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Westminster Hall

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2022

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 15 June 2022

[Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

Council of Europe

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the work of the Council of Europe.

I am the leader of the British delegation to the Council of Europe, which I declare as an interest, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria.

It pains me to start on a slightly sour note, but we are having the debate here in Westminster Hall because successive Leaders of the House have said no to us being allowed Government time for a debate in the main Chamber. I believe that the number of Members who have put in to speak, and the many more who have shown interest in the debate, is an expression of the greatest interest in the subject. It is a shame that we will be unable to hear the full richness of contributions from members of the delegation and others due to time constraints. That is no criticism of Westminster Hall as a setting for the debate, but it is a request to the Minister to provide us with assistance in trying to raise the visibility and importance of the Council of Europe.

More people now understand what the Council of Europe is and what it does. As a delegation, we work hard to make our contribution in the plenary sessions of the Parliamentary Assembly, the committee meetings that take place between plenary sessions and more generally. After each plenary session, we publish, for example, a summary of what we have discussed and the character of the meeting. I brief lobby journalists before we go to the Council. We issue press releases on key subjects, such as the position of Russia and the fate of the British individuals sentenced to death. We have held seminars—well attended—with, for example, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian dissident now imprisoned, and with Ahmet Yildiz on Turkey. Finally, after each meeting, I raise questions on the subjects of the debate we have had. This has dramatically increased the profile of the Council of Europe among parliamentarians, and perhaps more generally among members of the public. However, I appreciate that there is still a lot more to do to ensure that people do not confuse us with the European Union, an organisation with about half the number of member countries as the Council of Europe.

Given that the Council of Europe represents 47 countries and that its mission is to empower and promote our fundamental values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and given that we are seeing those values breached both by Vladimir Putin with his invasion of Ukraine and in China and elsewhere, does the hon. Gentleman agree that this place should put paramount importance on those fundamental values and the Council of Europe, and on debate such as this?

The Council of Europe is not responsible for China. It is responsible for what happens in Europe, and the three pillars of the Council of Europe—human rights, the rule of law and democracy—are crucial to its future. That is what we need to hold countries to.

The reason for making the remarks I made before taking an intervention is that the role of the Council of Europe has never been more important. For me, one of the proudest moments was when we expelled Russia from the Council. I am told that I was the first politician to ask for that to happen, in a letter to the Secretary-General, and I was pleased to see the support from the delegation for that action.

Thank heavens that the covid crisis has diminished substantially. The sort of diplomacy required simply cannot be carried out by Zoom or remotely. It is great for our effectiveness to be back in person, and I am pleased that newer members of the delegation can now see that what I said all along about understanding what the Council stood for being best achieved by their personal attendance was absolutely true. I am sure that other Members will want to comment on Russia during further consideration.

I am proud to be part of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe and to sit on committees and give speeches to raise important topical issues such as the war in Ukraine. I thank my hon. Friend for recently arranging for us to meet the Ukrainian delegation in Strasbourg to demonstrate the UK’s support. Does he agree with me on how essential it is that the UK continues to work in the Council of Europe? It is a vital part of our global Britain agenda and we must continue to lead on important international matters.

I completely agree with that intervention. I will come on to say something about that at the end of my speech; it is crucial to what we are about.

The Russian expulsion has, however, left the Council with a deficit, which this time we are keen to see professionally filled. I appreciate the need for reform of the Council, and we look forward to participating in that. It is bizarre that meetings have taken place at a ministerial level in which there has been little contact with the delegation, which has tremendous experience of the Council and its work, but I am grateful that the UK Government have agreed to provide an additional £2.8 million this year to help the Council out of the hole left by Russia’s expulsion. That gives us an opportunity to take advantage of the current situation to push the UK position forward in the full knowledge that we are participating fully in the future of the Council.

It is important to understand how the Council works. It works on the basis of putting forward conventions—international treaties—for countries to agree. Those set standards across a wider Europe in key areas. I will give the example of the Istanbul convention, which goes a long way to answering the question: what does the Council do for us? The Government have set 31 July as the date by which they expect to ratify the Istanbul convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Many of us regard it as a flagship convention of the Council of Europe and as the gold standard for the protection of women and girls in Europe. Dame Maria, you and I spoke at a debate on this subject that I organised in the covid period.

The Government signed the convention in 2012 and have been working since that date to strengthen UK laws to better protect women and girls—we like to change the law in this country before we finally ratify a treaty. The necessary Command Paper was laid in both Houses on 17 May. I hope that there will be no objections in the following 21 sitting days and that the convention will be ratified.

There are two reservations in the convention that the UK is allowed to make. The first concerns crimes in UK law that are not crimes in other territories, and the second relates to migrant victims. Members are free to ask Ministers questions about those caveats. That illustrates only too well how the Council works: a treaty that it is not compulsory to sign, where the arguments for or against are set out and fully debated, and where the successful signing of the treaty involves us as members of the delegation in pursuing the diplomacy involved through, for example, Westminster Hall debates; by encouraging meetings between Ministers and the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; and by our membership of the parliamentary network “Women Free from Violence”.

The Council is also active in the field of human rights, and never has there been a greater need to be on top of this issue internationally. I have already held a debate in the main Chamber on the future of the European Court of Human Rights because it does need reform. Non-governmental organisations have too much influence. Some of the judges could be more suitably qualified. Not only were Russia’s judges sent back for examination; the same has also happened with Iceland. But one of the biggest tests for the court is occurring in Turkey, where the Committee of Ministers—the second chamber of the Council—has begun infringement proceedings. The key question here is: are we to allow Turkey to infringe the court, or are we to take action? And what should that action consist of? Does it mean the expulsion of Turkey from the Council, or are there other routes to follow since we cannot do nothing? As one of the rapporteurs for the Council on Turkey, let me explain the situation in relation to Osman Kavala.

Kavala is a leading businessman and campaigner who has been sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment after a period of pre-trial detention. The Turkish authorities argue that the original court case has been complied with in relation to the European Court of Human Rights in that Kavala was released to be rearrested the following day. The court argues that its judgment applies to the whole of the evidence base for all charges brought against Kavala, which are lacking in any evidence. That is the source of the current impasse with the Turkish Government. Turkey faces many attempts at terrorism, for which I have great sympathy, but the question must be asked whether these anti-terrorism laws are too restrictive and contravene human rights. There are, of course, other examples besides the Kavala case.

That example illustrates the important work of the Council in monitoring countries to ensure they are complying with the three pillars of the Council: human rights, the rule of law and democracy. That work and election monitoring are important functions. While I can see there is room for joint monitoring exercises with the Committee of Ministers, this is an important element of what the Council does. I would not like to see it given away to another organisation, and the Council not to have a role.

There is plenty of opportunity for the Council to work with other organisations, such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. I have already had discussions with the head of the UK delegation to the OSCE, and we are looking at ways to work together more closely, but it would wrong to see the OSCE having more experience of election monitoring or in monitoring more generally.

A key question remains about the future role of the Council of Europe. I welcome the UK Government’s support for Kosovo to join the Council, which the delegation also supports. Many discussions on this have already started, in which we can, should and do participate. The recent Turin ministerial meeting is one such example. I am grateful for the attendance of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary at that meeting. Another is the debate that took place at the standing committee in Dublin on the future discussions that will take place.

There is so much more that the Council could do in the area of the rule of law and in promoting democracy more widely across Europe. There are gaps in both those areas in many countries, and knowledge is needed to help them get the right answer. We stand ready to work in promoting that area. The delegation would value the chance to have more extensive discussions with the Foreign Office, and with other Ministers. We do have the experience of putting together programmes in this area.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems with the Council of Europe is that its work, importance and role are not fully understood, even by Members of this House, never mind the general public? I know he has worked hard on that. We need to have a much more active public relations initiative, explaining the value of the Council of Europe, its powers and the changes it can, and does, bring about among members states.

I agree fully with right hon. Gentleman. I try my hardest to push that as leader of the delegation. It is essential to get across what the Council is about, how it can help, and the role it now plays in—I have to use this expression—a post-Brexit Britain. It plays a vital role in ensuring that we have good relations with parliamentarians in other parts of Europe.

I will conclude by saying that putting down written questions after each debate at the Council of Europe brings home how wide those debates are, and how they affect policy across Government. Debates that relate to the Foreign Office account for about 30%. The rest cover a range of Ministries, from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I ask those questions I put to them to show the range of debates that we conduct, partly to ensure there is a written answer on record for the issues that have been discussed, and so that we understand what Government are doing. That is welcome, at least by members of the delegation, but we would welcome the Minister’s help in ensuring that the Government’s position can be put across when rapporteurs visit the country on behalf of the Council and need to see a Minister. I know that that is a pain, but without it the result does not look good and can leave us in an embarrassing position.

I am extremely grateful not just for the work of all members of the delegation—we try to operate on a genuinely cross-party basis wherever possible, and the number of Members here for the debate illustrates that—but for our utterly brilliant secretariat led by Nick Wright, to whom we would all like to pay our thanks.

I will come to the other people. Finally, on behalf of the delegation, I would like to pay thanks to three people in Strasbourg: Alan Mitchell, the president of the committee for the prevention of torture; Tim Eicke, our judge at the Court, to whom we are grateful for getting to know us and for sharing with us his expertise and experience; and our permanent representative Sandy Moss, whose assistance and co-operation is second to none and has been particularly helpful for the delegation.

The Council of Europe is crucial for our relationship with wider Europe, particularly after Brexit. It sets out a method of co-operation that can alienate no one. It is a major part of our international diplomacy, and Russia’s departure offers us an opportunity to make real change. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

Before I call the next speaker, may I suggest an informal time limit of four minutes? The wind-ups will start at 10.28 am.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) on obtaining the debate, and welcome on the consensual tone that he has established today and which he tries to create for the UK’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Of course, some issues will divide us, and we cannot shy away from them, because they are important. However, anyone taking a long-term perspective on the development of the European family of nations will see how dramatic a role the Council of Europe has played in enhancing the values of democracy and the rule of law.

There has been dramatic change in those countries that left fascist backgrounds such as Spain and Portugal—that was a long time ago—and, more recently, when the Warsaw pact broke up. Perhaps the failure of Russia to be brought into the family is regrettable, but that must be measured against the success seen in so many other countries. Russia’s expulsion was necessary as it was such a flagrant offender against the basic values of the Council of Europe. We have a problem in knowing how to deal with those who are not prepared to accept the Council’s rules and regime. The case of Osman Kavala and how we deal with Turkey—a persistent offender against judgments of the European Court of Human Rights; and the Council of Europe is all about human rights—is central to that.

Many aspects of the Council of Europe are tremendously important, including the Venice commission, which provides a legal framework in which nations can seek advice about their own rule of law, and the Group of States against Corruption. Corruption is a major issue in many countries. I was in Bosnia last week, and nobody who visits that country will be amazed to know that corruption is one of the central issues that affects it and how young people in Bosnia view their country. It therefore matters enormously that the Council of Europe has a role in fighting corruption.

The committee for the prevention of torture is fundamental, and the capacity to have challenge and inspections here, as well as in those countries that we feel will be offenders, matters enormously, because we are all bound by the same rule of law. That is why I want to touch briefly on the Court, which this morning is controversial here in the United Kingdom.

I would say to Members of all parties that we cannot say to others, “Please abide by the rule of law and listen to the institutions to which we are subject,” unless we are prepared to make that same judgment ourselves. That really does matter, because it is fundamental to how we as a nation behave and it is fundamental in our capacity to say to other nations, “These are the values that this country of ours wants to uphold.” We were fundamental in establishing the European convention on human rights, and it is important that we recognise that.

As I understand it, the Rwanda judgment is an interim one. It simply says that there needs to be a delay before removal takes place. I welcome that, because I think it is an outrageous policy, but that is not the point. The point is this: do we respect the convention or not?

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on the Court, and he makes a good point about needing to obey the rules. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) referred to the fact that the Court needs reform. Does the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) accept that there are occasions when the Court sometimes strays into areas that perhaps it should not? An example is the question of whether prisoners should have a vote, which many people think is a political question that admits of two answers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Court needs some reform?

I will certainly concede that the Court needs reform. Frankly, the most outrageous thing about it is that it takes an unacceptably long time for people to obtain justice. We have to look at what that means. I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Member on the example he gave, because there are mixed feelings about that issue. In many countries, prisoners do vote. I have gone into prisons on election monitoring and observation to watch that process taking place. It is not such a preposterous view. If such an issue is arguable, we have to look at the Committee of Ministers and whether the European convention on human rights needs amending, rather at than the role of the Court. The Court’s role is to implement the convention, and it is the politicians who created the convention.

I am afraid I have exceeded my time, but I will finish my remarks by saying that we cannot have half a Council of Europe. If we believe in the role of the European convention on human rights and believe in the institutions, let us assent even when it pains us a little, because it pains other people an awful lot more and it is in our interest.

The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 by the treaty of London. It was founded to combat fascism, Nazism and communism, and played an extraordinarily positive role in doing precisely that. Perhaps its greatest hours of glory were during the break-up of the Soviet Union and the welcoming of new democratic states in eastern Europe. Whereas the EU is centralising, the Council of Europe is welcoming. With 46 member states, it has real power—for instance, on the European convention of human rights, about which I will say a few words in a moment.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) has said, we now have a new and very important role in the Council of Europe, given the appalling behaviour of the Russian Federation. I personally feel betrayed by what Russia has done. As a former chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Russia who has sought to understand, but not condone, Russian politics, I think there is absolutely no excuse for what Russia has done in invading Ukraine. Ukrainians have a right to self-determination, and I do not believe for a moment that Mr Putin believes that there is any threat to Russia by NATO; I think he is trying to establish the Russian empire. No doubt it is very sad for some Russians that the Russian empire is over, but it was presumably sad for some Turks when the Turkish empire was over, sad for some Brits when the British empire was over, sad for some French people when the French empire was over, and likewise for any other empire. We all have a right to self-determination.

The Council of Europe, under the guidance of people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, has acted with great vigour in this latest crisis, but that was not the case last time. After Russia took over Crimea, it was expelled for a time from the Parliamentary Assembly. Then, because people at the Council of Europe needed the money, it was allowed to dribble back in. That must never happen again. We must proclaim what is right, and not be deterred from doing what is right because we need its money. I am grateful to the Minister for ensuring that, with other western powers, we are filling the financial gap made by the Russian expulsion.

My point is that the Council of Europe has to concentrate on its core role, which is dealing with egregious human rights abuses in places such as Russia. Other countries such as Azerbaijan and Turkey also have some difficulties. The Council should not start nit-picking with demonstrably democratic western powers. We saw that in the row over prisoners’ voting rights and we are seeing it even today—this is a hot topic—in the very late intervention of the European Court of Human Rights that resulted in the flight to Rwanda not being able to take off with any people. The European Court of Human Rights said that one Iraqi man faced

“a real risk of irreversible harm.”

What is the real risk of irreversible harm? The real risk—the immoral thing—is to allow people to go on crossing the channel and possibly drowning. The European Court of Human Rights, the Church of England and all the critics of the Government’s policy on Rwanda have to ask themselves: what is their solution?

This may be a temporary intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. I hope that it is. However, it rather makes the point that the Council of Europe has a core role in dealing with egregious human rights abuses, and that putting somebody on a safe flight, going to a safe hotel in a safe place, is not an egregious abuse of human rights.

I am pleased that we are having this debate, and to be an alternate member of the Council of Europe. I have found the experience very interesting. As I said to the leader of the UK delegation, the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), in an intervention, the lack of information, understanding and publicity about the Council must be addressed.

The Council of Europe is a big body and it spends a great deal of money on staff, resources and all that—I am not complaining about that, but there has to be a much better understanding of what it does. Its foundation in 1949 was historic and dramatic, because it gave a European focus on human rights, and it supported the principle of the European convention on human rights and the European Court of Human Rights.

Some people, no doubt, will not be very pleased with the decision made last night, but personally I think it was absolutely the right decision. If any member state, including this one, goes outside the European convention on human rights and behaves in the way that the British Government wanted to, there are consequences. The Court has intervened to bring that about.

Personally, I support the decision, but others might not. However, we cannot complain about other countries not complying, such as Turkey or in the past Russia, if we do not stand up for exactly the same principle ourselves. The European Court of Human Rights is something that the whole of Europe apparently subscribes to and ought to continue to subscribe to.

The discussions in the Council of Europe on human rights issues are important, but more important in some ways is the engagement with, and delegations to, different member states to try to improve their human rights records, their prison conditions and prisoner rehabilitation regimes.

Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe. That has now happened. It is a huge step to expel a member state. Although I, like everyone in this Chamber, totally condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war that is going on there, we have to ask ourselves a question: what message does it send to human rights campaigners and victims of human rights abuses in different parts of Russia if they no longer have access to the European Court of Human Rights? I know the issue of Turkey is writ large. Turkey is an abuser of human rights through its prison conditions, its treatment of Kurdish and Armenian minorities, and in a number of other ways. I am not in favour of the expulsion of Turkey from the Council of Europe. I want to see engagement—for us to work with and support the many brave journalists and human rights campaigners in Turkey, and try to bring about improvements in their society and their country.

The role of election observation is an important one. I was recently an election observer—not on behalf of the Council of Europe, but a different body—at the elections in Colombia. Having observed other elections in other places, I know the great importance, not necessarily of finding all the faults, but of simply being an unexpected presence at the polling stations with a right to investigate and inspect what is going on. Therefore, to me, the Council of Europe is a very important body.

To conclude, we must ensure that there is a serious information campaign about the role of the Council of Europe and all its policy areas—environment, human rights, and many other social policy areas—so that people understand what it does. Obviously there was a funding issue with Russia’s removal, but that ought to spur us on to have a better information campaign and better reporting back. The least we could expect is to have a debate in the main Chamber of our Parliament, rather than here in Westminster Hall; I am not criticising Westminster Hall, but this ought to be a main Chamber debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this debate, and on his leadership of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

I follow on directly from the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who made the point in an intervention and has reiterated in his speech that people in this building do not understand the Council of Europe; he is absolutely right. Some months ago, I was in the Tea Room, explaining to colleagues that the Council of Europe covers lands stretching from Azerbaijan to the Atlantic, and from the Mediterranean to the Arctic circle. Even then, some people could not grasp the fact that it was not the European Union, but something much bigger and, I would argue, much more important. One of my colleagues present on that occasion—I will not name her, because I hate to embarrass the Home Secretary—said, “Why do we pay it so little attention?” I looked her straight in the eyes and said, “Because it’s got the word ‘Europe’ in it.” I am afraid that is a sad fact of life.

The Council of Europe has done, and continues to do, an enormous amount of work, particularly in relation to the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Following the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, we suspended the voting rights of the Russian delegation, who then walked out. The British delegation, which punches far and away above its weight in the Parliamentary Assembly, took a stand and resisted Russia’s readmission—with one dishonourable exception, who, I am ashamed to say, was a Member from the Government Benches. Every other Member of Parliament from every political party voted against Russia’s readmission in support of our colleagues in the Baltic states, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. However, others thought they knew better and let the Russians back in.

As such, a couple of years later, we found ourselves in a situation where the Russians had taken the wrong signal, believing that Europe would do nothing about Ukraine. It took the robust attack from my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley—sorry, my honourable Friend; he ought to be right honourable—to undo that damage and make sure that Russia was properly suspended again. Those are the powers that the British delegation to the Council of Europe can have and exercise.

There is some unfinished business. We rightly talk a lot about the Donbas at the moment, and we talk quite a lot about Crimea, but we have forgotten Cyprus. There is a member state of the Council of Europe—Turkey—that, in 1974, invaded and occupied part of the territory of Cyprus, another member state. It is nearly 50 years since that happened, and the matter remains unresolved. There are still Turkish troops occupying soil of another sovereign state of the Council of Europe. That, in its own way, is just as wrong as what is happening in Ukraine.

I thank Chris Yvon, who was the permanent representative during my time as leader of the delegation. He provided massive support during our discussions about the Russian Federation, and contributed in an exemplary way to the work between an ambassador and Members of Parliament, advising and supporting us, and ensuring that we had the information we needed to do the job. I hope that the Foreign Office will recognise that. Finally, I would like to put on record my appreciation of the work done by the superb secretariat.

I very much welcome this debate. I have been a member of the Council of Europe for many years, with a brief interlude. The bottom line is that the Council of Europe stands up for our fundamental values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, which we have seen under attack around the world and beyond the sphere of the Council of Europe; and obviously those values are under attack in Ukraine. I am proud to be the trade rapporteur of the Council of Europe, which involves instilling in trade agreements the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, plus sustainable development in compliance with the Paris agreement and subsequent COP agreements.

It is important that Britain shines the light of our values around the Council of Europe and beyond. We also need to look at and question what we are doing here in terms of the rule of law. An obvious example is the breach of the Northern Ireland protocol that breaches international law, and will undermine the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland economy. We need to think about the right to peaceful protest and whether the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 is compliant with the conventions. Quite frankly, I find the prospect of police officers judging some annoyance, disturbance or discontinuity of business sufficient to stop a peaceful protest in a democratic country abhorrent, and it is the sort of thing that will play into the hands of Vladimir Putin.

We need to think about the issues around Rwanda. Israel refuses to send its refugees to Rwanda because they might face torture, death or rape. We need to think about the evidence, not, “Oh no, it is a court interfering”, as has been suggested. We also need to think about the independence of our own judiciary: how that should stand strong and not be attacked by the Government. In recent years the Supreme Court has been attacked by Ministers, who have been amplified in the press, on key decisions such as giving Parliament the right to vote on the EU deal and bringing democracy back after the prolonged Prorogation.

A recent report by the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and the constitution, which I chair, flags that issue and the fact that the Supreme Court has now reversed seven of the Government’s decisions in the last two years. We criticise the intimidation and chilling effect of an independent Court, but we should look at whether we are satisfying fundamental values.

I am very much a supporter of those fundamental values. I rejoice in the fact that we were founding members. After the war, Winston Churchill was instrumental in bringing about this bastion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Around the world, whether in China—I appreciate that it is not in the Council of Europe—or elsewhere, those values are being broken down and alternative totalitarian or authoritarian systems are being championed. It is incumbent on us all to fight the fight, be a bastion for those values and not let them be undermined at home. I very much welcome the debate secured by the hon. Member for Henley; we must stand firm together for our fundamental values.

I thank our wonderful representative, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who has been a real champion for us newbies in the 2019 intake who have been lucky enough to serve on the Council of Europe. He has been a great help to me and everybody else speaking this morning.

The Council of Europe, of which I am honoured to be a member, has greatly contributed to the stability and progress of our continent for decades. I credit its longevity to its founding ideals, about which we have heard this morning, and to those who have been determined to build on them and keep them alive. All member states stand together under a common banner to protect democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and we should be proud of that.

In the 1940s, Winston Churchill was one of the main protagonists in a new regional organisation that became the Council of Europe. He recognised the need for co-operation in Europe, and well understood mankind’s proclivity for violence and discrimination. It has been said that an institution is the lengthening shadow of a man or woman. Churchill understood that, and rightly recognised institutions as the hallmarks of democracy. He knew that, if we were to learn from and avoid repeating the mistakes and conflicts of the 20th century—how apt that is today—institutions such as the Council of Europe would be, and would continue to be, essential. I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members when I say how proud I am that this country has been there right from the very beginning. The UK was one of the founding signatories of the 1949 Council of Europe statute, and I sincerely hope that our commitment to this world-leading human rights organisation will continue to be as strong as it was over 70 years ago.

I am particularly proud that next Monday I will have my first ever meeting in the beautiful city of Strasbourg and that, although my French is rather appalling, I will be the first rapporteur from the 2019 intake. I have been working on the ethical, cultural and educational challenges of track and trace applications and technologies, and I am very proud of that. I have not been coerced into the position at all—I have taken it on board, and very much enjoyed it.

Given the challenges of that particular rapporteurship, the commitment and dedication to the Council’s founding ideals that I have seen, and the principles of all those who have helped me, have been nothing but inspiring. The people from the Council of Europe who have helped me have been absolutely wonderful. Although my own work will pale into insignificance compared with the immense achievements of many people at the Council, and certainly with those of some in the room, it has been a genuine pleasure to get to know the fantastic people on the Council of Europe.

In its lifetime the Council has had some quite outstanding achievements, which we ought to recognise. It abolished the death penalty in all of its member countries—not a single execution has taken place in any member state since 1997. Moreover, it proposed the first instrument criminalising the sexual abuse of children. It strengthened the prevention of torture, and to this day regularly makes unannounced visits to places of detention in member states to evaluate the treatment of detainees. The list goes on and on, and as I am running out of time, I shall sum up: the Council has been a constant in our nation’s character throughout my lifetime, and I sincerely hope that it continues to be.

I thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who is a good and dear friend. It is a real pleasure to be here to support him, and I thank him for his dedication to and enthusiasm for his role as leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe. This House should be grateful and thankful to him for his clear commitment, which we all appreciate.

I am pleased to be here to discuss how we can work together for the betterment of the UK as well as how the Council of Europe can benefit the likes of Northern Ireland. I know that the hon. Member has tried to do that. We should be representing the smaller states within the Council of Europe as well. There is no doubt that there is some fragility after Brexit.

The co-responsibility of the Council of Europe is to promote democracy and human rights. I am a great believer in human rights, which I have spoken about on many occasions, and in the rule of law on the continent of Europe. All too recently, we have seen the immediate expulsion of the Russian Federation and the suspension of relations with Belarus. Those were the right decisions. The hon. Gentleman led that, and we thank him for it. Ministers took the hard decision to expedite matters for the sake of protection, and there is no doubt that that has paid off in terms of unity. I am also a great believer in teamwork. There is no I in team—it is about how we all work together, and the Minister espouses that in abundance.

The UK is rewarded with many benefits for being a part of the Council of Europe. For example, we are able to push through world-class policies and legislation. The Council of Europe has also been instrumental in preventing and combatting domestic violence and violence against women. I am a great supporter of that legislation and that change in attitude. Those standards are groundbreaking—that is not my word, but that of others who have witnessed them. Domestic violence has been impacted globally. We must be proud of that, but we must still do more to widen goals and aspirations.

I understand that the Council of Europe has its questions about the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. I know that that is not what this debate is about, but I mention it as an example. I must admit that I have questions about it, too. That is a debate for another day, but it is great to see that the Council of Europe has an interest in Northern Ireland affairs. I hope that all views are taken into account, not simply those of one side. I know that the hon. Member for Henley, who is an honourable man, will take part in those views as well.

Portugal has made fantastic contributions in relation to trafficked victims among refugees. These real issues are faced by most Governments, and we have the platform to deal with and prevent them together. I do not see why the impacts of Brexit should be in any way detrimental to global prosperity. The UK played an instrumental part in establishing the Council of Europe in 1949, and the UK’s influence within the Council makes it better able to protect the UK’s goals in Europe. The hon. Member has protected those goals admirably. Despite global tensions, states sharing and working towards potential goals should be an inclusive process. We have the capacity to hold member states to account when necessary, as has happened with recent events, and to support those in need. The fundamental values of the Council are often forgotten, and it is important that we have a platform to work together.

I make a plea for the rights and democracy of young people. More than 5,000 youth leaders are trained each year in youth centres in Budapest and Strasbourg, and I encourage the Minister to consider creating something similar for the United Kingdom. We were a crucial part of the COE process. We should be facilitating and encouraging our young people to learn about democracy and human rights. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his work in Turkey, which is guilty of some of the worst human rights abuses and persecution of religious groups across the world.

We have real potential to deliver goals and aspirations if we are willing to work together and do what is right. Teamwork is important, as I mentioned. There are so many issues going on across the globe, and we are stronger when we tackle them together. I praise all the work done thus far, and I once again thank the hon. Member for Henley for ensuring the strength and unity of the UK of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and its place in the Council of Europe.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing the debate, and commend him for his dedicated efforts in supporting the UK team.

It is important to outline what the Council of Europe is before discussing its work. As Members have already said, it is not particularly obvious to the broader public. Understandably, it is often confused with the European Council. I will give my opinions, as a new member, on what it does.

The Council of Europe was founded in the aftermath of world war two and is, first and foremost, a human rights organisation. The UK has been a member since its inception, and we have played an essential role in drafting its best-known document: the European convention on human rights. Since 1949, the Council has expanded from 10 to 46 members, and it now stretches from Iceland to Turkey, taking in states of all sizes. Its purpose is to promote and maintain liberal democratic values in member states. Human rights, democracy and the rule of law are the priorities of the Council of Europe, which is why it seeks to hold members to account on those issues. Some of its recent reports have focused on human trafficking in Norway, corruption in Malta and prison overcrowding in Switzerland. Among the Council’s achievements is the abolition of the death penalty in member states—as has already been stated—with the last execution having taken place over 25 years ago. That supports why the UK delegation has strongly denounced the recent death sentences handed down to Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Brahim Saadoun by Russian forces in Ukraine.

What I most admire about the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe, and the Council of Europe as a whole, is that it provides a forum for European countries to work together to uphold our shared values while respecting the sovereignty of member states. Our membership of it is one of the best examples of the UK leaving the EU but not Europe. Although I have been to only one PACE session so far, it was one of the most consequential meetings, as it was when Russia was excluded from the Council of Europe.

In consultation with PACE, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers suspended Russia the day after the invasion of Ukraine began. At the extraordinary session I attended on 15 March, PACE voted in favour of expelling Russia, as did the Council of Ministers the following day. In that session, I was privileged to hear in person from the female delegates of Ukraine, and to hear virtually from their male colleagues who had remained behind to fight the Russian invasion. To meet delegates who had brought their children from a war zone to the hemicycle—and who were going to return to that war zone the following day—was a strange and powerful experience.

Expelling Russia was undoubtedly the right action to take, as there is no aspect of the Russian Government’s actions in Ukraine that supports the principles of human rights, democracy or rule of law. At the same time, it is worth noting that the expulsion means that Russian citizens can no longer take their Government to the European Court of Human Rights, a means previously used by dissidents such as Alexei Navalny to raise the profile of cases that would not be heard fairly in Russian domestic courts. Theoretically, it also allows Russia to restore the death penalty, so the decision does potentially have grave consequences for Russian citizens and those living in areas under Russian control. However, given Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, it seems highly unlikely that the change will in reality make any difference to the actions of the Russian Government, as they appear to demonstrate contempt for other laws.

Since expelling Russia, PACE members have unanimously supported a resolution calling for an ad hoc international criminal tribunal to investigate and prosecute suspected Russian war crimes in Ukraine. I expect that the Council of Europe will continue to call attention to the human rights violations that are occurring in Ukraine. In that respect, its work is more important than ever.

The opportunity to be in a forum that is both cross-party and cross-Europe creates a powerful understanding of views, not least in the many side discussions that take place outside the main Chamber. The value of the Council is in that very opportunity. I also commend all of the UK support team for their help in facilitating that effort.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) for securing this important debate. It is a reflection of its importance that when we look around the Chamber, we see that there is cross-party attendance by Members from both Houses, with Lords keeping an eye on proceedings from the Public Gallery.

As a new member of the delegation, similar to my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), it has been a real eye-opener being part of the UK delegation and visiting Strasbourg. It is a crowning glory for global Britain that our voice in that arena is so important and well regarded. Part of today’s debate needs to be to educate colleagues who are not sighted on the excellent work done in Strasbourg and Paris—and virtually. Reference has been made to various members of the delegation being rapporteurs, and it is important that those countries and topics are covered.

We have spoken about Russia being expelled from the Council of Europe. I think that was the right and proper decision. As a Conservative—and a low-tax Conservative at that—I want to focus on the money side of things. I had the opportunity to pose a question on behalf of my particular group to the secretary-general of the Council of Europe. The Russian delegation contributed about €33 million per year, so there is now a big shortfall. I thank the Minister and our Government for contributing to address that shortfall. It is right that we do our bit where appropriate, but all partners need to do so, too.

The Council of Europe remains important, as shown by Kosovo joining. It is one of the few international forums in which people can have quiet conversations about important issues by the water cooler, which reflects the value of physical meetings. As someone who tried to do virtual meetings initially—with all the difficulty that they entail for a new delegate—I think the physical side is important.

I will not speak about the ECHR—particularly because I am a parliamentary private secretary in the Home Office—but I am sure that we will discuss it in due course, given that we proposed our own human rights Bill in the Queen’s Speech. Other Members have spoken about a lot of the policies, as well as the necessary difficulties of the Council of Europe. There does need to be an evolution at the Council of Europe, and part of the process will be to discuss not only the good things, but how we hope to see it change in future.

It is a pleasure to wind up for the SNP. It has been interesting to hear the various worldviews expressed across the Chamber. From the SNP perspective, I am glad to hear the cross-party support for the Council of Europe, and I very much associate myself with it.

I was a Member of the European Parliament for 16 years. I spent 192 weeks in Strasbourg over those years, so the Council of Europe is close to my heart, and I suffered a terrible thing in losing such a wonderful environment and great colleagues at the Council. I was always struck by the genius of the twin-track mechanism whereby the Council of Europe focuses on the citizens and empowering their legal rights against their own Governments and states, and the EU is a more overtly political and trade union.

It will surprise nobody that it grieves me deeply that the UK has withdrawn from that co-operation in the European Union. I am not in the business of fighting old battles, but Scotland wants to be back in that co-operation; the SNP is an internationalist party, and we want co-operation and multilateralism in all its forms and in all forums. Scotland’s best future is, from my party’s perspective, as an independent state in the European Union. I will come back to that point.

That withdrawal, or retreat, from the international multilateral co-operation of the EU—which the UK has taken Scotland out of—is precisely what makes the co-operation with the framework of the Council of Europe all the more vital. I applaud the work of the delegation. It has had enthusiastic SNP support. My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) are enthusiastic members of the delegation. As long as the SNP is part of this House, that co-operation will continue. It suits our worldview to co-operate internationally and to be part of a multilateral enforcement of decency and human rights.

I have been glad to hear the support from across the House for the work of the Council. We need to bear in mind that it needs to be intellectually consistent, so that we work with and support the Council when it is difficult to do so, as well as when it suits us. I have been uneasy about some of the comment and debate, especially in today’s papers. It is not just about the European Union; I see the same ingredients in the public discourse about the European Court of Justice, the European convention on human rights and the European Council.

I say to Conservative Members present—although I exclude most of them from this criticism—that some of their colleagues are quite specifically trying to undermine the work of the Council. Perhaps they are doing so from a position of ignorance, as we have heard, but it is also possible that they are doing so quite deliberately.

We are in the presence of a PPS from the Home Office and a Minister from the Foreign Office. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a knee-jerk, dog-whistle reaction to the Rwanda decision, and any attempt to attack the European convention on human rights and the European Court of Justice, would be a grave mistake?

I genuinely thank the right hon. Member for his intervention, and I could not agree with him more. One of the things that has struck me since I got to this House is that we are not all goodies and baddies, and there are a number of shades of grey within. I acknowledge the governing party on this issue. I very much agree with his point. Happily, it is on my page of notes, so we can all look forward to that.

That criticism of the framework is ahistoric. As we have heard, the Council of Europe came from a speech that Winston Churchill made in Zurich in 1946. It was formed by the London Statute, signed in this city in 1949. I am a proud member of the Scottish National party; I have a different worldview from many on the Government Benches and many of the Members of this House, but I celebrate the work of the English and Scottish lawyers in drawing up this international framework of decency historically. To withdraw from that would be deeply ahistoric and an act of nihilism and vandalism, which I would deeply regret. The part that the UK has played in the growth and development of the Council of Europe is an example of global Britain that we can actually be proud of, because it has effected real change in the real world, on our European continent. To walk away from it would be an act of great harm, not only to the wider continent but to us at home.

I pay tribute to that proud history, but I also have to list a few of the things, as mentioned by some Members, that we see currently. When we talk about grievous international acts of criminality in Ukraine, the Donbas, or Cyprus or elsewhere, we need to be consistent at home. So loose chatter—in the Queen’s Speech, no less—about a British Bill of rights, as if somehow the European convention on human rights does not work for us uniquely, is an absurdity. In fact, I would say that it is a deeply, deeply regrettable policy trend.

Loose talk of breaking international law—a solemn international commitment, only recently signed—over the Northern Ireland protocol, when there are dispute resolution mechanisms within the protocol itself, is setting the worst possible international example to those who would seek to do bad things internationally. How can we possibly look Mr Putin in the eye with any credibility when we are ourselves talking about breaching international law, as if it is a mere bagatelle? The odious reaction that we have seen to the European Court of Human Rights quite rightly stopping the odious policy of offshoring refugees to Rwanda is deeply dangerous. We are also seeing the limiting of rights to protest and indeed to vote at home; we can look forward to the Court’s judgments on those issues, too.

There is also talk in some quarters—not by everyone, but in some quarters—about “unelected foreign judges”, as if our own judges were elected and as if “foreign” has anything negative to it. The whole framework of extraterritorial judicial scrutiny is the point—it was designed in this city. The point is to ensure the enforcement of decency and proper legal standards. The rule of law is an important thing to observe at home as well as abroad.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, on the one hand, there are those who criticise the credentials of judges in the European Court of Human Rights, and yet we have had Lord Chancellors—such as the current Foreign Secretary, actually—who have not really got much legal expertise? What we really need is a Lord Chancellor here for a sustained period of time to protect the independent judiciary, rather than taking pot shots at it.

I am similarly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am really concerned about the public discourse in these islands. If we believe in the rule of law, that means that we also believe in it when it is difficult or inconvenient for the Government of the day. The Scottish Government have been before the European Court of Human Rights as well on the issue of prisoners slopping out. It has been difficult for us, too, but if we sign up to a set of rules and to extrajudicial scrutiny, we need to allow that to run its course. Undermining the independence of the judiciary is a really, really dangerous place for us to go, so I urge everyone, from all points of the compass, to stop it.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that we are arranging a tour around the European Court of Human Rights for members of the delegation, hopefully in the next session, so that they can see for themselves how it works and talk to some of the judges there?

That is a very interesting and helpful point. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is inviting the Home Secretary along as well. Perhaps we can arrange that, because my concern is that most ignorance is wilful. We saw an awful lot of wilful ignorance in the European Union debate, and we are seeing some in the Council of Europe debate as well.

I believe, with every fibre of my being, that we are an internationalist nation in Scotland, but the UK is as well, and signing up to these international structures allows decency to be promoted on a wider canvas—the European continent. We have heard how wide a range of organisations is covered within the Council of Europe. We can and should be an enthusiastic part of that, not an example of how to undermine it.

This has been a good debate, and I have been glad to take part in it. However, the SNP will always be an internationalist, outward-looking party, and I would happily work with anybody across this House to those ends.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dame Maria. I thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for securing this debate at a critical time for democracy and the rule of law across our continent. I agree that it is a shame that this debated in the main Chamber; I hope that can happen in due course.

It is perhaps arguable that the work of the Council of Europe has never been as critical as it is today, whether that is on human rights, the rule of law and democracy, or, of course, in its crucial election-monitoring role or through the many other activities it undertakes. Not only do we face the pressing threat of Russia’s illegal war against the people of Ukraine, but we see attempts to sow disharmony, undermine democracy and foment tensions elsewhere, whether in the western Balkans, Moldova, or the Caucasus—all, of course, within the geographic remit of the Council of Europe.

We have had some excellent speeches today. I echo the hon. Member for Henley in thanking our officials, the permanent representative, our judge, and all those who play a part in delegations, many of whom are represented today, including many of my hon. and right hon. colleagues on this side of the House.

I want to recognise the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) and the work he does, and his recognition of the Council of Europe’s role for many member states in the huge, historic shift from the time of fascism and communism to where they have come to today. He spoke about Turkey and others—I will come on to those—and made a powerful statement about the importance of the ECHR and its judgments, and the role that we played in creating it, while also recognising the need for reform, for example in the length of time for judgments.

The right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) made some powerful remarks about the importance of the Council of Europe and its geographic reach. He rightly referenced the expulsion of Russia—something I think we would all agree with. He also referenced other issues, such as Cyprus. I had the pleasure of visiting Cyprus recently and agree with many of his comments about the need to resolve that conflict and return to the plan for a bizonal and bicommunal federation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important in this context to have as much contact as possible, through the Council of Europe, with Russian human rights campaigners and activists, so that they feel that there are people who are interested in the difficult situation they find themselves in?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman points out the importance of maintaining contacts with all those who are opposing Putin’s regime. Indeed, I think that Vladimir Kara-Murza was mentioned. That is a case that we are all deeply concerned about. It is important that we maintain contact through many bodies, including the Council of Europe, with those who would stand up for democracy and human rights in Russia and against the actions of the Putin regime.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) for the work he does as a rapporteur. He made some very important points. I would reference his point on the attacks on the judiciary in the UK; I think that some of the comments we have seen are very damaging. He, like many others, raised the issue of the ECHR and Rwanda, which has obviously been a crucial point.

On that, I echo the comments of the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper): there is no point in the Government blaming anyone but themselves on this issue. Ministers have been pursuing a policy that they know is not workable and that will not tackle criminal gangs. Despite that, they paid Rwanda £120 million and hired a jet that now has not taken off, all because they wanted someone else to blame in a confected row. They ignored the warnings about the policy, including on the potential treatment of torture victims—which of course is a crucial issue for the Council of Europe. It has rightly been referenced in this debate, but I think the Government need to take a hard look at themselves to understand why they are in the position they find themselves in this morning.

The Council of Europe has done excellent work in many areas since its foundation. I mentioned the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which makes unannounced visits to places of detention. The Committee of Social Rights also verifies that rights to housing, health, education and employment are being implemented. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale mentioned the anti-corruption work of GRECO, and the Council of Europe also works with other bodies, including the OSCE, the EU, the United Nations and other international bodies, which use Council of Europe reports in pursuing their own excellent work in these areas.

The ECHR itself—I would say this again as a salutary warning to those who make unwarranted attacks on the ECHR—has delivered more than 16,000 judgments. Let us remember the wide range of those judgments, including on the right to life, the prohibition of torture, the prohibition of slavery and forced labour, the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, the right to respect for private and family life, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, the prohibition of discrimination, and indeed the protection of property. Of course, one of the Court’s most high-profile cases was its ruling that Russia was responsible for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. That is the scope of the ECHR’s work and it needs to be more fully understood. As has been mentioned, the abolition of capital punishment—something I have long campaigned for—has been a precondition for accession to the Council of Europe since 1985. Indeed, the Council of Europe has played a critical role in ensuring that we do not have the death penalty in member states.

The Istanbul convention has rightly been referenced, and I have a question for the Minister on that. We need to acknowledge that violence against women is a human rights violation and a form of discrimination. The Council of Europe has carried out work on the fight against discrimination for reasons of sexual orientation or gender identity. These are critical issues, particularly when we see backsliding by some members. This is a matter that I hope the Council will pay increased attention over the months and years to come.

I reiterate Labour’s unshakeable commitment to maximising opportunities to work alongside allies and partners on issues of human rights, the rule of law and democracy through as many multilateral institutions as possible, and a critical institution is the Council of Europe. Today’s world is too precarious and, frankly, dangerous to operate unilaterally, as unfortunately we have seen the Government do on too many occasions recently. I hope the Government and the Minister will reiterate our commitment to working through the Council of Europe on these issues, because we face some deep threats across our continent and the world, and the Council of Europe will be key to tackling them.

Beyond reiterating its solidarity with Ukraine and expressing an unwavering commitment to its sovereignty, the Council adopted an action plan for Ukraine, including measures to protect displaced people, to support legal professionals, to document human rights violations—which is critical when we see some of the horrific atrocities currently taking place in Ukraine—and to protect the rights of vulnerable groups, including children and the Roma. As the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, it is important that links with civil society in Russia and Belarus are strengthened. That grassroots work is critical in fighting back against the Putin war machine and the Kremlin’s unrelenting disinformation campaign across Europe.

Would my hon. Friend accept that it is important to accept the credibility and importance of the statutory role of the Council of Europe’s Court? If other countries fail to abide by these rules, that could collectively undermine the fundamental values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law that we are trying to push forward. The Government should think twice before putting stuff in the media about the Council of Europe and the convention when they are found in need by the Court.

I agree with the principles of what my hon. Friend is saying, and that applies to judgments of other international courts, including the International Court Of Justice, which the Government have also been taken to task over on a number of issues. I mentioned Ukraine, which is crucial in our focus, but the situation in the western Balkans is also very serious at the moment—the Minister is nodding her head. The Council of Europe has been playing a critical role there in strengthening judicial processes and promoting peace and democracy.

The case of Turkey has been mentioned. The Committee of Ministers’ decision to launch infringement proceedings against Ankara over the Osman Kavala case demonstrates its commitment to the Council’s central values without fear or favour. The hon. Member for Henley rightly referenced wider concerns about Turkey and its infringement of civil and political rights.

Will the hon. Member join us in supporting Kosovo’s membership of the Council of Europe, which will be coming forward later in the year?

I certainly would. I plan to visit Kosovo in the near future, and I am sure that that will be an issue on the agenda during my visit there and to the western Balkans. That is something I certainly support.

I want to end by asking the Minister a few questions. Can she give us some reassurances about the Government’s wider commitments to the Council of Europe and the ECHR? The Prime Minister has refused to rule out leaving the ECHR. We have seen the many trailed proposals about a so-called Bill of rights, which could diminish the role of the ECHR and undermine its positions. There is a serious risk of undermining some crucial human rights that we all enjoy. Also, it is worth mentioning the crucial role that the ECHR played in the Good Friday agreement. I would like to see the Minister give some reassurance on that point.

Secondly, can the Minister explain the reasoning behind the Government’s reservation of article 59 of the Istanbul convention, which protects migrant and refugee women from domestic abuse and violence? Finally, given the point I made about working together with allies, and given the scale of the challenges we face across Europe and the world, will she assure us that the Government will stop the unilateral approach that they seem to have drifted towards in recent weeks and months and, instead, work together?

It is an absolute pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship this morning, Dame Maria. My right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), the Minister for Europe and North America, would have been delighted to take part in this debate, but he is currently travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

I start by saying how grateful I am to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) for securing this debate. I echo the tributes paid by right hon. and hon. Members to his work on the Council of Europe as the leader of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly. My hon. Friend and the other members of the UK delegation play an important role in promoting the Council of Europe and its work throughout the UK. I note that a number of Members across the House mentioned their wish to hold this debate in the main Chamber. I think that the Council of Europe’s importance and the work done by the UK delegation is reflected in the sheer number of Members present.

While I am lavishing praise on my hon. Friend, I will also pick up on the points my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) made about the support my hon. Friend the Member for Henley has provided to the newbies, a number of whom are present and have made contributions today. I note that my hon. Friend might be providing some French lessons, as well.

It has been an important debate, discussing the promotion of the work of the Council of Europe and the UK’s role in that. I am grateful for the contributions from other right hon. and hon. Members, and I will hopefully pick up on many of the points they raised.

As hon. Members have mentioned, it was Winston Churchill who first publicly suggested the creation of a Council of Europe nearly 80 years ago. As Europe dusted itself off after world war two, the UK played a critical role in founding the Council, and we have been an active defender of its values—freedom, liberty and the rule of law in Europe—ever since.

Putin has brought war back to our continent on a scale not seen since Churchill’s time, with devastating consequences for Ukraine and the wider world. Putin believes he can win through oppression, coercion and invasion, but Europe has been roused, not cowed, by his aggression, and the free world has united behind Ukraine in its fight for freedom and self-determination through sanctions, aid and military support.

The Council of Europe set the tone by suspending Russia within 36 hours of the invasion, and subsequently expelling them completely. As has been mentioned, the UK delegation was, naturally, at the forefront of calls for that expulsion. We commend the Council for that quick, decisive action, which helped to isolate Putin’s regime on the international stage and sent a clear signal that his actions are not tolerated by the global community. The Council also has a role to play in supporting Ukraine, ensuring it has the financial and technical support to rebuild in the aftermath of Putin’s war, including support from Council of Europe specialists.

As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley and others, the Foreign Secretary attended the Council’s ministerial meeting in Turin, which underlined the need to consolidate standards on human rights, democracy and the rule of law for our future security. We must learn lessons from Ukraine and do more to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states from those threatening to undermine them—for example, in the Balkans, in the eastern neighbourhood region, and in the Caucasus.

Let me turn to the budget because my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) mentioned it. The UK is committed to ensuring that the Council of Europe has the funding it needs to deliver. Russia’s expulsion leaves a €34 million shortfall in funding. All member states, including the UK, have committed to covering the shortfall for this year. We will work with the secretary-general to understand the longer-term impacts, but it is important that longer-term financing is considered alongside the Council of Europe’s future strategic direction.

Members have mentioned the wider work of the Council. Beyond Ukraine, the Council continues to champion equality in other areas, and we agree with raising the profile and the importance of the organisation in that work. We will aim to increase engagement, ensuring that, wherever possible, PACE rapporteurs are able to get appropriate levels of access, and last month in this place, we started the process of ratifying its convention to prevent violence against women, better known as the Istanbul convention. I know how hard my hon. Friend the Member for Henley has pushed for that ratification, and I commend him for his efforts.

The UK can also do more with the Council of Europe to reduce violence and discrimination against LGBT people in some member states, and I shall look with interest to see what further progress there is on that matter. We also remain committed to improving the efficiency and the effectiveness of the European Court of Human Rights. We will work with—

Before she leaves the matter of the Istanbul convention, will she respond to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about the decision to make a reservation with respect to migrant women? That is an important issue, and we would like some certainty about the Government’s direction of travel, which is simply not yet there.

I am happy to follow up with more specifics, but the Home Secretary made a written ministerial statement to Parliament on 17 May, announcing the beginning of the process to ratify the convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence, which is more commonly known as the Istanbul convention. We expect the process to be completed and the UK to have ratified the convention by 31 July.

We support members in the western Balkans and the eastern neighbourhood to meet their obligations under the European convention on human rights. Several colleagues mentioned Turkey and, specifically, the case of Osman Kavala. We are concerned about the judgment against Osman Kavala on 25 April, and the failure to implement the European Court of Human Rights ruling to release him immediately, resulting in the commencement of infringement proceedings against Turkey. We continue to raise the case with the Turkish Government.

The promotion of freedom of religion or belief is another key area for the UK, and for the Council. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is not in his place—[Interruption.] Oh, he has moved; he is in his place. So many people face horrific persecution and abuse because of what they believe. As colleagues will be aware, next month, we host the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and we welcome the Council of Europe’s participation in helping draw attention to that pressing issue. We also recognise the opportunity for the Council to work with other organisations, including the OSCE, and continue to encourage close co-operation.

I want to pick up the point about the Kosovo application. The UK supports Kosovo’s international integration, including its membership of the Council of Europe. Application for membership of the Council is a signal of Kosovo’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law and the protection of rights of all its citizens.

I will briefly touch on the ECHR ruling last night because a number of Members have mentioned it. As the Home Secretary stated, we are disappointed that legal challenge and last-minute claims have meant that last night’s flight was unable to depart. We will not be deterred from doing the right thing in delivering our plan to control our nation’s borders. Our legal team are reviewing every decision made about the flight, and preparation for the next flight begins now.

On the Council of Europe’s future, Russia’s expulsion is the start of a new era. The UK has been vocal on the organisation’s future without Russia, asking it to pursue deeper economic, diplomatic, technological and security ties with allies around the globe. As part of that, we have highlighted the need for reform, as hon. Members mentioned, to ensure that it is as effective as possible. We stand ready to assist following the latest eminent persons review.

I end by reiterating the UK’s recognition of the valuable work of the Council of Europe, about which we have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. The organisation has stood the test of time and is now entering a new era where its values face challenge. However, together, as a coalition of sovereign nations, we can advance the frontiers of freedom, stand up for open societies and unleash the power of our collective thirst for peace, just as Churchill imagined so long ago.

It has already been stated that I try to run the delegation as a cross-party group, but it is important to bear in mind that it is also a cross-Houses group that includes Members of the House of Lords. I am grateful to Lord Foulkes for attending most of the debate. I thank everyone who has participated. It has been heartwarming to see such enthusiasm and agreement on the important things that the Council of Europe does. I hope that we can look forward to a much longer debate in the main Chamber.

I associate the Opposition parties with the hon. Member’s ambitions. He is assiduous in looking for ministerial responses, but the Minister did not answer my question, nor that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). Will he join me in asking for responses from Ministers?

I would ask that question on a different occasion and in a different way, and I would hope to get a better answer than the hon. Member. On that note, I will end the debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the work of the Council of Europe.

Sustainable Food Supply and Cultured Meat

I will call Sir Roger Gale to move the motion and I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as that is the convention for a 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered sustainable food supply and cultured meat.

Thank you, Dame Maria. I apologise for subjecting you to myself twice in one morning. I thank the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) for being here during an incredibly busy week for her. I know how hard she has been working, and I am deeply grateful for her presence. I would also like to thank the Good Food Institute, the Nature Friendly Farming Network, the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and Ivy Farm Technologies for opening my eyes and stimulating this debate.

It is a fact of parliamentary life that we go to a lot of receptions. Outside this place, people think they are a waste of time, but if we look and listen, we learn from them. The Ivy Farm presentation stimulated my interest in a subject that, frankly, I knew very little about until I was briefed. I am not starting from a conclusion; I am hoping to open an ongoing debate.

I will first place on record some quotes from the Government’s food strategy, which was published this week. The primary objective is:

“A prosperous agri-food and seafood sector that ensures a secure food supply in an unpredictable world and contributes to the levelling-up agenda through good quality jobs around the country.”

The second objective is:

“A sustainable nature positive, affordable food system that provides choice and access to high quality products that support healthier and home-grown diets for all.”

The next point follows on from what we were talking about this morning and relates to Ukraine.

“The conflict in Ukraine has shown us that domestic food production is a vital contributor to national resilience and food security. Domestic food production can reduce the offshoring of food production to countries that do not meet our high environmental and animal welfare standards.”

In the foreword to the document, the Secretary of State writes:

“Technological solutions are developing at pace. Our future farming policy will support innovative solutions to the environmental challenges we face.”

The final quote leads directly into what I want to briefly discuss this morning.

“Innovation will be a key component to sustainably boost production and profitability across the supply chain. We have committed to spend over £270 million through our Farming Innovation Programme and are supporting £120 million investment in research across the food system in partnership with UK Research and Innovation, in addition to other funding packages.”

That is the key and why I am standing here this morning. The potential, as I understand it, for cultivated meat is huge. Cultivated meat, scientifically, is meat processed and produced from tissue. It is not, and never will be, a replacement for fillet steak, a pork chop or a leg of lamb. What it can do is augment and supplement meat production in a way that reduces carbon dioxide emissions and the number of animals required for slaughter, which is an objective that most of us would like to see followed through.

I was astonished to learn that 18% of CO2 emissions—more than all CO2 emissions from transport globally—are caused by animals. As I understand it, the cultivation of meat can obviate a significant portion of those CO2 emissions, and I believe that to be a desirable objective.

I wish to comment on one by-product of this issue. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister launched a “grow for Britain” plan in Cornwall; I simply say to the Minister, and through her to Downing Street, that it is an admirable objective, but if we are to grow for Britain, we need the farmland to grow crops on, which means not sacrificing our prime agricultural land to development in the way that “Builder Boris” is seeking to do at the moment. It has got to stop.

Let me come back to the issue of cultivated meat, on which I can be brief. Ivy Farm briefed me to indicate that, frankly, research in this whole area is lamentably underfunded in the United Kingdom and is therefore slow. Singapore approved the consumption of cultivated meat in 2020. In 2021, the United States approved a major research programme into the development of cultivated meat. China has put cultivated meat on its development road map this year. Canada and Israel are investing heavily indeed in this area.

My plea to the Minister is quite simple. As I said, I do not start from a conclusion, and I do not know what contribution cultivated meat can make in totality to our demand, consumption and sustainability, but I believe the potential is very significant indeed. If that is so, it seems to me that if we in the United Kingdom are to get ahead of the game—sadly, we too often remain behind the curve—we have to examine carefully our investment in research and development, and make sure that our regulation does not get in the way of the introduction into the market of cultivated meat.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I sense that he may be drawing his remarks to a conclusion and waiting for the Minister to respond. Before he does so, could he perhaps also comment on the importance of a proper public sector food procurement strategy that backs British-produced food, be that cultivated meat or meat and other agricultural products that are farmed in this country? That is something we have not seen to date, and there is every opportunity, now that we left the EU, for the Government to take this issue forward.

That is slightly wider than the scope of this debate, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that we need a co-ordinated initiative to ensure we deliver sustainable foods across the board. I know that the Minister will tell us we are largely sustainable and self-reliant with regard to meats and grains, and that there is a shortage in vegetables and fruit. I think we can go further. I know, because I happened to discuss this issue with the Minister only last night—I am sure she will answer my hon. Friend—that the Government have an initiative that may not be entirely Conservative but is certainly valid. It does not try to direct farmers on what they should grow but seeks to ensure properly that the right needs are met in the right places and at the right time.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Ivy Farm had a reception here that I visited with some apprehension, to be fair, but I understood the issues and I understand what the right hon. Gentleman suggests and the necessity of it. He referred to the Nature Friendly Farming Network, which is going to have a reception today. One of my constituents, Stephen Alexander, will be there. He is involved with Dexter cattle, and he is showing great initiative to bring about a better product for use across the whole of Northern Ireland. As well as the Ivy Farm example that the right hon. Gentleman referred to, we should encourage the Nature Friendly Farming Network that Stephen Alexander is part of.

I believe nature-friendly farming is completely compatible with the other objectives—a point that was made to me by the network. They are not mutually exclusive. The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, to which I also referred, is not vegan or vegetarian but it is about animal welfare. The more we can do to utilise science and technology to improve animal welfare standards and minimise the number of animals we actually use, while maintaining our self-sufficiency, the better.

What I want from the Minister is simple. It is a commitment to endeavour to invest in research and development. As I said, I am not committed to this idea, but I do not believe we are talking about frankenfoods or putting livestock farmers out of business. I think the development of cultivated meat is completely compatible with the maintenance of a live animal sector. They should be complimentary to each other. I am not seeking to foist yet another job on the Minister, but if it is not too big an ask, it does seem to me that what we really need in this field is a designated champion to take this project forward and to put us in the vanguard of development, rather than the tail end of the train.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing a debate on such an interesting issue. In the Government’s food strategy, which we published on Monday, we acknowledged the opportunities for growth in the alternative protein sector. The sector covers a wide range of products and technologies—from cultured meat to the use of insect-derived protein in animal feed—that, as my right hon. Friend said, could be complementary to traditional animal systems.

On that point, protein from different sources has different qualities. Humans need protein that is as close as possible to the protein in our own bodies. That is why the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) made about cultivated meat are particularly relevant if we are looking at developing the sector. Quorn and other forms of protein do not necessarily have all the amino acids that humans need. Will my hon. Friend the Minister take that point back to the Department after the debate?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I politely refer him to the Government’s food strategy, published on Monday, which carefully makes the case for a healthy, sustainable and, above all, balanced diet that takes into account all the nutrients we need as the complex beings we are. Our food system is broad and complex, and the way we regulate it affects many different Government Departments. The way we talk about food is incredibly personal to the individual making food choices on a daily basis.

It is important that we as a Government do not stand here telling people what to eat but enable them to make healthy and sustainable choices. That is why it is important that we are having this debate today and looking at new forms of alternative protein that have not previously been available to us. The strategy identifies new opportunities to make the food system healthier, more sustainable, more resilient and more accessible to everybody throughout England.

I would like to give my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet the commitments about investment and regulation that he has asked for. On investment, the UK has been at the forefront of innovative protein development, and we will continue to financially support research and innovation in that area. Indeed, we are already doing so through our partnership with UK Research and Innovation, investing more than £130 million in research across the food system. We will continue to work with UKRI, industry and consumer groups to develop joint priority areas for funding, which will doubtless include alternative proteins.

On regulation, the Food Standards Agency is using the freedoms offered by Brexit to review our novel foods regulatory framework. Whenever anyone wants to put a new food on the market, they have to do so under the aegis of those regulations.

The food strategy commits the Government to developing dedicated guidance materials for those seeking approval for new protein products. A great deal of cross-Government work on alternative proteins is already taking place, with officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs collaborating with the Food Standards Agency. The Cabinet Office is taking a very close interest in this issue, and cross-Government meetings are taking place with the Department for International Trade and the Department of Health and Social Care. A group is starting to form that will take forward the regulatory basis for alternative protein development, if that becomes sensible.

It all sounds very exciting, although it is fair to say, as my right hon. Friend did, that not everyone agrees on the extent of the predicted benefits of the development of alternative proteins. However, it is clear that cultured meat presents a number of fascinating and promising opportunities for the future, and that this innovative technology may well present real economic growth potential. Though some market predictions are perhaps over-optimistic, there is clearly a willingness among private investors to invest in this exciting new industry.

There are significant challenges, specifically around scaling up the new technologies to make them commercially viable and taking steps to address any concerns about consumer acceptance. Government officials from across Whitehall will continue to work together on this matter. I am not going to tell people what to eat, but I want our consumers to be presented with a wide range of clearly labelled options. Not starting from a conclusion is a very good attitude to take towards new forms of alternative protein.

I refer all Members to the Government’s food strategy, which we published on Monday. It sets out exciting new policy ideas and a determination to support our farmers and producers to help us with our food security. It sets a goal of national production, and it also includes the new and quite brave idea of a land use strategy, which I think will address some of my right hon. Friend’s concerns about where we build, where we grow, and where we let nature thrive without growing. The most important takeaway from the strategy is that the Government are committed to supporting farmers to produce the food we need for our national food security—an issue that has rightly gone to the very top of the political agenda.

There are also exciting points in the strategy about public procurement, including the fact that we now have a 50% goal for sourcing locally, and exciting announcements about innovation and technology, which will help to address the matters that were covered in the debate. It makes important points about sustainable farming—regenerative farming, which we will hear about in the nature-friendly farmers meeting that many of us will be attending—and makes it clear that farming, the environment and nature are not exclusive, but can and must go hand in hand. In helping our farmers to produce the food we all need, we have to make sure they do so in an environmentally sensitive way.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Fire and Rehire Tactics

[Esther McVey in the Chair]

[Relevant document: e-petition 575544, Ban fire and rehire employment tactics]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use of fire and rehire tactics.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am delighted to be able to bring this debate once again to Parliament, and to be able to combine it with a petition that has been signed by over 15,000 members of the public who, like me, feel passionately about this issue.

Ms McVey, I apologise if you are getting déjà vu, because just over a year ago I stood in this same room and spoke about this very matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) brought an important debate to the House and Members, on a cross-party basis, spoke eloquently for the rights of their constituents in the face of the repugnant practice of fire and rehire. Sadly, the fact that we are here again today is indicative of how little progress has been made by the Government, who have been hiding behind reports and consultations. There has been little concrete action.

Hon. Members would be forgiven for thinking that the Government have been somewhat distracted over recent weeks, as they have been embroiled in another employment debate a little closer to home: Operation Save Big Dog. They have been trying desperately to save the job of a blundering, misleading and morally bankrupt Prime Minister. It is the same old story from the Government: repeated promises, with no action. This is despite the fact that we are approaching the fifth anniversary of the Taylor review.

Hon. Members may recall that, in January 2022, I secured and led a parliamentary debate on the Taylor review and modern working practices. Many of us pressed the Government to keep their promises and initiate reform, but we have had absolutely no joy whatever. We have seen fire and rehire practices condemned by countless Ministers, and the employment Bill has been promised a staggering 20 times over the past three years. The Bill being published has a lot in common with the Prime Minister resigning: both are events that should have happened months ago and that are clearly supported by a majority of the public and MPs, only to be needlessly delayed by Tory incompetence. As they stall, however, unscrupulous employers act.

No less than 10% of workers have faced fire and rehire in their jobs. Almost a quarter of employees say their working terms have been downgraded since the first lockdown, and 800 loyal P&O Ferries workers have been scandalously sacked. All the Government can say is that their planned statutory code will be announced “in due course”. Given how often they say that, I am beginning to think that “in due course” might be their next manifesto pledge and slogan: “Get it done in due course.”

It was not just the issue of the workers being laid off. It was about those whom P&O picked up, who did not know about or understand the health and safety issues on the ferries. That was part of the problem as well, because P&O took away the people who knew what to do and replaced them with people who, with great respect, did not have the same ability.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and that is why it is important that we have skilled workers who need be regarded for their loyalty to the job, and for their competence.

Call me cynical, but it seems that certain policies can be expedited over others, such as the Home Office having no difficulty in swiftly implementing the inhumane Rwanda policy or the Government pushing to break international law, or selling off the popular and successful Channel 4.

Does my hon. Friend not think that part of the problem for the Government of the moment is that, if they try to expedite fire and rehire while we are trying to fire the current Prime Minister, they will unfortunately have to rehire him on worse terms and we will all suffer?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and with a great deal of wit.

While the Government can do all the things that I have outlined, it seems that supporting workers’ rights has been abandoned at the bottom of the pile. It is not a priority for this Government, who seem to value their own job security above that of the average working person.

What does the Prime Minister expect from our great British workforce? Under this Government, are workers just meant to put up and shut up about their inadequate pay, conditions and benefits, without having adequate legal protections? Thankfully, due to the excellent work of unions such as Unite, Unison, GMB, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association or TSSA, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers or RMT, ASLEF and others, there is some support and respite from fire and rehire for employees. However, without legislation, I fear that this practice will persist.

It is clear that we need to outlaw fire and rehire. We do not need some sort of consultation but to outlaw it and urgently introduce a Bill to strengthen workers’ rights. Lip service will not stop fire and rehire; an effective ban will. However, Government plans on a statutory code fall woefully short and even then the Government are struggling to implement the bare minimum required. Current Government proposals would mean that the practice of fire and rehire remains legal, consultation procedures would not be improved and workers would continue to be dismissed for not agreeing to an inferior contract. Quite simply, all that that will achieve is to increase a company’s financial calculation before it uses fire and rehire tactics regardless.

We already know that the Government plans do not work. P&O Ferries calculated that it was financially worthwhile foregoing consultations, despite knowing that they were necessary, before cutting almost 800 jobs and replacing those employees with agency workers. P&O’s chief executive said:

“I would make this decision again, I’m afraid.”

Unscrupulous employers are acting without consequence. Companies have examined our current legislation, deemed that it is not fit for purpose and then exploited it. Failing to turn the tide now will be a green light for other employers to behave in exactly the same way.

P&O Ferries did not act in a vacuum. Its decision came after immoral fire and rehire tactics were used persistently throughout the pandemic. British Airways and other such companies were called “a national disgrace” by the Transport Committee for their actions, which put thousands of jobs at risk and led to my inbox being flooded by messages from concerned Slough constituents who work at Heathrow airport. Employees who had worked for BA for decades were threatened with being cast off at the beginning of a global pandemic, which is unforgivable. It was only due to the excellent work of unions on behalf of the workers involved that deals were reached and jobs were saved, but it should not have had to come to that.

British Gas, which is owned by Centrica, threatened the livelihoods of 5,000 employees, using the threat of coronavirus as a smokescreen to act unethically against many of my Slough constituents, and I know that many other right hon. and hon. Members’ constituents were also affected. Before an agreement was reached that brought the dispute to an end, there were 44 days of strike action and 500 workers were dismissed. Again, without the unions thousands more workers would have been left without a job and without representation.

The hon. Gentleman and I walked to this debate together from the main Chamber, where there is severe trade union bashing going on from the Government side. Is that not the reality of the current Government, namely that they are too busy bashing trade unions, not working with them?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. That issue is exactly what we discussed as we made our way from the main Chamber into Westminster Hall. The Government are trying to pick a fight with unions rather than dealing with issues or coming to the negotiating table. For example, the hugely disruptive rail strikes, which will have an enormous impact on many of us, could have been resolved by now if Rail Ministers actually done the job that they were supposed to do.

As I was saying, quite frankly the Prime Minister has job security that employees can only dream of. Put simply, fire and rehire is not a negotiating tactic but a direct threat to workers, it has no place in our modern Great Britain, and the Government should be ashamed that fire and rehire has been allowed to proliferate on their watch.

I hope that the Minister has some good news for the thousands of people who have been affected by this abhorrent tactic, and for the millions more who could be at risk from it. It is disappointing that not a single Conservative colleague—apart from the Minister—has come to speak for their constituents. We should be acting in cross-party solidarity to battle against fire and rehire on our constituents’ behalf, and to press Ministers to finally introduce legislation.

We should have working standards that we are proud of and that celebrate our country’s fantastic workforce, but the Government seem intent on a race to the bottom when it comes to workers’ rights. Warm words will not do it any more; clear-cut legislation will.

Order. As you all know, we will need to get to the Front-Bench speakers a little over half an hour before the end of the debate, at around 3.28 pm, but I will not put a limit on speeches as it does not seem that we need one.

Thank you very much indeed, Ms McVey; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing the debate and on opening it so well.

I have had quite a lot to do with the Minister recently. Although I have specific views on the lack of an employment Bill, I pay tribute to him for the constructive way in which he is working with me and my colleagues to ensure that we get neonatal leave and pay in statute—we have been pushing on that matter for a while. I thank my own trade union, Unite, for its helpful briefing in advance of the debate, and I will come back to a number of points on that.

I will not press this point too much given that you are in the Chair, Ms McVey—I know that you are quite an influential member of the Blue Collar Conservatives—but as the hon. Member for Slough was speaking, I was reflecting on the fact that workers’ rights are something that Blue Collar Conservatives should think about. There is no doubt that the British political landscape has changed significantly on workers’ rights. People on this side of the Chamber, and indeed people in Scotland, may not be happy about it, but there is no doubt that the Conservative-voting demographic has changed significantly, and it would be rather foolhardy of Conservative Members—particularly those who represent red wall seats—to overlook blue collar workers who have sadly been subjected to fire and rehire practices. I would not be so bold as to indicate, for the purposes of Hansard, whether the Chair is nodding.

It was interesting that during the Brexit referendum, people were regularly told that Brexit was about taking back control. I happen to believe that Brexit was a bad idea—I still believe that it was largely about deregulation and a bonfire of workers’ rights—but I reserved a degree of judgment post-2016, and the jury is still out on whether the Government take workers’ rights seriously.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Government have promised time and again that an employment Bill would be introduced. It is quite telling that there is still no employment Bill three years into this Parliament, particularly when the world of work is changing. Ministers have to confront the reality: actions speak louder than words, so if Brexit was about taking back control and improving workers’ rights, an employment Bill should be forthcoming.

In some respects, I actually feel quite sorry for British Airways. It quite rightly got a lot of flak for its deployment of fire and rehire tactics, but it was not the first company to use them. Asda was doing it long ago, and as we have seen with the likes of P&O, people—bosses, frankly—are pursuing something that is completely immoral but not currently illegal. Without an employment Bill that properly enshrines workers’ rights post-Brexit, the likes of P&O, British Airways, Asda and so many other organisations will go down that path.

One reason why I am concerned that an employment Bill has not been introduced is because it is no secret that the current Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) authored—with the right hon. Members for Witham (Priti Patel) and for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) and others—a book called “Britannia Unchained”. In essence, the book is about changing ways of work. Bear in mind that the authors are serving Ministers, one of whom heads up the Department that is responsible for workers’ right. I would not normally promote this book, but let me share a key quote from it:

“The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”

I hope the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has changed his mind since he and his colleagues authored that book. The fact that in 2022, companies such as P&O, British Airways, Asda and many others can still get away with practices such as fire and rehire, suggests that the Government’s doctrine has not changed from “Britannia Unchained”. Many of us, particularly in a Scottish context, think that leaving Conservatives in charge of workers’ rights is akin to leaving a lion in charge of an abattoir.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. Fire and rehire is wrong. I know it, everyone here knows it, workers know it, the Government know it, the Prime Minister knows it, and the Minister knows it, too.

Fire and rehire is unfair. It levels down; it is about deregulation and a continual rolling back of workers’ rights and an attack on trade unions. There is not a constituency in the land in which this pernicious and cruel practice has not happened or is not on the verge of happening, with worse terms and conditions held over workers’ heads as a constant threat, keeping them awake at night.

The vile way in which P&O workers were treated recently, handcuffed by private security and marched from their workplace, left me disgusted and angry. The route we are heading in with this Government and workers’ rights means we need to take this seriously. Whether it be fire and rehire, zero-hours contracts or the constant insecurity of those in the workplace, the Government do not care about the plight of working people. If they did, they would have legislated against this damaging practice already and, at the very least, have produced the long-awaited and 20-times promised employment Bill.

If any of my former Conservative colleagues were here, they could correct me, but I hope they agree that the practice makes no sense from economic stance. If we do not stop this abhorrent practice, rogue bosses at firms affecting my constituents, such as British Gas, British Airways, Go North West buses and Asda, aiming to save a few quid with fire and rehire will leave us all to pay. If people end up on lower wages, they will have to claim more social security, such as universal credit. Instead of companies paying for redundancies, it ends with the taxpayer bailing out the companies.

As much as the Government like to preach about work being the best way out of poverty, that cannot be when the majority of people claiming benefits are in work. There is only one winner with fire and rehire, and it is not the workers or their families. It is greedy bosses who continually ride roughshod over working people.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) for his campaign against this practice with his private Member’s Bill last year, which I supported on many different platforms. That Bill was regrettably not taken up by the Government. On a wider note, I would also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) for the great work he did on the green paper for a new deal for working people, which will go a huge way to forming a transforming Labour Government that will, once and for all, stop fire and rehire.

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), and indeed other Members who have spoken. I feel strongly about this issue, which I have spoken about before. There is nobody in Westminster Hall who does not have deep respect for the Minister, because he always tries to respond to our queries. This issue strikes at the core of employment, so I am keen to hear what he can say to reassure us on some of the things I will speak about.

This is a topical issue that causes many employees across the UK immense stress. There was widespread use of the fire and rehire tactic during the covid pandemic, as there was a need to alter working ways to adapt to the situation. Many employers have used the strategy to their success, but a majority see it as highly ineffective and unfair. In his significant contribution, the hon. Member for Slough mentioned P&O Ferries. When the P&O workers were fired, the agency staff that came in did not address health and safety issues. That is not to be disrespectful to the agency staff, but there are certain standards that must be met, and they were not met. The hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) is absolutely right that it was despicable to come on to the ferry in Larne and lead people off, some of them in handcuffs. That really angered me. I could not believe that any company anywhere could resort to such tactics.

It got worse. Even after some staff were trained in health and safety issues, what happened in the Irish sea? The engines of the ferry from Larne to Stranraer went off, and it floated in the middle of one of the busiest sea lanes around Britain for more than two hours until the staff could get the engine restarted. That is another example of the potential safety impact of fire and rehire tactics.

I want to put on the record how strongly I feel for those who lost their jobs. The Minister knows all about this, because I brought it up in a question on the day that it happened, as the news broke that Thursday. He answered my question very helpfully and said that he was trying to address the issue, and I think he has shown a willingness to do so. It is important to note that this process is not unlawful, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said, but it does involve dismissals. Many employers have been taken to court for unfair dismissal, and the technique has the potential to turn extremely nasty. If I was one of those workers, I would be pretty narked, to use an Ulster Scotsism.

A survey of workers by the TUC in November found that, since March 2020, 9% of workers had been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions. Fire and rehire is becoming a common technique for both large and small businesses. The Government have said that it should not be used as a negotiation technique, but that it should not be made illegal. I follow others in asking the Minister whether he would be prepared to consider introducing legislation on fire and rehire, which has been used to the detriment of workers in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We need clarity and we need legislation that brings change.

Back home in Northern Ireland, this technique has been used by employers amidst the pandemic. Almost one in five 18 to 24-year olds—20% of that workforce—have said that their employer tried to rehire them on inferior terms during the pandemic. Black and ethnic minority workers are almost twice as likely as white workers to face fire and rehire policies. If such policies are detrimental to somebody because of their skin, their religion or whatever it may be, that is wrong, and I underline my request for the Government to introduce legislation to enforce that. As the unions have stated, one in four workers—25%—said that they had experienced a downgrading of employment terms and conditions as a result of fire and rehire.

We have seen the fire and rehire technique causing major problems, for instance in British Gas. Around 7,000 British Gas engineers staged 44 days of strike action after the company threatened to sack them if they did not sign up to detrimental changes to their terms and conditions. Why would they sign up to that? I do not understand how a company can just say to people, “Tell you what, we are just going to change all your terms and conditions, and you need to sign this or you are away.” Perhaps I am old-fashioned and see right and wrong in very simplistic terms, but I see that as wrong. We need to protect the workers. I am not putting the Minister on the spot—forgive me for being fairly direct about this—but we need legislation that does so.

I thank the hon. Gentleman—indeed, my hon. Friend in this instance—for giving way. Part of the problem is that at the moment the Government insist on stronger regulation and guidance, but that is clearly not the solution. That did not and would not help the workers at P&O, whose chief executive admitted that he knew he was breaking the law and said he would do so again. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that guidance is not the solution; it has to be legislation?

I thank my colleague the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree with that, sincerely in my heart. As I said earlier, the Government have said that fire and rehire should not be used as a negotiation technique, but that it should also not be make illegal. Well, that is a legislative change that the hon. Member for Bury South wants to see, as well as everyone who has spoken and everyone who will speak afterwards. I want to see that legislative change in place as soon possible.

It is essential that an environment is created whereby people enjoy their work. I am very privileged to do a job that I always wished to do, but never for one second did I think that I, a wee boy from Ballywalter, would actually be here, so I am fortunate. People need to enjoy their work if they are to work hard and make a contribution to how their firm progresses. If staff are unsettled and unhappy in their work, for whatever reason, there is an onus on the employer to work harder to make them happy.

Moreover, employers rely on workers to fulfil goals and create successes, hence the need to prioritise their needs and not be dictated to. If someone wants their firm to be successful and do well, they need a happy workforce, and vice versa. I have six girls who work with me in my two offices, and I can say in all honestly that they seem fairly happy, so maybe this employer is treating them the right way. I understand how important it is to motivate staff and keep them happy.

Although there are things that the hon. Gentleman and I disagree on politically, I had the great pleasure of visiting him in his constituency and meeting the staff in his constituency office. Would he reflect—as I hope will the Minister—that many of the staff who work for us would be appalled and would not stand for it if we turned around to them and said, “Do you know what? We are going to fire you from your job, but then you can come back and work for less pay, less holiday time and more uncertain hours”? Does he think that parliamentary staff, including the staff of the Minister and the Secretary of State, would sign up for that?

The answer, as we all know, is that they would not. This House protects the workers here by setting bands of pay, giving them the right conditions for their holidays and if they are sick. It does it here, so I think it should do the same for other workers, which is what I would like to see.

Employers must follow a set minimum dismissal procedure and a collective redundancy process is involved. The depth of this issue has to be met with scrutiny and we must hold business owners to the highest level of account to ensure that our workers are protected.

There definitely needs to be greater communication within Government. I say that with great respect, because the Minister knows that I hold him in the highest respect because of the way he does his job. When we ask him questions, he comes back with the answers—he really tries when giving us answers. I say that for no other reason than that it is the truth; I mean it and I want to put it on the record. There also needs to be greater communication in the devolved Administrations, where legislation may be the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.

We need to take action and protect our workers. Hire and refire is an unfair and unjust practice, and the Minister and the Government must take responsibility for the one in four workers who have experienced a downgrade in employment terms, whether financially or with other conditions, such as for sick pay. In this day and age, that is disgraceful. The aim is to tackle exploitative employment practices, increase clarity in the law and make employees aware of their rights.

This debate makes employees aware of their rights, but we need legislative change to protect them. I gently but firmly ask, on behalf of my constituents and all of those across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that the Government provide clarity on their stance on fire and rehire tactics. I want to see legislative protection, because the ultimate goal is to protect the workers.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey, not least as a fellow north-west MP, and alongside so many north-west MPs here today—as a region we certainly punch above our weight, and I am glad that we are leading the call on fairness, dignity and decency at work.

How many more debates must we have before the Government finally ban fire and rehire. Labour colleagues have tried every possible avenue to get protections for workers whose bosses threaten worse conditions or the sack. We have had countless urgent questions, Opposition day debates, private Members’ Bills and early-day motions —all of those have been scorned by the Government. I nearly said “rogue bosses” earlier, but the point is that, on a technical level, such employers are not rogue; they are complying with the law, which does not prevent this Dickensian practice. That is despite the public being overwhelmingly against it, and despite the misery it has caused to our constituents who work for British Gas, British Airways, the University of Liverpool, Go North West and Tesco. Despite the Prime Minister himself stating that it is unacceptable, still the Government refuse to act.

Voluntarism does not work as an approach—we cannot just hope that employers do the right thing; we need legislation. As with so many issues, the Prime Minister speaks out of both sides of his mouth here. While calling it unacceptable, he and his Ministers also state that fire and rehire is a necessary tool for employers. Unfortunately, that is revealing of their entire mindset towards employment rights and industrial relations. Everything must be based on the stick—on threats—rather than trusting workers and trade unions to be mature negotiators. As a former officer for the trade union GMB, and in my early career at the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, I successfully fought against such practices for almost a decade before becoming an MP. Seeing how widespread they now are, and how employers treat the Government’s inaction as a tacit endorsement of those kinds of practices, is utterly appalling to me.

With examples of fire and rehire spiralling during and since the pandemic, British workers deserve better. As the cost of living crisis turns the screw on household incomes month by month, Ministers must be aware that even those in work are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Incomes are already way behind prices. Maintaining the ability of employers to fire and rehire gives them the wink from Government that it is an acceptable tool, and one that will continue to grow unless stopped.

Fire and rehire makes employment rights and contractual terms and conditions basically worthless. Long service usually entails some sort of reward and recognition for that service. However, I remember being on the picket line at British Gas during the most recent dispute over the practices, and hearing from someone who had spent 30 years working for the company only for it to seek to tear up everything that he had earned in that three decades of loyalty and put him on worse terms and conditions. That is a slap in the face for the loyalty he had shown that company.

The skills, experience, insight and knowledge of the people who have worked for companies for years risk being lost in order to save a few quid for the employers. That is totally inhumane and does not make any business sense. It raises an important question about the productivity gap in the UK if we are willing to let experienced, capable and skilled workers be fired by their employers for not taking either a pay cut or a cut to the terms and conditions that they have built up over time. Ultimately, if those sorts of practices become even more widespread, what is next? Where does the race to the bottom in our labour market end?

Fire and rehire flies in the face of the Government’s stated aspiration of levelling up. It is yet another opportunity for the Government to change course and offer some security to workers buffeted by soaring costs. It is about the kind of country and society that we want to live in. Ministers boast about employment levels, but this is an opportunity to ensure that work is worth it, that employees have rights at work, and that it pays to be in work. Let us have a commitment today to ban fire and rehire, and let us also have a date for the employment Bill—before we do not have any employment rights in this country that are worth the paper they are written on.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing this important debate.

I should begin by declaring an interest: I am proud to call myself a lifelong trade unionist, having served both as a shopfloor convenor and, more recently, as the north-west regional secretary of Unite the union. However, in all my decades in the trade union movement, I do not think I have ever seen workers so much at the mercy of unscrupulous and uncaring bosses as they are today. I say to colleagues in this room that when we at last sweep away this tired and ailing excuse for a Government, one of our first priorities must be not only to outlaw fire and rehire, or even to establish new workers’ rights, although those are both vital; we must also unshackle the unions from decades of onerous anti-trade-union legislation, which bears so much responsibility for the parlous state of affairs we face today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough has set out the case against fire and rehire with characteristic eloquence, and it does not need repeating. After all, this is hardly a complex matter. Fire and rehire is wrong. It has used the spectre of the dole queue to condemn workers into accepting the most heinous attacks on their pay and working conditions. It is a form of industrial blackmail that has been happening on a massive scale throughout the pandemic, and it must be stopped. My constituents know it, especially the 130 workers at the local Wabtec site who were threatened with fire and rehire only in February. The wider public know it, with 70% of them, including 69% of Tory voters, wanting to see it made illegal. Even the Prime Minister knows it, as he said so many times from the Dispatch Box.

When the Minister rises to make his contribution, much of what we will hear will be familiar: “Fire and rehire is wrong; this Government back good employers; and every worker deserves security and dignity in the workplace.” The question now is: what is he going to do about it? Empty platitudes will not comfort the single parent who has just been told to accept a pay cut or face the sack, and nor will they clothe or feed a child in the north end of my constituency who is being forced to bear the brunt of this Tory cost of living crisis.

I warn the Minister that the act is wearing thin. The British public can see clearly now that, for all their mealy-mouthed excuses and empty pledges about introducing a statutory code of conduct, this Government have no interest whatsoever in standing up for British workers. In fact, at every stage they have given bad bosses the green light to treat their workers exactly how they please. When my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) came forward with a credible plan to tackle the scourge of fire and rehire, the Government Whips spun into action to ensure that his efforts were thwarted.

My message to the Minister is this: prove me wrong. Stand up today and show us that there is more to this Government than warm words and empty rhetoric. Show us that this Government are capable of mustering a shred of empathy for the millions of workers whose working lives were totally upended during the lockdowns. Prove to us that you care. Unless the Minister has come here armed with a plan to put an end to fire and rehire once and for all, my advice would be that it is better to stay silent than to confirm all our suspicions. The time for talk is over—what British workers deserve now is action.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on his excellent exposé and on all the work that he has done on this extremely serious topic, which affects the whole of society.

Security at work is absolutely fundamental to workforce productivity, but it is also fundamental to stable communities. It enables people to plan ahead and work out what they can afford, and it offers the necessary security to take on the tenancy of a home, or to take out a loan to buy a car that they might need to get to work. It is absolutely vital for people’s mental health, because wondering every single second whether they will have a job next week does nothing at all to ease stress or help someone’s mental health. There are enough difficulties in life, particularly at the moment, without having to worry constantly about work insecurity.

The growth of fire and rehire is absolutely terrifying, especially when we see what were considered to be respectable and “safe” companies, such as British Airways and British Gas, go down the route of using such tactics. People now rightly feel that no job is safe anymore. Of course, there have always been exceptional circumstances in which, sadly, jobs were lost, but that is very different from the current situation in which companies are seemingly using fire and rehire tactics with very little pretext other than as a cost-cutting exercise, with employees suddenly faced with having to accept much worse pay and conditions with very little warning. Having pay and conditions cut is bad enough, but it can also affect someone’s security of tenure. A permanent contract can be replaced with a short-term contract, with no guarantee that the fire and rehire process will not be repeated a year or two later. Sadly, this situation is not confined to the private sector; it is now affecting workers in many parts of the public sector.

I remind Members of the effect of the casualisation of the workplace. A young man in my constituency worked from the age of 18 in factory after factory, job after job. He did not have a permanent job before he was 25. He was a good worker, but he could only get agency work—last in, first out. Companies and employers are getting a higher and higher percentage of their workforce as agency workers. The workers are paid less, but it costs the companies more because the agency takes a considerable cut.

That has an impact on a young person who is setting out in life. I am sure most of us in this room were able, when we first started working, to go into a job with a stable environment in which we hoped to stay for a number of years. That young man eventually set up as a landscape gardener on his own because it had become intolerable to be pushed from pillar to post. This is in an area where there are many manufacturing opportunities, but the culture has become increasingly difficult.

Is that not precisely the problem? Because an employee has such poor rights, they might become self-employed, where they will probably not have the security of a pension, sick pay and holiday pay, and they will be pushed further into insecurity. We therefore need an employment Bill, and we need to ban fire and rehire. We all know that the world of work is changing, so there needs to be a comprehensive package from the Government that includes banning fire and rehire. We need legislation that reflects what is happening in 2022, because time has moved on.

Absolutely. As the hon. Member says, there are so many other costs—massive costs to society, the economy and the public purse—wrapped up in the culture of fire and rehire.

This causes constant worry, mental health concerns and disruption. It is okay when someone starts out as a single individual, but it becomes more complicated if they have a partner or children. It is complicated by how far they can travel to work and where the agency sends them. Deciding whether they can accept the gaps between work becomes even more of a nightmare, and of course they have responsibilities. It must be depressing for them to look at someone up the road who they thought had a very good job with British Airways, only to see that he, too, has been subject to fire and rehire and is being asked to sign a new contract. They may have thought that one day they would have a permanent job and security, and now they see older workers having to sign on the dotted line to take worse pay and conditions. That is nothing to look forward to, and it does nothing for the cohesion of society.

As the TUC has documented, 3 million workers in this country have been told to reapply for their jobs. We already have 3 million workers on zero-hours contracts or casual contracts and 5 million self-employed, some of whom are pseudo self-employed. As we know, that is a way for employers to get out of paying the full costs of employing them.

Not only is allowing employers to use fire and rehire bad for the workers, but it undermines good companies that want to play fair by their employees. The willy-nilly use of fire and rehire by unscrupulous employers to cut costs can catch decent employers unawares, undermine them and risk putting them out of work. That can spiral out of control and become a real race to the bottom—who can pay less and therefore cut costs and make more profit with less pay to the workers? This race to the bottom with lower wages leads to much greater reliance on benefits, at huge cost to the public purse.

We are also clocking up a pensions time bomb. The Minister may say that we have auto-enrolment, but there are thresholds for that and part-time workers, in particular, are likely to miss out. When we—the generation coming through now—get to pension age, what will we find? We will find that a far higher percentage have to rely on some form of state help because they have not been able to put money by. Why is that? Because it has gone into the pockets of companies that have not been playing fair.

I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on the private Member’s Bill brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and his careful explanation of how it would work. Of course, we must not accept covid as an excuse—and it is nothing but an excuse. We all know that this is about increasing profit. There is also no truth in the statement “We cannot afford the current contracts.” We have labour shortages at the moment, so we have to afford it.

It is not just about fire and rehire, although that is the subject of today’s debate and is very important. We want much greater security from day one at work. I will not set out all of Labour’s manifesto commitments on this, but it is fundamental to our belief in a secure, cohesive and stable society that we should have security at work from day one.

The only solution to fire and rehire is an outright ban. That is not revolutionary; it is simply about respecting existing contracts and sticking to the law. A ban would be good for workers, productivity, community cohesion and the public purse. I therefore implore the Minister to take the issue seriously and introduce the necessary legislation without further delay.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey. While I will not be as impertinent as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), it is rather disappointing that we have not heard from one Government Back Bencher in this debate. I would have thought that this issue affected workers right across these islands—across every nation and region of the UK—so I would have expected at least one of them to contribute. It is disappointing that that has not happened.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on giving an excellent speech to open the debate. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and particularly to my role as chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group and my membership of the Glasgow City branch of Unison—one of the largest branches in the UK. I look forward to going to the Unison conference tomorrow and seeing my fellow Glaswegian delegates.

It is clear that this practice has been growing for decades. Under Labour control, Glasgow City Council was using the practice of fire and rehire in 1990s. I say that not to make a cheap political point, but to show that the practice has, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) says, been growing for too long. My real fear is that the threat of fire and rehire—dismissal and re-engagement, to use its legal term—is used as a negotiating tactic before negotiations even begin. Some employers hold that over trade union and employee representatives’ heads, saying “This is what we can do”, before negotiations even start. That leads to cuts in terms and conditions and, indeed, dismissal and re-engagement, which has been going on for far too long.

Other hon. Members have referred to the disgusting Zoom meeting where P&O Ferries workers were fired—by a particular person, who, as I understand it, is a former employee of Royal Mail, and who did exactly the same thing to Royal Mail staff, threatening them. He is not a friend of the worker by any means. Firing staff by Zoom was one of the most disgusting things that I have ever seen. Frankly, the Government should have put forward an emergency Bill to deal with fire and rehire at that time, or they should have put it in the employment Bill. I remind Members that that Bill was in the Conservative party manifestos for 2015, 2017 and 2019. We are still waiting for it seven years after it was first promised.

The Minister said in Hansard on 25 January—not a date that Scots can forget because it is, of course, Burns day—that there would be an employment Bill “in the Queen’s Speech”. There was no employment Bill in the Queen’s Speech, as other hon. Members have mentioned. That is important for a number of reasons, as we are now seeing, because the casualisation of fire and rehire interferes with people’s worker status and cuts terms and conditions. Those of us on the Work and Pensions Committee know that; for the past three weeks, we have been discussing the impact that fire and rehire—and the lack of an employment Bill—has on occupational pensions, because it affects auto-enrolment. The consequences are devastating for wages and pensions, including occupational pensions, which are deferred wages.

I once again outline the SNP’s complete opposition to the appalling practice of fire and rehire. I note that most EU countries have some form of block on fire and rehire, and it is illegal in some countries. Once again, we find the United Kingdom lagging behind Europe when it comes to worker protections. I am concerned that that signals a race to the bottom on standards, as the UK risks falling behind the European Union on basic workers’ rights.

In the cost of living crisis, job security is perhaps more important than it ever will be. Firing workers in this way is wrong in any circumstance, let alone doing so during a cost of living crisis and an economic crisis. I question the Government’s conscience and thinking in not tackling this issue by legislative means. Reform is long awaited and will be crucial. As many hon. Members have touched on, the impact of fire and rehire on black and minority ethnic workers and women is considerable. I recommend that the Minister reads the TUC report of January 2021 in relation to in-work poverty and adequate living standards for many workers. We have had debates on in-work poverty fairly recently, and I am sure that we will have more, but I am concerned that fire and rehire continues to lead to in-work poverty for many workers across these islands.

I commend the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who has just concluded his remarks in the Chamber and is not in this debate. He was, of course, the first person to put forward legislation to end the practice of fire and rehire. He has Glasgow airport in his constituency, so he has had the British Airways issues, Rolls-Royce in Hillington and at least one other employer that engaged in fire and rehire. The pressures on workers in his constituency were quite considerable, and his Bill certainly has my support and that of my colleagues and many Members across the House. He will probably be tabling that Bill again tomorrow, and I encourage all Members of the House to support it. He has the support of more than 100 MPs who signed an early-day motion urging them to back that legislation.

My SNP colleagues and I have campaigned tirelessly to update current employment laws. Tomorrow, I will be tabling a Bill on this very issue—the workers (rights and definition) Bill—and I will of course be attaching fire and rehire to that. The Minister is listening to me intently, as he always does. I know that on 29 March, he announced the introduction of a new statutory code on the practice of fire and rehire. However, he will be aware that the Trades Union Congress has said that his plans “lack bite” and

“won’t deter rogue employers like P&O from trampling over workers’ rights.”

I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to respond to me about those remarks from the TUC, because although he is introducing the statutory code, it is certainly the view of everyone who has spoken in this debate that there should be firm legislation to ensure that the practice of fire and rehire is made illegal and ends.

Although employment law is reserved to this place, the SNP Scottish Government, with their Fair Work approach, are committed to doing everything in their power to protect employees from exploitative practices in Scotland throughout the cost of living crisis and beyond. There must be meaningful dialogue between employers and employees and their trade unions. I say that here because I suspect that we will not hear very much about it in the other debate that is going on right now. It certainly was not mentioned when my hon. Friend the Member for Slough and I were in the Chamber. I look forward to the Minister telling us that there will be legislation, and giving us a date for an employment Bill to tackle not just fire and rehire but the many other exploitative practices across these islands. As other Members have outlined, an employment Bill to protect workers’ rights is needed now more than it has ever been.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Ms McVey. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing today’s debate and giving us an opportunity once again to highlight why the abuse of fire and rehire really needs a legislative response from this Government—not warm words and future promises but real, concrete action to tackle this national disgrace.

My hon. Friend made a number of very important points and he was right: this Government seem to have shown more interest in saving the Prime Minister’s job than in saving those of their own constituents. As has been mentioned, the fact that there is not one Tory Back Bencher here today shows people everything they need to know about where employment rights sit in this Government’s list of priorities. My hon. Friend was exactly right when he said that the Government’s pledged action will still mean that workers can be dismissed for failing to agree to worse terms and conditions. That is really the nub of it—that is what we need to put an end to.

All the Back Benchers who spoke today put the case very well, but I want to draw attention to some of the contributions—in particular, that from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford). He was right when he said that everyone, even the Prime Minister, knows that fire and rehire is wrong. My hon. Friend said that it was levelling down; I agree. He was also right when he said that it does not make sense economically, either. I am pleased that he spoke about our party’s green paper on employment rights, because that fantastic document will transform the lives of working people. It contrasts sharply with the lack of ambition that we have seen time and again from this Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) said that this tactic causes misery for many people and the majority of our constituents want to see an end to fire and rehire, so the Government would be doing something that was popular with the public if they listened to what we are saying. My hon. Friend rightly said that it is not enough to expect employers to do the right thing, because they do not all play by the rules. I pay tribute to her work as a trade union officer fighting against this practice. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in that regard. We should think for a minute how much worse the situation would be if we did not have trade unions willing to defend workers’ rights. Sadly, all we hear from this Government are negative stories about trade unions and how they want to reduce their power, rather than any support for their defence of working people. I agree with my hon. Friend that tackling this practice is about what kind of country and society we want to see.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) spoke of his decades of industrial experience as a trade unionist. I thank him on behalf of my constituents, whom he has represented on many occasions, for the work that he has done to support them. He has shown time and again how a good trade union can really make a difference and work constructively with employers, to the benefit of everyone. I commend him for the direct challenge that he made to the Minister about where we are going to end up. I suspect that my hon. Friend will be disappointed, but we all live in hope.

My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) made some excellent points about some of the wider issues in the workplace, and said that the fundamentals were about job security and people making financial commitments. We do not talk enough about the impact on people’s mental health of the uncertainty hanging over them. She was right that fire and rehire is often used as a pretext for cost cutting. If employers get away with it, they will try it again. She rightly highlighted the expansion of insecure work. Many young people, like the constituents she referred to, do not have any experience of a secure job.

As we have heard, fire and rehire is not a new development. It has been around for as long as people have had jobs. Just because something has happened for a long time does not make it right or acceptable. Even the Prime Minister seems to agree with that, although, as we have heard today, there is little evidence of him wanting to do anything.

Why, if this power has always been there, is it coming to the public’s attention much more now? Sadly, in the last few years we have seen a proliferation of companies, including many household names, adopting fire and rehire tactics as a first port of call rather than the last. British Airways, Sainsbury’s and Weetabix are just three household names that have used the tactics, and there are many more less public-facing companies that are doing exactly the same. Wabtec and Valeo in Yorkshire are two more recent examples.

Of course, P&O is the most high profile and possibly the most egregious example of how the scales of justice are tilted too heavily against the ordinary men and women in this country who just want to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. They do not want to have the arrangement just for a while, until their employer decides it wants to move the goalposts and takes away their existing terms and conditions, presenting it as a fait accompli.

The reason we need action along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) in his private Member’s Bill, which the Government blocked, is that such cases have highlighted how employers price in the cost of riding roughshod over existing laws and conclude that it is a price that they are prepared to pay. They see their legal and moral obligations in the same light as they do the people who work for them—numbers to be counted, risks to be assessed and, in essence, just a barrier to making more money.

The Transport Committee said about British Airways that its use of fire and rehire was “calculated”. For too many employers, that is the case. Consultations are simply tick-box exercises, not that P&O even pretended one was necessary. Could the Minister update us on the progress in the P&O criminal investigation promised by the Prime Minister, or will that, like so many other Government promises, never come to fruition?

The genesis of fire and rehire is in the current workplace settlement, which places too much power in the hands of the employer and too little in the hands of the employees. This imbalance does not just manifest itself in this situation, but in a whole range of issues in the employment relationship. We could look at zero-hours contracts and the gig economy, or agency workers, as we have heard. Insecurity is baked into so many workplaces. It is little wonder that many people feel a sense of helplessness.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he is outlining so many of the issues that we see in terms of workplace insecurity. It is quite clear, given the lack of an employment Bill, that this is not an area that the Government are interested in. Does he, as the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, agree with the Scottish TUC that it is important that we devolve employment law to the Scottish Parliament if Westminster will not act?

Tempted as I am to get into the niceties of devolved powers, what I will say instead is that the people of this entire country need a strong Labour Government that will bring back employment rights for everyone.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the scrapping of the employment Bill, which has been promised by the Government on no fewer than 20 occasions, is symptomatic of a Government that do not see this issue as a priority. Does the Minister accept that a code of practice, even a statutory one, will not be of any use if it comes after the event? Does he accept that it would simply be another factor for employers to bake into their calculations? And does he agree that it will not stop fire and rehire happening again in the future?

I ask all those who oppose the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North, which was unfortunately blocked, to put themselves in the shoes of one of their constituents. That constituent might have worked for the same company for 10, 20 or even 30 years, giving loyal service and going the extra mile, and only asking in return for stable terms and conditions that remain constant throughout. But then, out of the blue, even though their job has not changed and they have performed their duties well for their employer, who is still turning a healthy profit, they are told that their contract is ending and that, if they want to remain employed by the company, they will have to work the same number of hours, doing exactly the same job, for 20% less pay than they receive now—and if they refuse, they are out of the door without even a redundancy payment. Is that not an injustice? Is that not an affront to the respect that someone who has served their employer for so long deserves? Is that not something that we in this place ought to be looking to end?

We often talk about the cost of living crisis and how wages have not kept pace with inflation for well over a decade now. The obscenity of fire and rehire makes that difficult situation even worse. We know that if someone is fired and rehired and gets a 20% reduction in their pay, they will not be able to get a 20% reduction in their mortgage or their rent, or in their other household bills. What does the Minister say to people who find themselves in that situation? What should they do?

The destructive combination of weak employment laws, opportunistic employers and an indifferent Government is currently allowing hard-won benefits to be stripped away, with a descent into weakening terms and conditions. It is a race to the bottom, which I am afraid has been accelerated by coronavirus. It is time that race came to an end. The Government say that they are on the side of ordinary working people and that they want to level up the country, but how can they do that if time and again we are shown that an employment contract is not worth the paper it is written on?

I wonder sometimes about the level of understanding in the Government about how modern workplaces operate. Some recent examples of their ignorance include starting a petition asking the Leader of the Opposition to call off industrial action commenced by an independent trade union; leaving notes on civil servants’ desks asking when they will come back in—Cabinet Ministers think that if someone if working from home, they are not really working—and, of course, the obscenity of security staff and cleaners in Downing Street being abused for pointing out that lawbreaking was going on. When it comes to employment rights, this Government are as clueless as they are vindictive.

We do not have to accept that this is the norm. We can return stability and respect to the workplace, we can reward loyalty, and we can end the cruel lottery of fire and rehire. We just need a Government committed to doing those things. But let us not stop at ending fire and rehire. I want to see this country becoming a leader in employment protections, not lagging behind the likes of Kosovo, Estonia and Mexico. Let us end the obscenity of British workers being easier and cheaper to get rid of than workers in just about all the rest of western Europe. Let us end the disgrace of this country always being at the head of the queue when a multinational is looking to make redundancies.

Let us end the mindset that as long as someone has a job, that is job done. It is not—security, prosperity and stability are all under threat from this lopsided legal framework. It is in all our interests that we have strong workforce protections. We grow as an economy and a country when we have secure employment. It is one of the cornerstones of a civilised society, and if this Government do not want to legislate to make that happen, then they should step aside for a Government who do want to.

Before I call the Minister, I remind him that the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) will need a couple of minutes to wind up at the end.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey.

First of all, I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this debate on the use of fire and rehire tactics. It is an important issue, and we have heard today how worrying and unsettling it is for people when their employer wants to change their contract or puts them at risk of redundancy, especially when workers are already worrying about how they will pay their bills.

I speak to businesses every day and know that most employers try to do the right thing by their staff, and that decisions to change terms and conditions are not taken lightly. Let me be clear, as I have said many times, that we expect companies to treat their employees fairly and to do right by them. There are legal obligations and procedures that employers must abide by. We expect employers to act with fairness and compassion and to comply with the rules.

The Government have always been clear that the threat of dismissal and re-engagement on reduced terms—so-called fire and rehire—should not be used as a negotiation tactic. We expect employers to engage properly and meaningfully with their workforce and representatives, and to consider alternative options. Dismissal and re-engagement should be considered only as an option of absolute last resort, if agreement cannot be reached.

The UK has a strong labour market and its success is underpinned by balancing flexibility and workers’ protections. It is vital that we continue to strike that balance, while clamping down on the poor practices of some unscrupulous employers, some of which we heard about earlier. Our response to fire and rehire has been carefully considered, reflecting the seriousness of the issue and the importance of avoiding inadvertently creating a situation where employers have no choice but to make their staff redundant.

When the pandemic led to cases of firing and rehiring, we asked ACAS to conduct an evidence-gathering exercise to help us better understand the issue, so as to get behind the headlines and work out a quantitative and qualitative understanding. The Government then went further and asked ACAS to produce new guidance, to ensure that employers were clear on their responsibilities. That guidance was published in 2021 and clearly sets out the employer’s responsibilities when considering making changes to employment contracts.

The guidance is clear that fire and rehire should be used only as the option of last resort. I urge all employers to make themselves familiar with that. ACAS stands ready to help mediate disputes, should either party seek its services. ACAS has also published guidance for employers and employees.

The Government are going further still. As has been mentioned, on 29 March, I announced that we would introduce a statutory code of practice on dismissal and re-engagement.

Can I say gently to the Minister that there is some confusion in his position? He says that it is the Government’s view that fire and rehire should not be a negotiating tactic. Surely, the problem is how employers can go into negotiations if they can legally dismiss and re-engage. Is he saying that if an employer, or a representative, in a negotiation says, “We can dismiss and re-engage and we may very well do that,” they are in breach of the code that he has just outlined?

I will come to the statutory code in a second and explain how that works. Even the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), who talked of banning fire and rehire and ran a campaign that involved many Members here, actually explained in the debate in the Chamber that his Bill would not ban fire and rehire. It would limit it but not ban it. Even he understood that, in certain circumstances, there needs to be that flexibility.

The statutory code includes practical steps that employers should follow if they are considering changes to terms and conditions and there is the prospect of dismissal and re-engagement. A court or employment tribunal will take the code into account when considering relevant cases, including those related to unfair dismissal. The tribunals will have the power to apply an uplift of up to 25% of an employee’s compensation if an employer unreasonably fails to comply with the code where it applies.

Most employers do their best to comply with the law, but the code will clarify best practice standards and deter those employers who try to cut corners, pushing the bar even higher for employers who seek to do the wrong thing. We will hold a public consultation soon, to seek views from across employers, individuals, unions and beyond.

I know that the Minister genuinely wishes to see betterment, as we all do. We gave some examples. Three or four Members referred to P&O Ferries. The Minister and the Government condemned the chief executive of P&O Ferries for his tactics, and they were right to do so. British Gas is another example of doing it totally the wrong way and disregarding the workers. I note that 20% of my constituents in Northern Ireland found that fire and rehire tactics were wrong. What will the Minister and the Government do to protect workers where, as the Minister and the Prime Minister have said, companies have done wrong?

I will come to P&O Ferries now before I address the other points that Members have raised. The Government have been clear that the dismissal by P&O Ferries of 800 loyal seafarers without any notification or consultation was absolutely unacceptable. I was sat behind the chief executive—literally, not figuratively—during the Select Committee hearing. Like everyone else, I was appalled when I heard him say that he would do the same thing again. That was absolutely horrific to hear.

I will develop that in a second.

As I was saying, the chief executive of P&O Ferries admitted to breaking employment law. He demonstrated—not only in his actions on that weekend, but in the Select Committee hearing—absolute contempt for workers who had given years of service to his company. That was not just a case of fire and rehire, which is the subject of the debate; in the main, it was just fire, because the vast majority of those workers had no prospect of re- engagement. We have urged P&O to reconsider, but those calls have fallen on deaf ears.

The Minister has probably made this point better than the rest of us: P&O’s acceptance that it was breaking the law very much makes the case for an employment Bill to strengthen workers’ rights. Anecdotally, the number of cases of fire and rehire is on the increase, partly because companies see others getting away with it. Do the Government hold any data on how often fire and rehire is happening, and if so, will they publish it? If they do not have that data, why not?

I will talk a little about that in answering the question from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), about what the Insolvency Service is doing in relation to P&O Ferries.

We engaged ACAS to better understand exactly what fire and rehire actually is. A lot of the reports in various media are not strictly about fire and rehire, because it is never quite as binary as it appears. However, there are some egregious examples, and I think we can all agree that we want to eliminate them, or at least push the bar so high that it is just not viable for employers to take that sort of action. As a result of the inability of P&O Ferries to hear not just what this House was saying but what the country was saying, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport set out the nine steps that we are taking to force it to rethink its decision and to prevent such cases from happening again in the maritime industry.

To come to the shadow Minister’s point, the Insolvency Service is now pursuing its own inquiries. It has commenced formal criminal and civil investigations into the circumstances around the redundancies. Those investigations are ongoing, so I am not in a position to comment any further on them for the time being, but I wish the Insolvency Service every speed in its efforts, as we all want a result that holds P&O Ferries to the highest account.

I thank the Minister for outlining the statutory code and the Government guidance on improving working practices. To improve modern working practices, when will the Government finally legislate on the 51 recommendations that they accepted from the 2017 Taylor review?

I will come to that in a moment.

I mentioned that ACAS has been helping us on both quantitative and qualitative data. We have moved to guidance, and are moving towards a statutory code, and my colleagues can see that action is taking place. Members have asked where my colleagues are. A number of them are in the main Chamber, tackling the issue of the rail strikes; if they go ahead, there is a distinct possibility that they will affect smaller businesses and workers. My colleagues are paying attention to that immediate risk to people up and down the country.

We have discussed fire and rehire on a number of occasions, and will continue to discuss it. As I have said, we want to eliminate the most egregious instances of its use. There has been a lot of conversation about the employment Bill. I must correct the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden): our manifesto commitment was not to bringing forward an employment Bill, but to bringing forward measures that might be put in it. I bore all my officials and civil servants with my talk of the difference between output and outcome. I doubt any worker with a rogue employer is thinking, “I wish there was an employment Bill.” They are probably thinking, “I need carer’s leave,” “I need neonatal leave,” or, “I need flexible working.” Those are the things that affect people up and down the country; it is not that they need a single piece of legislation, tied up with a bow. That would be neat, clearly, but it is the measures to which we are committed, and that we will deliver.

Frankly, I think that implementing the 51 recommendations of the Taylor review does require a Bill. On 25 January, the Minister said that such a Bill would be in the Queen’s Speech. Why was it not?

I will look back at my words, because I am not sure that I have ever pre-empted what Her Majesty was going to say. I will certainly look back at exactly what I said.

The Minister is being very generous in giving way. Let me quote Hansard for his benefit. He said, in a Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies):

“Clearly, the employment Bill, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West knows, is primary legislation. It will be announced, when it comes forward in parliamentary time, in the Queen’s Speech.”—[Official Report, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 25 January 2022; c. 24.]

Why was the Bill not in the Queen’s Speech?

I said, “in parliamentary time.” It will be when parliamentary time allows. We have a manifesto commitment to delivering these measures in this Parliament. The Queen’s Speech relates to this Session, not this Parliament. Clearly, it would be neat to have the measures in a single legislative vehicle, but I think we would all find that workers up and down the country are interested in the net result—what happens to them in their daily life. We are task-focused, rather than process-focused.

There is a bit of a debate now about whether there will be an employment Bill or an improvement to employment rights. The main question is: when will it be delivered?

As I say, our manifesto commitments remain. The hon. Gentleman will see employment measures come forward both in this Session and before the end of the Parliament, because we want to act. We have pledged to do many things, and we absolutely want to stick to those pledges.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East talked about productivity. I will not comment on individual workers, but there is no doubt that companies in the UK are less productive than companies elsewhere in the G7, so we need to work on our productivity as a nation, and as businesses. That involves a whole raft of things, including working practices, the relationship between employers and employees, and infrastructure. If we raised our productivity to German levels, it is estimated that we could add £100 billion to our economy. Those are pretty substantial gains, if we can get there.

I caution the Minister against making too many comparisons with Germany, which has much higher statutory sick pay. If he wants to make international like-for-like comparisons, let us look at the whole package, and the wider picture.

I am going wider than workers’ rights and productivity. That is why we are rolling out the Help to Grow management scheme for smaller businesses, and other things. This is huge. We need better transport connections. That is part of the levelling-up agenda. There are lots of things within that, and I do not underestimate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Our employment landscape is very different from that in Germany. In Germany, they tend to ask permission—it is courts first there, whereas we tend to be tribunal led. There are big differences.

One of the key things I want to raise about productivity relates to what the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) said. She was absolutely right to say that job security leads to a better, more productive, happier and more loyal workforce. That allows workers and employees to plan and it results in better mental wellbeing. That is why, by setting statutory minimums in legislation, guidance and codes, we want employers to go further. Frankly, it makes business sense for employers to go further, rather than follow the egregious example of P&O. What is the point of taking people on and training them, which involves costs, time and resources, only to then cast them aside and have to do the same thing again?

I will give way, but I will then need to make progress so that I allow time for the hon. Member for Slough to respond to the debate.

The Minister says that rational and good businesses would not do this, but the fact of the matter is that hundreds of businesses are being undermined because some businesses are using fire and rehire. It is being used repeatedly and in many different sectors. It is no good saying that it does not make logical sense; we need the legislation to back that up. That is what we want the Minister to bring forward.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about parliamentary staff. Before becoming a Member, I worked in this place for a little while. I was an avuncular figure because I was about 20 years older than everybody else. People would come to my office in tears because former colleagues—they are not in this place any more—did not know how to employ people. The way in which they treated some of their staff was absolutely appalling. I have seen it at first hand.

The hon. Member for Llanelli rightly mentions the behaviour of some employers, and we have heard a number of examples today. Almost a year ago, The Independent reported that one employer was making a third of its workforce redundant and then taking on other people on less secure contracts. The Labour party claimed that by doing so it was putting itself on a firmer and fairer footing ahead of a general election, when it was telling people to use their own laptops, anti-virus software and firewalls, and to work from home. That is what I mean about outcomes and outputs. We can have great words, but if an organisation is not acting on them, that is no good to the employees who trust it. People want something that is flexible and that works to protect jobs but that also gets the best out of workers. It is really important that we work for that.

Let me leave the House in no doubt that this Government will continue to stand behind workers and stamp out unscrupulous practices where they occur. We will provide further updates regarding the consultation on the statutory code in due course, and we will inform the House and keep Members up to date on what we are doing on fire and rehire.

As a proud trade unionist, I am extremely grateful for the role that trade unions play in supporting their members and workers. I am also grateful to hon. Members from across the House—or perhaps I should say from across the Labour party, the SNP and the DUP, because not a single Conservative Member attended to support their constituents—for speaking eloquently about the need to stop this Dickensian practice, and to ensure that workers are not being levelled down.

Many of us are extremely irked by the fact that the Minister gave a lot of warm words but no action. There is no Bill to ban fire and rehire. There has been no mention of adopting into legislation the 51 recommendations that the Government accepted from the 2017 Taylor review of modern working practices. If the Minister is running out of ideas, I gently suggest that he should perhaps copy-paste the Labour party’s proposed Green Paper on employment rights. People will be left in no doubt from today’s debate that the Government are not on the side of workers.

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

Middle East Peace, Security and Development and UNRWA

I will call Sarah Champion to move the motion and I will then call the Minister to respond. There will be no opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered peace, security and development in the Middle East and the role of the UN Relief and Works Agency.

Thank you for chairing this session, Ms McVey; it is always a pleasure to serve under your guidance.

At the end of last year, I met the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Philippe Lazzarini, who was in London for his first official UK visit. UNRWA is the UN agency that helps millions of Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the west bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, providing them with humanitarian and developmental services. I have seen at first hand its work helping Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I am hugely grateful for what it does, and I do not doubt that it is a good example of Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office money being well spent.

My hon. Friend is making an extremely good point. Although I have not had the privilege of meeting the commissioner-general of UNRWA recently, I know that it does hugely important work in helping to reduce poverty and to prevent, as much as it can, hunger and joblessness in the Palestinian territories. Does she agree that UNRWA’s finances should be a continuing source of worry? It often struggles to get the funding it needs, so would it not be good to hear the Minister say that she and the Foreign Secretary will lead an international process to try to ensure that UNRWA has the resources it needs?

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention, which pre-empts what I am about to say. I completely agree that a stable funding base is needed, and let us hope that he has also predicted what the Minister will say, because he is absolutely right: this requires ministerial leadership. I know the Minister well, and I know that if she is able to give that, then she will, so let us keep that hope for the next 20 minutes.

There is no doubt that the plight of Palestinian refugees is both tragic and a recurring obstacle in the search for a two-state solution. Established in 1949, UNRWA has an important role to play in providing much needed education, healthcare and social services for the Palestinian people. Its original mandate—to provide humanitarian and development goals, pending a just and lasting solution—clearly still remains unfulfilled. In order to meet its goals and support two states for two people, which is the UK’s and the international community’s long-standing position, UNRWA must receive the funds it needs.

UNRWA is unique, in that it effectively offers state-like services in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but relies on voluntary contributions, including donations by the UK, to educate hundreds of thousands of children, support the poorest, and take care of the sick and injured. Throughout 2021, despite the challenges presented by covid, UNRWA managed to maintain quality primary healthcare services for 1.9 million Palestinian refugees, which included over 7 million in-person and telemedicine consultations, as well as further care at UNRWA-contracted hospitals. UNRWA provides essential healthcare, particularly for the 87,000 pregnant women relying on antenatal care, which is critical for the safe delivery of newborn babies and the health of their mothers. UNRWA delivers its services at the maximum of its available budget, but because of understaffing, doctors can spend only three minutes with each patient, and after two years of covid, health services are severely strained.

In 2021, UNRWA provided education for over half a million children, nearly 400,000 people benefitted from social safety net assistance, including cash and food, and 8,000 young people accessed technical and vocational education and training. On his visit to the UK, Mr Lazzarini explained to me how he believes his organisation is providing hope in a region beleaguered by conflict. What he told me about the work of UNRWA was sometimes harrowing, but he also shared many inspiring examples, such as Loay Elbasyouni, who attended UNRWA schools and was part of the master team that developed the Mars rover, Perseverance.

Following years of cuts to its funding, the financial crisis faced by UNRWA means not only that it runs the risk of not being able to pay salaries, but that its installations, car fleet and computers are in such a state of disarray that its delivery of services is put at risk and the integrity of its staffing threatened. That is despite reforms promoted by Governments, including the UK Government, in exchange for financial support that has made UNRWA more efficient.

Since 2018, the UK’s support for UNRWA has decreased by nearly 60% from approximately £70.3 million to £28.6 million. In the last year alone, UK-funded support for UNRWA’s core budget has been cut in half, from approximately £42.5 million in 2020 to £20.8 million in 2021, while the UK’s funding for UNRWA’s emergency humanitarian work in Syria was cut from £7 million in 2020 to zero in 2021. The UK has yet to make any contribution to UNRWA for 2022.

The hon. Member is talking about education and bringing hope to the region. She will be aware that in its education work and the schools it runs in the west bank and Gaza, UNRWA uses the official Palestinian Authority curriculum. Does she share my concerns that the European Union review found that textbooks on that curriculum contain a number of examples of extensive antisemitism and incitement to violence? Does she agree that the Government are right to take a position of zero tolerance on antisemitism?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on some of that, and I will go into a little detail. Of course we should have zero tolerance of antisemitism. We should have zero tolerance of any form of hate crime. I have no reason to doubt the criticism contained in the Georg Eckert Institute review of the Palestinian Authority textbooks, and I believe action has been taken as a result of the report.

To quote the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) said in response to a written question last January:

“UNRWA has a robust review system of each host country’s textbooks to ensure education in its schools reflects the values and principles of the UN.”

I am sure that the hon. Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) reads the House of Commons Library’s updates on international news. Today it published that the EU has resumed funding UNRWA in full, based on its research on the textbooks he mentioned. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but the evidence points to that issue having now been resolved. Of course, no agency is perfect, and I will come on to that.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her tenacity and all she does speaking for those who are oppressed and disadvantaged. Does she agree that the role of the UN as an impartial agency is vital and that all steps must be taken to ensure its neutrality from top to toe? Does she agree that its staff should be careful about the expression of their personal opinions, which can be detrimental to those who need help but feel excluded by UN workers because of a perceived bias?

My friend, the hon. Gentleman has wise words. I am proud to be the MP for Rotherham and to be the Chair of the Select Committee on International Development. We have done a lot of inquiries on the subject of UN practice—on sexual exploitation by its staff, on misuse of funds and on racism in the sector. In such a vast organisation, of course there will be some rotten apples, but when those failings are highlighted it is inexcusable that they are not rooted out and safety measures put in so that such issues never happen again. As the hon. Member rightly says, one rotten apple taints the whole barrel. The UN does amazing work, but it is a big organisation and some people feel emboldened to make ridiculous personal comments that damage everybody.

The British Council, which recently signed a co-operation agreement with UNRWA, has granted the British Council’s international school awards to 80 UNRWA schools during the past two years, with many others having gained this recognition previously. The World Bank has confirmed that UNRWA students are on average one year ahead of their peers in public schools in the region. MOPAN—the Multilateral Organisation Performance Assessment Network—of which the UK is a member, recognises that UNRWA is a “competent, resilient and resolute” organisation.

UNRWA was created more than 70 years ago by the United Nations General Assembly. The UK voted in favour of its formation and has since approved the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate every three years. In establishing UNRWA, the UN General Assembly recognised that continued assistance for the relief of the Palestinian refugees was necessary

“to further conditions of peace and stability”.

UNRWA has carried out multitudes of positive work in the middle east in the absence of a political solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It has already educated more than 2 million children, and today creates significant livelihood opportunities through its construction projects throughout the middle east. UNRWA’s provision of human development services and humanitarian relief provides an anchor of stability in a troubled region.

Of the nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees living in the middle east, more than 2.6 million live in poverty. As the number of refugees falling into poverty continues to rise, UNRWA faces increased demands on its services. Refugees are increasingly reliant on UNRWA for the education of their children, their health and their livelihood.

As the hon. Lady highlights, we on the International Development Committee have investigated these issues. She has rightly highlighted key problems in Palestine, but, more generally, some of the cuts to the aid budget, particularly to health and education, were arbitrary and have had a real impact on people’s lives. Can we urge the Minister to look again at some of those decisions?

I fully support my fellow Committee member and thank him for repeatedly raising his concerns about this issue. The forthcoming budget that goes alongside the development strategy is due in the next month, and it very much seems that global health will be the biggest casualty. The concerns that he raises are right. There does not seem to be a joined-up strategy on the impact of the cuts. If the Minister could outline that, it would help us all to understand the Government’s logic.

The impact of UNRWA breaking down because of donors such as the UK continuing to significantly decrease or stop its funding is unimaginable. Have the Government considered the consequences for millions of people in the middle east if the cuts cause significant reductions in UNRWA’s services? UNRWA has the expertise; it has proven effectiveness and can provide its services much cheaper than any other UN agency. Let me be frank: if people are left with no healthcare, no education and no job, what does the Minister think will happen to them?

The world already has a formidable tool to provide support to people in the form of UNRWA. Why would we want to weaken our own investment in it to the point of hundreds of thousands of people feeling they have no future? More needs to be done to work with the organisation. Of course, as we have outlined, UNRWA is not perfect—nothing is—but the Government’s cuts are threatening its capability to deliver support to a vulnerable population in the middle east. We need to maintain trusted relations with the people of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon. Palestinian refugees are a key constituency for peace in the region in terms of their number, socio-political relevance, and the refugees’ personal stake in the search for a lasting solution.

Without UNRWA, we risk destabilising the region further and emboldening those who do not share our belief that the best way to bring peace and stability to the region is through a political resolution to the conflict. The millions of people who access UNRWA’s services would be forced to turn elsewhere to survive. If we are to remain committed to our vision of two states, surely we should provide support to UNRWA, which has proved itself a reliable partner by which the international community can address the refugee constituency. Although it is non-political, UNRWA’s presence and role have been recognised as having significant implications for regional security and stability.

The Prime Minister has consistently highlighted that girls’ education is his top priority for UK aid. UNRWA directly supports that objective by operating one of the largest school systems in the middle east and providing primary education to over a half a million students, 50% of whom are girls. Gender parity in school enrolment was obtained in the early 1960s at UNRWA schools—long before any other country in the region. UNRWA is providing government-like services such as elementary and preparatory education, and, through that commitment to sustainable development goal 4, is playing its role as a major contributor to the 2030 SDG agenda.

It is clear that UNRWA is essential for the stability of that volatile and fragile region, so will the Minister explain the substantial cuts in UK funding to UNRWA, despite Ministers telling the House for years how excellent UNRWA’s services are? Why are the Government slashing funding to this essential and efficient organisation? Will the Government carry out an analysis of the impact of the funding cuts on UNRWA? Is there any plan to reinstate our financial support to previous levels, and what discussions has the Minister had with other potential donors to encourage them to back UNRWA? If the UK cannot or will not sufficiently support UNRWA, we have to ask: do we not have a responsibility towards these people? Is not stability in the middle east what we are aiming for, and why are we not doing all we can to achieve it?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing the debate, and for the work that she does as Chair of her important Committee. I thank her and other hon. Members, who have made insightful contributions. I will try to respond to as many of the points raised as possible.

The UK and the Government are long-standing supporters of UNRWA, and value the vital role it plays as a humanitarian service and a stabilising force in the region. In 2021, we provided the agency with over £27 million of support, including £4.9 million to the flash appeal that it launched following the Gaza conflict in May. Our annual contribution helps UNRWA to provide education to more than 530,000 children every year, and helps 3.5 million Palestinian refugees to access critical health services. Our support to the flash appeal for Gaza helped to promote life-saving aid in the aftermath of the conflict. We recognise that UNRWA needs to be on a more secure financial footing to ensure that Palestinian refugees’ basic needs continue to be met, and that it can play a full role in supporting regional stability. We are working with UNRWA, other donors and host countries to help ensure its sustainability in the years to come.

The hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) asked whether there would be a pledging conference. The UK will be supporting and attending the pledging conference in New York on 23 June, which is a week tomorrow. I cannot say any more in advance of that, but I know that hon. Members will all be pleased to hear that we will be there, and we are encouraging other donors to step up.

I will take questions at the end, because there is quite a lot that I would like to say. If I have time, I will take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention later.

UNRWA’s essential work is focused not only on the Occupied Palestinian Territories; it also supports vulnerable Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and across the region with essential services, including basic education and healthcare. Some £7 million of our UNRWA contribution in the 2020-21 financial year went to UNRWA’s regional emergency appeal in Syria and Jordan, which has helped to provide humanitarian assistance to more than 450,000 vulnerable Palestinian refugees in those countries. The final status of Palestinian refugees must be agreed as part of wider peace negotiations. Until that time, I confirm that the UK remains firmly committed to supporting Palestinian refugees through UNRWA, and the other valuable work that UNRWA does in the region.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) asked how aid is being allocated post the decision to reduce official development assistance from 0.7% to 0.5%. It was a challenging decision to make, but we must recall the massive impact the global pandemic has had on the UK’s own finances. It is a temporary decision, and the Chancellor has set out the methodology by which we would return to 0.7%. I suggest my hon. Friend looks at the international development strategy that we published a few weeks ago, which brings together our key global priorities for the allocation of ODA, in particular bringing back humanitarian aid and girls’ education—both of which, as the hon. Member for Rotherham pointed out, are key for UNRWA.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) for provoking the Minister to giving way to me. It is good to hear that a pledging conference is taking place and that Britain continues to work with other nations to help secure longer-term funding for UNRWA. Can the Minister say specifically whether there will be ministerial representation from the UK at that pledging conference, as that might give our nations some confidence to pledge significant sums of money, given Britain’s record of support to UNRWA?

I cannot confirm that at this stage, but I can confirm that my right hon. Friend, the Minister for Asia and the Middle East, who covers this territory, is very focused on the issue.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I think we all accept the challenges the pandemic has caused for finances in this country and more generally. The Committee recently heard from the Foreign Secretary and some of the permanent secretaries, who were unable to provide details on reductions to in-year funding. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that education and healthcare funding will be prioritised.

As I said, the international development strategy talks clearly about our key priorities. One priority is women and girls, within which is girls’ education, which is key to driving development and change. There is also access to women’s healthcare, which is a key part of the women and girls strategy. I spend a lot of my time travelling around different countries and looking at some of the amazing work we have done to support access to women’s healthcare and humanitarian aid.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire. Alongside our support of UNRWA and our bilateral programmes, the UK provided £2 million to UNICEF in 2021 to help feed and clothe vulnerable people and ensure that children can continue their education, keeping the hope of a better life alive.

We continue to stress to the Israeli authorities that restrictions on movement, access and trade for the people of Gaza are damaging the lives of ordinary Palestinians. As I will say again and again, we urge all parties to drive for a durable solution for Gaza and take the necessary practical steps to ensure Gaza’s reconstruction and economic recovery. We welcome the continued engagement between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority on economic matters, but urge more rapid progress.

Improving the economic situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remains a priority for the UK, so in addition to our support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UK Government have funded a number of development programmes in the occupied territories that work to preserve the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution, as the hon. Member for Rotherham pointed out, and to improve the lives of Palestinians throughout the west bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. A key part of this work is building the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to provide essential services, and the basis for a future Palestinian state.

We continue to work with the Palestinian Authority to reform its security sector, and strengthen its financial management, including revenue collection and enhancing transparency and accountability. Through our programmes, we are improving electricity and water infrastructure across the west bank and Gaza, and helping to improve conditions for trade and exports; there is a wide variety of issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) mentioned the issue of educational textbooks. We urge the Palestinian Authority to remove problematic content from its textbooks. We have robust conversations with the highest levels of the Palestinian leadership, challenging them on the need to prepare their population for peace, including by promoting a positive portrayal of others. We have zero tolerance for all forms of incitement to violence or antisemitism. It is worth pointing out that the UK does not fund textbooks in the OPTs.

The situation on the ground demonstrates the need to accelerate progress towards peace, which is one of the reasons that the conference has been called next week. We remain committed to the two-state solution as the best way to bring peace and stability to the region. We support a negotiated settlement, leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both sides, and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees.

We firmly believe in a just and lasting resolution that ends the occupation and delivers peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. It is long overdue. We will continue to press both parties on the need to refrain from taking actions that make peace more difficult to attain. We call on all parties to abide by international humanitarian law and to promote peace, stability and security.

We are deeply concerned about the fragile security situation in the west bank and Jerusalem, and look to all parties to take urgent steps to de-escalate tensions.

I am grateful for all the Minister is saying. I know she is going as far as she can today. I hope that whoever goes to the pledging conference will take their chequebook with them because, to be honest, money counts. I hear what she is saying about stability and the robust conversations she is having with all sides. Will the Government go as far as they have gone with regard to the Russian invasion and start imposing sanctions, if they see international law being broken?

The hon. Lady raises a number of questions. On going with our chequebook, it is important to say that we remain key supporters of UNRWA. I cannot say any more at this time. We have limited amounts of money. We set out in the international development strategy how we want to prioritise. That will mean difficult decisions—we cannot do everything—but it is vital that we continue to try to prioritise as best as we can, and that we continue to support the UK economy in its recovery so that we get back to 0.7%.

We believe that honest and open discussions, rather than imposing sanctions or supporting anti-Israeli boycotts, best support our efforts to get progress on peace and on getting a negotiated solution. We were totally appalled by the recent terror attacks in Israel. We condemn them in the strongest possible terms, and reaffirm that our thoughts are with the victims and their families. We will engage with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to support co-operation on building stability and economic development. I look forward to any news coming out of New York next Thursday.

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

Universal Basic Income

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the potential merits of a universal basic income.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) for his contributions in this place on the issue of a universal basic income. There is no better time to reopen the discussion on this subject. We are up to our necks in the cost of living crisis, which is pushing households across this country further into poverty and destitution. We need change, and we need it now.

Over more than a decade, the Conservative Government have carefully crafted a welfare system that designates recipients as being deserving of payments only if they meet conditions. I appreciate that the idea of implementing a universal basic income and removing the conditions on welfare payments would not normally sit comfortably with the Government. However, it seems that the Conservative party has had a change of heart. On Monday 6 June at the Treasury Committee, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer was questioned on the universal nature of energy bill discounts, which will leave third home owners £1,200 better off, he said:

“there will be some people who do not need the help. That is, unfortunately, the consequence of having to do policy in practical terms.”

He said that, having looked at all the options, the Government decided that the discount was “the most effective way” of reaching a “large number of people” and helping them when they needed it. Clearly, this Government have had a change of heart, and are open to universal policies, depending on who benefits, so it seems that the biggest barrier to implementing a universal basic income is ideological. I urge the Minister to consider extending his party’s new, compassionate approach to the benefits system, and to abandon the cruel and unforgiving system that depicts desperate people as undeserving.

I come to the benefits of a universal basic income. As we have heard many times here and in the main Chamber, a universal basic income would mean that every citizen was provided with a subsistence income. It would mean secure, regular payments into every individual’s bank account, without threat of disruption. In real terms, it would ensure that every person in this country was always able to afford food, keep a roof over their head, provide for their children and have a minimum standard of living.

In principle, the concept of a universal basic income is promising, but just so that I understand, will the hon. Lady answer these questions? Under her definition, would the universal basic income be the only income that a person received? Would they receive additional benefits if they were unemployed or had disabilities? At what amount would she consider setting a universal basic income?

I thank the hon. Member for addressing those points. To be clear, we already have a system that recognises that individuals will need an approach that is tailored to their needs. Those who have disabilities will need additional support. Those who need additional support because of family requirements will have it. We have a system that already accepts that.

This is about acknowledging that every single person has the right not to be destitute. That is a basic, fundamental tenet. I find it uncomfortable that anyone in this place would consider it a radical motivation. A recent study by the University of York found that a universal basic income would cut poverty by more than half, bringing it to the lowest level for 60 years. It would cut child poverty and pensioner poverty by more than half and working age poverty by a quarter. It would be a driver of economic equality. Further research has shown that it would stimulate local economic growth. Introducing a universal basic income would allow us to incentivise people into work properly, and to move away from the current focus on cruelly sanctioning those who are desperate. Instead of our pushing people into precarious forms of employment and pretending that work programmes are actually working, a universal basic income would provide financial security. It would enable everyone to pursue employment that was more suitable for their lifestyle, hopes and ambitions, and it would allow everyone to engage in socially and personally productive activities, such as community or voluntary work, care giving, or entrepreneurial or creative activities.

The Scottish Government explored the feasibility of introducing a universal basic income, but found that it was impossible under the devolved settlement. With independence, the Scottish Government could be ambitious and look to a future where we could ensure that every citizen in Scotland had the support they needed. We do not have those powers yet and, without independence, we will not have them.

Instead, the Scottish Government commissioned research on a minimum income guarantee, which would transform Scotland’s fight against poverty. Rather than leaving those in need at the mercy of universal credit sanctions, it would at least guarantee that they did not drop below the poverty line. One of the Government’s core contentions, when this matter was last brought to the House, was the expense of setting up such a system. However, the UK Government already have the technology to implement a minimum income guarantee. We already have the tapers in place for the universal credit system, which has markers to ensure that those who need additional funds will get them; that answers the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter).

Universal credit was supposed to streamline and simplify the welfare system. Instead, it has led to the Government ploughing excessive funds and resources into empty work programmes, processing sanctions, and a target-driven jobcentre workforce unable to help those most at risk of poverty. If the Government wish to cut 90,000 civil service staff, and expect to keep this very complex welfare system running, it has another thing coming.

I ask the Minister to read through the numerous studies that have shown the benefits of introducing a universal basic income; to keep a close eye on the Scottish Government’s work on the minimum income guarantee; and to explain how the flawed and damaging universal credit system is in any way an adequate system by comparison.

The country is in crisis. As the cost of living crisis continues, we cannot ignore the worsening mental health crisis. The two are most definitely linked, and introducing a universal basic income would help to alleviate both. Innumerable studies show the detrimental impact of welfare conditionality and its impact on the mental health of welfare recipients. I do not think anyone here is in a position to argue with that. A universal basic income pilot scheme, conducted in Germany and Finland, showed that reform of the welfare state directly impacts the mental health of welfare recipients and their overall mental and physical wellbeing.

The Mental Health Foundation found that children who receive payments were less likely to use drugs and alcohol, more likely to stay in education, and more likely to have improved physical and mental health outcomes. The Finnish system showed that universal basic income helps improve cognitive functioning in adults, reduces feelings of anxiety and depression, and generally increases overall life satisfaction.

A universal basic income is a holistic policy that will have holistic effects across a whole area of social policy. Studies have shown that a universal basic income, although expensive in the beginning, pays for itself over time, through its far-reaching impacts.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and giving a considered and well thought-out speech. Will she clarify that point on expense? The cost of this programme, even if it were rolled out using a modest income, would be around £316 billion annually, according to one study. Can she clarify what her research has shown about the overall annual cost?

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, there are no studies that can show comprehensively the long-term benefits of such a scheme, because there has been no extensively researched pilot here or in most countries. I think we can all agree that when an individual does not have to think about how they will fund their next meal, pay for the electricity or subsist and survive, they can start to think about their life chances and opportunities, and can begin to fulfil their ambitions in life. There is so much to be gained from a pilot, which would give the hon. Gentleman the evidence, studies and statistics that he asks for.

A universal and destigmatising, more compassionate welfare system would decrease depression and anxiety rates. It is not over-dramatic to say that it would save lives. If the Government are committed to addressing the mental health crisis, will they reform the system responsible for pushing so many people to the edge? I end my contribution by calling on the Government to consider seriously the prospect of a universal basic income. I do not believe such a policy is as radical or unattainable as it seems. We already have the technology and a substantial Department for Work and Pensions budget that could cater for most of these measures. It is wasted, however, on empty work programmes and on processing sanctions, which scar people mentally and financially and abandon those most at risk to life in poverty.

Universal basic income represents a fairer system. I encourage the Minister and his Department to consider establishing a pilot scheme, and to speak to the results rather than to the rhetoric. The biggest issue is cutting through the damaging Tory ideology that people have to work for their basic human rights. I urge the Minister to rethink his Government’s approach, and to seriously consider a universal basic income pilot scheme.

Order. I am mindful that there will be a vote at about 5.5 pm, and we want to get to the Front-Bench speakers no later than 5.10 pm.

Thank you, Ms McVey. The actions of this Government are really hammering working people and the working class, and are driving more and more people into poverty. People’s incomes and living standards are under attack on many fronts, as we face the worst cost of living crisis in living memory.

The Government have imposed cut after cut to social security benefits, and increased benefits by only a paltry 3.1% in April, though inflation stands at 10%. We have seen freeze after freeze of public sector pay. We clapped for our key workers—be they care workers, Government workers or NHS workers—throughout lockdown, but they have not been rewarded. There is a debate in the main Chamber about the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, who have been forced to strike next week because their reasonable demands for better pay and terms and conditions have fallen on deaf ears. On pensions, the Tory Government have broken the triple lock.

All that has had a devastating impact on far too many people. Some 14.5 million people live in poverty. That includes the 4.3 million children who live in relative poverty—nine in every classroom of 30 children—and the 10 million people who use food banks. We should be angry that we, the fifth richest nation on the planet, have allowed this situation to arise and become normalised. That is a political choice.

There are alternatives, however, and universal basic income is one of them. We must do everything we can to achieve a fairer and more resilient society as we come out of the pandemic. A vital part of that is replacing our dysfunctional benefits system with one that provides financial security for everyone. UBI—an unconditional and regular cash payment to everybody, regardless of their income—is gaining significant traction as a solution to many of those issues. It is underpinned by the principle of universality, which I endorse. It would provide everyone with enough to cover the basic cost of living, and would ensure that financial security was a basic human right.

Universal basic income has lots of merits. It enables us to ensure that people’s human right to an appropriate amount of money to live on is met; it overcomes the negative features of means testing, particularly the stigma associated with claiming social security benefits; it is simple, unlike the current complex welfare system; and it would stimulate demand in the economy by putting money in people’s pockets.

I am particularly proud of the universal basic income campaign in my country of Wales. That grassroots, bottom-up campaign, led by a gentleman called Jonathan Williams of UBI Lab Wales, has been successful in getting constituency Labour parties, local authorities and Assembly Members to sign pledges in support of universal basic income, and it has also participated in various groups here in Parliament.

I apologise for my late arrival to the debate; I was detained elsewhere. Does the hon. Lady welcome, as I do, the small-scale pilot scheme that is being run by the Welsh Government? It will target money at 250 care leavers, who are a particularly vulnerable group. I look forward to the results of that pilot. However, it will take three years, and I am sure that she will agree that we need something larger scale, very quickly.

I do agree, and thank the hon. Member for that intervention. I will come on to the universal basic income pilot scheme that the Welsh Government are introducing in the next few weeks. Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, is a strong proponent of universal basic income, and it is part of the radical and more progressive policies, particularly when compared to those of the UK Government, being pursued by the Welsh Government. It forms part of a co-operation agreement between the Labour party and Plaid Cymru that I fully support. The pilot is as ambitious as can be expected, given the financial constraints placed on the Welsh Government by the UK Government; the financial settlement is decided by the Barnett formula. From what I understand, attempts by the Welsh Government to discuss potential assistance from the UK Government fell on deaf ears.

I welcome the pilot, which gives care leavers £1,600 per month. That amount is significantly higher than the amount in any other basic income pilot globally. It is broadly equivalent to the real living wage. There is a comprehensive methodology associated with that, and there will be a very robust evaluation process. Michael Marmot is one of the advisers, as is Guy Standing, who is world-renowned on UBI. The pilot has a technical advisory panel. It is a very well thought-out process that goes as far as it can. Even I would admit that it has some limitations, but it is trying to look at progressive, radical and alternative ways of supporting people.

Any pilot or roll out of UBI must form part of a much broader transformative agenda. We need a benefits system that ensures that everyone has equal access to a safety net that will ensure that they can meet their needs, and we need a progressive tax system. I propose the reinstatement of the £20 universal credit uplift, and that benefits and wages be inflation-proofed. I am a proponent of the wealth tax. UBI must form part of a more transformative agenda. I will continue to work alongside colleagues in Parliament, but crucially, I will work outside the bubble of Parliament with organisations such as Anti-Poverty Alliance in Wales, Child Poverty Action Group and trade unions—in particular, Unite Wales community—to promote radial, alternative and socialist policies. I want to celebrate and congratulate the Welsh Government on the ambitious pilot. Diolch yn fawr.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and every Member here. I welcome any debate about moving our economy forward and helping the most vulnerable in society. However, I am afraid, although it may come as a complete shock, that I disagree with the proposal of UBI. I want to set out four reasons why, in good humour and constructively.

First, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how much UBI would cost taxpayers and the British Exchequer. “Universal” means “everybody”; in our country, over 65 million people will receive some form of income under a universal basic income policy. If we provided just a basic income—even a modest income—it would result in hundreds of billions of pounds of extra money being spent. We would have to find that money from other Departments, or raise new money through higher taxes. That is a perfectly noble argument to make, but it is a fact of running a budget that the money has to be taken from somewhere else, or it has to be raised.

I am not sure what the argument of the Welsh Government or the Liberal Democrats is, but I am happy to hear it.

I also apologise for being a little late; I was caught unawares by the broken lifts in Portcullis House. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the universal basic income is still a concept—an idea? Those of us who earn much more than what it might offer should perhaps not look for any payment at all. We should accept that we already have that income. We can calculate how much it would cost to give it to everybody, but that might not be in line with the spirit of the universal basic income.

It is beyond the bounds of my intellect to debate what “universal” means. I take it to mean, “being received by everyone.” It could be up to people to give it back, but as we have seen in recent policies, that does not always happen.

I do not want to be argumentative, but the Chancellor has agreed to give us all, including everyone here, the princely sum of £400, so the principle is accepted by Conservative Members, although I agree that there might be rather larger sums involved in the universal basic income. We have talked about the gross cost, but we might be able to net off a considerable amount of money in view of the wellbeing, better health and happiness, and everything else that comes with having a proper income.

The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), who introduced the debate, made the point that the Conservatives recently implemented a universal policy. She will be aware, as will the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), that in exceptional circumstances—be it the first pandemic in over 100 years, or a national crisis in energy prices—we would expect the Government to protect as many people as possible, and to act at pace. I accept that point, but that is not what we are talking about today, which is, as I understand it, a complete and permanent root-and-branch reform of our welfare system.

I will make some progress, if that is all right; I am sure that colleagues will disagree with other points that I make. That was my first point, about cost.

My second point is that a universal basic income could exacerbate, not alleviate, inequality. Under a universal system, everybody would receive the payment. Millionaires would receive a cheque through the post. Even an RMT driver on £70,000 a year would receive a cheque. There is, however—I would like the Minister to address this—a point to be made about the need to simplify our benefits system. I accept that, having dealt with hundreds of cases in my constituency. A lot of the time, vulnerable members of society are not aware of all the many benefits that are available to them. I would endorse any effort that the Minister made to inform people of them, and to simplify our benefit system. As a universal system would exacerbate inequality and give billionaires and millionaires a cheque through the post that they did not need, I cannot accept this policy suggestion.

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said, he would have heard me say that the policy would have to be part of a more general transformative agenda. I was here yesterday, speaking in a debate on a wealth tax. According the Wealth Tax Commission, such a tax would raise £260 billion. Does he agree that that would be a good way of raising funding?

It will shock the hon. Lady to hear that I do not agree. We are going a little off-course, but on a wealth tax, a lot of people invest in our country, and a lot of people start from nothing and go on to achieve great things. I do not want to hamper their ambition for a better life, and their aim of setting up a business and employing lots of people. A wealth tax would not only put people off from investing in and coming to this country, but dissuade people such as my dad, who is not a particularly rich man, from doing what he did: he set up a business because he wanted to do better for himself and his family. He ended up employing a lot of people. A wealth tax is not the way forward, in my view. Incentivising economic growth and the dignity of work is the way to go.

That brings me to my third point. Time and again, the dignity of work and the security of a regular pay cheque have been proven to be the best way out of poverty. However, people in work do not just get an income; they get so much more. They get friends; sometimes they meet their wives. They get meaning in life and a purpose. The dignity of work gives people things to get up for in the morning.

The work environment and the people who we work with add so much to our lives, but jobs also give us skills that develop over time. I am afraid that I disagree with my friends from the Scottish National party about the effect of introducing a universal basic income, which will dissuade people from going to work. It will not encourage work in the way that they have said it will.

There is absolutely no evidence from any pilot programme from anywhere in the world that shows that people are indolent and do not want to work. In fact, the current welfare system punishes people for going back to work. As for the basic income, I am not taking people’s basic income away if they go and get some part-time work or to go back to university to study, so it actually encourages them and gives them the confidence to go back into work.

The hon. Member makes a reasonable point about evidence, but I will point out to him that there is also no evidence of universal basic income working anywhere in the world. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East—

I can pre-empt it. The hon. Lady rattled off a number of examples—I will hurry up with my speech because I am being asked to move on, although I have taken a number of interventions, which will hopefully be acknowledged.

There have been a number of studies and pilots, not least the one in Wales that is going on at the moment, but not one has been executed. There is not one example from around the world that we can point to where universal basic income has been implemented. The reason is that, although such pilots may show some benefits for mental health, wellbeing and other points, not one of them has not shown any Government around the world that universal basic income is the right model for alleviating poverty in the future. [Interruption.] I am afraid that I will end my speech here, by saying thanks to you, Ms McVey, and thanks to everybody for listening. I feel a little alone on this side of the Chamber, but I am pretty sure that the British people are with me.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey.

We are living in unprecedented times—although I am loth to say that, because every time that I have said it in the past two years, things have got worse. However, we are living in unprecedented times, and the problems we face now demand very different and potentially more far-reaching solutions than anything this country has attempted since the end of the second world war—or, perhaps there is no evidence from anywhere else in the world, and we might need to be first.

Now more than ever, we see clearly how easily any of us could find ourselves needing support. There is a generation out there who had no thought that they might ever need benefits, because they had good, well-paid jobs, but they are seeing that that now is no security. In my constituency of Edinburgh West, foodbanks are telling me that the people who used to bring donations are now themselves coming for help. So it can happen to any of us: that we would need support and perhaps find none.

Sadly, we are learning that the welfare state, which has served us so well for seven decades, is not fully equipped for the new reality that is the consequence of the series of crises that we have faced in the past two years. During covid, I spoke to too many people for whom the many Government schemes offering furlough, business grants or support for the self-employed simply did not provide support. Coronavirus made no exception in who it attacked, yet the Government were unable to say the same about who they supported. Yes, we have heard examples today of payments that are now being made to everybody, but the Government repeatedly tell us that they cannot help everyone all the time.

I do not think that is good enough, but I recognise that what we face now is a mammoth task. But we have to find a way. We cannot lose sight of the question that so many people will face this coming winter: how will they feed their family, keep a roof above their heads and stay warm? When even the welfare state, which generations in this country have worked hard to maintain, is not able to do that, we have to accept that the time has perhaps come to do things differently. What has become abundantly clear is that what has been missing throughout all these crises is a crucial element of universal protection—something that perhaps none of us realised we would need.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) said that universal basic income does not exist anywhere in the world and asked how could we provide it. In 1942, Beveridge’s vision did not exist, but it is undoubtably one of those iconic British systems of which we are rightly proud. Because that generation took the risk, we benefited. Now we need to take the risk so that future generations can benefit and to realise that we need a new vision to equip us for the 21st century and the very different challenges it brings.

The concept of a universal basic income, a guaranteed basic income or a universal right to a standard of living that looks at the country and says that everybody should be able to be sure that they will have food on the table, a roof over their heads and some warmth in the winter. That is what we are talking about: the principle. We are not talking necessarily about sending everybody cheques every month, and millionaires getting cheques. We are talking about looking at people and seeing if their standard of living, income and quality of life reaches a basic level. That is what we are talking about today.

As a constituency MP, with every passing day and every desperate phone call from someone in trouble who is frantically searching for a financial lifeboat that does not exist, I become more convinced that some form of universal basic income has to be the solution in this country. Nobody should be left behind. Moving forward after the pandemic and this cost of living crisis, unemployment and financial insecurity will be major challenges for any Government. A basic income, a basic standard of living or a guaranteed income will be the best, fairest and simplest way to safeguard the most vulnerable in society and care for those who need it.

Given that we are talking in high terms and with a breadth of vision here, and apropos what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) said about the dignity of work, we must crack this paradox whereby it is said that to get the poor to work harder, we must provide them with less support, and to get the rich to work harder, we must provide them with other support, such as cutting their taxes. We need a much more universal view of income support and dignity for everyone.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

I agree wholeheartedly with the comments from the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), which are very welcome.

I will wind up simply by saying that in the current circumstances, with the series of crises we are facing, including the cost of living emergency, we must find a way to free people from the insecurity and anxiety that they face so often. If that means we have to try more than one way of providing and ensuring a universal basic income, a guaranteed standard of living or whatever we want to call it, we have to do so. We simply have to find a way and ensure that this generation does not let down future ones.

May I say at the outset how pleased I am that the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) has brought this issue forward? I fully support what she is trying to achieve. Everything that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) has just said supports my thoughts as well.

I say respectfully that we do not always hear from someone with an opinion that is from what we are putting forward here, so I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) in his place and arguing his point, which is the right thing to do. I probably do not agree with much of it, but that is not the point. The point is that the hon. Gentleman had the courage to come here and say his piece, which is something I admire in anybody.

I am also pleased to see the Minister in his place, because I know that he always puts forward his point of view compassionately and respectfully. We would hope that the Minister might agree with us—we will wait to see whether that is possible—but we will make our points.

I have highlighted in this House numerous times over the past few weeks that I have real concerns about the working poor. Maybe that is because—I say this for no other reason than that it is factual—when I was a young boy growing up, we did not have very much. We did not have many goods or toys, but we always had plenty of love in the house from our parents. I say that because it may give a perspective on those who do not have much today. That is the reason I have come here to speak in support of what the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East has put forward.

For those who were working hard this time last year but barely making ends meet, increasing costs mean difficult choices—poverty is staring them straight in the eye. For example, how do parents explain to a seven-year-old why a school trip to the local aquarium is not accessible, and why they will have to stay in school with another class while everyone else’s parents pay the £11? How do they get across to the child the fact that the school only informed them mid-month and they were expected to pay within the week, that Mummy literally does not have a spare pound until the child benefit comes in, and that the money usually goes towards topping up the electricity, as it does today more than ever? If that sounds far-fetched to some people, I can assure them that it happened in my office just last week. A member of my staff stepped in and paid that amount for a parent who had come in for a food voucher and broke their heart with that story.

The three hon. Ladies who spoke—the hon. Members for Edinburgh West, for Lanark and Hamilton East, and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter)—reiterated the importance of food banks. That parent hated asking for the food voucher, but they were desperate. That is life today in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; that is what we face. I do not say this to score points, but to speak up for the people who we have to speak up for. That is what I am here for, and I know it is what everybody else is here for.

That school trip was not essential for that seven-year-old, but it is life at present for their Mummy who works in the local shop and whose partner also works, and that will be their life until we in this place reduce the cost of fuel and electricity and uplift the cap. I want to see the cap uplifted. It is not about millionaires getting money; it is about the working poor and those in poverty. This year they simply cannot manage and that is only going to get worse.

We can give the food voucher and we can point to the wonderful local charities that help parents in need, but we in this place must address the fact that the working poor are working full time but can still not make ends meet. That is the reality in my constituency and many others—maybe including yours, Ms McVey.

That is why we need to consider a universal basic income. That burden cannot fall only on small business owners by demanding increased wages from them, because sometimes that is not possible. Businesses are on the brink and that could tip them over. For example, one small business owner told me that he used to be able to buy for 80p a toilet roll that he then sold for £1. Because the price of shipping has gone up by £9,500 per container, he cannot buy it for £1 anymore; he now buys it to sell for £1.29, an increase of 29%. If we tell him he has to top up the wages of his staff again, the product will be £1.50 and the price will continue to increase. It is about viability and sustainability for small businesses.

When the Government created the universal credit system, it was with the idea that it would give flexibility to working people to ensure that they have enough money. For example, £20,000 a year for a couple without Government assistance may have been enough last year, but it certainly is not enough this year. I ask the Minister, with respect and with a plea from myself, all the hon. Members in this corner of the Chamber and the shadow Minister, on behalf of working families in poverty, will he go back to the Cabinet and the Treasury and uplift the cap, and get hard-working people who want to work, such as my constituent, the help they need to survive?

I am talking about surviving. It is not like getting a passport to take a much-needed holiday, or saving for a TV or a new sofa. Instead it is about people feeding their children and allowing those children go on educational school trips, instead of being left with another class feeling left out, embarrassed and ostracised. That is why this is not okay.

I have great affection for the Minister; he and I speak about many things and there are not a lot of things that we do not agree on, from a human rights or persecution point of view, and we are on the same side. But I say to him and to the Government that this is not okay. This House has the ability to make changes. I ask that we make them, please.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on bringing forward this debate. Basic income and the phrase “an idea whose time has come” seem to go hand in glove these days. It has been around for a long time. Recently, thanks to Guy Standing, it has been linked with Magna Carta—or, to be precise, the Charter of the Forest—which makes it at least 800 years old.

There is a growing body of thought that is engaging with the concept of a common good, commonweal or commonwealth. Our current welfare system is failing. It is abused and misused, which is a great pity. Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), I invoke the spirit of William Beveridge. In December 1942, when considering establishing a welfare state, Beveridge released a report in which he wrote:

“A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolution, not for patching.”

The welfare system he established was once the cornerstone of a brave new Britain, but sadly it has fallen into disrepair. Once again, we are looking at a time for revolutions. I say to this Conservative and Unionist Government that that is not just for welfare, but for transport, heating, energy, employment and constitution.

Will basic income cost a lot to implement and run? You bet it will. It will cost a shedload of money. But is it cost-effective? I could argue until I am blue in the face that once we consider the cost of the existing system, the health benefits of basic income—both physical and mental—the increase in start-up businesses, the greater take-up in further education, the freedom it gives people to live a life well spent, it is more than cost-effective. It is a must if we are to raise people out of financial poverty and poverty of aspiration. What price can be put on releasing children from the crushing poverty that they currently experience? What price for hope, aspiration and ambition?

As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), whom I welcome to the debate—it really puts the pleasure into debating if people come and put their side of the argument in such a well-informed and well-mannered fashion—this tax system is for everybody. We adjust the tax system accordingly. If I am given £12,000 extra through basic income and I earn an MP’s salary, I will pay back that £12,000, so it nets off. Alternatively, we could use sovereign money, or we could have a citizens’ wealth fund. It does not have to be topside down.

Basic income does not make people indolent. Every pilot that has been run across the world has shown that it frees people to go out and work without being financially penalised. Do we know everything about how it will work? No, we do not, but I am not asking the UK Government to take a punt on this; I am asking them to consider the evidence, and that is why they should embrace the opportunity of pilot projects. These are projects designed to investigate and identify the pros and cons of basic income. I am pleased that in Scotland—backed by the Scottish Government, who provided £250,000 over two years to support the undertaking of a feasibility study for a citizens basic income pilot—we are planning four pilot projects in Fife, North Ayrshire, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I am equally delighted that there are similar projects in Wales, Northern Ireland and England, with 32 motions calling for UBI trials passed by local councils. Those projects will provide substantial data for academic research, which we can learn from and use to form future policy, but they need financial and administrative support from the UK Government. All I am asking is that the Government make policy based on evidence and stop hiding their head in the sand.

I led the first ever debate in this Parliament on basic income, on 14 September 2016. Sadly, the UK Government are no further forward, and we are now experiencing increased poverty and an increasing gap between the richest and poorest in society. The status quo is unacceptable. Basic income represents something better: hope and opportunity. It is a platform to build on and a safety net if required. I will end today as I ended my speech in 2016, with a quote from Noam Chomsky:

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”

Once again, I am asking the UK Government to take responsibility.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) on securing the debate, which has been good, although slightly interrupted. Her argument against financial insecurity was a very good one. It is stressful to tackle poverty. A family that does not have enough will almost certainly experience significant mental health challenges and will not lead the kind of life that we would wish for them.

The hon. Lady also made a good argument for what has gone wrong in the Department for Work and Pensions since 2010. There are numerous examples where the actions of Government have caused simply unnecessary stress and pressures. All hon. Members argued against poverty and for a universalist approach for a United Kingdom where no one is left behind. That is where we agree. But I was not clear what the hon. Member was arguing for. She mentioned several times that it is not possible to give full details and that is why UK Government should do more research, or that somehow we need to progress this, and then there might be information about what would be available under a universal basic income. However, we need some simple facts in order to make the case for such a radical change to our system. Those facts are how much the universal income might be and how it would be paid for.

Is the hon. Member aware that Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, is pushing for a basic income to be trialled in the Greater Manchester area? He seems to understand that by trialling these things and learning from them, we will all be better informed.

I will go on to say why universal basic income is not the Labour party’s policy.

Basic facts are important. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East could tell us more about the situation in Scotland. She mentioned the experience of the Scottish Government, and I think she could make her argument by giving some more basic facts. It is difficult to see exactly what she wants the change in system to do when we do not know exactly what is being proposed.

The hon. Lady mentioned supporting the idea of a minimum income guarantee, as did several Members. That, however, is not the same as a universal basic income. A minimum income guarantee is about a standard below which no one should fall, whereas a universal basic income—as I understand it from her—is about a universal payment for everyone, regardless of circumstances.

We need to think about this from first principles. Our social security system has two purposes: first, to smooth incomes over a person’s lifetime. We therefore have universal aspects to our system that we all agree with, such as the idea of the state pension being universal on the basis of age. Other aspects of our social security system, such as child benefit, are paid on the basis that children have limited possibilities to generate income. In fact, we absolutely think that children ought to be supported, though we could have a long debate about the two-child policy and the fact that it rather contravenes the principle. That smoothing of income over a lifetime is exactly as Beveridge envisaged the system would work.

Secondly, our social security system addresses the needs that people have in order to enable their full participation in society—so, those who have extra costs, the obvious example of which is people who have a disability .

The hon. Member has made it very clear that the Labour party does not support universal basic income, which I find profoundly fascinating. However, that is not the point that I want to make. She also said quite clearly that she felt the benefit system had started to change since 2010. What lessons have been learned by the Labour party, which itself had a system that was far less than perfect, and what exactly is she proposing to ensure that those living on the lowest incomes can at least have the basic subsistence that is required?

I will come to that point, because I will set out shortly, if I may, what I think is the important way in which we should take our country forward.

I remind the hon. Lady that there are three particular principles of social security and the support that we give to each other. One is income replacement, the second is addressing particular needs, such as childcare or whatever it is, and the third one, which is important for those of us in this part of the Chamber, is the need to promote solidarity and cohesion, using the system to ensure that we all realise that we are all in this together, as it were. In that sense, the system should be generous—indeed, much more generous than it is at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the universality of the system, which we all pay into and we all take out of when we need to. That is the contributory principle—the principle that we are all part of the same system.

This is where I think there is an important point that is at risk of being missed, because the contributory principle—the idea that we are all a part of this system—is failed when people are left behind. Beveridge and Eleanor Rathbone—whose history you know well, Chair—created a system of social security that was not in isolation from the other work that they did in analysing the problems that had happened in the 1930s and assessing which institutions were needed for a good economy that would leave no one behind and in which people could pay into the social security system when they were able to, through working, and take out of it when they needed to. Their point was to ensure that work would help to support families and that the social security system would be there to provide a minimum level of income, as needed, to support a family.

The Beveridge report required two other things to be in existence to support the system of social security. The first was the creation of the NHS and the second was the assumption of full employment—a labour market where everybody could take part and where work would provide enough to help to support a family.

As various Members have already said, that is what is going wrong right now. The Prime Minister crows about jobs, but he does so in the middle of a crisis of huge price rises while wages are falling. For me, that is the definition of a broken jobs market.

As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, prior to the 2019 Labour manifesto, the then shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), commissioned Guy Standing to undertake a research project on a pilot of basic income. A document was produced, which I expect she has read, that proposed a UBI pilot and piloting UBI was included in the 2019 manifesto. Is that something we continue to support?

I will set out the rest of my argument about what I think we should do to help to improve people’s incomes. And I will do so very quickly, Ms McVey.

People have mentioned the various pieces of research, which are important, because they tell us about how people respond to different systems. However, I think that this broken jobs market that we now face, whereby businesses are crying out for staff and there are vacancies left, right and centre, but too many people are stuck in work that is far too low-paid, shows exactly what is going wrong.

The problem with what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) said about work having been proven to be the best route out of poverty is that, for the past decade, the Tory Government have set out on a mission to prove that that is not the case. We need a social security system that does what it was designed to do—help people through different life stages when they need it, and help lift people out of disadvantage and into the dignity of work. There will always be people who are unable to work, but the vast majority of people want to be in work.

It is not obvious to me that there is a proposal on the table that does either of those things. Labour’s approach will be different. We need to change jobcentres—

Order. I need to hurry you along, because we still need to hear from the Minister and have the wind-up at the end.

My apologies, Ms McVey.

We need to change jobcentres to help people move on and move up in work, and progress our country to real full employment that involves disabled people and everybody in our country. That would be a plan towards progress.

Minister, will you be mindful of the need to leave a minute at the end for the Member in charge to wind up the debate?

It is an honour to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McVey—one of Cheshire’s finest. I am mindful of the time that is available, and I am sure you will give me a reminder as we go on.

It is an honour to be involved in the debate. I know that all Members have sincerely held views. It is also pretty clear that there is still quite a lot of debate about this subject, even within the Opposition parties. I look forward to seeing how that debate moves forward.

As Members are aware, our welfare system is centred on the support provided by universal credit, which offers a streamlined and simplified benefits system that supports those on low incomes, as well as those who are unemployed or who cannot work. Universal credit is a dynamic benefit that reflects people’s needs from month to month. It ensures that claimants are paid depending on their circumstances, with claimants’ awards changing depending on how much they earn from month to month. That is in strong contrast to a universal basic income, which does not fluctuate based on earnings in the same way but mandates a standard monthly allowance paid to all working-age adults—although I am mindful that there are still details to be worked through in the proposals from the Scottish Government.

I want to reassure colleagues—not least the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), whom I congratulate on securing the debate, but also my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) and so on—that my views, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), are not ideologically held. They are concerns based on practical issues that, as we have heard in the debate—in particular during the past 10 or 15 minutes—need to be properly worked through.

We have real, evidence-based concerns about UBI on a practical basis because it does not provide the work incentive that we believe is vital in these sorts of systems. We have fundamental concerns, too, about what it might mean for targeting. Many of the UBI schemes that have been put in place are not targeted at those with greatest need. We feel that it is vital that targeted approaches are put in place. We saw that from the Chancellor on 26 May, when he set out our targeted measures to help those who need support through cost of living challenges, whether that is those on means-tested benefits, those on disability benefits or pensioners. By the way, that legislation will come to the House next week.

We have fundamental concerns, which are held not just by the Government but by many think-tanks—they were also expressed by the Work and Pensions Committee back in 2020. They are concerns based on evidence from trials in different parts of the world, such as Spain, Canada and, in particular, Finland. The Finnish Finance Minister concluded that the case was closed and there must be conditionality in the social security system.

It is for those reasons that we have concerns about UBI, whether in the form put forward initially by the Scottish Government or that in the Welsh Government’s planned pilot. I look forward to being a fly on the wall in the discussions between Opposition Front Benchers and the Welsh Government on these matters.

I thank hon. Members for contributing to the debate. On the question of where the detail and the facts are, I direct the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) to the fact that the Scottish Government fully costed, in two feasibility studies, a model that is workable, but the simple fact is that this winter will be the hardest yet for too many families and too many children will continue to grow up in poverty. I do not think UBI is a radical concept. With the greatest respect, if the Queen’s Speech is anything to go by, I think this Government need some radical ideas and a new vision. I urge the Minister to seriously consider a pilot of this scheme and to give families a chance.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).