Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023

Westminster Hall

Thursday 14 December 2023

[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]



[Relevant documents: e-petition 597143, Fund free drink spiking test kits for all bars; e-petition 598986, Make it a legal requirement for nightclubs to thoroughly search guests on entry; Ninth Report of the Home Affairs Committee of Session 2021-22, Spiking, HC 967, and the Government response, Session 2022-23, HC 508.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of spiking.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I wish to extend my gratitude to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. It is a timely debate, given that we are in the season of Christmas when, sadly, we would expect to see an increase in spiking incidents and the subsequent sexual violence primarily against women and girls. I thank my co-sponsor and Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who is so ably chairing here today. I know she shares my passions and concerns about the subject and it has been a pleasure to work with her on the issue. I also thank hon. Members across the House who have given their support for today’s debate. I particularly want to thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who has worked relentlessly on the issue.

I want to highlight my support for the e-petition on making it a legal requirement for nightclubs to thoroughly search guests on entry, with a particular view to preventing date-rape drugs from entering nightclubs, and also the e-petition on funding free drink-spiking tests for all bars. Over 190,000 signed those two petitions, including many in my constituency of Bradford South. That reflects how strongly people feel about the subject across this country.

I will begin by briefly speaking to the enormity of the issue. Spiking is not new or rare in this country. In a YouGov poll of 2,000 people commissioned by The Independent, 11% of women and 6% of men said that they had been spiked. The National Police Chiefs’ Council told the Home Affairs Committee that

“the true figure of spiking occurrences are likely to be much higher”,

with estimates showing that 97% of spiking victims will never report the incident to the police. To protect innocent people across this country, the Government need to act urgently and Parliament must afford the victims of spiking the attention that they deserve.

A year has passed since the last time the issue received a full debate in this place—I see some familiar faces here today—but there has been little progress. We might have even gone backwards. At that time I stood in this very room and called for immediate action and I spoke of the need for a specific criminal offence for spiking. Last week the Prime Minister responded to a question that I posed in the Chamber about a specific offence on spiking by saying he remains satisfied that

“existing laws…cover the offence of spiking”.—[Official Report, 6 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 335.]

The National Police Chiefs’ Council told the Home Affairs Committee that the absence of a clear criminal offence presented a challenge in policing spiking. It also said that a stand-alone offence would help police to

“understand the scale of the problem…enable a far more accurate picture to be realised”

and allow

“enhanced support for victims”.

I am sure that hon. Members across this place will agree that there can be no more dither and delay. A new stand-alone criminal offence of spiking is needed now. The absence of a specific offence for spiking is causing untold damage to innocent people across this country, particularly women and girls.

Freedom of information requests submitted by Channel 4 recently revealed that drug-spiking incidents reported to police have increased fivefold in five years, but the proportion of investigations leading to a criminal charge has fallen. The number of reports that were investigated by police and resulted in a criminal charge have dropped from an appalling 4% in 2018 to a shocking 0.23% last year. That is just one in every 400 spiking crimes reported to police resulting in a criminal charge.

The Home Affairs Committee report concluded that the absence of a specific offence for spiking, along with

“limited reporting, investigation and prosecution, means there are few deterrents for offenders.”

Indeed, with a charging rate that rounds down to 0% it is no surprise that victims do not have confidence in our current laws when it comes to spiking. There are currently seven separate criminal offences under which the crime of spiking can be prosecuted and, importantly, recorded. Five of those date back to the 1800s. It is time that Parliament took a stand against this injustice and created a stand-alone law on spiking that is fit for the 21st century. Throughout my time in Parliament, I have been active in highlighting the dangers of spiking at music festivals, and I have given evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on this issue.

Festivals are a big business, with some directly marketing towards 16 to 17-year-olds—so much so that they are now seen as a rite of passage on completion of GCSEs. Those who attend events can camp overnight, with festivals attracting populations equivalent to a small town; for reference, Leeds festival is attended by around 100,000 people. The police presence is minimal, and the lack of safeguarding training for members of staff can subsequently lead to severe issues with the non-reporting of spiking, sexual assault and rape. Indeed, a female survey respondent was quoted in the Home Affairs Committee report as saying:

“I got the impression that event staff…thought that I had taken drugs willingly as opposed to being spiked”.

That is a clear example of a victim not being believed or understood due to a combination of ignorance and a lack of safeguarding training.

It seemed an obvious and positive step forward when the Home Affairs Committee report recommended that all staff working at music festivals, including vendors, be given compulsory safeguarding training, and it was disheartening to hear that the Government do not intend to mandate training for all staff at events such as festivals. I urge the Government to reconsider that position, because this terrifying lack of safeguarding at music festivals is a clear blind spot and it cannot continue. Many hon. Members will share my view, and my experience, that what should happen to tackle violence against women and girls does not happen unless specific legislation is put in place to make it happen.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council told the Home Affairs Committee of its difficulties in getting a true picture of how widespread spiking is. To highlight the dangers at music festivals, I made a freedom of information request to nine different police forces regarding 11 of the most popular music festivals over the past 10 years. The findings were shocking. They included nearly 200 cases of reported rapes and sexual offences against children as young as 12, and 32% of the cases reported were against children under the age of 18. However, in the 10-year period to 2019, the data that I received recorded just 10 instances of spiking. Devon and Cornwall police gave examples of two spiking offences at Boardmasters festival recorded under the offence of administering a poison or noxious substance. At Reading festival, Thames Valley police noted a case of spiking, but it was recorded as sexual assault.

With cases of spiking reported under different offences in that manner, it makes understanding the scale and nature of this issue difficult. The opportunity to identify patterns in the crime is being missed, and the ability of our legal system and laws to detect, prosecute and prevent this crime—to seek justice for the victims—is undermined as trust is eroded, therefore feeding the cycle of under-reporting.

I therefore welcomed the news that, under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, the Government were legally required to publish a report outlining the nature and prevalence of spiking in this country by April 2023. We are nearly eight months past that deadline and the report is still not forthcoming. The Government have failed in their legal duty to publish that report. In giving reasons for their delay, the Government argued that they had cause to consider with colleagues across Government whether their rationale for not introducing a specific offence for spiking was sound.

I suspect that, in being forced to gather data on spiking, the Government have now become aware of the difficulties in collecting and understanding that data, which is a direct result of the absence of a specific law on spiking. By failing to create a stand-alone law, the Government have been left blind in the face of even an issue so prevalent and widespread as spiking. The Government must publish their report on spiking, and I call on them here today to clarify if and when they will now publish that report.

In 2022 the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), rightly stated that the Government were looking into

“a specific criminal offence to target spiking directly”.

However, in January 2023, a Home Office Minister carried out a policy U-turn by saying that a new law on spiking was unnecessary. Then, in a letter in July 2023, the Home Office said that it was reconsidering whether a specific offence was required. Last week, in response to my question, the Prime Minister suggested that he did not believe that a specific offence of spiking was necessary. On an issue that demands certainty and clarity, we have a Government who are uncertain and unclear on their position. In April 2023, in relation to spiking, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the leader of the Opposition, clarified that

“an incoming Labour Government would make it a specific offence.”

There were 34 signatories to this debate across five political parties, so I know that there is broad support across the House to create a stand-alone law. This situation demands determined action. Will the Government stay true to their legal obligations and publish their report on spiking? And please, Minister, do not give me the kicking-it-into-the-long-grass response of, “Yes, but shortly”—just tell me when. Will the Government finally do the right thing and recognise spiking as a criminal offence in its own right? There can be no ambiguity here. Now is the time to act to defend the innocent victims of spiking and ensure that these vile perpetrators face the consequences of their serious crimes and feel the full force of the law.

Thank you, Ms Nokes; it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) for giving us the opportunity to discuss spiking again. My constituency of Chelmsford is home to a vibrant and much-enjoyed night-time economy. We have many bars, clubs and restaurants. People come up to Chelmsford to enjoy a night out, not only from Essex, but even from London. We are very proud of our safety record. Chelmsford holds a Purple Flag for safety in the night-time economy, and we did not just get that Purple Flag this year or last year; we have had it every year for the past 10 years. We have a wonderful reputation for keeping people safe, and we want to keep it that way.

From time to time, however, some dreadful stories come to light even in Chelmsford. In February, a very brave woman shared the story of what happened to her when she was out in Chelmsford with a group of girlfriends. She had only had one cocktail when she started to feel dizzy and sick, and then she suddenly started to have spasms. Fortunately, her friends acted quickly. He mum came and collected her and brought her straight to A&E at the local hospital. A video was then shared of her when she was at A&E. Her body was contorting and she was groaning, “I want to die.” She had a complete lack of control of her own body. That went on for six hours. When she came round, she noticed a small mark on her arm and that her arm was painful. She believes that she was stabbed and spiked. Goodness knows what would have happened to her if she had left the bar, left her friends and been all alone in the dark when that occurred. How vulnerable would that young woman have been?

I would like to thank my local police, who treat this problem very seriously. They have been working very actively on hotspot policing in Chelmsford city centre for the last few weekends, including last Saturday and Sunday night, when they were doing spiking awareness campaigns in the bars, clubs and restaurants. I would also like to thank the owners of the many bars, clubs and restaurants, who I know also treat women’s safety seriously. I have been in with many of them to discuss the CCTV arrangements that they have in place to monitor safety, and the fact that many of them make available stoppers or covers for your drinks bottle or glass. But why should a woman have to put a stopper in her drink? Why should she have to put a cover on her glass? Why should she not feel safe just to lift up her own drink that she has bought to enjoy with her friends, and take a little sip from it? Spiking is abhorrent, it is intolerable, and it is unlawful. It must not be allowed to continue. Perpetrators must not get away with this.

Spiking is illegal, but the law against it is incredibly outdated. It goes back to the Offences against the Person Act 1861. I happen to be one of the small number of Members of this House who is currently serving on the Public Bill Committee for the Criminal Justice Bill that is going through Parliament right now. On Tuesday this week, we took evidence from real experts. I asked some of them whether they felt there was a need to modernise this legislation and make the language absolutely crystal clear—in terms that people will understand today—and they agreed. They agreed that spiking is unlawful, but that the language needs updating.

I know I am joined by colleagues in this place today who also agree that updating the language of the law will help to lead to more prosecutions and make it absolutely clear to those who want to commit this type of offence that it will not be tolerated, and therefore it will act as a deterrent.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the private Member’s Bill that I introduced faced an analogous problem: there was no specific criminal offence against the public harassment of women. For a long time that was considered unnecessary, so these crimes—as they were—were under-reported. Now there is a specific criminal offence; it is clearly illegal to abuse someone on the grounds of their sex in public. I am pleased to say that was backed by the Government and the Home Office. Is that not a precedent that the Minister may wish to draw on to make progress in this very important area that the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) are highlighting?

I absolutely agree, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for the work he has done on women’s safety. We must make it crystal clear that this offence, which can affect men but most usually affects women—often young women —is unacceptable. We must have that law in language that people today understand with great clarity.

I thank my great and hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, who has campaigned on this issue so relentlessly and so effectively. Two weeks ago, it was an honour to join him in a meeting with the new Home Secretary. The new Home Secretary is one of my Essex constituency neighbours; I know that constituents of his come to my constituency for their nights out, and I also know that he cares deeply about the safety of women. Together, we pressed the case that there needed to be a specific criminal offence for spiking. The Home Secretary listened intently to the case that we made, and I ask him, through my right hon. Friend the Minister here today, to please act now. Table an amendment to the Bill that is going through Parliament now. I know I speak for all members of the Public Bill Committee when I say if that amendment is tabled, we will pass it and have it on the face of the Bill by the time it comes back to the whole House.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I am quite sure that if you were not chairing this debate, you would be right over there on the Government Benches participating in it. You have shown leadership and clarity in this matter, and we all appreciate that. I wanted to say that, because I know you cannot speak in this debate while you are in the Chair.

It is also a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), a fellow Omagharian. We were born in Omagh at different times, but none the less we both come from the same town. We have an interest in many things relating to Northern Ireland, but today we have an interest in the issue of spiking.

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) is here. I have supported his campaign the whole way through, because I believe it is right. It is as simple as that. I believe we all think so, and I hope he can push this legislation through. He will find us all standing behind him.

The hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) is a good friend. I was a co-signatory to her application for this debate; she nabbed me in the Backbench Business Committee, if I recall rightly. I was applying for another debate, but I was very happy to support hers once she informed me what it was about.

Spiking was not much on my radar when I was younger. I am older than probably anybody else here, so I go back just that wee bit further than most. I do not remember ever having the issue of your drink being spiked and someone then taking advantage of you, but I well remember as a father, along with my wife Sandra, urging my three boys to be careful when they were out. Our real worry now, as I am in the grandparent stage, is for the grandchildren. I have six grandchildren: they are not at an age to be going out yet, because they are all very young, but the 14-year-old is going on 18 or 19, and she will quickly come to that age.

The fear is one that is replicated in universities throughout Northern Ireland. I read an interesting article—this probably goes along with what the right hon. Member for Chelmsford referred to. Queen’s Radio, a radio station for students, has spent time going through the issue to raise awareness. I welcome what has been done at Queen’s University Belfast, because it is important that the matter is highlighted and awareness is raised in Northern Ireland. Students need to be aware of these matters. The Queen’s Radio website states:

“In November 2021 alarming statistics on drink spiking in Belfast were released by the PSNI.”

The stats refer back a few years, but none the less they are still salient. I will give hon. Members some idea of what that meant:

“Throughout that month alone, 120 incidents of drink spiking had been reported”

in one month in the city of Belfast. That is horrendous. The question we all ask ourselves is: are we scraping the scab? Is that just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak? The article continues:

“Amongst these cases, one of Northern Ireland’s main universities (Ulster University) had reported three incidents whilst chief constable at the time Simon Byrne was speaking of the issue as a ‘priority’ for his team.”

The Police Service of Northern Ireland made it a priority to raise awareness, make their constables on the beat aware and visit pubs to highlight the issue.

The article states:

“However, there exists a plethora of young people out there who continue to experience the issue at close range within Belfast. Upon speaking to a first-year student who was spiked whilst celebrating her friend’s 21st birthday several months ago, she spoke of how she does not normally drink a lot and was only planning on having one drink that night.”

The right hon. Member for Chelmsford gave an example of a lady; I will give a similar example, but it is the same issue wherever it may be.

“After ordering a vodka blackcurrant at a bar in the city centre, she left it sitting at her table for less than a minute”—

that was all it took—

“and continued to drink it upon arrival back at the table”,

not realising that anything was wrong.

“It was just after consuming around half of the drink that she recalls everything going ‘fuzzy’ in the room and beginning to feel drunk ‘which was almost impossible since I had only had less than one drink.’”

She could not quite understand what was happening.

“After experiencing this, she left the bar with some friends”.

That is one thing we need to emphasise to young people: it is always good to have a pal. It is always good to have someone, and to keep an eye out for each other. In this case, that is what saved her:

“she left the bar with some friends as she didn’t feel well. Whilst she is thankful that she got home safely and the incident ‘didn’t end too badly’ she spoke of her continuing shock that she experienced side effects symptomatic of excessive drinking”,

which quite clearly was not the case.

[Clive Efford in the Chair]

Unfortunately, the story is replicated throughout the UK. I believe it needs to be a priority not simply for police forces, but for universities. There is a role for us all to play: parents, elected representatives and the police, as well as pubs and hostelries. I know of some community groups that provide so-called spikey stoppers free over holiday periods. Those are very important as we approach Christmas and the new year. As much as I hate it, it is necessary; unfortunately, such things have to be part of the life that our young people and others lead. I believe that universities must give them to students free of charge, and that bars around campus should be urged to ensure that students are using them.

As we come to the festive season, I think of one my very wise 92-year-old mum’s sayings, which I believe is always relevant. She is still compos mentis; she might not be as physically active as she was, but she is still there to tell her big boy what to do and the right way of it. One of the wee sayings she has given us over the years is “James, when the drink is in, the wit is out.” Unfortunately for some people, they are left witless not through choice but either because someone thinks it is funny or for a more nefarious reason: because someone removes the choice of being in control.

I know of one household that will not allow their young adult to go out with their friends without knowing who is the designated sober sidekick, the one person in the group who is not drinking and is watching out for others. In the society we live in, it is right to have that designated person.

Will the Minister consider a cross-departmental approach to provide protection and advice, along with police forces targeted at student areas? Whether such roles are for universities, higher education, local councils and their officers or the police, there is a strong need for things to change.

I commend the hon. Member for Bradford South for setting the scene and giving us a chance to participate. I always like to give a Northern Ireland perspective, but what I am talking about is no different anywhere else; it is happening all over the United Kingdom. I am, as always, pleased to see the Minister in his place. I know he grasps the importance of the issue and will respond in a positive fashion. I look forward to hearing from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who has also been active on this matter. I am also pleased that the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North is back among us. I said that I would miss her contribution, but now I will not have to. I look forward to it.

I will finish with this point: our young people have the right to go socialising. They deserve that right. It is their life. It is the life they lead and the life they have chosen. That should not come at the expense of taking their lives in their own hands because of somebody’s nefarious and criminal activities. I believe that through debates like this one, we can do more to help. I hope that today will be the first stage. If the hon. Member for Gloucester intends to press this matter in the Chamber, I am confident that we will all be there to go through the Division Lobby in support. To be fair, I think the Minister grasps the issue, so there may be no bother in getting the Government to come along with us.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on securing this debate, with the wholesome support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). It is worth noting—particularly for those who are watching the discussions from afar, or for those, including Dawn Dines of Stamp Out Spiking, who have come a long way to join us today—that although the room is not crowded, we have many supporters from all parties in Parliament. The fact that others have different things to do on a one-line Whip day is irrelevant to the importance of the subject we are debating.

It is now two years since my first ten-minute rule Bill on spiking; it is 20 months since the Home Affairs Committee report; it is one year since a debate in this Chamber in my name; it is six months since my second ten-minute rule Bill on spiking; and it is only a month since a new Home Secretary took up his position. Patience is a virtue, we are told, and so I believe. Today, with the Minister for Security in his place for a second time to hear a debate on spiking—the second time that spiking has momentarily taken over from his normal national security responsibilities—we may have a chance to take things forward.

Why do I say that? Why do I have more optimism than the hon. Member for Bradford South? Because the scale of the problem, which we have identified in several earlier debates of this kind, is even greater than we had imagined. We know that 5,000 cases of spiking were reported last year, we know that spiking is not an offence in its own right and therefore the police do not collect formal data on it, and we have already described that figure of 5,000 as being the tip of the iceberg, but that iceberg is even bigger than any of us imagined.

Last night, I was stopped by two researchers in Portcullis House, who thanked me for the work that I and others—some of them are here today and some are not—have been doing on spiking. I asked one of them what her experience had been. She described vividly the occasion when she had been spiked in London. She felt extremely ill, went to the loo and locked the door. She then passed out and lay on the floor of the loo for about four hours. She only knows that it was about four hours because later she looked at her watch. She never spoke about this incident to anyone in her family, or even to the man who is now her husband, and least of all to the owner of the establishment where she had been having a quiet drink with a friend. Of course, she has not mentioned it at all to the police.

That experience is absolutely not unusual; it is what has happened to so many people around the country. I came down to this debate in the lift with two other young researchers, both of them unknown to me; no doubt I was also unknown to them. I asked them if they had had any experience of spiking. One said, “No, but I’ve got several friends who have been spiked.” The other one said, “My sister was spiked and one of my best male friends was.” This is a very common thing, and it is not unique to females, although the vast majority of cases are against females. As one of them described it to me, the overriding feeling she has about spiking is that the aim, above all, is to humiliate.

That is where the element of violence against women and girls comes in, and—in answer to something the hon. Member for Bradford South said earlier—that is why the Prime Minister gets it. As the father of two young girls, he sees this absolutely as something that should worry every parent in the land. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who is currently a Minister in His Majesty’s Government, has gone public with her experience of being spiked, and there are others here who have family members who have been spiked, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North.

This is not unique to us in Parliament. That iceberg that I described a year ago is just massive. The emphasis therefore has to be on how we can find a way through some lawyers’ belief that this crime is already defined in different ways in law. We have been through this two or three times, and the Minister has been very sympathetic to the case that has been made.

Because we have a bit of time in this debate, it is worth highlighting those who are not here today but who have been so supportive. I have mentioned some Members who are in the room, but I also want to highlight my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), whose description of her own constituency’s nightlife stands alongside the description of the Leeds festival by the hon. Member for Bradford South. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has stood up for this cause all along the journey, described the experiences of his constituents in Northern Ireland, and my right hon. Friend the Minister has done work on an analogous incident. All that work is important.

We have heard examples in previous debates from my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory); from my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), a former Home Secretary who has been very supportive of the cause; the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) for the SNP; the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for His Majesty’s loyal Opposition; and my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards), and for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson).

My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who was due to be here in a different capacity, highlighted on Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill the experience of his constituents Mandy and Colin Mackie, who created Spike Aware UK after their son, Greg, tragically died from spiking. There is an assumption that spiking is something that happens, and that the person feels very ill for perhaps 24 hours and then recovers. Mentally, I am not sure that they recover completely for a very long time. I am a strong believer, from what I and other colleagues have heard, that these things linger as a mental health and confidence-destroying issue for a long time to come. Certainly, physically, the assumption is that everybody recovers, but Greg Mackie did not; he died. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend is not here, but I wanted to mention that.

We also heard from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie). The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), who has experience of being in the police force, has been very supportive, and we heard from the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore). The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) brought her experience of what has happened in Wales, alongside the Opposition spokesman, and we heard from the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry).

It is worth mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) because I was led to take up the challenge of spiking two years ago by my constituent Maisy Farmer, who was spiked while at university in my hon. Friend’s constituency. All those Members have made a huge difference. I ought to also highlight a former Safeguarding Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), whose support for this cause as a Minister and a Back Bencher has been equally resolute.

My point is that this is not a journey that involves only the half-dozen of us here today; it has very wide support across the House. If a researcher had the time and energy to talk to every Member in this House, we would have thick volumes of anecdotal evidence of cases of spiking affecting those individuals’ families, staff, friends and, above all, constituents. This is a major issue.

The reason I see more cause for optimism is that the Government have the opportunity to use the Criminal Justice Bill, which is in the Bill, to create a new offence of spiking that would define it for the first time, bring together elements of the 1861 Act and the Sexual Offences Act 2003, modernise the language, enable data to be collected, knowledge to be increased and best practice to be shared between police forces, and raise greater awareness in all levels of society and age groups. On Second Reading of the Bill, I raised the story of a colleague’s constituent, a 60-year-old male who was spiked, was raped and had his wallet stolen on a rare visit to London. This issue cuts across age groups, gender, ethnic heritage—everything. All our constituents will be better supported, and the humiliation of spiking will be gradually reduced, if the Government focus on putting this offence into the Bill.

It is fantastic that the hon. Member for Bradford South has gathered us together in this Chamber to discuss spiking again. I really do believe that this time the opportunity is with us. I have been accused of being a perpetual optimist since starting on this trail two years ago, but I believe it can happen. I believe that, after today, and perhaps after we see what is in the Criminal Justice Bill, Stamp out Spiking may have the opportunity to believe not that spiking will end, but that the country will see that we in this place are united in making sure that the offence of spiking is created, defined, recognised and dealt with in the best way possible. Thereafter, we can focus on the implementation and how police forces, universities, those in the nightlife economy and others make sure that the message is clear.

It is almost Christmas. Let us believe that Father Christmas, in the shape of my right hon. Friend the Minister, may have some good news to share.

Thank you, Mr Efford, not just for calling me to speak but for stepping in after I stepped in earlier. This debate is an object lesson in multitasking.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and, of course, my co-sponsor, the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins). It is always a privilege, particularly on this issue, to follow the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who has campaigned tirelessly for two long years, as he so ably highlighted. It does not seem nearly a year since we were last in this place discussing this issue, but I like to think that we are on the edge of a breakthrough. I look to my right hon. Friend the Minister for support, encouragement and enthusiasm on the issue.

The last debate was well attended. I think it is fair to say that this debate has fewer contributions, but obviously of an exceptionally high quality. It shows that we still care and are still concerned about the numerous stories that our constituents bring to us. I am still shocked by the incidents that are highlighted to me in my role as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.

Just over 11 months ago, we were calling for specific legislation to address this issue. My right hon. Friend the Minister will know that the Home Affairs Committee has done a great deal of excellent work on spiking. Its report of April 2022 is tagged to this debate, and the hon. Member for Bradford South gave evidence to that Committee on the very specific issue of spiking at festivals.

I wish to touch on that issue briefly, because I went to Glastonbury—I think it was 18 months ago. This was a departure from normal behaviour for me, but I spent an entire day with the Avon and Somerset Police and with some of the stewards at that festival. What I saw was really heartening and encouraging. I saw stewards going out of their way to ask festival-goers whether they were okay. I vividly remember seeing a young girl huddled almost in a foetal position on the floor—it was bitterly cold—and a steward stopping, checking that she was okay and putting his hi-viz jacket around her. It was really encouraging to hear at first hand from the police about the efforts that they were making.

However, moving on from the 2022 report, the assurances given to the Home Affairs Select Committee and the welcoming of its recommendations by Government, we still do not have specific legislation on spiking. I want to highlight why that is important, and why it is a great pity that the Home Affairs Committee is still waiting and police forces, police and crime commissioners and, indeed, victims and potential victims, are still waiting. It is because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) highlighted, the legislation to which we tend to revert when talking about spiking is from 1861. That is not even the last century: it is the one before that. It is really remiss of the Government. In many instances, we can rely on very old legislation for good purpose, but the offence of spiking had not been dreamt up in 1861. I did a bit of research on how one might spend one’s leisure time in 1861. We had not heard of nightclubs at that point; the steam-powered carousel had just been invented; young people were certainly not going anywhere near bars and nightclubs, and they were not being forced to put plastic stoppers in the top of their bottles or covers on their glasses.

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent point about the 1861 Act. The Minister will know that section 22 of that Act refers to the use of chloroform and laudanum. Those were popular instruments at the time that Act was created, and they also feature in Sherlock Holmes’s exploits quite a lot, but does my right hon. Friend agree that that sort of language needs to be modernised?

That is exactly the point. The Act talks about chloroform and laudanum, not Rohypnol, GHB or the various other date-rape drugs that are either dropped into glasses or injected into people’s arms or legs—other body parts are available. That is the stark reality and why the legislation has to be modernised. We have a 21st century problem and we need a 21st century solution to it. We know that the Government are committed to producing and publishing a report on this issue. I believe it was the hon. Member for Bradford South who highlighted how long we have been waiting for that.

I spoke earlier this week to the safeguarding Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), and asked her to continue to think positively, but speedily. What matters is that we need a solution. The only reason she is not here today is because she is doing great work in the Criminal Justice Bill Committee. I gently point out to my good friend the Minister—I believe he is a good Minister—that he is the Security Minister and we are talking about the security and safety of our young people. I promise him that I am not going to get shouty with him, but I gently ask: the Home Office’s Sir Matthew Rycroft said in his response only two days ago to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee that news would be forthcoming “shortly, so how short is “shortly”? I ask because the epidemic of spiking does not abate.

Last time we were here, we all raised the horrendous case of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who has experienced spiking. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester also alluded to an experience. I do not think I have ever mentioned this explicitly in this Chamber, but I asked my daughter whether she had ever been spiked. She highlighted two occasions, one when she was collapsed in a toilet of a nightclub and was picked up by the security staff from the floor, carted through the entire nightclub and dumped on the pavement. That is what happens to teenage girls: they get ejected from nightclubs because the assumption is that they are drunk—she was not drunk. She may well have been drinking, but she assured her mother that she had had only one drink. It was only because her friends saw her being carted out through the nightclub and went to the rescue that she was safe. She told me of another occasion when she had had only one drink and firmly believed that she had been spiked. She and her friends regard this as commonplace—that is the horror here. They do not report spiking to the police or to any authorities; they just accept that this is a risk they will run in order to go out and have a good time. That is absolutely horrific. I always point out that my daughter is a lot smaller than me, and I questioned whether this was something that happened only to petite people. A constituent of mine told me about the case of his wife who had been spiked in a nightclub, and she is tiny. I thought, “Is this happening only to small people? Am I therefore safe?”. No, apparently, I am not.

I wish to mention, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester did, the work done by Spike Aware UK, because we regard spiking very much as a gendered crime, but Greg Mackie died because he was spiked. His parents Colin and Mandy—Colin has been in touch me with ahead of this debate—have done great work since 2017, highlighting the scale of the problem, the importance of educating young people, and the importance of educating venues and making sure that they are putting protections in place. But we do need to better understand the scale of the problem; we need better data. With spiking crimes being recorded more often alongside rapes, sexual assaults and robberies, we need to have data that shows us exactly how many people are being spiked. We also need better reactions to this; we need blood tests and tests in hospitals quickly to identify the victims, because the challenge is that many of these substances are processed in the body very quickly. We need evidence to drive good law, and I have no doubt that the Home Office is going to drive good law.

I have mentioned Spike Aware UK, but I also wish to pay tribute to Dawn Dines, of Stamp Out Spiking, whom I have spoken to as part of the work that my Select Committee has done. I want to touch briefly on why people might seek to spike other individuals, which others have referenced. I believe that it is by and large a gendered crime, but it can happen to men; it can happen to boys. We think of it as being driven by sexual gratification, but it can be driven merely by wanting to be entertained by watching someone’s reaction. More and more cases are now being driven by a desire to perpetrate robberies. We are hearing of cases of people being frogmarched to cashpoints and forced to withdraw cash while they are incapable of making rational, sensible decisions about what they are doing because of the substances they have been given. However, as Spike Aware UK would point out, it is not good enough for us to have legislation in this place and it is not good enough for us to be aware: we all have to be actively anti-spiking. The Home Office has done some work in recent years on being an active bystander—the British Transport Police also does that brilliantly. It is about looking out for other people’s drinks and observing the behaviours of others in nightclubs and bars.

I absolutely endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford however: why should we have to do that? I have never forgotten the experience of Emily, a young girl from Southampton who was a student at the University of Southampton when she was spiked. As a result of that, she came to my office, and her father told me her story very eloquently. She came and did a period of work experience in my office. While she was there, there were two other teenage girls doing work experience, and we had someone from a company come to us with female protection kits, as I will call them loosely. He had a range of kits. There was a kit for dogwalkers, to protect them from being attacked while out walking the dog. There was a kit for students specifically, which contained plastic stoppers for bottles, lids for glasses, their own straw, and so on. It had some of the tests for testing drinks. I let Emily loose on him, because her instant response was, “Why should I have to? Why should I have to have a 20-point checklist to keep myself safe when I go out at night?” Emily is right: we should not have to. But in the current climate, tragically, we do.

My right hon. Friend is making such a good point about the experiences of Emily and others. Does she agree with me that the evidence collected by the Home Affairs Committee was very powerful and very helpful? I want to pay tribute to the Chair, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), who cannot be here today, but who led on that and helped to provide evidence that I hope the Home Office will consider carefully. As my right hon. Friend has mentioned, the work of Stamp Out Spiking is also crucial in collecting this anecdotal evidence from so many people. Without that base of research and knowledge, it would be much harder to make the case, which I hope Ministers are finding more compelling.

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. That brings me to the Home Office’s own campaign, Enough, which, people will be relieved to hear, is my closing point. A message I would like to give the Minister very clearly, which is driven by the comments I have gleaned from Spike Aware UK, is that it is not enough for the Enough campaign to focus its activities around universities. By the time a young person has reached the grand old age of 18, that horse may already have bolted. We know from the excellent work of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and her Select Committee, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester rightly paid tribute, that many spiking incidents happen at house parties. We like to think that when we are surrounded by our friends, we will be okay. Sadly, the truth is that young people under the age of 18 will attend house parties and young people under the age of 18 will be spiked at house parties. They are vulnerable when they are at school and college.

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent point. I recently met a group of sixth-formers from one of my Chelmsford schools. The point they made to me was that, while it is all very well to give awareness to young women when they start university about how to stay safe, they turn 18 before they leave school and would quite like to go and celebrate their 18th birthday parties together. Does she agree with me that more could be done through the school curriculum and at school age to prepare people for turning 18?

My right hon. Friend anticipates where my speech was going. On the Enough campaign, I think it is right to focus on freshers’ week, which is a particular area of vulnerability, but by the time young people are 18 it is too late in some instances. Many will turn 18 while they are still at school and college. The Government’s statutory requirement for relationships, sex and health education finishes at 16, so when someone becomes a practitioner between the ages of 16 and 18, they are not supported.

I gently say to the Security Minister—in the same way that I would have said and, indeed, have said to the current safeguarding Minister, the previous safeguarding Minister and the one before—that RSHE needs to be inclusive up to the age of 18. My Select Committee has called for that in one of our reports, and it is crucial. The RSHE review needs to focus not on gender issues, but on the everyday problems that our young people face on their journey to adulthood, which include drugs, spiking, normal adult sexual relationships and trying not to learn about them from pornography. We have to be bolder when we are talking about what is and is not age appropriate. We have to equip young people to be cognisant of the risks, challenges and difficulties they will face, whether financial or anything else, through a programme of RSHE that is effective and preferably taught by experts, rather than the maths teacher on a Friday afternoon.

I commend the Enough programme. I celebrate it: I have a sticker on my office door—what a shame that I feel the need to say “Enough” here. The stark reality is that we have to ensure that we are taking the lead of brilliant organisations such as Stamp Out Spiking and Spike Aware UK, so that young people have all the tools in their armoury to be protected as they move into adulthood.

I have a final message for the Minister. I have absolutely no doubt that he will be encouraging and positive about this issue, because he is a good Minister and understands how important it is. He will have heard the strength of feeling across the Chamber on the need for specific legislation. I look forward, with my fingers crossed and my hopes high, to exactly that. My final plea, which I have made to a number of Home Office Ministers over many years, is that we must look at RSHE as an opportunity to equip young people with better skills to lead their adult lives. I know that the Minister will pass on this message to the safeguarding Minister: please play an active role, by working with the Department for Education and the myriad other Departments that touch the lives of young people, in ensuring that the RSHE review is fit for the 21st century, in the same way that we should have a piece of legislation on spiking that is fit for the 21st century.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Mr Efford, and to follow that barnstormer of a speech from my friend, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). It is also a privilege to respond to this debate, which is on a pressing issue. As we have heard, it mostly impacts women, but it can happen to anyone up and down our country. I am grateful to my good friends—my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North—for bringing this important debate forward. It is the second debate on the issue this year—just over 11 months since we were last talking about it. Sadly, the same issues persist, and it is a sad indictment that we need to have this debate yet again.

As we have heard, spiking refers to the practice of administering a substance to a person without their knowledge or consent, and it can be perpetrated in a variety of ways. Drink spiking involves adding alcohol or drugs to a person’s drink with the intention of intoxicating them, and needle spiking involves injecting a person with drugs or other substances. Frustratingly, the official statistics on spiking are not routinely published. Can the Minister elaborate on the Home Office’s plans to rectify that alarming gap? The current estimates, from a YouGov poll in December 2022, tell a stark story: 10% of women say they have had their drink spiked; and 35% of women say they have either had a drink spiked, know someone who has or both. Worryingly, four in 10 Britons say they do not think the police would believe them if they reported a drink spiking. There is no doubt that this is an epidemic.

As colleagues will also be aware, the true number of spiking incidents is almost certainly far higher than the number of incidents reported. The under-reporting of incidents may occur for several reasons, but it seems clear that the perception the police are unable to do anything about it prevents victims from coming forward. When spiking is currently not even a specific offence, is it any wonder that victims feel there is no point in getting the police involved?

Behind every spiking incident is a traumatised victim, very often a young woman, and we all deserve better. Part of the problem we are seeing relates to the crisis our criminal justice system is in thanks to this Government’s complete ineptitude. An investigation by The Guardian and Channel 4 recently found that drug spiking incidents reported to the police have increased fivefold in five years, yet the proportion leading to a criminal charge is falling. Almost 20,000 reports of spiking were received in the past five years by 39 police forces that responded to freedom of information requests submitted by Channel 4. The proportion of those reports that were investigated and resulted in a criminal charge dropped from one in 25 in 2018, to one in 400 in 2022. These are shocking statistics.

The prevalence of spiking is sickening, but worse still, I feel we are living in a country that has normalised the fact that women and girls must themselves take preventive action to prevent being spiked on a night out or in a friend’s home. Every woman deserves to enjoy their night without living in fear that a predatory man with a drug to slip into their drink, or just as shockingly, with a needle, could be lurking nearby.

Colleagues will recall that Labour has long called for the Government to introduce a specific offence for spiking and intent to spike. Indeed, we even tabled amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill calling for urgent action, and a review of the prevalence of spiking and the criminal justice system’s response to it. Sadly, the Government did not agree, so the amendment fell. The Government could easily commit today to referring spiking sentencing to the Sentencing Council, so I must press the Minister: why exactly is the Government not doing the right thing here?

While a new, separate offence would be welcome, we all know that new criminal offences alone are not enough to eradicate spiking. I strongly believe we also need to go further to end the culture of victim blaming that can often lead venue security staff to dismiss victims’ concerns, or refuse to take allegations seriously. We urgently need the Government to develop an anti-spiking strategy with every local authority and every Department that can use their licensing powers to regulate the night-time economy to change the way that victims are treated.

In the absence of a joined-up strategy from the UK Government, some local authorities and community groups are leading the way in their own communities. I am very pleased that my own business improvement district in Pontypridd has participated in International Stamp Out Spiking Day, and have also committed to delivering spiking-awareness training to the Pontypridd Pubwatch group.

I am also very pleased that my constituency’s local authority, Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council, has used its statutory duty under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to create a community safety partnership that puts tacking violence against women and girls at the centre of its work. Through that, South Wales police has been able to deliver night-time community safety patrols, and I commend it for providing this reassuring police presence. Let us be clear: spiking is an issue that largely affects women and girls, and it is about time that we use the correct language here.

More broadly, local authorities like mine must be commended for their efforts, and these steps are all very welcome. But as I touched on earlier, in the absence of a joined-up strategy from the UK Government involving the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Home Office, these efforts are not enough.

As I have already mentioned and heard today, there is good work going on around the country, and the Minister should carefully look at that work. I am not just talking about my own area; as we have heard, there are examples of good work happening in Chelmsford, in Bradford, and across the country. In Birmingham, for example, if someone leaves a nightclub there are lots of phone numbers that bouncers and others can use to get a trained professional from St John’s Ambulance to come and make sure that person gets home safe. That is really simple stuff, but the Government have failed to lead from the top.

From cultural change, to showing some simple humility to women who have been impacted, there is clearly lots for us to do to protect women and girls from this vile practice. As we know, spiking is often associated with a whole host of misogynistic behaviours that fundamentally seek to undermine women and our independence.

The Labour party has repeatedly pushed the Government to go further and prioritise measures that will protect women and girls on our streets and in their homes. We have made a strong commitment that will see a perpetrator programme specifically designed to tackle the 1,000 most dangerous abusers on our streets. We have consistently called for violence against women and girls to be part of the strategic policing requirement that has been promised by the Government, but sadly not delivered.

Police forces are not yet required to tackle crimes against women as a priority. That is unforgivable, and yet another example of a Tory Government failing a generation. As I have already said, this is the second debate on this issue this year, and sadly the Government have failed to make any progress. I hope the Minister will accept once and for all that the Government must step up and take urgent action—urgent action, because we are all waiting—before more lives are impacted and more confidence is lost.

It is very nice to be here with you chairing this debate, Mr Efford, particularly after my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) was able to start off the process—at least she has also had time to give us her thoughts. It is also a huge pleasure to be here because, as some have noted, this is my second outing speaking about spiking, so it is extremely important to me that the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North brought in this debate again.

I read up on this matter quite carefully last time, which led to me giving my own opinion, and not just that of the Department—I hope that was useful. This time, I am pleased to say I am able to give the Department’s opinion more clearly, which is certainly helpful to me, anyway. It was also great to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that his mother is as vocal as he is—though I am confident she is not in the Adjournment debate of her time and has many more opinions to give, as does he.

First, I must say that my thoughts here are with the victims of spiking. As has been noted already, in many different ways, the number of people who are affected by spiking is sadly much greater than is commonly recognised. Indeed, there is no typical victim; there is far too much variability in those who are affected and pained by this. Of course, it is not only the immediate victim, but very often their families, partners and friends who—even if they were not victims of the actual spiked drink—will feel more vulnerable, less safe and more frightened to go out in their community. Clearly, all that has an effect on every one of us and on all our communities as well.

Supporting victims of spiking and ensuring that they get every possible support is a priority for this Government. I urge anyone who suspects they have been spiked to contact the police as soon as possible. I have to say, the statistics quoted by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) on reporting to the police are extremely concerning. For the avoidance of doubt, spiking is now illegal, and police will take action against it.

Equally, we must send a strong and unequivocal message to the perpetrators of these despicable acts that they will be caught and brought to justice, because these are vile and dangerous crimes. As well as the immediate risk to the victim’s wellbeing, the shock and distress suffered can, as has been mentioned, result in psychological turmoil and an ongoing and very unnerving ordeal. It is no exaggeration to say that the impact of being spiked could last for years, or even a lifetime—for some, it sadly does. No one should ever be made to feel vulnerable in their social setting, or in their home or someone else’s home. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North asked so powerfully, why should they? Enough.

That is why this Government have been working closely with the police and other partners to tackle spiking. I will set out some specific elements of our approach as I respond to the points that have been raised. I will start by addressing the publication of the statutory report on spiking, which the hon. Member for Bradford South quite rightly raised. I understand the frustration at the delay—my understanding is that the report will be published very soon indeed. Though my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) tried to undermine my children’s belief in Father Christmas by naming me as Santa, I hope very much that I will indeed be bringing good news in the days before the close of the year. However, it will be up to the Minister responsible—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris)—to decide when and how she addresses the matter.

As the Minister points out, the last time he spoke in this Chamber on this issue, he was able to anticipate a future Home Office position on spiking. It is very rewarding to hear that the new Home Secretary and the new Safeguarding Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), who has a strong track record on issues relating not only to violence against women and girls, but social justice in general, are thinking apace as to how we could move things forward in a way that all Members present would like. I am grateful to this Minister for highlighting that, and I hope he will pass on our thanks to the other Ministers, but we do look forward to the detail and the substance.

My hon. Friend knows that I cannot make any announcement at all. I am merely positive as to the direction; it really is for the Minister for Safeguarding, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury to announce the Home Office position. I am sure she will do so as soon as she is able. She has arrived in the Department with a determination and with inspiring energy. She is not only an excellent colleague in her role as a Member of Parliament, but a fantastic ministerial colleague, and she will add hugely to the job of safeguarding the people of the United Kingdom, particularly those who are vulnerable in the evening. I do not want to say any more for fear of jumping ahead of myself. She has already done a huge amount of work, and I am sure that, if she is able, she will make further announcements

On the legislation, I want to make it clear that spiking is already illegal because various pieces of legislation set out prohibitions that incorporate the offence of spiking and they can be used to prosecute offenders. We have worked closely with the police to establish the range of powers that are currently available to them and the best methods of enforcement.

However, we are mindful that the modern offence has particularly insidious features, and we are carefully considering the range of views that have been expressed on this, especially from Conservative colleagues who have made compelling arguments on this matter. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) who has spoken very powerfully about this not only during this debate, but on many other occasions. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester likewise has in many ways not only led this debate today, but over many years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North has led many of these arguments for many years.

We may be able to make more progress on awareness. My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) made a point about the importance of giving evidence and how quickly evidence can disappear in the body. I have been told by local police that they often need a urine sample, which is not as complicated as a blood sample. In trying to secure more prosecutions, it is important to try to make people aware that that is the sample that they would need to give. I want the crime to stop, but I also want to make sure that, if it happens, we can hold the perpetrators to account. In the package of things that we might do in the future, there is space for more awareness of the methods of evidence giving and what evidence is needed to get the tracing of drugs in the system and ensure we can get the prosecutions.

I will ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury hears those points specifically and takes them up with the relevant authorities. I am sure she will be interested to hear them, because police clearly have a vital role in tackling this issue. I pay tribute to them for helping to shed light on these awful crimes. In many ways, they respond extremely effectively. I can speak for Kent police; others will have to determine the efficacy of the actions of their own forces.

Kent police does take spiking extremely seriously, but it can be a complex and challenging crime to investigate. I will pass on the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford. Drugs can pass through the system quickly, leaving often limited evidence for others to identify and to point to offenders. These crimes can happen in the highly dense environment of the night-time economy and in places where it is difficult to identify the perpetrator.

Since autumn 2021, police forces across England and Wales have been stepping up action on spiking. That includes developing and rolling out an online spiking reporting and guidance tool, which should greatly simplify the reporting of spiking. The police approach to tackling spiking is being co-ordinated by Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth, the national policing lead for violence against women and girls. The police continue to submit samples using rapid testing capability developed with forensic provider Eurofins Scientific. That has been invaluable in broadening our understanding of which drugs are being used and how frequently.

It is crucial that we have in place a consistent and effective national approach. Equally, the work taking place on the ground in communities is essential. In a number of towns and cities across England and Wales, uniformed police officers are visiting venues and working closely with licensed premises and staff. Plainclothes officers are trained to look out for concerning behaviour, while control rooms monitor CCTV so that officers can be sent directly to any suspicious or dangerous locations.

I am grateful to the Minister for what he says about the efforts of the police so far, but he will probably agree that many police chiefs, including my own in Gloucestershire, the excellent Rod Hansen, and the police and crime commissioners around the country—all of them collectively, including Chris Nelson in Gloucestershire—are clear that being able to collect data on a specific named spiking offence would help enormously. For local communities the work done by people such as Councillor Justin Hudson, who leads on communities in Gloucester City Council, working with the night-time economy, that combination can be very powerful in raising awareness and reducing the likelihood of these things happening.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I know will have been heard by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury. As he knows, she will be looking at the many comments made this afternoon and indeed over recent months before publication of the report, which is due out very soon.

Officers can also carry out licensed checks on taxis, bars and clubs and can work closely with welfare organisations and help venues to step up their own security efforts, such as increasing searches. The story that my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North told us about her daughter, who would have been left on the street had her friends not intervened, demonstrates that extra training is necessary, because the idea of dealing with a situation like that by abandoning a young woman outside strikes me as extremely unwise, to put it politely, positively dangerous and—I should be cautious of my words.

Many venues have given extra training to staff to ensure that all reports of spiking are logged and reported immediately. This is not an exhaustive list of the activity that is being mounted to tackle the threat, but as the examples I have mentioned demonstrate, there is a real focus across the system on gathering intelligence, identifying perpetrators and protecting people around our communities. The Home Office continues to manage cross-Government work on spiking with an emphasis on practical action that can deliver real and lasting improvements. Some of the interventions targeted at tackling spiking include bystander training programmes, taxi monitors, CCTV, street lighting, drink protectors and educational training for the night-time economy staff.

In April 2022, following expert advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Government reclassified the so-called date-rape drug GHB and two related substances from class C to class B under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Through “Enough”, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North has mentioned, the Government’s national behaviour change campaign for tackling violence against women and girls, we have rolled out spiking-specific communications and campaign activity at summer music festivals and universities across the United Kingdom. I am very glad to hear that it is being picked up and used appropriately.

I thank the Minister for giving way on that specific point. Music festivals—great. University freshers week—great. Will he work with his wonderful colleague at the Home Office to see whether we can have a roll-out to younger age groups, too?

My right hon. Friend pre-empts me. I was just about to say that this is not a crime that begins at the age of 18, a point that she made so powerfully. I am sure that our hon. Friend the Member for Newbury will be extremely interested in hearing about this and will no doubt take it up with the Department for Education to make sure that we co-ordinate action in the best possible way and get the right response in order to protect young people.

Just to add to that, our right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North is right to highlight the value of raising awareness in schools. Indeed, every time I go and talk to sixth forms I ask them about spiking and a lot of hands go up. It is also true that for families—parents and grandparents —awareness is useful. Is the Minister aware, for example, that the character Amy Barlow in “Coronation Street”, played by Elle Mulvaney, has recently been going through a lot of spiking issues after seeing somebody put GHB in the drink of a friend of hers? The storyline continues on spiking. In fact, if he and his colleagues are able to make significant changes, they might find themselves playing a part in “Coronation Street” as well.

Though I bow to no one in my admiration of the great city of Manchester, I cannot honestly confess to being a “Coronation Street” aficionado. “The Archers” has had episodes about this issue at various points, and, if the hon. Gentleman chooses, we can discuss those, but I am afraid that is as far as I go with that storyline.

The Minister is giving a very comprehensive and helpful response, which we all appreciate. I always ask, and it is only right that we do ask, that whatever recommendations and thoughts come out of this debate, and whatever the Minister takes forward with the other responsible Ministers, he gives an undertaking to share that information, any suggestions and any legal intentions with the Northern Ireland Assembly—just so that we can be on par with where the Government here hope to be.

The hon. Member for Strangford makes a very good point, which is that this is an issue not just for GB issue but for the whole United Kingdom. Where appropriate, engagement with the Northern Ireland Assembly is absolutely right, and I know that many friends of the hon. Member in Northern Ireland will be very concerned about the matter, as is His Majesty’s Government, who are concerned about the whole United Kingdom; he makes an extremely valid and powerful point.

The Home Office has supported Universities UK and the Department for Education working group on spiking, which is chaired by the vice-chancellor of Exeter University, Professor Lisa Roberts, to provide guidance to universities on spiking. We have provided communications on spiking to local authorities’ bulletins and supported the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s bespoke communications targeted at the freshers period, but none of that undermines the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North made about earlier education. That is a snapshot of the work that we are doing, and we look forward to setting out further details very soon.

In closing, I thank the hon. Member for Bradford South and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North for securing this debate, and to all who have contributed. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury was extremely keen to be here, but sadly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North correctly said, she is doing important work in supporting a Public Bill Committee to make sure that important legislation gets through. It is a pleasure to be here in her stead, for the second time in that post, as it were, speaking about a matter that affects us all.

I will take this opportunity to once again urge the public to remain vigilant, particularly as we come up to Christmas and the new year. We all know that this is the time when people quite rightly want to celebrate—or commiserate—the end of the year, and to be together with friends and enjoy some time off. Sadly, it is a time when some people will be left more vulnerable, and it is important that we look out for each other. It should not be so—that should not be necessary, and we are looking very carefully at how legislation may need to change to ensure that it is not—but, as it is, the point has to be made that this is, sadly, a dangerous time of the year, and that it is worth being cautious.

There should be no doubt about how seriously my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, the Home Secretary and the whole of the Home Office take this issue. We will continue to work closely with the police and other partners to crack down on spiking through the various measures that I have outlined and, no doubt, through various measures that have been outlined by others here today. We will do everything we can do bring measures in as soon as possible and to keep people safe.

Belatedly, I will say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford.

I thank Members for their contributions and interventions; I am very grateful to them. I reiterate my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating the time for this debate today and to my co-sponsor, the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), for all her work in helping to secure this debate.

I also thank, once again, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for all his hard work on spiking and I commend the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), for her outstanding work on spiking.

I thank the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for speaking so movingly about the experience of her constituent, about the right of women to enjoy a night out without having to worry about spiking, and about the need to update the law.

I thank the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is no longer in his place, for his intervention, in which he spoke about the need to legislate for the protection and safety of women in public spaces.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who spoke about his long-standing support for a stronger law on spiking, his constituent’s awful experience of spiking, his worries on behalf of young people everywhere, and—importantly—the need for a cross-departmental approach to student safety.

I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester again for speaking about the widespread prevalence of spiking and the sheer volume of victims, including those he had personally spoken to, and the drive of the perpetrators of spiking to “humiliate” their victims. But he also spoke about his optimism that change could be achieved, including the creation of a specific offence of spiking.

The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North has so ably multitasked today, demonstrating both her chairing and speaking abilities. She spoke about the need to update the outdated laws and about the gold standard of safeguarding at Glastonbury, which is very important. It is unfortunate that other festivals do not emulate that gold standard and will not do so without legislation. She also spoke about the need for data to drive good law, which is another very important point.

I reiterate that this Government must abide by their statutory duty to publish their response to the report on spiking immediately. The Minister saying “shortly” again is not good enough, because it has been “shortly” for quite a long time now. It is clear from this debate that there is cross-party support to engage in legislative reform to make spiking a criminal offence. We must work to ensure that the trend of rising reports of spiking and lower charge and conviction rates is reversed, and that spiking is ultimately halted.

Now is the time for legislative action, now is the time to eliminate any ambiguity in our legal system that prevents understanding of the scale of this issue, and now is the time to create a specific offence of spiking, so that victims can have the confidence that they are protected by the law.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of spiking.

Sitting suspended.

Persecution of Buddhists: Tibet

[Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the persecution of Buddhists in Tibet.

First, I thank hon. and right hon. Members for being here. I also want to put on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate. We have some people in the Public Gallery today who have an interest in issues around persecution and in particular of Buddhists in Tibet. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is here. In all the time I have known her—my time in the House is the same as hers—she has always had a particular interest in Nepal. I am very pleased to see her here to participate and to add her vast knowledge of the subject to the debate.

I am not yet quite sure who the Minister is. I am sure he is on his way. There may be other things happening and there may be a change of ministership as we sit here. Who knows? Whoever the Minister is, they will no doubt make a contribution shortly.

On a point of order, Ms Vaz. What happens if the Minister is not in his or her place? This is the first time this has happened to me since I have been a Member, since 2015. Others may have experienced that dereliction of duty, but I have not—and not on such an important subject.

If another Minister or Whip cannot be found in time, the Parliamentary Private Secretary should be advised to take notes and rise at the end to make apologies on the Minister’s behalf. They should inform hon. Members that the Minister will respond to the points made. PPSs cannot make specific speeches on behalf of the Government, but I am sure the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), who I know is very assiduous, will make an assiduous note.

I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), for that clarity. It is important that we have that; she is right. With these debates, we do not fill in a Thursday afternoon just because we have a bit of time; we fill it in because we have subject matter that is important. We are all here for that. We hope the PPS can take copious notes on all the important points and that the Minister, when he or she arrives, makes sure the responses that we seek are the ones that are placed on the record.

I am grateful that we are having this important debate on the persecution of Buddhists in Tibet. The people of Tibet are dear to me, so I find the topic to be of special importance. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. We speak up for those of Christian faith, those with other faiths and those with no faith. Today, we are speaking for those with other faiths; we are speaking for those who have the Buddhist faith. Buddhists are among our stakeholders on the APPG and they are very important to us.

As the hon. Gentleman mentions that, I wish to pay tribute to him for his work for so many faiths: for the Christian faith, particularly and regularly, but also remembering in China that Buddhists and Muslims are persecuted by a vicious regime. The hon. Gentleman is more assiduous than any other Member in the House, with the possible exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He and I share a similar faith and in this House we both realise that we serve a greater person—a greater God. Our job in this place is to do that, and we do so faithfully for all religious views as well.

A delegation was organised by the APPG, and I understand that the hon. Member for Congleton has also been in Nepal on two occasions. I am quite sure that from those delegations we have learned much about the situation of Tibetan refugees in Nepal, many of whom are unable to obtain official documentation. The significance of what happens in Nepal towards Buddhists and other religious minorities is particularly worrying. The situation is ongoing, which troubles me. It is clear that more must be done to ensure that all Tibetan refugees in Nepal and, indeed, in Tibet find access to Government services and assistance, which necessitates documentation.

In Tibet itself, persecution of Buddhists has been going on for some time. The persecution includes general cultural and linguistic oppression, as well as forced imprisonment and other grave human rights violations. According to the US State Department’s 2021 report on international religious freedom in relation to China, Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibet receive forced political education and face almost total regulation of their religious activities.

In essence, the Chinese Communist party, as the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) in his intervention reminded us, actively seeks to control the religious affairs of Tibetan Buddhists and people of other faiths, including the Muslim faith, across China. What is happening to the Uyghur Muslims is, in my opinion, nothing short of genocide.

In essence, the Chinese Communist party tries to take control of all religious affairs of Tibetan Buddhists and has been shown to do to other religious groups something similar. There are direct violations of article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which we commemorated just last week. It was important that we put down a marker on the 75th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights, which we did at many events.

China and the Chinese Communist party hold thousands of prisoners, political and otherwise, in Tibet; many are religious figures. Although there are not many details about prisons, it is known that many political prisoners are held in Tibet. The report to which I have referred suggests that some 1,800 were held in 2021, but it is estimated that the number may be even greater, and we suspect that it is. Free Tibet reports human rights violations in prisons, including torture and the denial of medical treatment and legal assistance. Unfortunately, this follows a predictable pattern of and in China, as can be seen in Xinjiang province, where Uyghur Muslims are detained in nothing short of detention camps. Some millions of people may well be detained.

In addition to its legal requirements under international law commitments, the UK has, I believe, a moral obligation to call out these abuses and to work for change, which is why we seek to have some idea about that from the Minister and her Department. We must, I believe, do more to promote human rights and to relieve the suffering of minority religious and ethnic communities throughout China. Whether someone be a Baha’i, a Christian, a Muslim or a Hindu Indian—whatever the religious or ethnic group of someone in China—China will try to deny their right to worship their God as they so wish.

Monitoring the situation is difficult because of China’s strict hold on communication flow in the region. Little to no foreign presence is allowed in Tibet. When allowed, tours are highly choreographed and limited to specific areas. There is very tight control of what takes place, and the opportunity to have an independent and free religious view is restricted.

Cultural oppression goes hand in hand with what the US State Department describes as the sinicisation of Tibetan Buddhism. These efforts are outlined in Chinese policy, which has been implemented in other areas. The efforts include forcing Mandarin instruction, restricting religious celebrations and pilgrimages, and monitoring closely monasteries and other religious sites. The Dalai Lama, the traditional religious leader of one of the major Buddhist schools in the region, lives in exile in India while China has attempted to take control of the religious and political position, including through the kidnapping of a chosen religious leader, the Panchen Lama. Essentially, the Chinese Communist party seeks to control the religious operations of Tibetan Buddhism through close supervision and control of leadership.

What happens to those of a different religious minority or faith in Tibet and across China is very clear. This Sunday, for instance, everyone in this Chamber can go and worship the God that they wish to worship in the church that they wish to go to. They have that freedom, because that is what we do in this country. Our concern is that that freedom is not there in Tibet. Such cultural oppression is immeasurably damaging to affected communities. With the loss of language and religious heritage comes the loss of local identity: culture, traditions, history and the importance of what people do. We must do all we can to prevent that.

It is good to see the Minister in her place. We look to her for a positive response on this issue. It is a big subject, and we have been seeking a debate for some time: we recognise the need for it to be debated in this House, and for the House to make recommendations that can help those of a Buddhist faith in Tibet and across the whole of China.

During the recent UN forum on minority issues, the nation of Tibet was raised. The contribution from the International Campaign for Tibet was incredibly telling:

“Today, Tibetans face discrimination in all aspects of their lives, including employment, housing, and travel. Unlike their Han Chinese counterparts, they often experience obstacles in obtaining passports and their freedom of movement is severely impeded. Employment opportunities for Tibetans often provide substandard salaries.”

Truly, to be a Buddhist in Tibet—indeed, to be a Tibetan in Tibet—is to be a second-class citizen in one’s own country.

“In recent years, the Tibetan language has also been significantly marginalized – including via a vast boarding school system that separates Tibetan children from their families and enforces Chinese-language curriculum.”

We speak the language of our country here, but if we were Tibetans in Tibet, we could not speak our own language; we could only speak Chinese. That underlines the importance of the issue.

The statement continues:

“Tibetans are increasingly unable to study in their mother tongue, which places them at an educational and economic disadvantage when competing with Han Chinese for career opportunities.”

They do not have the same opportunities when it comes to jobs, health or education.

“This marginalization of Tibetans in the labor market is further compounded by a Han centric development model that exploits Tibet’s natural resources but excludes local Tibetans from input and benefits.”

The Chinese come in, take total control and then bleed Tibet of resources.

“In particular, we are concerned by the forced resettlement of up to 2 million Tibetan nomads, farmers and rural residents.”

The significant number of Tibetans who have been resettled tells us what has been happening in Tibet for some time.

“Tibetans are also vastly underrepresented in leadership positions in party, government, and military, on both provincial and local levels.

It should be noted that the absence of an independent judicial system and lack of access to justice for Tibetans, and overall, the implementation of elements of totalitarian rule by the Chinese authorities, have led to a pervasive climate of fear that precludes the assumption of free, prior and informed consent given by those affected by state measures.”

That gives hon. Members an idea of the control and suppression of individual liberty, freedom and rights. It tells us what has happened to their human rights, including the right to worship in the way they wish. I hope that this part of my speech has outlined the case clearly.

The gravity of the situation is clear. I had a look at a poster entitled “Tibet in 2023”. It went month by month, outlining the difficulties each month, and unfortunately the months did not get better. In January, it illustrated the arrest of two Tibetans, Tatse and Dhonkho—I hope my pronunciation is correct, or even partially correct. In February, a new cyber-security law was put in place for surveillance and censorship, and there were increased restrictions and phone inspections during the Tibet Losar celebrations. In other words, everything that happens in Tibet is monitored. Everything that Tibetans and Buddhists want to do is restricted. A person cannot even have a cup of tea or breathe their last breath without it being monitored.

Month by month, beatings take place. Rights are eradicated, from censorship to ensuring that university entrance exams be carried out only in Chinese. It goes on and on. That poster represents the tip of the iceberg; it explains just 12 months in which different things were happening. The latest news came out yesterday, when my speech was being written. It was about the arrest of four Tibetans who were involved in stone-carving Buddhist mantras. Really? It was for their faith. Where is the threat in that? Does anybody honestly believe that that is right? It is not, and this debate illustrates that.

I have been clear that this House needs to take greater steps to defend religious freedom and to engage with the Chinese. Sometimes that is frustrating in itself, as they do not seem to want to engage. The Chinese are the masters of propaganda and censorship, but this House will not be silenced. The debate has given us the opportunity to express that, and I call on the Minister and the Government to be the strong voice that we are calling for.

A number of asks have been forwarded to me. I have given them to the hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), and I ask the Minister how we can help to accomplish them. The first is to protect the right of the Tibetan people and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to follow their religious tradition in the selection of the 15th Dalai Lama. It is really not too much to ask. It is one of the basic rights that Buddhists seek.

The second ask is to free the Panchen Lama, who has been in detention for some time. The third is to release all Tibetan prisoners of conscience; the majority are from monastic communities, which illustrates exactly why it is important. The fourth is the freedom to practise religious traditions without fear of state persecution; when the state tries to control the very life a person leads, that has to be changed. The fifth is the freedom to learn the Tibetan language—the language that Tibetans love and that they want to use to express themselves. That holds the key to accessing the complete Buddhist canons of the Kangyur and the Tengyur.

The situation for freedom of religious belief in Tibet is grave. The nigh-on total governmental control over religious institutions and the attempts to suppress language and material culture are leading to clear violations of human rights. In these debates, I often say that human rights and freedom from religious persecution are like crossed fingers. They are not separate; they are the same. That is the truth: if somebody is denied their right to worship their God in the way they wish, they are denied their human rights. One follows the other.

I look forward to hearing the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members, including the shadow Minister, and to the Minister’s response. We seek to address these violations from our positions in Westminster Hall and the House of Commons Chamber. Let us be a voice for the voiceless in Tibet, and let that voice be heard loud and clear so that Tibetans and Buddhists have the freedom and the right to worship their God as they wish.

As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Vaz.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing it. He is always in his place, but it is good to see him leading a debate rather than being one of the last to speak and having to talk at breakneck speed because he has only three minutes to get his words in. He talked about his membership of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief; I am also a member of that group, which does excellent work.

I am also an officer of the all-party group for Tibet, which is what brings me here today. It is a very active group: the officers speak quite frequently in the Chamber and ask questions of the Government. In the past year, we have welcomed Sikyong Penpa Tsering, the political leader, to Parliament; we knew his predecessor very well. As the hon. Member for Strangford did, I apologise for my pronunciation: I trust that Hansard will read my notes and will get it right on paper, even if what I am saying bears very little relation to how it is actually pronounced.

We also met Tibetan activist Dr Gyal Lo to talk about Tibetan children being placed in Chinese-style colonial boarding schools, a matter to which the hon. Member for Strangford referred. Several years ago, we made a trip to the Tibetan Parliament in exile in Dharamshala, which was eye-opening. It gave us a chance to speak to so many people who had been displaced from Tibet. We are not allowed to visit Tibet, although we have tried a number of times. I have also been fortunate enough to go to Nepal a couple of times and meet Tibetan people in exile there.

Since my last speech on Tibet in 2020, I would have hoped to see at least some humanitarian improvements in the region, but sadly not. Instead, China has continued to act with impunity, denying the most fundamental human rights to people in Tibet, and has not ceased its vigorous extermination of the Tibetan identity. I will echo the recent statement made by the Sikyong in Dharamshala, the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in exile. His speech was given to a group of Tibetans at the temple there—I am not even going to try to pronounce it—to mark Human Rights Day and the anniversary of the Dalai Lama being awarded the Nobel peace prize. He said that the Chinese Communist party was

“forging a strong sense of the Chinese nation as one single community, promoting the Chinese language, the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism”

and that

“such infliction of suffering and oppression on the Tibetan people by the Chinese Communist Party authorities is unparalleled and unprecedented.”

It is true that Chinese control in Tibet reaches far beyond what even most would expect. In August this year, a yoghurt festival was met with a police crackdown. Sho Dun, the Tibetan yoghurt festival, is not a one-off; it is an important cultural event, but entirely harmless. It typically includes traditional performances, a feast involving yoghurt, and the unveiling of a large portrait of the Buddha. This year, there was a decidedly different atmosphere, with a heavy Chinese police presence, prohibitions on engagement in religious and public gatherings, and inspection booths to confirm the identities of participants and devotees. That is just one example of the pernicious oppression of the Tibetan people. They cannot even carry out expressions of their cultural identity without the Chinese seeking to stop them.

Over the past decade, Tibetan Buddhism has been seen as a threat to the occupying Chinese state. It has been tightly regulated, with Chinese officials closely monitoring and controlling religious activity at monasteries and nunneries. Religious festivals have been banned more frequently, and Government employees, teachers and students have been barred from participating in religious activities.

Aside from religion, Chinese control of education and the workforce has been extensive and overreaching. Tibetan schools have been closed and the Chinese Government have been accused of trying to forcibly assimilate over 1 million Tibetan children through state-run boarding schools, in an attempt to eliminate Tibet’s distinctive linguistic, cultural and religious traditions. All those things go together. It is not just about the suppression of religious views; it is part and parcel of their whole cultural identity, too.

In April, a group of independent experts within the United Nations human rights system “expressed concern” over China’s alleged practice of having Tibetans “transferred” from their traditional rural lives to low-skilled, low-paid employment since 2015. Although the programme is described as voluntary, experts have said that in practice, participants are being coerced.

As I always do when I speak about Tibet, I will also raise the environmental significance of instability in the region. The Tibetan plateau in the Himalayas is known as the third pole, as home to the largest ice storage outside the north and south poles. As a direct result of global warming, permafrost, the permanently frozen layer on or under the Earth’s surface, is thawing, with potentially devastating consequences for the invaluable water supply that flows into neighbouring superpowers China and India. The Mekong, Yangtze, Ganges and Indus rivers all have their source in Tibet. Some 1.6 billion people are supported by those rivers. If the third pole continues to melt at the same rate, the effects will be felt around the world: whole communities destroyed, an unprecedented refugee crisis and the potential for Indo-Chinese relations to turn increasingly sour with an arms race for resources.

I got back from COP28 on Monday. Events there this week have underlined just how difficult it is to facilitate global action on climate change. The 1.5° target is increasingly in doubt. When the Tibetan people cannot even defend their own environment, cannot speak up for themselves and are having to rely on a hostile force —the Chinese Government—to speak for them, the possibility of their concerns being recognised is even less than it would be for many climate-vulnerable places trying to speak up. We have to consider not just the terrible human rights record of the CCP in Tibet, but the environmental impact of what it is doing.

I remember challenging the Government of the current Foreign Secretary about the UK’s relationship with China back in 2013, when he was Prime Minister. There was quite a bit of fanfare at the time because during the coalition years, the then Business Secretary Vince Cable and the then Foreign Secretary William Hague launched a business and human rights action plan that was supposed to mean that the two things were not separate and that when we were doing business with countries like China, human rights always had to be on the agenda.

In theory, it was a really good move. However, at around that time a Trade Minister in the other place came to the all-party parliamentary China group. I asked him about human rights, but he just said, “That’s nothing to do with me. That’s Foreign Office. I’m just there to do business deals for China,” so it was not working as well in practice as it could have. Of course we want to trade with China—it is incredibly important —but we have to use that trade relationship to exert leverage, because that is the only way we can do so. I will finish by asking the Minister: is that happening? What representations are we making to China, not just about Tibet and the plight of the Buddhists there, but about the Uyghur Muslims, the Falun Gong and the people of Hong Kong? Is that happening across Government, not just in the Foreign Office?

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and, of course, my colleague and friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I thank him for calling this debate and for his dedication to speaking out for those who have no voice and are oppressed, in particular because of their religion or belief. I have the privilege of being the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. However, I will say for the record that I am speaking today in my role as a parliamentarian. I also thank the duty Minister for coming to the debate. I welcome her and look forward to her remarks.

It is a privilege on occasion to have a little more time than one normally has to speak about an issue. If I may, I will first go back to a report produced by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission when I was the chair in 2016, titled “The Darkest Hour”. It was about the crackdown on human rights in China from 2013-16. There is a chapter on Tibet that quotes from submissions to us:

“Since the Chinese invasion in 1949, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have been raped, tortured and murdered, thousands imprisoned and over 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries destroyed”.

That was according to the submission from Tibet Post International, which also said:

“Every aspect of Tibetan life is under siege and Tibetans have even fewer civil and political rights than Chinese people also ruled by the Communist Party…The regime enforces its control over every aspect through the threat and use of arbitrary punishments, at times including severe violence.”

The Tibet Society submitted to us:

“Tibetans charged with political crimes are often tried in secret, not allowed independent legal representation and evidence against them is extracted by torture”.

Free Tibet submitted:

“a number of political prisoners escaped from Tibet between 2013 and 2016 and provided testimonies about their treatment in prison in the years immediately before 2013, including beatings by police and other security services during interrogation sessions, mock executions, receiving electric shocks during interrogations and being locked in cells that were pitch black or so small that they could not move…several… reported being shackled to a device known as an iron chair, which forces the detainee to bear their entire weight on their wrists and legs. They would be hung from this chair for periods of up to four or five hours at a time, sometimes accompanied by electric shocks and intervals when they are removed from the chair and beaten”.

That was in 2016. In 2020, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission produced a further report. It was quite difficult to find a title for the report, because we had already called the previous report “The Darkest Moment”. We therefore had to call this one “The Darkness Deepens: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China from 2016-2020”. In summary, regarding Tibet, we noted that:

“Repression in Tibet has intensified…Torture and ill-treatment are widespread and continue with impunity…Images of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan flag are banned…‘There are more foreign journalists in North Korea that Tibet’, according to Tibet Post International…Reporters Without Borders listed Tibet 176 out of 180 in its Press Freedom Index…Freedom House lists Tibet as among the worst in the world, with the lowest score for civil and political rights…Restrictions on the use of Tibetan language create discrimination”


“Thousands of homes…destroyed in the Buddhist communities of Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar”.

I will give a bit more detail about those examples. There was destruction of homes and forced removal of people from several areas on a mass scale, in the two places that I just mentioned, for example. Free Tibet and Tibet Watch indicated that the removal of communities in Larung Gar and Yarchen Gar had been “drastically escalated” in the past four years. In the four years to 2020, 4,828 residents were removed from Larung Gar, 4,725 buildings were demolished and those

“who were removed were required to sign documents stating that they would not return”.

Some were driven many miles away—some even 1,700 km away. In this report, the Conservative Human Rights Commission concluded with the warning:

“As international attention increasingly focuses on the atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs”


“the destruction of freedoms and autonomy in Hong Kong…there is a danger that Tibet could get forgotten…it is vital that this does not happen, and that the egregious human rights violations in Tibet receive the attention they deserve”.

That warning was given in 2020, and, sadly, those words were all too prescient, because the atrocities that have been meted out in Tibet have not received the attention they deserve. While an increasingly and rightly intense international spotlight—including from the UK—has been focused on the plight of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, it has not been focused on Tibet with the intensity with which it should have been. That includes by us in the UK.

I know that the duty Minister will respond in a number of ways and will read out that we are concerned about human rights violations in Tibet, including the restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and on freedom of assembly or association, as well as reports of forced labour. Speaking as a parliamentarian, however, I say that the words we are using simply do not express enough concern.

The Minister will no doubt comment that in June 2022 the UK and 46 other countries made a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights situation in Tibet, and called on the Chinese authorities to abide by their human rights obligations. I have that statement in front of me—just one line refers to Tibet, and even that does not do so exclusively. The exact words are:

“We also continue to be gravely concerned about the deterioration of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in Tibet.”

The Minister may also refer to the fact that in September 2023 the UK raised a specific issue of the boarding schools—that have been referred to by other hon. Members—in a national statement at the UN’s 54th Human Rights Council. Again, I have that statement here, and again, Tibet is mentioned in just one line of a much longer statement referring to a number of other countries. Once again, even in that line Tibet is not referred to exclusively. It reads:

“Systematic violations persist in Xinjiang and Tibet, where the UN reports a million Tibetan children have been separated from their families to assimilate them into Han culture.”

There are hardly words to describe what is happening. The fact, as reported by the UN—an authoritative source with experts who have looked into this—that around a million Tibetan children are being removed from their families to be compulsorily re-educated. I have heard that that involves children as young as two years old; we are speaking of very young children here in many cases. The UN experts indicated that that points to

“the vast majority of Tibetan children”

so we are talking about a generation losing their familiarity with their native language and the ability to communicate easily with their parents. I have heard that those children might be allowed back home for a short time after, say, three months. They then find that they cannot understand what their parents are saying—they have lost the ability to communicate. That contributes to the erosion of the identity of those children of the Tibetan people, and is contrary to their educational, linguistic, cultural, and other minority rights, freedom of religion or belief, and to the prohibition of discrimination.

In fact, the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide—there is no stronger crime—states:

“Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”

is genocide when committed

“with intent to destroy…a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

We need to use much stronger words when we are speaking about such issues. I know that might not always be possible in formal UN statements, but there is nothing to stop us speaking about them outside that environment in a way that reflects the absolute misery that these children must be suffering.

The Minister may also refer to the UK co-ordinating with partners to draw international attention to the human rights situation in Tibet—most recently in the November 2023 G7 statement. I also have that statement in front of me and my staff have done a search for “Tibet”. It is several pages long, ranging across the world with whole paragraphs covering concerns relating to individual countries. There is half a line on Tibet—again, not exclusively. It reads:

“We also remain concerned about the human rights situation in…Xinjiang and Tibet.”

Meanwhile, the abuse in Tibet continues. The language being used to condemn it is wholly inadequate. Will the Minister please review how we refer to what is happening in Tibet?

We need to speak out more strongly, because words do matter. Only yesterday, Ben Rogers, a long-time authority on this region, and indeed, the vice-chair of the Conservative party’s human rights commission when I was chair, spoke on this issue. He was largely responsible for the research, drafting and production of the reports I have referred to, and he said that China shows consistently that it does take note of international criticism, and that pressure, public statements, and where necessary, sanctions, are important. What more will our Government do to call out those concerns?

We have just commemorated the 75th anniversary of the genocide convention, sagely saying, “Never again”, but it is happening again for the Tibetans. Their centuries-old ethno-national identity, religion and cultural heritage are seen by the Chinese Communist party as disloyalty and a threat to the state, so they are being systematically and comprehensively erased.

Why and how? Because the decades-long occupation of Tibet has happened with inadequate protest from the world and while the Chinese have refined their tactics for suppressing an entire people. As Nury Turkel, commissioner for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, says chillingly:

“It became efficient at eradicating culture and independence while evoking very little protest from the world.”

I recommend Nury Turkel’s excellent and well-informed book, “No Escape”. Chen Quanguo honed the oppressive techniques now being used in Xinjiang in Tibet, with far too little outcry from the world.

Hitler said:

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

The world looked away, and Hitler then invaded Poland and began his genocide of the Jewish people, allowing authoritarians to keep persecuting, and the world looked away. The world is now too often doing the same with Tibet, as China brushes aside and away the heritage, culture and identity of Tibetans, only now using facilities that were unheard of only a generation ago: digital dictatorship, technology for mass surveillance, artificial intelligence, and spying, even on children, using electronic devices.

I will refer now to the work of the religious and cultural heritage working group of the International Religious Freedom of Belief Alliance, which I had the privilege to chair until I handed the baton over just yesterday to the ambassador from the Czech Republic, Robert Řehák, who will take over as chair for 2024. That working group on religious and cultural heritage has been co-led by my deputy special envoy, David Burrows, and he took the opportunity at the recent ministerial meeting on freedom of religion or belief in Prague just two weeks ago to speak of his concerns about the weaponisation of the Tibetans’ cultural heritage by the Chinese. He explained that the Chinese authorities are not only seeking to extinguish the Tibetans’ own cultural traditions; by cynically using international systems to register themselves as the custodians of Tibetan culture, they are asserting their ownership of it. Through that process, they are making Tibet more aligned to Chinese Han culture.

That is done through policies such as conservation registrations and techniques, for example through the UNESCO system that facilitates registration of cultural and religious assets, and through the registration of cultural expressions under the World Intellectual Property Organisation. This is something that we should be alert to and aware of. Tibetan religious cultural heritage is being weaponised by the Chinese authorities to reimagine and redefine Tibet’s status as a culture, at the very same time that China is challenging Tibet’s right to independence.

In the case of Tibet, there is a pressing urgency to recognise that it will be increasingly hard to defend the freedom of religion or belief for its people, who are threatened by cultural genocide and, in the case of the children who I have referred to, by actual genocide. Those are compelling words, but more action is needed to address this issue.

I want to close by referring to a statement that my successor as chair of the international alliance, Ambassador Robert Řehák from the Czech Republic, will shortly be producing. It was discussed yesterday at our monthly plenary. There are now 42 countries in our alliance, and each month we select an individual religious prisoner of conscience to champion. Our December prisoner of conscience is the 11th Panchen Lama. I cannot think of a worthier, more capable and committed successor than Ambassador Řehák. He will say:

“As the Chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, I express my grave concern for the ongoing enforced disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama, whose whereabouts and well-being in the People’s Republic of China…have been unknown for nearly 30 years.

PRC authorities abducted Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in 1995 when he was six years old and just days after His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized him as the 11th Panchen Lama. In response, the PRC installed its own Panchen Lama and continues attempts to compel Tibetan Buddhists to pledge allegiance to the government-selected individual.

I am concerned that PRC authorities have denied Gedhun Choekyi Nyima a lifetime of being able to freely practice his faith in a manner of his choosing. Further, I find the lack of independent access to his whereabouts, the seeming restrictions on his freedom of movement, and the limited information about him spanning nearly three decades highly troubling.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is one among many Tibetans whom PRC authorities have silenced or oppressed for expressions of their beliefs, culture, language, and traditions. This includes detaining Tibetans for possessing images of the Dalai Lama, such as Go Sherab Gyatso, a Tibetan Buddhist monk currently sentenced to 10 years in prison for his peaceful advocacy and whom authorities previously detained for reportedly possessing and displaying a portrait of the Dalai Lama.

The PRC’s cultural erasure throughout Tibet, including efforts to ‘Sinicize’ Tibetan Buddhism and interfere in the selection process of Tibetan Buddhist lamas, including the Dalai Lama, are alarmingly widespread. Earlier this year, several UN experts expressed concern about credible reports that PRC authorities have coerced approximately 1 million Tibetan children in what they characterized as a ‘mandatory large-scale programme intended to assimilate Tibetans into majority Han culture, contrary to the international human rights standards.’ Separating a generation of Tibetan youth from their heritage will do untold damage to their ability to shape and preserve their identity.

I urge the PRC to cease all human rights abuses against Tibetans, including by accounting for the whereabouts and well-being of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima; ending the coercion of Tibetan children into government-run boarding schools; upholding freedom of religion or belief for all; and abandoning policies and practices aimed at erasing Tibet’s rich cultural, religious, and linguistic identity.”

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I want to briefly put on the record my concern about the discourtesy of the Minister turning up late to today’s debate on such an important subject. There are people in the Public Gallery who wanted her to hear every single word of this important debate. I cannot help but notice that there is not a Scottish National party spokesperson either, so there is a bit of a sense of disarray today. I am not sure that you can do anything about that, Ms Vaz, but I hope things can be improved for next time.

The all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief is one of the most active in Parliament, and the two most active members of it are here. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate, and on laying out his concerns in such clear terms. On a number of occasions, he has mentioned other issues associated with freedom of religion or belief that concern him, including the impact of blasphemy laws in Pakistan and the treatment of Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region of the People’s Republic of China. That concern was recently highlighted in an excellent piece in the Financial Times outlining new satellite evidence of the destruction of mosques in the Xinjiang region. The hon Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) laid out details of the mass displacement of people in the Tibetan region, which is worrying, and talked about more than 1 million children being involved. Clearly, a programme of sinicisation is going on, in which individuals are not permitted to speak in their native tongue, which will, of course, cause a great barrier between children and their parents. It is worrying that 1 million children could be moved into dormitory-style accommodation, from as young as two, as she said.

In the past decade, we have seen video evidence of the destruction of Buddhist temples. The hon. Member for Strangford highlighted the repression that nuns and monks experience daily. He also emphasised under-representation in leadership positions in the PRC; the restrictions and the increasing state-sponsored surveillance; and cultural events that have been stopped by the Chinese Government. As the hon. Member for Congleton emphasised, China is ranked 176th worst for journalism and freedom of speech. In parenthesis, I wonder whether the House would mind my mentioning the other obvious freedom of speech issue: Jimmy Lai, who is in prison at the moment. He used to be the Apple Daily owner and publisher. I am sure the Minister will comment on that, because I am aware that the Foreign Secretary met Sebastien Lai, Jimmy’s son, just this week, and I am sure she would not mind doing a mini-detour in her wind-up to update the House on that meeting.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing that up. I tabled early-day motion 213 just yesterday on the imprisonment of Jimmy Lai. I urge all Members to note it. They might wish to sign it to raise awareness of Jimmy and how he is being suppressed. He has been in jail for some time, and any thoughts of his getting out are remote.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He is relentless in highlighting social injustice and, in this case, the lack of freedom of speech for Jimmy Lai and others; we know that similar things are going on in Tibet. However, as the three main speakers in this debate mentioned, because of the difficulty in monitoring what is happening in Tibet, we do not hear as much as we should from journalists there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made an extremely important point about the climate and the vulnerable nature of Tibet. Having hot-footed her way back from COP28, she has given us her update on the environmental concerns about that fragile part of our beautiful planet, where third pole ice storage and permafrost is thawing, with dreadful consequences for the river system. We know that a lack of water can cause long-term problems, including social ones, and she has made an important point. She also highlights the potential for Indo-Chinese relations to sour, and makes the important point that when we speak to leaders from the PRC, we must consider the trade relationship, which is very important to the UK’s economy, but crucially must not leave our values at the door. Will the Minister say when she last raised the issue of freedom of religion or belief in Tibet with her counterpart in the PRC?

The Foreign Secretary is in the other place. What impact does the Minister think his previous business interests have? What is the impact of the clear speeches he was giving in Sri Lanka and other places in which China has an interest? Might that cloud the judgment of Ministers as they speak one to one with counterparts in the People’s Republic of China, or with those who represent the PRC in London? Can she also outline what representations are made to China, during trade talks, on the subject of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet? We should not have one box for trade and one for human rights; they should be part of the same dialogue. What reassurances can she give concerning the issues raised today?

In conclusion, we have heard valuable contributions from members of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, who speak out regularly about the lack of freedom for so many to practise their faith abroad. We also heard the cultural and environmental concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East has about the Tibetan plateau. On the specifics of how we do our diplomacy, what reassurances can the Minister give me and the House on the important subject of freedom of religion or belief in the People’s Republic of China, specifically as regards Tibetan Buddhists?

I apologise for the delay, Ms Vaz. There may always be a challenge when digital and analogue aspects of parliamentary information do not align. That is something we will work on, but please accept my apologies for being late. To the point made by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has kindly provided me, as always, with a copy of his speech.

May I clarify for the Minister? The summary agenda sets out the debate time as starting at 3 pm and in the House we go by the summary agenda.

Absolutely; that is why I apologise. My private office will be able to learn from the practicalities of that point.

I just want to say, Ms Vaz, that there was a bit of confusion because on the website, where it says “What’s on” in Parliament, it said 4 o’clock. People contacted me saying there was a debate at 4 o’clock. I just thought that it would be 3 o’clock and double-checked, because it usually is at 3 o’clock. That needs to be clarified in future.

Thank you, Ms Vaz. Just to say that the hon. Member for Strangford always provides a copy of his speech. That is hugely helpful and means that I know that I did not miss a single one of his words, even though I missed those first few minutes. I thank him, as ever, for sharing his speech. Other colleagues should consider doing that sometimes, as it is a helpful way to absorb and think more thoroughly about the issues being raised.

Of course. As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford for securing this incredibly important debate, for his continuing work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, and for his heartfelt presentation of the tragic Tibetan situation. I also thank hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions.

The Government place huge importance on protecting human rights around the world and on using all our diplomatic tools, alongside other countries, to highlight abuses where we see them. We are paying close attention to the deeply concerning situation in Tibet, where members of the Buddhist faith are enduring systematic violations of their rights. I am glad of the opportunity to reflect on the troubling situation and I will do my best to respond to all the points raised on the subject today.

We believe that long-term stability in Tibet is best achieved through respect for universal human rights and genuine autonomy for Tibet within the Chinese system. However, China is systematically violating Tibetans’ rights, including by restricting their freedom of religion or belief and, as colleagues have set out so starkly, their right to assemble and associate freely. We also have those troubling reports of forced labour.

Tibetans are banned from worshipping the Dalai Lama and there are reports of them being arrested for owning photographs of him, celebrating his birthday or watching videos of his teaching. The candidate identified by the Dalai Lama back in 1995 as the next Panchen Lama, who is a senior figure in Tibetan Buddhism, was forcibly disappeared by the Chinese authorities. Today, the authorities restrict the size of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and there are multiple reports of their destruction, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).

It is Chinese law that all senior religious appointments must be approved by the authorities. The UK views the Dalai Lama as a respected spiritual leader, and as such he has visited the UK on a number of occasions and we will continue to do all that we can to encourage freedoms for religious and cultural expression in Tibet and across China. We view the appointment of the next Dalai Lama as a matter for the relevant religious authorities to decide in line with those freedoms of religion and belief. We continue to engage regularly with international partners and non-governmental organisations to discuss the situation in Tibet and to continue to raise awareness.

Meanwhile, reports continue to document the suppression of Tibetan cultural, linguistic and religious identity. Earlier this year, UN special rapporteurs found that around a million Tibetan children have been separated from their families and placed into Government-run boarding schools with no access to traditional Tibetan learning. Rural schools have been closed and students have been forced to attend schools far from their family homes.

The Chinese authorities use enforced disappearances to silence critics and suppress dissent in Tibet. We are aware of reports of politically motivated detentions and arrests of Tibetans, as well as mistreatment in detention. UN special procedure mandate-holders have written to the Chinese authorities regarding the disappearances of Tibetans. There are estimated to be more than 700 political prisoners held in Tibetan areas and monks in particular are targeted for persecution. Reports continue to document the mass collection of DNA and other biometric data in Tibetan regions.

On forced labour, the Government are aware of UN reporting from April 2023 on allegations of so-called “labour transfer” and “vocational training” programmes in Tibet, which are being used “as a pretext to undermine Tibetan religious, linguistic and cultural identity” and “to monitor and politically indoctrinate Tibetans”.

I thank the Minister for her response. It has been brought to my attention that China is pushing to erase the name “Tibet”. Can the Minister and the Government assure me that the word Tibet will be continued to be used? The Chinese want to replace it with the Mandarin term “Xinjiang”. We must make it very clear that the word is Tibet—the same as the UK is the UK—and it cannot be changed to anything else. The Government must continue to use the word Tibet when meeting the Chinese at the next universal periodic review.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, as ever. I will take that away. Absolutely we continue to use the name Tibet when describing that region of the world; but I note his point, and if that is a developing narrative we must pay close attention and counter it.

That is really important to have on the record. The Minister has been responsive, and we appreciate that. Chinese leaders from the Tibet Autonomous Region are visiting the likes of Nepal, Bhutan and Thailand and seeking to claim the authority of the Dalai Lama and his reincarnation. Very clearly, from a Buddhist point of view, the Government must stand with His Holiness and affirm his total authority over his reincarnation—this is not something that the Chinese Government can give as if they were the Santa Claus of Christmas. Buddhists have control of a Dalai Lama; the Chinese do not.

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman, and he was generous in his description of that potential further abuse of Buddhists’ freedom of religion.

The special rapporteurs warned that such programmes would lead to “situations of forced labour”, and they have suggested that “hundreds of thousands” of Tibetans have been transferred from work in the rural sector to these new jobs through this process. These amount to systematic human rights violations against Tibetan Buddhists and are part of the Chinese authorities’ efforts to erase the Tibetan identity and to assimilate Tibetans into the majority Han culture. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton set out in stark clarity the shocking real-life impacts on Tibetans as the authorities try to erase their identity.

This Government are determined to promote and protect human rights, no matter where violations or abuses occur. We have shown time and again that, when allegations are substantiated, we will speak out and hold China to account. We co-ordinate with partners to draw international attention to the human rights situation in Tibet. Recent examples include the 8 November G7 Foreign Ministers statement, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, and our item 4 statement at the UN Human Rights Council in September. In June 2022, the UK and 46 other countries joined in a statement at the UN Human Rights Council expressing deep concern about the human rights situation in Tibet and calling on the Chinese authorities to abide by their human rights obligations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton expressed the frustration that many feel. Any multilateral statement is invariably less punchy than any single country statement would be.

I accept that there is frustration about the type of words used, but there is also frustration about the proportion, the number of words used—or rather the lack of words used about Tibet.

My hon. Friend sets out her point clearly. As someone who has sat in many a multilateral session—the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned COP, which I led on two years ago—it is often a slow and tortuous process to reach a form of words that as many countries and voices can sign up to as possible. My hon. Friend’s point is well made, however, and we will continue to raise the matter. The past couple of years have been the first time this issue has been in those statements. We will continue to work on expanding them and on persuading with the force of the evidence other countries to accept the realities of what we see, so that they will be willing to be stronger in the multilateral statement that we can put out together. Her point is well made and well heard.

Our focus today is in part on the religion of people in Tibet. I wonder whether the fact that they are Buddhists, which is very much a peaceful religion, plays against them, because full-scale conflict in Tibet with fighting back would perhaps get more international attention. Sadly, however, as I am sure the Minister is aware, there have been at least 158 self-immolations in Tibet, with another 10 by people in exile. Those are the sheer lengths that they have to go to in order to get international eyes on their plight.

The hon. Lady highlights something important. One of the beauties of this extraordinarily peaceful religion is that it does not cause some of the violence and aggression that one sees in other clashes between religions or beliefs across the world.

The challenge in Tibet is that of access for foreign nationals, including accredited diplomats and journalists, and it remains highly restricted. British diplomats visited Tibetan areas of Sichuan province in June 2023, and we will continue to push for access to Tibet, including for the UN special rapporteurs, which China either has not responded to or indeed has refused. We are consistent in our calls for the necessity of greater access to Tibet for international observers.

On UK policy towards China more broadly, China of course has a significant role to play in almost every global issue. We want to have a strong and constructive relationship. As such, we continue to engage directly with China to create space for those open, constructive, predictable and stable relations that are important in, for example, areas of global challenge such as climate and health. Those are areas that we need and want to work together on, for the good of the whole of mankind.

We will, however, always condemn human rights violations, privately in our meetings with Chinese representatives and in public fora, as we have set out. The UK Government will continue to play a leading role in pressing China to improve its human rights and to get its record to a better place.

Does the Minister agree that, with the question mark over the Foreign Secretary’s business deals, it is correct for the House to ask whether the business deals or the human rights come first?

The China policy has not changed as the personnel in Government have. The policy remains entirely unchanged, but sadly the world has changed in how China is behaving, in particular through its coercive economic activities across a large area, but also through the increasing human rights violations. I hope that is clearly set out. The new Foreign Secretary is in absolutely the same place and is 100% supportive.

I asked the question because, in recent years and particularly since 2018, when Xi Jinping achieved his core leader status, which is when the internal repression and external aggression increased, the Foreign Secretary made positive speeches regarding the belt and road initiative in Sri Lanka. That is the specific business reference that I was making. The Minister may wish to write to me rather than put it on the record, but it is important, in an open and democratic system, that such things are out in the open.

I would not wish to speak on behalf of the Foreign Secretary about his activities when he was a private citizen. On some level, I think we all support and wish to see the direct success of some of the belt and road initiative. Without a doubt, those investments were in part an attempt by China to take their discovery about their way of investing long term in their own infrastructure, which saw their poverty levels drop dramatically, across the world. But there are other aspects to the initiative and some frustrations: where the impact has not been as well funded or followed through, it has left investees disappointed.

As the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green highlights, the challenge remains that there has been a shift in the way the CCP does its business. That now requires us to continue to lead—and, sadly, it requires more international effort—on holding China to account for what are, without a doubt, appalling human rights violations in a number of places, including Xinjiang, which a number of hon. Members referenced. We were the first country to lead a joint statement on Xinjiang at the UN, and our leadership has sustained pressure on China to change its behaviour and brought other countries’ voices with us. In October 2023, the UK led another joint statement on Xinjiang at the UN, calling China out for its human rights violations, and there were a record number of signatories. That relates to my earlier point about the challenge of continuing to build the evidence base and give other countries the chance to understand and see some of the violations for themselves. We will continue to lead that piece of work and bring UK diplomatic leadership across the world.

The hon. Member for Bristol East raised an interesting point. Ministers across Government do raise human rights concerns whenever they have discussions with the CCP or discussions on other Chinese issues. It was very interesting to hear about the policy work that was done in 2013, of which I was not aware. I will dig it out of the system and see whether the framework that we use now, or what was suggested, can ensure that we maximise our impact. It is very much on everyone’s agenda, but we are very comfortable with the fact that, when we talk about engaging with China, there are important economic relationships that we wish to continue to work on and grow. We have businesses that are keen to invest in what is, of course, an enormous market across the world.

To conclude, everyone, everywhere deserves to enjoy fundamental human rights, including the freedom of religion or belief. China should respect those rights in Tibet, in line with its own constitution and the international frameworks to which it is a party. Until it does so, the UK will continue to hold it to account—in public, in private and in concert with our international partners. We will continue to stand up for our values, and to promote and protect human rights in Tibet and around the world. Members’ concerns about the forcefulness of messaging about and criticism of suppression from Chinese authorities are well heard today. We shall continue to press for stronger language and the continued use of sanctions tools to express the disgust and righteous anger that colleagues have set out so eloquently today.

I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, starting with the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). She reminded us of events of which she has personal knowledge from her involvement with the APPG for Tibet. We all know of Tibetans’ culinary expertise, and yoghurt is one of the things that they like. She spoke about a yoghurt event where the Chinese stepped in and tried to close it down; they were trying to take away that cultural identity. She also referred to the picture of Buddha—again, a vicious suppression by the Chinese Communist party. She spoke about the schools being closed, the language being restricted and the removal of some 2 million people from the countryside to the towns.

The hon. Lady also spoke very rightly about environmental issues, which I was not so aware of. I thank the hon. Lady for that. I had some knowledge of the Tibetan plateau, probably from the environmental programmes on TV and so on. It is important not just for Tibet, but for China and India. We hope that it does not become a political football for the future, which unfortunately it might. In an intervention, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) referred to the importance of highlighting the issue not just for those of a Christian faith but those of a Buddhist faith, which is why we have had this debate today.

In the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, we try to speak up for all faiths and those of no faith, which the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) does regularly. I thank the hon. Lady. I am very pleased that she is the envoy for our Government. I am also very pleased that she is my friend, and speaks up on all the things that are important in this House. She underlined the issues focused on by the Conservative group for Tibet. She outlined the problems in Tibet as far back as 2013, and the timeline of human rights deterioration in Tibet between 2016 and 2020—and the indoctrination of children as young as two years of age. My goodness me! My youngest grandchild is just over one, and he is a wee dynamo at one year old. Imagine him being taken away for indoctrination and losing all knowledge of his parents.

The hon. Member for Congleton also reminded us that words do matter, and I think she is right. Sometimes we think that they are not enough, and they are not enough sometimes, but it is important that we use them. She referred to cultural, educational and linguistic genocide.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), the shadow Minister, reminded us of the removal of people, the destruction of temples and the logistics restrictions; oppression came up each and every time. She also emphasised how important it is, when it comes to making trade deals with any country, and China in particular, that we ingratiate into those trade talks the importance of human rights for people around the world. There must never be a deal that does not take on board all the issues.

The Minister very kindly, as she always does, took our viewpoints on board. I know that, when she has the opportunity to read Hansard and have the discussions with her PPS, all those other things will emerge. The Minister absolutely understands the issue. She referred to the tragic Tibetan situation—issues of freedom of religious belief; the disappearance of Tibetans by the Chinese Communist party; the documentation of oppression with children removed their families; political motivations; forced labour with people being moved from the countryside to the towns.

The Minister also mentioned journalists who have been restricted in what they are able to report. One thing that I believe was clear from the Minister’s statement—I hope others will agree—was that she and her Government are not behind a wall in telling China that these things in Tibet are wrong. We wish to see a bit more zealousness in highlighting these issues at every occasion.

I must thank some of the people in the Gallery today who have taken the time to come along. Today, we are the voice for these people. We are the voice for all those religious minorities that are suppressed and oppressed in Tibet, and Buddhists in particular. We want them all to know that, when it comes to standing up for them and standing alongside them, this House and its Members will not be found wanting.

Question put and agreed to,


That this House has considered the matter of the persecution of Buddhists in Tibet.

Sitting adjourned.