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Westminster Hall

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2022

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 11 October 2022

[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

Blasphemy Laws and Allegations: Commonwealth Countries

I beg to move,

That this House has considered blasphemy laws and allegations in Commonwealth Countries.

I would first like to express an interest, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief and as chair of the APPG for the Pakistani minorities. These issues are close to my heart, and it is a privilege to speak about them and to try to outline where we wish to be. I therefore thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss this timely and important topic. As always, I am pleased to see my dear friend the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), in his place. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister, and I thank her for all that she does for persecuted ethnic groups across the world.

Blasphemy laws may sound like an archaic and outdated issue, but they are far from a thing of the past. I thought long and hard about this debate, and I wanted to bring the issue forward for discussion in a positive fashion. As of 2019, 79 countries had laws or policies banning blasphemy, which included speech or actions deemed to be insulting, contemptuous or showing lack of reverence for a God or something sacred. Unfortunately, despite the Commonwealth’s values—which we adhere to—of promoting democracy, human rights and individual liberty, its members are some of the worst offenders. Of the 79 countries that prohibit blasphemy, 26 are Commonwealth states, which equates to 46% of Commonwealth members.

Yesterday was World Day Against the Death Penalty. A higher share of countries inside the Commonwealth than outside it have prison sentences for blasphemy and other legal restrictions. Regrettably, the Commonwealth also has a higher share of countries with the death penalty for blasphemy. Five Commonwealth countries have the death penalty for blasphemy or apostasy, and many more have seen people murdered for them. A clear goal to work towards would be the abolishment of the death penalty for any blasphemy-related charges. While progress would still need to be made to ensure that people are not unjustly imprisoned on blasphemy charges, it would be a big step forward to know that the death penalty was not on the table.

Blasphemy laws are not always in and of themselves an issue—I want to make that clear. They can often be little more than legislation that is never utilised or that lies dormant, with no impact on a country’s people. For instance, Saint Lucia and other Caribbean states have blasphemy laws, but they are not enforced and have every likelihood of never being enforced. However, the fact that they are in place means that, sometime, they could be enacted and enforced and could become a stringent part of the law. Therefore, it is the abuse and misuse of blasphemy laws that is the issue; indeed, it is social attitudes towards blasphemy and the lack of the tolerance for other faiths and beliefs, not blasphemy laws on their own, that leads to violations of freedom of religion or belief.

I recall a visit that the APPG organised to Pakistan in 2018. It was around the time that Asia Bibi had been charged with blasphemy and given the death penalty. That deputation consisted of my colleague, the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), and Lord Alton, from the other place. We decided that if we were going to do something about Asia Bibi it was probably better not to go in with all guns blazing and say, “Blasphemy is wrong, and your constitution is wrong,” because we would get nothing. Instead, we showed how the blasphemy laws in Pakistan at that time were being used in an erroneous, vindictive and malicious way. They were also being used in an untrue and dishonest way, because the allegations were never factually or evidentially proven to be true.

We met two of the three judges—at this stage, I am not breaking any confidences, because the thing is past and over—who told us that they did not see an evidential base for the allegations that were made and were therefore of a mind to free Asia Bibi. We never said that when we came home—I talked to the then Minister and assured him that we did not intend to say anything—because we thought it was more important to have Asia Bibi released. Eventually, she was released to her family and now lives in Canada.

However, there may be other Asia Bibis in Pakistan and across the world in a similar situation, and I will refer to a couple of them. I know that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, who speaks for the Scottish National party, will also speak about some of them, because we have been on many deputations together, including one to Nigeria recently—I will refer to one case in Nigeria and I know he will do the same.

However, before highlighting cases where blasphemy laws pose a serious threat to ordinary people’s lives and are weaponised as tools for persecution, I would like to bring to Members’ attention the fact that a blanket repeal of blasphemy laws would be ill advised and that I am not seeking one. In some circumstances, calls for a blanket repeal would have the unintended consequence of removing certain protections, such as prohibiting the vandalism of places of worship. Far from advancing the fight for freedom of religion or belief, such consequences would simply create new challenges. Instead, it is vital to stress the problems with blasphemy laws and how to counter those challenges. Therefore, a blanket repeal is not the solution, but something must be done, and I hope to make some suggestions during the debate.

Unfortunately, misuse of blasphemy laws or accusations of blasphemy are one of the tools most commonly used to target religious or belief minorities around the world. They are often used as a pretext for land seizures, extrajudicial violence or discriminatory legislation. Blasphemy allegations can make a mockery of a justice system and can often fuel mob violence. They can also be utilised to settle personal vendettas, and they can be invoked more generally to target and drive out religious or belief minorities in a given country or region. There are many examples of such activities, and I have referred to some of them. The susceptibility of some blasphemy laws to such abuses is a grave challenge to freedom of religion or belief for all, with those of many different religions or belief backgrounds falling victim to the misuse of blasphemy laws, particularly in certain states of the Commonwealth.

In recent months, there have been a number of high-profile blasphemy cases, with blasphemy charges filed against Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, and the murder of Deborah Samuel, a student in Nigeria. I was in Nigeria in May—the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute and others were on that trip—and we had a chance to discuss many issues, and the case of that young Christian girl, who I will refer to again later, was one of those we looked at. Such cases illustrate how blasphemy laws are used to restrict freedom of speech, discredit political opponents and attack religious minorities, and they also draw attention to the rule of mob violence in blasphemy allegations and how that determines the legal frameworks that are in place.

A report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom on the use of blasphemy laws found that extrajudicial violence was particularly prevalent in Pakistan, with more than half of the recorded cases of such violence happening in that country. The other significant contributor from the Commonwealth was Nigeria, which we visited just a few months ago, and I will touch on that later, as will the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. The USCIRF report noted that extrajudicial violence is more likely to happen when persons accused of blasphemy are acquitted through the legal system or police choose not to file charges. That shows that a solution cannot be found through legislation alone but by changing attitudes in a country. I think we have to do that as well, but it has to be done in a gentle way, and I hope that we may just do that very thing through this debate.

Given the high levels of extrajudicial violence, many victims and their families receive death threats and must live in hiding, in fear of their lives, even if they are found innocent—I have referred to one such case already. In these cases, victims are unable to access asylum pathways, as they are stuck in their country of origin and cannot make a claim until they leave. One case that illustrates that scenario and sheds light on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws more broadly is that of Sawan Masih. I have raised this case in the past, as have other colleagues present today, but it is worthy of renewed attention, given that last week marked two years since Sawan’s acquittal but there has been little improvement in the situation. The Minister is always responsive to us—we all appreciate that—and I ask her to give us an update on the case today if she can. If not, I am happy for us to be notified afterwards.

Sawan Masih was a Christian street sweeper, a father of three from the city of Lahore in Pakistan. He was imprisoned in March 2013 and sentenced to death for blasphemy in March 2014. Sawan’s appeal hearing was adjourned at least 16 times, but on 5 October 2020 he was finally acquitted in Lahore High Court. He was released 10 days later, with the delay due to security concerns for his life. His father lived to hear news of the acquittal, but died before Sawan could see him. Sadly, earlier this year, his mother also passed away without seeing her son. Sawan and his family now live in a secret location, as they would most likely be murdered if their location was known.

Sawan Masih’s arrest happened only after mob violence—it was not the rule of law that led to his dire circumstances, but the abuse of the law. Local factory workers went on strike for Sawan’s arrest. More than 3,000 Muslims attacked his home village, torching 180 Christian homes, 75 shops and two churches. Sawan believes that the charge against him was part of a plot by local businessmen to seize land previously held by Christians. The fact that blasphemy laws can be manipulated in such a way is at the heart of this debate. Spurious accusations should not be a vehicle for settling personal disputes or targeting minorities who have little recourse to justice.

Sawan’s life has been irreversibly damaged by the malicious levelling of blasphemy allegations. Pakistan’s justice system has been undermined by mob rule provoked by malicious and vindictive allegations. Our asylum process has also been shown to be further flawed, owing to the fact that Sawan is still in hiding, with an ever-diminishing hope of a safe and full future for himself, his wife and his family. Regrettably, Sawan is just one of many people in Pakistan who faces such a situation. According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, 84 individuals were charged with blasphemy in 2021, and many others remain imprisoned or on death row.

How do we prevent cases such as that of Sawan Masih? One solution, which is key to this debate, is for blasphemy laws to be amended to include reference to intentionality. In essence, blasphemy laws that stress intentionality would mean that intention to cause insult would need to be established before someone was convicted for this offence. The absence of a reference to intent in article 295C of Pakistan’s blasphemy law means that the prosecutor does not carry the burden of proving that the accused had the intention of blasphemy. Such a problem is not unique to Pakistan, but Pakistan’s more active enforcement of blasphemy laws makes an amendment ever more relevant. Moreover, a general promotion of amending laws to introduce an intentionality clause in countries where blasphemy laws are misused could dramatically improve the situation for religious and belief groups, not to mention the vigour of the law as a whole. Given that the UK is a significant giver of aid to Pakistan, the UK Government should not be backwards at coming forwards—that is a bit of an Irishism—in recommending such a change in the law, laying the groundwork for other members of the Commonwealth to do similarly. There should be no toleration of low standards of evidence for convicting somebody of blasphemy in any country, let alone one with which the UK has such close ties.

My final point about Pakistan, which is also relevant to other countries, is that cyber-laws, for example, should not be used as a back door for blasphemy laws. In November 2020, Pakistan enacted an amendment to the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 that empowered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to block or remove online content if it considers it necessary

“in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan”

or public order, decency or morality. Unfortunately, such a law enables the targeting of minorities for blasphemy-related charges. Since its enactment, six Ahmadi Muslims have been arrested owing to those laws, and 17 named in police reports.

We have made overtures to Pakistan in the past about the Ahmadi, and we will do it again. The Ahmadis are a small Muslim sect who are persecuted by other Muslims in Pakistan. Such digital persecution exacerbates the difficulties for Ahmadis and other religious groups in Pakistan, with even the online sphere no longer being a forum where they can speak or learn about their faith. With the rise in digital persecution globally, our policymakers must not be ignorant of the challenges that cyber poses and how it compounds human rights challenges around the world, particularly pertaining to freedom of religious belief.

Another country I would like to draw attention to is Nigeria. As I said, I was in Nigeria with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute and others. It was a chance for us to seek answers on freedom of religious belief and to highlight cases, and I want to highlight one in particular. Nigeria’s legal system arguably allows for some of the most punitive sentences in any Commonwealth member state for blasphemy allegations, if cases even reach the courts to start with.

Horrifically, in May this year, a student called Deborah Samuel was stoned to death. This young Christian girl was set on fire by a mob over an alleged blasphemous comment in a WhatsApp group. Just a few weeks later, Ahmad Usman was burned to death by a mob of 200 people after he was accused of making a blasphemous comment against a cleric. Undeniably, it is not even the misuse of blasphemy laws that leads to persecution in such cases, but the devastating hostility towards those of other religious beliefs—it is mob rule and mob violence, irrespective of the issue, with allegations mostly unproven and with no evidential base whatever. Neglectful law enforcement and a culture of impunity permit such murderous acts to prevail, and only two people have been arrested so far in connection with Deborah Samuel’s murder, despite the prevalence of social media footage depicting it.

Apparently, young Deborah Samuel’s crime was to express frustration with members of the group chat for posting religious articles and to ask them to focus on the coursework at hand. Those are very gentle words, and not confrontational or difficult in any way. Some reports indicate that Deborah Samuel had rejected the advances of a Muslim student and that he made the allegations against her in retaliation. Undeniably, in such a case, it is not even about the misuse of laws, but the devastating hostility.

There should be no place for mob rule in any country. When such unlawful behaviour emerges, it should be met with repercussions. Yet, neglectful law enforcement and a culture of impunity permit such murderous acts to prevail and let mob rule and violence take prominence. Only two people have been arrested so far in connection with Deborah Samuel’s murder, despite the prevalence of social media footage. There is an abundant evidential base depicting her brutal murder.

Worse still, the two students who were arrested were charged only with criminal conspiracy and disturbing the peace—both bailable offences—rather than facing the more fitting charge of culpable homicide, which is what it should have been and what the evidential base proves. They are receiving legal representation from a team of 34 lawyers led by a professor of law. While a fair trial is a necessity—I am always for fair trials—one cannot help but wish that such legal support was provided to those falsely accused of blasphemy and facing trial in sharia courts.

While we were in Nigeria, we were very aware of how sharia law seems on many occasions to supersede the law of the land. Although the sentence stipulated for blasphemy under Nigeria’s criminal code is two years, Nigeria’s dual legal system of customary and sharia law enables sharia courts to trump federal law and impose extreme sentences for blasphemy. Rather than two years, sharia law permits the death penalty.

The religious make-up of Nigeria is split down the middle. I understand—I hope the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute will back me up—that Christians are 50% of the population of Nigeria and Muslims are 50%. It is very much a 50:50 split, so it is important that people get on with their neighbours and embrace what they say.

The sharia law penal codes in those states, coupled with the retention of blasphemy punishments in the criminal code, have served to embolden religious extremists to take matters into their own hands and misuse blasphemy laws to serve selfish and manipulative ends. One of the highest profile cases of a recent blasphemy allegation reaching the courts in Nigeria is that of Mubarak Bala, which the hon. Gentleman will refer to. We met the Nigerian Humanist Association and had discussions with the Minister responsible, and we were quite encouraged by their response. Mubarak Bala was sentenced to 24 years in prison following accusations that he insulted the Prophet Mohammed in a Facebook post. He was penalised under sections 114 and 210 of Kano state’s penal code, which aims to implement parts of sharia legislation into the civil code and merge the penal codes of other sharia states. It is very important that the law of the land is not used detrimentally, as it has been in this case. The hon. Gentleman will refer more to that.

The fact that sharia law can take precedence over the criminal code should give cause for concern, but it has not. Hon. Members and others outside this Chamber have not realised that they need to focus on that issue. Whether we agree with the person’s views or comments, I hope we all agree that 24 years in prison for a Facebook post is disproportionate, no matter who is alleged to have been insulted.

The implementation of sharia-based blasphemy laws curtails the liberty of all in Nigeria. Everyone is subject to an interpretation of the law—not necessarily the law of the land—that stands in stark contradiction to Nigeria’s constitution, which protects freedom of religion or belief and states:

“The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.”

Well, that is what it says, but the reality is different. That concerns us greatly, and more so since our deputation to Nigeria. Sharia-based blasphemy laws are contrary to that statement and affect those of other minority religious beliefs—Christians, other small ethic minority religious groups and humanists, in particular. Reasserting a rule of law that is not sharia-based should be one of the Government’s key priorities when working with Nigeria so that freedom of religion or belief can become a reality for all. What discussions have the Minister and our Government had with the Nigerian Government on that case? Have we had an update yet?

The Nigerian people are lovely, and we were welcomed royally when we were there back in May. We found them to be incredibly helpful, and we cherish and wish to hold on to our relationship with Nigeria, but as friends we also have to highlight issues that concern us, and this is one.

I want to draw out the importance of focusing on blasphemy allegations and the misuse of blasphemy laws in Commonwealth countries. Although the scale of the abuse can in some countries be significant, our role as the UK is vital. As a friend and ally, we should encourage higher standards and greater accord with human rights, with freedom of religion or belief serving as a cornerstone human right. When such states attempt to justify their blasphemy laws by pointing to dead-letter laws in the west, they are being intellectually dishonest, as the differences in the enforcement of those laws could not be further apart.

I am glad that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018 affirmed that freedom of religion or belief is

“essential for democracy and sustainable development”,

and that our Government and the Minister adhered to that. It would be lovely if they did more than just talk about it and instead acted as though they actually believed in it. I remind the Minister that when we trade with those countries, or give them aid, we should bear in mind that commitment and that principle, which are welcome, and repeatedly focus on human rights conditions on the ground and the true equal treatment of all religions and beliefs before the law.

I am mindful of the good work that many Commonwealth states do to promote freedom of religion or belief for all, and there is no denying the leading work done by countries such as Canada, New Zealand and others with respect to blasphemy laws, as well as their encouragement of other states to implement fair law. I believe that by working together we can make freedom of religion or belief a reality. That starts with working with those countries with which we have well-established links and a reciprocal honest relationship.

I would like to share the words of the apostle Paul, which I often use on such occasions, and which are close to my beliefs. The words from Ephesians are very clear that we should act

“with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love”.

We live in a diverse and culturally vibrant world, and it is good to have that. While it brings many joys, as it does, it sometimes means that we do not always see eye to eye, but by heeding words of patience and humility, and translating those guiding principles into law, we can grow our tolerance for one another and deepen our respect for difference. That is what the debate is all about: how we can look at the blasphemy laws and focus on those words of patience and humility, and on translating those guiding principles into law. With that comes the tolerance we have for others, and others have for us.

First, I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. I know that her interest in such subjects is profound, and I am pleased to see her in her place, as I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton)—my hon. Friend, as we call each other. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for continually shining a spotlight on freedom of religion or belief, for securing the debate and for his excellent and detailed speech.

It is deeply concerning that in the 21st century the rights to freedom of religion, belief and expression are still severely limited in many Commonwealth countries, and that all too often blasphemy laws are used to silence people who hold minority views. I intend to focus on the use of death penalty policy in the Commonwealth. In doing so, I will be assisted by research and work undertaken recently by the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which I have the privilege of chairing. The alliance has grown to 42 countries, members and friends, and we will shortly issue a statement on blasphemy and related offences. Later this month, we will call for action across the world.

Research in Australia by Monash University examined 12 countries identified as having retained the death penalty as a lawful possibility for offences against religion. Apart from Nigeria and Pakistan, which are the two most concerning Commonwealth examples and on which I want to focus my remarks, those countries include Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, the Maldives, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. It is worth mentioning that of those 12 countries, 11 have established Islam as a state religion. The 12th country, Nigeria, has no state religion, but the 12 Nigerian states in which blasphemy is punishable by death operate a sharia law system in parallel with secular courts. In all 12 countries, sharia is cited as the basis on which the death penalty is prescribed for offences against religion, regardless of whether that penalty has been subsequently codified. We therefore have an issue, but it is one of policy and legislation as well as one of religion. That requires advocacy at different levels, including within Islam.

I will give a few short examples from Nigeria. Yahaya Sharif-Aminu was a Sufi Islamic gospel musician from Kano state who was accused of blasphemy for sending audio messages on WhatsApp in 2020. His house was burned down, and he was arrested and sentenced to death by hanging. His conviction was overturned, but he is still in danger of being convicted. As recently as August 2022, a court of appeal upheld the constitutionality of the blasphemy law in his case. His lawyer will soon appeal to the Supreme Court to call for the blasphemy law to be ruled unconstitutional.

There is a particularly disturbing case for me as a mother, although so many are. In 2020, 13-year-old Omar Farouq was sentenced to 10 years in prison for blasphemy after comments were made to a friend. Thankfully, his conviction was eventually overturned, although only on procedural irregularities.

As we have heard, the impact of blasphemy laws goes beyond the courtroom and into the community—dreadfully and fatally so in the case of Deborah Samuel Yakubu, a young teenage girl who was burned to death in Sokoto after an allegation of blasphemy in 2021. She had been accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed in a WhatsApp classroom discussion group, although apparently she had merely thanked Jesus for helping her in an exam. All of this is happening under the watch of the constitution of Nigeria, which prohibits the adoption of any religion as a state religion. The reality, though, is that the state endorses numerous anti-secular and theocratic policies. Islam is often regarded as the de facto state religion in nine of the northern states, where the majority of the population is Muslim. Blasphemy laws in those sharia states allow the death penalty, which has affected Christians, atheists, Shi’a Muslims, artists, converts and those expressing beliefs that local leaders find offensive.

I turn now to Pakistan, which actually ratified the international covenant on freedom of religion or belief—the international covenant on civil and political rights—in 2010. However, it is ranked No. 8 in the Open Doors 2022 world watch list, and a main source of persecution comes from the strict blasphemy laws. Even though freedom of speech is guaranteed under the Pakistani constitution, it is limited by law and considerations of national security, and also by

“the interest of the glory of Islam”.

Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws have been in place in their present form since 1986, punishing blasphemy with death or life imprisonment for

“deliberately or maliciously outraging the religious feelings of any class or the citizens of Pakistan—either spoken or written.”

Over the past 30 years, nearly 2,000 people have been accused under the blasphemy laws, yet Amnesty estimates that most examples are based on false premises and lack evidence. Although the most severe punishment of execution has not been used in Pakistan to the knowledge of the international community, it is acknowledged that the laws have been used to sentence people to death and to incite harassment and violence against those accused under the law. In a judgment released by the Pakistani Supreme Court recently, the judges noted that

“many a time false allegations are levelled to settle personal scores and cases are also registered for mischievous purposes or on account of ulterior motives.”

I will not go into too much detail about some of the more high-profile cases; suffice to say that I was deeply saddened last year to hear of the case of Shagufta and Shafqat, a couple who were on death row for seven years for sending allegedly blasphemous text messages. Eventually their sentence was overturned in June last year, when it was found that neither of them could read or write. Stephen Masih spent three years in jail after being accused of blasphemy by his neighbour during an argument over a pigeon.

Surely the cases that the hon. Lady has outlined show a failing in the police investigations. For the two people who were accused of blasphemy but could neither read nor write, why did it take so long for that to be sorted out? Surely the police investigation would have sorted it out right away.

One of the problems is that many countries sign up to international covenants and rights, including of freedom of religion or belief, in their constitutions, and yet the court systems and the police investigation systems often do not apply the principles in practice. That does need to be looked at.

The social implications of Pakistan maintaining blasphemy laws cannot be underestimated in terms of mob violence, the burning of villages and the public parading of blasphemers, which are all too common. Two politicians who have advocated against blasphemy laws have been assassinated within the last 10 years. One defendant died from a gun wound after he was shot in court, when on trial in 2020.

What can be done to better respect and protect freedom of religion or belief? One of the outcomes of our London ministerial conference on FORB in July this year—I am delighted to report that no less than 88 Governments sent delegates—is to provide funding for lawyers via an organisation called Role UK, Rule of Law Expertise, to work in countries such as Nigeria to support law reform. That is exactly the kind of issue that the hon. Member for Strangford referred to.

We need to use the respect and expertise of UK lawyers in the Commonwealth to modify or repeal blasphemy, defamation of religion and other speech laws that allow for the persecution of individuals. Frequent concerns that have been expressed, such as the vague wording of such laws, lack of due process and arbitrary enforcement, need to be addressed. I am pleased to confirm that one of the “next steps” set of actions, which is being led by the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance with the aid of our experts, is to look at how legal systems can be strengthened to better reflect FORB in practice. UK Ministers should use every opportunity, including on in-country visits, to raise FORB concerns with their counterparts, including those raised in the debate today. What assurance can the Minister give me on that?

We should appeal to countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan to enact strong safeguards to ensure that individuals who take sharia blasphemy laws into their own hands are punished under law. This is a human rights issue. Sunni schools agree that only the ruler of a state should sentence people to death and that vigilantism on the basis of alleged apostasy should be punished, meaning no individual Muslim without state authority could execute an apostate. That is of relevance to Pakistan, where there is widespread violence at community level. There is a need for careful advocacy, supporting the position of many contemporary Islamic scholars, as articulated by the retired chief justice of Pakistan, S.A. Rahman:

“The position that emerges, after a survey of the relevant verses of the Qur’an, may be summed up by saying that not only is there no punishment for apostasy provided in the Book, but that the Word of God clearly envisages the natural death of the apostate…He will be punished only in the Hereafter.”

We need to urge Commonwealth countries to uphold and fiercely protect the rights of individuals to a fair trial and to ensure due process. Often the emotion of a crowd of accusers has expedited trials to the detriment of a court firmly establishing the facts. Again, careful advocacy locally led with the support of international non-governmental organisations can make an impact. We should thank organisations such as ADF, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Doors, CAN and Amnesty for their tireless advocacy. We should join with these NGOs in calling for the release of individuals facing the death penalty, and with the report of the UN Secretary-General on the 13 August 2020 in calling for a moratorium on the application of the death penalty for non-violent conduct such as apostasy and blasphemy, in line with the agreement of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which so many countries have signed up to, including Nigeria and Pakistan. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I thank Mr Shannon and Mrs Bruce for their contributions. We now go to the Front Benches. I call Mr Brendan O’Hara.

Thank you, Sir Charles. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this morning’s debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing it. I agree with him that it will come as a surprise to many people in the UK that 79 countries across the world still have blasphemy laws on their statute books, and that 26 of those are members of the Commonwealth; that is almost half of the membership. As we have heard, where blasphemy laws are in place, they are all too often used to target religious or non-religious minority groups. They are also commonly used to discriminate against ethnic minorities, to facilitate land seizures, or as a convenient way to settle personal disputes. Blasphemy laws are also often used as an excuse to legitimise extrajudicial violence, particularly when someone accused of blasphemy is acquitted through the courts or the police choose not to file charges. In those cases, blasphemy laws have given a cloak of legitimacy to the mob, which has used them as a green light or a call to arms to take matters into its own hands when it feels the judicial process is not delivering the answer it wants.

We have seen far too many cases of mob violence against individuals or minority communities, including, as we have heard from the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Strangford, the case of young Deborah Samuel in Sokoto in Nigeria in May. Because of comments she made on a student WhatsApp group, Deborah was declared a blasphemer. She was brutally beaten and stoned before being burned in a pile of tyres, while others recorded the whole sickening event on their mobile phones. Despite that evidence going viral around the world, only two students have been arrested for Deborah’s death, and they have been charged not with murder but with criminal conspiracy and disturbing the peace. It is an indication of the degree of support they enjoy that, following their arrest, the mob turned out again to demand their release from custody. Sadly, history tells us not to expect too much in the way of justice for Deborah, because the culture of impunity that usually accompanies such crimes will likely mean that the perpetrators of this awful murder face few or no consequences for their actions.

As the hon. Member for Strangford said, two weeks after Deborah’s murder we were in Nigeria. We spoke to religious groups, secular groups, charities, non-governmental organisations and regional and federal Government. Nigeria is a deeply religious country that, in numerical terms, is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims, but there are also those who follow traditional African religions and those who have no religious faith—humanists. In a country so divided along religious lines, Nigeria’s humanists need someone to defend their corner, particularly after the jailing of Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, who was imprisoned for 24 years for blasphemy on his Facebook page. It is a remarkable and totally unjustifiable punishment for something that most of us would not even recognise as a crime or offence. Some of our delegation spent time with Mubarak’s wife and young child while we were in Abuja, and we promised them we would raise Mubarak’s case and the length of his sentence at every opportunity in this place. I would appreciate it if the Minister updated us with the latest from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and told us what it is doing to help secure the release of Mubarak Bala.

As we have heard from the hon. Members for Congleton and for Strangford, Nigeria is not the only senior member of the Commonwealth where blasphemy laws are being used, or where even the accusation of blasphemy can be fatal; the picture is similarly bleak in Pakistan. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Congleton raised the case of the American citizen Tahir Naseem, who in 2020 was shot dead inside a courtroom while standing trial for blasphemy. Tahir was from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the only religious community to be explicitly targeted by Pakistan’s laws on the grounds of its faith. Over the years, its members have been relentlessly harassed, denied their civil rights, murdered and officially declared non-Muslim. The murder of Tahir brought thousands out on to the street, not in protest but in support of his murderer, a teenager who had somehow managed to get a loaded gun through three separate security checks before shooting Tahir multiple times. Tahir was a US citizen, and the State Department was unequivocal in its condemnation, saying that he

“had been lured to Pakistan from his home in Illinois by individuals who then used Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to entrap him.”

As we have heard, arguably the most high profile case in recent years has been that of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who in 2010 was arrested and given a death sentence following a dispute with her neighbour who claimed that she had insulted the Prophet. It took eight years for the Supreme Court to acquit her because of lack of evidence, but even then her family were forced into hiding, and a cleric put a bounty of half a million rupees on her head for anyone who would kill her. The Asia Bibi case shone a light on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, but rather than opening up the debate on their use and purpose, those who dared to question their very existence were themselves deemed guilty of blasphemy, and Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, and the country’s religious Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, were both murdered after calling for blasphemy law reform in 2011.

The stark reality is that, as Omar Waraich, head of south Asia at Amnesty International, pointed out, in blasphemy cases in Pakistan

“an accusation becomes a death sentence, whether carried out by the state or by mobs of vigilantes.”

The hon. Member for Strangford was therefore absolutely right to question how the continued existence and widespread use of blasphemy laws in so many Commonwealth countries can sit in an organisation whose own core values and principles say that it is there to support

“tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom”.

That blasphemy laws still exist in almost half the countries of the Commonwealth is of huge concern, but the manner in which they are being used as a tool of repression is deeply alarming, whether that is through the courts or the unofficial green light to the mob.

One of the problems, which the hon. Gentleman clearly referred to, is the fact that lawyers and even judges are often frightened to accept blasphemy cases. At the highest level of the law of the land, people are afraid. Does he agree?

There is ample evidence that lawyers and judges are intimidated by the rule of the mob. We have to be part of addressing that to find a solution. I have great sympathy for the argument that we should press for immediate abolition, but the reality on the ground is much more complex and nuanced. Like so much across the Commonwealth, blasphemy legislation is a direct product of British colonialism, because we put much of the blasphemy legislation in place many years ago. The legal precedent for blasphemy laws originated here. At the time it was thought convenient to put a range of other legislation in there, too, meaning that all too often blasphemy covers much more than what we would consider to be blaspheming. Rather than reaching for the wrecking ball, perhaps we have to use diplomacy, international law and solidarity with these persecuted people to bring about positive change. That should start with the Minister calling on all Commonwealth countries who currently have people imprisoned for blasphemy to release them immediately, starting with Mubarak Bala.

The UK must play its part in offering asylum to the people, and their families, who have been accused of blasphemy and who are at grave risk of extrajudicial violence. The UK should encourage countries as they move to repeal, and we must ensure that they start to decouple all offences that are not blasphemous but that have historically been covered by blasphemy legislation. The UK should condemn unreservedly any legal system in which individuals can be accused, arrested, convicted or demonised on little or no evidence where it is clear that a personal vendetta is a motivating factor. As we work towards the eventual abandonment of all blasphemy legislation across the Commonwealth, the UK has to insist that, as an absolute minimum, no one can be convicted of blasphemy unless there is intent to cause offence, or insult can be proven, because right now people are being convicted of so-called crimes that they were totally unaware they had even committed.

The widespread use of blasphemy laws and the awful human cost that that brings with it can have no place in an organisation that claims to have the promotion of

“tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom”

as its core values. While I share the desire to see these laws abolished immediately, given the complexity of the situation, getting rid of them can be best achieved by supporting, pressuring, cajoling, incentivising and calling out regimes that use blasphemy laws in this way.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles, in the first debate after the conference recess. I thank my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for securing this debate. His work on the issue is hugely appreciated by Members from all parts of the House. I also thank my friend, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is a known champion for freedom of religion and belief. I am glad that the conference that she and many others organised earlier this year was such a great success, with 88 Governments sending representatives. That is a tribute to her work and that of the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman opened the debate by saying that Commonwealth countries are some of the worst offenders when it comes to blasphemy laws, and that a higher proportion of them impose the death penalty for blasphemy. That should be a source of some shame to the Commonwealth. He mentioned exceptions, and I am glad that he pointed out St Lucia, which is a Caribbean island with blasphemy laws that are not enforced. Why does it need them in the first place? That is the question we should be asking.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the central issue is the misuse and abuse of these laws, rather than the laws themselves. That was a very important point. He told us that it had been demonstrated clearly that blasphemy laws were being wrongly applied, for example in Pakistan, where they have often been weaponised. Every speaker today has given examples of that.

The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), rightly said that the blanket repeal of those laws may well have unintended consequences, such as the vandalism of minority places of worship. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, blasphemy laws can be and have been used to try to drive out religious minorities, and should not be used as an excuse for ditching the rule of law and ruling by mob. He concluded with something that I thought rang true for all of us, and with his permission, it is a phrase that I will quote again and again. He said that we need to “deepen our respect for difference” and that, eventually, eradicating blasphemy laws will be part of that. That is a great phrase.

We heard that the hon. Member for Congleton is worried that rights to freedom of religion and belief are still curtailed by blasphemy laws in many Commonwealth countries. There are 12 countries that still retain the death penalty for blasphemy. She mentioned Nigeria in particular, as every speaker in this debate has done. Nine states there use sharia law, which seems to invalidate the constitution and the rights it confers on citizens. She quoted many appalling examples of the abuse of blasphemy laws in Nigeria. They are contrary to the constitution of the country, which prohibits a state religion.

Freedom of religion or belief includes the fundamental right to be a non-believer. It is vital that those freedoms are protected everywhere, and that the United Kingdom uses its position to put diplomatic pressure on countries that retain such oppressive blasphemy laws. As we have heard, 79 countries in the world have laws banning blasphemy, and 26 of those are Commonwealth states; that is 46% of the 56 Commonwealth members. New Zealand and Malta repealed their blasphemy laws, but only in the last six years, which is surprising.

The main countries enforcing blasphemy laws are Bangladesh, Brunei, Nigeria and Pakistan. In countries such as Pakistan, authorities use such laws to target religious minorities and Muslim sects that are not officially respected or tolerated. Even when blasphemy laws are enforced weakly, if at all, they none the less

“in both theory and practice, harm individuals and societies”,

according to the US State Department in 2017. They are wrong in principle, and they are open to abuse. The enforcement of blasphemy laws varies significantly between countries, but the fact that they are still on the books in so many places should be a cause for concern for all of us in this House.

Let me quote article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. I am sure we all know it, but it is helpful to reinforce it and remember what it says:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Although it is important to oppose the restriction of the freedom of expression everywhere, the UK must focus its diplomatic pressure on those Commonwealth member states that allow violence against religious minorities and atheists on the grounds of blasphemy. One example that many speakers mentioned is Pakistan, which often punishes blasphemy by death. As we know, its blasphemy laws mainly target the country’s Ahmadiyya Muslim and Christian communities, but the extrajudicial killings of those who are deemed blasphemous are particularly worrying. Far more must be done to tone down the rhetoric and ensure that any accusations are treated sensibly and in accordance with the law, as we would expect in any free society that follows the rule of law.

Let us remind ourselves of what the US State Department said in 2018:

“Among the range of universal, interdependent human rights, the freedom to follow one’s conscience in matters of religion or belief is essential to human dignity and human flourishing”.

As we have heard, many incidents illustrate the kind of extrajudicial violence that those accused of blasphemy often face. I shall remind hon. Members again of Tahir Naseem, who was shot dead in court in 2020 after being accused of blasphemy. As the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, said, in 2011 the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and the country’s religious minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, were also killed after calling for reform of the blasphemy law. They were only calling for reform, and yet they were murdered.

As we heard, another recent case of the disturbing use of blasphemy laws is that of Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria. As the SNP spokesperson said, Mr Bala was sentenced to 24 years in prison in connection with a number of social media posts, some of which were deemed blasphemous. I am delighted to hear that, as part of the delegation that went to Nigeria, the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute and for Strangford met the family and promised to do all they could to see the sentenced cancelled. Before being sentenced, Mr Bala had been held without charge for 462 days, and he was denied access to a legal team and medical care for five months. That is completely unacceptable. It does not matter what the allegation is: it is unacceptable to treat anybody who has been accused in that way.

Blasphemy laws are not just an issue for other Commonwealth countries; they have a direct impact here in the United Kingdom. The use of violence legitimised by the accusation of blasphemy contributed to the murder of Asad Shah, an Ahmadiyya Muslim, in Glasgow in 2016—a case that shocked all of us. I remember hearing the news and being lobbied by the Ahmadiyya community in my own constituency. The killer said that his reason was that Shah had made blasphemous statements. It is also in our country’s interest to do everything that we can to bring these repressive laws to an end in all Commonwealth countries. Will the Minister therefore tell us what discussions she has had with our Commonwealth partners on the use of blasphemy laws, and whether she has taken any diplomatic steps to urge those countries to remove them? Will she also tell us the Government’s view on the use—sometimes described as “misuse”—of blasphemy laws, and will she review the Government’s position on that term?

We live in a completely globalised world, and we should protect the rights of all who choose to have faith or not. The diversity of our Commonwealth friends and allies is what makes our partnership thrive. It is vital that the UK does all it can to urge countries still employing blasphemy laws to begin to drop them and finally to eradicate them.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Morocco as an officer of the all-party parliamentary group and in my role as shadow Minister for peace and disarmament. Morocco is a very interesting country, although I know it is not in the Commonwealth. My late father lived in Tangier as a child, and my late uncle—who was Jewish as well—was the mayor of Tangier in the 1940s, during the second world war. Morocco is a country that tolerates freedom of religion and belief and has demonstrated that very clearly. Indeed, we visited St Andrew’s church in Tangier, which was given by the sultan in the late 1880s to Queen Victoria. It is a magnificent church, decorated in the Islamic style, with contributions made by the local mosque and synagogue. It was a great feeling being there.

We also had the privilege of meeting an organisation called the Rabita Mohammadia of the Ulemas. The name did not mean much to me, but, literally translated, it means “the league of scholars”—the league of Islamic scholars, of course. It was reconstituted, having lain dormant for many years, by the current monarch, King Mohammed VI. I do not think I have ever heard an Islamic scholar speak as clearly and openly about what Islam means, not just to him and all the worshippers and adherents throughout the world, but for Christianity and Judaism. Indeed, he mentioned Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism as well. It actually means freedom for all those who believe in the human spirit and in faith in God or someone above and beyond their own selves.

This man that we met in the most extraordinary premises in Rabat was a really serious scholar, who talked in philosophical terms that I do not think I have ever had the privilege to hear. I wanted to share that with Members today, because sometimes we believe that it is only Islam that is so extreme. To hear scholars like that in a country where the King has a really important place in the ummah of Islam worldwide gives one faith again in goodness and humanity, that the human spirit will conquer all in the end, and that we will be able to achieve the freedom of religious belief that we all aspire to.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I join others in expressing how grateful I am to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate and for all he does with the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I thank all hon. Members for their insightful contributions. I will try to cover a number of the points they raised.

Let me begin by underlining the Government’s deep concern that the use of blasphemy laws undermines the right to freedom of religion or belief, the right to freedom of expression, and often the right to gender equality as well. My remarks today will cover the broad spectrum of the UK’s work on freedom of religion or belief, of which our work to tackle the misuse of blasphemy laws is an important part.

Freedom of religion or belief is the right of every person to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and the freedom to change if they choose. It is the very foundation of a free and open society. People should not live in fear of persecution for what they hold in their hearts or how they choose to express it. For these reasons, the UK Government remain committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all. Promoting these rights is one of the UK’s long-standing human rights priorities.

The use of blasphemy laws that undermine human rights, including freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, is deeply concerning. The laws generally limit freedom of expression and are compatible with international human rights law in only very narrow circumstances. The Government regularly apply diplomatic pressure on countries that misuse blasphemy laws, often through private lobbying as that can be the most effective way to resolve a sensitive case or bring about longer-term change.

Hon. Members have drawn particular attention to the Commonwealth. We are proud to be part of the Commonwealth alliance, which is united behind the shared values of sovereignty, democracy and human rights. In June this year, member states reiterated those values at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali, where they

“noted that freedom of religion or belief are cornerstones of democratic societies.”

However, despite the agreed values, there remain counties where a person may be imprisoned, fined or even sentenced to death for leaving a religion or expressing a dissenting opinion about a religion.

As a matter of principle, this Government oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. Our position is well known to Commonwealth members, including Brunei, Malaysia, Maldives, Nigeria and Pakistan. We do not shy away from challenging those who we believe are not meeting their obligations, whether publicly or, when we believe it is most effective, in private.

Hon. Members spoke about Pakistan and Nigeria, so I will turn to those two countries. In Pakistan, we strongly oppose the use of blasphemy laws against both Muslims and non-Muslims. In June, Lord Ahmad impressed upon Pakistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs the need to uphold freedom of religion or belief. The British high commissioner regularly lobbies the Pakistani authorities to guarantee the rights of all people, particularly the most vulnerable, including women, minorities and children. We strongly condemn forced marriage and forced conversion of Hindu, Christian and Sikh women and girls, which is an important part of our engagement with the Government. Forcing women and girls into marriage is a serious abuse of women’s rights that often robs them of the right to choose their own future.

A number of hon. Members mentioned the Ahmadiyya Muslims. We remain very concerned about the reports of discrimination and violence against religious communities in Pakistan, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. We continue to urge the Government of Pakistan, at senior levels, to guarantee the fundamental rights of their citizens, regardless of their belief. Some individual cases have been mentioned, particularly that of Tahir Naseem. We strongly condemn the shocking murder of Mr Naseem while he was on trial for blasphemy in 2020, and we are very clear that the perpetrators of such crimes must be brought to justice.

In Nigeria, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression is enshrined in the constitution, but blasphemy is still a punishable offence under both secular and sharia law. The murder of Deborah Samuel in Sokoto state in May, following an allegation of blasphemy, was a barbaric and heinous act. I expressed my condemnation in public at the time and urged the relevant authorities to ensure that the perpetrators faced justice in line with the law. I again condemn that attack today and again urge that the perpetrators face justice. Hon. Members may be interested to know that when the Sultan of Sokoto came here to the ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief in July, he pointed to good inter-faith relations in Sokoto between Muslims and Christians, but he also underlined the point that the action was criminal and has no religious legitimacy.

I thank the Minister for her strong response on blasphemy laws, which I expected. In relation to wee Deborah Samuel, there is a strong evidential base—it is available in some media, and many people have it. Has it been reinforced to the Nigerian Government that that evidential base, which we believe to be emphatic, could be used to try people not just for some minor crimes, but for murder?

The hon. Member makes a strong point. As I said just now, the sultan of the area condemned that act as criminal. We condemn all violence against civilians in Nigeria. Christians have been victims of violence, but civilians of all faiths—including many Muslims—have also suffered devastating harm at the hands of extremist groups.

Mubarak Bala was, as Members have mentioned, arrested in 2020 for alleged blasphemy and has been sentenced to 24 years in prison. I have raised this case personally with the Nigerian Foreign Minister, to whom I have stressed that defending freedom of religion or belief—including non-belief—is a human rights priority. We are following Mr Bala’s case closely, and last week officials from our high commission in Abuja again raised his case with the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria.

I know that hon. Members have a keen interest in our broader work on such issues, so I will highlight three pieces of work. First, we are collaborating with and influencing international partners because we know that we cannot bring positive change alone. In March last year, we joined Australia and 50 other countries in a statement condemning the existence of the death penalty as a punishment for blasphemy. In July this year, we hosted the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief here in London. I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for the huge amount of work she did for that conference, which brought together more than 100 faith and belief leaders and human rights actors, and, I believe, delegations from 100 different Governments, including from around the Commonwealth. The sessions provided opportunities for participants to delve into the challenges created by blasphemy laws and their impact on freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.

Secondly, we are actively working with multilateral organisations such as the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which is chaired very ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton.

Thirdly, we are working with the G7 and the United Nations to ensure that states uphold their human rights obligations. Just over a fortnight ago, for example, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad spoke at the United Nations urging the international community to call out Iran for systematically targeting members of minority communities, to press Afghanistan to protect minorities who are targeted for their beliefs, to challenge the discriminatory provisions in Myanmar’s citizenship laws, and to hold China to account for its egregious human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Finally, we are working hard to bring diplomacy and development together on these issues. During the international ministerial conference, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad announced that the UK will extend the hand of partnership to countries that are prepared to take action on their freedom of religion or belief challenges, including by helping with funding or expertise to implement legislative changes. A number of Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford, mentioned the need to make legislative changes in some areas. We are also working with Advocates for International Development, a UK-based non-governmental organisation, to match experts from across the UK with requests from willing Governments about implementing changes in blasphemy laws and access to justice, gender equality, health and education.

This is a complex area, but change is needed. The Government have a firm belief that no one should suffer because of what they believe or how they express their beliefs.

Before the Minister sits down, will she say a few words about what the Government have done to advocate on Mubarak Bala’s behalf directly with the Nigerian Government? When is the last time the Government spoke to the Nigerians about Mubarak?

As I said, I have raised the case directly with the Nigerian Foreign Minister, and officials from our high commission in Abuja again raised it with the National Human Rights Commission last week. We will continue to raise it, and I will certainly let the Foreign Minister know that the case of Mubarak Bala has been raised by Members of all parties. I thank them for their support on this journey.

Thank you, Sir Charles. You are always very generous.

I thank everyone for taking part. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) not just for participating in the debate but for all she does as special envoy. She mentioned the conference at which 88 countries were represented—that tells us a lot about reaching out and grasping the importance of this. She referred to many cases in Nigeria and Pakistan, where it is not going according to plan and blasphemy laws have been used in a very adversarial manner.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) is a dear friend of mine and we speak on these issues all the time. He underlined how blasphemy laws are used to target and discriminate against ethnic minority and religious groups. It is clear that an accusation can become a death sentence.

The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) is always here when we have these debates—I am alongside him and he is alongside me. I thank him for his participation, and in particular for the quotation at the end of his speech. That was quite wonderful. That is where we all want to be through this debate—we want a better understanding and respect for each other. That is the way it should be.

I especially thank the Minister. It is genuinely always a pleasure to see her in her place. We had a very positive response from her on the engagement that she and the Government have with Commonwealth countries. We want not just words expressed but actions in place. I very much welcome the commitment to ensuring that the murderers of Deborah Samuel are held to account, and the Minister has had clear engagement with the Nigerian Government. I am pleased to see that the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which the hon. Member for Congleton chairs, and the G7 and the UN uphold their human rights obligations, and Lord Ahmad’s work is tremendous.

I thank everyone for their participation—particularly everyone who made constructive recommendations. We hope through this debate to make a positive movement forward. There are those across the world who have no one to speak for them. We in this House today have been that voice for the voiceless, who must have someone to respond to them. Today, this House has done just that.

It has been a privilege to chair such a well-informed debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered blasphemy laws and allegations in Commonwealth Countries.

Sitting suspended.

Child Murders: Sentencing

I beg to move,

That this House has considered sentencing for people convicted of murdering a child.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. The subject of this debate is a difficult one—a dark one. It is a subject that no one would rush to talk about, but I hope that I speak today for the families of children who have been murdered, and for future victims and their families, in calling for changes to our justice system, so that it actually delivers justice.

In my view, along with protecting the public, delivering justice should be the absolute focus of our justice system. Yes, of course we should seek to divert people from offending, particularly those guilty of less serious crimes, but delivering justice is in and of itself a moral good.

Child murder is one of the most horrific crimes and it must create unimaginable pain for the families who are left behind. I do not have children, but I am lucky enough to have a niece and a nephew, and they are the most precious members of my whole family. Millions of families across the whole country would join me in saying that protecting their children—keeping them safe—is the most important thing in the world, which we would give up anything, or do anything, to achieve.

It is fair to say that the pain that must come when someone destroys a family by breaking through that wall of protection is something that people never really get over. Just imagine how you would feel if it happened to your family. Along with the loss of innocent life, there is the loss of a future, not just for the child but for their family. The imagined achievements: watching them grow and go on to live their own life, and their own family—all of that is gone; in fact, it is stolen. That haunts people forever.

One such person is Elsie Urry. David McGreavy killed Elsie Urry’s children—Paul Ralph, who was four, Dawn, who was two, and nine-month-old Samantha—in 1973, at their Worcester home. Forgive the graphic nature of the details that I am about to give, but they need to be given—McGreavy strangled Paul Ralph, cut Dawn’s throat and fractured Samantha’s skull. The bodies of all three children were left on railings.

Campaigning on this issue has given me the privilege of speaking to Elsie and learning how what happened has affected her. I spoke to her again yesterday, ahead of this debate, and she explained that she feels that she has been left with a lifelong sentence herself. It should come as no surprise that she was horrified that McGreavy was released from prison in 2019. She said that at the time he was sentenced she was left with the impression that he would never get out of prison and that was the sole source of comfort for her.

It is likely to be the view of the overwhelming majority of the public that if someone brutally murders a child, they should spend the rest of their life in prison. There is sometimes a narrative that forgiveness and moving on are the answer. I welcome that narrative for people who feel that way, and I hope it gives them peace. However, I —and I think many other people—would get more solace from justice being done.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. As he rightly suggests, a child’s murder hurts every one of us in our heart and we feel for their parent. As a dad of three and a grandfather of six, I understand exactly what he means.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 states that the only murder charge against a child that warrants life imprisonment is the murder of a child following abduction, or a murder involving sexual or sadistic motivation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there needs to be greater emphasis on life imprisonment for child murders that take place within the household and that abduction, while a contributing factor, should not be the only reason for life imprisonment? Any child murderer should be in jail; that should be the only criterion. When the Minister responds to this debate, she should say very clearly that we need to have that in law, because that is what every parent wants—indeed, every non-parent also wants it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I wholeheartedly agree with him; indeed, I will go on to explain how we have made a tiny step in that direction but are still falling far short of what he says should happen.

I return to the issue of how people feel when they or their family have been a victim of serious crime. After the murder of Sarah Everard—who, of course, was not a child at the time she was murdered, but obviously never stopped being a child to her loving parents—her family released the following statement:

“We are very pleased that Wayne Couzens has received a full life sentence and will spend the rest of his life in jail. Nothing can make things better, nothing can bring Sarah back, but knowing he will be imprisoned forever brings some relief.”

That is exactly how I would feel if any member of my family were murdered, not least if it was my niece or nephew. However, what is known as a whole-life order, rather than just a life sentence, is extremely rare in our justice system, whether the victim is a child or otherwise. Such a sentence was given to Couzens because the judge said that his use of his status as a police officer was of extreme seriousness.

Across our entire prison population, only around 60 people who are currently in custody are there for the rest of their life, under a whole-life order. That is the suggested sentence when someone is convicted of the murder of two or more persons involving a substantial degree of premeditation, abduction of the victims, or sexual or sadistic conduct; the murder of a child that involves the abduction of a child, or sexual or sadistic motivation, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned; the murder of a police or prison officer; a murder carried out for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause; or when there is a murder by an offender previously convicted of murder. I cannot know, but I suspect that Sarah’s family would have felt exactly the same about wanting to see her killer spend the rest of his life in prison regardless of whether or not he was a police officer and was viewed by the judge as meeting that threshold.

We frequently hear that a murderer has received a life sentence. That is often reported as their being “jailed for life”, but that is not what actually happens; in my view, that term is misleading. As I have said, to support the public understanding and media reporting of sentencing, we need to think about calling those sentences something other than a life sentence, because in reality, a life sentence means that someone is subject to recall to prison for life—that in theory, they could be in prison for life if they are never thought to be safe for release. The minimum term is actually the guaranteed sentence: in reality, people given a life sentence for murder serve an average of just 16 and a half years, which is very far from anyone’s definition of “life”. The idea that being on parole for life is in any way equivalent to being in prison is insulting to victims and their families.

During the time I have been campaigning on tougher sentencing, I have picked up on what I will describe as an intellectual snobbery towards people who think that longer sentences serve justice—that it is small-minded thinking; that to think it, a person must somehow be unable to realise the moral and intellectual heights that can be reached through forgiveness; that it is obviously the wrong approach because it does not allow for rehabilitation, as if by default, no matter the crime, victims and their families should care more about that than they do about justice. That is misguided thinking. A society in which people who follow the law see those who do not punished is a noble and valid society. Making sure that victims of crime experience life with some relief, no matter how small, should be our priority.

Those listening to my speech might be wondering what the point of today’s debate is. They might be aware that the point I am making—that child murderers should spend the rest of their lives in prison—is a deserving call that has already been responded to by the Government. The recently passed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 brought in a whole-life tariff for the offence of child murder, removing the requirement for child abduction or sexual or sadistic motivation. That measure should have been what would save people like Elsie from experiencing the heartache she has suffered watching her children’s murderer walk free.

However, I am afraid that as welcome as that measure is, looking at the detail of it makes clear that it falls far short and will rarely do so, because it can be used only when a murder involves significant premeditation. That is why I have called for today’s debate: I am deeply unhappy that that decision undermines what would otherwise be a positive step forward in ensuring justice for victims and their families. Worse than not addressing an issue is giving the impression that we have done so, when in fact we have not. I am entirely unclear why the decision was taken to restrict the measure in that way. I would be grateful if in her response, the Minister would explain the Government’s thinking, because it only takes a casual observer to realise that that restriction is going to leave the public wondering whether in reality we have done what we pledged in our manifesto to do.

Elsie tells me that her recollection of the case is that the murder of her children was a spontaneous act, without premeditation. More recently, I am sure the Minister and others will remember the horrific murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes at the hands of Emma Tustin, tragically with the help of Arthur’s father, Thomas Hughes. Arthur suffered 130 injuries in the lead-up to his death at the age of six. He was poisoned with salt, emaciated, and forced to sleep on a hard floor and stand all day in a hallway. The amount of violence used on him produced forces on his body equivalent to a high-speed road traffic collision. Tustin was convicted of murdering Arthur in December last year, and was given a life sentence with a minimum term of 29 years, before our measure kicked in. Every person I have spoken to and everyone who contacted me about the case wanted to see her locked up for the rest of her life. However, in his sentencing remarks, the judge was clear: there was no premeditation in the case.

With respect, Sir Charles, the sentence is set, or resolved. It is a closed matter, so I think I can talk about it as a historical case.

I am sorry, but according to the Clerk, you cannot talk about sentencing. You can talk about the details of the case, Dr Mullan, but not the sentencing.

Okay—I had finished anyway. We know that if that crime were to be repeated tomorrow, the new measure we have passed would not apply, despite it being exactly the type of cruel, callous murder that the public would expect to be impacted.

Significant premeditation, not just premeditation, is a very high burden to reach. I have reviewed some recent cases where, in sentencing remarks, premeditation was raised. Mohamed Jama was found guilty of murder with an element of premeditation because he armed himself with a knife and actively sought out his victim as part of a plot to avenge the robbery of his brother. Jason Cooper was found guilty of murder with an element of premeditation because he killed his former partner after telling people he would do exactly that, encountering her at a pub and returning home to get a knife with which to attack her. Thomas Dunkley was found guilty of murder with an element of premeditation because he was found to have searched, before the murder took place, for terms such as:

“What is the fastest way for a human to bleed to death?”


“How long does it take to bleed to death from a stab wound?”,

alongside looking at things he could buy with the money he stole from the deceased. I hope those examples make clear what a significant hurdle premeditation is, let alone significant premeditation.

Did Parliament, when passing the legislation, really mean to rule out cases such as Arthur’s? Did it mean that unless a murderer has a very clear plan to kill a child, we should be content to see them walk from prison? I am not content with that, and I do not believe that, had it been considered more closely, Parliament would be satisfied with it. Will the Minister say whether the Government remain happy with that position?

I became aware of the issue as the Bill that became the Act passed through the House, and I raised it with Ministers, although I recognised that such a complex Bill, to which much had been added, was not suited to yet further amendments. However, I am determined that we should fix the issue now. Quite rightly, the public will ask us to explain ourselves when—heaven forbid that it should happen, but sadly it is likely—another poor child is murdered and justice, as most of us would see it, does not prevail.

A cynic might conclude that an established view of the extremely high thresholds for the use of whole-life tariffs meant that, in reality, the caveat was introduced to continue the extreme restriction of its use while apparently satisfying a ministerial policy intention. I would not suggest that, of course, but others might. The impact assessment states that the Government estimated that, on average, some 10 adults per year commit the murder of a child. I am not clear whether that figure, or the policy development linked to it, took the caveat into account. It certainly does not seem to, and there is no mention of it in the impact assessment. If it seems that the Department was satisfied with the policy without the need for the “significant premeditation” caveat, it should not be such a burden to get it removed at the necessary legislative opportunity. Otherwise, we will have to answer difficult questions when the next case arises and angers public sentiment in a similar way.

The issue reflects, for me, a need for a wholesale recalibration of our sentencing through the courts and the guidelines we set. What length of time in prison represents justice for different crimes is entirely subjective; no one can give a right or wrong answer. However, I believe the justice system is there to serve the public and our sense of what merits justice. That is the grand bargain that we make when we say we will follow the rule of law and not take matters into our own hands. Of course, the white heat of pure anger and vengeance should not be our guide or starting point, but reasonable, moral, decent people feel continually let down by what we offer them as justice when they and their families are victims.

The Government can be proud of their overall record, in many ways, such as increasing Labour’s appalling halfway early release to two thirds for serious offenders. Again, I think most people would want that for all offenders, but it was progress none the less. We also introduced GPS tagging for some repeat offenders and brought in tougher sentencing options for child cruelty and dangerous driving. However, acting properly on child murder would have been a step forward that I thought was long overdue and welcome; my support for it was as strong, sadly, as my disappointment in how we ended up doing it.

We can and must do better. That is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do for past victims and their families, to honour and recognise their suffering, and so that, when children are murdered, we can at the very least ensure that they and their families get justice.

I very sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) for securing the debate—our first of the parliamentary term—and it is a real pleasure to be here to answer him and to see my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his accustomed place. As a former special constable, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich is well placed to campaign and speak out on these issues, based on his personal experience as well as his experience as an excellent constituency MP. He represents his constituents extremely well.

I commend my hon. Friend for his work to stand up for victims, to bring such issues to the attention of parliamentarians and to campaign for tougher sentences. I completely agree that sentencing fitting the crime is vital for public confidence in the justice system. I know that, as an active and engaged member of the Justice Committee, he will have a lot to say on that in the future. I very much look forward to working with him as well.

All murders are terrible acts, but those where the victim is a child are particularly so. The murder of those most vulnerable in our society causes extreme grief and devastation for loved ones left behind. As a parent, it is devastating to listen to the cases set out by my hon. Friend. I know society feels it is necessary to ensure that those responsible for those terrible crimes are properly punished.

It may be helpful if I set out how the sentencing framework in England and Wales responds to the murder of children. Sir Charles, I hope I can abide by your guidance but would welcome your intervention if I fail to do so. I will start by saying that all murder convictions must result in a life sentence. When that life sentence is imposed, the court must determine the minimum period to be served in custody for the purposes of punishment and deterrence. Only when that period has been served in full may the offender be considered for release by the Parole Board. The board will release a prisoner only if it satisfied that it is safe to do so—I will come later to how we have toughened up the Parole Board. The judge will calculate the minimum term by selecting the appropriate starting point as set out in legislation, namely schedule 21 of the Sentencing Act 2020.

When sentencing adult offenders, the starting points are 15, 25 or 30 years or a whole-life order. Whole life orders are the most severe penalty available in our justice system and someone sentenced to one will spend the rest of their life in prison without the prospect of release. Judges must then consider relevant aggravating and mitigating factors and adjust the minimum term accordingly.

Of course, offenders serving a life sentence may remain in prison beyond the minimum term set by the court, and some may never be released if the Parole Board does not think it is safe to do so. If and when the offender is released, he or she will remain on licence for the rest of their life and will be subject to recall to prison at any time if they breach the conditions of their life sentence. A life sentence, therefore, remains in force for the whole of the offender’s life and it is an indeterminate sentence under which the offender could spend their life in prison.

Coming on to sentencing for the murder of children, which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich spoke about, the framework rightly regards the murder of children as particularly serious. Schedule 21 sets out a number of circumstances where a whole-life order is the starting point when considering what minimum term should be imposed by the court. The legislation provides that the murder of a child should have such a starting point if it involves sexual or sadistic motivation, or the abduction of the child.

My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that the PCSC Act strengthens schedule 21 by expanding the range of circumstances in which a whole-life order is a starting point when the court is determining how long an offender convicted of murder should spend in prison. That means that the premeditated murder of a child now has a whole-life order as its staring point. Some instances of child murder might also fall within the other circumstances that apply to victims of all ages where a whole-life order is a starting point, for example, terrorist murders or murder committed by someone already convicted of murder.

Judges still have discretion to depart from those points and to impose a life sentence with a minimum term if they consider that to be the most appropriate sentence, having considered all the circumstances. However, it is right that they must first consider a whole-life order when making that decision. Alternatively, it is possible for the court to regard any offending as exceptionally serious and to impose a whole-life order in a case in which the circumstances are not listed as those where such a punishment would usually be the starting point.

Where a murder of a child does not meet the circumstances listed in the schedule for which there is a whole-life order as a starting point, the minimum term will be set according to the remaining starting points, depending on the facts of the case. There are aggravating factors applicable to all murders that could result in an increase to the minimum term due to the victim being a child. They include the vulnerability of the victim due to age, and where the murderer abused a position of trust.

It is important to note that through the PCSC Act, we have ensured that the courts have the fullest range of sentencing powers available to deal appropriately with those who commit other offences against children. It is worth Members noting and remembering that we brought forward Tony’s law, which was named in reference to young Tony Hudgell, who as a baby was abused to such an extent by his birth parents that he is severely disabled. I have had the great privilege of meeting his foster parents, and they are an incredibly inspirational and brave family. I pay tribute to them for all the work they have done.

The 2022 Act increased the maximum penalty for the offences of cruelty to a person under 16 and of causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to suffer serious physical harm from 10 to 14 years of imprisonment. It increased the maximum penalty for causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to die from 14 years to life imprisonment.

I fully recognise that my hon. Friend has kindly noted the progress made by the Government, but I recognise too that he would like a lot of these measures to go a lot further.

I do not wish to stray and will follow the strictures of the Chair, but may I make a point about judicial independence? My hon. Friend mentioned the case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. My understanding is that the judge ruled that those vile acts, although horrific, as my hon. Friend described, were not committed with intent to murder and that there was no premeditation. In our system, judicial independence is a cornerstone of our parliamentary democracy, and we, as politicians, cannot and should not pre-empt sentencing.

Let me refer to the case of David McGreavy, which my hon. Friend also mentioned. It is highly likely that McGreavy would now be given a whole-life order because he murdered three children with the sadistic motivation that was a feature of the case. If a judge determined that an offender was dangerous and the circumstances of the offence were sufficiently serious, a life sentence for that offence would be mandatory.

It is important that we turn for a few moments to the role of the Parole Board, which determines the end of an offender’s term in prison. The Government published a root and branch review of the parole system in March, setting out a number of reforms to the parole release process. It was felt that that process needed to be improved, that it should be tougher and that we should look to see where we could improve the system. The reforms will establish a top-tier cohort of offenders who have committed the worst offences, including murder and causing or allowing the death of a child. The top-tier cohort will be subject to increased ministerial scrutiny at the point of release, with new powers to prevent release if Ministers are not satisfied that the new and stricter release test has been met. That means that in future all prisoners who have committed the murder of a child or who have received a parole-eligible sentence for causing or allowing the death of a child will be subject to additional scrutiny at the point of release. We have committed to legislate for those reforms as soon as parliamentary time allows. Those reforms will be broadly welcomed by the public because they will be seen to improve confidence in the system.

Cases of child murder are rightly punished severely by the courts, and those who are convicted face long prison sentences, possibly with no prospect of release. That is the right thing to do. The Government have increased the powers available to the courts by raising the maximum penalties for acts of cruelty and extending the list of circumstances in which a whole-life order is a starting point to ensure that courts are able to impose severe penalties.

I thank the Minister for her response to the debate, and I think that the general public across the United Kingdom, particularly people in England and Wales, will welcome what she is saying. Following on from the contribution made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), if someone beats a child over time and he or she does not die, but then one day that person beats the child and it does die, surely that should be taken as murder even though the intention at the beginning was not to murder, because it was certainly murder at the end. I am following the Minister’s line of argument here, and I am looking for clarification, please.

The hon. Gentleman has gone to the heart of the issue of premeditation, which is relatively new with respect to the PCSC Act and how we have framed the law around sentencing. If I may, I will write to him on the issue in detail. I hope he is sympathetic that I have not been in this ministerial role for a long time, and I do not want to mislead anybody. I want to give the hon. Gentleman the precise facts and the legal position.

It is vital, and right, that we have increased the powers available to the courts in raising the maximum penalties for acts of cruelty and extending the list of circumstances in which a whole-life order is the starting point to ensure that courts can impose severe penalties for such serious offending. It has been a pleasure to speak about this important topic and to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, as well as my friend the hon. Member for Strangford. I look forward to continuing to work with my hon. Friend to do whatever we can to increase public confidence in sentencing and the criminal justice system.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Energy Costs in Wales

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered energy costs in Wales.

On our first day back in Parliament this term, this debate on energy costs in Wales is hugely timely. We are facing a national emergency. People are scared, cold, and paying the ultimate price for the energy crisis. I am therefore grateful that the Minister is in his place to listen to us discuss the very real issues that people are facing across the country, but it would be remiss of me to start without calling out the recent incompetent actions from the UK Government. In just a few short weeks, this Tory Government have plummeted millions of people into hardship and misery—the choice between heating and eating, going to bed cold and hungry or giving their child their last tin of food. The shockingly mishandled emergency Budget was inexcusable. It has seen the pound plummet, energy costs spiral, mortgages pulled, interest rates shoot up—and for what? Unfunded tax cuts for the richest 1% in society and bigger bankers’ bonuses.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. In addition to that tirade of comments, will she recognise that the energy price guarantee is the most generous across all the major developed nations in Europe?

I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention, but providing that is the very least that could be done in the face of all this incompetence, quite frankly.

The result of this reckless decision will be felt by households across the country for years to come. It is always the most vulnerable who pay the highest price for the political choices made by this UK Government. In Wales, people are worried sick. Thankfully, our Welsh Labour Government have shielded so many from the very worst, but the crippling energy crisis is hard to undo when action from Westminster is worsening by the day. The human cost of such decisions cannot be overstated. At the launch of the Institute of Health Equity’s fuel poverty report last month, Professor Sinha said there is “no doubt” that children will die this winter. Damaged organs and respiratory illnesses are just some of the many long-term health impacts that people will face, and the trauma of going to bed cold and hungry will stay with someone for life.

I was speaking to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children just this morning, and it told me how heartbreaking it is to receive calls through its helpline from children who really do not know what to do or how to help their parents, as they witness them struggle to make ends meet, often while living in cold, damp and mouldy conditions. I, too, receive heartbreaking calls from struggling parents just trying to do their best, and from distraught constituents torn between losing their home and losing their business. A pub in the heart of Cardiff North told me that it literally cannot afford to keep the lights on and is moving to using candlelight after receiving a £24,000 energy bill. My constituent Rebecca, a talented jeweller and silversmith, runs a small business on top of doing three other jobs. She faces a sixfold increase in her electricity bill. Her partner, Gareth, who contacted me worried sick, said, “What are we working for if not a better future?”

Well, that better future is being carved out by our Welsh Labour Government, with £51 million of targeted support for those who need it most. Measures include doubling the winter fuel support payment, cost of living support payments, £4 million for fuel vouchers, a heat fund to support those on prepayment meters, and the roll-out of universal free school meals. That is the difference that a Labour Government make. The Welsh Labour Government understand the human cost of this crisis. Perhaps the Prime Minister should pick up the phone to our First Minister for the first time after all.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate and for the very important points that she is making. It is right that we debate this issue. One of the big issues that we face is that the UK is not particularly self-sufficient when it comes to electricity generation; we are the second largest net importer of electricity in Europe. Meanwhile, Wales produces double the electricity that it consumes. We are a superpower, in European terms; no other country is close to the generation and consumption levels of Wales. The question that occurs to me is: how can we use that strength to safeguard our own people in Wales from the fuel poverty that they face?

The hon. Member makes exactly the right point. We want to hear from the Minister as to why that challenge is not being addressed. This week is also Hospice Care Week, and the families supported by Tŷ Hafan and Tŷ Gobaith—the two children’s hospices in Wales—really are the ones on the frontline in this energy crisis. Tŷ Hafan is facing a sixfold increase in energy costs at a time when it is also facing rising demand for its services. It could never have foreseen what was to come, and it is the families who rely on its support that suffer. The Welsh Government have provided support to the hospice with the funding uplift. However, the Chancellor is yet even to respond to its letter. The Business Secretary’s response was to assure hospices that they would be prioritised for additional support. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? The evidence clearly suggests the opposite.

Let me explain to the Minister the human cost of continued inaction. My constituent Emma has a son called Jack, who has cerebral palsy. Emma does not have the option of not using energy. She relies on it for Jack’s lifesaving equipment. Emma sadly lost her son Tom, Jack’s twin, to the deadly disease. It is families such as Emma’s who face nearly £600 more a month in bills. The support that Tŷ Hafan provides to families is invaluable. Will the Minister tell those families whether they will get an emergency assistance payment, and when that specialist support will be given to the hospices on which they so heavily rely?

The chairman of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), said that people should just get better jobs. Emma is Jack’s full-time carer, living off just £850 a month in universal credit, topped up with a carer’s allowance. How would she manage? Will the Minister tell Emma whether the Government intend to uprate benefits in line with current inflation rates, so that she and her family can live and not just barely survive?

The UK Government’s attitude towards hospices in Wales reflects their attitude towards Wales in general—our organisations and people alike. It is an attitude of disdain and neglect. The fact that the Government are planning for energy blackouts says it all. In short, it means that people will die. What action will the UK Government take to ensure that families of seriously ill children, who rely on that lifesaving equipment at home, have access to a secure and constant supply of energy—or will the Government have blood on their hands?

Support for energy bills only goes so far. Too many homes are poorly insulated and their bills will rise at a far higher rate. Since 2011, the Welsh Labour Government’s warm homes programme has invested more than £400 million in more than 67,000 homes to improve home energy efficiency across Wales. Under Labour’s warm homes plan, we aim to insulate 19 million homes in a decade across the whole of the UK.

In a display of utter incompetency, this Prime Minister has defied her own official advice and blocked plans for a public information campaign asking people to save energy over the winter. Apparently, she is ideologically opposed to that. Will the Minister confirm whether he is too? Is he ideologically opposed to urging people to keep an eye on usage, saving households £8.4 billion and avoiding blackouts?

Insulation measures are not just about cost. Old, poorly insulated homes are more likely to be cold, mouldy or damp, which can cause significant long-term physical and mental health problems. It is astounding that councils are now forced to open warm hubs. Just yesterday, our Labour-run Cardiff Council launched its warm welcome space; anyone who is struggling to heat their home can go to the local hub or library, to be greeted with a warm welcome and a free hot drink—but that is shocking.

We must remember that this crisis is caused by a dependency on oil and gas. It will not be solved by increasing dependency. Gas costs nine times more than renewables. This Tory Government are intent on locking us into a fossil fuel era, with high bills and an ever worsening climate crisis. The Prime Minister refuses to understand that the climate crisis and energy crisis go hand in hand. The Government cannot tackle one without tackling the other. I know well that the Minister agrees, and I would like to hear him say so today.

Rising seas and extreme weather events are costing lives. Our younger generations are being robbed of their future. Climate change presents an opportunity to change the way we live. Labour is committed to a great British energy company that will deliver clean power by 2030, saving UK households £93 billion over the rest of the decade. What was the UK Government’s answer? To lift the ban on fracking—yet another broken manifesto pledge to deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth.

Rest assured, the ban on fracking in Wales is still firmly in place, and the Welsh Government will do everything in their power to pick up the pieces where the Tory Government have fallen woefully short, whether that is for businesses at the heart of our community that risk closing their doors for good due to spiralling, unaffordable energy prices; for people like my constituent, who tragically told me that his elderly mother felt she would be better off dead than forced to pay such astronomical energy prices; or for those who are cutting back on their essential groceries or relying on food banks just to get by.

In an earlier comment, my hon. Friend mentioned prepayment meters. For those who use prepayment meters, £3.50 of every £10 that they top up goes on charges, and South Wales has one of highest rates in the UK. Does she agree that we really need to address that issue?

Absolutely. It is an area we need to focus on, and I hope the Minister will have an answer to that issue today.

The examples I have given show the real human cost of the energy crisis. I hope that this Conservative Government for once bear that in mind, instead of fighting one another like cats and dogs. The people paying the true cost of the energy crisis in Wales must not be forgotten or sidelined.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) on securing this important debate. I look forward to the contributions of all Members, because this is a serious issue that needs addressing in a serious way. In the spirit in which I congratulated the hon. Lady on securing the debate, I am bit disappointed by the party political tone that it has taken. These are genuine, serious issues that need addressing. Constituents are looking to politicians to find the best response to a genuine energy supply crisis and its sources, which we will come to in a moment. I am disappointed that the debate has been so party political so far, but I will try to move it on in a way that might be helpful to constituents who listen.

I think the right hon. Gentleman failed to hear what I actually said. I was clarifying what the different Governments provide and setting out the human cost of what is happening because of the political choices made by the UK Government and this Prime Minister. I sincerely hope he can understand that.

I will respond to some of the points that have been made, but we need to recognise that the absolute cause of the challenge is the war in Ukraine and Putin’s aggression. Anyone who seeks to weaponise the increase in energy prices for political ends is undermining the war effort and Ukraine’s right to defend its nation. It is a serious issue, but that does not mean that we do not need to react.

The Government are reacting. We need to recognise some of the things they are doing and congratulate them, but there will be other areas where we want to press for further support. That is an intelligent way to pursue a debate, rather than saying that everything politicians in Cardiff Bay are doing is right and everything those in Whitehall are doing is wrong. That is simply not credible and it is not the case. I am disappointed that the war in Ukraine is being weaponised in this way.

Just weeks ago, we saw the explosions at Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, which were clearly attacks, although we have no certainty about the reasons for them or their source. They have had an impact on supplies across Europe, but thankfully supplies to the UK do not come from Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, and are therefore much more secure. I underline my interest as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for energy security. It would be helpful for us all to recognise that energy is traded at a multi-national, if not a global, level. That is part of the complexity of the situation, rather than the simplicity that has been described.

Constituents want to know exactly what support they will get. Everyone will get a grant of £400 in addition to a council tax rebate of £150 for properties in bands A to D. There are also additional payments, including a cost of living payment of £650 for benefit claimants, a one-off payment of £300 for pensioners for heating, and a disability cost of living payment of £150. Those payments will alleviate the situation and make sure that some people are able to keep the fires burning. They may have formed the impression that they could end up in an extremely unfortunate situation, but they may well be able to avoid that, depending on their individual circumstances.

The energy price guarantee announced a couple of weeks ago is an extremely welcome measure, and it would be helpful for the Opposition to recognise that. I press the hon. Member for Cardiff North to acknowledge that it is the most generous package that has been offered across Europe. I am happy to be corrected if the hon. Lady wishes to intervene, but independent sources say it is the most generous package in Europe, which means that people in similar circumstances in Europe will find themselves worse off. I am not saying that is a good thing; it is not a good thing. More needs to be done to support everyone—not only across Europe, but well beyond—because the conflict in Ukraine has created a global challenge.

The energy consumption of an average property will cost £2,500. There is a lot of misunderstanding about that. People will pay depending on their energy consumption and that figure is an average cost, which is provided as a guide. It is a significant increase, but lower than it would otherwise have been without the energy price guarantee, and the additional payments will support people and allow them to cope with those increases.

I find it difficult to believe that everything the Welsh Government are doing is right and everything Whitehall is doing is wrong. On the one hand, the hon. Member for Cardiff North claimed that people were living in cold, damp and uninsulated homes—and many are and we need to recognise that—but then seemed to champion the insulating programme and schemes that the Welsh Government have been pursuing. It cannot be one or the other; we must recognise that it is a complex situation and that people are finding themselves in difficult circumstances.

I find it difficult that the wider public debate makes such an issue of a public information campaign. This debate could serve as a public information campaign in itself if it were conducted in a reasonable and intelligent way. We need to recognise that this issue is rightly dominating the news and people should be able to interpret that large increases in energy prices will mean consumption needs to be managed to prevent cost of living challenges. In addition, information is being made available by the Energy Saving Trust, Ofgem and so many other agencies and charitable organisations. I would much prefer that the money that would have been spent on a public information campaign is spent on supporting people to reduce their bills, rather than on duplicating and repeating what we could do and what is available freely on the internet.

I ask the Minister for guidance on two points. I have already highlighted the domestic levels of support that are available, and they are significant, but we need further clarity on park homes. It is not clear how they will be able to benefit, because of how their meters work compared with others. I recognise that this is the first day that Parliament is sitting and therefore it has not been easy to communicate all the messages that need to be communicated, but there are a number of park homes in my constituency and across the whole of the UK—Wales possibly has a disproportionate number of park homes—so further clarity would be helpful. Reassuring messages have been given, but it is helpful to have the mechanics of how it should work.

I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman raised this point because I asked a written question on this issue and was referred to an answer to another Member. That answer was not particularly clear to me, so when my constituents ask me how they will receive the support I am unable to provide that answer. I am sure that, like me, the right hon. Gentleman would like the Minister to clarify that today.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for underlining that point. I recognise that it is a complex situation. There are so many facets, which is why, again, we need to have a reasonable debate to address these serious issues. Until now people in park homes will not have had much clarity from this debate, and I look to the Minister to provide it, but it is not a straightforward situation.

I seek greater clarity on the level of support and I press the Minister to look again at extending support for off-grid properties. Many residents in my constituency—I declare an interest as one of them—do not have the privileges or benefits of mains gas and therefore depend on either liquefied petroleum gas or oil. We need to recognise that there is a standard volatility in that marketplace, and off-grid properties may have benefited when oil prices were extremely low during the covid period, at less than $20 a barrel of oil—I ensured that I filled my tank up at that time—compared with the 85p, 86p or even 90p a litre that is available now. I was talking about $19 a barrel, but that was also 19p a litre at the time. It is now up to 90p per litre of oil, which people off-grid have to use, and LPG will have a similar volatility. I hope the Minister will give that greater consideration or at least provide some hope that there will be further support.

There is a final area of support to which I hope the Minister will be able to bring some clarity—not necessarily now, because it is quite a complex picture, but certainly by providing greater information or tables online. The Government website sets out examples of different sorts of businesses and how they will benefit, from the average corner shop or pub to larger organisations. It explains the types of approach and savings that they would make. I looked for specific examples of numbers to be provided according to the market rate. One grocery business in a rural area in my constituency was paying 21p per kWh; now, at the market rate, it is paying £1.26 per kWh. When a business seeks to negotiate through a broker for guarantees of the level of Government intervention and how much that will be, the broker makes the case—as do energy providers; I have spoken to some—that they do not know how much the Government discount is specifically until they accept the contract, as that is when they can confirm it. That does not seem to be the most reasonable position.

I am not saying the Government are to blame for that, but I suspect greater clarity over the numbers will help businesses in my constituency and elsewhere to understand what exactly the discount is. It is in the region of 40% in some cases, while it is less in others. It depends on use. Clarity is needed to provide scrutiny and ensure the most understanding. Although the discount is 40%, if someone happens to have come off a fixed-term contract and moved from 21p up to about 80p, that is still a significant increase.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Betts. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly today. I congratulate my near constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), on calling this important debate.

Although we have seen a new Prime Minister appointed in recent weeks, when it comes to this 12-year-old Tory Government it is the same old story. Like people throughout Wales and the United Kingdom, the people of Newport West are looking for proper action to support them as they face rising energy costs. There is nothing new about the Tory fantasy of trickle-down economics, and there is nothing new about a Tory who, when asked “Who pays?”, answers “You: the working people of Britain.”

In her first Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said she was against a windfall tax, as she did during her leadership campaign, during that wasteful summer of inward-looking Tory politics. My constituents want to know why the Prime Minister remains so committed to protecting the £170 billion of excess profits of the oil and gas giants—profits that they did not expect and that the companies have actually suggested should be used to mitigate the effects of this energy and cost of living crisis. Because of the Prime Minister’s decision, the people of Newport West and others throughout the country will now have to pay the bill for this Tory cost of living crisis.

It is worth remembering what the former Chancellor, Mr Osborne, said in 2008: that profligate borrowing could provoke a run on sterling, or require a rise in interest rates that would plunge Britain deeper into recession. I think some chickens are coming home to roost now.

I recently had a call from a constituent—a retired colliery worker—in Bassaleg. Like so many in Newport West, he has paid his taxes and never missed a bill. However, as we approach winter, the rising cost of energy is putting a serious strain on his finances. He told my team that it is simply not fair that ordinary people are being forced to foot the bill while the energy companies laugh all the way to the bank, saying:

“My monthly direct debit has just gone from £166 to £320. We are a two adult, two children family on average wages and are not able to handle such huge hikes in bills. Would appreciate it if you could look to address or mitigate this for us as a community.”

That is why I am here today.

If the average family in Newport West are seeing a doubling of utility bills, our country and our economy are in for some very difficult months ahead. That sits at the door of this Government. Rather than taking real action to pay for proper support, they have simply shifted the bill on to working people. When families and public services need every penny they can get, our Prime Minister, with the same old agenda, seems to think that now is the right time to protect Shell’s excess profits and give Amazon a tax cut. I say to the Minister: it is not. It is time for the Government to lead, to act and to properly support those most in need.

Over recent months, I have worked with local people on the issue of energy payment rebates for park home residents, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). I have received a significant amount of correspondence from residents in Lighthouse caravan park in Newport West, and have worked with local people to clarify whether people in park homes would be able to benefit from any UK Government support schemes. My concern was and remains that there is no comprehensive and co-ordinated approach for all who need help to heat their homes and pay their bills. I have just been sitting in the Chamber listening to the Chancellor answer a question on that very subject, but sadly his answer was more confusion and uncertainty, and I am no better off now.

That confusion stands in stark contrast to the action of the Welsh Government. I welcome the Welsh Government fuel support scheme, and many people in Newport West do too. Eligible households can claim a one-off £200 cash payment from their local authority to provide support towards paying fuel bills. Importantly, that is in addition to the winter fuel payment offered by the UK Government. The payment will be available to all eligible energy customers, regardless of how they pay for fuel. That includes those who make payments on a prepayment meter by direct debit, those who pay quarterly and those who use off-grid fuel.

The scheme is part of the Welsh Labour Government’s £90 million support package to address immediate pressures on living costs. The fuel support scheme was launched with the explicit aim of reducing the impact of the rising cost of energy and the cost of living crisis. It is targeted at low-income households, and the number of households that are eligible and in need of help is to be extended.

We know that the winter months can be the most difficult time of the year. Like the Welsh Labour Government, I do not believe that families in Newport West or any other part of the United Kingdom should have to choose between heating and eating.

Can I take the hon. Lady back to the windfall tax? I do not think a windfall tax would pay for all the energy schemes, but it would definitely make a significant contribution to the public intervention that will be required. The reality is that even the oil executives are mildly in favour of it: BP announced a few months ago that a windfall tax would not make any difference to its investment plans over the next 10, 15 and 20 years.

The hon. Gentleman puts it far more eloquently than me. Absolutely—these people are actively saying, “These are excess profits that we did not expect, so they should be used to mitigate the problem.”

I say to residents in Newport West and across Wales that the Welsh Government’s scheme is open to households in which the applicant or their partner is in receipt of one of the qualifying benefits at any time between 1 September 2022 and 31 January 2023. Folks in Newport West can get in touch with my office if they want or need support with the application process.

If we are expecting working people out in the country to tighten their belts, I urge Ministers to wake up and make sure the oil and gas companies pay their share too. That is what we are here to do, and if the Government do not want to do that, they should make way for a Labour Government who will.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to speak in this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) on securing it. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). I join her and the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) in urging the Minister to bring forward greater clarity on park homes.

I will concentrate my remarks on a particular aspect of the energy crisis: off-grid homes. The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that we need to go further in the support that is offered to them. I appreciate that, on a UK-wide basis, the proportion of domestic properties that are not connected to the mains gas grid may seem immaterial or quite modest, but in certain areas of the country the concentration of such properties is significant. Across Wales, 19% of domestic households are not connected to the mains gas grid, but in more rural constituencies such as Gwynedd that rises to 49% of the housing stock. In my Ceredigion constituency it rises to 74%, so it is a pressing concern for many of my constituents. Although the energy price guarantee offers some Welsh Government support for those who are connected to the mains gas grid, people often read the bulletins and announcements and realise that it does not apply to them, or at least not to their gas or heating bills.

It is important to put on the record that, despite the volatility in the heating oil and LPG markets, there has been a steady increase in the prices that consumers have had to pay. It is always a bit dangerous to quote average heating oil prices, given the vicissitudes of that market, but the average price per 1,000 litres of heating oil increased from £351 in August 2020 to £491 in August 2021 and then £896 in August 2022. I note the great volatility in that market and also the fact that prices peaked at £1,108 back in June, at the beginning of the summer, when some people look to buy and fill their tanks, but the trend has been of considerable increases in heating oil prices, which is having a serious impact on many of my constituents.

I have sadly received many messages from constituents who are having to resort to quite drastic measures to reduce their consumption of heating oil. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me that they have taken to having cold showers in the morning. I have also come across many people who have tried to keep down the cost of electricity by resorting to investing in solar-powered garden lights to help a little in the evenings. These are very drastic measures. People are looking at every way possible to reduce their bills but are still finding it impossible to keep the heating on as we enter the winter months.

Much has been made of the impact of the energy crisis and rising costs on businesses, and it is important to highlight the added impact on businesses that are not connected to the mains gas grid. For example, I have been contacted by quite a few hospitality businesses in Ceredigion that have quoted increases to their average fuel costs of 200% to 300%, while a cheesemaker in my constituency has seen the price of running his business double over the last 12 months. Sadly, such increases are forcing these businesses to make very difficult staffing decisions; indeed, I know of a few that have closed their doors for the winter. One hopes that these will just be temporary and not permanent closures, but it is important to stress that a number of viable businesses are struggling to absorb the spike in heating oil and LPG prices.

One suggestion, made by counterparts from Northern Ireland, is for the Government to offer greater support to off-grid homes and businesses by introducing a voucher scheme. I thank Social Democratic and Labour party Members from Northern Ireland for pressing that as a potential solution, which has a lot to recommend it. They have suggested that the Government could introduce a voucher for 1,000 litres of heating oil or the equivalent volume of LPG. Some might ask, “Why 1,000 litres?” The answer is that Certas Energy has estimated that the average UK household uses around 27,000 kWh of energy per year, which roughly equates to 1,800 litres of oil. At current average prices, 1,000 litres would cost around £890, which I concede is not an insignificant amount of money, but it compares very favourably with the expected savings of around £1,000 to those households that will be eligible for both elements of the energy price guarantee—the electricity side and the mains gas side.

The Government have made statements previous to this week about ensuring a commensurate level of support, and we could explore further the idea of a voucher scheme for those in off-grid properties. It would offer a fair level of support for those on the gas grid and also those who are not connected to it. For the sake of clarity, if that were rolled out in Wales, for example, we would be talking about 275,000 properties. Again, that is not an insignificant number but, when considered in the larger scheme of things, it is something that the Government could do, and potentially with some speed.

In considering off-grid properties, I also wish to raise how this debate emphasises the need to bring forward not only immediate support to address the short-term pressures we face but mid-term to longer-term solutions. Energy-efficiency measures have already been mentioned; the Energy Saving Trust reports that it is typically far more expensive to heat an off-grid home, which creates a significant problem for the rural poor. Sadly, because of the nature of the housing stock in Wales, particularly in rural areas, the average energy performance certificate rating across the entire country is D. To reduce our vulnerability to further price shocks down the line, there should now be a real push in respect of the mid to long term to invest in energy-efficiency measures.

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. There is a big role to play for the Welsh Government and, indeed, the partnership agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government. My cursory reading of the agreement is that it contains nothing specifically on energy efficiency. Of course, the agreement was composed before the crisis. I hope there are mechanisms in the agreement whereby both parties can look again at the programme of government and focus on what we can do in Wales.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There is an opportunity, through the co-operation agreement, for the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru to focus their efforts on improving the energy efficiency of the Welsh housing stock. A year or so ago, Wales’s Future Generations Commissioner reported that it would take around £3.6 billion of investment over 10 years to bring the entire Welsh housing stock up to EPC band C. Were we able to achieve that—there is now an important case to be made for accelerating such an intervention—it would save Welsh households an average of £418 a year on their energy bills. Of course, those savings were estimated based on the energy prices a year and a half to two years ago; one wonders how much more of a saving could be realised were we to pursue energy-efficiency measures today.

The Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group has added to the calls for energy efficiency, saying that to bring up the EPC level of all UK housing stock would provide significant annual energy-cost savings of £7.5 billion. I appreciate that such measures would not offer any solace in the short term, but it is now time that we consider how we can address some of these issues in the mid to long term to avoid falling into a similar situation—dare I say it?—next winter.

Finally, another aspect that bears repetition and further consideration is the recommendation from the Federation of Small Businesses to look again at support for renewable-energy installations for small businesses. The FSB has suggested that vouchers worth £5,000 could be made available to small and medium-sized businesses to spend on qualifying energy-saving products and services and renewable-energy installations. I look around the Chamber and recognise a few rural Members of Parliament; they may have been approached by farmers and agricultural businesses that have pointed out that they have a lot of roof space that might well be suitable for the installation of solar panels. Even if that cuts just the energy consumption and grid dependence of those farmers and businesses, it will still contribute to the wider effort to reduce our energy vulnerability to fossil fuels and the vicissitudes of the market.

There is an opportunity here. There needs to be further consideration of the short-term support for properties that are not connected to the mains gas grid. In looking at the example of homes such as those in Ceredigion, 74% of which are not connected to the mains gas grid, I also emphasise how important it is that we do not lose sight of the mid to long-term measures and the benefits of a properly invested energy-efficiency programme.

Beth Winter was not present for the beginning of the debate, but she gave advance notice to me, as Chair, that she would be late because she was in a Delegated Legislation Committee. Given that no others wish to catch my eye at this point, I now call Beth Winter.

Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Betts, and thank you to everyone present. As you explained, I came from a DLC as soon as possible, so diolch yn fawr. This issue is extremely close to my heart, which is why I really wanted to speak in the debate. In my constituency, we have been doing a lot of work on the cost of living crisis, which I will cover in my contribution.

With their intervention on the retail price for energy, the Government are clearly paying lip service to people’s concerns and failing to alleviate the misery they are causing. We have to be clear: the energy price cap is rising and bills are going up under the newly elected Prime Minister. Despite the Prime Minister and the Chancellor saying that they have intervened to reduce bills, what has really happened? Under the previous Tory Prime Minister, the price cap went up by £693 in April; under this new Conservative Prime Minister, it went up by another £529 last week. That is driving inflation to a 40-year high and creating extreme hardship in communities such as mine in the Cynon valley. Figures for Wales show that, in October 2020, 14% of households were living in fuel poverty. If we use those figures to model the impact of April’s price cap rise, up to 45%, or almost half, of all households are likely to be in fuel poverty.

I undertook a cost of living survey of constituents just before the summer. The stories they told me were truly harrowing, especially in terms of the mental health impact that the cost of living crisis is having, which cannot be overestimated. For example, one constituent said:

“It is affecting my sleep. I am worrying constantly. I keep watching my gas and electric meter.”

Most respondents said they were struggling to pay their energy bills, and almost three quarters said they would cut down significantly on heating in the next 12 months. That is unacceptable. That is a political choice.

As others have said, small businesses are struggling too. A local business owner told me recently that the combined gas and electric bill from the supplier was estimated to be in excess of £25,000. The owner was in floods of tears and had no idea how she was going to be able to continue running her business. That is the reality of the impact of the politically motivated cost of living crisis in this country.

The hon. Lady is making some interesting points about the real impact and cost for businesses, individuals and families, but I am not quite sure what she is asking for. Is she asking the Government to intervene for the entirety and to return the prices to what they were 12 months ago, say, bearing in mind that there is a global energy crisis as a result of the conflict in Ukraine?

I am about to offer some solutions to the crisis. If the right hon. Gentleman can bear with me, I will answer his question in my speech.

Briefly, the Welsh Government are doing everything they can to support people through the cost of living crisis. They have made an array of announcements to support people, including a £200 fuel support payment, in addition to the winter fuel payment offered by the UK Government; a £150 cost of living payment; £4 million to support people on prepayment meters—not on mains gas—who are facing hardship; and of course the discretionary assistance fund. However, fair funding from the UK Government to Wales is needed to meet people’s needs; it is Westminster that has to step up and support our communities.

No, I will not give way. The Chancellor has not yet responded to Welsh Finance Minister Rebecca Evans’s recent letter asking for a meeting. That shows that Wales is being treated with contempt.

Labour at Westminster is clear that, unlike the Tories, we would not have allowed the energy price cap to rise at all this autumn. Labour has proposed a fully costed and funded package of Government support. Our “Warm Homes for All” plan and investment in sustainable British energy, funded from our climate investment pledge, will tackle the climate crisis, strengthen our energy security, create good jobs in new industries and cut bills for good. There will be up-front costs to those measures but, as the Office for Budget Responsibility has stated, not acting will cost far more in damage to the climate and economic security.

We have wind farms on the mountains in my constituency. Who owns them? A Swedish company, Vattenfall. We need our own energy sources. The Welsh Government’s proposal to develop a publicly owned energy company, Ynni Cymru, has been followed by UK Labour’s proposal for GB Energy, a British publicly owned company that will help generate the clean power that will cut bills and provide energy security for the UK. Those measures will start to challenge the private market, but we need public ownership now so that the power we produce contributes to our national community prosperity, not the pockets of private companies, fossil fuel giants and shareholders. It is affordable, as the Trades Union Congress has already set out. Energy costs must be brought down, and to achieve that, we must have public ownership, which is in the interests of the people of the UK and the future of our planet.

The hon. Lady mentioned Ynni Cymru, which is something I have pushed for many a year, and I am glad that it is embedded in the partnership agreement. The Leader of the Opposition announced in his conference speech that there will be a GB Energy model based on Ynni Cymru. Can the hon. Lady explain how those two bodies will interact? There will be a Labour Government in a few years—there is no doubt about that now, and I of course welcome that—so there will be a GB Energy company. How is that company going to interact with the Welsh Government’s energy company?

I think that point is under discussion. I am not in the fortunate position of being on the Front Bench at the moment, but I understand that those discussions are in train. Hopefully, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North can expand on that.

To conclude, on the question of how this will be paid for, I am will be presenting a petition from the people of Cynon Valley in the Chamber tomorrow evening with key asks, including a wealth tax, a windfall tax and a cap on energy costs—an array of initiatives. We are the fifth richest nation in the world; we can, and must, afford this. We must change for the benefit of everybody in our country. Diolch yn fawr.

We now come to the Front Benchers. We have a little bit more time than the 10 minutes that is normally allocated, if you want to take a bit more time—15 minutes or whatever.

I will try to spend the time I have addressing myself to the excellent speeches we have heard this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) on securing the debate. It is about Wales and how Wales is affected by the runaway rises we are seeing in energy costs and by the actions the Government have taken in relation to them. Those price rises are having devastating effects across Wales, and hon. Members have paid considerable attention this afternoon to what is happening to individual constituents across Wales. Of course, price rises are having devastating effects across the whole UK, but two things stand out in the case of Wales.

The first is the particular demography of Wales. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) mentioned, Wales has a different profile in terms of its households and energy costs, particularly from England, and from the UK in general. One in five households in Wales is off the grid; fewer than one in six are off the grid across the whole UK, and for England that figure is about one in eight. Those off-grid properties in Wales have suffered to a far greater extent than households in England and Scotland and in the United Kingdom generally. That is, among other things, because the heating fuels needed for off-grid properties were never under the price cap. Those properties suffered price rises of, for example, 250% in two years for heating oil before the crisis came upon us. They are in the crisis now, with further enormous increases, but they were suffering for a long time before that.

It is therefore wholly appropriate and deserves congratulation that the Welsh Government have instituted an additional £200, on top of the funding available in the UK generally, to meet the specific circumstances in Wales. Considering their other financial problems, the fact that they are able to carve out that amount to support people in these circumstances is something we can only stand back and applaud, and I would be first to add my applause.

The immediate response—well, the rather less than immediate response—of the UK Government, through the energy price support scheme, has been relatively generous and goes some considerable way to removing the worst aspects of the energy price rises for the general public, and is to be tremendously welcomed for that reason. However, I have one or two points to make about what the UK Government have done and what it means for the future and what we all have to face. This energy price crisis will not go away in a year’s time, with prices going back to normal.

The hon. Gentleman rightly says that the crisis may not necessarily go away quickly, so why is it Labour party policy to intervene for six months? The Government have come in with family support—I am delighted to hear his recognition of the extent and power of that intervention—for two years.

The support is for two years for domestic properties. For business and commercial properties, it is for six months. The proposal that the Government have put forward for two years’ support on price rises is completely unfunded. We might, for example, have introduced a windfall levy, to accurately reflect the difference between what is happening in the UK market and the reasons for the price increases, and the profits being made by the energy companies supplying the UK, particularly with gas. Those profits are not based on some amazing technical breakthrough in the delivery of gas to the UK; exactly the same companies are providing exactly the same service in bringing gas from the wholesale market to the retail market in the UK, but they are making nine times the profit they were previously, for no extra work at all. The idea that we should put forward a windfall levy to cover a good proportion of the cost of those arrangements seems a complete no-brainer. I was quite astonished when the Government decided that they were not going to draw on that resource at all for the next phase of the support arrangements. Not only were they not going to introduce an immediate levy, but they were not going to introduce any sort of continuing levy arrangement to keep prices at a reasonable level.

The Labour proposal took into account what we do in the first instance with the windfall levy and what we do over the next period. I want to come to that in a moment, but it is important to recognise that the Prime Minister was bang on guilty of misleading the public in her recent conference speech, and other speeches, by saying that people would pay not more than—

Order. I ask the hon. Member to be careful about the word “misleading”. Perhaps “unintentionally misleading” would be more helpful.

Of course, the Prime Minister was unintentionally misleading the British public in this instance by saying that they would not pay more than £2,500 on their energy bills. She did correct herself later, but she gave the unintentionally misleading impression that we are all okay and will not pay more than £2,500 for bills—essentially, however much energy we use, it would not cost us more than £2,500. That is completely wrong. This is a support scheme based on units consumed. Therefore, households with very few resources but higher than average energy use will pay far more than £2,500 for their fuel this winter.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the generosity of the UK Government’s support scheme, but they have to be slightly careful about that, do they not? It is partially a result of electricity prices in the UK being the second highest in Europe—only the Czech Republic has higher. For the last five years, electricity prices in the UK have been far higher. Within the UK, electricity prices in south Wales and north Wales are far higher than the UK average. There is something drastically wrong with the system, is there not?

It is uncanny that the hon. Member has anticipated exactly what I was going to say next: one reason it was necessary for the UK Government to be relatively generous in their support is that the price rises in the UK are far higher than those across most of the rest of Europe. I will not go into the support that the French Government have put in place to support price rises, but French price rises are 4% or 5%. The rises are quite a considerable factor of how energy markets work in the UK as opposed to the arrangements elsewhere in Europe.

For a long time we had a Government pretty much asleep at the wheel on governing energy prices, thinking that an energy price cap would deal with the whole thing. But the energy price cap originally was supposed to deal with retail companies price gouging, not price rises coming from the wholesale market into the retail market in the UK as a whole. The fact is that UK energy prices are determined entirely by gas prices. We have done a lot over the years to start bringing renewable energy sources into the mix—indeed, 38% of our power is now supplied by renewable sources; if we take nuclear too, the majority of our energy supply is provided by low-carbon sources—but the UK retail market works as if it were supplied entirely by gas-fired power stations paying the price of gas to make electricity. That is because of the marginal effect of the way the UK energy market works, with auctions and how that all works. I do not think we will go into that this afternoon, but the fact is that the UK energy market is completely broken, in that it allows those really high prices to come through in a situation where we are—or should be—decreasingly reliant on gas.

Let me make a couple of suggestions. It is one thing to introduce price support for the immediate problem of energy price rises. By the way, that problem is not, as the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) said, exclusively about the Ukraine war. Prices were going through the roof well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They started increasing at a high and unsustainable rate from the middle of 2021. The Ukraine war has exacerbated that considerably, but it is by no means the only reason. One reason that prices increased considerably well before the Ukraine war started was the structure of energy markets in the UK, the extent to which they were completely prey to profiteering, and the fact that the UK Government were unable to do anything about the effect of increases in the international price of gas on the UK market.

If we have price support over the next period but we do nothing about that structural position, knowing that sky-high gas prices will be with us for probably—I am speculating—the next decade, or at least five to six years, and that the price will never come down to its level of three or four years ago, we will simply be here in two or three years’ time saying exactly the same thing under exactly the same circumstances. The price cap and the price support will have been and gone and we will be in exactly the same position as before.

Now is the time for the Government to fix the UK energy market rapidly, so that we do not find ourselves here again. That means getting us out of gas and on to renewables as quickly as possible. Without adding to what hon. Members have said, the Labour party’s commitment to a wholly renewable power system by 2030 is absolutely germane to ensuring we have an energy system that delivers us relatively low-priced energy that is not volatile, and is not subject to international power politics, with LPG vessels changing course halfway across the Atlantic because someone has bought their cargo at a higher price than they originally thought they were getting for it when they set out. All those issues would be resolved because the power would be UK-based and essentially free—once the capital cost of the renewables providing it had been taken away—and it would be entirely within the UK’s control to deal with prices in the UK. That is how to fix the particularly difficult energy market conditions.

By the way, a lot can be done in that direction before we get to that position by decoupling energy prices in the UK market from the gas market. That can be done by changing the way people receive their rewards, as far as energy is concerned, and renewable obligations and contracts for difference, as far as renewable energy is concerned. We could perhaps introduce a green power pool arrangement, whereby renewable power is traded in advance of gas, and the gas is placed on the margins without the ability to swamp the whole market. That means that we perhaps have to introduce a strategic reserve for gas-fired power stations outside the market as we move towards a wholly renewable energy market.

None of that will wait for the energy crisis to be over. If we do not do these things very quickly, we will just repeat ourselves. One of the key things—

Yes, indeed.

The Opposition will look very closely at whether the Government are serious about moving our energy economy on to the sort of renewable basis that we have set out. One of the early indications that they are not is the recent shenanigans going on with solar farms and wind in this country. We will look on, and we hope the Government have success in moving the energy economy away from a reliance on gas. Certainly, introducing fracking and exploring more for gas in the North sea will not fix it; indeed, they will do the opposite. This is about getting renewables in place for our power system as soon as possible and ensuing we are proofed against crises in the future. That would be of great benefit for Wales and for UK customers as a whole, because their bills would assuredly come down in the future. It is a policy for the long term, not one just to fix the windows a bit while it is raining.

I ask the Minister to leave a couple of minutes for the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) to sum up at the end.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) on securing the debate, although I share with my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) some disappointment at the tone that she and most Labour Members took. That does not reflect the seriousness of the debate, and by way of contrast I would point not only to my right hon. Friend’s typically thoughtful speech but to that of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), who made his points perfectly clearly but constructively, as we wrestle with this unprecedented global rise in prices.

It was good to hear the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead)—this was not reflected by the more rabid Back-Bench contributions—recognising the scale and generosity of the intervention, which is the most generous in Europe. This Government have acted decisively to help families and the poorest in particular. A failure to acknowledge those basic facts suggests a lack, I would say, of moral seriousness in dealing with this issue, which is of great import and is having a great impact on families now. No one is well served by political game-playing when we are dealing with something so severe and serious.

The Government understand the scale of the challenge and are taking action to help support households and businesses facing these record energy prices. This includes those in all four of our nations. Wales, alongside the rest of the UK, is feeling the pain of this crisis, which has been driven by the illegal invasion of Ukraine and Putin holding gas supplies hostage, in addition to the global pressures of the recovery from the pandemic—a point that was set out by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, who is a learned Gentleman in this area of energy policy.

The announcements made by the Prime Minister on 8 September and 21 September 2022 demonstrated the Government’s commitment to protecting UK households and businesses through the energy price guarantee and the energy bill relief scheme. Under the plans, households, businesses and public sector organisations across the country will be protected from significant rises in energy bills, thanks to the new Government support that took effect from the beginning of October.

Without Government action, average household energy bills under the energy price cap had been due to rise to around £3,500 in October, a rise of 80% on current bills. Next year, it was predicted they would increase to as high as £6,500 per family. Those are truly chilling numbers. From this month, the Government’s energy price guarantee will limit the price households pay per unit of gas and electricity they use. It means that a typical household in Great Britain will pay on average £2,500 a year. Those with lower energy bills will pay considerably less, because it is about the number of units that people use. An average family will save between £1,000 and perhaps as much as £4,000 a year because of this unprecedented, unparalleled intervention by the Government to look after the people of this country and help them through this challenge.

The intervention has had a significant wider impact. It is interesting to note today that the International Monetary Fund has now conceded that the mini Budget, of which this was the centrepiece, will boost economic growth. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cardiff North, who only wants facts that support her political viewpoint, may be disturbed to learn that according to the IMF in 2022 the UK is predicted now to have the highest economic growth in the G7. This comes at a time of record employment as well. This Government put the people first. One of the saddest things about Labour Governments over the years is that they always end with higher unemployment than at the beginning. I am sure they wish the best, but they never seem to be able to deliver it.

In addition, households will see the first instalment of the £400 energy bill support scheme in their October electricity bill. Families are seeing it in their bills already in some cases. In Great Britain, the discount will automatically be applied monthly in six instalments between October 2022 and March 2023. For the 8 million most vulnerable households across the country, that will form part of a £1,200 package of targeted support to help with the cost of living.

The Minister mentioned the IMF report. Did the same report not say that, actually, inflation in the UK will be among the highest in Europe? There is perhaps only one country—Slovakia, I think—with a higher inflation rate. People will be hit far harder here.

The growth plan and the Government’s intervention will have a significant impact on reducing inflation, protecting households, mortgages and the like. Households in Northern Ireland will also receive support through the energy price guarantee from November, with support for October bills backdated so that they see the same benefit overall.

Like many in the Chamber, I represent a rural constituency with many people off grid. Those who live in an area of the UK that is not served by the gas grid—we have had a lot of conversation about that—and use alternative fuels, such as heating oil, to heat their homes will receive a £100 payment to support them with their energy bills. We are working at pace to work out how best to pay that money to those people. On 8 September, on the Floor of the House, the Prime Minister committed to supporting park homes. Residents will receive support equivalent to the EBSS and the EPG—apologies for the alphabet soup. More details on that will follow soon. It is important to note that households that use alternative fuels will get the £400 energy bills support scheme payment and the electricity component of the energy price guarantee as well as the £100 for alternative fuels.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am going to press on. The Government’s package of interventions makes up the biggest proportion of the fiscal package set out in the growth plan.

Non-domestic energy consumers, including businesses, charities and public sector organisations, have also been experiencing significant increases in energy costs, with reports of increases of more than 500%. Those consumers will also be protected through the Government’s energy bill relief scheme from October, over the next six months. That support is equivalent to the energy price guarantee put in place for households, and similarly discounts the unit prices of gas and electricity, meaning that non-domestic energy consumers will pay wholesale energy costs well below half of the expected prices this winter. That will provide much-needed relief and certainty to non-domestic energy users who were facing significant energy costs, and it will enable them to plan ahead.

Forgive me; if I had been left anything like half the time that was available by the Opposition spokesman, I would have been able to accommodate the hon. Gentleman.

After that initial six-month scheme, the Government will provide ongoing focused support for vulnerable industries. There will be a review in three months’ time to consider where that should be targeted to ensure that those most in need continue to get support.

Non-domestic users that are eligible for support with energy bills include those on standard variable energy contracts, those whose fixed-price contracts are coming to an end and those businesses that have agreed a fixed-price contract in the last six months. We recognise that it is a challenging time for businesses, particularly those that are energy intensive, many of which are situated in Wales, as hon. Members will know.

The Government have provided more than £2 billion of support since 2013 to energy-intensive industries. We are continuing to ramp up the support, through measures such as the extension of the energy intensive industries compensation scheme. That is being extended for a further three years, and will double the relief available. We are also consulting on the energy intensive industries exemption scheme, with a view to increasing the aid intensity and reducing electricity prices for energy-intensive industries, thus supporting many jobs in Wales.

In parallel to those measures, the Government are taking decisive steps to tackle the root causes of the issues in the UK energy market, by boosting British energy supply and increasing independence to ensure that this does not happen again. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test is right that that is what we need to do. That includes the work of our energy supply taskforce, a new oil and gas licensing round, lifting the moratorium on UK shale gas production, and driving forward progress on nuclear and renewables.

It is important to remember that our energy needs this year are 75% dependent on fossil fuels. We are driving forward on the path to net zero, more than any other major economy in the world. However, the idea that the market could be entirely decarbonised by 2030 is mad. It is crazy. That is the official policy of His Majesty’s Opposition. The poverty, bankruptcies and ruin that the Opposition’s policy would cause this country—and the impact that it would have on families and businesses in Wales—are incalculable. We need to ensure that our energy system is working to shield consumers in Wales and the whole of the UK from the worst impacts of a volatile international energy market, and to reap the benefits of our increasing cheap renewable electricity generation while reducing our dependence on imported fossil fuels.

I will not take any lectures from Labour Members in this space. Today, renewables make up more than 40% of our electricity supply; just 12 years ago, in 2010, it was 7%. The Labour party talks but it does not deliver; it is the Conservatives who deliver. We have led the world. We have transformed the economics of offshore wind with our contracts for difference, which were brought about under a Conservative-led Government and are now being mimicked right around the world. Why? Because they recognise the high up-front capital cost of these projects, increase certainty for investors, lower the cost of capital, and have seen the price per megawatt-hour for offshore wind go from £120 in a 2015 auction to £38, I think, in the latest round. Not only that, but because of the CfDs brought in by a Conservative Administration, we are now seeing tens of millions of pounds paid back to reduce bills for taxpayers.

The Government are working with electricity generators to reform the outdated market structure where gas sets the price for all electricity. We have recently launched the review of electricity market arrangements, REMA—a major review of Britain’s electricity market design to ensure that it delivers an enduring framework that works for our businesses, industries and households—and we will introduce reform where necessary.

As issues of energy efficiency, fuel poverty and heat are devolved, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have specific net zero strategies, and we work closely with our counterparts in the devolved authorities to ensure that our strategies align. Overall, the UK has a strong track record in making homes more energy-efficient, with 46% in England now achieving an energy performance certificate rating of C or better, compared with 14% in 2010. Again, it is the Conservatives who deliver and reduce energy costs, and it is Labour who produce hot air and nothing to help families with the cost of living. The energy performance of our buildings continues to improve, helping to reduce consumer bills and improve our energy security.

We are taking steps to encourage businesses to reduce their energy demand.

No—I will have to sit down very shortly.

We have long-term regulations to ensure that landlords are incentivised to improve the energy efficiency of buildings and to set a minimum standard. We are also providing tax incentives for less energy-intensive technologies by bringing forward an exemption on business rates for green technology, saving businesses an extra £35 million in 2022-23.

We are doing an awful lot, and my job, when the Prime Minister appointed me to this position, was to accelerate the uptake of all of these energies to move us to net zero, and to do so in a way that supports families and does not impoverish them, which is sadly what the policy of the Labour party would bring about.

Where to start? I do admire the fantasy being played out by the Government in trying to explain away the Chancellor’s horrific mini-Budget, while the IMF has today doubled down on its criticism of it in an unprecedented way. However, today’s debate was about energy costs in Wales. I set out in my speech, and we heard from Members present, how those costs have impacted constituents, people, businesses and organisations up and down Wales and, indeed, the whole country.

We need action from this Government, and we need it now. They have been in power for 12 years—12 years doing little bit by little bit. We need proper reform of the energy market, proper investment in renewables, and a proper plan and strategy for an energy efficiency scheme. That starts with the Prime Minister not ignoring official advice from the Climate Change Committee and not ruling out solar generation on farmland. The Government’s actions are pitiful, and they are not the way that we will see solutions across the country.

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

Baha’i Community in Iran

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the treatment of the Baha’i community in Iran.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I welcome the Minister to her position, and I am grateful that there are a number of other colleagues in the Chamber. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on the Baha’i faith; in that regard, before I come to the meat of what I want to say, let me place on the record the appreciation that I feel, and I know my predecessors felt, for the work of the UK Baha’i Office of Public Affairs. Dan Wheatley, in particular, and his various colleagues over the years have been of enormous service to us all, and to the Baha’i community in my constituency. Orkney and Shetland are home to two small but very effective, warm and welcoming Baha’i communities, which have demonstrated great fellowship to me and my family over the years, for which I have always been enormously grateful.

Persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran is hardly new; it has been a feature of life for Baha’is in Iran since the 1979 revolution. However, over the summer, we saw a sharp increase in the number of innocent Baha’is facing persecution by the Iranian state. It is unfortunate—it grieves me—that we have to bring this matter to the House today, but I hope that those who are suffering that persecution will take some comfort from hearing reference made to it in this House. The people whose names I will mention should understand that their suffering and persecution are seen, and that they will not be ignored by those of us who care about human rights for everyone.

Iran does not have a good record on human rights; I think that is an uncontroversial statement across the Chamber. However, rather than getting to grips with it, the country has in recent years stepped up the oppression of its own people. From the arbitrary detention of protesters to the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community and the second highest number of executions in the world, there is a great deal about which we should worry in the state of human rights and freedom in Iran. I do not want to touch on it at any great length, but it would be remiss of me if I were not to mention what we have seen in recent weeks in Iran. In particular, we should mourn the loss of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, who tragically died in police custody after being detained for alleged violations of Iran’s strict dress code.

It is in this context—that of a brutal regime—that we come to Iran’s repression of the Baha’i community inside its own borders. Iran’s religious minorities have suffered for too long at the hands of the state. The Baha’i community of Iran has an estimated 350,000 believers, who have long faced systematic oppression orchestrated by the Government. That alone merits discussion, but the alarming increase in persecutions of the Baha’i community in recent months further shows the need to shine a spotlight on the issue. This year, over the summer in particular, Baha’is in Iran have faced what The New York Times characterised as a “sweeping crackdown” on their community. That new wave of suppression by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence has included unwarranted arrests of believers and faith leaders, a deeply concerning rise in the confiscation and destruction of property, and accusations that followers of the Baha’i faith have acted as spies for Israel.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and on the hard work he does for the Baha’i community. I share his concern for that community in Iran. I believe that Iran’s treatment of the Baha’i community serves as a litmus test for Iran’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that more should be done to stop the arbitrary arrest of Baha’is on spurious allegations? That is one of many ways in which the religious freedom of Baha’is is violated, along with their other fundamental human rights.

Indeed I do, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he does to promote freedom of religion or belief around the world. He makes a very good point, and I hope to give some context in reference to the situation in which the Baha’is in Iran find themselves.

The right hon. Gentleman may be aware that people of the Baha’i faith are banned from accessing higher education in Iran, which is a sad means of repression by the state. Does he agree that denying access to education is Iran’s way of keeping Baha’i youth isolated and powerless? Access to education is a vital right that should be protected.

I absolutely do. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point because it means that I will not need to say quite so much about that subject and that I can continue to take interventions. I am happy to take interventions, because it is important that, when the record is printed, it is seen that this is not a tiny concern but one that extends across the House.

The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech and it is really important that our concern is placed on the record. I am proud to be an officer of the APPG on the Baha’i faith. I hope that he agrees that this House must continue to hold Iran accountable for its violations of the rights of its own citizens in the Baha’i community, particularly during this global crisis. Will he join me in urging the Minister to speak up and speak out, because we need action now?

Absolutely. In many ways Baha’is are low-hanging fruit—this issue is not just confined to Iran but it is particularly acute there—because they are a tiny religious minority. As somebody who has campaigned on human rights for many years, including before I came to this House as a Member of Parliament, I know that that increases rather than diminishes our obligation to draw attention to their plight.

We can do a lot as individual Members of Parliament, but I hope that the Government, who speak for the country as a whole, will take that message to heart in everything we say as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and still, I hope, a country to which the world looks as a force for good and as a protector and, in many cases, a creator of human rights legislation. People should understand that this issue matters to Britain—not just to individuals but to our Government as a whole.

While I am on the subject, I should place on the record my appreciation for the remarks made by Lord Ahmad earlier in the year. They were heard by the Baha’i community in this country and beyond, and they were certainly very much appreciated.

The right hon. Gentleman is being incredibly generous with his time. I spoke to members of York’s Baha’i community just last week, and they wanted to stress the importance of our Government speaking out because the Baha’i community in Iran cannot. Their aims are always altruistic and peaceable in serving their community. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that many in the Baha’i community are unable to work in Iran because of the suppression and suspicion that is placed on them when all they want to do is serve like the rest of the population?

A breach of human rights is a breach of human rights. It is invidious to try to construct a hierarchy of human rights, because the defining characteristic of human rights is that they are universal. But one of my particular concerns is the pervasive way in which the Iranian state persecutes the Baha’i community. It is not just the persecution of their religious belief, but their exclusion from education, the closing of their businesses—there is persecution in a whole range of ways. That is not an accident. It is a quite deliberate strategy that is designed to persecute people simply because of their religious belief. If we allow it to happen to the Baha’is, it will happen to other religious minorities as well. If it can happen in Iran, it can happen in just about any other country. When it comes to human rights and freedom of religion, we are not safe unless everyone is safe.

The Baha’i International Community reported 125 separate incidents of persecution in the first 10 days of August 2022 alone—a worrying development that signals a step up in the regime’s attempts to crack down on an already heavily persecuted religious minority. By 1 September, the number of incidents in the crackdown had almost doubled to 245. I fear that it is doubtless even higher today.

I want to highlight a number of developments that show the breadth and depth of these changes. First, the regime has upped its campaign against religious minority leaders in Iran by rearresting three former members of the Yaran, the informal leadership committee of the Baha’i community. Afif Naemi, Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi have already served 10 years of their life in prison for their service to the Baha’i community, and the Yaran committee has been wound up, so all three have, in fact, retired from roles of religious leadership.

Furthermore, the mass arrest of 26 Baha’is in the city of Shiraz alone is exceptionally worrying. The number of Baha’is raided, arrested or recalled to prison has increased significantly since June.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for giving way. He is making a really powerful speech. I have been approached by a number of people in my constituency who are incredibly concerned about this crackdown and the human rights abuses right across Iran. It is particularly worrying for those who belong to my Baha’i community in Halifax. I thank them not only for bringing this to my attention, but for the community work they do in Halifax. Reading the information about what is happening in Iran, I found it particularly heartbreaking to learn of the arrest and detention of parents of young children, leaving those children without parental care. That demonstrates the impact this crackdown is having on families and children in particular.

This is where it becomes personal for us all. As a parent, I can only imagine what it would be like to find myself under that sort of pressure. It touches on my earlier point about the pervasive, all-encompassing nature of the persecution of the Baha’is. They find themselves excluded from just about every aspect of normal, everyday life that we would take for granted. It is this element of systematic oppression that is particularly concerning.

On 2 August 2022, Iran sealed off the village of Roushankouh in the Mazandaran province, blocking off road access by sending in 200 armed agents of the Iranian state. Six homes were demolished by heavy equipment and 20 hectares of Baha’i-owned property were confiscated, according to the Baha’i International Community. Amnesty International reports that villagers had their mobile phones taken to stop them filming, while peaceful protesters were beaten and targeted with pepper spray. That incident follows a similar demolition of at least 50 homes in the village of Ivel, also in the Mazandaran province, in June 2021.

As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned earlier, access to education is severely limited by the state. Most Baha’is are excluded from the national entrance examination to higher education institutions because their applications are characterised as “file incomplete”—illustrating the way in which bureaucracy can be used as a tool of religious oppression—as they do not come from one of the four constitutionally recognised religions. This year, as of August 2022, more than 90 Baha’i students were prevented from enrolling in Iranian universities, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence has further accused believers of espionage and infiltrating education institutions.

In 2020, Baha’i faith believers became unable to register for identity cards for a similar reason to that given to those applying for higher education. The option of “other religion” was removed from the application form—an example of Iran cracking down on even a hint of an already oppressed minority—and that has caused real problems, as the Baha’is are not allowed to lie about their faith.

Baha’i-owned shops have been another target of the Iranian regime in recent years. Iranian authorities have systematically closed Baha’i-owned shops without legitimate cause. We also have the horrific situation of more than 1,000 Baha’is facing legal hearings on false charges or being summoned to be put into overcrowded prisons— something that is unjust and unsustainable. But the cruelty does not stop there. In April 2021, Amnesty International reported that authorities prevented Baha’is from burying their loved ones in empty plots at a cemetery near Tehran, insisting that they bury them between existing graves or at the nearby Khavaran mass grave, a site related to the 1988 prison massacres. This ban was eventually lifted after mass public outcry, but the fact that it was ever even imposed shows the Iranian regime’s contempt for the Baha’is within its own borders.

The explicit policy to take away the social and economic rights of the Baha’is is driven by a memorandum from the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council back in 1991, which was prepared for the Supreme Leader to deal with what was termed “the Baha’i question”. Just consider the use of that term, “the Baha’i question”. This memorandum’s provisions say that the Iranian Government should conduct their dealings with the Baha’i community in such a way that

“their progress and development are blocked”.

As this shows, the recent sweeping crackdown is just the latest in a long line of actions against believers of the Baha’i faith.

The oppression of the Baha’is in Iran has, however, been noticed and will continue to be noticed, and it will be rightfully condemned by human rights campaigners, media and Government. I welcome the comments of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who was quick to condemn this summer’s developments, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to working with international partners to hold Iran accountable. I hope that that will not be an isolated comment and that the Government of this country will continue to call this out when they find it. What we are witnessing in Iran today is not a new development. The Baha’i community have faced an unjust assault on their freedoms for decades, but it is deeply troubling to watch this new intensification unfold.

For many years, Baha’i officers around the world have suggested that the treatment of their community in Iran offered an instructive litmus test on the sincerity of Iranian authorities towards reform and respect for human rights. In addition to the plight of the Baha’is, we witness a wider human rights crisis engulfing Iran and taking the lives of young Iranians, most notably young women. Iran has failed that litmus test. The Baha’i community and all other persecuted religious minorities across the globe deserve better. They deserve our support. They deserve our actions and the actions of our Government in calling out the actions of the Iranian Government where they are seen. We will not ignore what is happening. I hope that, if this is heard in Tehran, that is the one message that they will take from today’s proceedings.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, I believe for the first time. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this important debate and making sure that this important message continues to be heard. I also appreciate his dedication as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Baha’i faith.

Let us be clear: Iran’s human rights record is deplorable. Human rights violations are widespread and routine under President Raisi’s Government. Freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and women’s equal participation in society have been further eroded in 2022, and the events of recent weeks, following the shocking death of Mahsa Amini after her arrest by Iran’s so-called morality police, bring home the stark reality: women in Iran fearing for their lives because of what they choose to wear. Those who bravely take to the streets to protest against this injustice do so at great risk to their lives. I am in awe of them, and I know from the previous debate and urgent question that many in this House are as well.

Mass arrests and the mistreatment of detainees are common, trials continue to be marred by irregularities, and individuals receive little or no due process. The use of the death penalty is rampant and on the rise. It is against that bleak backdrop that the Baha’i community face a sustained campaign of persecution by the Iranian authorities. The Baha’i community has long faced systematic discrimination and targeted harassment in Iran. As the right hon. Member said, acts of repression include the forced closure of Baha’i-owned shops and businesses, pressure to convert to Islam and the denial of education, which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned. Over recent years, there has been a marked increase in the state identifying, monitoring and arbitrarily detaining Baha’i people. Alarmingly, Iran shows no signs of stopping.

On 1 August, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence confirmed the arrest of a number of Baha’i community members. That followed credible reports in July, particularly in the Mazandaran province, of widespread raids of Baha’i homes, forced demolitions and property seizures. Since June, the community has reported a marked uptick in arrests, including, as the right hon. Member also mentioned, three former spiritual leaders, with some detainees handed lengthy sentences. These reports point to one conclusion: the Iranian authorities have made a conscious decision to intensify the repression of the Baha’i.

While Iran’s constitution offers protection for some faiths, there is widespread discrimination against minority religious or belief groups. This experience is noticeably worse for unrecognised faiths, such as the Baha’i. This Government share the view of the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, namely that discrimination against the Baha’i community is legally sanctioned by a lack of constitutional recognition in Iranian law and the absence of other legal protections. Recent reports that Iran is carrying out a campaign to persecute Baha’i followers in other countries—such as in Yemen, through its links with the Houthis—highlight the severity of Iran’s suppression of religious minorities.

As hon. and right hon. Members are aware, the UK Government are committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all and promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. When we have concerns, we engage directly with Governments at ministerial and official level, and we raise them both publicly and privately. We have repeatedly expressed concern at the ongoing repression of members of the Baha’i faith and have taken the following steps. On 5 August, as outlined earlier, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon issued a statement condemning the detention of members of the Baha’i community in Iran and reports of forced closures of their businesses and land seizures. He made it clear that the persecution of religious or belief minorities cannot be tolerated and is a serious violation of international human rights law.

The UK continues to co-sponsor the annual UN resolution on the human rights situation in Iran and works with international partners to ensure that it expresses serious concerns about Iran’s mistreatment of members of minority religious or belief groups, including the Baha’is. We will continue to hold Iran to account for its human rights record and have done so in relation to the crackdown on girls, women and other peaceful protesters. On 21 September, Lord Ahmad in his capacity as Minister for the Middle East called for a rigorous and transparent investigation into Mahsa Amini’s death and urged Iran to respect the right to peaceful assembly. On 3 October, the Foreign Secretary summoned Iran’s most senior diplomat in the UK to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. He made it clear that instead of blaming external actors for the unrest, the Iranian authorities should take responsibility for their actions and listen to the concerns of their people. Yesterday the UK Government imposed new sanctions on the morality police and two of its leaders, as well as five individuals historically responsible for the repression of protests. As the Foreign Secretary has said, the protests send a clear message that Iranian people are not satisfied with the path that their Government have been taking, and Iran’s leaders must now listen.

The UK continues to demonstrate its global leadership on freedom of religion or belief in support of human rights in Iran and around the world. In July, the UK hosted the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief, at which 47 Governments, international organisations and other entities made pledges to take positive actions in support of that human right. We will continue to build and strengthen coalitions with Governments and civil society in order to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief for all. This Government are appalled by the treatment of the Baha’i community in Iran and by the crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. I assure the House that this Government remain committed to defending freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. We will continue to hold the Iranian Government accountable for their human rights obligations, and to take action and encourage the international community to join us when they do not.

I thank Members for this important debate, and I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for securing it.

Question put and agreed to.

Liver Disease and Liver Cancer: Diagnosis

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the diagnosis of liver disease and liver cancer.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am proud to sit as a vice-chair on the all-party parliamentary group on liver disease and liver cancer. I am delighted to have succeeded in securing today’s debate.

While health policy may be devolved in Scotland, I believe that work in this area across our four nations is vital. We can support each other in cutting mortality rates and improving outcomes across the UK. The liver is a remarkable organ. Like something from science fiction, it can regenerate. It is one of the more forgiving pieces of our anatomy. We can make lifestyle changes and treat it a bit better, and it has the capability to heal itself and undo some of the damage we may have caused in the past.

Considering that the liver is one of our most important organs in terms of its function, we probably do not give it the attention it deserves. Some 49% of liver cancer cases in the UK are preventable, and 20% of liver cancer cases in the UK are caused by smoking, according to Cancer Research. There are around 6,200 new liver cancer cases in the UK every year and 5,800 deaths. That is roughly 17 diagnoses a day and 16 deaths. There are five types of liver-affecting cancer, with hepatocellular carcinoma, or HCC, being the most common, accounting for more than three quarters of liver cancer cases globally.

While mortality rates for other cancers have improved over the decades, liver cancer mortality has more than doubled since the ’70s, with only 13% of patients surviving more than five years from diagnosis. Right now, the United Kingdom is facing a liver disease crisis. The number of deaths from the disease have doubled in the last two decades, while other disease outcomes, for example from diabetes or respiratory diseases, have stabilised or even improved. Around 10,000 people die from liver disease and liver cancer each year in the UK. It is the second leading cause of premature mortality in England and Wales after suicide. These statistics come in spite of the fact that 90% of liver disease is preventable.

As a Scottish MP representing a Scottish constituency, this hits even closer to home. Scotland has the highest mortality rate for liver disease in the whole United Kingdom. We also have one of the highest mortality rates for chronic liver disease across central, northern and southern Europe. This health crisis is affecting my constituents, and the statistics are sobering. In 2020, Scotland saw an 11% rise in chronic liver disease deaths on the previous year. It is one of the leading causes of premature deaths, above breast cancer and suicide. Approximately seven in 10 people who died of liver disease were of working age, so under 65. In a country with an average life expectancy at birth of 76.6 years for males and 80.8 years for females, these are premature deaths.

I want to look at why liver disease and cancer outcomes are so poor in Scotland and across the UK and at what work needs doing to address that. Let me start with the why. One of the biggest barriers to effective diagnosis and treatment is the social stigma that continues to cloud how we view patients with liver disease and cancers. It is crucial to acknowledge and understand the part that poverty has to play in the demographic of patients with these conditions. As the UK grapples with the cost of living crisis and a drastic drop in living standards, this is not a contributing factor that can be overlooked or ignored—it will be a huge risk to public health and the lives of those living in our most vulnerable communities—and it would be a catastrophic mistake to do so.

There are over 100 causes of liver disease, but the ones that contribute to the most cases are also factors much more likely to be present in poorer communities: alcohol misuse and obesity. In Scotland, 58% of liver disease deaths are alcohol related. Across the UK, alcohol-related liver disease accounts for 60% of diagnoses. Like most addictions, alcohol abuse is statistically higher in poorer communities and carries a heavy stigma: the resulting harm is seen as self-inflicted. To improve outcomes for alcohol-related liver disease, we need to look at alcohol dependency and the reasons for its prevalence. Most importantly, we need to support patients in making positive lifestyle changes. Access to the right care is paramount, and increasing the availability and quality of support available at a primary care level is essential.

On the impact of obesity, which is also higher in Scotland than the rest of the UK, non-alcohol related fatty liver disease, or NAFLD, is expected to become the leading variation of the disease in the UK within the next decade. Nearly one third of Scottish adults are obese and two thirds are overweight, but the statistics across the UK are similar. Again, obesity is more prevalent in deprived communities; it is seen as a choice. Obese people are seen as greedy or lazy, and societal conditioning teaches us that we do not need to look much closer at the reasons why.

There are many reasons why obesity is on the rise in those communities, including underlying health conditions, eating disorders and a lack of access to high-quality healthy foods. Like alcohol abuse, this challenge needs to be met with increased access to the right support, such as weight management programmes, but by far the most important tool on the road to prevention is early detection. That goes for alcohol-related liver disease, NAFLD or viral hepatitis, autoimmune or genetic-related.

Liver disease is largely asymptomatic in the early stages. Three quarters of patients with cirrhosis are diagnosed only when it has progressed too far for intervention or treatment. Without early detection pathways and investment in treatment, we will continue to see mortality rates rise. The British Liver Trust’s 2021 survey showed massive disparities in access to patient care pathways for early diagnosis in primary care settings region to region. It revealed that just 26% of local health bodies in the UK have effective pathways in place. It is calling for every integrated care system or health board to ensure that there is a named person responsible for liver disease and the identification of high-risk patients, and for all GPs to have the means to assess fibrosis.

CT and MRI scans are a critical tool for diagnosis and informing treatment plans, but this is an area that has been overlooked. The key problems are access to the right equipment and the quality of the equipment available. Some 41% of clinical radiologists state that they do not have the equipment they need to deliver a safe and effective service for patients. Industry surveys show that one in 10 CT scanners and almost a third of MRI scanners are more than a decade old—the age at which the equipment is considered obsolete. That is shocking.

This area of the NHS, like so many others, it is struggling with workforce numbers. The British Liver Trust welcomed the Government’s 15-year workforce strategy earlier this year, and I back its calls for gastroenterology and hepatology to be given due recognition through that process.

In May, I visited the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead with the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), as part of the APPG’s work, and we saw the Sheila Sherlock Liver Centre, a leading centre for liver disease treatment. It is well equipped with excellent, highly skilled staff. I would like every area of the UK to have something similar in place for patients. I met the chief executive, John Connolly, and Dr Thorburn, a consultant hepatologist, along with some of the patients. My conversations with Lucy and Hannah, two young women undergoing treatment at the centre, really brought home the human aspect of the disease. I am grateful to them for taking the time to speak to me about their experiences.

This morning, I received some very disappointing statistics from my local health board, NHS Lanarkshire, which is categorised as “red”, with no effective pathways in place for early detection and disease management. I have reached out to NHS Lanarkshire to request an urgent meeting so I can discuss this and seek assurances on its plans for improvement. The stats for my local board have cemented just how fundamental it is to properly fund detection and treatment of liver disease and liver cancer, and to give the NHS the tools it needs to support our communities.

While NHS Lanarkshire falls under the remit of the Scottish Government, I want to make some requests to the Minister here, too. The all-party parliamentary group on liver disease and liver cancer, along with the British Liver Trust, is calling for a full review of adult liver services by NHS England. I urge the Minister to make that a priority. I hope that I have set out enough reasons to illustrate why that is so essential, and I am sure that other Members will have more to add.

As part of the plans to improve early detection rates, the NHS health check must routinely include assessment for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, as it looks to become the leading cause of liver disease over the next 10 years. Pathology is also vital, providing the study of disease and informing the development of treatment. I back calls for a new, nationally endorsed pathology pathway. That is another area that desperately needs support with its workforce supply and funding. I hope that the Minister will be able to address her Department’s plan for that support. Overarching all of this is the need for Government commitment and direction to address the disparities in access to care through policymaking and implementation.

Before I finish, I thank several organisations for supplying briefings to inform so much of this speech, and for their ongoing work in this area. I thank The British Liver Trust—particularly Paul, Richard and its chief executive officer, Pam—as well as Cancer Research, the Royal College of Pathologists and the Royal College of Radiologists. I look forward to the Minister’s response; I hope that, through collaboration, we can accelerate progress across the four nations to improve outcomes for patients and for our constituents.

The wind-ups have to start at about quarter past, so that is six Back Benchers in about an hour. I think you can probably work out the time limits for yourselves in that respect. First of all, from the Government Benches, I call Peter Gibson.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing this debate. I also welcome the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), to her place. I wish her every success in her new role. I have known her for over 30 years, and I have every confidence that she will be a thoughtful, listening Minister in a Department where she has professional experience and expertise.

Last month, my father should have celebrated his 80th birthday. Instead, his life was cut short by liver and pancreatic cancer. He died at 47—the age I am now—exactly six weeks to the day from being diagnosed. Looking back on the events of his passing in 1990, I would have assumed that things had improved. Advances in screening, treatment and diagnosis surely must have led to a very changed picture. However, in preparing for today’s debate, I have sadly learned that things do not look better. The British Liver Trust reports that there were around 200,000 deaths from liver disease in 1990, and in 2018 that figure had risen to almost 400,000.

In the north, the picture is quite bleak. It has the highest levels of liver disease, the highest admissions and the highest deaths. Liver disease is the second biggest cause of premature mortality and lost working years of life. We have seen a 400% increase in deaths from liver disease over just the last two generations. Liver cancer has seen the second fastest increase in incidence of any cancer in the UK, and the fastest increase in mortality rates over the past decade of any cancer for both men and women. Liver cancer mortality rates have more than doubled since the 1970s. I am reliably informed by the British Liver Trust that, sadly, the mortality rate in Darlington is the worst in the north-east, at 46 deaths per 100,000. Those are the worst results of any constituency in the north-east, which in itself is the worst in the country.

Those figures are not worrying or troubling; they are shocking. That is why I am pleased that we are having this debate. It is essential that the Government focus on tackling the causes of liver disease and cancer, so that we can prevent further families from losing a loved one prematurely.

As we know, liver disease is largely preventable, however symptoms often do not present until the damage is irreversible, making early diagnosis difficult but key to tackling disease. We know that liver disease deaths are higher in more deprived areas and are increased by higher levels of alcohol harm and obesity. When we talk about levelling up—improving our roads and railways, improving our homes and hospitals—we must not forget, and indeed must have a keen focus on, the health mission element of our levelling-up goals: to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy and increase healthy life expectancy by five years.

The British Liver Trust’s “Make early diagnosis of liver disease routine” campaign in Parliament earlier this year was welcome, as are the Government’s efforts to improve diagnosis times and make testing more readily available. The evidence from this debate, however, is clear: we need to go much further and much faster to have a real impact on the dreadful mortality figures.

As I said at the beginning, I know that the Minister is someone who listens and who will have listened closely to the debate. I know too that, as someone who was born in the north-east, she will share my concerns about those families robbed of their fathers or mothers too early. She will want to do all that she can to reduce those losses in the future. I look forward to her response to the debate.

Those Members who were listening intently to what I said earlier will have noticed that I tried to extend the debate by a further half hour, although we do have to start the wind-ups at about quarter past. For guidance, that gives about five minutes for each speech.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on her excellent contribution. I also thank her for her tremendous commitment to the work of the all-party parliamentary group on liver disease and liver cancer, which is really appreciated.

This is an important debate, and I speak as the chair of the APPG on liver disease and liver cancer. As we have heard, unfortunately the incidence of liver disease is increasing dramatically, although 90% of liver disease is clearly preventable. However, it has to be addressed in its early stages. Worryingly, three quarters of people with cirrhosis are diagnosed when it is too late for effective intervention or treatment. To say that there is a liver disease public health emergency in our country is not an exaggeration. That needs to be addressed, and addressed urgently.

These days, in particular over the past two years, we hear a great deal about levelling up, but it is important that we see a health aspect to that agenda as well. It is truly shocking that liver disease deaths are four times higher in deprived areas. In those areas, people with liver disease die 10 years earlier than people with the disease in the most affluent areas. That needs to be addressed as part of a wider debate about creating a more balanced and equal society.

A short time ago, the British Liver Trust conducted a survey, which was published in the British Journal of General Practice in August last year. The survey identified widespread variation in the identification, treatment and management of chronic liver disease in primary care. It found that only 26% of local health bodies have an effective patient pathway in place for the early detection of liver disease. That survey was reinforced by the fact that a number of Members of Parliament wrote to their local health bodies: in total, 31 letters were sent by parliamentarians to their relevant health bodies to call for urgent action to improve liver disease pathways. Sadly, good practice is a postcode lottery.

It is important to bear in mind that we are not just talking about an abstract disease but about real people in terrible circumstances. Last July, the all-party parliamentary group on liver disease and liver cancer took evidence on the need for a comprehensive review of adult liver services in this country. We heard from a patient called Steve, who gave a moving address. He shared his experience of running a business for some 36 years and fighting for his life in accident and emergency with end-stage liver failure. Steve fell through gaps in the system and faced a life-threatening late diagnosis, due to the stigma that has been referred to, which is all too prevalent in this disease. He was discharged from A&E with little more than a dietitian’s sheet. He did not have access to any support or resources, and had no idea how to manage his condition. Steve’s story is a poignant reminder that we need urgently to improve the quality of care for people at risk of liver disease across the United Kingdom.

There is hope across the United Kingdom. In particular, under the leadership of the Welsh Government, Wales was the first UK country to introduce a dedicated liver disease delivery plan in 2015. The all-Wales liver blood test pathway is providing for the early diagnosis and management of liver disease across the whole of Wales. I am very pleased that the work was based initially on the local pilot project in Gwent, from which I come, and ensured an 81% increase in diagnosis of cirrhosis at a treatable stage.

Yesterday I was pleased to receive a letter from the deputy head of external affairs for NHS England. I thought, “Good! He has something positive to announce in readiness for this debate.” However, I was disappointed, because the letter says that “internal discussions” have taken place about whether there should be a review of adult services, and if there is, it will be done in the future. I think we have gone beyond that stage. The evidence is there. We need to go beyond discussing whether we should have the review—we should get on and do it.

The letter is disappointing and I urge the Minister to ensure that England is not left behind in the early diagnosis of liver disease. We urgently need a new, nationally endorsed pathology pathway that will save lives, drastically improve early diagnosis and transform outcomes for liver disease patients.

I remind hon. Members to try to keep to five minutes. The next Member indicated that he has to leave before the end of the debate, and I accept his reasons, so I call Anthony Mangnall.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing this debate on an important issue. It is striking how similar the points she made about her constituency are to the issues affecting many constituencies across the country, especially down in the south-west. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who added such a personal point to his speech, as well as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and his extremely good work on the APPG.

I can be very brief, because I want to make just a few points. I come to the debate having not known a great deal about the issue before I was elected. Like so many people, I was lobbied and introduced to the subject by constituents, specifically the Meredith family, who are very involved in liver diagnosis and transplant services and the need to improve them in the south-west. Over the last three years, I have met them regularly to discuss the issue, to see how the UK can improve its services across the whole of the country and to look at some of the positives and negatives. Of course, I am participating in the debate to point out some of the negatives, but it has been a fascinating journey. I met Professor Cramp of University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust to discuss the matter, to see where we might be able to improve it and to lobby my colleagues in the south-west about beginning a campaign to improve south-west transplant and diagnosis services. There is a real need to do so, and the statistics speak for themselves.

I continue to learn about this issue. In fact, I was completely unaware of the link between smoking and liver disease; given the fact that I am trying to quit smoking, that has only redoubled my efforts. It is important, because we talk in this debate about where we can tackle things at source: people who have alcohol addiction, smoking addiction or issues around obesity. We must address those at-source points.

However, I will focus very briefly on geographical disadvantages. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West described what she sees in her own constituency, but it is absolutely the same in mine. People who are in need of liver transplants have to travel across the country for a potential transplant, and they are then rejected when they arrive at the hospital. They then travel back to the south-west, which on a good day can be a four, five or six-hour round trip—far more if they are travelling by car. That is incredibly debilitating for them. It is incredibly destructive, and it hurts their health. We need to look at where we can improve that geographical disadvantage, and the south-west is more than a good case in point.

As I understand it, there is due to be a review of adult liver disease services this year. I understand that it was meant to be 2022-23. Would the Minister update the House—I apologise for not being here for her concluding remarks, but I will look at Hansard tomorrow—on whether that will be undertaken this year, and when it is likely to report? It is hugely important. A great many of us are banking on that report to identify some of the pitfalls across the country. May I also invite the Minister to meet the Meredith family and Professor Cramp to discuss the issue, get a better sense of where we are in the south-west and get a sense of where there are disadvantages for those who are suffering?

We have a real opportunity. I do not think there is any politics in the issue. We all recognise the pitfalls across the country—where the problem is increasing, and why it is increasing—and we have the opportunity to address it. I look forward to seeing the Minister’s response, and I again congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West on securing the debate.

I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for raising this issue and for giving us all an opportunity to participate in the debate. I am my party’s spokesperson for health, and also a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on liver disease and liver cancer, so it is good to be here to discuss how we can better improve our services for the diagnosis of liver disease and cancer.

There are over 100 types of liver disease and cancer. They impact some 2 million people across the United Kingdom, so it is of the utmost importance that our services are up to scratch to ensure quick and efficient diagnosis. The British Liver Trust has raised concerns about the difficulty of diagnosing liver disease, given that it can take some time for real symptoms to show. Perhaps the Minister would come back to us on that issue. I am very pleased to see the Minister in her place, which is well deserved, and we look forward to her response to all the issues raised by Members.

Many may wish to keep an eye out if they have been indulging in what are classed as the three main causes of liver disease: excessive alcohol consumption, undiagnosed hepatitis and potential obesity. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West set that out very clearly. Since the 1970s, liver disease has been on the increase, with a 400% increase in deaths. That cannot be ignored. I am one of those—probably one of many here—who have had a liver capacity test. It has also been said that there is a stark disparity between liver disease and diseases such as cancer and heart disease: figures show that deaths from those diseases have remained stable or decreased.

This is a nationwide issue, of course. As of 2019, one in five people in Northern Ireland—I always like to give a Northern Ireland perspective in these debates—who was suffering from liver disease was completely unaware of the fact. It is staggering that that could be the case: that is 20% of those people. In addition, since 2011, there has been a 28% increase in hospital admissions due to liver diseases and cancer.

Unlike some diseases, liver disease is something that we have real control over if we are on top of it and looking out for the potential symptoms. We must become knowledgeable as to how we prevent liver disease to start with: keeping an eye on our consumption of sugar, fat and alcohol can be instrumental in preventing some 90% of liver diseases, so there are a lot of things we can do ourselves. Before covid, Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee released a publication that alerted people to the concern that exists about alcohol-related diseases and deaths—about a potential spike in deaths of young people due to alcohol or needle-induced hepatitis, which are extremely preventable. The Government have a role to play in schools and at universities to ensure that young people who may be experimenting with alcohol are fully aware of its long-term impacts.

There are things we can do to prevent liver disease, and to diagnose it earlier. Along with personal awareness, more must be done to gather as much information as possible through research. As with all diseases, the more funding we are able to pump into researching liver disease, the more we can investigate, learn and prevent in the future. That is ultimately the role of Governments, not only here in Westminster but across all our devolved Assemblies, whether in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. They are responsible for funding our wonderful charities to enable them to commission and implement great liver disease and cancer services for all our constituents. It is important that we as elected representatives align ourselves very closely with liver disease charities. Those charities do incredible work, carrying out investigations and tests to find ways of making people’s lives better and, ultimately, to try to do away with liver disease.

We are on the right path, but there is no doubt that there is still work to be done on this issue. When we compare liver disease with other diseases, such as heart diseases and cancers, we can see the success stories in some of those areas, but we can make today’s debate an important step forward in curing liver disease. I hope that today’s turnout has encouraged the Minister to come back with something good when she responds; I also look forward to the contribution of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark). Today is a true representation of our goal to do better, and whether we are in Wales, in Scotland, in Northern Ireland or in England, we can do it together.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing the debate. It is also a pleasure to listen to the chair of the APPG on liver disease and liver cancer, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). I am grateful for the input he gave from Wales in particular, because it is very interesting to hear how different Administrations that have responsibility for health are tackling this issue.

I will spend the brief time I have talking about issues in the north-west of England. Similarly to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), liver disease was not an area that I was particularly familiar with until I became a Member of this House and heard from constituents, particularly families who had seen loved ones go through the terrible, very fast process of hearing about a liver disease and, sadly, passing away. I am particularly grateful to Dr Tim Cross, a constituent who is also a consultant hepatologist at the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust. Talking to him has really helped me to understand some of the issues, and in particular some of the regional disparities that affect not only my constituents in Warrington, but people in towns and cities such as Blackpool, Manchester and Liverpool. These major centres in the north-west of England are woefully underserved when it comes to transplant facilities for tackling liver disease and liver cancer.

All those areas of the north-west record some of the highest rates of liver disease mortality, with the most recent statistics from 2020 highlighted by the British Liver Trust showing a shocking 1,838 deaths, the highest of any region in England. Per 100,000 people, that equates to 28.4 deaths. By comparison, an area such as the east of England has almost half that figure—16.1 deaths per 100,000. Over the course of 2021, the north-west saw around 10,000 admissions to hospital due to liver disease, which is by far the highest figure in the country.

As hon. Members have said, early diagnosis is fundamental to treating the disease and preventing premature deaths. The critical issue for the north-west of England is the total lack of liver transplant facilities. There is not a unit that does it. Patients are routinely travelling to Birmingham, Leeds and a further afield to be assessed for liver transplants. There is no service for an area covering 7.3 million people, including major cities such as Manchester and Liverpool. It is clear to me that one of the reasons that we have such high levels is the poor facilities in those cities in the north-west of England. My constituents are also disadvantaged because they have to spend a lot of their own money travelling to those centres to get clinical guidance—people in other areas are not having to do that. That takes a toll on the constituents who face those challenges.

In Warrington alone, 51 lives were lost due to liver disease last year. Our town’s diagnoses, hospital admissions and premature deaths far exceed the national average. When we talk about the need to level up areas of the UK, particularly in the north of England, that is not just about economic growth. Regional inequalities in healthcare need to be addressed. I am pleased that this Government see that as a priority and are tackling it, but they could address that by looking at liver disease, and liver cancer in particular.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to narrowing the gap in healthy life expectancy, but I urge the Minister to look at liver disease and see what we can do. She will be aware that there are areas of the UK that are asking for better healthcare and better hospitals. Warrington is one of the areas bidding for funding to secure a new hospital. I say to the Minister that Warrington would be a great place to have regional transplant facilities for the north-west of England, and a new facility could accommodate that. I am keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on the additional capacity that could be released in the north-west of England to help those people in my area who are suffering from this terrible disease.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) on securing this important debate, as well as on the important work that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) do with the APPG.

While there are multiple causes of liver disease, such as from viral hepatitis, obesity and alcohol, I particularly want to focus on alcohol. Successive Health Ministers will know that, over a period of time, I have consistently raised concerns about the absence of a comprehensive alcohol strategy. This afternoon we have heard only too clearly why that is so important. For too long, alcohol has been promoted as a social norm, and not to imbibe as an anomaly, yet the scale of alcohol harm, psychologically and physically, is off the radar. It is something that is causing me significant concern, whether it is used for pleasure or to address pain. It must become a priority of this Government.

In a city where I see more and more licensing of premises, I am aware of the impact and harm that that is having on livers. We see it in the statistics. My discussions with the British Liver Trust over the summer highlighted the fact that more and more people with liver harm were younger and sicker. Our excellent public health team in York says that it is their No. 1 concern. When we match that against the fact that 90% of liver harm is preventable, we realise that there must be a more comprehensive strategy. As the profile of those with liver disease changes, so must investment in prevention, diagnostics and disease management.

Astoundingly, since 2010 hospital admissions for liver disease have risen by a staggering 45%. NHS Humber and North Yorkshire ICS currently has no clinical pathway for the early detection of liver disease. I have written to express my concern, and the ICS tells me it will respond on 4 November.

There are many causes of liver disease and cancer, but prevention and early detection can make a significant difference to outcomes. In Yorkshire and the Humber, our pressurised NHS is seeing a 13% increase on the national average for admission rates due to liver disease, and rates are 38% higher for alcohol-related liver disease. In York, alcohol is a major factor in A&E attendance. For women in York, admissions due to liver disease are 30% higher than the national average. As we focus on York being a drinking capital, we have to look at those correlations.

Over the covid period, many people turned to alcohol as a means of addressing other needs. When so many people are dying from alcohol-related disease, the Government must turn their attention to that matter—not least because we know the impact it has on the most deprived communities, as we have heard. In York, the mortality differential is 10 years between the most deprived communities and the wealthiest. One in four with alcohol-related liver disease will die in hospital within 60 days of detection.

I know from working on a ward specialising in hepatology how important this subject is, but also how tragic it is for families. That is why I urge the Government to focus attention on this public health matter in a way akin to Dame Carol Black’s work on drug-abuse harms. There were 4,859 drug deaths in 2021. I am not belittling that statistic at all, but the fact that there are 10,000 liver deaths—over double—really demands the Government’s attention and a strategy. However, there is none in place.

That is why the Minister has a unique opportunity—one that she must take hold of. Ministers can turn their attention to so many things, but getting on top of this issue, driving a strategy that makes that difference and ensuring that every community has a diagnostic centre, as York longs to, could make a serious difference to our communities and our nation. I trust that she will embark on an alcohol strategy and ensure that there are community diagnostic centres, that alcohol harm is properly addressed and focused on, and that we also understand and focus on non-alcohol related fatty liver disease. We have an opportunity to double down on tackling liver disease, and I trust that this Government will not let this moment pass.

To co-operate with the timing, we head to the Front Benches, with five minutes for the Opposition, 10 minutes for the Minister and a couple of minutes at the end for the mover to wind up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for securing the debate and for her continued advocacy on this issue. I welcome the Minister to her place, and I look forward to many constructive discussions with her in the months ahead. I praise the contributions from the hon. Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson), for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Warrington South (Andy Carter), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell). I particularly thank the hon. Member for Darlington for sharing his personal experience. As the hon. Member for Strangford often reminds us at these debates, it is those personal experiences that remind us of the impact of what we are discussing.

Liver disease is increasing rapidly across the country, with deaths doubling over the past 20 years, as we have heard. Too often people with liver disease have little to no recognition of the condition, which is often asymptomatic in its early stages. As a result, as every hon. Member has set out tonight, diagnoses often come too late, with mortality rates from liver disease far outpacing those for other major conditions, such as diabetes or respiratory conditions, which have stabilised or improved over the past 40 years.

This is a condition that is only getting worse, with the 2020 covid-19 lockdowns seeing a 21% increase in alcohol-related liver disease deaths. We have heard tonight that the stats on liver cancer in particular are deeply concerning, with incidences rising by almost half in the past decade. With the poorest and most vulnerable in our society facing dire consequences from the cost of living crisis this winter, we are at real risk of seeing such a spike happen again. Given the serious inequalities we have already observed for liver disease patients, we know the devastating effects that that would have.

Statistics from the British Liver Trust show that prevalence of liver disease is four times higher in our most deprived communities than our most affluent. The most deprived patients are also expected to die a decade younger, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly. This snapshot highlights the most glaring of inequalities. How can it be that, before we even look at the provision of services, people are facing such a glaring postcode lottery?

It is bitterly disappointing for liver disease patients, who are so badly affected, that the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has decided to scrap the health inequalities White Paper. Given the evidence we have heard from colleagues today, I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government plan to address this issue following that decision.

The picture for liver disease patients is deeply concerning, but when we look at the state of care and treatment services on offer, the situation gets even worse. Although, as we heard, access to specialist care improves survival rates by around 20%, provision of specialist liver disease services across the country is incredibly varied. Each year, thousands of patients are dying unnecessarily because they cannot access specialist services or because the services they can access are stretched to breaking point.

The rise in the prevalence of liver disease, combined with the shortage of specialist care, is compounding the crisis facing all parts of our NHS. More people are being admitted to hospital with no specialist care services available to them and no primary or social care capacity in their communities. We must break this all too common vicious cycle if our NHS is to have any chance to recover. The NHS desperately needs a workforce plan—something that has been called for consistently by not only Labour, but the cross-party Health and Social Care Committee. Can the Minister tell us what plans her Department has to address this issue facing all parts of our NHS?

As well as ensuring that we get the fundamentals such as workforce right, when it comes to liver disease, we should be learning from places where things are going right. Fortunately, my local integrated care system—North Central London—was categorised as green by the British Liver Trust survey, indicating that it has a fully effective pathway in place for the early detection and management of liver disease in primary care. Whether it is proactive case finding to identify those at high risk, GPs having the means to assess fibrosis, or effective management of patients, including referrals to secondary care where necessary, we know what effective care looks like, and we know what works.

I will conclude shortly. We need centres such as the North Central London integrated care system to exist not just in north London, but across the country. I urge the Minister to look at the positive examples of ICSs, such as North Central London, and see how the great work they are doing can be replicated more widely across the country. We know what works. We know we can do it. It is time for the Government to deliver.

I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for securing a debate on this important issue. She has been a great advocate on this topic, and I share her commitment to tackling this serious disease. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) for his kind words and for sharing his family story and speaking about some of the personal, family impact of these terrible conditions.

It is a year ago this month that our colleague, Sir David Amess, was tragically taken from us. He had a huge interest in liver disease. He was the co-chair of the APPG for hepatology and did so much to raise awareness of this disease in Parliament. One of the many ways we can take forward his legacy is to improve the lives of those with liver disease. That is why, although the Minister responsible for this topic was unable to attend, I wanted to ensure that I took forward this important debate and updated hon. Members on the work we are doing.

Many have talked about the scale of the problem, so I will not go further into that, but I want to talk about what we will do to address it. First, the NHS plan will help us to do that. It recognises the importance of preventing avoidable liver disease through targeted policies to address alcohol consumption and obesity. Unfortunately, most people are diagnosed with liver disease at a late stage, when it is less treatable, and they are often diagnosed during an emergency hospital admission. It is for that reason that liver disease is often called the silent killer.

To help detect early signs of liver disease, NHS England has a number of trials in train. One is evaluating intelligent liver function tests. That is when patients get a normal liver function test, and the laboratory has a process in place, based on those results, to test the same sample further, not necessitating a further appointment, so we can work out which patients need further investigation and treatment.

The NHS health check for 40 to 74-year-olds also identifies people particularly at risk of alcoholic liver disease and refers them in for further treatment and investigation. On top of that, we have the fibroscans, which have been rolled out through community diagnostic centres. They help to identify fibrosis in the liver at a time when we can try to treat it and before it becomes worse. Last year’s spending review allocated £2.3 billion for diagnostics to increase the number of community diagnostic centres to at least 100 by March 2025. That will boost diagnostic capacity to diagnose liver disease and improve earlier diagnosis and health outcomes.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about education for children about alcohol. Education on alcohol is now a statutory component of relationships, sex and health education in England.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) talked about a review of liver disease and liver care. That is taking place in 2022-23, and there should be a report after that. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) raised transplant care. I will ask the responsible Minister to write to them with further details about what is being done in that area.

The hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Strangford said that many liver diseases can be prevented and are preventable, particularly in relation to alcohol, obesity and hepatitis, and I want to talk a little about what we are doing in those areas. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for liver disease, and identifying disease early in those at risk and supporting them to stop drinking is critical. If they stop drinking, that can halt or even reverse damage to the liver. People at risk of alcoholic liver disease are being identified and given early access to tests, to detect emerging liver disease through the health check and other means.

The NHS has also invested in the treatment of alcoholism: £27 million has been used to establish specialist alcohol care teams in hospitals with the highest rates of admissions related to alcohol dependence. Those specialist teams will help identify alcohol-dependent patients, start them on specialist alcohol treatment in hospital and support their transfer to community alcohol services.

Since April 2022, NHS England has introduced a measure known as commissioning for quality and innovation, which incentivises providers to improve earlier detection of liver disease for alcohol-dependent in-patients in acute and mental health services. We are also committed to increasing liver health investigations in community treatment settings. Through the drugs strategy, we are making the largest ever single increase in drug and alcohol treatment and recovery funding, with £780 million of additional investment over the next three years.

As hon. Members said, another major risk factor is obesity. Tackling obesity is a major priority for the Government. We have seen some important successes since 2016. The average sugar content of drinks subject to the soft drinks industry levy decreased by about 43% between 2015 and 2019. This month, regulations have been brought in about store placement of products that are high in fat, salt and sugar, so that they cannot be displayed in areas of the store that are attractive and available to children. There have also been the provisions set out in the Calorie Labelling (Out of Home Sector) (England) Regulations 2021 and an investment in further weight management services for people living with obesity.

I would like to turn to hepatitis B and C, which are also important risk factors for liver disease and primary liver cancer. Through the NHS hepatitis C virus elimination programme, we have reduced the number of people living with chronic hepatitis C virus infection in England by 37% since 2015. New treatment with direct-acting antivirals has massively improved the success of the treatment, with mortality from hepatitis infections falling by 35% since 2015. So that has already reaped rewards.

There is a new opt-out pilot programme of testing for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C in emergency departments in areas of the country where HIV is most prevalent, which is a proven way of identifying new cases. During the first 100 days of the pilots in London, Blackpool, Brighton and Manchester, 328 people with hepatitis B were newly diagnosed, with 30 found to be lost to care. Each of them is an individual who will now be able to be treated effectively for the condition, which will reduce the risk of passing it on. Similarly, 137 people were newly diagnosed with hepatitis C, of whom 23 were found to be lost to care. Those are promising early results in just the first 100 days, and we now looking at what we can do to perhaps roll this programme out to other centres.

Many hon. Members talked about primary liver cancer, which has a tragic impact. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington said, the number of recorded deaths has more than doubled in the last two decades. Cancer Research UK statistics show that there are around 6,200 new cases diagnosed each year and, tragically, 5,800 deaths. Unfortunately, the five-year survival rate for people with liver cancer is poor, at only 13%, and that could be markedly improved by earlier diagnosis, as I mentioned.

To contribute to achieving a long-term plan ambition to diagnose 75% of cancers at an earlier stage by 2028, the NHS cancer programme has launched the early diagnosis liver programme. The programme aims to detect more liver cancers at an earlier stage, so that more patients can benefit from treatment. More people at a high risk of liver cancer are referred to six-monthly liver surveillance. The national cancer programme is working in partnership with the hepatitis C virus elimination programme to deliver 11 community liver health check pilots.

The pilots aim to support early detection and diagnosis of liver cancer by identifying and referring people with cirrhosis or advanced fibrosis into a liver surveillance pathway, and providing them with a peer supporter who can help and guide them through future appointments. The pilots will target people experiencing significant inequalities and those who disengage from the healthcare service, including homeless people, those with alcohol and substance addiction, sex workers, people in the justice system, disabled people and others. The hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) mentioned the workforce; she will be interested to know that over the last five years there has been a 20% expansion in the number of consultant hepatologists.

This is an important debate on a very important issue. We have heard some heartfelt contributions about the pain that liver disease and liver cancer bring to so many people and their loved ones across the United Kingdom. This Government are determined to take action and to make the changes that are needed to tackle this deadly disease.

Thank you, Mr Betts. I would like to speedily thank all the hon. and right hon. Members who took part in the debate. We heard from the hon. Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson), for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who said there were no politics in this issue, which I absolutely agree with, and who spoke about transplants and the need to improve the geographical spread of adult liver services.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us of the charities in this field, which are all doing such great work, and the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) offered his area for a new transplant facility for the north-west. I thank the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who said we have a unique opportunity to make a difference.

This is about early detection pathways, because rates vary considerably from region to region. We must have a full review of adult liver services, and GPs must have the means to assess fibrosis. Thank you, Mr Betts, for letting me wind up.

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