Tuesday 2 November 2021
[Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]
Kurdish Political Representation and Equality in Turkey
Before we begin, in line with updated guidance issued this morning, I point out that Members are expected to wear face coverings. Current Government guidance is that face coverings should be worn where there is a greater risk of transmission, which is now considered to be the case across the parliamentary estate. Everyone should maintain social distancing as far as possible on the estate, including in Committee proceedings where it is possible to do so without disrupting the conduct of business. The House of Commons Commission has now been advised that the risk of transmission in Committee meetings appears to be greater.
I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Kurdish political representation and equality in Turkey.
Thank you, Dame Angela. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, the title of which mirrors exactly that of the report of the all-party parliamentary group for Kurdistan in Turkey and Syria, which I chair. There are a number of members of the APPG here today. I look forward to discussing the report and to receiving some concrete responses from the Minister to the questions that the APPG has provided. I have sent most, if not all, of my questions to the Minister’s team in advance, because I recognise that this is not the Minister’s area. I hope that we will receive some concrete replies to those questions, and that other questions may be responded to through correspondence.
I will start by quickly giving some background about why the APPG settled on this topic, before I move on to the substantive issue. When I was elected in 2017, I was asked to go on a parliamentary mission to north- east Syria to meet our allies, the Kurds, and to see the state that they were building. I was the first British parliamentarian to visit Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. I went back a year later with the hon. Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) to see the activities there. We found that, out of the ashes of a brutal civil war and then a conflict with ISIS, the Kurdish people and the people of the surrounding areas had built a democratic, feminist, multi-ethnic, secular confederalist society that aspired to educate its people. It was pro-LGBT rights and pro-disabled people’s rights. The Kurds were not only fighting ISIS with guns but fighting the ideology at its very core—standing against ISIS’s ideas.
Is everything perfect in north-east Syria? No. In conflict, people have to do difficult things. We must ally with those who have the best intentions and motives. We have seen in other conflicts that if we fund our enemy’s enemy, just for the sake of it, we sometimes get an even worse outcome. In the Kurds in Syria, we have not just a military ally but an alliance of minds and a modern, democratic, secular idealism.
After my two trips to Syria, we produced reports and had debates in Parliament. However, as hon. Members will know, geopolitics cannot be isolated to one country. The middle east is a tapestry of cultures, languages and identities, but years ago colonial powers divided the region, as they did much of the world, into modern nation states without a proper regard for all the people who lived there. The Kurdish people are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without a homeland. Geographically, they are split between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They have different challenges in each of those countries, and the scale of oppression has varied throughout history. We all know, of course, that Saddam Hussein murdered over 100,000 Kurds in Iraq in the 1990s, one of the darkest chapters of Kurdish history. However, today Kurds in Iraq have a relatively stable, successful regional Government, with autonomy from the Iraqi central Government, although that is not also without its challenges.
What I saw in Syria, however, was that, alongside the existential threat of Assad, Turkey had ended up taking a hostile approach to the Kurds in north-east Syria and at times was even resorting to pushing and helping jihadis along that border. To understand the motivations of Turkey—a supposed ally of ours—and why it was so hostile to a group of people who had helped to bring down ISIS, the APPG decided that it was important to return our focus to Turkey. Following a number of reports by previous Select Committees on Foreign Affairs and a parliamentary delegation observing political trials of Kurds in Turkey four years ago, it was felt that it was time to bring the focus back to the internal politics of Turkey and to see what had happened in the intervening period.
We therefore launched the inquiry almost a year ago, on 9 November 2020, and the terms of reference agreed were to ask the following questions. What are the main obstacles to Kurdish representation in Turkey? What are the relevant gender aspects to the crisis of Kurdish representation? What relationships do the Turkish Government hold with the Kurdish diaspora communities? To what extent can the UK Government influence policy on these issues, and what are the best means of support for consolidating democracy in Turkey, promoting peaceful co-existence and harmony in the region?
Those terms of reference were translated into Turkish and Kurdish, distributed widely in the UK and Turkey, and as chair of the APPG I and a number of others did interviews on Kurdish and Turkish television stations to promote the inquiry. We wrote directly to the ambassador to get his input. Although his response was short, I appreciate that he responded to our request.
As well as a call for written evidence, we held a number of oral sessions, which were roughly themed into the following categories: political representation, civil society, press, gender issues and, finally, the issue of the PKK, the currently banned Kurdistan Workers Party, which is the militant arm of the Kurdish struggle. Those are the themes around which I will structure today’s discussion, and they are also the themes on which our report, which Members will have received electronically, was structured.
The first session focused on elected officials, with MPs sitting in the Turkish Parliament giving evidence to us. One was from the HDP, the People’s Democratic Party, the majority Kurdish and progressive political party, and the other was from the CHP, the Republican People’s Party, the main opposition party in Turkey, but widely regarded as modern Turkey’s founding party.
I would like to read some of the testimony from the HDP witness. Hişyar told us:
“Over the last three weeks, I received four different, what they call, summary of proceedings”—
most of them were unfounded—which
“demanded to lift my parliamentary immunity so that I can be prosecuted. When my parliamentary mandate ends, all of those summaries will turn into court cases and I will be sentenced, or I will have to leave the country.”
There is a great deal of precedent for targeting MPs. In the past six years, the former HDP chairs were arrested for alleged connections to the PKK. Part of the Government’s case was that they had used the words “Kurds” and “Kurdistan” in public speeches in 2012. The other citation in the case was that they had been involved in the creation of the PKK. The PKK was created in 1978, when both the co-chairs were five years old. We can clearly see that this does not seem to stand up to fair and due process.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his work in keeping a light shining on this sometimes forgotten struggle. Is not the important thing here that the HDP and other groups that may just disagree with the current regime are being denied their democratic rights and are being attacked? While we should have no truck with terrorism, should not NATO, and Britain through NATO, put pressure on the regime, as a member of NATO, to hold to democratic values? After all, that is what NATO was founded on.
I totally agree. NATO and the Council of Europe, both of which we and Turkey are members of, need to be holding Turkey to greater account. I also totally agree with my right hon. Friend that we should have no truck with terrorism. But an expansive approach including anyone who just shares the ideals of self-determination is not helpful in the fight against terrorism, because it makes a mockery of the whole system. I will come on to that in the final part of my speech.
In December 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the immediate release of the chairs and other Members of Parliament and a suspension of their trials, saying that they was politically motivated. That ruling is now wilfully ignored by Turkey. In addition, the European Parliament passed, by 590 votes to 16, a motion saying that they should be released.
The testimony is supported by the “World Report 2020”, published by Human Rights Watch, which states:
“Cases against HDP politicians provide the starkest evidence that authorities bring criminal prosecution and use detention in bad faith and for political purposes.”
The 2020 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe resolution dealt with the political crackdown on political opposition, highlighting how immunity for politicians had been stripped away from 2016 onwards.
We have debated this issue previously in this place, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) for securing a previous debate about political representation in Turkey and the fate of some of the HDP politicians. It is clear that this is an organised targeting of opposition MPs just for calling for autonomy or self-determination for majority Kurdish areas. Previously it had been an attack on HDP MPs, but recently and worryingly it has been extended to CHP Members of Parliament. The CHP is no Kurdish-flag-waving party. Many Kurds will say that the CHP is part of a state that helped to lay some of the foundations of difficulties. But many CHP members now choose to speak out on the moral and correct thing, which is the ability of people to partake in democratic life. And the idea of supporting Kurdish autonomy and self-determination seems to be all that is now required to trigger an accusation of terrorism or subversion. That is a dangerous precedent.
We not only heard from MPs in Turkey; we also took evidence from municipal leaders, one of whom was elected a mayor but is now in exile in Greece. The APPG heard that since the last local elections in 2019, 59 of the 65 elected municipal leaders have been replaced by Government-appointed trustees. A human rights report quoted in our report says:
“Regardless of which party or candidate they voted for, the will of…more than 4 million…voters living within the boundaries of 48 municipalities”
“seized through the appointment of trustees.”
Our inquiry also took evidence on the closure of the Democratic Society Congress—the DTK—an organisation bringing together politicians and civil society that advocates not separation but confederalisation in Turkey, and that is its crime. Actions taken have included the arrest of its leaders, as well as the targeting of the Kurdish political youth organisations. One refugee is in my constituency because of the persecution he faced.
On Kurdish political representation, the APPG made nine findings. I will not read them all out, but I will mention a few. We found that trials have been increasingly conducted in closed central courts in Ankara and not the open divisional courts in the home provinces, making a defence harder for a Member of Parliament. The APPG also found that there have been routine cases against 154 MPs—154 MPs have received indictments; this is not just a few people who have done objectionable things —and that the legal proceedings are being used to tackle political disagreements, which in turn disproportionately affects Members of Parliament from Kurdish backgrounds. We also found that the human rights of municipal leaders are violated routinely by detaining them pending trial or sentencing them to prison on trumped-up charges.
Our report was 56 pages in total, with 32 recommendations for the UK Government. We received comments based on the first-hand experience of MPs, mayors, civil society and women’s organisations, and I sent the report to the Minister in July. I received a one-and-a-quarter-page reply, the substantive part of which said:
“We were concerned by recent reports of increased violence in the region and the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa tweeted on 1 September calling for de-escalation.”
Is a tweet really the maximum amount of our diplomatic effort? It would be nice to know more about what the Government have been doing. Over hundreds of hours, we collected work on the report and made concrete recommendations. I would like the Government to give some concrete responses.
Will the Minister and the Government demand the release of the HDP co-leaders, in accordance with the decision by the European Court of Human Rights in December 2020? Will she condemn the closure of the DTK and remind the Turkish Government of their previous commitment to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict? Will the Government push the Turkish Government to accept the revised European charter on the participation of young people in local and regional life, which is a Council of Europe charter for young people, so that it applies to young people in Turkey? Finally, what will the Government do to press the Turkish Government to uphold the rule of law and democratic principles in Turkey?
I now turn to the issue of discrimination through language and culture. Having gone through the first section of my speech, I will now try to rattle through the other sections. The inquiry received evidence from the Education and Science Workers’ Union in Turkey, which had conducted its own report. It stated that 200,000 children in Diyarbakır alone and 6 million children in south-east Turkey were being denied an education entirely or being forced to learn exclusively in Turkish and not their mother language. This is, of course, a denial of human rights, and it also makes it impossible for children to be helped in their studies by their parents or caregivers, which puts them at an immediate disadvantage as they grow up.
The inquiry also received a report from the Kurdish Language and Culture Network, which suggests that there had been enforced and targeted discrimination against the Kurdish community, particularly where they had expressed their culture in language and other traditional practices. We found that in the last five years 57 Kurdish cultural institutions and organisations had been closed down, including theatres, just for staging plays in the Kurdish language.
Will the Government condemn the Turkish Government’s decision to close multiple institutions that uphold Kurdish cultural life? Furthermore, what steps will the Minister take to raise this issue with her Turkish counterparts? Will she discuss the support that the British Council could offer in Kurdish-English work and co-operation?
I turn now to gender-based oppression in Turkey. Historically, Turkey has retained a low representation of women in its Parliament. In 2020 the World Bank calculated that 17% of seats were held by women, which is below the global average of 25%. The HDP operates a co-chair system, whereby a man and a woman co-chair the party and many municipalities. The HDP maintains a quota of 50% female candidates and, I think almost uniquely for any political party in the world, 10% of Members must come from the LGBT+ community. That means that repression of Kurdish and Kurdish-supporting MPs has ended up disproportionately affecting women and LGBT+ people, because they are disproportionately represented—not disproportionately according to the population, but in the Turkish Parliament.
The practice of having co-chairs has even been cited by the Turkish Government as evidence of links to the PKK, which was the first to use the co-chair system. That is further evidence that the expansive practice of just sharing any similar idea or practice with the PKK will mean that an organisation is branded as terrorists. It is clearly ridiculous.
It is not just the HDP that has been targeted in a gendered way. The Free Women’s Congress and 49 other women’s organisations were closed down in the state of emergency that was declared in 2016. As a result of that declaration, the bank accounts of many of these women’s organisations were closed, making it impossible for them to continue to operate.
In the evidence submitted by the TJA—the Free Women’s Movement—the Kurdish women’s organisation, it stated that in 2020, 2,520 women reported to non-governmental organisations cases of physical and gendered violence, 775 women applied for shelter, and 113 women reported cases of sexual assault. In the 18 years that the AKP has been in power, femicide in Turkey overall has increased by 1,400%. That is a shocking amount.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and making an excellent speech. The issues he is raising are really important, and are ones that the Prime Minister has spoken about in a UK context. However, there is no evidence that the Prime Minister, when he met the President of Turkey at the NATO summit or, more recently, the G20—I do not know whether he had a bilateral at this weekend’s G20—discussed any of these issues. The main issues on the agenda seemed to be tourism and vaccines, but nothing about Kurdish rights or the rights of women in Turkey.
It is very worrying. During our report, the Turkish Government withdrew from the Istanbul convention—it is slightly ironically named now—which is about the prevention and combating of violence against women and domestic violence. The convention had only come into force in Turkey in 2014, and we are yet to see any strong diplomatic effort from the British Government to really condemn that.
The evidence that the APPG took shows that the situation is becoming dire for women, so may I ask the Minister what support the Government will give to international organisations aiding women in vulnerable situations in Turkey? What steps is she taking to ensure that the UK Government aid is directed to women-led organisations in Turkey, and that that aid reaches majority Kurdish areas? Will her Government call in the strongest terms for Turkey to rejoin the Istanbul convention and fully implement it?
Turning to freedom of the press, the APPG heard from a journalists association, and those who gave evidence said that it becomes harder to work every day with the intimidation that they face. In October 2020, five journalists were arrested for publishing a news article about two tortured civilians from the city of Van. They were flown in a helicopter and then thrown out—one of them to their death, the other very seriously injured. The governor of Van said that the people who threw them out were acting for the PKK. That is disputed, but either way, the reporting of the action should not see a journalist arrested. Some of these journalists have now been released, but still have international travel bans imposed against them, and others remain in jail awaiting trial.
There are attacks not just on individual journalists, but on publications and radio stations in Turkey. The APPG received evidence that “following the state of emergency” 62 newspapers, 24 radio stations, 19 magazines and 29 publishing houses had been shut down. In total, 177 media organisations were shut down, and 2,500 journalists were repressed, restricted or out of a job.
According to Amnesty International, one third of all the world’s jailed journalists are imprisoned in Turkey. That is a disgraceful statistic, so may I ask the Minister: will the Government condemn the measures to restrict freedom of speech implemented in Turkey and remind the Turkish Government that criticism of the Government —criticism of any Government—is a fundamental aspect of the public’s right to participation? What will the Government give to support journalists so that they are able to uphold their freedom of speech?
Finally, I will turn to the PKK, but before I do, please may I ask this? I know that in much of the correspondence Ministers are focused on the PKK element, but the other elements are really important for me and I really want a strong focus on them. That was one of the reasons why I was initially nervous about raising the PKK issue at all. I thought that maybe we should just ignore it. The problem is that, as we heard evidence, it became clearer and clearer that we cannot delink these issues, because of the Turkish Government’s expansive view of what supporting the PKK is. As I have mentioned, journalists, politicians and other civil society actors are routinely accused of terrorism if they support the wider beliefs of the PKK.
Without getting into a debate on the nature of terrorism, it is clear that terrorism that has the aim of national sovereignty is a slightly different beast from terrorism that aims to impose fundamentalist ideology on a reluctant people, but the age-old debate about whether someone is a terrorist or a freedom fighter has been debated over decades in this place. However, there is a set of international definitions of what it means to be a terrorist and the legal consequences of acting in a terrorist manner. Those that do so should be prosecuted and proscribed, but the UK Government already make a distinction for Turkey. They recognise that the YPJ and YPG—the Kurdish units in the Syrian defence forces—are not terrorists but are anti-terrorist in their nature. Although the Government call on them to distance themselves from the PKK, they recognise that, in reality, many of their views, and some of their activities and training, are shared. That has been recognised in the British courts, and the Government have rightly diverged from the Turkish Government, who still regard the YPG and YPJ as terrorist organisations. The Turkish Government are so obsessed with the YPG and YPJ but they have supported jihadis who are often proscribed in the UK.
I have mentioned the Turkish Government’s expansive definition of terrorism: anyone who supports Kurdish political leaders or even just gender equality. It becomes an extremely slippery slope. Therefore, will the Minister make it clear that supporting Kurdish aspirations for some form of autonomy, supporting Kurdish political leaders, or even supporting those who have renounced violence and who call for dialogue should never be a reason for someone to be fearful of an accusation of terrorism? I do not ask the Minister that for an academic purpose; I do it because recent cases in Belgium, and potential cases in other European countries, show that the Turkish Government are increasingly and proactively trying to persuade their so-called NATO allies to prosecute those who support the Kurds. That is producing a chilling effect in Kurdish communities in this country and around Europe. Any listing must be based on evidence of indiscriminate violence, a determination to undermine and destroy democracy, and an intolerance of other people’s views.
The second line of defence in the Belgian court case, where the Supreme Court failed to convict the defendants for running a Kurdish newspaper and radio station, was that they were simply not terrorist acts, and that the listing of the PKK was based on information that had been discredited. I have a list here but will not go through it, because I know my time should have been up already. Here is the list of the pieces of evidence that were given to the European Union in the listing of the PKK. One can go through each one of them and show that they are not acts of the PKK. A number of them have been acts of the Turkish police force or Turkish army, and Turkish courts have prosecuted Turkish authorities for such acts, but they are still listed as PKK acts, even though Turkey and its courts recognise that they are not. There needs to be a review of this situation, as the Turkish courts have shown.
More interestingly, the Belgian court case and the APPG heard from the lead defence lawyer. The court upheld their defence on the first point: that the PKK are a national movement of self-determination in a legal civil war. The treaties on definitions of terrorism that Belgium has signed up to are the same treaties as Britain has signed up to. All bar one explicitly say that if civil war actors are covered by the laws of war, they cannot be regarded as terrorists, and the one that does not mention that is just silent about all definitions. That is of course quite right; it is to stop anyone just labelling their opponents as terrorists when there is a legitimate internal conflict taking place. Under the Geneva and Hague conventions, the laws of war outline the requirements to be classed as an actor. One of the things is a command structure, and another might be an identifiable uniform. Suffice it to say that the Belgian Supreme Court found on all counts that the PKK fulfilled those requirements. Therefore, it could not be classed as a terrorist organisation. In finding that the PKK was involved in a belligerent and internal conflict, the court struck down the terrorist listing.
The same process also happened in the European Court of Justice, where a Europe-wide listing was struck down, and the justices found that the PKK had not met the European or international listing definitions. Although we are not a member of the European Union, the laws of war that interpret treaties are now directly part of our domestic laws and we are signatories to the international treaties that they interpret.
A quirk of terrorism law is that organisations are proscribed at the European and international level annually, so although they have been struck down from previous listings they are currently listed, and the courts are now going through a process of striking down their current listings, adding them again after the case, but of course no new evidence has been provided as to why they should be re-listed. That makes a mockery of the proscribing process, with people being arrested and prosecuted for being part of a proscribed organisation, only to find midway through their trial that the organisation is no longer proscribed.
The British Government need to re-look at the case for the proscription of the PKK and take into account the latest evidence from the Turkish courts and the terrorist acts that were not committed by the PKK but by others. The Belgian and European courts have said that they should be classed as internal belligerents, not terrorists.
A strong fight against terrorism can be achieved only if the listings that the Government maintain are accurate and not liable to change. Will the Minister commit to conduct an immediate review with her Home Office counterparts and report back to this House? To those who say that designating the PKK as a belligerent might give credence to those that target civilians, I say that the crime of targeting civilians in war under the Geneva and Hague conventions is a more serious crime with a higher prosecutable level in international courts and a higher punishment than the crime of terrorism, so de-listing and classing them as belligerents provides less incentive for civilian attacks.
If we are to seek peace in Turkey, we must see how organisations can go from being classed as terrorist to seeking political solutions through political aims. The UK’s role in Colombia, although not perfect, and incomplete, shows how the FARC could be brought into a mainstream political discussion. If we look at our history in Northern Ireland and the African National Congress in South Africa, each is different and unique, but each had a process that has ended politically and not violently, and that is what we all want to see in Turkey.
Finally, what serious discussions have the Government had with Turkey about restarting the peace negotiations? What practical support have the Government given for domestic and international channels for the discussions? What role do the Government see in third pillar negotiations between civil society actors, trade unions and women’s organisations to ensure a peaceful settlement of the conflict? Although the death toll might not be large, the APPG found that political representation was high and increasing. It found that the basic principles of democratic freedom were being undermined, and terrorism laws were being misused to shut democratic spaces rather than keep them open. The APPG and I are sure that Members here today would like to work co-operatively with the Government. I hope that we might be able to get fuller responses to the APPG in time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for securing this important debate, and I welcome the APPG report on Kurdish political representation and democracy in Turkey. I want to start by sending my solidarity to the Kurdish people, who have shown such strength and resilience in their resistance and struggle for liberation, autonomy and democracy.
The recent escalation of human rights abuses and anti-democratic manoeuvring by the Turkish Government against Kurdish communities and elected representatives is highly concerning. Hundreds of Kurdish activists, journalists, MPs and mayors have been arrested by the Turkish Government. Turkey’s increasingly oppressive regime has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world. More than a third of journalists jailed globally are held in Turkey. Arbitrary detentions, torture and abuse against journalists have become an everyday practice in Turkey, and press freedom is virtually non-existent, with media ownership concentrated in the hands of Erdoğan and his supporters. A Media Monitoring report last year showed that one in six journalists in Turkey have an ongoing case against them. Only six of 65 democratically elected HDP mayors remain in office. There have been high-profile arrests, such as that of Leyla Güven, who was sentenced a year ago to 22 years on terror charges, and this summer had her visitation and telephone privileges revoked for singing Kurdish songs in prison.
The fact that Abdullah Öcalan is still imprisoned on Imrali island, without fundamental rights being met, is nothing short of an outrage. The escalation by Erdoğan and the Turkish state, particularly since the attempted coup in 2016, with the arrests of hundreds of activists, journalists, mayors and MPs, is morally contemptible and undermines any attempts to broker a just and sustainable peace process.
Britain has a powerful role in holding Turkey to account on human rights and its violation of international law and the European convention on human rights. We must be bold in our demands to put an end to these injustices, to protect political representation and inalienable human rights and to ensure peace and stability for all communities living in Turkey.
I want to focus in particular on the report’s recommendations to revisit the automatic listing of the PKK as a terrorist organisation, especially considering the outcome of the case in the Belgian Supreme Court, which found that the PKK was a legitimate combatant in a civil war, rather than a terror organisation. That historic ruling must have significant ramifications for our Government’s position. I call on the Government to take up the report’s recommendations to review the listing of the PKK as a terror organisation in the light of that evidence. Britain has a significant amount of power to progress the conditions for a return to peace talks, both as a unilateral actor and through European institutions.
I am proud that the UK Labour movement stands resolutely with the Kurdish people. I welcome the work by the all-party parliamentary group for Kurdistan in Turkey and Syria on the report, which contains a number of important recommendations. I call on the Government to do everything in their power to adopt the recommendations, hold Turkey to account as our ally and take urgent steps to secure progress towards resuming peace talks.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for securing this important debate. I will focus my comments on the role of the Turkish Government towards the Kurdish community.
Sadly, the issue of representation and equality for Kurds in Turkey is not new. The systemic abuse of the Kurdish community has continued unchecked for far too long. My parents were forced to flee Turkey in the 1980s, due to the systemic abuse faced by the Kurdish community. When I was growing up it was illegal to learn or speak Kurdish. That was changed in early 2000, as Turkey was going through accession discussions with the European Union, but the Government still use various spurious means to prevent the Kurdish community from being able to speak or learn Kurdish.
It is a shameful mark of the lack of progress that Kurds have continued to feel the need to leave their homes, and that the attitude of President Erdoğan’s regime shows no sign of changing. The discriminatory attitude of the Turkish Government is entrenched by President Erdoğan’s persistent interference in the courts, creating a judicial system that has become institutionally prejudiced against Kurds and other minorities in Turkey.
That executive interference in the judiciary has been reflected in the systemic practice of detaining, prosecuting and convicting on bogus charges individuals that the Erdoğan Government regard as critics or political opponents. Terrorism charges continue to be widely misused to restrict the rights to free expression and association. Defence lawyers in such cases have faced arrest and prosecution on the same charges as their clients. Among those targeted, as has been said, are journalists, Opposition politicians and activists, in particular members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party, the HDP.
Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the HDP, has been held in prison in Turkey since 2016 and the European Court of Human Rights has called for his immediate release, but no action has been taken by the Turkish Government. Further, I remain deeply concerned about the rise in allegations of torture, as well as cruel and inhumane treatment, especially of female detainees in police and military custody and prison over the past four years. Prosecutors do not conduct meaningful investigations into such allegations and there is a pervasive culture of impunity among members of the security forces and the political officials implicated.
Erdoğan’s regime refuses to distinguish between the PKK and the democratically elected HDP, which won 11.7% of the national vote in the 2018 parliamentary elections and 65 local municipalities in the 2019 local elections. Since August 2019 the Interior Ministry has removed 48 elected HDP mayors, on the basis that they face criminal investigation and prosecutions for links to the PKK. Repeating the approach taken in 2016-17, the Government have replaced mayors in the south-east with Ankara-appointed provincial governors and deputy governors as trustees.
In sharp contrast, the HDP’s pluralist and inclusive platform has resulted in its popularity among diverse groups in Turkey. The inclusion of minority groups, including Kurds, as well as Alevis, Armenians, the LGBT community, women’s rights organisations, secularists and other ethnic minorities such as Yazidis and Assyrians, has been key to expanding the HDP’s appeal. The success of the parties pursuing that agenda shows that there is real appetite on the ground in Turkey for a movement away from the regressive attitude pursued by Erdoğan’s regime.
While movement towards those positions by parties such as the HDP is crucial, it is key that, in addition to efforts made from within Turkey, the international community also uses its influence to support people on the ground. I welcome the work of the European Court of Human Rights and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in recent years to highlight the persistent erosion of Kurdish rights in Turkey, and call on the UK Government, alongside international partners, to continue to put pressure on their Turkish counterparts. I am sure the Minister will set out the UK Government’s fantastic relationship with Turkey and the significant role that Turkey plays within NATO—it has been repeated before.
However, I have asked before and I ask again: as allies, surely we should be calling on Turkey to stop the abuse and persecution of Kurds and Kurdish politicians. If we cannot ask our friends to stop this, how do we deal with the less friendly nations? How much longer will the UK Government stand by and let this disregard for human rights continue? The rights of Kurds and other minorities in Turkey have been at best ignored and at worst abused, for far too long. It is time for change. I urge the Minister to take note of the 32 recommendations set out in the APPG’s report and call on Turkey to stop the persecution of Kurds and come to the table to negotiate for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela, and to follow the comprehensive introduction to the all-party group’s report from its chair, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), with whom I enjoyed—and “enjoy” is the right word—an interesting visit to north-east Syria, seeing the Kurdish statelet there at the time. It is incredibly instructive to be on the ground and to see the effects of the attempt to put a new philosophy—the Öcalan philosophy—into action in the most difficult and challenging of circumstances.
I do not intend to speak for long, Dame Angela, because it is important to hear from the Minister. If we really wanted to torture the Minister, the rest of us here would give her longer to respond on the exquisite issue of British-Turkish relations and exactly what balances the United Kingdom needs to strike, which are matters of enormous difficulty. She will probably get just her 10 minutes and will not have to twist on the spit of having to represent her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), within whose brief this issue formally sits. I do recognise her difficulties.
We are at the stage of trying to establish the values of global Britain. What does this nation stand for now we have left the European Union? It is a moment to define the values we will stand up for. That is why we ought to carefully review relations with Turkey and examine what message we will send, so we do not get ourselves into a place where we are too contradicted in what we are trying to say and in the differentiation of the messages we are trying to send.
Plainly, the relationship with Turkey is critical and central for the United Kingdom going forward, as we are both major powers on the periphery of Europe. However, we cannot ignore the fact that that nation has locked up more journalists than any other nation, nor its conduct and policy towards the Kurdish minority. That was examined to a degree in the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee when I was Chair, it has been looked at again in the report by the all-party parliamentary group for Kurdistan in Turkey and Syria, and it was the subject of a letter to the Foreign Secretary that I co-wrote with the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), which was signed by 64 colleagues. That letter raised our concerns about Turkey’s conduct in respect of human and political rights—an area where I do not believe Turkey to be acting in her own interest.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report that was published in 2017 identified that as a central challenge for the President of Turkey. In what direction was he going to take Turkey? He had an opportunity then, and he has an opportunity now with Abdullah Öcalan as his prisoner, who has ceased to have any aspirations for Kurdish independence. If one looks at the Kurdish minorities in the other main countries where they appear—Syria, Iraq and Iran—it is plain that any aspiration for a greater Kurdistan is, frankly, for the birds at the minute. It is not even an aspiration that is front and centre of most Kurdish discussions. The referendum in Iraq was a total disaster for the Kurds and now seems a profound mistake. Even the Kurdish Syrians we went to see in north-east Syria had to take Syrian protection, in effect, in the face of the threat that came from Turkey in the north.
I look forward to the reply from my right hon. Friend the Minister and to hearing if some of the balances expressed by her predecessors, in answer to such debates, have begun to shift and if we are now beginning to say something more robust about what global Britain stands for, or if we cannot say anything about our relationship with Turkey and the pretty dreadful things going on in regard to the values we ought to share with the Turkish Government, who have plainly gone very badly wrong and are not seeking the opportunity to find a route to peace in the PKK-inspired civil war.
I concur with the points that have been expressed about closely questioning the PKK’s terrorist designation. It is designated a terrorist organisation because Turkey has asked us to do that. Frankly, that is not adequate and needs proper examination, if possible in our courts, to see if they would come to the same conclusion as the courts of Belgium. I look forward to the Minister’s contribution to see if matters are now moving in a more satisfactory direction in respect of the values we seek to stand for.
It is a great pleasure to follow such a thoughtful contribution from the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), and I associate myself with his questions. I also warmly praise the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for an excellent report and contribution to this debate. I am very pleased to see so much consensus across the Chamber on this really important issue. I give the apologies of my great colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who has been detained on other business, but who is also an active member of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq and is deeply concerned with Kurdish affairs. His colleague, Roza Salih, is a representative of the Kurdish community in Scotland, and has been very active on these issues.
I was struck by the point about global Britain needing to work out what it stands for. I am in the fortunate position that I know very well what the SNP stands for: we are a democratic party; we believe in the rule of law and democracy; we support the right to self-determination; and maybe we are more relaxed about constitutional change than other parties—if we look at the broad sweep of history, constitutional change happens. As long as that constitutional change is done democratically and peacefully, with the full engagement of the communities within those territories, it is not something to be feared. We believe that the people choose their Governments, and that the people should define their states. We also deal with the world as it is. Repression of those demands can only lead to a bad place. This is what we see in the middle east. Everything is an accident of empire: if we look at the lines on the map across the entire middle east, it was somebody’s empire and somebody’s mistake that led to this.
To my mind, the lack of an independent Kurdistan is also an accident of history. The fact that the Kurdish people are spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran leads to a very unstable situation. As President Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government said when I last met him in Irbil, it is a tough neighbourhood. As outsiders who are friendly to all parties within the region, it is incumbent on us to look at the widest perspective possible and to stick to values rather than interests of the state, which may change over time.
Regarding Turkey in particular, we have to be blunt. Turkey is an important ally, but the actions of the Turkish state vis-à-vis the Kurds fall well below the standards we should expect of a Council of Europe member, a NATO ally and a friend of Scotland and the United Kingdom. A state can be judged by the way that it treats minorities. As I have said, Turkey is an important ally and a member of NATO; it deserves great praise for the safe haven that it has given to millions of refugees from the conflict in Syria and Iraq, with European and UK support. It is an ancient culture and a wonderful place to visit. It is a fantastic place that is presently being governed badly. It is also illegally occupying part of an EU member state in Cyprus. It is increasingly autocratic; it jails journalists. As we have heard, a third of the journalists jailed worldwide are in Turkey. In its treatment of the Kurds, it has embarked on a decades long campaign of oppression.
Closing down democratic dialogue can never work. Closing down democratic dialogue with aspirations of self-determination can only lead to a bad place. In March this year, as we have heard, the Turkish state banned the People’s Democratic party, the HDP. I remember expressing concern in the European Parliament in 2009, when the Democratic Society party—the HDP’s predecessor—was similarly shut down. This is a long-standing campaign from the Turkish state to shut down the legitimate aspirations of the Kurdish people, and to shut down debate. This is a deliberate pattern. The most recent ruling banned 600 HDP party members from participating in politics for five years, and the HDP co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, have been jailed. I was lucky enough to meet Ms Yüksekdağ in Edinburgh a few years ago; the idea that she is involved in terrorism is, flatly, risible. She is a political prisoner.
I am conscious that the Minister is sitting in for other Ministers, and I am also realistic about the leverage that the UK has over the Turkish state—that needs to be said. I feel for the Minister and view her as a colleague in this discussion. However, I do have some questions. I would be grateful for an update on what the UK Government have done to press for the release of political prisoners, like the two HDP co-chairs, but there are plenty of others. On arms export licenses, the UK has sent £212 million-worth of materiel to Turkey. What human rights assessment has been made of those arms exports, and what reassurance can we hear that those arms have not been used in the oppression of the Kurdish people? I am happy to have the answer in writing, if not today.
More widely, and this is an honest offer as much as it is a question, what efforts have been made by the UK Government to promote dialogue between the Kurds and the Turkish state? I would say that Scotland offers a model, in that we have a devolved system of government within these islands. Obviously, Scotland’s history is completely different from that of the Kurds. We were an independent state for far longer than we have been part of Great Britain. We have a different political culture here and in Scotland. However, there is a need for an honest outside broker in this discussion. There is a need for outside scrutiny. This is not just an internal matter for the Turks to rule on for themselves.
If the Minister is looking for resources, we have plenty in Scotland. We have excellent NGOs, like Beyond Borders Scotland, that are well used to facilitating dialogue and have previously been active in Kurdistan. We have a civil society and a political culture that would be ready and quick to help.
Speaking frankly, there is always a degree of hypocrisy in international relations. The question for the UK Government is: are we on the right side of the line? We must be much more vocal about the deficiencies of the Turkish state, the oppression of the Kurdish people and the right of the Kurdish people to more international support than they have had. If the Minister agrees, she will have the total support of the SNP.
I am pleased to speak in this debate under your chairship, Dame Angela. Like everyone else in the Chamber, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. I also put on record my thanks for the moving speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), who is of course the first Turkish woman to be elected to the House of Commons. The fact that she grew up in Turkey as a Kurd adds a special poignancy to today’s discussion.
I also put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle). The topic of today’s debate is his expertise—his special subject. He is a continuing and passionate campaigner for the Kurdish people. The rights of minority groups across the globe are not debated in this House often enough, but it was due to the diligence of his inquiry and the hard work of all the members of the all-party group that he gave such a detailed speech on the findings of his report. It was excellent.
The debate today could not come at a better time. Only yesterday, I received a copy of a letter sent to the Foreign Secretary by the UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance international working group, which outlines their serious concerns about the ongoing pattern of detention and the unfair trials of activists, particularly those from the Kurdish minority, and includes specific examples of those who have been detained.
We know from the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) about the 1,400% increase in femicide in Turkey, on which the report of the APPG chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown commented. That level of abuse against women must be taken seriously. I am very keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts and what action the Government are taking in relation to the Istanbul convention. Dame Angela, you will remember the intense discussions that we had in the House about the convention. In fact, it was the subject of an Opposition day debate. We all came in and made speeches. Every hon. Member was concerned, of course, that our own Government should ratify the Istanbul convention, but crucially it was women from the region we are discussing who raised this very concern. I hope that we will hear some encouraging news on that point from the Minister.
As we have heard from hon. Members across the Chamber today, this is not a new issue. Many right hon. and hon. Members have asked questions in the House about Kurdish people in Turkey, and specifically about the discrimination and repression that they face and have historically faced, not least in the form of military action and the curtailing of their cultural freedoms. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) talked about a robust definition of global Britain; that must surely include an answer to the question of what our role is. Personally, I found it a little troubling that, following the Brexit vote, the first excursion that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the then Prime Minister, made was to Turkey to shake hands with the President and to sell more weapons.
As the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), said, we need assurances that our own manufactured weapons are not being used for internal repression. I know that that is an element of the way that our procedures work, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown has expertise in this area. However, we seek assurances that those weapons are not being used for any violence against Kurdish people in Turkey.
Obviously, the Kurdish communities in Turkey are not a single homogeneous bloc. Some Kurds have even served as senior Government Ministers in the AKP Government. That said, the Kurdish minority as a whole, and particularly those who support the Opposition in Turkey, experience appalling levels of discrimination, which have no place in a democratic society. We have heard of the detention and removal of dozens of Kurdish and Kurdish-supporting regional mayors—48 regional mayors have been arrested—and of the removal of 154 lawmakers in Ankara. Imagine if 154 MPs were locked up here—imagine the outcry! The political voice of pro-Kurdish political parties is being eroded by the current Government and, with it, the democratic wishes of the Kurdish people are being ignored and attacked.
We heard about Mr Demirtaş, and his ongoing imprisonment, from my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North. What specific representations has the Minister made to President Erdoğan in relation to Mr Demirtaş, and can we expect his release any time soon? What representations have been made about the abuse of courts by the Executive over what should be a legal matter, rather than something where the Executive are overruling the courts?
The greatest example of the ongoing attack against the Kurdish people is the attempt by Turkish authorities to outright ban the HDP itself. The HDP has been a staunch supporter of Kurdish rights since its formation, and garners much of its support from Kurdish areas. In the years since it was founded, the Government have moved to stifle its progress. Since 2016, it has been estimated that more than 10,000 parliamentarians, elected officials and party members have been imprisoned. As we know, the Turkish authorities are attempting to ramp up the pressure and choke off the HDP, through shuttering it and denying representation to the millions who have freely cast their votes for that party. Such a move, against a political party that has been supported by many Kurds, is an affront to democracy.
I heard at first hand from HDP lawmakers earlier this year about their concerns for their position, and for Turkey’s democracy more generally. The attack on Kurdish rights, the rule of law and the fundamental freedoms of democracy is deeply concerning. We heard about the freedom of the press from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), and in a very good speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown, which went into the detail at length, so I will not repeat that now.
We urgently need the UK Government to take a more active role. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) that, as Turkey is a major NATO ally and a friend of the UK, we cannot and should not sit by and allow this to happen. We should feel able to criticise our friends and allies when they are doing wrong and praise them when they are doing right—for example, on the refugee crisis, in which Turkey is making an enormous contribution, not just in numbers, but in education and health services. That is not lost on those of us who see that good work. However, equally, if we are friends and allies, we must be able to say when we are worried, and the treatment of the Kurdish minority worries us deeply.
In her summing up, I hope that the Minister will outline her response, or the Department’s assessment of the legal case in Belgium, because it would be good to have on the record in Hansard the FCDO’s assessment of the Belgian court finding that the PKK was not a terrorist organisation. My understanding is that the UK’s position is still that elements of the PKK are terrorists, but I would like to know whether officers within the FCDO have looked at the legalities of the Belgian case. The UK signs up to the same treaties as Belgium, and we have the same norms and values, so could she please outline where the Belgians might be taking a different view from any UK legal counsel?
Finally, I will conclude by thanking all Members for being here for today’s debate. Thank you, Dame Angela, for your excellent chairing of the debate, and I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister. Given that there is so much time left in the debate, I hope that she will accept some short interventions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on securing this debate through the Backbench Business Committee, and thank him and other hon. Members for their contributions today.
I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), would have been delighted to respond today, but she is in Glasgow attending COP26. As such, Members will understand that this is not my brief, although it is my pleasure to respond on her behalf. I will do my best to cover as many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown as possible—I am grateful to have had early sight of some of the questions—as well as other comments made during the course of the debate. I am more than happy to ensure that the Minister responds after today’s debate, and I am sure that we can arrange follow-up conversations.
I am aware of the correspondence between the Minister and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown relating to the APPG report. We are grateful for the work that the APPG has done to create this report. The Government take these matters very seriously, as with all matters relating to democracy, security and human rights, and although the APPG report is wide-reaching, today we are focusing on Turkey.
I wanted to follow up on one question. The final recommendation of the Foreign Affairs Committee in its 2017 report The UK’s Relations with Turkey, paragraph 179, is that:
“We recommend that the FCO designate Turkey as a Human Rights Priority Country in its next Human Rights and Democracy Report.”
Matters have hardly improved over the past four years. What consideration is now being given to so designate Turkey?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I would like to mark and commend his work as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Everyone thought very highly of him in terms of his chairmanship, and now his ability to pull out a report today. I will talk about our relationship with Turkey and a number of the issues that have been raised, including my hon. Friend’s own contribution and our role as global Britain. As NATO allies and G20 economies, the UK and Turkey continue to work closely together. We have seen Turkey’s participation in the G20 and COP26 over the weekend as testament to this.
Turkey sits on the frontline of some of the most difficult challenges we face, and our shared interests cover security, defence, trade, the covid pandemic and climate change, which is very topical this week. Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country, including around 3.6 million Syrians, at a considerable cost and more than many other countries. We also have a shared interest in pursuing regional stability with Turkey, including in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the eastern Mediterranean.
It is worth saying at the outset that we should not generalise when we talk about the Kurds, in Turkey or elsewhere. There are 15 million to 18 million Kurds in Turkey alone, who form a diverse section of society with different political affiliations and outlooks. I note the concerns expressed in this debate about political representation in Turkey, specifically the pressure on Turkey’s third largest party, the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP. The party’s supporters tend to be drawn from the Kurdish community.
We note, as does the APPG report, that a number of MPs and officials from the HDP have been arrested for alleged links with the proscribed terrorist organisation the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. A number of colleagues mentioned the PKK. We are closely monitoring the progress of the case to close down the HDP for terrorist links, which the Turkish chief public prosecutor is pursuing through the Turkish constitutional court. We also know that the Turkish Government have replaced elected HDP mayors with Government-appointed officials. It is well known that the UK has proscribed the PKK as a terrorist group, as have many of our international partners. We do not share the view of the APPG and some Members today that there are grounds to justify unproscribing the PKK while it continues with terrorist activities. According to the International Crisis Group, the conflict has caused nearly 5,700 deaths since the latest peace process broke down in July 2015. We urge the HDP to distance itself from the PKK and its ongoing terrorist activity.
I am keen for the Minister to elaborate here—or in writing, I suspect—what activities she refers to. To some extent, that will also help us to make sure that we negotiate with the PKK to move away from those activities she alleges, and help us to scrutinise them. In the listing in Belgium and in the European Union, almost all the cases that were claimed to be terrorist can be examined and, in fact, they were not the responsibility of the PKK or were the responsibility of other organisations with different proscriptions. That would be really useful for us. Will the Minister do that?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. We have a clear position on this, but I will ask my hon. Friend the Minister to follow up after today’s debate.
More broadly, an active and engaged opposition, and freedom of expression and assembly, are essential to an effective functioning of any democracy. Respect for local-level democracy helps to strengthen national-level democratic traditions. We encourage Turkey to ensure that all its opposition parties are able to conduct their legitimate political business freely, in accordance with Turkish laws, without intimidation and irrespective of which section of society they are drawn from.
The Turkish constitution provides for all Turks to be treated equally, irrespective of ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, and for freedom of religion or belief. We encourage Turkey to uphold those principles. We regret Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention early this year, but we nevertheless continue to encourage Turkey to do its utmost to protect women and girls from violence through strengthening its legislation in that critical area. Turkey has a rich and diverse history, and we encourage it to protect its religious diversity.
The Minister said that she regrets this, but could she at least push a bit further on the Istanbul convention to say that our Government call on Turkey to re-sign it? She did not seem to be able to say those words and I think that is deeply disappointing.
As I say, we do regret this, but I will come on to some of the actions that the UK Government are taking on a number of the different issues we have discussed today, if I could possibly continue.
As I said, Turkey has a rich and diverse history, and we encourage it to protect its religious diversity. We support freedom of religion or belief for all minority faith groups in Turkey, including the Alevi community, Jews and Christians. We have urged the Turkish authorities to safeguard their welfare and respect their human rights, in line with provisions in the Turkish constitution to protect the rights of all religious minorities. Our missions in Turkey regularly engage with minority religious groups and discuss their concerns.
On our engagement with Turkey, the UK has concerns about the human rights situation in Turkey, which we regularly raise with Turkish authorities. The former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), did so during his tenure, as did the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, when she visited Turkey in June and during subsequent conversations with her Turkish counterpart.
We have also registered our concern with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe over the large numbers of HDP members who have been detained. Our embassy in Ankara regularly engages with the HDP and other opposition parties. The HDP raises concerns, including the ongoing and lengthy detention without trial of former HDP co-leader, Mr Demirtaş. We will continue to engage with a wide range of legitimate political groups in Turkey, as hon. Members would expect of Her Majesty’s Government officials overseas. We are concerned by Turkey’s delayed implementation of the European Court of Human Rights judgments on the imprisonment of Mr Demirtaş and Osman Kavala. Turkey is a founding member of the Council of Europe. We expect Turkey, as with all Council members, to adhere to the Court’s judgements, which take precedence over national laws, and to implement its decisions. We say that directly to the Turkish Government, and we participate regularly in Council of Europe discussions on both those cases.
We have also discussed with Turkey the development of its judicial reform proposals and its human rights action plan, launched in March. We welcome these discussions and encourage Turkey to implement those fully. Another issue raised by hon. Members is freedom of expression. We have long encouraged Turkey to work towards full protection of those fundamental rights. We will continue to engage with the Turkish Government on those issues and to urge respect for freedom of media. Several specific questions have been raised by hon. Members, including the SNP and Labour Front Benchers, which I will ask my hon. Friend the Minister to follow up on.
As a friend and ally of Turkey, we will continue to regularly raise human rights concerns and be clear in our expectation that Turkey upholds the important values in Turkish law, which we share. At the same time, it is right that we continue to strengthen our relationship with a vital UK partner.
I thank you for chairing the debate, Dame Angela, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), and the hon. Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and for Stirling (Alyn Smith). I forgot to thank in my speech the embassy in Ankara, which has always been supportive; when I have visited the HDP congress, and has always provided the political secretary to visit with me. I have no argument with what the embassy staff are doing on the ground. The issue is the political responses we are giving.
I must say that I am disappointed that we are not able to offer more than concern or regret about Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention. The Minister used slightly stronger language, which was slightly more welcome, on the European Court of Human Rights’ judgment than on the Istanbul convention. I do not understand why we are not able to use stronger language on the Istanbul convention. It is worrying; the withdrawal predominantly affects Kurds, but it actually affects all women in Turkey. I just do not understand that.
I am disappointed that we did not get more concrete answers on the co-ordination of British aid and development in Turkey. I opposed the merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, but surely the rationale behind the merger was that we could use aid in those diplomatic efforts more effectively. We know that women’s organisations are being shut down in Turkey, that Kurdish women’s organisations are often deprived of money and that journalists are being locked up. We should put in aid and support to ensure that those organisations are able to work and are not repressed. It would be good if the Department could talk about how it is co-ordinating that work, because Turkey is a recipient of some aid and co-ordinates with the British Council, which the Minister also did not mention.
I understand that the Minister will get back to me on those points. I look forward to receiving those replies.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Kurdish political representation and equality in Turkey.
Thames in Oxford: Bathing Water Status
Before we begin, and in line with updated guidance issued this morning, let me point out that hon. Members are expected to wear face coverings in line with current Government guidance, which is that they should be worn where there is a greater risk of transmission of covid. That is now considered to be the case across the parliamentary estate. Everyone should also maintain distancing, as far as possible, on the estate, including in Committee proceedings where possible. We have been advised that the risk of transmission in Committee meetings appears to be greater. I remind Members that they are also asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week, if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House, or at home.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered bathing water status for the river Thames in Oxford.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. Achieving bathing water status for the stretch of the River Thames in Port Meadow is something that I have long campaigned for. The Minister will be aware, I am sure, of the early-day motion that I tabled last year on this very issue. It called on the Government to work with Thames Water to protect the Thames in Oxford, so that the river could remain clean and enable Oxford’s residents to swim safely.
A year on, our application for bathing water status is now in the hands of the Department, but there is of course also a renewed national focus on cleaning up our rivers in the Environment Bill. I will reassure the Minister that that will not be hijacking this debate. Of course, the Environment Bill does return to the House on Monday and it will give us the opportunity to improve water quality in our rivers everywhere—not just in Oxford—by placing a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into our inland waters. The public backlash following the defeat of the Duke of Wellington’s amendment surely made clear how important that issue is to people up and down the country. The Government say that they want to act, and I look forward to seeing any strengthened amendments that might come back next week, but whatever happens, I hope that our application gives the Government an opportunity to demonstrate further their commitment to that cause.
I am also heartened that the water companies themselves recognise that more must be done. The chief executive officer of Thames Water, Sarah Bentley, admitted during her recent appearance before the Environmental Audit Committee that Thames Water’s track record on sewage has been unacceptable. It is worth noting that it already has alerts when it intends to release sewage. She went on to commit that Thames Water would spend £1.2 billion over the next five years on improving the overall network and ensuring that sewage is not released during heavy rain.
Just last year in the Lake district, United Utilities, the north-west water company, dumped raw sewage for the equivalent of 71 full days into Windermere, England’s largest lake. Does my hon. Friend agree that bathing site status, which I am asking for Windermere and the Rivers Rothay, Brathay and Kent, would be a way of ensuring quick action so that water companies do not carry on doing this outrageous stuff?
I could not agree more. No doubt many other places in the country would want the same thing.
It is worth noting that our application has the support of Thames Water. In fact, it paid for a staff member to help to put in the application, so it is determined to do something about the issue. However, on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made, we also need an effective Environment Agency, because it is the regulator and it needs the resources and the teeth to hold the water companies to their promises. Therefore, I urge the Minister to assess its ability to do that important work and to ensure that it is well funded to do it. The will is there, and things are moving in the right direction, but we now need as much action from the Government as possible to keep up the momentum and keep water safe.
I am sure that I cannot have been the only one who, during the pandemic, contemplated the natural beauty around me. Indeed, I even bought a wetsuit, hoping that I would get into the river. I did not quite make it, but a lot of people did. In a survey of residents in Oxford, 21% said that this was the first year that they had ever dared to go in the river. They reported that it helped their mental health and wellbeing. There is a truly national movement for wild swimming, and it is wonderful.
Last month, I had the opportunity to meet activists at a bathing site in Wolvercote, just on the edge of Port Meadow. They told me how important it was for them that the designation was made. It would mean that the river that they loved would be subjected to a strict testing regime based on public health requirements. The number of people swimming or picnicking there peaked at an impressive 2,000 a day. It is a very popular spot and there are many like it across the country, as we have already heard. Shockingly, however, there is only one other river in the whole of England that has been granted bathing water status: the River Wharfe in Ilkley, Yorkshire.
The hon. Lady mentioned the River Wharfe in Ilkley, which she rightly says is the first river in the whole of the UK to be awarded bathing water status. I want to congratulate the Government on granting that status on the back of a very successful campaign run by the Ilkley Clean River Group. I wholeheartedly support that, because this is a great mechanism for putting more pressure on our utility companies, such as Yorkshire Water, which is discharging storm overflow sewage into the Wharfe.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. On my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore)’s point, I am pleased to confirm to the hon. Lady that the River Teme in my constituency has also been put forward by Severn Trent Water to, I hope, become the second river in England to achieve bathing water quality status. It will cost quite a lot of money to do that. The Government have allowed, through Ofwat and the green recovery challenge fund award to Severn Trent Water earlier this year, close to £5 million to be invested in improving the very things the hon. Lady was going on to talk about, and which my hon. Friend raised—that is, the storm overflow discharges upstream of Ludlow, to allow bathing water quality to be improved. I urge the hon. Lady to invite Thames Water to explain to her how many storm overflow assessments have been done on the Thames upstream of Oxford, so that she can get a view on the progress it is making. I understand that over the weekend five discharges were identified from the storm overflows upstream of Oxford. In the last two days, people might have been enjoying swimming but they could not.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his advice and intervention. Here we are: we are five in the room. That compares with France, which has 573 designated swimming areas. Germany has 38 and Italy 73 —we are way behind. We are lagging behind when we should be leading the way. I sense an all-party parliamentary group forming—but anyway, there is certainly a lot of keen interest across the House.
Our application went in on 20 October. In fact, the city council has put in an application for two areas on the Thames at Port Meadow: one at Fiddler’s Island and the other at Wolvercote. Once the status is given, the water company and the councils will have five years to reduce bacteria levels to at least sufficient status in the summer months, otherwise, the area is de-designated. That pressure really matters. It also places a duty on the Environment Agency to keep testing the water regularly and the council to display signage on water quality. It is entirely right to give river users the choice about whether to bathe; currently, they simply do not have the information to decide whether it is safe. Unfortunately, all evidence at the moment suggests it is not.
Research by the Oxford rivers project published in September found that sewage pollution is increasing bacteria levels in popular swimming spots to the point where they are deemed unsafe. The current situation, where the Government allow water companies to release untreated sewage into rivers in exceptional circumstances is untenable and downright dangerous, because it is not exceptional. In Oxfordshire, just up from the areas I am talking about, it happened around 60 times last year. The average is more than once a week. The only thing that is exceptional is how it is allowed to happen at all. Bathing water status would be a small but significant step in holding those water companies better to account.
The most recent assessment nationally from the Environment Agency found that only 14% of rivers in England are in good ecological health and 0% are in good chemical health. According to the two sampling points included in the application to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Port Meadow has poor water quality.
In April, a survey of 1,140 Oxford residents found that 67% had been swimming in the river for years, and 75% of them said they did it weekly in the summer months. It is a self-selecting group, but these residents nevertheless recognised the risks that they are taking, as 57% listed water pollution as their top concern, with river swimming or similar river activities such as kayaking or paddle boarding being something they worry about. It is such a shame that such a joyous activity is tempered by such concerns. When A.A. Milne invented the game Pooh sticks I do not think he thought the name would have applied quite so literally. Our rivers should be places of protected picturesque beauty, not low-cost avenues for getting rid of sewage and, for that matter, biodiversity along with it.
Oxford has a centuries-long history of river swimming and other river activities, so it was ridiculous that, before this campaign—started by a PhD student, Claire Robertson, and volunteers as part of the Oxford rivers project—river users did not even have information about whether the quality of the water would affect their health. The research found that in months with heavier rainfall the bacteria levels were as much as double the recommended threshold. These levels have the potential to make anyone coming into contact with the water very ill indeed. When experts looked at which type of bacteria was causing this illness, they found that it was actually sewage, not agricultural run-off, which is what they had previously been told it was—yuck! Claire and her project have been funded by Thames Water, Thames21 and the Rivers Trust to do this research, and they have done a truly remarkable job.
There is such strength of feeling in Oxford from across the community that the petition for bathing water status has now reached over 5,000 signatures, but many of these residents have written to me separately. Heidi, who is part of a group of West Oxford women and regularly swims in the Thames at Port Meadow, described in her email that
“we’re very concerned about the pollution in the river and especially the release of raw sewage by Thames Water into the river after rain fall. I have signed up to a sewage release alert and I’m very shocked how often I receive emails from them notifying me of a sewage release”.
Max wrote to me and explained,
“over the summer I swam a number of times with my family in the Thames in and around Oxford...My daughter even became sick after a swim and was laid up with stomach cramps for several days”.
Jessica, in her email, told me,
“each swim is tempered with how even better the water quality could be. I’ve seen photos of the river 5 years previously and the bright green of the weeds and clear water look stunning, now it’s a brownish grey”.
Cherry described to me:
“I swim every year from Port Meadow, it is a great pleasure but I am appalled that the water is so unclean. As you know it has been a favourite swimming place for many people. I grew up swimming in the Thames and Cherwell and continue to do so at 79.”
For some, the experience can have much longer effects. Amanda wrote in to me and said:
“I knew immediately I got in that the water was different. It looked green and felt fizzy. I got out straight away but still became ill, requiring antibiotics”.
Unfortunately, these experiences are all too common, and they need to stop.
In conclusion, I simply urge the Government and the Minister to take action and protect our rivers, starting by granting the River Thames in Oxford at Port Meadow bathing water status. The application has the backing of the community, the water company and the councils. We are not asking for any money at this point, but we want the application to be granted so that we can work with all the partners concerned, including the Environment Agency, Thames Water and the Oxford rivers project, and make sure they have the tools they need.
I appreciate that the application is in and it is unlikely we will get an answer today—although if the Minister wants to give us positive news, we would be delighted—but I very much welcome her remarks in her response, and I look forward to a positive outcome as soon as possible for the people of Oxford.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to see you in the Chair, Dame Angela. I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for raising this issue on behalf of her constituents. Of course, it is an issue that many people are talking about. I like the image of her in her wetsuit and I am sorry she did not get to use it. I am a bit of a coward when it comes to the cold. I always wear my wetsuit, even in high summer in Cornwall when I go to the bathing water areas there, which I recommend. It’s great.
The hon. Lady knows—at least, I hope she is getting the message—that the Government have made improving our water quality an absolute priority, and it is a personal priority of mine. I hope colleagues understand that. I worked closely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) on what was going to be a private Member’s Bill and we rolled it over into the Environment Bill. I have worked with other Members here. My door is always open to talk about these issues, because we want to improve our water quality. I am sure the hon. Lady knows that I have put the water companies on notice. They are under the microscope and things need to improve.
I will touch on the Environment Bill, although the hon. Lady promised that we would not get bogged down in that. She knows that we voted through six pages of measures in the Environment Bill the other day when I was at the Dispatch Box in the main Chamber, and they were all things to improve water quality and to tackle sewage pollution in particular. I made it crystal clear to the water companies that what has been happening is unacceptable.
The Government have also introduced new environment measures that will require water companies to report in as near real time as possible on storm sewage overflows—in fact, within an hour of their being used. That will make a significant difference to how the Environment Agency can then enforce those measures. Those things will be positive. As well as all the other measures introduced in the Bill, the Government announced in the other place the other day that we will further strengthen the Bill with an amendment to ensure that water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse effects of the discharges. We have worked very closely with colleagues on that, and we are going in the right direction. All that gold-plates what we have already flagged to the regulator, Ofwat, in the draft policy statement. It has to make it a top priority for water companies to reduce their use of storm sewage overflows, which is the first time a Government have done that. Also, DEFRA has to produce a plan for all that by September 2022. So movement is happening, and it needs to.
The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon talked about water quality in detail, and there are many pressures on our water environment that affect it. It is not just storm sewage overflows. It all relates to our growing population, intensive farming, climate change, chemical use and so forth. We need to collectively address all those things in order to return our water to its near natural state. The Government are determined to do that. I put on the record that £30 billion has already been invested by the water companies since 1990, and they have achieved a significant reduction in phosphates and ammonia, but there is a lot more still to do.
The hon. Lady mentioned enforcement, and I am pleased to say that we have provided additional funding for the EA to increase farm inspections nationwide over the next 18 months. That will include an extra 50 inspectors carrying out more than 1,000 inspections this financial year. They will target areas of particular concern initially—for example, the River Wye, the Solent, the Somerset levels in my constituency, and Lyme bay. We have also committed additional funding for extra catchment-sensitive officers to work on the ground to tackle land use on the agricultural side, which also impacts on our pollution. We have support for farmers to help deliver on that.
The bathing water issue is obviously the crux of the debate. There are more than 400 designated bathing waters in England, mostly around the coast, because we are an island. That is a difference between France and us. They are managed to protect the public’s health. The EA regularly takes samples and tests the bacteria level because the water needs to be clean and safe for swimmers. We recently introduced a new measure for water companies to monitor those sites all year round and give data, which is very useful for swimmers, surfers and others. There has been good progress over the past 30 years, but there is clearly more to be done.
More than £2.5 billion has been invested by English water companies to improve bathing water since privatisation. Figures in those bathing areas are good on the whole: 98.3% of bathing waters in England pass the minimum test and, of those, 70% achieved excellent ratings. That compares with 28% in 1990. I was an environment correspondent in the west region and regularly reported on those sites. I can confirm that things have improved since those days, but there is certainly more to do.
We welcome applications for bathing water designations for both coastal and inland sites. They are used by many people and we believe more people would use them. Coronavirus has demonstrated how valuable they are. When an application is received, it is reviewed against Government criteria, which are on the gov.uk site. If it meets those criteria, a consultation is run, as happened in the Wharfe area, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) will know. Following that, a final decision is made about whether the site can be designated. If so, the aim is to designate it the following season.
If a site were to receive the designation of bathing water status, the EA is enabled to spring into action and look at what is needed to improve the water quality to meet the standards set by the regulation. It could add a requirement to the water industry natural environment programme—WINEP as we call it—for funding for the next price review, for example. If necessary, the EA assessment could include discussing options with Ofwat, to explore bringing forward investment. There are measures, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon well knows.
As has been mentioned, this year my Department designated the River Wharfe in Ilkley. We are currently considering the application, received just two weeks ago, from Oxford City Council. We received letters of support from the hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon and for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), as well as from Thames Water, making clear how proactively it wants to support this, which is welcome.
I met the chief executive at my chalk stream restoration strategy launch recently, and she told me how determined the company is to get to grips with the storm sewage overflows. It has made a commitment to get close to real-time notifications on all discharges, and expects to have that up and running by 2022. That will obviously be significant for this application. The point is that water quality will not change overnight; it will not be instant. That is why all the other actions to reduce the overall levels of pollution, taken by farmers, landowners, the industry and other combinations, are so important. Multiple organisations will be involved, as they are in the Ilkley area.
We heard references to some other areas. I am heartened that we are getting those other applications because it means we can genuinely get moving. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley for the work he is pushing on that. Similarly, I look forward to hearing from my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow about the River Teme application and the work that he is doing; he is doing such good work on this issue. I have already met the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) about Windermere.
Local authorities have been able to apply for bathing water status since 2013 and every year my Department writes to them to ask them if they would like to put forward a site. Interestingly, how many such applications do hon. Members think we have had since 2013? Five. Obviously, each application is considered, and of those five applications four have gone forward. So this is a new world of bathing water that we are looking at.
Anyone can submit an application, as we saw in Ilkley, where it was not the local authority that submitted the application; it was our hard-working, dedicated campaign group that was at the forefront in submitting that application. I just wanted to reiterate the point that this process is open to everyone to get involved with.
I am very much guided by your words, Dame Angela. I was very interested to hear what the Minister said about the number of applications made by local authorities; the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) made the point that other people can also make applications. However, is the Minister saying that—whether it is the Thames, Windermere, a river in Kent or any other river or waterway—if local authorities make a request for bathing site status for one of their waterways, that request will be taken seriously and considered?
I had hoped that I had already made that clear. There is a process, which is set out on the gov.uk website. What has to be done and the procedures that have to be gone through are set out very clearly. Then there is a consultation and consideration of the feasibility of an application.
However, I must reiterate that there are other requirements, which the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon mentioned. There is also a particular emphasis on safety; for example, will life-saving equipment be provided? Is there space for all the people who might turn up and will they be provided for, with parking spaces, cafés and toilets? All those things then become part of the whole discussion about whether a site is a suitable area for bathing. As I say, safety—keeping people safe when they are swimming—is obviously a really key issue.
I will wind up there. As a Government, we recognise the real health benefits of healthy waters and the importance of managing them well. Of course, all this links in to everything we are doing this very week at COP26 to have a healthy, sustainable planet on which we can all live and thrive.
Question put and agreed to.
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered NHS efficiency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Our NHS is in my DNA. Both of my parents were nurses and worked in the NHS for most of their working lives. It was the NHS that brought my family to Peterborough when I was just five years old, and I have worked in NHS policy for 20 years. My commitment to our NHS and its principles is clear. Few things inspire as much national pride as our national health service, and I want to keep it that way.
The NHS has lost its ranking as the best healthcare system in a study of 11 rich countries by an influential US think tank. Most worryingly of all, it fell to ninth when it came to healthcare outcomes. We must do something about this. We must ensure that the record investment that we are putting into our NHS is spent well. I suggest that that money should come with some very specific key performance indicators that would ensure that it is not wasted.
I feel strongly that the money should be in the gift of Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care, who are accountable to Parliament, rather than NHS England or NHS Improvement. Like the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities would do with a local authority that does not run a balanced budget or provide statutory services, the Department of Health and Social Care should be able to intervene directly, or at least provide incentives. Recipients would not get their share of the extra cash unless they addressed the challenge of access to care and improved outcomes.
I am keen to help Ministers. I almost feel thwarted, because progress on many of the things that I spoke about at the party conference last month have started to be reflected in Government announcements. That is obviously a good thing, but extra money must come with strengthened incentives to do the right thing and, quite honestly, consequences for not doing the right thing.
The first area in which we need to make progress is local NHS management. Local government has had to make a series of savings in recent years. Armies of local government managers all doing the same jobs in neighbouring local authorities have been an easy target for those defending the interests of taxpayers. However, local authorities have done rather a good job of sharing senior officers. For instance, the chief executive of Peterborough City Council is also the chief executive of Cambridgeshire County Council. As a former Hammersmith and Fulham councillor, I also remember the 2011 tri-borough shared services agreement in west London, between Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham, which saved over £33 million in just four years. Labour-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham petulantly took their toys home a couple of years later, but the bi-borough arrangement is still saving the taxpayer millions, and this practice is replicated across the country.
That practice is unheard of in our NHS, but why is that? There are no reasons why NHS trusts and new integrated care systems cannot share officers and back-office functions. Let us do away with every NHS trust having its own specific CEO, finance director, human resources director, estates director or diversity director. It is not controversial to ask our NHS to learn from local government. If certain localities cannot make those management savings, are unwilling to share back-office functions, cannot look to make savings, why would we give them the extra cash? I suggest a KPI on a reduction in management costs and back-office costs. I think it would be warmly welcomed by the taxpayer and those in our NHS who know that money is wasted.
I draw colleagues’ attention to my declaration of interest as a practising NHS doctor. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the challenges is attracting good expertise, perhaps from the business world, into the NHS and that that sometimes costs money and resources? While he is wishing, correctly, to make savings in back-office costs, we should not be too prescriptive because we need to make sure the best people are coming into the NHS, both from within and without, to deliver the productivity gains he desires.
That is a characteristically well-made point by my hon. Friend. In the current system, NHS chief executives spend 18 months in one trust, then travel to another, spend 18 months there and then travel to another. That is no time at all to get to grips with the challenges that these organisations face. We absolutely need people from the private sector to come in and do these jobs. If they were doing these jobs on a larger scale, that would be welcome. I am specifically requesting that we look to local government, where people have come in and transformed services. I suggest we do the same in our NHS.
My second point is on innovation and new ways of working. Innovation is the way an organisation develops. It should be a constant process—trying to do things better, improving outcomes for patients and trying to be more productive. Across the NHS there are those that innovate with new technology, those that adopt new pathways and service delivery, and clinicians who want to train and learn new techniques. However, the NHS can be poor at spreading best practice at pace and scale. Like any bureaucracy, it can be slow at looking at new ways of working.
There have been attempts to address this. We spent millions funding organisations such as Getting It Right First Time—GIRFT—under Professor Tim Briggs, which is a national programme designed to improve the treatment and care of patients and collect best practice. We created the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence—NICE—which, when it was created, was considered to be a model for the world to emulate on determining the cost-effectiveness of technologies and drugs. NICE also produces quality standards that set out priority areas for quality improvement in health and social care. After all this work has been done and all this money has been spent, many parts of our NHS just ignore it. They say things such as, “This can’t possibly apply to us,” or, “This is merely guidance, and we don’t need to do this here.”
The use of insulin pumps and implantable cardiac defibrillators or vascular technologies should not depend on where someone lives, but it does. The solution is certainly not to reduce GIRFT’s budget from £22 million to £10.8 million, but that is what has happened. GIRFT should be empowered to develop best practices in primary and community care, and we should look at the GIRFT model of hot emergency and cold elective centres to help us power through the backlog.
What is the solution? How do we make outliers adopt best practice and do the right thing? A KPI, and perhaps even GIRFT or NICE, can help us with technology and pathway adoption, which could transform productivity, powering us through the backlog. Backed up with an incentive such as a generous and workable best practice tariff, a KPI could focus attention. If outliers persist in a practice that has been shown to be outdated and to follow pathways that do not lead to optimum outcomes, why would we give them the extra money?
On capacity, staffing is recognised to be a risk factor in delivery for our NHS. The money is there, but it takes a long time to train a doctor, GP or nurse. That is why every hour of a medical professional’s time is valuable. We have to make sure that they are doing what they are paid for and what they went into medicine to do.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Does he agree that every hour of a clinician’s time is valuable? The average clinician loses about 10% of their workload simply chasing up letters, following up blood tests or trying to find scans, which is a complete nonsense in our current system. It could easily be ironed out by joining up simple IT between primary and secondary care. Is that a KPI my hon. Friend could support?
My hon. Friend is a champion of efficiency in the NHS and in his profession, and he makes such points regularly in the meetings of the Select Committee on Health and Social Care. Perhaps he has already read my speech, because I think that the winter access fund is an excellent start. It will address what many GPs have rightly complained about for some time, which is the amount of time they spend on fitness notes and chasing appointments, as well as something that I only realised when I met GPs in my constituency. I want to give a quick shout out to the super Dr Neil Modha and his team at the Thistlemoor surgery, who are doing a fantastic job in a very challenging catchment area. What I realised was how much time GPs spend providing medical records to insurance companies and other bodies, which just is not their job.
We need clinicians to practise at the top of their licence. We need GPs seeing ill patients, not prescribing things a nurse could easily do. Nurse-led prescribing has been around for a long time, but it has not been rolled out across as many areas as it should. We need a revolution in physician associate and nurse-led prescribing, which will free up the time for GPs and consultants to do what they need to do.
That same waste of clinician time happens in secondary care. We need surgeons using their skills in the cath lab or the operating theatre. They should not be in theatre only one day a week; they need to be there multiple days a week, every week. I hope surgical hubs and other initiatives will help, but I fear that without a strict KPI on clinician time on highest-skill, highest-value activity—and I am not opposed to backing that up with financial incentives—we will not make the savings in clinicians’ time that we need. Only with such a KPI, together with an effort to demonstrate how valued our clinicians are, will we ensure that their valuable time is not wasted. If an integrated care system or the management structure at an NHS trust cannot or will not do that, we should make it dependent on the extra cash.
Finally, much of this is dependent on greater transparency. I was very pleased to hear the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care say this morning to the Health and Social Care Committee that we are going to be able to see more data relating to the performance of GP practices, but that needs to happen with ICSs as well. In the past, clinical commissioning groups in this country could be guilty of hiding commissioning policies, rationing hip and knee surgeries to those with a body mass index of below 30—or even 25 in a handful of cases—on page 145 of a 278-page document on a website that no one ever reads.
NHS England is just as guilty of doing that with national service specifications and commissioning policies, and politicians have very few means of challenging that as politics has been taken out of the NHS. We need to open up the windows and let the light in. Accountability and transparency have always been the way to improve performance and efficiency, so let us have the Ofsted-style rating for ICSs and other NHS bodies. Let us know who does well and who does not. Together with clear KPIs, transparency and accountability, we can ensure that the record cash injection, which my constituents applauded, is spent well. The NHS is a source of national pride, but its performance post-pandemic can and should improve. I offer Ministers a few ideas—a few acorns—for how we might do that.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and an absolute honour to follow the excellent contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow). I refer to my registered interests and, in particular, I raise the fact that I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on digital health, which very much informs some of my points today.
I will be brief, as I am conscious that this is a big debate to have in a small period of time. One of my passions for looking at efficiencies in the NHS comes from my own experience. About 12 years ago, I was asked by the Department of Health to do a strategic review of every NHS website in England and Wales. I will cut to the punchline: there were more than 4,000 live sites. I did the financial calculation and worked out that between £87 million and £121 million a year was being spent on websites, many of which people did not even know existed. That highlighted that one of the challenges for the NHS is that, because of its immense scale, even though people want to do the right thing, duplication inherently causes extra costs on a scale that one cannot really comprehend in a normal business, or even in a global business.
This highlights various points. First, if we want to improve efficiencies, we need to make sure that patient experience and patient care is at its heart. There were 4,000 websites at the time, of which several hundred were about how to stop smoking. It would probably have been more efficient to have one really good stop smoking website, rather than 200 average ones.
Patient experience is not just about the outcome but about how patients find the right information, how they get to the source and how we make sure they are not having to repeat the same thing every time they go for an appointment, which is where technology is so important. We often think of technology in the NHS as big, expensive, lumbering IT systems that are hard to comprehend, but the world has changed. We now have a consumerised approach to healthcare. People have watches that can track their heartbeat. They can go online and book appointments by email. They can use apps to do so much more, even track their covid status.
We need to look to the future, not just on efficiencies for cost savings but on patient experience. Thinking about the sort of experience we want patients to have over the next 10 or 20 years, it has to be seamless and efficient. Seamless in the sense that if a person breaks their arm, they do not have to say that they have broken their arm every time they see a new clinician, go on to a new website or use a new app. Their broken arm might mean they need additional wraparound care or it might affect their ability to work, so what will be the impact on social care? If we start to put patients at the heart of what we do, we can create efficiencies around them, rather than requiring them and the NHS to duplicate their efforts.
There is a great opportunity to look again at patient experience, given the technology that is available not just in the NHS or in social care but generally. We are now used to using social media, apps and phones for so many different things. If we can start to bring that into how we look at the future world of health, we would have a powerful opportunity to say to patients, “What would you like your health system to look like?” Rather than imposing variations of the health system of the past 40 or 50 years, we could ask, “What is it that you, as an individual, would like to see in how we look after you, your children and your parents, not just now but for decades to come?” We could then create an efficient and effective system that has patient outcomes at its heart and that ultimately creates a superior patient experience that helps everyone and, as I always say, is free at the point of use so we can make sure that the NHS continues to live up to its values as it always has.
Let us look to the future and let us see what is available, rather than just relying on what we had in the past.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary.
I welcome the idea and the timeliness of this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) has raised an important issue, and I know many hon. Members present have great experience of various parts of the NHS, including my hon. Friends the Members for Watford (Dean Russell), for Bosworth (Dr Evans) and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). I thank them for their contributions to the debate.
We all have a responsibility to taxpayers to make sure that the NHS uses its resources as effectively as possible. To do that, we need to ensure that productivity grows every year, which is why the NHS long-term plan includes financial test 2:
“The NHS will achieve cash-releasing productivity growth of at least 1.1% per year.”
I make it clear that increasing productivity does not mean making staff work harder or making cuts. It means getting the most out of every £1 the NHS spends, and making sure that as much as possible is spent on frontline care. It means doctors and nurses doing the tasks they are trained to do and that nobody else can do. It means buying the right drugs at the right price. It means more patients getting the right treatment in the right place at the right time. That is good for patients, good for clinicians and good for the taxpayer.
Thanks to the hard work and innovative mindset of many NHS staff, the NHS is regularly recognised as one of the world’s most efficient health systems, although I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford that there are different ways of measuring efficiency globally. In fact, in the decade before the pandemic, productivity growth in the NHS was faster than in the wider economy, as was independently verified by the Office for National Statistics.
Furthermore, the UK spends only around 2% of healthcare expenditure on administration—we spend a lot on the NHS, but only 2% of it on administration—and managers make up only 2.6% of the NHS workforce of 1.35 million. They might be an easy target for criticism, but good managers are of course essential to making services work, and many of us will have had experience of that throughout our various careers. If there were no managers, clinicians would have to manage their own workforce, logistics, finances and websites, and spend less time with patients. None the less, we want to improve the quality of management further, which is why we have asked General Sir Gordon Messenger to lead a review of leadership in health and social care.
I refer to my earlier declaration about my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a practising NHS doctor. On the point that the Minister just made, of course we want to promote clinical leadership in the NHS in senior management positions, because we know that that benefits patients and leads to efficiencies, but we also need to consider the fact that although there are many good NHS managers, a lot of them have never had experience of life outside the NHS. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister could briefly say how we can draw in better business experience and other experience, so that NHS managers have broader experience, and can bring that benefit to the NHS and drive efficiencies.
I have heard exactly the same point being applied to many different industries, even politics—how many people come from business into politics, or go from politics to business? That crossover between the public sector and the private sector, including bringing particular skills and learning from one to the other, is not done nearly enough, which is why I spend a lot of my time trying to get more business people involved in politics. However, I am sure that it is a challenge for people to do that, because I guess that people tend to get stuck in the way that they know and go up the career ladder in the world that they know, so there is too little crossover. I guess that the recruitment companies have something to answer for here. They look for square pegs for square holes—namely, people to do what they have already done, so that there is a natural progression.
Nevertheless, we need to encourage that crossover. If we put out a call to say, “Actually, we really do want businesspeople to join us and help us,” I am sure that many businesspeople would be interested in having a second career in public service, as we ourselves are all doing here in Parliament.
As I was saying, General Sir Gordon Messenger will review leadership; the terms of reference for that review are being developed right now.
There is no doubt that covid has had a severe impact on NHS productivity. Covid significantly increased costs for the NHS, while we also had to stop some regular activity, so productivity was obviously much lower than it would have been otherwise; indeed, many patients did not even wish to attend in-hospital services. Of course, covid made more stringent infection prevention and control measures necessary. Those measures, such has having to put on and take off personal protective equipment, slow staff down and limit the number of patients they can see, and will probably continue to hold down productivity in the immediate future. We know that that has happened, with the existence of green zones and red zones, and other new processes to try and control infection during this period.
We do not yet know what impact covid has had on NHS productivity, but we expect that it will turn out to be large and negative. The ONS estimated that public service productivity as a whole fell by 22.4% between July 2020 and September 2020, compared with the same quarter a year earlier. Even as productivity recovered, it was still 9.8% lower in the first quarter of 2021 compared with Q1 in 2019. Covid has definitely had a massive impact on productivity, and it is reasonable to expect that the impact on NHS productivity will be similar.
At the same time, however, the pandemic has been a spur for innovation. Across the NHS, clinicians said that the pandemic offered an opportunity to cut through bureaucracy and try new ways of working and new ways of partnering with local services. In London, the hospitals worked together and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough mentioned, their Getting It Right First Time programme will pilot a new approach to high-volume, low-complexity surgery. That is now being rolled out across the NHS. My hon. Friend also mentioned budget numbers, but it is not easy to compare like with like, because that programme has been integrated into the NHS Improvement budget and is now embedded within the plan for elective recovery, so that is where the finances are coming from.
Trusts will be benchmarked against the programme standards for surgical productivity through the model hospital system, and NHS England and NHS Improvement have set up a beneficial changes network to collect evidence of innovation during the pandemic. The network has distilled 3,000 submissions and 700 examples of recognised beneficial changes into 12 high-impact change areas, which will now be rolled out to the NHS. That is something good that has come out of the pandemic through the need to work together to face challenges.
As the NHS begins to recover, increasing productivity is more important than ever. Many patients could not receive the care they needed during the pandemic, and the NHS faces unprecedented waiting lists. We owe an immense debt of gratitude to NHS staff, who have worked so hard to care for patients throughout the pandemic, but the NHS now needs to use the investment that we have provided to deliver more care more effectively and to remove the burden from staff. This year, we are providing £2 billion through the elective recovery fund to increase activity levels, and £700 million through the targeted investment fund to fund improvements in surgical productivity and digital productivity tools. Digital will be a big feature—we have all learned a lot during the pandemic.
We have announced a further £1.5 billion to build surgical hubs across the country in order to develop new models of care and increase productivity, which is being piloted by GIRFT and the London region. Some £2.3 billion has been allocated to transform diagnostics by rolling out at least 100 community diagnostic hubs and investing in digital diagnostics that will deliver 10% higher productivity. Another £2.1 billion has been allocated to digitise frontline services and free staff from admin tasks, so that they can spend more time with patients—something that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth.
Our aim is to return productivity to an ambitious trajectory, so that we can deliver on our ambitious plan to build back better and to clear the waiting list, but also to build an NHS that is fit and able to cope with the demands of the future. Of course, we have more work to do on integrating social care and developing best practice so that the systems work well together. It is not over and we have a lot of work to do, but I am sure that with all the measures that we have put in place, my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough will feel satisfied that the NHS is continuously looking at continuous improvement.
I am impressed by the Minister’s response. She talked a lot about how the NHS will improve efficiency and productivity post pandemic. I remind her of the plea that I made at the very end of my speech: the key to this issue is transparency and accountability. If we do not open the windows and let the light in, the Government’s ambitions will not be realised, and money will be wasted through other means. Let us try to create an NHS that is as transparent as possible and accountable to Ministers, then we might be able to see some of the changes that the Minister talked about in her speech.
Question put and agreed to.
COP26 and Air Pollution
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are now expected to wear face coverings. That is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when leaving and entering the room. It is a great pleasure to call Mr Barry Sheerman to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered COP26 and the impact of air pollution on public health and wellbeing.
Sir Gary, it is my pleasure, on this day of all days, to have secured this Westminster Hall debate: a day when the whole world’s attention is focused on COP26 in Glasgow, and there are signs—some mixed, but some good—of what is happening there. There has also been a petition, as you of course know, signed by more than 100,000 people, calling for an introduction of charges on carbon emissions to tackle the climate crisis and air pollution. Forgive me, Sir Gary, but I am currently suffering from a bad cold and a booster jab, so if my voice fails at any time, you will know the cause.
Air pollution kills 64,000 people in the UK every year, yet the Government provide annual fossil fuel subsidies of £10.5 billion, according to the European Commission. To meet UK climate targets, they must end this practice and introduce charges on producers of greenhouse gas emissions. Most Members of the House, and especially the Yorkshire Members, know of the Drax power station, which is currently producing energy from wood pellets, either produced in this country or imported from South America. For that purpose, it received a massive Government subsidy of £900 million last year.
I want to start at the beginning; I have always believed in borrowing from the United States declaration of independence, because I love the language. I used to be the head of a university’s American studies department —indeed, I taught the Deputy Speaker at one stage. I believe that there is an inalienable right for every person on this planet to be born, to live and to breathe fresh air. At the moment, that is not the case. How bad is it? Seven million people die prematurely across the world due to air pollution-related conditions, with 36,000 premature deaths in the UK alone, costing an estimated £12 billion.
Of course, with COP26, there is a risk of a great missed opportunity, as I believe there was last week in the Budget. If I were marking it as a university teacher, I would grudgingly give it a lower second. Why? Because I thought it was very technically competent, but it missed any true originality. That is the mark of a good essay: true originality. Originality is so important to everything that is produced. I could see the technical competence in last week’s Budget, but there was a lack of the imagination needed to say, “This is the time—with COP26 about to start in Glasgow, with all of us conscious that the planet is warming up and with the future of this fragile planet in danger—to tell the British people that we must act.”
In my experience as the longest-serving Member of Parliament on this side of the House—I was elected in 1979—the British public are intelligent and resilient, and have good common sense. We can persuade them that something terrible will happen if we do not act, and that we need extra money and taxation to so do. They are persuadable, as they have been persuadable before. They were persuadable after the ravages of the second world war. They picked themselves up and went through a period of higher taxation in order to get through. The economy grew, and so we grew out of many of our problems.
What was missing in the Budget was a Chancellor who said, “The situation is so precarious that I am introducing a number of taxes that will raise money to give us more practical ways to tackle global warming, here in our communities.” That is what was missing. That is what I want to speak about today.
Too much of the talk at the moment is global. Two or three of us here had the foresight to be the first people to invite young Greta Thunberg to come to the UK and talk to an all-party parliamentary group, and what a pleasure it was to hear her speak. However, many people think, “I cannot be Greta Thunberg; I cannot be an international statesperson; I am not the president of any country. I am just me, in my community.” We are failing to give people the ability to say, “I can help tackle this. I can roll up my sleeves and make a difference in my community,” even though it may not be something that is instantaneously registered on the global index.
Today, I want to talk about clean air, because all of us can do something about it in a practical way, and we can do it now. Let us review how bad things are. I have mentioned the cost in numbers of deaths, and I have mentioned that we need individual campaigns, yet we are still giving subsidies to companies that are polluting the atmosphere. Today, I am going to suggest some quick wins.
I want real engagement across every town and city throughout the country on a journey to sustainability based on the UN sustainable development goals. Colleagues might ask what I am doing about it as a Member of Parliament. Two years ago, we brought a group of business people to Huddersfield who joined with the university and local charities to form the Huddersfield sustainable town initiative.
My constituents really dislike it if I say we are an average British town, so I must say that we are a typical British town, which we are across almost every criterion. We are a microcosm of the United Kingdom: the percentage of people in manufacturing; the percentage of people in services; the level of education; the skills. We are a microcosm. My philosophy, which is shared by the members of the Huddersfield sustainable town initiative, is that if we can change Huddersfield into a sustainable town, there is no reason that every community in our country could not become a sustainable town. Why can we not spread from Huddersfield? We are already working with 37 towns. Why can we not have 500 towns and cities in this country work towards sustainability?
People say, “Why all that nonsense? Just get on with it. Why would you want the United Nations’ sustainable development goals?” Sir Gary, you know of my great interest in road safety. I have campaigned on it for many years: I organised for seatbelt legislation as a young MP, and in my only successful private Member’s Bill, I banned children from being carried without restraint in cars. I am now chair of the Global Network for Road Safety Legislators, a World Health Organisation committee, and because of that, I know that if we take a particular subject—even safety in a community—and put it in the context of the sustainable development goals, we transform the potential of what we are doing. The great thing about those goals is that they are rigorous. I have been involved in environmental campaigns all my life with other colleagues, and those campaigns have done really good work across many areas, but too many of them are discrete initiatives: recycling, reuse, cleaning up rivers and streams, and that sort of thing. If we have the rigour provided by the sustainable development goals, and we start off our whole sustainable development programme by consulting local people with a questionnaire asking which ones they want to prioritise, we take a real step towards engaging the local community. That is what we have done in my own community.
One of the things that we are targeting in Huddersfield is clean air. How do we stop filthy fumes from going into the air, in our case from an ancient energy from waste facility? I am not against energy from waste if it is high quality, but we have an old facility, and it does not create heat that is used to heat homes. That heat is not used in the correct way: much of it goes into the atmosphere, which is very damaging indeed, so we must first make sure that every sustainable town, city and community rigorously meets those sustainable development goals. The goals give communities that rigour: they will say, “We’ve got to this stage—yes!” but to get to the next stage and get the accreditation, they have to go one step further.
We all know that transport is critical to those sustainable development goals. Many believe that transport is responsible for 40% of the emissions we breathe in this country, polluting London and cities across the country with noxious emissions. Some great friends of mine who are Members of Parliament for Lewisham and are active there know as well as I do—because of the work we have done in the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution—about Ella Kissi-Debrah, who passed away. Her mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who I have met, had the insight and inspiration to get in touch with Sir Stephen Holgate, one of the leading professors and medical experts on clean air and its link to health and wellbeing, who works at the University of Southampton. He gave evidence at the inquest, and he got its verdict changed, because that little girl’s death was related to asthma but it was caused by the filthy pollution that she was breathing in, in a community that is just a stone’s throw from here.
All over London, we have schools; we have children; we have pregnant women; and we have elderly people. I particularly woke up during the first lecture that Sir Stephen gave to our APPG, when he said, “This is not just about NOx: it is the platelets on the NOx that cause the real damage to human health. Those platelets not only poison people and make them very ill indeed, but accelerate the aging process.” At my age, I sat up in my chair immediately thinking, “Yes!” However, that is only a lighter aside. The fact of the matter is that the air we are breathing in this country, in places where we might have thought we were guaranteed clean air, is not clean.
We have brought together a group of people in the Westminster Commission on Road Air Quality to try to do the research properly. We have an air health working party, a working party on air monitoring and a working party on education. Last week we heard from the experts on inside air, who said that where they have done audits inside schools—not just in the playground, not right by the polluting road that passes the primary school but in the classroom—the air is poisonous to breathe. If that is the case, it is time to take action, and take action we must. It also gives the opportunity for everyone to take action at the grassroots and to do it quicker rather than slower.
Yes, we all believe that we should move as fast as possible to electric vehicles, but all the research that I have been immersed in in my role suggests to me that the more we look at what is happening with electric cars, many of us believe that electric will be overtaken by hydrogen power. There is more and more evidence, in fact. Research is interesting because, with heavy goods vehicles carrying big loads, batteries are hard to use. In hilly areas, they do not have the ability to cope. Much of the research has been with HGVs, and the research that I have been privy to shows that already many HGVs are being produced to use hydrogen power. If that is true for big vehicles, it will come to small vehicles soon.
Of course, we must improve the vehicles on the road, but there are quicker things to do, too. We know that there are ways of adulterating—in the best way—the diesel that is put into commercial vehicles with vegetable extracts that make it much less polluting. Indeed, one of the people who has been educating me about that is William Tebbit, son of Norman Tebbit, who many of us remember very fondly. So this is not pie in the sky or wait a long time; this is stuff that we can do now, changing the fuel we are putting in heavy goods vehicles.
I am just coming to the end.
Another practical issue is, how many people realise that, at the moment, nothing in the MOT test tests how polluting someone’s vehicle is? There is nothing in the test about what comes out of the back end of a car. If the recommendations that have been brought forward could be acted on now, we could transform the quality of the vehicles on our roads. Someone gave me this information recently: if we take out the particulate emissions filter in a vehicle, or it does not work properly, that one vehicle produces the equivalent of a traffic jam between Westminster and Huddersfield. That is frightening, is it not?
We have many practical ways to change the air in our country and move towards a clean air environment. I believe that this is the secret to opening people to getting involved in the environment, to accepting—perhaps—higher taxes in order to stimulate that move, and all round, to moving towards more sustainable and greater health and wellbeing for our country. I recommend this big change in our country; let us do it now.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I commend the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for securing this particularly timely debate on air pollution and its effect on public health. It is good to see the Public Health Minister in her place—sorry, it is not the Public Health Minister. She cannot reply because she has a mask on. She will update me on her role later. Swiftly moving on…
There can be little more important than the air that we breathe. We come into this world, we take those first gulps of air, and throughout our lives, it is the fresh air that we breathe that can make the difference between feeling good and not feeling good. We look for fresh air every day of the week. We want to go out into the countryside. The hon. Member for Huddersfield is right that in our country we think it is a fundamental right to be able to breathe clean air. It is important that the Government are already making great progress in sending strong messages to us, as a society and country, that clean air really matters, whether it is the commitment to ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030, or the package of measures in the recent Environment Bill.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield touched on the cost of pollution to our country—the £20 billion a year it is estimated to cost the UK economy and the many thousands of deaths caused by air pollution. One issue I want to touch on specifically is asthma and chronic respiratory conditions, which are a significant concern in my constituency, as I am sure they are for others. I have two children who have asthma—
I absolutely agree that it is a fundamental right to breathe clean air. Stafford Borough Council has installed the first eco-post in the country to monitor air quality. Does my right hon. Friend agree, following COP26, with the journey to net zero, that it is important to invest in air monitoring in our constituencies?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and she brings me to the importance of practical initiatives that the hon. Member for Huddersfield touched on in his contribution. It is important that the Government are committing money and making laws and that the strategic framework is there, but unless the initiative is taken on the ground by local authorities and others, those good intentions will be for nothing.
I want to touch briefly on three initiatives in my constituency that bring that to life. Hampshire County Council, working with local schools on “My Journey” travel planning, helps children raise the awareness of their parents of the importance of travel planning, so as to reduce the number of cars on the roads. St Mark’s school in Hatch Warren has done a huge amount of work on that.
The “clear the air” Clean Air campaign, run by our local Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council, encourages people to stop idling engines outside schools, train stations or wherever it might be, and promotes awareness of how important that can be in reducing particulate pollution. Breathe Easy, a charity in my constituency that works with the British Lung Foundation, supports people with chronic lung conditions and has an important role to play. Last, but by no means least, is the work done by the county council to ensure that we help reduce road congestion by improving public transport provision.
Those are practical things that I hope the Minister might respond to, and I hope that the Government can support other local authorities, and indeed my local authority in Hampshire, to continue such important initiatives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for securing this important debate.
There can be no more important time to be holding this debate. The battle to tackle the scourge of air pollution is inextricably tied up in all the other challenges that make up the climate and ecological crisis that should be front and centre in public discussion over the next couple of weeks. If the Government truly acknowledged the scale of the problem that is faced, particularly in urban areas such as my constituency, they would commit to far more radical action.
I would like to ask the Minister in summing up to consider the following three points. First, introduce legally binding targets for the UK to abide by the World Health Organisation’s stricter clean air standards. The Government have to be as ambitious as possible. Without aiming to reach the gold standard as soon as feasible, they are simply letting the health of the public down.
Secondly, we need serious action to meet those standards, and that will require considerable Government finance. Traffic is the largest source of urban air pollution, and changes in the way we move around, particularly in cities, are vital. However, we cannot allow the cost of that to fall on ordinary people. The purchase of electric cars to replace polluting vehicles should be supported by the Government through grants and interest-free loans, and every citizen should be able to apply for those. It will be essential to continue investing heavily in public transport while keeping prices down, and to support the flourishing of active travel schemes since the covid pandemic, supporting the making of journeys by walking and cycling wherever possible.
Thirdly, the plans for a massive new incinerator in my constituency of Edmonton, which will emit 700,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, are simply outrageous. I refuse to believe that the project would be allowed to go ahead if the incinerator were to be in a leafier, more affluent suburb. I ask the Minister to urgently meet me and campaigners to push for the Government to pause and review the project.
It is a pleasure to speak before you today, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on this interesting and informative debate.
Clean air is essential for life, health, our environment and the economy. Air pollution has reduced significantly in the last decade, but there is still more to do. We have a clean air strategy, which details how the UK will go further and faster than the EU in reducing exposure to particulate matter pollution. It sets out a goal to halve the number of people living in locations with concentrations of particulate matter above the WHO guidelines. The Environment Bill will build on that strategy, setting two air quality targets by October 2022, a target to reduce the annual average level of fine particulate matter— or PM2.5—and a further target to improve air quality. This action to improve air quality is backed up by £3.8 billion.
However, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants advises that a focus on long-term average concentrations of PM2.5 is the most appropriate to deliver public health benefits. That brings me to a point that fits in somewhat with what the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) said. I alert Members to the number of incinerators that are currently being planned or in the process of being built. I believe there are 18usb along the M1 in one section alone. One such incinerator is in a leafier constituency than Edmonton —at Shepshed in my Loughborough constituency. It is near to Shepshed town centre, but it is also close to Loughborough University, my biggest employer and home to élite athletes from around the world, who obviously run about and do all sorts of things in the open air. Also 3,000 houses are expected to be built just across the roundabout from the incinerator. When I mention the incinerator with local and national organisations, they often say to me, “Yes, but the M1 creates quite a lot of pollutants already and therefore it is very difficult to monitor and understand the impact of that particular incinerator.” However, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, we are bringing in electric and hydrogen vehicles, which I would like to see myself, and we would like to reap the benefits of those vehicles in Loughborough to lessen the impact of PM2.5.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech and I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on bringing this debate. My hon. Friend makes a good point about incinerators. Would she agree that incinerators have often been built to deal with the undesirability of landfill, but that has created a perverse incentive in the system? If we are going to look at issues such air pollution and clean air, we need to do that in a holistic way with other decarbonisation targets and priorities. That is what has created this problem in her constituency, and in others.
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend could not have put it more precisely. That is the difficulty. Will the Minister consider the impact of the waste strategy at the same time as air quality? Air quality impacts on the future of our country and our constituents.
At the moment, the Prime Minister is still at COP. There will be a major discussion around air pollution and what can be done globally, but we need to ensure we are acting locally as well, so I want to raise the issue of air pollution in London overall, particularly in relation to Heathrow airport.
In the 1970s, when we agreed to the expansion of Heathrow airport through a fourth terminal, it was about jobs. At that point, we had our first inkling of what air pollution could do to the overall environment, as well as to individual health. Since then, we know so much more, which is why the inspector in the fifth terminal inquiry recommended that there should be no further expansion at Heathrow on environmental grounds. Yet the Government still have the potential for a third runway at Heathrow on their policy cards.
The latest information is that Heathrow and the area around it is the second major hotspot for nitrogen dioxide pollution in London. It breaches the legal limits, and has done for many years. To be frank, the roads around Heathrow are above the legal limits, including for PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide, and have been for at least the last decade. We now know much more about the impact of that on the health of people in the west London area, with links to respiratory and heart conditions, and, thanks to work in the United States, we know that this is linked to cancer as well. We cannot go to COP and argue with other countries about the need to tackle air pollution while we allow such polluting expansions as the third runway. It is a stark example of the impact on people’s health.
I have raised in this Chamber before the fact that children in my local schools have to hand their puffers into a special box and our teachers in Hillingdon have to be specially trained to deal with respiratory conditions in those children. If we are talking seriously about COP and the impact we are having on our environment, there has to be a time when we draw a line under Heathrow expansion. I believe that this is it.
We have never had a full health impact assessment of the third runway expansion. We have had some health impact analyses, all of which have said that there will be an increase in mortality and morbidity linked to respiratory and other conditions.
I agree with much of the sentiment of what the right hon. Gentleman says. He and I may disagree about some of the issues and merits or demerits of the recent Budget, but I am sure we will agree that the cut in air passenger duty for short haul flights was a slight disappointment. Does he agree with me that that is something that the Chancellor might want to reconsider?
I made that point in the debate on the Budget, and I do not want to be repetitious. The issue for me is that any tax relief or tax reduction that either promotes further emissions or supports those polluting our environment is clearly contrary to Government policy, as far as I can see. On that basis, I hope that, as a result of COP, in the next few weeks or perhaps months the Government will firmly come down as opposed to further Heathrow expansion.
Thank you, Sir Gary. It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship.
On COP, air quality and the impact on health and wellbeing, we have to drill down to the specifics. We can talk at a national, international or regional level, but it always comes down, in effect, to what is happening in local communities, with the cumulative effect in them. My local community, like those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and other hon. Friends, is no different.
My area has a huge dock in it. The Liverpool docks are based in my constituency, and we have thousands of lorries coming down the road, the A5036, all the time—daily, of a night, at weekends. They are great pollutants, as are local cars and local transport. The council has had five monitoring stations in the area, and a sixth up and running, and since covid those levels have been dramatically down. That should teach us a lesson, which is that we have to get vehicles, whether they be lorries or cars, off the road.
I am really disappointed, notwithstanding COP and notwithstanding covid, that National Highways—it used to be Highways England, which used to be the Highways Agency, and I think it changes its name so we can never keep up with what it is at and hold it to account—persists with this old-fashioned view, which must be 20 years out of date, that if there is a problem with a road, the solution is to build another one. That is exactly what it is proposing in my constituency. It is proposing to build a £250 million road through Rimrose valley. Rimrose Valley Friends has done a great job opposing it, but there will be a £250 million road through the only green part of my constituency. It is possible to walk from one end of the constituency to the other in about 35 or 40 minutes, and the same in the other direction, so it is incredibly tight. Within it there is this lung, Rimrose valley, and what does the Highways Agency or Highways England or whatever it is called nowadays—National Highways—do? It is going to put a road through it, and that is not acceptable.
I ask the Minister to go back and speak to her colleagues and get that process halted—put a stop to it—pending the lessons learned from covid and pending COP. Departments and agencies pushing on with the same old hackneyed solutions will not be a resolution for any of us. The local authority is trying to do what it can, but it can only do so much. We have money for an air quality grant, which is helping us to educate, and we are working collaboratively as much as the local authority can, but it is not much. We need national action, and we need the Department to get a grip of National Highways and to call a halt to this programme. It should discuss it with local people, discuss it with the port and discuss it with all interested parties, and just stop this madness continuing, because it is not acceptable.
I will make a final point, if I may. We have that going on, but we have the docks—a major, massive dock—and they are only going to expand because there will be more containers coming in through the north, as another alternative, because of covid. What I want to do is to work collaboratively with everybody to stop the road being built. Let us rethink the issue. Because we are in a port area, we have scrapyards, but for the third or fourth time in the last few years we have had massive fires that are adding to the problem. It is not just about cars and lorries, but about all the other associated things. Let us get a grip of this, let us do better enforcement and let us stop the cheating on emissions. Let us get to grips with this issue, stop that road going through and work with our communities to sort out the problem.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I also thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for securing the debate.
COP26, of course, is about our climate. Air pollution is a different, although not entirely unconnected, matter. COP is about cleaning up our act, and we certainly need to clean up our act when it comes to air quality. To that point, the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned Drax, and I say to the Minister that Drax is anathema to anybody with a passing concern for air quality. It is an almost dystopian process, which scars the landscape of the United States on an industrial scale, poisons the people who live near the mills with particulates in the air to make the pellets, and ships them half way around the world to England to be burnt. It would be bad enough without a Government subsidy, but with one it is absurd. I would like to know if the Minister agrees with that analysis.
Air pollution is known to kill many thousands of people around the world every year, while rendering many others subject to chronic illness as a result of PM10 and increasingly—as our knowledge expands— PM2.5 and NOx. Air pollution has been likened to cancer, asthma, diabetes and dementia. Children subjected to air pollution are much more likely to die in their first two years, or to attend A&E with chest infections.
It is good to hear from Members about what is happening in their localities around these islands. Two studies in Scotland have shown that on days of illegal levels of pollution there are significant increases in hospital admissions with new-onset heart and lung disease and blood clots in the arteries of the legs, when compared with days when the air pollution is within legal limits. It is estimated that air pollution costs the United Kingdom £20 billion per annum in health and social care. We know that those who are already disadvantaged are disproportionately affected. Often living in city centres or beside main roads, they have less access to green spaces that can absorb the noxious pollutants. They are also less able to afford a car, thus suffering the ill-effects without contributing to them—it is a social injustice.
In 2014, Health Protection Scotland estimated that air pollution caused about 1,700 deaths every year in Scotland alone. The number of vehicles on UK roads between 2010 and 2019 increased from 34 million to almost 39 million. On this point, I must make a very important clarification; not all vehicles are made equally. I know from my experience as a local authority councillor that although traffic volumes are relevant in terms of congestion, concentrations of pollutants and airflows through the streetscape and built environment, new vehicles are exponentially cleaner than those produced more than 10 years ago. This is especially true of commercial vehicles such as buses. The Department for Transport should take a very serious look at being able to stop, test and seize vehicles. They can do it for vehicle excise duty, so why can they not do it for vehicles that are clearly belching out poisonous gas beyond the limits set at MOTs?
It is worth noting that outside our major cities, and certainly unlike in London where electric-hybrid buses and vehicles whirr by regularly, many bus services’ profitability is so marginal that old vehicles are kept in service that, in air quality terms, are absolutely filthy and a patent threat to public health. We need to be able to take a whole-system view, so that the failure demand that our NHS has to meet is offset by seizing the opportunity cost of investing in infrastructure and equipment.
To this end, the Scottish Government aim to reduce car use by 20% by 2030, taking it back to levels last seen in the 1990s. Moreover, sustainable public transport is essential for the ambition to reach net zero. That is why the Scottish Government will have phased out the majority of fossil fuel buses by 2023, and will invest £120 million in zero-emission buses. The UK Government could learn a lot from Scotland in our shared pursuits of net zero and viable green recovery plans. For example, the UK Government must stop cutting electric vehicle access schemes, such as England’s electric vehicle grants system. This has been further downgraded from £5,000 in 2011 to £4,500 in 2016; to £3,500 in 2018; to £3,000 in 2020; and now to £2,500 in 2021. This is the worst sort of swimming against the tide. Figures from electric vehicle charging website Zap-Map show that of the 21,000 public charging points in the UK, only 20% are free to use; that is 4,928 points, and 26% of these are in Scotland where around 60% are free to use. Electric vehicle drivers in Scotland benefit from almost 40 public charge points per 100,000, compared to fewer than 30 per 100,000 in England. Promoting and investing in active travel access is essential to drive down car usage. Scotland currently spends over £18 per head of population, compared with just £7 in England––more than 150% higher.
Lord Tebbit was mentioned earlier in the debate. To be very generous to the noble Lord, perhaps even to revise things, he did at one stage advise the nation to get on their bikes. I cannot remember exactly what he meant, but in public health terms he does at least have a contemporary point.
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Sir Gary, in what has been a collegiate and consensual debate. While the world’s eyes are rightly looking to Glasgow, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for securing this important and timely debate. He has been a Member since 3 May 1979, which translates into 15,524 days, and he still has his finger on the pulse.
The House has heard me say before that air quality is one of the most important policy areas and issues facing all our constituents the nation over. The facts are there for us all to see. They all show just how damaging toxic air is to our communities and its disproportionate impact on the health and wellbeing of our people. Coronavirus has highlighted the inequalities and disproportionately impacted on those living in the areas with the worst air.
Air pollution is bad for everyone––we know that––but for the 12 million people in the UK who live with a lung condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it poses a real and immediate threat to their health. A spike in air pollution can lead to symptoms getting worse, flare-ups and even hospitalisation. We know from the coroner who investigated the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah that it can lead to death, too. There is robust evidence of a clear link between high levels of air pollution and increased numbers of patients with breathing problems presenting at hospitals and GPs’ surgeries.
I was delighted earlier this year to co-host Labour’s clean air summit with the shadow Secretary of State. In the first summit of its kind to be hosted by a major party, we set out our demands for a clean air Act. Labour’s clean air Act, which we will deliver when we form a Government, will establish a legal right to breathe clean air by ensuring the law on air quality is at least as strict as the World Health Organisation guidelines, with tough new duties on Ministers to enforce them and grant new powers to local authorities to take urgent action on air quality. That stands in stark contrast to the Conservative party and would deliver improved air quality across England.
Conservative inaction has allowed catastrophic levels of air pollution to build up across the country, especially in the most deprived areas of our big cities. Indeed, this Government’s refusal to take even the smallest steps to tackle illegal levels of air pollution leaves local government on the frontline in the fight for better air quality.
It is not just me expressing concern at the inaction of this Government: it is felt by Members of the Minister’s party, too. I note the speeches of the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and indeed that of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) on the Environment Bill just two weeks ago. I just wish that they had resisted the pressure of the Whips and voted for Labour’s amendment to write the WHO guidelines into the Bill.
Last week, I met Rosamund, the mother of Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died in 2013. We spoke about the need for urgent action to clean our air and the fact that COP26 could set an example––a British-made example––to generations to come. In December 2020, the coroner ruled that Ella had died as a direct result of air pollution, as we have heard already today. The coroner said that he believed that air pollution made a material contribution to Ella’s death. Like so many, she was exposed to illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in excess of WHO guidelines. I would like the Minister to explain why the Government voted against Labour’s attempts to clean our air by writing the guidelines into the Environment Bill.
I pay tribute to the many parents, young people, experts, campaigners and elected representatives here today who are working to clean our air and save our lives. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield and others to deliver Labour’s clean air Act, and the Minister is of course very welcome to join us, because the future of the planet and the lives of our people depend on it.
Indeed I will, Sir Gary, and thank you very much for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for raising this issue; as he said, this debate is timely and the issue is important to each and every one of us. Securing it while world leaders are coming together for the planet in Glasgow shows just what a consummate professional he is, dovetailing the debate such a timely way. I wish him well with his own health.
We are all concerned about the impact of air pollution on public health and we are hosting the COP26 summit at a turning point for both the planet and health. We have been making progress. However, over the course of the UK presidency of COP26, we need to see further progress on commitments to secure global net zero carbon emissions by the mid-century. It will be a challenge; we need to see countries coming forward with ambition. Success at the summit and beyond will rely on all countries rallying behind the common goal of rapidly reducing carbon emissions and protecting the planet. Although COP26 is arguably focusing on greenhouse gases and not air pollutants, we should seize the opportunity to reduce the emissions of other pollutants from the same sources, because, as everybody has said, there is a lot of crossover here.
Air pollution in the UK has reduced significantly over the last decade, but there is definitely more to do. For example, emissions of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, have fallen by 11% and nitrogen oxide emissions are at their lowest level since records began. None the less, air quality is still the top environmental risk to human health in the UK and there is absolutely no room for complacency.
We heard from many Members about the challenges to health that air pollution brings. There is lots to do and I agree that the use of new technology—whether that is the use of fats in lorries, or hydrogen technology, which the Government have been investing in even in the last week, through the hydrogen transport programme—means that we need to harness the best of British, to ensure we make the right progress.
That is why the UK is continuing to take urgent action to curb the impact of air pollution on citizens and communities through the Environment Bill and the clean air strategy. The action that we set out in the clean air strategy will reduce the cost of air pollution to society by £1.7 billion every year from 2020, rising to £5.3 billion every year from 2030.
My Department cannot achieve the transformation alone; there is no single, one-size-fits-all silver bullet that will solve the problem of air pollution. That is why the clean air strategy outlines a comprehensive programme of action across all parts of Government. We have heard about the health challenges, the transport challenges, challenges about where people live—local authority challenges—and the idling of cars, which local authorities obviously have a power over. Indeed, we have heard about the beneficial work being done in both Basingstoke and Stafford on these issues, to help to empower communities to have better air quality. However, this process is about us all working together, because transformational change can only be achieved through close collaboration with other parts of Government.
Furthermore, there is a vital role for broader leadership from the health and environmental sectors because much of what has been spoken about today also relates to how we recycle, how we use our waste and how we might reuse things. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) and my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) both mentioned that point, referring to the use of incinerators; if I have time, I hope to come on to incinerators.
This issue is about the business sector, service providers and local authorities helping to build acceptance for the bolder actions that must be taken to tackle the health impacts of air pollution as a major public health imperative. The hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) spoke about not having a particular road. However, during the covid crisis we actually had low-traffic neighbourhoods, but we found that traffic diverted to other parts of the town or area. There is not an ideal off-the-peg solution.
We also looked at the fact that, although nitrogen oxide levels diminished, as has been said, the reduction in PM 2.5 particulate matter did not change. It is actually much more complex than it is often presented to be.
The landmark Environment Bill will improve air quality by establishing a duty to set two new legally binding targets to reduce that fine particulate matter. We are developing two targets: a concentration target and a population exposure reduction target. That is what the clear air zones are about. Arguably, Huddersfield does not face the same air quality challenges that we might have in London, Manchester or Bath, or any city that is looking at putting in place a CAZ. That unique dual approach is strongly supported by our expert committees—the air quality expert group and the committee on the medical effects of air pollutants—and it will be an important part of our commitment to drive forward tangible and long-lasting improvements to the air breathe. We will consult on how to bring forward those groundbreaking targets next year.
As part of the information we take from experts, waste incineration companies must comply with strict emission limits under the environmental permitting regulations. They cannot operate without a permit. Emissions from energy from waste are monitored. We consult with Public Health England on every application, and its position on incineration is that a modern, well-run and regulated incinerator is not a significant risk to public health. We have to get rid of the challenge of rubbish.
The Environment Bill will completely revise the local air quality management framework to create a more strategic structure that will enable local authorities to take more effective action. It will also deliver significant improvements to public health by ensuring that local authorities have more effective powers to tackle emissions from domestic burning, which is a key source of harmful fine particulate pollution, as well as the idling that was mentioned.
No. I am really sorry, but I have only one minute left. The Bill introduces new powers to compel vehicle manufacturers to recall vehicles and non-road mobile machinery if they are found not to meet the environmental standards that they were approved to meet—I think that answers a question that was raised earlier. It will enable the Government to compel manufacturers to recall vehicles and non-road mobile machinery for failures in their emission control.
New legislation came into force across England earlier this year to reduce PM 2.5 pollution by phasing out the burning of small volumes of wet wood and the sale of all house coal. However, some residents still rely on coal fires, so we have to work our way through those challenges.
The Government allocated £880 million to tackle nitrogen dioxide exceedances under the 2017 air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide. This year, the first clean air zones were introduced in Bath and Birmingham, which deliver targeted action to improve air quality and health and to support economic growth.
We are working hard to provide citizens with the information they need to protect themselves. I also have a Breathe Easy group. Those groups do great work, but we have to make sure that we work with experts so that we can get really timely information to people such as, “If air pollution is low, carry on as usual. If it is high, and you have asthma, avoid vigorous activity”. To do that, we need to do the monitoring that we are now scaling up, so that we have a good alert system to help protect people. That system was revamped in 2019.
There is just about a minute left. There is plenty more that we are doing and that we will carry on doing. We have different biomass anaerobic digestion issues and, as my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said, we have to make sure that policies do not fall against each other.
In conclusion, taken together, this is a comprehensive package. However, we have to do more by seizing opportunities and addressing risks. We need to take action to tackle climate change and air pollution. We are committed to cleaning up our air and carrying on our work.
It has been a very good debate, as it always is with you in the Chair, Sir Gary. The fact of the matter is that we do not want too little, too late. We want it now. Children are being poisoned; 3 million children in our own country are being poisoned by fumes mainly coming from air pollution from roads. We have some short-term things. Yes, we need international and global leadership at COP26, but we need local empowerment and we need it now.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).