Tuesday 16 November 2021
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Tobacco Control Plan
Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. I remind Members that they are asked by the Commission 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. That is particularly important today—it is so cold in this room that I do not blame you for huddling together. If any of you wish to put extra clothing on or to use a coat as a blanket, please do so.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the delivery of a new Tobacco Control Plan.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone—I believe for the first time in this place. I speak as, and declare an interest as, the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health. We welcomed the Government’s announcement of the new tobacco control plan, and we welcomed that it would be published this year, to deliver the Government’s smoke-free by 2030 ambition. I do not want to put any pressure on my hon. Friend the Minister, but she does not have long to achieve the first ambition. The Government’s ambition to reduce smoking rates to 5% or below, making smoking obsolete, is one that all of us in the all-party parliamentary group share. I believe that will be endorsed on an all-party basis this morning, because it is clearly a great way to ensure the health of the nation.
For me, this is deeply personal. Both of my parents died of cancer caused by smoking. My late mother was only 47 when she died of lung and throat cancer, as she was a very heavy smoker for most of her life. I do not want to see families go through what my family had to go through during those terrible days. For me, it is a lifetime ambition to ensure that people understand the risks of smoking, the damage to their health and the damage to their families.
The all-party parliamentary group is keen to support the delivery of the ambition of a smoke-free Britain, which is why, in June this year, we published a report setting out our recommendations for the tobacco control plan for England. Those recommendations were endorsed by more than 50 organisations, including the Royal College of Physicians, Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation. On behalf of the APPG, I am pleased to welcome my hon. Friend the Public Health Minister to her new post, and indeed to welcome her opposite number; to put our recommendations on the record; and to give the Minister the chance to respond to those views.
The APPG has a long-term track record of acting as a critical friend to the Government on the tobacco control agenda. I am confident that this collaborative and constructive relationship will continue. Although smoking rates in my constituency are lower than the English average, there is no room for complacency. In Harrow, more than one in 10 people still smoke and smoking kills around 250 people a year. That is obviously far too many. In 2018-19, there were 1,566 smoking-attributable hospital admissions and 370 emergency admissions for chronic respiratory disease, which is caused almost entirely by smoking. That is in one constituency, so imagine what smoking does to the national health service up and down the country.
Research presented to the all-party parliamentary group shows that, on average, smokers are likely to need social care a decade earlier than non-smokers, and particularly never-smokers. Smoking-related disease and disability make it hard to carry out normal daily activities such as getting dressed, walking across a room and making a meal. Most of us take these things for granted, but we should not.
The importance of the smoke-free 2030 ambition is clear. As the Minister herself stated recently,
“tobacco continues to account for the biggest share of avoidable premature death in this country. It contributes half the difference in life expectancy between richest and poorest.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2021; Vol. 702, c. 621.]
More than 70,000 people died from smoking last year in England alone. For every person killed by smoking, at least another 30 are living with serious smoking-related illnesses.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward this debate. On the point about the 70,000 deaths, is it not important to understand that that is year after year after year? Would he set that in contrast with the awful toll we have had from covid and the terrible restrictions that we have necessarily placed upon the population of this country, and agree with me that getting rid of this horrible substance would be far less of an intrusion on people’s liberties than the sort of things we have seen over the past 18 months? Over time, that would have a far greater impact on health, wellbeing and people’s ability to go about their daily lives. It would reduce the burden on the national health service very substantially indeed, and address the health inequalities that sadly mean the life expectancy of the richest and poorest in this country are currently separated by upwards of 10 years.
I could not have put it better myself. My right hon. Friend quite clearly makes the comparison between covid-19 and smoking. People cannot help catching covid, but when they smoke they make the choice as to whether they inflict life-changing circumstances on themselves.
Like my hon. Friend, I had a parent who died in their 40s from throat cancer. As we try to migrate 7 million people away from burnt tobacco, the challenge is to move them to less harmful forms of nicotine. Their addiction is to the nicotine; they crave nicotine, not the burning of tobacco. If we can make these transitions, we can reduce harm at a much quicker rate.
My hon. Friend is quite right. Nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs on the market, if not the most addictive, and perfectly legal to consume. The issue is whether someone, once addicted to nicotine, can quit. The damage is done not necessary by the nicotine, but by the delivery mechanism by which someone gets the nicotine.
Anything that reduces the risk of cancer or other related diseases has got to be good news. We can migrate people and encourage them to quit. Ideally, they give up completely. However, because it is so addictive they may need help and assistance to do that. Vaping and non-heated tobacco are ways of migrating people to safer means of delivering the nicotine they desire.
Taking up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), ending smoking is essential if we are to level up the nation’s health after the pandemic. We need to reduce health inequalities between rich and poor, and increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035, in line with the Government’s manifesto commitments.
As well as being necessary, tobacco control measures are popular with voters for every main party, including the Conservative party, which both my hon. Friend the Minister and I represent. Results from the annual YouGov survey of over 10,000 adults in England, funded by Action on Smoking and Health, show that more than three quarters of the public support the Government’s smoke-free 2030 ambition, and eight out of 10 members of the public support Government intervention to limit smoking.
The Government have the full support of the APPG in delivering the smoke-free 2030 ambition. However, as the Government stated in the 2019 prevention Green Paper, achieving that ambition will require “bold action.” Inequalities in smoking rates have grown in recent years, not shrunk. In order to be smoke-free by 2030, we need to reduce smoking by two thirds in just a decade—we have only nine years left to achieve that—and by three quarters for smokers in routine and manual occupations. At current rates of decline, Cancer Research UK has estimated we will miss the target by seven years, and double that for the poorest in society.
There are still nearly 6 million smokers in England. We will only achieve a smoke-free 2030 by motivating more smokers to make quit attempts, using the most effective quitting aids, while also reducing the number of children and young adults who start smoking each year. With 1,500 people dying from smoking-related diseases every week and less than a decade to achieve a smoke-free 2030, there is no time to waste.
Disappointingly, with the end of the year in sight, there is still no sign of the tobacco control plan that was promised this year. My first question to my hon. Friend the Minister, therefore, is whether she can she set out a timeline for the publication of the next tobacco control plan. But the tobacco control plan is only as strong as the measures it includes. That is why the APPG was disappointed that the Government rejected the amendments to the Health and Care Bill tabled by my friend the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), and supported by myself and other officers of the APPG, in Committee.
Those amendments would have closed the loopholes in the regulations that expose children to the insidious marketing tactics of the tobacco industry, provided funding for tobacco control and strengthened the regulation of tobacco. As it stands, the Bill fails to include a single mention of smoking or tobacco and represents a major missed opportunity to introduce key policies for achieving a smoke-free 2030. That is why we have retabled the amendments on Report. I hope the Government will look at them sympathetically, because the Bill is the ideal opportunity for them to deliver their 2019 commitment to finish the job and introduce the legislation that is needed if we are to achieve a smoke-free 2030. My second question is whether the Minister will commit to considering the adoption of tobacco amendments to the Health and Care Bill on Report.
My next area is the “polluter pays” levy. The bold action that the Government acknowledge is needed cannot be taken without investment. The Health Foundation estimates that a minimum £1 billion is needed to restore public health funding to its 2015 levels, with more needed to level up public health across the country. While there was some positive news on tobacco taxation in the recent spending review, which we welcomed, unfortunately the Government opted not to increase the public health grant to local authorities. As a consequence, we need to establish new sources of funding.
The Government promised to consider a US-style “polluter pays” levy on tobacco manufacturers in the 2019 prevention Green Paper. This scheme would mirror the approach taken in the United States, where user fee legislation raises $711 million annually from the tobacco manufacturers, with the funds then used to cover the cost of stop smoking campaigns, tobacco control policy development, implementation and enforcement.
I must say that I am opposed to punitive taxation policies, because I do not think they work. Does the hon. Member accept that tobacco companies already pay the Government £13 billion? An additional levy could lead—and most likely would lead, as the evidence shows—to a significant increase in criminality, because instead of paying for taxable product, people will buy smuggled product. Is that not a huge worry that he has about introducing a levy?
I will come to some of these issues in a few moments, if the hon. Gentleman will be patient and let me build the case. Obviously, it has been estimated by ASH that the funding needed for a comprehensive tobacco control plan to deliver a smoke-free 2030 would cost around £266 million for England and £315 million in total for the UK. A levy could raise around £700 million from the tobacco manufacturers, to be spent on tobacco control and other public health initiatives. The devolved Governments would also have the ability to opt into the scheme, should they so wish.
Such a scheme is more than justified in response to market failure that allows an industry, whose products kill consumers when used as intended, to make exorbitant profits. While net operating profits for most consumer staples, such as food, beverages and household goods, stands at 12% to 20%, Imperial Brands in the UK enjoyed net operating profits of 71% in 2019. That is £71 in profit for every £100 in sales. In 2018, it is estimated that tobacco manufacturers made over £900 million in profits in the UK alone.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) makes an interesting point about taxation. Would it be possible for politicians, with all their imagination, to use the taxation system to encourage cigarette and tobacco companies to transition their products away from combustible tobacco to less dangerous nicotine-delivery mechanisms?
My hon. Friend makes a good point; clearly, research could be undertaken to establish how we could use the taxation system to transition people in that way. I personally welcome the escalators that have been put on tobacco products and continued by the Chancellor.
Despite the enormous profitability for those companies, major tobacco manufacturers pay very little profit tax in the UK. That probably reflects their global engagement in diverse and elaborate tax avoidance strategies, which allowed Imperial Brands to lower its UK corporate tax bill by an estimated £1.8 billion over the past 10 years, and British American Tobacco to reduce its bill by an estimated £760 million over the same period. Public support is strong for such a measure, with 77% of the public supporting making tobacco manufacturers pay a levy or licence fee to the Government for measures to help smokers quit and to prevent young people from taking up smoking, and just 6% opposing it.
The covid-19 pandemic has put huge pressure on public finances, and there is a desperate need for bold, properly funded policies to level up public health after the pandemic. Our recommendations on the “polluter pays” approach are backed up by a much more detailed policy paper on how this would work, which we commend to the Minister and her officials. Will the Minister commit that the recommendations for a “polluter pays” mechanism will be included in any consideration of how the tobacco control plan should be funded?
My last major point is about raising the age of sale. If England is to be smoke-free by 2030, we need to prevent people from starting smoking at the most susceptible ages—when they are adolescents and young adults. Two thirds of those who try smoking go on to become regular smokers, only a third of whom succeed in quitting during their lifetime. Experimentation is rare after the age of 21. Therefore, the more we can do to prevent exposure and access to tobacco before that age, the more young people we can stop from becoming hooked into this deadly addiction.
Raising the age of sale from 16 to 18 was associated with a 30% reduction in smokers aged 16 and 17 in England, as was increasing the age of sale to 21 in the United States among 18 to 20-year-olds. University College London estimates that increasing the legal age of sale from 18 to 21 would immediately result in 95,000 fewer smokers aged 18 to 20 in 2022, and an additional 77,000 fewer smokers over the long term, to 2030. That would reduce smoking prevalence among 18 to 20-year-olds to 2%, compared to 9.6% without the intervention. It would be simple and inexpensive to introduce, as ongoing enforcement costs are already factored into the existing age regulations. This is the regulatory measure that would have the biggest impact on reducing smoking prevalence among young adults.
Compared to non-smokers aged 18 to 20, smokers in this age group are more likely to be from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. As such, the effect in increasing the age of sale would be particularly beneficial in poorer and more disadvantaged communities. It could also have knock-on benefits. Smoking during pregnancy, for example, is concentrated among young, disadvantaged mothers, and whether a woman smokes during pregnancy is significantly affected by her wider environment. Discouraging experimentation and the uptake of smoking among young, disadvantaged people would prevent smoking in young women who may go on to become pregnant, as well as their male partners, friends and family members. That then reduces the likelihood that young women and their children will be exposed to toxic second-hand smoke during, or indeed after, pregnancy.
In keeping with the current age of sale legislation, raising the age to 21 is not about criminalising those under that age, but about making it much more difficult for them to get hold of tobacco. Increasing the age of sale is supported by a majority of the adult population, with 63% in favour and just 15% opposed. The support is consistent among Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat voters—I do not have figures for the Democratic Unionist party. That is also true for those aged 18 to 24, among whom 54% support the measure and just 24% oppose, and for 11 to 18-year-olds, of whom 59% support and 14% oppose.
Given the strength of the evidence and the public consensus that this is the right thing to do, I and other members of the all-party parliamentary group urge the Government to launch a public consultation on raising the age of sale. It is particularly important to encourage children and young adults, who will be most affected by the policy, to participate.
Experience of smoke-free law implementation in England in 2007 showed that a public consultation can help raise awareness and bolster compliance with legislation. For example, 98% of all premises and vehicles inspected in the first nine months after the law was implemented complied fully with the legislation, and 81% of business decision makers thought the law was a good idea.
When the Government rejected the amendment to the Health and Care Bill that would have provided the power to raise the age of sale to 21 by regulation, they said that they would like to review the evidence base for increasing the age of sale to 21 in more detail. That seems to me and others a very good idea. The best way to do that would be by carrying out a consultation, which is what we are calling for in the revised amendment on Report. I urge the Minister not to wait for the debate but to give her support to the consultation now.
My final question for the Minister is this: will she give a commitment to conducting a consultation on raising the age of sale from 18 to 21 within three months of Royal Assent of the Health and Care Bill? That brings me to my conclusion, Mr Bone. I welcome the opportunity to have this debate and look forward to contributions from right hon. and hon Members and the replies from the Front Benchers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate and for his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health, of which I am vice-chair.
Two years after the Government stated their ambition to make England smoke-free by 2030, projections show that they will miss that target by seven years, and double that for the poorest in society. Despite a promise of further action on tobacco, we are still waiting for the new tobacco control plan, which the Government pledged to publish this year. In the absence of that new plan, the Health and Care Bill is a timely opportunity to take the first step towards a smoke-free 2030.
Despite the urgency of the issue and my best efforts in Committee, the Health and Care Bill fails to make a single mention of tobacco or smoking. To correct that oversight, I tabled amendments to the Bill, based on recommendations made by the APPG on smoking and health, including proposals for a “polluter pays” levy, health warnings on cigarettes and inside packaging, and to close the loophole allowing e-cigarettes to be marketed at children. Those measures are all low-cost or revenue-generating, are popular with the public and could be implemented quickly and easily by the Government. Although the Government expressed support for the principle behind the proposals, they rejected every single one, saying that they wanted to wait and see the evidence.
The Government have cited the need to wait for the publication of the post-implementation reviews of the Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015 and the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016. The Government were required by law to publish those by May 2021. That has now drifted to an aim to publish by the end of the year. Will the Minister say how much longer we will have to wait for the Government to start taking action to deliver the smoke-free 2030 ambition? She should know that if the APPG’s amendments are not adopted in the House of Commons, they will be retabled in the other place.
Today I want to briefly make the case for my proposals and address the Government’s arguments against them. The first proposal is to include health warnings on cigarettes and cigarette papers. Substantial research supports their implementation, and they are already under consideration in Canada, Australia and Scotland. Such warnings would be cheap and easy to implement through a simple amendment to the Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015. The Government said they were sympathetic to the aims of the measure, but they are not willing to adopt it, citing the need to conduct further research and for more evidence. Warnings such as “smoking kills” have been shown to be effective on billboards and tobacco packs, so why would they not be effective on cigarette sticks, too? Adding warnings to cigarette sticks is also important because young people in particular are likely to begin smoking with an individual cigarette rather than packs. There have also been at least eight peer-reviewed academic studies published since 2015 that specifically looked at warnings on sticks and found them to be effective, particularly in making cigarettes less attractive to younger adolescents and never-smokers.
Cigarette pack inserts that provide health information have been required in Canada since 2000. Substantial evidence shows that they are effective, and research supports their use in the UK, too. The Government have already acknowledged in the prevention Green Paper that there could be a positive role for inserts giving quitting advice in tobacco products. Pack inserts are easy and cheap to introduce and, as the Government have acknowledged, could be implemented by a simple revision of the Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015. Again, the Government refuse to adopt the amendment, citing the need for further research and public consultation and to wait for the recommendations of the post-implementation review of the SPOT regulations, yet there is no guarantee that the review will contain concrete recommendations. Indeed, the 2019 review failed to do that. My concern is that the measure needed will just get kicked into the long grass, putting the 2030 ambition at risk.
There are currently no controls on the use of branding to promote e-cigarette products, some of which, particularly e-liquids, are branded in a way that is clearly attractive to children through the use of bright colours, sweet names and cartoon characters. Research by YouGov for ASH found that in 2021, 3.3% of 11 to 17-year-old never-smokers have tried e-cigarettes once or twice; 0.5% use them less than weekly; and 0.2% use them more than once a week. Although those percentages seem low, it still amounts to 174,900 never-smokers trying e-cigarettes. Another 26,500 carried on using them, and 10,600 used them more than once a week. The ASH YouGov survey of adults and young people found that standardising the packaging of e-cigarettes and refills reduces the appeal of vaping to young people, particularly young children, while having little impact on adult smokers’ interest in using the products to quit smoking. Frustratingly, the amendment was voted down by the Government in Committee.
A further issue that must be addressed is that although it is illegal for e-cigarettes to be sold to children under 18, it is not illegal for them to be given out as free samples to under-18s. That loophole fails to deliver on the spirit of the legislation, which is designed to protect children from nicotine addiction. Clearly, the legislation needs amending to ban the sale and free distribution of any consumer nicotine product to under-18s. The Government inexplicably voted down that proposal in Committee. They said that they did not have a firm or robust evidence base at present to suggest that there was a widespread problem. As stated, around 174,900 never-smokers aged 11 to 17 have tried e-cigarettes and another 10,500 use them more than once a week. Does the Minister genuinely think that we should wait until their use of e-cigarettes becomes a significant problem before taking action to remove this loophole?
Finally, I want to talk about flavourings. The ban on flavourings in smoking tobacco was introduced because flavourings, particularly menthol, make it easier for young people to start smoking and increase the likelihood that they will become addicted smokers. However, the flavour ban only prohibits characterising flavours, which are subjective and difficult to measure, making the ban easy to circumvent and complex to oversee. Legislation in Canada bans all flavours, which is easier to implement and enforce. There is good reason to do that, as the tobacco industry has introduced several innovations that have exploited loopholes in the regulations to undermine the impact of the ban. For example, Japan Tobacco International launched a range of alternative products containing menthol, but which they claimed complied with the law. Figures in the Express revealed that 12 months after the ban came into force in 2020, the company had sold more than 100 million packs and made around £91.65 million in profits from menthol brands.
In addition, modified smoking accessories have been introduced, including cards, filter papers and filters, that are designed to add a menthol flavour to both hand-rolling tobacco and cigarette sticks. UCL’s smoking toolkit study found no decline in the proportion of smokers in England reporting menthol cigarette smoking following the introduction of the ban, and it suggested that smokers of menthol cigarettes were able to take advantage of the loophole. The flavour ban is clearly failing to prevent the sale of flavoured tobacco, which is why I propose extending the ban to all tobacco flavours, not just those described as characterising.
Again the Government oppose the measure, claiming that
“it is not clear how a ban on flavours would be enforced in practice”.––[Official Report, Health and Care Public Bill Committee, 28 October 2021; c. 815.]
That is not logical as it is much easier to enforce a complete ban on flavours than on only those defined as characterising, which is very subjective.
Does the Minister agree that the tobacco industry is making a mockery of the current flavour ban? Will she commit to closing the loophole by removing the limitation to only include flavours defined as characterising as soon as possible and extending the ban, which currently only applies to cigarettes, to all tobacco products and smoking accessories?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I join the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health, on securing an important debate, and I compliment his outstanding record in the subject area of smoking cessation. As he will know, I chair a separate APPG—the all-party parliamentary group for vaping—which I established in 2014. I do not vape, have never smoked and have no personal interest in vaping, but I set up the APPG after meeting with a proprietor of a small business in my Rugby constituency, who was concerned that impending legislation from the EU—the tobacco products directive—might mean that his customers would not have access to a product that had enabled many of them to finally stop smoking.
Another reason for getting involved was that a member of staff in my office had tried every mechanism available to him—patches and other routes—to quit smoking, but the only thing that had worked was vaping. Since setting up the APPG for vaping, we have heard from many members of the public about the benefits of vaping in enabling them to stop smoking, and the support that has been given to that position by Public Health England’s assertion in 2015 that vaping was 95% safer than smoking combustible tobacco.
I believe that two points should be integral to the treatment of vaping in the forthcoming tobacco control plan. First, there is the recognition of relative risk and harm reduction products, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker). Secondly, there is the fundamental importance of distinguishing between combustible tobacco, which we all know and have heard in the debate already is extremely harmful, and the far less harmful non-combustible alternatives that are available. The new plan should continue on the progressive path that the UK has forged over the last few years by continuing to recognise the importance of reduced-risk products in reducing smoking prevalence in our country. It is absolutely essential that we do not conflate smoking combustible tobacco with vaping. That position is not helped by the fact that we regularly see in public places signs telling people that smoking is not permitted and nor is vaping. Signage and messages such as that are putting it in people’s minds that there is an equivalent harm between smoking and vaping, when we know that is not the case. They are entirely separate activities and should be treated as such.
It was concerning to read through some of the documents from the recently concluded framework convention on tobacco control COP9 meeting and see a concerted effort by some to treat vaping as smoking. The hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned that concern. We should push back against such messages at all costs. Earlier, and by contrast, it has been pleasing to see the Government acknowledge the importance of vaping. They did so in the 2017 tobacco control plan and I believe the case for vaping has increased since that time. Of the estimated 3.3 million vapers in the UK, 1.8 million are ex-smokers and the balance are smokers who also vape. We need to recognise that category of people, who reduce their exposure to tobacco by continuing to smoke from time to time but who also use vaping as an alternative device. If we assume that when they are vaping they might otherwise be smoking, their use of vaping products at that time helps their health.
Vaping has played a significant role in recent years in reducing smoking prevalence. If the Government are serious about their 2019 commitment to getting smoke-free by 2030, the role of vaping should be reinforced and supported through the new tobacco control plan. However, as we have heard, we know that approximately 7 million people continue to smoke in the UK and we need to do all that we can to help the many people who have tried to move from cigarettes to safer, reduced-risk products, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne said.
Over the past year the APPG for vaping has conducted two inquiries, with two reports, which I know the Minister has seen. The first focused on the UK’s position at the recent COP9 and the second analysed the opportunities available for tobacco harm reduction policies post Brexit. I thank the Minister for her receipt of our reports and for meeting the members of the APPG ahead of COP9 last week. I know that all Members, not just the members of APPGs, will be interested to hear from the Minister some of her thoughts on the outcome of COP9. She will, I know, acknowledge the delay in publishing the tobacco control plan that we expected this summer, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. Can the Minister confirm that the post-implementation review into tobacco-related products will be published beforehand, as recommended by the APPG in its most recent report? I hope that she can also confirm that the new plan will not be published prior to the publication of Office for National Statistics data for 2021 on smoking prevalence. We understand that that was something that her predecessor intimated.
The APPG’s expert recommendations on how we can achieve a smoke-free 2030 can embrace the ideas to help eliminate smoking, tackle inequalities and help level up and strengthen consumer confidence in vaping by tackling some of the misinformation that is currently prevalent. Our report called for the tobacco control plan to ensure that we meet our 2030 smoke-free target by setting out a clear plan to achieve it, embracing the concept of tobacco harm reduction and, as mentioned previously, ensuring that the post-implementation review of the tobacco and related products regulations is published ahead of time. It is imperative that the evidence gathered through the process is properly considered, transparently disclosed and used to best effect before we set out our new policy direction under the new tobacco control plan. The new plan should be used as an opportunity to introduce a multi-category approach that, as we heard earlier, encourages switching to less harmful alternatives when a smoker is unable or unlikely to quit entirely. As we have heard, we know that it is the process of combustion that carries the harm in cigarettes, so we need to fully analyse all the non-combustible reduced-risk products available on the market and align our regulations for all of these products—as has been advocated for by the Royal College of Surgeons.
Finally, we should use the new tobacco control plan as an opportunity for the UK to cement its place as the world leader in tobacco harm reduction. I have been on calls with representatives of other countries; we have a lead in this area that other countries look to and it is important that we maintain that. I know the Minister will agree that that means allowing sensible communication on the benefit of vaping, rather than banning their promotion and looking at the transposed EU tobacco products directive. That way, we can make sure that they are fit for purpose for our more progressive approach to tobacco control and harm reduction. By making these changes we will give ourselves a real chance to reach our smoke-free 2030 target. Without bold leadership—which I know the Minister will provide us with—there is a danger that we will miss that target; as a consequence, we will miss the opportunity to help those 7 million people who still smoke get off tobacco for good.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this important debate. He and I share many interests in common in this House, and this is one of them. I welcome the new Public Health Minister to her role. It is vital that smoking should be at the top of the Government’s list of priorities. Although Northern Ireland and the devolved nations are responsible for our own public health policies, the Government in Westminster retain responsibility for important UK-wide policies. Ensuring that the Minister understands the importance of urgent action on smoking is therefore vital for ensuring that we make the progress we need to make in Northern Ireland.
Last year, a review of Northern Ireland’s progress in the 10-year tobacco control survey, published in 2012, was released. Although we met our target in ensuring a minimum of 5% of the smoking population accesses smoking cessation services annually, that was the only target from the 2012 strategy that had been achieved, which is disappointing. Quite clearly, we are not hitting our targets at a population level. Results from Northern Ireland’s health survey show there has been no significant change in smoking rates from 2018-19, with 17% of the adult population still smoking—the highest rates in the UK. This is extremely disappointing and, as my party’s health spokesperson, I am concerned about what is happening.
Of most concern, however, is that we are failing the most disadvantaged smokers. The target was to reduce smoking rates among manual workers from 31% to 20% by 2020. We are far from this, with rates among manual workers still at a very stubborn 27%. Similarly, rates of smoking in pregnancy have barely declined over the years, despite that having been a priority in the strategy, as the hon. Member for Harrow East mentioned. We had hoped to reduce levels from 15% in 2010 to 9% by 2020. However, the proportion of pregnant women who smoke at the time of delivery is still a very disappointing 14%. We all know that that puts women and their babies at risk of serious and avoidable harm. We are, however, doing better with children and young people—another priority area. Smoking rates among 11 to 16-year-olds have been halved to 4% since 2010. We had set a target of 3%, which was missed. We are not there yet, but that is one area of improvement.
Although smoking rates have declined among children and young people, analysis by Cancer Research UK estimates that 10 children under 16 take up smoking every day across Northern Ireland. If that does not worry you, Mr Bone, it should. Children who live with smokers are almost three times more likely to take up smoking than children from non-smoking households, which creates a generational cycle of inequality, with smoking locked into disadvantaged communities. It is clear to me, in the statistics that are put forward, that disadvantaged communities are one of the areas that the Government and the strategy need to address.
A third of smokers in Northern Ireland still report smoking inside their home, which demonstrates that there is much further to go in creating smoke-free communities and protecting children and others in the household, but progress is being made. I trust that hon. Members saw the recent announcement that, not before time, Northern Ireland will join the other UK nations in banning smoking in cars carrying children. That overdue but welcome measure will help to protect our young people and prevent the creation of a new generation of smokers.
Smoking is a significant challenge in Northern Ireland, particularly in our most disadvantaged communities, which have faced so much adversity in the last 18 months. Those problems are not specific to Northern Ireland, however, as smoking and the inequality that it causes are challenges for the whole UK. Our job is not over yet. Northern Ireland and the whole UK have much further to go on smoking, and there is no time to lose.
I trust that the Minister agrees with all hon. Members and will be even more steadfast in her conviction by the end of the debate. The recent Budget and spending review was an opportunity to go much further in achieving the smoke-free society that we need. Regrettably, that was not realised. Tax increases are one of the most effective interventions that we have to reduce smoking rates and uptake, although that may not be all hon. Members’ opinion. Vitally, they are also the only intervention proven to reduce inequality.
I am convinced, like the hon. Member for Harrow East, that increasing the cost of tobacco products through taxes drives down smoking rates, increases tax revenues and reduces the cost to public finances and society. I hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance. It is an intervention that we should make the most of. The Chancellor’s announcement that the duty escalator rate on all tobacco products would increase by 2% above inflation, and by 6% above inflation on hand-rolling tobacco was welcome, but we could and should have gone further.
There is still a major gap in excise tax rates between factory made cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco, which makes the latter more affordable and encourages smokers to trade down to it rather than quitting. That disparity has made hand-rolling tobacco increasingly popular over the years, which should have been addressed by the Chancellor. It is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I am keen to hear her thoughts on it and what discussions she may have had with the Chancellor. In 1998, fewer than one in five smokers mainly rolled their own cigarettes, but that number is about one in three in Northern Ireland today. I would welcome that issue being addressed through tax revenue. Tobacco taxes are a reserved issue, so I hope that the new tobacco control plan will commit to maintaining high duty rates on tobacco products, as the last one did. I also hope that the Chancellor will seize future opportunities to increase duty rates for tobacco products.
I have repeatedly raised the issue of licensing for tobacco retailers in this House and I will do so again. In Northern Ireland, since 6 April 2016, retailers have been obliged to register with the tobacco register of Northern Ireland; the final deadline for doing so was 1 July 2016. That built on a similar scheme already in place in Scotland, and a scheme is due for implementation in Wales. Since 2018, we have implemented a track-and-trace scheme that requires every retailer to have an economic operator identifier code registered to their business and a facility identifier code for each store or premises that stores tobacco.
Since leaving the EU, the UK has established and launched its own system, with Northern Ireland operating in the UK and EU systems. That makes it easy for all nations in the UK, including England, to not just implement a retail register scheme, but go further and implement a comprehensive retail licensing scheme. Retail licensing is the obvious back-up to the tracking and tracing of cigarettes and would help to tackle the illicit trade that gives smokers access to cheap tobacco.
In Northern Ireland, there has been a serious issue with paramilitaries using illegal tobacco as one of their revenue streams. Those who sell it have no compunction about selling it to children too. The illegal trade makes it not just less likely that smokers will quit, but more likely that children will start. That double whammy greatly concerns me. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is aware of that and is taking steps to address the issue.
I urged the Minister’s predecessors to ensure that their officials were in contact with the devolved nations on retail licensing and I do so again. Will the Minister ensure that her colleagues at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs talk to their equivalents in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales about their experiences with tobacco retail licensing and the lessons that they have learned regionally from the experiences of the devolved nations?
I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak. England remains an outlier on this important measure that could help to tackle illicit trade and protect children from tobacco. My absolute priority is stopping children’s access to tobacco. We can and should address those issues collectively, bringing knowledge from the nations that we represent—the four regions of the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If we do so, I am confident that we can and will deliver policy that helps not only us but the constituents that we serve. That is our duty.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate. I recently joined the all-party parliamentary group for vaping, but I have taken an interest in that area ever since it became a matter of not infrequent discussion when I was a Member of the European Parliament, especially in relation to the EU tobacco products directive and some of the flaws therein. We need a serious debate about advertising practices related to vaping and misinformation about the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products. That is especially significant for me as the Member of Parliament for Northampton South, which has a nationally high smoking rate of 18.8%.
The Government’s tobacco control plan must be based on the significant and growing body of evidence that vaping is an effective alternative for smokers. I thank the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and his team for announcing that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has updated its guidance on medical licensing for e-cigarettes, allowing them to be prescribed to those trying to quit smoking. However, there is still a public perception that vaping is as harmful, or more harmful, than smoking. The rate of smokers switching to vaping has slowed over the last 18 months, largely because of misleading media articles and junk science causing concerns over the quality of e-cigarettes. Some 53% of smokers believe that vaping is as harmful or more harmful than smoking, according to a 2021 Government updated evidence summary. There needs to be concrete and clear information on passive vaping to counter the public misconception that it is harmful.
It is clear that the Government and industry must push back against those misconceptions, and the forthcoming tobacco control plan must set out to tackle them. I encourage the Government to look at some of the proposals put forward in Canada and New Zealand, which hon. Members have mentioned. These countries are introducing approved health claims and messaging about switching from smoking to vaping, alongside some nicotine health warnings.
We must make a clearer distinction between smoking and vaping. There must be clear standards that differentiate smoking from vaping in public spaces—and importantly in work spaces. The last thing that someone attempting to quit smoking wants is to stand around in the same vicinity as smokers. Employers should have specific workplace vaping policies that balance the needs of vapers and smokers. The parliamentary estate could lead the way in adopting and implementing this policy.
Finally, I ask the Minister to support online vape retailers. Retailers and manufacturers must be able to responsibly promote their products online, and to highlight the health and cost benefits of switching to e-cigarettes. At this point, I suppose that my wife would say, “Il meglio è nemico del bene”—the best is the enemy of the good. I am not unaware that there are drawbacks and problems with nicotine intake. However, given the damage that smoking does to people’s health and the sad personal experiences that we have heard today, that expression must be borne very much in mind.
Vape retailers are unable to use their own websites and social media platforms to communicate the benefits of vaping to customers. The barriers faced by online vape retailers are disproportionate and should be removed to allow effective communication with those attempting to stop smoking, which is critical, by switching to vaping. Compared with methods such as patches, which were used when as a county council leader I took part in the return of public health to local government in 2009 to 2013, vaping’s effectiveness is clear. We are in all seriousness talking about saving lives.
I declare an interest as the chair of The Gallaher Trust, which was set up half a dozen years ago in the wake of the closure of tobacco production in Northern Ireland. It was named after Tom Gallaher, a huge industrialist in Northern Ireland who created tens of thousands of jobs. Although the charity has absolutely nothing to do with the promotion, sale or development of tobacco—it is a skills development charity, of which I am an honorary and unremunerated chairman—I think it is important to put my interest on record, because of the association that people may draw from that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate. He has presented the arguments in the way that he always does, very persuasively. It is important that we have had a very good, healthy debate. It has showed that we are probably all on the same page. We want to get to the same finish line, but there are differences in nuance and in how we get there. I think it is important that we explore those differences and we try to get there in the best, most efficient and effective way.
Any tobacco control plan must be evidence-based, not based on emotions. Evidence is key. Innovations to support quitting smoking are crucial to the plan. We have heard something of the detail from the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and others who are very keen that we develop innovation to ensure a systematic quitting of smoking. The evidence shows that high punitive taxation policies simply do not work. For someone growing up in a deprived society, whose parents have low wages, and where cigarettes—a lawful product in the local shops—are nearly £15 a pack, the temptation to purchase a pack for a fiver from someone round the local pub is huge and significant. The real thrust of any tobacco control plan must go hand in hand with a plan that addresses criminality. Aside from one or two vague mentions of criminality, that is what is absent from the plan.
We have to focus on criminality. We can tax this product until it squeaks even more, but unless we address the criminality that lies behind illegal product and illegal product sales across the United Kingdom, I am afraid that consumption rates will stay at a very high, stubborn level. I do not believe that there are fewer than 10 million smokers in the United Kingdom. I think that anyone who believes that is in cloud cuckoo land. Walk down any street in this city and count the first 100 people. I would say that in excess of 20 people on average are smoking. That is a rudimentary calculation. In other places it is considerably higher—in night culture, for instance. Let us face the fact that smoking consumption is probably at a much higher rate than the figures suggest. Therefore, all the punitive taxation policies that have been adopted by the United Kingdom—and they are the highest in the world—are not addressing the stubborn fact that people are continuing to smoke.
Let us pivot and get on to other counteracting measures. Where do those other measures rest? I believe there is a role for partnership with experts. Three things need to be done. We need to explore, develop and ensure that new products are brought to the market expeditiously. We need to engage a huge amount of effort in education, especially for young people and women. We need to make sure there is adequate, sensible and robust enforcement against criminality.
As has been mentioned today, there is a full range of new products already on the market to ensure that less harmful products are available to smokers, helping them to reduce their habit and get away from smoking. I applaud companies that have created e-cigarettes, nicotine patches, heated products and vaping, to encourage people away from the very harmful addiction to tobacco and nicotine. Those less harmful alternatives must be pursued and we must encourage their use, not discourage it. Indeed, the points that were made earlier regarding misinformation about those products should be addressed sensibly by central Government. There must be co-operation with responsible companies that want to make their lawful product and pay tax on it. That co-operation should allow research and development to happen, to enable them to get away from manufacturing the single product that they currently produce.
Some mention has been made today of the levy, and it was suggested that there should be a new levy on tobacco manufacturing companies. As I said earlier, we in the United Kingdom pay the highest taxes in the world on a pack of cigarettes—I think that 90% of what we pay for cigarettes goes to the Government—but that high tax has not solved the problem by reducing consumption. What happens is that people are driven towards buying unlawful products, thinking that that is a harmless activity. Many people who purchase cheap cigarettes think that they come over from mainland Europe in a white van and do no one any harm, but of course most of those products are illegally made. They are not made by the tobacco companies. What is inside those products is beyond tobacco and therefore, incredibly, they are even more harmful than cigarettes. People do not necessarily realise it, but selling those products is a huge and significant crime in our kingdom.
In the last number of years, over £1 billion-worth of illicit cigarettes have been sold in the United Kingdom. This is not a problem exclusive to Northern Ireland; in fact, we are the minority. This is a multi-million pound problem across the whole United Kingdom, and we have to get to grips with it as soon as we can. That multi-million pound crime syndicate needs to be broken up and destroyed.
Regarding taxation, in 2019-20 tobacco alone accounted for £11.25 billion of the Government’s revenues. However, if we set against that the criminal sales of tobacco, we see that the Government lost almost £3 billion in tobacco revenue. There is a huge gap that could be made up. On the point about a levy, if there was proper enforcement against the criminals, an extra £3 billion would be available—legitimately raised from legitimate sales—for things such as the promotion of education, research and development. Imposing another levy on the tobacco companies is lazy and would not address the problem of crime; indeed, that problem would continue to grow. Until we face up to that, we will keep coming back to this House—year in and year out, decade in and decade out—and inflating taxation but seeing consumption remain stubbornly high.
Let us address the real issue of properly attacking the criminals. In 2020, HMRC gathered an additional £1.4 billion through its border control activities. That was an untapped source of new revenue, which came about largely as a result of Brexit and having more control of our borders, but also because of the pandemic and the inability to travel to and from the continent to bring illegal products in. The Government were able to raise revenue under those circumstances. With a little bit of ingenuity, they could continue to raise that additional £1.4 billion in previously untapped sources by clamping down on gangs and gathering the revenue that the public are entitled to have gathered on their behalf; that is something that HMRC should do proudly.
As Members know, there is a £10,000 on-the-spot fine for criminals engaged in evasion of tax on tobacco. People might say that that is a very high fine, but it is not. A case of illicit cigarettes is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds in illicit sales to a criminal, and a van full is worth over £1 million. Why is the on-the-spot fine not something like £50,000 or £100,000, in view of the sums that the criminals make? For every van that HMRC captures, at least 20 or 30 get through, so let us make sure that we have proper enforcement. The high price of a pack of cigarettes simply encourages people, especially those with less disposable income, to purchase illicit products.
I understand the point that was made about the age limit, but if we are going to change the age limit for smoking, we have to look at the whole panoply of age limits across the United Kingdom—for alcohol consumption, driving, betting and smoking. It would be incredibly difficult to enforce different age limits rather than having a standardised one. If a 20-year-old tells a shopkeeper that they are 21 and they want to buy a pack of cigarettes, that would be incredibly difficult to enforce. Shopkeepers already find it hard to tell an 18-year-old from a 14-year-old in some circumstances.
Let us make sure that we have a standardised age for sales rather than different ages for different products. I do not think the Government are looking at that point, but it will no doubt gather momentum, because it seems to be an easy solution. None of these easy solutions work. Hard attacks against criminal enterprises are where we will make a significant difference.
We need to avoid the danger of virtue signalling—I am not saying any of that has gone on today; we have had a good, positive and practical debate—and move towards evidence-based solutions, including by encouraging companies to make less harmful product available to the public, by enforcing and controlling the legitimate enterprises of business and by ensuring that criminals are not allowed to get away with their multibillion-pound criminal enterprise. Otherwise, we should really go the whole hog and ban tobacco altogether in the United Kingdom. To achieve some of the goals that have been set out, that is where this debate has to be taken. It is not being taken there at present, but we need to get real on this.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Mr Bone. I add to colleagues’ congratulations to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate, and on his leadership on this issue in Parliament through the all-party group and beyond. He made an outstanding case in his opening speech and set the tone for a debate that will, I hope, be practical and impactful.
The hon. Gentleman characterised his all-party group as a critical friend. That is very much the case, and in that sense it is the best example of a parliamentary group. It has been very impactful, especially through its most recent reports, which I will borrow from liberally. I hope to continue in the spirit of cross-party support that he and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) have established. There is not much politics in this area, and I think the less politics, the better. This is a big prize for the nation’s health, and together we can find a lot of the solutions. The hon. Gentleman led the debate in that spirt.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham is the leading Labour figure on this issue, as she showed during our very long proceedings in the Health and Care Bill Committee—you shared in a significant portion of those, Mr Bone. I thought her amendments were excellent and I was proud to support them. I had hoped that the Government would be minded to accept them, and the ideas are still good ones. The hon. Member for Harrow East has kindly offered the Minister another opportunity to do so during the next stage of proceedings on the Bill, and I dare say the noble Lords may offer similar opportunities. The Government need to pick up these ideas, the vast majority of which are very basic things on which I think there is complete consensus. I hope to hear from the Minister about some progress.
The hon. Members for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) made points about vaping. It is important to keep talking about vaping in debates such as this—if nothing else, about some of the misinformation that the hon. Member for Northampton South mentioned. Vaping does work as a quit aid. Of course, we do not want people to start, and we always need to say that. I am unable to recall by rote the phrase that the hon. Gentleman’s wife used, but I will sometimes take 95%, certainly when it comes to health. With the things that my constituents disproportionately lose their lives to, 95% seems like pretty good progress. I hope that that is part of the tobacco control plan, and that the Government focus on improving quality and standardisation in the market. From looking in shops, I know how difficult it is to find the same product twice. That tells us about the vagaries in that market, which could be greatly improved.
When the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was speaking, I was struck by the fact that much of what he said about Strangford could equally be said about Nottingham North. He could have said “Nottingham North” instead of “Strangford”, and we would have heard the same thing. Health is a devolved matter, and it is important to respect that, but I hope we can move forward, by consent, as four nations on this matter. That would resolve some of the issues around illicit tobacco mentioned by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), as well as building public support and understanding. We would not want massive variances on this issue, so I hope we can reach a consensus.
I agree with the hon. Member for North Antrim that we need to be evidence-based and to promote innovation. In my view, the evidence strongly shows that tax works as a driver for reducing smoking, and it has done for consecutive decades. I am not blind to the increased risk of illicit tobacco and I am aware of it in my community, but I do not see this as an either/or situation. We can have a higher tax regime and be very serious about organised crime, and I would support that approach.
This is a really big prize for our country. As we have heard, 7 million people, or about 15% of adults, smoke, which has devastating consequences for illness and death. In 2019-20, more than half a million UK hospital admissions were attributed to smoking. We have made great progress over recent decades—that should be a point of great pride for all parties—and we have the lowest rates of smoking since records began. However, there must be a recognition that these gains are not equal, and I hope the Minister will say that that will be a focus for the next tobacco control plan.
Poor communities, such as mine, have benefitted less. In 2019, fewer than one in 10 professional and managerial workers smoked—that is well on the way to the smoke-free 2030 target of less than 5%—compared with nearly one in four workers in routine and manual occupations. That is a serious variance, and it is a big part of the reason why the life expectancy gap between the richest and the poorest has widened in recent years.
A child born in Nottingham today is expected to live for seven years fewer than one born in Westminster today. Looking at healthy life expectancy, rather than pure life expectancy, the gap is probably double that. If we were to tot up all the environmental factors involved, half of the difference is attributable to smoking. “Levelling up” is the phrase of the day, and this is a real levelling-up issue that I hope we can all coalesce around. That is reflected in the fact that three quarters of the public support the smoke-free 2030 ambition. As politicians we can see that, for once, the right thing is also the popular thing, which is rarely the case. We should take that opportunity.
In Health and Care Bill Committee debates, we explored these issues at length. I hope the Government will revisit the amendments that were proposed, and we will certainly be doing so. I hope the Minister will tell me that I am wrong and being uncharacteristically cynical, but I am anxious that we will not see a new tobacco control plan in the next six weeks. If that is the case, why not use the Health and Care Bill in front of us as a vehicle?
As the Minister is pulling together a tobacco control plan, I hope she will actively consider some of Opposition Members’ suggestions for that plan. First, there must be a resumption of the promotion of stopping smoking. Over the past 11 years, this Government have stopped evidence-based behaviour change campaigns, which have virtually disappeared. It is no surprise that quit attempts have reduced by a quarter. Such campaigns are good investments, and we have lost them from the public health grant. We need them to be returned.
I mentioned vaping, and that point has been well explored. We need access to stop smoking services, which have really good evidence bases on their impact. We know that they are most likely to be used by people in occupations where smoking remains stubbornly high, but we have lost them as the public health grant has been clobbered over the past decade. I know for an absolute certainty that any savings we have made there have been hoovered up by losses in the health service, and I hope we can do a bit better there. Three weeks ago, in the Budget, we did not hear about a reversal of those cuts in funding to public health, and that is really disappointing. However, if there is a financial issue here—as I say, I do not think there should be, because this should be seen as an investment rather than a cost—we can, as colleagues have said, help the Minister to pay for those services and still have some change left over for an uplift in the poorest communities through a levy based on the “polluter pays” principle. I hope that the Minister will mention that.
The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) asked the hon. Member for Harrow East whether the tax system could be a way of promoting changes within the tobacco industry. I think that is exactly right. When I meet representatives of the tobacco industry—I know it is out of fashion these days, but I meet anybody who asks me to meet them—they all tell me that they want to stop selling tobacco products to people. The tax system is a really good way of making good on that, and of taking the eye-watering profits that come through the system and investing them in effective ways of stopping people smoking. That would be a very good thing for everybody.
In the meantime, however, let us close the loopholes in tobacco control. The first, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham says, is that the packaging of e-cigarettes clearly shows they are being pushed to children. Secondly, hon. Members were shocked—although they should not be—that companies can give out vaping products to under-18s for nothing. That loophole is clearly outside of the spirit of the law, so let us do better there. The final point is about characterising flavours in tobacco, such as menthol. That should be a real problem for the Government, and indeed for Members of this House. The regulations that we passed had a clear intent, but they are being routinely circumvented to the point where, if hon. Members had their phones in front of them, they could find menthol products in seconds. This will not do, and it behoves the Government to come back to those regulations and make good on them, either by making them more effective or by promoting greater enforcement.
I know that colleagues are keen to hear the fullest response possible from the Minister, so I finish by reiterating Opposition Members’ support. I think we can do something really impactful here, and we should use this tobacco control plan to do so. The sooner we see a draft, the better, so we can begin that work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this important debate and for sharing his personal story with us. I also thank members of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health for their tireless work on tobacco control, as well as the APPG on vaping for their work.
The UK is rightly recognised as a world leader on tobacco control. That is because it has invested in a range of interventions over the past two decades, including a strong regulatory framework that has led to, among other things, the introduction of standardised packaging, the end of tobacco displays, and protection from the harms caused by second-hand smoke. Thanks to those interventions, smoking rates in England are down to a record low of just under 14%. However, although we celebrate that success, there are still around 6 million smokers in England, and therefore there is more to be done.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The burden of tobacco harms is not shared equally: smoking rates are far higher in poorer areas of the country, and among the lowest socioeconomic groups. Alongside the tragedy created by illness and early deaths, the NHS bears the heavy financial burden of £2.5 billion every year from smoking. In 2019-20, smoking was responsible for nearly half a million hospital admissions and around 64,000 deaths.
The Government have set the bold ambition for England to be smoke free by 2030. To support that ambition, we have been building on the successes of our current tobacco control plan. We will soon publish a new plan with an even sharper focus on tackling health disparities. That new plan will form a vital part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda and will set out a comprehensive package of new policy proposals and regulatory changes, to enable us to meet our smoke-free 2030 ambition.
We are, of course, carefully considering the recommendations of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health. Our new tobacco control plan will look to further strengthen our regulatory framework. We are exploring various regulatory proposals, including those put forward as amendments to the Health and Care Bill. We will conduct further research and build a robust evidence base in support of such measures, and will include the strongest proposals in the new plan.
One continuing concern is that one in 10 pregnant women are still smokers at the time of delivery, which is something that the Government are determined to tackle. The maternity transformation programme contains some important measures, and we have made a commitment under our NHS long-term plan that pregnant mothers and their partners will be offered NHS-funded treatment to help them to quit. I know that issue is close to the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. Our new plan will continue to have a strong focus on pregnancy and will encourage more innovation and new approaches to help mothers to quit.
The evidence is clear that e-cigarettes are less harmful to health than smoking. It remains the goal of the Government to maximise the opportunities presented by e-cigarettes to reduce smoking while managing any risks. Our regulatory framework enables smokers to use e-cigarettes to help them to quit, but we do not want to encourage non-smokers and young people to take up those products. In the current tobacco control plan we have actioned the MHRA to help bring medicinal e-cigarettes to the UK market. On 29 October, the MHRA published updated guidance to encourage manufacturers to do so.
Stop-smoking services remain at the heart of our tobacco control strategy, producing high quit rates of 59% after four weeks. Since 2000, they have helped nearly 5 million people to quit. We have protected the public health grant over the course of the spending review, to ensure that local authorities can continue to invest in stop-smoking services and campaigns specific to their areas. We will continue to support local authorities to prioritise those services.
The UK has been recognised as a global leader in tobacco control. We are proud to be a member of the World Health Organisation framework convention on tobacco control. My officials played an active role in the ninth conference of the parties—COP9—last week, and reaffirmed our commitment to deal with the global tobacco pandemic. It was a robust meeting, with more people attending than ever. In my video statement to COP9, I set out the UK commitment to having comprehensive tobacco control policies, including a strong regulatory framework for e-cigarettes. Our commitment to the WHO FCTC is further demonstrated through the overseas development funding we contribute to the FCTC 2030 project, which is now entering its sixth year. That project directly supports the implementation of the WHO FCTC in 31 low and middle-income countries, helping to reduce the burden of death and disease from tobacco.
I will now address some of the issues raised by right hon. and hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) talked about restrictions imposed during covid. Covid has highlighted the health disparities across the country. Our ambition to be smoke free by 2030 will play a major role in tackling those disparities. I would like to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East that I am conscious of the urgency of the publication of the tobacco control plan. However, I am determined that the plan will have robust and effective measures. He also highlighted measures that the APPG would like to see included. Along with my officials, I am looking carefully at each measure put forward.
Tobacco taxation was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow East and for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), as well as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). That is a matter for Her Majesty’s Treasury. However, the Department continues to work with HMT to assess the most effective regulatory means to support the Government’s smoke-free 2030 ambition, which includes exploring a potential future levy.
I am a bit short of time.
On raising the age from 18 to 21, we know how important the period between the ages of 18 and 21 is for those who may experiment with tobacco. We will include a focus on protecting young people and adults from the harms of tobacco within our tobacco control plan. As I have already indicated, I am ambitious for our new plan.
On the Health and Care Bill, at this stage we do not feel that it is the right Bill for the suggested measures without a full assessment. Members should rest assured that they will be fully considered as the tobacco control plan is finalised.
The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) asked about the post-implementation reviews. The Department will publish its response in the coming months. I make no excuse for the delay. We had more than 5,000 responses to that review, and that was coupled with the pressures that my Department has experienced on covid-19. I reassure colleagues that it is on our agenda and we will publish in due course.
The hon. Member for City of Durham also asked about the investigations into menthol. The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities is investigating a range of cigarettes to determine if the flavour of menthol is noticeable. Once that study is complete, we will explore whether further action is needed against companies that have breached regulations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby asked a number of questions. I understand that the ONS will publish smoking prevalence data for 2020 next month.
As I have already said, COP9 was one of the best attended conferences of the parties so far. I understand that there was a real buzz and an appetite to address the harms from tobacco and implement the framework convention on tobacco control, which I am sure will be welcomed by everybody in the room.
My hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) spoke about e-cigarettes. The Government are clear that we only support the use of e-cigarettes as a tool for smokers who are trying to quit, not as a route for people to take up smoking by another means. Our approach to e-cigarettes has been and will remain pragmatic and evidence-based.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South talked about the environment that those who are attempting to quit find themselves in. Vaping is not covered by the smoke-free legislation. It is down to individual businesses to determine how they consider the guidelines.
I extend my thanks to hon. Members for their participation in today’s debate. It has been very constructive and there is clearly cross-party support. I reiterate the Government’s commitment to a smoke-free 2030. As we build back better from the pandemic, our aim is to make smoking truly a thing of the past and level up society.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for her reply. I also thank the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson for his strong support. I thank every colleague who has participated in the debate. We all share the same view: smoking must be eliminated and we must get to a smoke-free 2030. All the advancements in legislation on this subject have come from the Back Benches, and they will continue to come from the Back Benches. If the Government refuse to act, we will continue to press further.
In answer to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), the “polluter pays” principle is key. When we raise tobacco tax at the point of delivery, the individual who smokes pays, but if we continue to tax the profits, we can pass the benefits on in terms of prevention. I thank colleagues for their contributions today. We have had a very good debate. No doubt the debate will continue, on both the Health and Care Bill and other measures.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the delivery of the Tobacco Control Plan.
Pedicabs: Women’s Safety
We move on to another important debate. While people are getting into place, there are some housekeeping rules. I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current guidance that the House of Commons Commission has provided. I remind Members that they are asked 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. Please give each other and members of staff space when they are seated and when entering and leaving the room. I apologise for it being so cold in the room, but you lot have only just come in and I have already been here for one and a half hours.
I call Nickie Aiken to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the safety of women and the regulation of pedicabs in London.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, for what I consider to be a very important debate for my constituency. It is a truth well known that cities such as London attract people looking for opportunities for education, culture, work and a vibrant community. In London, we are blessed with a huge volume of spaces to do that. However, the way that public spaces are used and experienced in our capital differs for women and men. As the local Member of Parliament, one thing is clear to me: women have the right to use space in the same way as men and should feel safe in doing so. Since the devastating murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, many people have contacted me to highlight concerns about women and girls’ safety on our streets. For a multitude of reasons, their deaths have become a watershed moment. Women understood the vulnerability of walking home alone at night. The Government have made incredible strides in recent years on the issue, and I commend the Home Office ministerial team on its work. I note in particular the Government’s strategy on tackling violence against women and girls. I know the Minister’s work in the Department for Transport on this area and I pay respect to that as well—brilliant work.
The violence against women and girls strategy is a significant step in the right direction, but there is still an enormous piece of work to do around making sure our cities and, in particular, our capital city leave no stone unturned in ensuring the safety of women and girls on our streets. In recent years, a great emphasis has been placed on ensuring that modes of public and private hire transport meet standards of safety so that passengers can move around our capital with a sense of security. For women in particular, I know this is a great relief. It is therefore of huge concern that we still have unregulated private hire vehicles in London. Here I speak about the issue of unlicenced pedicabs.
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I absolutely agree, and I know that the local authority in her Vauxhall constituency, Lambeth, also agrees with us that pedicabs should be regulated.
Anyone who has come to central London has seen and most likely heard pedicabs. They are loud, they often block roads, and many intimidate and harass London visitors, particularly women. Currently, they are the only form of public transport in the capital that is unregulated. Due to a legal loophole, Transport for London is unable to regulate pedicabs, which means that neither drivers nor vehicles are licensed. I know that there are pedicab firms that undertake their own voluntary vehicle and driver checks and have the right insurance. I have met them and I have worked with the pedicab drivers’ association. I fully support those pedicab companies that want to do the right thing. However, as noted in the official impact assessment of the Pedicabs (London) Bill, there are still too many rogue pedicab drivers who do nothing to ensure that they and their vehicles are safe or insured, and they work at the moment without any legal repercussions.
This is a particular issue around the west end in my constituency, with its major theatres, nightlife venues and tourist locations, and in the backstreets of Soho and Covent Garden, which are so vibrant. Every day I see and hear about the impact of rogue pedicab drivers on local people, local businesses and visitors. Touting can be extremely aggressive, with amplified music and shouting into the early hours and throughout the night. As Amanda Jane, a Soho resident, said to me only last night:
“When you have your children woken up at midnight by these things, it is incredibly stressful and upsetting.”
The police, local councils and Transport for London need to be able to monitor these vehicles to ensure that passengers are safe. I do not say this lightly: we are living on borrowed time. I really worry about the safety of passengers, particularly women and girls, who experience repeated antisocial behaviour from rogue drivers. I note that the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has a useful power for councils such as Westminster City Council to use in reducing the antisocial behaviour related to pedicabs. However, that is a short-term measure that requires huge amounts of evidence, time and resources. Local authorities do not have the finances to spend on that, but closing a simple loophole would give them the powers that they need.
The turnover of riders and the locations that they use means that it is very rare for a case to be brought to court. Pedicab drivers are a transient population. As soon as they know that they are in trouble with the police or a local authority, they disappear, so the local authority’s power is useless, but local people and businesses have to put up with it.
The patchwork of issues can be traced back to the fact that a pedicab is currently defined as a “stage carriage” in Greater London under the Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869 and thus does not fall under TfL’s licensing powers. I say to the Minister again: we are in the 21st century and are having to deal with 19th-century legislation. For the sake of women’s and girls’ safety, it is surely time to modernise the legislation surrounding pedicabs.
It is so frustrating. We need to ensure that pedicabs in our capital city are regarded as hackney carriages and thus subject to regulation. In every other city in England, they are considered hackney carriages and can be regulated, although we do not see them in other large cities. I cannot recall seeing them in Manchester. They might be there, but they are not as prevalent as they are in central London, and there is probably a reason for that. Rogue pedicab operators know that they are not regulated and they can get away with dreadful—
On that point, the Local Government Association supports the use of the national register of licence revocations and refusals for pedicab licensing. Does the hon. Lady feel that that would provide the safety checks to reassure women that the people driving those cabs have had adequate checks?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The more checks that we can have on drivers, the better. We do not know who they are most of the time. I have so much evidence in my office that I have collated over the last couple of years, and drivers have been known to be wanted by the police, not just in the UK but overseas. We are allowing women to get into vehicles with drivers who have not been checked by the Disclosure and Barring Service. I find it incredible.
I am sure the Minister appreciates that this loophole invites a whole host of issues, not least the safeguarding of passengers—not just women, but all passengers. All other private hire vehicles, including our iconic black cabs, have to satisfy a whole range of licensing requirements to protect passengers. I have had the benefit of black cab drivers’ views on pedicabs many times, and they are frustrated that it is not the same for them as it is for pedicabs. When they are at a traffic light with a pedicab, they have to jump through hoops but the pedicab does not. I thank our brilliant black cab drivers, and the nation thanks a particular taxi driver in Liverpool for his heroic actions on Sunday morning. We owe them the ability to have a fair scheme for all private hire vehicles.
Unlike the situation when someone gets into an Uber, private hire vehicle or black cab, pedicab passengers have no way of knowing where they are going or with whom they are getting into the vehicle. In London, pedicabs are able to operate with impunity, which leads to conflict and an inconsistent position with licensed private hires—we must move to a transparent safety and movement-regulated system. Transparency is key, and the perception of safety is just as important as the licence transparency scheme. As it stands, there is no accountability for any incident, which is what concerns me. As a woman, and as the mother of a young woman, that concerns me. It speaks to a culture of some pedicab operators being able to get away with unacceptable behaviour and unsafe vehicles, which are encouraged by an absence of a licensing regime, and it is unfair on pedicab operators who do the right thing.
Given the lack of regulation, there are very few powers that the police can enforce with regards to rogue pedicabs. For instance, law enforcement has no powers in relation to lack of insurance, lack of training for riders, or pedicabs that are not fit for the purpose of carrying passengers. This means that even if a police officer sees a wholly unfit pedicab, they can do very little to prevent its hire in central London or across the capital. I often walk around my constituency, and I am always shocked, frustrated and appalled by the behaviour of many pedicabs drivers who are touting for business. We really need to end this practice.
The police can enforce cycle construction, use and lighting regulations, but even those are unclear with regards to pedicabs and other three or four-wheeled cargo or work bikes. TfL’s “Pedicab Safety Evaluation” notes that, as pedicabs
“are not referred to specifically”
in such regulations, they often do not comply. One resident in my constituency put it well:
“When I spoke to a pedicab driver, he told me I’d better get used to it as it was about to get worse after lockdown. He said, ‘There’s nothing the police can do about it. This nuisance is permitted as the operators are able to use a byelaw related to the power of their machines.’”
That is truly staggering. Others and I have sustained evidence that many pedicab operators not only act contrary to basic health and safety standards, but do so knowing there is little power to hold them to account.
I want to do everything I can to ensure that we send a clear message that when we see examples of poor standards and behaviour in London, we will respond with strength. Intervention is necessary to create a licensing system to improve passenger safety, particularly for women and girls, which is why I am delighted to be bringing my Pedicabs (London) Bill to the House for its Second Reading on Friday. I have received powerful testimony from local authorities, businesses and residents on the transformative effect that the Bill will have in London. My Bill is supported by Members from all parties, the Mayor of London, the Deputy Mayor for Transport, TfL, London councils such as Westminster, Lambeth, Camden, and Kensington and Chelsea, the pedicab drivers association, the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the New West End Company, and the Heart of London Business Alliance. It is also supported by residents associations and amenity societies up and down my constituency: the Soho Society, the Marylebone Association, the St Marylebone Society, the Covent Garden Community Association, the Knightsbridge Association, and the Hyde Park Association, to name but a few. By enabling TfL to introduce a licensing system for pedicabs, the Bill would allow it to set standards for operators, vehicles and drivers. It could check whether a pedicab driver had the right to work in the UK, and allow licensed operators to provide a service to passengers that would ensure their safety.
I want to make sure that the Minister is aware that I was informed of a tourist being charged £380 for a journey from Leicester Square to Stratton Street, which is under a mile. I cannot find the charge for a black cab, but the equivalent Uber cost would be £7. There is therefore a concern about the amount of money that is being charged.
In conclusion, I know that the Minister understands this, as well as the danger posed to women and girls in public spaces; I appreciate all the work that she has done in her current and previous roles. Do we really have to see someone seriously hurt, sexually assaulted, raped or killed in order to ensure that we get more safety for pedicabs? Do we really want to have to look a family in the face and say that, actually, we could have regulated pedicabs? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I start by sincerely thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for securing a debate on this incredibly important issue. I am very grateful for the contribution from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who has expressed her support in the debate. This is truly a cross-party issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster has accumulated an impressive collection of stakeholders, local community groups and politicians across the board who back her dedicated campaign. I pay huge tribute to her determination to propel this issue to forefront of our attention. I also associate myself with the comments she has made about the debt of gratitude that we all owe to the taxi driver in the tragic Liverpool terrorist attack.
I feel like I have come back home to the Department for Transport in responding to this debate, and it is a great pleasure to do so. My hon. Friend referenced the fact that I served in that Department, so I have some familiarity with this issue and how important it is. I am also pleased to say that the Government recognise her concerns, expressed so well, about the safety of pedicabs, and the impact that they can have across the whole of the city, not least in her constituency, which is a centre of night-time and tourist activity. As another woman who travels on public transport around London and in my constituency, as all of us do, and as a mother of a young woman, I agree with my hon. Friend that this is not just something that we discuss in Parliament—it is the lived experience that all of us have when we go outside. I want to pull out a line that she has used: “Women have the right to feel safe in the same spaces as men.” I fully agree with her.
My hon. Friend has run a considerable campaign to raise awareness of the issue, and the Government have listened. The Government acknowledge that it is not acceptable for the pedicab industry to be the only unregulated form of public transport in London. It is a glaring legal anomaly. She has amassed considerable evidence and some very powerful testimony, so we agree that regulating this industry is in the interests of safety and fairness for all road users, pedestrians and passengers. My hon. Friend is also right to highlight the timing; we are coming out of lockdown, starting to see tourists come back to the businesses of the west end and other parts of London, and starting to see people go out and enjoy the night-time economy, as we discussed in this Chamber only last week. Pedicabs are an important part of the landscape that people will see when they come to our city, and we owe it to everybody to make this form of transport safe.
That is why the Government support my hon. Friend’s Bill, which has its Second Reading this Friday. I wish her a huge amount of Godspeed and good luck with it. If introduced, her Bill will enable Transport for London to introduce a licensing regime with enforcement powers and, among other things, to introduce safety requirements. I do not want to tempt fate, but we all know that things do not always go smoothly in the Chamber. In the unfortunate event that her Bill does not proceed beyond Second Reading, the Government will seek opportunities to bring forward our own legislation.
I thank the Minister for that response. It is good to hear that the Government will support the private Member’s Bill. This is an issue that people have raised a number of times. As in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), in my constituency of Vauxhall, outside St Thomas’ Hospital, where people have had eye operations and elective surgery, people have been harassed by these pedicabs. We need reform to the legislation now—Londoners can wait no longer. If the private Member’s Bill does not proceed to the next stage, will the Minister push the issue with her colleagues in the Department for Transport?
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. I have been to that hospital myself and experienced exactly the things that she has described. I can assure her that Baroness Vere of Norbiton, who is responsible for this issue in the Department for Transport, is looking closely at all options. She has met my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster to discuss future opportunities to introduce our own legislation, should it be required, as soon as parliamentary time permits.
My hon. Friend is right to say that this is a long-running issue. It is something to which the Department for Transport has dedicated attention. She rightly raised the important issue of women’s safety, which we have discussed many times in this Chamber. In my role as a Home Office Minister, it is right that I recognise the points that she has made. As safeguarding Minister, tackling violence against women and girls, in all its forms and wherever it occurs is my top priority.
When I was a Minister in the Department for Transport, I prioritised the safety of women and girls. We worked closely through the issues that are faced by vulnerable groups, including women, on the transport network, and we are keen to do more. That is why, when I was a Minister there, I was delighted to appoint Laura Shoaf and Anne Shaw as the first VAWG transport champions in the Department. They work across campaign groups, industry and the whole of Government to understand where we can improve safety on the UK’s transport network. By January next year, they will produce independent recommendations for the Department for Transport and the wider network on which best practices should be adopted to improve the safety of the transport network for women and girls. That is a really important theme. Although I am now in the Home Office and work with the police and other partners, women and girls often say that they feel most unsafe when they are taking public transport, walking home from a night out or thinking about how to get home, whether by tube, bus or train. That is where those vulnerabilities exist, and that is why it is really important that I work closely with my former Department to ensure that they are addressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned the cross-Government tackling violence against women and girls strategy, which is a really important piece of work that seeks to ensure that women and girls are safe everywhere. It was informed by a public call for evidence run by the Home Office, to which we received over 180,000 responses—one of the highest numbers for pieces of evidence that the Government have ever received in a public consultation. That was quite an overwhelming response, and demonstrates the scale of the issue. The evidence includes testimonies from victims, victim support organisations, frontline professionals and academics.
In the strategy that we have published, we have set forth a number of commitments across Government. There are several strands to the strategy that we are pursuing, because it is important that we ensure that women and girls are safe, not only on the transport network but across wider society. I will highlight a couple of things that are particularly relevant to the issues that my hon. Friend has highlighted in the debate.
We often think about pedicabs being used in the night-time economy. We know that night-time is a time when women and girls feel very vulnerable, and that they are concerned about crime such as harassment in public spaces. In particular, they are concerned about that feeling or perception of being unsafe when they are walking home.
I shall highlight a couple of commitments that the Home Office has already made. We are piloting a £5 million safety of women at night fund, which is designed to prevent violence against women and girls in public spaces at night, specifically including the night-time economy. It is focused on the prevention of the crimes we have discussed, to help women to feel safe in public spaces at night, including in venues and on routes home.
Another very important fund is the safer streets fund, for which we are providing an additional £25 million. That fund has a particular focus on women and girls, and through it we are supporting a range of projects, including an initiative by the British Transport police to develop a safer travel online platform across the rail network, to make reporting easier; funding for the City of London Corporation to enable the delivery of 24 night hubs with St John Ambulance medics and plain-clothes police, to respond to incidents and to increase women’s feeling of safety; and piloting a new online tool, StreetSafe. That was developed in collaboration with the National Police Chiefs Council, and it enables people, particularly women and girls, to pinpoint locations where they have felt unsafe and to identify the features of those locations that made them feel that way. In response to such identifications, police and crime commissioners, as well as local policing teams, can use that data to support local decision making. StreetSafe is being very widely welcomed and well used. As of 12 November, 6,895 reports have been made using this particular tool, 72% of them from women, which is no surprise.
My hon. Friend and other Members will be aware that we have recently appointed a national lead in the police on the critical issue of violence against women and girls. The Home Secretary has appointed Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth, whom I have already met to discuss the work that she will do to lead on best practice in police forces across the country.
I will end my remarks by encouraging anyone who feels unsafe while they are walking around the streets or using a pedicab in my hon. Friend’s constituency, or Vauxhall, or indeed anywhere else in London, to report it—please—to the police. This issue is a priority for this Government. It is vital that women and girls feel safe, whether they are going to work, meeting their friends or going for a night out. That is a priority for the Home Secretary, for the Prime Minister and for me, and we will work tirelessly to drive the actions in the violence against women and girls strategy, both in society generally and on the public transport network. We are determined to leave no stone unturned to keep women and girls safe.
Question put and agreed to.
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
Before I call Tulip Siddiq, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are active legal proceedings in the High Court between International Military Services Ltd and Iran’s Ministry of Defence. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters sub judice to allow full reference to those proceedings as they concern issues of national importance.
Colleagues, it will not have escaped your attention that the debate is massively over-subscribed. Many of you will be disappointed, but you are here showing your support, so thank you. If you intervene on colleagues and you are down to speak, you may be moved off the speakers list, because we will only get to 15 or 16 of you. There will be a three-minute limit on speeches after Tulip Siddiq has spoken.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. A lot of Members will be well versed with the details of my constituent’s case. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been unlawfully detained in Iran for nearly six years now, separated from her young daughter and her family. She served the first five years of her first sentence and was then put under house arrest at her parents’ house, wearing an ankle tag. She then faced another charge and was sentenced to another year, and then a year’s travel ban—effectively, two more years of being separated from her family in London.
Nazanin appealed the sentence of her second case, which was rejected. At that time, her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, decided to go on hunger strike. I say to Members across the House that no one goes on hunger strike on a whim. Richard Ratcliffe went on hunger strike because he felt that he had no other option, and that this was his last resort. He went on hunger strike for three weeks outside the Foreign Office in order to capture the attention of those in the upper echelons of Government, because he does not think that they are helping with his wife’s plight. I am disappointed that in the three weeks during which Richard was starving himself outside the Foreign Office, the Prime Minister of our country did not come to visit him.
Has the Prime Minister met my hon. Friend and Richard in recent years? What has his personal intervention been in this case? Does he keep in touch with my hon. Friend? Has he shown the leadership and compassion needed in this case?
The Prime Minister did meet us shortly after becoming Prime Minister, but he has not done so in recent years. After dealing with this case for nearly six years, having tabled eight urgent questions in the House, and having dealt with five Foreign Secretaries and countless Ministers, I think it is high time that the Prime Minister, knowing the details, got involved properly.
These sentiments are shared entirely by my constituents. Like many Members here today, I have been overwhelmed by messages of support for Nazanin, Richard and the whole family. All urge the Government to act and to show solidarity with the whole family in wanting Nazanin to be freed. Could my hon. Friend please convey that to the family?
Richard Ratcliffe is in the Gallery and will have heard that message directly from my hon. Friend. This campaign has touched everyone, regardless of where they are in the country. A lot of Members will know that my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn is one of affluence and deprivation. When I am in Hampstead, Emma Thompson will stop me and ask, “Have you got Nazanin home?” When I am campaigning in the south Kilburn estates, people will open the door and say, “What good are you if you haven’t got that poor woman home yet?” The campaign has touched everyone; my hon. Friend is right to make that point.
I commend the hon. Lady for her excellent campaign. She deserves every credit. The USA has agreed to pay around $1.4 billion in moneys owed to Iran, even though it supports the sanctions against Iran. Does she agree that the UK should follow the USA’s decision by paying the £400 million, thereby ensuring Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s immediate release?
The hon. Gentleman has appeared at every single debate we have had on Nazanin. I thank him for all his efforts in the campaign. I will come to the debt and getting our constituents back home.
It goes without saying that the reason why my constituent is imprisoned in Iran is because of the Iranian regime. It is because of them that my constituent is away from her young family. But in six years of dealing with our Government, I have become increasingly frustrated that Ministers are ignoring the elephant in the room, which is the fact that this case is now linked to the £400 million that this country owes Iran. That is not something I want to deal with, but it is the reality of the situation. It is becoming obvious that the Iranians see the £400 million that we owe as a pre-condition to releasing Nazanin.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She said “constituents” and she is absolutely right. Nobody in this room has anything but compassion for Richard Ratcliffe and his family, but there are other constituents who are dual nationals who also need the help of the British Government. Does she agree that they are living under the most awful regime and that has to be a priority?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will mention the other dual nationals who are imprisoned in Iran. As he says, Nazanin is not the only one.
I want to go back to the question of the debt before I take another intervention. When Nazanin was captured and put in solitary confinement in Evin prison, she was told by prison guards that the reason she was being held was because of our failure to pay this historic debt. Former President Rouhani told our Prime Minister in March this year that accelerating the payment on the debt would solve a lot of the problems in the bilateral relationship between Iran and our country. Iran’s former Foreign Minister Zarif also cited the debt in an article. There is no question but that the debt is linked to Nazanin’s case.
We have seen that it is not a coincidence: every time there is any movement on the IMS court hearing, there is some movement on Nazanin’s case. When the IMS court hearing was delayed earlier this year, Nazanin received a call a week later saying, “Come to court, because we need to speak to you.” There is no coincidence, because the two are linked. What frustrates me so much is that every time I speak to the Government, they seem to bury their head in the sand and deny that there is a link.
I thank the hon. Member for securing the debate. I wonder whether they, like me, believe that for cases such as Nazanin’s and that of my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal, having a fully resourced consular support service that enables diplomats rather than hindering them, so that families can have confidence in that consular support, is the least that the Government can provide for them and for the rest of us?
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) makes an important point. I also wish to offer my support to the family—to Richard and Nazanin—at this very difficult time. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the level of involvement of the Prime Minister and those at senior levels in the current Administration. Will she comment on how that compares and contrasts with the level of support from previous Prime Ministers?
I will come to the topic of the three former Foreign Secretaries and what they have said. In terms of Prime Ministers, one of the problems that I have always had with this case is that it needs intervention from the Prime Minister, but it has not felt as though the three Prime Ministers that we have dealt with have given us that option. Bear in mind that I have asked Prime Minister’s questions to all of them and turned up at No. 10 to knock on their door every single time there has been a new Prime Minister.
I will take an intervention in a minute, but I want to make a little more progress.
The Leader of the House told me in March that Iran was holding us to ransom. He said that
“the UK Government do not pay for the release of hostages”—[Official Report, 11 March 2021; Vol. 690, c. 1014.]
I see the logic of this principle but, in the truest form of the word, this is not a ransom; it is a debt. It is a debt that we as a country owe Iran. It was ruled in international tribunals that we owe Iran this money. Anyone hiding behind the fact that it is a ransom is wrong. They need to see the ruling in international courts to understand that we owe this money.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. I will also take this opportunity to say exactly how brave Richard has been throughout this ordeal, on behalf of his whole family. He is here today. As I am a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Magnitsky sanctions, I wonder whether the hon. Lady might ask the Government this question in due course: how is it that the United States, Australia, France and Germany have all now successfully negotiated the release of their citizens who were arbitrarily detained in Iran, yet we have made no progress? Perhaps she could challenge the Government on that.
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. He is absolutely right, because those countries have brought their people home. Indeed, Australia actually managed to bring Nazanin’s prison cellmate back home, while Nazanin herself is still in Iran. So I hope that the Minister will pay attention to what the right hon. Member has just said, because he makes a very important point.
Regarding the debt, I will come back to something that the Secretary of State for Defence has said:
“With regard to IMS Ltd and the outstanding legal dispute the government acknowledges there is a debt to be paid and continues to explore every legal avenue for the lawful discharge of that debt.”
So if anyone questions whether we owe the money, we definitely owe the money, as has been stated several times. It is not a ransom; it is a debt that we as a country should lawfully pay back to Iran.
Nuclear negotiations restart on 29 November and there is a risk that both Nazanin’s case and Anoosheh Ashoori’s case will be used as leverage. The negotiations are complex and we cannot risk these cases becoming entangled in them. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government need to have a plan in place to ensure that these cases do not get caught up in the nuclear negotiations?
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I think that Members from across the House can probably hear the frustration in my voice, because I am very worried that my constituent is getting caught up in this overall universal problem and becoming a pawn between the two countries. Her husband has maintained from day one that she is a pawn caught between the two countries, which is unacceptable.
I will make just a bit more progress before giving way again.
One of the things that I have been told by different Foreign Office Ministers, off and on the record, is that there are practical issues with actually paying the debt. However, if anyone has read the news this week, they will have seen that three former Foreign Secretaries have come out and said that there are ways of paying the debt without busting sanctions and without angering our western allies. For me the question is this: if we all know that the debt exists, and we have ways of paying it, what is the explanation for why we have not paid it?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Earlier the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) made the point about the UK’s seeming inability to get our people who are held captive overseas released. I know that she is aware of the case of Luke Symons, my constituent who is held by the Houthis. Similarly, other countries seem to have been able to get their people held by them released. Does she think that there is something wrong in the way the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is approaching these cases?
That is the frustration that Nazanin expresses every time I speak to her: that her Government are not doing enough for her as a British citizen. The people she was in jail with are going home, while she is still stuck there, missing out on her daughter’s childhood.
I thank the hon. Member for her generosity in giving way. People across south Belfast, and indeed across Northern Ireland, have expressed their distress at the forced separation of a mother and her young daughter. Does the hon. Member share my concern that the failure that this family are experiencing is part of a pattern of moral unseriousness and a lack of moral courage, which is in very stark contrast to the steadfastness and bravery that this family are somehow finding?
I agree with the hon. Member and thank her for her help in this campaign. I repeat the point that several other Members have already made, which is that this issue is not just about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe; it is also about Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this essential debate. I also thank her for mentioning my constituent Anoosheh Ashoori, a 67-year-old man who is a father and a husband, and a British citizen who is also locked up in the same prison as Nazanin. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a grotesque crime for Iran to hold hostages but that it is also a crime for our country not to settle any debts that are possibly keeping the hostages there?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and applaud all the work she is doing to try to free her constituent. It is sad that we have had to bond over this topic, with both of us having constituents who are imprisoned in Iran and separated from their families.
We need to pay our debt and challenge Iran, calling it out for what it is—challenging the perpetrators. But until we pay our debt, they will not even come to the negotiating table and we cannot deal with them.
In February, the Minister assured us that the UK Government were using every tool in their diplomatic arsenal and doing everything they could to get Nazanin home. Does the hon. Lady want to ask the Minister, as I do, what is missing from those diplomatic tools, because so far they have failed to bring anything about?
What I would say is that in the nearly six years that Richard Ratcliffe and I have been campaigned to get Nazanin home, we have heard every platitude. We have heard about no stones being unturned. We have heard about how this issue is top of the Government’s agenda. We know it is their highest priority, but warm words are not enough any more. After six years, I want to see my constituent come home. I do not want to hear from the Government the same rhetoric over and over again, which is what we are hearing.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. I want to put on the record my heartfelt feelings on behalf of all the people in Hornsey and Wood Green. I also want to point out how long it has taken to resolve the case of my constituent Aras Amiri, who was a member of the British Council—she was almost a Foreign Office employee. There is a feeling that we all think this is inevitable, but we have to get some energy and some push in order to get Nazanin home.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing a debate on this serious matter. Is not the elephant in the room the very obvious fact that the current incumbent in Downing Street said something that was a monumental cock-up, which has had a human cost? It is now up to the Government to fix that immediately, without further delay.
On behalf of the people in Glasgow East, I extend my best wishes to Richard, Nazanin and Gabriella. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) mentioned the need to get energy into the effort to get Nazanin home. It is widely accepted in the House that the current Foreign Secretary is always full of energy, so can the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) tell us what the new Foreign Secretary has done to try to progress the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?
I am appreciative of the fact that the new Foreign Secretary called me as soon as she was in post and said that she was dealing with Nazanin. She also called us in for a meeting, along with Richard Ratcliffe and members of his family. I am grateful that she seems to be acting on the issue, but I will judge her on what she does at the end. As I say, we have dealt with five Foreign Secretaries and none of them has brought Nazanin home yet. It is time the Foreign Secretary took some action properly.
I have to go on to my questions, but I will take some very short interventions.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her campaign. Given that Nazanin has been granted diplomatic protection, how does the hon. Lady feel that the Government are treating her case differently from other consular cases? Does she think that Anoosheh Ashoori should also be granted diplomatic protection?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend on behalf of the people of Chesterfield. She is absolutely inspirational in the campaign that she is fighting, but I know it will mean something to her only when she gets Nazanin home. Will she tell us a bit more about the barbaric Iranian regime and the way it has operated? What is her message to the regime?
The people of Weaver Vale send their love and compassion to Nazanin, Richard and Gabriella, and to my hon. Friend, who is a real champion of this issue. It is now important that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister do the right thing.
I have rarely seen such a crowded Westminster Hall debate. It demonstrates the amount of affection and concern that we have for Nazanin. I think Richard will report that back to his wife, so I thank hon. Members.
I will pick up on diplomatic protection. It is right to say that diplomatic protection was given to Nazanin by the former Foreign Secretary. We in the campaign do not feel that the Government have used that enough, because it became a state-to-state dispute the moment that diplomatic protection was given. One of the questions I have for the Minister is whether he will do something to use the diplomatic protection and try to get Nazanin home.
If we were able to engineer a vote today on the payment of the debt, it would be unanimous. Is there a way that we can engineer a vote in the main Chamber on the debt, so that we add pressure on the Government to pay the debt and get Nazanin home?
Very briefly, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and wish her and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) well. The Ratcliffe family, and Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz, who was born in Hammersmith Hospital, and Mehran Raoof are all British citizens. The Hague convention applies to them; they can get diplomatic protection. If the Minister would only look at the Hague convention, he would find that it takes other factors into account. More importantly, why do we not harness the spirit of Lewis Hamilton at the Brazilian grand prix, and realise that there is not a single obstacle that is going to stop us bringing home our Nazanin, Anoosheh, Morad and Mehran?
May I put it on the record that the people of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey are fully behind Nazanin being freed? Would the hon. Lady agree that the UK Government must now act without any fear of upsetting allies such as the United States, and do what must be done to free Nazanin now?
I absolutely agree. I will ask the Minister a series of questions, and then I know that there are lots of hon. Members who want to speak.
Why will the Government not acknowledge that Nazanin is a hostage, and challenge Iran’s hostage-taking with sanctions or legal action? Will the Minister set out exactly what practical and legal issues he believes stand in the way of resolving the International Military Services debt, so that these can be properly scrutinised? The Government have long accepted that they owe the debt as a matter of international law. Do the Government think that they are entitled to ignore their legal obligations and the rule of law? Have the Government made a specific offer to Iran to discharge the debt through humanitarian assistance, such as the provision of medicine? Have the Government sought or received assurance from the US, in the form of a comfort letter, that no bank will be sanctioned or fined for facilitating the payment of the debt? Finally, a Foreign Office Minister, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, said in the Lords yesterday that,
“were the Government to pay hundreds of millions of pounds to the Iranian Government, that would undoubtedly be seen as payment for a hostage situation.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 November 2021; Vol. 816, c. 18.]
Is that the view of the Government?
I will focus on the money that we owe Iran for the tanks that we never delivered even though the Shah’s regime had paid for them before the Iranian revolution of 1979. The United States was in a similar position to us, and apparently owed $1.7 billion to the Iranian regime. However, it was reported that the Obama Administration returned that money, via Switzerland and in other than US currency, on 17 January 2016, 22 January 2016 and 5 February 2016. On 17 January, by chance, four US prisoners were released from Iranian jails. The Obama Administration, of course, denied that there was any connection.
On 30 June 2016, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence how much the MOD owed Iran for Chieftain tanks that were never delivered. The answer that I received was that the MOD did not dispute that the money was owed, but that EU sanctions stopped repayment. There is no doubt that we owe Iran £400 million, and it should be given back. With luck, if we repay the money, the supreme leader, who is the only person who will make the decision, may be magnanimous enough to order the release of not just Nazanin but all the other British prisoners held in jail in Iran. As we have always owed that money, I can live with the idea that we have not been blackmailed into returning £400 million for military equipment that we never delivered.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing the debate and on her hard work on this serious issue. I pay tribute to her constituent, who is sitting behind me. Along with many other MPs, I was privileged to visit him during his hunger strike.
The facts are stark. A British citizen has been detained for five and a half years on unsubstantiated allegations of spying. Successive Conservative Foreign Secretaries have failed to secure her freedom. No less than three distinguished former Foreign Secretaries have said that the debt to Iran should be paid so that Nazanin can come home.
I will keep my comments brief. There have been some good articles about the case in the newspapers over the weekend, particularly The Times and The Observer. I am grateful to them for informing the questions that I will ask of the Minister.
First, why is the Prime Minister still refusing to settle the acknowledged £400 million debt to Iran incurred before the ’79 revolution? Why has he let that unjustified failure to pay up bedevil the talks? Why are the Government saying that bank transfer restrictions arising from international sanctions prevent payment? Is that not untrue? Surely the Government can find legal ways around rules that they helped to create. As we have already heard, the United States settled a similar debt in return for the release of four American hostages.
The hon. and learned Lady is presenting a forensic case in her usual style. Does she agree with the International Observatory of Human Rights that one way around that issue might be to use humanitarian aid?
Yes, indeed. I will come to that.
Secondly, why has the Prime Minister failed to honour the personal promise to pay the debt that he made as Foreign Secretary to Mr Ratcliffe and, indirectly, to the Iranians? That promise was a blatant attempt to compensate for the disastrous blunder that we have heard about when he misrepresented Nazanin’s activities in Tehran. Why will the Prime Minister not keep his word and his promises, particularly when the life of a young mother is at stake?
Thirdly, why are the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary persisting with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s non-confrontational softly-softly approach? Let us be honest: the Government are not exactly known for their non-confrontational softly-softly approach when it comes to the European Union or the vexed question of the north of Ireland. In this respect, their approach has failed completely. It is not about paying a ransom; it is about the credibility of the British Government abroad and the confidence of British citizens in their Government. When will the Prime Minister take a tougher line with Iran than with the European Union?
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this important debate and for her unyielding determination to keep the issue in the public’s consciousness and alive in Parliament. Nazanin and her family have been subjected to the utmost cruelty—a never-ending emotional torture. Just when they think that freedom is within their grasp, it is ripped away again. Where does somebody go from here and what do they do?
Richard asked himself that question. He has raised the issue with a series of Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers. He has involved the media in the UK and what independent voices there are in Tehran. When I spoke to him when I visited him a few times in the last couple of weeks, he said that the only thing he felt he could now do was starve himself. I ask how hopeless, powerless and desperate someone must be to feel that the only thing they can do is go on hunger strike—endure 21 days of not eating, while at the same time being prepared to see people, greet people and do interviews, explaining again and again what their situation is, in the hope that something will budge.
Throughout, Richard has remained utterly gracious. He has asked himself, “How do I break this stalemate? What do I do to make sure that my wife, and other British citizens in the same situation, are not forgotten? How do I make sure that their lives do not disappear in a pile of paperwork pushed to the back of a desk?” Nazanin has endured the most profound mental and physical trauma throughout her imprisonment, tortuous heartbreak caused by prolonged separation from her loved ones. She has been subjected to prolonged periods of solitary confinement, vastly inadequate living conditions, and traumatising interrogation. Her treatment has been utterly appalling.
How do we end this nightmare? So far, diplomatic routes have not worked. The sticking point is a £400 million historical debt relating to a sale of Chieftain tanks, paid for but never received, dating back to the 1970s. To date, there have been conversations, discussions, deliberations, articles and newspaper coverage, but words alone are no longer enough: it is time for action. Can the Minister today let us know what that action will be, so that Nazanin can come home where she rightly belongs, with her family?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing today’s debate, and on the relentless tenacity she has shown in highlighting the injustice of Nazanin’s incarceration at every opportunity. I of course wish to pay tribute to Richard Ratcliffe as well: I have had the privilege of meeting him on a number of occasions, and each time he has been a picture of calm, dignity and resolve. Goodness knows what he must be feeling inside, yet despite that unimaginable torment, he has always conducted himself in a way that is a credit to himself and to Nazanin. To have gone on hunger strike for three weeks, having done so previously and suffered the agonies of it already, and knowing the damage it can do to a person, shows the level of desperation he must feel at a seemingly intractable situation in which hope can be cruelly snatched away. That must be the hardest thing of all to take.
Many of my constituents have been in touch to register their support for the release of Nazanin. Understandably, they have been moved by the plight of a mother separated from her husband and child, but they have also been motivated to contact me because of what they see as a failure of the UK Government to take decisive action. We all know that diplomacy is a fine art and that nuance is required, but there is no room for doubt here: this is an injustice and an intolerable situation, and every opportunity should be taken to right this wrong. Many of my constituents believe, as I do and as we have heard today, that more can be done. We have heard some examples of what that might look like.
The entire history of this situation does not need repeating, but it is worth repeating that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been imprisoned for crimes that she did not commit. I use the word “crimes” with a heavy caveat: we should resist talking about this situation in terms of crimes committed, because this is not a criminal justice matter but a political one. She is a victim of the long-standing dispute between Iran and this country over the £400 million it says is owed by the UK Government. It seems to me that until we have a public acknowledgment that that dispute lies at the root of this situation, we shall struggle to move forward, so will we get such an acknowledgment today from the Minister? Will that then lead to an approach based on Nazanin effectively being a hostage, for whom a ransom is sought?
We can be in no doubt that the Government’s approach thus far has been ineffective, and in some instances counterproductive. I noted with interest that the Government will not disclose how many dual nationals currently find themselves in the same position. One can probably conclude from that fact that there are others, which prompts the question: where does this end? How many more innocent people could find themselves pawns in a game that they have no control over, and which their own Government seem unwilling to take steps to resolve? I also ask the Minister what efforts are being made to gather international support, and what other diplomatic and financial levers can be pulled to bring about a satisfactory resolution, because we cannot accept that no more can be done. We cannot accept that this is just the way it is, or that such a gross injustice can be tolerated, and the support that we are seeing from Members today shows that this Parliament does not accept that nothing more can be done.
I salute the quiet dignity of Richard Ratcliffe, who is one of the bravest people I have ever met. I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her campaigning. We are from different parties, but she makes me proud to be a Member of this House.
How do we get Nazanin, Anoosheh, Morad and Mehran home? If it were ransom money, heartbreaking though it is, we should not pay it, because it would only lead to more hostages being taken. But it is not ransom money; it is a historical debt that we owe Iran. The debt should not be linked to this case, but it is, and that is why we should pay it. It is not easy to do because of sanctions, but with political will it can be done. No country can have a veto over a sovereign Britain deciding to pay its debt, not least the United States, because it did exactly the same thing under President Obama.
I believe that during the period when I was Foreign Secretary, the decision whether we owed that money was settled. There was an understanding, confirmed publicly by the Defence Secretary, that the money is owed and should be paid. It was going to take, and will take, a real effort to deal with the practicalities. But the Americans managed it and we can most certainly manage it, if necessary by getting an RAF plane to fly gold over to Tehran. There are lots of ways of doing it.
I will make some progress. One other thing needs to happen to ensure that Nazanin and the other dual nationals can come home: we must completely de-link their fates from the outcome of the Vienna talks on the joint comprehensive plan of action. Just as we tell Iran it should not make anyone a pawn in a diplomatic game, we too must live by those words and ensure they are not being used in any way by any country to put pressure on Iran to sign up to that deal. Their fates should be completely separate.
This is a terrible tragedy. It is a shame not just on Iran but on Britain that it has taken us five and a half years to solve it. There must be two outcomes: first, the reuniting of all the families who have been separated by this vile detention in Iran, including Nazanin’s family; and secondly, the legacy of this tragedy must be the end of the vile practice of hostage diplomacy, which must be consigned back to the 19th century where it belongs. Britain needs to learn from this to lead a diplomatic initiative with other countries, so that if someone is taken hostage from one country, we treat it as if they had been taken hostage from any of us. We act accordingly; we deter it and it never happens again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this important debate and on her hard work so far.
Unjustly convicted, denied basic human rights and tortured—Richard Ratcliffe is rightly desperate as his wife has to undergo this cruel ordeal. It is heartbreaking that, once again, Richard has had to resort to the life-threatening action of a hunger strike. I visited Richard on day 16 of his strike. The pain in his eyes was harrowing. He just wants the Government to act. To go 21 days without food is testament to Richard’s love for his wife and his resolution to get the attention this issue rightly needs. The risks and symptoms of going on the strike are huge. After two weeks, people on hunger strike will have difficulty standing. They suffer severe dizziness, sluggishness and loss of co-ordination. After two or three weeks, it can result in severe neurological problems—vision loss and lack of motor skills. That is the love that Richard has shown for his wife.
Nazanin’s reaction to her husband’s strike brought me to tears at the weekend. She was worried sick about her husband. My heart breaks that this family is caught up in this dispute between two states. I want to address Nazanin directly, if she is able to see this debate. Nazanin, you can see the love and support right across this Parliament. I want to assure you that we, as representatives up and down this country, will not stop until you are free, home and reunited with your family and daughter. I pay tribute to the whole family, who are always there to support Richard, Gabriella and Nazanin. Richard’s sister Rachel lives in Cardiff and is always there for them, always looking for the positive and determined to bring a positive outcome.
Let us be clear: the blame lies firmly at the Prime Minister’s door. He could resolve this issue by paying the debt to Iran, yet he refuses to do so. On Monday, Zac Goldsmith told peers that paying the debt owed by the UK would be seen as payment for a hostage, and would not be in the Government’s interest. Well, Zac, tell that to this family.
Paying a debt is not paying a ransom. It has been ordered by an international court. It is clear this case could have been resolved many months ago. As well as Nazanin, we must not forget Anoosheh, Morad and Mehran—we must bring them home too. I hope this debate is a turning point, and that the Government will do everything in their power to bring them home.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I join the tributes to Richard Ratcliffe—it is great to see that he is able to join us—and to his entire family, some of whom live in my constituency, whose resilience and bravery have been truly remarkable during this long period. I also join the tributes to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), whose campaigning has been exemplary; many of us have been delighted to assist her in that.
I will make two points in the time available to me about the linkage of debt repayment to the detention of UK nationals and about the sanctions regime. First, I understand entirely and agree with the Government’s rejection of any suggestion by Iran that there is a connection between the repayment of a decades-old commercial debt and the release of UK citizens. However, I urge the Minister and his colleagues not to be hamstrung by what I might call the mirror image problem. Failing to repay a debt that would otherwise be repayable for fear of it being linked to the release of UK detainees is, in itself, to make a linkage that the Government have been at pains to say does not exist. If the debt should be repaid—and it seems clear that it should, subject to the remaining legal proceedings—then it should be repaid.
The UK’s adherence to standards of behaviour that states should maintain—standards which we argue Iran is not maintaining—demands that the debt be repaid promptly. How such a repayment is perceived should not, as a matter of principle, prevent us from making it.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the failure to pay an acknowledged debt creates a fig leaf for the Iranian Government to hide behind? It is not a matter of it being connected; it is an obstruction to things moving forward.
I understand entirely the point made by the hon. Lady. However, as I say, I do not think it is necessary to accept any linkage—positive or negative, by the Iranians or by the UK—to justify the decision to repay a debt that is legally repayable. We should do that for its own reasons and for its own sake, regardless of what else may be happening.
That brings me to the issue of the sanctions regime as an obstacle to repayment. It seems that we require more ingenuity and more innovation. Certainly, in so far as my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues are concerned, I accept that a huge amount of personal effort has been put into this case. However, as others have said, something is still missing, and that may be the innovation that we need to find.
The debt predates the sanctions regime that we see as an obstacle to making the repayment. The purpose of that sanctions regime is to prevent the enrichment of Iran during the course of the sanctions period, but it does not seem to me that this repayment would do that. The repayment of the debt would, in effect, put Iran in the position it would have been in if the obligation had been fulfilled when it should have been—well prior to the beginning of the sanctions regime.
I know better than many that the Minister has access to some exceptionally good lawyers in government. I hope that he is instructing those lawyers to use their best imagination and innovation to find ways of resolving this legal problem, because that is what we will require to break this deadlock. I know he will do his best, but I hope that he will give instructions to apply innovation and ingenuity to the case, as well as simply effort.
May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on the way she has taken up this cause? I also pay tribute to Richard Ratcliffe and his whole family. The case has touched the hearts of the entire nation; 200 of my constituents have written in. I first heard of it when Richard’s aunt Rosemary and Colin came to see me in my advice surgery. As their MP at that moment, I said I would do everything I could to help. Now, as Liberal Democrat spokesperson, I intend to do the same.
It has been 2,000 days since the first detention. Since then, there have been eight urgent questions and 125 written questions from Members across the House. This is the third debate we have had on this, and yet Nazanin is still not home. To add another number, this is the fifth Foreign Secretary during that time, one of whom became Prime Minister. While he was Foreign Secretary he caused his own problems in this case. No offence to the Minister, but I find it regrettable that we have yet to see the current Foreign Secretary making statements to the House, because people watch what happens in Parliament. If they indicate that it is a priority, then I believe that that is what needs to happen.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for bringing the debate. Amid this talk of international diplomacy, sanctions and payments, when my constituents write to me about this case, they want to express their huge sympathy for Richard and particularly his daughter. Gabriella was just 22 months old when her mother was imprisoned. When I had the pleasure of speaking to Richard recently, he told me that now she is in the UK she is doing really well at her school, but my heart goes out to them. I want to express, on behalf of my constituents, how for them this is really about reuniting a mother with her daughter.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) says, the reason this has touched the hearts of so many people is that they can imagine being in this position.
The Government need to acknowledge that they are state hostages—they have been taken hostage by the Iranian state—and the problem is that there is no way to tackle this internationally. Will the Minister update us on any progress on the Foreign Affairs Committee recommendation to work with the United Nations to create an internationally recognised definition for state hostage-taking, so that this does not happen to other families in future?
It is clear that the Government have got themselves into a bit of a twist over what they think of the debt. Either it is linked or it is not. In my view, it is not linked. We owe the debt; we should pay the debt. It is now increasingly clear that there are ways in which that could happen. I would say, call their bluff. If the Iranian Government say that there is a debt, remove the barrier. If they still do not release the hostages, we show the Iranian Government for the wicked regime that it is. I do not see a downside to doing that.
In closing, I simply want to express my wholehearted support for anything the Government can do, so that this is the last debate on this matter. A standing-room-only debate in Westminster Hall shows that this Parliament cares. I know the Minister cares. I would like to think that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister care, but I do know that the whole country cares. We just want Nazanin home.
I have received more than 100 emails from constituents on this matter, which shows that the case of Nazanin has touched the hearts of the nation. It is all too common for people to claim that the situation is Kafkaesque. To me, as an avid reader of Kafka, the similarity between current cases and that of Josef K in “The Trial” are all too apparent. Kafka himself described the seeming basis of the Iranian judicial system when he wrote in “The Trial” that
“it’s characteristic of this judicial system that a man is condemned not only when he’s innocent but also in ignorance.”
Nazanin was charged and convicted without adequate representation or due process—indeed, condemned in ignorance. Like other hon. Members—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq)—I call on the Foreign Secretary, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Minister to press the Iranian Government on a number of issues that my constituents, Amnesty International and I have raised. They should press them to allow Nazanin any specialist medical care she may require; apply without discrimination article 58 of the Islamic penal code, which allows for someone to be conditionally released after serving a third of their prison sentence and would ensure the immediate release of Nazanin; ensure that Nazanin has regular access to a lawyer of her choice; allow Nazanin to be in contact with her family, including relatives abroad; and allow her to communicate with British consular officials—although that seems to be a contentious issue. I ask the Minister to respond to those points.
The United Kingdom has a well-deserved international reputation for its justice system. I hope that the Government will press for the most basic justice in Iran for our citizens, whether they are British citizens or dual citizens, and particularly for Nazanin. It is clear from the contributions to this debate that that is completely and utterly lacking.
Sir Charles, that was the speech I made in this place on 18 July 2017—word for word. In fact, it was my first speech in this place. I ask the Minister: what has changed? The answer is very little. What has the FCDO managed to do in the last four and a half years? It has failed to secure Nazanin’s release. Four and a half years of failure—a litany of failure at the Department’s door. I call on the Minister to answer the points raised in this debate and ensure that our debt to the Iranian Government is repaid—a debt that was incurred not by the last Government or the Government before them, but by the Government who were in power when I was in nursery school. It is all the more important that we ensure that the UK honours its international obligations. We have failed to do so, and Nazanin is paying the price.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this debate. I know that she has been a great source of support for the Ratcliffe family with her campaigning.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is being held as a political hostage in Iran. Her life is being used as a bargaining chip in a diplomatic game between Britain and Iran. In September, in order to mark Nazanin’s 2,000th day in detention, Richard Ratcliffe and their daughter Gabriella stood on a large snakes and ladders board in Parliament Square that represented the ups and down, twists and turns and false dawns that this family have endured. Gabriella has been separated from her mother for most of her young life; Richard has been separated from his wife. Nazanin has endured terrible mistreatment, and Amnesty International rightly describes her as a victim of torture.
As so many colleagues have done, I want to pay tribute to Richard Ratcliffe and his unwavering determination to keep Nazanin’s case at the top of the agenda. I have met him during both his first and second hunger strikes to show him solidarity and support. The strength, determination and dignity that he continues to show is heroic. The Government’s response to the escalation of Nazanin’s ordeal in Iran has rightly been described as pitiful. In May this year, the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), said that Iran’s treatment of Nazanin “amounts to torture” and that she is being
“held unlawfully…as a matter of international law.”
The strengthening of the language being used by Ministers is welcome, but it is just words—the Government have to act. We need to know why the Government are not acting to bring British hostages home.
In her eighth urgent question on Nazanin’s case recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn asked the Minister to acknowledge that Nazanin is a hostage, to resolve the £400 million debt issue—I am pleased that so many Members have raised that today—and to work to secure an end to hostage taking. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), rightly called for a fundamental rethink of the Government’s approach to Nazanin. It is long past time for an urgent intervention from the Prime Minister, and for a new strategy to bring Nazanin home. The strength of support in this standing-room only Westminster Hall debate shows how much support there is in this House for that urgent action.
I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this debate. Almost exactly a year ago, on 3 November 2020, the Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the Government,
“from the Prime Minister down, remain committed to doing everything we can for her.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 185.]
In the intervening 12 months, nothing has changed. Nazanin is no closer to being released, her daughter is no nearer to being reunited with her mother, and her husband, Richard, has been forced into enduring yet another hunger strike to highlight her case. Since her detention in April 2016, five Foreign Secretaries have promised to explore every avenue, leave no stone unturned and work tirelessly to secure her release. However, there has been no progress.
Last year, when the Defence Secretary finally acknowledged that there is a debt and a debt has to be repaid, it suddenly felt like progress; it felt like perhaps there was a breakthrough. The Minister himself admitted that they were exploring ways to repay this debt.
A year ago it felt like negotiations were at a delicate stage, when one misspoken word could set the whole process back. Yet here we are, stuck in the same situation as we were then. The inescapable conclusion must therefore be that this Government are actually not serious about securing the release of Nazanin. They have had so many chances, so many opportunities, and every single one of them has been missed.
I visited Richard twice during his hunger strikes, and on both occasions I was struck by his resolve to not sit meekly back and wait for debates to take their course. The Government are letting the people down; they are letting Nazanin down, and there is a seven-year-old girl stuck in the middle. Minister, it is not good enough. The public are not with you. Richard Ratcliffe is not going to go away, and neither are his supporters in this House.
Like others, I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), not just for securing this debate but for her tireless and unwavering commitment to her constituents.
I have had the pleasure of meeting Richard on a number of occasions: first, outside the Iranian embassy while on hunger strike, and most recently outside the Foreign Office, also while on hunger strike. I cannot begin to imagine the living hell he has endured over the past five years, yet he has only ever acted with the utmost dignity and decency. His dedication to his wife and devotion to his family are a true inspiration. The pain, the cruelty, and the unfairness to which Nazanin and many others have been subjected is, sadly, all too routine for the Iranian regime. Their fates should not be tied to geopolitics and arms deals, but they are.
We are all well versed in the complexities of these cases, the issues around breach of sanctions, arguments about interest, the relationship with the US. However, one thing is clear: we do owe that debt. Former Foreign Secretaries have said that we should pay that debt. The Defence Secretary has said that we should pay that debt. An international court has said that we should pay that debt. The Prime Minister said that we would pay that debt. There is a plan to free Nazanin, but the Government, for whatever reason, have so far chosen not to pursue it. That has come at an immeasurable cost to Nazanin, Richard, Gabriella and the many other families affected.
I want to take this opportunity to urge the Minister—and I know that he cares about these matters—to do whatever it takes to prevent those who have been ripped apart from being kept apart for much longer. No one should be forced to starve themselves just to get their family back, and the last thing any of us want is to see Richard on hunger strike again. The torment must not continue, and we look to the Government to ensure that it does not.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I would also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this really important debate.
Like many in this House, I visited Richard a couple of weeks ago outside the Foreign Office, to see him and the measures he has taken. It is something he should never have had to do. For five and a half years, Nazanin and her young family have felt the horrific pain of separation as a result of an unjust and arbitrary detention. In May last year, the previous Foreign Secretary outlined that the treatment of Nazanin “amounts to torture”. I agree with this assessment.
Not only is Nazanin’s treatment unimaginably cruel, but our position internationally is weakened if we do not appear to have a diplomatic solution to look after our own citizens. Unfortunately, the Government have not explored the full suite of diplomatic levers to get her home, so I urge them to act today and bring this case to the fore.
Last Christmas many of us spent a number of days away from our families and loved ones. We felt the pain of not being able to see them. This evening, after today’s debates, after we have all voted and had dinner, we will all go home to our families. We will tuck our children in. We will see our grandchildren. Nazanin will not have that; Richard will not have that; Gabriella will not have that. They have been going through this hell for years, and it is time for it to end. I hope that today the Minster will outline what key actions he will be leading to change the situation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her tremendously eloquent, passionate, and absolutely relentless pursuit of this cause. She has been an absolute credit to her constituents. I too am grateful for the opportunity to express my solidarity and support for Nazanin and her family, and I do so on behalf of my constituents in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. Many of them have been in touch to express their shock at the continuing torture that Nazanin endures as a hostage in Iran.
Like pretty much everyone else in the Chamber, I have had the privilege—and it was a privilege—of meeting Richard a couple of times at the Iranian embassy and then at the Foreign Office. It is appalling that he has felt compelled to go on hunger strike twice just to seek justice for his family. I hope it gives him some heart to see the huge cross-party support on display today.
First and foremost, our starting point is condemnation of the Iranian regime. How it has acted and continues to act is absolutely appalling, but today we have the opportunity to ask, and we must ask, questions of the UK Government. My constituents want to know what the strategy is. We almost need to ask whether there is a strategy. I appreciate that there are no easy answers to such situations, but we are entitled to see evidence of a concerted strategy and one that is being pursued energetically. Sadly, we are not convinced that that is the case.
It has been rightly asked why other countries have managed to secure releases, but the UK has not. It is beyond doubt that it is linked to the IMS debt that is legally due. Why is that not being paid? Why are the Government unable even to speak about it when previously they appeared very willing to make promises and raise expectations?
While it is welcome that diplomat protection was granted to Nazanin, how has it been used by the Government? What practical difference has it made? If it is useful, will others be granted the same status? These are just some of the questions that my constituents and I would love to see answered, and we will continue to push for answers along with colleagues across the House.
I am grateful to be called to speak in the debate, and I hope Richard can feel the support, warmth and love for him in the room today. I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her tenacity and commitment to the Zaghari-Ratcliffe family, as well as her compassion. She has done so much to help and champion Nazanin’s case. In my constituency of Newport West, this case is personal. Richard Ratcliffe’s sister Rebecca is a constituent of mine, so I was determined to speak today. I thank Rebecca for being in touch ahead of the debate, and I thank all the people from across Newport West who have written to me about Nazanin in recent days.
There is no doubt that the failure to get Nazanin home with her family and friends lies at the door of No. 10 Downing Street and on the desk of this Prime Minister. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House exactly what the Prime Minister has done since July 2019 to get Nazanin home. Can he tell us precisely how many meetings the Prime Minister has had on the issue? Can he outline what efforts are being made to ensure Nazanin is home in time for Christmas? Nazanin’s lovely husband Richard has previously said that this Government’s inability to secure his wife’s return home is “a failure of diplomacy”. What does the Minister say to that?
I am here in the debate as a mother and a wife, but most importantly as a parliamentarian. I feel a massive obligation to Richard, Gabriella, Rebecca and all the family to press the Minister in the strongest terms. So far this Government have failed to get Nazanin home, so I urge the Minister to get back to the Foreign Office and make it very clear to the Foreign Secretary that this simply cannot go on. We need Nazanin home in the UK, and we need her home now.
I can be brief because there is so much agreement across the House on this point, but I put on the record the SNP’s deep appreciation for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for bringing the debate forward and her dogged pursuit of the issue. The SNP has a deep respect for the profound dignity of Richard Ratcliffe, who is obviously undergoing a living hell in this situation and deserves the cross-party support that is evident today.
I also put on record that I do not think the Minister is part of the problem. I think he has been diligent and is carrying the can for a story of other people’s failures, because this is a story of failure. The fact that Nazanin and others have not been released when they are clearly political hostages is something that should give us all deep cause for concern. It is up to all of us to find solutions to the problem.
I have two concrete points that I will make and be grateful for a response on. There is clearly agreement across the House that the historical £400 million debt does need to be repaid. What consideration have the Government given to translating that debt into humanitarian aid or some sort of other payment that would be a face-saving mechanism and also a more legally sound way of making that payment? Surely that would move things on.
Parallel to that—because I do not think it should just be carrot; I think we need some stick as well—what consideration have the Government given to Magnitsky sanctions on individuals within the Iranian regime to focus minds that this is an intolerable situation that cannot stand? The Minister will get great support across the House if he takes these measures forward—certainly from the SNP. We want to see Nazanin and the other people home as soon as possible.
I will be brief because I very much want to hear what the Minister has to say in response. The whole House owes a debt to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for the way she has pursued this case for so long—I remember having a conversation with her when Nazanin was first taken prisoner. We should all also admire Richard for the way he has campaigned so effectively despite his suffering. As a result of that, this is the largest Westminster Hall turnout I can remember.
Obviously, the debt is owed and must be paid. If this country wants respect for behaving in the proper manner, the debt should be paid. It is not a negotiation; it is saying “This money is owed. Let’s pay it.” I believe that would help to unlock a lot of things, and help to open up a serious human rights dialogue with Iran in the future, which is necessary. While we are here today, concentrating on Nazanin’s release—which I completely support—I would put on record that we should also be calling for the release of Anoosheh Ashoori, Mehran Raoof and Morad Tahbaz, who are in a similar situation. I hope that, in the context of a changed and renewed relationship with Iran, they would be released.
I want to see decent human rights everywhere around the world, and that obviously includes Iran. The people of Iran deserve that. We should do everything we can to ensure that happens. I hope the Minister can unlock this—maybe not completely today but I hope it can be unlocked—and that he will have got the message of the strength of feeling, from everybody across our House, for her release.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles; congratulations on chairing the debate so effectively. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on giving so many people the opportunity to share her passion and frustration over the situation that Nazanin, Richard and Gabriella are all in. We all express our personal solidarity with them today, along with that of the thousands—probably tens or hundreds of thousands—of constituents represented by the voices here.
I hope you will indulge me, Sir Charles, if I recognise the SNP and Plaid Members who are either here or have been to visit Richard, but have not been able to speak. Those are my hon. Friends the Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), for Gordon (Richard Thomson), for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), and for North Down (Stephen Farry). We all believe that enough is enough; it is time for action.
I first met Richard outside the Iranian embassy in 2019, and had the privilege of meeting him again outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. He said it was one thing to keep vigil outside the embassy of the country that is holding his wife hostage—let us make no mistake; that is what Nazanin is, and that is the first thing the Minister ought to put on record today—but it is another to have to protest, and to go on hunger strike, outside his own Government’s buildings because of their inaction and unwillingness or inability to carry out their basic duty of care for one of their own citizens.
The Government repeatedly say they are doing everything they can but, as we have heard in this debate, that is patently not the case, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and many others have said. It is clear that the repayment of debt is a major issue, and one that, if resolved, would bring about a major shift in Iranian policy. The right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) has said as much, and others have said how that could be done.
Sadly, the feedback that we have had—the result of the hunger strike—was a series of increasingly frustrating meetings that made the family and all campaigners feel that no progress is being made. That is despite, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) says, other countries in recent years, including the United States, Australia, France and Germany, all successfully negotiating the release of their citizens who have been arbitrarily detained in Iran—but Britain has not secured any releases.
We have also heard the cases of Anoosheh Ashoori, Mehran Raoof and Morad Tahbaz, all of whom, interestingly—my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said this to me in conversation—are dual nationals. I wonder if that makes the UK Government feel they have some sort of diminished responsibility for them, but a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), Jagtar Singh Johal, remains incarcerated in India, so there has to be more; more can be done and must be done.
Saying that diplomatic protection exists is one thing, but acting on it is another. I pay tribute to the point made by the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and to the fact that, week after week, she raised this at business questions. She did that on behalf of all of us in the House who take an interest in that case, and I do not think the Government would be as responsive if not for her continuing to do that. That should be recognised.
Having the right to diplomatic protection means there should be a right to private consular meetings and immediate access to medical examination by an independent doctor. The Government could issue a formal protest to the Iranian authorities; they could summon the Iranian Ambassador—they summoned the French Ambassador after all. They could propose to the Iranian authorities the immediate commencement of formal negotiations to resolve the dispute; they could send a detailed legal memorandum to the Iranian authorities outlining the breaches of international law arising from their detention of these British nationals; and they should assert under international law their right to provide assistance. Consular assistance is important to all of us, including my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell). I hope there will be a further debate on that in the Chamber very soon.
Throughout the Brexit campaign and, indeed, the independence referendum campaign, we were always told how proud we should be of our British passports. Well, the British passport says:
“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary”.
That is what it says on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s passport. The question for the Government today is: what are they doing to make it a reality?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. Like other Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this debate and on all her incredible work on behalf of her constituents. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held in Iran for five and a half years. Like many here, I visited Richard, her husband, on two occasions outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and I want to pay tribute to him for his determination and incredible resolve.
Many MPs and members of the public visited Richard during his hunger strike. In his final speech outside the FCDO, looking back at his time on hunger strike, he said that it had always been important to him that everyone who visited him had been united against injustice. We all pay tribute to Richard and, as others have said, the fight will go on.
Last week, there were talks between the Government and the Iranian deputy Foreign Minister. Unfortunately, yet again, there was no progress. Nor has there been progress on the cases of other dual nationals, including Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz. Both men are not in good health and, like Nazanin, are being arbitrarily detained on spurious fabricated charges. Anoosheh Ashoori has not been granted diplomatic protection by the UK Government and has not been allowed out of prison. Morad Tahbaz was one of eight conservationists held by the Iranian authorities. Amnesty International has said that there was evidence that those eight had been tortured to obtain false confessions.
Everyone here is united in believing that those detentions are wrong and totally unjust. Surely, all this has gone on long enough. For more than five years, British Governments have tried and failed to secure the release of Nazanin and the other dual nationals. If there has been a Government strategy during this time, it has clearly failed.
A number of Members have mentioned the debt of £400 million which Britain owes Iran. The money was paid to the United Kingdom by Iran over 40 years ago for 1,500 Chieftain tanks which were never delivered. The Government have said that bank transfer transactions are not possible because of restrictions but, as we all know, if the Government had the will to settle the debt, one way or another the payment would be made.
I am not suggesting that any sort of ransom is paid by our Government, but if the money is owed and there is no question but that that is the case, the debt should be settled. In fact, when the Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary, he made a promise to Richard Ratcliffe that the debt would be paid. Significantly, in 2014, the current Defence Secretary described the unpaid debt as “a sorry story”. He said the whole issue had been,
“marred by double dealing and obfuscation”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 11 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 103WH.]
More recently, a number of distinguished former Foreign Secretaries, Conservative and Labour, have said that the debt should be paid. That is also the view of many international and legal commentators, and it is our view as well. As the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), who is a former Foreign Secretary, has said, this is not about paying a ransom. It is about the UK’s credibility and doing what is right.
On numerous occasions, we have been told by the Government that they are doing their best and that it would be unwise to rock the boat, but it has to be said that the Government’s approach has failed abysmally. Now is surely the time to take off the kid gloves and to be vigorous and determined. Nazanin, Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz and all the dual nationals need to be brought back home. The time for discreet pressure and cautious words is long past. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what plan of action the Government now have for bringing our people home.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing the debate and for her tireless work in supporting Nazanin and Richard and in championing this issue. Although there have been times when we have disagreed, it is absolutely right that I put on the record our respect for the hon. Lady’s passion.
The hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) mentioned her support for the family of her constituent, and right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about the work that they have done to support family members of those in Iran. Other Members were unable to attend the debate because of ministerial duties—I think particularly of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), who speaks to me regularly about the situation and who is the constituency MP for some of the members of Richard and Nazanin’s family.
Like all Members of the House and everyone in the country, I have huge sympathy for the families of those who are incarcerated in Iran. The Government will continue to do everything we can to resolve the situation in which they find themselves through no fault of their own. The ongoing suffering that Iran is inflicting on British dual nationals such as Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz is deeply distressing and rightly elicits very strong feelings from hon. Members of different parties. I cannot overstate the fact that the Government share that frustration and are unwavering in our commitment to resolve this issue. We have made it clear to the Iranian Government at every stage that we expect Iran to release all British dual nationals and allow them to return home to their families.
In today’s debate, we are focusing primarily on Nazanin, Richard and Gabriella. The UK Government continue to work tirelessly to secure Nazanin’s full, permanent release and ability to return home to her family. As right hon. and hon. Members are aware, Nazanin was released on furlough into the care of her parents in Tehran in 2020, but the Iranian system has refused to let her return home and has not left her alone during the period of furlough. The Government have kept up our campaign of pressure on the Iranian authorities throughout this time, and we will not relent until she is fully and permanently released.
The completion of Nazanin’s first sentence and the removal of her ankle tag in March 2021 should have been a time for happiness and enabled Nazanin to be reunited with Richard and Gabriella. Instead, Iran doubled down on its baseless charges against her. We have raised our objections at every stage, and when those charges were formalised at a court hearing in April, we summoned the Iranians and demanded that she be released. When her appeal was rejected in October and her sentence confirmed, we again objected in the strongest terms and demanded her release. The Foreign Secretary and this Government continue to be clear in our discussions with Iran that under no circumstances should Nazanin be returned to prison, that we would react strongly if she were and that she should instead be allowed to return home to her family immediately. The Foreign Secretary raised this point again with Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, most recently on 8 November. I raised this issue again with the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Bagheri Kani on 11 November.
At every stage since Nazanin was detained, the UK Government have carefully considered and assiduously pursued the courses of action that we have assessed offer the best opportunity for resolving this case. We have not pursued any course of action that we believe would be counterproductive to the release and return home of those in incarceration.
In March 2019, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) afforded diplomatic protection to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. This formally raised it to a state-to-state issue. At that time, he also recognised that that was unlikely to yield immediate results, in part because Iran does not recognise dual national status. Unfortunately, his prediction at the time seems to have been proven right.
Since then, this Government have continued to take further action where we judge it will help to secure full and permanent release. We constantly review what other steps are possible, and we weigh up all the diplomatic and legal tools available to secure her release.
I will not. A number of hon. Members have raised the issue of the IMS debt. As I have said to the House on a number of occasions, the UK Government recognise that we have a duty to legally repay this debt and we continue to explore all legal options to resolve this 40-year-old case. [Interruption.] We have always been clear.
I want to address the point that my right hon. Friend Lord Goldsmith made and the way his words have been interpreted, and I want to make the point absolutely clear. We have always been clear that we do not accept British dual nationals being used as diplomatic leverage. My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey made the point with regard to the payment of the IMS debt that it is not easy, and he is right.
This Government remain committed to doing everything we can to explore all avenues to secure Nazanin’s release. We always act in what we believe to be her best interests, with the ultimate aim of securing her return home to be reunited with Richard and Gabriella.
Since the family requested assistance from my Department, officials have provided support to Nazanin’s family and are available to be contacted 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since Nazanin’s release on furlough, we have also been able to talk directly to her through our ambassador in Tehran. We will continue to offer that support until Nazanin is returned home.
This Government and I have the utmost respect and admiration—I have said this directly to him and I am more than happy to say this publicly again— for Mr Ratcliffe’s stoicism, resolve and commitment to securing Nazanin’s release and for the support of his family. Mr Ratcliffe has met with the Foreign Secretary, with me and with senior officials. We will continue to update him, and the other families who have British dual nationals in incarceration, whenever we have information on progress or whenever we feel there is an update to do with the families in detention.
Our concern for Nazanin and her family is mirrored by our concern for all detained British nationals in Iran and their families, wherever they may be. Their welfare remains a top priority for this Government. Our ambassador in Tehran regularly lobbies on mistreatment allegations and on their health, whenever we have specific concerns or whenever a family member brings this issue to our attention. This Government will continue to lobby for the full and permanent release of those held in Iran.
On our international efforts, we will also collaborate with all relevant international partners to seek to put an end to Iran’s unacceptable practice of detaining foreign and dual nationals in an attempt to find some kind of diplomatic leverage. As part of a Canadian initiative on arbitrary detention, we are committed to enhancing international co-operation to prevent any state from arbitrarily detaining foreign nationals for coercive purposes.
It is not possible to give the hon. Gentleman details on that. As I said, we recognise the legal duty to repay the debt, and we will explore all legal options for doing so.
I once again express my deepest sympathies for Richard and his family, and indeed to all the families of those incarcerated in Iran. He has campaigned with such tireless commitment. The Government will continue to push in all the ways we can.
We of course consider this issue carefully. However, I have made the point already that—I suspect in large part because Iran does not recognise dual nationality and therefore does not recognise our authority to speak on this issue—that has proven to be of limited success in the instance of Nazanin. We will continue to hold the Iranian Government to account for their treatment of the British dual nationals in incarceration, including Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz. I assure the House that the Government remain committed to doing whatever we can to secure their release and will continue to work and make representations at every opportunity on their behalf.
I remind all Members that it was the Iranian Government who arrested these British dual nationals. It was the Iranian Government who applied these bogus charges against them. It was the Iranian Government who hold these people in incarceration and prevent them from coming home. It is the Iranian Government who are wholly and solely responsible for the appalling circumstances that these people find themselves in. The British Government will continue to work tirelessly to secure their release and return home. I assure everyone in the House that that will remain our priority until they are released and are able to return home.
I was planning to thank everyone who spoke in the debate, but the list is too long, I am afraid. MPs are very lucky that we can sit here and talk and it is recorded in Hansard, but our constituents are not always so lucky, so I will read some words from Richard Ratcliffe:
“Today marks day 2,054 of Nazanin’s detention. We are approaching our 6th Christmas apart. A little girl has been without her mother for 5 and a half years. It did not have to be like this. Back in 2017—when the now Prime Minister scrambled following his false statements in Parliament that are still used to justify Nazanin’s second case—he promised to resolve the debt we owe to Iran which is the reason for Nazanin’s detention, effectively setting a price for her release. He has now been Prime Minister for two years, yet that promise is unkept—but remembered in Tehran. The Prime Minister did not visit me on hunger strike, though he did pass one morning without coming over. His government continues to put British citizens in harm’s way. Nazanin's story shames this country.”
I do not think I could have put it any better. I read Richard Ratcliffe’s words so they can be recorded in Hansard.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Access to Archives
[Esther McVey in the Chair]
Before I call Chris Evans, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are legal proceedings this week before the information rights tribunal. I am further advised that the House’s sub judice resolution of 2001 does not apply to first-tier tribunals, so those legal proceedings are not sub judice. All hon. Members should, however, be mindful of matters that may be the subject of future legal proceedings, which may, at a later stage, become sub judice. I thank the hon. Member for his courtesy in consulting the Table Office in advance of the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered access to archives purchased with public money.
Thank you, Ms McVey, for your chairmanship; I look forward to your stout resolution as we move through the debate. Thank you also for your statement beforehand. I have deliberated with the Table Office on this matter, and I would like to place on record my thanks for its help and support during this period.
On 2 May 2012, the Minister of State for Universities and Science in the coalition Government, the now Lord Willetts, said in a speech:
“As taxpayers put their money towards intellectual enquiry, they cannot be barred from then accessing it. They should not be kept outside with their noses pressed to the window”.
I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. If money from the public purse is used for the acquisition, whether direct or through acceptance in lieu schemes, of research, records or archives, they should be accessible to the public. Put simply, those who bought it ought to have access to it. The public have a right to access materials and records that have been paid for with public funds. However, because of Government actions that bar the public from accessing certain archives, that seems not always to be the case.
Barring access to archives is both a break of the public’s trust and a threat to the integrity of our academia. It also sets a dangerous precedent in terms of accountability and transparency more widely if the Government are able to censor and restrict access to archives. I am deeply concerned about recent activities of the Cabinet Office that have blocked access to certain archives that were bought with public money, which is why I called for this debate. The resulting legal battles and the costs involved with barring access are a further misuse of taxpayers’ money, and this Government need to be held accountable for it. No Government should interfere with public access to archives that have been saved for the nation and paid for by the public.
Clearly, there are some circumstances in which that right may have to be restricted. National security interests or ensuring that general data protection regulation requirements are met are both reasonable justifications for restricting access, and I do not think that anyone would deny that. There is a reason why certain documents are kept sealed by the National Archives for 30 years. The public accept that, but it seems that this Government are using and abusing that public acceptance. They are pushing out-of-date legislation to its limits. There are a number of pieces of legislation that cover the reasons for restricting public access, and some are in dire need of an update, having been drafted long before the digital age was even thought of.
This Government are using the numerous loopholes in those pieces of legislation to restrict public access to records retrospectively. That is not fair use of public money; frankly, it is an abuse of public trust in the Government to provide open access to records that have been saved for the nation. In some cases, the abuse is even worse. In cases where the purchase was agreed or funding was obtained on the basis of public access, the retrospective closure of archival material is both a costly misuse of public money and a dangerous precedent for the Government to set. It breaks the understanding upon which the funding was obtained.
I am sure that many will be aware of the Broadlands Archives. They have gained a reasonable amount of press coverage over the last few months, and rightly so. Historian Andrew Lownie has fought legal battles for four years to try to gain access to the papers, diaries and personal correspondence of Lord and Lady Mountbatten. I have spoken to Mr Lownie over the past few months about his experiences of trying to access these archives, which were purchased on the understanding that they would be open to the public. Unfortunately, the Cabinet Office has attempted to obstruct him at every turn, resulting in four costly and unnecessary years of legal battles.
Indeed, the Cabinet Office tried to get out of responding to this very debate, suggesting that I go to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport instead. That is why I sought advice from the Table Office before going ahead with this debate. When the original suggestion did not work, the Cabinet Office also inquired about the potential withdrawal of this debate completely.
Cabinet Office Ministers are not facing their responsibilities and they are reluctant to say why it has taken so long and been so difficult for Mr Lownie to gain access to these records. The Cabinet Office needs to be held accountable for spending large sums of money on legal cases to prevent access to archival material that was bought with public funds, especially when the fundraising for the purchase emphasised that the archive would be open to all.
In 2011, these records were saved for the nation when the University of Southampton purchased the Broadland Archives. The purchase was partly funded by a grant of nearly £2 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and it was subject to the acceptance in lieu scheme, which in this case equated to £1.6 million in tax foregone by the Exchequer. That funding was provided on the basis that the archives would be open and accessible to researchers and the public. Let me just say that again: taxpayers’ money was provided on the basis that the archives would be accessible to the public. If archives have been bought for the nation on the agreement that they will be accessible to researchers and the public, that agreement really ought to be upheld. It is not fair to the taxpayer or members of the public who wish to access these archives if access is then denied or obstructed after purchase. What is most worrying about this case is that it involves not the Government but an academic institution—an academic institution that should be promoting active research by historians.
I will not get into the case because the Information Commissioner is involved and there is an appeal; I am mindful about that when I speak about the case. However, I am talking mainly about the principle related to what is going on here, because the one thing that we have learned politically in the last couple of years is that there are politicians out there who peddle fake news—the idea that facts are fake. The only way that we can combat that—people saying that certain historical events did not happen—is through the work of our archivists and historians.
It seems to me that what is happening with the Mountbatten papers and Broadlands archives is hindering future historians in bringing out the full story of what went before. If we are to learn anything about the future, we must understand our past. I am worried that the Government are actively involved in restricting archives and that cannot go on. It sets a dangerous precedent for future Governments.
We may one day—I hope not—have a Government that want to burn our past and change it, and that will use this legislation, which I fear, to stop us having the truth and the real story of our lives in this country, and to fit their own political purposes. I hope that that never happens; I hope we never see what happened in Germany in the 1930s happen in this country. However, if we had the mechanism to block our archives retrospectively, as seems to be happening in this case, we would be setting a dangerous precedent not only for historians but for future society and future Governments.
I ask the Minister to look at the case carefully. I understand that there are legal procedures, but my extreme view is that the precedent being set is dangerous for the future. I hope he will look at the legislation and understand that when it was written we were not in a digital age. We had no concept of what was going to happen. In the last 10 years, the world has changed beyond all recognition. We have more information than we have ever had before. Government is now conducted over WhatsApp and text messages. We have an idea of what people are thinking. We live in an exciting time. It would be a shame if future historians could not access that, or did not know how important decisions were arrived at. I ask the Minister to look hard at the case and see the argument I am making that if we dangerously reduce access to archives, we will cause serious problems down the line.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on raising the issue and securing the debate—not quite as highly or hotly debated as the previous one. Nevertheless, I know how important this subject is to him as a distinguished author. I will give a broad background to the process and then talk more specifically about the case he raises.
The acceptance in lieu scheme was set up under the National Heritage Act 1980 and was further fleshed out in the Inheritance Tax Act 1984. It allows taxpayers to transfer works of art and other heritage items into public ownership in lieu of capital transfer and inheritance tax. It is a good way to secure important national treasures for the nation. The scheme has acquired many important collections of artefacts for the nation, including Sir Winston Churchill’s papers, the papers of Lord and Lady Mountbatten mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, as well as—I am sure this will please him—the papers of Clement Attlee.
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport may accept heritage items that are offered, but purchases under the scheme are overseen by the commissioners of the board of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, who are advised by the AIL panel with the support of the Arts Council. As we would expect, their concern is of the value of the objects offered in lieu of tax. The panel advises on the excellence and importance of the artefacts in question, their physical condition and whether the price is fair both for the applicant and the state. The Secretary of State, again advised by the panel, allocates the items to a suitable gallery, museum, library or archive, which will then care for the material and make it accessible to the public.
The scheme has grown into a major source of new acquisitions for those organisations and means that citizens and tourists alike are able to celebrate and experience our heritage in new ways. When it comes to archives accepted through the scheme, the Cabinet Office or another relevant Department advises whether the items contain sensitive information that may need to be kept closed from the public to protect our national security, defence and relations with our international partners.
The scheme’s aim is to secure archives for the nation. It is agnostic on whether it is right that material in the archives should be open to the public at once. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the scheme is not the only route by which historic papers enter the public domain—there is the Public Records Act 1958, under which Government papers are transferred to the National Archives once they are 20 years old. Former Ministers, senior public servants or their heirs sell or gift their private papers to research institutions.
By convention, Prime Ministers may take with them copies of certain categories of documents when they leave office. The originals remain in the possession of the Cabinet Office until they are transferred to the National Archives. For example, departing Prime Ministers may take copies of letters they sign, including personal letters to the sovereign, personal telegrams and purely political papers. Obviously, they may not take copies of anything marked “top secret”. They agree not to release those papers without the approval of the Government of the day. If they sell or transfer them, they must impose that same condition on the new owners.
Ultimately, it does not matter how official information enters the public domain; Government officials review every artifact to assess the sensitivity of information. It would be remiss of any Government not to take steps to prevent the disclosure of information that could damage the national interest by revealing intelligence about national security, our relations with our international partners or exposing institutions to legal challenge. I must reassure the hon. Member for Islwyn that the Cabinet Office’s role is not to keep those records closed for ever; that is a temporary stop until the records can be released without risk. I must reinforce that point. Once the threat is deemed to be reduced, the records will be made open to the public.
The hon. Gentleman should know that there are safeguards, not least the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Under that, at the simple request of any person in any part of the world, Government Departments, university archives and the National Archives are all required to look again at records and make a decision on whether they should continue to withhold information or open it to the public. They have to be able to justify that decision, first to the Information Commissioner and ultimately to the courts.
[Mr Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
The Mountbatten papers are currently being considered by the first-tier tribunal. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is a long-running case; he referenced the individual who brought at least one case and he will be aware of the recent coverage of the case in the media. The Cabinet Office has already released some information to the requester and is seeking to withhold only a small part of that information. The hearing is currently taking place and the tribunal must be able to review the case on its merits without prejudice. As such, it would not be appropriate for me to enter into the specific details of the case today, before the tribunal has even considered it.
What I can say is that in 2011, the archive of Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten was accepted under the AIL scheme. It was part of the Broadlands collection that he referred to, which is named after the house in which Lord and Lady Mountbatten lived in Hampshire. The collection includes papers of Lord Palmerston and the noted philanthropist the Earl of Shaftesbury, whose memorial is the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus.
One of the most important parts of this huge collection of papers is the Mountbatten archive. That part of the Broadlands collection consists of about quarter of a million documents and 50,000 photographs. It covers all aspects of Lord Mountbatten’s distinguished naval career: his role as Chief of Combined Operations during world war two, including material on the Dieppe raid; his role as Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command 1943-46; and his period as the last Viceroy of India, overseeing the transfer to independence.
Not all of those events were glorious. The Dieppe raid is generally considered a disaster, albeit one that demonstrated Britain’s continued commitment to the western front at a pivotal point in the war. Nevertheless, the papers give a fuller and more rounded assessment of Mountbatten and his contribution to our history that would simply not be possible without them. In particular, they give great insight into Mountbatten the man, his character and inner thoughts at crucial turning points in our history. Mountbatten was placed close to the centre of world events during the middle of the 20th century.
The papers also shed light on his closest relationships, including those with key figures in our national story. What makes the papers unique is the conjoined papers of his wife, Edwina, a descendant of the Earl of Shaftesbury, whose traditions of public service she continued, both as Lord Mountbatten’s partner and through her philanthropic works, most notably as a leading figure in the St John Ambulance Brigade.
In short, from an historian’s point of view, including that of the author to whom the hon. Member for Islwyn referred, these papers are priceless. That is why when the acceptance in lieu offer fell short of what the Broadlands Trust needed to secure the papers for the nation, the University of Southampton undertook fundraising on its own account to raise the extra money it needed. As the hon. Member for Islwyn mentioned, it raised an extra £2 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and other bodies to secure the purchase. I know the hon. Member will join me in applauding the University of Southampton for the fantastic role it played in securing the Mountbatten papers for the nation.
I know that the hon. Member believes that because the papers were purchased with public money, they should immediately be made available to the public and scholars. As I have explained, that does not necessarily follow. It is standard practice for historical papers to be checked for sensitive information. That applies equally to papers in private hands, no less than to historical papers of Government Departments transferred to the National Archives. The papers of former public servants often contain information that remains sensitive, even many years after the events that they relate to.
As it is, fewer than 200 documents in the Mountbatten papers have been redacted. In most cases, those redactions are no more than a few lines and, in many cases, just a word or two is withheld. Overall, less than a tenth of 1% of the documents in the collection have had some of their content withheld. I cannot go into detail about information that has been withheld, or why we have withheld it, but I can say we base our advice to external archives on our own experience of assessing the sensitivity of our records. We never ask archives to withhold anything we could not ourselves withhold. In this case, there is no exception.
Nor is our judgment on what should be withheld final. As I have already explained, the university archives and the majority of public institutions that hold private archives are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, in just the same way as Government Departments and the National Archives are. I can assure the hon. Member that Cabinet Office officials have consulted extensively on which materials to withhold, and on what grounds.
Again, it is not appropriate for me to go into specifics while the tribunal is still hearing evidence. The redactions in the Mountbatten papers have been made in consultation with our colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in order to safeguard national security, positive international relations and the dignity of the Crown. Officials have to answer for the decisions that they have taken to the Information Commissioner and, ultimately, the courts. Indeed, that is the course that is now being followed in the case before the tribunal, so whatever the outcome of that tribunal, I must reiterate that these records will not be closed forever. It is a temporary stop until they can be released without damaging the national interest.
To conclude, the AIL scheme is a great way to preserve the papers of important public figures for the nation. As the hon. Member for Islwyn knows, we continue to open Government historical records more often than any previous Government. As I touched on earlier, the Government must ask institutions to withhold some historical records to protect our citizens, but we remain committed to opening as much as possible as early as possible. The most important goal should be for such papers to be secured for the nation and preserved, precisely so that they will be available to historians in the future.
I thank the hon. Member again for raising this subject. I am sure that he, the historian involved, the Cabinet Office, and other colleagues will take a keen interest in how this tribunal rolls out over the coming days. Who knows—we may very well return to this Chamber soon to discuss the Mountbatten papers once again.
Prison Officers: Pension Age
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the pension age of prison officers.
Just over two years ago, at 4.30 pm on Tuesday 8 October 2019, I stood here and made a speech in which I pleaded with the then Prisons Minister to listen to the concerns of our fantastic prison officers and let them retire at 60, in the same way that comparable frontline emergency workers in the police and fire service are allowed to do. Sadly, my pleas fell on deaf ears, and many prison officers still face the prospect of having to work until they are 68, so I make no apologies for raising the subject yet again on behalf of the many hard-working people who work in the Prison Service, particularly those based in the three prisons in my constituency: Elmley, Standford Hill and Swaleside.
The people working in our prisons do an important, difficult job. For the most part, they do so without complaint and with the utmost integrity and dedication. That dedication saw many of them going to work every single day throughout the pandemic, putting their own health at risk not only to execute their duty of care to their prisoners, but to protect the wider public. Sadly, because they work for the Cinderella emergency service, they receive few plaudits and very little thanks. Let me thank our prison staff for everything they have done during the past 18 months, often in a very difficult and dangerous environment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and associate myself with his thanks to prison officers. Does he agree that they face a challenging job—challenging even for a young officer—and that there is an overwhelming case for looking again at the retirement age and reducing it? Does he also agree that we should also ensure that they are safe while doing their job and give them all the protection they need?
I certainly do agree with my right hon. Friend, and I will cover all those points in my speech.
The truth is that prison officers deal every day with individuals who have been locked up to keep the rest of us and our communities safe. Too often, those men and women face violence and hostility just for doing their job. Despite that violence and hostility, which would be challenging for fit young people, these dedicated emergency workers are still being told that their retirement age will rise to 68.
I declare an interest as a life member of the Prison Officers Association.
In his 2011 report, Lord Hutton said that firefighters and the police had a pensionable age of 60 because of the “unique nature” of their job. A lot of people in the Commons are at, around or above the age of 60. How many of them would be able to work in a prison and grapple with some of the most vicious and violent people in this country?
The answer is not very many. I certainly could not do it. I have often been on the wings of prisons in my constituency, and I have always felt the atmosphere of hostility—not to me, but towards everybody in authority. The prospect of having to work until 68 adds to the stress of the job, which is already more stressful than most people could ever imagine. Those of us who have had an association with our prisons are lucky that we do understand.
It is often overlooked by the public and many hon. Members that the job of a prison officer is more dangerous than that of people working in other emergency services, including the police. Don’t get me wrong: I have the utmost respect for other emergency service workers and fully understand the challenges they face. The police often have to face some very violent people, but the vast majority of people with whom they come into contact are innocent members of the public, including the victims of the thugs and criminals who break the law.
On the other hand, the people with whom prison officers come into contact are almost exclusively those convicted of a crime, which means that prison officers are regularly in close proximity with challenging individuals. Those individuals may suffer from mental health issues, which is an increasing problem, or may have been regular users of drugs that have had a detrimental impact on their behaviour, including by making them more aggressive, impervious to pain or more capable of resisting attempts at restraint.
On the point about drugs, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue seems to be an increasing prevalence of drugs in our prisons, which makes the job of prison staff that he has eloquently outlined even more dangerous than it was 10 or 15 years ago? The campaign to press for a lower pension age ought to be agreed to by the Government and implemented as quickly and safely as possible.
I do agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is a secondary threat to prison officers, which I have raised in several previous debates, from the fumes of some of those drugs. Prison officers with whom I have come into contact have often gone into cells and been seriously affected by them. It is a huge problem.
In addition, we have to remember that most inmates do not wish to be in a prison environment and may be unco-operative at best or aggressive and violent at worst. That makes the expectation that prison officers should have to work until they are 68 not only completely unjust, but frankly dangerous.
As I pointed out, police officers and firefighters are permitted to retire at 60, because it is acknowledged that they do a dangerous and stressful job, as the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said. It can be physically demanding and contains significant elements of risk and volatility. Why are prison officers, who work in equally dangerous and demanding operational environments, not treated in the same way? I believe that the answer is because, as I have also mentioned, the Prison Service is the Cinderella emergency service. Prison officers are treated as second-class emergency workers. Not only are they paid less than police officers, but they are often denied access to the same level of protection as their police counterparts.
For instance, prison officers are required to carry a large amount of equipment on a daily basis, which is estimated to weigh between 2.5 kg and 3 kg. Most prison officers are forced to use only a utility belt to carry it. Requests to use utility vests similar to those worn by the police were refused on the grounds that prisoners would find them intimidating. I find that reasoning deeply insulting and illogical. Why should a prisoner feel any more intimidated by a prison officer wearing a utility vest than a member of the public holding a conversation with a police officer wearing the same style of vest?
In addition, some prison officers are being denied access to the body-worn cameras that are vital in providing evidence if assaults, including serious assaults, committed against them are ever to be prosecuted. I understand that some prisons have been told to stop investing in body-worn cameras until a new system is available in November 2022. Although the new system is said to be safer and more effective, in the interim it will potentially leave thousands of assaults unrecorded and unsupported by evidence, which in turn means that the perpetrators are less likely to be prosecuted.
It is worth mentioning that of the nearly 79,000 prisoners currently incarcerated under the Prison Service, 30% have been convicted of offences involving violence against the person, so it should come as no surprise that attacks on prison officers are increasing. According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 8,476 assaults on prison staff in the 12 months to September 2020, which is 35% of all incidents of assault that occurred on the prison estate. Some 823 of those were serious assaults. The Government’s definition of serious assault in the context of the prison estate is as follows:
“Serious assaults are those which fall into one or more of the following categories: a sexual assault; requires detention in outside hospital as an in-patient; requires medical treatment for concussion or internal injuries; or incurs any of the following injuries: a fracture, scald or burn, stabbing, crushing, extensive or multiple bruising, black eye, broken nose, lost or broken tooth, cuts requiring suturing, bites, temporary or permanent blindness.”
I have been contacted by many constituents who work in the Prison Service and have suffered such assaults in the line of duty. I have seen with my own eyes the appalling results, including broken bones, severe facial injuries and some life-changing injuries, such as an officer who had his finger bitten off.
Let us not forget that such attacks will also have a psychological impact on the victims, and in some cases an assault will stay with the officer long after the physical injuries have healed—potentially for the rest of their life. Although the number of assaults has decreased slightly over the course of the pandemic, it is worth noting that, even with inmates spending far less time out of their cells, the number is still more than double what it was six years ago.
The Government are on record as saying that they do not treat prison officers the same as police officers and firefighters because prison officers do not face the same risks of injury, and that the difference is not an age thing. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that a prison officer will have to be very seriously injured, or even die, before the Government step up and treat them as equals?
Yes, sadly I have to agree with the hon. Gentleman. The statistics do not bear out the Government’s claim that police officers suffer as many injuries as prison officers; it is simply not the case. One of the problems is that, if somebody attacks a police officer, all hell breaks loose, and every effort is made to catch the perpetrator. If a prison officer is injured, the injury is hidden under the carpet; the perpetrator gets a slap on the wrist—if they even get that. The hon. Gentleman is right. The figures that I have quoted will continue to rise; there is no doubt about it.
With that in mind, is it really fair or safe not only to expect a prison officer in their 60s to restrain violent criminals in their 20s or 30s, some of whom have very little left to lose even if they carry out the most violent acts of which they are capable, but to entrust the safety and wellbeing of other officers and prisoners to the ability of that prison officer to restrain those criminals? It is simply unacceptable. It is not an exaggeration to say that that scenario might eventually cost lives, and that surely invites the question of why prison officers are not treated in the same way as their fellow emergency workers.
It is worth reminding the House that section 8 of the Prison Act 1952 states that serving prison officers
“shall have all the powers, authority, protection and privileges of a constable.”
If that is the case, why do prison officers not have the same equipment to protect themselves as their police colleagues, and why are they not allowed to retire at 60, like their police colleagues? Unlike other emergency workers, prison officers spend their working lives effectively in prison themselves, in high-security environments and looking over their shoulders, especially when staffing levels on a landing are not as they should be because of difficulties retaining officers—often as a result of their relatively poor pay and working conditions.
Prison officers not only face physical violence but run the daily risk of other acts from inmates, such as “potting”—a disgusting and outrageous practice where urine or excrement are thrown over prison staff simply going about their duties and ensuring the orderly running of the prison. As I said, prison officers also face the risk of exposure to the fumes of powerful synthetic drugs such as spice, which can have health implications if inhaled accidentally.
In addition to all that, between April 2020 and March 2021 there were 38 instances of hostage taking across the prison estate. There were also 1,217 instances of barricades or prevention of access—whereby one or more offender denies access to all or part of a prison to those lawfully empowered to have such access by use of a physical barrier. There were 159 instances of concerted indiscipline where
“two or more prisoners act together in defiance of a lawful instruction.”
As a result of such things, officers often need to use physical intervention, or force, to overcome situations where lives may be at stake and time is likely to be of the essence. It is another example of a situation where officers in their 60s may be put at specific risk. They are targeted by troublemakers as more vulnerable targets because of their age. That is to the detriment of not only the officer’s own safety, but the safety of their colleagues and inmates. Statistics from the Ministry of Justice’s website clearly show that such incidents are far from hypothetical or atypical.
While prison officers face this relentless threat of violence and aggression, there are other pressures on them that add to their already high stress levels. For instance, prison officers often have to take on the role of informal counsellors, helping people who have perhaps never before had any meaningful structure or authority figures in their lives. Trying to help people with addictions or mental health problems, or dealing with prisoners who want to talk about traumatic incidents from their own past, are stressful situations for prison officers.
Order. I thank the hon. Gentleman; he is making a fantastic speech. However, he has six other colleagues who wish to speak, so if he could stop before 4.50 pm—or near that time—then we can give everybody 3 minutes to join him in support of his campaign. Is that all right?
Those stress levels will, of course, frequently have an impact upon both physical and mental health. Prison officers have to face all the challenges already mentioned, while also, like all emergency workers, working shifts and facing a working day in which almost anything can happen—including potentially having to make life or death decisions under fast-moving circumstances. There is evidence that working a shift pattern can be harmful to physical and mental health, and may shorten life expectancy, which in turn erodes the ability of officers to enjoy a well-earned retirement. The longer prison officers are forced to work, the more harm it is likely to do to their health. For that reason alone, it is beyond understanding why they are currently being forced to work six years longer than a police officer or a fire fighter, and why younger prison officers face the prospect of working until they are 68.
It is possible that the Minister will remind me that police officers have to contribute 12% towards their pension, while firefighters contribute 14%. In response, I remind her that those emergency workers get paid a far higher salary than prison officers. That leads me—
I will carry on, because I have been told I have to shut up.
That leads me neatly to an important question: is it not possible that prison officers might be willing to make a higher pension contribution for an earlier pension date? The only way to answer that question would be for the Government to agree to hold new talks with the Prison Officers Association. Will my hon. Friend the Minister, for whom I have immense respect, agree to such a meeting?
I will try for less than that, Sir Charles. I declare an interest as another honorary life member of the Prison Officers Association. As one of my witty colleagues said, the only benefit is possibly a more comfortable cell.
The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) summed up the argument precisely. I just want to remind colleagues that we had this debate some time ago with regard to firefighters and we had it with regard to police. I can remember the consensus that was built. No one wanted a firefighter of 60-odd coming through that window to carry us down a ladder. No one wanted that. Similarly, nobody wanted to see police at this age—up to 68—going out on the streets and trying to defend us when such physical assaults were occurring at the time. Nobody wanted that. To be frank, the reason why prison officers have been discriminated against is that, like their prisoners, they are locked away and we just want to look away completely from the problems that they experience. That is the reality of it. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for time and again bringing to this House the reality of what the members of the Prison Officers Association and those across the service are actually experiencing—the physical nature of the job.
Let me also remind people of this. When we had the firefighters discussion, we looked at or had actuarial work done, and one of the interesting things was the number who died soon after retirement. We could not understand that, but part of it relates to their experience in work and particularly the stress that they were under, causing cardiovascular problems.
If my right hon. Friend does not mind, I just want to finish.
Exactly the same applies to prison officers. In fact, some would argue that it applies more, because the nature of the threat is continuous. The time has come to deal with this. Exactly as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey has said, the talks need to start to resolve it now, because none of us wants to put these workers through that sort of threat, suffering and stress—all of that—by forcing them to work that much longer.
In addition to that, the point that they would make—this is dedication to the job—is that they want to deliver the best service possible. When they get to a certain age, they are not able to guarantee the safety of the prisoners, because they do not have the physical resource to do it. What officers want to do is deliver a quality service. We should be supporting them in that, so the appeal is to start the talks again, start negotiating, and if more is to be paid in contributions, more should be paid in salary to compensate for that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this really important debate. Violence in prisons, especially against workers, has increased significantly since the mass cuts to staffing and other budgets from 2013 onwards, with assaults on staff tripling to more than 10,000 a year by 2019. That level of workplace violence should be unacceptable for any employee, but there is increased danger for those over the age of 60. It simply cannot be right to expect officers in their 60s to control and restrain people who are a third their age.
Ministers have not provided any evidence to show that frontline prison officers over 60 can work safely in such a dangerous operational environment. I am aware that the report by Lord Hutton of Furness proposed that some uniformed services—as we have heard, police, firefighters and the armed forces—should be exempt from the rise in the retirement age to 68. The decision excluded prison officers from the “uniformed services” that were spared the retirement age rise. That has never been explained or justified, which has caused anger and despair among prison officers. Expecting officers to manage, care for and control violent, dangerous and difficult people until the age of 68 is quite simply unfair, unsustainable and, as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said, dangerous.
The Prison Act 1952 gives serving prison officers
“all the powers, authority, protection and privileges”
of police officers. It is quite right that police can retire at 60, given the often violent and volatile nature of their job. Will the Minister explain why prison officers are not afforded the same protection?
Pension age should be negotiated as a stand-alone issue, but it is clear that Ministers see employee contributions as part of the discussion. But those relate directly to pay, and if pay is going to be on the table, the starting point must be the Prison Service Pay Review Body’s recommendation of a £3,000 uplift to entry-level salaries, which the Government deemed unaffordable. According to the Prison Service Pay Review Body, officers
“were said to be leaving the Service for…supermarkets; the Police; Border Force; railway companies; and other security and uniformed services”,
with one prison visited experiencing a turnover rate of almost 25%. Low pay and a high pension age are both reasons why morale is at an all-time low. The current recruitment and retention crisis shows that we need a complete pay overhaul that makes salaries competitive, attractive and fit for purpose.
Lastly, I am concerned about the growing number of female officers who fail their annual fitness test. The Prison Officers Association believes that menopause may be a factor. The situation has caused accusations of unfair and discriminatory treatment of women. Does the Minister agree that the annual prison fitness test is not fit for purpose, and will she commit to replacing it with a system that measures relative fitness, considering factors such as age and sex?
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this incredibly important debate. Hull Prison is in my constituency, and I want to thank the prison officers and other staff who serve our community there, as well as the prison governor, Shaun Mycroft.
This issue is a major concern. In my previous job as a criminal lawyer, I was instructed on numerous occasions to represent prisoners for adjudications, and I was always struck by the serious nature of the allegations against prisoners and the degree of serious harm caused to prison officers. To me, the idea of a 68-year-old man or woman wrestling with a prisoner in order to contain a situation is utterly ridiculous.
I will not speak for much longer, but I want to say two things. The Government need to get back to the table and negotiate constructively, with a view to dealing with this incredibly dangerous issue. Having served in the shadow Justice team with the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), I know how seriously she takes the issue. We regularly discussed the matter in shadow meetings while I was on the team, and I know full well that this party—the Opposition—will deal with it as soon as we get the opportunity, if the Government fail to do so.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing the debate. My constituency contains three prisons: Frankland Prison, Durham Prison and Low Newton Prison. Between them, they employ hard-working and dedicated staff and hold a range of prisoners, from low-level offenders to some of the most dangerous people in the country.
The Hutton report recommended that police officers and firefighters should rightly be exempt from the rise in retirement age to 68. However, while those workers have a pension age of 60, prison officers were excluded—a clear oversight. Section 8 of the Prison Act 1952 gives prison officers the protection and privileges of police constables, so why are prison officers left with this pension injustice? It appears that the Government believe that prison officers deserve equality of powers, protections and privileges, but not of pensions.
Make no doubt about it: prison staff do a difficult and dangerous job. On a recent visit to Frankland Prison, I heard directly from staff about the risks they face. Violence in prisons, especially against staff, has increased significantly since mass cuts to staffing from 2013, with assaults on staff tripling to more than 10,000 a year by 2019. Those risks are why lowering the pension age of prison officers would mean so much to the people of Durham. My constituents have to live with the effects of this policy, whether it is a prison officer who just wants to feel secure on the landings, or a family who want a loved one in their 60s to be safe at work.
The danger of this policy was expressed perfectly by a prison officer in my constituency who asked me to put the following question to the Minister: could she picture her parents, grandparents or, indeed, herself at 68 years old trying to stop a young, fit, violent offender with a weapon? If not, why do the Government expect that of my constituents? This is the reality of life on the landings for prison officers. It is perfectly understandable that staff morale is rock bottom. Whether on pay, pensions or working conditions, the Government have consistently failed officers.
Will the Minister do the right thing and commit to a negotiation in good faith with the Prison Officers Association on the stand-alone issue of prison officer pension age, because 68 is clearly too late? Prison officers are not asking for the world. All they want is to be treated fairly, to be safe at work and to have dignity in retirement. Is that really too much to ask?
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate. I would like to put on the record that I am the adviser to the co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group, particularly at this time when it is important to refer to the register of interests.
Do the Government really think it is sustainable to attract new prison officer recruits by asking them to work up to 50 years of their lives in prisons as they stand? On top of the dangerous conditions, poor pay and high pension age make for an unattractive proposition for new staff looking for a solid lifetime career—the sort of staff that the Prison Service would like to attract.
This dereliction of duty by the Government as an employer, combined with low pay, is helping to drive the current staffing crisis. Since 2010, the Ministry of Justice’s figures show that over 86,000 years of prison officer experience has been lost. In my area of north Wales, over 130 band-3 officers have left HMP Berwyn since April this year, costing £13,000, on average, to recruit and train. That amounts to £1.7 million of public money lost and wasted. These key workers are moving on to better paid work that does not involve abuse and assaults on a daily basis.
We saw this year how dangerous the job can be when an officer suffered a near fatal attack at HMP Swansea, which prompted calls for an inquiry into staff safety. The most recent independent monitoring board report noted that there were 258 assaults on staff at HMP Berwyn, 22 of which were classed as serious. If I may, I will briefly put on the record something from an exit interview, to give an experience of staff. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I would like to put on the record a quote from an exit interview at HMP Berwyn, because it illustrates some of the situations that our prison officers face. The prison officer referred to keeping serious staff assaulters in the prison:
“I have personal experience of this, a prisoner who assaulted myself and another Officer was serving for an assault on an emergency worker. He was not a ‘do not return’ on the system. Some staff are forced to move off their wing while the prisoner who has carried out the assault continues to reside on the wing. Staff are not taken into consideration.”
However, Ministers have never provided any evidence to show that frontline prison officers over the age of 60 can work safely in such dangerous working environments. A high pension age disproportionately impacts on older and female staff, who are still required to adhere to a universal fitness test. The situation is causing resentment and accusations of unfair treatment to women and of discrimination on the basis of sex. The equality analysis of the fitness test by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service shows that 100% of the people who failed both the standard and adjusted tests for the third time were female, which is a shocking statistic. It is also shocking that around 66% of officers who fail the test for the first or second time are women, given that less than 40% of the prison staff are female. Given those statistics, how can a pension age of 68 be fair to women and older workers who struggle physically to stay in the job?
I want to close by talking about pension contributions. I understand that this is among the issues that prison officers are prepared to discuss with the Minister—I wish that she were in her place, but I am sure I will have an opportunity to raise the issue with her in a moment—although it also has to be recognised that their salaries need to be far higher than they are at present, because they do not reflect the same situation as that for the police force. I am proud to support the “68 is too late” campaign.
It is not my duty to defend colleagues, but I put on the record the fact that the Divisions went on for some time and people are stuck in the Lobby. This is an issue that I need to raise with various Committees, such as the Procedure Committee.
As ever, Sir Charles, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this really—I wish I could say it was a timely debate, but it is not a timely debate, is it? It is something that we have discussed many times before. Eight years ago, when I was a flying Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), I resigned my position on this very issue, because for the life of me I could not understand why prison officers had to work until the age of 68 before they got their pension. To be honest, I still have not had any answers; we still have not had any facts, figures or answers to qualify the fact that prison officers should work until they are 68, while at the same time the police and firefighters get their pension at 60—and rightly so; I agree that they should.
Basically, we should not keep having this competition between different frontline public services, because it is not a competition. What we see is something that is terribly, terribly, terribly unfair. What is also strange is how we allow a French company that deals in hospitality to run some of the prisons in this country. However, that is a subject in itself, for another debate.
I congratulate the staff—every one of them—at HMP Northumberland. I agree that “68 is too late”; it is far too late. I have been speaking to prison officers who are frightened; I have been speaking to prison officers’ families who are frightened; I have been speaking to prisoners who are frightened; and I have been speaking to auxiliaries who are frightened. The stress levels, because of what is happening in our prisons at this moment in time, are unacceptable.
We have got to deal with this situation. I hope that the Minister agrees, if she only agrees to do one thing today, to meet the Prison Officers Association to discuss a way forward, so that pensioners in the Prison Officers Association who are working in prisons can get a decent pension at the age of 60.
Thank you, Sir Charles, for calling me to speak.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing today’s debate and for opening it in the fashion that he did. He has my full support for the bid to return prison officers’ retirement age to 60. Indeed, it has been a very consensual debate throughout, as shown by all Members who have participated.
This is an issue that I have raised a number of times in this Parliament on behalf of my constituents, several of whom are serving prison officers. Having listened to the direct testimony from constituents about having to restrain prisoners and deal with violent incidents that happen daily across the prison network, the situation is clearly becoming more and more difficult for officers, and these physical difficulties can only get harder with age. My own visits to HMP Shotts and HM Young Offenders Institution Polmont have further convinced me that this is indeed the case.
Although I do not have the latest Scottish figures, across England and Wales, 7,612 assaults on prison staff were recorded in the 12 months to June 2021, which equates to an average of 21 assaults every day. That is a worrying number, irrespective of the age of the officers involved. Quite simply, if police officers retire at 60, it is only right that prison officers, who work on the frontline of the Prison Service, are afforded the same right by the society that they protect. In my opinion, the UK Government are letting prison officers down.
In addition to the police, the fire service and all the armed forces retire at 60, and rightly so. Prison officers ought to be able to retire then as well, because they are dealing with very dangerous and violent individuals; we have heard so much testimony on that fact today. They are not like other civil servants; their job is a dangerous one. It is and should be treated as a uniformed emergency service.
For years, the UK Government have said that there are no plans to change the retirement age for prison officers. Stonewalling on this issue does nothing for the brave men and women who are providing crucial public services that we rely on for law and order in our society to function effectively. Indeed, when I raised this issue on 17 December last year by way of a public petition from local constituents, Ministers did not even respond. I think that my constituents in particular, and our nation’s prison officers in general, deserve much better. This simply sends out a message that this Government do not care.
The Government repeatedly hide behind their decision to increase the pension age as reflecting the “generally improving life expectancy”. While it is true that people may be living longer, that does not equate to their physical and mental abilities being able to withstand the daily demands faced by prison officers. Given that lack of respect, it is little wonder that figures from the Ministry of Justice show, as we have heard from the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), that more than 86,000 years of prison officer experience has been lost, since 2010, as experienced officers leave, no doubt in part for better working conditions and higher pay.
Budget cuts have seen the Prison Service impose an almost total recruitment freeze in recent years, so recent movement by the Chancellor for pay rises for public workers is very welcome. However, with long hours to fill, significant labour shortages and a volatile situation to police, prison staff are simply becoming burnt out. Prisons were among the employers with the most demand for staff in late October and early November, according to the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, with adverts for prison officers rising by some 30%. In conclusion, I am in little doubt that the pension age issue is a significant factor in that situation. Our prison officers simply deserve better. They should be treated equitably with police officers and allowed to retire at 60. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s view on this.
I am very grateful to our SNP colleagues, and to you, Sir Charles. It is an absolute pleasure to see you and to serve under your chairmanship. The view from the front line is absolutely clear; prison officers and governors have told me exactly the same thing: they simply do not believe that they or their colleagues can be safely running around floors in their mid-60s.
From the conversations that I have had, most of those nearing retirement age have decades of service in prisons behind them. Imagine it: decades of rigorous physical effort—bending through doorways and wrestling with violent prisoners on the floor—the repeated mental strain of conflict and constantly being in flight or fight mode at work. It must be exhausting to witness and deal with terrible circumstances, day in, day out. Worst of all is dealing with the trauma caused by brutal assaults at work.
I am sure the Minister understands the physical toll all of that takes, because we all know that being a prison officer means dealing with very damaged people. It means stepping into danger to protect colleagues or prisoners or to stop a situation that is escalating out of control. It means someone being on their feet for long hours, walking the halls, never knowing when the next crisis will emerge. The Minister will note that, thankfully, violence against prison officers fell during the pandemic. However, in the most recent stats, the rate of assaults on staff was still 177% higher than in 2010, and the level of violence is now rising fast: up 14% in the last quarter.
I have HMP Liverpool and Altcourse prison in my constituency, and I am pleased to work with the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers and prison officers. Would my hon. Friend agree with a prison officer who has written to me, saying:
“We are the police behind these walls! Yet police in the community can retire at 60”?
Is this not simply about decency and fairness for our prison officers?
I certainly agree with that. It is about decency and treating people fairly, and we are simply not seeing that. Whether or not a job becomes more dangerous depends in large part on what happens with recruitment and retention, and that is affected by the Government’s decisions on pension age.
It cannot be said often enough that the safety of our prisons and prison officers depends on staff experience. It depends on the extent to which prison officers and staff have the jailcraft to maintain good relationships with prisoners, understand the real dynamics going on in a wing, and de-escalate, by using many different mechanisms, dangerous situations before they become violent and out of control. That depth of experience has been stripped away over the past 10 years as more and more long-serving officers have left the service. In prisons today, 25% or more of staff have no experience at all of the pre-pandemic regime—that is frightening. I hope the Minister will tell us what plans she has to stop the service being hollowed out even further.
We rightly have a system where even senior managers walk the wings and respond to incidents alongside colleagues. They must also maintain the ability to restrain big and dangerous adult men if the escalation fails, and be kept safe doing so. Much upward progression still requires operational fitness, and moving to a non-frontline role will often involve a demotion and pay cut. Faced with those options and with retirement still years away, many will not remain in the service and their enormously valuable experience will be lost. Does the Minister agree that it is just too difficult for a prison officer in their mid-60s to be rolling around on the floor with a violent prisoner? Does she accept that we have a retention crisis in our prisons, which affects the all-important link between retention and safer working conditions?
Over the past year, this Government have rightly called our prison officers hidden heroes, so surely it is time to put those warm words into action. We will not solve the problems in our prison system until people know that their skills and experience will be valued and developed, and their hard work rewarded. The whole of this debate has simply involved asking the Minister to negotiate in good faith and understand the true value and nature of the work, the dedication shown and the importance of retaining experienced prison staff.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson). He is a tireless advocate for the many prison officers and staff who live in his constituency, as well as those who travel to work there. Within days of me being appointed, he stopped me to kindly invite me to visit his three prisons with him and meet his constituents who work so hard there. I genuinely thank him and respect him for raising the issue again.
This is one of those debates to which I wish a little more attention was being paid. While there are clearly passionately held views across the Chamber, this has been a constructive and fair debate where the views of prison officers and staff have been put forward, and I genuinely thank hon. Members for their contributions. I hope that prison officers and staff who are watching and hon. Members will take away from this debate the fact that, although I might not be able to give some of the answers that I have understandably been urged to give, I want to engage with the Prison Officers Association and other unions, many of which I have had the pleasure of meeting already. I want to engage with them constructively on not just the very important issues of pay and pensions, but their working conditions.
Hon. Members have rightly outlined some of the horrendous circumstances that officers find themselves in when they are working to contain some of the most dangerous people in our society. I am very proud of the Ministry of Justice’s hidden heroes scheme, which has been rolled out this year and, I hope, pays tribute to those officers. My hon. Friend referred to it as the Cinderella service. As the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, because the service happens behind those very tall, thick brick walls, it sometimes feels like prison officers are separate from our wider community. I genuinely want to work with the POA, prison officers, staff and governors to shed more light on what happens behind those walls over the coming years. I think that the public would not only be interested in but proud of many examples of the work that our officers and staff do.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the positive way in which she is responding to this excellent debate. Although our focus has been on the pension age, will she say a little more about the need to ensure that prison officers have the best possible protection while at work, including the use of body-worn cameras and, in certain circumstances, pepper spray?