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Westminster Hall

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2024

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 24 January 2024

[Julie Elliott in the Chair]

Hedgerows: Legal Protection

I beg to move,

That this House has considered legal protections for hedgerows.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Ms Elliott. I welcome the work of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its consultation last June, which sought to ensure that protections for hedgerows will continue, following the end of cross-compliance protections this January. I thank the Minister for her engagement on the issue and, as an advisory board member of the Conservative Environment Network, I thank the network for its help in relation to this debate.

Our green and pleasant land has been a source of national pride for centuries. Looking at the gently rolling hills of my North Devon constituency, it is easy to see why. The land is a green patchwork, stitched together by hedgerows. I am proud to be one of the 85 MPs and peers who are hedgerow heroes for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, continuously calling on the Government to commit to significant hedgerow planting and restoration.

The Government have made many welcome steps towards protecting hedgerows. The Environment Act 2021 introduced a mandatory biodiversity net gain requirement for new development, along with local nature recovery strategies to target the best places for nature recovery and wider environmental benefits. In January 2023, under the refreshed 25-year environment plan, the Government announced a target to create or restore 30,000 miles of hedgerows by 2037 and 45,000 miles of hedgerows by 2050. That target will result in 360,000 miles of English hedgerows, which is 10% above the 1984 peak.

Other positives include clear regulations prohibiting the removal of countryside hedgerows without approval, and our countryside stewardship schemes, which help to maintain and restore over 10,000 km of existing hedgerows and plant an additional 4,000 km across the country. Countryside stewardship provides financial incentives for farmers, foresters and land managers to look after and improve the environment. Under grant type BE3—management of hedgerows—farmers will be paid £13 per 100 metres for one side of a hedge. That is available for the countryside stewardship mid-tier and higher-tier options, and will go towards improving the structure and longevity of hedgerows and maintaining them as distinctive and historic landscape features.

Healthy hedgerows are visually appealing, but they are also unsung heroes. Their roots absorb excess water and help to reduce the risk of flooding. Their leaves provide a source of shade for livestock in the summer and shelter in the winter. Their thick, tangled branches are home to countless iconic British species, from the humble hedgehog to bats, turtle doves and yellowhammers. Hedges are also home to precious pollinators, without which we would all go hungry. Over 1,500 invertebrates, including bees, beetles, spiders and hoverflies, have been identified in hedgerows in the UK. Spring-flowering trees and shrubs, such as blackthorn and hawthorn, which are often found in hedgerows, can be important sources of spring foraging for wild bee species in intensively managed landscapes.

The National Trust is very keen that I highlight its annual BlossomWatch campaign. Blackthorn and hawthorn blossom hedgerow is some of the most spectacular to be found anywhere in our countryside. The National Trust highlights that since 1945, the UK’s hedgerow network has shrunk by about 50%. That is concerning because hedgerows are not just an iconic feature of our landscapes, but critical habitats for our wildlife that clean our air and help with carbon capture and reducing flooding. The National Trust welcomes the Government’s target to create or restore 30,000 miles of hedgerows by 2037 and 45,000 by 2050.

According to the Government’s independent adviser on climate change, the Climate Change Committee, hedgerows are key to meeting our legally binding commitment to reach net zero by 2050. The committee has recommended increasing the length of hedgerows by 40% by 2050. Studies suggest that England’s hedges could already hold as much as 9 million tonnes of carbon. Unmanaged hedgerows are estimated to sequester over 140 tonnes of carbon per hectare, compared with 169 tonnes for a 30-year native woodland. If hedgerows are properly managed, they could sequester even more, both in their woody stems and in the roots below.

I am a genuine believer in our farmers as the best custodians of our countryside. However, we have lost nearly 118,000 miles of hedgerows in the UK since the 1950s, when farmers were encouraged to increase the intensity of their production.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She mentions the importance of the farming community and what they do to secure, promote and enhance hedgerows in our nation. Does she agree that we need to do as much as we can to support them in their much-needed task, which people often forget about and take for granted?

I agree entirely, and I will speak further about what more we can do to support farmers. My North Devon constituency is home to a large number of farmers.

There are few legal protections to prevent poor hedgerow management practices. When I was a councillor, I was contacted every year without fail about the cutting of local hedgerows. The problem is that the lack of a landscape criterion means that locally distinctive hedgerows are not protected and local authorities are often powerless to retain them. According to CPRE, more than half of local authorities feel that existing exceptions for built development lead to unacceptable or avoidable hedgerow loss.

Prior to the UK’s departure from the EU, cross-compliance rules governed eligibility for the EU’s common agricultural policy and provided basic environmental protections. The UK has now replaced CAP, and the rules ceased to apply as of 31 January 2023. It is worth noting that the majority of rules under cross-compliance are now covered by domestic legislation, but although the Hedgerows Regulations 1997 protect some hedgerows from being removed, there are now no regulations to protect hedgerows from harmful management practices such as ploughing too close to the base, spraying them with chemicals and cutting them at the wrong time of year.

Perhaps this is an apt time to mention the no-cutting period. The Big Garden Birdwatch—the world’s largest garden wildlife survey, organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—is happening this weekend. Every year, hundreds of thousands of nature lovers take part and help to build a picture of how garden birds are faring in the UK. If hon. Members have not signed up already, that is something for this weekend. A no-cutting period would ensure that hedgerows are not cut back during the important bird nesting season from early spring to late summer. Any reduction or loss of the no-cutting period would place severe additional pressures on farmland bird species that are already facing spiralling declines. A no-cutting period would benefit not just birds, but bees.

Colleagues have told me that there is a problem with highway authorities cutting grass verges and roadside hedges at the wrong time of year. Cutting roadside hedges destroys all the wild flowers, which have great benefits in helping bees to pollinate. It is also important to recognise that hedgerows need management, and that should be incorporated into any scheme, as many birds nest inside the hedgerows to protect them from predators, not on the bits that need trimming.

One of the UK’s very rare bumblebees, the brown-banded carder bee, was spotted in Braunton last summer. Maintaining road verges with pollinators in mind can create a network of habitat that can connect populations of bumblebees, allowing them to find suitable flowers to pollinate. I want to give a big thank you to Braunton parish council and the local volunteers at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust for their work.

Recent research by CPRE has found that planting hedgerows on arable land can boost the production of pollinating insects, increase crop yields by 10% and reduce pesticide use by 30%. The study examines what it would mean for farmers if the UK’s hedgerow network were expanded by 40% by 2050. It calculates that for every £1 invested in hedgerows, farmers would see a £1.73 return from higher crop yields.

A petition supported by North Devon residents states:

“All hedgerow cutting or trimming and non-essential tree felling should be banned between March and August to give declining bird species a chance to breed undisturbed by human activity.”

The Hedgerows Regulations 1997 offer limited legal protection, as they apply only to narrowly defined important hedges. Broadly, a hedgerow is considered important if it is at least 30 years old and meets criteria based on the number of plant and animal species it supports, its historical significance, and associated hedge features such as a hedge bank, ditch or tree.

The 2023 DEFRA consultation on protecting hedgerows included questions about ensuring continued protection for hedgerows after the end of cross-compliance. That meant that to receive the basic payment scheme, farmers and land managers were required to maintain overall standards and put in place hedgerow management measures. However, although the Department held a consultation last June on the shape of future regulations, no amendments have been made since their introduction in 1997. The Government have yet to respond, and they missed their deadline last year to replicate the previous rules in UK law. The Department has stated:

“We are determined to protect and restore vital wildlife habitats and have recently consulted on continuing hedgerow protections after the end of cross compliance and will publish a summary of responses as well as outline our next steps shortly.”

I hope that the Minister can clarify when “shortly” is, as the delayed Government response to the consultation risks a regulatory gap in the protection of hedgerows under basic hedgerow management standards.

Farmers make countless sacrifices to produce the food we eat, and they care deeply for their land. They are as much a part of the landscape as they are custodians of it. Farmers are integral to rural communities such as mine in North Devon: they help to stitch them together, create jobs and produce high-quality food, all while caring for our much-loved countryside. I will always champion our great British farmers and ensure that their voices are heard.

I welcome the good news from the Secretary of State this month regarding the latest upgrades to the UK’s farming schemes since Brexit to help support our farmers, including a 10% increase in the average value of agreements in the sustainable farming incentive and countryside stewardship schemes. A streamlined single application process for farmers to apply for the schemes is also to be warmly welcomed. I am pleased that the process has been made simpler for British farmers to access. Those upgrades underpin the Government’s commitment to support farmers and take actions to boost sustainable food production while delivering positive outcomes for the environment.

Now that we are outside the EU, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a bespoke system of farm support that better rewards farmers, protects our natural environment and is unique to our national circumstances. The new environmental land management schemes are a step in the right direction. ELMS deliver much greater value for taxpayers’ money and create a new revenue stream for farmers to complement the money they receive for food production. ELMS also help in tackling long-term threats to our food security by encouraging more sustainable farming practices and improving key assets for food production, such as soil health, water quality and healthy hedgerows.

It was great to visit the farm of my constituent David Chugg in Kingsheanton with the National Farmers Union and see the work being done to plant small trees into hedgerows as part of an ELM scheme. I am glad that the new ELM scheme means that farms such as David’s will have their management of hedgerows funded, in recognition of their historic, cultural and environmental value to our countryside.

The Government’s target is for 70% of farms to sign up to the sustainable farming incentive by 2028, and I welcome the good progress being made towards that goal. However, even if the target is met and all those farms sign up to the existing hedgerow options, it is estimated that 120,000 km of hedgerows will be left with little meaningful legal protection. The Government’s primary focus on incentivising good environmental stewardship over punitive enforcement is the right one.

Farmers have three relevant options as part of the sustainable farming incentive under ELM, with payments on offer for the measurement, management and planting of new hedgerows, but some level of legislative protection for our most precious natural assets is necessary. I therefore urge the Government to update the Hedgerows Regulations to include protections against harmful management practices. That is essential to replace the protections lost with the end of cross-compliance. We should also broaden our ambitions and think more carefully about the type of regulatory environment we want to create.

In 2018, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) commissioned the Stacey review. The review set out to rationalise the basis on which future farming regulations should be made to safeguard animal and plant welfare, ensure good land management and prevent hazards. Proportionate, smart regulation enables farmers to fulfil those goals, and the review contained a series of wide-ranging recommendations to strengthen and simplify regulation. Unfortunately, the Government have still not issued a formal response. I call on the Minister to do so.

Farming is an unpredictable business, and the hundreds of farmers whose land still lies under water after Storm Henk are a testament to that. It is our duty as policymakers to provide them with certainty and the tools they need to strengthen their resilience. North Devon residents have also signed a petition to make the protection of hedgerows a condition of ELMS and BPS subsidies. We need to ensure that farmers have the confidence to engage with that process. To ensure that farmers have that confidence in ELMS, to restore our natural world and to boost our food security, the Government should at the very least increase the ELMS budget in line with inflation and index future budgets to inflation. Consumer price inflation ran at an average of 4.18% from December 2019 to October 2023. The £2.4 billion annual budget should therefore increase by at least £400 million to restore it to its original value.

Whitehall could also be less prescriptive in the payments that it makes available to farmers. I would like to see more market-based payment rates for ELMS, reflective of our environmental needs and the demands from farmers. Options with the greatest environmental benefits or those with the lowest sign-up rates should have their payment rates boosted to increase uptake. To meet the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations to increase the length of hedgerows, SFI options for the planting and careful management of hedgerows should be included.

Farmers also need greater advice on how to access the opportunities available. After speaking to farmers in my constituency, I know how important that is. I hope the Minister will look to appoint regional and local farm champions to provide peer-to-peer advice and training on sustainable and profitable farm practices.

To sum up, I have a few suggestions for the Minister. We should introduce a landscape criterion in the regulations to give local authorities more discretion to protect hedgerows that are important to the local landscape character, but might not meet the current criteria for importance. We should improve the Hedgerows Regulations so that they are easier for local authorities to implement: any simplification should strengthen hedgerow protection, not weaken it. We should consider a closed season over winter for when hedgerow removal notices can be submitted to local authorities. That would allow comprehensive surveys of the hedgerow to take place, as required, before removal is permitted.

The key point that I want to stress is the need for those regulations that have been lost under cross-compliance, which relate to the management of hedgerows. Although I know that hedgerow planting is not a silver bullet for agricultural carbon emissions, it can play a significant role alongside good soil management, agroforestry and uptake of low carbon fertilisers.

We have just found out that our Lib Dem-run district council will miss its 2030 net zero target after having reduced its greenhouse gases by only 16% in the last four years. I hope that the Government can facilitate our farmers in filling some of the gaps that the Lib Dems have left, and secure, enhance and extend our stunning network of hedgerows across North Devon and the country.

I trust the farmers in North Devon to look after their hedgerows. They understand the link between good hedgerows, better biodiversity and improved productivity, but we must look at the next steps on protection. It is important that we boost our biodiversity to strengthen our rural economies and maximise the benefits of our beautiful countryside. We need to ensure that our hedgerows are legally protected.

I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this important debate and for her technical recommendations, which should certainly help to improve things for hedgerows.

Hedgerows are essential to our agricultural heritage and the protection of our natural environment and landscape, as well as being essential carbon sinks to help us meet our COP and convention on biological diversity commitments. I welcome CPRE’s research, which found that expanding the hedgerow network by 40% would create more than 25,000 new jobs over the next three decades, and that for every £1 spent on hedgerows a return of as much as £3.92 can be expected from the associated ecosystem services and economic opportunities.

I went to see Richard Bramley’s farm near Tadcaster—he is the chair of the National Farmers Union environment forum. He had planted hundreds of metres of hedgerows and it was great to see the biodiversity increase, with the associated carbon benefits. He said that he wanted more hedgerows on his farm, but the barrier was the lack of a skilled workforce. That and other areas of green skills need to be tackled if we are to see an expansion of our hedgerow network.

I would like a national nature service to be brought in for young people from teenage years, to give opportunities for activities such as hedgerow planting and to work with agricultural colleges to widen and broaden the curricula, which would bring forward new skilled workers to undertake activities such as hedgerow planting and management. We need to invest in those skills and skills-based activities if we are to see the necessary hedgerow planting and maintenance to meet our existing targets.

Hedges produce crops and provide food for people and animals. The protection and management of the natural environment is crucial for the agricultural sector and the environment, especially under the growing challenges imposed by the rise in temperature and the climate crisis, with continuing chaotic weather patterns. As a CPRE hedgerow champion—I am pleased that the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned us—I signed up to call on the Government to commit to significant hedgerow planting and restoration and to increase the extent of the UK’s hedgerows by 40% by 2050, as recommended by the UK Climate Change Committee. Under the nature recovery Green Paper, the Government have said that they are committed to protecting hedgerows, including through the ELMS scheme, but I would like to see them specify how they will encourage the creation of more.

When I attended the convention on biological diversity —the UN biodiversity conference—at COP15, Governments agreed a new set of goals for nature over this decade. Unfortunately, the UK is one of the most severely nature-depleted countries worldwide, and we have heard successive Government Ministers admit that that is the case. The Natural History Museum’s biodiversity intactness index, probably the best indicator of global biodiversity, has revealed that the world has crashed through the “safe limit for humanity” for biodiversity loss and placed the UK’s 53% score in the bottom 10% of all countries, well below China and last in the G7—not a record that we should be proud of. The Conservatives’ Environment Act 2021 target on species abundance, which they were forced to concede by Opposition amendments, promised only to “halt the decline” in species by 2030. Just halting the decline—or getting a “net zero for nature”—is not good enough. Our ambition should be to be nature-positive, both at home and when working internationally. Going forwards, we need to focus on improving our rewilding, reforesting and biodiversity targets in which hedgerows are preserved, utilised and renewed.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) will tell us that Labour will take a different approach, which I will agree with. We need to be the change that we want to see. Action at home has showcased to the world how nature-positive policy can be practically delivered across Government. I am sure that my hon. Friend will tell us that Labour will have a robust, net zero and nature-positive test for every policy—we must do that now—and a green prosperity plan, with an investment of £28 billion in the latter half of the next Parliament, including funding for nature restoration. I hope that that green prosperity plan includes significant funding for the green skills needed for us to restore hedgerows and our nature-depleted environment.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), because I know from prior experience as the DEFRA Minister responsible for nature that she really is a hedgerow hero. She was persistent and effective in implementing increased recognition across DEFRA of the importance of hedgerows. That was certainly recognised by Ministers, including my good friend the Minister for Nature, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), and the Farming Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), and by all the officials working for DEFRA, and by Natural England and the Forestry Commission.

I am delighted that we published the environmental improvement plan on 31 January 2023 because it really recognised, across 277 pages, what we are doing to halt the decline of nature by 2030 and increase its abundance thereafter. Hedgerows most certainly featured in that, and the revised standards earlier this year featured not just their planting and protection, but their management and assessment and the earthy banks on which they grow. I commend DEFRA for recognising the benefits of stone walls, because in areas such as mine in Copeland, across the Lake District and throughout Cumbria, stone walls are incredibly important for biodiversity and provide the windbreaks and shelters also provided by hedgerows. I am really pleased that DEFRA has recognised that they are more than just something for our much-appreciated tourists to enjoy. They are more than the cultural landscape: they actually provide a real benefit for nature and will help to contribute to the halting of nature’s decline, which is so important.

Think about the hedgerows that have featured across our landscape for thousands of years, initially formed for windbreaks, as divisions and as shelters. To divide the land in such a cost-effective, long-living, bountiful and beautiful way was a wonderful thing that our ancestors did. Grubbing up may have been Government policy many decades ago when the priority was to feed our nation in post-war Britain, but we have come a long way in appreciating that it was a bad idea to sacrifice hedgerows. I would argue that it was one of the worst environmental harms that our country has done to the countryside.

It is right to have an emphasis on farms and farmers, because on our relatively small island, which is densely populated, about 70% of our land is agricultural—is farmed land, so if we are truly to see the benefits that we need for biodiversity, it is right that ELMS and that £2.4 billion investment from Government prioritises farmed land. We are catching up, because the environmental improvement plan introduced that commitment to the planting of more hedgerows, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon set out, and the increased protections. I look forward to confirmation of that.

The new and improved standards will take us a long way, and there are now fantastic examples of farmers coming together. I give a particular shout-out to my farmers in the West Lakeland Community Interest Company, consisting of 50 or so farmers who have come together because they recognise that they can play a key part, predominantly in the Wasdale and Ennerdale area of west Cumbria, which is a truly outstanding landscape—Britain’s best view and Britain’s best farmers.

The farmers in the CIC recognise that working together, featuring more hedgerows and looking after the water quality in the area will not just be of benefit to nature and our environment, but make good business sense for them. The reason they see the business opportunities is that, across DEFRA, we have recognised the benefits of nature-based policies. One that I will reference now is biodiversity net gain. In early February, I hope, biodiversity net gain will be coming out for large developers, and for other developers thereafter. That will drive further appreciation of hedgerows—of not taking them out in the first place; of ensuring that they are protected during development, in that two-year window; and of putting hedgerows back in, because the credits for hedgerow planting are considerable.

I also draw the House’s attention to the benefits of gardeners and the role that gardening can play to increase hedgerows. To replace a fence with a hedgerow will go far in carbon sequestering, in cooling and in air quality. Hedgerows also offer a fantastic benefit for pollution capture, in particular in urban areas where about 10% of hedgerows are found. Hedgerows are of course bountiful —we can all forage from and enjoy them, and wildlife can forage and enjoy the shelter that hedgerows bring—and let us not forget their benefits in preventing soil erosion, as hedgerows will prevent flooding because their roots dig deep into the ground. The reason that hedgerows are so fantastic, however, is that they are often mixed, and that is where the benefits of gardening are as well.

A garden is a diverse landscape, which encourages multiple different plants and different layers to grow at different rates—but it is managed. The act of gardening, similar to farming, means that a garden is managed. Studies, especially those from the Royal Horticultural Society centre, RHS Wisley, now show that the benefits of our 30 million gardeners getting behind nature are absolutely phenomenal. We all know about the benefits of carbon sequestering, and if we are to fulfil our commitment of achieving net zero by 2050, gardeners will play a key role.

To conclude, I will talk about the benefits to physical and mental health from hedgerows. As the third most obese country in Europe, we have a way to go to improve our nation’s health. About 25 limbs are amputated every day as a result of diabetes, and at the height of the pandemic, on one of the worst days for hospital admissions, 4,500 people were admitted to hospital on one day; but every day, on average, 3,000 people are admitted to our hospitals due to obesity-related issues. To go for a walk along a hedgerow—I cannot imagine a nicer way to spend the day.

As we dare to dream that spring is on the way, and as the hedgerows start to get colour and liven up, we can look forward to the bird nesting season. We absolutely need to protect our hedgerows. Most importantly, we can look forward to the sights and sounds that we find in our hedgerows, and find an excuse to go for a walk and enjoy the great outdoors, which is the most wonderful thing about this country. It is absolutely essential if we are going to tackle the obesity crisis and all of the many preventable diseases that are caused by having a less active Britain.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing the debate, and the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) for her beautiful words about hedgerows and the joys of walking around the countryside. She really brought the scene to life.

My constituents know that I am proudly from a farming family. I am able to trace my ancestors back to North Cadbury, in my constituency, as far back as 1763. My family are rooted in the soil we live on. Like other small family farmers up and down the country, they are guardians of our beautiful countryside.

Hedgerows provide wildlife corridors and stimulate predators, which can reduce the need for pesticide use, improve soil health and sequester carbon. They may be artificially created, but they house and shelter some of the most enigmatic and endearing animals, from natterjack toads and horseshoe bats to tawny owls and hoverflies. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species recently counted 2,070 different species of plants and animals in one hedgerow in Devon. It recorded an average of 3.6 woody plant species in 885 km of hedgerows nationwide. Some 84% of birds found in UK farmlands need hedgerows. Over half of them live there primarily, along with 500 native plant species and over 1,500 insect species.

I have spoken before about the importance of cider in my part of Somerset, and one of the best pollinators for cider apples are red mason solitary bees, which need hedgerow shelter to thrive. I recently spoke to a farmer who told me that he had seen the first nightingale on his farm in living memory in the last few weeks, and that he regularly enjoys seeing barn owls patrolling his hedgerows. We must dismiss the myth that farmers want to tear up our hedgerows and destroy key habitats. Encouraging farmers to actively manage and preserve hedgerows is vital for future conservation and the associated benefits but, as of 31 December, there is no cross-compliance in place.

Another farmer told me:

“It’s all voluntary, it’s all optional—I personally can’t spend the required time submitting the silly forms.”

The RSPB figures show that the arrangements could risk the management of 120,000 km of hedgerows. It is rarely a lack of community spirit or ecological sympathy that prevents farmers from conserving hedgerows; instead, it is because of the lengthy and laborious digital system, which is beset with flaws, and a poor return on investing time in maintaining hedgerows.

I commend the Department for the generous payments for planting new hedgerows, but £3 per 100 metres to assess hedgerows, or just £10 per 100 metres to manage them, is ludicrous. My brother recently shared some of his calculations with me. He estimates that assessing 100 metres of hedgerow would take him 10 minutes of his time, not including the travel to the site across the farm or recording the data. Admittedly, recording the data has been made a bit easier because we are lucky enough to have fibre broadband on our farm, but that is not the case for many. Managing 100 metres of hedgerow would take approximately 20 minutes. Going back to his calculations, if he valued his time at £50 an hour, he reckons that he would receive just half of what he should be paid. He said:

“The costs far outweigh the payments…SFI rates just do not compensate for the time that is required to do a proper job.”

It is a shame that the Government did not include hedgerows in their welcome improved payment rates, which were announced recently at the Oxford farming conference. We all know that farmers are the most qualified and experienced people in this country to manage our hedgerows. However, we cannot take for granted farmers or, indeed, the volunteers in citizen science projects such as the Somerset Hedge Group. We need to increase sustainable farming incentive rates for surveying and maintaining hedgerows and have all digital and data issues ironed out with a dedicated support team.

Our hard-working farmers are going through some of the toughest times of their lives. Yes, we need legal protections for our network of hedgerows, but we also need appropriate, accessible and worthwhile accompanying incentives to actively support our farmers to preserve hedgerows, thus contributing to landscape conservation, biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.

It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance this morning, Ms Elliott. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), who made a fantastic speech, and others who have spoken commendably in the debate so far, especially the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby).

There is feverish political speculation at the moment, with all sorts of discussions about demographics, electoral movements, and blocs in the countryside or around the country. There is talk of how people will vote—red wall, blue wall—but we are very much focused on the dry stone wall where we come from. That is a particular Lib Dem demographic.

I am grateful to my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), who raised an important point. People think about the lakes, the dales and Cumbria and they think of dry stone walls. Those walls are not all in open landscape. Many are historical, many are ancient and many are in the midst of what was once pasture but is now quite mature woodland. There is an awful lot of that around the Kent estuary near where I live, for example. Huge biodiversity benefits come from dry stone walls and they are also incredibly important to our cultural heritage, as has already been said. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that we still have miles and miles of hedgerows in Cumbria, which are of enormous significance.

I have been involved in judging hedge laying competitions at Arnside and Stainton, where I assure you, Ms Elliott, that I was guided by people who actually knew what they were talking about, as well as considering just what seemed nice to me. Also, the Westmorland County Showground regularly has national and international hedge laying competitions, so it is a major part of our culture, as well as being part of the agricultural skillset that it is so important we protect, export and maintain.

There can be no doubt that hedgerows are of enormous significance to our country and our nature. They are teeming with life and are vital. I will focus most of my words on hedgerows in agricultural areas. As the hon. Member for Copeland said, 70% of England is agricultural, so the land on which we farm will be a huge part of protecting, maintaining and expanding our hedgerow network. It is also worth bearing in mind, however, the importance of residential hedgerows in built estates, in people’s gardens, and in public spaces, parkland and so on. We need to make sure that we have planning laws and regulations that support and promote those, and I might come on to that subject if I have time towards the end of my relatively few words.

If we think about the scale and size of Britain’s hedgerows—there are more than half a million miles—they would stretch to the moon and back. They are of great significance, bearing enormous biodiversity. They are an important wildlife habitat in their own right and the most widespread semi-natural habitat in the UK. They support a large diversity of flora and fauna and make a great shelter for animals and flowers. Their berries and nuts are a vital source for what are believed to be 1,500 different species of invertebrates in the UK that have their homes in our hedgerows. I think of the Government’s biodiversity action plan and the 130 species that are closely associated with hedges, including lichens, fungi and reptiles. Many more use those structures for food and shelter, at least during some point of their life cycle. Bank voles, harvest mice and hedgehogs all nest and feed in hedgerows, alongside birds that include blue tits, yellowhammers and whitethroats, while bats use them as what we might call “commuter routes”. We talk about nature corridors—they are so important.

There are many things we can say, and I will say, about the transition to the new ELM schemes. For those who have been able to get into them, there is the prospect of local nature recovery. Many farmers and landowners are involved in the project from Kendal to Penrith, which will potentially provide a continuous corridor, much of which is based upon the extension and maintenance of hedgerows. It will bring huge benefit to our biodiversity, by tackling climate change, and by providing an improved home for nature. Let us be honest, they are important boundary structures and really effective for efficient land use.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome set out so well, the loss of cross-compliance is really key. Like a lot of the current transition, a foreseeable mistake has been made. Alongside all sorts of other legal obligations, until last year every single one of the 85,000 farmers who receive basic payment also had an obligation through cross-compliance to maintain their hedgerows and do other environmental goods. I am not defending the direct payment schemes, but I will push back a little against those who said they were universally awful. They were not without environmental gain, and that was achieved through cross-compliance. I support the transition, but I think it is being done badly.

Under cross-compliance, 85,000 people were obliged to maintain their hedgerows, and 5% of them would have received an inspection from the Rural Payments Agency every year—so farmers knew it was coming. Now, barely 10% of people are in SFI. Of the 1,100 farmers in my constituency, fewer than 100 are in SFI schemes, and a minority of those will be in hedgerow options. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome set out very well, they are laudable and good, but they are also impractical, bureaucratic, and do not replace the money that has been lost. It is good that the options provided through countryside stewardship are there, but they will only be available to a very small minority of farmers, and a very small minority of Britain’s current and potential hedgerows. We are losing a lot to gain a little.

I do praise the Minister when it comes to the development and granting through Natural England of the Kendal to Penrith countryside corridor—that is a really great thing. For every one of those, however, I can name several that got turned down. The Lynster Farmers’ Group in Meathop and Ulpha bid for a scheme to protect their hedgerows from the totally avoidable flooding caused by the failure in managing the River Winster to follow its proper channel out into Morecambe bay. I would really love the Minister to look again at that, to ensure those farmers can protect their wildlife, both flora and fauna, including hedgerows.

The hedgerow options and the approach to hedgerows through the ELM scheme transition is emblematic of lots of other aspects of this transition. While they are laudable and good, they are not remotely capable of replacing a fraction of the income that farmers are losing. I was with farmers in Appleby recently. The least badly affected of them reckoned that through the various ELM schemes he could replace 60% of what he had lost. The average figure for which farmers thought they could replace what they had lost through the transition was less than 10%.

What do those farmers end up doing? Well, they go bust or their mental health ends up in a terrible, terrible state. I am truly frightened for the state of the mental health of many of the farmers in my communities—really frightened. This is not helping at all. The pressure will also lead them to make poorer decisions. If someone sees their income receding, what do they do? What do they have to intensify? They may feel against all their better instincts that they have to rip out hedges in order to maximise short-term value from the land, which I fear is happening. While these are laudable schemes, they are not even remotely attractive enough to draw people into them. They are bureaucratic and do not replace the genuine income that has been foregone, and so people are voting with their feet—like I say, 10% are in SFI. Meanwhile, my upland livestock farmers have lost 41% of their income under the Government in this Parliament.

What are farmers? Principally, they are food producers and stewards of the countryside, and they are proud to do both those things. They do not need beating over the head or to be given huge wads of cash to do things that are instinctive to them. It is really important in all of this that we do not allow people to demonise our farmers, who are doing their best with what they are given—but they are being given far too little.

I have a few words to say against those who may well be “more” culprits—our developers, who will always ask for more lax planning rules to allow them to do whatever they want. I am the opposite of a nimby, but the evidence in the lakes and the dales is that if we are really prescriptive in planning law and say what developers can and cannot do when it comes to affordable homes, zero-carbon homes and protecting and extending nature, they will grumble for a bit, but then realise that that is the only game in town, and they either build or do not build. If the Government were to give to local councils, and not just national parks, the power to be far more prescriptive about protecting and extending hedgerows, local authorities would have the power to do that.

What are the options? We can give planners and local authorities those powers, and we can extend legal protections, as the hon. Member for North Devon rightly said, but let us also think carefully about whether in the short term we need to roll over cross-compliance, so we do not lose all the good that people have done over the past few decades for the sake of a mismatched and botched transition. Ultimately, we are seeing something that is an unintended but totally foreseeable consequence of the transition. The Government can do things now to protect our hedgerows, and I pray that they will.

10.16 am

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Elliott, and to listen to all the contributions this morning. It has occasionally felt like a DEFRA Front-Bench speakers’ reunion, but I have enjoyed all the speeches, particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who helpfully contributed to Labour’s internal discussions. I can assure him that we will always be nature-positive in our approaches.

I also listened with great interest to other hon. Members’ speeches, particularly the last one. I can assure the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) that whether it is the blue wall, the red wall or a dry stone wall, Labour’s ambitions are boundless now. I listened very carefully to what he was saying about the issues around the environmental land management scheme, and I found myself very much in agreement with a lot of what he said. I also enjoyed the speeches from the hon. Members for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) and for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke).

Most of all, I enjoyed the introduction from the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby). Before the debate started, I was slightly intrigued because I always wonder what it is that motivates hon. Members to bring a debate to Westminster Hall. I was wondering which of the proverbial five tribes of the Conservative party the hon. Lady sits in. I always thought of her as belonging to the more beleaguered, sensible part of the Conservative party—I am sure that that is where she sits. I was hoping that probably means the Minister has something exciting to tell us at the end of this debate—that she will produce a proverbial rabbit out of the hedgerow, and explain how she is going to deal with what is not at all a good news story for the Government, for the reasons that have been explained.

I thought that, in her normal powerful manner, but gently, the hon. Member for North Devon introduced a considerable range of quite pertinent criticisms of the Government’s record. I will go back and read her speech closely, and hon. Members may find me echoing some of those criticisms in addition to my own.

I welcome the chance for us to discuss a way forward on the agricultural transition that enshrines the necessary protection required for hedgerows, ensuring that they continue to play their vital role in our natural environment. As we have heard, hedgerows are much more than just markers that neatly divide up our countryside and farmlands. They are highways along which wildlife of all shapes and sizes flow, and home to insects that thrive on the pests that are sometimes fond of farmers’ crops. Crucially, they also store carbon and work as a natural means of reducing the risk of flooding.

Experts from the Woodland Trust tell us that two activities are particularly bad for the health and resilience of hedgerows: first, the spreading of agricultural chemicals up to the foot of the hedges; and secondly, poorly timed and over-zealous cutting—already mentioned in the debate—that physically damages the hedges and their ability to play their role as a habitat at crucial times of the year.

We have heard about the cross-compliance rules. I remember the discussions that took place during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020, when some of us talked at length about good agricultural and environmental conditions, the standards of GAECs, and the fact that there were good standards under the old basic payment scheme mechanism. We all have our criticisms of those schemes, but as has already been explained, they did at least produce a structure and a system for 85,000 producers. That scheme ensured that land managers kept a buffer strip within two metres of their hedges and banned the use of pesticides in those spaces. To protect the crucial nesting period, land managers were also prohibited from cutting hedges for six months of the year, between March and August.

None of what we have heard comes as a surprise. We were talking about this during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020 some four or five years ago; the Government knew the cross-compliance rules would come to an end on 1 January this year. I have regularly reminded both the current Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, the right hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), and his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), of these points and of the benefits of cross-compliance. Despite knowing the potential consequences, the Government have dithered, delayed and failed to act. Perhaps the first thing that the Minister can do today is explain why we find ourselves in this situation.

The consultation was carried out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last year, but the Department has still not responded. We were told the response is to come early in 2024. Well, here we are—early in 2024. Will the Minister tell us when we are going to get that response? Frankly, it is only a response to a consultation. With no cross-compliance rules, protection for hedgerows is now substantially weakened. Does the Minister accept that point? Can she make an assessment of how much damage is likely to be done between now and when new rules are put in place? Because, although I entirely agree with the previous comments and do not expect farmers to be abusing the situation, some can, and I fear some will. What assessment has been made of the damage that will be caused by the Government’s negligence?

We are left with the Hedgerow Regulations 1997, which do offer some protection but only to “important” hedges. Sadly, the definition of “important” is so narrow that it rules out many hedgerows. The soonest we can hope to have greater protection—unless the Minister tells us something in this debate—is summer this year; that is not good enough. If the Government choose to introduce primary legislation to protect hedgerows, as some have suggested, we may have to wait until 2025 before protection is restored.

Of course, it is not just hedgerows. Cross-compliance rules on minimum soil cover, prevention of soil erosion and pesticide-free green cover near watercourses have all fallen by the wayside. History tells us that, without those protections, it is harder for us to meet legally binding targets on carbon and nature. Last week’s report from the environment watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, shows that the Government are already failing to meet almost all their environmental and nature goals. They should hang their head in shame at that report. We can scarcely afford to make the situation worse. It is interesting that the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned the Stacey review of some years ago; that was another example of things being promised and not delivered. I found myself thinking during her speech that there have been lots of targets—targets are all very worthy, but it is about delivery and action and measuring what is actually going on.

If the decline in species abundance is to be halted, the contribution made by hedgerows will be necessary. They also play a role in meeting the carbon goals that the environmental watchdog warns are in danger of being missed. Not only are they crucial stores of carbon in themselves but, as evidenced in research from the University of Leeds, the soil beneath hedgerows works as a sponge for carbon, capturing an average of 30% more carbon than intensively managed grassland parcels.

Two-metre buffer strips around hedges, which were protected by those cross-compliance rules, are also important to nature restoration. The strips host many threatened species and ensure the resilience of hedgerows. They act as corridors in what can often be inhospitable terrain for invertebrates and mammals. Significantly, buffer zones can also help stop the movement of pesticide and fertiliser away from their intended place of use and reduce run-off into our water system. Given that the Government have once again reneged on promises on neonicotinoids this year, that remains an important issue.

This is a sorry saga. The Government must act swiftly to provide clarity to the sector in the interests of land managers and nature. The first step should be finally to publish the consultation response on the future of hedgerow regulation. It is not good enough that we have yet to see it, over six months after it began. Legislation should also be brought forward at the earliest opportunity to, at a minimum, restore the protection that hedgerows enjoyed under cross-compliance rules. With support from wide across the sector for these measures, including voices such as the NFU and the Wildlife Trust, I urge the Government to move quickly on this issue. Every day without regulation risks more damage being done to these natural marvels.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair for this fascinating debate, Ms Elliott.

We have our differences, but here we are obviously all true hedgerow lovers, having all got up to get here for the 9.30 am debate on hedgerows. All of us present can be proud of the hedgerows in our area, as well as our stone walls and the other beautiful and iconic features of our landscapes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this important debate. She is passionate about hedges and has done a great deal of work with the CPRE, whose information I have read; I know that a number of other Members present are also hedgerow champions with the CPRE. Of course, I also thank the former nature Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), for all she has done on hedgerows. She has shared a great deal of knowledge with us this morning.

I grew up on a Somerset farm, and hedgerows are something that was ingrained in me, which is why I have been working very hard in the Department to ensure that we have the full understanding of hedgerows. We have great officials working on this as well; the Department does recognise the importance of this issue.

The farm I grew up on was mixed livestock: we had dairy and arable rotations and so forth. My father, Michael Pow, who very sadly died just over a year ago, was a great planter of hedgerows. Wherever he went out in the Land Rover—I was very often with him, because we were constantly moving cattle from field to field—he would carry bits of baler string, which he would put round trees and hedges to mark them so that the hedge cutter left them and they would not get cut. We now have wonderful standard trees growing out of the hedges on the farm. My father was way ahead of his time in that he cut the hedges only every other year, to leave one side to grow, which is what we are advising farmers to do now, decades on! When I go home to the farm, it is just a burgeoning froth of blossom of hawthorn, as someone mentioned, blackthorn and all the other wonderful blossoms. The National Trust runs a wonderful occasion— I do not know whether it is a day or a week—to recognise blossoms in the hedgerows. They are so valuable to wildlife.

Members really do not have to tell me how important hedgerows are, because I absolutely recognise that. The Government recognise that too. Many colleagues have mentioned the benefits we get from hedges: they provide habitats and wildlife corridors; they are great for holding the soil and stopping water run-off; they are wonderful habitats for our pollinators to shelter and hibernate in; and of course they sequester carbon. Interestingly, hedgerows were not planted for those reasons; started off as boundaries to keep our livestock in, but they have morphed into this wonderful feature that brings so many more benefits. They are so important to our landscape. They have also become important as we adapt to climate change, because they are part of our net zero commitment. They store carbon, and they are really valuable for that.

It is for all those compelling reasons that our environment improvement plan is supporting farmers to create and restore 30,000 miles of hedgerows by 2037, and 45,000 miles by 2050. That will enable all of those multiple benefits to be multiplied even more. We have calculated how much carbon can be sequestered by all those hedges, and we have the figure for 2037. It is interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon mentioned that her own Liberal Democrat council has failed its net zero target on hedges. It should probably look to its hedges and to see what it could do to get there. My hon. Friend is right: hedges can make a real difference on that agenda.

I will run through the strong legal protections for hedges that we have in law already. The Hedgerows Regulations 1997 prohibit the removal of most countryside hedgerows, or parts of them, without first seeking approval from the local planning authority. Important hedgerows with wildlife, landscape, historical or archaeological value cannot and must not be removed, and local authorities have powers to act should anybody break the law. Also, all wild birds, their eggs and their nests are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which prohibits killing, injuring or taking wild birds or taking or damaging their eggs and nests. Taken together, those legal protections safeguard most countryside hedgerows and farmland birds.

However, as we leave the EU’s common agricultural policy and move to our new and, I would say, better system for paying for environmental benefits, we have considered whether we need additional protections to manage hedgerows in law. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon mentioned, we ran a consultation last summer asking stakeholders how best to protect hedgerows through effective, proportionate regulation as we leave behind the EU’s cross-compliance system, with which the Labour party is still very much aligned. The response to that consultation should not be a surprise to anybody here, because it showed how much members of the public and farmers share our love for English hedgerows. We received almost 9,000 responses—a huge amount. It will be published imminently—the shadow Minister asked about that—but the information in it has already been looked at and used to inform the recent rise in SFI payments.

We are analysing all the data. There was overwhelming support from farmers and non-farmers alike for maintaining our legal protections. The support and enthusiasm for good hedgerow management shown in the responses from the farming community—from both individual farmers and the industry—show how much hedgerows are valued.

We have to trust farmers to do the right thing. There have been one or two damning comments today about farmers wanting to rip out hedgerows, spray all over them or plough right up to them, should there be a tiny window in which the protections are slightly different from what they were under the EU system. I live among farmers; that is how I grew up, and my husband was an agricultural auctioneer. We have to trust them. As has been said, they are the custodians of the countryside. It is disingenuous to suggest that the farming community will go out and spray, or plough right up to, hedgerows after they have created these wonderful buffers with burgeoning wildlife.

The Minister is talking to a straw man. I do not think anybody here has said what she suggests. A number of us have said that if farmers are pushed into a situation where they have no other source of income, they will make decisions that they do not want to, but nobody has said any of the things that she mentioned.

We have to be careful. There is a suggestion that what I said might happen if there is a gap. I certainly got that impression from one or two comments, but that may not be how the hon. Gentleman understood them, and his point is on the record.

We recognise the importance of the legal protections in place to prevent any of the concerns that I outlined. We do not want any of those things to happen. Those concerns come from both stakeholders and farmers. I want to make it very clear that, as a result, we will seek to regulate to maintain hedgerow protections as a matter of priority, when parliamentary time allows. That is the rabbit that I am pulling out of the hat today. I hope that will be welcome news, because I think we all agree that this is a priority. We want to make sure that regulation is fair and proportionate to farmers. That has been very clear in all our consultations. We want to get the support of farmers, and we want them to comply with the law where they have to; but we want to work with them, not against them.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) mentioned that advice is important. Advice is critical, so that farmers know what they have to do. There must be guidance that ensures that they can protect hedgerows, and we should reserve sanctions for the most serious offences. On many occasions when I have been out and about, particularly in farming areas and protected landscapes where designated advisers were working with farmers, I have seen how useful it is for farmers to have someone to talk to. I met an adviser recently in the Kent downs area of outstanding natural beauty—now called a national landscape—who was an ecologist. She said that meeting and chatting with farmers was the best way to encourage them to sign up to the levels and different options in the SFI. It can seem a bit scary, or feel like there is too much paperwork, but we have simplified the whole scheme; we have listened to our farmers on that point.

There was a bit of negativity from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the increased payment levels that we have just given for hedgerows. I thought she might have welcomed that. Although they have all gone up, we need to remember that farmers can apply for lots of different levels. It is not just one sum; they can get a sum for recording the hedgerow, a sum for managing it and so on—there are various amounts that will add up, given all the other things they can apply for in the SFI. The idea is that cumulatively the scheme will be attractive; we really want farmers to understand that and apply.

I loved the Minister’s reference to “burgeoning froth”. I think it could be her epitaph, frankly, because this is burgeoning froth. Will she tell us how many people, of the 80,000-plus who were protected through cross-compliance, have picked up on SFI and are receiving it as we speak?

That is a good point. First, let us look at what is happening in our other schemes; this is not just about SFI. We have seen a huge appetite for our country- side stewardship schemes. There are now 49,000 miles of hedgerow that have one or both sides managed under the countryside stewardship or environmental stewardship options; and famers have already signed up for 2,300 agreements, including 5,474 hedgerow actions.

Lots of farmers have opted to do a number of actions through the SFI. Remember that this is a new scheme; farmers are rolling off their countryside stewardship schemes on to the new scheme, which is expanding every day. The best thing to do is to be positive and encouraging, rather than negative and damning. I think the former nature Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland, would agree that we need to be positive about what is going on. This is a new, positive scheme. Please encourage farmers to apply for it, because the money and the options are there. We want our farmers and land managers to make the most of their hedgerows, and we support them in taking actions such as assessing and recording hedgerow condition, rotational cutting, and even leaving some hedgerows uncut altogether, which is obviously great for our nature and wildlife, and for those frothing, burgeoning hedgerows full of blackthorn and hawthorn. As I have said, farmers and land managers created or restored 8,450 miles of hedgerow through countryside stewardship capital grants, which is a great addition to our reaching our targets.

I have a few minutes left to cover some other points. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) made a good point about skills. We obviously need skills; we are aware of that and have a green jobs taskforce, with which I am involved. Through a lot of our tree strategy and action plan to plant trees, we have a big focus on skills, training and apprenticeships, including Forestry Commission apprenticeships; new funding of £4.5 million from the nature for climate fund was put towards this issue. Last year, 1,000 people undertook training in skills connected with trees, which inevitably includes skills connected with hedgerows. That is really ramping up. Those people will be out there, working together, and able to help and advise on schemes.

There has been an awful lot of good discussion about the importance of farming, but could I draw the Minister’s attention to the importance of encouraging gardeners? There are 30 million or so gardens and gardeners in the country already bringing benefits, but they could do even more to plant and protect hedgerows in those gardens. She recently visited RHS Wisley, which I have also visited. I was blown away by the knowledge of Professor Alistair Griffiths there, who talked about the physical and mental benefits of horticulture. I would also like to draw attention to the work of the Horticultural Trades Association and the all-party parliamentary group on gardening and horticulture in this area.

That gives me a great opportunity to talk about gardening; I used to be a gardening presenter and journalist. In my garden, I garden for wildlife. My hon. Friend makes such a good point. Our gardens in this country equate to a million hectares of land. Think how important that is as a wildlife habitat. I urge everyone to look after nature in their gardens and plant those trees. They should also take part in the big garden birdwatch, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon.

The shadow Minister was somewhat damning about nature, but we have a plan for nature. I cannot work out what Labour’s plan for nature would be. It is all very well to keep saying that Labour will integrate its approach, but we do not know where its £28 billion, which keeps being bandied about, is coming from. We have a plan, which started with the Environment Act 2021 and the targets set in it, and includes the environmental improvement plan, which has been so well referenced by colleagues. That is a plan with a framework and targets. Without targets, there is nothing to aim at. The targets inform the policies.

Intense work continues at DEFRA on the biodiversity targets. We have to gather all the evidence on insects, birds and plants. That is an ongoing enormous task that is ever-changing, but we are doing that, day in, day out, to inform our policies. Where we need to tweak polices—for example, if we need to up the SFI payments for a certain sector that is not delivering enough for nature while also producing food—we will be able to do so. That is the beauty of this system. Nobody else has a system like this; it is globally leading. It is very complicated, because it involves nature and is ever-changing. It is not as easy as, for example, dealing with emissions from industry. A bit of credit for that would be welcomed. People out there need to understand that we are on the side of nature, and we genuinely think we could hit the target of halting the decline of species, if we got everything lined up in the right place, and had the positivity of parliamentarians behind us.

There was a quick reference to Dame Glenys Stacey’s report. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon that since that review, our work on regulation has responded to many challenges. There has been a huge amount of work on how we make farming regulation clearer, fairer and more effective—issues to which she referred. The Government have not published a formal response to Dame Glenys’s report. However, in both the agricultural transition plan published in 2020 and the recent update published this month, we outline our vision for a regulatory system that helps the vast majority of farmers who want to and try to do the right thing, and supports them when things go wrong.

We have already made a lot of improvements to the regulatory system—improvements that farmers genuinely wanted. We have had a lot of engagement with farmers, stakeholders and the National Farmers Union in particular. The improvements include: reducing unfair penalties for farmers’ minor errors, which is something that annoyed them about the CAP system—I am sure that the shadow Minister would agree; removing duplication of standards to make the system clearer for farmers; reducing administrative burdens and paperwork; and implementing a more preventive approach to monitoring and enforcement.

There is a huge amount of synergy in the room on the issue of hedgerows, which I think we all agree are very important. The Government are committed to introducing protections for hedgerows when parliamentary time permits. For me, they are a priority. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, who is a great champion for hedgerows and will remain so.

It has been a privilege to have you in the Chair today, Ms Elliott. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for his concern about the family disputes on our side of the House, and I reassure him that the Conservative Environment Network acts as an umbrella organisation and occasional mediator. It is the largest caucus in this place, and supports the party of rural Britain and the first Government ever to legislate to protect our environment.

I look forward to supporting new legal protections for hedgerows, and thank the Minister for pulling that rabbit out of the hedgerow this morning. I hope that the consultation response is imminent, which should be sooner than “shortly”. I also hope, for all the hedgerow heroes who care so much, that both those events will come to pass before the hawthorn and blackthorn blossom emerges.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered legal protections for hedgerows.

Sitting suspended.

Books in Primary Schools

I will call Gill Furniss to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention in 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 availability of books in primary schools.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Elliott. I am delighted to have this time to talk about books, after raising this issue many times since entering Parliament and serving as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for libraries, information and knowledge.

If it were not for books I would not be standing here now. As a child, I started going to libraries and I have never stopped. In fact, I spent so much time in libraries that I ended up working in not just one but several over the years, from public libraries to academic libraries. I eventually earned my degree in information and library studies as a mature student. Books changed my life. I know that they have the potential to change the lives of millions of children, too.

As a former librarian, I have had the privilege of welcoming countless children through the doors of my local library, watching as they were whisked away to far-flung places, captivated by the magic of words. Children are whisked away to the land of Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontës and many others. This is a country whose identity is steeped in story, which is why I find it so shocking that there is no statutory requirement for schools to have any library facilities. It is no wonder that one in six adults in the country have very low levels of literacy, rising to one in three in some of the poorest communities. I fear that those statistics could be even bleaker in future.

Research conducted by the National Literacy Trust found that 56% of eight to 18-year-olds do not enjoy reading in their free time—the lowest level since surveys began in 2005. More than ever, books are fighting phones and video game consoles for relevance at home. Although those have their place, it is vital that we do everything in our power to help establish a love of reading during children’s formative years.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that libraries in primary schools are more important in areas of deprivation than in areas of affluence? It is essential that we listen to teachers in primary schools so that we know whether a child has not been spoken to and not been read to. If that is the case, they start at a terrible disadvantage, which can impact the rest of their lives. I support her debate and her ambitions 100%.

My hon. Friend is correct. It is crucial that people in poorer communities have access to public libraries.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing a debate on an issue of great importance. I know that the Minister is not responsible for Northern Ireland, but it is an issue that I can support the hon. Lady on, because in Northern Ireland we have the same problem. Does she agree that it is unacceptable that we have teachers perusing charity shops at the weekend to scrape together lending libraries for children whose parents cannot afford books? I agree with the research that shows that the amount of time that children spend reading independently is the best predictor of their overall literacy and language achievement. It helps children to build fluency and become self-reliant readers. This debate is so important. Well done to the hon. Lady.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I thank him for his intervention.

Last week, led by Sir Michael Morpurgo, the current and former children’s laureates united to call for legislation to make it a legal requirement for all schools in Britain to have libraries. Some may question that as a priority and deride it as something that would be nice to have, especially during these difficult economic times, but the benefits of reading are innumerable, and support across the country for such a policy is overwhelming.

Eighty-six per cent. of parents said that they would support making it a legal requirement for every primary school in the country to have a designated school library on site—and for good reason. Studies from the OECD show that reading for pleasure has a more profound impact on a child’s academic success than their socioeconomic background, while research by Farshore into the impacts of daily story time in primary schools found that 65% of boys and 76% of girls agree that story time makes them feel calmer. Those children went on to develop increased enthusiasm and motivation to read and, on average, their reading age improved at twice the expected rate over the period of the study.

The hon. Lady is making an important speech about an issue that is close to my heart. What she is saying is clearly demonstrated by an example in my constituency. Skerne Park Academy had a brand new library installed and started a reading lobster programme whereby children who said that they had nobody to read to were given a plush toy in the shape of a lobster so that they could have a reading partner. Reading has taken off there, and the children are doing really well.

I would like to follow up on the point raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). My love of books grew from visiting charity shops and second-hand bookshops, because their prices are accessible with pocket money. I do not think there is anything wrong with people visiting second-hand bookshops. Does the hon. Lady agree?

I am not quite sure about that. I think it is nice to have a new book, if possible. All children should be treated as equals and not have to show that they maybe do not have as much money as others. I will dwell on that point, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

Children are not the only ones to benefit from the impacts of daily story time: 91% of teachers said that they want to continue with daily story time, and 88% would like it to be mandated in the curriculum to help mitigate the guilt of coming away from the statutory curriculum requirements to spend time reading stories.

It is clear from multiple academic studies and reports that a love of books can help to form the bedrock for a better life. However, we are in the midst of a national reading crisis. That crisis is compounded by the fact that one in seven state primary schools in this country do not have a library. In the most disadvantaged communities, that number rises to one in four. We must do more to help get books into the hands of children. Ensuring that no child is left behind when it comes to reading is worth every penny; it is an investment in their future and our country’s future. However, there has been little growth in spending per pupil over the last 14 years. In fact, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted that the purchasing power of school budgets will be around 3% lower in 2024-25 than it was in 2010.

Schools have a great deal of autonomy when it comes to allocating their budget and, in recent years, they have been forced—as so many people across the country have—to make difficult financial decisions. When they are faced with buildings plagued by leaks, cold and reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, who can blame headteachers and governors for making extraordinarily difficult decisions about how they spend their budget? The lack of prioritisation of books means that two thirds of primary schools in the UK are without a designated library budget. When parents were polled, however, the library was one of the most important facilities that they wanted their children to have access to, second only to the playground.

We must remember that there is no guarantee that pupils who do not have access to books in school have access to books at home. A lack of provision in primary schools will simply exacerbate deep-rooted inequalities. We can provide the books that will help to create a generation of readers, but simply making books available does not guarantee that they will be read. Just as important as ensuring that we have fully stocked libraries in our primary schools is having the library staff. They are often overlooked, but they are vital for ensuring that the library is a welcoming and engaging space.

The hon. Lady may remember the Education Committee’s winter reports on the importance of early literacy from the time that I chaired the Committee. A key thing to come out of one of those reports was the programme of Sure Start centres for children. Is it about time we went back to that, so that every community has Sure Start centres and community centres again? They were champions for reading at school.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It would be good to see again the scope of what Labour provided in its last term.

Library staff encourage new readers and put programmes in place to ensure that reading is for pleasure, not just for study. However, a study by Great School Libraries found that only 41% of schools in the UK with a designated library area had library staff, down from 54% in 2019. We need to reverse the trends in childhood reading by ensuring that schools have well-stocked, well-staffed libraries.

We need to empower children by letting them choose what they want to read and ensuring that they have a wide variety of genres to choose from. We need to allow teachers the ability to ringfence time so that all primary school children can enjoy reading for pleasure. The gift of reading is one of the most beautiful things that we can impart to the next generation. We need to ensure that primary schools are properly equipped to do so.

It is a pleasure, once again, to see you in the Chair, Ms Elliott. It is nice to be in a Westminster Hall debate in which we all overwhelmingly agree. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) on securing the debate, and it is good to have others taking part. We have particularly benefited from hearing about the hon. Lady’s experience. She mentioned her early childhood experience as a user of libraries, and then her experiences throughout her life as an employee, a professional and an academic in the library service.

The hon. Lady said that we should improve children’s access to books. The Government wholeheartedly agree. Reading is the cornerstone of a brilliant education, an important part of growing up and adult life, and a core focus of this Government. She talked about being in competition with video games, consoles, phones and tablets. In the old times, we might have said that television was top of that list. There are good arguments and practical, useful roles for all those pieces of electronica, but there is nothing quite like a book for the physical, mental and emotional experience.

Does the Minister agree that one of the real problems we all have—I have it in Huddersfield; everyone has it in their constituency—is early stimulation? We see so many parents now pushing their small child in a pushchair, with their headphones on; they are not talking to the child. That early learning of the language, then reading at night and taking them to the library to get their books is crucial, is it not? That is why this debate is so important.

What can I say? The hon. Gentleman is ahead of me, and not for the first time. I do not think he has seen my handwritten notes, but if he had, he would know that they say, “It starts with being read to.” I remember previous debates we have had in this Chamber, particularly with our former colleague Baron Field, who was the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. For example, we used to talk about how those early experiences of being read to are so important, not only because of the reading experience, but because it is quite difficult to read to a very young child without holding them, and that early attachment is part of it.

We have a focus these days on the home learning environment, and some of the ways we can make everyday experiences—little moments—matter. Everyday experiences at a bus stop, on a train or in a supermarket are all part of that early literacy experience. Ideally there should be books at home, and I pay tribute to some of the organisations that have tried to make that more widespread, particularly in disadvantaged communities or for people on lower incomes.

Of course, there should also be books at school. School should be the great leveller. I have visited a lot of schools in my time. Like the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), I am a former member of the Education Committee. I am now and have been previously an Education Minister, and, like all of us, I am a Member of Parliament. In those three roles, I have visited a lot of schools. I am always struck by the prominence that schools give to books and reading. They are an important part of school life, and that is true for reading time in school and for children taking books home to enjoy them there.

All pupils deserve to be taught a knowledge-rich curriculum that promotes extensive reading both in and out of school, and reading is a principal way to acquire knowledge. The texts that our young people read play a big part in their wider development, too, by broadening their horizons and introducing new ideas and perspectives.

We have strengthened the national curriculum to focus on developing reading. To encourage the development of a lifelong love of literature, we are requiring pupils to study a range of books, poems and plays. The national curriculum also promotes reading for pleasure, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough rightly says, with evidence showing that that is more important for children’s educational development than even their parents’ level of education.

Charities such as BookTrust and the National Literacy Trust work tirelessly to raise the profile of reading for pleasure, and I thank them for their work. Of course, such organisations also do important work to raise awareness of the vital role of libraries, and we recognise the particular importance of libraries in increasing children’s access to books and promoting reading for pleasure, whether in school or in the community library. I am grateful to the organisations and authors who are currently shining a light on the difference that libraries can make, such as Julia Donaldson, Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pullman, Cressida Cowell and others.

I also recognise the important work undertaken by a range of organisations to promote the work of libraries to children, families and schools. For example, Schools Library Services assists schools with everything from developing whole libraries to book stocks and staff training, and the Reading Agency’s summer reading challenge, which I think many MPs also take part in directly or indirectly, motivates more than 700,000 children of all abilities to read for enjoyment over the summer holidays through their local library. It is for individual schools to decide how best to provide and maintain a library service for their pupils, including whether to employ a qualified librarian. Our reading framework provides guidance on that, including how best to engage children with the books that are available in school.

Public libraries have a strong offer to support children’s development as readers beyond school, not just through books and resources, but through events such as Rhymetimes. The experience of visiting a public library these days is quite different from when we were children: there is so much more going on, and it is much more inclusive and welcoming.

Does the Minister agree that cuts to public services mean that there is less access to public libraries? Many have closed, and community libraries, which adults in particular used to rely on, are no longer accessible.

I accept that there have been strains on public finances. The origins of those are well known: when the Government came in in 2010, there was a recurring annual public deficit of £155 billion, which is £5,500 for every household in the country. That meant that difficult decisions had to be made over time, but libraries remain an essential part of the fabric of our country. There are statutory requirements around libraries for upper-tier local authorities, and there were 2,892 static libraries in England at the last count. That does not include mobile libraries, of which there is not a similar count.

Talking of libraries gives me the perfect opportunity to highlight the fantastic work in Darlington, where our library was threatened with closure by the Labour-controlled local authority. The public were up in arms and they launched a campaign to save it. It is has been put in the hands of independent trustees, has just undergone a multimillion-pound revamp and is now at the heart of our community. Not every community has lost its library.

Well, I am pleased to hear of the good ending to that story. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that he does locally and for his championing of these causes.

In 2022, my noble Friend Lord Parkinson, the Minister for Arts and Heritage, appointed my noble Friend Baroness Sanderson to review the public libraries sector to help inform future work. Her review of public libraries was published last week and makes a number of recommendations, which will inform the development by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport of the new Government libraries strategy for England.

For children to develop a love of books, we need to build a strong foundation in reading early on, and the Government have introduced a range of measures to support the effective teaching of reading right from the start.

The Minister is making some very good points, but this is not just about books, surely—it is about what those books are. I had the honour of knowing Benjamin Zephaniah, who opened the John Clare cottage, which I am chairman of, but we are struggling to get children to come out of school into places such as that to learn about poetry and to hear and read poetry. Reading poetry at school has diminished. Trips outside of school have diminished. This is holistic. Would the Minister not agree that many children in our country from more deprived backgrounds are missing out holistically, not just in terms of libraries?

I am not quite sure how the hon. Gentleman would or could know that. I certainly know that when I visit schools, I see and hear poetry being read, discussed and being written by children. I agree with him entirely that poetry is a really important part of our literature, and it is a really important thing for children to be exposed to. Like the study of music and learning a musical instrument or to sing, they can find ways to express themselves in ways they did not know existed. It provides ways to understand the world in ways they had not previously appreciated. I agree with him absolutely on the importance of poetry.

I was talking about the earliest years, and in particular the early years foundation stage. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we introduced landmark reforms in the early years foundation stage to improve early years outcomes for all children, particularly disadvantaged children, in those critical areas that build the foundations of later success, including, importantly, language development and reading. The reforms will ensure that children receive the best start and develop a love of reading from early on. We have invested in early language intervention and are supporting parents through the home learning environment campaign that I mentioned a moment ago, which has been backed by further investment.

To drive up the standard of literacy teaching in primary schools, we have followed the evidence and focused on ensuring high-quality systematic synthetic phonics teaching for every child. Since 2010, we have turbocharged the effective teaching of phonics by placing it at the heart of the curriculum and introducing the phonics screening check in 2012 to assess pupils at the end of year 1. We have incorporated phonics into the teachers’ standards, the baseline of expectation for teachers’ professional practice. We have placed a greater focus on phonics and the teaching of reading in Ofsted’s inspection framework and supported schools to choose good phonics programmes by publishing a list of schemes validated by the Department.

In 2018, we launched the English hubs programme, which is dedicated to improving the teaching of reading. The programme has so far supported over 1,600 schools intensively, with a particular focus on helping children making the slowest progress in reading, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It includes schools in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, which are supported by two of the hubs, Learners First and Saint Wilfrid’s. The programme is having a measurable impact. Schools supported intensively as partner schools by English hubs outperform non-partner schools by around seven percentage points when comparing the change in year 1 phonics screening check results between just before the pandemic and 2022.

May I make a final intervention? The Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), has rudely left him on his own.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) wants the Government to say that every school must have a library. Is the Minister for that, or is he against it? When is he going to introduce it? He has not got much time before the election.

Look: schools have books. I do not know what schools the hon. Member may have visited that do not have books on shelves, but schools have books. Sometimes libraries these days get called “learning resource centres” and all sorts of different things. Sometimes they are laid out in different ways and not necessarily laid out as a set-aside room, but schools have books. We trust schools, headteachers, boards of governors and trustees to know what is right for their school and how to provide best for their children. We want reading and books to be at the heart of that and, in my experience of primary schools in England, that is indeed what happens.

The hubs that I mentioned are about more than phonics. In 2021, we rolled out the “Transforming your school’s reading culture” programme, which was developed by hub schools and sector experts to support reading for pleasure. Reaching around 600 schools last year, English hubs is now into the third year of delivering that research-based continuing professional development programme, which trains teachers in schools across the country to ensure that every pupil develops a love of books.

We know that the hub programme cannot reach every single school, so to ensure that all teachers had clear guidance to support their teaching of reading, we published a reading framework. Updated last year, the framework offers non-statutory guidance on best practice in the teaching of reading from reception to year 9. It recognises the importance of encouraging a love of reading, including the vital importance of pupil choice and access to a wide variety of books. More than 90% of schools have taken our first reading framework published in 2021 and 66%, or two thirds, have made changes to their practice as a result.

Our clear focus on reading is making an impact. England came fourth out of the 43 countries that tested children of the same age in the 2021 progress in international reading literacy study, which is an assessment of the reading abilities of primary-age children across the world. I am grateful to all the primary school teachers, teaching assistants and everybody in our brilliant school system whose commitment to reading and to our children has made that possible. The strongest predictor of PIRLS performance was the year 1 phonics screening check mark, with higher marks predicting higher PIRLS scores.

The Department is committed to improving literacy for all pupils because we cannot knock down barriers for children if we do not teach them to read well. We are determined to drive progress further still and ensure that all children can benefit from high-quality teaching, giving them a solid base on which to build as they progress through school.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

International Human Rights Abuses: UK Response

[Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UK response to international human rights abuses.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. I would like to start by thanking the many remarkable charities and non-governmental organisations that are working fiercely to protect the lives of oppressed people around the world. From Amnesty International to the British Red Cross, from Human Rights Watch to Islamic Relief: thank you. This is brave work in the face of terrifying opposition from terrorists, from oppositional Governments and, sadly, sometimes from Members on the Conservative Benches.

Last week in the Chamber, one hon. Member slandered judges in the European Court of Human Rights by calling them

“non-lawyers…guided by non-governmental organisations”—[Official Report, 17 January 2024; Vol. 743, c. 900],

as though the work of NGOs were a scandal to be associated with. Far from it: on behalf of those on my side of the House, I wanted to begin this debate by paying tribute to them. It is our duty in this place to work towards a world in which their services are no longer needed. Sadly, that is far from being a reality.

This week, we will mark Holocaust Memorial Day in Parliament and in our constituencies. It is a sacred and solemn moment in the year, when we consider the depths of evil that can be reached by people in power. The regime of oppression against the Jewish people, as well as other minority communities, did not begin with the holocaust and it did not end there either. It is apt that, alongside our commemorations, we consider ways in which we can intervene in present-day attacks on human rights, particularly through a proactive, fair and—importantly—consistent foreign policy.

Human rights abuses are far and away the topic on which I receive the most correspondence from my constituents. My constituents rightly care about the most vulnerable people in our town, but also across the world. I have received thousands of emails regarding the Gaza situation alone, so that is where I would like to begin.

We cannot allow the tragedies happening each day and night in the middle east to fade from our mind. While rightfully condemning the brutal attacks launched by Hamas on 7 October that killed and injured thousands of civilians in Israel, our Government were shamefully slow to oppose the counter-attack that followed, in which violations of international law were plain to see. Does the Minister regret his Department’s hesitation to intervene when the Israeli Defence Forces were known to be withholding food, water and other essential supplies from desperate Palestinians?

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this important debate. I recently put in a question to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to make sure that it is constantly checking on Israel’s engagement in the middle east when it comes to Gaza, to ensure that it is complying with international humanitarian law. Does the hon. Member agree that the Foreign Office has to be looking at this matter day in, day out, because many of our constituents across the country care about it deeply?

I wholeheartedly agree. I just wish that we had a Foreign Secretary who could actually be questioned by Members of Parliament face to face, rather than what we have currently, particularly in the volatile situation that the world is in.

To follow on from my questions to the Minister, aid routes were being blocked, hospitals were running out of fuel to treat victims, including babies, and requests to open the Rafah crossing were denied—all actions that were in direct contravention of international law. I would be interested to hear what corrections the Government would make to their approach, because it is not too late to learn from their mistakes. I strongly urge the Department to do so. As we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, we deserve answers to these serious questions.

What does the Minister have to say about the horrific ITV News footage that shows a man who was waving a white flag in a supposed safe zone being shot and killed? Will Ministers be taking this up with their Israeli counterparts? When?

The human rights of Palestinians have been systematically violated for decades, from the creeping annexations on the west bank, and settler violence, to the 15-year-long blockade, which shows no signs of weakening, but 2023 saw a deadly escalation in violence and a deterioration in the standard of human rights in the region. The latest figures from Amnesty International tell us that some 24,000 Palestinians have now been killed in Gaza. Given that half of Gaza’s population are children, we can therefore estimate that well over 10,000 children have been victims of this conflict. This is a gravely conservative estimate.

Much debate has taken place about whether the Israeli Defence Forces’ actions have amounted to war crimes. I have made my views clear. We have seen collective punishment and arbitrary arrests. Amnesty reports evidence of illegal airstrikes against churches and refugee camps. UN human rights experts warned in November of signs of genocide. As we speak, South Africa is mounting a case against Israel in the International Court of Justice, which must be heard without prejudice and taken extremely seriously.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech in this very important debate. I find it shocking that when we look at all the facts of what has happened on the ground in Gaza, it seems that almost every rule of international relations and humanitarianism has been broken. A genocide case is being heard at the ICJ, yet our Government cannot even call for a ceasefire. Is that acceptable?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. I asked the Minister whether he had regrets about his Department’s approach in the earlier stages of the most recent conflict. How long will it take for contrition to set in over the Government’s stubborn refusal to call for a ceasefire on all sides? How long can this Government ignore all the warning signs of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? When will the self-reflection begin regarding our continued supply of arms to Israel? There is far more within our power to influence Netanyahu’s Government than Ministers are currently doing. We must also do what we can to encourage the release of hostages on both sides of this conflict and to lessen the number of Palestinian and Israeli civilian casualties.

Our approach to Israel must be in line with how we treat other countries. If a Government say that they are committed to human rights, they cannot pick and choose which humans’ rights we stand up for and which ones we do not. We should not overlook breaches of international law by holding some countries to a lower standard. We have imposed sanctions on Russia and China to address their abuses of human rights, and our Government have also rightly sanctioned suppliers of arms to the Myanmar military; I would appreciate it if the Minister could divulge whether consideration has been given to similar action for the Israeli Government. Consistency should be key in our foreign policy, but consistency is what we are lacking.

I will move on to some other areas that I am sure colleagues agree deserve scrutiny. The people of Jammu and Kashmir continue their painful struggle for statehood. This is another area of international human rights that is close to the hearts of constituents in Luton North.

With regard to Kashmir, many of my Slough constituents continue to be concerned about the safety, security and wellbeing of their family and friends. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is incumbent on both the Indian Government and the Pakistani Government to ensure that the human rights of all Kashmiris are protected, and that there finally needs to be a resolution to this long-standing issue that has the wishes, hopes and aspirations of the Kashmiri people at its very heart?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What happens in Kashmir is felt on the streets of Slough, on the streets of Luton and in all our constituencies.

Since having their independent status revoked by India in 2019, the population of Jammu and Kashmir have experienced an intensive crackdown on their rights. I have heard countless shocking first-hand testimonies of arrests, of abuses and of violence against women and girls. Kashmiris deserve the freedom, safety and self-determination that was promised to them over 75 years ago, as set out in UN resolution 47. Instead, they have been deprived of their rights of expression, their internet access is tightly controlled, they are arbitrarily detained, the Indian police force kills without accountability, and Amnesty reports that it looks likely that there will be demolitions of homes in Jammu and Kashmir. The people of Jammu and Kashmir live in one of the most heavily militarised areas on the planet. Will the Minister please tell us what dialogue, if any, is happening with the Indian authorities to address the abuses of Kashmiris? Why have this Government decided to include Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir on their safe list?

Last year’s Supreme Court decision, which recommended the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission, was welcomed by charities and NGOs in the human rights space, and rightly so. I am sure the Minister agrees that such an initiative could be powerful in bringing peace as well as oversight to the region. Will he commit to promoting it to Ministers’ Indian counterparts?

My hon. Friend mentioned the horrific human rights abuses that have taken place in Palestine; she talked about Kashmir as well. There is also the brutal genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar and the abuses against the Uyghurs by the Chinese Government. The one thing that all those examples have in common is that the abuses have largely been committed against Muslims for their Muslimness. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is the worst manifestation of Islamophobia and a prime example of what happens when Governments are not held to account for their demonisation of Muslims?

I thank my hon. Friend not just for his intervention, but for the work he does in this space to champion and fight for recognition of a definition of Islamophobia in this country. This is not just about holding our country and our Government to a standard, but about fighting against and tackling state-sanctioned Islamophobia across the world.

Last week, along with many colleagues, I attended an event held by Open Doors UK to highlight areas around the world where Christians are persecuted for their faith. One of the top 10 countries was Nigeria. Last year, the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief published a report warning that treatment of Christians was near-genocidal. Sadly, other minority groups are also at risk of torture and death. One of my own constituents was forced to flee Nigeria after months of being on the run because of his sexuality. After he managed to escape, the Nigerian authorities killed his brother for assisting him, and then they killed another family member when they would not reveal where he was. One would have hoped that his arrival to the UK would bring an end this trauma, but sadly, following his substantive interview, he had to wait more than a year for his asylum claim to be granted.

Another country on the Open Doors watchlist for the persecution of Christians was China. I welcome our country’s leading voice in condemning the horrors that the Chinese Government have imposed on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. We have been persistent in our opposition to the slave labour of the Uyghurs, alongside other atrocities amounting to ethnic cleansing. It was unfortunate that the UK’s resolution at the Human Rights Council narrowly failed, but I ask the Minister and his Department to continue their efforts to pursue independent mechanisms to investigate human rights crimes through the HRC.

Jimmy Lai, a British citizen currently on trial under Beijing’s national security law, could face life imprisonment for distributing a pro-democracy newspaper. Hong Kong Watch advises that his trial is partly based on the testimony of a witness who underwent torture while imprisoned in mainland China. I join Hong Kong Watch in calling on the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to raise Mr Lai’s case and call for his immediate release.

Hongkongers are not safe from the oppressive regime of the Chinese Communist party either at home or abroad. We have Hongkongers seeking safety in the UK, with bounties on their head, who Ministers were reluctant to even meet. Here in the UK, we know of interference in our universities, violence outside embassies and intimidation of Hongkongers who speak out against Chinese state policies. I know that the Minister will share my view that any infiltration from Chinese state agents in our public institutions and political establishment must be dealt with robustly, but we have a responsibility to protect the safety and rights of private Hongkongers who have made our country their home.

We also have a duty to ensure that proposed changes to our domestic law do not negatively impact our levers of influence. I am deeply concerned that the Government are failing to hear the Uyghur groups’ warnings that the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will limit their own campaigns for justice.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I want to raise the case of two of my friends and colleagues in Hong Kong who have been detained for quite a while now. They are members of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, with whom we have worked over the years in different disputes. The first is the chair, Carol Ng Man-yee, a British Airways cabin crew worker we worked with in major disputes out there who founded the British Airways Hong Kong cabin crew union; the other is Lee Cheuk-yan, the general secretary of the confederation. They are both serving time simply for being trade unionists and representing their members. It is important that we ask the Government to maintain the pressure on the Chinese authorities for their release.

I wholeheartedly agree. We need to ensure that it is safe for people to speak up for democracy, workers’ rights and human rights, and that we continue to voice their struggle when they are voiceless.

This is the tip of the iceberg internationally. If we were to cover the true state of human rights across the globe, we would be here all week, but I want to end closer to home, because we are far from perfect.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, there are 14.5 million people living in poverty in the UK. More than 4 million of them are children. It is not just standards of health and living that are failing; basic rights such as the right to protest are being eroded. The Government are seeking to override our own courts, as we have seen with the Rwanda Bill that was voted down in the other place this week. It is not just the Government’s action that is weakening our reputation for human rights on the world stage, but their inaction: there has been cross-party condemnation of the Government’s weak response to China, and shock at the lack of acknowledgment of human rights abuses in India during trade talks. Tory MPs are even calling for the reinstatement of Donald Trump, the ex-President arrested on charges of plotting to overturn an election result.

We may look from afar at the humanitarian horrors that we see on the screens in our hands, but we must be able to answer the younger and future generations who ask, “What did you do?”, and we must not turn a blind eye to the erosion of human rights that is happening in front of our eyes at home. From Luton to Lagos, from Gaza to Kabul, from Kabul to Kashmir, when people know about human rights abuses, they care about them. The peace, stability and safety of all are worth striving for, and we can only do that together.

Order. I remind hon. Members that they should bob if they wish to speak in the debate. Given the number of people on my list, Members will have seven to eight minutes to speak. I call Debbie Abrahams.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on her absolutely superb speech, which was so broad ranging. It really was fantastic.

I want to focus on human rights abuses in Palestine and Kashmir. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group, and vice-chair of the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group. My focus in both groups has been on human rights and our common dignity and humanity. We are all born free and equal in dignity and rights.

I visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories back in 2014, when I was a relatively new MP. Quite frankly, I was absolutely horrified by what I saw and heard: healthcare being withheld from Palestinians, the destruction of Palestinian homes and schools on the west bank, the physical exclusion of Palestinians from their own farmland and the arbitrary application of law. By that, I mean that children who were picked up for throwing stones at cars and soldiers had the full force of an adult criminal justice system thrown at them, and were often detained without trial. It really was quite horrendous and draconian. All those actions are clear contraventions of rights associated with articles of the universal declaration of human rights.

I have campaigned for a two-state solution ever since, including by supporting the work of the Saddleworth Palestine Women’s Scholarship Fund, which has funded Palestinian women in Gaza and the west bank through education. We had a presentation from somebody from the fund who visited Gaza in the summer to see how the women we had been supporting were doing. Back in November, she reported that, unfortunately, a number of the students we had supported had been killed in attacks. I cannot describe the sense of loss.

Since the heinous attacks of 7 October and the abduction of the hostages, there have been attacks on Gazan civilians by Israeli forces, with over 25,000 deaths, three quarters of which were women and children, over 60,000 injured, and many thousands missing. That seems to me to be disproportionate and collective punishment of innocent people. Human rights and the rule of law must apply to all, and at all times, not just when it is convenient, whether for the UK or its allies. Those deaths must be investigated by the International Criminal Court. Similarly, I await the judgment from the International Court of Justice on the potential genocide of Palestinian people.

The international community must do better, and we must do better. I have been working with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on both Kashmir and, more recently, Gaza. I am also involved with the Global Compassion Coalition, trying to spread the message of the International Association of Parliamentarians for Peace. We all collectively want to see actions to support a ceasefire. Once again, I call for an immediate ceasefire, the safe return of each and every hostage, the delivery of unrestricted humanitarian aid, and the end of the total siege on the Gaza strip. As I mentioned to the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister yesterday, the partner of one of my constituents is still awaiting evacuation from southern Gaza. If the Minister has any news, I would be very grateful. I mentioned yesterday that he was attacked over the weekend, suffered a broken leg and has not received any healthcare.

I turn to Kashmir. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has done some excellent work. Many Members here will be familiar with the reports it produced in 2018 and 2019 on human rights abuses in both Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The UN reports raised concerns about women’s rights in particular, and reported the use of gender-based violence in Jammu and Kashmir in Indian-administered Kashmir. There are also considerable concerns about the detention without trial of Khurram Parvez, a human rights activist—we still have not had any news about his release—and the unsafe conviction of Yasin Malik. Those are just two examples about which a range of human rights agencies—Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and, as I mentioned, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—have raised concerns. They have advocated for the repeal of the public safety act and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which contravene international humanitarian law. As the UN has stated:

“There are deep inter-connections between ending such blatant violations of those rights, providing freedom from fear, and the right to security, dignity, equality and justice.”

I want to talk about the case of Yasin Malik in more detail. The Supreme Court of India is awaiting a decision on whether his life sentence will be changed to a death penalty. That is imminent. It seems absolutely at odds with the fact that India is a signatory to the UN convention. I would very much appreciate a response from the Minister on that point.

I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent work on the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group, of which I am a vice-chair. She makes a powerful point about Mohammad Yasin Malik, who has the threat of a death sentence hanging over him. However, there are many other political people in prison in Kashmir. Political life has been stifled in Kashmir. As we approach 5 February, which is Kashmir Solidarity Day, it is important to make progress on this. Our Government have many reasons for being more engaged, and not complacent about getting the issue resolved. Remember that three nuclear powers are involved in this dispute, and the risk they pose to world peace is incredible.

I totally agree. As we have seen, we were asleep at the wheel on Israel and Gaza. A few years ago when we visited Pakistan, we were warned by the high commissioner that Kashmir, at a geopolitical level, is the most significant concern for stability and safety. We cannot go on ignoring Kashmir; as my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, we must get resolution, together with the Kashmiri people, who are right at the heart of this.

I will not try your patience any more, Dame Maria. Human rights apply to every single one of us, wherever we are and at all times. We cannot dip in and out of them when it suits our purpose.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing the debate, which is an important opportunity to raise very challenging situations around the world. She is right that it is even more appropriate to emphasise them in the week when we mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

I also pay tribute to the late Sir Tony Lloyd. He was a regular contributor to debates like this in Westminster Hall. In fact, some of us had the privilege of taking part in what turned out to be his last debate, on 7 December, which marked the 75th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights and the UN convention on genocide. His commitment to human rights around the world was unwavering, and it was an honour and an inspiration to take part in any event or debate at which he was present. I got to know him particularly through his work on Colombia; I may say a bit more about that later. When Tony spoke out about the importance of protecting fundamental human rights, he did so—as all of us do—not just out of personal interest, or even as a result of witnessing such abuses at first hand or meeting people who had experienced them, but, as the hon. Member for Luton North said, on behalf of the people he represented and we represent in our constituencies.

Glasgow North, like Luton North, is home to a number of very active campaign groups—Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, Global Justice Now—and many more people who belong to such organisations, even if they do not attend meetings, as well as thousands of others who take an interest in these issues and want to play their part as good global citizens. I hear from them regularly on many of the issues and country situations that have been raised today: the persecution of Christians in Nigeria; the brutal treatment of Uyghurs and other minority groups in China; violence against Hindus, Sikhs, Ahmadis and Christians in Pakistan; forced detention of protesters in Iran; and, of course, the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and in Israel and Gaza. The UK Government have a role to play in all those situations.

In Nigeria, journalists and digital activists continue to face harassment, threats and attacks by the state, simply for expressing critical opinions. Boko Haram continues to act with impunity in many areas, and continues to kill, abduct or displace thousands of Christians and other minorities each year. What are the UK Government doing to raise these concerns with their counterparts in Nigeria? What support are they providing to agencies on the ground, both to protect people at risk of violence and to support improvements to governance and political participation?

Likewise, in their relationship with Pakistan, how are the UK Government using the long and historic links with that country to call out persecution, and to encourage the authorities to respect diversity and plurality and live up to their international obligations on freedom of religion and belief?

The situation in China has been addressed many times, and I continue to hear from constituents with ongoing concerns about its treatment of Tibet, its persecution of Buddhists, the interference with the leadership of that community, the education of children there, and the denial of rights to those who want to peacefully practice Falun Gong and Falun Dafa. The UK Government need to continue to work with international partners, including through the UN Human Rights Council, to ensure that the Chinese Government are held to account.

The hon. Gentleman is giving a great speech, and he mentioned a long list of places with human rights abuses. He mentioned the UN Human Rights Council. I know that he, like me, has a great interest in West Papua. Over half a million people have been killed since the Indonesian occupation of West Papua, and 70,000 are internally displaced. The Indonesians have agreed a UN Commission on Human Rights visit to West Papua, but it has not happened; it has been blocked. Should the Government not once more press Indonesia and the UN for that visit to take place?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Those international bodies must have a purpose. If countries such as the United Kingdom will not show a lead, who will? I fully support and congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work on behalf of the people of West Papua.

Coming back to the situation in China, we also have a role to play. As individuals, we have a responsibility to consider where some of the cheap consumer goods we take for granted and order online have really come from. Whose hands have made them? Market forces can play a part in driving change, if consumers, including all of us here today, are prepared to ask and pay for fairly traded, sustainably sourced products.

On the middle east, the consensus among residents of Glasgow North is clear: there must be an immediate ceasefire on both sides in Israel and Gaza, with the release of hostages, the opening of humanitarian corridors to let aid in and people who want to leave out, and the beginning of the process to negotiate a lasting, peaceful, just and democratic settlement.

Condemnation and speaking out against these situations is important and symbolic, but there is more that the Government can and must do. They have given themselves powers to impose Magnitsky sanctions on individuals who commit gross human rights violations, and they should not be afraid to use those powers. They are negotiating trade deals and disbursing aid funds, and respect for human rights should be at the centre of policymaking in both those areas.

In many situations where people’s rights are not being fully respected, it is the behaviour not necessarily of Governments but of large multinational businesses that is responsible. I hear from many constituents who support legislation to hold companies and corporations to account. I mentioned Colombia earlier, and large extractive companies or agricultural conglomerates in many parts of that country are displacing whole communities to make way for gold mines or palm oil plantations, even where those communities are refused democratic consent or where displacement would destroy traditional ways of life or make a wider area unhabitable because of the pollution these activities bring.

The Government should work here in the UK and with international partners to put the Ruggie principles on business and human rights on an enforceable legislative footing. Many of these companies are listed on the UK stock market or are based here, so they should be subject to a rigorous compliance regime. A wide coalition of charities and NGOs are working hard on this issue, which should rightly be a consideration not just for the Government but for the official Opposition and for all of us who are preparing manifestos in this election year.

As will be clear from those who have spoken and those who will go on to speak, and as is clear from my mailbox, voters across the country care passionately about the human rights of everyone who lives on this planet. As many of us have said before, if one person’s rights are disrespected, in some respects all our collective human dignity is diminished.

The Scottish Government and the Scottish National party are clear that, with independence, respect for human rights would be at the heart of Scotland’s written constitution—with equal justice, equal opportunity and equal dignity for everyone who lives in Scotland—and the foundation of Scotland’s role on the world stage as a good global citizen.

In the meantime, there are clear practical steps that the UK Government, the Scottish Government and all of us as individuals and voters can take, to call out human rights abuses, to seek justice and restoration, and to prevent abuses from happening in the future. That should be at the forefront of all our minds in the months to come, thorough the general election and beyond.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this debate. I am secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, and I want to place on the agenda the way journalists have become targets, particularly in Gaza, although this has been going on for a while.

In 2022, I attended the memorial event for Shireen Abu Akleh, a young al-Jazeera journalist. She had a reputation that was respected across the middle east for professional journalistic practice and for her courage. Although Palestinian, she was an American citizen. She was involved in an action covering a raid by the Israeli Defence Forces in Jenin. During that raid, there was no firing of weapons or engagement in the immediate area, according to various investigations that took place, but she was shot with an Israeli bullet. That indicated to many people that, although there exist specific protections in international law for journalists covering wartime disputes, they were being ignored by the Israel Defence Forces at that time.

According to the independent Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 83 journalists have been killed since then, during the recent activities of the Israel Defence Forces in Gaza, but others put the figure significantly higher. The International Federation of Journalists—the international trade union grouping for journalists—has called for an independent inquiry into the targeting of journalists by the Israel Defence Forces. There is a view now that the Israeli Government have not just turned a blind eye to this, but that there has been a specific policy of targeting journalists to prevent the truth from coming out of Gaza.

Thank God for the professionalism and courage of journalists there, as we witness the tragic scenes of human suffering taking place. Over the last few weeks, that human suffering has been best exemplified by what has happened to al-Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief, Wael al-Dahdouh. He has lost his wife, three children and his grandson, and his son, who was a journalist, was killed by an Israeli drone two weeks ago. Virtually his whole family has been destroyed. This goes beyond the debate about the abuse of human rights and, as far as I am concerned, well into war crimes taking place. That is specifically because of the protection that there is in international law for journalists to enable them to report from wars.

I urge the UK Government to look at the evidence in front of us about what is happening specifically to journalists in Gaza and to consider whether that is right or acceptable. In the past, they were part and parcel of establishing the very laws that were meant to protect journalists. Figures show that more journalists have died in this conflict than in every conflict since the second world war. For me, that is evidence that the Israel Defence Forces are targeting journalists, so they should be held to account.

I would like the UK Government to raise this issue with the Israeli Government, to work towards an independent investigation and to work with international agencies such as the International Federation of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists to establish the truth and, just as importantly, to establish accountability for the perpetrators of what I believe is a war crime.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for securing this important debate.

The debate is wide-ranging, but I would like to focus on the situation in Palestine. Like my hon. Friend, I voted for a ceasefire in November last year, because my constituents asked me to. I shared their concerns, and I still do. In addition, hundreds of non-governmental organisations, the United Nations and the Pope all called for a ceasefire.

On that note, something happened before Christmas to reinforce my view that a ceasefire was absolutely necessary: two Roman Catholic women, a mother and a daughter, were shot dead inside the Holy Family parish church in Gaza. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said:

“They were shot in cold blood inside the premises of the parish”.

Pope Francis condemned the attack, as did the Archbishop of Westminster. Cardinal Vincent made a point we should all reflect on:

“the people in Gaza and the Cardinal Archbishop of Jerusalem, they’re not given to tell lies”.

The cardinal was absolutely right. The Palestinian people are not liars and they deserve to be listened to.

I raised the issue with the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), earlier this month, when he said:

“We are not clear about the full facts of what happened.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2024; Vol. 743, c. 46.]

I wonder whether, two weeks on, the Government are now clear about the full facts. Those two women did not deserve to die. They were in a place of worship—something that is recognised under international humanitarian law and the Geneva convention. I am no expert, but like so many people outside this place, I know that what happened at the Holy Family parish church was wrong. Those women deserve justice, as does everyone else who has suffered.

The United Nations has described the situation in Gaza as “a living hell”, and the under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs said:

“Famine is around the corner…For children in particular, the past 12 weeks have been traumatic: No food. No water. No school. Nothing but the terrifying sounds of war, day in and day out.”

The last time I checked, the death toll in Gaza was over 25,000—it may be more by the end of this debate. According to the United Nations, it is estimated that 70% of those killed are women and children. Two mothers are killed every hour, close to 3,000 women have been widowed, and 1 million women and girls have been displaced. To add another layer of misery, caesarean sections are performed without anaesthetic, and women and girls have little or no access to period products. My constituent, Dr Thomas Butts, who teaches development neurobiology in the School of Medicine at the University of Sunderland, told me:

“The extent and severity of trauma-related psychiatric illness in Gazan children’s future will be horrific and will get worse the longer that the bombardment continues.”

What are the Government doing to relieve the pain that so many Gazans are experiencing? Cynics say, “What will a vote in a Parliament, thousands of miles away from Palestine, do for Palestinians?” For one, Britain is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council—we have enormous influence on the world stage. More importantly, it would give those innocent Gazans, whose lives have been torn apart, a glimmer of hope that the world has not forgotten them. I repeat today the call for a ceasefire, in the earnest hope that the Minister will reconsider his position.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this important debate.

I would like to talk about the Government’s response to Israel’s violations of international law in Gaza and about revelations that I believe should be a major news story but that, as far as I am aware, have been covered by only one mainstream outlet. They relate to recently released court documents that reveal that, from very early on in the war, the Foreign Office had major doubts about Israel’s compliance with international law—a fact the Government have hidden.

The documents show that, on 10 November, just a month into the war, the Foreign Office had made an internal assessment of Israel’s compliance with international law and judged that

“the volume of strikes, total death toll as proportion of those who are children, raise serious concerns.”

It went on to say that His Majesty’s Government’s

“inability to come to a clear assessment on Israel’s record of compliance with IHL poses significant policy risks.”

However, those serious concerns were kept secret from Parliament and the public.

Instead, Ministers continued to give reassurances about Israel’s commitment to international law. For example, just four days after that assessment was made, I asked the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, in the main Chamber whether Israel had used British-made weapons for war crimes in Gaza. He replied that

“the President of Israel…has made it clear that his country will abide by international humanitarian law.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2023; Vol. 740, c. 523.]

That was despite the fact that, as shown by these documents, his Department doubted the Israeli President’s words.

The documents reveal that another assessment was made by the Foreign Office on 8 December, expressing “concerns regarding” Israel’s

“commitment to comply with the obligation not to arbitrarily deny access to humanitarian assistance”

and saying that it was “possible Israel’s actions” in relation to the provision of humanitarian relief

“were a breach of International Humanitarian Law.”

Those damning judgments were, again, not made public. Instead, Government Ministers continued to reassure the public about Israel’s commitment to international law, and they continue to do that.

The documents show that, a few days after that assessment, the Foreign Secretary

“decided he was satisfied there was good evidence to support a judgment that Israel is committed to comply with International Humanitarian Law.”

On that basis, he continued allowing arms sales to Israel, despite the fact that, according to our Government’s policy and international law, arms export licences should not be granted if there is a clear risk that they could be used in violation of international law. That recommendation was accepted by the Business Secretary on 18 December, and arms sales to Israel were allowed to continue.

When questioned about these matters at the Foreign Affairs Committee this month, the Foreign Secretary failed to disclose the fact that his Department had carried out a formal review of Israel’s compliance with international law, and he denied that he had made a ministerial decision about allowing arms sales to continue. Members will be unsurprised to learn that the Chair of that Committee is writing to the Foreign Secretary to ask him to clarify his comments.

What does this tell us? First, it tells us that, early on in the war, the Foreign Office had serious concerns about Israel’s breaches of international law. Secondly, it tells us that Ministers hid that fact, pretending in Parliament and in the media that they had confidence in Israel’s commitment to international law. Thirdly, it tells us that we should have absolutely no confidence in the Government’s arms export licensing regime, which Ministers boast consists of

“the toughest regulations anywhere in the world”—[Official Report, 27 November 2023; Vol. 741, c. 565.]

but which are clearly grossly inadequate.

To finish, I would like to ask some questions of the Minister. Why did Foreign Office Ministers not reveal that their Department had serious concerns about Israel’s behaviour from as early as 10 November? Was that because they wanted to give Israel the green light for its bombardment of Gaza and they thought that revealing this assessment would simply make that too hard? Why did the Foreign Secretary recommend continuing with arms sales to Israel even though his Department had those concerns? Was it because this Government are too cowardly to stand up for international law, or is it because they do not care about international law when it does not suit them? Finally, will the Government comply with their own rules and with international law and the basic humanity at the heart of it and stop arming Israeli war crimes?

You bounced me out of writing my speech, Dame Maria. [Laughter.] It is a pleasure to wind up for the SNP in this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing the debate; it is a very timely discussion, and a pretty bleak one for those of us who believe in international co-operation and the rules-based international order.

This is close to the SNP’s heart. Our objective as a party is for Scotland to be an independent state. In order to be a global citizen, there is a need to look after our folks at home but also to be a voice for internationalism, progress, multilateralism, co-operation and the rule of law in the world. As a party, we are heavily invested in making the rules-based international order function. We believe in an international community—not global governance, but an international community and structured permanent co-operation—and we believe that that architecture should operate to a series of values that are universally applied against our friends and others.

This debate is close to our hearts. It is a bleak time that we find ourselves living through. It is important to remember a bit of historical context to this. As an SNP Member and an out and proud nationalist for Scotland, I would say that the UK has a good story to tell on the creation of the international human rights architecture. It was English and Scots lawyers who were absolutely integral to the creation of the Council of Europe’s human rights framework and the international court in Strasbourg. UK lawyers have been instrumental in helping to promote the case of human rights worldwide, particularly through the Commonwealth mechanisms, such as they are; we could improve on them, but they do exist and they have made progress. The UK has a good story to tell on this, and I want to see the UK do better than it has done lately.

I will come back to some concrete suggestions, but the fact that the original genesis of human rights—the idea that an individual should be empowered against their Government with rights, which should be protected by an international community—is a genius idea of international co-operation, which we should all cherish and aspire to. This has been adopted, of course, by the EU and the international NGOs, particularly the UN. Human rights have not been universally applied, but that is something that we should aspire to as an international community.

As an aspiring member of the international community as an independent Scotland and part of the international community as part of the UK, I want to see all of us do better. I want to work across borders. I will work with anybody to those ends from any political perspective because the baddies are organised; the baddies are working well. Those on the right side of that ledger—I would include all in this room in that—need to co-operate better, focus more and apply international law wherever we find it being infringed.

It is a bleak time. The SNP was very proudly part of the coalition in support of UK Government policy. We had questions, but we did support UK Government policy on Ukraine, because Ukraine suffered a grievous invasion from a foreign power and the rights of the people of Ukraine have been grievously infringed and continue to be infringed daily. I am sure the SNP is part of the coalition in defence of Ukraine’s liberty and the rights of the Ukrainian people to live without fear from their neighbours.

It would be difficult to say that the UK has been so active in the case of Israel and Palestine. If human rights are to be applied everywhere, they need to be applied universally—against our friends as well as everybody else. So, I strongly support the South African referral of the actions of the State of Israel to the international frameworks. There is a case to answer. I do not believe that individual politicians should use words like “genocide” lightly. I think there should be proper investigations and it should be proper authorities making such decisions, but there is surely cause for concern; surely the evidence that we have seen coming out of Israel and Gaza and Palestine should give us all cause for concern that there is a case to answer—that the State of Israel has committed war crimes, and that must have consequences—so I strongly support the referral by the South Africans to the international framework.

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, I think, puts it best:

“The Human Rights System is Under Threat”

—worldwide. There is not a continent where human rights are not being infringed, either by the state, by non-state actors, or in various places by proxy actors. It’s a messy world out there. I think it was Adlai Stevenson who said that to every question there is an answer that is clear, easy to understand and entirely wrong. I do not expect the UK to be the world’s policeman. I do not expect our Minister to be responsible for solving all these problems, but an international coalition needs to be put together to work on them. The UK could do rather more than we have seen to date in those efforts.

I have a few concrete suggestions. I am about to make some criticism of some UK Government Ministers. I would specifically exempt the Minister present from that criticism; I have not heard him put a foot wrong on these matters, and I do believe that he deeply shares these values. But where we see UK Government Ministers talking about breaking international law in a “limited and specific way” with regard to the Northern Ireland protocol, that is just not how serious Government Ministers and serious Governments talk. That is not how we should be discussing these things. Where we see leading Members of the Government party talking about “unelected foreign judges” in Strasbourg—somehow unqualified judges, as well—as if our judges are elected and as if the members of the court in Strasbourg or Luxembourg are not deeply qualified individuals, it is just not how serious countries talk. The reputational damage to the UK—I am an SNP member, so I should be enjoying this, but I am not. The UK needs to do better with this. We know it is loose talk from loose cannons, but the very worst people worldwide are taking the very worst lessons from this and that should give us all pause.

We are also seeing, as a matter of Government policy, the Rwanda Bill, which has deep implications for international law, yet breaking international obligations to some of the most vulnerable people in the world is being trumpeted as if it was a mere bagatelle. It is a deeply significant piece of legislation and it gives the very worst example to the baddies in the world, who are looking to undermine this international structure that we are all surely invested in.

Speaking of investment, I appreciate that all budgets everywhere at this time are difficult, but we still need to see greater investment from the UK, not only in international aid and development but specifically in the international human rights architecture. That is supporting NGOs in the field; I echo all colleagues who have specifically praised international NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many others that are active in this space.

We also need to see specific funding for NGOs that are working on investigations and accountability mechanisms, greater support for UN mechanisms for accountability and support for journalists, who have been mentioned by a number of colleagues today. If we do not know what is going on, we will not be able to hold the baddies to account; journalists have a privileged and special place in law, so we need to see that being applied by the international community. The UK really is in a position to have much more influence in that respect.

We also need to see prioritisation of human rights in trade policy. One of the oft-stated advantages of leaving the European Union is that the UK has an independent trade policy, so let us see human rights being put far higher up that agenda than we have seen so far.

I remember that during my time in the European Parliament there was always a human rights component of all EU trade deals. My group almost always voted against trade deals on the basis that the human rights component of such deals was not strong enough. We were not against the trade deals; we just thought that the EU could do more to nudge partner countries in a better direction. The UK really has not prioritised human rights in trade deals at all and we must see much better efforts in that respect. So far, we have seen too little progress.

We also need to apply the values that we all support equally, whether it is difficult to do so or not. We are very vocal about the infringement of the rights of the Ukrainian people, but we have been posted missing on the infringement of the rights of the Palestinian people. We need to do so much better than we are doing currently. However, where there is an international coalition that will work in that direction—I believe that, on balance, the UK has a better story to tell than many other countries—I will be part of that coalition. I believe in working across borders and across parties, because there is an international architecture that is fragile and under attack from all sides; and I believe that those of us who are on the right side of this discussion need to work more closely together to promote these ends.

It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria, and I must say to the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) that if his speech was a half-written one, it was a remarkably good one.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for securing this debate. Like many colleagues, she has rightly exposed the depths of the horrors being inflicted in our world today, which include the abuses of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Hongkongers here in the UK having bounties put on their heads, and the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, where the people have lived for far too long in a limbo of injustice and insecurity.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of people around the world being persecuted for their faith, which I will address in tomorrow’s Westminster Hall debate on religious persecution, and I am keen to hear privately more details about the constituency case that she mentioned regarding Nigeria.

All these issues are worth so much more consideration than I can give them in 10 minutes. Consequently, if hon. Members will forgive me, I will focus on those suffering in Sudan and give them a voice, because the conflict there is not being given the attention that it rightly deserves.

Before I do so, however, I will talk about Gaza. What is happening in Gaza is an intolerable horror and a disgrace to humanity, and it must end. In Gaza, 85% of the population have been forcibly displaced, but nowhere is safe for them. Hundreds of thousands of people are living without shelter in cold weather, with precious little access to food, water and healthcare. Famine and disease epidemics are way too close now. Humanitarian access is being limited in a way that even Ministers here are clear is completely and utterly unjustified.

The siege must end. None of this is compatible with the universal human rights that all our faiths and all our traditions hold dear, which are rights that we, in turn, see as a foundation for our own peace and security. We need an immediate halt to the violence in Gaza, with a sustained ceasefire; we need a genuine process to bring about a fair and just two-state peace; and we need accountability through the independent international system, within which the same rules apply to all.

Many of these calls apply equally to Sudan, where tens of thousands have been killed and 7.6 million people have been forcibly displaced since the conflict began last April. If hon. Members will forgive me, I want to spell out some of the conclusions from the recent report of the UN panel of experts on Darfur. The report details some of the absolute horrors that the Sudanese people have been subjected to over the past months, because of a conflict between two generals.

Last summer, we raised the alarm about what was happening in the city of El Geneina in Darfur: targeted massacres; the burning of refugee camps; women and girls raped because of their ethnicity, as a weapon of war; and families deliberately trapped, and shot if they tried to flee. It had the obvious and terrible echoes of the acts of genocide alleged in Darfur 20 years ago.

The new report states that the death toll in that small city alone is likely to have been between 10,000 and 15,000 people. A girls’ boarding school and its neighbouring school were sheltering 4,500 civilian families. They were bombed with heavy artillery. Every hospital in the city was looted and destroyed. A convoy of thousands of women and children, injured elderly people and animals fleeing the city was attacked indiscriminately when it reached a bridge. An estimated 1,000 people were killed in that attack alone, and 100 are reported to have drowned in an attempt to flee the attacks on the bridge. Human rights monitors were killed while reporting on the atrocities taking place.

The report sets out some very clear details and assessments of where the weapons used in those attacks came from. Although I know that the Government will not comment on ongoing sanctions work, I would like an assurance that the evidence from this report is being taken extremely seriously, because we need to see further action in response to these atrocities.

I also say gently to the Government that we need a more concerted and consistent approach to the atrocities being committed in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, too. That conflict is an open wound. Young children are being subjected to brutal violence of all kinds by armed groups, including rape, and are recruited as soldiers in their hundreds. Some 720,000 people have fled their homes just since October, adding to almost 7 million local refugees. More than 11 million people are going hungry in just the three most affected provinces.

Many armed guards have been identified as responsible for the atrocities, but I believe that it is important to highlight the M23 militia, because it has clearly played the biggest role in the violence over the last two years. Time and again, credible reports from the UN and human rights organisations have assessed that elements within the Rwandan armed forces and intelligence services are responsible for materially supporting M23. Our closest allies have noted that, too. They have noted, equally, the Government’s apparent reticence to play our part and to follow their suit.

Understandably, there is a suspicion that the reason for our inconsistency and inaction on this issue is the Rwanda migration deal, Tory infighting, and foreign policy that is effectively being run from the Home Office. This massively damages our relationship with the DRC, which is really an important partner across so many issues. Equally, how can we say that the UK is genuinely supporting the human rights of all when we are being seen as utterly inconsistent on this issue? I believe we need a Government who can more effectively support human rights abroad.

I will not pretend that any of this is easy. I know that our influence is limited and that sometimes symbolic acts of rejection and disengagement do more harm than good—I honestly get that, but I believe that we need to rebuild our connections with countries around the world and recognise how the world is changing. If we do not, our actions in support of human rights will have precious little impact. We will be shouting into a void while being heard by no one.

I know that we are not solely responsible for righting all the wrongs of the world, but surely we must do our part. The Opposition believe that if we are smarter, more strategic and more consistent in our engagement around the world, we can have greater impact within our partnerships, but that requires our words and actions to be aligned in support of human rights.

On arms exports, for example, a Labour Government would reform the system so that it is transparent and committed to upholding international law. The criteria say that licences should not be granted where there are clear risks of UK arms being used for internal oppression or violations of international humanitarian laws, but the Minister will recognise that just having those criteria is not enough. The judgments that are made when applying the criteria need to be clear and accountable, and they need to be credible.

It is frankly difficult to believe that the criteria could have been applied robustly in some cases. Israel has faced very serious allegations from bodies including the United Nations and is the subject of ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court. That raises very serious questions about how licences could be granted to Israel. It is not just about the quality of judgments being made in some cases; it is about the quality of the assessments available to inform these judgments. In a number of cases, whether it is Myanmar, Ethiopia or Sudan, I believe that there have been clear weaknesses in our foreign policy—because we simply have not been monitoring the warning signs well enough, or we do not have joined-up policy structures that can respond quickly and effectively, or we have not had the capacity to map the perpetrators and the sources of atrocity risks and have not identified their lines of support, shut them down and held them to account.

The international development White Paper pointed in the right direction, and we welcome that. We want to build on it, should we win the next election. But frankly, only a smart, strategic, cross-Government approach can truly help to prevent atrocities, systematic abuses of human rights, and the dire, sickening, shameful consequences of those abuses, which we are seeing in so many places around the world—in Sudan, in DRC and in Gaza.

It is an honour to see you in the Chair, Dame Maria. We have known each other a long time, but I do not think I have had the chance to say “Dame Maria” in public, so that made me feel good.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), and I congratulate her on securing this really important debate. Some who have participated have recognised the important contribution of Tony Lloyd on this subject and many others. His passing is a very sad loss.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government on these very important issues, which have been raised with passion and conviction. That was very clear. I will seek to respond to as many points I can, but I cannot promise to respond to every single one. This is probably one of the most wide-ranging debates I have ever been involved in, for understandable reasons, and that in itself is a concern.

The Government believe, as the House believes, that human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. This was clearly enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights 75 years ago. The UK has long championed its importance, and as we marked its anniversary last month, we renewed our steadfast commitment to protect and promote the rights that it enshrines. We demonstrated the depth of our commitment to that around the world by making five human rights pledges, which we submitted to the United Nations as part of its anniversary celebrations in December. We used the opportunity to highlight our long-standing and ongoing support for human rights defenders, and for equal rights for women and girls, disabled people and LGBT+ persons. We also cemented our commitment to defending freedom of religion or belief, combating modern slavery, and raising the standards of public and private security organisations.

My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who is the Minister responsible for human rights, also hosted an event last month to celebrate Human Rights Day, where the Foreign Secretary outlined three ways in which we can help deliver those five pledges. First, the UK will continue to stand up for the rights of all, including by holding human rights abusers and violators to account, offering support and sanctuary to victims, and defending the open international order. Secondly, we will champion the open societies that guarantee those rights in the first place. Thirdly, we will stand together with allies, friends and partners—old and new—to realise the universal declaration of human rights.

As the Foreign Secretary underlined, if we show international strength and unity, there is no reason why we cannot prevail in the fight for human rights around the world. That theme has resonated across both sides of this debate. I heard it from the hon. Members for West Ham (Ms Brown) and for Stirling (Alyn Smith), who both made important contributions to the debate.

As we strive towards that aim, we must overcome horrific global challenges, including humanitarian crises, conflicts and fierce opposition to human rights. They have all been catalogued today. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) mentioned Colombia. In my brief, the Americas, I have seen at first hand the devastating impact that human rights abuses and violations can have on individuals, particularly women, in times of conflict, and on communities, democracy and freedom. These cruel injustices serve only to strengthen the UK’s resolve to promote and protect human rights in every corner of the world.

One theme that has come out of this debate loud and clear is freedom of religion or belief. I will not spend a huge amount of time on that because we will cover it in a three-hour debate tomorrow, but I will just highlight the excellent report and presentation last week from Open Doors UK about the plight of Christians in Nigeria and Pakistan, which has been touched on today. We have also heard about the persecution of Muslims, Buddhists, the Baha’is—the list goes on. There must be more tolerance in the world, and we need to work hard for that. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about the importance of freedom of expression and a free press. I will not go on; he is no longer in his place, but I think we all understand the importance of that.

The UK will remain one of the most active and influential states on the international stage when it comes to human rights, including within the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. At the UN Human Rights Council last October, the UK led resolutions on Sudan—a point that was raised earlier—Somalia, and the importance of girls’ education. We also strongly supported resolutions to renew the mandate of the special rapporteurs on Russia and on Afghanistan.

We have also made important strides on sanctions. In December, linked to the 75th anniversary and the five pledges that I talked about, we announced 46 sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, against individuals and entities linked to human rights abuses around the world. We targeted individuals linked to authorities in Belarus, Haiti, Iran and Syria for their repressive activity against civilian populations.

I pay tribute to a brave individual I met in Peru, Quinto Inuma Alvarado, who was tragically murdered after I had the honour of meeting him and other human rights defenders in that country. He talked passionately about his work to protect the Amazon, but he was not allowed to continue taking those views forward, and his life was tragically cut short. My thoughts and prayers continue to be with him and his family. There is too much of this violence in the world.

The Minister has yet to come to the topic of what is happening in Gaza, but I repeat the question that I asked: why did Foreign Office Ministers not reveal the fact that their Government had concerns about Israel’s compliance with international law as early as 10 November? I want to hear a response to that specific question.

I will come on to Israel and Gaza, and I will not be long. I will get there very quickly.

The issue of Ukraine is important for all of us, and I am grateful for the support across the House on it. We are nearly two years on from the illegal invasion, and Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General has recorded more than 120,000 incidents of alleged war crimes, murder, rape and the deportation of children. Those are matters of international humanitarian law, which is separate and distinct from the legal obligations that regulate armed conflict. We will continue to hold Russia to account. I want also to mention some of the persecution that goes on within Russia, including the imprisonment of Vladimir Kara-Murza for his opposition to Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. We have constantly called for his release since his initial arrest and will regularly raise his imprisonment with Russian authorities and in multilateral fora.

Gaza is a hot subject, and I am not going to duck the issue. There are strong opinions on both sides. My hon. Friend—I will call her that, but I should probably call her the hon. Member for West Ham—talked about the need for a ceasefire. We want a sustainable ceasefire, and we are working hard towards it.

The hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) raised important points. What I can say at this point—she will probably not be happy with the answer—is that Ministers review the advice they receive carefully and act consistently with that advice. We work hard and continue to call for international humanitarian law to be respected and for civilians to be protected. As the Foreign Secretary outlined, we assess that Israel has the capability and commitment to comply with international humanitarian law, but we are also deeply concerned about the impact on the civilian population in Gaza. Too many civilians have been killed.

The Minister is being very generous with his time. If there are concerns in the Foreign Office, as per the internal assessment, why did the Foreign Secretary recommend continuing to allow arms sales to Israel? That goes against our current policy, which is that where there is a risk that human rights violations will take place, we should not continue selling arms licences to countries.

The Foreign Secretary outlined on 8 January that he has not received advice that Israel has breached international humanitarian law. On export licences, the UK supports Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and take action against terrorism, provided that it is within the bounds of international humanitarian law. All our export licences are kept under careful and continual review, and we can amend, suspend or revoke extant licences or refuse new licence applications where they are inconsistent with the UK’s strategic export licensing criteria. It is important to note that, as I think hon. Members are aware, the regime is among the most rigorous and transparent in the world.

On the topic of Israel and Gaza, a number of people talked about South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice. The Government believe that this development is not helpful, and we do not support it. As previously stated, we recognise that Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas, and we do not believe that calling that genocide is the right approach. Ultimately, it is for the courts, not states, to decide on matters of genocide, and of course we will respect the role and independence of the ICJ.

Many other subjects were talked about, including Kashmir. Our long-standing position on Kashmir is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to the long-standing and ongoing dispute. The UK recognises that there are human rights concerns in both India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

The Minister is being generous with his time, but he has been asked a number of specific questions today—I myself asked specific questions about Gaza, Kashmir and China—and I know that with the limit on time, he is unlikely to get through them all. Could he please give a commitment that he will provide written answers to any questions left unanswered today?

I will do my best, but the questions that have been asked today are genuinely numerous and very wide-ranging. It is the hon. Member’s debate; if she would like to write separately and pick a number of questions to which she would like further answers, could she please get in touch, or can we talk afterwards and decide how best to take that forward. Would that be all right?

Let us move on to another important subject. Issues have been raised about Rwanda. The Home Secretary has made it clear that the legislation on Rwanda does not challenge the UK’s relationship with the European convention on human rights. We have a long-standing tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected and of abiding by the rule of law, both domestic and international. We are talking to the European Court about the interim measures issues that have come up, and the Court has proposed reforms to rule 39 that build on our constructive discussions. We look forward to the Court’s adopting amendments to that rule in line with this approach.

We have also talked about China today. Every day, people across China face violations of their human rights, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet, and rights and freedoms have also been eroded in Hong Kong. We consistently raise these matters at the highest levels with the Chinese authorities. We also conduct independent visits to areas of major concern wherever possible and support NGOs in exposing and responding to violations. We raise the reputational and diplomatic cost to China of its human rights violations regularly on the international stage. We were the first country to lead a joint statement on China’s human rights record in Xinjiang at the UN, and we have sustained pressure on China to change its behaviour.

As the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), made clear during yesterday’s debate—it has been a busy week on human rights issues—we urge the Chinese authorities to repeal the national security law in Hong Kong, which has had such a damaging impact on so many individuals and on the city. The Foreign Secretary has also called for Jimmy Lai’s release.

Iran has not come up so much in today’s debate—partly, I think, because there are so many areas to discuss. With one minute remaining, I would just like to highlight that we have witnessed a shocking repression of human rights in Iran, from oppressive hijab laws to the reprisals against women and human rights defenders. We have responded to these acts by sanctioning 94 individuals and entities for human rights violations. At the 78th UN General Assembly, we co-sponsored the Iran human rights resolution calling for an immediate moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. The UK will continue to work with partners to deter and challenge Iran’s human rights violations at all opportunities.

I want to mention the death penalty sought against Yasin Malik, who is a freedom-fighting activist. Why are we not talking about him?

We abhor the use of the death penalty and we call it out wherever we can. I can talk separately about that case with the hon. Member.

The UK has not only a duty but a deep desire to promote and defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect around the world. We continue to stand with partners across the globe to uphold freedom, democracy and the sovereignty of nations, and to call out violations and abuses of people’s fundamental rights wherever they occur.

I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate for their thoughtful and heartfelt contributions. When it comes to people’s safety and security, things are getting worse, not better, at home and abroad. In some places, human rights are being eroded bit by bit; in others such as Gaza, they are being completely demolished. We all know where it ends when good people do and say nothing, so I am asking the Government to be brave and do good before—not in the very distant future—we have to remember the genocides of the Palestinians, the Uyghurs, the Rohingya, the Kashmiris and people of faith in various parts of the world. We know how to prevent that already. We have already learned those lessons. The time has come to act.

I thank all those who have contributed to the debate. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group and for highlighting gender-based violence. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) rightly reminded us of the importance of the Ukrainian fight against Putin. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) talked about how Palestinians are not just fighting a war, but now fighting famine.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) rightly highlighted the lack of scrutiny that we have as parliamentarians because the Foreign Secretary is in the Lords. Indeed, the Minister responsible for human rights is also in the Lords. It is a bizarre situation.

I thank both Opposition Front Benchers: the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), for her continued hard work and commitment to her constituents and for protecting the rights of vulnerable people across the world.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the UK response to international human rights abuses.


I will call Dr Lisa Cameron to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for a 30-minute debate, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of mentoring.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Dame Maria. I believe that mentoring can help us to work together collaboratively so that everyone reaches their full potential across the United Kingdom. I thank colleagues for attending the debate; this is a critical issue that demands our attention and commitment as Members of Parliament.

The impact of mentoring can be very profound not only on young people, but on people of all age groups. I have drawn on my experience as a consultant clinical psychologist prior to coming to Parliament. I have witnessed at first hand the crucial role of support, particularly in helping young people to overcome mental health issues and the challenges that life brings. I think we all agree that the recent disruptions to people’s education posed by the covid pandemic and the cost of living crisis have disproportionately affected disadvantaged youth.

One of the groups I want to speak about in a bit more depth is care leavers, who face significant disparities in health, social circumstances and education. We can all try to work with them and ensure that they have the best support possible, including mentoring, across their lifespan.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. The importance of mentoring cannot be underlined enough, and she is doing that exceptionally well. I look forward to the rest of her speech.

The Prince’s Trust, the Diana Award and other such schemes have shown the success that results from coming alongside our young people to give them the hand of friendship and advice, and the feeling that they are not alone in the world. So often we find young people who think they are very much alone in the world. We should encourage more people with a love for young people to get involved. That is why we need this debate. Well done to the hon. Lady!

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is so fastidious in representing and intervening on behalf of constituents and people across the United Kingdom. I totally agree that the organisations that he mentioned have contributed significantly to the benefit of young people across the United Kingdom. I had the privilege of visiting the Prince’s Trust locally to see at first hand the work it was doing in building self-esteem and confidence among young people, some of whom felt that their mental health had become low. Further to the hon. Gentleman’s point, I have also noticed that there is a campaign to end loneliness. Young people are one of the significant age groups reporting increased feelings of loneliness; as usual, the hon. Gentleman is entirely right in his comments.

The challenge is clear. We can impact the life of young people through mentoring, which emerges as a powerful solution to address many challenges. Consistent support from a caring mentor has the potential to significantly alter the life trajectories of young people. That can happen through volunteering and through businesses. I have had good opportunities to meet local organisations and businesses in my constituency of East Kilbride. They have been helping with the special needs school to try to get mentoring under way and young people with disabilities into the workplace. That is very much needed because often what people require is opportunity. When they are in the workplace and given the opportunities that they deserve, they can really shine and all their potential can show through.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, mentoring also helps young people to become more engaged in their communities—to feel less lonely and much more connected. That is particularly the case for people in rural communities who might feel that fewer opportunities are available and for people from more disadvantaged backgrounds who find it difficult to engage in school or different aspects of the support structures already available to them.

The “Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2023” report was published recently by NHS England. It found that one in five young people has reported probable mental health conditions, so it is very important that we try to address their needs. In Scotland, the “Health Behaviour in School-aged Children” study recently revealed the lowest levels of adolescent confidence seen in 28 years—a stark figure. Only 42% of adolescents reported feeling confident often or always and about one fifth of young people reported feeling lonely all or most of the time. The report noted that feelings of loneliness were highest among 15-year-old girls—31%, a very high figure. The challenge is clear, as is the impact that we can make. It is important that we give time to consider what more we can do to support people through mentoring, because young people in particular are suffering. Their mental health might be deteriorating and, as we have heard already, loneliness is on the rise.

I want to speak about some different programmes that I have had the privilege to engage with. I used to be chair of a very important group in Parliament, the all-party parliamentary group on mentoring, which had the secretariat provided by the Diana Award. We were able to engage with MPs, which was a valuable part of our programme. During covid, we managed to pair up more than 100 MPs with young people in their constituencies across the United Kingdom to offer mentoring support during National Mentoring Week. We put a great deal of effort into that. I became a mentor myself for that period, and the responses that we had showed that the MPs benefited as well as those who were mentored.

The experience gave us a much better understanding of and empathy towards people’s plights locally, in addition to the connection to what was happening on the frontline, which we are not always afforded as MPs. I remember after being elected wanting to visit a hospital where I had worked previously. I was offered a tour, but I wanted to speak to patients and staff. They said, “Usually, MPs get a tour of the hospital,” but I said, “I don’t really need a tour—I used to work there, so I could probably give the tour.” That shows that as MPs we need to build a connection to the frontline. What people might think we want to hear about or engage in means that that connection is not always afforded to us.

One of the programmes that we have been engaged with and which contributes to mentoring is the Grandmentors programme by Volunteering Matters. It is an intergenerational mentoring programme for care-experienced young people—possibly the strongest and most resilient people in any community because they have often faced many more challenges during their early lives. Through the skill of mentoring, care-experienced young people have been supported to want to achieve their goals.

The programme was established in 2009 and now runs in 14 locations in England and Scotland. Interestingly, a mentor is typically aged 50 years or over—I have to admit that I fall into that category—and, importantly, the mentee is a young person, typically aged between 16 and 24 years old, which means there is an intergenerational transfer of knowledge and support. The programme tries to recruit older volunteers to use their life experience and skills to provide emotional and practical support to young people, particularly when they are transitioning from the care system to independent living.

As of October 2023, 169 mentors had been matched with mentees, with many more ready to be matched. Their impact is measured in employment, education and training; housing and finance; and health and wellbeing. It was found that everything really is relational, with the primary focus on nurturing and strengthening through the relationship and connectedness as individuals to the place where they live.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing today’s debate. In Suffolk, we have found that mentoring tends to be taken forward on an altruistic basis with a limited formal framework. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful to hear from the Minister about what the Government can do to encourage and foster that form of altruism among businesses? What is her reflection on the role that chambers of commerce could play in supporting the many businesses that want to do this, and taking that forward at a county-wide or regional level?

My hon. Friend makes an insightful intervention. One of the key things on which we could work together across the House is having more of a mentoring strategy moving forward, to help organisations that wish to pursue that and provide help in the world of business, in communities and in the voluntary sector.

As my hon. Friend says, a great many organisations wish to lend their knowledge, expertise and support and to be there for people and pass on their experience. I have accounts from young people, which I will mention briefly today, who say that that has been invaluable in their lives. The more we can do, the better. If there can be a structure moving ahead, engaging key organisations such as the British Chambers of Commerce, that would be extremely valuable. According to the Home for Good report 2022, care leavers currently make up about 25% of the homeless population and 25% of the adult prison population, which shows we need to do much more to support them. Some 41% of them are not in education, employment or training, compared with 12% of other young people.

New research from the universities of Oxford, York and Exeter has demonstrated that one third of care leavers are not working or studying, compared with just 2.4% of comparable young people who have never experienced the children’s care system. Data from the Office for National Statistics also demonstrates that more than half of those who had been children in care had a criminal conviction by age 24, compared with 13% of children who had not been in care. Early intervention is crucial for young people who may have experienced trauma or be at a critical period in their lives.

Some 59% of the mentees on the Grandmentors programme who had support as care leavers were independent or stable in sustaining education. They had sustained training, education or employment, with 62% independent or stable in terms of their wellbeing, which had dramatically increased from the start of their mentoring. The figures speak to the power of mentoring. As many as 75% were stable with regard to housing, which is a huge change, given the figures we heard about homelessness. We should never underestimate the difference that having such support at a critical time can make.

I want to mention Saliou’s story, which I have been granted permission to share:

“I arrived in the UK at 17 from Guinea. I’ve been part of the Grandmentors programme…and I am now 19. I’m at college full time building up my skills and language. I aspire to be an electrician, and I am doing some work experience in this. My volunteer mentor really listens, and we work things out together. I share things that are bothering me, but I also talk about my plans for the future. My mentor has been…supportive since we have met, and I feel grateful to have met such a wonderful person. She puts smiles on other people’s faces. I don’t want to lose our friendship.”

I also want to mention the Diana Award, with which I had the privilege to work in relation to the all-party parliamentary group that was organised a few years ago. I thank it for the powerful work it does across the United Kingdom. It offers mentoring programmes to support young people to develop their career skills and make positive changes in their communities. It celebrates not just mentoring young people but enabling them to make changes and contribute to their communities, which is so valuable.

The Diana Award collaborates with volunteers from all backgrounds and levels of experience to deliver mentoring programmes for young people aged 14 to 18 who are deemed to be at risk. Young people who have taken part in the programme have shared that it allowed them to grow closer to their peers, and feel comfortable sharing their opinions. One said:

“My confidence and skillset has changed. I understand different skills required in the workplace more.”

Another said that the programme had helped them

“to realise the vast majority of my classmates experience similar issues to me.”

A teacher whose comments I am allowed to share said that their student had

“grown in confidence about his own ability to interact with others in unexpected social situations.”

The results were not just about the experiences that the mentees expected; the skills transferred to all other types of experiences. I have not been able to include all the fantastic organisations, but I will mention some that I have been in touch with: the Kids Network, the Mentoring Lab, Volunteering Matters, She Stands, Bloomberg, The Girls’ Network, the Youth Endowment Fund, the Patchwork Foundation and Chance UK.

We hope to re-establish formally the all-party parliamentary group on mentoring. We should continue to support it as Members of Parliament, across parties. We can offer vital opportunities to young people in our constituencies right across the United Kingdom. Of course, they also offer us great experiences and engagement in return—everybody benefits. I hope to work with Members of Parliament in the near future to re-establish that group. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about what more we can do together.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing this debate on such an important subject. I am familiar with the Diana Award, and have been for some time. I will talk more about the APPG, but I appreciate my hon. Friend’s great work in championing mentoring. I have seen at first hand the difference that mentoring can make to a child or young person, because I spent 16 years running organisations for disadvantaged young people before I became an MP, and I ran mentoring programmes as part of that. I also volunteered to be a mentor through various other organisations, including Chance UK, which my hon. Friend mentioned.

Education is a key determinant of young people’s life chances and social mobility. That is why this Government are committed to providing a world-class education system for all children and young people. We have invested significantly in education and undertaken a number of important reforms to ensure that, whatever their background or circumstances, all young people have the opportunity to reach their potential. Much of the Department for Education’s work prioritises giving children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, or those who have been in our children’s social care system, the additional support they may need to ensure that they are prepared for adulthood and to achieve positive outcomes.

I have a keen interest in working to ensure that all children and young people fulfil their potential and that we are promoting social mobility, which was the theme of my pre-politics career. A key part of that is the role of mentoring, and of effective programmes more widely. That is why we re-endowed the Education Endowment Foundation with £137 million in 2022. It has been a key part of ensuring that what we do is effective, and that we have programmes which work for the most disadvantaged in particular. The EEF identifies, develops, supports and evaluates projects that raise the achievement of disadvantaged children and young people. That has included an evaluation of mentoring and how it can be used to improve outcomes for those that need help reaching their potential.

One of the ways we are helping people to achieve their potential is through funding mentoring programmes in various areas of the Department for Education’s portfolio. I will start with children in care. We are committed to quite a big programme of reforming the system for children in care. We set that out in the “Stable Homes, Built on Love” strategy we published last year, which puts stable, loving relationships at the heart of the care system. By 2027, we want every care-experienced child and young person to feel that they have those strong and loving relationships. As part of our commitment to helping local authorities with family finding for children in care, we are funding 24 befriending and mentoring programmes for children in care and care leavers. Those are all designed to enable children and young people to improve their sense of identity and community and create and sustain consistent and stable relationships.

As part of our work to remove barriers to people with special educational needs, a learning difficulty or a disability starting apprenticeships, we have been developing a pilot to test the value of targeted and specific mentoring support for apprentices who have learning difficulties and disabilities. The pilot will offer targeted expert support, advice and training to the people providing mentoring to apprentices, and measure what impact it has on the cohort’s level of satisfaction and on key performance measures, such as retention and achievement, for those apprentices.

More widely across the education system, mentoring is supporting children and learners to reach their full potential and prepare for the world of work. For young people leaving school, mentoring can be a great way to support effective transitions and empower them to make positive decisions that lead to fulfilling careers. We are running a pilot targeted transition fund in a number of schools this academic year to help young people to make successful transition choices that they feel confident about. The project delivers a wraparound programme to young people eligible for free school meals and with low school attendance, giving them careers guidance, counselling, mentoring and employability support.

As has been touched on, some careers hubs also use employer mentoring to support young people when they transition from school into further education or employment. To improve the work readiness of all young people, employers are engaging in greater numbers than ever before, helping to connect careers information and advice with the world of work and enabling opportunities for young people to experience a variety of workplaces.

I come to two or three of the initiatives that my hon. Friend mentioned. I have explained that I am familiar with the great work of the Diana Award, and I enjoyed hearing about the specific programme that she described. On Grandmentors, some of the local authorities that we are supporting through our “Stable Homes, Built on Love” strategy use that programme to support their care leavers, which is good news. For businesses, which have been touched on by a couple of Members, part of our careers strategy measures the Gatsby framework for employability, including by looking at what they do on mentoring. Given my experience of running such programmes, I should say that it is incredibly difficult to get a consistent relationship in mentoring. We have to acknowledge the great work that all these organisations are doing, because it does not just happen naturally; it requires a lot of support.

I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow for raising the issue of mentoring and social mobility today. The Government agree with her that mentoring can transform the lives of children and young people. I was particularly struck by her point about its importance in rural areas and in helping to develop young people’s confidence. She also said—we clearly both know this from personal experience—that it helps the mentors, not just the mentees, which is absolutely true.

I was really interested to hear the Minister talk about people with disabilities. He will be aware that I chair the all-party parliamentary group for disability. Could we work together on some of the programmes to look at how young people with special needs could be engaged as apprentices or interns here in the House of Commons and with MPs? That would help us to reach out to young people right across the UK.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. This is one of many areas where we ought to lead by example and not just preach to other organisations about what they should be doing. We should demonstrate that we are doing it ourselves, and I would be very pleased to work with her on that.

Mentoring would not be possible without all the people up and down the country who volunteer to be mentors and who are working to support children and young people. I personally thank them and the organisations that co-ordinate such activities, and I assure them that I will keep working with the education and children’s social care sectors to ensure that we use mentoring as effectively as we can. I will work with my hon. Friend and support what she is doing to reinvigorate the APPG on mentoring and promote mentoring more widely.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Shared Rural Network Implementation

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the implementation of the Shared Rural Network.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dame Maria. My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I support the shared rural network, which aims to increase 4G coverage from 91% now to 95% of the UK landmass by 2025, and to ensure that there is coverage by all providers of 84% of the area by the same date. The Government are investing £0.5 billion in new masts in total notspot areas, which is very welcome, and the industry is spending about the same on ensuring that rural areas now covered only by one provider—partial notspots—get a signal from all providers by that date. None the less, there are concerns that roll-out is not progressing as quickly as we would like. The purpose of today’s debate is to ask the Minister to consider further steps to ensure that the objectives are achieved and that our constituents get the mobile signal they need and deserve.

Improved rural coverage for everyone is important for all sorts of reasons. First, it enables people to work from home in the modern economy, increasing job opportunities and business productivity. The rural region, accounting for about 20% of Britain, is one of the least productive economic areas of the whole country. One fifth of our people live in rural areas, and we want to give them every opportunity they can to be productive and to access the job opportunities they need. Where I live, lots of young people move away to access better job opportunities in cities. Our countryside is becoming populated primarily by retired people, and while we love them, we could do with some younger people as well to keep our schools open and communities thriving.

Does the hon. Lady recognise that in some rural areas—I am thinking particularly of Mordon and Killerby in my Sedgefield constituency—people move away from villages not only because they cannot get broadband, but because transport is a problem? With no transport options, they desperately need broadband to be there.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. We have spoken about public transport a lot, which is related to this problem. In rural areas like ours, when people are working they are often not stationary in an office, but moving around the area. A plumber or an agricultural worker relies on the mobile signal to operate their business on a daily basis. They need the mobile signal to work wherever they are, not just in their home. That is a key point that I will return to.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing forward this important debate. I apologise to you, Dame Maria, and to the hon. Lady, as I cannot be here that long—I have to chair a committee meeting at 5 o’clock. We have seen massive progress in rural broadband across the whole of the United Kingdom. Through the confidence and supply agreement, the Democratic Unionist party secured a deal with the Conservative party for £200 million for this very purpose in Northern Ireland. Moving forward, while 4G might be the commitment of the shared rural network, what we need now is 5G. Does the hon. Lady agree that progress has to match technological advances?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that progress in rural areas is so slow that we end up with yesterday’s technology. I will come on to that towards the end of my speech. The roll-out of broadband and Project Gigabit in North Shropshire is very welcome, but the mobile signal is extremely important.

The hon. Lady is making a good start on her speech, but there are examples of positive development across the country. In Devon, for instance, we have reconstituted Connecting Devon and Somerset. It has worked extremely well: in the last four years, we have gone from about 84% connectivity up into the high nineties percentile. That modern technology is also following suit. There are pretty good examples of where the private sector and public sector—Devon County Council—have done extraordinary work to make sure we are reaching the hard-to-reach areas, eliminating the notspots and ensuring connectivity for all. It is not a complete tale of woe.

I am pleased to hear that it is going well. Ensuring that we get to that stage across the country is what I hope this debate will achieve.

A survey for the Country Land and Business Association found that 80% of rural business owners said that improved connectivity would be the single largest improvement to their business. Mobile phones have been cited as the default back-up option for people when the copper landline network is switched off in a power cut. We are probably ultra-sensitive to that after the last couple of weeks, when people have been without power for extended periods. It is entirely right that electricity companies get power back on in urban areas sooner, because that is where the greatest number of people need to be connected, but we also need to ensure that the back-up option for rural people works, and that is the mobile phone signal.

It is important that people have a choice of provider to ensure that they have mobile connection when they need it. Interestingly, respondents to a survey conducted by Building Digital UK cited poor mobile coverage as a major factor exacerbating poor outcomes from agricultural injuries. That is vital in a very rural constituency where there is a large number of agricultural workers and where a couple of years ago there were several combine harvester fires. It is really important that people can call 999 when they need to, or call an ambulance if they have suffered an accident anywhere in a rural area.

Mobile coverage is also one of the top issues faced by constituents. I ran a series of open meetings over the summer, and constituents were genuinely angry that they could not use the same mobile signal at home as at work. It caused them huge problems—for example, they could not do simple things like phoning home to get someone to pick up their kids from school if they were running late. There was a real impact on people’s daily life from not being able to access the same mobile phone signal wherever they went in their local area.

It is important to note that partial notspots, which are the main issue where I live, effectively mean that people have only one choice of provider, so we are not seeing the competitive market that our urban counterparts have when they are choosing who to buy their phone or SIM from.

My rural constituency of North Norfolk has exactly the same problems with notspots. One of the fundamental problems seems to be the planning process, in which planners or the mobile phone companies and their agents put together applications for completely inappropriate locations. They get turned down by the local community and the local planning authority, not because local people do not want a mobile phone signal but because they do not want a lattice structure of 50 metres in an area of outstanding natural beauty. How can we get to a situation in which planning applications can be made and approved, and not opposed all the time?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Obviously we want to improve the signal, but not blight the countryside with big, ugly lattice masts. A key ask of the debate is that we look at the way in which the companies share equipment to reduce the amount of additional infrastructure that has to be built across the countryside.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) makes a very good point: we have to take into consideration the concerns of communities when we build infrastructure. However, a notification of a planning application has come across my desk today that is not about building a new structure but is about upgrading the transmission equipment at the top of a structure. Very often, it is a case not of putting up anything new but upgrading what is already there. That should not be a problem.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, and I will come on to it. The importance of mast and equipment sharing is that hopefully we can streamline the process to upgrade the sites where the equipment is now, and limit the number of additional sites that are applied for.

Some 15.1% by area of North Shropshire is a partial notspot for data, and one in five premises can use only one operator for a phone call. There is a problem of competition, or the lack of it, in rural areas. We all understand that there are logistical challenges with putting masts in wild areas: a power supply is needed, and it might be an area of outstanding beauty, for example. There are all sorts of reasons why it might be difficult. We see the effect of that every day.

In North Shropshire less than 60% of premises have indoor coverage from all operators, compared with the UK average of 86%. The situation is worse in our villages than towns. Less than a third of people who live outside the towns have a choice of more than one mobile operator. That is all based on the existing data maps of coverage, but we know, because the Minister acknowledged it in oral questions recently, that these data maps are extremely optimistic and do not always reflect the lived experience of people on the ground. I mentioned that I had some open meetings with constituents in the summer, and that was one of their key gripes. The map said that they had a signal, but the reality was nothing like that. Accurate data is really important to ensure that when the providers “meet their obligations”, that is actually what is happening on the ground and not just a theoretical outcome.

The shared rural network involves the four mobile network operators spending £500 million of their own money to end partial notspots. Those areas are deemed to be commercially viable because one operator has already decided to put a mast there and provide a service to the people living there. EE announced that it has already met its obligations under the shared rural network to reduce its partial notspots by June 2024. It did that a couple of weeks ago, so it is running six months ahead of schedule, but as reported in The Daily Telegraph, the other three providers have requested a delay and say that they will not hit the 2024 target. This is where the concern arises.

Some of that is down to planning resource. As discussed, planning resource is very difficult. Lots of councils have high levels of vacancy and their planning departments have logistical challenges. There is also resistance to new infrastructure. That all causes a problem.

As the hon. Lady may be aware from her constituency—it is the case in my constituency and rural parts of Suffolk—church towers are often used to support broadband masts. To speed up the roll-out of this programme, I wonder whether something could be done with planning policy nationally to give a presumption in support of broadband masts being put into church towers where there is a desire to do so.

Suffolk is famous for its spectacular medieval church towers. We are perhaps not so well blessed with those structures in North Shropshire, but I think it is a fair point. Easing the planning process is something that definitely should be considered.

Apart from all the logistical issues, the mobile network operators failed to reach an agreement with EE to share their existing equipment. The reason that EE has achieved its objectives so far in advance is because it has an extensive network of existing equipment. This is a commercial issue, because this was a commercial investment. I guess it depends on one’s point of view whether EE was asking for too much money or whether the other operators were not offering a sensible amount, but the reality is that they have failed to reach an agreement. That means that the roll-out by the other three mobile network operators is delayed, and they are potentially building masts where they do not need to.

It is also worth noting that the difficulty of the planning process means that not a single mast has yet been built for the total notspots. The Minister will correct me if my data is out of date and I am wrong about that, but according to the briefing I have seen, that is the case. Masts are going up in the wilder areas using public money.

There are lots of issues. We have a commercial failure to share equipment. We have a planning problem. We know everybody would benefit, so let us have a look at what the potential solution could be. Infrastructure sharing is absolutely key. We should be looking at how we can ensure that the commercial operators do better on that front.

I also want to speak about the potential solution of rural roaming. Rural roaming is what happens when we travel to the continent, or indeed anywhere in the world. Our phone links up to the signal that it can find, and we go about our daily business without noticing what we are connected to.

The industry strongly opposes the idea of rural roaming. It says that it is technically inferior; phones would have a shorter battery life because they are seeking a signal. Obviously, rural roaming does not deal with total notspots where there is no mast to produce a signal for phones to connect to. The industry also says that rural roaming would undermine future investment in the network, which is obviously critical, particularly because the technology moves on all the time, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said.

Having said all that, there is support for rural roaming. A 2019 report by the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs Committee said that it would be a good solution, because it could be implemented in under 18 months and would give between 90% and 95% landmass coverage, which is comparable to the aim of the shared rural network. The Country Land and Business Association has described rural roaming as a common-sense solution, and I can assure the House that there would be a huge amount of support for it among my constituents in North Shropshire. Since that EFRA Committee report in 2019, the shared rural network has been signed up to, but there are significant concerns about the speed of the roll-out, and there is no plan to go further and provide 5G coverage, including stand-alone 5G coverage, in the countryside.

In conclusion, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of having better data when we assess the success of the roll-out of the shared rural network, because there is a real risk that notional targets will be met without the consumer experience being improved. People in North Shropshire and other constituencies do not care whether a map shows that they have coverage. They will be worried sick if their mum goes into hospital, and no one can get in touch with them because they are in a part of the constituency that the phone signal does not reach.

Will the Government consider not only making sure that the data is improved, but taking further steps to improve areas that have partial notspots by requiring mobile network operators to share their equipment more effectively? They should come to an arrangement whereby that can be done, so that the number of masts and the planning process are not major factors in slowing up the roll-out of the shared rural network. If that cannot be done, will the Minister consider requiring the industry to provide rural roaming? As we often say, if it is not acceptable for people in Birmingham to have only one choice of mobile network provider, it is not acceptable for people in Shropshire.

Order. This is a 60-minute debate. I need to move to the Front-Bench contributions at 5.8 pm, and I have about six Members rising to speak—do the maths. Please bob if you want to speak. If we are to get everyone in, I suggest a limit of three or four minutes for every speech. If Members adhered to that, it would be amazing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria, and I thank the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) for securing this important and necessary debate on the implementation of the shared rural network.

Looking around, I think that we all have particularly rural constituencies—well, nearly all of us—so we know very well the value and importance of having consistent and reliable mobile coverage in our villages and countryside, and of course, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire said, on our farms, for both connectivity and safety.

Through the shared rural network, the Government have an ambitious target of ensuring 95% 4G coverage by 2025, and that target is backed up by around half a billion pounds of Government investment. Clearly, this is a Government who are committed to levelling up and our rural areas, and who aim to ensure that everybody in the UK, no matter where they are, can reap the rewards of that investment.

Ensuring that coverage reaches our rural villages is crucial. I have some beautiful villages in my patch, including Hanslope, Ravenstone, Stoke Goldington and Weston Underwood—crikey, I will have to mention them all now! But you have said that there is a time limit, Dame Maria, so I cannot mention all the beautiful villages. We have thriving local businesses, farms and communities, which all ultimately depend on consistent mobile coverage.

My rural constituents often tell me that they have a restricted choice of networks, compared with people living in the more built-up urban areas that I represent. The shared rural network will address that problem directly by arranging for the UK’s four main mobile operators to upgrade their infrastructure and share access with each other. I know that will be welcome news for rural constituencies and communities across the country, giving businesses and our communities more choice and driving competition, which is crucial. That is the key message that I took from the hon. Member for North Shropshire: it is about competition. The economic angle in this debate comes to prominence here. Consistent and complete mobile coverage across the UK is one of the missing pieces of our ability to unlock and unleash economic growth outside the UK’s big cities and populated areas. Better coverage will help businesses to increase their efficiency, which is obviously useful for consumers and customers.

The other important side to this debate is the issue of inequality. Improving rural connectivity is about tackling regional inequalities and the digital exclusion that we been fighting during this Parliament. It is about levelling up. With the shift towards more working from home since the pandemic, the need for consistent coverage is more important than ever for working families in rural areas. With these types of national projects, it is important that we take a sustainable approach, and that is why the shared rural network is so effective. The masts will be shared by the network providers. When new masts are built, they will have to go through planning, so that communities get their say. I look forward to seeing how this project develops.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Maria, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) on securing this debate. It is hardly a new one, sadly, and of course we have been around this issue many times. I was struck by what my hon. Friend said about the attitude of the industry to rural roaming. The exact same arguments were advanced over 10 years ago, when we were trying to persuade the operators to share masts. Frankly, like many present, I would have a lot more sympathy for the companies if, in the intervening years, they had got their act together and made the necessary investment in the rural network; we would then not be where we are today.

On data, my hon. Friend is right in saying that access to networks is critical. I would even go one step further and say that what we really need is accurate signals inside buildings. So often with partial notspots, a person will get a signal, but they have to be prepared to go to the bottom of their garden at 4 am in a howling gale. To my mind, that is not meaningful access. As the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) said, there have been significant changes, and we should accept that there has been progress, but it has been absolutely glacial. People in cities and towns would not accept it, so I do not understand why people in rural areas should be expected to tolerate it.

There has been significant progress on the emergency services network in recent years, and I should declare an interest, in that I have an EE mast on my land, which was constructed as a consequence of the ESN development. We should now look at the fact that the ESN is limited to land, and up to the 12 nautical mile limit. There are good and valuable reasons for extending the ESN beyond that; emergencies do not just happen on dry land. We could all say a lot more on this issue, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire for securing the time for this debate, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) on securing this very important debate. I am lucky enough to represent a constituency that is 335 square miles of pure, beautiful, rural Buckinghamshire. Mobile signal is critical, day to day, in many walks of life. There has been a growth in the number of people working from home, and many try to take Zoom or Teams calls in local cafés. My children endlessly demand that we stream all sorts of dreadful songs to make the journey go a bit quicker, but often, as we go through the villages, Siri delivers that dreaded message: there is a problem because it cannot get a data signal. That comes up time and again when I talk to constituents.

On my summer surgery tour last year, I went to the village of Cuddington, which is not far from my village of Chearsley, in which people also struggle to get mobile signal, particularly inside buildings. Constituents in Cuddington were saying that they literally could not get a signal on any network in that village. That is absolutely devastating for people. They may need to make an emergency call, or they may have an urgent work commitment—they need to get that email out—and they simply cannot do it. It is a huge problem. While the shared rural network is a brilliant idea and a fantastic initiative, we need to put a rocket underneath it to get it working far more quickly.

There really is not a technological excuse for this. Many moons ago, on my honeymoon in the middle of the Masai Mara, I was struck by the fact that there was not a building to be seen, yet there was still a strong 4G signal on my mobile phone. I was part of a delegation to rural Israel just a couple of weeks ago. We went down to the Gaza border. Some of those places had been so brutally attacked that they were literally in ruins, yet there was still a solid 4G—and at times 5G— signal on my mobile phone, but when I am waiting to pick up my son outside the school gates, I cannot even check my WhatsApp messages.

My message to the Minister is that this is a brilliant initiative, but it needs the Government to put a real boost underneath it, and to put pressure on industry. I fully accept and congratulate EE for being ahead of the curve on this, but we need all the networks to be ahead of the curve on this, and we need to get this right for all of our rural constituents.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) on securing this important debate. What we are discussing, as we do in many debates on rural areas, is the feeling and the reality of being left behind. Rural areas encounter additional challenges and are so often forgotten. That is felt in my constituency of Somerton and Frome.

The shared rural network pledges to bring 95% 4G coverage by 2025, yet 39 postcode areas in Somerton and Frome do not yet even have the soon-to-be-phased-out 3G coverage. The shared rural network mythology sets the minimum required coverage signal strength at the equivalent of just a single bar on an iPhone 7 Plus, if anyone still has one of those. The Local Government Association states that it has often found a disconnect between the coverage that mobile network operators claim, and the experience of residents. As the world is rapidly moving away from 4G and on to 5G, my constituents could be left with a single bar of 4G after the successful roll-out of the network.

There are reports circulating that three of the mobile network operators in the shared rural network are struggling with the requirement to meet their 4G interim coverage targets by the end of June 2024. As we have already heard, this is leading to reasonable fears that rural residents will have to wait even longer for reliable mobile connectivity. In Somerton and Frome, the lack of mobile coverage means that rural businesses struggle to set up mobile payments and may be more reliant on using cash, which is difficult as some of our market towns, including Castle Cary, do not have any bank branches left. That makes rural areas less attractive for people to move to, or move their businesses to.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire said in her powerful opening speech, the lack of mobile connectivity also compromises the safety of lone workers and of those who work in rural agricultural businesses, who often operate large equipment in notspot areas.

The hon. Lady is making some excellent points. What she says brings to mind a point that I almost raised when my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) was speaking. Does the hon. Lady agree that as there is more and more of an assumption that we are all digitally connected—whether it is through online banking or through annoying songs for our children—people who are not connected are made to feel even more remote as the digital world develops without them?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. A recent report from the National Farmers Union confirmed that by stating that four out of five farmers do not have reliable mobile signal throughout their farms, and one in 20 has no outdoor locations with reliable mobile signal.

My constituents have been in touch with me to relay their fears of being left unconnected to mobile networks. In West Bradley, an elderly couple who suffer from numerous health issues told me that they have no mobile reception in their home. Their telephone provider is looking to switch them to a digital landline, meaning that in the event of a power cut they would be left unable to contact emergency services. That is a very real and scary prospect for many people living in rural areas.

Swathes of Wincanton are 4G partial notspots, meaning that they are not served by any of the mobile operators. Currently, that means that residents who may receive coverage with EE, for example, do not receive any coverage when they cross the town and surrounding areas as they go about their daily lives. That problem could be resolved with the introduction of rural roaming, which would allow residents to connect to any network active in their area even if 4G is not available through their operator. Back in 2018, Ofcom stated that rural roaming could be a solution for the notspot issues that plague our rural communities, yet the Government and the operators have simply refused.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire stated, she has tabled a Bill that would incentivise operators to allow customers to rural roam. I fully support those sensible measures to help my constituents who suffer the plight of unfair mobile connectivity, and I hope to see quick progress with the shared rural network to ensure that rural areas are not left any more behind than they are already.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) on securing this excellent debate.

There is a common theme here, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) and the hon. Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith). I want to take everyone to a community called Borgie, which is on the north coast of Sutherland facing the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). In Borgie, an elderly gentleman fell over in his garden. Exactly as we have heard already, he did not have a mobile signal and had to crawl some distance to a landline to call for help.

In the same community, I also have a constituent named Jean, who had a mast installed on her ground in 2019. I give credit where it is due; Openreach and EE, the companies involved, did what they needed to do. You would think that this was a good news story, Dame Maria, but it is not. SSE needs to connect the mast to the electrical grid for it to do its work. It has promised again and again that the work will be done—to absolutely no effect. We are now in 2024, almost five years since the mast was put up, and it is no good to man or beast, as we say in the highlands. On a slightly more humorous note, her neighbours in Borgie call the mast “Jean’s folly”. Alas, it is a folly indeed.

A lot of public money has been spent on the mast, so in this incredibly brief contribution I make an appeal to the Minister. Could she, in the goodness of her heart, representing the United Kingdom Government, have a quiet and meaningful word with the Scottish Government and tell them to get their act together with SSE to get that mast connected? In the meantime, we have no mobile connectivity whatsoever.

Finally, as others have said, we have power cuts all over the UK. My wife was cut off this very morning in the highlands; luckily, we got the electricity back on again. My final plea is therefore that the masts need to have some sort of solar power attached to them. I would be extraordinarily grateful to the Minister if she used her charms to sort out this extremely annoying problem, which is quite dangerous for a remote community in the highlands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) on securing this important debate.

There have been a lot of contributions, and I will zoom through most of them. We had contributions from the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt) and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who raised concerns about signals within buildings, which is a different technical issue but one that still causes problems.

There is a problem in this building as well, of course.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) told stories about his children; I think many of us can relate to those. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) is unfortunately still struggling with 3G, never mind 4G. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) talked about Jean’s folly. Jean is the name of my dog—a different Jean. I gently point out to the hon. Member that this is a reserved issue, so it is incumbent on the UK Government, not the Scottish Government, to sort it out.

It was only last month that a number of us—the same characters—were here in Westminster Hall debating the difficulties arising from the switch from copper wire to internet fibre signals for phone lines. Today’s debate is important because, with the removal of the copper wire network, if an internet signal drops out, as has happened to many households this week with Storms Isha and Jocelyn, people rely on the 4G network, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire said. If the 4G network is not reliable, people are left without the resilience to deal with emergency situations, as we have heard. The hon. Member also raised concerns about the speed of the 4G roll-out. That is rather ironic: at the same time as the roll-out is happening too slowly, the switch from copper wire to fibre is happening too quickly. There seems to be a real—pardon the pun—disconnect between those two issues.

The shared rural network is a joint venture between the UK Government and the big four mobile providers. It should provide 4G coverage to 95% of the UK, and enable rural communities and businesses to gain greater connectivity. In Scotland, the roll-out must be done with an awareness of the importance of the natural environment. Although the issue is reserved, as I said, the Scottish Government have done some work in this area to bring together different groups and ensure that the roll-out is done in a sympathetic way. The Scottish Government have organised and participated in discussions with national parks and NatureScot to ensure that we get mutually acceptable outcomes.

We have heard about some difficulties regarding planning. The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who is no longer in his place, raised concerns about ugly infrastructure. If we do the roll-out in conjunction with local communities, we can look at creativity of placement and the use of existing structures.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister. EE has recently announced that it has met its coverage targets for the first phase of the rural network programme. We need to know whether that statement matches reality. How is EE checking that? Is it actually going round with a mobile phone and ensuring that there is coverage everywhere that there should be coverage, or is it saying that the mast should provide coverage in that area? Those are two very different things. How are the Government checking what the mobile providers are saying? What further incentives are the Government providing to ensure proper coverage?

I am just finishing. It would be useful to hear about specific interventions that the Government are taking in tricky rural areas.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) on securing the debate. It is vital not only for those in rural areas, but for constituencies like mine, which has many hard-to-reach villages.

I must take issue with the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt). We have many rural areas in Islwyn. Indeed, the National Farmers Union hosted a farmers’ breakfast in Crumlin last week. He is always able to visit if he wants to; he has an open invitation.

There was a vital contribution to the debate from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who highlighted the contrast between the coverage in urban and rural areas. Those with young children will no doubt sympathise with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith); there are many times when I have been on long journeys with my children and tried to keep them entertained when we could not get an internet connection. There was also an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), who said that rural communities developing 4G will be left behind when there are further developments in 5G.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) told us a harrowing story about a constituent in the village of Borgie who had suffered a fall and could not speak to anybody because he did not have an internet connection. I genuinely hope that as a result of the hon. Member’s campaigning, Jean’s folly will be rectified and the good people of Borgie will finally have full internet connection. I wish him all the best with that campaign.

Many people regularly work in rural areas and remote locations that currently lack a good 4G connection. That work could be in tourism, construction or the provision of any number of at-home services in communities, particularly in health and social care. Having no 4G means that when someone is working on the go, there can be no online payments and no access to real-time data. As an example, builders have to take time out of their working day to drive to somewhere where they can get 4G to work and download the most up-to-date information they need, just to make sure that they can access the documents required for them to work safely and effectively.

According to DEFRA, half of all rural businesses report that notspots have a negative impact on their profits, turnover and productivity. Many attribute hundreds of pounds of losses a month to poor connectivity. The issue is also important for lone workers—for example, in the agricultural sector—who need to know that they can stay in touch with colleagues or at least contact someone if things go wrong, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross described for his constituent.

People’s lives can be transformed by a reliable connection to 4G. It is important to recognise that online spaces can mitigate loneliness, which is crucial for people who do not have regular opportunities for physical interaction. Staying connected with friends and family, regardless of one’s location, is a brilliant benefit from being online and is key to maintaining good mental health. An internet connection can facilitate access and inclusion for disabled people—whether through apps that meet communication needs or through online information about available services. Now that many people do not have a local branch of their chosen bank, particularly outside cities, online banking from home is essential and is often used as an excuse for why a bank has closed. It is often those who live in an area without 4G who are most in need of it, because the bricks-and-mortar versions of services no longer exist.

Time is of the essence in securing access for those who have so far been left behind, so progress is to be welcomed. However, the Government once stated their aim to ensure that 95% of the UK had partial coverage by 2022, meaning 4G from at least one provider. Unfortunately, like a lot of the Government’s goals, this goal was pushed back to 2025. I am afraid that that is not good enough for so many rural communities. The programme has required commitments from the four mobile operators in the UK to invest in areas with partial coverage, in conjunction with public investment that will provide for hard-to-reach areas, like my own. One of the four operators has already succeeded in meeting its interim target for June 2024, but the remaining three reportedly wrote to the Government last October, asking for more time. I hope that the Minister will elaborate on that when she responds, and that it will not result in another postponement.

I do not want anybody thinking that I want the Government to fail. Being connected is extremely important—a lifeline for rural and hard-to-reach communities and people who are alone. It is vital and, as we have heard, often lifesaving.

As we have heard today, internet access is a necessity nowadays for so many people to access services, work, school and leisure. As we have seen during lockdown, it really was a lifeline to keep people connected and to form some sort of online community. I am hopeful that we will continue to see the expansion of 4G coverage and eventually 5G coverage in rural communities so that everyone can reap the benefits of access to the internet.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I thank the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) for securing this very important debate on the implementation of a shared rural network. I am glad to have her support for the SRN, and I thank her for showcasing the Government’s commitment to this extremely important programme. I am grateful to the hon. Members who have contributed to this debate, which speaks to the importance of connectivity in everybody’s constituencies. I will say a little more about that later.

I need to set out some of the challenges that we have when it comes to telecoms. There are balances to be made in terms of investment and infrastructure versus competition and low prices for consumers and making sure that MNOs implement their security commitments. Some of these things are difficult for us, but we are making good progress in getting people the connectivity that they need.

The shared rural network is a deal between the UK Government and the four mobile network operators—EE, Three, Virgin Media, O2 and Vodafone—signed in March 2020 to share an investment of £1 billion. It is delivering 4G coverage to about 95% of the UK land mass by the end of 2025. That is a commitment whereby we put up half the money and they put up half the money. We think that this shows great value for the taxpayer in getting the connectivity that we want.

The SRN is there to tackle the digital divide issues that hon. Members have highlighted with respect to connectivity in urban and rural areas. It supports economic growth and contributes substantially to public safety; an element of it involves building on the emergency services network. It means much greater life chances for people in those connected communities. We all understand from the pandemic what having poor connectivity meant for education, healthcare and so much more, so I understand hon. Members’ desire to get connectivity as quickly as possible.

This is just one of the interventions that the Government are making when it comes to connectivity. I am sure that hon. Members will be familiar with Project Gigabit, with which we are trying to drive gigabit connectivity in people’s constituencies. It is incredibly well supported by hon. Members. I am always grateful for that engagement —particularly, if I may say so, from my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), who is single-handedly driving roll-out in Scotland.

In Banff and Buchan particularly. I should like to say to my hon. Friend that there has been some progress. I know that he shares my frustration at the slowness of the Scottish roll-out, which is a unique situation whereby the Scottish Government are driving it, as opposed to the rest of the UK, where the UK Government are taking the lead.

Can the shared rural network programme be used to help to fill the notspots not just for mobile signal but for fixed signal? As the Minister has alluded to, the Scottish Government’s R100 programme has absolutely failed to deliver on their promises for fixed broadband.

My hon. Friend highlights a challenge whereby some communities have not only bad broadband connection, but bad telephone connection. Sometimes one can substitute for the other: people can tether off their phone signal. He has a constituency that has poor coverage for both, and I am very sympathetic. As he is aware, I am trying to do what I can as a UK Government Minister to substitute for some of the challenges that we have had with the Scottish roll-out.

We are looking at pilots on satellite connectivity in the very hardest areas to reach; we are also looking at some of the wireless solutions that my hon. Friend alluded to. Is the technology there? Some of these are probably not technologies that will substitute for gigabit roll-out, but we are seeing where they can. I can only assure him, as I do on a regular basis, that I am pushing and looking at every lever I have to get him the connectivity he desires. I should also say that we have had some progress in our discussions with the Scottish Government recently. We are having a regional procurement, and they are finally getting their act together on some of the more local procurement. I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents will start to see the benefit.

Once again, I point out that broadband roll-out, as well as 4G roll-out, remains reserved to Westminster. The Scottish Government are of course helping to support the roll-out, but it is a reserved issue.

Perhaps at some point the hon. Lady might like to update us on the progress and success of the R100 programme and its impact on constituents.

I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) for highlighting some of the issues in Borgie in particular. I will happily take up the issue of Jean’s folly and see whether we can make any progress on it. I thank the hon. Member for highlighting cases showing the real-life impact that poor connectivity can have.

Before I respond to points raised by other hon. Members, it might be helpful if I explain how the SRN will be implemented across the UK and what has been achieved for some time when it comes to boosting mobile coverage. To deliver the programme, the operators are investing about half a billion pounds to eliminate the majority of partial notspots, which are the areas that receive coverage from at least one but not all four operators. The Government will then go even further and tackle the total number of notspots with our contribution of half a billion pounds. Those are the hardest-to-reach rural areas that currently have no 4G coverage at all.

By upgrading existing networks and working together on shared infrastructure in new sites, we will transform mobile coverage in rural areas and—this is key—maximising the use of existing infrastructure. I was particularly glad to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan about how we are seeing that sharing of infrastructure in his constituency. We want to minimise environmental impacts, but also ensure best value for the taxpayer.

One of the ways we are trying to speed up roll-out is by easing the planning process. Several hon. Members raised the need to make more straightforward the erection of new infrastructure, as we did in the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Act 2022. It can be a difficult balance, because a number of hon. Members are unhappy about the siting of masts, and we are encouraging operators to put in mast applications in sensible places. To have engagement with local authorities, I wrote to all councils to set out where they have powers in that regard. I also raised the matter with Ofcom, because I know that there are some issues in particular parts of the country. We want to make sure that we can ease people’s concerns about the impact of mast infrastructure on communities, because pausing roll-out on that basis is in nobody’s interest.

I have multiple examples, particularly of 5G masts. One was quite literally put in somebody’s back garden, right on the fence line; another, in Monks Risborough, was right on the edge of a shopping parade. Are the networks actually being receptive to my hon. Friend’s demands? Are we seeing a real change in where they are putting in applications to put up the new infrastructure?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. One of the challenges is trying to get that transparency and get data and information that goes beyond the anecdotal, to give us a proper picture of what is happening on the ground. It seems to me that this is happening in particular areas with particular companies, so I am trying to get that information. In the meantime, I am talking to Ofcom and local authorities and trying to understand where there are problems. There are also working groups between altnets so that there can be better sharing of mast infrastructure, which I think will ease some of the challenges.

My own experience, and I have the scars to prove it, goes all the way back to the mobile infrastructure project. My experience has always been that the mobile operators will only come to the table when they are put under serious pressure. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) pointed out that three of the mobile operators will be wanting extensions to the time they have to meet their targets. I encourage the Minister to harden her heart when the pleas come in. If we do not hold the mobile operators’ feet to the fire, we will never get anywhere.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have robust conversations with the mobile network operators. He should also bear in mind that we are asking quite a lot of them, and there are a number of commitments. We want them to speed up roll-out and to make sure that their network infrastructure is secure, so there is a little bit of give and take on some of these issues. I always bear in mind the importance of not soft-soaping these things, and of having honest and robust conversations when they are needed. I am fully aware of the impact on communities that are poorly connected. I can only assure hon. Members of the Government’s desire to make sure that people get connectivity as quickly as possible. However, there are difficult balancing questions with some of these issues.

On the shared rural network, each operator will reach 90% geographic coverage. That will result in 84% of the UK having 4G coverage from all four operators, and 95% from at least one. That will increase choice, boost productivity and provide increased public safety in rural areas. The programme is already well under way, and coverage from all four operators has been increasing in every nation. Coverage from at least one operator has also improved. We are now approaching 93% geographic coverage for overall 4G. That is up from 91%, so we are on track to hit the 95% target. Those improvements have all come since the SRN deal was first agreed.

The first part of the programme, which is funded by industry, is tackling those partial notspots. The four MNOs have deployed over 190 new sites since 2020 to meet their SRN targets, and 35 new sites have been added this year. That is leading to improvements across the country. We are also progressing well in our part of the deal. The majority of our investment, as hon. Members opposite will be aware, is in Scotland, which currently has the lowest 4G coverage of any of the four nations, perhaps for obvious geographical reasons.

Operators and their suppliers have been establishing where masts should go to deliver the best coverage by carrying out a number of site suitability surveys. That has led to a number of letters to me about protecting the beauty of the highlands and so on. I would like to take this opportunity to assure hon. Members that we are trying to make sure we have the right balance, getting the infrastructure in place but not being ridiculous about where that infrastructure is sited. Obviously there are concerns, and some new masts will be needed, but probably not as many as people fear.

The issue of roaming has been raised. My understanding from discussions in the Department is that rural roaming was looked at previously, and it was decided that it could dissuade operators from going into rural areas because they would lose the competitive benefit of getting there first. It is a difficult balance. I appreciate the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for North Shropshire and am interested to test them.

I am aware that I am running out of time—there is so much to cover. Hon. Members raised the issue of the PSTN role. Again, I believe assurances have been offered on that front. There was a summit raised on the copper switch-off, but we are also looking at energy resilience.

We are very alive to the Ofcom data issue. We asked Ofcom to improve its reporting last year, and work is under way. We are alive to the concerns. I thank the hon. Member for North Shropshire and ill happily engage with her on all these issues and more, whenever she wishes.

I thank the shadow Minister, the Minister, the SNP spokesperson and all right hon. and hon. Members for contributing to our debate on this important issue. I also thank the Library for producing an excellent briefing, and all the people in the industry—the mobile network operators, the industry organisations, the Country Land and Business Association and the Rural Services Network—for helping me to pull together the necessary information. I am extremely grateful to them all.

I will pick up with the Minister the issues of data, equipment sharing and rural roaming, because they are extremely important. Indeed, my private Member’s Bill on the subject is due to be debated on Friday, and I am sure we will pick things up again then.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the implementation of the Shared Rural Network.

Sitting adjourned.