Wednesday 8 September 2021
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: Tenth Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2019-21, The humanitarian situation in Tigray, HC 1289, and the Government response, Session 2019-21, HC 554.]
Good morning and welcome. Bore da. Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with the current Government guidance and what the House of Commons Commission has prescribed. Please would Members also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room? Members should send speaking notes by email to email@example.com. Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers. Without further ado, it is my great pleasure to invite Sarah Champion to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in Tigray.
As ever, it is a pleasure, Mr Davies, to serve under your chairmanship, and also to see so many Members here, which shows the significance of not just the debate but what is happening in Ethiopia at the moment.
The situation in Tigray is truly horrific. This could be a debate about conflict prevention, regional stability or foreign policy in the horn of Africa, but it is the dreadful humanitarian situation and the terrible conditions the people in Tigray are having to endure that must be our focus today. That dire situation motivated the International Development Committee, which I chair, to produce a short report. I am grateful to the Government for their response to the report, and I look forward to hearing more from the Minister shortly.
Let us be clear: it is conflict that has driven a worsening humanitarian situation in Tigray. Against a backdrop of deteriorating political relationships between the regional Government in Tigray and the federal Government in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian national defence force started security operations in Tigray in November 2020. The Tigray regional security forces have fought against it, retaking the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle in June. Local militia and unidentified troops are involved. Eritrean troops are fighting in Tigray and are alleged to have committed human rights violations and abuses.
I do not want to dwell too long on the causes and the nature of the conflict, save to note two things. It is clear that there have been abuses by all parties to the conflict and that all parties are using propaganda and misinformation to advance their cause. All the time, it is the people who suffer—people whose lives were already difficult; people whose livelihoods were under threat from climate change and the worst desert locust infestation for decades; people who were already hosting populations displaced by previous conflicts in the region.
I would like to set out briefly some of the key humanitarian challenges, before going on to talk about some of the grave violations of human rights that have been reported. I want to focus on women and girls because, like in so many other conflicts and crises around the world, women and girls are disproportionately impacted. We must find a way to end the heartbreaking and unimaginable horrors that some women and girls have had to endure and continue to face in the form of gender-based violence and sexual violence.
The first issue that arises in conflict is the risk of injury or death. People fearing for their lives and those of their families flee areas of conflict. An estimated 2.1 million people have been displaced by the conflict. In Tigray, many people have fled rural areas, and thousands of displaced people are being hosted in communities in large urban areas. These communities are themselves already stressed by the effects of conflict, shortages of food and water, and a lack of access to essential services. People are not always safe once they have fled. The unpredictable nature of conflict means that fighting often erupts unexpectedly. People have to flee fighting more than once. The effect on their lives and livelihoods is devastating, sowing the seeds of problems that will endure for years.
Access is another major problem. The conflict has prevented humanitarian agencies from reaching people in need. They have been unable to access areas to deliver vital supplies, while the lack of access has also made it much more difficult to assess need. The latest situation report from the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that no trucks have entered Tigray since 20 August. Since 15 July, only 321 trucks with humanitarian supplies have entered the region, providing only a fraction of the assistance needed by the 5.2 million people in need. The reality is that 100 trucks a day are required to meet the demand.
It is true that there have been some improvements in access, and at the time we were preparing our report it looked like agreements had been secured, but the situation is not yet good enough to meet the needs of the people affected by the fighting. Parts of Tigray remain problematic to this day, with fighting still disrupting access routes and belligerents on all sides failing to recognise permissions granted to humanitarian agencies. I pay tribute to the extraordinary work the humanitarian agencies are doing in the face of terrible difficulties and huge personal risks. Tragically, some humanitarian workers have been killed. Worse, it seems that they have been deliberately murdered.
Thousands of people in Tigray have not had the access they need to food and water. Over 400,000 people are suffering catastrophic levels of hunger and more than 4 million—around 70% of the population—are experiencing high levels of food insecurity. Combatants have blocked food aid from reaching its destination, it has been looted by soldiers and there are reports of food silos being contaminated.
Beyond these immediate life-sustaining needs, the conflict has brought about a collapse of essential services. Communication was cut off in the early part of the conflict, there have been power shortages, markets have closed, the internet is down making bank transfers extremely difficult, banking has been disrupted and essential services have collapsed, but to talk simply of a collapse of essential services would be to hide the shocking and awful truth that schools, hospitals and the means of production have all been deliberately and systematically targeted, vandalised and destroyed. Where schools have not been vandalised, they have been occupied either by the combatants or by displaced people seeking some kind of refuge.
With markets closed and limited access for food deliveries, finding adequate nutrition is a real problem. An estimated 45,000 children under five are suffering from malnutrition, while health centres are reportedly running out of stocks. It gets worse because farmers, where their farms and machinery have not been vandalised, are unable to plant crops. Only 25% to 50% of cereal production will be available this year. Soldiers are reported to have beaten people they have seen ploughing fields, and harvests have been destroyed and livestock looted, all in a part of the world that was already severely stressed by changes in climate and the effect of desert locusts. There is a real prospect of famine and the creation of yet another cycle of aid dependency, in a part of the world that has suffered so much in the past and that had hoped to leave this sort of problem behind it.
Then we turn to the atrocities: the mass killings and the chilling sexual violence. We know there have been massacres, including the cliff-top killing of 25 to 35 civilians near Mahbere Dego, the killing of 160 people in Bora village in southern Tigray and the massacre of 100 people in Aksum in November by Eritrean soldiers. We know there have been extra-judicial killings. In March, Médecins sans Frontières staff witnessed young men being pulled off buses and killed.
We know that women and girls have been raped. In February, a young mother was abducted and over 11 days repeatedly raped by 23 soldiers, who at the end of her ordeal forced a rock and nails into her vagina. Twelve women, five of whom were pregnant, were raped in front of family members, including their children. We know that some women have been held captive and repeatedly raped by soldiers and militias.
Mark Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, acknowledged this after a Reuters investigation found that women and girls as young as eight were being targeted. It is brutal, dehumanising treatment. That the perpetrators cause these terrible acts to be witnessed by family members suggests they intend the effect to be terrorising, and clearly points towards the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Since February, 1,228 cases of sexual and gender-based violence have been reported, yet we know that for every rape and sexual violence case that is reported, there are many more that are not. The UN Population Fund estimates that there might be 22,500 survivors of sexual violence who will seek clinical care this year. Let me note at this point that the UK Government have slashed funding to UNFPA by an astonishing 85%. I dread to think of the impact this will have on women and girls in humanitarian crises like that in Tigray.
We know a lot about what the survivors of atrocities and sexual violence need to recover. Sadly, we also know that with much of the healthcare system in Tigray in tatters, there is little prospect of the survivors getting the support they need. The stories emerging via these organisations are horrifying. Many of the survivors will go on to suffer long-term debilitating physical and mental trauma. It may well be years before health systems are recovered to the point where women and girls will be able to get the support that they need.
It is important that the world bears witness to what is happening in Tigray, and the international system must do all that it can to bring the perpetrators to justice. I commend the work being done by the UN and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to investigate. I ask the Minister to try to allow access to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. At the moment, it is suffering difficulties trying to get in and carry out its investigation. It is vital that evidence of human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by all parties in Tigray is secured and investigated properly. It is important for the victims that that happens. It is important as a warning to others.
In the Select Committee’s report, we said that
“the situation in Tigray is an early test of the UK’s commitment to the principles and approach of the UK as a ‘force for good’ as set out in the Government’s Integrated Review.”
It still is. We recognised the Tigray crisis as
“a test of the FCDO’s desire to combine ‘diplomacy and development’ and to establish an integrated approach to conflict and instability. Failing this early test could damage the credibility of the UK’s new strategy.”
My Committee welcomes the Government’s response and their acceptance of the key points that we made about ending conflict and preventing it from spreading, ensuring that humanitarian needs are met, finding a sustainable political solution and supporting a process for reconciliation. I welcome the work of Nick Dyer, the UK special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs, and the support that the Government have provided to humanitarian agencies working in Tigray, but let us be clear that the biggest challenge in UK development policy is that the cuts to overseas development assistance are likely remain for the remainder of this Parliament and very much longer. The tests that the Government have set for the return to 0.7% are, potentially, impossibly hard to meet.
The Government’s response claims that
“HMG has been at the forefront of the international response throughout the conflict”.
UNOCHA reckons that the current gap in funding for the situation in Tigray is $170 million. There is a very real risk that the Government’s wholly unnecessary cuts to ODA will undermine our response.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for her comprehensive description of both the scale and the brutality of the conflict, but one issue that she has not referred to is the potential use of chemical weapons by the Ethiopian forces, on which I tabled a written question to the Minister in June. I understood from the response that the Government were seeking to verify the truth of those allegations, but is my hon. Friend also concerned about those reports, and does she agree that they should be part of the issues that the Government are seeking to address?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. The problem that we have is the verification. I saw the pictures of the chemical attack. I have no doubt from seeing those pictures that that is what happened, but unless we are able to get people on the ground to capture that data and are then able to verify it, it is incredibly difficult to encourage the Government and the international community to take a more robust response. That is why it is so important that we, as parliamentarians, keep raising the issue of access to gather data and to get the evidence to hold people to account, and keep it on our Government’s agenda-.
I have several questions that I hope the Minister will be able to address. First, how will the cuts in the UK’s ODA affect Ethiopia and in particular the humanitarian situation in Tigray, and what does being
“at the forefront of the international response”
mean for the UK’s response to the current shortfall in funding? Secondly, what steps will the Government take to put pressure on belligerents to end the fighting, and will the Minister also press the UN to act on the issues of rape and hunger being used as weapons of war? Thirdly, will he update the House on the deployment in Tigray of experts from the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, and what assessment have the Government made of the impact of aid cuts to programmes such as the United Nations Population Fund on supporting survivors of sexual violence in the long term?
Fourthly, what steps has the Minister taken since the Government’s response was issued in July to prioritise Tigray, and what recent discussions has he had with aid agencies, the UN and other actors in the region? Fifthly, has the delivery of aid improved significantly since the Government published their response to our report, and what are the next steps if the delivery of aid is to be further improved? Sixthly, what steps is the Minister taking to put pressure on the Ethiopian Government and regional authorities to improve access and communications? Seventhly, how concerned is he about the safety of humanitarian workers in Tigray, and what can be done to better protect them?
Finally, what is the Minister’s latest assessment of the conflict spreading in Ethiopia, and what impact is the fighting in Amhara, Oromia and other parts of Ethiopia having on the work of the UK Government in Tigray? Will people displaced by those conflicts depend on the same pot of money as the people in Tigray?
The last month has been dramatic and traumatic in equal measure, but with attention focused on Afghanistan it is easy for the crisis in Tigray to slip from our collective consciousness. Even without Afghanistan, Haiti may have pushed Tigray off the news cycle, and we hear precious little day to day about what is happening in Ethiopia. The reports are there if we look for them but, as a real crisis, it does not get the level of attention it should. It is clear that the violence in Ethiopia has spread, and the risks we identified of conflict spreading further are still very real.
In closing, let me just say this: we must not lose sight of the situation in Tigray. The level of human suffering and the risk of conflict spreading demand it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your benign sway today, Mr Davies. I congratulate the Chairman of the International Development Committee on so ably leading this debate and on all the work that she and her Committee do. I join her in praising hugely the humanitarian actors who are in harm’s way in Tigray today.
I went with Bob Geldof, who probably knows more about the situation in this part of Africa than most people in Britain, to see the Foreign Secretary some months ago at the start of the crisis. I was extremely impressed that the Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary were absolutely on top of what was happening. With so much else going on, there is a danger that public attention on what is happening in Tigray, so eloquently described by the hon. Lady, is missing. There is not enough public attention. I urge the media to ensure that attention increases greatly. There is a lot else going on.
There is a massive deterioration in the position on the ground. At least 7 million people need urgent assistance. The position was set out yesterday on the BBC website, which reported that 150 people had starved to death. That really matters to us in Britain. In 2011, the development programme in Ethiopia was the biggest anywhere in the world. It is a big country and there have been huge development gains in health and education, particularly among girls, and in the rights of women. There has been enormous progress in that respect.
Britain has huge strategic, commercial and security interests there. Ethiopia, for example, is pulling troops out of Somalia at the moment, which creates space for al-Shabaab to do its evil work there. There are huge flows of desperate people across the border in Sudan, a fragile country where millions of people are displaced. The whole thing destabilises the region. Ethiopia is being pulled apart by the conflict. Liberation movements and alliances are growing in strength. At the best of times, Ethiopia is a very fragile democracy with 110 million people. A major collapse there will have far more impact than Syria, Libya or Yemen, and we need to bear that in mind.
So what should we seek? First, we need to seek a cessation of fighting on all sides. Secondly, we need humanitarian access, which is grossly inadequate at the moment. It needs to be led by the international community, drawing on British expertise, and by the United Nations and the World Food Programme, which is doing an enormous amount of good work there at the moment. However, its funding has been cut from £21 million last year to £9 million this year, and that needs to be put right. We need to recognise that people are starving to death in Tigray and that there is massive violence, as set out by the hon. Lady, so I will not repeat that. Britain has a big strategic interest. Whether we care about development or not, Britain has a huge strategic interest in this part of the world, especially in Ethiopia, where millions and millions of taxpayers’ money have been spent on the ground to massive and real effect. That is why this debate matters so much, and why the issues that we are discussing are so important.
Thank you, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), my colleague on the International Development Committee, for securing the debate at a critical juncture for millions of Tigrayans. I also note the briefings from Oxfam, Amnesty International and Protection Approaches. As we have heard today, the escalating tensions in Tigray are deeply concerning and the international community must act urgently to put pressure on the Governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia and the Tigrayan authorities to bring an end to this latest conflict, which has now lasted almost a year and cost thousands of lives.
The UK Government must do all they can to de-escalate the rising tensions, investigate the reported war crimes and put pressure on all sides to allow non-governmental organisations to access the thousands of Tigrayans who are the victims of this conflict. Their lives remain at risk and they will continue to suffer unless urgent action is taken to permit vital aid to enter the region.
More than 400,000 people in Tigray are experiencing famine-like conditions. To put that in context, that is more than the rest of the world combined. Furthermore, the Red Cross has estimated that almost 6 million people in Tigray and the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara are going hungry, while an additional 1.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of the conflict. It is clear that we are witnessing a humanitarian crisis unfold before our eyes in Tigray.
I am a proud member of the International Development Committee. Earlier this year we urged the UK Government to intervene in the crisis to bring a swift end to the conflict and help facilitate humanitarian access. Since then, there has been a deterioration in the humanitarian situation, while the ability of non-governmental organisations and aid organisations to access the region has diminished. For example, Oxfam told Members of this House that aid organisations are struggling to transport the 100 trucks a day of food supplies that are required into the region. It is vital that the UK Government apply pressure to ensure that there is unfettered, unimpeded access to Tigray to enable that lifesaving aid to be delivered to thousands of citizens.
Given our historic relationship with the region, we should do all we can to help. Amnesty International has raised concerns that attacks and mass killings have continued unchecked since the conflict started in November 2020, with crimes against humanity taking place on both sides, between the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments and Tigrayan rebels. Worryingly, a report this week by The Daily Telegraph revealed that, since July, soldiers occupying parts of Ethiopia’s Tigray region have been involved in what has been described as an ethnic purge of native people, who are being thrown into concentration camps and massacred by the dozen. Witnesses in the northern city of Humera, near the border with Eritrea, have claimed that soldiers from Amhara province have been conducting Taliban-type door-to-door searches for ethnic Tigrayan people, the result of which is that thousands of residents have been forced into makeshift detention centres.
Such scenes followed reports, which have since been corroborated by the UN, of Eritrean troops systematically killing hundreds of unarmed civilians in the northern city of Aksum over a two-day period in November 2020, which saw open shooting in the streets. Amnesty International has said that could amount to a crime against humanity and has also described it as just the tip of the iceberg, given the mass killings that followed. The charity has also heard shocking reports of gang rapes of people held in captivity, which they have described as sexual slavery, as well as clear examples of sexual mutilation of survivors, which is a crime under international law.
The toll on all citizens in the region has been unbearable. Since the beginning of the conflict there have been widespread and systematic campaigns of destruction and looting, including the theft of farm animals, which has significantly affected harvesting across Tigray, compounding the famine and starvation of the population.
It is clear that the UK Government cannot delay action any further. We must not lose sight of this crisis and the fate of thousands of Tigrayans while the eyes of the world are on Afghanistan, and we must continue to add pressure to allow organisations such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to have access to Tigray to investigate the situation further and carry out a thorough assessment of the impact of this conflict.
The charity, Protection Approaches, which works to tackle all forms of identity-based violence and mass atrocities, has rightly stated that the UK Government have a legal obligation to prevent further conflict in the region under the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide.
It is also a matter of national interest and, left unchecked, the financial and human cost will be enormous. Much would be in keeping with what Tigrayans have already called for, which is a commitment to a negotiated end to the war. The UK should help facilitate that. Failing to support them in that endeavour would lead to an ongoing conflict that will cost tens of thousands more lives.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Davies. I declare my interest as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Eritrea. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) not only for securing the debate today and her graphic speech, but for chairing the pre-briefing, which the APPG on Eritrea co-hosted yesterday.
We must do all that we can to fulfil our international obligations to prevent mass atrocities of the nature occurring in Tigray. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports on worrying indications that atrocity crimes—war crimes, crimes against humanity and possible genocide—may have occurred and could still be under way in Tigray. In the words of a priest from the Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat, interviewed at the height of the occupation,
“They want to annihilate Tigray. By killing the men and boys, they are trying to destroy any future resistance…They are raping and destroying women to ensure that they cannot raise a community in the future. They are using rape and food as weapons of war.”
By June 2021, researchers at Belgium’s University of Ghent had documented 10,000 deaths and 230 massacres, with many more incidents yet to be fully investigated. No one, anywhere, should be targeted on account of their religion or beliefs, yet in Tigray clergy and worshippers have been targeted and killed in large numbers.
According to a statement in February from the employees of Mekelle diocese and the administrators of 45 monasteries and churches, almost every monastery and church and religious school in Tigray has been bombed by drones or heavy weapons.
“A lot of clergymen, deacons, congregation members of Sunday schools, religious students and children, especially those clergymen who were on religious service, were massacred like animals.”
The indiscriminate bombing and destruction of ancient churches, mosques and other religious institutions, and the extensive looting of irreplaceable historical artefacts and manuscripts, appear to be part of a multifaceted campaign that involves cultural cleansing. Not only do those actions violate international humanitarian law but, according to the Rome statute, intentionally directing attacks against religious buildings and historic monuments can also constitute a war crime.
In 2019, the Government published a good policy paper, “UK approach to preventing mass atrocities”. In places such as Tigray now we need to see actions to match the strong words from that document, such as:
“The UK supports the deployment of all appropriate tools available to the UN in dealing with potential atrocities and conflict such as sanctions (diplomatic, travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, and commodity interdiction), and is a strong advocate for securing accountability and justice for atrocities committed.”
“Development/programmatic support aims to foster environments where atrocities are less likely to take place—by addressing the root causes of conflict and drivers of instability, through tackling corruption, promoting good governance, improving access to security and justice, and inclusive economic development.”
I hope that in his closing remarks the Minister will elaborate on how those words are being applied now to the UK’s approach to the conflict in Tigray and the wider region, not least to help de-escalate tensions.
I also note the recommendation of the Select Committee on International Development for atrocity prevention training. In addition, the Truro review, a manifesto commitment of this Government, states at recommendation 7:
“Ensure that there are mechanisms in place to facilitate an immediate response to atrocity crimes, including genocide, through activities such as setting up early-warning mechanisms to identify countries at risk of atrocities, diplomacy to help de-escalate tensions and resolve disputes, and developing support to help with upstream prevention work. Recognising that the ultimate determination of genocide must be legal not political and respecting the UK’s long-held policy in this area, the FCO should nonetheless determine its policy in accordance with the legal framework and should be willing to make public statements condemning such atrocities.”
Colleagues can be assured that, as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, I am working closely—indeed, daily—with the FCDO in order to ensure that we implement this and all 22 recommendations of the Truro review in full by their required completion date of July 2022.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), on securing the debate. It is so important to keep this issue on the table in the face of so many other global challenges taking place today. It is so concerning, disappointing and worrying to hear the kinds of stories and testimonies that we have already heard, because Ethiopia looked like a bit of a success story several years ago. It was quite a stable country, food security was increasing, and Prime Minister Abiy was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Unfortunately, it is not the first time in recent years that the Nobel Committee seems to have jumped ahead of itself slightly and given awards that, in hindsight, it maybe should have taken a bit more time to think about.
I echo the thanks of right hon. and hon. Members to those who supported the Oxfam briefing yesterday, which was incredibly helpful. It informed a lot of what we have heard today. We have heard the statistics again: it is estimated that 2 million people have been internally displaced, with 61% facing acute food insecurity. Some 600,000 are already over the threshold into famine, and another 2 million are on the brink of what the Oxfam rep who spoke to us yesterday described as the risk of catastrophic hunger. As we have heard, there are multiple, complex and overlapping causes, which require multiple, overlapping interventions—the huge displacement, the lack of infrastructure, the destruction of roads and bridges, which simply makes getting aid to where it is needed almost impossible, and the communications blackout, which has come up time and again in the briefings and evidence. It is a military tactic that is completely undermining humanitarian relief, which should be delivered, over and above whatever is going on in terms of conflict.
There is dreadful use of hunger as a weapon of war, and we have heard stories about the deliberate destruction of crops and livestock. There are particular concerns around ethnic tensions and tribal loyalties, which have fuelled the conflict and political division. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) spoke about the serious risk of regional overspill, the influence of Eritrea, and the displacement of over 60,000 refugees into Sudan already.
I want to touch briefly on the situation in Oromia. I have a very active constituent who is originally from Oromia and who is part of the Oromia Support Group, which has identified extra-judicial killings going back to October 2018. Of the more than 2,000 victims, 1,612 were identified as being from the Oromo group. The Oromia Support Group and its colleagues are calling for an inclusive dialogue between all the factions, with a view to ending any domination of one group over another. I will send the Minister the information that I have, and I encourage him to look at it very carefully indeed.
There is a challenge here for the Government. How will they live up to the standards that they have set for themselves in being proactive about atrocity prevention? How will they use their convening powers and diplomatic influence? If they want to be a soft power superpower, will they start by properly supporting agencies on the ground? We must support multilaterals, the United Nations and NGOs such as Save the Children, which, in very difficult circumstances, are maintaining a direct presence. What will be the impact of the aid cuts? Time and again in Westminster Hall, we hear practical, real-life examples of the effects of that completely unnecessary cut. It is having an impact practically, in terms of what can be delivered, and it is having a diplomatic effect as well, because it undermines the UK’s stance on the world stage. There is a need to work with all the agencies and partners and to recognise the Government’s obligations under international law.
One of the most sobering questions that was posed yesterday was: what if this is not the worst? What if the worst has yet to come? Too often we have stood by, when we should have learned the lessons of the past. The UK has to assess, it has to intervene, and it has to work with others and make sure that we avoid even further and more rapid deterioration.
As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Ethiopia and Djibouti and somebody who has visited Ethiopia many times, I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate and the very moving way in which she described the terrible situation in Tigray. I thank her for her and her Committee’s continued interest in Ethiopia. I also thank the Minister for his willingness to provide briefings and attend meetings regularly on this subject, and for his ongoing involvement.
I asked an urgent question on 14 June, and sadly the situation, if anything, has deteriorated since, but it need not be this way. As has been alluded to, Ethiopia is a great country. It claims to have been the origin of coffee. Lucy, one of the world’s oldest human beings—4.4 million years—was found there. It has been independent for longer than any African country. I am not quite sure of the claims about the Queen of Sheba, but I do know that Ethiopia is one of the west’s oldest Christian civilisations. That is one of the tragedies: Christian and Muslim populations, sizeable as they are in Ethiopia, have lived peacefully together. More than 80 tribes and probably as many languages have managed to co-exist peacefully since the overthrow of the Derg in 1992.
I am told that Ethiopia has enjoyed world-record growth in the past 15 years; certainly, it is one of Africa’s outstanding success stories in that sense. It really is ironic that trouble has flared since the appointment of the outward-looking, modernising Prime Minister, who, as has been said, won the Nobel peace prize for making peace with Eritrea after a very long-standing dispute, but the rumblings of discontent started before he took office and have sadly increased since.
Ethiopia has suffered recently because of the unusually warm weather. The attack of locusts and, of course, covid have not helped. It is important to recognise that millions of people in Ethiopia each year depend on food aid. I am really rather struck by what World Food Programme people have said this week: up to 7 million people are in dire need of food assistance in northern Ethiopia alone. Their food stocks in Tigray are running perilously low, and they need $140 million to expand their northern Ethiopian response.
I will not go into the details of the conflict, which the hon. Lady covered ably, but I will ask a few questions. As far as the Minister knows, has the conflict spread as far as Lalibela—a town I visited on my last visit to Ethiopia? It really would be tragic if it had got that far. Could the United Nations be doing more, beyond helping refugees, which is a very important thing for it to be doing? Could the African Union be doing more, especially in speaking to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and Eritrea, to make sure its troops are all withdrawn from the country? During the urgent question, the Minister said he had diverted aid to Tigray. Did that have any effect, and if so could that practice be repeated?
I also ask that other donors do not turn away from Ethiopia because of the conflict. People living in war-torn areas are often the most in need. I want us to continue with our aid programme. We need to target the aid and we need to require transparency. If possible, we should use it as a lever to bring about peace, but we should continue it.
As a very long-standing friend of Ethiopia who has stood in this Chamber and the main Chamber and defended Ethiopia as a friend, when perhaps it was questionable to have done so, I call on all the parties there to resolve this conflict very quickly and peacefully.
Thank you, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important debate.
November will mark one year since the onset of violence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. It started in retaliation to an attack on the Northern Command by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. This is a complex conflict, with many different actors on the ground, but the reports of the conflict have consistently included evidence of mass executions, the targeting of Tigrayans by ethnicity, the destruction of crops, livestock and machinery, and the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Tigrayan women and girls have been raped since this conflict began.
The conflict has led to a humanitarian disaster in Tigray, and non-governmental organisations are continuing to report difficulties getting into the region. The latest reports indicate that Tigray is still facing siege-like conditions, and a recent UN aid convoy was held at a checkpoint for two days, after which only nine of the trucks were allowed to proceed. Some 5.5 million people are facing crisis levels of food insecurity, and 350,000 are at catastrophic risk. There are sickening accounts of Tigrayans being held in prison camps near the Sudanese border, with reports from Sudan of corpses floating down the Setit river, clearly identifiable as Tigrayans and showing signs of torture. This conflict contains the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and there are reports of the use of white phosphorus, which, although not classified as a chemical weapon, delivers appalling injuries.
In addition to the problems with humanitarian access, it has been very difficult for journalists seeking to report on the situation in Tigray. Some extremely brave journalists have continued to do so, often placing themselves in grave danger and facing an aggressive smear campaign for their work. I pay particular tribute to Nima Elbagir and Lucy Kassa—brave women who have done so much to bear witness to the atrocities in Tigray.
Despite the horrors unfolding in Tigray, this conflict has remained under-reported and under-prioritised by the international community. I secured an Adjournment debate on Tigray in March, and at that time, five months into the conflict, with 10,000 women and girls at that point reported to have been raped, that was the only debate to have taken place on the issue in any western Parliament. I have constituents with loved ones in Tigray who are in fear for their lives, and constituents working with NGOs in Ethiopia, seeking to deliver aid to Tigray.
The response to the conflict from the UN so far has been insufficiently resourced, and there is an urgent need for additional capacity. In this context, it is also concerning that the Government of Ethiopia appear to be withdrawing from the international community, with reports that as many as half—about 30—of their international embassies are to close.
I hope that the Minister will set out today what the UK Government are doing to secure a stronger response from the UN and ensure that the attention of the international community is focused on Tigray. What are the Government doing to increase the mobilisation of UK-funded aid to support UK nationals delivering humanitarian assistance? What are the Government doing to secure a peace process to prevent this conflict from escalating further, across Ethiopia and the horn of Africa? Will the UK Government prioritise trauma support and healthcare services for women and girls who are survivors of rape and sexual violence, as a first-order priority of their humanitarian response? And will the Minister finally recognise the catastrophic implications of cutting international aid at this time?
The conflict in Ethiopia risks a humanitarian catastrophe potentially as serious as the famine of the 1980s, and there are other, equally pressing priorities across the world, including the 18 million people in need of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. In the current context of cuts, each time the Minister stands up and says that the Government are committing additional resources to a humanitarian emergency, it prompts the question: at the expense of which other humanitarian priority is that additional aid being delivered? This simply cannot be justified in the face of such unfolding horror.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to be back in Westminster Hall—I almost got lost this morning. I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for calling for this important and timely debate and for her opening remarks highlighting the need to ensure that the issue stays on the agenda. With the 24-hour news cycle, it is so easy for major issues, issues of this scale, to be pushed down. With constant refreshing and updating, one could almost forget what is going on, so it is important for us in this Parliament to keep this issue on the Government’s agenda and to look at what clear action and response our Government will be leading to help the situation.
The situation is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis—the war that erupted last year and the horrific human rights abuse. Just this week, there have been reports of thousands of men, women and children being forced into concentration camps and of door-to-door ethnic purging of the Tigrayan people. The International Development Committee highlighted the gendered nature of human rights abuses in Tigray, with sexual violence a key feature of such abuse. Last month, a report by Amnesty International revealed that forces aligned to the Ethiopian Government had subjected women and girls to sexual violence, rape and sexual slavery. If we are committed to ending sexual violence against women in this country, we have to be equally committed to helping women and girls in other countries.
For women with family in the region, such as my constituent who contacted me in March, the war has made contacting their loved ones even more difficult. They are worried—petrified—for their loved ones. Tragically, the isolation has made it so much harder for humanitarian aid to get through to the people who need it the most. Food has run out in many regions of Tigray. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) highlighted, more than 150 people died of starvation last month alone—that should shame us as a country. There can be no mistake about the level of human suffering being a direct result of the conflict, which shows no sign of a peaceful resolution any time soon.
Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I too ask the Minister what additional support the Government will be offering to address this serious issue and to help bring an end to the conflict. Will the Government use their relationship with the Ethiopian authorities to ensure that Ethiopia’s Government protects the affected communities and brings an end to human rights abuses and the gender-based violence?
It is a pleasure to be back under your chairship, Mr Davies, and to be back in the real Westminster Hall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important and timely debate. I agree with many Members that the eyes of the world are not on Tigray as they should be, so this is an important time to put on the record what is happening there right now and to hear from the Minister about our response.
I share the distress and sadness displayed by so many colleagues this morning about what we are still witnessing in Tigray. It is a truly heartbreaking situation. At the time of Live Aid, we were so proud that as a country we stood up together to support the people of Ethiopia in their time of crisis. We want to do the same again. We want to know what is happening in that region. We feel a great bond, as well as having constituents—as I do—who have family members in the region.
The UN Secretary-General has said that
“a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes”.
The Foreign Secretary took his eye off Afghanistan, but I hope to hear from the Minister that that is not the case with Tigray. I was heartened that the Foreign Secretary mentioned Tigray in briefings held during the recess, so I am glad of this opportunity for a Minister to lay out what is happening in the British Government. I also have some questions.
On 4 November 2020, armed conflict broke out in northern Ethiopia between the regional and federal Governments in the country’s Tigray region. That conflict has since spilled over into the neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions. Reports indicate that clashes continue in northern Ethiopia, involving Ethiopian, Amharan and Tigrayan forces. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in Afar and Amhara, and more than 2.2 million people are now thought to be displaced in Tigray, many to neighbouring countries, as has been mentioned in the debate, including Sudan. It is estimated that more than 6 million people across those areas are affected by the crisis and in need of assistance. The scale of the humanitarian crisis is staggering.
More than 5 million people in Tigray require immediate humanitarian assistance. At least 54 organisations are providing aid and services. I join with other Members in paying tribute to the brave humanitarian workers on the ground right now. However, there are significant gaps in assistance, which disproportionately affect Ethiopian women and girls, who have virtually no access to livelihoods and often live in insecure environments. The harvests are failing right now, and the harvests of November and December are likely to fail as well—there has been no ability to plant—so the crisis is getting worse. Verification on the ground is needed.
For months, Ethiopian troops, aided by Eritrean soldiers, have tortured, sexually assaulted, killed and displaced Tigrayan civilians. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front has also perpetrated human rights abuses and has looted a United States Agency for International Development warehouse. The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian affairs reported on 19 August that, while access in large areas inside Tigray is now feasible and secure, other areas remain inaccessible. The extended delays in the clearance of humanitarian supplies, with lorries going in but not coming out again to replenish their stocks, is a major issue right now. OCHA says that it is 50% short of the funding needed to respond now.
When did the Foreign Secretary last speak to the Ethiopian Government to make these points? Has the Prime Minister spoken to his Ethiopian counterpart? What steps are the UK Government taking to ensure the protection of civilians, including women and girls, from sexual and gender-based violence in particular? Will the Minister ensure that aid is prioritised for this crisis and do everything in his power to press the Ethiopian Government for an increase in funding, the cessation of fighting and unfettered humanitarian access? The road through the Amhara region is now closed. What is happening with that? What about the resumption of essential services—water and sanitation, power, banking and communications? We need to challenge the Ethiopian Government on the rhetoric being used against the humanitarian community, which is endangering aid works in the region—many of them British. The targeting and arresting of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa must cease. The eyes of the world must be on Tigray and urgent action must be taken.
It is a pleasure to be back in the real Westminster Hall, as the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) said, and to be part of this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for setting the scene. We have all said it and we all mean it: she is a champion on these issues and speaks out. Whenever I see her name down for a debate I am attracted to speak on that matter, because I share her concerns and those expressed by everyone today.
It seems that all eyes are on Afghanistan. That is understandable and, perhaps, as it should be. However, this debate reminds us that there are people in need of help and support throughout the world, and the war in Tigray is one such place. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) referred to the historical connections and relationships that the UK has with Ethiopia. We should be able to use those and use our influence. I hope the Minister can tell us what can be done.
I declare an interest as a chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief. Since the war in Tigray began last November, over 52,000 people have died and an estimated 1.7 million have been displaced. A report on persecution.org states:
“On March 10, 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before the US Congress about the ‘ethnic cleansing’ occurring in Ethiopia, particularly in the Tigray region. In early November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which he accused of attacking a federal army base. Despite official denial, the Eritrean military, as well as forces from an adjoining region, Amhara, have been participating in the offensive and committing war crimes.”
Those crimes have been illustrated by other Members and I do not intend to repeat them. They are horrific to listen to and cause me great grief when I hear them.
The report continues:
“According to witness reports, egregious human rights abuses, such as rapes and mass killings, are being perpetrated by the various actors involved in the conflict… As so often the case, Christians are often caught in the crossfire as ethnic and political conflict accelerates. This year Ethiopia rose from 39th to 36th on the Open Doors World Watch List of countries with the most persecution. This change was due an increase of violence against Christians. In addition, Christians were discriminated against in the distribution of government aid during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
International Christian Concern reported in September 2020 that 500 Christians had been killed since June 2020. In late November 2020, approximately 800 people were killed near the St Mary of Zion church in the northern Tigray region.
The situation is dire for Christians, people of all faith and those of none. The fact is, no one is really safe in the Tigray region. The debate highlights the need for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to offer more help to address the reality of living life in war-torn Tigray. Children are living in fear, with no educational or vocational prospects, with insufficient food, and family units are decimated. It is so important to have families, yet they are dispersed, attacked and violated.
Less than 10% of the required humanitarian cargo, 2.2% of the necessary operational cash and 28% of fuel has been able to reach Tigray since 12 July. Only 320,000 hectares of farmland were planted out of 1.3 million hectares available, with a maximum of 13% of typical agricultural yields expected, further exacerbating food insecurity. So much needs to be done. I know that we in the UK can always play our part, but we need confirmation from the Minister that that is happening in every way.
Only 25% to 50% of the normal cereal production will be available this year, as the agricultural planting season has been missed in many parts of Tigray because of food stock depletion. Only 131,000 people received food assistance between 19 and 25 August; it was 547,000 in the previous week. An estimated 1.7 million people are facing food insecurity in the Afar and Amhara regions because of the spillover of the Tigray conflict.
I understand that the Minister will outline the steps the Government have taken, and I welcome those steps. However, my question is simple: can we do more? The answer from everyone here is, “Yes, we can.” Can we offer more support? Can we uplift aid? Can we use local churches and NGOs to ensure that the aid gets through to those who need it most? Minister, can those churches and NGOs be used? If possible, either today or in the future, please tell us what can be done. Will we stand by and watch, or will we be able to say that we did what we could?
I conclude with this, Mr Davies. I implore the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Minister to review the scenario and to source additional support to feed these children, help these people to plant the crops and ensure that there is at least some hope of a future for these people. That is what we all ask for today.
Thank you, Mr Davies. It has always struck me that nobody ever criticised a speech for being too short, so I always endeavour to keep my remarks brief. It is a genuine pleasure to wind up the debate and to follow so many consensual speeches. I also congratulate the chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), for bringing this very important issue up the agenda. We cannot lose sight of the tragedy that is unfolding.
The first casualty of war is truth, and that is certainly the case in Tigray. There has been wrongdoing on all sides, and it is difficult to calculate what is actually happening on the ground. There have been some very strong contributions to this debate. I was particularly struck by the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who gave us the context: that the situation in Tigray is a reversal of the progress that had been made. It did not need to be like this. There has been good, constructive aid spent. There has been progress made. What we are now seeing is a tragedy, in which we are genuinely witnessing sexual violence and starvation being used as weapons of war, while the world is watching.
The scale, as we have heard, is quite staggering: 900,000 Tigrayans are starving; 5 million are on the brink of starvation and experiencing chronic food insecurity; an estimated 15,000 cases of rape in the last seven months have been calculated by Amnesty International; and there are 2.2 million displaced persons so far, with many more in grave danger.
This has been a very consensual debate, and I am glad to hear it, because this is not for party political knockabout. However, where we in the SNP do very strongly diverge from the UK Government is in our deep sadness at the walking away from the 0.7% aid commitment. We cannot do more with less. We see that in Tigray; we see it elsewhere. The cut is a reversal of the UK’s good work on international development, as we have heard, and we regret it deeply. Particularly with so many former Department for International Development personnel being based in Scotland, in East Kilbride, we feel that very personally. We would again urge the UK Government to reverse course on those cuts.
I have a number of concrete questions for the Minister. As I said, I always seek to be brief. What discussions and what success have the UK Government had in their talks with the Ethiopian and Eritrean Governments about a ceasefire and about achieving humanitarian access? What emergency food aid will the UK commit to, particularly as winter is approaching? So many people are at the really grave risk of starvation, and we could see a globally significant tragedy.
What assessment has the FCDO made of the risk of the instability in Tigray spreading to other regions within Ethiopia, but also to other countries within the wider region? This could be the focal point of a far wider crisis than even now. The UK has authorised £65,000-worth of military exports to Ethiopia since 2018. That is not huge, but it is surely not appropriate. Can the Minister assure us that there will be no further arms exports to the region? That is surely the last thing that the region needs. On accountability, there have been war crimes committed in this conflict. What discussions has the UK been part of—within the UN in particular, I suspect—to ensure the accountability of war criminals in the region? We must hold them to account.
Tigray is going to need support on many things going forward, and where the UK Government make steps towards meaningful contributions, they will continue to have SNP support. This issue is too important for a party political knockabout.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the Chair of the International Development Committee, for securing this debate and for the work she and her Committee have done on this matter. I also thank everyone else who has contributed today, and particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), for Putney (Fleur Anderson), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and others. I also want to thank all other Members, because what has been clear today is the level of concern; the comments made by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have all illustrated the horrific reports we are getting from Tigray and the wider concerns of this House.
As the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) said, this is not a party political issue; this is about concern for the people of Ethiopia and Tigray, and about our wider humanitarian and human rights responsibilities. That is why the Labour Front Benchers and I have repeatedly raised this issue with Ministers and had many discussions with the Minister, as well as with the Ethiopian Government and other parties directly.
I commend all those humanitarian and human rights agencies doing remarkable work on the ground and, as has also been mentioned, the journalists reporting in very difficult circumstances, whose reporting is so crucial for us to understand what is going on in situations such as this. Attempts to intimidate and threaten them have been deeply disturbing.
I have been absolutely horrified by the allegations of abuse on all sides: the reports of ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, attacks on women and children, torture and war crimes—some of this stuff is simply horrific. As ever in these situations it is the civilians who suffer. The tragedy is that we are yet to see full human rights investigations and actions on those who have perpetrated these crimes, we have yet to see full humanitarian access and we have yet to see a sense of humanity break through the fog and the horrors of this war.
I share the concerns expressed by many Members about this becoming a forgotten crisis—we have all been deeply concerned about what is going on in Afghanistan, but we must recognise that crises and tragedies are happening in so many other places, whether that is in Yemen, across the Sahel, in Ethiopia or the disturbing events we have seen in Guinea in recent days. We as a House and, I hope, the Government are keeping a full awareness of all these situations and taking action wherever appropriate.
I want to touch on some of the comments that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood spoke very powerfully in the Adjournment debate earlier this year about the sexual violence we have seen, which I will come on to later. The shocking figure that an estimated 10,000 rapes had happened is simply horrific. All sides have been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Secretary-General described the situation in Tigray as “hellish”, and that very much bears out what we have heard today. Thousands have already died; 4.4 million people are now in phase 3 or above of the integrated food insecurity phase classification, with 1.7 million facing food insecurity in the Afar and Amhara regions as well, and 400,000 people in famine-like conditions. We all remember that tragedy of the early 1980s and the consequences of human-made conflict for civilians, which led to absolutely devastating famine.
It is very important that we focus on the experiences of ordinary people living in Tigray, especially women and girls who are facing the consequences of this conflict. The Amnesty International report on sexual violence was particularly damning about the sadistic brutality being inflicted on women by people on all sides of this conflict, with rape and sexual violence used systematically to torture and dehumanise women and, in some cases, children; women being kept as sex slaves; women being subjected to genital mutilation—an act that is, horrifically, often conducted in front of family members to impose further psychological damage. Of course, women and girls are at risk even if they survive these attacks, because only 53% of health facilities have clinical capacity for management of rape and sexual violence, and only one in 10 health facilities overall are functioning, many of which are controlled by—or at least access to them is controlled by—those who have been committing crimes.
In the Amnesty International report, the father of a 10-year-old child who was raped in November 2020—I will not go into the details as they are simply too horrific to read out—said
“he was not able to get his daughter—who suffered terrible physical and psychological damage—to the hospital for four and a half months”.
He said he wanted to take her to the hospital in one location, but the armed forces who committed the abuses were administering it, so he had to seek support at another location, where she did in the end receive medical help, but only after months of trauma. That is utterly horrific. Women often have no way of receiving help for the consequences of these actions.
The area is also experiencing wider famine conditions, because of the impact of locusts, climate change, covid and other diseases. The pressures of this current conflict come on top of all those other issues, because this was already an area with significant challenges. In terms of the wider humanitarian situation, 5.2 million out of 6 million people living in Tigray are now in need of humanitarian assistance and 13.6 million people are estimated to be food insecure across Ethiopia as a result of the conflict, as well as the wider circumstances. According to OCHA,
“only 25% to 50% of the normal cereal production will be available this year”.
I will ask some questions about the situation facing people who have been internally displaced and refugees. There are now 2 million internally displaced people according to USAID, with nearly 50,000 refugees arriving in South Sudan since November 2021. There is a spill-over of internally displaced people into the Afar and Amhara regions as well. We have heard from many Members today about the challenges of getting humanitarian assistance into the region. One of the reports from OCHA said that only 10% of the 3,500 cargo trucks carrying lifesaving materials had been able to enter the region. The USAID chief, Samantha Power, was very clear when she said:
“This shortage is not because food is unavailable, but because the…Government is obstructing humanitarian aid and personnel, including land convoys and air access”.
I am interested in the UK Government’s comments on her remarks.
There are reports that EDF soldiers forcibly entered World Food Programme and UNICEF offices and destroyed communications equipment belonging to those two agencies. What does the Minister have to say about those recent events, and who does he view as responsible for them?
I mentioned the refugee situation, and I am particularly concerned for the 24,000 Eritrean refugees. Because of the previous conflict, there are many refugees in the region already. The Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in the north-western zone have been cut off from assistance and apparently have not been reached since mid-July. It has been reported that both those camps have run out of food and the refugees are facing violence and intimidation by armed groups. What assessment has been made of the situation of refugees and IDPs, the numbers, the needs and the attacks? There were disturbing reports of people being forcibly relocated from refugee camps earlier in this crisis. What has happened to them? What assessment has been made? What has been the involvement of Eritrean or other irregular forces in attacks in that region?
In the last couple of days we have seen some pretty horrendous information from the UN about the Semera-Abala corridor, which has been inaccessible since 22 August, and that 200,000 litres of fuel are required for the humanitarian response, which is not available. Cash, needed to pay for services locally, has not come in the levels needed to provide those services. UNICEF reported that 100,000 people face severe or acute malnutrition this year.
The acting humanitarian co-ordinator in Tigray, Grant Leaity, said
“all parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief to avert this…catastrophe.”
He is very stark in what he says about risks of famine and significant levels of mortality. We heard from colleagues about reports of 150 people allegedly having died directly of starvation. That report is from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and cannot be independently verified, but it tallies with the figures we have heard from the UN and other agencies, which have spoken of 400,000 people already living in famine-like conditions.
I will end by asking the Minister some specific questions. Yesterday, the WFP announced that it faces a funding gap of $426 million for its operations across Ethiopia, to meet the needs of 12 million people in 2021. The US increased its funding to the WFP by $149 million in June. I wonder what the UK will do specifically to support agencies such as the WFP. We have also heard about women’s programmes that have been cut.
We have been clear that the decision to cut the aid commitment from 0.7% to 0.5% was completely wrong, and that is exemplified in situations such as this. I know that the Minister does not want to answer this question directly, but I will ask him again: is our total support to Ethiopia going up or down this year? He has spoken about giving £42.7 million, plus £5 million for refugees in Sudan—obviously that is welcome, with the focus on Tigray—but if the total support for Ethiopia is going down, that money is being diverted from other needs. There are many needs elsewhere in Ethiopia, so that is deeply concerning. I worry that we will find ourselves in a situation similar to Afghanistan, where cuts simply have to be reversed. We need to be putting resource in because the needs are so great.
I have mentioned access issues. Have the Government raised the road access issues for fuel and food trucks in recent days? There seem to have been particular problems in the last few weeks. The Security Council report mentioned that Turkey and Sudan have been attempting to act as mediators, and other regional powers have also been attempting to act as mediators in the conflict. What is the Minister’s assessment of those regional and international efforts? Is the UK offering any particular diplomatic and good-offices support to attempt to reach a peaceful settlement between the parties?
I understand that the Foreign Secretary spoke to Prime Minister Abiy in early August. Has there been further contact with Prime Minister Abiy, Ethiopian Ministers and other parties to the conflict since that time? I welcome that the Foreign Secretary did that, and I am sure that the Minister himself has been in contact with people, but it would be useful to understand who and when. Have we identified anybody for Magnitsky-style sanctions yet? The US Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on the chief of staff of the Eritrean defence forces for alleged crimes in Ethiopia. Have we issued any sanctions? I know that the Minister will not speak about potential sanctions, but have we issued any? What role have we been playing at the Human Rights Council? What discussions have we had with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?
We have a huge responsibility. We have a particular relationship, friendship and history with Ethiopia through our aid programme, and the world has a responsibility to protect civilians in such crises. This House and the British public have a keen interest in the situation in Ethiopia; we all want to see a prosperous, secure and inclusive Ethiopia, but sadly that seems very far from the present situation.
Fantastic. Thank you, Mr Davies, for providing plenty of time. I know that there is lots of interest in this issue across the House, and it is quite right that we review it. This is a great opportunity both to update the House on what is happening and to answer questions directly, and I am more than happy to take interventions throughout.
The horrific conflict in northern Ethiopia has now entered its 11th month. To make matters worse—to reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and others—I am concerned about it spreading not only within the region but across the rest of Ethiopia. I will go into more detail on contacts and activity, which are very much at the forefront of what is happening in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—I was in a meeting with the Foreign Secretary last week reviewing all this. As the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned, the Foreign Secretary spoke to Prime Minister Abiy last month, and not a day goes by when I do not engage in this issue, either directly or through other intermediaries, whether they be other countries, regional players or organisations. This is not just a concern for the United Kingdom; it is a concern across the continent and for international bodies.
May I address the issue of money? I know that there is a debate about the 0.5% and 0.7% commitments, but the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth nailed it when he referred to Samantha Power. The real issue is not money and resource in Ethiopia; it is getting access. I will go through some of the detail and the numbers on that access. The next stage will be moving from conflict to mediation, when I am sure there will be resourcing issues, and the points being made now will perhaps be more relevant. I will not focus on the broader debate; hopefully hon. Members will recognise that there is a more immediate problem of access.
Let me get into some of the detail and update the House on what has been happening. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front continues military action, which is going beyond Tigray into the Amhara and Afar regions. That is extending the remit and the nature of the suffering. We have consistently called on all sides to stop the fighting. It is horrific to have to listen to the stories of what is happening, but it is clear that rape, sexual violence and famine are being used as weapons of war. Reference was made to chemical weapons. It is difficult to establish definitively what is being used, but it is clear that civilian populations are being targeted, which in itself is against international humanitarian law. If someone’s child, mother or family dies, how they die may be technically relevant, but their being targeted is the offensive thing that we need to stop happening.
Humanitarian agencies are realistically facing what I would describe as a de facto blockade of aid into Tigray. To avert further humanitarian catastrophe beyond the atrocities we have already seen, we call on the Ethiopian Government to allow unfettered access and start restoring essential services. I will go into a bit more detail in a second.
Eritrean forces are, alas, once again in Ethiopian sovereign territory in significant numbers. They must withdraw, and their failure to do so will lead to a further escalation in this conflict, which simply is not needed. The position that both parties are taking is not helpful. I have been asked about mediation. There have been a number of mediation attempts, and there is a lot of discussion. I will not go into the detail of some of that mediation, but it is fair to say that it is not currently working, so different things need to be tried in different ways.
Since November, more than 2 million people have been displaced across Tigray, and 450,000 have been displaced just in Afar and Amhara in the more recent conflicts. Basically, everything has broken down. Ninety per cent. of hospitals and health centres are not working. There are no banking facilities and no electricity. Communications are down, which makes it very difficult to verify some of the stories. If things open up, which we encourage, no doubt we will find out more and it will feel worse.
On communications, I highlighted that I have constituents who are very worried about their families. If the Minister is saying that communication has broken down, is there anything more the Government can do to help Members who are trying to get that crucial information for their constituents?
There are things at the periphery that can be done, but the heart is about building that access in the fullest sense of the word. Early in the conflict, we were even finding evidence of satellite phones from aid organisations being taken and used for other purposes, further breaking down communication. There are some parties that do not want open access to communications—they want to finish the conflict, as they see it—on both sides.
On supplies getting through, there is a need for more than 100 trucks every single day to get in. That is a massive logistical effort, even if everybody were behind it. Since 12 July, only about 10% of the required aid has been able to get through, so UN warehouses in Tigray are not being restocked: they are empty. Most people are not eating, effectively, or are not eating enough. There is no private sector provision, so even if one has money there is nothing to buy. Displaced individuals are relying on host communities who are already suffering. The lack of goods means that prices have gone up fivefold, and community resilience is eroding to the point of tipping over to an even more serious and systemic problem.
The director of Oxfam in Ethiopia yesterday raised the fact that because the internet is down—deliberately—it was almost impossible to get money transfers, which deeply hampers its process. May I echo his plea for the Minister to try to get at least a window of the internet up so that money transfers can occur?
I will investigate the specific issue of internationals working together to make sure that money comes through. I am in touch with Ethiopian Ministers, including the Finance Minister, and I will raise that issue with him. That is a slightly separate problem from the one that we are discussing.
In my contribution, I referred to churches and NGOs who are active in the Tigray region. If we have such groups operating there, is it not possible to co-ordinate our relief efforts alongside those people and groups to ensure that when it comes to getting to the people who need it, they can work in partnership? That is just a thought. It is important to use all the avenues that we can.
It is a good thought. It is something that we are doing and will do. I will certainly discuss with our envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), how to make it as effective as possible. The networks are really useful to validate informally before we see what is happening on the ground.
On the point about communications, the Minister is aware that our own CDC and also Vodafone have invested substantial amounts in the new Ethiopia telecommunications partnership. Opening up telecommunications to people in Ethiopia is obviously a good thing for all the people, but, given the issues with money transfers, internet access and telecommunications being cut off, is there not an incongruity here? What will we do through those investments to ensure that we get telecommunications open in Tigray properly?
Various Members have talked about the size of the population of 120 million. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), the able chair of the all-party group, has talked about a nation of optimism. This is one of the gems at the heart of our east African strategy. It would be a bastion of stability if we could build out and not have to resolve problems. Telecommunications is an essential good. It allows people to trade and allows cash transfers, so the investment is right. It is a long-term investment that we have talked about for years and will be deliverable going forward. It does seem incongruous to talk of Ethiopia as a place of optimism and investment, but we simply have to get back to that place when we get beyond this because that is where development happens.
There are echoes of the ’80s and Live Aid—we did a brilliant job, and Ethiopia has done a brilliant job in bringing itself up. When there has been a natural crisis, it has needed help, but it has also been able to help itself. We need to reset and get back to that position, but we are so far from that point at the moment.
The Minister is right about the massive British taxpayer investment and the huge results that have been achieved. Will he follow my earlier comments and give Members an undertaking that he will look personally at the funding for the World Food Programme, which is absolutely at the critical edge of the humanitarian crisis? Will he look at its funding this year to see what more can be done to meet the need?
I will. I am already in communication with David Beasley and have discussed food provision in Ethiopia with him. He is an influential figure in the region. Today, my initial issue is getting access: it is not getting food. Until we sort that, no amount of money or WFP extra resource will do it, but there will be a point at which we need to do that and we need to be ready, so I pledge to have another discussion with David Beasley to take the issues forward.
I am concerned to hear reports of press, NGOs, civil society and churches being targeted. We will confirm whether that is happening. If people are being arrested based on their ethnicity, clearly there needs to be stringent following of international human rights rules. I want to reassure hon. Members that we are fully engaged at all levels—locally with those groups and at the United Nations through Lord Ahmad.
Nick Dyer has also been to Ethiopia twice since November with the envoy on famine prevention, and has had access to Tigray. British embassy staff have visited on multiple occasions. I spoke yesterday with our chargé and new development director to get updates. That is a very normal thing, although I would have done that in preparation for this debate—as I say, not a day goes by that I am not doing something on this. That is not to say we are doing enough, but it gives hon. Members an idea.
It is good that President Obasanjo was appointed on 26 August to look at issues in the horn. That is another way of pushing mediation of various descriptions. We are doing a lot through the G7, through discussions with all counterparties. Notwithstanding the fact that money and food are not the immediate issue, we are still the second largest donor to Ethiopia.
On sexual violence, there is some good news. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who is no longer in his place, led a debate on that following his intervention on the Select Committee. We are now deploying two individuals based on the scoping mission into Mekelle.
I do not know, so I do not want to say yes or no and mislead. This is very much on his desk, but I do not have a kind of tick-tock of his interactions. The situation is dire and horrific, but there is a nation and a positive relationship we can get back to. We have a long-standing and deep friendship with the people of Ethiopia. Our development partnership has made a major contribution to lifting people out of poverty and to political and economic reform, and had increased prosperity in that country. I talk today about the horrific incidents with great sadness, but we should aim to get back to where we were, progress with that nation and put it back on a more positive path.
I thank every Member who has spoken, for both the tone and the content. I thank the Minister, who I know is deeply committed to this area. The problem is that this is not going to go away. It is important for us all to keep it on the agenda of the Minister and of the international community. The risks we have highlighted are dire. I cannot see an easy way for them to be resolved without international intervention, to get all the parties round the table and discuss a long-term solution. The threats to the broader region are profound.
I would like to raise one thing with the Minister that came up in the debate: atrocity prevention. It was the one thing in the Committee’s report that the Government pushed back on. I would like to request a meeting with the Minister to discuss that.
Co-operative Purchase of Companies
Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room. Members should send their speaking notes to hansardnotes@ parliament.uk. Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered co-operative purchase of companies by employee groups at risk of redundancy.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. As a Labour and Co-operative Member, I am delighted to have secured the debate, which provides a vital opportunity to discuss a co-operative way to secure economic recovery after the devastating effects of the pandemic, and to build a UK economy that is more inclusive and more equal than before.
The symptoms of inequality that have plagued our economy for too long were there for all to see a long time before the first pandemic lockdown was implemented in March 2020. In one of the world’s richest economies, too many families have been struggling to put food on the table, and the pandemic has highlighted this inequality. I commend all the wonderful people who have worked, and who continue to work, relentlessly and tirelessly during all the severe challenges of the pandemic, in order to make sure that our communities function. However, those wonderful workers take home some of the lowest wages. As Robert Owen, the founder of the co-operative movement, who was born on 14 May 1771 in Newtown, Powys, in beautiful Wales, said:
“The lowest stage of humanity is experienced when the individual must labour for a small pittance of wages from others.”
The economic inequality in the UK has cost lives during the pandemic. It is detrimental to our economic growth, and it ensures that the UK remains fragile and vulnerable to economic shocks. Although those issues were the symptoms, the underlying causes are just as clear. Narrow ownership of our economy has resulted in the problems. Too much power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of investors, shareholders and executives. As a result, decisions are often made in the interests of the rich and powerful, rather than promoting the interests of communities, workers, consumers and the environment.
The public agree. According to polling conducted by the UK Co-operative party as part of its “Owning the Future” report, only 10% of people believe that the economy prioritised sharing wealth fairly before the covid-19 pandemic, and nearly seven in 10 believe that our recovery is an opportunity to give communities more of a say in how business and the economy can operate, which is exactly what is needed—a widening of ownership, so that we give a greater voice to people who work for, use and are affected by businesses that shape their lives and our economy. One way in which we can do that is by giving employees the opportunity to buy out and operate companies at risk of closure. The companies would be run as co-operatives, so that each worker had a stake and an opportunity to shape the manner in which the business they had purchased was operated. Such employee buy-outs can hardwire resilience and productivity into our economy by preserving productive businesses and giving employees greater motivation and incentive through their stake in the organisation.
That is particularly important where jobs and the local economy are dependent on a small number of larger employers in areas such as manufacturing, where the collapse or downsizing of those companies has a disproportionate impact on local communities. When large companies fold or shrink, and in cases of potential closure, most often due to conjunctural reasons or succession issues, employee buy-outs give people a viable option for saving businesses and jobs.
We can learn much from Italy and the so-called Marcora law, named after the former Italian industry Minister Giovanni Marcora, who established the worker buy-out system more than 30 years ago, to divert the money spent on unemployment to retain jobs and continue economic activity. The Marcora law gives workers the right and, most importantly, the financial support to buy out all or parts of an at-risk business and establish it as an employee-owned co-operative. Workers are given the opportunity to rescue profitable parts of businesses or the whole of profitable businesses. The legislation in Italy does that by giving those workers at risk of redundancy their unemployment benefits as a lump sum in advance to use as capital for the buy-out, as well as access to the necessary support and advice to make it successful.
The results speak for themselves. Hundreds of businesses previously at risk of closure have been preserved as worker co-operatives, with an economic return of more than six times the capital invested by the funding mechanisms. In Italy, between 2007 and 2013, €84 million was made available for worker buy-outs, generating €473 million and saving more than 13,000 jobs.
Marcora law buy-outs benefit hugely from their co-operative organisation, where employment is safeguarded and fair workplace conditions are guaranteed. The economic and financial performances of co-operative buy-outs are often superior to those of traditional businesses.
UK Co-operative party polling indicates that the public support co-operative buy-out innovation, with 64% believing the economy would be fairer if employees could buy their business if it was at risk of closure or sale. The Co-operative party has long championed the impact that Marcora law could have in widening ownership of our economy and reducing inequality, by giving workers a real stake and a practical opportunity to be part of how their businesses are run.
As a Labour and Co-operative MP, I believe the UK Tory Government should give serious consideration to introducing Marcora law-type provisions into UK law. They can do that by introducing provisions to give workers rights to take a stake in their workplace by implementing a statutory right to own, supported by financial assistance and advice from the Government.
New legislation should also be introduced to give employees adequate opportunity to request ownership during business succession, alongside an early warning resource capable of informing workers in advance of insolvency, or when viable businesses are at risk of disposal. That would give employees the ability to assess the scope for acquisition, time to prepare a co-operative business model and an opportunity to bid for a business that is at risk of shrinking or closing.
Not only will the employee buy-outs save jobs and businesses, but their transition to a co-operative model with help to hardwire the principles and values of co-operation into our economy. A co-operative business model gives workers a stake and a voice in how their business is run, and economies with a greater percentage of co-operatively owned businesses have been shown to be more equal, more productive and more resilient. Co-operative communities are more equitable and have a narrower gap between rich and poor. Co-operatives widen ownership and ensure that the businesses on which workers, consumers and communities depend operate in the long-term interests of their workers, not those of long-distance shareholders.
By existing to provide a service for members, rather than generate profits for investors, co-operatives that have formed when businesses are bought by employees are essential to create a better economy that puts people before profit. A larger co-operative sector is a sign of a different economy, where purpose and participation are valued above profit maximisation. A UK Marcora law would not just maintain individual businesses but, through the implementation of co-operative ideals, help the UK shift to a fairer and more democratic economy.
On his election as leader of Welsh Labour, my dear friend Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, appointed a Minister with specific responsibilities for the co-operative sector, Lee Waters, the Labour and Co-operative MS for Llanelli. In May, the Welsh Labour Government were overwhelmingly re-elected on a radical left-wing manifesto, which pledged to provide greater support for worker buy-outs and, with the co-operative sector, seek to double the number of employee-owned businesses in Wales. Perhaps the Prime Minister should take the lead from Mark and appoint a UK Minister for co-operatives, and include doubling the size of the UK’s co-operative sector in the next Tory manifesto.
I would like to thank all the amazing co-operators in the UK Co-operative party for continuing to strive to work together in pursuit of Robert Owen’s values and beliefs. A special mention goes to my friends on the Wales Co-operative council. Our wonderful assistant general secretary, Karen Wilkie, has retired after 22 years of tireless work championing co-operative values. I thank our long-term and long-suffering secretary, K. C. Gordon, who has worked so hard to keep us in co-operative order, and I thank a stalwart of our movement, Sylvia Jones, who will be 88 years young in December, and has been a member of the Labour party since 1963 and a member of the Co-operative party since 1967, has won many awards, and became the first ever female chair of the TUC on 6 May 1979.
May I ask the Minister to answer some questions? Has he or his Department conducted an assessment of the benefits of the existing co-operative sector to the UK economy? If he has done so, will he publish the results and place a copy in the House of Commons Library? If he has not, will he consider carrying out such an assessment? What consideration has he and his Department given to the potential benefits of employee buy-outs for at-risk businesses? What plans do the UK Government have to increase employee buy-outs through greater legislative support? Will the Government give more financial support to those employees looking to buy out their businesses? Will he investigate the successes of the Marcora law in Italy and bring forward an equivalent provision for employees in the UK? What actions is he undertaking to increase the size of the co-operative sector.?
In conclusion, as we look forward to moving on from the worst days of the pandemic, we are presented with a unique chance to do things differently in our economy. Going back to business as usual will not be good enough—not when the economy that existed before the pandemic did not work for so many people. The UK Government have an opportunity to build a fairer economy that works in the interests of communities, workers, consumers and the environment. Learning from the innovation and success of the Marcora law in Italy is one way of doing that, by giving workers the legislative and financial means they need to take a greater stake in their business and the economy. The buy-out of at-risk companies by employees would crucially widen ownership. It would safeguard businesses and give workers greater control in the future and a real voice in the decisions that affect them. The opportunity is here, as is the support and appetite from the public and workers to continue the spirit to work together that emerged during the most difficult days of the pandemic.
The UK Government should rewrite the rules governing our economy so that co-operative values are given the opportunity to flourish and grow. I know the Minister is a very magnanimous person, so I urge him to embrace the co-operative sector, implement Marcora law and, as my good Hywel Francis, the former MP for Aberavon, used to say, “Get on the right side of history.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is a privilege to respond to the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) and I congratulate her on securing the debate. She asked about a Minister for the co-operative movement. That is indeed the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen). I believe he is the longest-serving Economic Secretary to the Treasury. The reason for that is partly because he is magnanimous and looks at the economy as a whole, beyond the macro down to the human level. That includes the value that he and the Government place on the co-operative movement. Co-operatives bring something different from other forms of businesses to the landscape and communities of the country. They have a clear focus on serving their communities’ needs. As I speak, Members will hear about the work that he and the Government are doing.
To answer the specific question about an assessment, we have not done one and do not plan to do so, but we do value co-operatives and have done much to support them. I will cover that in my speech, so that the hon. Member for Neath can hear of the work that we have been doing. She has raised the issue a number of times with the Economic Secretary, and it is right that we are here today to listen to her points about the movement that she supports. There are clearly staunch advocates of workers’ co-operatives across the House.
We want to see the co-operative sector grow. We see co-operatives in the employee-ownership model as being good for workers, local communities and businesses. That is why we have introduced a series of measures in recent years to support and promote the sector. One example is the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014, which cut the legal complexity involved in running a co-operative. Alongside that legislation, we increased the amount of withdrawable share capital a member can invest in a co-operative from £20,000 to £100,000, which has given a number of societies greater flexibility to raise capital from individual members.
The hon. Lady asked about reviewing the legislation. We do not plan to undertake a review of the 2014 Act, but the Government are open to receiving credible proposals for its reform. I encourage the sector to ensure that it continues to engage with officials from Her Majesty’s Treasury on suggestions in that area. We have also rolled out a variety of tax reliefs to support organisations that choose an employee-ownership structure. Like any other business, co-operatives have been able to benefit from the Government’s support during the pandemic, including the furlough scheme and business loans.
I turn now to the hon. Lady’s proposal that we introduce a policy similar to Italy’s Marcora law. Although there are currently no plans to introduce legislation of that type, we are always open to receiving proposals that support co-operatives and employee-owned firms. The Economic Secretary and community representatives, along with the hon. Members for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) and for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), are looking to discover what more can be done to boost the sector’s ability to raise capital, following the green shares Bill last year.
In June, the Economic Secretary spoke about a wide range of issues relating to co-operatives and mutuals with the hon. Member for Neath and other members of the all-party parliamentary group for mutuals. As I understand it, the Marcora law was mentioned during those discussions. It is only right, however, that we acknowledge the need to take a pragmatic approach to the issue. First, there are clear differences between the Italian and UK economies, which could mean that the positive impacts of a Marcora law might not be as strongly felt in this country. The unemployment rate is one of those differences. The most recent UK unemployment figure from the OECD was 4.7%; by contrast, the Italian unemployment level stood at 9.3%. There is clear disparity between those numbers.
That is not all. In addition to the UK’s comparatively low unemployment rate, we are rolling out unprecedented levels of job support to get even more people into work. The upshot, according to the latest OECD data, is that UK workers are less likely than Italian workers to be unemployed for sustained periods of time, so it is far from clear that a Marcora-style policy here would deliver the same levels of welfare savings for the taxpayer as it does in Italy. As Members may be aware, those savings are sometimes cited as a reason to introduce the policy in this country, as we have heard.
Secondly, we need to learn more about the productivity implications of such a policy. In short, we have to be sure that employee-led buyouts under the Marcora law really are long-term solutions. That means gaining a deeper understanding of what is causing the companies to fail in the first place and of whether transforming them into worker co-operatives would really resolve those structural issues. That knowledge is really important, because providing funding to businesses that are unsustainable is a poor use of taxpayer money.
It is clear from this debate, however, that we are united in our desire to protect jobs and employers from the impact of the pandemic long into the future, so I will briefly touch on our work in this area. First of all, let me remind Members that the Government are providing extraordinary levels of financial support to individuals and businesses affected by covid-19. In fact, by the end of this month, the furlough scheme will have helped to pay workers’ wages for a year and a half, supporting over 1 million employers and more than 11 million jobs. In addition, at last year’s spending review, the Government built on the Chancellor’s plan for jobs by giving the Department for Work and Pensions an extra £3.6 billion to deliver labour market support. That includes funding for the Government’s new three-year restart programme, which will provide intensive and tailored assistance to over 1 million unemployed people to help them find work.
Last year, the Government launched the £2 billion kickstart scheme, which is rolling out hundreds of thousands of new, fully subsidised jobs for young people across the country. Over 50,000 positions have already been created, and the number of young people supported by the scheme will continue to rise as we approve more bids and as more employers recruit kickstart participants. We also recognise that large-scale layoffs can pose enormous challenges to affected communities, which is why in such circumstances we deploy the rapid response service of the Department for Work and Pensions, which provides immediate and personalised support to mitigate the impact of redundances.
Undoubtedly, the failure of large businesses can have very significant consequences for local economies. However, it is equally true that the closure of a much-loved pub or long-established village shop can be a major blow to areas, with the loss of jobs and vital community assets. For that reason, at the Budget, the Government announced the £150 million community ownership fund. The scheme operates in a similar way to the Marcora law. It allows community groups to bid for up to £250,000 of match funding from the Government, enabling them to take over valuable and viable local assets at risk of closure. We are currently assessing first-round bids, and we believe that this money will save jobs, protect services and help to keep the spirit of co-operative entrepreneurship alive around the country. Successful bids will be announced later this autumn.
I will end by reiterating my thanks to the hon. Member for Neath for her thoughtful contributions today and to the co-operative movement as a whole for its work. I hope that I have illustrated that the Government are both committed to supporting worker co-operatives and determined to protect those at risk of unemployment as a result of company failure. My ministerial colleagues and I are keen to continue the conversation with co-operative representatives as we work together to secure these vibrant and innovative organisations’ future success.
Question put and agreed to.
[Christina Rees in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members to wear masks when they are not speaking. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Members should send their speaking notes by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered ending rough sleeping.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. It is a joy to be back in Westminster Hall with colleagues after what has felt like a very long time. While it looks a bit sparse, and I appreciate that there is a lot going on in the Chamber, I know that ending rough sleeping is important to many Members across the House. I am grateful to have been granted this debate to bring it up the agenda.
Here we go again: we are debating how we end the blight of rough sleeping. The pandemic has shown us that the will and capacity to radically change policy is there, albeit in an emergency. “Everyone In” was without doubt a success. It was a phenomenal response to an international health crisis, but it is not a sustainable response to a national rough sleeping crisis. That is what I want to focus on. The pandemic has shown that there are systemic problems preventing us from grasping the nettle and getting to the root causes of rough sleeping and homelessness.
I do not dispute that “Everyone In” was remarkable, and I applaud the Minister and the Government for their efforts. During the pandemic, 355 people in Oxford were brought off the streets and out of hostels into safe accommodation. Now, 215 people are in settled housing. It is becoming clear that we need to turn our minds to a long-term, permanent solution. Insight from the CHAIN database tells us that in 2021, at the height of the pandemic and the “Everyone In” campaign, London saw more people returning to rough sleeping than it had in the last four years. That is about one third of the rough sleepers that were on the streets. Why, when we had the successful programme, was that happening?
We have to ask those who were affected. There is a gentleman called Mr T, who spoke to the Mayday Trust last year as part of their “Wisdom from the Pandemic” work. From Westminster tube station, just metres from where we are now, he said:
“They gave me a room in a hotel. It was miles away. I was lonely, everyone I know is here. I didn’t know what was going on, how long I was going to be there, so I came back here.”
The “Everyone In” campaign may have worked, but it did not work for everyone. We need to learn from these experiences.
Councillor Ben Martin, cabinet member for housing at Swale Borough Council, told me that his experience is that rough sleeping must be about the individual, not the symptoms, and about their hopes and dreams, not their problems. To fundamentally end rough sleeping, we need to treat rough sleepers and the homeless as humans with individual needs, not as statistics. Take substance abuse. Councillor Fran Oborski, who is the treasurer of a homelessness charity, emailed me about how many rough sleepers have substance abuse issues—something that is often not helped in hostels or temporary accommodation—and said that we need to improve access to rehabilitation services for those who want or need them.
Someone who used to be homeless and who now works with rough sleepers emailed me to say that the speed with which services want people to make progress only adds to their problems instead of solving them. Given the pressure the services are already under, they cannot address the traumas rough sleepers have faced. That point is echoed by the Salvation Army, which points out that we need more funding for support services to tackle the root causes.
“Everyone In” brought people off the streets, but it did nothing to repair trust between many rough sleepers and authorities—councils, services and Government. Someone who simply goes by the name London Homeless Info emailed me to say that they are sceptical about the aims of councils, charities and services. We will not solve the rough sleeping crisis without addressing that issue of trust. How do we do that? That is what we all want. How do we break the negative cycle of people returning to the streets and failing in those services—and, more to the point, those services failing them?
The liberal approach would be to empower those forced to sleep rough, not to dictate—as is often unfortunately the case currently—narrow pathways designed by others. People going through tough times should be able to decide for themselves what support they want, and the state should then be ready to respond. I appreciate that that is no easy task and actually flips the entire system on its head, but if we actually listen to rough sleepers we know what they want.
Gemma, who was sleeping outside Joe & The Juice on Oxford Street last year, told the Mayday Trust:
“Living in a hostel is no life. It doesn’t help me with my depression. The atmosphere feels like a graveyard in there.”
Richard, who was begging on Victoria Street, said:
“I’m being told I have to go to a hostel; I really don’t want to go. I know I will relapse. Everyone there takes drugs. I’m trying to stay sober but they are forcing me to go.”
Talk about a rock and a hard place—someone gets themselves on their feet and is told that they have to put themselves in a position that will send them backwards.
The answer to rough sleeping is not just more money, more emergency accommodation or more housing, especially social housing. We have to look beyond the statistics. All of that is important, but when we are commissioning the services, we need to change our mindset. We are commissioning with, not just for, people. We need to provide them with unconditional and personalised support.
We also need to appreciate, Ms Rees, that a rough sleeper could be us. They could be our friends or our family members. Their stories highlight that often what causes someone to become a rough sleeper is a series of events that compound—family breakdown, job loss, ill health. We cannot think of rough sleepers as an other. They are us. We need to give them the autonomy and respect that any one of us in this room would want.
Aspire and Oxfordshire Homeless Movement do something like that. They treat the person as an individual, with coaching, and catch them just before the point of rough sleeping. After Adeline reached out to them, she says, she has
“now found a part-time live-in role, complemented by my freelance graphic design work, and sleep well and safe. This experience made me realise that anyone can become vulnerable at some point in their life”.
I dare say that, after the pandemic, more and more people of a background that most of us here might recognise—perhaps even more than before—are ending up in this situation.
The Mayday Trust has done lots of work to develop a new approach called the person-led, transitional and strength-based response, or PTS. That gives people the ability to choose the support that they want at a time that works for them, working with someone who coaches them through and helps them find the right pathway. Upcoming research from the New Economics Foundation shows a correlation between being treated with dignity and respect and a person taking positive actions. We all want those positive actions to happen, because that is how we end the rough sleeping crisis. That kind of approach—trusting people with their own decisions—helps to build trust between the individual and the state.
As the Local Government Association, Crisis, Shelter and others have said, we urgently need a renewed, detailed, cross-departmental strategy for how the Government plan to meet their commitment to end rough sleeping by 2027. I say that knowing, of course, that the Minister takes a particular interest in this matter. However, we are very concerned that, to end rough sleeping, we need all Government Departments to join up in their thinking. Without a new strategic approach, the Government will not meet this manifesto commitment. The Government have broken three of those so far. Will this one be next?
The Government are not short of expert recommendations from local government, the sector and elsewhere to draw on. Crisis, which has an event after the debate that I want to plug to all Members, is absolutely right to urge the Government to adopt the Housing First approach to permanently end homelessness for those with the most serious needs. Should the Treasury be listening, if the priority is to rebuild our finances after the pandemic, then it should prioritise the analysis published by Crisis today, which shows that Housing First is cost-effective. For every £1 we put in, we get £1.24 back because we are reducing dependencies on services. It is win-win. Can the Minister tell us if there have been any discussions with the Treasury and the Chancellor ahead of the spending review about rolling out Housing First across England?
The Government are making things harder by cutting the universal credit uplift and freezing the local housing allowance. Shelter has suggested a model of “protect, prevent and build” for this strategy, which I hope the Minister is considering. Shelter, the LGA and individual councillors have told me about the need to fix local authority funding in this area. There should be ongoing, dedicated funding for councils to tackle rough sleeping and prevent homelessness in the first place.
Councils need to be given sufficient time to bid for money, and then to spend it. Giving them two to four weeks to bid for the rough sleeping accommodation programme, which requires that properties are purchased and occupied within the same financial year, makes it almost impossible for local authorities in the south-east to be successful. Surely some common-sense tweaks to that bidding process could achieve better value for the money that is coming in.
There are more lessons that we need to learn, but at the heart of a renewed strategy must be that the rough sleeper is an individual. They should be part of the process, not have policies imposed on them. I have heard too many stories of the bad experiences some people have had with councils, rogue landlords and service providers. I fundamentally believe—I genuinely do, which I do not often say—that this Government want to improve the situation, but I urge them to put it high up on their priority list because 2027 is not that far away. The pandemic has been challenging, but it has also provided an opportunity to see what can work. I say grasp this nettle and use this opportunity.
In conclusion, I have a few simple questions. The Minister will be surprised that I have not mentioned this yet, but when will we scrap the Vagrancy Act 1824? I have been banging on about this for over four years. Six months ago, the Secretary of State said that it is happening. Please can we have an update on some timelines? When will we give councils certainty and long-term funding for rough sleeping programmes? Will the Minister come back to the House with a renewed, detailed and thought-through strategy for how we are going to end rough sleeping for good, recognising the changing circumstances that we are in?
We need to give rough sleepers support, but I urge the Minister to consider that the plan must also give them control. What we are doing is not working, particularly for the last few, who will be the most difficult to win round. We need to start building a strategy that reaches out to them now if we are to be successful in just over five years’ time. With a combination of intervention through programmes like Housing First, prevention through better mental health and financial support and through social house building, and empowerment through a system that works with the individual, we can do this. I believe there is cross-party support to do it. I thank all those who are here today and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing the debate on this crucial issue.
I was elected in December 2019 with a pledge to end rough sleeping on the streets of Hastings and Rye, which is a pledge I intend to keep. As constituency MPs, we will all have had experiences of meeting and hearing from those who have unfortunately fallen into homelessness and rough sleeping. The distress and desperation that individuals in that position experience is hard to hear and challenging to overcome.
The Government have committed vast amounts of investment since the last general election to support work to eradicate rough sleeping, and to support those who find themselves homeless. In the 2021 Budget, the Chancellor pledged a further £676 million, which included a rough sleepers’ support scheme of £221 million. Hastings has benefited from that investment in eradicating rough sleeping, and I thank the Government for that.
As welcome as the funding is, I have discovered something that is equally important in tackling the issue, and that is collaboration. When I was first elected and made tackling rough sleeping one of my top priorities, I was struck by how many organisations were already working on this: councils, churches, faith groups, large national charities and individuals doing their bit here and there. What was evident, though, was the disjointed approach to providing support to those who most needed it. It was clear to me that there needed to be more collaboration and joined-up thinking.
Thanks to the fantastic work of Homeless Link, in east Sussex we now have more of a joined-up approach. Following a meeting last year, we have set up a forum aimed at preventing homelessness and mitigating the risk factors of rough sleeping. It includes local charities, churches, organisations, local authority officers and homelessness support representatives from all over, particularly those who are involved in housing and health support. The forum meets on a regular basis, which means that all those concerned with tackling the issue can meet to discuss progress and next steps. By working together, they are beginning to end the pandemic of rough sleeping in our area. The Government have played a crucial role, in providing funding and impetus to eradicate rough sleeping. Combined with the collaboration of those on the ground, that is now delivering results.
I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon that another crucial aspect in tackling rough sleeping is the Housing First policy. Piloted in 2017, the policy has supported and helped countless people, and was the foundation for the Government’s approach to those sleeping on our streets during the covid-19 pandemic. It is the principle of helping those with the most complex needs not just with housing and support for long-term accommodation needs, but to tackle the causes of their rough sleeping, whether they be mental health issues, drug or alcohol misuse, unemployment or family and relationship breakdown. Providing that wraparound care and support, rather than just a roof over someone’s head, is the best way to tackle rough sleeping and ensure that people do not end up back on our streets.
That is why collaboration is so important in our approach to this issue. We need individuals and organisations from all areas to provide that wraparound support and work together to tackle the issue. That includes volunteers, local authorities and other organisations. I conclude by asking the Government to ensure that we focus not only on funding, but on policies such as Housing First and the collaboration they instil in those working on the ground. Funding and collaboration are the two crucial ingredients we need to make a success of our pledge to eradicate rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on calling a debate on this very important issue.
In one of the richest nations, in 2021, we are still debating the issue of people who are left with no home and no choice but, night after night, to sleep in shop doorways and, day after day, to sit in them, pained with loneliness. The deal that the Government have talked about around homelessness should not be transactional but relational. This is the reality of people’s lives. They are not numbers—they are people who need attention and focus.
We see homelessness services rush around, but when they go away somebody’s life can feel very isolated. That is why we have to talk about people and the stories that they hold. We look at our constituents in this situation. I talk to my homeless constituents very regularly and I know that they are looking to live out a fulfilled life. We need to move the language on and talk about people in our community. These are people who—let us face it—have been failed by a society that has not protected them and failed by a system that has not provided for them. They are homeless not only because they have complex lives, but because they have no home. It is not rocket science. There is a simple solution: just provide somewhere safe, somewhere personal and somewhere to make a new beginning—somewhere not to be isolated, but to be connected.
The evidence on Housing First, as hon. Members have already said, shows that if we give somebody their own place and give them the help they need and the hope they need, there is no cause for rough sleeping. Nicholas Pleace, an academic in my city, at the University of York, has evidenced the impact, and today we are hearing about a crisis furthering that evidence. There is no need for delay, more pilots or more time to be spent on this; we know that Housing First works.
What the Government did during the pandemic was right. There was the fear that covid would sweep through the homeless communities and so people were given a safe place. In York, that meant staying at an aparthotel, in hotel rooms with en suites and kitchenettes—microflats. For the first time, somebody could be fully independent. They had a resettlement opportunity, an opportunity to be on their own, to be in a stable place, to cook their own meals, to live their own lives and—yes, while restricted and locked down—to start rebuilding their lives with the services that were provided. Some had been on the streets for years. Others had been in and out of hostels—going through that rotating door. Suddenly they had the start they needed. Of course, behind that, we have seen charities step in, and I have to say that the charities in York are utterly outstanding in the work that they do.
I met with a homeless person just a few months ago. It is somebody I know really well and have talked to often since I have been an MP. He told me how he now has a job and now has pride. Others, because they have done so well, are placed in their own accommodation. The initiative taught our services something really important: if people have the right spaces, the right opportunity and the right chance, which so many of us take for granted, they can break the cycle—they can break through.
However, the funding has ended. Of course, the funding did not just go on housing; it also brought in a new collaboration around the services that could be making people’s lives so different. For the first time, these people saw a dentist. They saw a GP. They had their needs addressed. They had people to talk to. They had services to help them to address some of their financial challenges and to show them how to navigate through the very complex world in which we live. I thank those organisations that have been working in that area and, in particular, organisations such as Kitchen for Everyone York. They go out week by week, providing food and friendship to our homeless community.
However, with the funding ended, people are yet again on our streets. Let us just imagine if the initiative were a permanent offer. People would be moving into independent living instead of enduring years going in and out of hostels. How much that would save the state! The step process of hostels to shared housing just does not work. It does not work for the people involved, it does not work for the communities, and it does not work—let us face it—for Government.
The answer must be Housing First. I speak regularly with the Salvation Army and Changing Lives in York and I thank them, too, for what they do. They also understand that they need a Housing First model and are desperate to see it. They believe it will save money, and not only save lives but rebuild them.
Tragically, however, we have not got the accommodation we need. This is where I want to support the Minister to make these arguments because once again, in my city, the wrong housing is being built. The obscenity of luxury apartments shooting up everywhere—not lived in, but sold as assets and second homes—when York is full of inadequately housed families and individuals, sofa surfers and rough sleepers, screams of a failed system. We have a planning Bill before us, and we need the right homes to be built to meet the needs of my community.
However, it is going to get worse in York. The cost of living has shot up through this pandemic. The cost of housing—eye-watering sums—has gone up at the fastest rate in the country. It is already a lower broad rental market area, and therefore has a lower local housing allowance, because of the broader area with which it is associated; it does not even meet the cost of housing in the city. So many homes and council homes are still being sold but we are not seeing a replenishment, and therefore we do not have the housing that our city needs. It is completely out of joint. It is impacting our economy too: we cannot recruit people with the skills that are needed because they cannot afford to live in our city; we cannot recruit social care workers who cannot afford the accommodation in York either.
We need to talk about a new generation of resettlement housing in the social housing mix—one that comes with a price tag that talks about the support services that are required too. There are so many communities across our constituencies that need resettlement, whether that is people coming out of the criminal justice system, refugees coming right now from Afghanistan—incredibly vulnerable people—or perhaps those people about to lose £20 a week from their universal credit, who will lose their home as a consequence.
We need to ensure that the right stock is being built. We do not have enough of it. I want to encourage the Minister in all he does to seize this moment; to see this as the time, after such a successful programme, to drive forward resettlement housing, to give people that chance. I know that the leaders in York’s voluntary sector who oversee the homelessness project recognise the failure of the system in which they have to work. They want to work and see the outcomes that all of us in this debate long to see.
Winter is coming. We have a chance to end rough sleeping once and for all. We know what has worked in this pandemic, and we can do it again. It saves money and it saves lives. I trust that the Minister will have the ammunition he needs to make this happen.
Diolch yn fawr, Ms Rees. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I am delighted that the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) has secured this debate. This is actually the third time I have taken part in such a debate: I called the first two, so I am hoping it is third time lucky when it comes to what I hear from the Minister.
Before I talk about the wider issue of ending rough sleeping, it is really important that we consider what the Government have done so far. This year alone, £750 million has already been put in to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness, in particular the £203 million investment through the rough sleeping initiative—double what it was last year. None of us can be in any doubt that the Government are determined to end rough sleeping.
We saw that with the “Everyone In” initiative during the pandemic, when national Government, local government and charities came together to collaborate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) pointed out. But even when probably 90% of rough sleepers were housed during “Everyone In”, the remaining 10%—the most entrenched rough sleepers—were still on the streets in the city.
As the MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, I know full well the impact of rough sleeping on our streets. My constituency has the largest number of rough sleepers in the country—more than the next three boroughs in London combined. That shows how acute the issue is in Westminster. However, it is equally important to point out that only 3% of those on our streets have a connection to Westminster, which shows that this is a national and international problem on the streets of Westminster.
Having been responsible for rough sleeping strategy and services in Westminster for 10 years or so until I came to this place, I know about the brilliant work that the rough sleeping team at Westminster City Council do day in, day out and night in, night out. They work with partners such as St Mungo’s, which provides the outreach service. Again, the outreach workers are out every single night of the year—on the coldest and hottest nights, including Christmas. I pay tribute to those brilliant outreach workers, with whom I have been out so many times over the last decade.
Why were 10% of rough sleepers left on the street? It was not a case of not having somewhere to go, because there was a room for every rough sleeper on the streets of Westminster, as there is tonight. Tonight there will be 500 beds available in this one borough alone, which is incredible. However, why are we still seeing people on the streets? It is because the vast number of people on our streets have mental health and addiction problems.
From my experience, and as I am told by St Mungo’s and Westminster City Council’s outreach teams, these people are some of the most damaged and vulnerable people in our society, and they need and deserve our help. When they have such entrenched problems, however, it can take years to build up trust with them. They will often refuse help, as I have seen. I have lived in the Cities of London and Westminster for 25 years, and in Westminster for more than 20. During the “Everyone In” programme, we saw the 10% on our streets. I live in Pimlico, and they were there when we would come out to go shopping every day. They were so ill, and it is because of drugs and drink and the mental health issues that they are suffering.
How do we go about helping people who refuse time and again to be housed, even on the coldest days of the year? When I was responsible for rough sleeping at Westminster, I took out the Minister responsible for rough sleeping on the coldest day of the year. He was shocked to find people still sleeping on the street. When we have our cold weather plan, we open up churches, synagogues and other community halls, with no questions asked. We do not even have to ask for people’s names. We just want people to come in and be safe—we want to save their lives.
Even on the most dreadful nights of the year, people still refuse to come in. Why? That is what we have to tackle, which is why I have been working together with the brilliant people at Crisis, as well as the equally brilliant people at St Mungo’s and The Passage, on repealing the Vagrancy Act 1824. When I asked the Secretary of State in February in the House of Commons, he said that the Act
“should be consigned to history.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 1138.]
I am forever hopeful that that will happen one day, and perhaps the Minister can enlighten us, but we are working to replace the Act. From what the Government are saying, we think we have won the argument but what do we replace the Act with? We need to have a new approach—an assertive outreach approach—whereby we have the mental health and addiction services available on the street. We used to have mental health services on the street, but they have now gone. We need them back, and we need a health-led approach. We have heard about Housing First; we have the housing, the hostels, the temporary accommodation and the move-on accommodation. It is about persuading the people who refuse to come off the street with that offer and about tackling the reasons why they are on the street. Any expert in outreach would tell us that it is about tackling those causes.
I am proud to be involved in and a member of the Kerslake Commission, for which St Mungo’s is the secretariat. I have seen the first draft of the report, which is coming out in a couple of weeks’ time. It is one of the most collaborative pieces of research on homelessness and rough sleeping that I have ever seen, and I hope the Minister will welcome the abundance of recommendations coming his way in the next couple of weeks. What I have so far learned from taking part in the Kerslake Commission, which was UK-wide and involved charities and local authorities across the country, is that we all believe in one thing: we can, by working together, tackle rough sleeping and resolve it for good.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the issue of funding. As I said, this Government have probably put more into rough sleeping than any other Government for decades—that is the right thing to do—but it is about longer-term funding. I know from being responsible for commissioning services in Westminster that we need to know as much as possible years in advance. It is does not necessarily work to have a funding stream for a year; we need at least three years. We need to be able to commission services, and if we are to tackle the long-term reasons why people find themselves on the street, we need those services to be there for at least three years. Again, my plea to the Minister is for longer-term funding.
If we do not come together on this matter, we will continue to see people on the streets night in, night out. At the latest count, there were 171 rough sleepers in Westminster, which is much lower than in previous years, showing that we are working together and that the “Everyone In” strategy has had a longer-term effect. The vast majority of those still sleeping on the street do not tend to be British; they tend to be from eastern Europe. We also need to look at how local authorities—not just in London, but across the country—can work with people who do not have any recourse to public funds, which is an ongoing issue. Any local authority or charity that works in rough sleeping would tell us that.
I pay tribute to the brilliant organisations that I have mentioned, including Hotel School, a scheme set up by the Passage and Jeremy Goring of the Goring Hotel. They understand that if we are to help people off the street and turn their lives around, tackle their mental ill-health and addiction issues—the reasons why they are on the street—and give them a place to live, they also need skills and the ability to find a job. Hotel School, which is based in my constituency, is about doing that. It brings together hotels such as the Goring, the Ritz and others to provide real training, and jobs afterwards. I would love for the Minister to join me on a visit to Hotel School in the near future, so that he can see what the private sector and charities such as the Passage are doing together.
I have probably gone on for quite a long time now, Ms Rees, but as you can probably tell I am passionate about this subject. If I do nothing else in my time in Parliament, I hope that I can secure the repeal of the Vagrancy Act and, equally importantly, its replacement with the legislation, services and approach that will tackle rough sleeping once and for all. I really think we can do that, and from what I can see—and I have seen a lot of Governments in Westminster in my time in this role—if any Government can do it, it is this Government.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), and I thank her for bringing her insight and expertise to this debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for securing this important debate.
Having somewhere to call home, somewhere to sleep and somewhere we can feel safe is the very least that each of us should hope to secure in our lives. We all have a duty to work together to eradicate the scourge of rough sleeping. As has been said, there has been good progress and the pandemic prompted a renewed focus on the issue, but of course there is always more to be done. A sensible, partnership approach between the third sector, local authorities and the Scottish Government meant a move away from night shelter provision and led to the “Ending Homelessness Together” action plan, and that work has benefited from £50 million of additional funding.
In Scotland, rough sleeping is at a record low and frontline teams offering support to those who might need it, particularly during the pandemic, have done a sterling job. The priority of keeping people safe and housing those with no settled home in emergency accommodation was a public health imperative during the pandemic, which is why the Scottish Government awarded £1.5 million to third sector organisations to assist them in their work of securing accommodation for that emergency provision. However, we must continue that as we move through recovery, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and others who have spoken have indicated. To that end, the Scottish Government have launched their “Housing to 2040” strategy—a renewed commitment to ending rough sleeping and homelessness for good.
The emphasis must be on prevention of rough sleeping, and that means that the necessary support structures must be in place to support people in their homes. That means working with third sector organisations, landlords, local authorities and a range of other services to support those at risk of homelessness, for whatever reason. As was mentioned earlier, some of those who sleep rough may have complex needs and may require a lot of support in a lot of ways. As a society, we have to be prepared to help them through that.
But all that work is taking place against a much more challenging background, and it would be remiss of me not to mention the policy of no recourse to public funds, which leaves some people with no access to basic essential services, putting those affected at real risk of housing insecurity and homelessness. We cannot underestimate the impact that removing the £20 universal credit uplift will have on households who are already struggling and teetering on the financial edge. The Scottish child payment is the Scottish Government’s attempt to target support at the most financially challenged, but that will be wiped out by the abolition of the universal credit uplift. I urge the Minister to use his influence and good offices to encourage the United Kingdom Government to think again on that policy.
The freeze on local housing allowance rates from April will push people further into poverty and increase the risk of homelessness for many. The Scottish Government’s discretionary housing payment spend is around £82 million for 2021-22. That is an important investment used by councils to safeguard tenancies and prevent homelessness. Alongside that, the much-hated bedroom tax has been fully mitigated in Scotland, helping 70,000 households to sustain their tenancies, but of course challenges remain. I hope that best practice will be shared across the UK as each part of the UK works to eliminate this social scourge—this social blight. It does not matter where it is working. Whatever works is what matters, and we should all be sharing the best practice that we are using to tackle this issue.
Progress has been made on rough sleeping and homelessness. I am sure we all welcome the renewed focus on that, which the pandemic prompted, but we must look at the fabric of our society and how we build a more inclusive society, so that we can envisage a time when homelessness and rough sleeping become part of our past. At its heart, tackling rough sleeping and homelessness is fundamentally about the kind of society that we want to build. If tackling this issue is about anything, it is about asking ourselves what kind of country we want to live in. Dealing with it requires concerted effort around supporting tenancies, the welfare system, and supporting families who are struggling through these times in the range of ways I have indicated.
We can never be comfortable with homelessness and rough sleepers in our communities and on our streets. We must all work together to address this issue and ensure that it is no longer part of our society; we must envisage a future in which it does not happen. Rough sleepers and homelessness are hard evidence, if we need it, that our support systems have failed or are inadequate. We must have systems that are comprehensive and flexible to assist those most at risk. Supporting people in their tenancies allows them to go on to live full, productive lives and to contribute to their community. We will all be better off for that. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on the further progress we can make on co-operation across the United Kingdom, so that we can work together to solve this.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, I think, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing this vital debate and speaking consistently and passionately about the need to end rough sleeping. I also praise hon. Members from both sides of the political divide for talking about the value of the third sector and volunteers, whether it is Crisis, Shelter or local charities, and advocating the need for Housing First and making sure it is implemented using a sustainable model. I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for her consistent campaigning for the repeal of the Vagrancy Act 1824. Of course, there will be advocates of that in the Opposition. I look forward to the Minister’s answer on that subject.
Before the pandemic, people sleeping rough on our streets was a visible sign—a shameful sign—of failure for Governments and society. That includes the many people that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster referred to. On my walk to my flat last night, I saw that visible sign: people have started to reappear, rough sleeping in alleyways and doorways. After a decade of austerity before the pandemic, we have twice as many rough sleepers as we had 10 years ago; that is a fact. Tragically, 976 homeless people—human beings—lost their lives in 2020.
Not having shelter and the necessary wraparound services that hon. Members have referred to is literally a matter of life and death. The hopes and aspirations that we all share just disappear without those wraparound services. More than 2,500 people slept rough last autumn. The figures cause considerable debate and give policymakers and service providers only a snapshot of the level of need at any given time. I hope the Minister can elaborate on how the Government intend to provide more accurate and robust figures in the future. I know that Crisis has been advocating for that for some time.
When covid-19 hit, the Government promised councils that they would do “whatever it takes”. Local authorities were asked by Ministers to ensure that those sleeping on our streets or in high-risk accommodation were supported into safer accommodation. It seemed to take a national and international health pandemic to gain the focused political will to provide shelter and tackle homelessness, but I pay credit to the Government and all the supporting agencies in the third sector for doing so. Councils and partners up and down the country, including in my own patch—Cheshire West and Chester and Halton councils—should rightfully be praised for all their work in getting people off the streets in extremely challenging circumstances for us all.
Despite that work, I fear that the Government have quietly started to roll back the support of the “Everyone In” programme—a move highlighted by Dame Louise Casey, who resigned from her post as the leader of the Government’s rough sleeping taskforce. She is the very same person who helped successfully to reduce rough sleeping under the previous Labour Government some time ago. Shelter says that now almost three quarters of the people helped through the “Everyone In” programme—almost 30,000 people—have not moved into settled accommodation. Minister, we require a sustainable solution. Meanwhile, the freeze of the local housing allowance and the end of the eviction ban mean that many more people risk being pushed on to the streets, as workers in rented accommodation still relying on furlough or currently in arrears risk losing their home.
Homelessness is not inevitable. The Government’s manifesto stated that they had the ambition to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament, but the refusal to address some of the fundamental causes of homelessness—the interdependency of public services that refer to mental health services and social services, for example—means that we could be getting back to business as usual, with people starting to appear back on the streets. I hope that the Minister and the Government can prove me and others wrong.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his speech, but does he also recognise that over the pandemic, charities have had an extremely difficult time with funding? Across the board, charities have £10 billion less now than they had at the start of the pandemic. We are likely to see significant cuts in local authority funding, too. That is the biggest threat to the ability to resettle people safely.
My hon. Friend is exactly right about that interdependency, not only of the state, whether regional or local, but of charities. I am sure that the Minister will refer to it when summing up.
Housing and people—the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon referred to people being at the heart of this—should come first. That should be the foundation on which to build better lives. Housing First, however, does not seem to be part of the Government’s—or, should I say, of the Treasury’s—stated mission to “Build Back Better”. Instead, the response to housing during the pandemic and as we transition out of it seems to be a story of half measures, repeating mistakes similar to some of those of the past 10 years, with the austerity to which my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred.
If I look at some of the Housing First pilots, our metro Mayors are leading the way, whether it is Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Steve Rotheram in Liverpool City Region or, indeed, Andy Street. Those pilots have been successful. I declare an interest, in that I used to work for Andy Burnham, but he talks about an 87% tenancy sustainment rate, and Andy Street uses similar figures. I know that they have certainly been speaking to the Minister. I hope that they help. Indeed, I hope that Treasury Ministers can see the light, and that investment in people and Housing First would create an overall cost saving over time. I wish the Minister well with that argument.
We need to look more at the underlying problems of rough sleeping. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster referred to that. There is a need for mobile, flexible mental health services, but of course they have been cut, particularly in the last decade. There is an interdependency there.
We must also ensure strong investment in building council and housing association homes. Social house building has almost ground to a halt under Conservative Governments. The number of homes for social rent built in England stood at just under 6,700 in 2019-20, compared with almost 40,000 in 2010-11. The Government risk that figure being further reduced by the scheme that provides half of those homes under their long-awaited planning reforms, which may come somewhere down the line. The Minister, who, like me, came into politics shaped by experiences in a housing association, knows that socially owned homes provide a real foundation for stability for growing families. Social housing is affordable.
The Government’s ambition is to build 300,000 homes a year—I think we built around 244,000. However, the only time we have had a successful house building programme—way back in history, back through successive Governments—was when social housing was a fundamental part of the mix. It was not the only element—market-led housing always leads the way, and that should be regulated more effectively—but we need to step things up on social housing.
Reforming our broken private rented sector will also be key if the Government want to get serious and prioritise preventing rough sleeping and homelessness. The Government could have used the Queen’s Speech to drive through the long-awaited reforms of the private sector and abolishing section 21. I hope that the Minister will confirm exactly when that will happen—the day and the month—in his response. I look forward to that reply.
I mentioned seeing, last night while walking home, the visible signs of a re-emergence of people sleeping rough on our streets. It is somebody’s son, daughter, sister, grandfather or gran huddled in a doorway, sometimes hidden down an alley, but without a roof over their head to call home. The right to shelter and a good home should be a basic human right for everybody, regardless of whether they have access to public funds, which was a point well made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster. My plea to the Minister and the Government is to ensure that “Everyone In” continues and becomes a permanent feature of that ambition to end rough sleeping for good.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, but more importantly, it is a pleasure to see you not just at 6 o’clock in the morning at the gym, which is where I am more used to seeing you.
My apologies, Ms Rees.
I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for securing the debate. We may be few in number in Westminster Hall, given that other important things are going on in the Chamber, but we are all committed to the cause. Generally, this has been a largely unpolitical debate—sometimes the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and the SNP draw us more towards the political element of the discussion, but perhaps that is no surprise. It feels to me that in this room we have a bunch of people who are committed to this cause, regardless of political affiliation. That is a nice place to be.
We have half an hour, and although it is not my intention to use all that time, a slightly less formal approach might be warranted in the discussion. For example, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon mentioned Aspire in her opening speech. One of the things I find critical in my role is that we do not make services and do things to people, we do things with them, and an important part of that is to speak to those people who have experience of the rough sleeping system. I believe 30% of Aspire staff are in that position. It is incredibly important that it is not just a bunch of civil servants or MPs in London creating the policies, but that we are making sure that we take account of the people on the ground who know what they are talking about.
On the issue of support at a time that works, as a Minister, during the summer I had the opportunity to go out and about round the country, and I went to Fairmount Lodge in Shipley. Through the rough sleeping accommodation programme, a building that was originally built in the early 1900s is now converted into one-bedroom and two-bedroom flats, and co-located in the building is the local support service, so that people can access care at the time they need it. There is a concierge on site 24 hours a day, to protect the flow in and out of the building so that inappropriate people are not coming in. Care and support is brought into the site from other groups, such as drug and alcohol abuse support organisations, so we are not sending people out to appointments that we expect them to attend all the time.
Members have mentioned the “Everyone In” programme, which provided, for example, the opportunity to make sure that people saw dentists or GPs for the first time. We held events where I have been joined by, for example, the vaccine Minister. Some people said it was the first time they had seen Health and rough sleeping Ministers attending meetings together. Let us hope that in the future we develop the appreciation that homelessness and rough sleeping are about not just the absence of a home, but the health requirements that go with that.
Not far from Shipley, in Leeds, St George’s Crypt provides crisis accommodation for people rough sleeping and has built a number of houses on a similar model, providing wraparound services. The houses are low carbon. It has been able to get assistance from the social investment sector. What more can be done to provide asset funding to organisations to build this sort of housing to move people on from rough sleeping into that type of accommodation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That sounds like an innovative method of providing houses. We have our flagship rough sleeping accommodation programme, with the intention to provide up to 6,000 new homes by the end of this Parliament. Significant progress has already been made. The programme is not simply providing the capital for the homes and the fabric of the buildings, but the support that I think we have all recognised is so important. We would be kidding ourselves if we were to expect people who have previously had chaotic lifestyles to immediately sustain a tenancy.
Several Members have mentioned Housing First. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) mentioned graciously the various Mayors who have been involved in the programme. I was delighted when Andy Street became Mayor, as the first thing he did was to convene people to address homelessness and rough sleeping in the west midlands. At the time, I was working for YMCA Birmingham, a charity supporting previously homeless young people. It seemed like a really emblematic moment for him to take that lead. This is not a political point. Andy Burnham has also done incredible work—not least, I am sure, because his campaign had the political support of the hon. Member for Weaver Vale to help secure that position in the first place. To push the non-partisan theme, I am hoping to meet up with Andy Burnham at the Conservative party conference, of all places, to discuss how we might continue to work together.
However, the Housing First scheme is not perfect. While I am a keen, enthusiastic supporter, I would not like it to be held up as a completely perfect scheme. For example, there were reservations from some housing associations over committing property to the scheme. Subsequently, now that some have engaged and seen how the scheme works, I think they are warming to it and, after that initial delay, are coming forward with more properties. As it is a housing-led project, it obviously needs to ensure that it has the homes before it can put people in them and provide them with support.
Through things like a combination of the rough sleeping accommodation programme and the rough sleeping initiative, we get a good element of the same sort of principle. I fully appreciate that keen advocates of Housing First will talk about fidelity—the purism of its approach—but we can still achieve giving somebody a home and providing them with support.
On the rough sleeping initiative, I would seek a point of clarification, and I think that many council officers would also be desperate for a clear answer on this. Councils received letters from the Government saying that, because of the rough sleeping initiative, they should end all “Everyone In” programmes, and, in particular, the use of hotels. Meanwhile, they have heard elsewhere from Government that the “Everyone In” scheme is still ongoing.
That has caused huge amounts of confusion, not least in my own area in Oxford, and other councils have also contacted me, desperate for an answer. My question is: has “Everyone In” now stopped completely, or are councils still allowed to use money to put people in hotels, or was that letter not saying the right thing?
I would say that “Everyone In” continues; we still have people who are in emergency accommodation. However, we also need to appreciate that “Everyone In” is not a sustainable approach. It was fantastic that, during the height of a pandemic, we were able to move people into emergency accommodation, but the type of accommodation that many of those people were moved into is, by its very nature, not something we would expect people to stay in for a sustained period.
I make no apology for constantly referring to my time with YMCA, but we would have had a range of accommodation. With off-the-street accommodation, we had a 72-bed hostel, but would then move people through a system where they were supported in accommodation until, eventually, they were in a position to perhaps gain employment and support a tenancy on their own.
We still have people in emergency accommodation; I do not think that councils will be pressured to get people out because, for some reason, it is coming to an end. The pressuring we are doing over moving people on is around moving them to more stable, permanent accommodation, which is appropriate to their needs.
The problem with the step process, though, is that those people who do not want to go into a hostel do not get on to that first step, and therefore remain on the street. In light of that, what steps can the Minister take to try to encourage local authorities—or even provide for local authorities—to release housing for Housing First?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but I would suggest that the question is slightly more nuanced. If, for the sake of argument, I was running a hostel that people did not want to come into, I would be questioning why that was the case. As I have moved around the country, I have seen excellent examples of accommodation which people feel is safer, more secure and more appropriate than sleeping on the street. If the hon. Lady has examples of hostels where she thinks that people do not feel that degree of comfort, I would be happy to work with her and look at that with my team. We should be ensuring that all accommodation of this type, for particularly vulnerable people, is appropriate.
To run through some of the other things the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said regarding scrapping the Vagrancy Act, my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster reminded us what the Secretary of State said previously: we do have quite a busy legislative programme. It is almost amusing to me that it feels like we have barely had the previous Queen’s Speech, and already the hon. Member for Weaver Vale is talking about the next one. We have reviewed the Act, and are considering what action to take. We do not want to get rid of an Act and find that there is an unintended consequence; some useful element that we have thrown in the bin, but which we in this room would not be keen on losing.
With regards to long-term funding: the upcoming spending review is something way above my pay grade. However, it is something that I am contributing to as somebody who has experienced the vagaries of waiting for funding settlements in order to employ staff, and, unfortunately, as someone who has even had staff leave because they felt their position was insecure. We would all accept that, like the rest of us, the Chancellor has been through a pretty dramatic 18 months. We are moving into a more settled position thanks to the success of the vaccine rollout, and the economy seems to be getting back on its feet. Hopefully, the Chancellor feels suitably reassured and is able to give us a couple of years’ funding to provide that certainty.
With regards to a refreshed strategy, I am delighted to have spent a considerable amount of time discussing with Ministers in other Departments what they need to contribute to help us reach the ambition of ending rough sleeping during the lifetime of this Parliament. We have seen some fantastic schemes, such as work done with the Ministry of Justice on the accommodation and settlement of prisoners when they come out of prison—a very delicate time to ensure that they do not automatically reoffend and go back in.
In the interests of working together and learning from one another—which is very important on an issue like this—regarding the Minister’s understandable comments about the unintended consequences of the abolition of the Vagrancy Act, he may wish to look at the Scottish example. This Act has been abolished in Scotland for decades. He may wish to look at how that has worked, and see if it can be applied to England.
The Minister has raised the issue of people leaving the criminal justice system. I have been particularly concerned that many of the reasons why women, in particular, end up in the criminal justice system are due to the fact that they have been exploited on the streets, and they do not have a safe base. Within his programme, would he look at some of those issues so that we see a more preventive programme in place to protect women?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I have had some discussions with the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), on this subject. It is a theme that I will continue to come back to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) touched on a theme that is incredibly important: it is not just about the Government doing stuff. There are an awful lot of organisations in this field—sometimes they are almost bumping into one another. The idea that she might convene those people to secure a collective aim, so that they are all working together efficiently and effectively, is an incredibly important one. She also touched on the problems of family and relationship breakdown; one of the areas for which I am responsible as a Minister is the Supporting Families programme, for which I am an incredible enthusiast and advocate. During the summer I have seen councils putting that programme into action across the country. Early interventions to support people who are experiencing multiple difficulties, trying to ensure that the family stays stable, provide an incredibly important contribution.
Going back to York Central, the charities there are outstanding. Having worked for one, I fully appreciate the work they do, and I admire and respect the work that the hon. Member for York Central does in this field. We have seen some incredible work, such as the transformation fund, which is money we have given to charities so they can transform their provision. It sometimes seems to be the most efficient spend, because for small charities, every pound counts, so when they get some money from the Government they make sure they spend it effectively. Amen to the charity field.
I am looking forward to going out for a walk around the streets with my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, or “TwoCitiesNickie” as I think of her because of her Twitter handle, although I appreciate that is inappropriate here. We will be going out to have a look around. Strangely, I thought I completely understood the rough sleeping sector and those who provided support, but my view was from the west midlands. Then I came down to London. My hon. Friend represents an area that has three times as many rough sleepers as the next two boroughs in the list. That gives us a keen appreciation of the problem. It has been a real pleasure for me to benefit from her experience and to visit organisations such as the Passage with her to see the excellent work that they do. I am looking forward to going out with her next week at night for a look around so that I can understand first-hand the service provision available.
I am very happy to learn from whatever is going on in Scotland. It is great to hear about the success that there has been—prevention is key, clearly. I want to touch on a couple of points that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned. No recourse to public funds sometimes can be a catch-all phrase that does not apply to the people we are talking about. During the summer I visited other organisations, and saw people in London, for example, who employ their own solicitor to help people regularise their immigration status and then secure funds. I appreciate that sometimes navigating that system is not easy—it is complex, which is why the Home Office is offering surgeries to help people navigate their way through what can be a very difficult process. I would also make a minor political point: sometimes, it is impossible for us to regularise people’s immigration status, and sometimes they do not have the support networks they would need in this country, so helping them to reconnect with family and friends in their country of origin is an appropriate solution to the problem, and we have done that in some cases.
I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate today. It has felt warm and non-partisan, and I am sure our collective discussions will continue in the months and years ahead. With regard to the point made during the opening speech about this Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping, it is clearly absolute. We are committing significant resources to it and working incredibly hard, with experts and councils and councillors up and down the country. I think that our collective effort will help us to achieve that goal.
First, I warmly thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate today. As many have said, and as I know, there are other Members of the House in all political parties who feel as strongly as we do. I agree with the Minister that there is not a paper between us on where we want to end up; however, there is a genuine debate to be had about how we get there.
The support for Housing First is welcome, but equally welcome is the Minister’s acceptance that nothing is perfect, nothing is a panacea. In some parts of the country—in the south-east, for example, where there are only 255 Housing First places—we need to work out how we can unlock that housing. I am genuinely concerned about the planning Bill and the impact it will have on councils’ ability to deliver the policy. It feels a little like one hand of the Government does not know what the other is doing. We need to make sure the actions are joined up. I have other concerns about the planning Bill—that is just one of them—but they are not a matter for this debate.
Regarding the Vagrancy Act, I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for the work that she and others do on that. I am hopeful that we will get a positive result in the next few years, but—to push the Minister gently on this—I do not believe that new legislation is needed. The example from Scotland and the legal advice obtained by Crisis and others show that there is already provision in law, and in large swathes of the country local police have decided not to use the Vagrancy Act at all. That shows that already in England the Act is not needed. I understand the precautionary principle, but it has been proved that we do not need it, so just get rid of it.
I will end by asking the Minister for a favour. I mentioned that trust is an important part of this work. An innovative charity, the Mayday Trust, which I mentioned a few times, has come up with a programme that I genuinely believe is the answer to that final 10% we have been talking about today. Will he consider meeting me and the trust, so that we showcase that important work?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered ending rough sleeping.
Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Members should send their speaking notes by email to email@example.com. Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered British Council closures.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. The British Council is the oldest and, for a long time, one of the most important cultural institutions in the world. It has had and continues to have enormous influence. I am sure the Minister knows this, and I do not want to use my time to give him a history lesson. However, we are having this debate because the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office seems to have forgotten about the British Council’s value with its refusal to provide financial support, so I will briefly remind him of the British Council’s initial purpose.
Founded in 1934, the British Council was created in response to a changing global stage: the United Kingdom was losing its traditional forms of influence, extreme ideologies were on the rise around the world and there was a global economic crisis. Those problems may not sound unfamiliar to the Minister and others here today as he and his Cabinet colleagues seek to re-establish the UK as a global power outside the EU, respond to extreme ideologies at home and abroad, as we have devastatingly seen over the last few weeks, and tackle the economic and social implications of the pandemic and the climate crisis. Clearly, the British Council remains as relevant today as it has ever been. If the Minister disagrees, I will be interested in hearing him explain that later.
This Government like to talk about us being a global Britain. In fact, the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy earlier this year was named “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”. In the review, we were told the UK would become one of the most influential countries in the world, and a key aspect of this is our role as a soft superpower. The review explicitly highlighted the important work of none other than the British Council, noting that it
“operates in over 100 countries”.
The problem is that the British Council does not. It just cannot. Why? Because, frankly, the Government have prevented it from doing so.
Like many organisations, the British Council has suffered during the pandemic as its commercial operations, which usually provide most of its income, have been severely hit. As of July, teaching revenues were back to only about 50% of pre-pandemic levels, representing a loss of hundreds of millions of pounds over the course of the year. It is predicted that income from commercial operations will not be back to pre-pandemic levels until 2023. That is absolutely devastating.
In a usual year, the British Council can provide an income of several million pounds more than it needs to run its commercial activities, and that surplus is effectively used to subsidise its other work, which is otherwise funded by Government grants. Have the Government tried to help? Yes and no. An immediate shortfall in funding was met through an additional non-official development assistance grant of £26 million, which was very welcome. What was less welcome for the British Council was that most of the additional grant was counterbalanced by a cut in ODA grant funds of £80 million. It is quite literally giving with one hand and taking away with the other.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Would she agree that, especially since the broken manifesto pledge on 0.7%, we are beginning to see that this Government’s actions do not match their words? When the Government say they want to be a world superpower, this example of the British Council funding is yet another proof point that what they say and mean is not what they do?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Yes, I agree. I would argue that the integrated review was published at the start of the year and that work was ongoing, but the decision on the Department for International Development was taken before that review was published. That, alongside the cuts to the British Council, demonstrates that the Government are not aligned with the view of global Britain seen by my hon Friend, myself and others.
A series of loans has also been agreed, but on commercial terms, requiring the British Council to submit business plans to be agreed by the FCDO. Ordinarily, as we know, the British Council is incredibly economically successful, but the reality is that the loans have been needed to fill a hole made by the pandemic. Business operations are not currently normal. None the less, business plans were submitted and in effect the loans became contingent on cost-saving measures that needed to be put in place. What do cost savings and less income mean? That does not promise a strong British Council presence in 100 countries. It is not a bolstering of our soft power presence. It means cuts to services and staffing—I met some staff online earlier this week—and cuts to Britain’s presence around the world.
Already we have seen office closures, with more to follow in coming years. Closures span the world from Belgium to the United States and from Australia to South Sudan. They include all the Five Eyes countries. In other countries, cuts mean there will be no staff, with operations happening remotely.
I thank the hon. Member for securing this crucial debate. I chair the all-party parliamentary groups on Kosovo, North Macedonia and Montenegro. All those countries face British Council closures. The programmes that they run are vital to those countries. The Prime Minister of Montenegro came here in July and met me in Parliament. We talked about the importance of the British Council in development work in Montenegro and about the bilateral exchange. Without that, and with the office moving to Belgrade, development and our work in vital Balkan countries that are in that phase of development will be severely impacted on. Britain will lose out in our relationship with them.
I thank the hon. Member for his contribution and for his work with the all-party groups, which are important as they are cross-party. Criticisms of the Government’s British Council closures come not only from the Opposition Benches, but from across Parliament. In relation to the Balkans, the British Council is a part of how we demonstrate to our European friends and neighbours that we want to continue in a close partnership despite having left the EU, which I and many other Members disagree with.
Devastating cuts have already been made. The choices have been made by the Minister and his staff. The cuts are the result of cutting ODA spending, a policy hated across the country that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) referred to, and hated across this House, as I mentioned, including in the Minister’s own party. Perhaps, this is the inevitable outcome of merging the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is something we warned about last year. That was also done in the name of cost savings, but it is as yet unclear whether any savings have been made from that decision. Perhaps the Minister will let us know when information on the merger will be made available.
I understand there is also an expectation at the Treasury that all Departments will have to reduce their spending by 5% at the next review. The British Council has already gone through so much hardship, has already had to agree to a reduction in spending of more than £185 million over the next five years, and is already looking at making 20% of its staff redundant here in the UK and across the world. Further cuts will put pressure on the future of the British Council itself. Will the Minister provide reassurance that he will fight to maintain his Department’s budget, and will he consider ring-fencing the current level of grant funding that the British Council receives?
Our soft power is rooted in who we are as a country. It is central to our international identity, and its strength cannot be taken for granted. Those are not my words, but those of the Government’s own integrated review, published just months ago. It is absolutely remarkable that the Government pay lip service to the importance of the British Council while simultaneously undermining it. I urge the Minister to address that in his speech.
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. She was in a meeting online this week with me and members of the Public and Commercial Services Union. I should refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Is she as concerned as I am that the business plan is going forward and the whole redundancy exercise is being done in secret? We really need a bit more disclosure, and we need more parliamentary scrutiny as to how the restructuring is being carried out.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I was pleased to join him earlier this week. One thing that struck me from the meeting was the longevity of some of the staff there, how long they had worked for the British Council, their passion and dedication and how the current actions and what was happening were undermining how they felt about their organisation. I agree that it is very important that we have a degree of transparency, particularly for a non-departmental public body such as the British Council.
Soft power is important. My colleagues and I see the benefits of the UK’s being trusted and respected around the world. Our education system is outstanding, and we want international students to come and benefit from it. I want students from around the world to come to the University of St Andrews in my North East Fife constituency. The British Council helps to support that aim, engaging with the Turing and Erasmus programmes, science, technology, engineering and mathematics scholarships, technical placements and assistance with applications.
Those students bring countless benefits to us at a local level, not only to our local economic circumstances, but with their experiences and knowledge. Speaking as a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, we should remember the importance that international students have in Scotland in particular, which we picked up in our inquiry. Their fees are no doubt part of that.
Tourism contributes £106 billion to the British economy and supports 2.6 million jobs. We cannot recover without it, particularly in North East Fife, so we need to encourage visitors to our shores. Despite current temperatures, I am yet to meet a tourist who says they came to the UK for the good weather. People come for our history and to experience our culture. They go to Stratford to learn about Shakespeare, they go to the pub just about anywhere, they want to experience our vibrant arts and theatres and, at least in North East Fife, they definitely want to have a round of golf. Of course, all those good things exist independently of the British Council, but its presence around the world, teaching English, sharing our culture and demonstrating that we are an open and welcoming nation, plays a significant role.
We also need trade deals. We need to export our goods and services, be it Scotch whisky or cutting-edge science, technology, engineering and maths knowledge, but what country is going to make a trade deal with a country it does not trust? What does it say to the countries we want to work and trade with if we turn our backs on them and withdraw our institutional presence? What does it say about our commitment to tackling climate change if, as reported today, this Government are considering doing away with agreements around climate change when they look at trade deals, such as that with Australia?
The biggest challenges we face today do not affect us alone and cannot be solved by us alone. We face a climate crisis; we face a growth in extreme ideologies around the world. The world is a less safe, less stable and less prosperous place, and retreating solves nothing. For better or worse, we have already retreated from the European Union—I firmly believe it is for the worse—but we still need to work together to respond to global health crises, to house and support refugees coming from Syria, Afghanistan and other places, to tackle cross-border crime and terrorism, and to make the shifts required to respond to the climate crisis.
I was approached by constituents concerned about the lack of clarity on plans for the evacuation of British Council employees from Afghanistan, and I wrote to the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. I received responses from the Home Office and the MOD but, despite the Foreign Office’s being the sponsoring Department for the British Council, I did not receive a response from it; I still have not. The clear advice from the MOD, however, was that British Council staff were not eligible for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. In the main Chamber on Monday, the Foreign Secretary questioned whether that was really the case. Nobody has a clue what is going on. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is shoddy treatment of British Council employees in Afghanistan, and that the Government need to think again—and quickly?
I absolutely agree. To hear that British Council employees are not considered eligible for the ARAP programme is devastating. Not only that, but I understand that the MOD and Government guidance to those nationals who could not be evacuated from Kabul airport has been that they should make their way to third countries. We know that in Iran, for example, the British Council is a proscribed organisation. I am sure there will be contractors who have worked for the British Council making their way there who have no knowledge of that proscribed status and who could find themselves in very difficult circumstances, were they to make it across the border.
We need to restore our ties with countries in the EU, both for relations between ourselves and to act together elsewhere. Rebuilding trust, using our soft power and, in fact, doing all those things that the British Council does are key to that. It is staggering to hear the Prime Minister talk as he does of his “global Britain” ambitions. I am not sure whether he has read his own review, because again and again, be it on girls’ education, which has seen cuts of up to 40%, the BBC, which is continually undermined, or the British Council, it seems this Government are more concerned with eroding the sources of our soft power than with strengthening them. Global Britain needs the British Council. It is extremely short-sighted to require such drastic cuts to be made to it now, in response to an extreme event, when its long-term presence is so valuable to our standing in the world.
I would be remiss—I thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald)—if I did not use this opportunity to acknowledge the work done by British Council staff in response to the situation in Afghanistan. I understand that all directly employed staff and contractors are now out of the country—that might be news to the hon. Member—but that a decision will shortly be made about previous contractors. I know that staff at the British Council have been working around the clock to provide assistance, and I thank them for that. Can the Minister, as previously requested, provide an update about the status of this group, their eligibility for ARAP—because if our understanding is correct, and they are not eligible, that is very concerning—and what assistance will be provided to them and others in reaching the UK via third countries?
I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing this important debate on the British Council’s global presence. I will take my mask off; that would probably help. I am grateful for the interventions of other hon. Members. I am also conscious that I need to give the hon. Lady a couple of minutes, if she would like that, to sum up.
The hon. Lady has already said that the British Council plays an absolutely crucial role as one of the UK’s international organisations for cultural and educational opportunities and cultural relationships. It is an arm’s length body of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It has a core mission to promote English-language education, arts and culture across the globe, and it does a fantastic job of that. It delivers key soft-power benefits to the United Kingdom, and it is a crucial part of our overseas presence, operating in over 100 countries. The British Council’s own figures show that, in 2019-20, it reached 983 million people.
We recognise the British Council’s considerable contribution to promoting our influence and values overseas. It is important to acknowledge, however, the devastating impact of the covid pandemic on British Council operations. As the chairman has said a number of times, the organisation went from producing almost £1 billion of revenue to producing virtually zero overnight. It takes a lot to recover from that.
At the peak of the pandemic, over 90% of the British Council’s teaching and exam centres were forced to close. The hon. Lady referred to the fact that we have provided the council with additional financial support in an extremely challenging fiscal climate. We are facing the worst economic contraction in over 300 years and a budget deficit of close to £400 billion. However, to depart slightly from the bonhomie, I politely suggest that the hon. Lady’s remark that we were refusing to provide financial support to the British Council is frankly, on every level, inaccurate. Despite these unprecedented economic circumstances, we have allocated over £600 million to the council since the pandemic hit. The hon. Lady may not be aware of that figure.
I can certainly go into some more detail on the financial settlement. It included a 2021-22 spending review settlement, in 2020, that totalled £189 million. That is a 27% increase. Furthermore, £150 million of the settlement is composed of ODA, while the non-ODA allocation of £39 million is triple that of the 2020-21 baseline. In addition to the settlement, we are providing loan support, which the hon. Member for North East Fife referenced. That is up to £245 million and includes a £100 million loan to support restructuring efforts and to rebuild commercial surpluses.
I will come on to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). The hon. Member for North East Fife suggested that the British Council had to provide a business plan to secure a loan. I am not entirely sure that a business plan requirement is a particularly heinous thing to ask of the British Council. I would be grateful if any hon. Members could point me to a bank or any lender that would provide a loan without at least politely asking what that money would be used for. We worked very closely with the management and board of the British Council to come to this arrangement on the loans. We have worked very hard with them; they have done an incredible amount of work, and I pay tribute to Stevie Spring, the leadership and the interim chief executive.
I thank the Minister; he is being very generous. There are problems with the restructuring, and the outcome is that some of the industrial relations from the British Council need to be improved. Is the Minister’s Department scrutinising how the British Council is carrying out the restructuring? Would he be prepared to meet me and PCS representatives to hear our concerns?
I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman or any hon. Member here today to discuss the British Council. We discussed it in the main Chamber quite recently, and I am more than happy to do so again. Members are very welcome to come into the FCDO and meet me and our soft-power team, who work incredibly closely with the British Council. Clearly, changes such as staffing are operational matters for the council itself. We understand that it is working incredibly hard to restore its commercial operations and to maximise its revenues. It is a particularly difficult time.
While we have had to make difficult decisions across all Departments and in other areas, we are increasing the money we are providing to the British Council. Never has there been a clearer endorsement by the Government of the British Council and the important soft-power role it plays. However, the unprecedented impact of the pandemic has forced the Government to take tough but necessary decisions about the British Council’s global presence. It has reinforced the need for the council to do more to adapt to a changing world. As the interim chief executive of the British Council said at the time, the British Council will stop spending grant-in-aid funding in 11 countries and will deliver grant-in-aid programming through offices for a further nine countries.
Let me re-emphasise that decisions on presence were taken only after a thorough assessment alongside the British Council of how the council’s priorities link with the Government’s foreign policy objective, as set out in the IR, as well as how the British Council can achieve the greatest impact.
In the debate in the main Chamber, some said that the British Council can make a meaningful impact only with an office in-country. That, frankly, is incorrect. I said in June that it would be a strategic mistake to judge the impact of the British Council in a digital world by its physical presence. This crisis—the pandemic—has changed the way we all operate, and the British Council has done an excellent job.
We returned to Westminster this week and to business as usual—in 2019, when I was elected as an MP, I did not really know what normal was—and I am sure everybody here has really benefitted from a physical presence. I absolutely understand that the British Council needs to look at different ways of delivering its services, but does the Minister agree that sometimes you absolutely cannot beat face-to-face contact and being there physically?
I do. In an ideal world, that is the case, but there are services that can be delivered digitally. Since the pandemic, the British Council has done a brilliant job of turning around its business model. It is rapidly expanding its digital services in response to the covid crisis. As an example, a year after the pandemic forced us into lockdown last March, there were over 80,000 students learning English online with the British Council. There were nearly 10 million visitors recorded across its online English language platforms, which is an incredibly impressive transformation in a short time.
The British Council has also continued to deliver its excellent cultural programmes and events digitally during the pandemic. It launched its Culture Connects Us programme—a digital online campaign about the value of culture for international connections and exchange. I personally had the pleasure of taking part in an online session with leading figures from the UK and Japanese cultural sectors as part of the UK and Japan season that the British Council headed up.
There is no doubt that the British Council can maintain impact through digital delivery. I understand what the hon. Member for North East Fife says, but we will continue to support the council to invest in this area. It has a proven track record now of maintaining impact through digital delivery. We are confident that investing further in that will serve to enhance its offer.
The changes to its presence are necessarily accompanied by further measures to streamline and enhance the council’s governance structures. We have agreed with the council a new set of key performance indicators and targets, and measures to update the council’s charitable objectives to focus on its core mission. I am delighted that Scott McDonald, who I met online prior to appointment and have since met physically, has now taken up his role as chief executive of the British Council. I have no doubt that he, alongside the exceptional chairman, Stevie Spring, will provide the strong leadership needed to put the British Council on a steady footing for the future.
I am conscious that we are nearly at the two-minute stage, Ms Rees. To summarise, we are absolutely committed to ensuring the future success of the British Council. We have provided a strong rescue and reform package to support it through the pandemic and to enhance its governance structure. It is important that the British Council can make the most impact in a changing world. It will continue to operate in over 100 countries and the FCDO will ensure that it can continue to play a leading role in promoting UK soft power and all our integrated objectives.
Before we begin, can I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking? That is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Members should send their speaking notes by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers. I call Elliot Colburn to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered reducing plastic waste.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and a pleasure to be back in a fairly busy Westminster Hall. Thank you to all colleagues for expressing an interest in today’s debate. I would also like to thank the many organisations and charities that have, I am sure, been in touch with all right hon. and hon. Members to prepare briefings, particularly the Conservative Environment Network.
Reducing plastic waste is a mammoth topic to tackle. I fear our short time today will allow us only to scratch the surface. I would like to begin by outlining why this is such an important issue to discuss. It is a topic often raised with me by residents of Carshalton and Wallington. I am sure colleagues here today will share similar experiences from their constituencies. I had the pleasure of visiting Culvers House primary school in Hackbridge recently after pupils had written to me about plastic pollution and why they were so passionate about it. They thought more could and should be done. I am very grateful for their insight.
We all know the harm that the scourge of plastic pollution causes our environment, but it is worth going over some of the numbers, because they make stark reading. Plastic waste in the UK continues to grow, with more than half of all plastics ever manufactured being made in the past 15 years. An estimated 5 million tonnes are used every year, nearly half of that being packaging alone. Plastic waste harms our natural environment if it is not recycled, lasting centuries in landfill or, if discarded as litter, polluting our oceans, rivers and soils, and the creatures that rely on them.
Plastic production and waste contribute to climate change. Current projections show that, if the strong growth of plastic usage continues as expected, emissions of greenhouse gases by the global plastic sector will account for 15% of the entire global annual carbon budget by 2050. Again, that barely scratches the surface of the scale of the issue, but it gives an indication of the challenge we face and the action that must be taken.
I want to say a big thank you to the Chamber engagement team at the House of Commons for their amazing work in engaging with the public ahead of today’s debate to find out people’s priorities. I thank the more than 500 people who took part in that survey. I will go over some of the headline figures that came out of that piece of work.
People were asked what measures should be taken to ensure that plastic waste is recycled, rather than sent to landfill or incinerators. Respondents came back with many suggestions, such as better education on how to recycle and the need to do so; more consistency in approaches across local authorities, with many citing confusion when moving from one area to another; preventing recyclable materials from being sent abroad; and introducing deposit return schemes. I will go into that later.
After the three or four debates about incinerators that I have held in this place, the Minister will know about my passion to ensure that they are properly regulated. When one opened in my constituency, on a visit there I witnessed recyclable waste being put into the incinerator. I know the Minister is well aware of my interest.
The second question asked what steps should be taken to reduce the amount of plastic waste being produced in the first place. Suggestions included banning single-use plastics, especially for food products; using incentives, legislation or both to assist transition away from plastic packaging; and holding businesses accountable for the plastic that they produce. What stood out for me in that question was the word “reduce”. We often speak about recycling and reusing, both of which are, of course, much better than landfill and incineration. Nevertheless, we must remember that at the peak of the waste hierarchy, the best thing that we can do is reduce the amount of waste that we produce in the first place, so that must be our aim.
Finally, people were asked about how we can use technology to reduce the amount of plastic that is produced and to deal with the plastic that is within the circular economy at the moment. Suggestions included using technology to find alternatives to plastics, particularly when it comes to packaging; investing in technologies such as biodegradable or compostable plastic; new technologies to look at labelling, in order to track the life cycle of plastics and use that as an education technique; and using plastics in more innovative ways for house building, roads, pavements or construction—images from around the world that I am sure many colleagues have seen before. Indeed, it has been a pleasure for me to meet many businesses, charities and organisations that are looking at developing new technologies or that have such technologies, which they are trying to use as a way to deal with this issue. Although there is no silver bullet, and I am sure that everyone would agree that there is no one solution or one thing that we can offer, the new technologies out there certainly give us a chance to make a considerable impact.
Like me, the hon. Member was, and presumably still is, a councillor. Between 2010, when I was a councillor in Camden, and the start of the pandemic, there were £16 billion-worth of cuts to local government, and the Environment Agency saw its Government funding slashed by nearly two thirds. The direct result of that underfunding is that councils have struggled to deal with plastic waste effectively, and there has not been enough monitoring and enforcement of the rules. As a fellow Member of Parliament and a current councillor, does the hon. Member agree that reducing plastic waste relies on local councils and bodies such as the Environment Agency having the resources that they need to do so?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that question, and she raises a very important point. The only thing I would observe is that some councils are doing incredibly good work and increasing their recycling rates, and they all face similar pressures. I am sure she will go more into her argument in her speech, and I thank her for her contribution.
I thank the people who shared their views and information and engaged with the Commons Chamber engagement team in advance of the debate, because what has come out loud and clear is the call for action on tackling plastic waste. Indeed, action is being taken. There are things that I want to acknowledge, and some measures that I want to praise before I go any further, such as the restriction on supplies of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and the ban on microbeads. I welcome the consultation that is coming this autumn on banning more single-use plastic items, and the Government’s commitment to prevent all avoidable plastic by the end of 2042. I welcome the requirement for large retailers to charge 10p for a single-use plastic carrier bag. The 95% reduction in the use of plastic bag sales since 2015 is very welcome indeed.
I welcome the measures in the Environment Bill, such as putting charges on single-use plastic items, ensuring that producers take greater responsibility for their waste, establishing consistent approaches to recycling across England, tackling waste crime, enforcing litter offences, and delivering on the manifesto pledge to ban the export of polluting plastic to non-OECD countries, among many others. I welcome the plastic packaging tax, which will come into force from April 2022, and the fact that we are leading the Commonwealth in fighting against marine plastic pollution through the Blue Planet Fund. Those are very welcome measures, but there is always more that can and should be done to tackle this huge issue. Something that I would pick out immediately is the push for an all-in deposit return scheme, which would capture up to three times more plastic than an on-the-go system does.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He refers to the deposit return scheme, which we hope will be introduced in the next couple of years. Does he have any thoughts about the possibility of a novel solution using digital technology—for instance, to capture the plastic crisp wrappers that litter our streets and countryside?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. That is an incredibly important thing, which the Government should definitely look at, and I urge the Minister to take that away. The deposit return scheme described applies only to plastic bottles, and we know that there are opportunities and examples from around the world of where that can be expanded to include much more, so that is definitely something that should be looked at.
Although it is important that the Government take action and that businesses take on more responsibility, old habits die hard, as the saying goes, and our biggest challenge is potentially changing our own individual behaviour.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate on this important issue. He has outlined many measures, and I remember a measure that was introduced by the coalition Government: the plastic bag tax. He was talking a moment ago about personal responsibility. Will he urge the Minister to increase the plastic bag levy to encourage people to take greater responsibility in their shopping habits?
The 95% cut figure is proof of the success of the plastic bag tax. It has obviously worked, so I urge the Minister to do as my hon. Friend suggests.
I have a strange sense of déjà vu here. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) mentioned my time as a councillor. Indeed, this was the first topic I ever spoke about as a councillor, when we were discussing it during a full council motion almost three years ago. The point I made then still stands: without buy-in from people at large, with all of us playing our part, lasting change will be difficult. Those survey responses from members of the public point to some really important things that need to be done, particularly on education and ensuring that transitions and changes are as simple possible for people to make. Later this year, I hope to do my part in that by hosting a local event to coincide with COP26, during which I hope to have a session on the changes we can make right here, right now to reduce the amount of plastic waste that we contribute.
The central message I will leave behind is the need to look at the circular economy and always keep one eye fixed sharply on the top of that waste hierarchy. If that is done right, we can bring businesses and individuals along with us—not as some kind of burden or punitive measure, but as a positive contribution to our environment, to the world that we live in, and to the creatures with which we share it.
Thank you, Ms Rees. It is good to switch places—I was in the Chair this morning. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for bringing the debate on this enormously important matter to the Chamber.
People may know that the United Nations predicted that by 2050, there would be more plastic in the sea than fish. The problem we face is that plastic is simply too cheap, which is why it is thrown away. The reason for that is essentially that 6.5% of global GDP is used to subsidise fossil fuels, creating cheap plastic. China is now putting more subsidy into fossil fuels than the United States, the EU and Russia combined, which means plastic is too cheap. It is incumbent on us to take leadership to reduce subsidies and to tax plastic so that the price goes up. We know from simple taxes such as the carrier bag tax that that has an effective impact on behaviour. It is all very well preaching that people should use less plastic, but people need fiscal drivers to make the change.
Meanwhile, the landfill tax is significant, and although I would not argue against that, local authorities have been driven towards building more and more incinerators. I will be involved in a meeting next week—possibly with the Minister—about the Edmonton incinerator, which generates 700,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year at a time when 85% of the plastic that Camden throws away is recyclable. We need a carbon tax, and although one is coming for plastic made of less than 30% recyclate, we should do better than that. Indeed, the tax itself will be £200 per tonne, compared with the EU tax of £685 per tonne.
We need to drive up those costs to switch producers and consumers. Frankly, if I went to Costa Coffee and could get a cheaper coffee in a china cup than in a takeaway cup, I would stay indoors to drink it. We need to think carefully about that and take tough action. It is all very well having a 25-year environment plan, but that is simply too long to wait. The Government’s target is for zero avoidable plastic waste by 2042, and for zero avoidable waste generally by 2050. Yet on current projections we know that by 2025 we will have breached the Paris 1.5° threshold ambition to address climate change. Plastic waste is generating incineration waste, which is causing massive problems in terms of emissions, and that is in addition to the waste in our oceans. Alongside that there is a lot of evidence that these fumes do not just change the climate but affect people’s health, because ultrafine particulates breach the filters.
In a nutshell, I am calling on the Government to up their game in terms of taxation, timing, enforceable targets and the deposit return scheme, and to let businesses and consumers know that the cost of plastic will go up in the future and that the best advice, in terms of their pocket and of climate sustainability and the local environment, is to look at other forms of packaging and so on. For instance, the cost of clothing would not be pushed down by the fact that we are all wearing plastic clothing and breathing in particulates and so on.
The covid emergency has demonstrated how vital plastic is, forming the primary component in billions of items of personal protective equipment and other medical equipment used to fight the virus and save lives. It is versatile, low cost and durable. However, it is that strength—that durability—that has led to increasing public concern about plastic littering our neighbourhoods and polluting our seas. Plastic will always be a part of our economy and our daily lives, but we urgently need to reduce our reliance on it and also make sure that more of the plastic that we do use is reused or recycled.
This Conservative Government are doing more than any of their predecessors to address the issue. We were one of the first countries in the world to introduce an extensive ban on microbeads in personal care products. Our charging scheme, as we have heard, has led to a dramatic reduction in plastic bag use, and the Environment Bill contains groundbreaking proposals for further action.
That includes extended producer responsibility, to make the companies benefiting from plastic packaging pay the full cost of disposal. That will give them an incentive to consider the impacts that their products have after they have been used by consumers. I hope that the Minister will also put pressure on the takeaway sector to play its part in reducing plastic waste and tackling litter. Local authorities are at the sharp end of dealing with litter and household waste, so I would argue that the bulk of the proceeds of extended producer responsibility should be used to help councils keep our streets cleaner and to ensure that more of our household waste is recycled.
A second key proposal in the Bill is the deposit return scheme for drink containers. In its 25-year plan for the environment, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs points out:
“Millions of single-use bottles jostle their way around the oceans, carried on the currents even to the remotest and most fragile Pacific atolls.”
I appeal to the Minister, as I have done on previous occasions, to make progress as quickly as possible on both EPR and the DRS, given the urgency of the situation and the impact of these drink containers.
Lastly, I turn briefly to the subject of oxo-biodegradable plastic. I have been briefed by Symphony Environmental, which is an export success story and employs a number of my constituents. It considers that policy makers both here and in the EU are not basing their approach to oxo-biodegradable plastic on the scientific evidence. It strongly denies, for instance, that its d2w product emits microplastic when it breaks down. I ask the Minister to engage with Symphony Environmental and consider the research it cites—for example, from the Laboratory of Microbial Oceanography in France—before taking a decision on whether to introduce the ban envisaged in article 5 of the EU single-use plastic directive.
We need to reassess our attitude to plastic fundamentally if we are to deal with the appalling damage it can do to our oceans, and the eyesore it can create in our streets and parks if it is thrown away irresponsibly. We need to break away from the linear “take-make-consume-dispose” model, which assumes that resources are abundant, available and easy to dispose of. Our commitments on climate and nature simply cannot be met unless we move to a more circular economy by reusing, repairing and recycling much more than we do now. We set ambitious goals in our 25-year environment plan, and the Environment Bill will turn them into binding targets. The question for the Minister is: are we on track to deliver the change we need to meet those targets?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing the debate. I have received many letters and emails from constituents of different ages—both young and old—who want to see urgent action taken to reduce waste, which is a serious threat not only to animal and marine life but to us and our environment. The children of Chilcote Primary School in my constituency wrote to me during the lockdown, and the message is absolutely clear: take action now and save the planet. I am in the process of going round to schools and doing that.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said that the first issue he spoke on in the council was the environment. When I first became a councillor in 1999 in Birmingham, there was a councillor who used to speak on environmental issues, and people used to laugh at him. Twenty-two years on, we are still talking about recycling and the action that is needed. If we are to take this seriously, we must bring forward the actions that are needed to save the planet and the children of Chilcote Primary School, and all other schools in my constituency and across the country, because it is about their future. We will then hand over to them the baton and they will look after the planet in the way that they want for future generations. We do not want those children to be in this position 20 years on, still talking about it and debating the action that needs to be taken.
Microplastic pollution is a risk to animals and humans alike, and it is now abundantly clear that radical action needs to be taken. The Government maintain that the UK is a world leader in tackling plastic pollution, yet progress remains painfully slow. The UK is still one of the largest producers of plastic waste in the world. Much of it is exported abroad, but that does not diminish our responsibility. It would be a nimby approach—not in my back yard—to say, “Let’s offload it to someone else.”
Not so long ago, I saw a documentary about the slums in India—the name of the biggest slum escapes my mind. It was amazing to see not only how they recycled every element of an object that could be recycled, from plastics, Coke bottles and whatever else, and turned them into goods that could be resold, but the way that community came together. If that can happen in a slum in a third-world country, as a developed nation we need not only to learn lessons but to set the standards to make progress on this important issue. Once again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for instigating today’s debate.
I may be found regularly in Stroud balancing food on my baby’s head, having already stuffed my pockets and her sling full of my purchases as I join millions of people who refuse to pay 10p for a carrier bag. Such shopping/baby juggling was unthinkable even five years ago, but the Government’s determination to bring about meaningful change has led, as we have already heard, to a 95% cut in plastic bag sales in major supermarkets since 2015. When I start worrying about the scale of the issue of plastic pollution, I think about the change of behaviour on carrier bags, because it gives me hope. By golly, do we need hope on plastic pollution.
The UK is a world leader, but it is estimated that 5 million tonnes of plastic is still used here every year, and nearly half of that is packaging—8 billion drinks containers include plastic, and they end up landfilled, incinerated or lost in our precious environments. Plastic waste lasts centuries in landfill, pollutes soils, rivers, wetlands and oceans, harms the creatures that inhabit them and weakens our environmental infrastructure that is essential not only for ecosystems but for our future.
Closer to home in Stroud, littering and fly-tipping is a constant feature of correspondence, casework and the local council’s work. As my hon. Friend mentioned, children are really exercised by the issue and I regularly receive letters from schools. Our farmers have reported livestock being harmed by ingesting plastic rubbish, and local people want to see massive corporations such as McDonald’s and Tesco taking responsibility for the litter that flows from their stores. Covid has not helped—masks like the ones we are wearing around the room are often found on the streets. The Government have hugely increased the fines that can be imposed for littering, but we need to see regular prosecutions to create a serious deterrent.
I am proud that Stroud is the greenest constituency in the greenest county of Gloucestershire: we are already punching above our weight. One of our volunteer groups, Stroud District Action on Plastic, works with individuals, businesses, schools, clubs and other community organisations to reduce their plastic footprint. The group was accredited by Surfers Against Sewage in 2020. We have zero-waste environmental shops, such as Greenshop in Bisley, Waste Not, Want Not in Berkeley, Loose in Stroud, Stroudco food hub, the Stroud Valleys Project shop and the Shiny Goodness health store and Beeswax Wraps in Nailsworth—I could go on, but I would probably be told to be quiet.
What are our asks? There is no question in my mind that the Conservative Government are working incredibly hard in this area. The Environment Bill gives a range of new powers, and our creation of the Blue Planet Fund will help developing nations to tackle marine plastic pollution, so action is not just here with restricting plastic straws. We have heard the list of things that we have done.
One of my constituents works for an organisation called City to Sea, which is calling for the ban on plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups to be considered even more swiftly than we are doing with our autumn consultation, and brought in as a matter of urgency. I support that, and I will press for it. The Government’s proposed deposit return scheme is excellent, but it can and should go further with the all-in system that we have heard about. It would capture 23 billion drinks containers a year, while the limited system would capture only about 7.4 billion. I recognise my hon. Friend’s suggestion that technology could be used better too. I hope Stroud’s successes will spur many others on.
I am delighted to participate in this debate on reducing plastic waste. A recent report from Greenpeace, called “Trashed”, highlighted the shocking truth that the UK generates more plastic per person than any other country in the world except the USA, with supermarkets and major consumer brands being the largest sources of plastic packaging. We must improve that shameful situation.
Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years, and every year some 8 million tonnes of plastic waste escape into the oceans from coastal nations, equivalent to setting five full binbags of rubbish on every beach around the world. Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, including birds, fish and other marine organisms. Nearly 700 species, including those that are endangered, are known to be affected by plastics. Nearly every species of seabird eats plastics. However, most animal deaths are caused by entanglement or starvation. Seals, whales, turtles and other animals are strangled by abandoned fishing gear or discarded six-pack rings. Microplastics have been found in more than 100 aquatic species, and in our food chain.
The Scottish Government were the first to introduce the charge for plastic bags, and have banned personal hygiene products containing plastic microbeads and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. The work being done to ban single-use plastic cutlery, plates, straws, and food and drink containers is very important, tackling some of the most environmentally damaging single-use plastics. However, clearly more must be done at UK and international level to tackle the issue. Scotland aims to match the EU ambition for all plastic packaging to be economically recyclable or reusable by 2030, signing the New Plastics Economy global commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, showing a real commitment to a circular economy for plastics.
COP26 is a pivotal moment when this serious issue can and should be tackled across the international community. It offers an opportunity to make real progress in dealing with the damage plastic causes to our world, our climate, our natural habitats and our population systems. That opportunity must not be squandered. The Break Free From Plastic movement found that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé were the three largest plastic polluters in the world in 2020. These corporations must be held accountable for the shocking plastic waste that infects our communities and takes centuries to decompose. We must not let them off the hook. We need concerted international action to effect real and positive change; we need to consider what carrots and sticks can be used to persuade producers to reduce plastic waste. COP26 presents that opportunity to take action and ensure real accountability, and we must use it to seek to influence producer behaviour in a comprehensive and holistic way, so that we can say we are doing all we can to address the scourge of plastic waste on our world. I urge the Minister not to let that opportunity pass by, and look forward to hearing what plans she has to make sure that is firmly on the agenda.
Failure will not be forgiven by future generations. Consumers want action, and now is the time for the international community to listen to consumers and finally take real action to address the issue globally.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. There are two important reasons why this debate matters so much. First, plastic pollution is killing more than 1 million birds per year—that is a shocking figure. I have just come from a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reception. In addition, more than 100,000 sea mammals and turtles—those majestic creatures of the sea—are dying every year from eating, or getting tangled in, plastic waste. We are making the biodiversity crisis worse. Secondly, plastics are currently contributing 1% of global carbon emissions, but projections show them rising to 15% of the global carbon budget by 2050 if we do not take action. That is absolutely the wrong direction.
The UK has not been idle on this issue: we have banned microbeads, restricted the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and we are consulting on banning single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups. The 95% reduction in supermarket plastic bag sales since 2015 shows what can be done. There are good measures in the Environment Bill, we have a world-leading plastic packaging tax coming in from April next year—£200 per tonne on plastic packaging that does not have a minimum threshold of 30% recycled content—and we are leading, with other Commonwealth countries, on the Blue Planet Fund, so we are working internationally as well. However, there is more to do, and my hon. Friend the Minister will be the first to champion us to go further and faster—I know how much she cares about this issue.
The House of Commons Library briefing paper states that in 2017 the UK was recycling 41.5% of our plastic waste. However, we were behind Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany. In particular, we are behind Lithuania, which appears to be recycling about two thirds—66%—of its plastic. Perhaps the Minister will go to Lithuania to see whether we can learn anything from them.
I, too, am excited about the deposit return scheme, which one or two colleagues have mentioned. That is really needed. Like every colleague on the Government Benches who has spoken, I urge the Government to go for the all-encompassing all-in option, which would capture 23 billion plastic containers every year, rather than the more limited on-the-go option, which would capture only 7.4 billion containers. That is the first extra thing that we could do.
Secondly, we must make recycling instructions clearer. I am sure that my wife and I are not the only couple in the country who stare endlessly at items of plastic trying to work out whether we can recycle them—it is very small writing and not clear. Perhaps the Minister will make us have really clear, large and easy-to-see instructions on products, so that we all know which bin that stuff should go in.
I am also pleased to hear that we will make progress with local authorities all having to recycle more items. With plastic, I understand that from next year every local authority in England will have to recycle plastic bottles, including clear drinks containers, HDPE—high-density polyethylene—milk containers, detergent, shampoo and cleaning product containers, and plastic pots, tubs and trays. That is good. Will we go further? Will we include more? We should not lack ambition.
In addition, there is what we can do personally—we will all of us, absolutely, want to hold the Government’s feet to the fire on this, but we can all recycle more ourselves. We can use more items for life. It is excellent that many shops, large and small, get that. I visited a new small business, the Good Life Refill shop on Leighton Buzzard High Street, where people can refill, as in the name. Tesco is also doing great things—Leighton Buzzard has one of the stores where we can recycle considerably more plastic than in other stores. Those are some good local examples but, please, we need to keep going on this. Our constituents really care about it, younger people in particular.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing a debate that we are all invested in—so are our constituents, clearly.
The UK Government simply must do more to combat the plastic crisis. They must seek to match the Scottish Government’s significantly more ambitious targets and achievements. Protecting Scotland’s natural environment is a key priority for the Scottish Government and always has been, which is why we are bringing forward a circular economy Bill to encourage the reuse of products, to reduce waste and to increase recycling. That comes on top of all our other actions since 2007.
We are good at recycling in Scotland, but we want to get even better. The recycling rate in my Angus constituency is 59.1%. That is not quite the 66% of Lithuania, but if the Minister wants to come somewhere slightly more expedient than Lithuania, she is more than welcome to see what we do in Angus.
Consumers need confidence that the trouble they go to in order to recycle does not result in their commodified recycling turning up in mixed-plastic bales to be shipped somewhere far away and end up smouldering on a roadside somewhere, as we saw in Turkey. That does not instil confidence in consumers to do the right thing. This crisis must receive renewed attention from the UK Government, not least because the UK is estimated to produce 5 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, nearly half of which is packaging.
According to National Geographic, half of all the plastics ever manufactured was produced in the past 15 years, as others have said. That is clearly and profoundly unsustainable. Without oversharing, I must mention my fondness for Mr Kipling’s lemon slices. I am too fond of them, and it is unfortunate that they come in a plastic tray, inside a plastic sleeve, inside a cardboard box, held together with—I hope—a water-based glue, although it might be a plastic-based glue. That is not okay, and it is done in pursuit of a competitive edge.
The growing use of plastic is a feature of competition, largely in food production, a shift to ready-made produce, and the growth of the food service sector. Legislation has not been anywhere near keeping pace with changes in the market. As the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) mentioned, plastic packaging is not cheap. It may be relatively cheap in monetary terms to produce, but it is not cheap in environmental and generational terms.
There is a technological and a cultural dimension to this crisis. Culturally, we need to move to greater awareness of our purchasing decisions, to drive producers to change their practices, but we need the legislation to back that up. There will always be plastic waste, and we need to halt those bales of mixed plastic being shipped out and dealt with somewhere else; we need to deal with our mess here. In our regime, it is “Out of sight, out of mind.” That is the UK’s position and it is incorrigible.
We need a technical vision, too. We need to see beyond the current challenges and find a route out of them. This might seem a little abstract, but I want to touch on the production of Concorde, the supersonic passenger aircraft. It is no exaggeration to say that the engineers and technicians who designed that aircraft had no idea how they were going to do it when they embarked on it. We need to recover some of that ambition and eagerness to confront the challenges in front of us.
The Scottish Government led the way in October 2014 with the plastic bag charge, with England following after. Scotland is again leading the way. We have already banned personal hygiene products containing plastic microbeads, and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. In this parliamentary Session, the SNP will take action to ban single-use plastic cutlery, plates, straws, balloon sticks and so on. Those are some of the most environmentally damaging single-use plastics, and we will ban their manufacture and supply in Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) went through the entire list, and I have touched on some of the imminent improvements in Scotland. They will be supplemented by an ambitious deposit return scheme.
I urge the Minister to listen to Members from her own party, if not to me, and to have the most ambitious deposit return scheme. The one that we are to introduce in Scotland next year will incentivise the recycling of not only single-use plastic drinks containers, but cans and glass bottles. Scotland is leading the way, and I very much hope that the UK Government will follow in this context and many others. It is incumbent on Ministers and the Government to ensure that this is delivered on.
May I, in a conclusion that is hopefully not too confusing, speak up for plastics, as some right hon. and hon. Members have done? I do not fancy a life without plastic. I do not want to get on an aeroplane without plastic; I do not want to get ill in a world without plastic; and I really do not want to clean up after my 12-year-old Golden Retriever in a world without plastic. Plastic is not the villain here. We must minimise its use in a way that is consistent with our climate objectives, but focus on the post-consumer regime. The operative word in the plastic waste crisis is “waste”, and I urge the Government not to waste any more time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for calling this debate and providing the House with the opportunity to address our collective responsibility to preserve our planet and protect our environment.
The scourge of plastic waste is evident in communities across the country, thanks to a lost decade of Tory austerity. It is piling up on high streets, on street corners and in our green open spaces. It is also exported, as we have heard, to some of the world’s poorest countries, where what is supposed to be recyclable material ends up in landfill, polluting our oceans, or even being shipped back to Britain for us to deal with. This is a very real problem, and it requires speedy, comprehensive and properly funded solutions.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington will know, as will the Minister, that many of the agencies that should be tackling waste and pollution are underfunded and understaffed. The Environment Agency has struggled to tackle waste crime and monitor waste exports because of the cuts to its budget and staff numbers. Colleagues across the Chamber have mentioned the issues with local authorities, which are struggling to deal with waste effectively.
The Government’s plan to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 is years behind schedule and appears to contain only weak proposals. Britain’s plastic waste crisis is being kicked into the long grass. That plan reflects what we all know to be true: the Government lack ambition and drive, and are failing in their responsibility to preserve our planet and protect our environment. Talking of the environment, I am very pleased to see the progress that the Environment Bill is making in the other place. It is important legislation that, at every stage, Labour has attempted to strengthen, improve and empower. Regrettably, the Conservative party and Government voted against and defeated every single amendment of ours, including our plans for tackling plastic waste.
The Environment Bill’s provision for a deposit return scheme is limited to certain materials, rather than creating a framework that could be broadened to include more types of plastic or bioplastics. The Bill’s waste and resource efficiency measures are too focused on the end-of-life solutions to waste and recycling; much more emphasis is needed, in a real cyclical economy, on the production side, and on encouraging the reduction of waste in the first place.
The country is crying out for real leadership from the Government. We require proper action now. That action will take many different forms. One important one is building a narrative out in the community. UK supermarkets produce approximately 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste every year, so how are we empowering customers to do away with plastic waste? We heard from the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) about the use of slings and juggling with babies, but we also need to work on other issues, to get everybody to do the same thing.
Although this is a devolved issue, it is important for all parts of the UK because plastic waste in our waterways and our seas does not stop at national borders. Could the Minister outline what recent discussions she has had with the devolved Administrations on a four-nation response to tackling the plastic waste crisis across the countries?
May I suggest that the Minister arranges a meeting with the Welsh Environment Minister at the earliest opportunity? The Welsh Labour Government have led the way on delivering bold policies to tackle single-use plastics. Wales is now recognised as the second most successful recycling country in the world. The Minister does not need to go to Lithuania or even Scotland—she could come to Wales first. There is much for this Government to learn from the Labour Government in Wales, and there is no time like the present to start doing so.
Back in 2019, the resources and waste strategy set out a plan for resource efficiency and a circular economy, which included the ambition for all plastics to be biodegradable. It is clear that environmental damage caused by single-use bags would be somewhat mitigated if there was a requirement for them to be biodegradable. Will the Minister provide us with a progress check on what the Government are doing to stop plastics, including plastic bags, that are not biodegradable, from entering circulation?
Ahead of the debate, I received a very helpful briefing from Wildlife and Countryside Link—I pay tribute to it for all the work it does to shine a light on the issues. The briefing acknowledged recent Government announcements, but they do not go far enough and do not tackle the problem.
I have questions on a couple of policy areas. The primary aim of the deposit return scheme is to increase the recycling rates for drinks containers, and to reduce littering. That is great, but the Government are considering whether to restrict the scope of the scheme to covers only drinks containers under 750 ml in size. That is an issue. We have heard the stats on how the scheme could be improved if there was an on-the-go option. Extended producer responsibility is another area. The Government are right to recognise that it needs a major overhaul. Will the Minister commit today to delivering EPR for packaging by 2023? I have asked a number of questions, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to each and every one.
Thank you, Ms Rees. It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair. I am really pleased to be in this very important debate in Westminster Hall. As colleagues know, I take the whole issue of plastics very seriously indeed. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for bringing the issue to us. Clearly, there is an awful lot of synergy in the room on the issue, as there is from the public. I get a lot of letters from schools, as we all do. It is good that there is so much interest in this agenda, which we take very seriously in Government.
My hon. Friend mentioned that the issue is not just about what we do with waste at the end; it is about not producing it in the first place, and I will touch on that. That is why we have a lot of targets. We have already set targets to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill to 10% by 2035, and an overall target of zero avoidable plastic waste of any kind by 2042—a point touched on by the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies). That does not mean that we will wait until then; we have a raft of measures in place to tackle the issue long before that. The Government are moving on the issue, which I am sure hon. Friends and hon. Members will understand, because we are moving towards a recyclable, reusable, compostable era, with all plastic[Official Report, 13 September 2021, Vol. 700, c. 6MC.] waste hopefully being of that nature by 2025. We are committed to transitioning to a circular economy.
I will not give way, because I think I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question, and I want to get through the many points that have been made.
We have already introduced one of the toughest bans on microbeads and microplastics anywhere.[Official Report, 13 September 2021, Vol. 700, c. 6MC.] We have had the 5p carrier bag charge—now the 10p charge. As has been highlighted, that has cut down dramatically on the number of single-use plastic bags being used by supermarkets. We have extended it to small producers. I love the image of juggling the baby and not taking a bag. I have done the same, but I always take my Somerset Willow wicker basket with me. Everyone should have one—support local traditions.
We have also restricted the supply of single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and we will go much further than that shortly, because we are consulting on banning single-use plastic plates and cutlery, and polystyrene drinks containers. In that consultation, we will ask whether there are similar things that we should be working towards. I know that there is an awful lot of pressure relating to the EU single-use plastic directive, but we will be addressing all that and more. Indeed, we are tackling a whole lot of other issues that have not even been tackled yet by that directive. For example, we are looking at textiles, because a lot of textiles produce microfibres. There is an awful lot that we are working on.
Innovation and research have been touched on. We have established a £100 million package for research and innovation to deal with the issue of plastic waste. That includes £38 million through the plastics research and innovation fund and £10 million through the resource action fund to innovate in recycling and in tackling litter, which was touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). Talking of science, she touched on oxo-biodegradables, an issue that has been raised with me and that I have had meetings about. As a result of a call for evidence on this, and the review by the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee on oxo-biodegradable plastics, we are minded to consult on a ban on those materials. That is the latest update that I can give her on that.
Plastic pollution is not just a problem for our country. That is why we have worked to support the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance and the tide turners plastic challenge badge, helping hundreds of thousands of young people tackle plastics in their communities. Through the £500 million Blue Planet Fund, we are investing in, among other things, the Global Plastic Action Partnership.
We are ready to go further, and that is why we are calling for a new global agreement to co-ordinate action on marine plastic litter and microplastics. Just as we had in Paris for climate change, we believe we need an international agreement on these types of plastic pollution. The majority of UN members are already on board, so when we come together at the UN Environmental Assembly next February, I hope that other nations will join in with this.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I heard what he said in his speech. All issues are being discussed. It is not something that we are particularly focusing on right now.
The export of plastics was touched on by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) and by the shadow Minister. We have committed to banning the export of waste to non-OECD countries, and we are working with other global partners to implement our obligations under the Basel convention and the OECD decision on waste. We have a robust system, run by the Environment Agency, for compliance and tackling any illegal exports of plastic. It is doing increasingly focused work on that. At a national level, I am sure the shadow Minister will be pleased to hear that we are committed to tackling waste crime, mandatory electronic waste tracking and the overhauling and improving of the carrier, broker and dealer regime. We are moving on with that very shortly. This was mentioned in the Environment Bill as well, as she knows. Our comprehensive electronic waste tracking system will help regulators to identify illegal and non-compliant activity.
What next? Many councils are already doing great work on recycling. We are determined to learn more, and to ensure that every household can recycle easily, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned. We have myriad different systems, but clarity will be key, as well as guidance, because the Environment Bill requires a core set of materials to be collected by every council, to make recycling easier across the board.
We will seek powers under the Bill to introduce the deposit return scheme that so many hon. Members mentioned. It would apply to drinks containers of multiple materials—not just plastic—including packed plastic bottles. That has been very successful in other countries, as we have heard. We have consulted on the all-in-one and on-the-go systems, and we are analysing all that information.
On the digital DRS system, we have a lot of trials running on technology, because we have to harness that. There could be real opportunities there for systems in busy places such as transport hubs—railway stations and so forth—as well as shops. I know Scotland has been working away on the deposit return scheme. I think it has already been delayed and a review is under way, so we will watch how Scotland proceeds with interest. We have the extended producer responsibility scheme, introduced under the Environment Bill. That has a special focus on plastic packaging, because it is the most littered item. We will ensure that companies that place plastic packaging on the market will cover the costs of disposal, rather than passing it on to the taxpayer, which is what happens at the moment.
In addition, from April next year, the plastic packaging tax will impose a charge of £200 a tonne on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content. It is estimated that that will lead to 40% more recycled plastic used in packaging by 2022-23, which will cut carbon emissions by 200,000 tonnes. I think all hon. Members and friends will agree that that will be significant; it will make a big difference to our moving in the right direction, and it will happen very shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned incineration. In October 2020, we legislated to include a permit condition for landfill and incineration operators, which means that they cannot accept separately collected paper, metal, glass or plastic for landfill or incineration unless it has gone through some form of treatment process first and that is the best environmental outcome.
I hope this demonstrates how many measures are under way and will be coming forward shortly to help us to reach all those targets and to tackle this issue, which I think we all agree is a scourge. We must do something about it, but we genuinely are moving at great speed in the right direction.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in what has been a really good debate. The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) spoke about the cost of plastic; my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) mentioned the need for councils to do more. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) spoke about leaving a good future for our children, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) spoke about how changes in behaviour on bags have given us hope. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) spoke powerfully about international responsibility and working together, and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) gave us some good international examples. I would happily join him on a trip to Lithuania, if he is offering.
I hope that Mr Kipling has listened to what the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) said; I would hate him to have to reduce his intake of Mr Kipling’s cakes, as they are fantastic. I thank the Minister for her reply, and the action she and the Government are taking. I know all right hon. and hon. Members here and across the House will continue to hold the Government’s feet to the fire over this issue, and I am sure the Minister welcomes that. I also thank the Commons Chamber Engagement team and those who took part in the survey for helping us to prepare for today’s debate; it has been very informative.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered reducing plastic waste.