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Westminster Hall

Volume 712: debated on Wednesday 20 April 2022

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 20 April 2022

[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Human Rights: Colombia

I beg to move,

That this House has considered human rights in Colombia and implementation of the 2016 peace agreement.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I will start with a health warning: my Hispanic is not fantastic, so please forgive in advance any incorrect pronunciation. I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to lead today’s debate on human rights in Colombia and implementation of the 2016 peace agreement.

The situation in Colombia stretches back many decades, and one cannot overstate its complexity for international observers and activists who care deeply about human rights and peace. According to Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, the conflict has claimed about 262,000 lives—84% of them civilians. A further 6.9 million have been forced from their homes. More than 37,000 people were kidnapped and nearly 18,000 children recruited into armed groups. Thousands of people disappeared, and others were raped and tortured.

Many will know that the polarising conflict, summarised in a simple form, has involved actors on both the far left and the far right, including armed groups and paramilitaries, as well as Government forces. Historically, nearly all have blood on their hands—some more than others—and others continue to have bloodstained hands as we gather in this place today. The victims, the innocent, have always been the people of Colombia: children, the indigenous, social leaders, activists, those who practise religion and trade unionists.

Colombia may not occupy any column inches or any seconds on our newsreels, but it is one of the most long-standing and brutal internal conflicts in recent human history. The conflict serves as an example of societal breakdown, where barbarism and violence reign supreme and where the very worst of our depravity as human beings is on full show. Despite all that turmoil, those who campaign for peace, human rights and justice are some of the bravest people that we will ever encounter.

At this point, I want to thank the campaign group Justice for Colombia, which does so much in the UK context to educate people and raise awareness of the situation in Colombia, both historically and as it unfolds to this day. I am proud of the work undertaken by many British trade unions with Justice for Colombia. Trade unions in Colombia need our international solidarity.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. She mentions trade unionists. Does she agree that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist? According to the International Trade Union Confederation, between March 2020 and April 2021, 22 trade unionists were killed in Colombia.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I wholeheartedly agree: Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. I think that sometimes in Britain we take for granted our ability to go about our daily duties as trade unionists and as members of trade unions. That must be protected at all costs, because it is incredibly important. As I said, I am incredibly proud of the work undertaken by many British trade unions with Justice for Colombia. Trade unionists in Colombia need our international solidarity just as much today as they did 20 years ago.

My hon. Friend is talking about the work of Justice for Colombia. I was privileged to go on delegations to Colombia with that organisation in 2007 and 2012, and I learned about the human rights abuses that are happening across that country. Does my hon. Friend share my concerns that those human rights abuses seem to be escalating ahead of May’s presidential elections, and does she agree that the UK Government should be doing everything they can to condemn that escalation in violence and stop it happening?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I completely concur with the views she shared. As we have heard, Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. More than 3,000 have been murdered since 1989—more than in the rest of the world combined. They are murdered with impunity, often by right-wing paramilitary groups with links to Colombia’s state apparatus, and no one is brought to justice.

The 2016 peace agreement was meant to change that and so much beside for trade unionists and those campaigning for workers’ rights, peasant farmers, former FARC combatants who laid down their arms, and those who sought justice for the crimes inflicted on their families and communities by the likes of FARC. For all Colombians, 2016 was a marker to alter the direction of the entire nation. Indeed, it still can be. Despite the setbacks, it is important to avoid falling into the trap of total cynicism and despair. However, elections are looming next month, and for so many progress is still too slow. Although the violence proves relentless, we are in a volatile period with the forces of peace and chaos delicately balanced. It is the job of Colombia’s international partners, such as the UK, to continue to promote peace, support the outcome of next month’s election and work closely with the incumbent or any newly elected Government on our common objectives.

The key tenets of the 2016 peace agreement between ex-President Juan Manuel Santos and the then commander-in-chief of the ultra-left revolutionary FARC group, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño, included a ceasefire and disarmament, justice for victims, action on drug trafficking, the political process that saw FARC become registered as a political party, and wholesale land reform. It must be said that there has been some progress, such as the election of 16 victims into special peace seats in Colombia’s House of Representatives. Some 14,000 FARC combatants have laid down their arms and joined the peace process; the majority have moved out of camps and into civilian life. The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the US asserts that, as late as last year, 29% of the accords had been fully implemented, which is significant given that the process is expected to last 15 years.

On the polarising matter of justice for FARC victims, progress is being made, although it is too slow for some and not far enough for many, who want positive, not transitional, justice. On the other hand, the security situation is either deteriorating or static. The current Government have failed to grasp the severity of the threat posed by the far-right paramilitary groups that threaten to jeopardise the peace process. The current President has a responsibility to safeguard the peace process, and that means affording protection to those taking part in it. Many believe that security, or a lack of it, and the escalating violence are the biggest threats that could tip the balance of forces in favour of chaos.

My hon. Friend touches on a really important point. One of the groups who have been systematically murdered is ex-members of FARC. The signal that that gives to others is that making peace is potentially the wrong road; it encourages people to go back into the jungle and take up arms again. That is the wrong message. There has to be action by any Colombian Government on that.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I completely concur.

The early part of this year makes for very grim reading. The murder of Jorge Santofimio, the former FARC fighter turned environmentalist, was harrowing. The number of former FARC combatants killed since 2016 is now over 300. More than 900 social leaders have been killed since the peace agreement was signed in 2016. In the first three months of 2022, 48 social activists and 11 former FARC combatants have been killed, and 27 massacres have taken place. It goes without saying that if those who laid down their arms feel that they are not afforded protection, there is a risk that they will take up arms again. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) made that point very well.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, at the UN Security Council briefing on Colombia, called on the Colombian Government

“to continue to expand its efforts to provide adequate protection and security, improve state presence in conflict-affected areas…and strengthen the institutions that can investigate and prosecute those responsible for these crimes.”

I must also note the murder of the indigenous leader Miller Correa on 14 March this year. Only eight days prior to his death Miller was named alongside other activists in a threat signed by a group identifying itself as the far-right Black Eagles. It was a great loss, and many other leaders now face increased threats. Perhaps the UK Government could obtain clarity from the Colombian Government about why authorities have withdrawn the security detail from indigenous Senator-elect and human rights defender Aída Quilcué, after she faced similar threats to those made about the murdered Correa, again by the Black Eagles. The same Black Eagles group is now making threats against progressive political forces in the historic pact—most recently, Francia Márquez, who is the frontrunner to secure the vice-presidency in May.

In summary, in the run-up to May’s presidential elections, the Colombian Government must step up in defence of the peace process; expand the security afforded to those participating in the process; commit to protect religious, indigenous, sexual, trade union and labour rights; and, without question, accept the outcome of May’s election. The UK Government must aid the Colombian Government in those aims, if they are sincere in pursuing them, and must without question support any new Government that is elected in May.

If Members speak for about seven months—[Laughter.] Seven minutes! I know that Mr Shannon may be there for us. If you speak for about seven minutes, all your colleagues will get the opportunity to have their say, and the Front Benchers will have 10 minutes.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. Seven months would be me just getting warmed up. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing the debate and on her fantastic introduction.

Like many, I suspect, my involvement and interest in Colombia started when I was a trade union official. As we have heard from colleagues, Colombia was the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist 20 years ago, and my message for the Minister is that we must not take our eye off that ball.

There are two harsh realities in Columbia. No. 1 is that the peace process does not enjoy universal support. It did not at the time; when ex-President Santos put it to the vote, it was narrowly rejected. There is still a large, residual resentment at the peace process and at the fact that the Government and the state made peace with FARC. We heard that in the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who talked about the pressures to revert to the previous state of civil war, which was the longest-running civil war in the world at the time.

That is one harsh reality. The other, for those who oppose the peace process in Colombia, is that it is the only show in town; it is the only way forward. Peace cannot be established and won just because a document was signed at Cartagena in 2016; it has to be a long and ongoing process. That is why it is so important to see colleagues here from Northern Ireland—my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). I pay tribute to our representatives in the UK from Northern Ireland, including the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Colombia, and Lord Alderdice, and to all the parties in Northern Ireland, who are going—not have been—through a peace process, which is difficult at times for all of them. They demonstrate to the people of Colombia that peace must be invested in day after day, month after month and year after year. Peace cannot be achieved simply by signing a piece of paper—and then we all go home. Peace is difficult. It may not be as difficult as conflict, although some in the large cities of Colombia who have been insulated from the violence might be happy to go back to that situation. We have to continue to give that message and support the people of Colombia.

One big problem the people of Colombia face is that the Government—the state—still do not control large areas of territory in Colombia. Chapter 1 of the peace agreement foresaw comprehensive rural reform, giving people a stake in their own land and life. It also gave them security to carry on their lives without the threat of paramilitaries from either side. That section on rural reform has fallen badly behind in areas where there is no state presence. One set of paramilitaries has been replaced by another. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, they are narco-traffickers or former right-wing paramilitaries, or they sit in the middle bit of the Venn diagram and might be a mixture of them all.

I am pleased to say that the number of armed combatants has fallen. The rough guess of the independent Bogotá think-tank Indepaz is that there are about 5,200 to 5,500 armed, organised paramilitaries, which is lower than the combined total of 50,000 20 years ago. If we include all the different armed groups, there are probably about 17,000 in total, so progress is certainly being made. However, as my hon. Friend said, the number of murders of social leaders and human rights defenders jumped in 2020 and remains stubbornly high.

Four main sources keep count of the numbers of social leaders, human rights defenders and trade unionists murdered in Colombia: the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; a Colombian Government agency, the human rights ombudsman, Defensoría; and two non-governmental organisations, Somos Defensores and Indepaz. Of those, even the organisation with the lowest confirmed count, the UN high commissioner, still finds that a social leader has been murdered in Colombia every 3.2 days since the peace accord came into effect in December 2016.

A further consequence of the lack of peace and the failure to control territory is illegal deforestation and attacks on the environment. I pay tribute to British groups, such as the Earlham Institute and Kew Gardens, that are doing extremely important work with Colombians and Colombian academics in support of biodiversity programmes. However, deforestation continues, with a 36.9% increase in deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon basin between 2019 and 2020.

The second chapter of the peace accord focuses on political participation and seeks to establish guarantees for people to petition the state or to practise opposition politics. Before and during the decades of the armed conflict, people with reformist or leftist views participated in politics at great personal risk. Thousands were killed, including much of the membership of a political party originally linked to the FARC, the Patriotic Union, in the ’80s and ’90s.

Political participation guarantees still do not go much further than a few nominal changes in the law. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree mentioned the Kroc Institute’s monitoring report, which found that there is still stagnation on the commitments that would allow progress towards structural reforms of democracy, due to the absence of a political consensus for their substantial and comprehensive progress.

Spending on the peace process in Colombia fell by 18% from 2020 to 2021 and the Colombian Comptroller General argues that that contributes to increasing the lags in the implementation of the comprehensive security system for political participation. Peace is expensive—we know that, and we also know that Colombia has spent a lot of money supporting Venezuelan refugees, and has also had to deal with the pandemic—but it is so fundamental to social progress in Colombia that it is not an area where budgets can be cut.

Chapter 5 of the peace accord covers the processes that could deliver peace. It sets up a comprehensive system for truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace is a transitional justice tribunal that is prosecuting the most serious human rights abusers. Again, it does not enjoy full support, but something that enjoyed full support from one side or the other probably would not be the compromise that a peace deal would bring. A unit to search for the disappeared is working with victims and communities in an attempt to locate some of the 80,000 people who went missing during the years of the conflict. Again, that is similar to what happened in Northern Ireland.

We cannot have peace without justice, we cannot have justice without peace, and we cannot have environmental protection without peace. All are absolutely essential, but let us not forget the trade unionists and civil society leaders who are being murdered.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing this debate, which comes at a time between the fairly muted five-year anniversary of the peace agreement and next month’s elections. Those elections will set the direction for the implementation of that peace agreement.

I visited Colombia earlier this month, along with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), at the invitation of ABColombia, which, as Members will know, is a coalition of key Irish and British international non-governmental organisations, including Trócaire, Oxfam and Christian Aid who accompanied our visit. When we were there we met representatives of both the agencies, elected representatives, the United Nations, those processing peace, former combatants and, crucially, local communities that are already engaged in doing so much about the shocking and perilous situation on the ground for those who stand up for the protection of human rights.

As Members have outlined, Colombia’s conflicts spanned five decades, with a death toll of around a quarter of a million, including 45,000 children. As others have said, that includes 25,000 disappearances, where people did not even have the dignity of a body to bury. Clearly, many millions more were displaced due to a conflict that is, at its core, about land; that is the substantial and core unimplemented part of the peace agreement.

The issues are exacerbated by a residual level of violence in the country, carried out with impunity. From my point of view as a fairly casual observer, it appears that the state is at best absent and at worse complicit in many of those violent human rights abuses. That should concern us morally, but it should also concern us because the situation is exacerbated by extractive industries that are exploiting Colombia’s natural resources in a way that means a very small number of people accrue large profits; those of here accrue benefits in material goods, but the process leaves only negative environmental and social impacts for local communities.

Our visit focused on the effects of mining in the La Guajira region to the north-east, near the Venezuelan border, and on the Cerrejón mining company, which is owned exclusively by the giant corporation Glencore and clearly treats indigenous communities as an inconvenience. We looked at the failure of national and transnational governance structures that seem unwilling or unable to deliver justice, rights and fair play for those communities.

We met communities in the Sierra Nevada who had been displaced with woeful resettlement packages, or who were threatened by displacement due to the massive mine, which is literally hundreds of kilometres of open-cast. It is the biggest mine in Latin America, and is a shocking and violent vista. Wherever one looks there is a massive crater in the environment that looms over and oppresses people, both visually and environmentally. They have had the air around them, the soil under their feet and the water that they depend on polluted by mining practices. There has been a sharp increase in disease. Some people have already had their water supply diverted—or risk having it diverted—to satisfy the mine’s insatiable need for water.

We visited the Arroyo Bruno—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree has better Spanish than mine—around which communities have lived and grown sustainably for many hundreds of years. Those communities now face an existential risk to their existence and human rights, and those who are attempting to stand up for those rights are particularly at risk. It is worth saying that those developments have almost no spill-over economic benefit to the communities. Workers and the materials that supply the mine are trucked in, and coal is noisily and dustily trucked out. We drove past a train that was so long that we were driving past it for literally 10 minutes. At all hours of the day and night, it spills out coal dust.

The basic human right of these communities to somewhere to live—as they have lived for years—is not being protected. They have not had the opportunity to feel the benefits of peace and security at the end of the conflict. The water is sold back to them in plastic containers, and there is no benefit whatever to the communities. We are rightly confronting the human rights implications of our dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, and it is appropriate that we also focus on impacts in other areas.

Coal is over. Everybody knows that that mine and many others will close in the coming years, but it is important that we use our influence to ensure a just transition for those communities and other communities whose rights have been abused. We must ensure that these issues are not lost in the implementation of the peace deal. I have tried not to do that Northern Irish thing of overlaying and viewing every single international issue through the prism of where we grew up, but I must say that it is encouraging and courageous that Colombia is dealing upfront with the issues of truth and justice as a pre-requisite for reconciliation. It is courageous that those issues are being confronted head-on, and I say that as someone who lives somewhere where for 25 years we just tried to keeping closing the door on the truth, allowing the perpetrators on various sides to move on with their lives, and the victims not to have clarity and the release of justice.

We understand that the truth commission will publish its report, on which it has engaged heavily, a couple of weeks after the presidential election—come what may. What is clear to me, and what I hope hon. Members will be able to use their influence to ensure, is that the crucial issues of land reform, land abuse and theft, and the accruing of resources, are not lost as we implement the peace deal. It is clear that accompaniment and scrutiny is important in Colombia. The country is rightly interested in what the world thinks about it and has an interest in transitioning to clean sources of energy, but it is vital that as its Government implement this deal, they bring forward a new approach to managing, serving and dealing with indigenous communities.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on setting the scene very well, as she always does. The hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) referred to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and her grasp of the Spanish language. With an Ulster Scots accent, I will be miles behind her.

Ms McDonagh, you invited me to speak for seven months. I was just thinking to myself, “Could I do that?” I could certainly make an attempt, but I guarantee that I will not be doing that today. I have been happy to speak on many occasions about Colombia, and I know the hon. Member for Belfast South also has a deep interest in the country. My party leader here in Westminster, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), has been involved in many trips to Colombia over a great many years to try to find a way forward, and I have been a member of the parliamentary friends of Colombia group. I am pleased to add my support to what the hon. Member for Belfast South has said.

I see things very simply: I see right and I see wrong. It does not matter to me who the people in the wrong are, and on this occasion we see clearly what has happened. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley has contributed greatly to the peace process. The hon. Member for Belfast South is right that we cannot see everything through the prism of Northern Ireland, but we can use some of the things that have happened as an example of how we can help others to achieve some of the goals that we have achieved.

We have not reached where we want to be yet—that is a fact—but at the same time, we have made massive steps in Northern Ireland, moving towards a society that embraces all traditions from all sides and all opinions. It is important that we recognise those contributions and the movement we have all made. I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast South does not mind me saying this, but I think that she and I—speaking for myself, primarily—have moved in a direction that, 30 years ago, I probably would not have. However, I realise that if we want to make a better society, we still have things to do, and we must also try to do that in Colombia.

I will speak briefly on the issue of freedom of religion and belief, which the hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree and for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) have spoken about. Often deemed a bellwether human right, where freedom of religion or belief is protected, other human rights tend to be secured, too. In places where we see freedom of religion or belief violations, other human rights abuses are never too far behind, as hon. Members have spoken about at some length. Trade union members have been attacked, injured and murdered. Some 25,000 people have disappeared—wow! That is a salient reminder of Northern Ireland. I always think of those who disappeared in Northern Ireland; their bodies were never found, so their families never had the chance to lay their loved ones to rest, which would help them to cope with that final conclusion. We have all experienced those things.

I also think of the giant companies that—with great respect to business—disregard people because they do not have money, position or power. However, those are the people I am speaking for and will always speak for in this House: the wee man and the wee woman who do not have anyone to speak for them.

During Colombia’s internal armed conflict, all actors were responsible for serious human rights abuses. Freedom of religion or belief was one such right to suffer, with hundreds of church leaders targeted for assassination and churches facing extortion from armed groups. Moreover, the military refused the right to conscientious objection on account of religious beliefs. A return to open hostilities in Colombia would undeniably be disastrous for the human rights situation there, not least the right to freedom of religion or belief.

It is therefore with great and serious concern that I attend this debate to examine the situation in Colombia. Despite the landmark peace agreement reached in 2016—which we all hoped would be a catalyst to bring change and right the wrongs we have seen over the years—levels of violence in Colombia remain high, with community leaders, human rights defenders and women, in particular, violated and vulnerable. Those responsible for the human rights abuses must be held accountable by the laws of the land.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office human rights report notes the concerning situation for the human rights defenders. It is a grave injustice that illegal armed groups took advantage of the national health crisis due to covid-19 to increase their attacks on human rights defenders. It is equally alarming that community and indigenous leaders were some of those most at risk of such horrific violence and illegal land grabs. There is such disregard for those people. It does not matter that they have farmed the land for years; their land is simply taken off them. As far as the companies and the Government are concerned, those people are nobodies. However, they are somebodies, and we are speaking for them today.

It is vital that Colombia does more to bolster security presence in conflict-affected areas. I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for City of Chester on deforestation; we need to control and stop it, and protect those forests. That goes for the whole world, but especially Colombia.

It is also vital that more is done to promote acceptance of FORB among indigenous communities. Although the Colombian constitution protects freedom of religion or belief, Colombian courts rule that such rights do not extend to those living on indigenous lands, where collective cultural rights take precedence instead—I mean, really? I was saying to the hon. Member for Belfast South that I am reminded of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, where some people are more equal than others. How true that is, when some can express their religious beliefs but, for others, that freedom of religion or belief is not carried through in the laws of the land.

Again, I look to the Minister, who has a great grasp of these issues. I know he will reply with understanding and passion. I am looking forward to hearing from the shadow spokespersons, the hon. Members for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), two gentlemen who also have a grasp of the issues. I know they will make their contributions with passion, understanding and a desire for the change that we all want.

In many cases, members of indigenous communities who convert to other faiths or no faith at all face severe discrimination in their communities, including threats of forced displacement. It is important, therefore, that the Colombian Government enact legislation that protects freedom of religion or belief for all Colombians, including those living on indigenous lands. Will the Minister tell us what discussions have taken place on the protection of the rights of indigenous people?

The human rights situation in Colombia is complex and precarious. I hope we can all agree that while any progress towards full implementation of the peace agreement is positive and should be celebrated, much more needs to be done. As we comment on the human rights situation in Colombia, let us ensure that we do not lose sight of the importance of freedom of religion or belief—a multifaceted human right.

I conclude by expressing my sincerest hope that Colombia will see the peace agreement fully realised. It must be peace with justice, otherwise it means nothing. There is no place for war and conflict in the world today. I am reminded of the biblical statement that there will be

“wars and rumours of wars”.

We are certainly living in such times. I urge my United Kingdom Government and my Minister to continue using their influence in the multilateral sector to promote the practical implementation of peace in Colombia and to pursue the defence of human rights for all. “For all” means exactly that: for the wee man and the wee woman.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing this debate and on her comprehensive introduction. It is the latest in quite a series of debates on Colombia in Westminster Hall in this Session—although I think the first where we have not been required to wear face masks, which is quite a good thing.

The Minister should be aware that there is growing awareness and interest in the situation in that country. Some of it is long standing: there are passionate campaigners here who have been working on the issue for decades. Others are becoming more aware, especially as we reach the anniversary of the peace accord. The APPG, which is chaired by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), is increasingly active; we recently welcomed the new ambassador. Organisations such as Justice for Colombia, ABColombia and the trade union movement as a whole are all doing a tremendous job to raise awareness, and campaign for peace and justice.

It is slightly disappointing that the Minister has not been joined by any of his Conservative Back-Bench colleagues. It is noticeable, but I am not quite sure what the reason is. I hope that if any members of the Colombian expat population in the UK are following this and similar debates, and live in constituencies represented by Conservative Members of Parliament, they make that contact. Indeed, if others are following this who have an interest in justice and peace, I hope that as constituents they make their voices heard and ask for representation if they are represented by a Conservative Member of Parliament.

Constituents contact me about Colombia. There is awareness and passion for peace and justice in principle, particularly among those of us who have the opportunity to meet campaigners and human rights defenders, whether they have come here through some of the organisations mentioned or whether we have had the privilege of visiting the country, as I did with ABColombia in 2018. I saw the potential of the country and all its wonderful diversity; it has the potential to thrive if violence can be consigned to the past and the peace accords can be implemented in full.

Implementing peace and sustainable development in Colombia also stands as an example to the rest of the world, for good or ill. We heard about the continuation of violence and instability, and the statistics—the highest rate of murders of human rights defenders anywhere in the world. During COP26 in Glasgow, at an incredibly powerful vigil organised by Amnesty International, the name of every human and environmental rights defender around the world who had been murdered in that year alone was read out. The vast majority of the names were from Latin America, of which a significant number were from Colombia. So it is a crucible—an example—of what is going on elsewhere in the world.

The point raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the challenges around freedom of religion and belief is particularly important. That relationship between indigenous communities and the land is at the very heart of a lot of indigenous religions. That means that to be separated forcefully from the land is a breach not only of all kinds of human rights, but particularly of the fundamental right to freedom of religion and belief; and religious leaders are very often wider community leaders and human rights defenders as well. It is important that that point is made and reflected in the UK Government’s response to the situation.

One of the big takeaways from my visit, from the conversations that I continue to have with campaigners and from the speeches that we have heard so far is that there are disparities between the rhetoric of the agreement, the structures—quite often well funded—that have been put in place, the bureaucracies that exist in the capital, Bogotá, and the reality on the ground, which is that people are still facing challenges and insecurities on a day-to-day basis and murders are continuing and increasing. Violence throws the whole electoral process into instability.

The UK Government have to rise to their role in all of this as the penholder at the United Nations; indeed, they have a more significant role on the Security Council at the moment. I welcome the dialogue that continues between Ministers. They respond very well to correspondence, parliamentary questions and debates like this. There is a good relationship between the campaign groups, individual Members and the embassy in the country. However, dialogue is not enough. One of the opportunities, allegedly, of Brexit was our “soft power” superpower—our ability to do things differently and show global leadership. How will that be lived up to in the implementation of the new trade accords that are being signed in the UK-Andean trade agreement? Will the commitments to respect for human rights that are built into it actually be implemented and followed through?

The alternative is a slide back to violence if people are cleared off their land for developments of the type that the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) spoke about. Such developments will make way for palm oil plantations to feed our demand in the west for cheap consumer goods, cheap food and products that are made with palm oil or fuelled by coal, or whatever. If people in Colombia feel that that comes with a lack of power, voice and agency, we can understand why people think that violence is the only opportunity to make their voice heard.

I was struck by how young the people were. We hear the term “human rights defenders” and think of grizzled old world-weary campaigners, but these were young people, standing up passionately for the rights of their community. They were incredibly frustrated that the democratic structures that had been put in place were not properly respected. The multinational behind the mine that we saw said it would be a small, artisanal project. It was called La Colosa. They were going to blow the top off the mountain, which would have had environmental consequences downstream and would have affected everybody. The community voted against it, but it appeared to be going ahead anyway.

We must live up to the standards in international agreements, like the Ruggie principles on business and human rights. We must think about whether there is something we can do with our domestic legislation to ensure that those rights are secured and that it has an impact in countries that we want to trade with and exercise diplomatic relationships with overseas. The potential is there to drive peace forward. The solutions are identifiable. The campaign groups, us as Back Benchers and Government Ministers all have a role to play in driving that forward.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing this important debate on human rights in Colombia.

As Members may recall, I led a similar debate on this matter in July 2021. It is a topic that has a place in my heart. I have a particular interest, having visited Colombia on more than one occasion in recent years to witness the situation there first hand. As hon. Members have said, that was with Justice for Colombia, which does such a great job highlighting the Colombian struggle, along with others, such as ABColombia.

I will say again that the human rights situation and state violence in Colombia are out of control. Despite the historic peace agreement reached in 2016, Colombia remains a country plagued by high levels of violence, with attacks against trade unionists, community leaders, human rights defenders, former combatants, and often women.

The murder of social activists continues unabated. According to the local human rights organisation Indepaz, 48 killings were committed in the first three months of this year, an increase on the same period last year. The UN mission received reports of 43 social activists murdered between 28 December 2021 and 25 March 2022. On 28 March, just three weeks ago, there was a reported killing of six civilians during a military raid, in which a total of 11 people were reportedly killed and five more were injured. The victims reportedly included an indigenous governor, a community council president and his wife, and a 16-year-old boy.

The Peasant Human Rights Network of Putumayo said that a festival to raise funds for local infrastructure and community projects had been attacked by masked soldiers, who initially claimed to belong to a guerrilla group before opening fire indiscriminately. Members of the local community said that the soldiers placed weapons on the victims, before taking pictures and videos. Despite the killings, the Colombian President defended the operation, claiming that 11 dissidents had been killed. In a tweet, Iván Duque claimed:

“Our security forces achieved the neutralisation of 11 FARC dissident members and the arrest of four more.”

The incident has drawn parallels with the so-called “false positives” scandal, which saw the Colombian military murder at least 6,402 civilians between 2002 and 2008. The victims were presented as combatants, to imply success in counter-insurgency operations and secure financial incentives. The UN Verification Mission in Colombia and the UN human rights office in Colombia have visited the area to hear testimonies from the community, and have called for answers from the Colombian authorities. I ask the Minister to do the same here today.

The 2016 peace agreement was an historic moment that brought genuine optimism to many, particularly in the most impoverished regions of the country. Overall implementation has been very slow, and in some areas non-existent. The UK needs to do more to support Colombians in their search for peace in their homeland. At the end of 2021, we marked the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Colombian peace agreement, with 147 parliamentarians from across the UK and Ireland signing a statement emphasising the continued importance of the agreement. I think I am right in saying that many, if not all, of the hon. Members here today were signatories to that.

In that letter sent to President Duque, we expressed our deep concern at the lack of progress overall by the Colombian Government in the implementation of some of their crucial obligations in the agreement, leaving the peace process weakened and, so far, denying the Colombian people the opportunity to experience the agreement’s transformative potential to build a sustainable, lasting peace. We still have minimal progress on the coca crop substitution programme. By October 2021, around 45,000 hectares of coca crops had been voluntarily removed by the close to 100,000 families enrolled on the programmes, but there is widespread concern at the slow progress, with roughly only 7% of families having access to alternative economic projects, which are fundamental for the sustainability of the programme.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited Colombia to mark the anniversary and reminded the Colombian Government that the security provisions of the agreement must be fully implemented, as well as the chapters on rural reform. He also recognised the FARC’s commitment to the peace process, commenting:

“The vast majority of former combatants, some thirteen thousand, are admirably striving to build new lives in peace.”

Over 300 former FARC combatants have been murdered since entering the reincorporation process. The lack of security in Colombia, and the failure to ensure civilian state presence in large parts of the country, continues to be extremely worrying. According to the UN verification mission report in January,

“With one-third of the time frame envisioned for the implementation of the Final Agreement and despite urgent security challenges across the country, the public policy to dismantle illegal armed groups, criminal organizations and their support networks has not been adopted.”

We know the peace agreement contains important mechanisms not just to improve the economic lives of Colombia’s poorest, but to radically improve the security situation. However, key elements have not been advanced, and we must do more in our role as penholder to the Colombian peace process at the UN Security Council.

I will raise a few concluding points. First, I ask the Minister what more the UK Government can do at the United Nations to ensure that these issues are satisfactorily addressed, so that there can be genuine progress over the next five years. Secondly, the UK embassy’s call for a ceasefire between armed groups during the elections is a welcome first step. Will the UK Government now commit to encouraging peace talks between the Colombian Government and the ELN? Finally, I ask the Minister and the Government to ensure that the UK honours our role as penholder, taking a lead in international efforts to support a full implementation of the Colombian peace agreement, which is undoubtedly the best hope we have of bringing an end to this human rights crisis and seeing Colombia truly receive peace and justice, once and for all.

Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker): this is an important debate, and it is worth making the important point that when we talk about the peace process, it is a process, not a conclusion. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) made the point that this has been the longest-running civil war that the world has known; actually, Colombia is still in a state of civil war. The ELN is still active, and parts of the FARC have returned to armed combat because of the failure of the Colombian Government to implement the peace process and their commitments. The paramilitaries—who always were the biggest killers in Colombia—are more than active, and there is a need to disarm all those groups, but the Colombian state is also a perpetrator of the kind of violence that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) mentioned a few moments ago.

That peace process is absolutely fundamental. The first thing I would say to the Minister—I know he will say this himself—is that whoever wins the presidential election that is now well under way, the British Government, as a friend of Colombia, has a responsibility to be very active in demanding action now to disarm the paramilitaries, work for a peace agreement with the ELN, and bring state forces under real control. That is fundamental, because that control has never been there. We are a friend of Colombia, and I accept that, although I have some doubts about the outgoing Government in Colombia. We can, though, be more vocal in establishing the bounds of our friendship.

As the penholder at the United Nations, but also as a country that has helped to fund the truth commission—I very much welcome the British Government’s role in that process—we must make sure that the work of that commission is recognised, heard, taken to the United Nations and monitored, because implementation of its recommendations will be fundamental in building momentum around the peace process. I hope the Minister can give an assurance that when the report comes out, we will take that process very seriously, and do all we can to make sure it is not simply heard, but worked on.

I have several other quick points. I am conscious of time, Ms McDonagh, and I think others still need to speak. A number of my colleagues spoke about the death toll that affects particular groups—yes, trade unionists, human rights defenders and environmental campaigners, but also the ordinary people of Colombia, who face the lack of control of those groups. We have done this in the past, but we have to help the Colombian Government establish mechanisms to ensure that impunity becomes less likely. It will take a long time for impunity to be taken out of existence in Colombia because of the historical forces and that culture, but strengthening the institutions—for example, strengthening the capacity of the prosecuting authorities to take the perpetrators of great violence through a legal process—is absolutely fundamental, because that has never been the case. That level of impunity means that generals, those who control the wealth of Colombia and those who were members of armed groups in the past can and will continue to murder and inflict the kind of wounds that Colombia has suffered so much from in the past. As a friendly Government, we can make a material difference to strengthening those institutions.

I have been involved with and interested in Colombia for well over the majority of my life. It has not always been a pleasure, because sometimes there is real tragedy. I have known people who have died—people I have counted as friends have been murdered—but anybody involved in Colombia knows that it is a beautiful country whose people are worth fighting for. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to the wee folk, and it is the wee folk of Colombia who we must speak up for. It is worth doing, because that beautiful country and those beautiful people deserve better. They can have better. The peace process can make a material difference, but we, as a friend of Colombia, have to work with them on it to bring it to some kind of fruition. It will take time, but the value of it is so enormous that it is worth doing.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this hugely important debate, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing it.

I thank the hon. Members for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and the hon. Members for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) and for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for their contributions. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) for her contribution. As she said, I spent the first week of Easter recess with her in Colombia, alongside Mr Gary Gannon, the TD for Dublin Central. We were there at the invitation of ABColombia, the advocacy project for a coalition of humanitarian organisations made up of Oxfam, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, Christian Aid, Trócaire and CAFOD.

While we were in Colombia, we met a wide range of governmental, civic and international organisations, including CINEP, the peace and advocacy organisation. We met and discussed human rights and the peace process with the Irish ambassador and representatives of the UK embassy in Bogatá. We met the Colombian truth commission, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the Colombian Commission of Jurists and the director of the Government’s office of indigenous and minority rights. We even met the UN Security Council’s Verification Mission in Colombia, as well as several politicians from Colombia and representatives of the coalmining giant Cerrejón.

Most importantly, we met and listened to the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada and La Guajira regions in the impoverished remote north-east of the country. Those indigenous communities—the Wayuu, the Kankuamo, the Kogi, the Wiwa and the Arawako—alongside their Afro-Colombian neighbours, are engaged in an existential battle with multinational coalmining companies and other mega power projects, as well as the Colombian Government, over access to their sacred traditional lands and the water on which they depend to survive. I will return to the issue of land and the human rights of those communities.

As we have heard from many speakers, Colombia is at a crossroads, and what happens in the next few weeks will have a long-lasting effect on the future of the country and its people. On 29 May Colombia will elect a new President, and just one week later the truth commission, the official body established to investigate human rights violations, war crimes and other serious abuses, will hand over its official report to the new President.

That report will be comprehensive and detailed and, given the history of Colombia over the past five decades, I think we can safely assume that an awful lot of people, on all sides of the conflict, will be very unhappy with what the truth commission reports. As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, our sincere hope is that the new President will accept the report in full and implement its findings. I would appreciate assurances from the Minister that, as penholder on the verification mission, the UK Government have a plan in place to support the truth commission when it reports.

All political analysts expect the presidential election to come down to a run-off between Gustavo Petro, the progressive, leftist candidate, and the right-wing candidate, Federico Gutiérrez. I think that, as well as the economy and the future of the peace agreement, one of the big issues that will dominate the campaign will be the human rights of indigenous and minority communities, their access to land and water, and what role multinational mining conglomerates will play in Colombia’s future.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the election is Petro’s choice of running mate—Francia Márquez, a remarkable young Afro-Colombian woman who has come to prominence as a human rights defender and environmental activist. She has bravely championed women’s rights and the rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, and in 2018 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman environmental prize. Now, remarkably, she is just six weeks away from potentially being vice-president of her country.

I am reminded that when Francia Márquez received her Goldman environmental prize, she said:

“Colombia is a country that has traditionally been run by wealthy families. When Black and Indigenous communities demand that large-scale mining be removed from our communities and we ask for protection under the rule of law, the ruling families say that we’re posing a hurdle to economic development. That’s when I ask, what kind of development are they referring to, especially when Indigenous and Black communities lack basic utilities? The community I live in has no drinking water, and our river has been polluted with chemicals used for illegal mining.”

Her story matches almost exactly those that I and the hon. Member for Belfast South heard time and again when we visited Sierra Nevada and La Guajira at the start of April. We heard multiple stories of violence, intimidation and murder being carried out, particularly against female community leaders who dare to stand up for human rights and the protection of their traditional lands.

La Guajira, close to the border with Venezuela, is home to the Wayuu people. However, it is also home to the largest open-cast coalmine in Latin America, Cerrejón, which is owned entirely by the Swiss mining giant Glencore. Cerrejón’s footprint stretches to a mind-boggling 70,000 hectares, or almost 300 square miles, of that incredibly beautiful, mountainous, densely forested area, with its remarkable biodiversity.

Apart from the very obvious damage that coal extraction does to the planet, mining requires water—lots and lots of water—and right now a battle is raging through the Colombian courts between the Cerrejón mining company and the indigenous people of La Guajira for access to that water. At the centre of the current dispute is the Arroyo Bruno, a river that the Wayuu people have relied on for centuries for drinking, washing and irrigation. It runs right through the centre of Cerrejón, and the company has decided to reroute the river to allow it to expand its coal extraction.

Two weeks ago, I walked along the dry bed of what was once a thriving, living river. I was amazed by what I can only describe as the circular insanity of allowing the destruction of one of the most beautiful, biodiverse places on the planet to access water that will allow further extraction of coal, the burning of which has contributed to rising global temperatures, which have directly contributed to the scarcity of water in the tropical forests of northern Colombia. As one Wayuu community leader told us:

“Mining in Colombia is destroying the land. It is destroying the people. It is destroying the future for us and our children…and ultimately it will destroy you too.”

The coal mined at Cerrejón is not for domestic consumption. The millions of tonnes taken from that vast open-cast mine are destined for Europe, which is increasingly turning to Colombia in the face of Russian sanctions. While the people of Europe know full well the enormous damage that burning coal does to the environment, I am sure they have no idea about the impact on the human rights of the indigenous Colombian people of every lump of coal that is taken from their land.

Before leaving Colombia, our delegation attended an historic meeting of the four peoples of the Sierra Nevada. It was historic because it was the first time that the four nations of the Sierra Nevada, which is known as the “heart of the world”, had agreed to work with the Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities of La Guajira to speak with one unified voice against the mega energy projects and the complicity in the destruction of their land and culture. At that meeting, we agreed to be the voice of the communities of the heart of the world in Europe, and here we are today in this Parliament starting to fulfil that promise. In addition to speaking in this House and in the Dáil, we will be contacting the Colombian embassies in Dublin and London, and the Cerrejón coalmine’s parent company, Glencore in Switzerland, to raise our serious concerns.

Our final meeting before we returned home was with a group of Colombian senators, who just yesterday moved a motion in the Colombian Senate on the kidnapping of water by transnational companies. We have agreed to join forces and to invite politicians from other European countries to join us in shining a light on what is happening to the indigenous people and the Afro-Colombian communities in Colombia.

I will finish by echoing the words of the hon. Members for City of Chester and for Strangford. There cannot be justice without peace, and peace is fundamental to any progress in Colombia. I believe that with the support of the international community to implement the truth commission report, and with political leaders who will put human rights first, ahead of the interests of multinational corporations, there can and will be a bright, peaceful future for Colombia and all Colombians.

Thank you for chairing this morning’s proceedings so well, Ms McDonagh. This is a very timely debate, because we are about to see elections in Colombia that could fundamentally change the political structure, but not necessarily the peace structure, that is in place there.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing and opening the debate. She told us some extraordinary and distressing facts—for example, that 262 lives have been lost over the history of this conflict, 84% of them of civilians. Nearly all the groups involved, from the far left to the far right, have blood on their hands, and we recognise that too. This has been a long-standing and brutal conflict. It is something that all of humanity should be ashamed about. Campaigners for peace are some of the bravest people in Colombia. As we know, it is certainly the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, and it has been for many years.

My hon. Friend drew our attention to the role of Justice for Colombia and the trade union movement in the United Kingdom to bring into focus and to our attention the abuses that go on every day, not to mention the appalling murders. She said, though, that it is important not to enter into the trap of hopelessness and despair, and I absolutely agree. The Opposition do not intend to be despairing, because it is so important to continue to have hope in the very best of humanity to overcome the worst excesses that humans can inflict on each other.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) expressed his concern, as a former trade unionist and trade union official, for the trade unionists in Colombia, who are feeling the brunt of the abuse and murders every single day. He said—the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), quoted him on this—that the peace process does not command universal support. That is the harsh reality, but peace is a process, and it is the only way forward. There is no other option.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester compared the process in Colombia with the process in Northern Ireland, and that comparison was made a few times by other contributors this morning. Peace cannot be achieved, he said, simply by signing a piece of paper. How right that is. We have many good examples, Northern Ireland being one, that show us that peace is a process. It is far more than a piece of paper. It is communities coming together again; it is the overcoming of inequalities that often lead to violence in the first place. There can be no peace without justice, but let us never forget that it is trade unionists and peace campaigners who have paid the highest price of all, by giving their lives in this terrible conflict.

We then heard from—I am sorry she is not in her place—the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). She mentioned that the state is absent and at worst complicit in some of the violence, and talked about the role of the extractive industries in exacerbating the situation. She went on the ABColombia visit this month, together with the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. I was supposed to go on that visit as well, but unfortunately I had to withdraw at the last minute. I really wish that I had gone, and hope to be on the visit to observe the presidential election at the end of next month, together with members of Justice for Colombia.

The hon. Member for Belfast South said that there are crucial land reform issues that also must not be lost. Indigenous communities are the victims of abuse and exploitation. We know that: we have seen the reports; we have read many of the horrific tales.

We then heard from my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who I always enjoy hearing from. He has had many years of involvement with Colombia, as have many in this room and many other colleagues from across the House. He expressed the clear view, and he is absolutely right, that this is an issue of right and wrong—of peace versus violence; of the exploitation of indigenous communities versus sharing the riches of such an extraordinary and wonderful land. There is no simple comparison, he said, between the peace process in Northern Ireland and Colombia, but there are lessons that could be learned, which is an important point. He also drew our attention, as he always does, to the denial of freedom of religion or belief as a key indicator of other human rights abuses in that country. He, like everybody else, has hopes for peace with justice being realised in Colombia in the future.

We then heard from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who always has a great contribution to make to these debates, about increasing awareness of the issues relating to justice for Colombia. He was disappointed—as am I and, I am sure, are other Members in this room—that we do not have true representation from right across the House. I am absolutely sure that Members from the governing party are just as concerned about the issues that we have raised today. Never mind that trade unionists are the target for violence and murder; this is about fundamental human rights. It is about a country living in peace and sharing the fruits of the resources of that nation together.

It is disappointing, Minister, that there not Members from the governing party here. I am sure they are just as concerned, and I am sure, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North said, that members of the diaspora community will express their concerns and views to Conservative Members. We need to come together for the future of Colombia, if it is to have a future, and that means all parties in our great democratic nation showing Colombia that there can be an alternative to the violence, murder and brutality that we see each and every day.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North agreed with the hon. Member for Strangford about the central role of freedom of religion and belief in ensuring the true observation of human rights. He also said that the UK Government, as a penholder at the United Nations, should be more active. I certainly agree, and the Opposition agree, and that is one of the questions that I would ask the Minister to address in winding up. We can play a stronger role in a true peace agreement—in justice for all Colombians. Many still think, sadly, that violence is the only way forward—the only way to make their voices heard when democratic structures fail.

We then heard from—I am sorry she is not in her place—my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), who always has a great deal to say, because she is passionate about Colombia. She secured the previous debate on this subject that I spoke in, in this Chamber. She said that she has visited Colombia on many occasions and that the violence there is completely out of control, especially against human rights defenders and social activists. She mentioned the outrage in the Putumayo district, to which I was going to draw Members’ attention. That raid in Puerto Leguízamo just three weeks ago was a shocking example of the way in which a peaceful fundraising event can be invaded by violent extremists who want simply to destroy and not to help to rebuild the great nation of Colombia. That was another shocking example of why action is needed.

We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), a dear friend and colleague whom I have known probably longer than anyone else in this Parliament. I first worked with him when he was Minister of State in the Foreign Office in the Blair Government of 1997. My hon. Friend, through his commitment, has shown continued involvement in all those issues that he was the Minister responsible for at that time, 25 years ago. He mentioned that the civil war in Colombia is still the longest-running civil war in the world, and that the paramilitaries always were the biggest killers—and they still are. The British Government, as a friend of Colombia, have a fundamental role and could be far more vocal, as I just said. The Government of Colombia are complicit in the shocking violence, and there must always be consequences for the abuse of human rights and the horrors that we have seen.

The peace agreement recognised that high levels of ingrained and structural poverty, especially in the countryside, contributed to and exacerbated armed conflict in the country. There has been very little positive movement on that since 2016. In remote areas across Colombia, thousands live in poverty, with little access to basic public services. That has made it easy for the armed groups to recruit, especially among young men with few prospects. Those areas have far too few prosecutors, investigators and judges, or police to provide adequate protection and justice for people who so desperately need them. In many remote areas, there is simply no state presence.

In 2017, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Colombia is estimated to have had the second largest displaced population in the world after Syria. We rightly concentrate on the horrors that are going on in Ukraine right now, but conflicts such as that in Colombia get no headlines. We know very little about them, yet still they carry on. Very little has been done to alleviate this shocking situation.

To conclude, Colombia is a wonderful country and a great nation, with fantastic and brilliant resources. When I was first given the brief for Colombia, I reached for my library and looked at the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel laureate of Colombia in literature. I read “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, and it gave me a picture of a country that I have yet to visit. It made it seem like a magical place, as of course Gabriel García Márquez is the expert in magical realism. I commend that novel and the rest of his canon to anyone who wants to know about the intellect, the beauty and the people of Colombia, in all its diversity and magic—a country that can be recreated and, with our help, will be, with that hope and optimism for peace.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing this debate. I join the chorus of support, echoed by a number of speakers today, for an important speech, brought to this House at an important time. She delivered her concerns about the situation and her desire for improvement in the country most eloquently and passionately.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) is the Minister with responsibility for our relationships with Latin America, and therefore with Colombia. She is travelling on Government business, but it is a pleasure to stand in her stead and have the opportunity to respond to hon. Members’ points. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for being so assiduous in highlighting the contribution of each Member who has spoken today; I echo his thanks for their thoughtful contributions.

As has been said by almost everyone today, the situation in Colombia has been terrible over several decades. From the 1960s until 2016, Colombia endured what became the longest-running conflict in the western hemisphere. State forces, paramilitary groups, left-wing guerrillas and criminal gangs all fought, with more than 220,000 people losing their lives and over 5 million people forced to flee their homes. Last November, Colombia marked five years since the signing of the peace agreement, and remarkable progress has been made in that time. There are still challenges, however, and I will address those later on.

Security conditions in much of the country are considerably improved and thousands of ex-combatants have rejoined civilian life. Colombia’s transitional justice system, formalised in the peace agreement, continues to put victims at the heart of the truth and reconciliation process. This year will be another turning point on that path for the Colombian people. We look forward to seeing the final report from the truth commission in June this year. We also expect the first sentences to be handed down by Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace. Last month’s election of 16 victims into special peace seats in the House of Representatives is another major step in the right direction, giving those affected by conflict a voice at the highest levels.

Let there be no doubt that full implementation of the peace agreement is a major task and, as Members have mentioned, requires constant effort. Its provisions go to the heart of some of the most challenging issues facing Colombia, including social inequality and land ownership reform. It is clear that the agreement cannot immediately solve issues that have plagued Colombia for decades. The Government still have no permanent presence in a number of strategic areas formerly occupied by FARC. Armed groups continue to fight for control of cocoa cultivation, drug trafficking, illegal mining and other illicit activities, with devastating consequences for communities, who face threats, violence and sadly, as has been highlighted, murder. The covid-19 pandemic and the humanitarian crisis in neighbouring Venezuela have added additional pressures.

That is why the British Government continue to support Colombia to overcome those challenges. We are the second-largest donor to the UN trust fund supporting the implementation of the peace agreement. Since 2015, we have spent more than £69 million through the conflict, stability and security fund to support development, reintegration, and justice. The fund also supports the truth commission’s work to gather testimony from Colombians, both at home and overseas. Meanwhile, our leading role at the UN Security Council, where we support Colombia, continues to make a positive difference. Last year, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a UK-drafted resolution to expand the mandate of the UN verification mission.

As I and others have mentioned, communities continue to face appalling threats and brutal violence. Among the worst affected are former combatants, social leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, trade unionists, indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian leaders.

The Minister mentioned indigenous peoples, whom I referred to in my speech. Within the constitution, they are second-class citizens because of their religious views. While I am mindful that this area is not the Minister’s responsibility, I ask him again: what discussions have been had with the Colombian Government on this issue? Could he come back to me and other hon. Members? We all wish to hear the answer.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, and for the passion he displays for the rights of people of all faiths and none. I will touch upon our engagement with the Colombian Government in just a moment.

Because of the ongoing violence, we designate Colombia as a human rights priority country, placing addressing human rights at the heart of our diplomatic engagement. We regularly raise human rights issues, as well as specific cases of concern, directly with the Colombian Government.

Just last week, my noble Friend, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon met President Duque to discuss peace, security and human rights ahead of the latest UN Security Council briefing on Colombia. Last February, the Minister for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean discussed human rights issues with Vice-President Ramírez. I will seek to obtain the details about support and protection for indigenous peoples following those meetings.

We consistently call on the Colombian Government to strengthen the institutions that investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of human rights abuses. We also engage with stakeholders and affected communities.

UK aid has supported a network of sexual violence survivors to document 1,200 cases that are now being considered by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. Our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative also plays an important role, alongside our international partners. Over the past year, the UK has funded three projects in Colombia helping to strengthen justice and accountability for survivors. The projects have enabled survivors to access legal aid and monitor the cases they have brought through the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. UK funding has also enabled male survivors of sexual violence, who face specific barriers to accessing justice, to bring their cases forward.

As Colombia begins its recovery from the pandemic, the UK also supports opportunities for its citizens. Since 2011, we have provided more than £240 million of climate finance to Colombia to halt deforestation and promote greener supply chains, which not only helps tackle some of the root causes of violence, but also helps protect the country’s beautiful environment.

Our Andean free trade agreement also has an important role to play in advancing human rights. The agreement includes provisions that ensure we can directly raise issues with partner countries where we believe there have been violations of workers’ rights or environmental commitments. I assure the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) we will make sure those are enforced.

As Colombia looks ahead to the presidential elections next month, we call on all stakeholders to ensure that they are peaceful and inclusive and that the elected parties maintain their commitment to the peace agreement. Colombia’s success over the past five years serves as an important reminder that the resolution of differences must only be done through peaceful dialogue. Finally, I assure Members of our continued commitment to supporting peace and human rights in Colombia.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered human rights in Colombia and implementation of the 2016 peace agreement.

Flood Risk: London

I will call Felicity Buchan to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered flood risk in London.

In July last year, my constituency of Kensington suffered devastating flooding. It was not only Kensington: the adjoining boroughs of Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham, which are represented by the hon. Members for Westminster North (Ms Buck) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), were also badly affected.

I want to give a sense of the magnitude of the flooding. On that Monday evening, London Fire Brigade received almost 1,800 flooding calls. If related calls are included, that figure reaches 3,000, which is the highest number that the London Fire Brigade control room has ever taken. I did a survey of the most affected wards in my constituency, and although people in almost 500 homes replied to say that they had been flooded, the reality is likely to be multiples of that number.

Flooding has truly devastating consequences for those who suffer it, and I will give a few examples. I heard from one lady who had just bought her first home. The floodwater in the basement was almost up to the ceiling with only a few inches spare. Many constituents—not just one or two, but multiple constituents—are still out of their homes nine months later. A lot of the basement properties in my constituency are actually owned by housing associations, and residents in those basement properties have lost absolutely everything they own—from clothing and photos to important documents, everything has gone.

Constituents of mine were flooded not just in July, but three or four times over the past 10 to 20 years. That is an important point, because although July was a truly devastating flood, it was not a one-off. The flood that I am referring to happened on 12 July, but London saw another devastating flood only two weeks later on 25 July. There was another in 2007, and I should declare a personal interest in that one, as my own house was flooded on that occasion. Those were three devastating floods, but we also had floods in 2004, 2005, 2016 and 2018.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She is pursuing this issue on behalf of her constituents, as I am on behalf of mine, and she has hit the nail on the head by saying that we have had previous floods and we were told that the problem had been solved, but it has not. Does she agree there is a danger that, again, we have a partial, patchwork solution—flooding local improvement projects here, one or two schemes there—when what we need is a comprehensive solution so that our constituents do not live at constant risk, particularly in the summer months, of their homes being devastated in this way?

This is one of the rare occasions on which the hon. Gentleman and I completely agree. We need a comprehensive solution, which I will go on to talk about: we need a short-term solution, because my constituents are very anxious about this summer since most of this flash flooding has occurred in July, August and September, and we also need a long-term strategy. My constituents, like the hon. Gentleman’s, simply cannot live with this risk hanging over them.

I informed the hon. Lady that we would be seeking to make a brief intervention. I am grateful to her, and congratulate her on securing this debate. As she knows, I secured a similar debate in the autumn.

Insurance is one of the most worrying issues for residents in our parts of London, along with the difficulty people face in obtaining affordable insurance or insurance at all. There is a scheme, but it does not cover many flat owners in blocks of more than six properties. Does the hon. Lady share my concern that we need to do more to make sure affordable insurance is available, as the risks of flooding are, unfortunately, only likely to increase?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that affordable insurance needs to be available. Speaking from personal experience, as I said, I was flooded in 2007. My then insurance company did an amazing job of paying out to remedy the damage, but then said the year later that it did not want me as a client, so that is an important point.

Sometimes, I wonder why flooding in London does not attract more attention. When a member of the general public thinks about flooding, they probably think about flooded fields in Shropshire or coastal communities in Cornwall and Devon, but the reality is that flooding in London is a huge issue, and there are many reasons for that.

We have a Victorian sewerage system that was built for way fewer people. We have clearly seen climate change, with warmer air that can carry more moisture, hence more rainfall. We have also seen densification and concreting over in London, especially central London, so there simply are not as many places for surface water to flow. This is a very real issue; it is certainly one of the top issues in my constituency, and it will continue to be so, because the risks of these flooding events will continue to grow—because of climate change, as I have mentioned, but also because of population growth and the need for more housing.

I have set out the magnitude of the problem and the frequency of these events, and have said that we need short-term and long-term solutions, but it is worthwhile looking back at what has happened, because as I say, this has been going on for 20 years. After the devastating flood in 2007, Thames Water decided to put into effect a strategy to deal with the Counters Creek catchment area, which includes Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham. Its proposal, which it put to Ofwat and which Ofwat agreed to, was for—in effect—a 5 km relief sewer tunnel, and to add lots of individual flood defence mechanisms to houses, called FLIPs. It was agreed that that should take place in the period 2015 to 2020, and the expenditure was going to be £300 million. It was all agreed to and the work was due to be completed by 2020. However, Thames Water decided not to proceed with that relief tunnel. Indeed, it said that one of the reasons for not proceeding was that the

“risk of hydraulic sewer flooding was much lower than we had originally thought.”

Clearly, that conclusion was wrong, given the devastating flooding that we had in 2021.

Thames Water was fined by Ofwat for not proceeding with this significant infrastructure scheme. It is now 2022 and there has been devastating flooding, so if it was the right scheme before the expenditure for 2015 to 2020, I need to be convinced of the reasons why it is not the right scheme now. I am not a structural engineer, but if it was the right scheme then, I think it is likely to be the right scheme now. Clearly, we can improve things—we should not be wedded to technology from 10 years ago—but if the conclusion was that we needed major infrastructure investment then, I think it is highly likely that we need it now.

Since the floods in 2021, Thames Water has appointed an independent review panel to investigate them, what caused them and how Thames Water’s assets performed. I welcome that independent review, but we need to make sure that it is not simply an academic analysis. We need to make sure that the review leads to concrete proposals and a plan and strategy that we can implement. That plan needs to be both short term and long term, because my constituents cannot live with this risk hanging over their heads.

Thames Water has also made £10 million available to install individual FLIP devices in the worst-affected properties in London. Of course, £10 million is welcome, but I really do not think that it will sort out the issues in London. This is not £10 million for a small bit of Kensington; it is £10 million for the whole of London. We need a lot more investment.

By its own admission, Thames Water’s response on the night was inadequate. Both Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster Councils had to get involved because Thames Water simply could not cope with the situation. I know that Thames Water has done an internal review, but it is very important that the processes are sorted.

I have outlined the problem, my concerns about the solutions offered to date, and my plea for better short-term solutions and a long-term infrastructure solution. I sought this debate, first, to highlight the issue and, secondly, to ask the Minister for her support in holding not only Thames Water but Ofwat and the Environment Agency to account. As I say, my constituents cannot spend the next 15 to 20 years with this hanging over their heads. If the right solution in 2015 was major infrastructure, I need to be convinced why that is not the right solution today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) on securing this important debate. I understand how important it is to both her and the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and for Westminster North (Ms Buck), because flooding devastates lives. It leaves the most horrendous effects, and I sympathise unreservedly with everyone affected.

I commend all those who responded last July and in previous floods. People were frightened and lost; they were trying to get a pet out, or to salvage important things such as personal photographs. Families I have spoken to after flooding often say it is those personal things they cannot replace that affect them the most. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington said—I am sure it is the same for other hon. Members—families are still out of their houses almost a year later. Government are investing £5.2 billion in flood and coastal erosion defences in England, to better protect 336,000 properties. This specifically includes £313 million in London. The total spend in London is £370 million—the additional £57 million is made up by other partnership funds and so on.

Last July, the affected areas of London received over a month’s rainfall in just a couple of hours. It overwhelmed drainage networks and caused the surface water flooding that my hon. Friend has spoken to me about at some length, particularly in Notting Hill and north Kensington, but I am sure other hon. Members will have equally harrowing stories from their constituencies.

On that point, to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), we were told when we had floods in 2011 and 2012 that they were one-in-100-year events. Ten years later, we are back having what is described as a one-in-300-year event. That reinforces the urgent need for Thames Water to recognise and make that investment. These events are occurring with a regularity that is absolutely not normal, and the adjustment has to be made to accommodate it.

As pointed out, these so-called never events appear to be happening more frequently. Given the combination of climate change with other things, we need to look fundamentally at how the system is joined up. I think the hon. Member for Hammersmith articulated that this does not need a “bit” approach but an overall approach. Hopefully, hon. Members will see where the thinking is going.

That overwhelming meant that we got complex localised surface water flooding. Water does not stop. It knows no bounds. It does not stop at a constituency edge or a road end. Indeed, many of our towns and villages have lanes called Water Lane, for example, because we know that is the natural course of water. It happens quickly; it is difficult to predict; it can be exacerbated by the impenetrable surfaces that my hon. Friend spoke about, and it can overwhelm the drainage networks. Everyone—all those agencies, individuals, local authorities, Ofwat, the Environment Agency—has their part to play in understanding the flood risk and the mitigating actions they should take, as do the householders, to ensure they can best protect themselves and their property.

The statutory responsibility to manage flood risk falls to the risk management authorities such as the Environment Agency and the lead local flood authorities and water companies. As my hon. Friend well knows, the Environment Agency has the strategic overview role, and while it does not lead on surface water flooding, it provides support and advice and facilitates partnerships. I know that she has met with all the agencies and with Sarah Bentley at Thames Water to champion her constituents’ challenges, but I would like to reassure her that that cross-partnership work is going on.

Lead local flood authorities have the operational lead in managing local flood risk, including surface water risk. They are best placed to understand, mitigate and respond to these risks. Working with local communities and with the invaluable information that Members and other bodies bring forward, as part of the local flood risk management strategy, they are driving down and making sure that we get the right mitigations in the right places to protect people.

The Government fully support and encourage greater collaboration and partnership working. Following the flooding, many organisations stepped forward this time to work together to make sure we got the right result. As everybody has said, this is not a situation where responsibility can be passed on. There is a task and finish group going on. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), covers this part of the portfolio and will be meeting with the deputy Mayor shortly to hear more about this work. She will challenge them to ensure that the right work is going on in the right places to drive the right results and make sure there is ambition.

What I have heard from everybody is that they want there to be the ambition to protect constituents. The task and finish group has been working on a range of issues, including better communication. As was alluded to, we know that many residents do not have English as a first language. We know that there were challenges because of transient populations, and a sub-group on communications has been set up. I have been assured that the failures seen last summer are noted and being addressed and rectified. I believe the call centre went down, and there were various other challenges.

It would be useful if we could have the details of the task and finish group and have communications with it. Yes, work is going on, as the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) indicated, but there is a real lack of trust, because we have been through all this before. We have had sewer and surface flooding, and the solutions are only partial flap valves that really deal only with sewer flooding. We cannot allow this to happen again. We need a comprehensive solution. It may cost a lot of money, but we have to protect the thousands of people who are vulnerable. To echo the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) made about Flood Re, will that cover our constituencies as it covers rural constituencies?

Flood Re is a scheme jointly administrated by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and it has covered some 335,000 properties. I am not entirely sure of the scope of things, but I will make sure that Members are written to, because it is a valid point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington said, the challenge—one that I have had in my own constituency—is that when the work is done, the reinsuring becomes either prohibitively expensive or in some cases virtually impossible. I will make sure that I write to Members on that matter.

Thames Water commissioned an independent review of the performance of its network, including the Maida Vale flood defence scheme and the cancelled Counters Creek scheme. As my hon. Friend said, it also committed £10 million in property flood resilience measures, including those non-return valves. Counters Creek is arguably not a single solution to this. It was designed for specific storm events, not the rain bomb or the intensity of the events of last summer, and it has been argued that it would not have prevented the flooding.

I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that that has been looked into. Further investigations were done by Thames Water, and it implemented the flooding local improvement project to reduce the risk posed by the non-return valves. The challenge with rainwater is that it is almost like watching popcorn. We cannot be sure where the flood is going to occur, because of the different meteorological effects and all the rest of it.

My understanding is that the independent review will investigate whether Counters Creek would have solved the problem, and that that will be part of the final stage of the investigation. At this stage, the jury is very much out on that.

I note my hon. Friend’s point. However, I would like to reassure her that the Government are investing more in surface water, flood and risk management. Following changes to the partnership funding policy, approximately one third of the 2,000 schemes planned will mitigate surface water flooding. That includes £30 million in London—three times more investment—delivering 110 schemes to better protect nearly 2,600 properties, and including sustainable drainage systems. Those will be used in the Portobello Road area, among other works.

Last July, we published an update report on surface water management, setting out progress in delivering our surface water management action plan and the response to David Jenkins’ independent review of surface water and drainage responsibilities. At the autumn Budget we commissioned a new National Infrastructure Commission study on the effective management of surface water flooding in England. That will report by this November.

While I know that these actions feel to be after the event, we need the clear direction to target surface water flooding. The Government’s strategic policy statement to Ofwat sets out our priorities and objectives for its regulation of the water sector in England, including—most importantly in this area—the resilience to flooding. That is what we are talking about here. The water industry is doing much more to tackle natural hazards, including by investing £1 billion to reduce flooding impacts on the communities that Members are here to fight for.

Again, it is utterly devastating when one’s property is flooded. We recognise the importance of having a robust drainage system, both now and for future demand. A new duty under the Environment Act 2021 will require water companies to produce comprehensive drainage and waste water management plans setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewage networks over the long term. That addresses the point on ageing infrastructure. Water companies will produce those plans with other risk management authorities, providing a full assessment of the condition and capacity of the networks and developing collaborative long-term and short-term solutions for our problems.

Those plans and collaborative solutions will identify the best way forward. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington understands that the wholesale upgrading of the entire network would be prohibitively expensive, take decades, and cause mass disruption without any guaranteed solution. We are looking for targeted solutions.

In August 2021, the Government committed to a review of whether to implement schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. The schedule would introduce standards for new sustainable drainage systems and remove the automatic right to connect to the public sewer, which again addresses the problem of over-delivery of water into the system by reducing the amount of water being added to the sewer network and the risk of surface water flooding. The review will be presented to Ministers this autumn.

On the topic of major strategic investment, I do not want anyone to rule it out at this stage. Counters Creek was actually developed in response to the flash flooding in 2007, to address the very issue that we are suffering from.

As my hon. Friend has heard from the figures that I have given, we are very much not addressing investing large sums of money. Indeed, we have committed large sums of money to address our flooding and surface water problems. However, we need a strategic plan; we need people to be working together; we need all authorities involved at the table, driving the right solutions, because there is no single solution. We need an integrated approach to find the solutions. A good example has 32 London boroughs, the Mayor’s office, Thames Water and the local Environment Agency team driving that work.

I want to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington—indeed, with all hon. Members—to hold everyone’s feet to the fire. We remain committed to tackling flooding and ensuring that everyone plays their part to increase the resilience for people. I know that my hon. Friend, as the Member of Parliament for Kensington, and her neighbours, will be making sure that we do that.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Drug Crime

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of tackling drug crime in local communities.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful to every hon. Member who has come to participate in this debate. I am well aware that the issues we are discussing affect not only my constituency in Keighley and Ilkley but constituencies across the country. I welcome the fact that Members are here from different parties, communities and areas, all coming together to share their thoughts on a real challenge in our communities and to come together to deliver progressive change.

As MPs we want to sing from the rooftops what is so great in our communities, but it is important that we also tackle the darker issues, such as drug crime, that have plagued our cities, towns and rural communities for far too long. Drug crime is a real problem across the country. Last year there were 72,024 arrests for drug offences in England and Wales—up from the previous year, and the highest total in more than five years. It is estimated that one in 11 adults—more than 3 million people—took an illicit drug last year. It is alarming that 2% of adults are classed as frequent drug users. There are more than 300,000 heroin and crack addicts in England, who between them are responsible for nearly half of all burglaries, robberies and other types of crime.

Sadly, those issues are prevalent in my constituency. There is a strong chance that someone going for a walk in some parts of my constituency will see drug crime and drug distribution taking place. Drug crime is happening in all parts of my town.

I fear that this is an issue on which my hon. Friend and I might have different views. He talks about the challenges of illicit drugs in his constituency and the impact they have, but has he assessed the impact of legal drugs, such as alcohol, by comparison?

I absolutely have. Alcohol abuse is very much an issue in my constituency and in other areas of the county, but what must be tackled—I have seen this time and again—is the misuse of illicit drugs, from cannabis to class A drugs. It is vital that we take a hard-line approach to dealing with such criminality.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate. Does he agree that we need a twin-track approach? Those involved in dealing drugs need to be punished, but there are others whom we need to help and find a pathway for so that they do not get drawn into drug gangs.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention, and I do agree. We have to take a hard-line approach to those evil members of society who get involved in drug distribution and supply. However, we also need a twin-track approach, which is what the Government have provided through the plan they announced last year—I will come on to that—where we provide support to individuals who get trapped in the system and those who need it.

In my constituency, there have been many instances of drug crime over the past few months and incidents where the police have got involved. Just this morning Sergeant Dave Purcell from our local neighbourhood policing team, along with his colleagues, carried out an early-morning raid and seized cannabis seedlings from an address in the Highfield area of Keighley with an estimated street value of £130,000. That is not the first instance where that has happened; in one instance last year, six men from Keighley were arrested and five cars and £10,000 in cash were seized, as well as weapons such as CS spray and knuckledusters. A staggering 500 wraps of class A drugs were found on those individuals, which they wanted to sell to good people in my constituency who were getting trapped in the system of taking drugs.

Of course, we must also focus on drug distribution. Last year, I was contacted by two constituents who informed me that they had video evidence of one of our local taxi firms using its network to distribute drugs. I went to meet them after a surgery meeting and saw that video footage for myself before passing it on to West Yorkshire police. That illustrates that drug distribution is an organised crime that is happening right across my constituency and the wider country. On the point about taxi firms being used for drug distribution, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for his Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Bill, which contains vital measures that will help restore better licensing provisions, which will operate across the country, as opposed to local authorities dealing with licensing through a siloed approach.

Those examples show that there are undeniable issues in my constituency, which are all related to drug crime. Some local factors exist, some of which are related to geographical area. Keighley is right on the periphery of West Yorkshire, bordering North Yorkshire, and on the periphery of three different local authorities. We closely border North Yorkshire, Lancashire and Calderdale, meaning that county lines drug gangs are a real challenge for my constituency. Because we border two local police areas, drug gangs can use our geographical position to get away with drug dealing undetected, or are not as easily detected, by the police. In one instance, a county lines gang was found to be using rail network links, using Keighley train station to ferry drugs across the border into Skipton.

Often, the evil leaders of supply operations exploit hapless addicts of class A drugs to ensure they have street runners to sell drugs for huge sums, in return for drugs to feed those addicts’ habits or even for a reduction in their debt for the drugs already supplied to them. Innocent people can be drawn by gangs into these bad habits from a very young age, and have their lives ruined by their involvement in this criminal activity.

Drug dealing links to other crimes: members of these gangs are often the same people who are the perpetrators of gang-related grooming and child sexual exploitation—an issue that has haunted my constituency for far too long, and one that I will continue to talk about. They blackmail their victims by exposing them to this criminal activity of drug dealing, which fuels other forms of antisocial behaviour, some of which I have already described.

Violence involving drug gangs has caused disorder and criminal damage in particular areas of Keighley, such as Westburn Avenue. We have two predominant drug gangs within Keighley, who will openly challenge and take one another on in broad daylight. Unfortunately, residents of Westburn Avenue have been exposed to that behaviour, but it is not restricted to that area: it happens in the Highfield area, the Showfield area, and the Lawkholme Lane area of Keighley as well.

That makes people afraid and puts them off coming into Keighley, which is a really good, attractive place. We want to encourage more people to come into Keighley, but we have to address some of these darker, underlying issues. In one tragic case, a man was stabbed to death after challenging a teenage drug dealer to his face about what he was trying to do—selling drugs to a 14-year-old boy. Urgent action and urgent change are needed for the sake of my town and, I am sure, the constituencies of other Members present. We need to talk about this and make sure that when announcements are made at a national level they filter down to our constituents and that our constituents then see real change being delivered at a local level.

Of course, these issues are not just restricted to urban environments; drugs are very much an issue in our rural settings as well. I represent a very urban fringe seat with some really rural parts to it, and I know that drug dealing happens in some of the remotest parts of my constituency as well.

It saddens me to say that when I was first elected to this place, one of the first constituency meetings I had was with a father who came along to tell me that his 13-year-old son had come home from school one day saying, in all innocence, “Dad, I know exactly what I want to do when I’m older,” and that was to become a drug dealer. That was not because his 13-year-old did not know the difference between right and wrong but because he thought drug dealing was something good to aspire to, because he had seen people driving around Keighley in blacked-out, fancy cars. We all know what those individuals are driving and we know where the money comes from to facilitate this activity.

That father was heartbroken that he was coming to me to raise those concerns, but that story gets to the bottom of this issue. This is about raising aspiration for communities such as the one I represent, so that we are not only taking a hard-line approach against drug dealing and providing the necessary support for those who get into the unfortunate situation of taking drugs, but ensuring, alongside all of that, that when we talk about levelling up we are raising aspirations for our constituents and their young families as well.

I was pleased to welcome the Home Secretary to Keighley only a week or so ago. I had had many conversations with her myself, and she met my local neighbourhood policing team to discuss some of the very open challenges we have on the ground. It was great for her to meet Inspector John Barker, as well as some of our police community support officers and members of the police team who are doing incredible work in Keighley.

I welcome the work the Government are doing to tackle this issue, because they want to tackle it head-on. At the end of last year, I was pleased that they unveiled a 10-year plan to clamp down completely on drug crime in our cities, towns and villages, backed by millions of pounds of investment. Of course, that involves a plan to stop the cycle of crime that is driven by addiction, to keep violence out of communities and to save lives by reducing the number of drug-related deaths and homicides.

The Government will also target the violent county lines gang-related issue, which I have already mentioned, making sure that the UK has a strategy that can be adopted by our police forces to make sure that we tackle some of the issues that exist in communities that are geographically challenged, with different police forces, different local authorities and different organisations working cross-boundary. I was also pleased to see that a new commission will be set up to rebuild drug treatment and recovery services to help those who have fallen into this dire situation.

Perhaps most importantly and most encouragingly, though, the Government will put in place a strategy that will educate children comprehensively about the dangers of getting into drugs, and that needs to happen at an early age. Interventions will happen to stop young children from getting dragged into the dangerous life of drug crime.

All the points that I have picked up on are very much to do with the Home Office, the Department for Education and, of course, the Department of Health, but what work is being done at Government level on collaboration between those three Departments, to ensure that when a national policy is announced an average constituent of mine will really feel a tangible change?

My hon. Friend is making some interesting points, and I should quickly draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a practising NHS doctor. On the issue of cross-Government working, it seems extraordinary that most drug treatment services are commissioned not by the NHS but by local authorities. That leads to fragmented care and a lack of direct health involvement in drug treatment. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should ask the Minister to look at this issue, take it to the Department of Health and bring drug treatment commissioning back to the NHS?

My hon. Friend obviously knows what the next paragraphs of my speech are. In terms of that collaborative approach, we need to give the Department of Health more freedom to instigate some of the measures needed to help those who get driven into this cycle of drug addiction, and to ensure that more support is provided in the treatment sphere as well. Coupled with that, we have to have the right strategy, which involves taking a hard-line approach with those involved in the drug distribution network and those supplying illegal drugs and bringing them into our communities.

I want to give a good example of a very local initiative that has been utilised in Keighley and that is working incredibly well. Driven by the Home Office and initially branded Operation Springhaven, it specifically targeted a small part of my community—an area in Keighley—that was known for having horrendous issues with drug distribution and dealing. Initiated by the Home Office, it took a partnership-led approach and was worked on in collaboration with West Yorkshire police. It brought the local authority, local community groups and the town council onboard. When we took a targeted approach to a specific area, it was not only about tackling drug crime but about being aware of where the drug dealing happened: low-lit back streets that often had overgrown vegetation. All those organisations could work together to try to remove the drug dealing that was taking place. It was done with the point of providing a lot more reassurance to residents living in that area, and involved a lot of door knocking and getting residents to take ownership and buy in to the strategy. It worked incredibly well. I ask the Minister whether that strategy could be adopted and rolled out beyond the initial pilot scheme we had in Keighley.

I conclude by saying that drug crime is dark and horrendous and impacts every level of society, from more affluent areas all the way down to the most deprived areas. It is a dangerous, dark crime that relies on the most evil in society exploiting the weakest. I commend the Government for the work that they are doing, but I would like to understand how we can make sure that the announcements that were made at the end of last year can be delivered as quickly as possible to communities such as those I represent across Keighley and Ilkley.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) for his speech; it resonated quite a lot with my experience in my constituency. He did a really good job of introducing the debate.

I want to raise an aspect of drug crime that I believe is still massively under-prioritised: child criminal exploitation, or CCE. The Minister knows this is a subject I have raised repeatedly over recent years. Unfortunately, while some genuine progress has been made, I still do not believe enough focus is being put on this. I gently say that I am still disappointed by that.

I have spoken many times about the damage done in my constituency as the end result of child criminal exploitation: we have seen dozens of children murdered and many more who have been stabbed, and we have seen the fear that has been created and the enormous potential that has been wasted and lost to gangs and crime. The groomers and exploiters who prey on our children seem to get off very lightly. This is about how organised criminals—mostly selling drugs—conspire to abuse, exploit, and dispose of children for profit. While constituencies such as mine have seen the biggest impact from county lines, the tentacles of those gangs extend across the country—the damage they do is widespread.

I have a few outstanding issues to raise with the Minister, and I would also like to remind him about my ten-minute rule Bill from December, as he might need some bedtime reading.

Last month we saw new guidance published for inspections of local area responses to CCE, which was very welcome. The guidance understands that CCE can be prevented, that children can be supported to break free and enabled to realise their potential, even after being exploited. Most of all, it recognises that all agencies, as we have heard, need to work together to respond together—schools, councils and police. I would be glad to hear from the Minister when there will be a concerted programme of inspections using the guidance. I would also like to understand how the Government are going to use the lessons learned to inform a strategy that will bring an end to the business model that is county lines.

Another issue that the Government need to get a handle on is the relationship between child criminal exploitation and child sexual exploitation. We know that there is an overlap. Children in the grip of drugs gangs are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Both forms of child abuse are happening to both boys and girls. Sexual abuse can and is being used as a weapon by drug gangs to deepen their control over the children they are exploiting. However, children affected by child criminal exploitation or child sexual exploitation will generally need different forms of care. Confusion can cause real damage.

The recent report by Professor Alexis Jay into child sexual exploitation had some alarming findings. Some police areas were tagging all cases of criminal exploitation as sexual exploitation. In other areas, boy victims of sexual abuse were given a generic criminal exploitation tag.

Only full data can help us understand the scale of particular problems in an area, and only then can we ensure that the right resources are directed to support all children in need. It is essential to tackle drug harms to communities, and other harms that those drug harms do. We need agencies working together, so that vital opportunities to intervene are not missed. When they are missed, there are utterly appalling consequences for children and families. In the case of child criminal exploitation, there are consequences for entire communities, because of the violence and death that the county lines drug trade has brought to my constituency and others. This situation demonstrates why we need clear statutory definitions, including for child criminal exploitation. Without them, we are not getting clear data, we do not have consistent practices across different areas and there is no strategic focus on driving down both those forms of abuse across the country.

Without clarity, transparency and accountability, some will understandably worry that one form of exploitation or another is being neglected as the media agenda shifts. We need flexible laws and recognition that different forms of abuse overlap and interact, but we need legal clarity too. I do not think that we have got it right so far; I hope the Minister might comment on that point today.

We also need to recognise that the methods used by groomers and exploiters have changed. During the lockdowns, partners identified a big increase in the use of social media to groom children into child criminal exploitation. Obviously, the more traditional method of identifying and meeting children on the street by McDonald’s and the chicken shop was now harder. The Government need to provide a better account of how the Online Safety Bill will require online platforms to identify, block and report grooming and exploitation for the drug trade of county lines.

Child criminal exploitation is not listed as a priority offence in the Bill. I genuinely believe that it needs to be, if we are to give it the focus it deserves. If we get this right, online spaces could identify children who are being groomed and exploited. We would be on to the criminal gangs much earlier, preventing enormous harm. If we get it wrong, social media will continue to give drug gangs easy access to vulnerable children. I would like the Minister to tell us how the Home Office is working with colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that the Bill will guarantee action on that.

Finally, I want to raise the importance of working with schools to prevent exclusions, which can make children so much more vulnerable to the exploitation of drug gangs. Children’s charities and experts are clear that schools need to be equipped with information about the signs of child criminal exploitation. They need to consider that risk of exploitation before they decide to exclude a child. In reality, drug groomers can, and do, actively conspire to get a child excluded by, for example, forcing them to carry drugs or weapons into school. Sometimes they spread the word, ensuring that the school knows that the child is carrying, in order to trigger an exclusion and make that child a better mule for them.

Schools need to be wise to that tactic, and provide children with real support in those situations, and not do exactly what the groomers want, which is to exclude children and send them to alternative provision, where other members of the gang often already sit. It is then impossible to get out of the grip of the groomers and make a new start in life. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that the statutory exclusions and behaviour guidance is revised? That would help prevent children being exploited and would, in turn, reduce the harms of drug offending that we are discussing today.

May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) on securing the debate? He has touched on a number of issues that impact a range of our constituencies. I hope there will be some solutions at the end of the debate that we can all work on, on a cross-party basis. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), who brings a huge amount of experience to the House in her shadow roles, and gives great evidence about what schools and communities can do in playing their part. I completely agree with the point made in both speeches about tackling county lines, to ensure that we can disrupt those who deal drugs across our country.

It will be no surprise that I am going to speak specifically about Devon and the south-west. I am representing other south-west colleagues who cannot be here. No Member of Parliament for the south-west would get away in such a debate without mentioning our police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez, and the work she is doing with us to tackle drug crime in rural and urban areas. It is a blight that we face, getting increasingly worse in a post-pandemic world. As the record of crime across the south-west decreases, crime around antisocial behaviour and drugs is on the up, which we see in the statistics reported across Devon and Cornwall. We need to see that addressed.

Our police and crime commissioner and our new South Devon sector inspector Ben Shardlow are working with Members of Parliament, parish, district and county councillors, inventing new schemes and initiatives to ensure a comprehensive level of engagement across the county, to report, identify and tackle those who seek to deal drugs, or who seek to influence people by trying to push them into the drugs trade, and seek to create antisocial behaviour.

It is particularly welcome that the Government have taken so many positive steps in the south-west. I believe that by the end of 2023, we will have more officers in south Devon alone than we did in 2010—46 new officers, 25 trainees and 21 transferee officers. However, they must be utilised in a proper and cohesive manner across the whole area, not just the urban areas with high population densities.

I am repeatedly shocked when I visit small villages—as I did over the recess—and parish councillors tell me about blacked-out Mercedes coming into their villages, blatantly dealing drugs, and about the antisocial behaviour that then follows. Just a few weeks ago, one constituent decided to video conference call me from his mobile phone. He turned his camera over and showed me two people dealing drugs on the other side of his fence, and although he reported it through the 101 system, which I will come on to in a second, there was no response from the police in that instance.

There is clearly a breakdown, because ordinary people across our constituencies are reporting these crimes but all too often they are not seeing the action taken to address them. I understand, of course, that the police have many pressures on them, but when that is not being dealt with by the police, it does not give people confidence that the issue will be addressed. We must look at ensuring that the new officers—in the instance of south Devon—are utilised and put on a strategic footing to cover every area in rural and urban settings.

Of course, I and others have mentioned county lines. We see it coming down from the midlands and coming up from Cornwall. South Devon seems to be a crossroads, where we see drugs coming in from all directions. We know where they are coming from, but we must be able to help build the system that allows us to document the evidence and information about what constituents are reporting.

That is where 101 becomes a problem. I must say, the pressure that has been placed on that system over the pandemic is clearly huge. However, it is also clear that people’s faith and confidence in it is not there. We must find a way in which the 101 system allows people to report crimes and know they are being documented, and then acted on, by the police. I hope that the Minister might spend a few seconds addressing that point in his remarks. As the hon. Member for West Ham said, local action requires comprehensive engagement from local society members, the police and the schools, working together to ensure that we can disrupt those who seek to bring harm and dangerous drugs into our areas.

I do not want to bang on for too long, but I have five suggestions, which I hope that the Minister might be able to adopt. The first is what has become known as the councillor advocate scheme, which Alison Hernandez, our police and crime commissioner, has launched in south Devon. It has proven to be a remarkably effective way in which parish councillors, district councillors and county councillors can all get involved and liaise with the police on a regular basis. A police officer might also attend their meetings to give them regular updates and briefings on measures being taken to ensure that crime is reduced in their areas, but also that there is a police presence.

I have already made the point about utilising officers, but we must think about how we do so. All over this country we have village halls that sit, not being used, from 6 o’clock in the evening to 6 o’clock in the morning. We should look to use those spaces as hubs for the police to stop by, throughout the evenings and nights, so that people know that, at any point, a police officer could be in their village or town. The parish councils that I have spoken to in my constituency are all universally behind that. If the Minister wants to use south Devon as a testing programme, I would be delighted. For just a small amount of money from his budget, I am sure I can make it work. It has had a positive response from those who think that it could allow us to address these issues.

My next point is on the substitution of officers. I am delighted that so many of our police officers want to go on training programmes, but there is great difficulty in replacing them when they are on those programmes. That is the problem. I am delighted to have a number of officers going off and doing firearms training courses, but no one can replace them while they are away. I think, although I am happy to be corrected by any hon. Member in this place, that a firearms training course takes 18 weeks. That means that one of my towns, and its surrounding area, is without one of its necessary and needed officers over that time.

From the person who deals on the street to the person who brings drugs into this country, we know that we must disrupt them at every single level. I believe that we can, and that there is a positive story about the uplift in officers, but we must go further, and must be able to ensure that we are addressing all levels of society.

It is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I thank my neighbour, the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for securing this debate. He and I share a passion for tackling all of West Yorkshire’s problems. We regularly share a space in Westminster Hall; today is no different, so I thank him again for securing this important debate.

I suspect there is not a single constituency, as we have already started to hear, that is not affected by drugs and the misery that they inflict on individuals and communities. I am afraid to say that Halifax is no different. There seems to be an increasing audacity among those involved in the supply and dealing of drugs. Our inboxes and postbags are increasingly made up of concerned residents who witness drug deals in their areas and on their streets. Even in reporting those incidents to the police, as we have already heard, they feel powerless to take a meaningful stand and see it properly gripped.

I pay tribute to my local neighbourhood policing teams, as it is those officers who are at the forefront of the work to identify and address drugs activity. The pressures on neighbourhood policing teams is enormous, as the ability to get ahead of community issues is constantly compromised by having their resources diverted into response policing and responding to 999 calls, all ultimately a consequence of having fewer officers because of austerity, as hon. Members have pointed out.

In some districts of West Yorkshire, the demands on response and safeguarding teams are such that NPTs routinely operate with around 50% vacancies and abstractions in the numbers that they need—abstractions being the back-filling of roles in predominantly response policing on an almost constant basis, which inevitably compromises their capabilities. Neighbourhood policing is specialist and vital. It is the neighbourhood policing teams who primarily do the legwork on intelligence gathering and executing warrants relating to drugs.

In Calderdale, which covers just two constituencies—my Halifax constituency and the neighbouring Calder Valley—in the last two weeks alone there have been 23 instances of offences involving the possession of drugs, as well as eight instances of drugs trafficking. In the same two weeks, officers have uncovered four cannabis farms, taking the total up to seven cannabis farms dismantled by police in the last 31 days in just those two constituencies.

I normally joke in debates like this that the situation in Calderdale is not quite as bad as Sally Wainwright’s gripping “Happy Valley” would have us believe, but, worryingly, the stats speak for themselves. Only well-resourced NPTs with officers dedicated to this work, with protected time and defined and ring-fenced roles, allow us to get ahead in communities and get a grip of drug-related crime. If the Minister tells me that the resourcing of teams is an operational decision, I will make the point once again that it is the reduction in officer numbers, which we are still a long way off restoring, that has forced these difficult compromises for chief officers, setting back community-based policing.

Another massively aggravating issue in Calderdale, as I am sure is the case elsewhere, is fly-tipping, but in the context of this debate the fly-tipping of waste from cannabis grows. The dumping of bags of soil and clay pebbles in quiet rural lanes, as has happened in Northowram recently, is infuriating. It is evidence of crime upon crime—first the illegal grow, then the reckless dumping of waste, with councils being left to sort out the mess. I urge the Minister to consider all the ways that we can properly tackle this particular issue, including any and all forensics opportunities from this type of criminality.

I had the opportunity to visit the West Yorkshire violence reduction unit’s knife crime exhibition at the Royal Armouries in Leeds at the weekend. The work of the violence reduction unit has established that illegal drugs use and supply are significantly linked to violence in West Yorkshire, with schools commenting during a VRU survey that drugs had

“become the norm in many groups of young people, appear to be easy to obtain, and users are very young, for example in Year 7 making them around 11 years old”.

The targeted initiatives undertaken by the VRU are some of the best practice in the country. The At the Sharp End exhibition at the Royal Armouries showcases the work of Operation Jemlock, who I had the opportunity to spend a night shift with, and who have made over 6,000 arrests and confiscated over 1,000 weapons over the last two and a half years. I urge anyone to go and have a look at some of the weapons they have taken off our streets in West Yorkshire. It is truly terrifying stuff, and is all too often linked to drugs crime. Figures released by West Yorkshire police regarding the number of under-25s who have been involved in possession and/or use of knives or other sharp objects in the 12 months up to February 2022 reveal that police recorded 22 incidents in Calderdale. These included two 13-year-olds and one child aged just 10 in possession of a weapon. That is why the work of the violence reduction unit is so effective and essential; long may that funding continue.

Let me turn to the scourge of drug driving. Earlier this month I wrote to the Home Secretary regarding the freedom of information request I submitted to police forces, following roads policing officers around the country raising frustrations about delays in forensics meaning that drug drivers are getting away with their crimes. As the Minister knows, when an individual is arrested on suspicion of drug driving, usually having failed a roadside drug test and tested positive for cannabis or cocaine, the law requires that the police submit a confirmatory blood test in order for a suspect to be charged. As drug driving is a summary offence, if it takes longer than six months for forensic analysis to be undertaken on that blood sample, the police are unable to charge an individual.

I sent a freedom of information request to every police force in England and Wales, and data from those FOIs showed that in the past three years, at least 62 prosecutions of suspected drug drivers have collapsed due to forensic labs failing to turn around tests in the required six-month window. What is really concerning is that 21 police forces—nearly half—either failed to respond to the FOI or gave incomplete data, so we know that this is just a snapshot of a much bigger problem. Police have caught and arrested drug drivers, but broader criminal justice failures mean that those drug drivers get away with their crimes and are free to continue putting lives at risk on our roads.

In answer to a written parliamentary question on this issue from February, the Government suggested that this relates to pressures in the system, stating:

“between January and September 2021, there were some delays in drug drive testing due to Covid related pressures on forensic services. Toxicology supply has now significantly increased, and all backlogs have been cleared. Some cases could not be charged during this period, but none of these involved serious injury or death.”

Although it is reasonable to say that the pandemic strained forensic services, it is wrong to argue that this is the sole factor behind slow drug driving test turnaround times, as our research covers the past three years and suggests that there are long-term, systemic problems in getting drug drivers off our roads. I am still waiting to a response to my letter asking how the Government plan to address these ongoing pressures, and ensure that drug drivers are not at large and able to reoffend, putting lives at risk on our highways.

I place on record my thanks to Calderdale’s outstanding neighbourhood policing team inspectors, Ben Doughty and James Graham, and the sergeants, police constables and police community support officers in their teams, as well as PC Craig Nicholls from the Police Federation for sharing his insights and those of his members in preparation for today’s very important speech.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) on securing this debate and delivering a belter of an opening speech. It makes it rather difficult for those who must follow, but I thank him for that.

Mr Pritchard, indulge me, if you will. Let us think for a moment back to our childhoods, and the Sunday afternoons when we would sit down and watch the television—that thing in the corner of the room that was still quite novel then, certainly for myself. I used to watch the cowboy films with my dad, and there was something that happened in those films. I put this as a question for Members to consider while I speak; if they lose interest in what I am saying, they might try to answer this question in their minds. When the bad guys rode into town, shot it up, robbed the bank and galloped off into the sunset in a cloud of dust, carrying bags of money, what was the first thing that happened afterwards? What was the response? What did the sheriff do at that point? I will leave that thought with Members while I speak.

As a fan of what was then acceptable to call cowboy and Indian movies—obviously they got a posse together, rode into the desert and hunted down those bad guys. Then, the following week, the bad guys came back.

The hon. Member makes an interesting suggestion, which I will return to later in my speech. It would be remiss of me to give the great reveal now.

I have the very great privilege of representing a beautiful part of the world, Aberconwy in north Wales. Two thirds of the constituency lies within Snowdonia and the rest is on the coast. We have the walled, medieval town of Conwy and we have Llandudno, which many people probably know is the largest resort in Wales, and it is a beautiful place. Unfortunately, in common with many other, often very beautiful, coastal communities, it also has problems with poverty, deprivation and drug abuse. How often do we hear about poverty and drug abuse together, and about the associated crime?

We have heard about the terrible problems that come with that, and I do not want to dwell on them, except to say that the involvement of children and young people, particularly through the phenomenon of county lines gangs that has grown across the UK in the last decade, is quite awful. Things once attributed to the despicable behaviour of adults are now attributed to children. The age of children doing those things, carrying weapons, and being involved in and exposed to that deprivation, is ever lower. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley for bringing this debate forward and allowing us to address these issues.

I pay tribute to the brave police officers in north Wales who are working around the clock to disrupt and break up many county lines operations—in particular, the astonishing work of the intercept team that covers the whole region and was set up to clamp down on organised crime and drug gangs throughout north Wales. The team use innovative technology to ensure they are able to intercept and disrupt criminals, making north Wales a hostile environment for crime groups to operate in. Since their inception in February 2020, they have recovered controlled drugs, tens of thousands of pounds in cash, mobile phones and weapons such as knives, Tasers and worse, and they have made hundreds of proactive arrests.

In March this year alone, the team made 16 arrests for a range of offences and seized more than 100 wraps of class A drugs, 40 bags of class B drugs and £5,000 in cash. The officers have carried out warrants, stopped vehicles and made arrests linked to possession of controlled drugs, drink and drug driving, and other driving offences. It takes courage and dedication to deliver that kind of performance. Th team’s protection of the public is invaluable and they are a credit to the communities they serve in north Wales. I dare say other Members here can say the same of forces operating in their areas.

I turn to the importance of the community and community groups in dealing with this issue. As I and the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) suggested, the first action of the sheriff was to gather a posse; the key point was that the community did not lose ownership of the problem. In western civilisation, we live in an atomised society. We are individualist in our approach and become very transactional in our relationships, and as a result we tend to say, “That is their job.” In debates about litter, I have often heard people say, “I am not picking up that piece of litter because it would cost someone their job—someone is paid to do that.” There is a strange tension in our society that means that we start to have a dissociated view of each other and the different things that happen, and yet in that lesson of the posse, even though the town had hired and paid the sheriff and the deputies, it still had the responsibility.

I will highlight that idea in a couple of comments with respect to poverty. Poverty and drugs exist in almost a death spiral, with the two locked together. Which comes first? It is a case of cause and effect. Very often, they are a cause, but equally those who are locked into poverty are preyed upon by criminal gangs. Some years ago, the Centre for Social Justice produced some thought-provoking work about pathways to poverty, which included drug abuse, educational failure and family breakdown.

The idea of pathways is helpful because, as other hon. Members have mentioned, there are sometimes entry points to these pathways through socially acceptable behaviour. Alcohol is a socially acceptable drug, yet it can become an entry point into harder drug abuse, as can prescription medication. We should not be ignorant of that or imagine that problems with illicit drugs exist in isolation.

At one scheme—I will not mention where it is, except to say it is in north Wales—I spoke to veterans of special forces who in effect used a cocktail of alcohol, across-the-counter and prescription medicines, and illicit drugs, to manage the highs and lows, the uppers and downers, of the post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from some of their experiences in the service of this country. That is just one example of how this kind of problem can develop.

My hon. Friend has rightly brought the debate on to people who are dependent on alcohol and street drugs. In that respect, I am sure he is aware of schemes operated in countries such as Portugal where drug possession has been decriminalised and of how that has improved access to drug services for many people, who in this country would otherwise be criminalised. It has also reduced drug-related deaths. Is it worth us at least looking into that in this country?

I take a different view. I speak as someone who is not an expert, but who has spoken to those caught in the terrible grip that drugs hold on their lives and those of their family members. Principally among such families—those experiencing a son, daughter, mother or father caught up in drugs—I never hear talk of legalising the drugs that caused their problems as a solution to the problems. My worry about decriminalisation is that it is the wrong answer to the right question. The right question is, “How can we help people?”, but I am not convinced that decriminalisation is the right way forward. I accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion that research is important, however, and that we ought to do such things not as ideas in principle, but on the basis of evidence. I certainly support that.

Do those young men and women who served in our armed forces, came back to our country and now self-medicate their PTSD deserve a criminal record for the possession of drugs for their personal use?

The hon. Member makes an interesting point. This debate is perhaps not the one to get into that, but some of the services to veterans exclude some of those who need them the most. Some services in receipt of large amounts of public moneys, for example, will not treat those with a criminal record, who are often the ones who are furthest from help and need it the most; we must be careful about that. The hon. Member makes a worthwhile point that I am sure will be explored on another day in another debate.

On the subject of interrupting pathways, how often have we heard that young people—we have heard of at least one such example this afternoon—are attracted into a lifestyle that offers them easy money and luxury goods because they cannot see another way in their community to achieve that? I am mindful of a report published by the Centre for Social Justice about membership of gangs entitled, “Dying to Belong”. It was a brilliant title, frankly, which highlighted the problem that young people were dying and that their principal motivation for involvement with gangs was that they did not feel that they belonged to their community or their families. Those are real problems and we can interrupt those pathways.

We need to provide better jobs in those areas, better role models and the education that will help people. It is about setting out clear alternative pathways for those young people. We must not flinch from mentioning the love of family and parents. We all know what family means to each of us. I do not refer to some Victorian ideal. We all know that if I asked anyone in this room, “Who is your family?”, we would know who that was. It might look different for each one of us, but we would all know. We would also know that we bear the imprint—for good or bad—of that family for the rest of our lives. We must find a way of grappling with that and saying, “How do we help the family around those young people, to keep them off those pathways?”

Aspiration and hope are essential. I must mention briefly the work of the Government, with their levelling-up fund. The idea is that talent is spread everywhere, but opportunity is not, so if the fund can do one thing, it is to deliver opportunity in such areas. If young people see an opportunity forward to a Mercedes, a flash car, a better phone, nicer trainers or whatever, and are able to build in their mind an aspiration that is positive and constructive, and does not lead them into the embrace of the gangs, that is a good thing.

I urge the Minister to think about supply and demand, and how often our efforts in dealing with drugs are about shutting down supply, on the enforcement end. That is vital, but I remember the inspector in Suffolk who memorably told me when I lived there and we in local government were dealing with county lines: “Robin, we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. This is not a problem just for the police; it is a problem for the posse. It is a problem for the communities.”

In Newmarket in Suffolk, we recognised that communities owning the spaces that gangs would occupy, being aware of the problems, spotting the signs in young people and acting early in the pathway, were as important as CCTV and the PCSOs who were on the beat in the town. We must look at everything together. We must not delegate or just assume that the police can handle these issues, and, in working together, we must make sure that we provide the resources for community groups, which can often reach further into the communities to help those who need the most from our services.

I thank the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) for setting the scene. We have been here before, discussing this issue, and have heard the stories before, but I congratulate him on his endeavours to highlight the issue. He referred to a police seizure in the past few weeks, which is some evidence of how well the police are doing.

The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) referred to westerns. I am a wee few years older than the hon. Gentleman. The great thing about a western on a Sunday afternoon was that the good guys were Gary Cooper and John Wayne, they always beat the baddies, they did it in an hour and a half, and they walked off with the woman at the end. It was always great, but life is not like that, as we know. In Keighley or anywhere else, we have to deal with the reality.

In Northern Ireland, we have a similar difficult problem. I have looked into the stats, and it does not matter whether it is alcohol, cocaine, cannabis, diazepines or Pregabalin, these issues affect my constituents every day. There is a drugs epidemic.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland are targeting my local area. I met the new superintendent, Johnston McDowell, just before Easter, along with some local councillors, and one of the main topics was getting the drugs out of the community. There was a successful sting operation in March, which is only the start of things to come, according to the PSNI. I am encouraged by my police and their response, by my inspector and his attitude. I welcome their commitment.

The scourge of drugs and the harm in my local area cannot be overstated. I have spoken to young mothers who are breaking their hearts as their sons are caught up owing drug money, and are then strong-armed into our version of gangs and paramilitary groups to pay off their so-called debt. It is an age-old story. They start with a bit of weed and it all progresses from there, into drug usage that they cannot sustain. That is why I am personally opposed to the reclassification of cannabis, unless it is under prescription for specific medical needs. I have seen too many promising boys and girls lose their way due to the cesspit of drugs in the community.

I am sorry—Mr Pritchard was clear on times, and I have less time than everybody else.

It is as a community that we can and must defeat the scourge. The difficulty in the community is the sense of fear about passing on information—that “the boys will find out”. Families live in fear and feel unable to stand up; they watch helplessly as their children are dragged into the darkness of gang warfare.

I get very angry, as I have had sobbing mothers in my office, telling me that their sons are being coerced into drug running. When I ask for names, they cannot give them, because they are afraid. I have given assurances that information passed on to the PSNI is strictly anonymous, but there is a lack of trust in the PSNI.

I have discussed the need for visible community policing that builds up relationships, as a key element of any war on drugs. When the community know and trust their local police, it can make all the difference. That is why we need to go back to the days of the local bobby who knows the names and is there to protect, not to prosecute. I am of that generation. Too many lives are lost, too many hearts are broken and too many fortunes are being made off the backs of drug abuse in the communities. It is past time that we took our community spirit and safety back into our own hands.

I know the Minister does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland, but my stories are similar to everybody else’s. We need the police, social workers and youth workers all to be on the same page, doing their job and giving young people options and support to resist and beat the scourge of drugs in our society—the biggest and deadliest challenge that we face today. Thank you for the time you have given me, Mr Pritchard; I have worked well within your confines.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for finishing on time. I call the SNP spokesman. Front Benchers, including the Minister, will have 10 minutes each.

Thank you, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) on bringing forward this debate.

I understand the frustration I have heard today. My constituency of Inverclyde is one of the most deprived in the United Kingdom, and we have a lot of drug use, abuse and criminality. I see it; I hear it; I understand it. People come to my constituency office and tell me the same stories. However, I come at this issue from a different angle.

We all despise drug gangs for what they do in our community. We despise the fact that they drag young children into their criminal world, where they are used and abused in that part of society. We all get that.

However, if we have 100 criminals each committing a crime a day in our constituency and we arrest those 100 criminals, the problem will not simply go away. Do not take my word for it. Neil Woods, who wrote the book “Good Cop, Bad War”, was at the forefront of the battle on drugs. He was an undercover cop who worked closely with drug gangs, putting his life at risk; he was responsible for the incarceration of one of the biggest drug gangs in the United Kingdom. All the gang members were locked up, from top to bottom; all their drugs and weapons were taken—there was a huge amount of publicity. Neil says that, within hours, the drugs were back on the streets and the criminals were back out there. Taking away one gang creates a vacuum that other gangs will fight over, and the criminality escalates. That is how they take control.

The current system is not working for us. We have been doing it for 50 years, and it simply does not work. I do not see any real change in attitude from the Government to say, “Let us try something different.” As the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) said, we cannot arrest our way out of a drug crisis. Ask virtually any police officer in the United Kingdom and they will say the same thing. They are living with this day in, day out. We need to address the problem, not the symptoms of the problem. It is a very complicated problem and overly simplistic solutions will not cut it. Why do people self-harm with drugs? What can we do to help them? How do we take power away from the criminal gangs that drag people into their world?

The UK Government’s new 10-year drug strategy brings much-needed money to rebuild drug treatment, but lacks real reform. Despite repeated calls from experts to adopt a new approach, the plan does not mention drug consumption rooms, overdose prevention centres—I will call them OPCs—or heroin-assisted treatment. The only reference to the decriminalisation of drug possession is an unfounded statement that it would lead to increased drug use.

OPCs are hygienic, safe spaces where people can use their own drugs under the supervision of trained staff, where overdoses can be reversed with naloxone. They are vital for engaging with people who are not in contact with local treatment services. A large percentage of those who die from drug-related deaths have not been in contact with treatment services for five years. That is in addition to shockingly high rates of drug-related deaths among the homeless population, which have more than doubled since 2013.

It is estimated that that are nearly 200 OPCs in operation across the world in 14 countries. However, there are none in the UK, as this Government continue to believe that OPCs condone the use of drugs. They prefer to continue to ostracise and marginalise drug users, and then wonder why the crime rate is increasing.

There is a wealth of evidence for the effectiveness of OPCs to engage with people who inject or smoke drugs. OPCs not only reduce the risk of overdose and bloodborne viruses among young people who use drugs, but reduce public injecting and drug-related litter. They can also provide pathways to treatment and healthcare facilities.

The Government’s strategy also fails to address the harms of current drug policy and drug law enforcement, including that police stop and search is racially disparate. Drug laws are imposed most harshly against ethnic minority communities, despite prevalence rates among those groups being no higher than among the white population.

We need to do two things. First and foremost, we must treat addiction as an illness, bearing in mind that, just as with alcohol, which is a dangerous drug, about 90% of those who use illegal drugs do not have a problem and certainly do not turn to crime. We must provide the right sort of healthcare, based on the needs of the person suffering from addiction. When we recognise drug use as a health issue, it is clear that increasing access to treatment, harm reduction and social services will lead to better outcomes than criminal justice sanctions.

Gaining or adding to a criminal record—even for those who receive non-custodial sentences, including formal cautions—can cause serious damage to life chances. Bretteville-Jensen and colleagues outline that criminal records, especially when they contain drug-related offences, present obstacles to obtaining employment, seeking rented accommodation, education attainment, international travel and maintaining interpersonal relationships. If we do not provide the right kind of support, addicts will get stuck in a downward spiral of addiction, crime and prison. Most people would probably agree with that.

When it comes to how we deal with criminality, the debate takes a whole new dimension. The criminality comes from two sources: people turning to crime to fund their addictions, and the criminal fraternity who leech off those with addictions and supply the marketplace. First, we need to identify what criminal behaviour is. Increasingly, personal possession is not something that people are prosecuted for, and I welcome that. The decriminalisation of all drug possession is backed by all 31 United Nations agencies and acknowledged by the World Health Organisation as a critical enabler of service access. Committees in this place have advocated a move away from criminalisation, including the Health and Social Care Committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee.

Release, the national centre of expertise on drugs and drug law, has explored decriminalisation over 30 jurisdictions and has found that drug decriminalisation done well can improve health outcomes, reduce drug-related deaths and reduce offending and reoffending, thereby reducing the burden of social costs on police resources and public spending, which is essentially the target of the new 10-year drugs strategy. That is in addition to evidence that, in countries that have reformed their laws policy, liberalisation is not associated with large increases in drug consumption.

Drug laws and their enforcement are used as mechanisms to punish drug use, and the threat of punishment is considered a tool of deterrence. The Black review estimates that the spend on UK drug law enforcement exceeds £1.4 billion per annum, yet the Home Office’s own 2014 analysis of drug policies in 14 countries found:

“There is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.”

In 2017, another Home Office evaluation acknowledged the resilience of the illicit drug market and the limited impact of drug law enforcement, including significant drug seizures and the availability of drugs. It also identified “unintended consequences” associated with drug interdiction, including increased violence in the marketplace resulting from enforcement activities, criminalisation negatively impacting on employment prospects, and parental imprisonment, which can have dire consequences for children, increasing the risks of child offending, experience of mental health problems, and problematic drug use.

County lines, a lynchpin of the new 10-year drugs strategy, has been framed as an altogether new phenomenon that facilitates the supply of mostly heroin and crack cocaine into non-metropolitan areas, even though heroin and crack markets already existed in those areas. Those who have studied county lines have shown that the entry of drugs into rural areas—sometimes via the involvement of young people—is not a new feature of an unregulated drug market. Some young people choose to engage in the market because of a lack of life choices and opportunities, so focusing on social and economic policies rather than drug law enforcement would reduce their involvement.

We got it wrong 50 years ago in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and we have been getting it wrong ever since. If we want to reduce crime, we must decriminalise drugs to take the power away from criminal gangs, make consumption safer and treat addiction as a health issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. It looks as though we are going to be called for a vote imminently.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) on securing this important debate. I agree with him entirely that we all want to sing from the rooftops about our constituencies, but we have to tackle the underlying problems that we all probably face. I agree with him about a twin-track approach, with a hard-line response to those criminals who are driving the drug market and support for those who are trying to get out and those we do not want to get involved in the first place.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) talked well, as she always does, about child criminal exploitation, the need to understand and define it in law and to tackle it. She highlighted the moments of vulnerability, such as school exclusion. If a young boy loses his life to knife crime, there will be a homicide review to learn the lessons. Why do we wait that long? Why do we wait until he has died? Why did we not intervene at an earlier stage? Why is the point at which someone is excluded from school not the point that triggers involvement with the parents and the child about what those vulnerabilities might be?

The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) talked about county lines and the drugs coming from all directions into his area. There was a drug line from my constituency of Croydon to Exeter. I have spoken to Exeter police about kids who find themselves on coaches to Exeter and how to recognise them when they get off. They do not have bags with them—only a little bag—and they know who they might be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) talked about the interesting findings related to drug driving, and the delays in forensics. It is absurd and awful that people could still be on the road, potentially causing the same problems, just because of delays in forensics. She also talked about the need for core neighbourhood policing teams, which we all agree on.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said he was from the old school where people know the local bobby on the beat. I think we are all talking about a similar version, which is ensuring that the police are in our communities and areas.

The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) talked about his beautiful community, and the drugs associated with such places. I was in Rhyl last year, where there are similar issues. It is a lovely, beautiful town hampered by drug use. I spent some time at a youth centre, where they were doing innovative work with kids on the street who were involved with antisocial behaviour and drugs. They had pulled them in, given them support and help. They had gone up Snowdon as part of a Duke of Edinburgh course, completely out of their comfort zone, doing things they had never done before, and giving them hope for the future. That was what the hon. Gentleman said was needed.

Drug crime is a scourge across the country. It fuels exploitation, violence and antisocial behaviour, and causes misery for communities. Drug deaths are at an all-time high. We have seen the emergence of increasingly violent and exploitative gangs, which use technology that is often way ahead of the Government’s, to groom children and sell them drugs. Dame Carol Black presented damning conclusions in her review on drugs. We have gone backwards over the past 10 years. Drug abuse is up at “tragically destructive levels”, she said, and drug treatment is down, with recovery services “on their knees”.

Prosecutions for drug offences are down 36% since 2010 and convictions are down 43%. The UK has become a target for international drug-trafficking gangs. This country is Europe’s largest heroin market. Serious organised criminals have a grip. Whether people live in a town, a city or the country, they worry about their kids getting involved in drugs, even buying them online. We have already talked a lot about county lines, and I think hon. Members agree on the problem. They are based on deeply exploitative criminal practices, forcing children, through debt bondage and other techniques, to become mules to ferry hard drugs up and down the country. Those children often appear not to be vulnerable, but they are hungry, scared and sometimes squatting in cuckooed properties of other vulnerable drug users.

I saw a picture in the Oxford Mail of a young lad wearing a hoodie and holding a wad of cash. When the police caught him, they asked him about the picture. He said:

“I thought it looked cool… It wasn’t even my money. I looked like a homeless person wearing a worn-out tracksuit. I hadn’t showered for two weeks.”

The reality behind the image is often very different.

In 2021, 49% of child referrals of modern slavery were for child criminal exploitation. The national referral mechanism received nearly 13,000 referrals of potential victims, up 20% on the previous year, which is the highest number ever. The number of specific county lines flags have also increased, up 23%. The evidence suggests a nationwide increase in this grotesque practice, and subsequent misery for the individuals and the communities affected.

I want to touch briefly on the online space. Drugs can now be bought and sold online. If someone goes on to Snapchat, they can buy one, get one free, or introduce a friend. The offers are all there. [Interruption.]

Order. The sitting is suspended due to a Division. There will be 15 minutes for the first Division and 10 minutes for subsequent Divisions. I remind hon. Members that, if they have attended, it is a courtesy to the House to come back and hear the shadow Front-Bench spokesperson and the Minister of State’s response. We do not know how many Divisions there are. On the final vote, can we try to make it back a little quicker and not use the full 10 minutes? Then we can all get away a little quicker.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

I was talking about online drugs and how easy it is for kids to buy them. Fiona Spargo-Mabbs, an inspirational woman in my constituency—the Minister will share a platform with her soon—has brought together a group of mothers whose children died from taking drugs that were bought largely online. I am sure that she will talk to the Minister about the need to educate all our young people on what to do when they are confronted with drugs and on the causes and impacts of taking them. All our children come across or are invited to take drugs in some form or another.

Our police are ill-equipped to deal with the advancement of technology and its use by criminals. Sir Michael Barber spoke of a “Betamax police force” stuck in the analogue era while fighting a digital threat. A Sky News report recently found that officers are not aware of the tools they can use to investigate online crimes or gain online evidence. Crest, the crime and justice think-tank that we all use a lot, notes that there is a technological knowledge gap in police forces.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the Home Office had at its core strong teams that produced top-notch research on the state of the drugs market and its ebbs, flows and patterns, but those teams have been sadly cut under this Government. We have learned from increasing drug use over recent years that we need to understand more about where they are coming from and how to tackle them. In truth, although we welcome the 10-year plan that the Government introduced last year, it was too little and, in many cases, too late. The drug dealers have got so far ahead of us that it will take a long time for us to catch up.

Finally, I have some questions for the Minister on how we can tackle some of those issues. We have talked about the core need for neighbourhood police officers to tackle drugs and some of the impacts of drug crime, be they street begging, drug dealing on our streets or other antisocial behaviour. This week, the Labour party has produced evidence showing that the number of neighbourhood police officers per person has fallen dramatically: there is only one neighbourhood police officer per every 2,400 people in this country, whereas 10 years ago the figure was about one per 1,600. That is a very dramatic drop in neighbourhood policing, and we all think that that needs to be addressed.

I ask the Minister to look at the responses of the sectors to his 10-year drugs plan. The specialist drugs organisations remain concerned about the focus on abstinence, the adequacy of the out-of-court scheme for casual users, and whether the real victims of county lines—the young dealers—will actually be helped. What has he done in response to those responses to his strategy?

Will the Minister consider introducing more police to our neighbourhoods and ensuring that more of the new police officers are on our streets, in our neighbourhoods, as Labour has called for continually? Will he consider police hubs, which we have talked about today and Labour has called for, where we can have police in our neighbourhoods, on our streets, tackling antisocial behaviour and lower-level crime?

Is the Minister considering the number of digital and data analysts in the Home Office and our police forces, so that we can understand some of the newer challenges posed by drugs being sold online? Will the Minister look at the county lines networks? There is lots of evidence that closing a phone line does not stop the drug dealing at all, because most drug dealers will keep their phone numbers elsewhere. If the police take a phone, dealers will just get another one and that will not stop the drug dealing. What conversations is the Minister having with his colleagues in DCMS and beyond about the sale of drugs online? What will he do to tackle that?

Order. Forgive me, I cannot cut the shadow Minister off and I would not want to do so, but I encourage her to draw her remarks to an end, in order for the Minister of State to respond.

I will. I always have so many questions for the Minister, as I am sure he appreciates. I will draw my comments to a close with the Prime Minister’s own words:

“It’s that much harder to level up a community while criminals are dragging it down.”

I agree with him, but we need more action.

It is a great pleasure to appear before you, Mr Pritchard, either side of what felt like a parliamentary recess. It is good to be back.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) for securing this debate on an important area of policy. I am sure he will appreciate that the Prime Minister made it a Government priority on, in effect, the day he stood on the steps of Downing Street all those months ago. He and we accept that drug-related crime inflicts a terrible toll on our society. We have heard some horror stories this afternoon. We are determined to turn the tide.

Our unwavering commitment to addressing the problem was, as a number of Members have pointed out, set out in our drugs strategy, “From harm to hope”, published last December. That strategy is underpinned by a landmark set of investments totalling about £3 billion over the next three years. The plan comes in support of our general policy of levelling up across the whole of the UK. We want to see people living longer, healthier lives in safe and productive neighbourhoods. Our approach couples tough enforcement with renewed focus on breaking exactly that cycle of addiction mentioned by so many Members today.

We plan to achieve that difficult challenge with three simple strands of work. The first is to attack every single stage of the drug-supply chain. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) asked what is different about our approach to drugs this time. From an enforcement point of view, we have shifted the emphasis carefully away from the notion of mass arrests—which, as he and a number of Members have pointed out, simply results almost immediately in replacement—much more to attacking the mechanics of the business itself. If our job is to degrade or restrict the supply of drugs into a particular area, we have to ensure that that is done in a way that means that no one can step in to replace and repeat the operation. Attacking the business and the supply chain is critical. We also want to ramp up our investment in treatment and recovery—we have been given hundreds of millions of pounds to do that across the whole of England and Wales—and, critically, to support those people ensnared by addiction to rebuild their lives, ensuring that they get off the roundabout in and out of the prison system, once and for all.

Alongside that, we want to address wider demand and to see a generational shift in society’s attitude towards drugs. For example, we will expand and improve the use of drug testing on arrest and diversionary schemes, such as out-of-court disposals, and undertake work to understand how communications can be used to change behaviours and drive down the use of recreational drugs.

We plan to publish a White Paper proposing a new range of sanctions particularly aimed at those who still choose to take drugs on a casual, non-addicted—whatever you want to call it—recreational basis, recognising that they play a huge role in stimulating demand for drugs across the whole of England and Wales. I will host a summit next month, bringing together experts and representatives from a range of sectors, to discuss the levers and interventions needed to drive down demand across the country, reduce harms and change societal attitudes. We recognise that as we enforce against supply, we must also do something to reduce demand.

I am quite short of time, so I will not, if the hon. Member does not mind.

Our 10-year, whole-system strategy, which we are implementing, is a fundamental reset in our approach to tackling illegal drugs, which is what a number of Members have called for. We expect to see results, as do the public, and that is why we have set out clear and ambitious metrics to drive progress. Those cover a number of areas, including closing more than 2,000 county lines over the next three years, seeing a 20% increase in organised crime disruptions and preventing and reducing drug-related deaths.

Much of this debate has been about county lines, and it is worth reflecting on the despicable way in which those criminals exploit young people—as outlined by the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Lyn Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley—recruiting them as runners to transport drugs and money around the country. We are clear that the targeting, grooming and exploitation of children for criminal purposes is deplorable, and we are committed to tackling it.

We will continue to invest in our successful county lines programme, which has resulted in more than 7,400 arrests and 1,500 line closures. Critically, more than 4,000 vulnerable people have been rescued from that horrific trade. We are also providing specialist support and funding to help young people who are subjected to, or concerned about, county lines exploitation, and to ensure that they get the protection and support they need.

We have been focused on dismantling the county lines model for well over two years and, as I have outlined, we have had real success. However, complacency is the enemy of progress, and we will continue to protect those most vulnerable and be clear to those gangs that we will keep coming at them again and again. On that note, I was pleased to hear that the Home Secretary visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley to discuss drugs and other matters.

Could the Minister please refer to the child criminal exploitation definition and the Online Safety Bill?

I will come to those in a moment. The hon. Lady will be interested to know that I had a meeting with the Children’s Society just this morning, in my capacity as a constituency MP, to discuss those issues. I am giving consideration to its proposals. We recognise that this trade particularly exploits young people. In my own constituency, we have had some appalling events—young people stabbed and, in one case, killed, where neither victim nor perpetrator was from Andover. Both, in various ways, were victimised and exploited in the drugs industry.

Many Members have mentioned that if we are to have an impact on drugs, we must have a co-ordinated set of actions. We recognise that the complexity of the drugs problem means that we absolutely must be effective in co-ordinating those other partners—local government, other treatment delivery partners, enforcement, prevention and education. They all must come together to form a coalition as a foundation of our strategy, and they are often best placed to establish the priorities and to devise ways of working to address the needs of their local communities as quickly and effectively as possible. This spring we will publish guidance for local areas in England on working in partnerships to reduce drug-related harm.

But we have not been waiting for our strategy or the guidance. I will finish by highlighting some of the work we have been doing already. Alongside the very assertive work we have been doing on county lines in Keighley and elsewhere, some 18 months ago we established a set of projects in 13 areas of the country that are most exploited by drugs gangs and that have the most appalling drug use statistics. Project ADDER, which stands for addiction, diversion, disruption, enforcement and recovery, has been running since November 2020. In effect, it brings together all those people who are focused on dealing with the drugs problem to focus in the same place, at the same time, on the same people, so that all their work can be leveraged. Those projects have had positive results. In particular, law enforcement plays a big part in restricting the amount of drugs in a particular geography, making sure that as the therapeutic treatments come alongside those individuals, they are less likely to walk out of their appointment with a drugs councillor and into the arms of a dealer. There have been big increases in disruptions and arrests in those areas, as well as a large increase in the numbers of people referred to treatment, and some heartwarming stories of people who have been rescued and brought into a better life.

I do not have time, I am afraid.

When I visited the Blackpool project, I was very pleased to hear from a senior police officer who is helping to run it that, in her nearly 30 years of service, she had never felt more hopeful about dealing with the drugs problem in Blackpool.

In calling this important debate, I think my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley is looking for a sense of the priority that the Government assign to this problem. We are investing enormous amounts of public money and massive amounts of political leadership time, right up to the Prime Minister, who I will be meeting over the next couple of weeks to talk about our drugs strategy and where we will go next to make sure that over the next 10 years, we see a reduction in drug use, drug deaths and drug crime across all our constituencies, but most particularly in Keighley.

I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate. It has been heartwarming to hear their thoughtful insights into how we should solve this problem, but we have also heard about the deep, dark challenges that all our constituencies face. We heard from the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) about the challenges with county lines, which I am experiencing as well, and the issues of child sexual exploitation and child criminal exploitation. We also heard about those issues from the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), whose constituency is not too dissimilar to mine, and she also spoke of neighbourhood policing and the side issues with fly-tipping, particularly from cannabis farms, in our towns. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) eloquently illustrated the importance of partnership-led approaches, which we have seen with the Home Office’s implementation of Operation Springhaven in Keighley.

I thank the Minister, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister for showing leadership on this issue. We have to get to grips with it, and I could not agree more with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that we all need to work hard to get to the nub of this issue and ensure that the scourge of drugs is eliminated from all of our communities such that the places in which we live are the best places to work, live and thrive.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

British Nationals Detained Overseas

I will call Kevin Brennan to move the motion and I will then call the Minister to respond. Unfortunately, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge—Mr Brennan—to wind up the debate, given the convention for 30-minute debates, which I am sure hon. Members are aware of.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered British nationals detained overseas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I welcome the Minister to her new position. I hope she will bring some real energy and intent to the job.

The broad subject of today’s debate—British nationals detained overseas—has received substantial focus over recent weeks, both in this place and in the media. I thought that it was important to seek an opportunity to highlight the stories of constituents detained overseas, and to keep their names at the forefront of Ministers’ and the media’s minds.

Like all colleagues across the House, I was delighted to see Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori reunited with their families. Their hard-fought return to the UK is testament to the unwavering love and untiring efforts of their families, and I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) that such cases deserve proper scrutiny, so that lessons for the future can be learned from the handling of cases of arbitrary detention by authoritarian regimes across the world. On that basis, I am pleased that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has launched an inquiry into hostage taking. I hope that during its hearings, it will look at cases other than those we have heard about.

The hon. Gentleman is right to touch on the dreadful story of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, which we all watched unfold and which showed the desperate straits that many families go through privately. What lessons have been learned by our consulates and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office about the importance of Government pressure and intervention at an earlier stage? If that had been done earlier, perhaps the lady would have got home earlier.

As ever, the hon. Gentleman’s intervention is both compassionate and pertinent, and I will go on to say something about the way the Government handle these cases. The momentum that has been gained must be maintained and used by Ministers to redouble their efforts to reunite other British nationals in similar positions with their families.

I will give way a couple of times to colleagues who might want briefly to mention individual cases.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He knows that I represent Anoosheh Ashoori, who was released with Nazanin. Does he agree that it is really important to keep the profiles of people who are detained in other countries right at the forefront of the Government’s attention? I truly believe that all the campaigning for Nazanin’s and Anoosheh’s release caused the Government eventually to respond and to do the right thing in the end.

I do not underestimate the complexities and how difficult it is tactically for the Government to approach these sorts of cases, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Where the families want their loved ones to be remembered and highlighted, that is exactly what should happen.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that, with the Prime Minister leaving to go to the Republic of India, it would be a good time for the Minister, in summing up the debate, to confirm that Jagtar Singh Johal is now arbitrarily detained by Indian authorities?

I am sure the Minister will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said and will want to respond to that remark. It is important that, when the Prime Minister visits other countries and meets their leaders, he highlights these sorts of cases as a priority.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the case of Mehran Raoof, a trade union activist who is in jail in Iran? He was not released when others were released. The Foreign Secretary rather erroneously said that he did not want his name to be made public. It has been made absolutely clear through Amnesty International that his family do want his name to be made public, they do want a public campaign, and they do want him to be released in the same way that the very welcome release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe took place.

My right hon. Friend quite rightly highlights that case and makes that name public. I am sure that will have achieved what he wanted. There are other cases, of course: Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, whom we have heard mentioned, are two other British-Iranians whose arbitrary imprisonment continues despite the recent negotiations. There is also British citizen Jimmy Lai, who is being held in solitary confinement in Hong Kong under the dystopian national security law.

Today, however, I want primarily to tell the story of my 30-year-old constituent Luke Symons, who has been held without charge or trial by the Houthis in various prisons in Sanaa, Yemen, since 2017. Like many people in Cardiff, Luke has a Yemeni family background, owing to the seafarers who settled around the city’s thriving docklands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1914, the Yemeni population of Cardiff represented one of the two largest Muslim communities in Britain, and it continues to constitute a proud and vibrant part of the diverse population of Wales’s capital city.

In exploring his religious and cultural roots, Luke travelled to Yemen, where he met his future wife, Tagreed, a Yemeni national, in 2014. In 2016, they had a son together. Shortly after Luke’s arrival in the country, the civil war started, leading rapidly to the overthrow of the Yemeni Government, and he found himself caught in the middle of a violent conflict that came to involve military intervention by regional powers, including Saudi Arabia. Luke and his wife tried to flee to safety; they tried to come back to the UK via neighbouring countries. They managed to get to Djibouti, but they did not get the support they needed from the UK authorities to be able to travel to Britain; sadly and unfortunately, they had to return to Yemen. Following that, in April 2017, Luke was detained at a Houthi checkpoint in Yemen upon the discovery that he held a British passport.

In the ensuing five years, despite numerous promises from Houthi and Yemeni officials, talks between regional authorities and UK Foreign Secretaries, and a visit to the prison by the UK special envoy to Yemen, Luke has remained incarcerated. As the Minister will know, in October 2020, it appeared as though Luke might be included in a substantial UN-supervised exchange, which consisted of more than 1,000 prisoners. The Foreign Office says that, following extensive negotiations and logistical planning for Luke’s release, with arrangements also being made to ensure safe passage for his wife and child, Luke’s captors inexplicably broke the agreement and severed lines of communication with the UK Government. That was obviously devastating for Luke’s family, who watched helplessly as other foreign nationals, including some from the United States, were returned home by their Governments from captivity in Yemen.

Since then, there has been very little outward progress on Luke’s case. Occasionally, his family have been allowed to communicate with him via telephone. They have become increasingly concerned and distressed by his poor physical health, which has been exacerbated by the notoriously squalid conditions of his captivity and the ongoing covid pandemic. There is also concern about the lack of access to medical attention for Luke. I understand that his wife, Tagreed, was recently informed by Houthi officials that the visits that she had been able to make have been suspended.

Perhaps most notably of late, Luke’s grandfather, Bob Cummings, who is also my constituent and, along with other family members, has campaigned consistently and courageously for Luke over the years, has told me of Luke’s worsening mental health and diminishing spirit. Luke is isolated; he is alone in his cell and is not allowed outside. He is deprived of contact with any other prisoners, and sometimes he is not even aware of the day of the week. The telephone conversations he has had with his family in the UK, which have been few and far between, have been supervised by his captors and cut off after very short periods. I take this opportunity to appeal directly to his captors—after all, they are ultimately responsible for his incarceration—to release this innocent young man, who has no part in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, so that he can be reunited with his family and return to the UK.

Other countries have lacked diplomatic presence in Yemen, and that is often cited by the Foreign Office as a significant factor limiting the UK Government’s influence and options for intervention in this case. I appreciate that it is very difficult to deal with the Houthis and not a traditional Government of any kind, but we must note that other countries whose embassies in Sanaa are closed and vacant, including the United States and France, have been able to secure the return of multiple citizens in the past couple of years. That prompts the question: if those countries have been able to do that, why has the United Kingdom not been able to secure Luke’s release?

I ask the new Minister for the Middle East to make it clear to her officials that securing Luke’s release during her time in office is a high priority, if not one of her highest priorities. I ask her to commit to taking a fresh look personally at Luke’s case, mastering the details and doing everything in her power, with all her energy, to try to secure his release. I want her to redouble efforts to open channels of communication once again with the Houthis, by whatever means, and to engage personally with her counterparts in France and the United States to understand their recent successes in securing the release of prisoners by the Houthis.

As we enter the third week of the two-month-long UN-brokered ceasefire and the associated prisoner exchange negotiations between the Houthi regime and the Saudi-led coalition that have been reported, and during the opportunity that the holy month of Ramadan provides, it is vital that the UK Government exhaust all options and use their international influence, including via the UN and, quite frankly, their much-boasted relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to explore any avenue to achieve Luke’s release.

This country’s close ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are often controversial in this House because of that country’s human rights record. However, when Ministers are pressed on those ties, they are always quick to emphasise that the relationship allows us to influence the Saudi regime. Why, therefore, was Luke’s case not raised by the Prime Minister during his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman on 16 March, which, per the Government press release, included discussions relating to concerns about human rights issues?

Will the Minister undertake to speak with her Saudi counterparts to press them to include Luke’s name in any prisoner exchange that may take place during the current ceasefire? Recent discussions have not convinced Luke’s family that our diplomats are doing enough to leverage that relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is much discussed by Ministers, to press Luke’s plight.

The Minister will know that she is the fifth Minister to be appointed to the middle east portfolio since Luke’s arbitrary detention more than five years ago. There have also been four different Foreign Secretaries while Luke has been detained—the current Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), the current Deputy Prime Minister, and of course the current Foreign Secretary—all of whom have expressed support for Luke but none of whom has met his grandfather, despite extending opportunities for meetings to the families of other British nationals in similar positions around the world.

Luke comes from an ordinary working-class family in Cardiff. They do not have any special connections or friends in the media or anywhere else, but they deserve the same consideration and respect from this Government as anyone else. I ask the Minister to commit to Luke’s family that she will raise his case with the Foreign Secretary at their next meeting. I ask her to involve herself in this case personally, as she has done with other cases, and to take full advantage of this latest, time-limited opportunity to reunite Luke with his family. I also ask her to ask the Foreign Secretary to meet Luke’s family personally, so that she can truly understand their plight.

This incarceration has gone on too long. I believe that with a prioritised and renewed diplomatic effort, using the current window of opportunity, Luke’s release could be secured, and he and his family could be reunited. I implore the Minister to act now.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for securing this afternoon’s debate and for his tenacious support for his constituent Luke Symons. I will return to Luke’s case in a bit more detail shortly. I am also grateful to other hon. Members for raising a number of different cases today.

I want to start by paying tribute to our consular staff and our diplomats around the world, who work tirelessly to meet the needs of vulnerable British people. Around 5,000 British nationals are arrested or detained overseas each year, and supporting them is a large part of the role of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Our consular staff are contactable 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they offer empathetic and professional support, which—importantly—is tailored to each individual case. Our staff make no judgment about the innocence or guilt of those detained overseas. As this debate and the cases that have been raised have highlighted, there are often incredibly complex challenges to overcome.

When British nationals are detained overseas, their health, welfare and human rights are our top priorities. We provide information on the local prison system so that they understand how it works. Where relevant, we inform British nationals how to access medical treatment. We provide information on English-speaking lawyers and whether a lawyer is provided by the state, so that they can access legal advice.

We cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another country, including court proceedings. Our ability to provide consular assistance is also dependent on other states adhering to their own and international laws. We can and do intervene where British nationals are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards and where there are unreasonable delays in procedures. We take all allegations of torture or mistreatment very seriously.

The Prime Minister has said:

“As we face threats to our peace and prosperity from autocratic states, it is vital that democracies and friends stick together.”

Does the Minister therefore agree, given the issues in respect of detention and torture, that we must not shrink from letting democratic friends know when they have fallen short on what we take to be shared values, especially around allegations of torture?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for his specific campaigning on behalf of his constituent. As I say, we take all allegations of torture and mistreatment very seriously. In his constituent’s case, we take all allegations of human rights violations seriously, and Ministers and senior officials have raised Mr Johal’s allegations of torture and the right to a fair trial with the Government of India more than 70 times. Both the Foreign Secretary and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon have raised his case, and we have regularly raised it through officials. The hon. Gentleman campaigns passionately on behalf of his constituent, and I know that he raised his case with the Prime Minister yesterday in the House.

The Minister will be aware of the case of human rights activist Karim Ennarah, the husband of my constituent Jessica Kelly, who is a UK national. We campaigned to get him released from an Egyptian jail, but he has still been slapped with an asset freeze and travel ban. They are now separated, even though he has been released. I appeal to the Minister and her officials to continue the work they are doing to get the asset freeze and travel ban lifted so that they can be reunited.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising that case, and I am happy to follow up in writing after the debate.

I would like to return to the case of Luke Symons, which the hon. Member for Cardiff West raised. As we have heard, Luke has been held by the Houthis in Yemen without charge or trial since 2017. The Foreign Secretary and I are both very concerned about Luke’s continued detention. I appreciate the anxiety and frustration felt by Luke and his family and I am personally monitoring the case very closely. The UK Government continue to pursue all possible avenues to secure his release and reunite him with his wife and family. We have consistently raised this case at senior levels within the Houthi regime, but we face a number of challenges.

As the hon. Member for Cardiff West mentioned, we have been unable to provide consular assistance to British nationals in Yemen since suspending embassy operations there in 2015, but that has not stopped us doing all we can to support Luke’s family since 2017. We continue to raise his case at the highest level with Houthi leaders, including through our Ministers, ambassadors and the UN.

On the matter of Luke’s welfare, we share his family’s concerns over allegations of mistreatment. We continue to raise this issue with the Houthis, urging them to show compassion. We are also working closely with non-governmental organisations in Yemen, which have previously conducted a welfare check on our behalf. We also managed to secure a call between Luke and his family in January, and we will not stop working on his behalf until he is home in Cardiff where he belongs.

I want to touch on the matter of prisoner exchanges. In October 2020, Luke was due to be released as part of a prisoner exchange, but the Houthis did not fulfil their commitments. This was despite our using every lever possible to secure Luke’s release, including drawing on the support of regional partners. We continue to engage with our partners to explore every possible avenue to get Luke home to his family.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West is right to raise the issue of UN-mediated prisoner of war exchange. We understand that this involves only prisoners of war and that civilians are unlikely to be included in the deal.

That does concern me because, although that is essentially true, in previous instances civilians have been included in this kind of exchange. My concern is that we are not using our influence with Saudi Arabia to ask them to include Luke in the names that they would like to see released. We should be leveraging that relationship more in this instance.

We are using every lever in our power. We all want to see Luke back in Cardiff.

Colleagues have mentioned a number of cases of British nationals overseas in this debate, and another case was raised with me by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). The FCDO and its team work tirelessly to support British nationals detained overseas. Hopefully I have set out some of the areas in which we do this. I think it is really important to say that I really appreciate Members’ concerns and support for their constituents, and I thank them for their efforts.

Could the Minister assure the House that the Government are in serious negotiations and talks with the Government of Iran about the release of Mehran Raoof, who I mentioned, and others whose names are not revealed but are nevertheless equally meritorious of being released?

As I say, we are in constant contact in relation to getting British nationals released. I will happily follow up on that with the right hon. Gentleman in writing after the debate.

I thank all colleagues for their contributions today on the cases that have been mentioned. We will continue to work tirelessly on behalf of British nationals detained overseas, and in the case of Luke to see him released and back in Cardiff, because that is what everyone wants to see.

Question put and agreed to.

Energy Price Cap: Residential Buildings with Communal Heating Systems

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the energy price cap and residential buildings with communal heating systems.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I should declare an interest, as I live in a leasehold flat in a block with a communal heat network. I also represent a constituency with one of the highest numbers of multiple dwelling blocks in the UK, a number of which have community heat networks.

The problem is very simple. I think I should lay that out, and then I want to lay out what I am asking the Government to do and hope to get a positive response from the Minister. Quite simply, we all know about the cost of living crunch and the increased price of energy bills, and of course the Government have put in certain measures to try to mitigate that, but constituents who live in residential buildings with communal heating systems—also known as heat networks—are not protected by the energy price cap as other energy purchasers are.

In my constituency there are many Barratt homes that have district heat networks and I have continually raised that issue in Westminster Hall and on the Floor of the House. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is even more important that the Government introduce regulation to put protections in place for residents where they have these heating networks, given the fuel crisis experience that the country is going through and the increases in fuel costs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. About half a million people, as an estimate, live in such blocks—not only new developments such as those that she has highlighted, but some older developments that would take a lot of retrofitting to get individual heating systems in place; but that is not the answer and I will come to that in a moment.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. She is right, and such bodies as Ginger Energy have highlighted that domestic customers of communal heating networks should be included within the energy price cap’s protection. The Government were committed to introducing legislation. This affects some 14,000 heat networks in Great Britain—2,000 district heat networks and 12,000 communal heat networks. Half a million customers suffering, half a million homes unheated, half a million reasons for us to take action. Does she agree?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When I get to my asks of the Government, I shall be very clear, as the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady have highlighted, that the issue has been raised in the House before—indeed, it has been raised since 2018. I will get on to the timeline, and my question to the Government is this: we know about this, so why is it taking so long to resolve it?

The key issue is quite a simple definitional issue: the energy price cap sets a price limit on domestic supplies of electricity and gas, but not on domestic supplies of heat. So developments of the type that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) referred to will often have wood-chip burners or an equivalent in the basement, or some other source of supply, and they provide heat to the home, but it is purchased for the building and then sold on to an individual. Ofgem, as we know, regulates the supply of gas and electricity but not, at present, the supply of heat. That means that while the supply of gas to a heat network is regulated, the supply of heat from the heat network to homes is not, because Ofgem classifies supplying heat to a heat network as a commercial arrangement, not domestic. But let us be clear: the end user of this is someone living in a home—a flat, an apartment—who benefits from the communal heating system, often arranged for good reason, sometimes in an attempt to provide green energy, but it has actually left individual residents, whether they are homeowners or tenants, in the lurch.

I want to cite an example. There are many such cases in my constituency. A junior doctor who wrote to me said that her heating price went up by a staggering 400% and every day she has to pay an additional £7 a day. She wrote to me in the winter, in December, because of this policy, and up to half a million people are affected. This is not a difficult thing for the Government to address—to make sure that the regulator can encompass heating in this form so that they are protected—so I hope the Minister will address it and will have some good news for us today.

My hon. Friend highlights another important point, which has been mentioned by other hon. Members—that of course the individual, the resident, gets a bill that is directly related to their property, to their energy use, so it is very personal, yet that is seen as a commercial supply and clearly it is not; it is about someone living in their home.

One of my constituents, based in the East Wick and Sweetwater development, has their heat supplied via a heating network from East London Energy. From April, this month, East London Energy is increasing its usage fee by 103%, and other Londoners on heat networks are reported to see price increases of over 700% in the worst cases.

The National Housing Federation, which has a lot of these properties in a portfolio of housing associations generally but represents housing associations at a national level, says that around 150,000 of the people affected are housing association residents. These are people on lower income, of course, but we also know that there is a strong correlation particularly between new tenants of social housing and the ability of a household to pay.

Peabody, a large landlord in my constituency—obviously it is also a housing association—has 172 operational heat networks across its whole portfolio, and it says that in general the price of energy has increased by over 300% since April 2021. Peabody has managed to mitigate up to a point by buying multi-year deals from its supplier. However, that is not universal and clearly it does not always help, because it depends at what point in the market the energy is bought. There are 32 of Peabody’s operational heat networks that cover over 100 homes each, so these are quite large scale. Someone could live in a development next door to a person in another development; one could benefit from the energy price cap while the other, by accident of housing allocation, bought a property with a communal heat network, not realising what the consequences would be. We would not have predicted that the energy prices would have increased so much. Nevertheless, that is the problem now.

What has been happening? In 2018 the Competition and Markets Authority conducted a study that concluded that the market should be regulated. Here we are in 2022, with energy bills having gone up in April and going up again in October—considerably. In December of last year the Government, as part of their response to the heat network’s market framework consultation, published proposals to regulate the heat network sector. It is a welcome move but it has taken a long while to get there. I am sure that the Minister is aware how pressingly urgent that is for people, particularly those on low incomes who are crippled by the extra costs they are having to pay.

The Government tell us that they are committed to introducing legislation in this Parliament, so it would be helpful if the Minister could indicate when that might be—he will get my wholehearted support if it is in the Queen’s Speech. He might get a quick win; he can sell it to the business managers in Government as something that he can get through quickly with little opposition, if he does it well. The Government also intend to appoint Ofgem as the heat network’s regulator, and they have already highlighted that Citizens Advice could be the consumer advocacy body. A lot of pieces of the jigsaw are beginning to come together, but we need to know when it is going to happen.

I am not alone in asking for regulation: the Heat Trust has called for it to happen; the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, as part of a recent report on decarbonising energy, called for heat networks to be regulated; and crucially, it is in Ofgem’s forward programme for 2022-23. It could stretch out for quite a long time to come, but that is not fast enough for those residents who are sorely affected.

The Government need to make faster progress. In the meantime, there are a couple of things they might consider. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has considered these things, given that the Government have professed their desire to support households and insulate them against energy bills. The National Housing Federation has called on the Government to provide targeted financial support for housing associations—the 150,000 residents I mentioned earlier—that covers the expected rise in energy bills. We have had a rise in April, but there is an expected rise coming in October as well. It would be for those who are not protected by the energy price cap, to create a level playing field for residents of the same landlord who often have very different energy bills. It could be a dedicated hardship fund; there is precedent for that during the covid pandemic, when local authorities managed similar funds. Although the Public Accounts Committee has not looked into it in full, those funds had quite good assurance procedures to ensure that the money was targeted. I think some has even been returned to the Treasury—not for energy, but for other hardship. There are also existing schemes that could be extended.

All individuals have a bill that comes, so there is an easy way of attaching the cost to the household to the household’s name. There must be a creative way that the Government could look at as a stopgap while the more detailed work is done. That also highlights the constant need, which I want to reiterate again, for insulating and retrofitting homes, because some of those heat networks are in quite old buildings and it is a real issue.

All of those solutions we would like to see instantly, of course, but my simple ask for the Minister today is that some of the most vulnerable customers need support right now. Someone like me can manage. It is the people who really cannot, and who are going to have to choose between eating and heating—the extra £7 per day highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali)—that are the real concern. I hope the Minister can give us assurance not only that this is being looked at, but that we are going to get action sooner rather than later.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) for securing this important debate. I declare an interest: I live in a building that has shared heating, although I do not have that shared heating—I have my own heating system. We are all affected by the increase in energy prices. However, it is being most keenly felt by those who are not protected by the energy price cap because they live in apartments within buildings served by heat networks. Indeed, those affected are now facing, or are due to face, a staggering increase of around 300% in their heating bills. It is incredible how many people in Cities of London and Westminster and constituencies like mine are affected because their buildings, whether mansion blocks, social housing blocks or new, larger developments, are part of heat networks. I can assure you, Mr Pritchard, that this is a very real issue for my constituents.

Many have outlined the positives of such heating systems, and while I appreciate the potential of heat networks and the fact that many blocks are commercial enterprises with their own targets, their end users are ultimately residents, not businesses. Those residents, through no fault of their own, are fully exposed to extreme market changes, with little recourse to any help. This cannot be left for any longer. Right now, Europe faces its worst energy crisis since the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s. In turn, consumers and landlords operating heat networks are consistently reporting extreme examples of energy price rises to me. Figuratively speaking, people whose homes have communal heat networks are being charged up to four times their previous energy bills, purely because their building has one communal heat source.

It is for that reason that I was grateful to meet recently with the Minister in the Lords, Minister Callanan, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), to discuss these issues for central London in more detail. It was a very interesting discussion, made all the richer for having some of our constituents in attendance to speak directly with the Minister about how difficult it is for them at the moment. I thank Richard Cutt and James Wright for their time representing Cities of London and Westminster on this matter. It was promising to hear from the Minister that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is considering looking at options to legislate for Ofgem to be given powers to intervene when prices are significantly higher for consumers. I would welcome such powers, which would go a long way to protect residents in buildings with communal heating.

That said, the question that remains is how long it will take for legislation to resolve the issue. As I have said, I have spoken to those affected, and I do not think residents can afford such a long lead-in time for the relevant laws to come to fruition. I appreciate that we need to wait for the Queen’s Speech, which I hope will contain the much anticipated energy Bill. However, even if we prioritise that Bill, we will only see results on the ground within a year or two. After all, BEIS will need ample time for policy development. We would then legislate for transparency on costing, so that we can see what organisations are paying and Ofgem can then make sure that consumers are not ripped off, so there is a huge time lag in this.

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech. In my constituency of Washington and Sunderland West, I have over 1,000 properties attached to one of these heating systems, and they do not benefit from the energy price cap or anything like that. I agree with her that the Government need to bring forward that legislation, but in the meantime those people need help now, as she is saying. Does she have any suggestions for what that help could be from the Government?

I hope that the Minister might address that very well made point. We can live in hope.

Through all the good and necessary steps that the Government are taking to protect consumers through the energy cap, the timescales are quite difficult for our residents who are facing the cost here and now. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say about what help, if any, can be given to those on heat networks now. I hope that if there is a consultation and it is a quick one, it will also throw up lots of secondary concerns. For example, how can we address the detail of meters? Can any price cap in this area take into account different monitoring systems as technology evolves? Can we have a cap on the wholesale price for consumers as well as domestic users with a single supply? It is not an easy task to resolve this.

Right now, we in Parliament need to ensure that there is interim support that takes into account the nuances of those locked into heat networks—they are literally locked into this. Indeed, I was concerned to hear reports from some of my constituents who are currently excluded from the otherwise comprehensive package of support being offered by the Treasury, precisely because they are on a heat network.

I am sure that the Minister will be relieved to hear that I do not think that a solution will necessarily require more money. We just need to ensure that Government support is allocated fairly and takes into account the complexities of people locked into heat networks with no price caps.

I hear time and again that transparency is key to resolving this matter, and right now I am concerned that Ofgem does not quite have the capacity to target the support that is needed to residents who are affected. In fact, that was brought up in the responses to the Government’s “Heat Networks: Building a Market Framework” consultation. It seems that some of those previous concerns are now transpiring, and I suspect that we are seeing the additional complexity of a top-down approach when the market really requires a bottom-up approach.

To conclude, I hope that the Minister can address a few of the concerns that I have mentioned. I know that the Government are committed to making heat networks a key part of their energy policy. After all, heat networks have the potential to offer low-cost, low-carbon heat. But without intervention now, hundreds of thousands of families are facing horrendous and unaffordable heating bills. What is important here and now is that we must not leave families living on these schemes behind.

I do not wish to impose a hard time limit, but quite a few Back Benchers would like to contribute and we would like to hear everyone if possible, so I would be grateful if Members could practise self-regulation and stick to about four minutes if possible. I call Rushanara Ali—[Interruption.] You are on the list. Okay, you have withdrawn. I call Sharon Hodgson—[Interruption.] Well, you are on the list. We are going to go home earlier; that is fine by everybody, I am sure. I call Janet Daby—[Interruption.] You are on the list as well, but that is fine. Siobhain McDonagh, I know you will want to speak.

Thank you, Mr Pritchard. Anyone would say that I was garrulous after those comments.

I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) on bringing forward this really important debate. For households across our country, the cost of living is soaring. We have seen the biggest tax hike since the 1940s, the largest drop in living standards since the 1950s, public sector net debt reaching the highest level since the 1960s, and real earnings growth facing the largest one-year drop since the 1970s. Rising inflation, a hike in national insurance, and rocketing energy costs are putting unprecedented pressure on the pockets of hard-working families in all our constituencies.

However, as we have heard, approximately 150,000 housing association residents have heating and hot water delivered to their home via a communal or district heating network, rather than an individual boiler. Their way of paying energy is not regarded as domestic but business use. When it comes to energy payments, some might call them non-doms—perhaps we had better not go there. The Ofgem price cap does not protect those residents, so housing associations face the prospect of either absorbing soaring energy costs or passing them on to tenants and leaseholders.

This issue was first raised with me by my constituent Mr Johnston at the beginning of the year. He was worried that the lack of price cap protection and the soaring costs of energy may mean that he and his neighbours at Sadler Close in Mitcham could face an up to tenfold increase. They currently pay an estimated cost, with leaseholders paying through service charges and tenants through their rent. Mr Johnston lives in a Clarion-owned housing block and, despite my recent criticism of Clarion, I was delighted and relieved to learn that it has a commodity-capped agreement in place with its energy provider for another two years, so tenants and leaseholders will experience little increase, if any, in their gas charges. I am, of course, concerned about what will happen in two years’ time.

Right now, however, other tenants in similar situations will not be as fortunate. On 16 February, I wrote to the chief executive of Notting Hill Genesis regarding the Meadows estate on Mitcham Common to seek clarity that my constituents in those blocks would not face the same issue. Given the urgency of the energy price rises, I had hoped for a speedy response but, unfortunately, two months later I am still awaiting a reply. Even if those tenants are fortunate, thousands of others will not be.

The problems of unregulated energy supply are threefold. First, the monopoly of supply means that customers in shared blocks may be locked into long-term contracts with no way of holding suppliers to account on quality or price. Secondly, there is a lack of transparency. Residents often do not know that their energy will be supplied by a heat network. I took it upon myself to share the Clarion information outlined earlier in my speech with my constituents, fearful that many of them may not be aware of the impact of energy costs on their income. Who would have thought that a letter saying that their energy prices would be the same for two years could be heralded as such brilliant news? Thirdly, higher ongoing operating costs caused by property developers trying to cut the up-front costs of installing a network may simply result in higher costs for customers.

Minister, we need to examine the cost increases faced by residents in shared blocks and consider who has been hit disproportionately. We need to look at the regulation of energy costs paid in this way and quickly, because the clock is ticking towards the next big price hike in October. Warm words will not ensure warm homes, and without action the problem will get worse very quickly.

I will be incredibly brief—I think we will be voting shortly—and will pick up on a couple of points made by others in this debate. I have been raising issues about the lack of consumer protection for customers of communal heat networks since I was elected in 2015. It is a very long-standing issue, and there has been a tangible lack of progress in addressing it.

The first issue is the statutory regulation of the sector. We have come a long way. I remember raising this matter when I was a member of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change before the Department was abolished, and Ministers would tell me that statutory regulation of the sector was not required, that introducing it risked strangling an emerging industry at birth and that they were not going anywhere near it. I remember asking the CMA—[Interruption.]

Order. I have to suspend the sitting for a Division, and I understand that we will be having a lot of them. The first suspension will be for 15 minutes, but it will be 10 minutes for subsequent votes. If Members could make their way back a little faster after the final vote, we can get off to a quick start.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. As I was saying, I recall asking the Competition and Markets Authority to carry out an area of investigation study into this sector. As the Minister will know, the CMA eventually carried out a market study, which recommended statutory regulation. We then had the “Heat Networks: Building a Market Framework” consultation, which closed in June 2020. We had the Government response in December 2021, but no sign of any legislation.

All I will say to the Minister is that this is an issue that has become incredibly pressing as a result of the energy crisis but, as I have said before, it predates that. For a range of reasons, we need to see statutory regulation as a matter of some urgency and I hope that he can give us some sense that in the next parliamentary session time will be found for it.

This is a pressing issue now, as a result of the energy crisis and the pressures that households are consequently facing. It has already been mentioned by several speakers that, as commercial contracts, these heat networks are not covered by the default tariff Act. Therefore, customers who source their energy from heat networks are not protected by the energy price cap.

That is a serious problem because, as others have said, customers who get their heat from these networks are experiencing shockingly high price rises. I recently wrote to the Minister about one case that is illustrative of what is happening in numerous buildings in my constituency. I have a huge number of buildings that are affected, because of the number of new build properties constructed over recent years, whether that is the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, Enderby Wharf in east Greenwich or the Greenwich Millennium Village. All of them are facing the same problems.

I put to the Minister a case from the Paynes and Borthwick development in my constituency, where the unit energy charge on the development has gone up by 367%. I repeat: 367%, uncapped. Residents are really feeling those increases in their bills. We need the Government to step in and provide an immediate stop-gap solution for these customers, because they cannot handle the increases in the bills that they are experiencing.

Ultimately, I want to see the energy price cap extended to these customers. I realise the difficulties that would entail, in potentially driving more small energy suppliers out of the market, which we do not want to see. However, it is really for the Government to find a way to support those suppliers if they were to bring in such a price cap.

If the Government are not willing to go there, they need to look at targeted support for these consumers because, as things stand, the warm home discount, the energy bill rebate and the household support fund—where it applies—are not enough to help them to cope with rises of the magnitude that we are seeing. Minister, please ensure that we get legislation, so that the sector is put on a proper regulated footing as soon as possible. However, in the short term, please do something for these consumers, because they are really struggling with these increases and they need help now.

I will try to be as brief as possible and I will also try to recall, from what seems like an entire Session ago, the discussion that we had earlier this evening and the valuable contributions that hon. Members made to it.

Of course, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) on securing this debate in the first place and indeed on bringing to our attention the real issues of regulation, price and redress that exist in the heat network system.

Before I go any further, I will say that heat networks are a good thing. They are not just a substantial part of the Government’s plans for future decarbonisation of our heat systems but provide—or should provide—a cheaper deal overall as far as heat is concerned for those who get their heat through them. Also, of course, the networks themselves are not necessarily dependent on gas. A particular network can have any particular fuel—for example, as I have said on several occasions, Southampton heat network is fuelled by geothermal means—so it is not necessarily the case that gas goes into the networks. However, it is a fact that the vast majority of the 14,000 networks, either communal or district, are gas-fuelled and will probably continue to be so for quite a while.

This afternoon, hon. Members have emphasised the imperative of getting the whole system regulated properly for the future. It is a bit of an anomaly that this area of heat and power supply, unlike pretty much anything else in the system, remains unregulated. That does not mean that every network is a rogue organisation trying to do the worst thing for its customers; indeed, most heat networks do a very good job.

However, it is essential that customers have access to the proper redress that they have by other means through the regulation of the wider energy network, particularly because energy networks of these kinds do not have the option of exit. They are run on an entirely different basis, which is quite right—there cannot be an individual exit from a collective system—but customers should have a voice. They should have the ability to get a good deal, and arrangements for redress and putting it right if they do not get a good deal. I am afraid there are energy networks that run their systems very inefficiently, put their prices up without proper justification, or do a range of other things that we would expect a regulator to intervene in and put right. The question of regulation is an imperative foundation for the expansion of energy networks, district heating networks and so on that we expect to see over the next few years, as well as putting right a number of the wrongs that are already in the system.

Members have already mentioned how long the Government have taken to get the idea of regulation properly on board. I am pleased that after the CMA inquiry, the Government’s original proposals for consultation, and the response to that consultation—which took over a year to come in—the Government have now committed to proposals in regulation within this Parliament. I am anxious to hear from the Minister what is meant by that. I emphasise, as I have on previous occasions, that we just have to get on with it: we have to do it now, as soon as possible. We have done all the consultations, so there is now no impediment to getting that regulation on the statute books other than ministerial clout and will to make room for this in legislation as soon as possible. I hope the Minister will be able to enlighten us about what will come forward in future.

Of course, the other part of the regulatory process is that because these systems are not regulated, they are not covered by the price regulation that covers the rest of the system at the moment through price caps and so on. When it comes to deciding how we can give customers the benefit and protection of a price cap in a way that is at least partly similar to the rest of the market, we have a particular problem with the difference between the regulation of the system as it stands and the regulation of other systems. That is because the district networks that supply the heat are effectively all miniature energy retailers, in as much as they buy their gas—mainly—on the wholesale market, and then supply the heat as a result of the purchase of the gas, and obviously the purchased gas prices then go through to customers.

If, indeed, we had a price cap regime, without any other activities going on behind it, we may well see a whole series of those miniature retail energy companies collapsing due to being unable to make up the difference between what they were required to pay—as far as the gas prices are concerned—and the price they could charge to supply that heat. They would not be able to balance up their purchase costs.

More would need to be done, in terms of a price cap arrangement within regulation, given the present volatile state of the gas market, and the unlikelihood that prices will fall in the near future. At the very least, it would need a Government arrangement for pooled purchasing of gas by those district network operators, or, perhaps better still, some form of purchase price cap, allowing the wholesale purchased gas to be supplied to the networks at a reasonable and stable rate over the next period.

I think we may well have wider debates about how that works for the market as a whole, but this is one area where we must be clear. An intervention is needed to protect those 500,000 people on district heating networks from the consequences of the volatile gas market for the future, and also to protect those people who are running those heat networks from the consequences of a one-sided price cap. We must appreciate that they operate in very different ways to the rest of the energy market, and need different protections to ensure that they are fit for purpose now, and are available for the future. We will certainly need them to operate effectively within the low-carbon economy, and to provide the low-carbon heat that we all know is desperately needed as we decarbonise our energy systems as a whole.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) on securing this important debate. I apologise, Mr Hollobone, for having been late for the debate, which now seems some time ago. I think it is the first time, in the 17 years I have been in the House, that I have been late for a debate. It may seem a bit academic, at 8.43 pm, to apologise for being here at 5.25 pm instead of 5.24 pm, but I apologise none the less. I was a guest speaker in the Boothroyd Room for the Net Zero all-party parliamentary group, with the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), but I of course apologise—as you know better than anybody, Mr Hollobone, Westminster Hall always takes precedence over APPGs.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch on securing this debate. I noted that there were, I think, seven London MPs here, and all of the Back-Bench contributions were from London MPs. My own constituency, of course, is also very affected by this issue, as are other inner-city constituencies. They tend to be the places where district heating networks occur, so it is very much an issue for my constituents as well.

This Government recognise and understand the pressures people are facing with the cost of living. This is of course a deeply worrying time for many of our constituents, and for many their fuel bill is perhaps their biggest concern. We know that the war in Ukraine and the recovery from covid-19 have driven up wholesale energy prices, and no Government can control the global price of gas. UK consumers, like many others, are now feeling the effects of that in their energy bills.

Turning to some of the points raised, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch asked if we would consider a targeted fund to help those in heat networks. She will know that the Chancellor announced an additional £500 million for the household support fund at the spring statement, which will go towards those in hardship, including heat network customers. There are other measures in place to support vulnerable bill payers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) asked if we could improve the installation of meters. We introduced revisions to the Heat Network (Metering and Billing) Regulations in autumn 2020, which required a significant expansion in the heat networks required to install heat meters, with an additional 84,000 customers receiving heat meters over the following four years.

The hon. Lady also asked whether we could install a price cap on wholesale prices being used by heat networks. When we introduce new legislation, we will consider all options on price regulation. I will come back to other points raised by hon. Members.

Our energy price cap insulates millions of customers from volatile global gas prices, but I recognise that, with heat networks not being covered by the price cap, they are more exposed to those increases. That means that a significant minority of customers on networks are seeing price increases that are far in excess of price cap rises. As commercial purchasers of gas, heat networks can ordinarily purchase gas at cheaper prices than individuals, which I think one or two hon. Members drew out. I do not think it is fair to characterise heat networks as being exploitative practices. In fact, they generally render cheaper bills on average. However, without the price cap in place, when the price rises come in, if customers are used to paying a lower tariff, they are likely to be more affected. That ability, which is beneficial when prices are low, is leaving many more exposed to the current price increases, because the prices that customers were used to paying were lower.

To provide immediate support to consumers, including those served by heat networks, the Government have provided, as we know, a £9.1 billion energy bill support package. That is in addition to increases in universal credit, the warm home discount and a £200 discount on energy bills. All households in bands A to D in England will also receive a £150 rebate on their council tax, which will not have to be paid back.

I would just point out to the Minister that, while any support on energy bills is welcome, and band A to D households are the focus, many people caught by this issue in my constituency, and I am sure in his, are living in properties in significantly higher council tax bands, but that does not mean necessarily that they are wealthy households by any means.

Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right. Her constituency, and mine probably even more so, will have people in exactly that category. That is why the Government also provided £144 million in funds to local authorities to help those vulnerable customers who do not live in band A to D properties—either they live in a larger property or they do not pay council tax at all. That £144 million fund is available for local authorities to help those who do not fall into the £150 council tax rebate.

We provided a total of £1 billion funding through the household support fund, enabling local authorities to support—on top of that—the neediest households with the cost of living, and all that support will help people in the short term. Clearly, in the long term, we need to see a more sustainable regulatory system for heat networks. That is why the Government have committed to introducing legislation within this Parliament, which will see Ofgem regulate the heat network industry. With Ofgem having regulatory powers over the heat network industry, legislation will secure fair pricing for all heat network customers, as well as ensuring that heat network operators secure the best possible purchasing deals for their customers. Ofgem will also have powers to investigate and intervene when networks appear to be charging customers disproportionate prices.

Heat networks are part of the pathway to decarbonising heat. By operating at scale and, in some cases, by making use of waste heat sources, heat networks can supply heating more cheaply than individual gas boilers. The study commissioned by my Department in 2017 found that heat networks supply heating at a discount of £100 per annum on average compared with individual gas boilers—it is literally a case of economy of scale.

The Minister will be aware of the serious problem of standing and capital replacement charges on many privately owned networks, and that problem continues while consumers on those networks are seeing increases in their unit energy price. I hope that he agrees that that must be tackled, because although tariffs can be well out of kilter and not provide the fair deal he is talking about, which I concede is the case in many schemes, standing and capital charges rise significantly year on year, placing an additional burden on consumers.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I am very happy to look into that. I will speak with my ministerial colleague Lord Callanan, and perhaps he or I will write to the hon. Gentleman about what has been going on with standing charges on heat networks. It is a fair question and I will get back to him on it.

To conclude, I reiterate the Government’s commitment, first, to providing short-term support to those struggling with energy prices and, secondly, to making the necessary long-term changes to improve the heat networks market and make the UK energy-independent at the same time. The heat networks market is a key sector for our green ambitions, but it must also deliver for consumers daily, so we will continue to ensure that prices are as fair as possible.

Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—hours have passed between the beginning and the end of the debate.

In many respects, the Minister summed up the feeling of colleagues present. It is instructive that a lot of London MPs were present for the debate. For all the talk about levelling up and about other areas of the country being poor, the cost of living in London is very high, and those on average incomes who live in properties with energy supplied by a heat network are doubly hit by the challenges of energy prices.

I am pleased that the Minister has reiterated that the Government are going ahead with long-term change. I am keen, and will continue to push, for additional support to be provided to those consumers because of the extremely large increases in their bills. The fact that local authorities are expected to use the hardship fund to support households is an important point, because that will be an extra drain on local authority budgets in constituencies and boroughs where lots of residents live in such properties. I undertake to do some more number-crunching in my constituency.

I see that my hon. Friend is nodding. I think we will come back to the Minister on that, because that money should be distributed in a way that recognises that those households and vulnerable customers are hit hard by the additional high costs and really need support right now.

I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), for their responses, and I thank all colleagues who have been supportive, including those who were unable to attend today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the energy price cap and residential buildings with communal heating systems.

Sitting adjourned.