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Westminster Hall

Volume 729: debated on Thursday 16 March 2023

Westminster Hall

Thursday 16 March 2023

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Backbench Business

Relations with China: Xi Jinping Presidency

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of relations with China during the presidency of Xi Jinping.

I place on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. It was put in for at short notice; we wanted to do it as quickly as we could, so we thank the Committee for agreeing to it. It is important that we have the opportunity to discuss the last 10 years under China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and how his time in office has seen a drastic rise in nefarious activities inside and outside China, many of which have been used to attack human rights, freedom of speech and media, and freedom of religion and belief. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. That topic is very close to my heart. It is one of the reasons why I am here and it is ultimately and initially the reason why I asked for this debate.

We speak up for those with a Christian faith across the world, for those with other faiths and, indeed, for those with no faith, so I am pleased to see right hon. and hon. Members here today, to see the shadow spokespersons and to see the Minister in his place. When it comes to speaking up for freedom of religion and belief in China, we could write a book on the number of occasions when China has disregarded it, has discriminated, has persecuted and has used actions that are illegal in any democratic society against those of Christian faith and, indeed, other faith. I am speaking here of the genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang., which the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and others in the House and here today have brought to the attention of MPs on regular occasions.

It is reported that, in its efforts to control the Uyghur population, the Chinese Communist party has forced Uyghur women to marry Han Chinese men, to have abortions and to repress their Uyghur culture and religion. Does the hon. Member agree that Ministers must recognise the plight of the Uyghur people, and the Uyghur tribunal’s finding that they have been subject to a genocide?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The disgraceful and quite illegal treatment of the Uyghurs in China has disturbed us and put a burden on our hearts for them. We cannot understand how any country that espouses freedom—as China likes to say it does whenever it does the very opposite—can act in that way. The forced sterilisation of women, the abuse of women, the imprisonment of millions of Uyghurs in camps and the taking away of their religious liberty and their right to express themselves concern us greatly, so the hon. Lady is right to highlight that matter and to ensure that we have the opportunity to understand it.

The crackdown in Hong Kong is another issue. We watched as we handed over Hong Kong to the Chinese. The Chinese made lots of assertions that they would ensure that freedom was maintained, and for a short period it was, but things have gone downhill over the past few years, and China is cracking down hard on any expression in Hong Kong.

On the question of Hong Kong, is it not obvious that one reason why the Chinese Government did not honour the terms of the joint declaration was that they were given lots of signals from this country that we did not really care that much about it and that we were quite glad to be shot of Hong Kong? Signals matter, and the signals that we send every time we prefer trade to human rights are entirely the wrong signals to be sending.

The right hon. Gentleman is truly wise in his words, and I fully agree with his comments. I had the same concern. When the deal was done, there seemed to be almost wishful thinking from the UK Government that things would be all right, when the reality should have told us—and the Government—that they definitely would not.

The issue of tying business and economic opportunities in with human rights is something I have espoused in Westminster Hall, but also in the main Chamber and through the APPG as well. We need to marry the two together; the one cannot succeed without the others’ interpretation.

The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. Hundreds were expected to march in Hong Kong for gender equality ahead of International Women’s Day, but the demonstration was called off with just hours’ notice by organisers. Human Rights Watch said that the authorities seemed to be approving demonstrations while intimidating organisers and participants with jail time to deter participation. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about the continued impact of Hong Kong’s national security laws on the right to peaceful protest?

I do, and with some annoyance, anger and compassion for the residents of Hong Kong because they are being denied the freedom they once had. The UK Government have obviously stepped in and offered some passage for many Hong Kongers to come here to live. That is good news, but would it not be better if they were able to stay in their own country and exercise the freedom they once had?

We also have the continuing repression in Tibet. It was a salient reminder, when I did my research before this debate, when I found out that the suppression in Tibet has been going on since 1950. That is five years before I was born, so Tibetans’ freedoms have been denied and restricted for a long, long time. I understand that the inauguration of a new Dalai Lama will be at the behest of the Chinese Communist party. A religious group cannot appoint its own leader in Tibet, but only because the Chinese Communist party will not let them. Again, that is another example of what is going on inside China, and of China’s influence and control.

I am hoping to speak in the debate, so I will not intervene much. Just to be clear, whatever the Chinese Communist party Government think, the next Dalai Lama will be the responsibility of the people of Tibet and those entrusted by the current Dalai Lama to produce his successor. It will not be a result of what the Chinese Communist party allow or do not allow.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The information I have suggested that the Chinese Communist party was going to try to use its influence to ensure that any choice would be the choice of the Chinese Communist party, but if, as the hon. Gentleman said, there is some control over that, that would be one of the good things that could come out of this.

The issue of forced organ transplantation from members of the Falun Gong has been in my heart in this House for some 10 years now. It is being done on a commercial scale, and people have lost their lives. We must never forget the impact of that on the Falun Gong.

There is also the persecution of Christians. Churches have been destroyed, with secret police sitting in church services, taking notes of those who are there, and recording car numbers and which houses people return to. We have also had the rise of cyber-surveillance in China, which is another indication of those being imprisoned, beaten and injured all because they happen to have a different religious opinion. Today, we had some good news: the Government indicated that they would suspend their agreement with TikTok. That is good news when it comes to security issues, and we must welcome it.

In my time as an MP, I have seen the UK move from the “golden era” espoused by David Cameron and George Osborne to the confusion and lack of cohesion on China under this Government. In each case, the policies were driven by economics. Economics is of course relevant, but our policies must encompass other important factors such as our human rights obligations, and take into account our moral compass and what we believe. There is a real fear that focusing solely on money would mean that the UK’s fundamental beliefs in human rights and the rule of law are subjugated for the purpose of trade deals. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) referred to that; it is one of the key issues, and I seek clarification and encouragement from the Minister on it. That would be great for China and other authoritarian states, but terrible for the UK’s standing in the world. I urge extreme caution and recommend change.

We are watching in real time the reduction of democratic states and the rise of authoritarian regimes. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, 23 countries out of 167 monitored in 2020 could be called democracies. Fifty were considered authoritarian, and the others attained some form of flawed democracy or hybrid system, more likely than not under the control of one person.

China and Russia are leading the global rise in authoritarian states. They are seeking to build their own alliances, disrupt democratic processes in other countries, interfere in elections, and create their own channels for communication and cyber-control away from the norms and standards expected by international treaties. They support each other at institutions such as the United Nations, where the evil axis gathers together to defend each other’s interests and provide financial and political support for one another. The unfortunate thing for us is that democracies seem incapable of working together to fight back against that in a single-minded, focused manner, so I have great concerns.

The Chinese Government have committed a series of ongoing human rights abuses against the Uyghurs since 2014. I and others, including the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who is in the Chamber, have raised that issue. Abuse is also perpetrated against other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang province. This is the largest scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities since world war two. It is of that size; it is almost impossible to take in the number.

The United States has declared China’s human rights abuses a genocide, as have legislators in several other countries, including Canada, the Netherlands, Lithuania and France. We have even done so in this House of Commons in a debate led by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. The Parliaments of New Zealand, Belgium and the Czech Republic condemned the Chinese Government’s treatment of the Uyghurs as severe human rights abuses or crimes against humanity, which they truly are.

China continues to deny any wrongdoing and threatens politicians and even entire countries with retaliation simply for daring to raise and debate these issues. Diplomats are deployed to berate senior Government officials and speak at news stations to explain that everyone is wrong and at this is all just Sinophobia and anti-China rhetoric. No, it is not; it is much more than that.

Atrocities in Tibet have been going on since 1950—so much so that we barely react any more. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has spoken about Tibet for as long as I have been in this House, and long before that, I believe. He has highlighted it on many occasions. We cannot forget about it. We need to focus on what is happening there, which is hard to take in, with regularity and ferocity. Children are forced into re-education boarding schools as a way of eradicating their language and religion, with the hope that they will reject their own families and culture. Such policies have left a trail of family destruction and have cut cultural and historical memory.

China plans to choose the next Dalai Lama, but I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman said that those of the Dalai Lama’s religion will make that choice. I hope that will be the case and that China does not influence it in any way. We wait to see what happens.

Hong Kong wants to be a peaceful and prosperous city, a thriving economic and social hub in Asia, and truly global in its influence, but it has been brought to its knees in just three years since the introduction of the national security law.

Order. I should say to the right hon. Gentleman that, as a matter of courtesy, he should have been here at the beginning of this debate.

I understand. I was about to explain and apologise, Sir Edward, for not having got here earlier: a Minister waylaid me.

On Hong Kong, the Americans have now sanctioned about 10 people in the Hong Kong Administration for their behaviour over the new security laws. The UK, which once used to be responsible for Hong Kong and is a signatory to the Sino-British agreement, has sanctioned absolutely nobody. Does the hon. Gentleman think that is a balanced position to take on Hong Kong?

It is certainly not balanced. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He has highlighted this point in the Chamber on numerous occasions. He consistently and regularly points directly out to the Government that this matter must be addressed. If we are going to do things right, and it is our job in this House to do so, that has to be addressed. If the United States can sanction more people than we could even consider—I understand the number is maybe two in our country—we have to and we must do more. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on all he does; we recognise his contribution.

The national security law is an arbitrary piece of legislation, the details of which were kept secret until after it was passed. It criminalises any act of disobedience or dissent, and any challenge to the Government can be swept up in the catch-all categories of secession, subversion, terrorism and, crucially, collusion with foreign or external forces. Rather than being used to protect people, the national security law is being used to silence—the very opposite. Newspaper and internet news outlets have been shut, journalists arrested and protesters detained—all accused of one or more of the four national security law charges.

The most infamous case of the law being used to crush media freedom in Hong Kong as that of Apple Daily, the most popular newspaper in Hong Kong, which is pro-democracy and openly called out Chinese Communist party activities. It was founded by a British citizen, Jimmy Lai, whose spent his 800th day in a Hong Kong prison last Friday 10 March. His national security law trial is repeatedly delayed, as the Hong Kong authorities scramble to find a new set of legal machinations just to keep him in prison. He is a British citizen. We should be doing more for him. I do not see that, and it disappoints me.

China has broken its promises to Britain and to the people of Hong Kong that the city would enjoy its way of life under the one country, two systems formula, which promised a high degree of autonomy for 50 years following the 1997 handover. Hong Kong is now a puppet state of China. The recent multimillion dollar campaign, “Hello Hong Kong”, called on the world to come to the reopened city. It fell flat, given that 47 democracy campaigners were put on trial the very next day. Welcome to Hong Kong—“If you come to Hong Kong, here is what happens to you.”

Across the world, China seems to be at the centre of multiple political and economic scandals, whether that is spy balloons over America or interference in Canada’s election. There seems to be an increasing sense that China has never been bolder in asserting itself around the world. The belt and road initiative, adopted by the Chinese Government in 2013, to invest in more than 150 countries and international organisations, is considered a centrepiece of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s foreign policy.

We can see China’s tentacles across Africa and in countries around the world. The policy has been used to extend Chinese economic and political influence around the world. It has been used to secure votes at multinational organisations such as the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and in many regional groupings across the world. It forces countries into debt economics. Even EU states now have ports, docks and infrastructure projects funded by the belt and road initiative, at a time when the EU should be shoring up its own defence, cyber and technological strategies. The initiative is causing splits inside the EU and creating division among Governments. That is great news for China and for other authoritarian states.

Here in the UK, we have seen the rise of China’s economic and political engagement. In 2022, more students came to the UK from China than anywhere else. Nearly one in four international students is from China—approximately 152,000 students. Of the 2,600 international students studying at Queen’s University in Belfast, we have a vibrant Chinese community of more than 1,200 students.

Along with that, we have seen the explosion of Confucius Institutes across the UK. The United Kingdom is host to 30 Confucius Institutes, more than any other country. Their ostensible purpose is to teach Mandarin and to promote Chinese culture, but in reality they are part of the above-ground arm of the Chinese Communist party’s United Front Work Department.

According to a 2022 report by the Henry Jackson Society and the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, those 30 institutes have been funded to the tune of as much as £46 million, mostly from the Chinese Government. Unlike the British Council, Confucius Institutes are formally part of the propaganda system of the Chinese Communist party, dependent on Chinese Government funding and, in general, subject to People’s Republic of China speech restrictions. Although Confucius Institutes are described as language and culture centres, the report confirms that only four of the 30 institutes stick solely to language and culture. Quite clearly, they do their own thing and ignore much of what is going on.

Operating from prestigious universities such as the University of Edinburgh and the London School of Economics, Confucius Institutes have been informing Government policy and politicians, offering consultancy services to business, promoting trade and co-operating with UK organisations that work with the United Front Work Department, the interference activities of which were recently highlighted by MI5 and reported prominently in the papers and media. That is not innocent language and cultural exchange.

In spite of the political attention paid to Confucius Institutes, and the press and academic attention during the last six years, the pattern has gone unnoticed, and its ramifications have been ignored—an issue that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green brings to this House on many occasions. To combat those negative practices, the Government should consider the introduction of legislation to remove Confucius Institutes completely from UK universities. Will the Minister confirm whether the British Government will do just that? Further, it has been suggested that the Government should provide funding for UK universities to allocate to China studies and bolster knowledge regarding China’s presence in the UK. I believe that that merits consideration. It is not the direct responsibility of the Minister, but it is certainly one for Education Ministers.

Time is passing, but I should mention the fact that many believe that there is a notable level of political interference—from funding from Chinese nationals to Members of Parliament, to the beating of Bob Chan in Manchester last October. I am sure we all vividly remember this man, who was beaten by the Chinese consul general and other diplomats in full view of the public and cameras. The consul general then went on TV to admit to and justify his actions; he did not even feel ashamed or regretful. The appropriate action should have been taken, yet it appears that it was left to fade into the background. Eventually, two months later, China recalled the diplomats, and it appears that no steps whatever were taken by the British to send the message that that behaviour is not tolerated. Again, that is disappointing and regrettable. I always say things respectfully to the Ministers, but I want my Government and my Ministers to be strong when it comes to standing up for human rights and against things that are wrong across the world.

As a nation, we should be seeking constructive relationships with countries around the world. I understand that not all will be savoury, but we should be making human rights and good conduct cornerstones of our foreign relations—even, or especially, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, when it comes to trade and development. That is what sets our country apart from authoritarian ones such as China. There is no reason for the UK not to have a constructive relationship with China, but we should not be afraid on any occasion to say no and to show strength, and we need to do that more regularly and more courageously.

The hon. Gentleman has given a comprehensive tour de raison of the issues. Considering it as a whole—I get a sense that he is coming to his peroration—does he think it reasonable or sensible that the integrated review refresh that we heard about on Monday now does not classify China as a threat?

That was a disappointment. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is clear from my contribution, and will be clear from what others will say, that we do see China as a threat. We want to have a working relationship, but we have to recognise that China quite clearly does not.

Surely, if any lessons are to be learned from the relationship with Russia over the last 10 years, for example, it is that kowtowing, appeasing or ignoring will lead to only more egregious actions by the aggressor state—from Russia in the past, but from China in the future. China has been watching the war that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, and it will have noted that while Russian troops are killing, raping and bombing Ukrainian citizens, Western states in some cases have been prevaricating and debating what to do in response. China is watching, and so is Taiwan. Sending weapons is good, but it could all have been avoided if the warning signs about Russia were heeded several years ago.

Following the announcement that Honduras is seeking diplomatic ties with China, Taiwan has just a few remaining formal allies on the global stage, most of which are small, poor nations in the Pacific. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK must use its influence on the world stage to help protect Taiwan’s rights as an independent nation?

I certainly do and I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement this week of the submarine deal between the UK, USA and Australia. That shows that there is a commitment, although of course we probably want to see much more than that. The hon. Lady is absolutely right and I thank her for that intervention.

If we think that things are bad now, imagine the pain that will be inflicted on the UK and the world when—I use these words carefully—China invades Taiwan. Hon. Members will note that I said “when” rather than “if” China moves to take Taiwan. Xi Jinping has reaffirmed his commitment to communist Chinese rule of Taiwan, by force—his words—if necessary.

We cannot fall asleep at the wheel while getting lulled to sleep by the comfort of investments, trade, and cash flows. We should begin the careful process of reducing our reliance on Chinese-made goods and products right now. Let us start taking a careful look at where British businesses invest and give them warnings that contracts and treaties may not be upheld, and to be careful about where they invest their money.

Let us start speaking up for those who are being oppressed in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. Let us get British citizen Jimmy Lai out of prison and let us not ponder solely on how China might react, but instead give China pause for thought about what it might lose by not working with the United Kingdom.

I believe in good relations; I also believe in doing what is right, as we all do in this Chamber. I know that there is a balance to be struck.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for intervening on him again. However, I just want to make the point that I have met Jimmy Lai’s family, and the one thing they asked for is that the British Government give full public recognition to the fact that he is a British citizen and a British passport holder. The British Government have said that they will not do that because it might exacerbate problems, but honestly Jimmy Lai knows and expects that after the next court case this year he is likely to be imprisoned for a very long time—maybe for the rest of his life. He wants the world to know that he is a British passport holder and British citizen; he is proud of that and wants representation.

Again, the right hon. Gentleman makes the case for Jimmy Lai. I think the Minister—I am sure that he is taking note of all this—and his officials will ensure that Jimmy Lai becomes part of our priorities in this House now and for the future, as should be the case.

As the Bible says—Sir Edward, I know that you and I read it every day—

“speak the truth in love”.

I do not see the balance thus far. I ask the Minister to look at where we are, and where we need to be, and to begin the journey there. Human rights and moral obligations are not merely desirable; they are the very foundation on which any relationship should be built. We have a chance to change this situation—to move it upwards—and get it right. That is what I urge the Minister to begin to do today.

We are all here for one purpose: to speak up for those who have no voice—and there are many of them. Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken up for others across the world on many occasions. Today we focus on the evil intentions of China. Yes, we want to work with China, if possible, and address human rights and religious liberties, and the right for people to have freedom of expression in relation to where they worship. Those things are not happening there. We must highlight that today, and ensure that our Minister has a firm grip of what is happening. I hope that the Minister will respond to our asks.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who said most of what I was going to say but I will give it a go anyway. Let me start with my declaration of interests—they are not at all financial, otherwise there would be a problem—as somebody who has been sanctioned by China. That is something I am very proud to shout about at every opportunity. I also declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Tibet, an association I have had for many years, and before this place, as the hon. Gentleman said.

Another day, yet another debate on China’s abuses of human rights. Earlier in the Chamber, there was another announcement relating to China, on TikTok, which I will come on to in a minute. This debate is about relations with China under the dictatorship of President Xi over the last 10 years, so it is worth starting by looking at some of the words he has said on the record and then putting some meat on the bones of how that has actually worked out in practice.

In March 2013, Xi Jinping started his first five-year term as the President of China. More consequentially, in November 2012 he first assumed the two most powerful positions in China: general secretary of the Chinese Communist party and the chairman of the party’s central military commission. Changes in leadership positions in China’s one-party state are made every five years and normally follow a two-step process: the first occurring in the CCP and the second involving the Government. At the CCP’s 20th party congress in October 2022, Xi was appointed general secretary for a third five-year term and once again as chair of the party’s CMC, confirming his dominance over the party and the country at large. That third term appointment broke the recent precedent of the country’s leadership serving only two terms.

More recently, on 11 March, he secured a precedent-breaking third term as President of China, as well as chairman of the CMC, with nearly 3,000 members of the National People’s Congress voting unanimously in the Great Hall of the People. Funnily enough, no other candidates ran. Effectively, he is becoming a dictator for life, the likes of which we have not really seen since the fall of the iron curtain and some of those potentates under the control of the Soviet empire in eastern European states before they were able to win their liberty and return to Europe, freedom and democracy.

In his speech in March to the National People’s Congress, Xi Jinping said:

“Since its founding, the Communist Party of China has closely united and led the Chinese people of all ethnic groups in working hard for a century to put an end to China’s national humiliation.”

Note that he mentioned working with “all ethnic groups” across China; I think there are 57 different ethnic groups. That does not really apply if someone is a Uyghur, Tibetan, a Hongkonger or of Mongolian ancestry. It has not really worked out well for them. He said:

“the Chinese nation has achieved the great transformation from standing up and growing prosperous to becoming strong, and China’s national rejuvenation has become a historical inevitability.”

On military and defence, he went on to say:

“We need to better”—

a split infinitive, I apologise—

“co-ordinate development and security. We should comprehensively promote the modernisation of our national defence and our armed forces, and build the people’s military into a great wall of steel that can effectively safeguard our nation’s sovereignty, security and the interests of our development.”

On Taiwan, he said:

“Realising China’s complete reunification is a shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation, as well as the essence of national rejuvenation…resolutely oppose foreign interference and separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan independence’ and unswervingly promote progress towards national reunification.”

Those words should not come as a surprise. Two years earlier, in a speech—I am quoting selectively, but I think you will get the gist, Sir Edward—marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist party, he said:

“We will never allow anyone to bully, oppress or subjugate China…Anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people…Only socialism can save China, and only socialism with Chinese characteristics can develop China…No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s staunch determination, firm will, and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity…The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled, and will definitely be fulfilled.”

I watched a programme last night about the Nazis in the 1930s, and so much of President Xi’s language there was redolent of what was heard in the 1930s under Hitler. It is a shame that Gary Lineker did not refer to that as well, because that is where the real dangers lie. It is chilling when one listens to the very words that the people running China put into the public domain. We should take them exceedingly seriously. For previous Governments to refer to “golden ages” of relationships between the United Kingdom, the west and China, under the same dictator who expressed those words, is a complete fantasy—and a dangerous fantasy at that. We need to wake up to that.

I worry greatly about the threat that China poses. It is a threat, whatever language the Government might like to use. Let us touch on the China 2049 policy, which President Xi has been following. China 2049 in an overarching plan, set out by the President in October 2017, when he used a speech to describe a broad plan to achieve national rejuvenation by 2049. The date would mark the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by the CCP. It largely refers to the CCP’s plan to transform the Chinese army—the People’s Liberation Army—into a world-class military by 2049. A mid-term goal is to have completed the modernisation of the PLA by 2035.

According to an annual report from the Pentagon to the US Congress in November 2021:

“The PRC is increasingly clear in its ambitions and intentions. Beijing seeks to reshape the international order to better align with its authoritarian system and national interests, as a vital component of its strategy to achieve the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.’”

China seeks to achieve that by merging foreign policy, economic power, defence and military strategies, and its Government and political systems into one master plan. Everything is traduced to that. Everything China does has that long-term, great goal in mind.

China now has the world’s largest navy, with roughly 355 ships and submarines. The People’s Liberation Army has 975,000 active duty personnel in combat units, and has accelerated its training and fielding of equipment at a pace exceeding that of recent years. It is also expanding its nuclear weapon capabilities faster than previously predicted. The rapid acceleration of Beijing’s nuclear stockpile, which could top 1,000 deliverable warheads by 2030, is designed to match and even surpass the US global military might, according to the Pentagon. The US has 3,750 nuclear weapons in its stockpiles, and has no plans to increase that figure. The Chinese air force is the world’s third largest, with more than 2,800 aircraft in total, 2,250 of which consist of fighters, strategic bombers and attack aircraft. That expansion is part of the great Chinese plan to dominate the world economically and militarily, as well as in other areas that I will come to.

That is the context in which we have to judge the threat posed by the actions of President Xi and his Communist party cronies. We know how that has panned out in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Some of us have often been lone voices in the wilderness on the plight of the Tibetans. Since the early 1950s, and particularly since the invasion and takeover of Tibet in 1959, what has been playing out in Tibet—with the 1 million Tibetans who have lost their lives at the hands of the Chinese Communist party dictators—is a forerunner of what the CCP is capable of doing, and is doing, within the borders of China; and what it would like to do beyond the borders of what we recognise as China.

The hon. Member for Strangford fleshed out many of the horrors going on against the Uyghurs. It is estimated that several million Uyghurs are being held captive in concentration camps, where activities include mass surveillance, torture and repression of religion. They are interned for reasons that include communal religious activities, behaviour indicating “wrong thinking”—whatever that is—or for just no reason at all. The World Uyghur Congress observes that the camps operate as prisons, with no communication with family outside. The CCP regime is pursuing a campaign of forced sterilisation and forced abortion, along with the destruction of the Uyghur language. China is trying to erase the Uyghur people.

In 2021, Uyghur regions set an unprecedented near zero population growth, given the effects of sterilisation. According to Dr Joanne Smith Finley, a reader in Chinese studies at Newcastle University and a fellow sanctionee, when she interviewed a Uyghur man from Ürümqi, he said that some people were given medicine in those camps to change their thinking, only to become mentally ill. The CCP is aiming to wipe out three specific categories: intellectual Uyghurs, rich Uyghurs and religious Uyghurs.

A sub-committee in the Canadian Parliament has concluded that the acts carried out by China on the Uyghurs amount to genocide by the general accepted definition. That was the conclusion of the Uyghur tribunals, so well presided over by Sir Geoffrey Nice at the end of last year. That was the conclusion of a unanimous vote in Parliament at a debate we held last year on the subject. It is about time the British Government acknowledged that the Chinese are guilty of genocide and continue to wage that ghastly oppression against the Uyghur people. Many other Parliaments have acknowledged it. We must catch up.

This is not just about the Uyghurs within the borders of China. Uyghurs abroad have also been intimidated and spied on through apps such as WeChat by the Communist party, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project. The late former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said,

“As a Jew, knowing our history, the sight of people being shaven headed, lined up, boarded onto trains, and sent to concentration camps is particularly harrowing.”

We all saw those grim images and have heard so much that the Communist party has developed multiple levels of surveillance in the forms of Skynet and the “Safe City” and “Sharp Eyes” projects to keep track of every movement of its citizens. Of course, it is also spying on us through devices made in China and deployed across the west, including in the United Kingdom. Virtually weekly, we find a new case of the Chinese being able to survey what is going on in sensitive institutions in the UK.

Xi Jinping’s Tibet policy has been the systematic eradication of any and all distinctive features of Tibetan identity, carried out unchecked despite blatant human rights abuses. It includes plans to control the next incarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the uprooting of Tibetan children as young as four from their families into colonial boarding schools, the resettlement of Tibetan nomads and farmers in unfamiliar environments, including the harsh and uninhabitable frontier areas of Tibet along the Indian border, and Government-imposed restrictions on studying Tibetan language and religion.

Free Tibet and Tibet Watch have noted that the CCP has introduced massive changes in the past five years, from forcibly relocating Tibetans to clamping down on all aspects of religion, culture and language. Anyone caught in possession of a simple photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is subject to a minimum five-year jail sentence without any questions being asked. Recently, the new crackdowns have led Tibet to be ranked 176th out of 180 countries by the Reporters Without Borders foundation in its press freedom index and to be ranked among the worst for civil and political rights in the “Freedom in the World” report by Freedom House. There are more foreign journalists in North Korea than in Tibet, such is the closed society. Our ambassador has not been able to travel to Tibet for several years now, nor have any of her staff. Most notably, torture and mistreatment have increased dramatically without impunity.

Chinese culture and the Mandarin language has been deemed the correct way forward after the 11 January 2020 passage by the 11th National People’s Congress of the “Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region”. They are meant to safeguard the one-ness of the motherland, but contain punitive measures to punish those defecting from this one-ness.

Does my hon. Friend recall that about a year and a half ago on the border of Tibet and India, Chinese troops aggressively tried to push the border back again, and a number of Indian soldiers were killed in that process? They have never once issued any kind of apology, and they continue to see the border as a moveable point to where they want it to be. There’s no diplomacy there.

That is the problem: the Chinese constantly test and push the parameters. They literally push the borders in that case to test the resolve of the west and those around them to stand up, take issue, object, call out and do something about their abuses of the international rule of law and the basic human rights that we all take for granted. That was one of many incidents. I am sure that many more have gone unreported.

The hon. Member for Strangford did a fine job of outlining Hong Kong as the latest hotspot for China’s oppression of all liberties. There are the ongoing 47 primary national security law cases. The trial of the 47 people charged with conspiracy to subvert state power in the Legislative Council, launched by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaign in 2020, officially began on Monday 6 February. The 47 people were charged with conspiracy to subvert state power and organising and planning acts to undermine the Government. That may well be what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and I are guilty of under the terms of our sanctions, but we have never actually been fully told. None of the very nice people in the Chinese Communist party head office have written to tell us why we have been sanctioned and on what basis we might be unsanctioned.

All 47 defendants were denied bail and have been held in custody for more than 700 days. The prospect of a fair trial is, of course, derisory. In August 2022, the Department of Justice directed that the case would be heard without a jury and would instead be adjudicated by a bench of three national security judges, who were appointed by Hong Kong authorities.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has expressed concerns over Hong Kong’s national security law. It is particularly concerned about the “lack of transparency” around the detention and trials of arrestees and

“the lack of access to lawyers”

in these cases. Does the hon. Member share these concerns and agree that Ministers should seek further clarity about the reality on the ground?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Hong Kong used to be a beacon of freedom, liberty, the rule of law, enterprise and entrepreneurialism in the far east. How quickly virtually all those characteristics have been snuffed out. There is not even a pretence that there is a fair trial any more. It is disgraceful that there were—and still are—some lawyers from the United Kingdom and other western countries sitting in the so-called courts in Hong Kong and overseeing the Mickey Mouse justice that the Chinese Communist party have imposed on previously free members of the community in Hong Kong.

I apologise for intervening on my hon. Friend again, but there is a further extension of that. I pointed out to the Government the other day—to no less a person than the Prime Minister—that, about a year and a half ago, the United States officially warned all their companies that they can no longer rely on the application of common law in Hong Kong as a protection of their business interests. The UK Government have yet to do anything of the sort. It is, of course, some Commonwealth and UK judges who still continue the farrago of saying that they somehow protect those interests.

My right hon. Friend is right again. Too often in this country, we seem to be playing catch up with some of the much more proactive and obvious measures taken by the US Administration, usually with unanimous support across all parties in Congress. Many of those laws are now having an impact on China and beginning to make it wake up to the fact that its actions have consequences. I fear that, too often, it is because people in this Chamber today and like-minded colleagues put pressure on the Government that, eventually, they might just catch up with some of the measures that should have been passed into our law at the same time as they were passed in the United States.

I will approach my peroration forthwith on that basis. 

I will not mention Jimmy Lai because, again, the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned him. He also mentioned at length the Confucius Institutes, an example of how the tentacles of the Chinese Communist party extend everywhere—globally and within the UK in our boardrooms, businesses, schools, campuses, local authorities and in the bogus police stations, effectively, that China has set up. There was the disgraceful episode at the Manchester consulate, where the consul thought it was his job to beat up demonstrators. There was no pretence to try to get out of it. Is that not what he was there for? Is that not what the Chinese Communist party pays him to do? Never has a greater or more honest admission come from an official of the Chinese Government.

Internationally, what is China doing as part of the China 2049 plan? It controls something like 104 ports and has its teeth in infrastructure projects around the world. It effectively holds Governments to ransom, with huge loans imposed on them. We know what has happened with the port in Sri Lanka, the airport in Uganda and some of the schemes that have fallen to pieces. It places huge debts on many east African countries in particular, which is the real characteristic of the belt and road project. China has a stranglehold on rare earth mining, controlling 58% of critical minerals mining and 73% of the global production capacity for lithium, which goes into lithium-ion batteries and is crucial for anti-climate change measures relating to renewable and environmentally friendly sources of energy. I could go on—

But I will not, as you just cautioned me.

Lastly, I welcome the Government’s announcement today on the use of TikTok on Ministers’ devices, in so far as it goes. I do not have you down as a TikTok devotee, Sir Edward—I may be doing you a disservice—but did you know that in China, western TikTok is banned and the addictive algorithms used over here are illegal? Last year, the internet watchdog made it mandatory for domestic companies to give users the choice to opt out of their data being used for personalised content in China. Over here, we know the situation: TikTok and its parent company ByteDance have close ties with the Chinese Communist party and are required to comply with the People’s Republic of China surveillance demand under the cyber-security law. Under standard contractual clauses, data can be transferred to ByteDance or other entities in the PRC from users in the UK and the rest of the west.

We should be nowhere near that system, frankly. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office should initiate an audit under section 146 of the Data Protection Act 2018 to investigate whether TikTok can protect the data being transferred under the legal regime in the PRC. If not, the ICO should consider intervening and prohibiting the data transfer as it cannot be respected in the PRC.

Whatever the Government want to call it and whatever phraseology they use, China is the greatest threat to the peace and security of the globe, and we need to plan accordingly. If people do not believe me, I urge them to read the words of the lifetime dictator who is in control of that country.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who secured the debate. I am reminded of the days when I used to have to read case reports. I would read the lengthy and definitive judgments and then I would come to one that just said, “I concur”, and I would fall on it like manna from heaven. To the two hon. Gentlemen who have already spoken in the debate, I say, “I concur”.

I will make two points. My first is about the position of people coming here from Hong Kong under the British national overseas sponsorship scheme. Last night, I had the enormous pleasure of spending time at a symposium at the London School of Economics, run by the Hong Kong Public Affairs and Social Services Society. It highlighted the importance of understanding that for all those Hongkongers who have settled here, their arrival is not the end of the story; it is just the beginning. The trauma of leaving their home in the way they had to will have caused many other issues, and our obligation to support them did not stop when they cleared passport control at Heathrow airport.

My more significant point is about not so much the position that has been outlined at some length, but the approach of Ministers and Government officials in response to it. Today in the main Chamber, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster managed to make a whole statement about TikTok without using the words “China” or “Chinese” once.

Last Wednesday, in this very Chamber, I initiated a debate on genomics and national security. In his reply, the Minister responding said something quite remarkable:

“I had been prepared to pay tribute to the work of BGI”

—that is the Chinese genomics giant—

“when my officials pointed out that at that point Genomics England was suffering several hack attacks from BGI each week.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2023; Vol. 729, c. 120WH.]

I know that he was talking off script at that point. I could tell because I was watching him; I could also tell from the way the blood drained from the officials’ faces. The next day in Hansard, there was a letter of ministerial correction. It said:

“There is no evidence of attempted hacking of Genomics England in 2014 from BGI.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2023; Vol. 729, c. 2MC.]

Stalin at the height of the Soviet Union could not have improved on that. I have no doubt that the correction was initiated by officials as a consequence of the representations that they then had. Clearly, they were not of a mind to stand up to those representations and the pressure that was being put on them. Genomics needs to be part of our critical national infrastructure; the Government need to move on that. From what we see, the time has now surely come for BGI Group itself to be the subject of a security review by the United Kingdom Government.

If we are to be serious about the way in which we rebalance our relationship with China, we need to get the balance between trade and human rights right. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and I were both members of Cabinet in the golden age, so we have seen how it used to work. We understand that that has to change. That would be a good point at which the Government could start. If the Minster could express a view on that, I think we would all consider our time today to have been very well spent.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate. We do not take enough time to consider relations with China in the round. When we talk about it, it tends to be very specific, so I welcome this opportunity. There has been little said today that I would disagree with, if anything, so there is a broad consensus in the Chamber.

We have all watched, with concern and alarm, developments in China over the past decade: the strengthening of the state’s grip over civil society, the well-documented civil and human rights abuses, and the growth of mass surveillance of the population to an extent we have never seen before. Those are causes for great concern. There is something almost unique about China. Throughout history, the UK has had to work with other countries and Governments with whom it has profound philosophical and political disagreements, but never has a country penetrated our economy and society to such an extent as China has over the last generation.

It strikes me that the interface between us and China does not happen out there, in a place beyond these shores; it happens in the towns and cities within these islands. There is considerable Chinese investment and ownership in our economy. There is a degree of intervention in academia and our universities that is without precedent. In my city of Edinburgh, there are thousands of Chinese students, and the same is true in most of our universities. Our universities have grown wealthy by charging these students from middle-class Chinese families considerable fees to come here; it has been a very big growth industry for them. When it comes to communications, among other things, the Chinese influence is quite certain, but we seem to have little capacity to understand, analyse and be aware of this interface. I hope that the Government will look at how that could be improved, and how we could develop that capacity.

We have heard the Government’s strategy described as “robust pragmatism”. If I knew what that was, I might agree, but until we get more definition, it is difficult to do so. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster implied today in the main Chamber that “robust pragmatism” means being aware of China’s economic influence and our economic relations when we formulate our attitudes towards it, and when we take action. That much is self-evident, I suppose. Let us hope that “robust pragmatism” does not mean setting aside our concerns or our criticisms about human and civil rights abuses because of that economic relationship; it cannot mean that. We need a strategy from the Government that shows how we can press our case on international human rights while navigating the economic relationship, and how, on occasion, we can use that economic relationship as leverage to achieve other social and political goals.

To conclude, I have three questions to put to the Minister, which I hope he will answer in his summing up. First, we have had a lot of discussion about Hong Kong. An international agreement has clearly been broken. Is it not bizarre that there are national sanctions on individuals in Myanmar, Russia and Belarus, but not Hong Kong? The breaking of that agreement, the way in which it was traduced and the movement in a different direction has not happened by accident; there are people making it happen. Those people ought to be identified and sanctioned by this country, as they have been by other countries. When will we see Magnitsky-style sanctions against people in Hong Kong, to hold them responsible for what they have done?

Secondly, the SNP has long pressed for the establishment of a commissioner to look at foreign investment in this country, with a view to examining illicit foreign investment. We see such investment particularly from Russia, but there is a case for looking at Chinese investment as well. It would be a step forward to have a commissioner who was charged with examining incoming finance and determining whether any of it was illicit.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) brought forward a ten-minute rule Bill last year that sought to outlaw imports from Xinjiang unless it could be proven that the products were made without the benefit of forced labour. We ought to be able to do that. Given what we know about the human rights situation in that region of China, there should be an onus on those involved to give that proof.

Companies that import from China can have no excuse for not doing that, because companies such as Oritain can track all the genetic fingerprints. They can tell exactly where a product was grown or manufactured, and what happened to it. There is no excuse at all. The Government should get on with doing this.

But to be clear, there is no reason why we should not oblige importers to prove that the products that they import were not made with slave or forced labour. That seems a very easy way in which we could use our economic capacity to enhance and protect human rights.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I declare an interest as a founding member of Hong Kong Watch. I am unsure how many Members of this House have lived in China, but I am in a somewhat unique position, having spent an academic year in Nanjing in the 1990s. At the time, China was emerging on the world stage and growing economically, and there was an anticipation and excitement that the relatively new economic opening that had been embraced at home and abroad might be followed by political reforms, even if dreams of a democratic China were far-fetched. In the years since, particularly since the introduction of the core leadership concept of President Xi Jinping, we have seen the emergence of a China with a sense of closing and an increasing domestic authoritarianism. That contrasts with what was experienced by foreign teachers in the mid-90s in Nanjing.

China prides itself on its economic growth, which has undeniably lifted millions out of grinding poverty since 1990. It has a rich and proud history, and is keen to be taken seriously on the global stage. Sadly, the trend is increasingly towards authoritarianism at home, and a more assertive and at times aggressive approach to defence and foreign diplomacy. In recent years, China has unlawfully occupied islands and islets in the South China sea, which has caused tension with neighbours in the region. There have been increasing numbers of menacing military manoeuvres in the Taiwan strait and hand-to-hand combat with neighbours in India, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) mentioned.

At the same time, through its development policies, China is courting influence in the global south through the belt and road initiative. That has changed the balance of voting power in international for a, and challenged the notions of international law that have governed diplomacy since the end of the second world war. We have also seen a brutal and unprecedented crackdown on domestic dissent; the well documented appalling treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has been described by many, and by a vote of this House, as a genocide. The freedoms and liberties promised to Hongkongers in the legally binding Sino-British joint declaration have long since been undermined.

As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, freedom of religion or belief has been compromised in Tibet, and there have been attacks on Buddhist temples and faith leaders. Unfortunately, the regularity of reporting by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on the hotspots of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet has decreased. I hope that the Minister will recommit his Department to more regular reporting, so that parliamentarians can be kept up to date on the human rights picture.

Naturally, the approach under Xi Jinping has heralded a step change in our approach to China; the heady, and arguably naive, days of the so-called golden era have been replaced by a growing understanding that a more coherent, robust and level-headed approach to UK-China relations is needed. Unfortunately, the Government have been dragging their heels when it comes to changing the way that we approach China to take into account the change in China under Xi Jinping. Ministers were slow to withdraw British judges from the Hong Kong court of final appeal, despite Labour’s and other parliamentarians’ consistent demands for action. There is a litany of examples in which their action has simply not matched the severity of the situation, including in the case of the appalling and brutal attack of protesters outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester, the reports of Chinese police stations in the UK, and the malign use of technology such Hikvision and TikTok. It took three urgent questions to drag Ministers to the House to take action on the first of those. On TikTok, only today have the Government confirmed that they will take action. We are lagging behind our allies—we are behind the curve again.

There are other cyber threats that need to be taken seriously. I am on record as having tabled many questions on the Beijing Genomics Institute. The Government lack a comprehensive strategy on cyber threats to the UK from malign actors. The Minister will point to this week’s publication of the refreshed integrated review; I accept that the review goes far further than the 2021 iteration in acknowledging that China poses an “epoch-defining challenge” for the UK. I particularly welcome the Government’s commitment to doubling the funding available for increasing Whitehall’s China capabilities and Mandarin training. Both are vital steps that we in the Labour party have called for.

I also note Monday’s AUKUS announcement and the significant commitment to regional security through that partnership, which has the Labour party’s full support, but we must still do more to live up to the challenge that the integrated review lays out in detail, so that our actions and posture match the at times bellicose approach taken by Xi Jinping in Beijing. That is particularly the case with Hong Kong, where young democracy activists and British citizens—including Jimmy Lai, whose crime was to defend freedom of expression—are on trial, and where the national security law continues to undermine the freedoms promised to the people of Hong Kong. Will the Minister say whether the UK will come into line with the US on sanctions to the leadership of the Hong Kong Government? It is good that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) voiced those concerns.

Regretfully, the integrated review refresh makes little mention of Hong Kong and the challenges faced by the city and its people, or of how the British Government will support those facing arbitrary trial and detention simply for standing up for their legally promised rights. Members have made a powerful case about how China has changed under Xi Jinping’s creeping authoritarianism, and about China’s strengthening military and ever-increasing defence budget—a 7% increase was announced just this week.

I will press the Minister on several points related to how the UK should respond to Xi Jinping’s China and follow up from the integrated review. First, what steps will the Government take to support British nationals detained in Hong Kong, as China continues to apply its draconian national security legislation and erode the essential freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration of 1984, which came into effect in July 1997? For example, how good is the day-to-day consular access to Jimmy Lai?

Secondly, what support will the Government as a whole provide to newly arrived Hong Kong nationals in the UK? The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) mentioned his work in his constituency and around the UK in that regard, and other Members mentioned work in their constituency. I attended a useful group in Haringey borough that was organised for newly arrived Hongkongers, but are they safe from surveillance by individuals from the Chinese Communist party who are based in the UK? Will the Minister join the Home Office in looking at that on behalf of parliamentarians who are concerned about the safety of those newly arrived communities?

Thirdly, will the FCDO support human rights defenders in Xinjiang and Tibet? Will developments be monitored, so that they can inform the FCDO’s reporting cycle? It is vital that parliamentarians have relevant, up-to-date information about the human rights infringements of such an important trading partner.

Finally, what steps are the Government taking to increase UK support and influence in countries of the global south, particularly in the wider Indo-Pacific region? That is essential if we are to support our allies and partners while China continues to increase its global influence.

It is an honour to respond to the debate, Sir Edward. I am answering on behalf of my good friend the Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan).

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for calling the debate, and I am grateful for the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). I will try to cover the various points raised.

I was grateful for the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Strangford, which were wide-ranging, interesting and pertinent. I deeply appreciated the way he set out the barbaric treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. He also addressed the concerns we all have about the situation in Hong Kong, particularly with regard to the constraints on freedom of expression. He also mentioned Tibet, the persecution of Christians and the ominous race towards cyber-surveillance in China. I am grateful for the comprehensive nature of his remarks, and I will try to address his points.

I will first address the points raised by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. We continue to support Hongkongers in Hong Kong, but also those newly arrived here, and we continue to monitor their safety. We are all clearly moved by the scale of arrival, but the warm nature of the welcome is also impressive. We will continue to support human rights defenders in China and Hong Kong, and we continue to work in the global south—that is a core part of our diplomacy—to ensure that Chinese disinformation, among other issues, are countered.

This is clearly a timely debate, given the very much expected news last week that President Xi Jinping will serve an unprecedented third term as President, but also because of our release of the integrated review refresh and, of course, the AUKUS announcement on a remarkable alliance with two of our most valued security allies.

Let me dwell briefly on the integrated review refresh. In 2021, we assessed that China’s increasing assertiveness, and its growing impact on many aspects of our lives, will be one of the defining factors of the 21st century. That remains our assessment, but the review foreshadowed the intense global turbulence of the last two years. The refresh, which the Foreign Secretary presented on Monday, sets out how we are meeting the challenge of this more volatile world head on. Clearly, it is about much more than China—it is also about Russia’s threat to European security—but it also recognises the very significant challenge that China presents, in terms of military, diplomatic and economic activity. The review is clear in stating that China has becoming more authoritarian at home and more assertive overseas, and that it presents us with an “epoch-defining challenge”.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said in the Chamber today that China is

“the most significant state threat faced by the United Kingdom”.

Does that form of words encapsulate Government policy? I have to say, many of us would have been happier to read that in the IRR.

China remains, as identified in the original integrated review, the biggest long-term state threat to the UK’s economic security. No one is disputing that. What the refresh seeks to do is build a strategy around that. Page 30 of the refresh says:

“China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) poses an epoch-defining and systemic challenge with implications for almost every area of government policy and the everyday lives of British people.”

That is comprehensive, and it is very clear that the refresh is seeking to build a strategy around that analysis.

Furthermore, we know that the challenge includes China using its economic power to coerce countries with which it disagrees. Its aggressive stance in the South China sea and the Taiwan strait threatens to bring danger, disorder and division. In other words, it threatens to create an international order favourable to authoritarianism. We will work closely with others to push back against any attempts by the Chinese Communist party to coerce or threaten other countries. That is a great deal of what AUKUS is seeking to do, as we all saw earlier this week.

We have already taken robust action to protect UK interests and values since the last integrated review. That includes new powers to protect our critical industries under the National Security and Investment Act 2021; bolstering the security of our 5G network through the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Act 2022; and training more than 170 civil servants in Mandarin. Hon. Members have mentioned Confucius Institutes; clearly, the Home Office and the Security Minister are looking at them in great detail.

The integrated review refresh takes this approach further. We will double funding for Chinese expertise and capacities in Government so that we have more Mandarin speakers and China experts. That will boost skills and knowledge for Government staff on China, including on economic and military policy, as well as Mandarin language skills. We would all welcome that.

Let me dwell on Xinjiang. The hon. Member for Strangford made a very good case and laid out the horrors we have seen there, and I am thankful to him for that. The UK has led international efforts to hold China to account for that through the United Nations and our sanctions regime. We were the first country to step up to lead a joint statement on China’s human rights record in Xinjiang at the United Nations. Since that first statement in 2019, we have worked tirelessly to broaden the network of countries speaking out. Most recently, on 31 October, the UK played a leading role in securing the support of a record 50 countries for a joint statement on China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. We have also implemented measures to ensure that UK organisations are not complicit in these violations through their supply chains. We will continue to call out China and put pressure on it to change.

Could the Minister give some specific examples of companies or importers that have had products halted because they are connected to slavery or human rights abuses in Xinjiang?

Seeking to be up to date, I will ask the Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific to write a letter to the hon. Lady to that effect.

Let me move to the issue of Hong Kong. The hon. Member for Strangford raised this in meaningful terms and noted where China’s national security law has stifled opposition and criminalised dissent. Of course, the UK Government acted quickly and decisively to introduce a bespoke immigration route for British national overseas status holders and their immediate family members. More than 150,000 BNO visas have been granted, providing a route to UK citizenship. We welcome the contribution that that growing diaspora makes to life in the UK, as we welcome the contribution of the diaspora with links to mainland China. We will continue to stand up for the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, as agreed in the Sino-British joint declaration.

Let me turn to the issue of Taiwan. China’s military exercises in August last year undermined peace and stability in the Taiwan strait. Those are not the actions of a responsible international power. The UK has a clear interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan strait. This issue must be settled by the people on both sides of the strait and through constructive dialogue, without the threat or use of force or coercion. We do not support any unilateral attempts to change the status quo.

To conclude, China under Xi Jinping poses an epoch-defining challenge with implications for almost every area of Government policy and everyday life in Britain.

I want to take the Minister back, because I thought he was going to be a bit more explicit about the BNO passport and the situation of Jimmy Lai. May I just elide the two, because they are relevant, and press my hon. Friend to be a little clearer? There are BNO passport holders who have fled over here, to the UK, who are now deeply worried about their status. They think of Jimmy Lai and see that the British Government seem quite incapable at this stage of making it publicly and absolutely clear that he is a passport holder and citizen and of publicly demanding access rights to that man, who is incarcerated. If they will not do that for a British passport holder, what do the BNO passport holders feel about their status? Does the Minister realise that that will be very damaging?

I am grateful for the question. It is a good opportunity for me to highlight the fact that the Minister for the Indo-Pacific has met the family of Jimmy Lai. I think, therefore, it would be right for me to give my right hon. Friend the reassurance that that Minister will write to him with an update and an answer to that question.

On Monday, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out how we will protect our national security, align with partners and engage with China where it is in our national interests to do so. First, we have already taken robust action to protect UK interests and values since the last integrated review. That includes new powers to protect our critical industries under the National Security and Investment Act 2021; and in relation to Hong Kong, we have acted quickly and decisively to introduce a bespoke immigration route for BNO status holders and family members.

Secondly, we will align and deepen our co-operation with core allies to influence China. That includes being the first country to lead a joint statement on human rights violations in Xinjiang, and sustaining pressure on China by broadening the range of countries speaking out. Thirdly, we will engage with Beijing on key global issues such as climate change and the war in Ukraine. We will continue to press China to join the UK in pushing Putin to cease all hostilities and withdraw his forces from Ukraine.

Under the integrated review refresh, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set the direction across Government for a consistent, coherent and robust approach to China that is rooted in the UK’s national interest and aligned with our allies. I commend this strategy to the Chamber today.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions—including the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), who always speaks on behalf of those in Hong Kong and the Uyghurs. We all appreciate her intelligent interventions. I give special thanks to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). Whenever he gets up to speak, I sit down to listen. Many others in the Chamber do the same: we recognise that he speaks words of wisdom. He clearly underlined the question of when the UK Government will demand the release of Jimmy Lai, a British citizen. When will he be released? That is not too much to ask.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has campaigned on behalf of Tibet for a long time. One of the first Westminster Hall debates that I attended—about 10 years ago now; that is hard to believe—was led by the hon. Gentleman. He referred to the authoritarian lifetime President of China. He made a comparison with the Nazis of the 1930s and discussed China’s attempt to change the world order by strengthening its navy, air force and army. As always, he spoke up for the Uyghurs, those in Tibet and the Dalai Lama. He also mentioned the Confucius Institutes, which we are all concerned about.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) shared his wisdom, referring to how his debate on genomics last week had developed beyond this Chamber. He said that it had to be part of the critical structure of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) also referred to the Confucius Institutes and growing Chinese influence. He discussed China’s key role in Hong Kong and across the world, including the United Kingdom, and its strategy.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) spoke of the genocide against the Uyghurs and the UK’s need to show strength against China. She gave examples of where the independent review does not challenge China as we would like it to have. At the end, the Minister spoke of what the United Kingdom is doing. We would probably like to see a bit more courage, strength and determination; I say that with respect. We need to see those things as the UK Government strategy goes forward.

I finish with this comment. This April, one of Hong Kong’s most senior finance officials is planning to visit the UK. If we were any sort of strong, forward-thinking, determined and courageous country, we would say to him, “You know something? You’re not welcome until we see the changes that should be happening.” I thank you for your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and everyone else who has contributed.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of relations with China during the presidency of Xi Jinping.

Sitting suspended.

Car Parking: Care Workers

[Sir Robert Syms in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of car parking charges for care workers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I thank all hon. Members here in Westminster Hall today and the Backbench Business Committee for granting the application for this debate.

Care workers play an immeasurably important role in our society, looking after our loved ones and being with them through what for many will be the most difficult times of their lives. If it were not for their selflessness, diligence, dedication and good humour, our loved ones would have a far more difficult time and the knock-on effects on the older generation could be huge. Being a care worker is a difficult job, requiring hands-on work to support a diverse range of needs. For the 490,000 domiciliary care staff in England, delivering care and support to people in their own homes can involve dozens of short journeys every day. These workers must be trained and knowledgeable in so many things, including taking blood pressure, administering medicine, assisting patients with eating and even the art of making a good cup of tea.

Care work is undoubtedly a complex role that requires strong interpersonal skills. Given the demands of this tough and skilled job, it is perhaps not surprising that the vacancy rate in March last year stood at almost 11%, representing 165,000 vacancies. That was up from 7% a year earlier, which represented 110,000 vacancies. In domiciliary care, the vacancy rate is 13%—a figure far higher than in residential care, where the vacancy rate stands at almost 9%.

Yet as the number of vacancies grows, demand for social care is rising and that is expected to continue. I have noticed it especially in my constituency of Southport, which has an ageing population; we would greatly benefit from an uptake in the number of people wishing to work in the care sector. The increase in vacancies will place yet further stress on our hardworking care workers, so it is no wonder that Skills for Care estimates that the turnover rate of directly employed staff working in adult social care was 29% between 2020 and 2021, which is equivalent to approximately 400,000 leavers.

I appreciate that I am painting a bleak picture, but the situation is not all doom and gloom. Covid shone a spotlight on what many of us have been arguing for years: that we need to do more to support those who work hard in social care. The Government’s adult social care reform White Paper, published in December 2021, set out a 10-year vision for adult social care, along with funded proposals to be implemented in the following three years. Yet 10 years is simply too long for my hard-pressed constituents to wait, especially when a cheaper and simpler solution lies much closer to hand.

A few years ago, a particularly memorable constituent came to see me at one of my weekly constituency surgeries, held at the Atkinson library every Friday at 11 am. She worked in social care and was clearly excellent at her job; I felt confident that the elderly and vulnerable in Southport would be fine in her safe hands. However, she had a major problem with our local authority, Sefton Council. Every time she parked outside one of her clients’ houses, she would have to pay 90p for a parking ticket, and this was happening up to two dozen times a day. The cost of these tickets adds up, especially for those who are already earning close to the minimum wage.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate; it is important that we discuss this issue. I thought it would be helpful to give the example of a constituent of mine who has contacted me—a home care provider who has difficulties in driving from one client to the next and often struggles with parking. Does he agree that we should consider measures to help to ease the pressures on hardworking care workers, particularly because such measures would help to alleviate stress and save them time as they try to help their clients?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. What we are trying to do is remove from care workers’ lives the stress of paying for parking tickets and finding a parking space. There are times when a carer will pay for a half-hour parking ticket, although when they are in a client’s house they might find that they need to call an ambulance. That could take a few hours to arrive, during which time they will not be able to pop out and top up the parking meter. When they receive a parking penalty charge, which can lead to a lengthy challenge process for which few people have the time or energy, that causes additional stress.

I am sure that all Members here have at some point engaged with the Chancellor to see what he can do to better support our constituent care workers. His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs already offers tax relief on mileage incurred for work purposes, but there is currently no nationwide scheme in place to help with parking charges. Consider instead if care workers were simply allowed to keep their money in their pockets and did not have to go through complex bureaucracy; that will be possible only if we get this right and end needless car parking charges.

After speaking with my constituents, I immediately wrote to Sefton Council to raise the issue, but was quickly told that it was not interested in changing policy. I then wrote to the Government to ask if they could compel the council to change the policy by providing ringfenced funds to support my hardworking constituents. I was delighted when the then Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), announced that the Government would be introducing the covid-19 parking pass, proving that we can do this if we really want to.

The scheme entitled on-duty NHS staff, health and social care workers, and NHS volunteer responders, to free parking in local authority off-street car parks and on-street bays in England. It was a fantastic scheme, and it worked wonders for not only the bank balances but the mental health of my social care worker constituents. No longer were they finding themselves squeezed even tighter by virtue of simply doing their job. With less time spent fumbling around looking for parking spaces, paying, and, sadly, often appealing a parking ticket, those workers could spend more time supporting people who draw on care in their own homes. It was win-win, for everyone.

Then the covid scheme came to an end. With the vacancy rate increasing, I felt all of the work had been undone. A permanent solution is required. Today, with the Minister present, I call on the Government to introduce a nationwide standardised green badge system—similar to the blue badge—for social care workers on duty and making care visits. It should be nationally recognised, with eligibility set at a national level. It should be available for all care workers who travel to provide care in clients’ homes. Care workers should be the permit holders, and, in keeping with the efficiency it would introduce, there should be a simple standardised application and issuing service. Engage Britain’s research shows that such a proposal has 80% support across all major political parties, as reflected by the diversity of Members who often bring up the issue.

Parking is normally an issue for local authorities, but we saw over covid that central Government can take the initiative in this area, and, with one sweep of the pen, put this easy and cheap solution in the hands of our care workers. After all, it is the Department of Health and Social Care’s responsibility to look after social care workers, so this parking protocol is its responsibility, not that of local councils. Similar arguments were made about the blue badge system, yet today’s standardised system is widely held up as being a great success. We need that success for our care workers too.

Some parking exemption schemes have survived the Government’s closure of their own scheme post covid, as hon. Members from Cornwall, Devon and Manchester will know. Those schemes would also benefit from the administrative simplicity of the central standardised system that I propose.

I finish with an impassioned plea. It is so rare that we are presented with such simple solutions. My proposed green badge has already been trialled nationwide throughout covid by the Government’s scheme, and was a resounding success. Both macro research from Engage Britain and micro research, such as anecdotal conservations with my constituents, show the huge benefits that free car parking has had and will continue to have if reimplemented. It is a low-cost, low-admin solution with tangible benefits for everyone who works in care, and for all those who have loved ones in care.

I thank the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for setting the scene so well. I always try to contribute in debates on health issues, as Members know. Here we are again: the hardy annuals are back. The Minister, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and others are here to contribute.

I am an advocate for care in the community. I feel strongly about the problems the hon. Member for Southport outlined.

I know the Minister has responsibility only for the mainland, but I always try to give a Northern Ireland perspective to any debate. It will be not just a Northern Ireland perspective, but a personal one, as it relates to my brother. He had a very severe motorbike accident when he was 39 years of age, some 18 years ago now. They said he would never be independent again and would never be able to do the things he once did. And he cannot, because he has been left with some fairly severe brain injuries.

Although our Keith cannot multitask, he can still have a life—but it is restricted and he is dependent on others. My mother is 91 years of age. I refer to her as a spitfire, because she is a lady who pushes and pushes. She pushed for Keith because she wanted him to return home and have a life, even though it would be with care attendants for a time. She pushed him into rehabilitation. He was determined, but she also made sure that the carers and the health system pushed for him. She pushed the workers in the care homes to keep driving him further. She pushed the trust to provide the care for him. Keith has been living at the bottom of my lane—I live on a farm and the house he lives in is a house that I built—and he gets picked up by the bus drivers outside the house. There is no bus stop. They drop him into Ards and he goes to the centre where he learns further rehabilitation and engages with others who have similar disabilities. It gives him the chance to have as normal a life as possible.

His care workers come in four times a day and help him get up. He has a brilliant life even with all his limitations. It is clear that Keith would have been in a care home under supervision and without care in the community had it not been for the pushing of my mother and others who wanted to give him a good level of care. I have no shame in saying that care workers are not paid enough. We need to right that wrong. We will all say that here, because we all believe it. It is a truth. The debate allows us to go beyond just a clap, which is commendable, and to send the message that we applaud their work and will make changes to support them further.

While Keith has a driveway that the workers park in, many town centre homes do not have parking. To park on the street will mean a ticket from the ever-present, sometimes overzealous, traffic warden. Currently, staff pay the minimum amount for an hour’s parking, even though the call will last only 15 minutes, and they cannot claim for that. It presents a problem, which the hon. Member for Southport has outlined very well. To me it is very clear: all staff should have a parking charge exemption permit issued by local authorities that entitles them to an hour’s free parking either on the street, as long as no obstruction is caused, or in a local car park where feasible. Those are not big things to ask for, but they would change the lives of care workers where we are.

It is right and proper that in Northern Ireland health trusts car parking is set to become free next year. I know that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I wanted to mention it. I have grave concerns when I read articles such as that on the BBC 12 hours ago that cited the massive overspend of £500 million and the fact that:

“The Department of Health has said there are channels to generate income, such as continued car parking charges…prescription charges…and charging for domiciliary care...It’s thought that each £15m generated would enable about 30,000 assessments, diagnostic tests or procedures for patients with cancer or time-critical conditions.”

That is a matter for another debate, but I wanted to make the point that there are always things we can do financially. It would be a massive slap in the face for our care workers to continue to pay for parking, and we should do our best to help them.

The facts are clear. Care workers, district nurses and all of those in care in the community simply are not remunerated to the level they should be. If a call lasts longer, they do not get overtime. It comes out of their own time. I have a good relationship with a district nurse in Strangford who makes her patient tea and toast even if that means that she cannot take her tea and toast at lunchtime, and that is her contribution to the person she looks after. I do not think that any MP, including yourself, Sir Robert, who would be unable to give an example of that very thing happening with the care workers in their constituencies—those good people. She sacrifices her time for her patients’ comfort and, to add to that, she has to pay for the parking to do so.

The request is clear, and the hon. Member for Southport has outlined it. There is something wrong with the picture, which is why I wholeheartedly support him. More than that, as I always do, I look to the Minister—who, I believe, clearly understands our requests—to make representations to other Cabinet colleagues to ensure that additional discussions take place to enable care workers to get the help they need. If the Minister is of a mind to do so, I ask her to have some discussions with Northern Ireland officials to ensure that we are encouraged to do something similar back home through the Northern Ireland Assembly.

We have drained our health workers of good will, expecting more and more and sometimes, unfortunately, granting less and less. We need to start working on rebuilding trust and good faith, and this is a great step in that journey. I am encouraged by today’s good news that we seem to be moving closer to a wage settlement. Let us welcome that good news, but let us also try to welcome more good news for care workers when it comes to giving them the help with car parking that they need so much.

It is a pleasure as always to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert, and to speak on behalf of the shadow Health and Social Care team. I thank the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) for securing this important debate and for all the work he has done to raise awareness and champion the cause, which I do not think anybody can have any issue with. I very much support it—let us get it over the line.

We have had a small but perfectly formed debate today. As well as thanking the hon. Member for Southport for securing the debate from the Backbench Business Committee, I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for always giving the Northern Ireland perspective in these debates. It is really important that we learn from different parts of the United Kingdom, because no one home nation has the right answer to all these things. It is good to learn from one another and have the perspective from other parts of the United Kingdom as we deliberate on what we should be doing here in England to support our care workers.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) for her contribution. She is absolutely right about how we need to come together across party lines and support care workers. Parking is a big issue and a pressure on those who work in our health and care system. I also place on the record my thanks to care workers, because they do an extraordinary job, as has been highlighted throughout the debate. We should never take their efforts for granted, because they are the linchpin in ensuring that the most vulnerable people in society are cared for and looked after in their time of need.

I am not making a party political point, but we know that the care sector is in crisis. It is under enormous stress and strain; the demand far outstrips the ability for us to meet many expectations. Primarily, a recruitment and retention issue in the workforce is at the heart of that. As a consequence of those pressures, many staff feel undervalued, overworked and underpaid, and it is our duty as parliamentarians to try to resolve those issues. We will support the Government on the measures they introduce; we have our own ideas as well, which the next Labour Government can hopefully introduce, but while the current Government are in office we will work with them to try to resolve these issues.

Problems such as parking charges put additional financial pressure on carers already going above and beyond and compound the stress that many of those people are under. That is demonstrated by the difficulty in retaining domiciliary care staff. As Nuffield Health points out, more than one in three domiciliary care workers left their roles last year, and many opted to work in sectors that offer better working conditions and pay.

Two issues are at play here. There is, of course, the specific issue of car parking changes, but that speaks to the question of how we treat our social care staff in general. Some good points have been made, mainly by the hon. Member for Southport in opening the debate, about free parking for domiciliary care workers—what the charity Engage Britain refers to as a green badge scheme for care workers. As the charity points out, several local authorities already operate a similar scheme, but a bit of a postcode lottery in provision seems to be developing. At the heart of the issue are care workers who are just trying to do their job.

I want some clarity from the Minister on a few questions. First, have the Government considered the green badge proposal? There is a huge problem here. It cannot be right that care workers are effectively being priced out of doing an essential job. They are desperately trying to care for vulnerable individuals, rushing between houses and having to worry about whether they will be able to afford the parking. I am not comfortable with that being a calculation that care workers have to make in 21st century Britain, and I sincerely hope and expect that the Minister feels the same. Will the Minister set out whether the Government are in conversation with care leaders and staff on what support can be offered?

Secondly, in the absence of a national free parking scheme, what steps is the Minister taking to engage with care agencies to incentivise companies to pay their staff back for the money that they have to spend on parking? It is not right that staff can accrue personal costs in the day-to-day administration of their employment and not be fairly recompensed by their employer. There needs to be a clear message from the Government that that is not an acceptable business practice.

Engage Britain provided my office with a good quote from a care support worker on a zero-hour contract, who said that with free parking,

“social care workers will be able to make appointments on time, with less stress, less rushing around”

and would be able to

“provide more attention and better support to the vulnerable people we are visiting”.

That quote raises an important point. Has there been any assessment of the impact that parking charges are having on quality of care? If care workers are scrambling around trying to find a parking place, there is a risk that they are unable to do their work to the standard that they want. Indeed, it has been brought up in the debate that, in an emergency in which a care worker has to stay with a very ill person until a blue-light response can arrive, the worker may incur not just additional parking costs but, potentially, fixed penalty notices and fines. That is totally unsustainable. It is little wonder that the care sector is asking for the Government sincerely to look again at this measure and provide more support.

That all speaks to a point that I made at the beginning of my contribution: social care staff feel that they have been neglected for many years and that they have been a bit of a Cinderella in the health and care system. We desperately need staff to feel more love from Government and to be better paid and supported in their careers. Vacancy rates are at a record level—up by 50% in the last year alone—and we now have a record 165,000 vacancies in the sector. That is totally unsustainable and we cannot just sit on our hands and wait for the system to collapse.

Labour has committed to a new deal for care workers, which would focus on recruiting and retaining the staff we need by ensuring fair pay and terms and conditions, and by improving training and career progression. We would change the remit of the Low Pay Commission, so that, alongside median wages and economic conditions, the minimum wage would reflect the cost of living. That would have a transformative effect across all sectors, but particularly on social care, where problems are especially acute. We would also ensure that new contracts for care are given to ethical providers—to providers who will provide fair pay, fair conditions and training for staff. Parking may well be part of that equation, in the terms and conditions, or through the reimbursement of costs incurred by agency staff.

The Chancellor could have used his Budget yesterday to announce a long-term workforce plan for the NHS and to reform pay for social care. He did not, even though we offered him Labour’s plan—we would have been very happy for him to pinch it. Instead, he handed a tax cut to the very wealthiest. That says all we need to know about the priorities of this Government. The next Labour Government will improve and invest in social care. At the very heart of that ambition will be ensuring that our incredible social care staff receive the pay and terms and conditions that they so deserve.

On the issue before us today, I implore the Minister to do the right thing. As the hon. Member for Southport so eloquently set out in his opening speech, this would be a small improvement, but a game changer for so many hard-pressed, social care staff. I urge the Minister to do the right thing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on securing this debate on free parking passes for care workers. I know it is an issue close to his heart and I commend him on his speech.

Improving adult social care and supporting care workers is one of my highest priorities, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend shares my enthusiasm, particularly for supporting domiciliary care workers. In his compelling speech, he spoke about the difficult job they do and the skills necessary for their work, as well as some of the practicalities of the job, such as the many short journeys that some care workers will be making and the challenges that result, including parking. He also spoke about the vacancy rate in social care, particularly in domiciliary care.

Recruiting and retaining staff is a particular challenge for many care providers, especially following the reopening of the economy after the pandemic. Many people had come from the hospitality or travel sectors to work in social care during the pandemic, which was hugely helpful in those difficult times, but many then often returned to those sectors. Not all did; some had found their vocation in social care, and that has been wonderful, but others, understandably, returned to their previous sector, making it harder for the social care sector to retain and recruit staff as the economy opened up. I am hearing some positive news about recruitment at the moment, but that does not mean that it is easy. It remains a real challenge, particularly with domiciliary care and in rural areas.

As my hon. Friend also said, we are seeing a growing demand for social care, as people live longer—that is a positive for us all to remember, but it does mean more people living with health conditions, and more frail and elderly people, who need people to come in and care for them. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the importance of living independently. We want people to be able to live longer in their own homes. There is a time when it is better for people to live in residential care—that can be the right thing for some people—but most of us want to stay living in our own home behind our own front door for as long as possible. Domiciliary care workers, who go to someone’s home, are absolutely crucial.

My hon. Friend for Southport referred to our 10-year vision for social care, which I am truly passionate about. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), talked about the challenges that social care faces. Those challenges have been around for many decades, so we are not going to fix this overnight. I share the impatience of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport. That is one reason why I try to do things in the here and now. However, I am also realistic, and some social care reforms that we want to do will take time, hence that long-term vision.

My hon. Friend spoke very specifically about the cost of parking and rightly about the stress of looking for a parking space when the clock is ticking. He also spoke about unexpected situations, such as when care workers need to stay longer and call an ambulance. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) also spoke about that in her intervention.

I heard that my hon. Friend the Member for Southport called on his local council to fix that in his area during the pandemic. He welcomed our free parking scheme during the pandemic, so I am glad that he saw it taking good effect. That was one of many things that we tried to do to help key workers through that difficult time. That ended, and I absolutely hear his argument for a new national scheme, particularly to help care workers with parking while they are on duty.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford. It is a pleasure to be in Westminster Hall with him at any time in the week, but particularly on a Thursday; we do this not infrequently. He spoke powerfully, if I understood him correctly; sometimes I do not pick up every word he says. He spoke about his brother, Keith. He said that, following a brain injury, Keith might well have lived in a care home, but has in fact been able to live independently with the support of family, including his mother and the hon. Member, but of course with care workers visiting. He brings a very personal perspective on the important role of care workers in our communities.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about us working across the parts of the United Kingdom. I am always happy to talk to colleagues in other parts of the Union, because I think we can all learn from each other to try to get the best for our constituents.

Taking a step back, I want to say that I am incredibly grateful to all health and care staff. I recognise the extraordinary commitment and hard work, particularly of our care workers and domiciliary care workers, who are less frequently spoken about in Parliament. I want to ensure that care workers gain the recognition they deserve from society. I truly thank them for all the vital work they do every single day, whether in care homes, people’s homes or beyond.

Many people want to work in care because they want to make a difference to the lives of others. In my conversations with care workers, many have told me that they find their work truly rewarding. Just a few weeks ago, I had a wonderful conversation with a home care worker, who told me that she loves her job. That is great to hear, but there is no denying that it can be a very demanding job, both physically and emotionally. Domiciliary care workers play a crucial role in providing care and support to people who need it within their own home, enabling them to continue living independently even when they have substantial care needs. From going on the rounds with care workers and speaking to them, I know how committed and passionate they are about what they do.

Turning specifically to parking, I heard the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport on free parking for care workers, and I am sympathetic to them. I have had many conversations with those who provide care in people’s homes about some of the challenges they face, including travel and parking costs. For instance, I share the concerns about underpayment for travel times, which is a live issue within the sector.

All social care workers are entitled to be paid at least the minimum wage—I should say, the national living wage—for the work they do. The Government are clear that time spent caring for clients, travelling between appointments and waiting to start the appointment must be included in pay calculations. I labour that point because I hear accounts, usually anecdotal, of whether travel and waiting time is being paid for. It may not be within the care worker’s control if they turn up for an appointment when, for instance, another health worker is visiting somebody and they have to wait. If they are having to wait as part of their job, of course they should be paid for that working time.

Responsibility for setting the terms and conditions for parking permit schemes and delivering social care is devolved to local authorities. Some local authorities, such as Cornwall and Devon, already run health and care parking permit schemes. I am glad to be talking about this important issue today and it is right that, at the very least, the national Government support the sector by raising awareness of and driving forward innovation and best practice. I therefore encourage local authorities who are not already undertaking similar projects to look and learn from those areas that have implemented their own parking schemes, especially as we know about the recruitment and retention challenges in adult social care. I also commit to working with my colleagues across Government, in particular in the Department for Transport and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to consider what more can be done to help care workers with the cost of parking.

More broadly on the adult social care workforce, the Government recognise the current workforce challenges in social care.

I want to take the Minister back to where she rightly said that terms and conditions are matter between the employer and the employee. She was, rightly, very robust on the expectations of the national living wage being paid for waiting to do work. Does she also take a strong view that employers should reimburse their staff for any incurred parking costs?

The hon. Gentleman will allow me to pause, because I do not want to find that I have unintentionally misled anybody. I am very happy to write to him on that specific question. What I am completely happy to do here and now is reiterate the importance of social care workers being appropriately paid for the work they do. At the very least they should be paid at the legal level to which they are entitled and reimbursed for the expenses of the job they do. I hope the hon. Gentleman is happy with that response.

As I said, we recognise the recruitment and retention challenges in the social care workforce. The Government are supporting local authorities and providers with the recruitment, from both home and abroad, and retention of workers. For instance, we have been running a national recruitment campaign with continuous activity across job boards, video on demand, digital audio, radio and social media to encourage people to come and work in social care. That campaign will run until the end of this month.

In addition, in February last year we made care workers eligible for the health and care visa, and added them to shortage occupation list. The latest data published by the Home Office shows that a total of 56,900 visas were granted for care workers and senior care workers in 2022. I do not suggest for a moment that international recruitment is the whole answer to our recruitment challenges in social care, but given that we have such a substantial need for care workers, it is really important to help boost our care workforce. I have heard from many care providers who really welcome it, as it helps them to recruit and fill vacancies, and bring valuable staff into our workforce.

More broadly, the Government are making available up to £7.5 billion over the next two years to support adult social care and discharge, with up to £2.8 billion available this coming financial year and £4.7 billion the following year. That is an historic funding boost to put the adult social care system on a stronger financial footing and help local authorities to address waiting lists, low fee rates and workforce pressures in the sector.

Another way councils are able to support their adult social care workforce is through the market sustainability and improvement fund. At the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that £400 million of new ringfenced funding would be made available for adult social care in the next financial year. We have combined that with £162 million of fair cost of care funding to create the fund. We are allowing councils to use the new funding flexibly on three target areas: support for the workforce measures; increasing fee rates paid to providers; and improving social care waiting times, which will improve adult social care market capacity and sustainability. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport might be pleased to know that Sefton Council will receive £3.6 million through that fund. Many local areas have chosen to use a significant proportion of the adult social care discharge fund on measures that support the adult social care workforce, including those who work in home care.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish talked about the importance of commissioning—I think he referred to ethical commissioning. I assure him that I think how local authorities commission care is really important, because it influences the terms and conditions on which care providers employ their workforce. That is one reason why, in April—just a couple of weeks away—we are starting the Care Quality Commission assurance of local authority social care provision. That will increase oversight of how local authorities are implementing the Care Act 2014, and part of that is very much about how they commission care. It will enable us to identify local authorities that are doing a really good job and will give us more information about those whose commissioning does not support their market or leads to some of the practices that we have been talking about.

As I said at the beginning, we want quick answers. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport wants change here and now, and so do I, but we also have to look to the longer term for our social care reforms. People at the heart of care must set out a longer-term vision for social care. I will shortly be publishing a plan setting out our next steps for the reforms. It will include substantial reforms to the adult social care workforce to strengthen careers and opportunities, and make adult social care a better sector to work in. That will help attract more people to work in social care and retain those valuable staff members.

I thank my hon. Friend for making the case and other Members for showing support for domiciliary care workers. I share my hon. Friend’s aspiration to support his care workers. In fact, I believe I have shown that in practice—for instance, through the support I put in place during the pandemic for the social care workforce; things I am doing right now with the funds such as the market sustainability and fair cost of care fund; and things that I will do in the future, including with our adult social care reform. I am happy to consider his proposals further as part of the work I am doing to boost our support for the care workers our constituents depend on.

I thank the Minister for her remarks about the things that the Government are doing for adult social care. That is incredibly important. The more airtime we can give this issue the better. We are pushing for better conditions for care workers in our constituencies.

I thank the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) for his contribution. Members on both sides of the House want to find a way forward. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) represents a very different constituency from mine, but it has the same problems. Similarly, although my constituency is different from that of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who talked about his brother, the conditions are similar.

We know this is a national problem; that is why I believe it requires a national solution. Somebody who works in one local authority area but lives in another should be able to cross the border knowing that the badge is available for the place they work; it should not just have to be registered in the place they live. If they work in multiple areas, they could go to all of them, which would make it easy for them to go about their business. It is a simple, easy, effective solution to the problem.

Even if charges are refundable, people have to go through the process of the refund—the reimbursement of costs. As MPs, we know getting the costs of our work reimbursed is well-deserved because they are part of the job, but the way we have to do it can sometimes be cumbersome. It is therefore absolutely right that those providing care to the most vulnerable, some of whom have complex needs, are supported even more. Even if reimbursement is available, the process of finding a parking space, getting a ticket and getting it reimbursed is incredibly stressful. We want to take the stress out of it.

This will, of course, be something that the Government have to look at, and they will have to consider all sorts of factors and the cost. But let us talk about the cost of agency workers: it is getting out of control. If we talk about the cost of a visit to hospital, it is much cheaper than the cost of somebody being able to do their job properly. We talked about people with health conditions and the frail and elderly population. We talked about all the work we are doing on discharges. Never mind the discharges; let us stop them from going in in the first place if there is no need for them to do so.

This has cross-party support. We have shown that we can do this, but we must put extra effort into supporting our care workers because they are supporting vulnerable people, including our constituents and people in our own families. It is incredibly important that we do something for them that makes a real difference. This is something we should all want to sign up to. I appreciate in this post-covid world that there might be slight differences in the way we do that, but we must ensure that we give care workers this easy support to retain them. I commend all the work being done on recruiting them, but to retain them, we need to take that stress out of their lives. We would not want it in ours; let us not put it in theirs.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of car parking charges for care workers.

Sitting adjourned.