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Westminster Hall

Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 17 October 2023

[Mrs Pauline Latham in the Chair]

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: Sustainable Development

[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 28 February 2023, on WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), HC 1174; Written evidence to the International Development Committee, on WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), reported to the House on 19 April 2023, HC 1174.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered water, sanitation, hygiene and sustainable development.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. This is the first time that I have had the opportunity to do so, and I am particularly pleased that the debate is about an issue that I know is important to you personally. It is also important to those here to speak today, and I thank them for their attendance. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for a very important debate.

When the 17 sustainable development goals were set out by the UN in 2015, at the heart of that was one goal—to produce a blueprint for peace and prosperity. The 17 goals range from objectives such as economic growth to affordable energy, but they are all intrinsically interlinked and many of them will be unachievable without the others. Improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene—commonly known as WASH—is vital to many of the goals. Without the correct sanitation facilities, how can we expect women and girls to access education and workplaces? Without prioritising water resources, we reduce the ability to accurately manage and anticipate climate hazards. I will touch on these later in my speech, but I will start by saying that over the last 20 years we have seen that real progress is possible when WASH is prioritised in national development. However, we have also seen that many with the power to accelerate progress do not think that water, sanitation and hygiene are sufficiently important. That has led to progress being unacceptably slow, particularly among the poorest and most vulnerable groups and in the least developed countries and regions.

Now is not the time to slow down. Over the next decade, the populations in the areas of the globe with the worst access to WASH will grow—particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the population is expected to double by 2050. An increase in extreme weather events, political instability, conflict, disease outbreaks and the global economic crisis pose huge threats to WASH. This has resulted in a depressing image for the future of WASH. Currently, 1.9 billion of the world’s poorest people live in severely water-scarce areas that risk security for WASH services. It is predicted that by 2050 that will increase by between 42% and 95%, potentially meaning that 3.2 billion people will be affected.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. I spoke to him beforehand to highlight an issue that I feel is very important, as I know he does as well. Some 600 million children around the world still lack safe drinking water; 1.1 billion lack safe sanitation; and 690 million lack basic hygiene services. The worst affected are women and children who are internally displaced persons, refugees and from minority communities.

Research by Open Doors, an organisation that the hon. Gentleman and I understand very well, shows that there is a worrying tendency for Christian communities to be deprived of access to development aid, including WASH programmes. That is also highly likely to be the case for other religious minority communities. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that these programmes must be monitored to ensure access for religious minority communities and displaced persons in particular?

I certainly agree. Any IDPs or people who are removed from their homes or the places where they live will have an immediate problem with access to water in some parts of the world. That is particularly difficult, as we are seeing in Gaza at the moment, for example; we also see it in parts of sub-Saharan Africa as people move as a result of climate change or political instability. It is one of the important issues that link many different communities and religions as well.

Water is vital to many individuals not only on a practical basis but, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) says, on a religious basis. The practice of many religions involves using water—I am thinking, for example, of not only Hindus but Muslims—for their daily rituals, and these are very important. It is a point well worth making, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for making the point, which I had not covered.

The UK has traditionally been a leader in the WASH sector. Given the multitude of challenges facing us, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister today: how will the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office project WASH funding increasing? Investing in sustainable and safe WASH is fundamental for countries to have a healthy workforce—the foundation for a thriving economy. The consequences of inaction would be monumental for many people. Left unchecked, diseases will become more frequent, leading to an increased demand for national spending on healthcare and reduced productivity.

WASH is often framed as simply building infrastructure, delivered with little thought to how it will be managed over time to deliver any benefits. But WASH is not about one-time access; it is a group of services and related behaviours that need to be accessed or practised several times a day and sustained over time. That means WASH systems need to be strong enough to deliver services continually to entire populations and to ensure that good hygiene behaviours are reinforced. I saw that on a recent visit to Ghana, where we saw not only water but the idea behind WASH procedures being delivered. Good practice was certainly reinforced.

The FCDO shift towards supporting WASH systems and away from just delivering infrastructure is very welcome, but we need to see more such programmes. The FCDO has a vital role in ensuring that others follow suit so that all interventions lead to a stronger sector. Similarly, it should encourage the integration of WASH within health, as it has done with its ending preventable deaths approach.

At the moment, despite progress on such programmes, we are seeing an international decline in investment in WASH. Since 2018, UK aid for WASH has been cut by two thirds, falling to approximately £70 million in 2021. For comparison, we spent £364 million on education and £548 million on health. The total share of the aid budget going to water supply and sanitation was just 1% in 2021. That is despite polling indicating that 53% of the British public list water, sanitation and hygiene as one of the top three most important ways of spending UK official aid development assistance. There is clearly a mismatch between spend on WASH and the popularity of the issue among the UK public.

With the upcoming international development White Paper due to be published soon, I ask the Minister to carefully consider the evidence provided. As the Foreign Office Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), said in his statement on 18 July, the White Paper

“will chart the long-term direction for UK international development up to 2030”—

just in time for the review of the sustainable development goals. Can the Minister here today indicate what level of prioritisation WASH will have in the international development White Paper?

I stress to the Minister that Governments and countries as a whole stand to gain hugely if investment in sustainable WASH services is provided. Sanitation alone can have huge economic returns, contributing to the world economy. On top of that, the return on that investment is vast, with basic WASH services providing up to 21 times more value than their cost. Action on this matter overseas will provide direct benefits to people here in the United Kingdom. As covid-19 has shown, infectious diseases do not respect international borders.

Despite the global pandemic, the UN predicts that 3 billion people globally do not practise hand washing with soap, and over 2 billion simply do not have access to basic hand-washing facilities. As a result, diseases spread fast and most easily in places where preventive measures such as WASH do not exist or are inadequate. Most importantly, in some countries this can push health workers, who cannot rely on the availability of soap and clean water, to over-prescribe antibiotics as a preventive measure, contributing to the rising threat of resistance to antibiotics. Yet investing in basic services and healthcare facilities decreases the demand for antibiotics, breaks the chain of infection and removes the opportunities for resistant infections to become dominant.

It is important at this point to say that most resistant infections treated by the NHS originated elsewhere in the world, particularly in low and middle-income countries. Tackling that problem is critical to UK public health and to protect the NHS. Healthcare-acquired infections already cost the NHS at least £2.1 billion a year—costs that will increase as infections become increasingly resistant to antibiotics. As the Minister will be aware, a high-level meeting on antimicrobial resistance will be happening at the UN General Assembly next September, which could provide a significant moment to drive the political prioritisation of WASH and fighting disease abroad and here in the United Kingdom. Will the Minister commit to the UK encouraging political dialogue and drive financial commitments for WASH in the build-up to the conference? Of course, beyond the economic benefits and those for the UK, we are looking at action such as saving the lives of up to 300,000 children each year.

Touching back on achieving sustainable development goal 5—gender equality—women and girls face particular challenges when it comes to WASH. A lack of WASH facilities undermines the specific needs of women when it comes to menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. Improving the future prospects of women and girls can be as simple as providing clean water and toilets at home, which would prevent women and girls from wasting 77 million days every year on walking long distances in search of water. That is time they can spend in education or, indeed, working. Beyond that, their direct health outcomes will vastly improve when investment is made in improving access to water and sanitation in workplaces and public spaces.

As the Minister will be aware, the UK will be working towards sustainable development goal 6, which is primarily split between two Departments: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which focuses on improvements here in the United Kingdom, and the FCDO, which is working to improve international results. I am positive that ministerial colleagues will work together to ensure that progress is made to achieve the international targets, but I would be interested to hear what those collaborations will actually mean. However, we understand that this is not always the case in countries struggling with access to WASH. Institutional fragmentation occurs, which undermines the effectiveness of the WASH sector.

Drinking water, sanitation and hygiene typically have their homes within different Ministries, and often the responsible Ministries may vary for rural and urban services. Hygiene, for example, cuts across many sectors, Ministries and Departments, including WASH, health, education, gender and nutrition, meaning that it is everywhere and nowhere. That contributes to problems when it comes to generating political leadership, setting policies and raising finance. It gives rise to co-ordination difficulties, weak regulation and accountability, fragmentation in capacity-building efforts and different—sometimes competing—monitoring systems. Ultimately, this results in a clear lack of ownership and prioritisation by decision makers and budget holders. What assistance are the UK Government providing to other nations to adopt approaches to WASH similar to the UK’s, including the establishment of development banks?

Despite huge progress, WASH is facing significant challenges. The world is changing rapidly. When disease and war hit, water and sanitation are often forgotten first but the consequences are experienced immediately by those displaced. I urge the Minister not to forget the issue. Water is not just the source of all life; it is the source of all future prosperity and peace for billions of people in this world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Latham. You are the perfect person to be chairing this sitting, as I believe that you have served on the International Development Committee for 12 years now.

Thirteen years—let me correct myself. You probably know more about this issue than any of us in the Chamber, so I am grateful that you are here today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing the debate. I have been reminded of our trip to Uganda together many years ago; I know that his absolute passion for low and middle-income countries has stemmed from that. He has been a true champion of the cause ever since, and I thank him for that.

Access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene is one of the most basic human needs and is fundamental for development. The importance of global action in this area is set out in the UN sustainable development goal 6, which is about working towards clean water and sanitation for all. The International Development Committee, which I chair, held an evidence session on this topic—known by its acronym WASH—in March this year. We heard about the devastating impact of the lack of access to WASH on the world’s poorest people and the most marginalised groups. It is crucial that we continue to shed light on this problem, which can have devastating impacts on those living in lower-income countries across the world.

According to a joint report from the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, in 2022 2.2 billion people lacked access to safely managed drinking water, 2 billion people lacked access to basic hygiene services and 3.5 billion people still lacked access to safely managed sanitation. It is hard to comprehend the scale of those figures or the cost of that inaction. A lack of access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene has serious consequences for health and wellbeing. It increases the risk of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a lack of access to WASH contributes globally each year to 3 million cases of cholera, resulting in an estimated 95,000 cholera deaths. In recent days, Zimbabwe has banned large gatherings as the threat of a cholera outbreak grows. The problem will only get worse with water shortages and poor sanitation systems. Those problems also contribute to 11 million cases of typhoid fever, resulting in 129,000 deaths; and 1.7 billion cases of diarrhoea among children younger than five, resulting in an estimated 446,000 deaths.

As the hon. Member for Hendon said, women and girls suffer most acutely from a lack of access to WASH. According to Water Witness, women and girls spend a total of 200 million hours fetching household water each day. My Committee heard that in hilly areas of Nepal, for example, women have to wake up at 3 am to collect water and return home before beginning their daily household tasks as the primary carer. That reduces their ability to attend school and work, and limits their political, social and economic participation.

In certain regions, water collection can increase the risk of women contracting diseases. As part of our inquiry into the FCDO’s approach to sexual and reproductive health, my Committee heard that women risk getting infected with the neglected tropical disease, female genital schistosomiasis—I am very happy for you to correct my pronunciation of that, Mrs Latham—through snails carrying parasites in bodies of water. It is a serious and painful condition, which also increases the risk of contracting HIV.

UNICEF and the WHO have found that half of the world’s healthcare facilities do not have basic hygiene services, rising to two thirds across the least developed countries. That meant that in 2021, 3.85 billion people lacked basic hygiene services at their healthcare facilities, 1.7 billion lacked basic water services and 780 million had facilities with no sanitation services.

Practising hygiene during antenatal care, labour and birth reduces the risk of infection, sepsis and death for children and their mothers. Right now, there are pregnant women receiving care and giving birth in places without basic access to clean water, soap and sanitation. WaterAid told my Committee that babies born in hospitals in low and middle-income countries are up to 20 times more likely to develop neonatal sepsis than hospital-born babies in high-income countries such as the UK. Those are shocking statistics, which emphasise starkly the global inequality of the issue.

Efforts across the world to achieve access to clean water and sanitation for all are being set back by climate change. Natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes destroy and damage water and sanitation infrastructure, and pollute water sources. My Committee heard that in coastal regions, due to sea level rises, saline contamination of water is increasing in countries such as Bangladesh. Saline water is a breeding ground for cholera. The UN also recognises that water shortages undercut food security and the income of rural farmers. Farmers often use waste water because it is the only reliable supply of water, which then increases the risk of infection for both farm workers and those who consume their crops. This is an act of desperation: 34 million people are facing acute levels of food insecurity in 2023.

On top of that, there is a vicious cycle of conflict and water scarcity that we must work to break. Scarcity of access to water is increasingly recognised as the likely multiplier of conflict, and it contributes to the creation of refugees. That conflict then increases the likelihood of destruction of water supply systems, and so the cycle continues. As we speak, we know that the people of Gaza have limited access to water, and nearby Jordan is now the second most water-scarce country in the world. Jordan’s resources are stretched by instability in the region, and it needs a sustainable strategy for long-term refugees, which my Committee has also published on. Two million Palestinian refugees are in Jordan and, given what is happening, that is likely to only increase.

The UN’s high-level panel on water predicts that 700 million people are at risk of being displaced by 2050 because of intense water stress. It is clear that access to water, sanitation and hygiene impacts on all aspects of a country’s development. I welcome the UK’s involvement in the declaration for fair water footprints at COP26, which brings together the needs of communities, businesses and ecosystems to stop water pollution and maintain the sustainable and equitable withdrawal and use of water.

Making water usage more equitable and sustainable will be key to achieving SDG 6 by 2030. However, since 2018 the UK aid budget for WASH has been slashed by nearly 80%, falling from £206.5 million to £45.6 million in 2022. The percentage of bilateral ODA spent on WASH has more than halved between 2021 and 2022. My Committee heard that

“The scale and the speed of the cuts have been shocking to those working in the sector.”

That is despite the FCDO approach paper on ending preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children by 2030, which included commitments to work with countries, partners and the private sector to strengthen WASH delivery systems.

As I have highlighted, WASH is crucial to the empowerment of women and girls, which again is a stated aim of this Government. To achieve SDG 6 in low and middle-income countries, WaterAid has stated that investment in WASH needs to triple by 2030, with at least $200 billion a year needing to be invested into WASH systems. That is where the UK Government could play a significant role in catalysing investment and bringing stakeholders together. I urge the Minister to reconsider the Government’s ODA spending on WASH so that it aligns with their own goals and priorities. Without action, the most vulnerable will continue to be at risk of dehydration, disease and death.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing this extremely important and timely debate. Access to safe, clean sources of water, alongside basic levels of sanitation and personal hygiene, is essential within the realms of public health, for both prevention of, and protection from, infectious diseases.

Although hon. Members may be somewhat reluctant to do so, if we cast our minds back to the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, before the vaccine, masks, lockdown and social distancing, the first thing we asked the public to do was to wash their hands regularly for the amount of time it took to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. I am sure that we will never forget that, and we probably still sing “Happy Birthday” when we wash our hands even today. That may seem simplistic, yet in a country where clean water is in abundance and a bar of soap costs merely pence, it is the public health measure that is often the most overlooked. It is largely taken for granted, even by those of us who are washers not walkers after using the loo.

Although handwashing was commonplace in most medical settings involving doctors and surgeons by the mid-19th century, it was Florence Nightingale with her strong Derbyshire roots who truly brought it to the masses. While the true potential of regular handwashing was still to be fully understood, it was her intuitive approach towards promoting the importance of cleanliness and personal hygiene that led to a rapid improvement in public health in the years that followed the Crimean war.

In a similar vein, our understanding of how infectious diseases spread and the vital importance of providing good sanitation facilities have their roots in the Broad Street cholera outbreak of 1854, less than a few miles from this Chamber. It claimed the lives of 616 people and was eventually tracked back to a single contaminated water pump. Here in the UK we may have come a long way since that time, but shockingly even now, in 2023, the UN estimates that 2.2 billion people across the world do not have access to safe, clean drinking water or basic handwashing facilities, while 3.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation facilities.

Earlier this year, I was privileged to take part in a parliamentary delegation to Kenya hosted by World Vision, during which I saw first hand how climate change is increasingly affecting people’s access to water. I had a discussion with a group of schoolchildren, who shared their experience of how extended periods of drought are causing crops to fail and boreholes to dry up. I hope in responding to the debate that my hon. Friend the Minister will look closely at not only how we can further prioritise water, sanitation and hygiene through the remit of international development, but how the Government can build on the UK’s track record of action to help to tackle climate change on the global stage.

The burden continues to fall disproportionately on females—WaterAid estimates that around 60% of all household water is collected by women and girls. At the same time, over 266 million are thought to be without access to proper WASH or sanitary materials to manage their periods, which can lead to deadly infection and disease. Similarly, waterborne diseases caused by poor WASH and leading to complications including diarrhoea and malnutrition are responsible for around 13% of all deaths among children under five, the majority of which are preventable.

While WASH facilities at home are thankfully of a good, modern standard, the lack of WASH in low and middle-income countries still presents a significant threat to the UK, with most resistant infections treated by the NHS originating from elsewhere in the world, at a cost of some £2 billion per year. The lack of hygiene in low and middle-income countries leads to the overuse of antibiotics, which in turn leads to the threat of antimicrobial resistance becoming even more real. When she was chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies stated that, after terrorism, AMR poses the greatest threat to the world.

I would like to pay tribute to a young scientist, Kirsty Smitten, who, at the age of 29, lost her life to a rare cancer just a few days ago. Kirsty, while still a student at Sheffield University, and working in a spin-off company, worked on developing a new class of antibiotics, which I am sure will make a huge difference. Kirsty had a great future ahead, but I know that she has left a great legacy and that her work will help to tackle antimicrobial resistance for many generations to come.

With the global cost of AMR set to grow exponentially over the next decade, the Government must prioritise aid spending for WASH to allow more time for new antibiotics to come online, and in the meantime help to defend the NHS from being overwhelmed. We cannot just sit back and let this situation continue to play out. As we all know, having lived through the pandemic, access to WASH is the very foundation on which good public health is built. We must do everything we can, through the vehicle of the UK international development strategy, to ensure that it is properly prioritised and funded accordingly.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship in this very important debate, Mrs Latham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), my co-chair in the all-party parliamentary group for water, sanitation and hygiene, on securing this debate.

I declare an interest as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group. I also spent seven years working for WaterAid before I became a Member of Parliament. That was not because it was the only job available to me at the time. I wanted to work for WaterAid, campaigning with people around the world for clean water, sanitation and hygiene, and deliberately did so because I had worked in development for many years before that and seen that WASH is fundamental to tackling poverty and achieving equality—to achieving what the British public want to see achieved from the support they give to international development. WASH and conflict are the two biggest issues that undermine progress in development.

As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group, I am glad of this opportunity to talk about the global crisis, the rise of antimicrobial resistance, the impact on women and WASH at home and in the UK, and how investing in that will tackle poverty and inequality, and yield results far into the future. As previous contributors to the debate have said, 1.9 billion people live in severely water-scarce areas, and that number is growing all the time. It is a climate crisis. Also, 2.2 billion people do not have access to clean water and sanitation. That undermines our progress on so many of the sustainable development goals, and not only No. 6, which is dedicated to that issue, but those on climate, health, gender equality, food security, conflict and economic growth, so it is vital that we get this right.

The World Health Organisation has reported that two thirds of healthcare facilities in the world’s 46 least developed countries do not have access to hygiene facilities. Let us just pause to think about that. If my local hospital, St George’s, did not have water, it would be closed. It would not be open and would just not be seen as an acceptable place to offer healthcare. However, healthcare facilities around the world do not have water. That leads to a new-born baby dying every minute from infection caused directly by a lack of safe water and a clean environment.

Last week, I had the pleasure of becoming a grandmother. My granddaughter is in an incubator at the moment in a special care baby unit and it breaks my heart to think that she would not have access to hygiene. It is so important. We are terrified of that baby getting infected. Yet there are mothers around the world giving birth in places that are not hygienic and they do not have the healthcare facilities they need. It is not a matter of living in a hot country or one where it is difficult to access water. This is about political choice. Water can be provided to all those healthcare facilities and communities with the right amount of political will, support and focus.

In recent years, we have been on a steep decline in both investment and leadership on WASH. That is having a detrimental impact on the delivery of lifesaving basic services. Since 2018, UK aid for water and sanitation has been cut by two thirds and, shockingly, the total share of the aid budget going to water supply and sanitation was barely 1% in 2021. That does not tally, and as the hon. Member for Hendon said, there is a mismatch with what the UK public would like to see done with UK aid. They can understand that if a water supply is cut off, within hours and days people are absolutely desperate. They do not know what to do; their lives are turned upside down. The UK public understand how vital water is, but Government aid funding just does not seem to be in step with that.

Like others, I want to highlight the vital issue of antimicrobial resistance, which will be the leading cause of death in the UK by 2050, according to the Government’s own statistics. The current lack of water, sanitation and hygiene services in healthcare facilities increases infection, disease and death rates. The level of contamination means that antibiotics need to be used more often as a regular form of prenatal care in many countries and over longer periods of time, causing their effectiveness to be reduced in the long run. The World Bank has reported that if the current trend continues, antimicrobial resistance could push up to 28 million people into poverty by 2050, with global increases in healthcare costs predicted to range from $300 billion to more than $1 trillion by the same year.

The all-party parliamentary groups for water, sanitation and hygiene and the all-party parliamentary groups on antibiotics have produced a report on that subject called “Prevention first”. We took evidence from the World Health Organisation and from experts around the world about the need to curb the spread of antibiotic resistance. We found that a lack of hygiene means

“that doctors and nurses are unable to wash their hands before and after touching patients, new mothers are unable to clean themselves or their babies,”

and health workers are unable to clean as much as they would want to. Also, patients do not have a safe and hygienic toilet in their healthcare facilities. That causes repeated disease outbreaks that need to be treated with antibiotics, which contributes to the ever-increasing resistance.

Despite our inaction so far, there is a way to avoid this catastrophe—this ticking time bomb. Investing in WASH now, especially in low-resource nations, can go a long way towards containing the spread of antimicrobial resistance and save countless lives in the decades to come. It is such a good value-for-money investment and could be the huge step change that we need.

Another area is clearly gender equality. Women and girls have been said to be the priority for UK aid for many years now, under successive Ministers. Women make up 70% of the world’s healthcare workers and 90% of the world’s nurses, so the lack of WASH in healthcare facilities disproportionately impacts women, who are working in those facilities. Women face unique needs at times of pregnancy and childbirth; they need that clean and safe environment. Having access to WASH facilities prevents up to 1.4 million maternal and neonatal sepsis-related deaths each year—such preventable deaths, and such heartbreaking stories.

Equally distressing is the impact that the lack of WASH is having on women’s trust in healthcare. A White Ribbon Alliance survey of 1.2 million people from 114 countries found that women’s second highest priority was access to water, sanitation and hygiene. We have heard from previous contributors about the effect that this has on education. Walking to fetch water often takes away from time spent in schools. Having to care for sick relatives and family members takes time away from education, and I have met girls around the world who have to spend one week a month missing school when they are having their periods because they do not have toilets in their schools. That impacts on their education.

However, there are also good stories about WASH. I am constantly thinking about the women I have met in many towns and villages around the world whose lives were changed when they got access to water and sanitation. Their lives were changed; they became leaders in their communities; they were able to go out to work; their families were well and healthy. WASH can enable an enormous amount of women’s empowerment.

I want to be direct and tell anyone who may believe that this is an issue for other countries to worry about, and that it remains a problem of little consequence to the UK, that they are wrong. Unless we invest in WASH abroad, we will see a significant, prolonged and costly impact here at home. The most resistant infections treated by the NHS originated elsewhere in the world. Healthcare-acquired infections already cost the NHS at least £2.1 billion a year, and that will go up as infections become increasingly resistant to antibiotics. So while I am delighted to have the Minister here, we really need a Health Minister here, to accept the impact that this will on the NHS here.

To conclude, I was pleased to learn from the Minister for development, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), that FCDO officials worked hard to lobby for the inclusion of water, sanitation and hygiene language in the political declarations at the recent UN high-level meetings on universal health coverage and pandemic preparedness and response. We also had several meetings with the Minister in advance of those meetings. But it was disappointing not to see the vital importance of WASH reach the messaging in UK Ministers’ speeches and press releases. They are constantly saying that WASH is a priority, but that does not come out at the highest level at the moment it is needed.

Can the Minister ensure support for WASH at the most senior level and ensure that these undervalued issues are given the political priority they deserve at future international events? Given that WASH is a top priority for MPs and the public, and is so clearly in Britain’s own best interests, will he commit to prioritising investment in water, sanitation and hygiene services across the developing world, and to say, “What about WASH?” in all development projects?

How do the Government plan to increase the prominence of antimicrobial prevention measures in any future WASH investments? Will the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office be restoring UK official development assistance funding for WASH—which has fallen by two thirds between 2018 and 2021—as part of its women and girls strategy? I thank hon. Members very much for this debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s responses.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Latham; as others have said, it is very appropriate that you are in the Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing the debate, and I am proud to serve as a vice chair of the all-party parliamentary group for WASH, which he and the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) so ably co-chair. I also refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding a visit to Malawi earlier this year with the APPG on malaria and neglected tropical diseases.

Malawi is a country very close to my heart. There is a popular saying in that country, “madzi ndi moyo”: water is life. That probably encapsulates everything we have heard in this debate. As the hon. Member for Putney said, lots of interventions and policy areas are often cited as key to sustainable development and ending poverty, but access to clean, safe water is inarguably right at the very top. A human being can survive several weeks without food but only days without water. Access to water is a basic human right, and yet 2.2 billion people go without ready access to safe drinking water, and more than half the world’s population do not have access to safe sanitation. We take access to clean water so much for granted here in the west—particularly in this country, where it falls out of the sky with such frequency—that is can be hard to comprehend just how difficult life can be without access to safe water.

If water is life, the inverse must be true. Lack of access to water deprives people of life—sometimes quite literally, with 13% of all deaths among children under five attributed to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene. If unsafe water does not kill, it certainly makes life much more difficult. Water-borne diseases cause terrible sickness, particularly diarrhoea and fluid loss, as the Chair of the International Development Committee said. That can make recovery from illness and the ability to retain nutrition from food even more difficult. Experiencing such illnesses in childhood can have long-term consequences for mental and physical development, which reduces life expectancy and life chances.

Lack of access certainly impacts quality of life: as we have heard, 29% of schools globally do not have access to clean water. I have taught in some of them. About 443 million school days are lost every year because of water-related diseases. As others have said, that disproportionately affects women and girls. Girls are more likely to miss school because of a lack of sanitary facilities—frankly, that is as true here in the United Kingdom as anywhere else in the world—and it is women in developing countries who bear the largest burden of water collection needs, as the hon. Member for Hendon said.

Water Aid estimates that more than 77 million working days could be freed up for women if there were universal access to water and sanitation. The hon. Member for Putney spoke passionately about the difference that that can make. Again, I have been in exactly the same situation; I have travelled to villages and communities in Malawi and other parts of Africa, where water has transformed the lives of the whole community, particularly empowering women and allowing them to assume leadership roles.

The climate crisis is also increasingly experienced as a water crisis. In many places there is either too much or too little or it is too contaminated. That is not just in developing countries. In the United Kingdom, we are experiencing both floods and droughts, and the situation puts massive pressure on our sewerage system. Where efforts are made, benefits can be seen by all, and the potential for benefits can be predicted.

Earlier this year, I and other members of the APPG on malaria and neglected tropical diseases had the privilege of visiting Malawi. We met people in communities where trachoma had been eliminated, thanks to the adoption of WHO’s SAFE strategy: surgery to treat blindness; antibiotics to clear infection; facial cleanliness and hand hygiene to reduce transmission; and environmental protection to stop the infection spreading. Malawi has now been declared a trachoma-free country—something that many other countries in that part of the world aspire to.

As we have heard, the WASH APPG published an important report earlier this year—I took part in some of the evidence hearings—that demonstrated how WASH interventions as simple as cleaning hands and hospitals with soap and clean water can decrease demand for antibiotics, break that chain of infection and remove the opportunity for resistant diseases to become dominant. The hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) spoke of the importance of cleanliness in hospitals in particular.

A few months ago, Lord Boateng hosted a really inspiring event, appropriately enough in the River Room, celebrating the work of Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor, a charity that he is very closely involved with. It works to improve the delivery of clean water to increasingly densely populated areas of towns and cities in developing countries in Asia and Africa. Many stories were featured of lives transformed as a result of putting in sometimes quite complicated and sometimes very simple infrastructure. Again, that has a transformative effect on people’s lives.

The Scottish Government are investing, again, in Malawi in its Water Futures programme, supporting Malawi’s National Water Resources Authority and the Malawi Environmental Protection Authority to map, monitor and enhance that country’s water infrastructure.

I can see that the Minister shares the enthusiasm and inspiration that many of us do on this matter, and it is clear from this debate that water, sanitation and hygiene flow through the development agenda. Making sure that people have access to clean, safe water and a water infrastructure that protects them against floods and droughts helps to unlock so many other aspects of the sustainable development goals. We know that there will be a wider debate on progress towards those goals later in the week. I do not know whether the Minister for Europe will respond to that debate with the same enthusiasm with which he is gearing up to respond to this one.

Questions arise for the Government about how they can support the kind of positive interventions that we have heard about today and what action they will take to overcome the many challenges that remain to ensure that everyone around the world has access to water, sanitation and hygiene. We have heard about the level of public support for these kinds of interventions that exist here in the UK. That needs to be reflected in the White Paper when it is published and it needs to be heard more clearly, as the hon. Member for Putney said, at the highest possible level when the Government make representations on these matters on an international level.

The Government’s own statistics show the dramatic reductions to WASH funding since the ODA cuts were announced. Many of us said at the time that effective aid cannot be turned on and off like the taps that we all take for granted. Government cuts have a long-term impact, so even if funding is slowly being increased and bilateral aid is being increased in some countries, that does not change the fact that there has been a loss of capacity and a loss of progress resulting from the previous cuts. That will not be easily undone.

I do not think we can allow the debate to conclude without addressing the question of access to water in Israel and Palestine—as the Chair of the International Development Committee did—and particularly at this moment in Gaza. Denying people access to water is a fundamental breach of their human rights. Cutting off water supplies to hospitals in Gaza will condemn to death innocent people who have nothing to do with the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. The Government of Israel must not use the denial of civilian access to water as part of siege or any other military tactics. I hope that the Minister will echo that statement.

Water is life and, in this part of the world, all too often we take it for granted. The Government have to do more—much more—to make sure that everyone has the access they need to water and to the life that it brings.

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Latham, and I am well aware of your expertise in this issue. I also thank the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing this debate. He is clearly a dedicated and knowledgeable member of the all-party group for water, sanitation and hygiene. He is right: we know that when communities have comprehensive access to clean water and sanitation, it mitigates the spread of diseases, reduces maternal and infant mortality, slows the rise of antimicrobial resistance, reduces poverty and so much more. It is part of a prevention-first approach, not just in international development, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) said, for our health security here in the UK. It is a real shame that the Government’s cuts saw aid for WASH fall by more than three quarters between 2018 and 2022.

In most households without running water, women and girls are responsible for fetching it. Every hour a girl spends fetching water is an hour not spent in education; and, for the reasons stated by the hon. Member for Hendon, when a school does not have clean water, that is a massive barrier to girls’ inclusion in education. Every hour a woman spends fetching water is an hour not spent earning a livelihood.

Why am I focusing on women and girls? It is because, as hon. Members have stated and repeated, women and girls globally spend 200 million hours each day collecting water. When the journeys are too lengthy or dangerous to risk, families can be left reliant on unsafe water or none at all, which we know leads to terrible illness and needless death. Preventable diseases caused by inadequate water, hygiene and sanitation are sadly all too common, with 1.4 million lives lost each year. Almost half a million children under the age of five die of diarrhoea every year, and many of those deaths are caused by unsafe water or a lack of sanitation. Imagine being a mum who has successfully delivered a healthy baby, only to have that life snatched away because the clinic lacks clean running water. It is the cruellest outcome, but sadly one that is all too common around the world.

In December 2021, the Government published a very welcome approach paper on ending the preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children by 2030. I ask the Minister a very simple question: does he think that goal will be met? How much progress does he think has been made over the two years since the publication of that paper? Perhaps he could also say a little about the work his Department is doing to ensure that the particular needs of women and girls are reflected in both the design and the implementation of WASH programmes.

I am sure that the Minister and I agree that WASH systems can have so many positive impacts when done right. They can underpin global health security, which impacts positively on our citizens too: if we cannot ensure that health clinics around the world have water and sanitation, we cannot minimise the risk of superbugs and infectious diseases coming to the UK; if half the world are not able to wash their hands, we cannot slow the rise of antimicrobial resistance. Right now, one in four people cannot wash their hands at home, and half the world’s healthcare facilities do not have even basic hand hygiene services. This impacts on the health of the entire world—not just on the health of impoverished communities, but on the health of the UK too—so we need a solution for those mums whose children cannot survive, and for us.

The solution goes beyond installing water pumps. Whole-system approaches are needed, where WASH is incorporated into health facilities and accompanied by information campaigns. System building will require significant long-term investment in institutions and infrastructure, and working with communities: in a word—partnership. Is the Minister confident that the FCDO has retained enough country-level technical expertise in WASH to enable genuine, respectful partnerships, and does he feel that the information about FCDO plans and budgets is being given to our in-country partners early enough so that they can make the most effective use of funds?

There are, of course, challenges in many places most in need of better WASH, including poor infrastructure and weak governance. I would be grateful if the Minister could say a little about his approach to managing those challenges because—let’s face it—many of those countries in need have fast growing urban populations who put pressure on water systems, often including large numbers of people displaced by violence and hunger.

In February, we heard that earthquake victims in some shelters in Aleppo were without clean water, and up to 150 people were having to share a single toilet. Syria has the highest population of internally displaced people in the world, so it can hardly be a surprise that today 7.6 million people in Syria are in acute need of WASH services.

In Cameroon—where 1.1 million people are internally displaced, and there are almost half a million refugees and asylum seekers—over 1 million people badly need support with clean water and sanitation. In shelters and camps that do not have WASH facilities, disease can spread quickly. Both Cameroon and Syria have had serious cholera outbreaks.

Clearly, if more displaced people and refugees have clean water, the spread of diseases across borders will lessen. Ultimately, this is about supporting the conditions that enable people to live with security and dignity. To me, that is what international development is all about—actually, I think that is what politics is all about.

This issue is about looking ahead, and thinking about what we can do now to head off the rise in resistance to antibiotics and even the next pandemic. As we have heard, antimicrobial resistance already impacts patients in the UK, and will affect us more and more over the coming decade. The challenges will not go away, so I say gently that I was a bit disappointed that the Deputy Prime Minister did not mention water, sanitation and hygiene even once in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month.

How can we tackle health threats that affect us in the UK unless we work in partnership across the world to improve access to clean water and sanitation? We are some way off meeting our sustainable development goal of universal access to safely managed drinking water, sanitation and basic hygiene services by 2030. To achieve that goal, we would need a fourfold increase in current rates of progress. I also add my words to the concerns expressed by colleagues today about depriving the people of Gaza of their basic human right to water.

We in this Chamber and in this Parliament need to get real. In no way will we see universal access to WASH without meeting the threat of climate change. The Minister knows that UK leadership on climate change is expected at COP28. I therefore finally ask him— I know he has been taking copious notes of all my questions—what he will do to secure strong global action, and recognition that WASH and climate vulnerability are strongly linked. That is a building block in cutting poverty, improving global health security, securing our own population’s health and building gender equality. Our own communities and those around the world need to see action on this agenda now.

I am pleased to serve under your chairship, Mrs Latham. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing this important debate, and all Members present appreciate his ongoing work as vice-chair of the APPG for water, sanitation and hygiene. He spoke with knowledge and passion.

The Minister with responsibility for development and Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), would like to have been here, but he is attending to his duties in Cabinet this morning. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I am grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members this morning and will seek to cover the various points raised. It has been an extremely knowledgeable and passionate debate, for which I am grateful.

Let me start by addressing the comments made about the situation in Gaza. Some colleagues will have seen the Prime Minister’s statement to the House yesterday, including the announcement of £10 million in additional funding for humanitarian use in Gaza. That is on top of the £27 million that already goes to the UN Relief and Works Agency and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It is right that I put that on the record at the start.

As has been discussed, water and sanitation are basic human needs and a central part of our effort to improve global health and end preventable deaths. All people should be able to enjoy what are fundamental aspects of their health and dignity without discrimination or barriers. As has been described this morning, billions worldwide are unable to do so, lacking access to safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene services. It has been interesting to hear reflections on the dire and far-reaching consequences that that has not just for individuals, but for the goals that we are all striving towards.

Without equitable access to WASH worldwide, we will fail to achieve our sustainable development goal on clean water and sanitation. We will also miss other important global health goals, including our commitment to end the preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children, which has been raised this morning. Our fight against antimicrobial resistance will be compromised, as will global efforts to educate all girls, build climate resilience and protect natural resources. For all those reasons, the UK Government continue to drive progress on the WASH agenda.

Let me share some of the details of what we are doing, as well as reflecting on the scale of the challenges that we face. I should say that we invested last year in excess of £100 million of ODA spend into WASH. There has been a shift in focus from direct delivery to helping Governments establish sustainable WASH facilities. Despite the overall shape of the ODA package, we remain committed to that extremely important agenda.

Hand hygiene, as has been described, is one of the simplest and most cost-effective methods of protecting our health, as we witnessed during the pandemic. That is why we joined forces with Unilever on our innovative Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition, which helped to limit the spread of the virus in lower-income countries. The coalition supported nearly 15,000 healthcare facilities with critical supplies and services and trained close to half a million health workers on hygiene.

However, two thirds of healthcare facilities in the least developed countries lack basic hygiene services. Millions of patients and staff are unable to keep their hands clean, meaning that infections spread and antibiotics must be used, which of course increases antimicrobial resistance. Mothers and babies are at risk of dying from infections caught in hospitals, where they ought to be safe. Women and girls often bear the brunt of poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene and suffer higher rates of diarrhoea from the lack of clean facilities. They are most often the person responsible for fetching water, as has been said—a task that can often expose them to physical violence and injury.

Meanwhile, schoolgirls deserve to focus on their education without the burden of worrying about menstrual hygiene. That is why the Foreign Office supports training on menstrual health and helps to construct suitable toilets in schools in Mozambique and Ethiopia.

We cannot forget the links between WASH and climate change. Natural disasters are wreaking havoc on water, sanitation and hygiene systems just when they are needed most. That is why the UK backs UNICEF’s efforts to support climate-resilient WASH services by developing national adaptation plans in countries across Asia and Africa, identifying climate risk and providing technical support to Governments.

The UK will continue to play a leading role, prioritising system-wide approaches, supporting political leadership and strengthening data and evidence. We had previously focused on providing first-time access to basic services. Our programmes supported more than 120 million people with sanitation or water services between 2010 and 2020. We now have greater reach and impact by supporting Governments to make enduring changes themselves. This includes building systems to provide long-term, safe and climate-resilient services to communities.

Our WASH Systems for Health programme is leading that approach. Working closely with Governments and non-governmental organisations, the UK will support the long-term provision of services, benefiting people far beyond the lifespan of the programme. That work must be founded on the bedrock of political accountability and leadership, so we are working with Sanitation and Water for All to raise the profile of WASH and build commitment through high-level presidential compacts. Alongside that, the UK will continue to lead the way in pushing this agenda at the highest levels.

At the UN General Assembly, we made sure that the new declarations on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, and on universal health coverage, explicitly noted the WASH crisis. At the recent landmark UN Water Conference, we led the conversation on WASH and health, and amplified the voices of representatives from the global south. Since the conference, we have worked to ensure that political momentum is kept up and that the hundreds of commitments made as part of the water action agenda are actioned, and we will continue to do that.

An important part of this effort is bolstering vital evidence and data to underpin our actions. We support the joint monitoring programme hosted by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, which provides reliable data to which the whole sector can be held. Our work with the private sector includes TRANSFORM, a partnership with Unilever and EY that is generating evidence on behaviour change, including on sanitation. I am pleased to reconfirm to colleagues that WASH will also feature in the forthcoming international development White Paper, which will outline our plans for the next seven years and will be a fundamentally important strategy paper for future development until 2030. Meanwhile, our programmes are bringing people from finance, water resources, health and gender ministries together around the same table to tackle the challenges head on.

We are conscious of the obstacles we face in achieving our shared WASH goals, including poor healthcare facilities and the impacts of climate change, but I can give colleagues an absolute assurance that we will continue to forge and promote partnerships—the key word mentioned today, and we endorse that—with NGOs, Governments and the private sector, while advocating at the highest levels for increased financing and political leadership. We will continue to lead by example by supporting stronger systems, driving progress on WASH worldwide, in order to build a fairer, healthier and safer future for billions of people.

I am very grateful for the contributions from the Members who have come along today. What has struck me is that so many people have not only developed a passion for this subject, but have seen the situation on the ground when they have visited countries where WASH projects have been undertaken.

The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) mentioned the Ugandan visit that she and I made several years ago, and we certainly saw benefits occurring in that country. She also raised the issue of diarrhoea, which is very important: according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 2,195 children die from diarrhoea each day—more than the number of children who die from AIDS, malaria and measles. Some 1.6 million people die each year from diarrhoeal diseases globally, and that is more than the number who die from suicide, homicide, conflict and terrorism in a single year. We often laugh about things such as diarrhoea in this country, but the statistics emphasise that this is a mass killer that we could easily overcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) spoke about her visit to Kenya through World Vision, as well as the issue of eye health—that is also very important to me—and sanitation. She mentioned that antimicrobial resistance kills more people than terrorism, and that fits in with the statistics I have mentioned.

The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) says that she did not fall into her role with WaterAid, and she certainly did not; she has had a long and illustrious career in the international development sector. I was particularly interested to see that she worked in Serbia during the time of the war. As global head of campaigns at WaterAid, she will know, without any doubt, the importance of this subject, but I want to add to one of her points. She spoke about the unique experience of women and girls with access to water. One thing that I did not mention in my earlier speech is my understanding that the number of sexual offences against women and girls has a direct link with access to toilet facilities. Many girls do not use toilets at night or simply do not have the opportunity to, and those who do run the risk of sexual exploitation. So the issue of WASH is about not just health and sanitation, but sexual offences against women.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) mentioned his visit to Malawi, the issue of access to water and the three-day survival rule. The Minister may be a military man; I am not, but I am certainly someone who is interested in the outdoors. He knows the three-day survival rule, which is that human beings cannot survive for more than three days without access to water. They cannot survive for more than three minutes in extremely cold temperatures. They cannot survive for more than three weeks without food. But they cannot survive for more than three days without access to water.

The hon. Member makes a very good point about Gaza. It is certainly something that I will take on board. I think the Israelis should allow access to water. I defend them for not allowing access to other things, but I think that they should allow access to water. But I gently remind him that the EU did spend €100 million on putting 30 miles of water pipes into Gaza, and Hamas decided to remove those water pipes because they felt that they could make rockets out of those. I would certainly condemn that action.

The hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) emphasised the issue of hand washing and how it affects the entire world. I would point to the issue of bedbugs, which have spread across the channel very easily, so we can recognise that microbial diseases will spread even more easily than something as large as bedbugs. She mentioned her visit to Cameroon. Again, that emphasises the number of people who have visited and seen WASH projects.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us of the religious importance of water. I am aware that he had another important meeting to go to and was not able to stay for the rest of this debate.

I am grateful to the Minister, who outlined the Government’s actions, the additional funding, which is very important, and the importance of health programmes overall. I have, with others, met the Minister with responsibility for overseas development—my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)—and he unofficially reminded us that the issue of WASH would be included as part of the international development White Paper. I am grateful that today this Minister has publicly announced that it will be included in the international development White Paper in the coming months. I am also grateful that he has reinforced the fact that political accountability and leadership are a priority for the Department and that these issues will be raised at the forthcoming UN conferences.

I am grateful for what the United Kingdom has done in this area. Although the issue of overseas development funding can be contested, the issue of overseas development funding being spent on WASH facilities is not. The people of the United Kingdom feel very strongly about that, and I certainly feel very strongly about it. Water scarcity is a problem across the world, but I hope that we can play our part, reduce the inequalities and improve the life chances of those around the world.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered water, sanitation, hygiene and sustainable development.

Sitting suspended.

Northampton Gateway Rail Freight Interchange: Development Consent Order Waiver

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the development consent order waiver for the Northampton Gateway Rail Freight Interchange.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I am gravely concerned about the impact of insensitive overdevelopment in my constituency of South Northamptonshire. Local knowledge is too often overlooked in favour of the “national interest” by national planning inspectors who disregard the wishes and needs of communities. There is no better example of that than the strategic rail freight interchange—known as the SRFI—currently under construction at junction 15 of the M1, which offers no benefit to my constituents, yet means a huge increase in heavy goods vehicle traffic congestion. That is why I have called this debate: to highlight the plight that my constituents, by virtue of living the middle of England, are currently facing.

As per annex D of the Department for Transport’s “Strategic Rail Freight Network: The Longer Term Vision” document, the definition of a strategic rail freight interchange is a

“large multi-purpose rail freight interchange containing rail-connected warehousing and container handling facilities. The site may also contain manufacturing and processing activities. The aim of an SRFI is to optimise the use of rail in the freight journey by minimising some elements of the secondary distribution leg by road through co-location of other distribution and freight activities.”

The key point is this:

“SRFIs are a key element in reducing the cost to users of moving freight by rail and therefore are important in facilitating the transfer of freight from road to rail.”

SFRIs are designed to support the modal shift in our transportation network from road to rail. I support that in principle, but logically they should surely be located near ports and other starting points for freight coming into the country—not slap bang in the middle of it, where the obvious attraction is in fact the motorway network.

South Northamptonshire has been blighted by a massive increase in the number of unwelcome warehousing development applications in recent years. Those include major warehousing applications around Northampton, Towcester and Cosgrove, when in fact existing sites at DIRFT, Panattoni and Swan Valley—only a few miles away—are still not fully occupied. There is no identifiable need for yet another logistics park in our area, with massive warehousing that is justified only by a rail link, thereby suggesting it is somehow strategic.

The plan to build the SRFI was universally unpopular among my constituents, with hundreds objecting at the planning stage. At the planning inquiry, many questioned whether the promised rail link would ever be built to connect the SRFI to the west coast main line, which itself is already at full capacity with passenger trains. I even met Network Rail representatives in Parliament, who told me it is unlikely that a rail link would be available until High Speed 2 phase 1 had been completed. As colleagues will know, that is likely to be still many years in future.

Previous development plans for the site of the SRFI had been blocked for many years by local planners who were concerned about maintaining this beautiful greenfield site, close to the nearby historic village of Collingtree. However, in what many residents saw as a cynical move to circumvent local planners, the land owners—a development corporation—searched around for a nationally significant infrastructure project and hit upon the idea of constructing an SFRI to achieve their lucrative development plans. Despite massive local opposition, planning permission was granted by the Government’s planning inspector for the SRFI to go ahead with the one, clear proviso that it would have to have completed its rail link before beginning any operation.

SEGRO took over the development of the site and—lo and behold—as the site neared completion last year, it applied for a development consent order waiver, asking the Department for Transport to overturn the condition requiring the rail link to be completed so it could start to fill up its warehouses and flood local roads with HGVs even before the rail link was established. It seems clear to me that this project was always about forcing more warehousing into the heart of England to take advantage of motorway access from south Northamptonshire and never about making it easier to move freight off the road and on to the rail network.

The Department for Transport granted the DCO waiver in April 2023, and while a rail link has now been offered by Network Rail, that was not the case at the time the waiver was granted. There is a now clear need to change the way such projects are evaluated and managed from a planning perspective. In the meantime, the residents of Collingtree, Roade, Blisworth, Stoke Bruerne, Shutlanger, Ashton and many others have had their lives blighted by endless road closures on the A508 and hours of delays at junctions 15 and 15A on the M1 as improvements required by the DCO have been carried out on the roads and roundabouts to make them suitable for the new warehousing and the endless HGV traffic.

South Northamptonshire residents are by no means NIMBYs. Most people in my area would recognise that in order to grow our economy and allow families to build their lives, we need new houses as well as employment sites. In fact, Northamptonshire is one of the fastest growing parts of the country and we have taken far more than our fair share of new development. All we ask is that developments should be in keeping with the character of the area and the established consent of local people.

At the SEGRO Logistics Park Northampton, we have a strategic rail freight interchange site full of warehousing in an area with existing warehousing that is not even fully in use, a rail link that is not yet functioning and yet more of our countryside concreted over. This madness must end. National infrastructure planning must take account of local needs. Can the Minister tell me what the Government can do to ensure that, where developers apply for nationally significant infrastructure projects, the planning inspector looks at the local need and the local infrastructure, as well as the national interest, so we can stop these cynical plans to make a fast buck?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship—if such a word exists—Mrs Latham. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) on securing this debate on an issue that I am well aware is of great importance to both her and her constituents. Although the decisions were not made during my tenure, I have found the correspondence submitted by my right hon. Friend to the Department over the years to be interesting reading. I recognise the case she raises and hope I can address some of those points. She specifically asked what can be done by Government to ensure that the planning inspector balances local needs with the national interest. I hope I can give her more detail on that.

To give some background, strategic rail freight interchanges, or SRFIs as I will refer to them, and their associated infrastructure are key to enabling the efficient transportation of goods around the country and supporting modal shift of freight from road to rail. Indeed, as a Department, we are looking to increase the volumes of freight and set targets to increase growth when it comes to rail freight. However, SRFIs are privately funded projects and it is therefore for industry to come forward with applications for new schemes in locations that they consider to be operationally and commercially viable.

I note my right hon. Friend’s view that SRFIs should be located near ports or other starting points for freight coming into the country. However, to maximise the use of rail in the freight journey, freight needs to be loaded on to trains at ports, which have their own rail terminals, and then transported by rail to an SRFI. There, the goods are unloaded on to another route mode—usually a heavy goods vehicle—for distribution to the final destination. Hence, SRFIs must be placed inland near the populations that require the goods to minimise the length of heavy goods vehicle journeys.

It is essential that the impact of such schemes is fully considered. With regard to the new nationally significant SRFI schemes, these require a development consent order under the Planning Act 2008. That Act includes a provision to ensure that relevant local authorities can submit a local impact report setting out details of the likely impact of a proposed development on the authority’s area. There is a legal duty for those to be fully considered as part of the decision-making process. Applications for nationally significant SRFI projects are tested during the planning process against the national networks national policy statement. It provides a robust policy framework that outlines the impacts that developers and decision makers need to consider when submitting and deciding an application for an SRFI.

To come to my right hon. Friend’s last point and key question about ensuring that things are done differently in future, I should say that the current national networks NPS, which has been in place since 2015, is being reviewed following an announcement in July 2021. Within the revised draft national networks NPS consulted on earlier this year, there are requirements for developers to engage with local stakeholders on and mitigate the impacts of SRFIs on local communities. The consultation draft included new text to ensure that the location of existing SRFIs is considered to ensure that they are strategically located, that they do not abstract traffic from a nearby extant SRFI and that consideration is given to proposals for SRFIs in areas where there is lesser provision.

I will provide more context. My right hon. Friend might be more interested in the bullet points that I list of where changes may ensue, and she may reflect on how that would work with the particular application that she references. The differences introduced in the draft but not yet finalised are the new version references providing appropriate parking facilities to support HGV driver wellbeing—not as relevant, I admit. Rail infrastructure capable of rail connections should be present from the outset and delivered in a timely manner.

I will complete these points and then I certainly will. There is recognition that warehousing may be needed before the rail terminal is connected to the rail network, but the applicant has to provide evidence of discussions with Network Rail on connection, and the DCO may include requirements for the rail terminal to be operational within a certain timescale or development threshold. I know that that will also no doubt cause interest. The last point is that it is specified that consideration should be given to ensuring that existing SRFI locations are taken into account when making an application to ensure there is a strategic network of SRFIs and that a new SRFI does not just take traffic from an existing facility. These are all points that will be of interest.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Exactly as he says, the key point is that the development consent order waiver was given without any evidence of the rail link being provided. That is outrageous because it shows that the issue was always just about warehousing.

My hon. Friend said that the idea of a rail freight interchange is that the freight could come by rail to the SRFI or, indeed, go from the SRFI by rail. In fact, what the DCO waiver did was to allow freight to come in by lorry and leave by lorry—in other words, it is just a logistics park. At the time the waiver was given, there was no such guarantee that there would ever be a rail connection. I find that utterly objectionable. For the sake of local communities, if a DCO waiver is strategic and has therefore ridden roughshod over the views of local planners, it should never be allowed until that rail network has been committed to. Otherwise, it just becomes a means for developers to sneak in under the radar, disregarding the views of local communities.

My right hon. Friend makes a compelling point, and that is the reason why I went off script and into the detail of where the changes would specifically be made in a manner that would be more reflective of where she sees the issues and challenges. She would be right: when I look at the correspondence she raised and the meetings that she had with Network Rail, Network Rail confirmed that it had no plans to see the link up between the west coast main line and that terminal. I totally understand how she would see the entire scheme as a road freight logistics warehouse rather than a rail freight one. I can give her comfort on that particular point, and she is right that, if the points I listed had been in place at the time the application was made, things might have been viewed differently.

At least there would have been more assurance or requirement to ensure that the rail link was either delivered at the time or that there was confirmation from Network Rail that a rail link would be in place. I know she did not receive that, which is why I have given her that information. Perhaps she can reflect that she would have had a strong point with the arguments she made.

I would like to make a little more progress. I am aware that the nature of nationally significant infrastructure projects, or NSIPs, means that they can have a range of construction and operational impacts on local places and communities. Early engagement between developers and those impacted is key to ensure that impacts are understood and appropriately mitigated where they cannot be avoided, and that benefits to local communities are maximised. That is why, as part of the Government’s NSIP action plan, brought forward in February of this year, measures are included to support local authorities to engage earlier and more effectively with the NSIP process to support better outcomes for communities.

As part of those reforms, the Government have committed to developing more prescriptive guidance on community engagement expectations, to ensure developers consider at the outset how projects can address concerns of affected communities, and demonstrate how views have been responded to as part of the DCO application. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire has made representations on behalf of her parishes at Blisworth and others in that regard, so I hope that this will strengthen her arguments and case, and shows that her support has been ahead of the game.

I note that my right hon. Friend was prompted to call this debate as a result of concerns about the consent granted in April 2023 by the Secretary of State for Transport for a non-material change to a DCO granted in 2019 for the Northampton strategic rail freight interchange. I acknowledge the concerns that granting that removed the need for a rail link to be delivered. However, the approved amendment granted consent for the occupation of some of the warehousing floor space in advance of the rail connection to the west coast main line, but still required the rail terminal to be delivered, although I hope the points I made earlier give my right hon. Friend more comfort on her views.

At the time when the application for the non-material change was submitted, Network Rail was unable to commit to the precise timing for the construction of the connection to the main line, which harmed the commercial viability of the site. I am pleased to confirm, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, that Network Rail completed the works to connect the facility to the main line in September. I understand that the rail terminal is expected to be fully open later in 2024, so I can reassure my colleague that this is an SRFI with a required rail link, albeit I note her point that it had not been previously.

In conclusion, I hope that I have set out for my right hon. Friend the measures already in place in the DCO process to ensure that the local element of NSIPs is fully considered, as well as future plans to strengthen community engagement and deliver NSIPs that not only deliver a national benefit but optimise local ones. I thank my right hon. Friend for calling the debate. The correspondence I have looked at about the policies impacted and the proposed changes shows that the matters she has brought forward make a good test case for why change is needed. I thank her for giving me that interest and in-depth research into the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

British Sign Language

[Esther McVey in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the British Sign Language report 2022 and implementation of the British Sign Language Act 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Ms McVey—or is it Dame Esther nowadays?

Thank you, Ms McVey—I wanted to get that correct.

I first declare an interest relevant to the debate: I have worked with the RNID, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, for some time. Currently, I am in discussion with the chairman and chief executive of the charity about how I can continue to support it through my last term in Parliament and beyond. That is not yet at a stage that I have been able to register it formally under chapter 1 of the code of conduct, but I declare the interest under paragraph 5(c) of chapter 2—although unpaid, it is clearly an “expected future interest” and clearly relevant to the debate.

I was pleased to see the first report under the British Sign Language Act 2022 published in July this year. That is why I called for this debate about the Act and its implementation, and what the report tells us about progress.

Let us look back to the autumn of 2021. Rose Ayling-Ellis was on our screens in “Strictly Come Dancing”, helping millions of mainstream viewers to see that deafness and signing is no barrier whatsoever to participation. Here in Parliament, Rosie Cooper was promoting a private Member’s bill to recognise British Sign Language as a language in the UK. As the then Minister with responsibility for disabled people, I was determined to work with her to achieve that. The result of our cross-party work, deeply rooted in the deaf community, is the BSL Act 2022.

Why did we need to do that? It was because, for decades up to that point, deaf people have suffered exclusion. Linguistic exclusion leads to social and educational exclusion, and it leads to worse services and to being left out in the workplace. That is wrong, and the Act is there to help put a stop to it in Britain. I was deeply proud to play my part, but it was just the start.

Today’s debate is about implementing all those good intentions. The journey begins now to achieve better for deaf people, built on official status for a vibrant and historic language, and on improvements in communications and public services. I urge hon. Members to look at the work of the British Deaf Association, in particular its 10-year strategic vision—rooted in consultation with the community and in learning for its own organisation—which sets out aspirations for deaf people in the UK for the next decade and beyond, following the historic legal recognition of the language. Deaf people and BSL allies alike are reaching for a more inclusive Britain, where all deaf children, young people and adults can thrive.

In my own instance, a deaf family member inspired me to take action. My father left the work that he loved, his profession and his passion, because he could no longer hear his customers. As an MP, I have seen how some constituents have struggled to get basic public services such as accessible health appointments or education.

I hope that the Act will provide a clear light by which to navigate. Its symbolism is central, but its practicality is essential, too—the guidance that is to be produced must improve public services. I also hope that the Act will spur greater understanding and accessibility in private services and throughout society. Our task today and in years to come is to closely scrutinise the delivery of progress in promoting and facilitating BSL within and beyond Government. I will ask three sets of questions of the Minister.

First, let us look at the reporting duty and the inaugural report. The report captures data on BSL usage in Government communications for the first time. It sets a baseline for ministerial Departments from which they can improve their promotion and facilitation of BSL in the months and years ahead. I am glad that the Government recognise that accessibility is essential in Government communications and engagement. That is of course so that everyone has access to important information and can engage with the Government, and indeed Parliament, on issues that will affect them.

Of course, I include Parliament in this process, and I am heartened to have seen the efforts of interpreters here—I understand that today’s debate is of course being supported by signing provision. That will make sure that a growing proportion of this institution’s work is signed and accessible. But there is more to do, including by Government. The report reveals some important good practice and case studies but also some concerning gaps—literally zeroes on the page. What will the Minister do to ensure that BSL is provided with all public announcements about policy or changes to the law, all publications such as plans, strategies and consultations, and in all Government press conferences, social media and websites, including at the highest levels of Government, led by the Prime Minister, for very significant communications that affect all citizens?

I am encouraged that the report sets out going further than the 2022 Act demanded. For example, although the Act requires a BSL report to be published only once every three years, the Government have said that they intend to do so every year for the next five years, which is welcome. It is also welcome that my successor as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will ask each ministerial Department to produce a five-year BSL plan, setting out how they intend to improve the use of BSL within their Departments. There will be a five-year plan and an annual checkpoint for each year of those five years, which I hope will help to drive improvement, highlight successes and ensure accountability. Therefore, today I ask the Minister: is he confident that the Departments are doing that work? What steps he is taking now to drive progress in this year, which we will all want to see in the report that he would wish to be able to present next July? For example, will he set targets for Departments?

It is good to see reference to ministerial responsibility to improve BSL use. Will the Minister give an assurance today that the ministerial disability champions have now met, that—as promised—July’s report has been discussed at their meeting, and that these Ministers, who after all have been asked by the Prime Minister to provide a personal lead and commitment to championing accessibility and opportunity for disabled people within their Departments, have all given him clear plans for doing so? Will he also give us an update on how he plans to use his forthcoming disability action plan to respond to the needs of deaf people and say what level of response he has received to the consultation, which closed earlier this month?

Secondly, let us consider the guidance that needs to be produced. When legislating, we were clear that there must be an advisory board that will ensure that the deaf community is at the heart of the Act’s effect. I am pleased that the Minister has been able to take this forward, completing the necessary appointments and launching the board. As July’s report confirms, the BSL advisory board will advise the Government on the guidance detailed in the BSL Act, and its implementation, to best represent the deaf community. This guidance will be published by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions during the next BSL reporting period. I expect that we will see it between now and next April, although it would be helpful if the Minister also confirmed today that he intends to table the statutory instrument that I understand is required to enact part 3 of the BSL Act, which will allow Departments to publish that guidance.

Will the Minister also please give the House an update on the expected contents of that guidance and tell us what priorities he has received from the deaf community? I anticipate that those priorities will span every part of public services, because we know that our deaf constituents face compound problems. For example, the National Deaf Children’s Society reports:

“Access to family sign language support is currently a postcode lottery with too many families forced to pay to learn how to communicate with their own child.”

There are examples from people I chatted with at the Norfolk Deaf Festival earlier this year. Some deaf constituents are being advised that they must telephone the audiology department at one Norfolk hospital. Another constituent had a month-long in-patient stay in another Norfolk hospital, which must have been a lonely, distressing and indeed dangerous experience, because I am told that no signing was provided. I have, of course, pursued both these issues locally.

I can give a further example from a small business in Norwich, which has used AI to provide digital BSL services. It says:

“Many larger enterprises do not see a commercial value in BSL translation for their customers. Some BSL-dependent banking customers got banking products using interpreters and relay services, but when it was time for changes in terms and conditions, these were only offered in written English. As a direct result, people have suffered unnecessary debt and”—

my constituent was told—

“some have lost their homes.”

Building on the ministerial disability champions’ pledge to discuss the communications data arising from the Act and the first report, how will Ministers work together to enact effective improvement in what a person can expect when they attend a hospital, start school, look for a job, or look for private goods and services?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing today’s debate. She has rightly outlined some of the public service barriers faced by deaf people. A number of senior educationalists have suggested that British Sign Language be introduced as a GCSE in schools. Does she agree that that is worth exploring further? Will she urge the Minister to look at how that could not just break down barriers, but better support a lot of young people to understand the needs of deaf people and communicate with them better?

My hon. Friend, who is extremely well qualified, makes absolutely the right point. Indeed, I will urge the Minister not just to look at introducing a GCSE in BSL, but to tell us how he is getting on with doing so, because is a long-standing piece of work that the Government have focused on for some time. Actually, this goes much further than merely one qualification in the education system. What about the deaf children who start school at five? What about those who are learning to speak between, say, 18 months and pre-school age? From the perspective of those deaf children and their families, doing a GCSE would look like a very long time away.

Let me return to my questions for the Minister. What data do the Government collect on BSL users, and does he have plans to improve it? Will he also set out how he hopes the board will work and how it will respond to feedback? I have heard some deep concerns about representation on the board, and the BDA, which I have mentioned already, has said:

“a common theme emerging from the UK Deaf community is a desire for more Deaf leadership in BSL service delivery; for these services to be delivered by Deaf BSL signers themselves; for support to enable Deaf-led professional planning and budget setting on BSL issues.”

Will the Minister give us an update on progress in increasing the number of interpreters? That is a key issue for the deaf community. Will he give us a brief update on how Access to Work is being improved for deaf and other users? That was another key point heard throughout the passage of the Act, and it is fundamental to the work of his Department.

I want to ask the Minister a final set of questions about how the Act may be used to drive up standards via redress. We knew at the time that the BSL Act must work in tandem with existing legislation—most obviously the Equality Act 2010, which requires reasonable adjustments to be made by a wide range of people and sectors to ensure that disabled people have equal access to goods and services. What has the Minister learned so far about how the architecture is working together? Can he share case studies—either today or by writing to me and, no doubt, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who is present—that show how individuals have used the BSL Act and the Equality Act to get the right standard of access or service? Will the Minister explain how our constituents will be able to get redress in future, and how the tandem legislation will hopefully enable us to stop indignities and injustices happening again and again to deaf people? Does he agree with charities such as the RNID that the guidance should outline the minimum standards that BSL users are entitled to as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act? That would force service providers to meet the needs of deaf BSL users and increase the chance of people using legal redress when providers have failed to do so.

Ms McVey, thank you for allowing me to open today’s debate. I really welcome the fact that a number of right hon. and hon. Members from different parties, and from all parts of the United Kingdom, have come to speak for their deaf constituents. We all celebrated the British Sign Language Act and would all agree that hard work is needed to ensure that it is properly implemented and that our constituents benefit from the opportunities it presents. Only with granular focus such as this and determined attention will we see the strides we need in early years, education, employment, healthcare, social care, business, the workplace and the community. There has been linguistic exclusion for too long, and we can do better.

Thank you, Ms McVey—I did not expect to be called right away, so I thank you for doing so and for the opportunity to contribute. I am certainly used to always being near the end, but that is not a bad thing, as long as I get the chance to speak. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on leading the debate, with the detail, the evidential base and her clear requests for the Minister. As she said, it is fantastic to see the cross-party support in the Chamber from those who wish to contribute, from all parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland—I always bring the Northern Ireland perspective; you know that, Ms McVey—we have a slightly different approach. We have our own guidelines, which I will speak about soon, but it is great to be here to discuss the provision of British Sign Language across this great United Kingdom. Mr Speaker brought in provision of sign language in the Chamber some time ago, and with a real zest, to ensure that it was available for everyone—both those watching and those in the Chamber who need it. In Northern Ireland, we have two sign languages: British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language. Both BSL and ISL were embraced in the Good Friday agreement, and on 20 March 2004, the Secretary of State announced the formal recognition of BSL and ISL as languages in their own right. That is something we welcome, and it is clear that this caters for those who need it on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland.

BSL is the first or preferred language of communication of approximately 3,500 members of the deaf population of Northern Ireland, while approximately 1,500 people use ISL. It is important that deaf people who use sign language as their first or preferred language are not looked at as a cultural or linguistic minority. Their choice to use BSL, or indeed ISL, should be respected, celebrated and encouraged, and I am glad to say that that is the case in Northern Ireland.

In March 2016, the Department for Communities in the Northern Ireland Assembly consulted on a sign language framework, which contained proposals for legislation clearly setting out the way forward at that time. The consultation was referred to in the New Decade, New Approach agreement in January 2020, with a commitment to introduce a sign language Bill. While other legislation—I say this respectfully—has been imposed on Northern Ireland through Westminster, I would argue that the full implementation of a sign language Bill should have been prioritised, because it is vitally important.

Sign language is something that we are all becoming more aware of and are certainly seeing more in society, and I will give some examples of that. I am glad to say that most of my staff members in my office know the most basic of sign language. It is important that we do because people come to see us in the office who use sign language. I am not smarter than anybody else—I do not pretend to be—but it is about ensuring that, when people who have communication issues come to the office, we are able as a staff to respond to that. It is great having that assurance for constituents who perhaps require assistance and are, in some cases, either partially or totally deaf. It is something that should be normalised more in society, and that is what I and everyone here wants to see. We should all try to know and understand the basics at least.

The basics are certainly being taught in schools across Northern Ireland, and I want to touch on that as well. The right hon. Member for Norwich North did not do so—well, maybe she did and I missed it. I have six grandchildren, including two granddaughters. The oldest ones were taught some sign language in school. I think there is an indication in the education system in Northern Ireland that where possible, because of those who have communication issues because of their deafness, people are able to engage with sign language. I am quite encouraged by that because of what it means for children at an early age. We always want our children and grandchildren to have an appreciation of those who perhaps do not have the same access to things. I think it makes them a better person. The education system in Northern Ireland is, I believe, doing the right thing.

Many Members here today have raised and will raise concerns in relation to ensuring that there is a sustainable number of interpreters in the NHS. I am not sure whether there is, but there needs to be. I think the right hon. Lady referred to that in her contribution too. It is another thing on which the Minister, although it is not his direct responsibility, might be able to give us some indication and encouragement. I have heard stories of patients who have had to rely on friends and family to interpret for them at hospital appointments. I know that the nurses and other staff are under pressure; I understand that, but it is always good to have someone with sign language capability. The situation was exacerbated—incredibly so—by the covid pandemic, in which appointments were extremely limited and there was a time when people were not allowed to have anyone attend their appointment with them. That was a real issue for the two and a half or three years of covid.

More than 70,000 deaf people across the UK use British Sign Language, and that must be accommodated in a completely normal way. There is certainly an argument that there should be a sign language module—an opportunity to study it—as part of university training for nurses and those studying medicine. I am keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that, because I think there is a real need for it. I think the right hon. Member for Norwich North, who set the scene so well, would think the same; indeed, I think everyone here would think the same.

More than 200,000 people in Northern Ireland have some element of hearing loss, as do some 12 million—almost 18%—of the whole UK population. Our attitudes to sign language and provision to help those with hearing issues must be changed in order for this to become an inclusive society in which people who are hard of hearing feel comfortable using public services. I chaired a series of meetings to do with the eye disease wet AMD—age-related macular degeneration. It was suggested that people should perhaps have a better understanding of what that means: the person’s central vision is off, but they have the outside of their vision. That is just another example of where we perhaps need a better understanding.

I encourage the Minister, through the implementation of the British Sign Language report in England, to have conversations—I know that he is always keen to do so; he has done so in the past and will do so in the future —with the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland to ensure that we have the same approach to dealing with this issue. It is clear to me and, I am sure, to him that when we are discussing how better to ensure the implementation of British Sign Language—and, indeed, Irish Sign Language for those in Northern Ireland —our approach should be the same. Most importantly, we need to do as much as we can to learn as much sign language as we can. That is one of the goals that I hope to achieve and it is one that everyone here will subscribe to. The important thing is that we recognise that there is an issue. I am sure that the Minister, in his response, will encourage us all that we are going in the right direction, but it would be good if we all went in the same direction together.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I think this might be the first time that I have followed him in a debate in the four years that I have been in Parliament, but it is always a pleasure to be in a debate with him and listen to what he says.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) for her excellent speech, for all the work that she has done to support the deaf community over many years and for the important questions that she laid out for our hon. Friend the Minister. It would be good to hear some answers today. I will not repeat those questions, but they are very important.

I welcome the first British Sign Language report and its findings following Royal Assent of the British Sign Language Act 2022. The annex to the report shows all the BSL activity done by each Department, which is important.

Quite rightly, British Sign Language is recognised as a language of the United Kingdom. According to the report, the UK is home to 12 million people who are either deaf or hard of hearing. We can consider it a great success that BSL users have been recognised and represented in this House. As that figure rises to 14.2 million by 2035, it is essential that we support BSL users and encourage the use of BSL so that the figure of 151,000 users can continue to increase.

The report states that the Government’s communications could be improved when they are engaging with BSL users, especially on the policy changes that have been made and the financial support packages that the Treasury is putting in place. On that note, there is probably more that needs to be done in terms of how financial support is allocated at local authority level. It seems from my conversations that there is a bit of a postcode lottery and that support is not rolled out equally across the country. Some who are deaf or hard of hearing are not able to access the same financial support as others.

Although we must focus on the improvements that we can make, I must commend the Department for Work and Pensions on the work it is doing, such as its BSL-specific YouTube channel and the 26 videos that it has already produced in BSL. I encourage the Government to continue delivering on their promises to the deaf and hard of hearing community by publishing a BSL report every year for at least the next five years. Making Government more accessible is important, so I commend the work put into producing improvement plans for each Department, issuing internal guidance to civil servants, covering best practice and things to consider when planning communication for BSL users, and providing advice on how to procure BSL translation or interpretation. That is a vital way in which those who are deaf or hard of hearing will feel they are supported by the Government. As work continues to tackle accessibility issues, a key device will be consultation of the BSL advisory board.

At the weekend Guildford hosted the wonderful BSL Fest. People came from the local area and from far away. Members of the deaf community and the deafblind community came together to celebrate British Sign Language. I was pleased to receive one-to-one sign language training from Kathleen from Dot Sign Language and I had the pleasure of giving a speech at the festival, the first sentences of which were entirely in sign language. It is a daunting prospect for anyone to learn something new and different, but I encourage all of my colleagues to see whether they can engage and have a few British Sign Language lessons from experienced professionals. The reception from the deaf community—how they felt being addressed by not just a Member of Parliament but the mayor and the lead councillor for the community in sign language before we gave our speeches—was heartwarming to see.

We have come a long way since the introduction of the Act. However, I am sure we agree that we must not rest on our laurels. There is much progress to be made. I hope that my constituents in Guildford and those who are deaf and hard of hearing will continue to see the benefits of our support.

I am proud to speak today as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness and as a patron of the Nottinghamshire Deaf Society. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing today’s debate and on setting out so clearly the context of the British Sign Language report 2022. She posed important questions for the Minister. As the former Minister for Disabled People in the Department for Work and Pensions, she played an important role in the BSL Bill’s becoming law. She once told me that she considers it her proudest achievement in Government.

The annual general meeting of the APPG on deafness takes place next Wednesday. I hope some Members here today will be present and I hope that the right hon. Member will become an officer of the group. I look forward to working with her to ensure that the needs of deaf people and those who experience hearing loss are properly represented here in Parliament and lead to real improvements for them.

It is a testament to the skill and determination of my former colleague Rosie Cooper, the former Member for West Lancashire, that she was able to unite the House in support of the landmark piece of legislation that finally set official recognition for British Sign Language in statute. That was an important achievement. As Rosie said in her speech on the Bill’s Second Reading,

“I want to finally recognise BSL in statute—not just a gesture but a law that requires positive action from the Government, with real progress to put deaf people on an equal footing with those of us who hear. For every deaf person, like my parents, who has been ignored, misunderstood, or even treated as unintelligent simply for relying on BSL, this recognition will be clear and a message that their language is equal and should be treated as equal.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 1227.]

The passing of the Act was a huge moment for all the members of the BSL Act Now! coalition, including RNID, the British Deaf Association and David Buxton, and many other organisations that had campaigned for many years to secure that recognition.

But recognition alone was never enough and never the intention of the Act, which was only the first step on an equally if not more important journey towards equality for deaf people. The BSL Act will have succeeded only if it leads to better access to communication for deaf people and real, meaningful change in their life chances and experiences. That means ensuring that Government communications on new laws, policies, proposals and publications, which affect all our lives, are produced in BSL to better serve the deaf community. It means ensuring that Departments’ social media posts and websites are accessible to BSL users. If deaf people who are BSL users cannot access that information, they will be denied the support, information and activities they need and excluded from full participation in decision making.

As has already been said, part 2 of the Act requires the Secretary of State to publish a report on the promotion and facilitation of BSL by each Department—essentially, to set out how they will provide information to deaf BSL users in their communications—and it is that report that we are debating. As the RNID briefing points out, the lack of accessible information from official sources can lead to people feeling anxious, feeling angry and, in some cases, being at risk of believing fake news. That is why it is so disappointing to learn that 11 Departments produced no communications in BSL at all during the reporting period, and that only six reported having used BSL for publicity. As RNID set out, only the DWP and the Cabinet Office made public announcements about policy or changes to the law in BSL, and the Treasury produced no BSL publications during the cost of living crisis, leaving BSL users in the dark about what support is available for them. The Department of Health and Social Care had only one consultation document translated into BSL.

Much as I welcome the report and the fact that we now have transparency and can see what the situation is, it tells us that the Government are simply not doing enough. That has to change. I hope that the Minister, who I suspect is very committed to this issue, agrees that there is much more to do and is determined to ensure that much more happens. It is welcome that the Government have committed to providing annual reports for the next five years, and I hope that next year’s report will show a significant improvement in the provision of BSL content across Government. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about how he is going to ensure that that happens. There needs to be an understanding across all Departments that BSL really matters and must be prioritised, and that if it is not we will be letting down a significant proportion of the deaf population.

There are some omissions from the BSL Act. For example, it does not require No. 10 to report on its BSL provision. Will the Minister commit to reporting on No. 10’s BSL provision? That would send a clear message of leadership. We all remember the deep concern and anger at the lack of BSL interpretation at daily briefings during the covid pandemic, which left BSL users without access to essential health and other information. That was rightly challenged, and I am sure the Government have learned from it. By including No. 10 in their reporting, they would send a clear message that lessons have been learned and about their commitment to making things different in the future.

Part 3 of the BSL Act requires the Government to produce guidance about the promotion and facilitation of BSL use, and the non-statutory BSL advisory board has a vital role in ensuring that deaf people’s lived experience is fully acknowledged and that they are a partner in the co-creation of that guidance. As the right hon. Member for Norwich North said, there is concern in the deaf community that they are still not sufficiently involved in departmental actions to ensure that changes truly meet the needs of BSL users. The slogan of the disability community is often, “Nothing about us without us,” and measures to ensure that those with lived experience are not just consulted about the guidance but partners in its creation would be very welcome.

As has already been said, the guidance can empower the deaf community if it sets out how public services should make reasonable adjustments for deaf BSL users. If it provides those minimum standards, those users will be better able to hold our public services to account and better able to seek redress when they fail to reach their needs. Setting that standard of expectation is clearly something that the guidance can and should do. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on that.

For too long, BSL users have faced unacceptable barriers to their full participation in society. For too long, their voices have been unheard, their independence undermined and their opportunities limited. The BSL Act must fulfil its potential and make a real difference to the lives of deaf BSL users, and the all-party parliamentary group and I will do our very best to ensure that those things happen.

Thank you for chairing this debate, Ms McVey. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing it. I think this is the right time to discuss this issue and to ask the Minister pertinent questions that need answers.

I am not going to do what I often do and talk about how dreadful a job the UK Government are doing, because this is genuinely really good progress. This is a really good report highlighting the issues and making clear what needs to be done to get to a better place. All Governments have more to do in this regard.

Let me take a moment to celebrate the fact that next week will be the eighth anniversary of the passage of the historic British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 by the Scottish Parliament. Our strategy, which ran from 2017 until this year—it is about to be superseded by the next one—contained 70 actions across 10 long-term BSL ambitions.

Before I go into some of the actions we are taking in Scotland, I will take a moment to recognise how unique British Sign Language is. For many people, English is not their first language; BSL is, and those are not people who have come from another country. BSL is an indigenous language throughout these islands. The Scottish Government have continued to promote and support the teaching of BSL, because it is one of Scotland’s vibrant indigenous languages. We have said that we want to make Scotland the best place in the world for a BSL user to live, work and visit, which means that people whose first or preferred language is BSL will be fully involved in daily and public life in Scotland as active, healthy citizens, and will be able to make informed choices about every aspect of their life.

As I said, we have taken 70 different actions. We have not made the progress that we would like on all of them, and there is definitely significantly more to do. As the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) mentioned, we are trying to ensure that the principle of “nothing about us without us” is enshrined in everything we do. When the Scottish social security system replaced the personal independence payment with the adult disability payment, we ensured that people with lived experience were at the table, telling us how they wanted the system improved. We are ensuring that when we consult on the new progress and action plan on British Sign Language, the deaf community will be as involved as possible, making the case for the action and improvement that they want. No Government can make good decisions if they do not have an adequate amount of lived experience informing those decisions.

We took some of our actions during the covid pandemic. For example, our former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said that she

“couldn’t have done my job over the past few years”

without BSL interpreters. She said:

“They were crucial in making sure that we were able to communicate properly and fully the public health messages that were so essential in the country during that time.”

We are also taking action in relation to schools and learning. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) mentioned the possibility of creating a GCSE in BSL. I am not entirely sure what the equivalent is, but we in Scotland have SCQF qualifications available in British Sign Language at a number of levels. Edinburgh University is looking into introducing a primary teaching degree that includes British Sign Language, to help tackle the decline in the number of teachers who are able to teach in BSL. It is incredibly important that at all levels—whether at pre-school, primary school or secondary school, in the workplace or public life, or even in accessing shops and services—we do everything that we can to ensure that people who use BSL have access to it. We have ensured that all our colleges and universities in Scotland have a BSL plan in place, which is available both in English and in sign language.

We are also ensuring that each of our local authorities —we are not there yet—does what it can to increase access to the services they provide. In 2021, 24 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities taught BSL in primary schools—a total of 113 schools across Scotland. Obviously, we would like BSL to be taught in all 32 local authorities; as part of the action plans, our local authorities are working towards that.

I want to take this opportunity to celebrate this vibrant, dynamic and exciting language that so many of our constituents use, and to make it clear that we all have the same direction of travel. We are all trying to improve access to services, to public life and to information for users of British Sign Language. Any work that the Minister wants to do with Scotland, either to promote good practice on the part of the Government, or to learn from good practice in Scotland, would be wholly welcomed by my Scottish Government ministerial colleagues in Holyrood.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the shadow Work and Pensions team, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate. We were opposite numbers for a time. I remember her enthusiastic support for the British Sign Language Act 2022 when it was progressing through Parliament, and she worked closely with our colleague at the time, Rosie Cooper. On the day the Bill received its Third Reading, I remember the right hon. Member for Norwich North saying:

“Today is a momentous day and I truly hope it will transform the lives of”


“people across the country.”

It has therefore been very telling to hear some of her concerns this afternoon. I genuinely hope that the Minister will work with her and others to ensure that the Act delivers what was hoped for on that day. It is interesting to find myself sharing common ground with her for once. I hope that the Minister will respond in detail to the many excellent points that have been raised. I am certainly glad that we have BSL interpretation today; that should happen a lot more across Parliament.

Like others before me, I will take a moment to pay tribute to the countless disabled people, friends, families, advocates, disabled people’s organisations and charities who campaigned for the Act. I had the absolute pleasure of meeting some of them along the way. As we have heard, the BSL Act was a major milestone for disabled-deaf people in the UK, not least because it led to BSL finally being recognised as a language. However, as has been said, progress on implementation of other parts of the Act has been a little disappointing.

The 2022 British Sign Language report recorded shockingly low figures for the amount of BSL communications being produced by Government Departments. That has important implications for co-production—something I am keen for Labour to deliver on if it wins the next general election. That word is thrown around quite frequently, but it is not always fully understood. Co-production means more than just engaging with or consulting the community we are working with, which in this case is the disabled-deaf and disabled communities. Proper co-production involves everyone working together on an equal basis right from the start, and coming to a decision or creating a service that works for all. One of the most basic steps on the path to successful co-production is ensuring that all communications are accessible.

The Minister often assures me that he and his civil servants are consulting or working with disabled people on policy. The 2022 BSL report shows that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Cabinet Office were the only Departments to make public announcements about policy or changes to the law in BSL. What is his response to the Royal National Institute for Deaf People’s observation that the Treasury, for example, produced no BSL publications about the cost of living crisis, leaving BSL users in the dark about what support is available to them? No. 10 is not required to report on its provision of BSL—something that I know the RNID and others would like changed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, said, all Government communications must be in BSL, and recognition of the issue alone is not enough. We succeed only if everyone has equal access. That is why we need No. 10 to report on BSL provision; we have to lead from the top. Many hon. Members will remember the “Where is the Interpreter?” campaign, which did an excellent job of highlighting that BSL users were excluded from the daily covid-19 briefings.

The third part of the Act offers the Government an important opportunity to create guidance on reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 for BSL users. It places a duty on the Secretary of State to issue guidance on the promotion and facilitation of BSL. As hon. Members will know and others have highlighted, the Equality Act obliges public authorities to make reasonable adjustments to remove the barriers that disabled people face in accessing their services. However, there is a lack of precedent on what constitutes a reasonable adjustment for a BSL user in that context. I would appreciate an update from the Minister on that, as I know BSL users are concerned that their adjustments are often seen as too expensive. As many Members have said, including the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), we have to make progress with a BSL GCSE.

I want to touch briefly on the lack of available data on BSL users. I have found that to be a significant issue across the Department for Work and Pensions, not just in relation to the issues that we are discussing. Without meaningful data on the number of people who use BSL, and the barriers that they face, it is incredibly difficult to identify their access needs accurately. At present, Government data includes them in other groups, such as those who are hearing impaired and those with difficulty hearing. That means there is no way to focus specifically on BSL users as a stand-alone group. The Government have committed to reforming and standardising the data that they capture on disability in both the national disability strategy and the draft disability action plan. Will the Minister tell us whether those documents will include BSL users as a stand-alone group? I end by saying that the Act was an important first step, but as this debate has shown, there is still a lot more work to do.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) for securing this debate; for her ongoing passion and leadership on this issue; and for her determination to deliver this landmark legislation, working with Rosie Cooper. She takes a close interest in the Government’s performance on this issue, and in wider issues affecting the deaf community. She wants us to take further steps to ensure that BSL is used more widely in society, and that more people can communicate through it.

Interestingly, one of the key assurances that my right hon. Friend gave during the passage of the legislation was to the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), Chair of the APPG. She assured her, in Committee, that the Government would be open to scrutiny of the BSL Act, and that the first BSL report would be published on 31 July this year. That has happened, and today’s debate flows from that. I was heartened to hear that BSL will be a subject of interest to my right hon. Friend beyond her time in the House, and is something that she will campaign on passionately. Her advocacy on this issue, and that of Members from across the House—not just those who are here—is something of which Parliament can be proud. All of us, cross party, want to do our best to ensure accessible communication for everybody in society. It is to the Government’s credit that they got behind the Bill, and worked intensively with Rosie Cooper and the coalition, as was touched on, to shape and craft the legislation and ensure that we got it right.

The British Sign Language Act 2022 was the first private Member’s Bill drawn 20th in the ballot to become law in more than 20 years; that was a bit of parliamentary trivia for everybody this afternoon. That is not an insignificant achievement. It speaks to the cross-party support for the Act. Everybody came together from across the House to support that legislation, here as well as in the other place.

Many good, pertinent questions were raised in the debate, and I want to touch on them. As I say, the British Sign Language Act 2022 was warmly welcomed by the deaf community, and particularly by the BSL Act Now! campaign. Its members worked so hard, and in such a determined way, to put the issue firmly on the agenda. Arguably, that passion was reflected at BSL Fest in Guildford at the weekend. I was delighted to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) was in attendance, was part of the celebrations and part of that important community in her area. We see those celebrations reflected in community initiatives up and down the country, which is heartening. They give ever greater prominence to the issue. All of us parliamentarians, and those of us in government, should place real emphasis on working in partnership with communities, charities and representative bodies to continue to evolve our work on this issue, and make sure that we live up to the ambition out there in our society for BSL.

It is a privilege to report today on the progress that we are making on the BSL Act, and to discuss the findings of the first BSL report, but candidly, there is more to do. The first BSL report is an important baseline to help us understand how the Government communicate vital information to a group of people with specific, distinct communication needs, and to encourage us to go further.

There are a couple of points that I want to touch on early in my remarks. One is the judicial review of BSL interpretation of the covid briefings during the pandemic. The judicial review found that the Government were meeting their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 with regard to BSL interpretation during the covid 19 briefings, and were compliant with the public sector equality duty. The court ruled that our policy of using on-screen British Sign Language interpreters during the pandemic was lawful. The judge ruled that it is not a legal requirement to provide an in-person BSL interpreter. There had been over 175 covid briefings by the date of the judgment, and in only two instances were they found to be unlawful because BSL was not provided on screen. Our priority has always been to reach the largest possible audience with important public information, and we will continue to ensure that BSL interpretation is made available where appropriate.

On No. 10, the BSL Act places a duty on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to collate and publish a report on BSL use in the ministerial Departments listed in the schedule to the Act. The intention behind the five-year plans mentioned in the BSL report is to build on the work already being done across the Departments that are placed under that reporting duty. No. 10 and the parliamentary estate are not ministerial Departments, and there is no statutory requirement on them to report on their use of BSL. However, guidance was recently published by the Government Communication Service that covers all of Government. I am assured that it will help communicators across Government to determine what public information should be produced in BSL, so that we meet the obligations set out in the public sector equality duty and the Equality Act 2010. I am very happy to explore that area further.

As for the parliamentary estate, I would be delighted to work cross-party with colleagues on engaging with the House authorities to see what they might be able to do. It is welcome that there is BSL interpretation of our proceedings this afternoon, but we should always strive to go further. I am very willing to engage constructively with others to achieve that.

I welcome that offer, and will most certainly take the Minister up on it. As shadow Minister for Disabled People, I have struggled with the question of where funding for BSL interpretation should come from, including as regards the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The Minister is absolutely right: we should be leading on this issue. On No. 10 and interpreters at covid briefings, we should always strive to do better, and I do not think we did well enough at the time. We should keep the ambition to continually do better, instead of saying, “We weren’t done by the courts, apart from in two areas.”

On the first part of the hon. Lady’s intervention, I am delighted to work with her to try to take that forward. At the start of my remarks, I said consistently that I recognise that we have further to travel, and I am certainly not complacent when it comes to performance across the whole of Government. As has been touched on, some of the performance around my Department—the Department for Work and Pensions —is at the top of the charts, which shows the emphasis that my ministerial colleagues in the Department and I place on this issue. I am trying to lead by example by ensuring that I demonstrate a real commitment and willingness to set a standard that I want Ministers and Departments across the board to follow. It is in that spirit that we move forward with this work.

To delve further into the issue of communications across Government, I could not be clearer that people who use BSL as their native language should be able to access the same information as native English speakers, whether that information is about their rights and responsibilities, their ability to access support or the opportunity to have their say on Government policy development by participating in a consultation. In the last year alone, the Government have ensured that BSL communications have been available for deaf BSL users across diverse subjects: providing timely updates about cost of living payments, sharing important information about the Home Office’s tackling domestic abuse plan and ensuring that BSL users could join in the celebrations for the coronation of our new King.

Individual Departments have focused their BSL communications on areas of greatest importance to deaf BSL users: the Department for Education published its “Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan” with BSL interpretation, the Ministry of Justice published advice in BSL for victims of rape and sexual assault, and the Department for Transport included BSL interpretation in its “it’s everyone’s journey” campaign.

I want to provide updates on two specific areas that have been raised in relation to cross-Government work and different parts of Government communicating those messages. The first is around the use of BSL in health services. The Department of Health and Social Care is committed to supporting the use of BSL and has used it in communications, such as to support the Down Syndrome Act 2022 call for evidence. The Department continues to look for further ways to promote the requirements of the BSL Act, including by sharing lessons learned from the production of the DSA call for evidence BSL videos with a view to improving BSL usage, monitoring and reporting across the Department.

Under the Equality Act 2010, health and social care organisations must make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled people are not disadvantaged when it comes to interpreters for GP and medical appointments. NHS organisations and publicly funded social care providers must comply with the accessible information standard to meet the communication needs of patients and carers with a disability, an impairment or sensory loss. NHS England has completed the review of the AIS, and the updates are now in the publication approval process.

Following Royal Assent for the British Sign Language Act and the legal recognition of British Sign Language as a language of England, Wales and Scotland, the Government Communication Service will promote and facilitate the use of British Sign Language in communication with the public where appropriate. Colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care keep those matters under review. Again, I want Departments to set a standard that we then ask our public services, communities and society as a whole to follow.

The other area that I want to provide a brief update on is the BSL GCSE, for which there is huge appetite in this House and beyond. The public consultation on it has now closed. The Government are analysing the results of the consultation and working up the course content, and we will publish that as soon as we can. I recognise that there is a real demand for that BSL qualification, not least because of all the opportunities it will provide. Educating the next generation to have such skills at an early stage will have knock-on benefits: more people in our society will communicate with BSL and then, we hope, go on to have successful careers, promote the language, encourage others to adopt those skills, and participate in our communities and society in that way. I know that we all want to see that, and that is welcome.

The variety of case studies in the first BSL report show pockets of good practice across the Departments named in the schedule to the BSL Act. Around half of policy Departments produced communications in BSL during the reporting period. But we know that we can go further, and produce more and better BSL content. It is important to note that different Departments will communicate with the public, whether in BSL or otherwise, in different ways, because of the fact that they have different responsibilities, different remits, different areas of interest and different communications, related to their specific areas of Government.

The Departments listed in the schedule to the BSL Act range from large operational Departments—like my own, the Department for Work and Pensions, which produces a large number of public communications every year—to much smaller Departments and offices that may not have had occasion to produce many public communications during the reporting period. Not all Departments are the same—one size does not fit all—but we know that there is room to improve and we have committed to doing so. With that in mind, there are four specific commitments that are recognised within the need to improve, which I will describe, because the Secretary of State has been clear about our determination to take greater action to drive forward progress, with four separate commitments to help us make progress.

First, although the BSL Act only requires for a BSL report to be published once every three years, I am pleased to confirm that the Secretary of State has made a commitment to publish a BSL report every year for at least the next five years. Again, that goes to the very point about transparency, and arguably is a tool to aid our conversations within Government around individual departmental performance, allowing us to continue to drive improvement, highlight successes, learn from the case studies in the first BSL report and remain accountable to the deaf community.

Secondly, we are committed to discussing the findings of the report at the next meeting of the ministerial disability champions, who are Ministers appointed by the Prime Minister to provide a personal lead in championing accessibility and opportunity for disabled people within their Departments. We have already done that, and the ministerial disability champions will work with their Departments to increase the use of BSL in their communications. The ministerial disability champions are specifically appointed to lead the inclusion agenda within their Departments, but I want to explore what more we can do to drive greater accountability and ownership of those actions, making sure that this inclusion agenda is right at the forefront of our thinking—and that we are doing these things up front, rather than their happening as an afterthought—when it comes to policy development, legislative change or any other announcements that we might make.

I was reflecting on the Minister’s comments just a few moments ago about the differences between Departments, and the way in which the information in the report is set out under different headings, such as “Public announcements about policy or changes to the law in BSL” and “Publications (plans, strategies…). That information is presented as a number, but it might be more useful if it the proportions were presented. For example, if we knew how many public announcements the Department had made and how many were also produced in BSL, we would have a better gauge of whether the Department was doing well or not so well, because I would hope that when a Department is making important announcements, it would automatically produce them in BSL as well as in English. Is that something that the Minister might consider in future reporting?

I am of course very happy to consider suggestions as to how we can try to provide greater transparency around this performance and better itemise the output that Departments are making around communications, because I genuinely want this process to be a success. Getting it right is an important barometer of the inclusion agenda. Anything we can do to give people confidence that we are getting this right can only be a good thing, and I am willing to explore anything that aids transparency, so I will gladly take away the hon. Lady’s suggestion in the spirit with which it was made.

I return to the four commitments. Thirdly, building on these ongoing discussions, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will ask each ministerial Department to produce a five-year BSL plan, setting out how it plans to improve its use of BSL. These plans will be included in the next published BSL report.

Fourthly, the Government Communication Service has published internal guidance for Departments that covers how to plan and deliver British Sign Language content where it is needed, to meet the needs of deaf BSL users. It has been written with the help of professionals and those with lived experience of British Sign Language.

In addition to those measures, I am pleased to confirm that officials will be working with the BSL Advisory Board to formulate the guidance specified in section 3 of the 2022 Act. That section places a duty on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to issue guidance promoting the facilitation and use of BSL. It is important to recognise both that all members of the advisory board have lived experience of BSL, and that we went through a thorough and proper process in making appointments to the board. Their work will include advice for relevant Departments on best practice to support BSL users in accordance with the Equality Act 2010, the public sector equality duty and the British Sign Language Act 2022. It will also contain broader advice on best practice for communicating with BSL users, including case studies to illustrate the value of providing BSL interpretation in communications with the public both in our central communications and in frontline services.

During the debates on the British Sign Language Act 2022, we heard Members recount the everyday experiences of their constituents in accessing public services. Again, let me be clear that it is not good enough to ask the hearing child of a deaf parent to relay an intimate health diagnosis or to deal with financial issues on behalf of their family. There should be a professional BSL interpreter in those circumstances to ensure dignity and respect to the deaf adult and their family members.

On the incredibly important point the Minister is making, although this issue is not necessarily for his Department, people fleeing domestic abuse need very specialist support, and often the person who would act as interpreter is the person perpetrating the abuse. There are instances where Departments need to step up the support for the interpretation needs of those fleeing domestic abuse.

My hon. Friend raises a point that all of us will want to give due care, attention and thought to. We all want to ensure that the very best support is available for victims of domestic abuse to ensure they get the care and support they need, and that such matters are handled with the utmost sensitivity. The right support must be in place to allow them to be cared for and supported, and to have the recovery that we all want them to. If my hon. Friend provides me with more detail about whether there is a specific underpinning to that question, it is something I would be willing to ask the ministerial disability champion in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to look into. That would mean they are aware of those experiences as part of their policy development when taking that important agenda forward.

I want to cast the Minister’s mind back to when the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), referred to the GCSE and the need for sign language to do that course. I mentioned that my oldest grandchildren had done some rudimentary sign language at school, which enables them to have a compassion for, and an understanding of, those who use it. When it comes to schools, as we all know, we do rudimentary first aid; it is elementary, but it does provide some understanding of the subject matter. It is not the Minister’s responsibility, but can I ask that he engages with Education Ministers on that?

I am very willing to obtain an update for the hon. Gentleman on the work that we are doing to try to drive forward the uptake, availability and usage of BSL in our schools. I touched on the opportunity of the BSL GCSE, which is something that is welcome and an important part of that jigsaw. I will go and get him an update from the Department for Education. He also raised in his remarks—I scribbled down in my notes—whether there were steps we could take to engage with the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland on this agenda more broadly. Again, I am very willing to take that away and ask my officials to reach out to Department for Communities colleagues and counterparts to see what we can do to ensure that across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we are approaching these matters in an inclusive and joined-up way, and that where we can collaborate we do so in order to take this important agenda forward.

Before the Minister moves on from the guidance, will he confirm that he will lay the statutory instrument that enables part 3 to happen?

My right hon. Friend the former Minister is trying to draw me out early on this point—I will get there imminently.

More needs to be done to enforce the obligations outlined in the Equality Act 2010, and Departments must strive to ensure that BSL signers have appropriate access to their services. A point was raised on the availability of data and the join-up between services to ensure that we understand needs. Specifically, the question was about the number of responses to the disability action plan. We received approximately 1,350 responses to the disability action plan. We are working through those responses and will come forward with a final version of that plan, having given proper consideration to all the feedback.

My right hon. Friend will know that one of the areas we consulted on was data. We want to take forward commitments in a joined-up way. Of course, we are now in a different place in relation to the national disability strategy, where commitments were also made around data. I want there to be proper joined-up, collective working across those two pieces to ensure the maximum impact when it comes to better understanding disability and people’s needs, and identifying which interventions best support people. We will come forward with that work in the near future, and I hope that there will be some opportunity to set out the steps we will take to improve that understanding and the quality of data that we have as a Government, working in partnership with others. Colleagues across the House were right to ask those questions.

The BSL Advisory Board will advise the Government on the guidance detailed in the BSL Act and on its implementation to best represent the deaf community. This external guidance will be published by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions during the next BSL reporting period—summer 2024—with support from the Cabinet Office Disability Unit.

I am hugely appreciative of the interest shown this afternoon by colleagues from across the House. I am determined that we as a Government must set the standard by which we ask others in our society and our communities to follow, ensuring that we deliver on this important agenda in the spirit of partnership, driving inclusion and broadening opportunity. A lot of questions and points were raised during the debate. I will go away and look at Hansard, and I will gladly place an update in the Library if there are any areas that I have not had the opportunity to touch on this afternoon.

It has been a pleasure for all of us to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and I thank you for helping us to have a constructive debate in an excellent tone. The debate has allowed us to hear, in some cases, new pieces of information from the Minister, for which we are grateful, and to draw out examples that are deeply important to our constituents. That is what we are all here to do.

I will draw the threads of the debate together by way of a number of thank yous. The first is to the Minister, who has given a great deal of his time to go through the span of issues raised this afternoon, and we are grateful for that. I am glad to hear how willingly he has responded to colleagues’ various requests and interests. As the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said, the APPG and many others in Parliament will seek to do much more, and I am glad to hear the Minister’s attitude towards working with parliamentarians to do that.

Secondly, I echo the credit, underlined once again in this debate, to the members of the deaf community who have brought us to this place. I want to be absolutely clear that their voices must ring out loud and clear and be heard, used and listened to in the work that we do. As an aside, is it not interesting how so many of our verbs and adjectives are about hearing and speaking? I hope that all of us can take those choices of language with the breadth that I intend them in order to be able to communicate; that is what we are here to do.

The achievement we have in front of us is a huge credit to the deaf community and the alliance that has brought us to this point. However, to go further, we need to continue to work together in that manner. For that reason, I mentioned in my earlier remarks that an alliance such as this contains both deaf and hearing people; it contains all of us in society who want to see these kinds of goals achieved. I am glad that we in Parliament have had a chance to contribute to keeping this campaign moving forward, so that we see what is needed in terms of changes for deaf children, deaf hospital patients, deaf jobseekers and many others in the examples used this afternoon.

The other area of thanks goes to the many organisations that have made an appearance in our contributions. We have heard, genuinely, from all corners of the country and it is important that we do so. It is vital that Members of Parliament can seek to speak for all their constituents. However, in doing so we need data, which we have touched on in today’s debate; we need frameworks and structure, which these reports give us; and we need the clear view that there will be the possibility of change and progress ahead, which I would like to think the Minister is giving us.

In drawing today’s work to a close, I am really grateful to all those who contributed in their many different ways to the debate and to the prior work that took place, and who are looking ahead to what needs to be done. I thank the Minister again for his full response. If he were able to return to Hansard, as he has promised, and pick up a number of the more granular questions, I would be very grateful to receive that response in a letter. As he wishes, I can then share that with other colleagues who were here today. I will not leave the officials of the Department out of this, who have worked extremely hard on this matter over many years. That is part of the challenge; they are part of the team that will push this forward in the spirit of what good, inclusive, accessible, forward-thinking and proud government for everybody in this country really looks like.

Thank you, Ms McVey, for bearing with me as I seek to wrap up what has been a fulsome debate. I am very glad that we have been able to surface these issues. We may or may not return to do this next year with the next report, given the timings of other things that may happen in the calendar year of 2024, but we will be watching very closely. The Minister can be absolutely sure that there will be people who are hanging on every word of what he is able to do in this territory in the future.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the British Sign Language report 2022 and implementation of the British Sign Language Act 2022.

Safe Asylum Routes: Afghan Refugees

I beg to move,

That this House has considered safe asylum routes for Afghan refugees.

It was a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I declare a non-pecuniary interest: my daughter is the chief executive of the child refugee charity, Safe Passage.

I do not know what the Minister’s majority was at the last election, and I do not know what his strategy is for the next one, but I am sure that he does the math. So let us do the math on the Government’s promises to the people of Afghanistan. When the Government announced the ACRS—the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme—they said that they would provide safe passage for 20,000 people over the next four years at a rate of about 5,000 a year. Although the scheme was launched in January 2022, it effectively backdated itself to August ’21 and the Government said that they were going to count towards their quota all the people who had already been evacuated under Operation Pitting. That was pathway 1.

Since the first year, the number of Afghans arriving under the scheme has plummeted. Pathway 2 allocated 2,000 places. In the last full year to June, just 66 people had been resettled under pathway 2. Pathway 3 allocated 1,500 places, but only 41 were resettled under this pathway. According to my maths, that makes 5,000 promised, 3,500 allocated and 107 actually resettled. If the Minister’s election agent managed to get just 2% of the electorate and just 3% of the actual turnout to vote for him, I think he would sack that election agent because he certainly would not be sitting here.

In June last year, when pathway 3 of ACRS was launched, the Government said that they would prioritise certain groups over the next 12 months, so can the Minister tell the House how many of those 41 individuals were from those priority groups? How many had worked for the British Council? How many had worked for the GardaWorld contractors? How many were Chevening alumni, to whom this Government promised safe passage?

The Government also promised to extend the eligibility for this pathway to wider vulnerable groups in the second year, beginning in June 2023. It was mooted that that might include religious minorities and LGBTQ individuals, who face particular threat from the Taliban. Three and a half months into the second year, can the Minister tell the House why he has still not published the criteria for the wider eligibility? It is very difficult for someone to apply for a scheme when they do not know what the criteria are. In practice, it means that we recognise that there are many families that are unsafe and to whom we may have an obligation, but they still have no route to come to the UK safely. When will the Minister make a firm commitment to broadening the scope of pathway 3 and publish plans for the next stage?

If the Minister thought his majority was shaky when I compared it to the resettlement scheme, he ought to get even more jittery when I talk about the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. ARAP, according to data published by the Ministry of Defence, has received more than 141,000 applications. I will not embarrass the Minister by asking him to tell the House precisely how many Afghans managed to come to the UK and build a new life under the ARAP scheme in the 12 months to June this year. I will just tell him: it was 73—not 730, and not 7,300 out of the 141,000 applications. That at least would have been 5%. The Minister would not have lost his deposit. It was not 5%, not 0.5%, but 0.05%.

We should remember that we set up the ARAP scheme to honour our debt to Afghans who worked with our UK forces on the frontline: the interpreters, the people that the Taliban regard as traitors, who risked their lives working alongside us then and whose lives continue to be in mortal danger now. Some of them have been waiting for more than two years, regularly contacting the MOD to show their documentation, and having to flee into exile in another country to escape the Taliban, who are hounding them down. What can possibly be delaying the processing of those applications? The Minister knows that many category 1 applicants are currently in Pakistan, but the Pakistan Government are threatening to deport them back to Afghanistan. What plans does the Minister have to expedite those applications?

Let me digress, because I want to give the Minister a moment of relief. I want to praise the Government for the way in which they have handled the Ukrainian resettlement scheme. It has been swift and efficient and our country should feel proud of the support that we have given.

We managed to achieve that for our fleeing European neighbours, so why have we not been able to do the same for the Afghans to whom we owe such a debt of honour? The answer is simple. We had 540 Government staff working on the Homes for Ukraine scheme. A freedom of information request by the Afghan Pro Bono Initiative revealed that the number of full-time staff handling the ARAP scheme was just 36—do the math, Minister. Why are there 36 times as many people processing Ukrainian applications as there are Afghan ones? Category 1 of ARAP is for people who served alongside British forces and who are

“at high and imminent risk”.

They urgently need to be brought to safety, yet the Minister knows that only five people received a positive category 1 decision in the whole period between April 2021 and January 2023. That is one every four months.

Will the Minister update the House and say how many positive category 1 decisions have now been made? Will he also reflect on the prioritisation of staffing resources and explain why there is less allocated to those we deem to be in serious and imminent danger of retaliation and persecution in Afghanistan because of their allegiance to us than there is to the general refugees from Ukraine, for whom I have every sympathy, who are fleeing their country in a time of war? Let me be clear: I do not want the Ukrainians to get fewer resources; I want the Afghans to get as many. Will the Minister commit this afternoon to increasing the number of caseworkers on the ARAP scheme?

I turn to the issue of family reunion. When Afghans were evacuated to safety in the UK in August 2021, many families were separated. Those who were subsequently resettled under ACRS pathway 1 were promised that their family members would also be resettled under the scheme. In April last year, the Home Office stated that further information would be “made available soon”. I do not know what counts for “soon” on whichever planet the Home Office is on, but let me tell the Minister that here in Blighty, it ain’t 17 and a half months. The problem with pathway 1 is that it sounds great: “You have been granted indefinite leave to remain. You’re safe.” The problem is that even though someone thought they were a refugee, ILR does not confer access to refugee family reunion. Anyone applying under this route can simply be told that their application is rejected as invalid.

Families who have been separated in the most tragic circumstances, including parents who have not seen their children for more than two years, are waiting on the Government to simply do what they said they would do: publish a new mechanism to reunite them with their loved ones. Will the Minister commit this afternoon to a date when he will publish further information on how Afghans resettled under ACRS pathway 1 can bring their loved ones to safety?

I believe the Minister will have been briefed by his excellent officials that I am likely to bring up a specific case in the context of family reunion. It is the case of my constituent Mr Sayed Hassani, which I have spoken about before in the Chamber. Mr Hassani’s wife, four daughters, two sons and sister were called forward as part of Operation Pitting back in August 2021, but they were unable to board the plane as scheduled because of the explosion at Kabul airport.

The five women are living under constant fear. I say five because last year my constituent sent me a photograph of his 15-year-old daughter in her coffin. She had committed suicide for fear of being taken by the Taliban and raped in a forced marriage. But her three sisters, her brothers and their mother are still there with her aunt. The boys and one of the daughters were born after their father became a British citizen, and they therefore have a right to British citizenship and a British passport. The three other women have had to put themselves at enormous risk by travelling across the border to Pakistan, where they were eventually able to get their biometric data done. Mr Hassani just needs his family safe and together again. I have the details of the case and would like to give them directly to the Minister after the debate for his urgent attention.

I welcome the unsafe journey policy that the Government introduced to mitigate the fact that there is no visa application centre in Kabul, but it is not working, Minister. The standard of proof is too high, and many women and unaccompanied children face horrendous dangers when trying to leave Afghanistan and cross the border, simply to prove that they really are who they say they are. Will Minister commit this afternoon to reviewing the criteria of the unsafe journey policy and make sure that we are not putting some of the most vulnerable people at even greater risk?

We need safe and effective routes for people from Afghanistan. The thing about safe routes is that they undermine the business model of people traffickers. In 2019, before the UK pulled out of Afghanistan, just 69 Afghans crossed the English channel in small boats. In the first eight months of this year, the number of Afghans crossing the channel in small boats was 4,800—one in every five people crossing the channel. If the Government really do want to cut the number of small boat arrivals in the UK, they know how to do it. It is in the title of this debate: create safe asylum routes for Afghan refugees.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on securing the debate. I am grateful for his contribution, and I suspect that there will be some interventions from other interested right hon. and hon. Members. Clearly, 30 minutes is not long enough to do justice to a topic as complex and important as this, but I hope that I can provide some reassurance in my remarks and when answering interventions.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. As chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, I put on the record our thanks to the Prime Minister for his direct intervention in changing the guidance to allow contractors who are hiding from the Taliban in Afghanistan to continue their applications in the safety of a third country, typically Pakistan. I put it to the Minister that there is now a logjam not only because there is a shortage of houses in the UK to which to send people from Pakistan, but because the ACRS pathway 3 scheme has a quota of 1,500, which we are nearing. Can the Minister provide an assurance or update as to what the Government will do, from a housing point of view, to get those contractors to the UK as soon as possible? Can the Minister also undertake to lift the cap to allow those eligible under ACRS to come to the UK?

In a moment, I will come to the specific question around the numbers and how they relate to both British Council workers and GardaWorld employees. If time allows, I will come on to my hon. Friend’s question about the limiting factor of accommodation as well. Clearly, it is a significant challenge for us. The primary responsibility rests with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Ministry of Defence. The Ministry of Defence in particular is responsible for bringing forward service family accommodation and ensuring that it is available and of a suitable quality, so that once families have been granted their visas, they can come to the UK safe in the knowledge that they will have somewhere to stay, rather than being housed in a hotel, which I think we all agree is an unsatisfactory way for anyone to live for a prolonged period and which we have consciously moved away from. My hon. Friend will have seen the effort to which the Government went in the first half of this year to close the hotels that were housing 8,000 Afghans who had arrived around the time of Operation Pitting.

The Minister will be aware of the case, which I brought to his and the Secretary of State’s attention, of the gentleman who worked in the British Army alongside one of my constituents. He had to leave Afghanistan and live under threat in Pakistan with his wife and four children. We are keen to get him back to Northern Ireland—to Newtownards, to be specific. There is a job and house waiting for him; all we have to do is get him there, because he served our country. I gently remind the Minister that we still await a successful outcome for that gentleman.

Let me make some progress, if I may, and I will return to those colleagues who wish to intervene. To address the hon. Member’s point, we sympathise deeply with the situation that many Afghans find themselves in, including those who are suffering because of their work in standing up for human rights and the rule of law, as well as those, such as women and girls and members of minority groups, who are facing wider persecution at the hands of the Taliban. Those are the reasons why we as a country have made the commitments that we have, and it is critical that we continue to deliver on those. The Government remain absolutely committed to the people of Afghanistan and the schemes that we established in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Kabul.

Since June 2021, around 24,600 people affected by events in Afghanistan have been brought to safety in the UK. They include British nationals and their families, Afghans who loyally served the UK and others identified as particularly at risk, such as campaigners for women’s rights, human rights defenders, journalists, judges and members of the LGBT+ community. The number includes 7,000 individuals brought to safety after Operation Pitting. Because of the various ways in which cohorts are defined, detailed international comparisons have to be made with some caution, but on most measures the figure is significantly more than the numbers brought to safety by many of our European neighbours. I stress that this is not just about the number of Afghans who have arrived in the UK, but about the manner in which we support those people in order to integrate them into the United Kingdom and ensure that they can begin to establish themselves here and lead fulfilling lives.

I will finish this point and then I will give way, to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) first. All Afghans relocated to the UK through ACRS and the ARAP programme are immediately granted indefinite leave to remain, including the immediate right to work, alongside access to the benefits system, healthcare, education and employment support. I will give way to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, because she contacted my office before the debate.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. As he knows, I have a constituent who was instructed by the Government to make the dangerous journey, with his young family, to Pakistan for final checks, as he is eligible under ACRS pathway 3. They have been in Pakistan in one room—all of them in just one room—since May. Their documents are expiring. Pakistan has ordered Afghan asylum seekers out of the country by November, and this family are petrified that they will be sent back to Afghanistan in 13 days’ time. I am desperately raising this case. The Minister will know that I have used all kinds of ways to try to reach him to ask, please, whether something be done this week to ensure that this family are not sent back to real danger in Afghanistan in less than 13 days’ time.

The case that the hon. Lady raised was brought to my attention today, but I will certainly ensure that my officials look into it and revert to her with a full and proper answer. We are aware of the recent statements by the Government of Pakistan, which suggest their willingness to return some of those staying in Pakistan to Afghanistan. That is obviously a deeply concerning development and something that plays into all of our thoughts on how this scheme should operate in the days and weeks ahead.

I will in a moment. If I may, I will just finish this point. The Home Office is granting or rather is deciding visa cases every week, and those individuals will then have the ability to come to the UK, but clearly and understandably people want to come to the UK in the knowledge that accommodation is waiting for them and that they will be fully supported with the integration package. They are able, if they have had the decision made, to come to the UK, but what we need to do is to work with the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and local authorities to bring forward as much accommodation as possible, so that those individuals can make the journey to the UK knowing that the full package is available to them from the moment that they arrive. As I said in answer to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), none of us wants to see large numbers of individuals coming to the UK to languish in hotels for prolonged periods. I give way to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).

I am incredibly grateful. I have in my constituency two children who came here under the UNHCR scheme. Both families went to Pakistan and were waiting to come here under the ACRS. One family has already returned to Afghanistan; and clearly, the other family is in danger of doing so. These are Hazara families at extreme risk, so what can the Minister say to give these families some comfort that they will be reunited with their children here in the UK?

We do have a family reunion policy. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Brent North feels that it is insufficient, but it has enabled more than 40,000 people to come to the UK to reunite with other refugees. I would be very happy to look into the specific case that the hon. Member for York Central raises. I know that she raises it in a sincere way on behalf of her constituents and she is clearly very concerned.

As time is short, let me answer more specifically some of the other questions that were raised by speaking to the pathways that underlie the scheme. On pathway 1 specifically, we recognise the challenges of the evacuation, which caused families to be split, and are working to establish a route to address this. Once in operation, this will allow eligible individuals to refer one spouse or partner and dependent child for resettlement. We are working to get the route operational as quickly as possible, and I can say that we expect to receive referrals in the first half of 2024 if not sooner.

I will answer, if I may, my hon. Friend’s first question. On pathway 3, I am pleased to share that we will now consider for resettlement all eligible, at-risk British Council and GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni who expressed interest during the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s window of opportunity. This means that the Government will exceed the original allocation of 1,500 places for the first stage of ACRS pathway 3. These are individuals who directly supported the efforts of the UK and the international community in Afghanistan. It is important to ensure that all those who are eligible, at risk, and remain in Afghanistan and the region, are able to reach safety in the UK. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will shortly contact all remaining individuals assessed as “eligible in principle” under the first stage of ACRS pathway 3 with advice on their next steps. We remain committed to honouring our commitments under these schemes, including, where capacity allows, working with international partners and non-governmental organisations to welcome wider groups under the second stage of pathway 3. I hope that answers my hon. Friend’s question.

I thank the Minister for that. It is excellent news that the quota system has now been pushed to one side for those individuals that he specified. I suggest to him, however, that there is still a sense of urgency. If people are stuck in Pakistan and cannot get over to the UK, with Pakistan suggesting that it is going to repatriate back to Afghanistan, there may still be a big problem. Will the Minister confirm that he will look at this as a matter of urgency? We need to cut through the red tape and help these people who helped this country.

I can assure my hon. Friend, and indeed all right hon. and hon. Members here, that we are considering that with great urgency. Those who are in Pakistan are supported by the British Government, or by partner organisations such as the International Organisation for Migration, which will provide them with accommodation, food and support. I appreciate, however, that those conditions are not desirable, and the recent statements by the Pakistan Government are concerning. That is why we are looking again at what more we might be able to do. I will give way one more time.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On pathway 1, regarding those who had been separated during Operation Pitting, he said that a spouse and a dependent child would be able to come to the UK. Where there is a non-dependent child, or more than one—I think he said one—dependent child, is the Minister really now saying that those smaller families in Afghanistan who had been called under Operation Pitting, that perhaps because of the explosion were not able to get to the UK in safety, are now going to be divided yet further and separated yet further? Surely, that cannot be what he meant.

No, I think the hon. Gentleman misheard me. I am happy to restate for the record that, once in operation, this will allow eligible individuals to refer one spouse or partner, and dependent children, for resettlement. There is no suggestion of splitting up children from their parents.

On the question of non-dependent children, that is not in our proposal, but I am happy to revert to the hon. Gentleman with more detail on that.

Colleagues have covered many of the points I was going to make, but I want to ask a question just specifically on that point. My office has received many stories similar to those of hon. Members here about people in horrendous situations. Particularly on ACRS pathway 1, it would be very helpful if the Minister were able to publish some more guidance that offices can use. My understanding was that, under ACRS pathway 1, people cannot access the refugee family reunion procedure, so there is then a danger that if they apply, the application will be rejected as invalid. We do not want to advise them to do that then be deemed invalid, when actually we know from what the Minister has said today that there should be a pathway for family members to come to the UK safely. Some guidance on this from the Minister would be so helpful for all of our offices, if that is possible.

I will be very happy to do that. I appreciate that all those represented here today, and in fact most Members of this House, are working with constituents in this situation. I will instruct my officials to review the information that we have available and send it to the hon. Gentleman and other interested Members. If he feels it is insufficient, then he should please give us guidance.

One of the questions at the heart of this debate is our ability to house people satisfactorily here in the UK. With the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, we worked intensively over the first half of this year to ensure that almost all individuals in the Afghan bridging hotels were moved on into settled accommodation. The remaining individuals are in pre-matched situations where they are awaiting their property becoming available, so will swiftly move out of that accommodation. That is a success, but we need to ensure that we do not find ourselves in that situation again. It is for that reason that we have exercised a degree of caution in bringing individuals to the UK without accommodation available.

We want to work with as many local authorities as possible to find further homes that we can then match with families in Pakistan awaiting entry to the United Kingdom. We all appreciate the pressures on local authorities: their own housing lists for the domestic population; handling Homes for Ukraine, the Syrian scheme and the Hong Kong scheme; and the consequences of illegal migration. Together, those factors make it an extremely challenging period for them. Since 2015, we have welcomed 530,000 people into our country on humanitarian grounds—more than at any time in our modern history—and much of that pressure lies with local authorities. That does not mean we should prevent individuals from coming to the United Kingdom. We need to work intensively with local authorities to bring forward more properties swiftly.

A further avenue is to ensure that service family accommodation units are brought up to scratch, made available and matched with individuals and their families in Pakistan, or indeed in Afghanistan. Understandably, the Ministry of Defence is leading that work, and we are doing everything we can to encourage them to bring forward their hundreds of properties very swiftly.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I know he is very keen, and this was his debate. Then I must wrap up.

Will the Minister address the mismatch in staffing resource? It seems disproportionate that there were 540 staff working on the Ukraine scheme and there are 36 on the Afghan scheme. I do not want in any way to downplay the Ukraine scheme—it has been a great success. However, we need to see similar priority given to the Afghans.

I would be happy to take away the hon. Gentleman’s comment and consider it. In my experience, the challenges he has described in this debate are not primarily related to the number of caseworkers dealing with individual cases. The biggest challenge facing the UK on this issue is the availability of accommodation. The more homes we are able to bring forward—whether that be by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities procuring homes under the schemes they have available, the Ministry of Defence bringing forward service family accommodation, or each of our own local authorities bringing forward accommodation—the more families we will be able to bring into the UK with ease. The alternatives are for individuals to wait in Pakistan, to come to the United Kingdom of their own volition, having had their case decided by the Home Office, which is happening at significant pace, or to come and spend time in contingency accommodation. Our recent experience with that was not positive and I would be loth to return to it, although we do not rule it out.

I will bring my remarks to a close by thanking the hon. Member for Brent North for securing the debate, and all those who have contributed. I appreciate that 30 minutes is too short to address all the questions hon. Members have on this issue. The Government believe that the UK has a generous offer to those affected by events in Afghanistan, and we are delivering on that offer. That is most clearly demonstrated by the fact that 24,600 people are now beginning their new lives here, and that more will follow. We remain committed to our Afghan schemes, but we need to deliver those commitments in an orderly manner. That is the duty of a Government, and it is also what the public expects. We can only welcome, support and accommodate individuals arriving under our safe and legal routes as part of a sustainable and well-managed immigration scheme in partnership with others, in particular the local authorities who have to support those individuals and their families.

Finally, I call on all Members to support our Afghan schemes, work with their local councils, and support the work we are doing under the Illegal Migration Act 2023 to consult with local authorities on their capacity to take further individuals. That consultation will be published soon.

Question put and agreed to.

Plastic Packaging Tax on Imports: HMRC Enforcement

I beg to move,

That this House has considered HMRC enforcement of plastic packaging tax on imports.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am grateful for the chance, however long it might be, to raise this issue.

The tax has been enforced for about 18 months. As a Parliament, we are not brilliantly effective at reviewing taxes after we have introduced them to check that they are working how we intended. This is one of those unique taxes where the Environment Secretary said last week that she was disappointed at how much the tax was raising—I am not sure that she had checked with the Treasury before she said it. I will talk about an area where we could perhaps raise a little bit more money.

There is real concern in the industry about illegal imports which claim to have a sufficient amount of recycled plastic content, when that is not the case—and there is very little enforcement to try to work out whether it is or not. It is hard to do because we cannot look at stretch film—I actually have some here with me—and work out how much recycled content is in it: there are no tests that can be done. We need robust processes to make sure that the claims people are making have some basis, and they are following the rules.

I asked for this debate because the industry had a meeting with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and the latter said that enforcement was not its job—I am afraid that under the law, it clearly is. The idea that the job can be passed on to someone at the border who can check a pallet and see what is in the cling film will not work. It needs to be a process-driven situation. The law was clearly written, there is “joint and several liability” on both the importer who brings in the plastic film and claims that it has recycled content, and on the people who buy it from them and place it on the market. There is a whole of collection of ways we can enforce this on them. We can ensure that the big retailers and manufacturers, the ones that have robust supply chains, are doing the work they need to do before buying this stuff, so that they can be sure that they are not buying something that is undercutting the market.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, while the introduction of the plastic packaging tax was a really positive thing that ensured we got more use from recycled material, in this case, with no verification of products manufactured outside the UK, the grave danger is that we are doing a disservice to UK manufacturers?

That is the exact point that I am trying to make. We will not get more use of recycled content if we do not enforce the law and ensure that our domestic businesses are not undercut by the market. The fact is that plastic film that includes recycled content is 20% more expensive than using virgin polymer; that is why we need to have the plastic packaging tax. If we allow imports to enter which claim to contain that, and avoid the tax, clearly they can undercut the market for products that can be made here. That will mean that we cannot achieve the objectives that we want to achieve.

This is not a cheap industry to start up. If someone wants to mechanically recycle plastic so they can create 30% recycled plastic content, they need to have some very sophisticated machinery. It is a very difficult and intensive process, first to wash the plastic film, then shred it, and then turn it back into pellets, and the industry needs to invest millions and millions of pounds in the lines. This process happens in my constituency, and if the Minister wishes to come and see how it works, he is more than welcome.

We need enforcement to send the right signals out that it is safe to invest in this industry because there will be a market for the recycled pellet. Sadly, we have already seen at least one factory go bust because it could not find a market for its product, and others will be under threat.

We can be pretty sure that we have a problem because industry experts have assured me that there is no way that the film I have with me here, which is 12 micron film from India—film this thin, this strong and this stretchy—can be made with any recycled content. It is technically impossible with mechanical recycling to get the film either clear enough or strong enough to work like the film I have here does. If I tried to stretch film with recycled content, it would just tear. We can be absolutely sure that wherever the film I have is coming from, it is not complying with our plastic packaging tax.

I want to raise with the Minister, in the time we have, some questions about HMRC’s enforcement strategy, the work it has done so far, and how we can get the message to people buying this stuff that they are committing an offence, and that there is a risk that they will be caught, with significant financial and reputational penalties. All manner of businesses using this stuff on their products would be horrified to find out that it has no recycled content. They are trying to comply with the law and want to be seen to be helping the environment by using recycled plastic. If we can get that message out, there is a real chance to improve performance.

My hon. Friend is being generous with his time. If we know that shrink and wrap films are not using recycled content, why can it not be assumed that an imported product does not contain 30% recycled material? A piece of paper that is produced by an overseas manufacturer cannot possibly be evidence. Although it is unreasonable to expect HMRC inspectors to visit plants around the world, if we know that there cannot be recycled material in it, why can that not be the assumption?

I strongly agree that we could beef up the HMRC guidance. HMRC has published guidance on the due diligence checks that businesses buying this plastic film should make. It does require something stronger than just asking for a certificate.

My hon. Friend is right: if I were buying film from a reputable company in Germany that had all the accreditations under German and EU law, and had the annual inspections that we require in the UK to prove its process complied with the rules, we could be quite relaxed about that. That is fair competition and fair imports. Where we have a much greater issue is when we import from the Pacific rim without those standards and inspection in place. How could anyone be sure that the piece of paper represents anything? Even if it represented something when it was first granted, how can anyone be sure it has been complied with? That is especially when what is coming in cannot possibly comply and there is no way that could happen.

I request the Minister to provide guidance or a list of territories where there could be a lower risk approach, and those territories with a higher risk approach if buying film sourced from there, and assume that the plastic packaging tax applies. It would be quite straightforward to work out which countries have an equivalent standards and inspections regime to ours, and be a little softer on enforcement for those, and which countries do not have that, where there should be a high-risk approach.

It is effectively tax avoidance, bordering on tax evasion. Buying a product that undercuts the market price in the UK, which research shows cannot be technologically produced in a way that meets UK standards, and turning a blind eye thanks to a piece of paper, is not behaviour that we would accept anywhere in the tax code as competent due diligence and an attempt to comply with the tax. There is progress we could make there.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies; there has been a swift change of Chair in the last three and a half hours. I am grateful to everyone who has come back after the short interval for this crowd-pulling debate.

Before we disappeared, I was trying to convince the Government that, with a bit more work, they could raise extra tax, protect jobs in the UK and help achieve their environmental objectives. My case, which I hope is relatively uncontroversial, is that if we can find a bit more resource for enforcement, there will be significant potential advantages.

It is not that we do not know what we should try to do. HMRC published guidance for people involved in the supply chain of plastic packaging components containing 30% or more recycled plastic. They should be making checks, including

“checking that the price you pay for packaging components reflects the current market value—if components are offered at a lower market value, you should find out the reason for the low cost”.

That sounds quite reasonable. Checks also include

“getting copies of any certifications or audits that have been conducted on your suppliers, or the re-processors of recycled plastic”—

that is, looking for real evidence—and

“conducting physical inspections or audits on your packaging supply chain to prove information given by suppliers or customers”,

as well as

“checking details provided against other sources, such as supplier and customer websites”.

Those are all reasonable things that large companies buying these materials should have the resource to do. It would be helpful if the Minister could answer this, if he has the data from HMRC: in how many audits has HMRC found that people have been importing what they believe, or claim, to be recycled plastic, but are not paying the correct tax? How many of those audits have resulted in any kind of investigation or penalties being issued? How much are those penalties? How much extra tax has been collected?

The feeling across the sector is that there has been far more compliance enforcement against UK manufacturers —not unreasonably for a new tax—than there has been against the imports. However, it seems that the biggest risk to revenue leakage is from those imports. Perhaps the Minister could consider whether HMRC could do anything more to publicise the rules, and to really make it clear to the industry that the rules are there, that there are significant penalties, and that there are things that industry should be doing to protect its reputation and ensure that it complies. There is just a general lack of awareness. Given that there is a 20% cost saving available here, and given that times are quite tight, we can understand that people may get a bit tempted to not look too closely if we are not careful.

This is not a small problem. Roughly half of all stretch film that goes on the market in the UK is imported, either as rolls of film or on finished products. We are not talking about a small quantity. Think of the scale of the problem if we get enforcement wrong; there is a very large market out there that could end up avoiding tax in the UK. We really do not want that. I accept that it is early days for the tax—it has been around for only 18 months—and we must all learn how to comply with the processes, but hopefully there has been some use in having this debate to flag up something that seems to be going slightly awry. The issue is causing industry significant concern. If we cannot find a way of fixing this, it could cost us revenue and jobs, and securing the investment that we want in getting more plastic recycling will be very hard if business cannot see a viable market.

I suspect that the Government will want to increase the 30% requirement up to 40%. I think that the EU wants 70% by 2040, so I am sure that we will go in that direction. However, we can get there only if industry is prepared to invest, and we need to give it the confidence to do so. I hope that the Minister will be able to give the industry encouragement that it is worth investing in the sector.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this evening, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for securing and leading this important debate. The focus of all Members across the Chamber should be on ensuring that the implementation of the plastic packaging tax aligns with our shared goal of reducing the quantity of virgin, non-recycled plastic in use in the United Kingdom by guaranteeing that importers will face the same tax rates as domestic producers.

It is an undeniable fact that PPT is a valuable tool in encouraging firms into a transition away from virgin plastics; I think we are all agreed on that. However, data released by HMRC in August reveals a stark discrepancy. Yes, it is indeed early days for the tax, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley said; however, although it was estimated that 20,000 businesses across various sectors would be affected by the PPT, only 4,142 had actually registered to pay by 8 August 2023. That is one fifth of the total expected. That raises a vital question: what has gone wrong with the roll-out of this scheme? We look forward to the Minister informing us of that.

Industry leaders have expressed the concern that many of us feel that certain countries’ businesses are exempt from paying PPT. Of course, that is just one concern, but it is one that creates a risk of importers undercutting our domestically produced goods and undermining the competitiveness of our home-grown industries. We must ensure that PPT is levied fairly, and make sure that tax is paid on all imported products without exception. The UK Government must address these concerns and provide industry leaders with the assurances that they clearly seek.

Furthermore, PPT is failing to encourage firms effectively to reduce their plastic usage, primarily due to the gaps that we find in the regulations. Firms are using recycled plastics created through chemical recycling, which is a process that poses serious environmental and pollution challenges to the Government. We cannot afford to overlook the carbon-intensive nature of this process either. Plastics created through chemical recycling should not be exempt from taxation.

Although the threshold of 30% recycled material is a positive step, we believe that it is unambitious when compared to the European Commission’s approach, which levies a uniform 80 cents per kilogram for non-recycled plastic. Perhaps, to drive a substantial transition towards 100% recyclable materials, we should consider increasing the threshold. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views about that.

We know that PPT raised £276 million in the financial year 2022-23. However, although that revenue is welcome, it is imperative that we reinvest it in increasing the supply of recycled packaging alternatives that are available to consumers. Of course, the tax is designed to provide an economic incentive for businesses to use recycled plastics and we must ensure that the revenue generated by it supports that primary goal. The lack of supply of packaging materials is hindering the transition away from virgin plastics, so we must reinvest in creating high-value jobs, increasing wealth and reducing the amount of plastic sent to incineration, or indeed landfill.

We cannot ignore the substantial concerns surrounding PPT and its effectiveness in achieving its intended purposes. We must address the issues with the scheme’s roll-out, ensure that there is fairness in taxation for imports, eliminate exemptions for chemical- recycled plastics and raise the threshold to encourage greater use of recycled materials. It is our collective responsibility to safeguard our environment and economy through smart and effective policies.

It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Mr Davies.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) on securing this debate on HMRC’s enforcement of the plastic packaging tax on imports. I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Opposition.

As Opposition Members made clear throughout the introduction and implementation of the plastic packaging tax, we support it as a tool to tackle plastic pollution. The tax was introduced in April last year to provide an economic incentive for businesses to use recycled plastic in the manufacture of plastic packaging. By applying a tax on products that contain less than 30% of recycled plastic, the tax was expected to create greater demand for recycled plastic, which in turn would stimulate increased recycling and collection of plastic waste, diverting it from landfill or incineration.

Of course, today’s debate has focused on the enforcement of the tax on imported plastics by HMRC. I understand that in 2022-23, the first year in which the tax applied, 48% of the plastics declared as being subject to it were flagged as plastics imported into the UK, so I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s response to the points made by the hon. Member for Amber Valley about ensuring that the tax is applied correctly to imports and making sure that there is a level playing field for UK businesses.

More widely, as we make the transition to more sustainable plastics, we know that concerns have been expressed in the agricultural sector, among domestic manufacturers and in the wider business community about how they will adapt to the changing policy context. Indeed, I know that the hon. Member for Amber Valley has spoken before about his concerns about the way in which silage film was unexpectedly added to the list of items caught by the plastic packaging tax in guidance published in late 2021. He pointed out at the time that that meant that industries had not prepared for the change and that the cost would fall directly on farmers at a very difficult time for them. That point was also made by the National Farmers Union, which successfully secured a change of course by the Government, with HMRC concluding early in 2022 that silage film fell under an exemption from the tax.

Clearly, it would have been less disruptive if the Government had taken their ultimate position in the first place, rather than publishing guidance and then changing their mind. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out some detail about what the Treasury and HMRC have learned from the experience, and what they are doing more widely to work with the agricultural sector and businesses in the broader economy to assist with the transition to more sustainable plastics.

Furthermore, although it is important to tackle less sustainable packaging products from overseas, it is also important that we build resilience here in the UK and have a clear, stable policy environment to encourage investment in our country. I was therefore concerned to note that, in response to the Government’s recent announcement that they would consult on a new, mass-balance approach to chemical recycling, the British Plastics Federation noted that a

“lack of clarity to date has prevented companies from investing in the UK and some have looked elsewhere to build facilities.”

As the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), set out last week, we believe that Britain must rebuild its domestic resilience across the economy. We must make more here in Britain while developing robust supply chains so that we are less exposed to global shocks. A clear, stable policy environment is critical to encouraging companies to invest in productive capacity here in the UK, and it is therefore crucial in securing the jobs and economic resilience that such investment would bring, so I will be grateful if the Minister can explain what the Government are doing to support private investment in the production of sustainable plastics here in the UK.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies.

Let me congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) on securing this debate on the plastic packaging tax. This world-leading environmental tax is designed to incentivise businesses to use more recycled plastic packaging in their production. As has been said, the manufacturers and importers of plastic packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic are liable for a new tax.

The plastic packaging tax is one of a series of measures to drive more collection and recycling of plastic waste, helping us to reach our ambitious target to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. However, I recognise that some people make false claims about recycled content in packaging and do not pay the taxes they owe, and they not only undermine important environmental objectives, but create an unfair and uneven playing field for businesses that are trying to do the right thing. That was why we consulted extensively to get all aspects of the tax design right, including taxpayer obligations and the evidence required to back up claims of recycled content. It is also why, since the plastic packaging tax was introduced in April last year, HMRC has been actively helping businesses to understand their obligations, and developing a comprehensive enforcement and compliance response to identify and tackle any non-compliance.

As I have mentioned, the tax applies to plastic packaging that is either manufactured in or imported into the United Kingdom, including plastic packaging that is already filled at the time of importation. Following extensive consultation, the tax includes a de minimis threshold of 10 tonnes of packaging per year, which is intended to avoid placing a disproportionate administrative burden on businesses that would outweigh the environmental benefits. This means that many small importations of plastic packaging will be out of scope of the tax.

I want to address some points about evidence requirements. In designing the tax, it was important that we struck the right balance to ensure that claims were credible, while avoiding placing a disproportionate burden on businesses. Essentially, the challenge is that there is no scientific test to determine the recycled plastic content of packaging. For that reason, businesses are legally required to hold a body of evidence that shows the origin and content of recycled material, the details of manufacture or import of the individual plastic packaging components, and the proportion of recycled plastic in the outputs from the recycling process. As there is no one-size-fits-all approach, the type of evidence required is not prescribed—there is not one certificate. There can be a range of evidence, such as contracts, certificates and purchase orders.

Let me directly address some of the specific comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), who spoke about importers, as did the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray). We recognise that importers are a higher risk and must demonstrate the same standard of record keeping as UK manufacturers. Where businesses do not have or hold sufficient evidence for us to inspect, they must not declare that their packaging contains at least 30% recycled plastic, and they must pay PPT.

In addition, HMRC has a range of enforcement and inspection powers at its disposal, as well as sanctions and penalties, but the Government have also gone further by improving the legislative environment to introduce criminal offences for businesses that evade PPT. In a minute, I will come on to what action HMRC has already taken in that area, because several colleagues have asked for that information.

The Minister has acknowledged that, for reasons of safety, food contact applications cannot, by their very nature, include recycled material. I wonder whether he would accept that the plastic packaging tax should automatically apply to any imports of material used where food contact is involved.

To be clear, the presumption is that businesses need to demonstrate that they meet the threshold to have relief from the tax. If they cannot do that, they must pay the tax. That is clear, and I hope that that answers my hon. Friend’s question.

Businesses are also required to carry out due diligence on their supply chains and to demonstrate to HMRC what checks have been carried out in their supply chains. HMRC can and will challenge claims from businesses, and is doing so, and anyone in the supply chain can be held liable. When assessing that liability, HMRC will consider due diligence checks undertaken to ensure that the supply chain has taken appropriate steps.

My hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and for Amber Valley both talked about false and fraudulent claims. We are alive to that issue, particularly as it relates, as they pointed out, to the content of recycled plastic. We understand that that is a serious impact for businesses that are just trying to do the right thing, as I said at the beginning.

To embed the tax, HMRC delivered a wide-ranging communications programme that targeted both domestic manufacturers and importers of packaging. It focused on making them aware of the requirements and supporting them to comply with those. Recognising that some businesses may need more time to fully understand their obligations under the new tax, HMRC went even further and allowed a 12-month soft landing period, during which the focus was on education and support for businesses.

Now that that period has ended, businesses must ensure that they have gathered appropriate evidence, filed their returns and paid on time. Although HMRC continues to support businesses, it is now also focusing its efforts and targeting its resources on the areas of highest risk and non-compliance. The tax has been in place for 18 months, so HMRC now holds more data from tax returns to inform risk profiling and emerging trends. Its data-driven approach will help to identify and target instances of error and non-compliance. I will come on to what action has been taken in a second.

As with general taxation, HMRC’s compliance activity for PPT draws on a test and learn approach. That moves through various phases, and approaches can change depending on what HMRC learns along the way. Largely, it has concentrated on targeting unregistered businesses that may have a liability and on developing a better understanding of the plastic packaging tax population, particularly given the tax is so new, to build a risk compliance approach.

I want to address the question of registration. To reiterate, over 4,000 businesses have registered for the tax in 2022-23. We concede that that is lower than the initial estimate of 20,000, but that estimate was made before the final policy decisions on the tax were made. We were very clear that the estimate was always subject to a lot of uncertainty. HMRC continues to engage with businesses and hold them to account. I am pleased to say that, since the tax was launched, 250 additional businesses have now registered with HMRC.

Businesses found to be negligent or cheating the system will incur penalties in addition to the tax due and can face liabilities of up to 100% of the tax due. They can also face legal action to recover the tax; in the most serious cases, as I have said, criminal prosecution may take place. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley asked for statistics on this. I can tell him that so far HMRC has contacted 2,000 businesses proactively and conducted 400 interventions on compliance since the tax went live. So far, £3 million has been recovered as a result of that action. I point out that HMRC will always be open to receiving any information or evidence where businesses or individuals feel that compliance is not in order.

I do not know whether the Minister knows this, but was the enforcement action against the importer or against somebody further up the supply chain?

I had anticipated the question, but was unable to obtain the information in time. If we have that information, I will be happy to follow up and write to my hon. Friend on the breakdown, because he is focused on importers and it is a reasonable question.

I will finally address the point on mass balance and chemical recycling. I should point out that we have launched a consultation on this matter. We are looking at it carefully and will respond to that soon, so watch this space on that point.

As in other areas of tax fraud, the Government are committed to taking strong action across the tax system to address any activity that is unfair and that undermines businesses that are doing the right thing. The plastic packaging tax revenues in the first year, as has already been said, were £276 million, which is broadly in line with the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts. That indicates that the amount of plastic packaging subject to the tax is in line with expectations. However, as hon. Members will have heard, work to ensure that all obligated businesses are registered and compliant with the tax continues to this day. If a business or individual has specific concerns or, I reiterate, intelligence about tax non-compliance, I encourage them to report it to HMRC through the normal channels, so that we can ensure a level playing field for everyone. Everybody in this Chamber has expressed a desire to achieve that.

I have half an hour, Mr Davies, so I can wind up at great length. I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. Hopefully, it has given us a chance to illuminate the issue and to give some profile to the importance of getting this right. I think we all, on all sides, want this tax to deliver its objectives; we all want to see more recycling of plastic packaging. There has to be a role for chemical recycling, because when it comes to anything that comes into contact with food, we cannot use recycled content through the manual route. That is a large percentage of the plastic packaging going on the market, so more progress will be needed in that direction.

I thank the Minister for the information he has given. I certainly hope that HMRC will be alert to this issue and try to ensure that the tax works as intended and achieves all the objectives that we want it to achieve.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered HMRC enforcement of plastic packaging tax on imports.

Sitting adjourned.