Wednesday 16 November 2022
[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]
West Balkans: Council of Europe
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the West Balkans and the Council of Europe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and a great pleasure to move the motion. I want to begin by saying that I have recently returned from a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where I observed the presidential and parliamentary elections on behalf of the Council of Europe. It left me with a deep impression of a troubled state where nothing gets done. I will come back to that in due course.
First, I wish to thank three people: George Papandreou, the former Prime Minister of Greece, who has produced a solid paper on the Europeanisation of the western Balkans. I am grateful for his sharing of the information that he collected, even though his paper remains too European Union-centric in its overall thrust. The second person I want to thank is Sandy Moss, our permanent representative in Strasbourg. Thirdly, I thank the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe secretariat in London, which does so much for us, and particularly the work of Nick Wright, its leader who is with us today.
The western Balkans covers a number of countries, including Albania, Bosnia- Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo. Most of those countries are members of the Council of Europe and have also applied to join the EU.
I know the hon. Gentleman is a member of PACE and I thank him for the updates on his work there. Does he agree that the Council of Europe has a key role to play in normalising bilateral relations in dispute resolution in the region?
I thank the hon. Lady very much for her question. That is a large part of what my speech is about. The Council of Europe has a pivotal role in the area in being able to take forward the sort of agenda that she has outlined. I am grateful to her for raising that.
The granting of candidate status to Moldova and Ukraine has not gone down well with the western Balkans states. We can all understand why. It has been seen for what it is: a political act that has left the western Balkans high and dry. It is seen as being driven by political expediency in view of the dreadful war in Ukraine. It has left a growing disenchantment with membership of the EU and with the EU itself, which will do nothing to increase peace in the region or provide stability, despite the agreed commitment to the shared values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law—the three principal values of the Council of Europe. That should have given the Council of Europe the inside track in working with the western Balkans to establish those values as the norm.
Despite calls over the years for the Council to take the initiative in the region, very little has been done. I will return to that. A catalysing activity for the region is the war in Ukraine. The influence of Russia in the region is enormous. As a starter, it has big strategic influence in energy, banking and real estate. Some of the countries support the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia. Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia have done so. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia have not. Serbia has signed a new three-year gas contract with Russia. We should note, too, that Russia is Serbia’s biggest supplier of arms—all sobering thoughts in a European context. The influence of Russia can therefore be seen to be felt very widely across the whole region.
In addition, two other players have a key role. Turkey’s activities have by and large been benign and focused on enhancing co-operation.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent and timely speech, and I praise his stewardship in leading parliamentarians on the Council of Europe. His mention of Turkey reminded me that there are elections in that country next year. Does he agree that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe also does sterling democracy-extending work in the Balkans and more widely in election monitoring? He mentioned Bosnia—he and I were observing the elections in Sarajevo last month—but such work extends to America, where I was election observing. The organisation also had border scrutineers in Ukraine during the lead-up to war. Does he further agree that its work has been vital?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, and it was a great pleasure to see her in Bosnia-Herzegovina where she was representing the OSCE. That was very much a joint mission to observe the elections, and I agree that the OSCE has a lot to offer, but today I shall concentrate on the relationship with the Council of Europe and what the Council can do, which perhaps has a longer-lasting effect in the region.
Turkey can play a role for good in the region and it has done much good work, but the second country that has a role to play there is Iran, whose activities cannot be described as beneficial. Iran, for example, is widely believed to be behind the attempted vote rigging that occurred in Bosnia-Herzegovina when the hon. Lady and I were there observing the recent elections. That vote rigging attempt was stopped, but it showed what Iran can do.
What can the Council of Europe do in the western Balkans? One of the key elements on which the Council should be concentrating is the rule of law, which is a principle that embeds all others. Furthermore, there are two broad areas where the Council has the edge over the EU, the first of which is developing and enhancing civil society across the region.
Without civil society, there can be no enduring and fundamental championing of the rule of law. We need a civil society that can be taken seriously and not just be one of those complainers. It needs to be active in promoting aspects of society such as good human rights. That is just the sort of area that the Council is trying to establish in Russia, although it faces great difficulties, but it should be much easier to achieve that in the western Balkans. That means programmes providing assistance and watertight governance, and ensuring that the systems—the Governments—accept the role that civil society can play.
Secondly, there is the broad area of concentrating on bringing the systems used by Governments more in line with the rule of law across Europe. Where are the extensive training programmes for the judiciary and its independence? I am aware of the Regional Rule of Law Forum for South East Europe, hosted by the AIRE—Advice on Individual Rights in Europe—Centre and Civil Rights Defenders, which has brought together some of the judges of the Court of Human Rights and the Venice Commission to establish best practice, but we need much more of that.
Where is the work with the Administrations to enable them to be willing to invite civil society into the reform process? Where is the work to increase the political will to do something about these issues, which will either increase democracy or provide a conflict with it that needs to be resolved? Where, too, is the ancillary but essential work of ensuring that the media are free?
Those are activities in which the EU is not, I am afraid, 100% active, but where the Council of Europe should be and could be. That requires a Council of Europe secretary-general who is prepared to roll up her sleeves and get out into the countries to sort out those programmes. Sadly, that is one component of the Council that is currently lacking. Instead, it has put three countries —Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia—under monitoring procedures by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, while Montenegro and Macedonia have just come out of monitoring.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he recently observed elections in Bosnia and spoke at the Council of Europe about the aftermath of the Dayton agreement. Does he feel that the worsening situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina can be remedied?
The hon. Lady seems to have read my speech, because she is anticipating some of the points that I will make later. I made that point at the Council of Europe and I am happy to make it later if she does not mind waiting a few more minutes until I get to that part of my speech.
Kosovo has been caught up in internal Council of Europe committee meetings and wrangling for a long time. Monitoring can play a great part in helping countries move forward with their reforms, including established countries such as France, the Netherlands and even the UK—I am the monitoring rapporteur for Turkey—but the amount that can be done through monitoring, as opposed to active programmes, is limited. It is not a big stick to tell the countries what they have done wrong; it is much more about bringing PACE’s substantial resources to bear to help the country put right weaknesses that might have occurred in its human rights, rule of law or democracy.
How, for example, does PACE monitoring deal with political instability? If anyone thinks that political instability does not arise in that region, they should just look at two countries. We as a delegation are actively helping Kosovo to overcome the difficulties that it faces and become a full member of the Council of Europe, against Serbia’s objections which, of course, are backed by Russia.
Bosnia-Herzegovina contains Srebrenica—the site of a massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys, which has been classed in the international courts as genocide. It might be thought that there is little to argue about, but Serbs do not accept that it was genocide, and Bosnia-Herzegovina has a mixed population.
Reconciliation, which is crucial for peace and security, requires an end to conflicting narratives about the past and a more vigorous prosecution of war crimes. That too is where civil society and the Council of Europe can play a key role. The council must not allow such disputes to fester while we put programmes in place, and we need good conflict resolution activity. If I were secretary-general of PACE—this is not a bid for election, although I am happy to entertain offers—I would seek to develop that area. It requires people with special skill and faith that the countries can come right.
The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) will agree that the general elections we observed in Bosnia and Herzegovina were generally well run and free. The polling booths, although sometimes a little eccentric—one was in someone’s front room—were generally well run. The only incident, to which I have already referred, occurred when those running a polling station turned up to open it with bags of polling forms that had already been completed.
A major problem, however, was that only three or four people were allowed in the polling booths at any one time. The queues stretched right out into the open air at times, because it took an average of 30 minutes for someone to vote because there were four very large, folded voting papers to read before they could identify their preferred candidates. It took that time to manage the paperwork. That is largely a result of the solution produced by the Dayton accord, which created an unsustainable constitutional system for the country. Sure, people were no longer voting with a gun pointed at them, but that cannot be the answer for the future. It cannot go on like that. Having three Presidents means that nothing ever gets decided. With a strong Muslim community, the country is divided into separate constitutional entities, all of which are threatening—at one time or another—to resign the country, such as the Republika Srpska. The high representative has already said that the country is
“facing the greatest existential threat of the post-war period”,
and its links with Russia are strong. It is a crazy and unsustainable situation. I congratulate Bosnia-Herzegovina on setting up such a large election-monitoring activity with both the OSCE and the Council of Europe, and other western organisations.
I have mentioned Kosovo. We as a delegation are actively supporting Kosovo, and have already offered to help it to become a full member of the Council of Europe. It can take its seats, but not vote, thanks to the work that we as a delegation did to encourage that as the first step for membership. I understand that our enthusiasm for Kosovo is the position of the UK Government as well.
It is difficult to comment on Albania without a comment on its Prime Minister. I have met Edi Rama, and did not find him to be the most conducive man for accepting the activities of the Council of Europe. We are aware of the number of Albanians, certainly the number of Albanian single men, who are coming across the channel, but Albania needs to make lots of progress on reforms to the judiciary and against corruption.
The big problem with Serbia is normalising its relationship with Kosovo and aligning its foreign policy away from Russia to a western, normal perspective. These both mean a lot of work, and a great deal of rethinking. It is interesting that the EU sees the help of the Council of Europe as crucial for enlarging the EU to include the western Balkans. It is essential for the UK too, but we should not try to do it alone at this stage. The UK should use my delegation to put pressure on the Council of Europe to take a more active role in the region and step up to the plate. It is not a question of money either; the Council of Europe Development Bank is able to help with the investment. We need a strategic approach, looking at the region as a whole. The question of migrants is a big factor in this, but we must move away from the narrow confines of nationalism and xenophobia, and the Council of Europe can play a major role in that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) —I use that term advisedly—on opening the debate. His stewardship of the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is exemplary, and I join him in his endorsement of the roles of those who help us here in the UK Parliament.
If we look at the west Balkans as a region—the hon. Member for Henley is right to say that we need to take a strategic view of the whole region—some things are common. Not everywhere has all of these features, but nevertheless one of the depressing things is to travel anywhere in the western Balkans and talk to young people, most of whom will say that their ambition is to leave. They do not generally want to leave for the UK, by the way; they normally want to go to Germany. The fact that young people have no hope or faith in the future is such a mark of what is going wrong. There are those of us who heard that message not so long ago in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it is a common view across the region. It matters to us as the UK in narrow, national terms, but it matters to us in any case if we hold the view that a well-ordered world is in the interests of the United Kingdom. There are issues such as combating corruption and ensuring that the rule of law is underpinned by judges who are free of the taint of corruption. Those things matter and it is in our interest to ensure that we are part of a process that brings them together.
In the relatively short time I have, let me make one central point. At the moment, a battle is taking place that can be defined in national terms, or by groupings of nations. That is whether the Council of Europe and the European Union pull together and challenge the baleful influence of Moscow and, to a lesser extent, the growing presence of China in the western Balkans. Certainly, the influence of Moscow is almost entirely that of disruptor, through their friends in Belgrade as well as directly.
That matters because a disrupted western Balkans can descend into the kind of events that we have seen in the past. It is very difficult. Nobody would have predicted the violence that took place in the Balkans in the past, not many years before the region was plunged into chaos. I do not want to be overly dramatic, but when Mr Dodik talks about independence or secession for Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina we have the basis of a major challenge. An independent Republika Srpska’s armed force could lead to all manner of things, the like of which we should not contemplate. We have an interest, in any case, in the good governance of the region. That catastrophic view would not apply in most other countries of the region, I am glad to say, but we do have to challenge, both intellectually and practically, the role that Moscow and Belgrade seek to play in the region. That is one point I want to establish.
Many good things are taking place. Going back not that long ago, few people would have predicted that Albania would be a serious candidate for European Union membership, or North Macedonia, yet both those countries should be on a faster track into the European Union. It is always difficult, post Brexit, for UK politicians, even ones like me who were opposed to Brexit, to make the case for the European Union to take action. We need our friends in the EU to recognise that an EU that pretends to have the door open but in practice slams it pretty firmly shut is playing into the hands of the disruptors in the region, and those who already have the kind of despair I described among the younger generation and simply want to leave their countries.
There are some practical things we need to do. We need to work together, the Council of Europe with the European Union. That must underwrite everything that we do. There is no room for competition between the two bodies; we should be joined in everything that we do. That is fundamental, because it is about providing stability and the practical support that the hon. Member for Henley described. It is also about providing something else: the sense that there is a direction of travel that takes people to a better future.
In the end, the big prize is to say to the younger generation, which includes some very talented people, that their future is in their own countries in the region, to build that better west Balkans. If we can begin that process with sincerity and practicality, we can make a material difference. I know the region a little from over the years, but there are people in this room who know it a lot better than I do and I want to listen to what they have to say.
I will say this, though: the western Balkans matters to the United Kingdom. Perhaps it is not our principal area of activity at the moment, but one of the real tragedies of how we all operate is that today’s crisis is Ukraine, yesterday’s was Afghanistan and the day before it was wherever. The western Balkans was once that crisis that we thought was so important, and all our energies were directed there. As a Minister, I lived through the crisis in Kosovo, and we cannot go back to those days. The region is too important for us, so we have to make sure it is on all our agendas, not simply for today, but for the indefinite future. I thank the hon. Member for Henley once again for introducing the debate. It is an important debate that we need to remain fixed on.
We have 34 minutes and five Members wish to speak. May I encourage you to keep to a limit of about seven minutes, although it is not a formal limit?
Without doubt, the crucible and cockpit for all crisis in the western Balkans is Bosnia. This country has 3.2 million people, ethnically south Slav in nature, but split into three basic religions. Muslims make up 51%, and they are often called Bosniaks. Eastern Orthodox people represent 31%—often called Bosnian Serbs. Roman Catholics represent about 15%—normally called Bosnian Croats.
In 1992, the Bosnian Serbs attacked their neighbours, seizing large tracts of land, which they ethnically cleansed of non-Serbs. As the war went on, the Croats and Muslims also carried out their version of ethnic cleansing. An estimated 2 million people were driven from their homes. In September 1992, the United Nations authorised the deployment to Bosnia of a protection force, UNPROFOR. The UN troops were often called peace- keepers, but actually that was not their role. There was no peace to keep in Bosnia and UNPROFOR did not have the mandate to enforce it either.
Although several British Army observers, medics and liaison staff were already on the ground in Sarajevo and elsewhere, Britain’s main contribution to UNPROFOR was a battle group based on the 1st Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment and a reconnaissance squadron of the 9th/12th Lancers. Around 2,400 troops deployed under Operation Grapple, which is what it was called, in November 1992, and I led it.
Our military has been directly involved in Bosnia since then, and 59 service personnel have lost their lives trying to help the country, among them my escort driver, Lance Corporal Wayne Edwards, and my interpreter, Dobrila Kalaba, who was deployed by us although technically not in the Army. Both were shot in the head, and I was shot in the leg. It did not seem to make much difference to me—I am still here—but I am very sad about the other two. Unsurprisingly, therefore, I have a deep personal connection to Bosnia, which I retain to this day.
The war, which started in 1992 when I was first there, continued until the massacre of Srebrenica in July 1995 and ended with the Dayton peace accords in 1996. That stopped the fighting and established a triumvirate of uneasy power sharing between the three major sides: Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks. Dayton was supposed to last only a few years until politics could be adjusted to make Bosnia a somewhat democratic and viable state, but the Dayton arrangements have become the status quo, and they are simply cracking at the seams.
The Bosnian Serbs in so-called Republika Srpska are seriously threatening to break away, and the Bosnian Croats are also making similar growling noises. If that happens, almost all authorities on the region believe we could easily see the renewal of civil warfare in Bosnia. Between 1992 and 1996, approximately 200,000 people were killed in that war and, as I have mentioned, 2 million people were displaced. That tragedy must not be repeated.
I believe that we, the British, are in a good position to influence what goes on in Bosnia. Our reputation there is quite high as a result of the actions of our soldiers over the years, as well as the continued interest that we hold in the country—witness the fact that Sir Stuart Peach is the representative there, and a good one too. In my experience, the one thing Bosnians respect is good, motivated and professional soldiers on the ground, who know what they are doing. I do not suppose that it will come as a surprise to colleagues that I believe that we could go in there again.
Currently, we have very few military forces on the ground there and we do not contribute to the so-called EUFOR, the European Union Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is utterly and completely useless and does nothing but wander around the country, but we have a few staff officers at the nascent NATO headquarters recently established there. It would be a hugely significant signal if we were to send a British battle group to Bosnia under NATO command. I suggest that should happen, and soon.
My interest in Bosnia has not waned over the years. I have been there twice this year and will return again on 8 December. As my friend, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), has already mentioned, it is a tragedy that 170,000 people left Bosnia last year. They were mainly youngsters. Consider that 170,000 as a percentage of the population of 3.4 million. They are heavily bleeding the people who could be the future of Bosnia. Those people would not be leaving if they believed they had a future, so we, the British, who have invested so much in the country and have paid a blood price, should do all in our power to help that country of decent people sort itself out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for leading the debate and for his consistent and sterling efforts as leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe. I think we all believe that that delegation is in good hands. If I had the opportunity, I would vote for the hon. Gentleman, and I know others would as well.
Although the UK is no longer a member of the European Union—I am proud to be a Brexiteer—we do our best through the Council of Europe to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law. I am my party’s spokesperson for human rights and equality issues across the world, whether they be in Europe, the middle east or elsewhere.
I sincerely thank the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for his contribution. I have heard it before but it does not make it less powerful to hear it again. We are all aware of his courage, his bravery and his dedication to the peace and stability of the Balkans. He did it in uniform, and I give my thanks—indeed, all our thanks—to him for that. He is a dear friend; he knows that. We think very highly of him.
The debate is especially important as the last time we debated the issue was back in February, at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and we have since seen the devastation that has occurred as a result. The UK has always been a leading force in the Council of Europe, ably championed by the hon. Member for Henley, in holding Putin to account, so it is great to be here to discuss the protection of other small states.
On 13 December last year, the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), met the Foreign Ministers of the six west Balkan states of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. The hon. Member for Henley referred to Turkey as well. I have a deep interest in Turkey, particularly because of its human rights abuses. The fact that it suppresses and discriminates against ethnic minorities and those of other religious viewpoints is something we have to highlight, and I am glad that the hon. Member continues to do that.
With the dangerous rhetoric about religion heightening in Bosnia and Herzegovina, does the hon. Member agree that protecting freedom of religion across the region must be a key priority, particularly as some neighbouring countries look to join the EU?
I certainly do. I know the Minister will respond positively. She knows that I have a deep interest in that issue. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, it comes up all the time, and I will go on to speak about it. The hon. Member for Henley referred to fit and healthy single males who seem to be leaving Albania with regularity to come to the United Kingdom. I am not against any person who wants to emigrate, but do it legally through the system. Don’t jump on a boat and come across.
I watched a TV programme last week that looked at a village in Albania. The village previously had a population of around 1,000, but it was down to less than 100. Those left behind were elderly people and children—not many children at that—because they are all coming across. When it comes to Albania, maybe the Minister could give some indication of what discussions there have been through the Council of Europe and what the Council will do to ensure that people do not come across in these increasing numbers.
I thank my good friend for allowing me to intervene on him. A good role for the Council of Europe that has not been mentioned is convening a conference to try to sort out a Dayton 2—a new approach to Bosnia. If the Council of Europe is so flipping powerful, it should actually convene this conference and get on with it. All these words and elections are meaningless if the country is broken because of its constitution, which is non-existent and frankly is a cockshy.
Mr Stewart, please can you think about the language you use in this Chamber?
Ms Nokes, I am so sorry.
The emotion of the occasion perhaps got the better of the right hon. Gentleman. I wholeheartedly support—with the exception of the last couple of words, of course—what he says. We have stated on multiple occasions that the UK is committed to the western Balkans and to the defence and promotion of freedom. The west has proven instrumental in ensuring support for the west Balkans’s call for greater Euro-Atlantic integration with the United States for both economic and cultural prosperity.
One major factor posing great concern is Russia. I spoke on this issue last time, and we have truly seen the utter malice and evil that Russia has subjected Ukraine to since we last spoke on the issue. The Kremlin has repeatedly demonstrated that the Balkan states are a conducive environment to push back against the west, especially the USA. Putin’s regime has refused to accept Kosovo’s independence, attempted a brazen attack against Montenegro and committed covert attacks to target arms supplies that were destined for Ukraine. Russia is clever when it comes to subversion and in its violence, brutality and wickedness. When we look at these things logically, Russia has absolutely nothing to offer the west Balkans. These countries are in desperate need of prosperity and greater stability, and there is no comparison between the Council of Europe and the corrupt regime of Putin. That is the real threat in the Balkans.
Part of the Berlin process is to ensure that nine EU member states, along with the west Balkans and the UK, engage with the six Balkan Administrations to promote regional co-operation and integration agendas between EU and non-EU states. I know the hon. Member for Henley is trying to do that through his leadership. Through the Council of Europe, we care much about striving for democracy and promoting fair elections. No smaller state should be subject to violent extremism. The ongoing war in Ukraine has been devastating, and the United Kingdom has a role as a western ally to help Balkan states preserve companionship and autonomy. It has been clear that Serbia has moved closer to Russia by not imposing sanctions on the Administration. We have to look at what we can do to impress on Serbia the importance of making efforts to distant itself from Putin.
I will conclude, as I am very conscious that others want to speak. The UK works very closely with Governments in the Balkans region to support internal reforms and the rule of law. I wish for that to continue. I call on our Government—my Government—and the Minister who is in Westminster Hall today to ensure that there are ongoing conversations and support for the future of the western Balkans. I thank them—the Minister and the Government—as well as the Council of Europe, and in particular the hon. Member for Henley, for their work and achievements thus far.
In the brief time that I have, I will focus my comments purely on our relations with Albania, a country that I visited earlier this year with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who is the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Albania. I pay tribute to him for his professionalism in conducting that trip and in managing the APPG.
There is no doubt that there is growing controversy over illegal crossings over the English channel, but how we treat the existing Albanian diaspora here in the United Kingdom is very important and a key indicator of how we develop our relations with Tirana.
I am the sole Conservative Member of Parliament who was born in eastern Europe—I was born in Poland—so our relations with central and eastern Europe, including the Balkans, are of particular interest to me. I remember coming to this country for the first time, escaping communism with my family in October 1978, as a six-year-old child. I remember the tremendous warmth, kindness and hospitality that we were shown when we came to this country for the first time. That is what characterises British people and this country. That is what we are known for around the world—the way in which we treat people of different faiths, religions, backgrounds and other characteristics.
When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, there was a huge movement of people from that country to the United Kingdom. I remember that at the time the BBC and others whipped up hysteria about the huge numbers of Poles coming to this country, so much so that as I went around the United Kingdom meeting members of the Polish diaspora, I saw and heard evidence of racist attacks, abuse and intimidation of those hard-working Poles who had come to this country to contribute. It was because of the narrative that had been created by the media, by the BBC and by the newspapers. I felt so passionately at that time that I went on “Newsnight” and on Radio 4, and I challenged the media about their conduct, asking why they were focusing so much on people from one specific nation.
Of course we want to control migration, of course we want to control our borders, and of course we want to ensure that migration works in the interests of the United Kingdom. But if history has taught us one thing, it is that focusing on one particular type of people, or on a particular nationality, is a very dangerous thing for any society. And to blame that one particular group of people for the ills and difficulties that the nation is going through is the thin end of the wedge, and something that history has taught us repeatedly is extremely problematic.
I believe that Albanians in the United Kingdom are facing the same pressure that the Poles went through in the early 2000s—actually, perhaps even more so. I have come across cases in my constituency of Shrewsbury of young children of Albanian origin being bullied at school and experiencing racist abuse. Last week, I met Albanian citizens on Westminster bridge who were peacefully demonstrating and holding up their Albanian flags and saying, “I’m a carpenter”, “I’m a nurse”, “I’m a doctor”, “I’m a schoolteacher”, and, “We’re here and we’re contributing to the United Kingdom. We love this country. And yet the media portrays us all as criminals and part of some nefarious type of nationality that is here purely to take advantage of the British and to be criminals.”
I was very moved and touched by what I heard on Westminster bridge from those hard-working people. The demonstration that I saw last week on Westminster bridge is very different from how the event was characterised in The Mail on Sunday, which tried to portray those demonstrators as a marauding mob, hell-bent on creating violence. That is not what I saw on Westminster bridge. People like Mr Farage, who try to whip up this sort of anti-Albanian hysteria through the pages of The Mail on Sunday, should be very careful about what they are doing.
I want to raise a radio interview that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) had with Jeremy Kyle. For me, Jeremy Kyle is the epitome—the personification—of that vilification and that “baying to the mob” mentality. He tries to create division and tension in order to sell his agenda and vilify this diaspora. I was proud of my right hon. Friend when he described Jeremy Kyle’s comments as “emotive, corrosive, offensive drivel”. I agree with him entirely. To characterise a whole nation in that way is wrong.
We all want to destroy the business model of criminal gangs, but we must not pick on the Albanians. I urge the Home Secretary to focus on the task ahead of her, and to be careful with the language that she uses. Certainly, some of the Albanian residents that I met on Westminster bridge expressed concern to me about the characterisation of them by certain politicians in this House. I recognise and celebrate the helpful contribution of Albanians.
Finally, my constituent, Arlinda Ballcaj, has joined Shrewsbury Conservatives; she does a tremendous amount of work to help me with my local party in Shrewsbury. She was the first citizen of Albanian origin to stand for Shrewsbury Conservatives as a council candidate. I am very proud of her. Unfortunately, she lost the seat. When I sat down with her, we both cried about the vilification that she came under, the racist abuse that she received and the conduct of some of the other candidates towards her. It was an emotional experience. I do not want any candidate to go through that sort of abuse. I very much hope that all of us in this House bear in mind my key message today: let us tackle the criminal gangs, but let us be very careful about how we treat the Albanian diaspora. They are here, and in the main they are hard-working, decent people who make a tremendous contribution to the United Kingdom.
May I ask that the final two speeches are kept to five minutes?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this debate. It has been an extremely well-informed debate, and it appears that virtually everyone around the Chamber has been to the western Balkans over the course of the last few months.
I serve as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the western Balkans. I want to focus less on the political perspective and more on the main element of my brief, which is trade. It is a means not just of growing economies, but of ensuring peace and harmony within those sometimes troubled states. It is clear that we have both a strategic and a financial interest in being close partners with this part of the world. As the trade envoy, I am tasked with encouraging and supporting the growth of business links between the UK and the region. To do so, I work with a wide range of organisations in both the public and the private sector.
As a region with relatively young democracies and market economies, it is to some extent characterised by a legacy of nationalism, ethnic tensions, protectionism and territorial rivalries. Some businesses may consider the region full of significant business challenges, such as bureaucracy, corruption and political instability. However, each country in the region is committed to tackling those issues head on, and improving the business environment. Progress is varied from country to country, and there are setbacks. However, the general direction is positive and strides are being made with Governments across the region, and they ought to be congratulated for their efforts.
Of course, as states hopeful of EU membership, each Government in the region are astutely aware of the need to continue making the necessary reforms to eventually achieve that aim. There is much that the Council of Europe can do to step up its assistance to those nations in improving their application of the rule of law, tackling corruption, ensuring media freedom and putting reforms in place across the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary. That would also help them in joining other international organisations, including the Council of Europe.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley remarked, reconciliation is a key theme in the region and is essential to realising the goal of being admitted to the various international organisations. Numerous divisions exist both between and within states in the region; naturally, they are highly emotive and difficult to move on from. That is an area where the Council of Europe can play a significant role. Conflict resolution is difficult but essential. That means that those who have done wrong must be held accountable for crimes and prosecuted.
In some countries—Kosovo, in particular—the UK has not sufficiently focused on the trading relationship, instead preferring to support the country in state building and security issues. Other European countries, as well as the USA, have been quicker to capitalise on the opportunities. In other countries, such as Albania, our focus has dwelt on combatting organised crime. Given the direct impact that has on the UK, it is crucial that we address those matters and work together to resolve them. In doing so, we must remember that it is just one small aspect of what should be a wide-ranging and mutually beneficial relationship.
I want to address that particular issue in more depth. We will all be aware of the headlines in recent weeks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has highlighted, we have had protests in Parliament square relating to the channel boat crossings. I will say directly to the Albanian people, particularly those who live, work and contribute here, that the UK values their contribution. Most Albanians are here legally and contribute significantly to our society. The vast majority are law abiding and integrate well, maintaining strong relationships within their diaspora. Sadly, there are criminal gangs who exploit them; we are familiar with that. We enjoy a long history with Albania, and we ought to be able to overcome the present difficulties by working together to tackle the minority who are involved in drug trafficking and other crimes.
Those difficulties can be overcome through measures such as the mutual readmission agreement, which has already seen over 1,000 Albanian foreign national offenders returned. However, both of our countries need to do more. Fortunately, that is possible due to the strong and wide-ranging relationship we share with Albania as a close NATO ally, a partner in the UN and a vital partner in ensuring Europe’s collective security.
I suggest to the Minister that now would be a good time for her Department, in co-operation with the Department for International Trade, to launch a major initiative to encourage UK businesses to look more seriously at the opportunities that exist in Albania in particular, but also in the wider region. As has been said, those countries are losing their young people at an enormous rate. If we could do more to establish businesses there, the long-term effect would be to encourage those young people to stay in their home country. That would also, of course, be beneficial to our country as well.
I can see, Ms Nokes, that you are urging me to conclude. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley urged me to increase my contribution!
I would like to get Mrs Latham in, please.
I will wind up by saying that a great deal can be done to extend our trading relationship. I urge the Minister to work with her colleagues in other Departments to enhance our relationship, and as trade envoy I will certainly do my part to assist.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, I think, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this really important debate and all Members who have contributed so far.
I want to make two short points about the western Balkans and the Council of Europe. The first is based on worrying political developments in the western Balkans, and the second on my visit to Bosnia in February and the report of the International Development Committee on atrocity prevention, which was published following that visit.
As right hon. and hon. Members know, the Council of Europe is the leading body supporting human rights on the European continent. Although we are no longer members of the European Union, we remain at the heart of the rights-based union of the Council of Europe, including through the delegations from this House and the other place, ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, that we send to the part-sessions of the Parliamentary Assembly.
As my hon. Friend set out, however, the Council of Europe has been worryingly slow to act in relation to recent developments in the region, which I know from first-hand experience still experiences political instability following the troubles of the 1990s. Indeed, political instability in the region is increasing: there has been violent unrest in Montenegro, concerns about the Dayton peace accord, which ended the Bosnian conflict, and a freeze in negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia over Kosovan independence.
These are very worrying times, and the influence of what is taking place in Ukraine is keenly felt. That is why the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, at its October meeting, called for the EU to increase the speed and urgency of its enlargement process to the western Balkans. Without urgency on the part of the EU, the European vison may lose its appeal to those nations, and they will be at risk of Russian aggression, as we saw in Ukraine. That would be a shame, as the steps being taken by the western Balkan nations in pursuit of EU membership are incredibly positive. They include Bosnia’s 2022 laws banning female genital mutilation and forced marriage. I support the Council of Europe’s motion calling on the EU to increase the impetus accorded to the accession process for the western Balkans, and I hope the EU leadership will take that on board to help prevent further instability in the region.
My second point relates to the Council of Europe’s role as a guardian of human rights on the European continent and atrocity prevention. The International Development Committee’s report on preventing atrocities, “From Srebrenica to a safer tomorrow: Preventing future mass atrocities around the world”, highlighted that in addition to a Government strategy on atrocity prevention, multilateral international action is absolutely crucial in safeguarding the population from some of the horror of events such as Srebrenica in Bosnia in July 1995, and more recently the reported war crimes of Putin’s forces in Ukraine.
The Council of Europe must not be understated; it must be prepared to be outspoken on any issues of atrocity prevention, not only through the influence of the European Court of Human Rights, but through the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers. I hope the Minister will comment on how the Council of Europe can bring its influence to bear on the conflict in the field of atrocity prevention. This is a crucial moment, and the Council of Europe must not delay or hesitate.
This vast and hugely important subject cannot be dealt with thoroughly in the 90 minutes assigned to us. I hope the Minister will give consideration to the two points I have raised. First, the UK must exert what influence we can on the EU in support of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe resolution from October, encouraging more integration for the western Balkans. Secondly, I would be grateful if the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley could confirm that all parts of the Council of Europe will be particularly active in atrocity prevention in Ukraine, following the recommendation from the IDC report about acting multilaterally.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes, and to make the winding-up speech for the Scottish National party. I commend colleagues from across the House for making a number of powerful speeches that have provided some great insight into the region and the work of the Council of Europe. In particular, I commend the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for introducing the debate and for his work on the Council. It is important that, post Brexit, the UK builds on existing links to deepen and strengthen them, because being absent from Brussels does not mean being absent from other ways of communicating and co-operating.
The western Balkans is at a pivotal moment, and it is important that while we rightly focus on events in and around Ukraine—especially the events overnight, with deeply worrying news coming from the region—we do not lose sight of the countries in the western Balkans, because they are vulnerable to what the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) described as the baleful—that is the best word for it—influence of the Kremlin. There is a clear need for us to maintain focus there.
Colleagues know—I do not need to rehearse this—that I am a committed pro-European politician and pro-EU politician. I was a Member of the European Parliament for 16 years, and I greatly regret the UK’s absence from it. The EU is poorer for that, and the UK is poorer for it too. I think Scotland’s best future is as an independent state within the EU. We will come back to that.
One thing that I would say, arising from my 16 years in the European Parliament, is that it is important that colleagues remember that the Council of Europe and the EU are not in competition. There is always a risk of institutional vanity, but those organisations are best and most effective when they are in lockstep and in harness, working together. As a student in Warsaw in the ’90s, I saw that the EU accession track and the assistance that that brings from the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission and the EU itself can be hugely powerful spurs—a North star—for domestic reforms and capacity building in democracy, peace building, justice and the rule of law, which is hugely important for the western Balkans.
We have heard an important wake-up call from the Council of Europe, and I commend to the Chamber the resolution of 11 October, which states:
“The Parliamentary Assembly… firmly believes that helping Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo meet their aspirations for closer European integration is important not only for the countries concerned but for the European continent and will benefit all European citizens.”
It goes on:
“Surveys show that an increasing number of people in the Western Balkans, especially amongst the youth, are pessimistic about the prospects of EU accession. The European vision is losing its shine. In its place, ethno-nationalism has resurfaced, a very worrying development in a region in which the”
spectre of violence still looms large. It continues:
“The Assembly calls for a new impetus to be given to the European Union enlargement process.”
I could not agree more. Even if the UK is not part of the EU, I would hope we all agree that closer integration of the western Balkan states into the European framework, however that is defined, is in all our interests.
When I was a Member of the European Parliament, I always supported, as did many UK colleagues, a wider EU. I rejected any idea that the EU is a community of geography and that there is a limit to where Europe stops and starts. I explicitly rejected the idea that the EU is a religious community and that a Muslim country or a country with a significant Muslim population cannot be part of it.
It grieves me that those voices have been removed, and there is a risk, as the hon. Member for Henley mentioned, that voices that would see a more insular and more exclusive EU are stronger within EU discussions now that the UK is absent. That is something we should all regret, because such a development would be a tragedy for the west Balkans, given that the Kremlin is all too ready to gobble those countries up. We have seen what that can mean in the region, and we must do all we can, in all our forums, to ensure that it does not happen again.
I shall close with a few concrete questions to the Minister, whom I welcome to her place. I appreciate that she is newly in post and that the answers might not readily come, but in the context of the integrated review I hope she will take on in a constructive spirit the ideas she has heard today and the suggestions I shall offer.
There is a real, pressing need to expand and better fund the UK’s Council of Europe mission, because being absent from Brussels does not mean being absent from Strasbourg; quite the reverse. We need more resources, as well as more focus on what the Council of Europe is doing and what the UK can do within it.
We also need to increase bilateral support to build up precisely those democracy capacity-building and disinformation-countering measures across the states of the west Balkans. The UK is in a position to do that bilaterally or through the Council of Europe. I would applaud both approaches, and I would be glad to hear greater plans to see that come forward. The SNP has long called for an atrocity prevention strategy to be rolled out through the UK embassy network. Such a strategy would be important worldwide, but particularly in the western Balkans, where our excellent UK missions are doing sterling work, and an atrocity prevention strategy being higher up the FCDO’s agenda would help them in that. I really hope that we see a comprehensive Russia strategy in the integrated review. It is clear that the Kremlin is operating on multiple fronts, and we need to ensure that we are ahead of that and taking due note of it.
The western Balkans is an important part of Europe’s geography and an important part of our world view. I really commend the hon. Member for Henley on bringing forward this debate today. Where there are constructive ways to help the people of those great countries to get closer to us and enjoy the peace and prosperity that we enjoy, I will certainly support them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for securing this debate at a critical time for the entire western Balkans and for the Council of Europe’s engagement with it. I also extend my thanks to our permanent representative, our judges, the whole delegation to the Council—many of whom have spoken today—and our envoy in the region, Sir Stuart Peach, who is doing an excellent job.
We have heard some fantastic speeches today, which have drawn on the huge experience we have in the room. The hon. Member for Henley made a comprehensive speech, speaking of the long arm of attempted Russian influence and the range of challenges across the region and in multiple individual countries. I did not agree entirely with all his views on disenchantment with the EU across the region; I was there recently and, while it is clear that there is frustration with the process, I also saw a lot of enthusiasm for further integration into the European family on multiple levels.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) and his work in Kosovo. He spoke from his extensive experience. In particular, he spoke of the hope we need to offer younger generations across the region, and indeed in many troubled parts of the world, as being key to ensuring stability in the future. The right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke from his own extensive experience in Bosnia. I pay tribute to him and particularly to the work done by him and his fallen comrades in the region in the past. He said the risks of a further descent into violence are very real, and we should all be aware of them. We heard many other excellent contributions. As always, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made important points on human rights and freedom of religion across the region.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) made some important points about not in any way demonising or targeting the diasporas of individual countries with our language and about the damage that that can do to communities playing a critical role in the UK. I very much agree with much of what he said about Albania. We have to be very careful; we need a pragmatic, official-led response to the challenges we see in the channel. The Home Affairs Committee has been very clear that what we are seeing is being facilitated by organised criminal gangs, which is why we have proposed a new National Crime Agency cell to tackle these groups upstream. We need to determine asylum claims swiftly so that those without claims can be returned, but that cannot descend into the language that we have seen from some parts of the media and, indeed, some senior politicians. It does huge damage to our good relations with Albania, which is one of our NATO allies. I sat in NATO headquarters just last week and saw the Albanian flag fluttering in the breeze alongside our own—we need to remember that Albania is our ally at a critical time. Indeed, many Albanians play a crucial role in this country.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) was with me on a trip to Kosovo earlier this year. He made some critical points about trade and commercial links. I saw that myself with him in Kosovo; we need to expand those. The hon. Members for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) and for Stirling (Alyn Smith) also made some critical points about why the region is so crucial and why the UK has a key role to play. It is right that much of our focus as parliamentarians in recent months has been on Putin’s heinous war of aggression against the people of Ukraine, but the western Balkans is just as critical because of the potential for future instability and the UK’s unique historical role there, as we discussed in the debate in June. Like all present, I maintain that the work of the Council of Europe has never been more significant in ensuring peace, security and democracy for the people of our continent.
I visited Pristina and Skopje earlier this year and have previously travelled in Bosnia and elsewhere across the region, so I am familiar with the challenges, but there are many grounds for hope as well. I saw dynamic young populations keen to expand their links with the rest of Europe, including the UK. In Kosovo, in particular, I saw a young and vibrant population with a strong desire to join the Council of Europe. I join the calls, led by the hon. Member for Henley and supported by the Government, for Kosovo to be a full member of the Council of Europe.
However, we clearly see significant tensions, often fomented and aggravated by internal and external forces, and those tensions have the capacity to unravel into violence. We must be under no illusions about the seriousness of what we see in the western Balkans at the moment. There is real potential to undermine and unravel the immense progress made since the 1990s. Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo are high, following recent disputes over the licence plate issue, and the resignation of Kosovan Serbs from the country’s institutions, despite Prime Minister Kurti’s calls for co-operation. Discussions have been going on; we met Prime Minister Kurti when he was here a couple of weeks ago.
Any further escalation of that situation could put the work done by the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue at risk. I am afraid we have seen some very unhelpful rhetoric from President Vučić in Serbia. We have also seen a range of measures in Serbia that undermine human rights and freedom of expression, including the backlash against EuroPride in August. Serbia has been reclassified as partly free, rather than free, by Freedom House.
We have seen President Vučić becoming increasingly close to Russia in explicit ways, declaring his intention to maintain friendly relations, signing a three-year agreement on gas supplies, and signing other diplomatic co-operation agreements at the UN, during the United Nations General Assembly, though we are not sure what is in those. Serbia has to make a fundamental choice; does it have a European future with progress, the rule of law and democracy, or is it to be a proxy for Putin and his regressive agenda, which we see acted out so violently in other parts of Europe at the moment?
Much of today’s debate was rightly about the situation in Bosnia. The recent election unfortunately confirmed that ethno-nationalism continues to typify political life in the country. Milorad Dodik and Republika Srpska remain intransigent when it comes to healing divisions and keeping the Dayton process alive. In October he pledged to 30,000 people at a rally that secession will become a reality for the Bosnian Serb entity, and he won re-election on that basis. He has also voiced support for Russia and China, and he went as far as to say that, if NATO intervened in Bosnia,
“We will ask our friends to help us.”
Dodik also supported the illegal and bogus annexation referendums staged by Putin in Ukraine in September, and he has taken a sledgehammer to the delicate balance of power in Bosnia. The implications of that could manifest themselves dangerously for the region and across the continent. We must be fully aware of that. It is only right that we have issued sanctions against a number of the individuals involved in undermining the Dayton agreement.
I have specific questions for the Minister, whom I welcome to her place and her new role. What conversations have the Government had with the secretary-general of the Council of Europe regarding targeted initiatives to protect democratic institutions across the western Balkans? She will have seen the resolution at the PACE assembly on 12 October that, since the Thessaloniki summit, political and public enthusiasm for further integration with Europe has been sapped, due to a slowing and stagnation of the processes. What comments does she have on that? I know we are outside the EU, but what does she believe we can do at this critical time, when others seek to undermine us, to stop that sapping of enthusiasm for integration in terms of accession processes with the EU and the role of the new European political community, which we are part of?
The EU-Western Balkans summit takes place in Tirana on 6 December. I understand that the UK will not be present formally, because we are not in the EU, but the UK has a critical role in many of these locations. I am disappointed that we will not be there in an associate fashion or taking part in discussions. Will the Minister tell us what discussions she has had with friends and allies in the EU and what contact there has been between our special envoy and the EU special envoy in the region ahead of that summit?
We have heard today about Russia’s efforts to spread disinformation and undermine democracies across the region. I was concerned to hear of the locations in Serbia that Russia is using to spread disinformation across the region in relation to not only Kosovo but Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia and elsewhere. Will the Minister say a little about what we are doing to share our expertise in counter-disinformation and cyber-security across the region to assist countries to have the strongest possible resilience against those Russian efforts?
Perhaps you could think about drawing to a conclusion.
I am coming to my conclusion. I am on the final page.
Leave time for the Minister.
I will leave time for the Minister, Ms Nokes.
I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government see the Council as a crucial part of promoting democracy across our continent, fundamentally reinforcing the values that we all share, and that they will continue to support our delegation and its work in the months and years to come.
The Minister for Europe would have been delighted to take part in the debate, but I am afraid that he is travelling on ministerial duties. It is a pleasure to be able to respond on behalf of the Government. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) for securing the debate, and I recognise his valuable work as leader of the UK’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
As we have heard, the western Balkans continues to face challenges to its future stability, security and prosperity. Those challenges come from both within and outside the region. Our policy is to support a more prosperous and secure western Balkan future, built on strong foundations of democracy, the rule of law and regional co-operation. We will continue to challenge those such as Russia and Iran that seek to undermine those aims by sowing division, disinformation and distrust. That is why the UK is working with partners and allies, including in the Council of Europe, to support the six states of the western Balkans.
As hon. Members may know, the UK was a founding member of the Council of Europe. It was Sir Winston Churchill who first publicly suggested its creation nearly 80 years ago. Since then, we have been an active defender of the institution’s values: freedom, liberty and—most importantly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley reiterated so clearly—the rule of law.
Next May, in Reykjavík, the organisation will hold only the fourth Heads of State summit in its 73-year history. We support Iceland’s proposal to focus on the Council’s core values and strengthen them across Europe; against the backdrop of Putin’s heinous and unjustified war of aggression against Ukraine, it has never been more important to protect those values. The UK welcomes the Council’s swift action to expel Russia, and His Majesty’s Government and the UK delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly played a crucial role in that quick response. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley and colleagues for their continued determination to lead on this.
The UK will continue to support reforms that support peace, stability and freedom of democracy across the Balkans, and the Council of Europe will play a vital role in that. The region’s future lies in sovereignty and self-determination. Its people and Governments have repeatedly spoken in support of greater integration with the Euro-Atlantic community. The Council of Europe’s monitoring and technical assistance is fundamental to the west Balkan countries’ progress on their EU membership aspirations, and the work that hon. Members continue to lead on—the challenges they have set out today—will continue to drive those hard efforts to help western Balkan nations to strengthen.
The Council’s tailor-made action plans for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo will look to push these stabilising solutions further. The whole gamut of the Council of Europe’s work to ensure that human rights, democracy and the rule of law are firmly embedded in the western Balkans is something that we will continue to actively support. As highlighted by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—an ever-strong champion of freedom of religious belief—the UK and the Government are unwavering in their commitment to promote freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere. We continue to work with western Balkans partners to ensure that those rights are protected.
Through its office in Pristina, the Council of Europe is supporting Kosovo’s reform agenda on human rights, the rule of law and democracy, among other issues. Kosovo is a young country that, during its short existence, has made great strides in aligning itself with European democratic values. We have been engaging with other Council of Europe members through our embassies and strongly emphasising our support for Kosovo’s application for membership, and our permanent representative in Strasbourg has also emphasised that. Membership will bring clear benefits to the Kosovan people, including minority communities; in particular, it will strengthen citizens’ ability to challenge the Government when they feel that their human rights are being impinged on.
I congratulate all the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina on the 2 October elections. The OSCE’s observation mission judged that they were, overall, peaceful and democratic, but instances of fraud must be investigated and prosecuted. The High Representative’s task is to support Bosnia and Herzegovina towards a secure future. When he imposed electoral reforms on 3 October, he made it clear that he had no choice but to act, given the absence of domestic political will. We cannot allow malign forces to destabilise Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose politicians and authorities must work for the benefit of all citizens.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) reminded us of the tragedies in Bosnia in the 1990s—the bloodshed and brutality that scarred that country. His leadership as a peacekeeper in those troubles and his continued reminders to us all in this House ensure that we keep Bosnia’s future success, economic stability and a place for growth for its next generation at the heart of our policy making.
I urge those politicians and authorities to collaborate and co-operate in order to ensure that the election results, and much-needed reforms, are implemented swiftly and effectively for the benefit of their citizens. That includes implementing long-standing European Court of Human Rights judgments, such as that in the Sejdić and Finci case, which cannot be enacted by the High Representative.
We are also concerned about recent tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, where parties must refrain from rhetoric and actions that risk escalating the situation. They must not endanger the progress made in recent years, or derail efforts to reach a comprehensive and sustainable agreement that benefits the people of both countries and the wider region. The UK will continue to work closely with Kosovo, Serbia and international partners towards that goal, including through our support for the EU-facilitated dialogue. It is vital that both sides honour the dialogue commitments that they have made so far. We encourage continued talks between the Kosovo Government and Kosovo’s minority communities—in particular, to strengthen inclusive and transparent local governance supporting the needs and interests of all Kosovo citizens. In this regard, it is vital that Kosovo Serbs return to Kosovo’s institutions to represent the communities that they have been elected to serve.
Montenegro, a valued NATO ally, is at a crucial juncture under its current caretaker Government. Political stalemate and weaknesses in some institutions leave it vulnerable to influence from beyond its borders. We urge Montenegro’s political parties to engage in talks and chart a constitutional path together, and to set the conditions for future elections.
The Council of Europe’s work in Albania and North Macedonia plays an important role in progress towards reforms. I note the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), as trade envoy, for further trade encouragement, which I will share with colleagues. He will know that UK Export Finance has substantial capacity to assist British companies to look to Albania. In Albania, the Council provides training and capacity building to the judiciary, prosecution and law enforcement authorities. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) highlighted Albania’s goal of EU accession—a sovereign choice—which acts as a stimulus for reform. We welcomed the formal start of accession talks in July of this year. Institutions play an absolutely vital role in tackling organised crime, including the criminals driving the illegal channel crossings that have cost so many lives.
I would like to take the opportunity to put on the record the strength of the close and long-standing UK-Albania relationship, including in the Council of Europe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) highlights, the 150,000-strong Albanian diaspora here in the UK are so important to the UK. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary most recently met Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in Berlin earlier this month. We want a stable and prosperous bilateral partnership, benefiting not only our two countries but the region and Europe as a whole. We are working together against drugs and people trafficking and money laundering. The NCA has a strong relationship with Albanian partners, with growing co-operation and data sharing.
If I may—I am sure that you would agree with me, Ms Nokes—I would like to encourage the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham not to be discouraged by her initial failure in electoral presentation: many of us have stood for office several times before winning. Arlinda Ballcaj’s commitment to her community and willingness to stand in order to speak up for those among whom she and her family live are commendable.
The people of the western Balkans deserve to enjoy peace, security and prosperity. As colleagues have said, as progress beyond historic crises helps these countries to begin their EU-facing positioning, we continue to welcome their work. We work alongside to support that, hand in hand with our partners, including the Council of Europe, which does such valuable work. I have noted some of the powerful voices from across the House on an atrocity prevention focus. I reassure colleagues that we are developing our work on that across our network to put in place early-warning mechanisms that have track indicators. There were a few questions I was unable to answer today, for which I apologise, but I will ensure we do so in a timely manner.
I thank everyone who has participated in this debate. They have made it a very cross-party debate, as is typical of the Council of Europe, and as is typical of how I try to run the delegation. There are two things that I will recall from this debate. The first is the overall impression that the western Balkans matter to us, and that we need to spend a lot of time looking at them. The second is that when I first became the leader of the delegation, nobody in these sorts of debates had heard of the Council of Europe, or at least nobody quoted it, but today many people have quoted from the reports of the Council of Europe and many have referred to it. That is a fitting tribute both to me and to the delegation for the enormous work we have done to ensure that we continue to play a vital role in the Council of Europe. That is vital for Europe more widely and for making sure that we are well known and active across the region.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the West Balkans and the Council of Europe.
Family Law Terminology
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the terminology used in family law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, not least as I know you are a huge champion of families, and when you looked after relationship work in the Department for Work and Pensions under previous ministerial briefs, you understood the importance of this field of work.
Who does not love a good on-screen relationship drama? Lovers falling out, marriages breaking down and dramatic affairs of the heart are the stock-in-trade of film, soaps and the media. But when children are caught in the middle of storylines, we routinely hear, “I’ll see you in court”, “I’m going for custody of little Johnny and little Sarah”, or the possessive—“She’s my daughter”—and divorce is described as a battle to be won. This language is hugely unhelpful to families who are going through the heartache of separation.
I was a family law solicitor before I came into this place, and I saw the fallout of unnecessarily divisive battles. I am often found shouting at the telly when they get the terminology wrong. My love of “Coronation Street” and “Eastenders” probably needs to be outed here—I am going to write to the producers about the report and the debate today. Language really matters in family law.
In real life, every year around 280,000 children see their parents separate. It surprises many that the term “custody” should have stopped being used 30-odd years ago when the Children Act 1989 came in, but it surprises nobody that the language of war used for separating families is damaging to all involved, with approximately 40% of all separating parents bringing issues about their children to the family court. For too long we have allowed thousands of children to be caught up in an adversarial court system.
The language of the legal system is accusatory and divisive. Parents are described as Smith v. Smith; barristers will talk about “my opponent”; we refer to “the applicant” and “the respondent”; and we have “dispute resolution” rather than problem solving. The most important humans in a child’s life are therefore immediately pitched against each other at a time when co-operation is most needed.
Many years ago while working for the relationship experts OnePlusOne, I wrote an article that explained—there is lots of evidence—that destructive and acrimonious conflict between parents puts children at greater risk of emotional problems such as depression and anxiety. Children may develop behavioural difficulties and become aggressive and difficult. Parents do not want that. For the majority of mums and dads, separation is extremely painful and a decision not taken lightly. The wellbeing of their children is their main concern, and often the first concern when they come in to speak to lawyers.
In the time I have had the privilege of knowing the hon. Lady, she has addressed these issues with a deep interest and knowledge, and I thank her for that. In children and family courts, children often hear big and complicated words without knowing their meaning, but they know the emotional impact—for example, custody in prison, being in pain, separation, being alone and perhaps even violence. Does she agree that the justice system could and must look at the courts’ choice of words, their impact on young children’s development and the fear they instil about the environment those children are growing up in and the changes that they might face?
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford for what was, as usual, a thoughtful intervention. He is absolutely right. The language we all use, whether it is in the media or in the legal system and court documents, can be changed. It will not be easy—we all use terminology that is outdated and that we have been told is wrong, and we get it wrong sometimes—but it can be changed, and we have to work towards that.
With that in mind, I encourage everyone to look at the “Language Matters” report by the Family Solutions Group. The FSG was set up by the eminent Mr Justice Cobb in 2020. It is an excellent and constructive multidisciplinary group of experts working with separated parents and children. There is a lot of emotion in this area, but it is trying to find solutions and I recommend that everyone look at its work.
Let us be honest: the courts system that we are working in is stretched to breaking point. Over 66,000 new cases started in the family courts in April to June 2021, which is up 14% on the same quarter the year before. The case numbers are increasing. The pressure on courts in the pandemic was a tipping point because so many hearings were cancelled. Delays in cases involving children are always counter to a child’s best interests, yet despite the best efforts of the Government, the judiciary and lawyers, from 2011 to 2021 the mean duration of disputes and cases involving children increased from over 31 weeks to 41 weeks—up by a third. It is now commonplace for hearings to be cancelled at short notice, and the number of litigants in person are rising exponentially. That gives the judiciary an impossible task in many cases.
Let us imagine how hard it is for emotionally charged parents to go through a confusing court system on their own. When I was practising, people would save up to have one hour of my time. That is all they could afford—hundreds of pounds. They would get as much as they possibly could from me and head into the court system on their own, often terrified and desperate to do a good job. We come back to language in the courts system. The FSG report sets out the archaic language that is familiar to me, the judiciary and lawyers, but court bundles, pleadings and section 7 statements are alien to most people.
In essence, the court should be the last resort for parents, but sadly it is often seen as the first port of call. However, our system can be changed so that parents who do not have legal issues to resolve do not go anywhere near a judge, particularly for child arrangements. Many cases are not about law but about communication or relationship issues, responsibilities, schools, hobbies or the scheduling of a child’s time once they are in two homes. If there is no safety, or if there are domestic violence or protection issues, parents would be best served by being supported to reach agreements as early as possible outside the court system.
I have said for years that I estimate that about a third of private law children cases should not be in court, but I defer to the brilliant judge Sir Andrew MacFarlane, the president of the family division, who I heard on a Radio 4 programme the other day. He estimated that about 20% of families could be helped outside court. If we invested in helping 20% to 30% of families stay out of litigation, we would not only help the children of those families but free up court time for the families that need it most. In the case of Re B, His Honour Judge Wildblood said:
“Do not bring your private law litigation to family Court here unless it is genuinely necessary for you to do so.”
As a former magistrate in the family proceedings court, I completely agree that when people come for contact arrangements with their children, very often the magistrates are acting in the role of mediator and helping them to come to a decision in the court. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is not the place for parents to go to have other people sort out their child arrangements for them?
I agree. It is not a good use of magistrates’ time, either. This is not easy for parents—nobody should suggest that they rush to court, because often that is not the case. At the moment, parents think that court is the only place to go to get disputes resolved. That change in society and culture would help to free up the court’s time, which is incredibly important to my hon. Friend and other magistrates. His Honour Judge Wildblood went on to say this, directed at parents and lawyers:
“If you do bring unnecessary cases to this Court, you will be criticised, and sanctions may be imposed on you. There are many other ways to settle disagreements, such as mediation.”
I am looking to the Minister to help me and other parliamentarians to change the family law system to, in turn, help the Ministry of Justice to achieve its goals to ensure that people can access justice and court time in a timely way when they really need it.
I agree with what the hon. Lady is saying. The problem is that there are insufficient resources in mediation services, but if we invested in them, we could make savings further down the road within the court system and the Ministry of Justice. Is that something she would encourage?
It is absolutely fantastic to hear the hon. Gentleman talk about mediation. There has actually been a lot of investment in mediation. The demand went up an awful lot when we had a voucher system, which we may hear about from the Minister. Where demand has gone up, we need to meet that demand, because those parents will end up in court if we cannot get them into mediation services. It is absolutely great to hear the hon. Gentleman champion mediation in that way, and we will look to the Minister to hear more about the options.
I am asking for a few things today. Will the Minister confirm that the Ministry of Justice’s much-needed focus on family law reform is continuing, now that the Lord Chancellor is back in his post? It went quiet for a bit, and the Lord Chancellor previously did an awful lot on this issue. What has happened to the demand reduction plan? I know the Department was looking at that very carefully, and it was designing the plan to keep families out of court wherever possible. Does the Minister agree that the FSG should receive a formal response from the Government to its “What About Me?” and “Language Matters” reports?
Can the Minister please confirm that the Ministry of Justice is working across Departments to embed support for separating families in services such as family hubs, and to learn from the Department for Work and Pensions’ successful reducing parental conflict programmes? Will the Government confirm that they will investigate extending family law projects and pilot schemes? We know that they are working really well and teaching us better practice for cases involving children, so we would like to see more of them. Finally, will the Minister get representatives of the FSG to meet officials in the Department in order to discuss their proposals?
I genuinely believe that changing the options available to parents, re-educating society about the impact of litigation on children and changing the legal language of separation will help millions of parents and, importantly, the life chances of children. I hope we can work together to make that happen.
As ever, it is a joy to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) for securing a debate on this important topic. It is a topic on which I know she has campaigned for quite some time and with vigour. I tried to find the blog she wrote some years ago, but I suspect I may have to dig a bit deeper to find it. If she has a copy to hand, I would be very interested in reading it.
As parliamentarians, we are all aware of the power of language to influence, to make others reflect and to be a force for good. The focus of the family court must always be on acting in the best interests of the child, as well as on creating stability and reducing conflict for families. The language used by professionals, and in the systems, processes and guidance that make up the family court, can set the tone for how families and individuals interact with it and with each other, both in and out of court. Our choice of language makes it clear what we value the most, and it can act as a reminder that children are at the heart of the family justice system.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned, the Family Solutions Group, which is a collection of multidisciplinary experts looking at how to improve the family justice system for children and families, noted in 2022 that the
“language for separating families has evolved out of an adversarial legal system: it is accusatory and divisive. It is also potentially harmful, increasing conflict through battle metaphors while parents compete for justice and control of their children.”
The Government have recognised that the language used in the family court needs to move away from pitting parents or couples against each other. Instead, the emphasis should be on clear and simply terminology that recognises children as children, not as cases, and that encourages individuals to reach joint agreements. We should be moving away from arguments about custody and residence, and towards what is the best outcome for the child, instead of perpetuating the idea that there are winners and losers in the family court. We should be encouraging resolutions and agreements.
Reducing conflict between separating parents is a priority for the Government. I will set out the actions we have taken to support them and their children before turning to some specific measures to improve the language used in the system. We are introducing measures to reduce the number of disputes that come to court in the first place so that we reduce the time that children are left to deal with uncertainty and minimise exposure to the court system for young people.
My hon. Friend mentioned the family mediation voucher scheme, which was launched in March and is designed to remove the barriers that parents face in accessing mediation. Family mediators are trained to support separating parents to move past their conflicts and resolve issues in a non-adversarial way. Mediation can often be a quicker means of reaching an agreement. We hope that by offering separating parents the opportunity to mediate, we can reduce the period of uncertainty and distress for children by avoiding more lengthy court proceedings.
More than 11,800 couples have now accessed the mediation voucher scheme and received £500 towards the cost of their mediation. A Family Mediation Council survey of the first 2,800 cases suggests that 65% of separated parents reached whole or partial agreements in their mediation, which means that they no longer needed to attend court. Clearly, an amicable agreement will always be in the best interests of the children.
Where court is unavoidable, we are working to ensure that disputes are resolved as quickly as possible, and that the processes are as understandable and stress-free as possible, especially for children. For instance, we have adopted a more investigative approach to proceedings. In February, we launched the first integrated domestic abuse courts pilot in Dorset and north Wales, delivering on a 2019 manifesto commitment. This new approach to child arrangement cases seeks to reduce conflict, protect victims and survivors and enhance the voice of the child by gathering more information during the early stages of the process, which allows courts to narrow down issues, and minimises the time spent pitting parties against each other in a courtroom setting. The new pilot also includes the option for children to meet judges or have direct access to a judge in their case who can give them direct feedback in simple, plain language on the recommendation decisions about their lives. Of course, that puts a human face to the process.
The Government introduced the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 to allow no-fault divorce and end the pointless blame game when a marriage or civil partnership has irretrievably broken down. Instead, it allows couples to focus on resolving more important priorities, such as how best to co-parent any children. The Act also aimed to help couples to reach amicable decisions by introducing joint applications for divorce, which was not previously possible. Joint applications replace the adversarial concept that divorce is something done by one party to the other. We have also made changes to the language of divorce to reduce language that automatically pits individuals against each other. We have removed terms such as “petitioner” from the process. Those are simple changes, but they set the tone for how individuals engage with each other in court.
My hon. Friend stressed the importance of language and terminology. The Government used the Children and Families Act 2014 to remove the concept of winners and losers from cases involving children. It removed terms such as “residence” and “contact”, and replaced them with more child-focused language such as “child arrangements”.
Technology also plays a significant role in how people access and understand the family justice system. The Government are creating a more modern and straight- forward justice system that is accessible to all. His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service’s reform programme has been running since 2016, and aims to move court applications across all jurisdictions online. That commitment includes providing online systems and resources that are written in plain English. Although there are times that legal language is required, all HMCTS forms and gov.uk resources go through a plain English review to make sure they are clear and accurate. We are committed to making not only the family courts accessible but the wider justice system. So far, divorce, probate and public law proceedings have moved online, and private law cases also have an option for online applications. We are continuing to work on providing more resources for child arrangements, finance applications, adoption and certain protective orders.
Finally, I want to champion the work of the Family Justice Young People’s Board, and set out how it contributes to improving how the family justice system is using language and terminology. The young people’s board is a group of over 50 children and young people, aged between seven and 25 years old, with either direct experience of the family justice system or with an interest in children’s rights and the family courts. It works directly with the Ministry of Justice and other partners across the family justice system to share their experiences and unique viewpoints, helping to bring a vital perspective to our work. The board has been working to demystify the family justice system for children and young people, both in private and public law proceedings.
Working with the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, the Family Justice Young People’s Board have produced several resources and guides for children that aim to break down family court terminology, as well as more complex procedural processes that children will experience in court. I encourage everyone to read their “Mind Your Language!” guide on the words for professionals to avoid using in proceedings, such as terminology that is too complex. I also recommend their first book, “In Our Shoes”, for the moving first-person testimonies it provides from children and young people going through the family justice system.
To conclude, the Government are committed to improving the experience of the family courts for children, and are taking action to make the family justice system a less adversarial experience for those who go through it. We are doing that by supporting parents to resolve their issues without the need to come to court, by improving the language and terminology used in the systems and that underpin family court, and by ensuring that at all levels the voices of children and young people who experience family justice are heard.
I reiterate the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud made; family justice system reform remains a top priority for the Government, and I can reconfirm that it remains a priority for the Lord Chancellor. The projects on law reform and reducing court backlogs are a key priority for the whole Department. As my hon. Friend stressed, if we can get people out of the courtroom, it releases court time for more complex cases. The FSG remains a key partner of the Department, and the family division sits as an observer of the family justice board. The Department is entirely aligned with the objectives of my hon. Friend and the points she raised have firmly landed. I look forward to working with her in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
Male Primary School Teachers
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered increasing the number of male primary school teachers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise what I think is a really important issue, and I am sure we will have plenty of time between us to discuss some of its merits—perhaps we will not need the full 90 minutes.
I want to start by setting the scene and explaining why I have secured this debate on recruiting more male teachers into primary schools and, indeed, teaching more generally—we are short across the board. Having the debate this week is important in the build-up to International Men’s Day this weekend, and I will touch on the impact of the issue on our young people and young boys, and on their mental health and stability.
Of course, there are many challenges facing our schools, not least the financial squeeze that all organisations are feeling from inflation and rising costs. Don’t get me started on the curriculum, teacher recruitment and retention, and empowering teachers on Ofsted—I am sure the Minister and I could debate those things all day, which would be very enjoyable. As I will explain, increasing the number of male primary school teachers is socially and culturally important.
I declare an interest: before I accidentally became a politician, I had always planned to be a teacher, and I had considered teaching in primary schools. I never quite got there before I fell into some local issues—bin-related drama, as it happens; people get very passionate about wheelie bins—that led to me becoming a district councillor, and the rest is history. Despite not having ended up in teaching, children’s welfare and primary education remain really important to me personally, not least because I have primary-age children myself. I have committed much of my time over the past five years in this place to policy that is in one way or another related to supporting children.
Another issue that is really important to me—and, I think, to our society—is equality. I have been perhaps the most vocal critic of our equalities legislation, which is almost always misused and misunderstood. The Equality Act 2010 is often explained as protecting characteristics such as being female, BME or LGBT, but that is not the case. It protects biological sex, race and sexuality, among others—both male and female equally; white, black and anything else equally; and gay and straight absolutely equally. It is, after all, the Equality Act.
The intention behind the law is that the exact same legislation that is cited in order to support young women into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, where they are historically under-represented, and into university—even though today’s figures show they are over-represented—should also be used to support young men where they are under-represented in professions such as nursing or, indeed, primary teaching.
My hon. Friend is a great loss to teaching, but he also has a great passion for sport. I recently met representatives of the Professional Footballers Association, which helps thousands of men and women transition from their footballing careers into other careers. Surely this is a big opportunity for the Department for Education to work with them, particularly—given the thrust of this debate—to help get more male teachers into primary schools.
I thank my hon. Friend, who makes a really important point. We had a debate in this place only a few weeks ago about more flexible routes into teaching, and that sounds like a brilliant one. We also touched on routes from early years education into primary teaching. If someone is able and qualified to teach and support five-year-olds in an early years setting, surely they could do the same for six-year-olds in a primary setting. Some of the barriers make it very difficult, but my hon. Friend has mentioned what sounds like a fantastic scheme, which is perhaps an example of how taking positive action under the Equality Act could increase the number of male primary school teachers.
The law exists to enable us to tackle this issue, but it is almost never interpreted in that way. In a recent debate on access to teaching, which took place in this very room, the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), informed me that there are no schemes or planned schemes to support young men to get into primary teaching. The point of my speech, and of securing the debate, is quite simply to ask why, because we have the opportunity to address this issue. That is why we are here, but what is the problem?
I have some figures that Members might find surprising, as it feels like the issue has gone under the radar. I know it is the subject of conversations outside the school gates among parents of primary-age children, because I am one and I have had such conversations with a number of parents at my own children’s school, but the figures might surprise a wider audience. Only 14% of primary and nursery teachers are male—significantly less than one in five. That is actually a slight rise from 12% in 2010, but the total teaching workforce has become more female-dominated in that time: more than 75% of teachers are now female, up from 74% a decade ago. Out of nearly 17,000 primary schools in England, 3,240 have no male teachers on the payroll whatever—not one. At an average of just under 300 pupils per school, that is nearly 1 million children with no male role model in their education setting.
My daughter is in her second year of training for qualified teacher status, having done her PGCE. I asked her whether she agreed with my hon. Friend’s premise that more men should be encouraged into what is a largely female workforce. She made the point that he just made: many of our young people are growing up without a male role model in their lives. She pointed out that it is really good for children to see men in a caregiving role, which is essentially the role in a primary school. She made one or two other observations, which I may share with him later.
That is exactly right. If we are striving make public services representative of our communities and society, primary education should be at the very heart of that. It is hugely important to teach young people about relationships and provide role models. I thank my hon. Friend for that point, and I will come on to it in more detail.
This is a particular problem in my region in the east midlands. A study for the Institute for Social and Economic Research in May found that nearly a third of all state-funded primary and secondary schools in the east midlands do not have a single male classroom teacher. That is the highest proportion in the country. In London, the figure is 12.5%, which is still a lot of schools, but in the east midlands 30% of schools do not have a single male teacher. That means that one in three children have no male role model in the classroom—not even in the building—whom they can seek out.
Not only are men less likely to become teachers in the first place, but those who do are far less likely to remain in the profession than their female counterparts. We have been unable to recruit and retain male teachers. I know it is a problem with female teachers too, but it particularly so with male teachers. The stats I have just shared make that issue particularly clear.
Lots of action has been taken to address inequality in teaching. There has rightly been lots of action to get more women into leadership roles in education, and to make teaching more racially diverse. Indeed, the teaching population is more ethnically diverse than the country as a whole. As I said, those imbalances are tackled under the Equality Act, yet although one in three children in my region has no male teacher at all and only one in four teachers are male—it is even lower in primary school at just 14%—there are no schemes, and as the previous Minister said, no planned schemes, to try to redress the balance under the Act, which is intended to support men and women and protect them equally. It is not working; it is not being used properly.
Members might be thinking, “All right, the figures are skewed. We can see that there aren’t many male primary school teachers—not many blokes in the profession. Why does that matter?” Well, I will tell them why. It touches on a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) made. Having male primary school teachers is really important for a number of societal, psychological and social reasons. First, male and female teachers contribute to children’s gender knowledge in a balanced way. They contribute to their understanding at a very young age of what male and female are and what they mean, and of what those roles might be. That may seem a small thing, but for an ever-increasing number of young people who do not have a male role model at home, and who often do not have male role models they can learn from and emulate in their personal lives, having them at school is important.
In an increasingly difficult and often frustrating society where discussing gender can sometimes be incredibly unclear and misleading—certainly complicated by mixed and politically charged messages about what being male means and what gender is—a simple balanced interaction with male and female positive role models is important. At a time when masculinity and being a man can be portrayed very negatively, and young men increasingly find it hard to figure out what their role in life and in our society might be, leading to all sorts of mental health problems, which I am sure we will discuss over the course of this week in the build-up to International Men’s Day, it has never been more important for them to have a consistent, respectable male role model they trust in their life. I would make the same case in support of men in youth work, for example, which can do so much for the relationships, trust and security of young people in our communities.
For the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children, the presence of male teachers might be vital, allowing them to observe men who are non-violent, for example, and whose interactions with women are respectful and positive. This is particularly important for children from dysfunctional backgrounds—households with domestic abuse, or other family environments that are not healthy. If the only consistent male figure in someone’s life is actually a bad role model who is teaching bad behaviours, how is that person to know or learn any different?
Today, some 2.5 million children grow up without a dad at home, which has an impact. Moreover, there were estimates in 2020 that some 30,000 or more children are exposed to domestic abuse at home every month, whereby the man in their life and in their home sets a poor example and relationships are dysfunctional. Male teachers—safe, trusted, respectable role models—are absolutely vital for those children.
I am consistently saying “children”, rather than “boys”, because I mean all children. Good male role models are important not just for boys but for girls, and for exactly the same reasons. They are equally important in helping children to understand how men and women treat each other, or should treat each other. For children to have trusted adult males they can rely on in their lives is important for them to understand, as I have said, some of the issues around gender, and roles and responsibilities, and also to tackle the problems caused by poor examples and poor role models, if children have those at home, and show them a different path.
I think this is a self-perpetuating cycle, whereby limited visibility of male teachers means that men are less likely to go into teaching. Again, I draw the comparison with nursing, as stereotypes abound in that space, too. The stereotype is that primary school teaching is a women’s job, and that men teach design technology and physical education; similarly, men are doctors and women are nurses. That is all outdated and old-fashioned; it is absolute nonsense, of course.
However, there is still an outdated and ill-informed prevailing view that primary teachers are women; that should not be the case, but when we look at the statistics we see that it is largely the case. That view often means that men do not apply for primary teaching jobs. I might as well keep adding in nursing, because there is a similar challenge in that profession. These are areas where the Equality Act is absolutely clear that measures could and indeed should be taken to tackle a clear imbalance and disparity between characteristics, whereby one group is massively under-represented. That is precisely what the Act is intended to tackle, yet we heard here in Westminster Hall just a month or so ago that there are no schemes or plans for schemes to try to tackle that imbalance.
Quite simply, I ask the Minister: why not? When we put so much energy and resource into teacher recruitment and retention, which is hugely important for our schools, why not? We offer huge financial incentives for people to teach key subjects, but this issue is key, too. A lack of male role models will have a negative impact on the lives of young people, leaving an increasing number of young men with mental health problems, unable to work out who they are and what their role in society is, and leaving young women in particular and young people in general with unhealthy views about what relationships with men should look like.
In my view, a lack of men in teaching is actually more important in society—for its fabric and for the wellbeing of our young people—than a lack of maths teachers, but we incentivise maths teachers. We are not incentivising male teachers and healthy relationships. Why? Is there a logical reason or is it, as I suspect, something else? I have already spoken about the Equality Act. My experience of it is that there is a deep-seated fear within parts of Whitehall, which thinks that if they use the Equality Act to do something that supports men, they will get slated on Twitter. That is probably true. When I have had these types of conversations and raised these points, I get slated on Twitter as well, but it is important to recognise that Twitter quite regularly spouts a load of nonsense and we cannot be governed by Twitter.
I firmly believe that the wider public will be fully supportive of what I am saying here in Westminster Hall today and the premise behind it. We need more male teachers, in primary schools in particular and in schools in general.
My hon. Friend makes some very interesting points about financial incentives. I think that it is accepted that salaries and careers in secondary education are generally more highly remunerated than in primary education, which does not provide an incentive for male teachers to go into primary teaching. Often in a relationship, males are seen as the main breadwinner, and while none of us would want there to be a particular financial incentive for male teachers, the attractiveness of primary school teaching really needs to be looked at.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the wider recruitment and retention challenge as a whole, and trying to get more people into teaching, and primary school teaching. As I have touched on, we debated some of the avenues that we might take to support more people, and people with a wider range of backgrounds and experiences, by providing easier routes. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) mentioned the transition from coaching, for example, into teaching, or a transition from early years into teaching. There are different ways in which we can support people through schemes such as that to incentivise male teachers. Perhaps the football example is a good one. We can imagine that lots of men in their 30s who are ending a career in sport, or who have been coaching and looking after young people in a coaching environment, could easily transition into a teaching-type role.
It goes even further than that, because the majority of those men are aged between 18 and 24—they have not quite fulfilled their dream of premier league stardom. The PFA is desperate to sit down with the Department for Education to talk about this; it is already working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I hope my hon. Friend will join me in encouraging the Minister to sit down with the PFA.
I absolutely support that—I would love to have that conversation. That is a prime example of the kind of scheme that is supported by the Equality Act and everything I have described. It is exactly the kind of thing that we could and should do to try to incentivise people in a massively male-dominated space to transition into teaching. That is a perfect example of what I am talking about; I thank my hon. Friend bringing it up.
Aside from setting up that conversation, which would be really helpful, what can the Minister do to ensure that the importance of this is recognised, barriers are removed and the tools we use to tackle these inequalities in other areas are also used for this? All the data, anecdotal evidence and common sense should tell us that this issue is really important. I hope that that can be recognised in policy. I thank colleagues for engaging in the debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I call Jim Shannon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. Thank you for calling me to speak—it is not often I am called straight after the Member who moves the motion, but it is a real pleasure. I thank the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for leading the debate. He leads on many things in Westminster Hall. I have been there to support him when he has spoken on other subjects in education and I wanted to continue to do that.
There is no doubt that this conversation needs to be had. For some time now, the trends and statistics across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have shown that male teacher figures have either dropped or lulled. Whatever the reasons for that, and there are many reasons indeed, we must do more to encourage men—especially young graduates—to get into the world of teaching. We must also play a key role in destigmatising those reasons as to why men are put off and discouraged from getting into the profession.
In previous debates to which the Minister has responded, I have tried to bring a Northern Ireland perspective. That perspective in relation to male teachers will replicate the very point made by the hon. Member for Mansfield in his speech and by others in their interventions. Male teachers are under-represented in the primary school teaching workforce in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The stats for Northern Ireland are just as bad as those cited by the hon. Member for Mansfield. Back home, just short of 23% of all teachers are male; in primary schools, only 15% are male.
In the ’60s and ’70s, I went to a boarding school—it was many moons ago, so I will see how far back I can go on that—where we had only one female teacher. The rest were all male teachers. I suspect that the trends have changed and, where it might once have been male dominated, it is now very clearly female dominated. My three boys went to Grey Abbey Primary School. Before the new principal joined 15 or 20 years ago, it was a female-only school: all the teachers were female; the principal was female. That has not changed very much over the past few years.
The figures for Northern Ireland have decreased over the past decade. The most recent figures for Northern Ireland, from ’21-’22, show that there are some 4,800 male teachers in Northern Ireland, compared with 16,160 women. The percentages are quite clear—it is about 23%. That shows a trend. How do we address that? That is what the hon. Member for Mansfield was asking. We have to look at that.
I appreciate that this debate is about primary school teachers, but I would just add, to show the extent of the problem—the hon. Gentleman might already know this—that we do not one male nursery teacher anywhere in Northern Ireland. I am quite perturbed by that as well. I understand that trend when it comes to nurseries; there is a perception that it is always girls working in nurseries, and the facts show that it is. Those statistics alarm us greatly. To address them, we must look at the reasons why this is the case not just in Northern Ireland but across the whole of this great nation.
One of the main issues is peer pressure. Men are often socialised to believe that teaching is a female-led job that requires extensive care and nurturing. That is wrong, but it may be a feeling that we have and an issue in society that needs to change. If we are going to make that change, we need to make teaching as attractive to males as it is to females. Despite all that, men statistically tend to end up in higher authority roles—for example, as senior teaching staff or school principals. I do not know whether that is to do with their age or whatever it may be, but there are certainly trends there that need to be looked at. That has been seen as a faulty or illegitimate argument that plays into “anti-gender role” rhetoric. None of this should not come at the expense of decent classroom teaching; merit and effort should mean more than just gender.
It saddens me that there have been narratives of males seeking employment in teaching to display their dominant characteristics. People say that, and that might filter through society. That is wrong, but if it does in any way knock people out of kilter, we have to address it. It further marginalises men who want to be teachers and to support and encourage our young people as they go through their education. Those narratives are simply not the case and are simply not right.
Male teachers are capable of being role models—the hon. Member for Mansfield set that out very well. Society is not broken, but young boys need a male figure in their lives to focus on, and male teachers are capable of being role models to both boys and girls. It is good for children to see that male teachers can be kind and encouraging. The hon. Gentleman referred to them as being caring, and they are. Compassion and understanding are not exclusive to one gender. There has been an assumption that male teachers can play a crucial role in a young child’s development, especially if they come from a family with only a single parent or mother.
I am not being critical, Sir Gary—it is not my form—but I just want to make this point, which was brought to my attention through my engagement with things we are involved with in my office and from talking to teachers. Fatherless children have been shown on some occasions to stray and to get involved in addiction issues, whether it be drugs or alcohol. As the hon. Gentleman referred to, having a male figure in their life can—not on all occasions—help to maintain an element of stability and give a child a role model outside the home, so that they feel less pressurised.
A former Secretary of State for Education initiated a £30,000 grant for a project run by the Fatherhood Institute that aims to break down the barriers that dissuade men from starting childcare careers and to tackle the myth that men are less suited to caring roles. As I said, compassion and understanding transcend all genders across society. I was interested in the comments made by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) about his daughter. Those were my thoughts too coming into this debate. He illustrated the point well through his daughter’s comments, and I wholeheartedly agree with him.
My daughter thinks the staffroom is a better place from having a mixture of genders in it. Male and female teachers can engage with each other in the workplace. The perspective of a male teacher may be slightly different from that of a female teacher, and the opportunity to share those experiences in the staffroom is important.
I absolutely agree. The hon. Gentleman is fortunate to have such a wise daughter, who seems to understand the position of a teacher in school with great wisdom and knowledge. I wholeheartedly agree that that mixture and blend would be better for us all.
I always respect the fact that the rules are different here, as they might be in other regions across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but we have a UK-wide problem. I understand that the Minister does not have to answer for Northern Ireland, but whatever he answers will be the template for all of us across the four regions, because the issues are the same. The dearth of male teachers in primary schools is the same, but how do we address it?
I encourage the Minister to take the lead for all of us. I will certainly be sending the Hansard copy of the debate to my Minister back home and probably to some of the schools as well to let them know what we are doing. I ask the Secretary of State for Education to engage in an in-depth discussion with his counterparts in all the regions about further action on encouraging and incentivising more male teachers. If we can do it here, we can do it everywhere. What we can learn here can be replicated back home. What we have done back home might be of help as well.
Back home, teaching courses have a decent number of male students, but there is clearly a barrier—I am not entirely sure why—that stops them fulfilling teaching roles in schools. We must fix that. If someone has a desire to teach and to be in education, that desire needs to be encouraged in whatever way it can to get males working in primary schools. We must ensure that the blockades are removed to help increase the numbers of male teachers.
Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield on securing this debate. It is a very worthy one, and I look forward to the speech by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), who always brings knowledge to these debates, and particularly to the Minister’s speech.
I call the Opposition spokesman to speak forth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I want to start by thanking the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) for securing this debate on an issue that I know he cares passionately about. It is also an important issue to consider at a time when there are challenges facing the workforce in our nations’ schools, where we see a crisis in the recruitment and retention of teachers and school support staff. It is clear from the contributions from Members on both sides of the House that we all agree that male primary school teachers play a vital role in children’s and young people’s development.
The hon. Member for Mansfield spoke about ideas for practical action to remove or overcome barriers to teaching. He shared the views of parents and carers and mentioned the value of positive role models in schools. In their interventions, Members made helpful points about career progression, from coaching to teaching, and about making primary school teaching a more attractive profession. As ever, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made helpful points from his perspective in Northern Ireland, sharing figures and trends in the workforce and making helpful points around peer pressure and why that might be a barrier to more men coming forward to work in our nations’ primary schools.
Despite the strength of feeling across the House today about how much male primary school teachers have to offer in terms of equipping our next generation for the future, the Government have sat on their hands and failed to tackle the areas where they have fallen short. In response to a written parliamentary question from the hon. Member for Mansfield in October, they responded that they wanted to
“attract and retain diverse, talented teachers from all backgrounds, and this includes recruiting male teachers.”
The Labour party agrees with that approach, but why does the Government’s own data continue to show that males are under-represented in the primary school teaching workforce in England?
As we heard earlier, the most recent data states that just 15.5% of state-funded primary school teachers in England are male—around 34,000 out of a total workforce of 220,000. We also know that, for over four years now, that proportion has remained at the same level, and Ministers have failed to take action to improve it. Despite the stagnation, the latest Department for Education data indicates that recruitment of male primary school teachers shows no sign of improvement, with just 2,367 male primary school teachers recruited in 2021-22—a mere 16% of the total. That is in stark contrast to the more than 12,000 women, or 83%, who were recruited as primary school teachers during the same period. All children need positive male role models who come from a diverse range of backgrounds, and that includes male primary school teachers, yet the Government’s mismanagement of education is driving teachers away from classrooms.
I look forward to the Minister’s response on a number of points. What action is he taking to address the current levels of under-representation of male state-funded primary school teachers in England, including, specifically, on retention? What action is he taking to boost the recruitment of male primary school teachers in England and to tackle the stigma around male primary school teachers? Ministers cannot go on pointing to the wider economic fallout for their failure to recruit the diverse, representative teacher workforce in England that we need. It is the actions of the last 12 years of this tired Government that have got us into this mess. Labour is ambitious for our children’s futures and we will deliver the well-rounded education—
Will the hon. Member give way?
I am just going to carry on. We will deliver the well-rounded education that our children need and deserve to ensure that they are ready for work and ready for life. If Conservative Ministers will not deliver that for our children, the next Labour Government will.
It is a pleasure to speak forth under your very capable chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this important debate on increasing the number of male primary school teachers in the run-up to International Men’s Day. I thank him for his contributions on this topic during a recent debate on apprenticeships and training. I know that education is a priority in his work, both in his previous role on the Education Committee and in supporting Mansfield and Ashfield as an education investment area. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson): my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield is undoubtedly a sad loss for the teaching profession, but we are very happy to have him here in the House of Commons representing his constituents as ably as he does.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon referred to the PFA wanting to find a way to help ex-professional footballers to be encouraged into teaching. He will know that I want to do more to improve sport in schools. He and I have had many conversations over the years. I will certainly take up his offer to arrange a meeting; I would enjoy that very much indeed.
The Government are committed to providing world-class education and training. We know that accomplished teachers, regardless of gender or background, provide positive role models and shape the lives of young people. That is why the Department aims to attract and retain highly skilled and talented individuals from all backgrounds and to support them throughout their careers.
The Department’s current recruitment marketing campaign on teaching, “Every lesson shapes a life”—with its brilliant marketing and advertisements on television and radio to recruit people into teaching—is deliberately targeted at various audiences, including recent graduates and potential career changers. That targeting is regardless of background. The marketing takes every effort to ensure that all the advertising is fully reflective of the target audiences, including men. If hon. Members see those adverts, they will see precisely how that marketing does that very effectively.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield will be aware, despite the challenges of a competitive recruitment market, the Department’s target for the number of trainees starting postgraduate initial teacher training primary courses has been exceeded in four of the last five years. In 2021-22, 136% of the postgraduate initial teacher training target was achieved in primary.
Too often, we hear schools and universities saying that they know a good teacher when they see one. The Department is committed to dismantling the stereotype of what a good teacher looks like and supporting people into the teaching profession regardless of their background. Although it remains true that men make up a smaller proportion of the teaching workforce, the number of male teachers in primary schools has gradually increased since 2010. There has been an increase of more than 7,000 male teachers in state-funded nursery and primary schools, from 28,180 in 2010 to 35,202 in 2021. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield cited that in percentage terms, but clearly it is still a very small proportion of the total workforce.
That shows a trend that, unfortunately, we do not have in Northern Ireland. I know that that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I am keen to know whether he has been able to ascertain why the trend is for an increase here on the mainland, because if there is something that the Department for Education is doing here to improve the situation, I would very much like, as I said in my speech, to use the pluses from this debate for us back home. If the Minister could share any information on that, I would be much obliged to him.
What is interesting about that intervention is that the problem, the issue, that we have in this country is reflected in Northern Ireland, where of course education policy is devolved, so this is not specifically related to education policy; it is a deeper, societal issue and requires considerable consideration. I will come to those points shortly.
Male teachers are more likely to work in secondary schools than nursery and primary schools: 14% of nursery and primary school teachers are male—that is up from 12% in 2010—but 35% of secondary school teachers are male, although that is down slightly, from 37.8% in 2010. Let us look at the picture as a whole: 28% of all male teachers teach in state-funded nursery and primary schools, whereas 65% of male teachers teach in secondary schools and 6% of male teachers teach in special schools and pupil referral units. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), in his speech, cited similar proportions in Northern Ireland.
Male teachers do progress to leadership positions at a higher rate. As of November 2021, in state-funded nursery and primary schools, 26% of headteachers were male, compared with 14% of all nursery and primary teachers. There is also data to suggest that men progress faster. For example, in 2020 the median new female primary headteacher had been qualified for 19 years or fewer, compared with 16 years or fewer for the median male primary headteacher—whatever a median male primary headteacher is. People know the point I am making in terms of averages.
The Department is committed to making teaching and teacher recruitment as inclusive as possible. That includes recruitment campaigns designed to attract a diverse pool of candidates to teacher training, including men into primary teaching. All candidates have access to tailored support to help find the best route into teaching for them. Although we are seeing increasing representation in some areas—for example, recruitment into initial teacher training is increasingly racially diverse—the Department recognises that some groups, including men, are still under-represented compared with the working-age population. I know that that view is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and his daughter, who is herself a primary school teacher. This is particularly evident in the teaching workforce in primary schools.
The Department is committed to using all our new sources of data and insight, including the new in-house recruitment services, to identify barriers to accomplished people becoming teachers and staying in teaching. From initial attraction, to recruitment, development and progression into leadership, the new services and support are designed to deliver a high-quality and diverse workforce, for the benefit of pupils across the country. Excellent teaching of course starts with recruiting excellent people, from all backgrounds, and the Department does work hard to create diverse recruitment campaigns, as I mentioned, that attract brilliant students, recent graduates and career changers into teaching. Through the new Get Into Teaching website, prospective trainees can access tailored support and advice from expert, one-to-one teacher training advisers, a contact centre and a national programme of events. The Get School Experience digital service also helps potential candidates find and arrange experience in the classroom before deciding whether to become a teacher.
To transform the application process, we successfully rolled out the new initial teacher training application service in England in 2021. The Apply for teacher training service has removed recruitment barriers and is better supporting a wider range of excellent applicants to apply for teaching. The new Apply for teacher training service gives the Department more data and gives us greater insight into the behaviour of male candidates and all candidates, and of schools and universities that offer initial teacher training. That helps us to identify and address barriers for under-represented groups, including men.
If there is one area in which we can help to address the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, it is through understanding why certain candidates are refused an initial teacher training place and what causes any particular candidate to drop out of the application process. We will learn a lot through the new website and I can commit to my hon. Friend that, as a consequence of this debate, I will also monitor any differential data that relates to the sex of the candidate going through the application process.
The Department is committed to tackling barriers to becoming a teacher, including reforming the routes to teaching. That includes a review of the postgraduate teaching apprenticeship, to create a more efficient and streamlined route. As well as that, we are providing a seamless journey into teaching for the best candidates. We have increased the starting salary to £28,000, seeking to ensure that the teaching profession is increasingly competitive, and we have the ultimate goal of getting to a starting salary of £30,000 in the following year.
At the recruitment stage, we have targeted our financial incentives where we know they are most needed. That is why we have put in place a range of measures for trainees from 2023, including bursaries worth up to £27,000 and scholarships worth up to £29,000, to encourage talented trainees to apply for those subjects with the greatest need for new teachers.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield for his interest in and passion for the recruitment and retention of the highest quality teachers, and his particular interest in increasing the number of male teachers in primary schools. Recruitment of primary school teachers remains strong, with the Department exceeding primary recruitment targets in four of the last five years. That said, the Department is taking action to increase teacher recruitment and retention and to boost teacher quality through several high priority programmes, including the early career framework, which I have not touched on today.
At the recruitment stage, the Department has made progress in encouraging applications from the highest quality candidates through our marketing campaign and the transformation of our recruitment services. Meanwhile, our world-class teacher development programmes are designed to support all teachers in the early stage of and throughout their careers, right through to executive leadership. I am very happy to continue these discussions with my hon. Friend in the months ahead.
I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate; it was an interesting conversation. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out that it is important to recognise that this is an issue across the whole UK. It is not a small or isolated problem; it is reflected in primary school teaching across the entire country.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) gave a practical example of something we could do, which is already being discussed. I am grateful that the Minister has agreed to take that forward. It is interesting to compare how much funding, time and energy is, quite rightly, committed to helping young women into football, with the fact that not a lot is committed to getting young men from football into a profession in which they are under-represented. It would be good to redress that balance in a positive way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) bought his daughter’s views and opinions to the fore, and was absolutely right to do so. He made an interesting and important point about how having a balanced workforce makes a school a more enjoyable place to work, given the increased range of diversity, experience and background.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) made lots of partisan points that I wildly disagreed with, but he was absolutely right about the wider recruitment and retention challenges. An awful lot needs to be—and, I hope, is being—done to tackle those challenges. Here is a recruitment solution: make a big point of positive action, which we use in other spaces, to help us to recruit male primary teachers.
I welcome the Minister back to his place. His knowledge and experience in education is unmatched in this place, and he is very welcome. I am grateful for his kind words and for his commitment to meet the PFA. Perhaps we have started something beautiful that might lead to some outcomes. He pointed to his commitment to sport, which is fantastic. As an aside, he will be aware of the work I am doing on sports facilities that are locked away at schools. We have been trying to work on that issue for a long time.
The Minister talked about adverts and how teacher recruitment campaigns are balanced. That is interesting because in other areas the Equality Act allows us to specifically target certain groups, and we have no issues with that. The language in this place and in wider society—this is not a criticism of this place, as this is a wider societal trend—shows that we are very happy to overtly say that we want to see more women in STEM subjects and in certain professions, but we rarely hear people say, “We want to see more men in x.” The language is about being balanced across all genders, all sexes and all the rest of it. That is a very different conversation, which I find really interesting. We seem less comfortable making those points in the same way, but I hope that can change. I would like to not get into gender or any of that at all, to be honest. My fundamental issues with the Equality Act are well documented in Hansard.
I was pleased to hear the Minister’s points about the importance of that balance and that the number of male teachers has risen, and his commitment to monitoring recruitment and applications, which will be helpful in driving this forward. Fairness of access and support during career progression is also absolutely right. I look forward to further discussion and seeing schemes come forward—perhaps there will be more footballers in primary schools very soon. I thank colleagues and you, Sir Gary, and, of course, the Minister for his time and consideration.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered increasing the number of male primary school teachers.
Energy Price Support: Northern Ireland
I beg to move,
That this House has considered energy price support to households and businesses in Northern Ireland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Sir Gary. I welcome the opportunity to have this debate and I am pleased that the Minister has joined us. The main purpose is to focus on energy cost support for households and businesses in Northern Ireland, with a focus on the urgent delivery of the £400 energy support scheme and the payments to those using home heating oil.
I am extremely concerned about the impact of delays in support for Northern Ireland households, and the ongoing lack of clarity around when that support will arise. The UK Government have yet to clarify whether the £400 energy support and the £100 in support for oil-reliant households will be made available to Northern Ireland.
I will give a few words on the broader context. I appreciate that the current energy cost crisis reflects a range of international and domestic factors. Beyond the short-term energy support interventions, there are clear imperatives around insulation and other energy-efficiency measures, and diversification of energy supply, especially in relation to renewables.
Northern Ireland has some of the most challenging rates of poverty and other social and economic indicators in the United Kingdom, including low productivity, high economic inactivity and reliance on benefits. It also has a different energy market from the rest of the UK, with different suppliers and a different profile of energy sources, and with its connectivity on the island of Ireland. Most notably, almost 70% of Northern Ireland households use home heating oil, compared with less than 5% in the rest of the UK.
Northern Ireland is already facing a series of unprecedented risks. Our political institutions have collapsed. There are huge challenges to consumer and business confidence, creating enhanced risks to the economic outlook.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) on securing this debate. It is a great subject for us back home. The welfare of our local businesses is extremely important. He will know that our family-run and smaller businesses are the backbone of our constituencies—his, mine and those of other Members here—making them unique.
A local Japanese restaurant in my constituency that has only been open for about six months has seen an increase in its electricity bills of £900 to £3,000 per month. Should this remain an issue, it is clear that jobs will be lost and the business forced to close. Does the hon. Member agree that more consideration must be given to the long term—not just the next four months, but beyond—because businesses are clearly on the brink of closing?
Order. Just a reminder that interventions should be brief, Jim.
I thought that was brief.
That was not brief.
By Jim’s standards, it was. I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention. I agree with him about the looming cliff edge that will come next year. It is also relevant to stress the issue of spending power in the economy, particularly in the run-up to Christmas for the hospitality sector.
Delivery of energy support should have been implemented by the Northern Ireland Executive. Normally, Northern Ireland would receive Barnett consequentials, based around equivalent spending in Great Britain, and would therefore have the scope to design or modify schemes to address local circumstances. Delivery of the £400 payments would have been implemented by now in those circumstances.
Furthermore, the size of the Barnett consequentials may well be significantly greater than the value of support that comes from direct provision from the UK Government to households and businesses. The Government have recognised that it would have been much easier for delivery to have been through a devolved Executive. However, in a political vacuum, it has fallen to the Government to intervene. I acknowledge the need for that, given the circumstances.
The energy price guarantee is now in place for Northern Ireland. That said, there are concerns about the scale and duration of the support, particularly what happens from next April onwards. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has already touched on that point. For today, the most pressing issue is clarity on the timescale for the delivery of the £400 energy support payments, and how that will be phased, plus the implementation of the home heating oil support.
Despite those pressures, unlike in England, Wales and Scotland, households in Northern Ireland have not yet received a penny of the £400 energy support. There had been indications that we would receive that support in November, one month after the rest of the UK, yet it is now looking increasingly unlikely to be delivered this side of Christmas. We are also hearing that the payment might now be staggered, which means that households will have to wait even longer into next year.
I thank the hon. Member for securing this debate on such an important issue—he is always current. I do not know of any suppliers that will deliver less than 200 litres of heating oil, so the £100 support that was proposed would not even get a tank filled—people will have to put in about £150 before they can even avail themselves of it. Does he therefore share my concern about what would happen if that support were staggered or delivered in a piecemeal way?
Absolutely. There are huge issues in recognising the subtleties of what is efficient for making deliveries in the home heating oil market and the minimum size of delivery, and £100 pounds will not cover the minimum order volume. It is also worth stressing that there are economies of scale. The larger the order, the cheaper it is proportionally, so the households that are struggling most will be hit doubly by that pressure point.
Another big problem that we have in Northern Ireland is supply and the volume of storage. Kerosene works out around 7p a litre more expensive than in any other region of the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention, which again highlights how the situation in Northern Ireland is different from the rest of the UK, and reinforces the importance of trying to tailor solutions to address our very particular circumstances.
It also emerged this week that the UK Government’s joint taskforce responsible for delivering the scheme into Northern Ireland has met only twice. While households across the rest of the UK are being insulated from the worst effects of the crisis, families in Northern Ireland are still waiting for this lifeline and have no clarity about when it will arrive. It is not tenable to argue that, because the money will be coming next year, Northern Ireland will not be missing out. There must be a real urgency for getting this resolved now.
Disposable incomes in Northern Ireland are being particularly eroded by rising energy costs. This represents a grave threat to the wellbeing of households. People in Northern Ireland are also being left behind in terms of their ability to access energy support and are suffering as a result. A survey by National Energy Action in Northern Ireland in June indicated that 45% of Northern Ireland households were already spending more than 10% of their total household income on energy costs. This will be even higher now. That has resulted in dangerous coping mechanisms. Some 80% of Northern Ireland homes admitted to rationing their use of central heating in an effort to reduce costs, and one in 10 households has resorted to skipping meals to ensure that they have enough money to pay for their energy.
The hon. Gentleman is being incredibly generous, and I thank him for that. Some figures I got from Northern Ireland today indicate that an estimated 12% of Northern Ireland families live in absolute poverty—it is even worse than normal poverty, if there could be such a thing. Does that not support his case for why we need urgent help in Northern Ireland now?
I am grateful again to the hon. Member for his intervention. Households are facing, in effect, destitution, which is taking poverty to the nth degree in terms of their ability to cope. Similarly, reliance on food banks has increased by 76% in Northern Ireland over the past three years, which is way in excess of the increase in any other UK region. We cannot afford to see households tipped into poverty, more children going hungry, or more pressure on the national health service due to worsening physical and mental health.
These behaviours put households at significantly increased risk of detrimental impacts on their health and wellbeing, and people in 75% of households admitted to being stressed, anxious or worried about paying for the cost of their energy, either at present or over the winter months ahead.
Fuel poverty organisations in Northern Ireland are already overwhelmed by demand. NEA in Northern Ireland has seen significant rises in the number of households seeking emergency support. Indeed, it was forced to suspend its referral system temporarily in October because of unsustainable levels of demand on the service, a trend that has now been replicated across other organisations in the sector.
There will also be a knock-on consequence for consumer spending. Potentially £300 million of spending power is at risk. This is particularly crucial in the run-up to Christmas, with many businesses, which are struggling themselves, depending on Christmas trade to survive. It is make or break time for them.
Northern Ireland is also suffering because we have a very different energy market from the rest of the UK, and the UK Government’s energy price guarantee does not reflect that. Although households using gas have been protected from price rises through the Government’s energy price cap, those who use oil are yet to receive the paltry £100 of support. That is a mere £100 in heating assistance, which applies to almost 70% of Northern Ireland households. Therefore, the vast majority of homes in Northern Ireland have not received a penny in support for heating cost pressures so far—that is, those households that do not use their electricity for heating.
We know that oil prices have not risen as much as gas prices. Nevertheless, £100 is simply not enough, particularly given the up-front costs of filling an oil tank. The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland estimates that it now costs £460 to fill a typical 500-litre tank, compared to £269 this time last year. In practice, as the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) has already mentioned, there is not a supplier in Northern Ireland that will provide a tank fill for less than 200 litres, meaning that households need to find an additional £150 before they can even avail themselves of support. Orders for oil need to be larger in order to access those economies of scale.
We also still do not know when or how this £100 will materialise in Northern Ireland. Not only is the assistance for Northern Ireland households late, but it is lower than the assistance provided to those in the rest of the UK, if we make that comparison between oil and gas costs.
There are also problems and distortions that come from the use of electricity bills to help oil customers. It is likely either that those people will end up with a credit on their electricity bill that they cannot access at this time of greater stress, or that this will lead to people switching from oil heating to using electric fires, which are potentially more expensive, pose greater health and safety risks, and put further strain on the electricity grid.
Finally, I am also worried about the looming cliff edge that is faced not only by households but by businesses next April. Recent research by Danske Bank indicates that energy prices rank highly among the key concerns for businesses in Northern Ireland. The latest data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 58% of businesses in the food and drink sector say that their energy prices were their main concern in November, up from 39% in October. Businesses are also extremely concerned about the risks associated with consumer spending, and the current impasse on the energy assistance for Northern Ireland puts local businesses at a direct disadvantage in that respect. I urge the Government to acknowledge that most businesses will likely need continued support, and to confirm that they will cast the net widely in that regard.
In summary, the human costs of this energy crisis are very real. I suspect that the ongoing uncertainty about post-April assistance will only serve to fuel the economic costs, as consumer spending and business investment will be constrained as a result. I urge the Government to provide assistance and greater clarity as a matter of extreme urgency, for the good of the people of Northern Ireland, the business community and indeed the broader economy, all of which will ultimately have fiscal consequences for the UK Government if conditions further deteriorate.
I am grateful to the Minister for his presence today. I will focus on the most pressing questions that I hope he will respond to, among other comments that he may wish to make. When and how will households receive the £400 of energy support? Will the Government review their calculation and the level of home heating oil support, and how is that support to be delivered?
It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) on securing this very important debate, and I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) and for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) for their interventions. They all made important and salient points relating to the problem in Northern Ireland.
Given the record energy prices, the Government understand the pressures being faced by households and businesses in Northern Ireland and right across the United Kingdom, and we are taking direct action to address the issue. Clearly, the crisis has been driven by Mr Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, which has caused a surge in the global price of wholesale gas, leading to an unprecedented increase in the amount that households and businesses are paying for the gas, electricity and oil they use. This has compounded already high prices in economies across the globe that are recovering from the covid-19 pandemic. The effects of the price rises are being felt up and down the country, but the Government are determined to ensure that families can provide power for their homes and that businesses can power the economy.
While we have been sitting here, I have taken the opportunity to check on today’s oil price. In England, people can buy a litre of 28 kerosene for 85.9986 pence, but the current price in Northern Ireland is £1.0835—a difference of 22 pence. How can we address the imbalance in transporting oil from GB to Northern Ireland? We have no refinery in Northern Ireland, and no way of dealing with it.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I heard his comments earlier about the increased price of oil in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for North Down spoke of the very high number of households in Northern Ireland that are off-grid, and that is extremely important. I will try to cover that point in my remarks.
The announcements made by the Government in September demonstrated our commitment to protecting UK households and businesses through the energy price guarantee, the energy bill relief scheme and the energy bills support scheme, which is the key matter under discussion. Under the plans, households, businesses and public sector organisations across Northern Ireland will be protected from significant rises in energy bills, thanks to the Government’s support. As well as outlining the support that still needs to be delivered, I will set out what the UK Government are already delivering in Northern Ireland, and what is to follow shortly.
The energy price guarantee in Northern Ireland launched on 1 November, offering equivalent support to that provided in Great Britain for domestic households. The scheme reduces the price that energy suppliers charge customers for units of gas and electricity, providing money off energy bills. Households will receive backdated support to cover October 2022 through a higher discounted rate. Through the EPG scheme, a typical household in Great Britain with both gas and electricity contracts will save around £700 this winter, based on current prices. Equivalent support will be provided for households in Northern Ireland.
Government support will also be provided for households that use alternative fuels for heating, such as heating oil or liquified petroleum gas instead of mains gas. The alternative fuel payment scheme will provide a one-off payment of £100 to ensure that all households that do not benefit through the energy price guarantee receive support for the cost of the fuel they use. The £100 payment has been calculated with reference to increases in the cost of heating oil between September 2021 and September 2022. The aim is to ensure that a typical customer using heating oil will be offered support that is broadly in line with that offered by the energy price guarantee for those using mains gas to heat their homes. However, I hear what hon. Members say, and we are monitoring the price of heating oil and other alternative fuels very closely, now and in the months ahead, to see whether further payments are required at a future point in time.
Households in Great Britain that are eligible for the payments will receive £100 credit on their electricity bills this winter. For Northern Ireland, the Government are working with electricity suppliers to explore how the payment could be delivered via electricity bills under a similar delivery model. Details of when the payment will be made will be confirmed shortly—we have heard that word a number of times from Ministers at the Dispatch Box—so I cannot give the hon. Member for North Down a firm date, but we are very keen to deliver it as quickly as possible.
I thank the Minister for his response. In Northern Ireland, my understanding is that the proportion of those who are dependent on oil—I think the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) referred to this—is between 65% and 68%, so two thirds of the population in Northern Ireland need the payments. I hope he does not mind, but I am going to press the Minister on this. He says the payment is imminent or will be made shortly, or whatever. The people back home in my constituency—indeed, all our constituents—want it, and they want it now. The people have it here on the mainland, and we want the same.
I totally understand that. We have to get this right. There are some complications in terms of timing, which I will set out. I wish I could give the hon. Gentleman a firm date. I get frustrated, too, in debates like this. I am slightly sitting on the fence in not giving a firm date, but I guarantee to him and other Members that the measure will be implemented as quickly as possible. I had meetings with officials earlier today. They are fully cognisant of the issue and keen to deliver quickly.
There are a number of complications. There is no central register either in Great Britain or in Northern Ireland for people who do not use the gas grid for their heating. We are working rapidly with stakeholders on the best way to identify those who merit support. Households that are eligible but do not receive alternative fuel payments because they do not have a relationship with an electricity supplier will receive the £100 via the alternative fuel payment alternative fund, which will be provided by a designated body.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for what he has said so far. May I press him on the data on customers who use home heating oil? If we take the entirety of households in Northern Ireland and subtract those currently using gas, we can use the dataset that remains and assume that they are using home heating oil. That will give the Minister 99% accuracy. Similarly, I hope the £400 energy support will come shortly. Will the Minister explain the technical issues to the people of Northern Ireland, who are slightly confused as to why it is taking so long? We appreciate that the companies in Northern Ireland are different from those in Great Britain and that there might be question marks over their viability, but, to our minds, they are well-established and secure companies, so there should not be any real doubt about their ability to deliver the Government scheme.
I will go on to explain some of the complications. The hon. Gentleman’s points have been well made and heard by me and officials, so we will do what we can. In the discussions that I had this morning, it sounded as though there was a solution. We just need to roll it out as quickly as we can.
The energy bill relief scheme for Northern Ireland will apply to all eligible non-domestic electricity and natural gas customers, including businesses, charities and the public sector, which receives its gas or electricity from licensed suppliers. Discounts will be automatically applied by suppliers to the energy bills of eligible customers, covering energy usage between 1 October 2022 and 31 March 2023. The scheme, as has been said, will run for an initial six-month period. The exact discount applied will depend on the type of contract a customer is on and when it was agreed. Although the scheme applies to energy use from 1 October, savings applied to October bills are typically received in November, which means businesses in Northern Ireland start to feel the benefits in November.
The Government announced on 21 September that we will also provide support to non-domestic consumers who use alternative fuels in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Further information will be provided shortly. The schemes are supporting millions of households and businesses with rising energy costs, and the Chancellor made it clear that they will continue to do so from now until April next year.
Beyond April, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor—this applies to the whole of the United Kingdom—have agreed that it would not be responsible for the Government to continue exposing the public finances to unlimited volatility in international gas prices. A Treasury-led review is considering right now how households and businesses will be supported after April 2023 and will publish its findings by January 2023. The objective is to design a new approach that will cost the taxpayer significantly less than planned while ensuring enough support for those in need. It is very important that non-domestic customers that are less likely to be considered vulnerable to energy price increases, particularly larger businesses that are not energy-intensive, use the six months we have to identify measures they can take to protect themselves against high energy prices.
On support already received, low-income households received a cost of living payment in July of £326 and will receive another payment of £324 by 23 November. The energy bills support scheme launched in Great Britain in October provides eligible households with a discount of £400—that is the key point in front of us—that is being paid in six-monthly instalments in the UK.
Energy policy is devolved to Northern Ireland, but the issue has now been put back to the UK Government to deal with. The hon. Member for North Down referred to the taskforce. The reason it only met twice was that its job was to determine the best way to address this issue, and it determined that the UK Government should do it. The issue is now with officials and Ministers in my Department to make sure that we deliver the scheme in a way that accounts for the differences in Northern Ireland, and we are working with suppliers to get this across the line as quickly as possible.
Detailed work is under way to establish how suppliers can use their systems to pass funds on to consumers in a way that is consistent with the Government policy intent, while ensuring that public money is properly protected. We will of course use our experience thus far in the scheme in the rest of the United Kingdom, and we will work with the Utility Regulator in Northern Ireland to deliver the scheme.
We have already acted to resolve one of the barriers to delivering the scheme in Northern Ireland by taking new powers in the Energy Prices Act 2022, which received Royal Assent only on 25 October. We now need to provide clarity on timings on when the scheme will be finally rolled out to households in Northern Ireland.
Some households in Northern Ireland who do not have a direct contract with an electricity supplier or a meter of their own, for example park homes, cannot receive the £400 discount directly via an electricity supplier. We will also support those households under a separate arrangement called the energy bills support scheme alternative funding.
The Government have delivered and will continue to deliver comprehensive support for energy consumers across the United Kingdom to overcome the extraordinary challenges we are facing. We are delivering support to households and businesses in Northern Ireland through the EPG and the energy bill relief scheme already, but we fully recognise the need to provide further clarity on when these measures will be delivered to consumers in Northern Ireland and are working at significant pace to do so.
I cannot give a firm date, but I can give the commitment that we are trying to expedite payments by every possible means. We have listened to the points made by the hon. Gentleman and others, particularly about off-grid homes, which is an issue not just in Northern Ireland but across the country, and we are working to make sure that the payments are at the right level. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important topic today. I will continue to work with him to try to make sure that we get the money out of the door as quickly as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
Conflict in Ethiopia
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the conflict in Ethiopia.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. This debate has come at a very significant time for the Ethiopian people. It is exactly two weeks since an agreement was struck and signed in South Africa between the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or the TPLF. The ceasefire officially ending this brutal two-year conflict is welcomed by all Members of this House. However, according to Ghent University, an estimated 600,000 people have lost their lives, some 875,000 people have become refugees and 90% of Tigray’s population are now dependent on food aid. Those are staggering figures.
Of course, information is still being gathered. Establishing the full facts is incredibly difficult. This is partly because of the serious danger to even well-established and world-renowned non-governmental organisations, whose first priority has to be to protect their workers and those to whom they must give emergency aid. While we sit in this warm, relatively calm and peaceful place, hundreds of incredibly courageous and dedicated aid workers will put their own safety and comfort aside to help the human victims and survivors of the atrocities of war. We may never know the names of those who prioritise the safety and survival of others, but their selfless humanity cannot and should not be underestimated or go unrecognised by this House and politicians the world over.
Although it was a great relief to hear the news of the cessation of this bloody conflict, just two weeks before, UN Secretary-General António Guterres had expressed his deep concern that the situation in Ethiopia was spiralling out of control, and there continue to be reports of conflict in northern Ethiopia, including looting in Adwa and drone attacks. There are gravely concerning reports that, despite the ceasefire, Eritrean troops continue to defy the ceasefire and are still active. We know that they did not formally take part in the peace agreement. With no assurances of an internationally recognised and supervised ceasefire monitoring mechanism, that continues to contribute to fears over the safety and security of civilians, particularly in Tigray.
The conflict has been one of the world’s deadliest, so ensuring that peace is maintained and agreements are adhered to has to be a humanitarian priority for Governments the world over. What I want to hear from our Government today is what actions they are taking to ensure that, either through direct interventions with the Ethiopian Government and/or through the UN.
I have touched on the famine, death and displacement of Ethiopia’s people, but what is perhaps most difficult to discuss is the sexual violence and human rights atrocities committed over the course of this conflict. There has been extensive verification of widespread atrocities, including by Amnesty International, the UN councils and commissions on Ethiopia and the testimonies of many incredibly brave survivors. As politicians, we hear such evidence from warzones quite frequently, but I have rarely been as shocked and moved as I have after hearing about some of those experiences.
The stories are anonymised to protect the survivors. Aida, a 20-year-old from the indigenous Irob minority, was kept in sexual slavery with two other Tigrayan women. She was gang raped by Ethiopian and Eritrean military commanders for over a month in November 2020. Lilly, a 23-year-old from Irob, was kept in sexual slavery with six other Tigrayan women and was repeatedly gang raped by troops when they were hiding in that area. Both women escaped, but one has now given birth as a result of rape. Hanna, a mother of two suffering from breast cancer, was gang raped in a church after being dragged away from family members. Her breast was cut off by a commander and she was left unconscious after being raped by eight soldiers.
There are many hundreds, if not thousands, of similar stories being collected by incredibly brave and outstanding volunteers like Rita Kahsay, who spent three months in refugee camps speaking with those displaced by this conflict. She has painstakingly taken the testimonies of survivors at great personal risk. Some of the most horrific crimes were carried out on children. The Joint UN Human Rights Office-Ethiopian Human Rights Commission found that Tigrayan boys were not spared from the weaponised rapes that took place.
I am lucky enough to be in touch with Rita thanks to the work of a former Member of this House, Sally Keeble, who has continued to raise the plight of the Tigrayan people. Rita could have chosen to simply pursue her path as an engineer in the UK, but she felt compelled to act and help those left in the country of her birth. Her family are dispersed, and she has not been able to be in regular contact with them for at least two years.
Those are the human beings; those are the experiences of people caught up in brutal, bloody and deadly conflicts that have absolutely nothing to do with them. Those are the circumstances that lead to displacement and the creation of hellish refugee camps. Many risk their lives to get to safety by any means.
If those who signed the peace agreement truly welcome peace, they must allow bodies such as the UN to carry out their work. If they truly welcome peace, aid in the form of food and medical treatment must be allowed through, and aid agencies must be allowed to carry out their work unhindered. If they truly welcome peace, that process should be seen to go smoothly by politicians and the displaced diaspora so that the rebuilding of those devastated lives can begin. We in the UK must listen to the joint UN and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and play our part to help all those affected. We have to act as a global community and seek every assurance that the peace and cessation of violence in Tigray will be meaningful, real and lasting.
Order. The wind-ups begin at 5.10 pm. We therefore have about 30 minutes and there are six of you seeking to catch my eye, so that is about five minutes each. Let us be disciplined voluntarily.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. It is also a pleasure to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) back in the Government. Like me, he greatly values the effect that British aid has had over very many years and wants it to continue. I know he takes a deep interest in these subjects, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (Sir James Duddridge)—it is really good to see him in the debate.
We have held a number of debates on Ethiopia. I have secured an urgent question and have taken part in the debates. I have chaired the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia for a dozen years or so, and I continue to take a deep interest in the country. I am very sorry to see what has been happening over the past few years. I was at the Ethiopian embassy two weeks ago. The ceasefire had been announced the night before; it was a very moving moment and there was a lot of hope. I am very hopeful that we can make progress. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) set out the case for peace and spoke movingly. I congratulate her on securing this debate.
The tragedy of the conflict is that Ethiopia has held together for so long, despite having very sizeable Christian and Muslim populations and something like 80 tribes and 80 languages. Yes, Eritrea broke away many years ago, but Ethiopia has been very peaceful. It has had great economic success, with growth rates that we in the west would envy, and is one of the safest countries to walk around. That is the tragedy.
I have called constantly for the UN and the African Union to take more of an interest than they appear to have been taking, although there has been a good deal of success recently from the work carried out by the African Union. We now need to make sure that is followed through and the peace holds. Both sides and Eritrea are accountable for that. They have to make sure the peace holds for the very reasons that the hon. Lady set out. We have to make sure food, medical supplies and everything else that is needed in that part of Ethiopia gets through to Tigray.
I say this slightly reluctantly, but it is important that the west is not seen to lecture developing countries because we have had our own problems. We had 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland, and we saw what that did to morale; it destroyed futures. We saw what it did through the 3,000 or so lives that it took. We saw the effect that had on the economy in Northern Ireland. At the worst of the troubles, the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland was something like 25%. That is what war and conflict does to a country. On that occasion in the embassy I said that, since we have had relative peace in Northern Ireland, we have had relative prosperity. Yes, there are problems, as we heard in the debate just a few minutes ago. But it is a far better place—it is almost unrecognisable from the place that it was. That is because the conflict was ended. I know that is the wish of the hon. Member for Canterbury, who very ably introduced this debate. I know it is the wish of everybody in Westminster Hall. It is certainly my wish. My call goes out to everybody involved to embrace peace and enjoy the benefits of peace.
I will stick to five minutes as you asked, Sir Gary, so we can all speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on securing the debate and the way she introduced it, particularly her drawing attention to the way women were treated during the conflict in Tigray, the abominable abuse they suffered, and sadly probably continue to suffer, and the lack of closure in that part of the conflict.
The cessation of hostilities agreement is obviously very good news. For there to be lasting peace, however, it is crucial that victims and survivors have justice. Does the hon. Member agree that accountability for war crimes and serious human rights abuses is paramount?
Absolutely. I am sure that everyone agrees with the hon. Member on that point. I certainly do. I was going to say this further on in my speech, but I will say it now: we must ensure that the UN Human Rights Council has unfettered access to all parts of Ethiopia to examine these abuses and the crimes that have been committed. In the past, it has been barred from access and had to interview victims by telephone and things like that. Obviously, that is a very unsatisfactory way of reporting.
The other point I make about Ethiopia generally is that there are almost a million refugees in Ethiopia from most of the neighbouring countries: South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and so on. There is a massive demand placed on Ethiopia to deal with that. I hope that when the Minister comes to reply, he can give us some indication of what support we can give to ensure that the refugees are decently treated and, where they want to and where it is possible, what assistance we can give them in returning to the country they come from.
The Tigray conflict ended because of the intervention of South Africa, with the support of the African Union, and we should be very grateful for that. It was good that they brought about the ceasefire and the agreement. The ceasefire and agreement are one thing. What is important is the progress that happens after that: the investigation of the crimes that have been committed; getting humanitarian aid, medical aid and food rapidly into Tigray; and not being blockaded or blocked from going in.
There is also the question of their democratic point of view. They could not take part in the Ethiopian elections last year. The government in Tigray has been dissolved and there is no regional government in Tigray—it is done from Addis Ababa. Surely there is therefore a big democratic deficit in Tigray. If that democratic deficit is not addressed, it could well be the source of future stress and conflict.
The last point I want to make is this: Tigray is not the only part of Ethiopia where there are problems. The Roma community are also facing tensions and stresses. There has been unrest and violence, and there have been deaths as a result. It is not for us to interfere in the running of another country—I am absolutely clear about that—but we must be prepared to recognise that we may be able to play a role that can help by facilitating the UNHRC and with necessary aid and support of a humanitarian kind. We must ensure that we do not supply arms that fuel this conflict to any actor on this field and that arms that we sell elsewhere do not end up in Ethiopia, because the terror, death and real problems that the people of Ethiopia face—drought, famine, poverty, the lack of medical aid and other issues—must be addressed as quickly as possible.
Ethiopia was the one country that was never colonised by the Europeans. I see it as the major beacon of Africa. It is the centre of the African Union and so much else. Let us respect that history and participation and give all the support we can to what we hope is a path to long-term peace in that country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for securing this important debate and setting the scene. As horrific as it is, it is important that we never forget. It goes without saying that the suffering caused by the conflict in Ethiopia is truly heartbreaking. I have constituents with family in Tigray who have not seen or heard from any of their family members in the past two years because of the communication blackout. They do not know whether their families are alive or dead. Indeed, the stories they have heard about the conditions in Tigray mean that their assumption is that some of their family members will almost certainly have passed away.
Hundreds of thousands of people have died in the conflict, more than 3 million are internally displaced and 13 million need food aid in northern Ethiopia. Yet there is a sense that this humanitarian crisis is not being treated with the utmost urgency. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the crisis in Ethiopia is one of the 10 most neglected displacement crises in the world, all of which are in Africa.
Last week, members of the International Development Committee and I were lucky enough to be joined by experts on the horn of Africa’s hunger crisis. We were told that the conflict in Tigray has intersected with a series of other factors to create a devastating food crisis. High inflation in world markets, partly as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, is pushing up the price of food and fertilisers. Climate change is increasing the prevalence of droughts, and the covid pandemic is devastating economies and livelihoods. We were told that there is the real possibility of famine and that the World Food Programme has not managed to get aid into Tigray since 24 August. We must welcome the recent agreement to allow full access to food and aid, but must closely track its implementation. There is no time to waste with almost a third of children already suffering from malnutrition. Michael Dunford, who is regional director at the World Food Programme across the horn of Africa, said at the evidence session that the cuts to the overseas aid budget are harming the WFP’s ability to respond to people’s needs. He said that, in 2019, the World Food Programme benefited from £181 million funding from the UK Government. In 2022, it has received less than a third of that figure—£55 million.
The Government are failing to do all that is possible to provide humanitarian support and help create the conditions for lasting peace and prosperity for the people of Ethiopia. I would therefore like to make three recommendations to the Minister. First, we must restore our commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas development assistance if we want to retain the capacity to adequately respond to crises. Secondly, a significant amount of funding must be immediately directed to bilateral aid for Ethiopia. Thirdly, we need to restore our previous contributions to multilateral agencies, such as the World Food Programme.
The Committee also received evidence from Mamadou Dian Balde, the UNHCR representative in Ethiopia. He told us last week that we need greater investment in medium to long-term programmes to ensure resilience to climate change, which would include irrigation schemes and drought-resistant crops. I hope the Minister, who is in his place, will listen to all of us and be able to help not only those of us in this Chamber today, but the families who are worried sick from not knowing whether their families are alive or dead.
I made an error: I counted six instead of five speakers, so the next two speakers can in fact have six minutes each. I apologise—especially to you, Jeremy.
Can I come back for two more minutes?
No. I call Jim Shannon —you can have six minutes.
Thank you, Sir Gary. I am now glad I was called at the end, because I have an extra minute; I thank hon. Members for being so generous. I am particularly interested in this issue, and I thank the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for setting the scene so well. Some of the evidence and information in her speech was hard to listen to, and quite unnerving, but I understand that she wanted to set the scene.
I speak, and declare an interest, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. I have a deep concern and heart for all those individuals who do not get the opportunity to express themselves from their religious points of view. The situation in Ethiopia is tragic. Thousands are dead, and many more are displaced, owing to the conflict. Over 13 million people in the northern region of Tigray need food aid and lack essential services. While ethnic conflict rages on, freedom of religion or belief remains a sorely disregarded human right.
Against the background of political violence and unrest in Ethiopia and Tigray, it should be remembered that it is difficult to differentiate between faith-related and ethnically or politically related attacks in Tigray. All too often, the religious dimension is brushed aside because of the close links between ethnicity and religion, and their close links to the various drivers of the conflict. It is difficult to characterise incidents as based solely on religious identity.
I omitted to welcome the Minister to his place; I am very pleased to see him there. He has had a deep interest in these matters over the years, so I am optimistic that he will respond to our questions in a positive fashion.
When some say that the number of reported incidents based on religion or belief has dropped—from the figures and the evidential base, that does not seem to be the case—that should be understood in the broader context of the conflict. In Tigray, religion is closely entangled with ethnicity and politics. There is no denying that the conflict has had a devastating impact on Christian communities. Many churches have been destroyed and many Christians killed.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) gave me some literature related to Aid to the Church in Need, which had an event in the House of Lords. I could not attend, but I know that you, Sir Gary, were there. I sat and read one story, about the Eritrean Axum massacre, in November 2020, when there was an attack on a church where 1,000 people were worshipping:
“It might be that more were injured and died later. 750 were killed for sure.”
That illustrates the issue very clearly. As the hon. Member for Canterbury mentioned, Eritrean troops stand accused of a campaign of ethnically motivated cultural cleansing, and of participating in massacres of Ethiopian Christians. The people doing that are the army, police and those in authority. I feel very sad to say this, but Aid to the Church in Need was told that nuns have been raped as part of the attack on Tigray. That gives hon. Members an idea of the brutality, violence and ethnic cleansing that is happening. People have to be accountable.
Ethiopia ranks 38 on the Open Doors world watch list for the world’s worst places to be a Christian, despite Christianity being the majority religion in the country, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) mentioned. Given that Christianity is the religion favoured by most, it is hard to understand that Christians have been targeted. In Ethiopia, converts from Islam to Christianity, as well as converts to Protestant Churches from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, face mistreatment from family, friends and the wider community. Islamic extremist attacks against churches are increasingly prevalent. So many Christian converts face pressure to renounce their faith and continue to suffer as a result of political unrest, dire humanitarian conditions and added environmental pressures as a result of some of the driest conditions since 1981. Last year, the Government said that their priority was
“to ensure that Ethiopians, irrespective of ethnicity, religion and political affiliation, receive life-saving aid and that humanitarian access to areas affected by conflict and insecurity is restored.”
My question to the Minister is this: if that was said by our Government—my Government—then can we have an update on where we are? Can the Minister confirm that the lifesaving aid and the humanitarian access has been delivered?
In conclusion, this is not the first debate we have had on the situation in Ethiopia. I very much focused my contribution to this debate on the religious persecution perspective, which I know you have a deep interest in, Sir Gary, as do many others in this Chamber, because it matters. However, the other issues and factors in Ethiopia also matter, so I call on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, our Minister and our Government to fulfil their promises and to take what I have said into consideration when engaging in discussions with Ethiopia. We have a duty in this House and an opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless—for those people who have nobody to act for them—and today we are doing just that.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on securing this important debate. The conflict in Ethiopia, which began two years ago in the region of Tigray, has been and continues to be brutal, devastating and destabilising for the wider horn of Africa. There are reports of thousands of deaths and abductions and of the widespread use of rape and sexual violence in the conflict, and warnings that the scale and systematic nature of the violence, and the language that accompanies it, may amount to genocide.
I pay tribute today to brave journalists, including Lucy Kassa, who has borne witness to the scale and intensity of the violence, and politicians, including Filsan Ahmed, who resigned from the Ethiopian Government over their handling of the conflict in Tigray. Both are remarkable young women who have borne significant personal cost for their work to give voice to people suffering under this conflict.
For some of my constituents, the conflict in Tigray has meant a total loss of contact with close family members over the past two years. I have a constituent whose parents and brother, who has Down’s syndrome, are in Tigray. She knows that her aunt was one of the first to be killed in the conflict, but she has not had any word at all from other family members for more than two years, resulting in unbearable worry, anxiety and anguish.
The conflict has left 20 million people across Ethiopia in urgent need of food aid, hospitals entirely without medicine and 2.8 million children without access to school. The scale of the conflict is as appalling as its brutality, with 500,000 people dead as a result of fighting and conflict-related factors such as famine, and 100,000 dead just since the fighting resumed in September. Yet for a conflict that is causing such suffering and has the potential to cause such widespread destabilisation, there has been extraordinarily little international outcry or mainstream media coverage of the devastation and insufficient international engagement.
The ceasefire that was recently signed is welcome, but it is not clear that it is yet having any impact, with further reports of violence today—not entirely surprising given the absence of the Eritrean authorities from the negotiations, since Eritrean forces are reported to be among the main perpetrators of violence in Tigray.
The humanitarian need is desperate, as is the need to investigate the crimes that have been committed so far within this conflict, to gather evidence and testimony and to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. There has been extensive verification of widespread atrocities in Ethiopia, including by Amnesty International, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the UN Human Rights Council. Their inquiries have found evidence of atrocities that may amount to war crimes, including massacres of civilians and evidence of language indicative of genocide.
One extreme feature of this conflict is the widespread use of sexual violence. Conservative estimates are that more than 26,000 women have been affected, while some estimates are far higher. While all parties to the conflict have been accused of atrocities, the UNHRC’s investigation identifies Tigrayan women as having been targeted for particular violence. It also found that the Ethiopians were the only air force in possession of the drones being used in aerial bombardments, including on a refugee camp.
The highly respected Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation released a report in November 2022 that concluded that data suggests Ethiopian and allied forces committed conflict-related sexual violence on a widespread and systemic basis in order to eliminate and/or forcibly displace the ethnic Tigrayan population. The UN Human Rights Council has found action taken by the Ethiopian legal justice system to be wholly inadequate in terms of numbers of prosecutions and lack of information about prosecutions and convictions. It is a dire situation that demands the attention of the world.
I welcome the Minister to his place. I know that he has a personal commitment to see peace in Ethiopia. I ask him to set out what actions the UK Government are taking over atrocity crimes in Ethiopia, both through direct interventions with the Ethiopian Government and through the UN. Will the Government invite representatives from Tigrayan civil society and other diaspora communities in the UK affected by conflict-related sexual violence to their Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict conference? What actions are the UK Government taking to progress and support investigations on the reports of genocide in the Tigray region of Ethiopia? Finally, what actions are the UK Government taking to help to secure humanitarian access into Tigray to meet the urgent needs of the population there?
My constituents, and all those whose families are affected by this terrible conflict, need to know that the UK Government are doing everything possible to work for peace, justice and humanitarian access.
We now turn to the Front-Bench speeches. I suggest seven minutes rather than five for the first two speeches, then the Minister can take the rest.
Having spent as long as I did in the European Parliament, where 90 seconds was a long speech, I am well used to brevity, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) on securing a debate on this important issue. I am glad that we all welcome the ceasefire and peace agreement in Tigray. Brokered by the African Union, it has been a real achievement for the South Africans. We should give them their due in this; it was in danger of becoming a frozen conflict before their involvement. African diplomacy has gone a long way towards resolving the conflict.
With the Minister in his place, we should look towards the future and what we can do to help the people of the region enjoy a durable peace. I will focus on the durability of the agreement that has been struck, the accountability for crimes and justice for victims, and the food insecurity that I am deeply concerned will set the conditions for a relapse into further violence in the region.
The durability of the agreement was hard won. Even as the ceasefire was being announced, one side referred to the “terrorist” Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and the other side to the “fascist clique”. Eritrea was not a formal signatory to the agreement, but it clearly was involved. We have not seen any disarmament thus far under article 6 of the agreement. What assessment have the UK Government made of the prospects for disarmament on the ground, particularly in terms of how the verification of the withdrawal of the Eritrean forces is going to be checked? We have already heard concerns about the access of international observers. What sort of access are we going to be pushing for to verify that the agreement, particularly article 6, is being implemented?
We are all united in believing that accountability for war crimes is integral for a just peace going forward. That is something that we really are in a position to assist with. It concerns me deeply that no side of the conflict has accepted that any war crimes were committed by their side. I am not sure the conditions for accountability and honesty are necessarily there yet. I can see why accountability would not be foreseen within a ceasefire agreement, but surely the international community cannot lose sight of the need for accountability mechanisms.
Again, I ask what the UK Government are doing to assist those accountability mechanisms. The African Union is doing a great deal of work on that, as are the UN authorities, but their access has been hindered. That can be usefully taken forward by the UK Government to ensure access and give financial support—even in terms of lending personnel to the investigators. Those war crimes need to be properly explored and people held to account.
On food insecurity, the point is wider than just Tigray, Ethiopia or the horn of Africa, but the numbers facing food insecurity in that region are very stark. According to the World Food Programme, there are 13 million people across northern Ethiopia alone who are in real danger of food insecurity, including 5.4 million people in Tigray, 7 million in Amhara and 1.2 million in Afar. There are millions of people in real danger of starvation right now. Aid was not able to get through, but now it is, which is one of the big advantages of this ceasefire.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has classified Ethiopia as a whole at its highest alert level for hunger and starvation. That is a real challenge to the international community and a challenge, as well as an opportunity, to the UK Government to step up. Now that aid can get through, we all need to consider how we can best help to prevent the conditions for a relapse into violence from occurring.
The Minister well knows the SNP position on the return to the 0.7% aid criteria; he has his own well-documented thoughts on that. I appreciate that he has collective responsibility today, but surely in the case of Ethiopia and the horn of Africa there is a real need for more aid than we have seen. As well as reinstating the 0.7% aid—and even if we are short of that—I would make a plea today for increased UK Government aid, particularly to combat food insecurity in that region. I would be glad to hear about that. Otherwise, I fear that the conditions exist for the bad guys to come back. The peace is fragile. Of course the agreement is significant, but it needs help, and I think we are all united in that effort.
It is a real pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Sir Gary. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for securing the debate and opening it so brilliantly. I thank all other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions; it has been an excellent debate.
The devastating conflict in Ethiopia has lasted for two very long years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury stated, some estimates suggest that as many as half a million people have died, including hundreds of thousands of civilians. The ceasefire agreement could simply not come quick enough and Labour is deeply grateful to the diplomats who have worked to secure it, most of all the African Union and its representatives. We need to face the reality that the chaos in the Conservative party over recent months has weakened the UK’s international voice, but now we need to look forward. I hope the new Minister will tell us how the Government will deepen the UK’s support for African Union mediation, peacekeeping and peace-building work over the coming years.
East Africa was named a priority region by this Government in their “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”. Now we need to understand how that commitment will be implemented to support peace, security, inclusion and accountability. The first priority, as we know, must be to support humanitarian access for the people of Tigray. In August, 89% of the population in Tigray were assessed as food insecure, and 29% of children under five and half the pregnant women and breastfeeding women were malnourished. That situation will inevitably have worsened since then.
Over the past two years, many people have been descending into deeper desperation in the absence of aid. That in itself is sure to have fuelled the conflict, because if the only way people can eat and survive is by signing up to fight, why would they not do that? That desperation puts women and children at massively increased risk of abuse and exploitation, so what progress has been made with humanitarian access right now to all parts of Tigray? Let us face it: demand for assistance is extremely high in many parts of Ethiopia and across the region because of the terrible drought. Are we confident that aid agencies have enough resources to take full advantage to deliver life-saving help quickly?
The Minister has rightly said in response to my written questions that the UK stands ready to support the peace process—that is fabulous—so now I would be grateful to understand how. Will he tell us if discussions are ongoing with the Government of Ethiopia and the African Union? Like my hon. Friends, I have several constituents who have been agonisingly out of contact with their families in Tigray for many months now. Surely we can expect a rapid and final end to the communications blackout and the restoration of services.
Like my hon. Friend, I have constituents from Tigray, Oromia and Ethiopia as a whole, and they are going through the most awful stress. There is a lack of communication, but they want to send help and aid in support. Does she think we could do more to facilitate information, to give the families some sense of security about what is happening to their relatives? The community in this country is also very keen to send whatever help it can.
My right hon. Friend has known me long enough to know that I agree entirely with what he just said. As my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury, for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), and for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), have highlighted, there have been many credible reports of repeated war crimes and potential crimes against humanity.
It is unacceptable that the UN-mandated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia has been so heavily restricted in its work. Despite those restrictions, the commission has set out damning evidence of horrifying abuses by all parties to the conflict. Because of the lack of access for journalists and human rights defenders, the violations we know about may well be only the tip of the iceberg.
It would be good to know how we are preparing for the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative conference in two weeks’ time. There have been many reports of women, children and men being subject to horrific sexual violence, including repeated rape and torture. Many seem to have been targeted, based on their identity, with sexual violence being used as a weapon of war. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the UK is working to support survivors through access to specialist services, including mental and physical health support, and access to justice.
For many of the survivors who have been displaced it is not currently safe to return home. Many are in camps in Sudan as well as across Ethiopia. I am sure we all understand that specialist support needs to get to where they are now, and quickly. I genuinely struggle to see how the enormous divisions in Ethiopia will mend without proper accountability. That is about security as well as justice for the victims.
I am struggling to understand how we can have confidence in a sustainable peace, if there is not healing and inclusion in Ethiopia. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about the approach that he will take to support credible accountability for the countless victims of abuses in this war. I want to ask the Minister about some of the pitfalls, as it would be devastating to the people of Ethiopia and damaging to UK interests if the agreement fails.
First, the agreement excludes Eritrea, and it is not clear how the rapid withdrawal of all Eritrean forces will be ensured. The Government have failed to mirror previous US sanctions against Eritrean entities involved in the conflict, so I hope that the Minister will consider that as a lever that he might have to deploy.
We know that there are significant border disputes, particularly around western Tigray. Many of the alleged systematic abuses, including ethnic cleansing, relate to that area. A pathway will need to resolve those disputes fairly and peacefully. The ceasefire does not end the need for close and consistent engagement by the UK—far from it. Let us be clear: the UK has much to gain from a just peace.
Ethiopia has made an enormous contribution to sustainable development and to the pan-African vision and its institution. The potential of the people of Ethiopia is even greater than their history. I believe that our partnership and collaboration could be much stronger if the UK supports the peace to hold, and if justice is done and seen to be done for the peoples of that very great country.
Just before I call the Minister, can I check, Rosie, whether you want to take advantage of time to wind up the debate ?
I think I would like to give the time to the Minister.
We will give time to the Minister. It is a pleasure to call the Minister, Andrew Mitchell.
Thank you, Sir Gary. This is the first time I have had the privilege of performing under your eagle eye. It is my third time in government, since I first became a member of the Government in 1992, but I have never taken a debate in Westminster Hall before, so I hope you will treat me gently on this occasion, as I am a bit of a debutante.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for securing this debate. I thought that she led and framed it with humanity, wisdom and knowledge, and the whole Chamber will be grateful to her for doing that. I am also grateful to other hon. Members and right hon. Members for their contributions to the debate, and I will try to respond to as many of the points that were raised as I can. I will come directly to the important points that were raised at the end of my remarks if I do not cover them in the speech that I am about to deliver.
After two years of brutal and bloody conflict, today’s debate takes place at a moment of hope. There is finally a path towards peace and prosperity for the people of Ethiopia. During two years of fighting in the north of the country, thousands of people have been killed. There have been human rights violations and abuses on an appalling scale, as has been set out during this debate, and some 13 million people have been left in need of humanitarian aid. It has been one of the world’s most destructive conflicts.
The peace agreement signed on 2 November by the Ethiopian Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is an opportunity to bring a permanent end to this conflict. I recognise the achievement of both parties in taking this step towards peace. I particularly commend the role of the African Union and its envoy—the former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo—who led mediation efforts, with support from South Africa and Kenya.
This weekend, there was further cause for optimism. On Saturday in Nairobi, senior military commanders from both sides in the conflict signed a further agreement that maps out implementation of the peace process. At the forefront of this agreement is a rapid return to full and unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray, which, as Members have made clear today, is absolutely vital. The peace agreement provides for a permanent cessation of hostilities, the disarmament and demobilisation of Tigrayan forces, and the restoration of services across Tigray. It also provides for a restoration of the constitutional order and the presence of federal authorities within the region.
This is a comprehensive agreement which, if implemented in full, can be the basis of a lasting peace. However, its implementation is far from certain. It will require sustained, magnanimous and restrained leadership on all sides, and support from Ethiopia’s friends across the international community. The UK Government have offered our support to the Ethiopian Government and the African Union. So far, the early signs are promising. Since 2 November, we believe that fighting has largely ceased, and the agreement signed on 12 November demonstrates commitment to implementation.
Humanitarian access is desperately needed. The UN estimates that 13 million people in northern Ethiopia require assistance, which includes millions of people in Tigray whom humanitarian agencies have been unable to reach since August. Humanitarian access has been one of our chief concerns throughout the conflict, and I know that that concern is shared by many in this Chamber. The UK Government have consistently called for humanitarian agencies to have unhindered and unfettered access to northern Ethiopia.
My predecessor as the Minister with responsibility for development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), raised this issue when she met Ethiopia’s deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen Hassen, on 22 September at the UN General Assembly and she followed up that meeting with a visit to Ethiopia on 19 October, when she again held talks with the deputy Prime Minister.
In both those meetings, our message was clear: stop fighting, start talking and ensure that all those affected by the conflict can access humanitarian aid and essential services. We therefore welcome the commitment of the Ethiopian Government and the TPLF to enabling humanitarian aid to enter Tigray and to the restoration of essential services. It is crucial that this agreement rapidly makes a difference on the ground.
Turning to the issue of drought, the conflict has taken place in the context of a wider humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia. In the south and east of the country, there have been four consecutive seasons of failed rains, which is unprecedented. This has led to a devastating drought. In October, my predecessor visited a region in Ethiopia that has been impacted by drought, and she witnessed one of the largest and most severe humanitarian crises in the world. As many as 24 million people have been affected in Ethiopia alone. In the past 18 months, the UK Government have allocated nearly £90 million to support communities in the Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia and Somali regions of Ethiopia, which have all been affected by conflict and drought.
The issue of human rights has been raised by a number of right hon. and hon. Members. The peace agreement affirms the principle of respect for fundamental human rights. It commits to the creation of a comprehensive and national transitional justice policy aimed at delivering truth, accountability, redress, reconciliation and healing. Throughout the conflict, there have been appalling records of human rights abuses and violations. The civilian populations of Tigray, Amhara and Afar have endured the most terrible suffering.
Throughout the conflict, the UK has consistently called for an end to human rights abuses and violations, and for accountability for those found to have perpetrated them. We have raised this issue frequently with all parties to the conflict through our embassies in Ethiopia and Eritrea, through my predecessor’s engagement with Ethiopian Ministers, and at the Human Rights Council. The UK was a co-sponsor of the resolution of the Human Rights Council that established the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, and we are also providing direct funding to support the important work of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
I thank the Minister for his contribution. Is he confident that unfettered access to all parts of Ethiopia will be given to the UN and other agencies?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I am not confident about that, but we are pressing in every way we possibly can, and we must move forward optimistically. I will come to his specific point in a moment, when I address some of the comments that have been made during the debate.
In my contribution, I mentioned the issue of religious attacks. I know the Minister will come back to that, but I also want to press him on the issue of access to humanitarian aid for the Christian groups in Tigray, which are not getting the access to aid that they should.
If I may, I will come back to the hon. Gentleman’s comments later.
The presence and conduct of Eritrean forces in Tigray has fuelled the conflict and made its resolution more challenging. The Eritrean Government were not party to the peace agreement, but will inevitably be crucial to its success. We have consistently called on Eritrea to withdraw its troops from Tigray—I repeat that call today, and urge the Eritrean Government to support the peace agreement. We recognise that a durable peace in the horn of Africa depends on mutually acceptable security arrangements, which must include Eritrea, and we encourage those in the region to find solutions through dialogue.
I want to make a couple of points about our development assistance. Before the conflict, our development partnership with Ethiopia—one of the best in the world—had lifted millions of people out of poverty. Indeed, the results of spending British taxpayers’ money in Ethiopia were truly stunning, and helped Ethiopia to become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. We want Ethiopia to return to more prosperous times, and the peace agreement calls on international partners to support its implementation, to help build infrastructure and to support economic recovery, although the UK will play its part in that. The UK Government have already provided 54 trucks to the UN World Food Programme in the region, and we are working with partners to remove the logistical barriers that prevent them from operating at full capacity. If the peace deal holds, we will encourage international financial institutions to support Ethiopia’s recovery.
To my obviously amateur ear, that did not sound like an awful lot of aid for the number of people in need of support. Does the Minister think it is enough?
If the hon. Lady, who knows a great deal about these matters, will bear with me for a moment, I will come specifically to the issue of money.
This may be a moment for optimism. There is an opportunity to end one of the world’s most destructive conflicts, but that opportunity must be comprehensive and nurtured by everyone. The prize is a return to peace and prosperity for a nation of over 100 million people, and the UK stands ready to do all that we can to assist with that.
I will comment briefly on a number of points that were raised during the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for what he said. He is one of the experts, having had a relationship with Ethiopia and its people for many years. The House benefits greatly from his expertise. The former leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), raised a number of important issues. He asked about the delivery of aid to the conflict areas. Yesterday, for the first time, two trucks from the International Committee of the Red Cross got through to Mekelle. Nothing has got through for so long, so I hope that that may be a significant breakthrough on which we can build.
The hon. Gentleman the Member for Edmonton—
I do apologise. The hon. Lady the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who always takes a great interest in international development, asked specifically about the figures for aid, and made three very interesting recommendations. Others, too, asked for these figures. In the last 18 months, the UK has provided nearly £90 million of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia. Our support has reached people in Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Somalia and Oromia, and last year UK funding in Ethiopia provided nutritious food for over 200,000 malnourished women and children; emergency health supplies for 1 million people; clean water to over 200,000 people; and child protection services to over 40,000 children affected by the conflict.
In August, the UK provided an additional £6 million to the Ethiopian humanitarian fund, and in October the former Minister for Development, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford, announced £14 million of support to assist 150,000 women and children affected by conflict and drought. Those contributions are part of a wider £156 million UK commitment to humanitarian support for crises in east Africa this financial year. The hon. Member for Edmonton will recall that when I had responsibility for these matters at the Department for International Development I was always keen to demonstrate what results we achieved for that expenditure of British taxpayers’ money, so alongside the figure that I have given her I stress the number of people we are reaching with that sort of aid.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked about religious freedom. To amplify what I said earlier, at the 51st session of the Human Rights Council we co-sponsored a resolution to extend the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, and we have added £4.5 million to help to build the capacity of Ethiopia and the Human Rights Commission. That does not directly address his point about religious freedom, but I am sure that he will understand that it goes hand in hand with human rights. We are very conscious of the importance of the issue that he raised.
The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) asked about PSVI. I want her to know that we have invited a range of representatives, including from civil society groups. She also talked about the role of journalists. We are very conscious of that, and she will know that the Government have made a particular point of trying to support press freedom overseas through the work of the Foreign Office. She asked whether people would be held to account for what they have done. I stress as strongly as I can that we will do everything that we can to ensure that there is no impunity for war crimes and those who have committed human rights abuses.
Order. I am so sorry; our time has run out. We could have listened to the Minister for a lot longer.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).