Tuesday 21 September 2021
[Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]
Covid-19: Vaccination of Children
[Relevant documents: e-petition 586017, Do not vaccinate children against COVID-19 until Phase 3 trials are complete, e-petition 594272, Recall Parliament to debate vaccination of children before this is rolled out, and e-petition 589254, Offer the Covid-19 vaccine to under 18s.]
Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking. This is 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 Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the vaccination of children against covid-19.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate, and draw Members’ attention to the three e-petitions that relate to this topic, which have amassed more than 100,000 signatures between them.
Vaccination has transformed public health over the last two centuries. As a science teacher, I remember teaching students about the amazing work of Edward Jenner, who famously developed the smallpox inoculation. Two hundred and fifty years later, vaccinations have again ridden to our rescue with the rapid development and roll-out of covid vaccines across the UK. The phenomenal success of the vaccination programme can be seen clearly in the data. Of the 51,000 covid-related deaths from January to July this year, 76% were of unvaccinated people, and a further 14% had received only a single dose. Just 59 deaths—0.1%—were of double-vaccinated adults with no other risk factors, and 92% of adults now have covid antibodies.
Those figures are a ringing endorsement of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s strategy to recommend vaccination based on the medical benefits and risks to the individuals concerned. The Government have repeatedly defended both this strategy and the independence of the JCVI, and resisted calls to prioritise the vaccination of teachers or police officers over those at higher risk of serious illness. That was the right approach, and the UK has led the world in falling rates of deaths and hospitalisations.
It was therefore surprising, to say the least, when the Government put political pressure on the JCVI to quickly reach a decision about the vaccination of children. On 3 September 2021, the JCVI announced that it was unable to recommend the mass vaccination of healthy 12 to 15-year-olds. The reason was that, although there are marginal health benefits of covid vaccination to children based on the known risks of the vaccine, there is considerable uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the potential harms, such as the long-term effects of myocarditis.
Paediatrician and JCVI member Adam Finn wrote in The Sunday Times that a high proportion of myocarditis patients showed
“significant changes of the heart. It is perfectly possible that these changes will resolve completely over time. But it is also possible that they may evolve into longer-term changes.
Until three to six months have passed, this remains uncertain, as does what impact on health any persistent changes may have.”
According to the JCVI, for every 1 million healthy children vaccinated, two intensive care unit admissions will be prevented, and three to 17 cases of myocarditis caused. With two doses, that rises to between 15 and 51 cases—finely balanced, indeed.
There is no rush to roll out the vaccine to children. We know that children are not at risk from covid; teachers are no more at risk than the rest of the population; the vast majority of vulnerable adults have been vaccinated; over half of children already have antibodies; and there is no evidence that schools drive transmission.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) is making an excellent speech, and she is quite right that the Government’s vaccination roll-out programme has been very positive. However, does she share my concerns about the message it sends out regarding parental authority if children as young as 12 are allowed to challenge their parents’ decision regarding their vaccination?
I agree with my hon. Friend: there are some very difficult issues around parental consent and the vaccine, and whether any child can know enough about the potential benefits and risks. This is going to be a very difficult question for schools, health authorities and parents. I will say more about that later on.
The advice being given out on consent forms states that you get to see your family doctor. However, when I and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) challenged the former vaccines Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), on the ability of families to access their family doctor to get advice about vaccines, he could not and would not give an assurance that families could have that advice. Is not such access necessary, especially if the Government are stating on the vaccine form that you do have that access?
Order. Before I call Miriam to continue, Members ought to realise that when they say “you” they are referring to the Chair. Can we please try to get the formalities right? I know that it is less important on Zoom, but we are now back.
My hon. Friend is right. It is widely known that access to GPs is challenging at the moment, and that presents challenges in this situation. It is widely understood that if a child can consent, contrary to parental consent, that is not a tick-box exercise; it is a matter for a medical professional to assess whether the child is competent to consent. If there are problems accessing GPs, there are clear issues here.
There is no rush to roll out the vaccine, and there is no evidence that schools drive transmission. Indeed, recorded covid cases are now at their lowest level since June, despite schools having been open for two weeks. It is also unlikely that vaccinating children will have a major impact on infection rates in the population as a whole, with the JCVI saying that
“the committee is of the view that any impact on transmission may be relatively small, given the lower effectiveness of the vaccine against infection with the Delta variant.”
However, instead of accepting the JCVI’s assessment and waiting for more evidence to emerge, the Government asked the chief medical officer urgently to review the decision based on the wider benefits to children, including from education. Last week, the CMO announced that he would recommend child vaccinations on the basis of these wider benefits.
That decision is a marked departure from the principle of vaccinating people for their own medical benefit, because those wider issues—educational disruption and concerns around mental health—are the consequences of policy decisions and are not scientific inevitabilities. Children in the UK have already missed more education than children in almost any other country in Europe, despite comparable death rates. Since January 2020, British children have lost on average 44% of school days to lockdown and isolation. That is not a consequence of covid infections in children, but rather a result of policy decisions to close schools and isolate healthy children.
According to the Government’s modelling, vaccinating children could save 41 days of schooling per 1,000 children between October and March. That equates to an average of just 15 minutes of education saved per child over this period—surely an insignificant amount, and negligible when we account for the time it takes to vaccinate and the subsequent days off school to recover from potential side effects. There is a much simpler way to stop harmful educational disruption, and that is to follow the advice of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and end the mass testing of asymptomatic children. This unevidenced and unethical policy is costing tens of millions of pounds a week—I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm the exact cost—and is continuing to disrupt education. Even the CMO acknowledges that a vaccination programme alone will not stop school closures. Perhaps the Minister could clarify how the Government intend to end educational disruption.
On the potential mental health benefits from reducing the fear of covid, it is not covid infection that is making children fearful; it is the uncertainty, frustration, loneliness and anxiety that they experience as a result of lockdowns and harmful messages such as, “Don’t kill granny.” Children need not fear catching covid, but they have every right to fear policy decisions that cause them significant harm, and sadly we cannot vaccinate against those.
Nonetheless, the decision has been made, and we have to be very clear that the risks to children, both from covid and from vaccines, are tiny. Concerns should now focus on making sure that the necessary safeguards are put in place as vaccination is rolled out. The previous vaccines Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), assured MPs that there will be no differential treatment of children in schools on the basis of their vaccination status. That is crucial, because any suggestion that unvaccinated young people may be denied education or be subjected to social disadvantage will inhibit the ability of both parents and children to make a free and objective decision. While I appreciate Ministers’ commitments, children already face discrimination in some schools over mask wearing and testing.
We must also make sure that travel rules that differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated children do not amount to coercion when parents are making a decision. Can the Minister say how we will ensure that there is no discrimination in practice as well as in theory?
Vaccination must be a free and informed decision. Choosing to have or not to have the vaccine are both perfectly reasonable and sensible decisions where children are concerned. We must ensure that correct and impartial information is communicated and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, that there is access to health professionals where necessary. Parental consent must also be respected. Much has been said on this subject, but the heart of the matter is that parental responsibility and authority are foundational to society.
I am optimistic that these protections can and will be put in place. None the less, the way that the decision to vaccinate healthy 12 to 15-year-olds has been made should give us pause for thought. For no other cohort have the Government questioned the JCVI’s advice. Why have we departed from this stance when it comes to children and looked for reasons other than direct medical benefit to press ahead? When there are concerns about the future health of our children, why have we not waited for more evidence to emerge? I fear that this situation, rather than being an isolated incident, epitomises a worrying attitude to children that has been evident since the start of the pandemic.
Throughout the past 18 months, “protect the vulnerable” has been our clarion call. We have rightly made significant efforts to protect elderly people and those who are particularly susceptible to covid, but children, who cannot speak out, do not own property, and have no legal agency, are also very vulnerable. Yet during the pandemic, we have asked this group of vulnerable people to make huge sacrifices to protect the rest of us. The harms of lockdown for our children are significant and, for many, will be irreversible: lost education, missed opportunities, abuse and horrific online harms. The number of children presenting in A&E with acute mental health conditions has risen by 50% since the start of the pandemic.
A climate of fear and uncertainty has robbed children of the structure, routine and security that they need to thrive and has placed on them a heavy emotional burden from inferring that they may be responsible for the deaths of those they love. We have pretended that online learning is somehow a substitute for being in schools, and closed our eyes to the consequences of social isolation for children and young people.
Of course, we should raise our children to take responsibility for their actions, but as adults we should always shoulder the greater burden. We have imposed absurd rules on our young people, right down to deciding whom they can play with at playtime and whether they are allowed to change for PE.
However, we have not seen that much action to urge adults to take responsibility for their own covid risk by, for example, losing weight or exercising—something that would have had a far greater impact on our rates of hospitalisation and death.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that the Government, in their approach to lockdown, are creating some of the problems they believe make the situation worse? Weight Watchers and other organisations have said that people coming to them have put on an average of about 6 to 8 lb in weight, and are therefore physically more vulnerable now to covid and other health problems than they were before the pandemic.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am sure we can all empathise with those who have put on some lockdown pounds. A study, I think last week, showed that countries where over 50% of the adult population is overweight have experienced 10 times the death rate. A really effective way of reducing our risk in future would be to divert some of the money we are spending on testing asymptomatic people into drives against obesity and for exercise. That is an excellent point.
Even now, as adults, we are able to move freely from home to work, to Parliament and to the pub with no restrictions, yet children are still subject to asymptomatic testing, and many are being forced to wear masks in school and are missing out on important opportunities. We cannot expect our children to face greater restrictions than we ourselves are willing to bear. As a mother, I have despaired as I have watched the impact of those restrictions on my children and others. The stories that I have heard from constituents, particularly the parents of disabled children and those with additional needs, are horrifying. Millions of families have had to endure this. I pay tribute to UsforThem, which is working tirelessly to stand up for children and campaign for their lives to be allowed to return to normal.
What has saddened me most is the negative attitude to children that seems to have pervaded so much of our public discourse—especially the view that teenagers have behaved irresponsibly throughout the pandemic. That view is just not borne out by evidence. A study by King’s College London shows that, despite half of adults saying that young people have been selfish by ignoring restrictions, all age groups have been “remarkably compliant” and perceptions of selfishness are driven by “fake stereotypes”.
We seem to have forgotten what it means to be a child. We have forgotten that playing with other children, taking risks, feeling valued and enjoying physical contact with others are vital to healthy development. As a society, I fear that we are becoming a bit like Grandma from Roald Dahl’s “George’s Marvellous Medicine”:
“‘You know what’s the matter with you?’ the old woman said, staring at George over the rim of the teacup with those bright wicked little eyes. ‘You’re growing too fast. Boys who grow too fast become stupid and lazy.’
‘But I can’t help it if I’m growing fast, Grandma,’ George said.
‘Of course you can,’ she snapped. ‘Growing’s a nasty childish habit.’”
Things did not end well for Grandma, and things do not bode well for us if we fail to understand the nature and importance of childhood. Children are not disease spreaders, they are not a buffer for our healthcare system, and they are not an economic inconvenience. They are a blessing, they are our hope for the future, and their nurture and welfare should be our primary responsibility.
I am heartened by the care that has so far been taken by the JCVI, the chief medical officer and Ministers to reassure children and parents about the decision to vaccinate our young people, but looking forward we must recommit to putting the genuine and long-term interests of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens at the front and centre of policy making and prioritise their welfare as we recover from the pandemic.
It gives me deep and great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) on securing the debate.
Many of us, when we come to put a speech together, think of different ways and processes to do it. Some use the rule of three, and I want to refer today to three words that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues in government take notice of: “Do no harm.”
Regardless of the chief medical officer’s overruling of the JCVI, I would say that when it comes to our nation’s children and young people, the people in these roles should remember that their actions should do no harm. Our colleagues in government—whether newly appointed or not—should also be mindful, in respect of the electorate’s children, that they should do no harm. The new Minister will be aware of the strength of feeling displayed to her predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), and the Government in the recent urgent question on covid passports. It is, again, a fallacy that the direction that the Government wish to take will protect our children, especially as 50% to 70% of them are likely already to have contracted and survived covid-19, according to the Office for National Statistics. Are we really showing that we are doing no harm?
We are told that any vaccination programme would not negate potential future school closures, so what is the point? Where is the political backbone? Is the Government’s plan that any future upsurge in age 12-to-15 cases could be ascribed to an epsilon or a zeta variant, or perhaps an eta or a theta variant? Will anyone give an iota of credence to such an occurrence after what we have seen with hospital transference to care homes and the subsequent surge in cases in our older generation, and with the recent vaccinations and the delta variant that has emerged? We should be mindful as politicians on both sides of the House, and I note at this point that there are not even three Opposition representatives on the other side of the Chamber, although I do see that the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), is in her place. We need to do no harm for myriad, if not a veritable plethora of, reasons.
I turn now to the so-called Gillick principle. As no trials that have been made public are definitive, I fail to see how any child below 16 can be fully informed and, on being fully informed, one would have to say that their teachers and headteachers cannot be either on the safety or otherwise of the vaccines, in particular in the light of the heart impacts on young males and the reported effects in more than 35,000 females of reproductive age reported in the UK national media this very last weekend. Can the chief medical officers and the JCVI, after their recent decision-making process, hold themselves to the maxim that they will do no harm?
Vaccine passports are not a first line of defence against a potential so-called winter wave of coronavirus, as Downing Street spokesmen are reported to have said. Our children of 12 to 15, like their older siblings and other under-25s who frequent nightclubs, bars and restaurants, are not to be used as a second line of defence either. I urge the Minister and her colleagues in Government to remember to do no harm. There is no medium or long-term study data. I admire Chris Whitty and his colleagues for many things that they have done in the past 18 months. However, citing educational disruption, or the fear of more of it, as a justification for child vaccination against JCVI advice seems a little desperate, as far as I am concerned.
We were told that all those at risk needed to be vaccinated. They have been. Many others have caught and survived covid-19. What real justification is there now to vaccinate those under 40 at all, some would ask? We have had millions of various vaccinations. How many of those under 40 without any underlying health issues have died or been hospitalised purely because of covid-19? So why are our children still taking tests after a whole summer of not doing so, as has been referred to? Is it perhaps because there are thousands, if not millions, of the tests sitting in warehouses? What sort of reason is that for imposing this sort of regime on them?
Are we ensuring that we are doing no harm? Are the zealots in the civil service, the NHS and Government going to stigmatise and demonise any parent who expresses concern about ensuring vaccination of our young children through fear and perhaps even lies, and about taking a vaccine that has had no long-term testing and does not stop someone getting the virus or passing it on? “Do no harm” starts to have a very hollow ring.
If covid risk for young people is much lower, while with vaccination there are heart risks for males—that is a real concern—and reproductive females are suffering side-effects, how does the Minister square that circle that we should do no harm to the young of the UK? That next generation will be paying for this Government’s and the Minister’s decisions for many, many years and, I fear, perhaps in more ways than one.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) on bringing forward the debate. We had a discussion beforehand about her ideas for the thrust of the debate, and I have to say that my ideas concur with hers. Much of what I will say has been put forward already.
It is good to see the Minister in her place. I wish her well in her new role. I look forward to working with her on issues that we will find we have an interest in. I am also pleased to see the shadow Minister in her place. She and I have many things in common, and one is Leicester City football club. We are perhaps not doing as well at the moment as we could do, but we look forward to better days in the future.
My boys are grown up and I am now at the grandparent stage. I do not have as much of a role to play in the childminding as my wife does, but I understand that this morning she started childminding at 5 am, which is an early slot, because the two boys’ parents are working, one from 5 am and the other coming back at 8 am. I know that Government have always been of the opinion that families are core and central to society, and that is what I want to see as well.
Of my grandchildren, the two biggest girls have isolated on two or three occasions. I am glad to say that they have never had covid, but none the less that is the system: if one child in the class takes it, the whole class is out. I concur with the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that we need a better system so that we do not necessarily have to go to those lengths every time.
I am vaccinated, and very pleased to be so. I believe in the effectiveness of the vaccine, but I also believe in reasoned parental consent. I believe that parents have a right to determine the best course of action, in co-ordination with medical staff on best practice. I put questions about this to the former vaccines Minister, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), last week and the week before in the Chamber. I respect him greatly, because he is very good at his job and committed. However, I was not totally convinced by his answers. I say that respectfully because I was not sure that the final decision would always lie with the parents.
I am encouraged by the news this morning that 89.1% now have double jabs and 81.3% have single jabs. We are moving in the right direction, so there is good news on the vaccine front. The medical evidence is by no means empirical at this stage. There are strong suggestions that
“new scientific advice does not endorse universal vaccination of all children over 12 in the UK”.
If scientists are saying that, we cannot ignore them. They are saying:
“The latest advice recommends that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should be offered to a wider number of children directly at risk from covid-19, and to children living with an immunosuppressed person. There is very good evidence that children who have covid-19 are much less likely to develop severe symptoms and much less likely to die from the disease than adults. While rare in children, serious outcomes from covid-19 have been studied in this group. The strongest risk factor is having some underlying health problems, including neurological and cardiac conditions or complex neuro-disability.”
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge referred to those with disabilities. Reuben, the son of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), came home from school 10 days ago. Out of his class of 28, 26 children had covid. They had to self-isolate because my hon. Friend has asthma, and his case is quite serious. While we have to do things, there must genuinely be a better way. It is not the Minister’s responsibility to respond for education, but I am keen to find out what discussions she has had with Education Ministers on this issue, and how we could better handle it. That is what I would like to see.
My parliamentary private secretary has two children. One comes home from school and has to isolate because someone in the class has got covid, though they have not. They potentially bring it in to the house. I cannot understand, and neither can she, why they cannot go back to school. They have to isolate from the classroom but can interact with the family, including a sister who is in a different class. We need to have a better way of looking at that.
In my opinion, some parents may decide, following medical advice, that the jab is the safer option. The starting point must be that it is a matter of opting in, not opting out. I have read some incredibly interesting data from Israel that suggests that immunity gained after recovering from a bout of covid-19 is more protective against the new delta variant than vaccine-induced immunity. Natural immunity was estimated to be about 13 times stronger than having two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Natural immunity should be key to how we deal with this.
Added to that are our own data that show that children do not tend to become seriously ill. To me that underlines the importance of the Government allowing parents to determine. In saying that, there must not be any pressure applied by schools, such as restricting after-school sports clubs without vaccination proof. A child needs a normal life. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge referred to the impact on children’s mental health. The figures for Northern Ireland show that the effect on mental health, even for children at primary school, is greater than ever. We need social interaction. That is why I am pleased to be back in Parliament and to have social interaction with people again, which is the way it should be. It is also important for children at school. The hon. Lady also referred to obesity, which it is important to put into perspective. The role of parents in physical health at school and home is critical.
Sometimes people go overboard on restrictions that are not always necessary. We need to be aware of how covid safety should be carried out while having a normal life and protecting children, yet making parental input central and critical. I will finish with this comment: I believe in the vaccine and am totally committed to what it has done. It has given us a leadership in the world through our vaccination programme, and I thank the Minister and the Government for their leadership.
I picked up on the hon. Gentleman’s comments earlier about being sociable and being back in this place, and I did not want him to sit down having made a speech without being intervened on, as he is probably one of the most social Members across the House. Well done.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Our friendship goes back to when our offices used to be across from each other on the same corridor, and I am very pleased to renew it again in this House.
I believe that we have seen a decline in covid due to the vaccine, and the benefits are clear to see. However, from a child’s perspective the tale is very different, and parental consent, hand in hand with medical guidance in specific cases, must be the way we move forward. I believe that is what we should be doing. I am pleased to have had the debate and I thank the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge again for securing it. I look forward to other contributions, which I hope will endorse what we have all said.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made so many important points. I also appreciate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for leading on the debate; I know many people right across the country are grateful for it, because this is an area of immense concern as their children are being vaccinated or not, as the case may be.
The country has gone through a difficult time over a long period. Who would have thought in March last year that we would be in this position now, debating whether 12-year-olds would be vaccinated to deal with this disease? At the beginning, there was very little certainty or scientific understanding of what we were facing. The scientific understanding has carried on apace; there has been a huge global effort to increase it, and on the medical side there has been a huge advance in how we treat people.
Covid is far less dangerous now than it was at the beginning, and we need to be clear about that, including when we look at the Government’s statistics on how deaths and other concerns are presented. To this day, they still show the overall death rate as including those deaths in the first and second waves. That makes us believe that we have not rolled out an effective vaccines programme and that doctors and people in hospitals are not far more effective at treating the disease itself. We are in a far better position, and that must be more clearly understood.
Initially, in January this year and December last year, the vaccine roll-out was pitched as protecting the most vulnerable: those who are old and those who have particular health challenges. Then, before we knew it, the ages were coming down and down. We got to age 18, and at the same time it was not a single vaccination, but a double vaccination that would give people the necessary protection. Now we are in the position of giving a booster vaccination to people in the near future. Initially it is being proposed for the over-50s, but will that come down as well?
The point I am making is that we have not been given any certainty over what the Government and their advisers deem to be success. It seems as though, because the system has not been given clarity about what success is, it carries on and on and the next group, the next group and the next group receive the vaccination. However, we know that in the first and second waves the connection between transmission, hospitalisation and death was strong. We know from Government data that, in the third wave, the connection between transmission, hospitalisation and death is fundamentally broken; it is nothing compared with what it was at the beginning. Our approach to covid therefore ought to reflect those facts.
I recall the pervasive disapproval that attached to my family when my children were at school and it became apparent that my wife was refusing to use the powerful chemical solution for the control of nits. When we come to schools being collectively vaccinated, the decision of some parents or children not to be vaccinated will undoubtedly be a matter of common knowledge—there is certainly the danger of that. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that it will be difficult to prevent that general disapproval and all that may flow from it from being attached to parents or children who have decided not to be vaccinated?
My right hon. Friend makes exactly the right point. In school settings, it will be incredibly difficult to do this, and it will be variable. It will depend on the culture of the school and the school leadership. Some schools will be open and objective, and will say, “We will respect you, the family, for the decisions you make on behalf of your family,” but I am pretty certain that other schools will have a very difficult and challenging atmosphere for those 12-year-old children and their families if they do not comply.
I think that is a very dangerous route for us to go down and will cause so much pressure. That leads on to an immensely important point. Traditionally in the United Kingdom, our approach to vaccinations has been one of non-compulsion. Our vaccination take-up across the board has been very high because people trust the vaccination programme and that these things, which we can take voluntarily, are there for our own good. We do not need coercion to take them; they are there for our good so we will take them. What repercussions will we face in years to come now that there is a toxification due to the imposition of these vaccines?
What, furthermore, do we see? We see that the first and second waves had a huge impact on us, but the third wave is far less impactful. All our vaccines are effective against all variants of concern. We see compulsory vaccination in the care sector, no doubt shortly to be rolled out into the national health service, and therefore after that to other sectors in society. We see the establishment of the idea of vaccine IDs and domestic ID cards. There is a pause at the moment in England, but those causes are being advanced in Scotland and Wales. In many ways, we can objectively say that we are almost through the worst of the pandemic, yet the more draconian or authoritarian measures are being introduced at this stage. It is perverse.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He makes a very good point about trust in vaccinations, because we have an outstanding system of child vaccinations in this country, with very high uptake and no compulsion at all. That is predicated on the fact that parents know that those vaccines are without doubt in their children’s best interests. Polio, measles and all those other diseases are child killers and life-altering. Even if the risks are low, they are considerably higher than the vaccine. Therefore, understanding and trust are vital. Does he agree that it is very important to have transparency around the concerns now so that parents make a free decision and it does not impact on the outstanding roll-out of other vaccines that are very much in our children’s best interest and vital for continued public health?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Confidence needs to be restored in the wider vaccine programme. There needs to be a renewal of focus, because vaccinations for infants have dipped—slightly, but they have dipped. For older children and teenagers, the wider vaccine programme has dipped more substantially, so we need a significant catch-up in our broader vaccine programme.
We will also see increased concerns as drug companies seek approval to get the age for covid vaccines reduced to five years old. We therefore see the potential for an undefined point at which we can declare our position a success. If we do not have a clear understanding of what success means, will Government advisers say, “We now have approval for drugs to be given to five-year-olds, and that is the next step”? That question is for my hon. Friend the vaccines Minister, whom I welcome to the Front Bench. Will she clarify a couple of points? We here, broader society and health professionals outside the scope of Government can understand the end point. Professor Whitty said that at a certain point we will be able to treat the coronavirus as we treat influenza. What are the objective criteria by which we and others can judge that?
I asked the Minister’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), about the transition point when we as a society understand that we have moved from a pandemic disease where we need restrictions and other lockdown measures, and when we move to an endemic disease where we treat coronavirus as we treat influenza and other diseases, many of which are incredibly dangerous to people who are vulnerable—influenza is very dangerous for vulnerable people. We need to know when coronavirus goes from pandemic to endemic. We need objective criteria, because when the previous vaccines Minister replied to me, I could define what he said as, “We come out of pandemic status tomorrow” or, “We come out in 10 years’ time.” I do not think that is good enough when schools and families need more certainty.
Thank you for chairing this debate, Dame Angela. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for securing a debate on this immensely important topic and for speaking so convincingly.
Despite what has been said, the JCVI’s recommendation on the mass vaccination of children aged 12 to 15 is clear. “The margin of benefit” in vaccinating healthy 12 to 15-year-olds is “too small” to support such a policy. That was the conclusion reached when the question was asked, as it should be in the case of medical decisions, about what would be in the best interests of our children’s health.
Throughout the pandemic we have continually been told of the importance of following the science. I warmly welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) to her ministerial position, but will she explain why we are now disregarding the science and the experts who clearly said that it is not necessary nor advisable on the basis of the evidence we have for that cohort to receive a covid-19 vaccine? Given “fake news”, some people seize on any lack of clarity or inconsistency to be anti-vax, which I am not, and that is a real risk when the Government override trust, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) delineated so well.
If it is because of extraneous factors that have been mentioned in recent days, such as protecting children’s mental health and ensuring they miss no more school, it must be said that both of those problems have their root in Government decision making. School closures are a political choice. Testing regimes are at the bureaucratic insistence of the Department for Education. The fear that some children might have of dying from covid-19 has come from a created climate of fear, because the evidence shows that both children who are perfectly healthy and those who have underlying health conditions face a mortality rate from covid-19 of two in every 1 million. Children are therefore not at risk of death or serious illness from covid-19. In fact, most children are asymptomatic or experience a mild illness. Given that most vaccines do not prevent transmission and that those most at risk due to age or underlying health conditions have been double-vaccinated, this recommendation is not only unnecessary, but could be dangerous. We should be protecting our children and not taking unnecessary risks with their health in favour of some vague notion of perceived benefit to wider society.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that initially the Government’s perspective was that we need a double vaccination for both protection and longevity of protection, yet 12 to 15-year-olds will receive only one dose, giving them relatively short-term protection? That is not consistent with the general stated aims of the vaccine programme.
My hon. Friend very capably highlights yet another inconsistency. It is important to remember that any child who gets seriously ill or, heaven forbid, dies from a vaccine does so because of a policy decision and not a disease.
Turning to parental responsibility, many constituents who are parents have expressed their deep unease at the Government’s recommendation, and even more so that under the ill-advised Gillick principle children will be able to consent to taking the vaccine against their parents’ wishes. The Gillick principle has been cited as something that is set in stone and could never be changed, and as a sort of legal precedent as if this House, which exists to make law, could not override it, as many other things have been overridden apparently quite straightforwardly in the last couple of years.
The Gillick principle—it is unfortunate it is named after her given her background—means that children will be able to consent to taking the vaccine against their parents’ wishes. It has long been accepted in this country and in the thinking of my political background and heritage that children under the age of 18, and certainly under 16, should be the responsibility of their parents, that they should be guided and protected by them, and that parents, as adults, will make decisions in the best interests of their children. Only in exceptional circumstances should agents of the state interfere in that relationship and override a parent’s wish for their child.
I am deeply concerned by the increasing trend away from the Gillick principle. Just last week, we saw the High Court hand down a deeply concerning judgment that children under the age of 16 will be able to consent to taking puberty blockers without the need for parental permission. We are descending rapidly down a slippery slope. It is a mistake to allow children to circumvent parental control, especially when the long-term consequences of the vaccines are not yet clear. There has been limited research and data collected on the efficacy and safety of these vaccines for children.
I have been contacted by local teachers in my constituency of Northampton South who are receiving concerned emails from parents accusing schools of implementing this policy. I want it to be clear that this is a Government proposal and schools will have no liability in carrying out injections. I also want clarification from the Minister that vaccines will not be administered by school staff.
I am pretty sure I will not. I congratulate the Minister, who until last week was my favourite Whip and is now the vaccines Minister. It is a great honour to do that job, and I am sad we have to come up against this particular policy because across the board the vaccine programme has been remarkable. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) on securing the debate. The issue is agitating and concerning, and enormous numbers of people, including parents, schools and many others, feel it is a step too far.
I am a Conservative. I joined the Conservative party because of a belief in giving people freedom of choice, the ability to deliver and develop their own destiny, and the opportunity to live full, vibrant and fulfilling lives. I think this particular policy goes right against that, and I feel uncomfortable with it. It feels wrong, and I believe it is wrong to introduce this vaccination programme for children aged 12 to 15, considering all that has been said about consent this morning. Before I get started, may I just say that I feel privileged to be in this room where such great points and speeches have been made, because we care about families, children and how our schools are supported in a very difficult and unprecedented time?
Earlier in the year I went to visit St Clare medical centre in my constituency, which was delivering the vaccine programme with great fervour. It has an amazing system going on. In fact, with other primary care networks in my constituency, it was mentioned in dispatches for the incredible effort it put in to get the vaccine out to the most vulnerable people. My constituency was the fifth in the country in getting the most people vaccinated by the February half term.
I observed the logistical challenge and triumph of rolling out the vaccine programme and talked to the practice manager. She described why the additional workload was acceptable: a massive volunteer army was motivated and mobilised, there was an incredible collaboration of GPs, the NHS and all sorts of organisations that had got behind this, and there was organisation across the primary care networks. She said that all of that extra effort—the long weekends and the massive amount of work that went into it—was possible and worthwhile because it was part of the national effort. It really struck home that people right down at the end of the country, in the most beautiful part, who are often tucked away and not necessarily engaged in national efforts, were so enthusiastic and determined to make this work. West Cornwall primary care networks were mentioned by the Secretary of State at the time for their incredible effort in getting vaccines to people in such a quick and effective way.
During the roll-out of the vaccine programme, Ministers fiercely defended the decisions made by the JCVI. The JCVI determined the priority groups—who would get the vaccine and when—and Ministers refused to intervene. They were determined not to intervene, not even to prioritise teachers as schools opened in September last year. They refused to intervene to prioritise the police when some 10,000 policemen descended on my constituency in Cornwall for the G7. There was great concern about that, but Ministers refused to intervene to allow police officers of all ages to have the vaccine ahead of the priority groups set out by the JCVI. Why now, with the help of the chief medical officers, do the Government reject the advice of the JCVI? That advice states:
“The margin of benefit…is considered too small to support advice on a universal programme of vaccination of otherwise healthy 12 to 15-year-old children”.
It also says that
“any impact on transmission may be relatively small”.
In other words, schools would still be disrupted because the vaccine does not manage transmission. I, along with many others, recognise the wisdom of the JCVI’s advice JCVI in this area. We were surprised when, just weeks later, the Government and chief medical officer seemed to take a completely different course. I was relieved when the JCVI made its case and gave that very sound advice. Like many others, I was then disappointed and concerned that the Government seemed to go against it.
The reason for my concern is that the decision to override the JCVI advice will undermine confidence in the vaccine roll-out programme. Up until now, because of the way the JCVI has operated, the country has welcomed the approach, has supported it and had confidence in it. I wonder whether the Government are actually doing it a disservice by potentially undermining confidence in the roll-out. So far, the great strength of the vaccine roll-out is its voluntary nature, based on sound advice and a national united effort.
My fear is that the decision has been made for seemingly unsubstantiated reasons. There are gaping holes in the argument that it will minimise disruption of children’s education. My fear is that it risks turning a national effort into a tool to pressure children, undermine parents and drive an inadvertent wedge between families and schools. Under a new Secretary of State, the Government’s primary priority should be allowing schools to do what they do best: educating children. I ought to declare an interest as I have three children, who are in school at this very moment—or so I hope.
At the beginning of the year, I secured an Adjournment debate on the experience of schools. They have had a blooming rotten time, with changing advice and all sorts of things coming down from Government; they did not know if they were coming or going. What has really concerned schools, teachers and headteachers is that they have taken on a new role—trying to manage children’s health and parts of their welfare—that they never signed up for. It is not that they are unwilling, but that they do not have the time or resources, and they might even add the expertise, to take on those additional responsibilities when what they want is to educate children and give them the best start in life.
All Members’ constituency offices have supported schools in the bizarre work they have had to do to manage parents on different sides of different arguments when it comes to managing covid in schools. I have had parents who are furious with a school for insisting on face coverings in parts of the school, both before that was the official advice and since; I have also had parents furious with a school for saying children do not have to wear a face covering in the classroom. Those poor headteachers and staff have had to deal with that along with all the pressures of teaching children.
What do we do? We make their job a whole lot more difficult by putting schools at the centre of a decision that most of us in this room do not believe is robust or stands up to what scientists have said. We have asked them to take on the additional responsibility of vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds, and to manage the various pressures that come with it, when all they want to do—all they thought they were doing—is go back to school in September, catch up and give their children a happy, healthy and wonderful experience being educated. I really feel for our children.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to one school where there were different opinions between parents about their children. There are different opinions in schools, but it is important to have a policy that is uniform across all schools. Does he feel that when the Minister replies, she could mention any discussions with the Secretary of State for Education about having a uniform policy which applies to all schools? Then the schools would have one rule they could all adhere to.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because I was going to come on to that. We are entering into a very difficult situation. We need to protect schools and enable them to do their job, not drive a wedge between parents and schools. At the same time, we want schools to be very clear about their responsibilities and how they can manage issues of coercion, peer pressure and so on. It is a tricky issue for the Minister to grapple with.
I would like the Minister to ensure and confirm three things. I imagine that it will make up the vast majority of her work over the next few weeks, now that the Government have made their decision. Obviously, many of us would rather they had ditched that decision and instead made sure that the vaccine got to people in developing countries who really need it. If we really care about keeping this country and the rest of the western world safe—if that is our priority—then supporting the vaccination of the whole world, instead of our children, is the answer. However, that is a separate issue that the vaccines Minister probably cannot address on her own.
In line with the intervention I have just received, can the Minister make it absolutely clear that parents have the information they need, that they understand their rights, and that they are very clear about schools’ role in providing the vaccine and supporting children to have the vaccine, if that is what parents wish for their children? Can we also ensure that the vaccine is given only when informed and voluntary consent is clearly given—when it is definitely there, free from peer pressure and coercion?
We are now asking schools to somehow play referee in a situation that should never be in their remit. The desire to get on top of covid and get things going again could lead to a situation where things go wrong and become difficult in the school environment.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way right at the end of his speech, as he was asking the Minister a few questions. Does he know or can the Minister refer in her remarks to the strength of any vaccination that might be given to children under the age of 16?
I will not even attempt to answer that, other than to say that it is interesting that it is a single dose as that raises the question of what happens next. Will there be boosters of a single dose in time or is this a curious attempt to somehow get the whole country vaccinated and then we will wonder what to do after Christmas? My hon. Friend raises a good point and I hope the Minister responds to it.
We must ensure that parents are clear about their rights and that they are supported to know what is right for their children. Can we ensure that the vaccine is never used and cannot be used as a condition of access to education for any children, including those in special schools or those in care? Whatever the situation, we must ensure that there is no opportunity for the vaccine to be a condition of education. We must not give up on that, although I do not think for a minute that that is the intention.
The JCVI has done a fantastic job leading the national roll-out of the vaccine and has made us one of the most successful countries in the world in relation to the vaccine. Can we allow it the freedom to monitor the vaccine roll-out for children as it goes forward and to continue to offer advice on it? If it then says that the benefit margins are too small, can the Government properly review the roll-out and be bold enough to stop it, if that is the advice that is given? We need to ensure that the public can continue completely to trust the advice and the vaccine programme as it is today.
In conclusion, when will asymptomatic testing come to an end? It is costing a fortune, it is bizarre to test healthy children and it is not right to continue to do that. How can we ensure that we do not just protect the UK public but those around the world? What is the next step? Our policy is to give one jab to 12 to 15-year-olds. What is the Government’s and scientists’ thinking about the next step in making sure that our children continue to go to school? Please can we get back to giving vaccines just because of the health of individuals and not to protect the school environment, the community or even, dare I say it, the economy?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I welcome this timely and important debate, which has been secured by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates).
My Labour and I colleagues strongly welcome the fact that children aged between 12 and 15 are now being offered their first dose of a covid vaccine, following advice from all four of the UK’s chief medical officers. That is something we have been calling for since June. It will have both direct and indirect health benefits for children, and it will help to keep them in school, which is vital after all the face-to-face learning they have missed out on and the impact that it could have on their long-term life chances. Vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds will also help their families and the wider community by helping to keep infection rates down.
The latest figures show that there were 36,000 new infections in the last 24 hours. There are 7,847 people in hospital with covid-19. The average number of daily deaths over the last week has risen to a tragic 142. In my own city of Leicester, rates remain highest among 11 to 16-year-olds, with a considerable increase over the last month, so there is not a moment to waste.
We have been calling on the Government since the start of the summer to press ahead with a vaccination programme for children. Back in June, the shadow Minister for Schools, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), argued that if covid vaccinations for children were found to be safe, as the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency clearly says they are, they should be rolled out over the summer holidays, before the beginning of the new academic year, to help to keep disruption in schools to a minimum.
In July, the shadow Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), pressed the Health Secretary on why covid-19 vaccinations were being given to children in the United States, Canada, Israel, France, Austria, Spain and Hong Kong, but not here in the UK. I am sad to say that, at that stage, the Government failed to act. Although we are rightly proud of the amazing vaccination programme delivered by our NHS, the truth is that we are now being overtaken by other countries, and that is due in no small part to the vaccination of children.
France was one of the first to offer vaccines to children, back in June, and now 68% of children aged 12 to 18 have received a single dose. In Italy, the figure is 62% and in Spain 79%. Israel, the United States, Canada, Sweden, Poland and Switzerland have also raced ahead. While our Government spent months delaying on this vital issue, countries across the world acted, and they are now streets ahead of us in protecting children, their education and the wider community. It is vital that we catch up.
I thank the hon. Member for the important points that she is making. Does she believe that it is important to follow what other countries are doing, and to roll out the vaccine almost on the basis of an international competition, or is it more important to be safe? Does she not think that the fact that we were in advance of many other countries, and we broke the link between case rates and deaths early on, gives us more space to breathe and allows us to take longer to make finely balanced decisions about vaccinating children?
I am sure the hon. Lady is not suggesting that all those other countries have made decisions that are not based on the evidence, because to say so would be insulting to them. I believe that we should base our decisions on evidence and advice from the experts, and I will come on to say more about that. That is what has happened in other countries. I just wish we had done it earlier in this country.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; I am not saying that other countries are not basing decisions on their own evidence. I am saying that the success of our programme was based on the JCVI’s advice and its particular method of offering vaccination based on individual medical benefit, which gave us an incredible advantage that could have allowed us to wait a further six or nine months to make this decision.
Thank you, Dame Angela. I will come back to this point, because several hon. Members have talked about what the JCVI recommended, and I hope I will be able to set out a little more information about what it actually said later in the debate. Before I go on to talk about the evidence—
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make sure there is time for the Minister to respond and for the hon. Lady who secured this debate to speak again at the end. I want to make some important points about the evidence, but may I first say something about some deeply concerning and troubling incidents in my Leicester West constituency?
I am appalled that some of our headteachers have received threats via letter and on social media—including threats of legal action, and even death threats—accusing them of supposedly promoting illegal medical experimentation on children. That is disgraceful and completely unacceptable. As Jane Brown, the headteacher of New College in my constituency, says, we need to call this out. Schools are having a tough enough time as it is, without being bullied, too. I hope that when the Minister—I welcome her to her place—rises to speak, she will join me in condemning those threats and intimidation, and in once again making it clear that vaccination will be voluntary and no child will have the vaccine forced upon them. It is also vital to stress that although schools are the venue for the vaccination, the delivery of the programme will be done by the NHS and arrangements for consent are exactly the same as for all other vaccinations and medical procedures. I hope that the Minister will say what the Government are going to do to try to deal with the threats and intimidation, which I fear are growing.
I turn to why my Labour colleagues and I so strongly welcome the CMOs’ decision. As always, we are guided by the evidence and the advice from experts, which show that covid vaccines for children are safe and effective to use, with the benefits exceeding the risks on an individual basis. That is the view of the MHRA and the equivalent regulators in Europe, the USA and Canada. The JCVI agrees that the benefits of vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds exceed the risks—in other words, that for people in this age group, it is better to be vaccinated than not.
In their decision to recommend the universal vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds, the four CMOs took as read the JCVI and MHRA view that the benefits exceed the risks, and they then looked at the wider benefits. It is not true that the JCVI advice has been undermined, as I have heard several times in this debate. The JCVI says that
“it is not within its remit to incorporate in-depth considerations on wider societal impacts, including educational benefits. The government may wish to seek further views on the wider societal and educational impacts from the chief medical officers of the 4 nations, with representation from JCVI in these subsequent discussions.”
The JCVI recommended that wider societal impacts were looked at. Doing so is not undermining the JCVI’s decision; it is putting it into practice. The CMOs consulted with a wide range of organisations, including the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Faculty of Public Health and many others.
In making their decision, the CMOs said that the most important issue for 12 to 15-year-olds was the impact on education, which is vital in itself and one of the most important drivers of public health and mental health. The CMOs note that the
“impact has been especially great in areas of relative deprivation which have been particularly badly affected by COVID-19”.
That is, in areas of the country precisely like those that I represent in Leicester West, which were in lockdown far longer than any other part of the country. Children have lost out on an average of 115 days of class learning. That could have a huge impact on their later life chances, not to mention the knock-on impact on their ability to fulfil their potential and earn, and all the impact that has on the wider economy.
The CMOs rightly say that missing out on schooling has health ramifications, as educational attainment is a key determinant of a person’s health throughout their life. It has an impact on their wider social mobility and their future likelihood of developing co-morbidities. It can affect the likelihood of obesity, smoking and alcoholism, and it can affect their life expectancy. That is not to mention the widely recognised mental health benefits of education in both the long and the short term.
Children cannot afford to miss out on any more face-to-face learning, given the effects on their educational opportunities and the wider impact. As the CMOs said,
“the additional likely benefits of reducing educational disruption, and the consequent reduction in public health harm from educational disruption, on balance provide sufficient extra advantage in addition to the marginal advantage at an individual level identified by the JCVI”.
Recommending vaccination for this age group is not undermining the JCVI’s advice; it is putting it into practice. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health agrees. It says:
“We believe that vaccination could benefit healthy children, irrespective of any direct health benefit, in enabling them to have less interruption to school attendance, to allow them to mix more freely with their friends”
“to help reduce the anxiety some children feel about COVID-19.”
We need to move swiftly on this. We need to strain every sinew to get children vaccinated, to help them, their families and the wider community. I hope that when the Minister rises to speak, she will say what more the Government are doing to encourage this and, critically, to make sure that the appalling threats to our schools are effectively dealt with. I look forward to her response.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for securing this important and timely debate on the vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds against covid-19. She quite rightly highlighted the importance of vaccine roll-outs and the programmes that we have had for many decades, and I thank her for that.
Before I respond to the various questions and points raised by hon. Members, I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), for his efforts in successfully delivering the vaccine programme, with more than 93 million doses administered in the UK and more than four fifths of adults receiving the protection of two jabs. I aim to build on that very solid foundation in my new role.
I also put on record that I am very grateful to everyone who has played a crucial role in the success of the vaccine roll-out, from our brilliant scientists, clinical trial participants, the armed forces, NHS England, frontline healthcare workers, vaccine volunteers and local and central Government. Our jabs have already prevented more than 112,000 deaths, 230,000 hospitalisations and more than 24 million infections. They have built a vast wall of defence for the British people.
Earlier this year, our medicines regulator, the MHRA, approved the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for 12 to 17-year-olds. The MHRA authorisation decision confirmed that vaccines are safe and effective for this age group. On this decision, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended vaccination for 12 to 15-year-olds with serious underlying health conditions. In August, the committee advised an initial dose of the vaccine for all healthy remaining 16 and 17-year-olds. The JCVI then looked at whether we should extend our offer of vaccination to all 12 to 15-year-olds. It concluded that there are health benefits to vaccinating this cohort, although they are finely balanced.
However, the JCVI’s remit does not include the wider impacts of vaccinations, such as the benefits for children in education or the mental health benefits that come from people knowing that they are protected from this deadly virus. The JCVI therefore advised that the Government might wish to seek further views on those wider impacts from the UK’s chief medical officers across all four nations. The Secretary of State and the Health Ministers from the devolved nations accepted that advice. Our CMOs consulted clinical experts and public health professionals from across the United Kingdom, such as those from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. I trust that that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), who raised concerns about professional advice.
We received advice from the four chief medical officers, and it was made publicly available and deposited in the Library for Members to read in full. The unanimous recommendation of the UK’s chief medical officers is to offer all remaining 12 to 15-year-olds a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, with further JCVI guidance needed before any decision on a second dose. The CMOs have been clear that they make this recommendation based on the benefits to children alone, not on the benefits to adults or wider society.
I can confirm that the Government accepted this recommendation. We are now moving forward with the same sense of urgency that we have had at every point in our vaccination programme. I am delighted that a 14-year-old in Essex yesterday became one of the first children in the country to receive a covid-19 vaccination in school.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I reassure him that the evidence is continually being observed and recorded. Further advice will be taken on whether a second dose is needed for the younger age range. Evidence is being gathered all the time.
I appreciate that there are questions about how the process of consent will work in circumstances where parents and children disagree. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) that, as with all vaccinations for children, parental consent will be sought. The consent process is being handled by each school in its usual way and provides sufficiently for parents to give their consent. Children aged 12 to 15 will also be provided with information, usually in the form of a leaflet for their own use and to share and discuss with parents prior to the date on which the immunisation is scheduled.
Parental, guardian or carer consent will be sought by the school age immunisation service prior to vaccination, in line with other school vaccination programmes. That service will carry out the vaccinations, and I trust that that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South. The school age vaccination service has vast experience of dealing with a number of other vaccine roll-outs in secondary schools, such as the human papillomavirus vaccine and the three-in-one teenage booster that protects against tetanus, diphtheria and polio. The clinicians who work on these roll-outs are very well equipped and very well versed in dealing with vaccines in schools.
In their advice, the four CMOs have said it is essential that children and young people aged 12 to 15, and their parents, are supported in whatever decisions they take, and that they are not stigmatised for accepting or not accepting the vaccination offer. Individual choice should be respected. It is the opportunity to be vaccinated that is on offer, in a fair and equitable manner.
To those who remain undecided, I say this. The MHRA is the best medical regulator in the world. It has rigorously reviewed the safety of our vaccines, and it only authorises those that it concludes are safe. Vaccines for children and young people are no exception. We continue to have a comprehensive safety surveillance strategy in place across all age groups to monitor the safety of all covid-19 vaccines that are approved for use in the UK.
I will now address some of the interventions and questions from hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge asked a number of questions. I reiterate that the CMOs sought advice from experts in the field; it was not just the information they had themselves. It is only right that, based on that advice, 12 to 15-year-olds are able to take up the offer of the vaccine in a fair and equitable manner.
My hon. Friend asked about disruption to education from the programme. NHS England already has plans in place for the mop-up programme, which is not likely to be on school sites, to minimise disruption to education and the rest of the immunisation programme.
I very much appreciate the point and the reassurance the Minister is giving, but even the CMOs acknowledge that the vaccine programme in and of itself is not going to end disruption to schools. Whether people choose to have this vaccine or not—which absolutely should be a free decision, as the Minister says—what is more important is the policy making around having consistent rules in schools, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, but also ending mass asymptomatic testing, which is picking up cases that it does not need to pick up and is itself causing disruption. How will the disruption to schools end, even if vaccination does go ahead and cover a wide population?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is important that we do whatever we can—use whatever we have in our toolbox—to make sure that children are able to continue with their education, and vaccination is one part of that. I know my hon. Friend is passionate, as am I, about making sure that children get a full education, and that the pandemic does not affect their futures. My hon. Friend raised several other questions and, if she will allow me, I will write to her in response to any I do not answer in my speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) raised questions about guidance for schools on the vaccination programme. How the programme will work has been set out very clearly, including in the formation of the consent process, most recently updated on 17 September 2021. I would like to reassure my hon. Friend, who highlighted the three words “do no harm”, that robust monitoring arrangements are in place for the vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds, and that further data will be available shortly.
I join the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) in absolutely condemning the threats and intimidation of headteachers, school staff and anybody who enters school premises. That is a big issue, and my advice is that headteachers who have received such intimidation should rapidly contact the school age immunisation service, which is well versed in addressing it. They should not be afraid to speak to the police and the local authority too. I assure her that that issue is extremely high on my priority list, which, as she can imagine, is getting longer.
It is important that we remember that our teenagers have shown great public spirit at every point during the pandemic, and I thank them for that. They have stuck to the rules so that lives can be saved and people kept safe, and they have been some of the most enthusiastic proponents of vaccines.
My focus at the moment is on ensuring the effective roll-out of the programme for 12 to 15-year-olds. We must ensure that the booster programme is rolled out effectively, and encourage the last few people who have not yet had the vaccine—I think it is about 5 million—to take up that offer.
I am conscious there are a few minutes left in this debate, so I want to refer quickly to three more issues. First, the Minister may have noticed that the first speech in support of the Government’s position came from an Opposition Member, who claimed to be speaking on behalf of all Opposition MPs, although there is only one here.
Secondly, a point was made about the seat of the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and the number of young people who have, I believe, covid, although she did not give the actual number. However, if school children were not tested over the summer, surely they are now being tested in school and the incidence of those with covid will be rising. Therefore, I am being very gracious to both Front Benchers—
I will take my hon. Friend’s comments on board. More than half of 16 and 17-year-olds across the United Kingdom have had the jab, despite most having become eligible only last month, which shows young people’s enthusiasm to come forward and play their part.
At every point in our vaccination programme, we have been guided by the best clinical advice. The advice that we received from the four chief medical officers last week sets out their view that all 12 to 15-year-olds will benefit from vaccination against covid-19. We will follow that advice and continue that vital path to ensure we keep more and more people in this country safe.
I thank all hon. Members who contributed to this important debate. I also thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their speeches. We are united in our desire to get back to normal, in our desire for children to have normal education, and in our praise of the vaccine programme, which has protected so many adults across this country.
To finish, I reiterate the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green): what is success? Where does this end? How do we get back to normal? I do not believe the vaccine roll-out among children will get us there. We need determined political leadership that puts the welfare of children front and centre, ends educational disruption and allows us to move forward with their future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the vaccination of children against covid-19.
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 Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Project Gigabit and community-led internet service providers.
It is a massive pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I also offer a massive welcome to the Minister. I am hugely grateful for the opportunity to raise a massively important issue to rural communities. This is a half-hour debate, yet it is great to see friends and colleagues from Cumbria and beyond who share my concerns.
We want to talk about the extremely urgent issue of Project Gigabit. The deadline for applications for the broadband voucher scheme is in three days. After that, the Government plan to cancel, or at least park, the scheme for now. Every day we become increasingly dependent on digital technology, not only for leisure but for work. The covid pandemic has led to more of us working from home, so access to quick, reliable and affordable broadband has never been more important than it is today.
In my community, one in four people in the workforce works for themselves. The impact on small businesses, particularly start-ups, of a very high quality broadband connection is utterly transformational—or something that can delay their access to the world of commerce. I welcome the Government’s Project Gigabit on paper, with its promise to deliver at least 85% gigabit-capable coverage across the UK by 2025. However, I am alarmed that this well-intentioned scheme will, in practice, result in thousands of rural homes, many of which were on the verge of being connected to hyperfast fibre-optic broadband, missing out altogether.
I am talking about towns and villages that have been working with the community-led internet service provider, Broadband for the Rural North or B4RN—known to most of us as “barn”. I am delighted that Michael Lee, the chief executive of B4RN, is with us today in the Gallery. B4RN has brought hyperfast broadband to more than 9,000 properties across Cumbria, Lancashire and Northumberland. It offers 100% of properties in a community a fibre connection to the premises, no matter how hard they are to reach, and with no additional cost passed on to the individual. It even offers free connections to schools, churches and village halls.
It has been able to do all of that through the Government’s various voucher schemes. In the last quarter alone, B4RN has connected 587 more properties to the network, though its plans for the next few years have been put into serious doubt because of Project Gigabit’s procurement process. B4RN’s business model gathers vouchers from households in a rural area and then pools them to deliver a scheme that connects every home, including those that are the most remote and difficult to reach. It then delivers immensely fast broadband at speeds that BT will only deliver if customers pay through the nose, and they would be lucky even then.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward for debate. The fact that there are representatives here from many parts indicates the importance. Does he feel that, when it comes to funding, the hardest-to-reach parts of the UK find the cost of installing as a group project an issue, as it is for some of my constituents? Then it can be extended to the smaller parts of communities and further afield. Does he feel the Minister should respond clearly to what he has said, and ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can benefit?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. For us, B4RN has done something unique from a not-for-profit angle, to fill in the gaps from the grassroots up. That is a model that we should see emulated in other parts of the country, rather than have it accidentally—I would say—snuffed out by a good idea at Whitehall that turned out to be a bad idea in practice.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making a very good speech. The problems facing my vast, remote constituency are similar. Does he agree with me that the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ proposed scheme of broadband catch-up zones is much to be commended? Does he also agree that the UK Government would do well to take that on board, to avoid rural communities in our constituencies and other parts of the UK playing perpetual catch-up with urban communities?
My hon. Friend knows all about remote and rural communities, which make us in Cumbria look bijou, concentrated and urban by comparison. Yet, obviously, the challenges we face are very similar. Yes, understanding that the most difficult-to-reach parts of our country broadband-wise are the ones where we should start, rather than the ones we fill in after the fact, is something that we have pressed successive Governments to take seriously. B4RN tackles that.
The great shame is that the Government’s decision to end the voucher scheme in just three days’ time, while the procurement process takes place, will basically turn Project Gigabit into “Project Pull the Plug” for many of our towns and villages. Rather than allowing B4RN to carry on connecting our communities, the Government will instead allow big multinational companies with a track record so far of failing to meet rural need in Cumbria with a free shot at connecting properties in our communities. The difference between them and B4RN, however, is that they will not connect 100% of the properties. The Government will say that they are only obliged to connect 80% of properties—which they could probably have connected commercially anyway, but have not. We all know where the other 20% will be, do we not? They will be the most rural, the most remote. The communities that B4RN offered hope to will now be victims of “Project Pull the Plug”.
Successful community providers such as B4RN have pulled people together, strengthening communities in the process as volunteers literally go shoulder to shoulder to dig trenches and to connect homes and businesses. Personally, it was a real privilege for me to join residents digging in Old Hutton and to build lasting friendships in the process. Landowners large and small had waived payment, because they know that B4RN is not for profit and that the beneficiaries are their local neighbours. Communities such as Old Hutton, once the least connected place in Cumbria—I tell you, Dame Angela, that is saying something—now have world-class connections, thanks to B4RN and to Ministers in the past who listened.
Today’s debate will give us an insight, if the Minister will forgive me for saying so, into whether she will be one who listens. Her predecessor was a very nice man, but on this he did not listen. He visited Mallerstang in the constituency of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) and met Michael Lee, the chief executive of B4RN, who explained why removing the voucher scheme would kill off so many schemes that could connect rural communities in Cumbria. The Minister came, got his photograph and must have left behind everything he was told—or, he let it in one ear and let it slip out the other ear on the train ride back south.
The Government’s plan for rural broadband bears all the hallmarks of one of those great bright ideas dreamt up in Whitehall—a bright idea that, in reality, does inexcusable damage to rural communities, all the more inexcusable because so many of us have explained patiently and in detail why that is so. However, it does not need to be that way, and the Minister has the power to fix it today. If communities where B4RN is demonstrably engaged and actively planning are moved into the deferred procurement scope, and if voucher application remains open for those communities during the procurement process, B4RN will be able to continue to help level up remote rural communities through the delivery of future-proof fibre-optic infrastructure.
Our rural communities are under enormous pressure. The Government’s failure to restrict second home ownership and continuing to permit innocent tenants to be evicted so that landlords may quadruple their income through holiday lets mean that the very survival of many of our villages is at stake. Access to fast broadband is one way to ensure that local families can afford to remain in our area and to make a living—to run their businesses, to maintain a foothold in Cumbria, and to be able to stay there and raise their children there, keeping schools open and communities alive. For the Government to pull the plug in that way would be either cruel or foolish, or both. They may no longer pretend that that will be an unintended consequence of their plans, because we have shown them clearly what the consequences are.
Even if we believe the Government when they say that the voucher scheme might be replaced in a year or so, that will be too late, because all that might be left to connect will be the 20% of properties that BT and co chose to ignore. The voucher scheme will be of little use then, because B4RN depends on pooling funding from the vouchers of all the community in order to connect all the community. By securing the business of the towns and villages, it builds up the money to connect the homes, farms and hamlets that are most rural and otherwise financially unviable. The Government’s procurement plan, which abandoned the hardest-to-connect 20%, will be the death of the B4RN business model. When the Government designed the plan, they did not know that—fair enough—but now they do and they have no excuse. The Conservatives will be killing off rural broadband in Cumbria. They know that, and today we will find out whether they care.
The Minister will need to look these communities in the eye, especially those that the Government choose to dump, and explain why she has chosen to pull the plug. Hot off the press today I can reveal the communities that the Conservative Government have chosen to pull the plug on: Kirkwhelpington, Great Salkeld, Storth, Woodburn, Sedbergh, Kirkby Lonsdale, Nateby, Lazonby, Melmerby, Brough Sowerby, Crosthwaite, Hugill, Far Sawrey, Kirkby Ireleth, Hawskhead and Claife, half of Skelwith Bridge, Ackenthwaite, Whassett, Broughton-in-Furness, the Rusland valley, Lowick, Great Langdale, Skelton, and 548 properties in the village of Burneside. There is a list of other communities still hugely at risk because of Project Gigabit’s procurement plan, but B4RN will do everything it can to deliver within a year. I make the decision on the hoof to not name them because it would take acres of time and I do not want to blight them. There is a massive chance that they will succeed because B4RN will do everything it can, despite all the odds stacked against it.
Every one of the communities that I have listed will rightly feel that they have had the rug pulled from under them by the Government. Those communities were pulling together, voluntarily giving up their time and energy, and working with a tried and tested B4RN model to deliver to some of the most remote parts of our country. Getting connected is a matter of life and death for some of those communities. It is about the ability to learn, trade and communicate. It is the difference between communities thriving and being sustainable and being cut off and therefore unsustainable.
That is absolutely right. Traditionally, it is hard to earn a living in remote areas, but with high quality broadband we can live in a glorious place. I often say that if someone could live and raise their kids in South Lakeland and make a living, they would. We have an opportunity to do so. That applies to many other people and Members who have similarly glorious constituencies.
The Government’s decision to end the voucher scheme this week will be a body blow to the communities I have listed and to the others that I have chosen not to list for now. It is all the more cruel because of the real hope that our communities were offered that, through the B4RN model and the voucher scheme, they could and should have been connected. When B4RN comes to a community, it does not just build a world-class fibre optic network; it builds a community. It becomes a focus of energy, endeavour and a collective triumph against the odds. Communities that have been through the B4RN process are glued together with new friendships, new common interests and a new sense of community.
The Minister should know that the damage her decision will do to our communities goes far beyond the technology and to the very heart of those communities and community life. Those of us who have been through the experience and are proud to vouch for B4RN and for the hundreds of volunteers who have delivered the connections are at a loss as to how the Government can ignore that lived experience.
I have two simple solutions to solve the crisis, and then I will draw my remarks to a close. First, will the Minster commit to ensuring that all properties in areas where B4RN is already demonstrably engaged are given deferred scope procurement status? That will ensure that those areas are not part of the initial procurement scope of the regional supplier and that a B4RN build supported through voucher funding will still be available.
Secondly, will the Minister allow any pre-registered packages associated with deferred scope areas to remain open through the rest of the procurement process to ensure that the B4RN build programme is not disrupted? How can the Government claim to be levelling up when they are removing the chance for people living in the most rural areas of Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and elsewhere to access hyperfast fibre-optic broadband in their homes?
This is a model that the rest of the country could learn from and emulate. Instead, it appears that Ministers—at least so far—have not been interested in learning from success and instead want to impose failure. That is why I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak today and to plead with the new Minister to listen to B4RN, to local MPs and, more importantly, to our communities, and not to be the Minister responsible for promising Project Gigabit but delivering “Project Pull the Plug”.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the debate. We are neighbouring MPs and we share very many similar issues, so I very much welcome this debate. What I do not welcome, however, is the hon. Member and his party colleagues starting to put out literature in my constituency, including pieces and photos by him. May I remind him that we share the same issues, but we do not share the same constituency?
Rural connectivity is a huge issue for Penrith and The Border and for rural Cumbria, and it has been brought into sharp relief during the pandemic. 4G coverage in the north-west is around 73%; that needs to be improved. My constituency of Penrith and The Border has some of the hardest-to-reach areas in the whole United Kingdom; 11.6% of households have a speed of less than 10 megabits per second.
I very much welcome the fact that the Government are prioritising Cumbria in the roll-out of the gigabit programme and with the shared rural network. The £5 billion of funding is welcome for the United Kingdom, and I will keep banging the drum for Cumbria to be at the front of the queue for that. The £5 billion shared rural network is very important. We know that sometimes the fibre will not get to every household, so we need to extend 4G coverage to get to some of the hardest-to-reach areas, and I welcome the fact that that is happening in Cumbria as well. The forecast of 4G coverage of 73% will go to 88% with the shared rural network, which I welcome. I also welcome joint funding initiatives across Government through the Borderlands programme, which has earmarked approximately £28 million for the 4-gigabit programme.
I had the great pleasure of welcoming—the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to this—the previous Digital Minister to my constituency, to Mallerstang near Kirkby Stephen, to see the great work of B4RN in connecting households. We had the pleasure of actually connecting up one of the households ourselves.
I am working closely with parish councils, service providers such as B4RN, BDUK—Building Digital UK—the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Connecting Cumbria. I believe that we need to work together to secure these deliveries for our hard-to-reach communities. I very much recognise the anxiety that communities are feeling about this procurement process and the voucher scheme now. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about that.
I make a plea to the new Minister not to let this procurement exercise cause anxiety for these communities, but to allow the people who have worked closely with providers such as B4RN to keep the exercise going so that we have continuity and so that these community projects can actually be delivered. There are many, many schemes across Cumbria that are almost over the halfway line, and they need just a bit of extra time and a bit of Government support, so I make the plea to allow the voucher application system to remain open during the procurement process.
It is important that we allow communities to continue to work with providers such as B4RN so that some communities can be moved to the deferred procurement scope, and then we will not pause the process for these households and communities that are desperate to get connected. We can then stop the mad dash to get over the halfway line, and give communities and providers time to get people connected. I make a plea also that, after the procurement process, the providers work together. There is plenty of rural United Kingdom and rural Cumbria to go around. We want people to work together sensibly so that households are not left out, so I make a plea for everyone to work together.
I also make a plea to Opposition politicians: let us all work together; let us not play political football with this. We can work together—central Government, local government and communities pulling together. We all want the same thing: we all want better broadband and better connectivity. We have much more chance if we all work together, with the Government, to secure that aim.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for securing this very important debate and for making what I thought was a compelling speech. I wish today to assure him, for the very same reason: we want to do the right thing for his constituents and for all residents and business owners in rural and hard-to-reach areas. We want to make sure that they are not left high and dry in the nationwide gigabit upgrade.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted that access to high-speed broadband is important for schooling, for businesses and for building communities in more rural areas, and we all understand this from the very difficult past 18 months. I know that that determination is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) and other colleagues in the Chamber today, including those from the highlands. The Prime Minister promised to end the spinning wheel of doom and he keenly follows the progress we are making to connect the country to lightning fast, reliable gigabit broadband. I will set out some of the progress we have made before I turn to the situation in Cumbria.
Working with Ofcom, we have given the commercial market a long-term framework that supports investment in gigabit broadband. We have reduced the barriers to roll-out, alongside further legislation that will help even more with issues such as wayleaves where we can get the infrastructure laid. We have also introduced active incentives for financial investment. As a result, our plan is working and gigabit-capable broadband is rolling out rapidly. Since January 2019, the UK’s gigabit-capable coverage has increased from 5.8% to nearly 50%, and that is expected to rise to 60% by the end of December. In addition, the Government and major providers’ joint investment of more than £1 billion is filling those gaps in rural 4G coverage.
There is a lot more diversity now in the broadband sector. I appreciate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale’s comments about larger providers, such as Openreach, but our local full fibre networks and rural gigabit connectivity programmes have awarded contracts to multiple operators, many of them smaller providers such as Gigaclear, Airband, Fibrus, Axiom, Quickline, Truespeed, Full Fibre and Wessex Internet. Our gigabit broadband voucher scheme has suppliers actively providing connections to communities in rural areas in every part of the UK.
However, we have to accept—as we do—that the market will not go everywhere, which is why we are backing Project Gigabit with £5 billion so that hard-to-reach communities are not left out. That is how we want to level up and ensure that our rural communities have the same chances and opportunities as our urban towns and cities. We are adding to the half a million rural homes and businesses already covered by Project Gigabit, thanks to our support. Through Project Gigabit, the Government are going to provide support to ensure coverage is available to the final 20% of premises that the market will not reach. That is a considerable undertaking that is going to involve everybody, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said. It is very important that we work together on that.
As part of Project Gigabit, we are investing more money—up to £210 million over the next three years—in gigabit vouchers. That builds on the success of the previous voucher programme that began in May 2019, which has subsidised the cost to connect more than 88,000 homes and businesses to gigabit-capable broadband so far. Our nationwide task is a lot larger, and if we are going to reach every home and business, the Government have to subsidise broadband networks to around 5 million premises. We have already made great strides with that objective, but we still have the most challenging parts of our four nations to reach. If we are going to get that done quickly, the lion’s share of the work has to be done through Government procurement contracts, working with both local and regional suppliers. I am very pleased to say that Cumbria is scheduled to be the first area to go into the procurement process. Provided that suppliers confirm the proposed project is viable, the procurement will get under way within the next few weeks.
While residents and businesses in Cumbria will be the first to benefit from our programme, it means the county is also at the forefront of our learning and understanding. Far from being cloth-eared, as I know the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has stated in his local paper, I want to reassure him that we are listening hard to people’s concerns and we continue to be open minded about the best approach. I hope this debate is the opening of that conversation, certainly with me in my new role.
My officials have met B4RN several times and examined each project it has put forward in a lot of detail. I am pleased that the chief executive is here today and, in fact, I understand that my officials are going to meet him later today. Not only that; my excellent predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), visited Cumbria last month and met communities in the midst of the broadband build. He also met B4RN and listened to the concerns, and I shall be happy to keep that conversation going.
I cannot stress enough how much the Department admires and applauds B4RN in its unique community-minded approach. As a network provider, it is almost unique in the UK. We do not want to dampen that enthusiasm or that business model. I have come from a position in the Cabinet Office where we were looking at how to transform the UK’s procurement regime now that we have left the European Union. One of our key drivers is looking to get more social value into the money the Government spend, as well as diversifying supply chains and encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises to get involved. I certainly do not want to crowd people out.
Residents involved in every one of B4RN’s projects tirelessly work to drum up support and interest and to persuade landowners to grant permissions to cross their land and so on. That is seriously impressive community work. I welcome that the vouchers have been used to provide coverage to 3,500 premises in Cumbria. I hope that that number will continue to grow, but our task—let us be honest here—is to help in the region of 60,000 premises, so the procurement approach has to do the heavy lifting when it comes to the Project Gigabit programme.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister’s helpful speech. The 60,000 figure is very important, but does she recognise that as things stand, unless she defers the deadline for the voucher scheme on Friday, the communities that I have listed, which I got from B4RN, will be in limbo at the very least? While they could have looked forward to a connection very quickly, over the next year or so, they will now be at best put back several years. Can she not think of a way of doing both: of ensuring that she connects the 60,000 she talks about, while not dumping and pulling the plug on those communities that I just listed?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern for those communities. We all appreciate the importance of broadband in those places. I think the best thing to do from this juncture is that the meeting between officials and Mr Lee goes ahead, and I ask for an update from that meeting and we talk about the best approach going forward.
My team in Building Digital UK has undertaken extensive work, along with the local authority teams in Cumbria and other areas, to get ready for the first procurements. A detailed consultation has been undertaken with the commercial market to identify the least commercial areas in which to subsidise build. That will ensure that taxpayers’ money is fully focused on levelling up the communities that would otherwise miss out. We know that some suppliers will be able to provide coverage more quickly with vouchers to communities where they are already active with projects. We will therefore accommodate that as far as we can in our approach.
However, not all planned voucher projects get off the ground and result in the intended coverage. It is important to ensure that the procurement process is ready to pick up those areas rather than leave anyone behind. We need to ensure that the existing voucher schemes really are credible. For that reason, we are structuring the procurement so that we do not slow down current voucher projects, while providing a back-up option through procurement so that residents and businesses do not miss out. It is about ensuring that there is a balance between supporting early coverage in areas where there are firm plans using vouchers, while ensuring that communities do not get left out and that we do not have to continually change the premises included in procurement. We need to ensure that those procurements are stable.
I am listening with great interest to what the Minister is saying. It is curious that no Scottish Members are present apart from myself, because the situation in Scotland is very patchy indeed with regard to broadband. May I cast a fly across the Minister? If it could be demonstrated by Her Majesty’s Government that the roll-out of broadband is highly efficient in such areas as Lakeland, would that not be a blow in favour of keeping the United Kingdom united?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important intervention, because the Union is so important to all of us in the Chamber. I want to do what I can in my ministerial role to support the connectivity of all four nations in our country.
As some of us have mentioned, the world is in the middle of a digital revolution and covid has accelerated that process, digitalising almost every part of our everyday lives and making the infrastructure that connects us more important than ever. That is why it is at the top of the Government’s agenda. As I mentioned, I will ask BDUK for an update from the meeting with Mr Lee in the coming days. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale for his very important and compelling speech.
Question put and agreed to.
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking. This is line with 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 Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered decarbonising aviation.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I thank colleagues for taking the time to participate in this important debate, which my constituents, and no doubt those of all Members, will be watching with interest. My constituents in Putney are under the flightpath and they have plenty of opportunity to have a close connection with planes.
If we are to achieve our net zero ambition and turn the tide in the fight against climate change, we need to fight on many fronts. Aviation is a front we simply cannot retreat from. I am sure the Minister is ready with a list of the ways in which sustainable aviation fuel is going to save the aviation industry, but I hope to hear more than that: about how we can incentivise alternative ways to travel, or not travel, and a new commitment to look again at Heathrow expansion, as it is not compatible with the decarbonisation strategy published in July. Sustainable aviation fuel alone will not mean that we can head off into a new era of guilt-free flying. We must also have a reduction in flights and an associated increase in public transport, if we are to achieve net zero at the necessary speed.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that one of the best ways of decarbonising aviation is by reducing demand and that one of the most effective ways of doing that would be through a frequent flyer levy? Given that just 15% of people take 70% of flights, a frequent flier levy would be a fair and effective way of reducing aviation demand.
I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to look at a range of ways to tackle carbon in the aviation industry. I am disappointed that the “Decarbonising Transport” paper does not include measures such as the one that she has recommended. Too often, sustainable aviation fuel is used to give the illusion of environmental action, but there is a danger of greenwashing because of an over-optimistic assessment of how quickly we can scale up alternative fuel use and how sustainable these fuels really are.
The aviation industry is vital and valued for travel, jobs, trade and connecting us to the world, but it is also responsible for about 7% of global warming and is, mile for mile, the most damaging way to travel for the climate.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. Another factor that needs to be considered is how long aircraft can be used. These vehicles are built to last, so it takes significant time before operators need to replace them or swap them out for ones that are more environmentally friendly. We know that the pandemic has led to some airlines retiring their aircraft earlier than planned, so does she agree that the Government could provide financial incentives for airlines if they choose more sustainable aircraft in the future?
I agree that airlines need to be able to replace their aircraft to speed up the level of decarbonisation, so we need incentives for that as well.
A return flight from London to San Francisco emits around 5.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person, which is more than twice the emissions produced by a family car in a year and about half the average carbon footprint of someone living in Britain. Even a return flight from London to Berlin emits around 0.6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, which is three times the emissions saved from a whole year of recycling.
My constituents in Putney know this all too well. We live under a major global flightpath, so we know what it is like to have thousands of tonnes of CO2 dumped on us every day from above, and to have to suffer the noise from the aircraft. The bottom line is that to achieve net zero, moving to sustainable aviation fuel is essential, but this is an industry in its infancy. Millions of tonnes can currently be produced, but we need billons of tonnes of fuel to be produced every year to meet demand.
We cannot move to sustainable aviation fast enough, so reducing flights must be built into jet zero plans, but it is not at the moment. It will take at least two years for the airline industry to return to pre-covid levels. We should be taking this opportunity to have hard conversations with the aviation industry about sustainability in respect of not only the fuel used but the number of flights taken. We should not allow the Heathrow expansion and third runway plans to go ahead. We should make it easier, cheaper and quicker to take train journeys instead of short plane trips and build in incentives for train travel. France has banned short-haul internal flights where a train journey shorter than two and a half hours could be provided as an alternative. Where are the equivalent bold moves from the Government?
I was pleased to see the Government launch the long-awaited decarbonising transport and jet zero consultation strategies earlier this year. I was also pleased to see the “Green Fuels, Green Skies” competition have such a good take-up and produce such an innovative winner, and to see the first British Airways flight using sustainable aviation fuel just five days ago. However, I am disappointed that the Jet Zero Council has met only a handful of times since it was established last year. Just how committed is it to change within the industry? I am also disappointed with the decarbonising transport strategy. The aviation section is a house of cards: it rests on extremely optimistic assumptions and speculative technological breakthroughs, which are either in their infancy or do not yet exist. It could all fall apart very easily. There is very little policy basis.
To be clear, it is important that we invest in and enable technological innovation and breakthrough; we will not be able to achieve net zero without it. However, the focus should be on what is actually possible and can be delivered now. We need concrete policy, not a wing and a prayer. For example, the Climate Change Committee progress report recommends aviation tax reform to address the imbalances between aviation and surface transport. Will the Minister comment on whether there are plans to look into that?
Can we rely on alternative fuels? In 2010, the aviation industry pledged to source 10% of its fuels from sustainable sources by 2020—so far, so good—yet by 2018, it had managed to source a grand total of 0.002%. Sustainable aviation fuel production today is still less than 1% of overall jet fuel supply, despite being pitched by the industry as the panacea for decarbonisation. It is a wonderful feat of science and technology that the first UK commercial-scale alcohol-to-jet fuel facility has recently been commissioned to be built in Wales. However, the current global target for approximately 50% alternative jet fuel use by 2050 would require three new biojet fuel refineries to be built every single month for the next 30 years. Today, there are just two facilities.
The Government are putting their faith in the market, but the market is not delivering at the pace required to respond to the climate emergency. Airbus is developing a hydrogen plane, which may enter service in 2035, and electric flight relies on batteries that are far too heavy to be used even for short haul, let alone for long haul, so we cannot rely on those. We need a plan B. We need to know what additional policy measures will be required to deliver net zero aviation should the promised technological breakthrough not occur.
That brings me to Heathrow expansion and the need for robust plans to reduce demand for flights. To be serious about decarbonising aviation, the Government must rule out plans for expanding Heathrow. Heathrow is the largest single polluter in the UK and its emissions account for half of all UK aviation emissions. Its expansion proposals allow for 260,000 additional flights per year, on top of the existing 480,000. That would pump between 8 and 9 megatonnes of extra carbon per year into our atmosphere. It will require operational restrictions at other UK airports as well, if the UK is to stay within the carbon budget. That is hardly levelling up. In fact, even the mere act of constructing the runway and the works associated with that are expected to result in an additional 3.7 megatonnes of CO2 emissions up to 2050. Moreover, neither Heathrow nor the Department for Transport have comprehensively considered the non-CO2 impacts of Heathrow’s expansion proposals, which would have a significant impact on the climate.
The long-haul journeys that make up 80% of aviation emissions from Heathrow, and that would make up the overwhelming majority of the additional 260,000 flights per year that would depart from the expanded Heathrow, will not be affected at all by the technological breakthrough in sustainable aviation fuel. There is no avoiding it: expanding Heathrow will guarantee a huge increase in kerosene burn, and the chances of the technological breakthrough needed are slim indeed.
I am sure that many colleagues here in Westminster Hall have followed the legal wrangling and the twists and turns surrounding the third runway. Frankly, this is a question that should never have entered the courts—why has it even got there? Any Government who were serious about achieving net zero would not entertain for a second the notion of an expanded Heathrow. Such a notion is fundamentally at odds with the Government’s own climate commitments and with the Environment Bill that they hope—one day—to pass. It is embarrassing that these plans were again given the green light in the year that we are hosting COP26, and that is not even considering the impact of the noise and the increased carbon dump over the green spaces and people of constituencies such as my constituency of Putney.
It is really simple: either Heathrow can be expanded or net zero aviation can be pursued. It is not possible to have both. At the very least, the Government should initiate a review of the airports national policy statement. However, if they are serious about decarbonising aviation, I hope that the Minister who is here in Westminster Hall today will announce that they will rule out Heathrow expansion all together.
I conclude by putting three questions to the Minister. First, what is the Jet Zero Council’s plan B? If the technological breakthroughs do not happen and sustainable aviation fuel cannot be produced and delivered quickly enough, then what? Secondly, why is the Department for Transport refusing to consider how to disincentivise frequent business travel by plane and make it easier, quicker and cheaper to take the train for short journeys instead of flying, and to reduce long-haul journeys, as was recommended by the Climate Change Committee in its 2021 progress report?
Finally, will the Minister commit to review the ANPS before COP26 later this year, rather than waiting until the jet zero strategy is finalised? Will he also commit to including an assessment of Heathrow expansion in that review? And will he join me and the Prime Minister in lying down in front of the bulldozers should the policy statement remain in place?
The climate crisis is here; it is now and it is real. There is no room for conjecture, complacency or cop-outs. Decarbonising aviation requires decisive action now, not deferred solutions that may not even come to pass. I really hope that the Minister listens closely to the whole of the debate today and to the concerns that are raised, and ensures that the jet zero strategy is realistic and consistent, and contains the bold policy interventions required to deliver our decarbonisation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), my constituency neighbour, on securing this really important debate. As her constituency neighbours mine, I obviously share many of her concerns about the flightpath, Heathrow expansion and the impact that unrestrained aviation growth might have on the health and welfare of people—not just my constituents, but people across the country.
I can probably do no better than to illuminate further some of the points that the hon. Member has already made so well. I will start with the Government’s jet zero strategy for aviation. She ably pointed out how the delivery of jet zero depends so heavily upon the development of new technology. As she said, what will we do if that technology is not developed? It seems very clear to me, and indeed it was recommended by the Climate Change Committee, that alongside the technological development that we all want to see, either of hydrogen engines or some other form of technology, we really must see some demand management of our airspace, of flights and of aviation.
The last time I had the opportunity to raise this matter with the Prime Minister and to ask him what he wanted to do about the ANPS, I asked him directly if he would amend it to rule out Heathrow expansion. I was very disappointed that he said it was “a private matter”. I do not think that it is a private matter. For all the reasons that the hon. Member for Putney laid out, it is of the utmost importance for everybody across this country that if we are serious about getting to net zero, and if jet zero is going to be a part of that, demand management for aviation has to play a role, because we cannot just depend on the development of new technology. The very first thing we must do, before anything else, is to rule out expansion at Heathrow airport, so I join the hon. Member for Putney and many other MPs—not just across west London, but across the country—in once more asking the Minister to review the ANPS.
However, I am not pessimistic about the possibility of developing new technologies. I have had some really interesting conversations with people who work in this space, and it seems to me that the prospect of hydrogen powering aircraft in the future is not just a very real possibility, but is actually happening. I have also heard tell of electric flights, and have been invited to go on one. I have politely declined so far. I would like that technology to be a little more developed first—I have heard about those heavy batteries.
It seems to me that there is a great opportunity here for the UK to be right at the front of transport technology. We are a developed economy; we are an island, for whom international travel is critical; and we have the technology, the engineering capability and the will to do this. I believe that decarbonised aviation, alongside many of the other technologies that we are developing to meet the challenge of climate change, can be at the forefront of delivering the green jobs that will be so essential to our sustainable economy in the near future.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case about the jet zero strategy. Does she agree that that strategy is overly dependent on carbon offsets, and that increasingly, climate scientists are pointing out that carbon offsetting is actually very limited, given that all sectors in all countries need to get to real zero and there are limitations on how much carbon dioxide forests can absorb? Instead of playing accounting games, we should be treating the climate emergency as a real emergency.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. More and more, I hear people talking about adapting to climate change instead of tackling it, and I am really concerned that people are doing exactly that, or thinking about exactly that: operational solutions to enable us to carry on exactly as we are, rather than tackling the problem at its root. This is not just about climate change; it is about biodiversity in all its forms, and it is so important that we come up with solutions that radically reduce carbon, rather than push it elsewhere and pretend it does not exist.
To sum up, the technological possibilities and what they might mean for our economy and skilled jobs right across the country are really exciting, but the Government must publish a proper strategy for how they plan to get there. If they want to prioritise hydrogen, we should make sure that we focus on green hydrogen, and on making sure that the production of hydrogen continues to be as carbon-free as possible. However, what I really want is for the Government to pursue a strategy of reducing demand alongside developing those technologies, and to take the opportunity offered to us by covid—the enforced changes to working patterns, and the facility we have all now gained for using Zoom for all manner of things, including parliamentary debates—to think about our approaches to travel, to really prioritise the travel that is necessary and to think seriously about how we are going to decarbonise aviation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Gary. I rise to contribute to this debate as an aircraft engineer. There are precious few of us—or engineers of any description—in Parliament, and these technically challenging debates are sometimes the poorer for it. Others have spoken about the need to support airports, and I fully endorse that priority. That effort is led in this place largely by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), and I am sure he will touch on that topic later on. Similarly, we need to act on the pressing need to support aircraft manufacturing and maintenance in Scotland and the rest of these islands, recognising the tremendous expertise that exists in the sector and the value that it has for the economy.
In this debate, I wish to shine a light on design issues, especially the twin problems of realism and pace within the design dimension, which I feel are not being properly addressed, much less owned. The UK Government talk an average game when it comes to net zero, but the investment and the road map have been pushed out almost entirely to make space for political rhetoric, much of it hyperbole. Perhaps if we put a gun on a new sustainable prototype aircraft, the UK Government would get their act together. With just a fraction of the investment lavished on the Typhoon multi-role combat aircraft, UK taxpayers could have a real global competitive advantage in renewable aviation businesses all over these islands. The absence of investment leaves industry to do what it can, which is good up to a point, because it is the industry’s engineers and scientists who will get us out of the inertia of conventional propulsion systems consuming fossil fuels and into the next generation of passenger aircraft, but they will not do it without game-changing Government investment.
I invite the Minister to agree with me that in the effort to get beyond hydrocarbon propulsion, batteries are intensely limited in their role. With current battery technology, they will always be limited to only a few hundred miles, and even then battery aircraft are some way off being commercially available. They are somewhat of a distraction from the real prize of engineering a solution to medium and long-haul transportation.
The Minister will know that the trouble with using batteries, not jet fuel, is that a craft that sets off with 10 tonnes of batteries will still have 10 tonnes of batteries at its destination. By all means, let us invest in short- haul regional aircraft—locked-up, prototype-tested, type-approved—and get them into service, if for no other reason than that we can then shift the focus on what we really need to deliver, which is a wholesale reimagining of long and medium-haul travel.
The rest of the UK could learn from the extraordinary work being led by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, serving Orkney and Shetland and assisting in the development and proving of short-range commercial electric aircraft. Nobody—certainly not me—doubts the potency of lithium-ion-powered aircraft, but nobody has overcome the critical weight and duration conundrums yet.
I know the Minister will not mind my pointing out that, like me, he is a bit of an aviation geek. I therefore have no hesitation in highlighting aircraft such as the de Havilland Comet, the Fairey Rotodyne, the Harrier Jump Jet and the Avro Vulcan—aircraft developed on these islands that represented a quantum leap in aircraft design and performance—all of which were facilitated by colossal Government investment. Where is that investment now? I do not know how much Government investment went into the now terminated Airbus/Rolls-Royce E-Fan X, which substituted one turbo fan on a BAE 146 regional jet for an electric fan powered by a battery linked to a gas turbine on board generator. It was not the last word in outside-the-box thinking, but I am advised by Rolls-Royce that it was a valuable test bed for high-powered electrical architecture on board aircraft. Other Members have touched on hydrogen, and my personal view is that that is the route out for us. I invite the Minister to set out how he is going to facilitate that.
I say to the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) that that was incredibly informative and really constructive. It was worth coming, if only for the entertainment. That was very good.
As the MP with Heathrow in his constituency, I obviously have a special interest. We have been through a brutal period over the past 18 months. It has been grim in terms of loss of jobs and the impact on the community. There are whole families who are dependent on work at the airport, and the situation has affected the local economy and the way of life and wellbeing of so many people.
My last conversation with the Chancellor before I stood down as shadow Chancellor was about the need to have an aviation strategy to deal with covid, and to build on that for the long term to tackle climate change. I said, although I was not listened to, that the best thing would be to get the industry together—employers, companies, unions and local communities. I said it was better to listen to the unions, because they are more independent of the fight that will go on between individual companies. The unions were already looking at how we could come through the covid crisis and be honest with people about the future. We cannot return to the way it was; we cannot return to a policy of continuous expansion. That cannot happen if we are really going to tackle climate change.
I have five points to make, and I am sorry if I bore people by repeating them in debate after debate. First, there is the principle of doing no further harm. The third runway will set us back and, as we go into COP, undermine people’s confidence that we are serious about tackling climate change. Let me give some background to the Prime Minister saying that he would lie down in front of the bulldozers. At his first election as the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, I asked at my count, which was before his, “Will he make the same commitment as his predecessor, John Randall”—who people may remember is now in the House of Lords—“who said he would lie down in front of the bulldozers with me?” Of course, Boris could not help himself. As soon as the count was over, he got up and said, “I’ll be with you, John.” Bizarrely, when the vote came up in the House of Commons, he was on a one-day visit to Afghanistan. I suppose that was pure coincidence.
Before COP takes place, we need a clear statement opposing the third runway expansion at Heathrow. It is the iconic battleground in this country—and, in fact, in Europe overall—for tackling climate change. I welcomed Climate Camp into my constituency and it turned the third runway campaign from an nimbyist issue into a global one through the publicity and campaigning that took place. Climate Camp was 1,000 people turning up overnight, camping for a week and demonstrating and so on. It transformed the whole debate, but it will be insignificant in comparison with the protests that will take place if the Government try to force through a third runway, so we need a clear statement.
Secondly, we need to minimise the existing harms. That means managing demand, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said. The best way to manage demand is, to be frank, through taxation, including VAT and fuel duty, and through frequent flier policies. We should also be assessing whether, in the world of Zoom and Teams, the level of business travel using aviation is absolutely necessary. It behoves us all to question all our transport undertakings, but the Government need to publish guidelines to discourage unnecessary business travel.
Thirdly, as the hon. Member for Angus said, we need a scale of investment in research and development that we have just not seen under this Government or previous Governments, whose policies have been more about predict and provide to meet escalating demand. We now need a scale of investment in research and development in alternative fuels, including batteries enabling short-haul flights, which undoubtedly will be developed. I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from—he knows much more than me—but I think that with such investment, we have in our universities and research institutes the engineering creativity to be world leaders on that front. I am old enough to remember the incredible work that was done on engines including the RB211 up in Barnoldswick, where I worked at the time.
As we develop new methods, the Government then need to step in, as they did with cars, with some form of aviation scrappage scheme. Sometimes I resent handing over money to some of those companies because, as we have seen during the covid crisis, they have used it not necessarily to support the sector or the local economy, but to maximise their profits. A well-constructed scrappage scheme was undertaken—sometimes it is difficult to mention the name—by Peter Mandelson, and it was incredibly successful in transforming the environmental effect of the car industry. That is needed.
Finally, I will make a local plea: we need a just transition. If we are serious about a just transition, it means supporting the aviation communities that surround airports—in my constituency, that means Heathrow, but there are others. What they need now is support to develop alternative economies for the future.
One of the things that I suggested to the Chancellor before I stood down from the Front Bench is that, for my constituents in particular, but also for outer London, west London and all the other aviation communities, we need an individual taskforce bringing together the Government, local authorities, local communities, trade unions and the companies themselves to start planning the alternative skills training that is needed, the alternative investment, and other forms of logistics, including aviation and other employment opportunities. In that way, we can build confidence in the idea that we can decarbonise the aviation sector. At the moment, I do not think people have that confidence.
I make this plea: we are running out of time, and I do not want to keep doing this every year. This debate is like a hardy perennial. I do not want us to keep turning up and having this debate without seeing an awful lot of progress.
I thank the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) for setting the scene for this debate. There have been some incredible contributions so far, but I want to take a slightly different angle. I agree with the points that other hon. Members have made, and I hope the Minister’s response will encompass some of my thoughts about how we move forward.
I am the MP for Strangford, as people know—if they do not know that after 10 or 11 years, there is something seriously wrong in this place—and I am a frequent flier because I have to be. The fact is that Irish sea divides us water-wise—the Northern Ireland protocol also divides us, but I will not mention that—so for me to come here to work, I have leave from Belfast City airport and fly over here. The journey from leaving the office to getting here takes about three and a half hours. The flight takes approximately an hour. I do that every week, and so do other right hon. and hon. Members—colleagues and friends in my party and others. The hon. Members from the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party travel in the same way because it gets us here within a certain period of time. The alternatives are to go by boat or take the ferry over and drive down. We could do that if we had two or three days to spare, but it eats into our time as constituency MPs. I am a very active one, as others in this House are—I am not saying I am the only one. The fact is that our time is precious and we use it accordingly, so I am a frequent flier because I have to be.
On the back of the Secretary of State’s statement to the House yesterday, we heard about the aviation industry’s worries about its ability to recover from the economic impact of the past year or so. Obviously, it is equally important that it contributes to the net zero goal. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government must ensure that it is properly supported in its work to decarbonise and is not faced with further unaffordable costs?
That is exactly what I am going to say. I think there are options for the aircraft sector. I want to make a plea for Belfast City airport, Belfast International airport and City of Derry airport—all integral parts of my economy back home. People in Strangford can travel 25 minutes up the road to Belfast City airport, and many of my constituents work in that airport and at Bombardier—Spirit AeroSystems, as it now is— manufacturing aeroplanes and wings. It is very important that we look at this sector, which is an economic provider for my constituency. If the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) is looking for work, I understand that engineering jobs are available in Northern Ireland. If he wants to move that way, I am sure we would be more than glad to take him away from Scotland.
I am a supporter of our aviation industry, and in my opinion it goes hand in hand with sustainability. The sustainability of aviation depends on its ability to adapt and find ways forward, and that can only come with clear and adequate support from this place and from our Minister. I greatly respect him and appreciate his hard efforts for this sector. I know from personal engagement with him that he is very committed to it and that his response will be very much along those lines. We can talk about environmental issues—I am an environmentalist—until the cows come home, but if we are not prepared to put the work in to milk the cows, all the talk has been pointless.
Aviation is a major employer in my constituency. It is a world-class, innovative aerospace sector that generates jobs for pilots, baggage handlers and tourism operators, not just in the constituency of Strangford but around the greater Belfast area and across Northern Ireland. All are invested in reaching our goals and targets for sustainability, which is important. Bombardier has a factory site in Newtownards in my constituency, as well as sites in east Belfast, Newtonabbey and elsewhere. I understand the importance of Bombardier/Spirit in aircraft manufacture. Pre-covid, UK aviation employed over 900,000 people in the UK. A lot of our constituents are depending on us to get this right.
When I put my views forward today, I put them forward in a constructive fashion. I am not saying nobody else is, by the way. I am trying to find a way to balance environmental issues with the need to have an aviation sector that can create jobs for the future—to bring the aviation sector into the future with carbon-neutral goals and the support that is necessary to achieve them. That is where we are all united: we have the same goals. We look to our Minister and our Government to deliver on them.
It is clear that stronger partnerships between the United Kingdom Government, the aviation sector and key low-carbon innovation partners are required, and I would love to see them. Maybe the Minister can give us some ideas about how that would happen. Jet zero is possible, but only if the industry is supported by Government. I know that we often say that, but until we get to the stage where it is sustainable, when Government financial support can probably ease off, that is how it will work.
We can, of course, simply require changes to be made, the bare minimum will be done and corners will have to be cut from an industry that is more insecure than ever before. However, if we take this challenge together, we can achieve lasting change and do the right things. That is what we should do.
There is no sense in placing so much pressure on businesses that they cease production within the United Kingdom and simply move to other bases elsewhere, because then we lose the jobs, we lose the economic opportunity and we find ourselves in an untenable position. We should be working alongside them. Other bases and other companies, of course, may not have the environmental measures that are more costly than their profit margins allow. The question is how we do that, and how we encourage and retain the jobs. If we insist on costly changes but ensure that there is support to make them viable, there is an appetite within the industry to embrace sustainable environmental change. That is what we are all saying. The hon. Member for Putney referred to that, as did other previous speakers, and those who come after me will probably say the same.
Sustainable Aviation has highlighted a number of issues where it believes Government support is the key to success, and makes two suggestions. It says:
“Increased investment in the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) is needed, to enable the technological innovations that will make net zero flight a reality, e.g. hydrogen power. The current endpoint of the ATI programme is March 2026, and budgetary commitments are already being made out to then. An extension of funding is vital if the ATI is to continue to fulfil its remit and support clean growth.”
Perhaps the Minister will update us on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and I are meeting the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on Thursday to discuss hydrogen, which previous speakers have spoken about. There are some fantastic thoughts and ideas in North Antrim that will help not only aviation firms but lots of companies. If we look to where the opportunities are, we can achieve change.
With the Government’s recent funding support, aerospace modernisation can help to deliver better environmental performance ahead of more radical innovations. Aerospace is critical national infrastructure that has not been fundamentally upgraded since the 1950s, and a full modernisation programme must be delivered in time. I would like to understand the Government’s strategy on these two critical issues. I know the Minister will give a constructive response to the debate and assure us that, behind the demands, there will be support. That is the way it works. We have ideas, and we need the Government to help us to get to the point where we can achieve a future that enhances the industry, protects the environment and, crucially, protects UK-based jobs in every aspect of aviation. Jobs are as important in my constituency as they are in everyone else’s.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on bringing this important debate to this Chamber. We have had a fascinating exchange of ideas this afternoon. I echo everything that has been said so far on long-term technological changes which are exciting and a great opportunity.
In the meantime, we need to look at the demand for flying and how we reduce it, particularly in terms of cost. It is ridiculous that the cost to the environment is not embedded in the cost of flying. It is ridiculous that I can fly for less to almost any destination in Europe that is over 100 miles away, but to get from London to my constituency, which is under 100 miles, costs more by rail. That cannot be right.
The Government have legislated for net zero by 2050. That is too slow for Liberal Democrats. It is clear to us that, in order to stop increasing climate chaos, we need to cut most emissions by 2030. There is no ducking some of the challenging choices we need to make. Farming, shipping and heavy industry are sectors where getting to net zero is a challenge and so is aviation.
The problem is not currently with flying. The problem is with the jet fuel that powers our aircraft. Each aircraft uses an incredible amount of fuel. A jumbo jet carries about 240,000 litres of jet fuel, the equivalent of one-tenth of an Olympic-size swimming pool. It burns through that fuel at a rate of four litres per second. I am aware that an aircraft engineer is in the Chamber today and that my knowledge pales into insignificance compared to his.
We need to do much better on emissions from aviation and we need to do it fast. The good news is that there are alternatives and today I want to make the case for synthetic fuels. Those are made from hydrogen and carbon captured from the air. In theory, this would mean capturing and re-using the carbon dioxide that is already in the air, rather than putting it into the sea bed. The Government favour carbon capture and storage, but what about being more ambitious and making carbon dioxide itself part of the circular economy?
If the UK invests in the right technologies, synthetic fuels can be just that; properly carbon zero and sustainable in the long-term. As I understand it, synthetic fuels are no more and no less than hydrogen combined with carbon dioxide. However, to be fully net zero, the hydrogen used has to be green hydrogen. I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) has already said: it has to be green, not blue hydrogen because green hydrogen is made from renewables and blue hydrogen is made from natural gas, which is a fossil fuel. That means heavy investment in renewables. Currently, the Government say that green hydrogen is too expensive, but I am still waiting for an answer on whether they have made a proper long-term cost analysis between green and blue hydrogen.
As I understand it, synthetic fuels behave in a similar way to conventional kerosene and can be mixed with kerosene. Therefore, aeroplane engines and aircraft design would not need to be significantly changed. The Government already have an existing mechanism in place to make mixing aircraft fuel mandatory via the renewables transfer of fuel obligation. Gradually, we can use kerosene to get to low carbon and carbon zero, if we reach to the point where we mix carbon dioxide with green hydrogen to get synthetic fuels.
I would like the Minister to look at these alternatives. I understand that scientists from the University of Leeds have made that proposal and are in conversation with the Government. If not, I am happy to put him in touch and would love to be part of that conversation because, to me, there seems to be at least a possibility of a solution. Now is the time for the aviation industry to begin to change, and for the Government to ask the aviation industry for their plans on how to get to net zero.
However, as we have heard already this afternoon, changing aircraft fuel is not the only important thing. In the short term, we must also reduce the number of flights. I fully agree with everything that has been said this afternoon. As the hon. Member for Putney mentioned, France has recently banned short-haul internal flights where train alternatives exist. The Liberal Democrats believe that we could replicate this. The UK should ban flights where direct rail transport is available for the same journey, taking up to two and a half hours, unless planes are alternatively fuelled.
There should also be a sustainable alternative to flying, such as rail. We need good transport infrastructure across the country, and it must be affordable for passengers. As has also been mentioned this afternoon, we should reform air passenger duty to target the most frequent fliers. I disagree with the hon. Member for—
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I should know that. We should target the most frequent fliers and introduce VAT on first class and business travel. We must also ensure that there is no net increase in airport runways across the UK. That is the most important issue this afternoon.
I could not agree more with all hon. Members who have spoken in this afternoon’s debate. The aviation industry has been through some difficult times in the past 18 months—I do not deny that—but it has received a lot of Government support along the way. I believe that the aviation industry can become net zero in time. It will be challenging, but it can be done. We need the political will, the Government’s support, and a Government that set out a clear strategy.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) for securing today’s debate and for leading it so thoughtfully at the start. She said that if we are to achieve net zero targets, we need to fight on many fronts, and that aviation is a front we cannot retreat from. I could not agree more. She also referenced the British Airways’ perfect flight. I am not sure that is a title that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) would have come up with—she is no longer in her place.
The perfect flight was by an A320neo, which flew from Heathrow to Glasgow airport, in my constituency, using sustainable jet fuel. Continuous climbing and descent, with help from NATS, helped to achieve a reduction of CO2 emissions of 62% compared to a similar flight 11 years ago. That shows the importance of utilising all of the tools we currently have as we transition—hopefully—to greener technology, and of airspace modernisation, which I will come to later.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) said that delivery objectives are dependent on new technologies, and pondered the question of “What if they do not come along?”—a point made by many others. The Bill presents a great opportunity for the UK to be at the forefront of transport technology—two points that we can all agree on—and decarbonised aviation can be at the forefront of the green jobs we need for the UK’s sustainable future.
The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who I see often in aviation debates, understandably, started off by rightly inflating the ego of my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Dave Doogan). I will come on to his contribution shortly. The right hon. Member asked for a clear statement opposing the third runway at Heathrow before COP26, and I suspect that the Prime Minister is itching to give just that. He also floated the idea of an aviation scrappage scheme, but, from the travails of the last 18 months or so, God help the aviation Minister trying to go to the Treasury with that particular request.
The hon. Member for Westminster Hall—sorry, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—rightly spoke of the importance of Bombardier to Northern Ireland. He also floated the Northern Ireland protocol and then, frankly, dropped it as quickly as he brought it up. He spoke about frequent fliers and those who had to be frequent fliers—this is an important point—when the alternative is the train and the extra time that that takes. I have some sympathy with that point. I take the train on a semi-regular basis, but I fly a lot more, not just to support jobs in my constituency at Glasgow airport. If I took the train week in, week out, that is a lot of extra time that I would be away from my family and that is not, at this point, a sacrifice that I am willing to make—although my family might give a different answer, if they were asked.
The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) made a very fair point about the difference in cost between air and rail travel. Rail and for that matter buses outside London are far too expensive, in all parts of the UK, and we must address that. She also spoke about the difference between green and blue hydrogen and asked the Government for more considered work on that point.
I come lastly to my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), who brought a level of expertise often missing from these debates. He described the aviation Minister as an aviation geek. He seemed affronted by that, but I am quite happy to admit that I am an aviation geek. [Interruption.] Oh sorry—he is an aviation geek; we have managed to get that on the record, so that is fantastic.
My hon. Friend spoke from the experience of his past career in aircraft engineering and maintenance. I have to say my inbox over the last 18 months has been rather full of communication from engineers at British Airways maintenance about some of the tactics that British Airways has employed. I have been in regular contact with many workers in that sector.
My hon. Friend rightly compared and contrasted the UK Government’s investment in defence programmes such as Typhoon with that in sustainable civil aviation. I also hear his well-made point about the weight of batteries, which is why they are currently not an option on any medium or long-distance flight, only on local, regional or near-regional flights. He mentioned the Vulcan and our great tradition of fantastic aircraft well ahead of its time. That took me back to my younger days at airshows like Leuchars. The Vulcan was an astonishing aircraft. I am not sure it would be within current noise levels, let alone emissions levels, but it was well ahead of its time and was a fantastic aircraft.
We need projects such as the Ampaire hybrid-electric aircraft that is operated as part of the sustainable aircraft facility at Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd at Kirkwall airport in Orkney—a centre that was funded to the tune of nearly £4 million as part of the Scottish Government’s commitment to a net zero country. HIAL plans to decarbonise all its airports or at least make them carbon-neutral. Its chairwoman, Lorna Jack, said:
“HIAL’s mission is to create social benefit and economic prosperity by building Scotland’s sustainable regional airport group of the future.”
The plans are designed to match the Scottish Government’s ambition to be the world’s first zero-emission aviation region by 2040, which is being enacted in a partnership of the Scottish Government, local authorities, Transport Scotland and our airports and airlines—in particular, Loganair, based at Glasgow airport in my constituency. That airport is also playing its part, achieving carbon neutrality status in 2020, as it gets ready to welcome the world in the coming weeks to COP26 in Glasgow.
Loganair, through its GreenSkies programme, became the first UK regional airline to commit to being fully carbon neutral by 2040 to manage and mitigate the environmental impact of flying. While using immediate means of mitigation, the airline is tackling the long-term goal of introducing sustainable aircraft into its fleet, with live trials taking place in the Orkney Islands this summer on developmental aircraft powered by hydrogen and renewable electricity as the first step to fully converting Loganair’s fleet to net zero by 2040.
Orkney seems to be the place to be. It is a centre of world-leading renewable investment and technology, so it is only fitting that that cutting-edge research and development is taking place there. Using renewables for inter-island travel has the potential to not only revolutionise air travel in Orkney, but also help reduce dependence on diesel ferries, a real multiplier effect for the local economy. With the summer’s installation of the world’s most powerful tidal-powered generator off its coast, Orkney is showing how the advanced renewable technology being rolled out today is helping to support the development of the aviation sector of the future. That is only a first step, but as battery and energy storage technology advances, it cannot be long before short and medium-haul flights can encompass fully electric propulsion, making huge dents in aviation emissions across these isles and demonstrating world-leading technology on a day-to-day basis.
The live data shows that Orkney is generating more renewable electricity than it can consume. The iniquities of the network charges and the glacial pace of inter-connector investment that penalise rural and island communities like Orkney are for another debate. Had I got into BEIS questions this morning, I would have asked about that issue earlier. Using those renewables to provide quick, efficient connectivity and exporting energy to the grid for other aviation use will help to shape a future for aviation that is far more sustainable.
There are other routes to zero carbon, such as the ZeroAvia programme, which uses hydrogen fuel cells with a fully renewable cycle from electricity generation to electrolysis and powered flight. Again, that is a technology at its first—perhaps second—step, which has the potential to not only harness renewables in the aviation sector, but also spur development of hydrogen fuel cells and an improved hydrogen infrastructure, with spin-off for other industries. I hope to see real progress in the area in the next year or two, and I hope to get up to Orkney to see these revolutionary passenger aircrafts and the associated infrastructure.
I note that the transport decarbonisation plan has a commitment to consult on, among many other things, a target of reaching net zero by 2040 on domestic aviation only. I understand and appreciate that the aviation mix is somewhat different for England, particularly the south-east, in terms of large widebodies for medium and long-haul routes, but I think it is a little weak to consult on the domestic front. We need leadership, not continuous consultation. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but I think there are four consultations alone, just in the aviation section of the decarbonisation plan. The UK Government should follow Scotland’s lead and match ambition for a zero-emission region for England by 2040, at the very least for domestic aviation.
Decarbonising aviation is also about using what we already have smarter and better—levelling up, dare I say—and boosting efficiency throughout the industry. Of course, as many Members have mentioned, the Scottish Government would like to see a modal shift from air to rail for shorter journeys, but the fact remains that demand for medium and long-haul air travel will be here for some time. The challenge is to minimise its impact and for Government to intervene when needed to regulate and steer investment, crucially, and change. I am pleased that the Department for Transport took on board the recommendations of the Airspace Change Organising Group earlier this year, although, as I have said previously to the Minister, it is disappointing that the Jet Zero Council did not invite a representative of the group to help their work.
Modernising and remodelling the UK’s airspace is another tool that can reduce the impact of aviation emissions. I hope that as the Government take forward the results of the jet zero consultation we see far greater engagement with ACOG as a crucial piece of the decarbonisation jigsaw. Improved connectivity for non-London airports is also vital. Too often, passengers looking to travel outside of these islands are forced to change at Heathrow or another London airport to reach their final destination. Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness have been assiduous at cultivating route development to miss out the south of England’s crowded skies, but too often there is a feeling that UK Government policy is led by what is good for those London airports, not for connectivity as a whole. Direct connections from airports outside of the south-east of England to destinations in Europe and elsewhere will help to reduce unnecessary journeys, maximise efficiency across the board and boost regional economies. It is a win-win. The quicker the Government move from their London-centric approach thus far, the better.
Fully decarbonising air travel and aviation is among the biggest challenges in tackling climate change and carbon emissions. It will not be easy, or indeed cheap, but investment in a real strategy now, rather than after delayed and dragged-out consultations will produce game-changing results as we move forward.
Thank you, Sir Gary, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on securing what is a very important and timely debate, given that only a few weeks remain until the UK hosts COP26, where transport emissions will, of course, be a key item on the agenda. We have heard some excellent and informative speeches, including those by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), who spoke out against the expansion of Heathrow. Other Members talked in more detail about proposals to decarbonise aviation and some of the obstacles in the way.
Given that it remains the largest contributor to UK emissions, decarbonising our transport sector must be a priority for the Government. Aviation is a key part of that and accounted for 7.3% of UK emissions in 2018. Sadly, we have seen the progress on decarbonisation of transport flatlining over recent years. Progress has been made in some areas, such as in decarbonising the energy sector, but it is disappointing that so little has been done and so little progress has been made on transport.
Aviation is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise, but as we have heard from hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), there are solutions. There are sustainable aviation fuels derived from waste; there are electric or hydrogen-powered planes for at least short-haul journeys in the foreseeable future; and there is airspace modernisation.
Ministers in Westminster Hall debates probably hate it when speeches finish early, so there is more time for them to answer. Normally, they can say, “Well, if only I had time to answer all these questions—”. I will ensure that the Minister has lots of time to answer what are quite a few questions from me and other Members.
Where are we on some of the things that are out there? For example, the EU is proposing to mandate the use of blended aviation fuel, and the UK is consulting on more ambitious proposals. Can the Minister update us on that?
On airspace modernisation, I know the Government have committed some funding to sponsors. When I took on the green transport brief, I was sceptical about technological solutions to aviation. I thought it was just a way of deflecting the conversation from managing or reducing demand. Having met lots of companies that are involved in this space, I now see that there is potential, although with the limitations that various Members have mentioned in terms of battery weight, hydrogen storage and the whole debate about carbon capture and storage. I have come to realise that there is more potential than I thought, albeit quite far into the future and not current enough to address the issues that we need to address today.
When I first had a conversation about airspace modernisation, I was fascinated at the extent to which straightening out air travel and avoiding a huge amount of banking, particularly above Heathrow, could make a difference. Can the Minister tell us where we are with that?
I would also like to hear the Minister address future funding for the Aerospace Technology Institute. People who are developing new technologies appreciate the funding that they have had, but will there be an ongoing source of funding? Will that be covered by the spending review? Moreover, a whole raft of airport infrastructure would be needed to support the use of hydrogen planes, so how would that be funded? That is my last question for now, although I will probably have more as I go on.
As I have said, a lot of these developments are for quite far into the future. There is potential for electric planes to be used for short-haul flights and for hydrogen-fuelled planes to be used for longer flights. I am not convinced that there is an answer for the longest haul flights as yet, but action needs to be taken now on emission reductions, and that means that difficult decisions have to be made on capacity and demand management.
The Labour party’s position on Heathrow is clear: the new runway would not meet our four tests on air quality, noise pollution, national economic benefit or our climate change obligations. That is where we stand on that.
I was pleased that we finally have the transport decarbonisation plan. I waited a long time for it and kept being told that it was due shortly. There is good stuff in it on electric vehicles and heavy goods vehicles, but it falls short on aviation. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) has said, there are so many consultations and, while it is important to consult, they can be a way of kicking things into the long grass when we need urgent action now.
The targets to achieve net zero emissions for domestic aviation by 2040 and for international aviation by 2050 are welcome, but as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned, they rely heavily on carbon offsetting. That is problematic for a number of reasons. Carbon capture and storage technology is by no means guaranteed to reach a point at which it can be relied on to offset a significant amount of emissions, particularly if other sectors also need to rely on offsetting. More natural carbon solutions such as tree planting do, of course, have a big role to play in offsetting emissions, but rapidly increasing rates of deforestation—whether from deliberate destruction, or from wildfires in many parts of the world—mean that we cannot rely on that either.
Back in July, I asked what proportion of carbon offsetting in aviation is expected to come from engineered carbon removal and storage, and what proportion is expected to come from natural carbon solutions. At the time, the Minister said that the Government did not know, so is he able to enlighten us further today? It is really worrying that the Government cannot come up with a response to that question, because even in its more optimistic scenarios the Climate Change Committee projects that over 20 metric tonnes of residual carbon emissions from aviation in 2050 will have to be offset elsewhere. That figure amounts to about half of the 40 metric tonnes of CO2 attributed to aviation in 2019. With such a large proportion of emissions depending on offsetting, we need certainty about the pathway to achieving these targets, not vague projections and a reliance on technology that may not be ready in time.
I am concerned that this focus on offsetting stems from a refusal by Ministers to even contemplate demand management measures when it comes to aviation. We know that aviation has had an incredibly difficult year and a half due to the pandemic, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has said. That is partly due to a refusal by the Government to put forward a climate-conditional support package to get the sector back on its feet, as Labour has repeatedly demanded.
Once travel rates return to pre-pandemic levels, we have a responsibility to the planet to ensure that demand does not soar to unsustainable levels and undermine progress towards reaching net zero emissions, but the Government are simply ducking the decisions they need to make in this area. In its 2021 progress report, the Climate Change Committee recommended that the Government act to ensure there is no net expansion of UK airport capacity. However, just weeks ago, the Government refused to reassess the airports national policy statement, which would have provided an opportunity to do just that.
The CCC also recommended that the Government reform aviation taxes to ensure that aviation journeys are not cheaper than surface transport, as a few hon. Members have already mentioned. However, at the moment, the only open consultation on aviation taxes is advocating reducing air passenger duty on domestic flights, in contrast with the regular hikes in rail fares. That is clearly a ludicrous prospect in the middle of a climate emergency, and it is only made worse when we read the small print and see that this tax reduction would also apply to private jets. There can be absolutely no rationale for that. Any Government serious about decarbonising aviation and setting an example ahead of COP26 would immediately scrap those plans, and I would welcome it if the Minister could explain how on earth a tax cut for the most polluting form of transport can be compatible with a trajectory to net zero. We should be investing in rail instead.
The Government have also repeatedly refused to consider a frequent flier levy to address the fact that 70% of UK flights are taken by the wealthiest 15% of the population. That clearly needs to be addressed. Representations have also been made to me about whether zero air passenger duty on zero emission flights would be one way of stimulating that sector, but I know that that prospect is some way in the future.
With the COP26 climate conference just a few weeks away, it is time for Ministers to face the facts on aviation and stop relying on vague future predictions that will simply not deliver in the timescale we need them to. The climate crisis is worsening every day. Aviation has to play its part, and I hope that today the Minister will come up with answers—things that will start to make a difference now, not decades in the future.
I will absolutely ensure that I leave that time, Sir Gary. This has been an interesting and well-informed debate. I am grateful to everybody who has contributed and I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on securing the debate. We have heard from the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and for Angus (Dave Doogan), the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—who need not worry, because he is an institution and we all know who he is—and the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), as well as the Opposition Front Bench speakers.
We all agree that aviation decarbonisation is a critical issue for the UK and, of course, for the entire world, as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) rightly said. Equally, the fight against climate change is one of the greatest and most pressing challenges for the world. However, while it is a challenge, it also presents an opportunity. I echo entirely what the hon. Member for Strangford said. He spoke about the opportunities in North Antrim. He is right, but there are also opportunities all over the UK as we reimagine the way that we fly, as we shift the aviation sector towards a more sustainable flightpath and, ultimately, zero emission flight. The whole country can then look to benefit from that technology, which I will come on to in a minute. I know that the hon. Member for Angus will be particularly interested in that.
I thank the hon. Member, who raises a very good point; I will answer her question when I get to that section of my speech.
I entirely hear the concerns raised by hon. Members, but I feel that the UK Government are leading on this and I want to spend a few moments explaining why that is the case. On our overarching approach, we are confident that by working in partnership with industry, non-governmental organisations, academics and, of course, the public, we can deliver net zero aviation by 2050 through technological solutions and not through restricting the freedom to fly.
I think that the hon. Member for Bath said that the problem is not with flying, but with emissions. I agree with that and I will explain why we will be able to get there. We want to encourage the growth of the sector as it encourages innovative new ways to cut aviation emissions while protecting the benefits of travel, which we probably all agree are cultural, economic and social. It also binds our binds our country together, as I experienced recently when I flew back from Aberdeen.
The Government take this issue seriously and have a strong record on it. We have shown steadfast commitment and are the first major economy to pass laws to end our contribution to climate change by 2050, making us one of the first major economies to legislate a net zero target. We have also set the most ambitious climate change target yet, in the sixth carbon budget, which aims to reduce carbon emissions by 78% compared with 1990 levels, in line with the recommendations of the independent Climate Change Committee. Also in line with those recommendations, the Government have formally included, for the first time, the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions, meaning that those emissions can be accounted for consistently with other sectors.
July was another milestone in our pathway to jet zero as we published the jet zero consultation. I hear what the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) says about consultations, but I think we should be using the extraordinary expertise that we have in the industry. We must get this right and we need to ensure that we are working and moving forward in a collegiate fashion.
I will hopefully cover that as I go through. It depends which consultation we are talking about. On this issue, the consultation has closed and we will be giving responses shortly. I cannot give precise timescales, but I understand the need for urgency and of course we will move as quickly as we can.
The consultation outlines our approach to reach net zero carbon emissions—or jet zero, as we call it—by 2050, so that we maintain those huge benefits of air travel, and we have clear goals and solutions. There are five policy levers, which are perhaps better understood as three plus two. The first lever is to increase the efficiency of our existing aviation system. I suggest that hon. Members may wish to think about this in terms of timescale: what happens now, what can happen in the shorter term, and what can happen in the medium term.
On the efficiency of our existing aviation system and aircraft, the hon. Member for Angus will realise that, broadly, if we were to see an airliner fly over us today, it might look similar to one from 30 years ago but it would be twice as efficient—to use very approximate figures—because of carbon fibres and engine technology. Those aircraft efficiencies are happening already with the technology that we have. It is not enough, but it is helping.
The hon. Member for Bristol East is quite right to say that airspace can help cut emissions to ensure that fuel is not wasted. If we are more efficient about the way in which aircraft approach airports, that will obviously help. We passed the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act 2021 in the previous Session. The Civil Aviation Authority is currently reviewing the airspace modernisation strategy and is working to distribute the funds that we gave to further that process. That is the first part: aircraft and airspace.
The second part is about developing ambitious plans for a UK sustainable aviation fuel industry. I will come to that in a bit more detail in a moment. That is not the immediate progress, but the next stage. The third part is about accelerating the development of zero emission flight. That is the sort of thing that we see on the front of the more advanced, new airframe types—the futuristic things that we read about. Those are the first three parts, which go together—that is why I say there are three plus two. The fourth aspect is about developing carbon markets and greenhouse gas removal methods, while is the fifth is about how we influence consumers to make sustainable travel choices, which has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members.
Through the strategy, we will commit the UK aviation sector to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, but we want to go further. We have consulted on a UK domestic aviation target by 2040. We have also consulted on our ambitious proposals to reduce emissions from airport operations, which has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, and sought views on what additional measures might be required in order to achieve that. As I have said to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, the consultation has closed and we are considering that at the moment.
I want to update the House on the Jet Zero Council, which is the partnership between industry and senior leaders in aviation, aerospace, and academia that is driving the delivery of new technologies. It also involves the Royal Air Force, which joined recently, and I am very excited and encouraged about. I encourage all hon. Members to look at the excellent work that the Air Force is doing on net zero, particularly the leading work taking place at RAF Brize Norton in my constituency.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point, and I am grateful to her for it. I have a great deal of sympathy with people who ask for the membership of the Jet Zero Council. We have to have a finite number of people on the council, simply because it is a technical body and has to be able to produce results, but trade unions are involved in the sub-groups, which I will spend a moment talking about, particularly to put right some of the misunderstandings.[Official Report, 29 November 2021, Vol. 704, c. 8MC.]
In June, we had the successful third meeting of the Jet Zero Council. The hon. Member for Putney said that she was disappointed that it had not met. I know what she means, but I ask her to remember that it is a plenary body. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding; I hope I can put it right. At that stage, the Transport Secretary announced plans to formalise and broaden the zero emission flight delivery group, and to establish new sub-groups on ground infrastructure, regulation and commercialisation. I will come to the sub-groups in a moment.
Emma Gilthorpe, the Jet Zero Council chief executive officer, has established new governance arrangements and is really driving them forward. There are two key workstreams at present: sustainable aviation fuels and zero emissions flight. She has also been holding the momentum in between the council meetings because, as we all know, often the work takes place in between, rather than at, meetings, at which people report. If I can put right the misunderstanding that the hon. Member for Putney perhaps fell into inadvertently, the most recent meeting was the 29th meeting across the council’s delivery groups, sub-groups, steering group and plenary council. I hope that that helps and reassures the House about some of the things that we are doing.
I want to spend a few moments talking about sustainable aviation fuels, because they are so important. This is where I will come to the points made by the hon. Member for Bath. It is possible to drop fuels into existing aircraft types, and the synthetic fuels that she mentioned are a form of sustainable aviation fuel. That is part of the mix that is being considered. As I will explain in a moment, the Government are essentially providing the initial money to develop all of those things. I will give her another good example in a moment. This is the sort of thing that we often read about in the papers—turning waste into jet fuel, for example, which is one good example of what can be done with waste, although I accept that perhaps there will be a need for more than that.
The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan announced a package of exciting measures that are designed to introduce the production and use of sustainable aviation fuel. The £15 million “Green Fuels, Green Skies” competition aims to support innovative SAF production technologies at commercial scale, so that they can be produced in the UK and then reduce emissions in the UK. Eight projects have recently been shortlisted for funding. If hon. Members would care to look at the website—I think that the hon. Member for Bath will be particularly interested—they will see that the first project listed, which was in July, combines carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere with water. It is direct air carbon capture and storage, which I think is what she was asking me about. That is one of the shortlisted projects. Essentially, the answer to her question, “Are synthetic fuels being considered as part of SAF?”, is that they are certainly part of the technological mix, and what we are doing is putting in the money to see them developed. I hope that answer assists her.
The £3 million for a SAF clearing house to build and further develop UK testing and certification expertise is a big part of this process as well. We have also finished consulting on proposals for a sustainable aviation fuels mandate to drive the development and uptake of SAF, which also provides greater support for the development of synthetic fuels, which the hon. Member talked about, as we look to maximise their development.
The consultation sets out a variety of potential SAF uptake scenarios, going up to 10% SAF by 2030 and 75% by 2050, but I am really keen to emphasise the point that the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North made, which is that this is not fantasy stuff—it is happening right now, as we heard from him when he talked about the recent British Airways flight to his constituency.
I will try my best to respond to everyone’s points, Sir Gary; I am conscious that I may run out of time, as I want to leave some time for the hon. Member for Putney to respond to the debate.
On zero emission flights, we are working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the new aircraft technology that we have all heard a great deal about today.
The Government have invested heavily in aerospace research and development—£3.9 billion of match funding, from 2013 to 2026, guided by the Aerospace Technology Institute. The hon. Member for Angus listed some of the great British aircraft from the past—we could be here all afternoon talking about those—and our plans for the future. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said how much he had enjoyed that speech; well, there is plenty more where that came from, if he would like to listen to the hon. Member for Angus and me talking on the subject.
The FlyZero project is one of the key projects run by the ATI. The hon. Member for Richmond Park made some very good points—I agree with many of the points she made—about the excitement generated by the new technology. We have heard about the Airbus project, which is one of the projects on the way. I saw ZeroAvia’s first flight of a hydrogen aircraft last year; ZeroAvia is now working on a 19-seater. Nuncats has a solar-powered battery aircraft, which I saw at Old Buckenham recently. It is very exciting, particularly for connecting people in the developing world. I also recently saw Ampaire’s electric flight from Exeter. That is particularly exciting when we consider the novel uses of this technology.
The hon. Member for Angus asked about battery technology. He is right, of course, that batteries are very heavy, which is a big challenge. Does electric play a part? Yes, it probably does. Does hydrogen play a part? Yes, it probably does. But it is probably not for a Government Minister to say so at this point. What we should be doing, and I suggest that we are doing it, is to put the money—the R&D funding—in place, so that we find out what the answer is. As I have said, electric probably plays a part. The hon. Member rightly talked about the work that Highland and Islands Airports Ltd has been doing, and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North talked about the work that Loganair has been doing. Both companies are world-leading.
The hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and for Strangford both told us about the reality of this interconnected world and the importance of aviation. Batteries and electric may well play a part in the sorts of journeys that they make.
We are continuing to look at these detailed plans. As part of the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan, the zero emission flight infrastructure was launched recently, and there are many innovative ideas coming forward to progress R&D. We will announce some more successful projects shortly.
I think that the hon. Member for Bristol East asked me about the emissions trading scheme at one point. Perhaps she did not and I misunderstood her, but I will tell her about it anyway. The scheme will cover all domestic flights, flights from the UK to the European economic area and flights between the UK and Gibraltar, and it goes further than the EU scheme that it replaces. We have reduced its cap by 5% and we will consult on putting it on a clear net zero trajectory.
I am very keen to stress that this is not a domestic-only issue; it is a global problem that requires a global solution. We are continuing to work with the International Civil Aviation Organisation in particular to make sure that we drive the ambition and do the technical work on the feasibility of this long-term goal.
Through ICAO, we are also leading members of the carbon offsetting and reduction scheme for international aviation, which is the first worldwide scheme to address CO2 emissions in any sector. We are strong supporters of that, although I accept what hon. Members have said, that we cannot rely on that alone. None the less, in the short term it is probably part of the picture. COP26 gives us a great deal of ambition to show how we are leading on this. I look forward to explaining more about that in due course.
I will say a word or two about airport expansion. We take our commitments on the environment very seriously. I will quote from page 38, paragraph 3.41, of the jet zero consultation document, with regard to the impact of covid:
“even if the sector returns to a pre-COVID-19 demand trajectory, as we have assumed in our analysis, we currently believe the sector can achieve Jet Zero without the Government needing to intervene directly to limit aviation growth. The industry’s need to rebuild from a lower base is likely to mean that plans for airport expansion will be slower to come forward.”
We built that into the consultation process. I hope that hon. Members got that reference; I can provide it, if need be.
The hon. Members for Putney and for Richmond Park and the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington made a number of points about Heathrow expansion. They made their arguments with great courtesy, passion and power. The Government have been clear that Heathrow expansion is a private sector project, which has to meet strict criteria on air quality, noise and climate change, as well as being privately financed, affordable and delivered in the best interests of consumers. I hope they will understand that I cannot comment any further, in case there were to be a planning matter that would prejudice any further consideration by Ministers. None the less, I refer to that section in the jet zero consultation.
I am conscious that I am now out of time. I hope I have dealt with all queries from right hon. and hon. Members. If I have not, I will do my best to do so in writing later. I hope that what I have outlined today has made it clear that jet zero is a priority for the Government and that we are delivering on it with great enthusiasm and pace.
I thank the Minister and all Members who have contributed to a very important, timely and strong debate, with many points for the Minister to take away and new ideas on how to go about meeting this challenging opportunity. There is a high awareness among the public that they want to do the right thing when they are flying. That has come through loud and clear; our constituents could not be more sure of that. They are looking to the Government for leadership on this issue.
There are exciting opportunities for us to lead the world in research and development for new sustainable fuels. We are looking at those being delivered in the 2040s, but they are not here now. What do we do about the emissions that are happening now? What do we do now about the damage being caused to the environment? We have to look again at reducing demand right now, until we have established that we can deliver on sustainable aviation.
That could be the carrot with the stick to present to airports. We could say, “You can expand but only if you can show that you can be sustainable along the way.” I look for more leadership on that. I look forward to the Minister returning to his desk with the loud, clear message that we do not want to see an expansion of Heathrow. Its expansion would undermine all the other extra work that is going on towards jet zero. I understand that he is not able to comment now, but I look forward to a new comment being made before COP26 that firmly rules out the expansion of Heathrow.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered decarbonising aviation.
School Building Conditions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered school building conditions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I asked for this debate due to a profoundly concerning situation in my constituency. Russell Scott is a large primary school in Denton, Tameside. It is a good school, and the excellent headteacher, Steve Marsland, is a national leader in education. The school is very popular in the local area with both parents and pupils, and currently has 466 pupils on its roll.
I impress on the Minister that this is not the usual case of an MP calling for money to be spent on his or her schools. I could make the case that a number of schools in my constituency would, due to their age or unsuitability for modern teaching and learning, benefit from a new school building, but with Russell Scott the problem is not the aesthetics, the age or the unsuitability of the learning space; it is a potentially unsafe and failing building.
I should perhaps declare a bit of an interest: I am a former Russell Scott pupil. I attended the school between 1978 and 1982, first at the original Victorian school building and then, from 1981, at the then new school building, which is the current building.
Russell Scott was refurbished in 2015 at a cost of £2.7 million. That is not an insubstantial sum of money. The work was done by the collapsed construction giant Carillion on behalf of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council. The purpose of the refurbishment was to remodel the internal space of the school and increase places for its yearly cohort, but in fact Carillion’s refurbishment has caused irreparable damage to the fabric of the school and left it in dire straits. Since the refurbishment was completed, the headteacher and the chair of governors have shared their concerns over the poor quality of the building, as well as the potential health and safety risks to staff and children. Following those concerns, an independent defect report was commissioned by Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council and completed in August 2017. The report found that there were severe issues with the building.
The obligation to carry out the extensive remedial works fell to Carillion; however, as this House will no doubt be aware, the company went bust, leaving the council responsible. Since then, the council has spent £670,000, not on the structural defects, but attempting to maintain the condition of the school and bring it to a safe enough standard for it to remain open to staff and pupils. The investment represents almost one fifth of the total school condition funding that the council received in the same period for all of its schools in the metropolitan borough of Tameside. Despite the size of the investment, it has not even begun to address the scale of the problem at Russell Scott. There are substantial defects and structural issues, the sheer scale of which I do not have time to cover in a half-hour debate. I will, however, give a brief overview of the key areas of concern.
There is significant damage to the external and internal drainage, and the drainage system does not have the capacity to accommodate the additional toilets incorporated within the building. As a result, on several occasions sewage has leaked into the school building and classrooms. Flooding is a regular occurrence. The floors are uneven, leaving some of the fire doors unable to open and close correctly. The roof is leaking and defective and, worse, the structure of the roof is failing. External access ramps are damaged and not compliant with building regulations. The pressure of the flood water has caused the floors and unsupported slabs to crack. The foundations are shot to pieces. The fire doors were not installed correctly and do not meet fire or building regulations.
We have heard about the playing fields of Eton. The playing fields of Russell Scott resemble the Somme in 1916. Carillion illegally tipped, without licence, waste from its other construction sites on to the school playing fields and reseeded them, leaving rubble, glass, metal and wood exposed to children playing on them. They have been closed since the school returned six years ago. The list could go on and on and on, and it makes for totally unsuitable teaching and learning environments. I fear it is only a matter of time before the school becomes unfit for occupation, and when that happens there are no surplus places in local schools to accommodate its nearly 500 pupils. It is simply a crisis waiting to happen.
The question is, how do we address the defects? Repairing the school will cost an estimated £5 million, on top of the £2.7 million refit it had just six years ago. The defects are so severe and so structurally embedded that the surveyors cannot guarantee that the £5 million further refurbishment would resolve all the issues. The best option, then, is for Russell Scott to be totally rebuilt, and the potential cost of a new build is in the region of £10 million. That option has been endorsed by seven different professional disciplines, including independent architects, building surveyors, health and safety consultants, and civil engineers.
The simple fact is that Tameside council cannot afford to rebuild the school. That is a whole different subject for another debate, but it highlights the perfect storm that we are now in and the need for the Government to work collaboratively with the council. School condition funding allocations for Tameside this year are just over £1.3 million for all its schools. That would not even come close to covering the cost of the rebuild. Additionally, Tameside council is attempting to close a £25-million budget gap, which has been exacerbated by a decade of reductions to its revenue support grant.
Others of us have suffered from Carillion’s inability to deliver on contracts, so my heart goes out to my hon. Friend and his school. Is there any way for the local authority or anyone else to draw back money for Carillion’s failures?
The advice that I have is that that will be very difficult and probably a futile task by the local authority. One of the real issues that rankles, not just with me but with the headteacher, the chair of governors, the whole governing body and the local authority, is that there is no comeback on these shysters. It is not just Carillion but its subcontractors that did a botched job and took a hefty sum of public money, destroying a perfectly good, structurally sound public building in the process.
I have talked about the funding problems that Tameside council is experiencing, but the issue is even more serious because its budget gap and other financial pressures basically mean that it is unable to borrow to fund the project. Bluntly, it will be served with a section 114 notice if it even tries, so precarious are its finances. I recognise that there are many pressures on capital budgets, but I believe that Russell Scott is an extraordinary case that requires national intervention and help. I am pleading with the Minister for that. The school was poorly refurbished by a contractor that we are now essentially unable to hold to account in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) suggested. The issue is now financially beyond the scope of the local education authority, Tameside council, to address on its own.
The situation at Russell Scott is causing significant distress to staff, who are having to teach in completely unsuitable conditions, and will no doubt be affecting the learning experiences of pupils at a pivotal age.
Just as my hon. Friend describes his school, I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to All Saints Roman Catholic School in York, which is over 400 years old. It has accessibility challenges as well as many of the construction problems that are being described. To refurbish a listed school costs an excessive amount of money. That school needs to be rebuilt and brought on to one site. Does he agree that we need to ensure that the estate is fit for purpose, particularly as this issue affects the learning opportunities of young people?
I absolutely do agree. I do not know my hon. Friend’s school, so I take her word that it is in the kind of condition that Russell Scott is in. I could list other schools in my constituency that need to be rebuilt. There is a fundamental issue here about how we upgrade our school stock so that it is fit for purpose for the 21st century and fit for the best possible teaching and learning experiences, which all our children deserve. I fully support her in trying to get improvements for her 400-year-old school in the magnificent city of York.
Given the reasons that I have outlined, I raised Russell Scott at Education questions, and the then Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), promised me a meeting with Baroness Berridge, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the School System. I and representatives of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, both elected members and officers, were very grateful to Baroness Berridge for swiftly arranging a meeting. She was very open in recognising the severity of the situation. She advised us of a possible route that could, if the Government’s officials agreed with the structural assessments of the council’s officers, potentially open the door to the Government’s capital rebuilding programme. I think that the next stage of the programme that can be accessed will be in 2023.
I understand that the capital programme is much in demand. While 50 new schools a year for the next 10 years sounds a lot—and it is in one respect—the fact that they are spread across the whole of England means that demand is always going to outstrip supply, and the application process for funds will no doubt be incredibly competitive.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), I have a number of schools in Vauxhall, just across the bridge here, that are in desperate need of refurbishment: Wyvil School, Allen Edwards Primary School, Vauxhall Primary School and Walnut Tree Walk Primary School. These are schools where, unfortunately, there is water coming through the roof, and teachers are having to place buckets to catch it. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to ramp up school capital funding? The Government’s levelling-up agenda has to mean levelling up in all our schools across the country.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. To some extent it is a separate debate. I agree with her that education has to be the key to levelling up communities like mine and hers, and ensuring that all young people have opportunities to excel and be the best, whatever they are destined to be. It is the challenge of teachers to find out what that something is and to encourage pupils, nurture them and allow them to grow. In some communities, that needs an extra boost, and I certainly agree with her that levelling up is part of that. Her children, just like my children, deserve to be taught in the very best facilities.
As I said, I could list myriad schools in my constituency that I would want to be rebuilt. However, I make a special case for an exceptionally serious situation that one particular school finds itself in because of the shockingly poor work of Carillion. Baroness Berridge also assured me that Government officials would develop a robust contingency plan for the event that the school became unsafe to use. That is crucial, because there is not capacity in Tameside, as I have said before, to accommodate almost 500 extra pupils. I am not sure that there are 500 places in total across the whole of the Tameside primary estate, but there are also the logistics of having 500 children from Denton in the south-east of the borough travelling to 30 different schools. It is just not feasible, even if the spaces were there, and they are not.
I am aware that the Department for Education has undergone profound changes over the last week and that Baroness Berridge has been replaced by Baroness Barran. It is incredibly remiss of me not to have welcomed the Minister for Schools, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), to his new position at the Department for Education. I might say glowing things about him, depending on his response. I have always found him to be a very decent Member of Parliament and colleague from across the Floor. I know that he will do his best with this case to ensure that we can forward the issues at Russell Scott as best we can. I have every confidence in that.
Can the Minister reassure me that what Baroness Berridge said in our meeting last week still stands? If so, can he advise what the point of contact should be within the DFE or Tameside council and the relevant officers over the coming months, as we work collaboratively to address this serious situation? Tameside council has said it is more than happy to share its independent surveys with the team at the DFE. That is the first step, and I hope we can come to a common position on those findings and work a route through from there.
I would also be grateful if the Minister could assure me that the DFE is already working to implement the contingency plans that Baroness Berridge mentioned were of the utmost urgency. In the event of a building failure—we could literally be one or two severe weather events away from one—we will have a major problem if we have not thought about how we deal with accommodating almost 500 pupils.
Russell Scott serves a fairly deprived catchment in a heavily built-up urban environment. The children have wonderful opportunities there. The staff are second to none, and no child is left behind—one of them became a Member of this House.
I am really grateful to be given the opportunity to speak about this issue. The children at Russell Scott deserve to be taught in a safe and secure environment. There is a lot of talk in this country and from the Government Benches about the need to level up. I agree with that—I have always agreed with the need to level up those parts of the country that, sadly, are lagging behind. Here is a real opportunity to make a tangible difference to the lives of pupils, staff and parents in a part of my constituency. I hope the Minister agrees that the issue is of the utmost importance, urgent and serious and that he recommits to facilitating the work that was just beginning prior to Baroness Berridge’s departure.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing this debate and speaking up for the school that he himself attended. He has made a passionate and clear case.
I also take this opportunity to say how pleased I am to be addressing the Chamber today as the Minister for school standards. I am looking forward to working alongside the new Minister for the school system, Baroness Barran, to ensure that our schools are working effectively and to provide every child with the best start in life.
As a constituency MP who has written over the years to the Department about a number of condition issues, I have great sympathy with where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. I recognise also that he says that this is an exceptional case.
I recognise that well maintained buildings are essential to support high-quality education so that pupils gain the knowledge, skills and qualifications they need. All pupils deserve an effective and safe environment to learn in, which is why maintaining and improving the condition of our school estate is a Government priority. The Department does not directly own or manage the school estate, but it has an important stewardship role and we are focused on supporting those responsible for school buildings to improve schools throughout the country. We do that through annual capital funding, delivering rebuilding programmes and offering guidance and support for the sector.
What is the Department going to do about the quality? Who gets on the list of people who are reputable enough and have enough of a track record to be good contractors? Is it not time we have the good list and the not-so-good list and that those come from the Department because it has so much knowledge about who is in the contracting industry?
The hon. Gentleman speaks from his enormous experience and he raises a sensible point. It is for the Department to work with local authorities and the various commissioning bodies to ensure they are working with the most reputable people. We all know—and successive Governments have worked with—some businesses that do not succeed.
In the case of Carillion, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish has given some shocking examples of the way it behaved, particularly with regard to the playing fields. That should not have been the case. The hon. Gentleman has raised the condition issues facing a specific primary school in his constituency. I understand the challenge the school is facing with its buildings, many as a result of the refurbishment and the expansion carried out by the local authority with Carillion in 2015, about three years before the company went into liquidation.
I recognise that Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council can no longer pursue Carillion for redress on that project, following its liquidation in 2018. It has invested its own capital funding to address issues at the school over recent years. As the hon. Gentleman said, the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary with responsibility for the school system recently met him and representatives from the council to discuss those issues. I have been speaking to her successor today. I alerted her to the debate and can assure the hon. Gentleman that she is determined to deliver for the school system in a way that achieves value for money but also delivers according to need.
Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council has assured us that the school is currently safe and operational. I know, however, that a number of issues remain, such as leaking roofs, uneven floors, inadequately installed fire doors and, most significantly, the inadequate drainage that has led to repeated flooding. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Department will continue to engage with the council and, where appropriate, with the Environment Agency and local water boards to consider the wider level of surface water flood risk within the schools and what support would be required. We look forward to reviewing the detailed condition reports from the council once they have been submitted. I checked with officials ahead of the debate: we have not seen them yet, but we are certainly happy to make sure that they are properly engaged with.
I reassure the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that the Government treat every school throughout England on a consistent basis. As I will set out, our condition funding and rebuilding programmes are targeted at schools in the worst condition, regardless of which constituency they are in and whether they are academy trusts or local authority maintained.
I perfectly accept what the Minister is saying, but does he recognise that one of the flaws of the condition survey is that it is basically sending somebody to look at the school? Aesthetically, Russell Scott looks modern—fit for purpose, wonderful—but we do not have to scratch very hard to see that that is not really the case. However, it was given an A grading by the school condition survey.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point; I was just coming to that. Our school condition allocations are based on a consistent way, regarding the relative condition of schools. The data provides a consistent picture of relative condition, helping to inform funding allocations. We recognise, though, that it is a non-invasive survey and that does not assess structural issues, for example, which appear to be the issue in this case. It is not intended to be a substitute for the more detailed condition reports that local authorities use to prioritise investment across their schools, based on local knowledge.
We are currently consulting on the approach to prioritising schools for future rounds of the new school rebuilding programme and we expect there to be opportunities for evidence of severe condition needs to be submitted for consideration for that programme. More broadly, I am pleased that six schools in Tameside have benefited from new or refurbished buildings through the Department’s priority school rebuilding programme. In 2021-22, Tameside council also received an annual school condition allocation of £1.3 million to address condition issues at its schools and, over the past five years, it has received £9.1 million in total.[Official Report, 23 September 2021, Vol. 701, c. 2MC.] In February 2021, we announced that Tameside will receive £6.3 million to provide new school places needed in 2023.
I want to refer back to All Saints school. The school was inspected following my meeting with Baroness Berridge, and although it was acknowledged that it had significant premises challenges, it has not yet progressed on to a capital funding programme. Will the Minister look at how a school such as All Saints can go forward in that programme?
The hon. Lady has made her case very clearly, and I can assure her that officials have been engaging with the diocese about the school. I am certainly happy to make sure that my ministerial counterpart in the Lords, who is responsible for this area, follows through on that commitment.
The Department expects schools and those responsible for school buildings to manage their estate in an efficient and effective way, working proactively to comply with the relevant regulations, and to plan maintenance programmes. That is why we are supporting schools with advice, tools and resources such as good estate management and guidance on managing asbestos. We also provide support to get best value, including free access to our procurement frameworks.
I move on to how the Department provides support in maintaining and improving the condition of the wider school estate. Responsibility for identifying and addressing concerns in schools lies with the relevant local authorities, academy trusts or voluntary aided school bodies. They can prioritise available resources and funding to keep schools open and safe, based on local knowledge of their estates. Day-to-day maintenance, checks and minor repairs are typically funded from school revenue; we also provide annual capital funding to schools and those responsible for school buildings so that they can invest in improving the condition of their buildings and meet their duties to maintain a safe school estate.
The Department has allocated £11.3 billion in condition funding since 2015, including £1.8 billion in the financial year 2021-22. We also provided an additional £560 million in 2020-21 for essential maintenance and upgrades, on top of more than £1.4 billion already allocated during that year. Schools access capital funding to improve the condition of their building through school condition allocations or the condition improvement fund. School condition allocations are provided to eligible responsible bodies to invest in their schools on the basis of local knowledge. Since 2015, allocations have been informed by consistent data on the condition of buildings across England, so that funding is targeted to where it is needed most. Every school is treated consistently.
The condition improvement fund is an annual bidding round for eligible schools. Bids are robustly assessed against published criteria, and in 2021-22 the funds supported 1,400 projects at 1,200 schools and sixth-form colleges. The fund gives the highest priority to condition projects that address compliance and health and safety issues, which include fire protection systems, gas safety, electrical safety or emergency asbestos removal.
We also provide schools with annual devolved formula capital allocations to spend on smaller projects or purchases in line with their priorities. Capital funding for future years will be determined by the spending review, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, as well as the hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who intervened on him, for the extent to which their speeches inform and reinforce our submission to that review.
In addition to annual condition funding, we centrally deliver major rebuilding programmes. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the Prime Minister announced a new school rebuilding programme last June; we have confirmed the first 100 schools in the programme as part of a commitment to 500 projects over the next decade. The programme will transform the education of thousands of pupils around the country, and continue to benefit children and their teachers for decades to come. It will replace poor condition and ageing school buildings with modern facilities, and all new buildings delivered through the programme will be net zero carbon in operation, contributing to the Government’s ambitious carbon reduction targets.
The first projects include primary and secondary schools, as well as a sixth-form college and special and alternative provision settings. One example is Lytham St Annes High School in Lancashire. The original school building was built in the 1950s, with later extensions in the ’60s and ’70s. The Department is funding the replacement of the main building and sports hall, with a separate sports hall in a new build two-storey block.
The programme represents a substantial investment in schools in the midlands and the north of England, with 70 of the first 100 projects located in those regions. We have published the methodology used to prioritise the first 100 schools, and we are consulting on how schools could be prioritised for inclusion in the future. We want that to be inclusive and effective. The consultation closes on 8 October, and we will set out plans for future rounds of the programme in 2022. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish will appreciate that I cannot make specific commitments about future rounds of the funding, but he has set out his position very clearly and placed it firmly on the record. It will certainly be taken into account.
The hon. Gentleman asked for a named official—a point of contact—and I am very happy to follow up on that after the debate; he will understand why I will not name an official on the Floor of the Chamber. However, my understanding is that conversations about both the application for support and the contingency planning are going on between my officials at the DFE and those people at Tameside council. I am certainly happy to take this forward, and I congratulate him on making his case so strongly.
Question put and agreed to.
LGBTQ+ Afghan Refugees
We have at least seven Back-Bench speeches, so no one should be thinking about speaking for more than three minutes from the Back Benches in this debate, which will last for 60 minutes, not 90 minutes.
May 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 Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I thank hon. Members for being here today. May I start by paying tribute to our armed forces and diplomatic staff for their courage and professionalism during the evacuation operation in Afghanistan?
There is a long history of LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan being disproportionately targeted and subjected to homophobic, biphobic and transphobic sexual violence, forced marriages, honour killings, conversion practices and execution. In the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the death penalty was imposed for consensual same-sex conduct under the Afghan penal code of 2017. Even before the Taliban took control last month, there were no known LGBTQ+ advocacy organisations or networks in Afghanistan, and the Taliban takeover has now sent many LGBTQ+ people into hiding out of fear. Under the rule of the Taliban, simply being LGBTQ+ will result in extra-judicial executions and the death penalty, which is sanctioned by the Government. Clearly, it is not safe for LGBTQ+ people to remain in Afghanistan, but it needs to be noted that the majority of LGBTQ+ Afghans will stay in the country.
The Taliban’s stance on the death penalty for same-sex relationships is clear. In an interview with the German newspaper Bild in July, a Taliban judge, Gul Rahim, stated:
“For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: either stoning or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him. The wall must be 2.5 to 3 metres high.”
Even LGBTQ+ Afghans who have escaped to neighbouring countries are still at huge risk. Neighbouring countries, such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, are not safe for LGBTQ+ people.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for securing the debate. On the issue of fleeing Afghanistan to other countries, I am keenly aware of the point that they make. Do they agree that doing transfers of LGBTQ Afghans into such countries must be done extremely sensitively if they are accessing the Afghan relocations and assistance scheme launched by the Government or fleeing to those countries through any other system?
I thank the hon. Member and agree with him. I will touch on that a little later in my contribution.
Many LGBTQ+ Afghans will not be safe to come forward and identify themselves because their families and communities can also be the source of their persecution, and officials in host countries may also be a danger. Will the Government call on and hold accountable those in neighbouring states to ensure that their borders are open, that they do not ill-treat people in need of protection, and that emergency humanitarian support is delivered to those in need at all stages of their migration? That has become even more critical, as a briefing I was at just this afternoon told us how large numbers of humanitarian services are still suspended in Afghanistan.
The UK is rightly one of many countries offering resettlement to Afghan refugees. I would also like to see the UK take a leadership role in ensuring that in every settlement programme LGBTQ+ people are prioritised and their needs met. To do this, the UK Government should immediately bring together partnering Governments, refugee organisations and LGBTQ+ civil society organisations to ensure the inclusion and safety of LGBTQ+ Afghans throughout their resettlement processes.
Will the Minister work with our partner countries around the world to name LGBTQ+ people as a priority in all Afghan resettlement programmes and to commit to pathways tailored to LGBTQ+ Afghans, including legal status, humanitarian protection and a commitment to their permanent residence?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing a debate on such an important issue. Would she agree that this Government have to acknowledge the individual cases that Members have raised? I raised the case of one human rights defenders organisation that supports LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan and did not even receive the courtesy of a response that included the name of the organisation. I had a blanket response. This Government need to do better and properly tailor their support for LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees.
I agree with the hon. Lady that the response, if there has been one, from the Government has often fallen well short of being anywhere near good enough.
Fundamentally, we want the Home Office to consider the needs and risks of LGBTQ+ Afghan people. The Government must also immediately provide assurance that no LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees are currently being assessed to be removed from the UK back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. Does she share my worries that in 2017 the Home Office published guidance that demonstrated that they were prepared to return LGBTQ+ people to Afghanistan and regarded that as safe for them, as long as they did not do anything to “attract…public outrage”?
I share my hon. Friend’s concerns. I believe that guidance may have been changed in 2020, but perhaps the Minister can help with that in her response. Ultimately, we should not, under any circumstances, contemplate sending LGBTQ+ people back to Afghanistan.
Following on from that point, I want to focus on the resettlement of LGBTQ+ refugees in the UK. The Government’s vulnerable persons resettlement scheme for refugees from Syria was highly praised for its focus on the most vulnerable people. When the scheme was launched, the Government committed to accepting LGBTQ+ refugees, but no data was made available by the Government or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to confirm whether or how many LGBTQ+ refugees were resettled to the UK. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will ensure that LGBTQ+ people are included in the UNHCR’s prioritisation profile for the resettlement of refugees from Afghanistan and with a defined, accountable process for this community to access protection and resettlement that meets their needs?
I welcome the prioritisation of vulnerable people under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme and the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people once again. However, will the Government ensure that family reunification applications are responsive to all family configurations, including those of LGBTQ+ families, for example recognising that Afghans with same-sex partners will not have had access to legal recognition for their relationships.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. As she says, the Government have talked about a new settlement scheme for Afghans who are most at risk, and it is welcome that LGBTQ+ people are included, but does she share my concern that those that are still trapped, both in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries, there is very little information and advice that we can give them on how they can access that scheme or when it will be available?
Yes, I do share those concerns. Again, I ask the Minister to address that point in her response.
The Nationality and Borders Bill plays into the situation. While the support for LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees from the UK Government is welcome, the provisions in the Nationality and Borders Bill will create significant dangers and obstacles to asylum and permanent residence for LGBTQ+ people facing similar levels of persecution. Many people who have been welcomed into this country’s LGBTQ+ community would not be here under this potential law and would not have had the chance to rebuild their lives free from homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Enacting the Bill as it stands would undermine the UK Government’s commitment to being a global leader in advancing the rights and dignity of LGBTQ+ people. The UK is convening a global LGBTQ+ summit in 2022 and co-chairing the international Equal Rights Coalition of 42 states.
The inherent contradiction in the Bill is that those arriving by their own means are treated differently. They are penalised for making their own way here. Can the Minister confirm that LGBTQ+ people who travel via third countries will not be subject to different treatment, as set out in the Nationality and Borders Bill? The Bill also introduces provisions for accommodation centres outside the UK while people’s applications for asylum are assessed or, before that, while it is being decided whether their asylum claims are admissible in the UK.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this debate. I am sure she will agree with me that there is great concern about the way in which the Bill paves the way for processing refugee applications from abroad, which will make it much more difficult for LGBTQ+ people to provide the evidence in the environment of the camps in which they are likely to find themselves. They may find abuse and threats to their person in those camps as well.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her contribution. These types of accommodation centres pose risks to LGBTQ+ people seeking asylum, such as those from Afghanistan. The isolation of offshore processing would also make it more difficult for LGBTQ+ people to prove their sexual orientation or gender identity, as required to be granted asylum. They would find themselves in an impossible situation—being compelled to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity from those around them, while at the same time being expected to provide evidence of it to the Home Office. Will the Minister work with Government colleagues to remove plans to put people in offshore accommodation centres, given the risk of violence and abuse towards LGBTQ+ people?
I will end by reiterating that the UK Government need to do all they can to help LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees to survive, resettle and thrive. It is crucial that the UK Government‘s policies are stress-tested against LGBTQ+ people’s safety in the evacuation and resettlement efforts.
We have eight speakers and 32 minutes. Two speakers have not submitted a written request to speak, but I am going to include them, although the tradition is to write to the Speaker in advance to ask to speak in these debates. I will call Angela Eagle first, and then we will move from party to party.
I will not take up my full time. I will share it out so that colleagues who are dealing with this important issue will have time to contribute. I hope the Minister is going to give us some answers. We have had access to Ministers about Afghan resettlement generally, but we have had no real details, and very few of us have managed to get the people we tried to get out of Afghanistan during the airlift out.
We see here with LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees, who are at mortal risk, that it is very difficult for them to get out of the country in a safe way or to exist in the country in a safe way. The Prime Minister said we should judge the Taliban by their actions. The death penalty for those who are LGBT, particularly gay men, has been confirmed. What are the Government going to do to rescue those who are in peril in Afghanistan because of their sexual orientation? Will the Minister confirm that no one currently in the UK as an asylum seeker will be sent back to that perilous situation? Will she give us details of how Afghan LGBTQ people are going to be rescued from the perilous situation in which they find themselves after the Taliban takeover?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing the debate. Our hasty, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has left the country in despair. Most in danger are women, minorities and, in particular, LGBT people. Often in this place, we consider decisions that we have made in the abstract, without dwelling on the consequences. Today, I would like to report the experiences of one young gay man. He is a teacher in Kabul, and of course I will keep his identity secret. I am grateful to Openly, the LGBT+ news website for the introduction. He says:
“The Taliban are everywhere, all holding guns. I have spent all my savings. I am trying to keep a little in reserve for bribes—I have sold my laptop. I received a call from one of my foreign friends who told me that a bus for LGBT+ people was leaving for the airport. When we reached the main gate…we waited for seven hours. The heat was appalling, and we only had sips of water to drink.”
His long wait was in vain. He could not get into the airport. The bus of desperate gay people fleeing for their lives had to abandon its mission. The young teacher reports his fear that the sexual orientation of everyone on board the bus had become known, exposing them to even greater danger. He continues:
“When I got home from the airport, I felt humiliated and devastated. I had lost all the future plans I had worked so hard for. But I did receive a message from my beloved boyfriend. He said he was trying to get into the airport with his family, as they had a special emigration visa. I have never felt lonelier in my entire life. He means the world to me. We have always considered our bond inseparable.”
Within days, the situation had deteriorated. We all saw it on our TV screens. Imagine the horror of being there. My contact continues:
“The evacuation of Afghan people has come to an end. Afghan LGBT+ people have been abandoned by every foreign country. The Taliban has taken control of Hamid Karzai International Airport. Kabul seems empty. There are no women and girls on the streets going to work, school or university…My boyfriend has been in contact. He is now safe in a refugee camp in Qatar. But we cannot communicate easily. I have no idea where he is going and when. I may never see him again…All I want now is to escape to a country where I can be safe and free with my boyfriend, continue my studies and be the best version of myself.”
The next day he writes:
“I woke to hear of a gay man raped and beaten by the Taliban. The stress is eating me up.”
That is the last entry I have. It is truly heartbreaking testimony, the story of a young gay man, a teacher in Kabul, just one of many who failed to make it out as we abandoned Afghanistan. I hope the Minister will carry his story with her back to the Home Office and dwell on it while considering the Nationality and Borders Bill. We owe people like the young teacher renewed hope and sanctuary.
I join the congratulations to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing the debate. I follow an extremely moving account from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) about the personal circumstances of the people we are trying to assist. I have a couple of points to make, briefly and hopefully well within the time allocated.
The hon. Member for Jarrow made clear a number of issues about finding and establishing people’s credentials and the difficulty associated with that for LGBT people in societies such as Afghanistan. I welcome the statement on Afghanistan last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), then a Minister at the Home Office, when she undertook to give us a point of entry, in order to get advice from officials in the Home Office who have to make these difficult decisions. It is incredibly important that there is a dialogue between people who are supporting LGBT people trying to make these asylum claims, so that they can be assisted to assist the Border Force to make the judgments necessary, in order to ensure that our country is kept safe while these individuals are enabled to be safe.
I welcome that undertaking; it is incredibly important. We failed to achieve it during the conduct of Operation Pitting. I am interested to know how many Afghan citizens got out, courtesy of the United Kingdom evacuation operation. I can understand to a degree why it may be the case that there were no LGBT people who were evacuated under that third group of people at risk, not least because we had not identified them as a cohort. They have now been so identified by the Prime Minister in his statement, which was a point reiterated by my hon. Friend, whom I congratulate on her appointment as Minister for Prisons and Probation. There are some old boys kicking around who have had that title before and would be happy to give advice, if sought.
I am also very pleased that she appears, from the list of Government responsibilities, to have kept responsibility for Afghan resettlement. It is a credit to her that, having held that responsibility for only a month, she is in a new role and different Department, but is being invited to continue because she has got across her brief so well. There are enormous hopes invested in my hon. Friend that this issue will be dealt with sensitively and effectively.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this important debate. In this tragic chapter of warfare displacement and human suffering, it is our duty as one of the main occupying powers in Afghanistan to act responsibly and honour our humanitarian obligations.
LGBTQ+ Afghans are among the most vulnerable. They bear the brunt, not just in the aftermath of the conflict, but in the ongoing persecution that stems from the former Afghan Government, the current Taliban regime, the unsafe resettlement camps, the hostile neighbouring third countries and, perhaps most saddening, at times from their own families and communities.
The multiple threats to LGBTQ+ Afghans’ lives show that they have been disproportionately targeted. We have heard horrific stories of people being humiliated publicly on the streets, forced into marriage and tortured. As if that were not cruel enough, we have heard today both former and current regimes in the country advocating the death penalty. They suffer indignity and persecution just for loving someone of the same sex.
In the aftermath of war there will be an inevitable rise in the number of refugees and asylum seekers. That is why I support all the calls made today by Stonewall, Rainbow Migration and others for LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees to be given safe haven in the UK. Although I welcome the Government’s recent commitments to take in those refugees as part of the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, it is hard to put faith in a Government who have deported 15,000 Afghans from the UK over the past decade. I understand that this particular circumstance has changed, but it is worth mentioning that, as recently as 2017, the Home Office stated that
“a practising gay man who would not attract or seek to cause public outrage would not face a real risk of persecution”.
Absolutely. I am hoping for that explanation at the end of the debate, because it is a disgrace that the Government, having said that, would give themselves credit for the inadequate support they continue to give to LGBTQ+ Afghans.
To make matters worse, the Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill will drastically limit the ability of those facing persecution to apply for asylum in the UK. It will only guarantee temporary protection for refugees travelling via a third country. Inhumane offshore accommodation conditions; raising the standard required for someone to prove they are LGBTQ+; not allowing adequate time for vulnerable LGBTQ+ applicants to present themselves to immigration officials: all of that is in this damning Bill, which is another indictment of the Government’s cruel and inhumane immigration system.
I want to highlight a letter to the Prime Minister from my local borough of Lambeth which states that
“the environment for LGBTQ+ people in Afghanistan is harsher at present than almost anywhere else in the world.”
It goes on to say:
“The actions you take to secure the human rights—and indeed the lives—of LGBTQ+ Afghans will speak volumes…I call on your Government to act quickly to protect the lives of all LGBTQ+ people in—and displaced from—Afghanistan.”
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the work that is taking place in Lambeth. I am her constituency neighbour, and only yesterday we opened the first LGBT+ retirement home in my Lambeth constituency. Can the Minister explain how we will continue to support LGBT people in this country and people who want to seek safe haven here?
I thank my constituency neighbour for her intervention, and I am sure she joins me in fully supporting the calls of the local council in our neighbouring constituencies to secure the protection of LGBTQ+ Afghans. What is left for this Government to do is heed that message of compassionate leadership and act quickly, act responsibly, and above all honour this country’s moral and legal obligations to some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for having secured this important and timely debate. I am also grateful to our armed forces, diplomatic staff, and NGO workers for all their efforts with the evacuation programme.
We all know what Taliban control of Afghanistan means: the oppression of women and girls, the suppression of minorities—including the Hazara people, Sikhs, and Hindus—and not least, the persecution of LGBTQI+ people. LGBTQI+ people are living in fear for their lives, at risk of the death penalty for their sexuality, and across this House, we should all be very concerned and alarmed. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow quoted a Taliban judge, and I will repeat those shocking words:
“For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: either stoning, or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him. The wall must be two-and-a-half to three meters high”.
There are countless more stories of LGBTQI+ people in Afghanistan being disproportionately targeted and subjected to homophobic, biphobic and transphobic sexual violence, forced marriages, honour killings, conversion practices, and execution.
In the face of this oppression, we must hear from the Minister today that this Government will commit to supporting those who are fleeing it, in the face of the most unimaginable threats. That means committing to things that actually protect those LGBTQI+ Afghans, not just preaching empty promises and hollow words. I hope we will hear that the Government will heed the advice of Stonewall and Rainbow Migration, who are calling for a meeting that brings together resettlement countries, resettlement agencies, civil society groups from the LGBTQI+ community, and experts to ensure that robust processes are developed for the assessment, protection and resettlement of those refugees. Additionally, the Government must urgently give permanent residence to LGBTQI+ Afghans, so that once they have arrived in this country, they will not be at risk of being deported to the conditions I have described. I believe the figure of 15,000 was quoted with regard to this Government’s record on deporting people back to Afghanistan. That is a shameful record.
In this country, although we cannot pretend that the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights has been entirely won, we know that conditions are safer and that people will be welcomed with open arms, not least by organisations such as Stockport Pride in my own constituency. Its work celebrating the LGBTQI+ community in the Stockport borough is a sign of hope that progress and change can be made. If we want to be a country that is outward-facing and principled, I hope that the Minister will listen to what Members of this House are describing today, and pledge to immediately address this crisis.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this debate. We were all shocked at the speed with which the Taliban overthrew the Government of Afghanistan last month. The fall of Kabul was a worrying reminder of the fragility of that country—how easily 20 years of progress could be undone in just a few short weeks.
Under the Taliban and their repressive, archaic laws, being LGBT+ is a huge risk. There have already been reports of abhorrent acts of persecution and criminalisation of the LGBT+ community in Afghanistan, as we heard in other powerful speeches. It is no surprise that members of the LGBT+ community in Afghanistan have gone into hiding and are isolated from their families and friends—often their only source of support—for fear of exposure and the consequences it brings.
I am proud that the UK has played a leading role in supporting members of the LGBT community escape from Afghanistan. Under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, those at risk of persecution will be relocated to the UK, and among those deemed to be the most vulnerable are Afghan members of the LGBT community. It is important that those who escape to neighbouring countries and arrive at offshore processing centres are protected, as neighbouring countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan all persecute LGBT+ people. It is unsurprising that members of our community are concerned for their safety.
I hope that members of the LGBT+ community who wish to leave will be supported to do so as swiftly as possible and will not be left stranded. It is, however, important that we remember that not all members of the LGBT+ community will want to leave Afghanistan. More must be done to continue to hold the Taliban Government to account on human rights grounds.
I am proud of the steps we have already taken to support refugees from Afghanistan, and I look forward to hearing the Minister outline her commitment to continuing to support those who are still in Afghanistan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for proposing this incredibly important debate. Many in this Chamber will struggle to describe some of the things that have been said. I have a huge amount of respect for the work of the diplomats and the armed forces in this challenging time.
Like all crises, what is unravelling in Afghanistan today will fall hardest on the most vulnerable in Afghan society, and certainly on LGBTQ+ people. Afghans have been living in a state of protracted crisis. Before withdrawal, 18.4 million people, nearly half of the population, required humanitarian aid, 30.5 million people, more than three quarters of the population, required some form of assistance from the state or non-governmental organisations, and 19.1 million people, nearly half the population, lived below the poverty line. A humanitarian crisis is a human rights crisis, and we cannot partition it off from LGBTQ+ rights. Many LGBTQ+ people are living in fear and joining the stream of people who have left Afghanistan over the past 20 years.
I am sad to say that, despite the human rights situation on the ground, those refugees have not necessarily received a warm welcome in the UK. In 2010, before US and British troop withdrawal, Germany welcomed just under 148,000 Afghan refugees. The UK took only 9,351. For LGBTQ+ people, the story is worse. Human Rights Watch provides insight into how LGBTQ+ refugees have been treated. It quotes an annexe from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s guidance on Afghanistan from 2017, which says:
“the only option for a homosexual individual…would be to conceal their sexual orientation to avoid punishment.”
At the same time, we have heard about the immigration office guidance, which says:
“it may be a safe and viable option for a gay man to relocate to Kabul.”
Those conflicting departmental statements show that the Government did not have LGBTQ+ people at heart. Notably, the UN advises that asylum seekers
“cannot be denied refugee status based on a requirement that they change or conceal their identity, opinions or characteristics in order to avoid persecution.”
I tried looking for the documents quoted in the Human Rights Watch article, but thankfully they appear to have been deleted. At least, the links are broken. I hope that the Minister can clarify what the Department’s official position was at the time, either in her response or in a note after the debate. Suffice it to say that the Government do not appear to have a very good record on delivering support to LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. I am glad that they have said that the resettlement scheme will include LGBTQ+ people, but I will be watching its implementation carefully. We also know that transphobia, homophobia and biphobia exist in the UK. What training will relevant staff receive on this issue, particularly about the situation on the ground in neighbouring countries?
The problems that LGBTQ+ asylum seekers face in claiming asylum are well documented. I have heard numerous shocking stories of how asylum seekers have had to prove their sexuality, and the offensive way their testimony has been dismissed. Without safe routes, LGBTQ+ asylum seekers fear for their lives and do not know how to get to safety. The Government’s new Nationality and Borders Bill will only make that situation worse. Can the Minister give her assurance that refugees coming here on the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme will not be subject to the same intrusive and, frankly, abusive lines of questioning? The Government have so far failed in their obligations to LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. Rather than baking those failures into Afghan resettlement schemes, Ministers must ensure that the system treats applicants with the human decency that they deserve.
Thank you, Sir Gary, for calling me in today’s debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for calling today’s debate and the many organisations such as Stonewall and Rainbow Migration which have provided excellent briefings.
I have serious concerns for the LGBTQ+ community in Afghanistan and in third countries in the same way that I do for religious minorities. I believe the systems are insufficient to provide the necessary security and confidentiality to ensure that people can make a safe journey to a place of sanctuary and I call on Government to look at this. To make any declaration could be a death sentence. While many are waiting for the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme to be announced, the detail is important in order that people can make the right choices about their future right now and in future.
With many countries absent in advancing the concerns of the LGBTQ+ community, it is important that the UK takes the lead. I urge the Minister to do so in her role. While we all ask significant questions, how will anyone now leave Afghanistan safely if their reason for leaving is because they are LGBTQ+? If there is no safe way of stating this, they will be placed with others wanting to flee.
Last night, I heard how sting operations are being undertaken in Afghanistan to out people who are LGBTQ+. This is really disturbing. If people are able to flee, we know that neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan are unsafe for them to go to. How does the Minister propose to address that in her discussions with colleagues at this time?
Perhaps most worrying of all, I understand that the UNHCR process for refugees uses local agencies. While the principle may be positive, there is serious risk that some of these agencies will be homophobic, biphobic or transphobic. Rather than advancing an application under the UNHCR, they could end up putting that person at risk. Will the Minister look at this specific issue and raise it with the UNHCR? In these countries, where people have to conceal their identity, how do the UK Government plan to prioritise these people in practice under the ACRS? We have not had the detail we need. It would be helpful if the Minister could share some more detail today, because people need to know how to plan their passage to safety.
Finally, I want to raise the issue of alternative routes to safety. In view of these extensive risks, many people may make their own passage to the UK. Why the UK? Because we have a proud history of upholding human rights; because it is one of the safest countries to be in; and because there are so many good local organisations, such as Time To Be Out in my constituency. We are the only human rights city in the country. This organisation, Time To Be Out, supports LGBT refugees and asylum seekers specifically in resettlement. Will the Minister amend the Nationality and Borders Bill to ensure that these Afghan refugees and so many besides are given a really warm welcome to the UK rather than criminalised and discriminated against, let us face it, because of their sexuality?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this important debate. We have heard a number of hon. Members speak movingly of the terrible plight faced by LGBTQI+ people in Afghanistan, which is now back under the Taliban. We have heard some important questions for the Minister to answer, but before I turn to those questions, I would like to say something particularly about the plight of lesbians and bisexual women in Afghanistan, who are discriminated against twice over, both for their sex and for their sexuality.
We all know that women face particular oppression under the Taliban. As we heard in briefings from Stonewall and Rainbow Migration last night, being a woman considerably decreases someone’s ability to move or to act to protect themselves in Afghanistan. Lesbians are even less likely to come forward to UNHCR or other humanitarian agencies if they reach a third country, because as women they are even more likely to experience persecution within their homes and from family members, and to have less mobility and fewer resources open to them. If they make it to the United Kingdom, it is often hard for them to prove their sexuality, because they have led such hidden lives and have often been in forced marriages.
Perhaps the plight of lesbians and bisexual women underlines in particular why some aspects of the Nationality and Borders Bill are so problematic for LGBTQI+ people. The requests made of the Minister by hon. Members today can be summarised under three headings: support for LGBTQI+ people who make it to a neighbouring host country—some of those countries will not be particularly sympathetic environments—co-ordination of the international response and a willingness to create safe routes to the United Kingdom and then to treat people humanely once they get here.
In relation to neighbouring host countries, I ask the Minister to focus on questions about what efforts the United Kingdom Government can engage in, in partnership with organisations on the ground, to ensure that the needs of this vulnerable community are met if people make it to one of the neighbouring countries, and to ensure that there is expert support and expert legal advice and assistance relevant to their identity and their expression of how they live their lives.
Will the Government ensure that LGBTQI+ people are considered a priority and that the particular risks they face in their ongoing passage into a safe place are taken into account? Will the Government keep a close eye on those neighbouring states, through their international channels of diplomacy, to ensure that people who manage to get out are treated appropriately?
Looking at the international response, will the Minister hold an urgent cross-agency meeting to bring together resettlement countries, resettlement agencies and those in the LGBTQI+ community in civil society, to ensure that there is a robust process? Will she also ensure that LGBTQI+ people who are fleeing Afghanistan do not find themselves in detention facilities that could exacerbate existing trauma and put them at further risk?
One very important question for the Minister, which a number of hon. Members have asked, is whether she can confirm that all current deportations or removals of Afghanis have been halted in the light of the Taliban takeover? If not, can she confirm how many Afghans are facing a current risk of deportation or removal from the United Kingdom?
We have heard repeatedly how important it is that safe legal routes are created for people to come to the United Kingdom, that people are not treated as criminals on arrival and that they are treated humanely when they get here. Can the Minister please address specifically the issues raised by hon. Members in relation to the Nationality and Borders Bill, and aspects of the Bill that will be particularly problematic for LGBTQI+ people, such as the burden of proof? We have heard that many gay people in Afghanistan are living lives where their sexuality is not at all open, and that will be the same for transgendered people. Can the burden of proof please take that into account? Likewise, can the Government please look again at the unreasonable deadlines in clauses 16, 17 and 23 of the Bill?
Finally, can the Minister give us a guarantee that if LGBTQI+ people manage to make it to the shores of this country, they will not be hived off to be detained in some hostile environment pending the outcome of their application for asylum?
It is a particular pleasure, Sir Gary, to serve under your chairpersonship today. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing such a crucial and timely debate and I add to her tribute to all the diplomats, officials and members of the armed forces who worked on Operation Pitting.
I must set out at the outset that this debate is personal for me—and, I suspect, for many Members—not just as an openly gay man but as someone of faith, as someone who has worked on issues relating to Afghanistan, both inside and outside government, in the last decade, and as someone who has visited the country in person. I have also witnessed in person the difficulties for LGBT+ asylum seekers in our immigration system, including at detention centres, and the often dehumanising processes that they face on top of the traumas they have already suffered in fleeing from persecution and, in many cases, violence and threats of death.
I also have a strong and proud Afghan community in my constituency of Cardiff South and Penarth, and like many Members in Westminster Hall today I have taken up cases on behalf of many individuals; I think that I am dealing with more than 300 individual cases, including those of LGBT+ individuals trapped in the chaos of Afghanistan in recent weeks. Although I can say that there were some successes, I am sorry to say that there are many people who we have tragically failed. I think in particular of one LGBT+ individual who is highly at risk and whose case I raised multiple times with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office. I had my hopes up after I received a call from a Home Office official, but sadly I believe that that individual is still in Afghanistan and that their life is at risk. I hope that I can take up their case directly with the Minister after the debate.
I thank all colleagues for their incredibly powerful and in some cases heartbreaking speeches. I also thank all those organisations and individuals involved with this issue, particularly the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights; Stonewall; Rainbow Migration; the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association; Rainbow Railroad; and other organisations, such as Kaleidoscope Trust. These organisations have not only spoken up but—better still—acted in recent weeks to assist our LGBT+ fellow humans in Afghanistan. They also do so much week in and week out for those around the world facing persecution because of their sexuality or gender identity. Much of that work is unseen and unheard, not least because of the obvious risks for those who they are trying to assist.
I also pay fair tribute to some of the junior Ministers—they know who they are—who have met me and others in recent weeks to discuss what more the UK Government can do to assist urgently to save lives, and I hope that in the future the Minister who is here today can be part of the conversations that we agreed to continue to try to assist people practically.
The facts relating to Afghanistan are stark and grim, as we have heard from so many speakers already. Of course, the situation before the Taliban takeover was already incredibly serious, as highlighted by ILGA, but it is no surprise that with the Taliban takeover many LGBT+ people in Afghanistan are literally fleeing for their lives. We heard that terrible comment from the Taliban judge, Gul Rahim, who said:
“For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: either stoning, or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him.”
There is no more horrific comment than that, but that is the reality for so many people in Afghanistan today.
I also share the fears expressed about what systems are in place for those fleeing to neighbouring countries that also have repressive regimes—countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In fact, consensual sexual acts between same-sex adults are criminalised in 72 UN member states today and only 50 countries recognise trans people’s rights to have their gender identity legally recognised. Of course, this is not just an issue relating to Afghanistan.
I am sorry to say that many reports have highlighted how the Home Office’s asylum system is failing LGBT+ refugees and often leaving them worse off. I am also sorry to say that I concur with much of the evidence from the organisations that have contacted us that many LGBT+ refugees feel like they are treated like criminals, are particularly badly treated when they are in detention and even put at risk.
I have two quotes from the report by Stonewall and the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group:
“Trans asylum seekers face particular threats of violence in detention. One trans interviewee reports being placed in multiple male detention centres, even though she made it known that she identifies as a woman.”
The report also said:
“LGBT asylum seekers find it difficult to settle back into society after their experiences”
elsewhere in the immigration system. I can think of a case that I have dealt with only in the last week of an LGBT+ asylum seeker in my own constituency. When I contacted the Home Office, it did not even know that that person was living in my constituency, yet they had been moved away from the support networks that had grown up for them. I am glad to say that that decision has now been reversed, but if that is the sort of thing that is going on, we have a very long way to go.
We have to ensure a warm welcome for all those arriving in this country, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity, and that specific resources, training and support are put in place to ensure that people are treated with the dignity they deserve. I praise the Welsh Government, which I know has been working with the Home Office on the support that we can provide to the Afghan resettlement scheme, including in my constituency.
I have a few key questions for the Minister. How many LGBT+ individuals were evacuated under the various evacuation routes, including those for UK nationals and residents, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, and those for special cases? How many of those individuals are now being counted under the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme? Is there an allocation for places under the ACRS for LGBT+ people? How will those people be identified and supported? How will these schemes work with organisations such as the UNHCR and ILGA Asia to ensure that people are properly identified in-region? Is there work going on with other likeminded countries? I think of the US, Canada, Australia and European Union partners. Many of them will want to do the same. Is there formal co-ordination? Are there discussions going on at the UN General Assembly session in New York this week? What is being done about the risks in the region? Finally, I wholly concur with the questions raised about the Nationality and Borders Bill—questions about evidence and of delay in process. The system is already difficult enough; should we be making it even harder for LGBT+ asylum seekers? Surely not. I hope that the Minister will have some answers.
Of course, Sir Gary. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to be back in Westminster Hall. I join all hon. Members who have thanked our military, our forces, our Border Force officials, our civil servants and our diplomats who worked against all odds to evacuate 15,000 people under Operation Pitting. That evacuation exceeded the expectations of those who were involved with it.
I put that on record, because I know that hon. Members will have corresponded with the Home Office and others about people still in-country. We will, of course, continue to discuss those cases. That is very important. However, we should put on record the fact that that evacuation helped to rescue 15,000 people from Afghanistan in incredibly difficult circumstances.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on bringing this debate, and on passionately setting out her concerns about the fate of LGBT+ people who remain in Afghanistan, and indeed for those in other countries in the region. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate. I know that, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), said, many speak for particularly personal reasons. I hope that he and others will understand that we all share their very real concerns about the safety of LGBT+ people, not just in Afghanistan, but across the world, as we contemplate some of the harsh regimes that still exist, sadly, in this century.
We have heard, only too clearly, the horrifying reports of the experiences of people who are left behind. The words of the Taliban, as quoted by the shadow Minister, are indeed very chilling. I hope that I can reassure hon. Members that both the Foreign Office and the Home Office are working with Stonewall, Rainbow Railroad and other specialist charities to help LGBT+ people known to be at risk.
The hon Members for Jarrow and for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), as well as the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), asked about what more we are doing internationally. We are seeking to increase multilateral co-operation on this important issue. Indeed, this afternoon, the UK is hosting a special meeting of the Equal Rights Coalition, which we co-chair with Argentina, to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and ensure that the specific requirements of LGBT+ people are considered as part of the humanitarian response.
I will just finish this point. I am mindful of time, as there is a lot to get through.
We very much hope that by continuing to work together, including through the coalition, that we will improve international co-operation to help people known to be at risk. We are also working with the international community to ensure a co-ordinated approach to Afghanistan, including helping to deliver the UN Security Council resolution setting out expectations for safe passage for all who wish to leave, urgent humanitarian access, and respect for human rights and the prevention of terrorism.
In addition to that, our wider international human rights work includes our network of over 280 diplomatic missions, which monitor and raise human rights in their host countries. Sadly, of course, we currently have no support in Afghanistan because of the perilous security situation there. However, those diplomatic efforts continue around the region, and our UK missions are very much working, I am told, to promote human rights.
I am not familiar with the cases that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I hope he will bear with me. I appear here as the Minister responsible for Afghan resettlement, but if he wants to raise those cases with the Minister responsible for immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), I know that he will want to deal with them. As I say, I do not have knowledge of those cases.
Many Members understandably asked what more we can do to support LGBT+ people from the region, who we welcome and will welcome. One of my constant pleas to colleagues across the House is to encourage local councils to play their part in offering permanent accommodation to our new Afghan friends. We have new offers of accommodation since I addressed the House last week, which is pleasing, but we need to encourage every single council to play its part.
In relation to Operation Pitting, we were able to call forward a number of people outside the established ARAP scheme. Some of those who arrived in the UK and who are in accommodation will form part of the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth asked me for numbers, and I regret that I cannot provide those numbers at the moment. Again, I hope that he and others will understand that we are using a trauma-informed approach in our conversations with the people we have welcomed. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that people may not feel able to share their personal circumstances related to the topic of this debate at this stage. We are being very careful in the way that we deal with them and that is part of our commitment. Through our work so far, with the policy statement issued last week and my statement to the House, we have been clear that LGBT+ people are part of the vulnerable cohort that we are carefully considering for the future.
A number of colleagues asked about documents. As I said in my statement last week, we will be taking a concessionary approach for Afghans similar to that which we took for Syrian nationals in 2015, because we understand that many people will have fled without documentation or have had to destroy it. Again, I ask Members to please look at the policy statement we issued.
As part of our warm welcome, we have announced that people who arrived under ARAP or who form part of the citizens’ scheme will have indefinite leave to remain. This is significant progress for those people because it will mean that they can live, work, contribute and settle into our community. We are working with international partners, and I have already met the UNHCR to discuss how we can work together. There is a great deal of work going on with other international organisations, because we want to ensure that as and when the security situation changes—I hope improves—with the Taliban, that we are able to reach the very people about whom we are all so concerned.
I hope that in this short time I have been able to give hon. Members the direction of travel for the Government. I remain, as always, happy to discuss this and other policies with hon. Members.
Thank you, Sir Gary, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their powerful and important contributions. We can be in no doubt as to the plight that LGBTQ+ Afghan people face right now.
I thank the Minister for her response. I ask her to consider and adopt the following: that LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees must be given permanent residence in the UK as otherwise they will have to hide their identity while living here for fear of persecution should they one day be removed; an assurance that LGBTQ+ people are included in the UNHCR’s prioritisation profile for the resettlement of refugees from Afghanistan; and finally, assurance that no LGBTQ+ Afghan refugees who are currently being assessed will be removed from the UK back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).