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Westminster Hall

Volume 733: debated on Wednesday 7 June 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 7 June 2023

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]


I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government policy on Iran.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, as always. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I am grateful to have secured the time for this important debate. In a dangerous and complicated world, Iran presents one of the most immediate threats to the UK’s national interest and domestic security, but for too long the international community has taken a short-sighted and, I believe, misguided approach to the fundamentalist regime in Tehran. That has led to an emboldened Iran flagrantly violating the 2015 joint comprehensive plan of action nuclear deal, expanding its regional influence and support for terrorism, and committing human rights abuses against its own citizens with impunity.

The collective failure in policy on Iran over the past decade or so is exemplified by the Biden Administration’s ongoing efforts to separate Iran policy into different areas—human rights abuses, the nuclear programme, ballistic missiles and support for terrorism—regardless of how interlinked they all are. History has shown that those policy areas can only ever be dealt with as a whole, and it is my contention that the failed approach is no longer tenable, and that the UK should take the opportunity to pursue an independent Iran policy and steer our own ship.

We need to be frank about the nuclear programme: Iran has never been closer to developing a nuclear weapon, and the JCPOA has comprehensively failed to halt Iran’s nuclear advances. Iran has been overtly breaching the JCPOA since May 2019, and even produced uranium enriched to a purity of 83.7%, which is a small technical step from the 90% threshold required for a nuclear weapon.

The country has accumulated enough uranium enriched to 20% and 60% purity that it could produce at least two nuclear bombs within months. Those levels are grossly in excess of the 3.67% permitted by the JCPOA and the level required for a legitimate peaceful civil nuclear programme. The UK Government have rightly likened the JCPOA to a hollow shell, but the US-led diplomatic efforts seek a so-called partial nuclear deal, after the US abandoned its wishful desire to secure a longer, stronger JCPOA.

Reports suggest that the Biden Administration’s partial deal would permit Iran to enrich uranium to 60%. That is concerning enough, but it stands to be compounded by significant sanctions relief. The US and South Korea are understood to be discussing ways to release $7 billion in Iranian funds held by Seoul, and an additional $10 billion held in Iraq might be on the table. Not only would Iran face no penalty for breaching the agreement; it would be permitted to remain mere months from possessing a nuclear weapon. It would also enjoy the benefits of a desperately needed economic boost.

Many colleagues in the House will share my grave concern about those developments and recognise the implications for existing and future international agreements, which apparently can be violated without consequence. Will the Minister provide an update on what discussions he has had with the Biden Administration on their efforts to secure a partial nuclear deal? Will he explain how Iran’s status as a threshold nuclear state aligns with our long-standing and crucial policy of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon?

On sanctions, Iran’s systematic non-compliance necessitates a full snapback of sanctions in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolution 2231, which at this late stage is one of the few remaining diplomatic tools. It must be remembered that Iran has historically been acutely sensitive to sanctions. The UK must take a decisive, independent approach to secure the snapback. The UK has the power legitimately to trigger the snapback mechanism, and in doing so would demonstrate that when we sign agreements, they are worth more than the paper they are written on. Will the Minister explain the UK position on that, and say what steps we would take to initiate that last-resort mechanism?

Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile capability in the middle east. In defiance of UN resolutions it has continued to develop and test advanced missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload over thousands of miles. Iran is now openly using those weapons in conflict and has even killed a US national in recent years, yet the threshold for Iran’s use of force continues to drop due to an apparent lapse in western resolve.

In October this year the situation will become much worse as current restrictions placed on Iran’s development and transfer of missiles and missile tech will lapse in accordance with a sunsetting UN resolution and the JCPOA’s annex II. The mosaic of organisations set to be delisted covers the who’s who of Iran’s ballistic missile programme, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Al-Ghadir Missile Command and Aerospace Force, as well as Iran’s Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics.

Can we imagine a world where Iran is legally able to provide President Putin with ballistic missiles for his murderous attack on Ukraine? At a time when the UK and the EU are stepping up on drone sanctions and human rights sanctions, we risk taking our eye off a much more lethal threat. Again, the UK can play a decisive role here. Thanks to Brexit and our newly acquired autonomous sanctions capabilities, the UK has more room to act in this space than the EU. I call on the Government to ensure the UK leads the way by not delisting those entities, and by building a coalition with our allies in Europe to follow suit.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He touched on an important point about the flow of weapons going from Iran into Ukraine. We need to do more to plug that flow or we will undermine all our other efforts to support Ukraine. Swift action is needed. It is important to lead the way, as we have continuously done in terms of the war in Ukraine.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his point. He has hit the nail on the head. There are knock-on effects as Iran’s missiles have the potential to interfere in other conflicts, and that is so damaging and undermines what we are all trying to do. This House has been very much united in supporting Ukraine, so he is right in what he says.

Iran’s egregious human rights abuses also necessitate a robust policy response. My constituents were disgusted by the graphic footage of regime forces brutally suppressing protesters seeking the sorts of basic freedoms that we all take for granted. The UK has responded well to Iran’s many abuses. I applaud the Foreign Secretary’s leadership in introducing comprehensive and ever-growing lists of sanctions against organisations and individuals responsible for the suffering of ordinary Iranians.

Two Iranian grandmothers were recently sentenced to 10 years in prison simply for being Baha’is. They had not long ago already served 10 years for the same reason. Will my hon. Friend join me in standing firm in the UK’s opposition to such sentences, particularly the use of blasphemy and apostasy laws, which can involve the execution of individuals in Iran simply on account of what they believe?

My hon. Friend is right. We must do everything we can, in Iran or elsewhere, to protect religious minorities and everyday citizens against appalling abuses. She gives a fine example of the kind of thing we are dealing with. She certainly has my full support and I thank her for her personal efforts; I know this is an issue that she is passionate about and works very hard on.

The human rights abuses extend to women and girls and also the LGBT community. Since 1979, between 4,000 and 6,000 members of the LGBT community have been executed. Does my hon. Friend see that as a cause for concern?

My hon. Friend is completely right. That is something that people in this and many other countries would be horrified by. The community has suffered for many years and Iran in particular has a disgraceful record this this respect. Not just in Iran but around the world the UK has an important role to play in promoting LGBT rights and ensuring that everybody enjoys the same rights that we enjoy in this country. There is still a long way to go, even in this country, in what we can do to support people, but in Iran there is a huge problem. I thank him for his point; he is spot on.

We also hear of the death penalty being used to execute young people for crimes committed when they were below the age of 18. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on the Iranian authorities to honour their international human rights obligations, and immediately halt all executions of juvenile offenders and commute all death sentences?

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in that call. Regardless of people’s views on the death penalty, everyone should have a free and fair trial and no civilised country can accept a minor found guilty of a crime being made to pay the ultimate penalty. We must also push against the treatment of citizens who have been subject to the death penalty without fair due process—a point to which I will return.

The regime’s appalling treatment of its own citizens speaks volumes. We must act, as an ongoing warning that the Republic cannot be trusted and must not be treated as an equal in any sort of negotiations. Lest we forget, the JCPOA’s failure to address Iran’s human rights abuses speaks to the failure of the compartmentalised approach to Iran policy from which we must break free. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is Iran’s foremost practitioner of human rights abuses, and it is deeply regrettable that we have not acted decisively against the organisation by proscribing it in its entirety. We must be unambiguous. All of Iran’s malign activity is underwritten by the IRGC and its elite Quds Force. It is directly instigating conflicts around the world through its funding, arming and training of countless terror groups, many of which are proscribed in the UK for very good reason.

The IRGC is also reaping great financial rewards from its deep involvement in the international drugs trade, with a particular presence in South America. The dangerous captagon drug trade—much of which is centred in Syria, thanks to Iran’s control of the country—is now entering Europe, posing a profound policy challenge to the entire continent; it is no longer possible to dismiss the IRGC as a distant threat. The people of Ukraine know better than anyone what happens when the Iranian regime is left unchecked. IRGC-supplied suicide drones have wrought terror across Ukraine and brought the Iranian threat into the heart of Europe, making Iran directly complicit in President Putin’s hideous war crimes.

The IRGC’s charge sheet for its publicly documented activities against the UK is grave and growing: 15 planned terror assassinations in the UK have been foiled by MI5 since 2022; British civilians have been killed around the world, as have UK armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; an attempted bomb attack on British MPs in Paris a few years ago; the radicalising of British citizens in the UK using a network of religious centres, one of which is undergoing an active Charity Commission inquiry; the use of British crime gangs to gather information for terror attacks in the UK; attempted attacks on a London-based Iranian news channel, harming freedom of the press in this country; and cyber-attacks against UK critical national infrastructure and this place.

The House of Commons has already voted unanimously to call on the Government to ban the IRGC, so the question now is: what are we waiting for? In the vacuum, IRGC activities have expanded and concerns are growing across the UK. Back home, millions of Iranians are fighting the pernicious IRGC in their ongoing and life-threatening efforts to secure greater freedoms. But such efforts are by no means limited to Iran. Here in the UK, one man—Mr Vahid Beheshti—has exemplified the courage and commitment of Iranians in standing against the IRGC.

I commend the Vahid’s bravery in his extraordinary 72-day hunger strike outside the Foreign Office, which resulted in him having to spend two weeks in hospital due to ill health. I was heartened by Mr Beheshti’s release from hospital and applaud his strength as well as that of his wife, Councillor Mattie Heaven. Undeterred, the sitting by Vahid and his many supporters continues outside the Foreign Office and has now surpassed an extraordinary 100 days, but this remarkable self-sacrifice has only been necessitated by our inaction and failure to proscribe the IRGC in its entirety. During the hunger strike, Mr Beheshti’s campaign for proscription received an unprecedented volume of cross-party support, and it was an honour to join 125 of my colleagues from all corners of Parliament in writing to the Prime Minister in solidarity with Mr Beheshti. It is hard to think of an issue that has received such broad parliamentary support.

Sanctioning the IRGC in its entirety is a welcome step, but I am afraid it fails to adequately reflect the extent of the threat posed by the Islamic Republic’s brutal enforcers. Today, I reiterate the call of so many by again urging the Government to proscribe the IRGC in its entirety. Reports suggest that the UK has come under pressure from the Biden Administration over the question of proscription, which jars with their active decision not to delist the organisation from their own proscription list. The UK Government must pay no heed to these overtures and instead put our national security interests first.

The UK should show its commitment to rooting out Iran’s support for terrorism by proscribing the IRGC and leading essential international efforts to end its financing of terror surrogates. There is clearly support for this landmark step within Government, and I particularly applaud the Minister for Security, who has done so much to raise public awareness of the dangers of IRGC activity within the UK. I also note that the Prime Minister has previously said that IRGC proscription

“must now be on the table”,

and he vowed unequivocally in December last year that he would utilise

“the full range of tools at our disposal to protect UK citizens from the threat of the IRGC”.

It all begs the question, if not now, when?

This is by no means the first debate in this place on the urgent need to respond to Iran’s malign activities across the world, and I dare say it will not be the last. It is hard to escape the assessment that Iran, emboldened by the absence of IRGC proscription and a snapback of biting sanctions in response to its nuclear transgressions, has systematically escalated its deplorable efforts to export bloodshed and instability. The Iranian regime is ruthlessly holding the threat of terrorism and its expanding missile capabilities over our heads. There is a real risk that the UK and our western allies will become the agents of Iran’s deterrence here.

US-led policy towards Iran has been shown as ineffective and, in many cases, harmful to UK national interest. A clear-eyed analysis of Iran’s behaviour and activities means that the UK-Iran relationship cannot simply continue as business as usual. It is time we pursued a robust, independent approach. We have rightly led the way in defending Ukraine against unprovoked attacks, and I applaud the Government’s relentless commitment to sanctioning Russia. Now, let us take the same principled approach in our Iran policy and lead from the front.

Order. Six Members have indicated that they would like to speak, which gives each of them about seven minutes. That is on a voluntary basis, but it would be helpful if Members followed that guideline.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) on securing this important and timely debate.

As we have heard many times in and outside the Chamber, the Iranian regime’s latest wave of homicidal attacks on its own people began in September last year after the murder of Mahsa Amini by the Iranian police. Since the crackdown against the subsequent protests began, more than 500 people have been killed, more than 50 people have been executed and at least 20,000 have been detained. Those are rough figures; they are probably an underestimate of what has actually happened, for obvious reasons.

At the apex of every brutal activity perpetrated by the Tehran regime is the IRGC, as the hon. Member said. It is a worldwide operation, and let us be clear what we are dealing with: the clerical fascists and homicidal maniacs who run Iran, and their monstrous servants in the IRGC, are effectively the modern-day version of the Nazis. If they had been around in 1939, they would have been advocating declaring war, but they would have been on the other side, not the side of the allies. They want to wipe Israel off the face of the planet, they want to murder Jewish people and gay men and women, and they want to take women as a whole back to the stone age. They are doing their best to do that not only in Iran, but elsewhere.

That repellent view of the world also applies to Tehran’s proxies. We are dealing not just with Hezbollah and Hamas, as bad as they are, but with the criminal gangs to which the hon. Member referred. They operate in this country, across Europe, in North America and elsewhere. That terrorist and criminal network poses a clear threat, way beyond Iran and the middle east.

I would have thought that the very least the Government—indeed, any democratic Government—could do is proscribe the IRGC in its entirety, as the hon. Member said. What perplexes me is that I and many other Members on both sides of the House have raised this issue repeatedly on the Floor of the House of Commons. I have a lot of respect for the Minister, but I have heard Minister after Minister expressing sympathy with full proscription at the Dispatch Box, and then nothing happens. That leads me and Members on both sides of the House to the conclusion that FCDO and Home Office Ministers sympathise with the idea of proscription, but that somebody in Downing Street, the FCDO or the Home Office is blocking it. I for one cannot see the rationale behind failing to proscribe the IRGC.

Does the hon. Gentleman think that there are certain similarities with the reluctance to proscribe the political wing of Hezbollah? There is a lot of political will to make that proscription happen, but there seems to be a reluctance within the FCDO. Are there not parallels with the IRGC there?

That is probably true. The rationale is normally that elements at the heart of Government say, “We still have to talk to these people.” Well, actually, they do not need to communicate with them. We are talking about Nazi terrorists, not a rational organisation. The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.

I believe strongly that no Member of this House or of the House of Lords should have any relationship whatever with any arm of the Iranian state. Anybody who has been elected to the House of Commons or sits in the House of Lords and who has a relationship, particularly a pecuniary one, with Press TV—I think we all know what I am talking about—should look in the mirror and ask themselves why they are taking money from fascists.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. As leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, I have a great deal of respect for the European Court of Human Rights and for the liberties—our liberties—that it defends, but those liberties continue to be fundamentally challenged in the dark authoritarian corners of our shared international community, and no more so than in Iran.

Iran’s human rights abuses are well documented, and we have discussed some of them. They make for disturbing reading. Never in the Islamic Republic’s 44-year brutal reign has it faced such widespread and far-reaching calls for freedom. The country has been rocked by the largest and most diverse protests yet. By December, an estimated 516 Iranian civilians had been killed by the regime as a result of egregious and brutal crackdowns on freedom of expression, contributing to the almost 600 executions that had been reported over 2022—the highest figure since 2015. Many were peaceful protesters killed with live ammunition and buried in unmarked graves without their families receiving notification. One particularly heinous tactic that the regime is using is chemical attacks, which it unleashed against a reported 91 girls’ schools from November 2022 to March 2023, leaving hundreds hospitalised. I ask the Minister what assessment has been made of those sickening attacks.

Iran’s state-endorsed summary executions and the ever-tightening screw on the rights of women and girls point to crimes against humanity. Tehran even recognises that its treatment of women and girls diverges significantly from the freedoms that women enjoy in the west, which Iran’s Supreme Leader declared in 2017 to be a

“Zionist plot to destroy human community”.

That would be laughable if it were not so horrific for the girls living there. What more can the Minister’s Department do to support the rights of Iranian women and children suffering under the tyranny of Tehran?

Iran’s suppression of the press is no less ruthless, leading to its being ranked 177th out of 179 nations in the 2023 world press freedom index. For their coverage of Amini’s brutal murder, two journalists, Elaheh Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi, have been accused of colluding with hostile powers, a charge that carries the death penalty under Iran’s Islamic law. In October, the IRGC accused the two of working for the CIA. Mohammadi’s lawyers have reportedly been denied the chance to defend her. We must call for their trials to be held in public, not behind closed doors where the regime has so often delivered corrupt verdicts with impunity.

Documents obtained from its official business registry show that in order to control its desperate population, Tehran has turned to Chinese face recognition surveillance technology. What steps can be taken to ensure that China does not export that technology to Iran? Will the Minister commit to providing ordinary Iranians with the software to gain internet access and protect journalistic autonomy? We must ensure that they do, whether overtly or covertly.

The treatment of Iran’s LGBT community is reprehensible, even entailing the risk of hanging sentences designed for maximum suffering and intimidation. Human rights groups claim that, since 1979, between 4,000 and 6,000 gay people have been executed. I am confident that the Minister will agree that the Government must do more to ensure that all people should be free to love who they wish, and that they will jointly inquire whether the LGBT rights organisations that the Government are empowering to assist in giving asylum to and strengthening Iran’s LGBT community can be strengthened even further.

The buck for all this stops with President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Khamenei. What good are sanctions if the regime’s two most powerful despots are exempt? The Government must prove to ordinary Iranians that we are prepared to hold their tyrants accountable through targeted and personal sanctions. That is the only way we can fulfil our commitment to fundamental human rights, for the rule of law must be the ethos of a global Britain, unafraid to stand up for the individual and proud to lead our allies in the pursuit of justice.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) for securing this morning’s debate.

Like most people, I was appalled by the shocking death of Mahsa Amini last year at the hands of the Iranian authorities. The brutal crackdown that has followed, which has left hundreds dead, raises urgent questions about what more can be done to support the Iranian people. In recent months, my office has been contacted by countless constituents concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran. Among the issues that they have raised are the persecution of women, the right to freedom of religion or belief, and the continued detention of British citizens. Even before the terrible scenes last year, the British Government’s report on human rights and democracy found that women in Iran were

“unable to participate fully in society.”

The crackdown that followed the death of Mahsa Amini has seen brutality against women and girls taken to new levels, including the possible use of gas poisonings by the regime to intimidate female students and to force schools to shut. Members across the House welcomed the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori last year, but the regime continues to arbitrarily detain other British nationals, including Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, and we should not forget the execution of dual British-Iranian Alireza Akbari earlier this year.

There are two areas that I would like the Minister to address. First, I called on the Government earlier this year to help to prevent the closure of BBC Persian Radio by providing emergency funding similar to the funding provided last year for the BBC World Service in Ukraine. Access to free and independent media is a vital tool for the Iranian people in helping to counter the disinformation of the regime, so my first ask is that the Government reconsider their position on BBC Persian Radio—or a version of it, given that it has now closed.

Secondly, I echo calls for the Government to stop prevaricating and proscribe the IRGC as the terrorist organisation that we all know it is. As the Foreign Affairs Committee has said, it would be a logical extension of the existing restrictions on IRGC members and would help to send an unequivocal message to the regime that the malign activities of the group will not be tolerated. These measures would strengthen UK policy towards Iran and help to challenge the actions of the regime at home and abroad.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) on securing this crucial debate, because the Iranian regime represents a troubling international challenge that requires urgent attention from the United Kingdom. I am grateful that Members across the House are in attendance this morning and that we have the opportunity to press the Minister on these important matters.

I am concerned that for some years the UK’s policy towards Iran has been largely incoherent, with no clear strategy in place to address concerns on the international stage or, indeed, domestically in Iran. The sanctions on individuals involved in the violent crackdown on protesters following the death of Mahsa Amini in September last year have had a limited impact on the situation on the ground in Iran. As of June 2023, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) said, more than 500 protesters have been killed and as many as 20,000 have been arrested, although those figures are likely to be underestimates.

The regime has largely been able to suppress protest through strict censorship, through the enforcement of internet blackouts and through police brutality, so my first question to the Minister is what assessment the Foreign Office has made of the impact of the sanctions currently in place. Is the Department now considering employing the UK’s Magnitsky-style sanctions, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) has called for?

I applaud what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I wonder whether he has picked up on the role that Iran is playing in the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia. We are moving to a conclusion of that in favour of both countries—a peaceful settlement—but Iran seems to be out to spoil it and to make a big play of the situation.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The problem is that Iran is a disruptive force in large parts of the globe; it seeks to destabilise and undermine political deals bringing countries together. He makes a very sound case about what is happening in that part of the world.

The picture internationally is no less grave. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military, has never been more powerful. Indeed, it is perhaps an understatement to refer to the IRGC as a branch; Reuters has called it an industrial empire, and it is estimated that anywhere between 10% and 50% of the Iranian economy is controlled through the IRGC’s subsidiaries and trusts. The IRGC has been linked to terror attacks, hostage takings, assassinations, human rights violations and the intimidation of journalists and critics across the globe, including here in the United Kingdom. From Yemen to Lebanon, from Iraq to Israel, and from Syria to Saudi Arabia, Iran has waged an ideological war against peace and stability—the very point that the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) was making. The IRGC provides financial support to several terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I have a lot of sympathy with him about the proscription of the IRGC; he is right to describe it as a global problem. Would he not contend that it would be a mistake to think that Iran is not a rational actor in the world? The regime is not an irrational actor in the world. I make that point because it is very important that we work with allies across Europe and around the world to deal with this problem, particularly around such things as the relationship between the IRGC and money laundering, and its financial reach around the globe.

The hon. Gentleman is right that we cannot do this alone: we have to work with allies and, because of the global reach of the IRGC, he is absolutely right that we must have a global approach as well. The point is that the involvement of the IRGC in other terrorist groups, particularly in the middle east, is to further Iranian foreign policy goals. It is a major barrier to peace across the middle east, including to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The IRGC’s commander, General Hossein Salami, has stated his intention to erase Israel from the global political map, something that is particularly concerning given the creation of IRGC proxy-controlled territory in Syria and Lebanon. Despite calls across the House, and despite the serious threat that the IRGC poses domestically and internationally, the British Government have so far resisted calls to proscribe it as a terrorist organisation. I have raised the matter in the House on a number of occasions, and have been told time and again by the Foreign Secretary that the UK does not “discuss or speculate about future proscriptions”.

I hope that the Minister can provide more clarity today. I am not asking him to “discuss or speculate”, but to signal to us that the Government appreciate the concern of Members across the Chamber about this issue and will strongly consider the points raised here. It was reported in January that the Government planned to proscribe the IRGC imminently, but nothing materialised. This is a matter of urgency, and I cannot fathom why the Government are not acting more swiftly to proscribe this dangerous organisation in its entirety.

Over the past six months there have been several developments in the middle east region that strengthen the hand of the Iranian regime. They include rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the readmittance of its Syrian ally to the Arab League, which is all happening in parallel to the United States’ gradual withdrawal from the region. The Iranian regime is already one of the biggest supporters of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is one of the few countries in the world openly supporting Russia with attack drones.

Since 2015, the regime has almost entirely violated the terms of its nuclear arms deal, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. Despite its responsibilities as a signatory, Britain has given no indication of how it plans to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the absence of a renewed deal. Of most concern is the fact that the provisions in the agreement restricting the development of Iran’s ballistic missile programme will expire in October. We must not allow these sanctions to lapse. Put simply, the threat is growing both regionally and across the globe, and the United Kingdom must develop a robust and coherent policy on Iran as a matter of the utmost urgency.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) on securing the debate. It is always encouraging to see Government Back Benchers making use of Westminster Hall to hold Ministers to account. There was a very well attended debate on Iran in the Chamber in January scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee. This has been a useful opportunity, six months down the line, to review the situation. A clear consensus is emerging among Members from all sides of the House.

Many other emergencies and crises flare up around the world and demand our immediate attention. The situation in Sudan is a clear recent example. Just because other crises have dropped down the news agenda does not mean that they are any less critical or cause any less distress to those on the ground. That is particularly true of Iran, as we have heard today.

On a daily basis, the regime continues to persecute and oppress far too many of its citizens. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) spoke very powerfully about the oppression of the LGBT community, and women of course face an enforced dress code, the enforcement of the hijab, and restrictions on the right to work and their freedom of movement. The UN’s working group on arbitrary detention has concluded that there is a “systemic” problem with arbitrary detention in Iran that

“amounts to a serious violation of international law.”

At least seven people who participated in the anti-Government protests last year have been executed since January, including three last month.

Yet still the cry for “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”—women, life, freedom—rings out on the streets of Tehran and across the country. The determination of the protesters has been inspiring, as has the solidarity expressed by so many communities and individuals around the world, not least constituents in Glasgow North, who regularly contact me to express their concern about human rights in Iran and their support for people campaigning for democracy and change.

Some of those constituents, of course, are Iranian themselves and have come here seeking safety and refuge, while still heart-sick with worry about their friends and family who remain in Iran. They look to the UK Government for action, and sadly, in too many areas, they find it lacking. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continues to act with impunity both within and outside Iran’s borders. There has been plenty of evidence—we have already heard some of it—of the IRGC operating on UK soil. Yet we still wait, as almost every hon. Member has said, for the UK Government to follow the United States in proscribing the group and declaring it a terrorist organisation. That action would allow law enforcement authorities to take action and ensure that no officials or individuals guilty of human rights violations through that group can evade justice.

The Government also need to step up their action on UK-Iranian dual nationals who have been arbitrarily detained in Iran. As others have said, the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe after so many years was a joy and relief, but Morad Tahbaz, Mehran Raoof and others still remain in prison with uncertain futures.

The Government must work with international allies to address Iran’s growing determination to influence hostile activity in the wider region and, indeed, around the world. Iran provides weapons to groups that provoke conflict in the wider middle east and is now recognised by the US National Security Council as one of the top military backers of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It acts with increasing impunity on its nuclear programme—reports in recent days suggest that a new mountain storage facility is being created for its military arsenal—and the development of hypersonic missile systems that could bypass the existing air defences of other countries in the region.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that the regime’s behaviour towards its own citizens and the wider world results in so many people from Iran wanting to seek refuge elsewhere? And yes, they include thousands of people who have arrived here on small boats in recent of years, hundreds of whom have been referred for assessment under modern slavery legislation. But the Government want to make those people—men, women and children who are fleeing the oppression that we have heard about repeatedly in today’s debate and who are seeking to join friends or family, or perhaps speak English but not French or German—criminals. They want to tell them that they are not welcome; they want to deport them to Rwanda. Some hon. Members will have heard me say this yesterday, because that is also the Government’s attitude to people who arrive here from Afghanistan.

How can the Minister, or any Minister from this Government, get up in a debate such as this and condemn Iran’s or any other regime’s human rights record, when the UK Government want to criminalise people for seeking asylum, which is a fundamental human right? There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. If the UK Government want to stop people coming here on small boats from Iran, they need to establish safe and legal routes that would allow people to arrive by regular means and, more importantly, they need to promote the rights of women, life and freedom in Iran. They need to be prepared for the day when democracy begins to prevail, and ensure that, when that day comes, they are able to offer whatever help and support might be asked for. That probably means finding money from an already stretched aid budget and perhaps rethinking the cut from 0.7%.

There is no question about the solidarity among hon. Members in today’s debate or among our constituents with the protesters and ordinary folk in Iran who want to see freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. There are practical actions that the UK Government can take but have not yet. If and when they do, they will have our support; until then, debates such as this will continue to hold them to account.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) on securing this important debate.

Many different communities have made their homes in my constituency of Richmond Park after escaping oppressive regimes. I am the proud parliamentary representative of a large Tamil community who came here from Sri Lanka several decades ago and, in the south-eastern corner of my constituency, New Malden hosts the largest community of North Koreans in Europe. More recently, we have been glad to welcome any Hongkongers.

However, when I looked at my constituency’s census data earlier this year, I was surprised by just how many Iranians I represent, and I wondered why they had not been as visible a community as others. I made it my businesses to reach out to my Iranian constituents and to better understand their concerns. Last week, I met a number of them in Diba, a Persian restaurant in central Richmond, to discuss the situation in Iran and the UK Government’s response. I pay tribute to the many British-Iranians working tirelessly to shine a light on the abuses being perpetrated by the regime and thank those constituents who took the time to share their concerns with me.

It is almost surreal to imagine the daily struggle that Iranian people face. Simple things that we take for granted in Britain are now distant memories to most Iranians. Young girls are being deprived of an education out of fear that they will be poisoned if they go to school. Journalists and lawyers are being thrown into jail and sentenced to lashings without fair trial. Thousands of people are executed every month for defending their freedom. Women are unable to dress as they wish, travel as they wish or spend their time as they wish; all the things that bring joy to life are being wiped from Iranian existence. I was particularly struck by one of my constituents who described the current regime as a “coup”—a sort of foreign entity that in no way represents the culture of values of the Iranian people but which has occupied their country and stolen their freedoms. It is a force that acts to suppress and control its citizens through fear.

The Iranian people have stood up and spoked out against the evil forces of the Iranian regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in particular. The IRGC not only exerts terror on the Iranian people but props up a network of terrorist groups across the middle east, spreading war and violence across the region. The Foreign Affairs Committee and hon. Members from across the House, within this debate and in other forums, have called for the IRGC to be finally designated as a terrorist organisation. The Liberal Democrats support that case.

In January this year, it was reported widely that the UK Government would review the case for proscription but, five months later, no progress has been made. The Prime Minister even said that there was a case for proscribing the IRGC during the Conservative leadership election last summer, as other Members have in this debate. Will the Minister update us on why it is taking such a long time? It is a crucial point that my constituents made to me.

We must remember that it is not just in Iran that people live in fear. The terror of the Iranian regime extends beyond the country’s borders and right to our doorstep here in the UK, a point that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw made most profoundly. I have heard at first hand from my constituents about physical threats made to British-Iranians residing in London. The UK Government simply cannot stand by and allow this to happen. Will the Minister take urgent action to protect the safety of British citizens and Iranian nationals based in the UK? In addition to proscribing the IRGC, we need more proactive investigations of individuals in the UK who may be connected to the Iranian regime, including family members of Iranian officials who we have sanctioned. Some are based in this country, living the high life on the back of stolen wealth like the Russian nationals we are familiar with already. I urge the Government to heed the call of Anoosheh Ashoori and ensure that our Magnitsky sanctions regime is properly deployed against those individuals.

Sanctions are a frequently pulled foreign policy lever, and I welcome those imposed by the UK Government on individuals connected to the Iranian regime, including members of the IRGC. However, sanctions imposed by other countries, including the United States, have had a significant impact on my constituents’ ability to access funds from their Iranian bank accounts. They are unable to send money to friends and relatives in Iran or to support Iranian non-governmental organisations carrying out vital humanitarian work as the Iranian economy collapses.

I have also spoken to several constituents who have had transactions blocked or their UK bank accounts closed down entirely without reason. One of my constituents has had all her bank accounts suspended by NatWest without any warning or explanation, leaving her entirely cut off from her money. I would welcome comment from the Minister on whether the Government can provide any support to British Iranians who are currently unable to access their funds.

The ongoing deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Iran has unsurprisingly led to an increase in Iranians seeking refuge outside their home country. I have been in touch with some of the asylum seekers who are currently living in a hotel in my constituency, around a third of whom have travelled here from Iran. Thanks to the continuing dysfunction in the Home Office, these Iranians could wait years for their applications to be processed. The Liberal Democrats call on the Government to work with international partners to set up safe and legal routes, particularly for Iranian women fleeing persecution. We simply cannot turn our backs on these vulnerable women.

It is high time that the UK Government took substantial action to support the Iranian people’s fight. Having spoken to my Iranian constituents, I now understand that more than any other group of people who have sought sanctuary in Britain, they continue to live in fear of the regime that they have fled from. Their voices have been suppressed by the activities of the IRGC in this country, which we must address urgently. The Iranian community here have so much to contribute to this country. They are highly educated, and have an extraordinary wealth of culture and heritage to share with us, but, like the women and girls residing in Iran, it is kept hidden away by this oppressive regime.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s contribution to this debate and I hope that it will provide some desperately needed answers. At the very least, we must support the British Iranian families in this country and listen to what they are urging us to do, which includes the proscription of the IRGC as well as putting an end to threats to individuals residing in our country by the Iranian regime.

We now move on to the Front Benchers, who have 10 minutes each as a minimum, although there is a bit of flexibility. Then, whatever time is left at the end of their contributions will be extra time for the Minister to respond in, which I am sure he will welcome.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I thank the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) for securing this debate today. His contribution to it was eloquent, insightful and detailed, which I appreciated.

The UK and Iran have had a long, complex and often difficult relationship, stretching back over several centuries, let alone decades. As the 17th largest country in the world both by size and population, which is located at a strategic intersection between the Arab, Turkish, Russian and Indian worlds, Iran as a nation has always had significant influence beyond its borders, both regionally and throughout the wider world.

For the past 44 years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has operated a regime of oppression, internally and externally. As that oppression continues and even escalates, it is important that the UK Government proactively challenge the threat that Iran poses to universal human rights, as well as to regional and global stability. I begin my contribution today by stating that the Scottish National party stands in full solidarity with Iranian women, men and young people calling for democratic change. The bravery of Iranian citizens who stand up against brutality and dictatorship is beyond inspiring, and we in the SNP echo their rallying cry of “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”— “Women, Life, Freedom”.

Last year, Iran catapulted to the top of international news cycles when mass anti-Government protests rocked the country. The springboard for the recent attention on Iran was the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Iranian regime. Detained by Iran’s notorious “morality police” for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely, she was beaten and tortured, which led to her falling into a coma in police custody and later dying in hospital. This was state-sanctioned femicide of a young Kurdish woman. Her brutal murder, carried out by the Iranian regime, sparked outrage and protest across Iran, resulting in the largest anti-Government protest movement in the country in years.

Tragically, the Iranian state has responded in a predictably vicious fashion. Iranian forces have been targeting women at anti-regime protests with shotgun fire to their faces, breasts and genitals, according to interviews with medics across the country. Just like the femicide of Mahsa Amini, which sparked the protests, these attacks could not be more gendered.

Over 500 people were killed during the protests, including 16-year-old Nika Shakarami, who was videoed while standing on and burning a headscarf as part of an anti-Government protest. She subsequently disappeared, having been chased by the police, and was eventually located in a mortuary 10 days after she went missing.

At least 19,000 protesters were detained, with the first death sentence imposed on one of them by an Iranian court coming in November 2022. The UN’s independent international fact-finding mission to Iran has cited reports of unfair proceedings and said that some of those who have been executed had been subject to torture or other forms of mistreatment. This year, conservative estimates suggest that Iran has executed 209 people, mostly for drug offences, although that number is probably far lower than the reality. Many of those executions have been public hangings using cranes. Indeed, some people have been punished by the removal of limbs or by being blinded.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, said:

“The weaponisation of criminal procedures to punish people for exercising their basic rights—such as those participating in or organising demonstrations—amounts to state sanctioned killing.”

Sadly, those violent and appalling tactics are nothing new in Iran, and they have been in the oppression arsenal of the Iranian regime, security forces and police for many decades. The Islamic Republic of Iran was founded on murder and terror in 1979, and murder and terror have been used ever since to keep the regime and its barbaric leadership in place. In the five years following the revolution, up to 10,000 opponents of the new regime were executed, and in 1988, on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini, thousands—probably tens of thousands—of political prisoners were executed without trial.

Protests are quelled through violence, murder and arrest, as happened during the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests and the 2019 Mahshahr massacre. Every day, the regime inflicts on its citizens arbitrary detention and killing, torture, denial of freedom of assembly and expression, gender-based violence, and discrimination against and persecution of minorities.

The Iranian regime and its security apparatus commit grave human rights violations daily, and that is not simply limited to the territory of Iran, because the wider Iranian regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps contribute to alarming security and human rights violations around the world, which every speaker in the debate has mentioned.

The preamble to the constitution of the Islamic Republic states that

“the Constitution provides the… basis for… the continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad.”

Iran has ambitions to be the dominant regional force in the middle east, and since the 1980s it has provided support for the Hezbollah armed group in Lebanon and the Assad regime in Syria. In recent decades, Iran has supported Shi’a militias in Iraq, especially following the 2003 US-led invasion, and has backed a Houthi group in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. The regime also has a history of providing missiles to Hamas in the Gaza strip.

Iran’s flagrant disregard for international law is also evident in its behaviour far beyond the region and its neighbours. As set out last year by Ken McCallum, the head of MI5, Iran’s aggressive intelligence services are a direct threat to people in the UK, and the Metropolitan police have reported 15 foiled plots since the start of last year either to kidnap or to kill UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the Iranian regime.

In February, independent television network Iran International—one of the most prominent providers of news from the recent wave of anti-Government protests in Iran—suspended its operations in the UK because of threats against its London-based journalists. Two British-Iranian journalists from the channel were warned by police of a possible risk to their lives, with the TV network stating that it had made the decision owing to

“a significant escalation in state-backed threats from Iran”.

The threats had grown to the point at which it was no longer thought possible to protect the channel’s staff. This is here in the UK, but still we have not yet proscribed.

Not only do the UK Government have a responsibility to ensure the safety of those living in the UK who are targeted by the Iranian regime; they must protect UK-Iranian dual nationals in Iran, and it is deeply worrying that the FCDO continues to fail those nationals who have been arbitrarily detained there. The shameful execution of Alireza Akbari in January should serve as an urgent wake-up call to the FCDO on the callous barbarism of the Iranian regime and the serious injustice and failings of the Iranian judicial system. The FCDO needs to do better to protect UK nationals.

In December, Iranian state media reported that seven people with links to the UK, including some with dual nationality, had been arrested for involvement in protests. The FCDO must urgently provide an update on the whereabouts and wellbeing of those individuals, as well as an update on the efforts being made to secure their release.

Dual UK-Iranian nationals Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof remain in arbitrary detention in Iran, and they have long been used as political tools by the Iranian regime. Their safe release and full pardon should be at the forefront of the FCDO’s work. We are well aware of the treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and other dual UK-Iranian nationals detained, and even tortured, in Iranian prisons.

The FCDO cannot make the same mistakes with currently detained dual nationals that it has made in the past. Given the significant and continued human rights abuses, and the security threat posed by the Iranian regime, both inside and outside Iran, the UK Government must take bold action, and action now, to safeguard Iranians globally and send a strong message against the regime’s tyranny. Just as the UK Government have done with the Russian Wagner Group, the SNP calls on the Government to formally proscribe, without hesitation, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. The SNP wholeheartedly welcomes reports that the UK is set to formally proscribe the Russian mercenary Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation. Alongside that move, the time has come for the UK Government to finally proscribe the IRGC not only because it is in the national interest, but because it is morally the right thing to do, and there is unanimity in this Chamber for it. We have to do it in solidarity with those facing daily repression at the hands of the Iranian regime and in honour of the tens of thousands who have lost their lives to that group since 1979. We know the IRGC is operating on UK soil and is violating human rights on a daily basis in Iran. The United States formally proscribed it in 2019, and it is now time that the UK follows suit.

While the SNP welcomes the UK sanctioning of top Iranian security officials since the beginning of the regime’s clampdown on protesters in 2022, we call on the FCDO to consider sanctioning the highest echelons of Iranian political society, including the supreme leader, given the inexcusable continuation of state-sponsored violence and killings.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) for securing this timely and important debate. Many of us share his concern about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. I and others have visited Mr Beheshti, as I am sure he has, outside the FCDO on King Charles Street. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and I have been to see Mr Beheshti, and we had lengthy conversations with him. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), has lent her considerable influence and weight to that debate as well.

We look in awe at the bravery of the protesters in Iran led by women and girls following the shocking death of Mahsa Amini and those women who continue to fight for “women, life, freedom” and the right to live their lives as they choose. We look in horror at the brutal repression carried out by the regime against those courageous women, men and children; at the breaches of freedom of religion or belief, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) put on the record; at the suffering of the Baha’i community in particular, and at the crackdown on journalists and freedom of speech online.

In response to the protests, state repression has seen Iranian security forces unlawfully firing live ammunition and metal pellets at protesters, killing hundreds of men, women and children and injuring thousands. Thousands more have been arbitrarily detained and unfairly prosecuted solely for peacefully exercising their human rights. Women, LGBT+ people and ethnic and religious minorities have continued to be targeted by the regime, suffering discrimination and violence, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill treatment, including through the deliberate denial of medical care, which has been reported as widespread and systemic.

While street protests in Iran have lessened in recent months, the regime’s repression continues and state-sponsored brutality escalated again recently with the execution of three more protesters: Majid Kazemi, Saleh Mirhashemi and Saeed Yaghoubi. Sentenced to death in grossly unfair trials without evidence and amid serious allegations of torture, their executions were designed to strike fear into the hearts of ordinary Iranian people and to suppress dissent. As Members have mentioned, Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that it

“underlines our concerns that the Iranian authorities continue to have scant regard for international law”,

with the death penalty

“applied following judicial proceedings that failed to meet acceptable international standards of fair trial or due process.”

Indeed, the exact number of executions is unknown due to the lack of Government transparency and, sadly, that figure is likely to be much higher. Today, Amnesty International reports that at least 11 people sentenced to death are at grave risk of execution in connection with protests. We believe the international community has an important role to play and that the UK must stand unequivocally against the death penalty in all circumstances and wherever it is used in the world. I share concerns raised by human rights groups that the continued use of the death penalty in Iran demonstrates the limits of discrete diplomacy. What assessment has the Minister made of the spate of executions so far this year in Iran, and what concrete action are the UK Government taking with our international partners in response to the execution of three more protesters last month? With a further 11 people at grave risk of execution at the hands of the Iranian regime, what additional diplomatic pressure can be applied to ensure that the regime stops this horrific wave of execution?

As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw laid out in his opening remarks, Iran poses an increasing military threat at home and abroad. In Ukraine, Iranian-made Shahed drones have played a central role in Russia’s illegal war and its attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine. Last week, in response to Russian airstrikes attacking Kyiv, Ukraine introduced sanctions against the Iranian regime to stop Iranian goods transiting through Ukraine or using its airspace, as well as trade, financial and technology sanctions. Is there more that we can do here on sanctions? In the March refresh of the integrated review, the UK Government restated their aim to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but there are deep concerns that the failure to restore the joint comprehensive plan of action and the stalling of talks since September 2022 may mean that Iran soon makes irreversible nuclear progress, rendering previous commitments meaningless.

Looking at the middle east and Iran’s role in the region more widely, we continue to be concerned about the regime’s support for terror groups and militias, as seen in its threats against Israel and its continued military involvement in Syria and elsewhere. We have seen other developments in the region, such as the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Would the Minister give us his assessment of that development?

Here in the UK, since the start of 2022, Iran has been responsible for at least 15 potential threats against British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime. In February this year, Iran International TV was forced to suspend its operations in London after state-backed threats were made against its journalists, in a deeply worrying attack on press freedom. Just last week in the IPU room here in Parliament, the well-known BBC Persian TV presenter Farnaz Ghazizadeh shared a platform with me and others, and she spoke movingly about her desire to see greater freedom of expression for Iranians and greater safety in the UK for her and her colleagues. Does the Minister believe enough is being done to protect Iranian diaspora members in the UK?

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on the wider calls from Members across the House, including my hon. Friends the Members for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) and for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), and from the Iranian diaspora community to formally proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, either by using existing terrorism legislation or by creating a new process of proscription for hostile state actors. There must be a way of doing that.

As I draw my remarks to a close, I would like to focus on one final area, and it is something this House has been all too aware of in recent times: Iran’s engagement in state hostage-taking, which the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has described as a “systematic problem.” Today, British dual nationals Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof remain incarcerated in Iran. We look back to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, her brave husband Richard, her wider family and the community. It was my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) who skilfully brought that case to this House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) did the same with the case of Anoosheh Ashoori and Aras Amiri, who has spoken out this week about the ordeal she suffered in Evin prison. She wants to see other political prisoners—women like her, who are stuck in Evin—freed for good.

Last month, the Foreign Secretary told the House that the UK continues to

“make every effort to support British dual nationals incarcerated in Iran”—[Official Report, 14 March 2023; Vol. 729, c. 692.]

and that this remains an “ongoing piece of work.” However, the Foreign Affairs Committee was critical of the FCDO and its approach to assisting British citizens incarcerated abroad under false pretences and has urged the Government to go further to strengthen abroad and in Whitehall our deterrence against arbitrary detention of British citizens. What assessment has the Minister made of the competence of the FCDO in that regard? Is it an effective response to widespread human rights abuses of imprisoned British nationals?

The courage of the Iranian protesters is extraordinary. What we say in this place matters, so we must continue to shine a light on the situation and share our collective revulsion at the regime’s human rights violations. That will spur us on to take brave actions, including giving serious consideration to proscribing the IRGC.

I ask the Minister to allow at least two minutes at the end for the mover of the motion to wind up the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, as all Members have made clear. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) for securing this important debate. Members across the House will agree that this has been an eloquent and sincere debate, and we have been united in our assessment of the Iranian threat not only in the United Kingdom but around the world. I am extremely grateful to the many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, who contributed, and I will try to respond to all the points that they made.

As the House knows, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad leads on these matters with great distinction. I will pick up some of the themes that he has set out in the past and has said are extremely important.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), who often speaks on these matters, made a point, which was picked up by others, about the way in which the rights of girls and women—not, alas, only in Iran, but in many places in the world—are receding. I am grateful to him for underlining that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who is, of course, the leader of our mission to the Council of Europe, made a point that was picked up by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) about schoolgirl poisonings, and I want to touch on that. The reports of schoolgirls being poisoned in Iran are deeply sinister, and we are continuing to monitor the situation closely. As the Minister for the middle east said,

“It is essential that girls are able to fully exercise their right to education without fear.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 March 2023; Vol. 828, c. 889.]

The regime must hold those responsible to account.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) made an important point about free media and the role of the BBC. I should stress to the House that the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from the Government, and decisions about how its services are delivered are a matter for it. Only a small fraction of the BBC’s Iranian audience receives BBC news solely via radio; the vast majority watch BBC Persian on TV and online, and both services will continue under the BBC’s current plans.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) talked about the effect of sanctions and the important opportunities presented to the House by the Magnitsky legislation, which he and I were heavily involved in promoting. The UK has imposed more than 70 new human rights sanctions since the protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in September. Those sanctions send a clear message to the regime that we will seek to hold it to account for violent repression of its own people. We are obviously keeping those Magnitsky provisions under review, as we always should.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) also highlighted the attacks on the rights of women and raised the importance of getting back to 0.7% as soon as possible. I thank him for that. The hon. Member for Richmond Park spoke about the North Koreans, Tamils and Iranians in her constituency and underlined the fact that Britain has always sought to be generous in providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. She raised other points, some of which I will come to in a moment, but I want to thank her for her efforts on behalf of Iranians in her community. The UK maintains targeted sanctions against individuals and organisations responsible for human rights violations, nuclear escalation, regional destabilisation and other malign activity. Although I do not know the full details of the specific case that she has raised, our sanctions do not aim to target ordinary Iranians. If she wishes to take up with me the specific point that she made earlier about bank accounts, I will be happy to look into that for her.

The hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) made an eloquent speech in which he charted Iran’s contribution to international civilisation in the past. That contribution has been perverted over the last decades and he set out an eloquent charge sheet against the regime. He also raised the issue of UK detainees. I want to emphasise that the safety of UK nationals remains a top priority. We do, however—the House will understand this—respect the wishes of individuals and their families regarding the specific details of the cases being shared in public, but I can assure the House that we are guided first and foremost by the best interests of those individuals and we work closely with the families whenever we can.

Turning to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), who speaks for the official Opposition, I will come on to the significant matter she raised in her speech, but I want to make a couple of points first. I recognise what she said about Nazanin and her husband Richard and all that went on. She spoke for everyone in the House when she made those points. She also raised the case of Mr Beheshti. He has met ministerial colleagues in both the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and I very much share the hopes for his ongoing good health, which was raised by others in this debate. I hope Mr Beheshti will be reassured by the fact that the Government will continue to protect our security and that of our partners in the region by holding Iran to account for its destabilising activities.

On the point that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green and others have raised about consular detainees, we in the Government urge Iran to stop its practice of unfairly detaining British and other foreign nationals. We will continue to work with like-minded partners to hold the regime in Iran to account. It remains entirely within Iran’s gift to release any British national who has been unfairly detained. We do not and will never accept our nationals being used for diplomatic leverage.

The Minister is making an excellent response to all the Members here, which is appreciated across the House. On the criticisms in the FCDO report on how British nationals are treated by consular missions abroad, does he believe that those criticisms are correct? What does he think the FCDO needs to do to make good on the current arrangements?

This is a very important area of work carried out by the Foreign Office. There is an inquiry into the consular approach in Sudan, to which I will give evidence shortly, but the hon. Lady is right. How we treat consular detainees and how the consular system works is a vital part of our work. We look very carefully at any suggestions from the House or the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on how that can be improved. It is extremely important to do so without fear or favour, and we take advice from all quarters on how such services can be made better.

I turn now to the current situation. I want to emphasise that Iran’s reprehensible behaviour has escalated in recent months. As has been pointed out throughout the debate, its human rights record is appalling, with surging use of the death penalty, increased restrictions on women, intensified persecution of religious minorities and the further erosion of media and civic freedoms. The regime has brutally cracked down on protesters and made repeated attempts to target people outside Iran. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw set out, since January 2022 we have identified more than 15 credible threats to the lives of UK-based individuals, orchestrated by the Iranian regime.

Iran’s supply of drones to Russia to support its illegal war in Ukraine is deplorable and a direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231. Those drones are being used to attack Ukrainian citizens, cities and critical infrastructure. Iran’s escalation of its nuclear activities is threatening international peace and security, and undermining the global non-proliferation system.

We are working relentlessly across Government and with the international community to hold Iran to account for its unacceptable behaviour. In that context, I will look first at UK action. Let me begin by addressing Iran’s appalling human rights record. The executions of three more protesters in May is a shocking reminder of how the regime uses the death penalty to instil fear and suppress dissent. In 2022, Iran executed at least 576 people—nearly double the number the previous year. The death toll includes Iranians who were children at the time of their alleged offence, which is a flagrant breach of international law. The latest estimates indicate that the rate of executions continues to climb. One human rights group recorded at least 142 executions last month alone—a truly staggering number. Inside Iran, such killings have met with public outcry. The people of Iran have had enough of their Government’s impunity and violence, and they are rightly demanding a better future.

The UK will continue to seek to hold Iran to account for its behaviour. As the House will know, His Majesty’s Government strongly oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, and our ambassador in Tehran ensures that Iran’s leaders are left in no doubt about the political and diplomatic price they are paying for their brutality. Since last October we have sanctioned more than 70 individuals and entities for their human rights abuses, including the Prosecutor General, who is at the heart of Iran’s barbaric use of the death penalty.

I move now to the issue of state threats. Over the past 18 months, we have seen the regime orchestrate multiple credible threats to the lives of those living in the UK, including towards media organisations and journalists. We will always stand up to such behaviour from foreign nations, because our priority is the safety and security of the UK and those who live here. We have repeatedly made it clear to the Iranian regime that the threats are intolerable and will be met with a significant response. We are working tirelessly across Government and with our international partners to identify, deter and respond to such threats. It is time now—indeed, it is long past time—for the regime to listen. It must stop threatening the lives of ordinary people in Iran and elsewhere, including in this country.

I turn to an issue that was, I think, raised by everyone who spoke in the debate: the IRGC’s regional activity. We take very seriously the threatening behaviour of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Not only have we sanctioned the organisation in its entirety, but we have sanctioned 29 individuals and entities affiliated with it since last October. That includes the Basij force—the arm of the IRGC that is mobilised to enforce brutal repression on the streets of Iran—and, most recently, four commanders under whose leadership IRGC forces have opened fire on arbitrarily detained and tortured protesters.

As has been repeatedly underlined in the House, the list of proscribed terrorist organisations is of course kept under review. As the House knows, and usually accepts, we do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is under consideration for proscription, but the House may rest assured that across all parts of the Government, those matters are kept under the closest possible review and are looked at to assess the most effective way of proceeding in what everyone in the debate has made clear is an absolute priority.

The regime’s wider destabilising activity is rampant. It includes support for a number of militant groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria—as the hon. Member for Dundee West set out—militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. HMS Lancaster, the UK’s permanent naval presence in the Gulf, has interdicted Iranian weapons transfers to the Houthis—further evidence of Iran’s destabilising activity in the region. We are working across Government and with our international allies to ensure that our collective response is robust, deters the regime from such malign activity and holds it to account wherever possible for threatening international security.

I return to the point I made earlier about Iran’s support for Russia. Iran is now one of Russia’s top military backers, supplying hundreds of drones that have been used to bombard Ukraine. Iran is testing its weapons in a new theatre through those sordid deals and, in return, Russia is offering military and technical support to the regime. We strongly condemn Iran’s actions in supporting Russia’s illegal war, and we have sanctioned 11 individuals and two manufacturers responsible for supplying drones. We will continue to call out that desperate alliance on the international stage and hold Russia and Iran to account.

Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear programme has never been more advanced. Iran refused to seize the critical opportunity to sign the revised joint comprehensive plan of action in August last year, making demands outside the scope of the agreement. The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly highlighted Iran’s lack of co-operation with long-running investigations into undeclared material. Iran’s malign activity has made the diplomatic context even more challenging, but we remain committed to ensuring that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon and are working closely with our partners to find a diplomatic solution.

We are working relentlessly across Government and with the international community to hold Iran to account for its unacceptable behaviour, its appalling treatment of its own people, its reprehensible support for Russia’s illegal war and its escalating nuclear activities. Just like the Iranian people, we want to see a more responsible Iran—one that respects the rights and freedoms of all its citizens and does not threaten international peace and security. We urge the country’s leaders to listen to their citizens as they demand a better future.

It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. It would be remiss of me not to congratulate Sheffield Wednesday on their promotion.

Thank you, Mr Betts; that is much appreciated.

I thank the Minister for the update on what the Government are doing to address many of the concerns raised today, and I thank all Members present for their impassioned and eloquent speeches, which showed the very best of this House.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) made some excellent points, with which I agree entirely; his example of Press TV was a good one. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) and the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) made excellent points about the worrying number of executions and the treatment of women, children and the LGBT community. I am sure the Government are bearing that in mind.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) talked about British nationals and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It is very important that we understand the Iranians currently living in the UK. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) also mentioned her constituents. I thank her for those examples, which added a human touch to what we are discussing.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) discussed the treatment of protestors, which has been horrific, and the importance of internet access and a free press in addressing that. That was also touched on by the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who gave some excellent examples of the horrific treatment we have seen. I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for her remarks regarding Mr Beheshti and the brave people who speak out.

I hope the debate will encourage the Government to take further action and, ultimately, to fully proscribe the IRGC.

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

Professional Wrestling: Event Licensing and Guidance

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of professional wrestling event licensing and guidance.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts. The all-party parliamentary group on wrestling is without a doubt one of the most joyous and exciting in this institution. I am proud to be an active vice-chair, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher)—our co-chairs—and to our group secretary, Danny Stone. They have brought serious and appropriate discussion of wrestling into this place, where too often in the past it was mocked.

Among our number we have fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, All Elite Wrestling, Impact, New Japan Pro-Wrestling and, most importantly, British promotions such as the all-women show EVE, PROGRESS, Revolution Pro Wrestling, NORTH, TNT and Renaissance, as well as start-ups such as the all-new women’s promotion, Galzilla, which literally hatched from an egg on the stage at the amazing Wrestival festival in London this year. Those wrestling promotions span the country, as do wrestling schools. In my constituency of Warrington North, we have our own wrestling academy, the Warrington Wrestling Academy, and I look forward to many Warringtonians making their way to the major leagues in years to come.

Fans often remark that, in the UK, one could go to a wrestling event nearly every night of the week, if one wanted to do so, and pack out the weekends with entertainment. Shows run in schools, gyms, entertainment venues and even fields. Of course, to run events safely and to a standard, there is a licensing requirement—or at least there should be.

In April 2021, the APPG released what constitutes the first ever thorough, systemic parliamentary analysis of wrestling. One of its key themes is the categorisation of wrestling as either theatre or sport. That might appear a simple matter, but wrestling involves serious athleticism alongside dramatic performance. There are competitions, albeit predetermined ones. Both Sport England and Arts Council England have funded wrestling, but neither particularly wants the responsibility of being a home for English wrestlers or wrestling.

Our APPG took the view—a novel one, I think—that for wrestling schools, the designation should be sporting, whereas promotions should be classed as theatrical. As the report made clear, defining promotions as theatrical entertainment opens up conversations about licensing, representation, governance, and improved policies and procedures. On the matter of policies and procedures, we were pleased to work recently with Loughborough University, with support from the PlayFight wrestling school, on the first ever parliamentary conference on wrestling, and we are developing a guide to better practice, which we hope will be informed by those in the industry, to help others across the British wrestling world.

We were told during the all-party group’s inquiry that the lack of a definition, whether as sport or art, created a minefield when it came to insurance and licensing. We have concerns that for promotions, the licensing system may still be somewhat of a minefield, particularly when people are navigating different licensing schemes. We know for certain that there are issues in this wholly unregulated industry. Concerns were raised with us about poor or, in some cases, illegal practices, ranging from tax malpractice and fraud to dangerous health and safety arrangements and sexual harassment. We were repeatedly warned about a lack of adequate medical supplies and supervision. The inquiry received one submission that drew on a wider understanding of promotions in the north of England and suggested that expertise to identify and treat injuries was “only intermittently present” at shows.

I am particularly grateful to Professor Claire Warden at Loughborough for her insights. She highlighted how the approaches of local councils can differ remarkably in just a few miles, even if the language used in licensing forms is similar. In Leicester, for instance, wrestling is considered “regulated entertainment”—in itself interesting, given the wholly unregulated nature of wrestling in actuality—alongside the performance of a play, exhibition or music, or an indoor sporting event. Boxing is the only sport mentioned on the list.

In Nottingham, wrestling is licensed under the “regulated entertainment” classification, but with a caveat that, although no licence is required for Greco-Roman or freestyle, combined fighting sports are licensable as boxing or wrestling entertainment, rather than an indoor sporting event. Similarly, Derby City Council, which has a whole section on boxing, wrestling and fighting sports, seems to compare wrestling to mixed martial arts rather than theatre.

Manchester thinks about numbers, acknowledging that a licence is not required for a play, dance, film, indoor sporting event or, indeed, boxing or wrestling, defined as a

“contest, exhibition or display of Greco-Roman wrestling or freestyle wrestling between 8am and 11pm,”

where attendance is 1,000 or fewer. By including the sense that wrestling might be a “display” rather than a contest, it opens up potential for confusion about whether professional wrestling is included. Surely all Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling is a contest, as that is what actively defines them as different from professional wrestling.

There are difficulties, too, in other areas. I appreciate that this is a devolved matter, but we are told it can be difficult to run shows in Edinburgh, for example, because wrestling is classed as sport for licensing purposes, and therefore performances in theatres and other venues can apparently be very difficult.

What that means in actuality is confusion and potentially dangerous situations. There are examples of licensing schemes causing problems. In Derby, one venue had a licence for live music and sports events, but the council required a temporary licence for wrestling, which was seen as separate from sport. The council refused the licence to the venue, owing to fears about congestion—notably, not about safety or the suitability of the athletes or venue.

Another interesting story emerged in 2011, when the Royal Albert Hall, a venue famous for holding wrestling shows since the beginning of professional wrestling, faced local opposition to its request to add boxing and wrestling to the list of permitted activities. The complaints seemed entirely focused on

“problems with antisocial behaviour, public safety, noise and disturbance, and degradation of the surrounding area.”

Again, safety was not mentioned, but there was the sense, as there is so often, that wrestling appeals to people less socially acceptable to residents than, say, Proms-goers.

A similar opinion seems to be held by residents around Headingley in Leeds, despite the fact that it is a sporting venue. In that case, the council’s licensing committee unanimously refused the application, saying that the event was

“very different in nature and duration to rugby matches held regularly at the venue.”

Wrestling Resurgence, a midlands-based promoter, sent us the various procedures it puts in place when obtaining a licence from Nottingham City Council—specifically, that a medic must be present—but argued that

“some form of ‘fit and proper persons’ test should be in place for prospective promotions, similar to ownership tests in football, or that at minimum some basic standardised requirements put in place.”

The company highlighted the disparity in licensing requirements, saying:

“In Nottingham, where we run events, it is a requirement that wrestling event organisers ensure a medical professional is present at all times during a performance. This is something that is not required in Leicester.”

We certainly think that medics are a must, but, as Wresting Resurgence says,

“A national approach to licensing would be very welcomed.”

It is quite right—it would.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and I am proud that she is the vice-chair of the APPG that I proudly co-chair. On Monday, I attended a very special conference at Loughborough University with Professor Claire Warden, focusing on concussion in professional wrestling. The point about licensing was raised time and again, as was the utmost importance of having a registered professional medic available at events. That should be part of the requirements, given the nature of the sector and performances, because concussion is likely. That is why such provisions are vital. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I could not agree more. I know that British wrestling is doing a lot of work with the Rugby Football League, for example, on concussion protocols. Unfortunately, despite the pre-determined nature of what happens in a wrestling ring, injuries and accidents are common, so medics should be there to make sure that such risks can be mitigated as far as possible.

The evidence I mentioned fed into the APPG’s inquiry and our recommendation that:

“For any sized promotion, having even limited safety measures in place should be part of the key requirements for running an event, either through requirements to use council property, the TENs licence or a governing body and in the absence of the latter, we recommend that the Home Office brings forward proposals to broaden TENs licence guidance to include health and safety and other minimum standards protocols for wrestling suppliers. We recognise that the legislation is different in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but we request that both devolved administrations assess whether their current licencing rules adequately cover wrestling promotions”.

In June 2021, we wrote to the then Minister of State at the Home Office, Lord Stephen Greenhalgh, to seek his assistance with the implementation of the recommendation in the APPG’s report, which was welcomed at the Dispatch Box by the Government. We asked about the possibility of widening the temporary events notice licence guidance to include health and safety, and other minimum standards protocols, for wrestling suppliers, and sought guidance on arrangements for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The APPG followed up on the letter, but to no avail, so I am delighted that the Minister will be able to update us today on what progress there has been and what plans might be in place.

I hope the Minister can also demonstrate a degree of updated thinking. Cam Tilley, who wrestles under the moniker Kamille Hansen—and who is a former researcher in this place—pointed out to us, through the dissertation that she has just finished on related issues, that these matters have already been discussed in this House. In the 1960s, questions were posed about the prohibition of wrestling performances by women, with the reply that there was no evidence to suggest that the issue was widespread enough to merit action and that this was ultimately a matter for local authorities to decide on as part of their licensing powers. However, London County Council had already fallen into the mode of effectively banning women’s wrestling in venues that it had licensed in the previous decades.

In 2002, during a debate on what would become the Licensing Act 2003, the other place was told:

“we know that boxing and wrestling and their audiences present a significant issue with regard to public safety. As the noble Baroness said, the relationship between wrestling and its audience is particularly engaging, and its showmanship can engage the audience very directly. But, as has been known for many decades, boxing also engages passions. From time to time, boxing bouts have aroused as much vigour in the audience as in those participating in the ring—in some cases, rather more than occurs in the ring.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 December 2002; Vol. 642, c. 391.]

Wrestling and boxing are far from the same; I speak as someone who has now been to multiple wrestling shows, large and small. That is not to say that boxing is always violent or problematic, but the lumping together of boxing and wrestling for licensing purposes has certainly caused problems. Wrestling has no concussive intent—although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd said, of course concussive injuries occur—whereas the sole intent of boxing is to knock out the opponent. To conflate the two for licensing purposes makes very little sense.

We were told that some years ago that Tower Hamlets turned down wrestling events on advice from the local police, who had taken a decision based on boxing events. Similarly, we were told that in the past inter-promotional wars were waged between those wrestling companies that had clocked the importance of boxing-related restrictions on a licence and those that had not, with one company forcing another to forfeit a licensing opportunity.

The constant association of wrestling with boxing is deeply problematic. The concern is always that the local licensing process is so complex and likely to lead to rejection that wrestling shows are occurring around the country in unregulated venues or without licensing. We in the APPG would like to see some consistency in approaches to licensing, enhanced confidence for promoters so that they can hold a show, and certainty for all about how wrestling should be categorised by local authorities and what the requirements are or should be. I hope that the Minister can begin to set out that pathway to clarity for us today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) on obtaining this debate and on her very informative speech. I pay tribute to her and her colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group—I am delighted to see the co-chair, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), present. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), who are active members. One of the things that come out of the all-party group’s extremely comprehensive and informative report is those Members’ shared passion for wrestling.

British wrestling has a long heritage dating back several centuries in the UK. It goes as far back as travelling fairs and carnivals in the 19th century, where skilled wrestlers showcased their abilities. Over time, it has evolved into a distinctive style that emphasises technical prowess and a connection with the audience—the report makes that point strongly—which is one of the key elements of British wrestling. British wrestling contrasts with the American version that we all too often see on our screens, which prioritises flashy manoeuvres and larger-than-life characters.

Frequently, British wrestling takes place in small, intimate venues that allow fans to be in close proximity, creating an atmosphere in which the crowd’s reactions become an integral part of the show. I am old enough to recall watching wrestling on ITV on Saturday evenings. Kent Walton would open the proceedings with “Greetings, grapple fans” each week, and we saw characters such as Kendo Nagasaki, Jackie Pallo, and of course the larger-than-life characters of Max Crabtree, the promoter, and his brother, Shirley, who became better known as Big Daddy. Those times are long gone, but it is encouraging that British wrestling has seen a resurgence, with a high calibre of talents and promotions. We now have elite wrestlers such as Saraya Bevis, Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate representing the UK in international promotions such as WWE. That has allowed the UK’s scene to rival the larger promotions across the world. That is an important part of soft power, which is of great importance to my Department.

Wrestling is a thriving industry. There has been not only an increase in the number of shows booked, but a steady rise in audience numbers. I read the chapter in the report on the impact on the sport of covid-19; wrestling was obviously not alone, but its nature meant that it was hit particularly severely by the pandemic. Since then, great progress has been made, and British promotions such as Progress Wrestling, Revolution Pro Wrestling and Insane Championship Wrestling have dedicated followings and showcase some of the best talent.

The hon. Member for Warrington North went through a number of the recommendations of the APPG report, which covers a broad range of issues, and I will say a few words on each of them. A lot of the recommendations, including the one on safety standards and safeguarding, are to some extent in the gift of the wrestling industry itself. Of course, everyone deserves to work in a workplace that feels safe and secure, and I think we all agree that wrestling needs to put safety and wellbeing at the forefront of its priorities. However, there is no need for the industry to start with a blank sheet of paper. There is already a wealth of information from other sectors that can be used as a starting point.

The Minister refers to information from other sectors that can be used as a starting point, but conflating wrestling and boxing is part of the problem, as I highlighted in my speech. Does he not think that it is time that we had some simple, clear, basic guidance from the Home Office to local councils about how to license a safe wrestling event?

I think there are two separate points there about the health and safety guidance and the licensing. I fully acknowledge that there is a lack of clarity—shall we say?—in each of those that could be addressed.

Let me start with safeguarding, which is an important way of ensuring that the interests of children and young people are protected. The child protection in sport unit provides a framework of standards that organisations working with children and young people should meet. For the arts and entertainment sector—I recognise that part of the problem relates to the fact that wrestling sits somewhere between the two—the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has produced guidance. The Department for Education has been helpful in advising local authorities and individuals working with children in all types of professional or amateur performances, paid sport or paid modelling.

The APPG report states that sports coaches should be considered to be in a position of trust for the purposes of child sexual offences and recommends that wrestling coaches should be explicitly recognised as being in such positions of trust. Recent amendments made to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 mean that sports coaches are now recognised as being in a position of trust as regards those in their care and the criminal offences linked to that position. The 2022 Act states that sport includes

“any form of physical recreation which is also engaged in for purposes of competition or display”.

We believe that includes a range of activities such as wrestling.

On licensing requirements, I recognise, and the hon. Member for Warrington North has set out, that there is disparity across the country between the attitude taken by different authorities. There have been quite disturbing incidents such as the one in County Durham, when children were subject to what most people would regard as inappropriate content during something that was billed as a family show. I do not think that is widespread, but it must be carefully monitored.

Professional wrestling events are licensed through the entertainment licensing system, and local authorities, in carrying out their functions, must consider the licensing objectives. Those are, as the hon. Lady knows, the prevention of crime and disorder, public safety, the prevention of public nuisance and the protection of children from harm. It is for regulating authorities to look at events such as the one in County Durham and take them into account, alongside issues such as public safety, protecting children and preventing disorder. In my constituency, there was an application for a wrestling match and there was a lack of awareness of some of the requirements. We are happy to talk about the issue further with the Home Office, which has ultimate responsibility for licensing, and to draw its attention to the hon. Lady’s speech.

Having spoken to local councillors, I know that a number of wrestling events take place in Warrington. They find that lack of clarity troubling because many do not have the knowledge and understanding of the wrestling sector that the Minister does, so they are not sure what they are meant to be looking at when determining whether an event should be licensed. They need something that makes it clear to them; a tick-box exercise when making such determinations would be beneficial. Does the Minister agree?

Certainly. I agree that it would be helpful if we removed the confusion and lack of clarity. As I said, licensing is a Home Office responsibility but, if further work can be done to provide guidance or advice, I am happy to ask the Home Office to look at that. I am sure the hon. Lady, the hon. Member for Pontypridd and members of the APPG will be happy to pursue that with the Home Office, but I have absolutely taken note of what she has said.

Building on licensing, the APPG recommended that the industry adopt a set of health and safety standards. I was pleased to hear that the Health and Safety Executive met the APPG in February, and it was agreed that the best way forward will be for the industry to take the lead on the production of new guidance. The HSE has offered to provide support through reviewing relevant sections and providing advice on drafting matters relating to health and safety law, but it is the case that industry-led guidance is generally respected and well received by the industry since they have ownership of it. It can make a significant difference. I take particular note of the recommendation that it should include provision that a doctor should always be present for matches. That clearly makes sense, and I am sure that the HSE will be happy to talk about that further when drawing up the guidance to which I have referred.

Reference was made to the issue of concussion guidance. Such guidance has recently been published by my Department and the Sport and Recreation Alliance for a number of different sports, and I am aware that it is of great relevance to wrestling as well. The hon. Member for Warrington North referred to the Concussion in Wrestling: Building a Better Understanding conference that took place in Loughborough on Monday, where I am sure some of the expert evidence will have been very helpful. It is a matter of great concern.

The wider question of trying to prevent brain injuries and concussion in sport is one that we have debated in the main Chamber and here in Westminster Hall. The guidelines have been drawn up by an expert panel of domestic and international clinicians and academics in neurology and sports medicine, and they set out steps to improve the understanding and awareness of the prevention and treatment of concussion in grassroots sport. I hope that this will help the wrestling community to have a better understanding of concussion recognition, and will ultimately help to make wrestling a safer sport for those participating.

I refer to wrestling as a sport, although the APPG report made a good point by describing it as “sport-art”, because it has elements of sport and elements of entertainment and performance. That brings me to my final point, which is about the issue of categorisation. I am aware that the APPG report suggests that the training for wrestling should be considered a sport, while the performance element is entertainment. This is not something that the Government generally get involved in classifying; it is left to the five sporting bodies, and I know that the APPG is in conversation with Sport England. As has been pointed out, Sport England supports British Wrestling with funding, but professional wrestling is still regarded as entertainment. However, the report’s recommendations are certainly worth pursuing, so I encourage the APPG to talk further to Sport England. We would be happy to help facilitate that, if it would be helpful.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North on securing the debate and all her colleagues involved in the preparation of the extremely helpful and comprehensive report. We will consider the issues further. We all want to see a successful wrestling industry in this country, for the benefit of both its participants and the fans. Once again, I thank the hon. Lady for giving us the opportunity to debate the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Pupil Roll Numbers and School Closures: London

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered pupil roll numbers and school closures in London.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to lead my third Westminster Hall debate and to discuss this really important issue. I am grateful to everyone for coming. I also thank London Councils, which has supported me to raise this important issue.

This is an emotive topic. I think everybody here remembers when they went to school; those experiences really do stay with us for life. I still have memories of when I went on a visit from primary school to big school—secondary school—in my summer uniform. I thought this place was like Hogwarts, but when I walked into secondary school it felt like Hogwarts too, because it was so much bigger! Schools are places that communities are built around: places where, as children, we learn to make friends and find our passions in life; and, as parents, we watch our children learn about the world and their place in it.

As a proud Londoner who has lived in Lambeth all my life and now has the opportunity to represent my home constituency of Vauxhall, this debate is personal for me. I went to four schools in total: Durand Primary School and St Helen’s Catholic Primary School, then to Bishop Thomas Grant School and St Francis Xavier Catholic Sixth Form College, all of which were a short trip away from where we stand now. We will talk about policy over the course of the debate, but this is a human issue. We all care deeply about the communities we represent, and schools sit at the centre of them. We all want our city to thrive, with an education system that produces the next generation of Londoners—one that gives them the chances we all had. That is a shared purpose that I hope will define this debate.

The current situation facing London schools is a difficult one. There has been a sharp decline in the number of children born here. In fact, the latest data shows that between 2012 and 2021, there was a 17% decrease in London’s birth rate, which represents a reduction of over 20,000 births. We are only just beginning to see the effects, as children born across that period reach school age, but it is already clear that it will have a drastic impact on the number of pupils attending London schools. The scale varies across boroughs, but it is predicted that reception numbers will fall by an average of 7.3% by 2027—a drop of more than 7,000 pupils. And it is not just primary schools; secondary schools are seeing the same thing happen at a slightly delayed rate, with an anticipated decline of 3.5% over five years. That figure will increase further over time as children currently starting primary school reach secondary age.

The declining birth rate leaves many schools facing an uphill struggle to stay afloat. Our national education funding model works on a per pupil basis. Across the country, schools are already working hard on very tight budgets.

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Many headteachers in my constituency of Battersea have raised concerns about the viability of their schools remaining open. Obviously, the inflation challenges are having an impact on their budgets, but, more importantly, is the fall in the numbers of children coming into their schools. Form entry is reducing due to things like the pandemic, London becoming an unaffordable place to live, a lack of affordable housing, Brexit and many other factors. If schools are having to close, which has been the case in some London boroughs—thankfully not in my own constituency—they will leave a hole in our communities. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to work with our teachers and all authorities to look for solutions to ensure that we do not see schools in our communities closing, which also takes away choice from families and children?

I thank my hon. Friend for making such an important point; her constituency neighbours mine, so a number of my constituents attend schools in her constituency and vice versa. This is about parental choice. The fact is that if schools are closing in some London boroughs and the Government do not address the situation now, there could be a ripple effect. I will come to that point later.

This process happening in secondary schools. Our national education funding model works on a per pupil basis and across the country schools are struggling. In Lambeth, where my constituency is, we are sadly at the forefront of these pressures. It is predicted that we will be hit harder than any other London borough, with an anticipated drop of 15% in the number of reception pupils by 2027. Secondary school numbers are also predicted to reduce by more than 12% over the same period.

The reality is that this trend can be linked to the Government’s record. In the years before they came to power in 2010, Lambeth experienced a 19% increase in demand for reception places. As a result, schools were built, refurbished or redeveloped across the borough to account for this fast-growing population of school-age children. I feel proud that I added to their number with my son, who is six years old today, and my daughter, who is eight; they both attend Lambeth schools.

The Tory failure to manage the economy has led to the spiralling cost of living crisis and the situation is not helped by the lack of affordable housing being built. This has priced people out of their communities and caused the decline in school numbers across Lambeth. Sadly, we are witnessing the harsh impact of this situation. Two schools in Lambeth are closing because they do not have enough pupils to be financially sustainable.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She made a powerful point about the sky-high childcare and housing costs in London, which are driving people out of the capital. In Richmond upon Thames, we have not quite seen the level of reduction in pupil numbers that there is in Lambeth, but in my constituency of Twickenham we had to close down eight reception classes in the last academic year and seven reception classes this year. In a few years, that will feed into the secondary school sector, where, of course, academies can raise their pupil numbers at will and local authorities have no control over them. Does she agree that it is high time that local councils were given strategic powers to co-ordinate all school places and admissions in their area, so that every child can go to a good local school?

I agree. That is something that my party is committed to. I hope that my colleague—the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan)—will be able to outline why it is important that we have that approach.

Archbishop Tenison’s School in my constituency announced in May that it will close at the end of this academic year, and it was closely followed by St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls in Tulse Hill, which is represented by another constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), although young pupils also attend it from my constituency of Vauxhall and that of my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy). Both these secondary schools have histories dating back to the 17th century and their closures will leave a huge hole in the communities they have served.

I will say a bit more about Archbishop Tenison’s School, because its closure has directly impacted my constituents. The beautiful, grand, 1920s school building is matched by the school’s history. The school overlooks the Oval cricket ground and has proudly offered high-quality education to many generations of south Londoners who have studied there. I have had the pleasure of visiting on many occasions, and every time I have been struck by the strong sense of community. Pupils from all different backgrounds feel at home there.

The school’s closure has caused an outpouring of sadness. I was contacted by so many constituents who were shocked by the announcement, many of whom were former pupils with so many happy memories to share. The closure has caused significant practical disruption for the current students, which brings me back to the people at the centre of what we are discussing: the children and the school staff who have to bear the brunt of what is happening.

Mr Hollobone, I want us all to imagine what this would feel like: imagine what it would be like to be in the middle of your school journey, in a place you know like the back of your hand, having navigated the corridors where you have made friends you have seen every day for years; you feel at home. Then, one morning—out of the blue—you come to school to hear that your school is closing. You are probably preparing for exams and coping with the stress of being a teenager, but at the same time have to start at a completely new school, maybe in a new area, with new teachers, new classmates and new buildings. The uncertainty of the situation is having an impact on our young people mentally, and this will happen to many children in the years ahead if we do not act now.

Fortunately, neighbouring schools have rallied round to help minimise the impact for students from Archbishop Tenison’s. I am particularly grateful to St Gabriel’s College, which has agreed to take on a majority of the students in exam years, as well as a majority of the teaching staff. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of visiting St Gabriel’s with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South, and we saw preparations for the new students. Many areas would not be lucky enough to have such a sustainable alternative nearby, but even where a new school is found, the process will be disruptive for all involved.

My central point is a simple one: without action to address falling pupil numbers, Archbishop Tenison’s and St Martin-in-the-Fields will be joined by other good schools across London being forced to shut their doors. Data from London Councils shows that there are 14 parliamentary constituencies in London where at least one school has already closed or is consulting on closure—that is just in the last two years—but it does not have to be inevitable.

The Government have to act to address the core issues driving young families out of the capital and causing the birth rate to fall. There are a number of factors behind this behaviour. During the pandemic, we saw many families move away from London to be closer to relatives during the lockdown. Some have chosen to resettle where they are, because moving back to London is, frankly, too expensive. The picture has not been helped by the loss of many young European families who were living here in recent years. The uncertainty of the Government’s post-Brexit immigration policy has meant that we have lost the stability we had in previous years, and this has caused many to move away from the UK, leaving a hole in London’s workforce and meaning fewer people are settling here. Those factors have played a part in putting schools under pressure in recent years.

The single most important reason for the fall in the number of children growing up in London is the affordability crisis. It is an issue frequently discussed in the context of the cost of living. Sky-high inflation has pushed up the cost of everything from food to energy bills and household goods; we have all spoken about the issues and the pressing need for the Government to do so much more, but London’s affordability problem has long-term roots, starting with the extortionate cost of housing. The impossibility of finding an affordable place to buy as a young adult is a problem across the country, but it is particularly significant in London.

The average property sale price in London is now over half a million pounds. That is wildly out of reach for so many young couples wanting to start a family, and the private rental market is not a suitable alternative. Private rents have soared in recent years, driven by rising demand and falling supply. I have heard from so many of my Vauxhall constituents who face the choice between paying nearly double the rent to renew their tenancy or having to battle—in some cases, with up to 60 people—just to view a rental property. For a young family with children, that is no option.

Despite the best efforts of our councils to cope with the rapid rise in demand, social housing waiting lists are at an all-time high. Taken together, that means that young couples on lower and middle incomes simply have no choice but to leave London and look for cheaper housing elsewhere. Fewer children are being born here because of that, which fuels the drop in demand for school places. The housing crisis runs through so many issues we face, but if we are serious about protecting the future of our fantastic schools, Ministers must ensure that London remains a place where people of all backgrounds can afford to live.

Without more young families staying in London, we may sadly lose more schools. I have already spoken about the impact of school closures, but the loss of a school is also a wider risk to national education standards. As schools close and pupils are relocated, existing schools become larger. Over time, that creates a culture of survival of the biggest, where smaller schools are consumed by those with more capacity. We have already seen that locally with larger academies seeking to expand at the expense of neighbouring schools. That trend threatens the mix of small and big schools that defines London’s school ecosystem, reduces parental choice, and leaves smaller schools unable to compete, even if they are performing well.

For most pupils, what does that mean? It means longer commutes, and bigger class sizes, which puts pressure on our teachers, who are so stretched that some are at breaking point. Some are leaving the profession they love and care about, while the others are left with less time to spend with our children. Also, resources for specialist teaching are squeezed, and those with special educational needs are adversely impacted. Collectively, all those factors damage school standards.

The reality is that where education declines, the life chances of future generations suffer. That is what is at stake when schools close. The importance of that has been reflected in recent media coverage. Last month, the BBC reported that London is becoming “a city without children”. That should worry us all. London is a vibrant, diverse and young city, built on young people. If there are less of them living here, our economic strength to compete in a global world will be harmed. The UK economy will be hit hard by our capital city falling behind.

But what do we have? So far, Ministers have been silent, acting as if this is not happening on their watch. There are spatial impacts: if people are priced out of their home communities, gentrification will accelerate. I am proud to be a working-class girl from Brixton, and I still live there today. I know how important lifelong Londoners are to this city. I am proud to meet so many of them on my walkabouts across my constituency. They are the lifeblood of London, which would be so much poorer without them.

I have five simple asks of the Minister to help. First, further school closures can be avoided if the Department for Education recognises the pressure in the system. Will the Government please work with school leaders and local authorities to identify schools at risk of closure and to work out a plan?

Secondly, London’s birth rate means that pupil roll numbers will fall over the next few years. We have to plan ahead. Will the Minister address the inequalities in school funding? Will he work with the sector to develop a collaborative approach to the challenges ahead, so that we do not see disruption to education standards?

Thirdly, affordable housing shortages are driving young families out of London. The Mayor of London and many of our councils do all they can to increase the supply of affordable housing, but the reality is that the national planning framework, which the Government control, is stacked in favour of developers building high-end housing that no one can afford. Will the Government bring forward their long-awaited planning reform? Will they put power back in the hands of local communities, so that those communities can have development that meets the needs of the local population?

Fourthly, the local housing allowance is a lifeline for many low and middle-income families in the private rented sector, but the Government have frozen its rate since April 2020. Rents have gone through the roof since then. Will the Minister please ask the Chancellor to reverse that real-terms cut to housing support and give hope to the millions of people who have been forced out of their homes?

Finally, will the Minister meet me and other interested MPs to discuss the issue in more detail? Will he work with us to find a solution?

I will end by taking us back to the heart of the issue: the children who have their life chances impacted by what has happened to our schools in recent years. The Government may want to look away and pretend that this is nothing to do with them—that it is the fault of, and down to, the multi-academy trusts or MATs, the education authorities and the schools—but the reality is that Ministers are the ones with the power to do something. I urge them to act now.

The debate can last until 4 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Opposition spokesman no later than 3.37 pm and the Minister at 3.47 pm. The guideline limits are 10 minutes each for the Opposition spokesman and for the Minister. The mover of the motion will have three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. Until 3.37 pm, we are in Back-Bench time.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for letting me follow my dear friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), and for accepting my apology for having to go to another meeting, although I will come back.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. We know that some mainstream primary schools are not as inclusive as they could be in admitting children with special educational needs and disabilities. I have been approached by many parents in my constituency who would like their children with special needs to go to a mainstream school. The surplus of places in many primary schools across London gives us an opportunity to identify ways of making them more inclusive to children with special educational needs and disabilities. We need to ensure that schools are appropriately funded to meet the needs of children with SEND. However, some children with SEND need provision that is best delivered by a special school. Given the shortage of local special schools in London, I hope the Minister will commit to support and fund local authorities so that they can expand local specialist provision where there is a clear need.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone. I too congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing the debate. We have a shared history as councillors in London and as parents of young children, so this issue is close to our hearts. I will touch on the recent history of school place provision in London, outline some of the emerging challenges that I hear about in my constituency—especially, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) mentioned, the emerging challenge in respect of SEND places—and briefly make some suggestions that the Department may find helpful in resolving those challenges.

When I was first elected as a councillor in Hillingdon just over two decades ago, the council was seeking to open a new school, which is thriving today as Ruislip High School. It was built on green-belt land, and local residents were concerned because they recalled that, just a decade or so earlier, the council had closed Southbourne Secondary School in south Ruislip, not far from the new school, because at that time there was a massive over-supply of school places.

There has been a long history in the capital of variations in the number of children, which goes through cycles. When my local authority engaged with the Building Schools for the Future programme, under my leadership as cabinet member for education, it was a condition of Hillingdon’s entry that at least one secondary school per constituency be closed to reduce excess capacity. By the time we were a year or so into that programme, we looked at it again with a view to increasing places significantly, because the live birth data supplied by the NHS demonstrated that the demand for places, although relatively low in the immediate future, would rise rapidly.

The need to plan strategically has been a current issue in all our constituencies for a good long time. The number of pupils grew swiftly following the late 2000s financial crash, hit a peak following a massive expansion in school capacity across the capital, and has begun to tail off in recent years. That initial expansion of school capacity across the capital was primarily led in its early years by local authorities, which fulfilled their statutory duty to ensure that every child who wants and needs a school place can be offered one in their local area.

As time has moved on, we have seen increasing reliance on central control from the Department for Education, as additional capital funding has been moved from local authorities and expansion funds have instead been primarily routed through the free schools programme. A welcome feature of that programme is the significant increase in the number of children attending schools that are good or outstanding, which we often hear Ministers talk about. The fact that the funding was restricted over that time to schools that were already good or outstanding has been positive, as it ensured that in-demand schools could expand, but the reduction in the number of places creates a challenge because the geographical concentration of the surplus places is different from where demand is.

With some of the schools that have been expanded—in and around my constituency and serving some of my constituents I know of schools such as John Locke Academy, Lake Farm Park Academy and St Martin’s—the local authority built the school, ran a bidding process to find a free school provider to deliver the education in it, and ensured that the additional places, when they were required, were delivered on time and on budget in the locations where there was a great deal of demand. Those schools continue to thrive to this day.

When it comes to the emerging challenges, London Councils has done some excellent work to highlight not just the impact that we all hear about as constituency Members of Parliament but what they mean across the capital. Over the same period of time as pupil numbers have been dropping, we have seen a number of changes to the schools funding formula, which has tightened so that there is comparatively much less scope today for a local authority and the schools forum of local schools that work together to support schools with declining numbers—unless there is clear evidence that the surplus places will be used again within the next three years.

Local authorities that use birth data and child-registration data from the local NHS tend to have extremely good visibility of what the numbers are, but by its very nature that data is limited to the point at which the child is born at a local hospital or registered with a local GP as a new mover into the area. Broadly speaking, therefore, we are talking about a five-year time horizon for when we can be accurate about that.

As the hon. Member for Vauxhall alluded to, there has been much debate about why the child population of the capital has been reducing. The data from the Office for National Statistics clearly shows that there is a reducing birth rate, which is having an impact. Anecdotally, schools have told me that increased family mobility as people seek bigger homes outside the capital at affordable prices, and Brexit in locations with a high level of rental accommodation that was regularly occupied by families from the European Union who are no longer coming here, have had an impact on the numbers of children coming through their doors. But the challenges are manifesting not just in inner London: those of us in the suburbs are seeing a significant impact. For example, according to London Councils figures, in the London Borough of Hillingdon we are seeing a decline of around 15% in overall numbers—one of the highest rates in outer London.

Why does this matter? Why does this situation create such a challenge, given that these things are part of the normal warp and weft of population change? Looking at the figures, it is fairly clear that the funding formula, whereby almost all the money a school receives comes based on pupil numbers on a per capita basis, means that a class needs to be full or nearly full to break even.

Let us take the example of two schools in my constituency: Cannon Lane Primary School in Harrow, and Bishop Winnington-Ingram Church of England Primary School in Hillingdon. According to Department for Education figures, Cannon Lane receives £4,249 per annum per child and Bishop Winnington-Ingram receives £4,816. It costs around £60,000 with on-costs to put a teacher in the classroom, and two teaching assistants on top of that are a further £60,000 with on-costs. A share of the school’s overheads will pretty quickly get us to £150,000 to £180,000, meaning we can quickly understand that if a school does not have a nearly-full class, the amount of money coming in per child will not add up to enough to break even for the school’s budget.

Schools that face significant demand for places, but where that demand is less than is needed to fill a class, are going through a process of reducing their planned admission number or PAN—the stated capacity of the school.

The hon. Gentleman is making a well-informed speech. On that point about pupil admission numbers, it is my understanding—I am happy to be corrected—that if a school has a published plan of 60 and 45 parents put down that school as a first choice, those 45 places have to be granted and therefore the school has to open two classes, even though it is only one-and-a-half classes full. As a result, the school ends up with the shortfall in cash that the hon. Gentleman has outlined.

Does the hon. Gentleman think that, as well as some of the strategic planning powers I talked about for local authorities, there needs to be an interim measure whereby the Department for Education provides some sort of additional funding or grant for those classes that are not full? Schools in my constituency are asking parents for money for glue sticks and to be in sports teams, and are cutting teaching assistants because they are struggling so much financially.

The hon. Member makes a good point. We also see the converse of the situation in which a school has fewer applications than it has places, and this creates additional pressure on places: rather than maintaining a PAN of 60 with 45 applications, a school makes a decision to reduce its PAN to 30, which means that 15 children who want to be in that school but do not have a place are put somewhere else in the system. I will discuss later a way in which we might be able to address that.

Within the context of reducing pupil numbers, we are consequently seeing significant localised pressure on school places where local authorities are still having to look to expand schools to meet demand. There has always been a need for some spare capacity—5% was the traditional rule of thumb to allow for normal fluctuations —but because we have seen the loss of many of the strategic levers that local authorities could use for planning that, we now see a hotch-potch of situations in which some schools remain under acute pressure to find capacity for more children while others relatively close by struggle for numbers and reduce their planned admissions number.

From a parent’s perspective, everything seems absolutely fine if their child is the one that gets into their school of choice. If that school has reduced its planned admissions number from 90 to 60, but their child is one of those 60, that is fantastic. But if someone’s child is one of the 20 that cannot get in, they are displaced to a school that is not of their choice. That situation creates unhappy children and a financial challenge for the system, which tries to find another place for the children to go.

None of this is helped by the fact that although councils have no control over the dedicated schools grant—the ringfenced budget that funds schools—it is still legally part of councils’ budgets, so a duty is imposed on them to ensure that over a period of time the dedicated schools grant breaks even. I know Ministers have been working on that with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which has overall responsibility.

We see the converse of this challenge in respect of SEND places. The Timpson reforms represented an enormous transformational change in the approach to SEND education across the whole country. The downside is that the huge expectations that were raised by the reforms—particularly the extension to the mid-20s of the age entitlement for young people to access education and training—did not come with sufficient funding to ensure that they were delivered in reality. That is one reason why we see such enormous pressure on SEND in the capital.

Audit data from the London boroughs on the children who are given education, health and care plans and those who have some form of diagnosis demonstrates that the decisions are entirely the right ones. The children are meeting the relevant tests and criteria for the NHS, educational psychologists and so on, so the levels of need are undoubtedly being correctly assessed. We can see councils across the capital—I certainly include in this Hillingdon and Harrow, which serve my constituents—that are enormously challenged by rising demand against a backdrop of the reforms not being funded in line with the expectations that families now reasonably have.

There are many small, specialist SEND providers in the capital—for example, Sunshine House in my constituency—that are very popular with parents. They can offer a very high-quality service, but they are also often extraordinarily expensive, with a single place funded by a local authority not infrequently costing in excess of £1 million a year per child.

The delivery of the additional capacity that we require has been quite slow in the centralised programmes compared with the council-led ones. In my constituency we have seen additional SEND place capacity created through the local authority, such as the Eden Academy and specialist resource provision at other schools, all delivered on time and on budget. But some of the larger free school programmes, which are to deliver the bulk of the additional places we need, are many years behind where they need to be. Although there might be good reasons for the delays—we all understand the period of covid—the reality is that they impose massive cost pressures on our DSG high-needs blocks.

Although safety-valve agreements are being reached at individual local authority level, we need to recognise that the failure of programmes to deliver places on time, even if they eventually arrive, is the main reason why we see such a high level of pressure on the DSG across London for SEND. We know that the in-borough SEND—the state school places—is significantly cheaper than the private sector provision, but the awaited reform of SEND financing cannot come soon enough to make sure that the cost pressures are eased and that parents and children’s expectations can be met.

Let me conclude with some ways forward. I know there has been some consultation on this matter, but my first ask of the Minister is that we look at the enhancement of local authority flexibility to allocate budgets much more strategically in order to ease the way forward, especially when schools go through a transition period of downsizing. Rather than a sudden step from 90 children down to 60, which has a huge impact on the ability of parents to get their kids into a school, as well as a major financial impact on the institution itself, we should smooth that process out and recognise the fluctuations in rising and falling demand.

My second ask is for greater powers for local authorities to strategically plan, recognising that in the context of falling rolls there are areas of growing demand, not just for SEND but mainstream as well. There is an urgent need to be able to direct the overall school-planned admissions number to ensure that the provision matches the demand in a local area.

My third ask is that we do not forget that London is likely to see its population increase again at some point in future. We know that our capital’s population is smaller at the moment than some of its past peaks, that the density of the population has been reducing and that the crowding has been dropping for decades, but it will almost certainly begin to rise again in due course. To facilitate that, multi-academy trusts should be prohibited from selling or disposing of any land or closing sites without the agreement of the local authority that has the legal duty for school places in the area.

I finish by thanking London Councils, and in particular the leader of one of my local authorities, Councillor Ian Edwards, who is the lead member for children’s services at London Councils, along with the officer team that have been supporting him. I place on the record my thanks to the leaders and members in Harrow and Hillingdon, particularly Councillors Hitesh Karia and Susan O’Brien, for their work. I also thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall again for securing the debate on this important issue.

On a positive note, this is an opportunity for us to thank the teachers and councils of London for the work they have done to ensure that this remains, to this day, one of the best cities in the world in which to get an education.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing this debate and on her thought-provoking opening speech. Her personal reflections remind us all that children are at the heart of this. They only get one go at a primary and secondary education. It is up to us and the Government to ensure that their experience at school is as positive as it possibly can be. It is so important that we discuss this particular issue: it has already been said that it is very much an issue in Lambeth, and I see the particular pressure there, but we are also experiencing it in the outer boroughs of Richmond and Kingston.

I am pleased to be able to put forward my concerns and those of my constituents regarding the financial sustainability of schools across London in the light of falling pupil numbers. As has been said, schools throughout the capital have seen a significant decrease in enrolment in recent years due to the 17% decrease in the birth rate in London over the past decade, as well as shifts in local child populations following Brexit and the pandemic and their impacts on our local demographics.

For my constituents in Richmond Park, the resulting higher proportion of unfilled school places has resulted in a really worrying decrease in school budgets, which are determined on the basis of headcount rather than assessment of need; I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) for his very detailed speech setting out how these decisions are made and the impacts that they have. The Government must ensure that the quality of education and the wellbeing of our children do not decline along with the headcount. I am already hearing from primary and secondary school headteachers across my constituency that funding pressures are resulting in impossible decisions over which cuts to make.

One impact that I am seeing in the Richmond part of my constituency, which goes across the Richmond and Kingston boroughs, is that many of our primary schools are single form entry and have been for many years. When there are falling roll numbers in a single form entry school, it has a massively disproportionate impact on the budget, because, as the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner said, so much of it is allocated on a per-head basis. All the fixed costs do not decrease with the number of children on roll, so when schools are funded on a per-head basis, the impact on single form entry schools, of which I have a number in my constituency, is disproportionate. I would like the Minister to address that.

This debate is clearly about London, but I always come along to support Members, and I want to support the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) today. I apologise that I was not here at the beginning of the debate; I wanted to be, but I was speaking at another event and could not be here quicker.

The focus for me back home in my constituency is children with special needs. I have never in all my life seen as many children with special needs. I do not know whether that is because there is more recognition of those needs now, but money needs to be set aside for them. The reason I say that is quite simple: schools pave the way for instilling the qualities and skills that children require to better themselves for potential apprenticeships, further study and employment. Children are a treasure. We have a responsibility, and the Minister and Government have a responsibility, to make sure we do better for children and prepare them for the future. Does the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) agree?

It is always a privilege to take an intervention from the hon. Member. I do agree, particularly with his point about special educational needs.

Some headteachers in my constituency are having to make extremely difficult choices about how to allocate their reduced budgets, which are being cut because of falling rolls. Some are being forced to cut back on the number of teaching and support staff they employ, which has an additional impact on those with special educational needs or on the variety of subjects and extracurricular activities they offer. Others are not able to purchase essential classroom supplies or to fund pay rises for their hard-working teachers. Some cannot afford the necessary resources to support not only students with special educational needs, but the growing number of students who are coming to school with mental health and emotional challenges, which is an emerging cause for concern. A decline in pupil roll numbers that directly feeds a decline in school funding is only exacerbating those impacts.

Many parents and teachers in my constituency have written to me about the effects of the tightening school budgets. One primary school headteacher reached out to inform me of the difficulties of caring for children with special educational needs when they have limited funds. He said:

“Each school incurs a significant cost when enrolling a child with special educational needs, and while my own commitment to inclusive education for all will never be dampened, I am aware of school leaders who have been put in the impossible position of not being able to afford to support these children.”

One concerned parent wrote to me about a request from their children’s school for financial donations, just so that the school could

“maintain the basic services they provide.”

I have also received letters from children, with one schoolgirl writing to say:

“An example of schools needing more money was when my French teacher couldn’t provide any of the necessary worksheets because she had run out of money to use the school printer.”

I welcome the recent relaxation of the rules relating to which schools experiencing a decline in pupil numbers can benefit from a falling rolls fund, but, crucially, this does not make carving out the money for a fund any more affordable. I have spoken to councillors in my constituency, who tell me that having a falling rolls fund would only increase the financial pressure on all schools, including those without falling rolls, because it effectively moves money from schools with full rolls to those without. In the overall picture of the increasing and critical pressure on school funds, there is simply no spare funding for schools to help other schools in their area, however much they would like to and however committed they are to working together, which is a real feature of Richmond’s schools.

I want to touch quickly on the topic of empty classrooms, which we are seeing. The hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner and my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) mentioned the decrease in the published admission number. The Government should give some thought to the potential upside of the situation and to what we might use some of those empty classrooms for. We could utilise them for community benefits, particularly wraparound childcare; the Minister will know from countless previous debates what a massive issue that is for families across the country, and particularly in London.

We could also use those empty classrooms for youth work, for which there is a growing demand from young people from all sorts of backgrounds, and for careers advice, which is a particular passion of mine. We should be introducing young people to the full range of opportunities that await them when they leave school. I hear from countless business groups that young people do not know enough about their industry. The Government should think seriously about using some of the classrooms that are becoming available for some of those opportunities.

Reduced enrolment numbers are also putting private childcare providers across London at risk of closure. The issue is compounded by other factors such as increased energy, food and staffing costs, as well as recruitment issues. In my constituency of Richmond Park, I was concerned to hear last month about the closure of Maria Grey Nursery School, a popular nursery in central Richmond. Many parents have expressed to me how deeply saddened they are to be losing this treasured institution, which has been a part of Richmond for several decades. Again, that is because of the lack of demand from local families.

We are seeing record falls in the number of childcare providers, with thousands of providers exiting the market each year. That adds to the pressure on London families, who—never mind the fact that childcare is increasingly unaffordable—find securing a place with a childcare provider increasingly difficult. Again, that is linked to the issue of lack of demand. It is essential to shore up—

It is a pleasure to take part in a debate under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) not just on securing this debate, but on her outstanding opening speech.

I will start with some local pleading. The Minister may be aware of the Avery Hill site, the former university campus in my constituency that was purchased to build the new Harris Academy school. The Minister’s officials do not need to rush; I am not expecting answers today. [Interruption.] Oh, they came prepared—well done! The Minister will recall—I may have written to him in the past—that my concern is about the provision of places, but the Government decided to go ahead with the scheme. It is now on hold, because we lost the contractor for whatever reason—we need not go into that today. I understand that the Department is reviewing schemes such as the Harris Academy. School rolls suggest that we have surplus places for the foreseeable future in Greenwich. My council reports a 10% surplus in year 7 places, and London Councils predicts that between now and 2027, demand for those places will go down by another 2.5%. If the Government are minded not to go ahead with that scheme, may I please have a discussion with the Minister about the future of the site? It is a very important one for my constituency.

On the issue of school rolls generally, I make the same points as everybody else. Because we fund schools by headcount, the impact of falling school rolls can be considerable; as hon. Members have said, it still costs the same to run the school. As one of my headteachers, who does not have a falling roll but has financial difficulties over the next three years, wrote to me:

“This is mainly due to increased salary and pension contributions of all staff, a significant increase in the number of pupils with complex needs who require additional adult support. We have over 20 children out of 400 who have Education Health Care Plans”.

That number is increasing and the needs of those children are becoming more acute. Schools are therefore facing financial difficulties because of factors other than falling rolls.

When a school roll falls, it is not necessarily the case that the costs for the school fall, and we need to have some flexibility around that. I will not elaborate on that, because many people have made excellent points on the issue; what I want to mention is that a big proportion of schools’ costs is staffing costs, which makes it difficult to be flexible when school rolls fall. The Government should not ignore that.

The other, wider issue for us in London is the cost of housing. Affordable housing that families can live in is being hollowed out in central London. That is an issue not just for school rolls, but for the economy. There are people being priced out of London who are essential for certain types of job. We have to address the issue of creating truly affordable rented social housing back where it used to exist, in places such as Southwark where I used to live. I used to play football with friends who went to Archbishop Tenison’s, because Lambeth is not far from Walworth. I remember those schools well, but the places we used to live in no longer exist.

That is the problem that we are facing in central London. We have privatised the provision of social housing. We have relied on private developers to deliver on social housing through planning gain. When we stopped local authorities building houses, we slowed the provision of social houses. Against the loss of those houses being sold, we have hollowed out large parts of London, which has very high land values for social housing. It is a problem not just for schools but for our economy, and it is something that we must address.

The Mayor is doing everything he can. Local authorities are trying to do as much as they can with the resources they have, but this requires a Government willing to step in and make the serious change we need if we are to address population decline in central London. The birth rate is down in London, but it is not down in the rest of the country; I urge the Government to look at the reasons behind that.

I will finish by urging the Government to consider the facts that everyone has set out in this excellent debate. I also ask the Minister to contact me about the Avery Hill site, if he is not going to go ahead with the school.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing this debate and on her excellent opening speech.

What we are seeing unfolding right across London is a vicious cycle of soaring living costs and, as a consequence, falling budgets for local authorities and schools. My hon. Friend pointed to London’s 17% decline in the birth rate, which accounts for 23,000 fewer babies in our capital. That crisis is most acutely felt in inner city boroughs such as ours, Lambeth. Yes, it is true that lifestyles are changing and some people are choosing to have fewer kids, but those who want more cannot afford to have them. Even if they could afford them, they cannot afford the size of house to put the kids in.

Since 2001, our borough has seen a 10% drop in households with at least one school-age child. I am sure other Members visit their schools, as I do. I really enjoy speaking to the wonderful children in my constituency; they always have the best questions. As other Members were speaking, I was thinking that if schools continue to close, I will have to spend a lot more time with all of them instead of with the wonderful children in my constituency. That is really sad, because they really are the best of us, and they show us why we continue to do the work we do here.

Since schools mainly receive cash per pupil, empty desks mean debts. Debts leave schools and local authorities with little choice in practice, given wider budget constraints. Teachers and staff end up losing their jobs; their families are then affected in a vicious cycle. After a decade of austerity, there is nothing left to cut. That is why we face the closure of two of our 19 state-funded schools in Lambeth: St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls in Dulwich and West Norwood, and Archbishop Tenison’s in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Vauxhall.

This is personal for me, as it is for my hon. Friend, because it is happening in Lambeth, but also because my brother went to Archbishop Tenison’s and my sister went to St Martin-in-the-Fields. I spent a lot of time there because my mum was always insistent that we went to each other’s school events—as the youngest, I certainly enjoyed visiting theirs more than they enjoyed coming to mine, but we spent a lot of time in those schools. Being older than me, they were lucky to get a place in Lambeth at the time, because we had a serious shortage of secondary school places. A lot of the kids in our borough had to go to school out of borough.

When academies came in, although there was a lot of scepticism, people were happy that we were getting more schools in our constituency. We did not think it would create a situation in which some academy chains seemed to be given licence to build—we do not understand why—and allowed to increase their numbers. We did not think that that would affect schools that have been in our area for such a long time. Usually, when we hear about schools closing in Lambeth, it is because they are bad schools. These two schools are not bad. They have been the finest in our area for a very long time.

At the root of the issue is the problem of soaring housing costs, but the Government refuse to give us in London the powers we need to tackle them. We often hear Government Members talking about the “metropolitan liberal elite” and making off-coloured gibes about north London Labour MPs, but inner-city London boroughs continue to experience some of the highest levels of child poverty anywhere in the UK. The latest data from End Child Poverty shows that 29.9% of children living in my constituency of Streatham were growing up in poverty last year—that is 7,465 children. The data also shows that 35.5% of children in Lambeth, the borough my constituency is in, were growing up in poverty last year—that is 21,812 children. This is in one of the richest cities in the entire world. It does not exactly scream “metropolitan liberal elite”.

Housing costs are arguably the largest driving factor behind all of this. They are people’s biggest expense. At the heart of the debate is the question of who our city is for: is it a place for families to make their home, or is it a playground for the rich? I will point to a few solutions, focusing particularly on housing.

We need to enhance renters’ rights. Average monthly rents in London have risen above £2,500 for the first time. The Government should be using the Renters (Reform) Bill to close the eviction loopholes and give the Mayor of London power to control private rents. We need a higher proportion of genuinely affordable housing for new build developments, not this dodgy definition of 80% of the market rate, which is not affordable for people in my constituency or for most people across London. We need to get empty homes into circulation, as well as a mass council house building programme. I am glad that the next Labour Government have committed to 100,000 social homes, considering the Conservatives clearly had no plans to build homes, let alone affordable ones.

I heard about a time, way back when, when public sector workers used to get favourable rates on mortgages or even get accommodation to help them. When I think of all the public sector workers who are being priced out with their families, that is something that we should look towards. They should absolutely be paid more and, given what they are doing, we need to keep them in London, but they are all being pushed right out. We need school funding levels to increase and to keep pace with inflation. We need to give local authorities responsibility for in-year admissions, as has been set out in the schools White Paper, and the power to direct all schools to accept local children. They should be given the power to manage academies’ reduction of PAN or closure. That is really important.

Loads of people point to how growing up in the country was lovely. I am sure it was—they have a lot of hay fever and such—but I loved my childhood growing up on Brixton Hill in London. Being able to live in this fantastic city as a child made me who I am, and I am really sad that if we do not fix some of these policies, children will not have the wonderful experiences that I had.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Hollobone, and to follow such excellent speeches, particularly from my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney). I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for bringing us this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), who I worked with during my relatively short career as lead member for education; he has had a long and distinguished career, both in Hillingdon and at the Local Government Association, and his expertise has really added to the debate. I also thank London Councils and Hounslow’s school organisation and access to education department for their briefings.

This is an incredibly important issue for schools, especially as they have faced so many challenges both pre and post covid. Having recently met a group of secondary school headteachers in Hounslow, I know only too well the issues they face. The top issues that they brought to me were school staff leaving in record numbers, the difficulty of recruiting new staff, especially maths teachers, and the difficulty of retaining experienced staff to go up the management ladder in education. They also addressed the lack of specialist support for children with SEND and the huge funding black hole. Those issues, especially the funding challenges, are the direct impact of 13 years of Conservative rule. Just recently, the chair of a board of governors and a large number of parents from just one primary school wrote to me about the impact of funding cuts on them. They make a difficult job even harder for our schools and their staff.

On school closures and pupil numbers, Hounslow borough is seeing a decrease of over 5% in year 7s, and a 10% decline in reception recruitment is expected over the next three years. There has been a particularly strong decline in primary places. Hounslow is having to cut the size of many local schools. It is taking out 25 classes and 850 places over the last, current and next school year.

Before I cover the impact that those issues will have, it is worth considering what is causing the decline. As others have said, the main cause is the housing crisis across London. More and more families are having to move out of London. I was recently contacted by an NHS worker who was unable to find someone from whom she could rent a home locally. She has two young children. She learned that the landlords of the few flats she could afford were not prepared to rent to a family with young children; that is just one example of a London-wide crisis. Working people with young children who can just about get on the housing ladder can do so only outside London, so if they can move out of London, they do. Not only schools but the NHS and businesses have told me that they are struggling to find staff who can afford to live in our city. It is in that context that we are seeing such a decline in school places, and in the number of children on school rolls, across London.

This debate is as much about the housing crisis as it is about schools, but there is another issue raised with me by heads and others: their concern for the increased number of children—we do not know how many—who may still be in London but are not registered in any schools. While many of them may well be being home-educated quite well by their parents, there could be many others who are not. The Government and local authorities have no way of knowing who or where those children are, or how many of them there are. I would like to know what plans the Government have to address that concern.

I will move on to the impact that this contraction in numbers has on our schools. It makes it harder for local authorities to plan school places, particularly as voluntary-aided academies and free schools sit outside the schools organisation system. I look forward to hearing how the Government aim to address that anomaly. As others have said so eloquently, the uncertainty around school numbers puts schools under even greater financial pressure, over and above what they face anyway.

I will also raise another challenge faced by schools in Hounslow and across London, which is the sheer number of in-year applications. That started especially with the generosity with which local families opened up their homes to families fleeing Ukraine, but in our case, the numbers are also affected by Home Office decisions to stand up local hotels as accommodation for asylum seekers; I think we had 11 such hotels in Hounslow at the last count. Then there is the other challenge—the other side of the coin: when those hotels are stood down and emptied by the Home Office, usually with a week or two’s notice, those children disappear from our area.

Hounslow received 4,500 in-year school applications last year. It is incredibly difficult for schools to plan when those applications have to be managed under the published admission number system and census system. We are talking about children from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Syria, and asylum seekers from all over the world. Many of those children have additional needs. While schools are providing support, it comes at a cost that they are not compensated for. Not only is there the lack of English language skills—schools need to get those children up to speed quickly on their spoken, written and listened-to English—but there is need for SEND support. Many of the children are suffering from trauma. Sometimes students—even secondary students—arrive in school mid-year, mid-school career, having never been in formal education. My second question is: will the Minister address the in-year challenge for all local authority officers, and the fact that non-maintained schools are outside the systems? I hope that the Government are listening, and will support schools, students and parents in addressing those challenges.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing this important debate, and thank her for inviting me to a brilliant school in her constituency earlier this week to see at first hand the impact of falling pupil numbers, and the knock-on impacts on other schools and the community at large. As Members have outlined, those impacts are not to be ignored. Schools with long, rich histories are closing. School leaders and staff have to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing whether their job will exist come September. Parents and children have to cope with the uncertainty of their school potentially shutting.

We have had a range of helpful and insightful speeches and interventions today. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall spoke with passion and expertise about issues faced by not only her constituents but schools across London. She rightly spoke about the impact on parents’ choice, the need for schools to co-operate and work in partnership with other schools and the local authority, the impact of people being priced out of London, and why finding solutions to those challenges is vital for children and their life chances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) made insightful comments about the challenges faced by schools in his constituency, especially around SEND places. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) made similar points, which were hugely helpful. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) made helpful points about the need for truly affordable social homes in London, and the poverty that many communities in the capital face. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) spoke powerfully about the implications of falling rolls on the workforce, and on recruitment and retention; I thank her for her contribution.

As has been highlighted, falling pupil numbers and school closures affect not just London. They are impacting different parts of the country at an increasing rate. Recent analysis by The Guardian showed that more than 90 English primary schools are to close or are at risk of closure because they are more than two-thirds empty. A quarter of those at-risk schools are in rural villages, and one in six is in a more isolated part of the country. As Members have said, the problem is most pronounced in urban centres; nearly half of at-risk schools are in cities and towns.

While school closures are threatened across the country, it is in London that the problem is most urgent. The total number of primary school pupils in London schools has dropped by over 23,000 since before the pandemic. There are many reasons for that. First, the falling birth rate, in part caused by the rising cost of housing and the cost of bringing up children, is a major factor. Also, some families have left London in recent years, particularly following the pandemic. Research suggests that a further 2.5% of primary school pupils left for private or home education last year. Many attribute that to the growing number of children struggling with their mental health or not getting the support that they deserve. The same could be said for the increasing number of children with SEND whose parents have taken them out of the school system all together.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall said, most school funding is per pupil, so when numbers start to fall, a school’s overall funding falls. The Government rightly changed the rules recently so that all schools are eligible for funding to help manage declining pupil numbers. Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton said:

“Some small primary schools are barely financially sustainable as it is and any loss in pupil numbers is virtually impossible to absorb.”

Having spoken to school leaders, I know that the Government’s approach to school admissions is clearly a major factor. Instead of operating a logical system for school place planning, the Government have opted for a wild west approach. Instead of encouraging schools to co-operate, the Government incentivised them to compete. We have heard from Members about how perverse incentives have caused some schools to expand in areas where that is not needed, causing other schools nearby to close. We are talking not only about struggling schools with poor track records, but good schools with long and rich histories closing their doors—schools that are tied to their communities and have a big impact on them. No one seems to be able to do anything about it.

Clearly, some factors are beyond the Government’s control, but a lot of issues could have been avoided. If we are to put children at the heart of the system, we must take a more careful look at what is going on. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) told me about the situation of the St Martin-in-the-Field High School for Girls in her constituency. Shortly before last week’s half-term break, staff and pupils were told that their school would close to most year groups from September, and completely from July 2024. That decision came as a terrible shock to the whole school and the wider community, of which the school has been a part for so many years. She pointed to the lack of any role for the local authority in school place planning over the past decade as being part of the problems that have led to St Martin being forced to close. The Government have continued to allow the expansion of some local schools to go unchecked, and local councils have no ability to intervene and stabilise school provision in order to protect schools that are at risk.

With falling birth rates, threats of school closures will increase. The Department for Education expects the number of pupils at state-funded schools to decline by 944,000 over the next decade, but as we have heard, the Government appear to have no long-term vision for dealing with that. Labour has been clear that we want all schools to co-operate with their local authority on admissions and place planning. We want governors’ and parents’ voices to be heard more consistently when it comes to discussion of the direction of local schools. We will not impose top-down structures, but we will demand collaboration and co-operation in the best interests of our children and the local communities that schools serve.

As Members have highlighted, even the threat of school closures can have a big impact on everyone in a school community. For school leaders, that threat can be incredibly stressful. Not only are they worried about their own job, but they feel responsible for their staff’s employment, and face pressure from parents who are rightly concerned about their children being forced to move school. Teachers in schools at risk are more likely to look for jobs elsewhere, which, during a teacher recruitment and retention crisis, can leave the at-risk schools in an even worse position. School closures also force children to leave the teachers and school support staff with whom they have forged relationships, the routine that they have grown comfortable with, and their friends.

The impact of declining pupil numbers on primary schools is already being seen. In the coming years, those reduced numbers will feed into secondary schools in London and across the country. Labour has been clear that we need a system in which schools are encouraged to co-operate for the shared benefit of teachers, parents and children, rather than compete at the expense of those involved. We need a Government who can deliver a long-term strategy to deal with the impact of the issue, not one who hope to kick the can down the road so that they do not have to address it.

Will the Minister outline the steps he is taking to promote the financial sustainability of schools with falling pupil rolls? What steps is he taking to ensure that schools co-operate on the issue, to their shared benefit? Finally, what is his Department doing to plan for the expected decline in pupil numbers and the impact that will have on schools across the country? I look forward to hearing his remarks and his answers to my questions. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall, and I restate my praise to her for securing this debate.

It is a pleasure to participate in yet another debate that you are chairing, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing a debate on this important subject, and for opening it so clearly.

I am aware of the recent report by London Councils on managing surplus places, which highlights the key challenges facing London boroughs. Since the baby boom at the turn of the millennium, we have seen substantial growth in pupil numbers. The Government responded to that by supporting the creation of almost 1.2 million new school places since 2010. In addition to our investment in the free schools programme, the Government have committed over £14 billion of capital grant funding to support local authorities in building new mainstream school places between 2011 and 2026. It is the largest investment in school capacity in at least two generations, and includes £3.5 billion for London alone.

I can recall many debates on the “Today” programme with my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), back when he represented the Local Government Association, about whether there were enough school places in London; it was almost an annual event for us—and here we are today. As we have seen, population trends do change. In London, the number of young people is falling faster than elsewhere. This is for several reasons, including decreasing birth rates, changes in international migration patterns since the UK’s exit from the EU, and more families relocating outside of London since the pandemic, as my hon. Friend explained so well.

The Government recognise the crucial role that local authorities play in planning local services for their community and championing the interests of children. Local authorities are legally responsible for ensuring that there are enough school places in their area. It is for local authorities, working with academy trusts and other local partners, to balance the supply and demand of school places in line with changing demographics. They have done so for many years. The uncertainty regarding future demographic changes means it is even more prudent for local authorities to remain flexible.

I am grateful for the Minister’s remarks about the role of local authorities. Will he admit that the free schools programme over the last 10 or so years made it very difficult for local authorities to plan school numbers? Back then, during a time of growth, we desperately needed a mixed, non-faith school between Chiswick and Hounslow for the whole of the Isleworth and Brentford area, yet the resources were taken by a free faith school, and a large proportion of its catchment came from a long distance away. Had the local authority been able to broker that decision, we might have had a more locally approached solution. Now we have declining numbers, and I am raising the contrary issue.

I understand the point the hon. Member is making, but free schools have been crucial in raising standards in our school system. The issue was not just numbers, but what we could do to deliver standards. I can think of a school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) that opened in 2018 and was in January judged as outstanding. These are important factors to take into account. This is about quality as well as numbers.

Some spare capacity should be retained in the system to manage shifting demand, provide for parental choice and support the effective management of the admissions system. Local factors should be carefully assessed, along with considerations of quality, diversity and accessibility of local provision, and the forecast demand for places, in determining the most appropriate approach in each area. Local authorities are well placed to do that. They have seen periods of decline, bulges and shifts in local patterns before, and have shown they are adept at managing them.

The Department expects local authorities to work collaboratively with their partners to ensure that they are managing the local school estate efficiently and reducing or re-purposing high levels of spare capacity, to avoid undermining the educational offer or financial viability of schools in their area. I know that local authorities, together with trusts, are already considering a range of options for the reutilisation of space. That includes, for example, co-locating nursery provision, as well as options for reconfiguration, including via remodelling, amalgamations and closures where this is the best course of action. Lambeth has rightly been proactive in addressing this issue and is consulting on reducing the capacity of eight primary schools.

The Department continues to engage with local authorities on a regular basis to discuss their plans and potential solutions. One solution is the support and benefits obtained from being part of a strong and established multi-academy trust. The Department believes that all schools should be in strong families of schools, benefiting from the resilience that that brings and the support of the best in the group. That is why, over time, the Department would like all schools to be in a strong multi-academy trusts. By centralising operational and administrative functions, schools within a MAT can save time and money, which can be reinvested directly into areas that have the greatest impact.

The hon. Member for Vauxhall referred to housing issues, as did a number of other Members, including the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), who has just intervened. The provision of affordable housing is part of the Government’s plan to build more homes and provide aspiring homeowners with a step on to the housing ladder. Our £11.5 billion affordable homes programme will deliver thousands of affordable homes for both rent and to buy across the country. For London, £4 billion has been allocated, to deliver much-needed affordable and social housing in the capital. Since 2010, we have delivered over 632,000 new affordable homes, including over 440,000 affordable homes for rent, of which over 162,000 are for social rent. In fact, more than a fifth of overall delivery between April 2010 and March 2022 was in London, with over 89,000 homes for rent.

Can the Minister please outline how he defines “affordable” and why, if the homes are “affordable”, so many of my constituents find themselves unable to afford them?

That question is for another debate, I suspect, especially as I have only six minutes left; I would love to debate that issue with the hon. Member on another occasion. However, we are absolutely aware of the concern and the problem, which is why we are investing, as I said, £4 billion in affordable housing in London alone.

Although the challenge facing mainstream schools is evident, it is important to recognise that there is still a need to increase the supply of places, particularly for children with special educational needs and disabilities—a point made by the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) during this debate.

The number of children with SEND continues to increase in London, providing local authorities with an opportunity to think creatively about how to organise and structure high-needs provision alongside or within mainstream schools. Some £400 million of the £2 billion in additional funding for schools announced in the autumn statement will go to local authorities’ high-needs budgets and we are investing £2.6 billion in capital funding between 2022 and 2025 to help to deliver new school places for children with special educational needs.

Across London boroughs, councils will work with schools and the wider community to find alternative solutions to closure wherever possible. However, the school estate needs to be managed efficiently, which sometimes means reducing or repurposing high levels of spare capacity, including through closure, where places are not needed in the long term.

I know that the hon. Member for Vauxhall is particularly concerned about two schools in Lambeth that are in different stages on the path to closure: Archbishop Tenison’s School and St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls. Both have a rich history going back hundreds of years. Their trustees explored all the options available and came to the difficult decision to seek a closure, through mutual consent with the Department. I understand how troubling that will be for pupils and their families. School closures are always a last resort. When a school closure is proposed, the regional director will work in consultation with the local authority and trust to gather information and assess the options, with the Secretary of State taking the final decision on the closure of academies. Minimising disruption for children at these schools will always be the Department’s top priority.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) raised the important point about empty places when pupil numbers fall and the impact that has on school budgets. To support local authorities to meet their sufficiency duty, the Department for Education provides them with revenue funding for growth and falling rolls, through the dedicated school grant. From 2024-25, the Government will additionally give local authorities more flexibilities to support schools seeing a significant decline in pupil numbers, where these places will still be needed within the next three to five years. Local authorities will be able to use their growth and falling rolls funding allocations to meet the revenue costs of repurposing school places.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner requested a ban on academy trusts disposing of school land. Land and buildings are in fact held in trust, and the most common result of a closure is for the land and building to revert back either to the local authority or to the diocese if it was a Church school.

The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) raised Avery Hill, which I would be very happy to discuss with him. The free schools programme has been pivotal in meeting the demand for places since 2010, and has provided thousands of good new places across the country. In 2022, pupils in primary and secondary free schools made more progress on average than pupils in other schools. I have already referred to the outstanding free school in Ealing, the Ada Lovelace Church of England High School, which recently received a very good Ofsted report.

The performance of schools within the Harris Federation is even more impressive. Harris is one of the strongest and most successful multi-academy trusts. It educates more than 40,000 children in 52 schools across London, and 98% of its schools have been judged either good or outstanding by Ofsted. The Department continuously reviews the viability of all schools in the free schools pipeline, and we are looking closely at all the arguments for and against the free school at Avery Hill. We will open the school only when we are confident that it will be good, viable, sustainable and successful.

I am proud of the work that the Government have done since 2010 to ensure that we have school places where and when they are needed. As population trends change in London and across the country, we will keep supporting local authorities and trusts to ensure that any changes to local schools come with minimal disruption to our children and young people.

I thank all Members who have spoken in the debate. The sense is that this issue will not go away—[Interruption.]

Order. I am afraid that a Division has been called in the House. Does the hon. Lady wish to return in half an hour, or is she happy to end the debate now?

I am happy to end the debate now. I thank the Minister. I note that he has not answered any of my questions, so will he meet me?

Order. I believe that there are two votes, so the sitting will be resumed at 4.27 pm. I am ending the debate without the question being put.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

Hazaras in Afghanistan

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the situation of Hazaras in Afghanistan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have this debate. I am also grateful to my constituents who have come to join me today. Hazaras from not just Peterborough but across the country are sitting in the Gallery, listening to the debate—the first, I think, in the Palace of Westminster devoted purely to the Hazaras and their situation in Afghanistan.

The Hazaras are one of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic groups. Exact numbers are unknown, as there has been no accurate census of the Hazara population, but some estimate it to be between 20% and 30% of Afghanistan’s population. They are predominantly, but not exclusively, Shi’a. The number is often disputed by the Hazara community themselves, who believe that they are underrepresented in order to be denied adequate funding and political representation.

For over a century, the Hazara community has suffered from targeted discrimination, persecution and massacres because of their ethnicity and religious sect. Identifiable by distinctive features, Hazaras cannot hide their ethnicity from aggressors. As early as the 1890s, about 60% of the Hazara population were slaughtered during genocidal campaigns. Those who survived were dispossessed of their land, displaced from their homes, with some even being sold as slaves. Oppression continued throughout the 20th century, as Hazaras were denied access to education and political rights. To this day, Hazara areas in Afghanistan remain some of the poorest parts of the country.

I am proud to be chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Hazaras. As I say, I have a number of Hazara constituents in the great city of Peterborough. The community there is growing, with over 140 Hazara families living in my city. They have an amazing community centre called the Peterborough Afghan Shia Association —or PASA—to help residents with numerous issues. They are a real asset to my city. That is why this debate is so important to me personally. It is paramount that we raise awareness of and stand up for minorities such as the Hazaras in Afghanistan.

The Hazara community in Peterborough are not just any community; they are our neighbours, our co-workers and our friends. They have been targeted in Afghanistan in places of worship, over cultural festivals, in sports clubs, at wedding ceremonies, at hospitals and schools, during peaceful protests, on public transportation and in the streets. For example, on 8 May 2021, a Hazara girls high school was attacked in Kabul, killing over 100 students and injuring over 160 others. On 19 April 2021, two other Hazara schools were attacked in Kabul, again killing 126 students and injuring 60. Two days later a Hazara mosque was attacked in northern Afghanistan, killing more than 50 worshipers and injuring hundreds more. On 30 September 2022, at attack at an education centre killed more than 60 female Hazara students and injured over 100. Those are just a few examples of attacks against Hazaras in Afghanistan over the last few years. Unfortunately, that is the tip of the iceberg, and it is something that the Hazara community have to live with each and every day in Afghanistan.

The persecution of the Hazaras has continued into the Taliban era, but it has been around for a lot longer than that. Thousands of Hazaras were killed in massacres during the civil war, as they were under the Taliban Government. Since the takeover of Afghanistan, again by the Taliban, in August 2021, the plight of the Hazaras has only increased.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward and thank him for being a champion—I use that word honestly because it is the right one—in this House for the Hazaras. Other debates he has secured in Westminster Hall have been an indication of that. The Hazaras have long faced discrimination and violence. When the Taliban were last in power the Hazaras faced targeted violence. They fled to Iran and Pakistan for safety, such was their fear of what would happen to them or their families if they remained. The Taliban’s restrictions disproportionately affect women from religious minorities. As chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, I have spoken for the Hazaras before, and I would do so again. I commend the hon. Gentleman, and I also suggest that what he is doing—what we in this House are doing—today is being a voice for the Hazaras, and for their community here.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; today is just the start. This is the first dedicated Commons debate on the issue, but we have raised questions on it before. I want to work with Members such as the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin)—and others too—so that we can end the suffering. I hope that this is just the start of an extended campaign to protect Hazaras in Afghanistan.

Hazaras face suicide attacks, forced displacement, torture and even execution. Those displaced people then have to make the harrowing journey, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, to find safety in other countries in the region and in Europe. To date, however, not a single perpetrator has ever been brought to justice, and the attacks against the Hazaras have been allowed to go on without punishment. Enough is enough; this cannot continue.

Action is required to thoroughly investigate these crimes, bring perpetrators to justice and take further steps to protect the Hazara people in Afghanistan. Alongside colleagues and external advisers, I was part of the inquiry into the situation of Hazaras in Afghanistan, which was published last year. In its report, there were numerous recommendations for the United Kingdom Government, as well as the International Criminal Court and the UN. The recommendations to the Government were:

“Monitor the situation of the Hazara, collect and preserve the evidence of the atrocities…Conduct an inquiry into the issue of sexual violence against the Hazara in Afghanistan…Recognise the specific targeting of the Hazara in Afghanistan and their vulnerability as a result (including for the purposes of asylum resettlement to the UK under”

the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The report also recommended that the Government:

“Assess the situation and identify a comprehensive response plan, including in accordance with the UK’s duties under the Genocide Convention…Assess whether and how the Hazara communities have access to humanitarian aid provided by the UK…Ensure that the UK Aid provided to Afghanistan researches the Hazara communities…Engage in a dialogue with Afghan-neighbouring countries to ensure that the Hazara fleeing persecution in Afghanistan are provided with assistance and not returned to Afghanistan…Impose the Magnitsky sanctions against all those responsible for the atrocities…Call upon the Taliban-run ‘caretaker government’ to ensure that all atrocities against the community are investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice…Provide capacity assistance to help with investigations and prosecutions of the perpetrators.”

We, along with the international community, have a responsibility to do whatever we can to protect and to bring about justice whenever we can.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing such an important debate. As mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the Hazara community has long faced persecution and attacks in Afghanistan. I represent a large Hazara community in Coventry North West, and I understand how the group has been overlooked and forgotten in the broader understanding of Afghanistan and the wider region. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government must heed the recommendations of the UN special rapporteur’s report regarding the protection of the historically persecuted Hazara community?

I agree with the hon. Lady. We should pay absolute attention to recommendations from the UN and others, to ensure that we end the persecution of Hazaras and bring about a decent resolution for that community. We and the international community have a responsibility to do whatever we can. The report’s recommendations are a good start in achieving that, and there was considerable value in producing it—something that is underlined by a number of references made to it by other Parliaments around the world and by the Hazara community itself.

The Hazara community is now finally getting a voice internationally, after many years of suffering at the hands of the Taliban and other extremist groups without there being the same sort of awareness of these atrocities. Last week, I spoke remotely at an event held in the Canadian Parliament, organised by the Hazara community in Canada. This is not just a UK fight; it is an international fight, where Hazara communities across the world can unite to press for justice. The seminar was hosted by Members of the Canadian Parliament and its aim was to discuss the ongoing atrocities in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on human rights violations against Hazaras.

Those are positive steps, but they are not enough. The persecution of these people cannot continue. We must use our diplomatic channels and foreign aid budget in a targeted way specifically to assist Hazaras as well as other persecuted minority groups. Crimes against the Hazara in Afghanistan may, because of the intention to eliminate their culture, faith and way of life, constitute genocide. Given the severity, there is a case for something like the independent tribunal into crimes against the Uyghurs, which was chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice KC, to be established and to examine the evidence regarding Hazaras in Afghanistan.

Whatever happens, we cannot walk away from our responsibility to this great people. There has been silence for too long, but I am determined to continue working with other members of the all-party parliamentary group, and with those in the Hazara community in my city and beyond, to ensure that this does not continue.

Lastly, I would like to put on record my tribute to the Hazara community—a community I did not know a great deal about before I became a Member of Parliament, to be honest. I have made some fantastic friends over the past couple of years in my constituency and through my involvement with the APPG. I hope we can continue to work together and to make a positive contribution to the Hazara community, some of whom are in the public gallery here today. You are no longer just my constituents —you are my friends.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for securing this important debate and for the work he and fellow MPs in the APPG do to protect and enhance the human rights and status of Hazaras around the world.

In the aftermath of the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, violence against the Hazara population has escalated. With a long history of persecution, including by the Taliban, the threat of genocide is real.

It has been 10 months since the APPG published its excellent report, which documented human rights violations against the people of Afghanistan—in particular, the Hazara ethnic and religious group. According to Human Rights Watch, the Shi’a minority has been subject to suicide bombings, as well as sustained attacks on mosques, girls’ schools and workplaces. The Taliban leadership may have moderated its rhetoric to please the international community—it claims it will protect all ethnic groups—but it has done nothing to stem the growing number of crimes being committed by its fighters.

The only hope for the Hazara people is that the international community stays true to its commitment to human rights and pressures the Taliban into concessions. Although there are limitations on what we can do, the United Kingdom and the international community have a legal, moral and political obligation to protect the Hazara people. The UK Government should allocate resources to provide immediate humanitarian aid to the affected Hazara communities.

I assure my constituents from Hazara communities, and the Hazara community around the UK, that they are not alone. As the hon. Member for Peterborough said, this is only a start. I assure the Hazara people in Afghanistan that I and colleagues in this House will stand up for them and raise the issues that their communities face in these difficult times. They have my support. I also assure my constituents that they have my support and that they can come to me whenever they feel they need my support. I am there for them.

It is a pleasure to serve on your watch, Mr Hollobone, in my second appearance in Westminster Hall today.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for securing the debate. I pay tribute at the outset to all his hard work in support of the Hazara people not only in the UK but internationally. We all recognise that, in his impressive chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group, he is doing a great deal of good to advance this most important cause—that of the Hazara people.

I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who reliably intervened, as he does so often in these debates, in support of the oppressed, wherever they are around the world. I also thank the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), who spoke eloquently in support of the Hazara people in a brief intervention, and the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), who made it clear that his support for the Hazara community and his knowledge of this issue are extensive and helpful.

I will try to respond to all the points raised during the debate, and I will start with the current situation. The Hazara people make up around 10% of the population of Afghanistan, and they are overwhelmingly Shi’a. They have historically been one of the country’s most persecuted groups and they have faced continued repression under the Taliban.

The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, has reported numerous serious human rights abuses committed against the Hazara people by the Taliban since August 2021, including summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill treatment. He has documented how Hazaras have been forcibly evicted and have had their land expropriated, often with only a few days’ notice.

In September 2021 alone, at least 2,800 Hazara residents were forcibly displaced from 15 villages in the provinces of Daykundi and Uruzgan. When community representatives called for an investigation, they were arrested. The special rapporteur has reported a “clear trend towards Pashtunisation”, with the exclusion of minority groups from decision making and the failure of the Taliban to protect at-risk, predominantly Hazara institutions. There are also reports from the United Nations of an increase in inflammatory speech, both online and in mosques during Friday prayers, including calls for Hazaras to be killed.

The Hazara people have suffered a series of deadly attacks by Daesh and other terrorist groups. There was a horrific attack on the Kaaj educational centre last year, which killed dozens of young people and was outrightly condemned by my noble Friend the Minister for South Asia. The Taliban responded by expelling Hazara students from universities for planning protests against the attacks on their community. The Taliban have a duty to protect the whole population of Afghanistan for as long as they are in power, yet they are often the greatest source of the repression. The UK Government and Members across the House condemn them utterly for that.

I will turn now to the action the UK Government are taking. We closely monitor the human rights situation in Afghanistan and work with our allies to press the Taliban to respect the rights of all Afghans and protect Hazaras and other minority groups from terrorist attacks. We urge the Taliban to engage in a constructive dialogue with all parts of Afghan society and to establish inclusive governance. We raise our concerns about the Hazaras and other minority groups in the United Nations and other multilateral fora. In March we worked with the Security Council to renew the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and to call for inclusive governance with meaningful participation of minorities.

We are also working closely with international partners to ensure that credible human rights monitoring and accountability mechanisms are in place. In October we co-sponsored a Human Rights Council resolution to extend the mandate of the United Nations special rapporteur. We are working with the international community to respond to the recommendations the rapporteur made to the council in his February report.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough took part in the cross-party Hazara Inquiry, and we are grateful to him and his colleagues for their report. It has done much to raise awareness of the plight of Hazaras in Afghanistan. In line with the report’s recommendations, we continue to monitor and document discrimination and abuses against Hazaras, both through the United Nations and other institutions, and through our own programme work. We have discussed aid distribution with our partners. The UN World Food Programme has told us that there is no evidence of systematic discrimination against Hazara people in aid distribution, but we will of course continue to monitor the situation. We continue to consider the other report recommendations and to discuss the most effective course of action with our international partners.

Ministers and officials engage regularly with a range of Afghans, including Hazaras, to ensure our policy and programming reflect the needs of the entire population. Our most recent contact with Hazara groups was between officials and a representative from the Hazara National Congress on 24 May. My noble Friend the Minister for South Asia last met UK-based Hazara groups in December, and we will continue to engage with the Hazara diaspora. We also provided a platform to Hazaras at the ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief in July, which allowed them to raise awareness of the situation of Hazaras in Afghanistan and to exchange views with Ministers and policymakers from across the world.

I will conclude by emphasising that the British Government will continue to work closely with international partners to press the Taliban on our human rights concerns, including the treatment of the Hazara people. We will also continue to work to ensure credible monitoring and accountability mechanisms are in place, including by supporting the UN special rapporteur. It is a tragedy to witness the reversal of the human rights progress made in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. We will never compromise on our belief and insistence that all Afghans, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender, should be free to play a full role in their communities, their economy and their governance. Without a more inclusive system, Afghanistan will not be able to progress and to fulfil the potential of its people.

Question put and agreed to.

Asylum-seeking Children: Hotel Accommodation

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the accommodation of asylum-seeking children in hotels.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone.

In preparation for the debate, I spoke to many organisations that support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children day in, day out. It was impossible not to be moved by some of their testimonies. A children’s rights officer at the Scottish Refugee Council shared this:

“All the children I worked with demonstrated little to no knowledge of systems in the UK prior to arrival, they were completely bewildered. They were also terrified, terrified of anyone they perceived to be in a position of authority. At times that included me, until they got to know me. One girl even asked me if I intended to send her back to her village, where she was at risk of female genital mutilation…

Another girl I worked with had been in Scotland for around two months when I received a call from the hospital asking me to attend, as she was very distressed. She was pregnant. As soon as the doctor left us alone, she broke down sobbing, asking me if the Home Office would kill her for being unmarried and pregnant.”

Those are just a couple of anecdotes, but they speak to the reality of life in the hostile environment for many highly vulnerable children who have reached our shores. Those anecdotes should shame UK Ministers who have used degrading language such as “asylum shopping” or “invasion” to describe people risking their lives for safety and refuge in this country. Many have experienced physical and sexual violence, persecution, torture, human rights abuses and extreme poverty. Their perilous journeys to the UK have exposed them to exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery.

Two years ago, when the Home Office started to house unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in hotels, we were told that it was on a short-term, emergency basis until permanent placements could be found via the national transfer scheme. It should not be forgotten that such hotels are considered to operate unlawfully: under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, children under 16 should be in the care of local authorities, not in unregulated accommodation where they lack the same protections as other looked-after children. Children whom the Refugee Council in England has spoken to say that they feel anxious, frightened and lonely in the hotels, with no phone to communicate and clothes that do not fit them properly.

Since the Home Office took charge of the day-to-day care of unaccompanied children, at least 4,600 of them—some as young as 10—have been placed in such accommodation. We know that the number is rising, but up-to-date and accurate figures have been hard to come by.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. She is making a powerful speech on an important topic. In January, at Prime Minister’s questions, I asked about the 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who were missing from Home Office-run hotels. Two months later, a response to one of my parliamentary questions stated that 186 of those children—some of the most vulnerable young people in the country—were still missing. Does the hon. Lady agree that if we as politicians are not safeguarding the most vulnerable children in the country, we are letting them down severely?

I absolutely agree. I will elaborate on this, but it is our moral and legal duty to assume responsibility for those children, and that has been sadly lacking from the Government and the Home Office.

In early April, the Children’s Commissioner for England requested data on the number of children in Home Office hotels since July 2021. I understand—I hope the Minister will bring us up to date—that the Home Office has yet to reply to that statutory data request. I believe that is unprecedented, so I will be very interested in whether the Minister can explain why that information has not been provided and when the Home Secretary will endeavour to do so.

Part of the issue is that the real number of children in the system is obscured by the visual age, or “glance”, assessment process. The Refugee Council report “Identity Crisis” highlights the cases of 233 children that it supported last year, 94% of whom the Home Office wrongly judged to be over 18. They were housed with adults, with no access to support or education and at clear risk of abuse and neglect. On top of that, last year the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration found staff at some hotels without Disclosure and Barring Service checks.

Shockingly, despite repeated warnings by the police that children would be targeted by criminal networks, the Home Office has failed to prevent hundreds from going missing, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) referred to. She mentioned the 440 occurrences that we know of and the 186 children who remained missing as of April 2023. Members from across the House have asked time and again about that, but have received little detail on what action is being taken.

The UK Government’s inability or unwillingness to guarantee the safety of those children has been condemned at home and abroad. More than 100 charities wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister in January calling for the Home Office to stop accommodating separated children in hotels, without delay. UN experts echoed that call in April, commenting that the UK is failing

“under international human rights law to…prevent trafficking of children.”

A report published by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration in October last year recommended that a viable and sustainable exit strategy from the use of hotels should be delivered within six months. The Home Office has no exit strategy; instead, Ministers are doubling down. The asylum hotel accommodation system is becoming institutionalised, and the Illegal Migration Bill—or, as it is known by some, the refugee ban Bill—will empower the Home Secretary to accommodate even more children outside the care system.

Under article 22 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, children seeking refugee status must receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance, but the Illegal Migration Bill is effectively a ban on the right to claim asylum if the claimant arrived in the UK irregularly, such as through trafficking or modern slavery, regardless of their individual circumstances. It will create a two-tier system where the immigration status of refugee and asylum-seeking children overrides their rights as children in the UK. It has been said to me that, in the eyes of the Home Office, they are seen as illegal migrant first, everything else second.

Analysis by the Refugee Council based on publicly available sources and conservative estimates suggests that 45,000 children could be detained in the UK under the Government’s plans. Both the Children’s Commissioner and the chief inspector have warned about the pressure that that will put on local authorities in England to fulfil their duties under the Children Act.

The Bill also includes an attack on devolution, which is unfortunately becoming customary from the UK Government. Clause 19 gives the Home Secretary the unilateral power to extend the provisions to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate and doing the research beforehand. What is her experience of the Home Office’s interaction with the devolved Scottish Government and local authorities in Scotland? In Wales, we have found its approach extremely disappointing—riding roughshod over devolution and not taking any notice of the way that we treat children in Wales.

I agree entirely. That has certainly been the experience of the many different organisations that I have spoken to in Scotland, and that is what they say to me. As always with this Government, the proposals that Scottish Ministers put to UK Ministers are often either ignored or not taken fully into account. Again, I hope that the Minister can assure us otherwise.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate. Further to the intervention by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith), whose constituency neighbours mine, we have a specific issue in Carmarthenshire, where a hotel will be used to house asylum seekers without any consultation whatsoever with the local authority. The Welsh Government have a policy that Wales is a nation of sanctuary, and it is beyond my understanding why the UK Government would act unilaterally without discussion with the Welsh Government or Carmarthenshire County Council.

I was looking at a contribution by the Local Government Association, which I believe operates only in England, and that seems to be one of its bones of contention too, along with the fact that insufficient moneys are being provided to support the welfare of these children and other asylum seekers. Again, I hope that the Minister will address that point.

The Scottish guardianship scheme, run through the Scottish Refugee Council and the Aberlour charity, provides personal, sustained support for these children, and it is funded by and delivered on behalf of the Scottish Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who will be winding up the debate for the SNP, has urged the UK Government to provide a similar scheme to support, in particular, young people in care in Scotland.

Clause 23 of the Illegal Migration Bill strips Scottish Ministers of their powers under the Scottish Parliament’s Children (Scotland) Act 1995 to support and assist victims of trafficking if those victims meet removal criteria, with very limited exceptions. Given that that clearly encroaches on devolved responsibilities, will the Minister tell us why the legislative consent motion process was not engaged? Scottish local authorities are responsible for caring for these children and treating them as they would other looked-after children. If there are credible indicators of exploitation or other issues, local authorities have obligations under Scots law to intervene. Under the European convention on human rights, Police Scotland and local authorities have a duty to protect, investigate and take people out of a trafficking situation, but that will clash with the requirements on Home Office officials to remove people.

Even if those powers are used sparingly, as the UK Government claim they will be, organisations and charities in Scotland remain terrified about the effect of moving responsibility to the Home Office and away from Guardianship Scotland, the scheme I mentioned that is delivered on behalf of the Scottish Government to all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and survivors of child trafficking. The Scottish Refugee Council says that some of these children are so afraid of the Home Office that they are up the entire night before their interview, praying that they will not be removed or detained. The possibility of being taken into Home Office care, coupled with the closing down of asylum and trafficking protections, while the prospect of removal looms, will lead only to more children running away. That will be a powerful recruitment tool for traffickers, who might look like a preferable option over being deported to Rwanda or remaining in detention.

We in the SNP have said repeatedly that creating safe and legal routes is the only realistic way to disrupt the human traffickers’ business model. If the Home Office has no interest in creating an asylum system that is based on fairness and dignity, it should devolve the necessary powers to the Scottish Parliament to allow Scotland to do so.

In the meantime, we need answers from the Home Office, so I close with these questions. Will the Minister give us the latest figures on how many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who went missing from Home Office hotels are still missing? Will the Home Office commit to publishing a written report on the circumstances surrounding those missing children, including immediate steps to prevent similar issues from happening again? Finally, will the Minister advise whether and how an order from the Home Secretary under clause 16 will supersede protective orders issued by the Scottish courts? As a signatory state to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, the UK needs to step up and meet its responsibility to uphold all children’s rights to protection, health and education.

The children’s rights officer from the Scottish Refugee Council whom I mentioned earlier recalled a boy from Afghanistan she had worked with through the guardianship service who was haunted by the image of his inconsolable mother saying goodbye to him. Rather than compounding the fear and trauma of children like him, we have a legal and moral duty to look after them.

Order. The debate can last until 5.57 pm. I am obliged to begin calling the Front Benchers no later than 5.34 pm, so the four Members standing have just about half an hour between them. The guideline limits for the Front Benchers are five minutes for the SNP spokesman, five minutes for the Opposition spokesman and 10 minutes for the Minister, and then, hopefully, Deidre Brock will have three minutes at the end in which to sum up the debate.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak; it is not often that I get called first, so this is a real pleasure.

I commend the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for securing the debate. I spoke to her beforehand. She has a big heart and she brings forward issues that concern us. She referred to a moral obligation. I, too, feel that we have a moral obligation to deliver for those who seek sanctuary and help. I have been very clear and consistent in my approach to the refugee crisis and I will be equally clear today. It is a real pleasure to see the shadow spokespersons and the Minister in their places. I know that the Minister will try to address some of the questions that we will put his way.

As I said, I believe that we have a moral obligation to help those who are displaced in the best way that we can. I believe very much in the foreign aid budget and in giving a fresh start to women and children who have been oppressed and are in danger, or have left danger.

My heart is for the family unit. I am very much a family person; I focus on family. I understand that we cannot take the world in and that we must be selective about who comes to our country. I do not believe that limited capacity should be given to every young, single, fit man who is able to build a life safely in other countries. However, today’s debate is on a matter that is close to my heart—children who are in need of compassion, care and a decent standard of living.

There are not many people in the Chamber who will not be bothered by the subject of this debate when they see the photographs and the stories on TV. Indeed, in our constituencies, we experience the cases and hear the heartbreaking stories that the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith referred to.

Since June 2021, 4,500 unaccompanied migrant children, some as young as 10, have been placed in hotels. I was shocked to learn that some 440 children have gone missing from hotels and that, as of April 2023, 186 of those children still had not been found.

Child trafficking is the most horrible and destructive crime, committed by those who have no morals and no scruples about what they do, and it is not limited to third-world countries; it happens here daily. Data from the UK’s national referral mechanism for the year ending December 2021 showed an increase of 9% in the number of potential child victims being referred compared with the previous year—an increase from 5,028 to 5,468. That is a stark figure, and it should give us some focus.

It grieves me to think of a child coming from the frying pan of a war-torn nation, with the ravages that that brings with it, and seeking safety in our great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only to become a victim of trafficking. We are under an obligation to prevent that from happening.

I believe that children in hotels must be treated in the same way as looked-after children in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There must be accountability for their wellbeing. With the greatest of respect, I am not sure that children are currently being looked after to an acceptable standard. I seek the Minister’s assurance that that is the case, especially since children in Home Office hotels are not classed as looked-after children, which I suggest means that the appropriate protections and safety measures may not be in place. Prolonged stays in hotels have an impact on whether children will meet the 13-week rule for care leaver support once they move into local authority care.

I am conscious of the wee note that you sent me, Mr Hollobone; I will comply with your request and conclude. I commend the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith for bringing this issue forward. It must be addressed. I think that other Members, in their contributions, will add to our requests and to the concern that we have in our hearts for asylum-seeking children in hotels. I look to the Minister for a clear and concise strategy for these children, to fulfil our obligations as a nation that simply does the right thing. We have a chance to get this right. We must take that opportunity and deliver for the asylum-seeking children in hotels right across this great nation—this nation that reaches out and helps. I know that the Minister wants to help, but it is important that, through this debate, we receive the assurances that we seek and have our requests addressed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who gave a typically eloquent and heartfelt speech. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for securing this important debate and for her powerful introduction to it.

In July 2021, bypassing councils and operating outside the statutory national transfer system, the Home Office started using hotels to house unaccompanied children who have experienced unimaginable horror and upheaval coming to our country in search of safety. This was initially characterised by Ministers as an emergency measure and, as we have heard, since then there have been 447 missing episodes, and 186 children are still missing, according to figures revealed in a parliamentary question in April. A significant number of those children went missing from a hotel in Hove, which neighbours my constituency. Brighton and Hove prides itself on being a city of sanctuary, and the safeguarding crisis created by the Home Office remains a matter of profound concern to our community.

I shall touch on just three things: first, the lack of legal basis for this Home Office practice and regulatory failure; secondly, the Government legislation that makes matters worse; and thirdly, what safeguarding for these truly vulnerable children should really mean.

First, Brighton and Hove City Council has been raising concerns about the dangerous practice of using these hotels for the best part of two years, since Ministers first started bypassing councils. After months of obfuscation, on 24 January, when Mr Speaker granted my urgent question about the hotels and missing children, the Secretary of State did not even show up; instead, she sent the Immigration Minister, who again is here today. Meanwhile, as we have heard, multiple children’s charities have been clear that they consider there to be

“no legal basis for placing children in Home Office hotel accommodation”.

In April, UN experts called for the UK Government to

“put an end to the practice of placing unaccompanied children in hotels”.

While there has been a significant reduction in the practice in the first quarter of this year, shockingly, the Government are now legislating to provide a legal basis for hotel use to continue.

These hotels quite simply should not be used, and when they have been, serious safeguarding questions have gone unanswered. For example, earlier this year, I met both the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration—the ICIBI—and the Ofsted chief inspector. I raised the concern with both of them that the use of these hotels amounts to the Home Office running unregistered children’s homes with no inspection framework. I have since written to and questioned Ministers repeatedly to ask: if they persist in using these hotels against all the advice, will they at least consider an Ofsted-led inspection regime? As with many other important questions, the non-answer is that Ministers consider the best place for children to be a local authority placement—well, yes, it is, but the Government are not doing that. I have had yet another letter to that effect this week, which makes it clear that, in fact, they expect hotel use to continue. Indeed, Brighton and Hove City Council has just been warned that the Government may use the hotel in Hove again, despite the time that has been available for proper planning to avoid that. Will the Minister commit today to a full and immediate consultation with the local authority on all aspects of the scheme, including its legality, before any more children are placed there?

I sincerely hope that the steps the Government are taking to increase foster placements work, but I know from discussions with directors of children’s services that there is an acute national shortage of such placements, and we should not forget that, with their 13 years of cuts, that is something for which Ministers are also responsible.

As we have heard, the Government are now pushing through their unspeakably cruel and immoral Illegal Migration Bill, which breaks international law. It will strip children of their rights to claim asylum, legislate for the use of hotels, and increase the risk of children going missing. Like the Children’s Commissioner, and in concert with the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, I am gravely concerned that, as a result of young people’s fear that they will be deported at age 18, potentially to Rwanda, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children will be more likely to go missing from care to avoid that, and therefore be at even greater risk of exploitation and abuse by traffickers.

I have asked Ministers what unaccompanied children are told about their rights when they are first placed in hotels. What will unaccompanied children be told now? Is it really the Minister’s intention to legislate to strip them of their asylum rights the day after they turn 18, when they could be put on a plane to Rwanda? Is that really what he intends?

Safeguarding surely means remaining shocked that the Home Office has been housing children without legal basis and that we still do not know where nearly 200 of those children are. I and other Members have repeatedly questioned the Minister about the need for a national dedicated operation to find them. His answers have not instilled confidence. On the contrary, the Government’s plan to degrade children’s rights even further will increase the risks.

After the hon. Lady’s debate, I invited her to visit the hotel in Hove that she says she is profoundly concerned about. Has she visited it? If so, what are her reflections having visited it?

I am delighted to take that intervention because, alongside the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), I did indeed visit those premises. In fact, we took some food there from a local restaurant that was offering its food to that hotel because a concern had been raised that the food people were getting was pretty inedible most of the time, so they were delighted to have more suitable and appropriate food.

I have no problem with the conditions inside the hotel. As the hon. Member for Hove and I have repeatedly said, our concerns stem from what happens when the child steps outside that hotel. Frankly, everything that I saw does not take away the concern that young children, particularly traumatised young children, simply should not be housed in such hotels. However, I am glad to put the Minister’s mind at rest about the fact that I have visited the hotel and that I know of what I speak.

Safeguarding means that Ministers should close their nasty, hostile environment playbook. They should back more generous family reunification rights and support safe, functioning legal routes. Safeguarding means not housing children in hotels at all and scrapping the illegal and immoral Illegal Migration Bill.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for securing this important debate. Before I begin, I point Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and the support that I receive from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project for my work on these issues. I also co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on migration.

It is an absolute scandal that 440 asylum-seeking children have gone missing from Home Office hotels and that, according to the Home Office, there are still 186 who have not been found. But that is only half the question. Are the children who have been found safe, and what is happening about the remaining 186? It is alarming that the Government seem interested in the horrific crime of people trafficking only when it can be used as an opening to restrict the rights of people claiming asylum in this country. When we deal with missing children who are in real danger of ending up in the hands of traffickers, it seems that the Home Office is not concerned enough to act swiftly and thoroughly. Will the Minister update us on what steps he is taking to ensure that children in Home Office care are given the care and support they need and that they are safe? What actions have been taken to find the lost children?

Some organisations I have spoken to have raised concerns about whether the missing persons protocol has been properly followed. That is an important point. When a child first goes missing, those crucial early hours and days can help in finding them quickly and preventing further harm. Will the Minister give clear assurances that the protocol has been followed for every missing child? Will he also say whether there are instances in which the full guidance was not completely followed? If so, why that was the case? Can he give any new update on the number of children who have gone missing since the start of this year? If we do not understand how it is possible for that to happen in the first place, we cannot prevent it from happening again. Therefore, will the Minister commit to publishing a report on the circumstances around the disappearances, including lessons learned and immediate steps to prevent a repeat?

The policy of accommodating children in hotels was supposed to be temporary, but as is so often the case with the Government, a crisis has turned into business as usual. To my knowledge, since 2021, 4,500 unaccompanied children, some aged as young as 10, have been placed in hotels. Will the Minister make available as soon as possible the latest figures on how many unaccompanied children are currently housed in Home Office hotels? According to the Refugee Council, those hotels essentially operate outside the child protection system and that is a fundamental point in this debate. Local authorities are often not involved in looking after those children’s welfare or their best interests. They are not classed as looked-after children, but children are children both morally and under the law. The matter needs to be thoroughly looked at because it is clear under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 that the Home Secretary is obliged

“to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in the United Kingdom”.

Children in Home Office hotels must be treated like all resident UK children in the statutory children’s protection framework. Does the Minister seriously believe that accommodating children in hotels is compatible with that obligation?

The Children’s Commissioner has been mentioned. The Home Secretary was given a hard deadline of 17 April to provide a response to the Children’s Commissioner about her concerns around the appropriateness of care and I am surprised that that has not been provided. That is highly unusual. Will the Minister clarify whether that is due to the Home Office’s failure to systematically record the data that has been requested, or whether it simply constitutes a refusal to provide the information?

Two years after the Home Office began using hotels, there is still no strategy for moving children into suitable accommodation. It is business as usual and that is unacceptable. Will the Minister provide an update on the plans to develop a strategy to move the children out of hotels and into the care of social services through the national transfer scheme? Will he outline the steps taken to support local authorities with procuring additional placements for children? I have spoken in this place before about the current extreme costs of placements for local authorities, where £15,000 is not enough and will not cover months or weeks of many of the placements that local authorities are trying to procure from the private sector. More needs to be done in that space.

A recent report in the UK on the implementation of the UN convention on the rights of the child found a serious regression in the rights and protections of refugee children in the UK. That is shocking and forms part of a worrying trend that the Government are providing substandard care and potentially dangerous accommodation to refugees, whether that be through overcrowded hotel rooms, disused army barracks in which diseases spread or now a new masterplan for barges that essentially detain people offshore. The cruelty in that is evident, especially when we are considering children.

Others have touched on how the Illegal Migration Bill will affect children and significantly undermine the Children Act. When will the Government finally produce their impact assessment of the Bill and why, after all the failings the Government have presided over in this space, does the Home Office intend to legislate for new powers to house asylum-seeking children outside the provisions of the Children Act? Will the Minister look again at the individual approach to safeguarding that is necessary for each child? Will he recognise that children can, and do, often have other vulnerabilities such as disability? What actions are being taken to ensure that those are being taken into account?

We all have a responsibility to keep children safe. We know from safeguarding failures that have been reported both historically and more recently that safeguarding must be everyone’s top priority. The Government cannot pass the buck on this; they must intervene to keep children safe and to ensure that these children are found and then made safe.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for securing this debate. I find it outrageous that, since July 2021, more than 400 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have gone missing from Home Office hotels. I could stand here and say that Government Members are so and so, but no, I will not do that, because this is about the children. This is about children, who matter more than anyone else in this country.

We have a responsibility as corporate parents, as did local authorities, and it is incumbent on us all to recognise that the system in place is not fit for purpose and that we must do all that we can to protect the children from going missing. One child missing is one too many.

However, instead of urgently intervening, the Government announced in January that 200 of those 400-plus children were still missing. That number came down to 186. What it is today, I do not know, but I would guess that it is far more than the 200 reported earlier in the year, not less than that.

What has gone wrong fundamentally? That is what we need to look at. We have had announcement after announcement, but the reality is different from what the Government and Ministers have being saying regarding not only refugees and asylum seekers but—most importantly, the issue being debated today—unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Do we treat them as if they matter less than the children of this country? Are they second class to them? Are they third class to them? If they are not, this is a serious issue that no other parent figure would get away with. If 200 parents were responsible for this issue, action would be taken against them, but where is the action that is needed regarding those responsible? We can pass the buck all we like, but the fact is that these children have gone missing on our watch. We must take responsibility for that.

Rather than shift blame from one place to another Department, to another institution, to local government, to the Home Office, to Ministers, we need to work together. Whether that urgent work is through the Select Committee process or another mechanism, it must be done to ensure that we do not have any more children going missing and that children are not denied fundamental protections but are afforded the opportunity of safeguarding, which is central to all this.

This is a plea today for us all to come together on this issue and put the politics to one side. We must look at the interests of the children, stand behind them, and say that enough is enough.

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith said earlier, I believe that some of the staff at these hotels are not even DBS checked. How can we allow basic fundamentals like that to slip through the net? The staff working at the hotels where the children are living, and going missing, are not even DBS checked. Can the Minister confirm whether that is true? Honestly, would we allow any of our children to stay in such places for even a minute, let alone days, weeks or months on end? These children are our children—that is all I have to say.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for calling this afternoon’s debate, because it is as important as it is timely.

I will start where the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) left off: if any one of these children were our child, we would be frantic. If your child goes missing for a couple of minutes or a couple of hours, you are on the edge of your seat—you are terrified. A child inadvertently went missing on a street near me, and the whole neighbourhood was out searching for that child. The child was found and everything was all right, but who is searching—who is going street to street and door to door—to look out for every one of those 186 children who are still missing? We know that if it were any one of ours, that is exactly what we would be doing in that situation.

As a corporate parent, the Home Office has taken on these children in these hotels, outside the legislative framework that should be there to protect them. What is the Home Office doing to find each and every one of those children? By putting 4,500 unaccompanied children into hotel accommodation in that way, it has put every single one of those children at risk. There were 440 missing episodes and 186 children still not found as of April 2023. Can the Minister update us on how many of them remain missing—unfound, lost, perhaps falling into the hands of traffickers, perhaps terrified at the prospect of being removed to Rwanda or locked up or detained indefinitely?

It is very clear to me that the Illegal Migration Bill will make a very bad situation significantly worse, because it will remove rights from those children. They will never be able to claim asylum; they will not be counted; they will not matter; they will be left in limbo forever. Further to that, the Home Office is overruling in this legislation the obligations that devolved Administrations have, as the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) and others have pointed out. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we have legal obligations, both in our legislation on children and in our provisions on trafficking, that the Illegal Migration Bill seeks to overrule.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith mentioned the Scottish Guardianship Service, which is operated by the Scottish Refugee Council and Aberlour. I always want to pay tribute to that service, because I know how hard those support workers work to ensure that the children in their care are looked after properly and given support. Those workers come to my surgeries in support of the children they look after, and they do a tremendous job, but they know as well as I do that the Illegal Migration Bill will prevent them from providing any service at all. That service, on the Home Office’s watch, will become obsolete: there will be no refugees, because this is a refugee ban Bill.

In order to safeguard the children in its care, the Home Office should be answering questions about the legal basis for holding children in hotels in the way it has done, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) so correctly pointed out. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) asked whether missing person protocols have been followed in those cases, and what the strategy is to get children out of that inappropriate accommodation and into somewhere they can be, and remain, safe.

The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration has said:

“long-term hotel accommodation is not suitable for families with children. A hotel car park does not constitute a safe or appropriate play area, nor does it provide the variety of activities required by children.”

It is children that we are speaking of this afternoon. They should have space to learn, play and grow, but when the Home Office houses them outside the usual rules and obligations that organisations in England such as Ofsted would have, it prevents that system from having any kind of integrity.

That is not the only way in which children are inappropriately accommodated. In my constituency in Glasgow, I have children who have been in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for a considerable time. Families are squeezed together in a room without cooking facilities and without the ability to live a proper life with space to grow and live. There are children who cannot study for school because they do not have the space, because they are crammed into a small room.

I know that this is a choice. The Home Office has outsourced this to organisations such as Mears, and in doing so it has turned a blind eye to the situations that families find themselves in. I know that Mears has three and four-bedroom flats, but it chooses to put three or four people into them because it will get more money for that, rather than housing one family. That is a choice. It also chose to have a mother-and-baby unit in Glasgow that left babies with no room to crawl safely on the floor. That is a choice, outsourced by the Home Office to its accommodation providers.

I ask the Minister: what if these children were his own? What is he doing to ensure their safety and ensure that they can prosper, grow, thrive and get the protection they so richly deserve?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I thank all hon. Members for their excellent contributions, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) on securing this vital debate. Colleagues have set out, far more eloquently and powerfully than I could, the deeply troubling situation in which we find ourselves. Rather than repeating that, I will set out Labour’s plans for addressing some of the challenges that we face because of the broader chaos and shambles of the asylum system across the board, which is the root cause, context and backdrop for the appalling issues that we are discussing. I will then ask the Minister some more specific questions.

Labour has spent the past nine months urging the Conservative Government to adopt our five-point plan to end the dangerous channel crossings, defeat the criminal gangs and reduce the asylum backlog, based on hard graft, common sense and quiet diplomacy. First, we would scrap the unworkable, unaffordable and unethical Rwanda scheme and redirect the money put aside into an elite cross-border 100-strong police unit to relentlessly pursue the real enemy, the ruthless criminal smuggling gangs, upstream where they are operating away from the French coastline. Secondly, we would negotiate an agreement with France and the EU that would enable us to return asylum seekers who have crossed on small boats back to mainland Europe in exchange for a more generous but strictly capped offer from Britain on resettling genuine refugees with family connections in the UK. Thirdly, we would clear the backlog by fast-tracking the processing and returns for low grant rate countries, and we would address the incomprehensible decision to downgrade the seniority and expertise of Home Office decision makers. Fourthly, Labour would fix the broken resettlement pathways, particularly the Afghan schemes. Finally, we would develop an international development strategy that would include tackling the root causes of migration.

We need to look at the issues surrounding unaccompanied children, and Labour would look very carefully at how they are treated within the system. We are deeply concerned about the changes that were introduced in January this year with regard to short-term holding facilities. Ahead of the changes coming in, I wrote to the Minister privately to raise my concerns, particularly on the scope for women and children—some of whom will be fleeing sexual violence—to be held in small rooms together with men they do not know. Unfortunately, I have not received a reply to that letter. I know that the Minister is a very busy man, but perhaps he could comment on why I did not receive a reply within the expected three-month window. Perhaps he will also make clear what action he is taking to ensure that women, girls and unaccompanied children are safeguarded.

Meanwhile, the Illegal Migration Bill has raised real concerns. Clause 14 will disapply the safeguard duty to consult the independent family returns panel when a child will be removed or detained. Clauses 15 to 20 deal with issues relating to the rights of separated children, with the provisions likely to undermine the key principles of the child protection framework, including by giving the Home Secretary the power to terminate a child’s looked-after status when they are in the care of a local authority.

For the past 18 months, the Home Office has been providing accommodation to vulnerable children, yet provision of accommodation and support to children sits outside the Home Office’s competence and knowledge base, raising serious concerns over safeguarding. It was therefore shocking but not surprising that the Minister announced on 24 January that as many as 200 unaccompanied children had gone missing from hotels. What progress has he made on finding those children? What additional safeguards are in place?

Charity workers have said that children are being picked up by gangs from outside their accommodation. What action is the Minister taking to prevent that? We have heard heartbreaking stories from my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) about children who have been sexually assaulted. On 7 November, she asked the Minister to publish the details of all those cases and the number of incidents. Does the Minister have the latest data on that to share with the House?

I will end with some additional questions on wider asylum system failures, which have led to vulnerable children being placed in dangerous conditions. Last December, the Prime Minister said that the Home Office would recruit 700 new staff to the new small boats operational command. How many are in post? Last year, the Home Office announced plans to increase the number of asylum caseworkers from 1,277 to 1,500 by the end of March this year, and then to 2,500 by the end of August. Will the Minister tell us whether he has met the first target and what progress he has made towards the second? Less than 10 years ago, almost 90% of asylum claims were decided in six months. Last year, that figure stood at barely 10%. Can that possibly be explained by anything other than incompetence? Is there perhaps another agenda that explains why the backlog is so large?

The asylum system is a mess. Vulnerable children are victims of this failing system, a system that has failed because of 13 years of sleeping at the wheel and the Government taking their eye off the ball. We need a Labour Government to sort this out—and we need that as rapidly as possible.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I will come first to the points raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who secured the debate. I think it has to be said that it is surprising that she would choose this topic, important though it is, given the extremely poor record of the Scottish Government.

Just to be clear on the facts, there have never been any temporary UASC hotels in Scotland. They were all in England. In Scotland as a whole, the Home Office’s internal unverified data suggests that there are currently 398 individuals in Scottish local authority care. That compares with 8,206 in local authority care across the United Kingdom. I add the caveat that those numbers require further assurance, but they suggest that Scotland is not taking its fair share.

I will make the point, please. I have listened to the comments that were made earlier.

With respect to accompanied children, there are currently 24,300 children under the age of 18 in our accommodation across the United Kingdom. Of those, 1,353 are in Scotland. That represents just 5.6% of the overall population, when Scotland’s total population makes up 8% of the United Kingdom. Of the unaccompanied children in Scotland, only 27 are in a hotel—that is one hotel. That is not a hotel in the constituency of the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, but I am told that there are no reported issues in that hotel.

The point I am making is twofold. First, the Scottish Government are doing nothing to resolve this issue, so, with the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, this is humanitarian nimbyism. It is posturing of the absolute worst kind. If the hon. Lady cared so deeply about this, the first thing she would do after leaving this debate would be to go and speak to the Scottish Government and then to each and every one of the SNP local authorities that are not playing their part in the national transfer scheme. That is the best thing that she could do to help vulnerable children who are currently or might in future be in hotels in England to get the good quality care that they deserve.

With respect to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who raised a point about the hotel in Hove, the reason I asked her whether she had visited the hotel—I am pleased that she has done so—is that I was aware that the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) had visited the hotel. I am pleased to see that they visited together, but when I visited I was told by the staff that certainly the hon. Member for Hove, who is not in his place any more, left satisfied that the accommodation was of a high quality and that the individuals working there were doing a good job. In a previous debate, the hon. Member said that I was ignorant and that I did not know what was happening in the hotel. Well, I went to visit the hotel immediately after that, and not only did I see extremely good work being done there, but I heard from the people doing that work that the hon. Member felt that the work was of that quality.

I will not give way. What I saw when I visited the hotel was security guards, social workers, and team leaders who previously worked for the police and the military all doing a superbly good job. [Interruption.]

Order. The Minister heard the debate in its entirety with courtesy. I want the Minister to be heard with courtesy in his response. Mr Grady, you have been very well behaved throughout the whole debate. Let’s not spoil it now.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is important that we approach this debate in the spirit not of posturing but of seeking to find solutions to this difficult problem. Obviously, the enduring solution is to reduce the number of unnecessary and dangerous crossing across the channel all together. That is the purpose of the Illegal Migration Bill. If we cannot do that, or until we do it, as soon as a young person arrives in this country we have to treat them with the greatest decency, respect and compassion, and the way to do that is to get those young people into local authority care as quickly as possible.

Given the numbers of people crossing the channel at the moment, it is not possible to do that instantaneously. On a single day last autumn, 1,000 people arrived at Western Jet Foil. The UK had literally saved their lives. We then had to feed, clothe and water them, and do security and health checks on them—all, incidentally, in 24 hours. To the point from the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), that is why I changed the law to 96 hours. I will never compromise on security checks when people arrive in this country. It is not possible to security check 1,000 people in 24 hours, and I wanted to make sure that the police and our counter-terrorism officers have the powers they need. Ensuring those young people leave Western Jet Foil and go as quickly as possible to good quality local authority care has to be the mission of us all. That means supporting local authorities in every single part of the United Kingdom to step up and play their part.

The Home Office is doing this in a number of ways. We have provided financial incentives; I created a further financial incentive—a pilot of £15,000 per young person to encourage local authorities to take those individuals as swiftly as possible on the national transfer scheme. That has had success. Today there are no unaccompanied young people in hotels whatsoever. There may well be more young people in the future if more small boats cross in the months ahead. We need to encourage more local authorities to take part in that scheme.

I completely appreciate the points that have been made by a number of hon. Members that there are huge capacity constraints within local authorities and local authority care homes, and that there is a desperate shortage of foster carers. Those are issues that we should all be united in trying to tackle. The Home Office, in the short period when we house people in an emergency situation in hotels, will always do so decently and will always ensure that those hotels are as well run as possible, but we have to get people out of hotels and into local authority care as quickly as possible.

Will the Minister clarify whether, if he goes ahead and uses the Stradey Park Hotel in my constituency for asylum seekers, he is considering housing any unaccompanied children there? What measures will be taken to prevent them from going missing?

As far as I am aware, we do not intend to use that location for unaccompanied children. I will confirm that in writing, but that is not my understanding. To the point that the hon. Lady and others made about what we do when a young person goes missing from one of the hotels, as a parent and a Minister I take this responsibility extremely seriously. When I heard that young people had gone missing from the hotels, I wanted not only to visit them, but to meet all the officials involved in the task.

When I visited the hotels, including the one in Hove, I wanted to meet the social workers privately, not with Home Office officials or others present, so that I could hear directly from them, in private, whether they believe that we are doing everything we can and that we treat a missing person who is a migrant in exactly the same way as we would treat a missing person who is a British citizen—my child or your child. I was told, time and again, that we do: that we follow exactly the same processes in reporting missing people; that we engage thoroughly with the local constabularies, which are fully involved; and that we have created a specific new process called the MARS—missing after reasonable steps—protocol by which we report missing persons

That MARS process has had some success and has enabled us to track more individuals than we did previously. Crucially, every single step is taken as it would be if any other young person in this country went missing. We also have as thorough procedures as is possible in the hotels for checking people in and out, when they leave to go to the park or for a walk, as they can in such facilities.

On that point, it is worth noting that the facilities are not detained facilities. In the debate, I heard no hon. Member urging us to create detained facilities for young people. As long as the facilities are non-detained, inevitably some young people will decide to use the opportunity to leave, which on the intelligence we have is mostly to meet family or friends, or to prearranged meetings with individuals whom they had already agreed to meet, who would no doubt then help the young people to work in the grey or black economies. We have heard no evidence that people have been abducted from outside hotels. In this important debate, we have to trade in fact, not anecdote.

I will give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, but I must wrap up soon, because we have only a few minutes left.

The Minister says he met staff and officials. Did he meet any of the children? Did he look any of them in the eye and tell them that they should not be here and were not welcome?

Well, I regret giving way. I thought that the hon. Gentleman wanted to make a serious point; sadly, he wanted to make a frivolous one. I did talk to the young people—of course I did—to understand their perspectives. We care deeply about their safety. We want to ensure that fewer young people cross the channel illegally in small boats. I urge the hon. Gentleman to go to see the conditions that those young people are in when they get into those small boats: the risk to personal safety that the crossing involves; the cruelty and depravity of the people smugglers and traffickers behind the trade; and, at times, the irresponsibility of parents and others who put their children through this journey.

I cannot, because I have to bring my remarks to a close.

The purpose of the Illegal Migration Bill is to put an end to this trade once and for all, so we can focus our resources as a country on supporting young people and families, among others, who are in great need, directly from conflict zones—through our world-class resettlement schemes such as those we have established in recent years—from Ukraine, from Syria and from Afghanistan, and through the global scheme that the United Nations runs on our behalf. We want the UK to be an even greater force for good in the world, and we do that—

I cannot give way because there is no time left.

We do that by beating the people smugglers and stopping the boats.

I am glad that I was able to secure the debate. I was outraged to hear about those missing children, and what appeared to be shocking indifference by the UK Government in regard to their going missing. I was very dissatisfied with the inadequate response that the Minister recently gave to a Member about this.

I have seen nothing but an unrepentant, defensive attitude from the Minister today, with no answers to the many questions raised by Members today. I remind him that Glasgow City Council, under an SNP Administration, has consistently taken more asylum seekers than local authorities in most of England, particularly the south-east. [Interruption.] No, it is not. Scotland has taken more arrivals per head of population under the Homes for Ukraine scheme than any of the four UK nations. I remind the Minister that councils across the UK have pointed out that Home Office funding for the dispersal scheme is insufficient and must be looked at again.

The proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”, surely means that all of us are responsible for every child’s wellbeing, and that includes Government Ministers and the UK Government. We want transparency, accountability and responsibility from Ministers on that, and I am sorry to say that I did not hear any of that from the Minister today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the accommodation of asylum-seeking children in hotels.

Sitting adjourned.