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Westminster Hall

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 6 September 2023

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 6 September 2023

[Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]

Financial Education in Schools

I beg to move,

That this House has considered financial education in schools.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. Tip O’Neill was famously linked to the phrase “all politics is local”, but I can go one step further and say that this politics is personal, because I grew up with no financial education at all. I was given no education or instruction on how savings work or about interest rates. I was given no education about investment or what an individual savings account was—I had no idea. I did not know what pensions were; I had heard of them, obviously, but I had never been instructed on how they work, how to apply for one, what the options are, whether I should have a workplace pension, what a final salary pension is, what a defined-contribution pension is or what the differences between them might be—I had no idea.

I had no idea what mortgages were. I had heard of them, obviously, and I knew that people had them, but I did not know how to apply for them, the differences between an interest-only mortgage and a repayment mortgage, or what an endowment mortgage was—I had no idea. I had no idea about debt and debt management; I knew that I spent my money too quickly, but I did not know anything about debt management. If I got to a stage where I was in financial stress, as many people do during their lives, I had no training at all on how to manage that effectively.

I have children now—a 20-year-old who is just going off to university, a 17-year-old, and a 14-year-old. During the recess, I asked them whether they had received any financial education or training. Getting on for 40 years since my defective education, they have not received any education about financial matters at all, yet we know that that is a crucial part of our lives. A huge amount of research has been done by academics and the financial sector on how important financial training is for people’s ability to lead normal, high-quality, independent lives. I will go through a little of that research to give Members a flavour of it.

Cambridge University and the Money Advice Service did some work in 2013 in which they established that most money habits are embedded by the age of seven. They found that it was difficult to reverse those early-learned approaches later in life. If somebody does not have them by the age of seven, when they are at primary school, they are already on the back foot.

This year, Santander surveyed a large sample of adults in the UK, and 70% reported that better financial education would have improved their ability to manage their finances during the cost of living crisis. This is a real and present issue. Some 68% of adults think that financial education should be part of the primary school curriculum, so it has broad support from the general population. This is a real problem. I am not alone and I was not unique. I am the general public; I have not received financial education. That has a huge effect on people’s lives right now.

Back in 2021, GoHenry, Censuswide and Development Economics demonstrated at the very least a correlation between the financial education someone receives as a child and their later earning capability. Some 46% of those earning less than £15,000 had received financial education; among those earning between £55,000 and £65,000 a year, 77% had received financial education. It has also been demonstrated that if somebody receives financial education as a child, they save more into their pension pot. On average, people who receive financial education as a child save 44% more each month into their pension than those who did not. That is a startling statistic, and it is not just pensions, but savings more generally: of those who received financial education, more than 50% had saved more than £5,000 for a rainy day; of those with no financial education, only a third had saved that much.

I am sure Members are asking themselves whether that is correlation or causation. If it is causation the debate should finish now because the case has been made overwhelmingly for effective financial education in the school curriculum, but let us consider whether it is correlation. What we are really saying is that there is a middle-class secret to financial education and that those who receive such education at home get a huge leg-up throughout the rest of their lives. Even if it is correlation, it is the job of state education, universally applied, to overcome the deficit and level up so that we can close the middle-class leg-up and bring everyone up to the same standard.

I accept that the formal education system is not about proselytising—it is perhaps not appropriate for a teacher to say, “You must have a pension”—but it is about providing knowledge and information so that students can go on to make good decisions themselves. It is not the role of a teacher to say, “You have to do it.” I accept that. But where the outcome of a good decision is so profound both for the individual and for society it begs the question: how much of that knowledge should the education system focus on providing? A good decision in this area has a huge impact on society.

Let us look at the economy. In 2022, the pension wealth of this country was £5.4 trillion—in private pensions, not state pensions. Some 42% of all household wealth is contained in the pension system, 69% of which is invested in UK assets. If we made a small change in the amount of money going through the pension system, that would have an enormous impact on the level of productive investment in the United Kingdom economy.

Then we have the impact on mental health. We know that 11.5 million Britons have less than £100 in savings and that financial stress has a huge impact on mental health. I have had periods when I have been very worried about money. The worry is so profound that you cannot think of anything else. It dominates your life. We know that treatment for an individual mental health episode costs the state between £600 and £800.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on what would at any time in our recent history have been a timely debate. On the point about those 11.5 million people, most of them in the lower socioeconomic groups, does he agree that it is all the more important that teachers and those involved at the outset of people’s careers try to inculcate in younger people the need for and benefit of saving even small amounts initially, which build up to a long-term benefit in later years?

You are absolutely right. I will come on to the benefits of compound interest, which is part of the answer.

Order. I do not want to intervene too much, but if you say “you”, you are referring to me. As I am sure we all we know, he is “the hon. Gentleman”.

Of course he is. I am sorry for that slip.

Barclays, in its 2014 research, found that 17.5 million hours of productive work was lost because of financial stress. It came up with the figure of £120 billion of value lost to the economy because of financial stress in that year.

Then there is the impact on the individual. Last year, Standard Life did some research on the impact of compound interest on pensions. It created a worked example showing that if a 27-year-old got a relatively modest entry-level job paying £23,000 a year and contributed the minimum to their pension—3%—and their employer contributed the minimum that they could, which is 5%, they would, at the retirement age of 68, have a pension pot of £312,266, a very considerable sum to support them in their later years. However, if that person started saving into their pension just five years earlier, aged 22, their pot would be £424,618 at the age of 68. That is £112,000 bigger—an increase of 36%. The difference is profound not just for the person’s chances in later life, but for the state, because there are knock-on consequences for the cost of social care as we age as a society.

I come back to the point that I recognise that it is not the job of the state to proselytise or the job of educational establishments to tell young people that they have to have a pension, for example, but where the impact of failing to give people really good information on which they can take their own decisions is so profound, for the individual, for the economy and for society as a whole, surely there is a level of focus that the state should provide in giving detailed information repeatedly to young people during the educational process. The need is enormous and, in my submission, we do not go nearly far enough.

The answer, one would think, is that young people should be given financial education as part of the curriculum. “Job done,” we thought back in 2014 when the coalition Government did exactly that. For secondary education in England, it was made a statutory part of the curriculum. The devolved nations go further: they have it as part of the primary as well as the secondary curriculum. Yet the all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people, which I am lucky enough to chair, undertook some research and reported earlier this year that, despite the legal requirement for financial education to be part of the curriculum, 56% of teachers in England did not know that it was part of the curriculum. That begs the question: how were they teaching it if they did not even know that it was part of the curriculum?

The Money and Pensions Service looked at the same issue but from the other end of the telescope. It asked children, “Do you remember ever having received any financial education?” We can forgive them a bit of amnesia, but only 38% of children recalled any. That means that 62% had no recollection of ever having received any financial education at all.

What has gone wrong? Why are we in this state despite the fact that financial education is part of the national curriculum? The first answer is that it is very easy to ignore. We know that there is a lack of awareness, because the researchers told us that the majority of teachers are not aware that financial education is part of the curriculum and they are meant to be teaching it. We know that it is not inspected by Ofsted. We know that it is something that is added in, perhaps as an afterthought, and not part of the core curriculum. There is an easy solution to that, and one of my requests today is that the Department for Education lead, or at the very least support, a determined campaign to raise awareness among educational establishments of the importance of financial education and the fact that it is indeed a statutory part of the national curriculum.

The second reason why financial education has fallen down is that teaching it is hard. Many teachers, just like me, did not receive any financial education themselves, and the survey evidence supports the fact that they do not feel confident in teaching a subject about which they know so little: 55% of teachers find it challenging. They went into further detail and said that there are time pressures and a lack of training—again, it is about their own financial confidence—and, of course, there are many, many competing priorities in the education system. We need to provide teachers with improved access to the training they need. Perhaps there is a role for teacher training colleges. Teachers are coming into the profession with no focus on financial education at all and a lack of confidence in their own abilities in this area. Could teacher training colleges have a focus on financial education as part of the curriculum?

There is a lack of time in schools. Can we integrate the teaching of financial education better into the other subjects that are already part of the curriculum, as part of applied learning? Again, I know that it is not the role of the Department for Education to dictate lesson plans to the 22,000-odd schools in this country, but it is the Department’s role to facilitate.

Using financial topics as the context of learning can increase engagement with mathematics. That is not my assertion; research has demonstrated it. In 2019, the OECD undertook a pilot scheme and found that where this subject was integrated, students’ performance on exam questions increased by 20%. That is very significant. Of the teachers who participated in the pilot, 81% said that it improved pupils’ understanding of financial matters, which we would expect, but about 50% said that their students demonstrated improved attitudes to maths as well. That is quite startling. It improves their ability to answer questions, and it improves their approach to the harder core subject of mathematics. Does the Minister agree with that analysis, and if so, what work is being done to develop this approach more widely within the maths curriculum?

Another piece of feedback, perhaps predictably, was that there is a lack of resources. There are loads of training aids out there. Every established and aspiring bank and financial institution is desperate for their environmental, social and governance departments to provide financial education to young people. Martin Lewis produced a textbook four or five years ago, which I know the Minister was involved in helping to create—more power to your elbow.

His elbow—I am so sorry. I am normally quite good at this!

I recognise that the textbook needs to be updated, but an improved textbook from Martin Lewis or the wider financial services sector could be taught for 30 minutes every fortnight for a couple of years during secondary education. Is that the sort of thing that the Minister and his Department could support? If so, what form would that support take?

One alternative to supporting the many multi-academy trusts out there, including in my constituency, with their internal teaching of financial education is to facilitate access for external financial education trainers to come into schools. Many of them are very keen to do so. Could we allow or even require schools that do not teach financial education internally to give access to accredited financial education training providers to do the job for them?

Let us bring that all together: we have learned that habits form early—by the age of seven. Should we not have financial education as part of the primary curriculum? Should we not learn from the good examples of what goes on in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, where financial literacy is measurably higher than in England? It is not by much, but it is measurably higher, and perhaps that is because they have financial education as part of the curriculum in primary schools. Should we not follow them?

Will the Minister actively support a campaign to increase awareness of financial education as part of the national curriculum for secondary education in England? Will he support the development of improved teaching assets, either within cross-departmental curricula at the moment, or through increased access for external providers? Will he encourage, perhaps in the first instance, voluntary access to external education providers? If that does not go far enough, will he mandate access if schools are not providing financial education themselves, as they are statutorily required to do?

I started this speech saying that politics is personal, and I believe that this is one of those small areas where a tiny change, relatively speaking, could make a profound difference to the lives of the people and economy of this country. We spend so much time here dealing with fluff—the latest 15-minute scandal, the eye-catching initiative. There are relatively few small, but very significant, tweaks that we can make to policy in this country that could have such a profound effect as tweaking the provision of effective financial education for young people. I know this is not an easy win, but it is an achievable win, and I encourage the Minister to grasp it.

I intend to call the Front Benchers from 10.30 am. If hon. Members who are not on the Front Benches bear that in mind, there will not be a need for a time limit.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) securing a very important debate and on his compelling speech; he has made some brilliant arguments, which I will try not to repeat too often.

I used to be a secondary school science teacher, and I distinctly remember that one summer, when I had bottom-set year 10 for biology, only half the pupils turned up to the lesson. I remember saying to those who had arrived, “Where’s everybody else? We’ve got an important lesson on photosynthesis today,” and they said something like, “Oh Miss, FIFA 2010 came out last night. They’ve been up all night playing it, so they’re not coming into school today.” So I said, “But this lesson is really important. You’re not going to pass your GCSE. It’s too complex to repeat it or to catch up at another time, so we’ll do something else.” Then one of them said, “But Miss, we don’t need GCSEs. I’m just going to work in McDonald’s.”

So I thought, what a great opportunity to prove that even if someone does work in McDonald’s full time, they are probably not going to be able to achieve the standard of living they want. So instead of learning about photosynthesis, we spent the lesson creating a spreadsheet on how much someone might earn if they worked at McDonald’s for 48 hours a week. We looked at what their rent costs might be, what their energy bill might be, how much they might spend on food, and how much it would cost for them to have the lifestyle they wanted—to be able to buy the computer games they wanted, and clothes to go out in. By the end of the lesson, they had realised that a job at McDonald’s would not fund the lifestyle they wanted.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a job at McDonald’s, but it is really important for young people to understand the link between working hard at school, getting qualifications and leading the lifestyle they want to lead. I will never forget that they were far more engaged in that lesson than in any other lesson I taught them—probably because they were not learning about photo- synthesis, but also because the subject had such a practical impact on their lives and enabled them to see how the world works. I am convinced that financial education at school is important for children, and particularly for those who do not feel that the big careers, opportunities and qualifications are for them.

As my hon. Friend put it so eloquently, money management is such an important life skill, and there is a clear link between ending up in financial difficulty and not having good money management skills. The Centre for Social Justice, which has done some excellent work on the issue, found that 14 million people who experience financial difficulty said that that was partly because of poor money management, and young people are very much over-represented in that group.

In many ways, it is not surprising that young people lack confidence, knowledge and experience in managing money. A lot has changed over recent generations that perhaps makes young people today less confident than previous generations. First, we live in a cashless world. In previous generations, children could literally watch the money coming in and out of the home. They would have seen cash in a tin on the table or in their mum’s purse. They could touch and feel their parent’s wages as they brought them home from work. They would physically see the money supply depleting during the course of the week, and watch their parents pay the rent, pay the gas meter and put actual coins in a saving pot.

As my hon. Friend told colleagues, the Money and Pensions Service found that money habits and behaviours are generally formed in children by the age of seven and stay with them for life, but many seven-year-olds today have no understanding of where money comes from or how parents make decisions about what is spent, because that is all done virtually. There are massive advantages to that, of course. There are some brilliant money apps that help people to save and plan, and there are some great ones for children too; we use nimbl in my house, and as long as I remember to top it up before pocket money day, everybody is happy. The point is that young children do not see the money, so they are not involved in budgeting unless we explicitly include them in money handling. Otherwise, they miss an early opportunity to see how money works.

The second reason why young people lack confidence is that they enter the labour market so much later than children in previous generations. Many people my grandparents’ age started work at 15. They went out, learned a trade and brought in a wage. They had no choice but to learn how to use their wage wisely, so they had early experience of the importance of careful money management, while still having the back-up of parents. Now, with compulsory full-time education until 18 and half of young people then going into full-time higher education, today’s young people just do not have the opportunity to earn a wage and learn financial responsibility until five or sometimes even 10 years later than children in former generations. Some young people go through their entire adolescence, and into adulthood, with very little practical opportunity to learn. Again, of course, there are significant advantages to more time in formal education, but we need to be honest about the disadvantages too: the lack of real-world experience and responsibility and the lack of confidence, and the fact that those can lead to poor decision making later in life if they are not rectified.

The third reason for children and young people having lower confidence than children in previous generations, which is linked to being dependent on parents much longer, is that parenting has changed. Parents find it much harder to say no to children than in previous generations; that is just a culture change that has developed. We bail out our children far more and are reluctant to let them fail, so they miss out on the opportunity to learn important life lessons about taking responsibility and consequences earlier on in their lives. Research by the American psychologist Jonathan Haidt reveals that, in western culture, today’s 18-year-olds have the life experience of the 15-year-olds of generations ago, largely because of the way that society and parents over-protect them, including financially. As parents, we have to ask ourselves: what is the exit plan? We cannot expect children to go from handouts to careful money management and understanding pensions and interest rates on the day they leave school or university; there needs to be a gradual and deliberate passing over of risk and responsibility.

The final reason for poor money management skills in the younger generation is debt. Debt and credit have become an accepted part of household finances in a way that they were not before. In the 1980s, household debt accounted for about 30% of GDP; now it is well over 80%. Of course, the boom in property prices has added significant debt to household budgets, but with the availability of credit cards and the lack of stigma about debt, it is hard for children to learn the true consequences of not managing money properly—until it is too late. For young people today, the inevitability of student debt means that a huge proportion start their adult lives in debt—a debt that many never repay. It is then difficult for young people to be hopeful about their financial situation. When they know they are in the red, how do they resist taking on more debt? How do they resist one more latte, when they know they will never be able to afford a house, and when there is no possibility of paying off their student loan for an awfully long time? Starting adult life in debt, which is now prevalent, is the worst possible foundation for a sound financial life. It also misleads young people, because other debts are not like that. If they take on a mortgage or take out a car loan, they have to pay it back regardless of their income and it will not be cancelled when they retire.

What do we need to do? Let us leave the issue of student loans for another day. As with all teaching of skills and values, education starts at home, and it is primarily the role of parents to show children how to manage money. We need to think collectively as parents about how we do that in a digital age. I am sure it is possible but it needs to be deliberate.

Board games are a brilliant way to learn, although Monopoly probably puts younger children off capitalism for life. Imagination Gaming, a brilliant group in my constituency, goes into schools and does board games with children. That teach them not just maths, numeracy and financial ability but collaborative and social skills. So board games are really helpful.

However, there is an important role for schools, as part of their duty to prepare people for adult life, and also to break the cycle in families where there is not sound financial management, so that that skill can then be passed on. I agree that adding the topic to the curriculum in 2014 was a good start but, as my hon. Friend said, it is not being delivered. Citizenship is often not taught by experts and is not examined. It is understandable, given the pressure schools are under, that it is not a top priority. So my suggestion, which is similar to my hon. Friend’s, would be to put it on the maths curriculum, each and every year, from foundation stage all the way to school leaving. If we start with simple budget calculations, by their mid-teens pupils can have an understanding of mortgages, interest, shares, bonds and pensions.

Money is all about maths and mental arithmetic, and children love handling money. As we have heard, and as I have experienced, children are very engaged when the lesson is important to their future lives. If we embed financial education in a core and examined subject in the curriculum, it will be taught. I appreciate that many teachers might need upskilling and their confidence boosting, but for many children it could make the difference between a confident, successful life and one of debt and misery.

We should also explore ways that schools can offer more practical experience, such as through young enterprise clubs or having an internal market for tuck shops and other such things. In my hon. Friend’s briefing, I read about the brilliant example of Queensmead Primary Academy in Leicester, which created an entire school market for its year 6 pupils.

We absolutely must see financial education as a core subject in schools and the home. Then we will be giving children the secure, firm foundation they need for a life, hopefully, of financial confidence and security.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) on securing this important debate. I support his calls for greater awareness and more ways to embed financial education in our school curriculums and for the resources to help deliver that. He laid out a strong case in terms of the impact on young people’s lives.

I, too, had no financial education at school. Two parts in my life were instructive. The first was when I opened my first bank account as a child. I remember the Midland bank and the sports bag I was given. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but that was a physical thing, with a pencil case, clipboard and folder in it, and it was symbolic to me of growing up. With that, come new conversations.

The second involved my father, an engineer who became a small businessman. We grew up above our shop, so we had a sense of the transactions within it. My father went on to become an independent financial adviser. He worked from home, and hearing conversations about personal equity plans and ISAs in the home environment does create an awareness of those things. The hon. Member is right, and those of us who have worked cross-party on some of these issues recognise, that that awareness of and contact with such discussions and debates is extremely important from a young age.

The debate comes in the midst of a cost of living crisis, where people are having to consider more than ever their budgeting skills, their use of credit and debt and their savings. In the 2022-23 young persons’ money index, 70% of young people said they were more anxious about money and finances due to the cost of living crisis. That rose to 83% for 17 to 18-year-olds. That is hugely instructive. Alongside the conversations about how much to save at the age of 18—every pound saved at the age of 18 is going to have a much bigger impact on a pension than one saved in later years—we also have to recognise that young people are struggling so much to make ends meet for themselves and their families that some of these conversations can be lost. We have to make sure that we embed skills for life in our education and have policies that make sure people can save from an earlier age.

Helping to build an understanding of financial matters, advice and support, and resilience is exactly what financial education teaches. It is a tool of financial inclusion. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, where I have recorded that I am a commissioner on the Financial Inclusion Commission. We know that, without vital early education, young people are likely to struggle to achieve financial literacy as part of their life skills.

The hon. Member for Broadland referenced the University of Cambridge research, which shows that children establish attitudes to money by the age of seven and behaviours towards money by the age of 14. Even if there is financial education in schools, those attitudes are increasingly important for understanding how much young people will take it on board and choose to engage with it. Headteachers tell me that young people are making choices about the value of their education at a much younger age—even from 11 or 12. We have to think about that when looking at primary schools, and I will reference primary schools in my constituency.

It is important to see the impact of apps such as GoHenry, which my nephew, Karan, uses. I am still a bit old-fashioned—I like to hold physical things. It is, however, impactful and important to have new ways in which young people are thinking about their finances. The Money and Pensions Service has set a national goal to see 2 million more children and young people getting a meaningful financial education by 2030. I would like to see that goal accelerated.

Financial education is hugely significant because it is also part of the social mobility puzzle. The Centre for Financial Capability has found that children with low financial literary scores tend to come from poorer areas, but education can see savings rise significantly. We have made progress, but I would argue that it is not enough. It is important that we find new ways to tackle the challenges to effective delivery of financial education.

Although financial education now has a limited statutory status in secondary schools, a survey of teachers for the all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people—as the hon. Member for Broadland will know—found that two fifths or so of teachers are unaware of their statutory duty to deliver financial education. Among those who are currently not delivering financial education in schools, training, time and funding were identified as key barriers.

I want to thank some of the providers and campaigners for change, such as Quentin Nason of City Pay It Forward, which partners state schools with finance and business professionals to help make connections for financial education and show what it can mean in terms of the professions that young people might choose later in life. However, charities and the private sector should not be picking up the pieces as a result of Government neglect, and nor should they be addressing the difficulty of implementing financial education for our schools and teachers. There needs to be a bigger plan. Some of the issues raised by other experts have included the experience of teaching in schools being variable; resources being fragmented; teachers not having confidence; and schools still being stuck in covid recovery, which is impacting what they see as extras to the curriculum.

I will share a few bits of feedback that I have had from schools in my constituency. A good example comes from Isleworth & Syon School, which is just outside my constituency, but a lot of my young people will be going there. There is a positive story there about formal, structured units of learning on financial literacy in year 10. Every student receives lessons over eight weeks in year 10, covering topics such as wages, tax, budgeting, debt and borrowing, and ethical consumerism. Sixth-form students receive additional lessons on budgeting before they head off to university or apprenticeships. The importance of the integrating financial education within the wider curriculum is also recognised, including in weekly maths lessons, where it can have an impact, and within economics and business lessons.

Other headteachers, however, have said that although that is important, it does not cover everybody, and we need to have a broader and more consistent view for pupils across our education system. One school told me about the positive impact of Martin Lewis’s donation of class textbooks to every state secondary school about four years ago. They are still being used, because they provide invaluable guidance both for students and for personal, social, health and economic education teachers. I pay tribute to Martin Lewis for his efforts in this regard.

When I asked schools about the impact of financial education on pupils, the response was very interesting. The feedback was that pupils really liked to learn about financial topics; teachers say they know that because the pupils asked many more questions and gave really good feedback at the end of the sessions. However, schools also recognise that it takes highly skilled teachers to teach these topics well, and they struggle to access and afford those teachers.

I was also very interested to hear from Cranford Community College and Logic Studio School in my constituency. Logic Studio School runs an investment club and wants to see all of its pupils becoming financially literate. It says that financial literacy is a non-negotiable skill that we must all acquire, which it believes can be achieved only by making financial literacy a focus in education. It talks about partnerships with charities such as MyBnk and with Quilter asset management to give students a stronger background—but, again, that is piecemeal and based on whatever it can manage within the constraints of the wider school context.

Primary schools are also vital. Southville Primary School shared with me details of how, within its PSHE teaching, it encourages children to explore money and shopping, including where people get their money from and different sources of income. It has also participated in Young Enterprise Week, whereby groups of year 6 students are given a small budget and have to invest it in developing a product or service. I pay tribute to Young Enterprise in its 60th anniversary year. The all-party parliamentary group on entrepreneurship, which I chair, launched a very important report with Young Enterprise on applied learning, with recommendations that I hope the Government will continue to assess.

Financial education must be considered in the context of broader challenges that we cannot ignore. When we talk about the quality of teaching, we must recognise that teacher vacancies have more than doubled under this Government. There are more than 2,000 temporarily filled posts a year, teacher recruitment targets have been missed again and more teachers are leaving our classrooms than entering them. Earlier this summer, teachers in Hounslow told me that there were about 1,100 vacancies for teachers within a 10-mile radius.

It is not just about recruiting teachers. The lack of retention of teachers is also causing huge instability when it comes to important learning in our schools. That is why what Labour has outlined, including using the money from ending private schools’ tax breaks to support recruitment in our schools to plug the skills gaps, is really important for how we deliver education. That has to be part of the context in which the Minister responds.

I am also very proud that Labour has announced that it would urgently commission a full expert-led review of curriculum and assessment, to ensure that every child has a broad curriculum. Under Labour, young people will learn practical life skills of the kind that the hon. Member for Broadland outlined, such as pension planning, understanding credit scores, applying for a mortgage and understanding employment and rental contracts.

Financial literacy is more important than ever. It is not just about numbers; it is about life skills, security and future opportunities. It is also about us, as policymakers, being ambitious for our young people and their future, and about recognising that financial education is a key part of how we close the prosperity gap rather than increasing inequality for future generations. It is vital that we equip our young people, such as those in Feltham and Heston, with the financial education that will stay with them for life.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra). I extend my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) for securing this really important debate. I am grateful to him for the opportunity to talk about financial education. I echo so much of what he said; I have scribbled some of it down and crossed out some of my notes, because I do not want to spend a lot of time repeating the points that he made so well.

I think everybody here wants to ensure that children leave school with the skills and knowledge that will equip them for their adult lives. However, I am afraid that too often it can seem that some of the most obvious life skills are not being given sufficient prominence, and in some cases are being completely overlooked, during young people’s time in schools. The most obvious is learning about basic finances. By that, I mean not just personal finances, but macrofinance—I will talk a little more about that—and the finance of business.

I am glad to add my support to the comments of the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston about Young Enterprise, which I was fortunate to be part of when I was at school. The more I look back on it, the more I think it was incredibly instructive in helping me to go on to be involved in business. I did not realise at the time the level of applied learning involved in the programme: it was hidden in an arts and crafts lesson, where we were encouraged to make candles. I may be the least creative, arts-and-crafty person hon. Members will ever meet— I managed to spill more of the wax I melted on the floor than into the moulds. Yet on the back of that, we were encouraged to come together and form a small business to sell some candles we had created at the school’s Christmas market. The programme had us forming a little company that could issue some shares and distribute the profits as and when we had managed to sell all our candles.

In the run-up to the Christmas holidays, I remember seeing rows and rows of candles. It dawned on me that we would have quite a lot of stock left over if the parents I hoped would turn up did not like the products we were creating. At that point, we were hit by the worst snow the country had faced for a decade, I think, and the lights went out. The headteacher approached the little Young Enterprise company we had set up and offered to buy every single candle we had made. That was when I learned how to negotiate with the education sector—I am happy to give the Minister some advice if he needs it at any point—and that when you have something that everybody else wants but there is a limited supply, you can control the price. We got double the amount that we had expected to make on those candles. Every classroom had one—indeed, every teacher had a candle issued as part of their Christmas holiday gift so that when the lights were out at home, they could light the candle and have a little bit of light from our Young Enterprise company. We learned a huge amount. Looking back, the school’s work on applied learning was incredibly creatively done.

I talk today to young people in schools about how business is conducted and how they can use their ideas to generate wealth, but there is a lack of understanding in too many of our schools. Too often, unfortunately, I meet constituents who have fallen into the spiral of debt and are often going to loan sharks and illegal moneylenders to try to get themselves out of very difficult situations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland mentioned earlier, it is not just about the constant nagging of trying to pay off those debts, but about the impact that that has on mental health. We have a responsibility to increase financial literacy in our schools.

On Monday, before I came here, I met Angela Fishwick, the chief executive of the credit union in Warrington. She talked to me about some of the excellent work that she is doing in schools, helping at a primary level to encourage children to save. I remember signing up for my Griffin savers account with Midland bank, like the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston, and being given a bag and a clipboard. I also remember being an investor in NatWest, where I was given a piggybank to put money into. Saving money was a physical job. The more money I saved, the more piggybanks I got. I still have them at home, and my son, who is 15, looks at them and thinks, “What do you put in there?”, because we do not have money in the same way now.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) mentioned, the way we transact has changed. Everything is done through digital transactions and the ability to save physical cash has gone. However, the Unify credit union is still enabling that in schools. The ability to put a pound into an account at a very early age and see it grow is incredibly important. I was pleased to hear about the work Angela Fishwick is doing in schools, delving into some of the most basic elements of financial literacy in primary schools to encourage children to save early. Talking to her reinforced to me the important role finances play in every part of our lives, whether that is paying taxes, opening a bank account, taking out a mortgage or even just budgeting for the weekly shop. It really does affect everyone.

Financial education is not just about personal financial education; it is also about macroeconomics. I try to visit a different school in my constituency every week and talk to students about the topics that they would like to cover more of in lessons. Students in the early years of secondary school in particular often talk about the importance of financial education—they do not call it financial education, but they talk about those issues.

Recently, in an English lesson, students at the high school in Appleton wrote to me as their MP about changes they wanted to see in their school. A couple of the boys wanted more goalposts, more footballs and better facilities. I took the opportunity to meet them, and we talked about the cost of all those things. They wanted me to give them the money—because I am the MP, and I have lots of money available to me—so they could buy new equipment.

We talked about the taxation system and where money comes from to fund the services in their town that they enjoy and benefit from. It was fascinating to see the level of ignorance about where public funding comes from. I remember saying to them, “The Government have no money. The only money the Government have is our money, and the only way they generate money is by taxes. When you go to work, you’re going to contribute your taxes. The more you earn, the more you’re going to contribute.” I could see their faces changing very quickly. The idea of paying into this system was not something that they were aware of.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge mentioned that so many young people today do not go to work before the age of 18. I started in a shop when I was 16, and I remember receiving my payslip very early on and seeing that tax had been taken out of it. At the time, tax thresholds were very low and people did not have to earn very much—in fact, I think I was on an emergency tax code from day one. A big chunk of what I earned got taken away from me, and that brought home to me very early our impact and how we contribute to society. If we want to see benefits in our community, we have to contribute to it.

It is not just about personal contributions; it is about community contributions as well. Young people do not see that in the same way, because the tax thresholds that the Conservative Government have lifted to £12,000 mean that the majority of young people who are earning today will pay absolutely no tax until they get past university education. Understanding the tax system would have been an important and practical thing for many young people, but that has changed—it has gone.

I want to conclude by asking the Minister a couple of questions. It is interesting to see the lack of understanding about financial education in schools, but I want to know what support and training is on offer to teachers, who are instrumental in helping. What partnerships is he encouraging with business and organisations such as Young Enterprise to help to skill teachers, many of whom have spent their entire working lives in the education system, do not have a background in business and cannot talk with authority about the issues that affect business? Does he agree that what we have classed as macroeconomics—the taxation system and the way we fund services—should be taught to everybody as they go through school, not just to those who study economics at A-level? I remember doing A-level economics and spending a lot of time talking about the tax system. If students do not study economics, they do not get any education in it at all. For me, it is a matter not just of financial education, but of understanding our democracy and how we all contribute to society.

I will not take up too much more time; I am keen to hear what other Members have to say. Ultimately, we could make a huge difference to young people’s lives by championing the issue, which is undoubtedly something that Members of all parties can support.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela.

I am delighted to be here this morning. I declare an interest as a vice-chair, since 2015, of the all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people. I sometimes feel a bit of a fraud when I talk about financial education and financial matters. I was married for 47 years to a senior tax manager in a firm of international accountants and we were terrible at handling money. That was very much down to my late husband’s philosophy, which was, “Don’t worry about money. It only matters when somebody owes you and you’re not getting it.” I can now say this in public because, as many Members will know, my husband died five years ago.

I grew up in a poor family, and I identify with the point that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) made about jars. That was how my mammy managed money. It is not how my children manage money, and it is not how I do it now.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), the chair of the APPG, on his good work and on getting the debate today. It is one of those debates in Westminster Hall about which we can think, “9.30 on a Tuesday morning and a late night—oh my goodness,” even though I am passionate about the subject. However, every contributor so far has touched on different aspects and the debate has been really well rounded. I may now not live up to expectations! I thank the Centre for Social Justice, which sent me a briefing, and the Money and Pensions Service for its briefing.

As many Members know, education is devolved in Scotland. We have already incorporated financial education into both the primary and the secondary school curriculums, and we have taken a lead in embedding money management in other aspects of the curriculum. I say this a lot: we do some things differently in Scotland and sometimes that is better. Rather than looking “abroad abroad”, perhaps the Government could look at what is being done in Scotland and learn from it. It is a lot cheaper to travel there and it is much easier to talk to folk in Scotland, although we may have a slightly different accent and sometimes our English is not always so intelligible.

Strong financial education is increasingly important in a financial crisis. It is important that people—especially young people, for all the reasons Members have given—have a sound financial backing. I know that many people are suffering. Much of my constituency is in areas of multiple deprivation, and money really matters. It is so important that our constituents know how to manage money better. We all—not just our constituents—need to know how to manage money and use it to best effect. It is very difficult for young people in some areas to understand how money works, because of digital money. I am very fortunate that two of my granddaughters have GoHenry cards that they understand and use, but I know that many of my constituents have never heard of things like that. They do not understand what is happening and, where there is no access to cash, they are really struggling. It is such a trigger.

The hon. Member for Broadland talked about the mental health aspects of bad financial management and how, if people get themselves into a debt spiral, it becomes more and more difficult to get out. Although there are good local services—in my own constituency, the local council has a tackling poverty team—those in debt sometimes cannot see any way out. It is really important that we give people the tools for now and for the future to enable them to manage money wisely.

It is also very important that people understand the consequences of spending. When I was a further education lecturer at West Lothian College—a number of years ago, it has to be said—I was absolutely appalled at how little my students, who ranged in age from 16 to 60, knew about money management. They had not even heard of things like annual percentage rates. They did not understand the huge amount more that they had to pay because they were buying things on credit and that, if they were able to save, they could have got them much cheaper. That is still the case for many of our poorest people in society. There is a poverty premium. People pay more for accessing services and paying for energy simply because they are poor. We have talked about how we are moving to digital money: so many people are digitally excluded right across the UK, so they are doubly impacted.

Pennies and pounds are lost through misspending. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge said that it is another latte; that is a real thing because young people nowadays almost no longer have the ability to save money and earn more. Furthermore, when they come out of university in England—I have to make this point—they are seriously in debt. Students in Scotland come out of university and college in debt as well but not by nearly as much because tertiary education is free in Scotland.

It is vital not only that we put financial education on the curriculum but that it is properly delivered. I want to pay real tribute to MyBnk and to Young Enterprise, mentioned by the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter). My children also benefited from that kind of thing. In our case, the house smelled of potpourri for years afterwards. It is important that we do all of this. Many external partners do really good work, and teachers would not necessarily inevitably have to take on a further burden. I went to visit MyBnk in its flat in Glasgow. It does great work with care leavers, which the APPG has looked at in the past. They leave care with absolutely no one to help them. It is slightly different now as the age for care support has been increased. I know in Scotland it is 25; I think it has been increased here, too. We need to help those people in that huge area.

I know that I am going slightly off brief, but it is really important that we not just educate young people but reach out and show them—as an organisation, as Parliament—the consequences of the mismanagement of cash. I do not want to see any other generation growing up without understanding where money comes from, how important it is to manage it properly and how important savings are. I now know that. I have learned through bitter experience how important it is.

It is also about making sure that the future is better for all our people. However, it has to be said that there are swathes of the population—here I stray slightly into my disabilities portfolio—for whom it is absolutely impossible to save. They have to juggle money every day to make it stretch as far as they can, and no matter how much work we do here, that will always be the case. That is another seriously good reason why people need financial education for when they find themselves facing a change of life, because it can happen to any of us. I lived for many years from one salary to the next. There was nothing behind. If either I or my husband fell ill or had to give up work, there was no cushion. We have to have financial education so that we can provide cushions for people and so that they can find them when times are tough. As a Government and a Parliament, we also need to provide a sound financial base for those who cannot work and who will therefore still need financial education to enable them to live well.

It is a real pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Dame Angela. I am really delighted to take on this role as shadow schools Minister, as part of Labour’s education team. I have long believed that every child deserves the best start in life. Ensuring that we have the best schools and the best education and support for all children is key to ensuring that.

I thank the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) for securing this debate and opening it so thoroughly and for his work on the all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people. He made a compelling case and set out the issues very clearly indeed. I also pay tribute to the teachers, school staff and charities across the country—which many hon. Members have mentioned—that are working really hard to improve the financial literacy of our young people.

The purpose of education should be to enable young people to understand the world around them, to explore and develop their interests and to prepare them for their futures with the knowledge and skills they will need to thrive throughout life. We know—we have heard many testimonies today—that managing money is fundamental to a person’s stability and security. Whether it is working out prices in a supermarket—no tall order—managing a household budget or figuring out the terms of a mortgage or loan, everybody, regardless of their background, needs to be equipped to make these everyday financial decisions. We have heard the evidence: people who are financially literate are much more likely to have savings, to avoid scams and fraud and to invest their money effectively. This should not be left to chance. Financial literacy is important not just to households, but to our society.

We have heard compelling speeches from all Members who have contributed to today’s debate—my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and for Warrington South (Andy Carter), as well as the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who contributed previously. This is clearly an issue on which there is a lot of cross-party agreement. A lot of thought and consideration has gone into where we are currently. We need our economy to grow. Giving financial literacy to more people in our society, and everyone as they grow, will equip them to start new businesses, taking them from start to scale-up, to help to grow our economy and pay for the public services that we all need.

As things stand, too many young people are leaving school without these skills. A number of facts and figures have been given today, but the one that really jumped out at me is the OECD figure that an estimated 10 million people in the UK—a fifth of all adults—are financially illiterate. It is shocking and alarming. The UK ranks in the bottom half of OECD countries in financial literacy. We know that that has consequences not just for those individuals who potentially live in constant financial insecurity, but for our whole economy. Almost 13 million adults struggle to pay their bills—today—and more than half of adults do not have savings that could support them for three months if they lost their primary income. We know that life is becoming increasingly hard as we sit here, day by day, for families up and down the country. We know that the hardest hit people will be those whose budgets are the most stretched and for whom money does not go as far as it used to; they are the ones missing out most on financial education.

As we heard from the hon. Member for Broadland, financial education is patchy across the country, and many schools struggle to teach it. Far too many young people leave school without these skills for life. Only 8% of students cite school as their main source of financial education. A Bank of England survey in March found that almost two thirds of teachers cited a lack of dedicated time in the timetable for delivery. In personal, social, health and economic education, the economic too often drops off the end. That is storing up problems for the future.

Young people say that they want to be taught more life skills in school. The Centre for Social Justice conducted a survey, and four in five said that they worried about money. I hear that from schoolchildren when I visit schools in my local area. Two in three say that they have become more anxious about money as a result of covid. Three in four say that they want to learn more about money—and probably about more money—at school, yet Ofsted has found that there is a postcode lottery in the teaching of financial education and the most disadvantaged are missing out. It is not good enough, and it is storing up problems for the future.

A key part of the current financial literacy strategy comes from the mathematics curriculum, which is supposed to ensure that young people leave school with an understanding of personal financial management and the skills that they need for it. However, the Government have failed to recruit and retain teachers, meaning that one in 10 maths lessons in the past year have been taught by a non-expert. That means that the high standards we want for all our children are being delivered for only some of our children. It is not good enough, and it is storing up problems for the future. That is why the next Labour Government will urgently commission a full, expert-led review of the curriculum and assessment. We need a curriculum that is broad, rich, innovative and develops children’s knowledge and skills—a curriculum that ensures children leave school ready for life and builds on the knowledge, skills and attributes that they need to survive. Labour’s curriculum review will look to embed those skills in everyday learning.

Following Labour’s review of all state schools, including academies, they will be required to teach a core national curriculum, so that every parent knows the essentials of what their child will be taught: there will be a common national standard that gives parents and children certainty. Labour will ensure that children are taught those lessons properly. It means being taught by experts, not by overstretched teachers covering for their colleagues. We will do it by recruiting thousands of new teachers across the country and ensuring that all schools are properly staffed, that maths classes are taught by trained maths teachers and that teachers are given manageable workloads, no longer covering their own job and someone else’s.

Education is about opportunity. It is about opportunity for each of us—all of us—our whole lives long. It should enable us to develop the knowledge and skills to explore our interests and thrive throughout life. It is our duty and the Government’s duty to ensure that young people do not miss out on that opportunity. I hope that the Minister will outline what the Government are doing to ensure that every child leaves education financially literate and whether the Government will give parents the certainty of knowing that every school follows an agreed, shared national curriculum. I hope the Minister will reassure us that the Government are listening to the important contributions that have been made today and, again, I thank the hon. Member for Broadland for securing the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on her appointment as shadow Minister for Schools. I look forward to working with her and debating all these important subjects with her. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) on securing the debate and on the important points that he made in his opening speech. I thank him and the all-party group on financial education for young people for their work on this important issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), also known as Jo Malone, gave an instructive example of young enterprise and how he gouged his school’s finances. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland said, evidence shows that the knowledge, attitudes and behaviour that help people to manage money and achieve good financial wellbeing begin to develop from an early age and continue throughout childhood and the teenage years.

Good maths is the gateway to lifelong financial stability. Evidence from the 2018 programme for international student assessment—PISA—shows that there is a strong correlation between performance in financial literacy and performance in mathematics. The correlation was observed in every participating country. There was also a positive correlation between financial literacy and learning finance-related terms at school.

Since 2010 we have made significant progress in ensuring that pupils have a strong grasp of the basics by transforming the way that maths is taught in schools. To ensure the curriculum is taught effectively, we introduced teaching methods used by top performing countries, particularly in east Asia. The concept of maths mastery aims to ensure that all pupils secure a deep knowledge and understanding of mathematics.

The results of international surveys show that England performs above the international averages for maths in all international studies of school-age pupils. In particular, analysis of PISA 2018 results showed that the performance of 15-year-olds improved significantly in maths, and the trends in international mathematics and science study, known as TIMSS, showed that the performance of England’s year 5 pupils was significantly higher in 2019 than in any previous TIMSS survey. The 2023 Ofsted maths subject report also highlights “notable improvements” at secondary, with a “resounding, positive shift” taking place in primary mathematics over recent years.

Our national network of 40 maths hubs also supports schools to improve their maths teaching, including financial content in the mathematics curriculum, based on best practice from east Asia. To build on progress, the Secretary of State recently announced that we will increase the number of schools supported by the maths hubs’ teaching for mastery programme so that we reach 75% of primary schools and 65% of secondary schools by 2025.

We want pupils to leave school prepared in the widest sense for adult life. From early years onwards, all children should be taught a broad, ambitious, knowledge-rich curriculum, of which quality financial education is an important component. That ensures that all young people are prepared to manage money and make sound financial decisions. Financial knowledge already forms a compulsory part of the national curriculum for maths at key stages 1 to 4 and citizenship at key stages 3 and 4.

I was delighted to hear from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) about the success of Martin Lewis’s textbook in schools. It is a knowledge-rich textbook and is a primer to the introduction of financial education and the vocabulary of finance.

In the primary maths curriculum there is a strong emphasis on the essential maths that is vital to underpin pupils’ ability to manage budgets and money, including, for example, calculations with percentages. The secondary maths curriculum develops students’ use of formal maths knowledge to interpret and solve problems such as interest rates and compound interest.

The primary citizenship programme of study equips pupils to understand the sources and purpose of money and the benefits of saving. It makes it clear that financial contexts are useful for learning about making choices and exploring social and moral dilemmas. The secondary citizenship curriculum prepares students to manage their money well and plan for future financial needs, and key stage 3 covers the functions and uses of money, day-to-day money management, budgeting and managing risk. Key stage 4 covers income and expenditure, credit and debt, insurance, savings, pensions, and financial products and services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) raised concerns about online issues. Using technology safely and responsibly is now taught at all key stages of the computing curriculum, which provides pupils with the e-safety knowledge that they need to make informed decisions while online or using other digital applications and technologies, including in financial contexts. Through statutory relationships, sex and health education, or RSHE, pupils are taught about internet safety and online harms, such as the risks associated with online gambling and the accumulation of debt. The RSHE curriculum is currently being reviewed, and revised guidance will be published next year.

The 2020 UK strategy for financial wellbeing set a national goal of 2 million more children and young people receiving a meaningful financial education by 2030. The Money and Pensions Service has a statutory duty to co-ordinate the work of the numerous organisations involved in delivering that goal. The service recently published the UK children and young people’s financial wellbeing survey, which provides an initial analysis of the progress made towards that national goal. The report found that in 2022 just under half of children and young people aged seven to 17 were receiving a meaningful financial education as defined by the strategy. That is a similar proportion to 2019, which suggests that progress towards the national goal remains static, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland mentioned.

There are positive signs that some of the organisations working towards the national goal have delivered financial education lessons to more young people. For example, the work of UK Finance members, which include banks and other financial services, provided 4,300—sorry, 4 million; I think I need some financial education myself. Some 4,307,000 children received a financial education in a school or community setting in 2022, an increase of 63% on 2021. Other evidence from the Money and Pensions Service shows that too many young people are entering adulthood without the knowledge and understanding they need to manage money well. For example, just over half of young people aged 16 and 17 are unable to read a payslip correctly, almost three in 10 are unable to correctly identify the terms for interest and balance, and around a fifth report feeling anxious when thinking about their money, which rises to 50% for 18 to 24-year-olds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland mentioned the APPG report and the fact that 41% of participating secondary school teachers did not know that financial education was required to be taught under the national curriculum. The Department’s survey found that 69% of secondary schools taught money management to pupils last year, but that suggests that more needs to be done. That is why the work of the Money and Pensions Service, through its data collection, national strategy and delivery plans, is so important, and why we continue to work closely with the service and other Government Departments. We are also using Oak National Academy; it will be producing materials for citizenship and expects to launch the procurement for that next year.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of teacher training. Of course, recruiting and retaining teachers is crucial to every curriculum subject, and the Department is driving an ambitious transformation programme to overhaul the process of training to be a teacher. That includes stimulating initial interest through the teaching and marketing campaign, one-to-one support and advice for prospective trainees, and the use of more real-time data on applications. The Department has also made a financial incentive package, which is worth up to £181 million, to encourage people to come into teaching. Recruitment to citizenship teacher training courses is unrestricted—there are no caps on it—which means that initial teacher training providers are free to recruit as many future citizenship teachers as they can teach.

The Money and Pensions Service is investing over £1 million through a grant programme that includes testing approaches to embedding and scaling teacher training in financial education. These projects will run until March next year, with evaluation findings for the programme expected in that year. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State recently announced the launch of a new fully-funded national professional qualification to be available from February next year that will focus on leadership and teach participants how to embed mastery approaches to the teaching of mathematics throughout a school.

Finally—so that I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland a moment to summarise the debate— I reiterate the Government’s commitment to ensuring that all children should be taught a broad, ambitious and knowledge-rich curriculum. Financial education already forms a mandatory part of the national curriculum for mathematics and for citizenship, and rooting financial education in these subjects ensures that the curriculum remains focused on the important knowledge that pupils need to manage their money with confidence.

We have made positive progress in improving attainment in mathematics, which underpins financial application. It is important, though, to build on that success, which is why we are striving to improve financial capability, including through the maths to 18 programme launched by the Prime Minister recently, Oak Academy resources, and the recruitment and retention of excellent teachers. To do this, we need to continue to work closely across Government and in partnership with others. It is right that we approach this in a co-ordinated and joined up way through the work of the Money and Pensions Service’s UK strategy and delivery plan for England.

I have a number of thank yous, alongside those to hon. Members for their excellent contributions. I thank Young Enterprise—which provides the secretariat for the APPG on financial education for young people—and the Centre for Social Justice, the Money and Pensions Service and the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries for their briefings. The latter highlighted a point that has not been brought out in the debate so far: the transfer of risk from organisations to individuals, particularly in pensions, which has accelerated as we have moved towards defined contribution pensions and the ability to sell out our pensions at an earlier stage.

Financial education is a hugely important subject and it has been treated as such by all contributors. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) brought to the debate her experience as a teacher. The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) talked about the skills for life, and the need to use financial education as a tool for social mobility and to close the prosperity gap. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) mentioned important lessons on macroeconomics and tax, which may veer into politics in schools.

The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) shared her experience as an FE lecturer and spoke about the poverty premium. That is a really important point; there is a poverty premium in this country, and financial education is the kind of subject that can help to address it. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on her new position, and thank her for bringing her perspective.

Finally, I thank the Minister for engaging with me on this subject. There is so much agreement on the state of the problem, but in my submission there is more work to be done on the strength of the answer. I recognise the work of the Money and Pensions Service, and I hear with interest the plans for the Oak National Academy and the new work it has planned for next year. I look forward to many further discussions as we work together to improve in this policy area.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered financial education in schools.

Veterans: Handforth

I beg to move,

That this House has considered veterans in Handforth.

It is a pleasure to have you chairing this debate, Dame Angela. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for listening to the concerns of my Tatton constituents. This topic should and, I am sure, does concern each and every one of us, as it is about the support that we provide to our servicemen and women as they leave the armed forces and prepare for civilian life. I am here today representing veterans and their families in Handforth, who feel “forgotten about”. Those words struck a particular chord. They said that they had served in the armed forces, but when they left service, they felt that there was an abruptness to that end of service and very little help for them to adjust back into civilian life. To be blunt, they have struggled with that transition. Most importantly, they feel that it does not need to be that way. With more structured support, clear signposting and ongoing checks—interestingly, they mentioned to me a check at the seven-year mark—the transition could have been so much easier.

The veterans felt that much greater care and attention was given to the whole process of getting them into the armed forces than was given to them when they left. Removing “the individual” and fitting them into an organisation had a lot of thought put into it, but reversing that process it did not. They explained to me that, on arrival, each was given a number. They would be drilled and trained, and pushed both physically and mentally. It is a form of training that makes them a team and part of a great institution—without doubt one of the best in the world. They were absolutely proud to serve in that institution, but it does become their life. They said that it did become their mind in a way, controlling what they did in their thought processes.

Therefore, my constituents are asking for a similar process in reverse, and with as much thought and consideration, as they step away from the armed forces. To give up life in the armed forces and regain one’s autonomy might sound easy, but it had not been. They had had their time managed and their life controlled, so to now get the freedoms to do what they wanted and fill the hours was actually quite daunting. Without that drilled schedule, without every moment being filled, they felt that time dragged, allowing loneliness and depression to sink into their lives.

I commend the right hon. Lady for bringing this debate forward. She truly is a champion for veterans and she should be congratulated on her determination to do right by those who have done right for us. Does she agree that tremendous work is carried out by veterans charities such as the Royal British Legion or SSAFA, which I have helped over the last number of years? On Saturday past, I did a coffee morning with SSAFA and we raised some £5,500—just through coffee and scones—which is quite something. Such charities do a tremendous job, yet that does not and cannot absolve Government of the responsibility to our veterans and their families. The right hon. Lady is saying that. I fully support her and hope that the Minister is listening.

The hon. Member is spot on. It is absolutely the case that those charities do a wonderful job, but greater structured support is needed. My constituents are asking the Minister to make the process easier even before discharge. They are asking that people be signposted and helped even before leaving, so that they know the local area that they are going back into, the local groups and the local community. That would make leaving so much easier; it would provide them with stability and a clearer transition to their new life.

In my constituency, there is a very interesting group. These people are passionate about not seeing the experience they had repeated. Sebastian and Gianna Edwards-Beech have set up a support group called NAAFI Break. They welcome veterans and their family members for support. Each week, 18 to 25 people turn up, and they have those discussions, those talks and that helping hand, which is offered over, as they say, a hot beverage. It was at one such session that they asked whether I could relay to the Minister their overwhelming concern that, once discharged, they felt they had nowhere to go. They felt there was a distinct lack of signposting and no central point where information was available. While they appreciated that there was an array of charities, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has said, they felt that somehow the Ministry of Defence needed to do a little more and not contract out its responsibilities to others. They felt the support was bitty, piecemeal and the exact opposite of the training they were given to enter the armed forces, which was precise and regimented.

For example, when Sebastian was discharged and started showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, his wife Gianna felt as if she had nowhere to turn. She said that the lack of signposting both by the Government and the MOD left her feeling angry and rejected. She was sent from one organisation to another, and found the delay in receiving support for her husband quite shocking. When I asked Gianna what exactly she would like to see happen, she said she would like to see something simple and quite tangible, such as a book, issued to each service member and/or their family member when leaving the forces, containing a list of contacts and the assistance on offer. That way, they would have a first line of response. Therefore, my first question is: will the Minister look into providing something like a physical booklet? Gianna said that that tangibility—if I can say that—was important. Yes, it would be good if that simple advice were online, but she felt that having a book—which she might not need straight away, on day one, or in week one or year one, but which she could go to later as things emerged—would allow her to feel comforted.

I commend my right hon. Friend for her excellent speech. I am a serviceman. I left the Army in 2019 with no resettlement and no termination but through choice, to become a candidate for the Conservative party. I do not regret it, but having gone through that process and been left on a cliff edge with that immediate loss from the Department, I would say to my right hon. Friend that I empathise greatly with all the concerns raised by veterans. I am also chair of the all-party parliamentary group on veterans, and my experience of veterans, having left the Army myself, is that the issue in most cases is not that veterans once served, it is that they are no longer serving. There is a distinction.

We have highlighted a number of issues today, and I wish to make two points very quickly. First, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, there are a lot of agencies, charities and organisations that can help, such as RBL and SSAFA. I would urge everyone to make contact with them. I would also want to see the MOD, with the Minister in his place, doing a catch-up, reaching out a bit more to those who have left and having that single point of contact or repository, whereby people do not feel quite so isolated from the organisation they served. Yes, there is a plethora of support out there, but a bit more from the MOD for those who have left the forces would be welcome.

Before I call Esther to reply, can I say that interventions have to be brief, especially in debates of this kind, where other speeches are not allowed? I have been lenient once; I will not be again.

Thank you, Dame Angela, and I thank my hon. Friend for that honest contribution, particularly with such great first-hand knowledge.

To continue with my other point, I was sat next to a very impressive woman who had served and done well in the Army, but who was struggling now that she had left. She, too, felt abandoned. She had gone into the Army to get away from her life. The Army was a fresh start and a new beginning for her. She had grown there and done well. However, on leaving, she felt she was put right back into the place that she had tried to escape from. That left her depressed, as if she had walked back in time, back into the problems that she had tried to get away from. She felt it was worse for her, as there were no other women close by who she could relate to and who shared her experiences. She had seen a lot during her time in the Army.

That woman is based in Cheshire. The support groups for women were in the cities, in Liverpool and Manchester, and meeting online for her was not the same as seeing people face to face. She wondered how she could connect with other veterans, particularly female veterans, who are scattered across the country, without having to incur all the significant travel costs.

All at the session were concerned about support for those with PTSD, particularly those who had been in Afghanistan and Iraq, understanding how it develops and the treatment accompanying it. I have another question for the Minister. How much research have the Government done—or are doing—into PTSD and its treatment, as well as into traumatic brain injury, which is linked to PTSD? Traumatic brain injuries are often overlooked, but they can have devastating effects on physical and mental wellbeing. They can cause memory loss, cognitive impairment, mood swings and a range of debilitating symptoms that can significantly impact a veteran’s ability to reintegrate into civilian life.

Many believe that, despite the growing body of scientific evidence linked to traumatic brain injury and PTSD, the UK Government have failed to allocate the necessary resources and funding for a comprehensive researched diagnosis into the treatment and conditions. If that is the case, we are doing a disservice to our veterans, which does not live up to the promises made in the armed forces covenant. I hope the Minister can reassure me that that is not the case, and that much work is being and has been done.

When he responds to the debate, will the Minister let me and my constituents know what the Government are doing to support veterans with mental health conditions and how they intend to support them and their families? My constituents are helpfully proposing that, either prior to or after discharge date, the MOD sends individuals to a medical facility for an all-round health screening, to diagnose any injuries that have been missed while on active service. That could also lead to an understanding of what might happen to them in future.

The armed forces covenant, established in 2011, was intended to be a solemn agreement that our Government and local authorities would provide adequate support, recognition and assistance to those who had served our Army in uniform. I would like an update on what the Government are doing to adhere to that covenant.

My right hon. Friend raised the armed forces covenant. She is right to raise those concerns, which will be relevant to all armed forces veterans. In my constituency, despite the armed forces covenant, individuals in MOD accommodation find that, when they come to the end of their service, the time allowed to move to other accommodation, in a place where it is difficult to get housing, is far too short and must be reviewed. Does my right hon. Friend agree, with all the work she is doing, that the best place to start is to ensure secure housing? Should that be reviewed by the Minister?

My hon. Friend is right that they need a safe home. That is part of the connection to the local community, before they even leave the armed forces. What is that signposting? Who are those local groups? That of course includes, where do they sleep? Where is that roof over their head?

Apart from the anti-discrimination policies in the armed forces covenant, there are concerns about the wording. It is not definitive enough, such as when a local authority or business is tasked with supporting a veteran. The wording is “where possible”. That means there is no obligation, and veterans often feel that they are “palmed off”—in their words—to charities or other voluntary bodies, because there is not a sufficiently worded obligation in the current form. Will the Minister talk a little more about that wording and that obligation that I know we would all like to see?

Finally, I come to the armed forces compensation scheme. Those who had applied and qualified felt the experience was of delays and complicated process. Will the Minister give an update on how that process will be made smoother and faster? I know we all believe in honouring our veterans, and that means ensuring that when they leave the armed forces they can reintegrate into civilian life in a smooth, coherent, supported way, so they do not feel abandoned and lost. The one way that can be done is to provide the assistance they so rightly deserve.

I start by declaring my interest as a veteran and an active reservist. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on securing the debate and the way in which she has presented it. I know she has a deep interest in veterans’ affairs, which shines through, and she has been a passionate advocate for her Handforth constituents and veterans in general. Her aim is to make life better for the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way in the service of our country, and I certainly share that goal.

My right hon. Friend reflected thoughtfully on the question of what we might call signposting. At the time of my first stint as a Defence Minister a decade ago, there was an impenetrable maze of veteran provisions without any realistic road map for navigating it. It was bitty—I think that was the term that my right hon. Friend used. In the meantime, there have been significant improvements, although I am the first to admit that we are not there yet. The MOD actively supports vulnerable service leavers to make the most successful transition possible to civilian life, building on the substantial skills and experience they have accrued in the armed forces.

I am bound to represent to my right hon. Friend the Veterans’ Gateway, which offers a pretty good first point of contact for all former personnel and their families who need access to both the state and charitable sectors. It offers help with pretty much everything, from finances to families, housing to health and independent living to mental wellbeing, and I really commend it. We should all be concerned about delays in getting assistance to veterans, which my right hon. Friend touched on. Ideally, there should be no gap between the request for and the provision of help. Realistically, the system caters for approximately 1.85 million veterans, each with individual issues that may or may not be related to service and requiring different contact with myriad organisations, from Government and local authorities to the charitable sector. To give an idea of the scale of the work, some 450,000 veterans receive an armed forces pension—happily, me included—and last year the veterans’ welfare service handled calls from almost 40,000 people.

Unfortunately, even with the best efforts of the dedicated staff who fill out the forms and operate the phone lines, people can slip through the net; usually we hear from them, not from those who are satisfied with the service they receive. I have visited Norcross near Blackpool to talk to those whose job it is to manage those sometimes quite difficult calls, and I have been impressed by a couple of things: first by their longevity in the job, and secondly by the sense of dedication they have to servicing the needs of their clients’ community. Claims for compensation, for example, have long been hampered by a reliance on paper records—a theme that I have talked about before. The staff at Norcross operate in, frankly, an outdated environment that does not match their commitment and expertise. We need to do away with all those paper records. While it may sound boring, I am convinced that those paper records are at the heart of some of the delays we have seen. They are not the only reason, and I am more than happy to describe at greater length the cause of those delays, but we must drag the systems at Norcross kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

The Minister will recall that we met earlier this year in the all-party parliamentary group on veterans and discussed the much-needed reform of Veterans UK. As part of his closing address, or perhaps in the near future, is he able to provide an update to the House on where we are with the review of Veterans UK and any subsequent work that needs to be done?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He and I have discussed this before. I am afraid that I will not be able to show very much ankle on this occasion, but in my remarks I will certainly touch on where we are with the two commissioned reviews, which will improve matters as part of the process I described. In the meantime, we have invested £40 million to digitally transform veterans’ services and phase out paper, which is so much impeding the quality of the service we want to offer our veterans. We are introducing online verification, which will make it much quicker and easier to establish veteran status, and that is also why we have introduced the reviews to which my hon. Friend refers.

There have been calls for medical checks when people leave active service to allow for the early spotting of traumatic brain injuries, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton rightly touched on. It is an issue that I, as a military medic, have a long-standing interest in. Remarkably, in Afghanistan a British combat soldier was likely to face exposure to between six and nine improvised explosive device explosions, with the consequent risk of mild traumatic brain injury. That is a staggering figure.

Moderate to severe traumatic brain injury should be detected at the time of injury and managed accordingly. The diagnosis of mild traumatic brain injury is generally made clinically on referral to the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Stanford Hall, which operates a dedicated treatment programme for TBI of all levels of severity.

As for medical assessments conducted at discharge, their purpose is to assess and record the physical and mental health status of individuals at point of departure. All episodes of ill health during service will be reviewed at that time, and an assessment will be made and recorded about whether there has been any interaction between health and work. Our duty of care to people is principally to ensure that any disadvantage that they have suffered as a result of their service is remedied as best we can; that is at the heart of the military covenant, as my right hon. Friend will well appreciate. That assessment, at that time, is part of that duty.

The real sticking point here is that mild TBI is generally not visible on routine clinical imaging. The US has something called magnetoencephalography, which it has deployed to try to detect who has mild TBI and who does not. We have our own Independent Medical Expert Group that assesses these things, and it has assessed magnetoencephalography twice. It has found that magnetoencephalography is not sensitive and specific enough to be of use as a screening test at the moment, but naturally it keeps all evidence under review and that position may well change. In the meantime, our own Defence Medical Services is part of a national civilian and military collaboration called mTBI-Predict, and that is looking for reliable biomarkers, which may include—but are not confined to—magnetoencephalography.

I turn to the possibility of rewording the armed forces covenant to encourage authorities to treat veterans as a priority more energetically. I share my right hon. Friend’s appreciation of the value of our armed forces covenant. Indeed, I wrote the book on it 12 years ago, which is sadly now out of print, although a colleague said he had seen a copy recently in a charity shop. He then went on to spoil the story by saying that he did not bother buying it! Nevertheless, I am particularly proud that this Government, in their very early days, put the covenant into legislation—at about the time that I was writing my book—and that organisations are now able to sign up to it, as so many have, including all local authorities in Great Britain.

We should not forget that the covenant is not about advantaging members of the armed forces community; it is not about placing them at the front of the queue or mandating outcomes. I do not think that is what veterans and the service community want. The covenant is about ensuring that people are not disadvantaged by virtue of having served. That “no disadvantage” enjoinder lies at the very heart of the covenant we have built.

The Armed Forces Act 2021 introduced a new statutory duty to promote better outcomes for the armed forces community when accessing key public services. That duty came into force in November 2022. It requires certain public bodies to have due regard to the covenant’s principles when carrying out specific functions in the key areas of housing, healthcare and education. In other words, it is there to give veterans a fairer hearing and to ensure that service providers have the needs of the armed forces community in mind when making policy decisions. We will evaluate the impact of the new legislation as it beds in; we will report on it annually in the armed forces covenant and veterans annual report; and in any event, as we are bound by statute, we will report on it formally after five years.

All service people, from private soldiers to Chief of the Defence Staff, come to defence from civilian life, and to civilian life they will return. Preparing for that inevitability is not something that should happen in a rush in someone’s last few weeks spent in uniform, but from day one. That is why accredited training, skills and education are so important and is why issues like facilitating spousal employment and encouraging personnel to buy their own homes early have been, and will continue to be, firmly in our sights.

I would like to sound a cautionary note. The tabloid press likes to suggest that the veteran living in a cardboard box underneath the arches is typical. That is a complete 180° reversal of the truth. Overwhelmingly, our service leavers transition brilliantly, as one might expect considering that they are resourceful, enabled individuals with in-demand skills and attributes, but there are exceptions and we should be constantly kicking the tyres to see what more we can do to maximise the resilience of our service leavers.

Our holistic transition policy, published in October 2019, was designed to better co-ordinate and manage service personnel and their families transitioning from military to civilian life. Whether that means helping with the basics, such as registering with a doctor, or offering more intensive assistance for those with complex needs including those related to housing, budgeting, debt, wellbeing, employment and children’s education, it is there for them. Holistic transition builds on the success of the career transition partnership, which has provided employment support and job finding services for the last 20 years. Last year, 87% of service leavers were employed within six months of leaving their service. I want that to improve, but that is 12% higher than the UK employment rate, which validates the remarks I made about the majority of our service leavers being in a good position by virtue of having served. The holistic transition policy gives tailored interventions to service leavers assessed as needing extra help. That is done through the defence transition service. It is one to one, provides tailored information and guidance and facilitates access to support services, including from other Government Departments, local authorities, the NHS and trusted charities.

I underscore the contribution of charities. Some disparage charities and say that it is all the responsibility of the state. I disagree. I think our service charities do an absolutely fantastic job and need to be encouraged in what they do.

Mindful of the compensation touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton, in July the Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs published a review of the Government’s veterans’ welfare services alongside the statutory quinquennial review of the armed forces compensation scheme. I will not pre-empt the Government’s response to the reviews. That will come later this year—I hope very much not too much later. Suffice to say, those reviews prove that the only way to meet our aspiration of making the UK a truly great place to be a veteran is to continue to listen to what they say, both directly and through their elected representatives as in this debate.

A fortnight ago, I was honoured to be asked to speak in Kyiv at a conference for veterans hosted by the Government of Ukraine. I am pleased that a country that will, as a result of Putin’s aggression, have a large number of veterans, some with the most complex of needs, should, at both ministerial and official level, be looking to the UK for advice and looking at our structures as it works out what it should now do. I find endorsement in that and I am humbled by it.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Access to Broadband Services

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to broadband services.

It is good to see you in your place, Sir Christopher, and I am delighted to see so many colleagues from across the House with an interest in broadband. It is close to our hearts in Stirling. I find myself saying quite a lot that in Stirling we have the best broadband in the UK, and we also have the worst broadband in the UK, which I think a number of us, representing urban and rural areas, will have in common. I represent an area that is about as big as Luxembourg, with a huge rural territory, and I am focused on rural broadband provision.

In St Ninians in Stirling, I have fantastic full-fibre broadband. I have nothing to complain about personally, but I am deeply concerned for an awful lot of people I represent who I fear are being left behind by Government policy. I say that mentioning two Governments: the Scottish Government and the UK Government. Telecoms is reserved, but the Scottish Government have been active in this field. I want to reach out to colleagues today and say, “Let’s identify the problems together and work together.” We are going to need to work with the private sector, the state sector and community groups to bridge the gap that we see, because we cannot leave anyone behind.

I will do a brief stocktake of where we are, identify some of the problems and suggest a few solutions, because the people we all serve want to see an outcome to today’s debate, not just a bumping of gums. I am particularly grateful to the House of Commons Library and the Chamber Engagement Team, who have put together some very thorough briefs on this issue. I have had a number of briefings from stakeholders. I have done site visits with Lothian Broadband, Virgin Media and National Broadband. I am also grateful to Paul Anderson in my team for pulling it all together and explaining to me what some of the big words mean, because there is a technical aspect to all this that few of us are across.

I would like to start on a note of agreement. I think we can agree that broadband is not a “nice to have”; it is a necessity. It is the fourth utility. Covid has accelerated everything—it was the great accelerator. It has accelerated trends that were already there, such as people shopping online, doing their banking online and accessing Government services online, particularly as the Post Office seems to be more interested in closing branches than providing services. Banks are closing their branches with gay abandon, particularly in rural areas. That makes broadband more important for rural areas, and it makes joining up rural areas to good broadband even more imperative than it is for urban areas.

There is a moral aspect to all this. People working from home need good broadband. As we see more and more people expected to work from home—and I am fully in favour of that, for all sorts of positive reasons, such as work-life balance and fewer carbon emissions—people in rural areas are being excluded from that potential benefit, because they do not have the broadband they need.

There is a social aspect to this, not least in terms of the substantial amount of public money—Scottish and UK—that is going towards it and the substantial amount of private money that has been invested, for which companies can legitimately expect an honest return. Joining up rural areas is important, and we need to see a greater focus on it. Broadband will revitalise rural areas at a point when, as we are recovering from covid, so many other factors are militating against them. I have talked about the cutting back of services in other areas. That makes broadband even more important.

There has been no shortage of Government activity. I would like to think I have a good relationship with the Minister on this and many other points, and I want to find solutions here. There is a substantial amount of public money being put towards this. Telecoms is reserved to the UK Government, whose Project Gigabit programme is £5 billion of public expenditure. Its objective is for 80% of the network to be built privately, with a subsidy for harder-to-reach areas. I agree with that focus. Gigabit broadband is to be available to 85% of the UK by 2025 and to the rest by 2030. The cynic in me says that those sound like rather round numbers, and we always need to be conscious of the sound of deadlines whooshing past us. I represent a big chunk of the 15%, and I want to see faster activity and a better focus on rural areas, for the reasons I have outlined.

The Scottish Government, for their part, have recognised that there are gaps in provision. As we have a third of the UK land mass, we have a lot of rural areas to cover, as well as the islands. The Scottish Government created the Reaching 100%—R100—scheme and put £600 million behind it, as well as a £49.5 million UK Government spend. We are working together on this, and I want to see more of that. I want us to work together to target the areas that need it, although I fear that is not quite where we are at the moment.

We have rightly seen significant private sector engagement, and the Scottish National Investment Bank has been helping with access to patient capital. I have seen that locally in Cowie, Plean and Fallin to the east of Stirling. The eastern villages are having full-fibre broadband rolled out, with the help of Scottish National Investment Bank money, and that is very welcome. But in the spirit of constructive engagement, which I hope I have demonstrated, we all need to ask whether those schemes are all actively delivering and whether there is sufficient co-ordination across the private sector to avoid needless duplication in the roll-out of broadband.

In January 2022, the Public Accounts Committee found that the gigabit roll-out “risks perpetuating digital inequality”. House of Commons Library research shows that only 48.7% of premises in Stirling have gigabit availability, despite Stirling’s having, as I say, some of the best broadband that exists. We have download speeds of 43.9 megabits per second. That is less than half the UK average of 111.6 megabits per second.

We need to do better, and I have a few suggestions. The focus of both the UK and Scottish schemes has been on full-fibre connectivity. I agree with that—that is the gold standard—but it does mean the physical infrastructure is that much more expensive, particularly in rural areas. I make a plea for alternative means of delivery to be considered. Satellite and 4G broadband may well be a way of massively increasing provision—perhaps not as far as full fibre might, but if full fibre is several decades away, as I fear it may be for some places, there are solutions that exist right now that could take over. The broadband provided by alternative solutions might not be as effective, but it will be transformative for those areas now.

National Broadband, with which I had a useful meeting and which provided me with a lot of good information, has calculated that by using alternative technologies, it could supply all 435,000 premises UK-wide without access to broadband with a faster connection for just 3% of the budget of Project Gigabit. That strikes me as a transformative offer for an awful lot of rural areas, and we need to look at it seriously.

I also suggest that, as well as better focus of the subsidy and where it goes, we need better co-ordination of the regulatory aspect of how the private sector companies involved are rolling these schemes out, because there are instances where we have not seen the co-ordination that we need. I am thinking particularly about local authorities with lots of different rules and permitted development rights not being quite tracked through the way they need to be, creating a picture that is more complicated than it needs to be, but also private sector companies not talking to competitors, as they would see them.

We also need to look at what is being delivered. If we have reached the point where one player in the market can make a virtue of delivering the speeds people are paying for, that hints that an awful lot of people are not getting the speeds they are paying for and, indeed, that the taxpayer has subsidised. We need much more active regulation of the roll-out of Project Gigabit and R100, as well as the return on investment that companies are legitimately able to make. They should make a return, but I do think we need to see greater consequences for non-delivery of expectations.

A lot of solutions exist right now. I represent an awful lot of people in rural Scotland who want the same services that everybody else has, and we need to do better on their behalf. I think that applies to an awful lot of our constituencies, and I will work with anybody to help serve them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) for securing this important debate. I found his speech incredibly constructive.

Getting better broadband connections for my constituents in Meon Valley has been a key part of my work in Parliament. It is a largely rural constituency, and when I was elected, part of it was in the bottom 5% in the country for broadband speed. I am pleased that the gigabit voucher scheme is bringing better connections to thousands of people. I have spent hours on queries with Openreach and Building Digital UK, and supporting groups working on community fibre programmes. I am very grateful to both organisations and to Hampshire County Council for helping me to achieve results. Villages such as Upham, Owslebury, Cheriton, Kilmeston and Bramdean, which have been in the bottom 5%, will now be near the top of the table.

Other constituents are now looking towards CityFibre, under the recently announced procurement, and I will be looking to BDUK to provide greater clarity on when that will start. This is an example of Government enabling vital infrastructure in my constituency and I welcome it wholeheartedly.

The covid pandemic highlighted very quickly the crucial role of broadband in Meon Valley and other rural areas. I have a number of constituents who worked in senior positions on the covid response and found it difficult to work remotely because of the slow speeds, so I was grateful to Openreach for its quick response to my request for help. For example, one NHS consultant who was working on the pandemic could only upload his slides and information over several hours, normally overnight. Openreach helped to sort that quickly, although his son had to dig the trench to enable the internet cable to be brought to their property.

People who were working at home with children trying to access schooling was another issue, and it showed our dependency on the internet for information. The future of education and work is very dependent on our access to the internet, and we will have to find ways to keep up with technology so that our country can build a successful economy.

However, we must be careful that we do not build barriers to some people. I have many older constituents in Meon Valley who are concerned about being left behind. We see banks closing because so many people now bank online, and GP appointment systems are becoming increasingly web-based, as is ticketing for events and travel.

I am grateful to Age UK for its work in this area. It has surveyed people aged over 65 about access to public services online, and its findings are troubling, with 22% saying that they do not use the internet at all. Many of those who do are limited in what they do online. Many read about scams and hacking, and so are too frightened to use the internet. Few are engaged in complex tasks, and older people may not be experienced in navigating websites, which often differ in their form and function.

I would be grateful to hear from the Minister what plans we have to help those who are not computer literate, because a lack of computer literacy is increasingly isolating for a large part of my community. Is there a fund that people can access for training? We are spending huge amounts of money building the infrastructure, but can people access it?

If there are areas where there remain challenges to deploying fixed broadband links, we need to be ready to move quickly to bring alternative wireless solutions to people who need them, especially those in remote areas, as the hon. Member for Stirling articulated. Better mobile and data connectivity through 5G is vital for everyone, whether they live in the countryside or in a town. Connectivity deserves the same priority as physical forms of infrastructure. Businesses such as the many farms in my constituency, public services such as education and health, as well as constituents, all depend on the availability of good access to mobile data and telephony.

High-speed connections are now part of our vital infrastructure and the Government must make sure that we continue to improve our connectivity by using the latest technology. Combined with digital confidence, that will have a major impact on our growing economy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

If I may, I will tell a little story about Hull. Hull is the only place in the whole of the United Kingdom that has white telephone boxes. They go back a very long time, to when British Telecom was introduced and the rest of the country ended up with the red telephone boxes that we are all familiar with. In Hull, there was a company called Kingston Communications, which was owned by the council. When all the rest of the country was going to have red telephone boxes with British Telecom, it decided that we would keep our own white boxes.

The legacy of that, aside from the white telephone boxes themselves, was that up until a few years ago—as I was very proud to tell everybody—there was more full-fibre high-speed broadband under the streets of Hull than under any other city in the country. That is a pretty impressive fact. I think that we have around 97% or 98% access to full-fibre high-speed broadband within the boundaries of the city of Hull, so people might wonder why I would attend a debate all about access to broadband.

We have that legacy of full-fibre broadband, but because of our other legacy of not having BT or Openreach, all the infrastructure within the city of Hull is owned by the new company KCOM, which was originally Kingston Communications. As a result, we have never had an awful lot of competition in Hull. That was great when people phoned up and tried to flog us broadband, because we could say, “Check my postcode. Don’t bother. You’re not going to be able to provide it to me.”

However, we now have a problem where new companies are coming into the city. On the one hand, it is positive that there is competition; on the other hand, those companies are coming into the city and wanting to put their own broadband poles up. One company, MS3, came along and said, “We want to put our own broadband poles up right across the city,” even though there is existing full-fibre broadband. Another company, Connexin, then said, “We want to come and put up our full-fibre broadband poles and offer a service to the city,” so it is coming along and putting its poles up as well. Then another company, Grain, came along and said, “We would like to offer full-fibre broadband to the people of Hull, so we’re going to have a go at digging up the roads.” We have a situation right now in Hull where three broadband companies, all at the same time, are either digging up the streets or sticking their own poles up, all wanting to be an alternative provider to the existing Kingston Communications.

Residents are incredibly upset. They are saying, “Hang on a minute. You’re digging up my road. Only last month, another company was digging up my road and sticking its poles in.” On some streets, it is not uncommon to see the poles of two different broadband providers, and in some cases even three, all trying to offer the same product. Some poles have been put in ridiculous places, and the building works have blocked people’s driveways and their access to their properties, causing a huge amount of upset.

On one lovely estate in my constituency, which I refer to as the Jenny Brough estate and which was only built in 1997, residents were told, “Any infrastructure you have on the estate must be underground,” so there were no poles. They woke up, however, to find that someone was sticking poles along their street without consultation. I am pleased to say that the company involved will now to talk to residents, but crucially—this is what I want to press with the Minister—residents have no right to refuse the poles, even if there are existing poles and everybody on the street says they do not want them. I am sure colleagues will appreciate that if someone tries to get permission for a dropped kerb for their property, they have to jump through hundreds of hoops, yet any broadband provider can come along and say, “We want to provide broadband, so we want to put our pole there—and by the way, council, we’re giving you statutory notice and we’re going to go ahead and do it.” There is no way for anybody to tell it that it cannot.

I have been working closely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) on this. Telegraph poles erected by designated communications network operators for the expansion of fibre to the premises do not need planning permission under the Electronic Communications Code (Conditions and Restrictions) 2003 and the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015. The only requirement on the operator is to provide 28 days’ notice to the local planning authority. It does not need permission; it just needs to give notice. There is no requirement to consider, as an alternative, under-street cabling. The local planning authority can only make suggestions to the telecoms company; the company is under no obligation to follow them. Even if the local planning authority said, “Actually, we’d much rather you went underground,” the provider could say, “Well, you might, but we’re going to do it this way because it’s cheaper.”

There is a cabinet siting and pole siting code of practice, which states that operators should place a site notice where new poles are to be installed, but it is not legislation; it is not statutory. The code states that the notice should indicate

“to nearby residents the intention to install a pole, and the proposed location,”

but ultimately, there is currently no way for any member of the public to challenge legally where that pole is going. Even if it is at the end of their driveway, they have no legal right to challenge where it is going. It is all a voluntary code of conduct and is all meant to be done in negotiation.

In the case of digging up the streets, telecoms companies are statutory undertakers for the purpose of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991. That means that, like utility companies, they have a general right to install infrastructure on or under public roads and to carry out associated street works. They are also required to notify the relevant highway authority—but, again, they do not need consent. They can come along and dig up the road, and they do not need consent; they just need to have told the local planning authority that they are going to do it.

As I said, in Hull and in Hessle, which is also part of my constituency, we have all these providers wanting to put their own poles up. One of the providers has said, “Look, if we are looking at a street and there are already two poles up, we’re not going to go and put a third one up,” but that does not stop another company coming along and saying, “Well, actually, we want to do it. We’re going to stick our own pole up as well.”

I want the Minister to intervene. Why on earth is Ofcom not forcing these companies to come to some kind of sharing agreement or arrangement on infrastructure? A fair market price could be agreed by the regulator, which could say, “Actually, I’m sorry, but you cannot be the third provider to dig up the same street and stick your own poles all along it, blocking access for wheelchairs and prams, and making the road bumpy and difficult for elderly people to access.” Why can Ofcom not tell them to get together and ask them, “What’s a fair market price? Let’s agree that and sort it out. We can have the competition”—good, we do not want a monopoly—“but don’t, each of you, individually, stick your poles up all down the street”?

Ofcom has been completely reluctant to intervene. It says that this is not a matter for it and that it is fair competition. Ultimately, however, the consumer is paying for all these poles going up. They are the ones who are being charged higher broadband prices to pay for all this unwanted infrastructure. I would like the Minister to join me in calling on Ofcom to look at this issue more seriously and at the legacy situation in Hull. It needs to force these companies to work together and agree a fair market price, and it needs to stop each of them, individually, digging up the same road.

I would also like to meet the Minister to discuss what we can do to limit the number of companies coming around to dig up the streets, causing major inconvenience and blocking our pavements. As the law stands, it seems that absolutely no one has the ability to stop them.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), who made an excellent introductory speech, and others who have spoken in the debate so far. In my economics O-level, at the time of the privatisation of BT, I did an essay on Kingston Communications, so this is bringing it all back.

As the hon. Member said, broadband has become something of a necessity in the modern world, in terms of connecting people to the broader economy and, indeed, in terms of safety. I will obviously focus on my rural communities in the south lakes and Eden—let us call it greater Westmorland—and not being able to access decent-quality, fast broadband makes people literally unsafe in terms of their access to emergency services. It also has an impact on their ability to perform in and contribute to the local economy. I have often said that if someone could live in Westmorland and make a living there, they just would, because it is a wonderful place to live. Over time—this includes today, of course—that has become difficult to do. Having said that, with the rise of access to better broadband, people can increasingly make a living working from home. Broadband is one way in which we can make rural communities genuinely thrive, make them economically active and see the return of younger families, with children going to our schools to keep them open. So broadband is massively important, and rural communities should have the same access as urban ones.

I will focus my remarks on Project Gigabit and its pros and cons and on some of the issues we are dealing with in Westmorland and elsewhere in Cumbria. Project Gigabit seeks to ensure that there is wider broadband access for difficult-to-reach communities. It will achieve that to some degree—it is important to put that on the record and to be positive about the good that the project is doing and will do—but it will not do so entirely. The communities that get missed are the kind that I represent in Westmorland.

Many of those homes, businesses and community buildings will remain without a connection, despite Project Gigabit. The procurement area in Cumbria contains roughly 60,800 properties that are in need of connection. Roughly 59,000 are estimated to be in scope of the procurement contract, which means 97% will be connected if all goes to plan. That is not to be sniffed at. That is good news. For all those properties that will be connected, it will make a significant difference to them and to the families and businesses that operate within them.

That leaves 1,800 premises in the procurement area that Project Gigabit recognises as needing connection, but for which no solution currently exists. My criticism of the Government’s approach is that, by giving the contract to a large corporation—in our case Fibrus, which is a capable outfit, run by very nice and competent people—they have marginalised communities and premises that would benefit from a more community-based, agile and bespoke operation that could mean that the 1,800 properties got connected.

It so happens that we have one such operation in Cumbria. I am sure the Minister is aware of B4RN—Broadband for the Rural North. We are incredibly proud of its work and its track record. It is a community benefit society. In the past few years, it has worked with some of the hardest-to-reach rural communities in Cumbria and north Lancashire, especially South Lakeland, to deliver full-fibre gigabit internet to thousands of homes, businesses and community buildings. That work has been an important part of Project Gigabit and, indeed, of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. It has been supported by Government’s voucher scheme. The disappointing thing for me and so many of us in Cumbria is that, over the past year, the Government have greatly reduced access to the gigabit voucher scheme, which has had the—I assume unintended—effect of stifling B4RN’s progress in connecting our rural communities, at the very moment when we should encourage it to move further and faster.

Will the Minister state whether it is the Government’s policy to move funding from successful community organisations such as B4RN, which connect every property in their area, to procurement that does not connect every property and is delivered through large, profit-driven corporations? Or, preferably, will he commit to working with organisations such as B4RN right now, and not defer the decision for a year or two to see how things go, to find ways of enabling it to continue its delivery side by side with those larger procurements? Is he willing to meet me and representatives of B4RN and some of the affected communities, which B4RN would otherwise be connecting, so that we can have the clarification that our rural communities in Eden and South Lakeland need?

I want to be clear: I am not saying that Project Gigabit procurements are bad; quite the opposite. However, the Government and BDUK seem to be taking a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach that will harm many rural communities in Eden in South Lakeland. A better solution, if we are to ensure that communities are connected comprehensively and at pace, would be to allow the large procurement under Project Gigabit to deliver alongside community schemes such as B4RN.

Sadly, B4RN is currently being managed out of the area, despite the transformative connections it has already achieved. Its track record is second to none. Communities including parts of Sedbergh, Kaber, Murton, Long Marton, Winton, Warcop, Ormside, Hilton, Hartley and Bleatarn are being forced to wait longer for their connection and will have poorer, less comprehensive coverage because the Government and BDUK are not following the more intelligent twin-track approach that would have allowed B4RN to provide some of the solutions.

We heard about telegraph poles, which are a significant issue. B4RN is a community-run organisation and it can build a fully underground network. It can do that because it is a voluntary organisation and landowners allow it on to their land to dig the trenches. I have been there myself. In Old Hutton, I was digging the trenches—not laying the cable; they would not allow me to do that. Getting dirty and digging holes is just about within my field of competence. However, those landowners will not allow access to their land for free to a commercial, multibillion-pound organisation. Consequently, there is the Fibrus operation and Project Gigabit, whereby large parts of the procurement would use telegraph poles. As Storm Arwen proved, telegraph poles are vulnerable to extreme weather events, which happen often in Cumbria. We are used to weather in the wild, and sadly, with climate change, we expect it to get worse and more intense.

In the interests of having greater resilience in the network, more and better access to broadband in every part of our rural county and supporting community groups that already know what they are doing, I ask the Minister and BDUK to re-examine their approach so that B4RN can meet the needs of communities that Project Gigabit will leave connected only partially or not at all. Rural communities often feel ignored and taken for granted by this Government. This is an opportunity for the Minister to listen and put that right.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) on securing the debate and making such an impressive introductory speech. Indeed, I agree with all his points, so I will try to keep my remarks brief.

As with other Members—especially those who represent rural areas—the need for better broadband is something that fills my inbox almost weekly. As the hon. Member put it, broadband and digital connectivity have become the fourth utility, so it is no surprise that in my constituency, where 14% of premises can receive speeds of only up to 10 megabits per second, a lot of people are concerned about improving their digital connectivity, given the demands of education, businesses and leisure. Sadly, in Ceredigion the percentage of premises that cannot receive what Ofcom describes as decent broadband is 2.2%, compared with the UK figure of 0.2%.

As others have, I place on record my belief that there has been great progress in recent years in improving broadband infrastructure, in Ceredigion as well as in other parts of the United Kingdom, but there is more that we should do. As others have mentioned, the Government could make changes to the gigabit voucher scheme and Project Gigabit to accelerate progress. One concern among my constituents in communities that do not have decent broadband—certainly not gigabit broadband—is that they will have to wait several more years before any progress is made with their communities.

Knowing my hon. Friend’s constituency, I am sure he will recognise the problem faced by the small community in Nantmor and Beddgelert in my constituency, where there is no mobile signal—an EE Home Office mast is in place, but it is not turned on—and a history of electricity outages, not over hours but over days. Analogue copper lines were switched off earlier this year, and the community is now awaiting a decision on whether the exchange will be eligible for a fibre community partnership. This is a real challenge—a real crisis—for many of our communities, and they have nowhere else to turn.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that important point. In the 21st century, it is rather strange to stand here and talk about communities in the United Kingdom that are completely cut off from the outside world, especially during severe weather events. She mentioned a community around Beddgelert. I also have communities, such as Cwmystwyth, that have been told that, as soon as the copper landline network is switched off, they will have to depend on a broadband connection. Sadly, Cwmystwyth does not have one, and it does not have mobile signal, so it is left without any form of communication in the event of a storm.

As has been pointed out already, adequate and improved broadband infrastructure in rural areas can make a significant contribution to the community in not just a social but an economic sense. This afternoon, I received an email from a constituent who explained that she works for a company—a charity, as it happens—that is based and does work across the UK. She very much wants to stay in Ceredigion to continue that work, but she depends on a decent broadband connection. Sadly, where she lives is unlikely to receive an upgrade any time soon.

The last census showed that the population of Ceredigion constituency had dropped by 5.9%. We will not get into the technical detail of why that happened, but we know from covid in particular that a number of people who were doing hybrid working decided to relocate to Ceredigion. So rolling out good connectivity across the county would make a massive demographic contribution. It is probably worth emphasising that it would also make a contribution to the delivery of public services, getting staff into our schools, care homes and other important public services, which is something we already struggle with.

One thing I would like to emphasise is the good work that the Government have done to date on the gigabit voucher scheme. Ceredigion is very fortunate in being one of the pilot areas. I have tried to gauge the demand from communities to sign up to the vouchers, and I am pleased to say that communities in Ceredigion responded very positively—I believe it is one of the best areas in terms of the number of declarations of interest. Since then, community co-ordinators have gone to considerable effort to ensure that communities are aware of the different options and that they register their interest and their vouchers, and some communities have succeeded. Some communities in Ceredigion have had their broadband connections improved considerably, and it has made a fantastic difference.

However, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) mentioned, others have found themselves caught in a bit of a limbo in recent months, because the voucher funding does not seem to be forthcoming from BDUK. It is possible that that has to do with work the Government are doing with Project Gigabit in mapping out the intervention areas, and I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that.

Nevertheless, some of the community co-ordinators and those participating in the schemes are growing restless. In Wales, they have seen the best part of a decade of promises of improved connectivity that have come to nothing, so it is inevitable that people start to question whether the schemes will actually work for them. I fear that a lot of the demand and interest will dissipate the longer we go without any real progress. Will the Minister clarify whether the Government intend to accelerate some of the voucher schemes in the interim as we wait for the Project Gigabit areas to take off? It strikes me that, where community areas have engaged with each other, organised and registered an interest, we might as well get on with connecting them. Even if that means that it is only a couple of hundred or 1,000 premises in Ceredigion, it is better than nothing.

That brings me to Project Gigabit and the intervention areas. Although I very much welcome the fact that the Government are investing so much money in that endeavour, I have a concern about part of Ceredigion—sadly, we have been split in two in this process; the north is in a type C procurement contract, and it remains to be seen what the south-west Wales lot will look like. The point I want to raise with the Minister and seek his assurances on is that we will not drag our feet in making a decision, as opposed to the south-west Wales lot. I have already heard rumours that a decision might not be made until summer 2024. I am told by industry officials that, once contracts have been awarded, there will be a good six months of scoping, surveys and all the preparatory work and that, depending on where people are, it could then be two or three years before the connection is sorted. That concerns me because many of these communities will be in rural areas that do not have a mobile signal. They have no alternative methods of connectivity, and that is holding them back.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) mentioned, many of the hardest-to-reach properties lack any other form of communication. There needs to be greater co-ordination and prioritisation of the effort to connect the hardest-to-reach areas. By co-ordination I mean that we should think about the areas that lack a mobile signal, full fibre or broadband of any description and ensure that the digital switchover of landlines is paused. I know that that will entail work with BT and Ofcom, but that co-ordination is essential if we are to ensure that communities are not cut off.

In terms of prioritisation, I can foresee a situation with the Project Gigabit and intervention area approach whereby residents who currently enjoy superfast broadband download speeds of 17 megabits per second will be connected to full gigabit, which is great—fantastic. At the same time, constituents who currently lack any broadband whatever will still be left waiting. Will the Minister assure me that there will be some prioritisation and that premises that currently receive decent broadband are perhaps second in line to those that lack anything at all?

Broadband can no longer be regarded as a luxury and simply an add-on for those who want it. It has become an integral and essential facility for modern-day living. People are now expected to be able to join a meeting online or carry out a transaction online. Transactions with Government Departments and banks, and for paying bills or booking appointments, are increasingly easier to carry out online, but only if we have access to decent broadband.

The alternatives are becoming increasingly difficult, as anyone who has spent hours queuing on a phone call will know—a situation further compounded by the closure of face-to-face facilities in rural banks, post offices and shops, for example. There are often economic incentives for people to go online, as they will be charged less. For anyone trying to run a farm or business in a rural area, access to high-quality broadband is essential to complete all the necessary paperwork, record keeping, communication and transactions.

Broadband is an essential part of levelling up and offering people living in rural areas a broader range of opportunities, for example in education. It can be difficult for a small rural school or college to offer subjects that are less in demand, such as modern foreign languages or music. The use of online classrooms can ensure that students can access a wider range of subjects.

In the past, we might have seen people who were well established in their business or profession coming to live in or returning to rural areas, but now people can start out online, setting up a small business or working remotely. All of that can happen only if they have access to high-quality broadband. In rural areas, particularly those that are more difficult to farm, we often bemoan the outward migration of our young people and worry that no one will be left to run the farm and take care of the countryside, but the truth is that to make a reasonable living, farming families often have to diversify. Without good broadband, their options are limited. How can they run a business or advertise a tourist facility competitively without good broadband?

Broadband is clearly a responsibility for the UK Government, working with the telecommunications industry and Ofcom. It should be a top priority for the Government, because for a relatively small investment it can contribute so much to levelling up and bringing opportunities to our rural areas, where they can be so limited. It matters more to have good broadband in rural areas, as there are fewer face-to-face opportunities than in urban areas, and transport costs are very high. Yes, it does cost more when there is difficult geography and there are not the economies of scale that there are in areas where large numbers of users are concentrated in one place.

It is like the Royal Mail’s universal service delivery or the electricity supply: it should reach everyone. We should accept the principle of cross-subsidy, so that areas where it is more economic to roll out can subsidise those areas where it is more expensive. We should not say that it costs too much in rural areas so we will leave them until last or leave them out altogether. Let us make no mistake about this. I have heard providers who have received Government money to roll out broadband say that they have concentrated on the easy-to-supply areas.

Broadband is not devolved in Wales, but, seeing the desperate need for improved broadband, the Welsh Government have invested in broadband, more than doubling the availability of fast broadband across Wales through the Superfast Cymru programme and repeatedly stepping in to improve digital connectivity, using funding from the EU and other sources. The Welsh Government have, in the past, provided additional funding for the gigabit voucher scheme, but year-on-year budget cuts have meant that since March 2022 they have no longer been able to.

In August last year, the Senedd’s Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee warned that people in Wales are being left behind, with sub-par, unreliable broadband that risks excluding people from modern life, and with rural areas being particularly affected. The UK Government’s Project Gigabit is supposed to address that, but Wales’s mountainous terrain is challenging. The worry is that UK funding does not reflect the real cost of roll-out in those areas.

When Labour was in power at UK level, the Labour Government delivered infrastructure competition in first-generation broadband, but since the Conservatives came to power, broadband and 5G roll-out seem to have been woefully slow. The Government have repeatedly rolled back on their commitment to broadband roll-out. Originally, we were promised full fibre for all by 2025. That has now been downgraded to a commitment to at least 85% of UK premises having access to gigabit broadband by 2025. We can be sure that the remaining 15% will include many rural areas.

The Government are saying that it will be 2030 before there will be nationwide—that is, 99%-plus—coverage. That is another seven years. How many businesses will have gone bust and how many young people will have left rural Wales in that time? Will the Minister confirm whether the Government are on track to reach 85% of UK premises with gigabit broadband by 2025 and whether that will include 85% of residents in Wales? Rather than just saying “99% by 2030”, will the Minister be negotiating interim targets from 2025 to 2030, and will he ensure that the interim targets are fairly spread across the UK so that Wales keeps up percentage-wise with the rest? On that note, I conclude my remarks.

Diolch, Sir Christopher; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I apologise for not giving you advance warning of my wish to speak, but I am glad to have caught your eye.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) on securing this debate and on his informative comments. He makes impressive contributions in this place and is always a pleasure to listen to. On a personal note, I congratulate him on his recent marriage. I was delighted to hear the news through the wonderful world of Facebook during the summer recess. I also welcome the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) back to the Labour Front Bench with responsibility for these matters.

I want briefly to raise two points. The first is good news about the success in increasing the roll-out of full-fibre coverage across the UK, Wales and, indeed, Carmarthenshire. I understand that about half of all homes in Carmarthenshire now have the potential to access full fibre. However, the issue is that take-up is not particularly good. Around 30% of homes that could receive full fibre are still on superfast. I put my hand up; I am one of those people, in Penygroes in the Gwendraeth valley. I wonder whether there is a push by the UK Government to encourage take-up. Is that a matter for the UK Government, for Openreach as the company with the infrastructure, or for the service providers? What can be done to increase uptake? Otherwise, it is a huge waste of investment and public funds.

The point I really want to make, however, is one that has been raised in my constituency following the collapse of Broadway Partners. Two communities in my constituency were endeavouring to get Broadway projects completed, but they were not completed in either case. The company has gone into administration. I think it is the first time an alternative provider has gone into administration, so it is a test case for us all. People on the ground and co-ordinators working with the company put in a huge amount of effort on these projects, and there is a huge risk of all their work going down the drain. Obviously that is demotivating for everybody involved. They are quite rightly asking me, as their Member of Parliament, what is happening and what can be done to resolve the situation.

From my discussions with the administrators, I was under the impression that the aim was to complete the process by the beginning of August, but my understanding is that it has yet to be completed. We obviously want to see the business sold as a going concern; that would probably be the easiest way for the situation to develop, but I have heard no news officially about whether it is likely. I wonder whether the Minister has had any discussions with BDUK or the administrators and whether he can inform us what is happening with the administration process.

The primary concern of the co-ordinators in my constituency is about what is happening to the vouchers that they were hoping to mobilise. Are they under the ownership of Broadway and therefore part of the administration process, or are they still under the ownership of BDUK? My understanding—I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed this one way or the other—is that the vouchers are not utilised until the broadband provision goes live. That should mean that they are with BDUK, which might offer some reassurance to my constituents.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) mentioned that he has a similar problem in his constituency. What really concerns everybody is that if the business is not sold as a going concern one way or another, the properties will fall into the new super-bid that has been created for our part of the world. As the hon. Member outlined, that is not likely to be signed off until the spring, and it could then take two or three years to be delivered. That means that people who were on the verge of finally getting broadband in very rural parts of west Wales are now facing a potential wait of many years.

There is a potential solution: satellite and mobile technology. The big issue with satellite technology is that the costs are prohibitive—not only the capital costs of the infrastructure, but the revenue costs. The monthly cost of satellite packages is far more expensive than conventional broadband packages. Constituents have asked me why the UK Government do not come up with a scheme for the cohort of people who are on the verge of achieving broadband via Broadway, which has a scheme that offsets the extra costs that they would face if they went down the satellite road. That would enable them to achieve far better internet provision very quickly, rather than—as we may well fear—facing a wait of many years.

I congratulate my friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), on securing the debate.

One of the first areas of improvement that I identified for my constituency of Inverclyde when I was first elected in 2015 was broadband speed and resilience. Today, after many discussions, the occasional confrontation and a lot of repetition, Inverclyde is well served. We now enjoy an average download speed of 133.4 megabits per second, with 96.7% superfast availability, and 85.7% are receiving over 30 megabits per second. Although these numbers are among the best in the UK, I acknowledge that that is not the experience of everyone in Inverclyde. If you are my constituent, and you are one of those that are still not getting a suitable service, I accept that you will be frustrated and angered by the service you are getting. Believe me when I say that I am working on it.

It is important that I do. We live in an instant society, in which we have become used to instant access to entertainment, data, food, travel and a litany of things that were once planned for, looked forward to and experienced at our leisure. We now consume at the quickest possible rate, and the thought of having to wait is deemed unacceptable. I may sound like some curmudgeon, but in truth I am as frustrated as everyone else.

During my 35 years of working in IT, I saw a lot of change. The industry was gearing up when I first joined it, and it was moving at a much faster rate when I left. It now operates at breakneck speed. Changes to technology are being developed and implemented at a far greater rate of knots than we have ever experienced before. The speeds and volumes of data that we accept as normal were once a thing of dreams. We used to squeeze out every last bit of processing power, and then technology ran ahead of us and became cheaper, physically smaller and far more capable. But we were limited by our own imagination regarding what we were going to do with all these new telecoms capabilities. Initially, it was focused on industry and the work environment, and then there was the advent of desktop computers, laptops, iPods, gaming, the internet and online shopping.

The marketplace for digital inclusion and the requirements therein changed. Back in the day, Governments counted the number of households with clean water, as that was seen as a duty and a right. It was deemed important that not just the rich had access. Clean drinking water was required to eradicate cholera and the wider society benefited. The mission was clear, and the fundamentals have not really changed. Electricity and gas connections over time became more the norm than the exception, but where the vast majority of people enjoyed reliable access, the more rural areas were left behind and had to become more self-reliant regarding clean water and energy. That remains true to this day, and it now includes broadband.

We cannot allow that to continue. The legislation has to take into consideration the provision for areas that are harder to reach and not economically viable. Currently, the UK Government have estimated that 0.3% of properties are too expensive to reach. I accept that running a fibre cable to some very rural areas is not the solution, but alternatives exist and funding them must be considered. Simply saying it is too hard or too expensive is not good enough.

When it comes to future-proofing the infrastructure, we must acknowledge that we will never consume less than we currently use. The demand will continue to grow, and the shape and form of our engagement with it will change. The more bandwidth we create, the more uses we will find for it. It is clear that we need to be ambitious beyond our current or even projected requirements. Just as we now expect water, sewerage and power, we must add connectivity to that list.

I caution my fellow Members and those running Project Gigabit and the R100 scheme in Scotland that at some point we will require 1 terabyte per second. That is 1,024 gigabytes. I cannot say at present what for, but with quantum computing and the human imagination, I am sure that some day somebody will, and we must be designing and building the digital infrastructure that supports that growth. It is the responsibility of UK Government to manage, fund and co-ordinate the solution. Otherwise, we shall be standing still while the demand accelerates over the horizon.

Finally, as always, as a Scottish nationalist I look at situations and ask myself, “Could Scotland do this better if it were independent?” When I look at the Faroe Islands, which have some of the best broadband in the world, along with Norway, I am inclined to think that we could do better if telecoms were a devolved area. Some day, as a normal independent nation, we shall get the opportunity to prove that. I just hope it is before we are measuring success in terabytes per second.

Thank you, Sir Christopher. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, though I merely point out that Sir Christophers are two a penny these days. You have said in the Chamber that I like the sound of my voice too much—I see the Minister is agreeing—so I will try to limit my remarks as much as I can.

It is a great delight to be here. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) on his marriage and on securing the debate, not least because it matters to a much larger number of Members than are able to be here this afternoon. I think very fondly of Stirling. I was partly schooled in Stirling—well, the school was entirely in Stirling; whether I was fully schooled is another matter. I remember standing at the beheading stone, looking down over the Raploch and seeing some of the issues that I thought most needed addressing in the whole of British society.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about rural and semi-rural areas, because the category of semi-rural is complicated and difficult. In the Rhondda, which hon. Members are all very welcome to visit, it feels very congested, but it is semi-rural, because everybody lives within 1 mile of a farm—hence “How Green Was My Valley” and all the rest of it. That provides real difficulties, as do the valleys’ contours, for mobile telephony and broadband connectivity. The hon. Gentleman rightly made the point that often this is far too complicated. It is not just complex; it has been complicated by lots of different players in the market not being able to work together.

It was great to hear from the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), who is the sole English Conservative MP here today. I know that she is a very fine swimmer, because she swam in the parliamentary swimming team with me. She was right to raise not only the issue of GP appointments—when we can get them at all—but that of banks closing. When Lloyds closes in Tonypandy next year, there will not be a single bank in the Rhondda. That is a major problem for lots of businesses and lots of individuals. Sometimes it is necessary to go to a bank physically, and at the moment that means effectively going to Cardiff, which could be a very long bus ride from many areas, if there is ever a bus to get on. She makes a good point. She also referred to the points that Age UK has made about the problems for older citizens. I think she mentioned the over-60s. Since I am in that category, I was a bit troubled, but maybe I misheard because I do not have my hearing aids in.

It was great to hear from my very friendly hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). I knew all about the white telephone boxes, although if there is a telephone box left anywhere it is a miracle these days. She is right about the lack of competition, and sometimes when competition arrives there is so little co-ordination that people end up with roads being dug up endlessly all over the place. People ask, “Well, couldn’t somebody have just spoken to someone before they started digging it up again?” The roads end up looking like a bizarre patchwork. We have exactly the same problem with the Rhondda—Members will have noticed that this is all about the Rhonda—being dug up, and Rhondda Cynon Taf Council is tearing its hair out. The moment it has done a road and resurfaced it, suddenly some broadband operator wants to dig it up all over again.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about weather in the wild—we certainly know all about that—and the need for greater resilience. Often people who make decisions for cities simply do not understand the kind of issues that might be faced in a rural or semi-rural area. In valley communities, what happens on the top of the mountain ends up affecting everybody at the bottom of the valley pretty quickly.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake)—it is great that this debate has been so Welsh-heavy; there has been a great deal of Welsh hwyl, and if we put this much effort into the World cup, I am sure we will triumph—is right about hybrid working and the fact that many people are now choosing to work in a different way. Many of the communities we are talking about are ideal for hybrid working, because the quality of life—leaving out the issue of broadband—is superb. We should want to re-energise those communities. We would be adding genuine value. The hon. Gentleman is also right about the public sector and the need for co-ordination. A large number of public services now rely completely on constituents being able to access broadband. If someone sets up a business and gets to the £85,000 threshold for VAT, they have to submit a digital return, and the aim is to get to that system for all of taxation. Encouraging people to set up new businesses is not very effective if they have to sit there and watch a page buffer for an hour and a half.

My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) also spoke of paperwork, and she is right to say that farmers need good broadband. Very few farms, especially hill farms and farms in these kinds of areas, are able to survive unless they diversify in some shape or form. They could diversify into what they call in Italy an agriturismo business, and we maybe need a defined category for that with the proper support, but without broadband it would be very difficult for farmers to do that, let alone access and submit all the required forms. My hon. Friend was also right about interim targets, and I hope the Minister will respond to that point.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards)—we have not yet finished with Wales—is absolutely right to say that it is shocking that in significant areas in the country the sign-off looks like it will not be happening until 2024. Given that every time there has been a target, it has not been met, it may well not happen until the second or third quarter of 2024. That would mean that people would not get a decent rate of broadband service until 2027 or even 2028.

I used to work at the BBC many years ago. I did not exactly write “BBC Beyond 2000”, where we talked about a digicopoeia—someone else drafted it, and I rewrote it in English—but we have been talking about this for a very long time, and we still have not got there. Sometimes it is embarrassing to go to other countries, elsewhere in Europe or around the world, and find that the connectivity is swifter, better and easier than here in the UK.

Lots of hon. Members have made the point that broadband—and telephony as well; I make that point because Porth, where I live, has the worst telephony connection I know of in the country—is a vital service. It is vital for schools and the NHS. Whoever thought that they would have their MRI scan taken by somebody in a hospital in one part of the country and have it read by somebody else who is not necessarily even in the UK, as it might be read at a different time of night. That all relies on very serious broadband availability. The issue of banks has already been raised. I would also argue that if we are going to have serious public sector reform, and if we are to be able to use the advantages that might come from AI, we need significant broadband speeds as well. It is as vital as water, electricity and gas, as many hon. Members have said.

That is why it is depressing that Boris Johnson—I think we are still allowed to refer to him—said in 2019 that the target for full fibre to all was 2025. The target now is just that 85% of premises will have access to gigabit-capable broadband by 2025. That is 15% not getting anywhere near those speeds, while a significant number of other people will be relying on part cable and part fibre. That is nowhere near the target set just in 2019, at the beginning of this Parliament. In fact, as of January, only 72% of UK premises had a gigabit-capable broadband connection.

The situation in rural areas, as everybody has mentioned, is still very slow, and progress is slow too. Project Gigabit had money allocated for it in 2020, but no regional contract was awarded until last November—that is two and a half years wasted—and £3.8 billion, or roughly 75% of it, is still to be allocated. That is shocking, because it is about large chunks of our constituencies, and many other constituencies in the land, not having access to what we have all deemed to be a basic necessity. My first question to the Minister is, therefore, when will it all be allocated? Does he have a specific timetable? He is looking very inscrutable—he is doing his best inscrutable look now, which is his favourite look.

The private sector is responsible for 80% of those who are not classed as hard-to-reach, but many of whom have significant difficulties, negotiating wayleaves for instance. I thought that the regulations had been changed to make that easier, but that is notwithstanding the issues that one then has of lots of different people competing to place their cables in the same place. There are also difficulties for the private sector around accessing multi-dwelling units, and the private sector complains—already has complained; one of the first emails I had just today was about this—about chronic skilled-worker shortages.

I have a few questions for the Minister. First, what new barrier-busting mechanisms is the Department looking to introduce to help ease some of those problems? Could he provide an update on when flexi-permits will finally become available? Secondly, what work is the Department doing to foster a skilled telecoms workforce within the UK? Is there an update on whether telecoms engineers might be added to the shortage occupation list to ease the process of overseas recruitment? Thirdly, it is absolutely crucial to the roll-out that there is healthy competition within the industry. What is the Department doing to ensure that that competition is lively?

I have one other area that I will briefly speak about, which is affordability. I am very conscious, representing one of the poorest constituencies in the land, that if someone has to find £26 a month for a bill that, 15 or 20 years ago, they did not even think of as part of the utilities, that is a significant additional cost. I suspect that is why 4.3% of people in the Rhonda still receive less than 10 megabits per second—that is double the Welsh average but less than the United Kingdom’s—while our download speed is just 52.5 megabits per second, as opposed to 111.6 for the UK. That means that nearly all of the Rhonda—all of the wards—is in the worst 10% in the UK, and a lot of that is about affordability.

Citizens Advice have said that one million people have cancelled their broadband this year because of the cost of living crisis. That is an additional worry. Digital poverty, is, of course, a vicious circle. If someone has lost their job, they need to go online to search for jobs, or they might want to use the internet to be able to start up a new business, so it can become a vicious circle as someone becomes more and more isolated. That is why we believe that it is really important to introduce a proper affordability policy, which the Labour party intends to introduce if it enters government.

Our plan is to help prevent families being hit with a bombshell of broadband prices. First, we will reverse changes made by the Government in 2019 that allowed regulated wholesale prices to rise with inflation rather than costs. That will ensure that wholesalers and internet service providers do not get a windfall from sky-high inflation while families and firms struggle to pay their bills. Secondly, we will prompt Ofcom to investigate and take action to strengthen consumer protections, including taking action on mid-contract price rises, early termination costs for social tariff customers and loyalty penalties where long-term customers pay more than new customers.

Finally, we will ensure that there is an industry-wide social tariff for low-income families. Individual providers are already offering discounted packages, but Ofcom and Which? have branded them the “best-kept secret” in broadband. Labour will ensure that that secret comes to an end, prompting industry to work with Ofcom and consumer groups to develop a mandatory and well-advertised broadband social tariff for low-income families and promising to set and legislate for one in Government if they do not.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) for obtaining the debate and setting the subject out in an extremely constructive fashion, which I think has been maintained throughout. I welcome the contributions from all Members present. As has been observed, we have been on a tour of the nations of the United Kingdom, although I must say that I miss the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who would normally be with us. As a result, we have not heard the voice of Northern Ireland, but we have covered the rest of the UK comprehensively.

A number of points were made in detail about the situation in the constituencies of hon. Members, and as much as I can I will respond to some of the points raised. I will make a few general comments to begin. I add my own congratulations to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on his recent wedding, and indeed to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant)—although I am not quite sure that it is the same degree of congratulation—on shadowing me on the Opposition Front Bench. Nevertheless, my congratulations to him on his promotion.

As has been said throughout this debate, and as is certainly recognised by the Government, broadband is now an essential part of life. It will go on being so as more and more services are provided online. That does not mean to say that we must neglect those who do not have access—that still remains important. I will say a word about digital exclusion, which was mentioned, but broadband is an essential. The Government have set ambitious targets, and I agree with the observation of the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) that the appetite for broadband speed will go on increasing. That is why the Government shifted from originally having a target of superfast roll-out, which is relatively modest compared with the gigabit ambition of 1,000 megabits per second. That is about futureproofing. It is about ensuring that as more and more technologies and services become available, the connection is already in place to allow people to take advantage of it and for the economy to grow as a result.

Project Gigabit, which has been the main focus of this debate, is a £5 billion investment to support nationwide gigabit-capable broadband. As has been mentioned, we have set a target of 85% coverage by 2025 and nationwide coverage by 2030. In response to the requests made by the hon. Members for Rhondda and for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) for targets, we have set those two targets, but BDUK will respond in due course to the Public Accounts Committee in setting out a delivery programme, so there will be more detail on how we get there and how progress will be made. We have already made astonishing progress. Consider that in January 2019, gigabit coverage was 6%, and now—four years later—it is at 77%. That is an astonishing achievement. However, in a sense, the more we are successful in extending coverage, first, the more vocal are the complaints from the people who do not have it, which is perfectly understandable—

Will the Minister provide further advice on the process of approving a pre-registered package request under the gigabit broadband voucher scheme? My understanding is that there is an element of uncertainty about that.

I will come on to say a word about the gigabit broadband voucher scheme. To some extent, the Project Gigabit procurements have taken over from it, but if the right hon. Lady has a specific question, perhaps she would let me have the details, and I will be happy to supply an answer.

As I said, the main thrust of achieving the extension of coverage has been through the commercial roll-out, which has resulted from the competition that we have encouraged. Over 100 providers are now investing over £40 billion to roll out gigabit-capable broadband. We continue to believe that an active, competitive market—I will say a word about Broadway in a second—delivers the best results for consumers.

There will always be areas of the country where commercial roll-out is not viable, and it is in the first instance to address those elements that Project Gigabit was established. It includes local procurements, regional and cross-regional procurements, and the gigabit broadband voucher scheme. A large number of companies are now involved, and we are signing procurement contracts regularly. We have so far awarded 12 Project Gigabit contracts to improve digital connectivity in Cornwall, Cumbria, Norfolk, Suffolk, Hampshire and Northumberland, and we have a further 24 local and regional procurements under way. I was delighted a few weeks ago to visit Orford in Suffolk, where £100 million is being spent under Project Gigabit to extend coverage to another 80,000 premises. In Norfolk, £114 million is being spent to extend coverage to 62,000 premises. That is being mirrored across the country. As I said earlier, however, we are conscious that that will still leave some people outside the scope of those procurement packages, and they will obviously continue to press for coverage to be extended to them. As we extend coverage, the remaining premises will be, almost by definition, in harder-to-reach areas, so reaching them may require more innovative and inventive solutions, but the 100% target is a real target and we are confident that it can be achieved.

I want to say a little about Scotland, because the debate was obtained by the hon. Member for Stirling. As he will know, 71% of premises in Scotland can now access a gigabit connection, and 96% can access a superfast connection of 30 megabits per second. I am pleased to tell him that 93% of premises in his constituency now have access to superfast speeds, and 56% can access a gigabit-capable connection, which I think is a little higher than the figure that he quoted from the House of Commons Library. The figure I have been given is 56%, which I hope is correct and perhaps a little more up to date—demonstrating that we are extending the degree of coverage by the day. Considering that in January 2019 the figure for his constituency was 1%, I hope he will recognise that that is a significant achievement.

We are working closely with the Scottish Government on the issue. I recently had a call with Scottish Government Minister Richard Lochhead to discuss the programme being conducted by the Scottish Government through the R100 initiative. R100 was perhaps ambitious, in that it set a target of 100% coverage by 2021. Obviously, that has not been achieved and some procurements still have to take place, but we are anxious to work along with the Scottish Government and the testing of the market for those procurement contracts is now under way. Stirling has also benefited from the gigabit voucher scheme, with 120,000 vouchers issued so far under the scheme and its previous iterations.

Before the Minister’s speech concludes, will he address the specific problems we are facing in Hull? Can I push him again to agree to meet me and the other local MPs to discuss these issues in more detail, so that we can hopefully find a way to get Ofcom to take this problem more seriously?

I will come to the particular points that the hon. Lady raised and, indeed, points raised by other Members during the debate, so I am not trying to duck those at all.

Wales has featured strongly in the debate. As hon. Members from Wales will know, we are launching a cross-regional procurement, covering north-west Wales, mid-Wales and south-east Wales, and are looking to have a further procurement next summer for south-west Wales, and I will say a little bit more about that.

I turn to some of the specific contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) has been extremely persistent in making the case for her constituency. She will be aware—indeed, she referred to the fact—that a contract worth £104 million has been made with CityFibre, which will benefit around 76,000 premises in Hampshire, a number of which will be in the Meon Valley. I know she wants a date for when that will be achieved, but we have signed that contract, and I will ensure that BDUK continues to keep her updated with any progress. The signing of the contract is good news and hopefully her constituents will be able to benefit very soon.

My hon. Friend mentioned digital exclusion. As I said, I absolutely share her recognition of the importance of ensuring that people who may struggle to take advantage of digital technology are able to do so. We work with the Department for Education to ensure that essential digital skills for adults are made available through a number of different programmes and with the Department for Work and Pensions in supporting claimants with digital skills. She is absolutely right to press us on that point, and I will continue to keep in close touch with my colleagues in Government about that.

On the specific issue that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) raised, competition is absolutely at the heart of the Government’s approach. We believe that it delivers for consumers, but I understand the frustration that she expresses. It is clearly not the intention that there should be three separate telegraph poles and cables alongside them, and we are conscious that the installation of such infrastructure is disruptive to people.

We have made it easier for operators to install equipment, but it is not the case that local communities no longer have any say. While individuals cannot impose conditions, local authorities can. They have to be notified of the intention to deploy infrastructure, and they can set conditions under which the operator has to comply when carrying out an installation. If those conditions are not complied with, the local authority needs to notify Ofcom, and Ofcom has the power to intervene. When it comes to the hon. Lady’s case in Hull, if operators are not abiding by the code of practice or the conditions that have been set, that is a matter that I would encourage her local authority or, indeed, the hon. Lady herself to take up with Ofcom because there are powers available.

Any conditions that are set do not appear to be mandatory—that is my understanding. This is the situation from both Hull City Council and East Riding of Yorkshire Council; my constituency covers both.

On the issue of Ofcom, I have to say that I have not found it at all effective in this area and I do not believe it is carrying out its full duties as a regulator in taking this matter seriously and taking action. I would welcome the Government getting behind this call to say to Ofcom that it needs to act and take the issue more seriously. I am so pleased that the Minister has agreed that it is simply unacceptable to have three different companies digging up the same street in the space of a year, putting their own poles in.

Ofcom has powers to intervene if conditions are not being properly complied with. If the hon. Lady is dissatisfied with Ofcom’s response, I encourage her to contact them directly and come back to me, by all means, if she finds Ofcom is not responding in the way she would like.

As for the cases raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), we are very much aware of the situation regarding the B4RN offer but, as he will be aware, BDUK has just signed the Project Gigabit contract in Cumbria, which is worth £180 million. It will extend coverage to 59,000 more premises in Cumbria and 10,000 of those are in his constituency. That is a significant increase. Obviously, there will still be some still outside that, and I hear what he says about the B4RN offer. However, an agreement was never reached with B4RN over its proposals. We will continue to talk to the hon. Gentleman about any concerns and I share his wish to ensure that the premises outside the procurement contract that has been signed still have the prospect in due course of accessing Gigabit. I invite the hon. Gentleman to continue to talk to the Department and to Fibrus about that.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion rightly raised the procurement contract for south-west Wales and pressed us to not drag our feet—I think that was the expression he used. We have no intention of doing that, but BDUK will let him know as soon as a successful supplier has been identified and will ensure that he is kept up to date. He also raised an important point about the public switched telephone network. I can assure him that nobody will have their existing connection cut off if they do not have access to broadband. I am very conscious of that.

The hon. Member for Llanelli made the point, which I think I have already covered, about setting out a timetable and targets. I agreed with a lot of what she said about the importance of ensuring that there is universal coverage and about the indispensability of broadband.

I want to come back on the point about affordability, which I am glad the hon. Member for Rhondda raised because it is important. We recognise that for some people broadband is an essential of life but nevertheless a significant cost to their budget. That is why we have been keen to get the agreement of all the operators to put in place social tariffs, which are now available for 99% of consumers. The challenge has been that take-up has not been anything like what we would like to see, with something like 200,000 out of a possible 4 million consumers taking advantage of social tariffs. I had a meeting this morning with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions to discuss how we could ensure that all consumers are aware. We are also talking to the operators about ensuring they publicise it as well. All I can say to those on low incomes who are worried about the cost is that they do not need to wait for a Labour Government, if one should ever appear, because this Government are taking the issue up and tackling it now.

Thank you for the opportunity, Sir Christopher, and I thank the hon. Member for Stirling. It has been a very valuable debate.

I am conscious of time so I will not mention anyone individually, but I thank all hon. Members for their contributions and also for their kind words personally. I am not against all unions; I am in favour of some of them—one being my wedding earlier in the summer. I should also mention that the Stirling beheading stone is a historic item; it is not actually used for that practice anymore, although I suspect it might be if I do not deliver better broadband for a lot of my constituents.

I am grateful for the Minister’s comments. I will follow up, if I may. I was particularly struck at the progress made in Stirling. We may have slightly different numbers, but from 1% in 2019, the year of my election, to the progress that we have now—

Water Resources Management Plan: Teddington

I beg to move,

That this House has considered water resources plan proposals for Teddington.

It is a pleasure, Sir Christopher, to serve under your chairmanship and to lead this important debate on Thames Water’s hugely controversial plans for a water recycling scheme at Teddington in my constituency.

I am very glad to see the Minister in her place. She will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and I have repeatedly asked her, for many months now, for a meeting to discuss this scheme. Given that Thames Water’s newly revised plans have just hit the Secretary of State’s desk for approval, this debate could not have been granted at a more critical time.

Although I have a number of questions to put to the Minister, my overarching request is very simple. On behalf of the residents of Teddington, Twickenham, St Margarets and beyond, I ask Ministers to veto the Teddington water recycling proposals now, before yet more money is wasted on a project that is bad for the environment and bad for water bill payers, as well as barely scratching the surface of the problem it seeks to resolve.

It is no secret that our water system is under pressure. Both population growth and climate change are challenges that must be overcome, so I recognise and welcome the work that Thames Water has undertaken to prepare for future water shortages. However, because of the limited capacity and the potentially disastrous impact on water quality and the environment, our community believes that Thames Water has taken a damaging wrong turn in promoting a water recycling scheme at Teddington.

I thank the hon. Member, who is my constituency neighbour, for securing this debate. Does she agree that instead of yet another hugely expensive capital scheme—we still have Tideway, as well—it might be better if Thames Water focused on significantly reducing the leakage of fresh water from its pipes?

I could not agree more with the hon. Lady, my constituency neighbour, and I will make that very point in my speech.

However, I will just briefly set out what the proposal is. It is to abstract millions of litres of fresh water from the Thames in my constituency and transfer it across London to the Lea Valley reservoir during times of drought. To replace that fresh water, Thames Water plans to pump millions upon millions of litres of treated effluent from Mogden sewage treatment works into the river at Teddington. That is millions upon millions of litres of treated sewage being dumped every day—not just in times of drought, but every day—into a tranquil yet lively hotspot for fishing, boating, paddleboarding and even wild swimming.

If that was not enough, the scheme threatens to wreak havoc on the local environment before a single drop of treated sewage even enters the Thames. That is because a new pipeline will have to be drilled underground from Isleworth to Ham, which means constructing eight access shafts. Each shaft will require a sizeable construction site, with conservation areas such as Ham Lands and recreation grounds such as Moormead Park being put at risk. Residents do not want their river harmed and they do not want to see their green spaces turned to rubble.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for securing this extremely important debate. She mentioned Ham Lands, which is in my constituency of Richmond Park. It is a local nature reserve that the local community has spent decades trying to protect. It has a unique ecology; it is home to many rare plants, lichen and fungi. Yet incredibly Thames Water proposes to build up to six major construction sites on Ham Lands, each one half the size of a football pitch. The plans include the permanent—I emphasise permanent—destruction of five acres of vital wildlife habitat. In total, 24,000 people have signed a petition against the scheme. Does she agree that the community has made its views very clear and that the Government must now listen?

I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for that important intervention; I could not agree with her more. Thames Water has conducted a consultation, but its response to its own consultation, published just a few days ago, makes it abundantly clear that it has not listened to public opinion or taken due regard of the impact on the very precious environment on which it is seeking to build.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on not only securing this debate but how she has conducted her campaign on behalf of her constituents, working with our hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney).

Many of my constituents in Kingston are worried about the scheme. They treasure ecology and water quality, and are really alarmed that Thames Water could think it acceptable to pump highly treated recycled water back into our wonderful Thames. They are also worried about the impact of the construction—the huge number of lorry movements that will come into Kingston during the construction phase. My hon. Friend’s campaign has my full support, and I would be grateful if she added my representations and those of my constituents to her own.

My right hon. Friend demonstrates, once again, the strength of opinion locally. Not only has Thames Water not listened to residents’ representations but its interaction and communication since the start of the process have been, frankly, woeful.

Just days ago, Thames Water published its revised water resources management plan—supposedly, as I said, in response to its public consultation. As the Minister will know, in the plan the company has drastically improved its usage reduction target to 110 litres per person per day by 2050. That is a welcome step. That reduction in demand means less pressure on new supply options such as the Teddington water recycling scheme. Yet despite public opposition and the concerns of the Environment Agency, Thames Water have kept that in its plans while scrapping more popular schemes that would have far more benefit to our economy and the environment. How can that be the right choice?

The strength of local feeling about the scheme is palpable, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) have pointed out—not just from local residents who live by the river, but from the thousands of river users who row, fish, swim or paddle in our part of the Thames. The Minister and Thames Water need only look at the sheer scale of the response to the public consultation. Across the whole of its catchment, Thames Water received 1,700 responses; well over a third of those referenced the Teddington scheme directly. Thames Water has chosen to ignore those, but I implore the Minister to listen.

When justifying this controversial scheme, Thames Water returned to a particular claim again and again: that Teddington is the best value option. Best value for whom? That is the question asked by many of my constituents, who remain unconvinced that answer is, as it should be, best value for our rivers, best value for the environment or best value for Thames Water’s 15 million customers.

The truth is that we have reached a point where Thames Water is running out of time to get our water system into shape and it is dangerously close to missing its drought targets. The company’s own documents refer to a “short-term planning problem” in London and it thinks it has found its quick fix in this water recycling scheme. But it is a sticking plaster. The scheme is necessary only because of decades of neglect and underinvestment by Thames Water. In the 34 years since it was established, it has delivered next to no new major water resources, aside from a multi-million-pound desalination plant that was completely out of action last year during the worst drought in decades—not a fantastic record, as I am sure the Minister will agree. That failure to plan ahead has left the company scrambling for a scheme that it can deliver in 10 years or less and it thinks it can plug the gap with water recycling.

The scheme would cost hundreds of millions of pounds of customers’ money but gain very little in terms of resilience. The proposed scheme would save only one 10th—yes, only one 10th—of the 630 million litres of water that Thames Water loses every day through leaks, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) pointed out. Thames Water has failed to take prompt action on those leaks over recent years.

Residents regularly see leaks in their neighbourhoods. Last month, an entire playground in Hampton Wick in my constituency was flooded with drinking water. Thames Water is haemorrhaging not just water, but public trust. That is why residents want the company to focus on the leaks and on reducing demand.

Our stretch of the Thames is often called London’s countryside for its picturesque setting, with lush natural habitats and thriving ecosystems supporting species, from bats and badgers to brown trout. Understandably, local residents are passionate about protecting it. Time and again, we have been told by Thames Water that, with tertiary treatment, the effluent that it pumps into the river at Teddington would be of the same quality as the river water itself, with negligible impact on our vibrant river environment or on swimmers, boaters and other river users’ safety.

If that were really the case, however, Thames Water would be able to transfer that highly treated effluent straight into its reservoirs, rather than into the Thames. The company has been clear that that is not an option, however. The truth is that Thames Water has made claims about the environmental impact of the scheme that it simply cannot back up, because it has not completed a full environmental assessment to say how the scheme will affect our river ecology, and nor has it completed human health impact assessments of how it might affect thousands of river users.

To quote the Environment Agency’s response to the proposal, Thames Water has so far failed to show that the Teddington scheme is “feasible or environmentally acceptable”. That is a pretty low baseline. In reality, treated sewage contains a number of chemicals beyond those that the Government have specific targets for, such as phosphorus. Treated effluent contains a host of compounds and chemicals that we have not been assured would be filtered out, including PFAS—so-called forever chemicals, which do not break down in the environment and are known to cause health complications in humans and wildlife—and pharmaceuticals. We should be working to reduce such chemicals in our rivers and streams, rather than wilfully pumping them in.

On top of that, local residents are understandably alarmed that constructing the scheme may mean tearing up beloved green spaces and areas of conservation interest to drill a new tunnel and to construct shafts. Moormead Park in St Margaret’s is a popular local green space for families, local schools and sports groups, with a busy playground and planning permission having just been granted for a much-needed new community sports pavilion. Ham Lands is a beautiful nature reserve, home to important wildlife habitats, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park pointed out. The list of species that could be disturbed or displaced by construction is very long.

It is worth the Minister noting that none of the construction details was shared during Thames Water’s information event earlier this year. It is not just Thames Water’s sewage discharges that stink; its public engagement with our community does too. Engagement has been beyond woeful. Despite that, the public response to Thames Water’s consultation was fantastic. If Thames Water had put any value on the 1,700 responses it received, we would not need to discuss this today.

The company has chosen to scrap its proposal for a new water transfer from the River Severn to the Thames, which would have allowed it potentially to restore large stretches of the beautiful Cotswold canals. Unlike Teddington, that scheme had huge public backing. The positive response to it in the consultation was overwhelming, with people citing the huge social, environmental and economic benefits of restoring those heritage waterways.

Thames Water has thrown public opinion out with the bathwater, a luxury afforded only to companies that have a monopoly in their industry. The company cites customer research to suggest that the public prefer dumping treated effluent into the Thames to restoring heritage canals. I do not know about you, Sir Christopher, but given the findings of the actual consultation, that seems to be a surprising result.

Before I wrap up, I want to touch briefly on two technical points made by local campaigners. The first is about the Environment Agency and Surrey County Council’s River Thames scheme. Shockingly, at my first meeting with Thames Water representatives back in January, they did not even seem to know that that scheme existed, despite its clear impact on river flows at Teddington. Any proposals for water recycling at Teddington must be compatible with those vital works.

Secondly, residents have questions about capacity at the Queen Mary reservoir in London. They simply want to know what work Thames Water has done to investigate that option. Will the Minister add her voice to their calls to for a more sustainable solution?

A campaign group called Save Ham Lands and River is hosting an event in Ham in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park this Saturday to discuss the scheme and our concerns in more detail. If the Minister truly wants to hear what Thames Water customers think of the plan, there is no better opportunity to speak to local residents and river users. I hope that she will accept the invitation, but if not, my hon. Friend and I would be more than delighted to welcome her, at her earliest convenience, to Teddington and Ham to experience our bustling river community for herself. It will take her only half an hour on the tube from Westminster.

I hope that the Minister will respond to the concerns that I have highlighted. It is disappointing that she has ignored our calls for a meeting for many months. It has taken several letters, a point of order and now this debate to compel her to sit in a room with us to listen to constituents’ concerns.

Residents in Teddington, Twickenham, St Margarets and across the region do not trust Thames Water, and they do not trust regulators and the Government to hold it to account. That is precisely why Liberal Democrats nationally are calling for wholesale reform of the water industry to transform private companies such as Thames Water into public-good corporations, with value for the customer and the environment written into their DNA. It is also why locally we are standing up for residents’ concerns about the plan and calling on the Government to consider viable alternatives to the scheme, which will damage our river environment for little reward in terms of long-term resilience.

We urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to give the Teddington scheme and all Thames Water’s infrastructure plans the full and proper scrutiny they deserve to ensure that they are best value for not only stakeholders, but customers who are paying their bills today and the environment that our children will inherit tomorrow. On scrutinising the proposal, they will find that it is deeply flawed and should be stopped in its tracks now.

To quote the Minister:

“Water is a precious resource.”—[Official Report, 21 February 2023; Vol. 728, c. 133.]

We are asking the Government to show that that is not just a platitude, but at the heart of their policies. I ask the Minister to start by giving us a timeline for when the Secretary of State expects to make her decision, and by answering the various questions I have asked today.

What does she think of Thames Water’s pursuing quick fixes instead of sustainable solutions, such as restoring the Cotswold canals? Does she think that it is acceptable that Thames Water has put forward water recycling without a full environmental impact assessment? What does she think of the risks of constructing the scheme and the fact that Thames Water did not make them clear to the community from the outset? Does she believe that pumping treated effluent into the river is viable, given the current levels of sewage pollution in our waterways? Will she take up the unanswered questions of residents about both the River Thames scheme and the Queen Mary reservoir in her discussions with Thames Water? Finally, can she look local residents and their children in the eye and tell them that the scheme is worth the consequences for our river, our precious local environment and our vibrant community of river user groups?

It is a pleasure, Sir Christopher, to have you in the Chair.

I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing the debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss the subject and the whole issue of water supply that faces the country. I put on record an apology for the tardiness in replying to letters—I am trying to get to the bottom of exactly how that happened.

The hon. Member knows—we all know—that water is a precious and vital resource. It is needed for everything we do. It is essential for a healthy environment and a prosperous economy, but a reliable water supply is often taken for granted, as I have been discovering more and more since becoming water Minister. We have not experienced country-wide water shortages since the 1970s, although there were some significant strains on water supply in large parts of the country last year. There was drought, with that record heat and dry weather.

Climate change and a growing population, especially in the drier parts of the country, are causing real challenges for our water supply. I was glad that the hon. Member at least recognised that the system is under pressure. Water companies must take those factors into account when they plan in order to provide a reliable supply of safe drinking water, and water for all the other uses we require. It is our job as a Government to work with the water regulators to ensure that water companies do that effectively.

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

The Government’s plan for water identified that by 2050 about 4 billion extra litres of water a day will be needed. That is a quarter as much water as we use now. That is a significant amount and it will be achieved in many ways, which I will outline. We have a detailed plan as to how that will happen. We have to take a strategic approach to planning future water needs, work with regional water resources groups and water companies to meet the challenges of climate change, and at the same time protect and enhance the environment. I totally agree that we must not do it at the expense of the environment.

We need to preserve those iconic habitats, such as chalk streams, which the Government have worked so much to protect, particularly through the chalk stream restoration group, which I am proud to have instigated. We are driving forward a vision for chalk streams, including the reduction of unsustainable water extraction. That will be delivered by measures in our plan for water and via the landmark Environment Act 2021.

The plan for water also reflects the Government’s commitment to a twin-track approach to improving water resilience, by investing in new supply infrastructure, and reducing demand through the reduction of leaks, as was mentioned. Of course, that is an important part, but in addition we plan to increase water efficiency. Half our additional water needs can be made up by water-demand improvements. By 2050, we expect to see leakage levels halved. Thames Water met its leakage target for 2019-20 by cutting leakage by 10.7%, but it did not do so well last year because of the dry weather and the freeze-thaw. I urge the company to get on track with its targets for leakage. That is an important part of the picture. It is not the case that it is not doing it, but it has to do it in addition to all the other things.

There are targets for reducing average per capita consumption to 110 litres per person per day. At the moment, the average is 144 litres, so there is a significant way to go. Lots of water companies are already making good strides in that direction. We have implemented legally binding demand management targets through Environment Act powers, to ensure that we remain on track to meet those targets, as I am sure the hon. Member for Twickenham will know.

We must expect all water companies to act on customers’ needs for that resilient supply and to manage the water sustainably. I hope the hon. Member appreciates our collaboration with the regional water resource groups, which include Water Resources South East. I met and spent a long time talking to them about water supply over the summer, to look at what they are doing. All those groups, including Thames Water, have been consulting on their draft plans, as she pointed out. Those consultations are helping inform future decisions on the right way to secure water supplies, including for Thames Water’s 10 million customers, which is a huge number to deliver water to.

To support the robustness of water resource planning, the water regulators issued detailed guidance to the water companies on how to do that. If water companies are forecasting a water supply deficit, as we will see in the south-east, they must study the options available to them and justify their preferred solutions. I understand that the Teddington direct river abstraction was one of 2,400 options modelled by Water Resources South East to address climate change and population growth and to protect our environment.

The hon. Member for Twickenham expounded on Thames not delivering any new water resources, but it is very difficult for it to do that if objections constantly arise. I will cite the Abingdon reservoir, on which another Liberal Democrat, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), secured a debate in Westminster Hall. More objections were raised about that reservoir. At some point, we have to work out where we will get this new water from. That is why we have a consultation process, to which people have rightly supplied input. I agree that they need to be listened to in the summary of what goes on, but we have to get new water supplies. Many other water companies are facing this and we have proposals for a whole range of models, including recycling facilities, new reservoirs, such as the south Lincolnshire reservoir and the fens reservoirs, desalination plants, such as those that South West Water has put in, and extensions to other reservoirs. We have already seen quite a number of those coming into place, so there is a whole range of options and they are looking at them all.

The Environment Agency and Ofwat have helped to shape those regional plans. They are statutory consultees on the water resources management plans, and the Environment Agency also invited the Secretary of State, as the hon. Member for Twickenham knows, to consider the draft plans before they are finalised. It will be advising the Secretary of State later this year. The hon. Lady asked about the date. It is going through due process. It will be later this year. As she knows, the Secretary of State has a number of options to consider: to accept the plans, to change the plans or to trigger an inquiry.

I have mentioned all the new schemes and systems. Because this is so critical, £469 million was recently made available by Ofwat to properly investigate the range of potential strategic water resources options such as new reservoirs, recycling projects—the one that the hon. Lady is talking about is a recycling project, as she knows—and inter-regional water transfers. That is the work that is supported by RAPID, or the Regulators’ Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development. This joint team is made up of the three regulators—Ofwat, EA and the Drinking Water Inspectorate—and works with companies to develop their strategic water resources infrastructure in the best interests of water users and the environment. The environment is absolutely critical and we must ensure that it is taken into account. I am not going to give detailed comments on the hon. Lady’s particular project but obviously one of the reasons for it is to put extra water into the river to keep that flow going because we need to ensure that the environment of the river remains good. As far as I understand it, it is to be used when needed and is not a continuous use project at all.

I have a final point. Although it is meant to be a drought measure, for technical reasons, to keep the system working, what is known as a sweetener flow would have to be operational every single day, so we are talking about millions of litres of treated effluent going into the Thames every single day to keep the system going. On the Minister’s point about all projects being objected to, as I pointed out in my speech, a very popular proposal in the consultation had broad public support, but Thames Water dismissed it out of hand and is proceeding with this, which will waste bill payers’ money and have a massive impact on the environment. It is not the case that everyone is objecting to everything.

I thank the hon. Lady for that. This is long term and strategic—that is what we have to talk about now in terms of water supply. I am concerned that it keeps being described as treated effluent. She will know that, once water has gone through a treatment plant and has had the full and correct treatment, it goes back into the rivers. This will have an extra layer of treatment to ensure that it really is fresh water being returned to the river. We must be very careful about how that is interpreted.

I would be the first person to say that if this goes ahead or gets the support, it has to be permitted by the EA and strictly controlled so that there are no issues about the actual quality of the water going into the river. I agree that it is important to keep the environment going, and I hope I have demonstrated that we have a robust system to look at these projects and get the water that our country needs. The new infrastructure requirements were set out in our national policy statement for water resources infrastructure, and the statement applies to the planning consent of nationally significant infrastructure projects. The proposed Teddington district river abstraction might qualify for one of those.

As I have said, the Environment Agency will be a statutory consultee on development consent orders, and the EA will also determine any abstraction licence or environmental permit. Water quality, temperature, flow and fish protection are all things that will have to be considered. I hope that the hon. Member agrees with and understands this robust process. Obviously, we need to listen to people’s voices, but we also need to secure those resilient supplies for the future and for our water supply. We have a sound and robust system in place, with targets and our twin-track approach. We need to ensure that the right schemes go ahead. I thank the hon. Lady for her words.

Question put and agreed to.

Ahmadi Muslims: Pakistan

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the treatment of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank the House for granting us the chance to debate this matter today. The debate is a very heavily subscribed, so I will try to be as fair as can to colleagues by rustling through my speech so that everyone can have their say.

We meet at a very pertinent time, because tomorrow marks 49 years since the Pakistani constitution was amended to declare that Ahmadis are not Muslims. As I will set out later in my remarks, that was just one step in the ongoing discrimination against and persecution of the Ahmadi population in Pakistan—a process that seems to have only picked up pace rather than slowed. As the Minister will be aware, the issue is incredibly important to constituents of mine. The UK has always been a welcoming home for the Ahmadi community, many of whom have settled in my Carshalton and Wallington constituency because of its proximity to the Baitul Futuh mosque in the constituency of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community—[Interruption.] The mosque is in Wimbledon—I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). I thank all for attending today and look forward to hearing the response from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The change in the constitution marked by tomorrow’s anniversary was followed 10 years later by the so-called anti-Ahmadi laws, which were enacted in 1984. The ordinances made it a criminal offence for Ahmadis to call themselves Muslim or practise Islam. Alarmingly, such changes to the law have not slowed or abated; in fact, in the last decade, anti-Ahmadi changes to the law have only picked up pace. For example, in January 2015, the Government introduced a national action plan as a tool to crack down on terrorism, but a number of human rights organisations have noted that the plan has been misused to target religious communities, especially Ahmadiyya Muslims, simply for practising their faith.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate and thank him for allowing me to intervene. I have often spoken up about the human rights of minorities, and freedom of religious belief is something that we should strongly protect across the globe. Does he agree that standing by while people are being discriminated against because of their religion, ethnicity or background is simply not on? Is he also concerned, like me, about the potential spillover effect to the United Kingdom of Ahmadi Muslim persecution?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Member. In fact, later in my speech I will speak about just that subject. I am grateful to him for his intervention.

In 2017, just two years after the national action plan, the Koran publications Act was introduced, which prevented Ahmadis from publishing the holy Koran. What followed was a litany of blatant amendments to existing laws, or the introduction of new ones, that leave no question whatsoever as to their intention: not only to discriminate against Ahmadis but ultimately to persecute them in society, both symbolically and physically. That was seen just five years ago in a judgment of the Islamabad High Court that called for the nation’s Ahmadis to be identifiable by adding Qadiani or Mirzai to the end of their names, or by their attire. It also called for them to be identified when applying for key roles in the civil service, education, armed forces or the judiciary—all purely to prevent anyone who is Ahmadi from holding such key posts in their country.

Those are just some of the many recent legal changes that seek to affect every layer of Pakistan’s political and civil society, further pushing out and ostracising Ahmadis, whether that is through the insistence of the Khatme Nabuwwat—the finality of the prophethood clause, which is against Ahmadi belief or teachings—or through even more stringent changes to blasphemy laws, including in the digital space. These state-led anti-Ahmadi legal changes are having real impacts across Pakistan. The numbers speak for themselves. I thank the many human rights and civil society organisations that have been in touch with us ahead of this debate for shining a light and maintaining these figures.

The hon. Member is making an excellent and moving speech, and I am learning a lot about the situation in Pakistan. He mentioned civil society groups. Does he agree with me that our diaspora groups need praising? It was a proud moment in your constituency, Mr Sharma, when the Ahmadiyya mosque in Southall was opened in 2020. However, we should not be complacent, and it is disturbing to know that in 2016 anti-Ahmadi leaflets were found in Stockwell, and in 2019 Channel 44 was fined £75,000 by Ofcom for Urdu-language hate speech. Would the hon. Member agree with me that we should never be complacent and should look at including the Ahmadi community in hate crime strategies in this country too?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Member, and, extending her praise to civil society groups, I would like to break with convention and thank those who are in the Public Gallery.

I will go over some of the figures. Since 1984—that is less than 40 years ago—277 Ahmadi Muslims have been murdered. Over 220 mosques have either been demolished, sealed, set on fire or banned from being constructed. Eighty burials have been denied in common cemeteries and more than 430 graves have been desecrated. That shows the reality of what is essentially state-sanctioned, supported and encouraged discrimination and persecution of Ahmadis. It has led to emboldened harassment, attacks and even the murder of Ahmadis, as well as the denial of their rights—rights that many of us take for granted.

As I have already noted, since 1984 many have tragically been murdered simply because of their faith, with the deadliest attack on the community happening in May 2010, when the Taliban attacked worshippers during Friday prayers at two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, killing 86 people. One of the latest incidents was the murder of the 75-year-old Dr Rashid Ahmed in February 2023 in Gujarat, which was part of what a number of international agencies have identified as the ongoing, concentrated targeting of Ahmadis.

There is also the attack on the right to worship. Within this House and this nation, there are many people of many different faiths, and many with no faith, and they are free to choose where, how and what to believe. However, in Pakistan, 18 Ahmadiyya mosques have had minarets demolished since 2023 alone. Mosques across Pakistan have been sealed, and minarets have been demolished by police, despite there being no legal justification for such an attack. Alongside that, the right to practice their faith is under increasing attack, leaving Ahmadis isolated and in fear of their lives. The state’s insistence on shutting down any public demonstration of Ahmadiyya faith is seen through Ahmadis being prohibited from building new mosques, meeting, or holding other religious gatherings, such as for Eid.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The point he raises about the persecution of Ahmadis is absolutely appalling. It is not just about the Government of Pakistan; it also has real effects here in the UK. I have been contacted by members of the community across Rossendale and Darwen, and in east Lancashire more generally, including by Mohammed Shafiq, the head of external affairs for the Bait ul Rasheed mosque in Blackburn. The issue he raises about the ongoing prevention of freedom of worship is that persecution of an appalling nature is not only happening in Pakistan—I have been told by members of the community that similar ideas are being imported to the UK. Although it is very good to have a Minister from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office responding to the debate, this is also an issue for Great Britain and for our fantastic Ahmadi community here in the United Kingdom.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that this issue has real implications in the UK through the importation of that hatred and rhetoric on to our shores. I will come on to that in more detail later.

As well as the ban on the publication of religious texts, cyber laws have also massively impacted the Ahmadis’ ability to learn and practise their faith, with social media sites and websites in Pakistan being banned and shut down and websites in the UK, USA and Canada being targeted via the Pakistani state in an attempt to enact Pakistan’s cyber laws.

It is not just in life that Ahmadis are targeted. Since 2021, within the last two years, more than 420 graves have been desecrated and attacked—destroyed and defaced just because they bear Koranic inscriptions. Even the grave of Pakistan’s Nobel laureate, Professor Abdus Salam, has been desecrated to remove the word “Muslim” from the epitaph, such is the state’s tacit—or at least implied—approval.

As for what the British Government have done, I want to thank the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for its engagement with the APPG when we reach out—I am sure the chair will want to go into more detail on that. I thank the Minister for being willing to meet and listen to concerns, and for reaffirming in a recent written question the UK Government’s commitment to freedom of religion and belief. I am glad that Ministers will continue to raise the issue at the highest level. It is vital that the British Government continue that work through all possible channels—with their Pakistani counterparts as well as with international partners at national and NGO level, to press not just for the relaxation of anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and legislation but its full removal from penal codes and blasphemy laws. Only then can we hope to stave off the wave of anti-Ahmadi hatred.

Is the right to the free exercise of religion not fundamental to the United Nations charter? Should we not therefore hold countries to account to protect against action by the state and the condoning of lack of enforcement? After all, there are refugee conventions as well. Should we not hold countries to account for that rather, rather than having their Governments fail to satisfy the needs of their people and therefore look for scapegoats, as has happened so often in history?

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for that intervention, and I absolutely agree with him. I look forward to hearing more about that later in the debate. He makes the point very well indeed.

It is clear that there are still huge issues for ordinary Ahmadi Muslims. What are the Government doing and what is the FCDO doing in partnership with the Home Office, as has been mentioned, to better protect and assist Ahmadis who are fleeing persecution and violence? As I have already noted, Carshalton and Wallington is home to many Ahmadi Muslims, as is the London borough of Merton next door.

In summing up, I want to underline why I believe the Government are right to pursue recourse for the Ahmadi community. They should go much further because the Pakistani Government and the widespread anti-Ahmadi violence is giving oxygen to those in other countries far beyond Pakistan’s own borders. The authorities’ fervent discrimination encourages anti-Ahmadi sentiment elsewhere and, as has already been said in interventions, here in the United Kingdom. In 2023 alone, we have already seen anti-Ahmadi extremism take root in other countries. In January in Burkina Faso, nine Ahmadi Muslims were brutally killed one by one after being taken from a mosque near Dori and asked to renounce their faith. They were shot dead when they refused.

In March in Bangladesh, an anti-Ahmadi extremist mob attacked the Ahmadi Muslim annual convention. The fanatics torched the homes of Ahmadi Muslims in Ahmednagar. One Ahmadi, Jahid Hasan, was killed during the attack and over 70 were injured. In Algeria, too, Ahmadis are facing ongoing discrimination. They are being denied the right to practise their faith and being targeted by the authorities. There is at least one Ahmadi prisoner of conscience serving a three-year prison sentence for practising his Ahmadi beliefs.

Alarmingly, such extremism has also reached the United Kingdom. One incredibly shocking incident took place in Glasgow in March 2016 when a shopkeeper, Asad Shah, was murdered—stabbed to death—simply because of his faith. The murderer was said to be inspired by Mumtaz Qadri of Pakistan, the bodyguard who murdered Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who supported a review of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. As one Ahmadi human rights group notes, that is an incredibly worrisome reminder of the effect of anti-Ahmadi feelings being left unchecked across borders.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I am proud to represent a vibrant Ahmadi community group in Huddersfield. In fact, many of my constituents would be shocked to hear of the persecution and discrimination that the Ahmadis face not only in the UK but around the world, because locally they see them being involved in so many positive community projects: love for all, hatred for none. I fully support my hon. Friend’s request for the Foreign Office and the Home Office to continue to raise this unacceptable persecution, and I hope that we can all continue to work across the parties to support our vibrant Ahmadi community.

I absolutely concur with my hon. Friend. I had the pleasure of attending the UK’s annual convention, Jalsa Salana, over the summer recess. I know that many colleagues have attended that fantastic event before and have always found the Ahmadi community to be incredibly welcoming. It speaks well of my hon. Friend to raise that point.

I will sum up as I am conscious of time and I want to allow colleagues to speak. The FCDO needs to up the ante in the ongoing dialogue with the Pakistani Government, and to encourage them to fully remove all anti-Ahmadi laws from their constitution and their penal code. Any continuance of state-sanctioned persecution—official or otherwise—will only continue to stir anti-Ahmadi hatred and extremism, which has unfortunately taken root not only in Pakistan but elsewhere. It is not too late to strike at those roots. To do that, international pressure is paramount. I hope that the FCDO will continue to play a central role in applying that pressure, working with other nations, for the many Ahmadis whom I am proud to call constituents, for the many we are proud to have here in the United Kingdom, and for the countless number still in Pakistan who live under constant fear of persecution.

Order. I remind Members that they should bob if they wish to be called. If there are no Divisions, I intend to call the Front Benchers at 5.10 pm. I can see six Members. [Interruption.] Seven—sorry, Fiona. We have about 22 minutes, so I will fix a time limit of three minutes each.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing this debate, and I thank you, Mr Sharma, for chairing it.

I do not wish to take too long because so many people want to contribute, which gives this debate great strength. We can be assured that Governments in Pakistan, both regional and national, will know of it; they will be watching it and it will have an impact. It is great that so many people from nearly all the parties represented in our Parliament have taken the time to be here today. I have the privilege of being chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. It is one of the easier tasks as an APPG officer; due to the incredible lobbying of the community, we are always quorate with very little effort.

We know about the harassment and discrimination that Ahmadis experience in Pakistan and how that percolates to other countries, including, regrettably, our own. The APPG undertook an in-depth investigation into discrimination in Pakistan. The single most depressing fact that I took from all the evidence sessions was that Ahmadis are discriminated against more strongly by younger people than by older people. Liberalism is in reverse in Pakistan, and the discrimination that the community feels is likely to be of a long-standing nature. That is in part because the Government of Pakistan have withdrawn from the responsibility to educate their young people and given the responsibility to people who hold extreme views on religion.

As one of the largest contributors to international aid in Pakistan, Britain has a role to consider how that investment is used. It took me a long time to get to the bottom of the fact that FCDO money was being used to produce books in schools that discriminated against Ahmadis. Will the Minister address the nature of investment in international development in Pakistan? How can he ensure that it does nothing that encourages the discrimination that exists from birth to death? The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington explained how that affects all levels of civil life and the community. With that, I will sit down.

I will focus on two matters of justice: first, the restrictions on Ahmadi Muslim lawyers practising in Afghanistan, and secondly, the detention of Ahmadi religious prisoners of conscience.

Recent announcements in parts of Pakistan that Ahmadi Muslim lawyers must effectively renounce their religion to practice their profession are completely unacceptable. That both the District Bar Association of Gujranwala and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bar Council have issued notices saying that anyone applying for admittance to the Bar must positively assert that they are Muslim and denounce the teachings of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and its founder is a profound breach of the freedom of religion or belief of those lawyers and contrary to international legal standards. It infringes on the freedom of religion or belief of not only the lawyers but any individual who seeks access to justice through representation by one of those lawyers.

I understand that Ahmadi Muslims already find it more difficult to secure legal representation, because threats against advocates who offer to defend Ahmadi Muslims are commonplace. We hear accounts of physical attacks against lawyers, even in the courtroom itself. One such account was on 27 April this year, when a 77-year-old advocate, Syed Ali Ahmad Tariq, was assaulted by other lawyers while practicing in court.

Nick Vineall KC, chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, has urged the Pakistan Bar Council to take action, specifically on the decisions by the district Bar councils I referred to. He stated that

“such actions are intentionally discriminatory and seem impossible to reconcile with Pakistan’s constitutional principles of religious freedom and equity before the law.”

Pakistan adopted the universal declaration of human rights in 1948, which includes article 18 on freedom of religion or belief. It also ratified the international convention on civil and political rights. The clear targeting of Ahmadiyya lawyers may well prevent aspiring advocates from entering their chosen profession, or force them to choose between their religion and their profession.

I ask the Minister to press the Government of Pakistan and their appropriate senior law officers to take similar action to that urged by Nick Vineall KC and urge the Pakistan Bar Council to ensure that steps are taken to retract the regulations and prevent threats, intimidation and physical attacks against lawyers. I regret that time does not allow me to turn to my second concern, which is the detention of Ahmadiyya Muslim religious prisoners of conscience.

The problem with this debate is that it has a sad, grave element of déjà vu. I have brought along my file. Some other Members who were here way back in 2014 will remember that we discussed at that time the UN rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief. I will quickly quote what he said:

“I am very concerned by the recent surge of violent attacks against Ahmadiyya Muslims by militant extremists. Such violence is fuelled by existing blasphemy legislation”.

He urged Pakistan to

guarantee the right to freedom of religion or belief”,

and went on to suggest that it should

“put in place protective measures to ensure…personal security”,

and ensure that those who perpetrate such crimes are brought to justice. That was in the report that we debated almost 10 years ago, in 2014.

Since then, we have had a litany of these debates, year after year. Soon after that report came out, a mosque was torched, and attacks and individual murders took place. That went on year after year, as reported. In 2020, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, we produced a report, “Suffocation of the Faithful: the Persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan and the Rise of International Extremism”, and at that point we raised the issue of education.

The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. We must not stop using everything in this House to continue to raise this issue. If we stop doing it and the Pakistan Government will not listen, there is no chance; at least if we continue to raise the issue of persecution, there is a chance that it can be alleviated.

That is exactly the point that we have made consistently. Every time there is an outrage, bringing it to the Floor of the House is important, because that is noted back in Pakistan. The view now is that the pattern has been consistent, and successive Pakistani Governments have refused to budge.

There has been continuous censorship, a denial of voting rights, the ban on the publication of religious texts and imprisonment for blasphemy—three years just for an Ahmadi calling themself a Muslim. There are also the implications of what is happening in education. Numbers of people are on death row as a result of the laws that have been put in place.

Everything comes back to the pressure we can apply. Over this period, we have consistently made several demands, including that the Pakistan Government prosecute those instigating hate; offer urgent protection to Ahmadi Muslims; investigate the train of unprovoked violence; repeal the blasphemy legislation; and generally uphold rights. We have a specific role as a Government: the UK plays a specific role in relation to Pakistan. We now need to examine all points of pressure that we can exert. I do not want to be here in another 10 years debating the same issues once again.

I welcome the debate and the fact that so many colleagues from all parties have attended. That shows not only the extent of the persecution that the Ahmadiyya community suffers in Pakistan, but the amazing contribution that the British Ahmadiyya community make in our country with their charitable works in our society, day in, day out, and with their message of peace—His Holiness is one of the greatest speakers on that.

I work with colleagues on the APPG and we have heard the evidence they have set forth today. Like the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who just spoke, I have a sense of déjà vu. In fact, it is worse than that: the situation in Pakistan for the Ahmadiyya community is getting worse, particularly given the political chaos there that is creating a vacuum. Extremists are exploiting that vacuum, and we are seeing yet more mosques desecrated, more assaults and more murders.

The British Government therefore have to up their game and raise their voice, working with other countries around the world to ensure that the Pakistani Government and authorities are in no doubt. There may be that vacuum in Pakistani politics at the moment, but it is the army, the police force and the authorities who are propagating the persecution and abuse. They need to hear our voice loud and clear.

I am genuinely worried about where things will go if we do not see some change after all these years. Those of us who have worked with the Holocaust Education Trust, been on trips to Auschwitz, and seen the eight steps to genocide, worry about the fact that that is in the constitution of Pakistan, and that the situation there is getting worse. The path is extremely worrying. Some might say that sounds alarmist—I do not use the analogy lightly—but I feel that our voice must be heard more clearly than it has been.

I urge the Minister, in his response to the debate, to make it clear what actions the Government are taking and what they are considering. Are they considering removing trade preferences? One thing we can do is reach out to the Ahmadi refugees around the world—in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia—and work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to make sure they can come to this country and settle with the families they have here. I have a constituent who is an Afghan Ahmadi whose family has been moved to Pakistan. They would like to resettle. They are acknowledged by the UNHCR, but the Home Office is not listening. I urge the Minister to say what action the Government are taking against the Government of Pakistan and what action we are taking to help Ahmadi Muslims around the world.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma, and to be called in this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing it. Given the upcoming elections in Pakistan and the increasing discrimination against the Ahmadis because of them, the timing of the debate could not be better.

Pakistan is a wonderful, beautiful country with whom the UK has a strong relationship. When I visited earlier this year on a delegation with the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, we were warmly welcomed by Ministers, the Speaker of the Assembly, organisations and many residents. We want the best for Pakistan and feel that this discrimination against one particular community is holding back the country. That is why we care so much.

The Ahmadiyya Muslims are a very important part of my community. There are many thousands in Putney, Southfields and Roehampton. We have many celebrations together, and I see them living out their motto—love for all, hatred for none—on a daily basis. Before I went to Pakistan, I heard from many constituents about the persecution they felt, but seeing it for myself was shocking. I saw persecution and discrimination faced every single day in schools, at work, on the streets, in law courts, in shops, and even in cemeteries. Since the Lahore massacre of 94 people in 2010, most women and children that I met had not attended the mosque for fear of violence.

The 1973 Pakistan constitution enshrines freedom of religion and belief and says that

“every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion”.

The test of that constitution is when it gets difficult—when there are differing beliefs or theologies. That is when it matters even more that human rights are protected. Ahmadis cannot turn to the democratic system to defend their rights, because they are not allowed to vote or stand for Parliament. They cannot turn to the justice system either. Fifty Ahmadi Muslims are currently in prison solely on account of their faith. Eid festival celebrations this year led to massive police raids to the homes of Ahmadi people who were just practising their faith, with 12 Ahmadis arrested for visiting family and friends to take part in the celebrations.

I urge the Government to press the Government of Pakistan to do the following: allow all Ahmadis to vote in the upcoming elections; release all Ahmadi Muslim prisoners of conscience; revoke the anti-Ahmadi measures and laws taken by Bar councils and Bar associations in Pakistan to target Ahmadi Muslim lawyers; provide protection to all citizens of Pakistan against religious-based violence; and repeal the draconian anti-Ahmadi laws and blasphemy laws that are being used to deny freedom of religion and legitimise violence against religious communities in Pakistan. Finally, the Government should sanction anti-Ahmadi preachers and reject any visa applications from them to visit the UK.

First, I pay tribute to the Ahmadiyya community in my Glasgow Central constituency. They have always been incredibly welcoming to me, my colleagues and their neighbours and friends in Yorkhill, where their mosque is located. I particularly thank Ahmed Owusu-Konadu for the work he does in the local community. They have regular fundraising events for many charities, including Glasgow Children’s Hospital Charity, which I know is greatly appreciated.

The more I have got to know the Ahmadi community over the years, the more I have heard about the pressure, danger and threats that they have been under. Members have already spoken of the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims and the fact that this has been going on for decades. Those practising their faith, particularly but sadly not exclusively in Pakistan, have been persecuted and discriminated against—in life and in death, in mosques, in their graves, in businesses and at observances of Eid. They have faced attacks simply for wanting to keep their faith.

What makes this all the worse is that it is endorsed by the Pakistani constitution. It has disturbing consequences for us here in the UK. In 2016, Asad Shah was murdered in the neighbouring constituency to mine—[Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

As I was saying, this very disturbing aspect of the Pakistani constitution has consequences in the real world. In 2016, Asad Shah was murdered in the neighbouring constituency to mine, his killer inspired by hate speech.

What safeguards are put in place in terms of visas for people coming to the UK? I understand from much of the briefing the Ahmadiyya community has provided that a number of hate preachers have come to the UK on visas and preached their hate, which has consequences for our communities. What safeguards are in place to ensure that that does not happen, and is not allowed to happen, because people, wherever they are, have the right to practise their faith as they wish to in safety and security and without persecution.

May I say what a pleasure it is to speak in this debate? I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), who, as always, has brought excellent issues to the House for us all to support, and he does that well.

Pakistan holds a very dear and special place in my heart. As an MP, I have had the privilege of visiting the country a number of times, the latest being in February with the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson)—she will forgive me for not mentioning all three parts of her constituency. We had a good presentation, we were well received and we learned a lot.

There has been a surge in the prosecution faced by Ahmadi Muslims, alongside a spike in blasphemy allegations that disproportionately impacts such communities. Since February, the situation has deteriorated. Only this Monday, masked men used sledgehammers to damage the minarets on the rooftop of an Ahmadi mosque in Karachi. Reports indicate that a mob attacked the mosque at the time of the Zuhr prayer. As well as destroying the minarets, the mob started chanting slogans against the Ahmadi community and attacking worshippers. That was the second attack this year on the building.

The persecution of Pakistan’s Ahmadi Muslim community has been sustained and systemic. The situation of Ahmadis in Pakistan is also unique, as the group is excluded from the protections other religious minorities have. They are not allowed to vote. Could you imagine, Mr Sharma, how we would feel if we were not allowed to vote? That is how the Ahmadis feel. Even the National Commission for Minorities in Pakistan excludes Ahmadis, when it is supposed to be all-embracing.

Blasphemy cases lodged against Ahmadis have increased tenfold in the last year, and the persecution by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party has been significant. Some of the chants and statements coming from TLP supporters mention carrying out attacks against pregnant Ahmadi Muslim mothers to

“ensure that no new Ahmadis are born”.

Those things are totally unacceptable. Graveyards are being desecrated, mosques are being forced to close and acts of violence and graffiti are being committed. We have heard multiple credible reports of members of the police or the armed forces standing by and allowing acts of violence to occur with impunity. Ahmadis have been accused of blasphemy as well.

In the last 30 seconds I will finish with this—it may be many more words in a half a minute than anybody else! As a country, the UK has learned through its long history that when religious minorities are denied rights, it harms the rest of society. When they have been granted equal rights, the UK has thrived. My beseeching to the Minister in the discussions he and our British Government will have with the Pakistan Government is this: I urge the Government of Pakistan to enact the principle of freedom of religious belief for all. We have it, and they should have it.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing today’s debate. There should be no doubt that the principle of freedom of religion is a fundamental one that must be upheld for all, yet too many people face persecution throughout the world for their views, and it is particularly disappointing to hear that such intolerant attitudes may be spreading to these islands.

As we have heard, the Ahmadis view themselves as within Islam and proclaim a Muslim identity, but other Islamic schools of thought view Ahmadi theology as outside Islam. We have heard that the 1974 Pakistan constitution formally denounced the Ahmadis as not part of the Muslim faith. In 1984 and 1986, the Pakistan penal code was amended and stipulated up to three years in prison if Ahmadis posed as Muslims by worshipping in non-Ahmadi mosques, performing the Muslim call to prayer, using the traditional Islamic greeting in public and disseminating religious materials or propagating their faith. The penal code contains a blasphemy law that includes the death penalty, with no evidence required for Ahmadis. The Ahmadis are commonly victims of targeted killings, hate speech and the destruction of their homes, mosques and tombs and have no recourse to justice procedures as they are not considered equal citizens.

Perhaps most worryingly, the violent treatment of Ahmadis is becoming more normalised in Pakistan, sadly often with the assistance of the authorities. From January to July 2023, more than 170 graves and at least two houses of worship were destroyed. In July 2023, 53 Ahmadi graves were desecrated in the Gujranwala district under police supervision, and security forces arrested several Ahmadis for conducting Islamic ritual slaughter in celebration of the Eid al-Adha holiday and thereby posing as Muslims.

In 2022, the Commons International Development Committee, in its report on UK aid to Pakistan, said that the country’s blasphemy laws are frequently misused to settle personal disputes and to target religious minorities. In 2020, there was an increase in blasphemy charges, with at least 199 people charged. Those accused were often subject to mob justice and even extrajudicial killings. Omar Waraich, head of south Asia at Amnesty International, said:

“There are few communities in Pakistan who have suffered as much as the Ahmadis. The recent wave of killings tragically underscores not just the seriousness of the threats they face, but also the callous indifference of the authorities, who have failed to protect the community or punish the perpetrators.”

How do we turn today’s consensual debate and desire to see a positive outcome into action that benefits the Ahmadi Muslims? The UK is Pakistan’s largest European trading, investment and development partner and one of Pakistan’s leading development assistance partners, so I urge the UK Government to use that partnership to encourage Pakistan to abide by its international obligations.

The first step towards ending violence for the Ahmadi should be the revocation of the blasphemy law. Clearly, as the situation is fraught with historical tension and identity rooted in religion, any action and calls must be an exercise in strategic advocacy and diplomacy. The UK has one of the largest Pakistani diaspora communities in Europe, estimated at over 1.6 million, and Pakistan relies heavily on the UK for international development and trade. I therefore urge the UK Government to exhaust all diplomatic channels to convey the need to protect religious minorities and take a stance against the normalisation of religious persecution.

It would not be possible to discuss this vulnerable international minority without some mention of the UK position of cutting international aid spending. In Pakistan, UK bilateral official development assistance spending reduced from £463 million in 2016 to £133 million in 2023-24. The UK Government maintain that their aid spending in Pakistan is geared towards supporting the most vulnerable in the country, including religious minorities such as the Ahmadis. Yet this dramatic decrease puts the future development of marginalised groups at risk and is specifically damaging to the Ahmadis, who have no institutional support in Pakistan and face discrimination in the Pakistan constitution.

In conclusion, I call for the UK Government to be a critical friend. Any Government who do not use their influence to stand up to their friends when their friends are using their domestic laws to systematically oppress members of their own society are a Government with questionable priorities. The UK Government must continue to work with Pakistan and international partners and use the principles of peace and democracy under the Commonwealth to safeguard the Ahmadi in Pakistan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. It was also a pleasure to hear the opening speech from the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and to hear about the work of the all-party group chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), which does such an excellent job of highlighting the discrimination against the Ahmadi community.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is known in this place for raising the issue of freedom of religion or belief, which she carefully laid out today, and we in this Parliament hold such concepts of peace and democracy dear. In every country and every community, we firmly believe that people should be able to live their lives as they wish and to pray and worship in whichever way they feel most appropriate.

However, in many parts of the world, religion and belief can lead to persecution, and Pakistan is sadly among those places. In debates on freedom of religion, we have repeatedly raised concerns about blasphemy laws and the worrying situation for minorities in Pakistan. It is right that we are able to use this opportunity to shine a spotlight on the treatment of Ahmadi Muslims, which is so often overlooked. In fact, even the true figure for the population of Ahmadis is not really known. The House of Commons Library was unable to confirm it. It could be up to 4.5 million people, but because many people are not included in the census, it is difficult to know the exact number of people in the community.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) about the legal changes and the subsequent application of Pakistan’s penal code prohibiting Ahmadi Muslims from declaring their faith publicly, propagating their faith, printing or obtaining material related to their faith, building mosques or calling their places of worship mosques, and making the call for Muslim prayers. Virtually any public act of worship, devotion or propagation by an Ahmadi can be treated as blasphemy, a criminal offence punishable by a fine, imprisonment or death. That is a draconian and repressive approach to a minority group who, until relatively recently, were seen legally as Muslims.

According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, desecrations of Ahmadi gravestones, an appalling act of disrespect, are a regular occurrence. Such actions were described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who has been raising these issues in the House since before 2014. According to the community’s own records, in 2020 alone 164 Ahmadi gravestones were desecrated by anti-Ahmadi actors.

It is clear that the community is persecuted and it is of little surprise that the global Ahmadi community, some of whom are with us in the Gallery today, has moved its headquarters to the safety of London. However, as many Members have already said and I am sure the Minister will mention in his concluding remarks, we need to be aware of the cyber element. I am sure there are people who feel under attack, being a minority here in the UK. We must all be aware of that and the Government must be active on it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) mentioned the particular issue around the civil society groups in the UK, who educate others on the importance of the community but worry about the ongoing persecution in Pakistan and beyond.

I know that the Minister will wish to respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, who secured this debate, and the specific concerns raised by the community in his constituency, so I will keep my own questions for the Minister brief.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) said earlier in the debate that it is right that our Government should hold Pakistan to account because we have a lot to do with Pakistan in so many areas, whether that is through the diaspora or through our strong relationships with the country. We are in a very good position when we talk about things such as climate change, poverty, women’s rights and so on with colleagues in Pakistan. Is the Minister absolutely sure that no UK aid money is being used—perhaps unwittingly—to aid or abet any persecution of the Ahmadi community? Can he say what the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is doing to protect and promote tolerance, diversity and religious freedoms in Pakistan, specifically where we have that link-in with UK aid?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this important debate. I commend his work and his ongoing support of freedom of religion or belief. I also pay tribute to his work as vice-chair as the all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which continues its vital work to raise awareness of the issues that we have been discussing today. I know that my hon. Friend addressed the annual conference in Hampshire earlier this summer, which was a very important event.

Colleagues will know that the noble Lord Ahmad, Minister of State for the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and the UN, is responsible for this portfolio, but being in the other place he cannot speak in this Chamber. Therefore it is my great pleasure to respond on his behalf today. I met him in advance of the debate to talk about this topic. Members will acknowledge his personal deep insight into these issues.

I am very grateful to hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. We recognise the strength of feeling. I will try to respond to the points that have been raised.

In particular there was an allegation, or certainly a strong implication, that UK international aid might be going towards textbooks that contain lies or expressions of hatred. Can the Minister assure the House that our aid does not go directly, or indirectly through Governments, NGOs or charities, to textbooks or educational aids that contain lies or hate, and that it will not do so in the future either?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that question again. I was already going to respond to it; I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for putting the same question earlier. We continue to engage on the critical need for freedom of religion or belief in schools. The UK has supported initiatives to review the national curriculum of Pakistan, providing technical assistance to Pakistan to create a more inclusive curriculum and textbooks, so it is something we are very much aware of. At Pakistan’s universal periodic review in January, the UK formally recommended that Pakistan ensures that school textbooks are inclusive of all religions and that religious minorities can access suitable alternatives to compulsory Koranic studies. That was, of course, at the UN periodic review of human rights. We do keep that continually in our sights. I cannot confirm 100% today that there is not an ongoing problem, but it is something that our mission and our other diplomats are energetically focused on.

Although the debate centres on the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community, I think it would be useful to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to defending the rights and freedoms of all those persecuted for their religious beliefs in Pakistan and, indeed, across the world. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s roots run deep in Pakistan, as has been mentioned. From Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate, to its distinguished first Foreign Minister, Sir Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, Ahmadi Muslims have made a tremendously invaluable contribution to modern Pakistan. It is poignant that a community so entwined with the founding of that country now faces such devastating persecution.

As has been described today by colleagues, the situation is dire—we recognise that. Discrimination against Ahmadi Muslims and other religious groups starts with Pakistan’s constitution, which declares Ahmadis non-Muslims. The misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to target marginalised communities is all too common. Preventive legislation is weak, and poor implementation of existing laws allows hate speech and violence to spread with impunity. Over the past few weeks alone, we have seen the appalling incidents of mob violence in Pakistan and the desecration of Ahmadi, as well as Christian and Hindu, places of worship. We stand in solidarity with the victims, and I know all our thoughts go out to those affected. Colleagues may have noticed that today Lord Ahmad tweeted in condemnation of the recent appalling attack on the Ahmadiyya Hall in Karachi in Sindh province.

In terms of UK action, defending religious freedom is at the heart of all our work in Pakistan. Our approach to protecting freedom of religion or belief of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and all persecuted groups has three pillars. First, we use our close relationship with Pakistan to influence and advocate. Secondly, we support communities through our programme and development work. Thirdly, we use our global influence to spur the wider international community into action.

I do not want to take up too much time, but the whole debate is about how we can exert pressure. Can I just put on the table the potential consideration of the use of Magnitsky sanctions against individuals involved in the persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan? Many of them have links with this country, including financial links, so Magnitsky sanctions might prove effective.

I am grateful for that intervention. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the UK has a long-standing relationship with Pakistan, underpinned, as has been described today, by our deep shared history and cultural links. We build on that relationship to advocate for the most vulnerable in Pakistan society, calling out repression in public and in private at the highest levels.

In January, the Minister for development and Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), underlined the need for Pakistan to ensure the safety and religious freedom of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community when he met the then Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif. The Minister for South Asia, Lord Ahmad, spoke with Pakistan’s former Minister for Human Rights, Mian Riaz Hussain Pirzada, in June to raise the persecution of religious communities, including Pakistan’s deeply troubling blasphemy laws. He also emphasised the importance of promoting respect for all religions during his meeting with then Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, in December.

It is crucial that the voices of marginalised religious communities are heard. Everyone in Pakistan, including Ahmadi Muslims, must be able to fully participate in Pakistan’s upcoming elections, as has been described today by colleagues. We therefore continue to urge the Government of Pakistan to uphold these constitutional principles of equality. Lord Ahmad has written to Pakistan’s caretaker Foreign Minister, Jalil Abbas Jilani, to urge the Government to ensure that all Pakistan’s citizens can exercise their democratic rights. The Foreign Minister has replied, assuring us of the Government’s commitment to the safety and security of all Pakistani citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation. Prime Minister Kakar said publicly on 21 August that the state and its laws will stand with oppressed groups, including Ahmadi Muslims, when they are under attack. It is vital that those words are followed through with concrete action.

The UK Government will continue to work with the Government of Pakistan on peaceful, credible and inclusive elections over the coming months. It is crucial that our advocacy continues to be informed by the lived experience of the community we seek to protect. In May, the UK political counsellor visited Rabwah, home to 95% of Pakistan’s Ahmadi Muslims, to gain a deeper insight into the challenges faced by the community. Our high commissioner continues to raise those issues in her calls with senior Government officials, religious leaders and politicians.

Alongside that diplomatic advocacy, our programmes in Pakistan are focused on improving the lives of Pakistan’s most vulnerable citizens. Our Aawaz II programme brings together community leaders and minority representatives to promote tolerance in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces. Our hate speech and disinformation programme works to protect marginalised religious communities and women against hate speech online—an important issue that was raised in the debate. Through the FCDO’s Magna Carta and John Bunyan funds, we have supported research projects to improve our understanding of the challenges that these communities face.

Of course, we cannot tackle such a complex issue alone. We work in concert with our like-minded diplomatic partners, and we continue to use our influence to spur the international community to action. I would like to recognise the work of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), which has been active in raising the plight of Ahmadi Muslims. In March 2022, the alliance called on states to end the discrimination faced by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and to defend their right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.

Last July, we hosted an international conference on freedom of religion or belief, bringing together 100 Government delegations, 800 faith and belief leaders, human rights experts and NGOs, to agree action to protect those freedoms. During the conference, the Minister responsible for human rights, Lord Ahmad, announced new funding to support those who defend religious freedom, including those who are targeted for their fearless activism. As a result of the conference, 47 Governments, and international organisations and other entities pledged to take action to support those fundamental rights.

In January, we used our platform at the United Nations in Geneva to shine a light on the issue, and we continue to hold Pakistan to account, for instance by using our statement at Pakistan’s universal periodic review adoption in July to publicly urge the Pakistani authorities to ensure the safety and religious freedom of Ahmadi Muslims.

I would like to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington and all colleagues who participated in this important and powerful debate that the FCDO works in close partnership with the Home Office and across Government on all these important issues.

Will the list include something about visas for hate preachers coming to the UK? Will that issue be looked into?

I am glad that the hon. Lady raised that, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss)—she is not in her place now, but she notified me that she would be leaving. I am pleased to report that we do consider that when visas are issued. Our immigration laws allow us to screen and prevent such people on that basis. I am glad she made that point: we have the capacity to stop such people, and we will use it if necessary.

The UK has a proud history of providing protection for those who need it, through our safe and legal routes, as I mentioned. We continue to welcome refugees and people in need through our global resettlement schemes, working in conjunction with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Let me conclude by reaffirming that the UK stands in solidarity with the persecuted Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan and all around the world. We will continue our energetic diplomatic advocacy and our programmes. We are grateful for the contributions of all Members on this important issue in this debate.

I thank the Minister and the noble Lord Ahmad for that reply. I thank colleagues for turning out in such good numbers today. I thank the community for appearing to support us today. I hope that the Minister will continue to do all that he can, so that we can truly achieve the Ahmadiyya motto: “Love for all, hatred for none.”

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the treatment of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan.

Sitting adjourned.