Wednesday 29 June 2022
[Clive Efford in the Chair]
Hong Kong Anniversaries
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the anniversaries of the handover of Hong Kong and the implementation of the National Security Law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Efford. I shall try to keep my remarks brief, but as a politician you know what that means.
Today’s debate is very important. It is important because we need to recall the plight of those in Hong Kong who were guaranteed under a treaty that their system would pay attention to the nature of how they had been previously governed under the UK, that their freedoms, to a greater or lesser extent, would be respected, and that there would be proper free and fair elections, yet that treaty, having been signed—fully agreed by both parties, China and the UK—has completely broken down.
A little background here is important. On 1 July 1997, Hong Kong was handed over to China by the UK, under the conditions set out in the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration. The joint declaration provides for fundamental rights, a high degree of autonomy, and one country, two systems in Hong Kong. The People’s Republic of China has stated since 2014, however, that the treaty has no further legal effect, while the document remains binding, in essence, in operation. The UK Government have declared the PRC as being
“in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the…Joint Declaration”.
As co-signatory to the treaty, the UK absolutely has the legal and moral responsibility to act in defence of a treaty that it signed and which was agreed.
The UK Government have declared there to be an ongoing breach of the Sino-British declaration, but we have not done much—we have not done enough—to hold China and the Chinese to account. I welcome some issues being resolved, such as the British national overseas passports scheme, which has opened a pathway for more than 100,000 Hongkongers to move to the UK and is a generous offer, but that is ultimately a humanitarian operation, not an accountability mechanism.
I welcome also the Government’s move to extend the BNO scheme to those born after 1 July 1997, following a campaign involving many who are here today. That means that many young pro-democracy activists will be eligible for the scheme. Many others around the Commonwealth—I think of Australia and a number of others—have opened their doors to those people should they wish to stay much closer to Hong Kong.
From 1 July 2020 to 28 March 2022, 183 individuals were arrested for alleged national security crimes. I have here a list of all those people. I am not going to read out all their names, but I might selectively look at a few, particularly Jimmy Lai and others, who have been appallingly treated.
Most of the arrests were related to the national security law, but some were for other crimes, such as so-called sedition. More than 50 civil society groups have been disbanded, and in June 2021 police arrested five senior executives from Apple Daily for alleged collusion with foreign forces. The media outlet, which was fair and free, was forced to close the same week. Prosecutors later affirmed that the arrests stemmed in part from apparent editorials published in Apple Daily calling on western countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong officials.
In December 2021, the Hong Kong authorities arrested editorial staff of Stand News, citing conspiracy to publish seditious materials under the Crimes Ordinance. On the day of the arrests, Stand News announced its immediate closure. Prominent figures such as Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong were arrested and charged under the national security law.
Arbitrary detention has taken place. Through the denial of bail in the vast majority of the related cases, the Hong Kong Government have created a system of de facto long-term detention without trial. On 28 February 2021, the authorities charged 47 politicians and activists over their role in organising a primary election in advance of Legislative Council elections in July 2020. Almost a year and a half later, most of those charged individuals remain in jail awaiting trial.
The truth is that the UK has a treaty responsibility to hold accountable those in power who are the perpetrators. That includes our own citizens who have aided and abetted the crackdown in Hong Kong. I am thinking in particular of senior British police officers who oversaw the use of indiscriminate tear gassing of peaceful pro-democracy protesters, and the same individuals who were in charge of detention facilities where violence and, we believe, even torture have been carried out against young Hongkongers. Think about that: British citizens involved in such levels of abuse.
Organisations campaigning on this issue have compiled an incredible dossier on the actions of the Hong Kong Government and the many abuses that have taken place. Once that dossier is complete, colleagues and I intend to submit it directly to the Government, with recommendations for further actions to be taken against those responsible. I expect that we will receive a very clear answer.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern that, unless the Government are forthright in showing how they will protect press freedom, all the content we have will disappear even further? We owe thanks to Hong Kong Watch and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China for gathering that information. It is incredibly dangerous for people to speak the truth, in or outside Hong Kong, for fear of arrest and abuse.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our thanks go out to Hong Kong Watch, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and other groups that have facilitated this debate. My hon. Friend is sanctioned by the Chinese Government, as I am, for our concerns over the Uyghurs and the abuses in Xinjiang, and because of our complaints about what has happened in Hong Kong. She is right to raise the point that the Government need to do much more, which I want to come to in a minute.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point about the individuals involved. Does he agree that HSBC, headquartered in London, is a business that regularly breaks the law? It is the money-laundering choice for a number of illegal operations and has been fined three times. HSBC is not only involved in Xinjiang, but in Hong Kong it has frozen the accounts of individual protesters—people who were trying to restore democracy in Hong Kong. Does he agree that the Government could do more to influence or control that dreadful bank?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because that is correct. I had clashes with HSBC when it froze the accounts of those who had fled Hong Kong under the Government schemes. The same applies to Standard Chartered. HSBC’s answer was that it has to obey the law. My answer to the bank is, “You are headquartered in London. You take advantage of the freedoms in London, yet you behave like a brutal part of the Government in Hong Kong in obeying their every whim. You cannot ride both horses.” Those who take advantage of our common law purpose and the rights that exist in London need also to obey the norms of how those things came about and how they are operated. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The abuses of those banks are shocking and the Government should pay attention. I was going to raise that appalling situation, but now he has done.
On other issues, I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s support for the withdrawal, finally, of serving UK judges from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. I was surprised that we had to campaign for that at all, and that judges, whose responsibility in the UK is to arbitrate fairly in disputes in a democratic country under the rule of law, should so position themselves in Hong Kong while arbitrary detention was taking place, and carry on earning a living while serving in the UK. I am enormously pleased that that has now come to an end.
The President of the Supreme Court, Lord Reed, has agreed that High Court judges will no longer act in Hong Kong, but retired judges continue to do so. He said:
“the judges of the Supreme Court cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse an administration which has departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression”.
We obviously welcomed that decision, even though it was overdue, but I would have thought that retired judges were bound by much the same principle. If the Supreme Court has reached the opinion that its judges can no longer appear to act with an Administration who have departed from the values of political freedom and freedom of expression, how is it that retired judges, who are meant to be bound by the same principles, can in all honestly look themselves in the mirror and say, “That’s all right, but we are different”? I appeal to them today, for the sake of all those who are being traduced, arrested, tortured and dealt brutally with: it is time for us to show the world that the legitimacy of the legal system in Hong Kong is no longer. I understand that they have defended their decision, and I am not going to go through the details, but we must now call time on it.
What should the UK be doing? This is important: we should implement individual sanctions against Hong Kong officials who are responsible for the crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong. The UK is yet to impose sanctions on any Hong Kong official, which is astonishing given the fact that we had a joint requirement to see fairness. We see it trashed, yet we have done nothing about those who are clearly and obviously guilty. Here is the irony: the USA has done exactly that, and it did not have the same responsibilities that the UK Government had. The outgoing Chief Executive, Carrie Lam—sanctioned. The incoming Chief Executive, John Lee—sanctioned. Seven officials of the Hong Kong special administrative regions—sanctioned. That is Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, Xia Baolong, Zhang Xiaoming, Luo Huining, Zheng Yanxiong, Chris Tang Ping-keung and Stephen Lo Wai-chung—they have all been sanctioned by the US Administration. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister: why have we not done the same? Should we not be leading the USA and others, rather than be following them? Bold action and a bold answer are required.
The Government should conduct an audit of assets belonging to Chinese and Hong Kong officials held in the UK. A recent Hong Kong Watch report states that 11 Hong Kong officials and legislators own property in the UK. We have already established over time, and particularly since the Russians invaded Ukraine, the level of abuse that has taken place in the UK property market. We are now at last bearing down on that, and sanctions are moving, yet for Hong Kong, where people have been abusing the system for some time, we have still not carried out the audit that has been requested.
The Government should further scrutinise and limit the export of surveillance technology to Hong Kong. Following the outbreak of protests in 2019, I welcomed the announcement that the British Parliament would stop issuing export licences for crowd-control equipment to Hong Kong and announced the extension of the arms embargo on Hong Kong. However, technology that can be used for surveillance, such as facial recognition, closed circuit camera systems and technologies fuelled by the mass collection of personal data, can still be exported if they do not fall under the scope of existing legislation. That needs to be shut down immediately.
We must introduce “know your customer” and due diligence requirements for entities that produce surveillance technology. I understand that a local branch of the UK company Chubb has been providing surveillance products and services to detention facilities in Hong Kong that have been involved in the inhuman treatment of detainees. The reality is that it is in our power to act, and I do not understand why we are so resistant. Surely it is the decent thing to do.
My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly important point. Would he, like me, like to hear from the Minister about why we have not responded to the biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner, who has raised concerns about contracts not only here but in Hong Kong and mainland China, in particular about the contracts with Hikvision, which we know is involved and complicit in the abuse of Hongkongers and Uyghurs?
I am grateful for that intervention because I was coming to that, and my hon. Friend is right to prompt me. The commissioner has made it very clear that Hikvision is a security risk. It is used for abuse not just in Hong Kong but in the wider region, for the detention, genocide and slave labour of the Uyghurs, and there are plans and applications for Tibetans, Christians and others. We have highlighted endlessly with the Government how Hikvision cameras are being implemented in many prisons and detention facilities around China, particularly in Hong Kong, so why in heaven’s name are Government Departments still using it?
I have here a list of my parliamentary questions to each Department about how many cameras each of them holds and whether they will get rid of them. Of all the Government Departments, two have responded openly. One is the Department of Health and Social Care, which says it will eradicate them, and the second is the Department for Work and Pensions, which responded in a similar way. Every other Department has fallen back on the same phrase, saying that they do not respond to matters that are security risks. Well, the only security risk is the Departments themselves and it is high time they responded. Today I am FOI-ing every single one of those Departments. They need to respond immediately to say what they are doing and why they have not done it yet.
I also want the Government to implement “know your customer” and due diligence requirements on entities that facilitate the violation of human rights. Joint ventures with Chinese entities that develop surveillance technology should stop. There are at least 18 research partnerships with Huawei and CloudWalk in the UK. Let us for a second touch on Huawei, a company involved in the surveillance of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang arena. It has partnered with a number of UK academic institutions, including King’s College London, the University of Cambridge, Barking & Dagenham College, University College London, Queen Mary University, the University of London and the University of Edinburgh. I understand there are more, but I will not detain the House much longer on that.
Huawei was banned from our telecommunications systems because it was deemed a security risk, yet it has its headquarters in Cambridge, where it is busy funding all sorts of programmes, many of which have security links. Honestly—what other country in the world would allow that to happen? Good gracious me! Bits of Government need to start talking to each other and asking a simple question: why is Huawei still here if it is a security risk? What is it doing subverting our universities? I am deeply concerned about all the levels of security equipment—I have talked about Hikvision and others—that are busily working away not in the interests of the UK, and there are plenty more.
The UK Government now have to act. There is so much more that they could and should do. They should lead the rest of the world and not follow the actions of those who abuse human rights. They have a treaty obligation to uphold. I call on the Government today, as we commemorate the disaster that is taking place in Hong Kong now, to be bold and brave and to take action. That is what we owe those decent people that have put their trust in us. Sadly, it appears we have failed them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this incredibly important debate on an issue that I know he feels very strongly about—he has shown dedication in raising it in this House—and I congratulate him on a superb speech.
This Friday will mark 25 years since Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred to the People’s Republic of China. The world is quite a different place from how it was in 1997, and in many ways that is a positive thing. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, there is a concerted effort from the PRC to force the region to regress.
June is another, more recent anniversary in Hong Kong: it is two years since the introduction of the highly undemocratic national security law. That law, intended to clamp down on pro-democracy activism, has no place in the modern world. It is intentionally vague and open to misinterpretation. Its desired effect is to ensure that activists, dissenters and critics of the Chinese state are too afraid to continue fighting the good fight and to speak up for Hongkongers’ human rights. It is a façade intended to create the illusion of legitimacy and law and order, but in reality it is a mechanism for exerting the control of the totalitarian PRC.
The PRC has extended its reach so far that the law even says that it applies to anyone and everyone, no matter where in the world they live, and regardless of whether they are even a Hong Kong citizen. I understand that the Hong Kong authorities have attempted to apply the law outwith the borders of their authority, in order to try to arrest activists living abroad. The law’s official punishments would be excessive, even if it had been legislated in good faith. The reports of citizens being subjected to torture and maiming under the new laws are frightening. Living under that constant threat must be overwhelming and exhausting.
The “patriot only” election system, implemented and controlled by Beijing, is an affront to democracy and the joint declaration, which, as a key negotiator and signatory, Britain has a moral duty to ensure is upheld. Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive, John Lee, elected through a process that can barely be described as an election, has set out a worrying legislative agenda—an agenda that will see Hong Kong slip further and further away from the pursuit of democracy.
In fairness to the UK Government, they have responded in several ways to the breaches of the declaration. The one on which I will focus is the British national overseas—BNO—visa. Along with many others, I wholeheartedly welcome the visa. It is absolutely right that we offer sanctuary to Hongkongers fleeing human rights abuses and oppression.
That said, there is always room for improvement. A huge number of the people who have protested against the system are young—18 to 23-year-olds—and are at great risk of political persecution. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is responsible for immigration, announced a few months ago forthcoming further changes to the scheme, allowing those born after July 1997 and with a BNO parent to apply. I hope that the change will allow some of that cohort to take up the scheme. However, I worry that those young people will still need to meet the other, financial requirements of the visa. That will be a significant hurdle for them because of their age and the persecution that they face at home. I also worry about those young people who are without a BNO parent and so are ineligible for the scheme despite sharing those circumstances. Although I of course appreciate the lower fee for the visa, the immigration health surcharge is no small sum—in fact, it is huge. It is a significant obstacle for low-income citizens who may desperately need to leave Hong Kong.
I have in the past been critical of the Government’s approach to asylum policy, but I urge them to look closer at this matter. The BNO scheme is, when we look at intent, about asylum from persecution, but it is dependent on relative affluence, and it leaves a large group of vulnerable citizens without a route to safety in the UK. I reiterate that as a signatory to the joint declaration, we have a responsibility here.
For those who do get to the UK under the BNO scheme, further flexibility is needed around access to further education and adult training. There will still be challenges to overcome for those people, but they can access those training opportunities only once they have been in the UK for three years. Allowing them to access that support earlier would allow them to integrate into British society faster and flourish a little easier.
The bigger picture in all this is China’s growing assertiveness and lack of respect for international treaties and territorial sovereignty. We see that in the growing tensions with Taiwan, too. That country has also openly offered refuge for Hongkongers. That move has not been an easy one to choreograph; in fact, Hongkongers who have relocated to Taiwan have been asked to keep a low profile. There are the dual priorities of offering a home to pro-democracy activists and not antagonising Beijing.
Given the consequences they face, so many Hongkongers have shown an immense amount of courage in their campaign for respect and freedom. I hope that we will see some autonomy and democracy in Hong Kong not too far in the future. I hope that the Minister can shed light on the Government’s plans to support that. Perhaps that plan will involve consequences for China, in the form of meaningful sanctions, to show Beijing that we stand with Hong Kong and support its right to a democratic future.
First, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on his contribution and his commitment to this issue—something that has been noticed by all of us in the Chamber. He has the fearless courage to highlight the issues on behalf of the people of Hong Kong, who just want the freedom and liberty that we have. That is not too much to ask, but it seems to be a big challenge. I commend the right hon. Gentlemen for all that he has done and continues to do.
This is an important debate. Many years on from the attempt at peaceful withdrawal, Hong Kong has been thrown into years of coercion and protest caused by Chinese political aggression. It is great to be able to discuss those issues; I wish we could be more positive—my nature is to be positive—but there is so much to be negative about with China that it is hard to find anything good to say about it. These issues impact on the UK, and the UK has an immense responsibility to help the situation in Hong Kong. We have the opportunity to help, but we do not seem to have done that, as the right hon. Gentleman said. His freedom of information requests will no doubt get to the bottom of what is going on—I look forward to the replies.
Since the new security law was passed by the People’s Republic of China in 2020, there have been increasing moves by the Chinese Government to remove all autonomy from Hong Kong. As everyone will know, I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief; I despair when I think of all the things that happen in China, and how that is impacting Hong Kong. China supresses human rights, religious belief and opportunity.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, China is involved in the persecution of Uyghur Muslims, and of Christians, who have their churches damaged or destroyed. Christians are policed by the secret police if they attend church; the secret police sit in the church and take notes of who is there and what is said. Members of Falun Gong, who I have a particular interest in, have had their organs commercially harvested over a number of years. They are a small religious group who have a right to worship their god as they wish. I would stand up for that.
The same China that did those terrible things is now turning the screw and putting the boot into Hong Kong. It is understandable why we feel aggrieved to have to have this debate. China stands condemned in the world, alongside North Korea. Both countries are part of an axis of evil. They are a trio—or add Iran and make it a four—of nations that are a danger to the very existence of the world.
The 2020 national security law allowed for the complete override of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, and completely downplays Hong Kong’s right to democracy. That is against the agreement the United Kingdom signed with China some years ago. There were extreme concerns about the 2019 local elections, where 82 out of the 90 seats went to pro-China candidates, with a turnout as low as 32.8%. That is astonishing. There was a term used in Northern Ireland many years ago: gerrymandering. I think there was the Chinese equivalent of gerrymandering in that vote. It has shown China’s clear disregard for the one country, two systems principle that was installed in 1998.
The law has been abused since day one of its implementation, and it can mean virtually anything in terms of national security. In other words, whatever the Chinese think national security is, it is. Whether the legislation stands up to international law is immaterial to China. It has the potential to apply anywhere on the globe, meaning that vocal criticism of China anywhere is a crime.
The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green referred to the influence of this United Kingdom, and the things that we should be doing that other countries have already done. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said—it is always a pleasure to follow my dear friend—the United Kingdom has been left with tough decisions to make, and has been unable to take much action. However, we have proved to be instrumental by extending our BNO visa scheme, which the hon. Lady referred to. It provides opportunity, but it perhaps needs some help to make it work better. The scheme covers Hong Kong residents who were born after 1997. This Government have provided a lifeline for those who desperately need to get away from Chinese interference. I ask the Minister: how many people have taken up the BNO visa scheme? How many have applied, and how many have actually got here? That would be an indicator. I am not putting pressure on the Minister; I am just keen to find out how the scheme is working.
I can sympathise with those in Hong Kong. Some may say those with British identities living in Northern Ireland, where I have lived all my life, have similar feelings. They often feel that they have had their culture threatened by the words and actions of republicans. Politically, culturally and electorally, China has picked away at Hong Kong piece by piece, encouraging pro-democracy protests and then retaliating with violent crackdowns. That has resulted in 47 defendants being convicted of sedition, which is shocking given that nobody else has been jailed for sedition since 1997. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green named some of those who have been directly impacted. He was right to do so, because it is important that we find a way to help those who have stood for freedom, liberty and democracy.
There is an overwhelming sense of terror—I use that word on purpose, because that is what I believe it is—for Hong Kong nationals, as the law is so coercive. They have no idea how it might affect what they can or cannot do next, because there are no parameters for how China can enforce the law against those from Hong Kong. The smallest comment or action will be seen as an act against national security. The right hon. Gentleman has been instrumental in voicing concerns about China’s aggression, and he is right to do so.
For a start, we must ensure that we have the correct facilities to make sure that China cannot stop Hong Kong nationals coming to the UK on a BNO visa. We should also take measures similar to our complete boycott of the Beijing Olympics, given our concerns about the appalling human rights situation. If we cannot directly support Hong Kong through action, we have the power to do so indirectly through sanctions against China. While other countries have taken some steps on sanctions, we have not. I feel that we are letting the side down and, more importantly, we are letting the people of Hong Kong down, and we should be doing better.
China poses a real threat to this world, along with North Korea, Russia and Iran, and we cannot ignore that axis of evil when those countries are determined to do anything. They will go to whatever lengths, so we need to be strong in our response. We have seen the lengths to which those four countries will go to show their powers of coercion. They remind me of the insatiable appetite of a crocodile, because they just want to keep on eating. We cannot allow their ability to produce technological goods and sufficient trade to cloud the abuses they often enforce on other states, especially those that are most vulnerable, such as Hong Kong. We have seen the influence of China in Africa. There is probably not a country in Africa where China is not involved or helping financially in some way, but there is a price for that help, and we need to step up to the mark in the countries where we have influence across the world.
I urge our Government and the West to come together as a force against the cruel nature of China. Our resources are limited, but we should use the means we have to do more to help process visas efficiently, and we should be vocal in our defence of Hong Kong. Today’s debate is a way to make that happen, and we are deeply grateful to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green for initiating it. China has been engrossed in human rights violations for years, and Hong Kong is now subject to those violations. We cannot continue to allow the people of Hong Kong to walk on eggshells. For that reason, I support the calls from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West. I look forward to hearing from the Front Benchers, the hon. Members for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who I know will endorse what we have said, and to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I too begin by thanking the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing the debate. I thank the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for their contributions, too. I will also put on the record my sincere thanks to Hong Kong Watch and the International Federation of Journalists for what they have done and continue to do in defending human rights and the freedom of the press in Hong Kong.
Although not hugely over-subscribed, today’s debate has been very well informed. It has united Members from all sides of the House in support of the people of Hong Kong, their democratic institutions and the fundamental human rights they have enjoyed for many years, including freedom of speech, a free press, the right to free assembly, the right to strike, freedom to travel, freedom of association and, of course, freedom of religion or belief.
As we have heard from hon. and right hon. Members, those fundamental rights—personal and political freedoms that were guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong—are being systematically undermined and dismantled by the Chinese state. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green was right to bring up the 1984 Sino-British declaration, in which the people of Hong Kong were promised that they would enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years following the handover, and that during that period only foreign affairs and defence would be the responsibility of the Government in Beijing. Indeed, the declaration went much further. It legally enshrined the doctrine of the one country, two systems approach, which guaranteed that the social and economic environment and the lifestyle of Hongkongers would remain intact and unchanged for half a century beyond 1997.
This year—almost to the day—marks the halfway point of those 50 years, but already those legally guaranteed freedoms and basic human rights that Hongkongers were assured would remain are becoming a distant memory. Sadly, Lord Patton’s famously optimistic line that “Now, Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong” could not be further from the truth.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that the SNP will always support democratic demands for self-determination, not just for ourselves but for people around the world. We believe that the people of Hong Kong must be free to democratically choose their own Government, and that Government must act in the interest of the Hong Kong people. While we recognise that the 1997 handover was an important step in global decolonisation, we deeply regret that—contrary to what it promised to the people of Hong Kong, and in the face of a legally binding international agreement—the Chinese Communist party is reneging on its end of the deal. As we have heard from all speakers, over the past 25 years, we have seen the steady erosion of the personal and political freedoms that Hongkongers were guaranteed, and the hasty assimilation and integration of Hong Kong into the Chinese mainstream by the Government in Beijing.
While in recent years we have witnessed the clamping down on any form of pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, things have deteriorated significantly in the past two years since the introduction of the national security law, which is little more than a full-on attack on the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers. It completely dismantles the one country, two systems framework and deliberately creates doubt and ambiguity in the minds of the people of Hong Kong as to whether what they are doing and have always done could be considered a crime. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, the Chinese Government have done that by introducing deliberately vague and undefined changes into the Hong Kong legal system, which would see advocating for secession, being involved in what they define as terrorism, subverting state power or colluding with a foreign political force punishable by between 10 years to life in prison.
Of course, the big problem with that is that the only people who know what the law means are those who make it, and no one is really clear what actually constitutes an offence that would “endanger national security”. The hon. Member for Strangford was right to say that Hongkongers live in a world in which they have no way of knowing if the things they may have done routinely in the past, the ideas that they may have expressed, the words that they may have written down, and the meetings that they would normally attend now constitute a criminal offence that leaves them at risk of prosecution, deportation or imprisonment on the Chinese mainland. That is exactly what the national security law was designed to do. That is why Amnesty International described it as,
“another example of a government using the concept of ‘national security’ to repress political opposition, with significant risks for human rights defenders, critical media reporting and civil society at large.”
Sadly, it has had the desired effect, with dozens of civil society organisations and trade unions now disbanding, including the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the Civil Human Rights Front and the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union. At the end of last year, fearing reprisals, Amnesty International also closed its office in Hong Kong.
China’s placemen in Hong Kong now have this draconian legislation to create a climate of fear among the population, which they can use against anyone who dares publicly challenge the official narrative. As if to prove that the national security law was not a scare tactic to silence China’s critics, as the hon. Member for Strangford reminded us, in January 2021 almost 50 pro-democracy activists were arrested and charged with sedition, purely for attending and organising a primary election to run candidates for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.
Later that year, the police raided the office of the pro-democracy Apple Daily, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, and arrested its editors for violating the national security law. They froze its bank accounts and, shortly afterwards, the paper closed down its website and social media before announcing its complete closure. Of course, the regime was always going to move against the independent press—that is what authoritarian Governments have always done—but the speed at which it moved against what was once a beacon of press freedom in Asia has been remarkable.
Since the national security law came into effect, 20 journalists and freedom campaigners have been arrested, and a dozen media workers and journalists are currently facing charges or awaiting trial, while others have fled Hong Kong and are now in exile. The Hong Kong police have even introduced a new definition of what it is to be a journalist—effectively imposing restrictions on freelance reporters, online journalists, student journalists and citizen journalists.
That climate of fear has also spread to the creative industries, with authors, publishers, filmmakers and artists all now self-censoring, for fear of crossing those invisible lines that would constitute a breach of the national security law. In short, the national security law has not only accelerated the dismantling of the free press in Hong Kong, but curtailed artistic freedom and put a straitjacket on civil society, while the personal liberty and fundamental political rights of the people of Hong Kong diminish by the day. It is a grim situation, and sadly there is no prospect of it getting better any time soon.
The SNP believes that the UK has a unique responsibility to help and protect the people of Hong Kong. We welcome the 90,000 applications to access the BNO route since its introduction, but there must be more that we can do to assist the 1.3 million Hongkongers who are not covered by that scheme. What conversations is the Minister having with the Home Office about finding a solution that would help those people, particularly—as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said—those young people who have bravely stood up against the regime? What can we do to help them?
Last month, Hong Kong Watch published a report showing that nine Hong Kong officials and around a dozen members of Hong Kong’s “patriots only” legislature and their families have property overseas, including here in the UK. Will the Government commit to undertaking and publishing the results of a full audit of the UK assets held by Hong Kong and Chinese officials who are linked to human rights abuses?
At exactly the same time as the national security law was being introduced, the UK Government announced new Magnitsky-style sanctions to target those who have been involved in the gravest human rights violations and abuses. I add my voice to those here today who are equally bewildered—why has no human rights-violating Hong Kong political official been put on those Magnitsky-sanctions by the UK Government?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Efford. I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this important debate, and for his consistent and unrelenting support to the Hong Kong people, which he knows is shared across the House and very specifically by my own party.
The right hon. Gentleman opened the debate in his usual very plain and emphatic style by talking about the treaty that guaranteed the freedoms of Hong Kong residents and should be respected—the one country, two systems policy—and which is of course no longer respected by the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. He said clearly, and he is absolutely right, that the UK has a moral duty to uphold the treaty, but has not done nearly enough. The passport scheme, he said, has helped 100,000 Hong Kong residents. Many have come to my constituency and have been welcomed by the churches and the community organisations. I have been invited to meet them, which was interesting but very sad; they had to give up everything they knew in the place where they grew up.
The right hon. Gentleman said that young pro-democracy activists are now eligible for residence in the UK. That has to be an improvement on the current situation, but we have a responsibility to hold to account those who have used violence against pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly welcomed the Foreign Secretary’s support for the withdrawal of UK judges from Hong Kong, but he and many others had to campaign for that. He rightly expressed his concern about the position of retired UK judges who remain in Hong Kong. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that question, which was so expertly put by the right hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Gentleman—and other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who spoke for the Scottish National party—said that the UK Government should implement sanctions on those Hong Kong officials involved in the clampdown. None has yet been sanctioned. Why not? As the right hon. Gentleman said, the US Administration have sanctioned those individuals, so why have we not? I hope we will get an answer from the Minister shortly.
We heard from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), who reminded us that it was two years ago this month—30 June, tomorrow—that the national security law was implemented in Hong Kong, and it has, of course, radically changed the dynamics of the city. British national overseas visas are strongly welcomed, but the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West is concerned about the cost. That is a really good point and I hope the Minister will be able to respond. The hon. Lady said it was dependent on family affluence, which it should not be; it should be entirely dependent on the need and level of persecution that those individuals face in their native city of Hong Kong.
Taiwan, the hon. Lady said, has offered sanctuary to Hong Kong dissidents, but Taiwan is in a precarious position, as we all know, and will have to be very careful. She said that Taiwan had asked Hongkongers who have sought sanctuary there to keep their heads down. That is a very sad situation, but at least they are safe for now in Taiwan. We thank the Taiwan Government very much. The hon. Lady also said that meaningful sanctions must be used against those who are persecuting democracy activists in Hong Kong.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It is lovely to see him today, and I saw him yesterday at this time during a debate on freedom of religion or belief. The hon. Gentleman said that there is so much negativity about China. I know him well, so I know that he always tries to see the positive and the good in everybody, and he wishes he could be more positive about China. That is not possible right now. Since 2020, considerable actions have been taken to remove autonomy and human rights from Hongkongers, and he is concerned about the oppression of religious minorities, including the Falun Gong, and of course the Uyghurs. He said that China stands condemned, along with North Korea. That is some condemnation when we think of what North Korea does each and every day, and of what a shocking and appalling system it has. I hope China does not reach those depths, but it seems that it is heading towards them.
The hon. Gentleman said that the 2018 local elections were a travesty of democracy of Hong Kong. He described the BNO visa scheme as a lifeline for Hongkongers, but how many have been granted? Again, I hope the Minister will come back to us on that. As the hon. Member for Strangford and other Members said, there is an overwhelming sense of terror among Hongkongers because they do not know the extent of the national security law or what that legislation does and does not apply to. There is a sense of fear, which autocracies do their best to engender among the people they rule over. China must not be allowed to stop BNO visa holders coming to the UK, the hon. Gentleman said.
Interestingly, in 1984, when the declaration was made and the plan was to hand over Hong Kong in 1997, UK GDP was more than twice the size of China’s. The figure was similar in 1997, but today China’s economy is more than five times larger than that of the UK. Perhaps that explains the declining importance of Britain and Hong Kong in the eyes of Beijing.
In the debate, we have heard many Members express their views and concerns about the direction of travel in Hong Kong and the ongoing erosion of freedom that has been experienced in recent years, which has finally brought to reality the fears held by many before the handover 25 years ago this Friday after 156 years of British rule. I well remember, as will many other Members, that handover date. I was a new MP, and I remember my friend and colleague, the late Derek Fatchett, who was Minister of State at the Foreign Office, flying to Hong Kong to witness the handover. When he returned to the UK, he told me in detail exactly how that had gone, and his hopes for and optimism about the future once the treaty was fully implemented. Hongkongers would have 50 years to continue to experience the freedom—economically, politically and socially—that they had enjoyed for the last years of British rule.
However, since being first elected in 1997, I have seen the situation in Hong Kong change beyond recognition from those last few weeks as a British colony and the early years of cautious optimism about the freedoms promised to the people of Hong Kong being respected, at least in part—I made my first visit there in 2004—to the awful reality of the last vestiges of freedom and autonomy, long promised to Hongkongers, being all but eradicated by the Chinese Communist party as it pursues an ever tighter grip on the city.
The realities and the impact of the handover 25 years ago were always going to be uncertain and would have taken some considerable time to be realised, but we can now say with some confidence that the Chinese Government have materially and demonstrably broken the international commitments made in the legally binding Sino-British agreement, and that they are barely paying lip service to their own promises, which were made in the years leading up to the handover.
With the passing of the national security law, the sham so-called election of Chief Executive John Lee and his promises of further, rather disturbing legislation, we face the reality that Hongkongers are at the mercy of the long arm of the Chinese state, and have no means to effect real change in their city, or to choose their own leadership, as was always promised.
As the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, even the judiciary, which was long considered the failsafe that would protect Hong Kong’s liberties and the rule of law, which the British passed on to the city, has been hamstrung. The decision was not easy, but with reasonable and considered opponents making valid and logical arguments, we also called for the withdrawal of British and Commonwealth judges from the Court of Final Appeal when it became clear that their presence was doing little more than legitimising ever growing intrusion on Hong Kong’s liberties, and that the court was no longer able adequately to challenge the status quo. It is no wonder that thousands have fled in recent years to Canada, the United States, Australia, Taiwan and the United Kingdom, following the relaxation of the BNO passport rules, for which my party, among others, has long argued.
Although it is right to extend the hand of friendship and sanctuary to Hongkongers, it is simultaneously disheartening that the great city of Hong Kong is seeing its brightest minds flee Chinese communist control, in a manner reminiscent of the dark days of the cold war in places such as East Berlin. It is certainly a departure from those early days of cautious optimism in 1997, not long after I was first elected, and seven years later when I visited for the first time in 2004, and subsequently in 2006.
The Minister is acutely aware of the House’s view on Hong Kong. That will have been reinforced by the feelings expressed in the debate. I will ask her the questions my party has long asked, but which have not yet been answered. Will sanctions be implemented on Hong Kong and Chinese officials so closely involved in the erosion of the city’s freedoms? What engagement is she having with international partners on Hong Kong? What steps are being taken to protect the Hong Kong community in the United Kingdom from Chinese Communist party harassment?
It is vital that we work together across the House to protect Hongkongers’ fundamental freedoms. Finally, I will quote this:
“The right to peaceful protest is one of the rights China promised to protect as guaranteed in both Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.”
The Minister said that herself this month; I would like to know what the Government are doing to back that up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this timely debate and thank him for all the work he does to highlight the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. I am grateful to all Members for their contributions, and I hope I will be able to address some of their questions.
The 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong is a really important moment of reflection. On 30 June, 25 years ago, the UK and China both implemented their agreement to transfer sovereignty of Hong Kong peacefully. In that agreement—the Sino-British joint declaration—China promised to preserve Hong Kong’s distinct “social and economic systems” and “high degree of autonomy”, and the “rights and freedoms” of its people, for at least 50 years. Those included freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. I will come on to talk about those.
For more than two decades following the handover, those rights and freedoms were broadly upheld, underpinning Hong Kong’s prosperity and way of life. Over the past three years, things have changed. China has disregarded its commitments under the joint declaration and Basic Law, and taken deliberate actions that undermine the rights and freedoms that it promised to uphold. The UK is clear that China remains in an ongoing state of non-compliance with the joint declaration.
Tomorrow is not only the 25th anniversary of the handover. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, it also marks two years since the imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong by Beijing. The national security law was imposed in 2020, following mass protests in Hong Kong. Those protests were in response to proposed extradition legislation, which was a move by Beijing to exert increasing control and erode promised rights and freedoms.
The national security law is sweeping in its nature and is a serious breach of the joint declaration. It has been used by the Hong Kong authorities, under the direction of Beijing, to stifle opposition and criminalise dissent. The crackdown that accompanied the national security law and its pervasive, chilling effect has meant that alternative voices in Hong Kong’s executive, legislature, civil society and media have been all but extinguished. Independent NGOs, trade unions and human rights organisations that have not been supportive of the Government’s agenda have been forced to disband or leave. Direct and unwarranted action against independent media outlets has continued to erode Hong Kong’s free press, as we have been hearing.
Most of the legislators who represented Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition have been detained or have chosen to leave Hong Kong. With Beijing assuming almost complete control of Hong Kong’s law-making process, the judiciary is now being required to enforce Beijing’s laws and the values they contain. It was against this backdrop that the President of the Supreme Court, in consultation with the Foreign Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister, decided that it was no longer tenable for serving UK judges to sit on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. I have been asked by Members from across the House about the non-permanent judges who remain in the court of final appeal who are retired from judicial service. It is down to them to make their own personal decisions on their continued service in Hong Kong.
In terms of arrests—
My right hon. Friend just touched on the retired judges and then moved on. What is the Government’s opinion on the continued service in Hong Kong of those who are not serving judges here? Do the Government think they ought to step aside, or do they have no opinion on the matter?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. As I have said, the decision of the President of the Supreme Court in relation to the serving judges was that it was no longer tenable. As for those retired judges, it is for them to make their own personal decisions as to whether they feel they can continue to serve.
All I am asking for is a view. I know that the Government cannot direct them, but it is important that Government have a view. The Government had a view about existing judges. Surely the same view must exist in this case, because the same principles are at risk. If that is the case, I urge my right hon. Friend to say when she gets back up: “We think that they ought not to serve, but it is their decision.” Could she possibly stretch herself to that?
I think, by virtue of the fact that the Government supported the decision that it was untenable for serving judges, that that is a clear position from the Government; but it is down to the retired judges to make their own decisions.
Individuals such as Jimmy Lai, Andy Li and Cardinal Zen have been arrested and are facing prosecution. We have spoken out against these arbitrary arrests and raised our concerns with the Hong Kong Government and Beijing authorities, and we will continue to do so.
Many colleagues have raised issues relating to media freedoms. Freedom of the press is explicitly guaranteed in the Sino-British joint declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law, and is supposedly protected under article 4 of the national security law. We always defend media freedom and the right of journalists to do their job. As the House knows, the UK responded rapidly and decisively to the imposition of the national security law.
Within 20 days, we extended our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong and indefinitely suspended our extradition treaty with it. We also launched the bespoke BNO immigration route, which many Members referred to, to enable British nationals to come to the UK. That reflects our historical and moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong who chose to retain their ties to the UK by taking BNO status at the point of handover in 1997.
I am very pleased to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his place—a Westminster Hall debate would not be quite the same if he were not present—and I will address his specific questions about numbers. Since the launch of the route, the UK Government have approved more than 110,000 applications from BNO passport holders to live in the UK. As of 31 March 2022, there have been 123,400 applications, and 113,742 have been granted. We have helped those who have moved here to integrate fully and feel safe in their communities, including by providing about £43 million of support through the welcome programme.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and others touched on international engagement. The UK has spearheaded international efforts to call out China’s systematic undermining of Hong Kong’s rights, freedoms and autonomy, and to raise wider human rights concerns. Yesterday’s G7 leaders’ communiqué called on China to honour its commitments made in the joint declaration and the Basic Law, which enshrine rights, freedoms and a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong. That follows the selection of the new Hong Kong Chief Executive in May. Alongside G7 partners, we called on China to act in accordance with the joint declaration and other legal obligations. A global diplomatic effort by the UK helped to secure the support of 47 countries for a further critical joint statement on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet at the UN Human Rights Council. The Chinese and Hong Kong authorities can be in no doubt about the seriousness of our concerns and those of the international community.
Nearly everyone, if not all Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, mentioned sanctions. I noted the report issued by Hong Kong Watch in April, and I recognise the strength of feeling in this House about Hong Kong. Some Members believe that we should impose sanctions on those involved in the erosion of rights and freedoms in the city. The Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, introduced by this Government, enable us to sanction individuals responsible for serious human rights violations, although it is not appropriate for me to speculate on who may be designated under the sanctions regime, as that could reduce the impact of the designations. I assure the House that we keep all potential designations under close review, and we are guided by the evidence and the objectives of our sanctions regime.
I am grateful to the Minister for addressing that part of the debate. What does she believe the United States knows, and we do not, about the individuals it has sanctioned? Why is it that, as a co-guarantor of the treaty, we have not sanctioned a single person responsible for these abuses? Will she answer those two questions, even if she is not prepared to say whether we will sanction anybody?
As I said, the sanctions regime enables us to sanction individuals responsible for human rights violations. I am not going to speculate, but I reassure the House that we take this matter seriously and keep it under very close review.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) is no longer in his place, but he made a point about businesses. The Government monitor the operation and function of the financial sector and its participants on an ongoing basis, across a wide range of matters, but it is for the businesses themselves to make their own judgment calls. We do not comment on individual companies.
China’s increasing international assertiveness and the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific will be among the most significant geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts of the 2020s. It is precisely because we recognise China’s influence in the world that we expect China to live up to its international obligations and responsibilities.
As we reach the 25-year anniversary of the handover, our long-standing ties to Hong Kong and its people are just as strong as they were in 1997. We share history. We have enduring cultural, economic and social links. We want Hong Kong to succeed and thrive. This Government believe that the most effective path to long-term prosperity for Hong Kong is through respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law and genuine political participation by the full breadth of Hong Kong’s society. We must protect what remains of Hong Kong’s unique social, political and economic systems. That is why we will continue to bring our international partners together to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their rights and freedoms, and to hold China to its international obligations.
The reason for the debate was to commemorate the process and the destruction that has taken place since the original signing of the joint declaration, which, as the Minister has said, comes from our cultural, historic ties and our requirement to strengthen those ties. My problem today is that some of the questions have simply not been answered. What is the issue around Hikvision and Departments? Why are we still engaged with a company that has been declared a security risk? Why will we not get rid of these things? What is happening over Huawei? It is distorting universities by its constant presence and money—it is not alone in that. What about the selling of British-owned, strategic security companies to Chinese companies? Very little is being done about that.
Those are all background issues. The main issue, which simply cannot be answered, is that we are dealing with a Chinese Government that have invaded the South China sea, killed Indian soldiers on their border, and are carrying out a declared genocide in Xinjiang. They use forced labour; they have sold products to the world—which we have bought—made by slave labour. They are persecuting Christians and, as I now understand it, Inner Mongolians. They distort the global trading system, and they are guilty of enormous, as yet unprosecuted, human rights abuses.
That Government is responsible for Hong Kong. In what world would we think that our current complaints carry any weight whatsoever? The persecutions and arrests in Hong Kong of peaceful democracy campaigners are an abomination. However, my Government need to do much more. I simply cannot understand why America can sanction the people who are trashing the agreement, and my Government talk of keeping it under review. Sophistry is what we have got, and it is simply unacceptable. I am sorry that I should be saying this, but the Foreign Office’s failure to act is a damnation of its capability. Time and again we tiptoe around those issues instead of confronting them
Today was an opportunity for my Government to say, “Enough is enough. We are now going to sanction them.” There are people who own property here. We had to drag the Government kicking and screaming to start sanctioning over Ukraine—now we have to do it over Hong Kong. Let us stand up for freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Let us not spend our time worrying about whether we will get a trade contract from a country that is abusive and disgraceful. I did not hear enough today on that; I press the Government to act—and act soon.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the anniversaries of the handover of Hong Kong and the implementation of the National Security Law.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered non-disclosure agreements and alleged cases of sexual violence, bullying and harassment in universities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. At the outset of this debate I want to commend the brave young women who have spoken out about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment. This campaign started with survivors and it is a testament to their courage that it has reached this place today. I start this debate by sharing their words. First is Naomi’s story. She said:
“I and several of my friends were involved in a case with a serial offender in my college. He behaved generally creepily towards me, and on one occasion came into a room I was sleeping in. He also assaulted multiple people in College. They confided in me and we decided to report him to our College. We decided to do this rather than going to the police, because we believed College would provide a safe space for us. My friends just wanted to be able to breathe when walking around College, and weren't concerned about getting the guy locked up.
College ran a disciplinary case during which we were all brutally questioned on the truthfulness of our stories. Around three weeks after the hearing, we were informed by email that the panel had found insufficient evidence and wouldn’t be doing anything. They did not tell us what would amount to sufficient evidence. The whole process felt deliberately untransparent.
We all signed no-contact agreements, which contained really important safety measures that we wanted in place, but also…a gagging clause. For me, it…felt like the icing on the cake of a ridiculous system that had let us down. The disciplinary process had failed to sanction a rapist, but was threatening us with sanctions if we talked about it. I can see how for other people it could be very damaging.”
The sad thing is that Naomi’s story is not unique. Another survivor—I will call her Lucy—had a similar experience, but at a different college. After being assaulted by her then partner in her dorm room, she was given a no-contact agreement that included a clause that forbade her from making any information about the assault or the subsequent investigation publicly available. Speaking about the clause, she said:
“I signed it, feeling terrified that if I didn’t agree to it he would be able to enter my accommodation without any consequence. But I was incredibly upset about the effective gag clause. I was terrified of telling absolutely anyone anything, because what if college interpreted that as ‘publicly available’? I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone, my friends or my mental health support or my GP, because of it and felt very alone.”
That is not just one story in one college that happened a long time ago, and not just one incident of bad management by a rogue member of staff. That is recent and these stories are rife. From speaking to the student group, It Happens Here, which supports survivors of sexual assault at the University of Oxford, I know that there are survivors in colleges across universities who have all too similar stories.
I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate on something that is often discussed and seen in the papers. It is something that, unfortunately, happens in universities right across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does she agree that universities have been aware of the problem and the potential for mischief with non-disclosure agreements for some time now, and yet the necessary safeguarding has not been put in place? Now is the time for the Minister to take the steps that universities have thus far refused to put in place to protect staff and students alike.
I could not agree more. There are now movements in place—I will come to those in a moment—but they are far too slow, and by the time that they come into force all the young women who are affected have moved on.
Gagging clauses have significant emotional and psychological effects on the survivor. Young women who have just suffered a traumatic ordeal are then presented with what looks like a sophisticated legal contract, written by their superiors who control the fate of their degrees. The fact that these contracts are not legally enforceable does not really matter. How on earth can a vulnerable university student know that? I am not sure I would either.
The imbalance of power between the institution and the victim is huge. We must understand that this issue is not with the no-contact agreements themselves. They actually contain important safety and security measures that survivors stressed they wanted in place. Those measures are what makes it all the more challenging to object to the gagging clause. As Lucy said, survivors feel they have no choice but to sign in order to protect themselves.
The perception of a lack of choice and the coercion to sign against their instincts and wishes is the issue I hope to address today. Expecting a young person who is in extreme psychological distress to challenge staff at their university and then seek to renegotiate a contract that contains important safety measures is absurd. We would not expect it of ourselves, and we certainly should not expect it of them.
That is why I have written to all 39 Oxford colleges, asking them to sign this pledge against the use of non-disclosure agreements in the cases of sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct. I am pleased to report that three colleges—Lady Margaret Hall, Keble and Linacre—have now done so. I express cautious optimism that a number of colleges have made their own statements, albeit not signed the pledge. I urge colleges that are reluctant to sign the pledge or have concerns about it to meet me to discuss it.
University is a stepping stone between childhood and adulthood. It is supposed to be a place of safety and security—a home away from home. It is where young people learn how to behave as an adult and how they can expect to be treated. My fear is that these young women are being taught that their voice and their pain is less important that the institution’s reputation.
Signing the pledge is a no-brainer, but it should be only the beginning of the work that needs to be done to stamp out this deeply deplorable practice. In my view, the pledge does not go far enough. Students have expressed concerns that colleges and universities will sign up to it and then sneak clauses into agreements like no-contact agreements and argue that it does not actually constitute a no-disclosure agreement. Clarification on that point from the Minister would be really helpful.
There is also no real consequence of breaking the pledge. Can’t Buy My Silence provides a platform to report breaches of the pledge, with the only listed sanction being the removal of the university’s name from the list of pledges. I have met with the Office for Students—which comes to the point the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made—to discuss its role in regulating the behaviour of universities and investigating how the sector is to meet the standards set.
I am pleased that the Office for Students recognises that there is more it can do and intends to do on bad behaviour by universities. However, I am concerned that this work is far too slow. I ask the Minister to do whatever she can to expedite this process and get some real regulatory bite behind that statement of expectation. I welcome the steps taken by the Government and the Department for Education. I am pleased that the Minister has backed the university pledge, created by the campaign group Can’t Buy My Silence. I welcome her response to my letter earlier this year, especially her offer of a meeting. We are still waiting on that meeting. I wonder if today she could reiterate that offer, so that we might discuss in private some of the details I was unable to give in the debate today. I am sorry to say that I think she will be shocked by them.
Survivors need more than commitments, pledges and statements. They need concrete action. If this is happening in Oxford colleges, it is happening in other universities and other institutions. The Can’t Buy My Silence campaign began with Zelda Perkins being placed under an NDA by her then employer Harvey Weinstein. She was paid £120,000 to keep quiet about Weinstein’s abuse and mistreatment of her and her team.
NDAs occur in many different walks of life—in settlement agreements of severance packages as well as in cases of wrongdoing. Where both parties agree to sign to an NDA, we do not take issue. It is not a problem when it is signed freely. Whether it be a university student or an employee reporting their boss’s bad behaviour, the practice of individuals feeling in any way pressured or forced to sign up to these clauses needs to stop.
If we decide to regulate the use of non-disclosure agreements, we will not be the first. Prince Edward Island in Canada is one step ahead, having already passed a Bill to regulate such agreements. It is called the Non-disclosure Agreements Act, and it was passed in May 2022. It states that
“A party responsible or person who committed or who is alleged to have committed harassment or discrimination may only enter into a non-disclosure agreement with a relevant person…if such an agreement is the expressed wish and preference of the relevant person concerned”—
the expressed wish of the survivor, the victim, the person who is reporting. It is so simple: no one in any circumstance, in any university or otherwise, should enter into a non-disclosure agreement or gagging clause against their will. As such, I will table a private Member’s Bill today to establish exactly that principle. I hope that colleagues and Ministers who I know are on board with the campaign will consider supporting that Bill.
Moreover, the vehicle to attach my Bill to is on the horizon. The Ministry of Justice, in consultation with the Home Office, is bringing forward a victims Bill that will contain measures to, in the Ministry’s own words,
“amplify victims’ voices and make sure victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system”.
I had a positive meeting with the Home Secretary, at which she agreed to work with me on trying to include a ban on NDAs in that Bill. She further agreed that no one in any setting, of any age, should be able to silence the voice of a victim of crime. I have urged the Government to back my Bill, and to insert the language needed to tackle that egregious practice once and for all into the victims Bill.
Finally, though—this is a point made by some who do not want to sign the pledge—we have to acknowledge that tackling gagging clauses will only scratch the surface of the problems faced by women and girls. It is far and away the lowest-hanging fruit, but it is important. One survivor said to me:
“If they can’t do this, then I don’t have confidence they’ll do anything.”
Women and girls are keenly aware of the dangers that face us when we are walking home at night, venturing into a nightclub, or staying in our own homes. We are frequently subject to harassment, with 71% of women of all ages in the UK having experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space. A smaller number, but still substantial, are subject to sexual offences, with the number recorded by the police reaching an all-time high in 2021—over 170,000.
At the top of that pyramid—or the bottom—are, I am afraid, those who have lost their lives. This weekend, I attended a vigil at my local church in Botley. We read out the names of the 140 women who were killed by men in 2021, of whom Sarah Everard was probably the most famous. Local artist Alice Brookes hand-stitched every name into a pillowcase. They were hung in a line wrapped around the church—it was incredibly moving. While those statistics are appalling, I do not think anyone is surprised by them any more. The scale of the crime is enormous, and what struck me about my conversations with survivors was that they had no faith in even reporting to the police. Sadly, the statistics confirm why: just 2.9% of reported sexual offences and 1.3% of recorded rapes result in a charge or summons.
While there is clearly much to do to end the epidemic of violence against women and girls, I hope that we can at least work together today to end the misuse of non-disclosure agreements and gagging clauses, not just in university settings but elsewhere in society. Young women up and down the country, not just those in Oxford, have been silenced by a system that is supposed to protect them, so I ask the Minister to not just encourage colleges and universities to sign the pledge, but work with colleagues across Government to stamp out that deeply harmful practice in its entirety. Through the victims Bill, we have a golden opportunity to enshrine in law the principle that no victim’s voice should be silenced, and although sexual violence takes so much from survivors, we can restore what should never have been taken away in the first place: their voice, their agency, and their power.
I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for securing this vital debate on an issue that I am personally passionate about and that is, as she knows, very close to my heart.
Some of the issues that we deal with come down to a simple assessment of whether something right or wrong. I have said for some time that the use of non-disclosure agreements to silence victims of sexual harassment, bullying and other forms of abuse in universities is very much one of those issues—it is simply wrong. That is why, back in January, I launched a pledge, with the support of Can’t Buy My Silence, for universities to commit to stopping using NDAs in this way. Sixty-seven institutions have now signed up, protecting more than 1 million students. I do want to correct the record: it was not the case that the Government supported the pledge; the Government created the pledge.
I am pleased to hear that the Members present share my view that it is simply wrong to use NDAs in this way. It is a gross and grotesque misuse of our legal system and one that I personally find indefensible. The only thing worse than a person experiencing this kind of horrific abuse is their then being forced to remain silent about it, even to friends and family—loved ones—for life, when they are trying to deal with the horrendous incident.
If you will permit me, Mr Efford, I want to put the voices of real victims on the record today, because, like the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, I feel that the weight of their stories will convince anyone who does not perceive the issue in the way I have outlined. One anonymous victim said:
“I was asked to sign an NDA so that I would not tell anyone my experience of sexual harassment to protect the university…I felt helpless, hopeless, and powerless. It was a feeling worse for me than the year and a half of sexual harassment I endured from my employer.”
Another victim said:
“I signed an NDA a few years ago after more than a year’s bullying by two managers at a university…The process of negotiating the NDA was very one sided and stressful. I was given a short timescale to comply and told the university would not negotiate the offer.”
That is simply not acceptable, and it is just a tiny snapshot of the sickening result of powerful institutions using NDAs to silence students and staff. There are many more cases below the surface. We must empower and enable those people to speak up. As is clear from the testimonies logged by Can’t Buy My Silence, this is not simply one group victimising another. Those silenced include men and women, staff and students, and people in senior positions as well as junior positions. It is not good enough to simply confine our concern to one of those groups; we need a holistic and comprehensive response to the problem.
In considering some of the solutions suggested by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, it may be helpful to Members newer to the campaign if I briefly recap how we got to where we are and what prompted me to take action on behalf of the Government. Last year, I received correspondence from the newly established campaign group called Can’t Buy My Silence. Only a few lines into the explanation of the campaign, my heart sank at the thought of the victims who had been on the wrong side of an NDA in our universities. I immediately voiced my support for the campaign and went further than had been asked for by calling a meeting with it to establish what I could do as the Minister.
Our discussions on the best solutions led to the conclusion that although universities are of course autonomous institutions, they are accountable to their students and staff. In deciding which university to attend, students are looking for providers to show that they will value not only their academic growth and their professional growth, but their safety and wellbeing. The students I meet throughout England want to learn in an environment where they are free and comfortable to go forward and flourish and to report incidents and get appropriate support.
Of course, the same goes for staff—the people who make our universities such wonderful places to learn. Overwhelmingly, they want the institutions that they work for to commit to creating a safer and fairer working environment. Establishing that clear and direct channel of accountability between students, staff and a university therefore became my priority. That is why on 18 January I launched a pledge that commits universities to never using NDAs to suppress the student voice or the staff voice in relation to reporting incidents of sexual violence, harassment and bullying.
I must put it on the record that it is an honour to have supported the work of Can’t Buy My Silence, which was co-founded by Zelda Perkins, the first woman to break an NDA against Harvey Weinstein. I am grateful to her and all the campaigners at Can’t Buy My Silence for both their advocacy on this issue and their support of my pledge.
I am pleased to report that, as of 22 June, 67 institutions have signed up to the pledge, including 63 providers in England and three Oxford colleges. Of course, that is not far enough—we must go further—but it does mean that more than 1 million students are now studying at institutions covered by the pledge. That is around half the English student population. That milestone was reached in just a matter of months, before the issue received wider attention in Parliament beyond my own speeches and advocacy. I am therefore confident that, with the support of the Members present—especially those with universities that have not yet signed up to the pledge in their constituencies—we will be able to ensure that every student in this country is covered by the pledge.
I take this opportunity to once again call on Members of the House and every university to sign the pledge. It is vital that they put on the record publicly that stamp: that they will not tolerate this kind of behaviour in their institution. I ask anybody who has not already contacted their universities to do so. I will not hesitate to publicly name and shame any provider that has not signed up to the pledge.
However, as Members have said, we must go further. The Everyone’s Invited campaign has highlighted that there is much more to be done in a lot of areas to ensure that students are adequately safeguarded at university and have the best experience while they are there. I have made it clear that I believe that the Office for Students, as the higher education regulator, has a key role to play in achieving that.
In April 2021, the Office for Students published a statement of expectations on harassment and sexual misconduct. The framework provides a set of consistent recommendations to support higher education providers in England to develop and implement effective systems, policies and processes to prevent and respond to incidents of harassment and sexual misconduct. Section 6 of the statement makes clear the expectation that providers
“should have a fair, clear and accessible approach to taking action in response to reports and disclosures.”
It seems to me that not using NDAs in such cases is one obvious way that providers can meet that expectation.
I have asked the Office for Students to work on a new condition of registration and am pleased to report to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon that it is doing that. I have regular conversations about the progress of the registration condition.
The Office for Students told me about the new condition, which will potentially be very useful. However, my heart sank when it said that it now has to have a long process of consultation, so it will potentially take years to come into effect. Is there anything the Minister can do to expedite that process?
I would be shocked if the Office for Students said verbatim that it would take years, because it certainly will not. Of course, it is right and proper that a regulator would consult on such a change, but it certainly will not take years. It is a priority for me, the Secretary of State for Education and the Government at large. The registration condition would mean that higher education providers could be sanctioned for failing to take seriously their duties—including on NDAs—with a fine, suspension or even deregistration as a university. It will really have the teeth to effect change.
Back in September 2021, I welcomed Universities UK publishing its sexual misconduct guidance, which explicitly advises vice-chancellors not to use NDAs in sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct cases and highlights the fact that there is support from the sector on this very issue. Additionally, the Government provided £4.7 million of funding to the Office for Students for safeguarding projects between 2017 and 2020, and providers have been leading and sharing best practice from those projects.
I also wish to highlight the publication last July of the Government’s strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, in the wake of the absolutely tragic murder of Sarah Everard. The strategy includes reviewing options to limit the use of NDAs in cases of sexual harassment in higher education.
I should add that the ask for higher education providers to commit to the pledge in order to spearhead a cultural shift against the misuse of NDAs in their own universities is only a first step towards ridding the sector of the use of NDAs in sexual harassment cases. I reiterate that although I consider commitment to the pledge to be important, it is of course not good enough on its own. That is why I have continued to go further and why I will not stop pressing this case to ensure that more is done.
I again thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and those who attended the debate. Today’s discussion shows that there is a collective resolve, and not just here in Parliament; many members of the university sector have spoken up against NDAs, along with victims among students and staff. It is absolutely clear that we must address this issue, which is why this is the first Government to put this issue on the agenda and to begin to tackle it.
I conclude by urging every university to sign up to the pledge. Universities are in many ways the engines of social change, often showing the leadership required to effect major change in our society. I believe that if our higher education sector tackles the issue head on, more institutions and more sectors in public and private life will follow its example.
Question put and agreed to.
[Esther McVey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Wendy Williams’ Windrush Lessons Learned Review progress update.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship for the first time, Ms McVey. I will endeavour to keep my comments as brief as possible, but you know MPs find that difficult.
I want to talk about Wendy Williams’ progress update following her “Windrush Lessons Learned Review”, published in 2020. More than five years have passed since a steady stream of constituents began approaching me who realised that they or someone in their family had been victims of the Windrush scandal. Some were from families who had been torn apart, with a father or mother wrongly deported. Others had been falsely imprisoned, lost their jobs and homes and were denied medical care and access to benefits. They all suffered at the hands of a Government that dehumanised them as they tried to implement the hostile environment policy at all costs. They were British citizens who had been asked to jump over impossible hurdles to prove their status and, having failed to do so, endured incredible cruelty at the hands of the Home Office.
Five years later, the media, some politicians and the Government have largely moved on, but many victims have been unable to, with only a small minority having received a personal apology from the Home Office or any compensation. Most of those affected by this terrible scandal are still waiting for any kind of justice. For most victims, the compensation scheme is the most visible response to the scandal and their path to a resolution. However, rather than delivering justice for victims, the scheme has been so mismanaged that it has become an extension of the scandal itself.
In her 2020 progress report, Wendy Williams stated that her recommendations boiled down to three factors, including that the Home Office should open up to “greater external scrutiny” and recognise that migration policy is “about people” and “rooted in humanity.” It is clear that the compensation scheme has failed to meet those challenges, being described in the progress report by claimants as “traumatic”, chaotic, “very stressful” and a “game of back and forth”.
The most notable failure of the compensation scheme has been the painfully slow progress of cases—so slow, in fact, that at least 28 people have now tragically died without ever having received any compensation offer. At least 28 victims will never get the justice they deserve. For most, the process has been slow, lengthy and painful. Often, they are given few updates and have little to no under-standing of how their claims are progressing. Incredibly, only one in four applicants has received any compensation, and fewer than 7% of the 15,000 compensation claims the Government originally expected have been paid.
For one of my constituents, waiting for a compensation offer took more than two years. In that time, he was forced into more and more debt. His son died tragically, having passed away in his sleep. While he was awaiting a decision, he was unable to even bury his son. His experience is not unique. In her progress report, Wendy Williams highlights the timeliness of compensation payments as one of the main concerns raised by those she consulted. The Home Office must listen to Wendy Williams and the victims of this scandal. I urge the Minister act now to speed up the process.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) for securing this important debate. I echo her points; Wendy Williams has said that the process is slow. Other issues raised with me include how poorly trained the advisers are, which is causing issues. As well as being slow, the scheme lacks independence and is not paying costs quickly. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is further evidence of putting a broken system ahead of those who are dying without redress? The Government need to take this issue seriously and implement Wendy Williams’ recommendations. Not only has she done the report on lessons learned, but she did a progress report earlier this year, and the Government are still failing to implement those recommendations. We do not have the time; people need the support right now.
I thank my hon. Friend for her powerful intervention, and I wholeheartedly agree. I urge the Minister to act now to speed up the process wherever possible by increasing staff numbers and simplifying the decision-making process. The victims of this scandal have been trapped in limbo for long enough. It is time to give them the resolution they are entitled to.
Often, the scheme fails even the lucky few who have received an offer of compensation. The headline figures for compensation may seem like sizeable amounts, but they do not reflect the life-changing trauma that so many experienced. Wrongful imprisonment can lead to an award of just £300 per day of detainment. The headline figure for deportation is £10,000, but for administrative removal the amount drops to £5,000. Claimants who have lost out on potentially years of child benefit or working tax credit are only given just over £1,000—far less than the amount they were wrongly denied. If claimants were denied access to housing, they are given £1,000. Denial of education results in a one-off award of £500. I know of at least one incident in which the total compensation offered to my constituent was less than the total debt they had been forced into as a result of the scandal. How can that be right?
I thank my hon. Friend for making such a powerful speech. She may recall the Guardian article last week that featured the issue of compensation. It featured my constituent Cuthbert Prospere, who has lost out on years of working and earning because he is still waiting for compensation. Does she agree that many more people continue to be failed on a daily basis and are not able to live their lives because of this issue?
I thank my hon. Friend for that powerful intervention. I will pick up on that in my speech. I urge the Minister to ensure that the guidance issued to caseworkers on the levels of awards is urgently reviewed by the Home Office. The awards must reflect the life-changing trauma inflicted on victims of the scandal. Those who are not happy with their compensation offer are faced with a so-called appeals process that is neither truly independent nor transparent. Claimants can request a review of a decision by the adjudication officer, but ultimately the Home Office has the right to refuse a decision reached by the adjudicator. The Department is marking its own homework.
Although the number of claimants who request reviews is published, we have no idea how many appeal results have led to increased or reduced offers of compensation. There is no external scrutiny of a process through which we hope to achieve some justice for the Windrush generation. I urge the Minister to make public the outcome of the compensation appeals process, publish appeal outcomes and work to make the process as independent from the Home Office as possible.
Given the concerns I have outlined, it is clear that Windrush compensation is anything but rooted in humanity. In her progress report, Wendy Williams pointed to a lack of empathy on the part of the decision makers and said that caseworkers often fail to signpost vulnerable claimants to services that could offer non-monetary support. The claims are as complex as the humans making them and must be treated as such.
My constituent, Joel, who submitted a claim on behalf of his 89-year-old grandmother, spent 14 months going back and forth with the compensation scheme, repeatedly providing information and evidence that was requested time and time again, until suddenly, for no apparent reason, his caseworker stopped communicating with him. He feared that his grandmother would die without seeing a penny in compensation.
My constituent’s grandmother, who lives in Jamaica, has now received notice that she has been deemed not in a position to be offered any compensation. Joel is an articulate lawyer, familiar with navigating bureaucracy, yet even he was unable to navigate the compensation scheme without my intervention. It is clear that the culture change called for in the lessons learned review has not taken place.
In conclusion, all these failings amount to a second trauma for the victims of the Windrush scandal. They continue to be treated inhumanely, being forced to navigate a compensation scheme not fit for purpose. The scheme has been too slow and does not provide a transparent, independent appeals process.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about the way the scheme has been mishandled and about compensation. Will she forgive me if I ask about a policy issue arising from the Williams review? She mentioned Williams’ statement that migration policy should be about people. One issue in the discussion was the treatment of those who came to the UK as small children—or were even born here without citizenship—and who grew up here, were schooled here and shaped here, and were then deported as adults.
In his review of immigration detention, conducted for the Home Office, Stephen Shaw recommended that the Home Office should no longer seek to remove those who were born in the UK or had been brought up here from an early age. There are countless examples, of which my hon. Friend will be aware. I tabled an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill to prevent the deportation of those who arrived here before they had reached the age of criminal responsibility; obviously, the Government rejected that. Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK has a responsibility to those who have never, in practical terms, known another country, and for whom the UK has been home from before they reached the age of criminal liability?
My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I agree wholeheartedly with everything he just said. Wendy Williams’ report highlighted the fact that Home Office policies are not rooted in humanity. They do not reflect a caring society; people who have lived here all their lives are no longer welcome by a click of the finger. We need to change that, and we are now in a position to do so. The Home Office is actually in a position to make a difference and a change, to help those people who need it now.
There are so many people watching this, or stuck in the Caribbean or west Africa, who cannot get back into this country because they are not deemed British, even though they have lived here all their lives. In many instances, they actually have passports but cannot get into the country. We need to look at this wholeheartedly. The Windrush generation and scandal is one part of it, but the hostile environment is overarching and overbearing. It dictates the way that the Home Office responds to people who are, let us be honest, very vulnerable. They need our support right now; they cannot wait. They have waited long enough.
Unfortunately, we are where we are, which is why this debate is important. Claimants must be offered a complete package, not only guidance and advice. We also need the Department to reach out to those victims who have not come forward. I am not surprised they have not come forward if they have seen how those who have come forward have been treated.
The Government must look at the damage they have done. They need to fix the compensation scheme or hand it to an organisation that can deliver it, and give justice to those who need it. The Windrush generation need us to step in for them now. The Windrush generation need us to ensure all the damage and everything that they have been through is righted. At this point, it has not been, which is an injustice. We must look at everybody as a victim and make a difference for them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing this important and timely debate. Just last week, we celebrated Windrush Day: it is 74 years since the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks. I had the wonderful opportunity of celebrating with my constituents, including many of those from the Windrush generation, at the Balham & Tooting Sports & Social Club.
The Windrush generation—including my grandparents, who travelled from Jamaica—were invited here to help to rebuild this country after the second world war and to work in the newly formed national health service. The Windrush generation were British citizens when they arrived here. Their contributions to rebuilding our country and its infrastructure have been invaluable. That is why the treatment they have received from successive Governments—not least in respect of the Windrush scandal—is such a stain on this country. We are here to discuss that scandal because, as a result of it, Wendy Williams conducted her lessons learned review and the update that has followed. The Windrush generation have been and continue to be treated in a way that does not compare with the many sacrifices they made to help to rebuild our country. Unfortunately, with this scandal, the racism and discrimination they experienced when they arrived here remains today.
Over the past 12 years, we have seen the hostile environment, with policies introduced as part of the Immigration Act 2014 and the Immigration Act 2016, many of which meant that people could access support and public services only if they were able to prove their status. Subsequently, thousands of people from the Windrush generation were denied access to public services, stretching from housing, with many people ending up homeless, to access to social security, with many ending up in destitution. Sadly, for those who were unable to prove their status, those policies led to devastating consequences. Many people who had spent their whole lives in this country—working, paying their taxes and making a valuable contribution—but who were unable to prove their status ended up homeless. Many were deported to countries they had not been back to for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years. In some cases, as we have heard, people died as a result of this scandal.
It is vital to recognise the role that institutional and structural racism has played in this scandal. I believe that it happened only because many of these people were black and brown and because of the countries they had come from. No one can deny or dismiss that fact; it is proven.
The Government chose not to recognise this scandal until it became unavoidable. It did not just happen overnight; the Government were warned about it many years ago. It took campaigning, pressure from the victims of the scandal and from MPs, including my right hon. Friends the Members for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and for Edmonton—
She is soon to be right hon. [Laughter.]
It took many activists campaigning for justice. I first came to this place in 2017, and within a year, the scandal did really hit. I had to stand up in the Chamber and make so many representations for my constituents who were caught up in this scandal and genuinely could not believe what was happening.
Despite the impact of those cruel and inhumane policies, I do not think the Government have really learned the lessons of the scandal, because if they had, they would not have passed the inhumane Nationality and Borders Act 2022. What have they actually learned? If they had learned the lessons of Windrush, we would not have seen so many people waiting for compensation from the scheme. We know that many, many people have not received compensation and that when people do, it is so small that it really does not amount to much or compensate them for what they have endured. We also know that many people have lost their life before even receiving compensation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the worst things about the Windrush scandal was that this was a very proud generation, and a generation who thought they were British? They had travelled here on passports that were from the United Kingdom and the colonies. We are here today talking about cash and compensation, but actually it is the emotional impact on that generation that is the worst thing of all.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and I could not have said it any better; she absolutely hits the nail on the head. They were British citizens when they came to this country. In fact, they call it the mother country—that is what my grandparents called Britain. That is how they saw it and they were British citizens, so then to be treated in such a way—it really was not right.
I strongly believe that the whole compensation scheme should be moved outside the Home Office. It should be an independent, fair, compassionate and accessible scheme that does not have the Home Office’s hands over it. Wendy Williams’s progress report highlights that many of her 30 recommendations have not been met, so my question to the Minister is: why? I am really concerned that the recommendation to have a full review of the hostile environment policy—it has now been called the “compliant environment”, but we all know that it is still hostile—has not been achieved.
Wendy Williams also called on the Home Secretary to commission officials to undertake a full review, designed in partnership with external experts, and evaluation of the hostile policy measures, individually and cumulatively. I do not believe that any work has been progressed on that.
Given the significant role that the hostile environment policy played in causing the Windrush scandal, I would have expected the Home Office to prioritise completing a full review in the last 18 months. I would therefore like the Minister, when he responds, to explain why the Home Office has not yet completed a full review in partnership with those external experts. When does it intend to do that?
Wendy Williams stated in her progress report that
“the results of the review of the…policies remain an essential element in the department’s efforts to demonstrate it is learning”.
However, legislation has been produced that shows that the Department really has not done so. For me, and I am sure for all of my colleagues, this process really is about righting these wrongs and bringing justice for those people caught up in the scandal, but it is also about ensuring that it can never happen again.
I come back to this question: have the Government learned? I ask that because they then introduced the Rwanda policy. I am genuinely baffled as to when this Government and the Home Office will finally begin to learn that their policies have consequences and that if they did some simple things, such as carrying out impact assessments, then just maybe that would highlight some of the problems with their policies, which are being implemented with hostility and have a hostile impact on our communities.
As I said in my earlier intervention, my parents were of the Windrush generation. They came here in the 1950s and I remember how proud they were and how they believed that they were citizens of the United Kingdom. The whole Windrush scandal has been so painful and humiliating for them, and what has made the pain and humiliation worse is the very slow progress in handing out compensation. Only one in four of the applicants have got their compensation. One has to wonder whether the Home Office is not waiting for some of them to die, to rid itself of the obligation to pay compensation.
As the Minister will be aware, the Home Affairs Committee visited Sheffield, where the casework for the compensation scheme is done. He will also be aware that the Committee produced a report on the issue, in which we made a number of specific recommendations. One of the most important recommendations is that the whole Windrush compensation operation should be handed to an independent organisation, because one of the startling facts is that the number of people who have applied for compensation is much lower than was expected.
Those people do not want to go to the Home Office for anything—think about it and put yourself in their shoes—whereas if an independent organisation was responsible for the scheme, I believe that many more of the people who are entitled to compensation would come forward. I believe that an independent organisation would be speedier and more effective in processing the claims. The Home Office has rejected the suggestion out of hand, but I am bringing it forward once again. The delays, the incoherence and the unwillingness of possible claimants to come forward all point to the need to move this work to an independent organisation.
Another Home Affairs Committee recommendation that the Home Office rejected was to reimburse claimants for their legal costs. When we put that to the Home Office, it said, “It has all been devised so that people don’t need a lawyer,” but we need to tell that to the claimants. We have to remember that the Windrush generation are not necessarily used to doing things online. Many of them find that they have to use lawyers, some of whom are charging extortionate costs and might get a third of the compensation, if not half. It cannot be fair to offer compensation yet allow victims to be gouged by lawyers. The Committee has said that the Government should reimburse claimants for their legal costs. The other issue we have raised is how opaque some of the criteria are for the amount of compensation that claimants get, and we want to see more clarity on that.
The Home Affairs Committee went to Sheffield to see the unit that is dealing with this issue. They were very nice people, but one of the things that concerned us was what they told us about the backlog. The Home Office has tens of thousands of claimants in a queue, and they have not yet been allocated to caseworkers—the Minister is looking startled, so he needs to go to Sheffield and ask them for himself. There are tens of thousands of cases that have not been allocated to caseworkers, and nobody in Sheffield could tell me when they will be allocated. They are dealing with more recent cases, but they have a big queue. The caseworkers were very nice—we met them, their managers and all those people—but not one of them was from the same background as the majority of claimants.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I thank her for it. This really harks back to the issue of representation and leadership. The compensation scheme needs people who are compassionate and who can empathise, so does she agree that it is vital that those administering the scheme should reflect those who have been affected by it?
I agree with my colleague. It is very regrettable that none of the caseworkers, managers and advisers reflects the diversity of the claimants to the Windrush compensation scheme. It seems to me that if the Home Office were serious about running the scheme efficiently, it would have made more effort to ensure that the officials dealing with the scheme reflected the communities from which most of the claimants come.
We cannot overstate the sadness and disappointment of claimants who find themselves caught up in the labyrinth and waiting, sometimes for years, to understand what has happened to their claim. It is all very well and desirable that we had a Windrush monument unveiled last week, but nobody will take this Government’s concern about Windrush seriously until they make the compensation scheme much speedier, much more efficient and much more likely to reach the claimants before some of them pass away.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing this vital debate. The Windrush generation have given the UK so much. When they docked in Tilbury, they brought not just extra hands to rebuild this country, but dance, art, writing, cuisine and music, which transformed British culture. Areas across the UK such as Brixton, which partly falls in my constituency, were completely reshaped by the Windrush generation and became central hubs of British culture.
For the past five years we have had the opportunity to celebrate Windrush Day and recognise the contributions of that community up and down the country. Next year, when we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the docking of the Empire Windrush, I sincerely hope the Government will plan nationwide celebrations that are suitable for the commemoration of a day of such national significance.
I also sincerely hope that those celebrations will be a vast improvement on the £1 million act of gesture politics that was unveiled at Waterloo station this year. Although I commend Basil Watson’s artistry, it would have been nice if the Government had properly consulted Windrush campaigners and organisations, including the Windrush Foundation, to discuss its design and location. If the Government truly intend to honour the Windrush generation, they will take meaningful steps to fix the Windrush compensation scheme. The Government estimate that there are up to 15,000 people eligible to claim Windrush compensation. More than three years after the launch of the scheme, just 26% of that number have applied and only 11% have received compensation. At least 23 people have died waiting.
The compensation scheme is a scandal in itself, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton outlined. The Government’s failure to deliver compensation to victims of the Windrush scandal shows that it was a mistake to entrust the scheme to the Department that administered the Windrush generation’s suffering in the first place. The Windrush monument is a nice gesture, but an even nicer one would be justice. Take the scheme out of the Home Office’s hands and transfer it to an independent organisation that will properly deliver the compensation that those people deserve.
It adds insult to injury that the Government continue to deny the existence of institutional racism, which members of the Windrush generation and their descendants continue to experience. If the Government really want to honour the Windrush generation, they ought to complement that, starting with just immigration policies. Instead, they choose to push on with their hostile environment and the shameful Nationality and Borders Act 2022, as if they have learned nothing from the Windrush scandal.
A leaked Home Office report concluded recently that the deep-rooted racism of the Windrush scandal lies in the fact that between 1950 and 1981, every single piece of immigration or citizenship legislation was designed at least in part to reduce the number of people with black or brown skin who were permitted to live and work in the UK. That was an assessment of immigration policy from 50 years ago, but it feels like a similar assessment could be made of immigration policies today.
Wendy Williams boils down the 30 recommendations in her “Windrush Lessons Learned Review” to three main factors, one of which is that the Home Office must recognise that migration and wider Home Office policy are about people, and that, whatever the objective, they should be rooted in humanity. What part of the Rwanda policy would the Minister say is rooted in humanity? What part of splitting up families would the Minister say is rooted in humanity? What part of the recently announced deportation flights to Nigeria and Ghana, which, during Pride month, will attempt to deport LGBT asylum seekers, is rooted in humanity? Attempting to deport mothers and grandmothers of people who are British citizens and have been in this country for over 25 years—what part of that is rooted in humanity? It is only recently that the Government have changed their rules on citizenship fees for children who were born in this country or have lived here their entire life. The fees have now been reduced for those who cannot afford them, but what part of denying people who were born here access to the rights they deserve was rooted in humanity?
It seems that the Home Office, rather than enacting genuine change to apologise and atone for the Windrush scandal, would rather gesture towards change but continue with the same culture and practices. If it was serious about its commitment to change, it would enact in full the recommendations of the lessons learned review, it would invite Wendy Williams back in 18 months’ time to reassess its progress against those recommendations, and it would do more to implement change.
One of the clear recommendations, already mentioned today, is not deporting people who came here at a very young age. The Government repeatedly do that. They even want to do that to people who have been born here but do not have a certain type of immigration status at the time of being accused of a crime. When people have been here since a young age, no matter what offence they may have committed, the reality is that they are a product of British society. Where on earth are we sending them if they have already paid their dues in prison?
I put it to the Minister that there are some people among us—I will name the Prime Minister again—who were not born in this country. The Prime Minister has committed an offence, I would say. Should he be deported if he was somebody who needed to register for citizenship here? The Government have at times stated that they would want to do that—to see anyone who has committed some sort of offence removed from this country. I think that is absolutely disgraceful. The Government must implement Wendy Williams’s review in full if they want to move past the Windrush scandal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing this important debate. The points made this afternoon have been powerful and brilliant.
Last Wednesday marked the 74th anniversary of the Windrush migration. It was a journey that started with a call for help to rebuild Britain following the devastation of the second world war. To mark the anniversary, I attended the launch of an amazing new exhibition in Birmingham called “Home from Home: Wassifa’s 50th Anniversary at Birmingham Back to Backs”. The exhibition recreates a Caribbean household from the 1970s in Handsworth, which is where I grew up. It was very personal to me; the experience brought back so many memories of what our front rooms and our homes used to look like when I grew up. I will highlight the Blue Spot ’gram.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. As my background is in health, I will also say that I would not have gone into nursing if it was not for my parents, and for other people from Caribbean heritage, who were so proud to be British. They are not immigrants or migrants; they came here on a British passport—they were British.
The exhibition is a collaboration between the Mykal Wassifa Brown Heritage Foundation, the Blackstory Partnership and the National Trust. It was great to see a major organisation such as the National Trust back this project and recognise the importance of black people in British history. I take this opportunity to thank everyone who was involved. At the launch, however, I also heard distressing stories about the treatment of British Windrush citizens, and some were at the event.
The Windrush scandal began to surface in 2017, after it emerged that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens had been wrongly detained and deported, and denied their legal rights. In April 2018, the Government were forced to apologise for the trauma they caused to so many people who made Britain their home for decades.
To fix the wrongs, the Home Office quite rightly introduced the Windrush compensation scheme but, to add insult to injury, the scheme has been a failure. It is complex to navigate. There is a lack of free legal advice. Claims take months to process and compensation offers are insultingly small. The vast majority of people who have applied for compensation through the Home Office, to its disgrace, have yet to receive a penny. As was highlighted earlier, sadly, it is too late for those who passed away before they could secure justice. Many people in this room have been to funerals where people have had to use GoFundMe, because the deceased could not afford to bury themselves because of what they had been through.
The Windrush generation have been failed by a deeply flawed and discriminatory immigration system, created by a hostile environment. Where once immigrants were welcome to work and live, today, Britain’s hostile environment has created a culture of fear and suspicion. The policies were introduced in 2012 by the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), with the aim of making life unbearably difficult in Britain for those who cannot show the right paperwork.
Three months ago, I was so proud to be elected as the first ever black Member of Parliament in Birmingham. As a child of the Windrush generation, it is painful to hear the harrowing experiences of people who still cannot get the respect and dignity they are entitled to. One constituent told me that they have struggled to make a successful claim under the Windrush compensation scheme. The burden of proof needed when a person is unable to get access to employment makes it very difficult for those affected.
The journey for many migrants began in 1948 but, in 2022, more than 74 years later, they are still fighting to be treated with the dignity they deserve. I urge the Minister to take these concerns and all the others that he has heard this afternoon on board and address the important issues. The Windrush generation built the foundations of the Britain we enjoy today. The least we can do is give them the justice they deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms McVey, as usual. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) for securing this incredibly important debate. The powerfulness and eloquence she brought to her opening comments say everything. My hon. Friends’ speeches have really put things into perspective.
The Windrush scandal will forever cast a dark shadow over our nation’s history. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Windrush generation, who have worked hard and contributed so much to our society, not least to the NHS, as we have heard in some personal stories today. The way the Windrush generation has been treated is nothing less than sickening. Let us make no bones about it: the Windrush scandal was a direct consequence of this Government’s hostile environment policy. This approach to policy making must be scrapped, but the circumstances that allowed the Windrush scandal to happen have not been properly addressed. I will touch on that more later.
I want to talk about the experiences of some constituents who were affected by the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment. My constituent Tanya and her family had immense struggles with the Home Office as a result of the scandal. She, her brother and her then 12-year-old daughter all had multiple passport applications refused. The reason, according to the Home Office, was that none of them were British citizens. That is despite the fact that they were all born in Britain, had never stepped foot outside Britain and had worked and paid taxes their entire lives in Britain. Never before had their British citizenship been called into question.
The distress and hurt caused is unimaginable. Tanya’s mother could travel; her older sisters had passports and could travel, but she and her younger brother were unable to travel with her family unit. They were unable to visit where her mum and dad had been born when the older sisters went. They were unable to take advantage of going on any trip abroad. How would they have felt, not being able to understand that? They got no sense from the Home office, which is a terrible way for Government to react to that sort of situation.
Another constituent came to the UK from Jamaica with his grandparents when he was two years old, following the death of his father. He left Jamaica with no family members remaining there, as his mother had also left. He built his life in the UK and had two children. As an adult, he was convicted of a criminal offence and received a custodial sentence. Nobody is defending his actions, but he rightly paid his debt to society. Upon his release, he was told he was to be deported to Jamaica. That came as a huge shock, as he had a young family in the UK and no ties to Jamaica whatsoever. Furthermore, he feared for his safety in Jamaica after his father, who died when he was just two, was killed in a gang-related attack.
My constituent was deported to a country he had little to no memory of and with no family around him. Many years later, thanks to his solicitors and my office, he was finally given permission to return to the UK and see his children again. By then, his partner had moved on to another life and his children barely knew him. That is unthinkable yet it was done to him by this Government. That is the hostile environment policy in action.
Far from tackling the endemic problems, the Home Office is instead going forward with the same mindset that caused the Windrush scandal. It is clear that the hostile environment policy is here to stay. Wendy Williams’ review makes it absolutely clear that cultural and systemic changes are needed in the Home Office—that is so important to ensure that another Windrush scandal can never happen again. But time and again we have seen that not to be the case. The Home Office is still guided by its hostile environment policy.
Steps must be taken to make Britain once again a welcoming place for migrants, refugees and their families. Change has to come from the very top, but the Home Secretary has shown a complete lack of willpower to make positive change happen. What we have got so far is nowhere near enough. We are asking for justice and closure for all those of the Windrush generation and their families who were affected. The Government must ensure that those people get justice and closure and, most of all, the compensation that they are entitled to.
Tanya, who I referred to earlier, got her compensation just last year, after four years. She was one of the just one in four people out there who received compensation. That is not good enough. It is bad enough that these people were in the situation they were in, but to leave them hanging year after year, making unreasonable requests for information that the Home Office already knows they will not have or are unlikely to have, is cruel. The Government must step up and do the right thing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) for securing this timely debate. It has been a pleasure to hear from all those Members whose families have been impacted by this scandal or come from the Windrush generation.
The Windrush scandal is surely one of the most sickening episodes in recent Home Office history, so it is important that we carefully examine what progress has been made on the lessons learned review. The report concludes that there has been some progress in certain areas, such as training in the Equality Act 2010 and the history of immigration legislation. However, it is horrifying that little or no progress has been made on the future risk areas identified in Wendy Williams’ review. The failure to appoint a migrant commissioner, the lack of engagement with the publics affected by the scandal, and the absence of a formal training and development programme are all cause for concern.
Following the revelations of the scandal, Amber Rudd, the now former Home Secretary and former Member for Hastings and Rye, said that the Department had become
“too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual.”
Centring the voices of individuals affected by Home Office policy, and ensuring that staff have a deep and continued engagement with the issues at stake, is integral to building a just and humane immigration system. I agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) about the need for representation within the workforce and an independent process. It is therefore disappointing that there has been no forward movement on the risk areas highlighted in the report.
I am also worried that the former Home Secretary’s observation about the Department being too concerned with policy and strategy is a mistake that the Government are continuing to repeat, such as by sending Afghan young people back home last summer, just before the crisis in that country struck. That is “home” in quotation marks, because those young people were brought up here from as far back as 2003 or 2004. In the original lessons learned report, Williams said that
“the political focus from ministers on demonstrating a system ‘getting a grip’ on the ‘immigration problem’ drove internal targets, priorities and behaviour in the Home Office immigration system”.
When I read that, I could not help but think of the truly worrying debates we have just had on the Nationality and Borders Act 2022.
Recommendation 13 of the lessons learned review rings in my ears:
“Ministers should ensure that all policies and proposals for legislation on immigration and nationality are subjected to rigorous impact assessments in line with Treasury guidelines. Officials should avoid putting forward options on the binary ‘do this or do nothing’ basis, but instead should consider a range of options. The assessments must always consider whether there is a risk of an adverse impact on racial groups who are legitimately in the country.”
I have lost count of the number of times I have raised the policy impacts that will affect individuals, such as those making legitimate asylum claims, only to hear Government Members intone that their policy is the only way to deal with the illegal immigration problem, and that anyone who disagrees is in favour of doing nothing. The Nationality and Borders Act was subject to an impact assessment that said explicitly that it risked indirectly disadvantaging protected groups, but that impact assessment was ignored by Ministers. The same problems and the same ineffective decision making are happening again and again.
Matters of policy and legislation do not fall within the terms of reference of either the lessons learned review or the report on progress. That is why it is so important that we are discussing them today as lawmakers, because those matters also contribute to the picture. The political focus on a hostile environment strategy designed to discourage people from coming to this country was at the heart of the Windrush scandal. To avoid future scandals and make good on the apologies that have been issued, that focus—one could even call it an obsession—needs to change, and we need to see that change manifest in the lived experience of the Windrush generation and in the compensation scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms McVey. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) and other Members present who have been so tenacious in pursuing this issue, and I guarantee they will continue if it is not resolved.
The key point here is that after a dreadful, shameful thing happened, there was an inquiry led by Wendy Williams and a report. The Government accepted the recommendations of that report, but today, some five years after the scandal unfolded and two years after accepting those 30 recommendations, they have only implemented eight of them. When promising to implement those recommendations, the Home Secretary said that there would be
“a total transformation of our culture.”
That has not happened, but let us remind ourselves why it was so necessary to transform that culture. What had it led to? What was so scandalous about the Windrush scandal?
As we have heard from others today, people’s lives were turned upside down through no fault of their own. The hon. Member for Edmonton talked about the gentleman who got further and further into debt through no fault of his own, but through the fault of the Government—so much so that when his son tragically died he could not even pay for his funeral. Let us think about that. How must that have made him feel?
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) rightly said that many of the people had never even set foot outside of the UK. These are people we should be celebrating. As the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) said, these people transformed our culture with, for example, music and food. On her idea that the 75th anniversary of the Windrush celebrations should happen across these islands next year, I guarantee that Glasgow and Scotland will be up for that. I will, as a board member of Flag Up Scotland Jamaica, make sure that it happens in Glasgow at least.
When the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) made her speech, I was very interested to listen to the memories evoked by the festival. I can tell her that my Jamaican partner has amassed a very large collection of whisky and I am trying to persuade him to get a cocktail cabinet. He, the Jamaican, is not up for it, but I will get one, anyway.
How was the scandal able to happen? It is as the Home Secretary acknowledged when she pledged a total transformation of culture in the Home Office. The culture there is what allowed it to happen. Its own internal report, the one that it hoped to suppress but which was leaked to The Guardian, said as much. The hon. Member for Streatham alluded to it. The leaked Home Office report stated:
“Every single piece of immigration or citizenship legislation between 1950 and 1981 was designed, at least in part, to reduce the number of black or brown people permitted to live and work in the UK.”
How utterly scandalous is that? As the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) said, the case is proven and that quote is proof.
I say to the Home Secretary through the Minister that she should not suppress the report. It is empowering and freeing to own up to the truth. I speak as someone who was involved in a campaign and subsequently a major theatre production called “Emancipation Acts”, which was aimed at getting the people of Scotland to own up to our past connections to slavery. It worked because people like the truth and they like honesty. It is now widely accepted in Scotland that we were just as culpable as other countries for the Caribbean slave trade. Organisations from the University of Glasgow to Glasgow City Council and many more besides are saying sorry and making reparations, and people respect that.
The Home Secretary was not in her position in the years I mentioned previously. She is not personally responsible for what happened then, so why not publish the report, admit how awful the situation was and get on with making the promised reparations? As we have heard, there are multiple failings in following through on Wendy Williams’ recommendations. The vast majority of people do not have their compensation. People have died waiting for justice. People do not trust the process, and I do not blame them. They talk of being treated with scepticism by officials. As the Home Affairs Committee reported, the burden of proof on applicants is too great.
We heard from the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) about the extortionate legal fees that people have to pay and about the tens of thousands of cases not yet allocated to a caseworker. On the point about caseworkers not reflecting the Windrush communities, I get that. I did not always get that, but I do now. If the Minister does not, there is a room full of experts here who can explain it to him.
Given that the scheme is too slow, that people are still treated with scepticism, that applicants do not trust officials, and that the Home Office is not keeping up with the rest of its work—for example, my constituents seeking asylum are now waiting exceptionally long times for their initial interview—will the Minister not finally accept the recommendation of the Home Affairs Committee that the scheme be transferred to an independent organisation? It would resolve those issues and free up valuable Home Office time.
The Government do not mind outsourcing all manner of other jobs to all manner of other companies—Mears and Atos, to name but two—so why can they not do the same with the Windrush compensation scheme? Nobody is looking to get rich. One reason is that an independent organisation might act more fairly and might offer decent compensation. If someone is offered less than the scandal has cost them, surely that is theft—there is no other word for it. The other reason the Government do not want an independent company to administer the scheme is that, put simply, stalling, making people jump through hoops and letting them die while they wait is all part of the doubling down on the hostile environment to which they are so wedded.
As the hon. Members for Streatham and for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) both noted, we only have to look at the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 to know that nothing has been learned. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam made a great point about the equality impact assessments being completely ignored. We only have to think about the plan to send asylum seekers thousands of miles to Rwanda—a country whose human rights record means that its own people flee to seek asylum with us—to know that the hostility continues. We only need to remember the Government’s announcement last week of the pilot scheme, which will tag asylum seekers as if they were wild dogs, to know that they simply do not care. If they did care, they would not be doing those things, and they would do a very simple but effective thing by outsourcing the compensation scheme to an independent organisation that would treat people—who, let us not forget, the Government have traumatised—with care and compassion. People would feel comfortable approaching this organisation, which would expedite their claims and ensure that the victims of the Windrush scandal were treated with respect.
Like the hon. Member for Battersea and the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, my partner has family members who came here from Jamaica to rebuild this country. His father arrived from Jamaica before Windrush. Had he been caught up in the scandal, I would be at the Minister’s door every single day until he got justice. Even the thought of it is distressing to me, and I cannot imagine the distress not just to the victims but to their families, their friends and the West Indian community as a whole.
Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edmonton and others—including Members who are not present but who have continued to be part of the effort to get justice—for their tenacity and for their refusal to let the Government off the hook. I pay tribute to all my fellow citizens out there whose lives were turned upside down by the Windrush scandal. I hope some are watching, so that they will know we will always fight for them, given everything they have been through. They are still standing, and we are proud to stand with them.
I have lost count of the number of debates and meetings that have been held in this place to discuss the Windrush scandal. Why will the Minister not just get it sorted and let us move on to other matters? More importantly, we need to let the people who are caught up in this move on with their lives. As frustrating as I find it to constantly have to revisit these matters, the Government are wrong if they think that their procrastination will lead to us eventually giving up. We will have as much energy as it takes, and we will not walk away from people. We will keep on fighting for what, after all, are their rights.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, McVey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) for securing this important debate on the latest report by Wendy Williams. My hon. Friend delivered a powerful and moving speech, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton), for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake).
I have been moved and humbled by much of what we have heard today—the personal experiences, the family connections, the profound hurt, and the disrespect that was shown to a generation who helped to rebuild this country after the second world war. It is a stain on our conscience and it has not been adequately dealt with. That should shame us all, because we in this House should be united on the need to thank the Windrush generation, who did so much for us, worked so hard and paid their taxes, but who have been treated abysmally. I gently say to the Minister that, given the cross-party nature of the concerns about the Windrush scandal, it is disappointing that not a single Conservative Back Bencher has contributed to the debate.
The Wendy Williams report is a damning indictment of the culture at the Home Office. The sad reality is that the report has been published at a time when, rather than learning the lessons of the Windrush scandal, the Government are doubling down on their hostile environment policy and mindset.
Perhaps worst of all, none of the Government’s immigration policies is actually designed to solve any of the challenges that we face. In fact, they are just for show. The Rwanda plan is not putting people off crossing the channel. We were told that the mere threat of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda would be enough, yet hundreds of people are still coming every week on small boats. Even if a flight does one day get off the ground, the numbers will be so small that the policy will not deter people and will not break the business model of the people smugglers. As has been said, the Nationality and Borders Act is profoundly lacking in any basic human decency, and the Government have no answer to the growing backlog of 73,000 asylum seekers waiting for more than six months to be granted a decision.
Those examples are directly relevant to the topic of today’s debate because of the message they send to the Windrush generation: the hostile environment is alive and kicking in the Home Office. These strong-arm approaches, of course, are all designed to create Daily Mail headlines and keep the Prime Minister in power. In policy terms, they only make the situation worse, as the attempts to crack down on those who have sought to make a home here have caused so much unnecessary pain in so many areas, as we have heard from the powerful contributions today. Those examples are also indicative of the culture change needed at the Home Office. That is emphasised in the Williams report, which makes clear that we must treat every individual as a human being, not just slap a number on a forehead—or worse, use them as a political football.
I associate myself with all of the comments made about the compensation scheme. The decision to place that scheme in the hands of the Home Office was a grave error. The Windrush generation have absolutely no reason to trust the Home Office, so how can anyone possibly be surprised that people are reluctant to even apply for compensation, as we have seen from the very low number of applications? Responsibility for the scheme must therefore be handed to an independent organisation. I can confirm that I will do everything that I can, as the shadow Minister for Immigration, working with my colleagues here and beyond, to push for that to happen as urgently as possible.
The Williams report is clear that the Home Office must open itself up to external scrutiny. Ministers should not be marking their own homework. The report is also clear that culture change is simply not happening quickly enough. In her foreword, Wendy Williams states:
“My hope for the future is that the department acknowledges the efforts of its staff and the achievements it has made so far, but also recognises that there is still a great deal to be done.”
She later writes:
“The failure to implement changes promptly and consistently is a common thread running through the revisit…there are many examples where the department has not made progress at the pace it envisaged, or in some cases at all.”
The lack of progress on training is also a concern:
“Alongside internal training, there is the failure to make progress on certain outward-facing activities, such as senior-level engagement with those affected…and stakeholder engagement…But equally concerning is the pace of developing wider external scrutiny arrangements.”
Wendy Williams also makes it clear that the culture at the Home Office is not conducive to positive change:
“The lack of progress goes to the heart of how the department operates and is indicative of an organisation which was not yet confident enough to secure an increase in the type of independent insight and scrutiny that my recommendations envisaged.”
That is all extremely worrying, and external stakeholders are not impressed either. The report states that
“the majority of external stakeholders who chose to take part in the revisit believe that little, if anything, has changed. This view is also held by some of the people I spoke to in my original review, who expressed scepticism about the department’s progress.”
Wendy Williams therefore feels:
“The concerns voiced remain deep-rooted and will have to be addressed if the department is to truly transform the way it engages with those who were affected.”
Finally, the report makes clear that, all these years later, Government Ministers are still to show that they understand the true extent of the wrong and harm done to the victims of the Windrush scandal. All of that is very damning, in terms both of the specifics of Home Office incompetence and indifference, and of the broader issues with the hostile environment.
I am deeply concerned that we are not witnessing the changes that need to be made inside the Home Office. I have long said that the Home Office is not fit for purpose under the current Home Secretary, based on failures over crime levels, prosecution rates, the English channel crossings, the Passport Office and the Afghan and Ukrainian migration issues. The failures on Windrush go to the very heart of the wretched culture encouraged by consecutive Conservative Home Secretaries.
I will put to the Government today the very questions that Wendy Williams puts in her report. How will the Department demonstrate to the Windrush generation that it has changed and show improvements on how it carries out its duties? How will the Department demonstrate a focus on outcomes rather than outputs, to assure itself that it has made the necessary changes? How will the Department show that its culture is improving? What measures will it use to check that it has brought all staff with it? How will the Department harness local initiatives and good will, and scale them up to demonstrate to its workforce that it is a learning organisation?
How will the Department be more dynamic in its efforts to develop, achieve and retain a more diverse and inclusive senior leadership cadre? How will the most senior leaders convey to the whole organisation what the priority is in terms of culture? How willing is the Department to hear from a range of voices, whether supportive or opposing? How will the Department demonstrate that it is truly taking action continuously to improve, in order to rectify some of the scandalous decisions and acts that have taken place?
The Minister has a prime opportunity today to answer all of those questions head on. I truly hope that he will grasp that opportunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Ms McVey. I thank the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) for securing the debate, and all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, many informed by their own, in some cases, very personal experiences and memories of the impact of the Windrush generation. Although she is not in her place now, I was struck by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mrs Hamilton) recalling her family’s experience in the 1950s and ’60s.
Although I might not agree with the hon. Member for Edmonton on every aspect, I know from my regular engagement with her on casework issues that she is a committed representative of her constituents and all those affected by the Windrush scandal. Wendy Williams’s report outlined that that scandal was formed under successive Governments and over many decades. This is not about one particular period but an accumulation of issues. Those who read the physical version of the report will know that the case on the front page is from 2009. This is an immensely important subject, and I welcome the chance to debate it again.
With this debate taking place so soon after Windrush Day, I want to take this opportunity on behalf of the Government to pay tribute to the Windrush generation. They are an essential part of our national story, and we should recognise, cherish and celebrate the enormous contribution that they and subsequent generations have made, and continue to make, to our country. As the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and others have outlined, Britain would not be what it is today without them. As the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out, many viewed themselves as British, coming to the mother country, having been invited here.
Many, particularly from the Caribbean, had already been here defending this country in its darkest hours. Our democracy survives partly due to the immense contribution of many members of the Commonwealth who volunteered to come thousands of miles, under no compulsion, when this country faced its darkest hours, to stand on our shores in the face of a potential Nazi invasion. They felt that this was their country, not a country that they were migrating to. This was not a matter of arriving in a foreign land for them.
I will turn to the core focus of today’s debate. In September 2021, Wendy Williams and her team returned to the Home Office to assess the progress made since the publication of her original report in March 2020. The progress update, which was published in March this year, found that there are several areas where good progress has been made, noted that structures have been put in place that should provide appropriate levels of oversight of the Department in the future, and also commended some excellent behaviours and initiatives from members of staff and teams.
In her original lessons learned report, Wendy Williams made 30 recommendations. Her progress update assesses that eight have been met, a further 13 partially met, and the remaining nine not met. I certainly recognise that there is more work to be done. As the update report acknowledges, change on the scale required takes time. It is also right that the Home Office is held to account on recommendations where sufficient progress has not been made. I want to be clear that it remains our commitment to deliver each and every one of the recommendations.
Regarding training, significant progress has been made, as has already been touched on. For example, training has been developed that covers the history of the UK’s immigration and nationality system from 1960 to 2020. This training has been delivered to policy makers and continues to be undertaken by operational staff across the Department. Colleagues may be aware that, following a campaign by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), we are seeking to add to that the experience of Chinse seamen who faced deportation shortly after world war two.
As has been said, it is also important that senior leaders are at the forefront of the effort to drive change across the Home Office. Abi Tierney, the director general of Her Majesty’s Passport Office and UK Visas and Immigration, has taken on the role of ethics adviser to the Home Office board, in which she will champion ethical behaviour and systems, advise on ethical considerations and spearhead the roll-out of a new ethical decision-making model, making clear that this is at the core of what we should be doing and at the core of how our systems should function.
As has been touched on, it is also vital that we continue engaging outwardly and openly, and not just with people who are likely to agree with the Home Office or to share the views and opinions of any particular party or Government. Earlier today, I welcomed to the Home Office some of the groups that have received funding from the Windrush community fund, both to thank them for their fantastic efforts in helping to promote the Windrush compensation scheme and to hear their views on where we can go further and what more work we can do to reach out to more people. We are clear that we work with those groups—the funding is supplied to support their work for their community.
We remain committed to the relationships we have formed with these hard-working grassroots and community organisations. Their insight and experience are invaluable, and we will ensure that the Home Office is proactively listening and learning all the time from their experiences and comments.
Understandably, a lot of people have focused on the Windrush compensation scheme. Indeed, among the reasons I regularly meet some of the Members present is to discuss individual cases. We recognise that although financial compensation is an important part of this process and is necessary, it is, as has been touched on in other debates, only part of it. For many people, this issue was about not just the monetary impact on them but feeling that their identity had been taken away. We must recognise that as well.
We have made significant progress and have now paid or offered a total of more than £48 million in compensation. We have also made changes to the Windrush compensation scheme in order to ensure that people receive the compensation to which they are entitled as quickly as possible. In many cases, those changes were made in direct response to feedback we have been given, including from Members of Parliament.
I was pleased that we were able to welcome members of the Home Affairs Committee and other stakeholders to the Windrush compensation scheme office in Sheffield on 14 June, following the invitation that I extended during a previous Westminster Hall debate. Again, I say to Members who have a particular interest in this issue—particularly those who represent areas with a number of Windrush communities—that we are very happy to welcome them, subject to all the usual arrangements that people would expect to put in place, to meet our team so that they can understand the work they are doing.
Before the Minister moves off the compensation scheme, he will know that at the end of January only 960 people had applied to the scheme, which is only about 20% of those eligible. Those statistics are in the Home Affairs Committee report on the compensation scheme, which he just mentioned. Does he agree that putting the compensation scheme into the hands of the Home Office—the very institution that is so profoundly mistrusted by the Windrush generation—was a grave error, and that the only way this will get sorted is by moving it out of the Home Office and into an entirely independent organisation?
I am not sure where the shadow Minister gets his figures from. He said that 960 claims have been made, but the actual figure is 3,878, and more than 1,800 had been made by 1 January 2021.
On the engagement figures, we continue to encourage people to apply to the compensation scheme. I have visited some of the community fund groups in Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Nottingham and London. It was evident during those visits that innovation and collaboration are helping to support local communities and raise awareness of the Windrush schemes. We have also written to 6,200 individuals to encourage them to consider applying. In January, we launched the second phase of our national communications campaign, which featured new content to address misconceptions that could prevent people from applying to the scheme. It included campaign videos that have been played across community TV stations.
I want to take the Minister back to the work that the Home Office is doing to deliver the scheme. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and I talked about the representation issues surrounding those actually delivering the scheme. I wondered whether the Minister heard that and wants to respond to the point about having people deliver the scheme who are more empathetic and representative of the groups they are seeking to compensate.
As Members are aware, we are recruiting additional people into the compensation scheme team, so we are increasing the number of staff working on it. To be clear, despite recent pressures, the area we never took people from was Windrush work, because we thought it was appropriate that that was seen as a priority. It is important that our caseworkers can empathise with people’s situations, which is why we have programmes of engagement. We want them to work proactively with the community groups, hear their experiences, and listen and understand where people are coming from. I understand that this is about not just immigration status, but people’s very strong identity; they felt—this was eloquently put earlier—that they were British. We recognise that it is important to ensure that that experience is there for all caseworkers.
I want to address the idea that there are tens of thousands of applications outstanding. The number of applications received so far is just under 4,000, which would make that rather difficult numerically. There are not cases that are “unallocated”; we understand that that point arose from a misunderstanding. All cases are being worked on and pursued, and in some cases we are waiting for responses or, for example, for probate to be resolved so that we can take things further. I will be writing to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee shortly to confirm that.
We had a letter from the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee following the visit. We will shortly be replying, and I will be happy to reply in further detail to those points when I receive them.
One of the points that has been focused on is whether the Windrush compensation scheme should be transferred to an independent organisation. I understand why that might sound appealing, but it would risk delaying payments to people even further, and many cases would have to come back to Home Office records and other parts of the Home Office, which would mean that we would still be heavily involved. I do not believe for one minute that anyone is suggesting that we should contract this out—that might have been partly suggested—to a private sector operator. It is right that we have a team who operate separately and independently from other areas of the Home Office and are able to take matters forward with clear delineation. Certain information supplied to the Windrush team is not available to wider Home Office operations. The focus needs to be on paying compensation and moving the scheme forward, rather than on who is actually administering it.
I will try to make my point succinctly. No one is asking for any scheme to be contracted out to a private company. The point is about the scheme being independent from the Home Office. The Home Office administers the policy, so how can the people who have to do the marketing videos and everything else be the ones administering it? People are still reluctant and fearful due to the hostile environment. It is about the scheme being independent, but it could be an independent charitable organisation, not a private company.
I hear the hon. Member’s point; we all agree that a private company would not be the right option. Setting up a different organisation would clearly take time. Again, it would be reliant on the vast majority of records and processes coming from the Home Office. However, we recognise that people will not necessarily want to approach the Home Office in the first instance, which is why we work with community groups, and are having some helpful and productive conversations with some of the high commissions in London about whether they could host events, particularly now that we have returned to having drop-in events. We all know why, over the past two years, the ability to hold drop-in events has been far more limited than we would have liked, but our focus is on getting on and making the compensation payments.
One point that was picked up was on the migrants commissioner. I recognise that Wendy Williams mentioned her disappointment on that matter. I reassure colleagues that a substantial amount of work has been done on options to deliver this recommendation. We are working with external stakeholders and have set up a sub-group of the Windrush cross-Government working group to advise on the function of a migrants commissioner. The sub-group has submitted its recommendations on what the functions should look like, including the scope of the role and the best model for delivering it, and we are now considering those views. To be clear, the suggestion is that it may not necessarily be an individual but could be a group that fulfils that role. Certainly, we are keen to take it forward, but in a way that builds confidence.
I want to thank the hon. Member for Edmonton for securing the debate and all hon. Members who have contributed. As I have set out, we have taken some important strides forward in responding to the Wendy Williams report, but we recognise there is still a lot of work to do in the Home Office—work that is always enhanced by constructive challenge, such as that which we have received from hon. and right hon. Members today. The failings of the past were unacceptable, and I know there is a real determination across the Home Office to learn the lessons of Windrush.
There is a strong focus across the Department on delivering the improvements set out in the Wendy Williams review and, as colleagues and the public would expect, the implementation of her recommendations is closely monitored. Concerted action is taking place to drive cultural change and make a Home Office that is fit for the future—a Department that is open and outward working, that views people as faces not cases and as individuals not numbers, and that is committed to making fair and just decisions and ensuring that we treat people as they have the right to be treated. The injustices of the Windrush scandal should never have happened. That is why we are wholeheartedly committed to doing all we can to right those wrongs.
I want to thank everyone for their powerful contributions, for speaking up for the voiceless and for supporting the Windrush generation. The Minister will not be surprised that I am not happy with a lot of the things he said, based on the fact that Wendy Williams has made it clear that the Department has overstated the progress made and closed some recommendations prematurely. It shows that the report has not landed well and is still not being taken seriously. The scheme is too slow and victims are still waiting for compensation. Not until we see more victims getting compensation will the other victims who are not coming forward start to come forward. We need to look at the Department and understand why it is not working. Wendy Williams has made it very clear. I ask the Minister to take the report as something that will only help, not hinder, the Department.
Again, I thank everyone for their contributions. I want the Windrush generation to know that we will continue to speak up for them until justice is done.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Flooding: Irwell Vale and Surrounding Areas
I beg to move,
That this House has considered flooding in Irwell Vale and surrounding areas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your redoubted chairmanship for the first time, Ms McVey.
Flooding affects communities all over the United Kingdom. Many Members present will live in an area affected by flooding and will understand that when communities flood, the effect is profound and devastating. It is completely debilitating for those communities. Yes, they may have accepted moving to an area with a 100-year flood risk, but, by gum, have they been surprised to have been flooded two, three or four times in a decade. In the past few years, hundreds of lives across my constituency of Rossendale and Darwen have been negatively affected. Homes and businesses in Whitworth, Bacup, Stacksteads, Waterfoot, Darwen, Rawtenstall, Helmshore, Irwell Vale, Strongstry and Chatterton have been devastated by floods in the past 10 years.
The reason why our area floods is the same reason we are one of the most picturesque and beautiful areas in the United Kingdom: our lovely rivers. We have the Limey Water, the Whitewell brook, the Darwen, the Spodden, the Ogden and the Irwell. In the summer, they are beautiful, burbling brooks; in the winter, they become raging torrents. It is those last two rivers—the Ogden and the Irwell—that really affect the residents of Irwell Vale, where there is a confluence just before the village. Irwell Vale, Chatterton and Strongstry have been flooded repeatedly by those rivers, which has been devastating.
It has proved historically difficult to mitigate the flood risk because the water comes from a wide catchment area. I have visited those communities on several occasions after they have flooded and the impact on their lives has been completely devastating. It is something the Prime Minister has demonstrated that he understands. He recently visited Didsbury, in Greater Manchester, after some flooding, and said that there is a
“huge psychological, emotional and financial cost”
to the communities that flood. I absolutely agree. That is why I am grateful that over the past nine years, the Minister and her Department have already provided £1 million of investment for our local communities to try to stop the flooding. Back in 2014, residents of the village of Stubbins were delighted when their long-awaited flood defences were opened by me and others after finally being completed.
Today, I want to talk about the ongoing challenge in the catchment area that makes up the River Irwell and covers other areas. Floods have particularly affected Irwell Vale, but they also affect tens of thousands of people across the country. That is why the issue is such a priority for the Government.
The Irwell, which cuts through my constituency, is a river that was previously thought to flood very infrequently. In fact, it had a 100-year flood risk. However, it has flooded in 2007, 2012, 2015 and 2020. The communities of Irwell Vale, Strongstry and Chatterton also have the dual risk of overland flooding. It is not just raised river levels; they are in a deep, sheer-sided valley and when there is heavy rainfall, combined with rising river levels, the flooding can come from the back of the houses as well as the front.
In February, I was down there talking to the community, who explained how family members felt they could not leave home because they were constantly clicking “refresh” on the Government’s online flooding monitor; they sort of felt they would be more likely to flood if they were not in the house. Although that is not particularly rational, it shows what a huge impact living on a flood plain and in a community that floods has on the mental health of these families. That is why it is really important we debate that impact today.
For a number of years now, I have worked very closely with the Environment Agency, the Government and the communities, to find a solution that will serve this community not just in the short term, but for generations to come. The Government’s policy is that flood defences are not about how big a community is. This is a small community, but all communities must be supported. I hope the Government will reaffirm that commitment today, because the whole point of the Government’s levelling-up agenda is that no community gets left behind. The smallest hamlet is as important to the Minister as the greatest city, but all too often it is the smallest hamlet that gets flooded and needs the flood defences. I hope the Minister will reaffirm today that no community is too small to have the benefit of Government flood defence spending.
I want to talk more directly about the Environment Agency plan for Irwell Vale, Chatterton and Strongstry. Following the 2015 flooding, the Environment Agency worked closely with me and the local community. It did a large-scale appraisal on a whole catchment basis for the River Irwell and its tributaries. That was followed by a capital funding bid to further reappraise flooding issues and possible mitigation work for the community.
Following the 2020 floods, which were again devastating, the Environment Agency did further extensive work to ensure that solutions would deal properly with increased flooding frequency. I find it extraordinary that between 2015 and 2020 there was such a change in the expectations of flooding in the community that the EA had to revisit all the work that had already been done. That tells us how concerned we should be for these communities, which will be subject to more frequent flooding.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his efforts to secure funding. I know we will hear a little more about that in a second. I was also at Irwell Vale during the period of severe flooding and it was catastrophic—genuinely appalling. Irwell Vale is about 1.5 miles from my constituency. My right hon. Friend knows the fine town of Ramsbottom in my constituency well. How does he feel that the scheme he is about to describe will help flood defences in Ramsbottom?
Irwell Vale is a wonderful place, as my hon. Friend knows, as he has visited it. It is my main dog-walking route. I always do the leaflets there at elections as well, although that is not relevant to today’s debate. It is part of a string of villages and towns along the River Irwell, and the next significant town along is Ramsbottom, which is a wonderful place as well. A lot of what the Environment Agency is proposing in its current plan is about slowing the water flow down on the River Irwell. Although the plan is described as a linear flood defence, which might make colleagues think of me campaigning just to swoosh the water past my constituency and let it come over the top in Ramsbottom, that is absolutely not the proposal of the Environment Agency—even if it were mine, which it is not.
All the mitigation measures that the EA is taking further up the Irwell valley will benefit Ramsbottom, which has had significant flood events, particularly for local businesses, which I know my hon. Friend works closely with. Even though only 100 or so houses are identified to directly benefit from the work, it would in fact benefit the whole River Irwell catchment. As my hon. Friend will know, this is a river that goes into the centre of Manchester and has been responsible for flooding in Salford in the past. I know the Minister will want to look at the whole catchment approach. What we do in Irwell Vale benefits Ramsbottom.
And Waterside, of course. An economic assessment has been undertaken by the Environment Agency, and the benefit and cost of all of the options has been assessed. The most economically favourable solution—frankly, the one that is likely to gain the maximum amount of grant in aid from the Government—has been identified. There was a long list of options, many of which I looked at. That was turned into a shortlist. The preferred option has now been chosen. It is what the Environment Agency refers to, slightly misleadingly, as a linear defence. It includes several mitigation measures to slow down flow.
That brings me to where we are today. The problem faced by Irwell Vale residents and communities, and other communities, is that the grant in aid funding will not cover the cost of the project needed in my constituency. It has been clear for a while that, if the scheme is to deliver meaningful and sustainable solutions, we will have to look at a cocktail of Government funding to support it, unless we ask communities to pay significant amounts that they cannot afford. The estimated cost of the project is £19.6 million, which I appreciate is not an insignificant amount. If the Minister, or any of her colleagues, were to visit Irwell Vale and speak to the community there, she would see that the community understands that it is an expensive scheme. They have been completely realistic and pragmatic about the need to work hard to find funding.
Of that £19 million—which sounds like a huge amount of money—we have already secured just over £11 million. That brings me to the rump—the £8 million—for which we are looking to the Government for support. The Environment Agency, supported by me and the community, has already applied to the fund for frequently flooded communities, as well as other Government Departments. It is also looking to increase the local levy contribution to try to make up some of that shortfall. We believe that the frequently flooded communities fund is absolutely central to delivering the scheme in Irwell Vale, although the Minister may have a different view. We know that the Government have not yet made decisions about the fund; one of the purposes of this debate is to gently nudge the Department and tell it that giving us that funding would be a good thing to do for the residents of Irwell Vale, Strongstry and Chatterton.
Last year, the Government announced that another £5.2 billion would be available for flood work over the next five years, and that it would be invested in flood alleviation schemes. That is really important, not just for my constituency but for the wider River Irwell catchment. I am excited that the Government have allocated so much more funding—more money than any Government in history—to tackling flooding. I hope that the Government look favourably on our local scheme, which is supported by the Environment Agency and the council that covers the areas that my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) and I represent. It is supported locally and by Parliament. I thank my hon. Friend for attending the debate.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech outlining the threat posed by the River Irwell, pretty though it is. The Government have recognised that. In my constituency, and in Bury South, £30 million has been invested in Radcliffe and Redvales because of the threat that the Irwell poses to housing in that area. My right hon. Friend’s strong case for investment cannot be overstated, because the evidence clearly shows that destruction will follow unless money is invested.
I know those areas well. There are thousands of houses there. In the beautiful villages in my constituency, there are just 100-plus houses. I understand that the Government have to prioritise funding; there is not an endless pot of money. However, we have been waiting a very long time, and we have been flooded lots of times. Now that Radcliffe, other areas of Bury and Ramsbottom have had significant flooding investment, I hope that the Minister understands why we think that it is our turn.
We need the investment. We are talking about relatively few houses, but in truth, no one cares whether there are 100 or 1,000 houses in their community. In politics, we talk about houses when we should really talk about homes. We do not live in a house; we live in our home, and it is not just four walls and a roof. It is where we have our photograph albums from when our children or grandchildren were at school, loved items of furniture that have been in the family for generations, and all our possessions. When water comes through the air bricks in the house, or up through the floorboards, it is not just damaging people’s house; in many cases, it is washing away a life—a lifetime of memories, and all those happy events that took place in their home. That is why the scheme is so important. People who live in Irwell Vale, Chatterton or Strongstry have had that happen to them five times in the last decade.
In politics, we do not often point back at things and say, “I am really proud that I was part of that.” We probably should do a bit more of it. However, if I can deliver this money to the community that I have the privilege of representing, it will give me— though this is not about me—the opportunity to say proudly that debates in Parliament, and this debate, transformed people’s lives. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister about future funding, and the Government’s ambitions for funding the scheme. I do not want to go back to these communities next winter, or maybe the winter after that, and have to explain to people why their life has been washed away again. We have a real opportunity today to change that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Ms McVey.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) for securing this important debate on the flooding in Irwell Vale, and for describing the area and its inhabitants so passionately and so well. It is also good to see my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), and for Bury North (James Daly), who remind us through their very presence that raging torrents do not stop at constituency boundaries, and that we have to look at the problem in a whole-catchment, or catchment-sensitive, way.
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who has responsibility for the environment, is sorry not to be responding to the debate, but she is at the United Nations oceans conference in Lisbon, so I am afraid that my right hon. and hon. Friends have her stand-in today. However, I undertake to speak to her about this debate, and will ensure that she meets interested colleagues once again to discuss the issues to do with the scheme that have been outlined this afternoon.
The devastation caused by flooding is terrible. Having lived all my life in the Cherwell valley, I sympathise deeply with all those affected, including those who have been affected repeatedly over the past 10 years. It is even more devastating when a location is affected time and again. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen described graphically, residents rarely have a moment’s peace when the rain is coming from both directions.
I pass on my sympathies to all residents in my right hon. and hon. Friends’ constituencies who have been affected by flooding, including during really dreadful events in February 2020, when 56 houses were flooded, and on Boxing Day 2015—that was the really bad one—when 94 properties were flooded.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Boxing day flooding. As she will know, it brought all our communities together, but these events also take away from all our local police services and other services. On that day, police came from Blackburn, Bolton and Burnley to tackle the problems, but as we know, there are sometimes other issues in communities on Boxing day. Does she agree that whole communities are affected? Also, we want people to live in these beautiful places on our patches, but house insurance is nearly impossible to get, because of flooding.
My hon. Friend makes some important points. It is always good to have conversations and debates on flooding with a group of interested colleagues, so that decisions can be made in a joined-up way.
Irwell Vale and nearby areas, including Strongstry and Chatterton, face a combination of risks from river, surface water, and groundwater flooding, which are all interconnected and therefore difficult to deal with in isolation. When flooding has taken place, the water has been very deep and fast-flowing, and has cut off access to communities, in many cases very badly. The EA recognises the importance of trying to alleviate the flood risk as much as possible, especially given the complexity of the risks. That is why the EA, working closely with partners including Lancashire County Council, has installed a permanent automatic pump to help reduce the frequency of surface water, and has done various works on banks and embankments in those communities, as well as having removed gravel.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen mentioned that the Irwell Vale scheme is sometimes described as a linear scheme; he rightly said it was much more than that. The estimated cost of the scheme is £19.5 million. The EA has secured around £11 million for the scheme through various sources, such as grant in aid, a local levy and the assets replacement allocation. As he said, that leaves a funding gap of £8.5 million.
I do not expect an answer on this today, but I would be grateful if the Minister could write to me. I have been told by the EA that one of the challenges is that it cannot start work on any part of the scheme until it can do the whole scheme. It is very frustrating for local residents to know that the £11 million is secured but cannot be drawn on until they have the full £19 million. Could the Minister, with her officials, undertake to see whether it is possible to do some elements of the scheme, particularly the wall rebuilding in Irwell Vale, which would protect properties now, in the hope and belief that further assets in the scheme could be funded at a later date?
I would be delighted to undertake that. I met with the EA team earlier today, and one of my questions was whether part of the scheme could be delivered while we continue to work together on further sources of income for the remaining £8.5 million. I was told that it was not quite as easy as that, but I undertake to ask for a detailed answer for my right hon. Friend, because some of the wall rebuilding might alleviate some residents’ concerns.
The frequently flooded communities fund may not be the correct route for further funding applications, but I was firmly reassured by the EA that it is leaving no stone unturned to try to source the remainder of the funding, and that several routes are being considered. I encourage all interested colleagues to continue to work with the partners who are determined to make that happen.
I take on board my right hon. Friend’s point about how all communities must be protected. The fact that 100 hundred houses are affected is not in itself a barrier to finding a substantial amount of funding. He said that the area is on his dog walking route; it is a beautiful area, and there is biodiversity that needs to be protected as well. It is not just about the homes, although they are the most significant factor.
This is an excellent scheme with a fantastic champion, but all communities need to be protected. Ramsbottom in my constituency is a mile and a half down the road from Irwell Vale. We have had £484,000 of investment in the whole constituency. It is not enough to protect families and businesses on Kenyon Street. Will the Minister or someone from her Department meet me to discuss what we can do to ensure that Ramsbottom has adequate flood defences?
The Environment Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I know that the Radcliffe and Redvales scheme has been useful in his constituency.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen made the valid point that this is not a linear scheme and the aim is not to move the water from one constituency to another and cause problems there. That is why it is important that we continue to deal with these flooding issues holistically, looking at these schemes as part of a wider picture. He mentioned the benefits of wider catchment approaches to flood management. I very much agree that a whole-catchment approach can unlock opportunities for areas such as the one we are discussing. The Government have committed to transforming the approach to local flood and coastal erosion risk planning. Every area of England will have a more strategic and comprehensive plan that will drive long-term local action. That will be in place by 2026.
The EA is already implementing an approach that considers wider-catchment benefits, and is taking that whole-catchment approach to new funding bids. It is collaborating with partners such as Moors for the Future and the National Trust to deliver a suite of natural flood management measures in the upper Irwell catchment. That includes moorland restoration on Holcombe moor and slow-the-flow measures in Buckden brook. It is very important that we continue to look at the wider picture when managing this water.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane has asked me to reassure all hon. Members that flood and coastal risk management is a top priority for the Government. I reiterate that she would be delighted to meet Members from this area to discuss the specifics of the bid, the new plan, and how that funding gap can be filled. I thank all hon. Members for this informative debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Miners Strike 1984-85: UK-wide Inquiry
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential merits of a UK-wide inquiry into the miners’ strike of 1984-85.
I am grateful for the opportunity to secure this debate and talk about an issue that is very close to my heart and that of my community, and an integral part of Scotland’s—and the UK’s—history and present. After being told I had secured the debate, I reached out the community in Midlothian, and asked for the views and memories of many of those who were involved at the height of the miners strikes. I was overwhelmed by the response of the residents of Midlothian and am thankful to them for sharing their memories and experiences.
As events fall into the past and become history, it is easy to forget that the people involved were real people; their lives mattered and they were affected in tangible ways. In the case of the miners strike of 1984-85, the history is not that long ago, and the people at the heart of it still feel real pain and injustice. I moved to the town of Loanhead at the height of the strikes. Criminal records, lost pensions and social stigma were the real-world consequences, which many are still living with, but those issues have never been fully addressed, nor the people listened to. That could change. Ex-miners and their families deserve to feel listened to, and for the Government to take action off the back of what they say. That is why I am calling for a public inquiry into the strikes—to get answers and redress for those affected by the many injustices caused by those events.
This is not about a grievance, nor dwelling in the past. It is about the future and recognising that we need to heal the wounds of the past in order to move forward. How we approach the past says a lot about who we are today. Do we learn from injustice and listen to the lessons, or would we do it all again given the chance? Those are the questions that need answered for the sake of communities across the country, especially my own in Midlothian. The way we achieve that is through a public inquiry into the policing of the strikes.
Mining in Midlothian dates back all the way to the 12th century, when the monks of Newbattle Abbey first began extracting coal. By the 20th century, mining was integral to the area’s way of life. Midlothian was home to a range of pits, from Bilston Glen and Monktonhall to the first Victorian super-pit at the Lady Victoria colliery, which is still home to the National Mining Museum Scotland; I recommend that all Members visit.
But by the 1980s, mines meant miners strikes. A token picket of six was maintained at Monktonhall, but Bilston Glen and Loanhead saw mass picketing and some of the most bitter conflicts of the strike in Scotland. Such was the significance of Bilston Glen in the story of the strike that Tom Wood, the former deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders police said,
“Did we have violent confrontations? Yes, we did, and they were mainly on the days when visiting pickets came to Bilston Glen.”
According to Professor Jim Murdoch, miners’ stories
“showed without doubt that the criminal justice system all too often reacted in an arbitrary and disproportionate manner.”
The unfair and unbalanced reaction from the authorities often took the form of arbitrary sentences being handed out, whether charges stuck or not.
During the recent Committee stage of the Scottish Government’s Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill, a former miner at Monktonhall and former colleague of mine on Midlothian Council, Alex Bennett, said,
“I was snatched by one of the snatch squads. They went for the union officials and they knew our names. The original charges were for rioting but that wasn’t going to stick so they changed it to breach of the peace.”
The tactic was simply to use whatever means necessary to get miners, especially union officials, off the picket line and into the cells. Breach of the peace, obstructing a police officer, breach of bail and theft—all those charges and more were twisted to justify the snatch squad style of policing. It would be better suited to Putin’s Russia today. That is not what good policing looks like and it does an injustice to the rule of law. Serious questions still remain to be answered about the extent of alleged political interference in the policing of the strike.
The hon. Member is making a very powerful speech. The events of 1984-85 shaped many of our politics, including mine. I grew up in Castleford, West Yorkshire, a mining community. I remember some of the police tactics—stopping us from going about our community—and the Metropolitan Police in particular. Those events shaped my politics, so I am grateful not only for that experience but also to Margaret Thatcher, would you believe it, for my membership of the Labour party. I commend the hon. Member for his campaigning, with others across the Chamber, for truth and justice for Orgreave.
Absolutely, and I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. Those events and others like them have shaped the politics of so many and brought many to a more active role in politics, through whatever means, be it the Labour party, the SNP or whatever else. Events such as those bring people forward. The hon. Member mentioned Orgreave. I had a conversation earlier with Chris Peace of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. It is certainly worth highlighting that, from their side of things, there are still serious unanswered questions.
The disproportionate response to the strikes did not stop in the courts. It also affected miners’ financial futures. Arrested strikers were sacked and denied redundancy payments and pension rights. Again, Alex Bennett said in evidence to the Holyrood Committee:
“Only later on did we realise that…anybody who had been arrested was not just going to get fined; they were going to lose their job and lose their redundancy payment. I was an official in the miners union, and we used to sit in when men were getting made redundant. I knew exactly what I would have got if I had been made redundant at that time: I would have qualified for £27,000 in 1985. I never got that, and it is still bitter to this day that I was denied that because of the attitude of the coal board in Scotland.”
He was one of over 100 miners who were blacklisted. It took many of them years to find work. On top of that, a former spy chief, Dame Stella Rimington, revealed that MI5 tapped union leaders’ phones during the strike. That was broadcast by Channel 4’s “Dispatches” as far back as 1994.
Midlothian is today, much as it was in the ’80s, a place where community is king. We only have to look at the community events and gala days held every weekend over the last month, including gala day just this Saturday past at Loanhead, the home of Bilston Glen, where we have the miners memorial. Remembering those who lost their lives in the pits is now an integral part of gala day celebrations; but it is also important that, as part of that, we remember what else happened around the pits.
Within each town and village, people know each other, and folk from all walks of life intermingle. That is exactly what made the strikes such a bitter affair. In Danderhall, the local miners club had a bowling green that the Lothian and Borders police would use for their annual competition. Police and miners would have a good bevvy together afterwards, and chat and chew the fat. After the strike, that connection was severed, which is no small thing for a close-knit community such as Midlothian and many others. But it is worth being clear that this is not just an exercise in digging up the past; it is about recognising that a wrong has been done and that now we have the power to address it.
The Scottish Government rightly recognised the scale of the injustice back in 2018, when they commissioned an independent review, led by John Scott QC, of the impact of policing on communities during the strike. Following testimony from former miners, police officers and mining communities, the review group made one single recommendation: that the Scottish Government should introduce legislation to pardon miners convicted for certain matters related to the strike. The Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill was welcomed by the National Union of Mineworkers for removing the stigma of a criminal record. I am delighted to say that that Bill was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament in the last couple of weeks.
Some might ask why we need a UK inquiry if the Scottish one was such a success. Aside from the fact that miners and their families across the rest of the UK also deserve justice, it is important to look at what the Scottish inquiry could not do. It could not consider elements of policy reserved to the UK, including the crucial issue of trade union relations, nor could it address the allegations of political interference by the UK Government—an absolutely critical question. Without those missing pieces, ex-miners and their families will never get the full truth. Only a UK-wide inquiry can deliver that.
On top of that, we have to consider the question of compensation—it is only natural. In many cases, a pardon simply will not be enough to undo decades of financial loss suffered by many miners. Unfair dismissal, and the subsequent loss of redundancy payments and pension rights, has a lasting effect and affects many people to this day. Ex-miners and their families deserve a compensation scheme to ensure not only moral justice, but economic justice. As such, the Scottish Government support the idea, but their hands are tied by devolution. Employment and industrial relations are reserved to this place, so it is up to the UK Government to devise such a scheme. A compensation system that is uniform and fair across the UK is something that only a UK-wide inquiry could deliver.
It is crucial that any inquiry should put reconciliation at its heart, just as the Scottish inquiry did. The principles at the heart of the review were put eloquently by Professor Jim Murdoch, who stated:
“As members of the independent review, our task was primarily to listen: to show that those affected by the miners’ strike had a voice more than a third of a century later. At each of the meetings we held, it was clear that the pain felt by former miners and their families was still raw…Our task was to seek to promote a sense of reconciliation”.
The miners strike is a part of our history and continues to shape communities such as Midlothian to this day. My predecessor in this place—the former MP Sir David Hamilton, or Davie, as he is still known in Midlothian—was not only an ex-miner; he was arrested on the Bilston Glen picket line and blacklisted. As I understand it, he was the only miner to face trial by jury and be acquitted. It is hard to overstate the impact of the strike on our politics, even today—as the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) said—but mining communities also shape our future. Midlothian’s mines are now abandoned and flooded, but the water in the mines is an energy source that is rich with huge potential. By tapping geothermal energy from the heat in that mine water, we could use that power in the future. I applaud local activists, academics and the Coal Authority for working to make mine-water energy a reality across the country, and it is something that I continue to push for in Midlothian.
Looking to the future, it is never too late to right the wrongs of the past. Sometimes time needs to pass before our society is mature enough to throw its hands up and admit that it did wrong, so it is not unusual to have historical inquiries into events long after the fact. For example, it took 36 years for an inquiry to be launched into the Bloody Sunday shootings, and the final report was published 15 years after that. It should have happened sooner—nobody can deny that—but, likewise, we should have had an inquiry into the miners strike years ago. The best time to plant a tree may have been yesterday, but the second best time is now. It is never too late.
All history is contested, and there are two sides to every story—whether it comes from miners, police, communities or the Government—but a Government prove their maturity by being able to listen to both sides of a story and represent them equally. By weaving the injustices of the miners strike into our national story, we show that our history is for everyone and is truly national. By picking up the Scottish Government’s baton and delivering, the process of healing could start today.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson)—the vice chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coalfield communities, which I proudly chair—for securing this important debate, which is close to all our hearts, as he mentioned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) mentioned that the 1984-85 strike shaped our politics. It made me: I am who I am because of that strike. My dad was a miner who was on strike in 1984-85, and I have spoken about how I am very proudly my father’s daughter. He instilled in me all the beliefs that I hold dear today and that have put me in this place, as has my community, for which I am very thankful. It is because of that that I stand here today, and I will focus my comments on the shocking events of 18 June 1984, which are crystallised in the minds of all our communities.
Scenes of mounted police officers charging towards miners with their truncheons raised are images that many people have found impossible to forget. Today, Orgreave is widely recognised as one of the most aggressive acts of state-sanctioned violence in recent British memory. Indeed, the Orgreave Trust and Justice Campaign called it
“one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in this country’s history”,
which is why we fundamentally need a UK-wide inquiry, because accounts of the events on that day are still contested. An inquiry would finally establish the facts and set the record straight once and for all.
We all know that, as part of the wider effort to discredit unions, the Thatcher Government, aided and abetted by South Yorkshire police, sought to amplify the narrative that it was the miners and not the police who initiated the violence. Well, my dad was there. He was present at Orgreave and saw what happened with his own eyes. He, alongside thousands of others, will attest that that narrative was untrue. Alongside others, he fled from horrific scenes of assault and brutalisation at the hands of South Yorkshire police with genuine fear for his own safety. It is a huge act of generational injustice for that to have never been investigated by a public inquiry.
The prosecutions against the 95 arrested protesters all collapsed precisely because their trials exposed the flimsy testimonies and unreliable evidence from police officers, some of which was later found to be perjurious. Serious allegations have emerged about the extent to which South Yorkshire police acted to cover up their wrongdoing, from the submission of misleading evidence to junior officers having their testimonies dictated to them by their superiors. What happened at Orgreave and in the years that followed was a serious failure of policing. Only a full public inquiry can right that fundamental wrong.
Much of the groundwork for an inquiry, as we have heard, has already been done. Colleagues will be aware that in June 2015 the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), commendably opened the door to a public inquiry by inviting submissions for why an inquiry was needed, but the following year her successor stood up in the Chamber and ruled out an inquiry of any kind. That was in 2016, six years ago, and much has changed since then.
The 2019 election saw a wave of new Members elected to this place, myself included, many of whom were new Conservative Members who now represent large ex-mining communities. If those colleagues were here today and bothered to represent their constituencies, I would tell them to call on their friends in government to hold an inquiry. Many of their constituents will have been at Orgreave and will know at first hand that the popular narrative in the media about Orgreave was utterly false.
In October 2020, the Scottish Parliament, as we have heard, accepted the findings of the Scottish review into policing during the strike, and Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament supported it and its outcome. The precedent, the groundwork and the cross-party support for an inquiry is all there. We just need the Tory Government here in Westminster to listen. If they are serious about retaining the red wall seats, which I hope does not happen—it will not—they would be wise to pay attention. But this is bigger than politics. Fundamentally, an inquiry is one of the many steps that we urgently need to take to restore public trust in policing.
Public trust in policing is vital. I know from my own constituency in Pontypridd and Taff Ely that when police play a positive, integrated role in our communities, everyone benefits. My brother is now a police officer, so that shows it goes full circle, but the events of Orgreave served to seriously undermine public trust in the police. In the case of South Yorkshire police, trust was undermined even further by the Hillsborough disaster just a few years later, and we now know that police negligence was instrumental.
Failures at Hillsborough and Orgreave have been widely connected and understood to be part of the systemic culture that was at the heart of South Yorkshire police. Just as the Hillsborough inquests brought vindication and comfort to the families of the 97 victims found to have been unlawfully killed, an inquiry into Orgreave would bring clarity, accountability and finally justice.
Trust in the police, particularly the Metropolitan police, has eroded further in recent years in the wake of revelations about systemic racism and misogyny in the force. I will never forget the image of Metropolitan police officers pinning women to the ground at a peaceful protest—actually it was not a protest; it was a vigil—to commemorate the horrific murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a serving Metropolitan police officer. Just as those women were brutalised for daring to hold a commemorative vigil, protesters at Orgreave were assaulted and brutalised for daring to come together to fight for their rights.
As colleagues will be aware, only yesterday the Met police was placed under special measures by the police watchdog for “serious or critical shortcomings”. If action is to be taken to address failures at the Met, it is only right that action is taken to address the historic failures that led to the battle of Orgreave. Ultimately, we must not allow the rot of eroded public trust to fester any longer. If the Government are committed to rebuilding public trust, as they say they are, they know what they can do: hold an inquiry now, without any further delay, and provide justice to the families who greatly deserve it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this extremely important debate.
I have to declare an interest. I was one of those 11,000 miners arrested during the strike. I make no apologies for that. I am probably the only Member of Parliament now sitting who was part of the miners strike. I was on strike for the full year, for which I am again extremely proud.
Those were extremely difficult times. Miners are generally very hard-working, conscientious people. Very few miners had ever been in trouble with the police before. In communities up and down the UK, they were hard-working, hard-playing individuals who were the backbone of the nation. I will never forget what I experienced as a young lad. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) said it shaped her character; it definitely shaped mine, for better or worse. Some might say it is for worse, and some that it is for better.
My father, brothers, family and community were all out on strike to save the British coalmining industry. What we experienced was an absolute disgrace. There is an appetite for a public inquiry into what went on, whether we want to talk about the actions of the police, which have already been well documented by the previous two speakers, or about the actions of the courts, the magistrates and the Crown courts, or about the way miners suffered abuse, really, by the legal system through plea bargains—“Accept this and you’ll not go to prison,” or, “Accept this charge and you’ll not get a longer sentence,” when many of those people had not committed anything at all. They deserve justice, because those were hard-working, honest individuals, who, as has already been explained, were basically attacked by the police state, as it were, at the time.
I could recite a number of occurrences I was personally involved in, but I will not bore people to death with that, though they were significant. I had never been involved in anything with the police all my life till the miners strike, and I have never been involved with the police since. I am proud of my record; my record with the police is industrial and was to save communities. We could talk about a number of things, such as police infiltration and whether we had armed forces in the strike. We could talk about how an individual might have been picked off the picket line for no reason whatsoever, and might have lost their job and pension, and been blacklisted, never to get a job again. Some even ended up in prison. There needs to be an inquiry to sort that out.
Who was pulling the strings at the time? Recent documents show that it was the Thatcher Cabinet, if not Margaret Thatcher herself, that made a series of interventions. We want to know what happened. We need to understand and try to draw a line under what happened, which smashed our communities to smithereens.
The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign ran a marvellous campaign over many years, seeking an inquiry into what happened at Orgreave. That campaign was all well and good, and well deserved, and I congratulate everyone involved on their tenacity. But mining communities in south Wales, Scotland, the north-east, Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire all suffered as a consequence of the miners strike, through some form of intervention by the police. This goes beyond Orgreave, but Orgreave was the worst of the worst. It is nearly 40 years, but we can look back and think, “Did that really happen in this country?” The BBC reversed the coverage to say that the miners attacked the police. How bizarre that that could be allowed to happen in the UK.
I am absolutely delighted that Scottish Parliament has decided to pardon the miners in the Scottish areas. Compensation is something that we need to discuss and debate, as has already been highlighted. However, there is an overwhelming appetite for a public inquiry. If the Scottish Parliament can unanimously agree to pardons, perhaps the Minister can explain why that cannot be achieved for the rest of the UK.
I could speak for hours on this subject but will wind up my contribution. The miners deserve to be able to be draw a line under this. Many miners went to the grave with criminal charges for fighting for their communities—picked off a picket line by police from 300 miles away, in order to serve a cause that we were terribly opposed to. I ask the Minister to not simply discount the idea of potentially having an inquiry—not just into the policing, but into the miners strike in its entirety—but instead take a lesson from the Shrewsbury 24 campaign. That campaign began in the 1970s, with a strike of building workers. They fought and fought and fought for justice, and they only just got recognised last year, through papers that had to be disclosed to the public by the Government, which outlined all the wrongdoings of the police. We will keep campaigning for this inquiry, because the miners, their families and their communities are still very raw about this, even though it was 40 years ago.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery).
I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this incredibly important debate. Before the forced closure of the pits, mining once helped to sustain 30,000 jobs in my constituency of Barnsley East, and it formed the heart of many working-class communities across the coalfields. In dirty and dangerous conditions, miners risked their lives and their health to keep our lights on. Striking is always a last resort but, faced with the politically motivated destruction of their livelihoods and having been branded “the enemy within” by the Tory Government, many in Barnsley and beyond were forced to last for a year without income in order to stand up for their jobs.
I will focus my comments today on Orgreave. In keeping with the narrative that the miners were the enemy rather than workers simply defending their jobs, footage of this event is widely understood to have been reversed, portraying miners as having provoked the violence rather than having responded to police aggression. Indeed, although 95 miners were arrested at the time, all those charged were later acquitted as police evidence was discredited.
Since then, evidence of police intent to orchestrate the violence and pervert the course of justice afterwards by manufacturing statements has mounted. However, despite that, there has been a distinct refusal to investigate what really occurred. When South Yorkshire Police handed itself over to the Independent Police Complaints Commission after new evidence emerged, the IPCC took two long years to decide that allegations of assault and misconduct could not be pursued.
I would like to place on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for the work that she did in securing and sharing a meeting with the then Home Secretary, in which she called for an inquiry into Orgreave. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) subsequently invited submissions to explain why an inquiry was needed, going on to express the importance of restoring public trust in our police, saying:
“We must never underestimate how the poison of decades-old misdeeds seeps down the years.”
Shortly afterwards, however, her successor as Home Secretary decided that there would be very few lessons learned from the events at Orgreave and that there were no deaths or wrongful convictions, and that an inquiry was therefore not needed. That decision was later revealed to be politically motivated, out of a will not to slur the memory of Thatcher.
However, people do not have to die for a deep injustice to have occurred. Those who suffered violence at the hands of the police, those wrongfully arrested and those whose reputations were publicly and politically tarnished still matter. It matters to all of us, too, because if we are to have trust in our institutions, we have to believe that wrongdoing and malpractice will be investigated and addressed.
Recent inquiries, such as the uncovering of the role of spy-cops, the Hillsborough review and the Scottish review of policing during the miners strike, have all demonstrated that, with vital lessons being learned and those affected being given a chance to be vindicated by the truth.
What action will the Minister’s Department take to bring to light all available evidence, including the full IPCC scoping report and the Association of Chief Police Officers files relating to Orgreave, which are embargoed until 2066? Will it consider all that new evidence in an inquiry to which all those with an interest and experience are invited to participate?
I pay tribute to all who have campaigned on this issue, including many of my colleagues, the NUM and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. I first called for justice for those at Orgreave in my maiden speech five years ago. Since then, many miners have sadly passed away. We cannot wait any longer. The Government should grant an inquiry now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the second time today, Ms McVey. I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for securing this debate, which comes after the Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill. Finally, Scottish miners who were wrongly convicted for defending their livelihoods during the strike will have some form of justice. Justice delayed is better than justice denied, but we should all be clear that the damage caused by this delay has been huge.
As a Sheffield MP with a constituency only a few miles over from the site of the Orgreave coking plant, I understand just how deep this runs. I have heard directly from miners and their families about the ordeal they were put through during the strike. That is why I am proud to join the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign in its annual rally every 18 June to call for justice for the 95 miners who wrongly faced charges for what happened at Orgreave. Many potentially faced life imprisonment; the seriousness of the claims against them was huge. The farce of their trials, the speed at which the prosecutions fell apart and the obviously false testimony given by the police is a stain on our justice system and South Yorkshire’s policing. The policing on that day not only inflicted great physical injury to people at the picket but left long-term scars on individuals and communities, which no one has answered for.
The survivors of Orgreave deserve a full inquiry into what happened and why. This is not about digging up history; it is about understanding the role the police played on that day and why, who was involved in making decisions, and how far to the heart of Government those decisions went. Those are important questions not just for the miners who suffered directly; they are the concern of every single citizen in this country. There is an unbroken line between the police violence at Orgreave and the cost of living crisis today. It laid the foundations for the low-paid, zero-hours economy that we currently live in. It meant defeating and demoralising the trade union movement. The idea that the police were used to that end should chill the bones of everyone in this Chamber. We are already seeing the chilling effect of the anti-protest legislation on street protest. The prosecution of the Scottish miners and those at Orgreave raises questions about the relationship between politics, policing and the justice system. Those questions will be increasingly relevant as we head into what looks like a summer of industrial action, with people rightly seeking to defend their pay and conditions while profits soar.
The need for an inquiry is pressing. It must have the power to require that all the relevant information and evidence is produced and presented to it. Everyone with an interest must be able to participate fully and get their voices heard. The panel should be independent and objective and should have the skills to understand all the issues at stake. It should be transparent, open and not overly long. After the Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill, that is the next step in righting the historical wrong that was done to communities up and down the country during the strike.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate my good friend and comrade, my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), on securing this debate. I say that not just because he is the Chief Whip of our group, but because he and I regularly found ourselves on the front pages of some of the more right-wing newspapers in Scotland, which condemned us for having the temerity to ask for a miners inquiry in Scotland. For many years, my hon. Friend, along with a number of others, has asked for a Scottish inquiry. It would be only right and fair to praise the efforts of a friend of mine, former Member of the Scottish Parliament Neil Findlay, who was one of the lead campaigners in ensuring a miners inquiry in Scotland. Neil is sadly missed in the Scottish Parliament, but I know he is continuing to do great work with trade unions in Scotland.
I congratulate all hon. Members who have spoken. I say to my friend, the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), that he has nothing to apologise for at all. Events have maybe been for the better; they have certainly made him a very good Member of Parliament.
The Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill is an important and historic step towards reconciliation. It is going to help to heal some of the wounds in Scotland’s mining communities. It is groundbreaking legislation, which will restore dignity to those convicted, provide comfort to their families and, I hope, start to bring some closure on the sense of injustice that members of mining communities may continue to feel. We very much sympathise with the miners who lost out in redundancy payments and pension rights as a result of being sacked by the National Coal Board after being arrested or convicted for actions while participating in the strike.
I hope the legislation will end some of the demonisation of trade unions who take industrial action on behalf of their members. The demonisation we saw during the miners strike was very much in evidence last week towards the rail workers. I take the view that those who take industrial action are exercising their human rights; they have a human right to withdraw their labour from any employer.
Professor Jim Murdoch of the School of Law at the University of Glasgow, who worked with John Scott QC on the independent review, said:
“As members of the independent review, our task was primarily to listen: to show that those affected by the miners’ strike had a voice more than a third of a century later.
At each of the meetings we held, it was clear that the pain felt by former miners and their families was still raw.
The response to the miners’ strike at the time left a deep scar on too many communities. Their stories showed without doubt that the criminal justice system all too often reacted in an arbitrary and disproportionate manner.
Our task was to seek to promote a sense of reconciliation, and we are pleased that our report and its recommendation have received clear support today in the Scottish Parliament.”
The Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill pardons the offences of breach of the peace, obstructing a police officer, breach of bail and theft that occurred during the 1984-85 dispute. The legislation has been welcomed by the National Union of Mineworkers in Scotland.
That brings us on to why the UK Government should now launch a UK-wide inquiry. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice in Scotland, Keith Brown, put it rather well when he said:
“It is now right that the UK Government recognises the passing of this historic legislation and gives further consideration to a UK-wide public inquiry and the payment of compensation to former miners. I have written to the Home Secretary this week urging her to reconsider her position given the strong support for this landmark Bill.”
Will the Minister tell us if the Home Secretary has received that letter and when the Scottish Government will see a response?
Many of us who support an inquiry were surprised when the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, said in October 2016 that the UK Government were ruling out an inquiry into the events at Orgreave in South Yorkshire, probably one of the most notorious flashpoints in the miners strike. I have also received an excellent briefing from the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. It is correct to ask the UK Government to reconsider, because of new evidence that has come to light since October 2016, including the disclosure of documents that are embargoed until 2066—I do not think we should wait until then—as well as the existence of documents in the South Yorkshire archives. New evidence is also coming to light as a result of the ongoing undercover police inquiry, in which the National Union of Mineworkers is a core participant.
There is also—this is of most concern to me—the recent Daily Mirror article that exposed a conversation with Amber Rudd about the reasons not to hold an Orgreave inquiry, which were given as because it would “slur the memory of Thatcher” and upset party members. Protecting someone’s legacy is not a reason not to have the inquiry. That raises alarm bells with me, as I am sure it does with other Members.
I totally agree with the hon. Member in regard to Neil Findlay; he has run a tremendous campaign. Would the hon. Member like to comment on the fact that during the miners strike Scotland represented 10% of the National Coal Board workforce, but 30% of all those arrested were Scottish, with many being sacked? That was terribly unequal. Would he like to comment on why that might have been?
The independent review makes it very clear: it is because of the disproportionate actions of the police and the justice system at that point. I was also alarmed by those figures when they were brought to my attention. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Labour party report, prepared by Gordon Brown and Merlyn Rees—a future Prime Minister and a former Home Secretary—which also raised and highlighted the concerns in 1985 about the strike. It recommended that there should be a royal commission into the circumstances leading up to the strike and the conduct of the strike, as well as looking at the wider constitutional aspects of the development of policing—including accountability. Even then, in 1985, the demands from that report talk about some of the issues that the hon. Member for Wansbeck raised.
I hope the Minister will respond positively. He should take serious note of what myself and other Members have said about the current vilification of trade union activity. We saw that vilification during the miners strike of 1984-85, and we are seeing some of it today. Perhaps, he could encourage some of his colleagues to engage in a better discourse when discussing such issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am sorry for my dodgy voice; excuse me occasionally if I have to drink.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this debate. He spoke powerfully to the experience of miners and their communities throughout the strikes, and of how the Scottish review has helped to begin to heal some decades-old wounds. He referred to bowling green bevvies among police and miners; sadly they are no more, and I do not think it is a legacy any of them would have wanted.
I pay tribute to the Orgreave Truth and Justice campaign and all those who have campaigned to shine a light on the policing of the 1984-85 strike. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) spoke of the police charges, but she also spoke of her pride in her dad. It is lovely to hear people talk about pride in their dads. My dad is nearly 91, and his dad worked in the mines, so I also have that legacy—it helped to shape me as well.
Labour has long supported calls for a full and independent public inquiry into the matter, and particularly into the events at the Orgreave coking plant on 18 June 1984. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) spoke of the horrors of what happened there. As I have indicated, I grew up in a mining community with a proud family heritage in the industry, so I understand the impact of the Government’s handling of the strikes on miners and their families and communities. It is an impact that endures to this day.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) spoke openly and honestly about his own history, but also spoke about those hard-working individuals in the mines who were criminalised during the strike. He also spoke of his continuing pride in his colleagues.
In 2015, and for most of 2016, it looked as though the Government were moving in the right direction on the issue. Following the findings of the Independent Police Complaints Commission scoping exercise in June 2015, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), then Home Secretary, invited submissions for why a public inquiry was needed. In September 2016, a meeting took place with the subsequent Home Secretary, the former Member for Hastings and Rye, at which the potential format of an inquiry or investigation was discussed.
Many across the House were understandably confused and deeply disappointed when, only a couple of months later in October 2016, the then Home Secretary confirmed, in response to a parliamentary question, that no inquiry of any kind would take place. There was great sadness on that day. Will the Minister confirm that that was not for the reasons raised in Sasha Swire’s book—that an inquiry into Orgreave would
“slur the memory of Thatcher and the…party won’t like it”?
If that was true, it would be disgraceful. That said, even the official reasons given by the former Member for Hastings and Rye are extremely thin.
It is important that we address the wrongdoings of the past—not just for Orgreave, but across the whole country. Just because no one died as a result of the state’s handling of the strikes does not mean there are not valuable lessons to be learned from examining them. This morning, I spoke to Chris Pearce from the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, who reminded me that time is of the essence. Many of the miners affected have already died; others are elderly, but still hope for a fair hearing.
We all have history on this. As a youngster, I was the deputy head of the social insurance department at the National Union of Mineworkers, managing the mineworkers’ pension scheme. As my hon. Friend says, many of the miners are now elderly. They, or their widows, are pensioners. There could be an act of good will by the Government on this matter by their implementing the recommendations of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on the mineworkers’ pension scheme. The elderly mineworkers and their widows could then have a greater share of the pension scheme that they funded throughout their lives.
My right hon. Friend makes the point clearly and concisely: action needs to be taken. It is about not just the miners who have died, but their families who follow them.
As has been outlined in this debate, a number of developments have occurred since 2016. Home Office files from ’84 and ’85 have been released to the National Archives. The National Police Chiefs’ Council has disclosed the existence and location of files from the Association of Chief Police Officers relating to Orgreave and the miners strike, which I understand were actually embargoed until 2066. I will be 111 in 2066, if I live that long. New evidence has come to light as a result of the ongoing undercover police inquiry, to which others have referred, in which the National Union of Mineworkers is a core participant. I hope the Minister gives each of those developments full and proper consideration.
Perhaps more significant is the trigger for this debate: the findings of the Scottish miners review. I wonder if seeing the support from MSP colleagues for the Scottish review and its outcome will encourage the Minister, Conservative MPs and the rest of the UK to reconsider their position. I certainly hope it will. Over the past six years, however, the Government have continually rejected calls for an inquiry. In November 2021, the Minister present said that such an inquiry:
“is not in the wider public interest or required for any other reason.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2021; Vol. 704, c. 2P.]
Opposition Members completely disagree. We believe that it is only by properly investigating those events that we can secure the justice that has long evaded all those affected.
In the words of the former Conservative Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, in her speech to the Police Federation annual conference in 2016, we must all understand
“the need to face up to the past and right the wrongs that continue to jeopardise the work of police officers today. Because historical inquiries are not archaeological excavations. They are not purely exercises in truth and reconciliation…they are about ensuring justice is done…We must never underestimate how the poison of decades-old misdeeds seeps down through the years and is just as toxic today as it was then. That’s why difficult truths, however unpalatable they may be, must be confronted head on.”
No matter how long it takes, justice must be done and be seen to be done. The Labour party does not turn a blind eye to and shrug off historic injustices; from the quote I have just read from the former Home Secretary and Prime Minister, we can see that there was once a time that the Conservative party did not, either.
Instead of heeding the lessons of historic heavy policing, the Home Office is presiding over draconian changes in protest legislation, some of which came into force just yesterday, and expanding police powers for protest disproportionately through the Public Order Bill. The deplorable actions of this Home Office show more than ever why learning the lessons of the past through inquiries such as the one we are discussing is the necessary work of good government. I hope the Minister will do the right thing and order the inquiry without further delay.
It is a great pleasure to appear before you, Ms McVey. We have both come a long way since we were teenagers together in south Liverpool.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for securing the debate. I know he has a long-standing interest in these issues. Obviously, I have listened carefully to all the contributions. I recognise the significance of the miners strike and its impact on mining communities throughout the United Kingdom, including those affected by what occurred at the Orgreave coking plant on 18 June 1984. I remember the footage well. I was a teenager at the time and a student shortly thereafter in the north-east, and I know that the events of that period continue to resonate in those communities.
The House is calling for a wider inquiry into the policing of the strikes. Successive Home Secretaries have given careful consideration to the issues arising from the calls for an inquiry into the policing of the strikes at Orgreave and, by extension, the miners strikes more broadly. As Members have mentioned, the former Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced the decision in October 2016 not to undertake an inquiry, and her successor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), upheld that decision in September 2018. In the spirit of transparency, in 2017 the Home Office released the files held by the Department to the National Archives, and those files are available there for public review. We have urged other Departments to do the same, and South Yorkshire police is in the process of reviewing its files to release them as well.
The core argument given by the Home Secretaries was that, given the passage of time and the large number of legislative and systemic changes since 1984, an inquiry is unlikely to result in relevant lessons for today’s system. The Government stand by that decision. Crucially, there have been significant changes to policing since then, including major reforms to criminal procedure, changes to public order policing and practice, stronger external scrutiny and greater local accountability. Specifically, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which came into force from January 1985, and other legislative and operational changes made since then, have vastly improved the way police investigations and powers operate. The exemplary standards of behaviour expected of everyone who works in policing were reinforced by the introduction of a statutory code of ethics, which was laid before the House in 2014 and is currently being reviewed.
The introduction of further provisions through the Policing and Crime Act 2017 has increased the powers of the Independent Office for Police Conduct, clarified its investigative processes and further safeguarded its independence. Those reforms were introduced in 2018 and 2020, alongside wider reforms to the police discipline and complaints systems. The legislative reforms in 2020 to overhaul the police complaints and disciplinary systems were wide-ranging and designed to simplify processes while increasing transparency and independence. Furthermore, the creation of the Crown Prosecution Service in 1986, with the introduction of independent CPS prosecutors, fundamentally altered the prosecution of offences and ended the existence of ad hoc prosecution arrangements throughout the country.
Given the fact that the landscape has changed so markedly, it is difficult to see how a review of the events and practices of more than three decades ago would yield significant lessons for the policing system today. In the light of the significant changes since the strikes, there are no plans to undertake an assessment of the potential merits of establishing an independent inquiry into the policing of the miners strike in 1984 to 1985 in England and Wales. The Government do not plan to review the decision not to establish a public inquiry into the events at the Orgreave coking plant on 18 June 1984. For the Government’s part, we are completely focused on ensuring that policing is the best it can be, including through reforms to improve accountability and transparency. Public confidence is pivotal to our model of policing by consent.
We are not currently considering that particular route of action. We have received the letter the hon. Gentleman referred to—indeed, we have received a number of letters over the past couple of years on the matter, to which we have responded. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering that letter and will respond in due course.
I thank everybody who has participated in the debate. I have listened carefully to the points that have been raised and am grateful for the opportunity to underline how far UK policing has come since the miners strike. Progress has undoubtedly been made, but that is not to say that we are in any way complacent; on the contrary, we are constantly challenging the police to get better in all they do. We have overseen significant reform, and continue to drive improvements for the benefit of policing and those whom the police serve.
I thank all Members for their contributions this afternoon. We have heard a wide range of views from communities across the mainland UK and its countries, with each Member effectively saying very similar things: that our communities all bore the brunt of the effects of the miners strike.
Despite that, I am quite frankly afraid that the Government are still not listening. I thank the Minister for his response but I am very disappointed in it. The release of files is not good enough—it does not cut it—and time cannot be used as an excuse for not doing the right thing. Whatever changes have taken place in policing over the intervening years do not change the need for an inquiry. Despite the response the Minister has given to the debate, I ask him to genuinely consider the whole range of comments that have been made, because this is something that is not going to go away. I am certainly not going to stop asking these questions, so the Government need to take a good look at this issue and seriously consider the fact that there is still a need for an inquiry.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the potential merits of a UK-wide inquiry into the miners’ strike of 1984-85.