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Westminster Hall

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 19 September 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 September 2023

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Freedom of Religion and Belief

I beg to move,

That this House has considered freedom of religion and belief.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this debate. Speaking as a Member of Parliament, I seek to bring to bear my experiences over the last two to three years as the UK Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and from my role as the chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which now comprises 42 countries and growing, even though it is only just over three years old.

The focus of my speech is the need for us to be bolder and braver, to turn more of our words into actions, and to make a positive difference for those who suffer freedom of religion or belief violations. Freedom of religion or belief is a foundational right, but sadly violations of it are increasing across the world, by countries at scale, by terror groups and mobs, and through abuses against individuals imprisoned for their beliefs who so boldly and bravely stand and suffer for their faith. Those people are excluded from education, jobs, healthcare and access to justice; they experience discrimination, harassment and persecution. They are at risk of being incarcerated, tortured or even killed simply on account of what they believe. The men, women and children around the world who suffer, whether under the hard arm of authoritarian regimes or at the ruthless whims of militant mobs, need not just our voices, but our partnership—not just our words, but our good deeds.

That is why, after the London ministerial last July on freedom of religion or belief—a two-day gathering, which I had the privilege of co-chairing with Lord Ahmad, that was attended by more than 1,000 Government representative delegates from more than 80 countries, with more than 130 side events at the FORB fringe— I said, “These two days cannot be just a talking shop. We must turn our words into action that follows.” My special envoy team and I organised a third day after the conference; I pay tribute to David Burrowes, my deputy special envoy, and my private secretary from the Foreign Office, Sue Breeze.

That event was a “next steps” day, when more than 100 people from across the international community concerned about freedom of religion or belief, or FORB, sat down and worked out some action priorities, which the special envoy team has since worked to implement. In some cases they have begun to be implemented and in others we have made some good progress, with the support of the global council of experts of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance—a group of 40 experts from across the world—and in conjunction with representatives of the UK FORB Forum, a forum of 70 concerned organisations chaired by Mervyn Thomas, the founder of CSW, who is in the Gallery today.

I will particularly focus on strengthening collaborative working on freedom of religion or belief between grassroots activists, academics, lawyers, civil society experts, faith leaders, non-governmental organisations and Government representatives such as myself. Not long ago, it was encouraging to hear Mervyn Thomas, a seasoned observer in this field, say that he has never seen the FORB community more connected than it is today. We will make a difference only if we work together. The International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance is a growing organisation. Our countries range from the Americas, Canada, Brazil, Costa Rica and across Africa, such as in Sierra Leone, down to Australia and through to many European countries. We are an organisation based on action.

What are the practical next steps that have been taken since the London ministerial last July? IRFBA—a difficult acronym to say—has inspired a 24-hour global virtual youth conference on FORB. This will take place on 19 and 20 October, and we hope to engage 1,000 young people from across the world, including in countries where they experience persecution, to enable them to directly recount their experiences through the “open space” format. We hope to inspire a new generation of FORB ambassadors. Much as young people have inspired the world on climate change, can I encourage anyone listening to this debate to log on to, and find out more about this conference? Particularly if you are a young person, please join it.

Other work has been done for young people. For instance, throughout the last academic year since the London ministerial, curriculum materials have been developed for the very youngest children—five and upwards—to understand the importance of not discriminating against others on account of their religion or belief, with a pilot being undertaken in four schools in the UK, including one in my constituency. Preliminary feedback is encouraging —children as young as five can quickly grasp the concept of FORB—and I have been encouraged by the interest in this work shown by our Schools Minister. I hope we can roll it out to more schools nationwide, and internationally across to our IRFBA countries in due course. I call this the ultimate upstream prevention work.

The special envoy team, together with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, is driving forward work in a number of other areas. Time prohibits me from going into detail, but let me list them. We are championing individual prisoners of conscience—at least one a month over the last year—and we have already seen two people imprisoned for their beliefs released. The most recent is young Hanna Abdimalik from Somaliland, a 24-year-old who converted to Christianity, was reported to the authorities by her own mother and was imprisoned for five years. I am very pleased to say that she was released last month.

We are building an international network of FORB roundtables, such as the UK FORB Forum, which has been so successful. We are networking and supporting human rights defenders working on FORB. We are better engaging with the media on FORB. This is a struggle, but we are doing our best to look at how we can better bring this major international concern into the media, both social and mainstream. We are working on atrocity prevention to help to call out abuses earlier. We are working with lawyers on legislative reform. We are looking to protect religious and cultural heritage with a very active working group, and we are beginning to network on international best practice for trauma counselling and rehabilitation, so that people such as young Hanna can get appropriate support when they are released from prison. This is the kind of work I mean when I say that we need to turn words into action.

That is the good news; and why is it so important? Because of the bad news. The bad news is that it has never been more important to champion FORB because it has never been more at risk. What is the evidence? Look across the world at what has happened in the over two and a half years since I was appointed as the UK Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief in December 2020. We have seen a military coup in Myanmar dramatically exacerbating the persecution of religious minorities there. We have seen the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, with every belief group there, other than those willing to succumb to the Taliban’s oppressive ways, now living in daily fear. Eritrea and Uganda have grown increasingly authoritarian.

FORB restrictions have increased in Tunisia, as well as in Algeria, to which I led a delegation just a few months ago. In Algeria, dozens—indeed, most—of the evangelical Protestant churches have been required to close in the last few years. Pastors now face court proceedings. The Catholic social action charity Caritas was shut down—actually, while I was there—a few months ago. Ahmadi Muslims face huge fines. Not one synagogue is left open in the capital, Algiers, and Bible Society literature has been blockaded from distribution from ships at port. Also in Africa, in Nigeria, year on year increasing thousands of Christians are massacred by the ISWA—Islamic State West Africa—terrorist network.

I commend the hon. Member and all the other Members who engage on this important issue on an ongoing basis. She is outlining a whole series of international incidents and issues. Does she agree that there must be an international response to all this, to ensure that there is wider understanding and then action taken, as she has outlined?

The hon. Member is absolutely right. I am pleased that the international response through the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance is strengthening, but we need to do more and we need more countries to join it.

In Nicaragua, the Catholic Church has been targeted this year, with religious organisations running schools and medical centres peremptorily expelled. A university was shut down last month. Even Mother Teresa’s nuns, who have been working there for 30 years, were thrown out with no notice. Meanwhile, dozens of pastors flee Cuba. We are all too aware of China’s incarceration of 1 million or more Uyghurs, but how many of us know that a similar number of children—1 million or so—as young as two years old have recently been removed from their homes and families in Tibet and transported to residential schools, to alienate them from their families, cultures and beliefs? In Hong Kong, the public voice of the Church has been neutered.

In the period since I was privileged to take up the office of envoy, the war against Ukraine has erupted, with places of worship being deliberately destroyed, pastors disappearing and Putin weaponising Orthodox Christianity. In Russia itself, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are pacifists, are now being imprisoned as criminals—even the very elderly.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s amazing work as the United Kingdom’s envoy. With regard to Ukraine and Russia and the point made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell)—who is to my right in this Chamber but not to my right politically—the United Kingdom has imposed the toughest sanctions possible to address Putin’s war machine and hold him accountable. The question was raised about the international community coming together to address and to hold to account those who violate religious freedom. Will the envoy say whether the 42 member countries of the alliance—I declare that I was its vice-chair—have come together to ask respective countries to look at sanctioning certain individuals across the globe for their violations of international religious freedom or belief?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. As chair of the alliance, I have certainly asked our sanctions unit to look at individuals, but it is an excellent point: the alliance collectively could also look at that.

Ukraine is a founder member of IRFBA, but Ukraine and many central European countries around it now face Putin crouching at their door. For them, defending FORB is more than a principle; it is a lived reality. They faced communism, they faced the Nazis. Working with my counterparts from those countries humbles me. I am referring to counterparts such as Ambassador Robert Řehák from the Czech Republic, the IRFBA vice-chair. When he was at school during the communist era in what became the Czech Republic, the state police came to see him and said, “If you keep speaking out like this, we’ll take you away.” He says, “I knew they meant it, because I had seen the bodies taken away through the streets of Prague in black bags.”

All the FORB violations that I have referred to and more, in all the countries where FORB violations have increased, are impacting on millions of people across the world. It is a tragedy that so many violations are happening in our time and that the numbers of people affected are so huge. Individual men, women and children are affected. They are suffering simply because of what they believe and simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there are too many wrong places and this is in our time, the 21st century.

It is a tragic paradox that globalisation, which not long ago, in the 20th century, was heralded as the route to a more connected, confident and civilised future for the world, seems to have spawned, in the 21st century, a far more insecure, fractious and fragmented international landscape. The current global trajectory is away from a rights-based order or consensus, prioritising democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law, to what could increasingly be described as a values-based order—and those values are not always positive, focusing on national, religious, ethnic or political priorities.

Since the turn of the century, an increasing number of countries have seen the creeping eclipse of liberal democracy and its replacement by an authoritarianism led by so-called democracies such as Russia and inspired by the model of the People’s Republic of China. A new authoritarian influence that openly seeks to reinterpret and redefine human rights is on the increase, aided and abetted by technological developments, facilitating persecution on a scale unimaginable a generation ago. That technology, which is sold around the world to dozens of countries, also feeds another recent trend: transnational repression. Consequently, it often appears, as the writer Anne Applebaum so powerfully noted in The Atlantic, that “The Bad Guys Are Winning”—a piece she otherwise titled, “The Autocrats Are Winning”.

For authoritarians, FORB represents an existential threat. For states and rulers who seek to impose their worldview or ideology and who wish to control the national narrative, the public presence of diverse and vocal religious and belief groups is intolerable. For them, ultimate loyalty must be to an authoritarian leader and no other. That, of course, is no more tragically seen than in the outworking of the egregiously cruel regime of Kim Jong-un in North Korea, where three generations of a family can be punished for the so-called crime of one, and where a two-year-old child has been sentenced to life in prison simply because his parents owned a Bible.

As well as the autocrats—the so-called bad guys—regrettably, too many Governments, which may be called “the good guys”, view FORB merely as a niche interest, to be engaged by a few of us with a particularly religious perspective on life. Yet FORB is not a niche topic or a sidebar issue. That perception has to change. Here in the UK, we cannot just tick the FORB box by saying, “Well, there’s a special envoy.” The so-called good guys have to be bolder and braver to call out FORB abusers, and those of us involved in this work need to work harder to communicate that.

FORB is a foundational human right. FORB concerns should therefore be core concerns at every international summit, because they are at the core of so many human rights violations today. I will give just one of the many examples of continuing blind spots in identifying FORB abusers for what they are—and this one is by the good guys. While women in Iran have bravely led the charge against the brutal theocratic regime, journalists and politicians alike have not fully grasped the fact that, at heart, the protests are about FORB violations. The imposition of religious dress codes is a FORB issue. It is FORB that the Iranian regime fears most because, as with all authoritarian regimes, FORB represents an existential threat. With angry crowds shouting, “Women, life, freedom,” it is the realisation of FORB in full that will ensure respect for women, for life and for freedom for everyone in Iran. This is the issue on which the future of Iran hangs.

If global trends continue, the stage is set for an era of diminishing human rights. FORB will continue to be a prime casualty of that decline, which will be exacerbated by inadequate understanding—even by the good guy countries—of FORB as a foundational human right and of its importance in the human rights realm. We have been too accustomed to countries merely paying lip service to FORB rights and obligations, having signed up to international agreements including article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights, but without honouring the obligations in them. In a country that has signed up to both those agreements, it is simply not acceptable for a young girl to be kidnapped from her home, forcibly “married” by being raped multiple times, and then turned away when she goes to a police station or tries to get justice through the courts. We should call this out more.

If the era that I have described continues, we can expect even the pretence of assent to begin to fade. That is why the good guys must be bolder and braver. Although human rights are independently valuable and interdependent, the right to FORB is a foundational value. Without the freedom to believe or not to believe, it is hard to see how other human rights make sense. Freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, the right to equality before the law, the right to education, privacy, family life and marriage—all those rights are predicated and contingent on the right to thought, conscience and religion.

Citizens cannot be truly free if they cannot live according to their beliefs. Without the expression of what has long been considered a sacred inner liberty, external rights lack grounding and legitimacy. Political, social and economic freedoms cannot co-exist alongside major limitations on FORB. FORB can exist without democracy, but it is hard to see how democracy can exist without FORB. FORB can also be considered a foundational value, because violations of it provide an early warning system for other human rights troubles and their trajectory. That is why we need to call out abuses at an early stage.

Much good work is being done, as I mentioned at the outset, but we need to do still more to be bolder and braver and to turn more of our words into action. We need a dedicated Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister in the House of Commons working on the issue of religion or belief. I am grateful to the Minister for being here today, and I know she takes great interest in the subject, but last week it was the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who responded to our debate on the Ahmadis. During Question Time in the main Chamber, it is the Minister responsible for international development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who answers questions on FORB. This is too important an issue for us not to have a dedicated Minister in the House of Commons, much as we have one for women and girls. On every foreign trip, a Minister should be accompanied by a FORB briefing, which my special envoy team is more than willing to provide. We also need to ensure that recommendation 6 of the Truro review—that the special envoy role be embedded in legislation—is put into effect.

On 18 October, I shall present a private Member’s Bill on the issue. I thank hon. Members who are supporting the Bill, and I pay tribute to parliamentary colleagues across the parties for their commitment to and interest in FORB. We in the UK are a beacon in that respect, but we need to ensure that the energy and momentum of the current special envoy team endure beyond the next general election and that they are given better and more adequate and substantive departmental support in the FCDO. This is an area in which the UK is now seen as a global leader. Let us keep it that way.

Order. The debate can last until 11 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespersons at no later than 10.27 am, and the guideline limits are 10 minutes each for the Scottish National party, for His Majesty’s Opposition and for the Minister. We should then have a couple of minutes at the end for the mover of the motion to sum up the debate. There will be a five-minute limit so that everybody can get in, and Jim Shannon will lead by example.

That will be difficult, Mr Hollobone, but I will try my best. I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for setting the scene so very well. I commend her sterling work in this House for freedom of religion or belief, and for Our Lord and Saviour. It is important work, and I thank her for it.

As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I want to raise two issues: India and Pakistan. This debate is not to attack friends, but to share a lesson from our history. The UK has learned enough through its long history to know that when religious minorities are denied rights, it harms the rest of society. When they have been granted equal rights, the UK has thrived.

I am concerned about the ongoing violations of religious liberty that have been allowed to continue in the Manipur region of north-east India. Between 3 and 6 May this year, a short, sharp episode of extreme violence occurred. Eye-watering numbers of people were displaced from their homes; some reports state that 26,000 people were displaced and 50,000 were forced to relocate. A shocking video of two Kuki women who were graphically assaulted went viral a few weeks ago, opening up the world to the plight of the thousands of people who have been suffering.

The events in Manipur might be classed as originating in tribal or ethnic tensions, but the Manipur violence has silently been an attack on Christians in India. It is striking that local police and state government sat by as arson destroyed the properties, homes and lives of minority and religious groups. The religious aspect of the violence has not been widely reported. The perpetrators of the violence are understood to be from Hindu extremist backgrounds, whereas the victims are predominantly Christians. Some 230 churches were destroyed over a four-day period. Many perpetrators of the violence did not act in a random manner; their violence was deliberately targeted at Christians, and they wanted them to flee their lands.

International reports have made an explicit link to the violations of freedom of religion or belief in Manipur. The European Parliament has urged the Indian Government to

“take urgent steps to restore calm”


“to tackle the impunity enjoyed by mobs perpetrating the violence and respond to stem the violence in line with their international human rights obligations”.

The United Nations Human Rights Council declared that the violence had “reached a breaking point” and appealed to the Government of India to address the ethnic, tribal and religious crisis.

I am incredibly saddened to say that the situation in Manipur has escalated even further, with 60,000 people now displaced and 360 churches damaged. In the five minutes that I have, I have many questions for the Minister, but one of the most urgent is whether the violence in Manipur was mentioned in any formal discussion when our Prime Minister was in India. I know that the Minister is not responsible for what the PM says, but I am sure that discussions have taken place, so let us find out whether the Prime Minister brought these things to the attention of the Indian Government and whether those issues were raised. Journalists are still being prevented from doing fact-finding investigations. Will the Minister make representations to her Indian counterparts to find a way for journalists and human rights reporters to access the region?

I have been twice to Pakistan; we were there in February. The abuse of women and children in Pakistan concerns me. Members of Christian, Hindu, Sikh and other communities have suffered for decades under the weight of an oppressive system under which FORB is guaranteed by law but often disregarded in reality. Some 150 Christian families were evacuated due to persecution in the last month alone.

There is some positive news: caretaker Prime Minister Kakar has declared the state’s dedication to protecting religious minorities. However, 1,000 young Hindu girls and women are abducted each year, as are Christians. One young girl, Chanda Maharaj, was 15 when she was kidnapped. What happened to Chanda is unimaginable. Will the Minister join me in condemning such brutal and unjust governance?

Some 57 blasphemy cases have been registered—more than in the previous year—and some 79 people have been murdered in the name of blasphemy laws. The attacks on Ahmadiyya Muslims have been well publicised in a previous debate, but there is something wrong when 4 million Ahmadiyya who live in Pakistan do not have the freedom that they should have.

This year, foreign aid to Pakistan totalled £41.54 million. As I and others have long said, let us have that aid tied to freedom of religion or belief, human rights and equality issues, and ensure that the freedom that we all wish to see actually happens. At the moment, it does not.

I have three final questions for the Minister. Was the issue of Manipur raised at the G20 meeting? Has the Minister raised the issue of access to Manipur for journalists and human rights monitors and their counterparts? And—

“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.” Those were the words of William Wilberforce in a 1791 debate in this House on the slave trade, quoted by the Bishop of Truro in his groundbreaking 2019 report on the persecution of Christians. It is an apt quotation for today, after everything that we have heard in this debate about the plight of Christians and other religious minorities around the world.

I urge the Minister to ensure—as the special envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), urged—that the Government take action on the recommendations of both the Truro report and the influential ministerial conference last year. Research by organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need and Christian Solidarity Worldwide tells us that thousands are suffering simply because they want to follow their faith in freedom.

In China, we are seeing the tragedy of the Uyghurs. We have also seen a dramatic exodus of Christians from the middle east. Nigeria is a hugely dangerous place to be Christian, for many people; the abduction of 276 mainly Christian schoolgirls made headlines in 2014, but that is just one of many kidnappings that have been followed by rape, forced conversion and forced marriage. Nine years on, many of those Chibok girls are still missing.

In Pakistan, there are frequent examples of Christian and Hindu girls suffering forced conversion, as Aid to the Church in Need documented in its 2021 report “Hear Her Cries”. Blasphemy can be punished by death in Pakistan. Allegations that are malicious, vindictive and without substance are often made. Insight UK reports that Hindu temples have been attacked and vandalised. At the time of partition in 1947, there were approximately 400 Hindu temples in the Sindh region of Pakistan; there are now barely 20. Amnesty International has highlighted attacks on Hindu and Christian women in Pakistan and has called on the Pakistan Government to keep the promise made in August 1947 by one of the country’s founders, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, that religious freedom would be protected.

I also want to talk about Cyprus, which has an ancient civilisation dating back to 9,000 BC. It is close to the holy land and was one of the first countries to embrace Christianity. It is believed that in 45 AD the apostles Paul, Barnabas and Mark visited Cyprus. The island is home to a huge number of churches, monasteries, mosaics, murals and icons that stretch back to the earliest days of Christianity.

In July 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus, and it continues to occupy 37% of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus. Since the invasion, about 500 churches have been desecrated or badly neglected, 77 have been converted into mosques, 28 have been used as barracks by the Turkish military and 13 are believed to have been used as storage rooms or hay barns. Thousands of priceless icons have been looted. There is a thriving illicit trade in cultural artefacts, which is fuelled by illegal excavations and smuggling. That not only perpetuates the destruction of religious sites, but finances criminal activities. Many religious sites are impossible to access because they are located in Turkish military zones. There are worrying instances of Orthodox and Maronite Christians who live in enclaved communities in the Turkish-controlled area of Cyprus being unjustly prevented from conducting religious services and practising their faith.

I appeal to the Government to work with international partners to protect the cultural heritage of Cyprus, bear down on the illegal trade in artefacts and, above all, put pressure on the Turkish authorities to restore full freedom of religion in the north of Cyprus, as well as giving Cypriots the freedom to determine their own future as Cypriots, free from Turkish military control.

Matthew 5:10 says:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

That may be a comfort to those who are suffering for their faith, but it does not absolve us in this House of our obligation to speak out for those facing discrimination, violence and hatred because of their religion. That is what we must all continue to do, to play our part in changing life for the better for Christians and other religious minorities around the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the special envoy, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for securing this important debate, and I thank all my colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group, particularly the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for their work on the issue.

I will focus on the effects of social media on promoting misinformation, intolerance and inflammatory speech that challenges people’s right to freedom of religion or belief, especially in crisis areas. The danger of social media companies in that respect has been noted by the companies themselves. A Meta company worker said in 2019:

“We have evidence from a variety of sources that hate speech, divisive political speech, and misinformation on Facebook…are affecting societies around the world. We also have compelling evidence that our core product mechanics, such as virality, recommendations, and optimizing for engagement, are a significant part of why these types of speech flourish on the platform.”

That is partly why Labour has repeatedly warned that the Government’s Online Safety Bill may not go far enough in its focus on content rather than on social media platforms’ business models.

In 2021, many fake social media accounts pretended to be “#RealSikh” members of the community in India. A groundbreaking report by Benjamin Strick of the Centre for Information Resilience, reported on by the BBC, found at least 80 fake accounts, many using profile pictures of celebrities, posting divisive posts seeking to discredit Sikh political interests such as the farmers’ protests, often labelling them as extremist or claiming their infiltration by extremist groups. Benjamin Strick said that the aim of the network appears to have been to

“alter perceptions on important issues around Sikh independence, human rights and values”

Those accounts have now been suspended because they were fake. The danger of such information has led to religious and ethnic violence and tensions.

I took a close interest in the report at the time because many of those fake accounts also targeted me and other politicians. I could see how effective they seemed to be in generating a narrative and abuse that seemed to take on a life of their own. I have no problem with individual voters challenging me on x—it comes with the job—but I am concerned about politically motivated misinformation campaigns that appear to have money behind them and to be co-ordinating across platforms on a large scale. Areas of the media in which it is possible to buy political influence and distort debate are generally carefully regulated, but that is not the case with social media, which it is why it has become such a target for manipulation.

The network used so-called sock puppets—fake accounts controlled by real users, as opposed to automated bots—posing as independent people. Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist, has noted:

“These 80-odd accounts will not necessarily make something trend, but with consistent posting, they try to discredit a point of view…This seems to be a sophisticated approach, and seems to be a part of a larger operation.”

The farmers’ protests and the decades-old Sikh independence movement were two discussion topics targeted by the network, with attempts to delegitimise both.

The same phenomenon has had incredibly grave consequences elsewhere in the world. As the United Nations found in Myanmar, hate speech and calls for violence on Facebook played a major role in fomenting the Rohingya genocide and later religious and ethnic violence in the country. The continued exile of nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh is surely a testament to the seriousness with which we should be taking the issue.

Similar speech is reported to have greatly contributed to the violence and potential genocide in Tigray. Meta is currently facing a $2 billion lawsuit, backed by Amnesty International and filed in Kenya, for allegedly contributing to the violence against the Tigray community. Facebook has allowed the incitement of violence in the region for years, and although there are efforts to stop it, they have not been entirely successful.

As Internews Europe told the International Development Committee in evidence submitted to its inquiry on atrocity prevention,

“media, online and social media platforms with significant reach have been deployed as part of deliberate efforts to dehumanise particular ethnic or religious groups, disseminate grievance-based narratives and incite violence”.

His Majesty’s Government must do more. More must be done to enforce respect for FORB throughout the world, particularly in the United Kingdom and its partner nations. When we see persecution and hate still rife across the world, it is incumbent on all parliamentarians across the House to reaffirm our commitment to the values and principles set out in the 2021 G7 summit communiqué, which for the first time referred specifically to freedom of religion or belief. As the Prime Minister absconds from the role of international statesman that British Prime Ministers used to hold, failing even to show up at many of the international fora at which issues such as FORB will be raised, I hold out hope that his Ministers will take a stand for human rights in his stead.

As always, Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate from the Backbench Business Committee. She has devoted much of her time in Parliament to speaking out on behalf of those who dare not whisper their faith even to their closest family for fear of losing their home, their job or even their life.

On Sunday, I was invited to St John’s church in Shiphay for its harvest celebration. It was great to be part of the congregation as the community came together to thank God and those who produce our food for the harvest. We had a little too much soft refreshing rain—in the words of the famous hymn—falling outside, but the warmth of welcome in the church was clear. I thank Rev. Paul Ireton and the whole team at the church for the invitation to join them and for all their work to support the wider community.

Attending a church event or fun day is an experience that many colleagues will be familiar with; it is routine. Yet for too many across the world, the simple act of attending church on Sunday can mean putting their life on the line. This debate is about standing up for people’s right—not to have the same faith as me, but to express their own beliefs. The 1948 UN universal declaration of human rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the freedom to choose, change and practise their own belief or faith, or not to profess one. The declaration is complemented by the 1981 declaration on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief.

While the two declarations are non-binding on states, they set out expectations that those with religious faith, and those without, have the right to choose and practise their beliefs. The protection for FORB in the 1966 international covenant on civil and political rights is binding on states that have signed it. To date, there are 173 parties to the covenant; perhaps unsurprisingly, those that have not yet ratified it include China and Cuba—a reminder that religious and political persecution go hand in hand, as denying the right to believe in God is so often linked to leaders who wish to put themselves in His place.

As touched on already, religious persecution is still too common across the world. In 2020, US-based Pew Research Centre found that Government or societal harassment was reported in 155 countries against Christians, in 145 against Muslims and in 94 against Jews, out of the 198 countries surveyed. Globally, apostasy—renouncing a faith or belief—is potentially punishable by death in at least 10 countries¸ as is the case in seven for blasphemy.

As hon. and right hon. Members will know, the organisation Open Doors does fantastic work to support the persecuted, with much of it going unheralded due to the circumstances in which its teams operate. Its annual world watch list is a comprehensive assessment of the levels of persecution faced by Christians around the world. To give some perspective, 312 million Christians face very high or extreme levels of persecution in the top 50 countries alone of Open Door’s world watch list. As has been touched on, few will be surprised to hear that North Korea tops the list, given the way that all freedoms are suppressed by its despotic regime, but other names, such as Mexico at No. 38, might be more of a surprise, as the list looks at not just the position of Governments, but the experiences of Christians in daily life.

In its May 2023 summary of trends, Open Doors identified six key points. The first is that violence in sub-Saharan Africa has reached new heights. Secondly, the China model has a growing number of emulators, with authoritarian regimes effectively taking inspiration from how China oppresses its citizens. The third is that China’s digital control is threatening the Church, as has been touched on in other contexts, and its ability to manipulate social media. The fourth is that conditions for the Church in Latin America have worsened. Fifthly, the Church in the middle east is reduced and still under pressure. But there is some good news: greater tolerance in the Gulf was the sixth trend. Each trend is either a challenge for the future or, in one case, a sign of how a growing sense of economic freedom can bring with it a demand for the right to choose our own religious faith.

I look forward to the Minister’s response. I would be interested to know what role the analysis provided by groups like Open Doors plays in the Government’s work, and how she would describe the difference the UK makes in this area, particularly on its engagement with China. I welcome the chance to have shared my thoughts in the debate and to once again be in this Chamber standing up for the freedom of religious belief. It is natural to question why and to explore what we believe, yet too many still cannot do that without putting their life, home or job on the line, and that is what the debate is about.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing the debate and for her cross-party work on these important issues.

Earlier this month, I was pleased to represent the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief at the International Religious Freedom Summit 2023 in Taiwan, where we heard some harrowing tales of the persecution, torture and even killing of people for their religious beliefs in a variety of countries. It was truly shocking. Our cross-party all-party parliamentary group seeks to advocate for those without a voice so that they are heard loud and clear. We help those without the freedoms that we enjoy to be heard and seen, and we will fight on their behalf until those freedoms, which many of us take for granted, are available to one and all across the globe. As we look around our world, the scourge of persecution against religious minorities remains a challenge for all of us to tackle head-on, now and in the future.

The APPG recently published a report on the state of freedom of religion or belief in Nepal. The report, which I recommend that colleagues read, details the need for support from the UK, in terms of both policy assistance and training, to help Nepal to execute the vision in its constitution. Sitting between China to the north and India to the south, Nepal is uniquely situated at a strategically vital point in the region for the expression of freedom of religious belief. Nepal boasts a liberal constitution that ensures that all citizens have the right to freedom of religious belief, but minority religious communities still face persecution. I look forward to the APPG and the FCDO taking steps to support Nepal through this ongoing process, and I call on the Minister to designate funding to support a training delegation to Nepal to help local administrators with FORB best practices.

Nepal has a large population of Tibetan refugees; indeed, according to the lowest estimate from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 12,000 Tibetan refugees now live in Nepal. A 2015 UNHCR report states that as many as three out of four Tibetans may not possess up-to-date refugee cards. Without identification, they cannot access basic Government services or move from Nepal, which means they are left in a state of limbo as a minority religious community. They are denied documentation and the basic rights of citizens. That is not to mention the group of over 23,000 Bhutanese refugees who are mostly living in camps in eastern Nepal, and who need documentation to continue their lives. In any future delegations to or discussions with the Nepal Government, the future of those tens of thousands of displaced people must be discussed.

International human rights law is underpinned by the universal declaration of human rights. When a human right is abused anywhere, that contributes to the breakdown of the rule of law everywhere. Of course, such a breakdown will have a huge impact on the democracy and health of communities the world over, which is why it is vital for parliamentarians and elected representatives of the people at all levels of government to uphold the universal declaration of human rights. We should be able to worship our gods and have our beliefs according to our consciences, and we should allow all other men, women and children to have the same privileges and let them also worship how, where and who they want.

For all the calls for respect, understanding and decency, it is important also to remind ourselves that around the world many groups of different faiths celebrate, learn and come together. We must never forget that although we may come from different religious faiths, we strengthen each other when we embrace each other. We need to work in solidarity and never walk by on the other side. By working side by side with, honouring, standing up for and protecting each other, we can build a better, more inclusive and safer world for all of us. To build that better world, we must never forget the threats that remain alive today. Regimes that oppress freedom of religion are likely to violate other human rights too. Of course, the protection of our freedoms is vital not only for the welfare of individuals but in preventing unrest and instability and delivering that better world for all of us.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I start with a declaration of interest: I am a former UK special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and was also the co-vice chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance when it was first set up in 2020, working alongside the United States. I also refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for other interests related to religious freedom.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who has done an outstanding job as the United Kingdom special envoy. I echo her request to the Foreign Office and the Government for a dedicated Minister. I was an envoy and a Minister in the Foreign Office, so I know that we have brilliant duty Ministers, but to do fairness and justice to this issue, we must have the consistency of a Minister turning up to the Dispatch Box, having heard what Members of Parliament have said before; that would bring credibility to the issue. I also support the call for dedicated support, structure and resources for the envoy’s role.

That having been covered, the question is this: how do the United Kingdom Government advance international religious freedom as a top priority? Page 3 of the report produced by the House of Commons Library on 8 September 2023 reads:

“In her submission to the Backbench Business Committee, Fiona Bruce MP, who acts as the UK Government’s Special Envoy on FoRB, raised 13 countries of particular concern: Algeria, Afghanistan, China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Russia, Sudan, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Uganda.”

They were also on my desk when I was the envoy. How do we make those countries accountable?

We have the tools. Our key tool is sanctions. I am a former Minister for sanctions; we have seen the key role that sanctions have played in addressing Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine. In how many of those 13 countries have we applied sanctions to individuals who are FORB violators? We have sanctions with regard to Ukraine and Belarus and we have Magnitsky sanctions, but how many have been applied in these countries? I ask the same question of the 42-member alliance. It was 26 when we started it, so I pay huge tribute to the envoy for taking it to 42. The alliance has a responsibility. Has the alliance come together to say, “These are the individuals across the world who violate human rights and, to protect freedom of religion or belief, we need decisive action in a co-ordinated manner and to share that with our respective countries back at home with a sanctions department”? I think that is absolutely crucial.

In the United States, Knox Thames, who was a State Department adviser for over 20 years, has written a brilliant report. In May 2023, he said that the United States has only once ever refused a visa to an individual for FORB violations. If it is once in the United States, how many times have we in the United Kingdom refused visas for individuals who breach religious freedom or belief? Can the Minister take that away? Time is running out.

The other point I want to raise is with regard to a closed petition condemning the burning of the Holy Koran in Sweden. A petition was put to the House of Commons, and 64,000 people signed it. It made the point that where individuals burn holy books with regard to the incitement of hatred, whether it is the Koran, the Torah, the Guru Granth, the Gita or the Injil—across the board—that kind of behaviour incites intolerance and hatred. Therefore, countries such as Sweden and Denmark that allow it under freedom of expression need to reconsider what that leads to. The point was made earlier that freedom of religion or belief is not just doing the right thing; it is absolutely about doing that, but it is also a national security imperative. If we do not have strong cohesive societies, it leads first to non-violent extremism and then violent extremism, and that creates havoc in our societies.

I finish with words from His Holiness Pope Francis. On the burning of the Holy Koran, he said he was “angry and disgusted” and that he “rejected and condemned” permitting the act as a form of freedom of speech. I ask the Minister to make very clear the United Kingdom Government’s commitment to ensure respect for all scriptures and that, whenever that is violated, we call it out, and to ensure that we do everything to make representations to Denmark and Sweden so that this kind of behaviour does not go unchallenged.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As everyone else has done, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) both on securing the debate and on all the work she does in this area. She made a very powerful and considered opening contribution and that was followed by six equally well-informed and impassioned contributions from Back-Bench Members of different parties.

Looking back, we seem to have a debate like this about this time of year. I do not know if that is deliberate or not, but it seems to be becoming a bit of an annual tradition. That is quite appropriate because on 22 August, during the summer recess, we marked the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief and, in about a month, on 27 October we will mark International Religious Freedom Day. Those days have been designated by international bodies to reflect the fact that freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right. As the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) said, that is enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights, which will be 75 years old on 10 December. It is also recognised, as the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) said, in many other global treaties and conventions.

Sadly, as we have heard throughout this debate, the denial of those rights is on the rise around the world. Perhaps one of the most frustrating and disappointing aspects of this is that the persecution of people for their religion or belief is most often carried out by people who hold or practise a religion or belief of their own. Yet a core teaching of almost every major world religion is the golden rule of the ethic of reciprocity, which is that we should treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated. Peace and justice are preached, but too often violence and oppression are practised.

We have heard a number of references to various reports about the rise of threats to freedom of religion or belief, including that of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Nazila Ghanea. Her report earlier this year stated that challenges to FORB were “alarming”, and were undermining efforts on conflict prevention, other human rights such as freedom of speech, and the ability of minorities to participate in public life. I think all Members have drawn out this link between the fundamental principles of freedom of religion or belief and all the other human rights on which the world order is supposed to be based.

We have heard about various countries where apostasy or blasphemy are still criminal offences—in some places punishable by death—including a number of Commonwealth countries, despite the Commonwealth’s proclaimed shared goals of prosperity, democracy and peace. We have also heard reflections on the Pew Research Centre’s published assessments on these issues. It has assessed that the number of countries with high or very high Government restrictions on religion has increased steadily from 47 in 2014 to 57 countries by 2020. It is clear from contributions that threats to freedom of religion or belief also come from non-state actors that are allowed to act with impunity while the state either turns a blind eye or actively supports or encourages them.

At the same time, we should recognise and pay tribute to the work of the many organisations that advocate for freedom of religion or belief and monitor the situation around the world. I am thinking particularly of Open Doors, which publishes its annual world watch list—that is of interest to many constituents in Glasgow North, and I am sure to the constituents of everyone here—as well as Aid to the Church in Need, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and many others. The staff, researchers and partners of these organisations often put themselves at risk collecting the evidence and testimonies that inform our debates, so we should be very grateful for their work.

I hear regularly from constituents in Glasgow North who raise their concern about the oppression and persecution of faith communities around the world. They are concerned about the increasing oppression of Christians in Pakistan, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about, and have cited a recent example where Christians were forced to flee the Punjab town of Jaranwala after violence broke out following accusations of blasphemy against one of the local cleaners. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan also faces severe persecution by the state, which I think makes the determination of that community to live by their precept of love for all and hatred for none all the more inspiring.

The struggle for peace and justice in the Holy Land, which has been mentioned, is incredibly complex, but respect for freedom of religion has to be at the centre of any just and lasting solution. Yet extreme elements of the Government of Israel are pushing for arrangements and territorial designations that will make access to holy sites for Christians—not just residents, but potentially tourists and pilgrims—much more difficult.

We are marking the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran, and the start of the demonstrations for women, life and freedom that began in the wake of that tragedy. Women should have the right to wear religious dress as they see fit, but they should also have the right to choose not to, and no Government or state body should be punishing them for that decision. That is also true in Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s treatment of women is abhorrent, and many people who belong to religious minorities have fled the country. We have also heard case studies about China, where any religion not sanctioned by the state can be subject to severe repercussions, including the appalling treatment of the Uyghur Muslims that many argue is tantamount to genocide.

All of this demands a response from the UK Government. They must consider how seriously they can live up to the principles they say that they support. The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) made that point powerfully in a fitting closing speech from the Back Benches.

We cannot pretend that cuts to the aid budget have happened in a vacuum. Funding for conflict resolution projects in some of the world’s most volatile regions—including Nigeria, mentioned by the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), and Myanmar, mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill)—was cut to the tune of around £12 million in April 2021. Those cuts do not help the UK’s global influence or its ability to be taken seriously when speaking about these matters on the global stage. The solutions proposed by the hon. Member for Congleton, the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham and others for how the Government can take FORB seriously and ensure that it is front and centre when Ministers travel overseas and have the opportunity to raise it with international partners are absolutely correct. The Government need to step up their work on atrocity prevention and introduce a whole-of-Government approach.

Constituents in Glasgow North and people across Scotland want to do their part to promote and respect harmony between people of all religions and none. I have spoken before about the excellent work of the interfaith movement in both Glasgow and Scotland more widely, and the practical work it does to bring together people of different communities. The Scottish Government continue to lay out their vision for independence, including a written constitution that will enshrine respect for human rights in the foundation of a new Scotland. That way, hopefully, we can all play our part together to continue to promote freedom of religion and belief, and respect for human rights, around the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), the special envoy, for securing the debate. I thank all colleagues for their contributions and all the organisations that many of us have drawn on. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said, they do such important work, often in very dangerous circumstances, bringing the truth to light about some truly horrific situations around the world.

I thank the special envoy in particular for her powerful opening speech and for highlighting the growing trend of clampdowns on freedom of religion or belief across the world in many different contexts, including by states. She was right to highlight not only the situation of the Uyghur Muslims in China, which we often hear about, but the persecution that has gone on in Tibet, not least of Tibetan Buddhists. The horrific circumstances there include the state monitoring of monasteries and the use of facial recognition cameras, restricting people’s practice of their beliefs. She was also right to highlight the Bishop of Truro’s important report, which we have debated many times in this place.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is always a powerful advocate on these issues, was absolutely right to draw attention to the situation in Pakistan. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) raised important concerns about Cyprus, which have also been raised with me; I saw some of that with my own eyes on my visit there. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) is always a powerful advocate on these issues as well, and she rightly highlighted the dangers of social media and disinformation in spreading intolerance and hatred. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) raised the situation in Nepal, and the hon. Member for Glasgow North rightly raised the situation in Iran, particularly for women.

All those examples and the others that we have heard about show the real concerns about the clampdown and the trends that we see globally. There is huge concern across the House about these issues and a desire for the Government and the United Kingdom to play a role in promoting freedom of religion or belief not only domestically, but globally through our diplomatic networks and other engagements, including sometimes difficult conversations with allies and friends about issues in their own countries. We have a crucial role in that as a leading member of the United Nations Security Council and many other bodies, including the Human Rights Council.

We all know that the 1948 declaration of human rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom to choose, change and practise their own belief or faith—or, indeed, not to profess one. In their most recent survey, in 2020, the special rapporteur found that legal restrictions on freedom of religion or belief have increased in recent years, including restrictions on the freedom to worship publicly, the operation of humanitarian agencies and associations, the appointment of faith leaders and access to education.

We know that in many cases the greatest persecutors and inhibitors of such freedom can be states themselves. The special rapporteur said that

“states employ a range of extra-legal measures that violate freedom of religion or belief, which also serve to delegitimise and stigmatise certain religious or belief groups.”

As we have heard on a number of occasions, the rising intolerance of authoritarian regimes throughout the world is supplemented by the increasing use of technology as a means of state-sponsored repression and the increased adoption and implementation of anti-blasphemy laws and the criminalisation of apostasy.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the role of authoritarian states, but what about democratic states? The House of Commons Library briefing dated 8 September contains a question by the special envoy to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, in which she referenced the killing of about 100 people, and the displacement of 50,000, in Manipur in India. We have a strategic foreign policy objective of prosperity, security and values, and we have engagement with the Indo-Pacific region on security, but then we have issues in a democratic state with regard to religious minorities. How would the hon. Gentleman go about addressing those challenges and engaging with a country as important for the United Kingdom as India? What levers would he use?

We have to have a robust, honest and candid dialogue with our closest friends and allies. Indeed, a number of those have already been mentioned, and I will go on to mention a number of them myself. It is incumbent on us to have those conversations when there are clear concerns. The hon. Gentleman mentioned several countries, but there are a number of democracies around the world where we see these issues.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Further to the intervention by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), there are ways of doing this; I indicated that in my speech, as did others. We can tie human rights and freedom of religious belief in with aid. We give India and Pakistan substantial aid, as we do other parts of the world. If we make that conditional, we can effect some change.

Indeed, there have always been, as far as I understand it, partnership principles in giving UK official development assistance. It is important that all those are considered when we engage with countries, even those that are friends and allies or might be rightly receiving assistance for other reasons. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom identified 16 countries of particular concern in 2023 and recommended 11 countries for a special watchlist. In 10 countries, the crime of apostasy is potentially punishable by death in all or part of the state, and there are seven countries where blasphemy potentially carries the same sentence.

We have heard about persecution of lots of different faiths. It will be too difficult to do justice to all of them, but let me highlight a few instances. On persecution against Christians, according to Open Doors, more than 360 million Christians worldwide suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith. That is a staggering one in seven believers. In Sudan, the ongoing political unrest has led to an intensification of anti-Christian sentiment. We have seen a horrific situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban, with the Christians who remain in the country pushed into hiding; those who are discovered could face the penalty of death. We have seen the expulsion from Nicaragua of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by St Teresa of Calcutta, and the religious of the Cross of the Sacred Heart of Jesus without due process.

In Egypt, there are reports that authorities have continued to prosecute and imprison Christians and other religious minorities. Jihadist violence continues to wreak havoc and horror in northern Nigeria, where a horrific attack in June last year saw 41 people killed at the St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo. In Myanmar, pastor Hkalam Samson remains in prison for his religious beliefs. The sad fact is that I could go on and on, but there is simply not enough time to speak to the number of situations where Christians face persecution.

On the persecution of Jews, antisemitism is utterly abhorrent and I know that all hon. Members will condemn it in all its manifestations. The most recent report from the special rapporteur, in 2019, stated clearly that

“in many States antisemitic harassment is significantly underreported. Nevertheless, reports of hostility, discrimination and violence motivated by antisemitism have increased in many parts of the world.”

Eighty-five per cent of respondents

“felt that antisemitism was a serious problem in their respective countries, 34 per cent reported that they avoided visiting Jewish events or sites because of safety concerns, and 38 per cent had considered emigrating because they did not feel safe as Jews.”

The UK has a critical role to play both at home and abroad, whether on the desecration of cemeteries, on attacks and killings at synagogues or on the daily persecution and discrimination that so many Jewish people face around the world.

On the persecution of Muslims, the appalling treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and of the Rohingya in Myanmar are high-profile cases, but we have seen that in many other places. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all rich and diverse societies, but we must all continue to raise concerns about religious freedom wherever necessary and urge the leadership of those countries to ensure that the right to freedom of religion is fully respected, whoever happens to be in the minority. We unequivocally condemn recent incidents of Koran burning and other attacks on Muslim communities. Indeed, I have stood alongside Muslim communities in my own constituency when they have faced violence and intimidation from the far right and neo-Nazis, with swastikas sprayed in their communities and acts of violence towards mosques and Muslims in my local area.

We also see violence against Hindus. In 2020, Dipti Rani Das, a teenager from the Hindu minority in Bangladesh, was arrested for a Facebook post, taken to a detention facility and held for 16 months. She faced up to seven years in jail for “hurting religious sentiment”. Whatever the rights and wrongs of her post, that is an extraordinarily draconian approach to take to an under-age individual. Amnesty and others successfully campaigned for her eventual release, but huge concerns remain.

Of course, there is also persecution of Sikhs. We saw a horrific assault on two Sikh businessmen in Peshawar, Pakistan, in May 2022. Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, has seen the near extinction of the Sikh community, which goes back to the 15th century. Until the 1980s, there was a vibrant community of 300,000 Sikhs, who played a critical role in the economy. It is now believed that their number is down to 200 people in hiding, as many have fled the brutality of the Taliban. Sadly, we know that humanists, atheists and those with no religious beliefs also face continued persecution, and we have discussed many such cases in the House.

I want to ask the Minister a few specific questions, given the horrific record that we have heard about today. First, it was good to see that the G20 communiqué specifically highlighted UN General Assembly resolution 318, particularly its

“commitment to promote respect for religious and cultural diversity, dialogue and tolerance”,

but can the Minister outline why this issue did not feature in the G7’s communiqué and whether the UK, as a leading member of the G7, the Security Council and other bodies, will ensure that we use all forums to highlight these issues?

Secondly, what steps are being taken more broadly to ensure that freedom of religion is prioritised internally? We have heard different suggestions about how that might be done, particularly in our bilateral conversations with friends and allies. We need to ensure that freedom of religion is central to our diplomatic and economic engagement.

Finally, could the Minister explain how the Government continue to engage with diaspora, civil society and religious communities here in the UK on setting priorities? They often have critical insight and intelligence about what is happening and the experiences of those within their faith communities, and it is critical that the Government engage with them.

I am privileged to represent a constituency with huge religious diversity. At the last count, I think I had eight mosques, three Hindu temples, a Sikh gurdwara and a Jewish synagogue. There is every type of Christianity, from Greek Orthodox through to Nigerian Pentecostal, Catholic, protestant—you name it. One of my predecessors, who is a Member of the Senedd, is a humanist celebrant. Cardiff South and Penarth is a place of huge religious diversity and tolerance, going back to our history as a port city, and I am really proud of some of the interfaith work that goes on. When we have had difficulties and there have been threats to people, the community has responded. Sadly, however, we do not see that in so many situations and countries around the world. The UK has a critical role to play, and I hope to hear from the Minister what steps we are taking to ensure that we uphold the UN declaration and the fundamental principles that we have all espoused today.

I congratulate the Prime Minister’s special envoy for FORB, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), both on securing the debate and on her long-standing and vociferous commitment to doing the incredibly difficult job of being all our voices and making sure that the UK’s position is heard. I thank her for pushing us on at every stage.

I also thank all Members present for their ongoing engagement through the APPG for FORB, which continues to champion this essential human right to colleagues in the House, policymakers and, indeed, the general public more widely, and for highlighting some of the organisations that help us to do that, such as Open Doors. Such organisations bring vital analysis to public awareness and help parliamentarians and the Government to focus on our work and the advocacy that we want to continue to do.

The shared passion in the House for protecting freedom of religion or belief alongside other human rights is clear and warranted, and I hope to be able to respond to the points raised in the debate. If I cannot respond to them all, I will make sure that we do so in writing in order to highlight the UK’s action in this incredibly important arena.

Let me restate that violence against any person because of their faith or belief is completely unacceptable, and the Government have long been committed to promoting and protecting FORB for all. Although this right is clearly enshrined in international human rights law, the situation globally remains of grave concern. As my hon. Friend the special envoy set out, there is a sense that it is going in the wrong direction in too many areas. Every day, people are persecuted, harassed and, indeed, killed for their beliefs.

Religious intolerance and persecution are often at the heart of foreign and development policy challenges. Where religious freedom or belief is under attack, human rights across the piece are often threatened too. My hon. Friend raised the challenges that we see in Iran, where the root of what we are talking about here is visible, and we need to ensure that we always highlight that. She set that out incredibly well.

In July last year, the Minister responsible for human rights, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, and our special envoy hosted the international ministerial conference on FORB, where more than 100 Government delegations, 800 faith and belief leaders, human rights experts and non-governmental organisations came together to agree actions to protect these freedoms. During the conference, we announced new UK funding to support those who defend religious freedom or belief, and 47 Governments, international organisations and other entities pledged to take action in support of this fundamental right.

Since last year we have built on the momentum of the conference in a number of ways—first, by working through international bodies, within the multilateral framework, to strengthen coalitions of support and protect FORB for all. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), raised some of the places where that has been easier or, sometimes, harder to achieve in the multilateral environment.

Secondly, we have been using the strength of our own global diplomatic network to encourage states to uphold their human rights obligations. To answer a number of colleagues’ questions and, indeed, the envoy’s message, I can say that I travel to no country without a very clear brief on the issues around any human rights challenges, specific or more broad. Every Minister, whenever they are travelling, has that in their portfolio of information and, where the opportunity arises, we will raise those issues with the people we meet.

I know that the right hon. Lady always tries to give answers on the issues that we bring to her attention. I referred specifically to the violence against Christians in Manipur, which was reported recently in The Times, and I asked her to find out whether the Prime Minister, when he was in India, made any representations on that issue. The right hon. Lady has said that she raises issues all the time. It would be unwise and inappropriate if our Prime Minister had not done the same, so we would like to make sure that he has. I also asked for some information on the role of journalists and media in Manipur province, where they have been prevented from entering. There are big issues in India, and if our Prime Minister does not ask those questions when he is in India, there is something seriously wrong.

I obviously was not privy to the conversations that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had, but I can say that, as the Minister who oversees India, with my Indo-Pacific portfolio, I always raise issues of concern. We have very clear and direct private conversations at every level where we feel that is appropriate, and India is no different from any other country, but I am happy to ask the Prime Minister’s office to get back to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) if that would be useful.

On the multilateral point first, we work across the UN, Council of Europe, G7 and International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance to try to protect and promote this incredibly important human right. Our envoy acts as the UK representative and is the current chair of the alliance. The alliance has grown incredibly strongly under her leadership and now has 45 members, friends and observers. The joint statements recently issued by the alliance covering restrictions and concerns for different faith or belief communities around the world are most welcome and important. I also commend the alliance’s recent programme of targeted advocacy on cases of individual prisoners of conscience.

We of course regularly raise situations of concern at the UN Human Rights Council. That work is led by Lord Ahmad; it is in his portfolio. In July, during the adoption of Pakistan’s universal periodic review, the UK urged the Government of Pakistan to ensure the safety of persecuted religious communities, including, of course, Ahmadi Muslims and Christians. At the most recent session of the council, which began last week, we called on Sri Lanka to respect its citizens’ rights to freely practise their faiths or beliefs. At the UN Security Council in June, we led with the United Arab Emirates on a resolution about tolerance, peace and security. The resolution directly addresses, for the first time, the persecution of religious minorities and other minority groups in conflict settings.

In recent months, we have actively engaged in UN discussions on the balance between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, following incidents of Koran burnings in Europe. In our bilateral work, we regularly raise specific issues with other Governments both in public and private: for example, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), met Nicaraguan human rights activist Bianca Jagger in May, and discussed the situation in Nicaragua and the plight of imprisoned Bishop Álvarez. On Afghanistan, UK Ministers and officials engage regularly with a range of Afghans, including Hazaras, to ensure our policy and programming reflect the diversity of needs there. Providing a platform to Hazaras at the ministerial conference last year raised awareness of their situation and enabled an ongoing dialogue with Ministers and policymakers across the world.

We remain concerned that religious and ethnic minority populations continue to decline in Iraq, and we raise these concerns with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government. When my noble Friend Lord Ahmad visited Iraq earlier this year, he held an informative and very helpful roundtable with religious leaders. We are also implementing a £15,000 programme to improve religious tolerance and social cohesion in Nineveh. We need to continue to do that in those most challenging areas.

A number of colleagues raised the subject of Nigeria, where we see civilians of all faiths, including many Muslims, suffer devastating harm at the hands of violent extremist groups and as a result of intercommunal violence and criminality. We remain committed to supporting Nigeria to address those root causes of violence, protect human rights and promote dialogue and respect between different ethnic and religious communities. We have continued to raise that with the Nigerian Government, including in the earliest meetings with the new Administration.

On Pakistan, many here will have heard the speech the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), recently gave on our support to Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan. As well as the recent discussions, Lord Ahmad also raised the treatment of marginalised communities with Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights in January and June. He also wrote to Pakistan’s acting Foreign Minister, Jalil Abbas Jilani, urging the Government of Pakistan to ensure the safety of the Christian community following recent attacks in Jaranwala.

A number of colleagues cited violations happening much closer to home, even in Ukraine, as Putin with his brutal illegal war of aggression has weaponised orthodox Christianity. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) raised an important issue around co-ordinated sanctions work among those in the alliance. I will take that away to look at how we might consider working on that internationally, as we have done with the Russia sanctions regime, which has been very effective in having that multilateral impact. The hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) raised some important issues concerning refugees in Nepal and I will come back to her on that matter, as Nepal is a country in my portfolio where we do a lot of work. I will also provide more specific information on how we have used and are using our human rights sanctions with the countries raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham, which I hope will be useful.

Finally, I want to talk about embedding freedom of religion or belief in the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. We welcome the findings of the independent review of the Bishop of Truro’s report. The assessment concluded that the majority of the recommendations are now in an advanced stage of delivery, or actively being delivered. I hope we demonstrate through our multilateral and bilateral work that we are continuing to seek opportunities to ensure that freedom of religion or belief is central to wider human rights work, including through our global human rights sanctions regime.

Our efforts are supported by central programming via project funding, including our John Bunyan Fund and ROLE UK partnership that aims to support legislative reform to increase religious or belief protections. Religion for international engagement training is available to all civil servants, to enhance their understanding of the role of religion and belief in a wide variety of contexts, in order to deliver the UK’s international objectives more effectively. We continue to promote this and earlier this year we were pleased to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton to a seminar for all Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff. I commend my hon Friend for convening country-focused roundtables on this topic, bringing together academic experts, civil society and British diplomats. I welcome the opportunity those forums provide to dig deep into some of the challenges we see around the world, and ponder the action we might take together to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief.

As envoy, my hon. Friend has a dedicated formal role. She has asked whether a specific Minister in the House of Commons might take responsibility for freedom of religion or belief. In a bicameral Parliament, of course, we have specific ministerial responsibilities that are split across both Houses. My noble friend Lord Ahmad established the FORB role prior to the Truro report, and I know that colleagues present agree that he does an incredibly good and passionate job as a proactive advocate for and a passionate believer in these principles; his work is now recognised and respected around the world. I also note my hon. Friend’s intention to seek a private Member’s Bill to make the special envoy role permanent. I know that she has spoken with the Foreign Secretary on the matter already, and I look forward to seeing how that progresses in the months ahead.

As a long-standing champion of human rights, the United Kingdom has a duty to promote and defend our values of equality, respect and democratic freedom at home and abroad, and I assure Members that this Government are doing just that. Through the channels available to us, we will continue to call out persecution and defend the right of freedom of religion or belief for all. Difficult and robust conversations happen at the highest levels every time Ministers travel, to ensure that the UK’s commitments to FORB and tolerance are clearly understood.

I thank all colleagues for contributing so excellently and informedly today, and I thank the Minister for her thoughtful response. Forgive me if I do not refer to all colleagues individually, but I want to mention the reference made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) to the need for a “better world” and the potential of religions to play a role in achieving that. Would it not be wonderful if we could move from a narrative of attitudes to religion being the cause of so many problems in the world to one of freedom of religion or belief being one of the answers to the world’s problems, as I believe it is?

To illustrate that, I close by presenting colleagues with two alternative futures for our consideration. The first is a world in which freedom of religion or belief is weak. Here there is an unbridled appetite for power. Domination is the goal. The strong succeed. The vulnerable are violated—physically, mentally, emotionally. Fear prevails. Minorities are despised, diversity deterred, assimilation enforced. Lives are wasted, as people are seen as a disposable means to an ideological end.

The second possible future is a world in which freedom of religion or belief is strong and respected. Here, people find ways to live together with their deepest differences. Choices for FORB can be freely made, and so many other freedoms flow from that foundational right: individual potential can flourish, safety and security are enhanced in local communities and internationally, the weak are strengthened and supported, poverty and inequality are reduced, minorities are respected, diversity is honoured, voices are given an opportunity to speak, and lives are fulfilled. Every person is afforded the inherent human dignity that is their due.

The choice between those two possible futures lies before us. Much depends on those of us in this room today.

Order. Before I put the Question, I ask Members leaving the debate to do so quickly and quietly, because we have an important debate coming up on South West Water, which we will go straight into.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered freedom of religion and belief.

South West Water: Environmental Performance

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the environmental performance of South West Water.

I am delighted to have secured this debate on South West Water, Mr Hollobone. South West Water looks after Devon and Cornwall, yet it has been dumping raw sewage in the lovely rivers of Devon and Cornwall for years. For 10 disgraceful years, South West Water has dished out huge dividends to its shareholders instead of investing to clean up its own filthy act. For 10 deplorable years, South West Water has been rated red by the Environment Agency—red for appalling, red for risky, red for downright dangerous. People can buy its shares if they fancy it and are brave enough, but they should look out, because this company has been borrowing its way out of trouble for many years.

Pre-privatisation South West Water was debt free, but two years ago it was in hock to the tune of £2 billion. It has reduced the debt a little bit, but with rising costs and the threat of a big stick from the regulators—rightly so—South West Water looks like, I am afraid to say, a very dodgy stock in which to place money. The company’s chief financial officer has left, and who can blame him? South West Water is now under severe and serious investigation for massaging statistics. It has lied about the scale of the ongoing pollution. It has already been fined over £2 million for dumping poo in the recent past. It does not even make the water; it sells it. God makes water! It sells water, and charges the highest price in Britain for every drop used.

South West Water also loses water at a frightening rate through burst pipes and its own broken promises to repair them. Almost 127 million litres a day goes down the drain. I will repeat that: 127 million litres. It would matter less if it had enough water to last, but it does not. There are two reservoirs in the area; one is in Roadford in Devon, and the other is Wimbleball, the big lake on Exmoor. Needless to say, South West Water did not build either of them. They were constructed in the days before privatisation.

The only addition that South West Water seems to have made is a highly unpopular timeshare village, believe it or not, on the banks of Roadwater lake, and guess what? It did it for money, of course. South West Water leaks like a sieve, it makes its customers pay through the nose and it is rapidly running out of storage space for what is left. None of us should be surprised that South West Water still has a hosepipe ban in place—the only one in Britain. It is a complete joke.

The Government have been passing laws to trample on obscene bonuses, often awarded in the name of protecting the environment. The Lord-Lieutenant of Devon is one such recipient. In principle, I am all in favour of hitting the culprits hard where it hurts—in their wallets. It is a good idea, but the Minister and her team probably did not reckon on the ingenious methods used by some of the water companies. South West Water is not the only one, but it is the one that I am concentrating on.

When it became clear that it could not get away with pumping poo into the rivers willy-nilly and then paying each other fat bungs for saving the planet, South West Water had a little rethink. Surprise, surprise—guess what? It decided to award handsome bonuses for meeting its financial targets instead. Funnily enough, it was an idea borrowed from Wessex Water. You do not really invent the wheel; it goes round. When that ruse fails, South West Water will probably move the goalposts again. Who knows? They might start awarding each other big bungs for helping old ladies to cross the road.

In the water industry, more or less anything is acceptable these days, which is bizarre. For example, last week the BBC—yes, the BBC—did something very unusual. It did some good old-fashioned journalism. That is amazing —not dance-offs, but journalism. It produced a story that I think would have chilled the Minister to her core, along with many others. Water companies are allowed to dump raw or partly treated sewage on a strictly limited basis, when the weather is really wet and the pipes would get overloaded, and they need a permit to do so. Some bright spark at the Beeb—and that is going some—wondered whether it could be discovered exactly when the discharges happened and what the weather was like at the time, and to look at all water companies. The results of these inquiries were shocking.

The BBC found out that 388 dumps—if you will pardon my expression, Mr Hollobone—took place in bone-dry conditions, which is illegal, yet this is probably only the tip of a very smelly scandal, because so few water companies provided any information whatsoever. All nine water companies were sent requests about when their spills started and when they stopped, but only Thames, Southern and Wessex provided details. The BBC cross-referenced those with the Met Office’s rainfall data and found that most of the spills took place during the drought last year. As an example, take Wessex, which covers my and the Minister’s constituencies. It admitted 215 individual spills at 68 different sites that lasted more than 60 hot, rainless days. That is one hell of a lot of illegal poo. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) looks quizzical, but he can ask the BBC if he wishes.

The Beeb had to rely on water companies’ own monitoring equipment, but—surprise, surprise—South West Water claimed it could not help because it has very old equipment; more likely is that it just could not be bothered to reply. I am afraid it is a bit like Russell Brand: not to be trusted. South West Water has a broken moral compass and a cavalier attitude to its own filth. In my view, it is a working certainty that South West Water was and still is quietly pumping pollution into our rivers, but we do not know how much or when.

The people who ought to be finding out are equally powerless to do so. The Environment Agency does not have the manpower or the time to investigate every single infringement. It has to rely on information from the companies themselves. In 2010, its budget was halved, and austerity came at a price. The Environment Agency no longer audits water companies every year, which it is meant to do by law. Only a third of all audits, to check if companies are telling the truth about pollution and illegal sewage, take place. Audits for South West Water, with its dismal record of pollution, are missing for eight of the last 13 years. I repeat: missing for eight of the last 13 years.

This company of ruthless, money-grabbing cowboys makes Al Capone look like an angel. South West Water is by far and away the worst water company in this country. The chief executive was paid £456,000 last year, which is four times more than the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and you should see the size of the bonuses these people get, Mr Hollobone. The same chief executive could have cleaned up an extra £450,000 this year, but she reckoned it would be good PR to turn it down—it makes her look like a caring type of chief exec, doesn’t it—so I will be coming round with a begging bowl a bit later if you could give generously to help her.

Let us not forget the company’s chair, the squeaky clean figurehead of Pennon Group, who was appointed deliberately to add gravitas to the grubby business of getting rid of what goes down the toilet. Her name is Gill Rider—actually, Dr Gill Rider, but if she wants to give you the botty probe, say no. She did five years at the top of the Cabinet Office, so she should jolly well understand what it takes for leaks and dirty deeds. She is also president of the Marine Biological Association, which was set up to help protect the environment of our coasts. What a wonderful irony that is, given that South West Water sewage ends up in the sea.

Miss Rider is of course the non-executive chairperson of Pennon Group, which is why I am afraid the poor lady has to scrape by on £113,000 a year. Perhaps it was her who suggested hiring a firm of top City lawyers to scare off local news organisations, and the Minister is aware of this. The editors were bullied by a City law firm into censoring my press releases about this company for fear of writs for defamation. Those are the tactics of mobsters, but I am afraid that Dr Gill Rider is used to getting her own way. One foot out of line, and you risk ending up with a severed horse’s head on your pillow—or perhaps, unfortunately, dead fish in the river.

That reminds me that there is in Tiverton an almost dead building firm called 3 Rivers Developments. It was conceived by senior officers in Mid Devon District Council, next to the Exe. They thought it would solve their financial problems. They have never built a Lego house, never mind a real one. They do not have a clue. Six years and £21 million later, the company is stony broke. There is an irony in all that. The kindest thing would be to cut their losses and shut it down—full administration, which is the only way to get to the bottom of what has gone on. We understand that as MPs—we have seen it in our seats—but the Liberal loonies decided to let it limp on, haemorrhaging public money. By the way, this is a political party that promised big change in Mid Devon. They cannot even change themselves. I noticed with some alarm that one of the members elected to Tiverton Town Council in May has not turned up for a single meeting—my hon. Friend the Minister looks shocked—so it is no wonder that people are calling for a by-election to unseat him.

The Liberal MP for the area, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), who is in his place, ought to be—dare I say it—kicking the backsides of South West Water on a painful and regular basis. I gather that he would like the company to be reformed. I am sure that South West Water will take his views with the seriousness they deserve—and take no notice at all. I will do the kicking, because that is the job of an MP. I have attacked South West Water once, twice, three times, four times. I will not rest until this is sorted, and I have sharp toecaps. I have already highlighted the shortcomings of the Environment Agency and Ofwat—the regulators are far from rapid in their response to water company excesses—but I must say to my hon. Friend the Minister that her Department, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is responsible. I gently say that the Department cannot plead complete innocence. I recognise that the Minister has worked hard—she is my neighbour in Taunton—to steer tough new water legislation through Westminster. It is good news to be able to offer limitless fines as a punishment for polluting our rivers—fantastic. But the whole exercise is pointless if the agencies cannot enforce the law. That is what is happening, and it should not be.

I am sure that the Minister will recall the Environment Act 2021. It created the brand-new Office for Environmental Protection, which is charged with holding everybody who is responsible to account. Ministers, Departments and agencies all come under the new OEP, and the new OEP has already spoken. The OEP opened an investigation into the Environment Agency, Ofwat and DEFRA last June, amid concerns that they had not properly been enforcing the law. At the heart of the case, the OEP said, was whether those bodies were correctly interpreting what count as “extraordinary circumstances”. Now, that is open to interpretation. Water companies have been granted permits to discharge sewage into rivers and seas hundreds of thousands of times a year when their network has been overwhelmed by rainwater—we have had serious flooding in Somerset, as the Minister knows, over the last 48 hours—on the basis that such rainfalls were considered “extraordinary circumstances”. The OEP, however, believes that DEFRA, the EA and Ofwat may be being too lenient in interpreting the law. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister and her Department to defend themselves against the public body that they created. This is a monumental mess.

The hon. Member is giving a bombastic speech of which the late Lord Flashheart would have been very proud. What does he think of the actions of the Government in this space? Although he seeks to shift the blame on to water companies or regulators, the Government ultimately have the responsibility for the regulation of South West Water and for holding it to account.

More to be pitied than scolded, Mr Hollobone. I would say to the hon. Member that he must listen to what Members in this House say. We are not complete morons. I have laid out why I was saying what I was doing. I have made the point.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, whom I have worked with for over a decade, understands that there is much to do, and the OEP has made it clear that DEFRA, the EA and Ofwat have a lot to answer for. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton may not know this as a new MP—I understand the limitations—but DEFRA is a Government Department. It is the Department for Environment, Food And Rural Affairs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland mouthed with me— I am grateful to him for that.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton needs to sit up and listen. He really does. Quite honestly, I wish he was a little more proactive on South West Water, because all we get from him is resounding silence. I know he was a major in the education corps, but that is not an excuse.

My hon. Friend the Minister’s constituency includes Taunton, which is on a flood plain—we are the levels—so she knows how important water is. Will she say in response what action the OEP needs to take? How are we going to get South West Water to actually do the job, because its staff and team are not doing it and it is going to go bankrupt at some point because it is haemorrhaging money? How we are going to stop this before we all end up back in Westminster Hall or the main Chamber saying, “What did we miss?” I am glad that the Minister is in her place, and I look forward, as always, to hearing her words of wisdom.

Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to have you in the Chair today to preside over this important debate about one of our water companies, South West Water.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), I am disappointed at the overall environmental performance of South West Water and the impacts that that is having on the local environment. I have been regularly meeting the chief executive officers of companies identified as lagging in their performance commitments, including the CEO of South West Water. I expect to hear of the progress it has made this year and its plans on how it will continue to improve.

There are some promising signs of improvement since the previous debate on this topic in this Chamber, back in February, although I do not believe that my hon. Friend attended that. South West Water has been upgraded from one star in 2021 to two stars in 2022, according to the Environment Agency’s environmental performance assessment. Of course, this is a very long way to go to get the outcomes that customers, regulators and the Government expect.

South West Water has consistently been one of the worst-performing companies for high levels of total pollution incidents and, despite recent improvement, it was still significantly above the industry average for total pollution incidents in 2022. It must take urgent steps to further reduce these pollution incidents, and I expect to see sustained and continued improvement. I have spoken to it about this many times.

I am also aware of the concerns raised about South West Water’s use of combined sewer overflows and the impact that has on coastal communities. South West Water has made good progress on monitoring storm overflows, has met its deadline for 100% coverage by the end of the year, and has achieved a 30% decrease in the number of spills from storm overflows. I am pleased to say that I received an update just this week, from right across the water industry, to say that 96% of overflows are now monitored, with the remainder on track to hit our target of 100% by our deadline at the end of this year.

I welcome the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), to his place. I do not think that this is our first meeting together. I have to point out, though, that under Labour, only 7% of overflows were monitored. It was this Government who introduced the monitoring, and that is why we have a picture of what is happening. It was actually the Labour party that allowed water companies to self-monitor. That was alluded to, I think, by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, and we must not forget that.

On 29 August, I called the CEO of South West Water regarding Harlyn bay, the most beautiful bay in Cornwall, following reports of discharges from storm sewage overflows and reports of increases in sickness among bathers and surfers. The Environment Agency is investigating that. Clearly, action can be taken only if we have the evidence and if there is an issue. There is a permit system and there are exemptions for extreme weather—we know why that is in place—but I have asked the CEO to ensure that, should pollution be identified, signage is put on the beach so that it is made very clear to bathers and surfers alike. They have taken up my point.

I will carry on for a moment.

On storm overflows and discharges in the south-west, Ofwat announced, as part of a £2.2 billion accelerated infrastructure package that this Government triggered, that South West Water will accelerate £70 million of investment to deliver 15 storm overflow improvement schemes in the Falmouth and Sidmouth catchments. That will ensure that they meet the new bathing water and shellfish requirements and will significantly improve standards to protect public health at some of the south-west’s most important sites. Further investment to meet our strict targets will be required as part of the draft water company business plans for the next price control period. Those are being looked at right now. They will be published shortly and scrutinised by the regulator to ensure that we get the infrastructure and efficiency we need, balancing the need for improvement with managing people’s bills.

No Government have ever done as much as this Government are doing to tackle storm overflows. In 2013, the Government set out expectations that water companies must monitor the vast majority of those combined sewer overflows, as I referenced earlier. It is that monitoring that has meant that regulators understand the scale of combined sewer overflow discharges and can take stronger action within the existing legal framework.

In 2022, the Government launched the storm overflows discharge reduction plan. Our strict targets will see the toughest ever crackdown on sewage spills and will require water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure project in water company history—that is, £56 billion by 2050. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset may be aware, there has been a court case and I am pleased to say that last week the High Court found that our plan went beyond legal requirements. We have been consulting on expanding our sewage overflows plan further to cover coasts, estuaries and marine protected sites—something I have particularly pushed for. We have announced our intention to make the plan’s target a legal requirement under that all-important Environment Act 2021, which I was so proud to take through Parliament. It is a game-changing piece of legislation; there is no doubt about that.

We also required water companies to produce action plans explaining how they will improve every storm overflow in England. South West Water will not be able to escape this; they have to do that, too. Those are on officials’ desks being worked through, and they will be published shortly. I hope that my hon. Friend realises that a great amount is under way by this Government.

I will do my final paragraph on this subject and then I will give way. In April 2023, the Government published their “Plan for Water”, which is a comprehensive strategy to transform our water environment, dealing with supply, demand and pollution, and pulling everything together to deal with the needs of society for water in future.

I heard the Minister say a moment ago that enforcement action can only take place where there is evidence. Is it the case that the Minister does not have sufficient evidence for enforcement action to take place against South West Water?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. One cannot take a court case without sufficient evidence; that is absolutely critical to any court case. I will come on to that, the actions that the Environment Agency is taking and its enforcement powers in a minute, but first I must refer to what some of the other parties think would be the right thing to do.

The Labour party has been calling for mandatory monitoring when we have already delivered it, as well as automatic fines that would make sanctions weaker and a plan to tackle sewage that simply is not credible. When it comes to talking about water, the Liberal Democrats do not have a plan. They seem to think that we can flip a switch and fix it overnight. Even if we could flip a switch, it would mean sewage backing up into people’s homes and businesses and widespread mains waterpipe bursts across the country. We are the only party that has a credible plan to tackle this problem, backed by more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement. That will all be applied to South West Water as appropriate.

I will touch on water security, because that has been a significant issue in the south-west. I am well aware that South West Water customers in Cornwall and Devon have been under hosepipe bans for extended periods of time—since last year, in some cases. I am pleased that South West Water will lift the hosepipe bans next week. I have personally visited South West Water to look at the issues: I have been to the reservoirs referenced, looked at how their size is being increased and how the issue is being tackled to address the whole water-resilient supply. We are working with South West Water, and it is working on emergency plans for situations of drought.

Where performance does not improve, the Government and regulators will not hesitate to hold water companies, including South West Water, to account. Back in 2015, the Environment Agency brought 59 prosecutions against water companies, securing fines of £150 million. As the House will be aware, South West Water has recently been fined £2.1 million in criminal charges relating to offences between 15 July 2016 and 20 August 2020. In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), of course the EA had the evidence and data. That is how it could take that strong action.

The subject of enforcement was raised. The EA had its budget for enforcement expanded by £2.2 million a year to tackle enforcement, and Ofwat received a further £11.3 million uplift for enforcement. This is an absolute priority. Furthermore, following its categorisation as a lagging company in 2022, South West Water was required by Ofwat to publish an action plan setting out how it will improve its performance. It was published in 2023 and updated earlier this month, and I will be tracking its progress. Enforcement is being taken really seriously, and I am sure the House is aware that this is actually the largest criminal and civil investigation, investigating 2,200 sewage treatment works. It is being undertaken right now by the Environment Agency and Ofwat into water company permit compliance.

I must quickly allude to that BBC report. I was a news reporter, and I prided myself on my data and sources. They obviously did their report, but it would need to stand up in court if the EA chose to prosecute any of the cases raised by the BBC. If it stands up in court and the information is there, of course the EA will take action if it finds non-compliance. Huge amounts of data were analysed, and it must be thoroughly analysed by the EA in order to go to court, but more openness and transparency are very much needed in the water industry. That is being worked on.

We continue to take action to strengthen the regulator’s powers to better hold water companies to account, and we are in the process of removing the cap on civil penalties for environmental regulators to drive compliance. I share concerns about dividends and executive pay—they must reflect performance. Ofwat has recently strengthened its ability to take enforcement action against water companies that do not link dividend payments with their performance, using its powers under the Environment Act 2021. In June, Ofwat made it clear that customers will no longer fund executive bonus payments that have not been sufficiently justified. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset will be interested in that.

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

Sitting suspended.

Proposed Merger of Three UK and Vodafone

[Sir George Howarth in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the proposed merger of Three UK and Vodafone.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir George, and I am grateful for having been granted the debate. I refer the House to my entry to the Register of Members’ Interests. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) to his new role as shadow Minister.

In July, it was announced that Vodafone and Three UK had agreed to combine their businesses, in an effort, they claim, to create one of Europe’s leading 5G networks. Although I welcome the aspiration, such a deal will have terrible consequences, with higher prices for consumers, job losses alongside inflated corporate profits, and a threat to the UK’s national security. The newly combined company would have 27 million customers, which would make it the largest mobile network operator in the UK, surpassing O2 and EE. That makes today’s debate important, as both carriers already have customers in every one of the 650 seats represented here in the House of Commons.

The announcement of the merger came only months after Vodafone had already announced 11,000 job cuts worldwide, including here in the UK. When Vodafone UK’s chief executive was subsequently asked what impact the merger would have on future job losses, he stubbornly said,

“it’s very early…to talk about job losses”

and that “some roles” might be impacted. External studies suggest that “some” could be as many as 1,600 roles. When Vodafone and Three merged with TPG in Australia in 2020, they claimed that it would accelerate the benefits of substantial network investments made by both companies, when in reality investment levels across the sector are down by 45%.

Is this not part of what we are seeing across the IT sector, which is what we previously saw in other industrial sectors, for example, in companies such as John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company? Basically, these companies drive out competition and then set their own terms and the terms of those who work in the industry. Is this not of real concern not just to consumers, but to all those concerned with the creation of those monopolies?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. This merger is bad news not just for UK customers, but for the people who work for both these businesses and, of course, it poses threats to national security as well.

Investment levels in the sector after the merger of Vodafone and Three in Australia went down by 45%. I ask the Minister: does the evidence therefore suggests that this will be a sensible merger here in the UK?

I want to place on the record my thanks to my union, Unite, for campaigning on this issue. It shares the concerns that so many of us have about jobs and national security, and it has consistently kept members aware of the implications since the merger was announced. According to Ofcom, 2.2 million households are struggling with the cost of mobile services. As a report by the House of Commons Library stated:

“Bills for some customers rose by over 11% in 2022. Communications consultancy Farrpoint has estimated that, based on inflation projections, bills will rise by a third over the next five years.”

Will the merger make bills cheaper for British customers? Research suggests not. The former chief competition economist at the European Commission has undertaken work showing that prices after a Three-Vodafone merger could be 50% higher. Based on average spending patterns, that means UK customers would pay up to £300 more per year on their mobile bills.

Only a few months ago, we heard that water companies were pushing for bills to rise by up to 40%. We know that electricity and gas payments almost doubled between May 2020 and June 2023, and the Bank of England chief economist recently warned that food inflation is unlikely to come down soon. Why will British customers who use Vodafone and Three have to find even more money for an unnecessary choice that has been foisted on them?

The merger is bad news not only for households’ financial security, but for the UK’s national security.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I apologise to all concerned, but I have a meeting in the Treasury very shortly that I will have to go to. However, I want to ask this question to ensure that it is raised with the Minister, who will no doubt be responding to this debate.

On the security issue—as the hon. Gentleman knows, I have been sanctioned by the Chinese Government, like others—I am concerned that there should be full and due diligence on such a merger, particularly given the Cheung Kong Group and the Li family being so knowingly involved with Chinese Government committees, their contacts in the Chinese Government and having to pass data over under the national security law. Will the hon. Gentleman ensure that the key question for the Minister is that the Government are able to assure everybody publicly that this will not take place unless these security issues are clarified and are not still security issues at the end of this process?

The right hon. Gentleman makes important points, and national security is vital. I pay tribute to him for his work on this issue, and to all the members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China in the House of Commons and the House of Lords who are active in that campaign group.

When there was the issue about Huawei installing its equipment, one of the arguments made was that this was the hardware, and that the telephone companies and indeed the National Security Agency would be able to keep track of the software, but these companies are now deeply involved in the software. Does that not make these systems even more vulnerable to possible influence by the Chinese authorities?

That is an important intervention. I accept the point that the hardware and the software are both quite open to interference, and I hope the Minister will be able to address these concerns from Members.

Following a merger, Three’s ultimate parent company, CK Group, will gain significant control over a business that will serve 40% of the UK’s population. Evidence suggests that there is extensive collaboration between the CK Group, the Li family that controls it and the Chinese state. It is well documented that the Li family has strongly backed pro-Beijing hardliner John Lee as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, and supported a draconian new security law that would suppress dissent. On top of this, top CK Group executives sit on Chinese Government committees and have access to the inner circle of the Chinese elite. Does the Minister feel comfortable with a hostile foreign actor potentially having access to millions of UK citizens’ data?

Last month, I wrote to Greater Manchester police, my local force, sharing my concerns about the impact that such a merger would have, and Greater Manchester police is just one of the many police forces that have contracts with Vodafone at present. I am aware that Unite the union is happy to provide a list of police forces that have contracts with Vodafone, so I urge Members across the House to contact their local force to seek assurances about security and privacy measures. I implore the Minister to meet Unite to discuss these concerns as a matter of priority.

I have grave concerns that China’s domestic and counter-intelligence laws and Hong Kong’s national security law may pave the way for China’s security services to obtain confidential data from companies such as CK Hutchison. While in theory UK law prohibits the collection or transfer of individual user data, in practice there have been numerous examples in the UK and elsewhere where data has been accessed and transferred to China. Can the Minister give his assurances that he will do all in his power to prevent this from happening?

Although Ministers may assure us that they will do all in their power, I remain worried that that is not enough to stop sensitive UK Government communications being exposed. It goes beyond the police, as Vodafone has contracts with the Ministry of Justice and the national health service, too. The recent report by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament found that the UK is of “significant interest” to China

“when it comes to espionage and interference”,

and notes that China uses

“all possible legitimate routes to acquire UK technology, Intellectual Property and data”,

but that such overt

“acquisition routes have been welcomed by HMG for economic reasons”.

Now would be a good time for the Government to acquit themselves of that allegation, and to put British consumers and our national security first.

In the past, the Prime Minister met the Intelligence and Security Committee yearly. I hope the Minister will give the House his assurance that the Prime Minister will reinstate those meetings. Now, faced with this significant merger and a litany of other national security threats, would be a good time to do so.

Unite the union has commissioned analysis from digital security expert Dr Alexi Drew, an academic and the director of tech security at consultancy Penumbra Analysis. Dr Drew found that the potential merger created substantial security risks, noting:

“Domestic laws and internal company policies will do little to hinder the exercise of nation-state intelligence gathering apparatus from leveraging any means of access to data that company mergers and acquisitions might enable. If a merger creates the technical or human means to collect valuable data, then the security services of any nation-state, Chinese or otherwise, are likely to make use of it.”

The Government have said that they will assess this risky merger through their investment security unit, so what stage has the ISU assessment reached, and will the acquisition be called in for a further national security assessment? Knowing what we know about the proposals, they seem wrong on so many levels. They are bad news for British customers, will result in significant job losses, and plainly pose a national security threat to the UK. Perhaps things would be very different if the Government actually had an industrial strategy for the UK and were not asleep at the wheel while our national infrastructure got sold off to hostile actors.

In the light of all this, I will be interested to hear the Minister’s contribution and whether he supports the merger. If he supports it, why? If he does not, what will he do to stop the merger?

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Sir George. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing this important and timely debate.

The merger of Three UK and Vodafone will create, in the words of Unite the union,

“a telecoms cartel with devastating effects on mobile phone users.”

It is a bad deal for workers, a bad deal for consumers and a bad deal all round. The jobs of 1,600 people hang in the balance, and that is in addition to the brutal 11,000 job cuts globally that Vodafone has recently announced.

Previous telecoms mergers have resulted in workforce reductions of between 7.5% and 12%. While corporations line their pockets, UK workers will be left without the means to support themselves. But don’t take it from me—the former chief executive officer of Vodafone UK, Nick Read, has stated explicitly:

“We feel the UK needs to consolidate to give [us] industrial scale so we can improve returns.”

This dangerous deal will not provide a better service, cheaper costs, more jobs or better terms and conditions for workers. The move is being made solely to line the pockets of these major corporations and their shareholders, and is just another example of the corporate greed we have seen over the last couple of years.

Over 2.2 million UK households are struggling with the cost of mobile services. Three and Vodafone have already rolled out above-inflation price hikes of up to 14% on monthly plans, and research by the chief competition economist at the European Commission shows that prices could increase by an eye-watering 50% following the Three-Vodafone merger. That could mean a £300 hike to UK customers’ phone and broadband bills. Given the looming recession, financial pressures from the cost of living crisis and spiralling inflation in the Tories’ mismanaged economy, this could not come at a worse time.

Vodafone already has a history of hiding profitability to evade taxation, and several countries have condemned it for using tax havens to avoid local fees. Instead of consolidating super-conglomerates, we should be tightening tax loopholes and strengthening the power of regulators to prevent profiteering and protect consumers. Allowing this merger to go ahead would clearly prioritise corporate interests over those of the working class. The Government must act now to end the cycle of greedflation. There are some legitimate security concerns, and I hope the Minister can reassure us that they will be thoroughly explored before any further action is taken. I hope he will agree today to take up the calls to stop this reckless merger.

It is a pleasure, Sir George, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing this important debate. I also draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my membership of Unite the union.

Speaking more than a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt called for congressional action to curb the power and influence of trusts, remarking that

“the state not only has the right to control the great corporations, but is duty bound to control them whenever the need of such control is shown”.

The world has changed beyond recognition since Roosevelt launched his crusade to bust the trusts, but his message—that Governments have a democratic duty to protect their citizens from the aspirations of big businesses to become all-powerful monopolies—is as true now as it was then.

Around the globe, we are witnessing huge corporations’ increasingly aggressive merger and acquisition strategies. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that the interests of our constituents are not trampled over by corporate greed. Should the Three-Vodafone merger succeed, it would create the largest operator in the telecommunications market, with 27 million customers and a 35% market share. It would also reduce the number of mobile network operators in the UK market from four to three.

According to one study, which drew on data from 33 countries over 13 years, 43 telecoms mergers of this kind increased prices by an average of 16.3% per customer. For the average UK customer, that could mean a price hike of between £180 and £300 a year, which is an unaffordable sum for many of the 2.2 million households across the UK that already struggle to meet the costs of mobile services. With more than one in five people in the UK able to access the internet only through their smartphone, this merger also threatens to plunge even more people in Britain into digital poverty, at a time when we need to do more to narrow the digital divide.

As we have heard, this merger raises a number of issues for our national security, for our consumer rights and for the futures of thousands of workers who are currently employed by Three and Vodafone. As elected representatives, it is our responsibility to ensure that the proposed deal is subject to robust democratic scrutiny. However, that has become a near-impossible task, because Parliament has been almost totally excised from the scrutiny process. In fact, today’s debate is one of the few opportunities for Members to have a meaningful discussion about the proposed merger. Instead, the responsibility for ruling on whether the merger should proceed has been delegated to the investment security unit, under the direct oversight of the Cabinet Office, and ultimately the Prime Minister himself.

The Intelligence Security Committee has been scathing in its assessment of the process, stating that

“the Government does not want there to be any meaningful scrutiny of sensitive investment deals. Effective Parliamentary oversight is not some kind of ‘optional extra’—it is a vital safeguard in any functioning Parliamentary democracy.”

I hope the Minister will be able to say on what grounds the Government can justify excluding Members from being involved in scrutinising a proposal that has such enormous ramifications for the telecommunications sector.

This merger is a naked attempt to monopolise the telecommunications sector and strangle the opposition, leaving customers with no recourse when prices are inevitably hiked. There is only one right response. The Government should take the lead of the Competition and Markets Authority—which in August confirmed its original decision to block Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision—and kill this deal.

It is a pleasure to be called in this debate, Sir George. I thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for introducing the debate and setting the scene, and for his passion for this subject. I also thank the hon. Members who have spoken before me. I will add my support for what they said and also make some other comments.

There is no doubt that this merger could be a major shake-up for many of our constituents who use these services daily and have done so for many years. There has been much discussion about the need for smaller mobile providers and about their place in the mobile network market. There is hope that the merger will allow both Three UK and Vodafone to be a competitor within the market, so it is good to have these opinions on the record, and I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. May I also say that it is nice to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant), in his place? I only found out today that he has been promoted. I wish him well in his new role, which I know will focus his attention on the subject of this debate. We look forward to hearing his contributions.

I have done some research into this matter—as of course others will have done before coming here. I must say a special thanks to Unite the union, which sent me information that I felt was relevant to put on the record. The hon. Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) have already spoken about that; I will speak about it myself in just a few moments .

According to my research, promises have been made that the combined merger will lead to investment of £6 billion across the UK in its first five years. It has also been said that there will be a best-in-class 5G network. The creation of jobs to support the complete digital transformation of the UK’s businesses has also been mentioned. One big selling point is that under the proposal, the merged company is expected to deliver 5G coverage to nearly 99% of the UK population, which is huge and important.

Constituents contact me regularly about rural network coverage—broadband signals or on the phone network. My constituency of Strangford is rural. I live in the country, so I am fully aware of the issues that some families still have with 5G connection. It can go from working in certain areas of the house to not working at all—people tell me about it every week in my constituency. That leads to consumers paying extortionate amounts for wi-fi and not getting the service that they deserve.

We have covered the good news, but let us look at the other side, which the hon. Members for Liverpool, Riverside and for Birkenhead referred to; I think others will refer to it as well, and I want to reiterate that point of view. Unite the union was in touch ahead of this debate to offer insight into the dangers of the merger, and the issues that it could cause. We must look at things from all perspectives and be critical. It is always good to look at an issue holistically—to get all the information in front of us and then make a decision, whether it is right or wrong. I will pose questions to the Minister about our concerns.

It is important that the issues are known and talked about. One that has become increasingly apparent is that the merger raised profound national security concerns. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) referred to that, and that is an issue for many of us here. There have been claims of groups connected with Three UK associating with the Chinese state, and aligning themselves with some of the most repressive Chinese policies. That could ultimately mean that the privacy and security of 27 million UK customers is at stake. I have no doubt whatever that the Labour party’s new shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rhondda, and the shadow Minister from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), will also highlight these issues; that is why the Minister’s response is so important.

We hear of new data breaches and complications, and the misuse of people’s information, almost every day. It never seems to end. We wonder sometimes exactly what is going on. It is of the utmost priority that in a merger, Vodafone and Three UK ensure that their customers’ data is not at risk from anyone or any state—and from China specifically.

The comment has been made that the merger will make mobile bills less affordable. That cannot be ignored. We have already had a couple of years in which price increases have been quite significant, and have hit us all. If the merger closes the market to a number of companies, prices may go up. We make this plea on behalf of customers and our constituents. More than 2.2 million UK households are struggling with the costs of mobile services, due to extreme price increases last year and the year before. We understand fluctuating prices, but we do our best for our constituents to ensure they get the right deals.

That leads me finally to the importance of parliamentary scrutiny—it is why this debate is important, and why the hon. Member for Stockport was right to secure it. This is the place to discuss and highlight issues, and bring them to the attention of the Minister and the Government. We thank the hon. Member for Stockport for doing just that. For all our constituents, whether the merger will impact them or not, the issues, including price hikes, security and convenience, must be spoken about.

To conclude, the merger could have an impact on many aspects of people’s daily lives. It is said that millions of customers could benefit from better 5G coverage. That is the good part, but there is more to it than that. That is what this debate is about. We must ask ourselves what this will cost us and our constituents. There is a cost to security, as well as to our pockets and those of our constituents. I encourage the Minister to think of all those issues, and to do as much as possible to ensure that the merger does not penalise, disadvantage or in any way affect the security of our constituents. Again, I thank the hon. Member for Stockport and say, “Well done.”

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for securing this important debate. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and a couple of other Members did, I would like to thank Unite the union for the incredibly helpful briefings that it produced for this debate. I also welcome the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant), to his post.

We have been here before. It is only three years since we engaged in a whole pile of debates about Huawei and the threats posed to national security by the involvement of the Chinese state actor with our 5G network. Despite repeated warnings from allies and security experts, the Tories went ahead and awarded Huawei a huge contract to deliver the UK’s 5G network. Only after months of debates, questions and condemnation did they do a final U-turn to revoke the contract, but not before Huawei had begun its work. That meant that not only was a security risk introduced, but the removal of Huawei from the 5G system cost somewhere between £2 and £3.5 billion. The UK Government’s intransigence in the face of those warnings cost taxpayers a huge amount of money.

We should have learned the lesson. However, it now appears that we are getting ready to hand over control of key infrastructure to the CK Group—the parent company of Three. Following the merger, as the hon. Member for Stockport pointed out, the CK Group will become a person of significant control over a business that will serve 40% of the UK’s population. Unite the union has uncovered extensive collaboration between the CK Group, the Li family that controls it and the Chinese state. A number of CK Group executives sit on Chinese Government committees, with access to the inner circle of the Chinese political elite. That has to raise serious questions about privacy and security for UK consumers, which the CK Group has done nothing to address.

Under the Chinese Government’s state security laws, it would be possible for the personal data of all users of the new merged company to end up in the hands of the Chinese Government. That is bad enough, but Vodafone holds UK Government contracts for the NHS 111 helpline, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence.

And police forces; I thank the hon. Member. Added to that, strategic national assets in the form of Vodafone subsea telecommunications cables between the UK and US would pass to the CK Group. It is quite simply madness.

Security is one thing, but there are other concerns, as a number of Members have pointed out. What would the merger, and any further monopoly of the telecoms market, mean for consumer costs, consumer choice and job security in the UK? The merger would result in nearly half of all UK consumers falling into the company’s market share. As the EU has previously warned when blocking similar mergers, that could harm consumers and give free range for price hikes.

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that the root cause of the problem—the core of the issue—is that the Government do not have an industrial strategy? The merger seems to be bad news for customers, bad news for national security and bad news for people who work for telecoms businesses. The bottom line is that if we had a good, forward-thinking industrial strategy that looked at growing good, well-paid jobs in this country and treating customers well, perhaps we would not be in this place.

Of course, we have to look at who the merger is good for. It is good for the shareholders, good for the corporation and good for those who seek to profit off the back of it, but it is not good for the ordinary consumer or, as the hon. Member says, national security.

Given the potential for price hikes, the merger should be thrown out straight away, especially given the cost of living crisis, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) pointed out. We should not even be here having this debate. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) gave an indication of the potential magnitude of such a price hike; I think he mentioned a figure of up to £300 per year. That is astronomical for people who are struggling to make ends meet from week to week. This merger has been portrayed as something that will increase investment, and lead to a better consumer experience and lower prices, but we know what normally happens during a merger: investment falls, profits increase and the customer suffers. I cannot see this being any different.

The difficulty is in who is profiting. We have to look at the Government Benches. Two Tory MPs are on CK’s payroll; that is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, so it has been declared. The UK Government must do full diligence, and protect customers from Chinese state surveillance, not override these security concerns.

We need assurances from the Minister that this merger does not compromise national security in any way, shape or form. The two profitable companies concerned, which hold the data of 27 million UK consumers, have critical Government contracts. Will the Government take a “consumer first” and “national security first” approach to any regulatory checks? What steps will the Minister take to ensure that large job losses do not result from any merger? This cannot be allowed to become a repeat of the Huawei scandal, in which ignorance and intransigence not only put consumers at risk but cost billions and led to an eventual U-turn. Security of the telecoms network and of users’ data must come first.

Thank you, Sir George. I see we have three Knights Bachelor here today. I do not know what the collective noun is for Knights Bachelor; the obvious answer would be a round table. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on introducing this debate on an important issue that will affect not justó 27 million consumers, but the whole country. There is an important debate to be had. I was glad he paid tribute to Unite the union. It is not my trade union, but it has done a great deal of work in this field.

No, I am in the GMB, if we are doing announcements. It was also good to hear from my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), and for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley). The latter made an interesting point about Teddy Roosevelt, who largely got elected on the back of resurrecting the old Sherman Anti-Trust Act, to break up the powerful railroad conglomerates in the United States of America. I have always thought that anti-trust legislation could be used to protect consumers; it is vital part of our artillery in Government.

It is always good to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It amazes me what he knows about; he knows about everything. He is a one-man Opposition, entirely on his own. He made a really important point about rural access to telephony. My constituency in the Rhondda is semi-rural. It feels quite congested, with lots of people living closely on top of each other, largely in terraced housing in the valleys, but everybody lives within a mile of a farm or a field, normally with sheep or cows in it. Some of our mobile telephone connection rates are shocking. Ofcom’s declared figures for all mobile operators show 100% connection. It certainly does not feel like that when I am walking up or down Hannah Street; it is impossible to ring anybody. I am painfully aware of the issues he raised. Today, mobile phone connection can be the difference between life and death. For many poorer families, it is their only means of telecommunication. It is how they apply for a job or register for a bank account. It is how most people run so many parts of their lives. That makes this an important debate.

In essence, there are two, slightly separate questions. The first is: what is good for consumers, the industry and the market? That is a matter primarily for the Competition and Markets Authority, although I shall mention a few things that I hope it will bear in mind when it comes to make its decision. Then there is the separate matter of the security of the UK’s mobile infrastructure from potentially hostile actors. That is a matter for the UK Government through the investment security unit in the Cabinet Office.

I turn to the competition issues first. As others have said, it will always be a matter of concern when two operators merge, taking the number from four to three, and especially so when that creates an operator with 27 million customers; it would be the largest in the field. That intrinsically implies that there will be less competition in the market, and that consumers might face higher charges. Indeed, Which? has made the obvious point:

“Reducing the number of network providers from four to three risks reducing the choices available to consumers, raising prices and lowering the quality of services available.”

To make a point in line with that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, prices really do matter to every family in our constituencies these days. I note that this year, tariff rates rose in EE’s case by 14.4%, in O2’s by 17.3%, in Vodafone and Three’s by 14.4%, and in BT Mobile’s by 14.4%. That is an awful lot of instances of 14.4%. That does not feel like a very competitive market to me.

Prices for lower-use mobile customers are even worse and much more worrying. Ofcom found a 13% year-on-year real-terms increase in the price of pay-monthly, SIM-only mobile services in 2022. The Labour party and I worry that those increases have contributed to inflation and the cost of living crisis. Yet a smartphone is no longer a luxury; many children do their homework on smartphones, and people fill in job applications on them, or run their companies from them. Both Three and Vodafone have increased prices above inflation recently, which might be an indication of their plans for the future. However, the price rises happened while the companies remain separate. I therefore urge the CMA to carefully consider the likely effect on both companies’ 27 million existing customers.

Vodafone and Three argue completely the opposite of what has been said in this debate, and I will deal with that. They claim that since the other two mobile network operators are much larger, the merger might, counterintuitively, help competition by introducing a genuine third mobile network operator of similar size. They also argue that the concern about competition in the mobile phone market is exaggerated, as the separate mobile virtual network operators market, made up of end providers such as Tesco Mobile, which do not own infrastructure but buy access from the mobile network operators, is very competitive, and has low barriers to entry. Again, Vodafone and Three claim that having a third player in addition to EE and O2, which can offer mobile virtual network operator carriage, is good for competition. They also argue that they need to merge in order to invest sufficiently in 5G, and have the stated aim of making £11 billion in investment over a decade.

The information my hon. Friend is sharing is important. On the point that Vodafone and Three make about the merger creating a new outlet for virtual carriers—I think they are called MVNOs—Vodafone already supplies a number of MVNOs, including Asda Mobile, VOXI, which I think is its own brand, Lebara and several others. That does not make any sense at all. Surely consolidating the number of suppliers in the market will result in even higher price rises than the 14.4% he quoted.

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has been reading my notes, but that was one of the points I was going to make. Those are issues that the CMA will have to look at very closely with an eye to making sure that consumers are protected.

As has already been pointed out, the idea of an £11 billion investment in 5G would be great if it were a bankable commitment, because I want to see the roll-out of high-quality 5G services across the whole country. As I have already said, that is essential if we are to have levelling up across the country, including in places such as the Rhondda.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), pointed out that mergers in other markets have not always led to increased investment; if anything, there has been a tendency in the other direction. I hope that the CMA will look at that. It is worth bearing in mind that the EU’s competition directorate blocked CK Hutchison’s plan to acquire O2 from Telefónica in 2016. The CMA may well want to look at the reasoning behind that decision, as some of the issues may still pertain today.

In any case, competition is not just about having three players competing for business. In practice, many consumers have little or no choice of operator because of local coverage issues. If the main player has only two other companies looking over its shoulder, it may too readily come to pricing decisions that extract maximum income for the company rather than provide enhanced value for the consumer. Again, I hope that the CMA will consider all those matters carefully.

There is one other market-related issue that I hope the CMA will consider: the trained workforce. Vodafone states that the merger is expected to result in

“£700 million of annual cost and capex synergies by the fifth…year post-completion”.

I want to know what that means for jobs. The market has regularly complained about shortages in its workforce. It is difficult to see how the merged company could make those significant savings without significant job losses, but until now it has been rather coy about that. Understandably, staff at the two companies and their union, Unite, are concerned about job losses, and we stand four-square behind those concerns. It would be an own goal for the UK telecoms industry to lose significant numbers of workers from its skilled workforce at this time. Far from helping to develop infrastructure in the UK, that could hinder it.

Let me turn to security issues. The merger will require the approval of the investment security unit, which was moved from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to the Cabinet Office. In effect, that means that, in relation to security issues, approval will be a decision for the Prime Minister. I do not want to exaggerate the security issues, but it is worth bearing in mind that the new company would have to handle extremely sensitive material regarding 27 million customers, as well as contracts for the NHS, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence, as has already been said.

Those contracts are currently with Vodafone, not with Three. In the case of the Ministry of Defence, for instance, Vodafone was recently awarded a contract to provide video conferencing and recording services to UK military courts in cases relating to sexual offences. That is an important matter that we should consider carefully. Does it make sense to give such a role to a company, CK Hutchison Holdings—the owner of Three—that is a Hong Kong-based and Cayman Islands-registered conglomerate that was formed only in 2015?

My questions for the Minister are as follows. What assessment have the Government made of the relationship between CK Hutchison and the Chinese state? If the merger were to go ahead, how would the Government seek to guarantee the security of national and personal data? Would they, for instance, consider carving out Government contracts from the deal? Under the provisions of the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021 and the Government’s designated vendor direction, all telecoms operators are meant to strip Huawei from 5G by the end of 2027. What progress has been made on that, and what in particular has been done at Three and Vodafone? What impact do the Government feel that the Chinese security law in relation to Hong Kong has on Three and CK Hutchison Holdings?

On the security issues, can the Minister tell us what stage the decision is at? Will any Government decision, and the reasoning behind it, be published? Will Parliament be engaged in the process in any way? The Minister will know that the Intelligence and Security Committee has expressed its concerns about the process. The Committee said:

“The fact that the Government does not want there to be any meaningful scrutiny of sensitive investment deals…is of serious concern.”

It went on:

“Effective Parliamentary oversight is not some kind of ‘optional extra’ – it is a vital safeguard in any functioning Parliamentary democracy”.

That is particularly important for us to consider given that the Chinese state has sanctioned several Members of Parliament, including, incidentally, the Security Minister.

Given the recent stories about the Chinese state’s attempts to infiltrate Westminster and serious concerns regarding Chinese involvement in other parts of our national infrastructure, how will the Government ensure that the merger, if it goes ahead, does not undermine national and personal security? How will the Government ensure that all ministerial meetings with CK Hutchison Holdings and its subsidiaries are published in full and in good time, in case there is any inappropriate lobbying?

I want to say one final thing, because we are partly talking about China. Next week will see the 1,000th day of the incarceration of Jimmy Lai, who is a British national. The House will not be sitting, but I think all Members would want to put on the record that we believe he has been incorrectly and inappropriately held in custody. We would like to see him free.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir George. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) on securing the debate. It has been an interesting discussion. At times, I felt like I was listening to a display of Marxist economic analysis, but some important points have been raised. Unfortunately, I will not be able to address a lot of them in detail, because they relate to either the Competition and Markets Authority or national security. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) was correct to direct a lot of his concerns, particularly with respect to the impact on competition, to the CMA, which will obviously have to examine the potential merger. There is also a national security mechanism in place, as he will be aware.

I will make a few more remarks about that, but it gives me an opportunity to say something about the importance of mobile connectivity and 5G technology, which has enormous potential to transform public services and make our workplaces more effective, connecting healthcare workers, vehicles, traffic flows and so forth. We reckon that widespread adoption of 5G could bring £159 billion in productivity benefits across sectors by 2035. The Prime Minister has set out the UK’s ambition to be the leading science and technology superpower by 2030. If we are to achieve that aim, connectivity will play a critical role. To reach that point, we will rely heavily on investment by the mobile companies, and we are in regular dialogue with them.

As the hon. Member for Stockport knows, the deal that is on the table between Vodafone UK and Three UK will be subject to regulatory approvals. The debate has concentrated a lot on the potential national security implications, which I will talk about, and the impacts on competition. In general, the Government welcome investments into the UK that will support growth and jobs, meet our legal and regulatory requirements, and not compromise our national security, but as everybody who has participated in the debate has stressed, the security of critical national infrastructure is of prime importance.

The Government have a strong record on putting in place much tougher measures through such things as the National Security and Investment Act 2021 and the telecoms security legislation. Hon. Members will be aware of the actions that have been taken around Huawei and of the removal of its technology from the core network. The hon. Member for Rhondda referred to the target of achieving that by the end of 2027. I can tell him that we are on track, and only this week I announced further incentives to establish the open radio access network, which will increase the diversification of our telecoms supply market.

On competition, it is obviously a matter for the Competition and Markets Authority to assess the impact on both the market and consumers. The Government do not have a role in the decision, which will be taken by the Competition and Markets Authority. It is long established in competition policy that these matters are determined by an independent regulator.

The hon. Member for Stockport and others expressed concern about the potential impact on jobs. That is essentially a commercial matter for the company. Yes, Vodafone has announced the loss of 11,000 jobs globally over the next three years, and obviously that is a matter of regret. Those are difficult decisions, but they are commercial decisions for the company. There is no reason to believe that the merger will add to that number. Again, that will be taken into account in the examination of the case for the merger.

The hon. Gentleman referred to analysis by Unite the union on what happened when a similar merger took place in Australia. However, every market is different. We cannot extrapolate from what happened in Australia, where there were different timings, a different state of the market and different network providers, to reach conclusions about the impact here.

On price rises, we recognise that this is a difficult time for many people, who face significant challenges with the cost of living. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the mobile operators, including Three and Vodafone; they have done a lot to try to support consumers through these difficult times, not just during the rise in the cost of living, but throughout the pandemic, in particular by bringing forward social tariffs for those on low incomes, donating millions of gigabits of data to the National Databank and providing devices through the National Device Bank. That has offered real assistance to those finding it hardest to deal with the cost of connectivity, which, as has been recognised during this debate and previous ones, is no longer a luxury but an essential of modern life.

There are now 27 providers of social tariffs, with millions of households eligible. I would like to see greater take-up, and we are pursuing that by publicising eligibility for social tariffs to potential claimants. Strong competition in the mobile market has managed to keep prices in this country relatively low compared with many others, such as Italy, Germany, Spain, France and the USA. Consumers are beginning to see the benefits that 5G can offer.

I was intrigued that most speakers in the debate did not mention the state of coverage in their constituencies. That is possibly because it is estimated that 100% coverage has been achieved in Stockport, in Liverpool, Riverside, in Glasgow North West and in Birkenhead. That is not quite the case in the constituency of the hon. Member for Rhondda, but we are making good progress. He may dispute this, but the figures I have are that 92% of premises have 5G coverage from at least one mobile operator and that 72% of the land mass has coverage.

The one contributor to the debate who understandably and correctly raised his concern about the lack of coverage was the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We missed him the other day in a debate on broadband, but it is certainly the case that his constituency has a long way to go. The shared rural network programme we are undertaking will particularly benefit Northern Ireland, because the challenges there are especially great. I am happy to talk to him about what more we can do to roll out both broadband and mobile coverage in his constituency, but that means that we are beginning to see the benefits that 5G can offer, in particular given our ambition to achieve stand-alone 5G, which represents a big leap forward from non-stand-alone 5G. That will require considerable investment, which must be paid for.

We set out in the UK wireless infrastructure strategy our ambition for nationwide coverage of stand-alone 5G in all populated areas by 2030. That will extend high-quality 5G well beyond cities and larger towns to all populated areas of the UK. That will require investment of billions of pounds from the operators, at a difficult time, with rising inflation and energy costs. We have set out a number of measures to help operators to deliver that ambition. For example, Ofcom is reviewing the approach to setting spectrum licence fees, and we are working with it to update the net neutrality guidelines. Recently, I was able to announce the launch of our 5G innovation regions programme, which will invest up to £40 million to help local and regional authorities to realise the benefits of 5G and advanced wireless connectivity.

I will briefly return to the main concerns that were raised. The competition aspects are not ones over which the Government have any influence; they will be determined by the CMA. Obviously, the concerns raised during the debate will be on the record; hon. Members’ questions were entirely properly put, and the CMA will undoubtedly take them into account.

As I said, there is now an established procedure with respect to national security implications. The hon. Member for Rhondda was right to point to the role of the investment security unit, which now falls under the Cabinet Office, but several hon. Members—in particular the hon. Members for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) and for Strangford—raised concerns about the lack of parliamentary involvement in the decision. National security issues have always been kept confidential, out of necessity, but we recognise that there needs to be some parliamentary oversight of economic security measures.

For that reason, in March this year the Government agreed a memorandum of understanding with the then BEIS Committee—now the Business and Trade Committee—setting out arrangements for parliamentary scrutiny of the operation of the NSI Act and the investment security unit. The memorandum establishes arrangements to allow the Committee to access the information it needs to fulfil its scrutiny role, and sets out key principles for how and when the Government and the Committee expect information to be shared and protected. The memorandum acknowledges that the Committee has a wealth of experience in scrutinising the operation of the Act, and we are keen to give it the information that it needs to carry out its work. The Intelligence and Security Committee has a separate role in monitoring the work of the intelligence agencies, and it is up to the ISC to look at whatever aspects of the work of the agencies it chooses.

I am sorry that I am unable to go into detail on a number of the issues raised by hon. Members, but I will at least recognise that the debate has provided an opportunity for them to be put on the record. I am sure that the questions raised, which are legitimate ones, will be properly taken into account when the merger is examined by the CMA, if it triggers the process under the National Security and Investment Act. I thank Members for their participation.

This merger will impact all 650 constituencies that are represented in the House of Commons, so it is right that we discuss it. I hope that the Government will keep Members informed of any developments. I note that my good friend the shadow Minister is a member of the GMB union, and I know that he is a scholar of parliamentary history and procedure, but I invite him to join Unite—it is possible to be a member of two trade unions.

I am grateful to the Minister for his contribution, but he did not say much about prices for British customers. We are in the middle of a cost of living crisis and people are facing a hard time—I think the figure from Ofcom is that 2.2 million households are already in a very difficult position—so I hope the Government will pay attention to the cost of the merger for consumers.

I also did not hear much from the Minister about job losses—well, actually we did, but 1,600 jobs in the UK and 11,000 across the world could go because of this merger. I and other Members will be most concerned by job losses in the UK. This goes back to the points I made about the country’s lack of an industrial strategy and weak governance.

I encourage the Minister and his team to meet Unite to discuss the merger, because Unite is the trade union for workers in this sector and the Government should have engagement with it. I appreciate his comments about the CMA and about the workings of the investment security unit, but meeting the legitimate trade union for the sector should be encouraged, so I encourage him to meet Unite.

I am pleased that there were contributions to the debate from Conservative, Democratic Unionist party, SNP and Labour MPs. I am not quite sure what “Marxist” analysis the Minister was expecting, but I am sorry to disappoint him.

I will end on that note. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will continue to press the Government on this merger.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the proposed merger of Three UK and Vodafone.

Sitting suspended.

Youth Programmes and Girlguiding

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the role and future of youth programmes and Girlguiding.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. We are so lucky to live in a country that gives our young residents so many opportunities to learn new skills, have adventures and make lifelong friends. From the guides to the scouts and from the Duke of Edinburgh awards to the cadets, volunteers across our country devote so much of their time and energy to the youth programmes that add so much to the formative experiences of our young people. It has been an incredibly difficult few years for children and young adults. The damage caused by the covid pandemic is impossible to fully ascertain, but NHS figures show that the number of children seeking help for their mental health has risen by almost 50% since the start of the pandemic. Schools were closed and socialising banned, and all of this means a lasting and painful legacy for our young people.

We all know that outdoor activities and spending time with friends in nature are good for people’s mental wellbeing. There are myriad different studies to that effect. Even NHS England has started offering nature prescriptions. So now is the time we need more opportunities for young people to have fun and spend time outdoors, and to socialise and be children. As more and more young people spend longer and longer on the internet or their phones, cooped up indoors, now is the time to provide more opportunities for them to get out and do something fun and adventurous—to build a raft and see if it sinks, go abseiling or learn life skills such as cooking. Now is not the time to be pulling away from providing these opportunities, so I ask the Minister what his Department is doing to provide more opportunities for young people that get them out and about, help them learn new skills and help them build friendships.

The girl guides have a very proud tradition of having this kind of positive impact on the lives of girls not just in the United Kingdom, but across the world. The board of Girlguiding has recently taken two incredibly concerning decisions regarding the future of the organisation: the proposed closure of all five of its outdoor activity centres across the country; and the full shutdown of British Girlguiding Overseas. It goes without saying that Girlguiding has touched the lives of so many thousands of girls across the globe. First and foremost, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the thousands of people across the country and across the world who have given countless hours, evenings and weekends, and much more to the betterment of opportunities for young girls everywhere.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this forward. It is a subject that is very important to us all, which is why we are all here. Does the hon. Lady agree that the positive mental health influence for children of organisations such as the girl guides, as well as the scouts, the Campaigners, the Boys’ Brigade and the Girls’ Brigade—I have them in my constituency in some numbers—cannot be overstated? Does she agree that our thanks should go to those in the voluntary sector and the churches, which are deeply involved in this, who give of their time to teach children skills and practical topics, but also to build self-confidence and self-worth? Their value to society should be highlighted and recognised, and the hon. Lady has done that well today.

I thank the hon. Gentleman so much for making such an excellent point. I did not mention the Girls’ Brigade and the Boys’ Brigade, which, as he says, make such a wonderful contribution. They build the formative skills that young people need to face the challenges of life ahead, and make such a huge difference to individuals’ lives.

That is why this decision to close down every single one of the five Girlguiding activity centres across the United Kingdom is so bizarre. Girlguiding is closing down opportunities for young women and girls who would otherwise struggle to afford them. This decision comes after the body blow to Girlguiding that is the move to end their overseas operation, which serves thousands of girls across the world and has been doing so for decades. Both of these utterly bizarre decisions came after no real warning and no consultation with members.

I have been watching this developing disaster with increasing horror. The reason that may lie behind some of it appears to be a disastrous venture into property investment. Does my hon. Friend know about the headquarters of the girl guides, which spent millions on itself, and millions more on a hotel venture that went bust, owing unpaid rent to the girl guides of nearly £2.8 million? All that is alleged to be completely unconnected to the decision to close the overseas activities and the training and activity centres, one of which, Foxlease, is in my constituency. This reminds me of the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, with the exception that it is cutting its own limbs off and not waiting for other people to do it.

I was not aware of that. My right hon. Friend has been a great friend to Girlguiding in Foxlease in his constituency and a great champion of Girlguiding across the country. What he says is incredibly worrying; there has been very little information at all about the thinking behind these decisions, so his comments about the potential reasons are interesting.

As my right hon. Friend says, one of the centres to be sold is Foxlease in Clay Hill in Hampshire, which is the closest one to my constituency. There is also Waddow Hall in the Ribble Valley, which is very close to the heart of our much-loved Mr Deputy Speaker; Blackland Farm in Mid Sussex; Glenbrook in High Peak, Derbyshire; and Ynysgain in Montgomeryshire on the edge of the Snowdonia national park.

These decisions do not merely affect Girlguiding members, but many others across the country. The closing activity centres do not just serve young girls in Girlguiding; they run courses and activities and provide opportunities for all sorts of groups of young people, including scouts, schools and many others. If the activity centres are sold off, there is no bringing them back—that’s it. They will be gone and will not be providing opportunities for young women and countless other young people. They will simply be turned into another relic of a wonderful past where children could be children.

My hon. Friend makes a very important argument about the centres being lost forever. When I visited the fifth Romsey girl guides over the summer, the girls there made the point that they had all enjoyed Foxlease in the constituency of my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis), but they were concerned that future generations of brownies, rainbows and guides would not have the same opportunities that they had had, so it is the girls themselves who are concerned about future generations. They feel that they have missed out on an opportunity to be consulted and listened to, and to perhaps change the decision.

My right hon. Friend puts it perfectly. I could not have put it better myself. The girls are concerned about the future—for their peers and those who come up behind them, who deserve the same opportunities and life chances they have had. We only have to look as far as Scotland to see what is likely to happen here in England.

Back in summer 2020, Girlguiding Scotland sold off its wonderful training centre at Netherurd under the guise of covid, and the site has now already been rubber-stamped into holiday lets. It looks as though we might even now be too late to get Girlguiding to change its mind. It confirmed its plan to go ahead with the sale on 14 August. Local communities have been valiant in their fight to save the activity centres. Foxlease has already been declared an asset of community value by New Forest District Council, in the area where my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East resides, in a move that will hopefully enable the new charity, Foxie’s Future, to take up the mantle and save the site; and the Waddow Hall Trust in the Ribble Valley is following suit with similar plans, as are others.

I wish all these groups the very best in acquiring and maintaining their sites should they be sold off by Girlguiding but, importantly, I want to know from the Minister what the Government are going to do to prevent the sites from falling into the hands of property developers to become more holiday lets? What are the Government going to do to ensure that the important capacity for outdoor activities is maintained across the UK and kept available at a low cost for those who could not otherwise afford them?

We live in a digital world. Going out and playing with friends is becoming a rarity for some children, which is why it is so important that we expand organised outdoor activity and so alarming to see plans to take that away from children. It is not just young people in the UK who are being impacted by Girlguiding’s short-sighted decision. The decision to end Girlguiding Overseas will bring a close to well over 100 years of Girlguiding across the world. Up until this month, British Girlguiding Overseas operated in 36 separate countries and territories. Those operations are all now either shut or shutting. That momentous decision has seemingly been taken without any proper consultation. British Girlguiding Overseas has said in a statement that it still does not understand why Girlguiding took the decision and that, despite many requests for further information, no information has been delivered.

It is important to note that the end of British Girlguiding Overseas will not only shut down opportunities for thousands of girls across the world, but take away the important English-speaking girl-only spaces that have for so long provided a lifeline to so many members. British Girlguiding Overseas consists of two main elements: units that run in the middle east, Africa, Asia, Benelux and France, Europe and lone guiding, and the units in British Overseas Territories. Although Girlguiding continues to support the Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, the many other territories served by the organisations are set to lose all their support. That will be felt particularly acutely by our overseas territories, which have very special links with the UK. They are often taken for granted, yet in many cases those often remote parts of the world, such as Bermuda or the Falkland Islands, see this country as their big sister—someone who looks out for them. At a time when the world feels particularly unstable, and when the UK needs to be looking out, not in, taking away support and casting branches away to fend for themselves is an incredible retrograde step that will undoubtedly lead to branches collapsing and opportunities for young girls simply melting away. It is also a retrograde step for our global soft power. We hear so much about that, and focus so much energy and attention on it, and yet here we are, taking it away.

British Girlguiding Overseas has not simply rolled over and allowed this step to take place without action, and it should be commended for its efforts in trying to secure alternative solutions, but the shock announcement and rapid deadline set by Girlguiding has left it few options.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; she is being generous with her time. Does she agree that it is almost as if the people at the top of the organisation, who do not seem to be answerable even to their own council, still less their own mass membership, are determined to take steps that are bound to lead to the closure of the organisation? Given that the organisation seems to have a very undemocratic structure, does my hon. Friend agree that we ought to look to the Minister for support for the idea of the Charity Commission investigating what has been going on in the organisation, which appears to have strayed far from its founding objectives?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that sensible suggestion, to which I am sure the excellent Minister will respond. It sounds as if the upper echelons of Girlguiding are standing around with their fingers in their ears, humming loudly; they have rejected applications for an extension to continue discussions, they have rejected the request from British Girlguiding Overseas to become a charity in its own right, and they have rejected British Girlguiding Overseas’ request to set up a separate franchise.

I will bring my thoughts to a close so that we can hear from the Minister. The Government are aware of Girlguiding’s plans to end British Girlguiding Overseas, and I would be keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on them. I urge him to do whatever it takes to get Girlguiding around the table to help to stop British Girlguiding Overseas coming to an end. These are two retrograde moves: terrible steps backwards for girl guides, terrible steps backwards for young girls and young people across the UK and across the world, and terrible steps backwards for our global soft power. I am keen to hear how the Government can help to push back against those disastrous moves and safeguard the future of guides in the UK and globally.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) for securing this important debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my right hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) and for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who have spoken in the debate and collared me on these issues when they can. Others have not been able to contribute but share their passion, including Mr Deputy Speaker, the right hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies).

A thriving youth sector is a critical part of so much that my Department and the whole of Government are hoping to achieve for young people. Approximately 85% of a young person’s waking hours are spent outside school, and it is during this time that thousands of youth workers and volunteers make a tremendous difference to young people’s lives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport mentioned. They provide early intervention, help to reduce pressures on other public services and build trusted relationships, enabling young people to achieve their ambitions.

I was recently fortunate enough to visit a National Citizen Service residential in Doncaster and see how transformational youth services can be. The impact that such activities and trusted relationships provide cannot be underestimated. The young people told me at first hand that they felt more confident and had overcome some of their personal fears, developed new skills and made new friends, sometimes with people from backgrounds they had never mixed with before. All this gets amplified around the country, and I thank the volunteers involved.

I know that many right hon. and hon. Members present will have been disappointed to learn that Girlguiding has decided to sell its five activity centres in the UK and cease overseas operations. Having seen at first hand the benefits that young people can gain by participating in programmes hosted by organisations such as Girlguiding, I share that disappointment. However, as Members will know, Girlguiding is an independent organisation and its board of trustees has a fiscal responsibility to take decisions in the organisation’s best interests in order to secure its future and the safety of its members. The board tells us that it has not taken the decision lightly. That said, I understand the disappointment about the lack of consultation, which would enable people to make their views known.

I fully recognise that this matter falls outside the Minister’s responsibilities, but does he agree that where millions of pounds appear to have been fire-hosed away from the objectives of the organisation, and where there is clearly a lack of internal democratic accountability, we have to look to the Charity Commission as a last resort to see whether the mismanagement can, even now, be limited in its terrible effects?

My right hon. Friend raises a very important point. Of course, as a registered charity, Girlguiding is obliged to do the usual reporting. Anybody can raise any case with the Charity Commission, and colleagues may feel that they want to take that step.

I will outline a bit more what we have heard from Girlguiding. I understand that its decision to close the five activity centres is due to the significant capital investment required to ensure that they are fit for purpose, but it also reflects the ongoing running costs in the light of low levels of demand from Girlguiding groups. It is anticipated that funds from the sale of the activity centres, valued collectively at around £10 million, will be invested in a range of activities to support the future of Girlguiding and its members, including adventures away from home.

I am sorry for interrupting the Minister, but does he agree that looking at the use of the sites as we come out of a period of a pandemic, when everything has been locked down, is incredibly short-sighted? Anyone with any modicum of business sense would be looking at how the organisation can attract a new audience. In my constituency, the number of youngsters joining scouting organisations is at a higher level than ever before. There is huge appetite among young people to get out there and join these sorts of activities. Should Girlguiding not be looking forward more broadly and more optimistically, rather than judging things based on what has happened over the last couple of years, which has obviously involved a completely unusual series of events?

I will come shortly to what I propose to do after this debate. First, I want to address Girlguiding’s decision to cease overseas operations. Girlguiding says that is due to the complexity of providing Girlguiding’s board of trustees with appropriate reassurances on both the safety of members and the integrity of operations, in line with its legal responsibilities, across 36 countries and territories. Operations in the middle east, Africa, Asia and Europe ended on 1 September, and operations in the British overseas territories will cease at the end of the year.

My officials are in regular contact with Girlguiding, alongside colleagues from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence. They have been exploring Girlguiding’s options for units in the British overseas territories and military bases to continue operating. We remain hopeful that a solution can be found to support this work and to ensure that the guiding experience in these locations continues in a way that is consistent with Girlguiding’s decisions about what is appropriate for the organisation.

My Department and I absolutely recognise the benefit that Girlguiding brings to girls and young women. That is why, as part of the national youth guarantee’s uniformed youth fund, we have provided Girlguiding with over £2 million to create more opportunities to take part in Girlguiding. Girlguiding has already created over 1,000 new places, recruited hundreds of new volunteers and opened 40 new units, with more to come.

I know that many hon. Members here today will join me in thanking Girlguiding for what it is doing. My Department and I have been in regular contact with Girlguiding, but I will ensure that I write to Girlguiding to highlight this debate today and the contributions of hon. Members. I will then happily send them a copy of the response that we receive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport also asked me to highlight what we as a Government are doing. It is important to do that, because ensuring that all young people have access to youth services is a top priority for both me and the Secretary of State. In 2021, we undertook the youth review to ensure that our spending and programmes were aligned with the needs of young people. In response, we are investing over £500 million in delivering the national youth guarantee, and our commitment is that by 2025 every young person in England will have access to regular out-of-school activities, adventures away from home—we recognise how important they are—and opportunities to volunteer.

To realise the ambitious aims of the national youth guarantee, we are investing in a few key programmes. We are creating or redeveloping up to 300 youth facilities through the youth investment fund. Over £160 million has already gone out of the door, supporting 87 organisations to give thousands more young people access to opportunities in their community.

We have also reformed the National Citizen Service programme into a year-round offer, so that thousands of young people who have signed up to the new programme will be ready for work and ready for the world. We recognise the benefits of greater join-up between formal education and the youth sector, for example. With the Department for Education, we are expanding the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, which my hon. Friendó the Member for Gosport mentioned, in schools and communities. Over 400 new organisations have already started delivering the programme, giving more than 70,000 young people the opportunity to challenge themselves, support their communities and learn vital new skills.

We are also supporting uniformed youth organisations to recruit more volunteers, so that they can sustainably increase their capacity. Almost 3,000 young people already have a new place in an existing group or in one of the 144 new groups that have been established. Alongside that, the National Lottery Community Fund is continuing to invest in the #iwill fund, to help thousands of young people to make a difference in their communities through social action.

We recognise that there is a lot of work to do and that there is a tremendous amount—

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. The subject of my intervention is perhaps not entirely relevant to what he has just been saying, but I feared that he was coming to the end of his remarks.

My right hon. Friend the Minister has spoken about his work with the Department for Education. May I ask what connection there has been between his Department and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities? There is a real concern in the New Forest about holiday lets, which my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East mentioned. With these sites that we have been discussing, I note that at least three of them—Snowdonia, the Peak District and the New Forest—are national parks. There is a real fear that properties in those sites will end up as luxury holiday lodges, thus restricting the ability of young people from disadvantaged communities to get out into our national parks. Has there been any discussion or consultation on issues such as the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which is of particular concern to the New Forest National Park Authority? Is the Minister prepared to discuss with colleagues across Government what can be done specifically to protect those sites from that sort of unwanted development in our national parks?

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot make a commitment to stray into those areas of work, but I will absolutely and happily raise with my colleagues in DLUHC the issue that she brought up. I know that it was a big issue when I held that post for a short time, but I recognise that there will be concerns locally about what will happen to those sites. I will happily address those concerns to my hon. Friends in that Department.

I will take the opportunity to stress that when Girlguiding UK says that only 10% of the movement uses the five centres, we are still talking about tens of thousands of young people. The response to the situation has been not, “We have to close one centre in order to subsidise the others”, but, “We have to close the whole lot while simultaneously losing millions upon millions of pounds on inappropriate investment in property hotel ventures.” That has to be questioned. The reason for donating Foxlease to Girlguiding 101 years ago was not so that it could be used for commercial development; it was donated to be used by young people.

Thank you, Sir George. One of the challenges of trying to answer a debate about a decision made by an independent organisation is that there are limits to what I am able to say. That is why I made a commitment at the beginning to highlight the concerns of hon. Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East raises another valid point, and I will ensure that his question is in the letter that I send. As I promised, he will receive a reply.

Youth services and organisations such as Girlguiding provide an essential service for young people and communities. As a Department, we are committed to ensuring that all young people in England have access to regular clubs and activities, to those important adventures away from home and to opportunities to volunteer. To deliver the services that young people want and deserve, a partnership must happen between central and local government, the private sector, young people themselves—crucially—and the great organisations that have provided so much. I recognise the strength of feeling raised in this debate. I have made the commitment to write to the organisation and highlight those issues, because I recognise that this concerns all the Members I mentioned at the beginning of the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Further and Higher Education Students: Cost of Living

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the impact of increases in the cost of living on further and higher education students.

I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Sir George. This is a timely debate coming as the new academic year starts. It is based on the two-stage inquiry undertaken during the first half of the year by the all-party parliamentary group for students, which I chair and officers of which are also present. We looked at the impact of the cost of living crisis on higher education students, on which we reported in March, and, in partnership with the all-party parliamentary group on further education and lifelong learning—whose chair, the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), I welcome —on FE students, on which we reported in July.

Although many others have been impacted hard by the cost of living crisis, we were concerned that students should not be overlooked. We were not alone in that concern. Petitions Committee staff wrote to me last week to tell me that there have been six petitions to Parliament seeking support for students. It is important that students are not seen as a homogeneous group. In FE and HE, there is enormous diversity of students, including part-time and full-time; distance learners and commuter students; many with families and caring responsibilities, juggling work with study; classroom-based and apprentices; undergraduates and postgraduates; and home and international. Of course, there is the difference in the arrangements and responses across the four nations of the UK.

The current student cohort, though, have one thing in common: the double misfortune of educational disruption from covid and now the cost of living crisis. Our inquiry collated evidence from universities and student unions, and directly from hundreds of students who engaged with us. We drew on the work of others, including the Office for National Statistics, the Sutton Trust, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Save the Student. I would like to thank Parliament’s Chamber Engagement Team for its work in gathering feedback since the debate was announced. Just over the past couple of days, we have had upwards of 160 students, parents and others contact us.

So what did we hear? First, we heard that the student support system has failed to keep up with rising costs and that it was already unfit for purpose when the cost of living crisis hit, particularly given the decreasing value of student loans. According to the Save the Student survey, the loan fell short of average costs that students face by £439 per month in 2021-22, and that had increased to a shortfall of £582 per month last year. Other factors include the freezing of the lower parental earnings threshold, which means that the proportion studying outside London who receive the maximum student loan fell from 57% in 2012-13 to 38% in 2021-22.

My constituent Elliot is starting his final year at university, and his biggest worry is securing affordable housing. The maximum loan he gets is not keeping up with the prices, and he spends at least two thirds of his loan on rent alone. His family cannot afford to top up his rent. Does my hon. Friend agree that dealing with such financial hardships can be a barrier to excelling at university and that much more financial support is needed to give students the freedom to focus on their education?

I echo the point my hon. Friend makes. Many of the comments that we received reflect the sorts of problems that his constituent faces, and I will come on to some of the wider points that he made.

Another contributory factor, according to the IFS, was the inflation forecast errors used to calculate loan increases, which mean that their real value is lower now than at any time in the past seven years. On top of that, we have had the scrapping of maintenance grants. The cumulative effect has pushed many students to a tipping point. More than a quarter of students were left with less than £50 a month, after paying rent and bills last year. As my hon. Friend points out, rent is accelerating at a significant rate. Our inquiry found 96% facing financial difficulty, with food, rent and energy the biggest pressures, but transport costs were also a key issue and particularly difficult for commuter students, many of whom chose to be home-based precisely to save money. Students have been struggling to get to their classes, access libraries and travel to placements.

The inquiry was a genuine learning exercise for us and we were particularly concerned to hear about the sharp increase in hours of paid employment taken by students. Of our respondents, 61% worked alongside their studies and 37% said that they are working more hours because of cost of living pressures. The Sutton Trust reported that about half of undergraduates missed classes last year due to paid employment. Around a quarter missed a deadline or asked for an extension on a piece of work.

They are often in precarious and insecure jobs. Johanna, one of the respondents to the Chamber Engagement Team survey, said,

“I have had to take several jobs, as the part time job sector is full of zero hours contracts with little stability and no promise of actual work. I am working more than I should have to and my grades are suffering.”

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. Some of the figures he has given are truly shocking. Does he share my shock that a quarter of universities are now running food banks? The fact that universities are themselves having to provide food banks for students is an indictment of the fact that clearly our young people cannot afford to make ends meet at university. Does he agree we should consider bringing back things such as the maintenance grant so that our young people can focus on learning rather than spend all this time trying to make ends meet?

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention and her support as an officer of the all-party parliamentary group. She is right about the shocking fact she shared about food banks. I will come to that and reflect on some of the recommendations she talks about.

As well as affecting academic work, paid employment also affects involvement in extracurricular activities. People might ask why that matters so much, but it matters enormously because volunteering roles involve networking, team working, leadership skills and wider opportunities. Those experiences give graduates that extra edge in the job market.

Hitting grades, weakening skills development and limiting CVs—this all means that those from poorer backgrounds, who are the ones relying on ever increasing paid employment, are particularly disadvantaged, reversing the efforts of successive Governments to widen opportunities and ensure that those who take advantage of higher education go on to succeed. Since our inquiry, we are beginning to see the impact on retention, with rising drop-out rates. The sector group, MillionPlus, has estimated that as many as 90,000 to 108,000 students might find it too difficult financially to continue to study.

Responding to all of those challenges, most universities have put more money into hardship funds. Others have developed initiatives to offset the pressures faced by students, though not uniformly. The sector probably could do more. Just last week, the Higher Education Policy Institute published a report saying that those initiatives included supporting students with food costs, providing both means-tested and unconditional hardship funding, and subsidising student activities. And, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) pointed out, a quarter now have food banks on campus.

University support services have substantially increased their workload, extending the criteria for hardship funds, drawing in more eligibility, and working with their student unions. Our survey found that many students have not always accessed the funds available, either because they were not aware of them, which is a challenge for the sector, or because they did not think they qualified for additional help.

Recently, we have seen some universities moving to a three-day week in their timetabling on some academic programmes, to allow students to fit in their part-time jobs alongside study and to limit the impact of commuting costs. That may offer immediate relief, but it is not a solution.

There are other ways in which financial pressures are affecting life chances. Many students aiming for master’s programmes, which have become important as an additional benefit in the job market, said they were reconsidering. For example, Alex, who also responded through the Chamber Engagement Team, said:

“as a working-class student in my penultimate year, I see my peers consider postgraduate study and I wonder how they can afford it. I’ll never be able to save enough”.

Postgraduate research students told us that they, too, were struggling—that stipend payments are insufficient to meet living costs and that PGRs are ineligible for childcare grants as they are in education: they often cannot access hardship funds because they fall into the gap between the definition of being a member of staff and that of being a student.

There are issues to address across the board. Our evidence confirmed a disproportionate impact on already marginalised and underrepresented groups, disabled students, black and minority ethnic students, care leavers and students who are estranged from their families. The Sutton Trust found that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more affected, with a third skipping meals to save costs. It also found that a fifth, mainly from disadvantaged backgrounds, plan to live at home as commuter students during term time to reduce costs. That might be okay for some. It might work in London, where there is a wide range of higher educational choices. However, it limits university choice and limits course choice for many students across the rest of the country.

Our inquiry made four key recommendations to Government for higher education. First, to provide further hardship funding to universities to enable them to support those most in need. Secondly, to increase student maintenance loans to restore their real value and to maintain that value by taking a similar approach to uprating benefits. Thirdly, to consider reintroducing maintenance grants, as was recommended by the review the Government commissioned from Sir Philip Augar. Fourthly, to increase the household income threshold for the maximum student loan, which has been frozen since 2008. At that point, the threshold was in line with average earnings of £25,000, but those average earnings are now £33,000.

I move on to our further education inquiry. I am sure the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on further education and lifelong learning, the hon. Member for Waveney, who is present, will cover many of the specific points, so I will skim over them a little more lightly. Our evidence found that, although FE students face similar financial pressures, many face additional ones, supporting not just themselves but in many cases having to support their families. FE students who responded to our survey reported difficulties with transport in particular and 72% said they face costs that put them in financial difficulty. Like HE students, they were working more paid hours to make ends meet, struggling to prioritise their coursework and classes and facing negative impacts on mental health.

Retention was also a key issue for colleges, with a decline in student attendance taking up resources to ensure students do not drop out of their studies. That is not just a problem for the colleges. Many students in FE are on technical and vocational courses—I know that is an issue close to the Minister’s heart—providing essential skills for the UK workforce. The Association of Colleges reported to us that bursaries and hardship funds are becoming an essential item for family budgets. It is a bit like the point about food banks. Some reported students walking several miles a day to college so they could use their transport bursary to support their family with food and energy costs.

FE does not have the funding of HE and colleges cannot provide the same support. Of serious concern to us were emerging reports that colleges have been dealing with a significant rise in family tensions and domestic abuse because of cost of living pressures and have been referring more students to supported housing. Shockingly, some colleges told us about increased safeguarding issues, with cash-strapped students vulnerable to criminal and sexual exploitation.

Concerns were also raised about apprentices, with an average wage of £5.28 an hour, not being eligible for the 16-to-19 bursary because of Government rules—apprentices often travel furthest to placements, attend more regularly and are left more exposed to travel costs. We subsequently heard about the particular issue facing young carers doing T-levels, who will lose their carer’s allowance if they study for more than 21 hours a week. So the cost of living crisis is affecting decisions not only about whether to remain in further education, but about the type of course, with many leaning towards shorter courses or those that lead more quickly to securing work, sacrificing ambition and limiting their potential.

Our key inquiry recommendations to the Government for FE included providing additional funding support so that providers can increase bursaries targeted at those most in need; reviewing the mandated eligibility criteria for bursary funds—this is an easy one as it does not cost anything—to provide colleges with more flexibility to determine eligibility; considering the case for extending free school meal eligibility so that colleges can provide more subsistence support; considering the introduction of free or subsidised travel for all 16 to 19-year-olds in FE or training; and increasing the apprenticeship minimum wage, including enabling providers to use bursary funds to support apprentices as well as other FE students.

My final point is that, in FE and in HE, the key takeaway from our inquiry has been the particular impact on students from poorer backgrounds. We are seeing the cost of living crisis damaging access and participation, limiting opportunities, affecting lives, levelling down not up, widening the skills gap and weakening our research capacity as a country. I hope that the Minister, and indeed the shadow Minister, will give full consideration to our recommendations.

Order. In view of the number of people hoping to speak in the debate, I am afraid I must impose a time limit of three minutes on Back-Bench speeches. I am sorry, but otherwise the number of people able to take part would be even more limited.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate and opening it in such a comprehensive and diligent way. As he said, I chair the APPG for further education and lifelong learning, and I would like to thank the Association of Colleges, which provides our secretariat, for all the work it did in supporting the second stage of the inquiry, focusing on the challenges faced by further education students.

An online evidence session was held, during which we heard harrowing feedback from FE students about the experiences they are facing. Many of those in further education come from less well-off backgrounds and are already making enormous sacrifices to go to college. They are working long hours in part-time jobs, and many are supporting members of their wider family. The cost of living crisis has piled further pressure on them; for some, the burden has become intolerable and they have had no choice but to give up their studies.

Colleges are provided with funding to support students, but this is inadequate, and in many respects the crisis is deepening. East Coast College, with campuses in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, has been providing bursaries and free school meals. Two years ago, it was supporting 1,400 16 to 18-year-olds. Last year the number rose to 1,842, and this year the college has already received 2,200 applications, which represents two thirds of its student cohort. The situation is intolerable, and the negative knock-on effects are far-reaching. Many people are being placed under intolerable pressure and are making enormous sacrifices. Colleges themselves find their budgets stretched to breaking point, and that in turn leads to the ever-widening skills gap that affects our economic performance so dramatically.

As we have heard, the July report put forward six recommendations. I would like to highlight one that we speak about a great deal in FE debates: the need for additional core revenue funding for the sector. I acknowledge that in recent years, particularly with regard to capital funding, the situation has improved, but FE gets a raw deal. I urge the Chancellor to address that at the forthcoming autumn statement by providing £400 million additional revenue funding that can address the problems that the sector faces and also alleviate the particular challenge that FE students face.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous); I profoundly agree with the last point that he made. It is an even greater pleasure, Sir George, to serve under your chairmanship and to be able to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate and also on the work done by the all-party parliamentary group for students, which provides material to underpin the debate today.

My own constituency in Newcastle upon Tyne East has a very large student population. Perhaps we are more famous for shipbuilding, heavy engineering and manufacturing cigarettes—all industries that have gone—but we are still famous for having a large student population.

Inflation is an evil that must be exterminated. Mrs Thatcher told us that in 1987 and it made its way into the Conservative manifesto. She might have added that once exterminated, it ought to stay exterminated. For reasons we all understand, it has broken out again and makes us face a series of challenges—some much more easily borne by the rich than by the poor. That is the core point that I want to make in my short address to this debate.

A number of funding authorities have had to address this question. In Northern Ireland, the maximum maintenance awards have been increased by 40%. In Wales the increase is 9.4% and in Scotland, although the support is provided in a different formula, it is a rise of £900 a year, which, depending on circumstances, is an increase between 11.1% and 17.6%. That is the devolved Administrations.

Maintenance loans in England are due to rise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central told us, by just 2.8%. That cannot possibly meet the general challenges of inflation. When we look at the factors that make up the specific pressures on students, such as rent increases, the cost of food, which has been particularly affected by the arable sector price increases, and transport costs as well, we see that students are disproportionately affected. Yet their interests have not been addressed, so they find themselves working longer hours to earn more money to keep themselves and become subject to an enormous amount of stress and anxiety. That could be a separate debate in itself.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Sir George; I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing it. He and I have worked together over many years. His careful stewardship of the APPG inquiries is typical of his attention to detail and his passion—shared, I know, by the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—for education as an engine for social mobility.

I was very pleased, both as Chair of the Education Committee and as a local MP with a large university and many excellent colleges in my patch, to be able to serve on the inquiry and contribute to it. There are a number of strong recommendations, which I want to endorse, including more targeted bursary funding and an increase in the earnings threshold for the first time since 2018. I hope my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench will be able take some of those up.

The two reports from the all-party group highlight several concerning trends for students, which look set to fundamentally alter how young people see the comparative value of different further and higher education routes. Where that increases the attractiveness of earn-while-you-learn approaches such as apprenticeships, it might in some senses be welcome, but where it reduces students’ ability to complete their courses or participate in the wider life of universities, including clubs, volunteering and community engagement, and where it risks increasing drop-out rates or requires students to spend so much time working that their studies and mental health suffer, it is a concern.

Local students at the University of Worcester wrote to me with a number of concerns that they wanted to be raised in this debate. They point out that the cost of living is acutely affecting those who live on their maintenance loans and feel that a number of the existing schemes to support people with the cost of living specifically exclude students. They say that student accommodation costs have risen 60% in our area in the last decade, and 68% of students who responded to their survey say that they can no longer afford course materials. One third of students have considered dropping out because of finances, and one third—compared with the quarter highlighted in the all-party group’s report—have been left at the end of the month with less than £50 after rent and bills. They call for an increased student finance package and tailored cost of living support for students. In that respect, the recommendations of the all-party group are very welcome.

The Education Committee has also heard concerns that students taking T-levels find that they cannot complete their courses because of cost of living pressures on their families; in many cases, they are transferring to apprenticeships to earn while they learn. I highlight the recommendation, which echoes the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), about FE funding in our report “The future of post-16 qualifications”; I gently say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that the figure cited in the Government’s response—that there is an increase of 2.2% for the FE sector—is clearly not enough. I know that he will want to make the case to the Treasury for more, and I hope that he will use the reports from the all-party group to strengthen that case.

I also highlight very briefly the Select Committee’s recommendation on allowing students and people in study to access the 30 hours of childcare. We think that that is an important part of the offer; it would ensure that people with parenting and caring responsibilities do not drop out of education and out of the opportunity to increase their earnings potential through upskilling.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have spoken.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir George. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for securing this important debate.

Further and higher education students in my constituency of Liverpool, West Derby and across the country are facing immense pressure from the cost of living crisis, with rising bills, inflation and the Government’s real-term cuts to students’ maintenance loans. The maintenance loan simply does not allow students to cover basic costs or to live and study in dignity. The National Union of Students reports that more than a quarter of higher education students are left with less than £50 a month after covering rent and bills, and that 42% are surviving on less than £100. The impact on students’ health, wellbeing and education is devastating. Some 22% of surveyed students say that they often skip meals to save money, and, shamefully, a quarter of universities now have food banks.

A staggering 90% of students say that the rising cost of living is negatively impacting their mental health. Students are the very future of our country, and they are being driven into poverty simply for wanting to go to college and university to study. Surely higher education should be seen as a right accessible to all who want to go—an investment in a public good that is essential to the future success of this nation.

At a recent talk in Parliament with a superb class of sixth-form students from St John Bosco, in West Derby, about their plans for the future, it absolutely broke my heart to hear that many of the students felt that higher education was simply not an option for them because of the cost involved. I often hear talk about glass ceilings in politics; listening to the class that day reinforced my view that the cost of higher education for the working class was now becoming one of the biggest glass ceilings of all.

For over a decade in power, the Government have completely failed to support students in Liverpool, West Derby and right across the country. The coalition Government scrapped the education maintenance allowance, and the bursary fund that replaced it has less than a third of the EMA’s budget and stricter eligibility criteria that have excluded many who desperately need that support. That simply cannot go on. We need systemic change. We need an end to the underfunding of our entire education system, an end to under-investment in students and an end to the failed free market experiment in higher education.

The Minister has an opportunity in the upcoming King’s Speech to introduce legislation to support students and transform our education system. I call on him to listen to the NUS and

“urgently and dramatically increase the level of maintenance support”.

I also call on him to listen to the APPG’s recommendations, which were outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central. Finally, I ask him to listen to students in West Derby who are calling for tuition fees to be abolished and for a system of non-repayable financial support to be put in place so that they are not excluded from accessing higher education. Students and their families in West Derby deserve nothing less.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on setting the scene. A term used often in this Chamber applies to him: he is truly a champion of education, particularly further education, and he has shown us his knowledge today.

I have spoken countless times in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber about how the cost of living is impacting people from all walks of life, and we must have sympathy for students in further and higher education. None of us is a stranger to how extortionately expensive it is to attend universities and colleges nowadays, and I have no doubt whatever that the cost of living crisis has added to that significantly. Back in March, when the impact of the crisis was still at its peak, we took many steps to ensure that students across the UK were supported. In some areas, rents were frozen and public transport for students was altered. Inflation in the UK had been running at more than 10% since the start of the last term, and students are still feeling the impact.

Some constituents have contacted me to ask, “What is the point in going to university?” When students and young people say that, we have to realise just how important it is to address this issue. Fees and the costs of books, accommodation and transport are not doable for some families. One of my staff members used to travel to university on a return train ticket, which cost £10.50 when she attended between 2018 and 2021. The same ticket today is £16.50. Students must travel at least three or four times a week, so that is £50 a week, or £200 a month, for a student to attend their place of education. Some students are attending university three or four days a week and working full time as well, and they are just about making ends meet. As the darker and colder weather approaches, many fear that circumstances will arise whereby they simply cannot afford to continue. That means dropping out, which is even worse. Many are already having to resort to asking their parents for help or seeking emergency loans.

I ask the Minister, who is a good Minister—as he knows, everyone in the House respects him, which is important to put on the record—to speak to Student Finance Northern Ireland about maintenance grants in Northern Ireland. The price of fuel, electricity, rent and food has gone up, but Student Finance NI does not deem it necessary to increase maintenance grants accordingly. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central referred to some of the costs that have risen.

We often talk about how young people are the future and how we build the environment we live in today to encourage them. The fact is that they feel beaten before they have started, with excessive, debilitating bills coming from every direction and hitting them head on from all sides. More needs to be done. We are all making the same request as we approach this winter, to ensure that our further and higher education system across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is sustainable and workable for all. Let us do something for our students, and let us do it today.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir George, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). He said almost exactly what I would have said, but I would not have put it so well. Colleagues of different parties have made similar points, so I will try not to repeat them.

I find myself returning to the point made by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the value of maintenance loans for students from the poorest families is at its lowest in real terms since 2016-17, and the poorest students in England are more than £1,000 worse off than in 2021-22. Like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I respect the Minister, but he has to explain how the Government have allowed this situation to develop, because there has been a paltry rise in the maintenance loan. I am sure he is embarrassed about it. He ought to be embarrassed about it on behalf of the Government, and they need to do something about it.

I will make a few quick points about the city of Cambridge, which I represent. Cambridge is a genuine education city, with fine universities, an excellent further education college and brilliant sixth-form colleges. But as the Cambridge University Students Union points out, although the University of Cambridge is a very wealthy university—perhaps the wealthiest in Europe—sadly Cambridge is also the UK’s most unequal city on some measures. In CUSU’s words:

“Students must pay extortionate rents, College bills and other hidden costs, while maintenance loans and University and College bursaries have been largely stagnant. Disparity across the collegiate University means that students’ experiences of both applying for and receiving necessary funding differ vastly.”

There are many different experiences, but the fact that one of the Cambridge colleges has had to set up a food hub speaks volumes about the situation in which we find ourselves.

I am grateful to Harvey Brown, the CUSU welfare and community officer, for pointing out the pressure on postgraduate students in particular. He said that some had been in touch to say that there is simply nowhere they can afford to live in Cambridge, with some suggesting that living in a tent was the only means of staying in the city to finish their studies. He also talked about postgrad and international students, who are reliant on scholarships and often depend on extortionate visas, and the visa criteria for international students being harsh, with some having to prove progression to maintain their visa.

There is a range of complicated issues here, but clearly something needs to be done to improve the situation. I also echo the points about further education students. I was told this morning that some are paying £2,000 a year in rail fares just to come to and from Ely for their education.

I will conclude by observing that there is quite a furore in the papers about the triple lock. Is it not extraordinary that there is not a furore about this generation, which is actually suffering here and now? Would it not be wonderful to see that on the front pages of the newspapers tomorrow?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who chairs the APPG for students, on securing this debate. As a vice-chair of the APPG, I am pleased to be able to speak.

I am lucky enough to represent the Leeds North West constituency, which has one of the biggest student populations in the country. Our universities and their students boost Leeds’s culture and economy, and provide lifelong homes for people like me who never quite manage to leave. I have heard from students in my constituency that they are taking more and more hours of work in attempts to cover their basic costs. It is not surprising that research shows that 49% of students have missed lectures or seminars, which they themselves are paying for, to undertake paid work. A quarter of students report that they are less likely to finish their degree as a direct result of the cost of living crisis. Even after receiving maintenance loans and bursaries, students in Leeds North West, and up and down the country, are unable to pay their rent and are at risk of homelessness.

The main universities and their student union executives in Leeds, and I am sure across the country, are doing outstanding work to support students. Leeds Beckett University has gone above and beyond with measures such as absorbing 80% of the increase in rental costs for those living in student halls, providing a hot meal for £2 every lunchtime for every student, and doubling the allocation of its student hardship fund to £3 million. Similarly, great work is being done by the executive officers at Leeds University Union, such as paying for additional course materials, tackling period poverty on campus and developing a basic needs hub for students. Last year, LUU offered 200 free breakfasts all the way through December, as well as a free night bus service. It is also campaigning for a real living wage for student staff.

According to the NUS, 92% of students state that the cost of living crisis has had an impact on their mental health, with 31% categorising that impact as major. We have a situation on our hands that has been worsening for a decade and is now impossible for the Government to ignore. We already know that black students, students with disabilities and students from areas with high levels of deprivation are more likely to drop out of university and less likely to obtain a first-class degree. Trans and non-binary students, as well as students of colour, are more likely to have an income of less than £500 a month. By failing to protect them, this Government are devaluing the education of all students who do not have the luxury of generational wealth.

The Tories have consistently degraded the worth of higher education. We saw it when they tripled university tuition fees, we saw it when they introduced cuts to education and anti-strike laws, and we are seeing it now as they leave students at the mercy of food banks and help from their university, student union or even other students. The fact is that students should not be setting up food banks on campus, or missing out on their education in order to prioritise a part-time job. PhD students should not be left without protections or adequate pay. The APPG recommendations on the cost of living crisis take up some of those points. I hope that the Minister will listen to them and act on this crisis in our universities for our students, which will have a real-life and real-world impact on our economy.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship once again this afternoon, Sir George. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for securing this important debate as we embark on a new academic term.

The current cost of living crisis has been felt acutely by the student population, who are particularly vulnerable to price rises. Monthly living costs for students have risen by 17%. A recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute showed that 64% of students were skipping meals to save money and that a quarter of universities have set up food banks for their students, as the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) mentioned. Ultimately, such pressures can force students out of university and eventually out of the workforce. We cannot afford for that to happen.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) mentioned international students and the difficulty they have with visa fees. International students who are in the UK with a stipend or have some funding sometimes have restrictions put on them that prevent them from working, so they are incredibly vulnerable and they really have no way out of that situation. Working could affect their visa or their stipend, so they are in a very difficult situation.

I note with concern the recent calls from some hard-right Tory MPs—I hope that the Minister is ignoring them—to block particular low-achieving school pupils from taking out loans that would allow them to continue their studies. It would be useful if the Minister would confirm that he will disregard such calls from that group of MPs.

There has been a big impact on further education as well, and those in further education often come from a more disadvantaged background to start with. The issues around further education have been mentioned by a number of Members, notably the hon. Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Sheffield Central.

The hon. Member for Sheffield Central mentioned the cost of travel, saying that it was more difficult for many students to get to courses, so I hope that he welcomes the recent policy of the Scottish Government that gives every young person up to the age of 22 free bus travel. That has removed so many burdens from that group of youngsters. That is a policy that the UK Government could implement across England and Wales. It would make such a difference to young people, and would not be particularly costly.

The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) mentioned childcare costs and it is important that we consider that many students have such costs. Being able to access the 30-hour offer would make a big difference to them and enable them to access their university.

Ultimately, everything that we are talking about means that students increasingly find themselves unable to stay on top of their studies. Grades can suffer and in some cases students will drop out altogether. It is notable that new data from the Office for Students affirms that students who were eligible for free school meals are the most likely to drop out of university; in fact, they are almost 10% less likely to complete their courses than students from more affluent backgrounds.

We have heard a lot—from the hon. Member for Cambridge, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and the hon. Member for Strangford, among others—about increasing maintenance loans to keep up with inflation. The maintenance loan is significantly higher in Scotland than it is in England. That does not mean that it will always be enough, but it is certainly a step in the right direction, and increasing it would be an easy way for the UK Government to support students.

Of course, in Scotland we also have free tuition, because educational mobility should be based on the ability to learn and not on the ability to pay. I have great respect for the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, but he must accept that the Labour party is not in a good position just now on tuition fees, having rolled back its commitment to abolish them. It would be useful to hear where Labour is planning to go with that.

It is a pleasure, Sir George, to serve under your chairship today and to speak on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western).

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this extremely important debate, on all his campaigning on this issue and on his deep expertise in it, which has been of such value to the House. He has highlighted so many issues, as have other hon and right hon. Members, including the creaking nature of the student support system, the impact of increased hours of paid employment, impacts on life chances and wellbeing, and impacts on international students. I pay tribute to the work of the all-party parliamentary groups for students and on further education and lifelong learning. It is wonderful to see the chair of that APPG, the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), here and to recognise the contribution that he has made.

We have had strong contributions, including from my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) and Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I also pay tribute to the work of the Sutton Trust, MillionPlus and other important research organisations. I note the vital role performed by universities and further education colleges in supporting students and their life chances, especially through this difficult time, as well as their key role in our education system and economy, and their support for businesses, our industrial strategy and our regional growth agendas across the country.

I am concerned that students have been an afterthought through the pandemic and then through the cost of living crisis. Inflation has skyrocketed into double digitals. The inflation rate for food items stands at 14.9%. We know that the causes of the cost of living crisis, while partly global, can be traced to choices that successive Conservative Governments have made that have reduced our resilience, and this is an important debate for us to continue to have. The situation is even more acute with our need as a nation to look at how we grow the economy and to ensure that we have opportunities at every stage.

A report released just last week by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that universities are being forced to take steps to support their students during the cost of living crisis that were previously unthinkable, whether that is having a food bank or recognising that many need food vouchers. It begs the question: which part of Britain is not broken? It is important to recognise that this impacts the ability of those institutions to support that transformational potential, which is their purpose of supporting students to take advantage of learning and improve their life chances. ONS research found that the cost of living crisis affects students’ academic performance, skills development, and health and wellbeing.

I will close with a few questions to the Minister, because he will see that the evidence clearly points to the negative impacts of the crisis on our students. The Conservative party should have solutions that are in line with, and part of, how we grow the economy, which is the first mission that we will have as a Labour Government. Has the Minister looked at which students are most impacted by the cost of living crisis? Will he take this opportunity to commit to an equality impact assessment of the impact of rising prices on students? What assessment has he made of the cost of living crisis on discouraging applications from students for certain courses, as has been raised by MillionPlus? How is he working with the FE and HE sectors on the challenges that they and their students are facing? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir George. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate. He is an expert on higher education in this House and is widely respected. This is my first debate with the new shadow Minister, and she, too, is widely respected across the House. I know that we will have fierce debates, but I wish her well. I thank everybody who has spoken in the debate. I completely accept the pressures that students in further and higher education are facing, just as I accept that most people across the country are facing enormous cost of living challenges. I see that in my own constituency of Harlow. I am committed to social justice and I am keen that we do everything we can to support disadvantaged groups to progress up the ladder.

We need to set the context: £400 billion was spent on covid, alongside the war in Ukraine and our significant debt. However, even with that very difficult economic context, we are still doing everything we can to help disadvantaged students. Because of the number of Members who spoke and the short time left, I will write to individuals if I do not answer their points in the debate.

I will start with FE and apprenticeships. Students in vulnerable groups—young people in care, care leavers and those on disability-related benefits—may be entitled to yearly bursaries of up to £1,200. We have allocated £160 million to FE for discretionary bursaries. That is almost a 12% increase. That helps students with travel costs and the cost of books and equipment. That is an issue that has been raised by the APPG.

On apprenticeships, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central talked about the apprentice minimum wage. That increased by 9.7% to £5.28 an hour. I appreciate that that is not a huge amount of money, but the latest data shows that the median gross hourly pay for apprentices in 2021 was £9.98 an hour. A 2021 survey showed that pay increased with level of apprenticeship, from £8.23 an hour among level 2 apprentices to £13.84 among degree apprenticeships and £15.11 an hour among level 6 non- degree apprentices. We are investing £40 million to support degree apprenticeships to encourage more people to take them up. We have had more than 180,000 since we introduced degree apprenticeships in 2014. Those students have no debt; they earn while they learn. I gave the hon. Member for Sheffield Central the figures for what they are likely to earn. We know that they are going to get good, skilled jobs.

We have increased something I was very keen on: the bursary for care leavers. That was something I asked for and pushed for the moment I got this post. The bursary for care leavers who undertake an apprenticeship will increase from £1,000 to £3,000, so I am trying to do everything I can in these difficult economic times to help the most disadvantaged.

Let us move on to higher education. A lot has been said about the problems that students face. We have frozen the maximum level of tuition fees, against significant pressure. We have done everything we can on that. We are trying to minimise the debt burdens for graduates wherever we can. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central mentioned transport. He will know that, for students in South Yorkshire, there is a zoom 16-18 pass. It is 80p a journey on bus and tram.

I want to make a wider point to all hon. Members who spoke. They talk about disadvantaged students being denied the chance to go to university. A lot of that came up today, including from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne). Actually, the figures show that disadvantaged students are going to university in record numbers. Not only that, but they are about 73% more likely to go to university than they were in 2010. That is something that I am very proud of. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) asked what I am proud of: I am very proud that we are helping more disadvantaged students to attend university, and that we created 5 million apprentices, increased the number of degree apprenticeships and introduced the apprenticeship bursary.

We previously helped students living in private accommodation with energy bills. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) mentioned mental health. We have given £15 million to the OfS to help universities with mental health provision. We are doing a lot of work on that, and I refer him to previous debates in the House on this subject.

I will carry on a little bit. I have very little time because the hon. Member for Sheffield Central needs a couple of minutes to sum up, but I will try to bring in the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake).

There is more support for students who have disabilities, who get maintenance grants on top of that, of course. None of that was mentioned. We give £276 million—an increase of £16 million over the past year—to the OfS to help disadvantaged students across our HE system.

If I can, I will. I genuinely would love more time to bring people in.

That is a lot of money. I have examples: the university in the hon. Member’s own constituency has a £500 cash bursary, and in Liverpool, vulnerable students get bursaries of close to, I think, £2,000. We are trying to target significant help at disadvantaged students with that £276 million. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central will know that postgraduate master’s students can apply for loans of £12,000 per annum, and doctoral students can apply for loans of £28,000.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) talked about core funding. He will know that skills funding is increasing by £3.8 billion over the Parliament, with £1.6 billion extra for 16 to 19-year-olds. We have just increased core funding by £185 million this year and £285 million the next year, on top of £125 million, as he knows. Wherever possible, we are trying to put more money into further education. My hon. Friend’s college has had a significant amount of capital funding and core funding, so I think he will be pleased with that. I hope that also answers some of the questions that the distinguished Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), asked.

If the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) would like to come in very quickly, I will take his intervention—I think I have two minutes.

On rental accommodation, I am sure the Minister will agree that too often students find themselves having to go for substandard accommodation due to price constraints. Will he consider that in delivering future support?

Of course, accommodation is up to the universities and private tenants—although we also work closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—but I will look at that important point, because we want students to live in quality accommodation.

On the £276 million figure for the hardship fund, calculations from the House of Commons Library suggest that, while the cash value per student has increased in the last two years, in real terms it has actually fallen each year, with the 2023-24 level expected to be around 21% less in real terms than 2019-20. Will he look again at the amount of resource going into those budgets? Against inflation, it really is not enough.

If I can answer with a final, quick point about the £276 million, there were lots of universities —I can give figures from up and down the country—with bursaries of between £500 and £2,000 going to the most vulnerable students. We are trying to target help.

To conclude, there is one thing that has not been mentioned at all. Everyone here has looked at this in isolation from all the other help the Government are giving to hard-pressed families up and down the country. It is important to remember that the Government are spending around £94 billion—£3,300 per household on average—helping families, which includes students in FE and elsewhere, along with apprentices, to try and help them in every way we can. As in Sheffield and throughout the country, many of our universities and colleges are doing a great job in difficult circumstances, and the Government are targeting help at those who need it most while being fair to both students and the taxpayer.

I have to say that I was not sure whether securing the last debate before recess would do justice to our reports, but the number and quality of contributions from colleagues prove that my doubts were misplaced. I am grateful to everybody for their points, and I think there were a number of common themes from both sides of the House.

I know the Minister knows that his response does not go far enough and that we are in danger of reversing the achievements that have been made in widening participation in post-school education. I hope that our reports will be helpful to him, as the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) pointed out, in making the case to his colleagues in Government, because the issues will not go away until we see real change.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the impact of increases in the cost of living on further and higher education students.

Sitting adjourned.