Wednesday 19 January 2022
[Judith Cummins in the Chair]
Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices
Before we begin, 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 Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. Members should leave the Chamber by the back entrance and remain safe at all times, keeping a distance.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of implementing the Taylor Review of modern working practices.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship once again, Mrs Cummins. I am grateful to have secured the debate, and I welcome right hon. and hon. Members here today to discuss the Taylor review and employment rights.
“Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices” was published on 11 July 2017, just a month after my election to this House—a most auspicious day—almost five years ago. What do the Government have to show for it? One would think that during that time workers’ rights would have been transformed, with Britain leading the way as the best place to work. Sadly, Government progress on the issue over the past five years has been characteristically disappointing—indeed, we have seen the explosion of the gig economy without proper rights or protections, the spread of immoral fire-and-rehire practices, a strained work-life balance, certain rights not given from day one and limited protections for the self-employed. Is that the record that the Minister wants our country to be proud of? The scale of sexual harassment experienced by some of our workforce is shocking: one in two women and seven in 10 LGBT+ workers have experienced sexual harassment at work. It is hardly surprising that we are back here to discuss the lack of progress.
Just seven out of the 53 Taylor review recommendations have been legislated on, even though the Government accepted 51 of the 53. We also have as yet to see the promised but elusive employment Bill. The full subsequent consultations have not had individual responses. Even the initial reaction to the Taylor review at the time was lukewarm. The Trades Union Congress noted that it was
“not the game-changer needed to end insecurity”
in work. Unison called the Government’s response to the review “no good”, saying
“it won’t work and it isn’t a plan.”
Perhaps I was being too optimistic in expecting the Government to act on this growing problem. Regardless, this is something that I cannot help but fight for, because I see the real-life consequences of their abject failures.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing such an important debate; he is making a brilliant speech. I know a number of gas workers, airways workers, and workers in warehouses and distribution centres who are suffering from fire and rehire. Some of them have gone through that process and the painful consequences for their families. Is this not just another example of all rhetoric and no delivery?
I thank my hon. Friend, including for his leadership on behalf of his constituents, many of whom suffered from immoral fire-and-rehire practices. Let us not forget that, when my hon. Friend and other Members of this House tried to have that immoral practice banned, the Government blocked that attempt.
In my own constituency of Slough, I have been approached by private hire drivers dismissed without reason, working parents unable to pay their bills and companies underpaying their workers’ agreed wages. That is despite the excellent and enduring work of trade unions—the GMB, Unison, Unite, the Communication Workers Union, the RMT, Transport Salaried Staffs Association, Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, ASLEF and others—in fighting for the basic rights of their members to be upheld.
I appreciate that the modus operandi of the Government has historically been to under-deliver for working people, but, as Matthew Taylor noted, workers should be treated like human beings, not cogs in a machine. Work reflects the kind of society we want to live in, how we build our country’s future, what our priorities are, and the value we place on workers’ mental health. In this constantly evolving world, we cannot accept the status quo. People’s lives and livelihoods are at stake. No doubt the Minister today will hail Government successes on employment and will cite the growing numbers in work, but what we must not lose sight of is the quality of the jobs and not just the mere quantity. That is paramount. Having millions of people in insecure and damaging work is not a success.
Even prior to the pandemic, 4 million workers were in poverty—nearly half in full-time employment, but also in poverty. Will the Minister outline exactly how he plans to address the key issues already identified by the Taylor review?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. The Taylor review was a spectacular failure. We put a lot of store in the Government’s suggestion that it would be a panacea for workers’ rights, but it spectacularly failed. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that since 2017 the Government have shown huge disrespect to the 4 million working people in this country, who still, as my hon. Friend mentioned, live in poverty?
My hon. Friend is right. What was considered by the Government to be a panacea has not transpired. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, the unions, the Trades Union Congress and others were not as amenable to what was proposed. Despite that, as I mentioned, 51 of the 53 recommendations were accepted by the Government, so why have so few been legislated for?
The review notes that the
“Government must take steps to ensure that flexibility does not benefit the employer, at the unreasonable expense of the worker, and that flexibility is genuinely a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
Under current arrangements, employees often work sometimes double their contracted hours, yet can often be penalised for doing so. There are reports of workers being unable to get mortgages, asked to take holiday time for hours outside of their contracts and having to deal with vastly different weekly payslips.
The Low Pay Commission recommended that the Government ensure that employees have the right to switch to a contract that reflects their normal working hours, so what steps are the Government taking following that? There should be a baseline level of security and predictability for workers, not flexibility that benefits only the employer.
The second issue I want to raise is sick pay. In the UK, we hold the grim record of having the lowest statutory sick pay in Europe. The Government are yet to remove the lower earnings limit from statutory sick pay, and it is still not a basic employment right for all workers, as outlined in the Taylor review. Someone should not have to choose between health and financial hardship, so my question for the Minister is very straightforward: why is that still the case, even after a devastating pandemic?
It is clear that over the past two years the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected some key groups—especially the self-employed, many of whom fell through the gaps of Government support. I will be interested to hear from the shadow Employment Rights Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders); I am sure the Labour party would ensure that the self-employed could withdraw their labour due to immediate health and safety risks, would strengthen blacklisting protection and would enable a health and safety representative for those workers, ensuring that they have the same protections as the employed. Does the Minister not share those ambitions? Do the Government not want to empower workers’ entrepreneurial and independent spirit to create their own work?
Another group acutely impacted were those threatened with fire and rehire, including constituents of mine from Slough who worked for the one in 10 companies that used that abhorrent practice during the pandemic. Thousands of loyal workers were sidelined and at the mercy of inadequate working conditions and protections. We need transformational change, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) outlined in his green paper on employment rights: legally redefining the work relationship; ending the qualifying periods before certain rights are granted; tackling discriminatory working practices; and ensuring the safety and security of jobs.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a fully paid-up member of a number of trade unions. My hon. Friend mentioned fire and rehire. The Government had a great opportunity only weeks ago to support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) regarding fire and rehire. The Government refused to allow that Bill to go forward. What does that say about the Government’s intentions for the rest of the Taylor review?
What that shows us is that the Government are all talk and no action. On umpteen occasions they have extolled their virtues and what they would be doing—“the party of workers”. They are actually acting against the interests of workers through their own actions. Like my hon. Friend, I am a proud trade unionist because it is through collective action that so much can be achieved. Trade unions were promised on numerous occasions that the Government would help workers to get the practice of fire and rehire banned. Despite the private Member’s Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North, that unfortunately did not transpire.
In conclusion, our ambition as a nation should be simple: every working person in the UK should be able to have a job that is fulfilling, pays fairly and provides adequate benefits. That is a straightforward ask, which would not only benefit millions of working people but is the right thing to do, so why are the Government not doing it?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this really important debate. As he said, it is important because this report was published back in 2017, because we must keep scrutiny strong on progress with employment and because there can be nothing more important to our country at the moment than having a strong economy. The role of workers within that is crucial.
The hon. Gentleman could perhaps forgive me for thinking that the Government have been quite busy since he was elected in 2017. I have the privilege of having been elected a number of years before that. The pandemic and leaving the EU have been quite time-consuming issues. Not only that, but they have changed the very nature of our employment market and economy. It is a strength that we are coming to this afresh, as the economy is recovering very fast from the pandemic, and that we should take a long, hard look at how we can not only bounce back to pre-pandemic levels of work and growth, but also—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would like to intervene, I am happy to give way.
I am very happy to intervene. I am interested to hear the right hon. Member describe the Government as being “busy”. There is nothing more important than workers’ rights, and to think for one minute that they should somehow be relegated is quite frankly a staggering admission from her. Perhaps she would like to reflect upon it.
I am very glad to have had that intervention because many workers listening to this debate will remember how the Government furloughed many, many thousands of people—not just because it was the right thing to do to protect their jobs, but because it also protected their pay packets. Far from doing nothing, this Government have done more than any other Government in peacetime history to support the workers of this country.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. She said that the Government have done so much more than any other in peacetime history. However, in 2019 the Government promised that after exiting the European Union they would come up with an employment Bill, but they have not yet done so. Does she agree that there were promises about what would happen once we had exited the European Union and that since then we have seen at least three EU directives—one on zero-hours contracts, another on minimum wage and another on platforming workers—while we fall behind? Yes, we have been in a pandemic, but we are not levelling up. In fact, we cannot keep up with what is happening across Europe on workers’ rights.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I share her frustration about not seeing an employment Bill, but given the restrictions that there have been on this place, in terms of debate and people being able to be here, I can sort of understand why. Also, there are the changes that we have seen in the economy, which, as I said, are a result of the pandemic and of leaving the EU.
I can give the Minister the benefit of the doubt as to why the Bill has been delayed, but I want to hear from him today that that delay will not be a moment longer than it has to be; the hon. Member for Slough is right that there are some really important issues that people want to be addressed in an employment Bill. However, before I get dragged down that rabbit-hole, I will gently get back to the topic that we are discussing today, which is, of course, the Taylor review—it is important in itself.
I want to make the context of this debate very clear. When we go back to the documents that the Government produced before the pandemic, it really is quite startling to see what is in them. We have the opening to the Good Work plan, putting forward the consultation on the single enforcement body. The introduction to that document, which of course became available only months or even weeks before we saw a significant lockdown of our economy, referred to the record levels of employment in the UK and wages
“growing at their fastest pace in almost a decade”.
It said that the UK labour market was thriving, which it was. However, we cannot ignore the impact of the pandemic, and we have to put that into the mix today as we consider this really important debate.
The way out of this pandemic is not just about vaccination and boosters, as important as they might be; it is also about getting our economy growing as it was prior to the pandemic, so that we can not only pay for the cost of the pandemic but get back on to the sort of track that the people of this country had become used to under this Government.
The skills of the Great British people are crucial to that economic growth. One of the great successes of this Government has been the ability to bounce back since the pandemic hit its height, but we need to be able to use the skills of the British people to get back once again to the levels of growth that I have referred to.
The Taylor review was all about tackling imperfections in the labour market, which is important not only in its own right but in terms of getting back to those levels of economic growth. Many of the sorts of imperfections that Taylor referred to in his review are, in many ways, being tackled already. I saw that for myself when I visited my local Jobcentre Plus office in Basingstoke. We are not known for high levels of unemployment in Basingstoke, but through the pandemic we saw our unemployment rate double, despite the very significant levels of furloughing that the Government had enabled.
I am delighted to say that as a result of the work of Jobcentre Plus, and the tenacity of the entrepreneurs who live in my constituency, those unemployment levels have halved. The work of organisations such as the M3 Job Club is helping to ensure that people in longer-term unemployment also have opportunities.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I think the Chair wants to make sure I do not use too much time.
Organisations such as the M3 Job Club can ensure that the long-term unemployed get back into work as quickly as possible, again dealing with some of the imperfections in the labour market. Of course, the Government have set up such schemes around apprenticeships, and on Friday I saw a number of apprentices at my local technical college—Basingstoke College of Technology—who are studying apprenticeships in anything from engineering in F1 motorsport to supply chains in the airline industry. It is extraordinary that the college has got back on track as quickly as it has.
So there are already successful plans in place to deal with some of the imperfections we see around training, age discrimination and worklessness, but we need to ensure we work better, and that is what the Taylor review was all about. The review referred to a number of areas of concern, and in the time available today it is impossible to go into all of them. The ones I will highlight, over and above the ones that the hon. Member for Slough referred to, are maternity discrimination and age discrimination.
The Minister will know my long-term interest in issues around maternity discrimination. The Taylor review rightly pointed out that three quarters of mothers have been subject to negative or discriminatory actions in the workplace. On age discrimination, far too many people, particularly over the age of 50, are not in work. Those issues were not tackled in the Taylor review; they need to be tackled in the Government’s response.
Another area that the Taylor review did not tackle was family-related leave and pay. We know that the inability of fathers in the workplace to take parental leave can directly affect the way women can participate at work. Another area that was not referred to was the use of non-disclosure agreements to cover up wrongdoing in the workplace. Will the Minister be tackling those issues in an employment Bill, over and above anything that he wants to tackle from the Taylor review?
Before I close, I want to talk about the single enforcement body, on which the Government issued a consultation back in December 2019. The single enforcement body was at the heart of the Government’s response to the Taylor review. It has an important role in tackling the issues I have just outlined, which were not tackled in the way I feel they should have been in the Taylor review. In his response, will the Minister clarify the status of the single enforcement body? Does it remain at the core of the Government’s response? When will he look at extending the role of the single enforcement body to cover enforcement of the law that already exists, as well as new laws that might be required around NDAs?
I know that the Minister listens well—he has listened to me talk about these issues on many occasions—and I hope he finds this debate useful in refocusing the Government on what I agree with the hon. Members for Slough and for Poplar and Limehouse is an important issue that we need to tackle here and now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this important debate.
The covid-19 crisis has highlighted the brutal reality of insecure work in the UK and has exposed the systemic failures of the law around worker protections. Far from simply providing flexible jobs with autonomy, the truth is that gig economy employers increasingly trap workers into a dangerous and precarious existence.
Increases in working poverty during the last decade blight our society and reflect the fact that insecure work damages people, their families and their communities. The rise in workplace precarity, zero hours contracts, bogus self employment and contracting out puts workers at risk, and is a threat to our existing health and safety laws and to achieving equal rights at work. In particular, casework in my constituency has emphasised that black, Asian and minority ethnic workers and women workers continue to face a disproportionate burden, working in insecure jobs with fewer rights at work and ongoing pay gaps. However, care workers, drivers and shop workers played a crucial role in keeping society going during the pandemic, and continue to do so.
The principle that everyone has equal rights at work that are guaranteed by law is of fundamental importance to any just society, but, more than that, a thriving and truly democratic economy cannot be created without the full involvement and empowerment of its workforce. The UK Supreme Court’s dismissal of Uber’s appeal against the landmark employment tribunal ruling that its drivers should be classed as workers, with access to the minimum wage and paid holidays, was a significant step forward, and I hope the Minister will address the importance of that ruling in his remarks. However, it is disappointing that Taylor’s proposals maintain the present multiple categories for defining workers, with different rights attaching to each, though renaming some of them. I hope the Minister will also address this point, with which I will close: would it not be better to create a single status of worker for all but the genuinely self-employed, as captured by Lord Hendy’s Status of Workers Bill?
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins, and I thank my good and hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for having secured this important debate. I also draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The employment landscape has been fundamentally transformed since I first left school aged 15. The shipyards, factories and foundries that once dominated our skyline are all but gone, and today we inhabit a world dominated by Amazon warehouses and artificial intelligence. Gone, too, is the right to well-paid, secure and dignified employment that my generation took for granted. So I welcome the Taylor review’s recognition of the need to reform existing working practices. I am also glad to see it call for equal pay for agency staff and sick leave for low-paid workers, which I have no doubt would be warmly welcomed by the over a quarter of a million workers who were forced to self-isolate with inadequate sick pay, or even no sick pay, this December.
But I am afraid that the scale of the challenge before us has not been fully grasped. At a time when millions of people are trapped in a vicious cycle of zero-hours contracts and poverty pay, bold and transformative change is needed: tinkering around the edges simply will not cut it. As a veteran of the labour movement, I know that there is no more powerful vehicle for improving the lives of working people than the unions. Time and time again, research has found that workers in countries with higher trade union density are better paid, happier and more secure in the workplace, but this report fails to afford trade unions the vital role that they must play in building a Britain that works for all. There is no acknowledgment of how reinstating sectoral collective bargaining would help to drive up wages and improve the quality of work. There is no recognition of how trade unions can facilitate the negotiation of fairer working conditions, including a right to flexible working. There is also not a single mention of the urgent need to repeal the draconian Trade Union Act 2016, which has done so much to curtail the ability of unions to stand up for their members.
There are other issues that need addressing. In response to the plague of bogus self-employment, the Taylor review offers a number of solutions, but none goes far enough in guaranteeing workers the security they deserve. As such, I urge the Minister to adopt the Labour party’s call to abolish the three-tier system altogether and introduce a single, universal employment status that would grant every worker in the country fundamental rights from day one.
Similarly, when it comes to enforcing employment rights, this report falls short of recommending the establishment of an independent labour organisation with the statutory power to stand up to bad bosses and enforce employment rights and collective agreements, as called for in the Institute of Employment Rights manifesto for labour law. At a time when covid has highlighted the gross inadequacy of the UK’s rate of statutory sick pay, I am afraid that the recommendation for SSP to be accrued based on length of service risks leaving new starters out in the cold if they fall ill.
I understand that the Government plan to adopt the Taylor review as the basis of their future reform of employment law. I look forward to the Minister telling us about those plans in more detail. Any measures, however limited, that give workers greater protections in the workplace ought to be welcomed, but after all that UK workers have gone through to get us through to covid, surely they deserve better. The Government must go further, be bolder and deliver more for the millions of working people struggling to get by in our country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this important debate.
As we have heard, the Taylor review of working practices was published in 2017 but the Government have not implemented its many valuable recommendations. I will focus on the recommendation that workers on zero-hours contracts who have been in post for 12 months or more should have the right to request a contract that better reflects the hours they work. Despite the Government’s commitment in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech to use the then forthcoming employment Bill to introduce a right to request a more stable contract, they have taken no action to protect people on zero-hours contracts.
The most recent data from the Office for National Statistics confirms that 1 million UK workers are on zero-hours contracts, which is higher than pre-pandemic levels. Workers on zero-hours contracts are regularly underemployed, often have to work more than one job and are likely to be constantly searching for new work. That is bad for people’s financial security and general wellbeing, as too many are forced to live from pay cheque to pay cheque.
It is no coincidence that the rise in employers exploiting the status of workers has occurred alongside the assault on trade unions. Forty years ago, eight out of 10 workers enjoyed terms and conditions negotiated by a trade union. Today, fewer than one in four workers has that benefit.
According to a joint report from the Trades Union Congress and the equality organisation Race on the Agenda, women of colour are almost twice as likely to be on zero-hours contracts as white men, and almost one and a half times as likely to be on them as white women. Far from providing greater flexibility, zero-hours contracts are trapping women from African, African-Caribbean, Asian and other racialised groups in low pay and insecure work, leaving them struggling to pay bills and plan their lives. That is what institutional racism in the workplace looks like. Indeed, the only flexibility that zero-hours contracts provide is for the employer, who is granted total arbitrary control over their workers’ hours. That instability means that many people’s incomes are subject to the whims of managers, which makes it hard for workers to plan their lives.
Recent polling data showed that 40% of African, African-Caribbean, Asian and other racialised groups on insecure contracts said they face the threat of losing their shifts if they turn down work, compared with 25% of insecure white workers. The data also showed that racialised groups in insecure work have been allocated a shift at less than a day’s notice, and almost half have had shifts cancelled with less than a day’s notice.
That mistreatment is especially evident in sections of Leicester’s garment industry, in which wage exploitation has been endemic for more than a decade. One of the most frequently recurring issues in my city’s garment industry is the routine under-reporting of hours by the unscrupulous bosses of sweatshops. Some companies also defraud their workers of holiday leave through a bogus probationary period that prevents them from being paid any leave for a year or longer. Many appalling garment industry contracts prohibit workers from unionising; require eight weeks’ notice while giving workers only two days’ notice for termination of employment; offer insulting overtime pay of 10p, poor sick pay and no recourse against inadequate and dangerous working conditions; and mandate that workers opt out of the Working Time Regulations 1998, which limit weeks to 40 hours.
Too many workers in Leicester’s garment industry, regardless of their length of service, are on zero-hours contracts, and get paid only when they work, even if the reason they are not able to work is outside their control. For instance, if the factory is not able to open because of an electric fault, the worker is often told at short notice that they are not needed that day and thus does not get paid. No matter how zero-hours contracts are dressed up, they are simply a return to Victorian employment practices, where unneeded workers would trudge home from the factory gates empty-handed after not even being selected for a shift.
The Government must implement the recommendations of the Taylor review and go further by banning the use of zero-hours contracts, as many countries in Europe already do. They must crack down on toxic casualisation through a single legal status of “worker” for everyone who works, except of course for those who are genuinely self-employed. Zero-hours contracts must be eradicated, and hours should be regulated so that each worker gets guaranteed pay for a working week.
Beyond that, the full recommendations of the Taylor review must be implemented. Trade union rights must be reinstated and extended. We must ensure that every job is a good job, providing security, dignity and a fair wage.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing this debate. I, too, declare my interest as a private member of Unite the union. I note that Government Members on the Benches opposite are rather sparse—I do not know whether that betrays their attitude towards this issue or whether they are busy writing letters or taking part in Operation Big Dog Whistle.
As we all know very well, coronavirus has reshaped the landscape of the world of work quite considerably. While a number of the Taylor review’s recommendations are still very relevant, such as taking a more proactive approach to workplace health, others do not address the situation we find ourselves in today—for example, the suggestion that national regulation is not the route to achieve better work.
As we have endured the greatest health crisis in a century it has become clear that the strong role of Government is critical to creating good work, whether through tighter regulation of workplace health and safety or proper enforcement of workplace rights. If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, we must ensure that Government intervention to keep workers safe and free from exploitation is not seen as unnecessary red tape.
Last year I had the privilege of chairing a taskforce with the Labour party’s affiliate trade unions to produce a report of our own. That in turn led to our Green Paper on employment rights—which, in the best traditions of the Labour party, is red—setting out our plan for a new deal for working people, which would build on the good recommendations in the Taylor review. Our taskforce looked at how we could learn lessons from the pandemic and set out a raft of employment rights policies, from establishing fair pay agreements and reinstituting sectoral collective bargaining, to ending bogus self-employment and bringing in day one rights for all workers. That provided a vision of what truly good work could look like after the devastation of covid and more than a decade of failed Tory ideology.
The laissez-faire approach taken by the Government to the protection of workers during the pandemic, but also the years leading up to it, has shown itself to be fundamentally flawed. At each step of their handling of the crisis, Ministers have been too slow to act, particularly in their failures to protect workplace health and safety. The fact that the position of director of labour market enforcement was vacant for 10 months after Matthew Taylor stepped down last year, and that we are still to see an employment Bill more than two years after one was first promised, speaks volumes about how little the Government prioritise good work.
The failures over recent years have been compounded by the pre-pandemic austerity cuts that the Tories inflicted on our public bodies. For example, the Health and Safety Executive has been left with half the budget and two thirds the number of inspectors that it enjoyed under the last Labour Government. The £14 million in emergency funds that the HSE received at the beginning of the pandemic goes only a short distance towards making up for the more than £100 million in lost funding that it has endured over the past decade, and it still lacks the resources to fulfil its statutory role. Having been so stripped back after years of austerity, few prosecutions are ever brought, leaving workers at risk of unsafe conditions. Last year, only 185 convictions were secured—a drop of almost two thirds compared with 2016-17.
In Labour’s “Employment Rights Green Paper”, we set out the importance of giving the HSE the full funding that it needs to protect workers properly. Our new deal would also introduce an effective single enforcement body to bring health and safety prosecutions and civil proceedings on workers’ behalf and to end the underpayment of the national minimum wage, along with other exploitation and discriminatory practices.
Soon after the introduction of the first lockdown, in April 2020, an astounding 1.6 million workers were being paid less than the national minimum wage, according to the Low Pay Commission. The Taylor review was right to stress that a top concern of workers is the issue of unpaid wages. However, only through national regulation of workplaces and a single enforcement body can that be achieved. With only 18 employment agency standards inspectors responsible for inspecting 40,000 employment agencies, it is no wonder that the situation is so terrible.
Our new deal for working people differs from the Taylor review in one major respect, and that is on the issue of creating a single status of worker for all but the genuinely self-employed. Our policy is captured in Lord Hendy’s brilliant Status of Workers Bill, which awaits a final formal Third Reading in the other place, after which it will come to us. Rather than following Matthew Taylor’s proposal to maintain the present multiple categories, with different rights attaching to each, our plan to create the single status, with all workers gaining full rights from day one of employment, would have life-changing effects for so many.
For example, security guards at Great Ormond Street Hospital had to threaten industrial action to pursue their basic rights to sick pay, enhanced maternity leave and annual entitlement. More than 30 security guards at the hospital are all outsourced to Carlisle Support Services, owned by billionaire Tory donor Lord Ashcroft, and are denied the same rights as their co-workers who are employed directly by the NHS. Under the plans in our green paper, those key workers would not have their rights withheld at the whim of heartless and exploitative employers such as Lord Ashcroft.
We need to see a new deal for working people, one that speaks to their economic and social rights and that reinstitutes sectoral collective bargaining to bring about secure employment with fair pay agreements for all workers from day one of their employment. We simply have to make the change and to secure a better settlement and a better future.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, Mrs Cummings. I commend all those who spoke beforehand for their excellent contributions. It is good to participate. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for setting the scene so well. We spoke the other day, in advance of the debate, and I am more than pleased to come along to add a supportive contribution to what the hon. Gentleman said.
We are pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), in his place and in particular the Minister in his. Honestly, the Minister is one who understands the issues well. I believe he will be able to respond to our concerns and perhaps give us the encouragement that we wish for. That is in advance of what he will say of course, but my interaction with him over the years certainly leads me to believe that to be the case. I very much look forward to his response.
In modern times, when employment is not secure owing to the pandemic and other factors, it is crucial for consideration to be given to modern employment. Every right hon. and hon. Member has referred to that in the debate. I therefore welcomed the guidelines of the Government under the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), back in 2016, for introducing the Taylor review of modern employment practices. The principles that were clear in 2016 are every bit as clear to us in this Chamber today, to everyone who has participated.
Statistics have shown that as of 2016 there were approximately 907,000 people on zero-hours contracts, a significant rise from the years before. I have some of those young people—and older people—who have come to me to express real concerns about the issue. There were also 3.2 million workers who lacked access to basic pay and employment rights. Other hon. Members have referred to employment rights. Not every employer is a bad employer—that is a fact. Most employers try to do their best. However, the debate today relates to those who have not stepped up to the mark and have not done what they should have done—and to how our Minister and Government can take that forward in a positive way.
In Northern Ireland, specifically, there are 14,000 people on zero-hours contracts, some 1.3% of people in employment. One of the previous contributors referred to fire and rehire, and nobody here today has not heard the angst about that process. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) has been very much to the fore of that issue, and I want to put that on record. He and I have had conversations about it; he has probably had conversations with everyone about it over the years.
Workers have no rights to claim unfair dismissal under a zero-hours contract. In 2015, some 54,000 women were forced out of their jobs for being pregnant, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In this day and age, that is absolutely disgraceful. In 2020, it was also revealed that a quarter of minimum-wage workers were underpaid. Those facts are crucial in understanding why the Taylor review of modern working practices is so vitally important and crucial. There needs to be better provisions for workers through Government and the respective trade unions. There are many Members on this side who are trade union activists, and have been in their previous jobs, and I welcome that contribution. It gives a good insight into what is happening.
The Taylor review stated that there was a need to
“organise our national framework around an explicit commitment to good work for all.”
Let us do that. The aim is to tackle exploitative employment practices, increase the clarity in the law and make employees aware of their rights. Our job as MPs in relation to social issues is very clear; people come to us with their complaints. These are the complaints that I am getting in my office, as others are.
Many of the core recommendations of the Taylor review are still to be implemented. Maybe that is what we are looking for from the Minister’s response: the parts of the review that have not been implemented need to be put in place. That is the crux of the debate. Since the Taylor review was published in 2017, some five years have passed, and we have not seen the reality that we hoped would be in place. I look to the Minister to reply accordingly.
The employment Bill, which will bring in many of the points set out in the good work plan, has been announced but not published. The Institute of Employment Rights has undertaken important work in which it combines aspects of the Taylor review and its own policy guidance to create a basis for potential employment Bills, to protect workers and ensure that they have their rights enhanced and protected. The institute’s recommendations include an equality of wage law, a right to a basic contract of employment, the promotion of flexible working, and more sustainable access to holiday pay and maternity pay. It is essential that the correct guidelines are in place to encourage people to work. All too often, people are put off the idea of employment by the horror stories that they hear, unfortunately on a regular basis, of employers not paying the correct wage or of ill-prepared work rules and guidelines.
The Minister must ensure that legislation is brought in efficiently to protect workers’ rights. I would also urge him to undertake discussions with his counterparts in the devolved nations, in particular Northern Ireland, to ensure a UK-wide approach to fair employment, the gig economy, short-term employment and freelance work. As has been said, those workers must also retain the same protections as long-term permanent workers, with similar entitlements and protections. I know that the Minister in charge is always keen to help, as I said at the beginning, and I look forward to the response. I also very much look forward to the contributions of the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), and the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) has secured a really timely debate. I want to try and bring a human context to this, in the short time that I have to speak today. We are talking about human beings in the workplace; we are talking about people who go to work and rely on decent wages and terms and conditions in order to feed their families and support their communities. Everybody deserves the right to have decent working terms and conditions. They deserve the right to go out to work and come home safe, as well. They deserve the right to have decent wages that put food on the table and clothe their kids. We are not asking for anything revolutionary here—we are really not. We are just saying what should happen in a decent society, for heaven’s sake. Anyone would think we were trying to pull the back teeth out of Government with this! Where is the promised employment Bill? With the greatest respect to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), we cannot keep blaming the pandemic as the reason we are not addressing issues in the workplace for people who are suffering greatly.
We should not try and rewrite history. I recall at the very beginning of the pandemic we had to pull the Government, kicking and screaming, to accept a furlough scheme. It was the TUC and the trade unions that put the pressure on the Government to come up with a decent scheme for furlough. I want to mention the sick pay scheme: it is £96 per week—that is for those who qualify, by the way. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country do not even qualify for £96 per week. For those who do, it is supposed to be fantastic. “You’ve got statutory sick pay. What are you crying about?” If someone lives on their own, what can they get for £96 per week. That needs to be addressed in an employment Bill.
We have a situation, with fire and rehire, where companies are firing individuals unless they accept, on occasion, up to a £10,000 reduction in wages and worse terms and conditions. That has got to be banned, it really has. I say to the Minister that it has to be banned. I give all credit to the zero hours justice campaign for highlighting that at every opportunity. In those zero-hour contracts, we have people sitting there on a Monday morning waiting for a text to say whether they are working that day—that is still happening. If they miss the text, they might not be able to go into work. Here is another statistic: GMB did a survey, prior to the Taylor review, in which 61% of employees went to work while unwell for fear of not being paid, losing their job or missing out on hours.
We have to put this in a more human context. The Taylor review was very weak, but better than nothing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough has said, the Government accepted 51 of the 53 recommendations, but they have only implemented seven of those recommendations to date. That is just not good enough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) mentioned a new deal for working people and the employment rights green paper. He has put a lot of work into the green paper—and it is the answer. It actually addresses everything we need it to. I am sure the Minister has read it and taken some great hints from it, but this is what we need to be introducing: fairness in the work place. It mentions raising pay for all, ending in-work poverty, enabling secure and safe working and tackling discrimination and workplace inequalities. We are all in this place to try to help people in our communities. There is not any better way to do that than to increase protection for those in the workplace.
Thank you for chairing the debate today, Mrs Cummins. We hugely appreciate it. I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on bringing this debate.
This debate is really important and timely, given that we are five years on from the Taylor review. We need to see progress; there has not been enough. There is no point in commissioning a review if it is just going to be ignored. What is the point in doing all that work and coming up with these excellent recommendations that are going to make a real difference to people’s lives to then put the report on a shelf and do nothing about it? It seems like a bizarre waste of effort for everybody.
The consistent call that we are making is not a high bar. We are asking for an employment Bill. The Conservatives have promised an employment Bill, and we are asking for it. We do not have very high hopes for what a Conservative employment Bill will contain, but once it comes we have the opportunity to amend it and make cases on behalf of our constituents and all those in insecure and low-paid work, so we can try to improve that work. Surely that is what the Taylor review was about. If the Conservatives want to put the views of employers ahead of the views of employees, they should note that employees work better if they are in secure employment. We know that they are more productive and less likely to be stressed.
The Taylor review said:
“Individuals can be paid above the National Living Wage, but if they have no guarantee of work from week to week or even day to day, this not only affects their immediate ability to pay the bills but can have further, long-lasting effects, increasing stress levels and putting a strain on family life.”
If the Conservatives do not step up and bring in an employment Bill, workers are more likely to be off sick. They are more likely to struggle to pay bills. Therefore, presumably, the amount the Government have to shell out on universal credit—which they so resent—will increase. Bringing forward an employment Bill is a win-win situation for the Government.
I want to highlight a few issues—some of which have been mentioned today. The Government brought forward their national living wage. It is a pretendy living wage that does not meet the bar of a real living wage. The Child Poverty Action Group has said that, in 72% of families, with children, struggling to afford food, at least one parent works. That should not happen. The Government keep talking about hard-working families, but what they really mean are people who work and do not get benefits. Actually, there are so many hard-working families and people in low-paid jobs who rely on social security because the jobs are not paying them enough. The jobs are inflexible and insecure, and those people are not getting the hours they need.
The Prime Minister said:
“My strong preference is for people to see their wages rise through their efforts rather than through taxation of other people put into their pay packets and rather than welfare”.
The Prime Minister somehow thinks that people who are on low wages and zero-hour contracts are not putting in any effort. I think he will find that actually all of those people we have relied on the most during the pandemic—carers, hospital porters and cleaners—are likely to fall below the real living wage, because they are getting the Government’s national living wage, if that. Those folk are incredibly hard-working and are having to rely on universal credit in order to get even the most basic living standards.
So many people on universal credit, whether or not they are in work, are actually living below poverty lines. It is a devastating situation. I get that the Government have had other priorities, such as Brexit and covid, but, as has been said, this is the most important issue. In Scotland, we are doing everything we can to put it first. We had a discussion with the Government about freeports. When freeports were being created in Scotland, the Scottish Government wanted two things: to prioritise green jobs and fair work. The UK Government disagreed and said, “No. You cannot prioritise those two things in freeports. You cannot prioritise tackling climate change and fair work.” As was said, those should be the most important things. This Government have got their priorities all wrong. There is a timing issue, but it is still possible to prioritise workers’ rights, when we have seen our constituents’ savings fall. There has been some increase in savings, but that has been for those people who were already earning plenty of money. There has been a massive hit on the finances of those earning the least.
I want to highlight a couple of other matters. In 2021, the median hourly earnings gap between men and women grew. Something is going wrong if the Government are putting measures in place to fix the gender pay gap and it continues to widen. There needs to be immediate, urgent action to ensure that the gender pay gap does not continue to widen.
We need to see flexible work requests from day one. People who are pregnant, carers or disabled need to be able to make a flexible working request to their employers on day one of their employment. We know that many of those are refused anyway. The employer does not have to concede to the flexible working request, but the person needs the right to make that request, at the barest minimum.
We need the employment Bill and we need the Trade Union Act 2016 to be rolled back. We need a proper real living wage that is not discriminatory on the basis of age. We are doing what we can in Scotland with the fair work action plan. We have had that argument with the Government about freeports. We have a higher level of people paid the real living wage than elsewhere in the UK. That is mostly due to the action we have taken, particularly the requirement that people working in adult social care are paid the real living wage, not the national living wage. We have taken a lot of action in that space.
The Government are refusing to bring forward the employment Bill. It would be great if the Minister could tell us when it is coming. In the absence of that, devolve employment rights and workers’ rights. We will do a much better job of it than the UK Government. We will do it properly. We will ensure that we put workers at the heart of the decisions that we take on employees’ rights. We are showing that within the limited powers that we have. Imagine how much more we could do if we devolved those rights.
If the Minister is unwilling to concede that devolving those powers would ensure that the Scottish Government could provide a better service for the Scottish people than the UK Government, then he is strengthening the case, once again, for independence. He is strengthening the case for the people of Scotland to vote for independence, because they do not want to see that gender pay gap widen; they do not want to see insecure employment continue; they do not want to see the age discriminatory national living wage; and they do not want a Prime Minister suggesting that they are not working hard enough, which is why their wages are not growing. Independence is the way for us to solve that, because the Conservatives continue to refuse to take action that will make a real difference to our constituents.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Mrs Cummins. I start by referring to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding trade union membership. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing today’s debate and for his brilliant introduction. He quoted the TUC saying that Taylor was not the game changer it wanted, and we certainly agree with that. It goes nowhere near enough to tackle the workplace injustices that we have talked about today, but at least it was a step in the right direction. For it to be left on the shelf is simply not good enough.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the quality of work is as important as the quantity. That we have millions of people trapped in low-paid and insecure work, living in poverty, is not something the Government should be proud of. He was also right to raise the scandal of SSP being at one of the lowest levels in Europe. People should not be forced to choose between going in to work and financial hardship as a result of health conditions. He said that work should be fulfilling, paid fairly and with adequate benefits. Those are all things that we would like to see in any Bill or Green Paper that comes forward from the Government.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum). She made the important point that black, Asian and minority ethnic workers are often in these insecure jobs. Has the Minister undertaken any assessments of the impact of gig-economy working on those groups?
My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) spoke very well. He knows more about this than most. I completely agree with him that trade union membership has been shown, time and again, to improve pay and working conditions. I know many of my constituents still benefit from good pay and working conditions as a result of his work as a trade union leader.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) for the fantastic work he has done on our Green Paper. It is a real pleasure to be able to take over a brief and have such a great set of policies already in place. He was right to mention the single status of workers as being a key part of that. That will transform the lives of millions of people. If the Minister wants to work with us to try to get that on the statute book as soon as possible, we are more than willing to discuss that because it is a game changer, far more than anything in the Taylor review.
My hon. Friend was right when he said that the pandemic shows the Government’s central role in improving workplace conditions. He was also right to mention the cuts to the Health and Safety Executive over the past decade, during austerity, and how the conviction rate for workplace infractions has gone down by 66%. Workplaces have certainly not become 66% safer in the last five years, so that shows where this Government’s priorities lie.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who again knows more about this than many. He made an important point about the human side of this, and the dehumanising experience of people waiting for a text in the morning to know whether they are actually going to be in work, get paid and be able to put food on the table. Imagine how anxious people must be living with that uncertainty every single day, because of that working arrangement.
I want to pick up on what the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) said. I thank her for being the one Conservative Back Bencher here today. She obviously has an interest in this area, and we welcome that. She was right to say that the pandemic has preoccupied much of the Government’s time, which might be a reason why we have not had legislation. However, in the last two years 64 Acts of Parliament have been put on the statute book, as well as over 2,300 statutory instruments, so it is a question of priority. I agree with her that workplace discrimination, which was not covered by the Taylor review, needs an awful lot more attention.
As various Members mentioned, the 2019 Queen’s Speech had the promise of an employment Bill, which we would have expected to deal with many of the remaining recommendations in the Taylor review. As has been mentioned several times, there was no such promise in the 2021 Queen’s Speech. Does that represent a downgrading of the Government’s commitment to tackle the issue? Why go to all the trouble of commissioning the review and then not doing anything about it? Surely, a Government committed to improving rights at work want to do that at the earliest opportunity.
Sadly, this is yet more evidence, if we needed it, that improving workers’ rights has never been, and will never be, a priority for a Conservative Government. The rise of the gig economy has been one of hallmarks of the era of austerity. At the heart of the Government response has been a false understanding that there must always be a trade-off between security and flexibility. Many self-employed people enjoy that flexibility, although those who proclaim the virtue of the arrangement are often directly employed themselves, usually at a senior level.
For many, flexibility comes at the cost of security. It cannot be right that in 2022 people are worried about the consequences of falling ill and whether they should go into work if they are unwell. The truth is that the Government have allowed the exploitative work model to grow unchecked. The Government’s own data demonstrates the scale of the problem.
The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) spoke about zero-hours contracts. Recent data from the Office for National Statistics shows that approximately one million workers are on zero-hours contracts. It also revealed that workers feel underemployed, often have to work more than one job and are constantly searching for new work, with over a third of zero-hours workers having been in their current jobs for less than 12 months. The cycle of perpetual insecurity is bad not only for workers, but for the wider economy.
Let us consider what the Government’ s former employment tsar, Matthew Taylor, said about the Government’s progress, which is pretty damning. Last February, nearly a year ago now, he said:
“We have seen a gradual but unmistakable deceleration of the government reform agenda in relation to good work. There was an initial enthusiasm but that has waned, and waned, and waned.”
He said that nearly a year ago, and not a lot has happened since then, so it is hardly a glowing recommendation. Perhaps that is why the Government dragged their feet for nearly a year to appoint a replacement. Can the Minister explain why it took so long to replace him?
What about fire and rehire? How on earth can we still be talking about that now? The fact that the Government blocked the private Member’s Bill on that was an absolute disgrace and sums up a wider attitude to workplace justice. It will need, as it always does, a Labour Government to introduce the real reform that is needed to undo the damage of years of inaction that has allowed exploitative work models to go unchecked. How can people plan for the future if the labour market is so parasitic that it takes everything just to keep their heads above water, and if they are always fearful of what the day will bring because they are just one mishap away from disaster?
“Rights” is not a dirty word. Rights are about individual dignity and respect in the workplace. They bring important social and economic benefits for the whole country, as well as for the individual. They give people a stake in society, knowing that if they do a good job, and if their employer runs the business well, they will be rewarded with a good wage, decent working conditions and job security. Labour’s vision is of a country where everyone has security, prosperity and respect, especially in the workplace.
A Labour Government would tackle the problems that we have talked about through our Green Paper, which explains a fantastic vision of how we would create protection, stability and fairness, and would legally redefine the work relationship by getting rid of qualifying periods before rights kick in. A Labour Government would give all workers equal rights on day one and ban zero-hours contracts so that every worker gets a guaranteed number of hours each week with an on-call payment for the hours the employer might want the employee to work.
A Labour Government would create a presumption, as we have heard, that everyone will be a worker unless they are clearly self-employed. We would see an end to the gaming of the system by tech-savvy companies who have exploitation baked into their business models, which have grown and grown. Are the Government content for this scandal to continue? If they are, they should step aside and let a Government in that will actually do something about it.
In conclusion, I hope that when the Minister responds he can tell us whether the Government have any intention of implementing the 40-odd outstanding recommendations from Taylor. Will he also tell us whether we should take the removal of the employment Bill from the Queen’s Speech as an indication that the Government have downgraded the importance of workers’ rights? If he disagrees with that analysis, can he at least give us a date by which he expects all the outstanding recommendations from Taylor to be implemented? We have had enough of the rhetoric. It is time for some action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing today’s important debate.
Despite what we have heard, the UK still has one of the best employment rights records in the world. We have one of the world’s highest minimum wages; it was increased on 1 April last year and will be increased again next year. The UK’s national living wage is one of the highest minimum wages in the world—larger than those in similar economies such as those of France, Germany and Japan. In the UK, we get over five weeks of annual leave, minimum, whereas the EU requires only four weeks. In the UK, people get a year of maternity leave; the EU minimum is just 14 weeks. The world of work is changing, and continues to do so.
I will come to statutory sick pay in a second. We know that sick pay needs to be looked at, and we will look to do so. During the pandemic, rather than concentrating on a consultation on sick pay, we decided to look at welfare benefits to provide extra support. None the less, the hon. Gentleman is right. Sick pay needs to be worked on, and we will continue to do so.
Advances in technology, the emergence of new challenges and a rise in new business models means how, when and where people work is adapting. That is why, in October 2016, the Government commissioned Matthew Taylor to lead the independent review of modern working practices. The review considered a range of topics relating to the labour market of 2016. It played an important role in shaping our understanding of how the labour market worked and how employment legislation could be upgraded to take account of the rise in modern employment models and new forms of work.
As the Minister for Business and Labour Markets, understanding those trends in the economy is key to shaping my priorities for reform to the employment rights framework. Independent reviews such as the Taylor review played an important role in laying the groundwork for our ambitious programme to make the UK the best place to work and grow a business and ensure that the UK labour market continues to thrive in the future.
As I am sure the hon. Member for Slough will agree, the 2017 review was comprehensive and wide-ranging, as we have heard today, although it did not go far enough for some on the Opposition Benches. It included topics covering a broad spectrum of employment law and employment practice, including the enforcement of workers’ rights, labour market flexibility and support for vulnerable workers; looked at ways that we can improve our regulatory framework around employment rights to make sure that the support provided to businesses and workers was keeping pace with changes in the labour market and the economy; and considered the impact of labour market changes, and how best to ensure we can retain flexibility in the future, while equally ensuring workers have access to the rights and protections they deserve.
I am grateful to Matthew Taylor for his work in providing valuable evidence for shaping our ambitious programme to build a high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy that delivers on our ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to work and grow a business.
I will come to what we have done and what we intend to do in just a second. I highlight the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller): quite a lot has happened since. She is right to say that the Government have been busy and that parliamentary time has been precious, but the nature of work itself has significantly changed since that point.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) spoke about the right to request flexible working from day one. She is right to focus in on that. It is a key area, not just for the idea of flexible working, but for people who have caring and parental responsibilities and other pressures on their life outside work, so it can have a significant impact on other areas that we want to tackle. We have been able to take the opportunity throughout the pandemic to reflect on the changing nature of work, which will extend beyond the pandemic, as we move towards endemic covid and a sense of normality, and being able to reflect on what flexible working might look like at that stage, rather than what it did look like and what our ambitions were, back in 2016. We want to make sure that we can take the necessary steps for our labour market.
We tend to blame everything on the pandemic. Zero-hours contracts were here before the pandemic. All that has happened is massive exploitation of zero-hours contracts. The Government cannot turn a blind eye and turn round and say, “It’s the pandemic”, because it is not.
Actually, what we are saying about flexible working is not about blaming the pandemic. Work has changed. The hon. Gentleman talks about zero-hours contracts—they have changed somewhat as well. The flexibility of the workforce—the people who have been feeding us, caring for us and moving us around—has really shone a light on that.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is getting intervened on a lot this morning, which shows the level of interest. His comments on how work has changed during the pandemic are interesting. It is true that people have been working from home for years and years—it is just that there has been a lot more of it. What we want from the Minister is a date by which the rest of the recommendations will be implemented.
I will come to that.
Another core part of the Taylor review was to find new ways of opening up the labour market, so that more people can enter it and then remain in work. That is exactly what our vision is: to continue to level up across the country and allow more individuals to participate in work than ever before.
That is why we committed in our manifesto to bring forward new rights for parents of babies who require neonatal care and new rights for carers’ leave for the 5 million people across the UK who provide unpaid care by looking after an elderly or disabled family member, relative or friend.
However, as the review itself notes, the themes it covers are complex and the regulatory framework is based on decades of case law. Its recommendations therefore cover a wide range of proposals, from relatively small changes that can be made immediately, such as the key facts page for agency workers, to recognising longer-term strategic shifts in the labour market, for example by establishing the single enforcement body. We have always made it clear that it is important to consult as widely as possible and to take time to consider how best to achieve the change that works for everyone in the labour market, including employers. But clearly we want employees to be in good work; that is at the heart of that process.
We have consulted on a number of proposals for reform and on themes raised in the review. Wherever possible, we have worked closely with stakeholders so that they have an opportunity to share their views. I am proud to say that we have continued to take decisive action since the publication of the review, in order to implement many important changes to the labour market.
Our record speaks for itself. We have closed the loophole whereby agency workers were employed on cheaper rates than permanent workers. We have quadrupled the maximum fine for employers who treat their workers badly. We gave all workers the right to receive a statement of their rights from day one. We have increased pay for around 2 million workers. We have introduced key information documents to ensure that those seeking temporary work have all the facts that they need up front. We also brought into force Jack’s law, a world-first piece of legislation that provides statutory leave for parents who suffer the devastating loss of a child.
Those actions have made a real difference to the lives of workers up and down this country. We have benefited from expert input from stakeholders, and great consideration was given to ensure that those actions work for employers and workers across all sectors in our economy. Those actions have also given individuals and employers the freedom to agree the terms and conditions that suit them best, while also enabling businesses to respond to changing market conditions.
The results speak for themselves. We have seen high employment rates, reaching a record high of 76.6% in February 2020, and workers enjoying real pay increases month after month. We have seen a wealth of job opportunities, which is a testament to the excellence of UK businesses’ ability to grow, innovate and create jobs. We have also increased participation across groups who had typically been under-represented in the labour market, with women and workers from ethnic minority backgrounds now making up a larger proportion of the workforce than ever before.
However, as I have said already, we need to take stock of how the pandemic has affected businesses and workers up and down the country before continuing to build on that record, because the past two years has seen a level of disruption to the economy that the Taylor review just could not have predicted. However, we have acted decisively to provide an unprecedented package of support to protect people’s livelihoods.
The coronavirus job retention scheme has helped 1.3 million employers across the UK to furlough 11.6 million jobs, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke highlighted, and more than £27 billion has been spent on helping the self-employed through five self-employment income support scheme grants, supporting nearly 3 million self-employed individuals.
I absolutely take the point that we have not been able to protect every business and every job or livelihood. There are certainly people—including some who I have spoken to and heard from, and who I continue to listen to—who have not been able to be supported throughout the pandemic as they would have liked to have been.
However, as I have said, in April last year we again raised the national minimum wage and the national living wage, giving around 2 million people a pay rise. We have also lowered the age threshold for the national living wage to 23, ensuring that even more people have the security of a decent wage, and we plan to reduce it further to 21, in order to tackle the barrier that the hon. Member for Aberdeen North talked about, by 2024 to support younger workers.
We continue to adapt our employment framework to keep pace with the needs of today. We legislated so that parents benefiting from the job retention scheme do not lose out on statutory maternity pay or other forms of parental pay. That has meant that new parents could take time off to spend with their babies without losing out financially just because they had been furloughed.
We have enabled workers to carry over more annual leave during the pandemic and we conducted a review of how victims of domestic abuse can be supported in the workplace, setting out the impact that domestic abuse has on victims, the challenges that it raises for employers, and what best practice to deal with domestic abuse looks like. At every step of the pandemic, the Government’s aim has been to protect jobs and livelihoods and to support workers’ rights.
I will not, just for a second.
As our economic recovery gathers momentum, I am determined to continue with our work to build back better from the pandemic, and to build the high-skilled, high-productive, high-wage economy that will deliver on our ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to work and grow a business. We will do that by continuing to champion a flexible and dynamic labour market while maintaining the UK’s excellent record on workers’ rights.
Future reforms will continue to open up the labour market so that more people can enter and remain in work, and will continue to protect those most in need, including those in low-paid work and the gig economies. Future reforms will take a smarter approach to the enforcement of employment law: we want to make it easier for good businesses to comply with their obligations, while ensuring a level playing field through effective enforcement against those who cut corners and exploit workers. Future reforms will also continue to support the UK’s dynamic labour market by increasing flexibility, creating the conditions for new jobs, and building on our wider record on the national living wage and national minimum wage.
A number of issues have been raised today, which I will address quickly. I have talked about sick pay; we still need to retain flexibility within the economy, so we will not place a blanket ban on zero-hours contracts. However, we have done a lot of work on exclusivity, and will do what we can about the issue of people not having predictable hours. We want to allow people to change to a predictable contract along the way in their employment, when that should be the case. Turning to employment status, we believe that the status that we have at the moment is the right way to go forward. However, we recognise that there are employments outside of that status, and want to make it easier for individuals and businesses to understand what rights and tax obligations apply to them. We are considering options to improve clarity around employment status.
Obviously, the end of this Session is coming up—in a couple of months’ time, I am guessing—and we will see when parliamentary time will allow us to bring forward employment measures to tackle all these issues and more, in a way that will address the Taylor review and the changing flexible work market that continues to develop beyond the pandemic. We must make sure that we continue to make this country the best place to be able to work. I thank the right hon. and hon. Members who have put forward constructive ideas today for how we can continue our record of establishing an employment framework that is fit for purpose and keeps place with the needs of modern workplaces.
I am extremely grateful to the House authorities for allocating time to debate the Taylor review of modern working practices. We know that there are many good employers in our country, but juxtaposed with those are some very unscrupulous individuals and organisations, which is why we need rights in legislation. I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken so eloquently and passionately about the discrimination faced by many of their constituents in their workplaces, whether that is the gender pay gap or the ethnic pay gap.
However, what is palpable today is that we have heard from the Minister some very warm words, but a lack of detail. There are no dates, as I highlighted at the outset and was evident from other Members’ interventions. The Taylor review—the Government’s own commissioned review—came up with 53 recommendations, 51 of which were accepted by the Government. However, only seven have been legislated for. We were looking to hear from the Minister today, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, when the rest of them would be implemented—when the almost mythical employment Bill would finally come before the House. Sadly, we have heard none of those answers, which will be a great disappointment to many in our country, whether that is the trade union movement or the good working people of our country. I sincerely hope that very soon, on the back of this debate, we will get those answers.
I thank you very much again, Mrs Cummins, and thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their much-needed contributions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of implementing the Taylor Review of modern working practices.
Upper Don Trail
Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I will call Gill Furniss to move the motion, and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered funding for the Upper Don Trail.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Cummins. I am delighted to have secured the debate to sing the praises of the Upper Don Trail. A trust of volunteers has worked so hard to bring out the best of that natural corridor through the north of Sheffield.
The Upper Don Trail is a natural trail that runs six miles along the route of the River Don from the city centre out to Stocksbridge. It takes in a combination of modern developments, historic woodland and industrial sites along its passage. In my constituency, the trail passes many notable sites, such as Hillsborough College, the Mondelez sweet factory, the Fletchers bakery, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and the Béres factory, home to the world-famous pork sandwich shop, much loved by the people of Sheffield. In places, the route meets national cycle network route 627 of the Trans Pennine Trail.
To follow the route is to follow Sheffield’s industrial past—former steelworks and small manufacturing factories run alongside much of the route—and the story of Sheffield’s ongoing redevelopment and future potential, as many former industrial sites are going through the process of development. Currently, cycling infrastructure from the city centre to the Peak district through Hillsborough, Stocksbridge and Oughtibridge is a mixed bag. The trust’s ambition is to raise the standard across the trail to ensure that it is accessible, flat and off road, and follows the course of the River Don.
In many places along the trail, that ambition has worked well. Many developers and councillors have ensured that where sites are developed, the trail is included in the scheme. The trust, through hard work, has completed improvement works on 8 km of the trail, and has secured funding for a further 9.3 km. Only 2.5 km of the trail still requires a funding proposal. Although Sheffield City Council and Barnsley Council are both incredibly supportive of the scheme, their hands are tied by funding limitations and Government requirements for active travel schemes.
The signs of development can be seen as the route leaves Stocksbridge and heads towards the city centre. Indeed, just outside my constituency, the route through Beeley Wood is paved, opening a safe and popular route to walkers and cyclists away from the busy Middlewood Road North. The trail then runs along roads for a stretch before re-joining historic woodland at the Herries Road railway viaduct and Wardsend cemetery, a resting place for fallen soldiers from the first and second world wars. Despite losing its Commonwealth War Graves Commission status, the cemetery is maintained by a team of passionate volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure that the peace and natural charm are as open to as many people as possible.
As the trail enters my constituency, the disconnect becomes apparent, with users of the route having to walk alongside busy roads for a long period, and cyclists left with little choice but to continue along the busy dual carriageway into the city centre. I was pleased therefore to hear of investment by Sustrans, matched by Sheffield City Council, to construct a fully accessible route in my constituency between Herries Road and Wardsend cemetery. However, I understand that that exciting project has been put on hold, owing to engineering difficulties.
The trust remains committed to enhancing that portion of the trail. I was pleased to join them and other local groups for a work day in September to improve the existing footpath. The trust and many residents were disappointed when the planning committee decided not to include an active travel scheme to connect the trail by improving the existing on-road cycle route, but as a former councillor I know that planning committees must vote with the legislation. Therefore, I encourage the Minister to liaise with the Minister for Housing to ensure that planning officers and committees have more scope to ensure that active travel requirements are a condition of approving large developments.
The Upper Don Trail Trust’s emphasis on active travel and outdoor leisure activities is clear to see. The trail allows for a vast range of activities, ranging from rambling to rock climbing and cycling to kayaking. The trust works closely with local councils and other organisations to improve the trail’s accessibility and prominence. Sheffield’s seven hills and busy city roads may naturally put many people off cycling. After the Tour de France came to Sheffield, many local people took up cycling. The Upper Don Trail is benefitted by its mostly flat route, but the disconnected portions of the trail mean that it cannot yet claim to be a completely off-road network.
Active travel delivers immense benefits in a whole range of ways. The trust’s ambition is for people to use the trail on their daily commute as much as they would for leisure. Giving people the opportunity to travel to work, school or college in a more active way has been proven to do wonders for their physical and mental wellbeing. The NHS recommends that adults complete 150 minutes of physical activity a week. With active travel, that can be achieved through a 15-minute commute each way, five days a week.
The trust has identified that many are eager to cycle on their commute, but find the prospect of mixing with cars on busy roads daunting. That is reflected across the country, with research showing that 62% of adults feel that it is too dangerous for them to cycle on the roads near them. The Upper Don Trail Trust’s plans would allow cyclists in Sheffield to commute through tranquil scenery, surrounded by woodland, rather than through loud and busy junctions.
As we all know, active travel is a key tool in our fight against climate change. By encouraging people to commute via carbon-free methods wherever possible, we can help to care for our planet at the same time as improving air quality in the local area. Air quality is an ongoing issue in Sheffield, as it is in many towns and cities across the UK. Along with most other cities in England, Sheffield has reported illegal levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide in some areas. Those toxic fumes can cause respiratory problems, including asthma, and damage the respiratory tract. Long-term exposure has also been linked to chronic lung disease. There is therefore a strong public health argument for schemes such as the trust’s, which allow people to run, walk and cycle in woodland away from traffic. That would also help to improve the air quality in our urban city centres by encouraging more people to switch to carbon-free travel on their commutes, thereby reducing cars on the road.
The trust also does excellent work to ensure that activities on the trail are accessible to everyone. For example, the trust’s ambition is to have more accessible footpaths leading down to the Don river. That would provide better access to the river for wheelchair users and people with other disabilities, so that they can take part in activities on the river, such as canoeing.
An army of local volunteers works tirelessly to keep the trail going. That includes Friends of the Porter Valley, a brilliant group who conserve the Porter and Mayfield valleys, a short distance away from the Upper Don Trail. Volunteers from the group often come over to help to renovate and maintain the trail. I place on the record my thanks for their invaluable work.
The reality is that the trust’s ambitious plans need the proper funding to unlock the true potential of the Upper Don Trail. Fundraising often forms the bedrock for funding projects such as this. For example, the Friends of the Porter Valley managed to raise more than a quarter of a million pounds to make improvements to the mill pond at Forge Dam. Sadly, however, many parts of my constituency close to the Upper Don Trail have high levels of poverty and deprivation. Hence, it is difficult for the trust to fundraise enough money in those areas to fulfil its vision.
That problem risks creating a postcode lottery for the enjoyment of nature. Everyone, regardless of background, should have the right to access the natural woodland close to them. However, disparities between different areas mean that the less affluent could be left behind. If the Minister is serious about levelling up, that stark inequality must be addressed through Government funding.
Unfortunately, national funding has not been readily forthcoming for the trust. A focus on on-road cycle routes by the Department for Transport means that off-road routes, such as the Upper Don Trail, have struggled to find funding. However, it is eminently clear that the Upper Don Trail is so much more than just a cycle path: it is a way to preserve the beautiful woodland scenery in South Yorkshire, to be enjoyed by people from different backgrounds; and it provides opportunities for fishing, swimming, running, climbing, horse riding, improvement of mental wellbeing and enjoyment of nature. These trails often become much-loved community resources that inspire a huge amount of local support for maintenance, litter picking, organised walks and runs. It would be impossible to quantify the immense societal value of the trail, and I am in no doubt that investment into it would be money well spent.
I urge the Minister to look at the support that her Department can offer to give this project a boost. The mission of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as set out on its website, is to
“restore and enhance the environment for the next generation, leaving it in a better state than we found it.”
If there is one project where the Minister can make good on those words, it is the Upper Don Trail.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins—for the first time, I think. It is lovely to see you in the Chair. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) for sharing details of the work taking place in her constituency on the Upper Don Trail, which connects people from Sheffield right out to the Peak district. She has given a wonderful insight into not only getting out into the countryside, but the industrial history and all the other benefits of a trail starting within a city or town.
I particularly commend the Upper Don Trail Trust for its hard work in securing the public and private funding to make the project happen, as well as the efforts of all the volunteers, as flagged by the hon. Lady, who have played such a big role on what was previously an underused trail, as volunteers do on many trails around the country. I know that both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) support the trail.
As we have heard, the trail hosts all kinds of opportunities for people and visitors for not only walking, but cycling, kayaking, climbing, angling, riding—you name it, Mrs Cummins, they are doing it. In most cases, the trail is away from traffic. It does not matter what age one is, either: anyone can use the trail.
I very much welcome the ambitions of the Upper Don Trail Trust and recognise that its objectives align completely with the Government’s objectives, as has been highlighted. As set out in the 25-year environment plan, we are absolutely committed to connecting people from all backgrounds with the natural environment, in particular for their health and wellbeing, and supporting people to access, enjoy and understand the great outdoors.
The lockdown highlighted the need for this connection more than ever, with 42% of people agreeing that they increased the time they spent outdoors during the pandemic. Trails along canals and riverways—such as the Upper Don Trail, which goes along the river for some time—were especially popular, with many people using those walkways. As the nature recovery Minister, I was particularly delighted by that, because it will help more people connect with nature; if they are connecting with it, they will love it and understand why we need to look after it.
There are all kinds of spin-offs. On obesity, which this Government are tackling with our strategy, trails will help everyone to lead healthier lives. There is also a big mental health spin-off, as we are using access to some of these trails in our green social prescribing agenda—prescribing walks and getting outside. All those ambitions are increased by access to trails such as the Upper Don Trail.
Active travel was referred to, which is another Government priority, which links to clean air. Away from traffic and so forth, the air is cleaner, so cycling and walking are obviously more beneficial.
I want to draw attention to the support available across Government to help people access nature. There is the £80 million green recovery challenge fund, which we launched during lockdown, with the aim to kick-start a whole lot of nature-based projects across England. One of the main aims was to connect people with nature. An estimated 23,000 people have engaged to date with projects funded by that fund, and a further 3 million have engaged with them indirectly, online, through media events that link to them. I think that is extremely positive.
The farming in protected landscapes programme was launched in June last year to help farmers in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty to make improvements to the natural environment. There is a big element in there about improving public access on their land, including projects to deliver infrastructure—pathways and so forth—clearer and simpler signage, dedicated cycling access, better disabled access and walking routes to connect landscapes. For example, in the uplands in White Peak, in the Peak District National Park, the beef and sheep farmers there received funding to create a new permissive path to give walkers the opportunity to experience a variety of habitats within his land.
We are also committed to ensuring that the public have good access to footpaths. On Saturday, we published our response to the Glover landscapes review, which I am sure the hon. Member is aware of. We announced a new charity is being formed as a single strategic body for all national trails, which is something I think the hon. Lady will be particularly interested in. The aim of that is to share knowledge and experience between the trails, develop efficiency and effectiveness, develop bids for activities across the wider network and fundraise to provide more resources to enhance the network. There are some opportunities here. Sharing experience is so important. Every trail is different and is managed in a different way, and the bodies running them experience different problems. Sharing those experiences will be helpful.
Almost 2,000 miles of national trails exist in England and we are creating new trails all the time. We are connecting up all the bits around the coast to form the completed England Coast Path, which will be 2,700 miles when completed—the longest waymarked and maintained coastal walking route in the world. That is something to be really proud of, and might give us something to do in our spare time, Mrs Cummins—we can maybe walk some bits of it in the recesses. We are also developing a new national trail across north England between St Bees in Cumbria and Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, which will link up lots of bits of pathways that already exist, and complete the bits in between.
The Upper Don Trail is a really great example of how projects can do all the things we are talking about—restore nature, engage the local community, increase access to nature. I absolutely commend everyone who has been so involved in it. Obviously, it is not possible for me to commit to further funding at this stage for those small portions that are left to complete—there are two main missing links, I believe. My officials would definitely be happy to explore options, in particular when DEFRA might be involved. We do not have all the funding levers in DEFRA; there are other pots that the hon. Lady will be aware of. We can maybe work to unlock those other pots, which is a constructive approach when looking at grants.
I encourage the Upper Don Trail Trust to liaise, via Sheffield City Council, with Sustrans and its cycle network upgrade proposals. I appreciate how important it is to get rid of those sections on the road. In lockdown, I cycled more with my children on roads than we ever had before. That was fine, but when all the traffic returned, my children, who are quite grown up, did not want to cycle on the roads anymore—they wanted to use the paths.
I would also suggest going to the Department for Transport, which holds the pen on the national cycle network. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) is the new cycling and walking Minister and is very keen to do joint work across Departments. I am keen to do that myself; I would urge others to also get together with the Conservative MP in Sheffield, my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge. The issue can be highlighted to the Department of Health and Social Care; they have a big responsibility for air quality. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough made a point about the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; I urge her to make the case to that Department. She is on the right track—a good word to use in a debate about trails.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to talk about this subject. I thank again the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, and all those involved, who have done so much good work. I look forward to hearing how the trail progresses.
Question put and agreed to.
Ethiopia: Humanitarian and Political Situation
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate; this is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Hon. Members are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the humanitarian and political situation in Ethiopia.
Good afternoon, Mr Bone; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. With so much going on in the world—in Afghanistan, for example, and the great concerns over Ukraine—problems in Africa sometimes get over-looked. I remember, with some shame, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when an estimated 800,000 people were killed while the world, including our own country, stood and watched. We cannot allow that situation to happen again. That is why I called this debate, so that we can once again highlight the problems emerging from the conflict in Ethiopia.
Many individuals are concerned about what happens in Africa. I have been chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia since 2009, and have taken an interest in the country for a lot longer. Years ago, Sir Bob Geldof asked me, “What got you interested in Ethiopia?” and I replied, “You did.” Sir Bob’s amazing work in the mid-1980s raised the profile of Ethiopia and inevitably drew attention to the problems that the country suffered at that time—potential starvation being the main one. At that time, the country continued to have political problems, due to the continued existence of the Marxist Derg.
Prior to my first visit to Ethiopia in December 2002, I held a debate in the Commons. Only when researching for that debate did I realise just how much else there is to that amazing country, in terms of its history and potential. For example, Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest Christian civilisations. Apart from a brief spell under Mussolini, it has enjoyed independent status for centuries, and has never been colonised. It also claims to be the origin of coffee, the birthplace of Lucy—one of the world’s oldest human beings—and the home of the fabled Queen of Sheba. The spectacular beauty of the country is amazing.
For many years, Ethiopia’s sizeable Christian and Muslim populations have rightly lived side by side without any problems, as have something like 80 tribes with 80 languages. Albeit from a low base, Ethiopia’s economic growth has been at a level that we in the western world would envy. Yes, there have been accusations of human rights abuses from time to time, with the definition of terrorism sometimes being loosely interpreted. The media have not always been entirely free, and there have been concerns about the functioning of the democratic process and the demise of the Opposition.
However, for a country that has a young democracy, the overall situation has been reasonably impressive, at least until recently. In May 2018, after I had again visited Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed—crucially from an Oromo, not a Tigray background—became Prime Minister. Straight away, he began doing the right things. The long-running war with Ethiopia’s former region Eritrea was ended, earning Abiy the Nobel peace prize in 2019. He announced his intentions to liberalise the economy by privatising state-owned enterprises, such as Ethiopian Airlines—an excellent one to travel on, by the way. Political prisoners and journalists were freed from prison, and the outlook was bright.
Where did it all go wrong? In truth, street protests and uprisings started before Abiy became Prime Minister. On my last visit, in April 2018, we were prevented from visiting various areas because of the security situation. Although it is easy to point the finger at Abiy—and we can come back to that—the unrest had emerged before he became Prime Minister.
It is probably too simplistic to say that trouble erupted because Abiy came from the Oromo tribe and therefore ended the domination of Ethiopian politics by the Tigrayan tribe, which represented just 6% of the country’s population. Again, the situation is more nuanced than that. It is probably also too simplistic to blame the outbreak of trouble on the cancellation of elections because of covid in 2020. However, it is probably true that the absence of a normal, functioning Government and Opposition-style parliamentary process in Ethiopia has not helped. It is also true, albeit it perhaps dangerous, to say that Ethiopia’s federal style of constitution has led some to believe—wrongly, of course—that breaking away would serve certain regions better. For example, Eritrea was once a part of Ethiopia but it is no longer.
One of the fears that many of us have is that the current conflict could lead to a general fragmentation of the country. It is very worrying, for example, that forces from Oromia and Amhara have been involved in the conflict. Fragmentation is a real fear, even though each region would probably be incapable of any form of successful self-governance or comfortable, progressive existence. For example, the establishment of food security safety nets over the last few years—they are being severely tested at the moment—could have happened only through a federal Government programme; they could not have been achieved by any one region. It is important for separatists to realise that.
Many of us are also concerned about the possibility that, partly aggravated by the massive movement of refugees from Ethiopia, the conflict will destabilise the entire region—an outcome that none of us wishes to see. Ethiopia has the unfortunate geographical reality of being neighbour to a number of states that themselves are struggling with various challenges. It has to be a worry that some of them might become engaged in this conflict, thereby worsening it and the region.
However, such political machinations are far from the minds of those who are suffering because of the current conflict. The humanitarian situation in Ethiopia, particularly in the north, is severe.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and for bringing such an important debate to the House. I fully agree with him that we as a country, and as a Parliament, cannot sit back and watch while events unfold in Ethiopia in the way they are. I have had several emails from constituents in Hampstead and Kilburn whose families are trapped in Tigray, where airstrikes are hitting civilian areas multiple times a day. I am sure that the hon. Member, who has extensive knowledge of the area, agrees that the UK and its international partners should take steps to prevent the brutal bombing campaign. Does he believe that the Government should be working with the UN Security Council to secure no-fly zones over Tigray and Oromia as a means of protecting civilians such as my constituents’ families?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, which, although short, raised a number of important points. I will come on to one or two of them as I make progress, if she will allow me, but she is absolutely right to make them.
On the humanitarian situation, the World Food Programme estimates that 9.4 million people across Tigray, Amhara and Afar are in dire need of humanitarian food assistance as a direct result of the conflict. I am very sorry indeed to hear about the situation of the hon. Lady’s constituents’ families in that particular area: that is extremely worrying. The number of people in dire need of humanitarian food assistance has increased by 2.7 million in the last four months alone.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and for bringing forward this really important debate. This is an issue that I have been contacted about by many constituents who have family in Ethiopia, particularly in the Tigray region. They are obviously deeply concerned about the humanitarian impact of this terrible conflict on ordinary people, particularly their families.
I completely support what the hon. Member said about humanitarian assistance. I particularly want to reinforce his points about the UN World Food Programme, which, along with other agencies, should be a focus for securing access to Tigray and neighbouring regions. Does he agree with me that the UK Government must use all diplomatic and development tools to help achieve that?
Again, I am grateful for the intervention. I will come to that point, but I entirely agree with the hon. Lady and I thank her for raising it.
I am told that, in addition to the 9.4 million people in dire need of humanitarian food assistance, 400,000 Tigrayans face famine conditions. I am advised that there are more people in that famine situation than in the entire rest of the world, which is very, very worrying. The World Food Programme briefing states that
“life-saving food assistance operations in northern Ethiopia are about to grind to a halt because intense fighting has blocked the passage of fuel and food.”
There are also claims that the Ethiopian Government are failing to ensure the safe passage of trucks carrying aid through to Tigray, partly by not issuing permission for the trucks to make the journeys. Of course, the federal Government have also closed off banking services, electricity and the internet. The situation needs to be addressed urgently. The Ethiopian Government can give permission for trucks to pass through Afar and into Tigray to deliver some of the aid that is needed. Countries across the world need to respond to the general food crisis that the country faces, or the harrowing scenes of the mid-’80s will appear on our television screens once again.
Up to 50% of pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in Amhara and Tigray were found to be malnourished, and the stocks of nutritionally fortified food for these people are now exhausted, with further stocks urgently needed. The World Food Programme is calling for an additional US$337 million to deliver emergency food assistance in northern Ethiopia. I very much hope that countries across the world will respond.
To make matters worse, a drought is affecting the region, which, according to the UN, means that 26 million people—around a quarter of Ethiopia’s population—will require food assistance this year. Normally, the figure is about 6 million or 7 million, but this year it is 26 million. That, together with the fact that humanitarian aid is not getting through to Tigray, means that Ethiopia faces a situation of massive and grave proportions. Again, it is vital that countries respond to the World Food Programme’s wider appeal for an additional US$667 million to help towards that bigger problem.
On the military conflict, Human Rights Watch claims that war crimes are being committed in Ethiopia. It says that Tigrayan forces have executed dozens of people they have captured, and that Ethiopian federal forces have bombed homes, hospitals, schools and markets. Amnesty International claims that troops fighting in support of the federal Government have committed widespread rape against ethnic Tigrayan women and girls, and it further claims that Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers are responsible for a pattern of sexual violence in Tigray of terrible gravity.
Amnesty International also claims that police in Addis Ababa arrested and detained hundreds of Tigrayans without due process, that journalists and media workers were also detained, and that hundreds of people were in detention with their whereabouts unknown. It is important to point out that the reports suggest that atrocities have been committed by all sides—by the federal Government forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces and Eritrean troops. That, of course, makes it so much worse.
The Tigray Defence Forces, part of the TPLF, were within reach of Addis before Christmas, but the forces of the federal Government fought back and the TDF have now left Afar and Amhara, and are back in Tigray, though western Tigray is held by Ethiopian forces. Eritrean forces remain there as well.
My recent discussions, however, suggest a ray of light. Many people who were detained have been released and it is hoped that there will be a will on both sides at least for discussions about peace. That is so important, because it would be difficult to address the humanitarian issues that I have outlined if the conflict continues. If the conflict continues, there will be no winners but millions of losers. That cannot benefit anyone.
I have quoted the work of some charities and organisations and I thank them and many more, including officials at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the British embassy for the briefings that they have probably sent all of us. I pay tribute to them for their work in Ethiopia to try to manage and alleviate the effects of the crisis. Sadly, a reported 25 humanitarian workers have been killed because of the conflict, which is a tragic outcome for people who were only trying to save the lives of others. That kind of loss should encourage all of us to do everything we can to help.
As I said, I have been a friend of Ethiopia for a long time. I have defended the country in this House and more widely at times when perhaps I should have been more critical. Over many years, I pressed the UK Government to increase aid to Ethiopia, and I was proud when we did. I have also visited the country a number of times. Sometimes, however, I have found it necessary—as true friends always should—to issue warnings to Ethiopia, for which I have not always been thanked. Now is one of those times.
I have heard it claimed many times by representatives of Ethiopia that the details of the conflict have been twisted by the media and by some international commentators, and that reports are exaggerated. I have no doubt that competing stories about the conflict are coming out of that country. Equally, however, I have no doubt that the situation is perilous and that atrocities have been, and continue to be, committed by both sides. There are far too many reports by independent charities all saying the same thing.
I apologise for not being able to stay for the full debate. I, too, have heard from constituents who have connections, friends and families in Ethiopia and are incredibly concerned about the humanitarian situation. They want to see a peaceful resolution.
Does not the solution to any kind of conflict ultimately have to be negotiated? It has to be done through talking and the ballot box. The risk—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—is of a spiral, in which things continue to get worse. If the humanitarian situation deteriorates further, that will simply encourage people towards even more desperate means and measures. It is increasingly important that the international community should provide that humanitarian relief and encourage a diplomatic and peaceful negotiated solution.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I was going to suggest that in a minute.
I stress that I was motivated to hold the debate because I want to see people’s lives saved. I want to see Ethiopians live in peace and prosper, and I want to see Ethiopia survive as a country. This conflict cannot go on. In other words, I have held the debate not because I want to criticise Ethiopia, but because I want to help.
I therefore call on the UK Government to continue their aid programme and the dialogue that I know they are having with the Ethiopian Government. I call on the international community to respond to the World Food Programme’s appeal for further financing. I call on the United Nations to do more to bring about a peaceful and speedy solution to the conflict and on our own Government to use our position on the Security Council to press for more action. I call on Eritrean troops to leave Ethiopia immediately.
I call on both sides in the conflict to accept what we are saying: that there will be no winners. There will only be losers, in the most awful way—through hunger and possibly famine, deteriorating health and further poverty. Those are not outcomes that anyone would want to see or be prepared to accept.
There should be an immediate ceasefire on both sides, accompanied by peace talks that address not only the conflict but the future political situation in the country. I also make another request, very specifically and because this situation is becoming really terrible. I do not make it in any way to undermine the work that the Minister and his colleagues are doing; I know they are doing a lot. Nevertheless, I call on our Prime Minister to phone Prime Minister Abiy to discuss how we can reach the peaceful situation that we need to avoid catastrophe.
We do not want to see another Rwanda and we do not want to see a repetition of the Balkans conflict. We do not want to see those tragedies being repeated. So let us act now.
It is not very often in Westminster Hall that I am called to speak first, so I am rather surprised to be called now, but also very pleased. I had thought that there might be more participants in this debate than there are.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing this debate and on his outstanding presentation of the issue, which comes from his knowledge of it. I have been involved with him before on this issue and I have always acknowledged that he has an expertise on, and indeed a real love for, the nation and the region. Therefore, I greatly appreciate what he has said today— to be fair, I think that we all greatly appreciate it—because it has set the scene from a knowledgeable and evidential point of view.
It is always a pleasure to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), in Westminster Hall. Even when he was not the shadow Minister, he and I were together in debates such as this one all the time. So, it is good now to see his elevation, so that he can promote his interest in this issue at another level.
It is also nice to see the Minister. We are running well together. Last night, we participated in the Adjournment debate in the main Chamber and here we are in Westminster Hall today. So we are really together in many things. To be fair to the Minister, I do not think that this issue is really his ministerial responsibility; I think I am right in saying that. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), who has ministerial responsibility for Africa, is away on a visit. This issue would be in her portfolio. None the less, I am sure that the Minister who is here today will be more than able to address some of the concerns that we have.
I have a very straightforward point of view on this issue and I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. I have a heart, and a burden, for those people across the world who do not have the opportunity to express themselves from a religious point of view through their beliefs because of persecution. I will give some statistics in relation to that, as well.
Also, although the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I are politically very distanced—I say that very gently to him, by the way—we are very often on the same page when it comes to human rights issues. We were for many years when I first came here, and he has been a lot longer than I have, and these are issues that resonate with us. We speak on behalf of our constituents, who ask us to do so, but also because we think the same way, too. That is important.
The ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia and the severe drought in the south-east of the country mean that millions of people are experiencing a humanitarian crisis. It is absolutely horrifying to watch some of the footage that we have seen, showing the hunger there. Here we are in an affluent society. We have our three meals a day and a choice of meals, but some people do not even have a meal for one part of the day, or maybe not even for a week.
The World Food Programme estimates that some 9.4 million people in northern Ethiopia are in dire need of assistance. Some of the background information refers to a famine of biblical proportions and that is perhaps how I would describe it, too. That gives people an idea of just how important this issue is. The International Rescue Committee ranks Ethiopia second on its list of the 10 worst humanitarian crises expected in the world in 2022, so now is the time to do something about where we are. We have seen those terrible pictures of Yemen, as well, and I think that every person who sees those pictures is moved by the hunger they see. I know that I am, and I am quite sure that everyone else is the same: I am no different from anybody else when it comes to compassion, understanding, and wanting to help. As such, I look to the Minister for assistance. Maybe he could give us some indication of what has been done in relation to the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding, and how we can address it.
I also noticed something in the background information that, to be fair, I already knew through the APPG. By the way, some 145 Members from the House of Commons and the House of Lords participate in that APPG, and many of those Members—who are very aware of the issue of human rights and persecution of people for their religious beliefs—are sat in this Chamber today. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has referred to the widespread use of sexual violence, torture and forced displacement by all parties since conflict began, and it grieves me greatly when I hear of the acts that those armies and groups in Ethiopia are carrying out against women and young girls—such depravity, viciousness and violence, to a degree that particularly upsets me. In his contribution, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to that in a very graphic way. I know that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) takes a particular interest in these issues, and I always look forward to her contributions, so I hope to hear some things today from the hon. Lady that can add to this debate.
I would also like to draw attention to the terrible situation faced by Christians in Ethiopia. In 2019, the situation for Christians in Ethiopia was looking optimistic—I think the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to how things were changing. There was optimism for the future, and it looked as if things were going to get better. They did get better for a short time, but unfortunately, it has all fallen apart again. Open Doors’ world watch list is on Zoom today at 3 pm, promoting the same issue that I am here to talk about, and I thank Open Doors for all it does. I also thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for promoting that today in a very strong way.
Open Doors’ 2020 world watch list showed a sharp decline in violent attacks against Christians, with governmental and societal prejudice against Christians seemingly improving, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to earlier. When in October 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded a Nobel peace prize for helping to end the conflict with Eritrea and promoting reconciliation, solidarity and social justice, many were optimistic—were confident about a future of change that could lead to normality—but unfortunately, the future outlook for peaceful co-existence in the country is not quite as good as we thought it was. Famine is rampant, and there is also talk of the humanitarian situation. I asked a question of the Minister on 19 November, and other Members of this House have asked questions as well. It is always good to get the background, because it gives us an idea of what we are all thinking; we are probably all thinking the same thing, but we are all looking for the Minister to respond.
We have referred to the vulnerable communities in the region, and to ensuring that Ethiopians are protected from violence. We have also referred to independent monitors being in place to collect evidence of crimes: the hon. Member for Tewkesbury referred to that issue, and I want to make some comments about it, because it is really important that those who carry out despicable crimes and think they are getting away with them are brought to justice. This is a completely different story, which was in one of the papers today, but just to illustrate the issue—things like these probably trouble me more than they have in the past—a wee boy was killed some 30 years ago, but today, the person who killed that wee boy is facing jail. He thought he had got away with it for 30 years. I want to ensure that those people do not get away with it, and that there is accountability, so that at some time, in some place, they will get a tap on the shoulder and we will say “Your day of reckoning is coming”. That is what we need. They need to know that when they do it, there is accountability. I know, as a Christian, that they will be accountable in the next world, but I would like to see them get their accountability in this world, just a wee bit sooner. That is just the way that I see things.
The trend, in relation to Christians has not continued; the hope of opportunities has not continued. It has gotten worse in the last 18 months. Christians have suffered increased violence enacted against them by militias and terrorist groups. All too often, police and Government forces turn a blind eye to those attacks, allowing perpetrators of persecution to act with impunity. Atrocities are happening, and it is evident that religious and belief minority communities are being specifically targeted. Large amounts of misinformation circulating within Ethiopia—from Government forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the Eritrean troops—means that even well-documented events are all too easy for perpetrators to deny. Again, it is vital that the atrocities are properly investigated, and that evidence is secured for future prosecutions, so that justice can be delivered for victims. That is what I want to see, as I believe does everyone in this House. I hope that that is what we will find in the future.
The conflict in the Tigray region has affected social harmony across Ethiopia, with many reports emerging of the deliberate targeting of places of worship. Again, it grieves me that, although we can go and worship our God in our churches with freedom, liberty and choice, facing no threats whatever, people there cannot. The crisis in Tigray has been defined by extreme human rights abuses, online misinformation, and by it being overlooked by the international community. I think that the plea from the hon. Member for Tewkesbury was to raise awareness on that. I hope that through this debate we can perhaps, in a small way, make a big difference. Again, we will look to the Minister to give us the response that we hope to see.
As the crisis escalates, it is increasingly likely to spread to other regions in Ethiopia. There must be more effective steps to mitigate against the worsening of this crisis, successfully restrict the ability of perpetrators to act, and prioritise the protection of civilians of all faiths and beliefs.
It is alarming that, during the covid-19 crisis, many Christians in marginal communities have been overlooked in the distribution of Government aid and resources, with international non-governmental organisations having to step in to support those vulnerable minority communities. Again, on this specific issue, I ask whether the Department has had any chance to ascertain whether the help that should be getting to the Christian groups through the NGOs is actually doing so.
Considering the above, I wonder whether the UK Government would consider introducing a human rights sanction regime for actors in the Tigray conflict and for individuals or entities that persecute others based on religion or belief. Impunity has prevailed for too long—it is so annoying to hear of it happening with such regularity across the world, this time in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Political fighting has continued in recent weeks. In early January, an air strike on a camp for internally displaced people in Tigray killed 56 people. Aid workers also stated that 17 people working in a flour mill were killed by a drone strike on 10 January. Again, normal life is being disrupted. People are dying, families are grieving, and sadness seems to pervade everything related to this. Why are innocents being exploited, threatened and killed, when they have done nothing? I am coming to an end, Mr Bone; I did not realise that time was flying so quickly.
The background information that we have been given refers to a moment of opportunity. The withdrawal of Tigrayan forces from neighbouring regions and calls for a cessation of hostilities, in the negotiations in December, combined with the federal Government’s promise not to push further into Tigray, prompted some to see an opportunity to end the fighting and begin talks. A senior US Administration official is involved in that, and he suggests that we need to have a willingness and an ability to seize that opportunity. We look to that moment of opportunity, because we hope that it will deliver for the people of Ethiopia.
I conclude by calling upon the Minister of the FCDO, and the Minister here today, to look at the situation in Ethiopia from both a humanitarian and political perspective, and help ensure that these people have some kind of hope for the future. We did not know it, but those of us in Westminster Hall today are the spokesmen for those people—we are the voice for the voiceless in Ethiopian Tigray. Today, this House does its best for them.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing this debate and on all the work that he does through the APPG. His commitment to the region, his passion and his understanding have been demonstrated by not only his speech but the work that he does throughout this place. I commend him for it. It is also a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has always been a champion for the most vulnerable on this planet—it is a pleasure to speak in his wake.
A peaceful resolution to the conflict seems no closer now than it did when we last met here in November, or when the International Development Committee carried out its inquiry and report in the spring of last year. The humanitarian situation is deteriorating, particularly for women and girls, as the use of sexual violence by all sides is becoming systematic. That is what I want to focus my short speech on today.
Over 2,200 cases of sexual violence were reported to authorities in just the first six months after the conflict began. The real numbers are obviously far higher. To get some sense of the scale, consider that visits to health centres following sexual assault have quadrupled since the beginning of the conflict. Half of the reported cases were gang rapes, and some health centres reported that 90% of victims were underage—remember, that is just the reported cases. The UN estimates that a third of incidents against civilians have involved sexual violence, and it will only get worse as hunger spreads, with women and girls being bartered for food—women-led households are acutely vulnerable. With the UN reporting that it will have no more cereal and cooking oil for Tigray after this week, the prospects for women and girls are looking increasingly bleak. The collapse of the healthcare system, with only a third of health centres in Tigray open and just 6% of them with obstetrics facilities, means there is no support in place for women and survivors. That means women and girls dying as a result of injuries from attacks and risky pregnancies amid the crisis of malnutrition and potential famine.
All forces must immediately condemn and explicitly prohibit the use of sexual violence by their troops and allow for the independent investigation of all reports. The UN Secretary General special taskforce must be allowed to investigate. The special rapporteur on sexual violence in conflict should be permitted to visit refugee camps to interview survivors and record abuses as per Security Council resolution 1888. The recently appointed Human Rights Council expert panel must prioritise work on sexual violence. The humanitarian blockades must end, with aid convoys urgently being allowed unfettered access, if we are to avert famine and protect women and girls from the prospect of further sexual violence.
The Foreign Secretary has long declared that ending sexual violence in war is a key priority. We all welcome the forthcoming global summit on sexual violence later this year. However, women and girls across Ethiopia need support now. UK leadership on this issue is vital if the summit is to have any credibility. I welcome that this Government have sent out one expert on preventing sexual violence, but given the scale of what is going on, one expert is not enough.
We need to see this Government shift to a focus on preventing atrocity. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, we need to be there on the ground, ensuring that the data is gathered so that, hopefully, we can see those criminals brought to justice in the international courts. More important than that, we need to be doing more on prevention. I know that hon. Members will share my frustration that all we have been able to do with the scraps of genuine information that we have is sit and watch and shout to try and prevent this awful hell on earth as it unfolds in front of us.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for his very good work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Ethiopia and Djibouti, which does what all-party groups on different countries should do, making sure that Parliament takes issues seriously, debates them and sees what we can do to assist, if appropriate.
I share the view of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that it is disappointing that such a small number of Members are here today. This is a major conflict and humanitarian disaster, and there are huge issues at stake, but far too often, when issues relate to African conflicts or anywhere in Africa, there is very little interest across this House. Those of us who are here have to try to make up for that.
I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford for his kind words earlier about intervention in human rights issues. I am pleased he got the text this morning about the dress code that both of us must follow in the debate. He is the most assiduous attender of debates raising issues of human rights and religious freedoms.
There are many histories of Ethiopia, and they are absolutely fascinating. It is the one country in Africa that was never colonised. It is the one country in Africa that is the beacon for African unity, as the centre for the Organisation of African Unity. It is the beacon for so much else about African culture and civilisation. When it was invaded by the fascist Government of Italy in the 1930s, people in this country took up the cause very strongly, and no one more so than Sylvia Pankhurst, the great suffragette. She ended up going to Ethiopia in, I think, 1942 and spent the rest of her life there, extolling the history and culture of Ethiopia. Indeed, there is a street named after her in Addis Ababa. Not only did she spend a lot of time in prison in HMP Holloway in my constituency, but she ended up in Ethiopia with a street named after her. We should be proud of her contribution.
The history of the wars of Ethiopia and the famine and the poverty is absolutely huge. There are obviously huge strategic issues facing Ethiopia—not just food supply and food production, but water supply, energy supplies and so on. I hope an agreement can be reached with Sudan and Egypt so that Ethiopia does not end up with another conflict further down the road about the use of the Nile waters. That has to be resolved. The rivers are for everybody. Water has to be for everybody. The war with Eritrea was brutal, bloody and violent and ended up with greater Ethiopia losing its access to the sea. That war eventually concluded, but with a massive loss of life.
The conflict that is now going on with Tigray, and to some extent with the Oromo people as well, is almost a copy of what went on over Eritrea. It is devastating when a civil war is going on in a country and massive human rights abuses are taking place—probably on all sides in this conflict. I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said about rape being used as a weapon of war. Rape is systematically carried out against women in Tigray.
There is also the rise of racism in Addis Ababa against anyone from Tigray or anyone speaking the lingua franca of Tigray. It is absolutely appalling. We have witnessed hurt and horror, and beatings and imprisonments, and the Ethiopian Government have apparently refused to allow international bodies into Tigray and other places to investigate those human rights abuses. I hope that is going to change.
What my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said is very important. If evidence is not collected very quickly, it will be concealed and will disappear. I am not saying that it will go altogether, but it will be much harder for prosecutions to take place down the line. I hope we in this Chamber today can appeal to the Ethiopian Government to allow the United Nations Human Rights Council, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch unfettered access to all aspects of society there. They have not taken sides in the conflict. They have not issued a view on the conflict. They have issues a demand for peace and the protection of people against systematic sexual violence.
There is a danger that, following the retreat that the Tigrayan forces performed after they could not get completely into Addis and went back to Tigray, there will be a push for the Ethiopian armed forces, which are huge and considerable, to go in and completely occupy Tigray. That is a temptation that I am sure the military commanders are looking at. The danger is that, once they occupy it, they may not want to leave, and that could be the spark that leads to conflict in the future. There has to be a coming together of some sort and an understanding of the federal nature of the country.
As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury pointed out, this is a humanitarian disaster of massive proportions. The figures are horrendous: 9 million people are short of food and at least 400,000 are starving. There is a lack of medical supplies, and trucks are being prevented from getting into Tigray with food, medicine and all the other necessities of daily life for the people of Tigray. Many will die as a result, and children’s growth and development will be stunted. The resentment will be there for all their lives towards those who stopped the necessary aid getting in.
Solving this conflict also helps prevent the conflicts of the future. There has to be an appeal for a ceasefire as soon as one can be arranged. The UN has to perform well on this, because the history of international organisations and Ethiopia is mixed at best. The League of Nations failed to prevent the Italian invasion in the 1930s and that is not forgotten by many people. UN support for problems in Ethiopia has been patchy at various times. If the UN and the African Union are to mean anything, they must be able to promote dialogue, debate and discussion that not only bring about an immediate ceasefire and get urgent aid into all parts of the country that need it as quickly as possible, but lay the ground for a peaceful future where there is not just another war coming down the line.
I am not opposed to the aid going in—I hope we can give more aid—but aid will work only if there is a political settlement on the ground that allows it to be delivered to the people who need it. Otherwise, we will have the ridiculous picture of aid stacks being built up in various places that simply cannot get to people not that far away who desperately need them. I hope we can make that clear.
All conflicts have to be resolved politically in the end. In every war, when it finally exhausts itself and the killing fields become so full that people start to look for an alternative, that alternative has to be found. Can we not do that and find it more quickly?
We should also look at the arms supplies that are getting into Ethiopia. There should be a complete arms embargo on Ethiopia, which should extend to other countries that are supplying the conflict, either through Eritrea or other places. Particular arms sources appear to be Turkey, the United Arab Emirates—to which the UK is a big arms supplier—Russia and other countries. There has to be an arms embargo. It will not stop all the fighting and bring about peace tomorrow, but it will help reduce the levels of conflict in the future. I hope we are able to get that message across in the debate today.
Please let us have a ceasefire and a future for all the people—people in Ethiopia, the Oromo people, and people in Tigray and elsewhere in the region. We should pay far more attention to issues facing people in Africa than we do. If this conflict had been in almost any other continent in the world, this hall would have been full, but it is not. I am sorry about that. Those of us who are interested and who care—including all those here today—will ensure that the issue does not go away and we will keep it at the forefront as best we can.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for securing today’s debate. He was very insightful, and brought to my attention how long he has been speaking up for Ethiopia, having been chair of the all-party parliamentary group since 2008. I also thank all the hon. Members present today. They have given their own perspectives, but we all have one thing in common: we want to see a ceasefire—and to see it as soon as possible.
I visited Ethiopia nearly three years ago with the International Development Committee. I visited it to see the blossoming of peace—just months after the peace accord between Eritrea and Ethiopia—both in Addis Ababa and up in the Tigray region. From everyone I spoke to—not only people who were working there with the UN, the WFP or the aid agencies, but people on the ground and refugees, some of whom had been there for decades—I heard a sense of optimism, excitement and energy.
Yes, absolutely. It dismays me that I stand here in this debate so soon after that visit. However, I will press on, and I hope that time is on my side.
Here we are. The past 14 months of ongoing conflict in Ethiopia have been discussed in this House on several occasions, and little is changing. On each occasion, we have heard about the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe: millions of people are in need of food assistance in northern Ethiopia, drought is affecting the south of the country and 2 million refugees are internally displaced. We have also heard about the truly horrifying civil war taking place, with stories of forced displacement, mass detention, starvation, torture and—as we heard from the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who is my colleague on the Select Committee—the extensive use of rape and sexual and gender-based violence as a weapon of war by all parties since the conflict began. Repeatedly, Members from both sides of the House have called for urgent humanitarian assistance to be facilitated to provide life-saving support to these victims of war. Furthermore, we have stressed the desperate need for the ongoing violence to end, with a negotiated, consensual settlement that would allow peace to return to Ethiopia.
Unimaginable anguish has been caused by this conflict, and the country has been brought to the verge of collapse in such a short space of time. However, the withdrawal of Tigrayan forces from neighbouring regions and the federal Government’s promise not to push further into Tigray needs to be used as an opportunity to bring an end to hostilities and begin work on a peace settlement.
There may be grounds for cautious optimism. Earlier this month, the Ethiopian federal Government announced that they would pardon and release several prominent political prisoners. That was welcomed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who called for a “lasting ceasefire” and
“a credible and inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation process”.
The federal Government in Ethiopia themselves stated that the key to lasting unity is dialogue, and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell Fontelles urged all parties to “seize the moment”—and the moment we should seize.
The suggestion of dialogue is arguably the most significant breakthrough since war broke out in the northern Tigray region in November 2020. To move forward peacefully, Ethiopian leaders must find a way to accommodate competing ideological perspectives and build a vision for consensual governance. Any political settlement must address the country’s festering grievances and build a new societal order based on mutual understanding and inclusivity. The Tigrayans must accept that deep grievances from their long period of dominance in Ethiopian politics remain and that most Ethiopians will not agree to their leading the federation again. Both sides can aspire to win the war, and win the war they must together, because neither can hope to win a peace alone.
Ethiopia is a patchwork of 80 ethnic groups, and any potential peace process is likely to be complex. I have a number of detailed questions today, and I hope to hear some responses from the Minister. How will the Government look to support any peace process? For example, will the FCDO use existing expertise from the stabilisation unit to create a clear road map for inclusive, post-conflict reconstruction in Tigray that proactively addresses development needs and embeds peacebuilding in the FCDO’s work in the region? Will the UK work with other key partners, including, as we heard from the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the UN, the African Union and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to ensure the engagement of regional leaders and an increased likelihood of successful peace?
This moment of opportunity is a fragile one, and there is no time to waste. This month there have been numerous airstrikes, killing and injuring dozens of children and civilians, including those in refugee camps. The horrific war crimes that have been a feature of the 14 months of this conflict continue without the perpetrators being held to account. The de facto blockade of humanitarian relief in Tigray has meant that no convoy from the World Food Programme—which has done so much in years gone by—has reached the Tigrayan capital since mid-December. They have had no food for the last four weeks. The continuation of this conflict will only deepen mistrust between communities, risk a potential rapid deterioration in the conflict and make peace frankly impossible.
My second set of questions for the Minister therefore concern the political and economic levers the UK is using to help to secure peace. For example, is the UK making its funding to Ethiopia through British International Investment—formally known as the CDC—conditional and dependent on an end to the blockade and violence? With airstrikes in the last few days killing scores of civilians, what engagement has the Minister had to urge parties such as Turkey and the UAE to stop providing drones, other weapons and military support to Ethiopia? Will the UK call for a UN arms embargo? That would be real leadership.
What discussions has the UK been involved in to ensure accountability for the war crimes that have taken place during the conflict? These questions have been asked repeatedly by each and every Member present, but they are important and need to be answered. Will the UK representatives at the UN use all diplomatic capabilities to call for the invoking of Security Council resolution 2417, which explicitly condemns starvation as a method of warfare and the denial of humanitarian access to civilian populations? I recognise that I have asked numerous questions, but they must be addressed if progress is to be made and to ensure that we are not having a similar debate in several months’ time to the ones we have had over the past months.
It is vital that urgent humanitarian assistance is facilitated immediately. There must be immediate guarantees from all parties to the conflict for safe and secure humanitarian corridors via all routes across northern Ethiopia. They must allow movement of supplies across battle lines and allow access to affected populations wherever and whenever needed. As we have heard, an estimated 9.4 million people are in dire need of food assistance as a result of the conflict, yet less than 12% of the supplies required to meet humanitarian needs are reaching Tigray. Supplies of food, fuel and cash, along with humanitarian workers, are unable to reach Tigray as this humanitarian catastrophe unfolds before our eyes. The World Food Programme, which does amazing work around the world, is calling for an additional $337 million to deliver its emergency food assistance response in northern Ethiopia. Across the entire country, the World Food Programme has an unprecedented gap of nearly two thirds of a billion dollars in the funding needed to save and change the lives of 12 million people over the next six months.
The UK Government have committed £76 million to the crisis response, making the UK the second largest donor globally, which I am sure is welcomed by everyone in this room. The Minister has previously stated that the UK continues to lobby other countries to increase their commitments. I have a fundamental problem with that: it just goes to illustrate the short-sighted folly—once again—of the Government’s decision to cut aid from 0.7% to 0.5%. How can they expect others to contribute more when we are cutting back? How can it be a good policy to reduce aid spending aimed at proactively preventing conflicts and crises such as the one in Ethiopia when we have to reactively increase our contributions when war, displacement, malnourishment and disease inevitably arise? Fundamentally, where is the credibility? Where is the economics in that? It is a case of penny wise, pound foolish.
Additional flexible funding is needed as a priority, but it will be of no use unless there is unfettered humanitarian access. So what steps are the UK Government taking to facilitate that? Given the killing of aid workers throughout this conflict, what guarantees has the Minister had from the Ethiopian Government on the safety of humanitarian aid workers?
Finally, we cannot lose sight of the tragedy unfolding in Ethiopia. The warnings of an impending full-scale humanitarian catastrophe have become a harsh and heartbreaking reality. Like many Members present, I remember the 1985 campaign led by Bob Geldof; as a teenager, I ran in a six-mile fun run to raise money for people in Ethiopia facing mass starvation. Here we are again, much older, seeing the same thing in the same location. It is vital that all parties involved in this conflict begin the long-required dialogue to bring hostilities to an end. The UK Government must do everything in their power to ensure that this is not a missed opportunity that prolongs this brutal conflict.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Bone.
I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for securing a debate on this crisis and for his powerful candour about the situation as a long-standing friend of Ethiopia. I agree with him that it is disappointing that the issue has not received more attention in the House. I have raised it nearly 50 times since the start of the crisis, through questions and in debates, alongside many other Members. However, it has not received the attention it deserves, either in this country or globally, not least given the level of atrocities, suffering and chaos, and the wider implications for the region and the world. The crisis is very much human-made, just as we saw in the 1980s, and that gives it particular tragedy.
We have heard some powerful and shocking testimony today, from a range of Members, who all made powerful points. I hope that the Minister will give us far greater assurance than previously about the priority that the UK Government give to the crisis and about how we work with others in the international community, in particular given our role as a P5 member and on the UN Human Rights Council, and not least because of our particular historical development and trading relationships with Ethiopia.
I hope that the Minister will start his response by giving us an update on diplomatic efforts to secure a peaceful settlement, which is crucial. That point has been made multiple times in the debate—securing a ceasefire is key to achieving progress. We saw some steps over the Christmas period, but they appear to be limited and have not been matched by changes on the ground.
It is deeply depressing to be here again, nearly 14 months since the conflict started. The humanitarian situation has steadily but surely deteriorated, with thousands of deaths and millions suffering, in particular in Tigray but also in neighbouring regions, such as Afar, Amhara and beyond. Civilians have faced indiscriminate large-scale massacres, arbitrary arrest, false disappearances, looting and violence. They have been denied the rights to food, shelter, healthcare and education, and we have heard about despicable sexual violence and rape targeting women and girls. There is clear evidence of crimes against humanity and of war crimes.
Since we last discussed the issue, the crisis has worsened for many people across Tigray and those other regions. The UN has warned that its food distribution operations are on the verge of grinding to a halt. In recent days, too, we have seen allegations that the Ethiopian air force hit displaced civilians with air raids. It is not known how those attacks were carried out, but we know that they occurred. In just the past few weeks, it is believed that more than 100 have been killed and nearly 100 injured.
On 5 January, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that three refugees, including children, were killed by airstrikes in the Mai Aini refugee camp. Five days later, a similar attack occurred on Mai Tsebri. I do not understand how such attacks can be taking place when humanitarian facilities and internally displaced person locations are designated and known to those involved in the conflict. An attack on an IDP camp in Dedebit resulted in the massacre of 59 and the wounding of 27 others. That camp was situated around a school and many of the victims were children. What assessment has been made of those shocking incidents?
We have also seen Abiy Ahmed’s Government revoke the rights of key humanitarian NGOs, expel seven senior UN staff and block vital aid to areas faced with famine. Evidence has emerged of senior political and military figures using very inflammatory and inciting language. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury referenced Rwanda and other past tragedies; such language has all the sinister hallmarks of encouraging ethnic violence, at worst. We know where that leads, as we saw tragically in Rwanda and Bosnia.
I note the rare rebuke issued last week by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. That is not a normal step for it to take, but it underlines the seriousness of the situation. Will the Minister tell us what concerns we have expressed directly to the Ethiopian Government in recent weeks, in particular about action against humanitarians and the language used by some figures? I encourage our Government to work with the utmost urgency towards finding a ceasefire between all the parties to the conflict, so that the humanitarian response can operate fully.
The humanitarian situation has worsened in every way: 9.4 million people are in need across the key regions, up from 8.1 million just before the House adjourned for the western Christmas, and an increase of 2.47 million on just four months ago. That is a drastic increase in a very short period, and it is now thought that 90% of Tigrayans are in need of assistance.
I was shocked to read in a report by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs that 283 severely malnourished children under five stopped receiving life-saving treatment in one area. OCHA warned that unless fuel enters Tigray as soon as possible, nutrition interventions will cease fully. Michael Dunford, the WFP’s regional director for eastern Africa, who has already been quoted, said:
“We’re now having to choose who goes hungry to prevent another from starving”.
What awful choices to have to make.
Malnutrition interventions are needed for an estimated 1.6 million children under five years old and pregnant and lactating women in Tigray, an estimated 1.4 million in Amhara, and an estimated 80,000 in Afar. Those are shocking figures. We are talking about women and children who are directly at risk of death if we do not intervene in the weeks ahead. Even with intervention, developmental complications as a result of malnutrition at that crucial stage of life and development risk leaving lifelong scars, as we saw in previous tragedies and conflicts in Ethiopia.
We have all heard the estimate that more than 10,000 rapes were committed earlier this year. Shockingly, the clinical management of rape is still massively lacking in Ethiopia, where only 30% of the very few clinics able to offer care to victims of such sexual violence are open. Plan International says that across the key regions there are only five one-stop centres for rape survivors to receive support. Will the Minister tell us what the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative has reported on the situation and what actions we are taking to support women and girls who have been affected in that horrific way?
Humanitarian organisations need a massive boost in funding to deliver emergency aid. The UN estimates that it needs an additional $1.2 billion in funding for response in northern Ethiopia. The WFP has warned that, notwithstanding the access issues, it is set to run out of food and nutritious supplies across Ethiopia in February because of
“an unprecedented lack of funding.”
In debates on the situation in Ethiopia, I have repeatedly asked Ministers a question that they have yet to answer. There have been individual announcements about UK support to the region, which are of course welcome, but what I and others want to know is whether total UK Government support will go up or down this year. That is the crucial question. When the need is so great, support should be increasing, not reducing. The Government have cut the development budget—I have opposed those cuts on many occasions—but surely, when the need is so great and we see such suffering, our total support should be increasing. We cannot rob Peter to pay Paul by taking from one part of the country to give to another. This crisis affects many people in many regions, and failing to do our fair share and work with other donors to plug the gaps would be a huge dereliction of our moral duty.
It is more than just the right and moral thing to do. I cannot understand why the Government have cut funding to a key strategic region—it is the keystone for all the states around it—by 60%. This is not only about that state’s security; it about ours too. It is illogical that, at a time of such instability around the world, we are cutting support to our friends and allies and to key countries.
I absolutely agree with the Chair of the International Development Committee. The Government’s decisions are absolutely baffling, not least because of the implications for countries in the region, many of which are also fragile; there is the situation in Sudan and in South Sudan, and last night we were debating Somaliland. How would those countries cope with a large influx of people crossing their borders? We have also discussed Somalia at great length. The Government’s perverse decision has much wider implications beyond this conflict and the people of Ethiopia and Tigray.
Evidence suggests that no aid convoys have reached Tigray since mid-December, and 80% of essential medication is no longer available there. Humanitarian groups are running out of fuel, and say that they may have to cease supply of some of the key international development programme camps completely as a result of fuel shortages. The region is also running out of key medical supplies, including insulin. Diabetics are just a matter of weeks away from facing agonising death if supplies are not replenished. The Ayder Hospital in Mek’ele—the largest in the region—has enough left to hold out for no more than one week.
Will the Minister tell us what conversations have been had with the parties to the conflict to secure and maintain urgent humanitarian access? What other methods are being considered? Have airdrops and other ways of getting resources into the country been considered, for example?
As many Members rightly said, we also want the UN and independent bodies to carry out an internationally recognised investigation into the atrocities—especially those committed against civilians in Ethiopia—so that the people responsible face justice. We must use our powers under the Magnitsky sanctions regime to sanction individuals who are already known to be committing atrocities. The US, for example, has already sanctioned many high-ranking individuals in the Eritrean Government, including the Eritrean defence forces chief and four others, in connection with the crisis in Ethiopia. It has also placed arms embargoes on Ethiopia, while the UK has lagged behind our allies in applying sanctions. I call on the Government to consider urgently working to bring forward measures against those found to have been involved in atrocities, particularly given that London is a key site for individuals who may wish to leave Ethiopia and Eritrea.
I commend the BBC World Service’s investigation programme, “Africa Eye”, for the incredible work that it does. Its investigation into the massacre of unarmed men in April last year exposed just one of many atrocities. As I and a number of other Members said in the debate on the BBC the other day, I find it perverse that the Culture Secretary has been making some quite demeaning attacks on the BBC when services such as the BBC World Service, which rely on the licence fee, are exposing such atrocities to help us to bring people to justice, as they have done in the past.
Can the Minister also tell me what engagement the Government have had in urging other countries, such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, to stop providing drones, other weapons and military support, which are fuelling the conflict and potentially being used against civilians? What is his position on calls for a wider arms embargo?
This situation is truly horrific for the people of Ethiopia and the people of Tigray in particular, and it has much wider regional consequences. We have already heard about the historical consequences of ignoring what is happening in Ethiopia, whether in the 1980s or the pre-world war two era. It is not some far-flung land that we can ignore. We have huge historical, trading and development responsibilities and links, we have a key role as one of the key players in the international community, and we should take leadership on this issue. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer many of the questions that we have raised today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone; I think it is the first time for me, making it the first time for you too. As the hon. Member for Wellingborough, you are my near neighbour and I often walk in your shadow locally, so it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir.
I was hoping that flattery would get me somewhere—but anyway.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for securing this debate and I pay tribute to him for all his work as the long-standing chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Ethiopia and Djibouti. I thank him for his level-headed speech and his wise counsel on this matter. Like the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), I remember—I might have been following him around, probably on a different track—running for the world at a certain point in the mid-1980s, when passions were aroused. It is a pleasure that this debate has been sponsored by the Bob Geldof of Westminster and, as I say, I thank my hon. Friend for his leadership on this issue.
I am also grateful to other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions today. I will try to respond to as many of the points that have been raised as possible. Although the hon. Members for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) are no longer present, I will try to answer their questions too. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned ongoing conversations this week on matters that normally fall without my portfolio. He is correct that I am the Minister for Europe. The Minister for Africa would have very much liked to participate in this debate, but she is currently travelling in the region on ministerial duties, so it is my pleasure to respond to the hon. Gentleman and others on behalf of the Government.
The situation in Ethiopia remains of great concern. As a couple of hon. Members have said, there have been some welcome signs of progress over recent weeks, including the December withdrawal of Tigrayan forces back to their own region, and Prime Minister Abiy’s recent decision to release high-profile political prisoners and begin a process of national dialogue. There is a window of opportunity to begin peace talks and bring about a peaceful end to this conflict, which I know my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa is stressing during her visit to the region this week. I hope that visit will demonstrate the UK Government’s commitment to ending this crisis and working hard with our partners in the region.
Although the developments that I have mentioned are tentative steps towards de-escalation, they are still encouraging. However, we know that, as right hon. and hon. Members have said, fighting and atrocities continue to take place, and the conflict continues to take its toll on civilians.
During her visit, will the Minister for Africa be able to speak directly to the Ethiopian Government to press for them to allow unfettered access to the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, so they can examine the human rights abuses that have been so widely reported in this awful conflict?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I honestly do not know the answer, but I assume that, if we are able to, we will be using every conversation that we have to raise those concerns. This is the first opportunity I have had to debate with the right hon. Gentleman. His presentation was salient and sensible; I very much appreciated the points he made in his speech. I know he is very committed to this issue and led a debate on it last November, which I read with great interest. I promise him I have taken all his points very seriously indeed.
As the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned, on 8 January an airstrike near a camp for internally displaced persons in Tigray reportedly killed 56 people. It goes without saying that we believe that all sides of the conflict must respect international human rights and humanitarian law, and prioritise the protection of civilians—a point that we have made repeatedly. I am quite certain that the Minister for Africa will reinforce that point during her visit to the region in the coming days.
We also reiterate our call for Eritrea to withdraw its forces from Ethiopia immediately. They are a source of instability, a threat to Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and a barrier to achieving the lasting peace that everyone here has talked about, which we all want to see, and which I am absolutely sure the people on the ground want to see.
Right now, 7 million people in Tigray and the neighbouring regions need humanitarian assistance. At least 400,000 people are living in famine-like conditions, more than in the rest of the world combined. The risk of widespread loss of life is high, with young children, as many hon. Members have pointed out, likely to bear the brunt.
The response to the humanitarian crisis continues to be hampered by the lack of security. Shockingly, 24 humanitarian workers have been killed in Tigray since the start of the conflict, including staff working on UK-funded programmes. It is right that we take a moment to remember them and honour the sacrifice they made in support of the innocent victims of this conflict. Tragically, humanitarian access to Tigray has been at a standstill since 14 December and hospitals in the region report that they are out of medicine. I repeat the Government’s call to all sides to provide unfettered humanitarian access.
Let me be clear. There is no military solution to the situation in Ethiopia. It is a man-made crisis, caused by human actions and human decisions. The UK Government have been clear from the outset that the fighting must end. All sides must put down their weapons. A political dialogue is the only route to a lasting peace, and with it the return of stability and prosperity to Ethiopia. We have made these points repeatedly to the Ethiopian Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The British Ambassador to Ethiopia reiterated those messages during meetings with the Ethiopian President on 12 November last year. He travelled to the capital of the Tigray region on 25 November to urge the TPLF to stop fighting and engage in peace talks. The Minister for Africa will use her visit to the region to discuss the potential path to peace with various counterparts. It is a principle of the African Union—which, let us not forget, is based in Addis Ababa—that African solutions should be found to African problems. It is absolutely right that African partners are taking the lead in ending this conflict.
In the last debate we had, in November, I was told that the African nations were not able to get access to gather data and to see exactly what was going on, to try to stabilise the area. Will the Minister be able to get back to see whether that is now happening, or whether there is more that the UK could do to facilitate that?
I know this is not in the Minister’s portfolio; none the less, I put it on the record in my contribution. I specifically asked for help in relation to persecution, violence against churches and the destruction of churches, and I mentioned that people do not have the opportunity to worship their God in the way that they wish to. I know that the Government certainly had a policy, which I welcomed and I am pleased to see it in place, but may I gently ask that the Minister responsible—perhaps the Minister here today will pass it on to her—focuses on that area, albeit not taking away from all the things happening elsewhere?
I will happily pass that message on to my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa, who has already spoken to Kenyan partners about Ethiopia during her trip to the region this week. The UK Government actively support those regional efforts to bring peace, particularly the work of the African Union envoy, Obasanjo, and Kenyan President Kenyatta. The Minister for Africa has also discussed the need for dialogue, humanitarian access, and accountability for human rights violations with the UN, the US and all other Security Council members.
Alongside our political work, the UK Government have been at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the conflict. We have provided over £76 million in response to the crisis. That includes life-saving food aid, safe drinking water, medical care, sanitation, and nutritional supplies. The conflict has tragically, as outlined in many speeches this afternoon, been characterised from the outset by appalling human rights abuses and violations, including mass detentions, killings and torture. There have been intolerable levels of sexual violence committed by all sides, and tackling sexual violence in conflicts around the globe is one of the Foreign Secretary’s top priorities.
In November, the Foreign Secretary stepped up the UK’s global leadership on tackling conflict-related sexual violence and violence against women and girls. As part of that, she announced a package of more than £22 million of new funding for initiatives on the frontline to tackle that type of violence.
Last week, the Minister for Africa met representatives from international NGOs to discuss the situation in Ethiopia and the impact of sexual violence there. The reports that she heard, I am told, were harrowing. The UK is delivering essential services to survivors and those at risk of sexual violence in northern Ethiopia. Our programmes provide victims with critical support and care, including support for emergency mental health services. Alongside our partners in Ethiopia, we are taking forward the recommendations made by our preventing sexual violence initiative’s team of experts, a point raised by the Chair of the Select Committee and others, to help to strengthen accountability and hold perpetrators of sexual violence to account.
We have also strongly supported the joint investigation into human rights abuses and violations during the conflict conducted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. We welcome the Ethiopian Government’s creation of a ministerial taskforce to take forward recommendations from the joint report, and we call on all parties to the conflict to act decisively to respond to its findings.
At a special session of the Human Rights Council on 17 December, we backed a resolution that created an international commission of experts to investigate allegations of violations in Ethiopia. We urge all parties to engage with the commission. We will continue to press for the justice and accountability that the situation demands.
The Government are under absolutely no illusions about the gravity of the humanitarian and political situation in Ethiopia, but we are hopeful that the progress made over the last few weeks can act as a platform for peace. The Government will use every opportunity to offer the UK’s support for work towards a peaceful solution. In the meantime, we will continue to push for humanitarian access and to provide humanitarian aid to those in need, and we will keep pushing all sides to end this terrible conflict peacefully. We will not turn away from those who need our help.
I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. Each speaker has brought their own take and concerns, repeating some points but also raising new ones. It is a shame, as the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, and where I started my speech, that for some reason there is a lack of interest in tragedies that unfold in Africa. These are human beings, and we really need to keep mentioning this in the House. We have had a number of debates, as the SNP Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), pointed out, and we are frustrated at seeing the situation seemingly get worse in Ethiopia—although as the Minister confirmed, there seems to be some opportunity for progress.
Will the Minister take this back to colleagues? As I said in my speech, I mean no disrespect to any Ministers, who are working hard on this, but I really think the situation is so serious that our own Prime Minister should phone Prime Minister Abiy to discuss it. The way it is going, it could get much worse, and then we really would not know how to tackle it, so I really think it is urgent enough, for the sake of only a phone call, to call Prime Minister Abiy and see what can be done.
I also regret the reduction in international development aid, as was also mentioned. It is short-sighted and unnecessary, and I look to it being restored as quickly as possible. We have an impressive record of providing aid to Ethiopia—for a while, it was our biggest aid recipient; now it is second—but I ask that the Government do everything they can to urge other countries to contribute to urging peace and in supporting the World Food Programme by providing sufficient funds for it to help, because the potential scale of the problem is unimaginable. It has been bad enough in the past, but it really is unimaginable, partly because of the conflict but also, as I mentioned, because of the drought affecting not only Ethiopia but other countries in the area.
I thank the Minister for his response. I look forward to working with him and the Minister for Africa, whom I have engaged with a number of times on this issue. I again thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in the debate. We are not going away. I am glad the Minister said that the Government will not turn away. We have to get this issue sorted.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the humanitarian and political situation in Ethiopia.
Small Modular Reactors and Energy Security
Before we start, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to take a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. I will call Virginia Crosbie to move the motion and I will then call the Minister to respond. I have had notice that other Members will speak in the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered small modular reactors and energy security in the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank all Members who have attended this debate on what is a crucial topic for both the UK’s ongoing energy security and our ambitious goal to achieve net zero.
This is far from the first time that I have raised the issue of nuclear energy in a debate. I last raised the topic of the funding of nuclear power on 9 November last year in an Adjournment debate, and have also been active in raising the issue of nuclear through oral and written questions. I have recently established an all-party parliamentary group on small modular reactors.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the incredible work she does in this field, as well as not only her APPG work, but her work in relation to the Nuclear Industry Association. I pay tribute to Tim Stone, Lincoln Hill, and the other people who are doing amazing work, and I congratulate my hon. Friend very much on everything she has been doing.
That is incredibly kind of my hon. Friend, but I would like to highlight that it really is a team effort. I thank him for the support he has given me on my political journey: my nickname is “Atomic Kitten”, which is somewhat thanks to support from so many people.
Small modular reactors are an exciting new nuclear technology for three principal reasons. First, the modular construction helps to cure issues that have been experienced with past nuclear projects, such as financing, long construction timelines and cost. Secondly, they provide a much-needed route to energy security and low-carbon energy; and thirdly, SMRs could drive a new industrial revolution, levelling up across the UK with high-skilled jobs in the nuclear and engineering supply chain. That is something I am really hoping to hear from the Minister about.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work she is doing, not only in championing this issue in Parliament but prioritising Anglesey and Wylfa in the Minister’s mind as potential sites for nuclear investment. In the case of small modular reactors—[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. In my intervention, I was supporting my hon. Friend’s contribution about the opportunities and benefits that small modular reactors will bring. Does she agree that the export potential is significant, and that an early intervention in the UK will yield significant benefits as that export opportunity becomes real?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his insightful intervention. He has been a vigorous champion of the nuclear sector, particularly in Wales, and he makes an important point. In the ’50s and ’60s we led the way with nuclear and nuclear export. This is an opportunity for us to get back to where we were, leading in a sector that is so vital for our energy security. That is very important for jobs, and it will create skilled jobs in my constituency and across Wales and the UK.
My third point is about co-locating and bringing together clean power with the industries that need it. That is an opportunity to bring high-skilled jobs from other industries. Such co-location is not new; the original Wylfa power station was established to provide power to Anglesey Aluminium.
Since we last debated nuclear financing, there have been major developments in the delivery of SMRs in the UK and in global energy security. The past months have seen an unprecedented rise in wholesale energy prices during winter, in part due to Russia’s aggressive behaviour towards its neighbour, Ukraine. That follows the issue in September with the Kent interconnector. I remind hon. Members that a fire at the Kent interconnector, which connects the UK with French power systems, led to soaring energy prices in the UK. We usually import 3 GW of power from France—enough to supply 3 million homes. That fire showed how fragile our energy security is when we rely on other countries for production.
The hon. Member is making an excellent speech. Caithness is one of the most nuclear-sympathetic parts of the United Kingdom. Dounreay, Britain’s first nuclear reactor, was constructed there. Even today, some 1,500 jobs directly and 500 in the supply chain rest on the nuclear industry. When the wind is blowing hard and renewables are working, units of this nature can create hydrogen, which will help us to deal with the problem that the hon. Member describes.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I am looking forward to an invitation to visit Caithness and see at first hand how important hydrogen is, how it can be linked with nuclear and how we can, I hope, come up with pink hydrogen. In my constituency of Anglesey, we are fortunate to be developing the Holyhead hydrogen hub, which the hon. Member might like to visit.
With much of the European gas supply transiting the continent through central and eastern Europe, the UK and other western European nations are at risk of Russian action to influence the price of wholesale gas and supply through Russian pipelines. Worse still, many of the other sources of gas for heating and industry also come from unstable parts of the globe. The UK is facing an existential crisis in energy supply that ultimately leaves the country exposed to soaring energy costs and potential electricity blackouts if we are unable to secure affordable, home-grown energy long term.
Addressing our energy needs is an urgent priority for the UK. We must build our way out of this overreliance on foreign energy by developing our indigenous supply in a way that is compatible with our COP26 and net zero commitments. To meet the requirements of the sixth carbon budget, we will need all new cars, vans and replacement boilers to be zero carbon in operation by the early 2030s. To move people towards the use of electricity while hitting net zero production by 2035, we must quickly move away from generating that electricity from fossil fuels. Britain currently has slim spare capacity in electrical power generation to feed those changes, leaving both our energy supply and our security under threat.
There is an obvious solution on the horizon. Nuclear power, which has been a neglected part of our energy mix, can bridge the gap. SMRs provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the UK to develop a new, global industry sector that will contribute to the country’s long-term energy security. A single SMR located on Anglesey in my constituency could produce enough energy for the whole of north Wales, which is primarily rural. A large plant in the same location could power the whole of Wales—with a little bit left over for England, if we are feeling generous.
Not only are SMRs easier to finance, but a factory build in controlled conditions means that they could be up and running as soon as 2028.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech about how SMRs are of value not just to the UK, but beyond its shores. In Aberconwy I talk to farmers—they are the custodians of some three quarters of the constituency, and they produce some of the finest lamb and beef in the world—and I am hearing from them already that the impact of energy costs mean that bills are rising by up to £1,000 a month. Will she urge the Minister to meet with farmers and farmers’ representatives in Wales to make sure that is taken into consideration in looking at the energy supply?
My hon. Friend and neighbour from the beautiful constituency of Aberconwy makes a very important point. In his previous roles, the Minister has been keen to reach out to the farming community. He has already committed to coming to visit Anglesey and Wylfa Newydd, and I am sure he will reach out to the important rural and farming communities as part of that visit.
When it becomes law, the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill will give developers a guaranteed return on their investment and lower the cost of raising the capital required to build a power station; that accounts for much of the cost of nuclear projects. We have already seen the regulated asset base model used for infrastructure projects in London, such as the Thames Tideway tunnel, and using it in Wales to finance new nuclear will make a big difference in levelling up the UK.
There has been rapid progress in recent months. Rolls-Royce has received the green light to develop its SMR technology, with match funding from the UK Government. The Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill will also make a big difference in allowing new sources of funding for nuclear projects. There are other exciting SMR technologies that can help the UK reduce its dependence on expensive foreign energy.
The generation IV molten salt reactors developed by Terrestrial Energy not only have the potential to provide clean energy to the grid, but could provide scalable clean hydrogen for industry. Boiling water reactors, such as that developed by GE Hitachi, deliver clean, flexible baseload energy, too. There is a real opportunity for the UK to take a lead in this field, supported by engineering firms such as Assystem and Bechtel, as well as the wider UK supply chain, which can support the development of all different types of SMR reactors.
This Government have made some impressive funding commitments so far, with the recent Budget allocating £1.7 billion of public funds to support new nuclear projects. The Government have committed to £385 million in the advanced nuclear fund, £215 million for small modular reactors, £170 million for research and development on advanced modular reactors and £120 million for the enabling fund announced in the net zero strategy. Finally, there is an additional £40 million for developing regulatory frameworks and supporting UK supply chains. That is very welcome, but given the scale of the potential energy crisis, there is scope for the Government to do more. The UK should be looking at contingency plans to get new SMRs into play as soon as possible to replace fossil fuel generation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In Hartlepool, the nuclear reactor is on the brink of decommissioning, and my constituency is not the only one in that position. Does my hon. Friend agree that SMRs provide a unique opportunity for us to replace those decommissioned reactors as quickly as possible to preserve high-skilled jobs in places where people do not fear nuclear? They are used to it and they know the advantages it brings.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. It is fantastic to have another atomic kitten here, and I welcome her warmly to this place. I will be talking about SMRs and how important it is that we have a plan in place so that we do not lose those high-skilled jobs, which are so valuable to our constituents across the UK.
To deploy SMRs as soon as possible and restore the UK’s leadership in nuclear technology, I call on the UK Government to take the following steps. I ask them to commit, in the upcoming nuclear road map from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to deploying a fleet of at least 10 Rolls-Royce SMRs by 2035-36. That road map is critical if the UK Government are to get support from industry and investors, and it is the best way for UK taxpayers and consumers to benefit from the Government’s bold investment in the Rolls-Royce design. I ask the Government to allow the licensing and siting of the Rolls-Royce SMR technology to proceed in parallel, rather than one after another. As part of that, BEIS should instruct the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Magnox to begin detailed discussion on the sale of land on nuclear sites to Rolls-Royce as soon as possible.
I ask the Government to remain open to deploying other SMR technologies as they are proven around the world. Many of our trusted allies, including the US and Canada, are investing heavily in SMRs, and we should learn from their experience. The offer to conduct licensing and siting in parallel should be extended to all viable SMR developers with the financing to buy sites in the UK. As the Rolls-Royce design is proven, the Department for International Trade should back it with export financing to sell British technology across the world, as part of our global Britain initiative. In the ’50s and ’60s, the UK led the world in nuclear. I know that the Minister wrote one of his university projects on US-UK large-scale nuclear co-operation. How fantastic it would be to get us once more back to leading the way and exporting hundreds of SMRs. Think how that would galvanise the Welsh and UK steel sectors, and the high-skilled jobs it would create.
I ask the Government to bring forward a consultation within a month on classifying nuclear as a green investment in the UK taxonomy, and make nuclear investment eligible under the UK green financing framework. Especially as the Government are looking to invest directly in SMRs and in the next large-scale station, it makes sense to make those investments eligible for green bonds.
To be successful, manufacturers need certainty so that a strong UK supply chain can be established. I recently established the all-party parliamentary group on small modular reactors to look at some of those issues in more detail. We are already at the forefront of this technology, and we need to look at how we can position ourselves as a leading location for this SMR reactor technology.
In conclusion, I thank my fellow atomic kitten, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), because without her we would not have set up the nuclear delivery group; she has been a powerful force within the nuclear sector. In the UK we have a long and proud history of pioneering nuclear power. In 1956, we established the world’s first civil nuclear programme, opening our first nuclear power station, Calder Hall, at Windscale. At the peak, in 1997, 26% of the nation’s electricity was generated from nuclear power. Since then, several reactors have closed, and the share is now about 16%. Almost half of our current capacity is due to be retired by 2025, and other plants are rapidly reaching their use-by dates. SMRs could be the game-changing technology of the 21st century, not just in terms of providing British businesses and consumers with affordable, low-carbon energy, but as an export industry for technology and nuclear engineering skills across the globe.
I see the SMR programme and new nuclear as intrinsically linked to our levelling-up agenda. When we are importing gas from Russia and electricity from France, where are the jobs that generate that power located? Who is getting the value added from what we pay for that power? According to Rolls-Royce, a UK SMR programme could create 40,000 highly skilled, well-paid jobs. While constituencies such as mine in Ynys Môn suffer some of the lowest rates of gross value added across the UK—reflecting under-investment and a lack of quality, well-paid jobs—we are now paying our continental neighbours to provide us with energy.
For all these reasons, the UK needs to look closely and urgently at its energy strategy. Energy security is vital for our future as a nation, and for the sake of jobs and our economy. In SMRs, we have at our fingertips a technology that can transform the UK from an energy importer into an energy technology supporter. Diolch yn fawr.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) on securing this debate.
The UK is gripped by an energy crisis. Global gas prices have reached astronomical highs and pose fresh challenges for households already struggling to make ends meet. Gas prices, which are determined more by global events than by national government, have always been volatile, and household bills will soar again if we fail to rethink energy production in this country. New advances in nuclear technology could revolutionise the UK’s energy system, offering security, reliability, safety and cost-effectiveness to consumers. Small modular reactors stand at the forefront of those advances.
On security, switching to nuclear energy and SMRs would end Britain’s reliance on Russian fuel tycoons, who have been able to make global gas prices soar at a moment’s notice by reducing supply. SMRs would be built right here in Britain, and would be operated by British workers and designed according to British blueprints. Shifting our focus away from foreign gas moguls toward British tech would boost our economy and breathe new life into our post-industrial towns and cities like Hartlepool.
The Rolls-Royce-led SMR consortium, alongside Government support and matched funding, could contribute £52 billion to the UK economy, create 40,000 great jobs and unlock an export market worth an estimated £250 billion. Nevertheless, the glaring advantages of nuclear energy have often sadly been overshadowed by largely misguided concerns over safety, waste and cost.
On cost, although on the surface fossil fuels appear to be much cheaper than nuclear, more detailed analysis reveals that the opposite is in fact true. The cost of balancing the grid in times of uncertain gas prices, as we are currently experiencing, is alone greater than the construction costs of Hinkley Point C. To see this in action, compare Germany and France, and their energy bills in 2015. Although 54% of German energy came from fossil fuels that year, the average energy bill was double its French equivalent, where most energy was generated by nuclear.
On waste, contrary to popular belief, nuclear waste is the only kind of waste from electricity production that is safely stored. Waste from coal and gas, on the other hand, is not stored, and goes directly into the environment and our lungs.
Finally, on safety, those responsible for the clean-up operation following the Chernobyl disaster were exposed to 100 mSv of ionising radiation, but only experienced a 1% increase in their risk of mortality. To put that into perspective, the increased risk of mortality from living in a large city is 2.8% and that of passive smoking is 1.7%. With 7 million people dying from air pollution each year, nuclear energy would prolong lives rather than shorten them.
In Hartlepool, my constituents are used to nuclear and know the advantages it brings; they do not fear it. It is for all these reasons that we would welcome an SMR—or two—in Hartlepool to replace our soon-to-be decommissioned nuclear reactor.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) on securing this important debate. She made a fantastic speech. It was a real tour de force around the whole sector. I thank her for her hard work in setting up the all-party parliamentary group on small modular reactors, which has already been an effective voice in Parliament. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn is one of the two original atomic kittens, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison). It is good to see other new members of the group, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer), here today.
I was delighted to take on responsibility for the nuclear sector when I was appointed as Energy Minister in September, having been a champion for investment in nuclear energy during my time at the Department for International Trade, as I was before that. You and I, Mr Bone, during the 2005 to 2010 Parliament, were recorded as being part of a group called the atomic eight—a group who voted more strongly in favour of nuclear than the parliamentary Conservative party as a whole. I am looking forward to visiting my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn’s constituency later this year—hopefully sooner—as the home of the former Wylfa nuclear power station and the site of the proposed Wylfa Newydd plant. Before getting into my hon. Friend’s excellently made points, I will address some other points mentioned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland is not here in person but is very much here in spirit. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) gave a very supportive intervention. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) made very strong points on the importance of both nuclear and renewables in producing hydrogen; I ask him to have a word with his hon. Friends, who are still opposing the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill, which will cheapen the cost of nuclear, and ask the Liberal Democrats to reconsider and vote for it. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) on the important role that nuclear could play in reducing bills. The Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill will reduce the cost of a gigawatt nuclear power station by in excess of £30 billion overall. On a present-value basis, that is about £10 per bill payer—a very significant reduction.
Two months ago, the UK hosted the COP26 summit in Glasgow, which focused the world’s minds on the role of clean energy in tackling climate change. It was there that I had the privilege of opening a nuclear innovation event at the UK’s presidency pavilion, highlighting the largest ever nuclear presence at COP. It is great to be joined by the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who I know has just come back from a visit to Hinkley Point C, and is also an enthusiast for the sector.
In April last year, the UK Government set into law the world’s most ambitious climate change target, through our carbon budget 6, in which we aim to achieve a 78% reduction in our emissions by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. In order to achieve this commitment, the UK will need to use a wide range of green technologies, of which nuclear is undoubtedly going to play a key role. The recently published net zero strategy sets out how the UK will deliver our commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and it is clear that nuclear is an important part of our plans to achieve that.
I welcome the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn for new nuclear. We will aim to bring at least one large-scale nuclear project to the point of final investment decision by the end of this Parliament, and we will take measures to inform investment decisions on further nuclear projects. SMRs will be important in delivering new nuclear for the UK. The smaller size of SMRs and their factory-based modular build potentially allows for more flexible deployment options—that is stating the obvious. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool put in a bid for not just one, but two SMRs, and made the strong point that nuclear always goes down best in communities that are used to hosting nuclear. That has always been the case in our country, and Hartlepool is very much in that category.
On that point, the Dungeness A power station in my constituency is in advanced decommissioning. The site is owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) that it would be helpful for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to give direction to the NDA that it can enter into negotiations with Rolls-Royce about the use of sites like Dungeness A, which may well be very suitable—indeed, ideal—for small modular reactors.
I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that. It is important at this stage that we are not too prescriptive about sites for SMRs; it would be too early for us to do that. I am very happy to meet him and discuss what might be done about the general position of Dungeness.
I welcome that intervention. I am very happy to offer the hon. Gentleman a deal: if he can persuade his party to become more pro-nuclear, he will ease the path of a visit to the very northernmost part of mainland Scotland. If the Liberal Democrats will vote for the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill when it returns to the House of Commons, I will come to Caithness and Sutherland in due course.
Good points about the exportability of this technology were also raised by the former Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), and by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn—points that are very much true. As my hon. Friend said, in November last year, the Government announced £210 million for Rolls-Royce SMR Ltd to further develop the design for one of the world’s first small modular reactor designs. Funding for that project is matched by private investment, with the design potentially capable of deployment in the UK in the early 2030s. We recognise the significant export potential of the Rolls-Royce SMR technology, which has already generated considerable overseas interest.
My Department and my former Department, the Department for International Trade, are working closely with the company to support it into overseas markets, and UK Export Finance has indicated its willingness to provide cover to Rolls-Royce, subject to the normal lending criteria being met. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn pointed out, this funding is part of the advanced nuclear fund—a significant Government investment of up to £385 million to develop a domestic SMR design and demonstrate innovative advanced modular reactors, also by the early 2030s.
In addition to investment in SMRs, the Government plan to invest in the advanced modular reactor research, development and demonstration programme, which aims to enable an AMR demonstration by the early 2030s. Based on our own analysis as well as other public reports, the focus of the programme is on high-temperature gas reactors, which I announced at the Nuclear Industry Association’s conference in November. In addition to low-carbon electricity generation, HTGRs have the potential to produce very high-temperature heat, which could be used for increasingly efficient production of low-carbon hydrogen—as has already been referred to by various Members—to help decarbonise industrial processed heat, or even for synthetic fuel production.
Furthermore, the Government have recently launched the £120 million future nuclear enabling fund, which has already been referred to, as virtually everything else has, by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn. She is so on top of nuclear—so well versed—that I sometimes worry about my own job: my hon. Friend knows as much about nuclear as I do. The FNEF aims to address barriers to future new nuclear and help companies to reduce project risks, so that they are better positioned for future investment decisions.
In answer to my hon. Friend’s question about allowing the licensing and siting of the Rolls-Royce SMR to proceed in parallel, while there are some steps that logically must be completed before others can begin in a nuclear deployment project, companies are not, of course, prevented by law or policy from—for example—applying for a nuclear site licence and development consent order in parallel. Those are commercial decisions, as companies are best placed to decide how and when to enter regulatory projects to best support their project.
I was pleased that Parliament voted to back the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill last week. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, classifying nuclear as green investment in the UK taxonomy would allow billions to flow into this essential technology. That is the basis behind the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill—to bring in private sector institutional financing. As the Prime Minister set out to the CBI, we intend to consult on including nuclear in the draft technical standards for our own UK green taxonomy. Further details will be released when the consultation is published.
To conclude, the Government fully support the development of small modular reactors and the exciting opportunities, both in terms of energy security and of reaching net zero, that new nuclear can offer the UK. We have demonstrated our serious interest in building nuclear capacity in the UK, and over the past year we have made decisions that boost investors’ and businesses’ confidence in investing in UK nuclear. From the energy White Paper to our landmark net zero strategy and funding for small modular reactors, we have shown our dedication to net zero and nuclear. I once again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn on an excellent debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Rebated Fuel Rules: Construction Industry
Before we move to the next debate, 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 Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room. I will have to call the wind-ups for this debate at 5.25 pm. I have been notified of two Back-Bench speakers. I hope that hon. Members can work out the timing. I call Carla Lockhart.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the impact of changes to rebated fuel rules on the construction industry.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank Members for taking the time to attend today’s debate. The broad representation here is indicative of the pan-UK concern that exists around this proposal. I want to make it clear at the outset that the construction industry is supportive of the move towards net zero by 2050.
This debate is not about the need for the industry to play its part in reducing carbon emissions, because that is already recognised and embraced by the industry. Rather, it is about the very negative impact of the change taking effect in April 2022 in the current economic context. It is about the operational and practical ability of the industry to adapt to the change and move to alternative fuels. In the context of Northern Ireland, where we share a land border with another jurisdiction, it is about how local industry will be impacted by handing a competitive advantage to our neighbours in the Irish Republic.
From this debate my hope is that the Government will replace the cliff edge of 31 March, and the potentially disastrous consequences that will ensue, with a transition period and a partnership approach with industry to create alternative fuel sources, reduce carbon emissions and, importantly, support the industry in helping our national economic recovery.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Is she aware that the problem affects not only the construction industry, but the destruction industry—those who carry out mining and quarrying? There is not an alternative of using hydrogen-powered or battery-powered machinery, so there is a case for the Government to look again at this matter.
Absolutely. The right hon. Gentleman is stealing my thunder, as I will go on to mention what he has just very eloquently articulated.
The context in which we bring forward significant economic change is vital, whether the desire is to stimulate growth or mitigate negative consequences. Over the past two years many factors, such as covid-19 and world commodity prices, have already severely impacted the UK construction industry, resulting in significant additional costs in materials and an impact on the availability of materials, along with a loss of production and additional escalating costs—and we all know about the energy costs.
The latest Government insolvency data shows that between August and October 2021, 797 construction firms across the UK went bust. That figure is up by more than a fifth compared with the previous three months. It is in this context that I urge the Government to exercise extreme caution in pursuing any policy that will increase costs to businesses that are clearly already struggling under the weight of existing pressures. There is a cold, hard cash reality to this proposal that cannot be ignored.
In preparation for this debate, I met many construction and recycling companies, many of them family businesses, that have given the following stark analysis of the impact of this move. One family company predicts a £300,000 increase in its fuel bill. Another major construction company, which uses 2 million litres of fuel a year, will see its fuel bill increase by £l million. These examples are replicated at companies right across the United Kingdom.
In addition to that increase in cost, companies face significant additional cost pressures in terms of electricity and gas prices. The cumulative impact of input cost rises is more challenging now than at any time in the past 15 years. The question is how the Government see those companies absorb the costs, remain profitable and contribute to our national economic recovery.
In the past 18 to 24 months, the Government rightly put great resource into supporting jobs and businesses. I commend them for that. Now is not the time to jeopardise the tens of thousands of jobs sustained by our construction industry with a policy that is right, but whose timing is wrong. The issue of timing is at the crux of this—timing not just in respect of our economy, but when it comes to implementing change to how we power our construction industry.
The mineral products sector produces 400 million tonnes of material a year across the UK, including 200 million tonnes of aggregate. That all requires extremely powerful equipment to work a quarry all day, which is far beyond the capability of the existing non-diesel equipment in the market. To be an effective replacement, non-diesel equipment will need to match the power, range, torque and payload.
The Government’s main contention in justifying the timing of the tax change was that it will encourage manufacturers to bring forward alternatives, but they are all working on it already, and it seems unlikely that a tax change for some of the users of red diesel in one country will have much impact in a global market. The UK and Ireland are not a huge market for any of the major global manufacturers of our equipment, with Europe in total accounting for as little as a fifth of sales for some suppliers. Removing the existing rebate for UK users will not make a material difference.
Even assuming that the equipment will become available, there are significant challenges in powering it. Many quarries are in remote locations and may not have access to an electrical grid connection suitable for the level of demand that electrifying such equipment would need. Significant and expensive upgrades will be required. Similarly for hydrogen, ensuring adequate affordable supply will be critical to weaning industry off diesel. Neither of those issues has been addressed adequately yet.
I ask the Minister to acknowledge in her response that the Government recognise that there are no suitable alternatives for most users and that the incentive effect of the tax change on development in a global market is tiny. That being the case, how do the Government believe that now is the right time to administer this significant change?
Operational and practical difficulties also extend to adherence to the proposed changes, if they proceed. The small family construction company that uses the New Holland tractor and the Merlo telehandler on a site during the week and on the family farm in the evenings and at the weekends is now put in a totally impracticable position. Does it run those vehicles on white diesel all the time, incurring additional costs and hitting profitability? Does it buy totally duplicate machines, which would be financially impracticable? Does it follow Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs rules and flush out the tank before the diesel change, which is again totally impracticable?
That example is replicated in farms and at construction sites right across the UK. Indeed, the same issue will affect those who hire plant equipment, making the management of their business incredibly difficult as they implement the change and seek to adhere to the law.
This is a UK-wide concern, but I hope that Members will indulge me for a few moments as I highlight specific concerns in the Northern Ireland industry. As we share a land border with another jurisdiction, we do so with a direct competitor for business watching the issue closely. There is no doubt that businesses based in Northern Ireland producing and supplying materials to the Irish Republic will be placed in a less competitive position. I have engaged with companies for which Republic of Ireland trade makes up 15% of turnover. For other Northern Ireland firms, that figure will be higher. The change in rebate rules poses a direct threat to such business and, subsequently, to the jobs sustained by that element of the business.
Specifically for companies located in the border areas, there is a secondary risk of material being supplied into Northern Ireland where competing producers based in the Irish Republic will not have to deal with the increased cost, thereby making their products, goods and services more economically appealing to purchasers in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, that will increase the likelihood of tax evasion, as those imports will be subject to aggregate levy, thus meaning more surveillance work for HMRC.
The operation of two sets of rules on the island of Ireland poses a practical problem. If a construction plant is moving up and down, it can use green diesel in the ROI, which will leave markers in the tank for a period. If a plant is moving up and down weekly that may cause issues, and leaves it open to abuse. For those reasons, I ask the Government whether they have undertaken an economic impact assessment of the change to business, particularly in Northern Ireland.
When I questioned the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury on the proposal in the House on 7 December, the following rationale was given:
“To help ourselves achieve net zero and improve UK air quality, we are reducing the entitlement to use red diesel, which currently enjoys a duty discount, from next April.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 171.]
The reality, of course, is that the proposal will do nothing to achieve net zero or improve air quality, as firms can switch to white diesel only in the absence of greener alternatives. Indeed, the fact that the Government are also removing the rebate from some greener alternatives calls into question the claim that it is even about emissions. One company that has engaged with me since I secured the debate said:
“Bio-diesels like Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil are also being affected be the rebate removal. Therefore it is likely on 1 April 2022 we as an industry will move towards a White Diesel as it is the more commercially viable option.”
That multiplied across many firms will result in the policy having the opposite impact on the environment than that stated by the Government.
The Exchequer Secretary also told the House about the consultation undertaken by the Government. The policy change was first proposed and consulted on when the pandemic was at its height. As such, consultation responses did not reflect the deep concern that is now evident regarding the proposal. Indeed, the market conditions now are as challenging, if not more so, than when the consultation was held. I plead with the Government not to ignore the concerns of the industry. According to the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, losing the red diesel rebate could cost the UK construction industry £280 million to £490 million a year—£20 million to £25 million in Northern Ireland. For our local Executive, the additional cost would be the equivalent of a new build school.
For firms tied into public contracts, absorbing that cost is not possible. It will put them under, and make future Government investment in building roads, schools and hospitals more expensive. We need the Government to pause the proposal and move towards a phased introduction that removes the rebate as new technologies come online that allow the industry to really help to reduce carbon emissions, not just pay more now for no benefit. Consideration must also be given to exemptions, not least for the waste management industry.
I conclude by quoting the Chancellor in his Budget speech to the House last year:
“That is what this Budget is about and that is what this Government are about. Infrastructure connects our country, drives productivity and levels up.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 279.]
He is right, so why make such a key driver in our economy more expensive?
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) on securing today’s debate and putting her case so succinctly and clearly. This day, I suppose, was always going to come. The Treasury and HMRC have always hated the idea of red diesel, and they have come for it in different ways over the years. There was the removal of its use in pleasure boats some years ago; now we have the removal of the entitlement for its use in construction. The hon. Lady spoke about the crossover between construction and agriculture. That is a feature in my constituency and, I am sure, in many other rural parts of the country. That there are no good answers to her questions illustrates the lack of forethought and planning on the part of the Government.
I have been in correspondence with Government Ministers on this issue. The Minister who is here today wrote to me herself on 3 November, saying that the purpose of the changes was:
“Incentivising developers to bring forward alternatives to market sooner than if these tax changes were not made as affected businesses look to alternatives. In the short-term, and as the market for alternatives develops, the Government’s view is that taxing pollution and dangerous greenhouse gas emissions the same, regardless of whether the fuel is burnt on or off road, is fairer than allowing wide distortions to continue.”
What that essentially means is that the Government hope that this change will produce new technology. Again, the points made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann in relation to the position of the UK market were good ones and well made, but the Government will make this change anyway, because they do not like the “distortions” that the Minister referred to.
If the Government were consistent—I hesitate to say this, because I absolutely do not want this ever to happen—they would have looked at the position with regard to agriculture as well. They did not do so because they knew that the political consequences of that would have been too drastic and too dramatic.
What the Government are going at here is the easy target—the low-hanging fruit—at a time when the construction industry is facing a perfect storm, with all the consequences for the wider economy. The lack of availability of building materials at the moment is one of the major challenges facing the sector. If builders are able to get the materials they need, the cost of them is that much higher because the law of supply and demand comes into operation. Now, on top of that, we have a situation whereby builders will have to absorb, in their existing contracts, the extra cost of paying for the fuel duty, and in future contracts they will have to build in that cost and eventually pass it on to their customers, which will have a further inflationary impact. It will mean that many projects do not go ahead, because the already tight margin that many builders are operating on will simply not be viable any more. In that way, we see the consequences of this change moving down throughout the economy and becoming a vicious circle.
When the Minister responds to the debate, can she tell us how things are going? The purpose of this measure is apparently to encourage the development of new technologies. Where are these new technologies and when will they come to market? What assistance will be given to companies such as the small plant hire operator in Orkney I spoke to last week? He says that this measure will put his business under, because he operates something like four diggers and two dumper-trucks—that is the scale of his operation—and in addition he works as a subcontractor for most of the time, but the contractors will expect him to absorb these changes. By the time we get to April, what alternatives will there be for him? What will be the capital consequences for him if he invests in this new and apparently untried technology?
The hon. Member for Upper Bann spoke about this change creating a cliff edge, and she is absolutely right. It is a cliff edge over which the Government risk throwing an entire industry, for reasons—basically—of civil service prejudice and a dislike of exemptions. For a Government who are supposed to be motivated by business concerns, that is poor in the extreme, and I really hope that the Minister will come forward with something that is a bit more meaningful and substantial than what we have heard so far.
Thank you very much for calling me to speak, Mr Bone.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) for setting the scene so well, and I thank others for their contributions. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) also hit the nail on the head, which is that small businesses will be affected. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) intervened on the issue that I want to talk about on behalf of constituents who have contacted me, who are not involved in construction as such but are involved in that sector.
I will give two examples of that. Just after Christmas, I wrote to the Chancellor about this very matter, which is of some importance. My constituents are clearly perplexed to find themselves in a position where the cost factor may push them to the stage where they have to make a decision about the survival of their businesses. When I make these pleas to the Minister, I do so because I hope to get a consideration or concession for one of the firms, and the other has told me clearly what its problems will be.
It is great to be here to support my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann. This issue is imperative for Northern Ireland businesses. The new legislation coming into force from April 2022 will have a significant impact on our economy—in particular on our construction industry and, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire in his intervention, those involved in clearing up afterwards. There are huge concerns about this issue throughout Northern Ireland.
It is great to speak on behalf of the businesses in my constituency. There are many contributing factors making the move to white diesel unsustainable at this time. First, the cost is a primary factor for most of my constituents affected by this issue. I have given two examples, but it will actually affect a much greater number. It is like a stone hitting the water; the ripples go out well beyond that. We will feel the impact in many sectors.
Construction businesses across Northern Ireland have stated that, unfortunately, the added cost will be passed on to the customer—in some cases, that means the UK Government, who own and operate some forms of construction work. According to the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, losing the red diesel rebate would cost the UK construction industry between £280 million and £490 million a year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann said, in Northern Ireland alone the additional cost will be between £20 million and £25 million.
I recently visited Conexpo, a family business based in my constituency in Northern Ireland. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire mentioned quarries in his intervention—Conexpo has three, located in Ballygowan, Carryduff and Ballynahinch, all of which are in my constituency of Strangford. Conexpo produces highly polished stone value aggregates for export markets. Every one of the roads around London is built on stone from the quarries in my constituency; the same stone from Northern Ireland is used in Hong Kong. Conexpo is a lucrative business, because people very much want to have that stone. However, at the same time, there is a cost factor.
Conexpo has raised some important points explaining why the current policy on red diesel is not sustainable. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann spoke about phasing in the policy in order to give businesses time to come up with new ideas and innovation. However, for Conexpo, there is no alternative. There are no hydrogen lorries sitting by to take over because they have not been perfected yet. Conexpo has worked extremely hard to reduce its carbon footprint, and it has succeeding in doing that. It is probably doing more for its carbon footprint than most people. Unfortunately, there are currently no alternatives to diesel engines to power the machines it requires. It is a big business—stone goes from its three quarries to Belfast harbour and then across the world.
Conexpo stated that it
“would welcome some clarity to the practical issues of how the red diesel rebate removal will happen. We believe it would be vitally important to retain the utilization of red diesel and a phased increase of the duty levied by HMRC would be charged by the fuel supplier.”
Another example is Cooke Brothers, which is run and owned by Ken Cooke in Newtownards. He has also voiced concerns on the red diesel rebate. He has stated that the Government must provide more clarity in regard to red diesel for generators. His engineering business does instrumental work for shipyards and sewerage works. The lack of information around generators is causing major anxiety for construction businesses.
Can the Minister say if there could be an exemption or some help for the people who depend on generators? Red diesel is important first for lorry movements and secondly for the generators used in engineering.
The legislation will cost the average business an extra £50,000 a year. It will also potentially mean that jobs are on the line. The Government have a proud record of creating jobs—the unemployment rate is down to 4.5% today, which gives us an indication of their polices—but if they want to be progressive and reduce that more, we cannot lose the jobs we have. The Government must recognise that, at this moment in time, there is no suitable alternative for most users, and that discretion must be given to construction businesses that simply cannot afford this change.
I will conclude within the timescale you set, Mr Bone. In my humble opinion, my constituents need help. I look to the Minister for that. Northern Irish businesses have suffered all too much in recent years, from the horrific impact of the protocol to the pandemic, and now our construction employers face extortionate costs relating to the red diesel change. I encourage the Minister to step in now and answer the questions of our constituents. Give us the help needed, give us the reassurance we seek, give us the phasing in. There is undoubtedly confusion surrounding the new legislation. Assurances, as presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann and replicated, must be given to ensure the success of our construction businesses.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I give many thanks to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) not only for securing the debate but for articulating so clearly the important details now manifest by this deeply unfair removal of the rebate. In April, the 46.8p raise cost £1.5 billion across the construction sector. It is incumbent on the Government, having introduced such a fiscal measure, to have an idea—a passing regard, at least—of how it will affect the industry. In the event that the Minister and her Department do not have that, I can set out a couple of those effects.
However, at the heart of the concern is fairness. As other hon. Members have set out, the notion that operators of this type of vehicle will somehow go out within the next two to three months to purchase alternatives that will not be subject to this tax increase is for the birds. The alternatives are not there—the manufacturers do not have the technology beyond the prototype stage. This is therefore a tax grab, essentially. We need to call it what it is. What the Government should have done, and may have got a bit of respect for, was implement a well-advertised, well-indicated, well-consulted-upon, graduated reduction of the rebate on red diesel, to allow industry and manufacturers to appropriately and realistically adapt their fleets and their products to meet the climate change targets that we all agree on. There is no dispute about those; it is how we get there that, in this instance, is deeply unfair.
I do not hear anybody making political points in this debate. There is no political capital at stake. In that spirit, I offer the Minister an out to this situation. If she wishes, she can put it down to what has happened to the cost of living, with inflation at a 30-year high, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) discussed. The principal casualty of this measure is the construction industry, which also faces a chronic labour shortage, and a chronic shortage and rising prices of materials. These things have also changed relatively recently, which gives the Government that out. Eleven companies in my constituency in the mineral products sector are affected by that.
However, this affects not only quarrying but construction and material handling. It is not only Geddes quarries in Angus or Laird’s concrete products in Forfar. I had a meeting with John Lawrie Metals in Montrose, which does a tremendous service to the environment by repurposing equipment from the offshore oil and gas sector for the construction sector. It has met Liebherr in Germany to discuss the timeline for the availability of its hydrogen-powered heavy shovels, but that is a long way away—way beyond the horizon of this change.
I implore the Minister to seriously consider a reversal of this change, because it is perverse on two levels. First, it will not make an iota of difference to pollution levels, because there is no alternative; it will be diesel that does the work, whether or not the Government maintain this change to the rebate. Secondly, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann indicated, it will also displace biodiesel, so there will be a negative consequence to the environment. There is nothing to recommend this. It will harm business and public sector capital investment.
It is okay for the UK Government—they will receive the tax from the change, so that will offset the increase in their capital expenditure to some extent—but what about the Governments of the devolved nations? Who is going to offset their increased costs for building new schools and hospitals? The construction sector will pass this on. It is bad for the environment and for the covid recovery, so I urge the Minister and the Department to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) on securing the debate and her excellent opening speech. She has clearly spent a long time familiarising herself with the issue and getting the views of the people who really matter: those whose jobs and businesses are at risk if this goes wrong. There has been huge amount of agreement from all the speakers, which is what happens when we put a good bunch of Ulstermen and Scots together: agreement on most things, shall we say.
As has been said, Mr Bone, there is no argument about the principle. We want to reduce carbon emissions and the other air pollution that comes from almost all fossil fuel use. We would support anything that will achieve that, but there is nothing in the policy paper that the Government have produced about a long-term reduction in the use of fossil fuels, and the Exchequer impact, the tax take, sits at around £1.4 billion to £1.5 billion every year for the duration mentioned in the paper.
On the subject of emissions reduction, there is a possibility that in fact we will see an increase in emissions. I have one company in Shetland that manufactures polystyrene boxes for use in aquaculture and fishing. It can manufacture their boxes in Shetland at the moment and sell them economically, but its competition on the Scottish mainland do so with mains gas. That company will lose its competitive advantage and polystyrene boxes will then have to be transported from the mainland to Shetland. The carbon consequences of that are just lunatic.
I am not familiar with the details of the example that the right hon. Gentleman gives, but I have no reason to doubt that he has researched it as thoroughly as he researches everything else he says, either here or in the Chamber. There will be unintended consequences that the Government have not identified yet.
I have the privilege to serve on the Public Accounts Committee. One of our reports, a year or two ago, looked at what are termed environmental taxes. We raised concerns about how it is often difficult to see where the environmental impact of environmental taxes is being measured or monitored, or whether there is even any target impact when they are introduced. A lot of environmental taxes might be well intentioned to begin with, but they quickly become just another money-making scheme for the Treasury.
It appears quite clear to me that that is what this proposal is set out to be from the beginning. If it is not about making money, but about reducing fuel use and pollution from fuel, why does the policy paper tell us how much more money the Treasury will get out of it, but not the expected reduction over the next four years as a result of the tax? In answering, can the Minister tell us by how much the Government expect the use of diesel fuel to be reduced as a result of this measure? If he cannot give that answer, he should ditch this plan and bring it back for parliamentary approval when he can tell us what the environmental impacts are likely to be. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) referred to a case where the proposal could actually increase fossil fuel use.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann pointed out that some of the Government’s own guidance tells us that, as a consequence of a fuel reduction scheme, people are supposed to flush more fuel down the drain than they were before. Every time they change from one use to another, they are supposed to flush out the fuel from the tank. A supplier who wants to switch from using white diesel to using red diesel instead is told to flush every trace of white diesel out of the tanks. What a waste of fuel from a system that is supposed to be about reducing fuel usage.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, because of the traces of red diesel that will still be intact, the construction sector should be genuinely concerned about the pragmatic approach of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in enforcing the excise situation? Should we not have something that is much less opaque and more defined?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We have seen other examples of proportionate, pragmatic and reasonable enforcement from HMRC. Certainly, the experience of my constituents in a lot of tax enforcement is that those terms tend not to come up in conversations very often.
We should be clear that this is not an example of the Government closing a tax loophole that is being exploited at our expense by rogues, villains and scallywags. Those companies have done everything legally, and quite often put themselves at significant difficulty to separate the red and white diesel that they use for different purposes.
We are talking about criminalising on 1 April something that was perfectly legal on 31 March. If the Government suddenly decide to criminalise what those companies are doing, surely it is reasonable to use some of the £5.5 billion that the Government will make over four years from the changes to support businesses that will need it to comply with the new regulations.
The Government have said that the measure will have no macroeconomic impact. I do not know how macro something has to be to be considered macro, but I suggest that taking £5.5 billion out of the economy over the space of four years will have a macroeconomic impact on a lot of businesses. If someone’s business closes, that has a macroeconomic impact on their family’s finances. It is not even as if we are adding this tax to a low tax burden for businesses and individuals. The UK tax burden is already close to the highest it has been since my mammy was at school—I have a free bus pass, so Members can do the arithmetic for themselves.
Some of the indirect impacts of the measure have already been mentioned, including on the cost of construction. It will no longer be viable for self-employed people in the construction businesses to continue trading. Construction businesses will close down, and construction projects will stop mid-stream—or might never be completed—when the main contractor goes bust without warning. That kind of thing already happens all too often.
Affordable house building will become less affordable because the builders will not be able to continue to build at the prices they had given previously. There is only one place those additional costs will go: to the people buying the houses at the end of the construction. If that purchaser is a council, a housing association or another social landlord, the additional costs will go to tenants or will lead to the cancellation of the project because it is no longer affordable.
As has been mentioned, there is extreme volatility in the prices of raw materials that construction firms rely on. I have spoken to construction supply firms that find that the price of raw materials can increase by 100% and then drop back down again in a matter of weeks, making it difficult for them to price jobs and to rely on affordable pricing from which they can make a profit without pricing themselves out of the market.
If there were clearly demonstrated environmental and pollution-reduction benefits to the tax, there might be a price worth paying by us all, but there are none whatsoever. The impact is targeted at far too small a portion of the economy, and in a part of the economy that was already on its knees because of the combined impact of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.
The construction sector and the construction materials sector should be getting Government support; they should not be getting kicked while they are down. If the Government are not prepared to give up on this plan entirely, I ask them to delay it or, at least, to phase it in over a longer time, to give our hard-pressed industries a chance to survive.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. Thank you for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) on securing the debate.
As we know, from April 2022, measures in the Finance Act 2021 will come into effect to reduce the number of businesses that can benefit from red diesel tax breaks, as well as extend fuel duty to biodiesel, bio-blend and fuel substitutes used in heating. The measures in the 2021 Act maintain a number of exceptions, however, for situations in which red diesel tax breaks will continue, including for vehicles and machinery used in agriculture, horticulture, fish farming and forestry, and for the heating of non-commercial premises, including homes and buildings such as places of worship, hospitals and town halls.
Historically, the existence of red diesel tax breaks arose from the use of that fuel in off road machinery or vehicles. Duty has historically been charged on fuel used by motor vehicles to reflect the damage caused to public roads. The rebated rate for red diesel reflected the fact that it was only used in off-road situations. The dyeing of the diesel has also allowed law enforcement agencies to identify it as rebated fuel and therefore to detect when red diesel is being used wrongly, providing a deterrent to fuel fraud.
During the Committee stage of the Finance (No.2) Act 2021, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), set out the Government’s motivation behind restricting access to red diesel. The Minister explained that the restrictions on red diesel were designed so that taxation
“reflects the negative environmental impact of the emissions produced.”
“Reducing tax breaks on red diesel will mean that approximately 3.6 billion litres of diesel, equivalent to 9.5 million tonnes of CO2, will now be taxed at the standard diesel rate.”––[Official Report, Finance (No.2) Public Bill Committee, 27 April 2021; c. 72.]
Like many Members who have spoken in today’s debate, Labour supports the principle behind cutting the use of diesel fuel and encouraging a move towards more environmentally friendly alternatives. We know that red diesel accounts for around 15% of all diesel used in the UK and is responsible for the production of nearly 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. We also know that red diesel used in the construction and infrastructure building sectors causes PM10 emissions, a type of particulate matter, so it being used less will help to improve air quality. However, we would like to raise two specific concerns on behalf of representatives of the construction industry, and would welcome the Minister’s response.
First, during discussion of the Finance (No.2) Act 2021 in Committee, the Exchequer Secretary explained that one aim behind the measures was to make sure that the tax system incentivises users of polluting fuels such as diesel to invest in cleaner alternatives. Representatives from the construction sector have therefore questioned why the legislation increases fuel duty on lower-carbon alternatives such as hydrotreated vegetable oil, which has lower carbon emissions and emits less sulphur than standard diesel. For instance, Niki Holt of Certas Energy, writing in The Construction Index, has noted that HVO fuels offer
“an improved burn efficiency and reduced carbon emissions, which accounts for a significant decrease in GHG”—
“emissions. Hydrogen is used as a catalyst rather than methanol, which means that HVO is cleaner-burning and has a longer shelf life than standard biodiesel.”
Although HVO is by no means a perfect solution, members of the construction sector have questioned why the Government are restricting the use of HVO fuel as well as red diesel. They argue that, as a lower-carbon alternative, HVO fuel would presumably be preferable to white diesel. I would be grateful if the Government set out why they are including HVO fuel at this stage.
Alongside those environmental concerns, the other key worry we have heard from the construction sector relates to fuel theft. Research by Crown Oil found that there were over 25,000 confirmed fuel thefts in 2018, which represented over £1.75 million lost to businesses and domestic users. It has estimated that that figure could be up to £9 million if all constabularies reported the relevant data to researchers. Construction sites are already targets for theft, as they tend to be unoccupied at night, and we know that the Civil Engineering Contractors Association and its members are deeply concerned about the heightened risk of fuel theft and subsequent fraud.
CECA has therefore proposed the use of blue dye within standard diesel solely within the construction industry, with duty paid at the full rate, to maintain a deterrent against theft and to enable detection of its illegal use. The colour itself is not important; what matters is that CECA sees this as a way to deter theft that would not be possible with undyed diesel, and it would like legal recognition of that fuel when HMRC and its associated bodies conduct inspections. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could outline the Government’s response to CECA’s proposal and highlight what measures will be introduced to support the construction industry, both in reducing the risk of fuel theft and in their wider recovery from the pandemic.
To conclude, we support measures to encourage the use of alternatives to diesel, which help to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. Our questions today, however, seek to press the Minister on concerns raised about the detail of this policy and its impact on the construction sector in particular. I look forward to her response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) on having secured this debate on the important changes we are making to the taxation of diesel, which take effect this April. Before I address the points raised by the hon. Member for Upper Bann and other hon. Members, I will briefly run through the reform we are introducing and the thinking behind it.
I hope it will not come as a surprise to hon. Members that the Government take their world-leading environmental commitments very seriously and are determined to achieve our climate change and environmental targets, including to improve the UK’s air quality. That is why, to help achieve net zero and improve air quality, the Chancellor announced back at Budget 2020 that the Government will reduce the entitlement to use so-called red diesel from April this year.
Red diesel is currently used for a wide variety of purposes, such as powering bulldozers and cranes in the construction industry, as well as in the refrigeration section of lorries, in off-grid heating and in agriculture. It accounts for around 15% of all the diesel used in the UK and, as such, is responsible for the production of nearly 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year—that is nearly 3% of total UK emissions. I am therefore quite surprised to hear such opposition from hon. Members from the Scottish National party, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, as well as from hon. Members from Northern Ireland, considering the importance of tackling climate change and reducing emissions.
I will make a little more progress, and then I will be very happy to. I am keen to make sure I address hon. Members’ points, which I have listened to and noted down during the debate.
Despite diesel being one of the most polluting fuels that vehicles and machinery can use, red diesel benefits from a significant duty discount—a duty rate of around 11p compared with almost 68p per litre on standard diesel. That really is significant. As a consequence, businesses using red diesel pay far less for the harmful emissions they produce than individual car owners. The tax changes that we are introducing in April mean most current users of red diesel in the UK will instead be required to use diesel taxed at the standard fuel duty rate like motorists, which more fairly reflects the harmful impact of the emissions that are produced.[Official Report, 25 January 2022, Vol. 707, c. 8MC.]
Importantly, the Government have also heard from developers of alternative technologies—cleaner alternatives to red diesel—that the low cost of running a diesel engine on red diesel currently acts as a barrier to entry for greener alternatives. This widespread use of red diesel is actually counterproductive in terms of our ambitions to tackle climate change, reduce emissions and reduce pollution overall.
I kindly put two issues to the Minister. First, all Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann, have said that there needs to be a staging of this process. Only then will the new technology come through. That is not being negative; we all wish to achieve these goals, but there is a practicality issue. The second point, which I raised in my contribution, is that if exemptions are being given to farmers—which I agree with—would it be possible to have exemptions for those who depend on the generator system? Minister, we are not agin ye—to use an Ulsterism—but we really do think that at this stage there should be some honesty and flexibility in the process.
I heard the hon. Member’s point there. A number of colleagues, including the hon. Member for Upper Bann, talked about there being a cliff edge, and others have asked for a delay. This was first announced back in 2020 and was confirmed in the spring Budget of 2021 to be introduced this coming April, so I would say that there has been a substantial lead time into the introduction of this policy—it is simply not coming as a surprise.
There has been substantial consultation with industry and consideration of the cases that specific sectors have made about the challenges that the shift to paying tax at the same rate as standard diesel might mean for them. The Government have listened to those concerns and made specific exemptions where we can see very material impacts—for instance on the cost of goods and services to households. There is an exemption around some use of red diesel for the purposes of generating energy for those who are off-grid—there is a specific exemption relating to that.
Although the construction sector, and mining and quarrying, which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) mentioned, argued throughout the consultation process that they should be exempt, their case was simply not compelling against our overall objective to incentivise greener alternatives and greater fuel efficiency and to shift to a position, which can only make sense, where the appropriate level of tax is paid on such a polluting and harmful fuel to reflect the harm that using it causes. However, as I say, we did listen and consult substantially on this proposal; we heard among others from the construction sector and from business representatives in Northern Ireland. We did listen, but we had to make the decision that this is part of an overall direction of travel where we are committed to tackling climate change and the harmful effects of pollution.
I do not think anyone is questioning the Government’s motive. The problem is, in relation to quarrying in particular, that no alternative equipment is available. We cannot pursue quarrying with a battery-powered machine or an electric machine with long cables. There is no alternative to using diesel.
As we have heard from those who are trying to develop alternatives, one of the barriers to developing those alternatives—one of the things that reduces the incentives to do so—is the relatively low cost of red diesel. It is only by addressing the fact that there is such a low tax rate on red diesel that we incentivise the development of alternatives—and we are seeing the development of alternatives.
I will make some more progress. JCB developing its hydrogen-fuelled digger is one example, and Volvo is another example. So we are seeing the development of alternatives. This proposal is a really important part of ensuring that the incentives are there for these things to happen.
I will pick up on a few other points that hon. Members have made. The hon. Member for Upper Bann talked about the impact of covid on the construction sector. I heard the phrase “a perfect storm” from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). I will say a couple of things. First, we looked at the cost implications, and that is why there have been some exemptions in very specific areas where we thought the taxation change might have a material impact on household costs. However, for the areas where the change is being introduced, the Government do not believe there is a material change in the ultimate prices to households. The cost of fuel is relatively small for most businesses—I recognise that that is not the case for all businesses.
The other issue, in the context of covid, and taking a step back, is that we have put in a £400 billion package of support for the economy throughout this pandemic. We have already provided £250 million to local authorities in England and recently provided an extra £100 million that local authorities will distribute to businesses affected by covid to support them through the difficult times that we recognise they are going through. The Barnett equivalents of those amounts will go to the devolved nations. So we are giving a huge amount of support to businesses throughout this pandemic—we are absolutely mindful of that. Given that that support is in place, that particular issue is not a reason not to continue with the very important commitments that we have made—and that other parties have supported—to transition to a greener economy.
The right hon. Member has asked me to forecast something that clearly has a level of uncertainty. Some businesses will—[Interruption.] If he will just listen to me, some businesses will continue to use diesel but will switch to standard diesel. Others will shift to alternatives. We also expect to see greater fuel efficiency. What we do know, as I said earlier, is the size of the problem. Diesel emits 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year—around 3% of total UK emissions. It is a significant amount, which we should not be overlooking and trying to delay taking action on. I am surprised to hear colleagues arguing for that.
I am grateful to the Minister for admitting that the Government do not know what reduction in diesel fuel usage they expect to get from the proposal. I will ask the question another way. The figures in the Government’s Budget papers have been cleared by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which will have looked at the assumptions built into them. Is it correct to say that in forecasting the tax take from the tax over the next four years the Government have assumed that there will be no reduction in the number of litres used and therefore in the usage of diesel fuel?
That is not a figure that I have seen, but I can double-check that. I was asked specifically whether there has been an economic impact assessment. We consulted on the proposal and assessed the expected impact. As usual, a tax information and impact note was produced and published, as hon. Members would expect.
For those who said that the change will not make a difference to the environment, or will backfire, as I mentioned it is about incentivising the development of alternatives. Alternatives are already being developed. Specifically to support that, the Government have doubled the funding for energy innovation through the £1 billion net zero innovation portfolio. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently announced £40 million of funding for the red diesel replacement competition, which is part of that portfolio, to specifically grant funding to projects that will develop and demonstrate lower-carbon, lower-cost alternatives to red diesel for the construction and mining and quarrying sectors.
My apologies—I thought that I had until 5.45 pm. In that case, I will wind up by saying that I thank hon. Members for their contributions and hope that they will recognise the importance of the tax reforms for our ambitions to tackle climate change and reduce pollution.
I thank hon. Members for participating in the debate. I will gallop through some of the points that were raised. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) made some excellent points around the fact that the Government are targeting low-hanging fruit. He also said that construction is facing a perfect storm and that many have secured future products and are now tied into a price and unable to claw it back, which will drive up the cost of houses and public expenditure.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) eloquently made the point that this proposal will have a ripple effect, and gave excellent examples of businesses in his constituency that will be affected. Take waste management. What is more important than getting rid of our waste? But we are putting those companies in jeopardy.
The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) talked about a tax grab—he absolutely nailed that point. Alternatives are just not there, and the Government should look at how realistic it is that those alternatives will be there in the next two months. He also made a point about the devolved Administrations.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) talked about the unintended consequences and again asked the Government to ditch the plan. This is cliff-edge stuff that will ultimately have a macroeconomic impact. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray), highlighted the fact that we are all committed to being more environmentally friendly, but, again, mentioned the impact on fraud and fuel theft.
I thank the Minister. I have to say that I do not feel that we got the answers today. There is absolutely zero—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).