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Westminster Hall

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2024

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 6 February 2024

[Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Freedom of Religion and Belief in Nigeria

I beg to move,

That this House has considered freedom of religion and belief in Nigeria.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting the motion. This subject is close to my heart. I visited Nigeria the year before last with the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I declare an interest as chair of that group. We speak for those with Christian belief, those with other beliefs and those with no beliefs, because we genuinely believe, as I know you do, Mr Paisley, in the love that our God has for others and the importance of reaching out across the world, where many obscene, difficult and heartbreaking things are happening, to speak up for human rights and to be a voice for the voiceless—those who have no one to speak for them. We will try to put forward that voice in this House in a constructive and positive way.

The debate was requested, and the Backbench Business Committee agreed to it, primarily because, at Christmas last year, almost 200 Christians were murdered because of their beliefs. They were attacked, murdered and abused by Fulani tribesmen. Those who were able to do so fled into the forest. Their houses and churches were destroyed and their property was taken. Those events were massive and really worrying.

I thank the hon. Member for bringing this subject to the House, and for all he does to ensure that the concerning situation of people who are persecuted and discriminated against because of their religion or beliefs is continuously highlighted in this place and in the country. Does he agree that when there are attacks like the one at Christmas in Plateau state, this Government ought to ensure that they, with others, bring immediate help and relief, and look to see how they can help with rehousing, for example, and meeting all the urgent and immediate needs of people who suffer such atrocities?

I wholeheartedly agree. We need to be effective and probably urgent in our response. We have much faith in the Minister; I am sure that when he responds, he will give us some ideas about how that can be done better.

Ever mindful of Nigeria, on which we are focusing today—I referred earlier to the attacks before Christmas, my visit to the country and some of the lessons we learnt—it is frustrating and particularly worrying that, just over a year since we visited, things are no better. When we were there, campaigning was starting. We arrived in the early hours of the morning—I think it was about midnight or1 am—and wondered, as we went from the airport to our hotel, why there were crowds. I found out the reason when we got to the hotel, because a political document had been left on a chair: all the rallies were happening in the early hours of the morning. That was when we were hoping to see some change, but I understand that the elections have been postponed. We have great concerns about that.

The influence of people from Northern Ireland is always greater than people suspect. When I was leaving Nigeria, a young man came up to me in the airport and said in a Northern Irish accent, “Hello, Jim. How are you doing?” What are the chances of speaking to somebody with a Northern Irish accent at the airport after midnight in Nigeria? He turned out to have worked in the office of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) many moons ago; he was there as part of a lobbying and information group that was working on behalf of the opposition. The chances of having the change that we, and the Nigerians, all wish for have to be considered.

I am a well-known advocate for those who cannot speak out or who try to speak out but simply cannot be heard. Today is another opportunity to highlight the desperate daily battle that people face, seemingly without anyone knowing or understanding their plight. Today I seek to again speak out and draw attention to the horrific situation that exists for too many people throughout Nigeria at present.

Violations of FORB, along with broader discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, are often particularly serious in situations of crisis, emergency and conflict, which exacerbate it. I think we can all agree that the world is in turmoil. The Bible says that there will be wars and rumours of wars. How true that is across the world at this moment, nowhere more so than throughout the African nations, particularly Nigeria. What happens in Nigeria will dictate what happens across all of Africa. With a population of almost 220 million, Nigeria is the cauldron for the rest of Africa. That middle band of Africa is awash with weapons, arms and people with evil intent. That concerns me.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for all the work he does in this area. Does he agree that some of the figures provided in preparation for this debate show a stark increase in the number of Christians being killed or abducted? Just four years ago, 3,600 Christians were killed per year, and now it is almost 5,000. The persecution is increasing. Thankfully, a number of us have tabled motions in the House on this issue—I tabled the most recent one, last week. That is what we need to do to highlight this issue and to get action, not just from our Government, but from Governments internationally.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to underline that point, and those stark figures illustrate it very well. Unfortunately, it seems to be the killing ground for those of an ethnic or religious minority background, particularly Christians.

I spoke with a member of the Nigerian diaspora yesterday. He called what is happening, “a prolonged national nightmare of tragedy after tragedy,” as these attacks continue unabated and asked, “Who are supplying the AK47s and the rocket launchers to herders in the crisis-ridden middle belt? Who is sponsoring these wars and these crimes in Nigeria? Who are the international funders?” Is that not a question that all of us in this country should be asking, together with the international community, so that we can address this?

The hon. Lady again makes a very pertinent intervention, which illustrates the issue I referred to earlier. Nigeria and the middle belt of Africa are awash with weapons. We need to address those issues.

The ethnic nationalist groups fighting for greater power for ethnic Fulani people overwhelmingly target civilians with violence in northern Nigeria. In north central Nigerian, Christians represent the majority of victims of that violence. There was a recent attack, at Christmas, in which 200 Christians lost their lives. As parliamentarians, it is our duty to denounce and address such action against freedom of religion or belief, which is a basic human right. One young American lady said to me just last week that the United States has failed to address this situation—I understand that the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) was in the States for a weekend, and I am sure she heard similar remarks. Just last week, that American lady urged me to ensure that we do not fail. We are having this debate today, and we will not fail when it comes to addressing the issues—those who are here will ensure that.

I am fully aware of the limitations of our Government’s ability to control the situation in Nigeria. But by the same token, I believe that there is more that we can and must do to make changes on the ground to get help and support to those who need it most, and simply to do what is right—it is right to do these things. In addition to the recent Christmas massacre, Islamic insurgent-directed Fulani gangs killed at least 10 Christians in Taraba state—another in a catalogue of murder—while a dozen similar gunmen kidnapped over 150 people in Zamfara state, and Boko Haram killed 15 rice farmers in Borno state. It seems to never end.

Those incidents serve to further escalate tensions in a country where violence divides people and erodes trust, threatening Nigerians’ freedom of religion or belief. Historically, violence in Nigeria has fallen along ethnic or religious lines. Violence by Boko Haram, the JAS— I will not try to pronounce the full name; you might understand if I said it in an Ulster Scots accent, Mr Paisley, but I suspect that no one else will—and Islamic State in West Africa threaten the freedom of religion or belief of Nigerians. Despite statements in favour of inter-faith unity, the Nigerian Government—I say this respectfully—have generally failed to enact meaningful policy reforms and changes to address the drivers of the violence impacting on religious freedom. I remember being outraged when I first heard about Boko Haram’s actions against women and children and the trafficking of those young girls. Even today, one young girl, Leah Sharibu, is still under the control of Boko Haram.

Is it not correct that Leah Sharibu is still in captivity because she refused to renounce her Christian faith? Is it not also correct that while, for example, moderate Muslims and others suffer attacks, it appears that Christians in particular are being targeted? Churches are attacked during services, as Owo church was at Pentecost last year, and there was the attack at Christmas in Plateau state. It is a tragedy that, somewhere in the world, every two hours a Christian is killed, and that more than four fifths of those are in Nigeria.

Again, I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and for her other contributions to this debate.

When we visited Nigeria, I remember well the stories we were told by some of the Christians who had been displaced. Those internally displaced peoples informed us that when they were being attacked, the police station was only about half a mile the other side, but while the attack was ongoing, there seemed to be no movement, unfortunately, by the police or the army to reach out and help. It is frustrating that we should have to record such incidents, where the Nigerian police and army have been unable or unwilling to respond when they should. It also annoys me that sometimes the media are silent. It is time for the media to highlight the increasing numbers of murders, atrocities, persecution and kidnappings of young people, as well as the murders of their mums, dads and grandparents.

In Nigeria, 12 northern states have adopted sharia law, even though the constitution recognises the right of freedom of religion or belief—in other words, a right to have a different religion, and not to be subject to another religion in any place. Christians, however, are charged in sharia courts, even though such courts have no jurisdiction over them according to the Nigerian constitution, and even though Christians’ evidence and their testimonies are worth half that of a Muslim. Will the Minister give us some idea of what discussions have taken place between the UK and Nigerian Governments about ensuring that sharia law, contrary to the constitution, does not take precedence over Christians and their beliefs across Nigeria?

A predominantly Muslim ethnic group, the Fulani, have also experienced significant persecution and statelessness across west Africa for several decades. As a primarily pastoralist community, the Fulani have experienced growing disenfranchisement in the country. The marginalisation stems from federal and state government preferences for developing agriculture and the livestock sector, on which the Fulani solely depend. There are other issues, especially ecological shocks from climate change and growing competition for resources. Government authorities have failed to curb the flow of weapons—the hon. Member for Congleton referred to that—or to protect pastoralists’ property from growing criminality.

We need a strong hand from the Nigerian Government, through their police and their army, to protect their people. What is the duty of our Government here, and of our Army and our Minister? It is to protect our people. I commend our Government for their stance; Nigeria and its people deserve the same.

Open Doors, a charity that I support prayerfully and practically and whose information I highly regard—others in this Chamber have the same opinion—has provided information about other religious minorities that are also being attacked and abducted by the majority groups. Followers of African traditional religions are subject to attacks and abductions in their hundreds—not just ones, twos, tens and twenties, but hundreds. Muslims who do not partake in militant attacks are also vulnerable to attack, because they do not participate.

When we were in Nigeria, we made the case clearly. We met many people of the Muslim faith who told us that they were as absolutely disgusted at what was happening against Christians as we were. We have to divorce those who are involved in terrorist campaigns from ordinary people who have a different faith but do not try to push it on to others.

In the north-west and north-central states, many Muslims have been killed, abducted or forced to flee their villages. Ethnic Shi’ites are banned in Nigeria—again, they deserve to have their faith and to worship their God in the way they wish—and it concerns me when I hear of such things happening.

The Government response to extreme violence against civilians has been insufficient to meet their obligations to ensure security and justice for victims. In the north-east, communities have alleged that Government security forces deliberately avoid responding to warnings of violence until after attacks have taken place. Even when they do respond, Christian civilians have reported that they respond with stronger force to alerts about impending violence against Muslim communities than to violence against Christian communities. That institutional bias must be addressed, as the hon. Member for Congleton said. It is clear that what people told me on my visit to Nigeria happens regularly, which is concerning, so I am keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.

Due to the lack of a federal response, some state and local officials have called for civilians to take up arms and defend themselves. Although they do that with good intent—there is good reason to do it—the result is the militarisation of identity groups and an increase in the human rights abuses associated with poorly trained vigilante groups with little to no accountability, so that is not the best way of doing things. It is only right that there is Government enforcement; it is not up to individuals, paramilitary groups or church groups to carry out such actions, but they continue in the southern part of Nigeria.

What worries me is that a conflict that started in the north-east of Nigeria has moved into the centre, and is now moving south. In the south, the Igbo, a largely Christian ethnic group, have issues with political representation, given that the country’s quota system for state revenue distribution privileges the comparatively more populous north and south-west of the country. At the same time, more political, religious and human rights groups are the target of violence. It worries me that the Igbo, the largest ethnic group in the south, are being disadvantaged because they happen to be Christians. No group should be displaced or prevented from accessing aid, grants and advice for that reason.

Several years ago, when I was in Nigeria, the UK Government sent some of our military personnel to work with the Nigerian security forces to address the issues causing the attacks by Boko Haram, but that did not stop them; indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, the attacks have increased way beyond the northern part of Nigeria and now take place in the middle and even southern areas. What more can we do to assist the security forces? Working with others from the international community to do so is urgent.

I thank the hon. Lady for those words. We have a fantastic and incredibly important relationship with Nigeria; there are rich cultural, historical, economic and family connections between our two countries. When I was in Nigeria, I had the opportunity to speak to the British consulate, and the attaché, who was at some of those meetings, indicated that the United Kingdom Government were working closely with the Nigerian Government, but perhaps we have not seen enough of what could be done in a more tactical and advantageous way. One of the things we were told was that Nigeria was keen to have more helicopter support. The Minister is here to report from a human rights and religious point of view, but he has seen long and gallant service in the Army over many years, and he will understand the issue very clearly. I think we could do more, from a Ministry of Defence and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office point of view, to help the Nigerian army to take on the terrorist groups.

The hon. Member is being very generous to me in allowing interventions—I appreciate it greatly. I join him in acknowledging the Minister’s experience with regard to military matters. Is it not correct to say that it would not be simply an altruistic act for the UK to get involved in ensuring greater peace and security in Nigeria? It is also in all our interests, as it is in the world’s interest, because if young people in that huge country—Nigeria’s population is composed largely of young people—become disillusioned and disenchanted with their home country and seek to emigrate elsewhere across the world, denuding Nigeria of its young people and the skills they could be trained in, that would be an absolute tragedy for international peace and security, not just security in Nigeria.

Again, I thank the hon. Lady for the intervention. In my introduction, I mentioned the fact that Nigeria has almost 220 million people, and it is clearly the cauldron for what happens in the whole of Africa—what happens in Nigeria will indicate what happens elsewhere. So the hon. Lady is right to re-emphasise the importance of dealing with terrorism and atrocities and dealing fairly and equitably with each and every person, of whatever faith, in Nigeria. Ensuring that their human rights are respected, that the aid gets to them and that they are secure, happy and safe in their homes is so important, because if that fails in Nigeria—this is what the hon. Lady is reminding us of—it fails for all of Africa. That is why this debate is so important and, as the hon. Lady said, so critical.

To refer back to the Igbo people in the south, armed separatists defending Igbo interests target Muslim civilians, based on ethnic or religious identity, and have also attacked individuals of various faiths travelling to worship and to celebrate holidays in the region. The FORB violations in Nigeria impact everyone in Nigeria; that is where we are—everybody is affected. What happens for the Christians will have an effect elsewhere. What happens with the Muslims will have an effect elsewhere as well.

In terms of FORB, even the judiciary are an area of concern—I have to underline this issue. In the past year, a sharia court sentenced Sheikh Abduljabbar Kabara to death for blasphemy, which is contrary to the constitution of Nigeria, as a sharia court should not have the power to do so. Other judicial authorities sentenced humanist leader Mubarak Bala to 24 years in prison for blasphemy and other charges. Mubarak Bala has been incarcerated since 28 April 2020. We used our visit to speak to some of the judiciary and judges in Nigeria and to make a case. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) will speak today for the Scots Nats. His hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) was in that delegation and made a very good case for the release of Mubarak. We thought we had made some headway on that, and the indications coming from the judiciary seemed to say that, but he is still in prison. I understand that he was given an option to leave the country, and his wife and child deserve to be able to be reunited with him, wherever that may be, in freedom. I said at the beginning of the debate that I speak up for those with a Christian faith, those with other faiths and those with no faith, and I mean that. The other members of the APPG mean it as well, and I think everyone in this room also means it. It is important to say that.

Additionally, a high court in Nigeria ruled that the blasphemy laws in the sharia penal codes are constitutional. In September, armed officers conducted a surprise raid on the presiding judge of the Kano court of appeal, who was the only judge who dissented from the ruling. Is there undue influence from the police and army on the judiciary? The question has to be asked. How impartial can those decisions be?

The Nigerian Government have failed to address the drivers of this violence and to prioritise justice for its victims. We must take action to address the systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom and human rights. The failures are clear. The Minister and his officials must think that I believe they have a magic wand. If only we all had a magic wand, imagine what we could do to fix things. I do not think they do have a magic wand, but I do think we can use our influence economically, culturally, historically and through families, because of the rich bond that is shared between Nigeria and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I know that there are limitations, but I do not believe that we are on the cusp of the limits; I believe that there is more engagement that can and should take place. When the Minister responds and tells us what has been done by the United Kingdom Government, I would be glad to hear that we are heading in a positive direction.

I believe that more on-the-ground missionaries could get involved. I have many in my constituency; in almost every church there are missionaries with contacts across the world, including in Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Nigeria—in large numbers—Swaziland and South Africa. I make that point because there is a non-governmental workforce that could be used as part of the Government network. I have suggested before that missionary groups are there for one purpose: not to be political or to change the direction or focus of the Government, but to help people. I think they could be part of the network that we have in the UK. I know that there may be a sense of, “What else can we be asking for?” when Members see my name next to a debate, but lives are in the balance. There are people in Nigeria who I will never meet in this world, but hopefully we will meet in the next. The innocence of children is at stake, and I believe we have more to give.

When I used to get tired at home and feel like there was nothing left to give, I would recall a biblical verse that my mum ingrained in me. I mentioned in the main Chamber yesterday that my mum got me a bank account when I was 16 and got me my pension when I was 18. She is a lady of great influence. She is the same height as the hon. Member for Congleton—about 5 feet 6 inches— and I am over 6 feet. I get the height from my dad, not my mum. My mum ingrained in me a thought that comes to mind.

Very wise. We are always glad if we have a wise mum.

One thought comes to mind, and I will leave it with the ministerial team today. Galatians 6:9 says:

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

This debate is all about not giving up. It is about continuing to reach out and help those in Nigeria, and there is much more to be done.

I ask the Minister and his team to partner with us, with the spokesperson for the SNP, the hon. Member for Glasgow East, who is a dear friend of mine and has been since the day he came to the House, and with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown). When I told her some weeks ago that we would be having a debate on Nigeria, she said, “Jim, I’ll have to get up early to get here.” She has honoured that promise and is here to speak up for Nigerians. We are all here for that purpose. We are here to make a difference and to know that we have done the best we can for people, without ever giving up.

It is, as ever, a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley, and to serve under your chairmanship. I genuinely and most sincerely thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate. The reality is that if there is any debate on freedom of religion or belief, you can bet your bottom dollar that the hon. Members for Strangford and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) will be tag-teaming. I do not say that to be flippant; I say it in genuine appreciation of the fact that they have really put their passion into this issue. Arguably, they are using their gifts to advocate in this place, as the hon. Member for Strangford says, for people who cannot speak for themselves.

I welcome the opportunity to focus specifically on Nigeria. Like the hon. Member for Congleton, I put on record my concern about the plight of Leah Sharibu. I have done some work with Christian Solidarity Worldwide in advocating for her over the years. This is not something I take great pleasure in, but every year we go to the Nigerian embassy in London on Leah’s birthday, which happens to coincide with mine. There is no way that we want to be marking these birthdays while she is being held in captivity. I thank the hon. Lady for putting Leah’s case on the record again.

Nigeria is characterised by its tapestry of rich religious, ethnic and cultural diversity and is home to almost 103 million Christians, but its once celebrated diversity has in recent times been marred by accounts of persecution, discrimination and human rights violations. As the hon. the Member for Strangford pointed out, Christians are confronted with a brutal reality for practising their invaluable human right of religious freedom, particularly in the Muslim-majority north of the country. Instances of mob killings, forced conversion to Islam, violence, extremism, kidnappings and targeted attacks on Christians have tragically become commonplace. Houses of worship, schools and communities have become battlegrounds, leading to devastation and destruction.

All the while, various arms and tiers of the Government have displayed sheer complacency and inaction in securing the very basic safety of Christians and other religious minorities in Nigeria. That slow, unsustainable and unyielding reaction emboldens extremist groups such as Boko Haram and Fulani militants to wage insurgencies on defenceless Christian communities in northern and middle-belt regions.

As our Christian brothers and sisters find themselves caught in the crossfire of ethnic and religious tensions, extremist ideologies, religious polarisation and conflicts have cultivated a climate of fear and insecurity, forcing many to flee their homes and abandon places of worship and communities that they have held dear for generations. It is crucial for us to acknowledge the suffering of our fellow Christians, work collectively to address those injustices, and, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, speak out for those who cannot speak.

As the hon. the Member for Strangford highlighted, the recent launch of the Open Doors 2024 world watch list sees Nigeria ranking sixth against the shocking backdrop of more Christians being killed in Nigeria than everywhere else in the world combined. This year’s research highlights that the hostility that Christians face has intensified; 90% of 4,998 Christians killed in 2023 were Nigerian.

Following a devastating year for Christians, many were looking forward to a peaceful Christmas celebration with loved ones as we celebrated the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, but instead they found themselves brutalised once again. I wholeheartedly echo Members’ condemnation of the abhorrent massacre of civilians that took place on Christmas eve 2023 at the hands of Fulani Islamic extremists.

The Nigerian Government’s failure to protect Christians during the most holy period resulted in 295 Christians being killed, more than 1,500 homes burned, eight churches burned, and 30,000 people displaced, according to Barnabas Aid. Those horrendous acts of persecution not only violate the fundamental right to freedom of religion enshrined in article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights, but undermine the fabric of our society if we simply turn a blind eye to such injustice.

“Come to our rescue” and “We cannot even mourn in peace” are just a couple of the calls for peace written on posters held by mourning peace marchers in the wake of the deadly attack. It is incumbent on us while we are here in Parliament to continue to demand that those unprovoked attacks stop and that the peace marchers’ calls are not brushed to the sidelines.

I commend the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which I referenced earlier, in collecting the personal testimonies of those murdered, the survivors who managed to escape the carnage of the attacks, and many others. The stories paint a poignant reminder that while we debate here today in the Palace of Westminster, 365 million Christians worldwide face persecution for simply having the temerity to follow the teachings of Christ. That is why the UK Government must ensure that there are safe and legal routes for refugees fleeing to the UK due to religious persecution and human rights concerns instead of criminalising them.

I cannot let this morning go by without acknowledging the frankly grotesque scenes last night of the Prime Minister placing a bet on live national television with what can only be described as a questionable journalist, making light of the plight of refugees and bargaining cash on whether they can be deported to Rwanda. The very people that we have turned up to discuss in this place—people fleeing religious persecution—could be the types of people put on the planes subject to a bet by the Prime Minister. I do not make any apology for calling that out, because I would do so if it were somebody in my own party.

Listening to the hon. Member for Strangford outline the complex array of challenges faced by Nigeria, from security threats from extremists to farmer and herder conflicts, solidifies why I believe the British Government must reinstate its international obligation to spend 0.7% of the UK’s GNI on official development assistance. I will be frank: if the UK can afford to find money—roughly £1 million a go—to launch arms into the Red sea, surely we can also find money for development. It is concerning that the UK Government are reducing official development aid to Nigeria by 19.85% for 2023-24 in the face of a blatant rise in violence against Christians and religious minorities. Given everything that I have outlined, there is no doubt that the relationship with Nigeria is complex, but the decision to reduce ODA, which is targeted at some of the most vulnerable people, must be revisited.

Despite their constrained resources, my colleagues in Holyrood, the Scottish Government, are supporting projects to tackle the effects of climate change, such as religious hostilities over resources in northern Nigeria, for example through a £3 million climate justice fund—all while, I say humbly to the Minister, the Government continually refuse to recognise their role in protecting religious minorities and freedom of religion across the world. A lot of good work was done under the previous Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt). However, notwithstanding the wonderful work done by the hon. Member for Congleton, I am concerned that the focus of the Government at Foreign Secretary level could be better on that front.

I am listening very carefully to everything the hon. Gentleman is saying. I know that he feels very sincerely about the issue of freedom of religion or belief and the persecuted across the world. However, I do not think it would be out of turn to put on record that I have had a conversation about this very issue with the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, and I believe that he personally shares our concerns about those who are persecuted or discriminated against because of their religion or beliefs across the world. It is a priority for him.

I am genuinely not seeking to quarrel or have a debate about that. If that is the case, I am very glad to hear it. The only thing I will say is that I would like to see His Majesty’s Government implement that view across all Departments. Certainly, as an MP who does quite a lot of Home Office casework, I find that there are far too many occasions when my constituents who are seeking refuge or asylum in the UK based on religious persecution are put through the most intolerable hoops. So that is a view I would like to see shared a bit more across Government.

With all that in mind, let us not remain silent spectators of the suffering of our fellow Christians. Let us work towards fostering a society where religious freedom is not simply a principle that we debate in this place, but a lived reality for Nigerians, and indeed every person of faith, or no faith at all, across this land.

Again, I thank the hon. Member for Strangford for giving us the opportunity to allow the Minister, and indeed this House, to refocus on the plight of religious freedom.

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate. He is, as ever, a devoted campaigner for freedom of religion or belief around the world, and I sincerely thank him for that. I am grateful to him for recognising the complexities of the situation, including the marginalisation of Fulani communities, the role of climate change and the need to tackle the flow of weapons. We need to collectively consider all those issues. I also agree that our influence rightly has limits, but I believe that there is more we can do within our partnership with Nigeria, and I will address that in my speech.

As we know, Nigeria is a country of rich diversity, with more than 500 languages, over 300 ethnic groups and a massive range of different churches and branches of Islam. Our connection with Nigeria benefits enormously from our diaspora communities, which, as we know, include British Nigerians of all faiths and backgrounds. It is right to say that at the beginning of my speech, because it provides the context for where we want to go. However, against that background of co-existence and flourishing diversity, there have been many appalling violations of freedom of religion and belief. They include attacks on Christian communities, priests and churches. We must continue to remember the utterly horrifying attack on St Francis Xavier Church in Ondo state two years back, when 41 innocent worshippers were murdered during the Pentecost mass. We continue to stand with the survivors and with that devastated community. I ask the Minister how the Government are engaging with the Nigerian authorities to help ensure justice for that attack, because it must not be forgotten.

The hon. Member rightly highlighted the terrible killings in Plateau state in December. Amnesty International Nigeria reports that over 140 people were killed across 20 villages in just 48 hours. That is truly appalling. Others reported that several churches were burned alongside many homes, and there is speculation that the attacks were a form of indiscriminate reprisal by local herders for cattle rustling and village burnings that had started the previous day. The scale of it is simply horrifying. Is the Minister aware of any progress following the Government’s engagement with the authorities on this issue? We should not rely on speculation. There is a genuine need for a full and impartial investigation of those attacks, and we must see action to prevent those horrors from being repeated, as they have been in recent years.

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. Is it not right that unless endeavours are made to bring to account those involved in such atrocities, impunity is fostered, and that means more attacks can occur?

I agree with the hon. Lady, as I often do. It is about ensuring that there is no impunity for attacks of that nature. It only fosters, as she rightly says, impunity for future actions.

As we know, there is also a huge continuing threat from jihadist terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province, and we must continue to support Nigeria in its fight against those groups. Terrible violence and insecurity in large parts of Nigeria continue to affect millions of Nigerian people of all faiths. I hope that we can agree here today that narratives about religious wars are not accurate, because I honestly worry that that kind of narrative risks making the situation even worse.

I would like to draw hon. Members’ attention to the perspective of Archbishop Ndagoso, of the Catholic archdiocese of Kaduna in north-west Nigeria. He said:

“In the northwest the farmers are mostly Muslims, and they also have conflicts with the Fulani. As you move to the middle belt, it is inhabited mostly by Christians, so there it will most likely be a Christian farm. Religion and ethnicity are very sensitive problems in Nigeria, they are always used for convenience, but primarily this conflict is not religious, I am absolutely sure.”

The archbishop went on to say that opportunists

“use these factors to their own advantage, but if you go to the root, you discover it is little or nothing to do with religion.”

The archbishop, like many in Nigeria, is absolutely focused on the desperate insecurity affecting his parishioners. In the same interview, he was understandably very critical of the Nigerian Government and of us in the west. He was, rightly, very clear about the many forms of legal and administrative discrimination that Christian organisations face in his state, and others in northern Nigeria. His is an expert perspective that we should consider.

In 2022, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project found that while, as we know, attacks on Christians had significantly increased, only 5% of the attacks on civilians were specifically targeting Christians based on the fact that they were Christians. However, I know that we in this Chamber will agree that even a 5% increase is far too great.

It is a simple fact that the extremist groups exploiting and victimising large areas of Nigeria kill and destroy the livelihoods of Christian and Muslim communities alike. We must call out targeted attacks against Christians, and we need a holistic approach to insecurity. We need to provide solidarity with all communities, because Nigerian communities of all faiths and ethnicities depend on the Nigerian state; and where there are failures, we need to support our Nigerian friends in addressing them.

When communities do not have access to state services, including access to justice that resolves and redresses grievances, it fuels vigilantes, bandits and revenge attacks. It creates a sense of abandonment and discrimination, which is fertile ground for the recruitment narratives of terrorists. When young people have no decent access to jobs, and families are without education for their children or food to keep them from going hungry, there is a push towards alternative economic models, such as crime. It is the same the world over, but in Nigeria, that might include kidnapping for ransom, livestock rustling, or, appallingly, even recruitment into the terrorist groups that continue to wreak such utter carnage on innocent communities.

I know that some colleagues may disagree, but many experts and international organisations are clear that climate change plays a role in this conflict. The African Union, the International Crisis Group, the World Bank and others believe that to be true. When grazing land becomes scarce, it drives herders to migrate. They, in turn, push into settled communities, and atrocities can result. We see similar stories happening right across the Sahel and beyond—from Mali to the Lake Chad basin, from South Sudan to north-west Kenya. Those conflicts are, sadly, nothing new, but they have become more and more intense.

I do not think any of us deny that climate change is one of the causes of the sad situation that we are discussing, but one of the problems is that extremist groups are hijacking the issue and fuelling the violence. As we have said, they bring in arms and other materials to do that. Those groups have their own extremist agenda, and they are taking advantage of all those involved who are struggling, often at subsistence level, in Nigeria. The international community needs to address this issue with greater alertness and urgency.

I agree. The impact of a changing climate is not a simple issue of cause and effect; it is about poverty and destitution.

I can understand the anxiety about states in Nigeria continuing to imprison people for exercising religious freedoms. We all know the case of Mubarak Bala—we have spoken about that in this place, with the same audience—but there are others imprisoned in Nigeria on blasphemy charges. We cannot just respond to insecurity and terrorism by calling out individual human rights abuses. We need to provide practical support to prevent further atrocities. Regardless of whether religious motivations have helped to cause an attack, I believe that we can absolutely support religious organisations to provide solutions.

I hope that the Minister will tell us much more today about how the Government are engaging with all communities of faith in Nigeria to support peace building; how we are encouraging interfaith work that creates trust and understanding; and how we are engaging with religious leaders to support their communities to adapt to more climate-resilient methods of agriculture and ways of living. How are we supporting the early warning systems and civil society networks that can help communities to de-escalate when a conflict becomes likely? How can we support the programmes of the federal Government or individual states that would aid that agenda? Are we offering support to the efforts of Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States in tackling the spread of weapons, which make these conflicts so appallingly deadly?

I hope colleagues will forgive me if I finish on a much more positive note. In much of Nigeria, people of different faiths and none are living side by side in peace. That is utterly normal, and it simply goes without saying. Interfaith marriages are common. We should not lose sight of this. I worry that an image of Nigeria is emerging that is scarcely recognisable to many Nigerians, because it does not reflect the dynamism, the inter-mixing, the excitement, energy and opportunity of Nigeria today. I believe that to support protections for all Nigerians, including those of freedom of religion or belief, we need to engage with those opportunities, deepening our partnership with Nigeria for our mutual benefit.

It is a great pleasure to be here this morning, Mr Paisley, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate. I know colleagues will join me in commending him for his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion or belief, especially with regard to Nigeria. His sincerity and passion are of note and are much appreciated.

I am here on behalf of the Minister for Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who takes a great interest in this issue in the context of the continent, but is engaged in duties elsewhere. It is my great pleasure to be here and I aim to cover off all the points raised. I am grateful for the contributions; it has been a sincere and passionate debate. I am particularly pleased that the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), is also here contributing.

We are united in horror at the scale and ferocity of attacks against religious groups in Nigeria, which were shockingly described by the hon. Member for Strangford. Of course, particularly in our minds is the massacre of Christians at St Francis Xavier Church, and we continue to press the Nigerian Government for justice to be done in that case.

The hon. Member for Strangford referred to Open Doors, and its report paints a very harrowing picture. More than 4,000 Christians were killed in Nigeria last year alone. It is our firm conviction that every Nigerian should be able to practise their faith and it is the constitutional obligation of the Nigerian Government to ensure that all Nigerians should be able to practise their faith or belief in safety, free from fear and persecution. I commend the dedication shown by Members in this Chamber and across the House, and I will use this opportunity to lay out some of the actions that the Government are taking.

I know that the Minister will come back to this point, but one of the issues that the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and I highlighted was the effect of sharia law, which has been introduced in some Nigerian states. It discriminates against those who are of a Christian belief. Even though it is not in the constitution, it has been introduced and some people have borne the brunt of the law on blasphemy, including through attacks and judges being influenced. Perhaps the Minister can address that issue, because the constitution says that all religions are equal, but there is something wrong when sharia law is able to tell Christians what they should do.

The hon. Gentleman is correct: the constitutional obligation of the Nigerian Government is to ensure, at federal level and state level, that Nigerians are free to practise their religion. Through our high commissioner, we continue to make that case to our partners in Nigeria, for the settled benefit of constitutional affairs and religious freedom in the country.

I am very pleased to hear the Minister speak about the high commission raising cases. Will he ask UK diplomats in Nigeria to raise, in particular, the case of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, the 19-year-old Sufi Muslim who wrote a song that he sent to a friend on WhatsApp, which the friend then circulated. As a result, Yahaya was arrested in Kano state, charged and there was a court hearing. He had no legal representation and because he was found guilty of blasphemy, he was sentenced to death by hanging.

Fortunately, Yahaya’s case came to the attention of members of the international community who are concerned about freedom of religion or belief and a lawyer has now been found for him. I met that young lawyer twice in the last year, but the fact is, unfortunately, that when an appeal was made to the Court of Appeal, Yahaya lost. The case is now going to the Supreme Court in Nigeria. This is a very important case, because blasphemy should not be an offence and it certainly should not be subject to the death penalty. Will the Minister ask our representatives in Nigeria to advocate on Yahaya’s behalf as he awaits the date for the Supreme Court hearing?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that case, which is one of gravity and importance. I will ask the Minister for Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, to write with an update on the representations that we are making through our high commissioner in Abuja.

The UK Government are committed to supporting Nigeria to end faith-based persecution and violence, and to uphold its constitutional commitment to religious freedom for all, as we have discussed. This is a long-standing priority in our partnership with Nigeria. The British high commissioner and his team in Nigeria work closely with local authorities, communities and faith leaders to address these issues, which include wider inter-communal violence and insecurity that exacerbate the threats to religious groups. Some of those trends have been discussed very usefully this morning.

We regularly raise these issues at the highest level. Last July, the British high commissioner raised the report by the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, which was entitled, “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide? Three Years On”, with the Nigerian President’s chief of staff. In August 2023, the former Foreign Secretary discussed insecurity with President Tinubu and the Nigerian national security adviser. Most recently, the British high commissioner has raised the attacks in Plateau state with the national security adviser and discussed solutions to intercommunal conflict and insecurity.

In all those meetings, we have reiterated the need to uphold the security of all communities affected by violence and to bring perpetrators to justice. We continue to underline our commitment to supporting the Nigerian Government in tackling these persistent security issues.

Meanwhile, we are working to advance freedom of religion or belief through our work on the world stage. I am very pleased that the Prime Minister’s special envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, is here today; she remains closely involved in the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, a network of countries including the UK that are dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of religion or belief for all.

The United Nations Human Rights Council undertook its universal periodic review of Nigeria last month. The UK Government were an active participant in that process, and we remain committed to protecting all human rights, including freedom of religion or belief. It is important to recognise the complex factors that increase insecurity between communities, which have been laid out in this morning’s passionate debate. Religious belief is one such factor; others include economic disenfranchisement, historical grievances and natural resources.

We should remember that this insecurity in Nigeria is deadly both for Christians and for Muslims. We should also remember that intercommunal violence and criminal banditry are a significant factor causing a rising death toll and therefore increasing tensions between communities across Nigeria. These grievances are very easily tied to a community’s religious or ethnic identities, which are of course closely associated in Nigeria; conflicts can therefore take on a religious dimension as tensions build between communities and reprisal attacks take place. I am very grateful to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), for elegantly laying out the complex set of factors that often escalate economic or geographic conflicts into conflicts of a religious nature.

The hon. Members for West Ham and for Strangford asked about our support more broadly. The UK is supporting peace and resilience in Nigeria through a new £38 million programme that aims to tackle the interlinked causes of intercommunal conflict, including security, justice and natural resource management challenges. That is even more important in the context of climate change and grave water shortage: it will help farmers to access and collect water more efficiently and to provide better routes for livestock. Together, we expect that our support will help 1.5 million women and men to benefit from reduced violence in their communities and will help 300,000 people to better adapt to the increasingly pernicious effects of climate change.

The FCDO has also funded peace-building projects in Kaduna, Plateau, Niger and Benue states that aim to promote tolerance and understanding between communities affected by intercommunal violence. Those projects have included work to train peace ambassadors, including faith leaders, to engage with young people—the vast majority of the population, as was raised in the debate—who are at risk of becoming radicalised.

I referred to the many missionary organisations and NGOs that are involved. Nearly every church in my constituency has a connection with a missionary somewhere in Africa. I recognise the great influence and help that those partnerships with NGOs and missionaries could be. Although I am ever mindful that the Minister is not the Minister responsible for this area, I feel that more should be made of that. It would be to the benefit of everyone. It is a great source of talent and a great group of people: people of commitment, energy and faith who could work alongside the Government in a partnership that could deliver.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. We note the tremendous positive energy of the various church groups. I am sure that the high commissioner and the team take good account and make good use of those connections in their interfaith work. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has put that on the record.

I really appreciate the Minister taking these interventions. Will he refer to the high commission the atrocity that took place at Owo on Pentecost well over a year ago? Aid to the Church in Need, one of the excellent NGOs to which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will no doubt refer, has repeatedly asked for help for those who suffered as a result of that atrocity. On Red Wednesday, I brought Margaret Attah and her husband Dominic to the House. She lost an eye and two legs in that attack. Aid to the Church in Need and other Church representatives are asking for help for those who were injured in that attack. I agree that strategic structural help is important in peace building —when I was out there, I met some of the young women who are being worked with in order to engage with local communities—but there is also a need to give immediate support to those who suffer such atrocities.

Order. The hon. Lady has made numerous substantial and detailed interventions— I have lost count now. I think the House would have benefited from a speech from her, as opposed to a series of interventions; I encourage her to bring us a speech next time because of her detailed knowledge of what she is presenting to the House.

I am very pleased to say that as a consequence of this debate we will ensure that our high commissioner is made aware, if he is not already, of Aid to the Church in Need’s perspective and requirements. I am happy to make that commitment.

I turn to violent attacks by Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa Province, predominantly in north-east Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin, against those who do not subscribe to their extremist ideologies. The region’s predominantly Muslim populations have borne the brunt of the insurgency, but those groups have also targeted Christians, including through the large-scale abduction of women and children. We of course unequivocally condemn those acts. This has been an absolute saga of tragedy. Colleagues mentioned Leah Sharibu, who, following her abduction, remains in captivity. We continue to raise her case with the Nigerian Government, and we have called for her release and the release of those who continue to be held by terrorists. That case continues to concern us all.

We are a leading provider of lifesaving humanitarian assistance to support Nigerians affected by this conflict. Since 2022, we have contributed £66.8 million to the humanitarian response in north-east Nigeria, including providing food and cash assistance to more than 600,000 people, including religious groups, and helping more than 1 million children with lifesaving nutrition services. That is in the context of our bilateral ODA contribution to Nigeria over the past 10 years of some £2.4 billion. Our contribution is substantial and has a very significant practical impact.

For religious tolerance to flourish, we must also tackle insecurity and close the space for criminals and extremists to operate. During our annual security and defence partnership dialogue with Nigeria this week, which colleagues raised, we will discuss strengthening our practical support to defend Nigeria against such threats. In that dialogue, we will consider what more the partnership can do in the pure security context to advance these issues.

I had the same conversations with the British consulate in Nigeria. In response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), I referred to a request for more helicopter support for the Nigerian army, which indicated that that would help it in the battle against terrorists, although I know that it must do a lot more than that. I am mindful that this is not the Minister’s responsibility, but will he have those discussions with the relevant Minister to ensure that we consider any military assistance, such as helicopters, that can be given to Nigeria?

The focus is currently on training police and working with local communities, but I know that the defence partnership dialogue will consider exactly that. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that I will pass on that suggestion to my Ministry of Defence colleague.

The security work builds on our work as a partner in the multinational joint taskforce, which has seized weapons intended for use against civilians in Nigeria. However, the ongoing work is hugely important, because disrupting the flow of weapons is a critical security factor. The UK Government will continue to work closely with the Nigerian authorities to address the deeply troubling violence against those who are simply trying to follow their faith, including by raising faith-based violence and wider insecurity at the highest levels and with country-based partners and the wider international community to promote a more secure and stable Nigeria in which everyone is free to follow their faith or belief without fear of persecution or violence.

Once again, I thank hon. Members for this debate. I am grateful that my friend the hon. Member for Strangford quoted from Galatians 6:9:

“Let us not become weary in doing good”.

He is certainly not weary, and our team in Nigeria is not weary. Despite the many challenges and the huge scale of the threat, we are confident that our actions have a positive impact. I am grateful to have laid out this morning some of the actions that we are taking, but a great deal of work is ahead of us.

With that benediction, Minister, I ask the hon. Member for Strangford to wind up for a couple of minutes.

May I thank everyone for their participation, their conviction, their contributions and their words of wisdom? I began by saying that we were here to speak up and be a voice for the voiceless, and I think Members of all parties have done so in this Chamber today. It has been a very positive debate. I hope that those in Nigeria—my brothers and sisters in the Lord, and those of other faiths—can take some encouragement from our conviction.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to the increasing numbers of attacks. The stats from the Library and from Open Doors, Aid to the Church in Need, Release International and other groups indicate that Nigeria is sixth in the world watchlist, which indicates the severity of the crimes.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said that our being here is a matter not just of principle, but of conviction. He is right, and I know that that is how he feels in his heart. He delivered that message well. He also referred to how Christians are attacked and how their houses, homes and churches have become a battleground. We have to address that.

If you do not mind my saying so, Mr Paisley, I think that the interventions from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) helped to cultivate the debate at each stage. I thank her for that, and I congratulate her on getting a Bill through Parliament to establish in law the position of the special envoy, under all Governments. That is a really big thing—well done to her. I thank her for everything that she has done to establish a special envoy permanently, and for all her interventions.

I was pleased to hear that the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) would be speaking in this debate, because I knew that her contribution would be really on the ball. She referred to the 41 people killed in the Pentecostal mass some two years ago. Justice is needed; the hon. Member for Congleton reinforced that point, and I think the Minister tried to do so. Progress is needed on justice and accountability, and there should be no impunity for anyone. The hon. Member for West Ham also referred to the insecurity of the territory. She always makes a helpful contribution to these debates.

I know that this issue is not in the Minister’s portfolio, but he always encapsulates and appreciates the points of view put forward. He answered clearly on the issues that are important: preventing the persecution of Christians, protecting their freedom to worship and bringing perpetrators to justice. He referred to the peace ambassadors and how religious tolerance must flourish. That is what we wish to see: a Nigeria where everyone can follow their faith.

The Minister said, “Let us not be weary.” We are not wearying, because this is the right thing to do: we have a duty in this House and further afield to stand up for our brothers and sisters and for those of all faiths around the world. What a privilege it is to do so today in this Chamber with purpose and conviction, and to have a Minister who responds positively.

I thank colleagues for their detailed contributions to a very important debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered freedom of religion and belief in Nigeria.

Sitting suspended.


In a moment, I will call Sarah Jones to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates, but I suspect there may be interventions from other colleagues, which of course is perfectly in order.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of fly-tipping.

Fly-tipping is a pernicious and inexcusable form of antisocial behaviour that causes great distress to many of my constituents. I will set out the extent of the problem, highlight some of the fantastic community efforts to address it, and then turn to the potential solutions. I have not secured this debate to score political points. The Minister may have a few pre-prepared lines, but I want this to be a constructive discussion about how we bring about change, and I hope he will respond in the same spirit. Many of my constituents have written to me with fantastic suggestions of what could be done. I am immensely grateful for their ideas and look forward to sharing them in the course of the debate.

Fly-tipping is a persistent and acute problem in Croydon, but it is not just a problem in Croydon. This blight on our communities should not be treated as some inevitable feature of city living—quite the opposite. The statistics show that fly-tipping affects all parts of our country. Around 3,000 incidents of fly-tipping hit communities across England every single day, costing local authorities up to £58 million each year. Worryingly, the mountain of rubbish being heaped on Britain’s streets is growing. Over the past two years, the number of large fly-tips that were tipper lorry-load size or larger has increased by 13%. Whether we live in rolling hills or in a concrete jungle, no one should have their neighbourhood polluted by piles of junk. People in Croydon are angry and frustrated at the persistence of fly-tipping on their streets, from Central Parade in New Addington to Gonville Road in Thornton Heath.

I thank the hon. Member for securing this important debate. She is obviously describing the situation in her constituency in Croydon, whereas I represent a rural constituency in Somerset—Somerton and Frome. Farmers experience fly-tipping on a massive scale. It costs them an enormous amount of money and time that they frankly do not have. Does she agree it is deeply unfair that farmers are often forced to cover the cost of removing the rubbish themselves and that it has an environmental impact on the countryside?

The hon. Member is absolutely right. This is a problem across the whole country, and we see it in different forms in different places. I am sure her farmers in Somerton and Frome are very frustrated at this persistent crime, as it is sometimes hard, particularly in rural areas, to catch those responsible. This is a big part of the cost that farmers bear, on top of all the other challenges they have to face, so she makes a good point.

Fly-tipping is dangerous. It is a public health hazard that attracts rats and vermin. I am frequently contacted about a hotspot on the corner of Sherwood Road and Lower Addiscombe Road in Croydon, where, as well as discarded mattresses and furniture, black bin bags filled with used nappies and sanitary products are being ripped open by foxes and strewn across the pavement. Fly-tipping is damaging to local economies. People living near London Road, a busy main road in my constituency, frequently tell me how frustrated they are by the rates of fly-tipping there. For areas that are home to many small businesses, cafés, grocers and hairdressers, the feeling of dirtiness and neglect that fly-tipping causes is far from helpful to their custom.

Fly-tipping is also unsightly, which is a problem in more than just an aesthetic sense. The environment we live in can have a profound impact on our sense of wellbeing. The streets we tread each day help to bind our communities together—that is, our neighbours, the staff of our favourite café and the postman. When streets are clean, we get more than cleanliness in return. Clean streets tell us that we are part of a community and that people take pride in the spaces they share, the memories they make there and the community they are part of. People in Croydon are immensely proud of their community. There is already a great deal of work being done to try to keep our streets clean. Rowenna Davis and Ellily Ponnuthurai, two Labour councillors in Waddon, have been fighting tirelessly to get the mess on Purley Way, probably one of the biggest fly-tips in London, cleared up.

The Litter Free Norbury group is doing fantastic voluntary work and frequently organises group litter-picking sessions. Croydon Council’s Love Clean Streets app, which allows users to report fly-tips for the council to clear them away, is very effective in getting fly-tips cleaned up. There are many individuals across the country, as well as in my patch, spending their free time cleaning up our streets. We recognise and commend their tenacity and their determination to make sure we can all enjoy our boroughs at their best, but we cannot and should not just rely on the generosity of community groups to address the problem; we need to prevent it in the first place.

In advance of this debate, many of my constituents wrote to me with many excellent ideas about how we tackle fly-tipping, but there is not enough time to outline them all. I will therefore focus on three. I am acutely aware that local authorities are severely limited by resources—the Government’s record on that is a debate for another time. The reality is that local authorities have to work much harder to use the resources they have to effectively tackle fly-tipping on a budget.

It is great to hear about the initiatives in the hon. Member’s constituency; perhaps I will be able to take some back to Somerset with me. Owing to the financial difficulties facing many authorities across the country, Somerset Council is considering closing up to five household waste recycling centres across the county, including one at Dimmer in my constituency, which will increase the likelihood of fly-tipping in what is an incredibly rural area. Does the hon. Member agree that we need to urgently give local authorities the funding required to keep important recycling centres open, particularly in rural areas, reducing the cost burden on our local authorities and also on our environment?

The hon. Lady makes another good point. We have seen, probably across the country, many areas where recycling centres have closed. If people do not have cars or if they struggle to travel, it is even more difficult for them to reach those areas. She is absolutely right. We could have a much wider debate about funding for local authorities, but I will focus on some of the ideas that some local authorities are using.

Under Newham Council and Keep Britain Tidy’s award-winning and innovative crime scene investigation approach, fly-tipping was cut by up 70%. Fly-tips were surrounded by bright yellow tape and left for a few days, to highlight their lasting impact on the area to perpetrators, before then being cleaned up. It was an imaginative approach and demonstrates the spirit that we need to combat a persistent problem. That is why the suggestions that follow are as much as possible aimed at utilising the powers that councils already have.

The first idea is mega-skips. Many people have told me that the accessibility of waste removal services and centres—the hon. Lady made this point—is a major barrier to bringing down levels of dumping. Nearly one in five jobs in my constituency is paid below the London living wage, yet services to dispose of bulky items of household waste are often expensive. On top of that, levels of car ownership in the borough are at record lows, putting recycling centres out of reach of many in our community.

One fantastic suggestion that I support is to replicate the mega-skip days run by Wandsworth Council, whereby skips are provided around the borough on certain days of the year so that residents can simply get rid of items for free. I hope the Minister will join me in encouraging Croydon and other councils to look at mega-skip days. Are they something that he would support?

The second idea is changing behaviours. Many who wrote to me were dismayed by the feeling that fly-tippers were getting away without facing any consequences. That is extremely understandable, given that official statistics show that Croydon is the second easiest place in the country to fly-tip and get away fine-free. Last year Croydon Council issued just 10 fixed penalty notices, despite recording more than 20,000 instances of fly-tipping.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. She raises a really important point about fixed penalty notices. So often people are literally dumping waste, especially in the countryside, on an industrial scale, costing local authorities across the country hundreds of thousands of pounds—indeed, millions of pounds. The deterrent is not there, so does the hon. Lady agree that increasing quite dramatically the fixed penalty notice that local authorities can charge the people they catch would help, but that we should also send a message to magistrates, so that people know that fly-tipping is not worth it, because when they are taken to court—as South Staffordshire Council has done—they will be hit with very hard penalties?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If we look at the stats that I just cited—more than 20,000 instances of fly-tipping and only 10 fixed penalty notices—it is clear that people feel that they can get away with it. Of course we need more enforcement and appropriate punishment, when it is right to do that. This is a really pernicious, horrible crime, and the response in our courts should reflect that.

The promise that crimes will have consequences is central to our justice system. One idea that I think is interesting is Merton Council’s wall of shame, which puts that principle into action. The council uses its roaming CCTV to capture images of fly-tippers, and it puts those images up as posters around fly-tipping hotspots. Merton has only just started doing that, but it achieved seen results. Merton has even filmed, with the CCTV, people coming with their rubbish and looking at the poster and then walking away, because they realise that there might be consequences to their actions. What Merton is doing could be something that the Minister might look at on a more national scale.

Next, I want to talk about having a strategy. As we have established, fly-tipping is widespread across the country. Croydon Council has focused on blitz clean-up approaches to hotspots, which is a good in itself, but I agree with the suggestion that I have had from many constituents that a more joined-up approach is needed. Each council—Croydon Council being one—should develop a fly-tipping strategy that explores the root causes of fly-tipping, identifies the hotspots in each borough, outlines what tools the council already has at its disposal, and produces a plan to deploy those tools to address the problem. Let me give one example of councils using the resources that they have. Several councils use their YouTube page to show pictures of perpetrators of fly-tipping—again, to try to shock people into realising that they are committing an offence and should stop.

I am grateful to have had this debate to highlight the pestilence that is fly-tipping, to commend community efforts to address it and to outline some ways to address it. Everyone deserves to live in a neighbourhood that they feel proud of. The levels of fly-tipping in Croydon and across the country are completely unacceptable. I am suggesting to Croydon Council that it set up mega-skip days to provide freely available skips so that residents can more easily get rid of unwanted items for free, that it set up a fly-tippers wall of shame—learn from Merton Council and publicise images of fly-tippers—and that it approach fly-tipping strategically. We need to use the enforcement measures and other tools that we have, look at what we can do in the online space, and develop a fly-tipping strategy to tackle the problem across the borough. We cannot and must not allow this situation to continue. We know that there are solutions. We know that things can be done. I want to see a future in which fly-tipping is drastically reduced, and I look forward to working with the local community, council and Government to clean up Croydon.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) for tabling this important debate. I also thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I will pick up on the points that have been raised. I know from my own constituency, from Keighley and Ilkley, just how much of a nuisance fly-tipping can be in our areas and in relation to the wellbeing of our communities. It is an absolute disgrace that it happens as much as it does across all our constituencies, whether they are urban or rural environments. Fly-tipping harms the environment, blights our local communities and burdens our local economy. The estimated cost of fly-tipping to the UK was £392 million in 2018-19. The reports of fly-tipping are higher today. Local authorities reported more than a million fly-tipping instances in 2022-23 and over 80% of farmers say that they have been affected by fly-tipping on their land. We are all familiar with the financial implications when they are left to deal with the consequences of waste left on their property.

In recent years, we have given councils tougher powers and grants to tackle fly-tipping hotspots, and have worked with stakeholders to co-design a fly-tipping toolkit to help landowners, councils and businesses to tackle common issues. The latest statistics may show that the tide is beginning to turn, with fly-tipping on public land down for the second year running, but we know that there is much more to do.

I want to turn to some of the key themes raised in the debate, before picking up on some of the ideas that the hon. Member for Croydon Central proposed. In March last year, the Prime Minister published the antisocial behaviour action plan, which sets out the steps the Government would like to take to support councils to take tougher action to deter people from fly-tipping, and punish those who have done so.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been delivering against those commitments at pace. In July, the maximum penalty councils can issue for fly-tipping was increased significantly from £400 to £1,000. We also increased the penalty for householders who gave waste to a fly-tipper from £400 to £600. That builds on other powers that councils have, such as the ability to seize vehicles suspected of being involved in fly-tipping.

I thank the Minister for pointing out that the amount councils can charge in a fixed-penalty fine has gone up. Would the Minister look at that, so that instead of £600 it could be £2,000 or £3,000 and is a real disincentive to fly-tipping?

I was about to come on to that point. My right hon. Friend makes an important point, but the challenge at the moment is that, although that power is available to many local authorities, the uptake in prosecutions is not there, even at the higher rate of £1,000. Many local authorities do not issue any prosecutions in a year. We have to ask why a power that is available to many local authorities is not being used. Rather than simply look at increasing the penalty, the first step of deterrence must be to ensure that local authorities use the powers awarded to them.

I am pleased to see that some councils such as Buckinghamshire Council and West Northamptonshire Council have begun to adopt those higher rates, showing that those crimes are being taken seriously in those areas. We want councils to make greater use of the income they receive from those penalties. From 1 April, that income will be ringfenced in law, to improve and expand enforcement capability, and clean up mess from fly-tippers. Local authorities will be able to ringfence for those offences if they wish.

We have also increased scrutiny of how councils are using those powers through the publication of our fly-tipping enforcement league tables, which are now in their second iteration. Those show that some councils are already taking the fight to these criminals. As I have said, however, some councils, with significant fly-tipping issues, are barely scratching the surface, and are not issuing any fixed-penalty notices in the first place. We have to ensure that those penalties are imposed, to create a deterrent. The Department has written to those councils, reaffirming expectations that they should take tougher action, and encouraging them to reach out to others to learn how better to tackle fly-tipping.

The overarching goals of enforcement should be to change the behaviour of those who offend and to deter others from doing so. It has been our long-standing position that penalties should never have to be used to raise revenue, but when they are utilised we expect that local authorities can ringfence those funds to help to cement our priority of reducing fly-tipping waste.

Fly-tipping is a serious crime, and offenders can face an unlimited fine and imprisonment if convicted in court. It is right that councils use the full extent of these powers to prosecute where appropriate, and we are helping them to do that effectively. We have engaged legal experts and worked with the National Fly-Tipping Prevention Group to produce a guide in 2021 on how councils and others can build robust court cases—and I am pleased to see that the average court fine has since increased by 12%. We will continue to explore other options to further strengthen sentences, such as working with magistrates and judicial colleagues, to raise awareness of the severity of fly-tipping and the harm it causes.

We are also funding councils across the country to directly intervene at fly-tipping hotspots. Across two rounds of fly-tipping grant schemes we have now awarded £1.2 million to help more than 30 councils. However, it is disappointing that some councils want to close their household waste and recycling centres. Indeed, in my own constituency of Keighley, Bradford Council wants to close a household waste and recycling centre in Ilkley, and the Sugden End HWRC in the Worth valley. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) mentioned this issue as well.

I would urge local authorities to look at the negative consequences associated with fly-tipping as a result of closing household waste and recycling centres. I would urge them to keep those centres open, because the negative financial consequences could outweigh the positives.

My point was that local councils are being forced to close household waste and recycling centres because of the lack of funding. Many councils are now in a financial crisis and on a cliff edge; they are having to make some very stark, difficult and heartbreaking decisions.

We know in Somerset—a very rural area—how important those household waste and recycling centres are. Closing them is the last thing the council would like to do, but it needs the funds to keep them open and ensure we prevent fly-tipping in the beautiful area we live in. I urge the Minister to consider giving councils more funding to ensure that we can keep those household waste and recycling centres open, and avoid any detriment for our countryside.

I thank the hon. Lady for her interventions, but I would add that councils need to look at the negative implications associated with the financial cost of increased fly-tipping as a result of closing household waste and recycling centres. That will be a cost to the taxpayer that local authorities should pick up. Closing household waste and recycling centres should be an absolute last resort, and it is frustrating to see that option being explored, particularly in my own area.

In addition, many councils are installing CCTV in hotspot areas, with others using funds to place physical barriers such as fencing in those areas. Case studies have been published so that councils can learn from others about where those interventions have been most successful. For example, in the area covered by Durham County Council fly-tipping has been reduced by over 60% in places where CCTV was installed on existing lighting columns, and Dover District Council has seen a 100% reduction in fly-tipping at hotspots where beautification measures, such as planters, have been installed.

That brings me to the point made by the hon. Member for Croydon Central. We need to take a partnership-led approach where we work not just with local authorities but with the police and community organisations to identify hotspot areas and ensure that we take a collective approach to tackling fly-tipping and other negative consequences, which can lead to crime in those areas. We have pledged £1 million of further support for local authorities, which will be awarded in the spring, to help even more councils to deal with this issue.

Of course, it is not all down to councils. We work with the National Fly-Tipping Prevention Group, which includes organisations such as the National Police Chiefs' Council and the Environment Agency, to identify issues and create the tools that organisations need to tackle this issue. That includes a guide on setting up and running effective local fly-tipping partnerships, drawing on the success of members such as the Hertfordshire Fly Tipping Group, where information sharing between partners allows for predictive mapping of hotspot sites, and the Kent Resource Partnership, where partnership working led to the recent closure of the Hoad’s Wood waste site due to illegal dumping. The point is that it takes all organisations working in partnership to drive down the negative implications of fly-tipping.

Members have mentioned the negative implications of fly-tipping for our rural areas, and we appreciate the difficulty and cost for landowners. Through the National Fly-Tipping Prevention Group, we work with stakeholders such as the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association to promote and disseminate good practice, including how to prevent fly-tipping on private land. However, we recognise that there is much more to do, which is why we committed in our “Unleashing rural opportunity” paper to fund a post within the National Rural Crime Unit to explore how the role of the police in tackling fly-tipping can be optimised, with a focus specifically on rural areas. That will include training for police officers and work on intelligence sharing across borders. I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson) and others realise that there are complications when acting across borders, particularly in rural environments, and that collective sharing of intelligence is incredibly important for tackling waste crime. Yesterday I was pleased to welcome PC Phil Nock to his new role, which deals with this specific issue.

Citizens have a vital role to play in tackling fly-tipping, as nearly two thirds of such incidents involve household waste. To help people dispose of their rubbish responsibly, we recently banned charges for household do-it-yourself waste at local household waste and recycling centres, enabling householders to take DIY waste there free of charge. Householders must check the register of waste carriers to avoid giving their waste to illegal man-and-van operators, who promise quick, cheap waste collection but only go to dump their waste on private property or on our streets. Councils can fine individuals who give their waste to a fly-tipper, and I have mentioned that the cost has increased from £400 to £600. We have also worked with the National Fly-Tipping Prevention Group and communications experts within government to produce tools to help councils and others raise awareness of the household and business waste duty of care. These tools will be published in the spring and build on communication materials available on the National Fly-Tipping Prevention Group website.

Educating households and businesses about the importance of using registered waste carriers should reduce the amount of waste handled by rogue operators. As well as reducing the burden on local authorities’ budgets of cleaning up fly-tipping on public land, it could help to protect private landowners, who are also victims of fly-tipping. Our upcoming reforms to how waste carriers, brokers and dealers are regulated, and the introduction of mandatory digital waste tracking, will make it easier for regulators to identify where waste is mishandled and take action. In particular, the requirement for waste carriers to place their permit number on advertising will make it easier for the public and others to identify illegal waste operators and report them.

I want to pick up on a couple of the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Croydon Central. She mentioned a wall of shame, which I have seen operate in other local authority areas across the country. Personally, I think that is a good idea, but it is already in the gift of local authorities. As she identified, it has been utilised in Merton and other areas. That is good, because it is about holding individuals to account in their local area.

The hon. Lady mentioned mega-skip days. The only thing I would say is that we do not have control over what waste is going into the skips, and we want to encourage as many people as possible to use household waste and recycling centres. However, it may be something that local authorities want to explore in certain hotspot areas.

The Government are committed to continuing to drive down fly-tipping on our streets and in our countryside. Through tough enforcement and regulation, better education and improved infrastructure, we will put a stop to waste criminals.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Homes for Ukraine Scheme: Potential Extension

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

[Relevant Documents: e-petition 642280, Provide Ukrainian refugees with settled status to enable a stable life in the UK; e-petition 632761, Give Ukrainians on humanitarian visas rights to extend stay and settle in the UK.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the potential merits of extending the Homes for Ukraine Scheme.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, I think, Mr Sharma. The United Kingdom established the Homes for Ukraine scheme in response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in March 2022—we are coming up to the second anniversary. We established three immigration routes to support Ukrainians wishing to come to or remain in the UK beyond their existing rights: the Ukraine sponsorship scheme, known as Homes for Ukraine, the Ukraine family scheme and the Ukraine extension scheme.

The Homes for Ukraine scheme allows refugees to join a UK-based sponsor willing to house them for at least six months. The Ukraine family scheme allows refugees to join UK-based family members already enjoying the right to remain in the UK. The Ukraine extension scheme allows Ukrainian nationals already in the UK and their immediate family members to apply for permission to reside in the UK if their current rights to remain are expiring. Each of the three routes provides temporary sanctuary for Ukrainians seeking refugee from the war in their home country.

The first visas issued under the schemes will expire in spring 2025, so we need to start thinking about what will happen next to those Ukrainians living in the UK, because they need security and certainty. It is not just the Ukrainians themselves who need that; employers, schools and others need to know whether the refugees can stay here for longer, especially as the war does not seem to be ending.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for eloquently outlining the schemes. The University of St Andrews in my constituency confirmed to me that it has 21 Ukrainian students currently studying there, and it is looking for certainty so that they can continue their studies. Does she agree that transferring to a student visa is not the right outcome for those students, and that the Minister should respond to that ask?

The main thrust of my speech will be about continuing education for Ukrainians, so if the hon. Lady waits a moment, she will hear what I have to say about that.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. Many of our Ukrainian guests are highly qualified, but they rarely get a job that matches their experience or exceptional qualifications. Surely an extension to the scheme would give employers certainty that they will not be there just for a few months or a year. That would allow them to get a job, and employers to get the skills they require.

It is important that we have certainty that Ukrainians will be staying, not just for them but for employers who either want to employ them or are employing them. They have jobs to do, and they need certainty.

I will talk about the three most important topics that the Government must consider as they plan for the future of the schemes: education, homelessness and the rebuilding of Ukraine. My greatest concern about the schemes is the provision of education. Let me set out a case study of a Ukrainian family in the UK. Masha is sitting her GCSEs this year. In the summer, she would like to stay on in the UK, living with her 24-year-old brother—she will be 16—but her mother wants to return to Ukraine to support her husband. She believes she can get work there again as a nuclear engineer. I am sure Rolls-Royce would snap her up, but she does not feel that her English is good enough, so she is working in a takeaway restaurant, in a position way below her qualifications.

Masha has settled in really well. She is fluent in English, is an excellent student in all her studies and has made good friends here. She really wants to be able to apply to the sixth form or to sixth-form college; after that, she would like to go to university here, but she cannot—rather, she can, but she may have to drop out and leave, which she really does not want to do. Pupils like Masha need to plan and apply to universities, but with their visas expiring any time from March 2025, they are unsure whether they will have the right to stay here for the duration of their course.

Many of these pupils from Ukraine are very bright and incredibly hard-working, and have done exceptionally well to study in a second language. Many have been continuing their Ukrainian studies online, too. They go to school and do their education in English, and then come home to their home in the UK and study online with their teachers in Ukraine, so they will have double the qualifications at the end.

These pupils came to the UK at such a significant time in their lives and will prove to be a valuable asset to this country in time, following the completion of their studies. They have a lot to offer us economically, socially and culturally. If they are allowed to stay on, I am sure our country will benefit greatly from the education experience they have gained here. But currently, Ukrainians with three years’ permission to reside here under the Ukraine schemes will be expected to leave the UK from March onwards, depending on when their permission began. A student applying to university and starting their course partway through their visa could be expected to leave the UK at the end of the three years unless they apply for another type of visa before then.

The Government have said that they are considering whether to extend leave to remain under the schemes beyond three years, but they have not said when they will decide. A potential student like Masha, whose study would extend beyond their three-year Ukrainian scheme visa, would need to apply for an international student visa to extend their leave for the duration of their course. That is all well and good, but the usual requirements and application fees would apply to Masha at present, and applying for leave to remain as a student on such a visa could make her liable to pay international tuition fees and lose her access to student loans.

On multiple occasions, Ministers have reaffirmed that the Government are keeping an extension of leave to remain under review, but they need to make some of those decisions now. Masha and her fellow Ukrainian friends need certainty to plan their future. They need to know whether they can remain in the UK for the duration of their degree course, whether they are eligible for home fee status for the entirety of their course, and whether they are eligible for student financing for the whole of their course. Masha and her friends are motivated, bright, hard-working students. They are determined to do well in life and to create a better and stronger Ukraine once the war is over. The Government cannot stand in their way by creating uncertainty over the future of their education.

Our country has done so much to support the continuing education of Ukrainians. The UK-Ukraine twinning initiative is assisting Ukrainians whose studies have been disrupted. UK universities are partnering directly with Ukrainian institutions for a minimum of five years to mutually recognise credits so that English-speaking Ukrainian students, wherever they are, can take online courses with UK universities that count towards their final degree. Furthermore, Student Finance England has already paid student support for the 2022-23 academic year to 617 students who were granted leave under the Ukraine sponsorship scheme. The net amount paid out is just over £9.1 million, which pales into insignificance compared with the £2.5 billion package recently announced to support the Ukrainian defence effort. If we strongly believe that Ukraine will come out of the war victorious, it makes sense to invest in the future of their country by educating their future citizens while they are over here in our care. It would be a shame to fail the Ukrainian nation at this final hurdle.

I turn to my second consideration: homelessness. We should consider how we will minimise the risk for Ukrainians who are threatened with homelessness as the Homes for Ukraine scheme comes to an end. Sponsorship for the earliest Ukrainians housed under the scheme is coming to an end this March. Even though the Homes for Ukraine visa is valid for three years, the optional thank you payments to the sponsors who have offered their spare rooms or properties to the refugees last for two years under the scheme’s current design. Many sponsors cannot afford to continue to house the refugees, and many Ukrainian families would like their own home in order to become independent. I know of sponsors who are desperately trying to find private accommodation for Ukrainians, which is very hard because it is in short supply. Without a guarantee of renewal, it will become increasingly difficult as the expiration date for the visas draws ever closer. Landlords need certainty.

The hon. Member is giving an excellent speech. In south Wales and Cynon Valley, many Ukrainians who arrived under the sponsorship scheme have thrown themselves into Welsh life, including by going to school and learning Welsh. They are very concerned at the moment about what the future holds, as she has so eloquently outlined. Given that the expiry date of the scheme is imminent, does she agree that we need confirmation about what will happen? What sort of reasonable notice is likely to be given? It would also be good if the Minister told us what discussions he is having with his Ukrainian counterpart on the deadline of the scheme.

Certainty is what is required—that is what I have been majoring on. Of course, when the scheme was first set up, everybody thought the war might be over quickly. It clearly will not be, which is why we now have to reassess things and look at how best we can help all Ukrainians who are here in the UK.

According to National Audit Office statistics, by August last year, 4,890 Ukrainian households had been assessed by local authorities as being homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in England alone. That represents 8% of the total number of Ukrainian families helped under the scheme. As if 8% is not a shocking enough figure, it is likely to be an underestimate, as a third of councils did not provide homelessness data to the Government. Charities such as Reset, other civil society organisations and local councils have been calling for concrete answers about the future of the scheme. What will happen to funding for hosts and guests this year?

Anyone who is following developments in Ukraine will know that the war is not coming to an end any time soon. It would be remiss of us not to take prudent measures to help stabilise the lives of Ukrainians in the UK. They have had to flee an unstable and unsettling conflict, and many have done so at a crucial time in their lives. We in the UK will breach our assumed duty of care towards individuals welcomed into our nation if we allow them to suffer the ignominy of homelessness.

I turn briefly to my third point: the rebuilding of Ukraine. I recognise that the Government wish to act in accordance with the will of the Ukrainian Government, who want citizens to return home and rebuild Ukraine when the war is won and over, and many Ukrainians in the UK want to do that. Ukraine remains home for the majority of them, so they will want to go back. It is a sensible attitude to adopt, and we should help them as much as we can, but the situation in Ukraine is getting worse and shows no sign of improving. The Government have said that the Ukrainian visa schemes are not routes for permanent relocation to the UK, but allow temporary protection until Ukrainians can return home to rebuild Ukraine. With that in mind, it has been and continues to be the Government’s objective to provide a proportionate period of leave to remain in the UK through the visas issued under the scheme. That policy position must be balanced with the needs of local authorities, sponsors, other resource providers and not least the needs of Ukrainian residents in the UK.

Local authorities need to know whether they must fund additional support services for Ukrainian speakers in local healthcare and educational settings. Local authorities, charities and sponsors need information now so they can begin to prepare for the future. They need to know whether they must provide emergency accommodation to Ukrainians who are threatened with homelessness, and they need to know whether additional support will be extended to local authorities, beyond initial tariff funding, to fund ongoing support for them. They need to know whether charities must stack up to co-ordinate any responses that local authorities or present sponsors cannot handle alone. While we can look forward to the day when we can assist the reconstruction of Ukrainian society, we must not discount the decisions stakeholders in the UK must make today. The least we can do is give them time to plan.

I call on the Government today to bear in mind Masha and so many other hard-working Ukrainian children in considering when and how to extend the Ukrainian visa schemes. I call on the Government to ensure that a Ukrainian on any visa scheme is guaranteed home fee status and access to student finance loans for the duration of any university course on which they are accepted. I urge the Government to consider extending the “thank you” payments for Ukrainian sponsors to prevent Ukrainian homelessness this year, and to consider how they may help local authorities to support Ukrainians who are already homeless. I urge the Government to publish their intentions for what will happen to the visa schemes when they start to expire in March 2025.

I am a huge admirer of the Ukrainian people in the UK for all that they have endured to get here, and I recognise that there is a big debate about the best and most effective way of continuing to assist those who fled and settled here. They have had to leave their home in very uncertain times, and we must start to give them certainty about their time here in the UK. The Ukrainians are hugely grateful to the UK for the assistance provided so far, and I hope the support will be ongoing for the foreseeable future. I welcome this opportunity to voice the concerns of those refugees whose future is uncertain, and I remain confident that, working together, the Ukrainian schemes can be developed in a way that will benefit all stakeholders and give greater certainty.

It is pleasure to be called to speak in this debate so early, Mr Sharma. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). I have enjoyed serving alongside her in debates since she came here in 2010, and I am very supportive of the debates that she introduces. She has been a stalwart advocate for the people of Ukraine and is deserving of the honour bestowed on her by that nation. In all sincerity and honesty, I have long admired her principled and compassionate stand, and I am very happy to stand alongside her and support her in this debate. I know that she is not running again at the coming election—she told me that one day in the voting Lobby—and personally I will miss her in this place. I thank her for her friendship over the years and the debates that we have done.

The clock has been ticking since the Ukrainian home scheme was due to close, and the Government advised that people would have a year to leave from the date of the letters, due to have been in spring. We are still in winter, but as the days lighten—and it is good to see that happen—it is clear that spring is on its way. For most of us, that is good news, yet for those Ukrainians involved in this scheme who have had to leave their homes, it will not feel like spring. It will feel like a decline into a long winter. The hon. Lady has outlined some of the cases in relation to that.

There are a number of Ukrainians in my constituency who are working. Their children are in school, and have settled into the semblance of a life with a home away from home. I am going to give some examples of their experiences, because I have seen their engagement in society. For them, the letter will not be as joyfully received as the end of the need for them to stay and the end of their pain, because the war is ongoing; their families are still fighting the Russian invasion and the munition fire continues. We all know of our Government and Ministers’ stalwart commitment to the people of Ukraine, and I put on record my thanks to them for that—nobody could doubt their intentions in that regard.

As my speech was being prepared, a notification came through that another four people had been killed by Russian artillery fire in the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine. The war is not over—why then is our help seemingly coming to an end? The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire is right: it is still needed. It will be needed for a longer time to give people the chance to progress their education at school and university, and it is needed by those who are making a significant contribution to society.

I could give myriad examples of such people in my constituency, where I have been very fortunate to have a very good working relationship as the MP for Strangford with people from Ukraine. I have sorted out lots of their passport and visa issues and their housing issues, and I have helped them to get placements in schools and employment. People from Ukraine work in the factories of companies in my constituency, especially in the agrifood sector, where their commitment, contribution and hard-working ethic ensures that they are an important part of the economic life of my constituency.

My heart aches for those young people in education who do not know whether their exam results will mean anything or whether they will have an opportunity to stay in education at university, which the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire outlined incredibly well. That is not a life; it is a temporary holding pattern. I am glad to see the Minister in his place, and I look forward to his contribution and his answers to what we have been saying. I ask him to consider very carefully those students whose lives are in limbo, which they find incredibly stressful and difficult.

There are lots of Ukrainian students in schools right across my constituency, including Ballynahinch High School. I visited before Christmas and am very friendly with the principal, who has just been appointed to a permanent post. When I went to see him and congratulate him, he said, “Jim, did you know we have got a great class of Ukrainians here?” I said, “Have you?” He said, “We have 12 in one class.” He took me to meet the 12 Ukrainians; most of them had a good grasp of the English language, and the others were learning.

The students had a classroom assistant, who was part of the teaching for that class of 12, and a teacher who was Ukrainian but who had a grasp of the teaching capacity in that school. The school had domestic staff who were from Ukraine. That school was quite clearly providing job opportunities, including an opportunity for the teacher to teach and for a classroom assistant to be a part of that teaching, as well as opportunities for those 12 students. It is for those 12 students, for that Ukrainian teacher, for that Ukrainian classroom assistant, and for those domestic staff that I make my plea.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful speech. Perhaps we should think about offering solutions to the Government on what they could possibly do to assist the cohort that the hon. Gentleman is so aptly describing. There is an extension scheme available, but it is only available for those who are already here on work visas. They can get the three-year benefits that those newly arriving in the UK have already secured. Why do the UK Government not just offer the same entitlement to those who are already here, as an extension of that scheme? The extension scheme is in place—we should make it available to everybody who is here now in the UK.

I thank my colleague for that. That is exactly what I wish to see, and I think all of us here today wish to see that too. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: this is about solutions. We can always highlight the negatives, but what we should do is highlight the positives and the solutions, and the solution the hon. Gentleman suggested is one I wish to see. I will say a little more and highlight that.

I say to the Minister that we have the opportunity to do this right. Let us make sure that those who are here on the three-year scheme have another three-year extension so they can get by in their education at school and university, and so they can make a contribution to all the businesses in my constituency that need them. I understand the pressure that the Home Office is under regarding asylum seekers. I admit to a sense of despair as we see what appear to be healthy, single young men coming over by the boatload.

It is clear that the scheme we are referring to, which was referred to by the hon. Gentleman, has been used massively by women and children. In Northern Ireland, there were three times as many adult women as men. I am going to speak for all those women and children and for the adult males who make a contribution. That is almost replicated throughout the United Kingdom. To me, that shows that this is not about taking an opportunity to come to the UK to live. It is about fleeing from danger at home, and I believe we need to continue to offer that lifeline.

It is important that the hon. Gentleman stresses the point about mothers and children, who are the primary group of people coming to this country. In Newport West, we have a number of families. I would make the plea he has already made. Does he agree that we need certainty for the children in education and the mums who want to work? Would that certainty not help them in a difficult situation?

Yes, it certainly would. What does someone need when their visa is coming to an end? Continuity and the ability to say, “I am going to be here for my A-levels, or to finish my degree at university, or to make my contribution by teaching in this school, or at the factories where the opportunities are.” What we need and ask of the Minister today is reassurance and, if we get that, we will be happy.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and apologise for not being here at the beginning of his contribution. He was at the same event as me. The point about education is really important. I have many people from Ukraine in my constituency, and they are now part of our community. One of them interned in my office. The parents of a young Ukrainian in my constituency are very concerned about dual education. The uncertainty means they have to maintain two levels of education, and they need to understand what the future holds.

That is another case that I hope the Minister will add to the concrete case we are trying to make on behalf of the continuity of the scheme. I understand, accept and welcome the fact that the United Kingdom Government have been incredibly generous, but we need a wee bit of an extra hand at this point.

I note that the online scheme guidance points to an update due on 8 February. I look to the Minister to add my thoughts and those of others, through interventions and speeches. The Ukrainian people are under attack and we stepped in to say, “We have a place for you to send your women and children until it is safe.” That was the right thing to do, as every one of us here believes to be the case. It is still not safe; the war is ongoing. Quite simply, the scheme must be ongoing for another three years, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) indicated.

I conclude with these comments. I support the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire in asking for an extension of the scheme. By all means review; I understand if that has to be done. Give certainty to those children and mothers, and those who are making incredible contributions to society. Give certainty to those children studying, so that their education will not be in vain. They can achieve their qualifications, I genuinely and sincerely believe, because of the compassionate nation we are. We can help them reach their qualifications and goals, to be in a better position to rebuild the Ukrainian nation. When that despot Putin is finally defeated and dispatched from this world, it will be a better day for us all.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall. This is all about certainty: certainty for the Ukrainians who are in the United Kingdom, certainty for local authorities so that they can plan for the future and, to a large degree, certainty for families like mine that are still involved in the hosting process.

There have been some wonderful speeches today, but I want to speak about a personal journey. I want to say to the Minister, “This is what I have gone through,” and say why it is so important that we make sure we look after these people until the very end. I will apologise now, because this will probably be quite a difficult speech for me.

As many hon. Members will know, I was the first MP in the country to bring Ukrainians into the United Kingdom. They came to live with me in North Norfolk on 3 April 2022. I could not be there on that day, unfortunately, because I had covid. My little six-year-old made it to Luton airport with my wife to pick up Anna, a Ukrainian mother—I always get her age wrong, and she gets very cross, so I shall not even try—and little Sviatik, who was six. He was just a couple of months younger than my little daughter. They bunk-bedded together for many months and formed a real bond.

Anna and Sviatik came from Kyiv and, like so many refugees—I hate that word, and I will come on to that in a moment—they came with the most terrible story. Little Sviatik was separated from his parents. He was in Melitopol with his granny and grandad when the war broke out. His father had to make a heroic journey behind Russian lines to extract him. There was then a 10-hour queue through Ukraine to get him into the United Kingdom. That was back in April 2022.

It was absolutely harrowing. They turned up with just a couple of rucksacks. The little boy had just one toy to his name. The mother did not even have a hairdryer or a pair of walking boots, which is something you need when living in my constituency. The outpouring of love from my constituents over 48 hours supplied them with everything they needed, as well as a box of toys that that little boy has had ever since.

Of course, they left behind their family. They left behind Vitali, who has become a friend. He is a botanist at the University of Kyiv. Luckily, he is not fighting, and hopefully he will not get called up to fight, but I see the pain in that woman’s face every time I see her, which is every other weekend, and I can see how hard it is to be separated. They have not seen each other for the best part of a year now.

People say that we are lucky because we have had a really good experience, and they say that we have changed their lives. Well, we are not “lucky”; they have changed our lives. Two thirds of people who went through the hosting process, as I have, have had the most wonderful experience. I would never change it. We have holidayed together. We spend every celebration, birthday and Christmas together. We have lunch together every weekend, if we can—

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his deeply emotional and personal contribution, which highlights the real scale of compassion and generosity of people across these isles. I hope he agrees that we are all keen to see that compassion and generosity extended for a longer period. Does he agree that it is vital that we can all continue to host Ukrainian people? Not only are they welcome, but they make a hugely welcome contribution.

I thank the hon. Lady for being so kind as to help me in that way. I totally agree with her.

I have been to Ukraine twice: in November 2022 and in February 2023. I remember meeting Vitali for the first time in November 2022. Handing another man his child, who he had not seen in nine months, was probably one of the most emotional things I will ever do. We went back in February 2024 and took 122 generators, donated by the people of North Norfolk, in three vans— I still cannot believe that we managed that. We could not take Sviatik that time, so he has not seen his dad for nearly a year. That was the time the Russians started to bomb energy infrastructure, so people did not have enough power to turn on a light or cook food. We decided to provide generators, because it was the right thing to do.

What pains me the most about this war—of course, there are many things that we find painful—is that I should not be the one teaching that little boy to ride his bicycle, taking him to his first day at school and taking him fishing. On Christmas day when he gets a football, I should not be the one he asks, “Will you play with me?” It should be his father.

If there is one thing this Government can do, it is to damn well help these people to the end. We owe it to them. We owe it to a nation to carry on. These people have problems of their own to deal with, including the trauma of being separated from their families for this length of time. They do not need more worry about whether the British Government will send them back home when it is not safe—and it is not safe. I know that the Minister is a good man and will follow this through to the end.

In February 2023, when I stood on the side of a road in Lviv, which was the safest part to go to, I made a promise to Sviatik’s father. I said, “I’ll look after your boy till it’s time to come home.” Please don’t break that promise.

I thank the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing this debate, for all her work on behalf of Ukraine—we travelled there together last year—and particularly for the hugely important work that she does on recognising the holodomor as a genocide. I also thank the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), whom I know well from my time on the Environmental Audit Committee, for his absolute and utter commitment not just to the family he is hosting, but to the Ukrainian people in general, particularly through the work he has done in bringing generators to Ukraine.

As we have heard, this is a time of utter crisis for the people of Ukraine. They will soon have been at war for two years. I went twice last year and visited many places that had been under Russian occupation. I saw the devastation that has been wreaked in Kherson region and Kharkiv, which is twinned with my city of Leeds. I saw destroyed apartment buildings, schools and hospitals, and devastated towns and villages along the road. None of the people who live in those places can realistically return, so it is our country’s responsibility to host them until there is peace and the Russian invader has been expelled.

I am really pleased that we have welcomed more than 140,000 Ukrainians into this country, but we are coming to a crunch point. Last September, at a local community centre, I hosted an event for Ukrainians and their host families in my constituency. It was absolutely full, and the two biggest questions that I was asked were, “What is going to happen when my visa runs out?”—some of them had visas dated until March 2025—and “My time is running out with my host. What will happen to me? What help can I get?”

I have also spoken to hosts who, understandably, have families or individuals—usually young women—who want to move into their own accommodation, but there are significant obstacles to that. I hope the Minister will address the postcode lottery. I praise the Government for giving councils the flexibility to use the local authority tariff to help Ukrainians to access housing, but the biggest issue is having money for a deposit, which Ukrainians clearly do not have. I do not know about other places, but in Leeds landlords sometimes demand six months’ or a year’s deposit before allowing somebody to move into a house. Who has that sort of money?

It is a little different when the local authority stumps up. There is also help to find the first month’s rent and help through providing furniture, covering moving costs, speaking to landlords and supporting crowdfunding arrangements and top-up payments to sponsors to prevent the homelessness that would be inevitable if these arrangements were not in place. Understandably, some local authorities have been able to do that, while others have not, or have been able to offer only part of that support. Even then, there are areas in which private rented housing is in shorter supply than it might be in my own city, where there has been demand for guarantors. I think it is unfair to ask hosts, who have already given so much, to then act as a guarantor for a Ukrainian for a second household.

These are really important issues. Perhaps not all of them are within the Minister’s purview, but I hope he can address them, because they are exactly the issues that Ukrainians are dealing with day in, day out. I do not think we can be at all critical of anybody hosting Ukrainians in their home, even if it is for six months, because they have opened up their home and taken people in, and everybody’s circumstances are different. The state needs to step in where they may not be able to continue doing that or where the Ukrainians want to live independently, which is absolutely understandable. Who wants to live in somebody else’s home indefinitely? I certainly would not if I were in their situation.

We also have hosts who want to carry on hosting, who are generous, just like the hon. Member for North Norfolk. Retention of hosts is also important, so there needs to be more Government support for hosts, including more training and financial support. There needs to be work with hosts to support their guests in finding jobs and school places and dealing with the social security system—things that put a strain on normal family relations, never mind relations with people who have been hosted for only a short time. In Leeds we set up a welcome hub, which has helped to provide some of the wraparound services, but not every local authority can do that.

The data is incomplete, but the figures I have say that until 31 August 2023, 4,890 households—8% of the total estimated households that had arrived on the scheme in England at that time—had been assessed by a local authority as being at risk of homelessness or as being homeless. That is not really acceptable, considering that we have been put in a position of trust for these people in a time of war. It might be far worse, because one third of local authorities are not providing homelessness data to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. We should perhaps press those local authorities for data, because that might give a clue as to how they are operating. As we are now seeing a much larger number of host sponsorships coming to an end, the risk of homelessness is likely to ramp up. That is why we need the Government to step in to extend the scheme, to provide additional support for hosts and to provide additional support for the Ukrainians.

Although the expiry of the visas might seem like a long time away, it is causing incredible stress for people who were already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues. They have anxiety about their visas ending and a lot of them feel fear, although it might be unfair, that they will have to return to Ukraine in March, April or May 2025 as their visas expire. I want the Minister to give some reassurance to those people. I do not think anybody in this Chamber or in this place thinks that that is acceptable, but they have a real fear that it is going to happen. Hearing a Minister of the Crown reassure them that it will not would put so many minds at rest and would give such comfort.

My mailbox is filling up with requests relating to the Homes for Ukraine scheme and the visa scheme. It is so important that people feel that we are still as supportive of them as we were on 24 February 2022 when the invasion happened, and that we are not in any way walking back a centimetre our support for Ukraine and its people in this or any other regard. That is vital for so many people, both here and in Ukraine.

Lesia Vasylenko, the chair of the British group in the Rada, spoke to me only last week about the real need to put people’s minds at rest. There is an active debate in the Rada that goes as high up as the President’s office about the importance of the UK coming forward and supporting people through Homes for Ukraine and the visa scheme. I hope we can hear some reassurance from the Minister today.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) raising some important questions, which I know the Government are starting to think about because we all have constituents starting to ask us what will happen.

I was touched by the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker). All the families that have come to this country have a story to tell, and all in their own way are different, but they all need a little certainty about what will happen over the hill. Most families in this country are always planning ahead for what is going to happen with their kids—university, jobs, houses, cars and everything else—but if someone is on a limited, fixed scheme, it is clearly difficult to plan or feel secure.

My first question to the Minister is, what sort of information do we have? The Office for National Statistics did a survey a while back of Ukrainian families who had arrived and to assess the number getting into work. There were particular problems with finding flats—not necessarily because of the deposit, but because most people need sponsors or guarantors on a flat, and they were not necessarily available to Ukrainians. We also have email addresses for a lot of people, because they had to fill out forms to come here. I wonder whether the Home Office or, indeed, the ONS might survey some of the families on who wants to go back and who, because of family reasons, wishes to stay, because that might provide some hard information about the intentions of these 100,000-plus people, who are perhaps all going in different directions.

The original intention, of course, was for those coming to this country to be a temporary thing and for them to return to Ukraine, and one can understand that the Ukrainian Government clearly want the asset of their people to return. If we can get beyond the war, with the bravery the Ukrainians are showing fighting for their independence, Ukraine will probably be one of the boom areas of Europe in the medium term. It has an educated population. It will need to rebuild a substantial part of the country. It will no doubt get large amounts of international aid. About a million Ukrainians were working in Poland before the war. There will probably be jobs and opportunities for many of those people to return to Ukraine and rebuild it. It will be interesting for Ukraine, and a lot of Ukrainians will want to return, but real life means that not every Ukrainian will want to, because people form relationships, get better jobs and get used to living in another country. In the short term, we need first to extend some of the schemes so that people can start to plan their lives, but we also have to turn our minds to the fact that quite a few people may not go back, because they have jobs or have taken the opportunities this country has afforded them.

I can perceive that there may be a slight problem if one member of a family gets a well-paid job and migrates, but the others—because their English or their qualifications are not as good—have to go back while the breadwinner of the family stays in the UK. We will need a sensitive and rather permissive regime in dealing with those families; otherwise, we will end up with families breaking up.

I have great confidence in the Minister. I have had a few conversations with him privately about this matter, and I know discussions are going on, which I presume involve the Foreign Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and, as always, the Treasury. The message of the debate is that we need an early decision to assist these families to plan their immediate future, so that they can get on with their lives, educate their children, pursue jobs and pursue their interests. If a decision is not taken, we will create quite a lot of problems for these people and, indeed, the families that host them. I hope that we will deal with this matter sensitively—I am sure we will—but we need decisions sooner rather than later.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing this important debate on the schemes the UK introduced in response to the war in Ukraine. I point Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the help I receive from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy Project on this issue. I am also co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration.

It has been almost two years since the war in Ukraine broke out, and since then thousands of households across the UK, including many in my constituency, have opened their homes and welcomed Ukrainian refugees who have sought sanctuary here. Two years on, sadly, it is clear that the war is not coming to an end anytime soon, so why is there still so much uncertainty about the future of the scheme we are debating? That uncertainty needs to be addressed urgently, and the Government must act swiftly to provide longer-term leave to remain and to ensure that lasting protection of Homes for Ukraine is accompanied by free access to family reunification. Without longer-term plans to protect the scheme or a route to settlement, Ukrainians face integration challenges and mental health problems.

The risk of homelessness for Ukrainian refugees, which has been discussed in the debate already, remains particularly concerning. According to the Local Government Association, 8,900 Ukrainian households have presented themselves as homeless across England, and recent research by the British Red Cross found that Ukrainians are around four times more likely than the general population to face homelessness—a staggering figure.

With cost of living pressures continuing, it is imperative that the “thank you” payments to new or rematched sponsors are increased in order to widen the pool of new sponsors and to prevent the further escalation of homelessness. As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire rightly highlighted, the importance of home status and student loans for those who need them should not be forgotten in this debate.

One of the key lessons from the Homes for Ukraine scheme is that, when given the opportunity, communities up and down the land open their arms, because we are a very welcoming country. However, as we sit here discussing the future of the scheme, I am dismayed by the continued lack of safe routes available for the majority of refugees fleeing war and persecution around the world. There are more lessons to be learned from the benefits of the scheme.

Last month, the Government released their “Safe and Legal Routes” report as part of their commitment under the Illegal Migration Act 2023. Despite its title, I was dismayed to find that the 37 pages of the report did not offer a single new safe or legal route for refugees to reach the UK, nor any real suggestions about how to improve the few resettlement schemes we have in place, including this one. While we discuss the merits of the Ukraine scheme, I would like the Minister to explain why such schemes have not been made available to other people, why we are not learning the good lessons from it and why we are still struggling with family reunion and resettlement, which has massively declined in recent years and is at the lowest level that it has been in the UK for a decade.

We are a proud country with a proud history of welcoming refugees, and I am proud to say that many people have decided to open their homes to support refugees fleeing Ukraine, but Ministers are not doing their part in continuing that tradition if they do not extend the scheme. Through the introduction of a lot of new legislation recently, they have made it their mission to openly attack that principle, and we need to be prouder of what we can do with this scheme. We must make sure that the Ukrainian people know we are on their side and will continue to be on their side while it is needed.

We need to step up and assure Ukrainians that they will have long-term protection in the UK. We need an urgent recommitment to introduce more safe and legal routes, so that refugees fleeing war and persecution can reach the UK safely. No Ukrainian should have to enter our asylum and refugee system as a result of the failure to increase the length of stay that people are allowed here.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), who is my in-laws’ MP, on securing this afternoon’s debate. It is certainly very welcome and timely, judging by my own casework and the uncertainty that many people are facing over their future. Ukrainians who came here would have hoped very much that they could have returned to their homes in Ukraine by now, but it is certainly not looking like that, so the Government must prepare for all eventualities and give people some certainty. The position of the SNP is certainly to support that aim.

As pointed out in the House of Commons Library briefing, and as I have seen in casework I have dealt with, some of the confusion here is because many Ukrainians in the UK are likely to have biometric residence permits with an expiry date of 31 December 2024, but that does not necessarily mean that that is when their visa expires; it is just when the BRP expires. Homelessness services in Glasgow have been quite concerned about this issue and have raised it with me in recent days. They worry that there will suddenly be a whole load of people who have no status.

I understand that the Home Office’s aim is to move to a digital biometric status. I have a lot of concerns about that due to errors I have seen with the Home Office systems for producing physical BRPs, and I do not have great confidence that digital BRPs are going to be any more accurate. Can the Minister confirm how exactly he intends to send out information to all who will be affected by this, including agencies that currently expect to see a physical BRP when they interact with those who hold one? They deserve more clarity on that.

In Scotland, we have done our bit in welcoming people from Ukraine. Our super sponsor scheme was incredibly successful and brought over 20,000 people to Scotland and to safety. That has been gratefully received by many, and people from Ukraine have put down roots in Scotland as a result. I pay tribute to the community of Ukrainians in my own constituency in Glasgow, who have done a great deal to ensure that Ukrainians feel supported in Scotland.

I agree with other Members about the need for support with accommodation and for those who are hosting people in their homes. As generous as people are, they are seeing increases in their own bills and pressures due to the cost of living crisis. Government support to help make ends meet was very valuable, allowing people to act as hosts without feeling any financial detriment, because there is only so long people can live like that. Given the pressures on housing in the UK more generally and the number of people facing homelessness in all our constituencies, the UK Government need to give greater consideration to how this issue is going to be managed. We cannot have a situation where people, from wherever they have fled, end up on the streets. That would be a complete failure in our duty to everybody we wish to support.

Scotland has invested in properties to try to help. The Ukraine longer-term resettlement fund has brought over 1,200 homes into use across Scotland and has approved 16 capital projects. As of January this year, 906 homes have been completed. People have moved into many of those, and that has made a huge difference. Should those Ukrainians wish to return to Ukraine, those houses can go back into the pool of housing stock in Scotland and be of long-term benefit to everybody.

Of the Ukrainians surveyed in spring 2023 who had been in the UK for between eight months and just under 12 months, 45% were still in accommodation with their initial host. Points have been made by various Members about what happens next and what happens with deposits. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) talked about the issue of deposits in his constituency, and there is real concern, because people cannot move on if they need a significant deposit to do so. What support have the UK Government given to rent deposit schemes, which have been operational in Scotland and have helped people in the meantime to get the accommodation they require, without being impossibly out of pocket? Further, what are they doing to ensure that there is complete data on the impact of homelessness on this group? It sounds very much as though the data that is there is pretty patchy and needs to be better understood before the Government go forward with it.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) correctly spoke about the lessons to be learned from this scheme and about the benefits of safe and legal routes, which this Government do not yet have in mind for many other groups who are not Ukrainians. It is certainly true that we are not going to find Ukrainians in small boats, because they have a safe and legal route by which to travel to the UK.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made the point that it is primarily women and children who are coming to the UK. The reality of that, sadly, is that men are not allowed by their Government to leave Ukraine at all in case they are called up to fight. So there is a real reason why that is happening, but they should be supported regardless of their status. The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) spoke incredibly emotionally about his experience hosting a family, and I am grateful to him and to all the people across these islands who have been in a position to do that. It is an incredible act of kindness and generosity, and I know the support given will be greatly welcomed by those who have been hosted.

It strikes me that in many of the immigration debates that we have in this House, we often fail to recognise the individual cases of the people we are talking about. Every single person who comes here, whether they are from Ukraine, Eritrea or Afghanistan, does so for a particular reason. We must recognise the issues of separation, real pain and trauma. When we put ourselves in the shoes of those people, when we understand their plights, when we listen to their stories, when we recognise their situation, we must all commit to helping these people. Their stories all matter, they are all important, and we have an obligation and a duty to try to support them as best we can.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma, and I thank the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing this vital debate. I pay tribute to her excellent work in this area and the very powerful way in which she made the case to the Minister—I am sure he was listening carefully to her words and exhortations.

I thank all the Members who have spoken in this debate. It has been excellent, and many of the contributions were very moving, particularly that of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who really put over the human side of this issue. These are people and families who have loved and lost so much through this terrible conflict, and he put those points across very movingly. I also thank and pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), who made their cases with such passion and conviction.

Everybody in this debate has made it clear that we all stand ready to support the Ukrainian people in any way that we can. I am very proud to stand here today and reaffirm Labour’s unwavering commitment to that cause. The Ukrainian people are on the frontline in our battle for liberty and democracy, and we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to President Zelensky and the bravery and resilience of the Ukrainian people in the face of Putin’s barbaric and illegal invasion. Our commitment to Ukraine, both on the Opposition Benches and across the House, will not waver. If Labour is fortunate enough to form a Government after the general election, we will be honoured to continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine in its fight for freedom.

The Labour party has always supported the resettlement schemes for Ukrainians, which is the topic of our debate, and we will certainly continue to do so. We are immensely proud of the generosity and warmth of the British people in opening their doors to Ukrainians, and we are very proud of Members across this House who have hosted Ukrainians in their homes. It has been truly inspiring to see 200,000 households offering to host Ukrainians, largely women and children, fleeing from the Russian invasion. The initial three-year visa offer comes to an end for the first of those Ukrainian refugees just over a year from now. Although we hold firm to our belief that the Ukrainian people will triumph and win the war, we are realistic that it might not be safe for Ukrainians to return to their homes as early as 2025. We therefore fully expect and urge the Government to extend the Ukrainian visa schemes well in advance of the general election, because, as every speaker in this debate has stated, families require certainty and need to be able to plan for their futures.

Many parents have children at school here in the UK and they need to be able to make appropriate plans. Children have been working hard to learn English and stay in school, and mothers have been working hard to ensure some stability in their children’s education. Other parents will need to address uncertainty about their jobs, but there are still challenges for them in the lack of co-ordination between the Ukrainian and British education systems.

I agree with every single point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Would it not be a remarkable and extraordinarily fantastic gesture, given that on Saturday 24 February, it is two years since the invasion of Ukraine took place, if the Government turned round and said, “We are now prepared to offer an extension to all those who have come to the UK”, along the same lines as that which they offered to those on the work scheme? Does he agree that that is what the Government should do?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that excellent point. It had not occurred to me, in all the thinking about this, that 24 February is indeed the anniversary of that dark day in Europe’s history when the invasion took place. It would be appropriate and fitting if the UK Government confirmed what we are asking for on 24 February, unless, of course, the Minister is prepared to do that here today.

To make another point about education, the Ukrainian teenagers who are now in year 10 will have exams next year. If their Homes for Ukraine visa runs out two months before they are due to take their GCSE exams, what will they do? They must be allowed to complete those qualifications. What about an 18-year-old Ukrainian taking A-levels this year who wants to train to be a doctor? Can they apply to university in the UK, or will their visa and the university support be taken away after six months? For the sake of children who have already faced a huge amount of disruption, I urge the Government to give them early reassurance by announcing plans for visa extensions and for what happens at the end of the three-year visa as soon as possible.

Labour Members and Ukrainians across the length and breadth of our country fervently hope that the Minister will give that reassurance—if not today, in the very near future, and perhaps, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) suggested, by 24 February at the latest.

Unfortunately, the generosity and adaptability shown by the British people were not always matched by the performance of the UK Government. Initially, Tory Ministers managed to turn that story of generosity into a bureaucratic challenge for many of the Ukrainians who came here. In my role as a shadow Immigration Minister, I was alerted to the case of a family who were told that their visas were ready, but when they went to collect them, the one for their three-year-old child was not there. There were a number of other deeply troubling cases.

Members from all parties have told me how they were frustrated at the time by the speed at which the Home Office responded on casework. For too many, the so-called hotline went cold. On one occasion the queue for the MPs’ query desk in Portcullis House, which I am sure many colleagues will remember, was more than three hours long. Even though Ministers had taken caseworkers off the dysfunctional Afghan scheme, they were still struggling to organise a system for Ukrainians who sought refuge here from Putin’s barbarity. More recently there has been the deeply troubling report of 6,000 homeless Ukrainian families. It was always going to be the case that many British households would not be able to continue hosting indefinitely, yet the Government had no plan for what would be done in such cases.

I wrote to the then Refugees Minister, the noble Lord Harrington of Watford, in September 2022 to warn him of the emerging homelessness crisis. At the time, 1,300 Ukrainian families were already facing homelessness. I asked why more was not being done to match the huge surplus of hosts with the families who were becoming homeless, and I set out a number of other questions. Unfortunately, as has been the story of the last few years, the Minister promptly resigned, and I did not receive a reply. The ministerial merry-go-round continued, and a total of 6,000 Ukrainian families were later reported to be homeless.

It would therefore be extremely helpful if the Minister set out what he plans to do right now for those homeless Ukrainians. Perhaps he could answer the following specific questions. Does he know how many Ukrainians are homeless? What additional funding and support are central Government giving to local authorities to end all homelessness, including rapidly increasing refugee homelessness and, specifically, Ukrainian homelessness? What work is being done to increase the number of hosts on the Homes for Ukraine scheme and to raise awareness of the need for Britain to continue to play its part in supporting the Ukrainian people? Above all, could the Minister please be clear on when we can expect confirmation that the Government will do the right thing and extend the Ukrainian visa schemes? Thank you, and Slava Ukraini.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing the debate, for the enormous passion with which she speaks about the issues, and for the thoroughgoing way in which she raises them with Ministers. She knows that I am very fond of her; I have many brilliant colleagues, but she is undoubtedly one of them who gets stuck into an issue, sees it through to the end and speaks with great passion when going about that work. She has shone a light on an issue that I know Members across the House are very keen to debate, and she speaks for a lot of people in the country on the issue of certainty. I thank colleagues from across the House for coming along in good numbers to debate it; I think it represents the strength of feeling across the United Kingdom about the future.

The United Kingdom stands in absolute solidarity with the Ukrainian people. We are almost two years on from the beginning of the conflict, but the implications and consequences of Russia’s barbaric war waged on Ukraine are felt every single day. The Government’s commitment to doing the right thing by Ukraine is as strong now as it was on day one. We have a responsibility to do what is right in the face of that unjustified and appalling aggression.

The three schemes that we have touched on today have welcomed or extended sanctuary to more than 230,000 Ukrainians, and remain open to new applications. The largest scheme, Homes for Ukraine, relied on the generosity and support of the British public, who welcomed more than 140,000 Ukrainians and their families into their homes. I thank officials across Government for the work that they have done to help to bring those schemes together and to operationalise them. That includes officials not just in the Home Office, but across Whitehall and beyond—officials out there in the country, on the ground, helping to make this happen and working with local authority partners and other statutory partners who have played such a big role.

The enormous pride we all have in our respective communities has been reflected in the debate. Certainly, as the Member of Parliament for Corby and east Northamptonshire, I am enormously proud of the voluntary work and the work done by the local authority and others to help make this a reality. It speaks to the very best of our national traditions. We can all think of remarkable people who have opened their homes, opened their community buildings, and stood up and been counted as part of the response to this most terrible of crises. As a country, we should be enormously proud of that generosity of spirit; it has been reflected not just in words, but in deeds at so many levels. On behalf of the Government, I would like to say a huge thank you on the record to everybody who has been involved in that response.

The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) were enormously moving, and really got to the heart of the depth of feeling across the country about the support that we are providing, the importance of that sanctuary and the very personal stories that underpin it. It is impossible not to be moved when we hear those stories, and about his experiences and the difference made to that remarkable family that he has been supporting, at a time in their lives that is virtually unimaginable for any of us.

Through our sponsorship efforts, Ukrainians have been integrated into our communities across the UK. The British public have welcomed new Ukrainian colleagues to their workplaces and classmates to their schools. That is one factor that we have tried to reflect in the “thank you” payments, which we are providing monthly to do exactly that: say thank you. We all look forward to the end of the fighting in Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people to be victorious, but while the conflict continues, we will do all that we can to support Ukraine and its people. That is why our Ukraine schemes remain open and free to apply for. The offer of sanctuary very much remains.

I will get through as many of the points raised during the debate as I can in the time available. On the substantive issue of visa extensions, I am cognisant—as are my officials and Ministers elsewhere in Government—that the first of those visas will begin to expire in March 2025, which is 13 months from now. I am very much alive to the need and desire for certainty, not only for sponsors and the Ukrainian people who are directly affected by this, but for the many services that come together to help provide a response.

I want to provide absolute assurance that we are actively working through this issue. I also assure hon. Members that all Ukrainians in the UK under the Ukraine schemes will be informed of the options available to them, well in advance of their visas expiring. However, I am keen that our approach takes into account all the many and varied factors that have been talked about today. There are a lot of issues that need to be properly thought through, with proper delivery attached. There are often real complexities that need to be thought through carefully before making policy announcements, not least because I do not want there to be confusion or uncertainty. I want people to be very clear-sighted about what the future holds for all the reasons that have been articulated.

The Minister is coming really close. I encourage him to take that further step and say that those who are here in one of the schemes will have the opportunity to remain in the UK if that is what they desire. Is that what he is edging towards? Can we go away from this debate and tell our constituents that the UK Government understand and are working with them, and that they will do everything possible to ensure that they get to remain in the UK if that is what they want?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Government have to go through processes before making definitive policy announcements. However, what I can say is that we are committed to letting everybody know, at least 12 months ahead, what the future holds in terms of the arrangements for any extension of these visas. I really do appreciate the real interest in this matter. The timeliness point has been well made time and again during the debate, and there is a desire to get that certainty as early as possible both from parliamentarians and further afield. I ask colleagues to take those comments in the spirit in which they are intended. It is fair to say that there is no disagreement in the Chamber this afternoon about that need for certainty; we speak with one voice on that point.

The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) asked about the steps we have been taking on engagement. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) recently asked me to meet with Ukrainian parliamentarians to discuss this issue. I have said that I am very happy to do that, and we will facilitate that meeting as quickly as possible. My officials are in regular contact with their Ukrainian counterparts, and Ministers regularly engage with their Ukrainian counterparts, and there has long been a recognition—a real appreciation—of the role that the United Kingdom has played on so many fronts in responding to this crisis. My understanding is that remains the case.

There is undoubtedly a desire for certainty, as we have highlighted this afternoon. However, there is also a clear message that speaks to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire at the start of the debate about what the longer-term future looks like for Ukraine. All of us are clear that Ukraine will win this war, and it has our backing and support in ensuring that that endeavour comes to pass. But it is also critical for the steps we take, and the support we provide, to lead to people being able to return to Ukraine to help to rebuild their country, recognising that Ukraine needs skilled people and wants a viable society with people of all generations. We will respect those wishes as we move forward with the steps we are taking.

On education, I am proud that, under our schemes, Ukrainian children and young people have been able to benefit from our brilliant education system. Whether it be starting out in school learning English and the fundamentals of education or studying for GCSEs and A-levels, our offer has always been to ensure that Ukrainians displaced by the conflict can continue their education where possible. That is also true for Ukrainians entering higher education and studying or looking to study at university in the UK. That is why we extended higher education support and home fee status to those here under the Ukraine schemes. Student support is crucial in enabling Ukrainians to attend education to improve their skills and enhance their ability to contribute to the UK or to assist in rebuilding their home country.

However, I recognise the concern of Ukrainians who have started a university course about whether they will be able to complete it. We of course want bright and motivated students across our schools and universities to continue their hard work focusing on their education. That is why, where a person’s Ukraine scheme leave expires during their course and they are granted further leave to remain under one of the standard immigration routes, they will continue to be eligible to access student support in order to complete their studies. We would expect providers to set their fees for such students accordingly. For those whose Ukraine scheme leave expires while they are at university and are granted further leave to remain under one of the standard immigration routes, we would expect home fees to be charged for the remainder of their course. By that, I mean that the starting position for a course and the associated fee status should be applied throughout the duration in any event. However, I hear the point and refer hon. Members to my earlier remarks.

I am conscious that I have a lot to get through. If I get the chance, I will take the intervention.

On housing, this is a cross-Government effort, and colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities lead on the housing side of it. A number of points have been raised during this debate that I will gladly flag up to colleagues in DLUHC. They will perhaps be able to help to provide some additional responses to those points. We recognise that many Ukrainians here in the UK want to live independently. That is an ambition we fully support, while appreciating the difficulties some face in finding private rental accommodation. That is why we have provided tariff funding to councils and established English language support to help Ukrainians into independent living.

On homelessness, councils across the UK have been provided with £1.1 billion in tariff funding to support Ukrainians in their area. In addition, the Government have allocated a further £150 million as a top-up to the homelessness prevention grant. I can also confirm that an additional £120 million will be available across the UK next year. For those unable to find new accommodation, we have re-matching services available to help Ukrainians who have moved out of their sponsor accommodation to find a new sponsor. For obvious and important reasons, tackling homelessness and rough sleeping in all their guises remains a priority for the Government, and we are spending £2 billion over three years on that. Local councils have a responsibility to support Ukrainians who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, including by providing temporary accommodation where required to ensure that no family is without a roof over their head.

I am afraid I have too much to get through.

I want to reflect on the important point about rebuilding Ukraine. We are under no illusions about the situation in that country, but ensuring it emerges from the conflict with a modernised, reformed and inclusive economy, resilient to Russian threats, is as important as tanks on the frontline. Since February 2022, the UK has committed more than £4.7 billion in non-military support, including fiscal support for Ukraine’s vital public services and bilateral assistance. We are also working with the private sector and international partners to create conditions in Ukraine that will drive private investment at scale in support of its reconstruction. That includes initiatives on reforms, good governance, financial markets, insurance, business expertise, infrastructure and energy. The Ukraine Recovery Conference, held in London in June 2023, was widely welcomed as a success, and engaged partners across the international community and the private sector in support of Ukraine. I am delighted that the conference announced £60 billion in support of Ukraine’s recovery. Winning the peace is a long-term project that cannot wait until the end of the conflict.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) spoke about BRPs whose end date is the end of the year. I assure her that we will contact people from March to provide additional guidance on registering for digital status to ensure they understand what they need to do and what that means in practice.

In closing—I recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire needs to wind up—I reiterate my thanks to her and all other colleagues who participated in the debate. This has been a very powerful reminder of our national unity of purpose in supporting and providing sanctuary to our Ukrainian friends. We have supported 230,000 Ukrainians, but the mission is not complete, either in Ukraine or here in the UK through the sanctuary we are providing. I could not be clearer that the United Kingdom should always play a leading role in responding to such crises. The House has spoken this afternoon with one voice, and we will continue to play a leading role. Put simply, we will do what is right.

I will be very brief. I thank all those who have come to this truly cross-party debate. We have all spoken with one voice. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) gave such a powerful speech about what he experienced. That is happening all over the country: many families are experiencing exactly the same thing.

I thank the Minister for his very thoughtful response. I look forward to working with him to ensure we come up with a good scheme that gives certainty to Ukrainian families and to employers and housing providers. In the end, it is important that we help to rebuild Ukraine. Ukrainians are fighting this war on behalf of all of us, so we need to support those children and mothers—it is mainly women who are over here—to the hilt. It is important that we support those children—the future of Ukraine—and help Ukrainians rebuild their country.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the potential merits of extending the Homes for Ukraine Scheme.


I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of flooding.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. In 2007, Tewkesbury and many other areas of the country suffered the worst floods we can remember. Some areas that had previously never flooded were overcome by water from rivers and water running off from land. Houses and business premises were flooded. Ironically, water services were lost, as the Mythe waterworks were overcome by water. Electricity supplies were lost to many, as the Walham substation was overcome.

As a result, around 1,000 households were displaced in my constituency. People, including the elderly, the terminally ill and families, had to live in caravans. They were out of their homes for up to a year. Tewkesbury hospital had to be evacuated and, sadly, there was loss of life as a result of that flooding. King Charles—Prince Charles as he then was—and the then Duchess of Cornwall visited Priors Park to see the damage and lift spirits. In making that reference, I want to wish King Charles the very best.

That was 17 years ago and, although we have not suffered flooding to the same extent in my area, we do experience flooding on a regular basis, including a few weeks ago. In my area, that may be unavoidable to an extent, as Tewkesbury sits on the confluence of two main rivers—the Severn and the Avon—and other rivers are in the area. There is no surprise when the area floods, although the inevitability of it is no comfort to those whose homes are flooded.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for introducing the debate. He is right to outline the issues. He said the last time there was a massive flood was 17 years ago. In my constituency, floods that are supposed to happen every 100 years now happen every 10. Does he agree that policy and strategy must be not only for England but for the whole of the United Kingdom, when the floods are happening everywhere?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. To his point, in my part of Mid Norfolk, where the clue is in the name—it is not on the coast—we have seen in the past 10 years an extremely high rate of flooding. In 2020, 200 houses were flooded with sewage; two months ago, 100 houses in Attleborough were affected . This is getting worse and worse. It is partly climate change, yes, but also house dumping and inappropriate investment in infrastructure. Does he agree that, as well as a national strategy, we need to ensure that in such counties, where 38 agencies have responsibility, somebody has to be held to account to avoid the flooding of our constituents’ houses?

My hon. Friend is right, and makes a good point I will touch on. Although some flooding is occasionally inevitable, we can take action to avoid some of the worst excesses. Since 2007, a number of schemes have been implemented in my area, at Deerhurst, Longlevens and Westbury, and some minor improvements have been made elsewhere, but we were flooded again a few weeks ago. People in Sandhurst and Tewkesbury itself suffered when their homes were flooded. People in those areas feel that more could have been done to prevent the effects of heavy rainfall.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that, in places where farmland regularly floods, there is a case for saying that farmers should be paid for storing water on behalf of the state?

Yes. My right hon. Friend has anticipated a point that I am about to make, so I thank him for that intervention.

As I said, schemes have been put in place and grants have been made available to people who have been flooded—homeowners, businesses and farmers—and that is welcome, as is the further compensation that some people can claim. Claiming tends to be a rather cumbersome exercise, however, with professional help required to access it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury on securing this important debate. Flood victims across the country have been affected by Storm Henk, but none more so than people in Frome in my constituency. So far, they have been unable to access some of the property flood resilience repair grants, or to floodproof their homes and businesses. Does he agree that the Government must urgently provide access to that scheme so that constituents such as mine can make their properties more resilient against floods?

I entirely agree. That is a very good point. Making it available is one thing; enabling people to access it is something else. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member; he is making an excellent speech. I want to quickly refer to businesses in my constituency, many of which have not been able to trade for around four months because of the need to dry out after the flooding. Does he agree that, where businesses are affected, there should be an immediate suspension of all the business rates that they are due to pay? Does he also agree that we need clarity around the Bellwin scheme to make sure that it is not based on the number of businesses that flood but is for every single business that floods?

Absolutely. That is right. Business rates are one of those strange things; businesses pay without having made a profit. It is an unusual tax, so I certainly think that a lot of thought should be given to that. I also agree that businesses have to be looked at individually, as households should be looked at individually.

When flooding looks likely, many people who are registered are warned about the problems that are coming, so that they can make preparations, if possible. One of the actions they can take is to place sandbags around their properties. Sandbags are usually available from the local council, but sometimes there is an inadequate supply; the bags might not be filled with sand when people pick them up, so people have to effectively construct their own protective sandbags. The problem with that is that time is of the essence, and not everybody has the capability to do that—old people and vulnerable people, for example, are unable to do that for themselves—so they require help.

Unfortunately, many of those who have been flooded feel somewhat left on their own to fight against nature. They do not feel that everything that could be done has been done; they understand that they live in flood-risk areas, but they would like to receive a little more help. Of course, the Government and the Environment Agency have plans in place to help, and while macro-strategies are fine and necessary, micromanagement is sometimes needed so that households do not feel left out or ignored. We have the Environment Agency, the borough councils, the county councils and various other organisations that have been referred to, but perhaps we need a clearer steer on who is responsible for what.

I mentioned that there is a certain inevitability that flooding will take place in some areas, but in my area, it is felt that we make things much worse through excessive building. As I said, Tewkesbury town sits at the confluence of two rivers, and other rivers are nearby, so the water table is quite often very high, which makes flooding more likely. The more fields that are there for the water to rest on, the less likely it is that homes and business will be flooded. Conversely, when those fields are built on, the water has fewer places to go and to rest. In other words, fields are prevented from doing their job by being built on, yet I am informed that Tewkesbury Borough Council—in an area that floods so badly—is the fastest growing area of England outside London for development. In fact, in recent years, my constituency has had four times the constituency average for house building. That is not 10% or 15% as much; it is four times as much. While I am pleased to see businesses expanding and more people coming to live in the area, and while I recognise the need for housing, I wonder whether we can cope with all that growth in one area. Flooding around the town of Tewkesbury, and at Sandhurst, Longford and other areas, would tend to suggest that the problem has been made worse by the building that has taken place.

My hon. Friend is referring to exactly the situation in my constituency, where there has been a very high level of new build over recent years, so we have seen increasing flooding. In particular, a constituent of mine who lives adjacent to a new build seems unable to prove exactly why he is suffering that flooding, and yet this new build has occurred. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely critical that a local authority, particularly one that has granted permission for that new build, should have clearer responsibilities as the lead local flood authority to help constituents in that distressing situation to resolve the problem?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I am very glad she made that point—there certainly should be that responsibility for the infrastructure. Building is sometimes allowed on appeal, which makes it even worse; where is the line of responsibility then? The Environment Agency has responsibility for drawing up maps and identifying flood plains, but that system is not working and has not worked for a long time, mainly because the system does not take water displacement into account. In other words, it is not just about whether the new houses that are being built flood, but whether building on those fields will cause other properties to flood. As well as deploying property flood resilience measures, which we should, there should be a detailed consideration of whether sustainable urban drainage systems, for example, work, and if they do, at what threshold they should become mandatory for developers.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. He quite rightly talked about responsibility being a focal point. In relation to flood defence work and preparation in Havant, we benefit from the work of Coastal Partners, which is a regional body supported by local councils and funded by the Environment Agency, among others. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on the Minister and the Government to continue their support for bodies such as Coastal Partners, because they provide a regional focus for flood defence and protection work?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point that ties in with what everybody is saying. The fact that there have been so many interventions shows what an important subject this is.

It is very appropriate that this debate is led by my distinguished neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), whose constituency has consistently suffered worst in every major flood for some time. He is making a strong case for responsibility for flooding, and of course he and I know that the protections since 2007—the Mythe waterways, the Walham substation and the Horsbere Brook flooding programme, all of which are in his constituency but on the edge of mine—have made a huge difference.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are some improvements on Alney Island, which is in my constituency but close to his, that the flooding Minister and the Environment Agency agreed to, particularly fixing leaks in the flood wall and extending its height? Does he also agree that the environment Minister here today, who helped to create the Severn partnership some years ago with my hon. Friend and me, could encourage the flooding Minister, our hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), to meet all of the 40 or so MPs of the Severn partnership as soon as possible to consider the creation of a new reservoir in the Welsh hills?

My hon. Friend and neighbour makes several good points. I am sure that the Minister has heard that and we can take up those issues. This issue is not going to go away. If anything, it is going to get more prevalent. Above all, we need to rethink how we identify areas that constitute not just flood plain but flood risk, with particular reference not only to the proposed new properties but to existing ones. In those areas, we should avoid any further development.

We then come to the problem of water management. At the end of 2022, some people in my area had their Christmas completely ruined by failures in the drainage systems, which resulted in raw sewage re-entering their houses. Not only were their houses damaged by these events, but people had to move out of their homes while they were being repaired over the Christmas period. In some cases, pumping stations had failed and homeowners had to pay the price of that failure.

We need to have a clear policy in place with regard to new buildings. Should they be able to tap into existing drainage systems, or should there be a threshold beyond which they need to ensure that extra drainage capacity is in place before building commences? That is a point that I raised with the then Prime Minister in 2021-22. It is not just about large-scale developments; sometimes building an extra house here or there can, over time, cause problems for others in the area. Making sure that watercourses are clear obviously helps to reduce the risk of flooding. Councils have a responsibility to ensure that riparian owners carry out the correct amount of work, but this is not always the case.

That takes us to the question of river dredging—an issue that I raised in the main Chamber recently, when my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley said that he would look into the matter. I understand that dredging has taken place in the Somerset levels and has been a success. I do not intend to pretend that I am an expert on dredging—I am not at all—but it seems logical that if a river can contain more water without bursting its banks, surely that has to be helpful in avoiding flooding.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Does he agree that it is really important that the Department—I am grateful that the Environment Minister is in her place—understands that rivers’ principal function is to drain water to the sea, and that our ditches’ and watercourses’ principal function is to do that? At times in Norfolk, it is beginning to feel as though the environmental agencies are more concerned with keeping them full of mud and plants than making sure that they fulfil their primary purpose, leaving constituents—farmers and people with sewage in their houses—to pay the price. We need to remember that drainage is about drainage, first and foremost.

Absolutely. That is why rivers run to the sea. It is a very good point.

One of the arguments made against dredging—I am afraid it is on the Government’s website—is that clearing one part of a river just pushes the water downstream, but the logical conclusion to that argument would be to say that we should never place flood defences anywhere, which we are obviously not going to say. Rather, it is one good reason that we need both national and local approaches to the problem. For example, looking at the River Severn as a whole, we might come to the conclusion that the whole river needs dredging so that the water can be moved out to the sea as quickly as possible, as my hon. Friend suggests. I know that dredging is controversial, but we need to have a conversation about its benefits, and a proper analysis carried out by the Government and the Environment Agency.

Of course, it is not just buildings that flood at times of heavy rainfall, but roads. In the recent floods, three of the four main roads that serve the town of Tewkesbury were closed, leaving just one to cope with the traffic. Further down the A38, towards Gloucester, the road was closed, causing further inconvenience to motorists and bus passengers. These roads have been closed a number of times in the past, so it is no surprise that they were closed again. Perhaps the only surprise is that little or nothing has been done to protect the roads, so we need to consider what further steps we can take to avoid road closures in the future.

The hon. Gentleman has made some excellent points. In my constituency, which, like his, floods frequently, people are cut off for days on end. Even when their houses are dry, they are unable to get about, do their business or get to work. People walk across fields in the middle of the night to find their cars. Does he agree that having a plan from the council to make sure that people can move around safely when there is flooding is so important for resilience?

Absolutely. The hon. Lady makes a very good point. It is important that we are able to do that, for all sorts of reasons.

Farms also flood. Although there is compensation for farmers for non-insured damage, perhaps we could, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) said, consider expanding the schemes to encourage farmers to do more to help contain the water on their land in order to avoid flooding causing damage to others. That could be part of the environmental land management scheme, which they are currently being encouraged to take up.

I thank the hon. Member for giving way again. He has already mentioned that Somerset is home to a large number of wetlands and, indeed, the levels. That can help communities affected by floods, by creating temporary storage areas that slow the flow of floodwater. Does he agree that we should be supporting the engineering of those types of management defences to help aid communities and boost flood resilience?

That is certainly is what we should do. I ask the hon. Member’s forgiveness for not going into her point in more detail, as I will have to wind up in just a minute.

In closing, I will say clearly and loudly that Tewkesbury is well and truly open for business. We are pleased to welcome visitors, but we need to take steps that will help to prevent people’s homes flooding in future and roads being closed. I have outlined a few thoughts and suggestions, and I hope the Minister and the Government will take them seriously and consider ways in which they can be implemented.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for calling such an important debate. My constituency of Tamworth has a long history of flooding, but Storm Henk was the third most serious incident in the area. Tamworth has 8.8 km of linear flood defences made up of walls, embankments and other structures, such as outfalls and penstocks. As it stands, 3 km of those defences are from the 1960s and require improvement as they do not meet the design standard of today.

The Environment Agency estimates that 2,205 residential properties in the area are at risk, as well as a significant number of non-residential properties, like the Ventura retail park. I spoke with the Environment Agency about flood defences and the fact that there is a need for increased funding. It is currently putting together a business case, and I hope that areas such as mine, which are at higher risk and which may get worse due to climate change, are given their due consideration and the protections they need. We need to protect homes and businesses in our constituencies with short, mid and long-term preparations for flooding.

Next month, I will host a flooding summit with key stakeholders to review the ways that organisations currently work together and respond to flooding incidents, and to collaboratively explore what lessons we have learned, plans for better protection against future incidents and the practical solutions that can be put in place now. On a broader level, Labour has laid out plans for a flood resilience taskforce to improve joined-up thinking and communication. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have similar plans to look at ways in which community groups, local residents and businesses can link up with those larger authorities and those with responsibilities, such as the Environment Agency, to collaboratively work together at a local and national level, and outline how we can respond in order to live with flooding and learn how to deal with it better in the future?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for securing the debate. Given this is a short debate, the number of interventions truly demonstrates how important the matter is; so many hon. Members are standing up for their constituents. I was the flooding Minister and worked closely with almost everyone in this room to make sure that we are developing a nation that is resilient to this ever-changing demand because of our climate. I am no longer the floods Minister; that is the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who I am standing in for during this debate—I will certainly pass on some messages to him.

I clearly sympathise with anyone who has ever been flooded, going back 17 years in the Tewkesbury area. Coming from Somerset, I am well-versed in flooding, and the angst and hardship it can cause. As a number of hon. Members have touched on, we are seeing more extreme weather. We have had a whole succession of storms, with Storm Babet, Storm Ciarán and Storm Henk since October, bringing into focus the fact that about 4,400 or so properties were flooded. But we must remember that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) pointed out, almost a quarter of a million properties were protected in those areas that sadly saw flooding. That is the intention behind what the Government are doing with their floods policy.

We have a very strong policy statement to make this nation more resilient, with 40 actions and five ambitious policies stemming from that. Indeed, we have doubled the flooding budget from that of the first tranche to £5.2 billion in this six-year spending round—and that covers coastal erosion as well.

In Norfolk certainly, the internal drainage boards are the most expert bodies at handling drainage. Could I make the gentle suggestion that we pay for them through some of the Environment Agency’s substantial funding, rather than through council surcharges, which are very stretched?

The drainage boards play a very important role in all of this. They play an important role in many cases, including the provision of nature-based solutions and regulating water levels, as was touched on earlier.

We have allocated a whole raft of funds to help. We announced the frequently flooded allowance, which I really pushed as the floods Minister. That has enabled a whole range of projects that previously did not qualify for floods funding to get off the ground. Because of that fund, we have finally seen spades in the ground in Toronto Close—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who sent me a picture just yesterday—and a whole range of other colleagues have got projects off the ground.

We have got our natural flood management programme running, because that is another way of managing the water, as well as the £200 million coastal innovation fund. We also have specific pathway projects, one of which is working in the Severn area, to look at more adaptive ways of coping with flooding in the future, which touch on many areas mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury.

I hope everyone is aware that we have listened to the issues relating to flooded farmland; we have had comments about Yorkshire in particular. On 4 January, new actions were introduced under the environmental land management scheme, particularly with regard to grassland management and arable land management for flood resilience, as well as water storage on farms—with decent payments. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury to have a look at that, because we have been listening to our farmers.

We have also listened regarding the issue of sustainable urban drainage, which has been one of my pet subjects since I have been in Parliament. Getting that switched on is in our plan for water, and we are working with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to speed up and switch on schedule 3; again, my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury touched on that, and it is so important for regulating water in our housing developments.

As I come from Somerset, I know that that has been a much-debated issue since the big floods in 2014. A whole range of management processes have helped to control the flooding in Somerset, and recently we have weathered the storms really well compared with the past. Dredging is only one small part of the answer; the rest involves regulating the water, getting the farmers to clear the ditches—which they can do by law—and slowing the flow on the much wider areas. All those measures are part of how we regulate the water.

Lots of our funds have now been switched on to help people who have recently suffered flooding, and Tewkesbury is included in some of the areas benefiting from Government support—as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury understands. Our property flood resilience measures have helped to insulate 90 properties in his area, and I urge other hon. Members to look at where they could be helpful.

The flood recovery framework has been triggered, and lots of areas are eligible for that support as a result of the recent storms, including in Gloucestershire and areas around the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury. The business recovery grant has been triggered, as has the whole flood recovery framework, which includes discounts for business.

I have had to speed up, but my message is that this Government take flooding really seriously. We have been very creative in listening to people, and with regard to those adaptive pathways, including that Severn valley partnership. I will pass on the message to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, asking him to meet with all the hard-working MPs up and down the Severn valley to make sure we have got the system right. We have made really good progress up and down the Severn and the River Avon, but that is not to say that there is not more to do, because we are facing climate change.

Question put and agreed to.

Nursery Provision: South-west England

I beg to move,

That this House has considered nursery provision in the South West.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. Every parent in the south-west should be able to access affordable nursery provision for their children, but childcare bills have rocketed to eye-watering levels, all during a cost of living crisis. Some families cannot even access childcare in the first place, as more and more nurseries in the south-west buckle under financial pressures because of a shortage of available staff. There are some marvellous childcare providers in Plymouth and across the west country; I want to thank all those who work in the sector.

Despite the promises and Government rhetoric around childcare, the gap between those promises and the reality is growing bigger. My worry is that the rhetoric hides a really dangerous situation for our nurseries. Spiralling costs and a retention and recruitment crisis mean fewer places, more expensive places and a deepening crisis. All that is inflamed by the geography of the south-west, the challenges of attracting new workers to the far south-west, especially down the peninsula, the rural nature of many of our communities, the higher than average levels of deprivation and a worsening housing crisis, which means that childcare workers often cannot afford to live in the communities where they are needed most.

I am listening carefully to all the causes that the hon. Gentleman has cited for the difficulty that childcare providers have in recruiting staff in his region. Not all of them apply to my constituency in Cheshire, but providers are finding some of the same problems. The community needs such provision, yet it cannot be fulfilled because the sector cannot recruit.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention. We have a concern that is not party political: it is simply about Members of Parliament reflecting the reality that in their constituencies there is a shortage of available staff. That means that there are not enough places in nurseries, so families who want to take up Ministers’ offer of free childcare places are unable to do so. That is the nub of the problem. Nationwide, there are communities experiencing very similar problems.

It is not only nurseries. Before and after-school clubs are experiencing exactly the same recruitment challenge.

I agree. It is a real problem with delivering on the promises that politicians have made. Setting an expectation that parents will be able to access a certain amount of free childcare, as well as wraparound school provision, is a worthy aim to shoot for. The problem is that the delivery is not working in the way it ought to. With big changes only a few weeks away, there is a real concern that promises and delivery are getting further and further apart.

In the south-west, because of our geography, the situation is harder. In the west country, it is harder to recruit every single type of professional—from nuclear engineers to social workers, from teachers to sewage workers. Unbelievably, it is harder because of our geography. Our geography—the beaches, the moorlands, the countryside—is what makes the south-west beautiful, but the rurality, the coastal communities and the distance often work against us when it comes to recruiting the people we need, especially those who work on the frontline, often in roles that are not paid as well as they should be, when we have high prices that make it hard for people to live there.

Last summer, I raised the issue in the House with the Education Secretary and subsequently secured a meeting with her to warn about the childcare crisis in the west country. I brought with me Cheryl Hadland—the owner of Tops Day Nurseries, one of Plymouth’s largest childcare providers—to explain the financial strain that nurseries are under. I have visited many Tops nursery sites across Plymouth, as well as lots of other providers. I have seen the importance and value of play-based learning and have spoken to the brilliant staff and to parents.

Nurseries are a lifeline service. They are a catalyst for parents to return to work and a great start for young children, who learn through play, interact with other children and learn social skills, which are even more important when we look at some of the consequences of covid. Since my meeting with the Education Secretary, yet another nursery in Plymouth has been forced to close, leaving 100 families without childcare, and others tell me that they are on the brink.

The closure of nurseries especially impacts poorer communities. Time is running out for nurseries in those communities. Plymouth is not alone in that respect; this is a problem felt across the south-west and, as we have heard, across the country.

I commend the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right that Plymouth is not alone in this. I will make the case for Strangford, if I can. The average cost of a full-time childcare place in Northern Ireland is now £10,036 a year, an increase of 14% on 2021. Day nursery costs are more expensive: they average £229 per week and are increasing faster than inflation. With the Northern Ireland Assembly returned, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister, as a matter of urgency, should undertake discussions with the Education Minister back home to tackle these costs to support the development of children and ease the pressure on families? Quite simply, we cannot go on. If nothing is done, we lose it all.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention; I have the same concerns for people in Plymouth and the south-west that he has for his constituents. There are structural issues that mean that nurseries share the same concerns no matter what postcode they are in. Across the United Kingdom, it is important that those structural issues are addressed. The best way of doing so is through collaboration, first to identify the issue and then to work out what the solutions could be. I hope the Minister has heard the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised and will respond to it.

Nursery providers face a perfect storm, with rising bills, free childcare funding that does not meet the cost of providing childcare, and a drive for parents to return to work to pay bills in the middle of a cost of living crisis, All the while, nurseries are experiencing a shortage of trained staff, who, with the qualifications and skills that we require of them, can often earn more elsewhere. That is simply an unsustainable position for our nurseries.

I want the Government to act urgently before any more nurseries in the south-west close and before any more children lose their places at nursery. That is why I secured this debate: to put the issue in the public domain and to ask the Minister for more action from his Department to deliver for parents who are desperately short of nursery provision.

During the cost of living crisis, the cost of childcare is hitting families in the south-west hard. It now costs a staggering £15,000 a year on average for a child under two to receive full-time nursery care in Britain, according to analysis by the children’s charity Coram. In fact, parents in Britain spend among the highest proportion of their income on childcare in the OECD.

For some parents, childcare is simply unaffordable. Others have been forced to cut down their work hours because an extra day’s childcare is costing them more than an extra day’s wage. How can that be right? One mother, Shelley, told me that she can only afford to put her two-year-old in childcare part-time, which means that she can only work part-time and she is falling behind on her bills as a result. The Women’s Budget Group network says that 1.7 million women in England would do more paid work if they had better childcare. Finding the economic growth for which we are so desperate in this country comes from better childcare. Childcare is often most expensive for those who need flexible provision, like Tracey, a nurse at University Hospitals Plymouth who got in touch with me.

All the while, families in the south-west are having to contend with rising costs of energy and food, as well as a housing crisis. This matters, because when parents cannot afford childcare, there is a greater strain on their family. It hits children who do not have access to outdoor space at home and prevents a level playing field for children starting school. The Sutton Trust says that the lowest-income children are 11 months behind their peers by the time they start primary school. They do not have a fair start.

We cannot make childcare more affordable unless nurseries are financially viable, but nurseries in the south-west, not least in Plymouth, are struggling to stay afloat. A staggering 886 childcare providers in the south-west had to close in the last year alone. That is a sign not of a market working well, but of market failure. What that means for each family is disruption, worry and probably the extra cost of securing their child a place if they can find other provision. The Roundabout Nursery in Cattedown in Plymouth has just announced that it will shut its doors for good at the end of March, leaving more than 100 families without childcare. I know it did everything it could to stay open, like nurseries across the board facing the same challenges.

This is one of the issues that genuinely keeps me awake at night. The system is not working, and there is no recognition that it is failing. My inbox has been flooded with messages from worried parents who are rightly concerned about finding childcare elsewhere. That area of Plymouth has already suffered other closures. St Jude’s Church Pre-School closed in the face of the same financial pressures that closed the Roundabout Nursery. Staggeringly, parents tell me that they cannot find a place anywhere in the city.

The closure of provision in rural communities can leave parents without childcare options altogether. Melanie, who lives in the rural south-west, writes:

“There is a two-year waiting list for my local nursery. They are so full they won’t even take names on that list.”

How did we end up in this mess?

Nurseries face not only spiralling costs, but a retention and recruitment crisis. Dr Simon Opher in Stroud has been working with a good local playgroup in Uley that has been forced to close because there are no qualified staff in the area to employ. In Filton and Bradley Stoke, Claire Hazelgrove has been in touch with a local mum called Kate. She did everything right. She knew she would be going back to work, so she got a nursery place sorted early on, and everything was set. That was until she heard, just five weeks before her son was due to go to the nursery, that his start date had been pushed back by four months because of a lack of staff. That is an issue right across the south-west.

Again, I stress that it is not the fault of the staff who work in our nurseries. I have never met a more dedicated, warm and generous group of people. They care passionately about the children they care for. The system is not delivering on the objectives Ministers are setting it, so nurseries are facing real struggles to survive.

Another headache for nurseries is that the Government do not provide enough financial support for the free—Government-funded—childcare. The Early Years Alliance says that it is “financial suicide” for nurseries to sign up to provide more free childcare places. Some nurseries in the south-west are now reportedly asking parents for voluntary donations to cover the shortfall in Government funding for free places, and sometimes that donation is compulsory.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. He is making a really strong speech. Yesterday, I spoke to Sue Place, the chief executive officer of the Balsam Centre in Wincanton, which runs Conkers Community Nursery. She has seven infants with special educational needs in her care, but one-to-one funding for just one place. She told me that

“we end up subsidising the state because the Government relies on nurseries to meet these additional costs”.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need more ringfenced funding for education, health and care plans for very young children to avoid nurseries being forced to hike their prices to survive, putting them out of reach for many hard-working families?

I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Member raises a really important issue, which I think all Members across the House will be familiar with. One group of children for whom nursery provision is most essential are those with special educational needs and disabilities, but parents with SEND children often struggle the most to access childcare. According to a BBC report from January, only one in five councils has sufficient childcare available for children with SEND, and one third expect fewer SEND places to be available after the Government’s proposed childcare roll-out than before it. That is not right, and it shows that the roll-out is having a perverse, unintended consequence. I genuinely do not believe that the Minister wants to cut the number of SEND places in nursery provision, but that is the effect that the roll-out is having on some nurseries.

We need to ensure that the message is sent out loud and clear that a child with SEND should have the support to fulfil their full potential. That means not only support in nursery but support in primary and secondary school to ensure that they can be properly assessed for their needs and properly provided for. If the consequence of the changes the Government are rolling out is that fewer SEND children will get the support they need, we are failing more SEND children and failing the families of more SEND children. The consequences of that will be felt not just for the next few years or in the next spending review period, but for the child’s entire lifetime. That is something we should reflect on to see whether this policy is working, because I do not think it is working for parents of SEND children, in particular.

One concern I have is about an inequality in the effect on parents with different income levels. Those who can afford to pay are often in a more favoured position than those who cannot. I do not believe that that was the intention of the Minister or his predecessor when this was originally rolled out, but that is the consequence—effectively baking in an inequality because Government-funded childcare does not cover the cost of the place. That means compulsory top-ups—no matter whether they are framed as voluntary or as being for a certain product—that parents have to pay to secure the place. That means that parents need to have the money to pay for their nursery—pay for that top-up—and that is not right. It means that the very people we should be encouraging back to work, who would benefit most by being back in employment, are struggling most to access the childcare to deliver that opportunity for them and their families.

Nurseries have been left with huge uncertainty because of the extended free childcare roll-out. Bambinos childcare in Plymouth has told me that the funding rates for the new scheme, launching in April, have not yet been released, leaving it with no ability to plan its staffing requirements or speak to parents. One area I would like the Minister to look at is how he can provide certainty for the sector. We know that there is a feeling of vulnerability and of uncertainty and worry, not just from parents but from the people who run the nurseries, who cannot plan their workforce or train people to offer the right provision, because they do not know how much money will be coming in. That uncertainty is really crippling when it comes to having a vibrant and successful sector.

Before I conclude, may I ask the Minister four questions? I would be grateful if, in his response, he could set out what he is doing to stop nurseries closing in the south-west. Are there levels of intervention that his Department can be making to support nurseries in the south-west? Can he guarantee that the Government will deliver on their free childcare promise for every child in the south-west? I note that the Education Secretary rowed back on that promise in the media this week. I would be grateful if this Minister could provide some clarity on what is actually being delivered, because and nurseries need certainty as to what is coming in only a few weeks’ time. Can the Minister set out what he and his Department are doing to reduce the eye-watering cost of childcare for families? Finally, what steps is he taking to tackle the lack of provision in some areas—especially the poorest areas in our region—where nurseries are struggling to survive?

A good local nursery is a lifeline service for families in the south-west, but just as with access to a GP or to an NHS dentist, it is harder for the poorest in our communities to find a good, local, affordable nursery. I know that this is at odds with the language that the Minister uses, but I am raising the issue again today because the people I represent are experiencing real challenges in accessing the help the Minister is claiming to offer. It is not enough to say that free childcare is available if it is not actually available and if, when parents access it, the viability of the nursery is put in doubt. We know that childcare will be an election issue because the system we have is not working well enough, especially for parents on low incomes and those who cannot afford to pay for top-ups.

I genuinely look forward to this debate and hon. Members’ contributions. I know that this concern is shared by not just Labour MPs, and I hope to hear from Conservative MPs as well. I also know that the particular geography of the south-west makes things harder and compounds some of the structural problems that have been experienced nationwide. I hope the Minister will look at our geography to see what support he can offer nurseries in the south-west, in particular.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who represents my birthplace and is, therefore, a fellow Janner, on securing this debate. It is appropriate for the two of us to be speaking today, following on from the joint visit we made last year with the Education Secretary and Cheryl Hadland to raise some of the issues being experienced, not just by Tops Nursery—there are five of its nurseries in Plymouth and one in Torquay, in my patch—but more generally in the nursery sector. We then did a double act for BBC “Spotlight” afterwards, so it is good to reprise that role today.

This is a timely debate, when we look at the changes coming forward in childcare and at some of those that have taken place over the past year. As we know, there are currently three childcare entitlements: the 15 hours universal entitlement for all three and four-year-olds, the 15 hours entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds and the extended 30 hours entitlement for three and four-year-olds of eligible working parents. Within the next two months, the 30 hours entitlement will be extended in stages to children aged nine months to three years. We are seeing a big increase in what will be expected and what will need to be provided physically in our communities. Parents are obviously looking forward to those entitlements being available, but that means that good-quality nurseries need to be ready and able to deliver them.

I am aware of how the funding is provided to local authorities. People might think of my constituency of Torbay as a retirement area, where the focus is more likely to be on those over a certain age—I sometimes reference the fact that 9% of the population in one of my wards is aged 86 or over. However, when one digs into the figures, we also have some of the areas of highest deprivation, and that particularly falls on many working families in parts of our community. People probably would not realise that the Paignton parish is one of the most deprived in the Exeter diocese, because it does not include the areas of retirement in Torbay.

That presents some interesting challenges, particularly when we are talking about recruitment. If many people in the population are aged over 80, they are unlikely to be looking for work in childcare. They are more likely to be retired and looking for care for themselves than providing care elsewhere. That means that, for the size of population, the pool of working-age people in the urban area of Torbay will be slightly smaller than it might be if we had, for example, Plymouth’s age demographics.

As has rightly been highlighted, there are challenges in terms of housing and what makes a pool of workers available. When I had one of my old briefs, people would suggest that having a visa would be a great solution. Well, if we do not sort out housing issues and pay and reward issues and there is no transport—all the things that go with someone being able to sustain a job in early years education—even that visa is not going to provide a magic solution.

That is not to say that there is not good provision in Torbay. There are some long-standing nurseries that offer excellent provision to local people, sometimes in quite challenging circumstances. Sometimes, they very much rely on the fact that they are based in a community-motivated building. For example, Preston Community Preschool is based in Preston Baptist Church, and is able to benefit from the fact that the landlord is clearly not a commercial one and is very community-minded. The long-standing manager there, Susan Gibbons, and her deputy, Terena Cottell, have worked hard for many years to keep that facility going. They certainly do not take the type of rewards that you might expect people with their skills and experience to take, and last year they picked up issues around the funding amount.

There is good provision, but it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts on how we make sure that provision—and a choice of provision—is available. As some of us have found, we say that parents can choose where they would like to send their children to primary school, but when they move into an area, they realise that they are pretty much being told, “Here is the school with a vacancy in your year group”—and that is that, particularly if their child is entering primary school above reception or entering secondary school above year 7. When we are looking at nursery provision, how do we make sure that parents will generally have a choice? That innately requires some flexibility in the system—not planning that if, for example, 7,000 places are needed, 7,000 places will be provided, but ensuring that there will be some scope. It would be interesting to hear the thinking around ensuring that there is some capacity to allow parents to choose the right nursery provision for their child, in the way that they would want to choose the right primary or secondary school provision.

Torbay is not the lowest funded area, partly due to some of our demographics but, again, there is some funding disparity. It would be interesting to hear some thoughts about how that could be lessened to address some of the costs we have talking about of trying to recruit and retain staff. The nursery sector in Torbay will be competing with sectors such as hospitality for school leavers and people who are looking to start training. I am always particularly interested in what link-ups we have with local colleges. One of my local colleges, South Devon College, is effectively becoming the sixth-form provision for one of the local schools. That is great, and if it works well, it will give people, particularly those from difficult backgrounds, some really good opportunities, potentially with an academy trust, to start at nursery school and be supported all the way through primary and secondary school. After that, they would flow naturally straight into college to get qualifications and then straight into fulfilling and rewarding jobs and opportunities and, crucially, into well-paid careers. That is a great thing. It is about how we make sure that people see this as a new opportunity not just for the pupils and children who will be cared for, but for those who will look to work in this sector.

The debate is therefore very welcome—and welcome in the light of the fact that we need to look at nursery capacities because of the massive extension of eligibility for parents. We should have in the back of our minds the reason for this challenge, which is that many more parents will be able to access childcare following the reforms that the Government are making and the changes that have already been and are due to be implemented.

To sum up, I want the Minister to cover some specific points. What steps are the Government taking to assess the capacity of provision in local areas and regions to meet the expected demand from April, alongside the assessment of capacity nationally? It would be easy to draw a graph showing the number of places and eligible children across England. Clearly, a nursery space in Plymouth will not be of much use to a family in Torbay, and a nursery space in Torbay will not be of much use to a family in Plymouth, so what work is being done particularly at local authority level to identify that capacity is there?

How are the Government working to ensure choice of provision? How do they see family hubs such as those in Torquay and Paignton supporting parents during the roll-out of this provision? In particular, how will the Minister work to achieve consistency of funding?

The changes to childcare entitlements will make a big difference to many children and families in our constituencies, potentially helping the early years development of many thousands of children and setting them up to have the best course and the best start in life. It is just about making sure that that promise is delivered, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reassurances about how he will make that happen.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on his expert introduction to the debate. He has covered many points, but it is always good to reiterate them. The debate gives me the opportunity to thank all the childcare providers, the early years providers and the nurseries in Bath. They are doing a fabulous job. We have already heard today how very important it is for a child’s, and, later, a grown-up’s, life that we get early years right. I add my voice to what has already been said, but it cannot be said often enough.

Nurseries are not just somewhere for children to go while their parents work—they are a child’s first education. The first 1,001 days are the most important for children’s development. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for childhood trauma, and we talk again and again about how important early years development is and how the brain starts to develop. Therefore, a safe, fun early educational environment is one of the most important things we can give to a person. Early years spaces allow children to grow and have fun in safe and supportive environments. Getting this right gives children the greatest chance of reaching their full potential in later life.

Early years settings also provide long-term benefits for our economy, as we have heard. They remove barriers to employment and training, particularly for women, and close the attainment gap between children from low-income families and their more advantaged peers. Research shows that 40% of the gap in attainment outcomes is evident by the age of five. But the sector is in crisis. The UK has one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world, and costs continue to rise. We need childcare that is properly funded and genuinely free—not cross-financed by those who can afford to pay the fees or top-ups, because that in itself leads to massive inequalities. Yet the Government have failed to invest in it properly, and the cracks are showing.

My constituency of Bath saw two nursery closures last year alone. That left parents scrambling for alternatives. It is already incredibly difficult to get spaces. Some nurseries do not have spaces until September 2025. One early years practitioner told me that parents have already asked for a space to be saved for 2025 for a child who has not even been born, although they hope a child will be born by then. It is not a sustainable situation. Current levels of funding do not cover the full range of costs faced by nurseries, which include rent and staff salaries, so nurseries are continuing to cross-finance the free childcare spaces that the Government provide.

Even before the pandemic, the early years sector struggled to meet the gap between what the Government pay to cover free hours and their overheads. Fees have soared as a result, and nurseries struggle to continue to pay good wages. Another reason for closures, which is absolutely linked to that, is staff shortages. Another important point is to ensure that people looking at careers see early education as a proper career that is properly paid throughout their professional life. Nursery staff are paid professionals, but are often not treated as others in the education sector are. That is in spite of their role supporting children’s early development and their close relationships with parents and carers. It is an incredibly important relationship. I say that from my own experience 30 years ago. The nursery that my children attended in Liverpool was absolutely wonderful and has set them up for life. I will say that again and again. In fact, I will name-check it here: Monkton nursery in Liverpool, which is still going and still under the same family. However, I know that even they are struggling with all the increasing costs.

The work involves long hours and poor pay, and providers are struggling to find and recruit qualified candidates. To go back to my constituency, one provider in Bath said:

“All these things are linked. If we were funded properly we could pay our staff decent wages, and then they wouldn’t need to leave…and we wouldn’t have a recruitment crisis.”

Nursery provision is an equalities issue. It is dispro-portionately mothers who are forced to choose between caring for their child and their careers. That is an issue I have raised time and again, particularly when I was the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on equalities. It is an equalities matter. In the end, it is mostly the mothers, who then do not go back to work and cannot get on with their careers. That is a very important point that we should not forget. It affects their career trajectory, their confidence and their long-term earning potential.

At the same time, the achievement gap between the richer and poorer, which can best be tackled in early years, is rising. Just one in five families who earn less than £20,000 will have access to the planned expansion of funded places for one and two-year-olds, compared with 80% of households whose incomes are over £45,000. Funding given to early years settings to support disadvantaged children in their cohort is a quarter of the amount given as pupil premium funding to primary schools. That has come at a time when more than a quarter of parents have had to use credit cards and to borrow money and get into debt to afford increasing childcare costs. Nobody should be pushed into poverty for deciding to start a family.

Relaxing staff-to-child ratios is not the answer to any of those problems; nurseries have told me that many times. Many nurseries are worried about decreasing the child-to-staff ratio. The Government have decided to cut corners at the expense of children, rather than properly funding providers. Doing that will not bring down costs. Most nurseries, especially purpose-built nurseries, have been built to accommodate a ratio of 1:4. One nursery can still only take eight children and would need to have two members of staff. If the Government paid providers for the costs that they actually face, they would not need to consider compromising children’s safety in that way.

We need a fast, decisive response to secure the future of the nursery sector. Early years settings and their staff are vital parts of our national infrastructure. Many parents dread their nursery being the next that is forced to close.

I will mention a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) raised, which is that, for us, it is very important to have proper provision for SEND children. I would like to hear a response to that. The Government must provide comprehensive support, starting with raising the rates paid to providers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this important debate and on all the work he does to advocate for children and families in his constituency. I was delighted to visit Plymouth in November to meet care leavers and those who support them. It was absolutely clear the important role my hon. Friend plays as a strong voice for his constituency.

I am grateful to all the hon. Members who spoke in the debate. Many highlighted the problems experienced in the south-west, but many of those problems are common across the whole country. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport spoke about the problems with recruiting staff, which were also recognised by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and other hon. Members. My hon. Friend also spoke about the rising bills that providers face; funding that does not meet the costs of delivering the provision under the entitlement; the increasing number of families looking to go back to work or to extend their hours; and low pay in the sector.

Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), mentioned the extreme challenges faced by parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities, including the additional and often hidden costs that parents are forced to pay as a consequence of a broken funding model.

Hon. Members also mentioned providers’ inability to plan when the funding rates are not published in a timely manner. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) mentioned issues with the recruitment of staff in his constituency, and the hon. Member for Bath mentioned the unique opportunity, during those crucial early years, to intervene positively and influence the rest of a child’s life with high quality early education and childcare.

Children’s earliest years are crucial to their development and life chances, and many of the factors that contribute to the education attainment gap are already present by the time children start school. Early years education should be focused on ensuring that families have the early support they need to give their children the best start in life, and we should deliver affordable childcare to enable parents to work. I pay tribute to everyone who works in early years education and childcare. They are a skilled and dedicated workforce, who all too often are under-recognised and underpaid for their work. They fall victim to the current hours-based model of childcare funding, which is fundamentally not working for providers or families. For families, it is inaccessible and complex. It does not reflect the reality of their lives and working patterns, nor does it deliver affordability. At the same time, 4,800 providers were forced to close their doors last year due to rising costs, so the current model is not working for them either.

Parents have seen rising costs year on year and growing childcare deserts, where they cannot access the childcare they need. There are now two children for every Ofsted-registered childcare place in England, creating a barrier to parents, particularly women, taking on employment. Both women of childbearing age and women who are grandparents are leaving the workforce because they are being priced out as a consequence of the cost of childcare. As we have mentioned, it is parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities who find it the hardest of all to find childcare places.

The Government have delivered a triple whammy: the most expensive childcare in Europe, an unviable financial model for providers and significant childcare deserts. It is a colossal failure for both families and the skilled professionals who work in early years education. It is clear from speaking to many different people who work in the sector that the policies that the Government have introduced in response to the crisis will not fix the problems. Additional funding is really welcome, but pumping it into a system that is already broken will not deliver the change that families need.

Childcare providers have made it clear that, as things stand, they cannot deliver the expanded entitlement. A survey of 800 providers by the Early Years Alliance found that only 20% of providers that currently offer places to two-year-olds plan to deliver additional places under the expanded entitlement. Another 33% said that they were unsure whether they would deliver any places at all under the new scheme. That is because the expansion was a pledge without a plan to expand the workforce in order to deliver the increased entitlement in a sector already struggling to recruit and retain staff. There is no plan for premises, for which there are rightly strict requirements in the early years sector.

It leaves parents likely to face problems in accessing the places that the Government have promised them. Even the Secretary of State admits that there are problems, although sometimes it is difficult to work out what she thinks. She is unwilling to commit to a guarantee that parents will be able to access the places that they have been promised by the Government from April, so I hope the Minister will at least admit that the Government’s plans are in chaos. It is families who will be let down as a result.

Childcare must be about more than just minding children while their parents work; it should be able to provide every child with a high quality early years education. A Labour Government will be driven by our mission to break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage, including by boosting child development, with 500,000 more children hitting the early learning goals by 2030. Labour is determined that childcare should offer more flexibility, better availability, and high standards for children and families. We will draw on best practice internationally to drive an ambitious and coherent programme of reform, with higher standards in early education, better availability, stronger regulation of providers’ financial sustainability and a clear strategy for the childcare workforce. We have commissioned the former Ofsted chief inspector, Sir David Bell, to undertake a full review of the early years sector and help to develop the detail of our early years plan.

A Labour Government will work with the early years sector to build capacity. We will also work with the sector to ensure that there is a plan for the early years workforce that offers more opportunities through high quality training and recognition for the skilled work of early years practitioners. We recognise that childcare does not end when children start school. We will deliver fully funded breakfast clubs in every primary school to help parents work, provide opportunities for children to play, learn and socialise at the start of the school day, and ensure that every child can access a healthy, nutritious breakfast and start the school day ready to learn.

The most expensive childcare in Europe; childcare providers closing their doors; childcare deserts across the country—that is the Government’s record. That is the experience for communities in the south-west, and it is true for communities across England. This Government have always regarded children as an afterthought and, in doing so, they have failed children and their families. After 13 years, their sticking-plaster solutions will not fix things now. A Labour Government will deliver a childcare system that works for children and their families from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school. We put children at the heart of our programme of Government from 1997 to 2010, and we will do so again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing a debate on this important subject at this important time. This Government are rolling out the largest childcare expansion in England’s history. By September 2025, we will be providing working parents with 30 hours of free childcare a week, from when their child is nine months old until they start school. By 2027-28, we will be spending in excess of £8 billion every year on free hours and early education, double the amount that we are currently spending.

Let me be clear at the outset that we are confident in the strength of the childcare market in the south-west, and I will explain why. I will start with funding rates, because that has been a strong theme in this debate. We regularly survey a nationally representative sample of over 10,000 childcare providers to gain detailed insights into how they run their provision and the costs they are facing. We also regularly survey over 6,000 parents to understand their use of childcare. We are working closely with local authorities, including all those in the south-west, to support them to deliver the early years expansion from April, when parents will be able to get the first 15 hours for their two-year-olds.

We regularly engage with every single local authority, and we have provided an additional £12 million this year to help them to meet the costs associated with this expansion. We have also appointed a local delivery partner that provides expert advice and support to help LAs with their childcare sufficiency duties. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport asked about support for local authorities. That partner, Hempsalls, physically goes to every local authority any time they are concerned about not having the number of places. It is Hempsalls’ job to work with them, as it has done in the past, to ensure that they have the places they need.

The 2024-25 Government hourly funding rates for all early years entitlements were announced on 29 November. That was slightly later than originally planned because we wanted to incorporate the Government’s near 10% increase in the national living wage and provide additional funding to be able to incorporate that. We are in close contact with local authorities, and we do recognise the need to confirm the rates as early as possible. It has been the case that local authorities could do this until 31 March, and we have been pushing them to ensure that they do it as early as possible. Almost all have now committed to do so this month, rather than next month. As of 31 January, almost 50 had already published their final funding rates. Where they have not, they have usually provided indicative rates that then need confirmation, sometimes from school forums or their cabinet, depending on the local authority. We are confident that all providers will at least know their indicative local rates over the next couple of weeks.

I also announced on Friday that, to stop this happening again—because I have nothing but sympathy for providers waiting on their rates from local authorities—we will take further steps and introduce a window, likely to be a maximum of eight weeks, within which local authorities will have to confirm their rates once we have announced them. It is our intention for local authorities to have eight weeks from whenever we announce the rates, and we are working with them on exactly what is required to enable them to do that.

It is the case, however, that we have given significant increases in the rates paid. To take Plymouth, the three and four-year-old rate has increased in the last couple of years from £4.95 to £5.65; the two-year-old rate has gone from £5.57 to £8.08; and for under twos, £11 will be the new rate. Those are significant increases in the rates paid and compare well with what many parents pay for provision privately.

The estimated number of registered childcare places in the south-west specifically increased by 3% between 2022 and 2023, from 128,782 to 132,981. That compares with a 1% increase in registered places across England as a whole, which we were pleased with, but it is even better that the south-west stands at 3%. The south-west also has a higher take-up rate of the entitlements compared with the national average. As of January 2023, take-up of our disadvantaged two-year-old entitlement was 78% in the south-west compared with 74% nationally. Take-up of the universal entitlement for three and four-year-olds was 95% in the south-west, compared with 94% nationally. Provision is high quality as well, because as of 31 December, 97% of early years-registered providers in the south-west region had a “good” or “outstanding” rating. That is in line with national averages, but the south-west had a slightly higher percentage of outstanding settings, at 15% compared with 14%. That is all good news.

Turning to recruitment, we need to grow the workforce as we roll this out over the next 18 months, so that we have the required places. That is why we phased the implementation of the new entitlements to make sure that providers could develop the capacity they needed. In the spring Budget, we announced an additional £288 million for 2024-25 and £204 million for 2023-24 to fund the new early years and childcare entitlements. That is in addition to the £400 million we announced in November, in part to incorporate the new increase in the national living wage.

There have been some suggestions of difficulties in achieving sufficient places nationally. Our annual survey of childcare and early years providers showed that the total number of paid staff in England increased by 4% between 2022 and 2023. We also had a 15,100 increase in places. Those positive figures are lost in a lot of the stories I see and a lot of the speeches I have heard today. I do not underestimate the challenges of the roll-out, but we feel confident in it, because we are pulling every lever we can and are already seeing positive progress on those headline figures.

To support the sector to recruit, on Friday we launched a new national campaign, “Do something BIG. Work with small children”. The campaign shines a light on the great careers available in the sector and recognises the lifelong impact that childcare professionals have on children during their most formative years. It will run across TV, cinema, social media, online, radio and billboard advertising. There is also a new website to help people find out more about gaining qualifications, search for existing vacancies and consider the different types of roles available. Part of the campaign also involves the piloting of financial incentives. In 20 local authorities, eligible joiners and returners can receive a tax and national insurance-free payment of up to £1,000 shortly after they take up their post.

On retention, we all know it is important not just to recruit but to retain staff. As well as significant uplifts to the rates and the increase in funding to meet the national living wage increase, we are working closely with providers to ensure meaningful career development and professional support for people in the sector. As I have said, I am open to any ideas that providers have about what we can do, in addition to what we have done to the early years foundation stage and so on, to make it easier for them to hire and keep the staff they need.

A number of Members raised important points about children with special educational needs. Just this morning I met with Dingley’s Promise again, which does great work in that area. We are working closely with local authorities to make sure there are places for children with SEND. We increased the early years pupil premium to the equivalent of £388 per eligible child per year to support better outcomes for disadvantaged children. Funding for the disability access fund, which is an additional payment to help to make reasonable adjustments within the provision to support eligible children with a disability, is increasing to £910 per eligible child per year.

There are around 60,000 different providers in the early years sector, largely made up of private, voluntary and independent organisations, which set their own rates of pay. We are providing additional funding to help with entitlements, giving more opportunities to increase staff pay and ensuring a phased implementation to allow the market to develop the capacity it needs. In October, we announced a series of changes to the early years foundation stage to make it easier for providers, based on things they told us they would like to see.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) was right that it is important to look at this by local authority, not by region, and that is exactly what we are doing. He is right that we want to have a choice of provision. There are interesting things going on in the early years market. For example, there has been at least a 20-year decline in the number of childminders, based on the choices that parents are making and so on. He is absolutely right that different parents want different things. In our recruitment strategy, we are trying a range of different things. We have early years bootcamps to support apprenticeships. We will hold a consultation on what more we can do to get more childminders into the sector, and we already have a childminder grant scheme to support parents to have choice wherever possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay asked about family hubs. I have been to family hubs that have nurseries within them. It is the central aim of family hubs to provide whatever services families need. That will include advising people on their childcare options. If there are any points I have not covered, I will write to my hon. Friend or other Members.

I want to leave the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport a couple of minutes to wind up, so I will conclude. I thank him for securing this important debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay alluded to, the Government are delivering the latest and largest expansion of childcare. Once completed, it will help families with one of the biggest cost pressures they are facing today, saving working families up to £6,500 a year and helping an estimated 1.5 million people to increase the number of hours they work. I look forward to working with Members present to deliver this transformative expansion.

I am grateful to all Members who have spoken in the debate. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and I double-act on this issue, because it matters cross-party. The hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) have also contributed to the debate. I am also grateful to the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes).

This is a genuine concern, and it is only getting worse. I am grateful to the Minister for setting out all the methods and initiatives he is rolling out, and I am interested to see if any of the 20 pilots that he has announced are in the west country—perhaps he could write to me with that information. But the gap between the lived experience of many providers in the south-west and what the Minister has set out is quite stark. The route to finding a solution matters. It is something I wish him well on, because I want a solution that happens almost immediately, given the crisis that people are facing, not one that matters only after a general election.

I encourage the Minister to listen to the experiences of the providers, who are genuinely saying, notwithstanding the words he has said, that they are facing collapse and cannot afford the provision he is saying they offer. That will have a consequence for parents who are looking for childcare to deliver a better life for their families. Where we are united is in wanting everyone to have a good start in life. Where we differ is in our understanding of where this issue is today, so I encourage him to continue to listen. He would be welcome to come to Plymouth and see what the challenges are in the west country. I look forward to continuing to make the case for all our nurseries and that all our children deserve a good start in life.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered nursery provision in the South West.

Sitting adjourned.