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Westminster Hall

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 12 July 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 12 July 2023

[James Gray in the Chair]

UK-Mongolian Relations

May I announce a rather unusual change to normal procedure? I intend to take part in the debate, but I am also a member of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen, and it has been agreed by all parties that in the absence of the regular Chairman, I shall chair the debate until Sir Roger Gale comes to relieve me, which should be in a few minutes. I hope that that is acceptable to the House.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered UK-Mongolian relations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, during this important debate on Anglo-Mongolian relations. It was a tremendous privilege for me to be appointed as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Mongolia some two and a half years ago. I come from an exports background: before becoming a Member of Parliament, I spent my formative career after university in exports, and I fundamentally believe that the future prosperity of our nation is predicated on our ability to have the same strength in exports that we have in our indigenous economy. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, but not the fifth largest exporter. We have a target of £1 trillion of exports by 2030, and the role that the trade envoys play in promoting British exports is very important.

In January, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of our bilateral diplomatic relations with Mongolia, and 60 is an important number for Mongolians, so they held a large reception at the Dorchester hotel. I was pleased to speak at the event, together with the Deputy Prime Minister of Mongolia, to highlight the fact that the UK was the first European country formally to recognise Mongolia as an independent sovereign nation.

During my visits to Mongolia, the country’s geopolitical significance has become ingrained in my thinking. There are tremendous opportunities for bilateral co-operation, which I shall set out in the debate, but before outlining our goals and aspirations in Mongolia and the far east, let me describe the wasted decades of our obsession with the European Union.

Post Suez, we lost confidence as a nation. Suez was such a jolt for us—this is a subject I have studied extensively—that our mindset as a nation changed. We went through a period of economic and political malaise. Certainly, I believe, we went through a period of significant retrenchment, and we pulled away from many of our commercial and military interests in the far east. It was the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew—as you will remember, Mr Gray—who remonstrated with us for pulling away from our bases there. We tended to focus purely on our own continent and the European Economic Community. At that time, civil servants and others peddled the narrative, “The empire has gone. We are too small to navigate the world stage, and we need the crutch of the EEC.”

There then ensued decades of political, economic and constitutional enslavement to the process of the supranational state. We watched the constant EU summits and the constant debates in which people tried to thrash into one policy the views and aspirations of 28 countries. We left the EU and, despite all the bullying from Brussels, we have kept our course to freedom and independence.

This Government have achieved two extraordinarily important goals during their tenure of office: entry into the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, the world’s largest and fastest-growing trading bloc; and membership of AUKUS, the new naval agreement between Britain, Australia and America. If protected, those two extraordinary achievements will have a profound impact not only on the British economy, but on world security and peace. The CPTPP is the world’s largest trading bloc and contains some of the fastest-growing countries in the world, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam—in fact, the whole of the far east. Those countries are growing extraordinarily. The United Kingdom is the only European country that has been invited to join, and my understanding is that we will be signing the treaties to enter this month or next month—

Sunday, in fact. The CPTPP involves no interference in our domestic affairs or our judicial processes, and no membership fees of £200 million a week—just pure trading. It is so exciting for the British people to enter a market that is growing at a phenomenal rate.

The second achievement, AUKUS—the new naval agreement with America and Australia—gives us the opportunity with our allies to re-enter the Indian and Pacific oceans in a meaningful way, for the first time in my lifetime. The British media’s obsession with scandal and petty domestic issues is of great regret to me, because it does not focus on the extraordinary achievements of the CPTPP and AUKUS. When we go to the Dog and Duck in our constituencies, how many people come up to us and talk to us about AUKUS or the CPTPP? Nobody comes to talk to me about those things in my surgery or the local pub, and yet I feel passionately about them because they signal a huge pivot for Britain away from this obsession with our inconsequential continent, which is shrinking every day as a percentage of global population and GDP, and instead towards the far east, where the real growth is, not just for ourselves but for future generations of British businesspeople and entrepreneurs.

We now have a Mongolian intern in my office on a three-month secondment: Lomax Amarsaikhan, who studied at the University of Bristol. He is writing a report about British entry into the CPTPP and whether Mongolia ought to emulate us. I would like to ask you, Mr Gray, and others participating in the debate who have experience of how Britain signed membership of that very important organisation, and the logistics and wherewithal of our experience of entering the CPTPP, to contact Lomax. He will spend the next two months with me, writing that report in Mongolian and English. It will be presented to the Mongolian Parliament, so that we can share with the Mongolians our experience of entering this huge new bloc and encourage them to consider whether it would be suitable for them to follow us.

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

There are 195 countries in the world, yet only one has no coastline, with the Russians to the north and the Chinese to the south: Mongolia. What an extraordinary situation. More than any other countries in the world, Russia and China use brutality to oppress and subjugate their neighbours. They bully their neighbours and steal territory without remorse. That is quite extraordinary, given their status as permanent members of the UN Security Council. One would think that the five countries with the extraordinary privilege of being permanent members of the UN Security Council would be at the forefront of trying to uphold an international rules-based order predicated on the rule of law, democracy, human rights and all the other attributes of modern democratic societies and modern international relations that we feel so strongly about. Yet the Russians and the Chinese are doing the exact opposite: contravening the rules and regulations of the UN, the European Court of Justice and the International Court of Justice and trying to manipulate and threaten their neighbours.

Mongolia is a beacon of hope and democracy in that region. So many countries in that region—Russia, China, Burma—are oppressing their people. The reason I am so excited about Mongolia and feel so strongly about that nation is that despite its being subjugated by the Soviet Union as a satellite state and spending decades under a brutal, oppressive communist regime, whenever I go there I see the thirst and determination to grasp and nourish democracy and try to create a genuine democratic society in which there is rule of law and freedom of the press, and in which people can criticise politicians and get rid of them at elections.

We must support countries such as Mongolia, despite all the provocations from some neighbours and their past difficulties. We must support them economically and from a security perspective. For me, China is the biggest threat. I started to ask questions about China’s conduct in the South China sea seven years ago, of the then Foreign Secretary, Mr Hammond. I asked what the British Government’s attitude was to the Chinese seizure of hundreds of atolls in the South China sea—stealing them from Brunei, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and others and militarising the whole of the South China sea, a waterway through which 60% of the world’s trade passes.

The response from the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office, which is indelibly imprinted on my mind, was that they do not take a view on the dispute of uninhabited atolls in the South China sea. I very much regret that answer, because I feel that the militarisation of the South China sea and our turning a blind eye to the Chinese stealing hundreds of atolls, pouring concrete on them and militarising the area are the thin end of the wedge. They give the communists succour and the ability to know that they can continue to push the boundaries in their expansionist policies in the region.

It is not just the South China sea. We all know the situation with Taiwan and the difficulties that the Taiwanese Government are experiencing. We know that the Chinese have trashed the agreement over Hong Kong that they signed with Margaret Thatcher in December 1984. We had a debate in the House the other day about the subjugation of democracy rights activists in Hong Kong. We know the allegations regarding the brutal suppression of the Uyghurs and, of course, the situation in Tibet.

Two gentlemen, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, made the biggest mistake in their determination to cosy up to the Chinese, because of the dollar, the huge power of the Chinese and their ability to invest money and provide big markets. We are rightly critical of other countries because of their human rights abuses, but we have turned a blind eye to the Chinese and their conduct. The mistake made by Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne was profound. I hope that this Government and subsequent Governments will be more adroit and more courageous in ensuring that we start to divest ourselves of our extraordinary overdependence on imports from China.

When I asked the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry how we were going to become less dependent on China, she said one word: CPTPP. By entering the CPTPP, we enter a market in which 99% of goods will be traded tariff-free. What is it that we currently import from the Chinese that we cannot import from the Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese, Singaporeans, Malaysians and others? That is the message that I want to get across to the Minister. I want us to use our entry into the CPTPP to encourage countries such as Mongolia to join us—fellow democracies like Mongolia and people who believe in the things that we do—in the new trading bloc. I want us to use our position to try to restrict Chinese entry into the CPTPP unless China starts to behave in a different way towards its indigenous population and its neighbours.

When I visited Mongolia, I was taken to the Gobi desert to inspect the Rio Tinto copper mine. Rio Tinto, based up the road in St James’s Square, is a major Anglo-Australian mining company. I spent the afternoon inspecting the world’s third largest copper mine in the world, the Oyu Tolgoi Rio Tinto mine in the Gobi desert. I was taken 1.5 km underground and spent the afternoon inspecting the honeycomb labyrinth of tunnels that make up the world’s third largest copper mine. It has an investment of over $15 billion and a massive impact on the Mongolian economy.

One thing I was particularly pleased to see was that 97% of all the mineworkers were Mongolian and that the mine had won major international environmental awards for the way that it mined and looked after the area in which it was mining. That has a hugely important economic benefit for Mongolia. I am proud and privileged to have played a small part in the negotiations between the Mongolian Government and Rio Tinto in reassessing and modernising the agreement so that it is now a win-win for both sides.

Let us not forget that only 7% of Mongolia has been explored. We already see vast opportunities in the mining sector, yet only 7% of this jurisdiction has been explored. The Mongolians are mining the copper and it is going straight across the border to the Chinese in its lowest-value form. It goes in huge railway compartments across the border to China, which, as the Minister knows, is so thirsty for all minerals. It seems to devour all these things so quickly.

I say publicly to the Minister that the way to compete against the Chinese in Mongolia is by demonstrating to our Mongolian friends and partners that we want a genuine win-win partnership rather than the exploitative type of approach that they have experienced in the past. I am talking to UK Export Finance about the possibility of trying to bring British technology and expertise in copper smelting and refining. What better way to send a signal to the Mongolians that we are interested in increasing their economy, bringing added value to their output and giving them the power of having that processing industry in their own country, not just for Rio Tinto but for many other mining jurisdictions across the country?

We have the opportunity to say to the Mongolians, “We are going to work with you. We are going to bring in this technology and, potentially, we are going to finance it.” I have £2 billion burning a hole in my pocket at the moment. I do not often say that, but that is what I have generously been given by the Minister’s Department and UK Export Finance for cheap soft credit loans to facilitate British entities operating in and exporting to Mongolia. The solution need only have a minimum of 20% British content, but it is a huge opportunity for us. I pay tribute to UK Export Finance, in front of the Minister.

My interactions with Mr Tim Reid, the chief executive of UK Export Finance, have been tremendous. He and his team are very agile and adept at meeting and trying to work productively and effectively with us trade envoys to provide additional resource and opportunities for us to promote British exports with those additional soft loans and credit, which are extremely important. Can I please ask the Minister to take an interest as I progress with others in trying to bring British expertise into the Mongolian copper refinery industry? I will keep her up to date on my meetings with the chief executive of UK Export Finance, to let her know the progress on what I consider to be probably the single most important economic solution on which we can work together with the Mongolians to bring value-added processing to their copper industry.

The second issue is the capital, Ulaanbaatar. It is a beautiful city, which I have had the honour of visiting on four separate occasions. Mongolia is a huge jurisdiction with massive opportunities but a tiny population of only 3 million. I think it is going to be the next United Arab Emirates, Kuwait or Qatar within our children’s lifetime, not from oil but from minerals. Such is the wealth of the country, and so small is its population, that there is a genuine opportunity to create huge prosperity.

I look forward to the Minister’s visit to Ulaanbaatar, which she has promised to make at some stage; as she will see, it is one of the most congested cities in the world. Unfortunately, the Mongolians have one of the highest cancer rates in the world as a result of the extraordinary pollution in that city. I have been warned not to go in January and February, not only because it is about minus 40°C, but because of the huge amount of pollution in the city as a result of the congestion.

The Mongolians have asked us to look at working with them to build a ring road around Ulaanbaatar—not quite an M25, but a ring road. That is their most important strategic project, because they can see that their capital city is slowly being choked off. It is expanding extremely quickly and cannot cope with the level of congestion, which is causing them a significant problem. I say to those watching on television who have expertise in the construction, architecture or design of such arteries, or in any aspect of construction, please contact my office. As we continue to engage with the Mongolians, we would be very interested in providing them with the maximum number of British solutions possible, and that project could be financed by UK Export Finance.

I move on to critical minerals. I have already spoken extensively of my concerns about China’s brutal communist regime. As one of the Tory MPs sanctioned by Russia, I have already been banned from entering that country. The Chinese have already threatened to ban me from China if I continue to express anti-Chinese sentiments in the House. Perhaps this will tip me over the edge. I would be proud to join other Tory MPs who have been sanctioned in that way by the Chinese and the Russians.

China controls 80% of the world’s rare earth minerals. I want people to remember that for a second—it is extraordinary. We went to war in ’56 in Suez because of our misunderstanding that Nasser would restrict the flow of oil. We were so profoundly concerned about our industry collapsing as a result of the restriction of that vital commodity that we went to war. It backfired on us spectacularly, but we are entering a period when critical minerals will have even more significance for our economy than oil did in the 1950s—I am absolutely convinced of that. When flying back to Heathrow across the North sea, we see the thousands of wind turbines that we are building. We have more offshore wind than any other country in Europe, yet not a single one of those turbines can operate without a magnet. That magnet is made from rare earth minerals.

How can we keep our wind turbines, cars and most of the economy and industry going in future without rare earth minerals? They will be hugely important and I am pleased that, as the Minister will know, we have a dedicated Minister for rare earth mineral strategy: the Minister for Industry and Economic Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani). I am also talking to her about this issue.

When one country controls 80% of the world’s rare earth minerals, particularly a country as nefarious as China, we and future Governments need to start thinking about a strategy on becoming less dependent on the Chinese. At some stage in our lifetimes, they will threaten us by restricting access to rare earth minerals. I do not know when that will come—maybe over difficulties concerning Taiwan or difficulties with our freedom of navigation exercises in the South China sea; the only thing keeping that sea open is the implementation of those exercises by Britain and America. I do not know when the conflict will come, but I do know that, given the nature of the communist regime in China, it will attempt to restrict access to those vital minerals at some stage in the future.

We need to find alternatives, such as the mine in Mongolia that can potentially produce 10% of the world’s rare earth minerals. I have met representatives of the British company that owns the mine—they are based here in London—and I am very encouraged about the opportunities to exploit it, in collaboration with our Mongolian friends and allies, so that we can be less dependent on the Chinese.

The issue is not just about mining the rare earth minerals. We are bringing British processing industry to Mongolia to turn those minerals into magnets so that they can be air-freighted directly to Britain. That is the future. Relying on imports through China is no longer acceptable, whether from Kazakhstan or Mongolia. The next stage is for us to bring British processing industry to Mongolia. Again, that is a win-win situation for our Mongolian allies and ourselves, when it comes to turning the rare earth minerals into magnets. It is commercially viable, as the Minister will know, to air-freight magnets from a foreign jurisdiction directly to the United Kingdom, which would give us supplies of that vital commodity in the eventuality of difficulties or tension with the communist People’s Republic of China.

Before I finish, let me add a word about JCB, an extremely important British company based in Staffordshire, the county next to mine. No organisation or company better exemplifies the opportunities for British products in a country such as Mongolia. I visited the JCB dealership in Ulaanbaatar and met Gerry, the Mongolian gentleman who runs it with his wife and family. In the past eight years, the dealership has gone from 0% to over 25% market share for these sorts of machines in the mining industry in Mongolia.

I asked Gerry, “How do you do it? How do you compete against the machines from China? The Chinese just have a border to cross; we have to build these things in Staffordshire and get them across the world.” Gerry said it was about two things: the quality of the British goods and the after-sales service. We test these machines to destruction. The durability of the British products and the after-sales service are what differentiates British products from Chinese ones. That is what has given us such a competitive advantage over our Chinese competitors.

I was so impressed by Gerry and his team that on my last visit I invited the Mongolian Deputy Prime Minister to visit the dealership; I hope that the Minister visits it when she goes to Ulaanbaatar. Everything there is British-made—from the factory to the workshops and the areas where the goods are on display. There is even a golf driving range for customers that was built and designed by British architects and manufacturers. If we could bottle Gerry’s enthusiasm for selling British products, we would make a fortune. He is so proud of his partnership with the United Kingdom.

We need more political focus on Mongolia, and I have outlined to the Minister why Mongolia is so important. Earlier this year, I was in Kazakhstan as an election observer in Astana. While I was there, the Foreign Secretary visited Astana and signed some important agreements with this other extremely important democratic country. Kazakhstan is very similar to Mongolia: it has extraordinarily high levels of mineral production and is a post-Soviet satellite state, but it is a country that is inching its way towards democracy and the rule of law. I was impressed by what I saw as an election observer in Astana—genuine freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Mongolia and Kazakhstan, side by side, are the exciting democratic flowers that we need to water, nurture and bring into our rules-based order of democracy and freedom. They are two fascinating countries— Mongolia and Kazakhstan, side by side—and there is no greater contrast than that between them and Russia and China.

The other day, I briefed the Foreign Secretary about the need for him to visit Ulaanbaatar, and he promised that he would consider that. I hope that the Minister will take that away with her. She can see my motivation and genuine excitement about the country. Will she engage with the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister about the possibility of a state visit for the President of Mongolia, or the possibility of our own Prime Minister inviting the Mongolian Prime Minister to the United Kingdom?

Ulaanbaatar was flooded recently, and yesterday my Mongolian intern showed me a video of the destruction and devastation of Ulaanbaatar—some of the worst floods that the city has had for many years. I hope that when the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office looks at international aid, it looks a countries such as Mongolia. I want a team of British hydrologists and flooding experts at least to visit Mongolia and engage with the Mayor of Ulaanbaatar so that we can see how we can support our Mongolian friends and allies in dealing with what they perceive to be one of their biggest threats: their inability to control the flooding.

[Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

As the Minister will know from my Prime Minister’s questions, I always refer to the fact that my town, Shrewsbury, is flooded every year. We are working on a holistic solution to managing the River Severn and I chair the caucus of 42 MPs through whose constituencies the river flows. She will know the nightmare and devastation caused by a community’s flooding every year. That affects our friends in Ulaanbaatar, and I hope the Minister will take note.

When the Minister visits Mongolia, I will make sure she meets the only female governor in Mongolia’s 21 provinces, Bolormaa Enkhbat. She was chief of staff to the Mongolian Prime Minister and is now the country’s first and only female governor. She invited me to her province of Khovd, near Kazakhstan, which meant a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Ulaanbaatar. I was extremely impressed as she showed me around many opportunities for investment in her province. I very much hope the Minister will meet her.

Another thing I saw in the province, and which I hope the Minister will be able to see, is a hydroelectric power station built by the Chinese 10 years before my visit. I had never seen anything like it. I spent an afternoon walking around it and was blown away by the poor finish and poor quality. It is almost designed to fail—or disintegrate—at some stage. It would not pass muster here in the United Kingdom in a month of Sundays. If we are to compete against the Chinese on infrastructure projects such as that one, it is important we bring that expertise.

I want to pay tribute to Philip Malone, the outgoing British ambassador, who has had a career in the Foreign Office lasting more than 40 years. His first posting was in 1983 in Argentina, so we can imagine what a difficult slot that was. We did not have relations after the Falklands war and relations were done through the Swiss embassy. The professionalism and conduct of British ambassadors when one is overseas always gives one a tremendous pride in one’s own country. Our ambassadors—the men and women privileged to do that role—are the best, and Philip Malone has been exceptional. I also welcome the incoming British ambassador, Ms Fiona Blyth, who is the first female British ambassador to Mongolia. I had the honour of meeting her recently, and I wish her every success in future.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Mongolia, who does a great deal in promoting bilateral relations. I also pay tribute to the former Labour MP John Grogan, who tells me he is busy campaigning in Selby today and who I think will stand in Keighley at the next general election. He does a tremendous job as chairman of the Mongolian British chamber of commerce. I also want to thank Kevin Ringham, the civil servant who runs the Prime Minister’s trade envoy programme.

Mrs Harris, you have been the third Chair today, so I cannot say it has been a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship only, as you have been there only part of the time. I hope the Minister realises how being trade envoy has given me a huge enthusiasm for Mongolia. It is a very important democratic partner for the United Kingdom and I look forward to her work and that of the Government in continuing to nurture relations with Ulaanbaatar.

I thank the Chairman of Ways and Means for kindly allowing me to take part in this debate after having opened it in the Chair. It is an unusual thing to have done, and I am glad to have set a new record.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), whose speech was wide-ranging, geopolitical and extremely interesting. He is a true master in the development of our relationship with Mongolia, and I thank him for the work that he does as our trade envoy. The way he has made a real presence in Mongolia, and a real presence for Mongolia here in London, is superb. The work he has done is outstanding. His speech today will go down in the history of UK-Mongolia relations as being extremely important in laying out the significance of our trade relations with Mongolia.

I hope the House will forgive me if I am a little more parochial than my hon. Friend and deal with the country of Mongolia rather than elsewhere in world—that is more my level. I want to let the House know that I am a bit of a fraud; the reason for my interest in Mongolia is that throughout my entire childhood my father used to threaten to send me there if I was naughty. I had no idea where Mongolia was; I thought it was somewhere extremely remote, very strange and unusual, and pretty awful. When I came to Parliament 27 years ago and had the opportunity to visit Mongolia, I thought I had better find out what it really was like. I am delighted to say that my late father could not have been more wrong in his description of what an awful place it was; I am delighted to have had my relations with Mongolia develop ever since.

Mongolia is a very interesting place. It is a huge country—something like 10 times the size of the United Kingdom. There are only 3 million people, more than half of whom live in Ulaanbaatar. There are a very small number of people, largely herdsmen, elsewhere across the country. They preserve their magnificent traditions, which stretch back to earliest times, encompassing Genghis Khan and the great Mongol empire in the 13th century—the largest empire the world has ever known.

Incidentally, the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan was largely dependent on the fact that he invented stirrups. For that reason, he was able to have his warriors charging with swords and bows and arrows and fighting from horseback, while the enemy could not. The same applied when the Saxons lost in 1066; they rode down to Hastings and then got off their horses—they did not have stirrups. Genghis Khan did have stirrups, and that accounts for the greatest empire the world has ever known.

It is important that Mongolia maintains those traditions. When one goes there, one stays in a ger—it is not a yurt, which is a Russian word. One must ride a Mongolian horse, as I have done many times. Although given my height, I can actually run along the ground as I ride because the horse is so small. It is quite an experience. One must buy some Mongolian traditional dress—people wear it to this day, particularly in the countryside, but also in Ulaanbaatar—and take part in all the magnificent and important cultural events there. It is a great way to remember the past.

The Mongol derby happens next week. My friend Philip Atkins is taking part in the 1,000-mile race across the steppes on Mongolian horses—what a magnificent way to commemorate the great postal runs across Mongolia. My best wishes to Philip for what lies ahead. I would not do it for all the tea in China—or in Mongolia, come to that—so well done to him for doing it. Those kinds of tradition, and the history and culture of Mongolia, are of huge significance.

One of the main reasons I am in love with Mongolia is that—as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned—it is a little beacon of democracy. The little Parliament, the State Great Khural, operates in a region that is not at all friendly towards democracy. Mongolia is surrounded on one side by Russia, and on the other by China—both are hostile, and the Mongolians dislike both equally. The country is reliant on both to some degree, but is certainly not friendly to either, and for good reason.

There, in the middle of nowhere, Mongolia maintains proper democracy, based on our system in Westminster, which is to be encouraged. It is therefore important that we find ways of assisting Mongolia in the constitutional changes coming up—it is just about to change the way the Parliament is elected. We should assist it in every possible way to make those changes and to continue to develop that important democratic beacon in the middle of an anti-democratic desert.

With that in mind, I am very glad that I have often visited Mongolia with the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The IPU do great work in encouraging democracy in Mongolia. It is disappointing that we were not able to be there this year, which is the 60th anniversary of our recognition of Mongolia, but I hope we will be there soon none the less. The all-party parliamentary group for Mongolia might organise a trip, if we can find some funding to do that, and I hope the IPU might reconsider the decision not to visit this year and find time do so shortly. It is terribly important that we here, with 1,000 years of democracy in this building, make use of our knowledge and experience in countries such as Mongolia, which are desperately trying to hang on to democracy.

I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the new ambassador, Fiona Blyth, to her place in Mongolia. She is a great woman—I have met her many times—and she will do a superb job in representing Britain’s interests. I also thank the outgoing ambassador, Philip Malone, who did the job with great distinction indeed. We do wonderful work in supporting democracy in Mongolia and we must make sure that we continue to do so.

In passing, may I refer to the all-party parliamentary group, which is very active in this place? We see a lot of Mongolians coming through Parliament, and I am most grateful to a member of my office staff, Oscar Harrison, who runs the group for me. He does a first-class job. This is an important APPG. This Parliament has far too many APPGs, and I only run those that are very active and do things. The Mongolia APPG does a great deal, and I am most grateful for it.

In my 25 years of visiting Mongolia, I am delighted to say that I have seen huge changes. I remember going there shortly after the Soviets had withdrawn. Ulaanbaatar, or UB, was a pretty rundown little Soviet-type place with one major hotel, which had one thing on the menu, namely mutton. If guests did not like mutton, they did not get anything to eat.

All those years ago, Mongolia was a pretty rundown ex-Soviet country, but the changes I have seen since then are extraordinary. UB has doubled in size—with some environmental consequences, as my hon. Friend mentioned—and some worthwhile modern technologies and industries are developing there, particularly with regard to the Oyu Tolgoi mine and other mining and mineral interests.

I have also been glad to see the cashmere industry develop over the years. Some 30 years ago, the Gobi Cashmere factory in Mongolia was extremely basic and grey cardigans were all that was available. Today, the cashmere industry is fairly modern and widely advertised, and the industry exports to the UK, which I am glad about, although more could be done. I think I am right in saying that the company is still owned by the state, and if it were privatised it might become even better. None the less, some of those new industries—

I do not have much time. My hon. Friend spoke for 45 minutes—[Interruption.] Let us not bother with that for now. I hope we will see Gobi developing further in the years to come.

We in this country have an enormous amount to contribute to Mongolia. I have already mentioned democracy and the free-market economy, both of which we can lead on for Mongolia and the rest of the world, and we can contribute a huge amount with regard to commerce and industry, as my hon. Friend has described. I am glad that there is, for example, a big relationship between the London stock exchange and the Mongolian stock exchange, and the Mongolian stock exchange can learn an awful lot from us.

In a variety of other economic and trade aspects, we are developing our relationship with Mongolia, and we can also do a lot with regard to education and science. English is now the second language of Mongolia, which I am glad about, and we can do a huge amount to promote industry, science and education there. I am pleased that there is also a defence relationship with Mongolia, and 6,000 Mongolian troops served in Afghanistan alongside us. Those troops made a useful contribution to the defence of the world.

Mongolia is no longer the outer extremity of the world, which is how my father described it to me all those years ago. It has a great distance to go before it becomes a fully integrated, fully modern and fully democratic nation state. We all want that to happen, but the changes I have seen in 25 years of going to Mongolia are quite extraordinary and very worth while.

I send the Mongolians every good wish, and I hope Mongolia keeps on its steady track of movement towards democracy and a free-market economy. I hope Mongolia maintains its fine old traditions as it does that. We must remember the country’s culture, language and education. If it continues in such a way, people in 60 years will be able to look back from the 120th anniversary of our recognition of the country and be proud of the contribution Britain has made to Mongolia.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Mrs Harris. I thank the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for stepping in as temporary Chair to ensure that the debate could occur. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate. I understand that he is a passionate advocate for UK-Mongolian relations, as was evidenced by the time he took to speak.

This debate comes as Mongolia marks 60 years of diplomatic relations with the UK. Trade between the UK and Mongolia has dropped by as much as 58% over the past three years, from a total value of more than £0.5 billion in 2020. The Mongolian economy continues to rapidly grow, presenting new opportunities in sectors such as energy, education and agriculture for companies across these four nations. I would welcome further details from the Minister on the UK Government’s plans to increase UK exports, and specifically Scottish goods, to the Mongolian market.

In terms of energy, trade with Mongolia presents Scotland with a unique opportunity. Scotland, of course, has vast expertise in the renewable energy sector, in areas such as wind and hydropower, and it is important that closer links are developed between Scottish companies and their Mongolian counterparts to build on that expertise. In order to better promote Scottish businesses and harness that expertise, it is important that Scottish Government officials are invited to future UK-Mongolian trade meetings. Will the Minister commit to that today?

When last asked in February 2022, as I understand, the UK Government stated that the Department for International Trade had a team of four focused on promoting UK exports to Mongolia and reducing barriers to trade. Given the drop in exports and the increased budget allocated to promotion of UK trade, I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed whether that number will rise.

The UK Government should look to work alongside the Scottish Government to host trade exhibitions to promote Scottish goods and industry. That is especially important given that whisky and other food and drink products do not feature on Mongolia’s list of top 10 imported goods from the UK. It would provide an opportunity to promote a vital sector of the Scottish economy and culture, but it must be done in a way that ensures local sensitivities around alcohol consumption are respected.

We must ensure that environmental policies remain at the centre of any bilateral discussions. Given the centrality of the mining of critical minerals to the Mongolian economy and the role that UK companies play in harnessing these resources, it is vital that we ensure the correct environmental protections are implemented. It is particularly concerning to hear that some environmental groups have faced issues. Amnesty International has expressed its concerns over the erosion of civil liberties, designed to prevent opposition to mining operations across Mongolia.

In May 2022, the Mongolian Government introduced a Bill to amend the criminal code, creating prison sentences for obstructing mining and other development projects. The draft law would restrict legitimate non-governmental organisation activity, prohibit legitimate activities and limit NGO funding. I wish to put on record the SNP’s support for freedom of association and assembly. NGOs play a vital part in our battle against climate change. Although the Mongolian Government have signalled that they are amending the Bill, we wish to see UK-Mongolian diplomatic engagement reiterate our opposition to the provisions in that legislation, and any subsequent legislation, if it is deemed necessary, must not water down the right to protest.

Indigenous herding communities are bearing the brunt of the impact of increased mining activities. Coal and other mining operations in the Gobi region of Mongolia have destroyed grasslands, contaminated groundwater and depleted other water resources. Those actions are displacing indigenous communities, around 28% of whom—about 600,000 people—have moved from rural communities to the capital. Those who have been displaced face issues including not receiving compensation from the mining operations, and experience the health problems associated with living in temporary accommodation. Those left living in rural communities face health issues caused by the mining activities, on top of the economic damage caused by the destruction of land that was previously used for grazing.

Like all countries across the globe, Mongolia is impacted by changes to the climate, but because more than 30% of the country is desert, it is particularly badly hit by rising temperatures. That will likely force more climate refugees to move to the capital from rural areas, so it is in all our interest to tackle climate change effectively. I hope Mongolia will continue to build on the success of COP26 in Glasgow, and will push to meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the conference, the President of Mongolia committed to the planting of 1 billion trees by 2030 as part of a bid to reforest areas of Mongolia, tackle desertification and create a carbon sink. I hope the UK Government will assist Mongolia in its efforts to tackle climate change, and I hope the Minister will refer to that in her remarks.

This debate has highlighted the need for improved links with Mongolia, which would of course present opportunities for Scottish businesses to expand into new markets and capitalise on Scottish expertise in green energy. That is incredibly exciting. I hope the four nations of the UK will continue to develop closer bonds with the nation of Mongolia.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing this debate. The chair of the all-party group for Mongolia, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), spoke fondly of his regard for Mongolia, and the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) rightly called for responsible business practices around mining, particularly in relation to traditional nomadic populations.

It is particularly apt that this debate is taking place during the Naadam holiday. I want to pay my respects, and I wish all those celebrating a very happy Naadam. Although our relationship with Mongolia is not our oldest diplomatic relationship, it is one of the warmest. It was a privilege to represent the Labour party at the reception earlier this year on the anniversary of 60 years of diplomatic relations between our two countries, and it is a pleasure to stand here on behalf of the Labour party to celebrate that landmark.

I was also pleased to attend a Mongolian British chamber of commerce event led by John Grogan, the former Member of Parliament for Keighley, who is a great friend of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and a great champion of Mongolia in the UK. In recent months, I have met His Majesty’s ambassador to Mongolia, Fiona Blyth, and Minister-Counsellor of Mongolia, Bolormaa Batsaikhan. They have both given me a good insight into the relationship and the opportunities between our two countries. I am confident that, through them and the committed team of diplomats in London and Mongolia, the relationship will continue to grow.

I want to put on the record Labour’s enduring thanks for Mongolia’s contribution to the NATO military mission in Afghanistan. There is no greater symbol of abiding friendship and co-operation than sending young men and women into danger to support allies, and Mongolia stepped up to the plate. The international contribution to the people of Afghanistan was truly global, and the 6,000 Mongolian soldiers proudly served shoulder to shoulder with our servicemen and women in Kabul.

I also applaud the growing trading relationship between Mongolia and the UK. There is ample room for it to continue to grow—admittedly, from a low bar—and I know there will be many opportunities for British business to visit the country and develop interests there. In particular, there seems to be an opportunity to share best practice on traffic management to reduce poor air quality, which was mentioned earlier.

I will end on that note, as this has been a particularly consensus-based debate, but I ask the Minister what steps the Government are taking to support the relationship. What measures are being considered to increase exports and cultural exposure here in the UK and in Mongolia? We should not forget that English is our best export, so I hope the Minister is promoting the British Council and the many wonderful things that it can offer in Mongolia. Our relationship is warm, and the opportunities are very real and can mutually benefit both countries. Here’s to 60 more years of a growing relationship.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I thank the team for making sure the debate could go ahead, despite the challenges at the start.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing the debate and for his passionate commitment, as the trade envoy to Mongolia, to highlighting the wider trade opportunities opening up now that the UK has left the EU and we once again have control of our trade policy. I encourage him to bring his local businesses together, at the Dog and Duck or some other watering hole in his constituency, to share with them some of the CPTPP opportunities that are coming up and to think about how we can ensure that resources as part of the export strategy now held in the Department for Business and Trade can support them as they look to new and exciting markets.

To the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), and wider questions about opportunities with Mongolia, a key strand of the export strategy is to help our local small and medium-sized enterprises to find the new opportunities for export. I am also grateful for the contributions of other hon. Members and the warmth of their comments. I hope to cover some of the questions that were raised.

As has been mentioned, 2023 is a significant point for UK-Mongolian relations, marking 60 years of diplomatic relations between our two countries. The UK is rightly proud of its status as the first western nation to establish diplomatic ties with Mongolia, which opened the door for like-minded nations to do the same. Mongolia continues to be an important strategic partner for the UK. As we look towards the Indo-Pacific through the lens of the integrated review, Mongolia continues to be at the heart of some of the opportunities there.

Mongolia’s story is as fascinating as it is complex. A democratic island in a sea of autocracy, it has overcome many of its geographical constraints to emerge a modern, strong success story. As it continues its evolution from Soviet satellite state to Asian market economy, we share a deep commitment to democratic values and upholding the international order. As the shadow Minister highlighted, Mongolia has demonstrated that with real tangible commitments through its armed forces commitments.

Mongolia operates a third neighbour policy, reaching out to partners such as the UK, diversifying its relationships and reducing its dependence on Russian energy and trade with China. UK trade with Mongolia is good for us both. Mongolia continues to build resilience to Russian and Chinese pressure while we open up new markets for British businesses. For example, the south Gobi desert is home to the world’s fourth largest copper mine, operated by Rio Tinto, which has invested around $12 billion in the Mongolian economy. The UK Government have offered consistent support as the project has developed, and UK businesses have benefited from a variety of opportunities in the extensive supply chain.

Since we signed a memorandum of understanding with Mongolia to co-operate in the extractive sector, its abundant mineral resources have attracted global attention, with France, the US and South Korea also signing agreements to help explore Mongolia’s critical minerals industry. That is in part driven by Mongolia’s desire to move away from a reliance on selling to China, while western countries seek to reduce China’s dominance in the wider critical minerals supply chains. The availability of UK export finance for projects in Mongolia is another sign of our commitment to our trading relationship and to strengthening the economic ties between our countries.

Elsewhere in the country—to the shadow Minister’s point—education, one of the UK’s greatest exports, is proving to be a vital tool to combat Russian disinformation. Mongolia recently made English its official second language, displacing Russian, and is looking for investment to increase English teaching coverage across the country. We have a strong educational relationship, thanks in large part to our Chevening programme. Eleven Mongolian scholars came to the UK to study this year, and I am delighted to announce that we will welcome 17 next year, reflecting both the high calibre of the students, which is of course always important, and the productive nature of our relationship with Mongolia’s Ministry of Education.

It is in that spirit of hope for the future that, later this year, the UK will sign a memorandum of partnership and co-operation with Mongolia to mark our diplomatic anniversary and to deepen our relationship across a range of areas, including critical and strategic minerals, trade and investment, education and the environment. The partnership shows the Foreign Secretary’s ambition to boost UK influence in middle-ground countries, and to support an international system that reflects our values, especially in Asia.

To grow our influence over the long term, we need to provide greater support for Mongolia in the field of education. That is a key part of our offer and an avenue through which to combat Russian influence, but more than that, it is an investment of faith in this wonderful country that has chosen English as its language of business.

We will work with Mongolia to develop its infrastructure and help it to diversify its energy supply. Discussions are ongoing over the construction of a copper smelter, which my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham raised, and which would help Mongolia to move up the value chain and reduce dependence on China for copper processing. We will work with Mongolia to ensure that any copper processing operation makes economic sense and is done—importantly for us—in the most sustainable way possible.

Mongolia is also a key ally in stopping the circumvention of Russian sanctions, which is essential to denying Russia the funding for its war in Ukraine. We can help by continuing to provide support for Mongolia in its fight against corruption and assisting it in its efforts to strengthen its democracy and build state capacity. At 33 years old, Mongolia is a young democracy, but strengthening democracies anywhere in the world automatically strengthens our own.

It is important for the UK to continue to engage with Mongolia, pinched as it is between Russia and China, and we will seek to co-operate in whatever way we can. Our relationship with Mongolia is already in very good standing, and we recognise the opportunities that that strong partnership presents, as well as the consequences for the international system should we engage insufficiently.

Mongolia is a western-leaning democracy that is walking a diplomatic tightrope—maintaining healthy relations with the neighbours on which it depends, while deepening ties with the west and across the Indo-Pacific. Its move to make English an official language is a sign of its willingness to engage internationally, and when the UK engages in return, we help to contest the Russian periphery and isolate Russia on the global stage. The memorandum of partnership and co-operation will be the start of increased engagement with Mongolia and a road map to a strong and productive future relationship.

I will not say much, because I have already spoken for a long time. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Mongolia, referred to Gobi Cashmere. Of course, cashmere is one of the most important exports for Mongolia. I know that Gobi Cashmere is setting up operations in Europe from the United Kingdom and will want to export more cashmere. Being 6 feet 9 inches, the tallest Member of Parliament and officially a giant, it is not possible for me to buy suits easily, but I am modelling my Gobi Cashmere suit, which I purchased in Mongolia. Once you try Mongolian cashmere, you never go back. For anybody who is in the market for a new suit, this is what you can get—Gobi Cashmere from Mongolia.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered UK-Mongolian relations.

Sitting suspended.

Abandoned Vehicles: Public Highways

I beg to move,

That this House has considered abandoned vehicles on public highways.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the important issue of abandoned vehicles on public highways, which unfortunately are quite common in Keighley. As I see it, it is generally an issue of antisocial behaviour. It has been raised with me at surgeries by many constituents across Keighley, Ilkley and the wider area, and I have visited streets in Keighley to see the vehicles for myself.

We are talking about vehicles that are generally unroadworthy, untaxed, uninsured and without number plates, and that have been left on the public highway for weeks, months or sometimes years. Sometimes they have engines or other parts—predominantly bumpers—missing, having been used as a roadside shop for spare parts.

The issue causes huge frustration to my constituents who have to live on the streets in question and drive past the abandoned vehicles daily, and it impacts the wider feel of Keighley. There are several streets in the centre of town on which vehicles have been abandoned, and many residents have to drive past them to get to work or school.

I want to use this opportunity to get to the crux of how we sort the issue out and get abandoned vehicles that have been left on the public highway for months, if not years, moved. It seems to me that we have the legislation in place but that it is not being utilised fully by Bradford Council. I will come on to that.

The point has been made to me that, in some cases, vehicles have been abandoned in places where they are causing a nuisance to neighbouring residential or business properties. On Brewery Street, just off Dalton Lane in Keighley, one business, which is in its third generation, is being impacted by abandoned vehicles that have been left in situ for many a year. These nuisance vehicles are causing that business problems with its day-to-day functions, because delivery lorries are unable to get in. Quite rightly, that business wants to grow and expand, but it cannot get delivery lorries in and out, because these abandoned vehicles have been left on the public highway.

One thing that always gets thrown back to me is that these vehicles are on the public highway but not an adopted public highway, and we need to understand the difference. The legislation states that “public highway” relates to that which is a private road, but the public have the ability to drive down it, whereas with a public adopted highway the council—Bradford Council—has full control over it.

Many residents have rightly contacted me because they are fed up with these abandoned vehicles and the slow progress that Labour-run Bradford Council is making in removing them. This situation is not just ringfenced to Keighley; it is a wider Bradford district problem. The Yorkshire Post reported on the issue in November 2022, when there was a concerted effort by the council in Bradford city and 90 abandoned vehicles were identified on one street alone. When the notice provisions, which I will come to, were served, various owners suddenly came out of the woodwork to claim their vehicle, despite these vehicles having been abandoned for years, with flat tyres and parts missing—I dare say that the engine probably was not even in some of them. That reduced the number of abandoned vehicles from 90 to only three, on which the council was then able to take action. We absolutely need to get to grips with this issue.

Hotspots in Keighley include Ferncliffe Drive. I met the residents there over a year ago, because they are deeply concerned. It is a private road but a public highway, and there are sometimes up to 15 abandoned vehicles, many of which have no number plates and parts missing. They are uninsured and unable even to get to an MOT centre, let alone pass the MOT. The council should be able to take action and move these vehicles on. Residents on Ferncliffe Drive are rightly getting incredibly frustrated, and the issue of Ferncliffe Drive was specifically raised at the Utley safer streets group meeting, which I was kindly invited to—I have spoken there twice, and I get invited on a semi-regular basis to provide an update on the actions I am taking. I confirmed to that meeting, which was full of concerned residents, that I would bring the issue to Parliament, and I am pleased the Minister is in her place to listen.

Another hotspot is just off Dalton Lane, which is in a residential/industrial part of town. Again, many streets off Dalton Lane are used simply to abandon vehicles. That is unfair on businesses, as I mentioned, but also on the residents of those streets. There is also South Street, which is a very busy street that is used to enter Keighley from the Worth Valley side of the constituency. Every time I have gone up to Cross Roads, Haworth and the wider Worth Valley area, I have counted three abandoned vehicles in close proximity. They have not moved since I have been the MP, which is coming up to four years. Action has to be sorted out. There is still a problem, despite me, as the MP, having raised it with Bradford Council, along with many residents and businesses.

I want to get to the crux of the powers a local authority has available to it, because Labour-run Bradford Council does not seem to be taking the actions available to it under legislation. The powers sit under section 3 of the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978, which gives councils—and national parks, although that does not apply to the circumstances I am describing—the ability to “remove and dispose” of abandoned vehicles. The Act also contains provisions to give local authorities the powers to issue fixed penalty notices to offenders, if the vehicles are not moved on.

The question is, what is an abandoned vehicle? An abandoned vehicle can quite easily be identified, yet the pushback I get from Labour-run Bradford Council is, “Oh, it’s very difficult to decide whether a vehicle is classified as abandoned.” Well, all it needs to do is to go on the Government website, which clearly outlines the provisions for an abandoned vehicle.

First, an abandoned vehicle is one that has no listed keeper on the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency database and is untaxed—information that can quickly be found by visiting the DVLA website and typing in the number plate.

Secondly, an abandoned vehicle is one that has been stationary for a significant period. I suppose the question could be, what is “significant”? Well, if a vehicle has been abandoned for over a year and has not moved, and it has flat tyres, has quite clearly not passed its MOT, and is untaxed or uninsured, that would imply a significant period of time, and it would be reasonable for the council to take action. Again, I put on record my frustration that Bradford Council is not taking the issue seriously.

Thirdly, a vehicle could be abandoned if it is significantly damaged, run down or unroadworthy or has flat tyres, for example. If the Minister would kindly come to my constituency so that I could take her to all these hotspots, she would see for herself that these vehicles should clearly be classified as abandoned. Fourthly, a vehicle can be classed as abandoned if it is burned out, and it would be perfectly reasonable for a burned-out vehicle to be moved on.

Finally, the authority may decide that a vehicle is abandoned if its number plate is missing. That is all that is needed to classify a vehicle as abandoned; it might be properly roadworthy, but if its number plate is missing, it can be classified as abandoned. I have multiple vehicles in my constituency that would be classified as abandoned, that are causing a nuisance to residents and businesses and that need to be moved on.

What duty is placed on a local authority? What powers does it have to move abandoned vehicles on? The legislation is quite clear, stating that a local authority has the ability to move on an abandoned vehicle from a public street; from a private road that is classified as a highway; from an adopted road that is classified as a highway; or from land in the open air, including private land. However, I will focus predominantly on roads, because I am getting most correspondence about abandoned vehicles on roads.

If an abandoned vehicle is on private land, the local authority is duty-bound to serve a 15-day notice period, but that notice period does not apply if the vehicle is on a public highway, so why is Labour-run Bradford Council not getting on with it? It does not need to conform to the 15-day notice period, as that does not apply if a vehicle is abandoned on a road that is classified as a highway, whether that is private or a publicly adopted road. Under the legislation, the local authority is quite rightly protected and cannot be held liable for any damage resulting in its removal of a vehicle from the public highway.

The local authority has two options, and it is incredibly frustrating that Labour-run Bradford Council is not using the opportunity available to it under the 1978 legislation. First, it could apply a penalty. Local authorities can penalise people who abandon vehicles or parts of vehicles—yes, parts of vehicles have been abandoned in Keighley, much to the frustration of local businesses and residents—on the public highway or private land; it can issue a fixed penalty notice or prosecute them. I completely understand the challenge associated with not knowing who owns the vehicle or who owns the private land, but I am focusing on vehicles abandoned on roads. If the owner of the vehicle is not known, it is right that the local authority serves a seven-day notice on it, and if nobody claims that vehicle within that time, the local authority is duty-bound to take action under the 1978 legislation. But Labour-run Bradford Council is not even serving the notice, let alone taking action when nobody comes forward to claim the vehicle after the seven-day period.

There are provisions in legislation that give my local authority the ability to move these vehicles on, but it is not doing so. It can dispose of an abandoned vehicle immediately if either of the following points applies: the vehicle is only fit to be destroyed—that is, it is classified as abandoned—or it has no number plate or tax disc. Those are easily identifiable measurables, but my local authority seems unequipped to find out whether a vehicle is properly classified as abandoned. If I were a civil enforcement officer, I would happily go round my constituency, identify all the abandoned vehicles and get them moved on, because my residents are sick to the back teeth of having to put up with such vehicles being left year on year.

If a vehicle is abandoned and we do not know who the owner is, the local authority has the ability to give that vehicle seven days’ notice. If nobody identifies the vehicle within seven days, the local authority has the ability to move it on. If the owner ever comes back to claim the vehicle, the local authority can charge them for the cost of removal and storage, which is perfectly reasonable.

That brings me to the Removal, Storage and Disposal of Vehicles (Prescribed Sums and Charges) Regulations 2008. The regulations set out how much a local authority can reclaim from the vehicle owner should they ever come to light and identify their vehicle, but I think the Minister could review them, because the removal cost is too low. For example, if a vehicle exceeds 3.5 tonnes but is less than 7.5 tonnes, and it is not upside down or on its side but in a stable position, the maximum amount the local authority can reclaim from the owner is only £200, which will not reimburse it for the cost associated with removing and disposing of that vehicle. To give the local authority its due, that is probably one reason why it is not taking much action, because the removal cost it can recoup from the owner, should they ever come and identify themselves, is only £200 in those circumstances. I do not think that is enough, and the Government could review the regulations.

The crux of this issue is that my residents and businesses, and indeed anybody who comes to visit Keighley—it is one of the most awesome constituencies to come and have a look round—have to see fly-tipping taking place. Vehicles are being left on the street, causing a nuisance to anybody who visits Keighley, resides there or wants to operate their business.

The second issue I want to address is how we challenge businesses that use the highway to park abandoned vehicles for spare parts, often for several years. I think the legislation could be toughened up, and there needs to be more focus on the ability of local authorities to take action against these businesses. Garage businesses may be parking abandoned vehicles on the highway to get spare parts, and it is unfair that they do so.

My understanding is that we have legislation in place that enables a local authority to take legal action if a business is using repair cars on the road or using the road to sell cars, but that has to be toughened up, because the only action that can be taken is issuing a fixed penalty notice, which amounts to only £100. That is nowhere near tough enough to deter businesses from using the public highway to store abandoned vehicles.

The legislation also gives local authorities the ability to take a business to court on behalf of a complainant, which relies on a resident making a complaint against the business. My residents do not have the time or the willpower to deal with that. The local authority should be empowered to take action against that business to stop it using the highway to, effectively, carry out its business by using the highway as a storage camp for its abandoned vehicles. If the matter goes to court, a magistrate can fine the business only up to £2,500. Again, that is nowhere near a strong enough deterrent.

To sum up, I am pleased that Mr Speaker has granted me time to bring to the House the important issue of abandoned vehicles on the public highway. It is an issue in Keighley and my wider constituency. Local authorities are empowered to remove abandoned vehicles, and it is incredibly frustrating that Labour-run Bradford Council does not use the powers afforded to it sufficiently. When it comes to businesses using the public highway to, effectively, store abandoned vehicles, we could go further and use tougher legislative provisions. I urge the Minister to look at the statutory instrument I referred to, so that we can bring forward much tougher fines, which will act as a deterrent.

I think this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. It is a privilege to do so today and to follow my fantastic colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore). He is clearly a champion for his constituents and is in tune with what they need to thrive and what they need for their livelihoods to prosper.

In preparing to speak in this debate, I researched some statistics and was shocked to learn that between 2020 and 2022, Bradford had the highest number of abandoned car reports outside London. That is being played out today in the way my hon. Friend cites a number of areas.

The Minister notes that Bradford Council is one of the country’s worst-offending areas outside London with the highest number of abandoned vehicles. Does she agree that the legislative powers are there for a council to utilise? If so, does she share my frustration that Labour-run Bradford Council is not using the powers awarded to it to deal with this issue, which is blighting my constituents?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful and effective point. I am not the Minister responsible for waste at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—that is the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow)—but I will recommend that she meets him and that perhaps we should consider writing to Bradford Council on that point.

As part of our environmental improvement plan, which we proudly published on 31 January, there is a clear imperative to leave the environment in a better state. That is fundamentally about halting nature’s decline by 2030 and increasing its abundance thereafter, but making sure that we have clean water, clean air and good quality soils and that we tackle waste and resources is a fundamental part of that 262-page document.

We need all councils, including Bradford Council, to play their part, and we need residents to do the same. Clearly, the issue of deliveries not being able to get to a business and Brewery Street being clogged up means that business will not be able to prosper. My hon. Friend mentioned the Utley safer streets group and some particular hotspots for abandoned vehicles, namely Ferncliffe Drive, Dalton Lane and South Street; I urge Bradford Council to make those areas a priority, as that is clearly where the focus needs to be.

My hon. Friend is right that the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act has been in place since 1978, when I was coming out of nappies, and that it allows local authorities to take action. It is a criminal offence to unlawfully abandon any vehicle

“in the open air, or on any other land forming part of a highway”.

As he said, doing so is punishable by a fine of up to £2,500 and/or three months in prison. As an alternative to prosecution, councils have the power to issue a fixed penalty of £200 to the vehicle owner. There is a clear legislative vehicle—primary legislation that has been in place for some 45 years—that councils can use.

Recent research by Scrap Car Comparison, based on freedom of information requests to city councils across the country, found the shocking statistic that Bradford had the highest number of abandoned car reports between 2020 and 2022. There are clearly specific issues in Keighley as well. Too many abandoned vehicles are being left to rust, without their owners giving due consideration to their correct disposal. That is clearly a problem for the environment and for local residents, as my hon. Friend set out.

It is not acceptable to run a spares and repairs business on the side of a road. Some of these vehicles are just an eyesore, but the nuisance goes beyond the blocking of roads, parking spaces and property access. The hazardous fluids and chemicals that they contain pose a serious risk to the environment and can contaminate the surrounding land, water and air. That directly contravenes what we all want to achieve in our environmental improvement plan and what society demands of us.

Let me outline some of the measures that are already in place. We are committed to encouraging local solutions for local problems, which is why I commend the Utley safer streets group. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is meeting with those can-do people, who are passionate about improving their community; I will always commend and encourage them.

Before removing a vehicle, authorities must first decide whether a vehicle is abandoned. My hon. Friend made the point about a vehicle not having a keeper, not being taxed and not having moved for a period of time; I agree with him that 12 months is a significant period. If a vehicle has flat tyres or is missing essential parts and panels, and if it has been left for a significant period of time without a number plate, it is blindingly obvious that that vehicle is not roadworthy.

I also confirm that the legislation and measures to which my hon. Friend referred are indeed correct. Local authorities can dispose of an abandoned vehicle themselves. They can do so immediately if it is fit to be destroyed, has no number plate or is untaxed, as my hon. Friend said. Otherwise, they can do so if the owner cannot be found or fails to comply with a notice to collect the vehicle. To help councils to tackle the situation, we have given them powers to penalise people who abandon vehicles or parts of vehicles on public highways. People can be issued with a penalty notice of £200 or—for more serious issues—prosecuted, which can lead to a maximum fine of £2,500 or three months in prison.

I will take up my hon. Friend’s ask to review whether the legislation could be improved to increase enforcement, because without the appropriate powers and action we will not achieve our environmental improvement plan’s 38 legal targets and our moral ambitions. I will certainly undertake to identify further measures that this Government could take in relation to that.

I also want to touch on producer responsibility, because we are still producing new cars and we need to think about the future and how we dispose of the products we make responsibly. That is part of the work that DEFRA is doing. In addition to supporting local action to tackle the abandonment of vehicles, we are tackling the environmental impact of end-of-life vehicles. The end-of-life vehicles producer responsibility scheme—that is a mouthful—has led to an improvement in the treatment of scrap vehicles and to increased recycling and recovery rates. In 2018, of the 1.6 million tonnes of scrapped end-of-life vehicles, 93% were recycled and recovered—an impressive increase from 87% in 2011.

Under the producer responsibility scheme, vehicle manufacturers and importers have a responsibility to establish collection systems into which end-of-life vehicles can be delivered free of charge. Local authorities are also able to deliver end-of-life vehicles into those collection schemes.

Scrap metal has significant value, too. Because 75% of most vehicles is metal, they have value even at end of life. People are incentivised to sell vehicles for scrap, rather than abandoning them on the road, but it is not acceptable for the vehicle to slowly degrade and for spares and repairs to be sold over a period of months and years, clogging up roads and causing a blight to communities and a danger to our environment.

Local authorities have powers to tackle nuisance parking where a business leaves two or more cars for sale, or repair cars, on the road within 500 metres of each other. They can either issue a £100 fixed penalty notice or take the business to court on behalf of the complainant, which can lead to the business being handed a fine of up to £2,500. Furthermore, if a member of the public has concerns that a business is selling a vehicle on the road, they can ask the local authority to make a control order. If a control order is issued, the offender must stop selling vehicles on the road and can be fined £1,000.

In response to my hon. Friend’s excellent points, the evidence is clear that this is a significant issue in the Bradford Council area. I have demonstrated how the Government are supporting councils to tackle this local issue, and outlined how the producer responsibility scheme helps individuals to properly dispose of their end-of-life vehicles. External research shows that the number of abandoned car reports in Bradford peaked in 2021. I hope that the good people of Bradford, particularly in my hon. Friend’s constituency, continue to enjoy dwindling reports of abandoned vehicles. Legislation is in place, but we will look at whether it can be strengthened. There is a clear environmental imperative to take action so that vehicles are not left at the side of roads for months and years at a time. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this issue to the House’s attention.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered abandoned vehicles on public highways.

Sitting suspended.

Metropolitan Police: Stephen Lawrence Murder Investigation

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Metropolitan Police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I will start, as is fitting, by paying tribute to Doreen and Neville Lawrence. Time after time, they have faced setback after setback, yet they continue to campaign with dignity for justice for their murdered son. It is a dignity that puts the shabby performance of the Met to shame. We can only imagine the anger and frustration that they feel, having to endure another revelation that yet again exposes the failings of the investigation into Stephen’s murder and raises the suspicion that corruption hampered it from the start.

Stephen Lawrence was murdered in Eltham on 22 April 1993. One of my first acts on becoming a Member of Parliament was to table a question in the House calling for a public inquiry into the investigation into Stephen’s murder. I pay tribute to my former colleague John Austin, who supported me in doing so. Despite the stench of corruption that surrounded the case from the start, the Macpherson inquiry did not conclude that corruption hampered the investigation. Despite many revelations and investigations along the way, corruption has always been denied.

We are here today thanks to the excellent detective work of two people: the BBC reporter Daniel De Simone, who uncovered evidence that was originally ignored and spoke to key witnesses exposing the failings of the original inquiry, and Chief Inspector Clive Driscoll, whose outstanding work along with his team secured the convictions of David Norris and Gary Dobson in 2012 and uncovered other vital information. The culmination of their combined efforts is that the Met has been forced to accept that Matthew White is a suspect in the attack and is likely to have been the blond-haired sixth attacker.

Last week, the Crown Prosecution Service decided that four officers would not face prosecution for failures in public office for their part in the now discredited police investigation. In 2014, another officer, Detective Sergeant John Davidson, was also exonerated of charges. In a 2006 documentary about the murder of Stephen Lawrence, Davidson was described by then Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Yates as one of the most corrupt officers in the Met. In 1998, Yates was head of Operation Russia, an investigation into a syndicate of corrupt officers in the south-east regional crime squad.

One of the officers under investigation, Neil Putnam, turned supergrass. He disclosed in his evidence a link between DS Davidson and Clifford Norris—the father of David Norris, who murdered Stephen Lawrence. Yates wrote of their association in a memo to the Met while the Macpherson inquiry was still taking evidence. Putnam claims that he understood that his testimony about the link between Norris and Davidson would be reported to the inquiry. The information from Yates and Putnam was not passed to the inquiry. The Met disputes Putnam’s claim that he told his handlers of that link, but Putnam repeated it under oath.

I contacted the Met and demanded to know why Yates had accused DS Davidson of corruption in a programme about the murder of Stephen Lawrence. I pointed out that the Macpherson inquiry had not concluded that corruption had hampered the investigation. I was invited to Scotland Yard to meet the Independent Police Complaints Commission and Cressida Dick; I was not permitted to meet John Yates. I was assured that the Met did indeed believe Davidson to be an extremely corrupt officer, but that that did not have anything to do with the Stephen Lawrence investigation. I asked why the Met chose to make that statement in a programme about Stephen Lawrence if it had nothing to do with the investigation. I never got a satisfactory answer. The Met suggested to me that it used the programme to call out Davidson, which I took to be further evidence of the contempt it had for this case.

In 1998, Martin Polaine, a Crown Prosecution Service barrister, was put in charge of reviewing police corruption evidence from Operation Russia. In a corruption proceeding, he told the Old Bailey of a

“recollection I was told by someone in CIB3 of a link between Clifford Norris and Davidson.”

CIB3 was the unit conducting Operation Russia. He also said that when this information was passed to him in late ’98, it was considered “of great significance”.

David Hamilton was the head of legal affairs at the Met at that time. In a witness statement to a recent corruption inquiry, he recalled

“a suspicion of an association or contact between Davidson and the Norris family”.

In 2000, he wrote:

“Disclosures relevant to Davidson’s contact with the Norris family could have an adverse effect on the Commissioner’s position in the ongoing High Court action by Mr and Mrs Lawrence.”

Stephen’s family immediately asked for an investigation into the 1998 revelations, which was carried out by the IPCC. It concluded that Putnam, Hamilton and Polaine—an experienced police officer and two senior barristers—were confusing Norris with another member of the Norris family who had been killed two years before Stephen’s murder. That is despite all three stating that that was not correct. Davidson is central to the failure of the original investigation. He handled a key witness, whose information could have identified Matthew White in the first couple of days of the investigation.

Why is the recent identification of Matthew White so significant? Because, of all the attackers, he stood out among the witnesses’ descriptions. He was the one they could describe in detail. Duwayne Brooks, who was with Stephen and was closest to him when he was attacked, always stated that the first attacker was the one he could remember the most and could identify. He has since confirmed that he believes that Matthew White was that person. He described him as having frizzy light brown or blond hair that came down over his ears—completely different from the other attackers. When the evidence is re-read in the light of the BBC findings, it becomes apparent that identifying White would have been key to solving the case at the very start. To put it another way, anyone wanting to hamper the inquiry would want to ensure that Matthew White was never identified as the sixth attacker.

The day after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, James Grant—not his real name—walked into a police station to give information. Such was the detail of his information that it should have been clear to the officers that Grant either was a suspect or had been talking to someone who was present at Stephen’s murder. James Grant was not properly registered as an informant, despite having spoken several times to DS Davidson. In 1997, Grant was interviewed by Kent police, who were called in to carry out a review of the original investigation. He said that he had told his handler DS Davidson back in 1993 that his source was Matthew White. DS Davidson denied that, and the Macpherson inquiry accepted his denial. When that fact was later relayed to the detective in charge of the case, Detective Superintendent Brian Weeden, he expressed shock.

In the two weeks after Stephen’s murder, Matthew White was photographed coming out of a house that was under surveillance. Despite the fact that the descriptions of the sixth attacker matched White, he was not arrested or questioned as a suspect. He was mentioned in the Macpherson report as Witness K but, because he was not considered a suspect, his alibi was never questioned. The BBC has demonstrated that his alibi cannot be true. Even Macpherson himself said that White was a significant person. The final report of the Macpherson inquiry said that Grant’s information

“might have provided the key to the solution of the case in quick time. This was because James Grant’s source was close to the suspects, if he was not involved with them himself.”

In 1997, Kent police asked one of the original investigating officers whether they had ever investigated White. He said:

“I can’t really answer that. I didn’t think after those lines”—

whatever that means. One of Kent’s conclusions was that White should be investigated. That was never done. Both Macpherson and Kent police could see that Matthew White was a potential suspect, but the Met failed to act.

The BBC interviewed an informant called Witness Purple. In 1999, Witness Purple gave evidence to the police with details of the attack on Stephen that could only have come from someone who was there. In 2000, White was arrested and questioned about Purple’s information. The police read Purple’s statement to White, at the same time revealing Purple’s identity. Chief Inspector Clive Driscoll told the BBC that that was

“alerting the bad guys…and that cannot be good police work.”

White made no comment in answer and was let go. What could possibly be gained by letting a suspect know the identity of someone giving information against them, other than to silence that informant? Purple stopped co-operating.

Chief Inspector Clive Driscoll began investigating Stephen’s murder in 2006. It was his excellent work that resulted in the convictions of Dobson and Norris in 2012. The day after the convictions, his then superior officer Cressida Dick told him not to bother going after the other suspects. That was despite the judge urging him to do so. Driscoll and his team, to their credit, continued to investigate. He uncovered a vital statement that had been ignored in the original investigation. He discovered that Jack Severs, the stepfather of Matthew White, had given evidence via a friend who was a serving police officer, stating that Matthew White knew more than he had told the police and that he had been present at Stephen’s murder.

That only happened eventually, because the wrong name was recorded for the stepfather. Mr Severs’s information was passed to the investigation team, but was not followed up until 20 years later, when Chief Inspector Driscoll tracked down White’s stepfather, Mr Severs. He confirmed that White had told him that he had been at the murder scene. The BBC found that that information was given to Detective Inspector Brian Weeden, who was in charge of the investigation. That was confirmed in Brian Weeden’s notebook. A meeting with White was planned but never happened.

Consider this for a moment: the officer in charge of a major investigation is contacted by a fellow officer, with information coming from a relative of an individual who, he claims, was present at the murder scene—and it is forgotten. The conclusion of the Macpherson inquiry was that incompetence, not corruption, hampered the investigation. But what the police were expert at, so many times, was mishandling information relating to Matthew White. Can it be explained by incompetence?

Why was James Grant not properly recorded as an informant? Why did the detail of Grant’s evidence not lead officers to ask where it came from? Why was the evidence from Matthew White’s stepfather overlooked for 20 years? How did the wrong name for the stepfather come to be recorded? Why was finding the blond-haired sixth attacker not given priority from the outset? Why was the similarity between White and the witnesses’ descriptions not noted?

Why was White not picked up for questioning after he was photographed coming out of a house that was under surveillance soon after the murder? Why was the link between Grant and White never made by the investigation? Why was the Kent police’s recommendation to investigate White never acted on? Why was Witness Purple’s identity given to Matthew White when Matthew White was being interviewed as a possible suspect? Why did Cressida Dick order Driscoll not to bother investigating the other suspects? Why did she state, when she shut down the ongoing investigation into Stephen’s murder,

“There were no viable lines of inquiry”?

Will the Met now apologise and accept that that was not true? Why was Chief Inspector Clive Driscoll forced to retire when he had uncovered more discarded evidence that warranted further investigation and has resulted in Matthew White being named as the sixth suspect?

All of this means that there should be a further inquiry, which must be completely independent of the Met. What has been exposed goes beyond incompetence. We cannot leave it here.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for setting out the historical account, the present situation, the severe failings of the Met police and—as he well said—the corruption that has taken place. I would also like to add that Baroness Lawrence is with us in the Chamber.

The 1999 Macpherson report stated that the investigation was

“marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.”

If that report were reviewed in the light of the information that has recently been brought to our attention, it would probably include the word “corruption” as well. Over the decades, the Met should have used the Macpherson report as an opportunity to change. It contains 70 key recommendations for our society to show zero tolerance of racism and discrimination. The Home Affairs Committee’s 2021 report assessing the progress of the recommendations, some of which are still outstanding, concluded that

“there is a significant problem with confidence in the police within Black communities.”

Black communities continue to be under-protected and over-controlled by the police, as has been stated by Robert Reiner, a well-known criminologist.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for his steadfast work on this case and for his speech. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) agree that we are witnessing a deep-rooted cancer of corruption within the Metropolitan police? It appears to be still alive and kicking. After hearing everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham said in his speech, does my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East agree that we need three things? The Met needs to be dismantled once and for all, we absolutely need an independent inquiry into this, and the Met commissioner must now be held to account for these actions. This cannot go on any longer. Justice is not being served for the Lawrence family.

I thank my hon. Friend for her significant contribution. There is clearly disruption and corruption in the Met police; we know that from the recent Casey review and, actually, from many other reviews that I will mention. Where corruption, concealment, cover-up and unnecessary distress have been caused to black communities and the Lawrence family, the police commissioners need to be held to account for the fact that they did not do their job properly. Why did they not do their job properly in the first place?

The Scarman report back in 1981 should have been a chance for the police to progress and change. That, too, was a missed opportunity. I have already mentioned the Casey review, which found the Met police to be institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic.

To add insult to injury, a BBC investigation published last month found, as we have heard, that there is evidence of a sixth suspect, Matthew White, being involved in the Stephen Lawrence murder, but that line of inquiry was mishandled by the police at the time. Furthermore, it was announced last week that former Met officers will face no further action over their roles in the 1993 investigation into Stephen’s death. That should all be reopened and looked at again because of the corrupt situation that we now know has taken place. To be fair, I am sure we already knew that; it is just that it has been revealed by the BBC.

Last week’s decision must be causing unnecessary frustration and distress to the Lawrence family—I am very sorry for that—and the wider community. Where is justice? Why do black lives not matter more than they do at present? The police should be doing their job properly. What are we to expect from them in the future?

The Met needs to change. It must use the events of this year as motivation to reform. It must not fail to address its shortcomings, as it did in 1999 and in 1981. I therefore join Baroness Lawrence in calling for police officers under investigation for disciplinary offences to hand over data from their personal mobile phones. More investigation needs to take place, and more needs to happen to uncover corruption and bring about real justice.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing the debate. One thing that strikes me from conversations with constituents is the slow pace of reforms in the Met police. People are asking for a review of the police conduct and performance legislation, and of the Independent Office for Police Conduct. There have been recent issues with the IOPC—particularly with the person who was heading it up—and a massive lack of trust. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) agree that those things should be looked at in order to regain trust and reform the police system?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the many areas where the police and the IOPC are failing. Obviously, the IOPC must not fail, because it needs to be independent and to be able to investigate situations. Those concerns obviously need to be addressed.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the Mayor of London have published a draft Bill, backed by Baroness Lawrence, that would overhaul the regulations governing police conduct and dismissal, and would address some of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) raised. That intervention is welcome and, in particular, I back its provision to introduce a new duty of candour so that police officers report wrongdoing.

The Macpherson report on the death of Stephen Lawrence highlighted the severe corruption in the Met police, but it is important to point out that not everybody in the Met is corrupt. Some people who join the Met police want to do the right thing and bring about justice. Unfortunately, we see time and again that that is not happening for black individuals, families and communities, and that needs to be addressed.

Faith in our police needs to be restored urgently and we need bold reforms. The Lawrence case was one of the first high-profile examples of knife crime in our society. However, we all know that knife crime has got much worse. Although the police have a responsibility to address that, it is not for them alone; the Government need to step up to ensure that it is being dealt with. There are much wider issues to address in rooting out knife crime. What causes children and young people to carry knives? Why do young people feel so unsafe that they carry knives? Why do they risk harming themselves and others? What is behind all that? Ultimately, why do they risk getting involved in the criminal justice system or, worse, losing their own lives or causing somebody else to pass away?

I invite the Minister to set out what the Government plan to do to secure justice for Stephen Lawrence’s family and right the wrongs of past investigations. Will the Government introduce in Parliament the draft Bill created by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham and by the Mayor of London?

I found it difficult to sleep last night, thinking about this debate. Knowing that Baroness Lawrence is here today makes the debate very difficult for me. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for highlighting all the mistakes and the corruption, some of which will be new to people who have not heard about it, and for his work to try to secure justice over a number of years.

The murder of Stephen Lawrence was brutal, and he was murdered by white racist thugs. I remember feeling quite sickened at the thought that a teenager who was just like me and my siblings, with a very similar background, had been murdered while he was waiting for a bus. It made us feel in the community that if he was not safe, none of us was safe. I remember those years.

Baroness Lawrence and Neville Lawrence fought a really hard campaign to get justice for their son Stephen. Even though they were fighting a system built on racism and white supremacy, they continued fighting. They were fighting not knowing that they were being spied on. They had full surveillance on them. They were being tracked by the police, so that the police could try to find something on them. Just imagine how clean and law-abiding the Lawrence family are for the police not to have found anything on them.

If the police had found something on the Lawrence family, it would have been in the papers and the press, and they would have highlighted it, because that is how the establishment and institutional racism works. They wanted to sow the seed of doubt, but there was no seed of doubt to be sown, because they found nothing. Just imagine that the police were working so hard to discredit a black family grieving the loss of their eldest son and their brother. They worked harder trying to discredit a black family than they did trying to convict the murderers.

One of the murderer’s dads was already in prison. These murderers did not come from the perfect family. They were known as the Krays of Eltham, and they revelled in that, but the police spent time trying to discredit Baroness Lawrence and her family. Every single time a new report comes out or the police fail to act or the IOPC fails to act, it traumatises the Lawrence family and the community, because justice delayed is justice denied.

I remember that moment in 1999, some six years after Stephen was murdered, when the public inquiry launched by the Labour Government concluded with the publishing of the Macpherson report. The words “institutionally racist” were indelibly stamped on the public consciousness. Stephen’s tragic murder and the subsequent bungling of its investigation by the Met police revealed to the rest of the country what many of us already knew, and some of us had the misfortune to recognise it from first-hand experience. That includes me, my brothers, my sister and my cousins. I have just written a book, and I have journeyed back through lots of incidents that have happened in my life. As I put them forward to go in the book, the publisher said, “That’s enough now, Dawn; you need to stop.” She then came back and apologised because, she said, “I realised that’s your lived experience.”

I went to Elephant and Castle. I never told my parents that I was there. I travelled alone; I did not go with any friends. I wanted to show my support to the Lawrence family. I also wanted to show the police that we were going to stand up to all the racism and we were not going to be scared. We were told when we were standing there—there was a slope—to be calm and dignified like the Lawrence family. And we were quite calm in the beginning, but when the murderers came out of the building, they had a swagger. They were cocky, and they were cocksure, because they knew they were protected by the Metropolitan police—the people that should have protected the innocent, all of us. Those murderers were protected and they knew it; they showed it. I did not realise how I would feel on that day, but if I had had eggs in my hand I would have thrown them and whatever else I had. Having to witness that undeserved arrogance and privilege was shocking and heartbreaking. It was absolutely palpable in the air, and that is why it kicked off.

As we stand here, 30 years since Stephen’s life was brutally taken, his memory and legacy live on through the work of the Stephen Lawrence trust and the work of the Lawrence family, and so does the ongoing fight for justice for him and his family. We are in this place not for show but to make society better. If we cannot highlight what is wrong with society and get it changed, what is the point?

Thirty years later, the Casey report has highlighted that the Metropolitan police is still institutionally racist. The current commissioner does not like that term. Well, I do not like the term, but I also do not like what it does. I do not like the effects of institutional racism and its consequences for the black community. I do not like the fact that black people are discriminated against more than any other group because of institutional racism. I do not like the fact that black people are five times more likely to die in police custody than their white counterparts. I do not like the fact that black people get convicted at a higher rate than their white counterparts for comparable offences. That is institutional racism. If you can’t name it, you can’t fix it.

The Government’s determination to have a fake war and say that there is no such thing as institutional racism is a disgrace. The Government’s first job should be to protect its citizens—all citizens—and they fail to do that time and again. Let me be clear: it is a matter of national importance that our public institutions are held to account in order to meet and maintain the highest standards and to continue to be held in esteem. It is not just, “Well, that’s the Metropolitan police.” Some people feel protected; some are over-policed, under-protected and underserved. The Lawrence family are an exemplar family, but it has taken its toll. Because they were not able to shame them in any way, it is still continuing.

The police talk about their reputation. To be honest, if the police were a bank account, they would be in severe deficit. We are policed by consent. With every interaction with a citizen they either add to the bank account or withdraw, and the Met police are in debt. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) said that perhaps the Met police should be dismantled. I think the work that needs to be done on the Met cannot be done by anybody who has served in the Met. Cressida Dick was not a good commissioner, and Mark Rowley is slowly losing my confidence. The work that needs to be done is so deep that it needs an independent person from outside who will not be scared by the threats against them by members of the police service who want to keep the status quo. That is not to say that all police officers are corrupt, racist, homophobic or misogynistic—they are not—but the institution is. If we want to make the police service better for the good police officers, we have to change the institution. We also have to change all the institutions that surround the justice system and are underpinned by it, including the courts and the IOPC.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham said, it is now patently evident that those who were tasked with carrying out a public duty of great importance and significance following Stephen’s murder failed gravely to meet the standards that anyone would have expected. In no way do the years that have passed dull the desire to delve deeper into what now seems to be the very murky culture that pervaded the Metropolitan police at the time of Stephen’s murder. What may have been considered speculation during the early years of the investigation can now be classed as fact. When people were saying that the Lawrences were being surveilled, the police said that was not true. When people were saying that the police were being racist, we were told that was not true. Now we know it is all fact.

The catalogue of errors is a testament to the failed institution of the Metropolitan police, which has been resistant to well-overdue reform. There are too many errors for it to be just an error; it is institutional. Just imagine: as we have heard, information about one of the key suspects was not followed up until two decades later, when he was dead. It is almost like somebody did not want to offend the murderer or hold them to account, so they waited till they were dead before admitting that they were involved in the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It is as insulting as it is offensive. To think that nothing will be done about it—we cannot allow that, especially not in this place.

I will end on some words from Baroness Lawrence. In her unique, dignified way—it is incredible—she said that she has been left “bitterly disappointed” by the fact that four former Metropolitan police officers will not face charges of misconduct in public life over their handling of the initial six weeks of the 1993 investigation. One report said that they are old. I do not care how old they are; they should stand trial and be accountable for what they did. They should not be living on a fat police pension. Baroness Lawrence said:

“Not a single police officer lost his job, or will lose his pension, or pay a fine or spend a day behind bars whilst I will continue to grieve the loss of my son. This CPS decision has caused me immense distress and little thought has been given to me as a mother who has lost her son. This is a disgrace.”

Justice delayed is justice denied. It is time that justice is delivered.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing this important debate.

It was an honour to be invited to attend the moving memorial service on the 30th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder in April, but it is simply staggering that we are still hearing about new instances of police malpractice. It is thanks to the determined and unflinching campaigning of Baroness Lawrence that two men were convicted of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, so I pay tribute to her for her hard work. We must not forget that she and her family were spied on by the special demonstration squad—an example of the suspicion with which the state treats black people who are pursuing justice against all odds.

Sadly, we know from Baroness Casey’s important report that black people still cannot expect to receive equal treatment from the Met compared with some of their fellow Londoners. A horrific example is the case of the police officers taking and sharing pictures of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry after their brutal murders. Sadly, without real commitment to change, we will only see more and more families being let down and failed by the police, with their trauma exacerbated and, more importantly, nobody being held to account.

My hon. Friends have already spoken on this heart-wrenching topic. I want to lay three recommendations before the Minister. First, we need to see leadership from political leaders. Despite the report by Louise Casey, neither the Home Secretary nor the Met commissioner has accepted the labelling of the Met as institutionally racist. Unless they accept that the Met is institutionally racist, the work will go no further, nothing will happen and the Met will stay as it is. It is rotten to the core and needs to be looked at by people who are not in the Met police. Without such work, we as Londoners will only sit back in horror, knowing that another family will be put in the same position as Baroness Lawrence.

Secondly, it is essential that police officers face greater sanctions for misconduct. The absence of greater sanctions will only serve to breed more contempt in the police force. More importantly, police officers will know that nothing will happen to them if they treat Londoners with the same disrespect that they have shown on previous occasions and which is on record.

Thirdly, it is essential that we scrutinise the progress made on implementing all of the recommendations made by the undercover policing inquiry. The report needs to be brought to Parliament so that all parliamentarians can read it and question the Ministers responsible for it. Lastly, I support the creation of a national oversight mechanism to report on the Government making those changes. I hope that the Minister will address those recommendations when she winds up the debate.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Davies.

“We wonder why people become disillusioned. I am sure that all those decades ago when the Macpherson report was first published, there were many who heaved a sigh of relief. Its aim, after all, was to ‘increase trust and confidence in policing amongst minority ethnic communities’. I am also sure that all those decades ago, when the aim of the report was stated to be ‘the elimination of racist prejudice and disadvantage and the demonstration of fairness in all aspects of policing’, many felt they had finally achieved progress. I am sure that everyone involved was aware that Rome was not built in a day, but had some hope, and maybe even allowed themselves a little confidence that life for those experiencing racism would soon change for the better.

The family of Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered and then denied justice because of the colour of his skin—the family in response to whom the Macpherson report came about—perhaps felt when that report was published that his death had not been completely in vain. I have met Stephen’s brother, Stuart Lawrence, and of course we all know or know of his father, Neville Lawrence, and his mother, Baroness Doreen Lawrence”,

who is with us here today. Anyone who listens to Stuart or his parents

“or reads his book, ‘Silence is Not An Option’, begins to understand the catastrophic impact Stephen’s death had on everyone in his family and how they have all had to work so hard, almost every minute of every day, simply to survive.

To a lesser degree, the impact on whole communities was also devastating and life-changing. To have the hope that things would get better for other mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters when the report was published 22 years ago, and then to come to the conclusion that Doreen Lawrence reached recently, namely that ‘things have become really stagnant and nothing seems to have moved’”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 7 July 2022; Vol. 717, c. 419WH.]

You will have noticed, Mr Davies, that I said 22 years ago, when it was in fact 23 years ago. That is because what I have just said is the first page of a speech that I made here in Westminster Hall in July 2022, a year ago, about the Macpherson report. And, as I said, Doreen Lawrence said at the time:

“Things have become stagnant and nothing seems to have moved”.

That is why I am saying this again: because it is still absolutely relevant today. I have been to so many debates on this issue in this place, but nothing ever moves.

How must Baroness Lawrence feel now, when things have moved forward but there is no progress and no justice? The BBC investigation has named the sixth suspect, but there has been no progress and there will never be any justice. A decision has also been made not to prosecute any of the four retired detectives who ran that failed and corrupt investigation, so there will be no progress and no justice either. I heard a police officer say on the radio recently—I cannot remember the exact words—that it was time for us to let them have peace. He was talking about the retired detectives, not the family of Stephen Lawrence.

Baroness Lawrence has said of the BBC investigation:

“It should not have taken a journalist to do the job that a huge, highly resourced institution should have done.”

She is absolutely right. Why did it take the BBC to conduct an investigation when the Met already has far more resources to conduct one?

The Macpherson report is about England and Wales, but Scotland is not immune to any of these issues. I know that this debate is about Stephen Lawrence, but I just want to briefly mention Sheku Bayoh, whom I also talked about in last year’s debate. He died after being stopped in the street by two police officers, who were then joined by another seven police officers, in Kirkcaldy in Fife in May 2015. A public inquiry is under way and I hope to get along to it soon. However, it is now eight years since he died and his family still do not have any answers.

How did a fit young man in his 30s—he was a brother, son, dad, partner and friend—who had no weapons on him end up dead after encountering the police? I cannot answer that question—I will leave that to the inquiry—but I will say that in any other situation in which nine people confronted one person and that one person ended up dead, those nine people would, at the very least, be taken in for questioning. Mr Davies, you will never hear me or anyone else in my party claiming that Scotland or our police force is racism-free.

Let us go back to the speech I made a year ago—I am getting very good at juggling my speeches. I quoted Iain Livingstone, the chief constable of Police Scotland, as saying that there was a need for

“practical, firm, progressive, visible action”.—[Official Report, 7 July 2022; Vol. 717, c. 419WH.]

Now, let me fast-forward to May of this year, when he made a statement addressing the matter of institutional racism in policing. I will read out parts of that statement, because it shows how straightforward it can and should be for the Met and for the Government to acknowledge institutional racism in policing. He said:

“Police Scotland has grown into an organisation known to be compassionate, values based, and highly competent. It is well regarded nationally, extremely well regarded internationally, but I know it can improve, must improve.

Institutional racism, sexism and institutional discrimination have become iconic terms in the vital battle to tackle injustice. Police officers and staff, including police leaders, can be conflicted both in acknowledging their existence and in using such terms, fearing it would unfairly condemn dedicated and honourable colleagues”—

of which, no doubt, there are many—

“or that it means no progress has been made since the 1990s.

Truly, I recognise and understand that conflict. I have experienced that conflict myself over a number of years.

The meaning of institutional racism set out by Sir William Macpherson in 1999 in his report on the appalling murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 is, rightly, very demanding.

The phrase, the terminology, however, can be and often is misinterpreted or misrepresented as unfair and personal critical assessments of police officers and police staff as individuals.

That is not the case.”

He is right—it is not the case. He went on to say:

“Does institutional discrimination mean our police officers and police staff are racist and sexist? No. It absolutely does not.”

That does not mean that there are not plenty of them who are, but this does not mean that they are. He says:

“I have great confidence in the character and values of our people. I am proud of Police Scotland and I am proud of my colleagues, proud of my officers and staff.

So I know and have shared the reservations and concerns about acknowledging that institutional discrimination exists in policing.

However, it is right for me, the right thing for me to do as Chief Constable, to clearly state that institutional racism, sexism, misogyny and discrimination exist. Police Scotland is institutionally racist and discriminatory. Publicly acknowledging these institutional issues exist is essential to our absolute commitment to championing equality and becoming an anti-racist Service. It is also critical to our determination to lead wider change in society.”

That is what the Met should do and what the Government should do—just acknowledge it. It is a start, but it is a really good start. Why can they not just say the words?

Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s First Minister, said that this statement was “monumental” and “historic”. He said:

“I hope that it also serves as a reminder to all of us that, whatever organisation we belong to, we have a responsibility to question the organisations that we lead…and to reflect on whether we are doing enough to dismantle not only institutional racism but the structural discrimination that exists for many people”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 25 May 2023; c. 10.]

The chief constable made the point that words are not enough, and he is absolutely right. Police Scotland has made a great start, and this Government and the Met police need to look at what Police Scotland has said and just own up to it. It is only words; it has to be followed up by actions. We now have a Prime Minister and a First Minister of Scotland who come from a minority ethnic background, but let us not get carried away and think that that has solved racism, because it certainly will not. Again, it is a start, but it is about what we do after that.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford). He gave us an utterly shocking and deeply depressing story, but it is one that must be told over and over, and it is one that we should never stop being shocked at. That is what happens—we hear something so many times, and we get used to it—but we must never stop being shocked at it.

I support the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) in asking the Government about the plan for justice for the Lawrence family. Is there one? If so, what is it? The hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) talked, in a really emotional speech, about the impact on her and about her visit to Elephant and Castle. She described so well and so vividly the swagger of those murderers, who knew they were being protected.

The hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) and others reminded us that the Lawrence family were spied on. We need to keep telling everybody that, because whenever I tell anybody, they cannot believe it. The first time you hear it, you cannot forget it. We have to keep telling everybody what happened to them. She also called for more sanctions. I was stunned when I discovered how few sanctions there are against serving police officers right across these islands.

With regard to sanctions, is the hon. Member surprised, like me, that if a police officer fails their vetting, they can still work in the police, and nothing happens to them? What we need—I hope the Minister is listening—is independent vetting and psychological testing for every single serving police officer.

I absolutely agree. One of the things that shocked me most when I read through the briefing notes was that someone can fail their vetting but still be a serving police officer. It did not just shock me; it terrified me. I hope I never need to come in contact with a serving police officer who has failed their vetting.

I end by simply expressing solidarity with anyone fighting racism. I will do my best to be an ally. I express solidarity especially with the family of Sheku Bayoh—I offer to do whatever I can, and hope they can draw strength from others as they go through the public inquiry—and most particularly with the family of Stephen Lawrence, for the incredible strength they have shown, which they should never have had to show, over the many decades they have spent fighting for justice for their son.

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

May I start by echoing everybody else in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for giving such a detailed and harrowing list of all the failures in the way that this case was investigated, from the start right to the present day? There are some parallels with other cases, such as the Stephen Port murders, where four young men were murdered and multiple others were raped, and the Daniel Morgan inquiry, following his murder in 1987. There are similarities in terms of professional curiosity and not being interested in following leads, unconscious bias and structural bias—the structures of the institutions themselves not being equipped to solve these murders—and the conclusion, in some of those cases, that it was down to incompetence rather than corruption, when it is hard to see how there was not corruption.

The Daniel Morgan inquiry said that the police were institutionally corrupt; indeed, Cressida Dick was named in that report as somebody who stopped the investigation from continuing. Does my hon. Friend agree that every single report on the Met highlights another area of discrimination that needs to be tackled?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is right, and one thing that Baroness Casey found in her report was a defensiveness. That is why it was first suggested in the Daniel Morgan inquiry that we should introduce a legal duty of candour, because there is a big difference between that and asking somebody for information. In that case, the Met was asked for certain information and it gave it, but it also knew other things that it did not offer. That is the difference with a duty of candour, and that came from the Hillsborough inquiry. It is one of the law changes that the Hillsborough campaigners are asking for, because, similarly, information was not willingly given and there was a defensiveness.

The reason for a duty of candour—which is something that the Victims and Prisoners Bill is introducing—is absolutely what my hon. Friend has set out, but it is also to avoid corruption, and corruption has taken place. The duty of candour can stop it, and it starts from the premise that corruption on the part of the police has been known in very serious cases.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the institutional problems is that we do not have systems in place to stop these things happening in the first place; therefore they can happen, and they do.

My hon. Friend set up the all-party parliamentary group on children in police custody and will be looking at the disproportionality of children in custody. She has a lot of expertise in that area and spoke very eloquently about it. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) gave an incredibly powerful speech and of course reminded us about the Lawrence family being tracked—which, as the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), said, is one of the most horrific aspects of all of this. My hon. Friend said that we are in this place not for show but to make things better, and that is incredibly important: we are not here to prove a point one way or the other, but to make things better. I hope that the Minister responds in that spirit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) mentioned the murders of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, which are of course all wrapped up in the same issues and are, again, some of the most horrific things I have ever read about. The grace of their mother in showing leadership and behaving in the way she has—similarly to how Baroness Lawrence has behaved—is also quite extraordinary. I know for a fact that I would not behave in that way.

Mina Smallman, the mother of Bibaa and Nicole, is absolutely phenomenal. Is it not also the case that mothers who have lost their children in such tragic circumstances should not need to be so graceful or dignified to get justice for their children? But they often need to be.

That is a really important point. On that point, it is no coincidence that the majority of my colleagues on the Labour Benches who are speaking today are women who happen to be black. It should not be on their shoulders to fix these problems. They have experienced racism all through their lives, and now we expect them to fix the problems as well. That is not right. We have the same debate when we talk about the need for more black officers in policing. Yes, we need more, but it should not be on them to solve the problems of the police. It should be on all of us. We all need to take that responsibility, especially those of us who have not had to bear the burden of racism.

Just to clarify, I do not see it as my job to bear that or to fix it; I see it as the responsibility of our whole community. It is also very much the responsibility of the Government, and it is the responsibility of us in the Opposition to ensure that the Government are doing what they need to do to address society’s wrongdoings, such as discrimination in the area of racism and prejudice and in other areas. Obviously, we are speaking about this issue because we know that the police have not dealt with this situation as they should have; indeed, they have protected themselves rather than protecting, in this case, the innocent.

That is a very good point, and I completely understand what my hon. Friend says.

Like everybody else, I pay tribute to the Lawrence family and to Baroness Lawrence, who is here today. They have had to fight and campaign for so long. We think of them every time there is another news story and they have to relive the trauma of what happened, which must be incredibly difficult. They have faced what no parent should ever have to bear.

The failures in this case run deep, as we have heard. It is extremely troubling that, after 30 years, information about those failings is still emerging. It is also unacceptable that the Crown Prosecution Service sat on the IOPC file—the dossier into alleged mishandling—for three years. We need an independent investigation into what happened, so that we can establish everything that has gone wrong. As has already been mentioned, Baroness Lawrence has said that she is bitterly disappointed and will be seeking a review, which limits, up to a point, what we can say about it. It is clear, and the message to the Minister is clear: the Home Office must not stand back. The Government have a role here and real leadership is needed. We need the Government to commit to engaging seriously with the issue of police reform, to avoid repeating failures and rebuild trust in communities that have lost that trust.

Other Members have talked about the journey from the Macpherson report to the Casey report. Undoubtedly some good changes were made in that period, but equally Louise Casey finds that a lot of things have not improved. I pay tribute to Baroness Casey for the thoroughness of her review. She described the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson report as irrevocably changing the nature of policing in the UK. It changed the understanding, the investigation and the prosecution of racist crimes nationwide.

Macpherson rightly called for police forces to be representative of their communities, but we have made very slow progress on that front. At the current rate of recruitment and attrition, the Met will manage to increase its black, Asian and ethnic minority representation to only 22% of all officers to reflect the population by 2055. If the Met continued to improve its black, Asian and ethnic minority recruitment by an additional 1% each year from this year onwards, it would take nearly 40 years to reach an officer group that was proportionate. I represent Croydon Central, and I remember going out with the new recruits, who are the ones who carry out stop and search in our communities. There were 80 of them, and not a single one of them was black. There is a very diverse population in Croydon, so that does not work and it needs to be changed.

The trust that people have in policing is an important part of being able to solve crimes. If people do not trust the police, the police cannot solve crimes. In 2021-22, only 43% of black Londoners believed that the Met did a good job locally, while 33% of black Londoners thought that the Met did a good job across London. Only 46% of Londoners think that the Met treats everyone fairly, and only 14% of black Londoners think that the Met treats black people fairly. Looking at the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime surveys, we can see that those figures have fallen—rapidly, in some cases—in recent years. Things have got worse.

It has already been mentioned that Louise Casey talked about black Londoners being under-protected and over-policed. That is a really important issue that I would like the Minister to comment on. I think we are going backwards, and the approach that the Government are taking is making the issue harder to tackle. Most hon. Members present were in the Chamber recently when the Home Secretary made a statement about stop and search. She has gone further than even the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), in almost denying that there is a problem that needs fixing. For example, she said:

“Suggestions that stop and search is a means of victimising young black men have it precisely the wrong way around…Black people account for about 3% of our population, yet almost a third of under-25s killed by knives are black.”—[Official Report, 19 June 2023; Vol. 734, c. 569.]

However, that implies that those figures are somehow equivalent, and of course, they are not. Something like 120 young people under the age of 25 are murdered every year, so we are talking about 40 or 50 young black people, tops, and 3% is 2 million people. So there are 2 million people who are black in this country, and a very small number of murders, so we cannot equate the two. The implication that the Home Secretary seemed to be making—that that meant it was fine that people were being over-policed—is very dangerous and sad. I do not think that even this Government have been saying up to this point.

The under-protection of black people in London in terms of crime is really acute. The figures showing evidence of that are in Louise Casey’s report. Indeed, disproportionality is not questioned by anybody—apart from potentially our Home Secretary. Whether it is the National Police Chiefs’ Council in its report on racism—which covers the whole of policing—or the inspectorate, the IOPC or the Met itself, everybody accepts that there is a huge problem. I worry that the Government are taking a line that questions that. In Wales—the hon. Member for Glasgow North East said it is similar in Scotland—there is an active anti-racism strategy led by the Government across the board, so it is much easier for the police and the leaders of policing to do the right thing. It is actively harder for them to the right thing under this Government, which is a great shame.

It is clear that we need change across the board. Labour wants a complete overhaul of the way the police are vetted and recruited. We want misconduct to be dealt with and training to be introduced. All those things need significant reform. The issue of vetting is even worse than hon. Members have said. It is not just that people can fail their vetting and still be police officers; it is not among a police officer’s powers to sack someone because they have failed their vetting.

There are problems across the board with the way that vetting, interviews and misconduct processes work, and structural racism is built into all those processes. Black police officers are much more likely to have a much shorter time in the Met and are much more likely to be subject to disciplinary proceedings. It is at every level, so we need to reform all those things.

We need to look at things such as stop and search, Child Q strip searches and adultification. There needs to be much better training, and the law needs to reflect what is right and wrong. The approach to children must be much more child-centred and safeguarding-centred.

People have asked whether we should break up the Met. Louise Casey said that we should give the new commissioner two years, and if at that point we have not seen significant reform and change, there is a case for breaking it up. An administrative change to structures does not necessarily change anything. Putting a group in a different team does not necessarily lead to change, but Louise Casey sensibly concluded that if the pace of change is not sufficient and we do not see more improvements, we need to do more.

I have talked about the change that we need to see, and that sits alongside the impact on policing. The good police officers in the Met struggle to do a good job. Louise Casey said that austerity has “disfigured” the Met. There is an absence of neighbourhood policing, so police officers do not have the ability to build relationships with their communities. We have seen groups such as the Territorial Support Group go into communities they do not know and make bad judgments about who they stop and search.

Across the country, we have a shortfall of 7,000 detectives. We do not have enough good detectives who can solve crimes, be curious, ask the right questions and be trained. Although there is now direct entry into detective work—which is good and has led to more diversity in the workforce, so that a different type of person joining the police—we need to go much further. There needs to be much better training on issues such as racism and violence against women and girls. We need to change these ingrained cultures through better training.

I ask the Minister to respond to all the points that have been made. The Met has struggled to reform, but these problems exist across the country—six forces are in special measures—so what will the Home Secretary and the Home Office do to raise standards and reform policing? Does the Minister accept that there is disproportionality within the system and structural issues that mean that racism, misogyny, sexism and homophobia continue unchanged? Will she back the calls from everyone here to change the way we vet and train officers, and deal with police misconduct?

Our thoughts are with the Lawrence family and with Baroness Lawrence, who is in the Public Gallery. I am so sorry that she has had to go through this. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central said, we are here for a reason—it is not just for show. We need change, but even after so many years, it is possible. These things are not inevitable; we can and must change things. I hope the Minister sees the urgency of the task.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am pleased to see the Public Gallery so full. I am particularly pleased to see Baroness Lawrence here. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing the debate. As was abundantly clear throughout his remarks, this is a subject of particular significance for him and his constituents. I appreciate the insight, work and knowledge he has brought to bear on this subject and discussion. My thanks also go to other Members who have contributed.

The murder of Stephen Lawrence remains one of the most disgraceful and devastating crimes our country has ever seen. We all remember the collective sense of grief and shock we felt at the time, and the impact that that heinous act has had on all of us 30 years on. The case left an indelible mark on policing, and that theme has been explored today and in previous debates. Above all, it is important to remember that this started with the loss of a young man with the whole of his life ahead of him. Although it is understandable that our discussions often focus on the wider questions for policing and our society more generally, we must always keep that terrible tragedy at the forefront of our minds.

We speak of Stephen and the future that was denied to him. We think of his family, who have endured a long and difficult fight for justice, and who have been indefatigable in keeping his memory alive. I fully understand the continued interest in this case and will endeavour to be as helpful as I can and as full in my comments as possible, in the short time that remains. That said, I hope colleagues will understand if I restrict my remarks to some degree, due to the sensitivities and, of course, the fact that the Metropolitan police is operationally independent.

I turn to 26 June, when the Met issued an updated statement on Stephen’s murder. The Met recognised that although two men were convicted of Stephen’s murder in 2012, other suspects have not yet been brought to justice. The Met statement explained that Matthew White, who passed away in 2021, first came to its attention as a witness in 1993. He was arrested and interviewed in March 2000 and in December 2013, and a file was received by the Crown Prosecution Service in May 2005 and October 2014.

The Met stated that on both occasions the CPS advised that there was no realistic prospect of conviction of White for any offence. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Ward said, as part of that statement, that unfortunately too many mistakes were made in the initial investigation and they continue to have an impact. On the 30th anniversary of Stephen’s murder, Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley apologised for the Met’s failings, and the deputy assistant commissioner repeated that apology.

I know that that update from the Met will have come as a blow to Stephen’s family. Their resilience and courage in seeking justice has shone through for the last three decades. Their frustration is understandable, and it is right that the police have apologised. In May, the Met commissioned a routine forensic review of key exhibits to consider whether new scientific processes could advance the case. That investigation remains in an inactive phase. As I have said, I fully understand the interest in the investigation and the desire for answers, but I hope colleagues will understand if I refrain from further speculation or comment in that regard.

The IOPC investigation collated evidence related to the actions and omissions of the four officers in the early stages of the investigation into Stephen’s murder. A file was then provided to the CPS to answer whether anyone should face charges. This was a vast investigation that had been undertaken by the National Crime Agency under the IOPC’s direction. It involved the gathering and analysis of several million pages of information and intelligence, spanning many years. I understand that NCA investigators also interviewed more than 150 people, including serving and former police officers and staff involved in the original murder inquiry, relevant witnesses and others, including journalists with in-depth knowledge of the original investigation.

The CPS applied tests, as set out in the code for Crown prosecutors, regarding the evidence provided. I recognise that the announcement made by the CPS that no criminal charges will be brought against the four suspects will be very disappointing for the Lawrences and Duwayne Brooks. The CPS has offered the victims the right to review its decision, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this stage.

I turn to the points made by the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) about the Met needing to change and the Casey review. The publication of Baroness Casey’s report on the standards of behaviour and internal culture of the Met made for very sobering reading, and it is paramount that public trust in the Met is restored. Although primary accountability lies with the Mayor of London, I know the Home Secretary will continue to hold the commissioner and the Mayor accountable for delivering the necessary improvements, as will the Policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), who apologises for not being here today.

Although we have seen progress in several areas since the awful murder of Stephen, there is much to do. It is imperative that by working with key partners, including His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services, the Met continues the process of restoring public confidence that it is getting the high-quality service that people desire and that we all have a right to expect. The Government have confidence in the commissioner’s leadership, and in his plans to turn around the Met and ensure that the force is delivering for all communities.

I turn now to the points made by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) in relation to institutional racism. Without question, discriminatory attitudes and behaviours have no place in policing, and any allegations of racism are deeply disturbing. We expect police officers to take urgent action to root out discrimination. Allegations of police wrongdoing are dealt with under a comprehensive framework, either by police forces or the IOPC. I understand that there is much debate around the definition of the term “institutional racism” in the Met. The commissioner is committed to tackling issues of racism and building back trust in the police in the form of the force’s “Turnaround Plan 2023-2025”—the two years that have been mentioned—which has core themes of more trust, less crime and high standards. The most important thing is to judge the Met on its actions rather than words.

I turn to other recommendations made by the hon. Member for Edmonton. I listened carefully to what she said about her four recommendations, and her second recommendation was to have greater sanctions. The Casey review has looked at the effectiveness of the disciplinary system, so that the public can be confident that it is fair but effective at removing officers who fall far short of the standards expected of them. I have met the commissioner, and I have heard that he is extremely interested in this area. At this stage, I have confidence in him.

The Casey review also examined whether the current three-tier performance system is effective in being able to dismiss officers who fail to perform the duties expected of their rank and role. To restore public confidence in policing, the Home Office and the police forces have undertaken a series of actions to ensure that police vetting is fit for purpose, including the need for police forces to check their officers and staff against the national police database, and to root out those unfit for service. Officers who fall short of the standard expected of them must be identified and dealt with appropriately, and I look forward to work being done in this area.

In relation to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, I have gone back over all the evidence, and there were clear failings in the investigation—so many in certain aspects of it that it is difficult to say it was incompetence. If we do not have an independent investigation, away from the Met, how will the public have confidence in the outcome?

I look forward to the work that Baroness Casey outlined in terms of having more confidence in the Met police. It is right that such work is done, that there is a little time given to do that work, and that we must expect progress.

I will try to respond to all the recommendations put forward by the hon. Member for Edmonton. In relation to scrutiny, I am aware that members of the Lawrence family have been granted core participant status in the undercover policing inquiry. The inquiry was established in 2015 to examine undercover policing operations by English and Welsh forces since 1968. On 29 June 2023, the undercover policing inquiry published an interim report for tranche 1 of its investigations. The full report is publicly available, and I am sure Members have had a look at it. Tranche 1 of the inquiry’s investigations examined special demonstration squad officers and managers, and those affected by deployments between 1968 and 1982.

The Home Office is grateful to Sir John Mitting for the report, and the Department will carefully consider its contents. It is an interim report and is restricted to the time period covered by tranche 1. As the inquiry’s investigations are ongoing, it would not be appropriate for the Government to comment at this stage, but the recommendation suggested by the hon. Member for Edmonton is very much in mind.

Very briefly. There is a lot to get through and I need to respond to everything everyone said.

When the Government respond, it would be helpful for a Minister to come to the House and make an oral statement so that we can all have the opportunity to comment, because we have not had that debate.

I am grateful for that intervention. I will pass that message on to the Home Secretary and the Policing Minister.

On police culture, I disagree with one thing that the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) said, which was that the Home Secretary was not leading enough in her role—I think “standing back” was the phrase that the hon. Member used. That has not been my experience of the efforts put in by the Home Secretary, who has made it consistently clear, both in public and in private to me, that the culture and standards in policing need to improve as a matter of urgency. I hope we can agree on that.

Examining the root causes of poor and toxic cultures is a key focus of part 2 of the Angiolini inquiry, which is now under way. The College of Policing is also currently updating the code of ethics, which plays a key role in instilling the right principles and standards from the start of a police officer’s career. The Policing Minister is certainly holding leaders to account in this area.

I will briefly mention that whenever, in my safeguarding role, I visit a police force that I have not visited before, one of the first questions I ask is: what is the ethnic diversity of new recruits and existing officers? That must be very much in everybody’s mind. We need a police force that reflects better the whole of society.

The Government and the public rightly expect the highest standards from our police officers. The ability of the police to perform their core functions—tackling crime and keeping the public safe—is dependent on their capacity to maintain the confidence of the public. As part of the Inclusive Britain strategy, the Government are committed to developing a new national framework for policing partners, including police and crime commissioners.

Police powers such as stop and search and the use of force must be scrutinised properly at a local level. That will help to create tangible improvements in trust and confidence between the police and the communities they serve by improving public understanding of how and why the police use their powers and will help account for any disparities. Alongside that, the Home Office is committed to seeking and removing unnecessary barriers that prevent the use of body-worn video, which will be implemented in the framework. Work is well under way on the community scrutiny framework, which we aim to publish in due course.

Will the Government look at the use of tasers? Members of the community are concerned about them and the way they are used.

I will ask the Policing Minister to write to the hon. Member about that. We have only two minutes left, and I want to leave a minute for the Member in charge to wind up.

I offer my thanks to the hon. Member for Eltham for securing this debate. I am acutely conscious of the significance of the case not only for the Lawrence family, but for the Britain that I want to see and for Britain’s policing as a whole. My thoughts are with the family of Stephen for the loss of their loved one. They had such a shattering loss. We cannot bring him back, but we can do more to strain every sinew to learn every possible lesson from that awful crime.

It is a tragedy that the case still casts a shadow over the Metropolitan police. The mistakes that have been made, particularly those in relation to evidence relating to Matthew White, are too numerous to be coincidental. They are worthy of an investigation independent of the Metropolitan police. Even a review by Chief Inspector Clive Driscoll might suffice, because he is the one who stands out among the Met officers as somebody committed to seeing justice in this case. We often hear people talk about victims; if there any victims we should listen to, it is the Lawrence family. We should talk to them about how we can resolve the issue and take it forward.

When Cressida Dick closed down the investigation into Stephen’s murder, she said that no further viable lines of inquiry were open. That was not true. The Met have to accept that. We cannot leave it there.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Metropolitan Police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: Overseas Aid

[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 23 May and 4 July 2023, on the FCDO’s approach to sexual and reproductive health, HC 1216.]

I will call Sarah Champion to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. As they are both experienced parliamentarians, they will not really need me to say that—as is the convention for 30-minute debates—there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered sexual and reproductive health and rights and overseas aid.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Davies.

The Minister is well versed in this topic. He knows that it is essential we ensure that women and girls are empowered to make decisions about their own bodies and that they are free to pursue education, employment and prosperity on their chosen path in life, wherever they are in the world. This is a cause that I care deeply about, and I am delighted to have sexual and reproductive health and rights—SRHR—as a key priority this year for the Select Committee on International Development, which I chair. As part of the Committee’s inquiry, I am very much looking forward to hearing from the Minister of State for Development and Africa on this issue in September. As the inquiry is ongoing, I will focus on a separate piece of work, largely carried out by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. I will also refer to evidence that has been submitted to IDC.

Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting the launch of RCOG’s new report, “Getting Back on Track: The Case for Reinvestment in Global Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights”. The report notes the achievements of UK advocacy, leadership and overseas aid on SRHR over the last decade, as well as the impact of recent aid cuts on SRHR and gender equality. The testimonies from RCOG members and other healthcare professionals working on women’s health around the world who have experienced the devastating impact of cuts on the frontline are essential to understanding the issue. I strongly encourage the Minister and his officials to consider closely the findings and recommendations of the report.

The moral obligation to support women and girls on SRHR is clear. Bodily autonomy is the foundation upon which women and girls can exercise their full rights. The rights of women and girls are being rolled back in some parts of the world, which is infuriating and shows that the UK’s advocacy for global gender equality and SRHR has never been more important.

My Committee has heard from several organisations about the importance of UK overseas aid to delivering comprehensive SRHR services and achieving universal access for every woman and girl. UK aid can and does make a real difference to the lives of women and girls around the world, but we must continue and expand our support in a sustainable way.

It is important to look at this issue through an intersectional lens. The Committee has heard that the most marginalised face additional barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services. They are often not delivered in a way that is accessible to women with disabilities. That could be as simple as a lack of a wheelchair ramp into the clinic or a lack of sign language interpretation. LGBTQ+ people can also find it difficult to access services due to the stigma, discrimination and even criminalisation of same-sex relationships and gender expression. We must do all we can to change that. I am very proud that our embassies around the world stand up for those rights.

Not only is investing in SRHR the right thing to do, but it makes financial sense. United Nations Population Fund research shows that for every $1 invested in family planning and maternal health in low-income countries, over $8 is accrued by averting unintended pregnancies and reducing the demand for, and cost of, maternal and other health services. Organisations such as the UNFPA are vital actors in the SRHR space, which is why it was so disheartening to hear it tell the Committee recently of the devastating impact of UK Government cuts on its services. In 2021, UK aid to UNPFA’s supplies partnership was cut by 85% with very little warning. Its only clue as to what was coming was from media reports about the UK’s reduction in official development assistance spending from 0.7% to 0.5%.

UNFPA provides 40% of the world’s contraceptive supply, reaching approximately 20 million women and young people every year. It told the Committee that because of the lack of funding, it had to immediately cut the commodities it provides—contraception—by 30% and has since had to make sweeping cuts across the board. While there has been a path to the restoration of funding for UNFPA supplies, the UK Government ultimately remain off track to meet their 2019 commitment of £425 million, with support for the UNFPA’s core operating fund remaining significantly reduced. Will the Minister make a commitment today that the UK Government will restore support to the UNFPA’s core operating fund alongside their existing commitments to their supplies partnership?

Supporting women and girls to take control of their reproductive health is essential in achieving the UK’s international development objectives, in particular its ambitions for gender equality. Government investment must reflect that. I understand that the Minister knows this, but action, not just empty promises, is desperately needed. Women and girls being able to access their reproductive health rights also underpins the success of all three of the ambitions of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s women and girls strategy. Girls with access to education, safe and sensitive contraception and abortion services are less likely to drop out of school. Enabling women and girls to choose if and when they have children frees them to pursue employment and participate more fully in social and political life. Empowering women to make decisions about their SRHR is essential in tackling gender-based violence.

In its new report, the RCOG makes the case that if the UK Government are to be successful in achieving their key aims in the women and girls strategy, those aims must be matched with dedicated and sufficient long-term funding. Otherwise, it simply will not work.

I thank the hon. Member for giving way. She is making a good speech, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. One area that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has focused on in the past, and rightly so, is the high rates of maternal and new-born baby morbidity and mortality in many low and middle-income countries, particularly in Africa. Will the hon. Member address that point and make some suggestions to the Minister about how Britain can better support that agenda through its aid strategy and improve safety around pregnancy and childbirth?

I will indeed cover that, and also benign gynaecological conditions, which are another major killer for women. I congratulate the hon. Member on all his work on global health over the years. He continues to be an advocate in this place.

UK aid has contributed significantly and meaningfully towards ensuring that all women and girls can access their sexual and reproductive health and rights, and we should all be proud of that track record. RCOG members in Pakistan who had been providing training as part of the UK’s women’s integrated sexual health—WISH—programme reported dramatic increases in access to safe abortion care, post-abortion care and family planning by those who participated in their schemes. However, the decision to cut ODA threatens to stall or even reverse that progress around the world.

WISH is supposed to be the Government’s flagship sexual and reproductive health programme, but even that is not safe from the cuts. MSI Reproductive Choices had its funding under the WISH programme slashed by 78%. My Committee has also heard that a three-year health programme for the most marginalised communities in Bangladesh received a £1.1 million cut to its £2 million budget two years in, with no notice whatsoever. A direct grant in Ghana, which was providing safe birth, child health and psychoeducation for pregnant women and mothers through building new maternal health self-help support groups and outreach clinics, received a 25% cut.

The Government are not putting their money where their mouth is. The most recent data shows that bilateral spending on SRHR decreased by more than 50% from £515 million in 2019 to £242 million in 2021. The Minister is aware that it is not good enough, and I am aware that he is trying to change it, so I look forward to hearing more about that in his remarks.

Estimates by the Guttmacher Institute suggest that the cuts could already have resulted in 9.5 million fewer women and girls having access to modern methods of contraception, 4.3 million more unintended pregnancies, 1.4 million more unsafe abortions and, as the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said, a possible 8,000 more avoidable maternal deaths.

Countries with the greatest need for SRHR funding and programmes have been hit the hardest by the cuts, and within those countries, the most marginalised are often the most affected. Professor Friday Okonofua, an obstetrician and gynaecologist based in Benin City, Nigeria, said in RCOG report that it is the most marginalised people who are reliant on donor-funded services. In Nigeria, where nearly 80% of health payments are out of pocket, the loss of funding from the UK Government has only widened this dire gap in services.

Making donations towards SRHR in humanitarian crises is welcome, but not enough. UK support must be in the form of sustained programming that delivers against the UK’s commitments to the UN sustainable development goals, and promoting the health of women and girls must be the backbone of international development. As RCOG recommends, will the Minister commit to restoring funding for SRHR, and spend £500 million each year for the next three years on SRHR programming and supplies?

RCOG is calling on the Government not only to restore investment in SRHR, but to strengthen their global advocacy on SRHR by investing in new and existing global partnerships and collaborations. The UK’s financial commitment to the Family Planning 2020 initiative had a significant impact on the global funding landscape for SRHR. It contributed to enabling an additional 24 million women and girls to access family planning services. I ask the Minister again to make a financial commitment to the Family Planning 2030 initiative, so that we can continue the programme’s success.

Only by linking our national actions to global goals and commitments can we hope to achieve truly universal access to SRHR for every woman and girl. As well as being one of the largest donors of support for SRHR supplies, the UK has been one of the most progressive in its advocacy. RCOG is calling on the Government to strengthen their global advocacy on SRHR by championing stigmatised issues such as abortion care. That is something I care about deeply, particularly as abortion rights are being rolled back around the world. I was proud that the UK co-led a statement at the UN General Assembly last year on the importance of respecting the bodily autonomy and SRHR of women and girls. It has also been reassuring to see the UK Government commit to prioritising safe abortion care as part of their commitment to supporting SRHR in the women and girls strategy.

Mainstreaming safe abortion services and post-abortion care is essential to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality. Unsafe abortion remains one of the world’s leading causes of maternal mortality. The risk of dying from an unsafe abortion is highest for women in Africa, where nearly half of all abortions happen in potentially dangerous circumstances. In his response, will the Minister say how the Government plan to champion safe abortion care in their programming, and in nations’ universal healthcare plans, as part of an effort to strengthen health systems?

We have seen the success of telemedicine in early abortion care in the UK. Guidance from RCOG, the World Health Organisation and other authorities on clinical standards affirms that telemedicine is a safe and effective delivery model for expanding access to abortion care. RCOG has encouraged the FCDO to invest in telemedicine and in self-management of abortion in settings where that can offer safe additional pathways to increased access. As RCOG has suggested, I would like the UK Government to champion the prioritisation of women’s and girls’ gynaecological health needs on the global health agenda.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. Does she agree that the Government are right to commit to focusing spending on women and girls, and particularly on maternal mental health? Will she call for the UK to publish a voluntary national review on the sustainable development goals, given the importance of this subject?

I absolutely support what the hon. Lady says. She is a member of the International Development Committee, and the Chair of the International Development Sub-Committee on the work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. She has always been a champion on these issues, and the Minister has heard what she said.

The FCDO’s programming does not address the global burden of gynaecological disease as a priority in its own right, or as a key element of its integrated SRHR response. That is a glaring omission. Forthcoming RCOG research shows that overall morbidity for women and girls due to so-called benign gynaecological conditions outweighs—I was stunned when I heard this—the combined morbidity from malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in low and middle-income countries; yet gynaecological conditions are not in the FCDO’s strategy. There is an urgent need for the UK Government and donors around the world to afford gynaecological disease the same priority as maternal mortality and diseases such as malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS. Can the Minister look into that?

As a first step, RCOG and I are seeking a commitment from the UK Government to championing the issue by investing in the collection of data and research on the scale of the burden, so that we build strong evidence on which to base future investment. Investing in quality SRHR training for all healthcare workers should be a top priority. At present, the workforce meets only 41% of the needs of low-income countries. A lack of skilled workers is a major barrier to making universal health coverage a reality. I welcome the Government’s commitment to strengthening the workforce as part of their contribution to that agenda, but as RCOG recommends, we need greater investment to support task-shifting and task-sharing between different groups and levels of healthcare workers. That is essential if we are to address shortages; support the delivery of comprehensive, integrated SRHR services, including expanded access to abortion care and long-acting reversible contraception; and support the diagnosis and treatment of gynaecological disease at the earliest stage.

The new report from RCOG is an important reminder to us all—and to the Minister—of our responsibility to women and girls around the world, who rely on our Government’s support for their essential healthcare. It should also serve as a call to action, so that we resume the progress that is needed to achieve universal access to SRHR. I urge the Minister to seriously consider the report’s recommendations for investment, as well as the points that I have raised today. We must stand together, alongside women and girls everywhere, and continue to advocate for their health, empowerment, and equality.

It is a tremendous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and the first time that I have done so. This is a subject that you and I have discussed many times over the last 10 or 15 years, so I know that you take a great interest in it.

My pleasure in appearing before you, Mr Davies, is exceeded only by my pleasure in responding to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), with whom I have had many interactions. As she knows well, I agree with a large amount of what she says, and never more so than in today’s debate. I pay tribute to her for securing the debate, and for the work she does on the International Development Committee, together with its members. It is widely regarded as being among the most expert Committees in the Houses of Parliament. I look forward to giving evidence to her Committee in September, in its inquiry on the important matters that we are discussing. If I do not answer her points in sufficient detail, I know perfectly well that she will pursue me on them.

I also thank the hon. Lady for what she said about the work of British diplomatic missions overseas; I will pass on to the missions her generous words, which I know they will appreciate. As a result of the reduction in the ODA budget from 0.7% to 0.5%, incredibly difficult decisions had to be made, and that imposed an enormous strain on those who are now, but were not then, my officials. Many extraordinarily difficult decisions were made, in furthering the will of Parliament that the budget should be cut, but we are in a better position than we were. I hope that that will become clear next week when we report back to Parliament.

Every woman and girl should have control over her own body and her own life. She should be able to make informed decisions about sex, and whether and when to have children. She should have access to good-quality sexual and reproductive health services and be able to realise her rights. That is far from the case for too many women in too many countries, which is why universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights forms an important part of the British Government’s approach to development and diplomacy. Our commitment to promoting those rights is set out in our strategies on international development, global health and women and girls, and is a central element of our approach to ending the preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children.

We face many challenges in achieving our aims. Global progress on reducing maternal death rates had stagnated between 2016 and 2020, even before the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. That is why I am championing our efforts to help end the preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children by 2030. The campaign joins up efforts right across the system, on issues including water, sanitation and hygiene, good nutrition, clean air, access to new health technologies, and a supportive environment for sexual and reproductive health and rights, which the hon. Member for Rotherham spoke about so clearly.

Let me turn to the worrying trends that are putting at risk the progress we have made on sexual and reproductive health and gender equality. Attempts to roll back the rights of women, girls and members of the LGBT+ community are increasingly well funded and well organised, and we are determined to confront them. Britain is a proud champion of these hard-won rights. We continue to promote and protect them around the world by working closely with our allies, including in the multilateral sphere. We must challenge the lies, polarisation and division that are undermining that progress. That is why the UK led a landmark joint statement at the UN Third Committee last October. Along with 71 global partners, we committed to working tirelessly to advance gender equality, and to supporting the rights of all women and girls. At this year’s Women Deliver conference in Kigali, the UK will help to catalyse united action against the roll-back of women and girls’ rights, and action to further gender equality. There is much to do, but there is cause for hope and the UK has a key role to play.

I turn to another challenge that we face, which is the reduced domestic Government funding for sexual and reproductive health and rights across the world, which was prompted by the covid pandemic and crises around the world. The UK’s official development assistance has also reduced. It remains the Government’s policy that we will get overseas spending back to 0.7% when the economy allows, but meanwhile we are doing as much as we can to find multipliers that can enhance and augment our taxpayers’ money. We have set out a strong pathway towards that through our strategies on women and girls and on ending preventable deaths.

We remain a key supporter of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and we have a significant portfolio of programmes and policies. For example, through FP2030—the global family planning partnership—the UK is helping partners around the world to advocate for better access to family planning. The global financing facility supports stronger, more sustainable access to health systems. The women’s integrated sexual health programme has enabled more than 9.5 million women and girls in Africa and Asia to use modern methods of contraception, and the UK remains a world leader in efforts to end the AIDS epidemic, including through our health system strengthening work, our work to end preventable deaths, and support for the World Health Organisation and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. We are pushing for equitable access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, dismantling barriers to access, targeting underserved groups and championing SRHR for all.

On FP2030 and the women’s integrated sexual health programme, can the Minister talk about the financial commitments that go alongside the commitment to leading on policy?

I can certainly say to the hon. Lady that we will do everything we can. As she set out in her speech, this is a very high priority for the Government, and we will do everything we can to make sure that those efforts are adequately resourced.

The Foreign Office and other donors have to adapt our approaches to ensure that the work can be financed sustainably. That means placing accountable country leadership and investment at the heart of our development agenda. For example, the UK has provided more than £200 million to the UNFPA supplies partnership since 2019 to improve the availability, quality and supply of life-saving reproductive health products. That covers family planning, safe abortion, about which the hon. Lady spoke extremely eloquently, and maternal health medicines. Over the last two years, the UNFPA supplies partnership has successfully secured domestic financing commitments from 43 low and middle-income countries regarding their own reproductive health supplies, totalling $26.4 million, and many committed for the first time.

The final element of our approach is ensuring that our efforts on sexual and reproductive health are fully integrated into our broader work on strengthening health systems. That was set out in our G7 Health Ministers communiqué in May. We and the other member states have committed to universal access to comprehensive health services—which include maternal, sexual and reproductive health services—at every stage of life. In making that pledge, we recognise that those services are a vital part of achieving the UN sustainable development goals.

To conclude, we are acutely aware of the challenges that we face in advancing this work, many of which were set out so eloquently by the hon. Lady.

I know the Minister well. If he cannot comment now, can he do some research when the RCOG report on benign gynaecological conditions comes out? I was genuinely shocked to discover that those conditions were killing more women than the other major diseases combined, and that we are not focused on that. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister made a commitment to look into that.

I will certainly look into it. I was extremely struck by what the hon. Lady said about the scale of that issue, and by the comparison that she set out so clearly.

Despite the challenges, the UK continues to prioritise work on sexual and reproductive health and gender equality across the full span of our development and diplomatic work. That includes targeted support to reduce maternal mortality, determined efforts to reduce the roll-back of SRHR and women and girls’ rights, and work to secure sustainable financing. We will continue to advocate for the world’s most marginalised and underserved people so that we secure rights and choices for all.

When it comes to making progress on international development, Britain’s aims cannot be understood unless they are seen through the eyes of girls and women, who suffer the extremes of poverty first and hardest. In putting girls and women at the forefront of everything that we do, a particular aim of the Government’s is to get as many girls into school as we possibly can. As I told the House this morning, in the last five years for which figures are available, we were able to procure the education of more than 8 million girls.

We are also focusing on family planning; ensuring that women have the ability to decide for themselves whether and when they have children; and bearing down on all sexual violence against women, but particularly in the hideousness of conflict. Those three aspects of our policy drive us forward in what we believe is the critical battle of our times: the need to do something about the appalling discrepancies of opportunity and wealth that disfigure our world today.

Question put and agreed to.

Construction Workers: Pension Age

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the pension retirement age for construction workers.

It is pleasure to take part today, Mr Davies, and to see Members in attendance. I will open with a question: why does it always have to be the working class who suffer? The Work and Pensions Secretary says that Ministers will soon have to “grasp the nettle” to raise the state pension age to 68. It is working people who will bear the brunt of that, none more so than construction workers.

Last year, around 2.2 million people were working in construction across the UK, with 670,000—31%—aged between 50 and 64. In Scotland, around 160,000 people were working in construction, with 54,000 of that group aged between 50 and 64. It is estimated that around 100,000 people aged 65 and above are working in construction across the UK, with 4,000 of that age group working in Scotland.

Undoubtedly, those workers bring a huge wealth of experience and skills that they can pass on to future generations, but they face a pension black hole in many situations. Research by Unite has found that the majority of construction workers were not saving towards retirement. Estimates show that only 797,000 employees in the construction sector are paying into a pension.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing today’s debate. The Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association has stated that there should be a single state pension age for all, but that flexibility should be introduced to allow people to receive their pensions earlier. Does he agree that the Government should support construction workers perhaps receiving their pension earlier, considering the physical toll that their occupation can have?

I agree entirely, and I will develop that point. Those 797,000 employees paying into a pension make up only 36% of the construction workforce. We are creating a destitute generation. Unite said:

“These figures are deeply troubling…Even if workers are saving towards a pension, there is no guarantee that they are saving sufficient amounts to prevent poverty in retirement. The way that construction is organised, with short-term engagements, rampant bogus self-employment and nefarious schemes such as umbrella companies, it is incredibly difficult for construction workers to have confidence in their continued employment so as to allow them to consistently pay into a pension scheme. The government needs to take urgent action to begin plugging this black hole in construction pension saving, the consequences of not doing so do not bare thinking about.”

The issue is clear. There is already a mental health crisis in the construction industry, and the pension black hole adds to the worries of workers. It is very much a male-dominated industry, and we know that men are three times more likely to die by suicide than the national average. Construction work has a variety of pressures, from tight contracts to long hours, time away from loved ones and managing budgets, not to mention the added stresses of the pandemic and now the rising costs of supplies.

The sector still has a macho culture that prevents many workers from seeking the help and support they might need, putting further stress on their mental health and wellbeing.

On the point about health, construction workers face certain occupational hazards such as exposure to asbestos, which can cause cancer and detrimentally affect their health later in life. Does the hon. Member agree that, due to the health risks to which construction workers are exposed, the Government should evaluate reducing their pension retirement age?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. The key part of this is evaluation. Let us make sure that we have all the evidence to back up the calls that we are making. The issue has been looked at, so let us take on board the assessments and do something with them. We know that an early retirement age is possible in other industries. I thank and pay tribute to the Library for the excellent briefing that it has prepared to support this debate, which lists a number of other occupations in which early retirement is possible. Footballers are one example; I think their retirement age is something like 35.

Scotland has the lowest life expectancy of all the countries in the UK. In Midlothian, life expectancy at birth was 81 for women and 77 for men in the years 2019 to 2021. Meanwhile, men in Knightsbridge, London, have an average life expectancy of 94, the highest in the country—nearly 15 years longer than the average male.

Unlike other countries, the UK has no provision for early access to the state pension under any circumstances. That is a critical point. We must consider why we need to be so prescriptive when it comes to this particular topic. Proposals for early access to the state pension have been discussed previously, in the 2016-to-2017 and 2021-to-2023 state pension age reviews. The situation is unfortunate. The issue will not go away. The pressures around it will become significantly more challenging and eventually we will have to grasp the thistle and actually take action on it, so why not now?

Canada and the USA have general provision for early access to pensions in exchange for lower pension amounts, and that could be considered as part of this. The normal minimum pension age, which is the earliest age from which someone can normally draw their workplace personal pension, has gone from 50 to 57 by April 2028. Some people in certain professions with a lower retirement age—such as sportspeople, as I mentioned—who had a right before April 2006 to draw their pension before age 50, may have a protected pension age, further widening the gap. However, construction workers do not have that provision.

Last month, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), about the potential merits of lowering the state pension age for construction workers. She argued against reforming the current system, saying:

“The Government believes that the principle of having a State Pension age that is the same for everybody is fundamental in the UK. It has the merit of simplicity and clarity including giving a clear signal to those planning for retirement.”

So we are sacrificing a generation of workers for the sake of “simplicity”.

A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Building again showed the scale of the problem. Many employees cannot afford to retire because of inadequate pension plans and because they have no alternative financial investments to support themselves. The organisation called for construction employees to be encouraged to consider retirement plans and to set aside a sufficient amount to support themselves for possibly the next 20 to 30 years. However, in the face of a cost of living crisis, that has become even more challenging than it was. The CIOB said that clear information needed to be provided, with a focused campaign to help construction workers, and I support that call. However, I would go one step further and say that we need a full review into the issue of pensions and the construction industry.

In March, Baroness Neville-Rolfe said that builders, electricians, plumbers and manual labourers should be allowed to retire on a state pension earlier than office workers who had stayed on in further education. Her report said that the UK Government should look at changing the rules to allow manual workers to access their pension pot early. She recommended that those

“who have performed physically demanding roles over many years”

should be allowed to access their pension early, because they had a higher likelihood of developing health problems than other people, yet there has been nothing—no change and no impetus to help hard-working people. A full review would be the first step on the road to righting this wrong and the first step towards stopping an entire generation being flung on the financial scrapheap. After a lifetime of hard manual work, the ultimate ignominy for construction workers is to face poverty in their twilight years.

Construction workers literally built this country. We talk of levelling up and growing the economy, and, dare I say it, we have had a Government who talked about building hospitals—I do not know how many hospitals they eventually got to. None of that happens without construction workers. We need new homes, and that does not happen without construction workers. They deserve so much better, and this could be the starting point to achieving that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) mentioned, 2.2 million people work in construction, without whom there would be no offices, factories, roads, schools or homes. Although we place great value on having a roof our heads, we undervalue the people who build them.

Following on from that, a concerning skills gap is growing in the UK construction sector, which means that existing employees have to work longer hours on site to compensate for that gap. Does the hon. Member agree that if the skills shortage is not addressed, many construction workers will experience fatigue and might be burdened with poor health and retirement outcomes?

I could not agree more. When I left school in the late 1970s, it was no longer fashionable to take on trades. Everybody had to go to college, no matter what the course was, and we lost the skillsets in my local shipyards and in construction for plumbers, joiners, platers, fitters and all those skills. If we look at the average age now—they are getting into their 50s—there has been a gap of sometimes 20 or 30 years before we have taken on new apprentices. We are taking on new apprentices now, but the experience that we lose when these older guys leave is immeasurable. So they are staying on later and later and working longer into what should be their retirement life, sometimes in very physical jobs in very difficult circumstances.

As we approach a general election, a lot of MPs will be asking themselves, “Should I stand again?” For many who, like me, are over 60, age will be a factor in making the decision. Nights like last night, when we were here until 8.30 in the evening walking round and round—I think it was 20 times—would make anyone reconsider their working life.

As for the physical aspect of construction work, I spent the weekend gardening. When I say gardening, I do not mean bedding plants and potting sheds; I mean using industrial petrol-driven machinery. Trees, bushes and grass all got the treatment. My green credentials might have taken a battering, but I can assure Members that the replanting of more appropriate species will take place in the near future. My point is that at 63, hard labour for me was a few hours interrupted by cups of tea, chocolate biscuits, a natter with the neighbours and much stroking of my beard as I perused the damage that, obviously, I was doing. My effort was minuscule compared with the contribution made day in, day out, year in, year out by construction workers and the effect that that has on their joints, muscles and tendons. Mine was minor compared with the toll that years of construction work results in.

When I was 17, I worked on building sites and spent the day carrying bricks, mixing cement and moving raw materials around for the skilled workforce to utilise. I cannot imagine what state my body would be in if I had done that job all my working life. And yet we ask those workers to work in freezing conditions during the winter and increasingly hot conditions in the summer. The job we do must have a bearing on the age we retire at.

On the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian by the UK Government, the UK Government believe that

“the principle of having a State Pension age that is the same for everybody is fundamental in the UK”

but I disagree. They say that it

“has the merit of simplicity and clarity including giving a clear signal to those planning for retirement”,

but what is that clear signal? Is it “Frankly, we don’t care”? Is it “Just be grateful you are not dead already”? Or is it “We don’t appreciate your hard work over all these years”? I suggest it is a combination of all three.

Finally, we have acknowledged that people in many professions can and do retire earlier already—that happens. It is time we extended that to the unsung heroes that are our construction workers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing today’s debate, and I thank him for his work in this important policy area. I also thank colleagues from across the House who have taken part in the debate. I will address a number of issues, including the wellbeing of construction workers, how they can take their pension early in some cases, the importance of support for people looking for work and, indeed, the state pension age.

I turn first to the wellbeing of construction workers and those in similar industries. I think it is fair to say—I hope we all agree—that construction is clearly a very important industry. Despite improvements to health and safety, there are still significant risks to workers in the industry, and I believe that it is important for the Government to take action to protect workers and to reduce risks at work. As has been noted by the shadow Secretary of State for the future of work, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), we need a new deal for working people, and an incoming Labour Government will create the right and safe conditions for proper competition and growth.

I am pleased to support the need for safety, both as a shadow Minister and as a constituency MP. There is much more to do to improve safety at work, and further action should be taken in this important area. For example, I believe that there needs to be a review of health and safety at work to make sure that outdated legislation is fit for purpose—something that I think other Members may have implied but that was not commented on. I also believe that those who are not able to work should receive support. There needs to be welfare reform to help support more people to make the breakthrough into sustained employment and, indeed, to progress in work. Without action, we risk condemning a generation to a life on the margins.

Today, unemployment is up, with 1.3 million men and women unemployed. The number of people out of work due to sickness has risen to a record high of 2.5 million, and 760,000 young people are not in education, employment or training—all at a time when we have millions of vacancies in the labour market. That is why reform is so urgent. After 13 years of Conservative Governments, too many people are trapped on welfare, sadly going nowhere. It is an unforgivable waste of their potential. We need reform, and we need new thinking.

I want to talk about the state pension and to briefly recap on some of the changes to state pension age, because there has obviously been a lengthy discussion of aspects of the policy. From the 1940s until April 2010, the state pension age was 60 for women and 65 for men. Legislation to increase the state pension age was introduced in stages, with the Pensions Act 1995 including provisions to increase the state pension age for women aged between 60 and 65 in a series of stages between April 2010 and 2020, to bring it into line with the state pension age for men. The Pensions Act 2007 made provision to increase the SPA from 65 to 68 in stages between 2024 and 2046, and the Pensions Act 2011 brought forward the completion of the increase in the women’s SPA to 65 to November 2018.

As a result of those Acts, the current timetable is for the SPA to rise to 67 between 2026 and 2028, and to 68 between 2044 and 2046. The announcement that the Government are not going ahead with accelerating the state pension age rise is welcome. It is the right decision, but it is the clearest admission yet that a rising tide of poverty is dragging down life expectancy for so many. Life expectancy appears to be stalling and even going backwards in some of our poorest communities, as was hinted at by hon. Members who spoke earlier. I am afraid that that is a damning indictment of 13 years of failure under the current Government and, indeed, the coalition Government. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that later.

The hon. Member for Midlothian has called for the state pension to be available early for some construction workers, and I appreciate that he spoke about that today. As I said, I congratulate him on securing the debate. However, I believe that the approach he suggests could lead to a series of unintended problems for the Department for Work and Pensions in administering the state pension. It is important to remember that other help is available, and I want to see the help and support improved. I would also like to make a broader point to him: it is very important that our pension system offers security and predictability for people of working age who are saving for a pension. I am grateful to him for securing today’s debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the matters raised.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing the debate and passionately putting forward his case. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) on the debris and disaster that he wreaked upon his garden last weekend—mighty will be the photographs, I am sure. It was also good to hear the points set out by my friend the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier).

It was good to hear from the shadow Pensions Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), who is also a friend of mine. I am no longer the Pensions Minister, because I was shuffled off that mortal coil by the previous Prime Minister, but I am standing in as a deputy today. I apologise on behalf of the actual Pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), who has a long-standing engagement outside the House of Commons that has been pre-booked for a considerable time, so I notify the hon. Member for Midlothian that she means no discourtesy to him or the House by her absence. I will endeavour to be an able replacement for the Pensions Minister, but she is most definitely carrying forward the torch of the Department’s policy on an ongoing basis.

This has been a debate about all matters construction, and it is right and proper that a full declaration of previous ability be made. I was a painter and decorator for the best part of nine months. I helped to build various buildings on labouring sites, just like the hon. Member for Midlothian, and I was briefly a roofer in my student days. “Opperman” means “upper man”—the man thrown up on the roof in days gone by to catch the tiles as they were thrown up there—so I come to this debate with great support for the construction industry. The hon. Gentleman was entirely right to laud, as others did, construction workers’ contribution to society, whether that is in Scotland, in the United Kingdom or throughout the world. It is to our credit that we have a thriving industry.

The hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate, fair and fundamental point: whether someone is a construction worker or any other person doing a heavy, physical, manual job, how does the state provide for them on an ongoing basis as they age and reach the designated retirement age? With due respect, we have to bear in mind that at all stages there is the issue of intergenerational fairness, because all pensions—this point is not always grasped—are paid by the taxpayer of today, who has to make a contribution to satisfy the number of pensioners, which is going up massively.

Bluntly, we pay more in pensions than ever before in this country. The new state pension went up to £203.85, which is an increase of £18.70, in April 2023. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the benefit system was enhanced by over 10% in the Budget. We have never paid more in state pensions than we currently do.

Many construction workers are self-employed and will therefore have no private pension, or a limited one. Does the Minister agree that we should recognise that facet of the construction sector and look at how pension education can be improved in the sector?

As the person who pioneered Pension Awareness Day, which I can strongly recommend, and many other pension policies during my five years as the Pensions Minister, I strongly endorse the hon. Lady’s point and encourage the sector unions to get involved in that. To be blunt, some were better than others. I had the honour and privilege of speaking twice at the Trades Union Congress annual conference; I think the first time was a legitimate invitation, but the second time I believe the invitation was probably just repeated by mistake. Making the case to union and sector colleagues for what we are trying to do is very important. I take the point.

The hon. Lady brings me nicely to the issue of which pensions are available. There are three types. There is the state pension, which obviously depends on the extent to which the individual pays national insurance contributions. Pretty much every employee in the construction sector will be paying national insurance contributions as part of their employment, and there is no question but that the self-employed should also be a part of that. The state pension should kick in in the usual way, so that will arrive at a particular time.

On top of that are the reforms brought in originally by the Labour Government, through the Turner commission, in 2003 and subsequently legislated for by the coalition in 2011-12 and expanded on by the coalition. I am referring to automatic enrolment. I accept that not everybody in the construction sector is in an employed job, but I will come to that point in a second. Automatic enrolment is an undoubted cross-party UK success story— I knew it was going well when the Pensions Minister from China requested a meeting to discuss how we were trying to get a workforce motivated and saving in a way that they could not necessarily do previously.

It was clear that the pensions system in the 1980s, the ’90s and the noughties was declining in terms of the private contributions that we wished to see. The defined benefit system was declining and the defined contribution system needed to grow. Putting it to the individual was difficult—I will come in a second to the point that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West made about the self-employed—but automatic enrolment has transformed private pension saving in this country. Saving 8% on an ongoing basis, as we are now doing, with a contribution from the employer within that and some support from the taxman, is massively helpful.

Let me give the stats. As of May 2023, we were almost at 11 million employees, having started in 2012. In 2012, the number of people who had a private pension was 42%; that has now gone up to 86%. Young people were at below 30%; they are now at 85%. Women were at just about 40%; they are now at 87%. The stat that I have for construction workers, which I am assured was provided by my predecessor but one, is that construction workers with private pensions have gone from 30% to 79%. Obviously, that is those who are in an employed situation, but it clearly shows a dramatic improvement on the situation that would have applied if we had been having this conversation 11 years ago, prior to the introduction of automatic enrolment.

That does not mean that one should not address the points that have fairly been raised about the self-employed. Having done 20 years as a self-employed individual, let me make the point that if one is self-employed, one has the perfect right to sign up to one’s own pension. One has the perfect right to join NEST, the National Employment Savings Trust, which is the easiest automatic enrolment provider. There are many different sectors that are relevant. I started out as a—much thinner—jockey and then became a lawyer. Construction workers can set up their own self-employed pension, which is of course tax-deductible as to earnings on an ongoing basis, and many in the construction industry take advantage of that.

However, I accept that there is a cohort that is not saving as it would like to, notwithstanding the three potential ways in which that happens. Along with a state pension that has increased, one has to be aware of the 2016 reforms, which were introduced by a previous Government and set out the new state pension, which was introduced to be simpler and better for a whole cohort of society. To be fair to the hon. Member for Midlothian, he set out the Pensions Minister’s approach previously. This is in a context where there is the universality of the state pension, but more importantly, we have had this for 75 years, and the modern state pension has very clear rules—the hon. Gentleman set them out—about the time at which one can get entitlement. Those rules help to make it both affordable, because it is paid for by the working taxpayer, and sustainable, so that it can continue to be the foundation of income in retirement for future generations.

There is some evidence from some countries—I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point—that one can have an earlier acceptance of part of one’s pension in some cases, but there is a lesser sum. There is genuinely an issue with being careful what you wish for, though. The reason why the Cridland review and the Neville-Rolfe review are sceptical about this, as the hon. Gentleman set out, is that the state pension is there to provide a basic form of support in our old age, such that the state can then say, “We assess that this contribution of taxpayer funding—of GDP—is the amount that we will set aside to try to support those in difficulties by reason of their age, such that they are now pensioners.”

On top of that, there is £30 billion-worth of housing support, there is pension credit support worth many thousands of pounds, and there are a huge number of other additional benefits, such as the winter fuel payment, which is going up by £300. The hon. Gentleman alluded to the fact that things like the cost of living are more complicated; he will be aware that we have spent £94 billion over the past couple of years to support the most vulnerable, including those on benefits, those in receipt of the state pension and particularly those in receipt of pension credit. That support is ongoing. The rises in winter fuel payments are a good example, with the extra £300 coming in plus the ongoing energy support grant.

It is clear that special arrangements for certain groups would rapidly lead to calls for similar arrangements for other groups. How can I put it delicately? I was not a very good jockey—I broke 26 bones in my body in my limited and short career, and my life expectancy and longevity as a jockey were highly limited—but I was able to transfer those skills, some would say interestingly, into being a lawyer and a Member of Parliament. But there are plenty of other professions that would then come forward, and that is a very significant issue for the state. It is worth having a proper conversation about this, because ultimately the state has to decide how much of a tax contribution should be taken from the working population to address these problems. There are inherent problems that would undermine a universal state pension age and its clarity.

Having worked in the Department for Work and Pensions for the past eight years, for my sins, I can strongly assure the hon. Member for Midlothian that the administration of the state pension is a marvel, but it is also incredibly complex. The moment that there were an introduction of a differential assessment, it would create a logistical conundrum, to say the least, and would require administration on an epic level. Getting such a thing correct—I suspect that as the hon. Gentleman proposes, all these things would have to be assessed, including with a prior medical assessment—is extraordinarily difficult. With respect, that approach was comprehensively rejected by the Cridland report. I accept that one paragraph of the Neville-Rolfe report seems to suggest that certain people do so; I think it talks about people who are 65 with 45 years of national insurance contributions. It is something that can be legislated for, because this Government or any future Government will have to legislate for the state pension situation in the next two years.[Official Report, 20 July 2023, Vol. 736, c. 18MC.]There is no doubt that we will have to return to the issue and produce legislation setting out on how these things can be done, and Parliament can make decisions on that.

I will make a couple of brief points that I think are relevant to how we approach people who have done one job but are struggling to continue in it. First, they would obviously rather be working than on welfare, but we have never paid more welfare support: this country has never given more to the disabled and to those on welfare support. There is a copious amount of support out there. On reskilling, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Augar review, the lifelong learning pledge and the efforts that are being made to create further education not just for people aged 18 to 24, but for older workers, in a whole host of ways.

I will slightly push back on the hon. Member for Inverclyde, who was slightly disparaging on the skills situation. I believe that there have been about 5,454,000 apprenticeships since 2010. That is a pretty impressive record on apprenticeships, which have massively increased.

I will happily give way, but surely the hon. Gentleman must accept that that is a massive figure.

But the point I was making was that we picked that up after two or three decades of neglect. What we have been missing in between is the experience that people have gathered during that time.

Normally I am very happy to have a go at the 13 years of Labour Governments, but I say respectfully that there was a trend by successive Governments throughout the years that university was the way ahead. That was particularly the case with the Blairite ambition that 50% of all students should be going to university. There is clearly a role for university, but I would like to think that the coalition Government and this Conservative Government have majored on apprenticeships. I urge the hon. Gentleman to read the debate I answered last night—I have been busy—because it was specifically about skills and further employment, with which we are trying to support people.

One way we are supporting people is through the midlife MOT, which is very relevant to the hon. Member for Midlothian. The midlife MOT is mentioned in the Cridland report—I think it is on page 72. It is set out in quite a lot of detail; it is a project that I have pioneered in copious detail for the last six and a half years. I cannot stress enough the difference it is making. The midlife MOT now exists in jobcentres for those who are unemployed; it exists on a private sector basis with the three trials that we have going; and pretty much every large pension provider is now running it. It looks at wealth, work and wellbeing. It is massively appropriate to reskilling those who are 45 to 55 and are struggling to work out the way ahead.

The evidence so far is that the midlife MOT is a very successful innovation. The private sector is very much in support of it. If the hon. Member for Midlothian and his union have not read the Aviva review, I urge them to do so. Put bluntly, the midlife MOT is part of the suite of options that the Government have, along with the business champion for older workers, who I have met repeatedly and is doing good work, and the support for returnerships, which the Chancellor set out in copious detail in the Budget. There are also opportunities for retraining, whether those are in sector-based work academies or in the skills bootcamps run through jobcentres up and down the country, whereby if an individual becomes unemployed they can be retrained in alternative employment so that they can return to the workforce.

In respect of those with health conditions and the disabled, the hon. Member for Midlothian will be aware of the health and disability review that has been published by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work. It looks at exactly how we get people with long-term health conditions and those who are disabled back into work.

Secondly, there is the unquestioned ability that has been shown by so many people. There are now 4.9 million people who are disabled but still working, as of the most recent figures from quarter 3 of 2022. That is an increase of 2 million people. It is a testament to this country that we are now much more open to taking people with health conditions or disabilities into work. Again, that is something that I think will make a difference.

A couple of other points have been made. I have talked about the two state pension age reviews. I would also make the point that for those who are struggling and vulnerable, there has been £94 billion-worth of support.

In conclusion, I believe it is right to restate the point that for 75 years the state pension has had a single issue and receipt date. That will continue for the near future, but Parliament will decide those matters on an ongoing basis with whoever the Government are in future. In those circumstances, I commend this speech to the House.

I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), as well as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), and the Minister, for taking part in the debate, but I have to say that I am disappointed in the responses from the shadow Minister and the Minister.

I think perhaps we are coming to the issue with different perspectives. The Opposition and the Government’s point of view is “This is what it would cost,” whereas mine is “Let’s put the health and wellbeing of the individual first, and then we can work out the other bits.” I am not saying that one is better than the other, but they are different ways of looking at the issue. I agree with the Minister that there is a conversation that still needs to be had. Is the approach of simply asking the price tag enough to decide whether we should or should not do something? Just because something is difficult, that does not mean that we should not do it.

I hear the Minister’s point about auto-enrolment. However, I gently suggest that a high volume of people signed up with a private pension does not automatically mean that they are going to have enough to support them in retirement. There is more still to be done. I welcome the start of the conversation, but it needs to continue. We need to change the mindset on the issue and move away from simply saying, “This is what it costs, so we can’t do it.” Let us look at it in a more rounded way and make it about the wellbeing of the individual.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the pension retirement age for construction workers.

Sitting adjourned.