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Westminster Hall

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 5 September 2023

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Climate Finance: Tackling Loss and Damage

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report of the International Development Committee, Debt relief in low-income countries, HC 146, and the Government response, HC 1393; Second Report of the International Development Committee of Session 2021–22, Global Britain in demand: UK climate action and international development around COP26, HC 99, and the Government response, HC 1008; and oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 18 July 2023, on UK Small Island Developing States Strategy, HC 1298.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered climate finance for tackling loss and damage.

July was the hottest month in global history. In three months the world will gather in one of the hottest regions of the world for COP28. All summer we have heard about and seen the impacts that climate change is having—impacts that will only get worse—and the need for urgent action could not be clearer. Simply put, this is the biggest, most existential threat to humanity and our planet, and I put it on the record that I am utterly disappointed that not one MP from the governing Conservative party is here other than the Minister.

The international community has come together in recent years to recognise the urgent need for financial support to combat climate change. Prominent milestones at various COPs over have established ambitious targets for climate finance. However, a fundamental problem persists. It is crucial to acknowledge that, despite the pledges and commitments, a substantial gap remains between promise and fulfilment, perhaps illustrated most starkly by the collective goal of mobilising $100 billion a year by 2020 for climate action in developing countries, agreed in Copenhagen at COP15 in 2009. This has still not yet been achieved.

To date, climate finance to developing countries has been focused on mitigation—namely, efforts to reduce and prevent the emission of greenhouse gases and adaptation—and adjusting to and building resilience against current and future climate change impacts. However, harms and losses will still be experienced by communities and ecosystems due to climate change that cannot be effectively mitigated or adapted to.

Loss and damage funding refers to the financial assistance provided to countries and communities dealing with the irrevocable consequences of climate change. It encompasses the destruction of infrastructure, the displacement of communities, the erosion of cultural heritage and, heartbreakingly, extensive loss of life.

At COP27 in November 2022 we witnessed a historic turning point in our global commitment to address loss and damage. An agreement was reached to establish a dedicated fund aimed explicitly at supporting vulnerable nations and communities grappling with the irreversible effects of climate change. The agreement underscored the urgency of recognising that climate finance is not solely about reducing emissions and adapting to changing conditions. It is also about providing financial redress to those who bear the brunt of climate impacts, often with the least historical responsibility for causing the crisis.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. When it comes to finance for loss and damage, does he agree with me that that finance has to be new and additional, not redirected from existing budgets? If we are looking for places where we might find such new and additional finance, if we put the polluter pays principle at the heart of this debate, we could, for example, look at the grotesque profits of the oil and gas companies, which amounted to a staggering $134 billion globally last year, or the billions that go into fossil fuel subsidies. Does he agree with me that that would be a good place to start to get the money we need for such a vital fund?

Not only do I completely agree, but I suspect my papers have been leaked because I was about to come on to that point. I completely agree that new and additional finance is key and I look forward to what the Minister will say. I will touch on that topic in more depth shortly.

There is no doubt the UK has contributed significantly to the climate emergency through its historical greenhouse gas emissions. From 1750 to the present day it is the seventh highest CO2 emitter with just over 3% of estimated historical emissions. In contrast, the entire continent of Africa has a 3% share of cumulative CO2 emissions and Oceania only 1%—two of the regions already the most devastated by the climate catastrophe.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this essential debate, because this is a global question. We know that the United Nations framework convention on climate change has recognised that responsibility must lie with developed countries, and finance must therefore come in the form of grants not loans, but I beg the Minister to consider, given that the UK Government lay so much emphasis on addressing immigration, the impact of climate change on the likely future movement of populations. We have a duty to put our money where our mouth is and address some of the causes, the drivers, of migration. That in itself is something that I would expect the Government to respond to in a most serious manner.

I thank the right hon. Member for a really valuable intervention. She reminds me of the startling numbers that I was given in 2017, at the first COP I attended, by a climate scientist called Dirk Messner. He described how, if we continue on the trajectory that we are on now, by 2050 1 billion people will be on the move because of displacement by climate change. A current figure is that more than one third of people on the move right now are on the move as a result, directly or indirectly, of climate change. Therefore the right hon. Member makes a very valuable point.

Not only has the UK made a massive contribution to the destructive impacts of climate change through its emissions, but it has benefited from the competitive advantage that its early adoption of fossil fuels and industrialisation brought and it continues to profit from the extraction of oil and gas from the North sea. The UK therefore has a moral obligation to recognise this historical responsibility and lead by example in addressing loss and damage. That cannot be denied or ignored. As we prepare to embark on the critical climate conference that will be COP28 in Dubai, it is paramount that the UK takes a bold and principled stance in addressing the devastating impacts of climate change, and encourage similar action from others as we collectively tackle the biggest global challenge facing the planet today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on managing to get this debate on such an important issue. Does he agree that this Government’s credibility on climate finance will continue to be fundamentally undermined until the UK’s official development assistance budget is restored to at least 0.7% of GNI and the cuts are no longer threatening the many projects currently supporting vulnerable communities?

I thank my hon. Friend for a really valuable point. When I go out in the world today and speak to organisations and bodies in both Europe and the US, they are, frankly, disappointed at the UK’s position in recent years on the reduction in relation to GNI. It is a shame—it is our collective shame—and it needs to be altered radically. And for sure, money for loss and damage should not come from existing ODA budgets, which have already been shrunk.

To understand the imperative for loss and damage funding, we need to examine the profound, real-life and often irreversible impacts of climate change. At various COP meetings that I have attended, I have heard harrowing testimonies from citizens of small island states whose homes are disappearing underwater because of climate change. I recently watched devastating footage from the Solomon Islands, where sea level rise rates have been nearly three times the global average. Data shows that sea levels around the islands have risen at the alarming rate of between 7 mm and 10 mm a year—well above the global average of 3 mm a year. As a result, many coastal areas have been inundated, displacing communities and leading to the loss of arable land. Indeed, whole islands have tragically vanished beneath the rising waters.

The disappearance of islands such as Kale, Zollies and Kakatina is not only a stark statistic but a poignant testament to the reality of climate-induced loss and damage. I say this to the Minister: just imagine for a second that it was the United Kingdom that was facing disappearing—the entire nation disappearing under the waters that surround us. We would be acting very differently from how we are now. Those communities in the Solomon Islands have lost their homes, their ancestral lands and their way of life. The impact of climate change in the Solomon Islands extends beyond the numbers and statistics, reaching into the heart of the nation’s communities.

In east Africa, agriculture, reliant on timely and predictable rainfall, is a cornerstone of the economy; the region is highly vulnerable to climate shocks such as droughts and floods. Widespread crop failures and significant loss of livestock have led to vast economic losses that destroy livelihoods and deepen poverty and inequality. One person is likely to be dying every 28 seconds because of acute hunger and famine-like conditions as a result of climate change. This has been accelerated by an unprecedented series of failed rains, causing prolonged droughts, or places being hit by destructive flash floods, devastating people’s crops and livelihoods. Emergency humanitarian aid is simply not enough; the humanitarian system is not appropriate to address the increasing impacts of climate change. A loss and damage fund is needed, and needed now.

In Malawi, floods and droughts are on the increase. Events include Cyclone Ana, which in January 2022 affected almost 1 million people, of whom 190,000 were displaced, and Cyclone Freddy, which displaced more than half a million people, destroyed crops and livelihoods and caused almost 700 deaths. The World Bank estimates that climate change could reduce Malawi’s GDP by up to 9% by 2030, which is only seven years away. That means that, despite continued work and increasing resilience to climate-induced shocks in Malawi, the impacts of climate change continue to erode development gains, particularly for vulnerable populations.

I recently learned of the impact of initial loss and damage funding from the SNP Scottish Government to projects in Malawi to support safe housing construction and provide psychological support for victims. This is a small-scale community-led initiative that needs to go much further and be supported by a global fund. Funding the loss and damage fund is not a matter of charity; it is an act of justice.

The SNP Scottish Government have embedded the concept of climate justice in their international development framework, launching a climate justice fund in 2012, which is due to increase by £24 million over the next three years. That was the first of its kind in the world. Crucially, it paved the way for others when it again became the first in the world to commit funding to loss and damage at COP26 in Glasgow. The whole world was there to listen and the whole world wanted to see that movement forward.

The Scottish Government’s role in providing funding for loss and damage is characterised by deep commitment to climate justice, concrete financial contributions, active participation in global climate efforts and a dedication to innovative and collaborative solutions. Scotland’s global climate leadership credibility is reinforced by its domestic action. It is concerning that the UK’s reputation could be undermined by the current Government’s decision to grant hundreds of new oil and gas licences and, I am afraid, the Labour party’s weakness in watering down its £28 billion green prosperity plan.

Scotland is now seen as a trusted global partner when it comes to climate loss and damage. I hope the Minister will agree with me that the Scottish Government should be empowered to do more on the international stage, rather than be restricted or put back in their box, as some of his Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office colleagues have suggested. Because where Scotland has led, others have followed: Denmark, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand and Canada have all now pledged loss and damage funding.

The Scottish Government did not hang about and wait for others to act first. They did not create excuses to give themselves reason to delay making a commitment. They saw the urgent need for this funding and acted upon it. Although these funds are small, they are already making a difference, both in practical terms and in how they have prompted others to follow suit. I sincerely hope the UK Government will see the value in that and act without unnecessary delay.

Although Scotland has contributed to important progress, it is not happening fast enough globally. The UK and other Governments around the world have a responsibility to come together and ensure that the practicalities of the loss and damage fund are agreed at COP 28, and implemented as soon as possible thereafter. At present, there has been no agreement on what the financial size of any loss and damage fund should be and how it should operate through the Transitional Committee agreed at COP 27, which has been tasked with establishing the institutional arrangements and has been working over the past year.

Several areas of contention are still being debated and need to be resolved before the committee’s plan is considered at COP 28. One of those is whether the loss and damage fund should be housed within existing climate finance mechanisms, or operate as an independent entity. The Alliance of Small Island States has called for a

“fit-for-purpose multilateral fund designated as an operating entity of the UNFCCC Financial Mechanism”.

I stumbled across that fairly mighty quote. It has been echoed by other vulnerable states and civil society that wish to see a flagship dedicated fund. Let me make this point clear. This cannot be about relabelling existing money, a point the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) made earlier. Loss and damage funding needs to be new money going to new places—the places already experiencing the devastating effects of climate change—now.

Furthermore, if we are to embed the concept of climate justice properly in our approach, the voices of developing and vulnerable states must be listened to and acted upon, equalising power in this currently unequal relationship. Loss and damage funding should be tailored to their needs, rather than a top-down approach from those who do not share their experiences. It is also incumbent on developed countries to ensure that they do not divide consensus on the need for a loss and damage fund.

Existing climate finance arrangements are based on a 1998 list of 155 developing countries and 43 contributors. It has been suggested that not all developing countries should be eligible for support, as not all of them are particularly vulnerable and in need of urgent loss and damage funding. It has also been argued that countries such as China, India and countries in the middle east should be expected to contribute to the fund and that there should be a narrower definition, with recipients restricted to those countries with the least capacity to cope and adapt, alongside their susceptibility to harm and to be adversely affected.

While that does not seem overly unreasonable, many developed countries have not lived up to their climate finance obligations, and it is incumbent on them to ensure that these are met before expecting others to do so. This debate should not be used as a convenient excuse to stall progress on the establishment of the fund. Given that the UK is one of the 24 members of the Transitional Committee, it needs to be a champion for the dedicated fund, for firm commitments from developed countries and for transparent governance ahead of the committee presenting its plans at COP28. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s detailed statement of where he stands on this later in the debate.

Climate finance agreed under the United Nations framework convention on climate change was intended to provide new and additional resources for lower-income countries to tackle the additional challenges brought by climate change. Despite that, the UK has failed to provide climate finance in addition to its ODA budget. The current commitment of £11.6 billion in international climate finance from 2021 to 2026 is welcome. I would like to be absolutely assured that that will continue, but it is under pressure due to the UK Government’s reckless decision to cut their ODA budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI at a time of escalating need—a point that has already been made.

There is concern that the UK will seek to delay climate finance commitments due to these significant aid cuts. Will the Minister confirm that that will not be the case? I am also eager to hear from the Labour Front Bench on this. Back in July, on reports that the commitment was being dropped, the Labour party refused to comment on whether it would commit to the £11.6 billion funding pledge, so I hope to hear whether the Labour party will obediently do as it is told by the Tories and follow every fiscal decision made by them, or will it recognise the severity of the climate crisis and ensure the pledge is met.

The UK Government must ensure that the money attributed to loss and damage is new and additional to existing climate finance commitments, and not diverted from existing ODA budgets. Climate change is a global crisis that requires a global response—one that should not come at the expense of other essential development initiatives. Current estimates place the cost of loss and damage in developing countries alone at approximately half a trillion dollars by 2030. Christian Aid has estimated that the UK’s fair contribution to this fund could be 3.5%, equivalent to between $10 billion and $20 billion. It would simply not be possible to absorb that in the current climate finance commitments or to cut other aid spending further to fund it.

To raise the necessary funds, we must explore innovative financing mechanisms, which must be based on the polluter pays principle, as touched on earlier. Those responsible for a significant share of emissions must bear a corresponding share of responsibility for the damage this is causing. It is not unreasonable to look to the fossil fuel industry to pay a proportionate share of those costs, particularly given the level of profit and excessive profits they are making and the subsidies they receive. The figures required to cover the costs of loss and damage are high, but they are dwarfed by the billions in subsidies that the fossil fuel industry receives and the profits it makes.

To understand that, the excess profits of the five largest oil and gas companies alone amounted to $134 billion last year, and the United Nations Development Programme estimates that global fossil fuel subsidies are now at a staggeringly $423 billion a year. If we put those figures together, we are into more than half a trillion dollars per year, showing that there is no shortage of money, rather it is concentrated in the wrong hands.

Analysis by Christian Aid has shown that £6.5 billion could be raised by a wealth tax to support loss and damage. New forms of wealth taxes that are broad based and that take into account different forms of wealth could help significantly in ensuring that money is available for loss and damage. If both the Conservative and Labour parties are serious about adequately tackling this global climate emergency, they need to take bold action, instead of being hand in hand in timidly ruling these options out.

Will the Minister commit to ensuring that loss and damage finance is provided in the form of grants, not loans? Vulnerable nations and communities should not be burdened with debt or struggle to recover from the ravages of climate change. The UK Government’s contribution to loss and damage funding should not be merely seen as a financial transaction; it should be a declaration of values, a commitment to climate justice and a recognition of the profound responsibility we bear in the face of this global crisis. We are truly in this together, and we cannot walk away now.

To conclude, I have made it clear that we have a moral and historical obligation, as well as an obligation in our own self-interest, to act in the face of this climate emergency. When we talk about loss and damage funding, we are talking about humanity’s response to one of the greatest challenges of our time. The urgency of this crisis demands swift and decisive action, and the financial commitments made by developed nations must reflect the severity of the situation.

It is our duty to ensure that those commitments are translated into tangible support for those vulnerable communities most affected by climate change. Without such support, we will see the climate crisis create resource scarcity and poverty, cause disease and displacement, and lead to conflict and, as we touched on earlier, mass migration. That will affect all of us in this Chamber. It will affect our children and our children’s children’s children to come. It is in our enlightened self-interest to ensure that loss and damage funding is there as an essential lifeline for those who find themselves on the frontlines of a crisis that they did not create.

It is our collective responsibility as good global citizens to ensure that we act boldly and decisively, in order to make sure that the most vulnerable receive the support they need to rebuild their lives and to make sure that by co-operating together we protect all of our futures.

Order. We have three Members indicating that they wish to speak in the debate. I will start up the wind-ups just before 10.30 am, so that leaves around 10 minutes for each Member who wishes to speak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mr Betts, as it always is.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing this much needed debate. He spoke about urgency, and he is absolutely right to focus on that. We continue to see extreme weather events occurring across the globe and the principal polluters—both historically and currently—burying their heads in the sand, pretending that it is not a problem they need to address, and hoping it will go away. It will not go away; it is urgent and it is severe.

Let me give an example. The prolonged drought in east Africa has pushed almost 60 million people into food insecurity, which is a dramatic increase from the 37 million people affected in the middle of last year, when the emergency was first declared. In some areas across the globe, the weather has swung to the other extreme. Last month, excessive rainfall in the Himalayas caused flash floods, landslides and rockfalls, which have killed dozens of people and destroyed homes and buildings. Such events prove that climate change continues to pose an increasing threat to the health of people and indeed the health of the planet.

We are seeing more frequent extreme weather events, such as wildfires and floods, which are destroying economies and infrastructure, with severe consequences for human life across the globe. Slow-onset events, such as increasing temperatures and sea level rises, are not receiving the attention they deserve but are a cause for serious concern.

I chair the International Development Committee, and I am grateful that the hon. Member for Dundee West is such a leading light on the Committee, pushing us to do more on climate change. The Committee has undertaken work on the impact of climate change. Evidence submitted to us has shown clearly that climate change does not have an equal impact on all countries. In our report on debt relief, we found that lower-income countries are more vulnerable to loss and damage from climate change than high-income ones. Lower-income countries are less likely to have the funds to invest in climate change mitigation and adaptation, but without such investment the loss and damage from climate shocks will be more severe. The cost of the response and reconstruction is then higher, reducing the future funding available to invest in climate change adaptation.

As part of the Committee’s inquiry on the effect of climate change on small island developing states, or SIDS, we heard that SIDS are particularly at risk from climate shocks. For example, in 2015 Dominica was hit by Tropical Storm Erika, which caused loss and damage amounting to 90% of its GDP. It then faced Hurricane Maria in 2017, which caused further loss and damage that amounted to 226% of its GDP.

My Committee has also heard about the threat of sea level rises, coastal erosion and, in some cases, the potential submergence of SIDS by climate change. Within this century, two SIDS are likely to disappear because of rising sea levels. Communities in low-lying atoll countries, such as the Maldives and the Marshall Islands, are at most risk. Climate change poses an existential threat for SIDS—one that is largely being overlooked.

Climate change will also put even more pressure on the most vulnerable and marginalised people. The World Bank has estimated that between 68 million and 135 million people will fall back into poverty due to climate change by 2030. Those who are already poor are likely to lose more when faced with climate shocks, even while having less to begin with.

The World Bank states that only one tenth of the world’s greenhouse gases are emitted by the 74 lowest income countries, yet it is those countries that will be the most affected by climate change. Lower-income countries are being forced to pay for damage they did not cause, despite having the least ability to pay for it. That is not just, it is not equitable, and it must be addressed. The UK could and should play a greater role in preventing and treating the suffering caused across the globe from climate change.

Loss and damage finance remains the most underfunded form of climate finance. At COP27, the Sharm el-Sheikh implementation plan was agreed, which included the establishment of the loss and damage fund. It is essential that the UK Government pledges new and additional funding for addressing loss and damage as part of their commitment to the most vulnerable people in the world.

To that end, I welcome the fact that at the first Africa climate summit the Minister for Development, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to double its international climate finance to £11.6 billion between 2021 and 2026. Ahead of COP26, though, the UK Government also committed to support the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage, which is meant to provide technical assistance to lower-income countries vulnerable to climate change. However, it was only at COP27 that the institutional arrangements to operationalise the network were agreed. As my Committee has previously recommended, the Government must urgently work to support the Santiago Network to be operational and to live up to its prior commitments.

My Committee has also made other core recommendations for meaningful action on climate change. We recommend that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office should work closely with the least developed countries and small island developing states in developing practical measures to address loss and damage. We also recommend that the FCDO hosts a climate and development ministerial with climate-vulnerable countries every year to follow up on its previous work. I was pleased to hear yesterday that the Government will be co-hosting the third climate and development ministerial, but it is vital to hear the voices of lower-income countries and small island developing states on how that finance can be most effectively used.

Without concrete and concerted action, the most vulnerable countries and the most vulnerable people in them will continue to suffer. As a lead contributor to climate change, and as a high-income country, the UK Government have a moral responsibility to act now. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing this debate, and the Backbench Business Committee on enabling it. It is a pleasure also to follow two such powerful speeches, including, of course, from the Chair of the International Development Committee.

“We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose”

were the words that a constituent wrote to me, which were taken from an old Quaker testimony. I only occasionally reference my Quaker faith or background in this place—or indeed on Radio 4, as I did yesterday—but the climate crisis is one area where my faith, and many other faiths, drives that ethos. We have all heard and seen so many moving testimonies about how the climate crisis impacts communities and ecosystems across the world, and we know that this devastation will only accelerate.

There is also the particular concern and worry facing island nations, whether the Maldives or the Solomon Islands. We know that island nations are on the frontline of the climate crisis. It is not academic for them; it is a matter of survival. The establishment of a loss and damage fund at COP27 is a landmark agreement and one that has come only after years and years of the most climate-vulnerable countries pushing for change.

I could talk at length about the particular challenges, but I want to focus on just why it is important for us in the UK to proactively support, and to take leadership on this. First, it is a matter of basic principles and humanity. We have a duty to help those across the world who are at risk. We are already seeing the personal impact of the climate crisis on communities, whether it is those in Africa facing prolonged drought, or those in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh seeing record floods. We cannot ignore the reality in front of our eyes. All of us have a duty to work to tackle this crisis. Many of my constituents will have close links to those communities through family, friends or shared ancestors.

Secondly, we have seen in the past that global leadership can and does work. One example is when the UK—and yes, Margaret Thatcher—led the way in signing the Montreal protocol, which was a global agreement that regulated and phased out substances that were damaging the ozone layer. This shows that global action works. The regenerated forests that have resulted are the visible testimony to that agreement. But why, when looking for examples, must we go back 40 years? Surely this is an area where the world and the UK should be stepping up again.

Thirdly, the climate emergency causing droughts and floods across the world means that whole communities are losing not only their homes but their food sources and livelihoods. They are having to move in mass migrations that put further pressure on the areas they arrive in, which are also vulnerable themselves.

Finally, it is in the UK’s interests to ensure that we take the lead on global action to fight the climate crisis and protect communities who will be hit the hardest. I was lucky enough to attend COP26 in Glasgow. I still remember the powerful and moving testimonies from world leaders and communities who will be, or already are, on the frontline of the climate crisis. These are the communities whose lives will be changed or ruined, and who will see, or already are seeing, the scars of the climate crisis.

It is estimated that there will be 1.2 billion climate refugees in the next 25 years—individuals who are made refugees in their own country, often within a matter of hours. One year ago, as my hon. Friend mentioned, we saw unprecedented floods in Pakistan. Millions were displaced and thousands killed, and the recovery is ongoing. I put on the record my thanks to the British charities for their amazing work. In the coming weeks I will be visiting, together with Islamic Relief, to examine some of that work. My question is: is it vital that the Government make a serious commitment to climate finance for loss and damage at COP28, which is coming up?

My hon. Friend references the crisis—those terrible floods—that we all saw last year in Pakistan, which so many of our community members and charities such as Islamic Relief stepped up and took a lead on. Yes, our Government did help, but it sometimes felt like the charities and volunteers were in there first, and the Government followed. The floods in Pakistan are just one example of the climate crisis.

We have heard much about the support funding for nations because they, and the UK in particular, need to take a lead on this. It is important that we support countries in ensuring that they can access clean and green energy sources for domestic energy. As an example, many island nations are reliant on expensive imports, especially fossil fuel generators, to provide domestic heat and light. Surely one area where the UK can and should be leading is on the export of green, clean energy sources. That will not only help to tackle the crisis, but support well-paid and green jobs both in the UK and around the world.

In conclusion, the UK needs to be a leader in supporting and assisting countries around the world. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about what the UK is going to do to ensure that we protect the world’s most vulnerable communities from this crisis.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing this debate and his excellent contribution. I also congratulate the Chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on their powerful contributions.

This is an important debate. In March this year, I was proud to be elected president of the Forum of Young Parliamentarians of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which is like a United Nations of legislatures. It represents 180 national Parliaments around the world. I vow to use the position to make young people’s voices heard on the world stage. I hope my contribution will be a small part of fulfilling that promise, because young people will be not only the victims of climate change but the greatest contributors to action against it. It is a profound injustice that those least responsible for causing the climate emergency will suffer the worst of its consequences. At the same time, debt burdens and increased food and energy prices mean that many climate-vulnerable countries have less fiscal capacity to deal with those consequences—for adaptation, mitigation, loss and damage, or the resulting harms to health, the environment and ways of life.

I welcome the confirmation, in an answer to my written question, that it remains the Government’s intention to deliver £11.6 billion of UK international climate finance between April 2021 and March 2026. I hope, however, that the Minister will stand up to those in his own party who would like to see the UK abandon that commitment. I urge him to take the opportunity today to clarify how the UK will meet its commitments within the existing timeframe, including front loading climate finance and showing how that climate finance will be new and additional.

To meet our commitments, however, we need to go further. We must properly tax the big polluters; we know that fossil fuel corporations knew the harms their products were causing. They covered up the science for years, funded disinformation and spread doubt, delaying action that could have saved countless lives. Those very same companies are currently raking in obscene, record-breaking profits, predominantly due to the effects of the war in Ukraine. Polluters must begin compensating for the destruction they have caused to our environment and to the lives of the people who have done the very least to cause the climate emergency.

Research from Greenpeace has shown that the fossil fuel industry made enough in profits between 2000 and 2019 to cover the costs of climate-induced economic losses in 55 of the most climate-vulnerable countries nearly 60 times over. It is the responsibility of the richest countries, which set global tax rules, to make that a reality. The importance of doing so could not be clearer. Estimates have shown that the world’s most vulnerable countries can expect to suffer an average GDP hit of 19.6% by 2050 and of 63.9% by the beginning of the next century. Even if global temperature increases are limited to 1.5 °C, vulnerable countries face an average GDP reduction of 13.1% by 2050 and 33% by 2100.

Even if 1.5 is kept alive, a properly functioning loss and damage mechanism is urgently needed. Failure to do that will be felt particularly acutely across the continent of Africa, with eight of the top 10 worst affected countries being there. In the first six months of 2022, there were 119 climate and weather related events in developing countries, causing £26.2 billion worth of losses in the countries affected. That shows the scale of the challenges we face as part of an international community.

My colleagues have made the case for a moral responsibility for loss and damage. It is also in our economic self-interest, however, to take greater action now. We must build on the breakthrough agreements of last year’s COP. Now is the time to operationalise the loss and damage fund—to put the money in and to get it working—in order to direct finance to those communities with the greatest need. I will continue to make those calls, alongside colleagues, and I will be proud to make them at COP28, which I hope to attend in my new role later this year. The Minister should rest assured that young people will continue to make those calls until they are listened to.

We now move on to the Front Benchers. I think they may have worked out that there is more time than their allotted 10 minutes, although they are not required to take longer and I would like the mover to have a bit of time at the end to wind up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Although Members may not have used all the time available, all the contributions have been substantial and this has been a worthwhile debate, which I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing. I recognise his commitment to, and passion for, climate justice over many years. I think he has the distinction of attending the most UN framework convention on climate change conferences of parties of any serving MP—if not, he is certainly close to the record—so he speaks with an experience and authority to which we all, especially the Minister, ought to listen.

We have just returned from a summer recess during which the UN Secretary-General said:

“The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived”.

Only a very small minority of people anywhere in the world would now be prepared to argue that the extreme weather being experienced across the globe is not evidence of the impact that human-driven carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial revolution have had on the planet’s climate. Sadly, some of that minority still inhabit the Conservative Back Benches—although none of them has been brave enough to come to this debate to articulate that—and that has regrettable consequences for Government policy.

As every Member who has spoken in this debate has said, the reality is that climate change poses an existential threat—not necessarily to all human life, but certainly to the lifestyles to which we in the west have become accustomed and to which we encourage others elsewhere in the world to aspire. In 2015, when my hon. Friends and I were first elected, we would come to Westminster Hall debates and say that climate change threatened to undo the progress that had been made towards meeting the millennium development goals and driving down global poverty. Eight years later, we can say with certainty that climate change is undoing that progress and is in fact driving up hunger, poverty and disease in many parts of the world. That is why addressing the issue of loss and damage is so important.

The concept of loss and damage and the need for additional finances to repair loss and damage caused by climate change is not new; it dates at least to the early 1990s when the Alliance of Small Island States first brought it to the table of the existing UN framework. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) spoke powerfully about the threat that small island states face. They are among the first to experience the impact of climate change and face the prospect of their islands being literally wiped off the face of the earth by rising sea levels or becoming uninhabitable as marine ecosystems break down. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West asked the Minister to imagine if this country was threatened with being swamped—it is! Not far away, there is a tidal barrier that increasingly cannot cope with the tidal surges and rising sea levels, so this country is going to be affected. Low-lying areas of this island will be affected by climate change.

We all need to act, and that is what loss and damage is about. It recognises that some of the impacts of climate change will be literally beyond repair and certainly beyond prevention and mitigation. That in turn means that support for people and places affected by loss and damage also has to go beyond existing support. If climate change is undoing progress towards the sustainable development goals and poverty reduction, by definition the support to make up for it will have to be additional to what has already been pledged or assessed as required.

In 2022, the Vulnerable Twenty, or V20, which is a group of the Finance Ministers of countries vulnerable to climate change, estimated that

“Climate change has eliminated one fifth of the wealth of the V20 over the last two decades: initial evidence shows that the V20 would have been 20% wealthier today had it not been for climate change and the losses it incurred for poor and vulnerable economies.”

Therefore, there is an important economic argument. Free marketeers and capitalists who see trickle-down economics as the rising tide—ironically—that floats all boats should be paying attention to this. It reminds me of Lord Stern’s description of climate change in 2006—17 years ago—as

“the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.”

So let the free marketeers come up with their solutions if they want to—some of that has been addressed, and we will come back to it. It is crucial to understand that this issue must not be ignored. A price has to be paid to deal with the impact of climate change. The question is, who will pay it and how?

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) made important points about the role of future generations and our responsibility towards them. He was right to say that those who have done the most to cause climate change, and who have benefited from the extraction of the earth’s resources and the pumping of pollution into the atmosphere, now have a moral responsibility to support those who are most affected by climate change. That is the concept of climate justice, which has been adopted by the Scottish Government, and many other Governments and climate campaigners around the world, but the UK Government conspicuously avoid even acknowledging it, let alone accepting or committing to it. We will wait, I suspect again in vain, to hear the Minister say that the UK Government accept that climate justice is an important concept that exists and ought to be lived up to.

The important symbolism around the concept of reparations and reparative justice should not be allowed to get in the way of the urgent need to mobilise new additional funding to support countries and communities experiencing loss and damage from climate change. One key point that everyone has made today is that that funding has to be additional, which is also why we have to consider new and innovative ways of leveraging funding. Private sector companies, particularly those that make vast fortunes from the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, clearly have to be a source, either through direct contributions to global funds or through taxation or levies at a country or international level. That is the “polluter pays” principle, which was raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and others who have spoken. There have been long-standing calls for a financial transaction tax, or Robin Hood tax, which could raise additional capital for fighting climate change.

It is particularly important that funding is disbursed in the form of grants and not loans; the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) made that point. There might be other ways, including insurance-based models—there is a lot of innovative thinking in this area—but we must not drive developing countries even further into debt.

Indeed. Those most likely to be affected by the adverse impact of climate change are already burdened by debt, which cripples their economies. My hon. Friend agrees that loss and damage funding should be additional and in the form of grants, not loans, but does he support the proposal that finance should be mobilised through the cancellation of existing debt? The SNP has spoken about that for a long time.

Yes, that is a hugely important concept. We think of all the work done around the Jubilee 2000 campaign, 23 years ago, and the huge global effort and consensus about the need to take action because developing countries were being crippled by the debt they had incurred. That is not good for anyone; it is not good for us either. Progress was made, but again we seem to be going backwards on a lot of that, and the changing climate seems to be a driver. That has to factor into the discussions. The work begun at the most recent COPs, including COP26 in Glasgow and the commitments made last year in Sharm el-Sheikh, must be followed through, and a new governing instrument must be agreed at COP28 this year. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the Chair of the International Development Committee, made important points about the Santiago Network and some of the other mechanisms that exist.

What is needed above all is political will: decision makers who are prepared to take bold and innovative action. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West said, that is exactly what the Scottish Government have done: first, way back in 2012, when they established their climate justice fund in addition to the international development fund; then at COP26, when Nicola Sturgeon pledged £2 million for loss and damage, making the Scottish Government the first western Government to do so; and now just recently when they committed a further £24 million over the next three years to respond to climate change in Rwanda, Malawi and Zambia. Malawi’s President, His Excellency Dr Lazarus Chakwera, said in February that the Scottish Government’s loss and damage fund for projects in his country

“has made huge differences in the people and their livelihoods because they are given a hand up, so the resilience we talk about becomes a practical issue.”

He went on:

“This fight belongs to all of us and I believe that this example will serve as a prototype of what could happen.”

Perhaps now the UK Government will start to play their part. Perhaps they will begin to see, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) said in an earlier contribution, that the savage cuts to the aid budget are a false economy. All the evidence that we have heard in this debate shows that more funding is needed, but this Government are determined to spend less. In the end, it will cost more. The hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) and others spoke about population movements. Home Office Ministers themselves stand at the Dispatch Box and say that hundreds of millions of people are on the move and that they all want to come to the United Kingdom, but instead of—

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Member in full flow. He is making a strong speech and is absolutely right to make this point, because the ODA spend is designed to help people stay safe and prosperous in their own homes, which is what they want. The Minister is taking away the money that would enable people to stay at home and then spending it secondarily when they turn up on our shores.

Yes, the hon. Lady is exactly right. Rather than housing people in barges or hotels, or chasing them back into the sea, it would be considerably cheaper if we helped to build resilience in their countries of origin against climate change that we have caused and that our lifestyles are continuing to make worse. That would save money in the long run.

I do have to say that there is also a challenge here for the Labour party. It would be useful to hear the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), commit to the principle of climate justice and a return to the 0.7% target, because voters, particularly in Scotland, will be listening carefully.

The Scottish Government’s actions have already shown that it is possible to make decisions and show leadership in this area and to encourage others to follow suit. In an independent Scotland, 0.7% would be the floor, not the ceiling, for our spending responsibilities to the poorest and most vulnerable people around the world. It would be the morally right thing to do, as others have said, but it is also in our enlightened self-interest.

Normally I would make a point about the spending being preventive, but the whole point of loss and damage is that it is now almost impossible to prevent some of the effects of climate change that we are already experiencing. Even as we speak, it is unseasonably warm; it is the start of September and we are once again experiencing record temperatures outside. But we can prevent loss of life and livelihoods with the right kind of investment and support for those who need it most. If we do not, it will cost more in the long term and we will all pay the price.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairship this morning, Mr Betts. I congratulate my friend—I hope he does not mind me calling him that—the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) on securing the debate. We have always got on well and I always like listening to him. He has introduced perhaps one of the most important issues that this Parliament will ever have to contend with, but this is sadly not the first debate that I, nor my hon. Friends in this room, have attended from which Government Members have been absent. I am delighted that the Minister is here, but where are his colleagues? It is really sad. This is not a party political issue. It is a matter for us all, as parliamentarians representing our constituents, to try to stop the greatest catastrophe that faces humanity on this planet. We need to work together.

The hon. Member for Dundee West reminded us that July 2023 was the hottest month in history, and said that there is an urgent need for climate finance to fight climate change and that at COP27 an agreement was made on loss and damage finance. He said that financial redress to countries worst affected must be new and additional finance, not redirected from existing budgets. I do not think anybody can disagree with that. He also reminded us that by 2050 it is estimated that there will be 1 billion migrants looking for somewhere else habitable to live because of climate change—[Interruption.] Will they all, as the hon. Member for Dundee West asks from a sedentary position, be coming to the UK? Some might argue that; I doubt it very much, but they will be travelling across the globe, seeking refuge. It is important that we stop that happening in the first place. That would be at least one answer to the small boats challenge.

If nothing is done to mitigate climate change, it will have a devastating effect on human livelihoods. The hon. Member for Dundee West said that loss and damage funding is needed now. He was followed by an extremely powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), the Chair of the International Development Committee, which I am glad still exists even if the Department has been abolished, because we need to be reminded that development is not just a luxury. It is not something that we cannot afford to do; it is something we have to do, and in the interests not just of the most vulnerable across the world, but of all of us—even in this country. Prolonged drought, she said, in sub-Saharan Africa has put many into further food poverty, and the International Development Committee produced work on the impact of climate change, loss and damage.

We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), who also gave a very powerful speech, on an issue that she is passionately committed to. She mentioned her Quaker faith. In my Front-Bench role over these last few years, I have always found the Quakers to be hugely supportive, not just in fighting climate change but in peace and disarmament, the principal role that I currently hold. Sometimes, she said, it seems that charities are ahead of Governments in financing the cost of climate change. She asked what we can do in the United Kingdom to export clean green energy—a very good question, it seems to me.

We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), who has been elected president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s forum of young parliamentarians, which is an incredibly good position from which to campaign for something so vital to all people on earth, but especially younger people. He said that it was a profound injustice that those least responsible for the causes of climate change suffer the greatest damage. It should be the polluters who pay; I do not think anybody could disagree with that.

Every time I visit a school, the first and most powerful question that I am most frequently asked, as I am sure other Members are—everyone else is nodding—is: “What are you going to do to stop the climate crisis?” Young people are going to inherit the world we leave them. They continuously, repeatedly tell us to do something about it. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) on his election.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because that is exactly the point. I am now privileged to have two grandsons, the youngest of whom is three and a half years old. He is not quite knowledgeable about climate change yet, but the seven-year-old is. It is something they study at school, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right. At every primary school that we visit—we all do it—the first thing they raise is: “What are you going to do to stop this planet becoming uninhabitable because of our own actions and history?” We have to answer to them. They will inherit the Earth, not us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton went on to say, as other Members did, that Africa will be the biggest continental victim of climate change globally, and—as others also said—that loss and damage support is in our own self-interest.

I again thank the hon. Member for Dundee West for securing this debate. As we know, the climate emergency is the greatest challenge the world faces. Where are the Government Members, who should also be talking about this? The UN has warned that our planet is on course for a catastrophic 2.8° of warming, in part because the promises made at international climate negotiations have not been fulfilled. As we know, this would have devastating consequences for our natural world, and dangerous and destabilising effects on all countries, not least, as I think the hon. Member and my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham mentioned, many of the islands of the Caribbean. Indeed, the CARICOM ambassadors have lobbied me as shadow Minister for the Caribbean, which is one reason I am winding up on behalf of the Opposition today.

As we know, 2.8° of warming would usher in an era of cascading risks, as the uncontrolled effects of global heating result in more frequent extreme heat, sea level rises, drought and famine. We have seen devastating examples of extreme weather this summer, as heatwaves and wildfires have caused devastation and loss of life. As has been said this morning, this will end up hitting us in the UK as well. We are seeing its effects already, with floods and heatwaves becoming the norm, not the exception. As the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), said just now: look outside; it is quite unseasonable. I returned from a holiday in Majorca on Friday. It is warmer here today than it was when we left Majorca. That is quite wrong.

This will end up, of course, hitting us in the UK, too. We are seeing the effects already. Global heating will hurt us all. But the truth is that developing countries and people living in poverty are the most exposed to the worst consequences of the climate emergency. At COP27 in Egypt last year, the issue of loss and damage was front and centre of the discussions. Like the UK Government, we supported the recognition of the issue of loss and damage at COP27. The agreement to create a new fund was an important step forward in recognising the consequences of the climate crisis for the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries.

This is a matter of solidarity, and the reality is that those most likely to be affected by climate change are the least able to afford to adapt to it. Every speaker today has made that point. The UK Government already support poorer countries to cut emissions and to adapt to climate change. Loss and damage, however, is about coping with its disastrous effects. This is not about mitigating or preventing; it is about helping the poorest countries to cope with the effects that have already happened.

Supporting poorer countries is not only the right thing to do, but in our self-interest. We need all countries to act on climate and reduce their emissions and the destabilising effects of climate breakdown, which will end up coming over here, including, for example, in the risk of climate refugees, as we said.

But on the necessary actions to keep global warming to 1.5°, yet again we hear the unmistakable sound of the can being kicked down the road. As a result, that is now at grave risk, as the UN has said. It appears that even those on the Government Benches do not trust their Government to act on these issues. On 30 June, the Minister for the International Environment, Zac Goldsmith, resigned, accusing the Prime Minister of being “simply uninterested” in climate action and the environment. We can see why he might think that.

It is now 14 years since a promise of $100 billion of finance was made to developing countries to help them to fight the climate crisis. There is growing recognition of the urgent need to reform how multilateral development banks and the international finance system can support climate action and unlock resources. Earlier this year, there was a major summit of world leaders on a new global financial pact, hosted by President Macron, but the Prime Minister chose not to bother turning up.

We now hear that the Prime Minister is not even planning to attend the UN General Assembly this year, where climate change will be top of the agenda, as it should be. That is a lamentable and short-sighted snub, an illustration of how the Government are squandering Britain’s potential for international leadership. That comes as the Government’s statutory climate advisers warned this month that the Government are missing their targets on almost every front. They said:

“The UK has lost its clear global leadership position on climate action.”

The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), has committed to publishing this year how the Government will meet their £11.6 billion climate finance target. During recent FCDO questions in the House, he said that he would do so “probably in September”. I therefore press the Minister present today on whether he is still committed to that and whether he will publish the ODA allocations for international climate finance in 2022-23 and 2023-24.

We need a Government who can step up on climate action, delivering cheap, home-grown zero-carbon power at home so that we have the credibility to pressure other countries to fulfil their obligations and play their part. A Labour Government would put addressing the climate crisis at the heart of our foreign policy—every single foreign policy. Central that will be Labour’s proposed clean power alliance of developed and developing nations committed to 100% clean power by 2030, just over six years away. That will be a positive version of OPEC, positioning the UK at the heart of the single most significant technological challenge and opportunity of the century. Alongside that, we will push for climate action to be recognised as the fourth pillar of the UN, increase our climate diplomacy in key states and work with international partners to press for a new law of ecocide to prosecute those responsible for severe, widespread or long-term damage to the environment.

For the sake of every human being on the planet, all the creatures that live on this planet and all of our children, including my two grandsons, Britain should never be a country that absents itself from the world stage, particularly not when it comes to the climate crisis—the biggest long-term issue we face. A Labour Government would certainly once again lead at home and abroad.

I call the Minister to respond. He has a reasonable amount of time, but would he leave at least a couple of minutes at the end for the mover to respond?

It is a great pleasure to be here, Mr Betts. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Development and Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). He would have taken this debate, but he is currently in Kenya attending the Africa climate summit, appropriately enough. It is my pleasure to respond in his place.

We are all grateful to the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) for securing this important debate. I pay tribute to him for to his ongoing work on the International Development Committee. We have heard a series of powerful, interesting and passionate speeches this morning, and I am grateful for all of them.

As the debate has highlighted, floods, heat, storms and droughts triggered by climate change are increasingly threatening lives, homes and livelihoods. Poor, vulnerable and marginalised communities around the world, and women, girls and disabled people in particular, are disproportionately affected. The loss and damage are immense. As we discussed, last year’s devastating floods in Pakistan claimed 1,700 lives, put a third of the country underwater and left more than 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. That is why, at COP27, the UK and international partners agreed to set up a new funding arrangement for loss and damage, including a new dedicated fund, in response to concerted calls, especially from our colleagues in the small island developing nation states and least developed countries, for greater global action.

There is now widespread recognition of the scale of the need arising from climate impacts, and that new ways of working and new solutions are needed. This debate is very timely: we are only three months away from COP28, where the transitional committee on loss and damage established at COP27 will report its conclusions. As a member of the committee, the UK has been actively and closely engaged in this process, alongside colleagues from developing and developed countries. The third meeting of the committee, in the Dominican Republic, has just wrapped up, and there is one more to go before parties meet in Dubai.

Within and beyond the COP process, the UK has played a leading role in tackling climate change, recognising the absolute necessity of reducing emissions to avert loss and damage. We have decarbonised faster than any other G7 country and signed net zero by 2050 into law. We are supporting international efforts and ambition to decarbonise through key initiatives, including the just energy transition partnerships, and we are funding a broad range of activities that avert, minimise and address loss and damage.

At COP27, the Prime Minister reaffirmed the UK’s £11.6 billion climate finance pledge to vulnerable countries across the world and announced that the UK will triple climate adaptation funding to £1.5 billion in 2025, alongside the £1.5 billion we are investing in protecting the world’s forests and £3 billion to protect and restore nature. This funding will help countries as they build their resilience, prevent biodiversity loss and reduce emissions, all of which are vital as we attempt to prevent and address loss and damage.

I am grateful to the Minister for outlining all the pledges that have been made, but is he able to say how much of the money has delivered, and whether it is new money or coming out of the existing ODA budget?

It is of course part of the ODA spend.

The UK invested £2.4 billion worth of international climate finance between 2016 and 2020 into adaptation, including investments in areas relevant to loss and damage—the subject of this debate. That included about £196 million on financial protection and risk management, £303 million on humanitarian assistance, and £396 million on social protection. To give a specific example, I mentioned the dreadful floods in Pakistan last year, and the UK offered significant support in the aftermath of that disaster. This included support for water, sanitation and hygiene, to prevent waterborne diseases, nutrition support, and shelter and protection for women and girls. In total, the UK provided £36 million in support following the flooding, on top of the £55 million we had already pledged for climate resilience and adaptation in Pakistan.

The UK is doing what it can to help avert, minimise and address loss and damage from climate change, but given the scale of the challenge, we know we have to be more creative in the ways we support countries to manage the impacts, and that includes developing new financial mechanisms to provide support. An example of this is the Taskforce on Access to Climate Finance, launched by the UK in partnership with Fiji. The taskforce is working to make it easier for the most vulnerable countries to take advantage of the climate finance that already exists.

The taskforce was launched following the UK-hosted climate and development ministerial in 2021. I am pleased to see that there will be a third climate and development ministerial held this year, with the UK, UAE, Vanuatu and Malawi co-hosting an event on how better development and climate actors can work together, which will build on the success of the first two.

On top of that, at the summit for a new global financing pact in Paris in June, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), announced that UK Export Finance had started discussions with 12 partner countries in Africa and the Caribbean to add climate resilient debt clauses to new and existing loan agreements. That builds on the announcement at COP27 that UKEF would be the first credit export agency to offer those clauses, which allow Governments to delay their debt repayments and free up resources to fund disaster response and recovery.

I am listening to an exhaustive list of the things that the Government claim they are doing, but I have not once heard that there is any new additional money for loss and damage outwith the budgets already in existence through ODA. After all, that is what the debate is about. Will the Minister tell us whether there is new finance? Or will he follow the suggestion made by several Members regarding the polluter pays principle, and consider financing it out of the more than half a trillion a year of subsidies and excess profits for fossil fuel companies?

I grateful for that question and it is, of course, too early for the UK to say whether or how much we might commit to any dedicated loss and damage fund, because the work of the transitional committee has not yet concluded. We will assess the value of the contribution once the modalities of the fund are set. It is too early to say, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates that.

The UK also provides significant support to disaster risk finance—prearranged finance that is disbursed automatically to Governments and first responders such as the UN and NGOs if an event exceeds a pre-agreed magnitude. Through disaster risk financing programmes, we have provided over £200 million since 2014. With partners including Germany, the UK has set up regional insurance schemes in Africa, the Caribbean, south-east Asia and the Pacific that help countries get reduced premiums by buying insurance as a group. Those schemes often pay out significant sums that help countries get back on their feet following a disaster. That is just some of the work the UK is doing to avert, minimise and address loss and damage, providing official development assistance and delivering reforms that help countries cope with climate change. The work of the transitional committee and the new loss and damage fund will build on the steps taken so far, and I look forward to their recommendations to parties at COP28.

In conclusion, the UK recognises that the impacts of climate change are leading to loss and damage, and that is likely to get worse. More needs to be done at global, regional and local levels to help countries and communities avert, minimise and address these catastrophes. We are playing our part, with our £11.6 billion ICF commitment, the fastest emissions reduction in the G7 and support for countries across the world as they reduce their emissions and build resilience.

When loss and damage occurs, the UK is regularly one of the first nations stepping up to provide support, enabling countries to bounce back quickly. COP27 was a major milestone for loss and damage. The UK is working with countries across the world to make sure that the new funding arrangements deliver for the most vulnerable, and we look forward to making further progress on that at COP28.

I am not quite sure where to begin, because we covered such a range of points, so let me begin with how I feel. I feel insecure, scared and concerned for the generations of today and tomorrow and for generations to come. I do not feel reassured by what I am hearing from the Minister. There are 352 Conservative MPs in this House and only the Minister is here to talk about the biggest existential threat we have to our planet and humanity. I find that astonishing. I have listened to a lot of the points made about where the UK has done some good work. Zac Goldsmith was mentioned and I would like to credit him; I was at COP27 last year when he asked me to go and talk to Pacific island states and to get an agreement on loss and damages. I deeply regret that he is no longer at the helm, because, frankly, he was really helpful and understood what has been going on.

The Minister with responsibility for international development, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who I had hoped would be here today, said recently to the all-party group on extreme poverty, which I chair, that he was losing sleep at night about the realities of climate change. It is disappointing that he is not here today, but the existential threat and crisis is with us now.

The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) —my hon. Friend, in that we are both on the International Development Committee—said that this issue is not going away. It is utterly disappointing that not a single Member of the UK Government party that is in power and who can steer events at the next COP and all the meetings ahead is here. By the way, the rest of us in the Chamber all want to be with the Government on this. This is not about competition or a political foray; it is about getting it done together. I cannot sleep either when I think about speaking about this to my nieces or in schools in my constituency. What am I supposed to say? I have been to every single COP since 2017 and whenever I go, the issue of time gets more pressing.

The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) used a fantastic quote from the Quaker faith:

“We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will.”

That is right; we are responsible. We are all guardians of this one Earth together. Frankly, if the Prime Minister is a billionaire, good luck to him, but he needs to be front and centre on this issue, not avoiding going to the next UN General Assembly.

I also thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), who I have had the great privilege to work with over the years. As a young parliamentarian, he is the future, along with many other young people here and out there looking at what the future holds. As for the generation behind them, the first thing that I heard from Labour’s Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), is that one of his two grandchildren, the seven-year-old, is learning about climate change now. I do not remember growing up like that. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton probably did not have to grow up like that, but children are today. This issue is utterly, utterly pressing, and the time has run out.

The hon. Member said that fossil fuel companies knew about the harms but spread disinformation. Wake up—smell the CO2 emissions. We need to harness that and realise what has happened. We can correct the wrongs now, because the future will not be protected unless we do this now.

On a slightly lighter note, I studied social anthropology at university and I remind the few of us who are here of Margaret Mead’s very famous quote:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This is my plea to those in this room, in this Parliament, and to our parliamentarians and those out there in the world: the UK can lead and it will be done through these thoughtful, committed citizens. It is our responsibility to do it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered climate finance for tackling loss and damage.

Sitting suspended.

Turing Scheme

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Turing Scheme.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Education, exchange of knowledge and empathy for others are vital for young people today as they become our citizens and leaders of tomorrow. That is what the Turing scheme says it aims to provide—as did the Erasmus scheme, sadly lost as a result of the Government’s Brexit deal, which removed the scheme unexpectedly at a late stage in negotiations.

As our world becomes smaller but remains so divided, it is important for our young people and children to look outwards. There is nothing like being immersed in a new country to expand one’s mind. It might be possible to learn Arabic on a computer program, but that is a world away from learning how to use Arabic among its native speakers. We have the technology to chat with people on the other side of the world, but that cannot be compared to what is gained by ordering a coffee every day, picking up the local news and making lasting friendships with others of the same age. I may be over-optimistic, but if we want to tackle the strategic and global issues facing the world, cross-border friendships, knowledge-sharing and cultural ties are an important place to start.

Although I am sad that we are in this position, Mr Betts, you would expect me to be a fan of the Turing scheme, and in principle I am. I want those in education in North East Fife and everywhere else to benefit from it and for it to work as well as possible. As a Scottish MP, I would like the Scottish Government to move beyond their pilot to replace the Erasmus scheme and to just get on with it, as the Welsh Government have done with Taith. However, as a supporter of schemes that allow our young people to travel, I am now, with regret, going to list all the ways that the Turing scheme is not working.

Let me start with the funding cycle. On a very basic level, if a student is going to travel abroad for study or work experience, they expect the funding to be in place before they go, but that does not appear to be happening. I will give the example of one of my constituents, Aria, who is a student at the University of St Andrews, but let me be clear that her case is not an anomaly. This is the experience of pretty much every student.

Aria is a third-year student doing Chinese studies and Spanish. She went through the internal processes to arrange her study abroad programme in autumn last year, and was told to apply for funding in February this year. The application is made to the university, which makes an assessment of all the funding it needs for the year and makes its application to the Turing scheme accordingly. The funding decisions were not made by the Turing scheme and passed back to students until 18 August—the middle of summer, although I would argue, from the Scottish perspective, that that is the end of summer, given that schools go back then. That is the best part of six months later.

The official guidance says that decisions will be made in the summer and payments made in September for the new academic year. I did not think we would need to point this out, but not all countries have academic years that start in September. Indeed, Aria had to be in Uruguay before 1 August for a compulsory in-person orientation at the university. She sensibly flew out a few days before in case of delays and to give herself time to settle into her accommodation. It seems incredibly short-sighted of the Government to assume that all other countries across the world using the Turing scheme would follow the same calendar as the UK.

This is a really important debate, and the hon. Member has started with the powerful example of her constituent Aria, who sensibly flew out to Uruguay. She will appreciate that, if Aria had not had funds behind her, she would not have been able to do that. This scheme, which is supposed to get rid of disadvantage and be inclusive, supporting all, actually puts a massive barrier in the way of those from disadvantaged backgrounds if funding is not in place.

Absolutely. I thank the hon. Member for her contribution. I entirely agree that it may not be intention of the scheme, but that is how it is happening in practice and impacting on students.

Further to that point, I commend the hon. Lady for bringing forward the debate. It is an important issue, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) also clearly outlined in her intervention. Does the hon. Lady agree that the funding offer needs to take into consideration the massively increased cost of living that we are all experiencing, and the fact that although offers are be being made to more students, the associated necessary costs are putting off low-income households from taking up this incredible opportunity? If low-income households have been affected, the Minister has to respond.

As always, the hon. Member anticipates what I will go on to say. When the funding provided under Erasmus and the funding provided under Turing are compared, there can be no doubt that there has been a real-terms cut—and that is before we take the cost of living into account. I will go on to talk about that.

Even if term starts at the beginning of September, it does not follow that students need cost of living funding to arrive in their bank accounts only on day one of classes. Students have to travel to the country, pay up-front rent costs, buy books, get medical checks and, in some circumstances, get visas. Aria told me that she was quite lucky; although she does not come from a particularly well-off family, they were able to help her find the money for her flight. She has been able to find a cheap flat, and she has been living off some savings from a part-time job last year. Uruguay does not require students to have special visas on arrival, although other countries require proof of funds checks, which Aria tells me she probably would not have passed without the Turing funds.

To come back briefly to flights, I am sure that the Minister will point out that the Turing scheme offers some funds to students from less well-off backgrounds. When I asked Aria about that, she said that she did not know about it, but in any case she could not see how it would have helped her, given that she had to travel before the funding decisions were announced. It is a good idea in theory, but it is poor in practice.

I have three other points to make on the funding model. First, there was a decision to make funds available to institutions on a single-year cycle. That means that when universities and colleges are encouraging students to apply for places abroad, they can only tell them what sort of places might have funding, but not what sort of places actually have funding. That leads to the sort of uncertainty that Aria felt as she travelled to the other side of the world on her own, without any knowledge of whether she would in fact receive financial support, and indeed to the uncertainty she continues to have, as she still has no word on whether she will receive funding for next term, which she is due to spend in Taiwan. As a parent, I cannot imagine the stress that her family must have felt. A 24 or 36-month project cycle would allow institutions to plan partnerships, provide certainty to students and, importantly, ensure wider access for all. That is surely the intention of the Turing scheme, right?

Secondly, I would like the Minister to comment on the amount of funds provided. In response to a written question that I tabled earlier this year, the Minister’s Department set out that countries are determined to have a high or low cost of living with reference to data from the World Bank, Erasmus and the OECD, but it did not explain how the references to each of those data sources impacted the groupings. I find some of the groupings totally baffling. Group 1, the highest cost of living group, contains most of North America, New Zealand and Australia, but the only European country is Switzerland. Group 2, on the other hand, contains most of Europe—equating the cost of living in the Czech Republic with that in Denmark, or that in Antarctica with that in Ireland. It feels a bit like a one-size-fits-all category that has not been properly targeted to the reality of the cost of living overseas, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out. Given that the Government are always quick to say that inflationary issues are a global issue and not simply an issue for the UK Government, I find that strange.

Worryingly, the amount allocated per student has fallen regardless of which country a student travels to. Under Erasmus, the maximum a UK student travelling to a European country in 2021 would receive each month was £415, or £600 for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the Turing equivalent is £380 and £490. We have simply fallen behind what Erasmus offers, and the Government must review that at the next spending review.

That brings me on nicely to noting that Turing funding is guaranteed only until the 2025 spending review. If institutions are to build long-lasting relationships, and if the Government are serious about offering education to our young people, funding needs to be guaranteed long into the future; it cannot just be a short-term sticking plaster to pacify those of us who saw the benefits of EU membership and did not want to leave. The situation certainly shows how short-sighted it was to decide, late in the Brexit negotiations, to leave Erasmus.

Finally, there are delays in getting funds to institutions and out to students. I have been dipping in and out of Aria’s story. I mentioned that she found out that she would receive funding on 18 August, some six months after applying and weeks after having to travel to her placement. It is now 5 September, and when my team spoke to her yesterday she had still not received the funds. She is getting her usual student funding, which helps with rent, but there is very little left for day-to-day living. Those sorts of delays clearly put students, who ought to be at the heart of the programme, at risk.

To touch on an important but not particularly exciting element of the debate, I have to tell the Minister that the project reporting tool being used by Capita—and presumably approved by the Department—is terrible. To put it in slightly better language, universities are required to provide updates and make requests for funds to be released, but whenever universities do so, the system locks and they cannot use it again until approved by Capita. That creates an administrative headache and is clearly adding to the payment delays I just mentioned. There is no proper audit trail of what funds have been released and when, and universities are being left to make repeat requests. I urge the Government to engage with universities, Universities UK and the Russell Group to see how the process can be streamlined for everyone’s benefit.

The last point I will touch on is the Government’s short-sightedness regarding the scheme. Even if we ignore the benefit to each and every young person of having the chance to live and learn abroad, the Turing scheme is meant to be a core part of global Britain and how we present ourselves on the world stage. The problem is that those relationships are not one sided, yet the Turing scheme decidedly is. It does not offer any element of reciprocity, which has made it incredibly difficult for institutions to set up longer-term partnerships. That is worsened by the exclusion of professional staff from the scheme. Where previously UK education and research was promoted and strengthened through staff exchanges, now we are left in the cold. It is about being at the forefront of cutting-edge research and development, about tackling the next pandemic and responding to the climate crisis.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. She talks about the lack of reciprocity and the inability to form a cohort of students across the world who have connections and then go on in their professional lives to keep in touch. They are what is sorely missing from the Turing scheme. We have heard nothing from this Government about how they are going to address that. The scheme was never just about money, as woeful as that is; it is about making those connections. How are we going to foster them?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. From a reciprocity perspective, for all that we do not necessarily want to talk just about money, there is an economic disbenefit to universities and constituencies such as mine. Students who previously came under the Erasmus scheme may not come under Turing, with a resulting economic loss to both the university and the wider community.

On a more practical level, good working relationships with international institutions are vital to the Turing scheme, given that the decision to apply or waive fees for UK students abroad sits with the host university. There are additional steps the Minister could take to make global Britain a reality and to boost our soft power. It currently costs over £1,000 to sponsor an intern coming to the UK from Europe, and that is now only available to degree students. As Universities UK put it,

“The UK is essentially closed to inbound interns, resulting in a loss of skills to UK business and damage to partnerships, while implicitly expecting other countries to facilitate visas to take in UK outbound interns.”

The relationships between medical, veterinary and health science institutions have been put under immense strain as a result of the Government barring incoming students from treating patients and therefore from taking part in clinical electives. There is no reason for those partnerships to keep going if we cannot provide equal opportunities. An urgent amendment to the visa rules is needed to allow the supervised treatment of patients by visiting students. Coupled with the ongoing uncertainty regarding the future of the Horizon programme, the failings in the strategic intent of Turing means that we continue to retreat from the global stage.

At the other end of the education spectrum, but no less important for our soft power, Brexit has caused a sharp decline in the number of European children who are able to visit the UK on school trips. My party’s policy is to seek to negotiate passport-free travel for UK and EU schoolchildren on a reciprocal basis. I hope that is something the Minister can agree with as a common-sense measure, with a benefit disproportionate to any costs.

I will end by reading something that Aria said to me:

“I never thought I would have the opportunity to study or travel abroad like this and feel incredibly lucky and grateful to be able to do so. However it has been incredibly stressful. I have never travelled outside of the UK before, and don’t have external financial support if anything goes wrong. More communication from the scheme administrators and earlier decision making would make such a difference to students like me.”

Surely we can all agree on that?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing this important debate. I share her passion for international placements. I do not accept completely the picture that she set out. I am not saying the Turing scheme is perfect, but I am proud of it and am working hard in the Department to ensure that it is a success, and I want to set out the good things that it is doing. I will try to answer some of the points she raised, and I will be happy to write to her after the debate about those that I do not answer.

The Turing scheme is a global programme for students to study and work abroad. It provides students, learners and pupils across the UK with the chance to gain vital international experience and to boost their employability. It is worth remembering that the scheme is named after Alan Turing, who taught and studied internationally. Participants can develop a wide range of soft skills, language skills and a better understanding of other cultures.

The hon. Lady may recall that my predecessor announced the second opening of applications for the Turing scheme at the University of St Andrews in her constituency. It is a beautiful university; I went there many years ago on a visit. I am sure that she will be as pleased as I am that St Andrews has been successful in its application to the scheme for the third year running, and that organisations right across Scotland have been awarded funding for almost 4,000 participants, nearly 600 more than last year.

The Minister talks about the funding that has been allocated, but a recent Financial Times report stated that universities that applied to the scheme received only 35% to 45% of the money they felt they required to support their students.

I will set this out further, but the hon. Lady, for whom I have huge respect, will know that the Turing scheme is not just for university students; we have expanded it significantly for students in future education and in schools. If we look at it in the round, as I said, organisations across Scotland have had funding for almost 4,000 participants, nearly 600 more than the previous year.

My three objectives for the Turing scheme are, in essence, social justice, enhancing skills and securing value for money. I am sure that the hon. Members for North East Fife and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) will know that the Turing scheme is extending the ladder of opportunity for over 40,000 students and learners across the UK to spend time studying or working abroad, 60% of whom will be from an under-represented or less advantaged background. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is no longer in his place, but there is more money for living costs and additional costs, such as for passports. I have met people in my own constituency from disadvantaged backgrounds who have benefited from the Turing scheme, and they are not from universities; they are from FE.

There is good evidence, as we know, that time spent studying or working abroad can be transformational for students, improving graduate outcomes and employability and building skills and confidence. Universities UK says—the hon. Member for North East Fife will agree with this—that graduates who participated in an international placement are less likely to be unemployed, more likely to have achieved a first or 2:1, and more likely to be in further study. Those in work are more likely to be in a graduate-level job, and on average they earn 5% more than their peers.

I see the Turing scheme as a remarkable vehicle for helping to improve the skills pipeline and helping people into high-quality jobs. Universities, colleges and schools will share almost £105 million of funding to offer placements to their students. No matter what kind of course students are on, whether they are studying for a degree in foreign languages, doing a T-level or an apprenticeship—the scheme was not open to apprentices before—or a school pupil, opportunities made possible through the Turing scheme can have a hugely positive impact on their studies and their skills development.

I will in a moment; because of the time, I want to get on a bit and try to answer some of the questions from the hon. Member for North East Fife.

This year saw significantly higher interest in the scheme from colleges and schools, including a nearly 50% increase in the number of successful applications in the further education sector. I think that technical education and training routes should have parity of prestige with academic routes, and I want to see even more FE learners and apprentices offered Turing scheme opportunities.

I do not disagree with anything the Minister says—40,000 students is wonderful—but we cannot help but make a comparison with Erasmus+, from which 55,000 students were able to benefit. We have heard about the impact on the wider economy and, as he says, students’ ability to access better degrees and a better life outcome. Has the Department looked at how much money we have potentially lost as a result of the lower number of students engaging in such activity?

Actually, the number of students is comparable, and it is a new scheme. It is also worth remembering that the Erasmus scheme is not value for money. The UK was putting way more taxpayer money into the scheme than we got out of it. The Erasmus+ scheme was also available for teachers to go overseas. We have decided to focus on students, which I think is a very good thing.

On the subject of those who can access study here, I invite the Minister to address the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) in relation to those studying medicine and veterinary medicine. Such is the nature of teaching in modern courses that those are almost entirely clinically based. Does the Minister not understand that—I suspect the problem lies with the Home Office rather than his Department—exclusions around the facility to teach in fact exclude those students from any international exchange of this sort?

Obviously, visas are a matter for the Home Office, as the right hon. Gentleman recognises. We are expanding medical places and we have international students in our medical schools. We have expanded hugely, as per recent announcements, the number of nurses, doctors and doctor apprenticeships. That is different from the Turing scheme, which is about ensuring that students from this country—from FE and apprenticeship backgrounds as well as universities—can go abroad and take part in that important scheme. Previously, 50% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds had access to these schemes; I have increased that to 60%, because I want more disadvantaged people to benefit. The scheme provides enhanced funding for students who need it, as I have mentioned.

It is also my aim to ensure that the Turing scheme is value for money. It was introduced because a fair and proportionate deal could not be found for our continued participation in Erasmus+. It was designed from the start to deliver an improved benefit to the UK taxpayer. As I have said, it was right to prioritise funding for students, learners and pupils at UK organisations rather than non-educational placements for staff or inbound placements in the UK for students in other countries. I do not think taxpayers’ money should be taken for granted because of the competitive annual application process of the Turing scheme. High-quality, deliverable and impactful international placements that improve skills and employability are essential to both the learners and the taxpayer.

I know that the Turing scheme draws comparisons with its predecessor, Erasmus. Direct comparison between the Erasmus+ programme and the Turing scheme is not possible, given that European Commission data for Erasmus+ does not specify the number of student participants for education sectors other than higher education. Although Erasmus+ included some staff mobility, the Turing scheme, as I have said, is focused on student placements. We can be confident that the Turing scheme is expanding opportunities for UK students. This goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). Erasmus+ participant numbers for higher education ranged from just under 16,000 to just over 17,000 each year from 2015 to 2020. The Turing scheme is funding over 22,000 students this year, and it funded more than 23,000 HE placements last year and around 28,000 in 2021-22. The schemes operate very differently.

On the funding delays, I am working hard to ensure that students do not have the difficulties that the hon. Member for North East Fife highlighted. I am happy to look at the individual case that she mentioned. Education providers have had to make some complex changes to their projects within the allocated funding, because we had to reduce their requested allocation in order to manage the high demand in the ’23-24 Turing scheme. There have been issues in navigating the new processes for payment requests. Capita has offered webinars and one-to-one support where needed to help education providers understand the process, and I am working closely with Capita to collect and act on feedback from the sector to ensure the scheme works as it should for all students. Applicants were informed of their application outcomes on 3 July. We are working to bring that date forward in future years, so that there are not the difficulties that the hon. Lady highlighted.

In conclusion, we will of course carry on evolving the scheme and making improvements, including by expanding opportunities for apprentices, which I care about deeply. I cannot confirm funding well in advance—as the hon. Lady will know, funding is always confirmed ahead of the next fiscal event—but the sector should embrace the Turing scheme, as it has done by submitting competitive bids, adapting its approach to delivering international mobility, and maximising opportunities for less advantaged and unrepresented students.

I am grateful to the Minister for outlining some of the strategic challenges, but it is very difficult for institutions to think about embracing a scheme when they have no certainty of its long-term future.

I guarantee that the Turing scheme has a long-term future. I am not the guy from the Treasury and I cannot say how much it will be funded each year, but it will be funded properly and well, and we are determined that it will be a great success and that we will iron out some of the problems that she rightly highlighted. I am not saying that there have not been difficulties. I want to try to make it work.

The Turing scheme is a relatively new, demand-led scheme that was introduced at considerable pace. It has been shown to be a success and a remarkable skills development and career opportunity for people across the UK. I believe it will increase skills, enhance social justice and ensure good jobs for participants. I am pleased to be here today to champion the scheme and I look forward to working with higher education, further education, apprenticeship bodies and apprentices to realise its potential and enable students around the country to benefit from it regardless of their background. As I said, I have increased from 50% to 60% the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who will benefit from the Turing scheme. That is right, because we should ensure that the most disadvantaged can benefit from this brilliant opportunity. I sincerely hope that Turing scheme alumni are proud to have participated and recognise that having done so will stand them in good stead for their current studies and their future careers.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Non-disclosure Agreements in the Workplace

[Rushanara Ali in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use of non-disclosure agreements in the workplace.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Ali, for this important debate on the use of non-disclosure agreements in the workplace. I will start by talking about the importance of every one of us—each and every citizen of our country—to the productiveness of our society.

Working to support ourselves creates wealth. For those who are older or younger, it is an essential part of a vibrant and successful economy. We in Parliament agonise over producing laws to remove the barriers that can stand in the way of people going to work. We stop people being made redundant simply because they are pregnant, being fired for being too old, or being denied a job because they have a disability, and we stop employees suffering sexual abuse because of an abuse of power at work.

Yet we know from the evidence collected by organisations such as Pregnant Then Screwed, Maternity Action, WhistleblowersUK, Can’t Buy My Silence and many more that employers routinely use non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements to stop workplace wrongs being talked about, punished and put right. They use NDAs to silence employees who are fired or made redundant unlawfully. They stop them from seeking medical support for the psychological trauma that they have experienced, from taking action through employment tribunals, and in some cases from taking cases of criminal wrongdoing to the police. They remove people from their jobs with an exit agreement that includes a silencing clause, creating fear that talking about even illegal acts might mean they find themselves on the wrong side of the law, with the additional fear of having to pay back any payment they might have received when they departed from their job.

We know that there is a need for confidentiality at work. Routinely when we sign our contracts of employment there is a standard condition of confidentiality in the initial employment agreement. Some people therefore dismiss concerns about non-disclosure agreements because they know that NDAs can be unenforceable if they are put in place at the end of an employment contract. But most people are not legal experts. They cannot take the risk of being on the wrong side of the law and having to pay back any settlement agreement money, and employers know that.

The lawyers are part of the problem. The Solicitors Regulatory Authority has reminded all solicitors of their duty to uphold professional standards when dealing with NDAs. It issued a warning notice in 2018 that was updated in 2020. The SRA has been proactive and is to be applauded, but in reality the questionable usage of NDAs continues, first, because the SRA found that more than a third of law firms were not even aware of the 2018 notice—something that I am sure they are putting right—and secondly, because so many NDAs are drawn up by people who are not regulated by the legal profession, or maybe not regulated at all, and this is set to grow.

When I asked my office manager to ask ChatGPT to write me a standard UK severance contract after discrimination at work, a clause was automatically inserted that reads:

“Confidentiality: Both parties agree to maintain the confidentiality of this Agreement and not to disclose any details related to the discrimination claim or this Agreement to third parties, except as required by law”,

but no further details. How many people are now using these formula contracts as a matter of course? This might be the future of accessing legal expertise for many people, so we cannot rely on professional legal ethics and regulation to ensure that employers act in the right way. We need the law to be clear, too.

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way and commend her on securing this topical and timely debate. Does she agree with me about the costs? No matter where it occurs in what sector, when we get into the public sector, public moneys are expended by some large employers. The likes of the BBC employs NDAs against employees and then subsequent former employees to try to buy silence over an agreed contract.

The hon. Member makes an important point about the use of NDAs by large public bodies. He mentioned the BBC, and I could go on to mention other media organisations. Indeed, NDAs have been used routinely in this place in the past. Mr Speaker and others, however, have ensured that that practice has stopped—it is possible to stop such things, if there is a will from the top.

The Government already know the importance of that point. The Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), with the backing of the Department for Education, put in place a voluntary university pledge to stop the use of NDAs in university settings. It became law under the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, through an amendment made on 7 February, so Parliament has had its say and the Government have accepted that say, but only in connection with universities.

The pledge, when it was introduced, protected students, staff and others from the use of NDAs in cases involving sexual harassment, discrimination and other forms of misconduct and bullying. If such a ban is good enough for universities, I hope that the Minister will agree that we can see no reason why employees in other sectors should not be protected in the same way.

The Government must look at how they could provide the same safeguards as the universities now have across every workplace in Britain against agreements drawn up by lawyers and those not drawn up by lawyers, which I believe to be the vast majority. As part of the pathway that the Government will follow in the coming months to achieve that sort of change, I hope that they will also support my amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill, which would recognise people who have signed NDAs as victims too, for consistency.

NDAs are of particular concern to Parliament and parliamentarians, because they are disproportionately used to silence women and minority groups, flying in the face of anti-discrimination laws, which have been in place for decades. Women report signing NDAs at six times the rate for men, black women at three times the rate for white women, and, interestingly, at 40% of the rate for people with disabilities. People with disabilities suffer such NDAs far more than anyone else.

A third of the respondents to the Can’t Buy My Silence data collection in the UK are believed to have signed an NDA. Perhaps worse, another third did not go ahead with seeking the justice they were owed, because they anticipated having to sign an NDA and did not want to—for fear of the consequences perhaps. In their 2020 sexual harassment survey, the Government themselves, through the Government Equalities Office, reported that 48% of those who reported workplace sexual harassment were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement about their experience, whether staying at the organisation or exiting it. The Government are aware of the scale of the problem and they have legislated already, as a result of actions taken here in Parliament. We cannot let the status quo stand.

Given the nature of NDAs—their silencing properties and the secrecy that surrounds them—only as a result of the bravery of some who have endured NDAs do we know the damage that they are causing. I pay tribute to all those people—such as those in the Public Gallery and those Members—who have spoken out bravely publicly or privately on this matter. That includes the public reporting of the Independent Television News newsroom incidents, including multiple reports of NDAs by “Channel 4 News” and “Channel 5 News”.

A particular concern—the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) has already made the point about media outlets—is that organisations that provide news for millions of viewers are using NDAs to cover up allegations of sexual harassment, disability discrimination, maternity discrimination and much more. Even after public reporting, those are yet to be resolved. The concern is that we rely on such news organisations to expose the truth, and yet all summer we have seen more and more media reports about the toxic environments that have flourished.

I too have been approached by a number of whistleblowers at a number of ITN newsrooms. Why? Because of the lack of transparency and the fear of speaking up created by the use of apparently legal confidentiality clauses or NDAs. I believe that NDAs have no place in British workplaces if they stop people from freely exercising their rights under the law.

I commend the right hon. Lady on an outstanding speech; I have no doubt that the rest will be equally outstanding. Does she agree that it is utterly hypocritical for the owners of news agencies, whether in broadcast or print media, to hide behind secrecy when it comes to how they treat their own employees? They make a living from exposing the things going on in other companies and from getting information from Governments that Governments do not want to disclose.

The hon. Gentleman brings up an important point. How employees are treated goes to the very heart of the culture of an organisation; we can judge an organisation on how it treats the people who work for it.

My strong feeling is that we need to show leadership on the issue of NDAs. We need to make it clear from this place that such agreements have no place in the British workplace. It is regrettable that some organisations appear to be using NDAs to silence their employees. I sometimes wonder how transparent that is to the management of the organisations. Senior managers need to be asking some serious questions of their HR departments about how such agreements are drawn up.

I thank the right hon. Member for her initiative in bringing forward this debate; I absolutely agree with every word that she has said and how she has put the case. I say to the Minister that if he does what the right hon. Member is asking, we will give our full support. At this stage in a Government it is sometimes difficult to do good, but if he accedes to the right hon. Member’s proposals he could do a major piece of good.

Non-disclosure agreements are unfair on the individual. As the right hon. Member said, backed up by figures, they double down and are a ratchet on discrimination. As she also said, they are perilous for the organisations, as covering up wrongdoing introduces rot. Whatever words, written by the civil service, are in the Minister’s extremely good brief, he should have a think about doing this. He will get wholehearted support from us. The right hon. Member is putting forward a really sensible case, and I thank her for that.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady, the Mother of the House, for those kind words of support. This is not a political issue; that is really important.

I couched my opening statement in terms of productivity because what really offends me to the core is that good people are being put out of employment for the wrong reasons. That often undermines their confidence and career in a way that they find it difficult to come back from, although there are notable examples of when that has not been the case.

I am thinking in particular of the evidence given to the Women and Equalities Committee for our maternity discrimination report, in which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) played a part. We heard about people being pushed out of employment simply because they were pregnant. They then found it very difficult to get back into work afterwards. The issue has real consequences for our economy. I know that the Minister feels strongly about the importance of productivity; what we are discussing is part of the piece that we need to get right.

Can’t Buy My Silence, the organisation that brought in the universities pledge, is working on a similar voluntary agreement for businesses to stop using inappropriate NDAs; perhaps that fills a vacuum created by the many consultations going on at the moment, in both Government and other organisations. That business pledge is to be welcomed. The organisation has been shown to be powerful in turning its words into law. The pledge commits a business not to using non-disclosure agreements or clauses to silence people who raise complaints of sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, discrimination, retaliation, bullying or other harassment, at the point of hiring, at termination or at any other stage. The organisation, very ably led by Zelda Perkins, has secured its first supporters, including a law firm, which I think shows the strength of the way the pledge has been put together and put to businesses.

When the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, in her time as Minister responsible for higher education, brought in the universities pledge, she said of the use of NDAs that she was

“determined to see this shabby practice stamped out on our campuses”.

I hope that the Minister replying today—I know my hon. Friend well—will wish to see this shabby practice stamped out across the whole economy, too.

Most confidentiality agreements are put in place by people other than lawyers. Other regulatory bodies have issued guidance on NDAs, as we would expect. Acas advises that NDAs should not be used

“to cover up inappropriate behaviour or misconduct, especially if there’s a risk of it happening again”.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the body for human resources professionals, recognises that NDAs should not be used to silence people in situations of harassment, discrimination or bullying and organisations should never exert pressure on someone to sign. But the evidence of the scale of the problem shows that the advice is simply not cutting through—it is not enough. Many employers relying on the online model agreements to which I referred earlier are simply perpetuating a cycle in which NDAs, confidentiality clauses, are seen as the norm, to silence victims of wrongdoing. Therefore it is time that we turned advice and encouragement into law—I think there are very clear indications that organisations such as the Bar Council are also seeing that as the way forward and I am sure the Minister will be aware of that—so that apparently legal clauses in legal contracts cannot be used by anyone, lawyer or not, to cover up illegal wrongdoing at work.

My determination to see change on this issue stems in no small part from an interview that I saw with Zelda Perkins on “Newsnight”, which was followed by the 2019 report by the Women and Equalities Committee—I chaired it at the time—on non-disclosure agreements. The evidence given to the Committee during that inquiry left me in absolutely no doubt that this was an issue largely under the radar and urgently in need of legislative solutions. The debate today is to remind the Government of the issue and of the need to act.

I believe in a fair society in which each of us has the opportunity to reach our potential, especially in education and in work; that is the society that we should all be striving for. Equally, I believe that it is the role of Parliament to remove the barriers that people encounter in achieving that aim. Non-disclosure agreements are a barrier to people reaching their full potential at work, a barrier to fairness and a barrier to the laws that we pass in this place working in practice. They must be outlawed where they cover up illegal wrongdoing. I hope that the Minister replying today can agree that the status quo is not an option.

It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership, Ms Ali. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) on eloquently opening the debate and making all the pertinent points as to why NDAs should be outlawed. It is very evident from what we have heard so far how they are used to hide discrimination and bad practice in the workplace. That is why I fully support her proposal and all the comments made across the Floor today.

I think we have learned, particularly in the last week, that creating secrecy in the workplace creates closed cultures and they can be incredibly dangerous environments. We heard yesterday in a debate in the main Chamber about seven consultants who blew the whistle. It would have been so easy to have silenced them with an NDA, and we have seen that right across the NHS. I will bring to this debate my experience from the health service, but also as a trade union official for many years, as to how NDAs have been used to silence people who are raising a concern and trying to speak truth to power, because ultimately this is all about power and control, and therefore we need to ensure that justice can be served in every environment and particularly in the workplace. We know that many people forced to sign NDAs are being forced out of organisations because they have had the nerve to raise concerns about what they have seen around them in order to make the work environment safer for themselves and others. They have shared those observations to see improvements in their organisation. It is not vexatious to raise concerns; it is the right thing to do and it should be encouraged. Not having laws to protect those individuals exposes them and brings about further risk.

As the Minister will know, I am bringing forward a Bill about bullying in the workplace and the cultures developed there—cultures of secrecy and of bad conduct and behaviour. There is certainly much to be done. Those people who experience the signing of an NDA are seeing a slamming of the door on not only their career but often their lives, leading to serious mental health challenges for many years. They have to live with the injustice they have been served for what is often a small sum of money to pay them off and buy that silence. We have to create open work places where we can have honesty, and raise concerns and see them resolved. Without that, we will enforce the negative cultures that we see in work practices today.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests—I should have said that earlier. When I was a union official, I saw many times how compromise agreements were a cheap option to try to buy people off, to move an issue sideways and to protect the perpetrator in the workplace. Even if people brought a case to an employment tribunal, a COT3 agreement would often be signed to bring a case to a conclusion. We have to look at that within the system as well. The purpose of such agreements is merely to shut down debate and move on, leaving a legacy for other people—the discrimination, poor conduct, assaults, harassment or discrimination that have already been experienced.

We should create an open culture so that no one fears raising concerns and people know they are working in a safe environment. A closed environment, as we have known in many contexts, is an unsafe environment. What we are discussing would make workplaces safer for everyone, not least those people who have experienced the most pernicious assaults as a result of the NDA process.

I look at what has happened across University Hospital Birmingham, where silence has been bought off individuals, and at the mental health trusts. There are questions across the piece at the moment about what is going on in those organisations, which are often very closed cultures in themselves. When concern is raised, individuals are invariably on sick leave as a result of the response that they get, and then they are bought—told that they cannot return, or their sickness brings them to that point. When someone is so weak and powerless because of what the organisation has done to their voice and agency, they will take a little scrap to try and rebuild and move forward.

Whether it is in healthcare, local government—we know it happens there—education or the police and justice system, we know that the issue is pretty prevalent. I ask the Minister: where is the data and the scrutiny over what is happening? Do we know the reasons why all those NDAs have been signed? Do we know the numbers in every sector? Do we know which employers are the perpetrators issuing NDAs? We need the data to legislate and to understand, but also to call out those employers using NDAs as part of their suite of employment policies. I also ask the Minister to dig deep into all sectors—not only the private sector, but the charitable sector and what goes on there. Some of the statistics may well surprise him.

We have to understand that the issue is about the impact on individuals as well as organisations. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke made a powerful point about the cost to organisations of being able to mismanage their staff in such a catastrophic way, but we also have to realise that that has an impact on not only the individual but their colleagues as well. Ultimately, it silences them, because they know what is coming next: their job will be on the line, and they will be managed out of the organisation one way or another.

This closed-culture mentality must be prised open by the Government and we must do everything we can. We are in a space where organisations fear the reputational damage and fear what is happening at the moment. Let us get the data and the legislation in place to ensure that we are not only tackling poor conduct but advancing good conduct in the workplace, so that every worker can be safe.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali, and to follow the excellent speech of the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). I am so grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) for introducing this important and timely debate and for setting out the case, which I hope the Minister has listened to, for ending the practice of using NDAs once and for all.

Non-disclosure agreements, also known as confidentiality agreements and gagging clauses—they have a whole host of names—are legal contracts setting out how and what information can be shared by its signatories. I accept that these clauses can have legitimate purposes in business to manage commercially sensitive information, intellectual property and trade secrets. However, that should surely be the extent of their usage. All too often, the agreements are instead used to prevent people from speaking up about mistreatment, harassment or wrongdoing, particularly in the workplace.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for whistleblowing, I have heard first hand from whistleblowers about how organisations use NDAs as part of settlement agreements following an attempt by an employee to do the right thing: raise concerns about wrongdoing. In every case, there is one thing in common: not only did the whistleblowers feel obliged to sign the NDAs, without necessarily fully understanding them in some cases, but their own lawyers reminded them of their legal duty to remain silent once they did.

Some might argue that whistleblowers are protected by law already, but we know that our existing laws are not working and that they are exclusive. The UK’s existing whistleblowing legislation—the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, or PIDA—only protects in law disclosures showing a criminal offence, a failure to comply with legal obligations, a miscarriage of justice, endangerment of health and safety, damage to the environment or the concealment of any information relating to the above. Section 43J of PIDA states:

“Any provision in an agreement to which this section applies is void in so far as it purports to preclude the worker from making a protected disclosure.”

What that means in theory is that a confidentiality clause or an NDA that seeks to prevent employees from blowing the whistle should be void under PIDA because under this law we cannot take away a person’s right to make a protected disclosure. However, the problem is still carrying on and it raises a number of issues. First, PIDA has extremely limited scope and applies only to workers and their employers. It also does not cover all people who may work for organisations, such as contractors, volunteers or trustees, or other people who may reasonably gain information that it is in the public interest to disclose: family members, customers and, in the case of health and social care, patients.

Secondly, we know from the many whistleblowing cases that result in detriment and dismissal that employees who speak out are not sufficiently protected by our existing laws. The cycle of a worker bringing forward allegations of wrongdoing only to be dismissed, and having to fight their dismissal at an employment tribunal, is all too common. When they get to tribunal, they must fight for their own employment—their own rights—not the whistleblowing issue that they first raised. Only 12% of these whistleblowing cases are successful at tribunal, so where is the incentive to do the right thing? For many would-be whistleblowers, this likely outcome may persuade them down the route of agreeing to an NDA—and the cover up is complete.

There is also the issue of people not knowing what constitutes a protected disclosure in the first place. In many cases, PIDA would not clearly apply to the things they report, such as a toxic environment or a moral or ethical wrong, and once an NDA has been signed there begins the constant fear of the consequences of breaking it: fear of the risks of breaking the silence, fear of the cost of prosecution. That means that NDAs are a very effective tool for silencing whistleblowers. As a consequence, the wrong goes unpunished, and the cloak of cover-up allows wrongdoing to continue.

One person who was brave enough to break free of the binds of an NDA and speak out was a whistleblower who defied an agreement signed with Hollywood film-maker Harvey Weinstein. By speaking out, she exposed Weinstein’s predatory behaviour, and his extensive history of sexual harassment and rape soon became public. He is now serving decades in prison, and she continues to fight for an end to the misuse of NDAs, through her campaign Can’t Buy My Silence. She deserves our praise and thanks for that.

Speak Out Revolution, which works with Can’t Buy My Silence as a data partner, is actively collecting workplace bullying and harassment experiences from members of the public, and compiling information and statistics. Based on those submissions, 63% do not formally report their workplace bullying or harassment experiences to their organisation. Of those who do, just 3% reach a full resolution. It is five times more likely that a person’s experience will become worse as a result of a formal report. Further, at least a quarter of respondents had signed an NDA. With statistics such as those, anyone considering speaking up can be forgiven for thinking twice.

Although there are non-profit and charitable organisations that can provide advice and guidance, existing legislation does not encourage or protect whistleblowers. I have been campaigning for a change in our whistleblowing legislation, as the Minister will know. Alongside my colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on whistleblowing, I have now proposed a new Bill that would see the creation of an office of the whistleblower that would support and advise whistleblowers and organisations. It would set standards and levy penalties against those who retaliate against or penalise whistleblowers. That would include addressing the misuse of NDAs and gagging orders, which we simply must tackle. Further, it would recognise and support anyone who is blowing the whistle.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke pointed out, NDAs are being used as a tool to cover up wrongdoing, to silence victims and whistleblowers. We have allowed organisations to get away with using intimidation and fear to conceal evidence of wrongdoing, forcing whistleblowers and victims of crime to keep silent for too long. I call on the Minister to heed the calls heard here, and to take action on abusive NDAs and on our outdated whistleblowing legislation, to ensure that the Government are firmly on the side of truth and transparency and of people who do the right thing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) on securing this important debate. As we have heard, non-disclosure agreements were designed as a legal tool to protect trade secrets, but they have a dark side. There is now overwhelming evidence that they are being used to cover up bad behaviour, and buy victims’ silence. They have become insidious and pervasive. One survivor described it as

“a way of companies and people avoiding accountability”.

NDAs can take many forms. They can be stand-alone agreements or a single clause subtly included at the end of a contract generated by a lawyer or anyone else. The effect is what is important. An NDA for these purposes should be defined as any clause that has the effect of gagging a victim. It is usually in perpetuity, which itself is extraordinary when thought about in legal terms. It stops them speaking about their experiences for ever more.

Many NDAs are not legally enforceable, but the victims I have spoken to would not have a clue. They never have a clue—and I am not sure I would, frankly. I am not a lawyer. If I were given something on official headed paper and told that someone knowledgeable had looked at it and thought it was the best thing for me, and I was at my wits’ end at the end of a discrimination case, I would just want it all to go away, too. That is tempting, and we can understand why people in that moment—when presented with that way out—take the money, sign the NDA and run.

However, we also know that NDAs hold immense power over victims. Often many years later, long after the effects should have been forgotten, they are retraumatised over and over again. Imagine someone facing a discrimination charge at work who has had to leave. They then have a further interview where they are asked about why they left, and they cannot say. Over and over again, forevermore, they are forced to remember. Many are victims of NDAs; I put it in those terms specifically because NDAs themselves cause harm. The point is made by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke in her amendment, which I very much support, to the Victims Bill: in these cases, it is the NDA itself—the silencing—that is traumatising.

I was involved in this campaign initially through students. I am delighted that through cross-party support we had an amendment accepted to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023; that is amazing. One of the young women I spoke to was a victim of sexual assault in her college. She was assaulted by another student. She was presented with what looked like an official document—it was not actually a legal document at all, but she did not know any different. There was essentially a gagging clause. Some clauses said that the assailant was not allowed into her accommodation or where she ate, which we absolutely support. However, a final clause said that she could not speak about her experiences publicly at all. When it was discussed at the time, it was sold as a way to protect her reputation. She should not have been talking about it on social media or Lord knows what damage it would cause to her later. Not only is that infantilising to a women—albeit a young woman, but an adult woman none the less who has the right to make her own decisions—but let’s face it: the reputation being protected in this case was that of the university and the college.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and for her support today. She talks about the importance of protecting reputations. The reason why employers sometimes say that they want a non-disclosure agreement signed is that it will save an individual leaving a company and starting to talk badly about those left behind. Surely, we already have laws on defamation that cover that, so that is not a very good argument. Does she agree?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady. The problem is that the clauses are so wide-ranging; they are often not specific about time or what exactly they are allowed to say. We are not talking about any kind of confidentiality for when people are going through mediation, because that is time-limited; that is obvious. If mediation is going on, there would be a period where both parties would be asked not to talk about it. That is not what we are talking about here. The right hon. Lady and I have had a lot of engagement on this issue, and others have too. We have gone through every argument. There is an answer to every single rebuttal now. We have explored the logic. There is only one thing left to do.

We are falling behind. Other countries are ahead of us now, particularly in North America. Prince Edward Island in Canada has passed legislation that has essentially done what we are discussing. It is new, but it seems to be working. There is also the Speak Out Act in the USA, which was passed in 2022. It prohibits non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses being agreed to in disputes involving specifically sexual misconduct. Other countries are also moving in that direction. We have seen a watershed moment following incredible campaigning by Zelda and others that is now forcing the issue, and we are falling behind as a nation.

We have golden opportunities in front of us. We have the Victims Bill; I urge the Government to look at the right hon. Lady’s amendment. I have also put one down that does the obvious thing of mapping the language in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act on to the Victims Bill. Given that people who sign these types of NDAs are victims, I think it is in scope. Either way they are complementary, but the Government need to do something that is not sector by sector. It should not affect one place or another. There is a bizarre idea that if an academic is living next to someone who works in a shop in my constituency, the academic is covered, but the person who works in the shop is not. Come on!

The Government have to do something—if not what we have suggested, then what? I have tabled a private Member’s Bill and the King’s Speech is coming, so the Government can borrow it if they want—I am sure that they will come up with their own—but doing nothing is not an option.

I will end simply by lending my voice to one of the victims, who signed an NDA and said:

“I relinquished the right to speak my truth; to reach out to and support other employees who were experiencing the same mistreatment that I faced.”

I very much hope that in his closing remarks the Minister will think of those victims and those people who are trying to do good. He will find that many people are willing to have his and the Government’s back if they decide to move, and it would not be before time.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) for securing this important debate.

Perhaps the debate should have been titled, “The misuse of non-disclosure agreements”. As has been said, NDAs were originally intended to protect sensitive corporate information, but sadly they have morphed into a disturbing tool that is used to conceal wrongdoing and silence victims. Instead of protecting the innocent, NDAs have been weaponised to shield the guilty.

Although employment tribunals are an option for seeking justice, they often fall short in addressing the underlying issues. Primarily, they focus on whether the employer’s actions were legally justified rather than on tackling the root causes. Whistleblowers have only that route to remedy their losses. With no route to ensure that their concerns are acted on, they no protection from retaliation, as all protection is retrospective.

It is clear that our current legal framework has proven ineffective in protecting whistleblowers and has neglected the very public interest that it was designed to safeguard. However, it does not stop there. The use of NDAs extends beyond workplace harassment; it reaches into the realm of whistleblowing, which is crucial for the protection of our democracy and public interest.

As part of the all-party parliamentary group on whistleblowing, I am very aware that NDAs are all too often used to protect an employer’s reputation and the career of the wrongdoer, rather than the victim. Few signatories of NDAs are offered alternative ways to protect their own privacy without protecting the rights of the guilty party; few signatories of NDAs understand that they are signing away their right to talk about their experiences forever. Most signatories of NDAs profess to feeling guilty and even complicit, and of being unable to warn others as a consequence of their NDA. Often, signatories continue to be victims in the future. For example, when they are looking for new employment, they are unable to explain why they left their previous role. That makes it incredibly difficult to find a new job and many whistleblowers never work again in their chosen profession.

I am sure we all agree that whistleblowers who come forward with evidence of wrongdoing should be celebrated and not silenced. Many non-profit organisations, such as Whistleblowers UK, work hard to advocate for the fact that whistleblowers play a vital role in exposing corruption, safeguarding public funds and ensuring transparency in both the public and private sectors. Shamefully, a third of all universities in England have used NDAs in circumstances relating to student complaints. I am glad that has been addressed recently by the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 and I call on the Minister to recognise the support from across the political spectrum for doing what is right and reviewing the flaws in the legal framework.

I turn to a slightly different issue. Imagine a scenario in which serious structural issues appear in a property on a residential development within the 10-year period of a builder’s guarantee. Those issues are likely to have been caused by subsidence linked to inadequate preparation of the entire site prior to building, which is the developer’s responsibility. A homeowner might think that they are doing the right thing by highlighting the situation, believing that truth and justice will prevail. However, to close down any discussion about the wider implications, they may be silenced with a settlement and an NDA. By the time the subsidence becomes visible in the other properties, the developer’s guarantee period has elapsed and they can deny responsibility for the ensuing trauma that is caused to the entire community of people whose properties are blighted. Voices are silenced, stories are buried and grievances are ignored. That is not justice; it is a miscarriage of our values and principles.

Any protections intended by PIDA, which has been in place for 25 years, have failed, because the process incentivises settlements and confidentiality clauses. In 25 years, not a single case has been passed to law enforcement to investigate the allegations or evidence of wrongdoing. The legislation proposed in the Whistleblowing Bill includes provisions to tackle the misuse of NDAs. It goes further by introducing legislation that would ensure that concerns are investigated, that those responsible are held to account, that NDAs are used properly and not to suppress wrongdoing, that a mechanism is put in place for police compliance, and that whistleblowers are protected from the unscrupulous practice of imposing gagging orders on anyone. This is why the Whistleblowing Bill is a crucial part of legislation that can bring about positive change. It represents an opportunity to improve the safety of everyone in our communities and to demonstrate the Government’s commitment to support for our citizens’ army of whistleblowers, who are the first line of defence against crime, corruption and cover-ups. It is our duty to protect those who speak up for what is right and to ensure that no one is silenced in the face of wrongdoing. I call on the Minister to listen to the suggestions made here today.

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) on setting the scene so well and all those hon. and right hon. Members who have made significant and helpful contributions. I wish to add my support to what the right hon. Lady has put forward and to give, as I always do, a Northern Ireland perspective on what we are discussing. It is good to be in Westminster Hall and back after the summer break, so to speak.

The right hon. Lady has raised this issue with us today and in the past. I have been in attendance to hear many of her comments about the dangers that non-disclosure agreements can pose in the workplace specifically. In theory, the agreements are supposed to be used as a legally binding contract that establishes a confidential relationship—if only that was what they were used for. As everyone knows, they have been misrepresented and used for other purposes, and that is why the debate is taking place. They can ensure secrecy and confidentiality for sensitive information, but have been seen more recently as a weapon to keep people quiet. It is crucial that the agreements are used correctly, so it is great to be here to discuss them and highlight some issues as well.

In May 2023, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 received Royal Assent. It included provisions to prohibit higher education providers and their colleges from entering into non-disclosure agreements with staff members, students and visiting speakers in relation to complaints of sexual misconduct, abuse or harassment. That was backed in 2022 by the then Minister for the Economy in the Northern Ireland Assembly and my party colleague, Gordon Lyons MLA. Queen’s University, Ulster University, Stranmillis University College, St Mary’s University College and the Open University in Northern Ireland have also signed up to the pledge.

I warmly welcome the Can’t Buy My Silence campaign and everything it stands for, which is ensuring that NDAs are only used for their intended purpose of protecting sensitive information in relation to a trade or a company. The idea that NDAs are used to silence those who are victims of bullying or misconduct within a business setting is totally disgraceful. We all have offices and staff, and most importantly we have a duty of care to each other to protect and listen to any concerns that our staff have. I find it implausible and difficult to imagine a situation where using an NDA for dealing with misconduct is a sensible idea for any party ever—I cannot comprehend it.

Some 95% of respondents to a survey carried out by the CBMS campaign stated that signing an abusive NDA had a profound impact on their mental health, so there are side effects as well. I certainly agree with the calls to extend the ban on abusive NDAs to more sectors. They have been used to silence people not only in universities, but in workplaces and other professional settings. There is a complete lack of legal oversight too, where victims do not have representation from a regulated legal professional and abusive NDAs are internal within an organisation or business.

A workplace should be an environment where staff members feel safe and can work to the best of their ability with no fear or worry of advantage being taken that is backed up by unhealthy and ill-thought-out NDAs. Another useful point is that banning the use of abusive NDAs helps to stop repeat offenders, as within the workplace there is no protection against abusive behaviour. A predator or someone who inflicts abuse on someone else has the underlying protection of an NDA, knowing that the information will not be shared. Banning NDAs gives predators no way out and would stop their behaviour, or they would risk being let go or even prosecuted.

On the question of protecting repeat offenders, does the hon. Member see the massive injustice in this? A victim who speaks out is likely to be denied employment opportunities for the rest of their life, but a rogue employer or director can be protected, get a golden handshake and work on a different board of directors within a week and carry on with their nefarious behaviour. That degree of disparity is a massive injustice that has to be addressed.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There is no one present who does not understand that. When someone wants to do their best at work and is taken advantage of by an employer, that is unacceptable. I hope that when the Minister responds to our comments, he will grasp what we are trying to say. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke and the Mother of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who made a powerful intervention, proposed a legislative way forward and set the scene very well.

I support the points made by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke and would be happy to support this matter further. We must ensure that NDAs are used for the correct purpose and not to hide and cover up nasty and disgraceful behaviour in the workplace that would otherwise go unpunished. I have hope that through this campaign we can do better to protect people from such coercion and behaviour and do more to ensure that the workplace is a healthy and happy environment. That is a goal worth trying to achieve. It would be better for everyone at work.

I want to lend my voice to what has already been said by Members, especially by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller). She and I came to the issue of NDAs together in one of the most egregious cases—the case of Zelda Perkins, who has already been mentioned and who suffered for years in silence. In that case and others that I have seen, certainly, around Oxford University colleges, I want to stress how the issue of this process being about power and control should not be undermined— this was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). It is used to victimise people. It is literally the tool of an abuser.

When I met some of the whistleblowers in the Philip Green case, they told me a story about how he had said to them, “Keep on adding zeros. I will pay anything and you will go away.” That was the attitude. That is an abuser standing in front of somebody they know is weaker than they are. This is absolutely classic in all interpersonal violence relationships. They say, “I am more powerful than you. You will do as I say because I am the strong one.” Currently, the laws in our country allow that. The law in our country is written so that that it is completely acceptable for an angry, sexually abusive bully to stand in front of a member of his staff and say, “I am bigger, stronger and better than you.” Currently, we go, “He’s got a point. He is stronger. He has more zeros to add to the end of that cheque. He can shut you up.” That is the situation today. This will be happening to somebody today. Right now, as we speak, somebody who is trying to speak up about something bad happening is being told, “You’re weak. You’re pathetic.” That is a form of coercive control, and a form of violence. It is absolutely a form of victimisation, and I lend my support and voice to the amendments that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke has tabled to the Victims and Prisoners Bill.

The crux of the problem is that we, as lawmakers and policymakers, are saying, “That’s fine. That’s okay. Don’t worry because, you know, trade secrets.” That is the situation today, but let us make it so that tomorrow—

The hon. Lady speaks passionately, and I absolutely accept many of the comments made in the debate, but the law specifically does not allow a non-disclosure agreement to prevent somebody from going to the police about a sexual abuser. That absolutely is not the law.

I did not say that the law said that, although incidentally Zelda Perkins’s NDA did say that. I do not know what is written in all the NDAs in the country, although I have quite a lot in my inbox, so I have an idea of some of the things that people get asked for.

Of course what the Minister describes is illegal, but it is not illegal to say, “You can’t speak about this. You can’t tell the woman in the next cubicle along that the man you work for has been groping you, because you’ve been silenced.” That is what we are apparently saying is okay; we are fine with that.

I apologise for not having been here at the start of the debate; I was chairing somewhere else. The hon. Lady used words that I had not yet heard today in this Chamber: “he”, “his”, “him”, and “the woman next to you.” That is really important. There are many women in this Chamber speaking about non-disclosure agreements. Apologies to my colleagues, who are a bunch of male Front Benchers, but does the hon. Lady agree that it is really important to reiterate how often NDAs are gendered? Apologies, Jim.

Hear, hear. The data laid out by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke made it very clear not just the gender imbalance in those affected by NDAs, but that black women are much more greatly affected.

I want to reflect on the hon. Lady’s response to the Minister. Time is very tight, but does the hon. Lady agree that part of the problem is the lack of transparency about whether clauses are legally enforceable? Employers can, maybe unintentionally, mislead their employees into thinking that they cannot speak out. Unfortunately, we are not all lawyers, and sometimes we err on the side of caution; we do not want to break the law.

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. I have met women who said, “I can’t tell the police. I can’t speak to people.” I am, like, “You can.” I had to get the Speaker to write a legal letter saying that people could speak about this to their Member of Parliament.

My time is up, but I think I have made my point. I finish with this: we rely on media organisations to do the work of cleaning up businesses for us. We rely on victims to come forward, and media organisations to report that. From what I know about media organisations, I am not entirely sure that it should not be the Government who lead on this issue.

I was almost tempted to say to the hon. Lady, “Just carry on, and I won’t bother summing up.” I do not think that I have ever seen agreement among so many speakers in a debate, and I certainly do not expect to say anything that will change that.

I am not entirely sure what the comment by the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) was about. If her point was about having to keep apologising to Front-Bench males for things that have to be said, she does not ever have to apologise to me for pointing out that I am part of the 49% who have caused most of this problem. Most of the speakers today are part of the 51% who have been on the receiving end of the problem, though they have not always been; there was a time when NDAs were routinely abused between powerful men to cover up each other’s crimes and frauds. Most NDAs now are being used by powerful men to silence and victimise vulnerable women, and that is the abuse of the system that must be dealt with most urgently.

The hon. Member has demonstrated himself to be a male ally, and we would not underestimate the importance of having male allies on this. There is an opportunity for the Minister to be not a force of resistance but a male ally and to follow the example of the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant).

When I write my memoirs after I retire in a year or so, I will make sure to point out the time I got an honourable mention in dispatches by no less a person than the Mother of the House.

Just to reflect on some of what has been said, there is an absolutely legitimate need for confidentiality between employer and employee. Nobody is questioning that. Even after an employee has left employment, the employer is entitled to expect a degree of confidentiality and respect. The duty of care between an employer and employee in both directions does not just suddenly stop when the employee leaves.

But that duty of care—that right of confidentiality—can never, ever be justified if it is being used to prevent an employee from exercising the rights that this Parliament has given them as a matter of law: their rights to raise a grievance, to claim unfair dismissal and to get a fair hearing through the appropriate channels. It can never be justified if its intention is to cover up criminal conduct or other unlawful behaviour. In a great number of the cases that we have heard of—and no doubt many others that we have not heard of—where NDAs have been used to silence victims of workplace harassments, the behaviour is well above the threshold that constitutes criminal assault, and in almost all the other ones, it is well above the threshold that constitutes unlawful, unacceptable behaviour, so in almost every case we are talking about today, NDAs are being used to pervert the course of justice. We know that the law is being misused in this way; it is time to put that right.

We are not going to, in the next few years, address all the issues about mistreatment at work, or all the ways that mistreatment can be perpetrated and allowed to continue, but we should certainly be carrying on with the progress that has been made already and address as many as possible. Given the degree of agreement across the House, I hope the Minister will be listening and recognise that it this is an issue to be taken on quickly, because it is that will get unanimous—or near-unanimous—support across the whole House.

The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) mentioned the part that some professional societies have played. I think we need to get stronger with them as well. A number of professional regulators or chartered institutes should be told, “We want you to put into the code of professional ethics that knowingly misusing an NDA is gross professional misconduct, and that people will be struck off as a lawyer or banned from using the continuous professional development logo on their headed notepaper if they are found to be behaving in this way.”

I think that deliberately exploiting the fact that an employee probably does not fully understand their rights—that the employee is scared and wants to get away from the situation all together—to cajole them into signing something that is clearly against their interests is serious enough to be a criminal matter, rather than just a matter of employment law or of private civil law. It should not need the employee to find a lawyer who will represent them and take their case through the civil courts. Employers, business managers and company directors who deliberately exploit an employee’s ignorance and fear would be committing a criminal offence. They should be facing criminal sanctions, rather than, as has just been mentioned, a civil settlement that some would not notice if it disappeared out of their pockets every day.

Although I welcome the progress that has been made in the universities sector, and commend those who have brought forward private Members’ Bills to try to address these issues, we have not got time to go through one sector at a time, because while we are dealing with one sector, more and more people will be victimised in others.

I must say to the Minister, although I know that it has not been in his gift for all that long a time, why does it have to be left to private Members’ Bills? When the Government committed four years ago to legislate for this, why has nothing happened yet? It is not because there has not been enough Government time. There have been days when the House has collapsed three, four or five hours early, or days when the Whips have been running around, desperately trying to get people into the Chamber to intervene because the Government had reasons for not wanting the business to collapse before the advertised moment of interruption. If the Government were willing to put as much political determination into this as into other things, we would have it on the statute book already, but we do not. What better opportunity is there for a Minister to make their mark a few weeks before the King’s Speech?

The debate could not have been better timed—it is an opportunity for the Minister to make his mark. Who knows, he might be back as a Minister in the next Parliament. Nothing is guaranteed, although some things could be regarded as surprising, if the same party comes back into office—not the Minister personally, whom I have no doubt does a great job. Elections are never done deals until the votes are counted, so we never know; it might still be him or one of his colleagues after the election.

Mention has been made of the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which I remember being a huge fan of when it first came out. Previously, I worked in a finance position at the Fife health board. I had stories that I wanted to tell, but there was no one I could tell them to. Eventually I did; the stories were denied, but a few years later Fife health board ran into a financial black hole of £4 million at the time—in today’s money, probably up to £10 million. I had seen it coming, but I could not get anyone to listen to me.

Under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, someone else in such a position now would be able to ensure that the necessary people were made aware of it. That, however, applies only to disclosures by some people of some kinds of information to some recipients in certain circumstances; it is not a free-for-all. At the very least, we need to extend the Act to cover people who are not employed directly or are third parties, for example. We need to amend the law to make it explicit that anything that would be protected where someone is a contractor, supplier, business colleague or whatever continues to be protected afterwards.

We must remember that the Act explicitly does not protect vindictive or malicious disclosures. It does not protect someone who is touting a story around the tabloids to see which will pay them most. It does not protect those kinds of disclosures; it only protects disclosures where there is a genuine belief that the person is acting in the public interest, where there is a need to disclose in order to prevent criminal activity or serious damage to the public interest. Surely the same standard should apply after someone has ceased to be an employee. Surely it is right that an employee—or someone who is in effect an employee, because they work through an agency, on a zero-hours contract or whatever—even after they are no longer being paid by the employer, should still have the right to go to a recognised recipient, which is usually the relevant regulator or statutory body, to say: “This is what is happening in that organisation. I think that you need to take action.”

Before I wind up, I will give one example. Not surprisingly, we have focused on the misuse of NDAs to cover up cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault. I have heard one or two examples where they are used in other circumstances. I want to talk briefly about Rhona Malone, a police officer in Scotland. By all accounts, she was a dedicated and professional police officer, who should have had a bright career in front of her. She did, until she applied to join the Police Scotland firearms unit. She was told that she could not, because women cannot be firearms officers. She raised a grievance, but people tried to silence her: they offered her an NDA with an undisclosed, but frankly insulting, level of compensation. She stood her ground and took Police Scotland to a tribunal. Police Scotland has been ordered to pay the best part of £1 million in damages as a result.

I cannot go too much into the details of the argument, because I understand that one of the officers who testified at the tribunal has now been charged with perjury. The thing has become much more serious, and a number of things have come out. The reason she was not allowed to train as a firearms officer was that, in the eyes of senior people in Police Scotland, women are not capable of dealing with the physical demands of being a firearms officer or women on their period might get irrational so could not be trusted with a firearm.

Surely the person who exposed the fact that those attitudes were accepted in one of the major law enforcement agencies in these islands should be thanked. Surely she should be in line for an honour. Why on earth was she forced to leave the career to which she had dedicated herself? Why is possibly one of the best senior police officers of the future not there any more? What a loss to policing in Scotland and elsewhere. Yes, she had compensation, and yes, it is quite right that it should have been punitive libel, because how she was treated was utterly despicable, but why did no one senior in Police Scotland step in at some point to say, “We should not be trying to buy the silence of this officer. We should be sitting down to speak to this officer and to say thank you, because she has exposed something in our organisation that is utterly unacceptable, whether in a public or a private sector organisation”?

There is nothing that anyone has said in the Chamber today that I would meet with anything other than wholesale agreement. I suspect that the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), will also agree with everything that has been said. I sincerely hope that when the Minister speaks he will commit to agreeing in not only his words but his actions. As I have said before, we are coming up to the King’s Speech, and some of us will be listening very carefully to what is in that speech.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Ali. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) on calling this debate; it is an area that she has worked in for a considerable period of time and she articulated very clearly what the problems are and why they need tackling.

There have been a lot of excellent contributions today. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) brought her vast experience of employee representation to the fore. She talked about having open cultures in the workplace, which is a good way of looking at how this all needs to change. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) made an excellent speech; she made the important point that when someone signs these NDAs, they are not for a month or a year, but for life. As I will go on to explain, that does cause people difficulties later.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) described NDAs as being weaponised, which I thought was a good description. She also said that employment tribunals never tackle the underlying cause of discrimination in the workplace. Of course, tribunals can make recommendations to employers, but we are getting a body of evidence that this is not an effective tool, and that perhaps an enforcement body is needed to look at those issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) brought all of her experience to the fore and gave a truly fantastic speech. She was right to say that this issue is fundamentally about power and its imbalance, which I will come to in my speech.

I do not dispute that there is a need for some non-disclosure agreements. There are sometimes appropriate situations, where they are needed, but I think we all agree that they are far more prevalent than they need to be and are being abused to cover up other issues. In the absence of any data on the numbers of agreements in operation, we are reliant on the legal profession and campaigning groups to give us an idea of what is happening.

Evidence collected by the Women and Equalities Committee and a recent study conducted by the Solicitors Regulation Authority found that there is widespread use of NDAs in the workplace, with little regard given to their appropriateness. In 2019, the Committee said:

“Confidentiality and non-derogatory clauses have become commonly used in agreements reached between employers and employees when settling or closing employment complaints or employment tribunal cases about discrimination or harassment. Indeed, they are commonplace when settling any type of employment dispute.”

The Solicitors Regulation Authority said that

“firms often told us that NDAs are included as standard without consideration of the purpose for including such a clause. For example, a firm commented they were used even ‘when not strictly necessary, where everyone knew the ongoing issue.’”

As a former practising lawyer who has handled thousands of those settlement agreements, I can confirm that NDAs are standard and the attitude of most employers, when challenged on the inclusion of them, is that they are a standard clause and the agreement is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis—whether the NDA is necessary or not. The reason they continue is the imbalance in power in the employment relationship. The SRA found that only six of 25 solicitors it interviewed reported even questioning the need for a confidentiality clause. The fact that those drafting them give no particular weight to them is a trend. It is in direct contradiction to the advice given by ACAS, which says that they should only be used where necessary and not as a matter of course.

There are many workers bound by completely unnecessary NDAs at the moment, and when an important industry regulator, such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority, suggests there is a wholesale misuse of a contractual term—one that, as we have heard, can have a profoundly negative impact on workers—there is a good argument to say that the Government need to intervene. It is a good example of where there needs to be more intervention. I echo the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central, and ask the Minister what work will be done to understand the extent and misuse of these agreements.

It is easy to see why the agreements are so prevalent. The Employment Lawyers Association said clearly that employers are the driving force behind NDAs, as they enable settlement without admission of liability. The employers’ reasoning is simple: why settle publicly when they can wait for a tribunal that might get them off the hook or award a lower amount? That speaks to a wider, more problematic imbalance of power between employers and employees that is endemic in the labour market. In many ways, the proliferation in use of NDAs is both a symptom of, and a tool used to perpetuate, the imbalance of power in the workplace. The Solicitors Regulation Authority—which, let’s be honest, is not at the vanguard of left-wing workers’ rights—described the imbalance of power in the workplace as “fundamental”.

A witness before the Women and Equalities Committee —I think this evidence is very powerful—said:

“There is this very well-founded fear amongst women that, if they talk about having had problems at work, even if their problem is not of their own making, they will be labelled as a troublemaker and they will find difficulties getting new employment.”

Those comments, although made in the context of harassment, could equally apply to a trade union representative or, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) said, to a whistleblower or, indeed, to anyone who challenges poor practice in the workplace. That power imbalance affects everyone, across the board.

One of the most troubling findings in the Select Committee report was the culture that NDAs perpetuate in some workplaces. This means that dangerous cultures and management failures continue. In relation to the individual, NDAs starve alleged victims of any form of justice, either through internal processes or through tribunals. For the employees who remain, the alleged perpetrator can be left untouched, presenting a danger to the rest of the workforce.

The Committee concluded:

“We are particularly concerned that some employers are using NDAs to avoid investigating unlawful discrimination…and holding perpetrators to account.”

Let us not forget that employers have a duty of care to all their employees and should be looking to tackle these instances, whether or not the person involved is a “rainmaker”—that was another concerning part of the evidence. The Committee report referred to rainmakers being given a degree of latitude when it came to behavioural standards. Those individuals are worth more to the business, which continues to use NDAs to avoid holding them to account. That sends out a clear message that the safety of employees can be ignored if the accused is valuable enough to the company. One worker told the Committee:

“I was told the abuser was indispensable and I was not.”

I think we can all agree that that is completely unacceptable and should not be happening in any workplace in this country.

According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, NDAs should not impede or deter someone from co-operating with a criminal investigation, reporting an offence to the police or reporting a breach to a regulator, or prevent proper disclosure about the agreement or circumstances surrounding it to professional advisers, including medical professionals and counsellors, or the making of a disclosure under the Public Interest Disclosure Act. However, although there were no cases of solicitors drafting these agreements to deliberately prevent that, the SRA’s recent investigation found

“a number of common trends or practices which inadvertently might contribute to this happening.”

This leaves signatories feeling uncertain as to whom they can speak to or what they are allowed to say. When combined with the threat of clawback or penalty clauses, many will, unsurprisingly, self-censor to prevent them from losing their settlement. It also brings with it a weight to be carried—a significant burden over the long term.

Clearly, questions must be asked of the response to this situation. What I and other hon. Members have described today is not a recent problem that has emerged from nowhere. The implications of the use of NDAs in the workplace have been known for some time, yet we have seen very little action taken. There was a flurry of interest and promises were made back in 2019, but more than four years later the only changes have been updated ACAS guidance and a warning notice sent out by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, both of which are non-binding and appear to have done little to mitigate the problems.

The Legal Services Board offered a damning indictment in a call for evidence earlier this year. It said that

“notwithstanding the usefulness of the standards and guidance summarised above, the evidence of continuing misuse of NDAs suggests that clearer and more effective expectations for the professional conduct of legal professionals may be required.”

This is rather galling given that the Government promised to

“crack down on misuse of non-disclosure agreements”

all those years ago. Legislation was supposed to be in place to compel employers to write the limitations of the confidentiality clause in plain English, extend legislation to ensure that individuals signing NDAs get independent legal advice, and introduce enforcement measures to deal with NDAs that are not compliant and make them void. The updated ACAS guidance has included these elements, but that is not the same as enforceable legislation. As the right hon. Member for Basingstoke said, if it is right for the higher education sector, it is right for everywhere else as well. I feel that this area has fallen victim to the Government’s inertia on employment rights. As the Minister will have heard today, there is a great deal of willingness to see that changed.

I would be grateful, Minister, if you could leave a little bit of time at the end for Dame Maria Miller to respond to the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Ali. I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) for securing this debate and for her long-standing and effective campaigning in the area of non-disclosure agreements—she will remember that I engaged with that as a Back Bencher—and the negative effect they can have when used inappropriately. I thank hon. Members across the House for their very valuable and passionate contributions.

These agreements, which are also known as confidentiality clauses, can be used in a variety of contexts and contracts—for example, to protect commercially sensitive information. However, I will restrict my comments to the area of concern, which, as Members have discussed, is NDAs used in settlement agreements in cases of discrimination or harassment.

The Government have already taken significant steps to prevent the use of NDAs in the higher education sector to protect students, who are in a particularly vulnerable position as they have moved away from family and support networks for the first time. In January 2022, we introduced a world-leading pledge, with the campaign group Can’t Buy My Silence, that commits higher education providers to voluntarily ending the use of NDAs in cases of sexual misconduct. As of 1 September, 84 providers, covering almost two thirds of students, have signed the pledge.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 goes further and bans the use of NDAs in cases of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and other forms of bullying and harassment in higher education. It is expected to take effect in 2024, and I recognise the important contributions made by Members here today—my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and the hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips)—throughout the passage of that Bill.

As a Minister in the Department for Business and Trade, I know that good employers will look to tackle bad behaviour head-on and improve their organisational culture and practice, rather than attempting to cover it up, as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) clearly outlined. Organisations that do not treat such complaints in the way that he described are, in my experience, missing an opportunity.

Members of this House and organisations such as Can’t Buy My Silence have brought to light examples of where NDAs have been drafted to intimidate employees from making disclosures to anyone, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon).

It is important to note that there are existing legal limits on the use of NDAs in the employment context. Some key ones were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson)—I thank her again for all the work she does on the all-party group on whistleblowing—and by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who talked about the seven NHS staff. An NDA cannot prevent a worker from blowing the whistle. That means that an NDA would be unenforceable if it stopped a worker from making a protected disclosure about wrongdoing, for example, to a lawyer or certain regulatory bodies or other prescribed persons for whistleblowing purposes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle pointed out that the current whistleblowing regime has limited scope—I think those were her words—and, as she knows, we are now undertaking a review, which will conclude by the end of this year. Indeed, officials involved in that review are in the Chamber today, so they will have heard her points clearly.

We all understand that an NDA cannot prevent an employee or an ex-employee from making certain kinds of disclosures, but that is no good if the former employee does not know that. Does the Minister agree that we should change the law to require every NDA to say explicitly, on the face of the document, that it does not apply to particular kinds of disclosures, so that the former employee who has a copy of the agreement knows exactly what rights they still have?

I will come on to some other points on that issue, including on the guidance that we have given to ACAS in that area.

NDAs cannot prevent workers from reporting a crime to the police or from co-operating in a criminal investigation, because such a clause would be unenforceable—[Interruption.] I may have misheard what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, but it is very important that anybody listening to this debate, who is considering what their rights are, knows very clearly that such an agreement cannot prevent them from reporting a crime in this area.

Furthermore, the use of an NDA by an employer could amount to a criminal offence—for example, if it is an attempt by the employer to pervert the course of justice or conceal a criminal offence. Independent legal advice is a requirement for settlement agreements to be valid.

In 2019, the then Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy consulted on the misuse of NDAs in an employment context. The consultation followed evidence found by the Women and Equalities Committee that individual workers may not be aware of their existing statutory rights and may be intimidated into pursuing claims even where the NDA is unenforceable—a point raised by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon. Again, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke does very important work in that area.

The consultation also heard evidence that individuals are pressured into signing NDAs without the appropriate legal advice, and therefore do not understand that their NDA is unenforceable. That is why the Government took action in developing extensive guidance, which was published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and ACAS. It is clear that NDAs should not prevent individuals from making disclosures to the police and medical or legal professionals.

We have already legislated to prevent higher education providers using NDAs, as I said. We are keen to see how that works in practice, and it will come into force in 2024. The Government held a consultation on the matter in a wider context in 2019. We all agree that these agreements should not be used to intimidate individuals or conceal criminal conduct or illegal wrongdoing, as pointed out by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I point out to him that it is in the capability of the Northern Ireland Administration to implement that in Northern Ireland if they choose, with the matter being devolved to Northern Ireland.

The Minister wants to do the right thing. He wants to be a role model; he wants to be a good employer; he wants to set the tone. Will he meet me and Can’t Buy My Silence and consider signing its voluntary agreement to stop the use of NDAs? Surely the Government can lead the way on this.

Of course I will meet my right hon. Friend, and I am very happy to meet the campaigning organisation as well. The consultation found some support for NDAs when they helped victims to make a clean break and move on—I think that point was also raised by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). We feel that an outright ban across all organisations may therefore not be appropriate and could have unintended consequences for employees.

The Government have listened carefully to the experiences shared through a consultation on sexual harassment. We are legislating through the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill, first introduced in the Commons by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), which will strengthen protections for employees against workplace sexual harassment by placing a duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of their employees.

Protecting and enhancing workers’ rights while supporting businesses to grow remains a priority for this Government. We are clear that the use of NDAs to intimidate victims of harassment and discrimination into silence cannot be tolerated. We are already taking action in the higher education sector; we have published extensive guidance and consulted on the use of NDAs in the workplace; and we are carefully considering how to tackle wrongful practices in a wider context.

To sum up briefly, I thank everybody who has taken the time to be here today, including the Minister; I know he has, importantly, strong feelings about this subject and he is a good advocate for us. The debate has shown that the misuse of NDAs is a matter not of party politics, but of fairness, justice and the rule of law. All political parties in this place subscribe to that, and I know that the Government will be listening to that carefully. I hope that we will hear more news on the subject—maybe in the King’s Speech, and in other legislative programmes the Minister brings forward.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the use of non-disclosure agreements in the workplace.

Mains Water Connections: Cost for Rural Communities

I will call Sir Simon Clarke to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as this is only a 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the cost of mains water connections for rural communities.

It is a real pleasure to have the chance to talk about this important issue in the House this afternoon, Ms Ali.

Water is life. That is a statement of fact as ancient as civilisation itself, but today I am here to talk about the lack of clean water affecting Aysdalegate, which is a row of cottages that forms part of my Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland constituency. Aysdalegate sits about two miles from Guisborough, the main market town in East Cleveland, just along the A171 road over the moors to Whitby. It is somewhat isolated, but it is not so remote that the problems I am about to relate can reasonably be anticipated. I find it astonishing, living as we do in an age of unparalleled technological advances, that there remain corners of England where something as simple as access to safe running drinking water should even have to be the subject of debate, but here we are.

For the residents of Aysdalegate, their days are marred by an issue that most of us would have thought resolved in the previous century, if not the century before that: their homes are not linked to the mains water network. Instead, they grapple daily with inadequate water quality from a private water supply, and they are told that the cost of connection, a figure that will almost certainly amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds, will fall upon them, should they seek to remedy the situation. This is not some multimillion new build vanity project that we are talking about, or some millionaire seeking to pull a fast one by getting public funds for improvements to a remote sporting lodge or a holiday home. This is a small hamlet in which very normal people are trying to live everyday lives. Aysdalegate represents hard-working families, the elderly and, in some cases, the disabled and the vulnerable.

We should be clear about the conditions my constituents are living in. Over the last decade, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council has performed drinking water checks nine times at Aysdalegate. On each and every occasion, supplies have been judged unsatisfactory owing to bacterial contamination, including E. coli and enterococci. I am sure everybody is aware of the dangers posed by these organisms. E. coli, which is a bacteria that predominantly resides in the intestines of humans and animals, is a strong indication of recent faecal contamination. It can lead to severe gastrointestinal illness, kidney failure and, in severe cases, death.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. He previously asked about this in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions. The Minister also replied on that occasion, when I was happy to ask a supplementary question—I understand the issue very well. Does he agree that it is not just the quality of the water, but the cost factor for those who just want to live in the countryside? Does he also agree that sometimes the connections are prohibitive? In the Minister’s response to his question, she seemed to indicate a willingness to assist. Does he feel that the Government perhaps have an important role to play in improving the water quality and in making a connection at a price that is feasible and acceptable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which precisely anticipates the line of inquiry I am going to pursue, which is how we improve the quality of the water and address the cost of so doing.

As I was saying, the issue with E. coli and enterococci is really very serious. Enterococci—to follow on from what I was saying about E. coli—is also associated with faecal contamination. Although it is generally less harmful than E. coli, its presence in water can be a precursor to the existence of other, very dangerous pathogens. Repeated exposure to water tainted with these bacteria places residents, as a matter of certain medical fact, at risk of long-term medical harm.

As a result, Redcar and Cleveland council has served a regulation 18 notice specifying that the water needs to be boiled before it can be drunk, which has been in place permanently since December 2017. If only boiling the water solved the problem. Alas, residents have reported to me their disgust at finding tadpoles and evidence of rodents and other animal life in their drinking water. Tadpoles and rodents in their drinking water—let us pause for a moment and think about what that means. A parent will hesitate, even after boiling the water, because they wonder whether it is safe for a child. An elderly resident will, in their lifetime, have witnessed this nation advance enormously yet will still wonder why they are waiting for safe drinking water.

I will read out a response to a survey from Redcar and Cleveland council, which was completed by one of my constituents and forwarded to me. She writes as follows:

“I approached the council and joint meetings were held. Year on year we have been served ‘boil notices’—but I am disgusted by this notice”

and the lack of action. She continues:

“Redcar and Cleveland…are totally aware of the plight me and others have expressed assistance for and at each turn we have been left to it. No-one here has the financial capacity to do anything more than we are currently doing. We are treated appallingly.”

Explaining that she has contacted me as her Member of Parliament, my constituent continues:

“As you know we are now in negotiations over”


“successful prompts for Northumbrian Water to finally consider us as a whole row to be mains connected. Though funding has yet to be sourced to cover this cost, none of”

our group

“are holding our breath as this could yet again give us a false hope. I have also recruited the help of our local parish…and spoken to local councillors. I attend parish meetings where our water supply is raised constantly. We know the farm opposite us received grants to have their own private well…so animals, rightly, can be looked after with clean drinking water/bathing water…but we’re considered less than animals.”

My constituent spends “£70 a month” for

“bottled water to drink and cook in”,

and says that there are animals and

“rodents in our water system frequently”.

She says that her

“bath water is always brown/cloudy”

and the system

“has to be visited by trudging over a busy road”,

hiking up a hill and “through woodland.” She is spending hundreds of pounds a month on filtering the water that comes into her home.

We need to do better than this. Private supplies do not have to be below standard. In fact, last year, only 3.8% of tests from private water supplies across the UK were positive for faecal contamination, but where they are dangerous, we need to have viable options for mains water connection. When I raised the issue at DEFRA questions, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, I was advised that

“it is right that the legislation allows a water company to charge for the cost of making a new connection, because otherwise it would impact on all customers’ bills.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2023; Vol. 735, c. 916.]

I simply do not see how that can be considered an acceptable response. According to the Government’s figures on our official development assistance, between 2020 and 2021, the UK spent £188 million to help provide clean water to disadvantaged people across the globe, and we should be very proud of that. However, our pride in our humanitarianism should be tempered when here at home we are telling a number of my constituents that, if they do not like boiling tadpole and rat-infested water, “That is just your problem and the bill’s on you”. DEFRA asserts that that is just how the system works. I am sorry, but the system clearly does not work, and it certainly does not work for the people of Aysdalegate.

Thankfully, it is not all bad news. Northumbrian Water’s process for exploratory work towards connecting communities to the mains network involves network assessments, evaluating existing infrastructure capacity and ensuring that new connections do not impact existing ones. All that obviously comes at a cost. I am glad to report that, after I had spoken to it, the company rose to the occasion by waiving its fees to quantify how to connect Aysdalegate to the water main and at what cost. That report is expected shortly, but informally, a cost of between £150,000 and £200,000 has been suggested to me. That is obviously a very large sum for a group of nine homes, many of which do not have significant household income.

I would have seen no route to resolution if it had not been for the exceptional action taken by Northumbrian Water, but we will shortly need a plan to deliver the requisite infrastructure. There can be only very few poor isolated communities such as these that fall into this category. I suspect that there are not many Aysdalegates in the UK in 2023. I believe DEFRA needs to consider a special fund to enable work of this nature to proceed in truly exceptional circumstances.

This seems to be a classic example of a case where the associated infrastructure cost needs to be socialised. Ultimately, doing that for a small number of homes would have a minimal impact on wider bill payers’ costs. Lest we forget, we live in a society where we talk proudly about having a universal service obligation for broadband; under the rural broadband scheme, we offer vouchers that, at points in recent years, have been worth up to £10,000 per household. How can we have less than that for clean drinking water?

I believe that my constituents’ experience proves the case for a comprehensive plan and, if necessary, a change to legislation, although I hope that the problem can be remedied by direct ministerial action. I ask the Minister to set out in her reply what the Government will do to ensure that the residents of Aysdalegate, and others like them across the country, can connect to the most basic of necessities and the most fundamental of resources: safe drinking water. Although they are few in number, their plight is very serious. We cannot apply to them a rule that feels better suited to isolated larger homes or farms, which are in a far better position to deal with the cost of connection than my constituents. They are effectively a marginalised and isolated handful of people who, through no fault of their own, live somewhere where even a reasonable quality of life is simply not possible. They cannot remedy their situation through their own means. I do not believe that the council has the funds to help them. I can see no recourse other than to the guarantor of last resort in our society: the Government. These people pay their taxes; they have a right to expect the Government to look after them.

We must accept in this House that for people to have to live without safe drinking water in 2023 is unconscionable. For people of normal means to be told they should foot an unaffordable bill, and for the Government to wash their hands of them now, would be unacceptable. I hope that this afternoon we can work out the genesis of a plan to ensure that when Northumbrian Water reports back with the cost of connection—as I said, it is likely to be a six-figure sum, but not a high six-figure sum—we can try to work out what recourse there can be to public funding to resolve this very dangerous and upsetting situation.

It is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, Ms Ali. I must begin by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) for bringing this matter before the House, and for championing those in his constituency, who he speaks about so clearly and with a great deal of compassion. I obviously realise on hearing his words—we have talked about this before—that there are some real challenges in this case. I welcome this opportunity to air the subject. I will talk generally about private water supplies, which will not surprise him, and then come on to his specific case about the cottages.

As my right hon. Friend will know, drinking water policy is devolved—we had a comment from Northern Ireland earlier—so these comments will apply only to England. Obviously, private water supplies generally originate from a range of local sources, whether they are boreholes, natural springs, brooks or becks. I grew up on a farm. We had our own private water supply for some parts of the farm, and for some cottages. Over the years, all that sort of changed according to how the situation was going. It is something that I have a bit of background knowledge on.

According to the Drinking Water Inspectorate, 1.7% of the population in England get their water from a private supply as of 2022. I am pleased to say that, overall, the compliance of private supplies with the drinking water standards has been steadily improving. According to the Drinking Water Inspectorate’s annual report summarising the data from all local authorities, the compliance rate was 96.4% in 2022, up from 91.4% in 2010. That is a pretty good record; it is improving.

Private water supplies, as my right hon. Friend will know, are regulated under the Water Industry Act 1991 and the Private Water Supplies (England) Regulations 2016. Local authorities are the regulators of private supplies and are responsible for identifying the risks to the quality of the water. They may serve a notice if they determine that the supply is, was, or is likely to be unwholesome or insufficient, and they must serve a notice if they consider there to be a potential risk to human health. My right hon. Friend mentioned that the water had been sampled a number of times by the local authority. He also mentioned what had been flagged as a result, and the advice given.

Local authorities can recover the costs incurred for the duties that they perform from those responsible for the supply—a point I will come back to. Although private water suppliers are found across most regions of England, the highest number are in rural areas. In my constituency and wider Somerset, it is not uncommon to have a private water supply. Often farmers supply their own water, but some of them supply other houses, although there can be other providers. In many cases, people can and want to remain on their private supply, and that is their right.

We recognise that in some cases property owners wish to connect to the mains water network. In such cases, water companies have a duty under the Water Industry Act to make supplies available where it is feasible to do so. They obviously check capacity and so forth. The water company that has distribution mains closest to the property would then check that there is capacity in the network and so forth. However, water companies do not need to provide a mains connection free of charge. We understand that the costs of connection can be high, but it is right that the legislation should allow a water company to charge to make a new connection. Otherwise, the cost of such connections would need to be absorbed by all the existing customers, who do not benefit from new people connecting, and there would be a knock-on impact on people’s bills. I think people understand the point about whether others should carry the can for the cost of someone joining.

When it comes to connections to the mains, the role of Government, via the economic regulator Ofwat, is to ensure that water companies act responsibly and transparently in the services they provide and the fees they charge. That is why Ofwat requires water companies to set charges that reflect the cost of undertaking the work. That has to be clear and transparent. Ofwat also requires them to publish up front the charges for most of the new mains and connection services they provide, and to provide worked examples, so that customers can understand how the charges are calculated. On top of that, there is an element of competition in the market, which might help to reduce connection costs. Customers have the option of contracting with third-party providers, known as self-lay providers, who compete for the work against the water companies.

There are also avenues for recourse when people on private supplies are not happy with the costs quoted by the water companies. They can complain to the water company in the first instance. If that does not resolve the concern, they can ask the Consumer Council for Water to look at the case. Although the Consumer Council for Water has no formal responsibility to review charges for connection, it will challenge companies to provide clarity and review their charges where it considers that appropriate. That might be another avenue to explore further. Ofwat is responsible for enforcement if a water company is not complying with the expected charges, and can issue directions if companies do not comply with Ofwat’s charging rules. Constituents therefore also have the option of contacting Ofwat with their concerns.

On Aysdalegate cottages, the example being talked about today, officials from DEFRA and the Drinking Water Inspectorate were in contact recently with the local authority, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council, to discuss the case. I understand there are nine households supplied by a beck located on third-party land—the third party is a local livestock farmer. I understand that the local authority has in the past proposed a number of options as part of its risk assessment, including: improving the existing supply; exploring a new water source, such as a borehole; and mains connection.

I was pleased to hear that the water company has stepped up to say that it will pay for the cost of exploring the options, and it should be thanked for that, because it is not an insignificant amount of money that it has committed to, so I am pleased about that. Installation of high-quality filtration and UV treatment equipment at the point of use in each household is likely to significantly improve the quality of the supply. The Drinking Water Inspectorate provides guidance on UV treatment on its website and recommends that any UV system used for this purpose be tested by an accredited laboratory. The inspectorate was at pains to explain to me that it is really important that the right kit be used if that road is taken, because some kit would not be as good.

I understand from my officials’ discussions with the local authority that, to date, not all residents at these properties have wanted to connect to the mains. Ultimately, the householders will need to reach a consensus on what joint action they want to take to improve their water supply.

I thank the Minister for her helpful reply. From my conversations with the residents, I think that they have in some cases indicated a lack of willingness to connect precisely because the costs are anticipated to be beyond their means. This goes to the fundamental point that I was driving at: there is a mechanism, but it is effectively out of reach for, in this case, a very deprived group of people.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says and thank him for clarifying. I obviously sympathise with the challenges faced by people on private supplies.

My right hon. Friend might be interested to hear that the Drinking Water Inspectorate has recently commissioned a research project to review the impact of the current private supplies regulatory framework on public health. To be honest, the inspectorate considers that some areas may need to be looked at forensically, and it will return with its results early in 2024—not too long away. As with all legislation, the Government will keep the regulatory framework for private water supplies under review, but we look forward to hearing what the inspectorate comes back with, because it may well have some synergy with some of my right hon. Friend’s points. As for individual cases, the Drinking Water Inspectorate can provide technical advice to local authorities, and that facility should be made full use of. My office would be happy to provide all the details and contacts if my right hon. Friend does not have them.

I cannot give my right hon. Friend exactly what he has asked for, but he has raised an important issue. I think the review will be helpful in directing us, so we look forward to its outcome. I thank him again for bringing the matter to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

British Nationals Detained Overseas

I beg to move,

That this House has considered British nationals detained overseas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Ali. The first duty of the British Government is to protect their citizens at home and abroad. Being arrested or detained abroad can be a difficult and traumatic experience. Often the detained are unable to see their friends and family, sometimes for years. I am sure that we were all moved by the scenes of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe being reunited with her husband Richard and their daughter Gabriella.

Iran has shown itself to be a serial offender of detaining British passport holders. Morad Tahbaz, a British-American citizen, is still detained there. It has now been over five years. It was only last month that Tahbaz was taken out of Evin prison, the infamous home to many political prisoners of the autocratic regime, and placed under house arrest. Yet this occurred only after America agreed to a prisoner exchange and to allow the Iranian regime to access almost £5 billion of frozen assets in South Korea. In other words, the Iranian regime was using foreign prisoners for ransom. The situation with Nazanin was the same: she was released only after the Government paid £400 million to Tehran.

Mehran Raoof is another dual British-Iranian national who has been detained. At 66, he was detained in Evin prison for supporting and campaigning for workers’ rights. In his own letter, Mr Raoof says the Iranian regime is treating dual nationals as “a valuable commodity”, and the evidence backs him up.

The UK Government must look at the actions of Iran and label them for what they are: state hostage taking. Quite frankly, it is working. The Iranian regime is getting vast sums of money to release foreign or dual nationals whom they have arrested on trumped-up charges. The Foreign Office needs to take a much stronger stance within our role in the UN to call out state hostage taking.

Iran is not the only country guilty of unjustly detaining British citizens. Jimmy Lai, a British national and long-time critic of the Chinese Communist party, was arrested in Hong Kong over three years ago.

I congratulate the hon. Lady for securing the debate and highlighting these important issues and individual cases of concern. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, I share her specific concern about the case of Jimmy Lai. Does she agree that Mr Lai’s case is not only one of appalling consequences for him personally, having served nearly 1,000 days in prison, but emblematic of the Hong Kong Government’s crusade against free media and freedom of speech?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Mr Lai is accused of violating the new national security law in Hong Kong. Leaving aside our Government’s failure to properly hold China to account for reneging on the Sino-British joint declaration, there is still a duty to protect British nationals. Mr Lai awaits trial this month, yet the Chinese Communist authorities are trying to block his attempt to hire a British defence lawyer.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about people’s access to justice and consular services when detained illegitimately or even legitimately. Other countries require a minimum level of support from their Foreign Offices and consular services, including the provision of approved lawyers. That would mean lawyers approved in other countries but certified by Britain. Is that something that we should consider doing in order to ensure that our consular services are protecting our nationals wherever they are?

I agree with my hon. Friend; of course we should be doing that. It is about justice, not rigged justice.

The use of foreign lawyers by both prosecution and defence is a long-established tradition in Hong Kong. Only last month, the Foreign Secretary met the Chinese Vice-President, Mr Han, known as the architect of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong. The Foreign Secretary raised the case of Mr Lai, but did not go far enough. It is British values that are on trial: the values of freedom and democracy, which we signed a treaty to uphold. The Prime Minister should raise this with the Chinese regime at the highest possible level.

Cases of British citizens being detained abroad are not limited to the middle east and Asia. In 2021, Mr Nnamdi Kanu, a British citizen, was abducted by Nigerian security forces in Nairobi, Kenya. Since his detention, he has been subjected to torture and many other unpleasantries. A United Nations Human Rights Council report released a damning assessment of the Nigerian Government’s treatment and called for his immediate release.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) has worked tirelessly on behalf of Mr Kanu and is urging the Foreign Secretary to do more to secure his release. Nigeria is a Commonwealth nation that receives tens of millions in UK aid; it is one of the biggest beneficiaries. As part of that aid support, there must be a commitment to human rights and upholding the right to a fair trial. Mr Kanu must be given access to a fair and due process. A British citizen travelling on a British passport should not be kidnapped in a third country and dragged to a Nigerian prison. The Government need to get much tougher.

Another case I will raise is that of Alaa Abd-El Fattah, a British-Egyptian activist who was detained in Egypt. Once again, he has been detained and denied fair and due process. He even took to hunger strike in prison to protest against his treatment. The Egyptian authorities also denied his British citizenship and refused British consular support. Our Government need to insist that Mr Abd-El Fattah gets that assistance.

Only this week, the Foreign Office was told by the parliamentary ombudsman to make a formal apology to Matthew Hedges, who was accused of spying and tortured in the United Arab Emirates. The Foreign Office failed to do its duty to Mr Hedges, a British citizen being tortured by a country we consider one of our closest allies in the region. The chief executive of the ombudsman’s office, Rebecca Hilsenrath, described Mr Hedges’ experience as a “nightmare” that was

“made even worse by being failed by the British Government.”

Quite frankly, that is not good enough, and it calls into question whether the current guidelines need reviewing.

The cases that I have raised are examples. There are many others that I could have gone into, and I am sure that other colleagues present may well do so. I appreciate that these cases are often complex and no country is the same when it comes to Foreign Office engagement. However, there is much more we can do, especially with countries that we financially support. We can also work with our allies to take a much tougher stance on state hostage taking in countries such as Iran.

Many British citizens detained abroad do not even get the necessary consular assistance. That is why Labour is looking to introduce a legal right to consular assistance, which I am sure that the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), will go into in further detail. Consular support to British citizens must be a given. After all, it is the first duty of Government to look after their citizens.

Thank you, Ms Ali, for calling me to speak in this debate. I very much agree with the comments of the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) about the importance of how a country supports its citizens overseas when they are in distress, in particular in prisons. I congratulate her on securing this important debate.

I will speak briefly on behalf of my constituent, Saiful Chowdhury, who is a leading member of the Muslim community in Shrewsbury and does a great deal to support our mosque. He contacted me because of his two cousins, Murad Rahman Khan and Yadur Rahman Khan. They were at the airport in Dubai in February 2023, trying to secure a wheelchair for their elderly mother. They were travelling as a family, with their elderly mother and their children, on holiday in Dubai. They tried to secure a wheelchair because their mother had difficulties walking, but the staff were unhelpful, rude and confrontational.

Unfortunately, that led to a verbal confrontation between the two British citizens and the airport staff, resulting in them being convicted to a six-month jail sentence. They are appealing, but their passports have been stamped to prevent them from leaving the United Arab Emirates. They are in a hotel at their own expense. They have spent thousands and thousands pounds already on accommodation since February, while they wait for their court process to be concluded.

The Minister is a very good and responsive Minister, and I would like him to take a particular interest in this case. The reason why I feel compelled to raise it is that some of the allegations put forward include no CCTV evidence being presented to the court. The defendants are keen for that to be shown to demonstrate that the altercation was purely verbal, rather than physical in any way, and yet the authorities refuse to allow CCTV evidence from the airport. That is the allegation. Another concern relates to the repeated refusal of the Emirati authorities to facilitate ongoing and effective dialogue and communication with the defendants, our British embassy officials and indeed their lawyers. My concern is also about the length of time taken to date.

The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston mentioned the United Arab Emirates as one of our closest partners in the middle east. I would go further: it is the closest British ally in the middle east. We have extensive commercial and political links with the Emiratis. I am extremely concerned to hear about this case, and I will give the Minister the details, via his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory). I will be extremely grateful if the Minister could look into it. I will also send a link to the debate to our British ambassador in the United Arab Emirates. I will be grateful to the Minister for any support that he can give to Mr Saiful Chowdhury, my constituent, who was clearly extremely concerned as to the welfare of his cousins and about the impact not just on them, but on their elderly relatives and children, who have come back to the United Kingdom and are separated from their loved ones.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Ms Ali. I had not expected to be called so quickly.

I warmly commend my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for securing this debate, not least because I think all the members of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs have been making arguments about some of the issues for some considerable time.

In particular, there was the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The former Prime Minister managed to make things more difficult when, as Foreign Secretary, he suggested to the Foreign Affairs Committee that she was engaged in other activities. That possibly led to her being kept in an Iranian jail for much longer than was necessary. In addition, as the current Chancellor admitted when he was Foreign Secretary, sometimes we have not devoted enough energy to making sure that British citizens get a fair trial and are treated properly in prison, or that, if possible, their sentence can be served in the UK.

I will very briefly explain one of the things that I did when I was a Foreign Office Minister for five minutes. There was a British woman who was arrested in Laos. I will not name her, but she was pregnant, and she was arrested for an offence that would have been an offence in the United Kingdom. Laos is a very closed country, politically—a communist country and very difficult. At the time, we did not have an embassy in Laos and we were being helped by the Australians. I said, “Well, I’m sorry, but she’s pregnant; I don’t want a British child to be born in a Laos prison, in filthy conditions, and likely to have a miserable life, if a life of any kind at all. I want that child to be born in a British prison.” All the officials said, “No, that is nonsense, Minister. It is nothing to do with you. It will simply make life difficult.” But I went and I had a difficult but good, thorough meeting with my counterpart in Vientiane. We had a wonderful lunch afterwards, and it thawed the relationship. I said, “I’m going to ring you every Monday morning.” That is what I did, and after three months we got her out and she came back to a British prison. She has no idea; I am absolutely sure of that.

Ministers may be doing that all the time and we do not know about it—I have never told that story before—but I gently say to them that that is kind of what a Minister is for. There will be times when officials will go, “Oh, Minister, that is very brave, very courageous,” but I think there are times when Ministers need to do exactly that.

Another case that is very prominent for me is that of Jagtar Singh Johal, who is still in prison in India. As I understand it, our Prime Minister is going to visit India soon. I do not know why the Prime Minister is not saying clearly and categorically that he should be released. Every single independent assessment that has been done shows that this man is innocent of the crimes that he has been fitted up for, but, as I understand it, the Foreign Secretary has actually written to the families concerned to say that he will not raise this matter because it

“could impact the co-operation we depend on from the relevant authorities to conduct consular visits, resolve welfare cases and attend court proceedings”

I think that is to presume that the Indian Government will react negatively, but I think that every single time we do that, particularly with Governments who have a tendency towards autocracy—not so much perhaps in India but certainly in other countries—all we end up doing is inviting them to adopt a yet more hard-line attitude.

That takes me to the situation in China. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston is absolutely right about the situation facing Jimmy Lai. I understand that the British Government regular position is, “Well, we don’t want to push too far”. I am sorry, but I do not understand why a British Foreign Secretary would not say before going to China that some of the people in this Chamber should not be on a sanctions list. That is incomprehensible, because it is as if we are saying, “I’m sorry; our democracy doesn’t really matter. We don’t really mind what you’re doing.”

I am very much enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Three Sundays ago, we joined the fastest-growing, biggest trading bloc in the world—the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-pacific partnership in the far east. Does he agree that we ought to use our position in the CPTPP to restrict Chinese entry to the bloc as long as it continues to behave in this manner?

Yes, and not only because of the sanctioning of the right hon. and hon. Members present but because of the complete reneging on our agreement with China on Hong Kong. When I talk to Hongkongers who have left Hong Kong, who now nearly all leave with nothing, leaving everything behind them, they talk of genuine fear for their family back at home, if they have stayed.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will get there eventually. I fear that the reasons for the non-intervention and non-comment in respect of Jimmy Lai’s case are explicable—they are not worthy but they are explicable—but this is a moment that really matters for Jimmy Lai, because he now has a trial date set for December, and an intervention at this critical stage in the criminal proceedings against him could make a material difference to the outcome. Does that in itself not merit a more robust intervention from our Foreign Secretary?

I think it does, and I was going to make that point myself. This is a very opportune point at which to make an intervention.

I have another, broader point to make, which is that when people around the world are asked to name the UK’s unique special achievement in foreign affairs, most say it is the rule of law. It is the fact that our word is our bond. It is the fact that a case can be prosecuted properly in a legal court in our country, and that we stand for democracy, the freedom of the individual and equality under the law. That has to be just as much part of our foreign policy as our mercantilist desire to do better trade with other parts of the world. My experience of working on issues in Russia and countries in central Asia is that if we do not tie the two together, we make a terrible mistake, because British businesses simply cannot flourish because they have to pay bribes and deal with an autocratic regime.

To conclude, I very much hope that the UK Government will adopt a more robust, more coherent and more determined approach in their relationship with a series of different countries: China, Russia and India.

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Ms Ali. Others wish to speak so I will try to keep my comments brief.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) on securing this vital debate. We should hold such debates regularly because there is so much to be done in this policy area. British citizens carry British passports, and those British passports have a clear statement at the front that none should let or hinder those who hold that passport, yet too often we find ourselves apologising and running around that major statement at the front of the passport.

I want to focus carefully on the case of Jimmy Lai. I had the privilege of meeting the international team of lawyers who are attempting to defend him, even though they have now, appallingly, been barred from Hong Kong by the Chinese authorities, such is their approval. Nevertheless, I congratulate his team on the huge efforts they are making around the world to draw attention to the plight of a man whose only crime is to cry freedom for all those he lives with.

The point about Jimmy Lai’s case is the reality of the change in Hong Kong. The Chinese authorities have trashed the Sino-British agreement that protected people’s rights in Hong Kong as a special case, once it was all agreed. That agreement is an international treaty. The problem we have is that the authorities can now proceed against people such as Mr Lai for sedition and other appalling charges. He has already been forced to lose his company, and the assets of Apple Daily have been seized. It is unprecedented and could not happen here in the United Kingdom.

Here is the point: Hong Kong is still meant to be a common-law area, but it cannot be a common-law area if people can have their assets seized on charges that have not yet gone through the courts. It is a peculiarity that we go on pretending, as do some of our justices who serve out there. It is no longer really a common-law jurisdiction because it has the national security law over it. People such as Jimmy Lai will now suffer under the national security law without any redress or protection, as would normally be the case here in the United Kingdom, for example, where English common law protects our normal and natural rights. Those rights have been completely decimated in Hong Kong.

The interesting part is that Jimmy Lai has been prosecuted in four separate sets of criminal proceedings arising from his peaceful participation in the high-profile pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020, which were organised by civil liberties groups. His crime, therefore, is to have attended the protests; that alone, apparently, is the key. The thing is that he has already been prosecuted and found guilty. One of the charges against him was eventually dismissed on appeal—others were upheld—but he had already served his sentence when that happened. He now faces even more serious charges. He has faced spurious prosecution on charges of fraud, which is why his equipment was seized. He was convicted in October 2022, and in December 2022 he was sentenced to five years and nine months’ imprisonment.

The conviction has meant that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) said, Jimmy Lai has spent some 1,000 days incarcerated on trumped-up charges. But worse is to come. Those charges were all precursors, giving the authorities time to build a case that, under the national security law, will put him inside for a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life.

The point that I want to make about Jimmy Lai, which is very important, is that he could have fled Hong Kong. He had made enough money to leave Hong Kong and go elsewhere, and complain about the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese authorities from outside. But he did not. He chose to stay in Hong Kong, because he knew that if he fled then a lot of the hope about what they might eventually be able to achieve would also go. He is a beacon of freedom, and freedom of speech, in a way that no other that I know of globally is at present. I do not decry others; I simply say that he is remarkable.

Jimmy Lai’s choice to stay put in Hong Kong came with the full knowledge that he would not enjoy freedom for long. That has been realised, with these trumped-up charges, and now he faces a full prosecution—it has been delayed, but is likely to happen towards the end of this year, maybe in October—under the national security law.

My right hon. Friend, I and indeed you, Ms Ali, attended a conference in Prague over the weekend that was full of parliamentarians from around the world, many of whom, including my right hon. Friend and I, have been sanctioned by the Chinese authorities. The whole subject of Jimmy Lai was very much the focus of that conference.

However, does my right hon. Friend agree that the issue of Jimmy Lai is not just about Jimmy Lai himself but about what this country stands for? In the case of Jimmy Lai, the Chinese Communist party has enacted two criminal acts, one of which is breaking the Anglo-Sino agreement over Hong Kong, an international treaty to which we are a signatory. As a result of its trashing of that treaty, all the protections under the rule of law that might have applied have been swept away. That is why Jimmy Lai, one of the most successful businessmen and whose company was the largest quoted on the Hong Kong stock exchange, is now facing this prosecution.

Jimmy Lai is a British citizen—there is no doubt about that—and therefore he is entitled to the full force of the British Government’s protection. Why has that not been shown and why have there been no consequences, despite the warm words from the Foreign Secretary and others, for the fact that my right hon. Friend and I, along with five other parliamentarians, remain sanctioned and Jimmy Lai continues to be denied the basic justice that we take for granted in this country?

I am very grateful that my hon. Friend intervened, because I agree, of course, with everything he said. He and I are sanctioned; in our case, it is for raising the genocide in Xinjiang, which is another case altogether.

I agree with my hon. Friend about Jimmy Lai. I will come back to Jimmy Lai, but I want first to say something more widely about the many British citizens who languish abroad. I am afraid that we too often find reasons and excuses to believe that behind the scenes we can somehow do something that will help them without raising the fact that they are British citizens and therefore, under international law, they require full consular access and rights. I simply say that that is a mindset that we need to get out of. We need to say: “If you are a British passport holder—and, most importantly, a British citizen—then you have the protection of this United Kingdom, which is supposed to believe in human rights and freedom.”

It is difficult to disagree with anything the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree with me that a legal right to consular assistance would be one step in the right direction to help to protect our citizens when they get into trouble abroad?

Well, I would not be against it, but if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not go into that now. I am sure she can make her case on that, and I shall be happy to discuss it with her later.

I want to use this opportunity to return to a human being who is now likely—as he must believe, given the way the Chinese authorities are working—never to see the light of day again. He will never see his son or his family ever again, because he took the brave choice: to stay. He did not run away. All those people who have left, quite legitimately, have had their bank accounts frozen and their pension funds frozen illegally—it goes on. But Jimmy Lai stands like a beacon in the middle of this to say, “No. No further. We will not put up with this. Freedom is our right. It is not something that we get given; it is our right, and I am standing up for it.”

Here is what I want to raise with my hon. Friend the Minister, who is going to defend the Government’s position, and I use my words carefully. I noticed that the Foreign Secretary has used this phrase—we had this debate recently, and we did not reach an agreement, so I am going probe that lack of agreement further. He said in connection with his conversations with the Chinese Government that they

“deliberately target prominent pro-democracy figures, journalists and politicians in an effort to silence and discredit them.”

So far, so good. He continued:

“Detained British dual national Jimmy Lai is one such figure. I raised his case”.

Can I just pause there? Jimmy Lai is not a dual national. He has never had a Chinese passport. He has only had a British passport. He is a British citizen, under British law and British protection, and he has appealed for that protection. His own defence counsels have reiterated their inability to mount a proper defence because they cannot get access to him, and now they have been barred from ever seeing him because they were too much trouble and were causing problems.

I say this again: every time we say that Jimmy Lai is a dual national, it plays into the hands of the Chinese authorities, for they know that they can claim rights over his position as a dual national that they do not possess. He languishes as a result, because they do not recognise other nationalities, so they do not allow consular rights of access. Here is a big problem for us. I again call on my Government: please, just get to your feet today, if you might, and say that we believe that Jimmy Lai is a British citizen and a British passport holder, full stop. We do not need to debate it, we just need to agree it. I therefore claim that that is the problem. The UN has made recognitions. The United States has recognised Jimmy Lai as a British citizen. The European Union has recognised him as a British citizen. The only country that I am aware of that does not recognise him as an out-and-out British citizen is—why, that would be the United Kingdom. For some reason, we have reticence.

When the Chinese Government trashed the Sino-British agreement, the Americans sanctioned 12 of the most senior people responsible—and the same with Xinjiang, by the way, when they sanctioned something like that many as well. We have sanctioned nobody in Hong Kong since the start of this saga. Why are we not sanctioning them? Why are we so worried about what they might say or do? If it is to get their help in stopping the Russians in the war, then they are busily supplying them with weapons, parts and all sorts of stuff at the moment. When it comes to net zero, there is nothing zero about their net. It is off the charts, and we are the ones who will pick up the pieces.

To end, I simply say this to my hon. Friend the Minister: please, please, please defend a British citizen. Proclaim it from the rooftops that the British Government stand for freedom and human rights, that when a British passport holder and British citizen is incarcerated, we will move heaven and earth and demand that that individual receives our full support, and that there is no way on earth that the normal access to justice will be blocked, for freedom must prevail.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms Ali. I thank the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for securing the debate, and it is always good to follow the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) when we probably fundamentally agree completely on something.

This is not the first time that I have risen to my feet in Westminster Hall to speak on this very subject, and many here today will have heard me speak about it before, so I will do my best to say something new about the subject. There are many parts of the job that we are elected to do that our constituents expect us to do. Making speeches is one of them, as is helping constituents with the issues we all come up against as we deal with the authorities that be. There are, of course, others we do not expect to be involved in. I can say now, after eight years in this place, that dealing with constituents who are themselves in some sort of distress, or getting in contact on behalf of their family members who are, is certainly one of those things that we cannot prepare ourselves for before being elected.

Whether it is the distance, the unfamiliarity with the language and the culture, or just an enhanced feeling of helplessness, there is always a heightened feeling around such cases. I am afraid to say that the added extra in such cases always tends to be the disconnect, which is fairly unique in these instances, between what the UK citizen and their family expect and what services are actually available to them, as I think was alluded to by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. In this debate today, we are talking about UK nationals imprisoned overseas, but much of what I will say will also applies to many of those who come into contact with consular services.

Let us remind ourselves of the words that form part of our passports—recently updated, of course—to which, again, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green alluded:

“His Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of His Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

I would say that, for example, prisoners—those accused or convicted of wrongdoing—are the very definition of vulnerable people at the mercy of the state and how it administers justice. Regardless of their culpability within any jurisdiction, the very least the UK Government can ask of countries in which their citizens are imprisoned is that they are treated consistently and fairly.

Indeed, when I have previously spoken about the case of my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal, who was alluded to by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant), I have used three phrases: transparency, due process, and the rule of law. Those are three things that I would hope any Indian national imprisoned here in the UK could rely on and should be the very least we expect in Jagtar’s case.

The case of my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal is a considerable matter of public record, and I have spoken in debates here and on the Floor of the House on a number of occasions since Jagtar’s initial detention in November 2018—coming up for six years ago. The circumstances of Jagtar’s arrest—being snatched off the street by unidentified men, held incommunicado, and then signing a confession, which, it later emerged, was extracted through torture—meant that the case got attention. His family, though understandably frantic, managed to have the presence of mind to bring together many of the elements within the Scottish, UK and global Sikh diaspora that eventually became the “Free Jaggi Now” campaign, which has fought tirelessly on his behalf.

Jagtar’s family also very quickly got in touch with their MP. I raised his case immediately in a point of order, and then at Foreign Office questions, when the then Minister stated at the Dispatch Box that the UK Government

“take extreme action if a British citizen is being tortured.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 858.]

I and the family were surprised to hear those words at the time, and they seem increasingly like a cruel joke for Jagtar and those close to him. On one level, we were fortunate that there was the initial publicity in the case and that the Minister’s words at least made the case something of a priority. Not every UK citizen—full UK national—detained will be able to say the same. As time has gone on and I have heard more about the plight of those in similar positions, as has been spoken about today, the more I have seen the gap between the expectations of families and what the FCDO can deliver.

I should say something about the consular prisons team before I take their superiors to task. Along with the staff at post in Delhi, who have made great efforts to visit Jagtar—bringing news from home and taking notes from his family to him—the team in King Charles Street have really done its utmost to keep up very good communications with the family, even with the political aspects of the case being uncertain or, indeed, negative. The professionalism that they have shown has been greatly appreciated by me and the family, and their ability to go above and beyond, putting in long hours in the offices at the top corner of KCS, never quite knowing when another crisis may strike, is to be commended. So why do they remain so deprived of the resources to do a job that is very much the bare minimum that UK citizens should expect from their Government?

Whenever I sit in on these debates, I hear the same list of grievances. I hear kind words from the Front Bench, but we continue to see the de-prioritisation of consular budgets. I reference at this point the excellent report published by the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance, led by my very good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell). It is an APPG set up in the wake of a similar realisation to the one that I have described with my constituent.

The report is a testament to the work that the APPG did in giving those families a voice. It is full of excellent recommendations to ensure that the importance of consular services is recognised and informed by the lived experience of those families, in an attempt to ensure that their trauma in such situations is recognised. Consular services should have a much clearer identity within the FCDO, and the obligations it has towards UK citizens should be stated in a much clearer manner. One thing that I also hope that approach would achieve is helping families navigate what can be quite an intimidating bureaucracy.

Despite the initial statements about an extreme reaction, we now appear to be getting ready to announce the UK-India free trade agreement—quite a statement of priorities from a succession of Governments. I know that I need to come to a conclusion.

I could talk for three hours about this subject, which is very close to my heart and my constituents. I will sum up by referring to those words on the passport—and I hope the Minister takes note. This Government, and the one that is about to replace it, need to do much more to ensure that holders of that document receive

“such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

That means funding consular services properly. To lead is to choose, and, frankly, they have chosen badly.

It is a delight to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) on her excellent introductory speech.

For any British national, the idea of being wrongfully detained abroad or denied true legal processes is bone chilling. Kept away from friends and family, dealing with foreign laws and customs, in some cases subject to arbitrary processes, and with an uncertain outcome, it is a situation none of us would want for any of our loved ones. We saw how hard my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) worked, along with the family, on freeing Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. There are many of us who are also doing similar work in our constituencies. I had the case of Aras Amiri, who was in the same prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

When someone is detained abroad, many people have the expectation that an official from the British high commission or embassy will provide advice and support until they are returned to the UK. It is a great credit to our hard-working officials that they put in the hours abroad, attending many visits to prisons and providing that important link back with home. I know that all Members will pay tribute to the important consular work that goes on day in, day out.

Sadly, however, that is not the case in every situation. We know from the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), who has talked about Jagtar Singh Johal, the opportunity that the UK has right now to be talking publicly about that case. We know from the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee—which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) has sat on for quite some time, and that published a report about the shortcomings of the current offer for people who are in trouble abroad—that too often the Government’s efforts to secure the release of British nationals unjustly obtained abroad have been, according to the families, arbitrary, haphazard, uncoordinated, and lacking resource and transparency.

This week, we have seen a formal apology from the FCDO for its appalling handling of the case of Matthew Hedges. These ongoing individual cases have been raised many times by their respective constituency MPs. I wonder whether the Minister will outline what learning he has made as a result of the apology issued just this week.

We must remember that there are many others who do not share the same profile as Jagtar Singh Johal, Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe or others, but there is still no legal obligation for the UK Government to provide consular assistance to a British citizen, even in cases involving allegations of torture or arbitrary detention, leaving it entirely at the discretion of the Foreign Office and Ministers. That stands in contrast with a number of other countries that recognise there is a specific right to consular assistance. We have looked at examples from German consular outposts and Estonia; even smaller countries, in some cases, are doing a better job. Whether the case is high profile or not, British nationals deserve the support of the British Government, and I am proud that Labour’s commitment to legislate for a legal right to consular assistance for British nationals in trouble abroad, should we form the next Government, will be a keystone of our foreign policy. Until then, Ministers must do more to reassure British nationals that they will be supported.

Many Members in the debate have highlighted the cases that have been put on record in a number of cases. We share the concerns about Jimmy Lai. We have had meetings with the council and we have met Sebastian Lai; he is desperate about the situation of his father, who was wrongly imprisoned for freedom of the press. We also know that, with the G20 coming up in India, this is a great opportunity for the UK to highlight the case of Jagtar Singh Johal. We understand that Morad Tahbaz has been released into house arrest. Can the Minister give the House an update on that? I know that Mr Tahbaz is also a US citizen and the State Department has led negotiations, but can the Minister update us on the UK’s role and whether we can expect that he will be allowed to leave Iran soon?

Finally, for two years Egypt has continued to deny Alaa Abd El-Fattah his basic right to consular access as a British citizen and paid no diplomatic price for doing so; the Prime Minister raised this in person with President Sisi 10 months ago. Do the Government have any concrete plans or an update for the House to secure access beyond raising it in meetings? Have the Government considered amending their travel advice to warn British nationals about their inability to guarantee the provision of consular support to them in the event that they themselves are detained, particularly if they are dual nationals? I conclude my remarks here and note the cross-party consensus and commitment in the Chamber to seeing a better deal for Britons detained abroad.

It is a great pleasure to be here today, Ms Ali. I am here in the place of the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan). She has responsibility for consular policy, but she is travelling; I am very pleased to be here in her place. I am grateful to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for securing the debate and for the passionate contributions of other colleagues across the Chamber.

I will set out some general principles of our consular and detention policy before covering some of the specific questions asked about individual cases. Consular assistance to British nationals abroad remains at the heart of our work at the FCDO. Our trained staff are contactable 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they offer empathetic and professional support tailored to each individual case. They have a huge case load—some 20,000 to 30,000 cases annually—and we continue to review and improve the service that they offer; we always welcome feedback on how it can be improved.

Consular staff help about 3,000 British nationals who have been arrested or detained abroad each year, and their welfare and human rights are our top priorities. Consular officials are contactable 24/7, including if a British national is detained, and our support can include seeking consular access and providing relevant information to detainees. We can also raise specific consular cases with foreign authorities and support the families of those detained. Of course, this is considered on a case-by-case basis. I should like to be very clear that we thank our consular staff for the tremendous work that they continue to do.

As a general principle, we are guided by international law and the Vienna convention on consular relations. Our ability to offer support in a particular country is of course constrained by the laws and practice of that country. In detention cases, the detaining authority has jurisdiction and control over detained British nationals, and the British Government may not interfere in the foreign legal process. But we can and do intervene when British nationals are not treated in line with international standards or where there are unreasonable delays in proceedings. Of course, there are a number of areas where, sadly, consular staff cannot help. We cannot offer or pay for legal services, pay outstanding fines or ask for British citizens to receive preferential treatment on the basis of their nationality.

We do provide tailored support to detainees who raise allegations of torture or mistreatment—something that we take incredibly seriously. Although we cannot investigate such allegations ourselves, we will, with the detainee’s permission, raise our concerns with the local authorities and request an investigation. Last year, the FCDO received 133 new allegations of torture or mistreatment from British nationals overseas. Each year, we conduct a review of all such cases to identify trends and develop strategies to engage with relevant countries.

Can the Minister confirm that that includes the accusation of torture in relation to my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal, who is in the Indian Republic?

Yes, indeed—we consider all these cases. If I may, I will come on to that case, because the hon. Gentleman has been a champion of it. Let me assure him—I am sure he knows this—the Government have raised concerns about Mr Johal’s case with the Government of India, including allegations of torture and his right to a fair trial, on over 100 occasions, and we will continue to do so. We take the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s opinion in this case very seriously. We have consistently raised concerns about Mr Johal directly with the Indian authorities and we will continue to do so, as I say. Having carefully considered the potential benefits and risks to Mr Johal of calling for his release, as well as the likely effectiveness of doing so, we do not believe this course of action would be in his best interests. But as I say, we will continue to raise his case with the Government of India.

Let me turn now to two cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston. The first is the case of Morad Tahbaz in Iran. We are pleased to see that British national Morad Tahbaz has been released on furlough. That is a first step, and we remain focused on his permanent release. Of course, the UK is not party to negotiations between the US and Iran; the details of any agreement are a bilateral matter for those two countries. But we do think that his release on furlough is a positive step.

I turn now to the case of Mehran Raoof, also in Iran. We are supporting the family of Mr Raoof, who is a British-Iranian national and has been detained in Iran since 2020. Of course, his welfare remains a top priority. It remains entirely within Iran’s gift to release any British national who has been unfairly detained and so we should urge Iran to stop this practice of unfairly detaining British and other foreign nationals and urge it to release Mr Raoof.

I turn now to the case of Mr Alaa Abd El-Fattah, in Egypt. Of course, we remain committed to securing consular access for dual British-Egyptian national and human rights defender Alaa Abd El-Fattah. We continue to raise Mr El-Fattah’s case at the highest levels with the Egyptian Government. We remain committed to supporting him and his family. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met family members on 6 February, and Lord Ahmad has met family members several times—most recently on 6 July. Our ambassador in Cairo and consular officials are in regular contact with family members and they met most recently on 5 April. Of course, we will continue to offer all the consular support that we can.

I was very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for raising the case of his constituent Mr Saiful Chowdhury. Of course I give him my absolute assurance that we will be happy to correspond and raise this case. Perhaps we could exchange details after this debate. We look forward to corresponding on that case and we look forward to offering any support we can to Mr Chowdhury, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that case.

Turning to the case of Jimmy Lai, which was raised by several Members, let me be very clear that we are using our channels with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to raise Mr Lai’s detention and request consular access. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, last met Mr Lai’s son and his international legal team on 24 April and officials continue to provide support. We continue to make our strong opposition to the national security law clear to the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. It is being used to curtail freedoms, punish dissent and shrink the space for opposition, free press and civil society. The Foreign Secretary raised Jimmy Lai’s detention with Chinese Vice-President Han Zheng on 5 May and in his opening statement at the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council on 22 February. We will continue to raise this case and others.

In the course of this debate, the question of whether the Foreign Office considers Mr Lai to be a British national has been raised. Could the Minister please elaborate on that because it is key to the sort of approach that we in this House take, but also which legally the Foreign Office should be taking? I have met the wonderful leader of the Hong Kong mission. I know he is doing his utmost but this has to be pushed at a much more senior level in order to get a result. I know that that is the view of the House.

I am grateful for the opportunity, and I will reiterate the language used by the Foreign Secretary and referred to by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith): Mr Lai is a dual British national born in China, and the reality of the matter is that Chinese nationality laws are very clear in that they do not recognise dual nationality and therefore have not allowed us consular access to Mr Lai. We are therefore using our channels with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to continue to raise his case.

May I ask my hon. Friend something very clearly? The question was: do the British Government recognise Mr Lai as a British citizen and passport holder? The answer came back that he is a dual national. The Chinese Government say that he is a dual national and do not recognise it, so what do the British Government say? Is he a British citizen and a British passport holder? That was the question.

He is a dual British national and we will continue to look at this case. We will continue to use our channels with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to raise his case and call for his release.

I thank everyone for contributing today because this is an important matter and something that has deserved the attention it has had in this debate. Hopefully we can get some movement from the Government and we can get this man’s citizenship sorted. I think he and his family know his citizenship better than anyone—far better than the Chinese would know. It is surely a con, isn’t it? I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate. We need to keep going. We need to do this as soon as possible. Please grab hold of it, Minister. We would congratulate you if you got things started now.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered British nationals detained overseas.

Sitting adjourned.