fact that I say it often does not lessen its importance. This is a chance to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak up in this place for those who perhaps have no voice, and to ensure that the issue is looked at thoroughly. The motion says it all: the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on religious and ethnic minority groups throughout the world. I will illustrate in my contribution shortly just how important this is and what is happening across the world. I will give a large number of examples to illustrate that it is not specific to one religious or ethnic group, but affects many groups across the world. In particular, I will be speaking of those with a Christian faith, but I will speak for Muslims and others as well.
As covid-19 swept across the globe in 2020, people’s lives almost everywhere were fully upended. Almost overnight the way we live and interact was completely overhauled, thriving economies were suddenly shuttered, our social interactions outlawed and our most basic movements curtailed. Although the pandemic has served as both a reminder of the oneness of humanity and of the interdependence and interconnected nature of the world that we live in, there have been immense inequalities in our experiences of the crisis, as I will illustrate shortly, and I know others will do the same.
Here in the United Kingdom, some of our freedoms were restricted to ensure that our collective right to life was prioritised and protected. It is an unfortunate reality that in many other parts of the world the pandemic has been used as a smokescreen to further restrict marginalised and repressed minority groups. At this point I should declare my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. We speak up for those of a Christian faith, other faiths and no faith. I genuinely believe in the Lord and Saviour that I serve, so I speak up for all religious and ethnic groups across the world.
Many religious and belief groups have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The spread of covid-19 has exacerbated pre-existing prejudice globally. Some groups have experienced outright violence and hostility, while others have been subjected to discriminatory restrictions imposed by the state. Many more have also suffered disproportionately owing to a range of structural factors that often place religious and belief minorities in the more vulnerable segments of society that more often lack access to social justice.
As chair of the APPG, I am very aware of where in the world those of a Christian faith and other groups find that they are always at the end of the queue when it comes to help for covid-19, and at the end of the queue when it comes to the aid handouts as well. The charity Aid to the Church in Need estimates that in 2020 oppression against vulnerable faith communities increased in 25 of the 26 countries that it identifies as the most oppressive against such groups, so they have oppression to start with and even more oppression because of covid-19. Other religious groups then blame the small religious and ethnic groups for what takes place.
I want to outline the ways in which faith and belief groups have been unfairly impacted by covid-19 and the consequent financial crisis, and will examine the open hostilities, secondary effects and systematic challenges. I implore Her Majesty’s Government and the Minister to commit to using their extensive knowledge and resources to foster a more equitable environment globally.
Minorities are at greater risk of becoming infected with coronavirus and of dying from it if they become infected. As marginalised and more vulnerable segments of society, minority groups often do not have the same level of access to medical treatment as is available to most of the population. The charities and non-governmental organisations warn of the unequal access to medical care within states, both through outright discrimination and service delivery to minority groups and because of entrenched disparities in wealth between groups. For example, in Pakistan, which I have a particular burden in my heart for, and an interest in, we find that when it comes to the allocation of jobs, those of a Christian belief get the more menial jobs. They do the street cleaning, look after latrines and can be in bondage work in factories. Some of these groups are perhaps not educated, but they do not have the ability to rise out of that either, and that happens to a large extent in Pakistan and in other countries as well.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for reminding us about interventions. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for highlighting the plight of Christians, particularly minority Christians, during the pandemic, and the inequality that has been wrought. I hope that we will continue to scrutinise the level of vaccinations so that they are given out equally to everyone, because everyone should be equal under the aid and medical support that we give during covid. I hope that we will do that in a very fair and even-handed way, and remember all the repressed minorities, particularly the Christians, who have suffered greatly during the pandemic in many places throughout the world, especially in the middle east and Pakistan, as well as remembering autonomous regions that perhaps are not prioritising certain groups as quickly as others because of their religious background.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight that. It is very obvious in my contribution, and I am pretty sure that it will be obvious in the contributions of others and in the Minister’s response, that there are many examples of Christians being at the end of the line when it comes to the vaccine roll-out and the health systems that are needed. I hope that in our aid structures across the world we would want to see equality and parity in the roll-out.
Minorities are at greater risk both of becoming infected with coronavirus and of dying from it if they become infected. Being marginalised and more vulnerable, these minority groups do not have the same access to medical treatment. We are getting some examples from charities and NGOs, who warn of the unequal access to medical care within states, including through outright discrimination. In other words, if someone is a Christian, they are at the back of the queue or maybe just ignored in service delivery to minority groups, and because of entrenched disparities in wealth.
Overt discrimination on the part of some medical practitioners has been documented in a number of states throughout the pandemic, whereby those belonging to specific religious groups have been refused medical treatment on the grounds of their faith. In India, just to give another example, it is not only Christians who are affected; there have also been widespread reports of Muslims being denied medical attention throughout the pandemic. We are hearing many examples of that coming through. They include claims that some hospitals were denying treatment to Muslims until they received a negative coronavirus test. That requirement is not being placed on non-Muslims in India, so why is it being placed on Muslims there?
This is not only a problem in healthcare provision; NGOs in Pakistan have also reportedly denied food and emergency handouts to Christians and Hindus during the pandemic. Members of religious and belief minority groups have also been subjected to verbal abuse, death threats and physical attacks when attempting to access public services. So it is not just verbal abuse; there is also physical abuse.
More commonly, this inequity of access to medical care is closely correlated to economic disparities; being more economically vulnerable, members of minority groups may not have the resources needed to seek treatment. They may also be more adversely impacted by measures to contain covid-19 and the stopping of economic activity. The World Bank estimates that the number of covid-induced new poor rose by 119 million to 124 million in 2020, and may increase to between 143 million and 163 million this year. That is worrying for me, because if someone does not have a job to feed their wife and children and to keep their head above water, the impact of covid will be greater.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warns that the pandemic is a force multiplier, amplifying the needs of people of concern, and increasing unemployment and poverty within communities that are already marginalised, for example those in Pakistan that I referred to earlier. It is these systematic economic disparities that are thought to put religious or belief minorities at greater risk of contracting covid-19 in the first place.
Overcrowded housing, poor sanitation, unregulated workplaces and the need to continue to operate in high-risk environments out of economic necessity are all contributing factors. If someone has to work and abide by the conditions of that work because they need the money to survive, when it comes to safety and other issues they perhaps have not focused on them in the way that they normally would.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has noted that these factors cause marginalised communities to be over-exposed to the virus, adding that these precarious work patterns and overcrowding ensure that such groups are less able to self-isolate if they become infected. For example, refugees who have fled religious-based violence and now live in overcrowded refugee camps with unhygienic living conditions have become particularly vulnerable to the virus.
I can think of many such groups. The Rohingyas are a supreme example, but there are many others in Syria and across the middle east, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) mentioned, for whom issues of hygiene are really important. They live in crowded conditions in small areas, and every day the risk of disease is very real to them. Minority groups may also be geographically isolated from state services, after years of underfunding of services in areas that are home to ethnic and religious minorities.
More research is needed on the reasons why these stark inequalities have manifested in a number of wholly different states. The magnitude of the problem can be totally overwhelming—both in my prayer time and in preparing for this debate, I have been very aware of how massive the task is. I know that our Government, and the Minister in particular, have been very responsive and reactive to that, which I appreciate. That is why this debate was requested, and why I look to the Minster and to our Government for a response.
Even within the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has warned of the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on different ethnic minority communities, and made recommendations to the UK Government to lessen those inequalities of experience. While it is right that Her Majesty’s Government research the myriad impacts of the pandemic on British citizens within the UK—the Government’s priorities are still at home first—the devastating consequences for many communities around the globe should not be overlooked.
Many of us in this House have been very keen to ensure that other countries have the same opportunities when it comes to the vaccine roll-out. Rather than ensuring that UK aid is delivered in a manner blind to religion, Her Majesty’s Government should ensure that aid is prioritised for marginalised faith and belief communities to lessen these inequalities of access experienced within states. I would ask the Minister how we can ensure that the aid we give actually gets to the religious groups and small ethnic minority groups so that they have equality in the vaccine roll-out and the healthcare that they need.
Misinformation about the virus, its origins and methods of contagion, alongside entrenched distrust between many communities around the world, has led to mass discrimination against peoples on grounds of ethnicity and religion. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has warned that faith communities have suffered a tsunami of hate and xenophobia during the pandemic, and the evidence points to that—real, factual evidence—in many countries across the world. One of the most shocking ways that belief communities have been targeted has been by being falsely blamed for spreading the virus. How disheartening that must be, for any religious or ethnic group to find themselves being blamed for the spread of the virus when they are affected by it just as much as other groups.
In a number of western countries, the Jewish community came under attack during the first wave after claims that their religious practices were fuelling the spread of the virus. In Iran and Turkey, there were widespread claims that covid-19 was a Jewish conspiracy, while Jewish Orthodox communities in Europe, the United States and the Middle East saw police operations against worshippers.
In Turkey, an Armenian church was set alight over claims that Armenians were responsible for bringing the coronavirus. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, one of those excellent charities that work on behalf of Christians and others across the world, noted a sudden and significant increase in online hostility towards Christians in China after allegations that the January 2021 coronavirus outbreak in Hebei province originated in a church. China is not far behind North Korean when it comes to human rights abuses and suppression of religious beliefs. Online hostility is easy to follow, and anyone online could find themselves on the frontline.
The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, condemned the flare-ups and existing religious intolerance in many countries, including the scapegoating of religious or belief communities, as experienced by Christians, Jews and Muslims. In parts of India, coronavirus is widely believed to be an Islamic conspiracy, with Muslims being beaten, prevented from entering certain districts and having their businesses boycotted. Hateful rhetoric, including from Indian Government officials themselves, targets religious minorities, encouraging—if not inciting—intimidation, harassment and violence. It is always important that we, as elected representatives, choose our words with care. It is also important that those in other parts of the world, such as India, pick their words carefully and ensure that they do not inflame the situation.
The Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu in South Korea reports some 4,000 cases of injustice against its congregants since a local outbreak was traced back to the church. These reportedly include termination of employment and domestic persecution, as the church’s parishioners face blame for the covid-19 cases in the country. It is grossly unfair that that should happen—again, it is direct discrimination against those people, who just want to worship their God and their church. Human Rights Watch has called on Governments to work to combat such stigma, and it has said that the virus recognises no distinctions of race, ethnicity, religion or nationality. How true that is, and everybody should realise that that is the case. Covid-19 struck across the world wherever it had the opportunity, and it did not matter what country people were in, what religion they were, or whether they were old, young, male or female. It went everywhere.
The UK Government have committed to counter the spread of hateful misinformation campaigns that have caused, at best, escalating inter-community tensions and, at worst, open conflict, which has been evidenced in some places in India, China, Pakistan and elsewhere in the world. Will Her Majesty’s Government prioritise putting processes in place to tackle such misinformation before it leads to inter-community conflict?
Under the guise of tracking and containing coronavirus outbreaks around the world, a number of already stigmatised groups have been further marginalised from societies and seen disproportionate controls imposed on their lives. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews have found that their religious beliefs put them in a different category. During the imposition of coronavirus restrictions, some religious and belief minorities who had been blamed for the spread of covid-19 had their movements and activities placed under stricter control than those of majority groups. I thank the Lord that we in this country are able to go and worship wherever we like on a Sunday. Nobody is taking our car registration numbers, seeing who is going into the church or sitting in the church and noting what people are saying, but there are parts of the world where that happens all the time.
In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Government authorities indicated that Shi’a religious communities were responsible for the spread of coronavirus and subjected some neighbourhoods and localities to stricter lockdown measures. Again, that is disproportionate and over the top, and it directly affects those of religious and ethnic minority groups. The Saudi Government imposed a lockdown on the majority Shi’a province of Qatif, and the Hazara community in Pakistan also had their movements and work restricted in one region before any wider regional lockdown was introduced. The Pakistan Government’s failure to address hate speech and to promote religious harmony is said to have contributed to violence, with attempted mob lynchings in September 2020. It is not hard to incite a mob of people whenever they are minded to do that. Therefore, it is really important that those in positions of power in government at all levels, be they MPs, councillors or community leaders, are there to protect everyone.
As further barriers to international travel were put in place, access to regions was reduced for journalists, international officials and aid organisations. That had a cooling effect on access to information, so we may not know the whole story. We are probably getting parts of it at this moment in time. It may have led to the under-reporting of abuses perpetrated against minority communities. News about the violence in Tigray in Ethiopia—we spoke about this in the main Chamber last week—was slow to reach international attention, and aid groups normally present in the region were unable to confirm the reports of mass killings and widespread rape against Tigray women and children, which began in late 2020.
In the debate on sexual violence in the main Chamber last Thursday, many of us believed that the reports that we were getting downplayed what was actually taking place. In a meeting last week, an official from the Eritrean embassy refuted the claims that atrocities were proved to have taken place. How out of touch are they? The evidence is there and coming from various people, and the numbers are particularly worrying. I personally find it difficult to speak of that because I can almost feel the pain of those who have been abused. It bothers me greatly and it bothers many others. Notwithstanding what the Eritrean embassy said, due to covid-19 restrictions, no outside observers have been allowed to travel to the region. The feedback about what is happening is therefore restricted to those who contact family members outside the region.
Restrictions have also affected the functioning of law and order globally, as police forces redirect resources to managing containment. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has highlighted reports of numerous anti-Hindu incidents in Bangladesh occurring with impunity during coronavirus lockdowns. Again, it is worrying if Governments stand by and do not step in.
The pandemic is said to have created a perfect storm for land rights abuses. I have spoken about that in relation to the Baha’is in Iran. I do not know whether you, Sir Christopher, have had the chance to meet people from the Baha’i faith. I have had the opportunity over the years to meet quite a few. They are the gentlest, nicest, kindest, most well-mannered people I have met. They are certainly not aggressive or abusive. They are just so gentle, yet their gentleness seems to be trampled on by people in Iran. I am not sure whether I can use the clear terminology that has been used in the press in the past few days to refer to the new leader in Iran. I worry greatly that, given that that person is in charge, the abuse against the Baha’is will escalate. They have experienced forced evictions and land confiscation.
The UK Government previously said that they will use UK aid to support protections against forcible evictions and claimed that they were deeply troubled by the deterioration in the land rights of religious minorities in Iran. That burdens my heart, and I know that it burdens the Minister’s heart and the hearts of other speakers. Is there still such a commitment from Her Majesty’s Government, given the extensive cuts to official development assistance? I do not want to harp on about the aid cut because it is not fair to keep at it all the time, but I want to make sure that the aid that goes through gets to the right people.
Measures to stop the spread of covid-19 have included severely limiting religious gatherings around the world, profoundly impacting individuals’ and communities’ ability to manifest their religion or belief. For much of the pandemic, the right to health and freedom of religion or belief have been deemed almost mutually exclusive. Where activities have been allowed to resume, some regions have continued to restrict particular religious activities under the auspices of preventing the spread of covid-19, even when other comparable activities have been allowed to resume.
The Algerian Government, for example, granted mosques and Catholic churches permission to reopen last August, but the evangelical churches remained closed throughout the remainder of 2020. Why that disparity? Why was it okay for one group but not for the others? I do not understand that.
In Malaysia, Hindu temples and Christian churches face different reopening schedules from mosques. Last year, Malaysian officials temporarily banned refugees and migrants from mosques as they reopened. The imbalance and the inequality of treatment is real.
Alongside particular faith and belief groups being subjected to additional restrictions, seemingly equal policies have violated freedom of religion or belief. For example, in Sri Lanka, authorities insisted on the cremation of all those who died from covid-19, including Muslims, despite the fact that the practice is prohibited under Islam. We welcome the fact that the requirement was lifted in early 2021, due to the pressure that our Government and our Minister exerted and also to raising awareness of the issue across the globe.
As I said earlier, as a result of the pandemic, many faith and belief groups have moved their worship online. For those with internet access, that could have enabled greater engagement with religious services, particularly for those who are geographically isolated, those with disabilities or those with age issues. That rapid move to online worship in many parts of the globe has also led to growing concern that hostile state authorities might use this technology, because it is easier to get that, for increased surveillance and monitoring of minority religious communities. The rise in surveillance has been documented against religious groups across China, where unfortunately everything seems to be under the control of Government and suppression of human rights and religious beliefs is rampant.
With much of the world now just beginning their national vaccination programmes, it is important that we learn from the inequalities in access that the covid-19 crisis has exposed and work to lessen those disparities going forward. By doing that, we can work to ensure that local roll-out is distributed justly and that the human rights of minority groups are upheld in the process. How important it is to get that.
The same problems in accessing healthcare have proved to be the very same barriers to minority groups in accessing covid-19 vaccines. I have implored the UK Government to take a multi-pronged approach to tackling those inequalities, both to prevent outright discrimination against religious and belief groups and to support aid programmes that work to tackle the systematic marginalisation of those communities globally.
I welcome the UK Government’s allocation of healthcare as a key aid priority in the integrated review. That is good news. However, having heard many of the specific and distinct ways in which religious and belief communities are affected by the crisis in mine and others’ contributions today, will the Minister agree to ensure that such programmes, specifically access and the needs of religious and belief minorities, are being prioritised, redistributing such aid to lessen the inequalities? If our Government and our Minister could do that or give that assurance, that would help a great deal. Can the Minister also tell us how the cuts to official development assistance are predicted to affect Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to global health? Again, knowing what is going on would give us that reassurance, not only for covid-19 and the vaccination roll-out, but for all the other health issues.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important debate. On the issue of making sure that healthcare is available for all, I also think the issue of detention of minority groups is important, not only because of the quality of healthcare but because their human rights are being violated. I thank the Government for the things they have done to work with international partners to investigate those matters, and even going further on how can we prevent human rights abuses from happening to minority groups, whether they be Muslim or Christian, but specifically Muslim minority groups where there have been accounts of them being detained and used for vaccine testing. There are some quite alarming human rights abuses being reported. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising those concerns and the Government for what they have done to work with international partners to make sure we are raising those concerns, both with the United Nations and in our covid vaccine roll-out across the world.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Again, they are very wise words and I wholeheartedly agree with what she has said. We are impressed by what the Government have done so far. We are highlighting some of the issues across the world where there are anomalies and where we need to focus. That is what we wish to do. We in the western world have a responsibility to reach out for those who have no one to speak for them. We will probably never meet some of the people the hon. Member for Beaconsfield has referred to, and of whom I shall speak today, in this world, but perhaps we will speak to them in the next.
Finally, I also want to use this opportunity to congratulate the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I also want to put on record all its work in implementing the recommendations made by the Bishop of Truro’s report in the independent review of the FCO’s work to support persecuted Christians. I have been greatly heartened by that. I have also been greatly heartened by the hon. Member for Congleton, who has been made the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. We had a chance just a few weeks ago to hear her speak at the annual general meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, and it was not just her smiling face but her words that encouraged us all. The hon. Lady is a good person with a passionate belief and interest in the issue. I do not believe there is anyone better to champion it at that level.
As we approach the deadline for an independent review of how the 22 recommendations have been carried out, I ask the Minister, what plans have been put in place for the review to be conducted? Would he consider asking the Foreign Affairs Committee to conduct that review? This time next year or thereabouts, there will be an international conference that coincides with that. I know that some of those recommendations have already been secured, and some have yet to be secured. This time next year, we will have the chance to review all of them. Perhaps at that stage we will be able to look honestly and truthfully at what we have achieved and what we need to achieve in the next period.
I have said quite a lot, because I need to have it on the record for all those who have contacted us. As I said earlier, as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religious belief, I speak up for those with Christian faith, those with other faiths and those with no faith. Today has been an opportunity to speak for those of all faiths and no faith, and those with Christian belief as well, which is very close to my heart. I have put the case for them across the world, so that our Government can focus their attention on helping those people where we can. Covid-19 has been horrific for the whole world. It has been horrific for those who are probably well off and have a good standard of living, but for those with Christian belief who are ethnic minorities across the world, the effect has been disastrous. Today we highlight that for those people across the world. I look forward to other contributions, and to the Minister’s response in particular, as I always do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and I think this is the first time I have spoken in the Boothroyd Room version of Westminster Hall. I thank all the staff, Clerks and officials who are keeping us safe and covid secure, so that we can enjoy the kind of securities, practices and safety that, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted, so many people around the world have not been able to throughout the pandemic.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He does not secure these 90-minute debates by accident; it has to be demonstrated that there other Back Benchers and cross-party support across the House for the topic, so even if some colleagues have not been able to make it here today, for unavoidable reasons, he is undoubtedly representing a consensus across the House on the importance of these issues. He has given us a comprehensive demonstration of his own tireless commitment to freedom of religion and belief around the world.
The hon. Gentleman is right in particular to highlight the work of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is the Prime Minister’s new envoy on these matters. All of us in his APPG warmly welcome that appointment; she met with us recently and we look forward to going forward. The APPG has produced a detailed report on the state of freedom of religion and belief around the world, which includes a chapter specifically on the impact of covid. Although she was unable to catch your eye to make a speech, Sir Christopher, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) made a number of valuable points, particularly about the detention of minorities and the importance of access to healthcare.
The debate has been an important opportunity to recognise what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described as the “disproportionate toll of covid-19” on marginalised and discriminated groups around the world. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, the high commissioner described covid as a “force multiplier” of existing inequalities and discriminations. The pandemic seems to be having a dual effect, exacerbating existing inequalities, which are also exacerbating the impact of the pandemic among minority communities.
In the limited time available, I want to look at the covid challenges facing religious groups and ethnic minorities and at how existing discriminations are being exacerbated. As the debate is about religious and ethnic minority communities throughout the world, that includes this country, and I want to make a few brief comments about the domestic situation of those communities.
Throughout the world, including here at home, ethnic minority groups have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Minority groups have experienced higher rates of infection and mortality and deeper and more difficult impacts from all the challenges that have come with the pandemic. Those include the financial impacts and the barriers caused by illness, as well as the difficult choices that those people have to make. People who are a part of a minority group and who are already living in difficult financial circumstances have to make incredibly difficult choices about whether to self-isolate or to continue to go to their places of work to make an income and support their families. That increases the risks to their families and communities. The hon. Member spoke about people living in overcrowded situations in different parts of the world, which of course has an impact on transmission.
A related issue is access to vaccines. There are accounts throughout the world, which are highlighted in some of the reports the hon. Member referred to, of Governments—particularly, oppressive regimes—prioritising some groups over others for access to vaccines. As we know, there is also vaccine hesitancy here at home among some minority groups, for a whole range of reasons. Faith and community leaders and faith-based organisations have an important role in helping to address those challenges and perhaps misunderstandings over vaccines. Where faith leaders around the world have stepped up to speak about the importance of vaccines, it has encouraged people to get one where they can.
Access to worship, and particularly funeral rituals, has been a challenge. The hon. Member spoke about the situation in Sri Lanka, where Muslim communities were forced to take part in cremations, which will have been particularly distressing. I remember being in this room more than a year ago, when we discussed the very early stages of the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the issue of cremations and how, even in our own domestic law, we could respect religions that require the dead to be buried rather than cremated. These have been very difficult and challenging decisions for Governments around the world to make.
One of the biggest challenges the hon. Member spoke of was scapegoating and blame, when dominant groups blame minorities. He highlighted that in some countries the majority religion is blaming the minority one, and in another country, where that minority and majority are reversed, the blame goes in the other direction. He gave the example of Muslims being blamed in Cambodia. Sadly, we also see the ugly head of antisemitism appearing on social media and elsewhere, and that always has to be challenged and called out. As he said, the virus does not recognise borders or boundaries, or ethnic groups or religions. We are all human beings—we all carry the same kind of blood, and we all breathe the same air—and that is how the virus is transmitted, not because of someone’s particular ethnic background or religious belief.
That scapegoating is also an example of how covid has acted as an exacerbating factor of existing discriminations, and the hon. Member was right to highlight how Governments and oppressive regimes around the world have been using the cover of covid restrictions and the distractions of the pandemic to increase persecution or discrimination. He quoted statistics from Aid to the Church in Need—I pay tribute to its important work around the world—from Open Doors’ World Watch List 2021, which highlights religious discrimination, and from the report by his APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, which referenced the expression from the UN Secretary-General that covid is fuelling a “tsunami” of xenophobia, with all the disastrous consequences that come with that.
Oppressive practices have continued even when restrictions should be in place—whether that is the destruction of Uyghur mosques and shrines by the Chinese Government or of Hindu temples in Pakistan, the eviction of the Baha’i communities in Iran, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, or the growing ethnic and regional conflict in the horn of Africa. All are being exacerbated by the pandemic and, in many cases, the pandemic is being used by Governments as an excuse or a distraction. We cannot turn a blind eye. Even if this debate is not the busiest that Westminster Hall has been recently, it is an important opportunity to speak out and draw attention to such matters. The hon. Member spoke of the Eritrean embassy, for example, and we know that Governments around the world pay attention to what is said in this place. Hopefully the Minister will join others in calling out such behaviours when he responds.
There has been a particular impact on refugees and displaced peoples around the world. The refugee and displacement crisis has been growing over many years, and the pandemic is serving only to exacerbate it. It does not take a lot of imagination to understand the impact of overcrowded accommodation in refugee camps on the increased risk of transmission and then, if someone does contract covid, the impact of a lack of healthcare facilities, such as ventilators, and access to treatment—things we take for granted in this part of the world. Uganda is named in the House of Commons Library’s exceptional briefing for this debate as a country in which people need identity cards to access healthcare services, and a displaced person or a migrant who has come across the border will not have an identity card and cannot access the healthcare system, further exacerbating the challenges.
Domestically, in my own city of Glasgow, refugees and asylum seekers were forced out of apartments and other residential accommodation and into hotels under some guise that few of us could understand, with all the attendant impacts on both physical and mental health. I will touch briefly on a few domestic considerations, because these global problems are reflected to a greater or lesser extent in some of the challenges we experience at home. For example, we know that rates of transmission and mortality are higher among black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, particularly among refugees and asylum seekers.
The restrictions on worship have been particularly difficult. It has been a challenge both around the world and here at home. Funerals and farewells have not been possible in the usual way under these challenging circumstances. Even in our community here we have lost good friends and colleagues. I think of Jimmy Gordon, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, who was a very good friend to the APPG and faith communities. He succumbed very early, and I suspect that, in normal times, his funeral would have been standing room only, with people outside the packed church. The late Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, led the way in some respects in Glasgow, celebrating mass livestreamed from his empty cathedral by himself every Sunday of the pandemic after the churches were closed, until he himself succumbed to covid and his own funeral had to be livestreamed with no more than 20 or 30 people in the cathedral. It has been a very painful and difficult experience for a lot of friends and families and all those who have lost loved ones. I want pay tribute to them and to everyone who has, sadly, lost their life to this disease.
Worship is not something that can always be replicated online. There have been many fruits of these changes, and religious communities have been able to take part in religious services around the world. Last year, I took part in Easter services live from the Vatican from the comfort of home. But that is not the same as a community or in-person worship, and that was recognised in the judgment of Lord Braid in the Court of Session in Scotland in response to a case brought by Christian ministers, including my friend, Canon Thomas White, who is the parish priest of St Mary’s, in Calton, Glasgow. That was an important judgment, which Governments will have to take account of if we find ourselves in similar situations in the future.
The Scottish Government have recognised the impact of the difficult decision to close places of worship. Everyone who has an interest in these matters welcomes the return to greater numbers and participation as we move forward, and that includes, potentially, singing, although not everyone’s communal singing is to be welcomed in the same way.
In conclusion, the UK Government have an important responsibility in challenging and tackling the discriminations and inequalities faced by religious communities and ethnic minorities, and particularly those that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. They can start here, at home, by looking at the root causes of increased transmission and of vaccine hesitancy among black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities and by supporting faith-based organisations and faith communities. But they also have to lead and support international initiatives to massively scale up access to healthcare, vaccines, personal protective equipment and to take action against violence and discrimination by all the different oppressive regimes that we have heard about in this debate.
I want to highlight the excellent work of another person from Scotland, the investigator of prisons and detention centres, who has been working for the Council of Europe tirelessly throughout this pandemic. He has been visiting prisons and detention centres across Europe and the world to make sure they are treating their prisoners with respect and decency and not allowing the spread of covid.
Will the Government give further explanations of the work they are doing to investigate the abuse of ethnic and religious minority groups in prisons and detention centres during this pandemic? What are they doing to investigate these claims? There have also been claims of certain Muslim minority groups being forced to participate in unethical vaccine trials. It would be helpful if the Minister could provide further clarification of those claims.
I thank the hon. Lady for that. That clarification would be helpful; the thought of people being forced into vaccination trials is abhorrent. We warmly welcome everyone who has volunteered—tens of thousands of people volunteered around the world, and that has helped to keep us incredibly safe, but it has to be a free choice. It is incredibly distressing to hear what the hon. Lady describes. I am sure the Minister has heard it and will respond shortly.
We welcome the work of all these different envoys and inspectorates—the Government’s envoys on freedom of religion and belief and on girls’ education, as I think the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. Tackling all these issues and building a safer and more secure world will help us in the future. It might help us to avoid future pandemics and future spread if everybody is brought up to the standard envisaged by the sustainable development goals.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we can raise the educational standards and abilities of young people we will give them the aspiration to do better? For instance, if they gained the educational standards to start with, they could be teachers or nurses or go into many other jobs. That is why, when it comes to addressing covid-19 and its effect on religious minorities, there is a greater plan, and education is part of that plan. With that, people are given the chance to do better.
I agree entirely. That is what the global agenda of sustainable development goals is for. We can raise standards around the world on education, health, access to water and sanitation, and gender equality, in particular. If we can do those things, the world will be much more resilient to all these challenges, whether pandemics, natural disasters or the likelihood of oppression and discrimination.
Some of those factors are the root causes: poverty and a lack of understanding and education are among the root causes of the challenges that we face. If we can tackle them, we are building that resilience. That is why we cannot just let go the point about 0.7% and the Government’s commitment to aid. That was world leading; now we are the only G7 country that is cutting our aid budget. The Government have to recognise that. Perhaps the Minister can say when the Government envisage restoring that target, as they have pledged to do.
The Government also need to end arms sales to any regime where there is doubt about how those arms are being used. If arms manufactured and sold from the UK are being used to oppress people and abuse their human rights, that is very dubious under international law, and the Government need to set the highest possible standards.
This comes back to all the global issues that we are not unused to discussing in Westminster Hall. If the Government take the attitude I have described and show leadership, recipient countries and the organisations that deliver aid and support can meet their commitments and plan effectively for the future.
In the context of the pandemic, we often say that nobody is safe until everybody is safe. That safety includes respect for freedom of religious belief and the rights to worship and to practise a faith. As we have said, the virus does not recognise boundaries or religions. We should recognise everyone’s right to identify with and be part of their communities and to practise their religion and belief. I welcome the opportunity we have had to highlight that today.
At this stage, we would normally hear from the spokesperson from the official Opposition. We received notice that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) would be here physically today. In her absence, and without any explanation of why she is not here, I have no alternative but to move straight to the Minister for his response.
I think we have done rather well, Sir Christopher. Three of us have managed to fill an hour so far. It has been wonderful to hear from hon. Members today, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for not only securing the debate but continuing with his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion or belief for all. He stressed that he is passionate about this subject, including when it comes to those of no faith, which is important to recognise.
We have heard today that the pandemic continues to have a huge impact on countries and communities around the world. Not one of us remains unaffected. My hon. Friend was spot on when he said that the virus does not recognise race, religion, ethnicity, gender or borders. It has put a terrible strain on the enjoyment of the full spectrum of human rights, including the right freely to practise a religion or belief.
I take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s unwavering commitment to freedom of religion or belief, to championing that right around the world, and to promoting respect between religious and non-religious communities. I am pleased that my noble Friend and fellow Minister, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, continues to champion this cause in his capacity as the Minister for Human Rights, but I will continue to stand in for him, given the fact that he is not allowed to address this House. I am thrilled that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion and belief, is working closely with my noble Friend to ensure that no one suffers discrimination, violence or persecution because of their faith or belief, or for not following a faith.
We believe that at least three actions can mitigate the effects of covid-19 on the most vulnerable members of society, irrespective of race, religion and ethnicity. The first is working together through multilateralism. The second is strengthening the evidence base on the effects of covid-19. The third, to which all hon. Members present have referred, is equitable access to vaccines.
Let me turn to the impact of the pandemic on freedom of religion or belief specifically. As we have heard from the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Strangford, we are aware of the potential for crises to reinforce already marginalised positions in society, which increases discrimination, violence and stigma. Like the hon. Gentlemen and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), I remain deeply concerned about the incidence of hate speech and conspiracy theories that suggest certain faiths or beliefs are to blame for the pandemic. I am alarmed by reports of attacks aimed at Shi’a Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, and by the worrying rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka; the rise of antisemitism and other forms of discrimination in the wake of covid-19 is also deeply troubling.
Such incidents of hatred are completely unacceptable, so we will continue to stand up for those whose right to belief or religious practice is curtailed. To ensure that we continue to challenge hatred in the most challenging of times, we have stepped up our engagement with the UN and other multilateral organisations to protect the rights of members of religious and ethnic minority communities. Last week I was in Geneva and met a number of organisations, including the UNHRC, to see what more the United Kingdom can do to assist international bodies in ensuring that the impact on the most vulnerable is mitigated as far as possible. Lord Ahmad has also urged member states to mitigate the impact of covid-19 on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society, including ethnic and belief minorities. That work took place at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council.
In November, we demonstrated our concern about the rise of another form of discrimination, antisemitism, in the wake of covid-19 in a statement to the UN General Assembly. Building on that, in the same month, Lord Ahmad attended the ministerial conference to advance freedom of religion or belief, which was held in Warsaw, where he reaffirmed our commitment to this issue, particularly during the pandemic.
When faced with global challenges, we need a global response, so I am especially pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton will be speaking about the exact issues raised today at a UN Human Rights Council side event taking place tomorrow. I welcome her ongoing work and engagement. The event tomorrow will further demonstrate the need to work together and with civil society to confront the challenges that have been created by this dreadful pandemic.
As a complement to our ongoing multilateral work, the Government have kept threats to these freedoms under review around the world, including in west Africa and south Asia. Members of religious minorities living in poverty in the shadow of covid-19 experience intersecting vulnerabilities, and those have worsened during the pandemic—an example is the position of women in religious communities in west Africa. A key response to that is to prioritise girls’ education. I am pleased that, through our programmes and advocacy, we have already helped more girls to access education this year, including in Nigeria. Educating girls is one of the best investments that we can make to lift people out of poverty, save lives and—to coin a phrase—“build back better” from covid-19. I am also pleased that the United Kingdom and G7 partners will invest £10 billion in development finance over the next two years to help women in developing countries to build resilient businesses and recover from the impacts of the pandemic.
Our work in south Asia shows the need for international actors to protect women and encourage them to voice their concerns about domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse, which, sadly, have increased during lockdown. It is deeply saddening that religious justifications for these abuses still persist. Because of this, the United Kingdom ensures that our human rights policies consider the intersectionality of human rights—for example, the importance of addressing the specific issues, such as gender-based violence, experienced by women from religious minority communities. No one should suffer because of their conscience, and no one should suffer twice because of their conscience and their gender.
My hon. Friends the Members for Strangford and for Beaconsfield and the hon. Member for Glasgow North all mentioned the very important issue of equitable access to vaccine programmes. On top of working multilaterally and strengthening our evidence base, we believe that equitable access to vaccines will address some of the effects that have been raised here today. I am pleased that through the G7 we recently pledged 870 million covid-19 vaccine doses, of which at least half are to be delivered by the end of this year. An equitable roll-out across the world will help to ensure that no one is left at risk or left behind, irrespective of their religion, race, ethnicity or gender. That is why the UK was one of the earliest and the largest donors to the COVAX advance market commitment, launched at the global vaccine summit more than a year ago. As a country, we have provided more than half a billion pounds to that programme, which has now delivered more than 87 million doses across six continents.
You encouraged us to intervene on the Minister, Sir Christopher, and I am sure he is delighted that I am doing so, although he might not have the answer to my question immediately to hand.
It is great that the Government are doing these things—increasing their funding to COVAX and the supplies of ventilators to India, for example, and personal protective equipment to other countries—but how is that affecting the overall aid budget? Can the Minister be clear that any of these donations that are being made will be additional? Otherwise, if the Government are going from 0.7% to 0.5% and counting all these commitments for the unforeseen pandemic, that could in effect constitute a diminution of the overall pot that had been available anyway—the 0.5% of GNI. Have the Government started to figure out how these extra contributions of aid will fit in with the overall reduction in official development assistance?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point, and I thank him for his support for the COVAX commitments that we have already made, which are critical to distribution of the vaccines. More than 130 countries will benefit.
In terms of the broader ODA budget, if we have already committed such big sums as part of the vaccine programme, that potentially would have an impact on ODA, but I will confirm with the hon. Gentleman in writing whether that sits outside the ODA budget, which, as he knows, is temporarily reduced. I am sure he will be pleased to hear that, based on OECD data for 2020, the United Kingdom will still be the third largest donor as a percentage of gross national income in the G7.
The hon. Members for Glasgow North and for Strangford raised other points that I will try to address. I am conscious that I have to give the hon. Member for Strangford two or three minutes at the end, but I think we might be all right in that regard and might be able to pad it out, although we are not paid for the time spent speaking. It is good to be able to address some of the issues raised during the debate.
The issue of cremations in Sri Lanka was raised by many of the Sri Lankan diaspora who got in touch with right hon. and hon. Members. Lord Ahmad spoke on numerous occasions to the Sri Lankan authorities and the High Commissioner, and I am pleased that the cremations are no longer going ahead. It is absolutely the case that we need to respect everyone’s beliefs during the pandemic, but I am aware that that process has now stopped in Sri Lanka. We were pleased to be able raise that bilaterally with the Sri Lankan authorities.
The hon. Member for Strangford spoke about the plight of the Baha’is in Iran. We are particularly concerned about the continuing systematic discrimination and targeting and harassment of the Baha’i community. He has met some of them, as have I. We regularly raise human rights at all levels with the Iranians, and with our international partners we continue to press Iran to improve its incredibly poor record on human rights. That includes every opportunity we get at the ongoing UN General Assembly session. The continuing restrictions on freedom of religion or belief are deeply worrying, as is any discrimination against any religious minority.
The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the Bishop of Truro’s review. We are committed to implementing the 22 recommendations in full. The work to implement them continues in a way that can bring real improvement in the lives of those who are persecuted because of their faith or belief. Some 18 recommendations have already been or are in the process of being implemented, and we will implement all of them by July next year, three years from the publication of the report. Also, our mission at the UN in New York is working to determine the best approach to achieve council support.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He says that the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s report will be implemented by July next year. At that stage, would it be possible to review how those recommendations have been carried out and whether they have been successful? It is important that we look to see whether they have achieved the goals that we hoped they would.
I am more than happy to have my ministerial colleague, Lord Ahmad, write to the hon. Gentleman, or he is always welcome to come to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to sit down with him and his team. We are more than happy to lay out where we have got to and what we believe the impact of the recommendations is.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned his concern about persecution of Christians in Pakistan. We continue to urge Pakistan to guarantee the rights of all people in the country, particularly the most vulnerable, including women, minorities and children. That is actually laid down in the constitution of Pakistan and is also in accordance with international standards. It is vital that Pakistan guarantees the rights of all its citizens. Also, we regularly raise at senior level our concerns about the human rights situation with the Government of Pakistan.
Regarding Pakistan in particular, one of the things that I have a great concern about—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) has the same concern—is the misuse of the blasphemy laws. I am ever mindful that we are not in the business of telling countries what they should do with the law of their land, but we want to raise awareness that the blasphemy laws are being used adversely and maliciously against the Christian minority and certain ethnic groups. Has there been an opportunity, through Lord Ahmad or whoever, to raise this issue?
The hon. Member is right to raise this issue. We regularly raise the issue of blasphemy laws with the authorities in Pakistan at a senior level. These laws have been used to target Muslims and non-Muslims. The United Kingdom Government condemns any instance where the content or application of blasphemy legislation encourages or justifies violence or discrimination, or causes a violation of a person’s human rights. He is right to raise this issue and, as I say, we regularly raise it with the Pakistani authorities.
I will begin to work towards a conclusion. We will continue to champion this work. I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Member for Strangford has brought this subject to the House again. The effects of this pandemic have been incredibly extensive. Many of us have had the virus and been affected that way, and many of us know people who, sadly, lost their lives to it, but just imagine the situation of someone who has to contend with this virus and is living in a camp for internally displaced persons or refugees. The effects of this virus on humanitarian work are horrific, but we are committed to do what we can as a country to help the most vulnerable in those sorts of situations, and coronavirus will have an effect on our lives for some time to come.
As a champion of human rights, the UK has a duty to promote and defend equality, inclusion and respect, at home and abroad, for everyone, so I assure the House that the Government will do just that. Whatever obstacles may lie in our path, we will continue to raise awareness wherever people are persecuted for what they believe in. We will continue to stand up for the rights of minority communities around the world and we will defend the right to freedom of religion or belief for everyone everywhere.
First of all, I thank all those who have participated in this debate. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) made a very valuable contribution, for which I thank her. It is good to have those types of intervention, Sir Christopher. We used to have them in Westminster Hall, and hopefully, we will have them again when we return there.
I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for his contribution. In all the debates that either one of us has, we are usually side by side, saying the same things, promoting the same ideals and principles, and making the same requests. He referred to minority groups and their higher rates of mortality. I think that is the point of this debate—covid-19 has adversely affected Christians and ethnic minority groups across the world, with greater impact than it has had on others; in addition, there has been a financial impact. All these things are factors, as is the particular role that faith-based groups matters play.
The hon. Gentleman referred to access to vaccines and to problems in the horn of Africa, including in Eritrea, and Uganda, where there are refugees and displaced people. The lack of medical care and treatment for the Baha’is in Iran was referred to by all of us, including the Minister. These are global problems, some of which have been replicated at home, albeit on a smaller scale; there are also painful issues such as restrictions on funerals.
In outlining a number of instances of violence by oppressive regimes across the world, I probably just scraped the surface. There are many countries where this can be seen, and I referred to action against such violence. Had the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) been here, she would have contributed a vast amount of knowledge. While she may not have been here in person, she was here in spirit, and I am very confident that her contribution was here in our thoughts, if not in words.
I especially thank the Minister. I do not say this lightly, but I believe we are very fortunate to have a Minister who has a really deep interest in this subject and who comes here with the belief to give a response that we all wish to hear. The commitment from the Minister and his Department to religious freedom for all people around the world is important. He outlined the role of Lord Ahmed, and those of us who have had the chance to speak to Lord Ahmed know how important his role is. I think we are fortunate to have the right Ministers in the right place at the right time to convey the spirit and the requests from this debate to the Government. When it comes equitable access to vaccines, no one should be left behind.
The hon. Members for Glasgow North and for Beaconsfield and I are all interested in girls’ education. We all want to see education standards lifted. The Minister referred to the amount of money set aside for that purpose. There are more girls being educated this year than there have been for many, many years. That is good news, and it is the sort of response we were seeking. The people who ask us to do these things are very conscious of that as well.
I welcome the Minister’s action to stop what was happening with Muslim cremations in Sri Lanka. That was also good news. He always speaks up for the Baha’is, which is very important.
We discussed Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and at how they are being used in a malicious and misinformed way against Christians and those of other religious beliefs. I very much welcome the fact that the UK is a champion of human rights across the world, because I do believe that we all have a role to play—our Ministers; our Government; our influence through our ambassadors, embassies and staff; our commitment to training staff so that they can respond better and influence countries where there has been an abuse of religious and ethnic groups, so that that we can speak for them.
I always finish with a text from scripture. I think it is important to do so, and I think the Minister and all Members present would expect me to. I have chosen a piece that is appropriate for this debate, for the Minister, for our Government and for all of us here, Proverbs 3:27:
“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.”
Today, we have the power to act. Our Minister and our Government have the power to act. I believe that we should not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in our power to do just that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on religious and ethnic minority communities throughout the world.
Covid-19: Recovery of Central London Businesses
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the recovery of businesses in central London from the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am delighted to have secured this extremely important debate on business recovery in central London following the covid-19 pandemic. It has been very clear from my weekly meetings with business representatives from across Cities of London and Westminster that businesses, restaurants, shops and hotels are all part of a larger ecosystem, which also relies on the huge cultural offer that my constituency provides. Covid has proven that if we take one part of that ecosystem away, for example by not allowing theatres to open to their full capacity, there is a vast knock-on effect on all surrounding hospitality businesses, as well as on other cultural offers such as museums and galleries. I am confident that London will bounce back, but the Government have a choice on how quickly that happens.
Cities of London and Westminster is home to the monarch, to the Head of Government and to Parliament. It is also home to the nation’s high street, Oxford Street, and to the cultural and entertainment powerhouses of Soho and Covent Garden. On the one hand, Westminster’s businesses supported in excess of 715,000 jobs and contributed £53.6 billion annually to the national economic output, the highest contribution of any local authority in the United Kingdom. To put that into context, before the pandemic the Oxford Street district alone generated £13 billion of gross value added—25% of the entirety of Wales’s GVA. On the other hand, the UK’s world-class financial sector, based in the square mile in my constituency, is the underlying strength of our international trade and total services exports. The City of London has the largest financial services cluster in the world, with nearly 60,000 companies and hundreds of thousands of jobs for workers commuting in, pre-pandemic.
A key concern regarding the London recovery is business rates. The system, born in the 16th century, is wildly out of step with the modern digital age. Even before the covid-19 pandemic, it was not working—it was not fit for purpose. Empty retail space was on the rise, footfall was in decline and the sector was grappling with systemic shifts in customer behaviour. The pandemic has only accelerated that. It has also laid bare the urgent need to create a fairer and more sustainable tax system that relies less on property and that does not go only one way—up.
Without action on rate reform, the viability of much of the retail sector and the substantial taxes that it generates will hang in the balance. Specifically for central London, it would be useful if the Minister considered whether the business rates relief cap of £2 million could be temporarily removed so that businesses can secure the relief that they need right now. The cap effectively means that many mid-sized chain businesses, which typically pay well above £2 million in business rates, face bills that, according to UKHospitality, could force them
“to prioritise paying tax over paying wages.”
The large hotels and event spaces that depend on business conferences and meetings will be particularly hit by the cap and will be paying business rates in full by the end of July, with no realistic prospect of an uptick in income until at least the autumn. That is simply not good enough.
Covid-19 has created new challenges for the business rates system. I know that the Government have called for its review and for fundamentally reforming business rates, but we need that to be accelerated and temporary relief in the short term to be announced as soon as possible. There is no doubt that that reform is a crucial part of the puzzle as our economy recovers from the impact of the pandemic.
That leads me to my third point. The beating heart of the west end is our significant cultural offer.
Does the hon. Member agree that major tourist attractions in her constituency and in mine, such as the London Eye, rely on visitors and tourism from across the world? Does she agree that the Government need to consider business rates relief, additional employer contributions on furlough and flexible loan repayments, all of which need to be in place over the summer to help businesses once lockdown restrictions are eased?
The hon. Lady makes the clear point that tourist attractions in central London, whether in her constituency or in mine, are suffering due to the lack of international visitors.
Theatres in particular have a significant multiplier effect for the local economy. It is estimated that people who buy theatre tickets will spend up to five or six times more in the local economy, whether in restaurants, hotels or wherever. To remedy the situation, we should urgently address several areas in our recovery from covid-19, which will no doubt have a significant impact on the central London ecosystem.
First, and in light of recent decisions, I ask the Government to give due consideration to a Government-backed insurance scheme to help event organisers plan for the risk of covid-19-related cancellations. Indeed, UK Theatre’s May 2021 survey of members’ planned economic activity up until June next year on productions, both planned and currently running, was 67% of 2019 levels. Of that, 66% was planned for stage 4, which has now been delayed. Without a Government insurance package, theatres expect that proportion to fall to around 35% to 50%, which will be a devastating hit to both the sector and those who rely on its influence to draw in consumers.
Secondly, UK Music noted that extending the 5% VAT freeze on cultural tickets until the end of the financial year 2021-22 would go a long way to incentivise activity in the capital and support investment. Indeed, by keeping VAT low the Government will be allowing more money to be invested into venues, recapitalising and paying off pandemic debt—we know how much pandemic debt many of these companies have.
On another note, I am glad that the Government’s tourist recovery plan, launched this month, acknowledges that London is the gateway for international tourism and, as such, is an integral part of the wider UK levelling-up agenda. Support and investment for central London must reflect that and help mitigate its reliance on high-volume footfall from tourists and workers. In central London, international visitors account for 50% of all spending, even though they make up only 25% of visitors. With the international travel market not likely to start growing again until early next year—possibly into spring next year—shops will open with the return of all the costs that entails, such as business rates, rents and employee costs, but they will not yet have the major customer footfall spending money in their premises. That will put new pressure on businesses that have already exhausted their reserves.
How can we mitigate that? It could be as simple as allowing Sunday trading hours to be extended from 6 pm to 8 pm in the international centres of the west end and Knightsbridge in order to accommodate new patterns of opening hours. I raise this now because, prior to the pandemic, few theatre productions ran a Sunday matinee, for example. Now, however, theatres are increasingly looking at scheduling Sunday matinees and it is likely that Sundays could become as busy as Saturdays, and with that comes increased need for the consumer.
With most other global international centres—New York, Dubai, Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong and even Edinburgh—having no restrictions, we are at a competitive disadvantage in London. Allowing longer Sunday trading in an international centre would have a localised impact of up to £290 million net in additional sales, and 2,000 full-time jobs. That is not to be sniffed at. The support measures would cost the Government nothing but could mean the world to businesses in London.
I also urge the Government to work with businesses to seek new ideas and encourage more visitors, especially high-spending ones, to our areas. Most experts estimate that international tourism will not return to 2019 levels until 2023 at the earliest. The Government should do all they can to accelerate tourists’ safe return, with plans to promote London globally as a place to visit and do business.
On a similar note, how office workers react post pandemic will be important for business recovery in the capital. The Government need to do all in their power to stimulate a safe return to the office. Right now, only about 10% of office workers have returned to full-time work in central London, which is woeful. Business representatives from across my constituency, and from multiple sectors, all concur that they do not expect to see any big return until at least September—that is three months from now, and costs will be increasing from next week.
What I find most concerning about this situation is that the shortfall in workers returning to the office is due to a distinct lack of confidence in public transport and changing work practices. As we emerge from the pandemic, the Government must help by encouraging the return to work and encouraging confidence in the safe use of public transport. It is imperative for Government Ministers to encourage civil servants in their Departments to lead the charge and to come back to their desks. I appreciate that we will not see the same volume of office workers over the summer and into the autumn, but even seeing a return of working on a flexible basis—say, two or three days or week while we recover in the short term—would have a huge impact on the economy of central London. For that reason, I welcome this week’s announcement by the Government of the new flexible season tickets. Within London, we need a robust transport system that commuters are confident to use again, with the Mayor working constructively with the Government to ensure that is the case.
I will leave it there for now, because I am confident that London will recover from the covid-19 pandemic, as it has recovered from previous shocks, be they plagues, fires or world wars. I want to see London getting some recognition from central Government for the key role that it plays in supporting the UK’s economy, and we need that recognition to be married to a clear vision for business recovery in central London.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this really important debate. I thank her for all the work that she is doing to engage with businesses and ensure that their voices are heard in this place and across London through the Mayor, the Greater London Authority and all the boroughs. It is so important that, as she says, we work together really constructively in this area, because that is the only way we will bounce back.
As my hon. Friend says, London normally bounces back every time. It normally leads the charge in the UK for bouncing back from adversity and every recession. I have no doubt that the same will be true this time, but rather than leading the way, it is clear from the feedback we are getting from the cultural and hospitality sectors that London is lagging behind, and my hon. Friend outlined some of the reasons why.
London is three times the size of the next biggest European city, never mind UK cities, so it has a centre of gravity that is mainly based on public transport. We must give people the confidence to come back in, as my hon. Friend says, and enjoy the benefits of being in the workplace and what London has to offer. It goes beyond confidence: I describe it as confidence and joy. We can get people back in the first time, but if things are too onerous and difficult in hospitality terms, they will perhaps go back and rely on a ready meal and a bottle of wine in their back garden. That might be great every now and again, but it is the last thing we want if we are to help London’s recovery and ensure that it remains the greatest city in the world in which to live, work and bring up a family, and to really enjoy.
I have lived on the outskirts of London for the best part of 30 years, and the greatest thing about it is that I can enjoy the green spaces and schools in outer London, and raise a family there, but I have London on my doorstep. As well as the benefits of the suburbs, I have the benefits of the city—the theatres, the London Eye, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) said, and the restaurants that rival anything available elsewhere in the world. We can go around the world within the few square miles of Greater London. That is so important.
When we talk to business that are encouraging people—or not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said—back into their workplaces, we have to remind them that London and the businesses that serve people in their workplaces cannot sit there and wait. They cannot survive on fresh air. They cannot be there for people if people do not come back and use them. That is why it is important that we encourage people to come back into London. London generates 25% of the GDP of the entire country, and the west end generates 4% of the country’s gross value added—that is before we get to the City and Canary Wharf. That is testament to the work of my hon. Friend and all the people she engages with; it is important that we celebrate and showcase it.
My hon. Friend talked about business rates. Clearly, London has a particular issue because of the cost of property here, and the business rates that follow. She will be aware—she referenced this—that we have a fundamental review, which is due to report back in October. I hope it is as fundamental as it suggests. My hon. Friend is right that, due to property costs, business rates particularly affect London.
One of the things that I discovered as I was working through the covid support measures that we were putting in place is that the grant system—seemingly the easiest system to deliver—still had its challenges. It was seemingly the easiest because local authorities across the country knew exactly who qualified, because in the first tranche of grants they knew which retailers, who in the hospitality sector and which small businesses were getting small business rates relief. However, they did not have the bank account details or know who to pay it to. The challenges were about fundamental things such as that. Sometimes the local authority’s relationship with its local businesses was not quite as close as it might have liked and expected. We have had to work through all those unintended consequences at pace over the past year, which led to me speaking to something like 112 local authorities across the country to see what more we could do to help them along.
In London, there was the grant scheme. I am pleased that with all these schemes, we were able to flex, following representations from colleagues such as my hon. Friend, to iron out some of the unintended consequences. Indeed, the early discretionary grants were based on the residents living in those areas. That obviously affected my hon. Friend’s constituency. There are not that many people living in the City of London, but there are a lot of businesses. That was an unintended consequence that we were able to correct in later iterations of the discretionary grants. That is testament to the fact that we have been able to flex and work in what were, frankly, completely unprecedented times. We have had to work at pace to change and develop the support accordingly, and we will continue to do that.
We have put in £352 billion to date—it is £407 billion when the various types of fiscal support are included, with the following year to come. As a small-government, free-market Conservative, having just made one of the biggest interventions since the second world war, that gives me 407 billion reasons why we have to get the next bit right. Having protected those jobs, businesses and the spirit of London, we have to make sure that we keep those gains.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for his crucial point on jobs and opportunities. Obviously, today we celebrate the 73rd anniversary of Windrush Day and the contributions of so many people who came to the UK to rebuild our country on the back of the war. Does the Minister agree that many people who work in businesses in his constituency and mine, and in that of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), rely on people from a diverse range of backgrounds? What more assurance can he give to struggling businesses that want to help Londoners get back to work, but that are struggling financially?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. My father came over not on Windrush, but from the other direction—from Burma—in the 1950s, at around the same time. He completed his apprenticeship here in the UK, having started it in Rangoon, as it was, after the war. At the time, he had that shared experience of helping Britain to recover through his engineering work. The interesting point that she raises about how we support that particular section of the workforce is crucial—I talked about the spirit of London—in making sure that we get the recovery right for everybody.
I have talked about the Mayor of London, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster is absolutely right that we have to work constructively together. Now we have the London elections out of the way, although we will always do party politics and the ding-dong, we have to make sure that we collaborate closely together.
My fear has always been that he wanted to have the title of Mayor, but did not work out which city he wanted to be Mayor of. It is important that he is the Mayor for all London; otherwise, we will have a Gotham City scenario. Frankly, I do not think he would mind it if he was the mayor of Gotham City. What do I mean by that? In Gotham City in the Batman movies—“Joker” and so on—there is the holistic city that has the ultra-rich, who can be insulated from all these sorts of things, because they have the money to be able to support it. There are then the lowest-paid in society—the people who service all the workforces and workplaces, and who have to travel into the middle of town. There are then those in the middle, who live in areas like mine on the suburbs and outskirts, who can opt out. They can sit in their back gardens with their ready meal and a bottle of wine, and shop locally in their outer London high streets, which are starting to bounce back quite well.
That leaves a massive gap in the city centre—in the central activity zone, as it has slightly unromantically been titled over the last few years. Essentially, that is the west end, the City of London, Canary Wharf and those areas that people around the world know so well. People look to London, invest in London and want to travel to London because they know those areas. Those are the areas we see in the films and tourism brochures.
We then get to the question: how do we attract international visitors to go into those areas and beyond, across the UK? That is why the tourism recovery strategy is so important in making sure that we start that slow burn, because we know that it will take time to get international visitors back to the UK. However, we must do it.
We also have to get domestic tourists to London. That is why I absolutely agree with the Mayor that his campaign, Let’s Do London, is a far better campaign than we have had in previous re-openings after lockdown. It is a real call to action. If one looks around London, whether at the London Eye, the Tower of London—which I had the privilege of going to the other day—the Museum of London, the British Museum or the Royal Opera House, there are no queues. People who live in the south-east and who walk past those areas on their way to work or when they are in the workplace should go to them, because they will not have another chance to do so with no international tourists and without having to queue up for half an hour. They can see some of the best places, the best cultural buildings and the best institutions in the world right on their doorstep. That is what Let’s Do London is all about—getting people to rediscover the spirit of London.
There are two more types of people we want to encourage back, as we start to reopen. One is students. There are 40 universities in London—a massive chunk of organisations that attract young people who will want to spend more time in London after their studies. They will get jobs and fill some of the roles in the City and elsewhere that my hon. Friend spoke about. We also want to get people back into their workplaces.
The Prime Minister rightly wrangled with the decision over when to reach stage 4 of the road map. He did not make that decision easily because there were so many factors to consider, but it was the right one to take when making the argument that we want to ensure that we are moving in only one direction. The big lesson of last year is not to chase the virus and not to have the stop-start, because that costs businesses even more. A cautious reopening, put back a few weeks, is the right thing to do.
However, one of the unintended consequences of moving the reopening to July is that that leads quickly to August, which tends to be a quiet month for London. We want to ensure that we are working with big employers now, and looking at what more we can do to be flexible and encourage people back to their workplaces.
I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomed the flexible season ticket. We are demonstrating—not just doing it—that Transport for London has never cleaned the tube network as many times before. The problem is that that is being done at 2 o’clock in the morning, so we need to show people what is being done. Public transport is safe. I have been taking it most days for the past year and I have never worried about it. I encourage people to try it and see for themselves. They should spread their journeys out beyond rush hour to maintain space, because hands, face, space and fresh air are still important. We are not going to kill the virus in one day when we reopen and get to step 4. This is not like a thriller where the baddie is killed and the credits roll. We are going to be living with this for some time, but that is no reason to stay closed.
Finally, my hon. Friend talked about Sunday trading. I have been speaking to the Heart of London Business Alliance and the New West End Company about that. It is a tough one. We have looked at it time and again in Parliament, and it has always been incredibly controversial. Although she talks about international centres for it, it still needs primary legislation. We will keep it under review and work with colleagues to see what the objections are and get the balance right.
We will continue to look at what we can do with business rates. My hon. Friend talked about VAT. Something like £27 billion of support has gone into the VAT reduction. The Chancellor needs to look at measures in the round and holistically, just as she talked about looking at London holistically.
London is an ecosystem. People do not stay in a hotel in London just to sleep in another bed; they do it because of the theatres, the restaurants and all the other things London has to offer. That is what we have to protect. We will continue to try to do that, working together with the Mayor, the boroughs, this place, and our businesses and communities.
Question put and agreed to.
Welsh Rural Economy
[Judith Cummins in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
I also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their cameras on for the duration of the debate and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email firstname.lastname@example.org. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the Welsh rural economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I am honoured to lead today’s debate on the future of the Welsh rural economy, itself an integral and culturally vital component of the very identity of Wales. This year, 2021, has been one of extraordinary challenges for the Welsh rural economy. Agriculture is awakening to the cold long dawning of a new restrictive trading agreement with our largest export market, the European Union, while tourism and hospitality are enduring the sudden deep freeze and slow defrosting of covid-19 restrictions.
Our communities are facing a series of interlinked crises and interwoven threads of inequalities. There is an environmental and climate change crisis, there is a public health crisis and there is an economic crisis. More than a decade of Tory austerity casts a shadow over our communities’ capacity to respond and to develop resilience. Communities such as mine in Dwyfor Meirionnydd suffer from youth depopulation, while the young people who wish to stay can no longer afford to get on the housing ladder. Wages are among the lowest in the UK. Meanwhile, former family homes become luxury second properties or investment holiday rentals in a febrile market.
Today’s debate is therefore a timely opportunity to consider how the political tectonic shifts of the last five years are changing the Welsh economic landscape, even as their legacy becomes intertwined with the unprecedented and thus unpredictable social and economic results of a global pandemic in a world dependent on global trade. I hope that all of us here will be able to take just a step back and consider what success looks like and to have the humility to recognise that, mere politicians as we are, we will have failed in our duty to our constituencies in the here and now, and to the future children of Wales, if we are satisfied with short-term glories that leave no lasting legacy while failing to remedy the evident injustices of the present.
The Welsh rural economy plays a pivotal role in the wider Welsh economy, accounting for 28% of the economic output across Wales in 2019. It is the heartland of key export industries, including Wales’s highly successful food and drink sector. Yet such economic successes have failed to translate into real economic gains for rural communities or attention by both UK and Welsh policy makers. If this is trickle-down economics in action, we are experiencing a drought. The gross value added per capita of Welsh rural areas was just £18,000 in 2019, significantly below the Welsh average of £21,295 in 2019, and also far behind the UK average of £29,599. That is reflected in low pay, with my home county of Gwynedd a rural area where 31.4% of employees—the highest proportion in Wales—earn below the real living wage.
Disturbingly, this is being translated into worse life outcomes for our youth. The spectre of child poverty, which has risen in 20 of Wales’s 22 local authorities, is particularly acute in rural areas such as Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Powys and Carmarthenshire, and a recent report by the Rural Youth Project suggested that 68% of Welsh rural youths struggle to find work in their local communities. We do our communities a deep disservice if we just shrug our metaphorical shoulders and say, “Well, that’s how it has always been”—that somehow we in Wales should be resigned to our children leaving, because all the glittering prizes have always been elsewhere, and that we had better knuckle down and accept that, to Westminster, some places are just more deserving than others.
As I have already mentioned, the combined disruption of Brexit and the covid-19 pandemic has hit key sectors of the Welsh rural economy disproportionately hard. In my role as a commissioner on the UK Trade and Business Commission, I have heard at first hand how Welsh small and medium-sized enterprises located in rural communities have lost market share, and whole export markets in some cases, due to the trade disruption caused by Brexit. Equally, the pandemic has caused untold hardship for hospitality businesses across the UK, but especially in rural areas such as Dwyfor Meirionnydd, where hospitality and accommodation employ 27% of the total local workforce.
Policy makers therefore have a key role to play in ensuring that the Welsh rural economy is at the forefront of Wales’s economic recovery. Plaid Cymru local authorities, such as Carmarthenshire County Council, have led in that regard, implementing clear strategies such as furthering business scale-ups and improving transport links and access to housing. However, the UK Government are hampering our efforts to develop a more vibrant and sustainable rural economy. Time and again, Plaid Cymru has tabled amendments to Finance Bills, asking the Treasury to consider how to channel investment into Wales and its rural economy more effectively and coherently and, perhaps most importantly, with a long-term vision. Instead, the UK Government have replaced the needs-based funding investment formula adopted by the EU, which was formerly a significant investor in the Welsh rural economy, with competitive UK-wide schemes that ignore rural need and disadvantage Wales. Such schemes not only fail to honour Conservative manifesto promises to Wales, but lack a collaborative and future-focused strategy to further Welsh economic development.
Let us go back to the word “competitive”, because it is a word that the Tories like—winner-takes-all, macho stuff to make headlines. Let us unpick the meaning of “competitive” in this context. It is setting communities against each other—winners and losers in a political popularity contest—and does not begin to recognise need. This is about the Tories wanting to have their cake and eat it—every last crumb. Adding to the injury is the fundamentally flawed United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which acts as a vortex deliberately set in motion to dismember the principle of subsidiarity. It is a terribly long word, but it means pulling apart the integrity of Welsh devolution, which the people have supported again and again whenever they have had the opportunity. After vesting Westminster with powers that previously were clearly and exclusively at the disposal of our Parliament, we now even see limitations on how Welsh public bodies can purchase from local Welsh companies, removing a key pillar of support from local Welsh food producers and hospitality businesses.
The Conservatives’ austerity has indirectly resulted in local authority budgets in Wales shrinking by 17% and led to the loss of public services that are so central to our communities in rural areas, and the UK Government are now actively encumbering Welsh rural authorities. Consequently, although many key drivers of the Welsh rural economy are devolved, Westminster is failing where it is encroaching. That is why I urge the Government to work with, rather than against, Welsh institutions to help them deliver locally informed economic strategies that will further, rather than hamper, the Welsh rural economy. Anything else will ensure only that stagnating rural incomes, rising rural poverty and youth migration will continue unabated.
No issue better encapsulates the consequences of such an outcome than the worsening second home crisis in Wales. The low incomes and poor economic prospects of rural communities have left them unfairly exposed to the rapid increase in house prices and second home ownership across the UK. It is not an overstatement to say that this has created a situation of pervasive exclusion of local workers and younger members of communities from their local housing markets.
In Gwynedd, for instance, approximately 40% of houses that go on the market every year are now bought as second homes. In the village of Cwm-yr-Eglwys, Pembrokeshire, there are now only two permanent residents—the rest of the 50 houses are holiday homes. This not only has dire ramifications for local public services and distortionary implications for the local economy, but fundamentally means that local workers, especially the young, find it almost impossible to stay in their local communities. That is why I welcome action by Plaid Cymru-led local authorities, such as those in Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, to increase revenue through second home council tax premiums to fund local housing initiatives, and I urge the Welsh Government to work with Plaid Cymru to address this issue urgently.
Fundamentally, however, we need to improve the resilience of the Welsh rural economy itself. Last week’s headlines alone were an unwelcome reminder of the urgency of doing so, as they announced a bad trade deal with Australia. This could well establish a disastrous precedent for Welsh agriculture, as well as increase the growing risks posed by climate change, as described by the Climate Change Committee.
On the subject of trade, I urge the UK Government to involve the Welsh and other devolved Governments closely in the negotiation of new trade deals, particularly as economic development in key sectors such as agriculture are devolved competencies. As my Plaid Cymru colleagues, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), have argued, the deal with Australia threatens to undercut our local farmers, hollow out our rural communities and damage our climate.
Equally, our net zero pledges require urgent action to decarbonise our rural economy and build upon its key strengths. Wales is an energy-rich nation, yet we lack not only the borrowing powers to finance nationwide developments, but a modern energy transmission grid that would allow local renewable energy developments to feed electricity into it. That hampers the ability of actors ranging from farmers to local authorities to decarbonise and make the best use of Wales’s natural resources for our common good. Those are just two issues, but I hope that today’s debate will further this much-needed discussion on improving the rural economy’s resilience.
The Welsh rural economy has a pivotal role to play not only in ensuring Wales’s post-pandemic recovery, but in ensuring that we meet our net zero obligations as sustainably and rapidly as possible. The Welsh rural economy is a vital component not only of the wider Welsh economy, but of Wales as a nation. It is the heartland of the Welsh language; the origin of some of our finest food and drink; the guardian of the sustainable use of our environment; and, of course, the destination for tourists worldwide.
Plaid Cymru is calling for the UK Government to work with, rather than against, the devolved Governments, by involving and engaging with them, whether on regional and rural development funds or in trade negotiations. We urge both the UK and Welsh Governments to support Plaid Cymru’s proposals to address the second home crisis and, in order to meet our net zero objectives, to give us the borrowing and regulatory powers needed to develop Welsh renewable energy projects and connect them to a newly upgraded electricity transmission network.
Not only are these goals achievable; they are undeniably necessary to support our Welsh rural economy and allow it to flourish. If our communities are to withstand the unprecedented and interlinked crises ahead, resilience must be built into our economy in the long term. The Westminster Government have failed time and again to show they have the ambition or the ideas to do so, but today’s debate provides them an opportunity to set out a coherent strategy for supporting the future of the Welsh economy. I look forward to a constructive debate. Diolch yn fawr.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for securing this important debate on the future of the Welsh rural economy.
My constituency of Ynys Môn has one of the lowest GVA rates in the UK. It is heavily dependent on tourism, and haemorrhages young people when they leave school because of the limited local employment opportunities. Frankly, if any part of Wales needs an economic revival, it is Anglesey. In the past 21 years, since the Senedd was established, and with a Labour Welsh Government, the island has systematically lost major employers, including Anglesey Aluminium, the Wylfa nuclear power station, Octel and Rehau, with huge job losses. We have seen next to nothing from the Welsh Government to address these issues. As such, I am campaigning to bring a freeport to Anglesey.
The benefits incumbent with freeport status would encourage inward investment and employment on the island. I already have businesses, such as Tratos, keen to set up on Anglesey, should we get freeport status. This would mean hundreds of jobs waiting to be created, yet the Welsh Labour Government are digging in their heels and refusing to launch the Welsh freeport bid prospectus. The people of north Wales can only look on as Liverpool establishes itself as a freeport and businesses that could have come to us go instead to England.
Even our farming community suffers when the Senedd votes in legislation creating a whole-Wales nitrate vulnerable zone at an estimated £360 million cost to Welsh farmers, putting local farms at risk of financial ruin.
Anglesey has been sidelined by a Welsh Government who have no concept of the issues facing the island and no local presence. It therefore falls to the UK Government to pick up the pieces of the Welsh rural economy—a job that they are taking on with gusto. Let me give a few examples of the support being given to Ynys Môn. The Secretary of State for Wales was very clear when he gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee last week: if the Welsh Government will not commit to setting up a freeport in Wales, then the UK Government will. There is massive support locally for a freeport on Anglesey and we are putting together an exciting and innovative bid, led by Stena, which has the potential to transform the future of our island. I urge the UK Government to take this forward as quickly as possible.
The levelling-up and community renewal funds have been opened by the UK Government with millions of pounds available for investment. The community renewal fund gave me the opportunity to work directly with the Isle of Anglesey County Council and to build relationships with them. The island’s head of regulation and economic development, Christian Branch, and his team submitted a fantastic range of projects last week, which will generate local jobs and boost the economy directly and indirectly. Our council will also receive over £140,000 in capacity funding to help it generate excellent quality bids for these funds.
We are working hard to bring new opportunities here. In his March Budget speech, the Chancellor announced £4.8 million of funding for the new Holyhead hydrogen hub. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be on the island next week to meet M-SParc and the Minister for Science to discuss bringing the cutting-edge thermo-hydraulic facility here. I am also in talks with Rolls-Royce about bringing SMRs to the island as well as continuing discussions about potential developers for Wylfa Newydd.
The trade deals that the UK Government are working on will open up new and exciting markets for our farmers. Countries keen for our high-quality produce are coming online. Earlier this month, the Minister for Trade Policy spent 50 minutes speaking to farmers on Anglesey, in English and in Welsh, about those opportunities. He was also happy to reassure them that scaremongering on food standards is incorrect and that standards will not be compromised by imports.
The UK Government are also committed to levelling up communications and transport infrastructure. They are delivering the shared rural network to improve 4G coverage and have committed £5 billion to support the roll-out of broadband through Project Gigabit. The Union connectivity review by Sir Peter Hendy highlighted the need for investment in road and rail infrastructure right across north Wales. All these moves by the UK Government will contribute to levelling up our rural community on Anglesey by giving businesses and individuals better access where they have been failed in the past.
Anglesey needs good-quality, well-paid jobs. This is how we stop our young people leaving; how we stop the decimation of the Welsh language; and how we preserve our local communities, our language and our heritage. I see great opportunities for the Welsh rural economy with the moves being made by the UK Government, and I look forward to seeing the fortunes of Anglesey reversed as a result. Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch, Mrs Cummins; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I would first like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for securing the debate, and commend her for such a passionate speech—I agree with the sentiments wholeheartedly. A particular challenge that rural Wales faces, and on which I would like to focus my remarks this afternoon, is a lack of connectivity, in digital and in transport, between our rural economy and the rest of the UK, and the wider global market.
Digital connectivity remains a tremendous challenge for the rural economy of Wales. Ofcom’s “Connected Nations” report in 2020 noted that nearly 9,000 premises in Wales cannot access a decent fixed broadband service or get good 4G coverage indoors, with almost all those premises in rural areas. More recently, NFU Cymru and others found that less than 50% of those who lived in rural areas said they had standard broadband, only 36% had superfast broadband, and 66% said that they or their household had been impacted by poor broadband.
That has dire consequences for constituencies such as mine, where only 20% of the population live in an urban area. In the rural areas, it is estimated that 26.5% do not receive a decent broadband connection—by that, I mean a download speed of 10 megabits per second—compared with the Wales average of 11.9% and the UK average of 9.3%.
That is largely to do with the UK Government’s difficulties in delivering a digital infrastructure strategy that works for rural communities in Wales. The Government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review proposed an “outside in” approach, to ensure that gigabit-capable connectivity across all areas of the UK is achieved at the same time, so that no area is systematically left behind. However, the UK Government’s reduced target of gigabit broadband coverage of 85% by 2025 is to the detriment of rural communities, which yet again will have to wait for improved connectivity.
The original plan would have been a big boost to people living in rural communities struggling on speeds below 30 megabits per second and the Government have already admitted that reaching the final 1% of very remote homes could be prohibitively expensive. That is without even addressing the excess costs facing rural communities under the universal service obligation, which offers a maximum of £3,004 to a single premises, well below the costs being quoted to connect some of my constituents in Ceredigion. To make matters worse, schemes that exist to address rural connectivity, such as the broadband upgrade scheme, need greater co-ordination between the Welsh Government and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if their potential is to be realised.
Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire were included in the pilot broadband upgrade scheme, which proved successful locally in aggregating community demand for better broadband in such a way as to encourage alternative network providers to bid to undertake upgrade work in some of our most rural communities. A number of these companies have shown an interest in connecting communities across Ceredigion. However, despite working successfully with local residents, they have encountered a range of difficulties, foremost among which were data problems that saw entire communities being deemed ineligible for gigabit voucher support due to their sharing a postcode area with a solitary premises that had benefited from broadband upgrade work, despite the fact that they themselves were struggling on less than 3 megabits per second.
More recently, a number of proposals to connect communities have been thrown into uncertainty due to the announcement that commercial roll-outs might be possible in these areas in the next four or five years. No detailed plans have been announced, but the eligibility criteria for gigabit voucher funding means that, due to this announcement, proposals already under development as part of the broadband upgrade fund may no longer be viable. So the communities affected are thrown into yet another limbo in their quest for decent broadband.
Compounding this debacle is the fact that the Government’s policies for addressing better mobile connectivity in rural areas are also not delivering. The shared rural network, for instance, uses many of the emergency services network sites run by the Home Office. The delay by the Home Office in constructing new masts and connecting existing masts is denying rural communities in Wales the opportunity of improved connectivity now.
Just as important as digitally connecting our rural economy is the need to decarbonise our transport system rapidly and responsibly reduce private car use. Local authorities in Wales have a vital role to play in developing and supporting local bus networks, such as Bookabus. However, such services do not come cheap. In Carmarthenshire alone, over 85% of local transport routes in rural areas are subsidised to some degree, with the average subsidy in 2019 in Carmarthenshire per passenger being £3.63. As such, it is simply not enough for the Governments on either end of the M4 to call for improved active travel or the adoption of electric vehicles if they are not also prepared to invest in the necessary infrastructure and improved public transport.
In sum, better supporting our rural communities’ connectivity, both digital and transport, is pivotal to securing the future and resilience of the Welsh rural economy. All areas, all communities—indeed, all nations of the UK—deserve equal treatment, so I hope the UK and Welsh Governments will do their utmost to secure the investment and, where necessary, the policy reform to allow our rural communities to fulfil their potential.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mrs Cummins. It is an absolute pleasure to speak in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, I believe for the first time.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on bringing forward this important debate and setting out so well in her opening remarks the many challenges facing rural communities in Wales. Needless to say, I agreed with everything she said. It was a pleasure to listen to her opening remarks.
Levelling up has acted as a convenient smokescreen for the UK Government on these matters, but we have yet to see a credible strategy underpinning the slogan. In my first Parliament here, in 2010, there used to be “geographical rebalancing”. There was not much geographical rebalancing in the past 10 years, but now we have levelling up. What discussions is the Minister having with the Treasury about how issues facing rural communities will be factored into the metrics used to measure the success of levelling up? We know that work is going on, and we hope that there will be more than just words behind the strategy on this occasion.
One of the key measures must surely be improved connectivity through better transport and broadband infrastructure. On broadband, I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake). The pandemic has proved beyond any doubt that access to broadband is critical, both for economic prosperity and individual wellbeing.
The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of maintaining our physical fitness and provided an opportunity to enable more active travel. In Carmarthenshire, the county council is about to submit a shovel-ready levelling-up fund application for an exciting Tywi valley cycle pathway, linking the towns of Carmarthen and Llandeilo. It has my full support, and I ask the Minister to look into the submission and give his support to what we are trying to achieve in Carmarthenshire.
Moving towards more sustainable models of travel is critical if Wales is to meet our climate targets, yet currently 87% of all journeys in mid-Wales are undertaken by car. To reduce that figure, we must drastically improve our railways. It will come as no surprise to anyone who frequently travels by train in Wales that we have historically received only 1% of rail investment, despite having 11% of the track. I encourage the Minister to look at the submission by the renowned transport expert, Professor Stuart Cole, to the UK Government’s connectivity review. He makes the case for a £20 million investment in the beautiful Heart of Wales line, which connects Swansea and Shrewsbury, and links three of the main market towns in Carmarthenshire, all of which reside within my constituency: Ammanford, Llandeilo and Llandovery. Professor Cole outlines how that investment would improve and increase service provision on the line and bring substantial economic and social benefits.
Notwithstanding my points about decarbonising transport, I believe that there is still an important role to be played by investing in road transport. I cannot miss the opportunity to highlight the very damaging announcement today by the Welsh Government that they will not invest in the Llandeilo bypass—there is a moratorium on bypass developments. There was a cast-iron guarantee for the communities I serve in Carmarthenshire that it would be built by now. There has been obstacle after obstacle, and today’s news will be a hammer blow for the Tywi valley.
All too often, rural Wales finds itself at the back of the queue for investment in infrastructure. Our farmers are bearing the brunt of Wales being an afterthought in the UK Government’s trade policy. The lamb and beef tariff rate quotas in the proposed trade deal with Australia have confirmed the worst fears that many of us had about the trajectory of trade policy post Brexit. It sets a precedent, and not only for the agriculture sector. Trade deals with far bigger economies than Australia will undoubtedly be more problematic, not just for food but for other sectors such as steel and manufacturing.
Meanwhile, the consequences of Brexit are beginning to bite. Analysis by the Food and Drink Federation of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs data shows that British food and drink exports to the EU fell by £2 billion in the first three months of 2021, with sales of dairy products falling by a staggering 90%. It is time to give up on the spin that those are just teething troubles, and acknowledge that the latest figures show that wholescale dentistry is required in the Trade and Agriculture Commission. An urgent veterinary agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary rules would be one way to remove barriers for Welsh farming exports created by the current Brexit deal, as well as alleviating friction caused by the Northern Ireland protocol.
Reports indicate that at the G7, President Biden offered a trade deal—which I suspect did not include food products—with the US, even if the UK aligned with the EU on food standards. Surely that is too good to turn down, considering the current shambles. Has the Minister made any assessment of whether reports of reduced checks in the Australian trade deal would prevent such an agreement with the EU?
Before I bring my remarks to a close, I would like to touch on another issue that threatens not only to undermine the long-term sustainability of Welsh agriculture and the unique linguistic and cultural traditions maintained by farmers in our country, but completely to change the local landscape. There is growing evidence of Welsh farms being bought by large multinational companies from outside Wales for unregulated woodland planting in order to offset their carbon emissions. Furthermore, rich people from outside Wales are buying up productive Welsh farms and planting them, while coining Glastir support.
Once an agricultural holding is lost to woodland, it will not return. Anyone who recognises the challenges of the climate crisis will support a policy of increased woodland. However, the debate on the issue far too often fails to recognise the contribution that grassland systems play in providing an important carbon sink. I am delighted to see my colleague the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) here. In Scotland, they have managed to increase woodland planting without supplanting agriculture, working with their farmers. We need that approach in Wales.
This is a matter for the Welsh Government, which in my view should set a maximum limit based on the national woodland target for tree planting in each farm holding, and ensure that Glastir and woodland planting schemes are available only to actual, active farmers. I am interested to know whether the Minister has come across this issue in Sir Fynwy. I would like to use the debate to call on the Welsh Government to revise their planning technical advice notes, to ensure that woodland planting is done in a manner that preserves our agricultural heritage.
There is also a wider question. Carbon offsets may present a very attractive shortcut for companies to reduce their emissions, but we need to cut emissions in the first place. The UK Government are due to publish a net zero strategy before COP26. Will that address the question of corporations using carbon capture, rather than reducing their carbon emissions?
To tackle the many issues faced by rural communities, the Welsh Government must be empowered with the fiscal levers required to deliver an effective post-covid recovery strategy. That includes reforming the funding formula, greater tax freedoms and increasing the cap on borrowing. Only in that way can we deliver tangible benefits for those living in rural communities throughout Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for securing the debate. I speak today as the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Wales. I am sure Members will join me in welcoming my newest colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) to the House, a proud Welsh woman, as she made clear with her affirmation in Welsh yesterday.
Moving on from yesterday’s news to today’s debate and the future of the Welsh rural economy, the Welsh high street, like much of the UK, has suffered over the past 15 months. It is obviously right that shops had to close during the pandemic, but now they must be supported in the recovery. When talking about the rural economy, people often assume that it is just agriculture. Although I will turn to that, it also includes those businesses that serve rural communities, for example, local shops. It is vital that those businesses are supported during the recovery, something that my colleague, the Liberal Democrat Member of the Senedd for Mid and West Wales has been championing since her recent election.
I ask the Minister to detail what consideration has been given to rural retail generally. In the face of strong competition from online retailers, what measures will be considered to level the playing field in the recovery from the pandemic? As part of that recovery, and as businesses and communities respond to having left the EU, it is vital that communities throughout Wales, particularly those in rural areas, receive investment.
It is only two weeks since I last spoke in a debate in Westminster Hall about the importance of the community renewal and levelling-up funds. Then I asked whether the Minister responding would commit to a meaningful relationship with the Welsh Government on the formation and administration of those funds and, going forward, of the shared prosperity fund. I also asked for assurances that Wales would not lose out on the funding it used to receive. Today, I add to those questions by asking whether the first meeting of the promised inter-ministerial group with the Welsh Government has taken place and whether a statement can be made as to its outcome. If it has not, when will such a meeting take place?
In the previous debate, we were reassured that the stated figure of 5% of allocated funding coming to Wales represented a funding floor, not a ceiling, but I understand from my colleagues in Welsh local government and from my own experience in my constituency of North East Fife in Scotland that it has been arguably more challenging for local authorities under the devolved Administrations to put together bids for both funds, the deadlines for which passed last week, so again I ask the Minister what steps will be taken to ensure that the floor is met even if fewer bids from Wales are received than expected.
Finally, I turn to agriculture. As colleagues have mentioned, there are significant concerns that the Australia trade deal will put the Welsh rural economy at risk. I say “concerns”, but perhaps I should say “suspicions”, because full details are still awaited. There were recent reports in the media that there will be no tariffs on Australian beef imports until they rise above 35,000 tonnes —six times the current level of imports—or on lamb imports until they go above 25,000 tonnes, which is three times the current imports. Australian animal welfare standards are significantly below ours, which means that people there can produce cheaper products.
This Government say that they support Welsh farmers, but if those reports are true and Welsh farmers are undercut by such produce, how can they be doing anything other than breaking that promise? How does the Minister plan to support Welsh farmers in the light of the Australia trade deal? Sadly, parliamentarians will not be given a vote on the deal when it comes to Parliament, so what opportunities will we have to scrutinise it? I am sure that Welsh farmers, like farmers in North East Fife, have worked very hard over the last few years to diversify their economies. I would hate to see that hard work undone by that trade deal.
Thank you, Mrs Cummins, for your indulgence, given my slightly late appearance at this debate. I apologise to colleagues in the debate and especially to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for being slightly late—demonstrating to colleagues that it is literally impossible to be in two places at once.
I am very pleased to take part in this debate, but I will proceed with caution because, despite a very happy 18 months living and working in the Vale of Glamorgan, I recognise my limited knowledge of matters Welsh, and there is nothing more irritating to a Member of Parliament than somebody talking about our part of the world with less than comprehensive knowledge. But there are very many similarities between the situation that the rural Welsh economy finds itself in and the rural Scottish economy.
I represent a rural ward in Angus in Scotland. There is not so much difference between the Welsh valleys and the Angus glens. I would contend that neither are being particularly well served by the UK Government at the current time, a classic example of that being the Australia trade deal. I will not labour this point. It is a hot topic in the Chamber and in the media. Suffice it to say that the reassurances—if we can call them that—coming from the Department for International Trade and, to a significantly and tellingly lesser extent, from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are very hollow indeed. The supposed safeguards for Welsh producers, Scottish producers and Cumbrian producers of lamb are paper thin. There is also the fact that, watery as they are, they are timebound over a maximum period of 15 years. I wonder what the Government will tell Welsh farmers is going to happen after 15 years. Is the scale of Welsh farming suddenly going to increase after 15 years to the extent that farmers will be able to compete with the colossal enterprises in Australia and, by that time of course, New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil and many other colossal producers?
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns about the anticipated trade agreement with New Zealand, which we expect to be announced in August? It has seen the precedent set with Australia and, in terms of lamb, this deal looks even more damaging than the present agreement.
The right hon. Member is exactly right. We are looking at the thin end of the wedge. I will come on to why this is a function of a disconnect in the current set-up of the United Kingdom, but of course she is right. With my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), I met the Australian high commissioner to the UK about a year ago, and we were assured by him that Australia was not particularly interested in bulk volumes, in terms of exporting lamb to the UK. I did not believe it then and I do not believe it now; it is inconsistent.
New Zealand will follow where Australia leads. Such is the unseemly haste with which the UK Government are pursuing any and all opportunities for international trade, as though it somehow validates the ridiculous and reckless Brexit course, they will do deals with New Zealand and we will see further attrition in the markets that we currently satisfy from domestic production. It is a very damaging prospect that faces us now.
Yesterday I met NFU Scotland members in Angus. Their issues include the arbitrary discussions around journey times for animals; the trade deals we have touched on today; welfare standards that we must adhere to in this country but that our competitors are not similarly held to; and the availability of seasonal agricultural workers because of the Conservative Government’s fundamental ideology of not wanting people to come from outside to support our industries and enhance our communities, despite the negative effect that that has on the rural economies of the constituent nations of the UK. Likewise food standards are now a lottery, depending on the food we buy and the market it comes from.
I had an interesting meeting recently with a renewable energy company that has floating wind farms. It has a tremendous pilot project off the Pembrokeshire coast, and it wants to do something similar off the North sea coast, off Peterhead. The dialogue that it had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was so slow that it represents a golden opportunity lost by the Government to open up rural and very rural parts of our economy and to meet our net zero and renewable energy targets. There is a level of disconnect. Even if the company did get the project going, like many renewable projects in mid and west Wales, the feed-in tariffs, although not so bad in Wales, are still appalling, whereas we have energy producers around London paid to connect to the grid. In Wales they will have to pay a couple of pounds per unit, and in Caithness in Scotland, very, very rural communities will have to pay £6 or £7 per unit. BEIS just holds up its hands—“It’s not us. It is Ofgem.” Such levels of disconnect from central Government in London are not acceptable. They hold our economies back.
As a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I take part in good faith and in good spirit when discussing issues that are of no consequence to my constituents because I am a Member of the UK Parliament. I would rather not be, but I am—I wish I was a member of a sovereign Scottish Parliament. What has come through loud and clear is the disconnect and the asymmetry in the representation of the people of the United Kingdom. There is no English Government, but DEFRA is little more than an English Government Department. It has very little locus in the United Kingdom at large, and where it does, it exercises it with indifference and ambivalence. It is a great impediment to our rural communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Cummins.
I add my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing today’s debate. At the start of her speech, she talked about the combined challenges of Brexit, covid and 10 years of austerity, which have had a real negative impact on the Welsh economy, including the Welsh rural economy, and she talked about the pivotal role that the rural economy plays in Wales. She also spoke about the levelling-up fund and the competitive nature of the fund, which was the subject of a recent debate, and her concern—shared by some Opposition Members—about the focus of that funding, which should be based on need and deprivation and issues other than the competitive funding stream that we have seen in recent weeks. As other Members have, the right hon. Lady voiced her concerns about the Australia trade deal and spoke about the need to involve the devolved Governments in this and future trade negotiations, which some of us have been calling for in recent weeks.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) talked about the freeports. I agree that it would be a positive step, but I gently ask her to convince her colleagues to offer financial support for Welsh freeports similar to that provided for English ones. I understand Wales gets just a third of the funding available for freeports in England; that difference is clearly not acceptable.
I also beg the Government to give us some clarity about exactly which freeport they are talking about in Wales. Holyhead is much mentioned, but there is also mention of Pembrokeshire and the ports there as well, with Milford Haven. It is one thing to praise the virtues of freeports—although we are concerned that they may cause economic displacement—but we could also have greater clarity about exactly which freeport and which place they are talking about in Wales?
We do indeed need clarity from the UK Government on freeports, not least on funding but on other issues as well.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) talked about a subject that is close to my heart: the digital connectivity challenges across rural areas of Wales and that striving for broadband upgrade. It is right to recognise that, these days, decent broadband regarded as a necessity, not a luxury.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) talked about sustainability and the need for sufficient investment in railways, comparing the 1% of investment with the 11% of track. He also raised concerns about trade deals and the involvement of devolved Governments in those.
The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) talked about rural shops and retail. She also spoke about the levelling-up fund, which we discussed in this Chamber just two weeks ago, and the assurances that the fund will address the obvious need of our communities in Wales.
Finally, the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) expressed concerns about the trade deals and how the current discussions do not bode well for future trade deals, not least the New Zealand trade deal, which the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd also mentioned. He also spoke about the level of disconnect with the UK Government.
We all know that Wales has some of the most stunning natural and rural areas of any nation in the world, but we all have a part to play if we are to ensure that those areas can continue to thrive and are protected for future generations. The Labour Welsh Government have used the tools available to them to take action against practices that threaten our environment and rural areas. They have used planning powers on land and sea to oppose fossil fuel extraction, including by maintaining the ban on fracking. They have also pursued ambitious policies to protect the environment, bringing forward a net zero target for Wales, creating a new national forest for Wales and driving forward major renewable energy projects, such as the Awel y Môr offshore wind farm and the world-class centre for marine engineering at Pembroke Dock. In Wales, we have reached the milestone of generating more than 50% of our energy from renewable sources.
As we have heard in the debate today, farmers are on the frontline in the climate emergency. The Welsh Government’s sustainable farming scheme will credit farmers for good environmental practices that have not been valued in the market in the past, such as improved soil, clean water and actions to tackle climate change. In Wales, we have protected the terms and conditions of agricultural workers by retaining our agricultural workers’ board, in contrast to the Government’s decision to abolish it in England. As we have left the European Union, farming subsidy schemes are being amended. The Welsh Government are committed to ensuring that all funding coming from the UK Government to replace the common agricultural policy and other EU subsidy schemes is retained for that purpose. Yet the UK Government have removed more than £130 million in rural development funding for Wales, which threatens our rural economies.
Finally, we know that the effects of the pandemic continue to be felt across all communities in Wales, right across the UK and further afield. Our rural areas in Wales are no different. Farms and other agricultural businesses have faced extreme pressures. For obvious reasons, a number of rural events have been cancelled over the last 15 months. Agricultural shows, such as the Vaynor show in my constituency and many others, provide an integral opportunity for farmers and agricultural workers to celebrate together our heritage, language and rural communities.
I am pleased that the Welsh Government’s Wales farm support group has met throughout the pandemic to consider what can be done to support our farmers and agricultural businesses. Bespoke support has been provided to the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society to support preparations to reinstate shows when it is safe. I welcome this debate and the ongoing discussions with the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Cummins. Diolch yn fawr iawn i’r Aelod gwir anrhydeddus dros Dwyfor Meirionnydd. Although we obviously disagree and see things slightly differently politically, I acknowledge many of the issues raised by the right hon. Lady for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and their importance. I am pleased we are having this discussion on a subject that is of importance to all, regardless of our political persuasions.
I begin by assuring the right hon. Lady, and other Members, that the recovery and renewal of our rural economy is a central part of our strategy to build back better from the pandemic, but also to strengthen the Union—a matter for which the hon. Lady may not share my enthusiasm. The passion evident through all the contributions shows we can agree on other things. We agree that the countryside of Wales is close to the hearts of everyone who lives there, and because of the large proportion accounted for by land classified as rural, it is essential that local businesses in those areas are able to flourish, drive up the economy and create jobs for local people. From the mountains of Snowdonia to the beaches of Ceredigion in Pembrokeshire and the rolling hills of Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire and Monmouthshire, there is a special place in the national consciousness of Wales for its rural locations.
If Wales is to continue to thrive, it is essential that the local economies of rural Wales are able to create good, sustainable jobs—not just jobs, but careers to drive up growth, as I heard on a tour of north Wales. We are committed to levelling up in every part of the United Kingdom, and Wales is certainly no exception. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have undertaken visits, and my first visit after lockdown was to north Wales to discuss the growth deals and look at the issues the right hon. Lady for Dwyfor Meirionnydd has rightly raised today.
The importance of tourism to the area was underlined by the Tourism Network, which says that people do not want jobs; they want careers. The network tells young people to not go into a minimum wage job and stay there until they are sick of it and leave for England or elsewhere. They want people to be offered a career, so that they can go in doing a low-wage job, and at the same time undertake training for bookkeeping, personnel, or whatever, allowing them to become the leaders of tomorrow. That is something we would all want to support.
Before I go into the detail of the UK Government’s commitments to Wales, I will reflect on the unprecedented support they provided to businesses and individuals during the covid pandemic. More than 500,000 jobs were protected by the UK Government’s support schemes, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme. Billions were provided in Government loans to Welsh firms, and an extra £8.6 billion has provided to the Welsh Government through the Barnett formula since the start of the pandemic. I was left scratching my head when I heard the First Minister suggest that we had taken money away from the Welsh Government. I am surprised that when he suggested that in an interview he was not asked how much money he received two years ago—the difference is absolutely huge.
The Minister mentioned the levelling-up fund and that the Welsh Government have said they now receive less than they previously did. What does he make of the Welsh Government’s estimation that they are set to receive as little as £50 million a year, instead of the £375 million they previously got from the EU, under levelling-up agreements?
There is a very simple answer to the right hon. Lady on that point: £375 million a year is the average that the Welsh Government received in structural funds throughout the programme period, and £375 million is what they will continue to receive. In fact, I think it is slightly over that in the next year. That money will continue to come from the European Union over the next two or three financial years, so the extra money she refers to does not replace the structural funds; it is additional to the structural funds, which they will continue to receive. As for tail ends—to use a term that I hear a lot—and that EU money gradually dissipates, it will be replaced by the shared prosperity fund. We are absolutely standing by our manifesto commitment to ensure that Wales receives exactly the same amount after Brexit as it did before Brexit. I am delighted to make that clear.
As right hon. and hon. Members will undoubtedly be aware, the Secretary of State for Wales launched “The UK Government’s Plan for Wales” on 20 May. It sets out how we intend to build back from the pandemic by investing in digital and transport infrastructure, providing the right financial backing for green industry, and supporting jobs and growth right across Wales in the coming months and years. As one would expect, the plan had a thread of ambitious projects and initiatives for rural Wales, and I will turn to some of those commitments.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) rightly raised the issue of broadband, as did the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and many others. Yes, it is a traditional bugbear for our rural communities and, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) rightly said, we have realised just how important it is during the pandemic. I entirely agree with most of what has been said in this Chamber. Members are right to hold the Government to account for not quite reaching the speeds in rural areas that we would like, including in my Monmouthshire constituency. I welcome that Ministers are being held to account and being put under pressure on this issue.
However, we have invested £5 billion to support the deployment of gigabit-capable broadband in the hardest-to-reach areas of the United Kingdom, including in Wales. We will be investing £1.2 billion over the next four years. BT Openreach recently announced plans to deliver full-fibre broadband to about 415,000 homes and businesses across Wales over a five-year period. The shared rural network programme, of which the hon. Member for Ceredigion was a bit critical, will deliver 33 new masts, which will hopefully mean that 95% of Wales is covered by 4G by 2026. I make one genuine suggestion to the hon. Gentleman in particular, whom I met recently to discuss the growth deals in mid and west Wales, and the potential projects that may come forward. On a recent visit to Swansea, I saw that connectivity has been made one of the major project areas of the Swansea city deal, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr will be aware. When we return shortly, we will look at how the Swansea digital village is developing. My suggestion to the hon. Member for Ceredigion is very simple: encourage the local authorities in the area to make connectivity one of the planks of their growth deals.
In my constituency, we are waiting for the Home Office to switch on 10 masts for the emergency services network. That is something the Government could do immediately in the here and now. I urge the Minister to use his good office to good effect, and ensure that we get improved connectivity along those lines.
My officials are following that specific issue with interest at the moment. I suggest that they may wish to draft the right hon. Lady a response, because it seems a perfectly reasonable point to be making.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr also mentioned the importance of physical fitness during the pandemic. He is a fine exemplar of that, given that the last time I met him he was just coming out of the gym in the hotel that I had also been in. He practises what he preaches, which is very good.
I shall move on to the support the Government have given to farmers—the bedrock of our rural community. Various Members raised the Australian trade deal, so I will come on to that in a second. I believe that some misinformation has been put out about agricultural funding. Like EU structural funding, it will of course continue to come from the EU for the next couple of years. The UK Government have rightly made the commitment to match the agricultural funding we received before we left the European Union and to ensure that the same amount is received going forward.
The hon. Members for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and for Angus (Dave Doogan) raised the Australian trade deal, along with various other Members, and I have written down a couple of notes about it. Of course, we received beef imports from Australia as members of the European Union and the total amount that came in last year was about 560 tonnes. According to the AHDB, the amount that we imported in total was around 238,000 tonnes—about 400 times the amount that was coming from Australia. Most of that came from the Republic of Ireland. So if anyone is starting to get a little bit worried about an Australian trade deal, it should be the Irish Government, not British beef farmers. I think the hon. Member for Angus suggested that it could go up six times if we sign the trade deal. Well, we will sign the trade deal, and even if it did go up six times—even if it went up 10 times—it would still be an absolutely tiny fraction of the total amount of beef that we import from Ireland each year.
The hon. Gentleman says that, and I have also heard it, but I am not sure I entirely accept it. He appears to have a smartphone in front of him, and I suggest he has a look at the prices for cuts of beef in Coles or Woolworths, which are the two major supermarkets in Australia, and compare them with Tesco. To be honest, by and large the same cuts of beef cost more in Australia. Australian beef costs more on the shelves of Australian supermarkets than British beef does on the shelves of British supermarkets. The idea that Australian beef is ridiculously cheap does not really stand up to much scrutiny.
I anticipated that the Minister would make this argument on the price. Will he recognise that Australia has suffered two droughts in recent years? Previously Australian lamb was extremely cheap, at 300 cents per kilo. With the markets in China being as fragile as they are, and Australia perhaps seeking alternative markets, the prices may not remain as high as they are at present. Looking into the future and in the long term, that is perhaps a disingenuous argument.
Looking into the future and the long term, of course that is the case. The level of sterling or the Australian dollar could vary or the markets in China may not be the same, but there is generally seen to be a drive towards greater wealth, not just in China but across the whole of the Asia-Pacific rim, which is driving an increase in the demand for beef and sheep meat. I cannot pretend to look into the future and guess what currency and stock prices might do—if I was any good at that, I probably would not be an MP, as I would be making millions in the City. Based on 560 tonnes coming in at the moment, I do not see that there is anything very much for anyone to worry about, even the Irish farmers, and especially not considering the very high-quality beef that we produce in Wales, and in Scotland, if I may say so to the hon. Member for Angus.
The danger of ad-libbing means that I have probably used half my speech on that issue, so I will now turn to tourism. It is another area that is of great interest and importance to us in Wales—I think it was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. I was absolutely delighted when I was in north Wales to be able to sample the first-class tourism that north Wales has to offer. I did so by staying at the brand-spanking-new Hilton Garden Inn, the first Hilton in north Wales, and visiting Surf Snowdonia, which certainly was no hardship for me. I also looked at some of the other tourism projects that are taking place in north Wales, which are all coming about as a result of the growth deals that have been funded jointly by the UK Government and the Welsh Government. We have put £120 million into the north Wales growth deal. We will support the mid-Wales growth deal with £55 million across the region, and I hope tourism will play a part in that and in the other regions of Wales.
We are also very, very ambitious as to what the growth deals can do in helping to support our efforts to become net zero by 2050. The hon. Member for Angus mentioned floating offshore wind. I suspect I know which company he met with and I know it is very enthusiastic about getting floating offshore wind into Scotland and off the coast of Wales. I do not know what is going on in Scotland, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I personally signed off a cheque for some of the money for the Swansea Bay city deal, which will help build infrastructure at Pembroke Dock to enable floating offshore wind companies to trial their products there.
I believe I know which company it is, and I fully support its enthusiasm for dealing with BEIS. However, BEIS is already saying that it will ensure, when the new contract for difference auctions come forward, that offshore wind is part of that mix, so it may be reluctant to talk to specific companies. I can understand why that might be, because BEIS will not want to be seen to be lobbied by or to give preference to any single company, but it has made it very clear that floating offshore wind will be supported through a strike price. That should enable those industries to thrive, which is a very good thing.
Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Angus for Scotland, I would like to say that there is indeed huge potential in the coastal areas of Wales. We are absolutely blessed with marine energy potential and we are seeing a number of early-stage schemes looking into that. As well as Pembrokeshire, I should mention the Morlais project in north Wales, which is more about hydro energy than floating offshore energy. I believe that might be one of the first projects that comes forward in the North Wales growth deal—I very much hope so. It is one that I was certainly enthused by, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn has done a great deal to lobby me and BEIS Ministers to ensure that that project goes ahead
Finally, I shall turn to transport, which has also been mentioned by various Members present. I would never underestimate its importance to the rural economy. It is only fitting that the global centre of rail excellence will be on the site of the Nant Helen opencast mine in Onllwyn; that facility will support innovation in the UK rail industry, including the testing of cutting-edge green technology. That is a real vote of confidence in rural Wales, and one that the Secretary of State for Wales was absolutely instrumental in making a reality. I know how many meetings he personally held with various officials and other Ministers to make sure that that happened.
In addition the UK Government are developing numerous other rail schemes, such as the £2.7 million Cambrian line signalling upgrade, which is due to be delivered by May 2022. The upgrade will enable the introduction of new trains and allow interoperability with other digital signalling schemes. There are also the investments that have been made in new stations, such as Bow Street in Ceredigion; I think the hon. Member for Ceredigion and I were there at the virtual opening of that in February 2021.
There is the £17 million being spent on the Conwy Valley line between Llandudno Junction and Blaenau Ffestiniog to repair and restore it after multiple flood events in the past five years. We are also going through the outline business cases to develop the freight lines on the South Wales relief line, which will mean more trains going between Cardiff and Bristol and will have a beneficial impact on constituents of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, I am sure. In north Wales, we are beginning the process of the outline business case to improve the North Wales Coast line. So there is a great deal going on to improve transport in Wales.
I take slight issue with the mention by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr of the much-quoted figure of 11% of the railways and 1% of the funding, because that was simply looking at enhancements. I believe that page 20 of the same report—I may be wrong about that, but it is certainly in there somewhere—makes it clear that, actually, if you look at maintenance operations, renewals and enhancements, the overall figure is closer to around 4%, so it is not quite the headline that the hon. Gentleman states.
The Minister may not accept my argument on that point, but has he read the statement of funding policy that accompanied the last comprehensive spending review? It indicated that the Barnett consequential share for Wales is plummeting as a result of the Department for Transport spending on HS2, and showed the inequity that Wales faces compared with Scotland and Northern Ireland because of that.
I think the hon. Gentleman is right that HS2 was not Barnettised, and I would be heading off down a branch line myself in terms of this debate if I go into it. Very briefly, virtually everyone here has signed up to the view that we need to become carbon-neutral by 2050. If we are to do that, one of the things that we must do is get people out of their cars and on to trains. If we are to do that successfully, we need to build lines where they will get the maximum number of people out of cars and on to trains, and that happens to be along the HS2 route.
Some expert in the field said to me the other day that it was a pity it was called High Speed 2, because that gives the impression that it is all about delivering a high-speed train. But he said it is not at all; it is about delivering a huge amount of extra rail capacity that will get vast numbers of people out of their cars, off the roads and on to a train, which will be powered by electricity that should come from green sources. Possibly the name could have been slightly better chosen.
I may have exhausted your patience, Mrs Cummins, so if there are no further interventions, let me thank all hon. Members for an interesting, perceptive debate. If I have not responded to every question, I should be more than delighted to do so if I am reminded of what they are.
The UK Government’s commitment to the Welsh rural economy is not in any doubt. It is integral to building back better from the pandemic, as well as strengthening the Union. Our support for the Welsh rural economy is unwavering and I am sure will go from strength to strength in the coming months and years, driving local growth and creating jobs. As we come out of this pandemic as a result of the wonderful vaccine, that it was possible to deliver so quickly as a result of Brexit, the Secretary of State for Wales and I look forward to visiting Wales on many occasions over the coming months and hopefully even years—who knows—in order to see those growth deals in action and to watch levelling up happen before our eyes. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Cadeirydd. I am very grateful for the opportunity to wind up. Members have touched on many points that will be close to our hearts, and close to the hearts and the experiences of people who live in rural Wales.
I would like to return to three issues, the first being the question of connectivity, which many of my colleagues raised. Let us just take a step back. We talked about levelling up and about many of the wonderful, glittering projects that will happen. None the less, there are certain activities, certain functions, that only central Government can do. When it comes to infrastructure and connectivity—whether we are talking about the grid for electricity, or connectivity in terms of mobile signal and broadband—that is where government has to intervene, be that the UK Government or the Welsh Government. If government does not do that in rural areas, it will not happen, and that will not increase the salaries that people are able to draw down in rural areas—as I mentioned, almost a third of the people working in my constituency are under the real living wage. We are talking about raising those salaries to a level where people can afford mortgages, which surely we should use as a mark of success. If we are serious about that, we should be looking at government doing what only government can do.
Secondly, I would like to touch upon the significance of Welsh farmers and their excellent track record in upholding animal welfare standards and turning grassland into the highest standard of protein that we can imagine. We have to maintain food production alongside environmental diversity. Those should not be two contradictory points, but things that we must hold together.
Farmers will be disappointed that in the UK we only have two full-time agricultural counsellors, and farmers actually pay for them by a levy. That compares to, I think, 22 full-time for Australia. Extraordinarily, the Netherlands has 100. If we were looking at that, that really would be the Government putting farmers’ interests first. I always like to quote the president of the NFU, Minette Batters, who said:
“We need a Government that stops doing PR and starts doing policy.”
I will leave that there—it is a very appropriate quote.
A theme that I want to raise, although many aspects of it are devolved, is housing. Housing, for us in rural Wales, is such a symbol. In every street, in every family that I speak to with young people, children—my own children among them—are looking for homes in their own communities, looking for homes in the areas in which they grew up, and being utterly disheartened by the lack of availability, or even the prospect of availability. The market economy has failed them. Competition has failed them, and it is failing and undermining our communities.
That means, of course, that essential key workers cannot afford to live within many of those rural communities. We have care workers who have to keep a car, who cannot afford to keep a car, who then go and work in retail. Yet we have an ageing demographic and we need those workers, but they cannot afford to live in those areas. In the fire service, there are retained firefighters who are working out of the town in which the fire engine in which they work is located, who cannot be on shift when there is an emergency. In the here and now in rural Wales, that is the symbol of how those who seek to govern us are not dealing with the problems that face us every day.
Forgive me: Plaid Cymru MPs are inclined to do this. I will close with the line that sums up this issue for the area of Meirionnydd: “Fesul tŷ, nid fesul ton, bydd colli Meirion”—we will not lose Meirionnydd in one great swoop; we will lose it house by house by house. All that we stand for; all that we love. It is very vulnerable. It is our duty to protect it. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the Welsh rural economy.
Syrian Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members are all attending physically, and I remind you to please clean your spaces before you use them and, importantly, before you leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and to have the opportunity to highlight the situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. I want to try to put a human face on some of what I will speak about, and I will start by referring briefly to a constituent of mine, whom I will call Mr N. I will speak about him and his family.
The case of Mr N and his family represents so much that is brilliant about how the UK and the international community support Syrian refugees, but also so much that is awful about the gaps that there still are. Mr N, his wife and his younger children have found safety and a home here in the UK in my constituency, which is of course the brilliant bit. However, the family has suffered too much and many people, including me, would say that we can do more. Not all of what I would term as Mr N’s immediate family have made it here. His adult daughter, son-in-law and one grandson remain in Lebanon.
As I will come to, the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is not good, and that has impacted on the family in the most heart-breaking way. There were previously two grandsons. One lost his life after illness at the age of three. Mr N explains that his grandson was initially refused admission to hospital in Lebanon. Even when he was finally admitted, he was left for seven hours without receiving treatment, which the family attribute to his status as a Syrian refugee. That accords perfectly with the evidence from the country, which I will come to.
Of course, the loss of the child has hit the family hard, with Mr N’s daughter and wife particularly badly hit. Mr N’s daughter had already been vulnerable to mental ill health after her husband had been detained and suffered ill treatment in Syria. They are currently residing in a garage on a farm in Lebanon, where they are working in exchange for accommodation. The family rely on the family here to transfer them money for food and basic essentials. A family reunion application for Mr N’s daughter, son-in-law and grandson has been refused, but given his circumstances, I hope that decision can be revisited and reversed. Although I appreciate that the decision is not the responsibility of the Minister’s Department, I would be incredibly grateful if he could persuade one of his Home Office colleagues to meet me to discuss the case.
The family’s grim existence in Jordan is far from unique. Millions of other Syrians across both Jordan and Lebanon are also suffering. That is a collective failure by the international community, because it cannot be left to those two relatively small countries to take an unbelievably disproportionate share of responsibility for those who fled conflict and persecution in Syria. The countries are trying hard. There is no doubt that we can ask more of them, but we should ask more of ourselves first.
I will briefly set out a bit more about the situation for Syrian refugees in those two countries and ask what the UK response is, in terms of both aid and taking refugees from the area. Of course, there has been good work in both of those areas, but the Minister will not be surprised to hear that I am deeply concerned about what cuts to international aid mean for the work that is going on there. I am also concerned about the end of the Syrian resettlement scheme, the gaps in the family reunion rules along the lines of those that have hit my constituent’s family, and the so-called new plan for immigration. My concern is that it is driving desperate people straight into the hands of people smugglers. I am concerned about what the cuts to aid and all the reforms to immigration will mean when they are added together.
Despite talks of crisis here in the UK or in Europe more generally, it is not our wealthy club of countries that is required to take responsibility for hosting those who had to flee Syria. As ever, that responsibility has fallen on countries such as Jordan and Lebanon. Since 2011, over 5.6 million refugees have fled Syria and sought safety abroad, not only in Lebanon and Jordan but in Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that refugee poverty and vulnerability is increasing and that the impact on host communities is growing. Funding for the humanitarian response is not keeping up with need.
UNICEF reports that among those 5.6 million Syrian refugees, 2.5 million children live in those same countries in camps, informal settlements and urban settings among host communities. The situation for those children is sometimes dire. UNICEF says:
“Major challenges remain in realizing the rights of refugee children. Due to the protracted situation and the covid-19 crisis, refugees are vulnerable to several protection risks, including psychosocial distress, child labour and domestic and sexual violence. Economic hardship has led some women and girls to resort to negative coping mechanisms such as child and forced marriage. The socio-economic impacts of covid-19 have also disrupted and reduced access to health care, vaccinations and learning, and increased food insecurity and child poverty, resulting in an overall decline in children's well-being.”
As we have heard, Mr N’s grandson obviously struggled to gain access to healthcare, with devastating consequences.
Jordan has provided refuge for over 1.3 million Syrians, which is the third highest number of Syrian refugees that any country has taken in. Around half of them are registered refugees and around 126,000 of those live in refugee camps, while the greatest number have settled in urban and rural areas, mainly in northern governorates and Amman.
The Assessment Capacities Project’s humanitarian analysis programme reports that in Jordan
“almost 6 in 10 Syrian refugees of working age are unemployed. Amid aid cuts and the covid-19 pandemic, most Syrian families are relying on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs. Before the pandemic, Syrian refugees living outside of camps spent more than two-thirds of their monthly household budget on shelter, leaving few resources for food, health or education. They often resorted to negative coping mechanisms such as cutting meals, child labour, or early marriage. This is a rising concern as more urban refugees and host communities have difficulty accessing basic services and earning an income due to the covid-19 containment measures.”
The UN calculates that 86% of Syrian refugees outside camps in Jordan live below the poverty line and that most of them rely on humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs. Although Jordan is not a signatory to the refugee convention, the Jordanian Government work closely with UNHCR. However, even before the pandemic Jordan was facing record unemployment and slow growth, and things are much worse now.
Before I move on from Jordan, I should also mention in particular the situation just over the border in Syria at the Rukban camp, where humanitarian workers are prevented from accessing 12,000 refugees who are stranded there. I understand that those restrictions have been contributed to by the Jordanian Government, as well as by the Assad regime and Russia. The presence of coalition forces in the area around the camp and border crossing means that they could be well-placed—they may even be required—to ensure that aid is delivered, and it would be useful to hear the Minister’s response on that.
Lebanon hosts more refugees per capita than any country in the world, including around 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Lebanon was already facing deep economic and financial crises before covid. Not only has the pandemic made things significantly worse, but so too did the explosions at Beirut’s port on 4 August last year. The UNHCR reports:
“The protracted nature of the refugee situation with limited self-reliance possibilities, coupled with the impact of these recent crises, have led to an exponential rise in extreme poverty among refugees. According to the 2020 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees (VASyR), 89% of the Syrian refugee families are now living below the extreme poverty line, up from 55% in 2019. The situation is creating hunger, increased debt and mental and physical health problems, as well as increasing risks of evictions, exploitation, child labour and gender-based violence. At the same time, the percentage of Syrian refugees holding valid legal residency has further decreased, as the number of refugees able to pay for residency renewal has reduced and fewer fall within the criteria of the 2017 fee waiver. A lack of legal residency exposes refugees to the risk of arrest and detention. It also hampers their access to basic services like education, health care and social services, as well as to obtaining civil status documents such as marriage and birth registration. Non-Syrian refugees without legal residency are particularly vulnerable and at high risk of deportation to their country of origin”.
The scale of the problem with residency rights is huge. Human Rights Watch has suggested that only 22% of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon have the legal right to live there, meaning that
“the majority are living under the radar, subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, harassment and summary deportation to Syria”.
Refugees and other vulnerable groups are also being left behind in the covid response, with Syrian refugees dying from the virus at a rate that is more than four times the national average.
I turn now to the UK response. As I say, I acknowledge that some excellent aid work has been funded. The Syrian vulnerable persons scheme has been, on the whole, an absolute triumph. But the question is this: what happens now? Neither Jordan nor Lebanon are on the list of 34 countries that will receive bilateral overseas development aid from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in 2021-22. However, I fully appreciate that other Departments may spend money in those countries, that the UK may contribute to multilateral assistance, and that the list of countries might grow beyond 34. Nevertheless, we really need some information here and now.
The Minister provided a written answer at the end of April in which he talked about the need for aid to be
“more strategic and remain a force for good”.
However, he did not explain what the implications of that were for Jordan and Lebanon. The International Rescue Committee says its funding for protection work for vulnerable Syrians in Lebanon has been removed. Another programme in the same country, aimed at providing protection services to 107,000 people was cancelled before it could even begin. The Mines Advisory Group has confirmed that all UK funding to support its work there in removing and destroying land mines has been cancelled. That is probably the tip of the iceberg and as much as I could find in the time available. Surely now is the time to increase spending in Jordan and Lebanon, rather than cut it.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Scheme has been closed, having achieved its 20,000 target over five years. A new global resettlement scheme has been announced and is underway, but we know little about its ambitions in terms of numbers or how many it will take from Jordan and Lebanon, the focus of the earlier scheme. If there is no target, how do we budget? How do partners such as local authorities plan?
In the grand scheme of things, the global community is not even beginning to scratch the surface of what needs to be done. As the UNHCR’s Ambassador in the UK has said:
“UNHCR estimates that 1.44 million refugees globally are in need of resettlement, but only 22,770 were resettled through UNHCR last year, with 829 arriving in the UK. These are the lowest numbers we have seen in almost two decades—just when refugees needs are extremely acute and rising”.
Turning to key asks, regarding the family I mentioned, if there is any way the Minister can encourage a Home Office Minister to meet me to discuss that specific case, I would be hugely grateful. Will he also comment on the issues relating to the Rukban camp and humanitarian access? More generally, what is the FCDO’s response to the deteriorating situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan? How can now be the right time to cut aid? What impact will that have on people who are forced to seek better conditions elsewhere? What work will he do with UNHCR to achieve its goals in supporting refugees there, including access to protection, to a legal status, to protection from arrest and forced return to Syria, and access to health care, work and support? Will he work with the Home Office to broaden family reunion rules, so that families such as the one I have highlighted can be reunited here? What are the targets for the new resettlement scheme? How many will come from this region? Does not this combination of cuts to aid and a flimsy regime of safe legal routes simply mean that all the more people will feel compelled to use people smugglers—something that none of us wants to see?
In conclusion, these countries may seem far away, but I think we all agree that every country, particularly wealthy countries such as ours, have a responsibility to play our role in supporting the victims of the war in Syria. That also, of course, has an impact here. Syrians continue to flee here, including on dinghies in the Channel. Most importantly, there is an impact on families, such as my constituents, who are already here and settled and who have seen their loved ones suffering in such a terrible way. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to put these points and the family’s case today.
It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair today, Mrs Cummins. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing this debate. I pay tribute to the work he has done in support of Syrian refugees and the moving points he made about his constituent Mr N. and his extended family.
Let us first recall why we are having this debate. Over the last 10 years, Assad’s unrepentant and unreformed regime has inflicted untold suffering on the Syrian people and has consistently and deliberately undermined efforts to pursue peace. Over half of Syria’s population has been displaced by the violence; more than 6.4 million people have fled their homes and sheltered in other parts of Syria; and over 5.5 million have taken refuge in neighbouring countries. As the hon. Gentleman said, the number that have fled to Lebanon is estimated to be 1.5 million and they make up the largest concentration of refugees per capita in the world.
The UK has a long and proud history of supporting refugees in need of protection and the Syria crisis is no exception. To date, we have committed over £3.7 billion in response to the crisis in the region—our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. Since 2012, across Syria and the region we have provided over 28 million food rations, over 21 million medical consultations, 6 million cash grants or vouchers, 10 million relief packages and over 14 million vaccinations. Our aid provides life support to millions of Syrians, in support of refugees to remain in countries in the region, and it enables host communities to provide for and manage a protracted refugee presence.
Jordan and Lebanon have shown tremendous generosity in hosting 670,000 and 880,000 registered refugees respectively. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is not the full number of refugees that those countries have had to host. The UK Government recognise that generosity, which is why we have contributed over £720 million in bilateral development assistance to Jordan since 2012, and over £780 million in humanitarian and development funding to Lebanon since the start of the Syria crisis.
In Jordan, our support has provided access to quality education and social protection. It has enabled partners to deliver primary and reproductive healthcare, and specialised care for refugees with disabilities. Over the past three years alone, UK humanitarian funding has helped 65,000 refugees and vulnerable people access mental health services, legal aid and rehabilitation for people with disabilities. Our cash programme has supported around 100,000 refugees with regular cash assistance.
With our support, the Jordanian Government have enrolled 83% of all Syrian children in education, the highest proportion in the region. In Lebanon, since 2011, we have provided 1.1 million people with sustainable access to clean water and sanitation. We have helped provide access to education and psychosocial support to 300,000 children. We have improved infrastructure and services in over 220 municipalities, and we have helped to create 1,300 new jobs for both Lebanese and Syrian communities and supported nearly 400 small and medium-sized enterprises.
Despite the grave economic challenges facing the UK this year, we have continued to provide humanitarian support for the Syrian crisis, as part of our commitment to the region and its overall stability. At the Brussels conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region, in March this year, the UK pledged at least £205 million to the Syrian crisis for 2021. That support will continue to deliver essential, lifesaving and life-sustaining assistance in Syria, and provide vital support in neighbouring countries that host refugees.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East mentioned our aid. The UK Government are completely transparent about our aid programme. We publish detailed information every year, and this year is no exception. Final audited spending for the 2020-21 financial year will be published in the annual reports and accounts. Final 2020 spending will be published in statistics on international development in the autumn, and will contain detailed breakdowns. I hope that document will allow him to answer some of the questions that he posed at the end of his speech.
Ahead of the publication of those figures, I can explain what our development assistance will achieve in Jordan and Lebanon this year. In Jordan, we will continue to support the most vulnerable refugees with cash transfers for food and basic needs. We will support refugees and vulnerable Jordanians to access services such as legal counselling, child protection services and rehabilitation for people with disabilities. In Lebanon, we will continue to provide those most in need with assistance and protection services to cover essentials, and hopefully reduce gender-based violence, which he alluded to in his speech. We will ensure that Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese people have access to quality formal and non-formal education.
Through our CSSF—the conflict, stability and security fund—we will support vulnerable Syrian refugees to access services and will support initiatives to improve livelihoods, community peace building and reconciliation. Our support for peace-building initiatives is particularly important as the economic crisis in Lebanon puts additional strain on all communities, both Syrian and Lebanese, but we are very concerned about the increase in the critical rhetoric around refugees that we hear in Lebanon, particularly the reports of forced returns.
Although we hope Syrian refugees will ultimately be able to return home, conditions in Syria do not currently allow that to take place, and it is essential that international law is respected and that any refugee returns are voluntary and safe, and done with dignity. We continue to work with the UN on a political process to deliver a lasting peace in Syria. We do not believe the Assad regime, which has committed so many atrocities against the Syrian people, is capable of delivering that peace. If the regime and its backers want to avoid another 10 years of conflict, they must seriously engage with the political process as outlined in UN Security Council resolution 2254.
When I visited Lebanon in December last year, I stressed to my counterparts, including the then Foreign Minister, that conditions in Syria did not allow for safe, voluntary and dignified returns. I made clear the need to uphold their commitment to the principles of no forced returns. I also stressed to my counterparts the need to grip the economic crisis, which has devastating effects on the already vulnerable Syrian refugee population. The UK is united in agreement with the rest of the International Support Group for Lebanon on the issue. Only the formation of a new Lebanese Government and the implementation of economic reforms can unlock the international financial support required to stabilise the economy.
Finally, I will outline the support for refugees at home. The UK has a long history of supporting refugees in need of protection. Our resettlement schemes have provided safe and legal routes for tens of thousands of people to start a new life here in the UK. Overall, since 2015, we have resettled more than 25,000 refugees through safe and legal routes direct from the regions of conflict and instability, around half of whom were children. On 25 February, we fulfilled our commitment to resettle 20,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, and we continue to welcome refugees through the UK global protection scheme, as well as through the community sponsorship and mandate resettlement schemes.
Our focus will remain on helping people directly from the region of conflict or instability, thus reducing the drivers for people to put themselves in the hands of evil people-trafficking criminals. That commitment, alongside a fair and firm asylum system, will ensure that we continue to offer safe and legal routes to the UK for vulnerable refugees in need of protection.
For more than a decade the Assad regime has inflicted untold suffering on the Syrian people. It is a source of pride that the UK, as a force for good in the world, is supporting Syrian refugees in countries around the region and at home. We will continue to do so with determination, and with persistence we can, I hope, secure a brighter future for Syria and its people.
Question put and agreed to.
Planning System Reforms: Wild Belt Designation
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate, and there will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
I must also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their cameras on for the duration of the debate and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email email@example.com. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.
I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall. Members attending physically who are in the later stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move to the horseshoe when seats become available. Members can speak from the horseshoe only where there are microphones.
I aim to start the Front-Bench speeches promptly at 5.35 pm, so an immediate time limit of three minutes, which might need to be reduced as we go on, will apply in order to include everybody in the debate. Please consider keeping interventions to an absolute minimum. I call Claire Coutinho to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered a proposal for Wildbelt designation in planning system reforms.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. In the UK, we have seen a 41% decline in our species since 1970, and in England one species in eight is threatened with extinction. Wildlife habitats in this country are fewer, smaller and more distant than they ever have been, which is a problem not only for biodiversity, but for our fight against climate change. When nature is working, it can capture carbon, improve our air and water quality, and act as a flood defence. Restoring and protecting our natural system could provide more than a third of the carbon mitigation needed by 2030 to meet the Paris climate agreement. When nature is broken, however, it cannot protect us.
The Government are already taking action. We have an ambitious goal to build a new national nature recovery network in order to create 500,000 hectares of connected wildlife-rich habitat by 2042. To give some context, that is equivalent to 200,000 football pitches. The Prime Minister has also committed himself to protecting 30% of our land and sea for nature recovery by 2030. We are backing up those pledges by investing close to £750 million in the Nature for Climate Fund and restoring wetlands, peatlands and woodlands. Our historic Environment Bill introduces a new biodiversity net gain requirement for development, creating a sustainable funding stream for environmental improvements and ensuring that, when we build homes for people, we build habitats for wildlife alongside them.
As things stand, the sites of those hard-won green gains, where we are investing in restoring and repairing nature, are not protected under existing designations. In England, we have lots of land designations, but none of them exists to protect nature in recovery. The site of special scientific interest designation is critical for preserving individual sites that have been identified as wildlife hotspots, and the national park area of outstanding natural beauty and green belt designations—many hon. Members have them in their patch—protect landscape and amenity value, but do not directly protect biodiversity value. Although we very much like to spend time in beautiful green fields—I feel honoured to represent a seat with 94% green belt, which I think is the highest total of any seat in England—they can often be quite poor in terms of wildlife habitat. That is why I propose the new designation of wild belt to plug the legal gap and to safeguard our investments.
Wild belt is the brainchild of Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts. His proposal would provide longer-term protection for land being managed for nature’s recovery—a new designation that goes beyond conserving the nature we have to creating and connecting corridors across the land, making sure that wildlife and the natural environment have the time and space they need to flourish.
One site that would benefit from a new wild belt designation is Holmesdale wetlands in Godstone, east Surrey, which is one of three biodiversity opportunity areas being restored by the Surrey Wildlife Trust to create a connected living landscape across Surrey. All three are exposed under the current system, but could be protected by a new wild belt designation.
Left to degrade, those wetlands would emit carbon to the atmosphere, fuelling global warming, but restored they would be one of the most cost-effective methods of removing carbon—sucking out carbon, sponging up flood risks and enabling the return of a riot of bugs and insects. Those wetlands are a cost-effective natural means to achieve our aims, which is why this work deserves protection.
Across the UK, we see that nature recovery work is creating signs of hope. Take the return of the noble beaver, which is one of the best natural flood defenders, flow regulators and flora supporters we have. The beaver was once native to England, and we are seeing the beaver return after four centuries of extinction in Britain. Last summer, we had another biodiversity boost from the return of the white stork. Extinct for more than six centuries, it is back and successfully breeding in the south-east of England.
Last winter, we saw an ecological miracle on the River Don, which was once considered the most polluted river in Europe—for the first time in two centuries, salmon have spawned. East Surrey’s own natural haven, the Lingfield nature reserves, after decades of restoration work by hard-working volunteers, is home to more species of butterfly than are found across Northern Ireland. I am hopeful that our environmental treasure chest will expand again this year with the return of sand martins, nesting in Surrey for the first time in 25 years thanks to the work of the Surrey Wildlife Trust.
Bringing back species will be a key part of helping ecosystems to function, yet the examples I have mentioned are in the minority. We have seen a decline in our hedgehogs because their habitat has become so fragmented that many have struggled to find a mate. We have seen a decline in our bee population, whose abilities we rely on so as to grow food and crops, but the creation of a wild belt could create stepping stones for our hedgehogs and pollinator pitstops for our bees.
The benefits of wild belt would be far reaching not only for nature, but for our own health and wellbeing. We have seen time and again, especially during the past year, that people feel better when they are surrounded by nature-rich space. A survey carried out at the peak of the first lockdown last year found that 87% of people agreed with the statement, “Being in nature makes me happy.” The science is pretty clear: having good access to nature can reduce our risk of developing obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
The proposal also makes socioeconomic sense. Poorer households are 3.6 times less likely to live close to nature-rich space than richer households, and it remains the case that poorer neighbourhoods have poorer-quality green space, but by stretching round, through and between England’s towns and cities, wild belt could knock down those barriers and level up green access.
Making sure that we can build the right homes is our moral duty to the next generation and an important part of maintaining this country’s competitiveness in an increasingly competitive world, so it is important that wild belt works alongside housebuilding, not against it. Wild belt would, however, help to address the real concerns of my constituents about species loss, and help us to live in harmony with nature.
Schemes such as the Trumpington Meadows development in Cambridge have synchronised housing and biodiversity ambitions, although it was degraded agricultural land when the housing developer and the wildlife trust came together to build in an ecological way. Now it is home to a 1,200-strong community where 80% of the land remains biodiverse space and 40% of the properties are affordable housing.
Wild belt might encompass some greenfield sites, but it could overlay the area of outstanding natural beauty and greenbelt designations and make use of forgotten bits of land: river valleys, roadside verges, railway lines, scraps of golf courses. Members here today will all have such pieces of land on their patch and those could be rewilded to create a network of green continuous corridors from the countryside all the way through our towns and cities.
I shall bring my remarks to a close and allow time for other Members to speak. However, just as we have led the world in reducing carbon emissions and in renewable energy, we now have an opportunity to lead the world in restoring nature. Alongside COP26 in Glasgow this year, we have the largest biodiversity conference in a decade a month before, in COP15. I believe these planning reforms are a national opportunity, and the introduction of a wild belt designation would give us the chance to put nature at the heart of our recovery.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) on securing the debate. My right hon. Friend the Minister will understand that, because of time constraints, my remarks will have to be fairly brutal, but I mean no discourtesy to him.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey mentioned that 41% of our native species are in decline, and 15% of those species are threatened with extinction. We have lost 97% of our meadows, 80% of our chalk grasslands and 50% of our ancient woodlands. The United Kingdom, to our shame, is one of the most nature-depleted nations in the world. The Prime Minister set a target of having 30% nature-friendly land in the United Kingdom by 2030. If we are to hit that 30:30 target, we will have to take some fairly serious action.
The Wildlife Trusts said in response to the “Planning for the Future” White Paper that it would
“do little to create better homes and communities for wildlife and people. The proposals for three new zones do nothing for nature’s recovery—both the ‘Growth’ and ‘Renewal’ zones fail to integrate nature, and it is business as usual in the ‘Protected’ zone.”
The proposal for a wild belt is certainly a useful tool and a good suggestion for a way forward. However, I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that the hedgerows of this country, the headlands on agricultural land and the agricultural land itself, with the changing crops and changing seasons, provide the best possible habitat, if we are serious about renewing this country. We have to protect agricultural land. I look to my right hon. Friend to assure me that that will happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, I think for the first time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) on securing such a timely debate. Following the Chesham and Amersham by-election, the issue of planning has indeed been raised, although it is a little disappointing that no Liberal Democrat Members have decided to come along and contribute to today’s debate.
A revision of the planning system in England and Wales is long overdue. The emphasis has always been on the number of properties constructed; largely ignored has been the effect of developments on biodiversity, natural habitats and types of landscape that have not been considered worthy of designation. The proposal from the Wildlife Trusts for a new wild belt designation to protect land that is being restored for nature is a good idea. A wild belt designation would enable land that does not do much for wildlife to be protected so that efforts to create or restore natural habitat or rewild the area were secure from future changes to land use. Therefore, I particularly support the five proposals in the Wildlife Trusts initiative.
I want to raise two issues through a constituency example. My constituency contains the Welsh Harp, which is a site of special scientific interest due to the migration of birds from throughout Europe to our country to breed in that location. The site is enormous, and it is very near Wembley, between West Hendon ward and the Welsh Harp ward in Brent. Those are areas of deprivation, but the site is a real gem.
Recently, we have had a regeneration of the West Hendon estate—something that needed to be done and was long overdue. Indeed, some of the properties have been marketed as waterside living, and that is correct—they are. However, I am concerned about a proposed bridge across the northern section of the Welsh Harp. That would mean the west side of the bridge being located in an area that is known as woodland, but is actually wetland. I return to the Wildlife Trusts’ point that all decisions must be based on up-to-date data. We are in danger of losing a magnificent wetland that is used by creatures not only to breed, but to forage, which increases our biodiversity.
The second point I want a raise with the Minister is enforcement, which does not occur, particularly in my Welsh Harp location. My local authority, Barnet Council, simply does not have the money to ensure enforcement on a site of special scientific interest. Something must be wrong in that example. When local authorities cannot afford to fund adult social care, they certainly cannot afford to provide enforcement at such locations. I urge the Minister to look at the issues of data management and, indeed, enforcement resources.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I extend my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) on securing this important debate. She has clearly struck a chord.
I will always claim that the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust is visionary and ahead of the curve, and I should declare an interest as a member of it. The trust does brilliant work in my constituency, specifically around rewilding. Fishlake Meadows on the edge Romsey, a bog in North Baddesley, and, of course, the Wilder Wallops project, which it has supported, are brilliant ways to inspire local communities not just to visit nature, but to volunteer and become part of it, and to ensure that facilities in those areas improve and increase. A specific designation could do exactly that.
I want to turn the clock back 10 years to when the chief executive of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust came to visit me and spoke of wildlife corridors—perhaps the forerunners of wild belts. That was a recognition that a belt in itself is not adequate: we need areas where wildlife can spread, move and migrate, and we need to ensure that they are linked so that where there is development, green corridors can surround that development to make sure that our wildlife can thrive. That is why a new planning designation could really help, giving strategic planners the opportunity to look at things holistically and work out how to integrate development and green areas in a managed way.
We know that nature, when left to its own devices, can be incredibly rich and can provide some of the solutions to climate and pollution challenges. In Romsey and Southampton North, we have some important designations. We have national park, SSI, SINC—site of importance for nature conservation—and ancient woodland, but no green belt. I will always make a pitch to the Minister to consider having some green belt in Hampshire. We have farmers who have embraced high-level stewardship and have pioneered environmentally friendly techniques and low plough strategies to prevent soil erosion. We have the Broughton water buffaloes, which are used as part of a regenerative farming policy that enables carbon to be captured and has built biodiversity.
None of that happens by accident. People take deliberate, carefully thought through decisions to improve the local environment. I am extremely envious of the green belt that my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey has in her constituency. I also want to pick up the comment about enforcement made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord). In the valley of the River Test, we have seen over the last few days a horrific pollution incident, which I sincerely hope agencies such as the Environment Agency will seek to remediate as quickly as possible. That incident reinforces the message that where we put in protections for our environment, we must also give authorities the power to enforce when accidents happen or, indeed, when deliberate acts cause pollution.
Fundamentally, I want to leave the Minister with one thought: we need planning policies and strategies that will help nature and our environment, and the proposal for a wild belt could do exactly that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) on securing such an apposite debate. It is a testament to her and to the importance of the issue that so many colleagues have joined us. It is always a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes).
If hon. Members will indulge me, I will stake a claim to representing rewilding central, because I share not only the estate of Knepp with my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), where we have beavers and white storks, but the Norfolk estate, which has done such a fantastic job nurturing the difficult-to-rear grey partridge.
Last week, the Minister visited the Barlavington estate in my constituency, where there is one of the last surviving populations of the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly. Unlike a fellow yellow or orange-tiered species, this is one that we do wish to foster in the south of England. All this is connected by places such as the Wiston estate, where Richard and his family continue to nurture environments. Sadly, we do not have any water buffalo—I shall take the message back to west Sussex that no rewilding project is complete without them.
We benefit in many parts from the South Downs national park, where genuine protection is given. Areas between the national park can be knitted with areas of natural beauty, such as Chichester harbour or the North Weald. However, too often—and increasingly—they are separated not just by islands of concrete, but by encroaching areas of it. The wild belt proposal from the Wildlife Trusts, which has my full support, would be a magnificent endeavour to protect the precious species we have heard about. It commands my support and I hope the Minister will take that into account. We know he is listening and has been extremely diligent in consulting with colleagues. However, as we bring forward proposals, would the wild belt not be a wonderful component within a new planning system that put nature at its heart?
I am going to change the tone of the debate slightly, to be more pragmatic, and talk about protection and responsibility. The biggest local issue in my patch before covid was planning: the need for homes for those who retire to downsize and for families wanting to grow, and of course the aim of reducing cost. Crucially, we need the right homes, in the right place, with the right infrastructure, all while protecting the character and promoting the environment of our community. Who is responsible for that? Nationally, MPs set the broad framework of how we deal with this. We have the system and we protect the environment. Locally, county councillors deal with the roads and infrastructure. Fundamentally, at the core of our process, it is the responsibility of borough councillors to make those decisions.
The best way to protect areas responsibly is through local plans. I know that the Minister wrote to our borough leader in Hinckley and Bosworth because there have been delays in adopting a local plan. That causes a huge problem, because every month we get more speculative developments. The second way is through neighbourhood plans. My community is passionate about deciding the best way to support home growth in a sustainable manner. The third way is the designation of areas of outstanding natural beauty, sights of special scientific interest and special areas of conservation, and now a proposal for wild belts.
In Leicestershire, that is a real opportunity. We have no green belt. We are sandwiched between Birmingham and Nottingham, which both do have green belt. We are a prime area for development and well connected. However, that needs to be done responsibly, with priorities put into maintaining the character and environment. A shining example is the areas around Burbage Common, which are constantly under threat.
I see wild belts working on two levels: on a macro level, with channels around the A5 joining Birmingham and Leicestershire; and on a micro level, in parts of neighbourhood plans to allow protected development to happen, with the local community at the heart of what that character looks like. It fits with the Government’s ambitious proposals to have 30% of the land for nature by 2030. Most importantly, it would give protections to our wildlife and communities, for which we all have the responsibility.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) for securing the debate. I am pleased to speak on this crucial topic, and to see many of my hon. Friends doing the same. I welcome the publication of the Government’s planning White Paper and the Wildlife Trusts’ response. It is vital that the planning system takes into account the natural environment and does so as soon as possible. During the past year, our dependence on local parks and outdoor spaces has increased. Local communities have relied on those spaces, and we have appreciated more than ever the huge benefits for both mental and physical health afforded by being outdoors.
Having green spaces for purposes such as active travel is vital. I believe that our communities are better off when planning decisions have cycling and walking in mind, not just for our physical and mental health but for the environment. Currently, around 8% of the land area of England is designated as a national or international protected area for conservation. However, in Nottinghamshire the proportion is below that level and the protection of more land will be vital, if we are to ensure that 30% of England is in nature recovery by 2030.
Adjacent to my constituency of Broxtowe are locations, such as the Erewash valley, that need to be at the heart of our green recovery. The Midlands Engine recently published the green growth action plan, which demonstrates the potential of the midlands to lead the way with investment in blue and green infrastructure, green jobs and protection of our landscapes. The Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust has also undertaken fantastic work to ensure the protection and preservation of our environment.
We are fortunate in Broxtowe to be linked to the East Midlands Development Corporation, which through its partnerships is spearheading world-leading research in green growth. For example, there are plans for the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust to have a unique research hub. That research hub, based at Attenborough Nature Reserve, a much-loved and well visited nature reserve in my constituency, will focus research on nature recovery techniques. Those techniques will help us meet the challenges of the combined climate, ecological and health crisis, while driving investment and creating jobs. Such plans are a demonstration of how we can harness research and partnerships within the community easily to incorporate wild belts in our local area, benefiting both the environment and our economy.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey once again for securing the debate. I conclude by saying that I fully support the Wildlife Trusts’ proposal for the introduction of wild belts. I believe it is our right to step up to our responsibility and protect our natural environment for future generations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho). Let me put my cards on the table: I wholeheartedly support an additional designation of wild belt within a formal legal framework. I want to focus my remarks on what is true for many things in this place. It is crucial not only to have a good idea but to define what it is, to ensure that it is effective and achieves the aims that it seeks. In doing that, I ask Members to bear with me, as I draw on past experiences to describe the wild belt today.
Trophic pyramids—my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey once misunderstood and thought that I had said “tropical pyramids”—are a fancy title for the web of life in an ecosystem. From the bottom to the top, any extensive study, or any child, will tell us that all elements of a trophic pyramid are required to be in place for an effective ecosystem, as the chain of energy flows up, from the soils and decomposers, the detritivores and fungi, primary producers, the plants, the chemivores, the primary consumers, the herbivores, caterpillars, grasshoppers and cute rabbits. There are the secondary consumers; omnivores and carnivores—hedgehogs and birds, in English. Then there are the tertiary consumers: carnivores—the wild cats. Any ecosystem requires all of those things.
The only way to return the UK to its natural state is for us to wind back the clock 15,000 years and for all human beings to clear off. That is not going to happen. At that point, we would see bears, wolves, giant elk, wild cats, beavers and a truly natural ecosystem. I hug trees, but we are not going to clear off deliberately. What can we do to manage responsibly a patchwork of natural state environments to a self-sustaining state? What does that mean for the legal framework and the law?
I have highlighted, as have colleagues, the importance of reservoir populations, on a scale that allows for a viable population of at least secondary consumers—the hedgehogs. That needs two things. First, that needs space, in the form of viable access habitat that we can measure in multiples of field. For that to be effective, the dots must be joined up by wildlife corridors. Secondly, the most important thing to make the effective ecosystem is something that no politician can produce or promise: time. To introduce another term, that is sere succession. They need to be left in place to occur—the bramble patch and the foxgloves that are slightly messy on the eye. This is as important as those wonderful mature forests or the wetlands in South Ribble, the salt marsh and peat bog.
What can we do as the House of Commons to highlight their importance? We need additional categorisation: growth renewal protect wild belt, and the space designation to allow it to happen, but also the acceptance that a wildlife corridor even 3 metres deep will allow it to happen. Create the space and time and do not let it swap in and out over five and 10-year periods.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) on bringing forward this important debate. In a past life, I was environment editor for the Observer and Times newspapers. I was always struck how, when we look at this country, we see it as it is now, not as it has been in the past or could be in the future. We have become completely accustomed to the phrase “nature depletion”. We do not see it.
Half of the reason is because I spent a lot of my youth in Norway, which is a country of pure wilderness. I have spent time in Norway seeing nature as it is. I come back here and see a real lack of nature everywhere. We have cut down almost all our woodland in the UK. We have only 11% tree cover in the UK, which compares with the European average of over 30%. In Europe, only Ireland and Denmark have fewer trees than we do.
As people have mentioned, we have lost a lot of our major species. Some of them are coming back. Reintroductions are going on and that is great news. Our largest predator in the UK is the badger. It means that species such as deer have no natural predators whatsoever and we have to cull them. We need to have a vision of how we are getting nature back. One of the great things that is happening is that people are now thinking about that and the Government are supporting that. They now support stopping biodiversity loss by 2030. They have big programmes, such as the nature and climate fund, to bring back nature in all its glory.
In Cambridgeshire, we have a vision for doubling nature by 2050. I am working with the Natural Cambridgeshire group, which works with Natural England and various other groups, such as the Wildlife Trusts, to try to double the amount of biodiversity in Cambridgeshire by 2050, but we need help. We are one of the most nature-depleted parts of the UK. We have only 3% tree cover, which is one tenth of the European average and one quarter of the UK average. It is partly because the land is so fertile that it has all been cleared for farming, quite understandably, but we need to bring nature back and that is very much supported.
How can the Government help? Planning is a big issue in Cambridgeshire. We have a huge amount of house building, but it would be great if the planning Bill, when it comes forward, could help to promote biodiversity and put nature back. It needs to bring back biodiversity in the UK rather than hurt it. One of the great ways of doing that would be through wild belts, as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey and the Wildlife Trusts. We have lots of green belt, but that does not help to promote or protect biodiversity. Wild belts will be able to do that, but the devil will be in the detail on exactly how they fit in with the legal framework and the protections they will give to nature.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) for her excellent proposal to promote and increase nature biodiversity. We know that this is important and have heard that from across the room. However the proposals for planning reform shape up, it is absolutely imperative that we put nature and biodiversity at their very heart. I am pleased to see that is happening. Let us not forget that the UK, along with nearly 90 other countries, is committed to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, through the leaders’ pledge for nature.
We know that globally, let alone in the UK, nature and biodiversity are still declining alarmingly. That is why I wanted to speak in this debate, because giving legal protections to aid nature recovery is vital. Creating wild belts as the mechanism for areas set aside for nature recovery, and providing green corridors for wildlife to move between biodiversity hotspots, is an excellent idea.
Many of us were lucky during lockdown, because we could count on having access to green space, but what about the 11 million people—one in eight—who do not even have a garden? A wild belt designation could easily sit alongside an AONB, a national park or an SSSI. If it gives more access for the public to enjoy protected green spaces that cannot be developed on because they are there for nature to recover, it would give enormous benefits, and not just for nature and biodiversity, but for our wellbeing and health.
The Government are doing enormous work on decarbonisation and setting world-leading targets, but the focus on nature and biodiversity must have equal standing with those targets. We know that the landmark Environment Bill legally binds us to improve air quality, soil quality and water quality, and to leave the planet in a better state than we inherited it, as does the Agriculture Act 2020, which focuses on the environment and promoting biodiversity. It is hugely important, and the Government are doing it. They are weaving it into the very fabric of every piece of legislation coming forward, to enhance and protect nature, and I can see that a wild belt designation would do the same thing. That is why I entirely support it as part of the planning reforms.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I particularly welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) in her introduction, and the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) and for Bosworth (Dr Evans) in setting out the impacts on their constituencies, which mirror those in my constituency.
The London suburbs are an area where we serve the needs of a capital city, but they are also a very popular area for people who are looking to access nature. They often enjoy some planning protection as green belt, which for many years—sometimes many centuries—has been vital as the lungs of the city and as part of the agricultural infrastructure that maintains the life of the city. In Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner alone, we have the beautiful Colne valley, Ruislip woods—oaks that formed the roof of Westminster Hall—and Ickenham marshes, all of which are successful examples of where the local authority and local voluntary groups have undertaken rewilding efforts. That has benefited native species such as stag beetles, various kinds of river fish and red kites, which are now quite common across the area, having been on the verge of extinction not so many years ago.
Despite the impact that we see from projects such as HS2, it is clear that the planning process offers a real opportunity to protect and enhance the wildlife in areas that may be green belt but that certainly surround our towns and suburbs. I can give examples of where local authorities serving my constituency have required everything from bat tunnels to newt ponds as part of planning developments, in order to ensure that wildlife enjoys the protection that the local community expects.
However, as we go into the debate about what type of approach we want to take as part of levelling up, we need to be more strategic about supporting, preserving, developing and improving our green spaces and the part that plays in everything from climate emissions to animal welfare in our country. That is where the concept of a wild belt offers a huge advantage, and it is certainly one that I encourage Ministers to take forward. It is ancillary to the benefits that we see from the green belt, but with a specific focus not just on places that look beautiful and are easy to enjoy, but on places that can provide vital parts of our ecosystem for wildlife; places that may often be found at the margins of our towns and cities, but which are so incredibly important for nature. We must ensure that we support the biodiversity of our country for the future. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey for securing the debate, and I hope the Government will give the issue very serious consideration.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) on securing this important debate. I will be brief and focus my contribution on public transport and the inclusion of waterways in any wild belt.
I have had excellent meetings with Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, which is a force of nature in itself. I know from its briefing that wild belt could happily overlap with other designations, such as national park and SSSI. However, we perhaps need further clarity on what wild belt designation would mean for mothballed and protected transport routes. A wild belt that can be enjoyed by people reconnecting with nature is surely one that needs to be connected to public transport corridors.
My bid, along with colleagues, to reopen the Stoke to Leek line is compelling precisely because of the transformative opportunity it presents to reconnect urban communities with the wider countryside. It will involve clearing quite a lot of vegetation and decades-old trees on the old mothballed line, but the net socioeconomic benefit will be substantial, on top of the environmental benefit of modal shift from road to rail.
I also want to see Etruria station reopened and built back better as an interchange with local buses and, crucially, with the existing blue-green corridor of the Trent-Mersey canal, which is on the national cycle network. I want to go further. My reverse Beeching bid for Etruria includes exploring the rewilding of Fowlea brook as a new blue-green corridor running through Etruria valley. The brook runs through concrete channels and culverts, and it still suffers the effects of centuries of heavy industry, even though it need not and should not.
The Environment Agency is already investing in flood protection in the brook by increasing its capacity in Stoke town, but I want the ambition of rewilding Fowlea brook to match what we are delivering on the River Trent. I said in my maiden speech that we need “more Trent in Stoke-on-Trent” and I am delighted that we are getting on and doing that. The Sunrise project has reintroduced meanders, canopy shade and spawning grounds to the Trent. The BBC’s “Countryfile” was hugely impressed with Trentside walks. Trentside walks will undoubtedly make Stoke-on-Trent an even better place to live, visit and study.
We could have a wild belt walk all along the urban Trent, levelling us up and even exceeding the ambition shown by central London’s Thames path. Causley brook and tributary brooks through Bentilee and Eaton Park could be superb trout-spawning grounds and walking routes, with a few interventions, and the route along Foxley brook through Abbey Hulton could be a much more attractive blue-green walking route if it were rewilded out of concrete and restored to the glory that attracted the abbey’s monks to the confluence of the Foxley and the Trent in the first place. In short, a focus on blue-green routes would mean rewilding for nature, for residents and for the leisure tourism economy. Waterways should be a priority.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and well done to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) for securing this debate.
I have hardly any time, so let me cut to the chase. We have a huge challenge here, which is to stop biodiversity loss by 2030 and, in fact, to reverse it. We talk of nature and natural recovery, but what do we mean by that? Nature for the United Kingdom is truly an overwhelmingly forested land mass, whereas the rural landscape that we have come to know and love is, in fact, entirely man-made and a managed environment. We need a realistic solution. One such solution is a shared approach with improved agricultural practices—that is crucial, because only 6% of our land mass is developed and the rest of it is used for agriculture—plus rewilding of marginal land.
What is the bad boy here? It is farming practices post world war two, when, frankly, we broke the co-existence between nature and food production. That was encouraged by the common agricultural policy, whereby we had subsidies to remove hedges, subsidies to put subsoil drainage in our fields and huge subsidies to bring as much land as possible back into production. That was then followed up by agronomists who had been employed by agribusiness to pitch for the use of agrichemicals on the land in ever-increasing amounts, in the pursuit of yield above all else. The result has been a reduction in long-term rotations, the increasing use of expensive inputs, reduced profitability and therefore reduced margins, both in profit and loss terms and in terms of margins around fields. The result was reduced space for nature. As we have heard, that has led to a 97% reduction in our meadows and an 80% reduction in our chalk grasslands.
What should we do about that? The big answer is that we need to move our agriculture substantially towards regenerative principles and farming, but I do not have time to talk about that now. The second answer is to take marginal land out of production and use it for wildlife restoration.
A wild belt designation, with the consent and support of landowners, will help in the nature fightback. It could build on the concept of conservation covenants, which already exist, but bring that concept into the planning process. It would be a recognition of the new approach to natural recovery, bringing it within the planning system, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey so ably described. Together with ELMS and our new approach to agriculture, that could change mindsets and highlight that nature has a value in its own right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) on securing this debate on a wild belt in the planning system. I commend her contribution, and those of so many others, about the importance of wildlife and the added value that local wildlife trusts and others provide by increasing biodiversity and protecting nature in their constituencies. We have heard so many good speeches.
The importance of our wildlife, and the need to protect and enhance it, is not in doubt. What has been in doubt is the Government’s commitment to bring forward legislation that will be effective in halting and reversing that decline in the UK, and specifically in the planning system, on which so much of the future of our country’s land is dependent. The Government claim to be protecting native and endangered species, but we need to ensure that the rhetoric and the reality match.
I will not reiterate the facts about the level of the crisis of nature depletion in the UK—I thank the Wildlife Trusts for the excellent briefing—but there is no doubt that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. We failed to meet 17 of 20 UN biodiversity targets, while funding for UK wildlife and environment has been slashed by 30% in two years. We need a serious plan for delivery of the recovery of nature but, unfortunately, we have a Prime Minister who has dismissed those trying to protect our natural environment as “newt counters”. Funding has dropped, particularly to Natural England, where staffing has halved since 2010.
The planning system needs to be at the centre of the challenge. It can and should be shaping a path towards net zero emissions and our work to improve biodiversity and our natural environment across the country. I will not rehearse the concerns expressed by many Members in last night’s debate about proposals to amend the planning system, but there is no doubt that those working in the field say that the existing protections are inadequate to protect wildlife and wildlife sites.
Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have said in the main Chamber that with the Environment Bill, they want to protect the environment and include new species abundance targets. However, the amendments that we have now seen commit only to
“further the objective of halting a decline in the abundance of species.”
In those amendments, there is no commitment to reversing the decline in nature. That is left to the planning system to achieve, and the proposed planning Bill will be crucial.
I will close my remarks with some questions for the planning Minister. Will the forthcoming planning legislation do what the Environment Bill clearly does not? The Government have said that they want to ensure that street trees are planted in every new development. That is a clear and measurable target, and it is to be welcomed. Will they do the same for other natural environment targets? If the Government have given consideration to introducing the status of a wild belt, how will we know that that is binding and a reality, not yet more rhetoric?
How exactly will the Government strengthen planning powers? How will developers be held to conditions once they have gone and future landowners manage the land? The Government intend local plans to be the primary tool for shaping and delivering future development. That will require huge resources and specialist expertise from both councils and non-governmental organisations, particularly if wild belts are to be a factor in all local plans; that is the only time the public will get a say in planning decisions in growth areas, which will cover a fair bit of the country. As it appears as though the public will be excluded from decisions around planning applications in growth areas, how will local wildlife trusts and other community organisations input their concerns and expertise into the decision making on specific planning applications? I leave those questions with the Minister, who may reply now or in writing.
Thank you, Mrs Cummins. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I will certainly leave as much time as I am able to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho). I congratulate her on bringing forward this debate and on assembling such a passionate, wild bunch in favour of her wild belt designation proposals.
I will say a few words about our planning proposals before I turn to my hon. Friend’s proposals. We have said that building back better from this pandemic means ensuring not only that new developments are greener and better for the environment, but that they support healthy, happy and flourishing communities and habitats. I want to be absolutely clear that one of the key purposes of our planning reforms is to leave a legacy of environmental improvement.
Our new planning system will improve both the quality and the standards of development. It will secure better outcomes, including for our countryside and the environment, alongside increasing the supply of land for new, beautiful homes and sustainable places—not least by getting local plans in place; as my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) rightly noted, that is a significant contributor to preventing speculative development and building in the wrong places, rather than the right ones.
To deliver on our ambitions, we have announced a number of proposals for driving forward environmental benefits, through both the Environment Bill and our proposed reforms to the planning system. The Environment Bill, which has already come before the House, mandates, for the first time, a 10% net gain for biodiversity as a condition of most new developments. We are now proposing to extend that to the nationally significant infrastructure regime.
Recognising the relationship between the environment and development, we want to broaden the use of measurable environmental net gains beyond biodiversity to include wider natural capital benefits, such as flood protection, recreation and improved water and air quality, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) suggested. Alongside existing regulations that protect our most threatened or valuable habitats and species, that will allow us to establish a strategic, flexible and locally tailored approach that focuses, above all, on positive outcomes. We want to capitalise on the potential of local nature recovery strategies, including opportunities for new habitat creation, as we seek to make the system clearer and more responsive.
To complement this, we are examining the current frameworks for environmental assessment. They are often complex and lengthy, and we believe they lead to unnecessary delays, hindering opportunities to protect the environment and open up appropriate development. Our intention is to bring forward a quicker, simpler framework that encourages opportunities for environmental enhancements to be identified and pursued early in the development process. We will embed this approach through further updates to national planning policy, ensuring that environmental considerations feature fully in planning decisions, including their role in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
As several hon. Members have suggested, our reforms also encourage the sector to think more creatively about biodiversity and about how bee bricks, green roofs and community orchards can improve the quality of our air and the quality of our lives. We are taking action through the national planning policy framework to set the expectation that all new streets will be tree-lined, aspiring to the beauty of green infrastructure such as we see in the cherry blossom trees that line the streets of Bonn in Germany.
Protecting and enhancing the green belt is very much part and parcel of this. I said that yesterday in the debate on planning brought forward by the Opposition, and I say it today specifically to my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who is keen on the green belt—she said as much in her speech. I trust that she will encourage her local council to be equally keen on the green belt. I can certainly assure her, as I assure the shadow Minister, that it is our intention to undertake a wholesale reform of local authority resourcing, including looking at the fee structure to ensure that local authorities have the wherewithal do the job we ask of them.
In consultation with local authorities, I am happy to have that discussion with my right hon. Friend.
Before I turn to the issue of wild belt designation, our White Paper proposes a new approach to the categorisation of land, reflecting its potential for growth, for renewal and for protection. We are now considering responses to our consultation carefully, so I hope that hon. Members will understand that I cannot say overmuch about the proposals while they are still being digested. I can say, however, that I am open to some of the proposals that my right hon. Friend has suggested, but with this word of caution. It is not only roots and vines that creep; the scope of Government Departments and their arm’s length bodies also creeps. We must be very careful that by giving statutory powers to such bodies, we do not allow them to make use of land—or rather, designate against development of land—that could be good brownfield sites, such as land close to railway lines. That simply places the weight of expectation of development on other places, such as greenfield sites. We need to be careful about what we wish for.
What we want to do is to build on more brownfield sites to protect the sort of land that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) talked about. That is why we have increased the local housing network calculation for the 20 largest cities in our country; that is why we increased brownfield regeneration funding by £500 million; that is why we have introduced an urban taskforce; and that is why we have introduced PDRs, to allow better and easier gentle densification of urban and town centre landscapes.
We are determined to support our environment through our planning reforms, we are determined to build on brownfield first and we are determined to take forward the views and aspirations of all in this Chamber who want wildlife to be placed first and foremost at the heart of our planning reforms. I appreciate that the fickle finger of time is ticking down the clock, so I am very happy now for my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey to retake her rightful place and close the debate.
I thank the hon. Members who contributed today; looking around this room, I see such a wealth of experience in environmental matters, and it has been a privilege to hear from everyone. I am grateful to hear so much enthusiastic support for this proposal, and I am grateful to the Minister for a gracious and detailed response. Most importantly, I welcome his wise recognition of the level of support that he has heard in this room.
We have heard passionate speeches today about the tragedy of species decline and the importance of access to green space, but I think the most important word has been “strategy”, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and so many others. It is always a good day when I hear my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) talk about trophic pyramids. Finally, I thank the Wildlife Trusts; those are the words we have heard the most today, and for very good reason. I am very glad to put this proposal forward.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered a proposal for Wildbelt designation in planning system reforms.