Wednesday 2 February 2022
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: e-petition 563943, Continue the ban on the use of Neonicotinoids, and e-petition 569214, Overturn the decision to allow the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government approval for the use of neonicotinoids and the impact on bees.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger. First, I declare an interest, in that my family keep bees on our farm in north Cornwall. I am also a patron of Pollenize, which is a brilliant beekeeping community interest company in Plymouth, and I can tell Members that all the honey it produces is delicious.
I bloody love bees. Bees might be small creatures, but their contribution to nature and to food production is huge. Up to three quarters of crop species are pollinated by bees and other pollinators. Bees are a symbol of a healthy environment. Bees, whether honeybees or bumblebees, are iconic British species, too. They are a weathervane species, against which we can chart nature’s recovery or decline.
For me, bee health is non-negotiable. We are in the middle of a climate and ecological crisis. That means that we must not only act faster to cut carbon and do so fairly, creating green jobs; we must also protect nature, and that means taking difficult decisions to protect our natural world. We will never be nature positive if we dodge the difficult decisions or turn a blind eye to our role in the erosion of nature.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the legal requirements in the Environment Act 2021 to halt species loss by 2030 will not be worth the paper they are written on if, at the first hurdle, the Government actually fail and give a licence to something that their own scientific advisers are advising against?
I thank the hon. Lady for summing up my entire speech in one pithy intervention. She is absolutely correct, and I will seek to explain why, using more words, over the next 10 minutes or so.
Bees are not only in more danger every year; they are also more important every year. According to the UN, the volume of agricultural production dependent on pollinators has increased globally by 300% in the past 50 years. The UN also found that greater pollinator density results in better crop yields, so it is also good for farmers. That is why this is such an important and urgent debate, because bee health in this country is not getting better; it is getting worse. Banning bee-killing pesticides will not on its own reverse the decline in bee populations, but if we cannot deal with this most apparent of ills, how will we deal with the hundreds of more difficult decisions that must follow in relation to protecting habitats and providing a guide to bee recovery?
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important and very well attended debate. Will he join me in thanking and congratulating the local authorities across this country, including Kent County Council, that have put together plans, such as Kent’s Plan Bee, to protect and enhance our bee populations and to do what they can to protect the natural environment across their counties?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I agree with what she says. Local government has a really significant role in nature restoration, and bee recovery in particular, because Ministers might be able to set the strategic framework, but it will be local government delivering that on the ground in all our communities. I commend Kent for the work that it is doing.
I am grateful to Buglife, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildlife Trusts nationally, and the Devon Wildlife Trust locally, for their help in preparing for this debate. The House of Commons Library has also been superb, producing a great briefing note. I am also grateful to hon. Members from all parties for stopping me so frequently over the past week or so to talk about bees and for asking me to mention their particular concerns in this debate. I hope that my speech will convey the strength of their feeling, on a cross-party basis.
I want to do three things. First, I want to make the case for the ban on bee-killing pesticides to be restored—no ifs or buts. Secondly, I want to challenge the Minister and the industry to do more to help sugar beet farmers, some of whom face financial losses and real difficulties because of aphids. Thirdly, I want to argue that in the middle of a climate and nature emergency, future authorisations of bee-killing pesticides must be subject to a parliamentary vote, rather than being quietly snuck out by Ministers.
Bee species and populations are in decline. Research suggests that a third of the UK bee population is thought to have vanished in the last 10 years, and since 1900 the UK has lost 13 out of 35 native bee species. Those are frightening figures, and the decline is continuing. However, I am concerned that, instead of taking meaningful action to protect our bees, the Government have chosen to temporarily lift the ban on Cruiser SB, a neonicotinoid pesticide that is banned under UK law except for certain emergency authorisations. That is not just a step in the wrong direction for our bees; it is a dramatic erosion of our steps towards being a net zero, nature-positive country.
One teaspoon of neonicotinoid is enough to kill 1.25 billion honeybees, equivalent to four lorry loads, according to Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex. We need more research on the true effects of neonicotinoids on bee populations—not just on every species but on the different types of bee within a population. In particular, beekeepers are reporting that, in areas where neonicotinoids have been used in the past, the behaviour of queens is different from that of worker bees, for instance. More research is needed.
This is not the first time that we have discussed bees. Indeed, I have discussed them many times with the Minister, who is in her place. On 16 December last year, she told the House of Commons that there is a
“growing weight of scientific evidence that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees and other pollinators.”
I agree. The chief scientific adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that neonic use must be kept to an “absolute minimum” to address bee decline. I agree. However, the Government have not stuck to those words in the actions that they have taken.
When we left the EU, the Government promised to follow the science on bee-killing pesticides. They said that their decisions about emergency authorisations would be guided by two expert bodies, the Health and Safety Executive and the expert committee on pesticides. On 6 September 2021, the Minister told the Commons:
“Decisions on pesticide authorisation are based on expert assessment by the Health and Safety Executive.”
Lord Goldsmith gave the same commitment, word for word, to the Lords on 27 September.
Those words, however, have not rung true in actions. In January last year, both expert bodies recommended that emergency authorisations for neonic bee-killing pesticides should not be given for sugar beets. The expert committee on pesticides said:
“The requirements for emergency authorisation have not been met.”
It said that the risk to bees and freshwater biodiversity outweighed the benefit to sugar beets. That is important. The Health and Safety Executive came to a similar conclusion.
DEFRA has therefore lifted a ban on neonics against the overwhelming advice of its own expert bodies, by which it said it would be guided. That suggests that the decision was a political one, not a scientific one.
I know that some people will look at donations from big sugar to the governing party, but I do not subscribe to that argument. I think that it is more simple than that: when given the option to take bee health more seriously, the Government chose not to. It is not a bigger conspiracy than that. They simply chose not to act to support bee health in the way that they could have done. That sets a dangerous precedent. Neonics are largely banned in this country, but that does not mean anything if the Government are willing to authorise emergency use in circumstances that, frankly, are not emergencies.
I turn now to my asks. First, we know that 12 other European countries have decided to authorise neonics this year, but it is slightly odd that such a hard Brexit Government now hide behind what Europe does. Indeed, the Prime Minister promised to deliver a green Brexit, and the former Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said in 2018 that Britain would demonstrate “global leadership” on environmental policy after Brexit. Why are we not leading when it comes to saving bees and other essential pollinators?
A commitment to support biodiversity must be delivered through action, not words or press releases. I want the ban on bee-killing pesticides restored and locked in. To do that, we need to look carefully at what alternatives are available to support sugar beet farmers.
Having secured the debate, my hon. Friend must be positively buzzing. I speak as a Mancunian—the bee, of course, being a historic symbol of Manchester. I now live in Frodsham, in my constituency, and the bee is also a symbol of Frodsham because the vicar of Frodsham, Rev. William Charles Cotton, was a beekeeper. I agree very much with my hon. Friend that the Government need to take control now and put deeds and actions, not just fine words, into play to save our bees and nature.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention—perhaps less so for his bee related joke, which I have managed to avoid in my remarks. He is right about the importance that bee populations have to local people, not just beekeepers. Bees are an iconic species—they are built into the fabric of our identity—and because of that, what happens to bees is important not just to scientists, beekeepers and honey lovers but to our entire country.
My hon. Friend is making a great speech setting out this issue. Does he agree that our constituents are really concerned about this issue and do not understand the Government’s reasoning? As far as they are concerned, bees need to be protected, and that must include this issue. Can I also put a plug in for another reverend, Rev. Tom Jamieson in my constituency, who works with an organisation called North East Young Dads and Lads, which is building links and bonds through beekeeping?
I agree with my hon. Friend about how important bees are, but I also agree with her that people do not understand why this is happening. This emergency authorisation is important to the public. Sneaking it out does the Government no favours because it suggests that they do not have a strong argument in favour of its validity. If the case has not been made, I am afraid that the public will be left with only one conclusion, which is that the Government are simply not in favour of bee health, as I think the majority of the British public are.
I will now turn to sugar beet farmers in particular, nearly all of whom are located in the east of England. I want to make sure they are properly supported, because I do not doubt that they have had a difficult time in recent years owing to a number of issues affecting their crop. Sugar is a big business, and it is a high-value crop. British Sugar—one of the big sugar firms that dominate the market—recorded a £100 million profit in 2020. It is big business and I refuse to believe that this granulated money-making machine is unable to provide sugar beet farmers with a fairer deal to help and support them against crop failures. Indeed, the latest sugar contracts put in place over the past 12 months offer considerably more support to sugar beet farmers, a point that I will return to later.
I know that the Minister is keen to explore gene editing to make sugar beet more resistant. Although I am not a fan of the lack of proper regulation and oversight of gene editing that she proposes, I know that DEFRA is quite keen on it, and often cites sugar beet as an example of a target species for gene editing. The Government themselves have said that they expect the sugar beet industry to no longer rely on bee-killing neonicotinoids by 2023—next year—through the development of pest-resistant varieties and greater use of integrated pest management.
As a former lead for Labour on farming, I have spoken up for our farmers when Government policy on subsidy reform, labour or trade deals harms them, but I also feel we need to speak up for their environmental commitments, in particular the National Farmers Union’s hard-won plan to hit net zero by 2040. That is an ambitious policy that means changing the way in which farming works to be more sustainable, in terms of not just carbon but water use, soil health, chemicals and, in particular, nature recovery. We cannot have Ministers speaking of nature recovery on the one hand, while on the other greenlighting the use of bee-killing pesticides, whether as a spray or as a seed treatment, as they have in this case.
That brings me to my main ask of Ministers. I believe that the Government do not have the support of the public, the majority of beekeepers and farmers, or all their own MPs in authorising the use of bee-killing pesticides. As such, my proposal to the Minister is that future authorisations of bee-killing pesticides should be subject to a parliamentary vote, in which MPs would have a genuine opportunity to weigh up the pros and cons of using neonicotinoids. I suspect that the Minister would insist on a hard three-line Conservative Whip on such a Bill. Sitting as I am next to the Labour Deputy Chief Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), I would not want to guess what we would do in that situation, but I do believe that MPs would think carefully about what to do. Saving the bees is such an important topic, but so is supporting our farmers, so MPs would consider that decision carefully, and the consequences of their votes would be carried by Members of Parliament with a responsibility to persuade and to explain and listen to their constituents. The climate and nature emergency is one of the defining issues of our time. Responding to it by making it worse should require a democratic mandate and robust parliamentary scrutiny, because we should be trying to resolve it and remove those problems.
I hope that the Minister will set out how she intends to invest in more robust scientific research to monitor the use of bee-killing pesticides by farmers and big sugar, as well as better protections against the need for it. What estimates has she made of how many bees and pollinators will be killed this year by authorisation of these pesticides? What is her plan for nature recovery in those areas where the neonicotinoid Cruiser SB will be used this year? What monitoring will be in place over the next five years to understand fully the impact on bee and pollinator populations, not just in the fields where the pesticide has been used on crops but, importantly, in hedgerows and areas around them? What steps will she take to prevent the active ingredient of the pesticide, as described by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust,
“leaching…from the crop into wildflowers in and around the field margins”?
Some of the protections that have been built into the derogation are welcome. Raising the expected aphid incident level from a projected 7% to 19% before permitting the use of a treated seed is a welcome measure, as is the 32-month ban—up from 22 months last year—on growing flowering crops in fields where treated sugar beet has been grown, but they do not go far enough to justify the use of the pesticides. Frankly, I do not want bee-killing pesticides ever to be used.
If the Minister’s argument is that they are to be used only in emergencies, I want to challenge the assumption that this is an emergency. I expect the Minister will claim that there is no alternative to the authorisation of neonicotinoids. I expect she will say that UK sugar supplies will plummet, sugar beet farmers will suffer hugely and that the nation would be forced to import more from abroad, from countries where neonicotinoids are used.
I want to refer DEFRA to its own modelling, which says that predicted losses from sugar beet this year would have been under £10 million, even if no neonicotinoids were used. That is assuming disease rates of more than double of those predicted last year. It also assumes that farmers would not have used alternative mitigation strategies, as we know many of them have. The Government have themselves said that they expect the sugar beet industry no longer to rely on bee-killing chemicals by next year, through the development of pest-resistant varieties and integrated pest management.
That is welcome but, if it is coming, it will not all come at once. We know that there are strategies that have been put in place this year. Is it really an emergency? I want to see sugar beet farmers supported, but I do not believe that the Government have done enough to demonstrate that this is an emergency. Indeed, the steps that the sugar beet industry—British Sugar and the growers—has put in place have helped the pain share, gain share.
The five tests that the Government use to define an emergency are woolly, and have been hidden away in assessments on the DEFRA website, rather than put in the public domain. That has done the Government no favours. That is why an annual parliamentary vote on the issue is important. We are in a climate and ecological emergency, but I do not believe we are in a sugar beet emergency. I support the farmers. Indeed, they are getting more support this year. That is why it is important that we put the priority correctly on bees and nature. I challenge the Minister to say that now is the time to update the national pollinator strategy, which runs until 2024. It needs updating sooner than 2024, and I would be grateful if the Minister could look carefully at bringing that forward, with a proper consultation on how more ambitious we can be to protect bees and pollinators.
I look forward to other contributions. We all love bees and we all want to back our farmers. The only question is how to do that. The issue is hugely symbolic, not just because bees matter but because it represents one of the first challenges that we have faced since the passing of the Environment Act—whether we can achieve a net zero, nature-positive future. Being nature positive means more than planting a few trees; it means taking tough decisions that may be unpopular with some, because the benefits to nature outweigh the costs to some businesses. If we fall at such an early hurdle, on a species as popular as bees, how will we ever take the necessary steps to realise a future where England’s green and pleasant lands are truly sustainable?
That is why we must take a stand against the use of bee-killing pesticides. I will also say this in political terms, and I make my intention clear. If the Government want to continue to use bee-killing pesticides, we must make it politically impossible for them to do so. We must ensure that the public know that this is an annual decision. MPs from all parties must be clear with their constituents on whether they support it. If we are to protect and save bees, we need to do more than tweet about it—although I do that a lot. We need to do more than say the words; we need to ensure there is action. We need an annual moment of action. If we do not have that, we will not secure the net-zero, nature-positive future. Let us save the bees. Our planet depends on it.
There are at least 11 Members seeking to participate. There are only two Front-Bench winding-up speeches. By my reckoning, we have about 45 minutes. Do the maths. I am not going to put a time limit on speeches, but if you take more than four minutes, somebody is not going to get in. I call Sir Robert Goodwill.
I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for raising this topic. This is a debate we need to have, and we need to focus on the facts.
I should declare that I am a farmer, though not a sugar beet farmer. I am very fond of bees, not least because we grow field beans on our farm and we understand the role of pollinators. We should not dispute the fact that neonicotinoids are toxic to bees, although in a slightly more complex way than with other toxins—the behaviour of bees can be affected, which can result in hives failing to survive.
No farmer likes using pesticides; they are expensive and have an effect on the environment. In many crops, such as wheat, which can be affected by aphids, the farmer waits until a threshold of aphid attack is reached before using the sprays. A certain degree of predation can be coped with as the aphids feed on the plant and suck the sap. However, although winter barley can have an aphid attack in the growing season, it is also affected by a disease called barley yellow dwarf virus, which is spread by a virus vector. Farmers spray their barley crop in the autumn not because a threshold of aphids has been reached, but because they need to prevent the virus from being spread. The same situation occurs with sugar beet.
The sugar beet virus yellows is caused by three viruses—beet yellows virus, beet mild yellowing virus and beet chlorosis virus—and is spread by an aphid vector. It is a bit like mosquitoes spreading malaria—one bite is enough to infect the plant. Farmers need to protect the crop. In a bad year, the crop can be affected up to as much as 30% on the yield, which is sufficient to make it unviable to grow.
Sugar beet is a biennial crop. It does not flower in the first year. Using a seed dressing when planting the seed—we are not talking about spraying it over the crop and bees that are flying around being affected—renders the plant toxic at that critical stage so that if an aphid feeds on the plant, it dies and does not spread the virus still further. It is our old friend myzus persicae, the peach-potato aphid, that spreads the virus.
This is not a problem only in the UK. Ten European Union countries have applied for similar derogations. France has a derogation that runs until 2023. There are alternatives, but, as the French have said, none of them works well enough on their own compared with the seed treatment. Some may not be good for the environment either. For example, the virus overwinters on many flowering weeds. Many farmers might be discouraged from putting in flower margins around their fields because that could overwinter the virus, which could then be spread into the crop. As farmers, we want our flower margins and a wide diversity on the crop.
I believe that the derogation is sensible. The biennial nature of sugar beet means that we do not have bees feeding on the pollen and nectar on the sugar beet crop in the same way that they would on a crop such as field beans, which is an annual crop.
We have seen a massive decline in oilseed rape in this country because we have lost the same type of seed treatment that controls the cabbage stem flea beetle. It is not a virus vector, but at the very early stage, when the first two cotyledon leaves emerge, the cabbage stem flea beetle will decimate the crop. Many farmers have stopped growing oil seed rape. We are into the law of unintended consequences, because oilseed rape is a massive source of pollen and nectar for the very bees we want to encourage. We need to be very careful that we do not just go with emotion. We all love bees and want to protect them, but we need to ensure that we have a diversity of break crops. As part of our new environmental land management scheme, we want to have more margins, more wildflowers and more diversity, but if we lose our two main break crops in the east of England—sugar beet and oilseed rape—it could unfortunately result in the opposite happening.
Oilseed rape is drilled in mid-August, grows through the winter and does not flower until the following spring, when the residues are not sufficient—I think scientists would make this point—to cause problems for bees. We need to be very careful that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and it is sensible for the Government to allow a derogation, as 10 EU countries have done, to allow this to happen. I think that that will secure the viability of the UK sugar beet industry and not affect bees. It would be sensible to do more research as we put in place the derogations, which, by the way, are needed only if we have a mild winter and aphids over the winter. I would support that.
As I say, I am a great champion of bees, but many of the emails I get do not really take account of the science. We need to look at the science and the evidence, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will look at the science and realise that this is a proportionate change and will help the sugar beet industry in the UK. We can import sugar, and we can stop producing sugar in this country, but I think it is important that we do things in a way that is proportionate and that also does not undermine our bee populations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate.
I would like to make it clear that I have enormous sympathy for farmers, who have faced unprecedented challenges in recent years in responding to covid, Brexit and increasingly unpredictable extreme weather events, and I completely understand their determination to protect their crops and livelihoods. None the less, I am profoundly concerned about the Government’s emergency authorisation of Cruiser SB for 2022 to tackle the threat of yellow virus. Thiamethoxam is a banned substance for a reason, and this decision is a retrograde move. It is utterly at odds with the Government’s legal requirement to halt species loss by 2030, as set out in the Environment Act. With COP15, the global biodiversity summit, just months away, the Government should be leading from the front to protect and restore nature, not giving a green light to the use of deadly toxins.
Many Members have set out the overwhelming scientific evidence of the harm caused by these pesticides, and I would like to refer them back to December 2020, when I asked DEFRA what assessment had been made of the potential environmental effects of approving Cruiser SB neonic in 2021. As it transpires, the neonic was not used last year, because an especially cold winter led to a fall in aphid numbers. None the less, the then Minister’s reply assured me that the advice of the HSE and the expert committee on pesticides was being sought, and it implied that it would be respected. The Government’s subsequent and continued disregard for the evidence presented by the very experts they have appointed is, at best, mysterious and, at worst, utterly shameful.
I would also like to remind colleagues of the Environmental Audit Committee’s findings in its 2013 report, “Pollinators and Pesticides”. I sat on that Committee and still do, and I particularly recall this recommendation:
“Defra policy on pesticides must be evidence-based. Where the available scientific evidence is either incomplete or contradictory, Defra must apply the precautionary principle.”
The Government’s decision to approve the use of this neonic flies in the face of the evidence we do have, and it is not consistent with a precautionary approach.
The Government should be giving legal protection to bees and other pollinators. As it stands, pre-approval tests for pesticides focus only on the short-term effects on honeybees, ignoring the long-term effects of pesticides on other wild pollinators altogether—the bumblebees, beetles and moths on which we rely. An amendment to the Environment Act sought to rectify that omission but, sadly, did not win Government support. The Minister could right that wrong now and commit to make consideration of the long-term impacts of the UK’s pesticide use on pollinators a mandatory requirement for the assessment process. That would be an important first step towards embracing a new approach to farming and pest management that works in harmony with nature, not against it.
The Government should be investing in innovative and non-chemical alternatives to pest management, including better forecasting, crop rotation, natural predators and the use of resistant varieties, while at the same time supporting farmers to make the transition away from neonics. That could be done, for example, via the sustainable farming incentive in England and by supporting nature-friendly pest control.
In conclusion, I would like to quote from the Secretary of State’s reply to a cross-party letter that I co-ordinated last year, in which he assured me that
“emergency authorisations for pesticides are only granted in exceptional circumstances where diseases or pests cannot be controlled by any other reasonable means.”
What steps have the Government taken over the last 12 months to support farmers to invest in those other reasonable control measures? I would love to know the details of that. Will the Minister stop putting pollinators in persistent danger? Will she cancel the approval and instead spend the next 12 months ensuring that farmers can access non-chemical alternatives? Will she commit to a national action plan to end the use of pesticides, putting UK nature on a genuine path to recovery? We are all saying how much we like bees—we heard from the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) how much he likes bees—but unless we are prepared to take action to make meaningful change, those are just empty words. With a nature and environmental crisis coming down the line at us, we cannot afford to do that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on bringing forward the debate. I had a rather lengthy speech prepared, but I will raise just a few points to allow others to contribute. However, please do not interpret my brevity as indicating a lack of passion on this issue.
First, it is not just bees that are affected by neonicotinoids; it is also moths and butterflies, which play an equally important role in natural habitats and the food supply by pollinating crops and wild plants. Secondly, since the Government agreed to the moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids, further studies have been published that confirm that neonics can be damaging to pollinators without being fatal. The chemicals may not necessarily result in death, but the impact on the nervous system and the brain can make it difficult for such insects to function, such as the queen bee. That allows the assertion to be made that these chemicals do not kill pollinators, but that is incorrect.
In addition to those unintended consequences, there are further reasons to ban the use of neonicotinoids, including the contamination of the environment and the use of alternatives. Research conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations reported that the persistence of neonics in soil and water is causing large-scale adverse effects on pollinators, and concluded by saying that the organisation is still discovering the harmful effects of neonics.
Research published by Jactel, Verheggen, Thiéry et al in 2019 determined that an effective alternative to neonics was available in 96% of the 2,968 case studies analysed. In 89%, neonics could be replaced with one non-chemical alternative, including micro-organisms, semi-chemicals or surface coating of seed. The relevance of that lies in the pests’ feeding habits. Leaf and flower feeders are easier to control with non-chemical methods, whereas wood and root feeders are more difficult to manage in the same way. The conclusion is that non-chemical alternatives to neonics do exist, but it will take Her Majesty’s Government to promote them through regulation and funding.
The justification for the application of a previous derogation in 2020 was that 25% of the national crop of sugar beet was lost, resulting in a loss of over £65 million for the growers and processors. However, in 2013, the Environmental Audit Committee, which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and I served on, published its “Pollinators and Pesticides” report, which made a very clear recommendation:
“Economic considerations should not form part of environmental risk management decision making, but rather should be a function of a distinct and transparent subsequent political process.”
That approach now appears to have been ignored.
For many years, people have said that DEFRA is not taking a sufficiently precautionary approach, so I appeal to the Minister today: please do not make this further evidence of that assertion true.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on bringing forward this important debate and raising awareness about decisions that are being made in secret—that is the feeling of many of my constituents who have written to me about bees. We may be an urban constituency, but we have beehives on the Granville Road allotments and on Albert Road. We have delicious honey from Southfields, which I have every year.
There is interest in this debate across the country for many reasons. I am concerned about this decision—not only because of the immediate impact it will have on the environment, but because of the way it is being made and what that shows about the attitude towards the Environment Act 2021. I was on the Bill Committee, and the ink is only just dry on the Act, but it is already being set aside. I am also concerned by the attitude towards expert advice. We should be following the science, but this decision has not done that.
In terms of the use of neonicotinoids, I am concerned about the damage to bees and aquatic life and about the damage from the run-off. I am concerned that support for farmers has not been sufficiently taken into account, because it does exist. I am concerned about abandoning the precautionary principle, which has been mentioned by other hon. Members. It is absolutely fundamental to our environmental decision making, but if it is not even being put in place now, after we have passed the Environment Act, what will happen to it in the future? We need to reassert the precautionary approach.
The Government’s case rests on two justifications. First, it rests on the financial impact on sugar beet farmers, and I absolutely sympathise with and understand their situation at the moment. However, the latest contracts between growers and British Sugar include an insurance scheme to offset possible losses due to the occurrence of the virus yellows. That needs to be considered in the context of the case for need, because the impact of the financial loss to sugar beet farmers has been taken into consideration.
Secondly, I am sure the Minister and the Government will say that there is a very limited use for this insecticide, that it will not be used on flowering plants and that there will be restrictions on what can be grown in contaminated soil for 32 months. Although I welcome those restrictions, I think the Government should go further. The UK expert committee on pesticides considered exactly this question and concluded that the environmental risk—especially of run-off into water and back into animals and other flowering plants in surrounding areas—is too great. When it met on 21 September 2021, the committee concluded that the requirements for emergency authorisation had not been met and that it cannot support the recommendation.
The committee was specifically asked to look into the risk to honeybees and any other additional measures that could be implemented to mitigate that risk. Instead of saying that there was a very low impact on honeybees—which there was, directly—and that additional measures could be implemented to mitigate that risk, the committee said no, it could not recommend that the ban be lifted. It said:
“There is new evidence regarding the risk from neonicotinoids globally which adds to the weight of evidence of adverse impact on honeybee behaviour and demonstrated negative impacts on bee colonies…Further evidence has been published on the occurrence of thiamethoxam in honey and of adverse effects on other bee species, and these effects should be considered in addition to chronic effects on honeybees…None of the suggested mitigation measures”,
which I am sure the Minister will be laying out, and which I have been given in response to questions,
“protected off-crop areas and, if the authorisation is granted, further consideration needs to be given to how this could impact on growers involved in agri-environmental schemes which involved planting flowering margins.”
The committee’s conclusion was that it is
“unable to support an emergency authorisation under Article 53 of Regulation 1107/2009”
because of the reasons laid out by the Health and Safety Executive,
“the expected off-crop environmental effects and the impact of grower contract changes on the trigger threshold for use.”
It is absolutely unacceptable that the Government say they will take into account expert panels, set up an expert panel, have the panel met in good time—at the same time as we are hosting COP26 and passing the Environment Act, which has the precautionary impact built in—and then disregard it straightaway.
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points and an impassioned speech. It is important that we clearly state that the science has been set out and the panel has been spoken to, but that the Government are being not only not cautious but reckless in their dismissal of the panel’s views.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
I could go on longer about the precautionary principle, but I do not have enough time. However, it was set out at the 1992 Rio conference on the environment, and it is absolutely essential that we consider it.
The impact on bees has been well documented. Neonicotinoids can damage the receptors to the insect’s nervous system, causing paralysis and affecting learning, feeding, foraging and reproduction, eventually killing the insect. What the public want is for us to save the bees, save our environment and increase biodiversity.
I will conclude with some questions to the Minister. Why did she disregard the advice of the expert panel? What is she doing to stop the effect of run-off if the ban is lifted and neonicotinoids are used? What support is she giving to enable sugar beet farmers to tackle virus yellows without the use of neonicotinoids, rather than coming back year by year asking to lift this ban? What research is she doing into the declining bee population in the UK, and how can we save bees instead of killing them? What research is being done on the effect of neonicotinoids on bees in particular and on the effect of lifting the ban on or around affected fields? When will the Government update the pollinator strategy? And can we have an annual vote on lifting any bans, so that we can absolutely be held to account for decisions we make that have such a big impact on the environment?
I think we can all agree on three things: that bees are very important and we should protect them; that we have all eaten something containing sugar in the last 24 hours; and that the Government have to consider competing risks and balance them carefully. Given the accepted importance of bees, the Government have developed the pollinator strategy. Their new environmental land management schemes for farmers will encourage the growing of areas in which bees can find safe habitat, increase the number of other areas for habitat for bees, increase public awareness of the needs of bees and increase the understanding of health and disease in bees, so that we can manage those more effectively. I welcome all of that.
We also have to consider the importance of sugar. Sugar production is responsible for 9,500 jobs in the UK, many in my constituency. I should at this stage mention that my husband is a farmer, although this is the first time in 45 years that no sugar will be grown on the farm. There are also 7,000 businesses in the sugar supply chain, and 3 million tonnes of sugar is consumed in the UK every year. I appreciate that the Government are investing in trying to ensure that we have pest-resistant varieties, so that no chemicals will be needed because virus yellows will not be able to attack the sugar beet, but these are not available yet. We had an awful time in 2020, just two years ago. I remember being called by many constituents to look around their fields and seeing whole fields of crops that had turned yellow because of virus yellows. Farmers had spent many months growing and tending to those crops, only to find them failing.
The Government have to look at the various risks and ask what the alternative is. If our sugar crop fails, what do we have to do? We could import sugar beet from Belgium, France, Denmark, Spain or one of the other 12 European countries where sugar beet is grown and where they also use neonics, often without the restrictions that the Government have proposed to impose. I heard Members mention the effect on net zero. Let us think about the alternative—importing sugar cane from overseas. What about the deforestation? Most sugar beet is not irrigated; it is just fed by the rain, but sugar cane, because of where it is grown, usually has to be irrigated. That is a 60% water use saving. What about the food miles? We know that sugar grown in the UK travels an average of 28 miles to the factory to be processed into sugar. It travels many thousands of miles, and is a much greater use of carbon dioxide, if imported for many miles across the world. When making environmental judgments, we cannot take the moral high ground and simply export the harm overseas, because we all live on the same planet, and I am sure we agree that we all need to protect it.
What are the farmers’ alternatives if neonics are banned? Either not to grow sugar and to import it, or to use alternative, legal pesticides, which may be broader-spectrum, and potentially more harmful.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech that also mentions farmers. My constituency of Ynys Môn has a strong beekeeping community represented by the Anglesey Beekeepers Association. We have many local honey producers, including Anglesey Bees, Mêl Môn, Felin Honeybees run by Katie Hayward. Does my hon. Friend agree that our farmers are key and that any chemicals, including neonicotinoids, should be used correctly to protect the bee population?
Absolutely. We must remember that bees are very important to farmers, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) made clear. Farmers do not wish to use pesticides that they do not need. Equally, they do not wish to see their entire crop fail, nor do we want the alternative of importing crops from overseas, where worse pesticides might have been used.
The Government need to balance the risk, and I think they have done so very carefully. There needs to be a threshold for virus yellows predictions for the year. Indeed, there was a derogation last year, but the seed treatments were never used because the threshold of virus yellows disease was not reached. The application is a seed treatment, which means it is not sprayed on to a flowering crop, potentially landing on bees as they fly past. It is a treatment put on to the seeds, giving protection in the early growth phase. It is not permitted for flowering plants to be grown in that field for 32 months, thus providing additional protection for the crop.
On balance, it is important that we always take an evidence and science-based approach, looking at the potential risks and benefits. Science will ultimately resolve the problem by providing disease and pest-resistant varieties, but I am glad that in the meantime there has been a proportionate and pragmatic Government response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate.
The note that the hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) ended on was interesting because the whole point of this debate is that the Government are not following the science. The expert committee on pesticides and the Health and Safety Executive have told the Government that the conditions for the use of these pesticides have not been met, and the Government have chosen to exploit a loophole and ignore the experts.
Those of us who were involved in the seemingly endless discussions on the Environment Act 2021, in pre-legislative scrutiny and Committees—at one point there seemed to be a Second Reading every other day—and on the Agriculture Act 2020, were always worried that the Government did not want to support the precautionary principle and did not want to see it embedded in law. That is why Labour Members tried to amend the Environment Act to give Parliament the power to scrutinise these decisions. The case has been made for that parliamentary scrutiny by several hon. Members today, but it was voted down by the Government.
We know how dangerous pesticides are to bees. I do not want to reiterate all the arguments, but we have heard that when exposed to neonicotinoids in low doses the bees’ immune systems are harmed, making them susceptible to disease. Neonicotinoids disrupt bees’ ability to navigate, forage and reproduce, and in high doses they cause paralysis and death. There is also research showing that pesticides become more dangerous when combined, including pesticides that are specifically marketed as safe for bees.
We have also heard why pollinators—as has been said, they include not only bees but flies, wasps, beetles, butterflies, moths and bats—are so important. Some 75% of our crop species require pollination. Pollinators are crucial in fertilising plants and sustaining our food systems. In China they have had to resort to pollinating fruit trees by hand because pollinators have been nearly wiped out by pesticide use. That should serve as a warning to us. As we have heard, there has been a drastic decline in pollinators here, too, falling by over 50% between 1985 and 2005.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned agroecology’s approach to farming. Organisations such as the Soil Association, which is based in Bristol, have been highlighting the dangers of pesticides and promoting alternatives for years. They argue that if nature is properly harnessed to pollinate crops organically and to deal with pests, rather than relying on destructive pesticides that harm biodiversity, crop yields would be higher. Evidence has shown that margins with wildflowers for pollinators increase crop yield.
The sugar beet sector has said that there will no longer be a need for neonics by 2023 if integrated pest management approaches can be adopted instead. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said, what are the Government doing to support that as an alternative to a reliance on pesticides?
It is not just pollinators that are at risk from the use of pesticides. Otters were nearly wiped out in the 1970s due to pesticide use. Thankfully, otter populations have recovered since those pesticides were banned, but they are still under threat from other so-called “forever chemicals”, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
My hon. Friend is making a very well-informed speech, as always. There seems to be some doubt between Members as to where the balance of science lies. My hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson) have both said that the science does not back the Government’s position. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I agree. We have heard from the experts and they have said that the case has not been made. I know that the Government have been quite dismissive of experts in the past, but that is the case. What is the point of asking for expert opinion if the Government do not abide by it? I suspect that in her response, the Minister will tell us that the Environment Act 2021 commits us to reversing biodiversity decline by 2030. Perhaps she could tell us how allowing the use of neonicotinoids in pesticides will help that? The Minister may also point out how the Agriculture Act 2020 rewards farmers who try to increase biodiversity on their farms. However, we heard in yesterday’s debate in this Chamber that the Government are making a mess of introducing ELMS.
Later this year, the convention on biological diversity will meet in China; it is very unclear what the Government hope to achieve from the UK’s participation. Perhaps it would be an idea to go along, promote the precautionary principle, and pledge to ditch the pesticides, protect our pollinators and genuinely promote biodiversity.
Many in the farming community support nature recovery, and they understand that business as usual is no longer acceptable. In striking that balance, they need the support of Government to help them work towards nature recovery. My parents-in-law used to have bees—at one point they had four hives. The bees were very much part of the family; they lived at the end of the garden to protect them from our children’s ball games. I have come to know these wonderful and highly civilised creatures, that work incredibly hard on our behalf. We should put a very high value on them. I know how vulnerable they are to human interference.
The use on crops of pesticides containing neonicotinoids has an extremely damaging effect on the mobility of bees, and their use was banned by the EU in 2018. The Government originally agreed and promised that they would reintroduce them only when the scientific evidence changed. There has been no new evidence, but the use of pesticides has been allowed again. The Government should make the protection of our wildlife and the environment a priority, rather than going back on their word. The Government are using Brexit not, as they would like us to believe, to the advantage of people and the environment, but the opposite. They are reversing important decisions that were made for the protection of the environment.
Many organisations and constituents in Bath have reached out to me with great concerns over this issue, and the lack of consideration behind it. As we have heard, the expert committee on pesticides have warned how damaging neonicotinoids are for bees and aquatic life, but the Government have chosen to ignore them. That is not acceptable. In April 2021, I asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether the Government encouraged the use of alternatives to neonicotinoids; the answer I received was that the Government were completely committed to reducing the use of pesticides. However, in the same debate, 10 minutes later, the Secretary of State said that until a suitable alternative to neonicotinoids was found, the Government would continue to grant dispensations for the use of them. There we have it—words of woolly aspiration, but when it comes to the crunch the Government actively support what I would call the gradual extinction of the UK’s bee population.
The long-term harmful effects of the Government’s careless attitude will be felt by all of us as it has huge implications for our food supplies. It is paramount that this Government wake up and impose much tighter restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids, rather than standing by and being complicit in the degradation of our wildlife, the quality of our environment and the long-term security of our food supplies.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Sir Roger.
As we have heard loud and clear, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) loves bees. I congratulate him on securing this debate and on the passionate, knowledgeable and eloquent case that he made on their behalf. Bees need protection. In the last half-century, half of Britain’s bee, butterfly and moth species have declined; in the last 30 years, three bumblebee species have become extinct; and right now, almost one in 10 species of wild bee face extinction. This situation cannot continue.
Bees are our friends. Almost a third of the food that we eat relies on pollination, mainly by bees. That work—pollinating crops—by these notoriously industrious insects is worth millions of pounds each year. If we did not have wild pollinators to do that vital work for us, it would cost around £1.8 billion each year to replace them.
We need to speak up for our bees because we need them. They are not only essential for our farming system but ensure the diversity of our wild plants, and they also have a vital role in sustaining the natural habitats that we know and love. As my constituent Hilary told me when she asked me to attend today:
“This matter affects all our lives.”
Many of my constituents worry about the ecological emergency that we face. They wanted me to speak up to protect our bees and to oppose the Government plans that threaten the future of bees. My constituent Judith tells me:
“I have a wildlife garden and I have noticed the stark decline in the number of bees in recent years.”
She is right to be concerned. We cannot afford to put our bee populations at additional risk.
Would my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Flourish at Ford Way community gardening project in Upton, in my constituency, which does fantastic work through bee-friendly gardening, keeping hives and producing fantastic honey? Does she share the concern of my constituents, who have drawn attention to research by Professor David Goulson, an academic and author, who has warned that just a single teaspoon of this type of chemical is enough to kill 1.25 billion honeybees—equivalent to four lorryloads?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; she made a very important and valuable point.
As many hon. Members have said, bees are already under threat as a direct result of the way we live and the way we farm and use land, including the use of pesticides and particularly neonicotinoids. Although we have known for many years that neonicotinoids have a harmful effect on bees and other pollinators, recent studies have only confirmed and strengthened the evidence. As the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has said, there is a consensus about the need to restrict the use of these chemicals.
As an EU member, the UK was part of creating a strict regime to regulate the use of these pesticides. An almost total ban on their use was put in place in 2018, because of the damage that they cause to bees. The then Environment Secretary—the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)—said that the Government supported that move, because we could not
“afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.”
Those protective regulations are still part of retained law in Great Britain, but now the Government are authorising the use of a bee-killing pesticide. That is clearly a betrayal of promises given during debates on the Environment Act 2021, when we were assured that the Government would only strengthen the protection of nature. My constituent Stewart worries that the Government want to rescind that protection to prove that the UK has more freedom after Brexit. I am sure that he is wrong and I am certain that nobody voted for the freedom to kill bees.
Of course, the Government themselves claim that a benefit of Brexit is
“halting the decline in nature”
“strengthening our environmental regulation”.
However, for those words to mean something, we cannot allow the use of neonicotinoids, because that is not consistent with them.
Of course, UK farmers need our support. Living in Nottinghamshire, I understand the importance of sugar beet production. However, we cannot afford to take this risk with our precious pollinators, ignoring the Government’s own scientific advice, especially when the Environment Secretary himself has admitted that it is not possible to
“rule out completely a degree of risk to bees.”
My constituent Christopher worries that with the country still entrenched in the battle against covid and the headline-grabbing scandals of the Prime Minister, it will be easy to forget the long-term policies that affect our natural world.
We all share a huge responsibility to protect our environment for future generations. Government must help our food producers to farm sustainably and invest in resistant crops. It is not too late to reverse this bad decision. Ministers can and must think again, maintain the ban on neonics and save our bees.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this debate. I rise to join the love-in for bees and to highlight the issues faced by sugar beet growers and processors in my North West Norfolk constituency. The growers in Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and other parts of the country saw yields hit by 25% in 2020—in some cases, the loss was as much as 80%—because of virus yellows. As has been mentioned, that represents a hit to the sector of £65 million. I have met with growers in my constituency; like my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), I have seen the damage that virus yellows does.
Given the dramatic loss of crop, an emergency authorisation application was made in 2021 and granted, but there is deliberately a high bar for that. Before an application can be granted, the Government have to consider five tests. There need to be special circumstances. There must be a danger. There must be no reasonable alternative. The authorisation must be necessary. And the product must be subject to limited and controlled use. Those are, rightly, tough tests. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) said, it is important to recognise that sugar beet is a non-flowering crop and so is not attractive to bees—the bees that we all love.
In 2021, the conditions attached to the emergency authorisation included a forecast of virus levels of 9%. That condition was not met, so no neonics were used. This year, the Government have toughened that test, so there would need to be a virus level of 19%. Furthermore, no flowering crop can be planted in the same soil for 32 months. Therefore it is a very limited authorisation. It is an insurance policy that may well not end up being used, as was the case last year.
Ultimately, we need to move away from neonics. I think everyone would agree with that. British Sugar, the National Farmers Union and the British Beet Research Organisation are all working on alternatives to tackle virus yellows through non-chemical alternatives, through gene editing, integrated pest management and improving natural resistance in the crop.
I rise to support my hon. Friend and to speak on behalf of the many sugar beet growers in my constituency, which he knows well because we are neighbours. It is absolutely right to say, as he has emphasised, that there can be an agreement between those who want to balance nature and those who want to produce crops but also care about the environment, care about bees and care about the diversity that bees are at the heart of. We should not create a paradox, an artificial distinction between those who farm and grow and those who care about wildlife and nature.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Farmers in my constituency love bees; they love the pollinators. They are working on alternatives, and I want to see those alternatives come forward more rapidly, so that further authorisations are not needed in the future.
Thank you for calling me, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on bringing this debate forward. As a constituency MP for a rural area, I have worked for some time to raise awareness of this issue; as a landowner, I have been interested in it; and finally, as a grandfather, I am invested in the need to get it right when it comes to our bees and ecosystems. I am very fortunate to have neighbours, Christopher and Valentine Hodges, who have introduced beehives on our farm, in Greyabbey in the constituency of Strangford. They are introducing the black bee. It is a species that is under some threat, so the fact that they are doing that is something that we should be very grateful for.
A consensus is emerging on the need to restrict the use of NNIs—neonicotinoid insecticides. The fact is that without pollinators, we cannot eat and will die. We need to restrict the use of NNIs and that must happen now.
I am conscious of your direction, Sir Roger, but may I quickly say this? The Northern Ireland protocol ensures that Great Britain now operates a separate regime, which began on 1 January 2021, and is able to diverge from EU decisions when it comes to pesticide approval. May I ask the Minister, as I often do, what discussions she has had, and will she enter into discussions with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister who has responsibility for the issues in respect of the protocol and with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly?
What this debate, too, explains is that the Northern Ireland protocol is not simply a matter of a little extra postage paid or an additional form to be filled in; it is a matter of grave importance to our regulations and our environment in Northern Ireland. There can and should be no divergence UK wide. We should all take the issue of pesticides seriously, debate it together, as we are doing today, and apply the result UK wide—to everywhere. Currently, my constituents have no vote and no voice as to these regulations that affect their food intake and future security. That beggars belief.
I am a great believer that bees should be appreciated, respected and protected. From my time as a child in the 1960s, in my aunt Isobel’s garden, marvelling at the wonder of honeycomb—where my love of honey came from—to becoming a man and understanding the vital role played by the humble bee, I have learned this lesson. In the absence of indisputable proof to the contrary, NNI pesticides are dangerous and harmful in the long term to our environment, food security and, indeed, our future.
I work with an Ulster Unionist party councillor in Ards and North Down Borough Council. He is also a farmer, and I conclude with his words: when the bees are gone, we are gone. With that in mind, we must do all that we can to prevent that happening. Robust NNI regulations play a massive part in this, and should consequently be retained and implemented in UK law.
I appreciate you calling me to speak in this very important debate, Sir Roger. I have received a great deal of correspondence from constituents about the Government’s authorisation of an emergency application in England for the use of Cruiser SB pesticide, which contains the neonicotinoid thiamethoxam. I share their concerns, not least because the Government have not heeded the conclusions of the Health and Safety Executive or their own expert committee on pesticides, which found that
“The requirements for emergency authorisation have not been met”
and that pollution from the pesticide would damage river life.
As the Wildlife Trusts have pointed out, these neonicotinoids
“will have a devastating impact on pollinators, wildflowers, and waterways—at a time when nature needs to be urgently put into recovery.”
The Government have even accepted, as recently as last December, that there is a
“growing weight of scientific evidence that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees and other pollinators.”
Why have Ministers gone ahead and granted the authorisation?
Some of my constituents have highlighted the crucial role that bees play in maintaining a healthy environment. One constituent made the specific point that, by allowing the use of deadly pesticides, the UK Government undermine the urgency and incentive to invest in and implement alternative, less harmful control methods. That perhaps ties in with a point that the RSPB made concerning the importance of upholding the ban on highly toxic pesticides, such as neonics, and instead working to support our farmers to reduce their reliance on these harmful chemicals. As one of my constituents asks:
“How can the UK government approve using such material, it goes against all common sense and scientific reason?”
Clearly this is something that many Wirral West residents care passionately about, and I share their concerns.
The Wildlife Trusts have been very clear that the Government’s authorisation is “short sighted”. They say that, by authorising the use of neonics, the UK Government are damaging their ability to meet the legal requirement contained in the Environment Act 2021 to halt and reverse the decline of nature by 2030. That is because pollinators such as bees are vital to enhancing biodiversity. Without thriving populations of pollinators in the UK, we will struggle to halt the decline of other species. I would very much welcome the Minister’s comments on that specific point; it is an important one that the Minister should address this morning.
I urge the Government to listen to the concerns of wildlife charities, many of which echo the views of my constituents, listen to the views of their own experts and think again.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Roger. I am so grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for securing the debate. We know that his love of bees is legendary, and his introduction to the debate tackled a series of very complicated issues very thoroughly and effectively, as did all the contributions this morning. There is a big question for the Minister to answer: why was the emergency authorisation decision made? I look forward to her answer.
What has come through very loud and clear in the debate is that farming and the environment must not be seen as in conflict. They have to be addressed together, and we have to find ways of making them work. So many of us have had so many emails from constituents on this subject—we can see that from the attendance in the Chamber this morning. I should say at the outset that I am a species champion for the ruderal bumblebee, which sadly I still have not met, but I am looking for one. They are quite rare, and that is a significant point. Like many other Cambridgeshire MPs, I am a vice president of the Cambridgeshire Beekeepers’ Association, and in my first flush of enthusiasm as a newly elected Member I turned up at its annual general meeting, which completely nonplussed the attendees—I have not embarrassed them since. What that shows is that we all care about bees.
I note that one of the first speeches that I made in this place, back in 2015, was a debate on this very subject. One always looks back nervously to see what one said—particularly when one picks up a brief much later on. I was delighted to find that my final words were that we should listen to science and ensure
“that our bees and farmers can flourish.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 236WH.]
I must also say at the outset that I understand how farmers feel at the moment. From my conversations with them, they so often feel that the tools they need for the job are being systematically taken away, and that is very difficult for them, because nature does not compromise. The problems keep coming, and if farmers do not have the tools to deal with them, it is really hard.
However, as I have said from the beginning of this speech and before, for us, pollinator health is just not negotiable. This is not something that can be traded off, which is a theme that has come through in many of today’s contributions. I listened closely to those contributions, particularly from those Members who represent the east of England. I am an east of England MP, and I know how many jobs are at stake. The hon. Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) made that point very clearly: it is a huge number of jobs. It is very important to the local economy, and we have to find ways of making it work.
Looking back on the 2015 debate, I noticed that one speaker who followed me said that the lesson to learn from DDT
“is that we must not take risks…I ask the Minister please not to take unnecessary risks with the environment and with human health”—[Official Report, 7 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 238-40WH.]
That was not the Minister here today, but one of her colleagues, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). The Minister also contributed to that debate, which was much more about oilseed rape and cabbage stem flea beetle. The debate has now moved on to thiamethoxam and sugar beet, which shows that a lot has already been done. However, looking back over the past couple of years, I do not think the Government covered themselves in glory last year, because the Health and Safety Executive advice that is available this year was not so easily available last year: it took Friends of the Earth using freedom of information requests and some testy exchanges at DEFRA questions, which the Minister may remember. I appreciate that the bar has been set higher this year, but from talking to the experts at Rothamsted Research, that does not necessarily mean that it will be that dramatically different if the weather is different. Of course, last year we were saved by the cold weather; at this point, it does not look like that is going to come to the rescue this year.
The key point, though, is that the Secretary of State has ignored the expert advice, as we heard clearly from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport in his introduction, as well as from my hon. Friends for Putney (Fleur Anderson), for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). Virtually everyone has asked why that advice has been overridden, and it is absolutely clear—to those who made their way through the lengthy reports, including the Cruiser SB application, and found their way to page 193—that the test is not considered to be met. I will not take Members through those 193 pages, but there is a simpler account from the expert committee on pesticides, which came to the same conclusion. It also added an extra one, which is worth pulling out given some of the contributions that have been made:
“None of the suggested mitigation measures protected off-crop areas and, if the authorisation is granted, further consideration needs to be given to how this could impact on growers involved in agri-environmental schemes which involved planting flowering margins.”
That point has been made on a number of occasions, and I do not see that it has been properly addressed.
If we look back at some of the history of these debates, many academic studies and reports have been written. I was particularly struck by one produced by Buglife, written by Matt Shardlow—a very detailed account, written a few years ago—which deals with the point about run-off. One point that has not been raised in this debate so far is that this is not just about Cruiser SB: foliar neonicotinoid sprays, Biscaya and InSyst, are also being authorised. There is a real risk of those chemicals getting into the water, and I was particularly struck by the impact on the river Waveney, which that report said was the most heavily polluted river, exceeding the average annual chronic pollution limit. That is relevant, given the interest people have in the water quality of rivers at the moment. The report named not just the Waveney, but the Wensum—for me, that was particularly personal, because that measurement was taken at Ellingham Mill, where my parents used to live. For people in the east of England, this really matters.
Why has the Secretary of State made this decision? The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made an important point about the economics behind this—it has to be about economics, hasn’t it? That is the only explanation. In fact, DEFRA has produced something that I am not sure most people have seen—a very detailed economic analysis of the impacts of virus yellows on sugar beet production. Again, I do not have the time to go into it in detail, but it shows that over a six-year average, there is a potential loss of £14.4 million, and reference has already been made to 2020, which was a particularly hard year. Of course, there is an economic issue, but as has been rightly said by a number of Members, there are other alternatives too, and clearly people are working on them.
Yes, the peach potato aphid is a real menace—there is no doubt about it—but there are ways in which it can be tackled through integrated pest management, better rotation and better husbandry. None of this is easy, and it is not the same everywhere. Different people get different results, and it is all very unpredictable, but it also has to be put into context—again, the point about the potential threat to pollinator health was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East. Look at the value that pollinators bring to our economy: they are estimated to be worth between £430 million and £603 million to UK agriculture in general.
The issue is not simple, and these are tough decisions for farmers. In many ways, it is a gamble trying judge the weather and when the aphid will fly. If people plant too early, they will lose the sugar beet. It is an economic argument. As we have heard, British Sugar is a very viable business and makes money. Through the virus yellows assurance scheme, it has already gone down the road of providing some compensation and some way of pooling the risk on this issue. At the end of all this, we know that bee health is non-negotiable, so why on earth has the Secretary of State chosen to override all the expert advice? We would make a different decision, and I think that decision would be better not only for bees but for farmers, as we create a nature-positive vision for the future.
Sir Roger, it is great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, particularly as I think you would rather have been speaking in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate, and I thank Members for taking part in this really important discussion.
I should probably declare my interest. We have two hives of bees at home, and they are an integral part of our orchard management, particularly for my apple and pear crop.
Let me set out the problem. We all eat and enjoy sugar—some of us rather more than we should. It is important to remember that 63% of the sugar that the UK consumes is made from home-grown sugar beet, and we had an interesting debate on food security in this Chamber yesterday. Sugar beet seedlings are very vulnerable to aphid predation. The aphids spread the devastating virus yellows, which can seriously reduce both the quantity and quality of the crop. The disease is more widespread in certain years, particularly after mild winters.
As we have heard, neonics were previously used as a pesticide to tackle the problem. We banned their use outside in 2018, at the same time as the EU, because of a growing body of academic evidence that they could be damaging to bees and other pollinators. That affected my farm in respect of growing oil seed rape. We had grown the crop since 1974, but we no longer do so. In this, we are not alone, and the planted area of oil seed rape is not much more than half the level that it used to be before neonics were last used.
I will not, as I have a great deal to get through.
Oil seed rape is significantly different from beet. As we all know, it is a beautiful flowering crop, and its pollen and nectar attract bees. Beet is harvested before flowering, so the crop itself does not pose a direct threat. Protecting bees and other pollinators is a priority for the Government through the pollinator strategy, and this is a way to bring farmers and researchers together in order to improve the status of pollinating insects.
The need to take action to protect sugar beet is not restricted to this country. Twelve beet-producing EU countries have granted emergency authorisations for neonics since 2018. Their authorisation conditions have been less stringent than ours—for example, none has applied a threshold to determine whether the product should be used. There is no doubt that if our crop suffered major damage because of aphid predation and we did not allow the use of a neonic in an emergency, we would have to import beet from countries where these products are used.
We have now had three years to grow the crops without neonics. In 2019, perhaps because of residual levels in the soil, and in 2021, after a cold winter, the virus threat was low. However, 2020 saw severe damage, with about a quarter of the national crop being lost, as we have heard. Some individual growers were even more severely affected. Imports were needed to enable British Sugar to honour its contracts. Partly because of that, a smaller crop was planted in 2021, with some growers understandably reluctant to take the risk.
Taking into account both the scientific evidence and the economic analysis, the decision was taken to grant exceptional temporary use of Cruiser this year. In order to mitigate the risk, conditions of the authorisation include a reduced application rate, as well as a prohibition on any flowering crop being planted in the same field within 32 months of a treated sugar beet crop. Our chief scientific adviser advised us on that mitigation.
There will be an initial threshold for use, meaning that the seed treatment will only be used if the predicted level of virus is above 19% of the national crop. If that threshold is not met, the treatment for the seed will not be used. That is exactly what happened in 2021. It will only be used in an emergency.
I would like to provide what I hope will be some reassurance to Members. The maximum amount of neonics that could be used on English crops, if the threshold is reached, will amount to 6% of what used to be used prior to 2018. In reaching our decision, we were informed by the advice of HSE, and the views of the UK expert committee on pesticides and DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, who has been involved at every stage of the process. We also considered economic issues and were informed by analysis provided by DEFRA economists.
The scientific advice identified risks to pollinators, and the restrictions we have applied for are designed specifically by our chief scientific adviser to mitigate those risks. Some residual risk remains, but we judge that it is sufficiently low to be outweighed by the benefits to sugar beet production of using the product.
In taking this decision, we wanted to be as transparent as possible and give hon. Members, as well as members of the public, access to the information that informed the decision-making process.
If I have time, I would be delighted to. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the full set of reasons given by the Secretary of State on gov.uk, because that gives the complete decision.
DEFRA agrees with HSE that it is not possible to completely rule out a degree of risk to bees from flowering plants in or near the field in the years after the neonic use. That is the concern. However, our chief scientific adviser suggests that the risks are reduced to a large extent by the 32-month ban on flowering crops.
The materials have been made publicly available. I was very keen to do that and to make sure that the decision was as transparent as possible. We have published several accompanying documents outlining the key elements involved in making the decision. There is nothing sneaky about the decision. The details are all available on gov.uk.
On the suggestion that we have a parliamentary vote on the issue, I am happy to look again at how the system works. We will be outlining our ideas about the new system in the national action plan, which will be published this summer. I politely say that there are at least 10 to 15 applications for emergency authorisations every year for different products. I see the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) sitting over there—I do not know whether the Whips would be thrilled if we had to vote on each of those, nor perhaps would it be a good use of parliamentary time.
There is no doubt that this is an issue in which parliamentarians take an interest. That is right, and I am always happy to discuss these decisions with anybody who wants to. Please come and talk to me about the specifics of the decision or the science at any point.
Looking to the future, it is of course important that industry works hard on the development of alternative sustainable approaches to protect sugar beet from the viruses. Those include the development of new tolerant seed varieties, measures to improve crop hygiene and husbandry, and modern breeding techniques, such as gene editing. British Sugar and NFU Sugar attended a parliamentary event this week. I was able to talk to them about how they could interact better, telling us about the new products and ideas they can put in place to deal with the problem in future.
Ultimately, our food security relies on a healthy environment and thriving pollinators. Sustainable agriculture and supporting nature go hand in hand. In our agricultural transition, we are already incentivising farmers to do the right thing. This year, we are piloting a standard that will help farmers to transition away from the use of pesticides, and incentivise alternative ways to control pests.
This decision was not taken lightly, and is based on a robust scientific assessment. We will continue to work hard to support farmers and to protect and restore our vital pollinator populations.
I thank all speakers in today’s debate. Across parties, Members are clearly passionate about the restoration of bee populations, as well as about supporting our farmers. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), said, those objectives need to be shared, rather than in competition. Otherwise, farmers, nature and all of us will lose out.
I am grateful to the Minister for her response, but I do not think she adequately explained why she chose to override scientific advice with this decision. I also note that she did not concentrate on the 2023 date after which neonicotinoids will not be used again. I anticipate that this will be the last debate we need to have on the use of neonicotinoids. Any debate on the subject this time next year would need to be subject to a parliamentary vote on just neonicotinoid use, rather than on other emergency authorisations. The Government have clearly set out a transition to a point where we will not need to use bee-killing pesticides. If bee-killing pesticides are still to be used, we are in danger of not meeting our obligations under the 25-year environment plan, the Environment Act or the declaration of a climate and nature emergency that Parliament passed in 2019.
I am grateful that the Minister said that nothing sneaky was involved in the decision, but nothing science-led seems to have been involved either. That is the problem we have here. I look forward to the action plan coming out and, I hope, the early revision of the national pollinator strategy. A comprehensive consultation starting this year would be a useful way to signal the intention to restore bee populations. I am grateful to you, Sir Roger, for being in the Chair, and for all the contributions, particularly from those who contacted us but were not able to speak in the debate. I hope that the cross-party strength of feeling makes it clear to the Minister and the Secretary of State that bee-killing pesticides should never be used again.
I thank all hon. Members for managing the time in a manner that has enabled all those who wished to do so to participate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government approval for the use of neonicotinoids and the impact on bees.
Kettering General Hospital
[Derek Twigg in the Chair]
Before we begin, I remind Members to observe social distancing and wear masks. I will call Philip Hollobone to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up. That is the convention for 30-minute debates, as I know the Member is well aware.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the redevelopment of Kettering General Hospital.
It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr Twigg.
I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate, and I welcome the Hospitals Minister to his place. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), who is kindly here to support the calls for the redevelopment of Kettering General Hospital. I thank the very hard-working, dedicated and loyal workforce at Kettering General Hospital for all they do to address the healthcare needs of the local population across Northamptonshire, particularly north Northamptonshire—in particular, Simon Weldon, the group chief executive, and Polly Grimmett, the director of strategy at Kettering hospital.
The Hospitals Minister knows Kettering hospital well and has always been extremely attentive and courteous to the healthcare needs of the local population in Kettering and beyond. He kindly visited the hospital on 7 October 2019, and he has responded to Adjournment and Westminster Hall debates on the hospital on 23 October 2019, 8 June 2021 and 10 September 2021. We have had regular meetings with him, most recently on 17 January this year.
I welcome the Government’s unprecedented investment in the NHS as a whole, and their commitment to the national hospital building programme. It has resulted in commitments to Kettering hospital of £46 million for an on-site urgent care hub, £350 million in health infrastructure plan 2 funding for 2025-30 and a write-off in 2020 of all the hospital’s £167 million trust debt. That is a total investment package for the hospital of a staggering £563 million, which is the biggest ever investment in Kettering General Hospital.
Kettering hospital is 125 years old this year. It has been on the same site ever since its inception in 1897. It is a much-loved local hospital that I hope will have a bright future. Let me reassure the Minister that I am not asking for more money. I welcome his recent decision that the two funding streams—the £46 million for the urgent care hub and the £350 million HIP2 funding—be meshed together, so that a synthesis of investment can be provided to the hospital. I have said this to the Minister before, and I repeat it today: promises are one thing, but delivery is quite another, and we now need the cash. The hospital needs the £46 million in cash so that works can continue.
In announcing the award of £46 million for the new urgent care hub in the debate on 23 October 2019, the Minister himself said:
“My officials and NHS England will be in touch with the trust to discuss further details, in order to ensure that funds are released and that work starts on the project as swiftly as possible. I am conscious of the urgency that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering highlighted.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 30WH.]
I welcomed those words, but that was over two years ago. While we have been promised £46 million, the hospital has not yet received the cash.
My first main ask is for the imminent provision to KGH of the £46 million sustainability and transformation partnership wave 4b funding, which was first pledged in the debate here in October 2019, so that the initial enabling works for the redevelopment of the hospital can continue to 2023-24. Secondly, I reinvite the Minister to visit Kettering hospital. He has kindly visited before and has promised to visit again. I hope that that visit will take place soon.
Thirdly, can we have confirmation that the NHS’s new hospitals programme team will approve, and give feedback on, the hospital’s strategic outline case for its redevelopment, which was submitted early last year, so that the hospital can develop the next stage—an outline business case—in May 2022? Fourthly, can the Minister confirm that he will look favourably on Kettering hospital’s eligibility for £53 million of slippage from other more complicated and larger hospital development schemes—such slippage will inevitably occur across the redevelopment of 40 hospitals—so that work can continue on the Kettering site all the way through to the 2025 to 2030 HIP2 period?
The hospital is straining at the leash to get the redevelopment project under way. Initial work has already commenced, but the hospital must go through various approval processes to fulfil the NHS’s investment requirements. Essentially, there is a three-stage business case approval process: a strategic outline case, an outline business case and a final business case.
The hospital submitted its SOC early last year, but it has not yet received feedback from the new hospitals programme team to inform the outline business case, which it is keen to submit in May this year. Once the OBC is achieved, feedback is required for the final business case. The big risk is that these various business case approval processes are extended too long, which will mean that substantial development on site will be held up.
The second risk is that the hospital needs the cash from the £46 million to allow the initial enabling work to continue. That work covers things such as the reprovisioning of car parking, clinical and office spaces to create construction space for the redevelopment itself, as well as road and utility diversions and site clearance. Without the cash from the £46 million, the risk is that those enabling works will have to stop, and that would be of extreme concern to local people.
The third risk is that the trust does not receive any slippage money from the other 40 hospital building programmes around the country. The Kettering scheme is relatively small, compared with some of the very large hospitals being rebuilt, but it is flexible. It can respond extremely well to receiving any slippage money from those other projects.
My hon. Friend is giving a remarkably impressive run-through of some of the complex bureaucracy and procedures. I want to pick up on his point about integration. Does he agree that Northampton General Hospital and Kettering General Hospital working together more efficiently provides some promising opportunities? While I cannot join him in saying that I will not ask the Minister for more money, because Northampton General Hospital is in the next stage of needing this sort of funding, I join him in asking the Minister to come and look at Northampton General Hospital and Kettering General Hospital as soon as possible.
I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. How about this as a constructive suggestion? Would it not be wonderful if, on visiting Kettering, the Minister was able to call in at Northampton on the way? We are only 18 miles apart. Northampton and Kettering hospitals work together under the same NHS trust umbrella, and there is a lot of close working between the two hospitals. I recognise the need for more investment in Northampton hospital as well. I congratulate my hon. Friend on all his work for his constituents, which I know is hugely appreciated.
The risk is that, if Kettering hospital is not allowed to begin work on its full business case approval process this summer, the hospital will miss its 2023 target date for substantial construction on the site. The hospital continues to work towards a timetable that sees construction start on site in 2023. This is an accelerated timeline, because the hospital is eager to go on what is a relatively low-risk project. The hospital does not need to do any land deals; it owns all the land. There is strong local support among health system partners and planners. The hospital is keen to use repeatable designs from other hospital projects that have worked well elsewhere.
Can we have feedback from the new hospital programme team on the business case and designs for the hospital, so that the hospital can incorporate national thinking on programme priorities such as digital, net zero carbon and modern methods of construction? Can we have, as early as possible, the selection by the new hospital programme team of an appointed construction partner to work with the trust on developing the final scheme details, and can the hospital have the funding to cover the fees associated with this stage of the design? The risk is that, unless this support from the new hospital programme team is forthcoming, work on the hospital’s main scheme may have to come to a stop, with key resource being stood down and reassigned. I am sure the Minister wants to avoid that.
It is welcome news that the trust has received confirmation that the £46 million can be combined with the £350 million, so that it is a united programme. However, at present, there is no process in place to allow the hospital to start accessing these funds once existing programme budgets run out in March this year. Unless the trust is able to access these funds this year, early enabling work required to prepare the site for construction in 2023 will not be completed and the main build will not be possible on time.
One thing that keeps the chief executive awake at night is the power plant at Kettering hospital: £25 million of the money required for enabling work relates to the need for a new energy centre on site to replace the temporary plant and life-expired distribution system. This is an immediate risk to patient safety due to ongoing shutdowns caused by testing and repair work. If the Minister were kind enough to agree to visit the hospital, I am sure the trust would want to show him the power plant, which is in urgent need of attention. If we get the £46 million, the scheme can progress, enabling works can continue and the hospital will be on track for early construction work beginning in 2023.
I reiterate that Kettering hospital is a much-loved local hospital. It serves all the residents of Kettering, Wellingborough, Corby and others, sometimes including patients form Northampton. We live in one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. Corby has the country’s highest birth rate, and Kettering hospital expects a 21% increase in the number of over-80s in the local area in the next five years alone. The area has committed to at least 35,000 new houses over the next 10 years. The local population is set to rise by some 84,000, to almost 400,000 people. The A&E now sees up to 300 patients every single day in a department that is sized to safely see just 110. Over the next 10 years, the hospital expects the number of A&E attendances to increase by 30,000, up from 100,000; that is the equivalent of almost 80 extra patients every day.
The A&E is full. It was constructed in 1994 to cope with just 45,000 attendances each year. By 2045, 170,000 attendances are expected. Seventy per cent. of the buildings on the main site are more than 30 years old, and there is a maintenance backlog of £42 million. Sixty per cent. of the hospital estate is rated as either poor or bad. Local people know that this investment is needed. The Government have also accepted that the investment is needed. What we need now is the cash to make sure that the works can start on time in 2023.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. By my tally, this is the fourth debate I have responded to that he has secured on the future of Kettering General Hospital and its redevelopment. That fact reflects his commitment to this issue on behalf of his constituents, and his typically courteous but tenacious approach to the matter. I will put on record, as they are unable to be here, the work done by my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Corby (Tom Pursglove) in this respect. I welcome the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer).
The topic is not a new one for this House to discuss, but it is an extremely important one. I hope that I might move matters a little bit further forward in this debate for my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. It was a pleasure to meet him, my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough and for Corby and Simon Weldon on 17 January to discuss Kettering General Hospital and receive an update on its plans. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering in paying tribute to Simon and all of the team at Kettering General Hospital and at Northampton General Hospital for the work they have done, not only in the past two years, but day in, day out every year, to support the local community and provide first-class care.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering made, as ever, a generous offer to visit Kettering General Hospital with him. It was a pleasure to do so in 2019, when he gave me a very warm welcome in Kettering. I also take his suggestion of visiting Northampton at the same time. Without setting a specific date, my aim is to try to visit him during the February recess—I will discuss this with him. It is not a long haul for me from my constituency in Leicestershire to his in Kettering or Northampton, so that is what I will hope to do, subject to that working for the trust. Ministers are often surplus to operational requirements in a busy trust at busy times, but I suspect that Simon will welcome me to explain what progress he has made. That is my commitment to my hon. Friend.
As my hon. Friend set out, Kettering General Hospital is part of the broader foundation trust, and continues to work closely with the central programme team in taking forward the rebuild of Kettering General as a new hospital for his community. It is part of the broader programme to build 40 new hospitals by 2030. On 13 January, Natalie Forrest, who is the senior responsible owner for the new hospital programme, and officials attended a virtual meeting with the chief executive and staff from Kettering General to discuss progress and provide an update on the scheme in the context of the programme. As my hon. Friend knows, Kettering General Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has received £4.4 million of funding to develop its plans for the rebuilding of Kettering General Hospital. They were successful in securing funding back in 2019, at that stage for a new urgent care hub, which would transform the provision of urgent and critical care in the area. I know that officials are in discussion with the chief executive of the hospital trust regarding the trust’s plans for enabling works on the Kettering General Hospital site and have set out what will be required for these proposals to be assessed as quickly as possible, once business cases are received from the trust, which is in line with what my hon. Friend would expect of appropriate processes for spending public money.
I will provide a little background. The Department wrote to the chief executive on 16 June last year to confirm that, at his request, the urgent care hub and new hospital programme schemes could be brought together as a single pot of money, to maximise the benefits that local people could derive.
Essentially, my hon. Friend asked why things have not progressed since 2019. That is largely because the trust changed its plans. That money was ringfenced for an urgent treatment centre. We had discussions about that with the trust and accepted its proposal to merge the two pots of money. That then necessitated their coming forward with proposals about how they would spend that money as part of the enabling works for a broader scheme. If changes are made, it is right that those changes are justified, in the context of the appropriate stewardship of public money.
The hub and the new hospital that are to be built both share a set of common enabling works, which have been factored into the new hospital development plans. As a result, the trust is incorporating the urgent care hub delivery into that broader plan. It means that the hub will now be part of the first stage of the building of the new hospital, enabling the more efficient use of resources to deliver better results.
In respect of the business case for that plan—I know that my hon. Friend is keen that there is progress on that as swiftly as possible—my officials have been in touch with the trust recently, most recently yesterday and before that on 26 or 27 January, asking the trust to put forward its proposals for those enabling works. We need those to progress the business case. My officials continue to nudge the trust gently, saying, “Please submit your proposals for that and the business case for it”. My commitment is that my officials will consider those proposals as swiftly as they can, once they have received them. As I understand it, given the scale of the enabling works, they would not need to go through the full internal approvals process, but the trust needs to submit a business case for that element.
The second element, which I know my hon. Friend and the trust are keen to see being advanced as swiftly as possible, is the new boiler room and power plant. Essentially, that would have to go through the full approvals process, but I understand that the board of the trust is due to meet in April to agree and finalise its proposal and business case on that work. As soon as it submits that, I can commit to my hon. Friend that—assuming that it is up to scratch, which I am sure it will be—it will go before the first joint investment committee of the Department following its submission, so that it can be considered as swiftly as possible.
At the moment, if I may put it this way, the ball is in the trust’s court, for it to send its proposal and business case over. However, my commitment is that as soon as the trust does so, I will task officials with considering them as swiftly as possible.
I thank the Minister for his very helpful comments. I think that the ball, in part, may be in the trust’s court, but there is perhaps another ball with the new hospitals programme team. I say that because the hospital submitted its strategic outline case to the NHS a year ago and what the trust requires is feedback on that, to inform the development of its outline business case. So would the Minister be kind enough to look at that feedback?
I am happy to look at that. The point I am making to my hon. Friend is that for the moneys that he and the trust wish to draw down from the £46 million, we do not have the business cases from the trust that would enable that work. I suspect that they will be winging their way to the Department pretty swiftly following this debate and as soon as they arrive we will look at them. Regarding the broader business case for the overall scheme, I will turn to that, if I may, in just a moment.
All the new hospitals that will be delivered as part of the programme, including Kettering, are required to work with the central team and, with the support of regional and local trust leadership, to design and deliver their hospitals in keeping with a consistent and standardised national approach. This collaborative approach is intended to help each trust to get the most from its available funding, while avoiding repetition of work and design, and ensuring that adherence to the principles, which my hon. Friend alluded to, of repeatable design, modern methods of construction and net carbon zero, is embedded from the outset, to maximise the potential benefits of the programmatic approach, as well, of course, as providing better value for money for the taxpayer.
All the projects that are part of that 40-hospital programme need to ensure that their approach is consistent with the programme, which that has been developed over the past year and has reached a greater level of maturity. Therefore, there will be individual conversations with trusts about where they align with the programme, or where they may need to adapt to meet that national approach.
My hon. Friend touched on the trust’s desire to go faster and begin the main project construction in 2023. In the spirit of openness, my only caveat to that is that, in the nature of funding through multiple spending review periods, it is not the case that a pot of money is earmarked for each programme and is just waiting to be drawn down; there is a profiling of moneys made available by the Treasury. I appreciate the trust’s eagerness to go faster, and I appreciate my hon. Friend’s clear steer that he believes it is capable of going further and faster, but we need to look at it in the context of all the other schemes and the availability and profile of moneys being made available. I just sound that slight note of caution, so I will not commit to a date, much though he tempts me to do so.
I appreciate the Minister’s comments. I would just highlight that there are some very large new hospital programmes out there that will not be achieved on time. Kettering is a relatively small, flexible and modular scheme that is perfectly placed to pick up on any slippage from some of the larger schemes.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I was about to turn to his final ask, which was whether the Department would look favourably on Kettering’s scheme if there was slippage from other schemes in the course of the spending review period. Although I cannot prejudge in this place that Kettering will be top of the list, he makes a strong case. It is absolutely right that we look at schemes and have a list of schemes that we believe could fill the gap if moneys are not going to be spent in year. It is important that that contingency is built in, and my hon. Friend makes a strong case for Kettering to be one of the hospitals that is considered for acceleration if it is ready and the moneys become available. I will not prejudge the advice that I will be given by officials as to which schemes are most mature, but he makes his case clearly and forcefully on the Floor of the Chamber.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend not only for the opportunity to discuss and debate Kettering General Hospital, but for the opportunity to visit Kettering. On my last visit, I received a very warm welcome from him and the team at the hospital. In what I have said today, I hope I have ensured that I get an equally warm welcome when I come and see him this month. Like him, I am keen to see all these schemes progress, and I am keen to see the benefits that the schemes will realise.
In the context of Kettering General Hospital, my hon. Friend continues to be an incredibly powerful advocate for the interests of his constituents and those in the wider area of Northamptonshire who are served by the hospital. I look forward to continuing to work with him very closely in the future, as well as with the trust’s chief executive and team, other hon. Friends from Northamptonshire and my team in the Department, to help progress these very exciting and important plans, which will make a huge difference to his constituents’ lives in the years ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
Cystic Fibrosis: Prescription Charge Exemption
[Relevant document: e-petition 326574, Make prescriptions free for everyone with Cystic Fibrosis.]
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered prescription charge exemption and cystic fibrosis.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and to open this debate on a matter that I know is of very great interest to a significant number of people in the country. I am very grateful to all those who have emailed me over the past few days since the debate was announced, not least those who contributed via the Chamber engagement programme that the House of Commons runs. Their comments and insights have certainly deepened my understanding, and I hope that their contributions will enrich the debate in particular. I am also grateful to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust for its members’ contributions, and for the support and briefings that it has given me.
I am sure that hon. Members here today are more than aware of cystic fibrosis. It is one of the few serious, life-threatening, chronic conditions for which people are still required to pay prescription charges. The Cystic Fibrosis Trust estimates that there are around 2,500 people in England who did not qualify for free prescriptions and are faced with a lifelong financial burden. Indeed, the Cystic Fibrosis Trust calculates that there are now more adults than children with cystic fibrosis.
This issue has concerned me not just over the past few weeks but for 25 years, since I was first diagnosed with epilepsy. The consultant told me, somewhat bizarrely, that one upside of the diagnosis was that at least I would now get free prescriptions. I said, “What?” That was news to me; I was not even aware such a thing existed. I had not required medication for my cerebral palsy, and had been a relatively healthy teenager. It had never occurred to me.
At the same time as I had the good fortune to be diagnosed with epilepsy, I had an even weightier burden to carry: I was the health policy officer for the Conservative party, as we languished in opposition. It was a slightly odd time, I have to say—perhaps that gives hope to those opposite that all things change in time. I not only had to deal with the somewhat bizarre queries of Ann Widdecombe at 6 am when I rang her up, but got to see all the briefings and lobbying that came across my desk. One of the early ones was from the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, telling me about the particular predicament that its members were in: not being entitled to free prescriptions. I thought to myself, “How perverse! They have a lifelong, life-limiting, chronic condition for which they cannot get prescriptions, yet, for my epilepsy, which is chronic and can have devastating consequences, I do get free prescriptions.”
It is not just a case, like mine, of taking some five tablets over the course of the day to manage epilepsy. As Gayle told me,
“My daughter takes more than 50 tablets a day to treat the condition. When you compare this to other serious lifelong conditions that are exempt from prescription charges it is impossible to understand why CF is not included and this outdated decision needs to be rectified”.
The lack of an exemption leads to some perverse situations. As Sarah told me,
“Thankfully I developed diabetes, which is a horrible thing to be grateful for. As a result of getting another health condition which comes with more challenges for my health, it meant I was exempt from paying all prescription charges”.
Go back to that first word that she used: “Thankfully”. What a bizarre thing to have to say with regard to diabetes.
At this point, I should pay tribute to someone who is not here today: Bob Russell, the former Member for Colchester, whom older Members here will know well. He campaigned non-stop on this issue. It is worth cycling back to what he said in 2013, the last time that we debated this issue in the House. He said:
“Those with long-term conditions do not choose to be ill. They face a daily routine of various types of medication and physiotherapy to maintain any quality of life.”—[Official Report, 10 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 511.]
Those words are as true today as they were back in 2013—and back in 2003, 1993, 1983 and all the other many times that this issue has been discussed.
When I first researched this issue 25 years ago, I was even more surprised by the fact that the exemption list was based on a list of conditions that had not been reviewed since as far back as 1968—before man had made it to the moon—with the exception of the addition of cancer in 2008. My contention to the Minister today is a simple one. It is the one I urged my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), when he was shadow Health Secretary, to pose to the then Health Secretary Alan Milburn in 1999. Why has the list not been reviewed since 1968? People live with cystic fibrosis well into adulthood these days, which was not the case in 1968. Why can we not review matters and take modern medicine into account? In particular, why is it fair for me to get free prescriptions when they cannot?
As Anna told me:
“The exemption list was introduced in 1968 when children born CF were not expected to live to their teens. Now more than ever, with the life-changing personalised medicines that are available to the majority of CF patients, life expectancy will be massively increased. Therefore, CF should be reconsidered for exemption as most patients will now be living relatively normal lives.”
I thank the hon. Member for giving way; he is making a powerful speech. As a former physiotherapist who used to treat children and young people with cystic fibrosis, I know exactly the point he is making. Living in to adulthood is fantastic and brilliant, but people are being penalised. Is it not right that those people should not have to worry about having to take medication? It should be a right.
The hon. Lady is exactly right, and I will demonstrate why with a few examples from people with CF. For those living with CF, medication, physio and general health all have to be considered when planning the simplest activity. Being unwell frequently interferes with work and education. As Sam says:
“Due to the nature of the illness I have been unable to work full time after previously trying. Prescriptions is another cost I have to pay despite barely getting any financial support from the government. To me it shows a lack of understanding the fact the medication ultimately contributes to us staying alive and gives us the best chance of trying to contribute to society.”
We could easily be having a debate about other long-term conditions, such as asthma, which are not included either. I could point to transplant patients, a category that would not have existed in 1968 but who rely on drugs to sustain their lives. If any Scottish National party or Plaid Cymru Members were present, they might have cited the example of prescription charge regimes in Wales and Scotland. Opposition Members might bring up the claims and calls of the wider Prescription Charges Coalition. I will leave it to them to make those points; those views are not necessarily shared by Government Members.
I want to focus, laser-like, on this single issue. We have seen in today’s newspapers the success that such an approach can have. The long campaign on hormone replacement therapy by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) finally got some good news. It is clear that we need to undertake a thoroughgoing review, setting out what conditions have been brought into scope since the Medicines Act 1968, through advances in medical science. Those might be conditions that did not, or could not, have existed in 1968, or conditions where life has now been further prolonged.
I am sure I can predict some elements in the Minister’s reply, because they were made by former Labour Ministers and in 2013. I am sure we will hear of the wonders of prescription prepayment certificates at just £2 a week—what could be better value? That is less than the price of a cup of coffee at Costa. But many living with a long-term medical condition such as CF can be economically disadvantaged by their condition, by prescription charges and by paying for the annual prepayment certificate, which costs £108. That adds to their financial burden.
According to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, about one in 10 people with CF—just under 1,000 in the case of that survey—received emergency grants of about £150 from the trust in 2020-21. More than half of those grants were awarded for daily living costs, such as food. As Tracy told me:
“A few years ago I had to take redundancy due to ill health…I had previously paid for a prepaid prescription certificate but could not afford to renew it when it ran out. After 3 months without medication, I was in a poor state of health, constantly coughing, very weak, unable to lie down or even sleep sat up due to the accumulation of mucus in my lungs. After 4 nights without sleep I saw my GP who gave me a prescription for a strong course of antibiotics and steroid tablets. We had to miss a payment on a household bill so that I could pay for my prescription. The first course of antibiotics didn’t clear the infection, so I needed a further one. I had to borrow money from a family member to pay for it…Eventually, I was able to claim PIP which allowed me to pay for my own prescriptions again. I consider myself lucky to have someone who was able to help me out when they saw how ill I was.”
There is also a serious risk that those who incur prescription charges for their CF may not take their essential medicines, particularly if they are experiencing financial hardship, or in higher education on a limited income. Over a third of those who replied to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust survey said that they had not taken medication because of the cost of prescriptions. As Anna told me:
“During university I didn’t take my medication simply because I couldn’t afford the fees. The blunt fact here is that people with CF take anywhere from 10-30 different medications a month. People with CF have been charged an insane amount of money when there is a system in place meant to protect people with long-term health conditions from being financially penalised—however they are being kept from the exemption list.”
The cost to the Government of righting what I believe to be a moral wrong is £270,000. As a former Minister, I know that that sort of money can often be found with a good rootle down the back of the ministerial sofa—a bit of jingling of the coins. However, there must be darker, deeper and slightly odder reasons why successive Governments—of all colours, and I look across the Chamber as I say that—have refused to review the 1968 list, despite all the pressure and reasonable arguments to do so. I cannot begin to imagine why Ministers are saying no.
If anyone wonders what this change might mean for CF patients, they should listen to Mario:
“My partner would then feel supported by the government rather than left on her own. The relationship to her medicine would change from financial to purely medical. Support, hope and fairness is the minimum we ought to give to people with life-threatening long-term conditions such as cystic fibrosis.”
Or listen to Donna:
“CF patients have enough problems to face, we should do anything we can to help. CF drugs may be expensive, but lung transplants cost even more.”
I will leave the final words to Sharon, another survey contributor:
“I would have more money available to pay for life’s other essentials. It would be pleasing to see the end of an injustice as I have no choice but to take this life lengthening medication and shouldn’t be required to pay for it when if I had been born with another condition, I wouldn’t have to.”
I hope that the Minister listens to those pleas and reasonable questions, and sets out the Government’s agenda to right what I believe to be a wrong.
It is always a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this debate.
As some Members might know, I have a personal interest in this issue, as my niece Maisie has cystic fibrosis. She was diagnosed when she was just a few weeks old. Actually, it was during that little period after Christmas: it was her mother’s birthday on 28 December and her dad’s birthday on the 30th, and she was taken to hospital because her progress had started to go backwards. One of the welcome developments since she was born is that there is now a heel prick test, so that newborn babies are screened for CF, which prevents people from having to go through a similar situation.
Maisie is one of those who is benefiting from access to the new drugs that have been developed recently, and at 17 she is doing really well. The same is true of one of my constituents, who is just a little older. His dad tells me that it is as if he had never had cystic fibrosis. That is great news and I congratulate all those who have been involved in developing these drugs—Kalydeco, Orkambi and its version for children, Symkevi, and Trikafta—and in making them freely available on the NHS. The former Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), was obviously instrumental in that process and I thank him for it. Of course, I also thank the Cystic Fibrosis Trust for spearheading that campaign.
I also want us to remember those for whom these medical advances came too late. My constituent Lee Partridge tragically lost both his daughters to CF: Richelle at the age of 26 in 2015, and Lauren at the age of 19 just a few months later in January 2016. Perhaps if they had been born a decade later, the new drugs would have saved their lives. These medical developments happen so quickly. No sooner had the campaign paid off and Orkambi been approved than Trikafta was suddenly around the corner. I must admit that my sister, Maisie’s mother, did not even realise that there was another campaign to mount because it came so quickly afterwards.
I hope this means that cystic fibrosis will eventually become a condition that people live with to a normal age, rather than being something that they die from. We are here today because while it used to be the case that sufferers rarely survived into adulthood, life expectancy has increased almost fourfold since then and, as we have heard, there are now more adults than children with cystic fibrosis. If that had been the case back in 1968, when the list of exemptions from prescription charges was drawn up, there is no doubt that cystic fibrosis would have been on that list. It seems quite anomalous. We ought to treat conditions like for like, based on need. We cannot live in the past with this fixed state from 1968, which has become pretty meaningless.
Today I have received an answer to a written question requesting the figures for how many adults have to pay for cystic fibrosis prescriptions. I was told that those figures are not collected. We know that about 89% of all prescriptions are dispensed free of charge, but we do not know specifically what that means for adult patients with cystic fibrosis. The Cystic Fibrosis Trust estimates their number to be around 2,500 people in England.
Although the three drugs I have mentioned that target CF at its root cause are free to patients, which is obviously good, many patients often need to pay for additional medication to prevent lung and sinus infections, therapies to aid digestion, antibiotics and so on. Those who live in poorer areas are statistically more likely to contract severe lung infections, meaning that they are more likely to have to pick up the bill for antibiotic prescriptions. Having a lifelong condition incurs all sorts of hidden charges, including the cost of traveling to medical appointments or buying specific foods to cater to dietary needs. We are lucky in Bristol to have both an adult and a child cystic fibrosis unit, but someone living in Milton Keynes, as my niece does, has to travel to Oxford for their treatment. As the cost of living crisis escalates over the coming months, disabled people will face increasing energy bills and food costs, and many will experience the burden of stressful work capability assessments—we know that the Government are bringing in tougher sanctions on jobseekers. Shouldering the cost of a prescription-exempt chronic condition can mean a choice for some people between paying the bills and affording essential meds.
I was recently contacted by Martin, a constituent whose 19-year-old son James has cystic fibrosis. James works part time. Last year, his claim for disability allowance stopped when he reached adulthood, and his personal independence payment application was refused. Martin currently pays for James’s prepaid prescription certificate, but he worries that a change in his own financial situation would mean that he would not be able to foot the bill for his son’s prescription. What is ironic is that Martin himself has insulin-dependent diabetes, which entitles him to free NHS prescriptions. He cannot even begin to understand how he is deemed eligible while his son is not, meaning he does not pay for his own prescriptions but does pay for his son’s.
Martin is not alone in his opinion—96% of people who responded to a Cystic Fibrosis Trust survey described the prescription charges as unfair. It certainly gives rise to the question why CF patients should be treated differently from others with other lifelong conditions that exempt them. I asked the Health Secretary last year whether the Government plan to review the list of conditions exempt from prescription charges. A junior Minister responded to confirm that the Government did not plan to do so.
The former Liberal Democrat Member Bob Russell has been mentioned. I always use Bob Russell as an example of why early-day motions are perhaps not all they are cracked up to be. For years on years—it might have been two decades—Bob queued to be No. 1 on the early-day motion list so he could call for an exemption from prescription charges for cystic fibrosis patients. He always got lots of signatures, because his early-day motion was No.1 and first in the booklet, but we are still here debating the issue. When I am trying to explain to my constituents why my signing an early-day motion will not change the world, Bob is the example I use. It would be lovely if we could move on from having these debates and making the same points over and over again. There is no logical reason for it, other than the point that if the Government reopen the 1968 list they will have to review other conditions as well, because people are living longer due to medical advances. I do not think that is a very moral reason for not doing it.
We get told that patients who are not exempt from prescription charges can apply for a prepaid prescription certificate that costs £2 per week. However, that is £104 per year; everything adds up, and I have already mentioned increasing fuel bills and food prices. That is £104 per year that they should not be paying. Grants are available through charities such as the Cystic Fibrosis Trust to support those in urgent need, but they are in high demand. Between 2020 and 2021, one in 10 people with cystic fibrosis received an emergency grant from the trust; the majority of those grants went towards basic living costs.
There is a serious risk that cystic fibrosis patients who incur prescription charges may avoid taking essential medicines, especially if they are already in financial hardship. People living with chronic conditions in Wales do not have to face the same difficult choice between medication and heating their homes, as all NHS prescriptions are free there.
That is certainly true. I know that some people would say that this would mean that Government money would be used to subsidise the 11% of people who pay for their prescriptions at the moment. However, the figures that we have talked about and the unfairness of the current situation seem totally wrong.
Although I hope that cystic fibrosis becomes a condition people can live with, that drugs can manage the condition and that people do not suffer from too much, I would still not want to be in the situation of having it. It is still a condition where people have to have daily physiotherapy, take drugs such as Creon before eating any food, and make regular trips to the hospital. They have to be very careful to avoid infection and had to shield during covid. When people are paying that sort of price, giving them an exemption from prescription charges is not too much to ask. I hope that the Minister will finally commit to reopening the 1968 list, and make sure that cystic fibrosis patients do not have to pay this amount anymore.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing this debate today and for the very passionate speech he gave.
There are 2,500 people in the UK who suffer from cystic fibrosis; my wife, Sinead, is one of them. My wife was really poorly through childhood and up until the age of 18. She never got diagnosed with a condition; it was just considered a bad cough and a few digestive problems. In fact, a local GP thought she was a bit of a nuisance as she kept going back. At the age of 18—imagine this—she was just about to finish her A-levels, go to university and start her journey through life, when she was finally diagnosed with CF. She was told by a GP and people at the hospital that she probably would not live until she was 30. That was a good outcome, back then.
Undeterred, my wife carried on, went to university, did her studies, took her medication, did her physio—she did all the right things—in the hope of becoming a schoolteacher. She qualified with a degree at university and then went on to become a teacher. This was way before I met her. She has told me that paying the prescription charges was a struggle for her, because she had her student loans to pay off and she wanted to buy a house to live independently; she had dreams of living independently because she was fighting against time. She only had a few years to live; she did not think she would be here by the age of 30, so she had to plan her life out. She struggled—she really struggled.
Then, in a sort of blessing in disguise, my wife’s illness took a turn for the worse: she got CF-related type 1 diabetes, which meant that she could get free prescriptions. The irony is incredible: she has a life-limiting condition such as cystic fibrosis, which—let us be honest—is an early death sentence, yet the only way to get free prescriptions is to get another condition that is not as life threatening. I know diabetes is serious—my wife said that, actually, she would sooner have CF than diabetes, because it is a nightmare taking her insulin. However, our brilliant NHS has sorted that: she wears a patch with a sensor that tells her when she needs insulin. That is really good. Nevertheless, it was a real battle.
Living with someone with CF is a struggle. I met my wife 12 years ago. She is the best thing that has ever happened to me, if I am honest. I saw her at night, when she was getting really bad. When she was 32 or 33, she was told she had only a couple of years to live, and she was put on the list for a double lung transplant. We went down to the Royal Papworth Hospital, had the assessment and did all that stuff. I used to be awake with her at night—giving her physio, patting her back—while she was coughing up cups and cups of blood and throwing up.
Sometimes, we would go out for a meal and, as soon as we went out into the cold air, she would throw everything up. Because of the coughing, there is a big struggle for a CF patient to keep their food down. Most people do not know that—I did not even know what CF was before I met my wife. There is a constant struggle to keep their weight on. The heavier they are, the healthier they are and the better their lung capacity. My wife had to eat 4,000 or 5,000 calories a day. That is a lot of food. She had to eat lots of junk food—pizzas, chocolate, chips; every bit of junk food—which totally contradicted her diabetes. It was a battle between two illnesses to keep her fit and healthy.
My wife was on the transplant list for about two years. We had six calls; five were false alarms. We would get the call and get blue-lighted down to Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. She would get ready for theatre, they would tell us about the donor and, then, about half an hour before surgery, they would come to us and say, “I’m sorry—it’s not a match. You’ve got to go home.” We would have to drive two and a half hours back up to Ashfield—that is a long journey of about 100 miles. There would be deathly silence in the car. We would not talk to one another; we were both upset, thinking, “Well, that’s it. You’ve got just a few months to live.” That happened five times.
On the sixth time, in December 2019, we got to Papworth and they said, “It’s a goer. We’re going ahead.” We got there at about 1 o’clock in the afternoon and she had the surgery that night. The lady whose organs she was receiving was still on a life support machine; she was still alive, but was, sadly, brain dead. When they turn the machine off, they disperse the organs all around the country to wherever they are going. It is a wonderful thing that our NHS does.
When the doctors told my wife that she was going to have the transplant, she broke down in tears and said, “I don’t want it.” We had to have a conversation, which was pretty blunt: “If you don’t have it, you won’t be here in a couple of months.” It did not take long to make her mind up. She is a braver person than me, and she had the surgery. She went into theatre at about 7 o’clock. Halfway through, the surgeon came out and said that they were really struggling; they had got one lung out and one lung in, but they could not get the other lung out. It was not looking good. Her mother and I were there, at Papworth.
Anyway, a couple of hours later, the surgeon came out again and said that they had got the lung out. They were fighting against time, because they only have a short amount of time. After about 14 hours, he came back down and said they had done it and were just sewing her up back up. She was fine after that, although it was a struggle. I think that people do not realise that a patient can get over the physical part—although it is a lot of pain, a lot of painkillers and a lot of medication—but the mental part is very tough. For my wife, knowing that she had somebody else’s organs inside her body, with the fear of rejection, was tough.
I hope that gives hon. Members a little insight into what it is like for a CF patient. It is hard to sympathise and empathise without having been there. That is the journey my wife went through. She always says that she cannot understand why she has this horrible condition but she cannot get a free prescription. Our spare bedroom is like a chemist’s. There are thousands of tablets. She takes over 50 tablets a day and now her transplant tablets as well, and the only reason she gets a free prescription is that she has diabetes. It seems absolutely crazy. I understand the argument that people get PIP or disability living allowance, and I understand that they should use that for extra living costs—I get that—but lots of CF patients out there do not get DLA or PIP. It is a real struggle, and we should take that into consideration.
I read this morning that the Cystic Fibrosis Trust says the cost to the Government would be about £270,000 a year if they waived prescription charges. To put that into context, it is similar to a premiership footballer’s weekly wage or the salary of a newsreader on the BBC—my favourite channel. That amount of money is what we are talking about.
We are limiting chances for people. Obviously, my wife went on to be a primary school teacher and make a fantastic contribution to society. For 10 years, she taught lots of children and made a real difference. She was able to do so not because she was financially secure, but because she did not have the extra debt of prescriptions. Fortunately, or unfortunately, she got diabetes, which made it less expensive for her but resulted in more hassle and more tablets.
However, we have new drugs such as Trikafta, which I thank the Government for introducing about 18 months ago and which, by the way, is a game-changer. A number of parents have contacted me to say, “This is brilliant. My child is going to live a near-normal life.” My wife did not get that chance. She had to have a transplant, so she is on limited time.
It seems now that we have done all this brilliant work and got these brilliant drugs that extend lives and let people live a more normal life—but living longer costs more money. I do not think that is fair, but I get both sides of the argument. It is not “one size fits all”. There are plenty of people with CF who have a few quid in the bank. We are comfortable in my household. My wife and I are all right—I get a decent salary—but there are people with CF who are a lot worse off than me, and I know from experience and talking to the CF community through social media that there are people out there for whom every penny counts and who skip their medication. If people with CF skip their medication, there is a good chance that could put them in hospital. Even worse, it could end up killing them, because skipping medication for a condition like this literally kills people.
I ask the Minister to have a serious think about waiving prescription charges. Like I say, it is not “one size fits all”. I do not personally think that everybody should get free prescriptions, because some people get extra benefits—the DLA, PIP or whatever—that are supposed to help them, but the Minister should take into account that it is a very costly job being a CF patient. They need extra food, and there is all the travel to the hospital and the doctors to have their blood done. It is an absolute nightmare. My wife has many trips to the hospital every single month, and there is the added cost of going down to Papworth once every three months for check-ups and stuff like that. The CF community is very small in this country, and not many people know much about it. I am fortunate that I know a little bit about it through my wife, so I can tell that story. I hope the Government listen, and I hope there can be some compromise.
It is a pleasure to speak on this issue. I thank the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for leading the debate, as he often does, on an issue that is of particular interest to him. Again, he has shown his expertise and knowledge on the subject matter.
I also thank the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) for his personal contribution. There is no better way to tell a story than by recounting personal experience, which he has, and we thank him for disclosing it and making it public. He is right about the ESA and PIP—they are there to help—but those people are not working. Therefore, the money that they have coming in is also to try to keep their household surviving. It is not as though they have a whole lot of extra money to put into things, because they do not. That is a fact of life.
I am the Democratic Unionist party’s health spokesperson, and I am very pleased to participate in this important debate. I think the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and I have been in nearly every debate on this issue in Westminster Hall, for whatever number of years that may be. I cannot remember ever not following her—I am always following in her footsteps. I thank her for her knowledge and for telling her story. We may have heard it before, but it does not lessen the impact on the family.
The issue is quite simple. A list of exempt medical conditions was written by the Government over 50 years ago in 1968, and although in the UK there are now more adults than children living with cystic fibrosis, the Government have never updated the list. I am very clear, as was the hon. Member for Ashfield, that they should change the list of exempt conditions. The Minister is a good man—I am not saying that to pacify him in any way or to be smart: he is a good man. The relationship that he has with every MP, including myself, has always been very amenable, and he tries to solve problems. Not to put the Minister under any pressure, but we look to his good nature to give us some hope on where we are with this issue. It is simple: it is time to get CF on the exemption list.
The Cystic Fibrosis Trust can offer a one-off grant for the first 12 months of prescription prepayment charge, which gives individuals free prescriptions for a year. That does not help with the payments that are due after. As the hon. Member for Ashfield and others have referred to, it is about the ongoing costs. The Government stated in 2021 that they had no plans to review or extend the prescription charge medical exemptions list. That was disappointing; there is no sense in saying otherwise. I felt particularly aggrieved. I do not think it is too late for the Minister to take the issue back to his Department and see whether it is possible to change that decision.
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition affecting more than 10,600 people in the UK. One in 19 people in the UK is said to carry some types of the cystic fibrosis gene. Cystic fibrosis accounts for 9,500 hospital admissions and over 100,000 hospital bed days a year. If we add up those costs and the ongoing visits to the GP, there must be a financial argument to make CF an exempt condition. I would suggest that there might be a cost saving in that process.
Given that cystic fibrosis impacts so many people daily, not only in Northern Ireland but across the UK, I believe there are further steps the Government can take to ensure that prescription charges are waived. I had a debate on asthma here about a month five weeks ago, which raised concerns about why people with lung conditions are not on the Government exemption list. Lung disease is the third-largest killer in the UK, and at least one in five people will develop a lung condition in their lives. A recent survey showed that 57% of people skipped getting their prescriptions for asthma, as they struggled to afford it. In our society, in this day and age, I find it incredible. There are questions that people need answered.
I do not see it as acceptable that people with lifelong respiratory diseases must pay up to £100—or £104, as the hon. Member for Bristol East said, to be exact—for prescription charges each year. Through a series of parliamentary questions, I asked the Government why there are still prescription charges for lung diseases. The Minister knows that I am fond of him, but I am really disheartened that the Government will not take this small step, for a small cost, to make their life slightly easier. There are many leading charities and organisations that provide the best support for people suffering from cystic fibrosis and other respiratory diseases, but it should not be solely down to them to fix the problem.
My request to the Minister is simple. I urge him and his Department to hear the pleas of the hon. Members for Bristol East, for Ashfield and for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, who each gave personal examples of people affected. I have constituents who are affected. In Northern Ireland, they are fortunate enough that their CF drugs are being paid for. I am asking the Minister here, in the mother of Parliaments, to take our case to the Secretary of State for Health or whoever it needs to be presented to.
The fee may not seem like a lot, but it is to families on lower incomes, who simply cannot work due to diseases like cystic fibrosis. Over the years, I have had constituents come to see me. It is tragic to watch people with cystic fibrosis gasping for the breath that we take for granted. My plea is on their behalf. The fee is a large chunk of money for something they cannot control and will never go away. For the one in five that will at some point be diagnosed with a lung disease, I urge the Minister, who is a good man, to take immediate action and follow closely behind Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and remove—immediately if possible, or tell us when it can be done—prescription charges.
I had not intended to contribute to this debate, Mr Sharma. As you know, because I gave you written notice, I could not be here at the outset and I cannot stay for the end, and it is not conventional to contribute on that basis, so I am grateful for your indulgence in allowing me to do so. I decided to contribute only when I heard the superb speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), which was both moving and informed by the most intimate personal experience. Sometimes in this place, that inspires us to contribute, and I will briefly say why.
Long before Bob Russell was invented, in the dim and distant past, and before my 19 consecutive years as a Front Bencher, I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Back Bencher, fortunate in the late 1990s to come up in the ballot for private Members' Bills. It was the only private Member’s Bill I have ever had—we cannot have one as Front Benchers, and I have not had one since. I chose to introduce a Bill to do exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) has requested today, which is to remove prescription charges for those suffering from cystic fibrosis. I did so, believing all that has been said in this debate by all who have contributed.
I went to see the then Labour Minister, a nice man in the House of Lords—Lord Hunt—who was a good, diligent Minister. He gave me a fair hearing as I put the case with all the vehemence but reason that has typified this debate. Unfortunately, I was not able to persuade him, and subsequent Health Ministers have remained unpersuaded. I put the case because I have a personal story too, but it is a story with a less happy ending than that told by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield. I had a close friend who suffered from cystic fibrosis, and her experience catalysed my commitment to try to do something about it.
My friend was a very young woman who worked for me when she contracted cystic fibrosis. She had two lung transplants at the Freeman Hospital, in the days when they were an extreme rarity—very few single lung transplants had been done in the early 1990s. She survived them both and did well, got married and had a baby. Later, she was due to be the godmother to my youngest son, who is now 17 years of age. When I asked her to do it, she said, “You know I won’t be around for his 21st birthday.” Sadly, she was not even around for his christening because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield said, people who have transplants are always likely to die of something other than the condition that originally provoked the transplant. My friend died of cancer in Derbyshire Royal Infirmary when my son was a tiny baby and the day after I had been to see her with the infant in my arms.
Jane, my dear friend, made me know how important this cause is, and made me understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) has done us a great service in bringing it before this Chamber and to the Minister’s attention. Having been a Minister many times—I am sorry to put my hon. Friend the Minister in this position, because he is a personal friend as well as being an hon. Friend—I know that if he were to say today in this debate, “We are going to do this,” it would happen, because in the great scheme of things it is not a huge decision for the Government. But, my goodness, it is an immense one for people such as the wife of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield and my late, dear friend. For that reason, I say to the Minister that he should stand up now and say that the Government will consider this or, better still, that they will do it. He would be remembered forever as the Minister who responded to a Westminster Hall debate on the basis of the strength of a cross-party argument that had such weight and substance—such vehemence expressed on behalf of those who suffer—that it persuaded him to act immediately. I hope that he might at least commit to considering this again, because it is a just and worthy cause. So many people would celebrate a small step for the Government, but a huge step for them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Sharma. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing this important debate and for his continued campaigning on this issue. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). As has been said, hearing the personal stories of Members brings to the fore the reality faced by CF patients, which is really important, and I thank Members for sharing those personal stories.
As we have heard this afternoon, cystic fibrosis affects over 10,000 people in the UK, with one in 25 people being carriers of the CF gene. CF is a degenerative condition with symptoms that often start in early childhood, get progressively worse and affect people’s quality of life. Although there is no cure, treatments are available to help manage the condition and reduce its effects. Sadly, life expectancy for those living with CF is still shorter than that of the general population. People living with CF are also more susceptible to other conditions, including diabetes, osteoporosis and liver issues.
Despite the debilitating nature of CF, people living with the condition face a complex and discriminatory system when it comes to accessing prescriptions. The system of prescription charges is complex for most people, but for those living with long-term health conditions, it can present multiple challenges.
As all Members have said, there are several exemptions from prescription charges, based on demographics, income and pre-existing conditions. When it comes to pre-existing conditions, the list of conditions that are exempt from prescription charges was first created in 1968, as we have heard. In the 54 years since, we have seen immeasurable changes in our understanding of long-term conditions and the outcomes of people living with them, yet just one addition has been made to that list in those 54 years—just one. That leaves those living with CF in the position of needing to have another long-term condition to access free prescriptions. This two-tier system leaves thousands of people with the same conditions facing different circumstances.
We know the difficulties faced by those living with CF who have to pay for their prescriptions. The costs of prescriptions can put people off taking the medication they need, as we have heard. With the costs continuing to rise, those problems are only going to get worse. That not only leaves people suffering more than necessary but, as set out very eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East, will cost the NHS more money in the long term and further increase pressure on primary care.
At a time when the cost of living is continuing to rise, the Government ought to consider what more they can do to support people with these essential costs. The fact that one in 10 people living with CF were given emergency grants by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust to help them fund their medication shows how serious this problem is. No one should be forced to choose between paying for their prescription and risking their lives. Sadly, we know the financial pressures that those with long-term conditions often face. As the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned, surveys have shown that 29% of people living with CF have not taken their prescriptions due to financial pressures. Too many people are forced to make dangerous choices that they should not have to.
The inequality in prescriptions for those living with CF is clearly a cause for concern, and something that the Minister needs to look at. In December, he stated in response to a written question that the Government’s
“policy on entitlement to help with prescription charges in England is based on the principle that those who can afford to contribute should do so, while those who are likely to have difficulty…paying should be protected.”
What weight has he given to the financial difficulties of those living with long-term conditions such as CF when establishing his principles?
Furthermore, as I and other hon. Members have pointed out, the medical exemption list for prescription charges has been updated just once since 1968. Given the Government’s levelling-up agenda, one would assume that this would be a perfect opportunity to bring health policy properly into the 21st century. Given the powerful arguments that we have heard this afternoon, I hope the Minister’s position has progressed from the response he gave to the written question just a few weeks ago. For him to say that the Government have “no plans” to look again at this, despite the overwhelming changes in our health service in the last 54 years, is frankly slightly baffling. What reassurances can he give those living with CF that the Government understand their condition as it is now, not as it was in 1968?
The Minister furthermore suggested that capping charges at £108 for those living with long-term conditions through a prepayment certificate provided support. This highlights a failure to grasp just how serious the financial pressures faced by those living with long-term conditions such as CF are. Those living with CF face an outdated and unfair system that is wholly removed from the world as it is today. If the Government truly believe in levelling up, it is time for the Minister to look at this issue again.
It is a pleasure as always to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this important debate and thank all hon. Members who have taken part. Although this issue falls within Lord Kamall’s ministerial portfolio rather than mine, it is privilege to answer in this place and to engage in this debate.
Nobody here today, and nobody viewing our proceedings or reading them when they are written up in Hansard, can fail to have been moved by the experiences and stories that we have heard. Hon. Members on both sides of the House told moving stories about their constituents—in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), who spoke of his very personal experience, it was his wife, Sinead. As hon. Members have said, it is always incredibly powerful and moving in this place when an hon. Member is willing to share their own experiences, not just with this House and colleagues but essentially with the public. It was powerful, it was personal and it was poignant, and I thank him for that.
I also thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her contribution, in which she set out—again, very movingly—very personal stories, to make this real. It is very easy in this place for us to slip into talking about policies and grand strategies and to not always relate that to people and individual lives and experiences. I am very grateful to the hon. Lady. I do not always agree with her on everything in a political context, but I certainly agree with her on EDMs. I share the experience. I remember Bob Russell from the time before I was a Member, when I worked for previous Members in this place. I admire his belief in the power of EDMs, although I have to say that I do not share it and, like the hon. Lady, I occasionally have to explain to constituents and others who understand-ably think that an EDM moves the agenda forward, that it rarely does, but that it may, on occasion, put down a marker.
As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his comments. He mentioned that he has been in just about every debate on this subject, along with the hon. Member for Bristol East. Given his assiduity in attending debates in this House, that could be said for a vast array of subjects, on which he has given well-informed and eloquent contributions, not only representing his constituents, but putting issues of national concern on the agenda.
The Minister referred to the former Member, Bob Russell. I recall him standing at the door to be No. 1 on EDMs. I put in at least two EDMs every week. Their purpose is not to change policy, but to raise awareness or congratulate some person or group that has been active in the community. For me, that is what EDMs are about.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his spirited defence of early-day motions, of which he makes powerful use, as he does with every opportunity he has to speak in this place.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) is no longer able to be here, but he made a valuable contribution, and I am grateful to you, Mr Sharma, for allowing him to speak—even if, as a former Minister, he should have known better the consequences of seeking to tempt me to make policy at the Dispatch Box without cross-Government agreement, which might have led to an early termination of my ministerial career. He made a powerful point, as all hon. and right hon. Members have done, and I will turn to some of those points in a moment.
Before I do so, I want to recognise the fantastic work undertaken by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, which does a fantastic job on behalf of people living with cystic fibrosis and their families, and in bringing the condition and the needs of people with it to the attention of this House, and more widely. I also acknowledge the work of the Prescription Charges Coalition, of which the Cystic Fibrosis Trust is a member. It has worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the help available to patients with the cost of their prescriptions and campaigns on an issue that its members feel strongly about. In our democracy, whether or not we agree on the policy position, it is right that we recognise those who get out there, campaign and seek to drive change and policy. It is important to recognise those who are active in our democracy in that way.
As we have heard, cystic fibrosis is a life-limiting condition affecting many thousands of people in the UK. It is not only a life-limiting disease but, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield, a disease that can impact on the quality of life and the life experiences of those affected and their families. While there is no cure for cystic fibrosis, there are treatments available on the NHS to help reduce the effect of symptoms and make it easier to live with.
It is not that long ago that conditions such as cystic fibrosis saw life expectancy so low that many were advised not to expect to live beyond their teens. Thanks to advancements in treatments, better care and the work of organisations such as the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, people with cystic fibrosis are now living for longer, with a better quality of life, with half of those with the condition living past the age of 40. Children born with cystic fibrosis today are likely to live longer than that. That is a positive story and a reflection on our medical and scientific advances.
I turn to the crux of the debate. When the medical exemption list was drawn up in 1968 in agreement with the British Medical Association, it was limited to readily identifiable, permanent medical conditions that automatically called for continuous, lifelong and, in most cases, replacement therapy without which the patient would become seriously ill or even die. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), alluded to, there has been a review since 1968—only one—which resulted in the addition of cancer in 2009.
When the exemption list was drawn up, decisions on which conditions to include were based on medical knowledge at the time—for instance, children with cystic fibrosis were not expected to live to see adulthood—and it is entirely understandable that, given advances in treatment and increases in life expectancy, those who are now living with cystic fibrosis for a lot longer should wish to pursue exemption from prescription charges to help them maintain their quality of life with the drugs that are essential to their quality of life. The issue of prescription charges was reviewed more broadly in the round in the 2010 Gilmore report, which did not recommend further changes at that stage.
As the hon. Member for Enfield North alluded to, I know that the answers that Ministers have given, stating that the Government have no immediate plans to review the list, will have caused disappointment to right hon. and hon. Members and to those with this condition. We do think it would not be right in this context to look at one condition in isolation, separate from other conditions, because others would rightly argue that their condition was potentially equally deserving of an exemption if it fitted the same criteria. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys has rightly advanced the case of cystic fibrosis, and I entirely understand why, but I know that he will also recognise that other conditions might qualify for consideration in the same way, or for the same case to be made for them by right hon. and hon. Members.
When the exemption list was first put in place in 1968, 42% of items on prescription were free; now 89% are free. There has been considerable change in that space, but to go to the heart of what right hon. and hon. Members have asked for today, were my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings in his place, I would disappoint him by saying that, as he will appreciate, I cannot make policy standing at the Dispatch Box. It is important that everything is considered carefully. Although this is not my policy, I will continue to reflect on the points that have been made by right hon. and hon. Members today and by campaigners on this issue. I will also ensure that I will not only speak to my noble Friend, the Minister with portfolio responsibility for this issue, but draw to his attention the transcript of today’s debate.
I have just realised that it is groundhog day—I missed an ideal opportunity to weave that fact into my speech, as I think all of us would have done. Is there anything the Minister could say that does not makes us feel like we have been here many times before? He has said that he will reflect on these points, but is there not something a little bit more concrete that he can give us a commitment on, so that we feel that we are perhaps making some progress?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She may or may not always agree with me, but I will always endeavour to be straight with the House, even when the message may not always be the one that Members want to hear. I cannot stand here now and say that there will be a review of that list; it is important for me to be honest with her. What I can say—which she may feel is insufficient, and I entirely respect her if she does—is that I will reflect on the points made today and the issues raised. I will discuss this issue with my noble Friend and ensure that the points that have been made in this debate are conveyed to him, but it would be wrong of me to commit to something that I am not in a position to commit to. The hon. Lady rightly presses her case, but I know that she will appreciate my position, and it is important that I am honest with the House in that respect.
I touched on the help with prescription costs previously, and the number of items. While I know that this is not at the heart of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, it is still important that I put on record the point that I alluded to: when medical exemptions were introduced, only 42% of all NHS prescription items were dispensed free of charge. That figure is now around 89%, and around 60% of the English population do not pay prescription charges at all. Many people with medical conditions not on the exempt list already get free prescriptions on other grounds, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said, with current exemptions providing valuable help for those on the lowest incomes.
In my contribution, I referred to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where prescription charges are free. I have knowledge of Northern Ireland, though not of Scotland and Wales, and understand that we follow the rules of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in the UK but have some liberty about what we add on. I understand that the Minister is not responsible for this. He is a good man who has been honest with us. What we wish to be conveyed from this debate, to the person who is responsible, is that the same should happen here as in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will finish the point I was making and then respond to his. We have already heard about the annual certificate, which can be purchased by direct debit in instalments, meaning that a person can have all the prescribed items they need for just over £2 a week. I take the point from the hon. Member for Bristol East that that may still not solve the problem for everyone, but that route provides a significant potential reduction in costs.
I shall now respond to the point raised by the hon. Member for Strangford on the devolved Administrations, and the broader approach to prescription charges. Although we have surprisingly managed to stray away from it for quite a while, any debate on this subject will touch on the different positions of England and the devolved Administrations, given the latter’s abolition of charges for prescriptions. I suspect that many people will ask why there is that difference in approach. Health is a devolved matter and the devolved Administrations have full discretion over how they spend their budgets and the choices they make, presumably choosing to spend a proportionately larger share of those budgets on prescriptions.
We have opted for a different approach in England. We also recognise that prescription charges, more broadly, raise significant revenue, which provides a valuable contribution directly to NHS services in England. In 2019-20, they contributed just over £600 million in revenue to NHS frontline services. There is always a balance to be struck, and I suspect that we shall return to this topic, with Members taking different views.
With regard to the key point made by the hon. Member for Strangford, although I am not directly responsible for this area of policy I will continue to reflect on that. In this House, there are times when individual debates or speeches—I look at my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield—resonate, and cause Ministers to turn them over in their head and reflect on the points made. All hon. Members will be able to point to speeches they have heard on different topics in the main Chamber that stay with them. They go away from that debate, still reflecting on what that right hon. or hon. Member has said. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield has had that effect today. I will reflect carefully on what he said, within the context that I cannot make policy at the Dispatch Box. In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford, I will pick up that issue and convey the sentiments of Members speaking today to my noble Friend Lord Kamall, and ensure that he has a copy of the transcript of the debate.
I conclude by thanking all hon. Members for their contributions. Often, people judge what goes on in this place by the half an hour or 40 minutes that they see at 12 noon on a Wednesday on both sides of the Chamber and what happens there. Many people do not see what happens in Westminster Hall, where, in a measured and sensible way, people can discuss, debate and sometimes disagree on issues that really matter and impact on the lives of individuals or particular groups of people. This debate is one that those that clears a very high bar for the quality of the contributions, for the importance of the subject and for its ability to cause us to leave this Chamber continuing to reflect on what we have heard.
I thank all those who have participated, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson). We are all grateful to him for not just speaking on a personal basis, but illuminating a debate far better than I could from my more dry, academic analysis. I thank him for his personal contribution, and I thank all hon. Members for a constructive debate. I recognise the point that the Minister made; making a commitment on the hoof at the Dispatch Box can be career-limiting. I know that myself, as I reflect on what I once said on rail and aviation, which I suspect led to my defenestration. Saving High Speed 2 can be terminal for a career, perhaps. None the less, I hope he will take the issue back to Lord Kamall, and that he might encourage him to meet me and other interested Members to hear what the Gentleman whose brief it is thinks of the matter.
UK-Andean Trade Agreement: Human Rights
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights and the UK-Andean Trade Agreement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. This debate concerns human rights and the UK’s trade agreement with the Andean countries of Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. For the benefit of the Ecuadorians present, Ecuador is not one of the countries of concern to me; Peru—though only a little—and Colombia are the objects of my concern.
It is commonly agreed that any trade agreement nowadays should go beyond merely the management of trade flows between different countries. The then Foreign Secretary, who is now the Justice Secretary, said in January 2021 that
“we shouldn’t be engaged in free trade negotiations with countries abusing human rights”.
That is clear and unequivocal. The Minister for the Middle East, North Africa and North America, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), told the Commons last July that
“our commitment to human rights is a foundation stone of our foreign policy… We will ensure that we use our trade relationships not just to export products and services but to export our principles and values.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 800.]
That is a strong, powerful statement.
Even in their report to the House on the trade agreement with the Andean countries, the Government stated:
“The UK has long supported the promotion of our values globally and this will continue as we leave the EU. We want to ensure economic growth, development and labour and environmental protection go hand-in-hand.”
There we have it: human rights, labour standards and environmental protection should all be part of any modern trade agreement.
It gets a little better; there are strong statements in the agreement itself. Article 1 states:
“Respect for democratic principles and fundamental human rights…underpins the internal and international policies of the Parties. Respect for these principles constitutes an essential element of this Agreement.”
Article 269 commits both parties to
“the promotion and effective implementation in its laws and practice…of internationally recognised core labour standards”.
Sadly, there is no mechanism to enforce that. There are no sanctions and no discussion of what we do when things go wrong. There is an acceptance that we should have domestic advisory groups on both sides to represent civil society, trade unions, employers and so on, which could monitor adherence to labour standards and human rights commitments. I shall be asking the Minister where we are with our own domestic advisory group in the UK.
I will start with Peru, which in many ways is an easier case. Peru generates concern around environmental standards. Back in 2017, Peruvian civil society representatives and their European counterparts filed a complaint before the European Commission against the Peruvian Government for failure to comply with environmental and labour obligations under the free trade agreement with the EU, was then the guiding trade agreement. The Peruvian Government continue to fail to establish clear objectives and indicators to monitor progress on tackling these big environmental issues, so there is concern about Peru.
Colombia is a country I know reasonably well. It had a horrendous civil war, which in a way continues. It reached, in part, a negotiated solution. However, that has not stopped the huge erosion of basic human rights, including the right to life and others.
The hon. Gentleman often brings human rights issues to Westminster Hall about which he and I are on the same page, as we are today. While respect for democratic principles, fundamental human rights and the rule of law should be an essential part of any agreement, does he not agree that we need not simply words but actions? We should not continue to trade with those whose flagrant disregard for and abuse of human rights is prevalent and persevering. I believe that he will now illustrate, in addressing what has happened in Colombia—land grabs and murders of peasant people—that those in authority there have a disregard for life itself.
I am grateful for the hon. Member’s support. He is absolutely right. I will continue on exactly that theme.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has information about 196 human rights defenders —those who protect the population more generally and go out of their way to act as a human shield—who were killed in 2021. They faced increasing death threats in the aftermath of protests last year. In the first 24 days of this year, 10 human rights defenders were murdered. The International Trade Union Confederation rates Colombia as one of the worst countries in the world for workers’ rights and documents 22 trade unionists who have been murdered in the last year. Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be active in a trade union.
It is good that an issue as important as international human rights has been brought to this Chamber. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have to start dealing with such issues in Colombia? Only on Monday, José González Marín, an agricultural workers trade union representative, was shot six times and killed, the rationale being that he wanted the UK-Colombia free trade agreement suspended. This cannot continue.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. That someone was shot for being a trade unionist going about trade union activities is simply an outrage. The right to life is a fundamental right. The right to protest is a fundamental right. In this country in the past, trade unionists may have faced imprisonment, but rarely death, I have to say. It is shocking that that is still the way things are in this world.
More than 1,200 Colombian social leaders, often representing the indigenous community, are estimated to have been murdered since the 2016 peace agreement was signed. I was involved in supporting the creation of that agreement, so I bow to nobody in recognising its importance, but we recognise that it did not solve the problem of violence. Worse than that, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has verified that at least 46 people—two of them state agents, the rest civilians—were killed during protests, with at least 28 of those killings attributed to the police. One young woman, who may not count as one of the 28, was gang-raped by the police and took her own life as a result.
State repression and widespread killing of protestors by the police breaches every democratic principle known to us all. Rather like my hon. Friend said, the question arises of what the remedy should be. The problem with the Andean agreement is that it ultimately makes no demand on the authorities in Colombia or, indeed, Peru. The UK did not consider the Colombian Government’s failure to uphold many of their obligations under the peace agreement when negotiating the Andean agreement. I recognise that the agreement is a roll-over of the EU agreement, but the human rights commitments are nevertheless real, despite the violations that contravene the commitments of the Colombian Government, who have failed to live up to their own expressed intentions.
Will the Minister say where we are on this? I recognise that the treaty is in transition. What do we say to the Colombians and to the Peruvian Government about the gross breaches of the standards to which they agreed and to which we as a country are committed to uphold in our trade negotiations?
Like my hon. Friend, the Trades Union Congress has joined the Colombian trade unions in asking for the agreement to be suspended until there are effective measures to ensure that human rights are observed and, in the case of Peru, that environmental and labour standards are upheld. Clearly, in the absence of any capacity to do that, what matters is how we monitor human rights abuse. What do we do in terms of our dialogue with the Colombian authorities?
I mentioned that there is provision in the treaty for the establishment of domestic advisory groups that ought to be able—through civil society, trade unions, employers’ organisations and civil organisations such as non-governmental organisations and the like—to say what the situation is on the ground and to be listened to. Only by listening away from Government sources do we get the real information on the ground.
I have listened over the years. I was a Minister in the Foreign Office years back. As a recipient of Foreign Office advice about Colombia from our embassy, I did not always find it to be as complete as the information that one would get from civil society and from those on the ground who saw the erosion of standards in people’s real lives and, brutally, people’s real deaths. Where are we up to with the establishment of the domestic advisory groups? It is so important that we have the capacity to monitor, to inform and, where appropriate, to give real criticism and look at whether we want to be part of a trade agreement that is so lacking in enforcement.
More broadly, will the Minister comment on our policy with respect to free trade agreements and human rights clauses? If this is the example that we are using with other regimes where we know that there are regular human rights abuses, we will be creating a very difficult future for our commitment to maintain human rights and to maintain pressure on labour standards and, importantly, environmental standards. We are likely to be talking in the near future to Brazil and other Governments in Latin America. I have to say that the present Brazilian Government would probably not pass muster in terms of their commitments on human rights standards, so what does the Andean agreement say about our ability to work in the future where human rights are central to the whole operation?
I know that the Minister is a trade Minister and is not directly responsible for our embassies, although there are trade representatives in them. What kind of information and advice pertinent to the agreement do the Minister and her colleagues get from our embassy in Bogotá? The ambassador is due to speak to groups of MPs in the not-too-distant future, so I hope that we will hear that directly from him, but he will perhaps give a little more information to Ministers than to a Back-Bench MP, however interested in Colombia I am.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we expect human rights issues in countries to be discussed and ironed out in free trade agreements, arrangements, discussions and negotiations? He has just explained how many people have been killed only this year, and it continues. I would think that the UK Government do raise this issue, but the fact that they do so and nothing happens is not acceptable. What does he think should happen with these negotiations? We cannot continue to turn a blind eye.
That is almost exactly where I want to end. We have got to an agreement. The Government and the Opposition agree that human rights, labour standards and environmental standards are fundamental. That has been enshrined by the then Foreign Secretary, by Foreign Office Ministers and by trade Ministers too. We are in agreement that Colombia is a very difficult case. Peru is perhaps less difficult, but it nevertheless causes some problems. There are therefore two problem countries out of the three Andean treaty countries. In that context, what is the value of writing human rights clauses into an agreement if, in the end, nothing is done about the erosion of standards?
We have to rethink the way that we do things. We have to rethink whether sanctions or a road map need to be delivered, saying that we expect change and transformation. In the end, we expect to have the capacity, if our interlocuters in Bogotá or other capitals—in Peru, Brazil or wherever—are not conforming, to say, “We really can no longer live with this agreement.” I put it to the Minister that the time has now come to listen to the call, from the Colombian trade unions in particular, for us to suspend this agreement until such time that there is a recognisable road map for human rights, labour standards and environmental improvement.
I start by thanking the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this important and well-attended debate. These debates are very helpful to get things on record and to raise awareness about particular issues. They are also very helpful to Ministers, because they enable us to take some time to do a deep dive into areas that we normally would not pay a huge amount of attention to, because of the demands on our time.
The debate has caused me to take some time this week to look at the tragic details of the cases that he and other Members have raised—there are hundreds of cases. These are not just lists of names; there are stories behind them about what those individuals were working towards and what they were trying to secure for their communities. These are people who have been killed and murdered and, as hon. Members have said, been victims of other crimes too, including sexual violence. They were trade unionists, they were protestors and they were environmental campaigners—as well as many other things. Their murders, and the murders of members of their families, including children, are horrific. Colleagues have done the House a service in reminding us about what has gone on and what continues to go on. I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale for that.
I thank the Minister for giving way, I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for securing this debate and I apologise for arriving a few minutes late. While the Minister is paying tribute to those who have been murdered, I want to add to the record Dr Luz Marina Arteaga, a social leader from the Matarratón and El Porvenir communities in Colombia. I and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) had the huge privilege of meeting her several years ago during our visit with the ABColombia group. She was found dead towards the end of January, murdered for standing up for the rights of her community. We have written directly to the Foreign Secretary about that—I hope we will hear back soon. I want to add that to the record and emphasise the necessity for accountability mechanisms in these trade deals. As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, these are not worth anything in writing if they are not acted upon.
I thank the hon. Member for raising that particular case. If we were to raise every case we would be here for several weeks; there are large numbers of individuals and their families falling victim to this activity. The countries that the hon. Member for Rochdale is concerned about are of concern to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; they are on its watchlist for human rights abuses. As well as the levers that the Government have, which I will come on to, we have a huge amount in the UK that we can deploy to try and improve this situation. Our trade unions are a part of that suite of things that we have to offer as a country. When we talk about global Britain, we often do not talk about what they do, but I know from previous roles that they do a tremendous amount to build capacity and highlight the plight of vulnerable individuals. We have done good work both in the FCDO and in other Departments—the Department for Work and Pensions, for example—to try to use that knowledge and expertise to grow capacity in organisations elsewhere.
Government can be a catalyst for reform and for improving human rights around the world. In formulating our trade policy, for which I hold the brief, I try to balance off what the best way of doing that is. I am very conscious that trade in itself is a force for good. Our trade dialogue gives us a platform to raise human rights issues. Just in autumn last year, I and another Minister from our Department went to Peru to discuss issues related to trade, and were able to raise other issues alongside that debate. Trade is also important for poverty alleviation. I am very conscious that, as we come out of the pandemic and, we hope, recover swiftly from that economic blow, removing barriers to trade is a vitally important component of that.
I am also acutely aware that the communities that hon. Members have mentioned this afternoon have suffered terribly during the pandemic. Many of them have lost millions of jobs, and those individuals have little or no state support, and so are more vulnerable to exploitation. Organisations, civil society voices and trade union voices that we want to strengthen are increasingly important at this time.
We have many other tools in Government outside of our trade negotiations. We shape our official development assistance programmes to reflect concerns about human rights. To give the hon. Member for Rochdale an example from another situation, we reshaped our ODA programming following the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. We still wanted to work there, and there was a need for us to be there, but it was not appropriate to continue as we had been. We do adapt—our policies are not set in stone. They can adapt, and our FTA policies and programmes enable us to do that.
We have spent to date £68 million through the conflict, stability and security fund to support the implementation of a peace agreement in Colombia, as the hon. Member for Rochdale will know. As I said, that country is on the FCDO’s human rights priority country watchlist. Our Minister met with human rights defenders and social leaders in November last year to talk extensively about those issues.
There have been 40 community activists killed already this year, and there have been 13 massacres. As I have said twice already, that cannot continue. Can the Minister give this House assurances that, in any discussions with the Colombian authorities, No. 1 on the agenda will be human rights in that country? We should be doing everything that we possibly can to remedy that issue. If they will not listen, if they continue to turn a blind eye, does the Minister have any ideas about how best to progress this?
When we meet Ministers and other people who can assist us in other countries, that is absolutely part of our core script. On visits, we as Ministers, but also our officials, will listen to organisations in country as well. It is incredibly important that we do that and that we have a good understanding. Of course, through our networks around the globe, and particularly in those countries, we ensure that these things are monitored and reported back to our ministries. I will come on to what we can do, because as the hon. Member and other hon. Members have said, the situation persists.
Crucially, we have also put in place a multi-million pound project to help to transform the approach taken by the Colombian national police on human rights, social conflict and gender. I mention those things because addressing them is part of how we—the UK—can help to resolve the situation, and protect and strengthen civil society.
The hon. Member for Rochdale asked me some specific questions on our engagement. I have mentioned the engagement that my Department has had with Peru recently. Last year, three UK Ministers visited Colombia. In addition, there were regular calls between officials, as well as virtual visits—given some of the restrictions we faced—by Lord Ahmad and the UK international ambassador for human rights. Most recently, a Foreign Office Minister visited Colombia in November to attend an event marking the five-year anniversary of the signing of the 2016 peace agreement, which obviously provided opportunities for her to raise these issues, which she did.
I will respond to some of the questions that the hon. Member for Rochdale asked about our position on monitoring; then I will answer the questions put by the hon. Member for Wansbeck about how we can apply some teeth to such monitoring.
The hon. Member for Rochdale asked about monitoring of the commitment and ensuring that we deal with countries that try to adhere to the core standards of the agreement. We have an annual trade committee, under which we have several specialised committees, with those countries’ partners. That is obviously the successor to the EU structure, which he alluded to. It meets on an annual basis and is due to meet again in March. It helps to ensure compliance with the terms of the agreement, as well as providing a framework for ensuring that commitments are met and that the agreement is functioning effectively. It also supports our objectives, including our human rights objectives.
Regarding the UK’s domestic advisory group—clearly, the countries have their own such groups, but I will talk about ours—we launched a public expression of interest for that in January. It is an independent group of expert organisations that will monitor the implementation of the trade and sustainable development chapters of the UK’s FTAs, including those with the countries that the hon. Member for Rochdale is concerned about. The UK’s DAG is expected to be in place shortly—later this year—and engagement with the UK Government and partner countries will be regular and ongoing. Partner countries to these agreements will also establish their own respective DAGs and we have discussed the issue at the UK’s first trade and sustainable development committees, which began last year and will continue this year. We have regular discussions with those countries at ministerial and official levels, and our annual trade committee and associated sub-committees provide a platform to do that.
The countries’ trade agreements include binding provisions on trade and sustainable development, or TSD, on both labour and environmental standards, and they provide for an annual TSD committee, which I have already alluded to. Those are an opportunity for the UK to raise concerns with partner organisations and we will do so if necessary. However, that is how we will monitor what is happening. What hon. Members want to know is how we will apply some teeth to this process.
Clearly, we take a bespoke approach to our FTAs, but all our FTAs contain either chapters or parts based on human rights. Those provisions differ and have a different focus, depending on the particular needs of the situation that we are dealing with. For example, there may be chapters on gender or indigenous people. That is what “good” looks like in an FTA; that is what we work to. However, the reasons for including such provisions are not just because it is a nice thing to do—
Nationality and Borders Bill: LGBTQ+ People
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential effect of provisions in the Nationality and Borders Bill on LGBTQ+ people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. Before I begin, I would like to refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the support I receive from the excellent Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project. I also pay tribute to the organisations in my constituency and across Yorkshire—such as the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, City of Sanctuary Sheffield, ASSIST Sheffield, Time to be Out and so many more—that do such vital work supporting asylum seekers and refugees in my region.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is a wide-ranging piece of legislation. There are so many problems with it that it has been difficult for Members to address them all as it has passed through Parliament. Today, I want to shed some light on the potentially devastating impact this legislation will have on LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and refugees.
I have spoken to many campaigners advocating on behalf of LGBTQ+ communities, and every organisation I have contacted is appalled by the Bill. They are appalled because LGBTQ+ people seeking sanctuary are already met with a system full of obstacles and challenges.
In a world where homosexuality is still illegal in 70 countries and punishable by death in 11, it is shocking that across Europe, one in three applications from LGBTQ+ asylum seekers is refused because officials simply do not believe the applicant. According to the University of Sussex, four in 10 people report being rejected because decision makers did not consider them to be persecuted or at risk of persecution in their home country, while more than a third felt interviewers did not listen to their story or ask relevant questions.
In the UK, the story is no less bleak. Around 2,000 people fleeing persecution because of their sexual orientation seek asylum here every year, with only about a quarter of those applications granted by the Home Office. However, when those decisions are challenged, almost half of those who have been refused win their appeals. Those numbers alone suggest that something is very wrong at the Home Office. They speak to what researchers at the University of Sussex have described as a “culture of disbelief” that is a symptom of a wider hostile environment for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. As ever, it is the most vulnerable who suffer the most. Ministers should put themselves in the shoes of someone running from violence and abuse for their sexuality or gender identity to truly understand what that is like to go through.
Currently, under UK law, to be granted asylum, a person must demonstrate that if they were forced to return to their country of origin, there is a reasonable degree of likelihood they would be persecuted. They are compelled to prove their sexual orientation to Home Office officials who, as I have said, have been told to be intensely suspicious of anything said to them.
I had a constituent who was from Venezuela. He was told to return. He had married a British person. He was told that he could be more discreet in Venezuela and have no problem, and then return via the marriage route—he had no problem and should not worry. Is there not a problem in the Home Office looking at technical processes rather than at human beings? It expects people to be able to fit into boxes that are just not them.
I completely agree. I have huge sympathy with my hon. Friend’s constituent. I am sure that story has been told many times before.
Imagine being an LGBTQ+ person who lives in one of those countries where homosexuality is illegal, or where it is punishable by death: you live in a constant fear of being outed. Every day is a struggle to erase any evidence of your identity. If you fail or slip up, or accidentally reveal that you are gay or bisexual or do not feel at home in the gender that society has assigned you, you will face horrific consequences. You finally manage to escape, and after what has probably been a very traumatic journey, you find yourself in an interview room in the UK. What will you say when you sit down with Home Office officials and they ask you to produce evidence of your identity—the same evidence that you have been erasing your entire life? How can you prove anything to them? You might think of contacting a former romantic partner from your country of origin, but what if they are unwilling to provide the evidence, for fear of being outed too? Or, even worse, what if they have already been imprisoned or even killed for their gender identity or sexuality? You cannot even rely on family members, who often do not feel safe enough to write a statement for the Home Office. They may even have disowned you for your identity.
Instead of seeking to right those wrongs and to address this impossible situation, the Nationality and Borders Bill increases the burden of proof for asylum applications. Clause 31 says that instead of a reasonable degree of likelihood, the threshold should be far higher and should be based on the balance of probabilities that a person will face persecution if they return.
What if someone does not even have the language to describe their own sexuality and gender identity? What if they come from a culture that describes them in very different terms? I recently heard from a woman who had been accused of witchcraft in her home country for having relationships with other women. After violence and intimidation, she fled to the UK, where she said to officials that she faced persecution for witchcraft. They simply did not understand. They looked on in confusion and denied her application. Only after living here for some months did she have the words to describe herself as a lesbian.
These are not isolated stories. The people who come here have been brutalised and traumatised. They often cannot immediately find the words to describe what they have been through and why. In many cases, they are explaining those difficult and complex experiences in a language that is not their own and that does not easily translate.
Proposals in this Bill make life for people such as that woman and countless others much harder. Under new measures, people could be forced to produce relevant evidence by a fixed date. If they miss that deadline, the Bill allows for the evidence to be given minimal weight.
Evidence is evidence. A person does not stop being LGBTQ+ over time, nor does the threat to someone’s wellbeing in their country of origin diminish. Any legal pretence that it does will have devastating impacts on the most vulnerable LGBTQ+ people. For them, it is already a challenge to gather evidence. For many, proving their sexual orientation or gender identity is impossible. For some, explaining it is difficult. There are also so many reasons why a person simply would not want to disclose their sexuality or gender identity to people they do not know and do not trust.
The asylum system is not a hospitable place at the moment for someone who is openly LGBTQ+. As we process asylum applications, it is bitterly and cruelly ironic that we often incarcerate people who, in their country of origin, face prison sentences for their identity and sexuality.
LGBTQ+ people already face disproportionate levels of abuse in the asylum centre system. Detaining more people who make asylum claims will only make those statistics worse. The new rules for the so-called group 2 refugees also discourage LGBTQ+ people from telling their stories with their genuine claims for asylum. The UN has already said that the distinction in the Bill between group 1 and group 2 refugees undermines the 1951 refugee convention.
I am worried that giving one group of refugees lesser temporary rights and ratcheting up the uncertainty they face could also force LGBTQ+ refugees to continue to hide their identify, for fear of being returned to their home country. After all, why would anyone disclose their sexuality and gender ID if they knew they could be deported? It could be used to press charges against them once they are sent home and put them at further risk.
I know the Government are aware of some of these issues. Organisations such as Rainbow Migration, a group fighting for LGBTQ+ people in the UK immigration system, have been loudly sounding the alarm. In September 2021, the equality impact assessment for the Bill admitted that it risked indirectly disadvantaging protected groups, including LGBTQ+ people. Six days after the publication of that assessment, I questioned the Minister in Parliament. Back then, he said he was new to his role and had to get up to speed before he could comment in full. Now that he has had time to do his homework, I look forward to hearing what he will do. He told me then that he fully expects the Government to be sympathetic in taking proper account of the issues that I raised.
I would like to reach out to all hon. Members here today. The Nationality and Borders Bill will soon return to the House. When we draft and debate such legislation, we write the future stories of countless thousands fleeing the worst of circumstances. Every pen stroke of every amendment can make a difference to some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
Every day, LGBTQ+ people flee from violence, threats and abuse, but they cannot flee from who they are. As legislators, we can choose. We can either allow those horrific experiences to follow them here, inscribing yet another chapter of trauma into the lives of people who have already suffered enough, or we can turn the page and write something new. I hope that is what every hon. Member here chooses to do as the Bill comes back to the House in the coming weeks.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing this important debate and on making an excellent speech. Like her, I want to declare the support provided to me in my office by the Refugee Asylum and Migration Policy project.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is a peculiarly awful piece of legislation, designed to solve problems that do not exist, ignore problems that do, and play to a gallery rather than seek to make a difference. The negative impact that this Bill will have on LGBTQ+ asylum seekers is a prime example of what is wrong with the Bill. LGBTQ+ people will be disproportionately affected by clause 11, which is the Government’s choice to differentiate on the basis of method of entry into the United Kingdom. They are much more likely, as we have heard, to be categorised as group 2 refugees, and experience second-class treatment at best. Despite fulfilling refugee criteria, they will have very limited leave to remain, reduced refugee family reunion rights, and no recourse to public funds. That will have a huge impact on their ability to integrate. It will affect their wellbeing, mental health, access to services, and ability to work, settle and fully participate in UK society.
Does the hon. Member agree that the two-track system affects people from different regions differently? I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Kurdistan in Turkey and Syria. Many of the people crossing in the boats are Kurds, because there are no legal ways for Kurds, who may be Syrians in Turkey, to come to the UK. The UK says that Turkey is a safe place for them, but we know that Turkey persecutes Kurds, and the majority of Kurds who come via informal routes get granted asylum here. The Bill would make that much harder for our allies, the Kurds, who fought for us in Syria.
Spot on. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, because it frames how ludicrous it is to have a system that sees people as “good refugees” or “bad refugees”. The reality is that creating a second tier of refugee, which the Government sometimes refer to as “illegal route”—there is no such thing as an illegal refugee—is in contravention of international agreements on the matter.
I will reel of a list of countries myself. Cameroon, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and Uganda—these are the most common countries of origin for people claiming asylum on the basis of their sexuality. They are also countries where many individuals are persecuted because of their sexual orientation, but they are not seen as areas of conflict or instability and as such do not warrant inclusion in the UK resettlement scheme. As the hon. Gentleman just mentioned, as a result, those people will be treated as second-class asylum seekers. If they can find their way here, it will probably be through very unsafe routes—although safer than staying put, I ought to add. Those fleeing those countries can therefore come here only by the so-called illegal routes—irregular, informal routes.
It is important to recognise that even if those people were in a region where they could access the UK resettlement scheme, they may still remain at risk, due to their sexuality, in neighbouring countries that they would pass through on the way to safety, which for other refugees might be places of safety. They would obviously prefer to move on to safety rather than wait in camps in a country that is unsafe for them. Further to that, it is highly likely that LGBTQ+ people will not feel safe coming forward and identifying themselves as a person eligible for resettlement, because it is quite possible that their families and communities could be the source of the persecution. The Government’s choice to penalise further the late production of evidence will disproportionately impact LGBT people. It is therefore wrong.
There are reasons why, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, rightly set out, LGBT+ people are less able to access safe routes to the UK than other categories of refugees. It is important, therefore, that refugees are treated the same, regardless of their method of travel. The conditions that refugees are granted should not be dependent on how they reach the UK. There are many valid reasons why people have no choice but to use irregular routes. None of us wants people to have to resort to using criminal gangs to access safety.
The hon. Member mentioned Uganda. In 2014, it passed an anti-homosexuality Bill into law, which created a big outpouring of refugee communities. The problem that many Ugandan refugees had was that, although in neighbouring countries the laws were not as strict as Uganda’s, they did not want to identify themselves as LGBTQ and to have it known. Their only option would be to come to a country such as the UK. We need to recognise that.
The hon. Member is absolutely right. That is what is wrong with the Bill. He sums up the problem of having this nonsense, immoral, two-tier system. We do not want people to use criminal gangs to get here, but if the Government will not provide safe routes for those people, they will have to do that and we should have compassion for them.
Irregular journeys and the fact that we are an island mean that people will travel through other countries before reaching the United Kingdom. Data shows that most refugees remain in neighbouring or other European countries. Many countries take more asylum seekers per capita than the United Kingdom. The international refugee system relies on countries sharing the refugee population. We cannot rely on certain countries to host all the refugees who reach them just because they happen to be the first point of arrival in Europe, for example. It is not fair on Greece, Italy and so on. It does not work. We need to do our bit. Treating certain kinds of refugee as second class or worse is wrong, and likely to be against international law. How can we look Putin in the eye at this terrible moment and challenge him over his breaches of international law when we risk doing so ourselves? It is not just generally about having a second, lower-tier of less worthy refugees, but in particular the way that we make life demonstrably harder for LGBTQ and other marginalised communities. That is wrong; the Government must rethink it.
Thank you, Mr Sharma, for the excellent job you are doing chairing the debate. I extend genuine thanks to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake). I am not just going through the motions of thanking the Member in charge; this is a hugely important debate, and I particularly enjoyed the video that she put on Twitter earlier, which clearly laid out the information and I thought it was incredibly helpful.
My colleagues have covered some of the detail and some of the clauses of the Nationality and Borders Bill. We disagree with the entire Bill, but I want to talk specifically about the issues facing LGBTQ people. I do not get why the UK Government have chosen to take this direction in the Bill. We all agree that life is more difficult for someone who is LGBTQ+. They are more likely to be persecuted or discriminated against. That is demonstrably the case.
It is especially the case for those who live in a country that has systematic prejudice built into the authority systems and also into the family system and the traditions. That makes it is even more difficult for an LGBTQ+ person to live their life. As has been said, it is not something that someone grows out of and they suddenly forget that it is a part of their reality; it is that person’s self for their entire life. Why would the Government decide to make it more difficult for LGBTQ+ people to claim asylum in the UK? I cannot get my head around it. I would like the Government to explain why they have chosen to go down this route when so many organisations have raised concerns, made it absolutely clear and provided evidence about how much more difficult things would be as a result of the Government’s actions.
I want to focus on a couple of things. If somebody is coming from a country where they have had to hide their sexuality or gender identity from the Government, officials, and everybody in authority they have ever had a conversation with, how can we expect them to sit down with Home Office officials and openly talk about it? They have spent their entire lives having to hide it from officials for fear of being imprisoned, being killed or facing incredibly serious prejudice and discrimination from those authority figures. How can we expect these people to be able to sit down in a room with Home Office officials and say, “Yes, absolutely. I am gay” when they have spent their entire lives hiding it? I do not understand how the bar can change on this issue when it has been made clear that it is difficult enough under the current route.
I also want to highlight, and I will not talk for terribly long about it, that there is a significant number of asylum seekers in the UK at the moment. That means that a number of non-dispersal authorities have asylum seekers placed in them. In areas, such as mine, and in areas outside Glasgow, which is a dispersal authority that is used to dealing with and supporting refugees, there is not the infrastructure to provide that level of support. We have hardly any immigration lawyers who deal with asylum claims in Scotland—never mind Aberdeen.
We are looking at raising this bar when the situation has already been made more difficult because of the lack of support. Given that in Scotland, we do not have the systems in place outside Glasgow, refugees in Aberdeen city and Aberdeenshire are finding it more difficult because they cannot access the systems that they would normally get support from, so why are we not cutting them slack? These people should be cut slack at this moment, rather than having the bar lifted and things made more difficult. I appreciate that there is a huge number of organisations, such as Rainbow Migration, that are doing a great job, but they do not have that significant presence in my constituency; they do not have that significant presence in Aberdeen; they do not have the ability to assist the refugees in explaining their case and making that clear.
I would ask the Government, at this moment, particularly where non-dispersal authorities are having to support refugees, what slack will be cut? What support will be given to ensure that people can make the proper claims? We all agree that there are a number of people who should be able to make these claims and should be granted asylum. How will we provide them with the support that they need to make those claims when we are already failing to do so within the current system?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), who made an excellent speech. In fact, I agree with pretty much everything that has been said all the speeches so far, so I can be pretty brief. Indeed, I can be brief because I have spoken for hours on end on the subject of this Bill, and I do not need to go into every single last detail of why we find the whole measure fairly horrendous. Well, not fairly—it is absolutely horrendous.
Starting on a note of consensus, I think I would say that we agree—or I agree—that the asylum system, if not broken, is at breaking point, but I believe that it can be saved. Unfortunately, far from fixing it, this Bill absolutely breaks it beyond the point where it can be salvaged at all. That is true for all asylum seekers, but is particularly true for those who are LGBTQ+.
As we heard earlier, we should address all sorts of issues that are not addressed in this Bill: the delay in the asylum process; the impoverishment that asylum seekers face because of the appalling levels of asylum support; the ban on work; poor-quality decisions; a failing accommodation system; inappropriate and overused detention; and the lack of safe legal routes, which has already been mentioned. Those all apply to all asylum seekers, including LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.
However, there are particular issues for that group, some of which have been touched on already. Those have not been addressed in this Bill, but they must be addressed. Those issues are, for example, how the Home Office conducts interviews, and the assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices that many claimants face. That applies not just to those doing interviews at the outset, but sometimes to immigration judges and the Home Office presenting officers who appear before them.
There is also still a significant problem with interpreters. Asylum applicants are often supported by people from the very country from which they have fled homophobic and transphobic prejudice. Much more needs to be done to ensure that those people feel safe and secure with the interpreters provided to them.
On analysis of evidence, LGBT claims based on sexuality are often criticised because statements of support from friends and colleagues in this country are described as “self-serving”—whatever that means—yet, if they do not provide those very statements, their absence is criticised as fatal to the application. We have heard about the standard of proof already being too high. It is supposed to be “at real risk” at the moment but, in reality, it is often set way above that thanks to the culture of disbelief, which has been described already.
We still have the problem, which was referred to in one intervention, of the idea that people could simply return to their countries of origin and exercise their discretion. That idea should have been done away with, and we thought it had been by the Supreme Court a number of years ago, but, in reality, it still lingers around in the Home Office system.
On detention, why is it that LGBT individuals are not in the adults at risk policy? There are various other points in Home Office policy where their vulnerability is recognised, but why is that not the case when it comes to detention? The list of issues goes on, but I must stop there so that I can press on.
We have spoken at length about why we object to the Nationality and Borders Bill. In our view, it is illegal and immoral. At heart, it is a Bill about deliberately—intentionally—making life miserable and making life worse for people in this country to try to disincentivise other people from coming here to seek refuge. It is an appalling concept, when we think about it like that. It will cost an astronomical sum of money. I want to see the economic impact assessment, which we have been promised for months on end—we still have not seen it, despite being three quarters of the way through the parliamentary process.
Nothing in the Bill is going to make things better. It is going to make everything worse at every single stage for asylum seekers, including LGBT+ individuals. When they arrive here, they will be criminalised, with an offence that could see them imprisoned for up to four years. It is an astonishing concept. Their claims will be deemed invisible for six months. Essentially, we just add six months on to the already horrendous waiting time. What on earth does that solve?
The Bill seeks to increase the use of Napier-style warehouses for asylum seekers, even offshoring individuals. These measures have particular consequences and challenges for LGBT+ individuals. The Bill also complicates the process. We have heard already that we are going to see the standard of proof increased from real risk to the balance of probabilities. We need to think about what exactly that means. A Home Office decision maker could decide they are 49% sure—
I will wind up quickly. We could have a decision maker almost certain that the applicant before them has accurately described the events and the persecution that they suffered in their country, but if they fall slightly short on the balance of probabilities, even if that decision maker is 100% sure that LGBT+ people will face persecution on return, that claim will be refused because of this new higher standard of proof.
The whole Bill is an absolute shambles. We need to hear in detail today, clause by clause, what the Home Office is going to do on each of the provisions to protect LGBT+ asylum seekers. We also need to hear much more about resettlement. It is often said to be the answer to all these criticisms, but how is resettlement going to help anybody in the LGBT+ community?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her for her tireless work on this issue and on protecting and extending the rights of LGBTQ+ people, regardless of their passport, country of birth or immigration status.
The Nationality and Borders Bill will have a deliberate, devastating impact on the rights of refugees, migrants and people of colour. Refugee Action has described it as
“the biggest attack on the refugee protection system that we have ever seen”.
Approximately 2,000 LGBTQ+ people claim asylum in the UK each year, fearing persecution in their home countries. This Bill will make it harder for any refugee to find safety here, but for this group, it is even more concerning. Many people who have been welcomed into our country’s LGBTQ+ community would simply not be here if the Nationality and Borders Bill had been law at the time they made their claim.
LGBTQ+ refugees are already put through dehumanising so-called tests to prove their identity and are still disbelieved by the Home Office. The Bill increases the threshold to prove that they are LGBTQ+ even further, taking it from the internationally accepted standard of reasonable degree of likelihood to the far stricter balance of probabilities.
If they are granted the new temporary protection status, LGBTQ+ refugees could be forced to hide their identity while in the UK for fear of persecution if they are made to return to their country of origin. For trans refugees, that might prevent them from transitioning—from changing their name, altering their gender expression or undergoing medical treatment—and that will have devastating consequences for their mental health and wellbeing.
The introduction of accommodation and offshore processing centres also poses particular risks for LGBTQ+ people, such as experiencing violence and abuse in these settings. Those seeking asylum should be housed in the community, not far-flung islands, derelict barracks, or unsuitable hotels such as the ones in which many refugees are being housed in my constituency.
The severity of this Bill’s impact cannot be overstated. This Government are risking not only breaching international law, but sending people to their deaths. If LGBTQ+ allyship does not extend to the most marginalised in our community—our refugee siblings—it means very little at all, so I urge the Minister to listen to what all of us have said today; to listen to our words, and those of refugee organisations and refugees themselves; and to please take a stand in his own Department.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. Contrary to everything the Government claim, the Nationality and Borders Bill is not some piece of wonder legislation that will fix a broken system. It will not break the business model of people smugglers or offer any safe and legal routes to these islands, although the Minister is going to say that it will. It is called the anti-refugee Bill for a reason, and, as we have heard in some powerful contributions, the Government have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that it punishes the most vulnerable in the flawed belief that deterrence works.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) on securing the debate. We must keep pushing on this terrible Bill generally and emphasising who it will affect, but I am glad that she has given us the opportunity to look at it through the lens of the LGBTQ+ community, given that there are 70—I had 69, but she told us 70—countries across the globe where being gay is still considered a crime. The hon. Member said something that I found quite moving: you can flee, but you cannot flee from who you are, and why should you?
The former leader of the Lib Dems, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about differential treatment being more likely for people in the LGBTQ+ community. Although the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) did not speak in the debate, his many interventions demonstrated a strong understanding of what is happening. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) talked about people spending their life in hiding, and what happens to them when they get here. She asked why, and I will come on to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), who served on the Bill Committee with myself and the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), as usual showed a forensic understanding of what is going on. The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) talked about the devastating consequences for trans people—let us not forget them.
I would like to talk about Bahiru, an extremely brave gay man from Ethiopia, where homosexuality is still punishable by up to 15 years in prison and LGBTQ+ people are at huge risk of violence and persecution. I thank PinkNews for telling his story. Growing up, he suppressed his sexuality to keep himself and his family safe, but eventually managed to connect with a few members of the community, meeting as a secret and underground group. What shocked him was the lack of knowledge of LGBTQ+ issues, especially safe sex, so he took it on himself to change that situation and educate those around him. He managed to get those travelling back to Ethiopia from abroad to bring condoms and other items unavailable in Ethiopia so he could distribute them around the community—a brave, selfless, and noble thing to do—and he did all of this in the knowledge that he was at risk of being found out, criminalised and prosecuted.
It was not long before the word was out, and Bahiru received threats to out him and release his photo and personal information. He knew his life was in danger. He said,
“I had to escape. I could not even hide in my own parents’ house, because the violence could have come from any side.”
He was lucky—he had been to the UK recently, so he had an active visa and the support of organisations that he had been working with—but most people who are forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives have no time or way to access the very few safe and legal routes. When he arrived in the UK, he was put into shared accommodation with people who had brought their prejudices with them from other countries with homophobic laws and he spent months fearing for his safety. That type of communal living for asylum seekers has been described as a powder keg of different views, prejudices, languages, traumatic experiences and lifestyles. Bahiru was scared to challenge the views of others, saying,
“The homophobic tendencies, the tensions, the passing comments that people make and jokes about sexual minorities, it was awful.”
He was mentally, physically and emotionally burnt out.
The Nationality and Borders Bill will warehouse asylum seekers like Bahiru in large-scale detention centres. The Government are already trialling places such as Napier barracks and Penally to see how that will work. I should say at this point that I am to visit Napier barracks tomorrow with the APPG on immigration detention. I was at best disappointed by, and at worst deeply suspicious of, the refusal of Home Office officials to allow us MPs to speak to residents without officials being present. Will the Minister intervene today and allow them the chance to speak with us freely? If there is nothing to hide, there is no reason not to allow that.
It is hard to imagine much worse than warehousing, but the Bill paves the way for asylum seekers to be warehoused and processed offshore—to be shipped around the globe to any country willing to strike a deal with the UK. Who is to say where that might be and what that country’s laws on sexuality might be? At his asylum interview, Bahiru was asked to prove his sexuality. He described the process as “very heteronormative”, saying, “It’s only heterosexuals who could ask you to prove you are gay.” He knows of people who took pictures of themselves having sex with other people as evidence. Imagine how degrading and humiliating that must be.
In addition, people like Bahiru face the prospect of differential treatment, with a requirement to present themselves without delay to authorities, which they are less likely to do for a multitude of pretty obvious reasons; they could lose their rights to public funds and family reunion, and they could be issued with priority removal notices, along with a requirement to provide relevant evidence by a fixed deadline. Bahiru is applying for indefinite leave to remain, but for him the uncertainty is still there.
The experiences I have described should act as a warning. Everything an LGBTQ+ asylum seeker or refugee goes through today will be made much, much worse when the Bill is passed. We should not be considering legislation that aims to strip dignity and basic human rights from people. We should not be talking about legislation that will make it even harder than it already is for an LGBTQ+ person to prove their sexual orientation or gender identity. We most certainly should not be shipping people across the globe for processing.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam for bringing the debate to the House. My experience tells me that we will get very little out of the Minister today, although something tells me he has fixed it so we can see those people tomorrow, without Home Office officials—I saw him typing away. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North asked why it is like this, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said that the Government are intentionally trying to make things worse for people. The Bill is ideologically driven, and although I predict the Minister will say he is hurt and offended that we could think such a thing, the conclusion that the Government simply do not care about these people is the only one I can reach if the Bill proceeds.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Sharma.
I start as others have by thanking and paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake). In her typically powerful opening speech, she shared some bleak statistics on the situation around the world, reminded us that the death penalty still exists in 11 countries and that there are regions of the world where homosexuality is equated with witchcraft, and finished with a really powerful sentiment: you cannot flee from who you are. I thank her very much for securing the debate and bringing the Nationality and Borders Bill gang back together—we spent a lot of time together in the Bill Committee—to revisit some of the really important points that we need to continue to push the Government on.
Attempting to build a cross-party consensus on these issues is incredibly important, especially when we are discussing a Bill that has the potential to affect vulnerable people and those at increased risk of harm in a multitude of different ways. The Minister and I both served on the Committee scrutinising the Nationality and Borders Bill, so we are returning to strongly held and familiar differences of opinion on a great deal of the legislation, but I am sure we all agree on just how many members of the LGBTQ+ community continue to face human rights abuses, gender-based violence and threats across the world, which is utterly unacceptable.
As we have heard, about 70 countries still criminalise same-sex relations. Everyone should feel able to live their life openly and safely, and to be proud of who they are. For those who seek sanctuary in the UK, it may be the first time they feel able and safe enough to express themselves and truly embrace their identity without fear of repercussions. In 2020, there were 1,012 asylum applications lodged in the UK where sexual orientation formed part of the basis of the claim, representing 3% of all asylum applications. In 2020, there were 440 grants of asylum or an alternative form of leave to remain to applicants where sexual orientation formed part of the basis of their asylum claim—7% fewer than the previous year. Furthermore, last year, nearly half of appeals relating to LGB asylum applications were granted. We have a moral obligation to get this right, to recognise why LGBTQ+ people might not be safe where they are and to design an asylum system that recognises that with compassion and understanding.
The Government’s own equality impact assessment accepts that there is a risk of indirect discrimination against this group but says it will be mitigated through monitoring. I am sorry, but, as the Minister knows, we have been here before. I cite Napier barracks as the reason why I do not accept that the Government will do the right thing in looking after particularly vulnerable groups of people. The Government ignored public health and fire safety advice and failed to identify vulnerabilities within the cohort accommodated there. I appreciate that that was before the Minister’s time in office, but the Government had to be dragged to every incremental improvement, very slowly made, at Napier and Penally barracks. Rainbow Migration outlined in its written evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee:
“The “Suitability Assessment for Contingency Accommodation” and the “Allocation of accommodation policy” do not mention LGBTQI+ people at all, thereby deeming them suitable to be accommodated in the barracks, despite the issues that arise for LGBTQI+ people in this type of accommodation.”
The Minister’s thinking that we would have any confidence in the Government marking their own homework on looking after vulnerable people in the asylum system and adapting accordingly is, I am afraid, for the birds. That is why we are here.
The part of the Bill that gives me greatest cause for concern, particularly for to LGBTQ+ people, as others have said, is about the principle of late disclosure undermining credibility in both the asylum and modern slavery provisions. When we debated the specific modern slavery measures in the Bill Committee, I and others made the point that the additional barriers to protection and entry into the national referral mechanism contradicted the Home Office’s statutory guidance that that a victim’s early accounts may be affected by the impact of trauma, which can result in delayed disclosure, difficulty recalling facts or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. These well understood principles must apply to LGBTQ+ people, as acknowledged in the Home Office guidance on sexual orientation in asylum claims. I ask the Minister once again why measures that go against the Home Office’s statutory guidance have been included in the Bill.
The reality and impact of those measures is perhaps best understood when listening to those who have personally experienced our asylum system. Much like the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), who told the story of a young man from Ethiopia, I will share Samir’s story. Samir remembers how hard it was to take the first steps in his asylum process. He had to recount the traumatic things that had happened to him in his home country. He had also never openly discussed the fact he was a gay man before. He said:
“It was the first time talking about my sexuality…just saying aloud the word gay, it was very surreal. I knew that although I was scared, this was my only chance for me to tell my story…and if I didn’t, I knew that my case would be dismissed and they would send me back.”
Samir’s asylum claim was initially rejected, only to be challenged following legal assistance provided to him by Rainbow Migration, which offers free legal advice, and he was eventually granted refugee status. There are a multitude of reasons why someone who is LGBTQ+ might need time and support to disclose their experiences. It is our view that, given the vulnerabilities of those groups and the Government’s own guidance, the clauses will most adversely affect those most in need of protection and undermine our moral and legal obligations.
Before I conclude, I thank and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for his contribution. He made the point that the notion of a good refugee and bad refugee, and the way the Government seek to legislate for that, contravenes international law. He was assisted in making that point with examples from my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle).
I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for her typically powerful speech. In a number of cases, a person will have had to hide their identity from their Government, but we ask them to openly share it with ours without that understanding of any difference.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) also made a typically powerful contribution on the difference in the standard of proof, a point also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) for reminding us of the stark consequences if we return somebody to a country that does not recognise their sexuality or gender identity or, quite frankly, does worse than fail to recognise it.
The Minister understands my concerns about the Bill and its potential to detrimentally impact on those most in need of asylum—those who have the hardest stories to tell. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam is therefore quite right to highlight its impact on LGBTQ+ people. The Bill is currently being debated in the House of Lords, and Labour Front Benchers have tabled an amendment that would disapply late disclosure penalties to those who have made a claim on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. I am aware of several other amendments tabled by Baroness Lister, Lord Etherton and others that all seek to deliver similar safeguards. I hope the Minister can say whether the Government are minded to accept any of those proposals.
In many of our previous exchanges, the Minister has cited the provision of further detail in the statutory guidance. Only today, in response to a written question about the timing, the Minister said to me that any statutory guidance
“will be developed in line with usual process, which includes any requirements to consult. The timetable for implementing the guidance will be dependent on the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill.”
I thank the Minister for that clarity and if he has anything further to add it will be incredibly welcome.
We do not believe assurances that can be provided only in guidance. We need comprehensive measures that introduce necessary safeguards. I hope the Minister has listened to the concerns voiced today and I strongly encourage the Government to adopt the amendments about to be debated in the Lords.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for securing this debate on what is undoubtedly an extremely important topic.
I want to say at the outset that many of the reforms in the Nationality and Borders Bill are being introduced against the backdrop of these terrible crossings of the English channel. People are putting their lives in the hands of evil criminal smuggling gangs. They are putting themselves at great risk. These groups treat people as cargo, with no regard whatsoever for human life. I make no apology for feeling very strongly—
I am very conscious that we have a lot to get through; a lot of points have been raised in the debate, so I will make some progress. I am very mindful of the need to stop those crossings. That is front and centre of the policy that we are delivering through this Bill. Nobody needs to get into a small boat in order to reach safety. I am also concerned when we debate these issues that I hear a lot of criticism of policy, but I do not hear much by way of a credible alternative.
We have had an extensive debate this afternoon on these matters, and that has also been the case throughout the Bill’s passage through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, where these clauses were debated yesterday. I acknowledge this House’s interest in the issue. As well as the Nationality and Borders Bill, there is a lot of work that is going on internationally to address those issues and to advocate the values we hold in this country and believe others around the world should adopt. A global envoy is dealing with this. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) also has responsibility within the Foreign Office for advancing that agenda.
Several points have been raised in the course of the debate and I would like to deal with each of them in turn. First, on differentiation, currently all those who seek our protection are treated in the same way, regardless of factors such as whether they came directly to the UK or have been illegally present in the UK for a long period before claiming asylum. We will change that by introducing a new form of temporary refugee permission to stay, meant for people who meet the requirements of refugee status in the UK but who may not have come directly to the UK or who have not claimed asylum without delay once here. Decision makers who are considering granting someone temporary refugee protection status will work on a case-by-case basis, taking properly into account all of the relevant factors. That may include taking into account that the delay in claiming asylum may have been as a result of the claimant being fearful of presenting to the authorities as a LGBT+ person.
The Government very strongly believe, and would argue, that all the measures that we are advancing are compliant with our international obligations. With regard to accommodation, centres will build on current capacity while ensuring that individuals have simple, safe and secure accommodation while their claims and removals are being processed. One of the things that I want to see happen—and I am determined to see it happen—is that cases are considered more quickly, that we make sure that those who require our sanctuary are helped and supported as quickly as possible and get that sanctuary, and that those with no right to be here are removed as quickly as possible. To me, that is the safe, decent and humane thing to do.
I would like to clarify that individuals will also have opportunities to disclose the information and supporting evidence as to why they should not be housed in accommodation centres, which could include reasons linked to their sexuality. I should make the point that the accommodation centres are not detention; people are free to come and go as they please. In any event, we do not detain people indefinitely, and various safeguards are built into the arrangements and set-up to ensure that that is the case. Again, I would expect appropriate consideration of all relevant factors when deciding what accommodation is appropriate for any given individual. If people have particular needs, it is right that they are accommodated within the community.
I am afraid I have got a lot to get through.
A lot of points have been raised, and I want to deal with one that was made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). Knowing colleagues as I do, I think it is fair to say that nobody would walk around anywhere on a visit in silence, and I am pleased to say that everybody on the visit tomorrow will have the opportunity to speak to those at Napier. That is exactly the same arrangement as when I visited Napier a few weeks ago, and I welcome the opportunity for Members to speak to people there.
On safe third country removals, our intention is to reduce the draw of the UK by removing protection claimants to a safe country if they have a connection to a safe country where they could and should have claimed asylum. We will also make it easier to move asylum seekers from the UK to a safe country while their asylum claim is pending. A safe country is one where there is no real risk of persecution or harm to individuals sent there, and which will not send individuals to a country where they could be persecuted. Any vulnerabilities will be taken into consideration, and any representations from the claimant will be considered ahead of any removal to a safe third country. Again, this could include matters that are linked to an individual’s sexuality. Of course, we will only ever work with countries that are compliant with the refugee convention and any obligations under relevant human rights law. I should add that we do not return people if to do so would put them in danger, and the Home Secretary also has discretion to provide sanctuary to individuals if there is a risk to their lives.
On the one-stop process, late evidence and damage to credibility, the Bill will introduce a new and expanded one-stop process to ensure that asylum, human rights claims and any other protection matters are considered at the earliest opportunity. Where evidence is provided late without good reason, that should be taken into account by the decision maker as damaging to a claimant’s credibility; but where there is good reason, there will be no damage. I should add that this is not a new concept: it has underpinned existing immigration legislation under not just this Government, but previous Governments.
I am conscious of the time and that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam will want to sum up, so I will wrap up my remarks. I will very gladly comment on the outstanding matters that I have not been able to reach in the short time we have had available, and I will place that in the Library so that Members can see my remarks.
I will use the last two minutes, if colleagues do not mind. Everyone gave such strong and meaningful speeches in the debate, and I am thankful to those who have taken part.
I want to respond with the words of refugees in Stonewall’s 2016 report, “No Safe Refuge”, which is about the current system. One asylum seeker said:
“The interviewing officer was surprised to see a person like me talking about these things. He doesn’t believe I am transgender. ‘You don’t look transgender!’”
“I had my head rammed through a door. I was bullied. The guy they put me with was a nightmare, the guy was a bully. I reported that but nothing was done about it.”
“The officer didn’t approach the heterosexual couple, she approached the lesbian couple straight away. She didn’t even say to them excuse me. She said: ‘There are different religions in here and different cultures in here I ask you to respect that and there are also children in here.’”
The comments about mental health are probably the most concerning. One asylum seeker said:
“I tried to commit suicide twice. I didn’t know how to do it but I had that urge in me to do it. I broke the mirrors and tried to cut myself.”
“I am having very difficult moments. I get flashbacks of exactly what happened—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).