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Westminster Hall

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2024

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 March 2024

[Judith Cummins in the Chair]

Tutoring Provision

I beg to move,

That this House has considered tutoring provision.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, and I thank hon. Members in all parts of the House who supported my application for it. Unfortunately, it clashes with a meeting of the Education Committee, but the Chair—the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker)—and various members of the Committee have been very supportive.

This debate is about the Government’s national tutoring programme and the 16 to 19 tuition fund, which will end at the end of this academic year. Like other hon. Members, I am really disappointed that no new money was announced in the Budget to allow it to continue. As a result, schools and colleges have two options: they can try to fund the scheme from their own meagre budgets, which would be hard to achieve given the cuts that they are already having to make, or they can scrap it altogether, which would be a travesty.

During the pandemic, children were

“at the back of the queue”

and “always overlooked”. Those are the words of Anne Longfield, who was Children’s Commissioner during covid. Despite the remarkable efforts of our teachers and education leaders, who heroically adapted their lessons for online learning, we lost tens of millions of hours of valuable classroom time, and disadvantaged children were most affected.

Sir Kevan Collins, the Government’s adviser, acknowledged that children needed £15 billion to bridge the educational gap created by the pandemic. When just a fraction of that was given, he promptly resigned. In a recent interview in Tes magazine, he recognised the value of tutoring and said that he had wanted to scale it up dramatically so that 5 million pupils would receive tutoring by the end of 2024. He was also clear that tutoring should be best managed and led by schools. He said:

“Schools know their children best.”

I could not agree more, but as we all know, the recovery programme for which Sir Kevan called was not delivered.

I have to be totally honest: I was not always a fan of how the Government’s national tutoring programme was implemented. It encountered numerous challenges from ineffective outsourcing to tortuous application processes, tutoring shortages and—dare I mention the word—Randstad. Even the Education Committee, which was then under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who is now an Education Minister, recognised in a 2022 report that

“a complex bureaucratic system for applications may have hampered some schools’ ability to access…support”.

It further noted:

“Teachers and school staff know their pupils and know what interventions are likely to bring the most benefit.”

As Sir Kevan identified, the size of the tutoring programme also fell drastically short.

Despite all its failings, the tutoring programme managed to achieve some positive outcomes. When implemented correctly, tutoring has proved its worth time and again. It has helped pupils to catch up on lost learning and has shown many additional benefits such as improved confidence and school attendance. In the run-up to the Budget, more than 500 schools signed a letter to the Prime Minister, to the Secretary of State for Education and to the Chancellor, calling for more national tutoring programme funding. The letter was delivered to No. 10 by representatives of Action Tutoring, Tutor Trust and Get Further. I pay tribute to them for their amazing work in this area; several of them are watching from the Gallery today.

The Government responded that they would continue to support tutoring through pupil premium funding, but school leaders will be dismayed by that response. The pupil premium, which was established by Liberal Democrats in the coalition Government, was once a fund to support disadvantaged children, but since 2015 its value has eroded by 14% in real terms, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and I think we all acknowledge that in recent years it has more often been used to plug gaps in school funding. The hon. Member for Worcester recognised that when he said:

“I’m not sure there is sufficient space in the pupil premium to support tutoring becoming part of the system.”

Why am I such a fan of tutoring? We are lucky that so much research has been done on the impact of tutoring. The Sutton Trust, Public First, the Education Endowment Foundation and others have all looked at it. This Government claim that they are led by evidence, so let us look at some. The Sutton Trust says that the attainment gap, which had been decreasing gradually throughout the early 2010s,

“stalled in the years before the pandemic. Since the crisis, the gap has widened considerably, with 10 years of progress now wiped out.”

It believes that tutoring is

“a key method of boosting learning”

for disadvantaged children. It also notes:

“The programme has had a considerable impact on levelling out access to tutoring, with 35% of working class Year 11 students receiving private or school-based tutoring, compared to 36% of students from professional homes.”

Work by the Education Endowment Foundation has shown the effectiveness of tutoring, showing an average impact of four months’ additional progress over the course of a year with small-group tutoring. It also recognised the particular benefits that tutoring can bring to disadvantaged children:

“Studies in England have shown that pupils eligible for free school meals typically receive additional benefits from small group tuition”.

It stands to reason: allowing a teacher to focus on the needs of a small number of learners and provide teaching closely matched to that pupil’s individual understanding will reap greater rewards than teaching a larger number of students. Small groups offer the opportunity for greater levels of interaction and feedback than whole-class teaching.

Let us take the example of Dylan, a typical student who has benefited from an Action Tutoring tutor. Dylan struggled with maths and was considered unlikely to meet the expected standard. His school set him up with tutoring, and he attended 16 sessions over a period of two years. As a result, he moved from a grade 3 standard to a grade 4 pass. However, the benefits were so much more than just getting the grade that he needed. Dylan said:

“Before I started my tutoring sessions, I dreaded maths because I didn’t enjoy it. But my tutoring sessions were amazing and really helped boost my confidence in maths. When I found out I passed my GCSE maths, I didn’t believe it. Dead serious, I literally was flabbergasted. I was like, what is even going on? I looked twice at it as I was just so flustered.”

That hope and excitement expressed by Dylan—that promise of being able to move on to the next stage of your life and pursue your dreams—is priceless.

Public First research shows the impact that tutoring has had on GCSE pass rates and overall grades in key subjects. Some 62,000 additional pass grades in GCSE maths and English were achieved as a result of Government-funded tutoring in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years. Tutoring is an intervention with an impact on pupils right across the grade spectrum: it provided 430,000 grade improvements in total, with 220,000 in maths and 210,000 in English. The long-term economic impact on earning potential is significant, and so is the very real impact of strong foundations in numeracy and literacy on people’s lives.

We all know that under-18s in England must retake GCSE English and maths if they do not achieve a grade 4 pass. In 2023, that resulted in a staggering 167,000 students having to retake maths and 172,000 resitting English. When combined, that is the highest number of retakes in a decade. We are setting those children up for repeated failure unless different help and support is provided. Just 16.4% of students resitting GCSE maths in England passed with at least a grade 4 this year, and the pass rate for English was only slightly higher. That group of children need targeted help, support and time with a tutor in small-group sessions to get to the bottom of what they find difficult, with personal, structured work plans to boost progress. Targeted tutoring has been exceptionally effective in helping that group.

I was lucky enough to see the work of Get Further when I visited Southwark College last year. Sitting in on a few sessions allowed me to see tutoring at first hand. It was fascinating to see how tutors engaged one on one with pupils, helping them to unpack a maths question or discussing the meaning of a particular word in English. The children I spoke to all had aspirations and plans for the future, and they really valued the time they spent with teachers one on one or in a small group.

Aiden, at London South East Colleges, had twice missed out on a grade 4 at English GCSE. He was supported by a Get Further tutor, who helped him to understand things for the first time in a tailored small group and one-to-one setting. He said this about his experience:

“I was only aiming for a 4 as it was my third time retaking English and I wanted to get it over and done with. As I continued my tuition, I started to understand things I didn’t understand before and quickly improved. Now, I have a 6 and it’s all thanks to my tutor. I am so pleased with the grade I achieved and proud of how far I have come! In September, I aim to go on to Level 2 Health and Social Care and then move on to Level 3 or an Access to Higher Education course so that I can do Paramedic Science at university with awesome classmates who share what I aspire to be: someone who helps people at their highest and lowest moments.”

Tutoring can be truly transformational.

We should also acknowledge the many other spillover benefits that tutoring brings, which speak to many current concerns in our educational system. Some 85% of parents say that tutoring has had a positive impact on their child’s confidence, while 68% say that it has improved attendance. CoachBright recently published its impact report and has done interesting work on the relationship between tutoring and attendance. The results show that tutoring can reduce persistent absence by 11%. At a time when thousands of pupils are missing from school, tutoring can offer children and young people the opportunity to have a new trusted adult in their lives, giving them a new way to engage with their education.

The bottom line is that for every £1 spent on tutoring, £6.58 is generated in economic returns as a direct result of pupils achieving higher grades and having a higher lifetime earnings potential. The benefits are felt not just by those who receive the tutoring, but by our whole economy and society. The evidence is compelling, but there is also a strong political case for continuing tutoring: it is popular. Public First research found that pupils like tutoring: students were positive about their experiences and were willing to have more of it if available. Parents like tutoring: over three quarters of parents would support increased tutoring provision. Teachers like tutoring: they welcome the impact on academic attainment and the wider benefits such as pupil confidence, increased engagement in the classroom and reduced anxiety. This is a policy that is popular with pupils, parents and teachers. I have no wish to help the Government, but surely that sounds like a vote winner.

Liberal Democrats believe in tutoring, which is why we have said that we will offer a tutoring guarantee for every disadvantaged pupil who needs extra support, recognising that tutoring is most effective when we allow headteachers and college leaders to decide themselves how to run the scheme. I think tutoring is so important that I joined the Conservative Chair of the Education Committee and a former Labour Education Secretary—the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett—to try to convince the Government to maintain funding for the tutoring programme beyond the end of this academic year.

As we have heard from the case studies, tutoring can be a life-changing intervention. Those of us who are parents and are privileged enough to afford tutoring for our children do not hesitate to pay for it in order to boost their attainment and confidence. In the words of Lorraine Spence, whose daughter Naomi benefited from Get Further’s tutoring after she failed her maths GCSE:

“My daughter is now thriving at university but without the extension of this kind of funding, countless young people from low-income families will miss out on securing the gateway qualifications they need to unlock opportunities like this. Should tutoring return to being a luxury for the rich and a sacrifice for the poor? I urge the Government not to allow this to be the case. Instead, let’s make a more equitable educational system, where tutoring is accessible to all—and one positive legacy to come out of the pandemic.”

I could not agree more with Lorraine’s words. If the Government are serious about levelling up, I hope that the Minister will make a commitment today that he is willing to do battle with his Treasury colleagues to ensure that funding continues both for the national tutoring programme and for the 16 to 19 tuition fund. Schools and colleges need that assurance urgently to plan for the next academic year.

It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this important debate. I want to say a few words in support of the Government’s national tutoring programme, an outstanding initiative that has provided invaluable support, particularly for children whose education was impacted during the global coronavirus pandemic. I would also like to share my first-hand experience of the programme.

I am the Member of Parliament for Sedgefield in County Durham, and the programme has helped Dean Bank Primary and Nursery School, in Ferryhill in my constituency, to support some of the most disadvantaged students in the north-east. This is a school where 79% of students receive free school meals, and it is in the area that is the focus of my all-party parliamentary group for left-behind neighbourhoods. As it happens, it is also the school that I first attended. The school is based in one of the mining communities in my constituency, which deserve all the help they can get to stimulate social mobility and aspiration.

The national tutoring programme has brought about 430,000 grade increases and 62,000 additional passes in maths and English since it was launched. Indeed, Professor Becky Francis, chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, referred to tutoring as

“one of the best evidenced interventions we have to support disadvantaged pupils’ attainment.”

Meanwhile, according to Public First data, a projected lifetime earnings boost of £4.34 billion can be ascribed to the national tutoring programme, based on the tutoring delivered in the two years from 2021-22 to 2022-23 for just £660 million.

Despite what that data does to illuminate the education, tutoring is not all about numbers. At Dean Bank Primary and Nursery School, 20 pupils have been supported in their maths and English since October last year; in a tiny primary school, that makes such a difference to their world. The school is supported by Action Tutoring, an education charity hugely supported by the national tutoring programme. The school’s deputy head teacher, Will Haynes, has said:

“After the initial set-up period, the children had clearly gotten into it. They came into school, all excited, saying, ‘It’s tutoring day today!’ It’s going really well. It’s quick and easy to set up the laptops each week. The children look forward to seeing their tutors.”

In the past, a disadvantaged but rural community such as Ferryhill would have struggled to get tutoring support, but thanks to the internet, that is no longer the case. I thank Action Tutoring and its brilliant volunteers for what they do; indeed, one reason I am here today is that one of my staff, Douglas Oliver, who is here today, also volunteers with Action Tutoring, and he has massively enlightened me about how important its work is. Action Tutoring’s analysis shows that 65% of disadvantaged pupils pass their maths GCSE after attending at least 10 tutoring sessions with the charity. Action Tutoring pupils were nearly 13 percentage points more likely to pass maths GCSE than other disadvantaged pupils nationally. Those are significant interventions. I could continue, but what I want to say is that Action Tutoring’s work is indicative of so much of the valuable tutoring provided by volunteers and others. We must celebrate that work.

Pupil premium funding was introduced 14 years ago by a Conservative Government working in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Although the Government gave something in the order of £400 billion of temporary support during the crisis of 2020 and 2021, it is vital that one small part of that support is renewed as the legacy of the pandemic endures for our youngest people. Of course, the Government live in a time of fiscal pressure following the shock of the pandemic and the illegal war in Ukraine, but we must continue to focus on education outcomes and the investment they afford us in our future. I hope the Government will look at the national tutoring programme as an option after this school year, because much needs to be done to look at how we embed tutoring for all students in the years ahead. Tutoring can stimulate aspiration in those furthest away from opportunity, and I encourage the Government to give it all possible support.

It really is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I look forward to you being in the Chair every time I am here. Thank you for being here and for your fairness.

I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for leading this debate on a very important issue. As always, I will try to bring a Northern Ireland perspective, not because the Minister has responsibility for Northern Ireland but because it adds to the debate. I will give some stats and talk about what we have done back home, and hopefully we can share those experiences for our betterment.

The hon. Lady and the Liberal Democrat party have done much work on children’s education, and specifically on tutoring. She set the scene well and talked about what she and her party espouse and hope to achieve. She spoke about the benefits of tutoring, which were endorsed by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell). There is certainly a disparity across the United Kingdom, but we must ensure that children from all backgrounds can take advantage of good educational learning. It is great to be here to give a Northern Ireland perspective on this issue.

The Government set up the national tutoring programme in England in response to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on education. Those two and a half to three years really did change life for everyone. The programme provided subsidised, small-group catch-up teaching and mentoring for pupils impacted by covid. It is crazy to think about where we were just a few years ago and about how much school young people missed out on. Although teachers did their best, it was always going to be a difficult task, so it was important that we looked at different ways of providing education. The Government did that, especially for key worker parents.

The latest child poverty figures for Northern Ireland show that 82,000 children live in absolute poverty. Remember that we have a population of 1.95 million, so those figures show the enormity of the situation and what we are trying to achieve back home—we are talking about almost one in every five children. Just under 100,000 children in Northern Ireland live in relative poverty. Adding those two figures together gives a sum of 182,000 living in absolute or relative poverty. Those figures worry me. They highlight not only the situation in Northern Ireland but the need for better one-to-one tutoring provision.

Key worker parents provided essential services, but their children had less face-to-face teaching at home, so it is likely that many of those children suffered due to that too. The hon. Members for Twickenham and for Sedgefield talked about a combination of issues, and I know that the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) will do likewise.

I always look forward to the Minister’s response, because he tries to encapsulate our fears, concerns and questions, and gives us some encouragement as elected representatives. Funding for Northern Ireland was secured by the Halifax Foundation for Northern Ireland and the Charities Aid Foundation. That allowed for the creation of a free online tuition service for the children of key workers from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and for children with special educational needs. The combination of those two issues—parents who are away at work, and the education of children with special educational needs—is a massive problem. I have realised from all the debates we have here that the issues relating to children with special educational needs affect not just Northern Ireland but the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Ask a Tutor scheme really did make a difference, and I thank the Halifax Foundation for Northern Ireland and the Charities Aid Foundation for that.

The Government have said that raising children’s attainment is at the heart of their agenda, and that is very true. Being able to obtain good tutoring services is one thing, but that must be deliverable across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am a passionate believer in the strength of the Union, and I am sure everybody in this Chamber is of a similar disposition. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North spoke at my association dinner two weeks ago about the strength of the Union, and he enthralled that audience of true Unionists in Newtownards with his words. I put my thanks for that on record, and I am pleased to see him here.

Although it is fully understood that education is devolved, we need to ensure that the initial budget is there to support one-to-one tutoring in our schools. The Assembly is now up and working again, and the Minister for Education back home is my colleague Paul Givan MLA. I know him and I know that he will work hard on this issue, but there also needs to be the support from Westminster. I am sure the Minister will give us encouragement on that through his words, as well as his actions.

One of my staff members was tutored in maths through her fourth and fifth years of secondary school, and her sessions cost £32 for one hour each week. That was almost eight years ago, so I imagine that they cost at least another £10 to £15, which would make it quite challenging for any person to afford that individually—it could cost over £200 a month, depending on how many sessions someone was having. Although there are people out there who will be able to afford that—that is fine, and those are the sacrifices we make—there are those who simply will not be able to. Giving consideration to those families should be made a priority, and that is the first of my requests in this debate.

We all want our young children to grow up and excel at school, and to have the best opportunities possible, and providing extra one-to-one tutoring sessions is an excellent way to ensure they do. I see that through the staff in my office and what they have told me, and we heard it in the introduction from the hon. Member for Twickenham, who explained why tutoring is important, and others have added to that message and will add to it in a minute.

I urge the Minister to engage with the devolved nations to ensure that we can all play a role in improving educational outcomes for young people in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Isn’t it great that we have that Union? Isn’t it great that we can share these ideas? Isn’t it great that we can do that for our children?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this incredibly important debate.

If I may, I will briefly thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for giving me a plug and saying why I might have a career in the diplomatic corps in the not-too-distant future, which may come as a shock to many. I appreciate that he invited me, and it was obviously a pleasure to speak to the fine people of Strangford and surrounding areas about our precious and important Union.

The issue before us is very important for me, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I was a schoolteacher professionally, working in both London and Birmingham before entering this place. My partner is also an employee of Teach First, which analysed elements of the programme and was involved in delivering some of the tutoring in the earlier days. Although she was not an employee at that stage, it is important to ensure that the record is clear.

The national tutoring programme plays a massively important part in ensuring that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in particular—those who are registered for free school meals, and those who are not yet registered but who are technically eligible—have the academic ability to attain the grades they deserve. For levelling up to mean anything, we have to get education right. In Stock-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, I can build every shiny building going and bring in every new job going, but what is it all for if kids from Stoke-on-Trent do not end up in those new high-skilled, high-wage jobs, in those buildings or in the new homes we are building in our local area?

Sadly, Stoke-on-Trent has remained in the bottom 20% for academic attainment and achievement for far too long. In the past, the Office for Students has ranked my constituency as the seventh worst in England for kids going on to higher education. Twelve per cent of my entire workforce have no formal qualifications, which is 8% higher than the national average. The number of kids achieving level 3 and 4 qualifications—A-levels or college and apprenticeship qualifications—remains in the bottom fifth nationwide. That is not something that I want to see.

Sadly, the city has languished under a disastrous private finance initiative deal. This is not meant to be a party political dig, but it was administered under the last Labour Government back in 2000. There are 88 schools trapped in a PFI contract run by the council and are seeing huge inflationary increases in their costs. It is predicted that up to £100,000 in additional funding will potentially have to be found for the annual contributions that need to be made, leaving us scrambling. I collared the Minister in the voting Lobby last night to demand more funding, and that goes to the heart of the point. I appreciate that the Government will point to pupil premium funding, which is a superb initiative, but I agree with the Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who the hon. Member for Twickenham quoted: the reality is that the money simply will not be there.

There are huge inflationary increases in food and equipment costs, and with teachers’ salaries going up, which the Government have covered in part but not in full. There are also additional costs in Stoke-on-Trent, where we have those increased PFI contributions. Those inflationary pressures, again, driven by covid and Vladimir Putin’s illegal and immoral war in Ukraine, mean that schools are having to use every penny that they can find. They will not be able to continue the important tutoring scheme out of their own existing budgets because of the pressures that they are facing right now.

Stoke-on-Trent is exactly the area where that kind of intervention is absolutely necessary. I share the concern that at the end of this academic year, we will potentially see the end of the national tutoring programme as it is funded currently through additional Government support. I implore the Minister, and I will do everything I can with him, to lobby Treasury colleagues to demand that the scheme continues.

I will say this about the Prime Minister. Back in summer 2022, I supported my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) during the Conservative party leadership contest—it feels a long time ago, I know—because he had mentored me for a long time. I had a sense of loyalty to that, and I believe him to be a very good man. However, after he dropped out, I met all the leading contenders, including the current Prime Minister. When I sat down in the room with him for the first time and had a conversation about non-Treasury matters, seeing the fire behind his eyes when he talked about education was inspiring. It is so important, and it is something that sadly I had not heard enough of since the Blair years of “Education, education, education”, although I fear that that was more slogan and gimmick than actual delivery. Still, most importantly, at least it was on the forefront of the education agenda at that time.

Does my hon. Friend agree that expenditure should be focused on initiatives like this programme, as opposed to the broader schemes that try to cover everybody from middle-income families to high-income families and do a broad sweep across the bottom? These are the interventions that the Government should really be focused on.

I completely agree. I have huge problems with universal schemes because they are not a benefit if everyone is receiving them, in my personal opinion. Having universal free school meals for every child in primary school is not a good idea, because why on earth would my children be given access to a free school meal when I myself can afford it? I would rather see that additional funding for middle-class and higher-income parents who can afford it invested in children from disadvantaged backgrounds, so that we can have those well-funded breakfast clubs but also ensure that schools can invest further in such things as the tutoring programme.

We should not forget that the Education Endowment Foundation’s own research says that small group tuition adds four months of progress on to students’ lives. Tes reported that as of January 2024, 390,000 grade improvements in English and maths have been attributed to progress made due to the national tutoring programme over the previous two academic years. That goes to show the importance of the scheme, particularly for English and maths, and particularly when we still have an archaic system in place that means that people must get a pass in those subjects to be able to do an apprenticeship, yet they would not need that to do their A-levels. We have a two-tier system, despite having a major skills shortage in this country. We talk the talk about ensuring that apprenticeships are equal to an A-level, but there are these bizarre barriers in place that mean they are not.

I hope that the Minister will take back the idea of abolishing the requirements at the foundation stage, in order to allow people to get on to apprenticeships and study their English and maths while on those courses to get them up to grade. Of course, any responsible company will want that for their employees because it will improve the outcomes and productivity of the company.

The Government should be applauded for around 5 million tutoring courses that have begun since the inception of the programme, and the fact that they were bold and brave in going for it, despite the fact that Randstad is a dark stain on the Department’s ability to procure. However, going back to what the hon. Member for Twickenham and I were calling for in those early days, it is vital to give the money to the schools and trust the headteachers in large part to deliver this particular programme.

The school-led approach is a much better system. Why? Teachers know who those pupils are. They know their backgrounds and their learning and support needs; they know their parents and have a relationship with them. Teachers are and have always been willing to stay behind after school. If we give teachers the opportunity to have a little more money in their pocket, bearing in mind they probably work double the hours they are actually paid for—I certainly used to do 60 hours a week as a bare minimum while on the frontline as a head of year—that could have a huge and positive impact for them. It could also have a positive impact on the many fantastic smaller focused third sector organisations that, again, have existed for a long time.

I hope we never see a repeat of Randstad, because that was an utter disaster. I was pleased to see that the Government were nimble on their feet and followed a school-led approach; giving that money to the schools directly had a positive impact. I saw that in my albeit very brief time as Minister for School Standards between September and October 2022. During that time, I went on a number of visits to schools in the Black Country that were using that funding. I spoke with the pupils themselves, who said that without the programme, they would not have had the confidence to put up their hand in class to ask teachers questions when they did not understand what was being taught to them.

The national tutoring programme has given pupils confidence—sixth-formers interacting with year 7 and 8 pupils who are new to the school, to build that sense of collective responsibility and help one another. The older pupils learn important leadership skills, using their lived experience to impart the knowledge they have learned from their excellent and outstanding teachers. It all goes to show the power of the scheme. I do hope we will see that.

In February 2023, the National Audit Office said that in the 2021-22 academic year, only 47% of the pupils accessing the scheme were disadvantaged. Like myself, the hon. Member for Twickenham and many other Members present will be worried by that. The national tutoring programme was designed for disadvantaged pupils; it should not be supplementing the tutoring of children whose parents could afford private tuition if needed. While I want to ensure that every child has the opportunity, we need to find out from the Minister— I hope we will hear this today—what the Government have done since that report to really drive up the number of disadvantaged pupils to hopefully reach the 65% target that was initially given to Randstad as part of the contract. That is exactly the type of figure that we would like to see. I agree with Lee Elliot Major, the professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, that it would be

“a national travesty if we fail to embed tutoring”

into our core schooling day in, day out. We therefore have that responsibility.

Schools Week reported that as of July 2023, there was a £240 million underspend in the tutoring programme over the 2021-22 and the 2022-23 academic year. Can I ask the Minister whether that money was reinvested back into the national tutoring programme to help to cover schools’ costs, which are obviously rising in year in, year out, and to deal with the tutoring programme? That was something I requested within the Department while I was a Minister: for any underspend to go into the next academic year to give schools more cover and give them longer to get the programme up and running, build more trust with pupils and put things in place. That is important as well.

My final contribution is simple. If the Government do not want to go ahead with the national tutoring programme in its current form, I personally believe there is only one other way we can go forward. As any other hon. Member would, I will shamelessly plug my own research paper, which I did with Onward back in November 2020. It calls for not only an extended school day, which I have long supported, but a shortening of the school holidays over the course of an academic year—reducing the summer holiday from six weeks to four.

I support that for two reasons. First, childcare is extremely expensive; it is even more expensive now than when I wrote that report. It was estimated that that change would save the average family £133 a week based on costs associated back in November 2020, which will obviously have massively increased since then. I appreciate that the Government have done a lot in the childcare space with the new scheme providing 15 hours of free childcare as of April. I must confess that my own child, who is two years old, will benefit from it, and we have started the process of getting our code to give to our childcare provider.

The second and most important reason is that from research I have conducted, I understand that it takes around seven weeks for a disadvantaged pupil at the start of a new academic year to finally surpass where they were at the end of the previous academic year. That is seven weeks of lost learning, during which time disadvantaged pupils are unable to accelerate at the same pace as their better-off peers, which is simply unfair. Reducing that holiday to four weeks—I am happy to have a two-week October half term, which would be better for pupils and teachers in terms of rest and wellbeing, as well as trying to spread the cost of the school holidays throughout the year more fairly—would give those younger people a better opportunity.

There are other ideas in the pipeline. I have a research paper that I will happily send the Minister to have a look at and tell me what he thinks. Ultimately, I think it is the right thing. I appreciate that multi-academy trusts can do that of their own volition, and some do, but it should be driven nationally as well.

As I said, education is the absolute bedrock to levelling up. It is the bedrock to making sure that life chances can be achieved. I have no fiscal rules when it comes to education, because I believe that if we shove all the money there, we will have better outcomes on health and work, fewer people needing to use the welfare state, better home ownership, better wages, and less poverty in our country. Education is at the epicentre of achieving that, and we should therefore be pouring money into the sector. That 92% of my schools are now rated “good” or “outstanding”, compared with around 60% in 2010, and 75% of my kids are now reaching the necessary levels in phonics, compared with 53% when we inherited government back in 2010, shows that we have got it right, and that all the changes and hard work can go on to build something more.

I am so passionate about making sure that we get education right. It is essential that the people I serve—my masters and mistresses back in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke; my Lord Sugars who will hire or fire me when the general election comes later this year—have every opportunity to make sure that their children can have the opportunities and ability to access the high-skilled, high-wage jobs I am bringing to my local area to improve their life outcomes. Stoke-on-Trent’s achievement of the levelling-up agenda is driven through the education sector.

Please, Minister: we have to keep this tutoring programme on the tracks. If we do not, an extended school day and shorter school holidays are the alternative, in my opinion.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for bringing forward this debate on tutoring provision, and all hon. Members who have spoken very passionately on behalf of the children, families and school communities they represent here in Parliament.

I think we all agree that the scale of the challenge that many of our children and young people are currently facing is immense. We know that children and families have really struggled with the combined impact of years of reduced investment in our public services, compounded by the impact of the pandemic. Indeed, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, which many have mentioned, has widened across all educational phases since 2019, so any limited progress made in the decade before was wiped out in a couple of years. The hon. Member for Twickenham also highlighted that issue.

We know that what happens outside the school gates reinforces the impact of what happens inside them. With the rising levels of child poverty, the cuts to youth services in communities and the dwindling support for children with additional needs, schools are increasingly becoming the frontline, with teachers having to buy food with their own money and wash clothes for families, and the increasing challenge of mental health issues.

It has now been four years since the enormous disruption and lost learning experienced by so many children began during covid. What was most concerning at that time was the lack of planning for children and for the inevitable impacts: no plan for learning from home in the early days; no plan for ensuring that all children had the equipment they needed; no plan for schools, teachers, or how to support children afterwards. So when the classrooms finally reopened after covid, it was not surprising to anyone that children found it hard to adjust. They had had little socialisation or interaction, and some had received barely any education at all.

I saw the impact on my own children. My youngest had only just started school when he found himself back at home being taught by two parents who had no teaching experience, two other children to try to teach and support, and two full-time jobs that they had to undertake from home. It was an incredibly challenging time for families everywhere, and in far too many households, particularly where less support was available, children paid a very heavy price. Kevan Collins was therefore commissioned by the Government to set out a long-term recovery plan for our children, but the Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor, opted out: he was simply not willing to make that investment in other people’s children. Our country continues to pay a very heavy price for the decision he took then, and it will for some time to come.

The National Audit Office reported last year:

“Disruption to schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic led to lost learning for many pupils, particularly disadvantaged children.”

It also reported:

“Left unaddressed, lost learning may lead to increased disadvantage and significant missing future earnings for those affected.”

As a key measure to address that, the Government introduced the national tutoring programme, which was initially provided through tuition partners. As hon. Members have noted, there were many missteps, from a very low uptake at the start to schools struggling to find the tutors they needed to deliver the support, but as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) highlighted, once the Government introduced the school-led tutoring element in September 2021, there was some success and take-up was higher.

Evidence gathered by the National Foundation for Educational Research showed that increasing the number of tuition hours

“led to better outcomes in maths and English.”

Crucially, however, the foundation noted:

“Less than half of pupils selected for tutoring were from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

As the match-funding requirements kicked in and Government funding went from 75% to 50%, schools that were trying to make the scheme work and that needed it the most found it ever more difficult to deliver. This year, many schools, especially those in the poorest areas, have used up almost all of their pupil premium and recovery premium funding to pay for tutors, leaving them little to pay for other interventions such as enrichment or training. Indeed, the benefits of the scheme risked being undermined by the way it was delivered because it was poorly targeted, so lots of children who needed the support the most were not able to benefit from it.

Tutoring was not mentioned in the Budget earlier this month, so it seems that the national tutoring programme is coming to an end. Just a few months ago, the then Schools Minister, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), stated:

“The Department has committed that, from the 2023/24 academic year, tutoring will have been embedded across schools in England.”

However, without a specific budget for tuition, it is assumed that schools will need to use their main budgets to fund that support.

I will just finish my point.

As I was saying, it is assumed that schools will need to use their main budgets to fund tuition support, absorbing the costs into what is already a shrinking pot. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister set out the Government’s vision of the national tutoring programme in the future. I was going to ask if he could do so in his response to this debate, but he is welcome to make an intervention now.

I will speak in a moment. I just wondered whether the hon. Lady is committing, in the event of her party coming into government, to having a separate line item for the tutoring programme over and above core school budgets.

The question that I am putting to the Government is how they envisage the future of the national tutoring programme. I would be grateful if the Government set out their vision. I will respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s point, as I deal with it in my speech—

It will not be long until there is a general election. We do not know exactly when, but there will be a general election at some point in the months to come. If the hon. Lady is saying that she thinks the Government’s course of action is a mistake, I am interested in hearing the alternative that she is setting out.

As I said, I am really interested to hear what the Government’s vision is. Given that they have committed to ensuring that tutoring is embedded within the national school system, what is their plan for ensuring that that happens? We will inherit that plan from them, so I am very keen to hear the Minister’s response to my question. I will set out Labour’s costed plans in detail, but I am interested to hear how the Government will deliver on their pledge to ensure that tutoring is embedded within the national school system.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that schools funding in England is already not increasing as fast as the cost pressures schools are facing. That means that the poorest schools are likely to struggle the most to find the cash for tutoring, and that our most disadvantaged pupils will miss out. With access to tutoring seemingly diminishing, what is the Minister’s plan for children to recover the learning they lost, which they have still not recovered from? I appreciate that he would like to move these issues on to the next Labour Government to solve, but given that this Government are currently in charge, I am sure that, like me, listeners to the debate are interested in hearing what this Government’s plans are.

In government, Labour will consider how more tailored support could be most effectively delivered to ensure that children achieve what they need to in school. Crucially, we will look at introducing a range of measures to ensure that we close the attainment gap. We know that children’s speech and language have really suffered since the pandemic, which has the potential to affect their educational attainment in the much longer term, so Labour has pledged to equip every school with the funding to deliver evidence-based early language interventions to tackle the problem.

We understand that quality teaching is key to unlocking children’s potential, so we would use the funding available from ending the tax breaks currently enjoyed by private schools to hire 6,500 more teachers in our state schools, giving every child the teachers they need to benefit from a quality education.

It is a totally noble aim to bring more teachers into the system. Of course, the Government do an extensive work by providing grants for people taking specific courses; in some cases—science, for example, these are worth up to £20,000. What specifically is Labour’s plan for recruitment of new teachers that the current Government are not doing? I have previously asked shadow Ministers similar questions, because I genuinely want to understand what will be done differently by Labour, bearing in mind that this Government are giving out tens of thousands of pounds to people simply for turning up to the training course, let alone then staying on, with the levelling-up bonus payments in education investment areas. I am keen to hear what the Labour plan looks like.

I appreciate the sincerity of the hon. Member’s wish to talk about the challenge in recruitment and retention. Clearly, it is related to this debate today, in the sense that if we had all the teachers we need, would we need a national tutoring programme? Labour has set out quite detailed plans about how we will go about resolving the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, and we continue to have conversations with the sector to ensure that the money in the current spending envelope for bursaries and incentives is spent as effectively as possible, because clearly there is a problem. The Government are seriously missing their recruitment targets. We have a range of measures, but I do not think it would be appropriate to go into the detail that the hon. Member wants me to go into today. However, I recognise the sincerity of his challenge in that regard and his recognition of the challenge, and Labour is absolutely determined to meet it.

We know that children’s mental health is a huge challenge, so we will put a specialist mental health professional in every school and ensure that young people have access to early support. We will also invest in mental health hubs to ensure that young people can access mental health support where they most need it. We will offer free breakfast clubs in every primary school, to ensure that children have a softer start to the school day and the opportunity to learn, play and socialise. The evidence is clear that such clubs increase attainment and attendance; they will also put money back in parents’ pockets and ensure a start to the school day that can help parents to get to work.

We recognise that there is no one fix, given the level of challenge in our system, but we will focus not only on taking a more targeted approach, so that children who need additional support the most get it, but on making sure that there is a wider network of support for every school community. That network will ensure that every child has the best chance of having the best start in life.

This is all about Labour’s mission to break down the barriers to opportunity and to ensure that every child gets the firm foundation and high-quality education that sets them up for life. Because education is a priority for us, as it has been for every Labour Government, we will put it back at the centre of national life. We will prioritise our children, schools and families once again.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this important debate today. I also thank everybody who has taken part: the hon. Member herself, my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who brought the Northern Ireland perspective, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who spoke for the Opposition.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North rightly spoke of the hard times of covid, which we all remember. Our home and professional experiences were indeed very difficult. They were also very difficult to plan for, because they were experiences that our country, like others, had not had before. I do not think it is right to say that people were slow to react. For example, I thought that what happened in respect of Oak National Academy was amazing and came together quickly. The work that teachers and headteachers did converting to virtual education and enabling home learning was remarkable, but there is no doubt that it was an incredibly hard time. International studies such as the programme for international student assessment show that the whole world, with the exception of only one or two jurisdictions, took a really big knock from covid. Almost every country took a serious hit in educational attainment from covid.

England held up relatively well. That is part of the reason why in the most recent PISA results, in mathematics for example, England was ranked 11th in the world. That is an improvement on recent times, particularly so if one looks back to the period before 2010 when England had been ranked 27th. We also saw improvements in reading and in science. In the progress in international reading literacy study 2021, primary school readers in England were ranked fourth in the world and first in the western world. However, none of that changes the fact that covid was a terrible knock to education here and elsewhere in the world.

The Minister and his colleagues talk a lot about the PISA scores, and obviously we cannot deny that evidence. He talked about the impact of the pandemic, but does he recognise that the attainment gap had been starting to dwindle? I noticed that he smarted when I mentioned that the pupil premium was a Liberal Democrat commitment that we delivered with the Conservatives in government.

Sorry, I was not wishing to make a political point. My question is: will the Minister recognise that the attainment gap was actually starting to widen again before the pandemic, and that the pandemic accelerated that trend? That is what we are all here to try to tackle through the tutoring programme.

Let us not pursue the thing about the pupil premium. That happened to be in both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat plans for Government ahead of 2010. The two parties worked well together in coalition, and that is a good thing that we should welcome. There had been progress on the disadvantage gap. It is also true, as I was just saying, that covid hit the whole world, but it also hit different groups of children differentially, and we are still seeing the effects of that in the disadvantage gap. I will come back to that.

Tutoring has been a key part of our recovery plan, and I thank everybody who has been involved in it: the tutors, the tutoring organisations, the teachers and teaching assistants, and everybody else who has made it possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield mentioned the particular role and contribution of volunteers, and I join him in that. It is a very special thing to do.

The national tutoring programme is not necessarily what always comes to mind when the person in the street thinks of tutoring. A lot of it, as the hon. Member for Twickenham alluded to, is small group work; it is not just one to one. Although very important work has been done by outside tutoring organisations, most of the work on the national tutoring programme has been done by existing staff in schools. We have committed £1.4 billion to the four-year life of the national tutoring programme in schools and colleges, and invested in the 16 to 19 tuition fund.

For the second year of the programme—my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred to this—funding has gone directly to schools. That has enabled schools to choose the right approach for them and their children through the use of their own staff, accessing quality-assured tuition partners or employing an academic mentor. We created the find a tuition partner service to put schools in touch with those opportunities, and also provided training through the Education Development Trust for staff, including teaching assistants who deliver tutoring.

Nearly 5 million courses have been started since the NTP launched in November 2020, and 46% of the pupils tutored last year had been eligible for free school meals in the past six years. That is the “ever 6” measure—a measure of disadvantage. The 16 to 19 tuition fund will also have delivered hundreds of thousands of courses.

The tutoring programme has been part of the wider £5 billion education recovery funding, which is made up of the £1.4 billion for tutoring, £400 million for aspects of teacher training, £800 million for additional time in 16 to 19, and nearly £2 billion directly to schools for evidence-based interventions appropriate to pupils’ needs.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North rightly mentioned speech and language interventions. I can tell her that already two thirds of primary schools have benefited—211,000 year R children so far—from our investment in the Nuffield early language intervention programme. The evidence suggests that the programme assists children in making four months’ worth of additional progress, while children eligible for free school meals make greater progress of seven months.

Covid hit the world, including us. It did not hit every discipline in exactly the same way. Some of us will recognise from our own time at home with children that some things were easier to do than others. Reading at key stage 2 and junior school held up pretty well during covid. Maths has now improved and the standard is now close to what it was in the years before covid. Writing is still behind, although we have had a 2% improvement since last year.

Big challenges remain. No one denies that the No. 1 issue is attendance. This almost sounds trite, but there is an obvious link between being at school and the attainment achieved. It bears repeating that even if there are difficulties in having many children in school, we really have to work on attendance. As well as the overall attainment effect of attendance, there is a differential factor between the cohort of pupils as a whole and disadvantaged pupils; in other words, there is a bit more absence in the latter group than the former. There is also a link—some studies say it plays a really big part—between attendance and the attainment gap, which makes it doubly important that we work on attendance.

As colleagues know, schools are doing many things brilliantly, as are local authorities and others, to try to get attendance back up to pre-covid levels. Obviously, every child needs to be off school at some time because of sickness—all of us were when we were children. That will always be true, but we need to get back to the levels we had before covid.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North alluded to specific things that we do around breakfast clubs. It is important to do them in a targeted way, and not just in primary school, as the Labour party plans to do, but in secondary school as well. There are issues around mental health support, which is why we are gradually rolling out the mental health support teams across the country. Again, we think that it is right to have that in both phases—it is important at both primary and secondary school—and schools are also doing an immense amount of work.

Although the national tutoring programme was always a time-limited programme post-covid, tutoring will continue to play an important role and we know that the evidence shows that tutoring is an effective, targeted approach to increase pupils’ attainment. Headteachers are best placed to decide how to invest their funding, depending on their particular circumstances and priorities, and that approach underpins our whole approach to the school system, in that we put headteachers in charge. I anticipate many schools continuing to make tutoring opportunities available to their pupils and we will continue to support schools to deliver tutoring in future, including through pupil premium funding, which will rise to more than £2.9 billion in 2024-25.

Schools decide how to use their funding, aided by the Education Endowment Foundation, which sets out good knowledge and advice on the best uses of funding for the education programmes with the most efficacy. I do not think there is a conflict between universal and highly targeted programmes. We target via the funding formula and then headteachers are best placed, armed with the knowledge from the EEF and others, to decide how to use that funding. The overall national funding formula has the disadvantage element, which next year will be a bigger proportion than has previously been the case. Then, of course, there is the pupil premium.

I have outlined in detail why I think schools need the additional funding due to the financial pressures they are under. However, if the Government are not seeking to do that—which, personally, I think is a mistake—is the Department for Education planning to somehow monitor how many schools continue to deliver tutoring and the percentage of disadvantaged pupils? Or is the Department simply not going to keep an eye on the ball after the funding ends and rely on headteachers, who will, as the Minister has rightly said, do things in the best interests of their pupils? Ultimately, that will leave us in this place with less knowledge about the spending decisions and whether the support is continuing and embedded, which was the aim of the programme when initially introduced.

It is absolutely appropriate to embed tutoring into schools’ wider progress, because we know from our gold standard analyser the EEF and other studies that that approach has efficacy and achieves results, although obviously it depends on how it is done. As my hon. Friend puts it, we will keep an eye on the matter, but that is not the same as specifying that Mrs Smith the headteacher should do this but not that. We think Mrs Smith should be able to decide. We also have Ofsted inspections and the results are published as part of a system that is transparent but that also empowers schools, school leaders and trusts to make those decisions.

I completely agree with the Minister about giving headteachers and teachers autonomy. As a Liberal, I do not believe in things being controlled from the centre, and teachers know best, but the reality of the funding situation, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) pointed out, is that many schools are setting deficit budgets for the first time ever. We can talk about how money has gone up in cash terms, but it has not gone up in real terms. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that schools’ spending power has been reduced massively by inflationary costs.

I pointed out that the pupil premium has been cut by 14% in real terms. The tutoring fund underspent because many of the schools cannot match the funding that is available. The Minister may really believe that this is an effective, evidence-based intervention, but schools will not be able to continue without ringfenced, dedicated funding. I was told that last year when I went to visit Southwark College, which is dealing with some of the most disadvantaged pupils, who otherwise will have no life chances at all if they do not get the support they need.

On the subject of funding, including the pupil premium and the recently announced additional amounts for covering pension contributions, overall school funding next year will be £2.9 billion higher than it was in 2023-24. That will take the total to over £60 billion in 2024-25—the highest ever level in real terms per pupil.

We also remain committed to improving outcomes for students aged 16 to 19, particularly those yet to achieve their GCSE English and maths. That is a subject that came up earlier. I should stress that not having English and maths is not an impediment to starting an apprenticeship; the person just has to continue to study them while doing their apprenticeship.

I know that this subject stirs strong feelings in many people. We know that the workplace and life value of English and maths is immense, and that is why there is so much focus on those subjects as we develop the advanced British standard and in our design of the T-levels and some of the apprenticeship reforms. English and maths are so important for the futures of these young people, which is why in October we announced an additional £300 million over two years to support students who need to resit their GCSEs.

There is no rule that everybody has to resit a GCSE. Whether the person resits GCSE mathematics or takes a functional skills qualification depends on the GCSE grade that they got the first time around. The £300 million is part of what we call an initial downpayment on the development of the advanced British standard. As colleagues know, it will be a new baccalaureate-style qualification, bringing together the best of A-levels and T-levels in a single qualification and ending the artificial distinction between academic and vocational for good.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham for securing this debate, and to everybody who has been and continues to be involved in the national tutoring programme and the 16 to 19 programme. Tutoring can have a transformational effect on pupils’ and students’ attainment, and I am proud that the Department’s flagship tutoring programmes have been supporting so many in catch-up following covid-19. I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate, all the schools and colleges that have participated in these programmes, all the tutors—including the volunteer tutors—who have delivered them, and of course all the pupils and students for engaging so enthusiastically.

I start where the Minister ended: by extending my thanks to all those involved in the tutoring programme, particularly the volunteers, including Douglas, who is here today and was namechecked earlier, from the office of the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell). The contribution that volunteers and teachers—who work extraordinarily hard, day in, day out—make to our children is invaluable. Thank you to all of them.

I also thank all hon. Members who turned up to participate today. I know that many others could not be here today, but they are also very strongly committed to the tutoring programme. The hon. Member for Sedgefield talked about the excitement that pupils often experience when they receive tutoring. That goes to my point about tackling persistent absence. We know that tutoring helps to bring down some of those absence levels. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the importance of extending these programmes right across our four nations, given the benefits involved.

I think this is a first for me: I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), and it is not very often I find myself saying that. Where I am in violent agreement with him is on something that I and the Liberal Democrats constantly point out. As a party, we see money spent on education and our children and young people as a long-term investment. I am afraid that the Treasury often sees children as a cost. We need to see them as part of our current society and also of our future society and our economy. Investing heavily early on will pay dividends and generate returns for generations to come.

As the hon. Member pointed out, levelling up starts here, with children. That is why I am so perplexed as to why the Government are not extending the programme. I know that the Minister said it was time-limited to start with, but given that the attainment gap continues to grow, and given the evidence that has been generated to show the impact, I am slightly surprised that we are not seeing a continuing commitment.

I am also disappointed that, following persistent questioning by the Minister, we heard no commitment from the Labour Front Bench to continue tutoring should there be a change of Government later this year or at the start of next year. Tutoring really does help tackle the attainment gap. I repeat my point to the Minister. He has said that it is a great intervention, but without the money, too many more children are going to be left behind.

Even if he may not have said so publicly right now, I urge the Minister to please go away and talk to the Treasury about whether money can be found to continue this important intervention, because our children really do deserve the very best start in life. We cannot just keep writing off those who do not have the same advantages as many of us. I speak as a parent who has invested in tutoring for my daughter. I want the child down the road who lives in much more challenging conditions, who does not necessarily have the support at home, to have the same benefit as my daughter, so that they can achieve great things, because every child has that potential.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered tutoring provision.

Sitting suspended.

UK Food Security

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of Session 2022–23, Food Security, HC 622, and the Government response, Session 2023–24, HC 37.]

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

I beg to move,

That this House has considered UK food security.

It is an honour to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins, and to open this important debate. The most widely accepted definition of food security is when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. That definition is built on four pillars: supply, access, supply stability and nutritional value. Food resilience is a critical aspect of ensuring food security and sustainability in the UK, and it needs to be incorporated into our agrifood systems.

The UK may score well on supply, with the Government food strategy observing that we produce about 75% of what we consume, but that number hides a range of self-sufficiency levels and some of the future problems that we will encounter. For example, the UK produces only 53% of the vegetables and 16% of the fruits that we consume. That makes our fruit and veg supply vulnerable to outside factors, as seen when a shortage of tomatoes hit the UK last February. When we consider that we import most of our fruit and veg from southern Europe, a region that will be heavily impacted by climate change, it is essential that we focus on putting in place the necessary measures now.

Food security is paramount to our national security. It is crucial that we take a holistic view of our food supply chain.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing the debate. Coincidentally, back home in Northern Ireland, Ulster University has just revealed that one in 10 UK adults live in households classified as marginally food insecure—10% are reported as living in households with moderate or severe food insecurity. She is right to bring this matter to Westminster Hall. Does she agree that more could be done in our schools, to extend free school dinners universally, to ease off on parents and, more so, to ensure all children have access to one healthy and nutritious meal each day?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I will come on to that later in my speech.

We must ensure sustainability in our food production, which encompasses the nutritional quality of food, its accessibility and the stability of supply. When we talk about the sustainability of food production, we must first look inwards at food being produced at home. British farming is facing a crisis. I hear daily from members of my own family, neighbours and friends about the challenges that they are facing, and their concerns and anxieties regarding their business.

For that reason, I feel honoured to work alongside organisations such as the Farm Safety Foundation, which campaigns to raise awareness of the mental health crisis facing farmers and farm workers. The immense pressure that the industry has faced over recent years is taking its toll financially, physically and mentally. Many farms across the country are on the precipice, with 110,000 farms having closed their farm gates since 1990. Many farmers do not know whether they will survive the next 12 months.

The Environmental Audit Committee has said that the food system globally and in the UK has become too driven by price alone. That race to the bottom for the cheapest food results in a squeeze on farmers’ incomes and results in the mental pressure the hon. Lady is talking about, as well as undermining food security. Does she agree that the Government must do more to ensure that UK trade policies support fair terms of trade for farmers here and abroad, rather than driving the import and export of cheap food?

That is my very next point—the hon. Lady makes a very good one.

Unfair supermarket buying practices are leaving family farms teetering on a cliff edge. The current groceries supply code of practice is inadequate and rarely enforced. Nearly 70% of British fruit and veg farmers agree that we need tougher regulations to address the imbalance of power. Although our food system is structurally resilient, it is functionally non-resilient and it is not sustainable in the long term.

British farmers are receiving incoherent messages from the Government. On the one hand, they are told to engage more on sustainable practices, which is welcome, but on the other hand, this Conservative Government sign irresponsible trade deals with Australia and New Zealand that undercut our farmers on welfare practices and food standards. Good food security needs a trade policy that protects British agriculture.

We also need proper scrutiny of our trade deals. Even the former Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), did not have a positive opinion of them, stating that the UK’s free trade deal with Australia was

“not actually a very good deal for the UK.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 424.]

We need to support the production of sustainable food at home and allow parity in the market. We should allow the system to put more emphasis on localism to provide a food system that is resilient and delivers a vibrant, cyclical local economy. I represent a constituency in rural Somerset, where people live next to local food suppliers, but their food is not always available to buy locally, despite the wishes of those producing it.

Polling by the Sustain alliance states that 75% of farmers indicated that gaining access to alternative, local markets gave them opportunities to demand a more competitive price for their produce, while keeping revenue local to create local jobs, and incentivise further investment on their farms. The current market limits those opportunities, whether that be difficulties with planning applications, stopping the construction of farm shops, for example, or the restrictions with buyer contracts that prevent farmers from shortening the supply chain.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I agree entirely that if we are to protect the consumer, we also have an interest in supporting and protecting the long-term sustainability of our food producers. On the point of planning, one of the biggest challenges we face is that, although we welcome the ability of farmers to diversify with farm shops or support renewable energy production on their land to some extent, there is a lot of pressure from developers to develop prime agricultural land for housing. Does the hon. Lady agree that more could be done, at national and local level, to support prime agricultural land for the production of food, rather than for housing development?

I agree that there needs to be a balance between food production and housing supply. My view is that we need to ensure that housing is developed.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Further to the point that the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) made, many farmers in my constituency feel that, although rewilding is a fashionable concept, perhaps it goes a little too far, and we need to be more imaginative when deciding what can be rewilded and what should be kept and maintained in the same way, when not used for housing, for growing excellent British food.

I agree that we need to balance food production with ensuring we protect our precious environment. Farmers obviously have a key role to play in that.

Before my hon. Friend leaves this topic, I think this comes to the heart of the matter. One of the biggest barriers, particularly for red meat producers, to putting produce into a local supply chain is the inability to get it slaughtered close to the point of production. Does my hon. Friend agree that ending the ever-increasing move towards larger, centralised abattoirs would allow a regrowth of smaller abattoirs closer to the point of production, which is better for animal welfare, carbon emissions and, ultimately, for producers being able to access that much more diverse range of markets?

Fine Shetland sheep, indeed. I do understand the challenges of accessing a local abattoir, not only a local one but one able to help with the services that small producers require. I will cover that in a minute, but I would like to make some progress.

I want to see changes in the public procurement system that provides schools, such as King Arthur’s School in Wincanton or Ansford Academy in Castle Cary, Frome College or Huish Episcopi Academy with the flexibility to source local produce, whether that be food or drink, and ensure that local provenance. Many schools do not have the flexibility to do that. That particularly resonates with regard to the 800,000 children living in poverty who are not eligible for free school meals as their households are in receipt of universal credit and have in excess of a £7,400 post-tax income.

Building awareness among children of where their food comes from now can sow the seeds of good food habits for life. The Liberal Democrats believe it is crucial that we extend free school meals to all children in primary education and all secondary school children whose families receive universal credit, but there is a threat to that. There has been a 12% increase in the number of large-scale industrial farms in the UK from 2016 to 2023. The intensive nature of those farms means that accessibility to local food and drink is likely to be diminished. Environmental standards will decline and the custodians of our countryside—the small family farm—will disappear.

I am sorry to interrupt and am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way in her excellent speech. Does she agree that one of the threats to the family farm is the fact that we have a range of new schemes being put out by the Government, many of which are commendable in themselves under the environmental land management schemes heading but which fail to protect tenant farmers? Baroness Rock’s review includes 70 excellent recommendations, including that of a tenant farmer commissioner, which should be put in place to protect tenant farmers before many of them are kicked off their land by landlords exploiting new schemes. Is that not just morally wrong but extremely stupid because it reduces our ability to feed ourselves as a country?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which I wholeheartedly support.

It is critical for long-term UK food security that we employ sustainable agricultural practices, which focus on appropriate food production that helps protect the environment, conserve natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while ensuring an adequate and reliable food supply to meet the demands of the population. The Government’s food strategy was described as “a waste of trees” by Professor Tim Lang. The Government should now not baulk at producing a robust land use strategy, which has been promised for more than a year but has yet to be seen. Can the Minister provide an update on that this morning? The Liberal Democrats will develop a comprehensive national land strategy, including a horticulture strategy to encourage the growth of the horticulture sector and effectively manage the competing demands on land.

I thank the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for its recent report on insect decline and food security, which raised an important issue. The loss of biodiversity and pollinators will have a heavy impact on our ability to grow food in future. Around 40% of all insects are at risk of extinction. They are an integral part of our ecosystem and without them, we simply would not survive. Dung beetles, for example, fertilise and aerate soils, helping to maintain pasture that livestock is fed on. Indeed, it is estimated that dung beetles may save the UK cattle industry a whopping £367 million a year through the provision of ecosystem services.

One of the many things for which Somerset is famous is our cider. Pollinators are crucial to apple production, yet we have already witnessed their decline. Buglife’s South West Bees Project report in 2013 focused on 23 bee species considered most at risk in the south-west. Twelve of the target species are found in Somerset. Sadly, however, six target species have already been lost.

The national pollinator strategy is due for renewal this year, and the Government must take the opportunity to redress our biodiversity losses. However, I do not have confidence that they will do so, because this is the fourth year in a row that the Government have authorised the emergency use of neonic pesticides, despite knowing the harmful effects on our wildlife. The Liberal Democrats oppose the use of these damaging pesticides and recognise how important it is to protect our wild pollinators, to stop further damage to our biodiversity and to protect UK food security in the long term.

That point brings me on to UK household food security. A resilient food system can help to stabilise food prices and minimise market volatility. According to the Food Foundation, the poorest 20% of households would need to spend half of their disposable income on food in order to afford the NHS’s recommended healthy diet. That is clearly impossible for those people.

Food-related ill health is a growing issue in our society. Unless we take action to improve our food system, it is estimated that 40% of British adults will have obesity issues by 2035. That would mean increased costs, not just for our NHS but for our economy as a whole, given that we already have 3 million people out of work due to long-term sickness. We must therefore stem the tide of junk food, unhealthy food and processed food that is currently flooding our supermarkets, our screens and our high streets. Instead, we must actively work to promote locally grown whole foods such as fruits and vegetables. That is best for our health, for our economy and for our planet, but also for our farmers, who want to sell their produce to local people. That is how we can create a thriving food culture of which we can all be proud.

Household food security can be a particularly prevalent issue in rural areas such as my constituency. Rural communities are less likely than urban areas to have a glut of supermarket choices. They are therefore more reliant on smaller local supermarket stores. Research by Which? has found that those stores almost never stock essential budget-line items, which may result in higher food costs and household food insecurity. The major unfairness is that these communities are often side by side with those that are growing food.

As I have pointed out, farmers want to sell their food to local residents, but the food system prevents that. We must act now to make that a reality, as we will soon face a time when climate change disrupts our system with increasing regularity. If we are not prepared and ready to adapt, our farmers will suffer, and as consumers we will all suffer. By taking a holistic view of UK food security, we can ensure that we have a sustainable future that supports British farmers, supports our environment and biodiversity, and supports the growth of a healthy nation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) for securing today’s incredibly important debate. It has also been a pleasure to hear the interventions from right hon. and hon. Members.

UK food security is vital to our national security. Strengthening it by supporting our farmers and food producers is a top priority for this Government. Our high degree of food security is built on the supply of food from diverse sources—from domestic production as well as from imports through stable trade routes.

We produce 63% of all the food we need, and 73% of the food that we can grow or rear in the UK for all or part of the year. Those figures have changed little over the past 20 years. UK consumers have access through international trade to food products that we cannot produce here, or at least not on an all-year-round basis. This supplements domestic production and ensures that any disruption from risks such as adverse weather or disease do not affect the UK’s overall security of food supply.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has well-established ways of working with the industry and across Government to monitor risks that may arise. The key forum is the F4, which is chaired by a DEFRA Minister and comprises the National Farmers Union, the Food & Drink Federation, the British Retail Consortium and UKHospitality; it covers the interests of the sector from farm to fork. This extensive, regular and ongoing engagement helps the Department to quickly prepare for and respond to issues that have the potential to cause disruption to food supply chains.

We also continue monitoring of the market through the UK agriculture market monitoring group, which monitors price, supply, inputs, trade and recent developments. We have also broadened our engagement with the industry to supplement our analysis with real-time intelligence as required. Domestically, the Government have committed to maintaining, if not enhancing, the level of food that we currently produce. That includes sustainably boosting production in sectors in which there are post-Brexit opportunities.

Food production and environmental improvement can and must go hand in hand. We are already seeing the benefits of our environmental schemes, which are supporting food production domestically and are delivering environmental benefits. For instance, actions through the sustainable farming incentive support the creation of flower-rich buffers that help pollinators, which in turn help to produce a better yields. Our soil management actions ensure that farmers are supported in the foundations of food security, such as the health and the resilience of soil.

The Agriculture Act 2020 imposes the following duty:

“In framing any financial assistance scheme, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way.”

We are seeing that through the roll-out of the environmental land management schemes.

Farmers in my constituency have made the point that when a carbon capture audit is done of a farm, the value of grassland in holding and storing carbon is underestimated. That should be looked at again in the overall audit of these farms, which could help in turn to support the growth of excellent beef on our farms.

Having been involved in the agriculture sector for my whole life before entering this place, I know just how important pasture and grassland are to carbon sequestration. When we are rolling out environmental land management schemes, it is important that the benefits of pasture land through carbon sequestration are taken into account. That is why the reforms that we have introduced, through coming out of the common agricultural policy, are so important to supporting a highly productive sector that is environmentally sustainable.

In addition to the sustainable farming incentive, the farming investment fund and the farm productivity innovation funding will further improve farm productivity. Our schemes will ensure our long-term food security by investing in the foundations of food production, such as healthy soil, water and biodiverse ecosystems. Backing our farmers is so important, which is why the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary announced a range of measures at the National Farmers Union conference to boost productivity and resilience in the sector, including the largest ever grant offer for farmers in the coming financial year, which is expected to total £227 million.

The Minister mentions the rolling out of the grant offer, which can be very valuable to many farmers. Is he aware that tenants cannot make those grant applications themselves? Does he agree with his noble Friend Baroness Rock that tenants and landlords should be able to make joint applications for capital grants so that our farmers can thrive and our tenants can remain on the land?

Baroness Rock’s review produced a fantastic report with many excellent recommendations. My DEFRA colleagues and I are in close interaction with Baroness Rock and are working our way through her many recommendations. If we are rolling out schemes, it is vital that any innovation or productivity grants, along with any sustainable farming incentive schemes or others that fall under the environmental land management schemes, are available to all applicants to ensure that we can get the best out of the land that they farm.

Building on the recommendations made, the £427 million of funding for measures announced at the National Farmers Union conference doubles the investment going into productivity schemes, growing the grant offer from £91 million last year to £220 million this year. We have already awarded £120 million in grant funding to farmers through the farming investment fund and have committed £120 million to 185 projects as part of the farming innovation programme. The Government will also provide £15 million in funding to stop millions of tonnes of good, fresh farm food going to waste, by redirecting that surplus into the hands of those who need it. Together, these funds will support innovation and productivity and will improve animal health and the environment.

We will continue to work across Government to ensure that we carry out the commitments made in the UK food strategy and at the farm-to-fork summit in respect of the national planning policy framework. We want to ensure that this fully reflects our shared food security and climate and environment ambitions. The national planning policy framework sets out clearly that local planning authorities should consider all the benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land when making plans or taking decisions on new development proposals. This point builds on the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). Where significant development of agricultural land is shown to be necessary, planning authorities should use poorer-quality land in preference to a higher quality.

Food supply is one of the UK’s 13 critical national infrastructure sectors. DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency are joint lead Government Departments, with DEFRA leading on supply and the FSA on food safety. We work closely with the Cabinet Office and other Departments to ensure that food supply is fully incorporated as part of emergency preparedness, including consideration of dependencies on other sectors.

In the Agriculture Act 2020, the Government made a commitment to produce an assessment of our food security at least once every three years. The first UK food security report was published in December 2021, and the next food security report will be published in December 2024. To ensure our continued food security, the Prime Minister has also announced that a food security index will be published annually—that has been welcomed by the sector—and will complement the three-yearly UK food security report. We are currently developing the content of the index, but we expect the index to present the key data and analysis needed to monitor how we are maintaining overall food security. Productivity, resilience and environmental sustainability are incredibly important to domestic food production and are a key element of our food security.

At the National Farmers Union conference, the Prime Minister also made an announcement about ensuring that we are giving internal drainage boards more support. We know how important lowland farmland is for producing food, which is why the £75 million of funding announced by the Government during the spring Budget and earlier at the NFU conference is so important to ensure that we can give our internal drainage boards the support that they need to mitigate flooding downstream as well as possible.

On health and wellbeing, I want to pick up on a point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made about the Farm Safety Foundation. I know that James Chapman, the chair of the trustees, is doing an excellent job; he has been involved in the organisation since 2014, I believe. I wish him and his team well with the Farm Safety Foundation, as I know just how important that organisation is to improving not only farm safety, but the general health and wellbeing of our farming community.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred to the land use framework. I reassure her that the Secretary of State wants to ensure that food productivity is at the heart of the land use framework, which is why we are scrutinising it before it is released. Not only does it have to cover energy security, biodiversity offsetting, net zero and other measures, but we want to ensure that food security is at the heart of it before it is released. Our food security is strong, but we are not taking it for granted; we will continue to work across the supply chain to maintain and enhance it.

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I assure them that the Government consider food security to be incredibly important and will keep it as a top priority for the DEFRA ministerial team.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenian Refugees

[Julie Elliott in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered international support for Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. The southern Caucasus is a melting pot of cultures, religions and ethnicities. Over the centuries, these different groups have at times co-existed peacefully and at other times experienced turmoil and bloodshed. In recent memory, we saw the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1923, when an estimated 1.5 million people were killed by forces from the Ottoman empire. As the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, officially voted to become part of Armenia. Azerbaijan sought to suppress the separatist movement, while Armenia backed it. This led to clashes and eventually a full-scale war. Tens of thousands died and up to 1 million were displaced, amid reports of ethnic cleansing and massacres committed on both sides.

The most recent hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan show that conflict is never far away. Although they have recently negotiated a peace agreement, tensions remain high, and if there is a peace it is certainly fragile. Just last year, a number of us gathered in Westminster Hall to raise concerns about the blockade of the Lachin corridor, the main supply route from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. At the time, several hon. Members highlighted the potential for starvation and humanitarian catastrophe. The supposed Russian peacekeepers were at best observers and at worst actively supporting the ongoing persecution of the local Armenian population.

Sadly, the outcome we most feared was realised last September when, after a nine-month blockade, the Azeri military expelled the Armenian population. This forced displacement of a people has taken place when the eyes of the world are turned elsewhere. As Armenia is a small country with a population of 3 million, the arrival of more than 100,000 refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as a further 40,000 refugees from the war in 2020, has had a significant impact on it.

I was a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation that visited Armenia last month. We met a group of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, who described the events of the blockade and their eventual expulsion in harrowing detail. They described the so-called Russian peacekeepers travelling to Armenia—a privilege not afforded to the local population—and buying goods and supplies only to resell them to the starving people at massively inflated prices. They described the difficulty of acquiring medical supplies, fuel and even water. They described the violent end of the blockade, when the people were shelled out of their homes. We heard how the shelling started at 12.30 pm, when children were at school and separated from their parents. They described the chaos of people trying to locate their loved ones, and of people abandoning their home with just the clothes on their back.

The lucky ones had some fuel in their vehicles; the others just walked. The 40 km journey to Armenia took three days because of Azeri forces’ continued bombardment and because of obstructive bureaucracy by the Azeris at the border. The lack of water on the journey meant that many, especially the elderly, did not make it.

Many of the refugees are now staying with family members in border towns and in and around Jermuk, but every Armenian town has been impacted by the influx of refugees. The refugees are, of course, critical of Azerbaijan, but they are also critical of the Russian peacekeepers’ failure to protect them.

A number of officials we met believe that the Russian forces had been directed by Moscow to foster instability, not peace. This seems to be substantiated by Kremlin rhetoric. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has insisted that Russia does not bear blame; he said that there was “no direct reason” for the exodus, merely that people were willing to leave. As an aside, non-intervention by Russian peacekeepers sets a dangerous precedent that international humanitarian law can be breached without repercussions, and opens up the risk of future Azerbaijani incursions into Armenia, for example to secure a path to its exclave of Nakhchivan.

When we met the mayor of Jermuk near the border, he described the triaging that had taken place and the intensive support, both practical and psychological, needed for these broken people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed that, noting that the 100,000 refugees required critical support.

For many, this ethnic cleansing of a people has echoes of the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1923. It is notable that while 34 countries, including the USA, Canada and France, have recognised the historic genocide, the UK has failed to do so. Several hon. Members have raised that point, including the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). In denying formal acknowledgement of the historic atrocity, the UK Government continue to delegitimise the collective pain endured by the Armenian community. A Foreign Office memo from 1999 is revealing as to the motivations behind the UK’s position. It reads:

“Given the importance of our relationship (political, strategic, commercial) with Turkey…recognising the genocide would provide no practical benefit to the UK”.

I would appreciate a response from the Minister on whether the failure to recognise the historic genocide is simply an attempt to appease a trading partner.

Let me return to the situation on the ground in Armenia. In October 2023, UNHCR launched a $97 million emergency refugee response plan to provide urgent humanitarian aid and protection to the refugees and to those hosting them in Armenia. That support runs out at the end of this month, but not one refugee has been able to return home. Although there has been international support, for which the Armenian Government are grateful, far more is required. The US has committed $28 million since 2020, the EU has provided €17.5 million since September, and France committed €27.5 million in 2023. The UK, to date, has committed £1 million.

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech outlining the scale of the crisis for Armenians who have left Nagorno-Karabakh and are now refugees. Does she agree that £1 million is woefully insufficient to support the Armenian Government in helping those refugees, and that we need to hugely scale up our support?

I think it is important that we are not critical of the support that has been given, and £1 million is a good starting place, but I agree with the hon. Member. I ask the Minister what further financial and humanitarian support the UK will provide for the Armenian Government to support the refugees and their hosts in Armenia. Aside from providing aid, the UK Government have a moral responsibility to show leadership in the region. They must undertake all diplomatic efforts to foster dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan and help to create the conditions for a true sustainable peace that will allow displaced Armenians to return home.

In October 2023, the UK Government argued:

“It is vital that international humanitarian organisations have independent access…We therefore welcome Azerbaijan’s decision last week to allow UN agencies into Nagorno-Karabakh, to complement ongoing efforts by the ICRC”—

the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, given that the Armenian population had been ethnically cleansed a month earlier, that seems rather futile.

In January 2024, the UK Government stated:

“We welcomed the two countries’ historic joint statement of 7 December, in which important confidence-building measures were announced, aimed at reaching an historic agreement and securing lasting peace for the region.”

However, there is little confidence that that peace agreement will be sustained.

The hon. Member mentions a lack of confidence that the progress towards peace will be sustained. I have a couple of questions. First, does she welcome the bilateral agreements and discussions between the leaders and Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia towards that end? Secondly, can she explain why, or from whom, the lack of confidence is coming?

First, any agreement that is reached has to be welcomed. Any steps forward have to be welcomed. As for who is concerned, the people we spoke to in the border towns who see Azeri incursions—who see the troops coming over the border—are the ones who are telling us that they do not have confidence in the agreement. That is because they are not seeing it being played out in real time in front of them.

Given the events of the past six months, I was concerned to read that in November 2023 Foreign Office officials were encouraging British business leaders to capitalise on lucrative commercial opportunities in Nagorno-Karabakh to support President Aliyev’s rebuilding agenda. That is quite simply an abdication of the UK Government’s moral and ethical responsibilities. It is also hypocritical. How can the UK Government condemn Azerbaijan’s “unacceptable use of force” in Nagorno-Karabakh in September and then, six weeks later, encourage British commercial involvement in the region? Can the Minister provide clarity on the reasons for encouraging British businesses to exploit the tragic situation?

Despite limited attention from international media, the situation on the ground in Armenia remains critical. Urgent assistance is required for the refugees and for those supporting them. When we asked the refugees about their hope for the future, they responded that they simply wished to return home. The International Court of Justice has issued an order requiring Azerbaijan to

“ensure that persons who have left…and who wish to return to Nagorno-Karabakh are able to do so in a safe, unimpeded and expeditious manner…free from the use of force or intimidation.”

Although the Azeri Government state that return is safe, the refugees were clear that this is impossible. They were starved, they were bombed and they were killed, so their hope to return cannot be realised, certainly not at the present time. My final question to the Minister is this: what representations has he made to the Azeri Government on the treatment of the refugees and on their safe passage back to their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh?

Order. I remind hon. Members to bob even if they have put in to speak, so that I am clear on who wants to speak.

Thank you, Ms Elliott. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) on obtaining the debate. She was a valuable member of the delegation from the British group of the IPU that I took to Armenia a few weeks ago. It is good to see all the other members of the group in the Chamber today; I suspect all of them will wish to contribute to the debate, with the exception of Lord McInnes, who I am sure is pursuing these issues in the other place. I thank the IPU for arranging the visit and Joe Perry for accompanying us. It is also good to see His Excellency the Ambassador here in Westminster Hall today; he has been hugely helpful.

I think we all felt that to be in Armenia at that time was extremely valuable. I have been to Armenia five times over the past few years, although that is a small number compared with the visits that Baroness Cox has made; indeed, she is known as the Angel of Artsakh because of her numerous visits. However, on a previous occasion I was able to visit Nagorno-Karabakh to talk to the Administration at that time. I did so because I believe that one of the most important things for us to do as Members of Parliament is to hear the arguments from both sides and see things for ourselves. I was very disappointed that the consequence of my simply going to Nagorno-Karabakh was that I was blacklisted by Azerbaijan; indeed, I believe that I am still blacklisted by Azerbaijan, simply for visiting Nagorno-Karabakh and holding those talks.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West has described what I have to say were extremely moving meetings that we held with the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. Whatever the rights and wrongs, to listen at first hand to their reports of the suffering that they endured was a very emotional experience—particularly some of the tales about how, without being given any notice, they were dragged from their homes and forced to march to neighbouring Armenia, which took a number of days. Not all of the people who set out made it to Armenia; some died on the way.

I pay tribute to the people we met in Jermuk, particularly the governor and the mayor, for the way Jermuk has opened its doors and welcomed the refugees. They continue to give them support. However, 100,000 people have moved into Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh and that has imposed enormous pressure, so I absolutely endorse the calls for us to give them support.

I will say just a little about the conflict that has been raging for many years between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is the case that Nagorno-Karabakh is within the borders of Azerbaijan, but it was populated by Armenians. It is also true that a number of Azeris had previously been displaced. However, I do not want to get into the arguments about sovereignty and the history behind them. We have a humanitarian need to support refugees.

We were also privileged to hear from the Catholicos of All Armenians—His Holiness represents all Armenians —about the impact of the conflict on the priests and the churches in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is also a matter of serious concern. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the cause of repeated conflicts and tensions between two neighbouring countries for decades, although there now appears to be a possibility of resolving the conflict and reaching a peaceful settlement.

We were extremely privileged to have a meeting with Prime Minister Pashinyan, who expressed to us his wish to achieve a peace and the plan he is putting forward to achieve peace. One of the most remarkable things about the plan that is being advanced by the Prime Minister of Armenia at the moment is that it does not contain any territorial ambitions to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh. That has been the subject of some criticism, as we heard from members of the opposition in Yerevan, but it is a realistic recognition of what has happened and an attempt now to try and attain a peaceful settlement.

There are still issues to be resolved, in particular the issue of the corridor connecting Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan. Those are both Azeri territories, but the corridor will go through Armenia, which—quite understandably—believes that any corridor through its own land must be controlled by Armenia, although they are open to negotiating free access to ensure that it is possible to travel easily between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan.

However, despite the apparent opportunity that now exists to obtain a peaceful settlement—we heard repeatedly from Armenians their desire to do so—in the last few hours the Prime Minister has issued a statement saying that Armenia could be at war by the end of the week, because Armenians believe that Azerbaijan continues to have territorial ambitions not just to take back control of Nagorno-Karabakh, as it has done, but for Armenia itself. So it is a very fragile situation.

As leader of the UK delegation, I met members of the Azerbaijan delegation to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe when I was in Vienna a couple of weeks ago. They are absolutely adamant that they have no aggressive intent towards Armenia and that this is propaganda being put out by the side of Armenia. Yet even while we were in Armenia, four Armenian soldiers were killed in the continuing conflict around the border. We were also taken up to see territory that is undoubtedly Armenia but is still under occupation by Azerbaijan.

There are some serious issues to resolve, but given the expressions of willingness to reach a settlement that are being made by both sides, now represents an opportunity for anything that we can do to facilitate that—I will be interested to hear the Minister’s view—because there are wider strategic issues at stake. Armenia is a former Soviet country. It has a Russian military base and has been seen to be closely allied with Russia. However, partially because of the feeling among people in Armenia that they received no support from Russia when they were under attack, there is a real anger and a wish to break away and move closer to the west. That was something else we heard when we were there; indeed, Prime Minister Pashinyan has been quite courageous in already making clear Armenia’s willingness to leave the Collective Security Treaty Organisation of Russia and its former satellites. His ambition to move Armenia closer to the west is in some ways not dissimilar to the decisions taken in Ukraine 10 years ago when it, too, decided that its destiny lay not with Russia but with the west and the EU. In the same way that we supported Ukraine in its ambition, we should be supporting Armenia in that.

I came back from Armenia in some ways encouraged that that was its clear decision, and that it saw its future lying in closer relations with this country. At the same time, a dangerous situation still pertains between the two neighbours. I think that there are opportunities to help resolve the situation that are perhaps greater than they have been for many years, so if there is anything that we can do, I hope we will work hard to achieve that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. Although this debate’s title is primarily concerned with Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, there is a complex situation in a complex region, with multiple factors at play in some 4,400 square kilometres. Whether we call it annexation or occupation, the refugee crisis results from a struggle that struggles at the moment to gain attention in a world where we are becoming increasingly desensitised to conflict, be it Russia-Ukraine or Israel-Palestine. Yet we talk here of a European near neighbour—a democracy—that has a hostile neighbouring territory in Azerbaijan, with its aggressions and ethnically motivated crimes against Armenians.

The figures are grim, with 10 months of illegal blockading of food, fuel and electricity and the forced displacement of 100,000 people. My interest in the matter comes from my constituents. We have a vibrant and sizeable Armenian community and many members are hyphenated Armenians—Iranian-Armenians, Syrian-Armenians or Turkish-Armenians—underscoring that this is a country that has had pogroms, massacres and genocides for many years.

I was on the delegation in February with other MPs. That visit took in the Prime Minister, the President of the very handsome wood-panelled National Assembly, Opposition and Government people and, in fact, a Minister for Economy who had to resign hours after our visit. However, it was only when we got out of the embassies and the ministries and we got out to Jermuk in the snow-capped hills that the most memorable aspect of the visit took place. We got out of the cosy confines of the capital, Yerevan, and took in the ancient monastery on our route in the mountains, in a sign that that was the cradle of Christendom.

The atrocities we have seen—the destruction of churches and crosses, and the attempt to entirely delete Armenian culture through the renaming of towns and cities—are sickening. As the right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) pointed out, during our visit four soldiers were killed. The most memorable aspect of our visit was the refugees we saw.

Jermuk, which is known as a bottled water brand with a reindeer as its logo, was once a fashionable ski resort and spa town, but it is now 80% deserted because of the decline of that former trade. Instead, it is readjusting to its new existence, accommodating the influx of Nagorno-Karabakh refugees.

We heard harrowing stories of human suffering—really touching stuff about people who fled on foot in the absence of fuel and took days and days to get over the border. We heard about the sadistic actions of the Russian soldiers, with their black market boiling sweets and all sorts of other horrific stuff. We spoke to the mayor and governor of Jermuk. Generations of these people have been beset by trauma, but they have integrated well and are grateful for what the municipality has been doing,

In this country, our voice should be stronger. In this Chamber in 2020, we debated the blockade of the Lachin corridor, but our weak response emboldened those actions. This was totally foreseeable all those years ago.

It has been pointed out that Armenia has an old elite that moved from a velvet revolution, and is turning away from Russian influence—I think it has been called the pivot away from the Kremlin. The transition has not been comfortable. The EU has granted candidate status to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, but Armenia has had no such privilege. It also has no love from Russia, despite the fact that it is still a member of the CSTO.

We vowed to use our voices to raise the plight of the Armenians on our return. We laid flowers at the national genocide memorial—again, the very fact that there is a national genocide memorial is significant. The hyphenated Armenians of Ealing and Acton remind us of how wide the Armenian diaspora is: it is scattered throughout many countries, forced out by continuous persecution, genocide and displacement. Among the 20,000 Armenians in London, we have Ukrainian-Armenian communities. Ealing has long commemorated the Armenian genocide of 1915. We have an apricot tree at Ealing Green, which was upgraded this September to a more permanent memorial, but it has already been vandalised by, it is suspected, the Turkish Grey Wolves group, which protested its inauguration last autumn.

I have called for this Government to recognise 1915 as a genocide. Our closest ally, Biden, has done so, and yet there has been no budging from our Government. This timidity—this vacuum—encourages these actions by Azerbaijan, which has recently had an election whose result was entirely foreseeable, rather like the Russian election this weekend.

Ealing and Acton are richer for having the Navasartian centre in Northfield and the Hayashen centre in Acton, which have both done fundraising for Nagorno-Karabakh refugees, but what are our Government doing? It feels as if, in our post-Brexit world, we are desperate for trade deals. On the role of BP, I would like to ask the Minister how much oil pulls the strings of these relationships. People who did election observation in Baku said that they could smell the oil when they landed; it is all about oil. It is ironic that COP29 will be held in Baku—what an act of greenwashing. Yesterday at the all-party parliamentary group, we heard that the ground was being rendered infertile for flora and fauna by this scorched earth policy.

I pay tribute to my Armenian communities, and I want to press the Government on aid. We know that the 0.7% commitment, which the manifestos we all stood on pledged to maintain, has been cut. Could there be a Homes for Ukraine-type scheme for refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh? We saw the trauma and the need for psychological help for people who have undergone this recent cycle of violence—and it is a cycle of violence. Ultimately, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh want to return to their land, to the places that they have lived in for millennia, even though we see attempts to wipe out territories such as Artsakh from the map.

While the eyes of the world might be elsewhere, we must be consistent in our principles. On Ukraine, we say that self-determination is right and destruction is wrong, so why can we not apply the same principles consistently here?

Shnorhavor. Thank you.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) on securing yet another debate on Armenia and Armenians. We have spoken a lot in this Chamber and in the main Chamber. We have had my private Member’s Bill—the Recognition of Armenian Genocide Bill—and others, and we had a debate on the Lachin corridor blockade at the start of the recent problem. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group for Armenia and as part of a delegation that went to Armenia last Easter at the invitation of the Armenian Government. There is strong interest in the subject, not only among colleagues here today but in the overflowing Public Gallery, for which extra furniture has had to be provided. That does not happen often.

We had an alarming and sobering briefing yesterday from the former human rights ombudsman for Armenia, Dr Tatoyan. He gave us an update on the latest threat facing Armenia, as well as the chronology of what has happened in Nagorno-Karabakh over the past year.

I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Glasgow North West and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) have said, so I will not repeat it, but will highlight the origins of the issue. The recent conflict goes back to 27 September 2020 when Azerbaijan, emboldened by strong military support from Turkey and with equipment provided by Israel, among others, launched an unprovoked and large-scale military invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Over 44 consecutive days, Azerbaijan relentlessly assaulted Nagorno-Karabakh, resulting in the tragic loss of over 400 Armenian lives. Civilian infrastructure, including churches, schools and hospitals, became deliberate targets of Azerbaijan. There was a particular concern, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North West mentioned, about some of the Christian relics and monuments, because Armenia was, of course, the first Christian country. We do not have to go far in Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh to see the history behind that.

The conflict ended in a ceasefire agreement on 9 November 2020 between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, but the trilateral statement was heavily skewed against Armenia. Let us fast-forward to the end of 2022 and the blockade of the Lachin corridor, with bogus eco-protesters supposedly blockading that vital corridor between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Azerbaijan completely ignored all orders under international law and the International Court of Justice to clear the corridor. Instead, Azerbaijani soldiers replaced the protesters.

On 19 September last year Azerbaijan launched a full-scale offensive, piling into Nagorno-Karabakh, mercilessly reoccupying territory and driving Armenians out of the homes that they had been in for generations. They blockaded escape routes out of the territory, as we heard yesterday, and took a number of military and political prisoners—specific individuals.

Despite the Azerbaijani Government’s having assured an amnesty, they took into captivity former Nagorno-Karabakh Presidents Arkady Ghukasyan, Bako Sahakyan and Arayik Harutyunyan. They remain in captivity. Other political prisoners of war include Ruben Vardanyan, Davit Ishkhanyan, Davit Babayan, Davit Manukyan and Levon Mnatsakanyan—Hansard will be relieved to know that I have provided details of those individuals.

What was the result of all that? Frankly, it was full-scale ethnic cleansing. The population of Nagorno-Karabakh used to be 160,000 before the 2020 war. Women, the elderly and sick people were evacuated during the initial bombings, and many never went back after the ceasefire in November 2020. The very sick and some students left Nagorno-Karabakh during the blockade. It is estimated most recently that after the attacks in September 2023, 105,000 Armenians left Nagorno-Karabakh, in a state of chaos, on blocked roads that took hours and days to negotiate.

It has been calculated that Nagorno-Karabakh is almost completely empty of its original population, with just 50 people remaining. Armenian sources report that those people who remained due to age or physical and mental conditions are even unable to use their mobile phones. That huge surge of people into Armenia has had an impact on the population of Armenia, which is not a large country of 2.8 million population. Just over 100,000 represents 3% of that country’s population suddenly appearing on its doorstep.

It is also a country that lacks funds and a long-term plan, so it has been a really difficult set of circumstances to cope with. The Armenian Government have generously given one-off payments of $250 to the refugees, followed by a $185 monthly stipend. The average wage in Armenia is $668 a month. A quarter of the Nagorno-Karabakhans were already living below the official poverty line.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West mentioned that there had been pledges of support from the EU, but there has been a big delay in the disbursement of those funds and funds from other countries. The UK has so far pledged only £1 million, which is a good start but does not reflect the scale of a humanitarian crisis that has gone so under the radar because the world’s attention, as we know, is on what is going in Ukraine and in Israel and Gaza. Those new arrivals from Nagorno-Karabakh include 30,000 children and 18,000 aged over 65. There are many men with limbs missing from war injuries and landmine explosions from the conflict. This is a population in above-average need of help and support.

What has Azerbaijan done? Azerbaijan is trying completely to remodel, rename and reculturalise—if there is such a word—the entire territory. In October last year, Azerbaijan renamed one of the streets in the city of Stepanakert after Enver Pasha, one of the architects of the Armenian genocide. What more hostile, provocative act could there be? In March, just a few days ago, footage was aired on Azerbaijan television of various buildings and monuments in the capital Stepanakert, including its historic parliament building, being demolished for no good reason.

There are more than 4,000 Armenian historical and cultural monuments across Nagorno-Karabakh, among them churches, khachkars, burial grounds, historical cemeteries and bridges. There is a real concern about the future of the culture of Armenians left behind in Nagorno-Karabakh that could not be taken out of the country.

When we were in Jermuk, we saw two khachkars—the posts with crosses—that had been removed from Nagorno-Karabakh. They were in pieces. We were told that there were many thousands that people could not take with them. The ones that we saw were more a thousand years old, and there will be many others left behind. It is real cultural destruction.

It is completely gratuitous, unnecessary cultural destruction. It is all about trying to erase the name, the culture, the history and the heritage of a people who have lived in that territory for many, many generations. After the 2020 invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Government of Azerbaijan blatantly issued a set of postage stamps picturing a man in a hazmat suit, effectively cleaning out Armenians from the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. That is ethnic cleansing, in any shape or form that one might describe it.

We have a number of asks for the Minister today. Notwithstanding our long-standing and important economic links with Azerbaijan, we have humanitarian responsibilities and a long-standing relationship with Armenia, Armenians, and the Armenian diaspora across the world and in the United Kingdom. Will the Government investigate whether ethnic cleansing under the UN definitions has taken place? If so, what are the implications of that? Will the Government press for investigation in respect of both political and military prisoners who are still being held by the Azeris?

What will the Government do to put pressure on the Azerbaijanis to withdraw from the 4,400-square-kilometre territory within sovereign Armenian boundaries that they are still occupying—some 30 or so villages? As we have heard, there is great alarm that they may make further military encroachments deeper into clear, sovereign Armenian territory in the very near future.

There need to be consequences for these abuses of international law. There need to be sanctions. I think the UK has a role to play in any peacekeeping force that could go back in to make Nagorno-Karabakh and the borders of Armenia safe, because this is a very fragile situation. We have a duty of care here. One of the duties of this House is to make the world aware of this ethnic cleansing and this huge humanitarian crisis—it may have been going on beneath the world’s radar while its attention is turned elsewhere, but that makes it no less serious a humanitarian crisis—that is going on as we speak.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Elliott. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing a very important debate and for her clear and excellent speech setting out the plight of the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. The debate is obviously timely, given the return of the IPU delegation to Yerevan—I think all of us have turned up to this debate. Our thanks go to the IPU, to Joe Perry and to our leader there, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale), for organising that visit. It is also timely because of the uncertainty about continuation of the UN aid that the hon. Member for Glasgow North West spoke of earlier.

It was poignant for me to visit two years on from the previous delegation. Then, we were warned many times, in stark terms, that while the eyes of the world were elsewhere, Azerbaijan would take control of Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia would stand by. Members of the APPG—I declare an interest—who were on that visit raised questions and debates and went to see the Minister about that; I remember a particularly feisty speech by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on it. And that was exactly what happened following the nine-month blockade, designed to drive the ethnic Armenian population out in a brutal way, which the European Parliament has described as ethnic cleansing.

That is why now we should heed the warnings from those we met in Yerevan just a few weeks ago, who told us that the risk of escalation is ever present—in fact, four Armenian soldiers were killed during our visit there. I am talking about the encroachment on 30 villages, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to; the incidents on the borders; and the fear that Azerbaijan could use military force to impose the Zangezur transport corridor—supported by Russia—with references to Armenia as “western Azerbaijan”. It is a fragile ceasefire. I hope the Minister today will acknowledge that fear and do all he can, with the levers he has and with the relationship he has with Azerbaijan, to be a friend to Armenia.

The subject of today’s debate is, rightly, the fate of those driven from their homes. Most of them have ended up in Armenia, although some are in Russia and Europe. We talk of 100,000-plus refugees—almost the entire population of Nagorno-Karabakh, as others have said—but we should also remember the 40,000 displaced in the 2020 conflict. One in 30 of Armenia’s population is now from Nagorno-Karabakh; although the Armenian Government have tried to be generous with the payments the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to and with housing, psychological support and employment, it is an enormous number of people to integrate and a long-term plan will be needed for those exposed and facing an uncertain future.

Like other hon. Members, I will never forget those refugees we met in Jermuk. We promised them that we would give them a voice, and we are doing so today. They were subjected to a nine-month blockade, lacking food, medicine, energy and fuel— surrounded and very isolated. We heard of those killed and injured by shrapnel, of those forced to walk the three days to Armenia—as fuel was only sold at inflated prices, if they could get it—and of those who died on that walk. We heard of mothers who boiled sweets to get sugar into their children, and reports of Russian peacekeepers who sold food at inflated prices, exploiting human misery. We also heard of the refugees’ arrival with absolutely nothing but the scars they carried from that blockade—too fearful to ever return home, if ever they could.

We saw on our visit the generosity, led by the mayor and the governor, of the local authorities and communities that are trying to help. However, the magnitude of the problem is beyond what Armenia can cope with. International humanitarian aid has come, but more will be needed; 60 international and local organisations have helped, and Armenia has taken out a loan from the World Bank. The diaspora, including the community in south Wales—I thank them for their efforts—have also helped, but longer-term integration will require more, with housing and employment a priority.

Resolving humanitarian issues must be prioritised alongside diplomatic negotiations. It would therefore be good to hear from the Minister what more the UK Government can do with their international partners to address the plight of the refugees and the scale of the problem right now. We have already talked about the £1 million given in aid and how that should be increased. Could the Minister also explain what he knows about the UNHCR response plan? That plan sets out relief efforts until the end of this month. What happens next?

More generally, could the Minister explain what conversations the Government are having with the Government of Azerbaijan regarding the right to return for those who are displaced? With Armenia freezing its membership of the CSTO and significantly rebalancing its international relations, what practical steps is the UK taking to embrace Armenia’s pivot to the west? I also join other hon. Members in asking the Minister about reports that the Government encouraged businesses to get involved in the rebuilding of Nagorno-Karabakh, exploiting what is a horrific situation.

I know the Minister has visited Armenia twice in recent times. With Armenia reliant on its neighbour for trade, energy and grain, what more can the Government do to build on the strength of those ministerial visits, and on strategic partnerships, to co-operate on energy projects, infrastructure, transport and defence? I also want to raise the issue of acknowledging the genocide in 1915. In Cardiff we have the first memorial to that genocide in the UK, and many of us join members of the Armenian community in their commemorations there.

I also join other hon. Members in raising the destruction of cultural sites and artefacts, particularly the khachkars that we saw when we visited the Catholicos. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North West said, we saw just two; they were absolutely beautiful and ancient, but we were told that there were thousands more that have been destroyed.

There has been a very good turnout for this debate, not least in the very busy Public Gallery. Will the Minister please recognise that, and acknowledge that we in this Parliament care about the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, that we care about Armenia, and that we want our Government to actively help to strengthen our relationship with, and be a friend to, Armenia. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) said so well earlier, our voice in this place should be stronger.

Order. I call David Duguid, but I ask him to bear in mind that we have nine and half minutes left for Back Benchers.

I will bear that in mind, Ms Elliott. I will start by drawing the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Member’s Financial Interests, which includes my role as an officer in the all-party parliamentary group for Azerbaijan. My wife is from Azerbaijan, and I wish all my family and friends there who might be watching this debate a very happy Nowruz for tomorrow.

The history of the Karabakh region is a long and complicated one, as other hon. and right hon. Members have already said. It predates the formation of the Soviet Union, but for most observers and commentators—and for the purposes of today’s debate—the history since the fall of the Soviet Union is most relevant. However, the stated history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including that stated in today’s debate, does not always go right back to the start of recent hostilities that predated the fall of the Soviet Union. Separatist demonstrations, confrontations and skirmishes, as well as failed interventions by the Soviet leadership, took place at various times between 1988 and 1991. During that time, Azerbaijanis living in Armenia were also forced to flee from that country.

The conflict escalated into all-out war after Armenia and Azerbaijan attained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Often, when the history of this period is presented, it only goes back to when Armenian-backed forces were already in full occupation of the region, even though it was internationally recognised as the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. However, what is not often reported—it has not been mentioned by hon. Members today, at least not yet—is that as a result of the occupation of Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region, over 800,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis from that region also became displaced.

Jumping ahead, in 1994 a ceasefire was reached through Russian mediation, but skirmishes continued along what became known as the line of contact. During that time of ceasefire, there were a number of international resolutions. In January 2005, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe condemned ethnic cleansing against Azerbaijanis. In May 2007, the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation adopted a resolution considering the occupation of Azerbaijani territory as the aggression of Armenia against Azerbaijan, recognising the actions against Azerbaijani civilians as a crime against humanity and condemning the destruction of archaeological, cultural and religious monuments in the occupied territories.

In March 2008, an OIC resolution further condemned the occupation of Azerbaijani lands by Armenian forces and Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan, ethnic cleansing against the Azeri population, etc. Also in March 2008, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 62/243, which demanded the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Finally—although this is not by any means an exhaustive list of the resolutions that were made—in May 2010, the European Parliament in Strasbourg adopted the resolution that the occupied Azerbaijani regions around Nagorno-Karabakh must be cleared as soon as possible.

In September 2020, a new war erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories, in response to which the United Nations called on both sides to de-escalate tensions and resume meaningful negotiations. That war ended in November 2020, when a trilateral ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia was signed, according to which Azerbaijan regained all of the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as well as one third of Nagorno-Karabakh proper, including Shusha and Hadrut.

Unfortunately, an identifying feature of this conflict has been the extensive use of landmines throughout the area, particularly along the contact line, as well as in the form of booby traps that were left behind by departing Armenian occupying forces. According to the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action, as a result of a survey that is still ongoing, it was initially estimated that over 1 million hectares of land in that area could be contaminated by approximately 1.5 million landmines.

From 1991 until the ceasefire in 2020, over 3,000 people —I think it was almost 3,500 people—were injured or killed by landmines in this area. However, even since that ceasefire in 2020, a further 346 people have been added to that number, as of 5 March this year. With landmine contamination accounting for some 12% of Azerbaijan territories, coupled with reports that Armenia was failing to provide reliable maps, the threats emanating from the mines will continue to disrupt the life and economic wellbeing of Azerbaijani displaced persons for decades to come.

I welcome the assistance that the United Kingdom Government have given up to now, not just to the specific mine-clearing efforts in Azerbaijan but towards the learning of valuable lessons during that operation, which will no doubt prove invaluable in other areas of conflict where landmines are being used.

Others have discussed the events of 2022 to 2023, which culminated in the return of occupied territories to Azerbaijan. At that time, there was an exodus of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians from the area, mostly to Armenia itself, which is the core subject of this debate. There is no doubt that the conflict itself and the return of occupied territories to Azerbaijan must have been distressing and destabilising for the people living in Karabakh. In some way, the desire to flee may be understandable, particularly given some of the propaganda and fearmongering that might have taken place with regard to the intentions of the Azerbaijani authorities. However, Azerbaijan refutes any accusation of ethnic Armenians being forcibly removed.

Various UN missions, including experts from UNICEF, the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, visited the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan twice in October 2023 and did not come across any reports of mistreatment with respect to ethnic Armenians or civilian infrastructure, including cultural objects.

Similarly, the UNHCR and the Red Cross, present on the ground throughout, have not—

I apologise—I misheard. I will skip ahead to my conclusions, in that case.

Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly and unambiguously confirmed their commitment to create conditions for Armenians to stay and reintegrate and to ensure the right to return for those Armenians who can apply for Azerbaijani citizenship. Their return should of course be respectful of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. As Azerbaijan sees it, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is over. With the exception of a few local incidents, the past five months have been the calmest period in the history of the former conflict going back to the late 1980s.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have never been this close to peace since they were neighbouring Soviet republics. I will not repeat the full extent of what has been done, but, as part of the confidence-building measures, Armenia supported Azerbaijan’s bid to host COP29, while Azerbaijan supports Armenia’s candidacy for COP Bureau membership. Both sides have been working continuously on the draft peace agreement throughout the past five months.

As I mentioned earlier, Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign Ministers have met, as have their countries’ respective leaders. All those meetings have appeared to be positive and constructive, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments on how he and the UK Government view the progression of those talks. As Azerbaijan and Armenia engage in direct negotiations to reach sustainable peace, it is important that the progress of those negotiations, and therefore the future of the whole region, is not undermined by domestic or international political interference.

I commend the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for setting the scene well. She spoke about the 100,000 refugees. Let us focus on what the debate is about: the refugees and the fact that they have been abused. They have been attacked, had their property stolen and had health and education issues. Their whole way of life has changed because of the aggression of Azerbaijan. We should be clear about what has happened and be under no illusions. I remember a former Member in this House, Stephen Pound, was a friend of Armenia, and he told me many times about stories that related to that. There is absolutely no doubt that Russia’s aggression towards Armenia has had a detrimental effect on good people, who have been abused as a result.

As my party’s health spokesperson, I want to speak about human rights. The relationship between human rights abuses suffered by minorities and refugee flows and internal displacement has been demonstrated time and again. The link between minorities and refugees was recognised in a resolution of the Commission on Human Rights in 2001 concerning persons belonging to national, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities.

With your agreement, Ms Elliott, I will speak quickly about the issue of religious belief and ethnic minorities, because that is what I do in this House as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief. I do not know any of the people in the Public Gallery, by the way, but I am sure that some of those people have been disenfranchised for being ethnic minorities or for their religious beliefs. Religious minorities as refugees face greater chances of human rights abuses and discrimination across the whole world. Human rights and freedom of religious belief march hand in hand; if one is taken away so is the other, and that is how it works.

As the conflict continues, the religious rights and actions for and against religious minority refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh must be addressed. I hope that when the Minister sums up, he will take on board that issue. I know that the two shadow spokespeople, the hon. Members for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), will do so. In addition to refugee rights in FORB, the UK must maintain relations and monitoring of the rights of freedom of religion or belief within Armenia during this conflict, because they have lost so much.

I will give an example. I am aware that on 7 February Yerevan’s criminal court of appeal rejected an appeal by 20-year-old Baptist conscientious objector Davit Nazaretyan against a two-year jail term imposed in October 2023 for refusing military service. I am a Baptist as well, and I understand this issue for Baptist religious groups and other groups as well. Nazaretyan’s applications for alternative civilian service were repeatedly denied. He is considering a further appeal and will not be required to go to jail until any further appeal is heard. The last known jailed conscientious objector was freed in 2021.

This will be my last comment. I give you my word, Ms Elliott; I certainly will not take eight minutes to put over my point of view. Freedom House reports:

“Article 18 of the constitution recognises the Armenian Apostolic Church as a ‘national church’ responsible for the preservation of Armenian national identity; 94 percent of the population identifies as Armenian Apostolic. Members of religious minority groups have reported some discrimination in the past.

In 2020, the National Security Service opened an investigation into Yazidi activist Sashik Sultanyan after he publicly stated that Yazidis experience discrimination in Armenia; international human rights NGOs criticized the investigation as retaliatory and unlawful. The case was apparently ongoing in 2023.”

In conclusion, as someone who takes a deep interest in human rights issues and freedom of religion and belief, on behalf of all the people in the Gallery and the 100,000 who have been disenfranchised and discriminated against, I think it is time to stand up for those people and do the best we can.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing this debate, which is long overdue. It is over a year since we debated the closure of the Lachin corridor and the impact of Azerbaijan’s aggressive actions towards the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh.

In January 2023, the majority of those who spoke recognised the dire humanitarian situation emerging in the region. We understood the tactics being employed by Azerbaijan and we warned that without a sufficient response from the international community, there would be full-scale ethnic cleansing, which is exactly what has happened. As I mentioned at the time, the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, made his desired outcome of the blockade clear when he said:

“Whoever doesn’t want to become our citizens can leave, the road is open. They can go by the cars of the Russian peacekeepers, by buses, no one will impede them.”

What a welcome that is. He wanted to force the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to leave their ancestral homeland.

Nine months after that debate, we saw those words put into action after Azerbaijan violated the 2020 ceasefire agreement by launching a full-scale military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh on 19 September. More than 100,000 Armenians—almost all the region’s ethnic Armenian population—fled in fear of persecution, in addition to the 40,000 who had already fled in 2020. The Lachin corridor, which has been blockaded for so long, became the only escape route for those people fleeing on foot, by car or truck, by carriage or tractor—by any means necessary. They left behind their homes and belongings, their churches and cemeteries, and their businesses and schools. They were forcibly displaced from their land and became refugees.

A group of more than a dozen non-governmental organisations, including Genocide Watch, have issued a warning that all the conditions for ethnic cleansing are now in place. What assessment have the UK Government made of that claim, and will the Minister commit to supporting an independent fact-finding mission to establish what has occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh, and to support and promote justice for the victims in the coming months? Furthermore, what conversations is he having with Azerbaijani colleagues regarding the right of return for those who fled Nagorno-Karabakh, and what guarantees for the safety of those displaced would Azerbaijan be willing to provide, in line with the International Court of Justice order?

Armenia now faces an extensive refugee crisis. Within an estimated population of 3 million, one in 30 people in Armenia is now a refugee. Most of the refugee population arrived in Armenia suffering from the acute effects of the blockade, with medical workers reporting a high number of cases of malnourishment, dehydration and a lack of access to prescriptions. Armenia has been generous in providing resources to host refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, but the aid has been straining the state budget, and it is not clear how long the Armenian Government can sustain the payments. It is a huge burden for a country of some 3 million people, a quarter of whom already live below the official poverty line.

In October last year, the UNHCR estimated that the Armenian Government would need $97 million to cover refugees’ essential needs through the end of March. The Armenian Government have sought international aid, but the amounts received have been insufficient. France, the EU and the US have led the way in providing support. France has given €27.5 million in financial support, alongside the delivery of humanitarian aid containing 5 tonnes of medical equipment for the treatment of severely injured persons who have been forcibly displaced. The EU has given €17 million, while the US has provided $11.5 million to address healthcare and other emergency needs.

The UK, meanwhile, has offered only £1 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross to meet humanitarian needs. That is a welcome start, but it is not enough. More aid is needed to immediately tackle the ongoing refugee crisis caused by the mass displacement, so will the Minister commit today to providing more financial assistance?

Although aid is much needed, it addresses only the symptoms and not the cause of the crisis. Support and protection are required not just for Armenian refugees, but for Armenian human rights and, ultimately, Armenian sovereignty. Atrocities do not begin when the first family is expelled from their home, or when the first village is razed to the ground. Wars do not begin when the first shot or missile is fired, or when the first troops and tanks cross the border. More often than not, they begin with words. They begin with othering and dehumanising a group of people. They begin by rewriting history, as we heard from the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid). They begin by laying claim to other people’s territory.

Let us hear some of the words of the President of Azerbaijan in recent years. Early last decade, he tweeted:

“Armenia as a country is of no value. It is actually a colony, an outpost run from abroad, a territory artificially created on ancient Azerbaijani lands.”

In October 2020, during the war, he made a public address in Azerbaijan in which he said, regarding the progress of the war:

“We are driving them away like dogs!”

A couple of years ago, he encouraged the Azerbaijani media to refer to Armenian settlements by Azerbaijani names, and has encouraged the use of the term “western Azerbaijan” instead of Armenia. All of that is historically incorrect and is hate speech. Those words are being put into practice.

In the Nakhchivan exclave of Azerbaijan, all Armenian cultural heritage has been destroyed, most notably the cemetery of Julfa, where thousands of centuries-old monuments were destroyed to make way for a military shooting ground—shocking, is it not? From the Google Earth satellite’s view of the site, an Azerbaijani slogan has been carved on a hillside where the cemetery used to reside, saying, “Everything is for the homeland”. Will Armenian culture and heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh suffer the same fate? More than 4,000 Armenian historical and cultural monuments are under the threat of total destruction. Can the Minister assure me of the steps that the UK Government are taking to preserve that cultural heritage?

Shamefully, the UK Government have also been caught encouraging UK businesses to participate in Aliyev’s plans for Nagorno-Karabakh. One senior UK Government official encouraged business leaders to take advantage of the financial opportunities. He said that a

“huge western chunk of the country…needs to be rebuilt from the ground up”.

Therefore, why are the UK Government not willing to condemn Azerbaijan’s actions towards Armenia, but are instead willing to be complicit and participate in those actions? When the first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court issued an expert opinion explaining that Azerbaijan’s impeding of food, medical supplies and other essentials in Nagorno-Karabakh represented

“the archetype of genocide through the imposition of conditions of life designed to bring about a group’s destruction”?,

and when the ICJ considered it “plausible” that the Lachin corridor blockade produced a real and imminent risk to the health and life of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, why did the UK not take provisions to prevent this?

The renewed conflict demonstrates the failure of years of diplomatic efforts to prevent the persecution of ethnic Armenians. The lack of any condemnation, sanctions for wrongdoing and action to ensure a sustainable peace will only be taken as the green light for further acts of aggression. Indeed, in Syunik province, illegal incursions have been made on Armenian sovereign territories, with the establishment of armed outposts blocking roads, denying access to fields, places of work and places of worship, and intimidating and threatening civilians.

Azerbaijan continues to make territorial demands on Armenia and has ambitions to create the Zangezur corridor connecting Azerbaijan with its Nakhchivan exclave and to Turkey, cutting off Armenia’s southern border with Iran. Any land grab from Azerbaijan is illegal under international law, and the UK has a duty to take a stand on that. Will the Minister make it crystal clear today that this is unacceptable? These are the next steps in creating what President Aliyev calls “western Azerbaijan”, and it is, quite simply, akin to the Putin playbook in Ukraine being repeated by Aliyev in Armenia. We cannot, and must not, embolden this behaviour.

Throughout the world, the rules-based system is under threat by the actions of leaders who believe they can act with impunity. The flouting of international law is becoming more commonplace, and it is getting closer and closer to home. Whether it is Russia, Israel or Azerbaijan, the UK cannot pick and choose when human rights protections and international law apply depending on who it is allies with. If the UK is to play a credible role in the world, it must be consistent, and in this instance, it must support the rights of Armenian refugees and the Armenian people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Elliott. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing this crucial debate. We have heard typically powerful speeches from across the House, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), the right hon. Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

With such an unsettled global landscape, we must be absolutely clear not to lose sight of enduring geopolitical hotspots with the potential to lead to further human suffering and risk the escalation of wider tensions. Tensions in the Caucasus are a key example of that, and I am pleased that we are able to debate that today.

The situation in the region remains very serious. I remain in regular contact with both the Armenian and Azerbaijani ambassadors to the UK, and I have met the Foreign Ministers of both Azerbaijan and Armenia in recent times. We all want to see peace and stability in the region. Any return to the full-scale conflict of recent years would be an absolute disaster for the region and for all peoples. It is fair to say, as we have heard today, that this has been a profoundly challenging year for the people in the region and more broadly.

Last September, Azerbaijan launched a military incursion into Nagorno-Karabakh, which, at the time, was home to an ethnic Armenian population of 120,000 people. That was preceded by the nine-month blockade of the Lachin corridor, leading to shortages of food, fuel, medicines and basic provisions, which completely undid the social fabric of the enclave and led the UN to declare a humanitarian emergency in August 2023. I have raised that issue regularly with the Minister, publicly and in debates in the House.

We saw gas supplies cut off and electricity and communications damaged; I know that that was a concern to Members across the House. Nagorno-Karabakh became unreachable to the world and the implications of that period of such unimaginable insecurity and uncertainty continue, understandably, to reverberate throughout the population, now displaced, with lives altered irrevocably. No people should have to live in such conditions.

Last September, Nagorno-Karabakh came under direct Azeri control, and the ethnic Armenian population has now had to flee into Armenia. Although the ICJ issued provisional measures in November 2023, ordering Azerbaijan to allow ethnic Armenians to return

“in a safe, unimpeded and expeditious manner”,

they remain in Armenia.

I am pleased that efforts have since been made by both countries and by global interlocutors, include the EU, the United States and ourselves, to find peace and normalise relations. The situation remains very precarious. Any further deterioration would only compound the suffering experienced by the people, especially the refugees located around Yerevan and Syunik.

From reports in recent days, peace seems closer than ever, publicly at least, but we have to remain cognisant that, given the recent history, we will have to go much further to bring tensions down and to ensure that the territorial integrity of both Armenia and Azerbaijan is maintained. We have heard powerful testimony from colleagues who went on the recent IPU visit, and we must remember that there is always a tragic human face to conflicts such as these.

As Action Against Hunger highlights, Armenia now faces an extensive refugee crisis. One in 30 people in the country is a refugee. More than half of those refugees are women and girls, nearly one third are children, and nearly one fifth are elderly. Their whole lives have been uprooted.

There is a mental health crisis, too. Nearly 22,500 of those refugees are estimated to be living with a mental health condition. Clearly, it is beyond the capacity of any one Government to manage this crisis. Despite the many global crises we face, which we debate regularly in this place, including in the main Chamber, we cannot allow the Armenian refugees to endure the challenges of 2024 without adequate support and without a clear means of beginning to rebuild the lives that they lost in September last year.

I have a number of questions to the Minister, and I hope he will be able to provide some clarity. First, will the UK Government continue to play a constructive and substantial role in brokering lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan? What recent discussions has he had with counterparts from both countries and other interlocutors? What were the outcomes of those discussions?

What discussions has he had with French and American officials, particularly about dealing with the impact on individuals who have been displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh? How can we work together to provide critical support to those refugees? We simply cannot return to the violence of 2020, when more than 6,500 people lost their lives and civilians had to live under the perpetual threat of conflict and violence. We need to work, of course, with European and regional partners to secure a return to dialogue more broadly and a peaceful settlement.

I hope that the Minister can provide some further clarity on the funding issues that colleagues have raised. In September last year, he and the Government announced £1 million for the ICRC to support its humanitarian response for those refugees. The FCDO said in February this year that it continues to liaise with the UN, ICRC and other NGOs to assess humanitarian needs in the region.

What have the results of those assessments been? What has that money been spent on? Indeed, has it all been spent? Is it the view that the £1 million payment is sufficient? In comparison, France announced in December that it was taking its total contribution to emergency appeals to €27.5 million. The EU has provided €17.5 million in humanitarian aid to assist those displaced in Armenia. I hope the Minister can provide clarity on the sufficiency and the assessments that have been made of our support.

An important issue was raised around the protection of cultural and religious heritage, not only in Nagorno-Karabakh but more broadly. What assessments of that has the Minister made? what discussions has he had with the Azeri authorities and with UNESCO and other bodies? The issue is of critical importance, and reference has been made to Armenia’s critical role, particularly in the history of Christianity.

Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider region may seem remote to many, but I am afraid that it contains men, women and children who have been successively let down for years, and they need and deserve our focus and support. Will the Minister say a little about alleged extrajudicial killings, torture and abuse of prisoners of war? What assessment has he made of the individuals who are still held in prisons? Has he discussed the issue with his counterparts in Azerbaijan and elsewhere?

Will the Minister set out a wider strategy for the Caucasus, spanning diplomacy, aid and trade, and, crucially, atrocity prevention, humanitarian support and the upholding of human rights? Also, what assessment has he made of UK corporations in the region? That is an important point. We have a significant presence, and with that come particular responsibilities in relation to ethical practices.

We are clear, and I think there will be unity in the House on this, that Russia should have no place in the region’s future and that it would actively seek—indeed, it is actively seeking—to impede progress towards peace, security and good governance. The last few years have demonstrated that Putin’s vision for the region is for one that is less secure, less cohesive and weakened so that it remains in Russia’s sphere of influence. What assessment has the Minister made of Russia’s engagement in the region, and what steps are being taken in concert with our partners to counter Russia’s malign influence?

I note that Armenia has frozen its membership of the CSTO and is apparently considering leaving. What is the UK Government’s view on that? Also, how can we support all countries in the region, and indeed across Europe, that are seeking to extricate themselves from Russia’s malign influence? Finally, what is the official UK Government position on the right to return for ethnic Armenians removed from Nagorno-Karabakh? I referred earlier to the ICJ provisional judgments. I hope he can provide a clear answer on that issue.

The people of Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be forgotten. They are the human face—the huge human face—to this tragedy. The impact on individual lives, which many hon. Members here have heard about directly, has been immense. I hope the Government will continue to support those people in their plight, as well as working to bring about a lasting and enduring peace in this troubled region. The view of the official Opposition is that the UK has a critical role to play in the Caucasus, and I hope the Government can demonstrate that they are ready to meet the challenges.

I am pleased to be here to answer this important debate, Ms Elliott. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing it and for highlighting, through reference to her recent experience of travelling in the region, the acute challenges facing those affected by September’s military action in Nagorno-Karabakh. I appreciate her sharing her impressions of her time there.

I am grateful for the contributions of all other hon. Members, and I shall seek to cover off the questions and points raised during this afternoon’s powerful and compelling speeches. I will begin by reflecting on the humanitarian situation, before turning to the topic of peace efforts. As colleagues have concluded this afternoon, lasting peace is at the heart of any long-term solution and any improvement in the lives and livelihoods of people in the region.

As hon. Members have eloquently set out, relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan are deeply complex. The plight of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh is the most recent chapter in a 35-year conflict in which hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides have been displaced from their homes. As we have heard this afternoon, Azerbaijan carried out a military operation last September that restored its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, nearly the entire ethnic Armenian population of around 100,000 people fled to Armenia, where they faced acute humanitarian challenges.

Although the UK fully recognises Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, we are also clear that the use of force is not an acceptable means of resolving tensions between communities. As we have heard this afternoon, that military operation followed a nine-month restriction of the Lachin corridor—the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia—which resulted in a dire humanitarian situation, including shortages of food, fuel, medicine and other basic supplies. The UK made it very clear bilaterally, as well as in the OSCE and at the United Nations, restricting access to the Lachin corridor and other supply routes was unacceptable, and we publicly called for access to be restored.

Dwelling on UK action as part of the humanitarian response, we continued to work alongside international partners in both countries to support humanitarian responses to the situation. Last September, as has been discussed this afternoon, we announced £1 million for the Red Cross’s movement of life-saving medication, healthcare and other essential support for the most vulnerable people affected by the conflict. I have heard the calls this afternoon for an increased financial contribution, and I can say that we will of course continue to keep these issues under review. We should also bear in mind that we have contributed £1 million to regional de-mining since 2021. I have noted the views of colleagues this afternoon, and we will also keep that issue under review.

We provided further medical assistance to survivors in Armenia in partnership with the UK medical education database, including medical supplies given to the National Centre for Burns and Dermatology. We are committed to supporting Armenia as it provides for the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, and we will continue to work with international partners and the Armenian Government to strengthen their capacity to support the refugees and the communities hosting them. We are also determined to support Azerbaijan to make safe its recovered territories for the return of its own displaced population, as well to ensure the integration of ethnic Armenians who wish to return. As I have mentioned, we have contributed £1.5 million to mine action in the region, which continues to have a very important, lifesaving effect.

I turn to the peace process. I intend during my peroration to answer all the questions posed. It is clear that the peoples of both Armenia and Azerbaijan have suffered greatly during this long-running conflict. That is why the UK Government have been a leading voice in urging peace and engaging extensively with both Governments. I thought my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) summed up the current feeling when he said that there is a realistic recognition of the current situation and a quiet positivity about the possibility of peace, and I concur with that sentiment.

The UK stands by to be a partner for peace, and we will continue to engage energetically in diplomacy and to offer our ability to convene and encourage. In a nutshell, our role is to try to enable those two countries successfully to come together, settle and conclude a lasting peace.

Would the Minister be able to address the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) regarding Russian influence? We hear of Russian peacekeepers, but is that not a contradiction in terms? Should there not be international border forces?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: it is a contradiction in terms to refer to Russian peacekeepers. They are nothing of the sort, and we see the Russian role across the region as nothing but extremely unhelpful meddling; I may dwell on that at the end of my remarks. To answer the question posed by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) about our approach in the context of Russia’s historical role in the region, it is clear that practical experience has revealed Russia to be an unhelpful and unreliable ally.

It is clearly incumbent on countries such as ours—I say this conscious that His Excellency the Ambassador is in the Public Gallery, and I am very glad to see him there—to offer the hand of friendship and partnership to Armenia. I am very pleased that during my last visit we undertook the first stage of the strategic dialogue that now exists between our two countries. It represents a thickening and deepening of an increasingly meaningful bilateral relationship that is good for both sides and for the region.

On the peace process, in calls with the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan last September, I urged both sides to return to dialogue and ensure unfettered humanitarian access to the vulnerable people and communities affected by events in Nagorno-Karabakh. The then Foreign Secretary reiterated that message last October when he spoke to various Foreign Ministers. As I mentioned, I visited Yerevan and Baku last November, where I met the leaders and Foreign Ministers of both countries, and I urged them to engage meaningfully in internationally mediated negotiations to reach an agreement and secure a lasting peace for the region. I was delighted that President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan met in Munich last month at the security conference, and that their Foreign Ministers quickly followed up with a meeting in Berlin at the end of February. We continue to engage energetically on the diplomatic front.

I am encouraged by both sides’ openness to continuing their discussions and to recognising and welcoming the offers of international support. We, in concert with our allies in Europe and across the Atlantic, continue to stand ready to support them at every step of their journey towards peace. I again refer to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon: there is a realistic recognition of the opportunity that lies ahead for both leaders to achieve a meaningful and sustainable peace, and we should be quietly optimistic about that. We will continue to offer support through our diplomacy as they do that important work in a bilateral context, which is something we should be quietly encouraged by.

The UK will be hosting the European Political Community summit. Does the Minister see that as another key opportunity for the UK to play a role in finding peace?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are pleased that we will be hosting the EPC in July; it is a very useful convening moment and a good opportunity for leaders from the Caucasus to come together, in concert with other European leaders, to progress peace.

Let me turn to some of the other questions that were asked. On the preservation of religious sites, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are responsible for ensuring that the cultural heritage of all the peoples of the region is protected and preserved for the benefit of all. We take very seriously reports of the destruction of religious and cultural sites, and we support the work of international organisations undertaking observation missions to evaluate those. I am grateful that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the important issue of freedom of religion, and I entirely agree with the sentiment he expressed.

Several hon. Members asked about prisoners of war and war crimes. We continue to encourage the return of all prisoners of war and the remains of the deceased from the conflicts. We were pleased that Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to the release of 34 prisoners in December last year. We continue to call for—

To conclude, therefore, I reiterate that we stand by those affected by this conflict. We will continue to offer humanitarian support, and we will energetically offer our diplomatic support. We hope that, after many turbulent years, there is a real, meaningful and sustainable chance for peace in the south Caucasus.

I pay tribute to the Government and people of Armenia, who have ensured that the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh have been given the food, shelter and support they require. I thank all those who joined us this afternoon in the Public Gallery, including His Excellency the Ambassador. Finally, I thank all Members who have participated in this really important debate. It is important that we shine a light on the troubled area of Nagorno-Karabakh and ensure that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh who are currently in Armenia are not forgotten.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered international support for Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh.

Baby Loss: Coroners

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

I beg to move,

That this House has considered baby loss and the role of coroners.

I am afraid you have a double dose of me this afternoon, Ms Elliott. That is obviously far too much for the people in the Public Gallery, who have made a surge for the exits.

This short debate will be focused on my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, which has been going for quite a while now and remains unfulfilled in one part; that is the purpose of the debate. My Act started in the private Members’ Bill ballot in autumn 2017. It had its Second Reading on 2 February 2018. It passed all its parliamentary stages in February 2019 and passed into law in May 2019, almost five years ago. There were four parts to this historically quite ambitious and complicated private Member’s Bill.

The first part was that the names and details of mothers should appear on marriage certificates, now an electronic record. That came into being in May 2021, since when I have received many grateful thanks from mothers or the husbands of late mothers whose names could be now recorded on marriage records.

The second part was the extension of civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, which came in on 31 December 2019 and became regulation on the last day of Parliament before the election in 2019. Since then, more than 25,000 happy couples have availed themselves of that facility.

The third part was for the Secretary of State to produce a report on the registration of pregnancy loss. A pregnancy loss committee was set up, and I sat on it. Within the last couple of weeks, baby loss certificates have become a thing and again have gone down very well.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the four provisions that he brought forward, particularly the pregnancy loss one. It is something that probably all of us have to come to terms with in our family, and it is difficult. It is always a difficult topic to discuss, but the hon. Gentleman is right to bring it forward. As families, we can all feel for those who have lost babies during pregnancy. We feel for our partners, our wives, our mothers, our sisters, and all those who have lost as well. I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this forward.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who takes a great interest in these matters. This legislation, of which I am very proud, is designed to make a very painful situation for many parents who have lost babies that much more bearable, in so far as is possible.

I hope that there are parents who have benefited from that part of the Act, but there are still parents waiting to benefit, because the fourth part has yet to become a reality. That was the section of my Act that made a one-line amendment to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 empowering coroners, if they see fit, to investigate stillbirths in certain cases. It also requires the Secretary of State to prepare reports, and yet we have not got a report. All we have is a factual account of the consultation, which opened on 26 March 2019 and closed on 18 June 2019. Its results were reported, after years of nagging from me, on 6 December 2023, barely three months ago. It took four and a half years for the Government to publish the results of that consultation, which is quite extraordinary.

I was given excuses all the way through. I have had meetings with Ministers, but part of the problem is that this is a joint responsibility between the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health and Social Care. I feel sorry for my hon. Friend the Minister. He is not the normal Minister, but I know he will give me helpful information at the end of this debate. The measure had overwhelming support in reports from the Justice Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, the latter when it was chaired by the now Chancellor, who was very supportive. So why is it taking so long? We were given excuses by the Health Minister—it was delayed because of coronavirus and then delayed because of changes of Ministers. All that has happened. But we have had some consistency among Ministers and we are well past covid, thank goodness. Why is it a problem that still needs to be addressed and why on earth has it taken so long?

It is a problem because, every day, 13 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth. The Government have done much to increase safety in maternity departments, but it is still a problem. We still have a relatively high rate of stillbirths compared with other European countries. Even though it has come down by 19.3% since 2010, it remains a big problem and a source of great grief among parents, who go through the trauma of having carried a child, in some cases to term, only for that child to be born dead.

I will briefly revisit the reasons why this part of my Bill was necessary. In my speech back in those heady days when it was first proposed in 2018—I was very hopeful at that stage—I said then that I knew that, with my last measure in the Bill, we were pushing at an open door, as the Health Secretary had signalled his support for it at the Dispatch Box during a statement on stillbirths. I said that there appeared to be an anomaly in the law where coroners in England have the power to investigate any unexplained death of any human unless it is a stillbirth. That is because a baby who dies during delivery is not legally considered to have lived; if a baby has not lived, it has not died, and coroners can investigate deaths only where there is a body of a deceased person.

However, one in three stillbirths are of healthy babies who die at term. In some cases deaths occur because of mismanaged deliveries—there have been a number of high-profile cases involving clusters of such deaths well above the national average. That is why I was urged by my own coroner, Penny Schofield in West Sussex, the Coroners’ Society and coroners around the country, as well as many birth-oriented charities, to bring in the measure.

Those reasons have, if anything, got even stronger because we have had a series of scandals in maternity departments over the last few years. We had the Ockenden inquiry into maternity care in Nottingham, where 1,266 families contacted the review teams directly to express concerns about the deaths of their children. Then we had the scandal around the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, where the deaths of more than 200 babies and nine mothers were investigated. There was the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust review, and some years ago there was the Morecambe Bay review of the unnecessary deaths of 11 babies and one mother. And only this week, we had the report in the press that one in seven maternity units has closed in the past decade, sparking warnings of a mounting crisis in healthcare for women, along with estimates of a shortage of midwives across England. Consequently, this issue is as live as ever, and it is as important as ever to get it right. What we absolutely need is trusted, independent scrutiny of why certain stillbirths have happened.

If I look at what the Government produced in their response—well, no, they have not produced their response; I will correct myself. If I look at what the Government produced in their factual report in publishing the results of the consultation back in December, I see that the ministerial foreword says that

“we are working to improve the information available to families regarding the investigative processes that may take place following a stillbirth.”

Hear, hear! It continues:

“It is essential that we get this right, given the emotional impact that losing a baby has on parents and others involved.”

That is absolutely right. However, it also says:

“Respondents both supported and were against proposals that coroners should have a role in stillbirth investigations”,

which ignores the fact that respondents overwhelmingly supported the proposals, and I will cite the figures that prove that.

The Government gave a factual summary of the consultation and promised further information and Government action later, with no timescale, which is the issue that I would really like the Minister to address. In addition, however, the way that the report was skewed meant that it dwelt too much on reasons why a change in the law was not necessary. Excuses were given, such as that

“the mandatory nature of the investigations could be distressing and intrusive”.

We are only looking to give the coroner the power to pick up a small number of cases—not every stillbirth that happens, but those where there are serious questions to be asked. Another reason was about

“the loss of parental control over whether a post-mortem examination would take place.”

It is important that the coroner makes the final decision on whether to investigate, because there are suspicions about some stillbirths—mostly those caused by the domestic violence of a partner, who effectively wants to hush things up.

Other reasons cited were the “potential for duplication” and the “impact on resources” for coroners and local authorities. This should not be a cost-based measure. Another reason was

“that there would be a significant increase in demand on paediatric pathology”,

but again, no figures are given for how many stillbirths would actually be investigated. We are talking here about dozens and not hundreds or thousands. Finally, there are extraordinary excuses, such as:

“Coroners are not best placed to identify and disseminate clinical learning”.

Well, they investigate an awful lot of adult deaths and are able to identify and disseminate clinical learning in relation to those cases; why should the same not be true of baby deaths? The Government seem to be talking down the ability and efficacy of coroners, which is slightly worrying.

Back in 2017, after I had published my Bill, the Government announced their intention to consider whether and how coroners could carry out stillbirth investigations at 37 weeks’ gestation and over. I agree with that; I think it should apply to full term stillbirths. Then, the Government produced their consultation. I will skip ahead to the results of that consultation, in particular some quotes that were supportive of coroners being involved. A bereaved family member said:

“I feel it is important for parents to feel completely confident that the investigation is run by someone completely unbiased and impartial, especially when there is concern there may have been substandard care.”

I agree, and in anybody’s judgment that person is the coroner. The Government gave the excuse in their report that

“coroners were not best placed to make these determinations and would need to rely on medical professionals”,

But why would that be any different from a coroner’s role in investigating adult deaths over which there are question marks?

I have to say that the result of this consultation was pretty definitive. I will get to the actual figures. The number of people who responded to the consultation was 322. Of those people, 244, or 75.8%, replied in the affirmative to the question:

“Do you think coroners should have a role in investigating stillbirths?”

By a factor of three to one, people think that coroners being involved would be a good measure.

In answer to the question,

“Do you agree with the proposal about ascertaining how it was that the baby was not born alive?”,

86.7% of respondents said that coroners have a role to play and that there were questions that need to be asked.

In answer to the question,

“Do you agree that, as part of the findings, coroners should identify learning points and issue recommendations to the persons and bodies they consider relevant?”,

85.8% of people responded yes.

The fourth question that I would like to highlight is:

“Do you agree that no consent or permission from the bereaved parents, or anyone else, should be required for coronial investigation?”

That is a more contentious issue but, still, 63.9%—almost two thirds—said that they should be mandatory, even if the parents did not agree. That is important for the reasons I have just given.

The final consultation question that I want to flag up is:

“Do you agree with the proposal to investigate only term and full-term stillbirths?”

The response was 70.6% no. People were saying that the scope of coroners to investigate stillbirths should be even wider and begin earlier than being proposed. By any measure, this was a consultation that overwhelmingly backed the measures in my Bill and the changes that have been supported so widely in this House, in the coroners’ field and in the medical field by many people.

Finally, this is my question to the Minister: how much longer do we have to wait? I have been in this place for quite a long time, and I have never seen such a wide gap between legislation requiring consultation coming in and that being published, let alone the Government deciding what to act on. In a letter to me accompanying the publication of the consultation, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), said:

“Officials are also exploring mechanisms for improving existing processes to further address the aims of the coroners’ proposal. A further statement will be issued in due course.”

That chilling phrase, “in due course”, is one we hear so often from Ministers who have not got a handle on when they will do something that they know needs to be done. My question to the poor Minister who has been dragged here today, for whom I have every sympathy, is: please can we get on with this? There is no excuse for not doing so. The consultation has taken place. Everyone has said, “Yes, this is a pretty good idea.” The legislation also had overwhelming and unanimous support from both Houses of Parliament when it went through all those years ago.

Can we please now have a clear timetable for when we will get the Government’s formal response? I hope the response will be, “Yes, we agree, and we will now get on with it.” If it is not, all the people interested in this will urgently be owed an explanation of why this should not go forward in the way that has been suggested, given that the Government’s own consultation has shown such overwhelming support for it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this debate. I pay tribute to his work in shining a light on the important but complex and extremely sensitive issue of stillbirth, which, despite the experience and incredible dedication of our medical professionals, continues to touch the lives of too many families.

Bereavement is never easy, but to lose a child through stillbirth is a tragedy. The Government are committed to supporting parents through such a difficult experience and ensuring that they have access to the support they need. More than that, one of our highest priorities is to reduce the number of stillbirths and other adverse maternity outcomes. To help to achieve that, we are committed to ensuring that, wherever possible, lessons are learned and care is improved to prevent avoidable stillbirths in future.

To put that aim into context, the Government set the national maternity safety ambition to halve the 2010 rates of stillbirths, neonatal and maternity deaths, and brain injuries occurring during or soon after birth, by 2025. Also by 2025, we want to reduce the pre-term birth rate from 8% to 6%. We are making good progress, but we recognise that more still needs to be done to achieve that ambition. Since 2010, the stillbirth rate has reduced by 23% and the neonatal maternity rate of babies born after 24 weeks’ gestation has reduced by 30%.

Although we can demonstrate clear progress, it is vital that we continue to learn from the tragedy of every stillbirth. Concerns about the consistency and independence of those investigations have given rise to the calls for a more transparent and independent process, for which my hon. Friend continues to advocate so consistently.

The coroner, as an independent judge, investigates deaths for which, among other things, the cause is unknown, so it is easy to understand the proposal that their role should be extended to include the investigation of stillbirths. However, I want to take a moment here to emphasise an important point: at present, coroners do not have jurisdiction to investigate a stillbirth because, sadly, as my hon. Friend said in his speech, where there has not been an independent life, there has not legally been a death. A child born who is showing signs of life has had an independent life, so that child’s death must be investigated if the coroner’s jurisdiction is engaged. When there is doubt about whether a child was born alive, that is a matter for the coroner to determine, and it is open to anyone, including the bereaved family, to report a case to the coroner if they believe there is a need for such an investigation.

In 2016, the Government committed to consult on whether, and if so how, the coronial investigation of stillbirths should be introduced. The commitment was made as part of a fresh maternity safety strategy. Since then, a range of important safety initiatives have been rolled out, including a perinatal mortality review tool, which is now available in every maternity service in the UK. The tool enables trusts to review all stillbirths and neonatal deaths by setting out a set of questions and principles to guide trusts through a standardised review process. The tool’s secondary aim is to ensure local and national learning to improve care and ultimately prevent future baby deaths. Collation and analysis of the data from the tool and the production of annual national reports on the key themes arising from the reviews and recommendations are intended to improve safe maternity care and safe outcomes for babies.

In addition, the maternity and newborn safety investigations programme, established in 2018 and now hosted independently by the Care Quality Commission, provides independent, standardised and family-focused investigations for families, which also provide learning to the health system. Alongside those initiatives, the consultation on coronial investigation was taken forward in 2019, again as my hon. Friend said. We are extremely grateful to everyone who submitted one of the 334 responses to the consultation document, to the 63 people who attended stakeholder workshops and, in particular, to those respondents who shared their personal experience of the pain of stillbirth.

The findings of the consultation were complex, as my hon. Friend said. The majority of respondents were supportive of the proposal for coroners to have a role in investigating stillbirths, but many did not agree with the proposals for how that should be implemented. Some were concerned that bereaved parents would not be able to withhold consent to the investigation or any associated post-mortem examination, that the investigation could be distressing and intrusive, that the length of the investigation could delay closure for the bereaved family, that the process might not fulfil the parents’ expectation of finding answers, or that they could feel like they were being blamed.

There were also significant policy and practical concerns, including the potential for duplication, friction and confusion between investigations by the coroner, the maternity and newborn safety investigations programme and the trust or health board, and the potential impact of that on clinicians’ behaviour. There was also a concern that the safety initiatives introduced in 2018 would achieve the same policy objectives as a coronial investigation in any event.

I am grateful to the Minister; I understand the points that he is making and I appreciate his points about the distress that it may cause to parents, and about blame and everything like that. Whether the child was stillborn or lived for a couple of minutes makes no difference to that potential distress. However, in the latter case, the coroner would have the power to investigate, which could cause the same distress to the parents as doing so could the child had been stillborn. Why is there that distinction?

I thank my hon. Friend for his points; I am reflecting the points made in the consultation. His point is well landed, and officials and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) will have noted the case that he has just made.

In addition, there were concerns about the resource impact on the NHS and the locally funded coroner services. Crucially, there would be a significant increase in demand on already stretched paediatric pathology services, with a significant lead-in time to train new resource. Nevertheless, I note the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made in his speech.

In any event, some respondents felt that coroners would not be best placed to identify and disseminate clinical learning points at a regional and national level. Although many acknowledged that coroners could deliver investigations into stillbirths, there was no consensus on precisely how they would do so and some strong opposition to the specific proposals that we put forward.

Given the importance and the sensitivity of the issue, it is imperative that we get the response right. That means carefully considering the issues identified by the consultation and working through the complex questions that they raise. Work to publish a response was paused during the pandemic. Again, as my hon. Friend said, and as I have explained, the landscape of maternity investigations has changed significantly. One of the key questions that we are considering is whether the current maternity safety initiatives are already achieving, or have the potential to achieve, the overarching objective without the need for coroner investigations.

While the Government were developing and publishing their consultation proposals, Parliament passed the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, which my hon. Friend introduced. As he has explained, section 4 places a duty on the Secretary of State to make arrangements for the preparation and publication of a report on whether, and if so how, coroners could investigate stillbirths. The Act also provides a power for the Lord Chancellor to make provision for coronial stillbirth investigations through secondary legislation if, following the publication of the report, that is considered appropriate. The fact that those provisions are on the statute book is a testament to my hon. Friend’s commitment to the issue, and I can of course understand his frustration that it has not yet been resolved, which he has eloquently expressed today and on other occasions.

As I have said, we have to get this right. To that end, in December the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health and Social Care jointly published a factual summary of the responses to the 2019 consultation. I have set out the key findings this afternoon, and the two Departments continue to work through their complex implications.

As an immediate next step, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer)—he has now joined us—on behalf of the Ministry of Justice, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care, have told me that they would be happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to share the latest thinking and discuss possible ways forward on the outstanding issues. I can confirm that by the summer recess, we will make a further statement that sets out the Government’s position on this policy.

To conclude, let me reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to respond to this important debate, as well as my thanks to all others in attendance and to all those who have made some very valuable contributions to this issue along the way.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Child Trust Funds

[Relevant Documents: Sixty-Seventh Report of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2022–23, Child Trust Funds, HC 1231, and the Government response, CP 941.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Child Trust Fund access for people seeking to manage the finances of others.

It is a pleasure to use this debate to highlight the ongoing issue of disabled young people’s access to their child trust funds and to recognise the good will of the Minister and his Department, but to demand changes that would solve issues for the courts, CTF providers and, above all, the disabled young people and their families. We have the means to secure easy access to funds that rightfully belong to those young people—funds that could prove invaluable but which are being denied to them by a lack of information and processes that may be well-meaning in intent, but are Kafkaesque and off-putting in delivery.

It is a pleasure to move the debate under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I am delighted to see the Minister in the Chamber, as I know he is focused on the issue, as well as other hon. Members who have taken a real interest in getting a resolution on the issue.

I would like to pay tribute to my constituent Andrew Turner. Back in September 2020, Andrew found that his disabled son, Mikey, was locked out of his child trust fund. He simply wanted to buy an adapted bike with Mikey’s money, and Mikey’s life-limiting condition meant that time was of the essence. The child trust fund was Mikey’s only financial asset. That should have been the start of a simple process in which a loving parent who looks after his disabled son can use that child’s own funds to enhance the wellbeing of the child. Instead, Mr Turner found that he and thousands of others were required to go to court when the account matured. Such is the complexity that Mr Turner was independently advised that it would be easier and cheaper for him—I hate to say this—to wait until Mikey died, when a simpler process existed to reclaim the money. He was naturally deeply upset. He was also determined to do something about it, not just for Mikey, but others in the same predicament.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman. As I said to him before the debate, I want to give the Northern Ireland perspective. In Northern Ireland, the responsibility for the management of the child trust fund account for a child when there is no person with parental responsibility is transferred to the Share Foundation, which deals with inquiries until the child turns 18. Does he agree it would be a good idea if the responsibility went to relatives in the extended family, such as grandparents, to ensure that they can provide guidance within a familial setting in relation to finances? That would be a simple way of doing it—letting the grandparents or the extended family look after things.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will touch on the circumstances in Northern Ireland, but the fundamental point that unites many people in the Chamber is the desire to get easy access for parents to ensure they do not go through a court process, incurring fees, going through bureaucracy and requiring the support of GPs and social workers, to access what in many cases is an average of about £2,000. It is just too much bureaucracy and work when it is rightfully the asset of their child.

I know many people in the Chamber, not just the hon. Gentleman, take a close interest in the matter and have far more personal experience than me, as parents of children with disabilities. They know that parents of children with disabilities have so much to do. Often that involves struggling to get what is rightfully theirs from Government. That is one area in which Mr Turner felt that progress could be made. The good news is he found a groundswell of support from parents and charities. I would like to thank in particular Contact for its support and Renaissance Legal for its tireless campaigning. There is support from child trust fund providers and, indeed, from the Minister, and yet four years on, we are still nowhere near where we need to be.

I would like to set out the scale of the problem. I will set out what I recognise the Government have attempted to do to mitigate the problem and, lastly, what I believe they should do to go further and largely to resolve it for most families with disabled children. Let us be clear: it is not a new issue. It is very apparent and has been well rehearsed—not only as a result of my constituent’s brilliant campaigning. The Public Accounts Committee looked into the issue last year as part of its analysis of child trust funds. The PAC highlighted a wider problem with CTFs as a whole, but it drew particular attention to access for young people lacking the mental capacity to manage their own savings.

In these circumstances, a family or carer must gain legal authority to access funds that belong to the young person involved. To do so requires an application for a deputyship order to the Court of Protection in England and Wales. For England and Wales, the Ministry of Justice estimates that between 63,000 and 126,000 young people may not have the mental capacity to access and manage their matured CTF when they reach 18. All CTFs will mature between 2020 and 2029. Tens of thousands of young people will therefore be subjected to a prohibitively lengthy, costly and complex process simply to access what is rightfully theirs.

In relation to stand-alone CTF applications, there were just 70 court applications between September 2020 and May 2023, compared with about 27,000 accounts maturing over the same period. The Department, in its Treasury minute responding to the PAC, broadened the scope of applications to include not just stand-alone CTF applications but other assets. However, even on that basis, the number of applications for 16 to 21-year-olds between September 2022 and March 2023 was still only 312. Whichever statistic one chooses to cite, thousands of people are missing out on what is rightfully theirs, because we are not informing them of their rights, and if we do, the process is too complex and too costly for all but a few.

I know that the Minister is a decent man. He put aside time to meet Mr Turner and me on this issue, and I know that he has instructed the Department to engage. I know that he is keen to make it simpler for families and he has ensured that changes have been made. I acknowledge that the MOJ last year moved some of the application online, waiving the fees and creating a toolkit for parents. That is to be welcomed, and I believe it was introduced with excellent intent. However, the process still involves completing 12 forms, including the duplication of a number of forms, and 93 pages. This includes requiring time-pressured GPs or social workers to complete a 21-page mental capacity assessment, which not all are prepared to do. With all the pressures on the families of disabled young people and the associated cost of becoming a deputy, is it surprising that they do not prioritise accessing what are, on average, funds of about £2,000? However, that is £2,000 that could and should be used to the benefit of the disabled child.

I know that the Minister and his team wish to help further, and there is a means to do so readily at hand, already in use and absolutely capable of being advertised and delivered on. It could help to deliver tens of millions of pounds—actuarial analysis suggests up to £73 million—into the hands of those who desperately need it. I thank the chief executives of two child trust funds, OneFamily and Foresters UK, for talking me through their proactive approach, which puts their customers first. Those two funds account for more than half of all CTFs. Very commendably, those providers recognise the problem and are applying a common-sense and pragmatic approach to its resolution. That is in effect using the Department for Work and Pensions appointee scheme—a tried and tested system to enable families to manage their child’s benefit income. It provides adequate protection and is the obvious solution to unlock the savings of disabled young people.

Let us be clear: this is no free-for-all. The providers require evidence that the parent or guardian is a DWP appointee; they require identity checks and confirmation of the child’s capacity. This process is available only in relation to funds under £5,000, and complex cases may still have to go through the courts. However, it has enabled the providers to meet the needs of hundreds of disabled children. There is a problem. Despite following a DWP process, and despite the knowledge that were a DWP appointee to be acting fraudulently there would be far more at stake than a modest child trust fund, this sensible route is frustratingly not officially sanctioned. The financial institutions are commendably going on risk to allow access to the funds. They know that there are far more affected families out there, but as responsible, regulated entities, they do not believe they can advertise their willingness to help in this pragmatic way, which combines existing safeguards with swift access.

Those two leading institutions and others with a similar proactive mindset assist 900 families a year—a significant multiple of the number aided through the court route—but thousands still need support. I therefore have three requests for the Minister that would help to resolve this issue. Will he engage with the DWP to extend the appointee scheme and officially include savings held in CTFs? Will he engage with the finance industry to formalise what is already a successful industry process, and in doing so enable it to advertise that route so that families can take advantage of a simple scheme? Lastly, will he help families to secure basic information about their CTF provider if the account has been lost?

I commend my right hon. Friend for his superb speech. He has approached this debate in an extremely constructive fashion, with a common-sense, straightforward solution to the problem. We do not need to reinvent the wheel; we just need to apply common sense. Child trust funds are a wonderful advantage to many young people, but the most vulnerable are missing out. My right hon. Friend has outlined a way in which the Government can address the biggest part of this problem.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who brings me, brilliantly, to my conclusion. I agree with him. Movement on those three issues will prevent thousands of unnecessary court applications, and reduce bureaucracy and cost for the parents of disabled youngsters. Above all, it would put to work funds that could make a real difference to young people who could really do with a little extra help.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Horsham (Sir Jeremy Quin) for securing this debate. I agree with everything he said. I hope there can be cross-party agreement today that we need to move forward at long last.

I also pay tribute to Andrew Turner and his family—particularly his son, Mikey—for the work they have done, but I am sure Mr Turner will agree that others have played a big role, including lawyers such as Philip Warford, journalists such as Jessie Hewitson, and Martin Lewis. Financial service companies have shown leadership, and Contact, other charities and families, many of whom are here, have campaigned. Their voices have come together, and I hope that the Ministry of Justice will listen.

I should declare an interest: I have a 16-year-old son, John, who has an undiagnosed neurological problem that means he cannot really walk by himself or talk, and has serious learning disabilities. He will never be able to manage his own personal affairs, let alone financial affairs. Although my wife and I, and many wonderful professionals, work to give him as much independence as possible, there is no way, when he reaches the age of 18, that he will be able to get the money from his child trust fund. I declare an interest, but I hope I have an insight into the issues that families face and the problems they have as carers. Just looking after their children on a day-to-day basis can be quite enough, without having to worry about lots of bureaucratic forms and having to go to the court of protection.

I have been involved in this debate for some time. I met Mr Turner in 2020, and I asked a question at Prime Minister’s questions on 21 October 2020. The then Prime Minister said:

“I will do whatever I can to help”—[Official Report, 21 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 1058.]

He made that promise nearly four years ago, and we are still here. Hopefully we can do a bit better today.

After that, I met the right hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who was then doing the current Minister’s job but is now Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice. I think I met him three times, and we discussed all the options. We have seen the work that has been done—the waivers, the so-called simplification of the forms, the digitisation—in an attempt to make this work. Sometimes, particularly when the Ministry of Justice proposed a consultation on the small payments scheme, I supported it. I did not think it was the best solution, but I was trying to be constructive, so I went along with it to try to make it work.

However, I am afraid that all the efforts have failed, demonstratively, by the statistics that the right hon. Member for Horsham and many others have shown. To date, the Ministry of Justice has utterly failed to solve the problem, so we need action. We cannot wait much longer. The number of young people and their families, and the amount of money, will just build up over time. The problem will not go away, unless one Minister—I am sure it will be the Minister present today—actually grasps it properly.

I set out initially believing that the DWP appointee scheme was the right one. Families are aware of it, and it has worked in Government and for much larger funds. The amount of money that a loved one gets through their disability living allowance or personal independence payment far outweighs the average amount from a child trust fund, but apparently it is not possible to use that scheme because of the difference between flows of money from DWP and savings and capital. For the life of me, I have never quite understood that distinction, but perhaps there is something in it. I will come on to what I think is behind the Ministry of Justice’s objections.

In the spirit of being constructive, two solutions seem to be on the table. One is the proposal for a new, one-off order solution, which the right hon. Member for Horsham talked about. A family would still have to fill in a form, but it would be a one-pager. They would still have to go the Court of Protection, but it would be a very simple process. I think it has been well thought through by campaigners, and different fund managers have been involved. I believe that Mr Turner wrote to the Ministry of Justice before Christmas. Unfortunately, he received an email from an official in December 2023, which stated that

“we are not able to consider any proposals for an alternative process for accessing CTFs at this time.”

That is not good enough, Minister. People are working hard to come forward with practical solutions within the remit of the Ministry of Justice, and officials are not even willing to see people who are trying to be constructive.

I think that the one-off order solution would work. The Minister might not be able to answer today, but I would like to ask him: would it require a change to primary or secondary legislation to get that solution working, or would the registrar of the Court of Protection simply have to change the administrative rules? It is probably as simple as that, and it would suddenly unlock the problem both for child trust funds and junior ISAs. That is one solution, which the MOJ would be in control of.

The right hon. Member for Horsham touched on another solution: working through the financial service companies, which have shown huge flexibility and taken risk upon themselves. That would not be an MOJ responsibility; I think the MOJ would have to talk to the Treasury. I think the Government have landed this problem in the lap of the MOJ and said, “You sort it out.” If the Minister went to the Chancellor or another Treasury Minister and said, “Look, we want you to say this, and we are happy for you to say it,” all the Treasury Minister would have to say is, “We are relaxed about fund managers of child trust funds or junior ISAs taking that approach, taking the risk upon themselves if anyone objects, and marketing, giving information and promoting the idea that people with DWP appointee status can use the funds and transact them on behalf of their loved one.” That would be what we might call a market solution, but from my insight into how government works, that would require the MOJ to give the green light to the Treasury to make that statement.

Those are two simple, zero-cost solutions to allow vulnerable people to get their own money. After four years of trying, I urge the Minister to wake up and smell the coffee. Why might the MOJ object? I will put myself in his shoes and the shoes of the officials to work out what on earth is going on. The first issue might be the Mental Capacity Act 2005, the Court of Protection and their underlying principles. When officials and Departments have jurisdiction over an Act of Parliament, they can get jealous about how it has worked and not want to see any change. I get that—we have been there. However, democratically elected politicians must challenge the principle behind the Act, to test whether it has been taken too far, because in law there are other principles that apply, including proportionality and reasonableness. Surely those principles apply here. We are talking about small amounts of money for very vulnerable people whose parents and carers ain’t got the time to go to court. They may phone up one person and ask, “Can you help me?” but if the financial service company or the court says, “Well, it is a bit complicated,” they just give up, because their young person is in pain, needs medical help and needs to go to the hospital. That is the reality of their lives.

First, on the specific point of proportionality, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the financial providers are talking about sums below £5,000, and the average child trust fund here is about £2,000? Secondly, tens of thousands of pounds would to through the DWP appointee scheme, which means that in comparison the child trust fund is a tiny amount of money. On the grounds of proportionality, the right hon. Gentleman is making an extremely good case.

I strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He might be interested to know that, while I am not an expert, I am told that principle 5 of the 2005 Act talks about the least restrictive option to achieve the best interests of the vulnerable adult. Can the MCA apply itself to itself, please?

I wonder whether there is another reason why the Ministry of Justice is sticking to the principle despite all the evidence and pressure. Perhaps it wants to get more people to go to the Court of Protection so that the judges there can help with the deputyships of those vulnerable adults as they turn 18. One can have a discussion about whether more families should ultimately go to the Court of Protection. However, when one reads the guidelines of the Court of Protection, it is clear that it rightly sees itself as a court of last resort for a family dispute about money or, more likely, for how a person should be cared for, who should be caring for them and where they should live.

Sometimes, if there is a dispute in the family, the court is necessary and the Court of Protection is brilliant at that. Sometimes, a vulnerable adult may have no loved one or family member, and then the Court of Protection rightly fills that vacuum. However, if families can come to an agreement among themselves, more often than not that will be better than having to go to the Court of Protection. We should make the Court of Protection available to more people. We could advertise and market it—people may want to think about that in due course.

My wife and I are old parents; my son is 16 and I am 58, so I am quite an old dad. I worry about when my wife and I die. My son does not have a degenerative condition, and he is going to live for quite a few years. Of course, we are thinking in due course of going to the Court of Protection or getting a family member such as his sister or one of his cousins to be there for him. The Court of Protection, as I say, has good reason to be there. No one is against it, but it should be used when it is needed.

Perhaps the Ministry of Justice thinks that it has no court backlogs and loads of judges who are just sitting there twiddling their thumbs, so we should give them more business. Come on! Please take the pressures off the system by adopting something simple. I do not like saying this, but there may be a reason why people in the judiciary and legal profession are keen to force people to go to the Court of Protection even when it is disproportionate. Perhaps it is vested interests. I really hope that that is not what we are dealing with, because it is not acceptable.

We are talking about people who are vulnerable, and parents and carers who are stretched to their limits. We are talking about small amounts of money. I urge the Minister to listen to us, and to go back to his Department and the Secretary of State and say that the officials and some of the judiciary from the Court of Protection need to be overruled on this. We need to act proportionately. We need to act in the best interests of thousands of young people who should have access to their own money.

I am pleased to speak in support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir Jeremy Quin), and it is a privilege and a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), who spoke so well. I entirely agree with what has been said.

I had the pleasure of speaking a few weeks ago at a conference organised by the Share Foundation. Gavin Oldham is in the Gallery for this debate. Andrew Turner spoke at the conference as well and laid out all the practical challenges that we have heard. There was also a very good speech by Ruth Kelly, the former Labour Minister who had oversight of the child trust fund policy when it was introduced. It inspired me to recognise how often good Conservative policies are introduced by non-Conservative Governments, because I have a great respect for the policy.

Another speaker discussed the real genesis of the child trust fund, which was, of course, Tom Paine. In the 1770s and 1780s, he wrote about an approach by which Governments simply gave families a lump of capital as a means of sustaining them and ensuring that they developed the habits of thrift, industry and self-reliance that we all need. We might remember that in the 1990s, the then Labour Opposition were developing ideas around what they called asset-based welfare, which is a very good principle and one that I would not give to Labour entirely. We all share these ideas—[Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

Thank you very much, Ms Elliott—I shall resume, rather than start again. I was saying that the child trust fund has its roots in a very good British tradition: the principle of asset-based welfare. In the 1990s, there was a tussle about the approach to public services. On the one hand, there was what we have come to call new public management, which was about centralised and bureaucratic quasi-market systems based on individual entitlements and comprehensive services. On the other, there was asset-based welfare, which was about putting capital into families and supporting communities to develop their own collective responses to social challenges.

In the new Labour years, the new public management model won out, with the great and noble exception of the child trust fund, which is such a brilliant innovation. It is such an important principle that people should be trusted to manage wealth and to sustain their families directly. I regret that, in 2010, when the coalition Government came in, the child trust fund was abandoned —I was going to have a pop at the Liberal Democrats, who I am sure were responsible for scrapping it, but let us just blame George Osborne, because we can all unite on that. Junior ISAs were established instead, and that is also a very good principle.

I want to echo the points that were eloquently made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham and by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton about the real injustice that families now endure. Back in the days when the child trust fund was created, not enough consideration was given to children without mental capacity to access and manage their own finances upon becoming adults. Something very wrong was done without anybody intending it and without it being properly thought through. I will not repeat the points made by my right hon. Friend, but we have a huge obligation to right that injustice.

It is worth pointing out that we have not just tens of thousands of young people locked out of money that is rightfully theirs and without the money or incentive to pursue a Court of Protection case to unlock it. There is also a significant disincentive to open a junior ISA for parents with a disabled child who are thinking about the long-term future and whether it will be possible to access that money. So we are inhibiting the principle of saving altogether.

The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton and my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham made very good suggestions about a one-off order solution—I absolutely echo the case made there—and also about the DWP appointee scheme. The fact that we do that for benefits—as we have heard, those often account for much greater sums than the child trust fund—means that we should extend it. I also agree with the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton about relieving the pressure on the Court of Protection.

The principle of child trust funds is such a good and important one in terms of the welfare model that we should have. The injustice that we have at the moment—the complexity of the system and the fact that there are so many dormant accounts—does not apply just to the families who know about the money that belongs to their disabled children and who want to access it; many millions of young people do not know that they have the right to this money—that it is, in fact, rightfully theirs. I understand that about 6 million young people have accounts, worth around £2,000 each, that they are unaware of, and it is estimated that around 1 million of those young people will come from deprived circumstances. What an enormous injustice it is that all that money is sitting there in Government accounts that they are not able to access! This has been described as malign neglect; it will not be deliberate—nobody is actively trying to prevent young people from accessing money that is rightfully theirs—but, nevertheless, for reasons we have heard about, disabled children and young people more widely are not being given access to money that is rightfully theirs.

I echo the point made by campaigners, including Gavin Oldham from the Share Foundation, about having a default withdrawal policy whereby the system knows the bank details of young people who are registered with HMRC. I understand that about 60% of young people with child trust fund accounts that they have not yet accessed could simply be given the money. That should happen; there would need to be communications and an information campaign around that, but it is the right thing to do, not least because it would stop the outrage of companies charging a 25% fee for the benefit of informing young people of the fact that they have this money. That, I think, is the future model.

As a country, we should be proud of the principle of child trust funds. A lot of people are increasingly thinking that we need to develop approaches around asset-based welfare. I noticed that David Willetts, a former colleague of ours, is proposing something similar—a capital sum granted to young people at coming of age—and Gavin Oldham has suggested that inheritance tax receipts should be used to invest in child trust funds for the future. I think that this is an old idea whose time has come, and I hope we can fix the immediate problems we have and then think more broadly about how to extend this model more widely.

It is a special pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Elliott. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Horsham (Sir Jeremy Quin) for securing this debate on behalf of his constituent Andrew Turner. I congratulate him on his detailed speech, which outlined very clearly the challenge before us.

I also want to comment on the speech from the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey). I am grateful to him for sharing his personal experience of engaging with the system with his son, John. He demonstrated a special empathy for other parents of children with challenging disabilities. He offered solutions, and I remind the House of his most important statement: that people are just after their own money. He also spoke of the need for a simpler system.

That point was repeated by the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger)—I have just found out how to pronounce his constituency properly, so I hope I did it justice this time—who lamented the fact that we no longer have the children’s trust fund, which was set up by the Labour Government. He tried to blame the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, but it was the right hon. Gentleman’s colleague in the Treasury—the same person who axed the hospital that was planned in my constituency. Health inequalities have widened ever since, and the hospital is not even on the Government’s new list. The hon. Member for Devizes confirmed that there is consensus in the Chamber that we need action: he said, “Simply give them the money,” which is a good thing for me to mention at the beginning of my speech.

Andrew’s fervent campaign to bring about change stems from the challenges faced by his family, who have come up against tremendous problems along the way as they have tried simply to get access to the money they saved for their son Mikey. We heard about the distress faced by Mikey’s family and others, and also about the deeply disturbing legal advice that Andrew received: that it would be easier and cheaper to wait until Mikey died, because a simpler process could then be used. I cannot find the words to describe the anguish I would feel in such circumstances.

Andrew has become an advocate for the many parents of children with disabilities who all too often come up against these barriers. I pay tribute to him and charities such as Contact for their hard work on this issue. I also thank the other parent campaigners—Nasreen Yasin, Claire Binney, Michele Creed and Ramandeep Kaur, as well as Rachel Dixon, John Roberts and their son, Joseph—for joining us today.

Under the fund introduced in 2005, every child born in the UK between September 2002 and January 2011 received up to £500 in Government vouchers as an incentive for their parents and guardians to open a savings account for them. That initiative was ditched by the coalition Government in 2011, when the junior ISA was created. Disabled children and those from low-income families received an additional amount to provide greater benefits in later life. The trust money was then locked away, and parents were able to add more to the account each year until the child turned 18. Again, as we have heard, parents of children who lack the mental capacity to manage their finances themselves when they turn 18 face making a deputyship application to the Court of Protection to access their child trust fund or junior ISA.

The Ministry of Justice estimates that between 63,000 and 126,000 young people may fall into that category, yet the Court of Protection approved only 15 applications in 2021. The Minister will be aware that Andrew wrote to the Lord Chancellor yesterday outlining the scale of the challenge. He highlighted that, since 2020, an estimated 31,488 disabled young people have been unable to access £72.4 million of child trust fund and junior ISA savings.

The Public Accounts Committee looked into this matter and highlighted reports of families finding the deputyship application process difficult, time-consuming and costly. Fees are waived if families are applying to access a child trust fund, but there are other barriers. The Committee heard that a six-page GP letter is needed as part of the process. The Down’s Syndrome Association said in evidence that low awareness of banking safeguards among the parents it supports is also a barrier to accessing their child’s trust fund. It explained that the fee waiver does not apply if the young adult is still in education, and that many families believe that they still need to pay for the services of a solicitor.

I recognise that the Government have considered measures they hoped would address the problem over the years, but the legislation and processes put in place to support individuals and their families should be much more accessible. We need closer working between the finance industry and Departments to find a workable solution to this ongoing problem. That would have the potential to significantly increase accessibility, helping many more families to access savings locked in child trust funds and junior ISAs.

I agree with the statement from Una Summerson, head of policy and public affairs at Contact. She said that implementing a less restrictive approach is in the best interests of disabled young people. Disabled young people must be allowed to enjoy their savings like everybody else, and continuing to promote actions that fail to address this issue will simply perpetuate injustice. There is an opportunity to bring common sense into the debate and to commit to a new approach.

The hon. Gentleman has made a powerful speech, and I thank him for his kind comments. We all hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to tell us that the Government will look at the issue again and will make changes, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that if this Government fail to make changes, at the next election and in the next Parliament, it is vital that his party, working with others, makes those changes?

Yes. Whichever Government are in power, they have to make the changes necessary to make it much easier for people to access the funds. I do not know what the mechanism will be, but I think we can all say that the next Government, of either colour, will deliver on that particular promise, but the Minister might get this sorted before we have that general election. Today might have been the last day the Prime Minister could have called the election, but we still have a few hours to go—bring that on!

The Government referred in their consultation response to clear evidence of the challenges in the current system, with the Court of Protection property and affairs application forms being too lengthy and complex, and the time taken between completing the application to the final order being made being too long and disproportionate for the sums involved. Instead of a wholesale change, however, the Government opted for incremental changes to the current court process. In 2023, the Ministry of Justice created a toolkit for parent carers on making financial decisions and implemented a new digital process for property and affairs deputy order applications, which was rolled out last year and is set to speed up the process. Users can complete some of the court forms electronically and can digitally submit remaining paperwork.

Sadly, Contact tells me that none of the Government’s piecemeal changes has meaningfully simplified the court process or made it more accessible for families with no legal experience. The Government’s strategy is not working. If their intended aim was to have a process that was as accessible as possible, it simply has not been achieved. I hope that the Minister will outline the impact that those changes have had on application processing times, addressing whether future digitalisation of Court of Protection processes is planned, and outline exactly how the Government will remove those blockages to the funds once and for all. Let them have their own money!

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir Jeremy Quin) for securing the debate and continuing the conversation we have had for some time. I was pleased to meet him and his constituent Mr Turner last May to discuss the issue, and I welcome the ongoing debate that we are having.

I will not tiptoe down memory lane, as colleagues have —I am not sure that revisiting the coalition Governments of 2010 onwards is particularly helpful to today’s debate. What I want to do and what is important—and I am sorry if it is dry—is lay out the legal framework that is there is to protect vulnerable people. I understand clearly that the actions of the vast majority of parents are well intentioned, and that they act with great honour and kindness looking after their child or young adult. However, my job is also to protect vulnerable people from any form of abuse, and that weighs heavily on any reforms that we take forward. I appreciate that people will disagree vehemently with me, but I have to take into account the fact that not every parent would act with the best of intentions when accessing the funds.

It is a well-established common-law principle that an adult must obtain proper legal authority to access or manage the finances or property of another adult. That includes, for the purpose of today’s debate, a matured child trust fund of a young adult. People are understandably unaware of that legal principle, and it may be surprising to parents and carers who have been heavily involved in decision making for their young person prior to their turning 18. I want to iterate the steps that we have already taken to try to improve the process, particularly as regards awareness of what steps need to be taken as the young person reaches the age of 18.

Before the Minister talks about reforms that have been made, can I bring him back to the point of principle that he outlined at the beginning of his remarks? I do not think anyone disagrees that there is an important principle, but there is equally a principle of proportionality that I mentioned in my speech. Can the Minister address that point? Where does proportionality arise in his thinking about the principles involved?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am happy to have an ongoing conversation. In fact, this is the first time we have discussed the matter face to face since I took on my portfolio. Proportionality is a valid point, but what is the level of risk that the right hon. Gentleman is willing to take? It will be different from the one that I or the Government are prepared to take. The right hon. Gentleman or anybody in this room may be prepared to say that 10, 20, 100 or 1,000 young people could have their money accessed inappropriately. That is a proportionate risk that they are willing to take. My view is that I want to minimise that risk and that proportionality is not easily measured.

I am not a lawyer. I look to my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham and my legal friends to say that there may be a legal definition of proportionality. However, the definition of proportionality for those who are making decisions against those who are asking for change may be different. I am willing to see if we can bridge the gap, but my view is that I want to ensure that we can both improve access and that protections remain in place so that those who may not have the best interests of the young adults in mind do not get access to funds with total liberty.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. It was direct and to the point, and he has given way again, which is generous.

When we look at the risk, we have evidence from the industry, which has looked at the case and many firms and funders have said that they are prepared to take on the risk themselves. Even though the Government are behind it, because the risk and the amount of money are so small, the firms have taken on that risk themselves. Is that not a lesson that the Minister should dwell on? If the MOJ is not prepared to act on that, would he at least go and talk to his colleagues at the Treasury and see if they can make a statement about the way in which the financial services could take on that risk and how the Government would support that?

I am always happy to discuss with any provider and certainly the provider I have spoken to. No provider has beaten a path to my door saying, “We think you have got it wrong and our risk assessment is right.” Any organisation is entitled to make their own risk assessment and accept the consequences if they get it wrong. That is their decision. As for my risk assessments, perhaps I am being over-cautious. I am willing to be challenged on that and I appreciate that people have a different view, but I want to ensure that I take the least risk regarding vulnerable adults.

I will talk briefly in the time left about the work we have done with the Investing and Saving Alliance to try to improve accessibility and knowledge. Given the time, I will have to skip over the part of my speech about the legal framework of the Mental Capacity Act 2005. I think everyone in the room is probably aware of the methodology of applying for the deputyship that gives people access or the ability to act on other people’s behalf. I will not go through that in any great depth.

We have heard that the court process was cumbersome, which is why we looked at how we could change that. We consulted on what kind of different system we could put in place, but there was not a consistent view from the consultation on how we should reform access to the funds. In fact, if we go into the consultation, many people wanted to add safeguards to a new form of access that actually made the system even more cumbersome than the one we were trying to reform. That was a difficulty, as we did not get a common view on what checks and balances needed to be in place. We talked not just to parents, but to charitable organisations, the legal and finance sectors, groups representing the elderly and so on, and we heard that it was too complex. The big message that came out was that people were not really aware of what they had to do or when they had to do it.

I think that the first ask from my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham was whether we would extend appointeeships to cover child trust funds. We are working with the Department for Work and Pensions to extend the availability of information. I am more than willing to go back to the DWP and talk about whether its process is suitable for child trust funds. It is a very different process: it is about accessing regular payments rather than lump sums, so there is a different quantum at risk. It would take primary legislation to access the DWP-type processes—we double-checked that today. It is not a quick fix, but it is certainly one that I am more than happy to go back and have another look at.

I want to ensure that we are streamlining the processes. Can we take the paper out? Can we use more digital processes? We have seen that the time has reduced from 24 weeks to 12 weeks. We will continue to liaise with the President of the Court of Protection to monitor performance and see what more can be done.

A key issue is that people often do not know what they have to do until the child turns 18, and then they are locked out. We have done two things; I apologise if this sounds a little disjointed. I sat down with TISA, the major provider of child trust funds, and we agreed that as part of its normal maturity mailing, it will include advice and information about how to access and use the Court of Protection to get the relevant legal powers in place. We are taking early steps to educate people as to what they need to do before the person turns 18. That comes alongside the toolkit, which, as hon. Members have noted, provides practical guidance on how to access and navigate the legal process.

My right hon. Friend’s second ask was about making people aware of how to find lost funds. We are doing more work to provide information. People can use the “Find my child trust fund” service on We can continue to do more to raise awareness of that.

It is a good idea that providers are prepared to write out and provide additional information. I welcome that, but it is not going to solve the problem. Does the Minister agree that it is no good just having a one-off? It will have to be done on a regular basis, as more young people become mature and approach the age of 18.

The shadow Minister pre-empts me. This is a regular communication strategy: TISA will continue to notify those who are heading towards maturity of what they need to do to access the fund once they turn 18.

I have also been working with the Department for Work and Pensions on accessing its client bank. We have agreed with the DWP that we will contact the cohort of parents and carers who receive personal independence payments and who may lack the mental capacity to access their child trust fund. We have an agreement in principle that we will do a mailing—not a one-off, but a constant mailing—so that people in this cohort, which we think is particularly relevant to child trust funds and difficulties of access, will become aware in advance of what they need to do. One of the big messages from the consultation was about the lack of understanding and knowledge of the steps until it was too late.

I appreciate that hon. Members have said, “Give them the money.” I get that. As I mentioned at the start of my speech, the vast majority of parents act in the very best interests of the child. I am not a parent, so I cannot possibly understand the role of a parent having to juggle all the demands of everyday life while having a child who needs additional support. I accept that my knowledge is limited, but the risk of just one parent not acting in their child’s best interests, but accessing those funds inappropriately, weighs very heavily on me.

I accept all the points about proportionality, and I am happy to have a conversation about where the line on risk is drawn. Broadly speaking, where I am coming from is improving education, improving access and improving knowledge, but I cannot in all good conscience say that I am going to throw open the accounts and give unfettered access without some checks and safeguards to ensure that the very small minority do not have the ability to abuse a young adult. However, I will commit to following through with colleagues at the DWP to see whether there is anything we can do to copy or piggyback on their approach and make the system more accessible.

I am grateful for the Minister’s candour. We have heard what he has to say. Like the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), I am keen to work with the Minister, and I know that he has put changes in train to improve the situation. I was pleased to hear what he said about mailing, and we will certainly work with him to see how it can be improved. I know that his intent is absolutely genuine and that he has genuine worries about ensuring that any scheme is safe for all, but this is about proportionality. There is a concern that thousands of young people may miss out because of the Minister’s genuine concern about what could be a very small number indeed.

I come back to the point about the DWP appointee scheme. If fraud is at work, which is always a risk when the Government are distributing or giving access to money in any form, there are far bigger fish to fry than the child trust fund. Trying to avoid that tiny risk prevents access for many thousands of people. We should be able to find a more effective yet secure way through. I urge him to keep reviewing the issue.

I was pleased to hear the Minister say that he will talk to the DWP about the process. I understand his point about primary legislation, but ultimately if primary legislation is required to ensure that we can right a wrong and get fairness, I am sure that it would not be a controversial bit of legislation—and what on earth are we here for? I look forward to ongoing discussions with the Minister and to finding a solution that works for all these disabled young people and their families.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Child Trust Fund access for people seeking to manage the finances of others.

Sitting adjourned.