Tuesday 28 June 2022
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
Freedom of Religion or Belief: International Conference
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK-hosted International Conference on the Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Colleagues, the world is changing. We cannot be complacent about peace and stability. We need only look to Ukraine to see that. Millions of people today are being denied their freedom of religion or belief. FORB violations are getting worse in severity and scale. Across the world, people are losing their jobs, education, homes, livelihoods, families, freedom and access to justice, and even life itself, simply on account of what they believe. People are being discriminated against, marginalised, beaten, threatened, tortured and killed, and too often by their own Governments—the very Governments with a duty to protect their citizens’ freedom of religion or belief.
Why should that be, in the 21st century? Key exacerbating factors include rising intolerance and oppression by authoritarian regimes such as China, Myanmar and Afghanistan; frequent terrorist attacks by extremist groups, as in Nigeria, which now often function transnationally; the use, or rather misuse, of increasingly sophisticated technology to oppress minority groups; and the increasing FORB abuses during the covid pandemic.
We must actively protect free societies, and FORB is essential to that. When FORB goes, so many other basic human rights fall away too—yes, freedoms of speech, expression and association, but also access to healthcare, food and work, and even liberty and life itself. Discrimination damages democracies. Persecution impedes the development of the skills and talents of all, and impoverishes economies, so religious freedom is not just a benefit to those with religious beliefs; it is a benefit to all.
When President Roosevelt, one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the United Nations, envisioned a world of peaceful coexistence between nations, he stressed the need for four essential freedoms to exist in any stable, secure, democratic society: freedom of expression, freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom of belief. When FORB is respected, societies are more likely to be stable and secure, and to flourish economically. They are less prone to extremist attacks. So it is not to put too fine a point on it to say that in promoting FORB we are promoting peace. Indeed, promoting FORB is essential to securing global peace, and doing so now is as critical as ever.
The UK Government are deeply concerned about the increase in FORB violations globally and see defending FORB as a human rights priority, as part of what our Foreign Secretary calls the international network of liberty, so the UK is next week hosting a major international conference in central London—the 2022 international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief.
There is clearly a great deal of interest among parliamentarians about when the independent review—the Truro report—will be published. Will my hon. Friend, who is the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, confirm that publication is at hand? Will she also make it clear that as the Truro review is a manifesto commitment, although there is clearly more work to do on it, there is no question whatever of work on specific recommendations ceasing just because the review is taking place?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. Work is indeed in hand, and I concur with his view that work on that manifesto commitment and on the recommendations of the Truro review must continue. It is far from complete.
At the ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief, we will welcome hundreds of delegates from over 60 countries, around half of which will be represented by Government Ministers. We will also welcome faith and belief leaders and representatives, civil society activists, academics and—importantly—FORB abuse survivors with their powerful accounts to tell. On 5 and 6 July, after a keynote speech from the Foreign Secretary, we will hold sessions on promoting FORB in the face of global challenges; early warning, and atrocity prevention; FORB and education; promoting FORB in the digital world; engaging the next generation; the multiple vulnerabilities of women and girls; FORB and the media; inspiring parliamentarians; and much more.
Those of us who have planned this conference could not have worked harder to ensure there is a diversity of participants from all faiths and none and from across the world. As the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, I was involved in setting up a civil society advisory group representing many faith and belief backgrounds to help with the planning of the conference. We cannot afford for that conference to be merely a talking shop; it has to lead to increased global action and help drive forward international efforts to protect and promote FORB for everyone, everywhere.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on having secured this important debate. Two years ago, I had the great privilege of meeting the Bishop of Truro at his official residence down in Feock in Cornwall. Does my hon. Friend agree that this would be an appropriate time for those countries that attend the conference to establish their own Truro review to ensure that they maintain the objectives that are so clearly outlined in the bishop’s report?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One aim of the conference is to share best practice on how countries can prevent FORB violations and how they can work together to do so. I am firmly convinced that the recommendations of the Truro review set a standard that it is worth other countries looking at and indeed following. However, no one country has all the answers; we need to work together to build the capacity of FORB defenders and persuade violators of the positive case for change.
Freedom of religion or belief needs to be mainstreamed by Governments globally. It is not a side issue for individuals, communities or countries; Governments need to recognise the importance of including FORB in foreign and other policymaking, or we will face increasing challenges to peace across the world. Legal systems need to be strengthened to ensure that when a country has signed up internationally to FORB principles, such as through article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, that translates into practice on the ground, so that when a young woman who has been so-called forcibly married—that is, raped—goes into a police station, she can expect justice, not to be turned away.
We will be asking questions such as, what best practice can countries share to promote FORB and prevent its violation? How can we better protect the many women and girls from minority groups who suffer double jeopardy on account of their gender and their beliefs? How can we ensure that victims receive better treatment and effective trauma care? How can we address the lack of religious literacy about FORB among policymakers, which was one of the excellent recommendations in the Truro review? And how can FORB, and the reasons why it matters to everyone and to whole societies, not just those with religious beliefs, be introduced into education syllabi to inform young people and, hopefully, to inspire a whole new generation of FORB champions to spread the word about its importance, just as they have about climate change?
Achieving real change will require international collaboration on FORB, involving not only Governments but civil society organisations, which are so often at the forefront of reporting FORB abusers. That is why civil society engagement with our conference is so critical.
Addressing FORB will require political will and enduring commitment from the highest level of Governments if it is to be effective, and that will need to be backed up by real resources. We need to find ways to prevent violations of FORB from occurring, working with religious communities to do so and to discover flashpoints. We must seek to identify and disarm sources of tension. We need to build resilience and to encourage and foster dialogue.
The international community needs to develop mechanisms to help co-ordinate the increasing number of groups concerned about and working on FORB internationally. How can we better monitor FORB violations? Governments need to develop effective early-warning mechanisms to prevent mass atrocities. Countries need to work together to hold perpetrators of FORB violations to account through targeted sanctions, to ensure more follow the lead of the UK and other countries on human rights-based sanctions. Last month, I held a debate about FORB and digital persecution. We need to look at ways to prevent the misuse of technology and at how to use digital mapping to identify and track FORB violations in order to deliver more targeted interventions.
As we have planned the conference, we have deliberately invited a good number of young people. We need to help, support and inspire the next generation of FORB champions and to provide support for FORB defenders, particularly those persecuted for speaking up for this human right. The next generation need education curricula promoting an understanding of FORB, as do the wider public.
In the months running up to the conference, I and my deputy special envoy, David Burrowes, have toured the UK with a roadshow, speaking to community groups in about 25 towns and cities and raising awareness of FORB. This is a typical reaction:
“I had no idea that this amount of persecution is happening in the world today.”
More information about our tour is on the website endthepersecution.uk, including free toolkits for places of worship, schools and communities to help spread the word about FORB and its importance.
We are looking for more countries to sign up in support of FORB, to develop coalitions of the willing. This year, I chair the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance—or IRFBA. I have been pleased to see more countries become members—there are now 36. We work to ensure that FORB is championed across the world and that FORB violations are called out.
The work of IRFBA is strengthening. In the past year we have issued statements on Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ukraine and Nigeria, and in support of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Ahmadiyya and the Baha’i. Most pleasing has been the action that has followed these statements, such as in Afghanistan. IRFBA helped trigger one of our countries to provide visas for targeted religious minorities, and another country to provide a plane so that 190 people from Afghanistan, threatened on account of their beliefs, were flown out to safety. Many of them would almost certainly be dead now had IRFBA not intervened.
Our IRFBA education working group has informed the ministerial conference session, as has our deep dive into protecting religious heritage. The sight of the hugely significant UNESCO religious sites in Ukraine being destroyed by Russian forces has been appalling and is an affront to the people of Ukraine and the world. We at IRFBA now look forward to being a key vehicle to help deliver on the outcomes of the ministerial conference and to further galvanise multilateral efforts.
Working internationally on FORB, I have come to realise how our Parliament’s cross-party work on FORB is pre-eminent across the globe. The UK has a unique, good story to tell about our cross-party work, and the impact of our all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I have no doubt that the ministerial conference would not be happening next week but for the work of our APPG over the past 10 years. It is now the largest APPG in Parliament, with almost 160 parliamentarians as members. I pay tribute to our current chairs—in the Commons, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and in the Lords, Baroness Cox.
Next week, in addition to the UK Government hosting the ministerial conference, we will have a superb range of more than 100 FORB fringe events, co-ordinated by the APPG and the growing UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum of civil society groups. Some of those fringe events will be in the QEII centre, where the ministerial meeting is being hosted, but others will be in Parliament, elsewhere around Westminster and across the country, with most needing no pass to attend—see the website www.londonforbfringe.com for details. For anyone who cannot travel, the ministerial event will be livestreamed—see the FORB ministerial section on the gov.uk website. Together, let us ensure that the right to FORB is shared across the globe and reaches those parts where freedoms are dimmed or darkened today—places such as China, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and many others.
I will finish where I started, in Ukraine, and with the wording of the statement on Ukraine, which I issued as chair of IRFBA:
“As members of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, we commend the courage, dignity and determination of the people of Ukraine and their leadership. We stand in solidarity with them, including religious communities throughout the country. We condemn Russia’s premeditated, unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine, our fellow IRFBA member.
Ukraine is a strong democracy whose diverse population includes Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, non-believers, and members of other religious groups. With its multiplicity of faith perspectives, Ukraine has been a strong and active defender of the human right to freedom of religion or belief, and was one of the earliest countries to commit to membership of the IRFBA and its principles. Its legislation guarantees the equal rights of people of all religions or beliefs.
We denounce President Putin’s cynical attempt to misuse, for his own ends, the history and suffering of people during the Holocaust and World War II, including Ukrainian Jews. His baseless claim that Ukraine is a hotbed for neo-Nazism is just one of the many pretexts fabricated for his war of choice. This is not the first time the Kremlin has falsely accused its neighbours of neo-Nazism and fascism as a cover for its own provocations and human rights abuses.
We urge the Kremlin and Russia’s military to cease its illegal invasion and respect the safety of the civilian population of Ukraine, including all religious communities, and to respect the individually held human right to freedom of religion or belief at all times.
We call on all Russians, whatever their religion or belief, to stand up for peace.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on bringing forward the debate. She is a dear friend and colleague, and I am pleased to see her in such a prominent role for our Government and those with Christian and other beliefs across the world. It is very pleasurable for me to be involved in a debate alongside the hon. Lady. The debate will be a milestone for the UK, as we look forward to the international conference, to which the hon. Lady referred.
As chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, I declare a keen interest in this issue, and it will probably be no surprise that the matter is very close to my heart. Indeed, every Thursday in the main Chamber—if God spares me—I ask the Leader of the House a question that relates to religious belief. He always responds in a positive fashion, and it is encouraging to have a response like that from the Leader of the House. We stand up for those with Christian beliefs, those with other beliefs and those with no belief.
The hon. Lady referred to some of the visits that the APPG has made in the past few years, including to Pakistan, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Last week, we went to Nigeria. Also present is the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who is another dear friend of mine, because we share many of the same interests in human rights and protecting religious beliefs. He, I and other Members recently visited Nigeria, which I will speak about as I progress through my speech. It is a pleasure to speak up.
The hon. Lady referred to Ukrainians. The APPG visited Poland a wee while ago to encourage the Polish Government and people to continue to help Ukrainian refugees, but also to reiterate our support for them. In many cases, Ukrainian refugees have been put out of their homes, victimised and brutalised, and their relatives have been murdered. Those things are real for us, and we speak up for the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Hindus, the Shi’as, the Sunnis, the Baha’is, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia—where they are persecuted—and on behalf of our stakeholders as well.
Hosting the conference is a privilege. Does the hon. Member agree that if we are to continue being a role model in freedom of religion or belief, we should be doing more to recognise and help the persecuted elsewhere, such as the Uyghurs, who are facing genocide by the People’s Republic of China?
I certainly do. The hon. Lady always makes very pertinent points in her interventions, and I thank her. I will speak about the Uyghurs shortly.
I am a Christian and, in this country, I have the right to go to church as and when I like. That should not be a privilege; it should be a right, but for some it is not. We are all born with a capacity to have a relationship with God, and we should be free to exercise or choose not to exercise that ability accordingly. That is at the heart of who we are as humans, but that freedom and birth right is not the reality for millions of people around the world, which is why the hon. Member for Congleton secured today’s debate. Many of us are motivated to be here on behalf of those people and their right to hold a faith, practise it, and freely change it if they wish to do so.
In a world of increasing division and hostility, I am glad to say that those of us who work to promote freedom of religion or belief in this House work across political divides and from a host of different faith and belief backgrounds. We put differences aside to recognise the similarities that unite us—similarities that are unfortunately disregarded and derided by extremists in other countries, and sometimes by extremists in this country. Yesterday I talked to one of my fellow MPs, who told me that she had been at a family event in the United Kingdom just this week and had been surrounded by a number of activists who publicly derided her and her staff in a way that was completely unacceptable. I feel for her.
May I say how pleased I am to see the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) in his place? I look forward to his comments. I am also pleased to see the Minister in her place. We thank her for answering our questions.
As chair of the APPG, I was in Nigeria last month with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute in order to witness at first hand the devastating impact of living in a country with ongoing FORB violations. We had wanted to visit Nigeria for some time, because it is in the top 10 on the world watch list for those who are persecuted because of their beliefs. It was an emotional trip because it gave us the chance to see the issues at first hand and to understand what needs to be done to help those with Christian and other beliefs in Nigeria. We had a chance to visit some of the camps for internally displaced people. Some people had been there for seven or eight years. We have ideas for how we can progress that, and for how Nigeria needs to progress it too. We wanted to visit the north-east of Nigeria, where most of the persecution from Boko Haram and ISIS is taking place, but we could not because of the security situation—we understood that—so we did probably the next best thing: we brought representatives of the Churches and so on to meet us in Abuja in Nigeria, where we had a chance to hear from them at first hand.
There are lots of things that need to be done. I will make some comments at the end of my speech, and I hope the Minister will respond to them. In Nigeria, an average of 13 Christians are killed each day due to religiously motivated attacks. The Sunday after we returned, 50 of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters were murdered in an attack, which made our visit to Nigeria all the more poignant. We focused on those issues, but for such a vicious, brutal, violent attack to take place just afterwards was hard to comprehend.
The total death toll among people worldwide persecuted for their faith or belief must be harrowing. Such facts must lead to a renewed commitment to ensure freedom of religion or belief for all, and to implement policies to make the dream of peace a reality. I hope that the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief will prompt a sharp shift in the degree of urgency—the hon. Member for Congleton referred to that—and fervour that this Government and others give to promoting to freedom of religion or belief. This is a time for leaders across the world, in all countries, to make real commitments to the wider international community and play their part in promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.
I am keen to hear what the Government will announce at the ministerial conference. Will they finally prioritise in the resettlement scheme those in Afghanistan who are at risk due to their faith or belief, rather than waiting until next year to give them priority and secure their safety? Will they do more to cut their ties with China, which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred to, due to its abhorrent treatment of the Uyghurs? We all deplore that; we can never understand how anyone can hate somebody so much. Will the UK use its relationship with Commonwealth countries to put an end to harmful blasphemy laws that are still in place? I am ever mindful that those countries make the decision, but blasphemy laws are used in a malicious, vindictive and clearly secular way against some people. Or might the Government stipulate, for instance, that aid or trade with a country should be contingent on an improved state of freedom of religion or belief for all? There is so much good that could be done, and so many across the world are waiting from it.
The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), who is no longer in his place, asked about the Truro review. We need the three-year progress review, but that does not mean that other work should stop; we need it to continue. We need the focus that the hon. Member for Congleton referred to. We need the manifesto commitment delivered, and we need the Truro report recommendations to be delivered in full. That is the hon. Lady’s ask; it is mine too, and I hope it is that of other hon. Members.
As Ministers and freedom of religion or belief leaders convene across the way at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre for the two-day ministerial conference, I will be praying, as I do every morning, that a positive change comes from those efforts. I also hope that a lot of noise will be made about FORB, and that politicians in this country take note. It cannot go unnoticed that the APPG has 160 members. It is not a numbers game; it is about the interest that MPs and lords individually have in these matters. We are very pleased that our stakeholders represent many religious groups—it is important that they do. We speak up for those with Christian beliefs, those with Muslim beliefs and the Bahaʼis. We do that across the world all the time.
Across the two days there will be a host of events in Parliament as part of the FORB fringe conference. I encourage all my fellow MPs to attend and participate. I come to most of these debates because of my interest in the subject, but I come to other debates to support other Members’ issues, because it is important to encourage each other where we can.
The events, which will be sponsored by a range of non-governmental organisations and charities—I will be meeting Lord Ahmad and the Pakistan religious minorities this week, or certainly next week—will promote freedom of religious belief internationally, and they will cover a range of FORB topics, from country-specific challenges and thematic issues pertaining to FORB to what is being done to ensure FORB for all. We need to look at what needs to be done as well. There will be over 30 events in Parliament altogether, which indicates the interest. If those who have an interest wish to attend, they will have plenty of choice. There is no excuse for Members not to find at least one event that piques their interest. We all have a part to play in promoting FORB for all, and the time to play that part is now.
Many of us in the Chamber will be aware of the biblical reference to the mustard seed. I know that the faith of a mustard seed is enough to move mountains, and I know that so many communities and individuals around the world persevere in their faith or belief in the face of unbelievable brutality. Their ongoing bravery and courage is more impressive than moving mountains.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we—and Governments—need to put what people sometimes call feet to our prayers? I can think of one example a few miles from my constituency office, where the Hebron Free Presbyterian Church opened its doors to fleeing evangelicals from Ukraine who were suffering persecution as well as the murderous onslaught of the Russians. We need those practical examples to be replicated across the country, and we should commend all those who take such endeavours to heart.
I certainly do. I know that group— Don and Jacqueline Fleming, and young Colin Tinsley. Don and Jacqueline live in my constituency, and I know that project and the work that they do, which is an outward expression of what we believe through our prayer time. It is expressed through our practical and physical giving and our ability to help those people from Ukraine. I find that project quite illuminating. We have been able to offer support in Newtownards as well. I am a great believer in the power of prayer. I believe that with prayer we can move mountains. A mustard seed might be small and look like it cannot do very much, but it does make changes, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right.
As the mountains move day by day, as more and more people suffer because of their faith or belief, let us ask what we will do to aid the growth of that small mustard seed. I look forward to other contributions, particularly from the Minister, to understand how the mustard seed can make a difference.
These debates go back a long way—over 20 years—and I have taken part in most of them. I remember a debate when Keith Vaz was sitting in the Minister’s place. I instituted a debate on the persecution of the Karen people in Myanmar, and that persecution is still taking place. The lack of progress can be depressing, although I remember Keith Vaz telling me afterwards, “Who would think a small debate in Westminster Hall could actually make a difference?”, and it has in that case. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for all the work that she does and for ensuring that once again we have a debate on freedom of religion.
There has been progress with the Foreign Office. When we started all those years ago, the Foreign Office took great care to be completely equidistant and say, “Oh, well, there’s persecution of Christians on the one hand, but on the other hand,” and so on. It is more proactive now, and we have had the Bishop of Truro report and my hon. Friend’s office has been set up, so more work is being done. Gradually, we are raising interest in this subject.
The fact is that more Christians are being persecuted in the world, either through outright persecution, such as in North Korea or parts of north Africa, or by having their human rights severely limited, as in countries such as Saudi Arabia. This is a huge issue. I am not just going to talk about Christians; I am also going to talk about the difficulties faced by Muslims and by religious people around the world.
I want to illustrate the problem with just one case. I have gone on and on about it, but the only way to make any difference in this place is to make yourself a crushing bore on a particular subject. Maira Shahbaz is a Christian girl in Pakistan, who was just 14 years old when she was bundled into a car at gunpoint by three men and then drugged, raped, and filmed and photographed for use as blackmail. She was forcibly converted to Islam and forced into marriage with one of her abductors. Four months later, she managed to escape. She has faced death threats for supposed apostasy and for abandoning her supposed husband. An imam has certified that the wedding was invalid but the case in the civil court still drags on.
On 13 July—almost a year ago—I took a delegation to see the Home Secretary, no less, about the case. I received absolute assurances from the Home Secretary that she was fully cognisant of the case and was going to take action. Lord Forsyth went to see her a year before that and got the same answer. An excellent charity, Aid to the Church in Need, is willing to fly Maira and her family to the UK, help them get on their feet and make sure that they are integrated within the British-Pakistani Christian community here.
If ever in the whole of history there was a case where asylum was justified, here it is, so why has there been no progress? I suspect that there has been no progress—this is an allegation, which may be untrue, but I think I have to make it—because our high commission in Pakistan is not looking at the case with sufficient seriousness. It may be that there are politics involved and that it does not want to irritate the Pakistani Government because of matters of global importance, such as dealing with the Taliban and all the rest of it. I do not know, but this poor girl and her entire family are in one room and nothing happens.
Meanwhile, 60,000 people a year are pouring across the channel. They are already in a safe country; they are not being persecuted in France. They are all very nice people and I have nothing against them individually, but they are obviously economic migrants. They are pouring across while there is one girl who apparently we cannot get into this country, although I would have thought she has a rock-solid asylum case. We go on and on as a Government saying how we have a wonderful record on asylum seekers. Let us give asylum here to people who are genuinely being persecuted, and let us deal with the economic migrant issue. The more economic migrants who are breaking the rules and pouring into the country, the fewer genuine refugees we can take.
Pakistan is a very important issue. Between 2015 and 2019, Pakistan was the largest recipient of direct UK aid, so we must have enormous influence. I really must ask the Minister if we are using it. Last year, we had the report by the International Development Committee on UK aid to Pakistan, which is an important issue. We had a submission from the Institute of Development Studies, which notes that Pakistan requires special attention regarding freedom of religion but reports that
“not many resources have been dedicated to this”
within the then Department for International Development’s work on Pakistan. It adds:
“There is some focus on it through education programmes,”
but that has been
“a very small part of its overall programmes.”
Can the Minister update us on whether that is still the case? When we are doling out so much taxpayers’ money, why are we so supine when it comes to using our influence? What is the point of funding Governments that either run roughshod over freedom of religion or refuse to lift a finger to support it?
I want to be completely fair and deal with persecution of Muslims as well.
Blasphemy laws such as Pakistan’s section 298 persecute people who share the overarching beliefs of the majority but are oppressed because they fall into a different branch of the religion, such as the Muslim Ahmadiyya community, which suffers enormous persecution in Pakistan. Does the right hon. Gentleman think there is anything the international community can do to encourage not just tolerance but respect of beliefs in countries such as Pakistan?
I agree entirely—that is the purpose of these debates. As we are only a group of Back Benchers, we ask our Government to raise the issue up the agenda and talk about all these minorities, wherever they are in the world, and view it as an important part of the Government’s work.
We have seen casual violence against Muslims in India, a country with which we hope to have very close and friendly relations. I hope that our Ministers are raising that issue.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I want to draw his attention again to the key matter of the home demolition policy in India, which is destroying Indian Muslims’ foundation for stability and even life. Does he share my outrage at that policy and agree with the all-party parliamentary group on human rights when it says that India is a “diminishing democracy”?
It is obviously a very worrying situation. I do not want to go into too much detail on it, partly because I am not sufficiently briefed. However, the fact is that this casual violence is there. We should be concerned about that, in what is the largest democracy in the world.
The situation in Nigeria is dire. Just this month, a Catholic church in Owo was stormed by militants, leaving 50 dead. Imagine that: 50 people killed in a church. Bureaucrats here and in other western countries try to blame the violence in Nigeria on climate change and the competition for resources. I have heard their excuses again and again—“There are different tribes; there are hunter-gatherers; there are arable farmers.”—but it simply does not wash. However much it departs from our comfortable, western, liberal mentality, the fact is that there is outright genocidal persecution of Christians by extremists in Nigeria. Members do not have to listen to me; the Catholic Bishop of Ondo, in whose diocese the attack took place, clarified that:
“To suggest or make a connection between victims of terror and consequences of climate change is not only misleading but also exactly rubbing salt to the injuries of all who have suffered terrorism in Nigeria.”
We need our Ministers and civil servants to be honest. This is communal hatred and violent persecution. It is not about water supply or irrigation. It does not just affect Christians, although they are the canary in the mine. To be entirely fair, I have also pestered Ministers about Mr Mubarak Bala, the head of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, who is facing 24 years in prison for leaving Islam. That is another case that we should perhaps try to pursue.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing that forward. When he and I were in Nigeria, we had the opportunity to make that very point, and I hope that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), will mention that in his contribution. We were pleased at the response from the Government, so we are hoping that there may be some movement on that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very helpful intervention.
We have been very good at isolating Russia. We have heard about the complications in Ukraine, with the appalling violence by Russia against Ukraine and the churches that have been destroyed by bombing. Frankly, we have not been so good at taking on China over the persecution of the Muslim Uyghurs, which has reached dystopian genocidal levels. It is a disgrace. I am all in favour of good relations with China, maximising trade and promoting prosperity. I understand that our influence with the Chinese Government—the Government of a very large, proud country—is limited, but we cannot shirk our duty, despite the economic impact. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.
The Government could help UK business and industry to pivot away from China, even if it takes years, if progress is not made on the persecution of the Uyghurs. If a business’s factory is in China, move it to Malaysia, Indonesia or Africa. If its research and development is in China, move it to Israel or Singapore, or perhaps even to Manchester, Dundee or Belfast. Our influence is limited, and my point is also directed at our own companies that are sourcing products from the area where the Uyghurs are being persecuted. What is going on there is a disgrace. Although our influence is limited, what influence we have we should use. We should not be afraid to speak out, whatever the impact on trade might be.
Freedom of religion or belief is one of the most essential human rights. It is under enormous threat all over the world. Our Government should be the leader in the world in speaking out in favour of religious minorities and their rights. The Government should expand the office of the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief and resource it properly. I welcome the appointment of David Burrowes as deputy to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. I hope that, just as we have acted with so much vigour in Ukraine, we can act with equal vigour to protect religious minorities of whatever faith, wherever they are in the world.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I commend the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this debate. Let me take this opportunity to thank her for her ongoing work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief—I can think of no one better suited to fulfil that role. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his ongoing work in the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. He is always a strong voice on this issue.
The freedoms we enjoy here in the United Kingdom came at a high price. For those who fought and died to secure our freedoms, we are forever in their debt. But having received that gift of freedom, we have a duty to do what we can to ensure that others, whoever they may be, who are living in fear under surveillance, threatened with imprisonment or death, are moving towards freedom, not further persecution. On a regular basis I raise that persecution with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Sadly, all too often it follows an attack on or slaughter of believers.
In the short time available, I want to mention two places where I urge the Government to do more, and which I hope will be a focus in the forthcoming ministerial conference. The first is Nigeria. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford eloquently outlined some of the points already. Open Doors, which we all know does an amazing job as a voice for the persecuted church, reports that in the first three months of 2022, 896 Nigerian civilians were killed in violent attacks, including hundreds of Christians who were murdered because of their faith by extremist Islamic militants.
Nigeria is No. 7 on the Open Doors world watch list. More Christians are killed for their faith in Nigeria than in the rest of the world combined. The situation in Nigeria for those who follow Jesus is becoming increasingly dangerous, as greater collaboration emerges among Islamic militants. I urge the Foreign Office to do more to highlight what is happening in Nigeria and to work with the international community to address this horrific situation.
Secondly, I want to mention Myanmar. It is a matter of regret, but all too often the reality, that the international community move on to the next crisis and forget the one that went before. Myanmar remains in turmoil. The junta are still in control. With that control they are targeting religious minorities, including many Christians, who are often targeted by the Buddhist national military to suppress opposition. Majority Christian villages are being bombed and churches have been targeted. It is not only Christians who have been persecuted in Myanmar, however. Notably, thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been driven out of the country as well.
While there is so much focus on Ukraine, which is right, let the international community not forget Myanmar. Indeed, let there be a redoubling of efforts to restore democracy in that land, for the protection of all. Let me take the opportunity to mention a church in my constituency, Newmills Presbyterian church, which is doing amazing work with the Myanmar people. The church has a great feeling for those who are caught up in the turmoil.
My speaking time has almost run out, but let me conclude by urging those attending the conference to focus on outcomes and on acting to protect Christians in those places of persecution. Let the conference also focus on ensuring that those who wish to go there to spread the good news of Christ, evangelistically or practically, are safe to do so.
Thank you, Mr McCabe; it is good to see you in the Chair this morning. I, too, thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this important debate, and I thank everyone who has taken part. The debate has been extremely useful and thoughtful, and we have discussed not just what we can expect from next week’s conference, but the wider challenges of protecting people’s right to worship how, when and with whom they want, as well as defending the rights of those who have no faith or belief.
I am here primarily as the SNP’s international human rights spokesperson, but I am also taking part because I am an active member—indeed, I am secretary—of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The APPG is led ably, as we have heard, by the formidable and ever impressive hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I am an active member of the group because I believe that how a country, or a regime, treats an issue of freedom of religion or belief is usually an accurate indicator of how it views the importance of the human rights of its citizens more generally. For me, the APPG is a human rights groups and an important part of the wider community of human rights defenders.
As we have heard all too often this morning, the need for groups such as ours to shine a light on FORB abuses has never been greater, which is why we in the SNP are delighted that next week’s ministerial conference in London is taking place. We will support any moves to push for greater global action to support FORB, and we stand in solidarity with those beleaguered communities and those brave individuals whose fundamental human right to worship, or not, as they wish is under sustained attack. It is critical that, while we all get behind the call for greater global action, arrangements are put in place to ensure that the delegates to the conference get to hear directly from those religious groups, those humanist organisations and others that are, day in and day out, directly affected by the violence being perpetrated on them on the basis of their religion or belief.
I hope that the policymakers who gather in London next week are able to hear at first hand from the people in Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Myanmar, Xinjiang, Iran and elsewhere in the world who do not enjoy the freedoms that we take for granted. I thank the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for raising once again the case of Maira Shahbaz. I hope the Minister will remind the Home Secretary of the extreme importance of the case and the commitments that were made almost exactly a year ago.
Hundreds of millions of people are living in fear of persecution simply because of the convictions they hold or the faith they profess, and we have a great deal of work to do to protect them from those who would do them harm simply for practising their faith. As we have heard from several Members, there is no typical model of how that persecution manifests itself. It can come in the form of direct suppression or state suppression, or a heavy-handed crackdown, as we would recognise in China and its disgraceful treatment of the Uyghur Muslim population. They have been subjected to the most awful systematic and widespread abuses imaginable, at a scale and ferocity that is almost unparalleled in modern times.
The suppression of the 350,000-strong Baha’i community in Iran is another example of a state using its power to persecute and discriminate against a community because of religious belief and to deny people’s fundamental right to practise their faith. In 2019 the United Nations recognised the Baha’i community as one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world.
Of course, religious persecution can come from well-organised, well-armed and well-funded terrorist organisations, such as Daesh. Its attacks on the Yazidi people have been recognised by many, including many in this Parliament, as genocide. The attack on Sinjar by Daesh killed thousands. We do not know how many thousands because, to this day, the graves of men and boys are being discovered. We are well aware of the barbaric treatment suffered by Yazidi women, who suffered rape, torture, sexual enslavement, forced sterilisation and all manner of inhumane and degrading treatment by their captors. I take the opportunity to remind the House that, despite the military defeat of Daesh, 2,700 Yazidi women and girls are still missing and unaccounted for after all these years.
As the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned, I was on the APPG’s visit to Nigeria with him and Baroness Cox. We went there to speak with Christian and Muslim religious leaders, civil society activists, people who had been displaced by ethnic and religious violence, and Nigerian politicians. We were also there to highlight the case of Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, who in April was sentenced to 24 years in jail for blasphemy. I assure the right hon. Member for Gainsborough that we raised the issue directly with the Nigerian Government, and indeed one of our group had a lengthy meeting with a member of Mubarak’s family, so it is an issue that we are aware of and will not let go.
As the hon. Member for Strangford said, it was a challenging visit, particularly when we were told by almost everyone we met that everything in Nigeria is seen through the prism of religion. All too often people are excluded and abandoned and the cleric, however radical, has replaced the Government as the voice of authority. We saw that for ourselves where we were there. The head of the Methodist Church and two other clerics were kidnapped. Just a week after we came back, 50 Nigerians were murdered in an appalling terrorist attack at St Francis Catholic church in Owo in the hitherto relatively peaceful state of Ondo. That was another worrying indicator that the violence usually seen in the north and the middle belt is spreading to the south of the country.
As the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) said, Nigeria is seventh on the Open Doors watch list of places where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. If that watch list was done purely on levels of violence experienced, Nigeria would be at the top. These are incredibly dangerous times for Nigeria. Given the history that the United Kingdom has with Nigeria, we have a particular responsibility to help the people there and do all we can to bring peace, stability and security to that country.
However, there is hope. There is a civil society that is desperate to build a new country and there are religious leaders, both Muslim and Christian, who are doing great work in bringing communities together, but their efforts are being hampered by the endemic corruption that exists in Nigeria. I remember one meeting in which a woman told us that corruption has left people, particularly the young, without hope, and that feeling of exclusion is one of the main drivers of increasing conflict. She told us that politics is so divided in Nigeria that politicians have nothing left to sell other than division, and they stand on a platform of not being a Muslim or not being a Christian because they have no other vision to sell.
There are signs of hope, because people do not want to live in a country ridden with religious division and appalling acts of religion-based violence. Supporting civil society and bringing an end to endemic corruption is a prerequisite if Nigeria is to pull itself back from the brink, and we have to be part of making that happen. That includes supporting the rights of people such as Mubarak Bala and other humanists to hold the beliefs that they do.
One of the organisations we joined with in Nigeria was Bellwether International, a non-governmental organisation that works in pre-genocide and post-genocide communities and has a significant presence in the internally displaced persons camps. Bellwether’s founder and chief executive officer, Rachel Miner, came with us to Abuja and observed:
“The importance of Freedom of Religion or Belief cannot be underestimated. It has the power to bridge the gap between the very worst of society and the very best. Together we can bring the best of society to the world and preserve human rights and human dignity at the same time.”
That is what we should be looking for from next week’s ministerial conference.
We have a fantastic opportunity to use the powers we have to bring the international community together and to highlight and call out abuses of freedom of religion and belief when we see them, without fear or favour, even when it is our own friends who are doing it and it is not perceived to be in our economic interest to do so. I sincerely hope that the UK Government take this unique opportunity to lay out their long-term strategy for tackling religious persecution around the world.
As always, Mr McCabe, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), whom I would like to call my hon. Friend, on securing this debate. She and I served together for three years on the International Development Committee nine years ago, and I saw then, as I do now, her complete commitment to an issue that is so important to humanity, human rights and civilisation. I thank her for her consistent championing of freedom of religion or belief in this place.
The hon. Lady opened the debate by saying that we can never be complacent about peace and stability—and hasn’t that come true in today’s world? Freedom of religion or belief is under threat, especially from people’s own Governments, which is something we should be deeply concerned about. She mentioned the rising levels of intolerance and oppression by authoritarian Governments throughout the world, the increasing use of technology for repression of freedom of religion or belief and the discrimination that damages democracies so badly, and she was absolutely right to say that FORB benefits us all. It promotes global peace and wellbeing, and it is as critical now as ever.
Of course, the hon. Lady mentioned the ministerial conference on FORB that will take place in London next week. I have just spoken to the Dutch ambassador about that conference; he will be attending and was delighted that he will be there. Survivors of persecution will be there to give their own testimony, which is vital: there is no substitute for hearing from those people. As the hon. Lady said, achieving real change will require international collaboration on freedom of religion or belief. She praised the UK’s cross-party work in this Parliament, which she said is pre-eminent around the world. That is absolutely true and I agree with her.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—again, my hon. Friend—who is always present at these debates. He is well known for his championing of freedom of religion or belief, especially the freedom of Christians from persecution. As we are all aware, he is chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, and he has made it very clear that this issue is close to his heart. He talked about his recent visit to Poland and, as he says, he speaks out not just for Christians who are oppressed but for all faiths. Thank goodness he does: his voice is a powerful one in this House.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned something that is very important: the freedom to choose not to believe, which is so essential in today’s world and always has been. He mentioned, as did other hon. Members, visiting Nigeria to witness the shocking violations of freedom of religion or belief in person.
Christians face persecution in many parts of the world, and that persecution is on the rise. It is estimated that around 91% of the murders of Christians happen in Africa, despite the continent having the highest number of Christians in the world. What can we achieve with our international partners, through the conference, that can help to relieve the pressure on Governments in countries such as Nigeria to tackle this problem?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Perhaps that question is better directed at the Minister, but from my point of view we need conferences such as the one being held next week in London. We also need, as I think the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, more resources and more authority behind the individuals, such as the hon. Member for Congleton, who do their very best to ensure that freedom of religion and belief is a worldwide human right and that that right is enforced. Perhaps we need the United Nations to intervene as well; I do not know, but I would be happy to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
The hon. Member for Strangford said—I think I have got this right—that on average 13 Christians are killed every day in Nigeria just for being a Christian. That is a shocking statistic and it mounts up to an appalling loss of life. I am sorry to say that it will be the same for other faiths, too. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government would prioritise the persecuted minorities in Afghanistan as well, because we know what is happening there. He also said he is a great believer in the power of prayer; long may that continue.
We then heard from the right hon. Member for Gainsborough, who quite rightly said that there is a long history of these debates—I have spoken in many of them. Gradually, we are raising interest in this subject, although I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree that doing so is a long haul. More Christians are now persecuted than ever before, but let us not forget the Muslims. He rightly mentioned the Shahbaz case, in which a 14-year-old was forcibly converted to Islam, married off, and then persecuted for leaving a faith that she had never held in the first place. He is right to continue to press the case with the British Government and with anybody who will listen. The Opposition support him in that effort and are willing to do whatever we can to help in that individual case, as well as in many similar cases. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned casual violence against Muslims in India and said that FORB is, of course, one of the most essential human rights.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), who talked about the Myanmar Christians being targeted by Buddhists. We all think of Buddhism as a peaceful religion, yet the Buddhist majority in that country is persecuting Christian minorities as well as, of course, the Rohingya Muslim people of that country. That is incomprehensible to most of us—indeed, to all of us in this Chamber. The hon. Lady also urged those of us who are attending the conference next week to focus on those being persecuted.
I have good reason to speak in this debate, not just because I am the appropriate shadow Minister but because my family has experience of religious persecution. My father escaped the increasing persecution of Jews in Europe to come to safety in this country in 1934, as a 12-year-old boy. We know what happened after 1934. His own parents were trapped in occupied Europe. Thankfully, his father was in Spain when France fell to the Nazis, but his mother was in occupied Paris, and it was only thanks to the generosity of the Portuguese authorities that she was able to get a Portuguese passport and therefore escape the persecution that her brothers had to suffer—one of them was murdered during the second world war. So this issue is very close to my heart.
I thank my hon. Friend the shadow Minister for talking about his family’s experience. I want to draw his attention to the issue of racism that exists even today—the antisemitism and Islamophobia that exists in the UK. Does he agree it is vital that all parliamentarians lead by example and reaffirm their commitment to religious tolerance and freedom of belief? Perhaps the Minister can also touch on this issue; maybe it is a good time to accept the definition of Islamophobia. The Government have had three years to adopt the definition that all the other political parties have adopted. Why have they not done that when nearly half of religious hate crimes every year are committed against Muslims?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have been in this place for 25 years and I have not come across any colleagues, from any part of this House, who believe in religious persecution and who do not try to lead by example. That is really important. I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and I am sure the Minister will reply to the points directed at her.
When we see persecution still rife across the world, it is more important than ever that we, as parliamentarians from all the sides of the House, reaffirm our commitment to the values and principles set out in the 2021 G7 summit communiqué, which specifically referenced freedom of religion or belief for the first time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) pointed out, we have our own problems at home, with several forms of racism throughout society—whether it is antisemitism, Islamophobia or any other prejudice—but freedom of religion or belief must also be at the heart of our foreign policy. Where we are able to empower and promote individual and collective freedoms, we must do so. That is vital to international peace and stability, as so many hon. Members have pointed out.
It is just as important that we challenge those who choose to persecute others on the basis of their belief. As we have heard this morning, almost every religion around the world has been persecuted or subject to repression as a result of an individual’s faith, but we must not forget the people who are being persecuted for being non-believers, as many Members have mentioned. The fact that at least 13 countries still have the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy is extremely worrying, but in many more countries people have been murdered for simply choosing not to believe. At least 83 countries have blasphemy laws more generally, with 30 countries classified by the Freedom of Thought Report as guilty of grave violations against the non-religious. This must be challenged in the strongest possible terms by the international community.
Just last week, we had the deeply disturbing news that the US Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade. As parliamentarians who believe in a free and equal society, we must make it clear that that ruling was a devastating setback for women’s rights in the United States. The right of women to make their own decisions about their own bodies is a fundamental human right too, and it should not be interfered with in the name of faith or religion. Those who have faith, but also believe that access to abortion is a right that should be protected, will now be in an extremely difficult position and may be forced to choose between their faith and their political belief.
I respect the hon. Member’s opinion on this matter, but I remind him about the baby in the womb and the rights of the unborn child. So often we talk about the rights of women, which is right and correct—as a woman, I want to see rights for women—but in every pregnancy and every journey there are two lives. Both lives matter and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to think about the baby in the womb.
I fully respect the hon. Lady’s commitment and belief, but I also respect the right of other women to choose what happens to them and their own bodies. However, as you said, Mr McCabe, we should get back to the issue we are debating today.
The Government say they are
“deeply concerned about the severity and scale of violations and abuses of FoRB in many parts of the world. Persecuting people, or discriminating against them, because of their religion or belief is often closely linked to other foreign and development policy challenges.”
With that in mind, will the Minister outline what measures the Government have taken recently as a result of the abuses of FORB? Will she give us examples of where the UK is tackling this problem?
Finally, I pay tribute to Rodney Ross and Alan Fell for their work in documenting and commemorating the contribution of British Jews during the first world war. Sadly, it is an often forgotten subject and I am delighted that their project will become a permanent record of the lives of the Jewish community in Leeds and throughout the country from 1914 to 1918. I commend their website to anyone interested in the subject.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I start, as others have, by saying how grateful we are to our hon. Friend—we are collectively calling her our hon. Friend—the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for securing this important debate and for focusing the attention of Members on the Government’s upcoming ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief. I also thank our hon. Friend for all she does to advance freedom of religion or belief, as the Prime Minister’s special envoy and as chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.
I am grateful to Members for their comments and interventions and will try to cover many of the points raised. Let me be clear that the Government are unwavering in our commitment to promote freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere. Next week, we will demonstrate that commitment by hosting the UK’s first ministerial conference on the issue. It will bring together more than 500 delegates from more than 60 countries around the world. Representatives will include Ministers, but also representatives from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Baha’í and non-religious communities.
As the hon. Member for Congleton so rightly said, involving civil society is vital to championing freedom of religion or belief. The ministerial event will be complemented by a fringe conference organised by parliamentarians and civil society. All countries have an obligation to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief. We will share knowledge and build coalitions to take forward work on important areas, including gender equality, conflict and digital technology.
Many Members who took part in the debate mentioned women in particular. Around the world, millions of women and girls experience discrimination and violence on the grounds of their religion or belief, as well as their gender, and we will use the conference to advocate for them.
In war-torn and insecure places, people are often politically and economically marginalised because of their religion or belief. We will use the conference to stand up for marginalised groups and to advance open societies where tensions are managed peacefully and human rights are protected and promoted.
The internet has given people a new platform to express their beliefs, but it also provides a tool for harassment and persecution. We will use the conference to advance ideas to protect religious belief groups online. Discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief is a global issue that transcends borders. We will use the conference to encourage our international partners to join us in making new commitments around those key policy areas.
The conference is just the latest step in the UK’s leadership on freedom for religion or belief. It coincides with the third anniversary of the Bishop of Truro’s report on the FCDO’s support for persecuted Christians around the world. The bishop has been on the conference’s advisory committee and will speak at the conference.
I pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon for his work as the first UK envoy for freedom of religion or belief and for his leadership on this agenda as the Minister for human rights, which has involved working closely with ministerial teams across the FCDO, as well as with our hon. Friend the hon. Member for Congleton, who is so relentless in her commitment to promote freedom of religion or belief. Work is continuing to deliver on the Bishop’s review recommendations. I can confirm that an independent review of our progress will be published in the near future.
The Government’s work to promote freedom of religion or belief broadly splits into three strands: action at home, collaboration with international partners and taking action on cases of concern around the world. To have influence abroad, we must set an example at home, so Government-funded programmes in the UK protect the rights of members of all communities to live free from fear, hate and violence. Our Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks programme enables people to report anti-Muslim hate crimes easily. Our support for the Community Security Trust helps to combat racism and antisemitism towards British Jews. Our commitment to turn our Online Safety Bill into law will also help to protect religious and belief groups online.
The second strand of our work is fortifying international efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief, including through the UN, the G7, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and the international contact group. Last year, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad chaired a meeting of the UN Security Council to address the persecution of religious minorities in conflict zones, including in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The third strand of our work is raising cases of concern and bringing other countries with us on this journey.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) spoke movingly about his family history of overcoming challenges to freedom of religion or belief. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also spoke movingly. In this place, we say that where Members are from is the place they represent today. The hon. Gentleman was, of course, born in Omagh, County Tyrone, the place of my own birth. As a child born and raised in Omagh, County Tyrone, during the early days of the troubles and as they continued, a lesson I have carried all my life is the importance of listening to others who have a different religious perspective, learning about what they believe in, and doing that with compassion to bring the sides together and reduce conflict. That is what a lot of our work overseas endeavours to do.
The hon. Members for Strangford, for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) and others mentioned the situation in Nigeria. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was the first to raise the case of the humanist Mubarak Bala. I thank the hon. Members who raised his case during the recent APPG trip—that was very appreciated—and I also raised it in a call with Nigerian Foreign Minister Onyeama last month. I particularly raised the length of Mr Bala’s sentencing, about which many Members are very concerned. We are following the case closely. Individuals must be able to express their opinions freely.
A number of Members spoke about the situation in Nigeria. We condemn all incidents of intercommunal violence in Nigeria, which continue to have a devastating effect on communities, including Christian and Muslim communities. We recognise that religious identity is a factor in many incidents of violence and that it can form an important part of the identity of the groups affected. However, the underlying drivers are often complex and frequently relate to competition over resources, criminality and historical grievances, so the question is: what do we do about that? We are working on a number of initiatives to promote peace, human rights and freedom of religion or belief across Nigeria. We have funded projects in Kaduna, Plateau and Benue states aimed at promoting tolerance and understanding, and strengthening links and dialogue between civil society groups, religious leaders and religious and non-religious groups. We also advocate for responsible journalism. All that takes place alongside other projects to tackle the other causes driving conflict.
I am particularly pleased that no fewer than 14 delegates from Nigeria have registered for the conference here. That includes groups working on interfaith dialogue. That is a real example of people from challenged areas around the world coming to this global conference, bringing their problems to share with others, and learning from others about how they can better tackle the issue.
A few other parts of the world have been mentioned. Earlier this month, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad spoke to Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about protecting religious and belief minorities there, as well as about the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. In March, the Foreign Secretary spoke out about the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet in an address at the UN Human Rights Council. The Prime Minister raised his concern about the human rights situation in China in a phone call with President Xi on 25 March.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann mentioned Myanmar, where we are deeply concerned about the vulnerability of religious minorities and reports of the destruction of places of worship. We regularly condemn the violence on the ground and are funding the independent investigative mechanism for Myanmar to bolster the work of collecting evidence of serious human rights violations. We regularly raise this issue at the UN Security Council.
We have heard from many Members that religious persecution is still rife across the world. It is important that the UK challenges those who choose to persecute others on the basis of their belief, so will the Minister finally commit to sanctioning Chen Quanguo, the chief architect of the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang?
I have to be really careful not to make comments that could put an individual or her family’s life at risk. I am afraid that that is all I can say on the matter right now.
I will comment on the very moving situation in Ukraine, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton did. It is heart-wrenching to see the destruction of churches, and it is absolutely right that we should condemn all violations of international law pertaining to the protection of places of worship and cultural heritage, especially in Ukraine. She is also absolutely right to commend the bravery of the people of Ukraine—a country that celebrates a huge diversity of religion and a multiplicity of belief. Putin is trying to use disinformation to distract the world from the horrors of his illegal war and the Kremlin’s false statements dishonouring those who fought to defeat Nazism in Europe. Nearly 2,000 years ago, St Paul wrote to the Ephesians and urged them to
“Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist.”
It is absolutely right that, 2,000 years later, we also stand firm for truth and call out Russian mistruths.
I close by repeating the Government’s firm belief that no one should suffer because of what they believe in. I really welcome the enthusiasm for the conference that we have heard today, and I hope that many Members will take part in it, because the Government are looking forward to continuing to work with all interested parties to advance freedom of religion or belief for all.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their powerful speeches and interventions, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), the hon. Members for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), the hon. Members for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), and others. I also thank the Minister for responding.
Let it never be said that any of us in this place with a particular faith do not speak out on FORB for all those who are persecuted, whatever their faiths or beliefs, and we have seen that today. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for speaking out as they have done, particularly on the Truro review. I can confirm that work will continue on it, because it is part of my mandate to ensure that it does, and it is also a manifesto commitment. That my appointment was made by the Prime Minister provides a signal internationally of the Government’s commitment—right at the very top—to FORB for all, as does the ministerial on FORB that will be held next week in London. I am proud that the UK is demonstrating this global leadership—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Bottom Trawling: Marine Protected Areas
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
I probably do not need to do this for a former Leader of the House, but I should point out that I am going to call Chris Grayling and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity to wind up, as is the convention in a 30-minute debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Bottom trawling in Marine Protected Areas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. This may be unusual for a half-hour debate, but there are a number of colleagues here who may want to briefly join the discussion. The Minister knows that this is an issue of great concern to me. We have been here before, and I did a ten-minute rule Bill on this issue last year, but I want to keep it on the agenda. It commands concern across not just our House but the other place, where my noble Friend Lord Randall has taken my Bill from last year, improved it and tabled it again this year, and I wish him well with progress on it. I know that, without Government help, it will struggle to reach the statute book, but I hope that that is another indication to Ministers and officials of the strength of feeling about the issue.
Why does this issue command so much concern? The Government are rightly focused on improving our stewardship of the environment, and most people on both sides of the House share that view. Most of the public, who also share our concerns, would think that the presence of marine protected areas, covering around a third of our national waters, would play a big part in ensuring that we look after our own marine habitats. Whether we are talking about the smaller fish, the other creatures that live on reefs or the fish that live in broader areas around those marine protected areas—areas that we would hope would allow fish populations to recover and grow—the public would see those as central to our task of protecting the marine environment.
Sadly, as the Minister knows, the truth has been rather different. Our marine protected areas do not offer a lot of protection at all, particularly for our seabeds. The areas at the bottom of the sea are so important, because they are populated by the smallest creatures, which make up an important part of the natural food chains in our oceans. However, they remain open to large-scale trawlers dragging nets along the bottom, destroying much of what is in their path. The worst culprits are big international vessels that do enormous damage, as they use vast amounts of energy to scoop up everything as they go, and they have equipment that covers a vast area under water. That means, in reality, that those protected areas are subject to regular intensive fishing, which does huge damage to the ecology.
In total, less than 100th of 1% of our waters are covered by the highest level of protection, where all fishing is banned. Ninety-four per cent. of our MPAs permit bottom trawling; only 6% do not. That, in my view, means that they really are not properly marine protected areas at all. There is an urgency about the need for change. We cannot go on like this, because the more time passes, the more damage is done and the more ecology is lost. We have 372 marine protected areas, including coastal and offshore areas, which represent around 38% of UK waters. However, most are not in good condition and have suffered significant habitat degradation. Bottom trawling is a key part, if not the key part, of the problem, with that scalping of the sea floor destroying habitats all around our coastal waters.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it must be remembered that fishermen have the world’s greatest reason to be environmentalists? They know that if they get it wrong, they have done themselves and future generations out of a job. Consultation with long-standing fishermen must play a large part in any conversations regarding marine protected areas. Does he agree?
Yes, I do agree. Fishing communities need to be a part of the discussion, and local fishing communities in the United Kingdom are pretty good at looking after their coastal waters. The problem is the big guys who come in and hoover the ocean floor. It is necessary to get the right balance, but we have to do a much better job on protection.
I am grateful that my right hon. Friend is championing this matter, because it is so important, and I think there would be strong support on the Isle of Wight for a ban on bottom trawling in all MPAs. In a place such as the Island, a ban on bottom trawling in MPAs combined with, for example, a Reserve Seafood brand, as in Lyme Bay, would be very good news. In Lyme Bay, we see increased catches, increased job satisfaction and increased prices for the fish when fishing is done environmentally and sensitively. I am very supportive of that, and I look forward to helping my right hon. Friend in future.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes some very good points. This is about proper, careful stewardship of the ocean and the ocean floor. As he rightly says, if these things are done well, it can benefit everyone.
Of course, there is another issue, because this is not just about scalping the seabed; it is also about our ability to tackle climate change and absorb carbon. It is not just the fish and other creatures that suffer because of bottom trawling. Kelp and seagrass are enormously important as well, and are a crucial part of improving our absorption of carbon emissions. We know that bottom trawling can destroy them as well, so there is a variety of reasons why we need to deal with this issue.
One irony is that, from time to time, I get messages from constituents who did not back Brexit asking me what benefits it has brought the country. I remember many people saying that Brexit would mean the destruction of all our environmental protections and that Britain would become a pariah nation, but the opposite is true. We can now do something that we could not do before. Bottom trawling was just a reality of the common fisheries policy, and the Minister would have struggled to take the steps that I have been pushing for. We would have had real difficulty overcoming either the vested interests in fishing fleets elsewhere or those countries that have no coast and that were not terribly interested in the issue in the first place. We are now free to act, and I thank the Minister for what she has done so far—the issue today is not a Minister who is saying no. I know she is sympathetic, for which I am grateful. I also know that she continues to face international pressures, and I encourage her to keep resisting those.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is absolutely right that we have to be mindful of the livelihoods of those who work on smaller fishing boats and in the ports around the UK. My Bill was not about getting rid of all of that. History shows that many ports are home to people who are good at managing their fisheries. It is the large boats that we need to deal with, and the Minister has made a good start with the initiation of a ban in four of the protected areas, including Dogger Bank. Well done to her for that step in the right direction.
I asked for this debate so that I could ask the Minister and her officials to move faster on their plans and so that I could share concerns about the approach taken so far. We really need to get on with this as rapidly as possible. There will be more and more pressure in this place to cover not just the first handful of MPAs but a whole raft of them. Although there has been a good start, I sense that progress so far is still much slower than most of us would wish. Of course, officials will want to take a careful and methodical approach, but there is not a lot of time to spare. The more time we take, the more damage is done, and the more damage is done, the longer the ecosystems will take to recover.
Not only is damage done, but the damage is increasing. In 2019, Greenpeace found that the amount of time supertrawlers spent fishing in marine protected areas had more than doubled, to 2,913 hours, in that year alone. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we have a real opportunity now to ban supertrawlers in every single MPA as a quick early win and then to help fishers move to different gear types to be more sustainable in their methods?
It is, as the hon. Gentleman says, the big vessels that are the problem. I am sure the Minister will take a careful note of those comments, with which I am extremely sympathetic.
There is another point of concern that I would like to put to the Minister. Not all of the protected areas are uniform in their underwater terrain. There are areas where there are reefs of great sensitivity surrounded by areas of sand on the seabed. That is just the reality of MPAs. The Marine Management Organisation, which is implementing the bans, seems not to be taking a uniform approach to all the protected areas. In some, it is deciding to ban bottom trawling in part of the MPA but not all of it. Effectively, it is saying, “You’ve got sandy seabeds, and they are not affected at all.” I can understand, in theory, the logic behind that. The argument has been made to me by some in the fishing community, but I ask the Minister to think carefully about this.
First, it is going to be incredibly difficult to police. Who will be monitoring the movements of a trawler to establish whether it has approached or gone over the top of a protected reef?
MPAs are monitored by the automatic identification system. In a recent incident on the Irish sea, not only did a fishing vessel swear at me over the radio and fail to display the correct lights, but it had also turned off its AIS, which meant that we could not monitor what those fishermen were doing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, even though we have the international convention for the safety of life at sea, we need legislation to ensure that the AIS systems remain working on commercial fishing vessels?
I absolutely agree. Frankly, I think that any fishing vessel that comes into UK waters and turns off the tracking systems should be banned from UK waters. It is as simple as that.
Whatever we do, we have to police very carefully. Problems arise if we only proscribe bottom trawling in part of a marine protected area. How on earth do we check whether a vessel has really passed over a protected reef or not? Who is policing that, watching the vessel every inch of the way and coming up with sufficient evidence to make it legally watertight to prosecute if it does it? Although it may be possible to segregate in a small number of areas where it is clear that that is the obvious thing to do, my message to the Minister is to please make that a rare exception rather than the norm. I do not believe that we have the ability to track and police those areas properly.
The other point about sandy seabeds is that they are not always areas of non-ecological importance. The opposite is often the case. These are areas with seagrass or kelp, and there are fish that live there as well. We cannot just say that it is fine to bottom trawl sandy seabeds but not if there is a reef there. Segmenting an area should be the exception, not the rule. The whole MPA should mean the whole MPA, and only very rarely should we take a different approach. The default position should be that the ban covers the whole area, and it is only in exceptional circumstances that we should we accept that bottom trawling can continue.
I stress that, whether we are talking about segregation of MPAs or a wholesale ban, this needs to be properly policed. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made a very good point. We have to have mechanisms in place, and we have to be tough. If somebody comes into our waters, breaks the rules and damages the ecology, I do not see why they should be allowed in our waters again—or, if they are a UK boat, why they should be allowed out to sea again. We want tough enforcement. In looking at what the Government are doing, I urge the Minister to act in this area.
This issue commands concern across the House. Concerns are held widely among people around the country—in fishing communities and elsewhere. We have to be careful about protecting the livelihood of people in the small boats that go out into coastal waters. They are, and have been for years, an essential part of the livelihoods of people in our smaller fishing ports. We cannot say to the fishing community, “No more. Away you go. Do something else.” That is absolutely not what this is about. This is about stopping industrial trawling in marine protected areas and getting rid of the equipment that scalps the seabed. It is about having proper protections for areas of great ecological importance and looking after our oceans better than we have in the past.
I thank the Minister for making a good start in this area. I know that she has had to fight battles to get the first four areas. It is a good start, but this cannot go step by step. I know that civil servants like to take things methodically sometimes, and I completely understand why—we will come back to the issue of due diligence following the Environment Act 2021 before too long—but we need to move as fast as possible. Otherwise, we are leaving our seabeds to be damaged and damaged again by trawlers that are getting bigger and bigger, and it will take our seabeds, reefs and marine species far too long to recover.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. It is also a great pleasure to be here with my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and other colleagues with interests in fish. We meet relatively regularly in this Chamber to discuss various fishy issues.
I am particularly interested in this issue and I think that this has been a really useful contribution to the debate on MPAs. Our network of MPAs is one of our most important tools for protecting the wide range of precious and sensitive habitats and species that our water contains. We have established a comprehensive network of MPAs in the UK; we have 178 in England, covering 40% of English waters. In fact—perhaps I have not explained this sufficiently widely before—bottom trawling is already banned in 102 of those 178 MPAs.
MPAs protect specific features within the designated site to allow those features to recover to a favourable condition, meaning that they are in a good and healthy state. One example is the Solent and Dorset coast special protection area, which protects internationally important terns. Birds and other species can also be a critical part of the MPA network. The SPA is very important to the terns, as much of the sea around their breeding colonies is the ideal habitat for their plunge feeding.
We know that designating the MPAs is only part of the story. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said, it is essential that they are properly protected; otherwise, they can do no good at all. We also recognise that there are growing spatial tensions between industries such as fishing, dredging, oil and gas and the renewable energies sector, alongside the very real need to conserve and enhance our marine environment.
Bottom trawling is a broad term used to describe methods of pulling fishing gear along the seabed to catch both fish and shellfish. Bottom-towed gears fall broadly into three groups—trawls, dredges and seines—with multiple types of gears within those groups. Bottom trawls are used by all parts of the fishing fleet, from small day boats to large offshore vessels. It is fair to say that all types of vessels can cause real damage if the wrong type of gear is used in the wrong way. The main effects of bottom trawling are linked to the scraping of the seabed by the fishing gear.
We need to be aware that approximately 45% of the value of the fish landed in the UK comes from bottom trawling, which includes cod, plaice and scallops. It is therefore important that we work with the fishing sector as we begin progressively to reduce the adverse effects of these types of fishing methods.
The Minister is making a sound case of stating where we are up to. However, does she note that the supertrawlers, of which the UK has none and which so plunder many of our MPAs, land their fish in foreign ports? Many of our bottom trawlers already fish outside MPAs and land in UK ports. However, the trawlers over which there is real concern have no economic benefit to the UK because they land their fish abroad.
The hon. Gentleman touches on a very important point, and I will be coming to supertrawlers later. As ever, we have to find the balance between actions that we know are not great for the environment and the economic benefit to and protection of coastal communities and the processing that is so valuable to so many of those communities. That is the point I am trying to make: this is an important and delicate balance. It is important that we recognise the scale of the challenge. Some 45% of the value of fish landed in the UK comes from this type of gear. We must continue to work with rather than against the fishing industry in getting that balance right.
A blanket ban on bottom trawling has all the appeal of simplicity, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell makes the case in his typically persuasive manner. However, it is fair to say that not all MPAs are designated to protect features that are affected by bottom trawling. The MMO and IFCAs have embarked on a programme of detailed site-by-site analysis of each MPA. As I have said, they have done 102 bans of bottom trawling, so more than half—57%, I think—have already been dealt with in this way. Each assessment is informed by scientific advice, then byelaws are designed for each area. I do hear, however, what my right hon. Friend has said about making those byelaws sufficiently simple for fishermen to follow without difficulty. I recognise that that detailed approach takes more time than a blanket ban, but I think it is worth it to avoid unnecessary impacts on our fishing industry.
We have made the most progress in our inshore waters. There are 98 MPAs with byelaws in place to protect sensitive habitats and species from bottom trawling. The management measures have been brought in by engaging with the fishing industry, and also by engagement through the IFCA network, which has been very valuable in some cases.
My right hon. Friend was also seeking Brexit benefits. It is definitely true to say that in the offshore MPAs there is a benefit that we would not have been able to achieve without the benefit of Brexit. Before the end of the transition period, we really were restrained in implementing management measures in offshore MPAs because of vetoes imposed by other EU states that fished there. Now we are pressing on with protecting those areas too, and I am pleased to say that on 13 June we put in place byelaws to protect four of our most sensitive offshore areas, including Dogger Bank.
We are definitely not going to stop there, and last month we published a call for evidence on the next 13 offshore sites. We have developed a programme to bring in management for the other 23 offshore sites in English waters by 2024. That is a workstream with which I am determined to press ahead, ensuring that we keep this moving.
The MMO has fully engaged with the fishing industry in developing those plans, and will continue to do so, to ensure that they provide robust protection and that they do not restrict fishing any more than they need to. We will also continue to work with our international partners, and we will—while not allowing them to veto our plans —aim to include them in our consultation process.
Supertrawlers have been mentioned by several Members. Those vessels are usually pelagic trawlers. They fish in the water column. As such, they are not likely to come into contact with the seabed habitats and species, which is what most of our MPAs are designed to protect. They do, of course, have a significant effect on the stock that they are coming to target. They are extremely efficient at fishing and can fish a stock extraordinarily quickly, but, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) has said, do not always land the catch in this country. There are many reasons for continuing to look at whether supertrawlers bring us real benefit. I am not sure that the most persuasive of those is the MPA network, but that does not stop us continuing to assess them.
Site-based protection does not mitigate the impacts from those vessels that target migratory stocks, which many of them do, but we are looking closely at what our policies for those vessels should be, and it is important that those decisions should be based on the evidence.
Following the work of my dear friend Lord Benyon, we are ready to launch the next set of work on highly protected marine areas—those areas of the sea that allow for the protection and complete recovery of green ecosystems. We have shortlisted five pilot sites for consultation, which will start shortly. For HPMAs to be successful, we will need to work very closely with the local fishing industry, other marine industries and other sea users in designating, managing and monitoring what goes on in those areas. There is a great deal to be gained from those areas, both environmentally and scientifically, if we are able to get this work right, but it has to be done sensitively and relatively slowly.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell for introducing an interesting debate. Progress has been made, but he is right to keep pressing us on what we can do further to protect our precious marine environment.
Question put and agreed to.
Rights of Children (Police Custody)
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the rights of children while in police custody.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. In March, I led an Adjournment debate following the incredibly concerning case of a constituent who was held in a cell for nine hours before an appropriate adult was called. Unbeknown to his family, he had been missing; he had not arrived at school, and they were unaware of his whereabouts. From that case and many others of a similar nature, it is clear that the law is simply not working for children in police custody. There is room for further debates on the general policing of minors and children, but today’s debate is focused on the rights of children while in police custody.
I am sure the Minister knows that various legislative protections are in place to ensure that children are detained as a last resort, and for the shortest possible time. The failing is that this is clearly not happening, because the policies are being ignored. Some 50,000 children are held and locked up in police custody every year. Children are detained in cells in police stations that have primarily been built for adults. On average, children are detained for over 13 hours, with 21,369 detained overnight in 2019. The decision to detain children is approved 99% of the time, and it is time the whole process was reviewed.
According to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the role of the appropriate adult is to safeguard the interests, rights, entitlements and welfare of children and vulnerable people who are suspected of a criminal offence by ensuring that they are treated in a fair and just manner and can participate effectively. The Act derived from public concern over the Maxwell Confait murder case in my constituency in 1972, which led Parliament to pass the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, known as PACE. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Confait case, which involved a tragic murder and the wrongful arrest, charging and sentencing of minors, which was later overturned.
PACE tackled a number of areas of growing public concern, including the treatment of suspects in police stations and cells, the length of detention without being charged, the conduct of interviewers and access to lawyers. In cases where the suspect is a child or vulnerable person, PACE requires the presence of an appropriate adults, also known as AA.
I thank my hon. Friend not only for securing the debate, but for the really important speech she is giving. On the role of the appropriate adult and how it has evolved over the 50-year period, does she agree that there need to be more checks and balances on how appropriate adult schemes are used in our police stations, and that there needs to be greater monitoring and robust scrutiny of those roles to ensure that any child in custody has an appropriate adult within a reasonable timeframe? We do not mean within three hours but within a couple of hours at most.
My hon. Friend has captured the essence of my speech. She is entirely right that assurances need to be put in place to make sure that children have an appropriate adult to help, guide and support them throughout the whole process. I will cover this issue in some detail later in my speech.
The principal intention of the appropriate adult safeguard was to reduce the risk of a miscarriage of justice as a result of evidence being obtained from vulnerable suspects, which by virtue of their vulnerability led to unsafe and unjust convictions. Some 50 years later, children in custody are being failed because of the length of time they are spending in detention without being charged and because appropriate adults are not being contacted quickly enough. Child suspects are almost invisible to policymakers and politicians.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate on a subject that really needs to be discussed. On children in police custody, does she share my concerns about how the use of force is applied? Footage has circulated recently of force being used on a 16-year-old child in my constituency, and there is recent footage of force being used on a 14-year-old boy, in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. Both incidents are being investigated by the Metropolitan Police Service Directorate of Professional Standards, but does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be an urgent review into how force is used, particularly when it is applied to children? If it is used in a case of mistaken identity, there are long-term mental effects, particularly when it happens to children. If it is not appropriate, something needs to be done to review it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that really important intervention. It is very distressing to hear about the abuse of power by professionals in a trusted position. It is even more distressing to hear that certain incidents happen to young people and children. They could be our relatives—our children, our nephews, our nieces. It is upsetting, and we need to get to the bottom of it. My hon. Friend mentioned the investigations that are rightly taking place, but the Government need to do more to hold public servants to account and ensure they are operating in the manner in which they should.
In the recent Adjournment debate I led on harm to adults, the Minister said:
“It is right and proper that children are acknowledged as a protected group with specific needs.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 737.]
In response to a question I asked last week, the Minister for Crime and Policing confirmed the Government’s commitment to driving down the number of minors held in custody and the duration for which they are held. Although the Government recognise the significance of the role of the appropriate adult, they need to do far more, and I hope I will get a more satisfying response this afternoon.
There is consensus that work needs to be done with minors in custody, but tragically I fear there is a danger that the Home Office will continue to miss my point. The law is not functioning as it should. We are not living up to the UN convention that we ratified. The legislative status quo fails to adequately safeguard children, and something needs to change. Children are left waiting an average of six hours before the arrival of an appropriate adult, and are sometimes held overnight. I remind Members of my constituent, who spent nine hours waiting for an appropriate adult.
It is indeed outrageous. Despite the rules requiring the police to secure the attendance of an appropriate adult as soon as possible, I am told that in some cases appropriate adults are asked to attend only when the police are ready to interview. That severely hinders the appropriate adult’s ability to enact their role of providing oversight and welfare throughout the whole process of detainment. A Children’s Commissioner report found that, in cases where the parent is unable to fulfil the appropriate adult role, there was an average of a seven to eight-hour delay before the police requested an appropriate adult from a local scheme. Again, children are being failed. If a child aged between 10 and 17 years old is left alone in a police cell for extended periods of time, one can only imagine what they are thinking and how they are feeling. If it were our own child or a child from our constituency, we would be deeply concerned. The Government should be deeply concerned about all children across our nation.
I have spoken to a constituent who told me that, as a child, they accepted a guilty plea even though they were innocent. They did that because they wanted to avoid having to stay any longer in a police cell. They will not be the first person to do that, and the Government need to re-address that injustice—that wrong—quickly.
A recent trial in the Metropolitan police has demonstrated that such delays are not inevitable. A trial took place, using the acronym CHILD, to focus on the importance of contacting the appropriate adult at the point of booking in, whether that was the parent or an individual in a local scheme. In that trial, average detention times for children reduced by 10 hours—sorry, not 10, although I would like it to be; they reduced by seven hours, which demonstrates that safeguarding the interests, rights and welfare of the child is achievable. I hope that the Minister will join me in praising the Met’s initiative and work, and that the Government will roll out that successful pilot to all Met stations and all regions of our nation. Is there a plan to do that?
Many elements are built into the youth justice system that differentiate it from the broader criminal justice system. In the youth court, the judge and the probation officers are youth specialists—in my previous life, I was trained as a youth probation officer, so I have some knowledge of that. All the language is adjusted to remain appropriate to the age of the child. Broadly speaking, the youth criminal justice system seeks to avoid punitive measures and tries to put the child first. As we have heard, that is not the case in police custody.
According to academics Dr Vicky Kemp and Dr Miranda Bevan, specialists in this area, child suspects who are not convicted and who are uncharged experience disproportionately harsh treatment. The rules say that children are to be detained for the “shortest appropriate period”, but children are often detained as long as adults. Children are not adults, so why are they treated like adults? Data shows that the average stay is increasing.
In 2019, following a freedom of information request, it was uncovered that a 10-year-old child spent a staggering 23 hours in a police cell. That beggars belief—it is actually hard to take in, but it is true. In one particular police force, the average detention period was 18 hours—not for one child, but on the 1,293 occasions on which a child was detained overnight in police custody.
Long detention times deeply traumatise children and scar them for life. They are deprived of liberty, trapped in incredibly intimidating conditions and often deliberately kept in the dark. After an overnight stay, one 12-year-old said:
“I didn’t know they could do that to you...it was awful and I wasn’t sure I was going to be okay”.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful point. Does she agree that those moments in which that poor child, or any child, is detained in custody will have a long-term and sustained impact on their mental health and wellbeing, their confidence levels and their ability—because they are children—to understand what has actually happened to them? It is a form of abuse.
I agree with my hon. Friend that, in such instances, it is abuse. It is harmful for children to be in such situations. The very service that is there to protect them is also doing them incredible harm. The Government have to take that on board and to accept their responsibility and the role they need to play. The welfare of the child is “paramount”—it says that in the Children Act 1989. If the welfare of the child is paramount, their welfare needs to be paramount on all occasions and in all situations. The very services that are there to protect and support them need not only to carry out justice—absolutely—but to consider the welfare of the child.
I am sure we want more for our children—I am hearing that already—but we must not keep them in a state of despair. That is simply wrong. As I said, the Government can change that. Even with children who end up being convicted, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and carry on with a system that is devoid of compassion.
Cutting the detention clock for a child in custody would mean that the appropriate adult is likely to be called out quicker and is more able to stay for the duration of the detention. It would also lead to a decrease in the frequency of overnight stays. That would be better for the public purse economically, but also for the physical and mental wellbeing of the child.
For the police, it would improve relations with key communities in the area, reduce reoffending rates and ensure that all their collected evidence was reliable. It would prevent the collection of evidence from being hampered by the lack of sleep or the worry and stress stemming from 13 or so hours in solitary confinement. To be clear, calling for a reduction in the child detention clock would not hinder the police’s ability to fight crime. The police currently have the power to request an extension from the superintendent if the case is complex. That power would be retained even if a lower detention cap was implemented.
During the previous Adjournment debate, the Minister failed to respond to my call to cut the stay limit from 24 hours. Will she hear me now and respond to that call? There is evidence calling for a stay limited to 12 hours instead of 24.
I will mention two other things before I finish. First, there must be far higher reporting and monitoring of the use of strip searches in police custody. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for her recent parliamentary question. The current rate of strip searches is woeful. They are degrading and humiliating and, as we have seen, they completely traumatise children. Will the Minister commit to increasing transparency and accountability on this issue and exploring technological alternatives that are less intrusive, less emotionally harmful and less damaging to the child?
Secondly, a decade of legal aid cuts has meant that firms cannot afford to send down more than minimally trained representatives to police stations, and then only for the shortest possible period. Lawyers therefore often arrive just before the interview, when the child is too exhausted to engage—if the child gets a lawyer at all. Currently, children have to opt in for legal advice, and too many children forgo their right to legal representation; they are burnt out, emotionally exhausted and probably do not fully understand, and they falsely believe it will make the process go faster. The fallout from this kind of misunderstanding can be avoided if we instead implement an opt-out system.
There is also a danger that post-pandemic remote legal advice will begin to spread. Research from Transform Justice shows that remote legal advice increases the stress and anxiety of children and impedes the communication between lawyer and child. To ensure high-quality advice that serves the needs of the child, it is vital that the Minister continues to champion in-person legal advice, moves towards an opt-out system and bolsters legal aid.
As I draw to a close, I ask the Government to maintain public safety and to protect children throughout the youth criminal justice system. I call on the Minister to review the detention clock for children, to roll out the Met’s new approach to appropriate adults across the Met and the police nationwide, which will allow us to begin finally to have a child-first approach to police custody suites, and to implement opt-out legal representation system for children. I ask again whether the Minister will commit to increasing transparency and accountability for strip searches and exploring technological alternatives that are less intrusive and harmful to minors. As a country, we should see the welfare of the child as paramount in all instances and across all services at all times.
The debate can last until 4 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Front Benchers no later than 3.37 pm. The guideline limits are 10 minutes each for Her Majesty’s Opposition and the Minister. Janet Daby will have three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. I believe that three Back Benchers are seeking to catch my eye, so there should be plenty of time for everyone to get in.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) on raising the issue. I can well recall when she secured the debate in the main Chamber, which I attended to support her and ask questions. I had a discussion with her before and after the debate. The issue is very real for her, and although it may not be for us in Northern Ireland, I understand the issues and her concerns. I wanted to come along, as I do to many debates, to support those who bring forward matters that are important for their constituents and for us across the whole United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), in her place, and the Minister. I am convinced that the Minister will be keen to respond to the questions that the hon. Member for Lewisham East has asked and that others will ask. We in this House have a responsibility to ensure that while children are in custody, they are safeguarded and their welfare is promoted. I can well recall the case—I could not believe that it took place—in which a young person was arrested and detained with absolutely no action taken to protect, safeguard or look after them. That is the issue for me, as it is for the hon. Lady, and it is why I am here.
This is a huge issue. There are fluctuations in the number of children being arrested, as well as an increase in the number of children reoffending and being re-arrested. I understand that there has to be law and order—there has to be a system—but protection for young people needs to be paramount in the legal system. That is why many of us were flabbergasted when we read that that incident had taken place. While there is absolutely no excuse for crime, we must ensure that the process is done in the right way, to safeguard and yet discourage.
The hon. Lady has provided some useful and insightful material in relation to child arrests, for which I thank her, and she has made some incredibly important points. It was of particular interest and concern to me that from the age of 10 children who are arrested are expected to choose whether or not to have legal advice. I would have thought it would be normal to give them legal advice there and then. I cannot understand why they would be asked, “Do you want legal advice or don’t you?” They do, and the law of the land should protect them—it should reach out to them and ensure that they know their rights.
I am not aware of any 10-year-old who understands the meaning of the term legal advice. I am a grandfather, and my oldest grandchildren are aged 12 and eight. Neither of them would be aware of their rights, and I presume that they are an example of the rest of society when it comes to knowing what is right and what is wrong, so an appropriate adult must be present at that stage. Children should have appropriate advice at all stages, and they must have an appropriate adult present to give them the advice they need. If the family are not available—sometimes that happens, for whatever reason; someone may be working, or they may not be accessible or available—it is important that the state steps in to provide that assistance.
In addition, children are often detained in adult cells, with no immediate support to help them understand what they have done. The hon. Member for Lewisham East referred to that fact while setting the scene, which she did extremely well. To help those children to realise that wrongdoing has taken place, talking is one of the first things that should happen, and young people must know their rights. Sometimes, they may be shy; they may be introverted and not know how to react; or they may be extremely scared. I suspect that for many, it is the latter, so those are things that we need to sort out.
As the Minister knows, I always give a Northern Ireland perspective in these debates. It is just to add a flavour to the debate, not necessarily to ask her to take any responsibility, because she has no responsibility for Northern Ireland. A report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office has revealed that it costs £324,000 per year to keep a young person in custody in Northern Ireland. We have one youth detention centre, Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre in Bangor, County Down, just north of my constituency. Each year, an average of 100 youths between the ages of 10 and 17 serve convictions there, and the figure for those placed in custody is much higher. Although we must ensure that children in police custody are dealt with through the correct process, they are initially arrested for a reason. That reason has to be proven, of course, and how it is done has to be monitored, but it is an extremely big deal when a youth crime is committed, and lessons have to be learned.
I spoke in a previous Westminster Hall debate on sentencing for repeat offenders, where Department of Justice figures revealed that the reoffending rate across the United Kingdom is 38.5%. It is quite a large figure—reoffending seems to happen to more than one third of those who are detained originally. Maybe the Minister could give us some help and indicate what has been done to reduce those reoffending rates, because the figures are quite alarming and concern us all. There must be a firm reminder that youth custody is not a respite but an essential part of the judicial process for lessons to be learned. Although I agree that children should have additional safeguarding, it is not a soft measure that should be taken for granted.
Young girls should have access to female support—it should be available each time—and not have to wait eight or even 10 hours, as I think the hon. Member for Lewisham East said, for someone to come. Oh my goodness, it is incredible that the wait time should be so long. Let us honestly address the fact that for ladies and girls, this is also about hygiene and personal issues, and they are incredibly important to a vulnerable young person who needs help. All young people should have access to a parent or guardian, and not be subject to intimidation or violent treatment.
However, it is so important that those young people still understand that their choices have led them to a place that they simply never want to be. That goes back to reoffending and the question that I have asked the Minister. What has been done to ensure that young people are treated in the right way, with compassion, understanding and persuasion, so that they are not unduly afraid of the system but they understand it better and, hopefully, never have to reoffend again?
While I respect the fact that Northern Ireland falls under our own Department of Justice, the concept of how we deal with youth offenders should be the same. I want safeguarding for children, as the hon. Member for Lewisham East does, but I also want the correct education, so that crimes are not committed to begin with. We must look deeper at the issues and why these things happen. We also cannot ignore society and where they live. Is it a poor community? Is there poverty in the family? Is there parental control? Are gangs taking advantage of young people? Those are all things in the bigger picture that must be addressed.
I look to the Justice Minister back home, in many cases, but I also ask the Minister here what commitments have been made to ensure that young people have rights and are safe in custody, whether here or back home. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Justice Minister at the Northern Ireland Assembly? It is always good to exchange ideas and see what is working. We should be looking at what is working around the United Kingdom, and at what is perhaps working better in Northern Ireland or, indeed, in Scotland or Wales.
I agree that children should be detained only for serious offences. I get quite concerned that people may see the police as the enemy because of the nature of where they live or the arrest system. However, as I have highlighted, that does not mean by any means that petty crime should be ignored. A lack of deterrent and/or punishment will lead to serious reoffending. This always seems to come back to the reoffending issue, as I have done on three occasions.
To conclude, Mr Hollobone, I commend the hon. Member for Lewisham East for bringing this issue forward, and I commend others who will speak. I agree with many of the points that have been made, but there must be a reminder that it is never okay to commit crime, and we must not allow custody for children to be a respite. They must be represented well, they must never be let down, they must always know their rights and they must be held to account under the correct procedures of the law with a compassionately firm hand, persuasion and understanding. We must show young people that there are alternatives to the route they are on that will take them away from a wrongful path.
To me, it is all about putting people on the right path, with the right focus and the right direction—I think that today’s debate does that in many ways—and protecting young people. That is ultimately what the hon. Member for Lewisham East said in her debate in the Chamber. I fully support her on that, and on the goals and achievements she is aiming for. I very much look forward to the Minister’s responses. I am quite hopeful we will get the responses that we look for, and I hope that the hon. Member for Lewisham East will be satisfied with them.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) on securing this important and timely debate. I thank the many organisations that have worked really hard to raise awareness of the issue, including the Howard League for Penal Reform, Just for Kids Law and many experts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East highlighted that she had an Adjournment debate on the subject recently, and I went back to it for reference. I thank her for sharing her constituents’ experiences, and I thank her constituents for their bravery in sharing those horrific experiences. I recently had a similar case in my own constituency, where a young child in their school uniform was kept in police custody for just under 24 hours—it was 23 hours and some odd minutes. That child was found to have suffered some serious failings in relation to their safeguarding while in custody. Worse still, the child was not charged with anything; they went through that horrific experience and there was no charge.
I recognise that custody is a core element of our policing. It is crucial to ensuring justice and to keeping the public safe. However, it must be balanced with the safeguarding of children, as the safety and welfare of children is paramount. Public bodies have a responsibility to protect minors. The Children Act 2004 places a statutory duty on the police in relation to children. Article 37 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child makes it clear that children should be detained only as a last resort, and for the shortest appropriate period possible, as we have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East and for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare).
It was therefore deeply worrying to read the Just for Kids Law report, which found through a freedom of information request that 21,369 children were detained overnight in police custody, either pre or post charge, in 2019. That statistic should worry us all. Those children have potentially been scarred for life. That statistic is still a significant underestimate, because it only includes the responses of 34 police forces, which tells us the number could be higher. Black children are disproportionately detained in police custody overnight, according to the responses from 31 of those 34 police forces. As an MP representing a London constituency, I am particularly concerned that more than 44% of children detained overnight in police custody in 2019 were black children.
It is not right that there is such a huge racial disparity, and it points to the institutional and structural racism in the policing of our black children. The Government can no longer deny or dismiss that, because the data and the evidence are quite clear. For a child, spending a night in police custody is an extremely traumatic and frightening experience. Spending a long time in such an environment has serious consequences for a child’s mental health and wellbeing. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East has already spoken about that, and that is why she is right when she says that reform is desperately needed.
It is quite clear that legislation written 50 years ago—be that PACE or other pieces of legislation—is outdated. We need to look at reforming the current system. That is why I agree with the recommendations in the Just for Kids Law report. We need a reduced time limit on how long children can be detained in police custody, because the current 24-hour limit is the same for adults and children. That cannot be right, because we know that children and adults are not the same, so it must be reduced to 12 hours or less.
The issue about appropriate adults is key, because we have already heard that children have to wait for hours in police custody without an appropriate adult. That system has to be overhauled. If it is about safeguarding the child, I am not sure what can be done if we cannot overhaul that aspect of the process.
I cannot stress enough the importance of data. Data and evidence are crucial to this process, because they really help to illustrate and paint a picture of the crisis in our policing of children. We also need a review of the collation of data so that we know what is being collated, and we need consistency across the country over what is collated.
Publication of this data will be important, because it helps with scrutiny and it helps to give robust oversight of what is actually going on. That is why publication should be mandatory. No police force in this country should decide on a voluntary basis to record data. I am not sure how that can be acceptable. Just for Kids Law was unable to access all the data in relation to its freedom of information request; it only got data from 34 police forces, when 43 could have responded.
I recently asked an oral question at Home Office questions—I think it was just over a week ago. I am calling for mandatory recording and publication of the data on children who are strip-searched. Everybody was horrified at the case of child Q, but we know now that that was not an isolated incident and that many children—including young girls, whether they are on their menstruation cycle or not—are being strip-searched. These are people’s children, and we all have a responsibility and a duty to protect them. Will the Minister commit to looking into the mandatory publication of data in relation to police interactions with young people? As I have highlighted, at the moment the police are required to record and publish such data only if an arrest has been made. However, as was the case with child Q, who was not arrested—
Order. I said right at the start of the debate that no reference should be made to any cases where there are ongoing legal proceedings. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady made a glancing reference, which is fine, but she should not repeat the reference to child Q any further in the debate.
I apologise for that, Mr Hollobone, and I will not refer to that case in the rest of my speech.
Finally, I believe we need a review into the policing of black children. They are being over-policed and treated with less care and protection. That perception of maturity —a term that is used is the adultification of our young black children—is another form of racism.
I have seen many examples of that when I have seen young children being detained by multiple officers, and the police say afterwards, “Based on the evidence before us, nothing is wrong here.” If that is the case, something is wrong with the way our young children are being treated. I really hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, she will refer to that. The disparity in the treatment of black children across policing is bound to lead to a breakdown in community relations, and a lack of trust and confidence in the police force. All I try to do, as an elected representative, is to help the police to build trust and confidence in our communities.
I do not believe that the solution can simply be boosting diversity in recruitment; although diversity is important, there are other elements to consider. The solution is not just about providing cultural changes, either. We need an urgent root-and-branch review that investigates the policing of our black children and sets out clear recommendations about how the police can reduce disproportionality and build and restore trust.
I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, she will agree with me that we need a review, and if she does not agree, that she will explain why, so that I can understand. No one can be against a proposal that will help to reduce the racial disparities facing our children. We all know that our children are our future. It is on us to create that fair, better future for them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for securing this important debate.
I am mindful not to speak about cases currently going through the courts. I intended to allude to child Q, unaware that the case is in court. I will modify my speech accordingly. None the less, it is damning in the 21st century to be talking about children being strip-searched by police officers while at school and in their own environment. It is also damning to have seen the public report, which I hope I can speak about. Perhaps I cannot, as I have just received an eye from the Chair. That report is public and gives a damning account of what—
Order. Will the hon. Lady resume her seat? I am acting to try to protect the hon. Lady. She was honest to say that her speech was to be about a particular case, and now she is going to do her best to talk about the same issues without referring to the particular child, but we all know who she is talking about. She will have to be very careful and speak only in general terms. I am saying that to protect her and Parliament.
Thank you for your guidance, Mr Hollobone.
We know there are cases where children are not given an appropriate adult when brought into custody, are not presented with their rights, or are asked whether they want representation. Such practices must end. We must come to a better understanding of how we treat children, not only when protecting them from crime, but when they are brought into custody and falsely accused, or otherwise.
I have dealt with cases in my constituency where children innocently engage in social media and are then caught in a spiral in system where they are brought in for questioning; they are frightened by the type of questioning and the way it is posed. They are immediately so fearful of that questioning and the adults in the room that they are ready to sign anything in order to get out of there as quickly as possible. Children should have an appropriate adult; they should be told their rights in a manner that gives them an informed choice about having proper representation. If necessary, a pause should be given, so that they can make that informed choice. It is important that they have an adult in the room and have proper legal representation because what they say and admit to in that room can rest with them forever and a day and affect every aspect of their life going forward. It is important that children get the right representation from the outset, because many of them are in the midst of important, serious exams that will affect the rest of their lives. They need to be in the right mindset to do those exams.
In one of the schools in my constituency, children had been accused of a form of bullying, which turned out to be a conflict between ethnicities and races. The children and parents were not given the proper support and advice, and the children were told to stay away from the school environment until the investigation was complete, without being given any support to study at home or do anything that enabled to them to have a better understanding of the education that they need to continue with.
I am continuing to be mindful not to talk about child Q, Mr Hollobone, but I will say that it is important that children are allowed to feel safe in their school environments, neighbourhoods and communities, and that they know that the first action by the police will not be to bring them into an invasive situation wherein they have less power, but that the police will treat children as children, with the right and proper support around them. I hope that all the recommendations that come out of many of the serious and important reports on the way that children are treated in custody are implemented, and that somebody is appointed at a senior level to ensure that this is the case. Too often, recommendations remain unadopted and sit at the bottom of the shelf, but they need to be implemented to protect the future. It is even more vital that racist and misogynistic attitudes are left out of the custody suite and interactions with children. Far too often, black and other globalised children are left reeling from racism and, if they are young women, misogyny.
Institutional racism and misogyny in the police force needs to be seriously addressed, especially when it involves children. At the end of the day, we are talking about police services that have already been deemed to have used sexist, derogatory and unacceptable language when it comes to dealing with people in their custody. We know of adults being wrongly strip-searched. We also know that two serving Metropolitan police officers were jailed for sharing photographs of the bodies of Bibaa Henry and Nicola Smallman, two young black sisters from north London who went missing in June 2020. The officers shared the photos with 41 members of a police WhatsApp group. The police were also accused of showing a lack of interest in the fact that the two sisters were missing, which delayed their search.
The Metropolitan Police Service was recently forced to deny that it is plagued by a culture of misogyny, after an official report revealed shocking details of officers sharing messages about hitting and raping women, as well as about the deaths of black babies and the holocaust. The Independent Office for Police Conduct said in its report on behaviour at Charing Cross police station that there was a culture of “toxic masculinity” and that the behaviour was not confined to rogue individuals, but was part of an offensive Metropolitan police culture. The report states:
“We believe these incidents are not isolated or simply the behaviour of a few ‘bad apples’.”
Of course, that inquiry came after the brutal police crackdown of a vigil in the memory of Sarah Everard. I do not believe that that case is—
Order. The debate is about the rights of children while in police custody. I understand that the hon. Lady has made the remarks that she has for reasons of context, but the debate is specifically about the rights of children in police custody, so I would appreciate it if she came back to that subject.
Thank you for that guidance, Mr Hollobone. Indeed, I was highlighting a policing culture that no adult, let alone a child, should be subjected to. We simply cannot expose children to that type of policing culture. It is therefore vital that measures to avoid holding children in police custody, or to reduce the time that they spend in it, are strengthened and enforced.
The Youth Justice Legal Centre found that children are not interviewed under caution outside a custody suite as often as they could be. Too often, children who are refused bail are not transferred to local authority accommodation, as is legally required; instead, they are kept in police cells. That must end. I also support the calls from the Just for Kids Law charity for an end to the overnight detention of children by police. Children are currently subject to the same time limit as adults. We cannot allow that to continue and it must change.
We must redouble our efforts to end the scourge of racism and misogyny that plagues our police forces and all aspects of society, and in doing so, we must ensure that our children are not exposed to unnecessary harm in police custody.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute, as others have done, to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), who shared individual cases and statistics revealing that children and young people spend lengthy periods in custody. I thank her for securing the debate, for being a true champion and campaigner on this issue, and for the all the different ways she has used the parliamentary tools at her disposal to keep the spotlight on securing best practice.
Children and young people are a protected group with specific age-related vulnerabilities. Their treatment in detention is governed not only by domestic law, but by the UN convention on the rights of the child, which the UK has signed and ratified. Legislative requirements and best practice are outlined in various documents, including, most significantly, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—commonly referred to as PACE—and its codes of practice, guidance from the College of Policing, and the Home Office’s concordat on children in custody.
It is absolutely right that officers must take into account the age of a child or young person when deciding whether statutory grounds for arrest apply. Police should pay particular regard to the timing of any necessary arrests of children and young people, ensure that they are not detained any longer than necessary, and avoid holding them overnight in police cells unless it is absolutely necessary.
The College of Policing is right to stress in its guidance that
“Everyone who works with children has a responsibility for keeping them safe.”
That means that they have a role to play in identifying concerns about a child’s safety and wellbeing, sharing information and taking prompt action when it is needed to protect a child. A child who has been detained and is in police custody presents an opportunity to understand why, to disrupt their behaviour if it is criminal, and to safeguard them and the public from further harms.
West Yorkshire police’s violence reduction unit has undertaken several pieces of significant research to better understand the relationship between young people and violent crime. Nationally and in West Yorkshire, the number of proven offences committed by 10 to 17-year-olds has fallen dramatically, particularly over the past five years. The number of young first-time entrants into the criminal justice system has also plummeted. However, worryingly, in 2019-20, more than half of the offences committed by 10-17 year olds were violence against the person, compared with 39.7% in 2013-14.
We know that children and young people are capable of committing serious crimes and we cannot shy away from that, given the impact on victims, who are often children themselves. One comprehensive piece of research undertaken by Crest with the West Yorkshire and Harrogate Health and Care Partnership and the violence reduction unit found five key health inequalities that are influential in the lives of young people in West Yorkshire and their journey either towards or away from violence and exploitation: deprivation and socioeconomic disadvantage, trauma and unmet mental health need, education engagement, poor quality or lacking service provision and delivery, and contextual harm. More than 61,000 of 11 to 25-year-olds in West Yorkshire—13% of the population—were at risk of serious violence as a result of income deprivation and high levels of neighbourhood crime. One reality drawn out of the research that I find particularly depressing is how young people are being drawn into gangs and criminality by family members who are already involved. The report found that young people are often recruited by their own family. The reasons young people get involved in crime and find themselves in police custody serve as a reminder that some children’s lives could not be more different from our own and that harm and risk is all around them.
How can we ensure that encounters with the police and any time spent in custody have a positive impact on these children’s trajectory and do not compound the negative experiences surrounding them? The West Yorkshire violence reduction unit research recommended the development of trauma-informed practice across partnerships such as the complex childhood trauma steering group, which should be used to evaluate and standardise the trauma-informed offering across the region, and more and better mental health support for young people, all of which could and should be a feature of a child’s limited time in custody. The aspiration has to be that the more we understand the risks and recognise the value of targeted intervention upstream, the more time in custody can be avoided entirely for children and young people.
One of the key features of the opening speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East was about the provision of appropriate adults. Research conducted by Dr Miranda Bevan of Goldsmiths, University of London, and Dr Vicky Kemp from the University of Nottingham, and shared by my hon. Friend found that it is not unusual for appropriate adults to not arrive until six or more hours have passed. Having got a better understanding of some of the reasons for that from my local police just today, I am sympathetic that trying to make contact initially with parents, who may or may not be available and who, sadly, are sometimes not willing to attend, then approaching the emergency duty team within child social care, and then, if they can still not get someone to attend, approaching the National Appropriate Adult Network, starts to show where the practical barriers to making swift progress are—and that is when attempts are made straightaway, which, as we have already heard, is not always the case.
From speaking to colleagues in West Yorkshire’s liaison and diversion team earlier today, I know that problems are often exacerbated when looked-after children are in custody. Lines of parental responsibility prove harder to establish at a time when some of the most marginalised children are required to make serious decisions, without support, in conditions that are designed to be uncomfortable. Indeed, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who it is always a pleasure to see in Westminster Hall, made the right and powerful point, which has been supported by almost all the speakers made here today, about asking these children to decide for themselves if they want or require legal representation, when it should be the default.
In its research, the National Appropriate Adult Network points out that children in custody are disadvantaged by more than just cognitive development. They are much more likely than other children to have poor mental health, to have a learning disability, at up to 22% for that cohort compared with 4% in the wider population, to have a communication disorder, at up to 90% versus 7%, to be autistic, at 15% compared with 1%, and to have suffered a head injury with loss of consciousness for more than 20 minutes, at 18% versus 5%. If we are looking for confirmation of why appropriate adults are essential for children in those circumstances, the statistics could not make the case any clearer.
We know that there are routine delays in getting someone to attend on behalf of a child. Are we not able to establish a model of best practice that works for both the police and the child, and moves things forward by having someone skilled on hand to provide that service? I hope the Minister will share her thinking on that when she responds, and address the pilot scheme that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East outlined, which appears to be delivering significant results. Once we have that in place, it opens up conversations about how swiftly we can move a child through police custody, and we can look again at 24 hours.
I am very much taking into account your comments, Mr Hollobone, but the Minister will be aware that alarm has been raised about strip searches in recent weeks. In response to a written question tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), the Minister for Crime and Policing confirmed that the Ministry of Justice is supporting a project with the National Police Chiefs’ Council with the aim of addressing the difference in experience of ethnic minority children and adults in police custody. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) shared some particularly powerful experiences of her constituents.
The Minister for Crime and Policing said that a wide range of agencies and independent advisers have contributed to that work, which engages a number of police forces across the country and builds on existing initiatives in the workplace, including a dedicated independent strip search scrutiny panel in Norfolk and Suffolk police. He said:
“From December 2022 we will be including more detailed custody data in the annual Police Powers and Procedures statistical bulletin which will include data on whether an appropriate adult was called out for a detained child and the number of strip searches & Intimate searches carried out, broken down by age, gender, ethnicity, and offence type.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea also spoke about the importance of data. That piece of work is welcome, so will the Minister confirm when it will be concluded and published? It struck me that the response to that written question said that the research will determine if an appropriate adult was called. I very much expect to see that that requirement was upheld entirely.
I have spent a great deal of time trying to improve the modern slavery provisions in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, and looking at when children come into custody. If there are concerns that they are victims of child criminal exploitation, county lines gangs or trafficking, the push to keep children out of custody for all the right reasons cannot mean that we cut corners and miss opportunities in our safeguarding obligations. Where the police arrest children and seize drugs or cash due to unlawful possession, they and other statutory agencies should fully understand the potential dangers for those children of being releasing without them, potentially back into the grasp of those who have been criminally exploiting them. We must work through that by involving all the relevant safeguarding agencies to truly disrupt the criminal activity that has a grip of the young person, and deliver that wraparound support as urgently as possible.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East once again for securing this debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to her powerful calls for best practice, scrutiny and oversight, and for making sure that children in custody are recognised and treated as children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby). I am especially grateful to her for the way she continues to bring issues relating to the rights and protection of children in police custody to the attention of this House.
All Members have spoken about the vital element of trust and confidence in policing, which I am absolutely sure we all share. I want to put on the record my thanks to our police officers in every force across the country. Although we all understand and recognise some of the incidents of substandard and unsatisfactory practice—alleged, because these are often ongoing cases—that have been highlighted by Members, who are obviously doing a good job in raising the interests of their constituents, as we would expect, it is right to say that the vast majority of police officers in our country do an extremely good job under very difficult circumstances. Ultimately, the work they have to do in those types of situations is very sensitive. They have to navigate and make that judgment while balancing the rights of the child and the rights of the victims of the alleged crime. We all share in the collective endeavour to ensure that the criminal justice system supports that.
We have moved on from March, when I set out the criteria for police custody. Police custody is an important element of our criminal justice system. Being able to question suspects in the controlled environment of the custody suite is instrumental to progressing criminal investigations and to bringing offenders to justice, protecting victims and keeping everybody safe. Forgive me, Mr Hollobone, as I forgot to thank the Members who contributed and made excellent speeches, particularly the hon. Members for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe). I will pick up their points in the course of my speech.
Children should be detained in custody only when absolutely necessary and when there is no other practical alternative. They are rightly acknowledged—this Government agree and stand behind this—as a protected group with specific needs and vulnerabilities. For that reason, opportunities to divert them away from police custody should always be considered first as a priority.
I very much welcome the comments from the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who spoke about the excellent work done by the violence reduction units in her area. However, they are national schemes and I think House would be interested to know a little bit more about that work. I will not go into a huge amount of detail because time prevents me, but this is a truly groundbreaking, long-term project, and a Conservative Government initiative. My officials will correct me if I am wrong, but I think we have committed £500 million over a very long period to work out, as she said, which initiatives and practices actually work to divert young people away from crime and prevent them from getting involved in the first place.[Official Report, 29 June 2022, Vol. 717, c. 4MC.] I think we can all agree that it is an incredibly compassionate approach.
We want to ensure that perpetrators are dealt with appropriately and that sentencing is tougher and meets the needs of the public, but we also want to look at the vulnerabilities of young people and understand why they are drawn into crime in the first place. That is why this detailed work is taking place across the country—and, as the hon. Lady highlighted, in her own area—working in a granular way with local agencies that know their communities and those children best. I strongly encourage any Member who is interested in youth justice, prevention of crime and a social justice approach to visit their violence reduction unit if they have one in their area, to learn more about that.
Turning back to the issue at hand, custody procedures and police decision making in custody are, quite rightly, subject to scrutiny and oversight. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services regularly inspects police custody suites, monitors the treatment and welfare of detainees in custody, and makes recommendations for police forces and partners. We expect forces to take those recommendations seriously and to take action to address issues in response.
In 2017, as Members have referenced, the Government changed the law so that children aged 17 were entitled to the specific safeguards intended for children under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. These include a legal requirement for an appropriate adult to be present for interviews and strip searches to ensure their rights are protected. Officers must consider a child’s age and welfare when deciding whether to arrest them.
Members raised a number of specific comments, concerns and complaints. Many of them fall under the category of cases that are currently going through legal proceedings, but it is fair to say that this Government and the public rightly expect the highest standards from our police officers. The ability of police to perform their core functions of tackling crime and keeping the public safe is dependent on their capacity to maintain the confidence of the public. That is why we take the reports of these incidents extremely seriously. We have the safeguarding structures and the scrutiny in place.
Several recent incidents have been referred to the IOPC, which is investigating or determining whether an independent investigation is required. That work is ongoing and I cannot say more at this point. It is an independent body and must be allowed to carry out its work free of political influence. The Government’s role, however, is to consider any recommendations for legislation or policy change carefully. I think I can say, without prejudicing anything, that, in the case of child Q, the IOPC has served four officers of the Metropolitan police with notices of gross misconduct. That means that they are being investigated for alleged misconduct that is such a serious breach of professional standards that it could warrant dismissal if proven.
I welcome the comments of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. He released a statement following the publication of the child Q safeguarding report outlining his concerns about cultural issues within the Met police to which some Members have referred. It is the Mayor’s responsibility in his function as police and crime commissioner for London, supported by the deputy Mayor for policing and crime, to hold the Met police to account for delivering the necessary improvements.
I note that the Met has put a robust plan in place, in the light of the incidents, which includes adultification training for all officers in the central east command unit, which covers Hackney and Tower Hamlets, reviewing the policy on further searches of children to ensure that it recognises that the child in such circumstances might be a vulnerable victim of exploitation—a point made well by the hon. Member for Halifax—and introducing new measures, so that an inspector must now give authority before a search takes place to ensure appropriate oversight. Furthermore, a Merlin report has to be submitted to ensure that safeguarding of the child is a priority.
Often in these debates, the problems and concerns are outlined and the challenge to the Government is to do more. We all understand the delicate balance in this country between the operational independence of the police and the important role played by police and crime commissioners, elected by their communities, with their various important powers. We do not shy away from acting where we need to, but we will also shine a light on all those other important individuals who have a responsibility to deliver on some of these serious failings.
The Minister rightly points out the independent role that the IOPC has to play, but the key point here is about children in custody, safeguarding and prevention. Frankly, we should all be striving for cases not needing to go there, because the incidents should not be happening in the first place. She talked about what the Met is doing, but this is a national issue. Does she agree that there needs to be a review of how the policing of black children is taking place?
I will come on to the point that the hon. Lady made about black children, but I hope she heard my earlier comments about the importance that the Government place on prevention. That is the reason for the hundreds of millions of pounds we are spending over the long term on violence reduction units, to look at what actually works in this space to prevent young children from being drawn into knife crime, gang culture and a life of crime. [Interruption.] Sorry, did someone wish to intervene?
I will move on in my speech and address those points.
Turning to the issue of children being detained in police cells, whether they are black or any other ethnicity, looking at the system as a whole, I am pleased to say that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services reports that its custody inspections show a decrease in the number of children held in custody in recent years. I think we can all agree that that is positive, although we must continue to keep that under review.
We take our responsibilities towards children in detention seriously. Those aged under 18 should not be treated in the same way as adults in the criminal justice system. They should not be placed in a cell or be allowed to associate with an adult detainee in any circumstances. We are clear that all new custody suites must be designed with the capability to allow separation of adult males, adult females and children.
Members have made reference to data in their speeches. I can tell the House that the Home Office will publish data on strip searches in custody for the first time this year as part of a wider custody collection, which will greatly increase transparency and accountability. We anticipate that this collection will ultimately become mandatory.
I will just finish my point, as I may well be answering the question. We are exploring with forces the feasibility of collecting more detailed data on thorough searches following stop and search to complement this. A number of datasets are part of this work. One such set could well be the time taken for appropriate adults to be present, as the hon. Member for Battersea referred to in her speech.
On the point about data collection and strip searches, as it stands, a strip search will take place where there has been an arrest, and that data is recorded. A strip search could also take place where there has not been an arrest, and that data is currently not mandatorily recorded. Could the Minister confirm that that is now going to be the case?
I will write to the hon. Member on that point. As I am sure she knows, the Minister who would normally be responding to this debate is the Minister for Crime and Policing, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse). He has the knowledge and policy expertise on all these matters, and I am sure he would be able to answer the hon. Lady were he not in the main Chamber. We will absolutely write to the hon. Lady to update her on those points.
The hon. Member for Battersea referred to levels of trust in police among ethnic minorities and young people in particular. She is right that recent incidents have raised some serious issues within the police, and it is right that the Government ask difficult questions to drive positive change. Our police are more diverse than ever before. Forces have worked hard to improve community engagement, and we have seen major improvements in the way the police deal with racist crime. However, we still know that there is much more to do. That is why attracting more officers from a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds is a core ambition of our drive to recruit an extra 20,000 officers.
As we set out in the “Inclusive Britain” report, the Government and policing partners will create a new national framework for how the use of police powers such as stop and search is scrutinised at a local level. We will also explore sharing body-worn video footage with scrutiny panels and removing unnecessary barriers to its use to increase community oversight. I welcome the Ministry of Justice’s support for a project with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to develop scrutiny panels on the use of strip search with the aim of addressing the difference in experience of ethnic minority children and adults in police custody. I am sure the hon. Lady can agree with and welcome this significant programme of work to tackle some of the concerns she has raised.
I would like to respond to a few more specific points. Before I do, I want to thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his thoughtful contribution. He is right that we have no direct oversight of police forces in his constituency, but his suggestion that I meet with my counterpart in Northern Ireland is an extremely good one. He has form in filling up my diary, because the last time I responded to a debate he spoke in, I was a transport Minister and I had a really productive conversation with my counterpart in Northern Ireland, so I am happy to do that again.
Members have referred to the issue of the detention clock, the timing of it and the work done by Dr Miranda Bevan and Dr Vicky Kemp. The Home Office is fully aligned and engaged with this work. This is a complex issue, as I am sure Members will understand. We meet frequently with police, solicitors and wider stakeholders. Dr Kemp has addressed these meetings with updates on the findings, and we are committed to considering the final outcomes carefully. Of course, we will take Dr Kemp’s recommendations very seriously.
I was asked about legal advice and whether it should be an opt-in or opt-out pilot. We would all have the view that children should be prioritised for in-person legal advice. I know that colleagues in the MOJ are running a pilot scheme, which I understand is being trialled by the Metropolitan police. That is very important because of the significant representation of arrested ethnic minority children. That pilot is ongoing, and it will be important to look at how it progresses, take lessons from that and see what the implications are for national policing.
I think I have addressed all the key points raised by Members, Mr Hollobone, but obviously they are always free to write to me about any specific points of details. To finish, this is a really important and sensitive area. I thank Members for the way in which they have raised the concerns of their constituents and communities. We take the issue very seriously and we recognise that there is a lot of work to do in this space. I hope Members are reassured that we understand and prioritise the issue. We are funding the police to do their job. We look at policy areas where things are failing, but we also recognise that the police have an incredibly difficult to job to do. I again thank the hon. Member for Lewisham East for her consistent advocacy for vulnerable children.
I thank everybody who participated in this afternoon’s debate. All hon. Members, including the Government and Opposition spokespeople, spoke comprehensively. Many issues were touched on, but the thread that ran through everybody’s contribution was the need to safeguard the wellbeing of young people, children and minors.
I was particularly struck by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova). She spoke about a young person who had been held in a custody cell for 23 hours and then discharged without being charged with any offence. Young people who are arrested by the police are sometimes not charged at all because no evidence is found that they have committed a crime.
I have worked closely with the police in previous jobs and have had brilliant professional relationships with police officers. I do not believe that anybody comes to work to do a bad job; I think everybody goes to work to do a good job, including the police, but people do not always have the tools or training they need to do that or the policies in place to enable that. There is room for change, which I will mention briefly in the time I have left.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution and comments, which were very meaningful. He mentioned the rights of children and that a 10-year-old child is still learning about what is right and what is wrong. Those children may not have the ability to say whether they need legal representation or not, but they absolutely need it.
The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) spoke about young people needing to be protected and about preventing overnight detention, as well as being an advocate for safeguards to be in place for strip searches.
I welcome the Minister’s comments about what is happening in regard to strip searches. I would be interested to see the information she offered to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea to clarify if it relates to all strip searches; it is an issue we need to be open and transparent about. I was interested to hear about the Government’s work to prevent the adultification of young people, as well as about the new design for custody suites.
The main point of the debate was about the detention of children and about appropriate adults. As I mentioned, successful child trials have been rolled out with the Met. I press the Minister and the Government to look at that trial to see whether it could be pushed forward across the Met and other police forces to ensure that children are not detained longer than necessary. I also press them to consider minimising that stay from 24 hours to 12, to look at the whole legal aid system, in order to ensure that all children can access legal aid, and to consider the opt-out system.
Thank you very much for your time, Mr Hollobone.
Dead Crustaceans (North-East Coast)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered dead crustaceans on the North East coast.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr Hollobone. I seem to get you in the Chair quite a lot when I have debates. It is good to see you there.
Our fishing industry in north-east England has been dealt a huge blow in recent months, with catches decimated and businesses on the edge of ruin. The mass die-offs and the reason behind them have been causing serious concern along the north-east coast since the first dead sea creatures were discovered in the early morning of 6 October last year.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has held several calls with local MPs and I recognise its efforts to engage with us. However, there is still a huge amount of concern among our constituents, many of whom feel that the Government have not gone far enough in their investigations and that it is high time Ministers stepped up and provided some financial support to the industries that have been so severely impacted.
DEFRA has not updated its conclusions since last November, when it settled on the hypothesis that a rare algal bloom had caused the deaths. Even then, it was reported that DEFRA had not found one single causative factor, but rather that:
“A harmful algal bloom present in the area coincident with the event was identified as of significance.”
I am aware that the investigation by the Environment Agency, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Marine Management Organisation did examine other possibilities, such as licensed dredging, chemical contamination, activities related to offshore wind farms and aquatic animal disease. The investigation was closed after live and healthy crabs and other crustaceans were found in more recent catches.
However, the die-offs are still ongoing. We had one last December, another this February and a big one in April, with the most recent one occurring just two weeks ago. There is a real sense among the communities affected that the Department has not addressed the later die-offs, especially as the algal bloom was not definitively identified as the cause even back in the autumn.
It was for that reason that I wrote last month to the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is here today, requesting that the inquiry be reopened. To my deep disappointment, my request was refused by her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). I have therefore brought the issue to this Chamber in the hope that the voices of the affected communities will now be listened to.
The local fishing industry are still reporting higher than average amounts of dead crustaceans in its catches. I am told that fishermen from Hartlepool, Redcar and Whitby are still returning negligible catches from our inshore waters. Just last week, a crew set off from Hartlepool with 50 pots to catch lobsters. When they retrieved the pots, there were only four lobsters; of those four, only one was alive. I heard of another crew whose total catch was one crab and seven lobsters. Again, three lobsters were dead and two of the living lobsters were on their backs, already dying.
Considering those numbers, it seems that the decision to close the investigation was premature, and that it is possible that there is more to this issue than the hypothesised algal bloom—something the North East Fishing Collective also believes to be the case.
This is a very interesting debate that applies not only to the north-east but the whole UK coastline. I am not convinced that an algal bloom is responsible for the deaths of thousands of these creatures. Contamination by a chemical such as pyridine is a likely cause; it is not a chemical that is routinely examined or inspected for by the Environment Agency, but it could be the cause of the problem. Does the hon. Gentleman concur?
I am grateful for the hon. Member’s intervention, and will mention that very chemical later in my speech.
Our local fishing industry, which was already in a perilous state as a result of Brexit and the pandemic, deserves more robust answers from the Government. Will the Minister explain to our fishing communities why DEFRA will not reopen the investigation? As she knows, many in the fishing community believe that the cause of the die-offs may be linked to the dredging of the Tees in connection with the establishment of the Tees freeport, which is potentially stirring up historical pollutants. With a further 2 million tonnes of sediment licensed to be dredged from the Tees this summer and dumped at sea, can the Minister explain why the decontamination and repurposing of that sediment is not being considered, when no definitive cause of the die-offs has been established and dredging has remained a constant over the past nine months?
Indeed, some have suggested a direct link between the location and timings of the dredging by the UKD Orca and the die-offs. To that end, can the Minister confirm whether the spoil site where 250,000 tonnes of dredged sediment was dumped by the UKD Orca between 26 September 2021 and 5 October 2021 has been sampled and tested? I am aware of the Department’s response, which says that dredged material
“must meet the highest international standards protecting marine life”
before it can be disposed of at sea, but there are concerns that those standards are not robust enough, and that they allow the companies that want to dispose of that material too much latitude in the collection of samples. My understanding is that such sampling happens every few years, and there is no specific sampling at the sites people believe may be connected with the die-offs. I recognise that the Department has far greater expertise in this area than I do, but the fact is that the local community is still grasping for answers.
The hon. Gentleman is making some important points regarding this issue, which is of significant concern for the whole of the Tees valley community, not least myself and my constituents. Could he illustrate for us what efforts he has made to discuss this issue with the port authority, PD Ports?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention. I have not personally discussed the issue with PD Ports—perhaps its representatives would like to contact me so that we can have that discussion—but the important thing is that the Government take the lead and sort out the issues in the Tees valley. Perhaps the hon. Member will join me in calling for compensation, or at least some assistance, for the fisherpeople who are losing their businesses as a result of what is happening in that area.
It may well be that the hypothesised algal bloom is the primary factor causing the marine deaths, but it strikes me that too much un-investigated evidence is being peddled about. Another theory is the potential leakage of weed killer from the MV Stora Korsnäs Link 1, which sank off the coast of Saltburn in 1991 just before the by-election that saw Ashok Kumar elected to this House.
While I am not suggesting that any one thing is the definitive causative factor, there is enough evidence to warrant further inquiries, and our local fishing community agrees. The Government must engage further with our communities’ concerns, and if they are sure that dredging is not the issue, provide evidence definitively proving that to be the case. Instead, fishermen have been left to crowdfund independent reports because they cannot get the Government to answer their questions. When that is put in the context of our fishing communities’ reduced income as a result of Brexit, covid and the die-offs, it is appalling that the Government have left them having to pay out of their own pockets for the answers their industry needs to survive.
I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on the work of Tim Deere-Jones, an independent marine pollution consultant with 30 years’ experience, who has suggested that the cause is linked to the chemical pyridine, quantities of which were more than 70 times higher in crab samples taken from Saltburn and Seaton than a control sample from Penzance. In the words of Mr Deere-Jones,
“How Defra has not seen that and felt it requires further investigation, I don’t know”.
It is vital that further action is taken soon. The reports of last year’s impact on the marine landscape of the Tees estuary and the coasts of the north-east of England are horrifying. We are blessed with a beautiful and diverse marine landscape off our coast, but it is being decimated. Just last month, piles of crabs, lobsters, razor clams and dried seaweed formed on the beaches at South Gare and along the coast to Saltburn, an area popular with my constituents, as well as others further afield. As local marine rescuer, Sally Bunce, put it,
“It’s a dead zone. Fishermen in Saltburn have also reported pulling pots that are full of black silt.”
Sally first got involved in this cause because she rescues seals. She told me that most seal pups have starved to death this year. In their first months, they feed off sea life on the seabed but, because of these mass die-offs, there was nothing there. She rescued seal pups that, at four months old, should have been 35 kilograms, but were 15 kilograms. Sadly, some of them were too far gone to be rescued and rehabilitated. This year, 14 porpoises have washed up dead in a period of 10 weeks, which is a huge increase on normal numbers.
I understand that the Department did not provide funding for toxicology tests to be carried out on the porpoises. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain, given the circumstances, why it was not thought such a report would be needed. I am also interested to hear from the Minister of any investigation her Department has carried out on the effects of this prolonged mass mortality on the full range of regional marine wildlife. If what has been done so far has been insufficient, will she commit to a full investigation of the range of issues affecting our marine environment?
Scuba divers who dive off the coast from Marske have reported that areas that used to be full of wildlife are now desolate, and even the seaweed bleached white at the ends. Although the destruction of marine life is already devastating from an environmental perspective, the impact it is having on the fishing industry in the north-east could be terminal.
I have already shared cases of diminishing shellfish catches, and those where the lobsters are already dead. In the first die-off in October, the local fishing industry reported a 95% decline in the lobster and crab catch. The picture is truly catastrophic. There have also been reports from fishermen that they have caught flounder that have been covered in blisters. It is not good enough for the Government to sit back and let this fishing industry die. It will be yet another Tees industry that the Tories have seen over the edge, just like they did with our steel industry. The Government cannot level up our country if they turn a blind eye, and simply allow the industries and communities such as ours to die away.
I have been calling for a support package for the fishermen since February. Back then, the Department said it was not considering compensation. I wonder whether now, as issues remain ongoing, the Minister will reconsider her Department’s position and provide vital support for the north-east’s decimated fishing industry. The hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions earlier this month. I want to ensure that it is clearly on the record that the £100 million that the Prime Minister referred to in his reply is not new money to support the fishermen in response to this crisis, but the existing £100 million of the UK seafood fund that was announced in early 2021, before the die-offs had even begun.
That sum was to support the industry because of the financial losses it has suffered as a result of the Government’s bungled Brexit. We need additional funds to be identified to support the industry given this new challenge. I hope the Minister can commit today to consider such a support package. If the Department is unable to provide such a package, I wonder whether the Tees Valley Mayor has the powers, if he is willing to provide some form of support, to ensure that we do not lose the few remaining fishing boats from Teesside and Hartlepool.
Our industries desperately need support and they deserve more definitive answers. The Government need to pay more attention to this ongoing crisis. They cannot continue to stick their heads in the sand and hope that the situation will resolve itself. We want our seas back and we want our fishing industry back. I hope that the Minister gives our local communities’ concerns the attention and respect that they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing this debate on an issue that has been at the forefront of all our minds since October last year.
I should start by drawing attention to the fact that, as the MP for Redcar, I sit on the boards of both Teesworks and the Teesside freeport. I do not get paid to perform those roles; I sit on the boards to advocate for my constituents. However, I will first tackle the myth that has been spread online that somehow Teesworks, the freeport and, by implication, the Tees Valley Mayor are linked to dredging in the River Tees.
The Tees Valley Mayor has no control, legislative remit or authority over any of the Tees mouth. PD Ports is the statutory harbour authority and organises dredging activities. No dredging has taken place as part of the Teesside freeport, Teesworks or the South Bank Quay project, and any and all dredging must be done in accordance with the requirements and related regulations of the Marine Management Organisation, as has always been the case with all the dredging on the River Tees that has happened since the year dot.
I think it is a misconception to get lost in a conversation about dredging, because we know that contaminates exist in the riverbed. That is why sampling is undertaken before any dredging takes place; it is also why dredging that does not meet the requirements of disposal at sea is dealt with separately and handled onshore. While, as the hon. Member for Stockton North said, the joint investigation into the mass death of crabs has not been able to come to an absolute conclusion—no such investigation would ever be able to do that—it has been able to rule out chemical pollution and dredging as the likely cause of the crustacean die-off.
I am not a scientist. I am not trained in marine biology; nor is the hon. Member for Stockton North, and nor, indeed, is the Minister. We are here as politicians, to ask the pressing questions that need to be asked, to challenge ideas that are presented to us, and to accept the evidence when it is provided in an independent way, as is being done by the Environment Agency, the Marine Management Organisation, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, and every other organisation involved in this case. If someone thinks that all those organisations would somehow conspire to hide the real cause of these crustacean deaths, they must be having a laugh. That would not happen. Why would all these leading scientists come together to try to cover this up in some way? That does not make sense.
Instead of going down that route and accepting the evidence for it, my plea to the Minister is that she continues to ask challenging questions of those organisations but that the real message that she should take away—this is something that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockton North—is the huge impact that this mass-mortality event has had on towns and communities such as Redcar, Whitby and Hartlepool. If we are to have a fishing industry in towns such as mine, it is vital that the Government extend support when we are faced with these freak acts of nature.
As the hon. Member said, when I raised this issue at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister highlighted the UK seafood fund, but we need to know how the Government will help the fishermen in Redcar today. Redcar originated as a fishing village in the 14th century; people have fished in Redcar for more than 700 years. Will the Minister please go away and consider what further help could be available for a community such as mine, to ensure that the thousands of crab deaths off our coast do not lead to the death of a 700-year-old industry?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing this important debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young); together with my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson), he asks me almost daily whether I have an update on this issue, which is very important for their constituents. It is fair to say that the mass wash-up of dead crabs and lobsters in the Tees area last winter had a really significant effect, both on the local community as a whole and on the fishing industry.
The Environment Agency led the initial emergency response with the support of others, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs then co-ordinating a multi-agency response involving the EA, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, the Marine Management Organisation, the Food Standards Agency and the UK Health Security Agency.
It must be remembered that we really did not know what was causing the mass mortality. Extensive testing, research and analysis followed, which included testing for chemicals and other pollutants such as pyridine, dredging activity, disease, and seismic activity. In summary, no chemicals tested were identified at levels that would explain the cause of the mortality. A harmful algal bloom that was present in the area at the time was shown in the satellite imagery and confirmed by the consistent detection of algal toxins in the washed-up dead crabs and lobsters.
The Government experts’ joint report on those findings was published last month, and I hope that the hon. Member for Stockton North received it. It was published only on 31 May, not at the end of last year. Although we concluded that the most likely cause was the harmful algal bloom, we may never know for sure what caused the event. I will go on to detail the continuing testing, and I undertake to keep the hon. Gentleman informed as that process is gone through.
Our focus now is to understand the impact that the event has had on shellfish stocks in the region, and to try to monitor the recovery. We are also doing a very wide-ranging piece of work to better understand the impact of algal bloom on crustaceans. In a really important step forward, Government technical leads met industry-commissioned researchers last week to share knowledge gained from the work completed so far. There should be no suggestion that two different bodies of science are being created out of this industry, because it is really important that we pool resources, work together and are completely transparent in what we find. We also met to discuss planned university and DEFRA-commissioned research, and I am pleased that we are able to do that together. We will continue to share our findings and work collectively with all the experts wherever we can.
The EA is carrying out monthly sampling and testing of the water quality, and it continues to monitor water in the Tees as part of its normal programme. CEFAS is contributing to work on algal blooms and parasites in crustaceans, and it is also undertaking work to further understand the science, including that of pyridine. That is due to be completed in March 2023. It is a really large body of work, which will help us to interpret the scientific findings of the incident in 2021. I hope that it will also increase the suite of analytical tools that we have across DEFRA to respond should any such incident occur again.
I appreciate the Minister’s response and I know of the terrible constraints, but this situation has now lasted nine months. Just two weeks ago, we had another incident. A few weeks before that, we had a major incident. I do not know whether the same cause is to blame every time, but what is happening to identify whether there is an ongoing cause? What is going to happen to the fishermen?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am being kept informed weekly by my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool and for Redcar, and by my own officials, who are monitoring the situation very closely. If I may, I will continue to set out the work that we are doing on testing, because it shows how seriously we are taking the issue.
We are waiting for a report associated with some of the parasite findings in the lobster samples that we took recently. CEFAS is actively investigating the intelligence that some of the lobsters have been found to be heavily parasitised, and it is examining them very carefully. The EA continues to monitor the water, including by conducting chlorophyll and phytoplankton sampling, as well as chemical sampling. The North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Association continues to monitor the health of shellfish stocks by following trends in catch and effort reporting, actively working on survey pots, conducting observer trips onboard fishing vessels and on the quayside, and supporting any additional biological sampling and testing work that is undertaken by other lead organisations. For the sake of completeness, I will say that the MMO is satisfied that the disposal of dredge material has been carried out in accordance with sampling guidelines set out under OSPAR.
I am just moving on to dredging on the Tees.
Dredging has been taking place for many years. It is essential to maintain navigational safety and access to ports and other facilities, and it plays a fundamental part in the operation of local businesses. It has been ruled out as a likely cause of the wash-up.
Before a marine licence is granted, samples of dredge materials must be tested. The MMO has looked at the test results before and after the dredging. The sampling of sediment licensed by the MMO for disposal to the designated sites of the Tees confirmed that no chemical determinants exceeded levels of concentrations that would be harmful to marine life. A further review found no evidence of a link between the disposal of dredged sediment and the mass crustacean deaths. The Environment Agency could not find anything of note in its testing, either. Sediment that is going to be dredged in the Tees is tested and sampled at least every three years prior to the dredging, and the MMO found nothing in the dredging sphere that would explain the deaths.
I would be delighted to share with the hon. Gentleman the information that we have already shared with the scientists not related to the Government who are involved in the work. We have shared with them absolutely everything that we feel could be relevant, because it is very important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar said, that no conspiracy theories abound.
Yes. The point I was making is that we have shared all these findings; they are not in any way being kept secret. I completely accept why the local community is very distressed; it was an extremely distressing event. I understand that there are further crustacean deaths taking place from time to time. People locally are extremely worried by that, and that is understandable. However, it is important that we look at this with an open mind, and that scientists are able to share the evidence and work together to try to establish why on earth it has occurred.
I also understand that the local fishing industry has been put under enormous pressure during the last eight or nine months. It is not our normal practice to pay compensation when natural events occur, as they do annually all around the country. For example, very sadly, we have to close fisheries from time to time when stocks become unavailable. We are not currently considering compensation, but I am very willing to work with colleagues—I have extended this offer to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar already—to see whether there are items or infrastructure bids in the UK seafood fund that would be suitable for the local communities. Members may wish to work together, as a group, to see whether there is something that we can do through that considerable fund to help the local community.
If I might slightly correct the hon. Member for Stockton North, the UK seafood fund was not in any way meant to compensate for the trade and co-operation agreement; instead, it was to get the industry ready for the fishing opportunities of the future and for the increased quota that has come our way following Brexit. It is very much a fund that looks to the future, and I would be very keen to meet any of the hon. Members present to discuss how best we can look into how that works for their area.
Last month, I visited Hartlepool and met my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool, the MMO, the inshore fisheries and conservation authority and a very helpful representative from the local fishing industry. Together, we looked at some dead crustaceans and spoke about the recent reports and the future of the investigation. My officials have been meeting the various agencies weekly to share intelligence and assess the situation, and the officials with me today would be delighted to speak to any hon. Member after the debate, to allay fears wherever possible.
Clearly, this situation has not yet been put to bed; we need to continue to monitor and assess. The report was a substantial and serious piece of work but I know that concerns remain locally—I hear and understand colleagues when they say that that is very much the case. I will therefore convene a meeting to update MPs when more of the evidence that I described earlier is available to us. I reassure all colleagues present that we keep this issue very much at the top of our agenda.
Question put and agreed to.
Derby County Football Club
We are going to move straight on to the next debate, so would all those Members who are not participating please be courteous enough to leave quickly and quietly because we come on to the important issue of the administration of Derby County football club.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the administration of Derby County Football Club.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. At the outset, I would like to thank the Minister for his support and for his willingness to discuss this issue with local MPs. That has really been appreciated.
Last week marked nine months since Derby County entered administration on 22 September 2021—nine months of pain and uncertainty for Rams fans, who have shown so much devotion and dedication to the club during this, the toughest of all seasons. Since September we have seen a string of deadlines set, and missed, by Derby administrators Quantuma and the English Football League. We had an urgent question on the Floor of the House in January because the EFL had set a deadline of 1 February for the club to exit administration. That, like every other deadline throughout the process, was missed and the administrators were allowed to delay again.
In April we finally got the news we were waiting for: a preferred bidder, Chris Kirchner, was announced. We were told on 3 May that it was “almost done”, on 14 May that it was “almost complete”, and on 27 May that they would be closing by the end of the month. On 2 June, we were told that the delays were nothing to worry about and that UK and US bank holidays were preventing the bank transfer, which no one on either side of this multimillion pound deal had apparently foreseen or planned for. All along, the administrators had assured Team Derby—made up of Members of Parliament, councillors and local stakeholders—that nothing was wrong and that Kirchner’s deal would be completed.
Two weeks ago, it was announced via the media, rather than a direct communication from the administrators, that Kirchner had pulled out. Quantuma had made a terrible miscalculation in giving Chris Kirchner 65 days of exclusivity, which could have been spent seeking other, more credible buyers. Those 65 days have come at an absolutely crucial time for the club. We really are at one minute to midnight. Derby has only seven players contracted for next season, and the EFL has not yet lifted the transfer ban. Derby needs to be able to sell season tickets and agree sponsorship and commercial deals, and there are just weeks to go until next season.
In a spark of good news, local businessman David Clowes has been announced as the new preferred bidder and, crucially, has already acquired Pride Park, the stadium, so he is in a good place to finalise his deal. We very much hope he is able to conclude the sale of the club by tomorrow, Wednesday the 29th, but Derby fans have been here before and will not believe it is over until the ink has dried on the contract.
However, it was also announced this week that our inspirational manager, Wayne Rooney, who has given his all to the club over the past year, has left. He fought against all the odds to rescue us from relegation. Despite a transfer ban and a 21-point deduction, he very nearly achieved that feat. Without our points deduction, Derby would have finished comfortably out of the relegation zone, in 17th place. I thank Wayne for all he has done for Derby County. We understand the difficulties and challenges he faced. Rams fans will be giving all our support to interim manager, Liam Rosenior, who has supported Wayne throughout the past year and now has the chance to lead the team forward and hopefully eventually back to the championship and beyond.
With all that context in mind, I have three main points I would like the Minister to respond to. My first relates to the conduct of the administrators, Quantuma. For some time, I have been very concerned about its competence in handling a business of Derby’s size. It took more than a month to work out that Kirchner was not able to provide the funds he promised. There are reports that it failed to communicate effectively with other interested buyers, and it has therefore run the club dangerously close to the edge of liquidation over the past nine months.
Furthermore, Quantuma’s manner of communication with local stakeholders through Team Derby has been incredibly poor. It has constantly told us that it is on the edge of breakthroughs, which never materialised. Our weekly updates barely had any new information. Quantuma refused to discuss key matters, on the grounds of commercial sensitivity, only for those matters to appear in the newspapers the next day. It is reported that Quantuma racked up more than £2 million in costs in the first six months of the administration. Its latest response to supporters’ groups assures us that no fees have been drawn so far, but not that it will not be taking them out of the sale proceeds.
It appears to me that the conduct of the administrators has fallen far short of what Derby County has a right to expect. However, there are no fans’ voices in this process. Fans have had no say in who the new owners of Derby County will be, and the administrators have failed time and again to communicate clearly with the fans.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on her and other local MPs’ tremendous efforts and leadership in championing the needs and future of Derby Town. This fate could befall any football club or any large sports club. She reflected on the conduct of the administrator. Does she have some suggestions for the Minister about how the process could be improved? We all look at our local football clubs and do not want to see a similar situation occurring. If it does, we want to make sure that the situation can be remedied as quickly as possible.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I must correct him: it is Derby County, not Derby Town. Yes, this is a problem that could happen to any club at any time and in later remarks I will address what could be done.
The fans and the club deserve so much better. Can the Sports Minister update us as to how best we can hold Quantuma to account? In particular, how would he expect administrators to consult and communicate effectively with fans during a sale process? Furthermore what, specifically, will the Sports Minister do to ensure that Quantuma is acting in the best interests of Derby’s fans? The club is not out of the woods yet and I have lost all confidence in Quantuma. Therefore, I call on the Sports Minister and the Secretary of State to take a close interest and ensure that the interests of Derby fans are represented in what are hopefully the very final stages of the sale to Clowes Developments Ltd.
My second point relates to the English Football League, which has an important role in saving Derby County. It is responsible for the particular set of insolvency rules that govern football clubs and for resolving disputes between clubs. Unfortunately, its apparent desire to take a back seat has been very damaging to Derby County. The well-publicised claims by other clubs made Derby a much less appealing prospect for potential buyers, particularly given the EFL’s refusal to confirm that those claims did not amount to football debts, which need to be paid in full. It was only after Chris Kirchner pulled out of the process two weeks ago that the EFL finally announced it would amend its position and become fully involved in the process of finding a buyer alongside Quantuma. That is far too late and should have taken place much earlier in the process.
In addition to assisting with the negotiations with interested parties, there are other key actions that the EFL can take that would help Derby County fans. First, it must lift the ban on Derby signing and re-signing players. With just weeks until the start of the season, Liam Rosenior has only seven players to choose from. The EFL must immediately allow Derby to sign players or at least to re-sign existing squad members to contract extensions. Secondly, fans have been squarely behind Derby County throughout the whole process. They have turned up to matches, and the grounds have been at capacity. However, fans have not yet been able to buy season tickets for next season, which not only hurts them but reduces the income for the club at a time when it is so desperately needed.
Derby County is a founder member of the English Football League, which has treated our club and our fans poorly, when it should be doing everything possible to ensure that the club is not liquidated and has enough players to compete in League One next season. What discussions has the Sports Minister had with the EFL to ensure that Derby fans are not punished, that they will be able to get season tickets for the upcoming season and that the club will be able to field a full side for its opening games? The EFL has been incredibly slow to step in and oversee Quantuma’s work. What assurances has the Minister received that it will be much more active in securing the future of one of its member clubs going forward?
My final point relates to the actions that we can take in this place. So much of the situation could have been avoided if the recommendations from the fan-led review into football governance, which my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) has championed, had been implemented already. The hon. Lady sends her apologies; she desperately wanted to be here and support Derby and its fans, but she has been held up.
Creating a new independent regulator for football governance requires primary legislation. An independent regulator is needed so that fans’ voices are heard throughout the process to ensure that the right people are in charge of football clubs. Football clubs are not just commercial assets or businesses; they are community assets of huge sporting, cultural, economic and historical value to the local area—no club more so than Derby County, an historic founder member of English football. It has fans not only across the region, but across the world, and its game days provide an economic boost to Derby and the east midlands.
All too often in recent years, we have seen the effect on the local area of a football club going into administration. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) made the point eloquently during my urgent question in January about Bury football club. An independent regulator is desperately needed to ensure that the right people are in charge of football clubs and are meaningfully taking the views of fans into account. Please, for the sake of Derby fans, Bury fans and so many more, will the Minister confirm that that crucial legislation will be brought forward?
In conclusion, I have concerns—to which I would like the Minister to respond—about the administrators, the EFL and the fan-led review of football governance. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their participation in the debate. I know that the Minister will be able to see the strength of support for Derby County here in the Chamber. I also want him to be aware that other colleagues would have liked to contribute to the debate, but cannot because they are Whips or Ministers. None the less, they are still local Members of Parliament who have also been involved. Many Members support our cause, because if these things can happen to a club such as Derby County—a founder member of the Football League—they can happen to anyone.
I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope for assurances that he and the Secretary of State will be taking a keen interest in the resolution of the administration over the next day or two—a resolution firmly in the interests of Rams fans.
The full-time whistle on this debate goes at 5.30 pm; the half-time whistle, when we switch from Back Benchers to Front Benchers, is 5.07 pm. The guideline limits for the Front Benchers are 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, 10 minutes for the Minister and three minutes at the end for Pauline Latham to sum up the debate. So, for Back-Bench time until 5.07 pm, there will be a time limit of six minutes, which means that you all get to contribute. We are led to the kick-off by Dame Margaret Beckett.
It is a pleasure to take part in this discussion under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am particularly mindful of your observations about time. Not least because of the admirably comprehensive case made by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), I shall be extremely brief.
My purpose in contributing to the debate is partly to express a degree of sympathy with the Minister, who has had his ear bent extensively over the weeks during which these unfortunate events have taken place. I say that not least because, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and given the existing legislative framework, he might feel that there is a limit to what he can contribute. However, primarily, I want wholeheartedly to endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire in calling for changes in the structures of football governance of the kind that have been recommended, which could make a considerable difference to how such events are handled.
I am one of the Members of this House who is not a lawyer, so it is always a bit of a surprise to discover to what extent, in handling legal matters, people are confined and restricted. It has certainly been a revelation to me to hear about the power that rested with the administrators and about the incapacity of any other player in this dispute to influence them in any way or even to gain reliable information.
I will not withhold from Members present that I for one—I am not alone in this—have grown impatient to a degree with the lack of information that has been made available. I recognise, of course, and I am very conscious of, the need for information to be properly held, maintained, respected and all of that. I do not need any lectures about that, but I would almost say that those who have sought on a cross-party basis to work with and support the club and its fans have on occasion been treated with contempt by a variety of people taking part in these discussions. That has been quite alarming, and I have every sympathy with those affected. The fans’ organisation has been very powerful and enthusiastic—and, on the whole, incredibly polite, given the level of frustration the fans and all of us have experienced. They have held the interests of Derby County close to their heart, and I am sure they have bitten their tongues on many an occasion when they would have wished to express themselves forcefully.
As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire said, it is a source of great regret to us all that Wayne Rooney has not felt able to stay with the club. There is no criticism of any kind implied in that remark; I think we all recognise the debt owed to him and honour his willingness to stay for so long and to see the club through so many difficult times. I share the concerns that have been expressed about the role of the EFL, which has not always acted as one might hope.
In the early days, when we first became involved as a cross-party group in trying to support the club to move forward, it was often with, and in conversation with, the EFL that we got bogged down and not really able to make progress, because of considerations other than the specific circumstances of Derby County. I will not say any more about that, except to pick up on what was mentioned a few minutes ago about fans not being punished. I certainly felt during a large part of these proceedings that there were those who had various reasons for resentment against Derby County, including some who had been involved with it in the past. That is perhaps understandable, but it is a matter for them. I certainly felt that there was a very real likelihood—a danger, as we said—right at the outset of our involvement in all this of Derby County being the inadvertent victim of people’s wish to penalise others for what they felt were their offences. That may or may not have been understandable, but the club and the fans were put at risk in a way that was inappropriate.
I share the view that we should look at football governance, and I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that that is something he and his colleagues can do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to follow the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett). I find myself wanting to agree with pretty much everything my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) said in her opening remarks. I thought she gave an eloquent and helpful walk-through of the timeline we have experienced in Derbyshire. I have to praise her in particular for never accepting no as an answer and for demanding constant meetings and updates. I think she has spearheaded the campaign on behalf of her constituents, Derby residents and all Rams fans. I cannot thank her enough on that front.
I sympathise with fans of Derby County, because it has been an incredibly stressful and difficult experience. I find myself wondering who puts fans first. We have talked about the administrators, and perhaps they have a particular job. We have talked about the fan-led review, which I will return to later. I also look at the EFL and ask: why is it there, who is it for and what does it do? I remember that in the urgent question the right hon. Member for Derby South hinted in that direction, and I agreed with her at the time. What would be the Minister’s best defence for the EFL’s existence? It feels like it puts fans at the bottom of the list. It has been a constant issue to get information and comms from it, and to try to work out what it is there for. I look optimistically to the fan-led review and a new regulator, as mentioned previously, in the hope that we may see something.
Football clubs up and down the country keep coming back to financial security issues and poor ownership. When I have a spare moment, I love football. I want football to thrive. Our communities all love football and love watching it. But we see the same situation over and over again, of teams that have been around for a long time—as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire outlined, founder clubs that have been around forever are pillars of their community—being completely undermined by unfit owners or unsuitable financial arrangements. We find ourselves in a very difficult cycle.
I look to the Minister and plead, as have others, for progress on legislation. We are in the right place, and the Minister in particular deserves considerable credit, and not only for what he has done with Derby County—not an insignificant amount—but because a lot of the information we have had is as a result of his efforts. I do not think it is a secret that he has joined meetings from the car, going from visit to visit, to try to keep us up to date. I praise him for his involvement, but we are in a slightly unsustainable position. For those of us who love the beautiful game, it is one that we do not want and that it is difficult to defend.
When this debate was originally called for, the situation on the ground was slightly different from where we are now. Other than Wayne Rooney’s departure as manager, we have a greater sense of optimism about the purchase of Pride Park and the preferred buyer. That should be reflected in the situation. We may have cause for hope—I really hope that is true.
I come back to the fans, the EFL and the financial situation because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire outlined, the number of players that Derby has for next season, the lack of season tickets and the lack of certainty is unfair. The Rams need whatever is left of the summer to build up, because they are not and should not be a league one club. They did not deserve to be relegated last season—it was unjust.
I find myself in total agreement with my colleagues, but perhaps with a harsher emphasis on the fact that I do not understand what the EFL does, why it does it and who it is for. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing this debate of huge local interest.
At this stage, the most constructive way to deal with this matter is to look at how we got here and what we can do to ensure that no club and no fans end up suffering the anguish that Derby fans have had to suffer over many months. We have to look at the historical actions of the English Football League, as mentioned by colleagues. There have been significant issues with its regulations. In 2016 an absolutely nonsensical regulation change relaxed the rules in order to allow clubs to sell their stadiums and still comply with the financial fair play regulations. I ask the Minister, what consideration did the English Football League give to the idea that owners that were looking to gamble would use this loophole to abuse the system, allowing them to spend huge amounts of money and separate the club from its stadium?
The history of football is littered with examples of the consequences of a club being separated from its stadium, and the financial problems that inevitably follow. Indeed, Wimbledon lost its entire club from the borough as a result of that loophole. The loophole has now been closed, but had the Derby County owner not had the option of selling the stadium in order to circumvent the financial fair play rules, then I do not think we would be having this debate today. There is no doubt in my mind that this presents a huge failing in regulation by the English Football League.
I turn next to the football creditor rule, of which Derby County also fell foul. Many weeks of the administration were spent dealing with legal claims against Derby County by Middlesbrough football club and, to a lesser extent, Wycombe Wanderers football club. During that time I spoke to both Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Middlesbrough football club owner about what, to many people, was a fairly opportunist and spurious claim that was undoubtedly causing huge problems for the sale of the club, because the claims for so-called cheating were categorised as a football debt by the English Football League, with a potential liability of over £40 million. That understandably made interested parties rather nervous, as no one can ever predict the outcome of any litigation with 100% certainty, and this was during an administration.
With the delays caused by this action, the value of the club decreased day after day and cost the creditors money, including the taxpayer through the liability to HMRC. This example will surely put pressure on the football creditor rule, a point about which I warned various regulators, including the English Football League, while we went through this very painful process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire has been particularly critical of the administrator, Quantuma. Some of her criticism is valid, and certainly the naivety and the failure of due diligence on the Kirchner bid was particularly erroneous. Quantuma has certainly been poor on communication, but I reserve some judgment. The administrator will be able to put its side of the story only when the Derby County sale is successfully completed and explain why certain actions had to be taken. We should be cautious about pre-judging that and give Quantuma the opportunity to defend itself.
However, it is certain that many Derby County supporters have suffered considerable distress over the past nine months or more, and many creditors have been left out of pocket. With a resolution looking likely, it is important that Members of this House take the necessary action to ensure that the Government do everything they can to learn from this painful process so that the same mistakes are not made again. I wish Derby County and its many supporters across the midlands the very best for the future, and I hope the new owners will cherish it.
It is pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing the debate.
If someone had told me 30 years ago, when I watched Notts County cruelly deprived of a championship play-off place by a late own goal at the old Baseball Ground, that I would have some role to play in trying to save the club, I might have expressed some doubt, but it is at this sort of time that the football family comes together. The only reason we have rivalries is because our rivals stay in existence; no one wants to see any club go out of business, least of all a club with the size and history of Derby County.
If I knew 20 years ago, when I watched my team, Notts County, spend three seasons in administration, that we would still have situations where owners could recklessly gamble the future of a club by overspending, in the hope of promotions that do not turn up, and that the club then ends up in a lengthy, expensive administration with preferred bidders who turn out not to have the money they said they had and those deals never quite complete, and we end up with millions of pounds still owed to HMRC, I would not have believed that we would not have found a way of fixing those problems. However, here we are again, with the same situation of a club effectively allowed to overspend, despite financial fair play rules being introduced in the meantime, and somehow racking up tens of millions of pounds of debt to HMRC when the Football League had procedures in place that meant if it did not pay one month’s pay-as-you-earn or one quarter’s VAT, it would receive a transfer ban so that debts could not be racked up to that size. That was to prevent that sort of situation.
I know that covid was one of the excuses, but somehow we have all of those situations still in play. That does not suggest that the financial regulation of football is anywhere near where we want it to be. We want that regulation so that we do not risk losing clubs in this situation because they have been allowed to recklessly overspend in an attempt to get a promotion to the promised lands and fortunes of the premier league, thinking, “Well, somebody else will pick up the bill at the end of the day.”
What thoughts does the Minister have on how we can further strengthen the rules that were meant to be in place to stop this, so that, finally, we can say that it cannot happen again. We could actually get the real-time monitoring in place. We could get advance approval of a budget. We could get advance approval of decisions. Perhaps we could say something like, “If you want to sign a player on ridiculously high wages, you must put the money in the club to pay the transfer fee and those wages in advance before the Football League will sign off the transfer”, so that the money is there to pay those wages all the way through to the end of the contract, and we do not find out, halfway through, that they cannot afford those players’ wages after all.
Perhaps such ideas should be in place to ensure that clubs have the money before they embark on ridiculously extravagant transfer operations or the situation we saw with Derby County. Otherwise, we will have all of these warm words and will slightly tweak a regulator, or get a new one, but fundamentally there will always be this temptation, and supporters will always want it—“Oh, if only we could just sign a striker in January, we could get in the play-offs this year and get promoted.” They then end up spending £25,000 a week on wages for a four-year contract that they cannot really afford because of the £100 million bonus. The temptation will always be there.
As a football fan, I want the dream that some very rich person will come and buy my football club and get me four promotions straight to the premier league, and that we can be in the champions league. That dream has worked for Man City, Newcastle, Chelsea, and for Blackburn a few years ago. We all want that dream, I suppose, so we do not want to stop any chance of somebody coming along and putting loads of money in. However, we must ensure that it is done in a sustainable way, and that it is that person’s money at risk, not the future of the football club. I would urge the Minister to focus on that, and on how we can get the regulations working, whoever the regulator is.
I am afraid that these situations will never be easy, because we have the cold, hard reality of insolvency law coming into play with the emotion of football, and those two things will never work in that situation. If we are being frank, the mess that Derby County was left in would have sent any ordinary business into bankruptcy. The only reason football clubs survive is the loyalty, history, tradition and community links that they have. Derby was unviable as a business, given the amount of debt it had racked up, which was almost more than its underlying value. That is why we must get this right.
Perhaps one other lesson we have learned from this process is that we do not want litigation getting into sporting competitions. We have had the Middlesbrough and Wycombe claims against Derby, and the rumours that Burnley or Leeds were going to take legal action against Everton because of its overspending. We want to know who has won the title or been relegated on the last day of the season, not four years later at the end of a court process.
I urge the Minister to look urgently at ensuring that, whoever the football regulators are, they have the real-time monitoring enforcement of the rules in place and can take quick decisions. When these issues come around, they should be resolved quickly, not several seasons later, issuing a points deduction that means not that Wycombe stays up, but some team three seasons later, which was not even in the league at that time or was in relegation trouble. It is completely unfair for those sanctions to come in years and years later. As we saw with Derby, the point deductions that got it relegated this season were for offences that were seasons and seasons before. It makes a mockery of the integrity of sporting competition if we cannot get the financial aspects of these rules right, and not only to protect clubs but to ensure that we have an actual competition with a fair result at the end of the season.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing the debate and very clearly setting out the history and importance of this issue, as well as the pressure of the deadline; I think she used the phrase “one minute to midnight”, and that is how it feels with the deadline coming up tomorrow. Both the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) set out the concerns and frustrations of people in Derby and fans of the club. They particularly mentioned the issues with the EFL’s behaviour, as well as that of the administrator; we hope that after tomorrow we will be able to look at those questions with more time to judge them. They also expressed praise for Wayne Rooney, and I echo that praise, although as a Manchester City fan I do so through gritted teeth—a Manchester City fan living the dream, as was said earlier.
We also send our best wishes to Liam Rosenior and the limited band of players he now has to work with. We wish them well for the new season, because the last 300 days have been a tough time to be a Derby County fan. A club such as Derby is the heart and soul of its community, a source of pride and identity for its supporters, and to see your club in administration and on the brink of going out of business—to see your team relegated, not because the players were not good enough, but because of points lost due to bad administration—is tough.
For hope to be raised, as it was when a deal seemed to have been struck with Chris Kirchner, and then dashed as that deal fell apart, is also tough. The uncertainty that has prevailed until recently, when the David Clowes bid was accepted, has been a very difficult time for supporters to endure. Let us hope that the fans’ ordeal is now coming to an end and that the deal goes through tomorrow. It is very positive that Mr Clowes is already involved in actively supporting the club. He is a genuine supporter of Derby County, and it is good news that he now owns the stadium, Pride Park. As we heard from the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), it is never good when the ownership of a club and its stadium are separated.
We all hope that Mr Clowes will be the owner that Derby needs, and will be able to stabilise that club and return it to its former glories, because it is hard to overestimate the importance of a football club to its local community. The loss of a club would leave a hole in people’s lives, which is why it is so important that we protect our football clubs with a governance framework that safeguards those clubs for future generations. That is why I join other right hon. and hon. Members in urging the Government to move quickly and bring forward detail on the future of football governance, because this situation is just the latest crisis that demonstrates that we cannot afford to wait. It is yet more compelling evidence that the Government need to act quickly to implement the recommendations of the fan-led review and ensure that football has a governance regime that is fit for purpose, safeguards our great clubs and our national game, and—as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire pointed out—gives fans a voice.
On the subject of fan and stakeholder voices, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) —sadly, she is not present today—did a fantastic job of consulting all the stakeholders in football to set out a recipe for the future of football. Her set of proposals would put much-needed independent regulation in place, protect the heritage of our clubs and, vitally, create a structure of financial and governance oversight that would mean club owners would not be able to risk the future of their clubs in pursuit of success.
I remind Members that when the football review panel led by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford met Mel Morris, the previous owner of Derby County, shortly after her interim recommendations were published, that panel asked him specifically whether he thought the club would be in a different situation if an independent regulator and real-time financial monitoring had been in place. He said, “Yes, without a doubt.” To me, that shines a light on the need for independent regulation and a governance structure that is fit for purpose. The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) is absolutely right: we do not want football to be ruled by litigation in future
The case is clear, and the Government have accepted that case and the need for change—I have welcomed the Minister’s assurances on that point on a number of occasions—yet the Bill is delayed and a White Paper is due. I appreciate that the Government say that it is a complicated issue, which it is, and that we need to get the details right. However, the longer we leave it, the more likely it is that another club will be in crisis like Bury or Derby, so I seek some reassurances from the Minister. When are we likely to see more detail and the White Paper? Importantly, what is the timescale after that for implementation? It is looking increasingly unlikely that we will see a Bill before the next election, whenever that might be. I hope the Minister is able to correct me on that, but it just feels and looks unlikely at this stage, and fans and stakeholders in the game are all frustrated at the slow progress on this issue. We need to see action to safeguard our clubs and to make sure that the situation with Derby does not happen again.
I want to finish by wishing Derby good luck. We all have our fingers crossed that the deal will go through tomorrow and give their fans some comfort that the club is now safe, and that they can look forward to the new season with optimism. Let us make sure that this does not happen to any other clubs in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing this important debate on the administration of Derby County football club, and I thank all of those who have participated, including my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), and the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith).
It is also important to stress, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire did, that several other colleagues have played very close attention to the club’s situation, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Erewash (Maggie Throup), for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) and for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), and the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), who have had frequent conversations with me, my officials and others. As we get to the final stretch, it is important that our constituents are aware of how much time, attention and effort has been put in by all the right hon. and hon. Members I have mentioned, because they recognise how important the future of Derby County is to their constituents. I applaud everybody I have mentioned for their efforts, which show the House at its best. Along with all Members present, I am hopeful about the recent positive developments, and I hope that the matter will soon be resolved to the betterment of the club. I hope that any future parliamentary engagement we have about the Rams will not be in the face of such jeopardy.
Like many Members of this House, particularly those who have joined today’s debate, I know that football clubs are at the absolute heart of our communities, and it is incredibly worrying to see them at risk. That is why the issue is so high on the political agenda here in Parliament and in so many constituencies, especially when there are significant shocks to clubs’ financial security. Match days are days of pride and community and of bringing people together, and the ongoing success of clubs affects the local economy and the wider finances of the football ecosystem overall. The Government understand the importance of this, as does the whole House. That is why we have had the fan-led review of football governance, which has received strong support from all parties.
We are working at pace on the White Paper, which will set out further details on how we will implement wide-ranging reforms in this area. My opposite number, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, has asked me on many occasions to confirm when it will be published. He knows that it will be in the summer, although there is often parliamentary debate about when the summer starts. I can assure him that my officials are moving at pace, and I appreciate that he recognises that this issue is complex. It is one thing to say, “Let’s set up a regulator,” but the devil is in the detail. The scale, scope of responsibilities, location and financial support of the regulator all need quite a lot of work, but we are working on them.
Turning to Derby County football club, the situation has for too long remained worrying for fans, the local community and the football ecosystem alike. I know that this environment of uncertainty is frustrating for all stakeholders. That the club has kept its focus, and that the fans have been so loyal despite this uncertainty, is a huge credit to them. Along with colleagues, I praise Wayne Rooney, who confirmed this weekend that he will be leaving the club with immediate effect, one year earlier than planned. I pay tribute to his efforts and those of the wider team on and off the field.
No one wants to see a founding member of the Football League in administration and facing threats to its survival. I am sure that the team’s efforts this season have made an extremely positive contribution to securing this historic club for years to come, for the Derby County fans of the future. We remain clear that the governance surrounding the administration of Derby County is a matter primarily for the English Football League, the administrator and the club. I thank the right hon. Member for Derby South for understanding that there are things I can control and have influence over, and other things that I cannot. These are self-organising private sector entities that are making commercial decisions.
However, as all hon. Members have said, this is an issue that everybody is interested in. The Government take an interest in the very real concern of Derby County fans, particularly because the club has endured such a long period of risk and uncertainty—so long, in fact, that it has recently begun to threaten the club’s place in the EFL next season, and there are potentially greater ramifications for the club as a whole, as several hon. Members have pointed out. For that reason, I have been receiving regular updates for some time. Most recently, I convened the EFL, the administrators and many hon. Members here today to receive reports on progress. I hear hon. Members’ comments about the frustrations they have experienced with the EFL and the administrators. I will ensure that I communicate those frustrations to those stakeholders.
It would be inappropriate for me to comment on all the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire made, but I will always call on all stakeholders to be pragmatic, act at speed and put the interests of fans at the heart of everything they do. As several hon. Members said, I have regularly called on the administrators and EFL to keep MPs and other stakeholders updated. I specifically said, “If you don’t, I will be called to the House in Westminster Hall debates and others to answer on your behalf,” and here we are, so that point is particularly relevant. I am somewhat disappointed to hear the frustration of many hon. Members, who said that they do not believe they were appropriately updated. There are potentially lessons to be learned for the future if such a situation were to arise again.
Similarly, I have had regular engagement with the EFL, and I will pass on hon. Members’ comments. The EFL has many stakeholders, and of course its responsibility is not to support one club, but to work on behalf of all its members. That sometimes causes contradictions and conflicts that are difficult for the supporter of any individual club to understand, but if we were in a slightly different situation, mindsets might change. As I say, I will pass on all those comments.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire raised the Middlesbrough issue, which was obviously resolved by the clubs Middlesbrough and Derby County themselves. I am afraid that I do not necessarily agree with his suspicions about ulterior motives. I was glad that the situation was resolved, and I believe that the EFL acted in good faith. There were also concerns about legal issues, and they were matters to be resolved directly between the clubs. As I say, I will pass on the concerns that hon. Friends and others raised.
The collapse of the purchase by the previous preferred bidder, Chris Kirchner, was a very difficult moment for the club, but I was reassured that other parties remained interested in it. The EFL also set out that there were a number of ways in which the club could continue in the 2022-23 season, with or without a long-term buyer in place. However, there have been numerous developments in the past week, which I hope are broadly welcomed by the fans. As we speak, Clowes Developments has issued a loan to the club to demonstrate the funding necessary to start the next season. Its chair, David Clowes, has purchased the stadium and had an offer for the club accepted by the administrators. As hon. Members have noted, there are hopes that the purchase of the club could be completed this week, and I certainly hope that that will be the case.
Of course, the sale raises questions about the wider financial sustainability of football, which was focused on by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley. I can give him the reassurances he was looking for. If everything was right in football, and all the regulatory frameworks working as they should, we would have had no need to implement the fan-led review. We did so because there were failings across the board in football. Financial sustainability and financial regulation are at the heart of the role of the regulator, to do precisely the things that my hon. Friend called for. The finances of too many clubs are unsustainable. Consistently spending greater than 100% of revenue is not a viable long-term business model, but for some reason that seems prevalent in football. Ongoing financial monitoring will be a key role of the regulator. The Government accepted all 10 recommendations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). As I have said, we are proceeding at pace with the White Paper, which we will provide more information about soon.
Our plans amount to very significant reform in our national game, and our vision sets a clear direction for that reform, which will reduce the likelihood of financial distress and make football more resilient and sustainable in the long term. I understand that the conversation with Mel Morris was very stark. He did say that, had we had the proposed system in place, Derby County might not have been in the situation it finds itself in now. I think that probably applies to several other clubs that have been in financial distress.
We will publish the White Paper, setting out more details on the breadth of changes that we will make via legislation. I am fairly confident that we will get the support of most, if not all, of the House for that legislation. At the core of those reforms will be an independent regulator for English football. As I have said, the regulator will focus on financial sustainability, overseeing a licensing regime, which covers the top five leagues in English football. We will also act on our view that the current owners’ and directors’ tests do not go far enough and must be strengthened. That will include enhanced checks on the source of funds and the strength of business and financial plans.
The Government are fully committed to reforming football governance, to enable a long-term, sustainable future for the game. Accepting all the strategic recommendations within the review is the next step to do exactly that, and will represent a wholesale change in the way in which football is governed in England. In the meantime, the Government will continue to engage closely with the EFL, the administrators and, of course, hon. Members, until it is confirmed that this fantastic club has been saved. I hope to hear very good news very soon.
I thank the Minister for his remarks, and I look forward to seeing the proposed legislation. I hope that it will go a long way to solve the problems at Derby County. I also thank right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. It is interesting that there are not many debates where Members on both sides of the House completely agree on what has gone wrong and where we need to move forward. That is because this is more important than party politics. It is about the heart of Derby and the heart of Derby County. Even Notts Forest fans would like Derby County to continue because, if it does not, who will they hate in future?
We are not having this debate just for the fans; it is for the whole community of Derby. The fans are very important and have been left out, but this is about the economy of the city of Derby and the jobs that big clubs such as Derby County bring. Those poor, uncertain people who work at the club still do not know, and have not known for months, whether they will have a job at the end of this. It is important that we do not forget those people, who in some instances have given many years of their lives to Derby County. That is so important, because they are relying on the future of Derby County and its new owner. I sincerely hope we will see the solution in the next day or so. If we do not, I really do not know what Derby will do.
I have to say that I never thought that my time in Parliament would end up with me knowing so much about football and even leading a debate on it. It is not my specialist subject, although it has become much more specialist than I ever thought it would.
David Clowes has come in at the last minute and acted quickly and honourably. I do not know him personally, although I did know his father. However, I know that, as a fan, he has a drive to get this issue sorted and to get it right. It is really important that he is allowed to do that so that he can bring Derby County forward and ensure we continue to be successful and go back up into the next league, which is what Derby County fans want. They want us to be up, not down. They would like to be further up still, as we were in the days of our former manager. It is really important for Derby that we are successful.
I worked for Midland Bank years and years ago. I remember that, if we lost on a Saturday, people were depressed on the Monday morning at work, but if we won, the whole atmosphere was different. It is no different now. This is such an important event for Derby to be successful—having David Clowes at the forefront, as a local person and a fan who does have the money. That is an important thing to recognise. I would like to wish him good luck. I also wish enormous good luck to the interim manager, Liam Rosenior, who has a huge job to follow after Wayne Rooney, who has been so loyal and so fantastic. I am really sad to see him go.
Thousands of my generation go to see Derby County, but it is not just them—it is my children’s generation and my grandchildren’s generation, too. They all turn up to fill that stadium week after week after week, even during this time of uncertainty. It is important that Derby County survives. I know that Steve Bloomer continues to watch over Derby County.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the administration of Derby County Football Club.