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Westminster Hall

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 5 December 2023

[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Road Humps and 20 mph Speed Limits

I beg to move,

That this House has considered road humps and 20 mph speed limits.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. The issue that I am raising today affects a much wider group than just my constituents, but I am raising it on behalf of my constituents because of their particular concern that they are not listened to when they raise the problems that they face.

Let me be clear from the outset that this debate is not about a blanket opposition to traffic-calming measures, or even to road humps per se. It is, instead, about the unnecessary blanket use of traffic-calming measures in residential areas where they are not necessary. It is not about opposing traffic-calming measures anywhere where they are vital, such as outside schools or hospitals, where, properly applied, they are about safety. That is not the issue. Some are concerned that this is about blanket opposition. It is not; it is about an opposition to the way in which these measures are applied, the rationale behind them and the effects on constituents living in houses nearby.

I am concerned about the roll-out of 20 mph zones and the associated traffic-calming measures in residential areas. There are serious unintended consequences for residents that need to be considered if fairness is to be in the mix. Those consequences include significant vibrations. I have sat in a number of houses next to what I call the higher road restriction tables, where even at 20 mph, large, heavy lorries hitting the humps create enormous vibrations through the houses beyond. The attempt to brake as they go into them creates more emissions. The unintended consequences—the vibrations, damage to property, noise and interruption to sleep, as this is often at night—of vehicles going over these significant speed humps are why I believe that the 20 mph zone should be considered road by road, not on a blanket basis. It is vital to have local consent in these instances, rather than just having blanket measures.

Local authorities have the authority to set local speed limits, given their knowledge of local needs and priorities. They have the power to implement 20 mph speed limits: the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (Amendment) Order 1999 enables local authorities to introduce 20 mph zones without, it appears, having to apply for permission. However, the Department for Transport has made it clear that any changes to the speed limit should be proportionate—that is an important word—and based on circumstances. I will come back to that point, because it appears that it is certainly not being applied in many areas where residents have concerns.

My right hon. Friend is making a very strong argument. A great many people in Pembrokeshire and elsewhere have a lot of sympathy for slower traffic speeds, particularly in built-up areas outside schools, for example. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Labour Government have made two mistakes? They have got themselves into such a mess with their default, blanket 20 mph policy in Wales. First, they do not understand that what people want more than anything is proper enforcement of the existing 30 mph zones. Secondly, they are not trusting the local councils, which know their communities best, to come up with appropriate schemes in their local areas.

I am a long way from Wales, but I take my right hon. Friend’s point about decisions being taken in an arbitrary manner and sometimes in pursuit of a wider political objective. I simply say that his comments have been noted, and I am sure that the Minister will consider them when he winds up the debate. I agree about making sure that local authorities—and even wider authorities such as the Mayor of London or the Government in Wales—consult properly and discuss with local residents their needs and concerns. Their consideration is important in the application of these measures in their areas.

Too many Londoners in my constituency and elsewhere are struggling on main roads that have rapidly been brought down from 40 mph to 20 mph. The lower speed limit means that there is almost invariably some focus on the speedometer rather than on the road, because people are concerned that they cannot afford the fine. This may seem apocryphal, but taxi drivers are saying that they are moving out of their line of work simply because it is becoming impossible for them to navigate this process, especially taking into account some of the calming measures that have been over-instated throughout the city, where some of the roads they use are now blocked, even for some of the residents.

The important point, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) raised, is that enforcement can be lawfully carried out only by the police. The police are already under pressure, so it is difficult to see how the measures will not be abused, even when they are so little applied. The cost of the cameras alone is enormous. The extension of the 20 mph speed limits on main roads is affecting police workload.

I turn to a major issue in my constituency and, I believe, elsewhere. Speed bumps can be useful traffic-calming measures at times, but they are also extremely disruptive for residents, cyclists and emergency service vehicles in places where they may not necessarily need to be applied. My constituents have been genuinely affected by the roll-out of the 20 mph speed limits, combined with speed humps and the associated speed reduction measures in London. I know that I am not alone; many colleagues experience similar constituency issues.

Since the implementation of speed humps in residential areas, constituents have regularly raised with me the damage done to buildings by vibration transfer, such as cracking, possible subsidence, the long-term effects of the obstructions on local infrastructure, the increase in poor air quality, and emissions from vehicle engines, tyres and brake pads. Transport for London reports that in 2018, 75% of road transport particulate emissions came from tyre and brake wear. It is worth pointing out that many drivers naturally accelerate away from a speed hump, brake hard when they arrive at another, go over it and carry on. The emissions from brake pads and heavily used brakes are much greater than those coming out of the tailpipe of a diesel or petrol car. In a way, in the over-application—I stress the “over”—of these kinds of speed reduction measures, we are slightly contradicting our efforts to get pollution down.

Emissions are a subject that has been debated widely by London MPs and others in London, particularly because of the ultra low emission zone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the increasing traffic that has resulted from a range of schemes—such as the low-traffic neighbourhoods that have closed off many side roads in London—carries a risk of increasing emissions? London is now officially the slowest city in the world to drive in.

I very much accept that point. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, because I was going to come to that issue. It is not an issue particular to London, but in London we have the problem that traffic-calming measures are causing higher emissions in parts of the city where the measures are applied, and at the same time traffic is being funnelled with no escape routes.

We also need to take into consideration the increase in noise pollution during the day. Conversations are being drowned out in many houses near the humps, and the effect of the additional noise on residents living in the vicinity of a hump—not forgetting that the traffic goes up and down such roads all through the night—is that sleep is disturbed.

I have been in a number of houses and have stood and watched as commercial vehicles have gone over large 20 mph tables. I could hear the equipment in the back leaping up and down and the thump as the vehicles hit the tables—and they were not going over the speed limit. That is the point. When I have raised it with the council, it has dismissed it completely on the basis that it does not agree that the measures cause any problem whatever. The effects of additional noise on residents living in the vicinity include disturbed sleep and the stress resulting from sleep deprivation.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that another issue arises when road traffic-calming measures have been put in place where there are suitable diversionary routes for some motorists to avoid the speed humps and traffic-calming measures? There is increased traffic on those roads as a result. People complain on the routes where the humps are, but people living on adjacent roads also complain because of the increased traffic that has resulted from the humps.

Yes, I agree. The funny thing, which I raised the other day, is that if we are moving towards low-emission or zero-emission vehicles, electric vehicles, hydrogen-propelled vehicles and so on, which is the generally accepted plan for where we want to be, are we now aiming for road usage by low or net zero vehicles, or is it just a blanket anti-car problem? That is an issue that I never settle. In a way, we will be defeating ourselves as we head towards that process. Will the measures be lifted as more people have zero-emission vehicles?

The question is: why are the speed humps there? They are there, in essence, because in areas where they are necessary, no one objects to the idea of proportionate use. However, when they are combined with low-traffic neighbourhoods, it becomes a major problem. People are forced on to roads, which means that the poor residents who live near them get even further increased levels of noise pollution, vibration and brake pad wear. That is toxic anyway, and is made more so than if those drivers had been able to use other routes to get out of those areas.

I return to the point about disturbed sleep. I have talked to residents who are genuinely deeply stressed by what has happened since heavy speed bumps have been put in place in 20 mph or even higher speed zones. As for the effects on the public’s mental health, some residents now genuinely suffer from some kind of clinical depression.

There is also damage to people travelling in vehicles, including buses, that traverse humps. Even if someone is doing less than 20 mph, they hit those things and they know it. For cyclists and others, as I mentioned, that is a major issue. I happen to be a motorcycle rider, and I must say that there are significant problems. Some of the tables are so high that riders have to stand up off the bike, making it less manoeuvrable. I have some sympathy for all those other road users, whom we rather forget about but whom we are encouraging to use those methods of travel more because they pollute less or not at all.

Research has been undertaken with bus drivers on the effects on their health of the constant impact damage on the spine and neck from the rocking motion. If we are asking for more buses and more public transport, we should recognise that those are bigger vehicles, and the effect on them and on neighbourhoods is significant.

Let me move on to the damage done to vehicles as a result of poor maintenance and the design of speed hump installations. In my borough, speed humps and calming measures on residential roads are the responsibility of the local authority, as they are everywhere else. The humps in the London Borough of Waltham Forest have been poorly maintained, with road surfaces on the exits dipping because of the impact of vehicles. Along with the scrape marks on the crown of the hump, which give some indication of the existing problem, vehicles grounding on the top of the humps when passing over them would suggest that those humps are not really fit for the purpose originally intended.

The authority installed the speed humps because of research generated by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory in 1981 and 1990, but the research data in those reports, astonishingly, dates back to 1958, the 1960s and at the latest the 1970s. That is my main point about the whole process: it uses data that is completely unrelated to traffic use today, the nature of cars, the size of vehicles and all the consequences. We rely on data that does not encompass any of that or the change in how cars and vehicles are used.

The old research data—on which my local authority and, I am sure, others rely heavily—was gathered using one double decker bus on a small section of one road in Lytham in Lancashire in 1977, where buses were scheduled to run once every 30 minutes. We then have data from 1978 from a small section of one 302-metre road in Winchester, which had only three houses on it, and one 438-metre road on the Isle of Wight. It cannot be fair or right that there is a blanket rejection of all concerns, as is happening in my local authority area, which refuses to look at the matter carefully because it says that its measures are based on studies. Those studies are irrelevant to traffic usage today.

The final study, which really threw me, looked at a 280-metre road in Rotherhithe, comprising very few houses. That was in 1978. I am not quite sure what they were studying at the time, but it certainly has nothing to do with my constituency or borough. This is not a Labour or Conservative issue; it is about residents and citizens who live in such areas trying to get to work and use their cars for different reasons. We need to consider the wider consequences.

None of the research data or reports is therefore relevant to east London or to 21st-century traffic. The traffic in the 1960s and 1970s was very different from today’s: the dramatic increase in the volume, frequency and weight of all traffic, especially heavy goods vehicles and electric vehicles, means that it is not comparable with the data that is now being used to justify what is going on. To date, the council has not conducted an investigation of speed tables in my constituency or borough. It simply rejects the idea that it should do so or that there should be an independent study.

In October, councillors—they happen to be my Conservative group—proposed a motion that called on the local authority to carry out an independent review simply to monitor suspected vibrations and the nature of the traffic-calming measures. It was rejected out of hand. Unfortunately, there was no other recourse. That is why I secured this debate: it seems that there is no other way for my local councillors or me to raise the issue. My residents, regardless of where they live, are frustrated and unable to find any other recourse.

I ask the Minister: what are the consequences for a council that fails to comply with the statement contained in the Department for Transport’s letter dated 26 April 2023? It states:

“Local councillors are responsible for ensuring that local decisions about street infrastructure take account of the needs and opinions of local people.”

That is simply not happening. It is a wider issue. It does not matter whether it is a Conservative or Labour council; that statement is being thrust to one side in the desire to put the calming measures, as they are called, in place.

I want to quote from one or two of my residents who have raised the matter, because it is important. Tony Thorne said:

“My wife suffers with arthritis of the spine and we recently had cause to travel in Waltham Forest going to visit our son in Whipps Cross Hospital and when we got home she wanted to cry with the pain”,

as a result of the constant jerking. He goes on:

“We now have to plan our journeys to avoid certain areas due to the speed humps which even when you travel over them at 10 mph there are still problems with the bounce on exit.”

I have seen that for myself, by the way. He goes on:

“I have spoken to a number of bus drivers who drive the roads of Waltham Forest who all mention the problems these obstructions cause including drivers being off work sick with back and neck pain and additional stress due to having to negotiate these structures.”

Lee Gilbert said:

“We suffer sleep deprivation and I suffer from anxiety and fear that the movements may cause the house to collapse whilst in bed. There are 20 mph signs although they are not adhered to. We have been trying to seek a solution to this major problem since the Speed Hump was installed in July 2022 with no results.”

Tracey Gauld said:

“I was injured when my car was hit by a drunk driver which left me requiring surgery on my collar bone. Still to this day, going over humps is uncomfortable due to the seat belt”.

Andrew Mckinley said:

“Since the speed humps have been installed outside my house, I have not had a full night’s quality sleep…I do believe in a safer and clearer environment for all. I would normally cycle 12 miles to work each day but have been unable to do so as it would be unsafe as I’m very tired due to lack of sleep. This is having a big negative impact on my mental and physical wellbeing”.

Finally, Adam Thackeray said:

“Since a speed bump has been installed on Station Road”—

that is in my constituency—

“my house judders when busses and large vehicles go past. The house, mainly the top two floors shake, the windows vibrate, and this has resulted in cracks appearing around the house on various walls, with the top floor suffering the most. It’s also difficult to get to sleep on the top floor, due to the vibrations causing furniture to rattle and sash windows shake”.

To some people, those issues may appear unimportant, but if we are elected to do anything at all, it is to represent the concerns and interests of our constituents when they spot a significant problem that affects their lives. That is why I make no apology for raising the matter. It is not a minor issue. It is becoming a significant issue where these things have often been imposed without any proper discussion or any sense of what is required on our streets and what the issues are in respect of traffic calming and speed.

As things stand, the Mayor of London provides funding to boroughs for the implementation of traffic-calming measures. I have been assured that, if successful, the new Mayor after the mayoral contest will ask the boroughs to ensure that all measures are examined so that the most appropriate are put in place; implement a review of all Transport for London-owned roads that have 20 mph speed limits; and, where appropriate, make changes. That is a natural position to take. I hope that the present Mayor of London will adopt the same policy, because it is clear that people living in houses near traffic- calming measures and people who drive public transport are suffering unnecessarily.

I am calling on the Department for Transport to carry out, where local authorities and others will not do so, a full independent inquiry to review roads with 20 mph speed limits, on a road-by-road basis, and to consider the impact of traffic-calming measures such as road humps and the speed tables that are even higher. Such a review could help to limit the unintended consequences of vibrations from ill-applied traffic-calming measures by finding out relevant information and up-to-date data.

I remind the Minister and others that the Department for Transport has made it clear that any changes to the speed limits and to traffic-calming measures should be proportionate and based on circumstances. Right now, there is no up-to-date independent review of how such measures should be applied, and no up-to-date independent analysis of what the effects are. The council in my area is therefore able to dismiss all requests for independent reviews. My residents, and residents all over the country, would feel better assured if the Department for Transport carried out a review to get the matter properly settled so that we can bring peace of mind to residents whose lives are being disproportionately damaged by bad implementation and ill-thought-through traffic-calming measures.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Robertson. I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for leading today’s debate. He is right to highlight the problems of people who are affected by the measures. I will give some examples from my constituency—which the Minister is not responsible for, by the way, so he will not have to talk about the speed bumps in James Street in Newtownards that are causing concern to local people or about the cracks down the gable wall. That is not the Minister’s responsibility.

I just want to put it on the record. I feel it is important to give a Northern Ireland perspective. I will refer to examples of 20 mph zones where cameras have been put up, and where local endorsement and agreement were key to making that happen. If that happens, the problems by and large do not impact directly on those who live close by.

As always, some of the matters raised today are devolved, but I am here to give a Northern Ireland perspective to the debate and share some thoughts on where we are in Northern Ireland. In London, for example, there are many 20 mph zones and cameras that are used heavily to detect any form of speeding. Back home, the News Letter reported that a new study had found that lower limits cut accidents and reduce serious injury. One of the few 20 mph speed limits in Northern Ireland is in Belfast city centre. It makes sense to have it there. The impact is not on local residents who live close by, because not many do; it is on the shopping centre, which is very big with a pedestrian walkway. It is important to have that speed limit in Belfast city centre. Researchers have found that the measure led to a 2% reduction in crashes.

In 2021-22, we worked incredibly hard to push the then Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, to include Grey Abbey Primary School in phase 2 of the part-time 20 mph speed limit zones for schools in Northern Ireland. That included me, my Strangford MLA and councillor colleagues, and the principal of Grey Abbey Primary School, Mr Derrick—he taught some of my boys at school, so he has been there a long time. I make this point because that is an example of where 20 mph speed limits around schools save lives and make people aware of what they are doing.

After months of emails and chasing the issue up, it was fantastic to hear the announcement in September 2021, in the middle of covid, that phase 2 of the part-time 20 mph speed limit scheme would be rolled out to 106 schools across Northern Ireland, including Grey Abbey in my constituency. It was, and it has made a difference. It has definitely slowed traffic in that area, and it was the right thing to do at a place where students are going to school early in the morning—from half-past 8 to half-past 9, say.

My office would send numerous emails about traffic calming and speed limits each day. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said that he gets an enormous volume of constituency mail about this; I do, too. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that it is one of the biggest issues that constituents have with the roads. While there is an understanding that enforcing speed limits and introducing traffic-calming measures is a long and costly process, there must be an acceptance that some areas are simply more dangerous than others, especially around schools.

Loughries Integrated Primary School is another example in my constituency of where introducing a 20 mph speed limit around a school has made a difference, as it has at Kirkistown Primary School in Main Road in Cloughey. Again, these are examples of where, even though the road may be wide—in Kirkistown it would be very wide—there is a real need to slow people’s speed. Before Loughries was awarded a part-time 20 mph speed limit, it was on a national speed limit road on the Ballyblack Road. I drive on that road frequently back home, and I know many constituents who live on it. I find it quite incomprehensible that a national speed limit road, which posed such a danger to students, could have been allowed so near the school.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman again for raising this issue. Although we all have different guidelines for different parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we are all taking about the same thing: public safety. This is about agreement with the input of local people, especially around schools, where safety is critical. For some high-congestion areas, additional traffic management and a 20 mph limit have been proven to work. I have to say that, from my observations, looking towards London from the outside in, there are areas where it is critical that it happens. However, for the schools in my constituency, the introduction of 20 mph speed limits has gone a long way in protecting the students who attend school there, and moreover it will be a reassurance to the parents to know that this step has been taken.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I hope that my contribution from the Northern Ireland perspective has been helpful. This is all about making safety a priority and about the input of local residents. If we can get them on our side and agree that, then we do not have the impact. In fairness, where damage to property resulting from a high volume of lorries and cars has been highlighted to the roads service back home, the response has always been positive: to try to reduce the volume and avoid that damage.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I must begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this debate. As ever, his finger is on the pulse of what people are thinking in his constituency and across the country, and his determination to respond to that is undimmed. I echo his clear statements that this is not about opposition to the proper application of speed limits for reasons of safety or health. I should add that there is an important debate to be had about the balance between private and public transport, but that is for another day.

Even a short while ago, I would not have guessed that transport and the politics of urban speed restrictions would be an issue to energise the public at large. I can only assume that this was the view of the Labour Government in Wales earlier this year, when they swept such a restriction—a presumption that 30 mph limits would become 20 mph limits across Wales—through the Senedd. How wrong they were. Within 24 hours of the new restrictions being imposed, a petition to abolish them became the most signed in Senedd history—that is 25 years. Since then, some half a million aggrieved residents have put their names to the call to axe this limit. That is more people than who voted for any political party in the last Senedd election.

Indeed, polling today reveals that Welsh voters now back repealing the new restrictions by two to one. When we dig into those figures, we see that opposition outweighs support in every age bracket, every income bracket, every language grouping, every regional grouping and even every 2019 voting group. If anyone were to ask me what political issue unites the people of Wales today, it is opposition to the speed restriction.

That also raises the question: why? The Welsh Government have claimed that this restriction is moderate, even trifling, and is driven by concerns for safety. So why are voters so upset about it? Are voters in Wales foolish? Are they all careless petrolheads? No and no. We have strong communities that feel as deeply as any other when one part is hurting. We see plenty of tragedy on our roads each year—innocent, often young, lives cut short through road accidents where speed is a factor. But the truth is that the effects of this legislation are real, and its impact on services for households, families and businesses runs deep.

Already, businesses that make regular call-outs or that offer delivery services have complained that the 10-minute delays for normal journeys is impacting on the service they can deliver. I have had tradesmen come up and tell me they are losing an average of one job a day because they cannot move quickly enough between contracts. We have also heard of bus services having to skip stops to keep to the timetable for the services they are contracted to deliver.

I want to dwell on care services for a moment. Some 27% of people in my constituency of over Aberconwy are over 65 years old, compared with a UK average of 18%. One might therefore suspect, correctly, that the care services and agencies supporting vulnerable people in their own homes are vital; but the tens of thousands of visits made each year all take time and cost money. Extending that time by just a few minutes per call imposes a substantial cost on an already stretched public purse.

For a rural area such as Aberconwy, let us assume a very modest three-minute delay per round trip. That suggests an additional cost of over 1,000 hours of fuel and wages per year—that is eight-and-a-half to 10 wasted work weeks. If we also assume average UK engine efficiency, current fuel prices and the minimum wage, it is at least £3,500 in additional fuel costs alone, and £11,000 in wages. That is an annual penalty in the region of £15,000 for doing the same work—more than any business can afford, and further than many budgets can stretch.

Costs will, of course, be higher if the pay is above the minimum wage or uses less fuel-efficient vehicles such as vans, trucks and minibuses. Most such businesses and public services will simply be forced to cut back on provision where they cannot charge more or pay their workers less, and those already struggling to break even will go under. In short, these new rules could almost have been designed to diminish services, reduce wages and increase the fatigue associated with running a business or a complex public service.

But what about other workers, parents and families? The vast majority of people in Wales rely on cars to go about their daily lives; for example, 83% per cent of Welsh residents rely on such vehicles to get to work. Similar proportions use them to visit friends and families, to shop, or to take their children to school. For such people the slower journey times are not trivial. Long journeys represent lost time at home with the children, with a partner, with friends, or less time out enjoying the things that bring meaning and enjoyment to our lives. In many cases, restrictions will mean that some weekend visits to friends and family will simply no longer happen. At the margins, the restrictions mark the difference between a home being a commutable distance from work or not. In other words, these speed restrictions take away what the car provides: an ability for many rural constituents to maximise the good things in life.

I will turn briefly to the subject of lost opportunity. The Labour Government in Wales have assessed the potential impact of this policy. They concluded that there would be a “substantial” economic disadvantage to car-based communities, with costs to business and households of up to £8.9 billion, and a central estimate of £6.4 billion. The total cost to the public so far has been £34.4 million. If we applied a simple cost-benefit analysis, we would conclude that, for the cost of this policy, we might have employed hundreds of nurses or doctors, or invested in vital transport upgrades that communities across this country are crying out for.

The suspicion across Wales is that this rule was not passed because it represents a good return on investment, or because Labour leaders believe it would improve the lives of Welsh residents. No, I suspect that at the heart of this move is a general disdain for cars, exuded by those who do not have to rely on them for their daily lives. For my rural community, cars are essential. They dramatically expand our choice of where we can live and work. They expand our social spheres, bring us closer to people we love, and save us valuable time for the things that really matter to us. They are indispensable to the economic and social life of Aberconwy communities. At a fundamental level, they also embody an ideal of Conservative politics: empowering the individual.

As has been pointed out throughout this debate, there are appropriate roads on which to restrict car speeds to 20 mph, for reasons of health and safety and the environment. The sweeping restrictions we see creeping into parts of the UK, however, appear to be the vision of a managerial minority without heed to the expanse of the majority. It is for this reason that I, too, must urge a roll-back of these restrictions. I started by commending my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green for his awareness of what people were thinking. This Saturday, two mums from my constituency, Tina and Debbie—the two people, if I might say, least likely to arrange a protest—will be holding a rally of “Conwy against the 20 mph limit”, in Llandudno. I will be there to support them.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. Where to begin on this particular issue? I am glad that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) brought it before us, because while in some regard it is a very simple area to deal with, it is also a very complex area. I start from the principle of subsidiarity—namely, that the people best able to make the decision at, for example, a local government level, are the best people to make the decision at a local level: a determination by them of the needs of their community. I completely accept that should be in full consultation, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

I was chair of a highways committee when we started to introduce speed humps, bumps and tables over 25 years ago. That was because there were so many people who were sick to death of their residential areas being used as rat runs. They wanted us, the council, to do something about it, so we started that process. However, this is also part of the wider issue of, for want of a better phrase, speed awareness. Speed bumps, humps and tables are one way that we can start changing the culture of people speeding.

Only in the last few days, one of my local schools, St Oswald’s Church of England Primary School, asked me to be a judge of posters made by children in reception to cut speed; I would like to announce the winner, but I do not think the school has announced it yet. The point is that people do recognise the need to cut speed. The figures are there. Starkly, there are 1,700 deaths and 29,000 serious injuries a year on our roads. The right hon. Gentleman talked about the cost of it, but the cost on the human side is absolutely dreadful. The figures from a Statista report show costs of £3.5 billion a year. Where is that factored into this? That has to be taken into account as well.

On the issue of subsidiarity, Parliament is here to set out a framework for how we operate at local government level, for example. I do not think it is for us to tell local government and local councils what they should be doing. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman is not necessarily saying that. However, it is worth pointing out that we give them the responsibility to do this, and it is also the responsibility of the electors in those areas to hold them to account and challenge them.

I welcome that challenge, as I always did as a member of the local authority, but this also has to be part of the wider traffic issue. For example, I understand that no pavement parking is permitted in London, but it is rife in my constituency. It is dangerous: people park on pavements all the time, blocking them, and obstructing elderly people and women and men with prams and wheelchairs. That is also an issue, and it is part of the whole question of traffic calming. There are issues with people parking on cycle lanes, for goodness’ sake, and blocking them—they do not care about anybody but themselves. That is not acceptable either.

In my view, the issue is all about trying to get people to understand that speed kills, whether in a pedestrian area, on a motorway, on an A road or on a B road. It is important that people understand that. Speed humps, bumps and tables—there are variations on themes—do help to control speed on roads. The evidence is there for that. They do reduce accidents, help to regulate traffic and ensure the safety of pedestrians. They are also relatively easy to construct. We know that speed humps are highly effective and important for avoiding road accidents.

If the Government, of whatever party, want more significant research into the issue, I welcome that. Neither I nor anyone else has anything whatever to fear from a full, unambiguous, substantive review of these proposals. I completely accept that that should be evidence-based and that we should learn from the evidence, but that does not detract from the fact that I do not want to tell people in any other constituency, or any Member in this room, what their local traffic-calming plans should or should not be—this should not be by diktat. Whatever assessment the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting, it cannot be a way for the centre here to tell local authorities what to do—where they can or cannot put speed humps or how far apart those should or should not be. That should be a matter for local determination.

The point I was trying to make was that if local residents have concerns about what is happening to them, their houses and so on, they have no ability to benchmark what the council is determined to do. If we want local decision making—yes, absolutely—that needs to be fair and on the basis of the best evidence available so that councils can understand when these things should be applied for best effect, rather than just making arbitrary decisions based on very old measures that actually did nothing at all. The request today is for better independent inquiry into what works, what does not work and where any measures should be. That would be far better. Councils could then discuss that with their electors.

As I said, I do not disagree with that. I am all for it being evidence-based. There are road bumps outside my house. They do not particularly bother me, I have to say, but that is my view. I do not think they particularly bother my neighbour either. They were introduced before I moved into the house over 25 years ago, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). It was called the village entry scheme, because people in the village got sick to death of people speeding through at 60 or 70 mph. The price that we as residents pay for that, to some extent, is road humps outside our houses. If that is the way we want to dress this up, that is the consequence. The alternative consequence is people speeding through, which is more dangerous and more disruptive than the speed humps.

That is my personal perspective. It is a perspective as a Member of Parliament, as a councillor and former chair of highways, and as a resident. I want to take this in the round. I welcome the debate introduced by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green; I just hope that we deal with it in the spirit in which it is intended and, as he said, that we do not politicise it. When we start to politicise things like road humps, speed humps or pelican crossings, there lies—excuse the pun—the road to perdition.

The hon. Gentleman makes some strong points, and subsidiarity is key to this issue. The point is that those road humps are there because of decisions, and those decisions are taken by politicians, so how does he suggest that this is not a political matter?

There is a difference between a political matter and a party political matter. I felt that a bit of party politicking was coming into the debate with talk about the Welsh Government, or this council or the other. I accept that it is a political decision; almost every decision we make is political, but when we make them, we have to balance them in the round.

Without repeating myself, I completely acknowledge what the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said. But when we get the evidence—and we have been here many times in this place—we do not like it, so we try to ignore it. We ignore facts and we do not like experts. I exhort people: if we have a full, clear, unambiguous, independent examination of this matter, once we get the results and the evidence, in my view, it is for the local communities to have their say as part of the consultation process about when particular traffic-calming measures come into place, and whether they be 20 mph speed limits, 10 mph speed limits or whatever they might be.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this important debate. He has made some excellent points, particularly on local decision making, which I am also concerned about. I represent a number of villages in Meon Valley that are unsuitable for high-speed traffic. Some are on the A32, which is one of the worst roads in the country for people being killed and injured, but everywhere in our villages the problems of speeding traffic are a menace to the people living, working and going to school.

I was an MP in Portsmouth when it had recently become one of the first cities to introduce 20 mph zones. The evidence very quickly showed a reduction in the number of incidents because the average speed was brought down, and the change made drivers think more carefully about their behaviour. Everywhere that has done the same has seen a similar reduction in casualty figures. I am pleased that Hampshire County Council is now looking at allowing communities and parish councils to ask for 20 mph zones. I have been calling for that for a long time and residents have been asking for help, particularly along the A32. I hope that the council will allow communities to move forward when it takes a decision in January next year.

Hampshire County Council is considering a report mostly based on conditions in Winchester, as my right hon. Friend said, and other largely built-up areas. But in our rural Meon Valley communities, things are very different. Narrow roads pass right outside people’s front doors, and in many places there are narrow or even no pavements, including on the A32. Residents feel vulnerable because of the speed of traffic. Many notice the return to high-speed traffic after covid—if anything, they saw even more of it as people returned to the countryside. As my right hon. Friend mentioned, we have to recognise, too, that the average modern car is much bigger and heavier than those in the past. Pedestrians are feeling the squeeze, and so are cyclists, horse riders and even other motorists who might not feel so confident as the drivers barrelling along a village at above 40 mph in a 30 mph zone.

The hon. Lady will be aware that 60% of all road fatalities happen on rural roads. Would she agree that we must do something about that?

Yes. That is exactly why I am so concerned, particularly about the A32. People have to walk along that road. There is no pavement and cars go very fast through villages. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

My constituents are delighted that we have recently installed average speed cameras on stretches of the A32 and the A272, which have been abused by speeding drivers for far too long. The cameras will save drivers’ lives and improve the lives of residents in the surrounding villages. They have already told me what a difference those have made.

Cutting speed saves lives. I welcome the support of the Hampshire police and crime commissioner, Donna Jones. She backed the calls that I and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) have made to her to fund the cameras. I will continue to support my constituents across Meon Valley who want safer roads and safer lives for their families, so I hope that Hampshire County Council will let us have the choice of having 20 mph zones in those areas where residents want them.

I also hope that Ministers will look at what the Government can do to empower people to take control of roads in their communities, including through the use of acoustic cameras and properly enforceable noise limits on motor vehicles. This has been a blight on many communities, and I hope that the pilot schemes will soon show that they work and we can roll them out across the country, but especially in Meon Valley.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I agree with several right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken in this debate: traffic cameras and speed limits should not be applied in a blanket fashion. I am a liberal partly because I believe in individual responsibility and partly because I believe that the state should not have overweening power and should not dictate what every single person must do.

I am grateful for the invitation. I think back to the new liberals at the beginning of the 20th century, who were very proud of the notion of the independence of the individual. However, they also recognised that there were times when the state does have to intervene to protect citizens. I want to talk about that sort of notion.

I would like to start with an anecdote. Ken Cooper lived in Newton Poppleford. During the Christmas period of 2020, he tried crossing a dark road; imagine a dark Devon rural road where the speed limit is 30 mph. He was walking across, in admittedly dark clothing. A car came along doing no more than 30 mph, and it killed him. It killed him on 23 December, which made for an absolutely tragic Christmas period for his family. If the traffic on that road had been travelling at 20 mph, he might have survived. His local councillor, Councillor Chris Burhop, pointed out to me last week that a collision with a pedestrian that occurs at 30 mph has a 47% likelihood of fatality or severe injury, but a collision that occurs at 20 mph has a 17% likelihood of fatality or severe injury.

That is just one illustrative example, but there are many others in my constituency. Since 2019, there have been 971 collisions in my constituency in which someone was hurt, including 246 this year alone. As a result, 12 people have lost their lives and 168 were seriously injured.

I did not anticipate this being an issue that was agitating many of my constituents until I went on a summer tour of village and town halls. I spoke to lots of residents and was struck by just how many villagers independently raised the matter with me. I represent a part of rural Devon where the towns and villages are on the coast or nestled in among the green countryside. Members will appreciate that Devon has one of the largest road networks in the country, and we use our cars every day to get around. It is false to distinguish between the interests of pedestrians and those of car drivers, or between those of cyclists and those of van drivers. We are one and the same—we use all modes of transport. As we do not tend to have facilities on our doorstep, we might drive to the supermarket rather than be able to walk to a local shop. If we commute, there probably will not be a bus for us, so we have to drive. Getting to school also often requires the use of a car. I do not like the idea that this is somehow a wedge issue where we pit urban pedestrians against rural car drivers, as it is just not that simple.

Obviously, on subsidiarity, local authorities should be trusted to rule on this issue. Clearly, local government is far better suited than national Government to weigh in, provided it has the resources to do so. Let me illustrate the point by referring to Devon County Council. In May, it announced that there would be six new 20 mph zones across the county, but 105 parishes applied to have a zone. It was reckoned that it would take £25,000 to introduce a zone—a change of speed limit—and Devon County Council could afford only six. When I went on my village hall tour, I spoke to villagers in Wilmington and Kilmington who have tried to cross the A35 and have found it next to impossible even just to get a bus on the other side of the road. These people are not typical agitators or rebellious people, but they are really cross about this. I had to get out to the villages and go to those village hall meetings to see the issue for myself.

What solutions are available? The one currently offered to residents in my part of Devon is Community Speedwatch. Although it is helpful to have local residents trying to enforce the speed limits that exist at the moment, that is sometimes just not enough. I have been out there with the Community Speedwatch group in Dulford, pointing speed cameras while receiving gestures from passing car drivers or van drivers who are perhaps pushing 45 mph in a 30 mph zone. This is partly about enforcement, but it is also partly about having a lower limit, because if someone is going to exceed a 30 mph limit, they might push it to 38 mph or 40 mph, but if they are going to exceed the limit in a 20 mph zone, that is more likely to result in their pushing it out to 26 mph or 28 mph. As we have heard, the survival chances improve markedly for every 1 mph reduction. Of course, we would like more enforcement of the zones we already have, such as the one at Dunkeswell, where residents do not feel the 20 mph zone is enforced by the police enough. However, the sheer existence of the zone means that people are driving less fast through that village, so if collisions happen, lives will have been saved.

I ask Members to note that I have deliberately not used the term “accident” in this debate, as there is no such thing. These things do not happen by sheer happenstance. This is about mistakes made, mostly by those involved in the collision—often, not by the pedestrian —but we also have a part to play in this process. It will not be an accident if we can intervene and give county councils like Devon the resources that they require to have proper speed limits in place.

To give another couple of examples, I went to the village halls in Colyford and Chardstock. I am proud that there are people in those villages who have a sense of civic duty such that they want to get involved in making their communities safer and more liveable.

To finish on a more optimistic note, last month, I joined the headteacher of Honiton Primary School at the school after he had spoken to his pupils and invited them, as a council, to come up with ideas for what they might like to do—their school council was allowed to put forward ideas. One bright youngster called Eleanor said that a speed hump ought to be put in outside the school. It was therefore a privilege to lobby the local council to introduce the speed hump and to join Eleanor and the headteacher at its opening. The speed hump will make a real difference to children and families at drop-off time at Honiton Primary School.

I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this debate. I am grateful to have been able to present the views of the people I represent in Devon.

This has been a very interesting debate, not least because we have heard a variety of opinions about the different approaches in different parts of the United Kingdom. Those demonstrate the vital importance of local decision making to reflect the different needs in different parts of the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), as he confessed, is a constituent of mine. He has speed bumps outside his house, in one of the villages in my constituency, but he made a point about his constituency, which is urban. Over the years—this also happens in the more urbanised parts of my constituency—people have used urban and suburban roads as rat runs and, in some cases, racetracks. For many people in residential areas where such things happen, it is entirely appropriate that road safety measures are introduced, and I am sure that nobody here today would disagree with that statement. He also made the point about there being 1,700 deaths a year and that thousands more people are seriously injured.

I spoke at length about the situation in Wales. The hon. Gentleman talks about statistics and the impact of these measures. Does he agree with what the Labour Government in Wales have done with their blanket imposition of the presumption of a 20 mph limit?

The hon. Gentleman will know that compared with the Welsh Government’s approach, our approach in England as the Opposition—I will come to this in more detail—is to allow, enable and support local decision making and subsidiarity. Actually, that is also true in Wales, where local authorities can reinstate 30 mph zones, and my understanding is that that is happening. So the situation is not quite as simple as it has sometimes been portrayed in the media, as he well knows. However, it is for Parliament to set the framework that my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle discussed, and it is not for Parliament to tell local authorities what to do.

I thought that the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) made a very important case for local decision making, with her description of the rural roads and the A32 in her constituency. In contrast, I think the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) managed to mention every single village in his constituency during his speech. I cannot imagine why he might have done that, but I am sure that there is a very good reason. Nevertheless, he powerfully made the point about the difference in the likely outcome if somebody is hit by a vehicle travelling at 20 mph as opposed to one travelling at 30 mph. The likelihood of someone dying is five times greater if they are hit at 30 mph than if they are hit at 20 mph. He touched on the point that drivers are also pedestrians, and sometimes cyclists and bus passengers, too. This is not a straightforward situation.

Our approach as a Labour Opposition and, hopefully, as an incoming Government is that it is for local communities to decide where 20 mph zones are implemented. I agree that local authorities and the people in their areas are best placed to know what works and what does not. It should not be the job of officials or Ministers in Whitehall to meddle.

It is disappointing that the Government seem determined to undermine democratically elected representatives and their communities. That is the reading of what they set out in October 2023 in their proposals, which included phrases such as taking steps “to stop councils”. The removal of local authorities’ access to DVLA data, vital for enforcement through the use of cameras, is among measures that undermine and intervene in an unhealthy and divisive way.

The irony of what the Government set out in their proposals, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) said in his opening speech, is that it was a Conservative Government in the late 1980s and early 1990s who first gave local authorities the power to implement road safety measures, because they knew that people wanted to protect schools and some residential streets.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I do not wish to hold him up for any length of time. We have heard this quite a lot so far, and people have talked glibly about road humps not being or being a problem, but there is a massive difference in what we mean by road humps. The scale is enormous. In some areas, they literally just remind drivers of the speed limit and there is a slight movement in the car. In other areas that I referred to, such as outside residential homes, there are significantly high humps and they are implemented without any regard for what actually works or does not work. When traffic hits them, it causes all sorts of problems. That is the point that I am making: yes, local authorities have to decide, but they need to do so based on what works and what does not work. Right now, they can do almost anything they wish, and residents have no say in that.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He called for a review, and I gently say to him that I hope he is also calling for a review of the state of road repairs. The bumps in the road from the excess number of potholes are also creating the kind of problems that he mentioned earlier. There is also an argument for a change in the design of buses, and the introduction of buses that can cope with whatever modern roads have, including physical road safety measures.

The role of the Westminster Government should be to support sensible decisions to boost active travel, reduce congestion and improve communities. That is the Labour view of where we should go on this issue. In Government, we would leave decisions on over 20 mph zones with locally elected leaders.

What do people think about the road safety measures that are in place? Let us look at a report that the Government published, which shows strong support for the 20 mph limits that have been introduced. A Government study found that 75% of residents and 67% of non-resident drivers found the speed limits that have been introduced appropriate. Even certain Ministers seem to recognise that these decisions are best made locally. The Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), said recently:

“Where there is local opposition to 20 mph low emission zones, then the Government has a duty to look and see what we can do to support those local communities…but to begin with, absolutely, it’s the local authorities to determine where a 20 mph zone should be placed.”

The Minister without Portfolio, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), was Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for roads and local transport until a few weeks ago. He said in November last year:

“The Department has no remit to intervene in matters of local democratic decision making. Decisions on what traffic management measures to provide, including low traffic neighbourhoods such as the one that my hon. Friend talked about in Latchford—specifically in Westy—are entirely a matter for local authorities such as Warrington to make.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 492-493.]

That would have the support of the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), judging by the answer that that Minister gave at the time.

What of the Prime Minister? Even he admitted that councils will still be able to implement 20 mph limits, as long as they have consent from local residents. This really is a non-debate, as 20 mph zones have already been introduced, with local support, by local councils. The Government admit that the people who are best placed to make decisions on these traffic restrictions are local authorities, so let us take a look at some local authorities.

One council that has taken the Prime Minister at his word is Cornwall, which is controlled by the Conservative party. Cornwall Council is investing £3.8 million on a county-wide roll-out of 20 mph speed limits in built-up areas; it says that that will make roads safer for everyone. Where else is that enforced? In Conservative-controlled Kensington and Chelsea and in Conservative-controlled Scottish Borders. It is really no wonder that those Conservative councils have introduced 20 mph zones, given the guidance from the Department for Transport, which states that traffic authorities should

“consider the introduction of more 20 mph limits and zones, over time, in urban areas and built-up village streets that are primarily residential.”

Let us call out these announcements from the Government for what they are: meaningless political posturing without any substance to back them up.

Instead of being distracted by divisive posturing from the Government, we should look at the real issues that drivers face up and down the country. The cost of car ownership soared by 34% between 2018 and 2022. Car insurance costs have gone up by 58% in a year. Our roads have been left in a sorry state, with a one-time cost to the pothole backlog climbing to an eye-watering £14 billion. The charging infrastructure roll-out for electric vehicles is still years off track. Ordinary families will be left to pay thousands of pounds in hire costs due to the Prime Minister’s delay to the new petrol and diesel car phase-out, which, in turn, will result in fewer cheap-to-run electric vehicles reaching the second-hand market in the coming years. Meanwhile, data from Tusker shows that servicing an EV is 65% cheaper than servicing a diesel car and 37% cheaper than servicing a petrol car. And long-term plans to create more road space and reduce congestion by moving freight from road to rail have been cut by this Government, with the scrapping of the northern leg of High Speed 2.

The next Labour Government will support drivers, regardless of what type of vehicle they drive, by acting on their real priorities, such as cost of living pressures that they face each and every day. On 10 October, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) announced Labour’s plan to support drivers, which will save drivers hundreds of pounds by cracking down on unfair car insurance costs; reduce traffic on our roads by providing better public transport options; remove planning barriers to ensure that upgrades to our transport infrastructure are actually delivered; accelerate the charge point roll-out to give drivers confidence, no matter what type of vehicle they drive—

I am very glad that the Minister asked me that, because I am about to make exactly that point. Combined, those changes would save drivers hundreds of pounds a year in lower insurance costs and cut journey times by reducing traffic on our roads. What a contrast that is with what the Conservative party offered at its conference, where, instead of taking steps to support drivers through the cost of living crisis, the Prime Minister was reduced to parroting bizarre conspiracy theories about so-called 15-minute cities. It is increasingly clear that he has nothing left in the tank. With the Conservative party becoming more and more detached from reality, it is clear that only Labour can be trusted to focus on the real concerns of drivers.

Order. I have to bring the hon. Gentleman back to the debate, which is on road humps and 20 mph speed limits. I hope to bring in the Minister in a minute.

I am grateful for that, Mr Robertson. This is my final paragraph.

Labour’s credible plan means taking action on car insurance costs, removing barriers to transport infrastructure improvements being delivered, reducing the traffic that is clogging up our roads—which is what this debate is all about—and boosting the charge point roll-out. That is a plan for drivers, and it is a plan of action that will change driving for the better.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing the debate and all colleagues on a constructive, positive and engaging cross-party debate. Politics aside, that was sadly missed in a speech in which 95% was written by a very enthusiastic staffer and about 5% was on the subject matter of the debate.

I will come to the hon. Gentleman in a second, but I want to start with a few key points.

Clearly, road safety is a priority for us all. It is a priority for Government, Opposition, all political parties and all local authorities. Clearly, all road deaths are tragedies for all affected, and injuries can cause suffering, economic loss and life-changing misfortune. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green was entirely right to mention the individual circumstances of his local constituents, whether that was Mr and Mrs Thorne, Mr Gilbert, Mrs Gauld, Mr Mckinley or Mr Thackeray. Their upsets and concerns are legitimately raised and rightly brought forward, as are those of the constituents of other Members.

I should declare that 23 years ago, a young, much thinner barrister was asked to do a rather important case in the Court of Appeal: the case of Marina Vine v. London Borough of Waltham Forest. I was the retained counsel—that thinner barrister—on behalf of the Automobile Association. I was lucky enough to change the law in respect of wheel clamping and the actions of individuals, particularly in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which was the test case of the time that subsequently changed the law in this country. This debate therefore brought back great memories of individual people facing problems from local councils that had not necessarily undertaken the right degree of consultation, because in that case, the lovely Mrs Marina Vine, who had had to stop because she was recovering from a cancer operation, was unfairly clamped.

I was also a criminal prosecutor who prosecuted many death by dangerous driving cases, and I fully understand the consequences of all aspects of road safety in difficult circumstances. Like other constituency Members, I have residents who would be very upset if I did not mention their concerns about speeding in Heddon-on-the-Wall, Henshaw and other places. My first campaign as a candidate, let alone as the Member of Parliament, was to bring in a 20 mph zone outside Queen Elizabeth High School, whose students I welcomed from Hexham today.

I think we all agree that 20 mph zones, particularly in the right place, at the right time and with the right consultation, are a good thing. The obvious example, which we can all get behind, is near schools. I do not think a single Member or council struggles to bring in such changes, which are surely a fantastically good thing, but the key issue is having the right restrictions in the right place and at the right time.

Let me set out the national picture and the local picture in a little detail, before coming to the individual points raised. Clearly, central Government’s role is to set the enabling legislative framework, set national policy objectives, provide good practice guidance—I will come to that point in a second—and then provide funding. Central Government have no remit to intervene in the day-to-day running of local roads. Local traffic authorities are responsible for managing roads and traffic in their areas. They have a high degree of autonomy in how they do so, with powers granted to them through enabling legislation, but legislation also places a duty on them to manage roads safely and efficiently for the benefit of all their communities, whether that means local residents, drivers, or people cycling and walking.

I think it is accepted that traffic calming measures, including road humps, can play an important role in improving road safety. They must meet the requirements in the Highways (Road Humps) Regulations 1999, which set out minimum and maximum dimensions. There are also requirements for signing and lighting. There are statutory requirements for local authorities to consult on proposals for new road humps. It is for local authorities to ensure that any measures they install comply with legislation and that due process is followed.

There is no specific requirement for a minimum distance to be maintained between road humps and private dwellings. However, during the development of the road hump designs, the Transport Research Laboratory carried out some research into road humps and vibration. That looked at the vibration generated by traffic travelling over humps and led to advice on predicted minimum distances between road humps and dwellings in order to avoid the possibility of vibration exposure. This is reflected in the guidance in “Local Transport Note 1/07”.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green made a very fair and compelling point. I am certainly going to ask the Department for Transport—working with the Transport Research Laboratory—to do a fresh review and further research, given that it is patently obvious that the evidence basis on this is decades old and the world has moved on considerably. That does not predetermine anything in any particular way, but at the same time, what is surely self-evident from this debate is that we need a more updated attempt to understand the situation. I entirely accept my right hon. Friend’s point that—without being too trite about it—there are road humps and there are road humps, and local communities are affected in different ways.

If ever we needed an example of where local consent is key, then, with great respect, the example in Wales is fantastic. That started as a positive attempt to influence certain things, but it cannot be a good situation when approximately one in three or one in four of the population are rising up to oppose a particular change. That would imply to anyone—and to all of us who have held elected office at a local level—that the pitch has not been rolled and consent has not been established.

The hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd)—he knows, to his regret, that he is a friend of mine—has great experience, and not only as a local councillor with regard to highways. If we do not have local consent for the changes we are bringing in, whether that is through the entirety of Wales or in a local community or street, we will always struggle with acceptance and democratic accountability. The issue will become a political football, which is not what we want. Surely we want to avoid that.

I endorse the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) that there must be proper consultation and subsequent enforcement if an individual or council is going to introduce these changes. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) used his amazing abilities to bring Northern Ireland matters into this debate. I can tell the House that I have visited Newtownards not once, but twice, and have experienced the speed bumps he referred to in his speech. Notwithstanding the fact that I have no influence or ability whatever to change them, his point is fairly made and stands on the record. As always, it is a joy to have him in these debates.

Much of what the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said did not have to do with this debate. He raised the issue of road repairs; £8.3 billion has been given to local authorities for that. That is a record sum, over and above the previous sum for road repairs and potholes, and I sincerely hope local authorities will be held to account for its use. The hon. Member mentioned many different MPs, and I sincerely hope he gave notice to them. He certainly did not give notice to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), my Parliamentary Private Secretary, who has asked me to point out that the low-traffic neighbourhood in the Westy area of Latchford has since been removed by Labour-run Warrington Borough Council. It was not supported locally, nor was it supported by my hon. Friend, because it increased congestion and emissions. Again, my hon. Friend was not given notice.

The situation in respect of—

On a point of order, Mr Robertson. I seek your guidance. I have been accused of something by the Minister and not been given a chance to respond. How might I go about setting the record straight?

Moving on, in respect of the situation in Wales, the hon. Member for Sefton Central appeared to say, “We do not endorse the approach in Wales”, but paused at the end of that.

I will make a couple of final points. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) is right to make the case for campaigns for cameras. I say with great respect, as the Minister for drivers, for walking and cycling, and for road safety, that it is not just a question of road humps or speeding drivers. There are cameras and other ways to slow traffic down. I endorse my hon. Friend’s approach. There has to be an alternative way forward, working with the police to ensure that we look at this properly. I will take on board her point about acoustic cameras and will do some more research.

On enforcement, the Department for Transport’s guidance is clear about what factors should be considered by local authorities when setting speed limits, including consultation with the police and that the limits set should be capable of being enforced. That is crucial. If changes are to be imposed, whether it is national in Wales or super-local on Acacia Avenue, there has to be consultation, and the police should be capable of taking action against drivers who break the speed limit.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green for securing the debate, which colleagues have addressed constructively. We understand and appreciate that there is a problem. I promise that the Department for Transport will look at it and review the situation. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on conveying his constituents’ concerns in a typically doughty way.

I genuinely appreciate the tone in which this debate has been conducted. Everybody has their own view about their local area and wide variations have been exposed. Speed is a very big issue for the residents of rural constituencies with small villages on major roads. I am astonished by how often motorists do not realise that once they enter an area that has lighting, they are automatically, without signage, restricted to 30 mph. They think that there is no speed limit, but there is. Therein lies the issue.

I do not want decisions to be taken away from local authorities. On the contrary: I want local authorities to make decisions, but they should make them on the basis of a proper consultation and an understanding of what residents want and need. They should not impose measures on the basis that they know better. I think that was the tone of the debate.

We have had a good debate. I want to come back to the issue of road humps. We talk about road humps as though there were a national standard, but they can be any height. The question is: are they there to remind motorists that there is a speed restriction and they should therefore watch their speed, or are they there in some cases as a kind of punishment for motorists being in their cars in the first place as they wallop into these things that are very steep and very high? That is the issue that I really wanted to raise today. I think that in my area, they are a punishment to drivers. They do not really warn them; they just make it a nightmare to drive a car, or to ride a bicycle or a motorbike.

I thank the Minister for saying that he will ask the Department to look at the standards, and at what works and what does not. That will help councils in their consultations so that they can make decisions in the best interests of local people. That is good government, and it will enable councils to have good local government. At the moment, there is so little evidence about the effectiveness of road humps, which are often put there rather lazily instead of having other measures. I find the signs that remind us of our speed to be often far more effective than anything else because most motorists, as I think was pointed out earlier, are pedestrians as well as drivers. The speed sign shocks motorists into lowering their speed, because they suddenly realise that they are over the limit. They react positively to that sort of thing. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister, who will now look at this matter, and I think my constituents will thank him as well.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered road humps and 20 mph speed limits.

Zero-emission Buses and Air Quality in Sheffield

I beg to move,

That this House has considered zero emission buses and air quality in Sheffield.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I will start with the issue of air quality. We know its importance. Poor air quality contributes to the early deaths of up to 43,000 people every year in the UK, according to Asthma + Lung UK. Children are in the frontline, as it affects their health in childhood and throughout their life.

Living alongside a busy road carries the same risk as passively smoking 10 cigarettes a day, so the fact that nitrogen dioxide levels in Sheffield were above legal limits was a huge concern. Clearly we are not alone—we are one of 30 towns and cities exceeding the limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre—but we were keen to act, and the Government were keen to support us, as a city, in acting.

The Government directed us to implement a clean air zone. We welcomed that instruction because we want a cleaner and healthier future for all who live in our city. Based on the national figures I mentioned, we know that air pollution contributes to around 250 to 500 deaths every year in Sheffield. It can permanently damage children’s lungs and cause strokes, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.

I thank the hon. Member for securing the debate. The motion refers to zero emission buses: such buses, manufactured in Northern Ireland by Wrightbus, were launched in Oxford only two weeks ago. The fleet of 21 StreetDeck Electroliners, the world’s first efficient, double-decker electric buses, was launched as part of the contribution to net zero. Does the hon. Member agree that there is scope for Northern Ireland to pave the way across the United Kingdom in terms of electric bus contracts? For Sheffield, they are the answer to all his prayers.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I thought that on this occasion I had secured a Westminster Hall debate on which he could not find an angle, but I was obviously mistaken. He is right, and I hope that Sheffield, with the support of the Government, can pave the way alongside Northern Ireland on this issue.

Older polluting vehicles are a major source of the problems. We worked in partnership with the Government to deliver a solution, encouraging owners of commercial vehicles to replace them with compliant vehicles. It is not easy, and we would have welcomed additional support, particularly to help taxi drivers to transition to cleaner vehicles, but buses are the key. Several of our air quality hotspots in Sheffield are primarily influenced by buses. We have a fleet of about 400 and they are older than in most cities, with an average age of about 12 years.

We worked with the Government to tackle emissions, and the approach that they suggested to us, to which we were happy to respond, was to retrofit the fleet. Before the introduction of our clean air zone, the Government awarded the council cash through the clean bus technology fund. The project ran in two phases from 2018 to 2022. It delivered 292 vehicle retrofits using selective catalytic reduction technology, with the expectation that the emissions of those vehicles would then be equivalent to Euro 6 standards. Buses operating on high-frequency services on routes where air quality levels were being breached were prioritised throughout the project.

When the clean air zone was introduced, 94 buses operating in Sheffield were older than Euro 6 and had therefore not been retrofitted. In the discussions between the council and the Joint Air Quality Unit on the clean air zone, run by the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it was agreed that there would be clean air funding to provide sufficient support for further retrofit devices to be installed in the remaining non-compliant fleet.

Our clean air zone assessment forecast that all our buses would be retrofitted to a minimum Euro 6 standard and would deliver the significant reductions in nitrogen dioxide emissions that we needed, and so we were, in partnership with the Government, on course—until the Government hit a problem. After the launch of the clean air zone in late spring, the DFT informed the council that it had undertaken some initial studies on the real-world performance of the bus retrofit devices that it had required us to install.

The broad conclusion was that the performance of the retrofitted buses showed considerable variability, and that many were not performing at the expected equivalent Euro 6 standard. As a result, the Government paused new funding for selective catalytic reduction exhaust retrofitting and recommended that no further retrofit purchases be made until the research was completed. The DFT did not propose any changes to the clean air zone compliance status of the buses that had already been retrofitted while it carried out the further studies, and the council provided local exemptions from charges for the buses whose planned retrofit work could not proceed.

As a result of the initial study, the DFT commissioned further research and evaluation, which I understand it is on the brink of completing. The council was informed that the expected duration of the study was about six months, so I am guessing, given the timeline, that a formal position from the DFT should be imminent. From discussions with the Joint Air Quality Unit, the council understands that the main problem with the retrofit devices running in urban areas is that they do not reach the required temperatures to treat emissions as a result of the regular stop-start conditions. That happens significantly when buses run downhill, and anybody who knows Sheffield knows that there are a lot of hills to run down.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s raising this issue, because public transport is the key. It is a major solution to a lot of problems, including clean air. The strategy appears to be all over the place, and retrofitting diesel buses is not the answer. The Government have the ZEBRA—zero-emission bus regional areas—scheme for public transport, but I understand that of the 4,000 buses promised, fewer than half have been made, and 570 have been built by companies outside the UK. That worries me, because I think most of them should be built by UK companies.

Sheffield does have a lot of hills, and the answer is not batteries but hydrogen, which is a much better way of fuelling buses on hills. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to look at that, and I urge the Government to take resource away from diesel buses and to give councils and transport companies the opportunity to buy hydrogen or hydroelectric buses.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) will make some observations about hydrogen, which I think has enormous potential.

The Government’s study is clear that retrofit will not be a suitable way of mitigating the emissions from buses, so alternative solutions will be required. The point of today’s debate is that we need alternative solutions, including replacement buses—not refits—and electric buses, and exploring the potential of hydrogen. I will focus on electric.

Currently, about 75% of our bus fleet is not performing at the required Euro 6 standard, and a further 25% has had no change. Under direction from the Government, we were required to implement our clean air policy in the shortest possible time, but the failure of their retrofit strategy is putting our compliance at risk. That echoes the point that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) made about the lack of coherence in the clean air strategy.

The Government need to commit to clean air solutions fast. I hope that, as a first step, the Minister will welcome the bid that the council is submitting, in conjunction with the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority, to ZEBRA 2. Further flexibility in the use of our funding from the clean air fund, including drawdown of stretch funding and the potential for additional funding to support electric vehicle roll-out, must also be considered. However, we understand the pressures on the relatively small funding—it is a problem that it is so small, with £129 million available for the ZEBRA 2 programme—and we know that there are other priorities.

We recognise that with all ZEBRA bids, the funding provides only a proportion of the cost of vehicles, so co-operation with operators is key. Therefore, I want to reassure the Minister about the close dialogue that is happening with both major operators in Sheffield—First and Stagecoach—and about the relationship that they have with the council. Stagecoach’s managing director was in touch with me before this debate and stressed that Stagecoach is looking at the opportunities provided by ZEBRA 2 to lever in its own investment to provide 65 new electric vehicles on key routes in Sheffield. I know that First is looking at key routes that operate through both Sheffield and Rotherham.

In summary, reducing bus emissions in Sheffield is key to achieving the legal levels of nitrogen that we want and that the Government require of us as a city. Bus retrofit technology, recommended to us by the Government, has been found to be underperforming; 75% of our fleet, which has had it, is non-compliant, and the other 25% has not been treated at all. We do not have a timescale for when the Government will confirm the findings of their in-depth review of bus retrofit performance, but action is needed urgently.

Sheffield City Council has delivered all its clean air plan mitigations in the shortest possible time, which I know the Government have welcomed. However, we need Government support for our ZEBRA 2 submission. Further flexibility in the use of funding from the CAF, including the drawdown of stretch funding, will also help. We hope that a wider review of the potential for wider grant funding to upgrade buses in South Yorkshire will also be considered, with the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority.

As he has the permission of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) to make a speech, I call the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts).

Thank you, Mr Robertson. This is a really important debate, because nitrogen dioxide is poisonous—particularly to children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) says. I congratulate him on raising this important issue.

I am pleased that Tinsley Meadows Primary School was built by Sheffield City Council, relocating the original school away from the motorway because the very high NO2 levels there were damaging to children’s health. One of the worst problems is that in inner-city areas, poorer communities often live close to major arterial roads. The roads running into the city of Sheffield are the ones where we tend to get the highest levels of pollution, so it is those communities who suffer most.

A point that I particularly want to make—it was very helpful to have a lead-in from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley)—is that the topography of Sheffield is very challenging for traditional electric vehicles. Because of the hills, their range is less than it would be in flatter topographies. Vehicles have to be recharged more often, and the work they can do to complete their route schedules is therefore not as good as it might be elsewhere.

We have the possibility of hydrogen, which tends to allow for a much longer range. Wrightbus in Northern Ireland is already producing hydrogen vehicles for London, Aberdeen, Belfast and Dublin, showing the way forward. Very conveniently, in my constituency we also have ITM Power, which is the leading research organisation for green hydrogen in this country and one of the leading organisations in Europe. It is a manufacturer of plant that can produce green hydrogen, and it is already exporting that plant around Europe. There is a logic to linking up the refuelling stations that ITM Power could build with hydrogen buses in a city such as Sheffield. There need to be a number of buses to make it economical and cost-effective to have hydrogen refuelling stations. Joined-up government, with different Departments working together, would be really interesting and important.

The hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic point. That would join up the whole strategy of hydrogen production with a utility vehicle providing a public transport solution and clean air. At 11.30 am, the all-party parliamentary group for the bus and coach industry will be meeting in W2. I believe that the Minister and the shadow Minister will be there, and we hope to promote the joined-up strategy that is necessary for hydrogen tech to take off.

I agree with the hon. Member about joining up. Indeed, the Minister can happily say good things about ITM Power and what the Government want to do, because the Government launched their hydrogen strategy nationally at ITM Power a couple of years ago. The Energy Secretary and the Chancellor have both recently been to visit ITM Power to show the Government’s support. It is well renowned, and it shows the way forward for green hydrogen. That is the way we should be moving.

I hope that the Minister will follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central in asking for more resources and more clean buses for Sheffield. When he is looking at new vehicles for Sheffield, I ask him seriously to look at the role that hydrogen buses can play and at how the Government can properly join this up.

ITM wants to play a role. It is happy to provide the refuelling capacity. It is happy to work with Government and bus companies. Let us have some joined-up thinking across Government and let us get things moving forward, not just for the clean air that we want for Sheffield, but as a major innovation and a major move forward for the use of hydrogen in buses in this country.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this very important debate. I declare an interest: my sister lives in Sheffield, and I have visited her regularly for many decades. I certainly understand what the hon. Member means about all the hills. I have walked and driven up and down them, and I completely understand the challenges that Sheffield faces in comparison with many other cities.

As the hon. Member said at the beginning of his comments, the Government completely share the ambition to eliminate air pollution. It is toxic, particularly nitrous oxides; that is why we set up the clean air fund. There have been a whole range of different Government initiatives to work towards that. We are also under a legal requirement by court action to act as quickly as possible. We do not want to delay or wait for new technologies that may eventually be helpful; we want to act now. Part of that scheme was the clean air zone programme that applies across the UK for cities where nitrous oxides and other pollutants are above permitted levels. As the hon. Member mentioned, Sheffield was one of them. Sheffield launched its class C clean air zone on 27 February 2023.

Rother Valley borders Sheffield, and many of my constituents go to work and drive vans into the Sheffield clean air zone. They are being penalised and the clean air zone is adding more money on to their bills. There is also talk of a clean air zone, or ULEZ-style scheme, coming to Rotherham. Can the Minister assure me that clean air zones and ultra low emission zones will be introduced only in areas where there is a business case for them and where people want them? At the moment, people in Rother Valley are being hit by the clean air zone in Sheffield, and they are worried that a similar one will come to Rotherham as well.

That is a valid point. Clean air zones impose costs on people, but they are only necessary and only required where air pollution is above the legal limit. In those places, not only are we required to introduce them by law, but it is the right thing to do to reduce air pollution as quickly as possible. The clean air zones are temporary. They are there only while air pollution exceeds the permitted levels. Clean air zones are supported by the Government, but the design and structure of them, including which vehicles are included or excluded, and their funding are decided by local authorities. As a result, all the clean air zones in the country are variations on a theme. For example, ordinary cars are not included in the Sheffield scheme, but taxis are. It is different in other places.

Because of the need to act quickly, the Government introduced the retrofit programme. As the hon. Member for Sheffield Central mentioned, that has been troubled. I have been in this job for three weeks, and it has landed on my plate. As he says, it has not performed as we expected in real-world conditions. We are currently analysing exactly what the impact is and what the mitigations can be, and we will publish the results soon. I cannot release them now—we need to make exec decisions—but when we do, it will be within the framework of eliminating air pollution in Sheffield and other cities as quickly as possible, as we are legally required to do, and as is the right thing to do.

Sheffield has an application under ZEBRA 2. Those applications close at the end of December, I think. Does the Minister agree that something the Government could do is make sure that by the end of January, or the beginning of February at the very latest, those decisions are taken, the contract is offered, and we move on to ZEBRA 3 and get all of the £400 million spent on these carbon-zero buses?

I will come to the hon. Member’s point. The retrofitting programme was only ever going to be an interim scheme, because those were the buses we had at that moment. As basically all other hon. Members have said, the ultimate long-term ambition is to go to zero-emission buses, for reasons of both climate change and air pollution. In the national bus strategy in 2020, the Government committed to 4,000 zero-emission buses; 1,600 of them are on the road at the moment. We have been pushing that in a variety of ways. We are also committed to announcing a date for the phasing out of non-zero-emission buses, which will be done in the near future.

There are two schemes for zero-emission buses at the moment. First, there was ZEBRA 1, which provided £270 million of funding. The beneficiaries included Sheffield, which got four buses, which will start in January, and the South Yorkshire metropolitan area, which got 27 zero-emission buses. We then opened ZEBRA 2. I know that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central wrote to one of my predecessors expressing interest from Sheffield in that scheme, and that Sheffield has lodged expressions of interest, which is great. The deadline is 15 December. I cannot announce the results, because the applications are not in yet.

On the request from the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), we want to act as quickly as possible. I will certainly urge officials to announce the outcomes of the bid as quickly as possible because, as I said, we want to act quickly for reasons of both climate change and air pollution.

Various hon. Members mentioned hydrogen buses. The UK Government are technologically neutral: we have been very careful to try not to say that one technology will work and another technology will not, not least because we do not know how technology is going to progress. There are also very varying conditions, and one type of technology might be better in one situation compared with another.

The hon. Members for Sheffield Central and for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) mentioned hills and the challenges they pose for battery buses. For longer ranges—there are buses in rural areas that have to go far longer distances—hydrogen buses may turn out to be more suitable than battery buses. However, I know that battery technology is advancing very rapidly. If we compare the debate now with a few years ago and five years ago, certainly from a manufacturer’s point of view, there is a lot more emphasis on batteries as the ultimate solution, rather than hydrogen. The price of batteries has dropped by 90% since 2010 and the range is increasing by about 10% a year—it has increased by about 45% over the last four years. Hopefully, those technological improvements will continue and help us to decarbonise all forms of transport in cost-effective ways.

We are supporting hydrogen. There are various Government programmes supporting hydrogen buses. The Government provided £30 million to support the West Midlands Combined Authority’s scheme for hydrogen buses, which are about to be launched there. The ultra-low and low-emission bus fund is supporting 20 hydrogen buses in Liverpool, and there are other hydrogen buses elsewhere. We will carry on supporting that, because hydrogen could end up being the absolutely appropriate technology for certain situations.

I was going to talk about the point that the hon. Member raised about ITM production, but I will give way.

I hope that the Minister will respond to this point as well. Given that the Government want to be technology-neutral, they ought to explore hydrogen as well as simple battery buses. Would Sheffield not be a very good place to expand their understanding of how hydrogen buses can work, because of the topography and ITM Power, and to try to roll out more hydrogen buses in a fleet, to see whether that delivers what everyone wants?

The hon. Member makes a very valid point, which I will discuss with officials. I want to pick up on a point that he made earlier—

Further to what my Labour colleagues the hon. Members for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) said, we in Rother Valley would also like hydrogen buses, and we hope to join in. There is cross-party support for hydrogen buses in South Yorkshire. I hope the Minister takes that point away.

I am reading the message loud and clear: everyone in the room likes hydrogen buses. I will discuss them with officials.

On the point about ITM Power, I was very interested to hear about that production facility. Again, as a Government, we are very keen not just to procure buses and other vehicles from other countries, but to make them in the UK—such as with Wrightbus in Northern Ireland and Alexander Dennis in Falkirk, Scotland—and to produce the power as much as possible in the UK, whether it is hydrogen or electric batteries. In my three weeks in the job, I have been doing quite a lot of work on sustainable aviation fuels. We want to make them in the UK, and to look at the whole supply chain and the whole energy transition that we are going through.

This technological transition creates an awful lot of opportunities in different sectors, including hydrogen. I do not like the phrase “green jobs”, because it has become a bit of a cliché, but these are green jobs. They are real jobs, they really exist, and they are often highly skilled. I have been meeting many companies that are entering this sector or developing the new decarbonised transport sector, if we want to call it that, and there are huge opportunities. The more rapidly we develop as a country, the more we can use it as an opportunity internationally as well for exports. If we solve the problems with hydrogen buses, for example, and work out how to make them work, how to power them and so on, I am sure that there will be an export opportunity for UK plc as well.

I am ready to wrap up. This has been a really important debate, and I am very glad that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central managed to secure it. He made many valid points. We will be publishing the results of the bus retrofit programme shortly, in terms of looking at how we can mitigate it. If Sheffield has not applied for ZEBRA 2 and is interested, it knows what to do. The deadline is 15 December. I will press officials to announce the results as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Sri Lankan Tamils and Human Rights

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Sri Lankan Tamils and human rights.

This story has a long and tragic history, and I am grateful to colleagues across the House who are here today and to those who work with the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils. I am also grateful to the British Tamils Forum, which plays a key role in supporting the APPG and has been working hard over the past 14 years to raise awareness. It has certainly helped in awakening my consciousness to the plight of the Tamils.

Since independence in 1948, there has been an appalling catalogue of massacres of the Tamil people, starting in 1956 with the Inginiyagala massacre and continuing right up until recent times. Generations of oppression have been suffered by the Tamil people—events that still haunt the survivors, with a cycle of violence and genocide that is sadly ongoing.

Forty years ago, in July 1983, a mass anti-Tamil pogrom broke out in Sri Lanka, during which an estimated 3,000 Tamil people died and 150,000 were made homeless. During the pogrom, Tamil homes and businesses were targeted, with buildings looted and burned and widespread violence. As well as the cost to lives, what has come to be known as Black July led to the loss of approximately 8,000 Tamil homes, more than 100 industrial plants, more than 5,000 Tamil shops and what is estimated to be over $300 million in wealth.

The events of July 1983 proved to be one of the catalysts for the decades of civil conflict that followed. However, the pogrom itself was the culmination of decades of anti-Tamil policies and anti-Tamil violence in Sri Lanka, the seeds of which, if we consider the history, were sown back in the island’s colonial era.

From the Ceylon Citizenship Act in the 1940s, which left many Tamils stateless, to the deportation of many thousands of Tamils to India between the 1960s and the 1980s, as well as the 1956 “Sinhala only” Act, which recognised Sinhalese as the sole official language, replacing English and excluding Tamil, it is clear that for Sri Lanka’s Tamils their history is one of disenfranchisement, deportation and policies that discriminate against their community’s language and culture. Black July was therefore not an isolated event; it was part of a wider picture of persecution and the cycle of violence.

It is an event that continues to scar Sri Lankan society to this day. Many Tamils in the UK will have arrived here after fleeing the 1983 conflict and will remember the events and violence keenly. In Sri Lanka, the pogrom had a devastating effect on the Tamil community, leading not only to the loss of thousands of innocent lives, but to the massive displacement of Tamil families who were forced to flee their homes, as well as causing injury and psychological trauma.

In 2009, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the Sri Lankan Government killed thousands of Tamils, including children. They were sent to a small strip of land designated as a safe zone, where they were then bombed. Those atrocities were evidenced by satellite photographs. Furthermore, since the Easter Sunday atrocities in 2019, we have still not seen anybody brought to justice, despite the intelligence warnings of the attacks.

The experiences that the hon. Gentleman describes are very well known to many of the Tamil constituents I am lucky enough to represent. Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act is still in force today and is used arbitrarily as a means to discriminate against and intimidate the remaining Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Does the hon. Gentleman share my view that it is high time the British Government took more decisive action to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to end the use of that Act?

The hon. Member and I are on exactly the same page; I will come to that section of my speech shortly. I agree wholeheartedly with his comments.

The scars are deepened by the fact that, years later, the Sri Lankan Tamil communities are no closer to getting any meaningful accountability or justice for the terrible pogroms. Many of the institutions and laws that enabled the violence remain in place today and are still responsible for humans rights violations. Concerns remain about Sri Lanka’s police force and armed forces, and there are allegations that they abuse their power by surveilling and harassing human rights activists. I have heard directly from Tamils that the outcome of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was that the victims were further victimised by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Concerns also remain about the laws that enable human rights violations. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) asked about, has enabled the detention of political prisoners for long periods since it was enacted in 1979. It was used to detain the 53 prisoners at Welikada prison who were subsequently killed during a terrible flashpoint in the Black July pogrom that has come to be remembered as the Welikada prison massacre. The Prevention of Terrorism Act was used to arrest state opponents. Although it may now be repealed, there are fears that its proposed replacement, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, may be worse, and that the Government’s attitude towards human rights activists has not altered at all.

Meanwhile, domestic attempts at accountability for the events of 1983 appear to have failed. In 2002, the Presidential Truth Commission on Ethnic Violence published its report criticising the Government for failing to hold perpetrators to account and for failing to appeal for restraint during Black July. The report recognised the pogrom as a violation of Tamil human rights and recommended compensation for the victims. However, its recommendations have never been properly implemented and not a single perpetrator has ever been prosecuted.

The Sri Lankan Government are now implementing another truth and reconciliation commission. However, concerns remain that it will provide no route to accountability or proper witness protection mechanism, and that it will not cater to the victims’ needs or adhere to international standards. I am grateful to the Sri Lankan high commission for providing me with a briefing update on reconciliation. It will take me some time to fully digest and consider the points made in it, but I highlight one of the first sections, on the Office on Missing Persons, which states:

“The Tracing Unit found 16 persons alive, and confirmed 3 deceased as of November 2023.”

Let me put that into context. It is believed that some 18,000 Tamils were handed over to the army. What happened to the rest? Where are they? What records exist to tell us? Despite the global pressure, Amnesty International has found:

“Serious human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict remained unaddressed. Families of people forcibly disappeared continued to seek truth and justice.”

The UK Government know and recognise those facts. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s 2022 human rights and democracy report noted that the

“The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was used to detain Sri Lankans for long periods”

and that the UK

“continued to call on the government of Sri Lanka to replace the PTA with human rights compliant legislation.”

The report also noted:

“Security forces faced accusations of serious human rights violations.”

The Government concluded:

“There has been little credible progress on transitional justice”

before promising that the UK

“will continue to advocate for improved protection of human rights in Sri Lanka.”

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. Many of my constituents concur with the concerns about human rights violations, including access to clean drinking water. Does he share my concern about reports that the Sri Lankan Government have refused to allow independent assessments of water quality in northern Sri Lanka? Does he agree that the Sri Lankan Government must ensure that all citizens of that region, who are mostly Tamils, have access to clean drinking water, and that anyone affected by contamination be provided with medical care and compensated adequately? It is a little-known but very important human rights violation.

The hon. Member is correct that it is a little-known violation, and she has educated me in making that point. I concur with her assessment. As is often the case, it is the poorest who are most disadvantaged in these situations.

As a broad statement of intent, the Government’s position is welcome. However, the UK could and should go further. The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice has called for the Sri Lankan Government to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and withdraw the Anti-Terrorism Bill to ensure that all anti-terror legislation adheres to international standards; to establish independent mechanisms with prosecutorial powers to hold police, armed forces and Government Departments to account for human rights abuses; to incorporate Black July and other root causes of the ethnic conflict into its public education system; and to work with the Tamil community and international experts to find a real political solution to the ethnic conflict that is acceptable to Tamils on the island.

I urge the UK, as a United Nations member state and an ally of Sri Lanka, to do more to support the calls for accountability, justice and human rights protections so that there might be lasting peace and reconciliation. The exact numbers are unclear, but according to a United Nations panel, more than 100,000 people, including 40,000 civilians, may have been killed during the conflict. Ultimately, there must be a right to self-determination for the Tamils. Everyone should be able to live without fear and according to their customs and traditions.

There is much that could be done. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to this debate; I hope that he will consider officially recognising the atrocities that have been committed as genocide and will look at introducing sanctions against the known perpetrators who have escaped being held to account, denying justice to the victims. Canada and the US have already sanctioned some war criminals. It is high time that the UK did the same.

The hon. Gentleman gets right to the point in suggesting that the UK Government should copy what Canada and the United States have done. Does he share my concern that we need greater openness and transparency about the role of the current Foreign Secretary? Before his appointment, the Foreign Secretary was known to be lobbying for Port City Colombo, and he has done a lot of work with China and Sri Lanka. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need a lot more openness so that we can know that the British Foreign Office is taking this issue seriously and is listening to Parliament and British Tamils?

I agree entirely. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for making that point, which fits nicely with some of my comments on other aspects.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recommended that states, including the UK, sanction key perpetrators of human rights abuses such as General Silva and other alleged perpetrators in Sri Lanka. By sanctioning individuals who are responsible for perpetrating crimes against the Tamils, the UK Government would support UN and US action in demonstrating that alleged perpetrators of mass atrocities are not welcome in the UK. Recently, the PM’s trade envoy went to Sri Lanka. Encouraging trade without demanding human rights gives the wrong signal to the world. We should be using our influence more effectively.

I hope that September 2024 will see the UN Human Rights Council resolution, which is due to expire, replaced with a new and stronger resolution. Does the Minister agree that that should include referring the issue to the UN General Assembly with the object of achieving a mechanism to bring the perpetrators to justice and achieve a permanent political solution? If we are serious about safeguarding the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the legacy of disenfranchisement, deportation and discrimination must be replaced by the principles of peace and democracy.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this debate. I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute, and particularly to look at the importance of human rights in Sri Lanka and to speak up for those of my constituents who still have close links to the Sri Lankan Tamil community.

Wherever they are in the world and whatever religion or race they belong to, all people deserve to live in peace and safety, without discrimination or violence, but that is not the case for many Tamils who still live in Sri Lanka. Quite rightly, Sri Lanka is one of the UK’s 32 human rights priority countries, as identified by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The Department’s annual report on human rights and democracy says:

“Minority communities faced continued marginalisation by state authorities. State-supported land appropriation, so called ‘land grabs’, sparked concerns over their impact”,

particularly communities

“in the north and east and their impact on the freedom of belief of non-Buddhist denominations.”

There is a great deal of understanding in the FCDO about the situation on the ground. That is coupled with concerns that

“Security forces continued to disrupt Tamil commemorative events for victims of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict, and arbitrarily accused Tamils of links to terrorist organisations.”

That indicates that the Government are aware of what is happening on the ground in Sri Lanka, particularly the remarks about the challenges faced by activists, families of the disappeared in the north-east, and those who have faced surveillance, harassment and intimidation by the security forces. There appears to be a great understanding, and this debate gives my hon. Friend the Minister, a fellow Hampshire MP, the opportunity to update the House on the actions being taken to turn this understanding into support on the ground.

We have heard reports of Tamils living in Sri Lanka being subject to discrimination and threats of violence, as well as being subject to arrest under the Prevention of Terrorism Act on relatively weak grounds. There have been occasions on which Tamils have not been allowed to attend memorials for those killed or lost during the civil war, which is a vital part of community healing. Back in 2011, we heard from the UK panel of experts that there were credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The fact that they have not been fully investigated, and that no one has been charged or prosecuted, has diminished the country’s ability to reconcile itself with the events of the past. Whenever such events occur, it is so important that well-thought-through reconciliation is put in place, particularly in Sri Lanka. It is important for stability and peace in Sri Lanka that there is reconciliation for the actions of the past, appropriate justice delivered where required and, above all, an end to the discrimination that we have seen.

The national unity and reconciliation commission was established earlier this year. It felt like a step in the right direction, but many organisations, including Amnesty International, have expressed significant concern that it will not be sufficient. In Sri Lanka, we need to ensure that the commission does what it needs to do and achieve real reconciliation that has a genuine chance of starting the healing across communities that would bring the whole country together. The first step must be to end all discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka. They deserve to be able to follow their own cultural and religious practices in peace, without interference from other groups.

The Government and my hon. Friend the Minister continue to work hard to maintain strong relationships with Sri Lanka, which is important for the future of all the communities there and for promoting peace and human rights. They are clearly putting plans in place. For 2022 to 2025, the FCDO’s conflict, stability and security fund for Sri Lanka will support human rights priorities with more than £11 million. UK funding for the United Nations Development Programme has also supported the resettlement of displaced communities on land cleared of mines.

It is important that we continue to work with countries such as Sri Lanka, and I am aware that the Government are consistently reviewing their global sanctions list. I am sure the Minister will want to take the opportunity presented by today’s debate to update the House on the approach to sanctions, and my constituents and people back in Sri Lanka will be taking note of the comments made. I am sure he will listen carefully to hon. Members’ views, because equality and freedom from discrimination are important not only to the people in this room, but to every Member of the House of Commons.

Wherever people live in the world, they deserve to have support from the UK in their bid to make sure that they live free and equal lives. Above all else, the UK must champion human rights and promote peace across the world. I hope that we will continue to do that in Sri Lanka, so that one day all communities there will be able to live in peace and prosperity.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) not only on securing the debate, but on setting the scene so well. Briefly, I want to ask the question: how many more times will we have to come here and debate this issue before the UK plays its full role in securing justice for the Tamil community? Other Members in this Chamber have, like me, been around a long while in dealing with this issue. I can recall the situation before 2009, but I remember distinctly what happened at that time. The calculation is that more than 70,000 people—at least—were unaccounted for, with some disappeared. One of my constituents went back to Sri Lanka to try to find his family and he was disappeared as well. We have never heard from him since.

Like others, I have received the briefing from the Sri Lankan Government, and I have tried to examine it in relation to what I believe is the reality on the ground. The Sri Lankan Government claim that a process of reconciliation is taking place and that arrangements have been put in place that will ensure the protection of human rights and civil liberties, but those are certainly not the reports we get from our constituents who have families back in Sri Lanka. Let me give a few brief examples.

We have recently been told about what happened on Tamil remembrance day, when people were arrested and detained, and then memorials were smashed. That does not sound like the protection of civil liberties or respect being meted out to the Tamil community. The use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been a continuous abuse. The recent death in custody of a young man called Nagarasa Alex is another example of the result of the use of detention in this way. We know of claims that torture has taken place in some instances.

I went to Sri Lanka on a delegation in 1984, when I raised with the then President Jayewardene the issue of the human rights system, the abuse of human rights and the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. I have met many Sri Lankan families who have people missing from that period on. Unless they get closure and an understanding of what has happened to them, the horror for individual families will just go on and on. I am sure that my right hon. Friend, who represents many Tamil people, would endorse the need for us to get an open book on everything that has happened to every person who disappeared.

My right hon. Friend provides evidence of the long history of this, including the long history of the PTA being used to detain, with example after example of its use involving not only torture, but deaths in custody. From what we hear, the new legislation being proposed might be worse than the PTA itself. This is the problem we face.

The issue that comes up time and time again in the Tamil community in my constituency is the continued militarisation of their Tamil lands and the way that those lands are being used. We have to recognise the operation of the military within Sri Lanka. They are not just a military establishment; they are a whole industry in themselves, often profiteering at the expense of the Tamil community, particularly through the seizure of the Tamil lands. The process of demilitarisation has hardly been evidenced by the Sri Lankan Government.

Why is all this happening, and why are the Sri Lankan Government continuing to operate with impunity? I think this represents a collective failure by the international community, including the UK. We have not done enough to pressurise the Sri Lankan Government. We have not taken the action that I thought we were going to take and targeted those identified as abusing human rights—in effect, we are talking about war criminals as well—in a way that we have in respect of other countries, for example via the use of the Magnitsky clause. From what I have seen, or from the evidence we have had, I do not believe that the Magnitsky provisions have been used a single time to sanction the human rights abusers from Sri Lanka. Let us congratulate the United States and Canada, as they have used those provisions. We should be following their example.

As for the truth and reconciliation commission that has been established anew, I believe it is the 15th or 16th that has taken place. What we were pressing for before is that this should be an independent, internationally convened commission, not just an in-house one, where the country is almost marking its own homework.

Finally, we have previously raised the reference to the International Criminal Court, because it is clear that during that period, certainly in 2009, there were offences against the Rome statute that could constitute war crimes.

I believe that we should now maximise the pressure that we can put on the Sri Lankan Government. We should now look at the use of sanctions and reviewing all aspects of our bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka. We have raised this before, but I believe that we should not have given Sri Lanka the benefit of developing countries trading scheme status and the concessions that brings. That is the only way to influence the Sri Lankan Government to abide by at least some of the commitments that they have given us to protect human rights and civil liberties and respect the rights of the Tamil community overall.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this debate. It is great to see so many members of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, which I am proud to chair, participating in today’s debate. I also received the Sri Lankan ambassador’s briefing in advance of the debate, along with an invitation to meet. Given that his predecessor frequently referred to me and members of the APPG as “white tigers”, I think I will be washing my hair that day.

The case has already been compellingly put by colleagues. To reiterate some of the harrowing facts: in 2009, for example, tens of thousands of Tamils perished in the Mullivaikkal genocide, with many still unaccounted for. The Sri Lankan Government’s continued denial of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide necessitates international intervention. We have already heard from other Members about militarisation, arbitrary arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, rising anti-Tamil nationalism and the absence of long-term solutions.

Even in the years preceding 2009, all the promises made by the Sri Lankan Government under human rights resolutions failed to come to anything. Militarisation is an area where the UK could go further. Militarisation remains pervasive, with 16 out of the 20 military divisions on the island in the north and east, otherwise known as Tamil areas. Demilitarisation is crucial to securing and fostering a sustainable and lasting peace. The referral to the International Monetary Fund for a bail-out after Sri Lanka’s economy crashed could not be linked to human rights, but it could put conditions on Government spending. One thing we should push for in the IMF bail-out is a reduction in military spending. That must be a condition of that money.

There have also been calls for a consistent, long-term solution. I would like to ask the Minister for an update on the mechanism that was secured at the last UN Human Rights Council: resolution 30/1, which for the first time allowed the international community to collect new information. I know that the UK pushed hard for that resolution, and I welcome the FCDO’s efforts in securing it, although it is up next year, as we have heard. Will the Minister provide an update on what further action he anticipates that the UK can take when we have had the opportunity to review that new information?

A number of councillors—Councillor Param Nandha and Councillor Jay Ganesh—and Nick Rogers of the London Assembly have pushed local authorities to celebrate Tamil Heritage Month next month. This will allow children to celebrate speaking Tamil, the oldest language still in use—there will be Tamil songs, dances, poetry and so on—but part of their heritage is this awful chapter. My hon. Friend talked about these resolutions, as did the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), who opened the debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that rather than waiting for a third resolution, the first of which was backed by Sri Lanka, we can actually take some action, rather than having to keep renewing and taking no action?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, my predecessor as chair of the all-party group, for that intervention. He is absolutely right.

The last action that the Government must urgently consider is sanctions, especially against those credibly accused of war crimes, particularly General Silva, but many others as well. It has been said already that we are lagging behind the US and Canada, which have already implemented such sanctions. It is time the UK followed suit and imposed them without any further delay.

As we approach the 15th anniversary of the end of the war, I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurances that the UK will continue to stand in solidarity with the Tamil community in demanding justice and accountability. The diplomatic efforts and the internal efforts in Sri Lanka have not brought about meaningful change or any lasting peace. The Tamil community’s quest for justice and peace must not be deterred. It is time for us to follow the international community, impose sanctions and continue to lead the way in standing up for the rights of Tamil people.

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for securing this debate and join other hon. Members in raising the plight of the Tamil people over many, many years.

Like others, I have been involved in these debates in the House all too frequently. I have tracked this issue in some detail over the last 26 years, as my constituents in Kingston and Surbiton who are British Tamils, and indeed others around south-west London, have come to me with their concerns about what is happening to their families and communities. It has been a very painful episode and, frankly, the situation is now worse than I can ever remember.

The economic crisis in Sri Lanka, with the corruption of the Government there, has just made things even worse for the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities on the island. However, the Tamil people, particularly in the north-east of Sri Lanka, are suffering under the militarisation from land grabs and from arbitrary detentions and arrests. There have been a whole series of injustices and human rights abuses, which this House is right to focus on.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point that we need to highlight. It is not just the Tamil community but many minority groups on the island who face human rights abuses. He mentioned the Muslim community. During the pandemic, they were subject to forced cremations in Sri Lanka. I just wanted to make it clear to the Government, through this intervention, that it is not just the Tamil community but many minority groups that are suffering as a result of the regime in Sri Lanka.

That is right, and that point exposes the regime and all its frankly undemocratic and outrageous behaviour.

I join other colleagues in saying that the UK Government can do more than they have done so far. They can follow the US and Canada in sanctioning individuals. People have quite rightly mentioned General Silva, but there is also General Jayasuriya and others who were involved in the last few months of the war in 2009 and quite clearly committed war crimes.

Beyond that, I would like the Government to use the IMF process to try to exert some leverage, as others have said, or the work of the UN Human Rights Council. We could also use trade deals. When I was Minister of State for Trade Policy, I urged the European Union, because we were then in the EU, not to give back what were called GSP+ or “generalised scheme of preferences plus” concessions. We won that argument in the trade council in Brussels and those concessions were not given back to Sri Lanka. Regrettably, they were given back in 2016 and now, after Brexit, Sri Lanka benefits from trade and tariff concessions given by this Government. I do not see why it should do so. We ought to demand the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Sri Lanka, security sector reforms and proper accountability before the Colombo Government receive such benefits.

One issue that I want to raise in this debate, which is not discussed enough in the context of Sri Lanka, is the role of China. The geopolitics of Sri Lanka needs to be looked at, and that includes the growing role of China and of course the influence of India. The UK, the European Union, north America and elsewhere have been remiss in engaging in the debate about Sri Lanka from that geopolitical stance and we see what has happened because of the vacuum that has been left.

We have seen China invest over almost the last two decades in Hambantota port in the south of the island. Yes, that has trade advantages for China, and many other countries use that port, but it is no doubt a significant strategic investment by China, not just for trade purposes but potentially for military purposes, given the significance of the port in controlling the sea lanes and shipping routes to the south.

China has a 99-year lease on the port and is indebted to the Sri Lankan Government, in what is sometimes called “debt-trap diplomacy”. Through the debt, China influences the Sri Lankan economy and politics. It is using that influence more and more, for instance through the second big port development, which is actually bigger than a port; it is a city. Called Port City Colombo, it is located on hundreds of acres of land reclaimed from the sea in Colombo. Again, China is taking a long-term lease on that, and what is essentially a Chinese Government-owned company is developing it.

One surely should be asking about the ability of the UK, the EU, North America and our Indian allies to respond to that. It is quite a serious geopolitical development. The human rights of the Tamil people, who are the subject of this debate, are disregarded by the Chinese, who are interfering in Sri Lankan politics. If we are going to support those Tamil people and all the people on the island of Sri Lanka, we must ask some tough questions about how we respond to the hard and soft power being exercised by the Chinese Government.

We have been too naive for far too long. If we are serious about wanting to influence what is happening on the island of Sri Lanka, we need to get serious about our diplomacy in Delhi and Beijing. In his reply, will the Minister say a little about the Government’s thinking in that area? Is he prepared to meet cross-party MPs— I urge the Foreign Secretary to do the same—to discuss the matter, some of which I realise may be sensitive?

In my intervention on the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, I mentioned the Foreign Secretary’s activities prior to his appointment. I am sure he acted with integrity, but the Minister must realise that people outside this place, listening in—the British Tamil community, the diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka—want to know what the British Foreign Secretary is going to think, say and do about the situation in Sri Lanka, whether with respect to India, China or the Colombo Government. In January, the Foreign Secretary visited Port City Colombo, trying to get investment and supporting the Chinese investment there. It is therefore a legitimate question for this House to ask.

I am sure there are answers, and I am sure we can be transparent about those. However, if we are to play a role as the UK, and if this Parliament is to play its role in influencing the Government, we need to understand that, given China’s centrality to the future of Sri Lanka and, I would argue, to improving justice and human rights for the Tamil people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to speak in this debate, on which I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). In Lewisham East, I represent a significant number of residents from the Tamil community, and since becoming an MP I have written to Foreign Secretaries and attended several events all relating to human rights abuses committed against Tamils. I am also an officer of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country that one day I hope to visit. Yet, as we have already heard, it has experienced a cycle of violence since its independence in 1948. As everyone here will know, in 2009 the Sri Lankan civil war came to an end when the Tamil Tigers were defeated by the Sri Lankan armed forces. The Sri Lankan Government in power at that time denied accusations of crimes made against the military and civilian Government, but there have been allegations of violence against women and girls—of sexual violence being used as a vicious weapon of war, of rape and of the most heinous of crimes, some of which are beyond my imagination, like cutting off women’s breasts.

It was therefore disappointing that in February 2020 the Sri Lankan Government withdrew their support for a UN-led reconciliation process to investigate and prosecute war-related crimes. In May 2023, the new Government announced that they were establishing a national unity and reconciliation commission, but organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have questioned whether it will achieve anything and whether the victims will receive justice.

For a long time, my constituents have lobbied me about reported human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The Prevention of Terrorism Act has enabled arbitrary arrests, detention without charge or evidence, false confessions and the torture of anyone suspected of terrorism. Although there have been amendments to the Act, Amnesty International has stated that the Muslim and Tamil minorities remain disproportionately affected by its use. That must be addressed and tackled.

I am pleased that the Labour party has recommitted itself to securing justice for the survivors whose families suffered grave human rights violations. The UK Government must follow the recommendations of the UN high commissioner and refer the perpetrators of these atrocities to the International Criminal Court. While we are waiting for that, the political and economic crises facing Sri Lankans, the humanitarian need and the geopolitical challenges in the region remain deeply concerning.

Accountability for past and reported current crimes is crucial to achieve political sustainability, as is justice for the affected Tamil victim-survivor community. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this debate. In Easter 2009, I spent my time out on Parliament Square watching London’s Tamil community beside itself with grief as it received news of relatives, friends, communities and hospitals being bombed. We heard of people lying on the beach, unable to be removed by family or community members because the democratically elected Sri Lankan Government were dropping cluster bombs on their own people. I spent my time taking London Tamil students to see the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to prevent some of them from taking drastic action and committing suicide.

In the 13 years since then, how much has changed? There is an attitude of always negotiating, always talking, always being calm—and doing nothing. Negotiating for what? Hundreds of thousands of people have still not been found and not one person has been prosecuted for committing a war crime; there are no more answers than there were before.

Now is the time for the Foreign Office to decide whether it will carry on with its mealy-mouthed diplomacy, or whether it will use the laws Parliament has given it to take action against those who perpetrated war crimes. Our Foreign Secretary needs to come forward and be honest about his role in promoting the Chinese Government’s plan for a new port in Colombo. It does not bode well. Let us show Sri Lankans and Tamils something different. Let us take a different path and make some progress.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for securing this debate. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, people have been calling for the same things in this Chamber not just for the past few years but for decades, and yet the Government have continually failed to act.

Hundreds of people from the Tamil community in my constituency have written to me in the past few days to ask me to speak in this debate because they are deeply concerned about their families’ futures in north-east Sri Lanka. Last week, thousands of Tamils in Sri Lanka and around the world commemorated their war dead on Maaveerar Naal. Once again, Tamils mourning in Sri Lanka faced oppression and a violent crackdown from the Sri Lankan state apparatus in their attempts to remember their war dead, as they visited the remains of the Tamil cemeteries that the Sri Lankan Government had already bulldozed. This means that 11 Tamils, including a young schoolboy, were arrested by Sri Lankan authorities, after those authorities stormed the remembrance events. The UN has always been clear that Tamils have a fundamental right to remember their war dead on 27 November, and that any attempt to infringe on this is a clear violation of international law. This is yet another reminder of the daily injustices inflicted on the Tamil people of Sri Lanka.

It is now nearly 15 years since the end of the armed conflict. Tamils in Sri Lanka are facing an onslaught from their Government, with increasing reports of land grabs, the destruction of Tamil places of worship, and the illegal construction of Buddhist viharas. Tamils and Muslims on the island face horrific state-led abuses, including the continued use, as many colleagues have mentioned today, of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act: the continued use of torture, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings by Sri Lanka’s security forces. Efforts to stifle Tamil voices in Sri Lanka have grown increasingly bold, as seen through the arrest of a Tamil MP, Selvarajah Kajendran, who was detained by the police for commemorating the hunger strike unto death taken by Thileepan, who demanded the right of self-autonomy for the Tamil people.

The increasingly violent anti-Tamil nationalist rhetoric continues to be popularised by every single Sri Lankan policymaker. It is a vile, ethnic nationalist ideology that continues to echo through those corridors of power. It shapes the policies and the Government in ways that marginalise further the Tamil people. Let us be clear: Sri Lanka has a military that is almost double the size of the UK’s. More than 75% of that, though, is deployed in the traditional Tamil homelands. This of course perpetuates a climate of intimidation and human rights abuses, and brutalises the nascent Tamil economy.

A variety of UN bodies and other human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, have called for justice for the victims of historic and present atrocities inflicted upon the Tamil people. Many of those accused, far from being prosecuted, have been rewarded with lucrative promotions, most notably the appointment of General Shavendra Silva to the head of the Sri Lanka armed forces—a total and utter disgrace. In 2015, through investigation by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, there was strong and corroborated evidence that the 58th division, led by Silva, had extrajudicially executed surrendering soldiers and shelled marked civilian hospitals. For the healing process to begin for the Tamil people, monsters like Silva must face justice and be removed from the positions of power where they can continue to abuse the Tamil people.

As we have heard today, policymakers around the world need to be forceful in bringing forward the sanctions that would actually make a difference. We have increasingly seen calls for sanctions against Sri Lankan war criminals. In Canada, they recently sanctioned several individuals, including the former presidents Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa for their role in the war crimes—crimes against humanity and genocide committed against the Tamils in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Canada’s Parliament also groundbreakingly unanimously recognised Tamil genocide in a landmark motion—the first recognition of its kind anywhere in the world. The United States has also issued sanctions on General Silva, and in a recent letter to Secretary of State Blinken, several congressmen and congresswomen from across the aisle urged the State Department to end the diplomatic impunity enjoyed by Sri Lankan perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Despite that, the UK is yet to sanction a single alleged Sri Lankan war criminal. In fact, in the past few years the UK has provided several million pounds in security assistance to Sri Lanka to aid training and capacity building for the Sri Lankan police and security forces. Given these troubling reports, I would like to hear from the Minister a commitment to publish an assessment of the impact of the financial support, and a full overseas security and justice assistance assessment for activities under this programme, to reassure the House that the UK is not contributing to serious human rights violations, as I have previously raised in the House on a number of occasions. The UK’s failure to sanction the Sri Lankan military and Government officials who are credibly accused of war crimes against humanity and genocide is hampering international efforts for justice and accountability, and rightly enraging the Tamil diaspora around the world.

Too many lives have been lost in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. Britain has a historic role in the root cause of this ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, due to our dark colonial past on the island, and our failure to maintain governance structures that allowed different communities to co-exist peacefully on the island. It is Britain’s duty to play a huge and important leading role in supporting the Tamil community as they seek a peaceful, political solution in Sri Lanka that meets the aspirations of all people on that island, including the Tamil people’s aspirations for self-determination.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing the debate and on setting the scene so very well. His leading of the debate has helped us all to participate.

Human rights in Sri Lanka have continually drawn my attention during my time as a Member of Parliament. Unfortunately, the human rights violations of the Sri Lankan civil war have yet to be properly addressed by the Sri Lankan Government, and no perpetrators have been brought to justice. Some of those perpetrators continue to hold governmental positions, while reform efforts have had little effect. The Tamil population continue to suffer under governmental restrictions and human rights violations, including disappearances and death.

These issues and many others have been well documented by the United Nations. Clearly, there is a need for reform, which is what we are all asking for—we are asking for our Minister and our Government to be very active. The European Union helped to cement some changes during its talks. However, the amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act have done little to improve the human rights situation for the Tamils and other affected parties.

I want to focus on the Prevention of Terrorism Act and its effects on Tamil minority religious communities. There has been reference to religious minorities, and I will give some examples of minorities that are suffering. Freedom of religion or belief is a vital component of the human rights landscape throughout the world. FORB and other human rights are intrinsically intertwined—two fingers rolled over each other. Human rights and persecution of religious belief march hand in hand.

With the oppression of one human right, all others suffer. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, so I want to talk about that. The PTA has been a tool of the Sri Lankan Government to wrongfully detain and oppress political, cultural and religious outliers since its inception in 1979. Of course, a country has the right and duty to protect its citizens against terrorism and violence. It does not, however, have the right to wrongfully imprison its own citizens without just cause, nor should it allow any violations of human rights.

The environment of fear and oppression that the PTA has helped to form leads to divisive rhetoric, often grouping together minority populations, with the Tamil population centred in the north as a common target. This phenomenon is compounded by the fact that minority religious populations are represented in the Tamil population at a much higher rate. These sociological aspects of the situation are important to note because they contribute strongly to the political and cultural dynamic of the region. Violence directed against religious groups, including the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019, are red flag markers of this aspect of the situation. Other religious minorities are targeted.

I have had a chance to meet human rights campaigners working on the ground in Sri Lanka. They have described the situation of minority religious groups, including Hindus, Christians and Muslims, as one of fear and bureaucratic oppression. New laws make the building of religious structures more difficult, which is particularly harmful for members of minority religions, many of whom tend to come from less prosperous socioeconomic backgrounds.

Local bureaucracy can prove to be a major stumbling block for minority religious communities, many members of which are Tamil. Police, members of nationalist Buddhist groups and others cause difficulties and harass worshippers, often leading to supervision. Covid-19 protection laws, which required forced cremations for all burials, forced Muslims to violate Islamic religious observance standards—the core of their beliefs. Thankfully, that policy has come to an end, but other measures remain in place for the oppression of Muslim community members.

According to the 2022 report on Sri Lanka by the United States Centre for Religious Freedom, Hindu and Muslim sites in the predominantly Tamil Northern province have been destroyed under the oversight of Government agencies, creating space for the building of Buddhist temples. The report notes that that practice is one of the biggest impediments to religious freedom in the Northern province. So what can the UK Government do? What can our Minister do? We have seen that bilateral talks can be effective in promoting change, but only to a limited extent. Sri Lanka’s economic dependence on the European market was a key point in its PTA reform process. Perhaps that pressure could be applied again.

However, those reforms are not adequate to protect human rights in the country. A new strategy is needed, combining bilateral and multilateral efforts. The same is true for international organisations such as the UN. The UK is a leader in human rights advocacy worldwide; let us use that position to take a stand for the rights of our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, for whom we all are speaking here today. When international pressure is applied, states take note. I have seen that happen throughout the world, and again we ask our Minister and our Government to do the same.

In conclusion, it is very important to speak on this topic. Discussions such as these are a vital part of the UK’s response to injustice and suffering throughout the world. It is encouraging to see debates like today’s this week and next; we note the 75th anniversaries of the universal declaration on human rights and the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. It is very clear to me that genocide is taking place against the Tamil population, ethnic minorities, and religious groups to such an extent that many of the people—indeed, the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) referred to some people from his constituency who went to look for members of their community or families and could not find them. There is an injustice to be addressed, so I hope that those commemorations inspire an increased effort to promote human rights domestically and throughout the world.

I very much look forward to what the Minister will say, and also to the two shadow Ministers—the hon. Members for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West)—who I know will encapsulate all of the things that we wish to see. What we really want to see is justice, and, at this moment in time, we do not see that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), and I thank him on behalf of all my Tamil friends and colleagues for bringing this debate back here. It matters a lot to people, and I think he knows that. It would be easy to say that Sri Lanka has been debated and to move on, so I am pleased that this place will clearly be talking about this until something changes. I also pay tribute to all the familiar faces in here today. I know that their consistent commitment makes a big difference to people.

I will start by saying this:

“It is a crime against humanity that nobody has been found accountable since the war ended 12 years ago. There has been a sleight of hand performance between then and now, with successive Governments promising the international community and their own people that they will do X, Y and Z, then drawing back, then promising again, but at the end of the day progress is never made, accountability never happens, reconciliation is never credibly attempted, and peace never really comes to this beautiful island.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 563.]

I have just repeated the words that I used in a speech on this issue in March 2021. I was not being lazy; I just wanted to show that it is incredible that I can do that because, two and a half years on, the situation remains almost exactly the same. Perhaps we should not be surprised; the civil war started 40 years ago, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk told us, the issues that led to the war date back many more years, so, in the scheme of things, the two and a half years since I last stood here and spoke in a debate about this issue is minuscule compared with the length of time the Tamil people have been waiting for justice.

That day, I went on to talk about my time in Sri Lanka, and I would like to spend a little bit of time doing that now because it is an incredible island, and it is an island that never seems to get a break. From the 30-year civil war that we are talking about today to the tsunami of 2004 that saw the deaths of an estimated 227,898 people, the flooding in 2017 that saw hundreds dead and thousands displaced, and the Easter Sunday attack in 2019 that others have spoken of, the people of Sri Lanka, as I say, never seem to get a break, yet they just get on with it.

Whether they are Tamil or Sinhala, there is a fortitude in the people of Sri Lanka; they accept the situation and make what they can of it. “Best not to look back,” one woman told me as we chatted about her new life in the US, years after her entire family were wiped out by that tsunami. I admired her greatly, and everyone must do what feels right for them, but I cannot say that I agreed with her philosophy. It is healthy to look back; it is necessary to look back, as long as there is a purpose to that, and, in the case of what we are talking about today, there is most definitely a purpose. Accountability and truth are essential to reconciliation.

I spent a very short three months in Sri Lanka during the civil war. It was 2008, and I was part of the Scottish Government-funded post-tsunami economic redevelopment programme. I have returned on several occasions, and I am in touch today with Sinhala and Tamil friends in Sri Lanka and here. In addition, I was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2009. Because I had talked about being in Sri Lanka, many Tamil constituents got in touch with me about being unable to contact their family trapped in IDP camps.

It was around then that I realised how powerless many of us are, even when elected, when powerful people are determined to have their way. At one point, I stood at a buffet table, of all things, with the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa at his home. I told him that I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament and asked him to help me find my constituents’ loved ones in his IDP camps. I was dismissed and swept away by his people, and off he went to look for those who were happy to make small talk. I spent time in Trincomalee, with a man so afraid of what might happen to me, should I be caught reading his book about human rights abuses meted out to Tamils, that he removed the cover and replaced it with another to keep me safe.

My constituents who had sought asylum here told me more about the IDP camps: the missing people, those taken hostage—they were arrested but never tried, so in my book they are hostages—the torture, the sexual violence, the enforced disappearances and the shelling of the so-called no-fire zones. All of that was very well documented by the two-part Channel 4 documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” in 2011.

The Tamil people cannot be expected simply to move on from that, particularly as we still do not know where all those who went missing are. I note what my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said about the number of people who have been found, according to the high commissioner. Sixteen people have been traced alive, and three are dead—that is 19 people of the 18,000 he mentioned. All these years later, we have to find just the 17,981 who are still missing.

Those are shocking statistics, but each one represents a human being, part of a family, desperately being looked for by their loved ones, including the Mothers of the Disappeared. They cannot just move on because, as we have heard today, the worsening economic crisis in the country is leading to worsening human rights abuses. They do not have to look back to injustices, because they are still not getting justice today.

All of this is the fault of the Sri Lankan Government, although I acknowledge and agree with what has been said about our takeover of Sri Lanka. I also acknowledge that the UK Government have played a vital role as leaders of the core group on Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council, but we cannot just pick and choose where we use our influence when it comes to human rights abuses.

I have listened in this place to Foreign Office Ministers telling us, on the one hand, “Don’t worry. It is all going to be okay. We will use our influence”—I am sure that is what we will be told today—and on the other hand, telling us, as they did in a Westminster Hall debate in 2015, that it was good news that Sirisena had become President because he was not Rajapaksa. However, Sirisena had been part of the Sri Lankan Government when the Tamils had been ruthlessly bombarded, and he subsequently made Rajapaksa Prime Minister, before handing over the presidency to the other Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksa brothers are credibly accused of a host of war crimes committed during the war and of violating international humanitarian and human rights laws. It could be said that the UK Government have been too trusting or that they are doing nowhere near enough to use that influence to safeguard the rights of Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

A couple of years ago, the then President pardoned a soldier—one of the few ever to be tried, never mind found guilty. That soldier was found guilty of killing eight Tamil civilians, including a five-year-old child and two teenagers. I can only assume that it was all part of his promise at the time to end what he called the “era of betraying war heroes”—disgraceful.

As the SNP spokesperson on international development, I support the calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk and other hon. Members, and I am interested to hear the Minister’s answers to the following questions. Will he refer the issue to the UN general council with the object of the International Criminal Court or another mechanism bringing perpetrators to justice? On trade, does he agree that Sri Lanka should be removed from the enhanced framework until it meets the already agreed conditions to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act with one that meets international standards—which is not what is happening? Will the Minister finally establish a screening policy for diplomatic meetings so that the UK is no longer giving legitimacy to individuals credibly accused of war crimes? Finally, as just about everyone has asked, will he engage the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 to apply sanctions against individuals credibly accused of involvement in mass atrocity crimes and human rights violations, as the US and Canada have done? It is the very least that the victims of this war, both living and dead, both here and there, can expect from us.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. It has been an excellent debate. We have heard from the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day); from those with extensive parliamentary experience, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn); and, of course, from the well known and very active all-party group, which works across different groupings and parties, including the outstanding contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who has done that casework day in, day out, since 2009 in particular. I also want to put on record the points that have been made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), particularly on the ongoing humanitarian situation in the north of Sri Lanka. That was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who also talked about water quality, which is a very pressing concern today.

As friends of Sri Lankans, we know that, for the many in the diaspora in our communities who come to our advice surgeries with concerns about the ongoing lack of consideration of what happened during that terrible period, until this is fully looked at and considered, there will be no peace. My question to the Minister is on the wide-ranging relationship we have with Sri Lanka as a country. I will first put on record the importance of the economic work done by the High Commission for Sri Lanka with Members across the House to call for economic help for Sri Lanka in the 12 months since the sovereign debt crisis. However, we all want that to be married with a socially just solution for those who feel that the true horrors of the civil war have not fully been heard.

In the context of both the economic imperatives and the social justice concerns, will the Minister, in his concluding remarks, state his view of the role of the current Foreign Secretary, in particular his support for the port project in Sri Lanka, in which he had a financial interest? As the Minister represents the Government, what does he think the relationship is between a state-owned enterprise in the Communist party and the current Foreign Secretary? The House needs to know whether the current Foreign Secretary had a financial relationship with a state-owned enterprise that is basically a development company. Does the Minister think that was an acceptable relationship, and would he enlighten the Chamber?

There are a number of important questions from the past that need to be answered. We warmly welcome the announcement made in May of this year that the Sri Lankan Government will be undertaking a national unity and reconciliation commission. However, we are also listening to non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which was mentioned earlier. Those organisations say that there is a lack of genuine confidence in the milestones that need to be achieved so that we can all have confidence in that commission internationally.

I wonder whether the Minister might tell the House whether he thinks that the commission has achieved the milestones that would have be expected between May and December of this year so that we can all have confidence, and can give confidence to our constituents, when they come to see us in our advice surgeries, by reassuring them that the UK is playing its part in holding the Government in Sri Lanka to account and moving towards a process similar to that which led to the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, which is held up as a gold standard for this sort of work. I am very interested to hear the Minister’s assessment of where we are with that, given that eight months have gone by, and whether we have seen the sort of work that is needed to lead to the sort of outcome that was seen in South Africa.

The UN panel of experts has expressed a desire to see credible evidence of the war crimes and to see that justice is served. A number of Members have underlined the role that General Silva played during the conflict. Has the Minister made an assessment of whether this would fit into the Magnitsky sanctions framework? Post Brexit, that is our most important tool for holding certain individuals to account for their actions. We are all aware that the standard response from a Minister who is asked this question is, “We don’t comment on these things, because that would spoil the process of sanctions,” because they are supposed to be almost a surprise, but given our concern, could the Minister give us a hint of his views on that individual, whose name comes up in so many representations at the UN panel of experts?

Based on the Minister’s assessment of the evidence at the International Criminal Court, does he believe that there is a case to be answered? Does he think it will be sufficient to have the process of national reconciliation, or does he believe that there will be another step after that, which will then go into the ICC? What measures are being taken to support Sri Lanka’s pathway to becoming a pluralistic, multicultural democracy in which all of its people can flourish?

I recently had a wonderful briefing from a fantastic UK organisation called the HALO Trust. The Minister and other hon. Members will know of its great work. After a decade of sorting out land mines in the north of Sri Lanka, the trust’s work is coming to an end. I just hope that as that chapter ends, a new one will open for all of the diaspora and the individuals whose lives were destroyed by that dreadful civil war—a chapter in which truth and reconciliation are key. Is the Minister confident of that? If not, will he tell us what his concerns are, so that our Sri Lankan constituents of the diaspora and those who care deeply about human rights can have confidence that the UK Government are doing their part to uphold peace and democracy?

It is a pleasure to be here. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for securing this important debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), who is the Minister of State responsible for the Indo-Pacific region, would have answered this debate, but she is on a plane to Australia; it is therefore my pleasure to be here in her place. I am grateful for all the powerful and moving contributions from right hon. and hon. Members. I will try to cover the points that they made and set out the Government’s position.

The UK Government pay close attention to the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, especially for the many Tamils. The perils of that situation have been movingly and powerfully described by all Members. I particularly note the interest of the of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka, including the chair and other members, and I am grateful for their contributions. Sri Lanka is one of 32 FCDO human rights priority countries, in recognition of our ongoing human rights concerns in a number of areas, including the rights of people from minority groups.

Hon. Members will know that the continuing marginalisation and oppression of Tamil communities follows many years of racial and religious tensions in the country, which culminated in the civil war; that was described in very clear terms this afternoon. It is important to recognise that a number of different communities, including Tamils, who predominantly reside in the north and east of the country, continue to face marginalisation by state authorities. There have been increasing numbers of land seizures and disputes that have sometimes centred around religious sites, such as the Ayyanar Hindu temple in Mullaitivu. That clearly has troubling implications for freedom of religion or belief. More recently, we are clear that there has been state-sponsored settlement of traditional pasture land in Batticaloa, which threats the livelihoods of local farmers.

There have been several incidents of heavy-handed policing of peaceful protests and commemorations, and there is ongoing surveillance and intimidation by state security forces in the north and east of the country. That particularly focuses on civil society activists and Tamil communities affected by the war, including former combatants and the families of the disappeared. Those events have heightened communal tensions and continue to stoke perceptions of forced displacement from traditionally Tamil areas.

A running theme of the debate has been the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was described in stark terms by a number of hon. Members. The UK Government remain concerned about the ongoing use of the Act, despite the Sri Lankan Government’s long-standing commitment to replace it with a version that meets their international obligations. It continues to be used—indeed, it was used as recently as last week. We continue to call on the Government of Sri Lanka to deliver on their promises and live up to their international obligations, and we acknowledge the concerns laid out this afternoon with regard to the PTA legislation.

For this Government, promoting human rights, reconciliation, justice and accountability is a key strand of our policy towards Sri Lanka. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific visited Sri Lanka in October, when she met the President, Foreign Minister and Justice Minister. She also met the Governor of the Northern province, as well as Tamil representatives and civil society activists in Colombo and Jaffna. She visited community projects, including a de-mining project run by the HALO Trust and paid for by British assistance.

This is a side issue, but the Minister mentioned everything the Government are doing. May I gently suggest that human rights and the persecution of Christians and so on form an integral part of any discussions on economic ties—whether that is banking, more business or whatever it might be—and that those economic ties are conditional on those issues?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and the role of the trade envoy was mentioned this afternoon. We are clear that human rights and trade discussions go alongside each other; they are not mutually exclusive, and that is a perfectly reasonable suggestion.

On her visit, my right hon. Friend raised with the Sri Lankan Government the need for progress on human rights for all communities in Sri Lanka, and for justice and accountability for violations and abuses committed during and following the armed conflict. As has been mentioned, we recognise that other communities in Sri Lanka, including Muslims as well as Tamils, face discrimination, harassment and a lack of justice.

In addition to our face-to-face diplomacy, the UK Government have an £11 million programme that supports human rights and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. We have specific projects and programmes that help to tackle the legacy of the conflict, support civil society and democratic processes, promote gender equality, and reduce inter-community tensions. We have been a leading member of the core group of countries that work to improve human rights, justice and accountability in Sri Lanka, and we will continue to be in that core group.

We have worked in the UN human rights system to raise concerns and build international support to strengthen human rights, and we used our statement to the UN Human Rights Council in September to highlight the vital need to respect freedom of religion or belief and freedoms of expression and association in Sri Lanka. We also pressed for progress on justice, accountability and reconciliation. The UK delegation led work on the most recent UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka, which the chair of the APPG asked about, and we will continue to use that as a tool to argue for progress.

I want to get an assurance from the Minister that the British Government’s relationship with Sri Lanka will ensure that there is always unfettered access for UN human rights monitors and inspectors in Sri Lanka, because there has been, at times, more than reticence—indeed, obstruction—towards their inspection and it is obviously necessary to get an independent view of the situation.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We argue for unfettered access for these inspectors and will continue to do so. In the resolution asked about by the chair of the APPG—my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), whom I commend for his tremendous activity in that office—we focused international attention on the human rights shortcomings. We also succeeded in renewing the mandate of UN human rights experts to report on these issues and to preserve evidence of abuses and violations committed during the armed conflict, so that justice can be pursued. We will continue to use that resolution as a lever to argue for positive change. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question.

I will now talk about some of the small positive steps, because when working with countries to strengthen their human rights adherence, it is important to acknowledge any progress that has been achieved. In that spirit, we welcome steps taken by the Sri Lankan Government to address some Tamil grievances. Those steps include the release of some disputed lands and the release of long-term detainees. We welcome the Government’s engagement with Tamil representatives on a long-sought political settlement, and we have urged the Government to consider further confidence-building measures and engagement.

We welcome steps taken by the Government to improve connectivity between the north and countries in the region, including through regular flights. That should help to increase economic opportunities for the north and others in that region. We also welcome the Government’s commitment to a truth and reconciliation commission, and we encourage them strongly to consult widely and come forward with detailed proposals.

I am sure that the Minister genuinely believes the speech that he is making, but the Foreign Office has for the last 13 years been beseeching the Sri Lankan Government for an independent truth and reconciliation process. To date, that has not happened. At what point will the Minister try something else?

These are clearly profoundly difficult issues that will not be solved quickly, but our judgment is that we must continue with our diplomacy and our strong encouragement for the Government of Sri Lanka to come forward with detailed proposals about a truth and reconciliation commission. As unlikely as it may seem this afternoon, that is the intent of our diplomacy, and we will continue to do that. We will also continue closely to monitor human rights developments in Sri Lanka, including the marginalisation and repression faced by Tamil communities and other minorities.

Given the scepticism about yet another announcement of this sort of process, will the Minister pledge to continue more truthful and thorough approaches? For example, with regard to the question raised earlier in the debate about the role of the ICC for certain of the terrible events that happened during the civil war, is it the assessment of the FCDO that there is a case to answer in the ICC?

The hon. Lady will know that the ICC, being independent, will make its own judgments about the prospect of prosecution, but of course, candour and frank speaking are at the heart of the relationship that we have with the Sri Lankan Government, and we will continue to press the need for a truth and reconciliation commission.

I do not want to be too harsh to the hon. Gentleman, particularly as he is standing in for another Minister, but the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) used part of her speech from 2021 and this sounds distinctly like the same response that we had at that debate, almost word for word. Could the Minister address one issue for me? This is solely up to the Government: will they now explore the use of Magnitsky clause sanctions against known human rights abusers from Sri Lanka?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He knows that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on sanctions from the Front Bench—no Minister would do that—but we note the strength of feeling expressed by colleagues this afternoon.

We are concerned about the ongoing land disputes, the continued harassment and surveillance of civil society, and limitations on freedom of expression, assembly and association. We will continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to adhere to their human rights obligations and fulfil their commitments on transitional justice and legislative reform, and to take steps to build trust in their institutions.

I understand the Minister’s point about not commenting on sanctions from the Front Bench, but could I urge him once again to communicate the strength of feeling in this debate back to the FCDO? We have been asking for this for many years now.

On the point about the ICC, it is independent, but private individuals are taking forward independent referrals to the ICC against certain members of Sri Lankan military society. Although the UK Government are not engaged in that process, will the Minister review whether the FCDO could, at the UN, encourage the information being collected as part of the recent human rights resolution to be passed on to those who are trying to bring forward that prosecution?

I know that the Minister of State for the Indo-Pacific will hear that plea in due course and give it her consideration.

I will wrap up, because I want to leave two minutes for the conclusion. The UK Government will remain leaders on the international stage, working with civil society and the UN to deliver meaningful human rights improvements for Tamils and all Sri Lankans. In response to the question posed by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) on the role of the Foreign Secretary, let us be very clear that as Prime Minister, Lord Cameron led the way in ensuring that the UK spearheaded international efforts to seek improved human rights justice and accountability for sanctions. No one should doubt that our China policy is very clear-sighted, and any mature consideration of the facts will lead one to believe that the Foreign Secretary brings tremendous experience, credibility and integrity to his role.

We have had a very consensual debate with Members from all parts of the House speaking, which shows the strength of feeling that crosses normal political divides.

It is quite clear that far more needs to be done than has been done to date. Although I am grateful for the Minister’s response, the fact that the UK Government are concerned and will call on Sri Lanka to deliver on its promises just does not cut it. We have heard all that before. We really need further action, particularly on sanctions, and we need to ensure that there is international scrutiny of the reconciliation process. That is vital to getting any long-term solution. Unlike South Africa, where a minority were the oppressors of the majority and then power changed, Sri Lanka has a very different dynamic and it clearly needs international scrutiny.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Sri Lankan Tamils and human rights.

Digital Devices: Search Powers at the UK Border

I beg to move,

That this House has considered powers to search digital devices at the UK border.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. We live in a digital age, but the powers that our law enforcement agencies have do not mirror that. Our Border Force is one agency that cannot carry out its duties properly because of the powers that it was afforded in an analogue age, which have never been updated.

In the United Kingdom, 835,000 individuals represent a sexual risk to children. The proliferation of online child sexual abuse and exploitation material means that more and more children can become victims of sexual predators. One place where our law enforcement agencies can intervene is at the ports of entry into our country. It is there that previously unknown predators can be identified, stopped and prevented from harming our children.

Eighty-five per cent of online child sexual offenders are also hands-on abusers. If Border Force were able to intercept individuals who offend digitally, we could stop children from being abused physically. Border Force is in a unique position to help to tackle this problem and I believe that the Government should afford them the statutory power to search passengers’ digital devices for child sexual abuse and exploitation material. I also wish to see a new offence of obstruction allowed where individuals refusing to co-operate with any reasonable digital searches are prosecuted.

The current scope of the search powers of the UK Border Force is designated by the out-of-date Customs and Excise Management Act 1979. Those powers grant Border Force the power to search the person and the baggage of an individual entering or leaving the United Kingdom in order to detect the import or export of prohibited goods. “Prohibited goods” has a very broad definition under the Act, including child sexual abuse and exploitation material such as images, videos and childlike sex dolls.

Under the Act, the UK Border Force is not required to have reasonable grounds to suspect that an individual entering or leaving this country possesses prohibited goods in order to search them in a port environment. However, the scope of Border Force search powers granted under the Act was conceived for a world that knew nothing about the internet, let alone the smartphone. Almost every passenger who passes through a UK port carries a digital device, be it a smartphone, tablet, laptop or hard drive. Some of these passengers travel with digital child abuse and exploitation materials, images and videos, created in the UK or abroad, on their devices. Under the provisions of that Act, Border Force officers cannot compel a passenger to unlock a digital device, but the police can—not at the Border Force area, but in the country.

If a passenger refuses to unlock their device at the request of Border Force, there is nothing that Border Force can do—nothing at all. The passenger is not committing a criminal offence, because we do not have a criminal offence of obstruction for this circumstance. Border Force must then let the passenger suspected of possessing prohibited goods pass into our country and there are no grounds to arrest them.

As 85% of digital child sexual offenders become hands-on abusers, we need to prevent, at the first possible opportunity, individuals from having the chance to abuse our children. Our Border Force could be part of that arsenal to stop those offenders at our border. Its powers do not extend to being able to require a person to “open” their digital baggage so that a search can be conducted; its existing powers are no longer fit for purpose.

Back in the 1970s, child sexual abuse material would amount to a stack of Polaroid photographs, which border officers could readily detect; they were on paper before the eyes of staff who had suspicions. Today, these images are carried digitally, more often than not behind locks such as passwords, passcodes and encryption software. Under the existing legislative framework, Border Force is unable to penetrate those locks without the passenger’s consent.

I believe that many children could have been saved from predators if Border Force had intercepted them when it had the opportunity. There have been numerous examples where passengers entering or exiting the UK have been travelling alone and without dependants and have been identified as having been in possession of paraphernalia associated with the commission of sexual offences against children. If a passenger travels with toys, lubricants, condoms and children’s underwear, many of which are key indicators of an abuser, it is highly likely that the passenger will be in possession of digital child sexual abuse and exploitation material. With digital search powers, Border Force could arrest the passenger if he possessed such material.

To counteract situations such as I have described, we need to introduce a new criminal offence of wilful obstruction, under which an individual would be prosecuted where he refuses to unlock his digital device so that it can be searched for obscene or indecent material. Such a search can be done in seconds, because the technology already exists—our police have access to it. We would protect more children by granting Border Force that power, as individuals entering our country who pose a sexual threat to children would be arrested as soon as it was discovered that they owned indecent child abuse images on their phones and laptops. Granting Border Force the power I have outlined would enable it to become an active part of the cross-agency response on identifying previously unknown persons who pose a risk of harm to children. Where digital devices seized by Border Force contained new sexual abuse and exploitation material produced by the passenger that had not yet been uploaded to the internet, that material would be prevented from being uploaded to the internet.

Critics might say that that proposal is too intrusive, and I have heard that said. They might also say that there is grave potential for the infringement of an individual’s right to a private life, as set out under article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998—it does not worry too much about the children who are abused. A standard operating procedure would make sure that a device is inspected by a scan that looked for codes associated with known child abuse files already catalogued and verified by the Home Office. No file would be downloaded by Border Force and no manual inspection of the device would be needed as the scan is driven by code only. As such, there is no possibility of collateral intrusion and an individual’s digital private life being invaded. It is worth noting that a similar power exists for the police in relation to terrorist material under section 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

The power I wish to see for Border Force already exists in customs legislation across a number of countries globally, notably New Zealand, which is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance. New Zealand brought in a similar digital search power under its 2018 customs Act, which introduced a step process for examining devices in furtherance of detecting prohibited materials, including child sexual abuse material, at its borders. The New Zealand process is comparable to that which I believe would work for the UK. Border Force could carry out a step 1 initial scan to indicate the presence, or not, of indecent material. If such material is detected, the UK police or the National Crime Agency would carry out a more intensive step 2 scan.

New Zealand has already begun to see success stories arising from that legislation. New Zealand’s Act also provides a coercive power for the customs force to require access to an electronic device, the breach of which triggers a $5,000 fine and device seizure. I believe that that would be a sensible mechanism for the UK to adopt. Detection at the border is often the starting point for wider investigation, which encompasses identifying further devices and materials held at the suspect’s home address, or contact offences against minors.

Where that power exists in other countries, it is typically without the requirement for reasonable suspicion. However, the power I am seeking will be legally used only when there are reasonable grounds to suspect an individual possesses indecent and obscene material. We would avoid any abuse of that power, as a high burden will be placed on the Border Force ahead of its use.

The UK’s current baseline for detecting individuals representing a risk to children at the UK’s borders is near zero, due to the absence of the ability to verify digital media. They then have to alert the police about their suspicions, and it can take a couple of weeks for the police to trace the individual. There have been cases where the suspected individual has raped two or more young girls before the police have caught up with them.

If Border Force were granted these powers, we would protect children from the lifelong harm of being abused by a sexual predator. Even without immediate prosecutions for possessing child abuse material, the detection of a suspect at the border will enable a management plan to be developed at pace, to mitigate risk to minors with immediate effect. If Border Force had the same access to the devices that the police have, it could scan them very rapidly, pass the suspects on to the police, and we would close that gap and stop those children being raped and abused. For the sake of our children in this country, we need to do that.

I hope that the Minister will agree that it is time to make our Border Force able to tackle digital baggage. Border Force is well placed to detect individuals who pose a sexual risk to our children. For Border Force to perform its duty to protect us now, we must give it those necessary tools, and the tool to search digital devices is one that, frankly, should be given to it today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing the debate. I compliment her on her steadfast commitment to the rights of children, and protecting them from sexual exploitation in a range of ways.

I will start with some preliminary observations. First, my hon. Friend presents a compelling case, which I undertake to take back to ministerial colleagues and discuss further. The opportunity represented by inspecting digital devices at the border to increase our ability to tackle and prevent sexual abuse is one that we should take seriously, and it is a key priority for the Government.

I will go through the scale of child sexual abuse, with which she is familiar. The Office for National Statistics estimates that perhaps as many as 7.5% of children in this country will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16. That is the equivalent of just over 3 million people across England and Wales. Reports from the Internet Watch Foundation show that the fastest-growing age group appearing in online child sexual abuse imagery is seven to 10-year-olds, and the prevalence of the most severe forms has more than doubled since 2010. Not only are children being abused, but these moments of their lives are being captured, uploaded on to the internet and essentially frozen in perpetuity. For them, it is a never-ending cycle of abuse from which they will never escape. The files are not even hidden in hard-to-reach parts of the internet; many can be accessed in just three clicks.

My hon. Friend knows how seriously we take child sexual exploitation in this country. We are the Government who implemented the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. It had a historical focus, but it none the less informs our continuing work.

We also recognise the unique vulnerability of children online. We have tackled that to some extent through the Online Safety Act 2023, which brings companies in scope under legal duties to proactively combat the threat of child sexual abuse on their platforms and to identify, report and remove material. We are now working with the independent regulator Ofcom and the National Crime Agency to implement and operationalise those new powers and duties. However, I do not want to duck my hon. Friend’s wider point, which is that the border provides an important opportunity to apprehend and arrest perpetrators. On occasion, there will be important probative material that would lead a member of Border Force to reasonably suspect that an individual has images on their device that suggest serious criminality and that would give an opportunity for interception.

When people enter or leave our country, we can see where they are going and where they have been. We can create risk profiles based on their movements and note when someone has travelled to multiple locations that are well known for child sex tourism. Under our existing customs powers, Border Force can, without the requirement for reasonable suspicion, check the baggage of people entering and leaving the country. That baggage may include obscene or indecent materials. Notable examples include child and baby-like dolls, which sometime have purpose-built internal sex organs. Specialist Border Force teams are trained to capture this key information, seize materials and arrest where appropriate.

I recognise what the Minister is saying, but the gap exists and Border Force needs these powers. It can search bags and pockets, and strip-search individuals, but it cannot look at their phones or devices. That is where the gap lies and if we do not close it, there will be even more children being abused on a regular basis.

My hon. Friend has accurately pointed out what looks like a lacuna in the law—where physical objects that may be identified in someone’s baggage indicate something, Border Force simply does not have the power to search devices. I have already undertaken to go back to Ministers and discuss that with them.

I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government remain firmly committed to exploring and exercising all potential levers that can be used to safeguard children and bring offenders to justice. We will continue to work across the whole system to ensure that we are doing all we can to tackle this abhorrent crime, and I thank my hon. Friend again for securing this important debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Violence and Abuse towards the Retail Workforce

[Relevant Documents: e-petition 647093, Make abuse or violence towards retail workers a standalone criminal offence; e-petition 328621, Protect Retail Workers from Abuse, Threats and Violence.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of violence and abuse towards the retail workforce.

It is a pleasure to present this debate and to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I applied for the debate following a visit to a Tesco supermarket in Rowlands Gill in my constituency of Blaydon—other brands are available, of course. I also visited my local Co-op more recently to talk to the staff there. That visit took place to mark Respect for Shopworkers Week, the yearly campaign led by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers in the run-up to the busy Christmas shopping period.

The campaign has several aims. First and foremost, it is about making it clear that the abuse of shop workers is not a part of their job and is not acceptable. It is about ensuring that employers, police and politicians are aware of the scale of the problem of violence and abuse against our retail workforce and do something about it. From an MP’s perspective, it is about listening to shop workers, recognising their concerns and looking at what we can do to support them.

From my visit, it was obvious to me that we are simply not doing enough. The shop workers I spoke to told me about the growing frequency of theft, which is an issue right across the country; figures from the British Retail Consortium show that there was a 26% rise in incidents last year. But the shop workers also wanted to emphasise that the kind of incidents has changed—not only are there more incidents of theft, but they are increasingly violent in nature. Shop workers are feeling intimidated and threatened. They fear going into the workplace, particularly when returning to work after experiencing or witnessing violent behaviour towards them or their colleagues.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I went with USDAW to see shop workers in my constituency of Putney. At the Co-op, I was also surprised to hear of so many incidents of violent attacks and the intimidation that so many people face just going to work. Does she agree that it is particularly disheartening that the Government continue to resist Labour’s plans to make violence against shop workers a specific criminal offence? That would make things much safer for shop workers across all our constituencies.

I most certainly do agree. My hon. Friend’s experience of visiting shop workers has clearly been the same as mine. She has heard the same stories, so we must do something to make such violence a specific offence.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate. This is a massive issue in my constituency. My eldest son used to manage a local shop in the high street of the main town where I reside. He has made me aware of a few occasions when young people have gone in at night to steal items from the store and created a severe sense of fright and fear among the staff. A young girl who worked in the shop, a 19-year-old, was scared stiff—I use those words on purpose.

Does the hon. Lady agree that retail staff often face the most violent torrents of abuse and that more must be done to protect their security? That could include two things: panic buttons or immediate access to the police. Quite often, the police do not attend.

I thank the hon. Member, who is right to remind us that the issue is about not only supermarkets, but small shopkeepers; I think of some of the villages in my constituency.

I want to talk about some of the comments from shop workers in the north-east given in response to USDAW’s survey. I thank USDAW for sharing them with me. These are quotations. One person said:

“I have had name-calling, threats of being hit with bottles, needles and actual assault.”

Another person said:

“Shoplifters swing crutches, punches and bags. They have made threats on my life and talked of getting me jumped.”

Another said:

“There are homophobic insults, intimidating words and being spoken down to.”

Yet another said:

“I have been pushed over, punched in the head and jostled by a large group.”

I am sure that MPs across the House will agree that no one deserves to suffer such abuse simply for doing their job, and that is true whether someone has been working in a shop for 20 days or 20 years.

We should also highlight the fact that retail has a young workforce. More than one in four retail workers is under the age of 24 and more than 60% of new starters in retail are in that age bracket. Indeed, a small but significant proportion of retail workers are aged just 16 or 17. Retail offers fantastic opportunities for young people to get into employment and it is shameful that they might be deterred from doing so because of the abuse that might be inflicted on them. Many workers also have caring responsibilities that they fit around their shift patterns. It is unconscionable that they are experiencing such fear in their daily working lives.

I encountered these stories in my own constituency, but the figures suggest that this local picture is representative of national trends. In March this year, the British Retail Consortium published a report on the scale of the abuse and violence towards shop workers. It found that incidents including abuse, physical assault and threats with weapons had risen from 450 per day in 2019-20 to around 850 per day in 2021-22. It also found that only 7% of incidents of violence or abuse were prosecuted.

I am afraid to say that there are violent incidents towards shop workers in Harrow town centre, which I am privileged to represent, and also too many antisocial behaviour incidents. A couple of years ago, Harrow just missed out on securing a dedicated town centre police team, allocated by the Metropolitan police, which similar town centres across London are benefiting from. Will my hon. Friend encourage the Minister to use his influence with the current Metropolitan police commissioner to allocate a dedicated town centre police team to Harrow, which other similar-sized town centres across London already have?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I hesitate to venture into other police areas, but we find this issue across a number of regions and I will come on to the issue of antisocial behaviour. Dedicated police teams can be very helpful, so I hope that the Minister will listen to that plea from my hon. Friend.

I am not the first person to bring this matter to the attention of the House; in fact, two Westminster Hall debates have considered similar motions in just the last five years, and one of them came from the Petitions Committee. Clearly, our constituents care enough about the subject to have signed a public petition that has secured over 100,000 signatures.

In 2020, the Government produced their response to a Home Office consultation, which had begun in April 2019, on violence and abuse towards shop staff. The response promised to address the roots of the problem and provide support to victims. In 2022, an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was enacted, meaning that if a victim of one of a range of specified offences had been providing services, goods or facilities to the public at the time of the offence, that would be considered as an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes. The Government have said that they consider the existing law sufficient to protect retail workers. That leads me to this question: which retail workers have the Government been asking? I say that because, having spoken to workers on the ground, it is clear to me that the protections already in place are insufficient.

Despite the debates and the consultation, incidents of violence and intimidation are still rising. USDAW’s survey of retail staff in 2023 found that two thirds of its members who work in retail suffer abuse from customers, 42% had been threatened by a customer and 5% had been assaulted. We are talking about being spat or coughed at, being slapped, punched or kicked, or being attacked with weapons. Shockingly, the executive chairman of Iceland has revealed that three Iceland workers are now HIV-positive as a result of needle attacks on staff. Last year, USDAW’s figures showed that four in 10 retail workers experienced anxiety about work and three in 10 were considering changing jobs as a result. That is why we are continuing to see them speak up about the conditions that they are working in.

As I said, the Westminster Hall debate in 2021 was prompted by a petition asking the Government to enact legislation that would create a specific offence of abusing, threatening or assaulting a retail worker. As I also said, it reached over 100,000 signatures, but still the epidemic of violence continued. Therefore, this year, another petition has started—it is still in force—calling for the same measure to be taken. There is a strong, consistent public demand for change.

From speaking to them, I know that shop workers in my constituency—and store managers, in fact—feel strongly that the creation of a specific offence is the right path to follow. They believe that that would not only recognise the scale of the problem but encourage police attendance, which they feel is lacking, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) has said. There is a widespread feeling within the retail sector that theft has been effectively decriminalised over the past 13 years of Conservative Governments.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees with me on these two points. First, this is a very serious matter and impacts every single constituency in the UK. Secondly, tackling violence and abuse against shop workers does not seem to be a priority on the Government Benches; as far as I can see, there are no speakers from the Government Back Benches in this debate.

I certainly agree that the Government have failed to go far enough. They had the opportunity last year when they introduced the aggravating-factor legislation, but we need to go much further than that.

As I said, there is a widespread feeling within the sector that theft has been effectively decriminalised. In the same vein, another policy being criticised is the practice of issuing fixed penalty notices for shop thefts under £200. The failure to investigate those thefts leaves workers feeling as though the crimes that they have experienced, often involving abusive behaviour towards them, are not taken seriously by the police or the Government.

The lack of confidence in our institutions has been reflected by a drop in the reporting of incidents of violence and abuse. The British Retail Consortium notes that there has been a decline in reporting of such incidents to 32%, as workers have increasingly lost faith that the police will take action. The commitments made in the retail crime action plan, which tells police to prioritise incidents involving violence, are welcome, but we must ensure that local police forces are encouraged and supported to implement that approach on the ground. We must also ensure that they have the resources to respond. In my area, Northumbria police are still 400 police officers down from 2010, and it is the same in other parts of the north-east.

Retail workers find themselves at the frontline of antisocial behavioural issues, but the problem goes beyond shop floors. Across my constituency and the country, people are concerned about the antisocial behaviour taking place in their own communities. When my submission for this debate was accepted, it sparked a conversation in my office about times that, as customers, we have seen those acts of aggression play out. In the winter months, with the nights getting dark ever earlier, the worry of bad behaviour in shops will create not just a fearful situation for the staff but one that risks turning away customers.

Strikingly, USDAW’s most recent survey suggests that an estimated two thirds of abusive incidents are linked with addiction, yet we see nothing in the Government’s announcement of the Pegasus programme acknowledging that relationship or exploring the role that drug and alcohol treatment services have to play in tackling this issue. That is another area in which the Government’s promise to address the root causes of retail crime rings completely hollow. It is astonishing that, despite those statistics, the debate, the personal examples and the outcry from businesses and staff alike, workers still feel afraid of their place of work and are worried that, just by showing up for their shift, they will be putting themselves in harm’s way. The sector has long been calling out for more to be done on the issue, and I am proud that Labour is a party willing to listen to that call.

On a local level, I am pleased that our police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, has been getting heads together within the retail sector and local police forces to identify what has been working and what has not—listening to our retail workers, so that they feel recognised and supported. There is also work to be done nationally. Labour will create a new specific offence of assault against retail workers. That has been called for by the likes of the chief executive officer of Tesco, Jason Tarry, who said:

“We want our colleagues to be safe at work. Creating a standalone offence not only sends a strong message to the small but violent group of people who abuse and attack shopworkers, but also makes it clear to shopworkers that as a nation we take protecting them seriously.”

Labour would go further, scrapping the £200 rule that stops shoplifting from being investigated and putting guaranteed neighbourhood patrols back into town centres, with 13,000 more neighbourhood police and police community support officers.

When it comes to the abuse and crime that affect our shop workers, the numbers do not lie. Sadly, they have become common practice and although so many across the industry are calling for something to be done, their calls are going unanswered. To put it simply, we need to do more to protect the retail workforce. No one should have to go to work in fear of being verbally abused, assaulted or victimised just for doing their job. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the seriousness of the situation and make this abuse a crime in its own right. That is what those people I spoke to in my constituency want. It is what the sector wants and what our retail workforce deserve.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a proud member of the USDAW trade union.

Everybody deserves to be treated with respect and fairness at work. Nobody should have to carry out their job in fear of receiving verbal or physical abuse, but sadly that is becoming the reality for many of our retail workers. Abuse of and attacks on shop workers have doubled since 2019. In an excellent opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) set out the statistics: two thirds of USDAW members working in retail suffer abuse from customers, there has been a 25% increase in shoplifting in the past year, and the British Retail Consortium reports that there are 850 incidents of violence or abuse against shop workers every single day. Those figures are shocking.

Having to deal with violence and abuse at work has a far-reaching impact beyond the incident itself: there is the stress, anxiety and potential for injury, but there are also mental health issues down the line. I have been a supporter of USDAW’s Respect for Shopworkers Week and the Freedom from Fear campaign that it has run for many years. I congratulate USDAW on those campaigns. Like my hon. Friend, I visited a number of stores as part of the Respect for Shopworkers Week a couple of weeks ago.

I have been engaging on this issue for a number of years. I remember having a meeting a few years ago with retailers in Didsbury, in my constituency, to talk about the problem of gangs going from store to store shoplifting and how difficult that was to address. They set up WhatsApp groups and communication between the various stores and tried to contact the police, but the problem is difficult to resolve without some kind of offence that makes it easier to take action against the people perpetrating the crimes.

That was a problem in Didsbury, and I met trade unions, shop people and the police some time ago. It has eased off a little there, but in my constituency, as in many constituencies, there is a problem across the retail sector. A couple of years ago, I noticed that the shop assistants in my local Co-op, in Withington, were wearing headsets. I asked one of the staff what that was about, and he said, “We’ve had so much abuse and so many people giving us a hard time that we have to be able to communicate with one another and talk to the manager in the back.” The Co-op has done that in Withington and in a number of other stores. I spoke to staff in Tesco last week, I think, and it is doing a similar thing, improving its communications and the support it gives its staff. That is commendable—it is a good thing—but it should not be necessary.

Stores are doing what they can, but retailers often say the problem is that, when they report shoplifting, nothing happens. That is partly to do with the reduced numbers of PCSOs and police staff on the streets and in our district centres in recent years, with town centre patrols being cut. Perpetrators are also rarely sent to court, as charge numbers have plummeted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon said, fixed penalty notices for shop thefts of under £200 have led to fewer crimes being investigated and prosecuted. A significant proportion of retail crime is thought to be linked to drug addiction, but—as my hon. Friend also pointed out—drug treatment services have been cut.

Seeing fewer uniformed officers patrolling shopping centres and other areas gives criminals more confidence, which I think is a key factor in the increase in retail crime. It is really disappointing that Conservative MPs have repeatedly voted down a protection of workers law—one already exists in Scotland—and that there was nothing in the King’s Speech to tackle the epidemic of abuse against retail workers.

In the run-up to Christmas, the pressure on shop workers is likely to ramp up even more. It is a busy and stressful time, and it is essential that customers treat these valued retail staff with respect. However, more than that, we need legislation and proper police resourcing. Labour’s community policing guarantee will put the police back in our town centres and neighbourhoods, making high streets safe again, with increased patrols and 13,000 more neighbourhood police and PCSOs on the streets. Labour would introduce a new protection of workers law, making violence, threats and abuse against retail workers a specific offence, with tougher sentences. That would make it simpler for the police to take action. It would also send a clear message from Parliament to the police and the public that this issue is being taken seriously and that we will not tolerate the abuse of retail workers.

That measure is backed by USDAW, of course. It is also backed by the Co-op, Tesco, the British Retail Consortium and lots of small convenience stores. There have been numerous opportunities to back the measure in Parliament, but time after time it has been voted down. I just make this request to the Minister and Government Members: I really hope that, in the face of the overwhelming evidence and testimony from retail workers and the retail sector, the Government will think again and introduce a specific offence of abuse and threats against shop workers, because if this Government will not, the next Labour Government will.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend—my good friend—the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate. I declare to the House that I am a member of USDAW, the retail sector trade union. I worked in the retail sector for six years, so I was, and I remain, a member of USDAW. I also refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

In my constituency there are 9,000 retail workers, whose jobs make up 16.4% of those in the constituency. In my region, the north-west, there are 523,000-plus retail workers. Retail jobs are important in my constituency, in the north-west and across the UK. As part of the recent Respect for Shopworkers Week, I visited the Co-op on Castle Street. As on previous visits, I spoke to the managers and shop floor staff, and they told me about the incidents of antisocial behaviour, violence, sometimes threats, shoplifting and all of that. Often they feel that nothing is done. What are the police doing to tackle those issues? This is a serious matter, and it causes problems not just for shop workers but for customers who have to witness such incidents.

The stats were mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Blaydon. There are about 850 incidents of violence or abuse against shop workers daily, so the figures are quite high. The recent survey by USDAW, which had about 3,000 responses from retail workers, found that 65% of retail workers had been verbally abused, 42% had been threatened and a shocking 17.5% had been assaulted, with 4.8% assaulted just this year. Those figures are staggering, and we need action rather than just warm words from the Government.

This debate is about violence and abuse towards the retail workforce, but I want to add a point about the value of retail jobs. These are important jobs. Often, they are low paid—they are not seen as well-paying jobs—and they involve long hours, and sometimes people are on zero-hours contracts. USDAW produced an updated report in July 2023 called “A Plan For The Future Of Retail Work”. I would be happy to give my paper copy to the Minister if he is interested, because these jobs should be good, well-paid jobs and people should be able to afford to bring up their families and look after their communities. Often, however, these jobs are difficult and, on top of the financial difficulties, staff face violence and a lot of abuse. That needs to be tackled.

I am sorry to say that the Government have failed us. Not only do we not have a specific offence for violence and abuse against shop workers, but we have seen significant cuts to my local force, Greater Manchester police, in the last 13 years of Conservative Government. The officers I speak to—just last week, I spoke to a senior Greater Manchester police officer in the Stockport district—do a difficult job. They have their own issues with regard to the workforce, the capacity of officers, the complexity of crimes, the rise in population, the rise in crime and all those issues, and they are often not able to support shopkeepers, shop workers or bigger stores with these incidents. We have seen a perfect cocktail of failure, where the Government have not legislated and there has been a massive increase in these crimes, but where there have also been cuts to police numbers. We need to address that.

The Freedom from Fear campaign, which is run throughout the year by USDAW, the retail sector trade union, is important. There is also Respect for Shopworkers Week, and USDAW’s general secretary, Paddy Lillis, was on the parliamentary estate earlier this year when my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington hosted him for a meeting with MPs. I met Mr Lillis last week and spoke to him about the concerns in the sector, and he told me that there are significant issues.

We need action from the Government, and we need to make sure that a specific offence is created. I worked in the retail sector for just under six years, and I had a good experience at a large national retailer. However, I did come across incidents where the customer was unpleasant or made derogatory, racist or sexist remarks. We need to make sure we legislate.

My final point is that Labour has made a specific commitment—and not just offered warm words about jam tomorrow—that it will table amendments to the Government’s Criminal Justice Bill to strengthen the law to protect retail workers. We need that, and we need it urgently. We also need to make sure that police forces, including Greater Manchester police, have the resources and the support they need to tackle the issues that make life difficult for shop workers and members of the community.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for securing this important debate on violence and abuse towards the retail workforce. It is vital that we address a growing concern that is plaguing our communities and affecting the very fabric of our towns and cities. The scourge of retail crime cannot be ignored any longer: it threatens the safety of our hard-working retail staff, as well as the wellbeing of local businesses that are the lifeblood of local communities.

Shoplifting is not a victimless crime or an attack on a faceless business. At its core, it is an attack on a person—an individual who is simply carrying out the duties of their employment—and it brings with it long-lasting consequences in many cases. According to the annual Scottish retail crime report released last year, a staggering 100% of respondents reported experiencing shop theft at least once a day. That alarming statistic is accompanied by a harsh reality: virtually all retail staff will regularly endure some form of abuse, violence or hate speech throughout the course of a day’s work. From major retailers to local corner shops, the threat of violence, or actual violence, is never far away. That cannot continue.

Our retail workers deserve to be at their place of work and to carry out their duties without the fear of violence, abuse or intimidation. Disturbingly, violence and abusive attacks on retail staff have nearly doubled from pre-pandemic levels. According to the BRC’s crime survey, more than 850 incidents were reported daily in the UK between 2021 and 2022, including racial and sexual abuse, physical assaults and threats with weapons. In Scotland, we witness 70 incidents a day—a sharp increase from 45 attacks a day in 2019-20—so this is on the increase right across the UK.

The economic toll of retail crime is also staggering. The total cost reached £1.76 billion in the last financial year, with customer theft alone accounting for £953 million. Retailers are having to spend an additional £715 million on crime prevention measures.

Some 100 retail CEOs wrote to 41 police and crime commissioners in England and Wales last year, urging them to make retail crime a priority in local policing strategies. The Government failed to listen to them. In contrast, the Scottish Government have taken a key step forward, with the introduction of the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Good and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021, which fully recognises the gravity of violence and abuse against retail and shop workers.

The private Member’s Bill introduced in Holyrood on this issue received widespread support across the Scottish Parliament. It was introduced by a Labour MSP, Mr Daniel Johnson—credit where credit is due—which proves that the SNP is an open and listening governing party. The Bill was enacted in 2021, passing through the Holyrood Parliament with no dissent, so congratulations on that.

Police Scotland figures reveal that nearly 8,000 cases of abuse and assault against retail staff were reported in the two years to August. National statistics office figures on criminal proceedings for 2021-22, published in October, indicate that progress is being made, with 543 of those charged under the Act receiving criminal convictions from 2021 to 2023. Twenty-six individuals were convicted in a Scottish court, with 13 receiving a custodial sentence under the Act.

I am sure the Minister will tell us that a specific law is not required in England and Wales for the protection of retail workers. However, it has been proven that, where there is confidence that, if someone reports a crime, it will be taken seriously, as is the case in Scotland, victims are far more likely to report the crimes, racial abuse or threats of violence they experience in their workplace to the relevant authorities. We ask the Minister to think again about that.

It is important that we stand united against the tide of retail crime that threatens our communities. We must ensure that our retail workers are safe, protected and free from the threat of violence and abuse. The Protection of Workers Act is a beacon of progress, and I urge the Minister to consider following it.

Finally, I would like to say to all the hard-working people employed in the retail sector across Scotland and beyond, “Thanks again for your service every day. The outstanding service you provided for us all throughout the pandemic should not be forgotten. We owe you huge gratitude still. If you suffer abuse, racism or any threat of violence at your workplace, please come forward and report it.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. It is also a pleasure to stand across the Chamber from the Minister for the first time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this important debate, and I thank all the Members who have participated and put on record why it is so important.

I spent a great many years—about 10 years from the age of 14—working in retail. Granted, that was a long time ago, but I do not remember things being so bad for retail workers. The impact of the abuse of shop workers is far-reaching, whether that is the physical and emotional toll on those who suffer the abuse, the impact of theft on employers and retailers or the knock-on impact of those issues on our high streets, which lose out massively when local residents say they do not feel safe in their communities.

I pay tribute to the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar)—I hope I have that right. Retail crime is a blight on our high streets and local communities. Anecdotally, it is felt by our constituents on a daily basis, but that is also borne out in the statistics, which reveal horrible and worrying trends. Retail crime, violence, threats and abuse towards shop workers have increased substantially in recent years, and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon set out the harrowing levels of violence and assaults.

Research by the Co-op shows that there have been 300,000 incidents involving shoplifting, abuse and violence in its stores in the past year alone. Figures from the British Retail Consortium, the retail trade body, show that retail crime in England and Wales was up 26% in 2022, which equates to a staggering 850 incidents every day. That is goods being lifted and staff being abused physically or threatened with weapons. Of course, there is a cost to retailers and consumers too. The BRC estimated that, in 2021, even before the current peak in shoplifting incidents, stolen goods had cost retailers £1 billion.

If we talk to anyone in retail, they will say that it is not just petty thieves behind this, but serious and organised crime. Criminals operating in gangs are stealing large quantities of goods and selling them, and retail workers are operating on the frontline of this shoplifting epidemic. The Co-op sees an estimated 1,000 cases of shoplifting in its stores a day, and every day four or five staff members are physically attacked. As we have heard, they describe attacks involving syringes and knives; it is truly appalling. No worker should ever have to go into work in such fear or under such a threat of attack.

I pay tribute to the shop workers’ union, USDAW, for running a robust campaign on the issue to better protect its members, and to the retailers investing in anti-theft measures and better security for their stores. Shockingly, it has fallen to them to act, because retail crime and the abuse of shop workers has exploded under this Government. After 13 years of Tory Government, over 90% of crimes are going unsolved, meaning that criminals are less than half as likely to be caught than they were under the last Labour Government. More criminals are being let off and far more victims are being let down.

The Tories’ shoplifting charter means that offences involving goods under £200 are rarely investigated properly and criminals are rarely brought to justice. We have also had the decimation of neighbourhood policing, with town centre policing controls cut. Even when offenders are detained by security—as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon—the Co-op says that they are let go in 80% of cases in its stores because the police are stretched so thinly that they cannot attend the scene. It is therefore no surprise that, despite the amazing work of our police officers in testing circumstances, public confidence in the police has been on a downward trend since 2017, falling from 62% to just 55% in 2020.

It is the first duty of any Government to keep their citizens safe, and the Government are failing badly—that is the abysmal Conservative record on law and order. The Opposition are determined to end this chaos. Labour will not stand for any more failure to combat crime. To deliver on that, we have set out our community policing guarantee.

First, we will put police back on the beat. We will bring in proper neighbourhood policing, with 13,000 new police officers and PCSOs on our streets. That will mean more local officers embedded in and servicing local communities, with a named officer assigned to every high street. Secondly, we will have zero tolerance of antisocial behaviour, with repeat offenders banned from town centres. Thirdly, we will build pride in neighbourhood policing by giving local people and businesses a say in how their local area is policed and ensuring that there is proper career progression in the police for neighbourhood police officers. Fourthly, we will end the £200 shoplifters’ charter, reverse the Tories’ decision to downgrade such crimes, and properly crack down on all shoplifting once and for all. Finally, we will create a new specific offence of assault against shop workers. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work, and Labour will deliver on that promise.

I pay tribute to USDAW and to colleagues in the Co-operative party, who have fought hard, and continue to push, for this change. After years of this Government’s failure to tackle crime, Labour is determined to turn the tide on rising shop theft and antisocial behaviour, and to make the streets safer.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your august chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to follow—for the first time, I think—the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), whom I welcome to her place in the shadow Front-Bench team.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for securing this important debate, which follows one on the Floor of the House. The Opposition day debate this afternoon was on a broadly similar topic, but it is good to have a further opportunity to discuss the matter in a little more detail and in slightly less heated circumstances.

Before I respond to hon. Members’ very good points, I want to say that I agree with the assessment that retail outlets are the lifeblood of our community. They are often centres not only for shopping, but for meeting others. They are far more vibrant than just buying something online and having it delivered to one’s doorstep in a cardboard box.

I also agree that it is unacceptable that retail workers are suffering from assaults and threats. I have particular sympathy with them because my very first job in south London was stacking shelves, among other things, in a Sainsbury’s not far from my current constituency, although I must confess that unlike Labour Members, I never joined a trade union.

I thank Members for their kind entreaties, but I will probably give it a miss.

This is a serious issue and the Government are taking it very seriously. Of course, crime in general is coming down. The crime survey for England and Wales, which according to the Office for National Statistics is the only reliable measure of long-term crime trends, shows that overall crime is down 10% year on year, and like-for-like crime is down 56% since 2010. That is very welcome, but—in common with other countries in the western world, including the United States, France and Germany—we have seen a worrying increase in shoplifting and assaults against retail workers in the past year or two. As I say, the phenomenon is not confined to the UK; it is wider than that.

Although it is welcome that prosecutions for shoplifting have increased by 29% since last year, the Government said in response to a number of retailers, including the Co-op and others, that more needs to be done. That is why I sat down over the summer with the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious organised and acquisitive crime—Amanda Blakeman, the chief constable of north Wales—to talk about developing a police action plan to do a lot more.

That action plan was published with the agreement of the police four or five weeks ago and was launched at No. 10 Downing Street. It contains a number of important components. The first is a commitment that the police will always follow up all reasonable lines of inquiry in relation to all crime. That is relevant to all kinds of crime types, but shoplifting is one of the most important. That means that if there is evidence that can be followed up, such as CCTV footage, the police will always do that regardless of the value of the goods stolen.

In the past six to 12 months, the artificial intelligence algorithm that enables facial matching has become a lot more sophisticated. If an image is received from a crime scene—it could be from a Ring doorbell, a dashcam, a mobile phone or CCTV anywhere, including in a shop—as it should always be under this new commitment, it can be run through the police national database, which contains millions of facial images from custody records. The algorithm is so good at matching now that even blurred or partially obscured images can be matched. The commitment always to follow lines of inquiry and always run images through the facial recognition database will lead to a lot more offenders being caught—shoplifters, but others as well. I set the target for police forces across England and Wales to double their use of facial recognition searches this year.

The first element is always to follow all reasonable lines of inquiry, with a particular emphasis on CCTV and facial recognition. Secondly, there is a police commitment to prioritise attending incidents of shoplifting in person where that is necessary to secure evidence; where there has been an assault on a retail worker, which is obviously relevant to today’s debate; and where an offender has been detained by, for example, store security staff. I heard statistics from the Co-op suggesting that where store security staff had detained an offender, the police had attended only in a quarter of cases. That is frankly unacceptable. We now have a commitment from policing to prioritise attendance in all cases where an offender has been detained. I would like Members of Parliament of all parties and police and crime commissioners to hold the police to account for delivering that.

Thirdly, the plan contains a commitment to use data analytics to identify and go after prolific offenders—that is, identifying what is often quite a small number of people committing a large volume of offences and specifically going after them. Fourthly—it may have been the hon. Member for Blaydon who mentioned this—there is an element of serious and organised crime, with organised criminal gangs targeting retail outlets. Project Pegasus, led by the Sussex police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne in partnership with 16 retailers, gathers data from those retailers and passes it to OPAL, which is the police data analysis centre for serious organised crime, including acquisitive crime, to identify the criminal gangs and go after them. That is partly funded by those retailers but is supported and organised by the police.

Those are the four components: following all lines of inquiry, including CCTV and facial recognition; targeting prolific offenders; attending incidents a lot more frequently; and going after serious and organised crime. That package together will lead to a significant increase in the number of offenders who are caught and the number of assaults prevented, and we will see that 29% increase in prosecutions go up considerably more.

I appreciate the points that the Minister has made about policing and meeting the Co-op. Will he give a commitment to the House that he will meet USDAW, which is the sectoral trade union for retail workers, because the people who are at the forefront of this crisis are the low-paid retail workers themselves?

Yes, I would be happy to do so—it would seem churlish to decline such an invitation.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned wages. I observe in passing that the minimum wage will go up by about 10% from next April to £11.44 an hour. That is quite a considerable increase, well above the rate of inflation. Of course, under the last Labour Government, it was only £5.93. If we adjust for inflation and the increase in the tax-free threshold, the take-home wages of someone working full time on the minimum wage are 30% higher than 13 years ago, which is welcome.

The Greater Manchester police were mentioned by, I think, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith). I commend Chief Constable Stephen Watson, who is doing a great job with GMP and led the way by implementing this concept of always following up all evidence, which seems like common sense, but it was not being universally done. He implemented that in Greater Manchester about a year and a half ago, and it led to a 44% increase in arrests and prosecutions. It is exactly that approach that worked under Stephen Watson’s leadership that we are applying nationwide, including to shoplifting.

I will say a word or two on several other points raised in the debate. The first is the offence of assaulting a retail worker. We know that Scotland has a separate offence and that there have been calls to have a similar one here. Of course assaulting a retail worker is an offence: it is assault. It could be common assault, grievous bodily harm, grievous bodily harm with intent and so on. It is a criminal offence and, as I believe the hon. Member for Blaydon acknowledged, we legislated in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 to make it a statutory aggravating factor where the victim is a public-facing worker—that includes retailers and others. That means that a judge is obliged, in statute, to pass a higher sentence than they otherwise would, in recognition of the fact that the victim is a public-facing worker.

The problem is that if cases are not taken through to court for prosecution, that aggravating factor does not come into play. I think that what all of us here are arguing is that the assault itself against a shop worker should be seen as a particular offence.

Obviously, as I have said, that is already an offence—it is assault, it is illegal and it is a criminal offence. We need to make sure that the culprit is identified by the police and that those cases are then prosecuted. The retail crime action plan that I set out a few moments ago will increase the number of prosecutions of those who assault retail workers, as well as of those who steal from retail stores. I am confident that that will be the result of that action plan.

One or two hon. Members mentioned the £200 threshold. I want to make sure that everyone is clear about that. A change to the law in 2014 made the theft of goods valued at under £200 triable summarily only, which means triable just in the magistrates court. To be clear, it is still a criminal offence, it can still and should be prosecuted, and the maximum sentence is six months’ imprisonment, which is the maximum that a magistrate these days can impose. Stealing more than £200-worth of goods is triable either way, meaning that it can be heard in a Crown court. The maximum sentence upon conviction in the Crown court for that offence, of theft, is seven years. So, to be clear, stealing goods to the value of less than £200 is criminal; it can and should be prosecuted; and it is punishable by up to six months’ imprisonment.

I hope it is clear from my remarks that we are taking this issue extremely seriously. The increase in shoplifting in the past year or two in this country, as well as in the US, France and Germany, is of concern, which is why we are taking the action that I set out. We need a zero-tolerance approach, because if we do not have one, the problem just escalates. We have seen in some American cities, such as San Francisco, the situation getting completely out of control. Looting has become commonplace in San Francisco and elsewhere, and we cannot allow that to happen in the UK. That is why we have developed our plan, and why I have asked the police to take a zero-tolerance approach. I am sure that all of us, Members of Parliament and PCCs up and down the country, will hold the police to account to deliver the plan.

I was about to sit down, but as the hon. Lady secured the debate, it would be extremely discourteous not to give way.

I thank the Minister. Will he address the issue that I raised about the resourcing of the police? In my local Northumbria police area, we are still 400 police officers down. That is irrespective of whatever the picture is nationally, and the situation is the same across the north-east. Clearly, that affects the response of the police. What can he say about that? Can he commit to increasing the numbers in Northumbria?

I can confirm that across England and Wales as a whole, as I think the hon. Lady knows, we have 149,566 police officers; that is as of 31 March this year. The number is higher than it has ever been in history and it is about 3,500 higher than the previous peak in March 2010, so there is a record number nationally. As for each individual force area, the choices made by individual PCCs—

I am going to conclude, because I do not want to overburden the Chamber and I wish to finish answering the point. The numbers in individual force areas reflect choices made by individual PCCs over time, for example, about the precept and about the balance between officer numbers, police stations and so on. What we have done in government is make sure that there are record numbers nationally. We have also put more money into policing, so this year PCCs had £550 million more available to them than last year. In addition, we fully funded the 7% pay rise between 2.5% and 7%, which this year entailed an extra £330 million.

Those resources are going in. In addition, from next April we are funding—in every one of the 43 police force areas in England and Wales, including the hon. Lady’s—specially funded antisocial behaviour hotspot patrols. I would expect them mainly to concentrate on town centres and high streets, where shoplifting may also occur. Where we have piloted those in the past four or five months, including in Blackpool, parts of Staffordshire and parts of Essex, we have seen reductions of 20% or 30% in antisocial behaviour and other forms of criminality. We will therefore fund each force, in addition to its regular funding settlement, to have those hotspot patrols, which should deliver something like 30,000 hours of specialist patrolling in each force area each year from April. I think that that will make a real difference.

With regard to the Minister’s explanation of the differences and the choices that local police forces have made, I am sure he will know that the impact of increasing the precept and the value of housing in our local communities mean that authorities such as mine suffer disproportionately because of the way the precept is worked out. Choices there may be, but they are choices within the funding envelope.

I thank the hon. Lady for her final intervention. The police funding formula, which is rather old now, accounts for the council tax base as well as population, crime levels and so forth, but it needs reviewing and updating. As I said, when we lay out the police funding settlement for next year, which we intend to do this side of Christmas, I hope that police forces up and down the country, including in her area, will see that they will get a material resource uplift next year, as well as the special funding I mentioned for hotspot patrolling that has made a huge and visible difference in the areas in which it has been trialled.

This is a serious issue and the Government take it seriously. We have a plan, we have agreed it with policing, and we will now get on and deliver that plan operationally.

This has been an interesting debate, and a very important one to our retail workforce who are suffering violence and abuse, both verbal and physical. Clearly I am disappointed that the Minister has not gone a step further and agreed that violence and abuse towards the retail workforce should be a crime in its own right. I know that the shopworkers and retail staff in my constituency would very much welcome that recognition. Although there are other assault offences that can be used, this is a very specific one that needs to be addressed. I regret that the Minister has not made that change. Retail staff and I will continue to push for it to be recognised as a specific crime.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of violence and abuse towards the retail workforce.

Sitting adjourned.