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Westminster Hall

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2024

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 23 January 2024

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Girlguiding UK: British Overseas Territories

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of Girlguiding UK in the British Overseas Territories.

This is an issue that all of us here have a deep interest in. There are many others who I understood would try to be here, but I understand why they are not—there are always reasons, such as the weather in the past few days. None the less, many others wish to make a contribution. When it came to this debate, many Members took the opportunity to sign the early-day motion when it was down, and it is obvious to me that many people have deep concerns about what is happening.

I give special credit to two ladies in Westminster Hall today: the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins). They are well aware of the issue and I thank them for coming along; they will make contributions that will greatly add to the debate. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), and in particular the Minister in their places. We know that the Minister is always a dear friend to us all, and we have high expectations of his response. There is absolutely no pressure on him whatsoever, but to be fair to him I think he will realise what we are trying to say, why it is so important and why we believe this debate is crucial.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this debate and allowing me to speak on the topic, along with others. I declare from the outset that I am not a Girl Guide—that is probably fairly obvious. However, as a scout and a member of the Boys’ Brigade many moons ago, I have an affinity with my fellow youth organisations and a desire to speak out for those who, like me, have benefited greatly from being part of such a wonderful organisation and what it does, what it creates and how it can shape young people for the adult life of tomorrow. The fact is that the Girl Guides, Scouts, Girls’ Brigade, Boys’ Brigade, the Campaigners and many other similar organisations really sow seeds into the lives of young people, promoting teamwork, teaching new skills, and giving children the confidence to be with new people and try things that are out of their comfort zone. That is what they do: they mould, create and challenge. They give an opportunity for insight into what adult life can be like.

I was a proud member of the Boys’ Brigade and my boys followed that tradition, which their children now follow as well. I cannot say enough about all that is positive about such organisations. There is a much-loved Girl Guides organisation that has four units in Newtownards, my major town in the Strangford constituency—that is in one town alone—and it is easy to see why. The structure, the care and the wonderful volunteers make it so appealing to children, and it really is not an exaggeration to say that it makes up the fabric of community life, not simply in towns such as Newtownards and Strangford, but in rural and isolated villages throughout the Strangford constituency, because many parents take their children to the Girl Guides in Newtownards and elsewhere. I have attended many events hosted by the Girl Guides; I remember one in particular when I was the mayor of Ards and North Down Borough Council—it was a long time ago, in 1991 or 1992. I knew some of the leaders of the Girl Guides in Newtownards, and they invited me down. We had a wonderful night with the young girls and what they did that night, along with the leaders as well, so that occasion has always been memorable for me.

When it comes to speaking for the Girl Guides, I am happy to do so, because it really is an organisation that can do great things. I have always been impressed by the level of love and thought put into making the guides relevant and interesting for each new generation of children; it has a positive mindset. However, I was so sad to learn that the decision had been taken to close the Girl Guides in British overseas territories, including our army bases. For that reason, I requested this debate, along with the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North and others, so that we have a chance to discuss it and others have a chance to add their voice, along with mine, in asking the Minister to intervene and make contact with Girlguiding UK to offer support and help to enable the overseas aspect to continue. That really is so vital.

It bears reiterating that British overseas territories are precisely that—British. Others, like me, have a real love of their Britishness. I regularly tell people that I am British, because I believe in it. I love it. I like to tell others that we have something special. As such, there is an expectation that we can partake in things that are quintessentially British, such as being part of the local Rainbow group. It saddens me that the message sent out is that of an inability to work across the difficulties to allow these groups to continue to meet. I understand that there are difficulties, but we should look to the motto “Be prepared”; we should be prepared to go the extra mile to find a way to make it work. I ask the Minister to be prepared and to go that extra mile, as well.

In 2023, there were around 2,600 members of British Girlguiding Overseas in 36 countries and territories. I understand the risks that have arisen with the passage of time and the child protection obligations. Last night, the hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell) introduced an Adjournment debate on AI scams. I just relate this story, because it is important; it shows that society has changed and that people can buy into scams and find themselves in difficulties. I made an intervention in that debate about elderly and vulnerable people.

In the days of my youth—you and I are probably of a similar vintage, Mr Chairman, so I suspect that they were the days of your youth as well—we did not lock the back doors. There was no necessity to do that. Life was different then, but life has changed. I understand the difficulties and necessities that have arisen with the passage of time and the child protection obligations. It is really important that we get those right, because society has changed and we have to protect people more than ever. However, those 2,600 members are left without that precious opportunity to be part of something global, something diverse, something useful—something that they can appreciate in a community that appreciates them. That is the importance of this issue, and the importance of holding this debate.

I am grateful to the hon. Member and fully support him in what he seeks to achieve. In June, in the same announcement that Girlguiding made over its desire to sell its centres in overseas territories, it announced that it would sell five centres in the UK including Waddow Hall in Lancashire, where many young people from my communities in Cumbria have enjoyed outdoor learning experiences. The Waddow Hall Trust is seeking to keep Waddow Hall as an outdoor education centre. Does the hon. Member agree that expanding access to outdoor education for all young people at primary and secondary school could be a real lifeline for centres such as Waddow Hall?

Yes, I agree. We need some extra thinking about how we move forward and how we retain—or better use—some of the centres, and I am sorry to hear about that happening in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The doors are not closed yet, so hopefully there will be a resolution that can take us forward.

In April 2023, Girlguiding UK announced plans to end British Girlguiding Overseas—the BGO operation. The trust said that its decision reflected the challenges and risks of running organisations across those different regions. On 1 September 2023, girl guiding in the middle east, Africa, Asia, Benelux, France—European regions—was ended. Girl guiding on military bases ended at the same time. Girlguiding UK said that its girl guiding will continue in the UK’s overseas territories for the first few months of 2024—we are in those first few months now—after which a further update will be issued.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. At the end of 2023, I was taken to the Falkland Islands by the Falklands Islands Government. That was paid for by the Falkland Islands Government. One of our meetings was with the Girl Guides themselves. They had been deeply affected and were very worried about the future of their movement.

The Falkland Islands is a wonderful place, but it is very small. It does not have many services for young children. It has a population of only 3,500 people. The Girl Guides provide a key lifeline, social outlet and a hobby for people. They are part of everyday life for the small population of Falkland Islanders. They told me that cutting off the Girl Guides would have a devastating impact on young girls in the Falkland Islands. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, especially when it comes to overseas territories with smaller populations, that we cannot let important organisations such as the Girl Guides go by the wayside, because it will have a huge detrimental effect? Does he also agree that people in the UK’s overseas territories are British, and that they should therefore be treated the same as British girls in the UK?

The hon. Gentleman sums up the core issue of this debate; I thank him for that. I was just about to mention the Falkland Islands, so he has pre-empted my next sentence.

BGO currently operates in nine of the UK’s 14 overseas territories: Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, St Helena and Ascension, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Some of the people sitting in the Gallery are from those overseas territories and are here to add their support through their presence. In August 2023, the executive of the BGO said it had made alternative proposals for Girlguiding UK to continue operations, but these were rejected. It has said:

“We lobbied at the highest level of Girlguiding with a request to become a charity in our own right or to set up as a different charity as a franchise of Girlguiding. These alternatives, amongst many others, were repeatedly rejected by the Board and CEO. In particular, we presented a comprehensive proposal to become a charity in our own right on the same basis as the other regions. Despite the inclusion of a dedicated risk manager, office staff and a detailed risk assessment, this proposal was ultimately rejected by the trustees.”

Some 600 young girls cannot continue on their girl guiding journey, but my role as the Member in charge of the debate is not to throw recrimination or to apportion blame. That is never my way of doing things, because I always like to bring people along, if at all possible. My aim today is to ask what support this House can give our overseas territories and military bases to allow their children to continue their journey and live a fulfilling life. It was highlighted to me in an email that Girlguiding membership is hugely important,

“especially for our Armed Forces families. Young members and adult volunteers whose families were posted to Germany, Cyprus, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Falklands”—

the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) mentioned the Falklands—

“as well as other NATO bases, were able to transfer directly into a unit, making the initial transition to life in a new country a bit easier.”

When someone is taken to live somewhere else overseas, it is so important for them to be able to take some comfort in organisations with which they are familiar. The quote continues:

“Membership of the BGO/Girlguiding gave them an extended family and the support that goes along with that, in sometimes difficult situations. This support continued while their serving family members were on deployment.

That email raises a vital point that reiterates why this issue spans not simply the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, but the Ministry of Defence. Other Government Departments must have input into it as well.

I have also been contacted by a number of people living in the overseas territories to thank me and others for highlighting this issue, which is so important to them. They include Claire Montado, the commissioner of Girlguiding Gibraltar, who said:

“For us, the decision when announced was somewhat surreal. To treat the OTs as if we are not part of the UK is incomprehensible to us”—

it is incomprehensible to me and others in this Chamber as well—

“and does not acknowledge the relationship with the UK or their contribution to Britain over the centuries.”

That Britishness and togetherness is what this debate is about. Ms Montado continues:

“In the case of Gibraltar, we are all born with the right of abode in the UK. Our legal, educational, health systems etc are all UK based. We have even left the EU along with the UK because we are part of the UK.”

That tells us about the uniqueness of Gibraltar. She goes on to say:

“Girlguiding has been in continuous operation in Gibraltar for over 100 years. When the entire civilian population was evacuated (to Ireland, Jamaica, Madeira and London) during WWII to serve Britain and the world’s defence needs, Girlguiding continued in the evacuee camps. We are determined to keep Girlguiding going on the Rock, but it is culturally and geographically for us to do that within the UK umbrella. We are no different to the Crown Dependencies and should not be treated as such.”

I hold that view very close to my heart, which is why today’s debate in Westminster Hall is important. With all respect and humility, that is why we are asking Girlguiding UK and our own ministerial team to have a closer look at this to see how the risk can be managed, spread and dealt with to enable those hundreds of British girls—they are British girls—to be part of what the Girl Guides in my town of Newtownards take for granted. The affinity between the Girl Guide groups in Newtownards in Strangford and those across the world in the overseas territories is so important.

I conclude with this comment. I look forward to hearing what other Members will say, but my focus is on the Minister, and I want not words, but assurances. I say that to him very sincerely, very humbly. I ask that to try to find a solution, because solutions are what life is all about. When people come to me with a problem, they want the solution. Our job as politicians and MPs is to provide solutions. I think that we have solutions today. The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North, who will follow me, and others who make speeches will all say the same thing. Today, there will be a unity of spirit, of thought, of focus, a unity of request to the Minister. I wish to see the action that he will be prepared to take to do all we can to foster this wonderful opportunity for all British girls, not only here at home, but across this wonderful world that we live in, and especially within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the overseas territories. We are all British and we all wish to be British, so let us do our bit for the Girl Guides and the overseas territories.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on a brilliant opening to the debate. I will start where he finished—with a call for a solution. I know that solutions and suggestions for solutions have come forward from various guiding organisations within the overseas territories, such as setting up separate charities to enable them to continue.

I will start with some comments from the Minister’s opposite number in the Cayman Islands. The hon. Isaac Rankine MP, the Minister for Youth, Sports and Heritage—probably broadly comparable to the Minister present—made the point that Girlguiding Cayman Islands provides structure, guidance and leadership. That is what those in girl guiding in the overseas territories want to continue: the structure, the guidance and the leadership that has come from Girlguiding in the UK. That would allow the organisational structure to be maintained with sound governance and support from the governing body of Girlguiding. That is all that they are calling for: to let that umbrella of support and structure to be maintained. They are prepared to consider new, innovative and different ways to allow that to happen.

The response from those at Girlguiding UK, however, has been frightened. That is the only word I can use: they are frightened of the risk. They talk about risk management and the challenges of different legal structures in the territories, but those legal structures have been different for generations. Those legal structures were governing the territories 100 years ago, long before email existed or people could log on to the Girlguiding intranet to get all the policies around safeguarding that they needed, for example.

Safeguarding is not a new risk, tragically. Looking after the welfare of our young people has to be paramount—of course it does—but we know that there have been those who have not safeguarded children in various organisations across the globe for centuries. We are now much more alive to the risks; we have much better policies in place to manage the risks, and we have safeguarding structures that simply did not exist 100 years ago. I would therefore argue very respectfully to Girlguiding that, although of course it is a challenge to manage structures across the globe and it is not easy in a completely different territory and time zone, we have modern forms of communication that make things a great deal easier than they have ever been.

This may seem a little off track, but I want to talk specifically about Parliament Week, because it is an opportunity for us all to visit youth organisations across our constituencies—schools, Girlguiding, the Scouts or whoever. In the past year, I have taken full advantage of that opportunity, largely because myriad invitations came in from some great organisations, including the regional Girl Guides, the brownies and a whole host of schools. I must not forget that the Scouts invited me, too.

Although the rainbows exist now, the brownies is where it all started for me. I confess that it has been 40 years since I left the brownies with an armful of badges. I was very proud of those badges, including one about the international work of the brownies. As a small child 40 years ago, I learned all about the work of British Girlguiding Overseas, and it has stuck with me to this day. The only other thing that has stuck with me is my first aid badge, which could probably do with a bit of a refresher.

I remember the importance of those badges, and I remember learning about the different brownie and guide uniforms in different territories. As a child, it was incredibly exciting to know that I had something in common with girls all around the world. At the end of Parliament Week last year, I received a whole new collection of brownie badges, of which I am inordinately proud. They were awarded to me for having taken part in Parliament Week with the Nursling and Rownhams brownies and the North Baddesley brownies. I want to highlight what those girls were learning last year, undoubtedly in common with girls around the globe.

I went to the North Baddesley brownies, where the sixes have divided into three groups. They spoke of some of the challenges that different groups are facing, and they did so in an incredibly clever way. The unicorn group spoke about the challenges of gender stereotypes in the 21st century. The mermaid group spoke about the challenges of pollution in the ocean and how that affected mermaids; the climate and pollution challenges were made relevant to the mermaid icon that they had chosen. The ogres group spoke about the challenge of appearance-based bullying. It was all incredibly cleverly done, and it gave those young girls the opportunity to research an issue, think about its impact and then stand up and make a presentation on it.

I do not know whether colleagues in this House are ever struck by this, but I am constantly struck by how scared my constituents sometimes are when they have to get to their feet and speak publicly on any issue. In those brownie groups, seven, eight and nine-year-old girls were being taught to speak with confidence on a range of issues, and to present to an audience not just of their mums, dads and girl guiding leaders, but of me, their local MP. They had the chance to make the case directly to me. That is something that happens around the globe and in our overseas territories at the moment, and we are at risk of losing it. We are at risk of losing the voices of those young girls, who are undoubtedly being given the confidence to go on to contribute in later life.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that we all need to do as much as we can to promote youth organisations, and particularly uniformed organisations like the Girl Guides, in overseas territories and at home? They promote discipline, respect for genders and the sort of values that are often stereotyped and not reflected on television screens, but which we need to inculcate among our younger generation.

I am exceptionally grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because it brings me on to one of my other visits during Parliament Week, which was to the regional headquarters of guiding in Salisbury. Having a region that stretches from Cornwall all the way to Hampshire is an interesting challenge, but that is what girl guiding does: it has big regions that manage to communicate effectively with one another. In Salisbury they came together to speak to me, and there were rainbows, guides, brownies and rangers in attendance.

I want to focus on one former Girl Guide who became a Salisbury city councillor: Eleanor Wills, who is now an ambassador and champion for guiding regionally. Eleanor has set up her own badge focusing on community and on giving young women the opportunity to contribute to their community and become community champions. Eleanor did that herself: she went on to become a local councillor and has been a real advocate and champion for young women. That is what guiding does, and I say respectfully that it is what we are lacking on a national and international stage. In democracies, parliaments and assemblies around the globe, we still have far too few women speaking up. Girl guiding has a role to play in making sure that we give girls their voice and encourage them to go forward with it.

Girl guiding sometimes leads to women ending up in this place, but those opportunities are at risk for British girls in our overseas territories. They could potentially be taken away from girls like Chelsea Been, the Turks and Caicos Member of the Youth Parliament. That young lady spoke so eloquently in the Youth Parliament debate on 17 November that she made a significant impact on Mr Speaker in this place: he often talks about her contribution, and how it is only right and fair that girls like Chelsea be allowed and empowered to continue finding their voices and using them. Her contribution in that debate in November was focused exclusively on what girl guiding had done for her in Turks and Caicos, on the involvement of both her grandmother and her aunt, who was a commissioner there, and on how guiding had given so many girls their voice.

I do not need to highlight this to the Minister, but I will anyway. The joint declaration of Governments of the United Kingdom and British overseas territories was published exactly a month ago today. One month on, we can reflect on that document, which rightly speaks to a modern partnership for a stronger British family. However, it manages to talk about family without using the word “woman” once, and we do make up 50% of that British family. We cannot have the strong, safe and prosperous societies that that document aspires to without everyone being able to

“play a full and active part in society.”

I am quoting very deliberately from the text.

I want to emphasise how Chelsea and generations of young women living in the overseas territories have cultivated their roles under the auspices of Girlguiding. To lose that without a fight would be abdicating our responsibility to girls like Chelsea who are yet to come.

My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful argument. She paints a rosy picture of what girl guiding was and how it treated her, which is very good; I completely agree with her. However, as I am sure she knows, last year Girlguiding UK went through the biggest rebranding exercise in 113 years. It has changed lots of things, including the uniforms and the logo, to create a new identity to

“address outdated perceptions holding us back”,

according to its press release. Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns that Girlguiding UK sees the overseas territories as outdated and is therefore trying to refresh the brand by throwing off parts of the British territories? Is she concerned that it is not doing what it should be doing and looking after our British girls?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Every youth organisation has to refresh; it has to move forward and be relevant to the 21st century. In so doing, however, it must not cast the baby out with the bathwater. I am not sure that Girlguiding UK is taking the decision that the overseas territories are old-fashioned; it would be incredibly regrettable were it to do so. I think Girlguiding is taking the view that this is all just a bit too difficult and risky, so it is not going to do it any more. That is wrong. We do not want to encourage a generation of snowflakes. We want young girls to learn about how to manage risk, which can be an opportunity as well as a threat. We have to learn about risk. We cannot wrap ourselves in cotton wool. We have to recognise that it is through challenging ourselves and doing the difficult stuff that we actually get better.

We must not abdicate our responsibility to girls like Chelsea or to young women like Eleanor Wills in Salisbury. We want to make sure that British girls overseas are given the same opportunities. Of course, it is not just Turks and Caicos; the hon. Member for Strangford spoke about the important role that girl guiding has played in Gibraltar. I was struck by the briefing, which described how girl guiding had continued even through the war, when they were all evacuated and became refugees all around the globe.

I failed to declare an interest at the start of my speech: I chair the all-party parliamentary group for Cyprus. I benefited from a fabulous visit to Cyprus a couple of years ago, and there is another coming up—that is not an advert to colleagues! Girl guiding is a way for girls who get posted overseas with their serving forces family members to have some continuity and thrive with the same social engagement and structure—we are back to structure—with which they are familiar. When we go to a new country, it is sometimes difficult to blend in, assimilate and make that adjustment, but girl guiding can provide a route for girls to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) made a point about the Falkland Islands. I have never been to the Falkland Islands, but I know that teenagers from the Falkland Islands end up in Winchester, adjacent to my constituency: Peter Symonds College is the catchment area college for the Falkland Islands, believe it or not. We want to ensure that girls can come from the Falkland Islands—a tiny community that is very remote from the rest of the United Kingdom—to this country and instantly assimilate, with a structure, a familiarity and a routine that they are used to.

I conclude with the point that I have made throughout: this is about giving girls their voice, giving them opportunities and ensuring that they can thrive and become independent young women in an increasingly difficult and challenging society, wherever they are in the globe. This is about managing risk and accepting that risk can sometimes be a challenge. My plea to Girlguiding UK is to stop being so risk-averse; to accept that comms around the globe are a lot easier in the 21st century than they have ever been; and to regard that as an opportunity, not as a chance to shy away from a long-standing tradition that is absolutely cherished by the girls I have spoken to.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to follow the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his good sense in securing this important debate, which cuts to the heart of our sense of collectivity, particularly for young people.

I tabled early-day motion 212 on this subject and have written to Girlguiding UK to ask it to reconsider this important decision; I thank many hon. Members here who have already signed that early-day motion and my letter. Many organisations from overseas territories have written to me expressing their dismay at the decision, which they do not understand and were not involved in. There are currently 618 Girl Guides and 182 volunteer leaders in the overseas territories. The decision was taken without consulting them and seemingly without good reason.

The history of girl guiding was recognised by Girlguiding UK when it announced the decision for the overseas territories: it said that guiding for girls who live in British overseas territories has been

“a valued part of Girlguiding UK for much of our 113-year history”.

What has changed to make Girlguiding UK make this rash decision? Decisions like this should not be made just because things are difficult or challenging. Let us overcome the challenges. I ask Girlguiding UK to reconsider its decision and to see the good sense in the arguments that have been made today. I am interested to hear the Minister’s remarks, because I trust that he will have the good common sense to see the value of girl guiding in our overseas territories, particularly in the British bases.

I stand here as a former brownie; I think I was a pixie. I also remember, as a former Girl Guide, the joy and pride of earning badges and the hard work that went into them. There was a sense of working together with my friends in a common endeavour to achieve something greater than ourselves. I remember working for the entertainment badge—I cannot remember what it was called—and I remember my mum being very proud of me when I got the highest marks for safety in the home. I got a special award, and she got a phone call from whoever was the head of the brownies. It was one of her proudest moments as a mum—I remember that with great joy and great pride. I know how much girl guiding can do for young women and girls, how it can develop skills of leadership and how it can show that people working together can achieve great things. That is what today’s debate is about.

I want to touch on the rationale for the decision and the negative impact that it will have on the girls concerned. A range leader in the Falkland Islands wrote to me to say:

“They will be effectively be barred from the worldwide sisterhood of girl guiding…This is particularly impactful given our remote location and the complications of our geopolitical location.”

That is absolutely true, but why do we not take that risk and rise to the challenge? The world moves on, and girl guiding should be part of that. Its future in the overseas territories and on army bases cannot be put on the “too hard to deal with” pile.

I am proud to support this important debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford that the decision is incomprehensible. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s view and seeing whether he can work with us to provide a solution to ensure that girl guiding in the overseas territories and on the army bases has a future.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this Backbench Business debate and on setting out the keenly felt concerns about the ability of girls in the British overseas territories to continue to benefit from all that girl guiding has to offer. The importance of girl guiding, and of the opportunities and experiences that it provides, has been amply illustrated by every Member in this debate, which speaks to the impact that girl guiding has in all our constituencies and across the world.

As the largest youth organisation dedicated completely to girls aged between four and 18, Girlguiding UK provides a vital growing space for many girls across the UK. Girl guiding allows girls and young women to develop their skills and confidence while providing opportunities to which they may not otherwise have access. Like many hon. Members, I am a former brownie and Girl Guide. On my way here today, I reflected on what was perhaps my first taste of leadership as a brownie sixer, and—like my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins)—I too was a pixie. As the mother of former rainbows and brownies, it is heartening to witness the ongoing success of Girlguiding UK, with over 300,000 girls and young women regularly coming together to have fun, learn new skills, go on adventures and make new friends. They are supported by the nearly 70,000 volunteers who enable that to happen by giving their time, skills and energy.

Girlguiding UK has 9,000 members in Nottinghamshire alone, and I have always welcomed the opportunity to meet up with its units in Nottingham South to see the brilliant work that it does. That includes a visit to Wollaton brownies during UK Parliament week to answer their tough questions about the role of an MP and how they can make a difference in their local community. I listened to guides voicing their concerns about the pressures that young women face regarding body image and mental health. I have loved seeing girls working in teams, getting creative, planning activities and presenting their ideas. Last year, I joined volunteer leaders in handing out medals at the Race for Life in Nottingham. I am always impressed by everything Girlguiding UK does to help girls and young women to thrive.

I therefore share the concern raised today regarding the closure of British Girlguiding Overseas. While we all understand the risks that Girlguiding UK identifies, and the resources needed to provide assurance, it is disappointing to contemplate hundreds of girls across the overseas territories missing out on the joys of girl guiding.

The UK overseas territories are an integral and cherished part of the global British family, and the Minister and I were both privileged to address the UK Youth Parliament late last year, which included representatives from the overseas territories. Girlguiding itself has acknowledged that

“guiding for girls who live in British Overseas Territories, has been a valued part of Girlguiding UK for much of our 113-year history.”

There are nine UK overseas territories in which Girlguiding operates and, according to the chief commissioner of British Girlguiding Overseas, there are 618 Girl Guides in the overseas territories and 182 volunteer leaders. I know those numbers have been said before, but they bear repetition. Although that is a very small proportion of all Girlguiding’s members, it would be very sad if British girls and volunteers living outside mainland UK were denied the opportunities that their mothers and grandmothers were afforded for so many years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South said, surely the challenges that Girlguiding cites are not insurmountable and can be overcome.

I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who is not present but is Labour’s shadow Minister for the overseas territories, also raised his concerns directly with Girlguiding UK in April 2023 and that he and other Members, including those present, have been working together in the hope of finding a solution that will allow girl guiding to continue in the overseas territories. In June 2023, before I took up my role, I also wrote to the Minister regarding the issue after constituents raised their concerns about the proposed changes and I was pleased to hear that he was engaging with Girlguiding.

The House last considered the proposals from Girlguiding in September 2023 when the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) led a debate on youth programmes and Girlguiding. The Minister assured the House then that he had been in regular contact with Girlguiding, and that he intended to make them aware of hon. and right hon. Members’ concerns. I would be grateful if he could update us on those discussions.

British Girlguiding Overseas operations in the middle east, Africa, Asia, Benelux, France and Europe closed on 1 September 2023, including units operating on military bases. I share concerns about how that decision will impact girls in armed forces families living overseas. The hon. Member for Strangford and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North made this point very clearly: it is a time in their lives when they might really need that sense of community that girl guiding provides. I understand that Girlguiding is in communication with the Ministry of Defence and other military stakeholders to explore future guiding support for girls on overseas military bases, and I should be grateful if the Minister would give us a flavour of any discussions he has had with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and how they are developing.

It is welcome that Girlguiding’s board of trustees decided to extend the timeline for girl guiding activities in overseas territories into this year to allow extra time to explore options that would allow operations to continue. I understand that Girlguiding proposed two options to Government. The first option sought Government funding and the second sought Government support for the management of welfare and risk. Girlguiding has said that the Minister was unwilling to provide Government funding to enable it to continue to operate in the British overseas territories—he might want to say more about that decision—but that his officials are working with it on a second option for an affiliate-type agreement, whereby a Government entity could be responsible for the girls and volunteers and Girlguiding would provide all the materials with which girls are familiar. I am sure that everyone hopes that the Minister will continue that engagement with Girlguiding, no doubt alongside his colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to explore what is possible and to try to find a solution that ensures that girl guiding is still available to girls growing up in the British overseas territories. Perhaps the Minister can say more about that.

Despite Girlguiding being an internationally respected and valued charity that has been operating for more than 100 years, it is understandable that it is thinking about how best to use its resources. Charities across the UK are feeling the impact of a reduction in Government support and of the rising cost of living. The pressure on family budgets has undoubtedly made it harder for them to operate. It is not a new issue; it is affecting charities across the board. Just last week, the Charities Aid Foundation warned that much higher demand and sustained financial challenges are leading half of charities to say that they are at full capacity and cannot help anyone else.

The impact on young people is particularly concerning. We all know the benefits that activities such as girl guiding can have on children’s confidence and the development of valuable skills, yet services that support young people are being shut down or scaled back because of financial difficulties. Reductions to local authority funding resulted in the slashing of their expenditure on youth services in England by 73% since 2010, with more than 4,500 youth work jobs lost, and thousands of youth centres closed. That makes the opportunities provided by voluntary and community organisations even more important, so I understand the difficult decisions trustees face about how best to use their limited resources to maximum benefit, in accordance with their charitable objectives.

Investing in the next generation is absolutely vital. We know the benefits of good youth services and how they can transform young lives. Girlguiding is one of those services. I hope that the Government continue to engage with Girlguiding, and that a solution is found to ensure that girls across our overseas territories do not miss out.

Mr Betts, you pre-empt my admission. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for tabling this important debate, and for the high expectations he has placed on me. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), and my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), as well as others who have contributed to this debate.

First, let me clarify why I am responding to the debate, as I know that the initial application was to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Like the hon. Member for Strangford, I am incredibly proud to be British, and that includes our wider British family. This Government are committed to protecting the United Kingdom’s national interests, ensuring the prosperity of the British people across the overseas territories. The 2012 overseas territories White Paper sets out that Government Departments

“engage with and support the Territories in their areas of expertise and competence.”

Each Department is expected to support the development of the territories and collaborate on areas of mutual interest. For my Department, that means protecting vital youth services for British young people wherever they live, and working closely with Girlguiding to champion the continuation of British Girlguiding Overseas. I am therefore pleased to reply to the debate today.

The overseas territories are an integral part of the UK family and we are united by shared values. The long-standing partnership is based on collaboration and mutual interest, and the Government believe in a modern partnership with the overseas territories. At the UK and Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council in November, the UK Government and elected leaders of the territory Governments agreed a joint declaration. It sets out our united vision for a modern and productive partnership, which includes commitments to support and develop thriving and resilient communities, and to work in partnership to address the unique challenges facing the territories.

The declaration also reaffirmed the UK Government’s overriding priority to protect and promote the interests of the British people of the overseas territories. I note the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, but I would add that it says in the declaration:

“We believe that the strongest, safest, and most prosperous societies are those in which all people”—

so that would include women—

“can live freely without fear of unlawful discrimination and play a full and active part in society.”

The UK strategy on overseas territories will include a chapter on communities, and will include women and girls within that. I hope that satisfies my right hon. Friend.

Last year, the Government provided £85 million in official development aid to eligible overseas territories to support infrastructure programmes. It has also provided £18 million of cross-Government funding through the conflict, stability and security fund to support justice systems, governance, border security and support for environment and climate changes. Additionally, the FCDO has provided another £19 million to ensure that priorities are met abroad and that the Government fulfil their constitutional and internal obligations. I hope that demonstrates how committed we are to supporting the territories to be vibrant and flourishing communities, and why my Department is dedicated to generating wider opportunities for their people. As the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), said, we have both had the privilege of hearing them directly at that amazing meeting of the Youth Parliament.

As highlighted by the hon. Member for Strangford, uniformed youth organisations such as Girlguiding make a tremendous difference to young people’s lives. Volunteers work tirelessly to provide early intervention, develop trusted relationships, facilitate opportunities and create safe spaces, helping to build thriving communities and supporting young people to achieve their ambitions. Other Members talked about their experiences in the brownies. You are right, Mr Betts—I was not in the brownies. However, I was in the cubs, and I remember my experiences there, not least camping in a field when the tent fell down at 3 am—that stayed with me for a long time. I also remember taking part in Remembrance parades as a cub, which instilled in me a value that I hold dear today.

Participation in uniformed youth groups is shown to provide long-term mental health benefits, improve young people’s skills for life, and support the development of positive personality traits. Such organisations have consistently demonstrated that members display increased confidence, reduced anxiety and increased community participation, which is incredibly important. The overseas territories were therefore understandably disappointed to learn that Girlguiding decided to cease its overseas operations. I know that many hon. Members were disappointed, and they have eloquently spoken of their concerns. I was equally disheartened, as I have seen the benefits that can be gained for young people who participate in the programmes hosted by organisations such as Girlguiding. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North mentioned, Mr Speaker has also taken a great interest in the issue and met Girlguiding in November alongside my officials and officials from the FCDO to discuss possible solutions.

I must emphasise that Girlguiding is an independent charitable organisation and its board of trustees has a fiscal responsibility to take decisions that are in Girlguiding’s best interest and to enable it to achieve its charitable purposes, secure its future and ensure the safety of its members. Those are not decisions that Girlguiding has taken lightly. We understand that its decision to cease overseas operations is due to the increasing complexity of providing Girlguiding’s board of trustees with appropriate assurances on both the safety of members and the integrity of operations, in line with its legal responsibilities across 36 countries and territories. Operations in the British overseas territories were initially scheduled to cease from 31 December last year. However, following discussions with my officials, Girlguiding’s board of trustees took the decision to delay that until the beginning of this year.

The hon. Member for Strangford told me to be prepared. I am pleased to say that we have been prepared. We have also been seeking ways to take this further. That has given us more time to consider all the options that might enable British Girlguiding Overseas to continue in the territories, and for conversations between Girlguiding, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the FCDO and the Ministry of Defence to continue. I would like to express my thanks to Girlguiding’s board of trustees for delaying the cessation of operations abroad so that we can fully explore all the options and support a local solution that is consistent with Girlguiding’s decisions about what is appropriate for the organisation. I totally understand the strength of feeling, and that is why we are carefully working across Government to see what solutions can be found.

Although I do not want to raise any expectations, we are having another meeting this evening with the overseas territories to explore the other available options. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North said, girls such as Chelsea really do value girl guiding. I share my right hon. Friend’s support for ensuring that girls and women have their voices heard, and I will continue to ensure that we do everything we can to explore all the options that may be available.

In 2022, we committed to the national youth guarantee with an investment of more than £500 million to ensure that by 2025, every young person in England will have access to regular clubs, activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer. The aims of the guarantee are ambitious; to achieve them, we are investing in programmes such as the youth investment fund, the National Citizen Service, the Duke of Edinburgh award, the #iwill campaign and uniformed youth groups, in addition to supporting the sector workforce and strengthening the evidence base.

I cannot overstate the importance to me and my Department of providing opportunities for young people. We fully recognise the benefits that girl guiding brings to girls and young women. That is why the uniformed youth fund forms part of the national youth guarantee investment, providing Girlguiding with more than £2 million to create more opportunities to take part in girl guiding in England. Girlguiding has already created more than 3,000 new places, recruited hundreds of new volunteers and opened 100 new units, with more to come.

The hon. Member for Nottingham South asked why we were unable to offer funding. The uniformed youth fund is funded under section 70 of the Charities Act 2006, which limits where we can provide funding. Notably, activities funded must

“directly or indirectly benefit the whole or any part of England”.

But that does not mean that we will not explore all the available options to see what can be done.

Right hon. and hon. Members have given great examples of the work of Girlguiding, and I want to also offer my thanks to the organisation for the inspirational work it does in so many of our communities up and down the country. I recognise that that funding is limited to England under the Charities Act, but that does not negate the fact that we believe that every child, no matter where they live, should have access to a thriving youth sector. That is why my Department continues to lead those discussions. I hope to report back to Members following the meeting tonight, and I will also update Members as discussions progress.

In conclusion, youth services and organisations such as Girlguiding provide essential services for young people and communities. As a Department, we are absolutely committed to ensuring that all young people have access to those regular clubs, activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer. While that is being provided for young people in England, we are equally passionate about opportunities for young people wherever they are. We will continue to work with Girlguiding and explore every option that may be available to us. As I committed to a moment ago, I will update the Members present when those discussions have concluded.

Can I first thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have made contributions? I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), and the Minister as well. The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) brought to the debate personal knowledge of being a Girl Guide, and of her participation in the brownies some 40 years ago—that is hard to believe; I am sure it is probably much less time than that. Whatever the case may be, I thank the right hon. Lady for her contribution. We heard about the safeguarding and risk management challenges and all the necessities that were put in place, and about how—I say this with all graciousness—the brownies helped the right hon. Lady to develop and promoted challenges and thoughts that brought her to this place today, a place where there should be that opportunity for young girls and ladies.

We are really fortunate, Mr Betts, to have three ladies here in Westminster Hall today who all were members of the brownies over the years. I do not recall another debate in which three of the MPs present were three former members of the same organisation. That is quite an achievement and reflects why this issue is so important.

The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North also referred to the parliamentary week for Girl Guides and that is something that, if God spares me, I will take up next time around. She outlined very well what it does and talked about her trip to the headquarters in Salisbury and the young girls she met, in particular Chelsea. I have never met Chelsea but, judging from what the right hon. Lady said, she is an exceptional young lady who could end up in this place someday to represent the people in her constituency, wherever that may be. I look forward to that day.

My good friend the hon. Member for Bradford South said that Girl Guides overcome challenges. Really, that is what this debate is about: overcoming challenges. It is about the Girl Guides and the pixies, which she was a member of. I remember when the Girl Guides were operating in Greyabbey and one of the other villages nearby. I had three boys, so they went into the Boys’ Brigade, but the ladies always said to me, “You know, whenever you get a wee girl, she can join us in the pixies and the brownies.” Well, we never got the wee girl. We could not be sure that it would be a wee girl, and I think my wife was not really committed to having another child, so that opportunity did not come.

We have heard about people’s personal experience and the negative impact of closing down British Girlguiding Overseas, so I hope the Girl Guides can work with us to find a way forward. Minister, that is the request from the hon. Ladies—indeed, from us all. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to the importance of the uniformed youth organisations. The Minister has really got that point, and his response to the debate also convinced us of that.

The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) referred to his time in the Falklands, which has a population of about 3,500, and the important work that the Girl Guides do there and in many overseas territories.

The hon. Member for Nottingham South, the shadow Minister, is another product of the pixies, the brownies and the Girl Guides. Wow—what personal experiences we have heard about today from all three hon. Ladies. It was a pleasure, a privilege and an honour to be here and hear those things. The shadow Minister referred to the opportunities that the Girl Guides give girls today, but these things do not just happen. There are 70,000 volunteers—I never knew that until this morning. These are the many people outside the Girl Guides who make it happen: the parents and the ladies, and no doubt the gentlemen as well, who all make a contribution.

The Girl Guides are also a valued part of the overseas territories and the United Kingdom globally. Indeed, they are a vital part of the Britishness that the Minister referred to. He and I—indeed, all of us here—clearly share that Britishness: that love and that commitment to Britain, which we very much treasure.

I am glad that the timeline for consultation has been extended. We hope that the Girl Guides will have the confidence to speak and act, and to invest in the next generation.

The Minister encapsulated things well. Although I perhaps put some gentle pressure on him in introducing the debate, and while others have also done so, we did so in a nice way, because we understand that he is a Minister who is always genuinely courteous to us all, and I think he understands this issue only too well. His response was incredibly helpful, and I think we will all take immense comfort from his words.

The Government have committed to retaining our Britishness in the overseas territories, protecting vital services such as the Girl Guides. The overseas territories are an integral part of the UK. There is a modern and productive partnership, and a commitment to that partnership and to the wider opportunities that Girl Guiding gives, including the camping out and Remembrance Sunday. I am reminded—as I am sure we all are—that every year, when I go to the Remembrance Sunday service at Newtownards, I always take note of the uniformed organisations, and the Girl Guides are always there. They are always smart in their uniforms and always in step—although they do take time to wave to their parents and grandparents as they walk. It is really important to instil that Britishness—that respect and that honour, which the Minister very much encapsulates. There is much comfort to take from his words, and I hope that is so for the ladies and gentlemen in the Gallery today on behalf of Girl Guides.

The Government have further committed to provide opportunities for young girls through the uniformed youth new groups fund for Girl Guides and other organisations in the United Kingdom. Some 100-plus units have been opened in the UK—I did not know that, so I thank the Minister for that update. He clearly understands why we secured this debate and why it is important, and the people here today are all committed to the same objective. In that respect, all of us, and probably the primary movers behind the debate, recognise in the Minister’s words an intention to find a solution. The talks are ongoing, and I am sure that the Minister will—I know he will—come back to each and every one of us and tell us what the results of that are.

We have confidence in the Minister, and in his ability, wish and strength of mind to find a solution. As I said earlier in introducing the debate, it is all about solutions—you know that, Mr Betts, as an elected representative, because that is what your constituents want to hear. This is about how we find that solution. Again, I thank the Minister very much for that. I thank all the people in the Gallery for coming along and, in particular, the right hon. and hon. Members who, in drawing on their personal experiences, made this such a good debate. It was a joy to listen to and a pleasure to behold.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future of Girlguiding UK in the British Overseas Territories.

Sitting suspended.

Heather Burning on Peatlands

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the regulation of heather burning on peatlands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts.

On 9 October last year, smoke, ash and air pollution engulfed the Sheffield, Hallam constituency and beyond. A great many people contacted me on that day and afterwards to complain about the air quality, which was four times over the legal limit for air pollution. It was a relatively still day, so the smoke took a while to dissipate, and the unique topography of my constituency meant that constituents were very much affected. Constituents contacted me to say that they had trouble breathing and that it caused coughing and eye irritation. It was particularly distressing for members of my community with respiratory conditions.

The reason for the smoke was heather burning on the moorlands to the west of Sheffield. Natural England, which is investigating the burns, tells me that

“the moorland estates located within SSSIs close to Sheffield usually have Agri-Environment Higher Level Stewardship agreements that contain burning plans.”

I will not comment on the specifics of last year’s burn, because we do not know whether it was legal, but it is entirely possible that it was legal, despite the rocketing pollution levels and the damaging effects on my community.

I started with that anecdote because the fact is that this could be perfectly lawful behaviour, which highlights some of the problems with the current regulations. Burns such as these are a regular occurrence in my constituency, often with similar, if not quite so dramatic, effects. The immediate impact on air quality is obvious, but the burning also undermines our ability to address the twin climate and nature crises facing us by damaging the precious blanket peat bog habitats that would otherwise exist.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing this issue forward. She and I agree on the importance of this subject, although we might have slightly different opinions about what is happening. Does the hon. Lady agree—I think she does, but I want to have it on the record—that those who own or manage the moors try to manage them in an environmentally sensitive way? As such, the burning of the moors is part of what happens for the purpose of shooting on the moors, as the hon. Lady will know. Burning helps to regenerate the moors for the next season and increases bird yields. Does the hon. Lady agree that we must recognise all the different factors that are important for moors? Has there been any engagement with those who manage or own the moors to find a way to do this that does not, by its very nature, cause any inconvenience to others?

That is a good point. Yes, I have been out to various moorland owners in my constituency and beyond to see regenerative projects—for example, planting sphagnum moss plugs and other things that people are doing to try to improve the quality of the moors—but I still think that further Government intervention is needed. The immediate impact of burning is obvious, but the long-term impact should concern us all. As I was about to say, we have to make sure that we take into consideration the climate and nature crises as well as the health implications of burning, which is damaging our precious blanket bogs.

The peatlands are so important. We have 13% of the Earth’s blanket peat bogs in the UK, which is the largest proportion in the world. They are essentially our rainforests, and I am proud to represent a constituency that includes some of that landscape. Unfortunately, as I have seen at first hand, the vast proportion of our peatland is degraded. It is hard to see the difference between a degraded peatland and one in good health, because there is damage to so much of our peatland, and part of that is due to the burning.

Burning not only damages the ecosystem that supports an abundance of wildlife, but is bad for the climate. In the natural and rewetted state, peatlands have the potential to store carbon dioxide on a large scale and can be a vital asset for helping us decarbonise our country, but when they are degraded, they do the exact opposite. Nationally, the damage means that our peatlands emit the equivalent CO2 of 140,000 cars per year; the burns themselves release 260,000 tonnes of CO2 annually. The burning also makes the effects of the climate crisis worse, because when the heather is burnt, the fire kills off the spongy sphagnum moss underneath that acts as a natural barrier to rain run-off. One expert described the moss to me as a Persian carpet—it is very absorbent; you can squeeze it, and if you jump up and down on a healthy bog, someone 20 metres away will be able to feel the vibration because of the water held in the moss. It is very rare to find that in the UK now.

Losing the moss means that we often see down-valley flooding, which will become more and more likely if that environment is not protected and restored. If we want to slow the flow, a good place to start would be by maintaining the sphagnum moss and making sure that it is in good condition to do the job that it has evolved to do. Global heating means that our winters are getting wetter, and we are already beginning to see the effects in floods up and down the country. Rather than destroying natural flood defences, we need to protect them to ensure that we mitigate the worst effects of the climate emergency.

Some say that we need burning to control fuel loads on the moors, and that without it overgrown heather would cause wildfires, but the more heather is burned, the more it grows and the more we are locked into a cycle of burning. Is it not better to break that cycle by restoring the moorland monoculture back to its former health, rewetting the peat and reintroducing the more vibrant biodiversity that was there before the burns, and, in fact, before the draining of many of our peatlands?

That is why I was pleased, in 2020, when the Government announced that they would introduce stronger regulations to control the burns. In fact, the current licensing regime was introduced shortly after a similar debate to this that I was lucky enough to secure, in which the Minister told me that the old system was clearly

“not protecting every blanket bog site.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 216WH.]

However, the details of the 2021 regulations left a lot to be desired. Licensing is required only on peatland of a depth of 40 cm or more, and we do not have an agreed national map of that. The Wildlife and Countryside Link estimates that the current law therefore leaves about 60% of UK peatlands without any protection.

Three years on, it is useful to take stock of whether the new regulatory regime is working for the peatlands that it does include. Unfortunately, data from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds suggests that it is not. We are halfway through this burning season, so we do not have the full figures for this year, but during 2022-23, 260 records of burning in the English uplands were reported to the RSPB via its dedicated app, of which 87% took place in special areas of conservation and special protected areas. The RSPB believes that 72, or 28%, of the 260 burns reported to itmay have breached the regulations by taking place on protected areas of peat over 40 cm in depth. The year before, the RSPB received 272 reports: one in three burns took place on peat likely to be deeper than 25 cm, and four out of five took place in SSSIs, special protected areas and special areas of conservation. Although the Government issued no licences for burns in 2021, 70 reported burns took place on peat likely to be deeper than 40 cm in protected sites, violating the regulations. In the last two years, without considering the current season, it is therefore likely that at least 142 burns were illegal.

In 2023, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs successfully prosecuted two estate owners and issued a warning to a third, but that is only three cases. The level of enforcement action is not anywhere near the level of potential law breaking. The figures show that the new system is clearly not working and that the law needs to go much further to stop this damaging practice, rather than continue the partial prohibition we have seen. It is high time that there is an outright ban.

I raised this issue in the Chamber with the previous Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). I am sorry to say that she told me not only that she was not considering a ban, but that my constituents should be happy with the air quality they have. I hope that new leadership in the Department will produce a less disappointing and dismissive response, because it is important to get this issue right. Unfortunately, the Government are not getting it right or rising to the level of ambition required.

The latest Climate Change Committee progress report on reducing UK emissions says that restoration of peatlands is already significantly off track compared with the CCC’s balanced pathway. In 2022-23, the overall amount of UK peatlands restored was a measly 12,700 hectares. Although that is an increase on the previous year, to meet next year’s target of 29,000 hectares will require more than a doubling of the current rate. Even if the Government match that target, the CCC recommends a UK-wide rate of 67,000 hectares per year by 2025.

I know the Minister will point me to the Government’s England peat action plan, but the truth is we are not meeting the targets that we need to. We see a failure of delivery of Government policy on peatlands and, even worse, a failure of ambition. That needs to change, and change urgently. It is has been a pleasure to go out on the moors in my constituency and elsewhere in the country to see projects dedicated to rewetting and restoring peatlands. Instead of burning, we need more projects such as those, and for other degraded habitats, supported by concerted Government-led strategy to reverse the decline in nature.

The Minister lives very close to where I grew up. I recently went for a walk with the family and I tried to show them some healthy sphagnum moss on the moorlands in his constituency. It was very difficult to find some in good condition, to show what I was talking about. That shows a wider issue than in my own constituency, where we do have a lot of burning. We know that the degradation of peatlands is of great importance to communities up and down the country.

Heather burning is bad for the environment, bad for the climate crisis and, as the recent burns in my constituency have graphically illustrated, bad for the health of people in Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam in particular. I hope the Minister will consider a complete ban on burns and offer a comprehensive, joined-up plan to restore these habitats. I am proud to say that I have the support of our Mayor, Oliver Coppard, and the leader of Sheffield City Council, Tom Hunt, who have both been outspoken on their wish to see a further ban.

We have been trying to contact certain landowners about this practice, to ensure we have a way to deal with the needs of peatland owners while balancing them against those of local communities. Where air pollution levels are breached, it is important that local authorities have the powers to stop that happening, to protect people’s health and the environment in the uplands, which is so important for those who live downstream.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for securing this important debate, and giving me the opportunity to respond to some of the points that have been made.

The United Kingdom boasts some of the world’s most extensive peatlands, with nearly 3 million hectares of peatland area. That precious habitat is of huge national importance, which the hon. Member rightly identifies. Those precious habitats are vital as we protect those sites for future generations. The Government’s commitment to the protection and restoration of those habitats achieves several environmental benefits, including cutting carbon emissions, optimising biodiversity, minimising wildlife hazards and improving water and air quality.

I will dive straight into the regulations to which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam referred. On 16 February 2021, the Government published the Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 to protect blanket bog habitats in England. The regulations came into force in May of that year and were introduced to prevent burning on areas of peat of over 40 cm deep on sites of special scientific interest—SSSIs—or on special protection and conservation areas, except under licence.

The regulations were seen as a game changer in protecting peat bog areas. They limited the practice of burning on protected blanket bog, except when a licence has been granted for reasons such as wildfire mitigation or supporting peatland restoration. The regulations are a crucial step forward in meeting the Government’s nature and climate change mitigation and adaptation targets, including the legally binding commitments to reach net zero carbon emissions. Data from the moorland change map suggests a decline in burning and cutting on moorland areas since the introduction of these regulations in 2021. DEFRA, supported by Natural England, has been swift to act on breaches of these regulations, and it secured two successful prosecutions last year. The low numbers of alleged offences and successful prosecutions show that compliance with the regulations is high and that stakeholders have been receptive.

However, burning can be the right tool in the mitigation and management of heather in certain circumstances. These regulations were designed to strike the right balance between protecting our habitats from harm and ensuring that our landowners and land managers have the right tools available to better protect, restore and manage heather moorland. We also need to be mindful of wildfire mitigation, human safety, conservation, and the management of our natural environment. Burning can be necessary if the specified vegetation cannot be managed through mechanical means of preventing heather growth, given the topography of the moorland. A range of measures, including burning, must be available, and the regulations give land managers the option to seek an exemption.

I want to go deeper into the regulations. They are a means to better enhance blanket bogs and to protect these valuable landscapes that we all care so deeply about. For an applicant to be granted a licence under the 2021 regulations, they must demonstrate that they have at least tried or considered alternative methods of land management and explain why measures other than burning are not possible. They must also set out how they intend to manage the land without burning in the future, and ideally facilitate peatland restoration.

May I ask the Minister how many licences have been granted? If it is truly an act of last resort, it would be interesting to know those figures, given that the number of burns on sites of special scientific interest and protected landscapes continues to be high, to determine whether the regulations are protecting and meeting the needs of those areas.

The regulations relate specifically to SSSIs, with the additional protection measures that have been put in place. The majority of licence applications under the 2021 regulations are for the purpose of reducing the risk of wildfires. With regard to the specific detail, I am more than happy to write to the hon. Lady about the number of applications received, although not all are progressed to the grant of a licence. I am sure that she will agree that having the tools available to mitigate the risks is crucial to the protection of our landscape, habitat and communities. As she rightly pointed out, I live in a constituency with moorland, where there was a fire several years ago right up to the boundaries of Ilkley, so I know that it is important that all means of managing habitat are available.

DEFRA funds a training programme designed to consolidate knowledge, skills and understanding of vegetation fires, including wildfire incidence and prescribed fire operations. The aim is to support landowners and land managers to manage their land in a way that reduces the risk from wildfire, with the expectation that that will reduce the need to burn for such a purpose. Since the development of the 2021 regulations, more than 1,000 Lantra-accredited training modules have been completed by public and private land managers.

Restoring peatlands to a favourable condition will go a long way towards reducing the need to burn heather on land, as healthy blanket bogs pose a much lower risk of wildfire because they are wetter and have a lower fuel load. We must not forget, however—this is important—that all options are available for a land manager to explore. When heather continues to grow for many years, it comprises a heavy, woody stock, which poses its own fire risk. Therefore, with a specified burning management plan associated with many agri-environmental stewardship agreements granted via Natural England, it is important not only that those plans are adhered to, but that the relationship between Natural England and the land manager has been established, so that we can manage our peatlands as successfully as we can to reduce the risks of wildfire.

We are ramping up levels of peatland restoration through the nature for climate fund, which provides funding for the restoration of at least 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025. A restoration grant scheme delivered by Natural England has committed financially to restoring approximately 27,000 hectares of peatland. In addition, restoration is being delivered through countryside stewardship and other Government schemes. DEFRA has also committed, through the third national adaptation programme published in July 2023, to keep the case for extending protections against burning on peat under review.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, referred to flooding and peat restoration partnerships. Such partnerships have proved highly effective, and they are an example of stakeholders working together to restore peatland. In the north of England alone, almost 45,000 acres of moorland have been repaired and re-vegetated. I am aware that in the North Pennines area of outstanding national beauty, work to block agricultural grains through an agri-environmental stewardship scheme and a land manager working closely with Natural England has resulted in the North Pennines AONB peatland programme being awarded a climate change award at the County Durham environmental awards in 2015.

A Natural England evidence review of the effects of managed burning on upland peatland biodiversity, carbon and water concluded that no evidence had been identified relating specifically to the risk of burning for watercourse flow or downstream flood events. I therefore highlight that while Natural England has carried out that review, continued monitoring will take place.

I must also pick up on the visit of the hon. Lady to my constituency. I am not sure which moor she walked across, but if it was Ilkley moor—

The hon. Lady is nodding, but she might or might not be aware that Ilkley moor is owned by the local authority, Bradford Council, and that no burning has taken place for a significant number of years. The fact that she could not find any sphagnum moss on a moor that has had no burning for a significant period of time does not help the case that she is making. In my constituency, I have visited Keighley moor—it is not owned by Bradford Council but it has a management programme in place—and seen an abundance of sphagnum moss there, which is managed by various means.

On the points that the hon. Lady made specifically regarding her constituency, she will be aware of Sheffield City Council’s work to promote sustainable land management in the Peak district to reduce burning, with the aim of improving air quality in those areas. Poor air quality is the greatest environmental threat to human health, as we all agree, and the Government recognise the need to drive down air pollution and its impacts on human health and the environment. That is why we have set up two stretching new targets for fine particulate matter—the pollutant most harmful to human health—under the Environment Act 2021. Our dual target approach will ensure reductions where concentrations are highest, as well as reducing average exposure across the country by over a third by 2040 compared with 2018, making a significant contribution to improving public health.

We need to drive down emissions across all sectors to achieve our targets, and we have set out the comprehensive and wide-ranging action that we are taking to clean up our air in the environmental improvement plan, which came into effect last year. That includes improving our regulatory framework for industry to drive innovation and tackle our air quality and net zero goals hand in hand. The continued support to local authorities, including through our £883-million nitrogen dioxide programme, will certainly help with that. That has included funding for the hon. Lady’s constituency to support the delivery of the Sheffield clean air zone and other measures to tackle NO2 exceedances.

I recognise that the impacts of moorland burning on air quality are a concern to the hon. Lady, and for that reason she has brought this debate to the House, but I want to reiterate that moorland management has to consider all options, and the regulations that we brought in in 2021 have been well received by many stakeholders who engaged with that process. I think that we have reached a balance that can be well received by all. I want to allow the hon. Lady a chance to respond—

Okay. I will continue with another little point—I wanted to ensure that I was doing it all correctly in this Westminster Hall debate.

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that we are committed to exploring adding particulate matter and other air pollutant emissions from moorland practices to our national atmospheric emissions inventory. That work is currently being explored by teams at DEFRA and we will continue to look at additional evidence that is put forward. I hope that that work, as well as the 2021 regulations, provides some reassurance to the hon. Lady that the Government are taking this matter incredibly seriously, along with the £883 million that we have given to local authorities, including her own, to roll out and assist with the Sheffield clean air zone. In summary, I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for raising her concerns today.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Human Rights in Hong Kong

[Derek Twigg in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of human rights in Hong Kong.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. It is another week, and yet another debate on China and its abuses—of its citizens and beyond its territorial borders. In this Chamber and the main Chamber, we have discussed the abuses against the Tibetans, the Uyghurs and other people within the confines of China and beyond. Today I want to discuss the situation of dwindling human rights in Hong Kong.

Fortuitously, it is particularly topical to debate this motion today, during the pantomime of the trial of Jimmy Lai that continues in Hong Kong. Also today, as we speak, the Chinese Government face their universal periodic review at the United Nations. I will say more about that later.

The implementation in 2020 of the notorious national security law has led to the drastic erosion of the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong that were once greatly enjoyed under the Sino-British joint declaration. Beijing’s introduction of that draconian law is a direct attack on the “one country, two systems” framework that we have a particularly strong interest as well as a duty and obligation to make sure is being upheld. The future of human rights in Hong Kong is bleak. I want to thank Hong Kong Watch, the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, not just for the various briefings they have provided for the debate but for their ongoing sterling work in this area to highlight the injustices being done to the once democracy-loving people in Hong Kong.

I thank the hon. Member for his introduction and for securing such an important debate. He mentioned Jimmy Lai; the trial began last December, and China is treating him as a Chinese citizen even though he has dual nationality. Does the hon. Member believe that the Government should follow Labour’s idea, and appoint a special envoy for arbitrary detention for British and dual nationals held abroad? If not, what does he suggest?

I will come to Jimmy Lai. I was not aware of any policy statement that the Labour party may have made, but the particular point about Jimmy Lai is that he is not a dual national: he is a British citizen. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and I, with others, have espoused that argument in this Chamber on numerous occasions and have got absolutely nowhere with Ministers, until recently with the new Foreign Secretary, from whom, I am glad to say, we have at last had the admission that Jimmy Lai is a British citizen—end of story. As such, he is entitled to all the consulate and other protections to which any other British citizen being persecuted against all natural tenets of law is entitled. I will come back to the Jimmy Lai trial.

There is no greater symptom or expression of the oppression that is going on in Hong Kong than the mass exodus of its citizens on a daily basis. Since the introduction of the national security law in 2020, Hong Kong residents have felt the strangulation of their freedoms. As a consequence, many have chosen to leave what has been their home for decades and generations, to escape persecution under that draconian law.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech and he is a doughty campaigner on this issue. It is fair to say that those who have come over on British national overseas visas have made an extraordinary contribution to our society; for example, the Liberal Democrats are really proud of Councillor Ying Perrett, who was elected to Surrey Heath Borough Council just last year. However, for those who are already here, their children are not allowed to come here on BNO visas in the same way; they have to apply through the Chinese consulate and have to go back to Hong Kong. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a change in tone from the Foreign Secretary. Has he had any words with the Home Secretary about a change in the rules, so that the children of Hongkongers who want to be here longer term do not have to go through that rigmarole?

Without being as parochial as to mention every one of the 191,000 applications for the BNO visa route so far, this is a subject that has been raised. It was also raised in the Home Affairs Committee, which I sit on, and we had a private session with people from Hong Kong who were escaping the clutches of the Chinese Government. I am well aware, and have made representations, that we need to ensure that people who technically have not been included in that net, although it has been broadened, can be given those protections as well. The hon. Lady makes a valid point, but I cannot comment on her particular district councillor.

The mass exodus has amounted to over 500,000 residents leaving Hong Kong since the beginning of 2021. As I have said, there have been 191,000 applications for the BNO visa route. According to the Home Office, 144,500 Hongkongers have already moved to the UK, and that last figure is rising as we speak. Hong Kong’s population has therefore experienced a net loss since the introduction of the national security law and is in decline for the third year in a row. Hong Kong used to be a colony that was ever-expanding and where everybody wanted to go to have an exciting future, but it is now shrinking; it is a shadow of its former self.

Since the implementation of the NSL, Hong Kong has seen a marked decrease in various world rankings of liberty—most noticeably in Freedom House’s global freedom ranking, where it has dropped 17 places. Hong Kong has seen significant declines in the rule of law, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, with think-tanks citing China’s increasing restrictions on civil liberties as a factor. After Myanmar, Hong Kong experienced the steepest drop in such rankings. It ranked 140 out of 180 locations for international press freedoms, according to Reporters Sans Frontières, which leaves it trailing behind Colombia and Cameroon.

We have also seen the forced closure and hounding out of many civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and charities. It has been calculated that as of December 2023, no fewer than 800 such organisations had been forced to close, with over 285 people arrested—172 of whom were prosecuted for allegedly endangering national security.

In 2021, Amnesty International had to close two of its offices in Hong Kong. The Apple Daily Charitable Foundation was removed from the list of Hong Kong registered charities. The New School for Democracy, which was founded by Wang Dan, an exiled student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, has had to move to Taiwan following the implementation of the national security law. The Global Innovation Hub—a German think-tank that was expelled from China in 1997—has moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan, also citing the national security law.

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions was dissolved in 2021; the Civil Human Rights Front, a pro-democracy group that organised some of Hong Kong’s biggest protests, said it had no choice but to disband; and human rights lawyers based in Hong Kong are fleeing abroad amid China’s effort to cleanse the city of dissent. In 2021, the Progressive Teachers’ Alliance, Hong Kong’s largest teaching union, was disbanded; that same year, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China was among other unions dissolved amid national security fears; and recently the 4 June vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre has been banned.

Press outlets have also been closed down, and not just Apple Daily—Jimmy Lai’s paper, which we hear so much about—and its sister publication, Next Magazine: Stand News closed after being raided by police, and senior staff were arrested; Citizen News was forced to shut down amid the Government crackdown; and FactWire, an investigative news outlet, closed down, with its leaders citing safety concerns for staff.

Many of the guardians of free speech in Hong Kong have been arrested, prosecuted and jailed, if they were not able to flee. We particularly think of those, like Jimmy Lai, who stayed and made an honourable and brave stand to face up to the intolerance. That led to the prosecution that is going on now—the biggest pantomime in the far east.

Before 2019, the number of political prisoners went from nought to 1,775. Hong Kong now has one of the fastest growing political prisoner populations in the world, rivalling authoritarian states such as Cuba, Myanmar and Belarus. Further, Hong Kong has the highest number of female political prisoners in the world, at approximately 1,347. Many famous people have been incarcerated along with Jimmy Lai. They are, undoubtedly and without dispute, political prisoners in a place that used to boast of freedom of speech, democracy and all the liberties that we in this country take for granted.

This is possibly the most important part of the many aspects of the destruction of freedom and liberty in Hong Kong: the absence of a free and fair court system. It shows why Jimmy Lai’s case is so important, as the one that we can hear about most easily in this country when there are so many hundreds of others. Does the hon. Gentleman share my frustration that, after all this time, seeing what we can now see about what the court system has come to in Hong Kong, there are still retired British judges operating in that jurisdiction?

I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point entirely. He has done so much through the all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong to flag up the outrages going on there. On the British judges who have been brought up, and have trained and practised in one of the most respected legal domains in the world and who have then gone out to Hong Kong for semi-retirement jobs: that they can continue to practise in a place that has so blatantly snuffed out all the basic tenets of international law and freedoms that we all take for granted is extraordinary. If they have not been banned from doing so, out of a sense of decency for their own profession and the values that they are able to practise in this country but not in Hong Kong, they should come back as a matter of urgency.

I return to the matter of the democratic process. Voting has become something of a pantomime, declining hugely with new rules that only allow for patriots-only elections—however the Chinese Communist Government may define that. The new rules led to a collapse in voter turnout to just 27.5% in 2023, in stark contrast with the pre-national security law days when that figure was typically well into the seventies.

Religious persecution has also become commonplace. There are more than 1 million followers of Taoism and more than 1 million Buddhists in the country. Yet, according to 18 pastors and religious experts interviewed by the Washington Post,

“churches have been pushed into censoring themselves and avoiding appointing pastors deemed to have political views, and at least one major church is restructuring itself in case the government freezes its assets.”

Fears around the national security law have led to widespread self-censorship by clergy in their sermons, just as it has in Tibet and Xinjiang. In Tibet, for instance, simply to possess a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is instantly punishable with a prison sentence—typically of five years. That shows absolutely extraordinary intolerance.

Businesses are in decline and leaving Hong Kong. More than 50% of Hong Kong professionals have considered leaving the city, according to one recent survey. Democracy has been snuffed out in Hong Kong and the right to oppose politically has effectively been snuffed out there too. Scrutineers of free speech and liberty have been closed down and either forced to flee Hong Kong all together or incarcerated. Press freedom has certainly been completely snuffed out, which also explains why the Hong Kong Government plan to install no fewer than 2,000 additional CCTV cameras in public places so they can spy on the population to make sure it is doing what it is told by its Chinese Communist Government masters.

The number of political prisoners has gone through the roof. For those members of the Hong Kong population who have not been able to join the mass exodus, China has killed the golden goose that used to be Hong Kong, previously a bastion of liberty, opportunity, democracy and entrepreneurialism.

I will touch on the Jimmy Lai trial, which opened on 18 December 2023. He is a British citizen, as the Government have at last acknowledged, who founded the now defunct Apple Daily—the largest pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong at the time. He is now facing three charges under Hong Kong’s Beijing-imposed National Security Law, carrying a maximum punishment of life in prison, and a charge of conspiracy to publish seditious publications.

On 2 January, Jimmy Lai pleaded not guilty to conspiring to collude with foreign forces in publishing allegedly seditious materials at his trial under Hong Kong’s national security law, after multiple delays before the trial actually started.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. Since the first group of British citizens he referred to was named, the British ex-consul general to Hong Kong has also been named in this process. Unless I have missed something, I have not heard the Foreign Office say anything about the naming of its ex-consul general in those terms. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather strange that an ex-employee of the Foreign Office, who represented it in Hong Kong, has been named in a trial, but somehow the Foreign Office has not said a word about it?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and fellow China sanctionee. I am not sure whether I should have declared that at the beginning; it is not a quite a registered interest, but it is certainly an interest that many people register these days. We remain censored for, I think, coming up to three years. I agree absolutely with my right hon. Friend, because this trial has gone beyond just Jimmy Lai, as I will mention. There are other people mentioned who are closer to home physically.

The prosecution rapidly named several foreign politicians and human rights activists, including the former consul general mentioned by my right hon. Friend, with whom Mr Lai had been in contact in recent years, and showed headshots of them. Among them are Hong Kong Watch co-founder and chief executive, Benedict Rogers, and the executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China—IPAC—Luke de Pulford, both of whom I call friends. They have done so much for the cause of liberty for those people within China.

Also named are the US consul general to Hong Kong, Ambassador James Cunningham, who chairs the board of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong; Bill Browder, the human rights campaigner, with whom we are all familiar as the pioneer of the introduction of Magnitsky sanctions worldwide; the former member of the Japanese Parliament, Shiori Kanno; and the former British consul general, as my right hon. Friend mentioned.

I want to add my admiration for all those who have been sanctioned, including the hon. Member and other Members of this House, because they choose to speak out; we ask ourselves what more we can do so that we can join that list. Does it not stick in the hon. Member’s throat that the Chief Executive, John Lee, has yet to be sanctioned by this Government in any way? Bill Browder himself has called for Magnitsky-style sanctions on him. Is this not the time?

The hon. Lady is leaping ahead. If she will exercise a little patience, I will come to endorse entirely that point, and beef it up a bit.

In response to those being named in the trial, six patrons of Hong Kong Watch—including other fellow sanctionees Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws and Lord Alton of Liverpool—wrote to the Foreign Secretary, urging him to take action, and calling on the UK Government to implement Magnitsky-style sanctions on the Hong Kong Chief Executive, John Lee, including asset freezes and a travel ban; the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) was very prescient. To quote Lord Alton,

“It is simply an assertion of Chinese Communist Party authoritarianism. It makes a mockery of the rule of law. The only conspiracy is that which is being organised by opponents of justice, democracy and human rights. This show trial should be ended forthwith, and the UK Government should say so loud and clear.”

To add to that, the Minister will know that two British citizens are named conspirators with Jimmy Lai on his third charge of colluding with foreign forces to undermine national security. Those citizens are Bill Browder and Luke de Pulford. To my knowledge, this is the first time that foreign citizens have been formally connected to a national security law offence in Hong Kong. Legal advice that I have seen is that this means the prosecution in Jimmy Lai’s case wish to make those British nationals criminally culpable. That being the case, why has the UK not said anything about it yet? Perhaps when she comes to respond, the Minister can specifically address that point.

I have several asks of the Government, as put forward by some of those who have briefed us. First, we call on the Government to continue to reaffirm their support for Jimmy Lai and urge the Prime Minister to call for Jimmy Lai’s immediate and unconditional release. It would be nice for the Prime Minister to say that loudly and openly in reference specifically to Jimmy Lai. Secondly, the UK Government should swiftly issue a strong statement in response to the Hong Kong Government’s targeting those three British citizens—Benedict Rogers, Luke de Pulford and Bill Browder—during the trial. Thirdly, the UK Government should implement Magnitsky-style targeted sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, including asset freezes and a travel ban to protect Hongkongers in Britain and around the world. Fourthly, the British Government should urge like-minded Governments to specifically mention the case of Jimmy Lai in their recommendations to China at today’s periodic review.

There has been another outrage that completely undermines all the principles of international law involving those who have fled to the UK for safe haven from Hong Kong: the use of bounties on pro-democracy activists—a particular affront to international law. On 14 December 2023, the Hong Kong Government issued arrest warrants for five exiled Hong Kongers who now live and advocate for democracy in the US or the UK, with bounties of 1 million Hong Kong dollars. Among those five is 33-year-old Simon Cheng, who founded Hongkongers in Britain, the largest UK-wide Hong Kong diaspora organisation. He is charged with allegedly inciting secession and collusion between August 2020 and June 2022. Those five arrest warrants followed the arrest warrants and bounties issued for eight overseas Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in July 2023. Those warrants were condemned by Hong Kong Watch, as were the many instances of the Hong Kong Government targeting their families and colleagues in Hong Kong. They also target families beyond the borders of China and Hong Kong, which is particularly chilling. We have seen examples where they freely intimidate families of those people who have escaped from Hong Kong, even on the streets of the United Kingdom.

In response to the issuance of the arrest warrants and bounties in December 2023, the Foreign Secretary said:

“I have instructed officials in Hong Kong, Beijing and London to raise this issue as a matter of urgency with the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.

We will not tolerate any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK. This is a threat to our democracy and fundamental human rights.”

Hear, hear! I entirely welcome those words, but what is being done about it? The Chinese understand only the threat of actions with consequences, and that is the problem. Tough words do not usually cut the mustard with China, unless there is a reasonable expectation that those tough words will lead to consequences, and we need to see consequences.

I again have some asks of the British Government. Following the welcome statements that I have just quoted, the British Government should press the Hong Kong authorities to withdraw immediately the 13 arrest warrants with bounties on Hongkongers in the UK, the US and Australia. Secondly, will the Government introduce measures to protect the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong activists in exile, particularly those who have been granted asylum and have faced past and current threats from Beijing? Thirdly, will the Government urge like-minded Governments to suspend the remaining extradition treaties between democracies and the Hong Kong and Chinese Governments, and work towards co-ordinating an Interpol early warning system to protect Hongkongers and other dissidents abroad who may fall within the tentacles of the Chinese authorities? Fourthly, will the British Government urge like-minded Governments to raise these arrest warrants and bounties again at the periodic review, which is happening today?

Again, we have seen no sign of sanctions against any Hong Kong officials, while seven parliamentary colleagues, including myself and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, remain sanctioned. We now hear that the Foreign Secretary wants to visit Hong Kong. The last Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), went to China and took up the case of Jimmy Lai, and the case of those of us who are sanctioned, but I am afraid came back with nothing. So quite why the new Foreign Secretary thinks that he wants to go to China—and presumably will take up the case again—and can come back with something, I do not know. Surely there are other platforms available to him, where he can make those calls on China without having to go and be seen to be paying court to the Chinese Communist Government in Beijing.

The Hong Kong Government’s Security Bureau recently put forward article 23 of the Basic Law to be discussed by the Legislative Council within its 2024 session. It is highly likely that that locally legislated national security provision will be passed and implemented by the end of this year. Article 23 aims to

“prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.”

Since the enactment of the Hong Kong national security law, which was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China in 2020, these draconian laws have devastated the civil society and caused widespread chilling effects among the people of Hong Kong. This will only make that worse and embed it in the tyranny that is now engulfing Hong Kong.

I will briefly touch on the question of the financial pressures that the Chinese Government are bringing on Hongkongers. The Mandatory Provident Fund is a compulsory retirement savings scheme for the people of Hong Kong. For most Hongkongers it is their main pension pot, as the state pension is very low. Hongkongers can withdraw their entire MPF savings only if they make a declaration that they have departed Hong Kong permanently, with no intention of returning.

However, the Mandatory Provident Fund Authority, which governs the MPF, stated in 2021 that, because the BNO—or British national overseas—passport was no longer recognised as a valid travel document, those trying to withdraw MPF funds early could not use the BNO passport as proof of identity. As a result, BNO visa holders who leave Hong Kong continue to be denied access to their pension savings.

That is a punitive action by the Hong Kong Government, and Hong Kong Watch estimates that Hongkongers who fled to the UK on the BNO visa are being denied access to some £2.2 billion in savings. HSBC, headquartered in London, holds around 30% of the total value of all MPF schemes, and it is estimated that HSBC is currently withholding £660 million in savings from Hongkongers with BNO status who now live in the UK.

That is an official status recognised by the UK Government for those legitimately coming to seek safe refuge in the UK, and a company that is headquartered in the UK, and is subject to UK corporate and other laws, is withholding money from its rightful pensioners. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation needs to decide which side it is on—freedom and liberty and the international rule of law, or kowtowing to the tyrants who now have their footprints all over Hong Kong. Therefore, financial measures are just another way that the Chinese Communist Government are imprinting their tyranny on Hong Kong.

You will be relieved to hear that I have almost come to an end, Mr Twigg, but I have just some other examples of where we really must stand up to what the Chinese Government are doing. Yesterday, Ms Choi Yuk-lin, the Secretary for Education in Hong Kong, began her official visit to the United Kingdom and Finland. That official trip comes despite the UK Government’s acknowledgment that Hong Kong’s national security law, passed in 2020, is a direct violation of the 1984 Sino-British joint declarations—fine for the words, but again, where are the consequences?

Ms Choi Yuk-lin is known for her public support of the national security law. She has consistently asserted that post-secondary education institutions, including their staff and students, are bound by the law. However, under her watch the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union—Hong Kong’s largest teachers’ union, with more than 95,000 members and representing 90% of the profession—was disbanded in 2021 after coming under fire in the Chinese state media. Mark Sabah, the director of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, said:

“This is yet another example of the British Government seemingly ignoring all the violations of the Sino-British Declaration and all the attacks on free speech in Hong Kong and inviting a Hong Kong Government official to the UK, while a British citizen, Jimmy Lai, still sits in jail on spurious National Security Law charges”

and we remain sanctioned. He went on to say:

“There is no chance that Ms Choi is here to support Hong Kong students when she is personally responsible for tearing down academic freedom in Hong Kong across schools and university Campuses.”

She is not the first representative of the Chinese Government to be welcomed here in London, I am afraid, with the acquiescence of Ministers. I will not embarrass the Minister responding today by mentioning another photo opportunity, which she was involved with, by a particularly dodgy member of the Chinese Government responsible effectively for kidnapping the protesters and dissidents and taking them back to China to face unfair trials.

As we speak and as I have said, the universal periodic review of China is happening. However, the point is, will China take any notice? This is the first time it has happened since 2018. It is a unique process at the United Nations, whereby every single member state is scrutinised for its human rights record every four to five years. China’s last UPR was in 2018 and, as we know, a lot has happened since then; the problem is that it is not good. Since the last UPR, no region of the People’s Republic of China has changed more dramatically, significantly or rapidly for the worse than Hong Kong. Since 2018, it has transformed from one of Asia’s most open societies to one of its most repressive police states. It has gone from having a legislature with a significant number of elected pro-democracy members to a place where many of those legislators are now in jail; the entire pro-democracy camp is completely excluded from contesting any elections and both the legislature and the district councils are filled with pro-Beijing quislings, making them nothing more than puppet rubber stamps that are subsidiaries of the National People’s Congress. We have had the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims since the last review. We have had the huge roll-out of surveillance technology since the last review. It has not responded to the criticisms in 2018 on women’s rights, where China failed to stem the trafficking of women and girls, including those from neighbouring countries. There has been a crackdown on freedom of expression, as we have heard. China received 346 recommendations from 150 countries back in 2018. It accepted 284 of them, but questionably many were just noted as accepted and already implemented—of course they were not.

Last week, the Minister responding today sent all colleagues a letter marked, “Dear colleague…A Year in Sanctions”. She started by saying:

“This Government has broken new ground on sanctions in 2023, continuing to lead the international effort to ratchet up pressure on Putin’s war machine, whilst deploying the UK’s autonomous powers in response to serious human rights violations and abuses, cyber attacks and serious corruption across the world.”

It is a good record. It talks about Russia; it talks about sanctions for metals and diamonds and for oil; it talks about reconstruction efforts in Ukraine and who will pay for them. It talks about Hamas, Iran and cyber. Nowhere in this four-page letter does it mention the subject of China or Hong Kong or any possibility of sanctions against that country.

Many petitions to this place have been responded to by the Government. On 7 June 2021, there was a petition to sanction Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights violations, to which the official Government response was:

“We carefully consider sanctions designations. It is not appropriate to speculate who may be designated in the future or we risk reducing the impact of the designations.”

In January 2022, there was a petition urging Hong Kong to release all political prisoners. The Government responded:

“As a co-signatory to the Joint Declaration, we will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their freedoms, and to hold China to their international obligations.”

How exactly? In August 2023 there was a petition to sanction individuals responsible for Sino-British joint declaration breaches in Hong Kong. The response sounds familiar:

“We keep all sanctions designations under close and regular review. We do not speculate about future sanctions designations, as to do so could reduce their impact.”

The problem is: there are no consequences. I started my rather too lengthy words speaking about our particular interest and obligation to defend the liberties and lives of the people in Hong Kong that we once had responsibility for directly. We have sanctioned people from across the world, most notably Russia, for their blatant warmongering, corruption and other issues. All of the crimes against humanity, the international rule of law, freedom, liberty and democracy are being waged in Hong Kong as we speak, yet not a single person in the Chinese Government in Hong Kong has been subject to any sanction by the Government.

Does my hon. Friend not also find it peculiar that Britain, which is the co-signatory of the agreement, has not sanctioned any of the officials responsible for the national security law, which he referred to, whereas the United States, which is not a signatory and has no historical link to Hong Kong, has sanctioned 10 of the most senior people? Does that not seem peculiar?

It is not just peculiar; it is outrageous. We have good examples of where the States has not only talked tough but followed it through with consequences and I think gets greater respect from the Chinese authorities because it is likely to do something about it. There is no excuse for us not taking an equally robust stance against the Chinese Communist party Government if we share those values and ideals of liberty, democracy and freedom that those brave people in Hong Kong have had to stand up for in the most outrageous of circumstances.

The future of human rights in Hong Kong is not bright. We have a duty not just to point that out, but to make it clear to China that if they do not get their act together there will be consequences, and the British Government will make sure that they are made to pay and are called out for this outrageous intimidation of the citizens of Hong Kong and their flouting of the international legal obligations that we all take for granted.

Order. If Members keep their speeches to around seven and a half or eight minutes we will get everybody in.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I will certainly pay attention to your time limit. So much has already been said. In the past that would not stop us repeating it, but I will underline it rather than repeat it. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has made an excellent contribution.

I want to make two or three points. I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. It seems rather depressing that we have been here so many times in this Chamber and the main Chamber to debate this subject. It is worth underlining my hon. Friend’s point that in all the debates until today we have struggled to get the British Government to recognise that Jimmy Lai is a British citizen. He has never held a Chinese passport and arrived in Hong Kong as a minor. The Chinese Government shifted its policy around and claimed that he held dual nationality. Up until the last two or three weeks, the British Government went along with the Chinese charade of calling him a dual citizen. He has never been a dual citizen. He was proud of his British passport. He stayed in Hong Kong rather than fleeing, proud, as he said, that he would have the protections of his British passport. Sadly, he was badly let down. I just want to underline what my hon. Friend said on that.

I want to talk about the human rights abuses in Hong Kong, particularly what has happened in the last few weeks. The naming of British citizens as co-conspirators marks the first time that the Hong Kong authorities have sought to incriminate foreign nationals under the national security law. I intervened on that, but it is worth stressing again. I simply cannot understand why, after the former British consul general was named, the Foreign Office has said nothing about this individual, nor has it said to China that it had no right to do that, as he was going about his lawful business as a diplomat. Nothing has been said by the Foreign Office. I have even asked the Foreign Secretary to come out and say something strong in defence of the employee—the consul general—but we have had no statement or attack on the Chinese Government about him being named in this case. I find that astonishing. I urge the Minister to make it clear now that the Chinese Government have no right to do as they have.

The second point relates to the naming of those who have worked with us, from Luke de Pulford, Benedict Rogers, IPAC Hong Kong and the Japanese politician Shiori Yamao to Bill Browder, who has never had any contact with Jimmy Lai, so that is astonishing. I will not go into the details, as I am sure that will come out later on. The reality is that these people have been named on the basis of spurious links, and that is a problem. Thanks to The Washington Post, we know now that Andy Li, one of the individuals who is to give testimony—against Jimmy Lai, sadly—did voluntary work for IPAC on building a website. The Washington Post has been very clear about his mistreatment in Shenzhen prison, including credible allegations of torture. We can therefore understand that what he may or will say should almost certainly be expunged, for the simple reason that he was under duress.

First, I apologise for not being present at the beginning, Mr Twigg. As I explained to you, I was paying tribute to Tony Lloyd in the main Chamber and I could not get here in time.

Jimmy Lai is not just a high-profile person, but a high-profile Roman Catholic. His religion and beliefs are important to him. Whenever there are attacks on Jimmy Lai, there are also attacks on his religious belief, as with Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we cannot ignore the suppression of religious freedom in Hong Kong?

I completely agree. The hon. Gentleman knows well that the Chinese Government have been oppressive of Christian Churches and the Falun Gong, and we know what is going on with the genocide among the Uyghur, a Muslim Turkic group. All of this is dangerous. I come back to the simple question that I put to the Catholic Church: what is its arrangement with the Chinese Government, which it has refused to publish, and why, as a senior Christian Church, did it not offer more protections to the other Christian Churches? That is a big question, which the Vatican could answer by publishing its agreement, which it refuses to do.

I know that the Minister will not want to speculate about sanctions. I simply note that the US Government, who have no real historical links with Hong Kong, have sanctioned a significant number of people, whereas the reality is that we have sanctioned nobody in Hong Kong—none of the officials who we know have trashed the Sino-British agreement and upturned the whole idea of democracy, and are persecuting peaceful democracy campaigners. All that, yet there are still no sanctions in place for any of the officials who exercised that power and continue to do so.

I now wish to ask a question of the Minister. I say this very carefully: I have heard that the UK Government may be going further backwards on this matter, and that it may now be British Government policy that the Foreign Office of the UK Government has taken the decision neither to nominate nor to further sanction any Chinese officials. I will be grateful if the Minister, from the Dispatch Box, makes it very clear whether that is correct. Have we now an official policy that there will be no further pressure on China over sanctions of officials, or is that untrue and incorrect? I would be grateful if she made that very clear to us all.

The other element, which is wholly relevant and a real problem, is whether the Government have made representations with regard to the mistreatment of the witnesses in this case, leading also to torture. Have they made any representations at all about the way they have been treated, other than the statement made by the Minister for Security with regard to the naming of British citizens?

Finally, will the Minister state clearly that, if Interpol came under pressure from the Chinese Government to do something under Interpol’s rules in relation to the British citizens China has named—to require their presence, or to require the British Government or others to secure them themselves pending any expedition arrangements, or to do whatever China wishes—the British Government would refuse any co-operation whatsoever with Interpol, because those citizens were named incorrectly? I would like that to be clear, because many of them are now worried that if the British Government do not make that clear, here and now, they may face other pressures that would be insurmountable and unsupportable.

In line with what you said, Mr Twigg, I will come to a close and let others speak. I want to say one thing very clearly: we have banged on and on about the failure in Hong Kong, the terrible abuses, and the British judges now working under the ridiculous farrago of the national security law but pretending that common law somehow still rules. Other countries have done far more to make things clear. America has even issued a booklet to all its businesses to say that, now that the national security law is here, the English common law that now exists in Hong Kong will no longer protect them in any way. We have done nothing on that. I have urged the Government to tell British businesses to be very careful when they do business through Hong Kong, but we have not done that yet. I would be grateful if the Government did that now, after all the arbitrary detentions and the final attempt to get Jimmy Lai named as a British citizen, which at last we have done.

This is a terrible problem. China is determined to take on the rest of the democratic world. It believes its form of government and its abuses are the right way to run a country. It is now in league with North Korea, Russia, and Iran. We see its hand and those of its allies undermining democracy and peace all over the world now. If we do not face up to that and recognise that it is just the beginning of what we will have to deal with, that will be an abject failure of British foreign policy.

I will be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), not only on securing this debate, but on his powerful and excellent speech, which brought home everything that needs to be said about this issue. I will not repeat it.

My hon. Friend mentioned that 182,000 or so Hongkongers have come to the UK under the BNO visa. Over the last few years, some 4,000 have come to Sutton, because it is a borough open to communities fleeing either democracy-related oppression or conflict. For example, some 25 or 30 years ago, Tamils made their home in south-west London because of the civil war in Sri Lanka. These people came to Sutton because of the schools and because it is a great place to bring up families—being half Burmese, I always talk about the Asian equation: good family networks, great education and hard work bring the best chance of prosperity—but also because there is a sense of community.

I pay tribute to Richard Choi, who drove a lot of that movement. He surveyed many Hongkongers deciding to go to London and asked them about what they wanted, where they were going to settle, and what kind of housing, schools and businesses they wanted. I have been watching Sutton Bei Bei on YouTube, an influencer who talks about the wi-fi speeds in Sutton flats, parks, and those kinds of things. They buy their food from SMart Oriental, a supermarket at the top of the high street, and eat at a business run by a new Hongkonger at the bottom of the high street. However, it is not about all those fantastic things. It is about the contrast between what they find in the UK and what they have just left in Hong Kong.

On 5 August 2023, the Hongkongers got together in Sutton library for a children’s workshop named after “Sheep Village”, a series of books. The five authors of those books were jailed in 2022 for 19 months each. They were really worried at the time, because of social media posts by former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who was making pointed comments from the other side of the world. We did not take photos, out of respect for their safety, but the fact that that event was allowed to go ahead quite happily that day for those children and their families; the fact that I could speak to the Minister, to the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), and to the Minister for Security; and the fact that the Hongkongers could speak to their democratic representatives—all these things were very important. I brought some of the Hongkongers here for a tour, and as we got close to the doors of the Public Gallery, which were open to the Chamber, one of the more elderly members of the group was in tears because the fact that he was so close to the Dispatch Box watching the proceedings of this open democracy, had had a tour from his Member of Parliament and could have an open exchange with him was in such contrast to what he had seen his homeland descend into.

It is really important that we continue to speak about this. This year is the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Sino-British declaration. That is a lifetime ago for some people, although not for me. It came into effect in 1997, so there are still 33 years to go, but it is clear that it is just not lasting the distance, following the adoption of the national security law in June 2020 by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. The declaration made it clear that the Hongkongers’ high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms at that time would remain unchanged for 50 years, but that has just not happened. The national security law been used as a tool to curtail freedoms and punish dissent rather than to keep public order, as is its stated intention. That means that, for all the stories we have heard—the alternative voices, whether they are in the media, like Jimmy Lai, or the Hong Kong 47—all the sham trials are curtailing democracy and silencing voices. We have heard about the economic, social and population impact on Hong Kong. What is left is basically conformity, and I suppose, in post-cultural revolution China, conformity is effectively all they have.

I am glad that the trial of Jimmy Lai has rightly caught the attention of special rapporteurs of the special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, because it is important that we mobilise the international community. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is absolutely right that it is really important that we lead on this, as the UK Government and UK parliamentarians with a special responsibility and duty of care, given our past relationship with Hong Kong.

I want to pay tribute to someone who is leading on this. We have mentioned several advocates, but I make special mention of Hong Kong Watch and of Benedict Rogers in particular. It was no surprise to me when Benedict Rogers co-founded Hong Kong Watch. We have known each other a long time. I travelled to Burma with him—as I said, I am half-Burmese—and having seen the work he did there, I am not surprised that he has brought the same zeal, dedication and moral outrage to the crusade and campaign on Hong Kong. I absolutely condemn what he has had to suffer, with the attempt to traduce his reputation here in the UK. Whether it is harassing his neighbours and his family or targeting him at a previous Conservative party conference, as we have heard, such things should not be happening on UK streets in this country. We absolutely have to act.

The Minister will rightly say what the Government have done about Hong Kong. Members have asked, as I will, about what the Government should be doing. The fact that the Government extended the UK’s arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong soon after the imposition of the national security law, that they suspended the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong, that they introduced a new immigration path for BNO passport holders to make the UK, including Sutton, their home, and that the Foreign Secretary brought in the Chinese ambassador in the formal diplomatic démarche on 13 July are all to be welcomed. But we will always take a slightly different approach from the US, because we have a different relationship with China in relation to trade. Our soft-diplomacy approach to China is important, but we have heard why we must act now and look at sanctions. I also make a plea for us to call out the mandatory provident fund issue, because the Hongkongers who have settled here need to be able to settle themselves economically as well.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and in particular to have heard the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), which I can only describe as statesmanlike.

To the casual observer, freedom of religion or belief may appear to be the one freedom still standing in Hong Kong. Although Hongkongers are no longer free to protest or publish what they wish to in the media or online, as basic freedoms of expression, association, assembly and the press have been stripped away, they are at least still free to go to church. In mainland China, the sinicization of religion means that religion must align with the Communist party’s values. That has led to places of worship being shut down, destroyed or desecrated, crosses being destroyed, Chinese Communist party propaganda banners being placed alongside religious imagery, surveillance cameras being placed at the altar, under-18s being prohibited from going to places of worship at all, and clergy being arrested and jailed. In Hong Kong, at least, places of worship are still open.

Beneath the surface, however, it is clear that freedom of religion or belief is under threat—indeed, in its true sense, is already being stealthily restricted. As Ambassador Brownback and I state in a foreword to a recent report, “‘Sell Out My Soul’: The Impending Threats to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Hong Kong”,

“Freedom of religion or belief is about so much more than simply the right to go to a place of worship once a week…It is, as expressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a fully-fledged expression of conscience.

Interpreted in this way, this basic and fundamental human right is clearly under increasing and intensifying threat in Hong Kong”.

One of the examples of where attacks on FORB are unfolding in Hong Kong is education. Nearly 60% of Government-funded schools in Hong Kong are Church run, and they are now under the control of Beijing, which promotes its propaganda in the curriculum. Does the hon. Lady agree that believers can practise their faith only in name rather than in essence? Beijing controls religious freedom in Hong Kong by exerting total control over Churches, without closing them. That is the reality in Hong Kong.

It is indeed, and if time permits I will go into more detail on that point.

I join others in paying tribute to Ben Rogers, who ably researched and drafted the “Sell Out My Soul” report. In a sense, it is inevitable that freedom or religion or belief in Hong Kong has been undermined, for two reasons. First, when freedom itself is dismantled, sooner or later religious freedom is impacted. All the basic rights set out in the universal declaration of human rights are interlinked and interdependent. We cannot have freedom of religion or belief without the freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and elsewhere I have argued that FORB is fundamental to all those freedoms. Secondly, like any autocratic regime, the CCP has always been inherently hostile to religion and has sought over the years to eradicate, suppress, control or co-opt religion, so it was inevitable that, as it exerted greater direct control over Hong Kong, undermining the high degree of autonomy set out in the one country, two systems principle, freedom of religion or belief would come under increasing pressure.

The campaign against religious freedom in Hong Kong is one of slow, subtle suffocation rather than sudden, dramatic crackdown. However, although the threats may be subtle, for those who have eyes to see, they are clear. Yes, people can still go to places of worship and access religious literature, but since the introduction of the draconian national security law in July 2020 and the climate of fear surrounding it, with almost all of Hong Kong’s other basic civil liberties—freedom of expression, association, assembly and so on—having been dismantled, inevitably there is a knock-on impact on religious freedom. It has created a chill factor, leading believers to keep quiet about their faith in public, and religious leaders themselves to make compromises, including widespread self-censorship by clergy in their sermons.

I will give some examples. In August 2020, Cardinal John Tong, apostolic administrator of the Hong Kong Catholic diocese at the time, instructed all Catholic priests to “watch your language” when preaching and to avoid “political” issues. A Protestant pastor, who has now left Hong Kong, claims that his church has removed all his sermons from the past 30 years from its website. Many churches no longer share sermons online. At least three prominent pastors have been arrested in Hong Kong. The most well-known case was the arrest of Hong Kong’s 91-year-old bishop emeritus, Cardinal Joseph Zen, in May 2022. Then there was Pastor Garry Pang, convicted of sedition and sentenced to a year in jail, and Pastor Alan Keung Ka-wai, arrested in January last year for producing and selling a book that was allegedly seditious. Arguably, all those cases relate to political rather than religious activities, but those individuals were acting according to their consciences, informed and inspired by their faith.

We see religious freedom threatened in other ways. Charity laws have been tightened. The US State Department’s 2022 report on international religious freedom noted:

“Religious groups may register as a society, a tax-exempt organization, or both”.

However, with reference to organisations seeking tax exemption, it added:

“Government tax regulations provide that any group, including religious groups, involved in activities deemed to endanger national security would not be recognized as a charitable organization.”

The message is clear.

An issue of even more concern is how church-run schools in the education sector are a particular target for the Chinese Communist party’s stealthy undermining of religious freedom. As one religious scholar observed:

“The CCP knows very well that in order to control a state, the first step is to control the mind[s] of young children.”

In Hong Kong, only a small percentage of Government-funded schools are actually Government run. As we have heard, the majority—at least 60%—are run by religious groups. Under the Basic Law, those schools must adhere to a curriculum that ensures that the CCP’s ideological narratives feature prominently. The crackdown on freedom of expression resulting from the national security law began to impact Hong Kong’s church-run schools almost immediately. In August 2020, the Hong Kong Catholic diocese issued a letter to the principals of all Catholic primary and secondary schools, urging them to enhance students’ awareness of the new national security legislation and the national anthem law, and cultivate “correct values” on national identity.

I thank you, Mr Twigg, and the Minister for understanding that I will have to leave early to attend a Holocaust Memorial Day event in Parliament. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, and I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing the debate and for the way in which he opened it. I also want to put on record my appreciation of Hong Kong Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Journalists and all those who do so much to defend human rights and democracy in Hong Kong under enormous pressure.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that today’s debate has united Members on both sides of the House in support of the people of Hong Kong, their democratic institutions and their fundamental human rights. They have enjoyed these human rights for years: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to strike, the freedom to travel, the freedom of association and, as we have just heard from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce)—and, indeed, as we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—freedom of religion or belief.

Everyone who has spoken has noted how the 1984 Sino-British declaration promised the people of Hong Kong that they would

“enjoy a high degree of autonomy”

for 50 years after the handover to China. They were also told that their lifestyle, rights and freedoms—everything they enjoyed—would remain intact and unchanged for half a century after 1997. We are little more than halfway through the 50 years that were guaranteed, but those basic freedoms and those human rights that they were assured of have become a distant memory. Lord Patten’s famously optimistic line was:

“Now, Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong.”

Sadly, that could not be further from the truth.

Although we recognise that 1997 was an important step in global decolonisation, we deeply regret that, contrary to what was promised to the people of Hong Kong in a legally binding international agreement, the Chinese Communist party has completely reneged on its end of the deal. The steady erosion of personal and political freedoms has now become a full-on assault, as the Beijing Government, through the passage of the insidious national security law, embarks on a draconian programme of assimilation and integration of Hong Kong into the Chinese mainstream. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, that completely dismantles, once and for all, the notion of there being one country, two systems.

We have heard that national security laws were passed in June 2020 in response to huge pro-democracy protests. That crackdown has led to a mass exodus of people. Although those laws are specifically designed to criminalise secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign organisations, they have effectively stripped away freedom of expression and peaceful protest, and extinguished Hong Kong’s independent free press, turning Hong Kong, in just four years, from being one of the most open cities in Asia to one of the most repressive.

Those national security laws are designed to create doubt and ambiguity in the minds of the people as to whether what they are doing—indeed, what they have always done—could now be considered a criminal act. The only people who know what the law actually means are the people who make it, and there is a deliberate fug of ambiguity and confusion about what actually constitutes an offence that would endanger national security. That fug of ambiguity has had the desired effect because, as we have heard today, dozens of civil society organisations and trade unions, as well as the independent press, disbanded and shut down, for fear of falling foul of a law that they simply do not understand.

Every speaker today has talked about the most high-profile victim of these national security laws, Jimmy Lai. The 76-year-old UK national is a citizen standing trial on three charges under these laws and faces a further charge of conspiracy to publish seditious literature. Since his arrest in 2020, Mr Lai, a strident and fearless pro-democracy activist, has been held in solitary confinement and has now spent more than 1,200 days in prison. This political show trial of a long-time critic of the Chinese Communist party started early last month, and he faces life imprisonment. We must prepare ourselves, because it is a question of when, not if, he is found guilty. That is because, not surprisingly, there is a 100% conviction rate under the national security laws. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who is no longer in his place, for raising the issue of former UK judges giving legitimacy to such a repressive regime and a system that has no legitimacy.

Amnesty International’s deputy regional director, Sarah Brooks, has said:

“Jimmy Lai is the most high-profile public figure prosecuted under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, and the world will be watching.”

She added:

“The prosecution of Jimmy Lai shows how Hong Kong’s repressive National Security Law is being used to stifle press freedom and crush civil society.”

She is right that the world will be watching.

The International Federation of Journalists has said that the use of these laws

“and archaic sedition legislation to silence critical and independent voices in Hong Kong must cease”,

and has called for all such charges to be dropped.

Even the United Nations has expressed deep concern about what it sees as an inextricable link between Jimmy Lai’s outspoken, pro-democracy criticism of the Chinese Government and his arrest and the show trial. It is clear that Beijing and Hong Kong are orchestrating an assault on the free press and freedom of expression. Jimmy Lai’s trial epitomises that rapid decline in the rule of law in Hong Kong.

In 2022, I described in this Chamber the situation in Hong Kong as grim. Sadly, it is even more grim today and there is little prospect of it getting better any time soon. In that debate two years ago, I and every other speaker raised the issue of the Magnitsky sanctions, asking the Government why, despite the flagrant breach of human rights law, no senior Hong Kong official had been sanctioned. That question is relevant today and I ask it again. What is the point of having the ability to sanction those who flout international law if we are not prepared to use it? If the ripping up of an international treaty, a crackdown on the free press, a curtailment of civil liberties, a full-on attack on democracy and the imprisonment and potential jailing for life of a UK national cannot bring the Government to use Magnitsky-style sanctions, the question must be: what would it take?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) not just on his work on Hong Kong but on his important work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Tibet and for highlighting the issues of freedom of religion or belief there. I must also reference my position as a founding member and ongoing patron of Hong Kong Watch and pay tribute, as many others have today, to the important work of Benedict Rogers and the team.

As I have said each time we have debated this subject in the House, the situation in Hong Kong is far removed from the liberties promised to the people of Hong Kong in the legally binding Sino-British agreement on the return of Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Back then, China was emerging as a global economic power with dreams of a more hopeful century ahead, and the enshrined rights and liberties that Hong Kong was to enjoy for a full 50 years were the bedrock upon which the territory’s success would be built. Many Hongkongers understood, with the handing back of Hong Kong, that these vital freedoms they had under British rule would continue. A vibrant free press, the right of assembly and the promise of a more democratic electoral system were all in the minds of Hongkongers as the safeguard through which they could continue living their lives much as they had before. Sadly, as hon. Members have said today, that is no longer the case. It is sobering to hear that Hong Kong, like Myanmar, has dropped down Freedom House’s list of countries in relation to freedoms across the board.

I will dig into some of those matters. The Minister has received a letter from a number of Members of Parliament. What assessment has the FCDO made of the bounty on the heads of, and the threats made against, people just carrying out their conscience here in the UK and asking questions about human rights? I have written to the Minister on that question, as have many in the House, and I look forward to her reply, both verbally and in writing when her officials have time to pull up that draft. It is important we follow each and every one of the developments on the crucial question of freedoms for Hongkongers.

The Foreign Office ought to be doing important work with the Home Office. We were all extremely concerned when we saw the attack outside the consulate in Manchester in the autumn of 2022. Following that, allegations were made against dissidents here in the UK, and now allies of Hongkongers are being attacked. What assessment has the Minister made, together with the Security Minister at the Home Office, of the important work that Whitehall should be doing across Departments?

I thank the Minister and her officials for the reply to my recent written question about BNO passport holders being denied mandatory provident funds—in effect, a pension. I am grateful to her for confirming that the matter has previously been raised with Chinese and Hong Kong officials, but has she raised it since May 2023? That is the most recent date on which she raised it, and it is quite a long time ago. Is she continuing to raise it and being relentless? This is a very long-term relationship and it is important that we do not give up.

There also remains a key need for the UK to engage with partners on the global stage to provide sanctuary for Hongkongers. Will the Minister outline what specific discussions she has had on Hong Kong with her US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and European counterparts? For those who remain in Hong Kong and for the city itself, there is more that we can do.

The case of Jimmy Lai and the questions around freedom of expression have been given a thorough going-over by the first speaker, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, and it was mentioned by all others. I was very pleased that, in today’s statement from Geneva, the key official mentioned Jimmy Lai, this time in dispatches, which I am very pleased about. Even Lord Cameron has mentioned this important case. This is a key moment because the case is before the courts. Could the Minister tell me whether the Prime Minister will now raise it? It is a matter of sending this up the hierarchical tree and, now that we seem to have won the argument with the Foreign Office and the new Foreign Secretary, it would be good if we could get the Prime Minister to mention it as part of his important foreign policy work. It was great to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) raising the case of Jimmy Lai because it would really help if many Members met his son Sebastien and continue to raise the case.

I will now conclude my remarks and give the Minister time to wind up. I want to ask the Minister for her views on some of the points raised in this debate. What assessment has the Foreign Office made of restrictions on trade union membership, including the teachers’ union? What assessment has the Foreign Office made of the particular impact on women and girls? Of the 17,000 political prisoners—a frightening number—how many are women? What issues does the Minister believe we need to be aware of in relation to those political prisoners? Finally, what is her assessment of the periodic review of human rights in relation to China, which is ongoing in Geneva right now? Does she believe that it has been a very good conversation at the UN today, and what actions will come out of the periodic review?

We are tight on time, but it would be helpful if the Minister could leave a minute or so at the end for Mr Loughton to wind up. [Interruption.] He says he is happy not to wind up, so you have a free rein, Minister.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this important debate and for his characteristically powerful and challenging speech on this issue. I welcome the contributions of all right hon. and hon. Members. I will do my best to respond in the time remaining, using the information that I have brought with me. I commit to writing in response to those issues that I am not able to cover today.

China committed to uphold the Sino-British joint declaration until at least 2047. This treaty set out many of Hong Kong’s human rights or, to use the language of the joint declaration, “rights and freedoms”. However, as colleagues have articulated so clearly and forcefully, the national security law, introduced in 2020, has irretrievably damaged Hong Kong’s promised rights and freedoms. Freedom of speech, assembly and the press have deteriorated dramatically.

When Beijing imposed this law in 2020, the authorities promised it would be used exceptionally and that it would target only a small number of criminals. Instead, the law has been applied far beyond genuine national security concerns. The Hong Kong authorities have used it to target critics across society time and again. They have prosecuted pro-democracy campaigners, journalists and community leaders. The vague provisions of the law have created a culture of self-censorship, as a number of colleagues have highlighted, restricting Hong Kong’s extraordinary vibrancy.

The high degree of autonomy promised in the joint declaration has also been compromised by an overhaul of electoral systems, which has meant that Hongkongers are no longer legitimately represented, and meaningful political opposition has been all but eliminated. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) set out how powerfully that is understood by those who have been able to come here and see what a democracy still in full flight looks like.

The Foreign Secretary has called on the Chinese authorities to repeal the national security law, and to end the prosecution of all individuals charged under it. The UK made clear our strong opposition to the national security law immediately, declaring its imposition a further breach of the joint declaration. We took robust action as soon as the national security law came into force, including by creating our bespoke visa route for British nationals overseas—an avenue for those who wish to leave the city. To date we have granted more than 184,000 visas, and that door remains open.

We suspended the UK-Hong Kong extradition treaty indefinitely, and extended to Hong Kong the arms embargo that has applied to mainland China since 1989. We continue to alert British nationals and businesses to the impact of the national security law and the risk that it poses through our travel advice and overseas business risk guidance on That is kept under close review. We always try to signpost everyone to it, so that they are fully aware of the realities.

Colleagues have reiterated today the strength of their feeling about the imposition of sanctions on those responsible for the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. I continue to listen closely to those views, as do my officials, and we will continue to consider designations under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020.

As colleagues know, I appreciate the frustration, but we do not speculate about future designations, as that could reduce their impact. However, I can confirm that we never rule out sanctions or other designations on any individual entity; I hope that reassures my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith).

I waived my right to reply, but will the Minister accept a challenge? Everything that she has said endorses just about everything that I have said, but there are no consequences. Every time we have a debate, in every petition she answers, and in every parliamentary question that she responds to, the answer is, “We are keeping it under review.” What will it take for the British Government to shift from “keeping it under review” to “We have had enough. We will sanction these Chinese individuals, just as the US and other countries have done—and we had a particular duty to do that long before now”?

I absolutely hear my hon. Friend’s point, but I will continue to reiterate that line, for very good reason. I hope that we can, as we have many times before, discuss in the Lobby the practical reasons for that. We will continue to do that, and nothing is off the table.

Jimmy Lai’s name has been raised many times today. That extraordinary prominent publisher and journalist, an incredibly brave man, is on trial accused of foreign collusion and sedition under the national security law, which we have repeatedly called to be repealed. Mr Lai has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop him peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and association. He is a British national, and the UK Government stand alongside him at this difficult time. I know that colleagues are frustrated by the Chinese refusal to accept Jimmy’s British nationality due to China’s own nationality legislation; it is not alone in that. As my hon. Friend has said, that does not stop my officials continuing to demand consular rights for Jimmy in prison. The Foreign Secretary has called on the Hong Kong authorities to end the prosecution, and to release Mr Lai. We will continue to press for that.

I am very pleased, as I am sure other Members are, about the change of heart and language on the citizenship question. What assessment has the Minister personally made of the Prime Minister’s role in this? We have won the battle with the Foreign Secretary; what about the Prime Minister?

I thank the shadow Minister for her question, but I do not speak for the Prime Minister. I think it was made clear in the Foreign Secretary’s comments a few weeks ago—he had the opportunity to meet Sebastien Lai shortly after he took up his post—that our commitment and continuing resolve will continue.

On the ongoing trial, as Members have mentioned, British and other foreign nationals have been named in the prosecution. That is unacceptable, and we have made clear to the Chinese authorities, through officials in the UK, our concern that British nationals, including the former British consul-general to Hong Kong, Andrew Heyn, have been named in the prosecution. British nationals named—they have been highlighted already—include Lord Alton, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), Ben Rogers, Luke de Pulford, Bill Browder and Andy Heyn; they have all been listed in various forms. I recently met a number of those people, who are bravely speaking out on freedom of speech and human rights concerns, despite threats against them. We continue to work with them and support them. In my private conversations with them, I continue to share the message about the support that the UK Government can provide, as they may need it.

Since the trial began, our diplomats in Hong Kong have attended Mr Lai’s court proceedings daily, and will continue to do so. As noted in our latest six-monthly report, Hong Kong’s legal and judicial systems are at a critical juncture. The courts are having to adjudicate on an opaque law that we think should be repealed, and which places the authority of the Chief Executive above that of the courts on security matters. Hong Kong’s national security trials are dominating current perceptions of Hong Kong. They are damaging the city’s international reputation and status as a financial centre. Thousands who were arrested during the protests in 2019 are still waiting to learn if they will face trial. We urge the authorities to provide certainty to those individuals.

Last year, we saw a new pattern of behaviour emerging: arrest warrants were issued and bounties were placed on individuals based overseas, as a number of colleagues have mentioned. We have been clear that we will not tolerate any attempts to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK. That is a threat to our democracy and to our fundamental human rights. We formally démarched the Chinese ambassador in July 2023, following that first wave, and we have continued to raise the issue at senior level with Chinese and Hong Kong officials. Let me be clear: the national security law has no extraterritorial authority in the UK. The UK has no active extradition agreement with Hong Kong or China. This Government will always protect the right of individuals peacefully to exercise freedom of speech. We will provide police support if individuals have particular concerns.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green raised questions about Interpol and an early warning system around extradition issues. I will take that away to discuss more fully with Ministers across Government, but I can confirm that the UK Government take any misuse of Interpol very seriously. Article 3 of Interpol’s constitution forbids the organisation from making any intervention or undertaking activities of a political, military, religious or racial character. I hope that gives a little reassurance in the meantime.

Conscious of time, I will pick up on the point made by the shadow Minister and others about the universal periodic review of China, which is, as they say, ongoing. I will put on record the statement the UK has made, thanking colleagues for taking note. It was important to us that we set out clearly the issues of concern.

There were four calls: cease the persecution and arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and Tibetans, allow genuine freedom of religion or belief and cultural expression, without fear of surveillance, torture, forced labour or sexual violence, and implement the recommendations on Xinjiang by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; guarantee an impartial judiciary and cease the harassment of lawyers, the use of the death penalty and residential surveillance in a designated location; cease the restriction of civil society and independent media, end forced repatriations, and stop targeting human rights defenders; and repeal the law on safeguarding national security in Hong Kong, as recommended by the UN, and cease prosecutions, including of Jimmy Lai.

To conclude, we will continue to stand against the deterioration of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. There is a reputational cost to China undermining international values, as it is doing. We are clear that it must protect what remains of Hong Kong’s unique social and political character, as well as its distinct economic system. We must see the repeal of the national security law, the ending of the prosecution of all individuals charged under it, and the restoration of the rights and freedoms promised to the people of Hong Kong under the Sino-British declaration.

I would never let a minute go to waste, Mr Twigg. I thank everybody for taking part in the debate. There has been a great degree of cross-party consensus, because we all recognise the situation as an international outrage. All I can say is that a regime that has no time for the judgment or endorsement that democratic processes bring, for the scrutiny that a free press provides, or for the rigour that adherence to the rule of international law instils, is not a strong regime. It is weak, insecure, illegitimate and in denial. That is the case of the Chinese Government. We must not be in denial in this House, and this Government must not be, either. We should follow the example of the United States and others, and work with the international community to not just call out China, but convince it that there can and will be consequences if it continues this affront to liberty and freedom in Hong Kong, in the rest of China, and beyond.

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

Civil Nuclear Road Map and Wylfa

[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Welsh Affairs Committee of Session 2022-23, Nuclear energy in Wales, HC 240, and the Government response, HC 1656.]

4 pm

I will call Virginia Crosbie to move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the civil nuclear roadmap and Wylfa.

It is an absolute privilege to speak in this debate on the civil nuclear road map and Wylfa. I secured this debate to highlight the simple truth that large-scale nuclear development at Wylfa in my constituency of Ynys Môn would be a transformational opportunity for the people I represent. It would be the largest inward investment in the history of Wales, and potentially the greatest single action the UK could take in the fight against climate change and in the race for energy security.

I warmly welcome the civil nuclear road map that the UK Government published recently, in which they committed to exploring a third gigawatt-scale project after Sizewell C, and to developing further large-scale nuclear in parallel with small module reactors. I urge the Government to take that commitment further by naming Wylfa as the site for such a large-scale project, and to move forward at speed in announcing a partner to deliver that project in Ynys Môn. I am in no doubt, and neither is the nuclear industry, that Wylfa is the best site in the UK—and indeed all of Europe—for new large-scale nuclear.

I was recently visited by a delegation from Korea. That country has 24 GW of nuclear capacity, and the delegation said that Wylfa was a better site for new nuclear then any site they have. Why is that? Well, we have an existing strong connection to the national grid, we have solid bedrock—ideal for pouring the foundations of a nuclear power station—and we have plentiful cooling water that is deep, cold and close, which is exactly what the engineers need. We also have a site that has been substantially cleared and prepared for large-scale construction by Horizon Nuclear Power, under Hitachi. The industry opinion is unanimous: a third large-scale project must be at Wylfa, and I hope the Government will listen to that advice. Will the Minister commit today, or in the coming weeks, to naming Wylfa as the site for a further large-scale project?

There is one more factor that makes Wylfa ideal for new nuclear, and that is the strong support of the local community. Wylfa means hope—the community remembers what the island was like when the original Wylfa was up and running. To them, nuclear means jobs, investment and opportunity for them, their children, and their Welsh language—for all the young people who otherwise leave the island to find good work.

I am very impressed by the hon. Lady’s bringing forward this debate. From the beginning, she has been very assiduous in the House on this issue. My knowledge of her dates from her first debate in this House, which I think had a similar focus and title. I envy her for having a nuclear site where she wants it. We wish to have the same in Northern Ireland, but it is not possible. Does the hon. Lady agree that jobs should be created right across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that we should all benefit from manufacturing, jobs and apprenticeships?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He is absolutely correct. This is a UK-wide endeavour, and it means jobs not only on Anglesey but across north Wales and the whole of the UK. If we do not work together on this, we cannot work to deliver net zero by 2050.

The support of my constituents is indispensable, but it cannot be taken for granted. They have had their hopes raised and dashed again and again. They have endured so much heartbreak and disappointment as successive attempts to get the project off the ground have failed. The civil nuclear road map will have raised their hopes one more time, and I beg the Minister and the Government to do everything they can to ensure that those hopes at last begin to be fulfilled. What can the Minister do to fulfil them? As I have said, we can start by naming Wylfa as the site for a further large-scale project. We should also get the land off Hitachi, and the intellectual property from the Horizon project and into the hands of Great British Nuclear. I will put it simply: the land is designated for new nuclear development. If Hitachi will not use it, it should lose it.

I urge the Minister and the Government to think creatively about what we can do. As I understand it, EDF in the last year has paid £200 million from its nuclear fleet to the Government through the electricity windfall tax. Urenco usually pays an annual dividend to the Government of around £100 million from its uranium enrichment activities. Could that money not be used to buy out Hitachi, get the Horizon intellectual property and get on with the project at Wylfa?

As the Minister will know, I met, invited and personally showed around the leading contenders for a large-scale project at Wylfa: Westinghouse, KEPCO and hopefully EDF. All have said that the work Horizon has done to prepare the site and design a plant would cut the deployment time for a large-scale project at the site. We know that time is money, so getting the land and intellectual property into UK ownership is critical. The next thing is to design and start a process this year to pick up one of those prospective partners to execute a project at Wylfa in conjunction with Great British Nuclear. That can and should be done very quickly.

Westinghouse, KEPCO and EDF are all very well known internationally. They all have large-scale designs in commercial operation that the Government and our regulators can visit. The companies’ records are out there for people to see and scrutinise. Indeed, our friends in Poland have just gone through an extensive process to choose from those three for their first large-scale plant. The Czech Republic has done the same and the Dutch have started the same process. Can the Minister therefore set out how he and the Government can work with our allies?

My hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for Wylfa is absolutely infectious, although there may be a little bit of competition for a gigawatt power station from Oldbury or Berkeley. That aside, through my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to get on with the nuclear road map, because come 2030, with the demise of the advanced gas-cooled reactors, we will have a dip in nuclear power. Will he particularly consider that we might be able to get small modular reactors and advanced modular reactors online quicker than a new gigawatt power station?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent and timely intervention. We produce 6 GW of electricity from nuclear, and all but one of our nuclear reactors are going offline in the next decade. If we are to achieve 24 GW of electricity from nuclear by 2050, we need gigawatts, we need SMRs and AMRs, and we need to all work together to deliver to that timetable.

Can the Minister set out how he and the Government can work with our allies to get the advice and information needed to accelerate our process? We can start out with a pretty clear idea of what we want from any tendering process: a partner to lead construction of a multi-reactor, large-scale plant at Wylfa as quickly, cheaply and reliably as possible.

I really believe that the work can and should start immediately, and that it does not need to wait for a final investment decision on Sizewell C. FID on Sizewell C is vital, and I hope that that investment can be achieved as quickly and smoothly as possible. It is essential for the future of nuclear in the UK, and it is essential that we invest now in the skills needed. However, that is a different kind of work, involving different people in Government, from the task of selecting a partner for our next large-scale project.

I do not want to hide from the last point. The UK Government should be preparing to take an equity stake—at least 20% or 25%—in a project such as Wylfa. That investment would be worth several billion pounds over construction, but it would be excellent value for money. I am confident that we will get equity investment for that from our potential large-scale partners, and that could give other private sector investors the confidence to invest. Critically, the investment would give the local community the confidence that its hopes will not be dashed again, and that the UK Government—unlike the Welsh Government in Cardiff, who have cancelled plans for a third bridge—are backing the people of north-west Wales.

Think about what we would secure. We would secure billions of pounds of investment in Anglesey, north Wales and the whole Welsh supply chain. Hinkley C has already benefited the south-west by more than £5 billion to date, and a project at Wylfa would be on a similar scale. We would secure 9,000 jobs, probably more on site during construction and tens of thousands more in the supply chain. Those will be well-paid, skilled jobs that would bring people back to Ynys Môn to stay and to settle: well-paid and skilled jobs so people could build families and preserve the Welsh heritage and language, which are at the heart of the island’s identity. We would generate more clean, reliable, sovereign power for all of Wales, which is worth about £2 billion in today’s money, for 80 years. That is with two reactors, but the site can fit four, so we could do twice as much. We would sustain nearly 1,000 jobs in operations on that site for four generations, which would bring tens of millions of pounds directly into the local economy for the rest of this century and beyond. We would provide a base of employment and demand to help other businesses on our energy island to thrive.

Wylfa is the cheapest option in the medium and long term. The expert modelling and the Government’s modelling show that the cheapest electricity system has 24 GW and perhaps more in it. We know very well and very painfully from the last two or three years that if we do not invest in nuclear and our energy supply is insecure, everything is more expensive and our economy is exposed to the shocks and whims of forces beyond our control.

Finally, investing in large-scale nuclear at Wylfa is about Ynys Môn again having control of its future. It is about our community providing opportunities for families and young people to stay and grow, and preserving its unique character. It is about the UK having control of its energy security and its net zero future. Only nuclear provides the jobs and the clean, reliable, proven British power all in one package, and Wylfa is the best place to get it done. Diolch yn fawr.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie)—she is, indeed, a friend—on securing this incredibly important debate. It is important not just for her constituency, which she champions unrelentingly on every possible occasion, as indeed she does the nuclear industry, but for the future direction of travel for the nuclear industry and civil nuclear in this country.

My hon. Friend has a formidable track record of championing the case for a future nuclear project at Wylfa, both as chair of the nuclear delivery group and through her membership of the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill Committee. She has hosted numerous visits to the site for industry and Government representatives, including Katy Huff, whom I met in Dubai at COP28. She is the assistant secretary for the US Office of Nuclear Energy, and she was waxing lyrical about her visit to the site. She described her site tour with my hon. Friend as a must for anyone visiting Wales.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss our nuclear plans and Wylfa in more detail today. I reiterate the Government’s determination to ensure that nuclear plays a central role in our future energy mix. As part of a massive investment in home-produced clean energy, nuclear will offer the reliable and resilient power we need to reach net zero by 2050 and strengthen our energy security so that we are never again dependent on the likes of Vladimir Putin for our energy. That is why, just last week, we announced the biggest expansion of UK nuclear power for 70 years—I confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) that we are indeed getting on with it. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and other Members for the support they have offered to that programme. We will build up to 24 GW of nuclear power by 2050, which will quadruple our current capacity and allow us to meet up to a quarter of projected electricity demand.

The civil nuclear road map sets out how we will get there, including our intention to explore a further gigawatt-scale project after Sizewell C and plans to roll out advanced and small modular reactors, which are part of our commitment to making investment decisions on 3 to 7 GW every five years between 2030 and 2044. The road map also sets out the comprehensive policies for growth across the nuclear lifecycle, including a geological disposal facility, for which work is already underway to find a suitable location.

Alongside the road map, we have launched two consultations: one on a new approach to siting new nuclear power generation and another on alternative routes to market for new nuclear projects that do not need Government support. Together, those areas of work will give the industry and investors the confidence they need to deliver at speed the projects we need. That is crucial, because this Government is committed to ensuring that the UK is one of the best places in the world to invest in civil nuclear. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is not in his place any more, but he pointed out that the work and the jobs that can be created in the supply chain across the entirety of the United Kingdom will mean that the benefits of new nuclear can be delivered even in places where new nuclear projects will not be built, including Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech in support of nuclear but, as he knows, the Public Accounts Committee visited Sellafield the other day. Sellafield’s whole operation is predicated on the eventual building of this geological disposal site, but the consultation has been very slow. Can my hon. Friend do anything to speed up that consultation?

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I am convinced that our approach to selecting sites for a geological disposal facility is right for the country. I hear my hon. Friend’s views and share his frustration with the speed of consultations when the Government are running them. However, we need to ensure that we select the best site and that that site will be sustainable, have public support and be suitable for delivering this second-in-the-world geological disposal facility, which is what it will be once it is delivered.

I put on record my support to the officials who are running the consultation. It is not an easy consultation, and what they are embarking on is the first of its kind in this country. We are learning a lot from the Finnish example. They have just received the first payload to put into what they have described as their “hole in the ground”—their geological disposal facility. Nevertheless, I hear my hon. Friend and will take his views back to the Department to see what might be done to speed up the process and ensure that we can get this facility built in the United Kingdom as quickly and as safely as possible, which will be to the benefit of us all.

We first developed commercial nuclear power in this country 70 years ago. Since then, our decades of nuclear experience have provided a legacy of skilled workers and world-leading academic institutions as well as expertise in the whole nuclear lifecycle, from fuel production to decommissioning and radioactive waste management.

We are already speeding up our nuclear expansion. Hinkley Point C, Britain’s first nuclear reactor in a generation is being built, and we are also making rapid progress on Sizewell C. Just last week, I was happy to move the development consent order and hold the spade that will cut the first turf on the Sizewell C site in the next few weeks. Together, those two plants will generate enough zero-carbon power for 12 million homes, reducing our reliance on imported energy and supporting the shift to net zero. At the same time, our aim to announce the outcome of Great British Nuclear’s SMR technology selection competition this year will make it the fastest competition of its kind in the world. And so I reiterate: we are getting on with it.

With regards to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn made about engaging with our international partners, I got off a call with my counterpart in the Government of the Czech Republic just a few hours ago, and I am engaging with counterparts across the world who are looking at what we are doing on our SMR down selection and our wider nuclear road map with envy. They are looking to copy, to the extent they can, the processes that we are undertaking in this country, so that they too can build their civil nuclear capacity, generate enough nuclear power to be energy-independent and reach their net zero objectives, which, of course, is good for the entire world.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn set out, Wales has a crucial and pivotal role to play in our future nuclear programme. That is not only because of its long and proud history of nuclear skills and expertise, but its growing interest in building on that rich history and its recognition that nuclear development could have a major economic impact across north Wales in particular.

We know that nuclear developments can have a profound impact on a region’s economic prospects, ensuring that communities directly benefit from investment by delivering high-paid and secure jobs in many places where they are in desperately short supply. As such, we have a strong relationship with the Welsh Government and local communities. For example, the Anglesey energy island forum, co-chaired by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, has supported a positive and constructive dialogue that brings the different levels of government together. There is particularly strong interest in and support for nuclear power at the Wylfa site in north Wales. The Prime Minister himself has said that Wylfa is a strong site for new nuclear. Although he stressed that no decisions have been made on individual sites, he said that it remains a strong and good candidate—one of several sites that could host nuclear projects in the future.

I will finish by focusing on the crucial point: after several decades of decline, the UK’s nuclear industry is reawakening, and we are determined to harness our unique strengths and become a leading nuclear energy nation once again. The roadmap that we published just two weeks ago will help us get there by providing direction for future decisions and strengthening ties with those who know the industry best—our nuclear workers and industry leaders across the UK, including in Wales and at Wylfa. Crucially, it will allow us to explore all the options and make sure that we spark a nuclear revival that benefits the entirety of the UK, including Wales. I look forward to continuing to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn as our plans progress in the coming months.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

School Attendance

I beg to move,

That this House has considered school attendance.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, and thank you for giving us the opportunity to discuss school attendance in this Chamber. I note that a very similar debate is happening in the main Chamber—excuse me for having run from there to here. I understand that that is an extremely unusual occurrence, and Mr Deputy Speaker could not reflect on a time in 21 years when two debates on an identical issue had been tabled in both Chambers at once. Mine was tabled first!

A great deal has been written about school attendance recently. People are right to be concerned, with the number of severely absent or persistently absent pupils having soared since the pandemic. Last spring, nearly 1.5 million children were persistently absent from school, which means that nearly one in five children is missing 10% or more of their school time—the equivalent to an afternoon or more of every week of school. Education is key to giving young people access to skills and opportunities in their future, and the sudden surge in persistent and severe absences risks a profound impact on educational attainment and longer-term outcomes. That is why, before Christmas, I tabled a Bill to tackle the issue.

We should be extraordinarily proud of our nation’s young people. Children in England now rank 11th in the world for maths and 13th for reading. Back in 2010, when today’s school leavers were just starting out in reception, the same league tables placed that cohort of children 27th for maths and 25th for reading. There has been phenomenal progress in children’s school journeys over those 14 years, and we must not let that slip.

The reasons for increased levels of pupil absence are multiple and complex. They include issues such as support for those with special educational needs and disabilities, anxiety and mental health. We know, for example, that if a child’s SEND needs are unmet, that can lead to them missing out on education. I am also concerned about the rise in children being put on part-time timetables, especially children with SEND who may not yet have an education, health and care plan—part-time timetables should be used only for a very short time and in exceptional circumstances.

Changes in attitudes towards minor ailments may be another driving force behind school absences. Parents are now more likely to keep their children at home for minor illnesses such as coughs and colds than before the pandemic. In most cases, children are better off in school, including when they have minor ailments. There may be other changing societal issues. For example, a mental health services provider in my constituency suggested to me that increasingly addictive online gaming is impacting negatively on mental health and resulting in more of the children and young people they see missing out on school. I would like to see more research on that to see whether those societal issues are also driving some of the change.

For the most vulnerable pupils, regular attendance is also an important protective factor. Research shows that regular absence from school can expose young people to other harms, such as being drawn into crime or serious violence. The Education Committee heard that children missing out on school was one of the biggest risk factors in cases of child exploitation. These are yet more reasons why we must find new ways to bring those who are missing out back to school and ensure that young people turn up to class.

Every parent has a legal responsibility to ensure that their child receives an education. If they decide to have their child registered at school, they have a legal duty to ensure their child attends that school regularly. However, in addressing the issue of school attendance, it is important that we do not simply lay the blame at the door of hard-working parents. Most parents want their children to do well, but many need help to support their children to fulfil those aspirations. Securing good attendance requires a holistic approach—an approach that brings together schools, families, the local authority and other local partners.

Much detailed work has already been undertaken. In 2022, following a detailed consultation, the Department for Education published new guidance entitled, “Working together to improve school attendance”. Running to more than 60 pages, it is extremely detailed, with a great deal of emphasis placed on early help and multidisciplinary support. It requires every school to have a senior member of the school’s leadership team acting as an attendance champion and sets out how schools and other partners should work together.

Last year, the Education Committee undertook a detailed inquiry on attendance. Witnesses agreed that that guidance needed to be put on a statutory footing, and that was a major recommendation of the Committee. Making it mandatory for bodies to follow that best practice is supported by the Children’s Commissioner and the Centre for Social Justice, as well as the Education Committee and many other experts.

That is why, before Christmas, I presented a private Member’s Bill to the House of Commons to make that happen, the School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill. It will make the guidance statutory so that all schools, trusts, local authorities and other relevant local partners must follow it. The Bill will contain two clauses. The first will introduce a new general duty on local authorities to exercise their functions with a view to promoting regular attendance and reducing absence in their areas. The second will require schools of all types to have and publicise a school attendance policy. Both clauses will require all schools and local authorities to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State. That will all be achieved by inserting two clauses into the Education Act 1996, under section 443.

Incidentally, I have given copies of the wording of that Bill to the Public Bill Office today. It will be printed overnight and will be available for Members to read tomorrow. The DFE has also told me that it will publish a revised version of the guidance ahead of the new provisions taking effect, and that the guidance will help to reduce unfairness in the amount of support available for families in different areas of the country and level up standards in areas with poorer attendance by providing consistent access to support.

Local authorities will need to provide all schools with a named point of contact for support with queries and advice. They will need to meet each school termly to discuss cases where multi-agency support is needed, work with other agencies to provide that support where it is needed in cases of persistent or severe absence, use their services and levers to remove common causes of absence in their areas, and monitor and improve the attendance of children with a social worker.

I commend the right hon. Lady for bringing forward this important subject for debate. I know that there could be no better person than the Minister to answer the points that she is putting forward. Does the right hon. Lady not agree that the mixed messages over covid about learning from home have left a lot more parents either more complacent about attendance or expecting teachers to provide online learning to help their children catch up? There is no substitute for in-school learning; I think that the right hon. Lady said that, and I agree with her. Teachers cannot be expected to double their prep and delivery on behalf of those children whose parents keep them off and ask for the learning to take place on their schedule. Does the right hon. Lady agree?

I think that the important message to get to children and their families is that the best place for most children to be is in school. That is best for their education. It is best for their friendships. It is best for their development. It is best for their learning in other extracurricular activities. There is also a separate issue of home education, which I will get to shortly.

Under my Bill, which makes the guidance mandatory, schools will be expected to have an attendance champion, to have robust day-to-day processes for recording, monitoring and following up absences, to use their attendance data to prioritise the pupils and cohorts on which to focus their efforts, and to work jointly with their local authorities and other agencies where the causes of persistent and severe absence go beyond a school’s remit.

The Local Government Association, for which I have great respect, has written to me in advance of the debate, saying that there is urgent need for a cross-government, child-centred strategy to tackle rising disadvantage and the wider factors that contribute towards persistent-absence children missing out on school. It says that that must include reforming the SEND system, expanding access to mental health support and youth services, connecting with hard-to-reach communities and ensuring that schools are resourced, supported and incentivised. The LGA also supports the introduction of a register of children who are out of school due to elective home education. That would improve the data on the visibility of these children so that councils can verify that children are receiving a suitable education in a safe environment.

A register of children who are out of school due to elective home education is not part of my Bill, but it is part of a Bill tabled before Christmas by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), who is a former Ofsted inspector and just spoke in the debate in the main Chamber. I know that Government Ministers are assisting her with the Bill; it is on the Order Paper and has been since December. It does not need to be overtaken by an Opposition day debate to table yet another Bill, because that would be confusing. We have two Bills, they are going through the House, and they are already on the Order Paper.

The Centre for Mental Health and the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition have written to me to point out the link between mental health and absence from school that I have mentioned. They recommend that a mental health absence code is introduced. The issue of different absence codes was also raised by the Education Committee. It is not specifically addressed by my Bill, but the Minister may wish to comment on it. In their letter, they welcomed the “laudable progress” being made in rolling out mental health support teams to many thousands of schools. They would like its funding to be guaranteed and an assurance that all schools will have access to these teams. It would be helpful if the Minister could address that in his answers to the debate.

Having been born and brought up in her early years in Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member will know of the excellent educational facilities and teaching in that part of the United Kingdom. She makes a valid point about mental health. She will know that one in eight young people in Northern Ireland experience anxiety, which is 25% higher than in the rest of the UK. Does she agree that there needs to be a focus across the United Kingdom on mental health because it is contributing to children’s absence from school?

I thank the hon. Member for her comments. I remember my time in education in Northern Ireland very fondly. I was lucky to have access to a brilliant education in both state and private schools and to benefit from scholarships. I have excellent schools in my Chelmsford constituency. I commend the Government for the increase in recent years in the number of good and outstanding schools across the country.

On mental health, the Schools Minister has just explained in the main Chamber how the mental health support teams have been rolled out already to thousands of schools, and that they are working with the NHS to see that rolled out more widely. That is already in progress, and I have asked the Minister to address more of that roll-out. I know that it makes a difference, and it was a major ask from the coalitions of mental health experts who wrote to me. There is also, often, bespoke local need, such as that addressed by the amazing Kids Inspire charity in Essex, based in my constituency of Chelmsford, which does wonderful work. Part of it is funded by the voluntary sector, and part of it is state funded through grants. It does fantastic work with children who have been at risk of trauma.

I say to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) that it breaks my heart that Stormont is not sitting. If it were, Northern Ireland would be able to make its own decisions to address the particular mental health and other health needs there.

I thank the Centre for Social Justice for all its research on the subject, and the Children’s Commissioner and her team for their research and advice. As well as listening to the views of colleagues today, I have been working with the Children’s Commissioner, who is helping me to host a major roundtable next week so that I can hear the views of schools, social workers, parents and other expert groups directly. That will happen before my Bill has its Second Reading on Friday 2 February. I hope that the Bill will receive cross-party support from all Members in the Chamber and that they will ensure the same from other Members of their parties, which will enable it to pass swiftly through Second Reading and into Committee. Through that, we can make the guidance mandatory so that every school, local authority and body follow best practice. It is a positive legal step that we can take to enable children to get the support they need and help them return to school.

I thank the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for securing the debate. I was unable to attend the Labour Opposition day debate on a similar theme, so I appreciate being able to raise my points here. School absences are a huge problem, and we all agree with that. In County Durham, there were well over 1,000 absences in the 2022-23 autumn and spring terms. That number has sharply risen since the 2016-17 autumn and spring terms, when there were under 250 absences in the county. The Labour party estimates that the number of absences will rise to well over 1,800 by the 2026-27 autumn and spring terms, which would be an increase of 377%—unless, of course, there is a change of policy or, better yet, a change of Government.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that we need a coherent strategy for tackling persistent absence, which includes a new register for home schooling, to keep track of these absent pupils?

I absolutely agree. All children, whether they are in mainstream schooling or not, deserve to have the same importance placed on their education and their life chances. In Durham, we are blessed with incredible educators, and I must mention Mr Byers of Framwellgate School Durham, who publicly shared his recent letter to families highlighting the importance of good attendance. Mr Byers also encouraged families to reach out for support if they were struggling with their children. We must remember that support is key to ensuring that children achieve all that they are capable of, and I will miss Mr Byers’s supportive attitude when he sadly leaves Fram School in the near future.

It would be remiss of me not to mention St Leonard’s Catholic School in my constituency, and I am sure that Members will appreciate that my constituents, especially those affected at St Leonard’s, will want me to use all available opportunities to raise what their children are going through—after all, that is what they sent me here to do when they elected me in 2019. St Leonard’s was ordered to close just days before the autumn term began last year because of the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. According to the Government’s own figures, pupils at St Leonard’s only moved back to full-face education learning at the end of November. Before that, they were in a mix of face-to-face and remote arrangements, and for almost two weeks in fully remote learning.

I want to focus on that because, for the weeks that pupils were not in school, they were unable to socialise or receive a face-to-education, and they were placed in a topsy-turvy arrangement of being taught remotely and then off site. Their education was severely disrupted and it still is—they are being taught in inadequate settings. I would wager that the disastrous impact of RAAC is not too dissimilar to the effect of chronic absences. Absences can severely affect a pupil’s future opportunities—just look at the situation at St Leonard’s—and the Department for Education has not offered any dispensations. In fact, Durham University said the following in a report released last week:

“No policy has yet been devised to protect the results of the exam cohorts most affected. It is not clear why”.

My first question is this: why has a policy not been written up? In a letter that I sent to the Department for Education in October, I suggested an amendment to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 to give the Secretary of State the powers to give dispensations where appropriate. Why not start with that? I cannot be more emphatic about this point: parents, teachers and pupils are extremely worried that pupils will not be achieve their dream of getting into the university of their choice because the Government have not offered to help them. When will the Government offer to help them?

With the crisis in St Leonard’s school, we can see how other injustices, such as the situation with Royal Mail, have been able to run away with themselves in this place. Government Ministers, such as the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), could have solved that problem; they could have brought justice for those affected. Instead, there was inaction and indifference. What are the consequences? The people out there—the people who we are supposed to serve—are left all the worse off. I will not allow that to happen to my constituents.

Mr Twigg, I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) not only on securing this debate but on her excellent speech.

I attended the SEND Reform England event last week, which was a great opportunity to speak to specialists in the area. Its manifesto, which was circulated at the event, says that 24% of identified SEND pupils have an education, health and care plan, or EHCP, which meant 390,000 pupils in 2023. Additionally, it reports that 97% of school leaders think that funding for all SEND pupils is insufficient and 95% think that funding is insufficient for pupils with an EHCP.

During the covid period, I had weekly online meetings with county leaders and my fellow Gloucestershire MPs in which the challenges facing schools were often discussed. There was huge concern about some students dropping out of the system, not engaging with online learning through the lockdown period and not returning to schools when they fully reopened.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) referred to a school in her constituency being closed through RAAC, which I sympathise with. Of course that situation—of school closure—applied to pupils across the entire United Kingdom when their schools were closed during covid, so I think we are all very familiar with the effects of schools being closed. Nevertheless, as I say, I sympathise with what happened in that school.

The overall absence rate for primary and secondary schools in Gloucestershire during the autumn term of 2022-23 was 7.3%. That compares with a 6.6% absence rate for the autumn term of 2021. Before the pandemic, the rate was consistently below 5%. This pattern of increased absence since the pandemic can be seen in national, statistical neighbour, and south-west groupings. According to the Government website, across England in both the autumn and spring terms of 2022-23, the overall absence rate was 7.3%, with 21.2% of pupils being persistently absent across those terms, meaning that they missed 10% of sessions or more—an exceptionally high percentage of students missing classes.

I, too, listened to the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), addressing the Chamber. He made the point that the data for persistent absenteeism will be published this Thursday. We do not know what that data will show; hopefully, it will show an improved situation.

Of course, pupils being persistently absent from school has a huge impact on their academic success, with just 11.3% of severely absent pupils achieving grades 9 to 4-4 being the pass grade—in English and maths, compared with 67.6% of all pupils. Although we cannot look totally at statistics in this debate, we can look at the social and mental impact of absenteeism on these pupils. As other Members, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, have already said, I believe that being persistently absent from school will have similarly negative impacts on other aspects of a young person’s life.

I totally agree not only with what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools said in the main Chamber, but with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford. School is the best place to be to learn. For social development, for making friendships, and for overall physical development, it is much better that children are in school, rather than being absent.

During covid, I saw a considerable increase in casework on this issue, which sadly has continued in the years since. I am talking about parents getting in touch with me about children who are long-term absent from school, and asking me to help them to engage with schools on how to move forward with their children’s education. Those cases were usually exacerbated by complex mental health issues and educational needs that made regular attendance more challenging. In liaising with parents and schools, it became clear that the relationship had completely broken down in many cases, with the students being the ones to ultimately suffer. Teachers were being overextended on what they could achieve. Understandably, with the pressures of trying to teach during lockdowns, they simply did not have the capacity to provide the extensive support needed by some pupils, while parents felt overwhelmed in dealing with their children’s educational needs without support.

Ultimately, as my right hon. Friend said, the legal responsibility for pupils attending school falls on the parents. Unfortunately, because of often complicated socioeconomic factors and individual family challenges, a considerable number of families are simply unable or unwilling to engage fully with their children’s educational needs. We should not allow those children to fall out of the education system. I agree with my right hon. Friend and others and, indeed, the Minister for Schools, who said in the main Chamber that we should have a compulsory register for home education, so that we can see whether children are being educated at home or whether they are absent from school, and then we can take the necessary measures to do something about it.

Growing demand for mental health services and SEND support centres creates additional pressure, compounding a problem that became far worse during the lockdown period. The Education Committee examined this problem, launching its inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils in January 2023. Another report, published in September, made a number of recommendations, including a review and possible abolition of fines, which it found made little or no impact on long-term absenteeism, the urgent need to improve school-level attendance monitoring, and the need for investment in SEND and child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—which it concluded are significant factors in the attendance crisis.

The Government are increasing the direct support offered to children and their families with the expansion of the attendance mentor pilot programme. With an investment of up to £15 million over three years, that programme will provide direct, intensive support to more than 10,000 persistent and severely absent pupils and their families. I think that the Minister for Schools said in the main Chamber where it is being expanded to, and I am pretty sure that I heard that it is expanding to the area of the hon. Member for City of Durham, but she will no doubt correct me if that is wrong.

The Government have also produced a toolkit for schools, providing tips and evidence-based, adaptable templates for communicating with parents and carers, as well as the plan announced last year to expand attendance hubs, delivering 18 new hubs. This is a knowledge and practice-exchange initiative, taking the lead from those schools with excellent attendance records to introduce engagement initiatives such as breakfast clubs and extracurricular activities or to improve an individual school’s attendance data. I have just listened to the Minister for Schools outline a compendium of measures to help pupils to return to school.

On a county level—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

I am grateful for your forbearance, Mr Twigg, given the debate in the main Chamber, and I am delighted to be able to resume my speech.

Just to quickly recap the last bit of my speech, before we had to suspend the sitting I was praising the Government for their attendance monitoring pilot programmes and particularly for delivering 18 new attendance hubs, which are doing much of what the private Member’s Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) aims to do, disseminating best practice among all the agencies, and teachers and parents—everybody involved—to try and deal with the problem of absenteeism. I therefore wholly support her Bill.

At county level, Gloucestershire County Council provides support, advice and guidance for schools through the team of inclusion officers. This includes a specialist attendance officer who can support more targeted intervention work where needed. Leveraging technology to improve engagement and accessibility is also essential. Online learning platforms, digital resources and interactive teaching methods can cater to diverse learning styles and help to ensure that students remain connected to their studies, even in challenging circumstances that prevent them from attending in person.

As I and so many others have said, it is vital we do not allow students to be left behind. Regardless of how complex the reasons for long-term absence on an individual level, all children deserve a chance to have the educational, social and physical opportunities that schools have to offer. From my constituency cases, it is clear that many parents need the additional support of schools and others to assist with their children staying in education. By investing in early intervention, mental health support, addressing socioeconomic disparities and embracing technological advancements, we can all work towards creating an education system that is inclusive, supportive and ensures that every child has the opportunity to realise their full potential.

On Friday, I visited Andoversford Primary School in my constituency to speak to the headteacher about the challenges facing the school. It was an excellent visit and a good chance to speak to teachers, pupils and parents. While the Government have announced record funding for schools, with The Cotswolds in particular set to benefit from an increase of £1.5 million in 2024-25 compared with 2023-24, it is important to see what is happening on the ground in schools.

The headteacher I met had enough money for her basic teaching. Yet she made the point that in a small rural school, there was very little money left for the other things, such as cleaning, maintenance, the caretaker and the administrator—all the different functions any school has to fulfil—and that a small school with very limited money for overheads is particularly disadvantaged in that respect. The headteacher also made the point that concerns revolved around the number of pupils attending the school overall—there are lots of small schools in the area—and how small village schools often do not bring in enough pupil funding to cover running costs and ensure they have administrators, caretakers and cleaners.

Particularly relevant to this debate, however, the headteacher also mentioned an increase in pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, and she said how extremely difficult it is to get an EHCP statement in Gloucestershire. In fact, in the school I visited, there were no pupils with a statement at all. Although the pressure on SEND overall is there, as a country, I think there is a bit of postcode lottery in pupils being able to get statements, and we need to address that.

I look forward to what the Minister has to say. In addressing the whole problem of absenteeism, we have to work closely with the local education authorities and the Department of Health and Social Care to deal not only with pupils who do not have a statement, but with others who have severe mental health problems. That way, we can see—with increasingly better knowledge, thank goodness—how we can help children and pupils with those complex problems.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on bringing this important debate and on her work in this area. I am glad to have the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Opposition.

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed today. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) on the importance of support for parents who struggle with their children’s attendance. She also mentioned the impact of RAAC and the disruption that is causing to children’s education in her constituency. I hope she is able to meet the Minister tomorrow as planned. We heard from the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) about the impact of persistent absence on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. He also told of the impact of the lack of SEND support on attendance and the very great difficulties that that presents.

I know that everyone in the House will agree that one of the most important things we can provide to children and young people across the country is an excellent education. Education opens up the world to them, not just in terms of jobs or training but in discovering interests and passions and fulfilling their aspirations. However, we cannot give children and young people the foundation they need for later life if they are not in school. New research from the Centre for Social Justice reveals that more than one in four parents think that school is not essential every day; not one in four adults but one in four parents. That is an extremely worrying statistic.

A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner found that pupils who are persistently absent in years 10 and 11 are half as likely to pass five GCSEs as their peers with good attendance records. Absence figures have reached historic levels under the Conservatives, increasing by more than 40% since 2010. The number of pupils severely absent has nearly trebled in the same period, with more than 88,000 secondary school pupils missing at least half of their education last year. School attendance should not and must not be seen as optional, or something that can be dipped in and out of. However, unfortunately for at least some parents and carers, the relationship between schools, families and the Government has broken down after years of neglect.

School attendance is one of the most urgent challenges that the Government must tackle in the education system today. The figures on school attendance have been moving in the wrong direction for years. In the 2016-17 academic year, the rate of persistent absence was 10.7%, and that has increased year on year ever since under this Government. By 2022-23, the rate stood at 21.2%—double that of just six years ago. It is unacceptable that the Government have been sitting idly by, letting the rates of persistent absence rise and giving no real thought or effort to the solutions to tackle the issue. They must start working to get children back in school, and they must start with urgency.

Labour has a plan to reduce persistent absence. We would introduce free breakfast clubs for every primary school pupil in England to boost attendance across the country. We know that breakfast clubs improve children’s learning and development, helping to boost performance in maths and reading, but they have also been shown to improve behaviour and attendance. They not only take pressure off parents in the morning but give children a chance to play and socialise, and, importantly, make sure that no child has to start the school day hungry. We would legislate for a new register of home-schooled pupils to keep track of those not in mainstream schooling. For many children, their home is a safe and enriching learning environment, but it is right that the Government take action to ensure that if a child is not in school, local authorities are clear about where they are and what education they are receiving.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) is not present. I know that she wished to be, but she has been in the debate in the main Chamber. Much as many of us try to be in two places at once, that is not possible. She has a piece of legislation already going through this House to legislate for a register of home-educated children. Will the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) support that legislation so that it can go through swiftly? Will she also encourage the Members of her party to support my Bill to make the best practice guidance on school attendance mandatory? I know that she will want to look at every single word of it, but it would be brilliant if she could give her support in principle because then we could do both these things now.

We agree that there should be a register of home-educated children and that there should be measures to tackle persistent absence. It is bizarre that Government Members chose to vote against the measures before the House this afternoon, which they agree with. Those measures were simply intended to accelerate the process of delivering a commitment that the Government have already made.

I will not give way again. The right hon. Lady will also know that private Members’ Bills progress if the Government give them time. It is not the Opposition who are holding up those measures, and she would do well to turn her attention to the shocking record of her own Government on this issue, which they have been allowing to slide for 14 years, and the question of why action has not been taken any sooner. If the Government allow time for the Bills to be debated, the Opposition will support the measures with which we agree. Frankly, that is a matter for the Government. The right hon. Lady’s obsession with the Opposition’s position when our position has been set out really clearly is bizarre.

I am going to make some progress, I am afraid. I will not give way again.

We need a comprehensive strategy for addressing the complex issue of persistent absence. Labour will empower Ofsted to review absence as part of the annual safeguarding spot checks. The outdated and dreaded Ofsted inspection regime urgently needs reforming; one-word judgments are unhelpful for parents and put unnecessary stress on teachers and other school staff. So, as part of a series of reforms to Ofsted inspections, we will introduce annual school checks covering persistent absence, among other areas.

Absence rates among children with special educational needs and disabilities are particularly high. Labour will ensure that mainstream schools are inclusive, making inclusivity part of the Ofsted inspection framework, and introducing a new annual continuing professional development entitlement for teachers that can be used to boost their expertise to teach children with SEND. Good mental health and wellbeing is also vital for school attendance, and Labour will ensure that there is mental health support available in every school and that children and young people have an open-access mental health hub in every community.

Labour will reform the curriculum to deliver a better foundation in reading, writing and maths. We will ensure that children do not miss out on music, sport, art and drama, keeping schools a happy and joyful place to be, making children want to come to school—to enjoy it, not to dread it.

Urgent action is needed now to bring down the rates of school absences. Labour’s projections, using data from the Department for Education, suggest that the number of children persistently absent from school will rise to more than 2 million in 2025-26 under current trends. That is more than one in four children and young people across the country. We face a lost generation missing from Britain’s schools—a tragic example of national decline under this Government. We desperately need a Government who will put children first: one who will prioritise education, as Labour did when we were last in government. Labour has a vision for education and a plan to deliver a world-class education for every child, giving schools the right tools to deliver it.

But to break down those barriers to opportunity, our children need to be in school. That is why this debate is so important, and why we need a Labour Government to tackle the problem. In the short term, it is so disappointing that the right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches failed to support the Opposition’s motion this afternoon to bring forward the Children Not in School (National Register and Support) Bill in February. There is not a moment to lose to secure the future of children across the country, and we will support every effort to deliver that.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Twigg. Thank you for your kindness earlier. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for leaving slightly early to get to the vote, as I missed a little of his otherwise excellent speech.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), my constituency neighbour in Essex—we have got Essex man and Essex woman here today—on securing this debate. She has championed this subject and is absolutely right to do so, because we know that regular school attendance is vital for children’s attainment, mental wellbeing and long-term development, and it is crucial that we have a support system in place to ensure that every child attends school every day, ready to learn and thrive.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds talked about the damage of school closures. Wearing my previous hat as Chair of the Education Committee, I spent a huge amount of my time campaigning against school closures, as I thought that everything we are talking about today, both here and in the main Chamber, would come to pass. I have to say that I was opposed significantly by not everyone, but a lot of Members on the Opposition Benches, and of course some—not all, to be fair—of the unions. I thought, at the time, that it would cause significant damage.

The attendance challenge has grown since the start of the pandemic, not only in England but around the world. There is evidence that, post pandemic, some attitudes to absence have changed. There is a greater propensity to keep a child at home with a minor illness such as a cough or a cold, and we can understand why that has happened. We must at least try and recalibrate back to where we were pre-covid, when an attendance of 95% was achieved year after year.

I fully support the idea behind the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and indeed the complementary Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). Will the Minister find the time to meet me to discuss specifically home schooling and how it relates to absenteeism on the Isle of Wight, where we have over three times the national average of home-schooled kids? While I absolutely respect the rights of responsible parents, I worry that especially after covid, some of those home-schooled kids are simply absentee kids from school who are not learning, and who are drifting into isolation, mental health problems or criminality.

As always, my hon. Friend makes powerful points. I think he speaks not just for some—and I stress some—younger people in his constituency, but also for those across the country. I am not the Schools Minister or the Children’s Minister—I am standing in because of the debate in the main Chamber—but I will mention what my hon. Friend has requested, and I will ask for a meeting with the Schools Minister or the Children’s Minister to discuss the important issues that he has raised.

Contrary to what has been suggested by the shadow Minister, we have started to see some progress, although there is a long way to go. There were 380,000 fewer pupils persistently absent or not attending school in 2022-23 than in 2021-22. Overall absence for the autumn term that has just finished was 6.8%, down from 7.5% in Autumn 2022. That means that, on average, pupils in England are attending school for the equivalent of around a day and a half more across an academic year then they did last year.

It is difficult to make direct comparisons, but we know that absenteeism is a problem not just in the UK, but in other parts of the world too. However, there are signs that our approach is bearing fruit. I mentioned that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford is my constituency neighbour. Absence rates for Essex are very much in line with those of England as a whole, and they mirror the improvements seen nationally in the most recent terms.

We are committed to working with schools and local authorities to drive up attendance rates, and we have a six-point plan to deal with some of the problems. We have set out stronger expectations of the system, including requiring schools to have an attendance policy, appointing attendance champions and expecting local authorities to hold termly meetings with schools to agree individual plans for at-risk children.

We have established an alliance of national leaders from education, children’s social care and allied services to work together to raise school attendance and reduce persistent absence, and the Attendance Action Alliance has pledged to take a range of actions to remove barriers preventing children attending school. The attendance data tool allows early intervention to avoid absences becoming entrenched, and 88% of schools are already taking part in the daily data pilot. We are committed to requiring all schools to share their daily registers as part of the programme.

We have expanded our attendance hubs, which will see almost 2,000 schools supported to tackle persistent absence—reaching around 1 million pupils. We have also launched a campaign to re-emphasise the importance of every school day, not just for learning, but for wellbeing, experiences and friendships too. From September, our attendance mentor pilot will be extended to 10 new areas. Trained mentors will work with more than 10,000 persistently and severely absent children and their families to help them back to school.

Both the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) and the shadow Minister rightly talked about mental health and special educational needs. We are now spending £10.5 billion on special educational needs—that is a 60% increase since 2019. The Children’s Minister has a lot of work under way on this, including a plan for special educational needs which will standardise education, health and social care plans, so that we end the postcode lottery that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds mentioned.

The hon. Member for City of Durham also asked several questions. As I understand it—I will ask the School Buildings Minister to discuss the issue that she raised—the Department for Education has contacted the Durham research team, offering to discuss the report and clarify areas of mission. We have worked closely with St Leonard’s to provide additional spaces for learning and to put extra education provisions in place. All pupils at St Leonard’s have been in face-to-face education since October and additional educational support is available for those pupils due to sit exams next year, with specialist facilities being sourced at other providers in the local area and transport being provided for pupils. Nevertheless, as I have already said, I will ask the School Buildings Minister to talk to her.

We have had a number of meetings with Ministers. I had a meeting booked in last week with the Minister for Schools, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), which he cancelled, and it was also cancelled today, so hopefully it will go ahead tomorrow. However, one of the big priorities for the school is that mitigation will be put in place for the education that has been lost. It is now 18 weeks that there have been issues and those pupils doing their exams have not yet had specialist equipment for any of their coursework, so I implore the Minister to impress that upon the Minister for Schools.

I will ensure that the Schools Minister, or the School Buildings Minister, hear what the hon. Lady says; I will pass on her remarks. And I am sure that that meeting will take place.

I want to carry on, if I may, because I only have a few minutes in which to speak and I want to respond to some of the points that have already been made. However, if I do have time to take an intervention, I will give way a bit later, if my hon. Friend will be so kind.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford referred to the School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill, which she herself presented before Christmas. As she has said, that Bill will introduce two new legal duties on schools and local authorities respectively. I am grateful for her work on the Bill and welcome her contribution to the debate. I and the Government look forward to the future stages of the Bill as it progresses through the House, which she will know about, because she will have had discussions with the relevant Ministers. Those stages include Second Reading next Friday.

We absolutely remain committed to making guidance on school attendance statutory, which has already been discussed this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford. We are exploring all avenues to do that. That is in recognition of the attendance challenge and to help ensure that local authorities and schools consistently meet the expectations made of them, under our “support first” approach.

There was also some discussion of mental health. All Members here today will be pleased to know that mental health support teams now cover almost 44% of pupils in schools and further education, and that percentage will increase to around 50% by March next year. We have also committed to offer all state schools and colleges a grant to train a senior mental health lead by 2025, which will make a huge difference. Over 14,400 schools and colleges have received a senior mental health lead training grant so far, including more than seven in 10 state-funded secondary schools in England.

As a Government, we also remain committed to introducing the statutory local authority registers for children not in school, as well as a duty for local authorities to provide support to home-educating families, which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) mentioned in his intervention. That is to help ensure that all children receive a suitable education and are safe, regardless of where they are educated. That is the crucial point.

We warmly welcome the Children Not In School (Register) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and await its Second Reading on 15 March. I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford for the dedication that she has shown. We will continue to work with local authorities to improve their existing non-statutory registers, and support them to ensure that all children in their area receive a suitable education. Also, the Department recently held a consultation on revised elective home education guidance for local authorities and parents, with the aim of improving consistency of practice across all local authorities. That consultation closed on 18 January and we are currently analysing the responses to it.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds also mentioned attendance mentoring and I welcome his support for what the Government are doing. We are currently delivering support in Middlesbrough, Doncaster, Knowsley, Stoke and Salford, and will expand into 10 new areas later this year to reach 10,000 children who are severely absent. Having heard me say that, I hope he will see that a lot is going on to try to resolve this very difficult problem.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I think he has time. Will he address the problem that I mentioned at the end of my speech, which was about the liaison between local education authorities and the Department of Health and Social Care, and mental health trusts in particular? In Gloucestershire, the waiting lists for children with mental health problems are extremely long. We really need to do better by our young people.

I am sure the Minister is aware that he should leave a minute or two for the right hon. Member for Chelmsford to wind up.

Yes. I will finish in a couple of minutes. The “health” part of an education, health and care plan is fundamental. I absolutely agree that co-operation work needs to go on, and a lot of work is going on to ensure that the H part of an EHC plan does exactly as he describes.

The legacy of the pandemic means that absence levels are still too high. Improvements have been made, but there is a lot of work to do. Too many children are missing out on the opportunities that regular school attendance provides, but I reassure pupils, parents, teachers, local authorities, and health and other partners that we remain committed to working with them to tackle the issues through our “support first” approach, building on the strengths of the current system and the success that we achieved together prior to the pandemic.

Being in school has never been more valuable, with standards continuing to rise. I thank our brilliant teachers, heads and everyone who has worked with us—in Essex, in Chelmsford, in my own constituency of Harlow, in the Cotswolds, in Durham, in the Isle of Wight and in the other constituencies across the country—because the teachers and support staff are the people responsible who are doing so much to make sure that we make progress on this very difficult issue.

I thank hon. Members and right hon. Members for taking part in this debate. I was very moved to hear about the situation at St Leonard’s School in the City of Durham. Three schools in my constituency were affected by RAAC, and Essex County Council, working with the Department, was phenomenal. It turned around approvals really quickly and got in temporary classrooms where they were needed, so that every child in my constituency was in face-to-face learning at the beginning of this term. Essex had more RAAC schools than anywhere else, and the county council was phenomenal in turning it around. Some schools had it very badly, but they were very few; when so many kids are anxious, we need to be really careful to remember that the vast majority of children are in safe schools. I hope that the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) gets her meetings and those issues addressed.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), who spoke beautifully, especially about the impact on small rural schools. Obviously, the ones in my constituency are bigger, inner-city schools. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for taking the opportunity to mention schools on the Island, a place of which I am very fond. It is important that the issue of children missing out because they are off the school register is considered.

With regard to my private Member’s Bill, I make no apology for being obsessed with making sure that children get education, or for being obsessed with doing the best I can to deal with this issue. To get the private Member’s Bill through the House does not need the Government to give time; what it needs is for no Member of this place to object to it when I move it at Second Reading. Any Member could object to it, and it would then go back to the bottom of the queue. To get it through on Friday 2 February, I just need to know that no Member of this House will object to it. I know that the Government will not object to it; I have been talking to all Members on the Government side of the House to make sure that there will be no objections from our side. If the Opposition would kindly check, if possible, that there are no objections on their side—I am happy to talk to anyone who has concerns—it will enable the Bill to move swiftly.

I thank all Members for treating the issue seriously. It is a real issue, and it needs us all to work across parties to perform the No. 1 recommendation, which is to make sure that all schools and local authorities have to follow best practice. That is what the Bill will do.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered school attendance.

Sitting adjourned.