Thursday 9 February 2017
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, I should remind your Lordships that if there is a Division in the Chamber the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.
Historical Statues and Memorials
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate. In doing so, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as a patron of the charity Memorial 2007. I thank in advance all noble Lords for taking part in this debate.
The history of our country is passed down to us through many different channels—in the content of the history books in our libraries, in the syllabuses taught to students in our schools and universities, in the events we choose to commemorate and in the events we choose to forget. Its physical embodiment is found in the statues and monuments that stand in every city, town and village across the country. In many cases the judgment that history makes on the people commemorated by these statues and monuments is less favourable than the view that their contemporaries took or that they themselves sought to propagate.
In other countries, as history has turned, there has been wholesale destruction of monuments that no longer found favour. It was true in France after the revolution, in Germany after the Second World War and in many parts of Europe after the collapse of Soviet communism. Lacking a violent domestic upheaval in our own recent history, there has been no great disruption of our monuments. Inevitably, therefore, a fair number of history’s villains, rendered in stone or bronze, are scattered across our towns and cities. There are those who argue that the most egregious of these villains should be removed. When I first tabled this Question, a debate was raging over whether the statue of Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, should be removed. The controversy that followed exemplified the emotional significance afforded to these physical manifestations of our history.
I am no fan of Cecil John Rhodes; I have spent enough time in southern Africa and read enough of its history to be in no doubt about the greed-fuelled violence he unleashed on that part of Africa, the legacy of which, tragically, remains to this day. But we cannot pretend he did not exist, or that his actions were not ultimately backed by British arms and sanctioned by British law. He is part of history; he cannot be wished away any more than any other cruel period in our history can be wished away. He is of course not alone. At the public entrance to this building stands a statue of Oliver Cromwell, whose violent suppression of the English Levellers, the royalists and the Catholic Irish is well documented. London and other cities are littered with statues to slave owners. They stand alongside buildings constructed with the riches accumulated through the slave trade and close to monuments to assorted imperialists and racial supremacists of the 19th and 20th centuries. The truth is that our history is so closely entwined in these things that to pretend we can disentangle it by removing a statue or two is to delude ourselves.
We should not try to deny our history in that way but we seem determined to deny it in another. Ten years ago, a national service of remembrance was held in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the bicentenary of the Act that abolished the transatlantic slave trade. The service culminated in the Queen laying flowers, first to honour all who worked for the abolition of the slave trade and afterwards to honour those who were enslaved. The flowers to honour the abolitionists were laid at the statue of William Wilberforce that stands in Westminster Abbey, but there was no statue or monument to honour the millions of enslaved Africans—to bear witness to the vast numbers who died in appalling conditions in the camps on the African coast, on the slave ships crossing the Atlantic or at the hands of brutal overseers in the plantations. There was no statue to the millions more who survived the horror of the slave ships to suffer the unspeakable physical and psychological violence of slavery, and no statue to the courage and fortitude of those who survived and resisted. Instead, the Queen had to step outside the abbey and place her flowers on a paving stone in the forecourt, which is inscribed with generic words in tribute to the innocent. I was struck by this at the time: why was it that 200 years since abolition, there was no national memorial in our capital city to honour the millions of African people enslaved or murdered in the transatlantic slave trade? Why was there no monument to remind us that the capacity for unspeakable brutality towards innocent people is not reserved to one nationality, or to one time in history? It is in all of us and it must be guarded against by all of us at all times. History teaches us that lesson, but we have to be willing to learn.
When I was appointed to this House, I tried to find out why this part of our history seemed to have been passed by, and in doing so I came across two formidable women who are here today. They are trustees of a charity called Memorial 2007, which was established to bring into being a monument to honour the countless millions of enslaved African people and their descendants, to give voice to their history and to gain recognition that it is also all of our history. Through their fortitude and determination and against many obstacles, they secured a site for a memorial garden and sculpture in Hyde Park. They held a design competition, commissioned a sculptor and—just recently—gained planning consent for the project from Westminster City Council. They are now raising funds to make the enslaved Africans memorial a reality. The project got its inspiration from a pupil of one of the trustees. On a visit to the Tower of London, the pupil asked, “Where is our history, Miss?”. Nowhere is that absence truer than in the history of the transatlantic slave trade, for while there are statues and monuments to slave owners and white abolitionists alike, there is no representation of the history of the enslaved African people. There is no representation that testifies to the determined advocacy of black abolitionists, such as Olaudah Equiano. In all the self-congratulation over abolition, we lost sight of the real story: the central part our country played in 300 years of the brutal enslavement of millions of our fellow human beings. In losing sight of that story, we failed to learn the lessons that history has to teach us.
The Question we are debating today is a wide one and I recognise that noble Lords will want to raise a range of issues relating to this subject, but I hope the Minister will be able to address some specific issues regarding the enslaved Africans memorial in her response to this debate. First, I hope she will be able to put on record her and the Government’s support for this long-overdue monument. Secondly, I would be grateful if she could indicate whether the Government are willing to provide the sort of technical assistance to Memorial 2007 that was afforded to recent projects, such as the Ghandi statue. Thirdly, the Minister may be aware that following the difficulties with the Diana memorial, the Royal Parks now require a maintenance endowment over an extended period. In the case of the proposed enslaved Africans memorial, this amounts to nearly £1 million. I would be grateful if the Minister could look at this and consider whether the Government might be able to review this requirement, or take on this part of the cost. Finally, I hope the Minister can give guidance to public authorities and grant-giving bodies that they should consider the diverse historical experiences of our country in their decisions.
I do not believe that we should attempt to deny our history by tearing down existing statues and monuments, but we should bear true witness to that history by ensuring that the monuments of our capital city and our country begin to reflect a rather wider and more inclusive history. In 1682, as the historian Madge Dresser notes, William Goodwyn proposed a public statue in London which would have prominently acknowledged the injustice suffered by enslaved Africans under British rule. Some 335 years later, that call has not been answered. It is now time—well past time—to put that right.
My Lords, my involvement with memorials is as a trustee of the War Memorials Trust. First, I want to wish a fair wind to the proposals that the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and his colleagues are working on. I hope they are successful.
There are a number of museums about the slave trade, particularly in various port cities in our country, which tell people about the appalling effects of the trade in considerable detail. They are in their way memorials to what took place and to those who suffered. A discussion about memorials versus museums echoes the discussions, particularly after World War I, when local people thought about whether they wanted a war memorial carved in stone in their area or whether an amenity of some kind was more appropriate. Different communities took different decisions. We all know of war memorial hospitals, playing fields, village halls and so on.
I come originally from Leicester, where we have not only a fine memorial arch, designed by Edwin Lutyens, but also the University of Leicester, which was founded as a college in 1921, specifically as a war memorial. It proudly proclaims in its motto, “Ut vitam habeant”—so that they may have life. Its website describes the university as,
“a living memorial for those who lost their lives in [the] First World War”.
The War Memorials Trust supports war memorials that are in need of restoration, both of the stone kind and of an amenity kind—although not the University of Leicester, simply because it is outside our scope. We are assisted in this now by the Government’s First World War Memorials Programme, which we run for them with Historic England and the equivalent bodies in other parts of the UK. If any noble Lords or others know of a war memorial of either kind that seems in need of a bit of TLC, please let us know and we will do what we can to help, with both advice and, sometimes, grants.
Unfortunately the memorial suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, would not qualify, both because it is a new memorial—we are specifically about the conservation of existing memorials—and because I do not think it could exactly count as a war memorial under the definition used for legal purposes. Nevertheless, I wish his project well. It deserves the support of all in this House.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for organising this important debate. Memorialisation is possibly the most eternal form of art. Whether it is of events or ways of life, it has for millennia been used to capture the essence of who we are. In part, it is historical record, but it is also the presentation of history—the source of our common understanding of where we come from. This understanding underpins the foundation of our society and, as such, has a dynamic and forward-looking impact. This is especially important in a country such as the United Kingdom, which through its connections to far-flung places has a particularly complex history that combines a wide variety of actors, communities and cultures, not all of which are acknowledged.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Oates, I should like to set out the importance of memorialisation in the context of the enslaved Africans memorial, which I wholeheartedly support. A few years ago, I was born in Jamaica; or—and not to age myself—the British colony of Jamaica, as it was known then. When one thinks about Jamaica, one thinks of its vibrancy, spirit and honour, and the strength of the people. All that is true, but what is also true is not often recognised in this country, which is that Jamaica is a country born out of suffering. In 1655, when British forces captured Jamaica from the Spanish, the population of the island was just 2,500. Between 1670 and 1680 the slave population never exceeded 10,000, but the British could see the potential of sugar cane to generate enormous wealth for the Government. However, labour was needed. By 1800, only 120 years later, more than 300,000 Africans had been enslaved and forced to work on the Jamaican plantations. Thousands of British families grew rich on their backs and hundreds of great homes were built using the wealth generated by slavery. Ports and cities were developed on the spoils of the slave trade. The work of the enslaved generated the prosperity that made the Industrial Revolution possible. We are also enjoying the benefits because modern Britain is built on the legacy of the slave trade.
The scale of the wealth created for Britain by the transatlantic slave trade is matched and exceeded only by the suffering it inflicted, yet while we rightly celebrate its abolition and those who campaigned for it, we do not recognise or honour the people who were ripped from their homes and enslaved. This is hugely important to our country. We may think of slavery as part of history, but the attitude that it embedded in the mindset of all people continues to follow us to this day, and its legacy is felt in the systematic racial discrimination that continues to feature in our society. Yes, we have made great progress, but until we face up to our past and discuss it openly and without blame, we will struggle to heal fully.
Memorialisation is particularly important for the descendants of the enslaved. Marcus Garvey once said—
I shall just finish. I recommend the proposed enslaved Africans memorial in Hyde Park because it would become a vital part of this country’s self-perception and history. It would honour those who have been missing from our history for too long and help us to recognise the complexities on which our society has been built. We would also return roots to a group of people who have not known their history. In doing this, together we will create a society that is more cohesive and just in the future.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Oates on bringing this matter to the attention of noble Lords. Creating new memorials to reflect our broader history would be a very good thing. As I walked through London on my way here today, I looked at the various memorials because I knew that I would be speaking in this debate. I saw a great many men who had had fairly undistinguished military careers gazing heroically down roads, either on horseback or on foot, and they seemed to reflect when the buildings behind them were put up. That tells us quite a lot about the people who built them but only a little about the people represented. I would hope that our new memorials will reflect people who do not have the money to support the building of memorials rather than more statues that are about paying off a relative and the wish to impress someone. We should be encouraging people who are not in that position, and in doing so we would be doing ourselves a service.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, mentioned war memorials. They are probably an incredibly good example of where we should be going because they represent groups. Individuals may be recorded on them, but they represent groups. If we concentrate on groups and stop trying to reflect the “great men” school of history, we can do no better than look to our war memorials. Then we will be approaching this in the right way. If the Industrial Revolution changes a place, it changes the way a group and a society are structured. If we say that the slave trade affected groups, memorials to them should show how that group was affected.
Such statues are slightly more difficult to put up than those of one person standing on a horse and looking heroically down a shopping precinct, but we have to start thinking about this. We should really start thinking about it when we start building. That is the easy time to do it, when there is money around. I hope the Minister will be able to indicate that anybody building a new project might be encouraged to think about what they would like to record.
My Lords, I have been looking at statues in various countries and cities for many years. I apologise for using a French word, but I am what is known in France as a flâneur; in other words, I wander around with no particular aim looking at things, and statues are among my favourites. The theme of my speech in the brief time I have at my disposal will not exactly follow that of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, but I thank him for the opportunity to talk about statues. I will talk uniquely, because of the time, about London and the House of Lords.
As a flâneur, one realises that those who commission statues and monuments and those who create them put great thought into them. Generally, they have to be attractive; they have to be historically relevant, which they are normally are—they are mostly historical in London. I doubt whether any of your Lordships would be able to guess how many people in one normal day stop and look at a statue at all. Statues are quite inappropriate now to the way in which people conduct themselves in streets and public places. Most young people are now connected with some electronic device. They pass by; traffic moves very quickly—it was not intended when a lot of statues went up.
However, there are some marvellous statues. Before I move on to the House of Lords, I urge everybody to become a flâneur for a moment and cross the road to look at the statue of Churchill. It is a remarkable and exceptional statue, because not only does it remind us of that great man but it has energy and it is about art as well as anything else.
As you come into the House of Lords, you will pass the statue by Marochetti—it is a bravura statue—of Richard the Lionheart. Why it should be Richard the Lionheart I do not know. I think Marochetti rather preferred the Black Prince, but that never happened—although I think a model was made of the Black Prince and I think the Queen has one of the several copies that remain. As you come into the House of Lords, you will see numerous statues—just under 300. Some of them are outside; some of them are inside. Most demand attention and indeed they get it. You might say that in the House of Lords the statues that we have are working statues, because every day we have people going down the route allotted to them, so the statues are examined on a day-to-day basis, quite unlike anything outside.
I think I have probably reached the end of my three minutes and that is really all I have to say. I hope the noble Lord will again put down this subject for debate when we might have a little more time for it, allowing for something relatively flippant compared with the noble Lord’s speech and we can all indulge ourselves on our particular line. It has been refreshing to have an opportunity to speak on the subject.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for holding this debate and for his eloquent and persuasive speech, backed equally eloquently and persuasively by the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence. It was a compelling case that he made.
I start with a quiz question: what do General Smuts, Winston Churchill, Viscount Palmerston, David Lloyd George, Nelson Mandela, George Canning, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi have in common? There are two possible answers, neither of which will win you the points. The first is that they are all commemorated by statues in Parliament Square. The second is that they are all men. Every statue in Parliament Square is of a man. The fact that this point is very simple and very obvious does not rob it of significance. In my view, it is simply wrong. I would go so far as to say that it is a national embarrassment.
I want to make a simple proposal. I am proud that we should commemorate outside our Parliament the end of apartheid, the fight for Indian independence and victory in the American civil war. We should pay tribute to the great struggles for freedom and it is an appropriate place to do so. But let us also pay tribute in an appropriate place to our own great struggles for democracy. Of these, surely one of the greatest is the struggle to win votes for women. Let us have a statue in Parliament Square for Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Let us have a statue for the woman who led the peaceful democratic campaign for change; the woman whose leadership of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies changed minds and won votes—its work was the heart of the movement, with 25 times the membership that Mrs Pankhurst boasted. Let us have a statue for the woman who was there from the first petition to the final victory for the cause; who took up campaigns to curb child abuse by raising the age of consent; who fought to criminalise incest, combat cruelty to children within the family, end the practice of excluding women from courtrooms when sexual offences were under consideration and to stamp out the “white slave trade”. How can this country have no proper monument to celebrate the life of one of its greatest pioneers and leaders? How can it be that so many people are unaware of one of our most successful and important political leaders, somebody who produced work of real consequence that has changed the nature of Parliament, and rightly so?
The feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez has launched a drive to see justice done in Parliament Square and justice for Millicent Fawcett. I proudly join my cause to hers. On Millicent Fawcett’s statue, let it say, “This is Dame Millicent Fawcett, champion of the weak, defender of children, tribune of the great women’s campaign”.
My Lords, I am proud to be vice-patron of the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill, an initiative spearheaded by my noble friend Lady Flather, who pioneered and persisted in raising the funds, helped by others, to make this memorial possible. It was inaugurated by Her Majesty the Queen in 2002. Every March, we have a commemoration ceremony on Commonwealth Day. I chaired that ceremony for six years and continue to be a member of the Memorial Gates Council. To quote Her Majesty the Queen’s Commonwealth message to the 53 member states:
“We are guardians of a precious flame, and it is our duty not only to keep it burning brightly but to keep it replenished for the decades ahead”.
The Memorial Gates have flames burning above them. On one of the pillars of the gates is a quote from the poet Ben Okri:
“Our future is greater than our past”.
Inscribed on the roof of the pavilion next to the Memorial Gates are the names of the VC and GC recipients from the countries that are represented there. Five million people from what was then India, south Asia, Africa and the Caribbean served in the First and Second World Wars. We would not have our freedom today without their service and sacrifice. On that roof are the names of three recipients of the Victoria Cross from my father’s battalion, the 2nd 5th Gorkha Rifles Frontier Force. My father became commander-in-chief of the Central Indian Army. He was president of the Gorkha Brigade and he led his battalion, the 2nd 5th Gorkhas, in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. I was proud to have been brought up with two of those Victoria Cross winners, Gaje Ghale and Agansing Rai. The third, Netrabahadur Thapa, was awarded posthumously.
Memorials are there to inspire the future and our youth. It gives me such pleasure to see schoolchildren attend our ceremony every year. What are the Government doing to encourage, promote and support education programmes in schools on all our memorials. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for initiating the debate and I wish him well in the creation of the monument to enslaved African people. There is a Sikh memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum, as there is a Gurkha one. But although there is a Gurkha memorial in London, there is no Sikh memorial in London. Does the Minister believe we should have a Sikh memorial here?
Before I conclude, one of my proudest achievements as a Member of your Lordships’ House for the past 10 years was being a member of the Joint Committee of both Houses that put up the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. It is only the 11th statue. I never cease to find people in front of it when I walk through or drive around Parliament Square, because Mahatma Gandhi’s message is for the world. Once again, what are we doing to promote the message of Mahatma Gandhi and the individuals there to educate, because memorials are there to commemorate, to remember and to inspire? I conclude by reading those famous words on the Kohima war memorial:
“When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today”.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for this debate, and in particular for the work he is doing on the memorial to those who have been enslaved. We look forward to hearing more about it as it develops. I am pleased that he has focused our minds not just on existing memorials, but on what we ought to be doing as we look to the future, especially for the urgent need to celebrate the wide diversity of people and events that have contributed to our national life, many of which are underrepresented in our public spaces.
As levels of social capital and civic engagement continue to decline across communities in western Europe, there is an urgent need to think about how we can retell, reboot and celebrate our common stories and our public spaces through memorialising and celebrating people and events. For example, St Albans, where I live, is where the first meeting of the bishops and barons took place in 1213, which was to lead two years later to the sealing of Magna Carta. Yet this seminal event is not celebrated in any public space in the city. I have been encouraging people to think about how we might do that. I hope we may be able to. This is a great lost opportunity to educate and talk about the roots of our human rights, which started in very early stages there.
A second example in the city is Samuel Ryder, the mayor of St Albans, businessman and lifelong Methodist who set up the Ryder Cup, which was invented in nearby Hertfordshire. In 2011 our local district council agreed planning permission for a statue to commemorate him, but five years on, as is so often with these projects, funding is difficult to secure. Our experience is that a lot of these projects take a long time to get going. You have to build groups of people to get support, planning and so on. While I commend the existing memorials grant scheme, would the Minister encourage Her Majesty’s Government not only to extend it beyond 31 March 2020, when I think it will come to an end, but see whether we can extend its remit to help local community groups as we think about how we develop this area further?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which is extremely important, especially given the large number of upcoming services that will commemorate and respect those who laid down their lives for our freedoms in the two world wars.
When I walk around the ancient area of London, where we are fortunate to work, both inside and outside the Palace, I have numerous memorials and statues to pay my respects to. From the square outside to the memorials on Whitehall and through to Trafalgar Square, I can pay my respects to men who built up this country. However, I have noticed what I feel is a glaring omission. Empire builders—men such as Churchill and Montgomery—are well represented, but there is very little recognition of those who fought for the UK from certain parts of the empire. I wish specifically to talk about the Sikh community, to which I am privileged to belong.
After the defeat of the Sikh Empire in 1849, Sikhs were recruited en masse into the British Army and formed its elite fighting forces, becoming heavily represented in the officer class. One early incidence of their extreme valour came when 21 Sikhs of the 36th Sikhs fought 10,000 Afghans at a border post for several hours, fighting till the last man and allowing other troops to regroup and retake the fortress. All troops received the equivalent of the Victoria Cross in India—the Indian Order of Merit—and established the reputation of Sikhs as a fearless martial race. This House and other places rose to pay homage to the fallen—as rare an occurrence then as it is now.
The bravery and sacrifice of Sikh communities continued through the world wars, when they had voluntary conscription rates higher than any other community across the empire. In World War I, Sikhs constituted some 20% of the Indian army, despite being just 1% of the Indian population at the time. Some 83,000 of these men became casualties during the fighting in France and north Africa, with a further 109,000 being seriously wounded. Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who commanded Sikh regiments, said, “In a fight, a Sikh will go on to his last breath, and die laughing at the thought of Paradise, with the battle-cry of ‘Khalsa ji ki jai’ as he falls”.
The first Viscount Slim, commander of the 14th army, also expressed reverence for the Sikhs he commanded, saying, “It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war”.
At the extremely bloody Battle of Neuve Chapelle some Sikh regiments lost 75% of their men during a single engagement, which was important in testing German defences and formulating a new tactical plan for trench warfare.
I shall say just one thing more. We must move on with the knowledge that the greatness of this country was achieved by a wide array of communities and resolve to create a proper memorial here in London, the former imperial capital. They deserve nothing less. It is a great shame that significant memorials exist in India and France but not here. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, if the Minister is committed to the establishment of new memorials that reflect the broader history of the UK, this is the right place to start.
I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for initiating this debate. As always when I do not know a noble Lord, I went to Wikipedia to see what I could find out—the collective wisdom of the internet always impresses me. The noble Lord is the fifth most influential Liberal Democrat, he may be interested to hear. I also learned about the people he went to university with. The depth of information never ceases to amaze me on that website. Noble Lords may not realise that Wikipedia, the internet’s main historical resource, is 90% created and curated by men. I am going to build on what the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, said, because we do not do much better IRL, as my godchildren would say—in real life.
My friend, the campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, did an incredible audit of the statues of this country and created a database. Of 925 statues, 71 were of women, 29 of which were of Queen Victoria. There were 498 statues of non-royal historical men and only 25 of non-royal historical women. There were 43 statues of men called John. How do you become a statue if you are a woman? It helps if you are naked and it helps if you are an allegorical figure, although the allegorical figure of History was ripped down because somebody decided that she should be a bluestocking, heaven forbid, and it was decided that that was not a good idea. Half of all female statues are allegorical figures, such as Justice, nine represent Art, while there are 45 male allegorical figures.
This, to my mind, is unacceptable. You cannot be what you cannot see. Quite apart from not reflecting our broad and wonderful complex cultural history, it is depressing to think that young women walking around our country cannot see the pinnacles of achievement that have been reached by people from all walks of society and all parts of life. Men dominate all the statues of scientists, businessmen and politicians. Why not start with my own heroine, Ada Lovelace, the computer engineer? I support the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, 100%, but I would go further. I urge noble Lords to sign Caroline’s petition to put Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square but I also urge the Minister to consider a profound redressing of the gender imbalance at a time when it feels so crucial that we give more examples of different ways of being to young women all over the country.
My Lords, remembering is an important but undervalued part of life. As technology causes us to live in moments of distraction and being elsewhere, memorials help us to value the past and be in the present, and to reflect. They are statements of who we are, what and who has shaped us and what we value.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for bringing to my attention the memorial for enslaved Africans that thankfully now has planning permission from Westminster City Council. It is so long overdue in London, as that grotesque trade is part of the history of this city. The British Museum and the National Gallery, which attract so many visitors, were begun with collections from families who had profited from plantations worked on by African slaves. For many that I have met, their family history—their own “Who Do You Think You Are?”—ends with a ship that had left Elmina Castle in Ghana. Records end, but soon they will have a place to go once this memorial is built.
I pay tribute to the role of the BBC and its recent history project and accompanying series “Black and British”, written and presented by historian David Olusoga and with an imaginative original score by the young up-and-coming black British composer Segun Akinola. The history of black people goes back to Roman times, with black soldiers guarding Hadrian’s Wall in the third century, and the project placed plaques in various locations recognising the black British people who had lived there.
Historic England maintains the National Heritage List for England, the apparently only official and up-to-date database of all nationally protected historic buildings and sites in England. Could the Minister, taking on a theme from this debate, outline whether an assessment has been made of this list to ensure that any other gaps, such as the enslaved Africans memorial, have been identified? Do we, and should we, have a proper memorial to the “Windrush”, which arrived in Tilbury 70 years ago next year? Whatever happened to Danny Boyle’s replica that was used in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, to great effect?
We need to think about what new memorials we need but also which need taking down or delisting. Perhaps we need some temporary memorials on appropriate anniversaries, the equivalent for memorials of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square—perhaps a plinth here in Parliament or Parliament Square.
Some of the most important memorials in the UK are war memorials, both local and national. The Commonwealth War Memorial Gates at Hyde Park Corner are majestic, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, outlined, but the contribution of the Commonwealth and today’s black and minority ethnic soldiers is in my view not prominent enough at the annual Cenotaph service, when the nation comes together publicly. I hope the Minister will consider that point and look at reviewing that as well.
My Lords, this has been a very good debate. I cannot reflect all the views in the very limited time I have, so I will leave it to the Minister to sum them up.
There are three points that I should like to make. First, what we are talking about is very often the old adage that history is written by the winners and that therefore somehow the memorialisation of that history is also what we are arguing against. Secondly, it is clear from those who have argued already today that there are gaps—the suffragettes and suffragists, for example; slaves, as pointed out by the noble Lord who introduced the debate; and women more generally. Maybe your Lordships’ House should take on the responsibility of carrying out a regular and critical review of those gaps and making recommendations that might be taken up by everyone, including the Government, and how we might do that. That is possibly a thought for the usual channels to take forward.
I support the noble Lord who moved the Motion in getting answers to the questions that he asked, with particular reference to the question of what the Royal Parks might do about the request for £1 million to ensure that a memorial, once built, is maintained. Under the new structure the Government will have a lesser role in this, and I would be interested to know what the Minister thinks about what will happen to that request because it is genuine.
Thirdly, the HLF is probably the agency that has most responsibility in this area. It would be interesting to know what proportion of the grants it currently gives goes to memorials. I am also personally interested in our taking up some of the ideas that the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, mentioned, about how intangible memorials might be supported. That might be a way of getting out of always focusing on statues, because they are not always the right way forward.
I understand from my quick research that the HLF has already funded the Gomersal Colliery Memorial Project in Yorkshire, which centres on miners’ sculptures, complemented by personalised paving slabs and opportunities for former miners to get together to recall memories, but I do not think—although I would have thought there was a case for it—it supports the memorial, run by Carousel, to the history of the Paralympic Games, which would be another way of trying to pick up an issue that has not been given sufficient regard. Also, the Tolson Memorial Garden in Huddersfield celebrates the work of service men and women who have lost their lives since the end of World War II. It is part of a museum but, again, it is intangible work. Then there is the work of the Woodland Trust, which is thinking imaginatively about ways to memorialise using the natural environment. That is something that might slip between the various agencies. Perhaps the Minister might respond on that.
At the end of the day, the need to fund these operations is only as strong as the ideas that come forward. There is a broader context here about who drives it. I have suggested that the House of Lords might have a role but we will need to think very widely when we do that and get across the issues that have been raised today in this good debate.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this interesting and far too short debate, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for introducing it. I have also learned a new name to describe myself: like the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, I am something of a flâneur. I have always loved looking at statues. The sad thing about life today is that we walk around with our heads down a lot of the time, not necessarily on the phone but we do not look up and there is so much to see in all our cities.
This nation’s many great statues and memorials form an increasingly studied and enjoyed aspect of the public realm. There are more than 1,300 mentions of statues on the National Heritage List for England, which gives a sense of their ubiquity. They are the embodiments of our great history and include some of the highest examples of the sculptor’s art. The recent dispute over the statue and plaque in Oxford to Cecil Rhodes, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, shows that some statues are capable of generating a great deal of controversy. Historic England’s next exhibition, “Immortalised”, in 2018, will be on the subject of who is remembered in monuments and why. It is a topic attracting more and more attention generally.
The listing system ensures that proper care and protection are afforded to buildings and structures, including statues and memorials, of special architectural or historic interest. Policy on the listing of buildings is currently being revised and will shortly be published as the updated Principles of Selection for Listing Buildings. It will be complemented by Historic England’s range of listing selection guides. These set out its approach to the identification of buildings for consideration for listing and include its Commemorative Structures Listing Selection Guide.
Historic England’s first exhibition at Somerset House in 2016, “Out There”, was on the topic of post-war public art and was very well received, coming just days after the unprecedented grade 2 and grade 2* listing of 41 post-war public sculptures. Several of these pieces are by well-known sculptors and include: Henry Moore’s “Knife Edge Two Piece” near the Houses of Parliament, Barbara Hepworth’s “Winged Figure” on John Lewis in Oxford Street, and Elisabeth Frink’s “Horse and Rider” in Piccadilly.
Historic England built on this by the publication of new guidance on the care of public art. In considering whether to grant listed building consent or planning permission for development which affects a listed statue or memorial, local planning authorities are required to have special regard to the desirability of preserving the structure or its setting or any features of special architectural or historic interest that it possesses. In addition to receiving statutory protection through inclusion on the National Heritage List for England as listed buildings, statues and memorials can also be locally listed by local planning authorities.
As well as publishing guidance on the selection of statues and memorials for listing, Historic England has produced guidance on caring for cemetery monuments and war memorials. As part of the four-year First World War centenary commemorations, the Government have made funding of £4.5 million available to conserve and protect war memorials. Here I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lord Cope, who does fantastic work as a trustee of the War Memorials Trust. Led by Historic England, in partnership with Imperial War Museums, the War Memorials Trust and Civic Voice, the project is working with the public to record, research, conserve and list war memorials across Britain to ensure that they are protected and the people they commemorate are remembered.
Historic England has pledged to nominate an additional 2,500 war memorials for inclusion on the National Heritage List for England. This campaign will potentially triple the number of listed memorials, which are thus ensured long-term protection. They include many with fine sculptures by noted artists such as Charles Sargeant Jagger and Eric Gill. Civic Voice is running workshops in local communities, teaching local people how to record the condition of a memorial, how to apply for grant funding and how to get the memorial protected, ensuring a legacy of trained volunteers. Communities and schools across the country are getting involved in this important project and I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria—we need to encourage schools and young people in general to get involved in this work and to understand the meaning and value of our memorials and statues. Since the 1990s, there has been a surge in the number of new memorials and statues erected. Recently, attention has been drawn to the imbalance in the number of statues of women. I am happy to say, particularly in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and my noble friend Lord Finkelstein, that Historic England is engaged in discussions with the Greater London Authority about a proposed new statue of a suffragette in Parliament Square, so there is progress.
Recently, several statues in London with resonance for the black community were listed, including the statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square. However, it must be said that some areas—particularly in London—are becoming anxious that the number of recent memorials is leading to an overcrowding in public spaces. The City of Westminster is one such area and has issued guidance about the process that applications for new memorials should go through. There is a desire to encourage the erection of any new statues outside the core zone of Westminster. Removal of the requirement to seek approval from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport before erecting a statue in London places local planning authorities firmly in control of this process.
It is right that many organisations, trusts, charities and commercial organisations are able to freely propose, fund, develop and deliver memorials and statues marking a great variety of historical moments. It would be quite wrong for government somehow to orchestrate and curate which memorials should be proposed. Government does not have sole responsibility for the many new memorials that are rightly created. Of course, government supports memorials to mark particular events. We are delivering a new national memorial in honour of British victims of overseas terrorism, as well as a memorial to the victims of the 2015 attacks in Sousse and at the Bardo museum in Tunisia. Memorials have also been created in honour of the victims of 9/11, the 7/7 bombings in London and the 2002 Bali bombings.
Government also supports a new suffragette memorial, and a memorial is being created by the independent Iraq/Afghanistan Memorial Project charity to honour those who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. So, in some circumstances, government supports new memorials, but it is not for it to determine which memorials go ahead, and it is certainly—with limited public funds—not possible for central government to fund all new memorials. There is a tradition of funding new memorials through public subscription. Government supports this and experience has shown that there are often other funders—including the private sector—who are happy and willing to fund new memorials. That said, the Government offer support through the Memorials Grant Scheme, which allows charities and faith groups to claim a grant that is equivalent to the VAT paid on the eligible costs of erecting, maintaining or repairing public memorials. The scheme is administered by the DCMS for the whole of the UK.
On the proposed memorial to commemorate enslaved Africans, the idea of a permanent memorial in London to remember the enslaved and their descendants was first mooted in 2002. We have heard all about this from the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence. As a result, the charity Memorial 2007 was formed. Its goal was to erect a memorial on a site in the rose gardens of London’s Hyde Park. Following the success of Memorial 2007 in securing planning permission for the proposed memorial from Westminster Council in November 2016, the Royal Parks has indicated that it is open to discussion about locating it in Hyde Park, should Memorial 2007 raise the necessary funds, including those necessary for the memorial’s maintenance.
Since the establishment of Memorial 2007, the Government have taken some important steps to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, including the opening in August 2007 of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. The Government provide funding to the museum, which examines aspects of historical and contemporary slavery and is an international hub for resources on human rights issues. My noble friend Lord Cope talked about the different ways in which events that have taken place in our lives are remembered, such as by the creation of amenities and museums. That museum has a focus, as referenced by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, on human rights and the Magna Carta.
The Government also support the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which also includes a permanent exhibition, and we are delighted that the St James Heritage Quarter of Toxteth, Liverpool, is recognising its historical connection to the transatlantic slave trade. Both the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have endorsed their campaign to establish a living memorial to the victims of this dishonourable and abhorrent chapter of our history. The Government fully appreciate the tremendous efforts of Memorial 2007 over the past decade, and in particular those of its chair, Miss Oku Ekpenyon MBE, with whom they continue to work.
I also pay tribute to those in the Sikh community and what is perhaps still outstanding in that regard. I assure my noble friend Lord Suri and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, that the Government fully recognise the outstanding military contribution of Sikhs. We very much welcomed the construction of a permanent memorial to Sikh soldiers at the National Memorial Arboretum, the year-round centre for the remembrance for the whole of the UK. I understand that government was approached for assistance in identifying a central London site for this new memorial. However, as a great many people and organisations are interested in establishing memorials, the general rule is that it is for those bodies to raise the funding and work with the local planning authority to identify a suitable site.
That said, there is of course the National Memorial Arboretum, which brings me to the point referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and something which I personally feel quite strongly about. Living amenities and living memorials—also referenced by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland—are in a sense for the future. The Woodland Trust has been working to create a new generation of living memorials, which not only commemorate and celebrate the past but contribute to the future. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, I too have done some digging with the Woodland Trust on this. There have been a number of debates in your Lordships’ House recently about the loss of ancient woodland and the loss of more trees as demand for housing grows. Perhaps the planting of trees is a brilliant way to respond to that, in memoriam of different things that have happened. For example, there is the Wilberforce Oak, under which it is said William Wilberforce met the Prime Minister, William Pitt, to take up the case for the abolition of slavery. Back in 2007, there was a rather special example. Two schools in Portsmouth planted trees to remember the blood that was shed to ensure that slaves remained free after the abolition of the slave trade.
An amazing number of things are going on across the United Kingdom by which we mark different events in different ways. However, I assure all noble Lords that the Government take very seriously their continuing commitment to the historic built environment, including its statues and memorials. Again, I thank all noble Lords, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for taking part in this important debate.
Mental Health: Young People
My Lords, I am delighted to have secured this debate on the very important and pressing issue of young people and mental health, and the importance of parental support. The report is called There for You—an apt title, as I shall discuss. I am grateful to the Association for Young People’s Health, of which I am a proud patron, for presenting the results of its recent survey so cogently.
I am very happy to see that the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, is responding to the debate. I am aware of his interest in young people and we have often discussed their well-being in relation to character education and the links to personal, social and health education and life skills education. My noble friend Lord Patel also has a fine track record in supporting the development of initiatives in mental health. Many noble Lords speaking today have a variety of perspectives on this, so I look forward to a lively debate.
I will talk about some of the report’s background and proceed to repeat points made by parents. I will then seek the Minister’s acceptance of these points and his support. I recognise and appreciate that much has been done in recent years in recognition of young people’s mental health needs. I salute Norman Lamb MP for his tenacity and excellent work on this. The Prime Minister, of course, mentioned mental health last week.
I hosted the launch of this report. There, I talked to many parents who have the experience of supporting a son or daughter with mental health needs. They expressed agonies of feeling helpless, guilty, angry and sad at the lack of support. Many had sought private counselling as there was nothing available in the state system. The report estimates that 36% of parents are in this position. We must remember that young people are not just teenagers, but include children of primary school age and younger. These children may show disturbing behaviour—I do not mean just naughty behaviour, which is perfectly normal, but distress, which needs deciding upon and doing something about if it is not to become more serious.
Some of the parents had formed local parent groups. The question occurred to me: what if you cannot afford to get help? What if you do not have, for whatever reason, the initiative to set up a group? It seems that you just get left behind, feeling more and more distressed. I will give two moving quotations from the report. First, a parent said:
“It must be incredibly hard for a young person who’s in crisis themselves to then look at the one person they trust, who is sitting on the floor sobbing … thinking I have no idea what to do, and nobody’s helping me”.
Secondly, a young person said that,
“if they were to empower my mum … then I would feel more empowered too”.
These are real cries for help.
The report is part of a wider parenting project and reflects a survey of parents’ networks co-ordinated by Young Minds, which also does excellent work on the broad aspects of young people and mental health. A thousand parents were involved—not parents who had no voice at all, or those who are perhaps less engaged with their young person’s mental health problems, but it is a starting point for finding out what parents think. A fuller profile of the parents taking part is given in the short report.
The need for such research and action is clear. Half of all adult psychiatric disorders start by the age of 14. Only a quarter of young people referred to specialist services will be seen. Only 0.7% of the total NHS budget is spent on mental health services for the under-18s. Things are simply not changing fast enough, despite all the excellent recommendations and reports. I ask the Minister: how might this be improved? Self-help is good, but it is not sufficient. Parents and young people need a better deal. It is so much better to treat such problems early, rather than wait. Costs, as well as human misery, inevitably increase the longer there is lack of support.
Parents say that there is a problem of waiting times for treatment. They are often left alone to cope. They may have to take time off work, or go part-time or give up work. They struggle to find help or they may feel that they have something to offer but get sidelined. Many parents I talked to said that they needed more guidance on how to offer help to the young person in need. Dealing with a young person in crisis can leave a parent feeling helpless, guilty and under-confident. Parents and families—such problems affect the whole family—are desperate. Parents in the survey made suggestions about how things could be improved.
I will recount some of their ideas. The first is the development of parent support groups. Parents are dealing with the stresses of their children’s lives constantly. Of course, parenting has its joyful aspects, but come a crisis, parents and families often need help rather than having to cope on their own. Support groups are one way of helping. When I was chair of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse some years ago—the noble Lord, Lord Patel, will remember that—support groups for users, parents, grandparents and families were prominent in aiding recovery and, frankly, keeping people sane. Some of those groups were supported by local authorities. Support could include practical advice, with a dedicated worker to provide support. Would that not be a way of helping parents with children and parents struggling with crises, especially mental health crises? Support could include practical advice on where to go next in finding a CAMHS worker, for example, or other consistent key workers. Consistency is really important here. Having someone with professional expertise alongside them would be a boon to parents.
Secondly, parent support workers attached to schools were suggested as another means of helping parents. Such a person might, for example, manage the interface between services such as CAMHS, the school and the home. I certainly advocate a role for schools here. I have long been convinced that much stress is created in schools by overtesting and overpressurising. That is what children say. There is still no requirement for schools to develop coherent programmes for delivering ways of coping, such as personal, social and health education, character education, life skills—whatever we call it, children need it.
Thirdly, parents stressed the need for and importance of early intervention—help before the breaking point. A triage-based service for all levels of mental health issues is important, not just when they become crises. Parents also suggested that out-of-hours support such as telephone helplines could be important. They thought that parents could help design services and delivery. Involving those dealing with problems is always a better way of getting things right—my words, not theirs.
In reflecting on the results of this extremely helpful and powerful survey, I do not underestimate factors such as socioeconomic status, poverty and family situations. But any child, from any stratum of society or any family, can develop mental health problems. We must recognise that, and act on developing the valuable role that parents can play as partners in such situations. There may be some costs involved, but nothing extraordinary. In pure cash terms, the savings would be enormous in the long run. In terms of distress, they would be even more enormous.
Will the Minister reassure us that the Government have their eye on this, and will he personally intervene to encourage initiatives to help parents and young people? I know that he knows it makes total sense.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for initiating this debate. Mental health is coming out of the shadows and into the light. This generation will benefit from the greater awareness that their parents and grandparents were denied. It is a largely taboo subject for older generations, and because of this, physical health is talked about far more openly than mental health—for instance, we talk about children’s allergies but not their self-harming.
Conversations about mental health issues should be about hope and support, not shame and confusion. As parents, we recognise when a child is physically unwell, but mental health is far more complicated. Differentiating between normal problems experienced by children and the kind of behaviour that could be the first signs of a mental disorder is difficult, yet we know that early intervention is the first step towards effective treatment. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14. Parents have a vital role in contributing to support and solutions for successful outcomes. Those who develop good communication skills are more likely to pick up problems.
However, for parents to be able to give the support required, they in turn must be listened to and supported. Parents can feel sidelined. Building resilience in the family brings a better chance of helping a young person in the long term. Making parents part of the solution can help reduce the need for crisis intervention. They have a critical role to play in joint decision-making. It can be devastating and bewildering to realise that something is seriously wrong, and that can be after parents have been struggling for months. Their first port of call is usually the GP. Here they should find heightened awareness, information, advice and options available so that the right decisions can be made about supportive treatment, yet most GPs have very little mental health training. Is this going to change?
Schools have a vital role. Teachers are a large part of a young person’s life. Some 65% of primary school children were in contact with NHS mental services for the year ending June 2016. We must focus on prevention, and parents and schools are central to that. Studies have shown that school-based counselling services have a positive impact on learning. Will the Minister confirm that funding for this counselling will continue?
Oliver Goldsmith Primary School in Peckham is delivering a new programme, funded by the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, called CUES-Ed. The programme teaches children to recognise the signs when things are not right, and behavioural techniques to help them to manage their mood. However, this is rare. What training are teachers getting in dealing with mental health problems among schoolchildren? The time has come for joined-up decision-making and care between healthcare professionals, parents and teachers. We must ensure that there is access to effective treatment, that services are tailored and responsive to their communities, that children get the help they need and that parents are included so they are part of the solution. Our children have the right to timely treatment, just as they would get with a physical health problem.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for her leadership on this issue.
There is no greater advocate for the change that the internet has enabled than me. I see its benefits on a daily basis and have worked my whole working life within the sector. However, even I do not believe that we have yet understood, and developed the frameworks to help our children deal with, both the benefits and the destruction of this incredible revolution.
There is so much to be positive about. I see my nephews playing multiplayer games and building incredible things, connected to children they have never met before across the world. I see my godchildren playing chess in complicated ways with players they have never seen before in countries all over the world. However, it is hard to ignore some of the data and studies that also show how this technology is affecting children in a negative way. The BBC says that 62% of children on its websites are looking for mental health-related data. I look at this issue from a different angle: the number of children who are using some of the networks that were never intended for them. I declare an interest as a director of Twitter. Although we do not have so many children on our network, Facebook says that 52% of eight year-olds sign up to Facebook, despite an age limit of 14. I am not against social networks—quite the opposite—but there are reasons why they are age-appropriate.
The positives of this amazing technology must be countered by an understanding from parents and teachers about what their children are really doing. I had a small absence from your Lordships’ House as I now have seven-month-old identical twin boys, and this issue is front and centre as they see me with my iPhone or my iPad—probably too much—and immediately their faces turn towards it. I find this world hard to navigate; how it must be if you are living in one of the 1 million families in this country who do not have basic digital skills, I dread to think, let alone if you are a teacher who may themselves be struggling with understanding this complex new world, yet you are responsible for a class of children who may be at varying degrees of usage and attention in the classroom.
I feel strongly that we must create new ways of thinking about this problem. It starts with schools but it must also be led by parents. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Kidron who has done a lot of work on children and their rights, but we need to go further. I am keen to understand how we could use more creative thinking and I urge the Minister to consider this. Some amazing people around the world are looking at the issue, and I cite Danah Boyd, who is based at Stanford, as a world-leading expert. I would love to see how parents can be given comfort and reassurance in these uncertain times so as to make sure that the benefits continue to outweigh some of the dangers.
My Lords, there are few more urgent issues in modern Britain than the state of mental health among our young people, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for tabling this important debate. Referrals to specialist mental health services have risen dramatically in recent years as increasing social pressures on our young people threaten the mental health of a generation. Issues around body image are one area of particular concern, fuelled in part by the rise of social media. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for her important work around body image and self-worth.
One statistic that has caused me concern, and which I have already mentioned in the House, is the rise in self-harm among young boys and girls. Some 20% of British 15 year-olds report some form of self-harm, while in the past five years hospital admissions associated with self-harm have gone up by nearly 93% among girls and 45% among boys. It is notable that of the parents who participated in the report mentioned in the Question put by the noble Baroness in tabling this debate, 59% said that their child self-harmed.
The charity selfharmUK, located in my diocese, does amazing work helping parents, youth workers and teachers understand and respond to the issues around self-harm. But for many who do not have access to such resources, parents in particular, knowing how to respond can be very difficult. It is all too easy to panic and thereby sometimes make the situation even worse. What seems to me to be absolutely essential is readily available support and training for parents, teachers and youth workers about how to help children who are struggling with self-harm and similar mental health conditions. I was very moved, as I am sure were other noble Lords, by the comments made in the past week by the broadcaster Mark Austin in the Times about his struggle to understand his daughter’s anorexia. Can the Minister therefore inform the House what steps, in addition to the welcome mental health training for teachers announced by the Prime Minister last month, Her Majesty’s Government will take to make sure that parents and youth workers are able to access proper resources and support when it comes to understanding mental health in young people?
My Lords, our young people live in a culture that seems to value them for their outward appearance, their achievements and eloquence on social media and, grotesquely, their sexual allure at an even more tender life stage. They are under a significant amount of pressure and need reliable, loving foundations to thrive. Parents have a primary and indispensable role to play in providing these, so I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for securing this important debate.
As a sponsor-governor of the Ark School in Camberwell, I know about a whole-school approach where anti-bullying policies are not just words on a page but part of a culture that prizes nurture, encouragement and mutual support, all of which are vital. Equally, on-site counselling and therapy when children are clearly struggling with specific issues is needed. However, my heart sinks when the solutions to young people’s mental health problems are deemed to begin at the school gate given that much support, and in many cases the underlying contributors to their difficulties, is to be found at home. While there is an important parenting dictum that says, “Don’t take all the credit, don’t take all the blame”, another aspect of our culture which erodes so many young people’s sense of well-being and good mental health is the pervasiveness of contingent commitment in adult relationships—the sense that, “I will be there for you only as long as my needs are being met”.
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, who will contribute to the debate later, describes how this transition in the ethics of personal life flows from living in a society with a high divorce rate, yet the toll this takes on our children’s mental health means we must not treat current levels of instability in parental relationships as inevitable. In the past, many children had to face the world alone because of the death of one or more of their parents, but today’s high level of family breakdown can feel like a much more intentional wound. Professor Brad Wilcox’s new research shows that we have more children living in unstable families than anywhere else in the developed world. Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry showed that experiencing family fracture and separation from a parent in childhood are risk factors for later serious mental health disorders. Finally, US research found that low-conflict separation can also cause great harm. Children blame themselves and assume that relationships are fundamentally unreliable. Strong, stable families lay the foundations for life. Family breakdown has implications for population-wide mental ill health—we ignore this at our children’s peril.
Will the Minister let us know what the Government are doing to strengthen and stabilise families? Does he agree that every government department has a role to play in tackling our big cultural problem of family breakdown?
My Lords, I too wish to place on record my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. I welcome the briefing There For You. It is eloquent, and the parents involved in the survey are hands-on, informed and know how to connect. But what about those who do not? What about those who are not connected and who, in fact, feel disconnected from where to seek help or advice? These are the groups that we need to target and, I would argue, prioritise—those who are unable to recognise or cope with the reality that their child may have a mental health problem. We need to remove the stigmas and barriers around discussion. In that respect, some of us need to come out and admit how all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, battle with mental health problems that our friends and colleagues so rarely understand or acknowledge as a health issue. We need to deal with the causes of mental health problems, both physiological and psychological.
In that regard, I wish to say a few words about young people who are overlooked and often fall through the safety nets we try to construct: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex youths. The 2014 What about YOUth? survey of 15 year-olds presents deeply worrying facts that have, sadly, been overlooked by the Department of Health and the Department for Education. The research revealed that 31% of lesbian and gay 15 year- olds and 39% of bisexual 15 year-olds had low life satisfaction, compared with 12% of heterosexuals. Of those who had been bullied in the period under question, 74.5% were lesbian and gay and 81% were bisexual, compared with 53.4% who were heterosexual. These are 15 year-olds, crying out for help but help is not coming their way. These young people are crying out to be understood, especially among their own community and within their social structures. That is why we need comprehensive sex education that is mandatory, not something that schools or religious organisations can opt in or out of, so that people are not bullied or mistreated but are understood.
We need action plans to prevent the damage that is inflicted upon young children from a very early age. That harm affects us all. Parental support is not always there for LGBTI children because, for that to happen, the child would have to come out to their parents or teachers, and sometimes they are not ready or able to do so. If you put religious adherence in to this mix, the damage is toxic. Young people are shut out from families and religious communities and cast aside. There are some organisations doing great work in challenging circumstances, such as FFLAG, of which I am a patron. However, they are underresourced and always in demand. Schools Out is another, and is working hard to educate, particularly in this LGBT History Month. I urge the Minister to work cross-departmentally with these organisations and others to ensure that no child suffers.
My Lords, I, too, am deeply grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for allowing us to debate this issue. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for framing the very remarks I would have made myself so I shall admit to needing to refer to similar matters.
This debate has given me the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be the parent of an adopted child who came from a severely drug-disabled parent and therefore spent the early months of his life in an incubator without contact with adults and then developed significant distress disorders, which we live with now in his adult years. That led me to look at the detail of the research and to realise that mental disorder is often picked out as being about the distress that a young person or individual may feel, rather than necessarily being about a strict form of behaviour. Anxiety and distress lie behind the statistics from Young Minds, which I found very painful, of the high levels of male and female suicide—tragically, the girls are slightly beaten by the boys. That led me to reflect on how as parents we have responded to the needs of our youngest son.
In my son’s distress and confusion, and very often in his pursuit of answers, more than just parents have been necessary to assist him. As I looked at the report, I realised that there may well be a limitation on how we understand the role of parenting as defined as those who have a direct birth or adoptive responsibility. In our case, the wider community of parents—those from the church community, the local garden centre, the café and the Outward Bound community; those connected to the school; those who have been adoptive uncles and good friends in the wider area and those whom he can drop in on in the shops—those people do not fit the category of “parent” but they are parenting. They are providing a context of security, a relationship and a place of identity, and it is that network of identities that gives security to young men and women who long to find a place in which they can reveal their minds and hearts and release their distress. I hope that we will begin to move away from the liberal consensus that defines security only in relation to those by whom a child is cosseted for their protection to a more open approach to allow our communities, as would be the case in more traditional societies in other continents, to love a child in a community.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for securing this debate. I declare my interests as in the register.
Parents and carers play a huge part in supporting any young person, especially, as we have heard, one who is struggling with mental health difficulties. Parents have more personal, intimate knowledge than a professional would, and therefore can greatly support their child’s recovery. Maternal instinct can quickly pick up changes in a young person that the young person may not be aware of. Motivating a young person even to take their medication can be very challenging in many instances, as can supporting them in attendance of classes. Attendance at school or college offers greater independence in managing their mental health and providing continued support as they become an adult.
It is important for parents to be able to take time to care for themselves, too, and they need help, support and reassurance that they are doing the right thing. The question is: where would we be without our carers in the NHS system? Many parents and carers have no mental health qualifications. They are not mental health professionals. Sometimes it is hard for them to know when they, too, need extra support. In many cases they can feel isolated. That is where organisations such as Young Minds come into play, as well as other organisations such as parent support groups.
Time is of the essence for assessments and referral times. As we know, in many cases early intervention prevents a young person falling into crisis. This debate provides an opportunity to raise the profile of and highlight our young people’s mental health issues, keeping them to the fore. Mental health training for teachers and staff is to be welcomed but I would like to see a much more co-ordinated approach to training, developing strong links with schools, communities and mental health staff, and hope to see a reduction in rollout time.
I shall give two brief examples. The first is of a young person’s esteem using Snapchat. She took 15 images before she could make a choice. She self-harmed and wanted to change her body image so she enhanced the snap chosen, giving herself a tan, using soft focus, et cetera, giving a much better outward appearance until she felt better about herself. The second example is of a young person suffering from loneliness, sleeping intermittently, desperately wanting to answer a text quickly if sent very late at night, or even during the night, so as not to miss out or be left out the next time.
Finally, I feel that by debating issues of young people suffering mental health problems we are making sure that mental health problems are everyone’s problems. Much more needs to be done.
My Lords, I shall make some remarks about anorexia and obesity in children and young people, subjects that I have spent a chunk of my academic career studying. Anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder. Childhood obesity, as we all know, has taken on the characteristics of a huge epidemic: 20% of children aged 10 and 11 are obese in England and Wales. They seem separate conditions, almost opposites, but they are very closely linked. Both should be categorised as in some part mental disorders and are becoming so. The link is obsession-compulsion in relation to food and the body. Bulimia is like a bridge between the two in the experience of some young people.
There is a kind of unbelievable historical reversal going on here. Being fat was a characteristic of rich people and affected a tiny proportion of people in history. Anorexia was not even diagnosed until the late 19th century and was only known in the activities of saints fasting for the glory of God. Then about 50 years ago we had an amazing generalisation, not just in this country but across the world, of these linked conditions. To me, the main driving force is the advent of supermarket culture from about the 1950s and 1960s. This was the time when one had to decide what to eat in relation to how to be and we found an invasion of the body by compulsions and addictions.
I became interested in anorexia one weekend when I picked up two colour supplements of the Sunday papers. One had a starving teenager in Africa and the other had a starving teenager in the United States in the midst of an abundance of food. I thought that these conditions must be totally different, and so they are. We can be sure that these do not have genetic origins and the family and the peer group are plainly important influences. The family has a double role, obviously, because it can be causative in mental disorders as well as therapeutic. The work of the AYPH, which we are discussing today, is valuable here and slots into wider academic research.
I have a couple of quick questions for the Minister. Are the plans to combat eating disorders announced in January 2016 still on track? What happened to the waiting time targets for teenagers with eating disorders? Finally, what progress has been made with the conclusions of the document Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action, which also came out in 2016?
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, for securing this important debate and for drawing our attention to the pivotal role that parents play in supporting young people with mental health problems. We bring our children into a complex and difficult world, in which the lines between private and public are blurred and which operates 24/7 in 360 degrees through the likes of Facebook and Instagram. Our children never get a day off. Of course, older generations have always gazed with incomprehension at their children, bemoaning the lost values of their youth, and we are no different. Nor are we unusual in wanting to do our best for them, not just because as parents it is our duty, but also because we have an obligation as a society to care for our young. They are, after all, our future.
I am deeply troubled by the serious rise in mental health issues among children and young people in Britain today and the often inadequate help they are receiving, which puts enormous strain on them and their families. A lightning review by the Children’s Commissioner in May last year stated that as many as one in 250 children were referred to what is known as CAMHS by professionals. Of those, 28% were not allocated a service at all and 58% went on a waiting list. These are children in desperate need of help, who are often being turned away or asked to wait a long time for treatments, left with no one else to turn to but their parents. Parents often try to do all they can to help, but they are not trained specialists and can feel alone and overwhelmed by the responsibility and at times frightened for the safety of their child.
The recent paper “There for you” says:
“The practical impact on parents can be extensive. In order to care for their young people, many have to take time off work, go part-time, take unpaid leave, or resign from jobs entirely”.
There seems to be a corrosive combination of factors at work: a rising demand for help; frozen health budgets; a system of tough thresholds, which means that many referrals are turned away altogether; and long, painful waits for those who are lucky enough to get referred. Too often, by the time help is at hand the situation has deteriorated and the child may face no other option than being admitted to hospital. That is a terrible outcome for everyone. Taking the child out of their social environment, away from their families and friends, can make recovery times far longer and more painful and puts enormous pressure on parents, given that many of these places and sought-after beds are in hospitals miles away.
We have a serious problem, but one that I hope we are finally waking up to. I commend the Government’s recent intervention in this area and look forward to hearing more when their Green Paper comes out later this year. I especially welcome their focus on training teachers in schools, although I hope that that is extended to primary schools, where mental health issues so often begin.
However, diagnosis is one thing; treatment is another. We will never get to the heart of this problem while there are still rigid thresholds, rejected referrals and unacceptable waiting lists. We must try to intervene earlier and more aggressively. I also wonder whether we should not be looking for more creative solutions, working together with schools and the voluntary sector—perhaps in setting up drop-in clinics where parents and children might seek support from outside the system.
I welcome the concerns echoed across the Committee today and ask that we keep our eye on the ball, for we cannot afford to let things go on as they are.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on securing this vital debate. Parental and family relationships have a huge impact on children’s mental health. This debate is all the more timely, taking place during Children’s Mental Health Week. Recent research revealed that up to two-thirds of children aged 10 and 11 worry all the time, with concerns about family and friends topping the list of causes of anxiety. Figures released last week show that more than 50,000 young people turned to ChildLine last year because of a serious mental health problem. In the light of these very worrying figures, it is hard to overstate the importance of the role of parents in supporting children with mental health problems.
In the time available, I can make only two key points. First, parents are a vital support and often a lifeline to children with mental ill-health. Given that parents spend more time with their child than anyone else involved, they have a crucial role in advocating on behalf of and supporting their child through difficult times. However, as the results from the “There for you” survey show, too often parents feel unprepared and ill-equipped to support their child and consequently struggle to play the vital role that they would like to. Indeed, the YoungMinds parents’ helpline found that 41% of parents said that they felt excluded from their child’s treatment, with other parents saying that they felt confused and isolated. We have to acknowledge that for a variety of reasons, some already mentioned, some parents are simply unable to provide the support that their children need. Obviously, there is a particular issue for children in care. Another specific concern that I want to highlight is perinatal mental health. More than one in five mothers develop a mental health illness during pregnancy or in the first year after birth. The knock-on effect of a mother’s perinatal depression on the mental health of her child can be severe.
My second point is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, reminded us, the quality of parental relationships has a significant impact on children’s well-being. Children growing up with parents who have low parental conflict, whether together or separated, enjoy better physical and mental health, better emotional well-being and higher educational attainment. Conversely, research indicates that parents who engage in frequent, intense and poorly-resolved conflict put their children’s mental health and long-term life chances at risk. In a recent survey of more than 4,000 children, family relationship problems were reported by CAMHS clinicians as being the biggest presenting issue.
We must promote greater involvement of children and parents in children’s treatment and do all that we can to ensure that effective resources are available to parents. I pay tribute to the free confidential parent helpline run by YoungMinds and its Parents Say network, bringing together parents to form a vital support network. Policy solutions and interventions need to take account of the wider family relationship in which children live and are supported. I urge the Government to prioritise support for parental-couple relationships in wider government policy, to reduce one of the often unspoken root causes of children’s mental health problems.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Massey for giving us the opportunity to debate this important and pressing issue. She has great expertise in the care and welfare of children and young people, which is evident in all the contributions that she makes to the House. It has been an interesting debate and noble Lords have raised a number of important questions. I look forward to the Minister’s response; given the challenging environment, I do not envy him.
The Government pledged £1.25 billion for improving children’s mental health services and £250 million to improve CAMHS provision for each year of this Parliament. However, in spite of these commitments at a national level, those funds are not reaching children’s mental health services and disinvestment is taking place at local level. The Government would argue that there have been no reductions in funding; in essence, that is correct, as there have been no direct cuts from central government. However, we know that the NHS is underfunded and social care is in crisis. The cuts to CAMHS budgets are the result of reduced funding to the NHS and local authorities, which then make cuts to local services and staffing levels. The impact of all this, as so graphically highlighted by a number of noble Lords, is that children and young people and their parents are unable to access services when they most need them.
In January this year, the Government announced that they would be publishing a Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health. Will the Minister give us an indication of when this will be published? I understand that the Green Paper will contain new proposals for improving services across the system and increasing the focus on preventive activity across all delivery partners. I warmly welcome this, but with a note of caution.
I have four questions for the Minister. First, will he assure us that the proposals will be adequately funded? Secondly, as the Government will not interfere with local decision-making or ring-fence money, how can he assure us that any national funding is used as intended by the local commissioning groups? Thirdly, I welcome the focus on preventive activity across all delivery partners—education, health, social care and the voluntary sector—which I believe is a crucial part of the solution to developing a good quality of care, a point echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm. Are the Government proposing to issue guidance that will direct these partners to develop new ways of delivering children and young people’s mental health services that are collaborative and integrated? They should look at innovation, given the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, around technology—I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Fall, mentioned that, too.
Fourthly, any new proposals must involve service users. Will the Minister assure us, in the spirit of the report “There for you”, that the people who use services and their families are placed firmly at the centre of any plans in a meaningful, not tokenistic, way, in order to ensure that their voices are listened to, heard and acted on, especially those very vulnerable young people whom my noble friend Lord Cashman highlighted in his speech? It is vital that we build a sustainable future for children and young people’s mental health services. To do anything less risks failing an entire generation of children and young people.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, both for bringing about this debate and for the work she has done over many years in promoting the issues of mental health and mental well-being. I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords for this well-informed and passionate debate, and will try to respond in my speech to as many questions as possible.
I also welcome the report from the Association for Young People’s Health, and thank the parents in the YoungMinds network for their courage and honesty in discussing the very difficult issues they face in raising children with mental health problems. Parents deal with so much, often under the radar, and they deserve our praise and admiration. As the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, said, the concept of being a parent, in the sense of parenting as an activity, goes much wider. As my noble friend Lady Redfern said, mental health problems are everyone’s problems.
We must be clear, as noble Lords have been very clear today, that there is a real and growing problem with mental illness among young people in this country. It is estimated that around one in 10 children and young people have a diagnosable mental health disorder. That is three children in every class, a fact worth reflecting on for a moment. A new report out today from the Varkey Foundation paints an alarming picture of young people’s mental well-being in this country as compared to other countries.
When I was growing up, self-harm was a problem, but on a very small scale. However, over the last 10 years the figure has increased by 68% and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, said, it now affects boys as well as girls. Around 8,000 children under the age of 10 have severe depression—another heart-rending statistic—and the number of 15 and 16 year-olds with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s.
As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, eating disorders are some of the most dangerous mental illnesses, and their prevalence continues to rise. There are multiple, sometimes competing, explanations for why this might be so, which several noble Lords have discussed today, whether family breakdown, as my noble friend Lord Farmer mentioned, the increased use of drink and drugs, the appalling rate of mental illness among children in care, or the effects of consumerism, as the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, set out. This means that a broad-based approach is needed. There is, unfortunately, no silver bullet. But there is hope.
While the trends have largely been negative in terms of the prevalence of mental illness, a sea-change in attitudes is taking place. As the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, described so eloquently, this has particular impacts on certain groups, particularly on minorities, whether according to sexual preference or ethnic minorities. Through concerted efforts by medical professionals, parents, young people themselves, campaigners, politicians and even the Royal Family, we are at last confronting the stigma of mental illness. It is finally becoming acceptable to admit mental health problems without it connoting some kind of personal weakness, as my noble friend Lady Chisholm, pointed out.
Government policy has both led and evolved in response to this change. I am very proud to serve a Prime Minister who is deeply committed to ending “burning injustices”. What greater injustice could there be than to receive inferior healthcare because your needs are mental, not physical? The previous Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government legislated to create parity of esteem for mental and physical health in 2012, and since then the Government have introduced the first mental health waiting time targets and have begun to roll out a series of initiatives—supported by an additional £1.4 billion—to support those suffering from mental illness, including support for young people suffering from eating disorders and to support perinatal mental health, which the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, highlighted as being so critical.
However, it is important to acknowledge that there is much more do to. There are concerns that funding is not getting through to the front line, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said—and as other Peers have said in other debates—and it must be admitted, as my noble friend Lady Fall pointed out, that the performance of child and adolescent mental health services is patchy. Care also needs to be delivered closer to home wherever possible, as my noble friend pointed out. The Government are aware of these criticisms and are working hard with NHS and local authority partners to address them.
The report we are discussing today revolves around the role of parents, and some of the quotes in it are, quite frankly, heart-breaking. They lay bare the helplessness and frustration that many parents feel. As some noble Lords may know, I have spent the last few years working in education and in schools we always talk about parents as being the “first educators”. That is relevant here because in health we can think of them as the “first carers”—the first line of both defence and action, as the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, pointed out. Government policy must be geared to strengthening parents’ ability to provide the love and support that makes young people more resilient, and to arming them with the skills and knowledge needed to identify and respond to the signs of mental illness when it occurs. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked for my personal support in making sure that there is increasing support for parents through government policy and I am happy to give it.
There are some good examples of government policies that are working in this area. The Department for Work and Pensions supports parenting classes aimed at reducing family conflict, which has been raised as an issue. The Department for Education supports the YoungMinds Parents’ Helpline and the MindEd website, which provide parents with guidance on a range of parenting issues related to mental health. There is also the Family Test, which was introduced by the previous Government and which my noble friend Lord Farmer was instrumental in bringing about.
The NHS England Five Year Forward View for mental health has put mental illness at the forefront of NHS reforms. The noble Lords, Lord Cashman and Lord Giddens, asked about waiting time targets for eating disorders; these will be in place from April 2017. There is more funding, but there are challenges, as we know, in getting it through to the front line. I will respond to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, later.
I think we have also launched today the next stage of piloting the single point of contact, which will benefit children in 1,200 more schools. The voluntary sector is doing pioneering work in this area, whether through Place2Be’s counselling services or through the proposals for a new national parenting trust emerging from the Legatum Institute, where I used to be a senior fellow, and which will provide parent support groups to help parents in a very challenging time of life.
I am delighted that the Government have committed to creating a joint Department for Education and Department of Health Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health. The aim is to publish it this year. I am also clear that this will succeed only if it boosts parents’ ability to support their children to deal successfully with mental illness. It is essential to involve parents in that policy-making. Mental health is being transformed in this country through local transformation plans which have parents and young people themselves taking part in the design of policies.
I take the opportunity to respond to some of the specific questions noble Lords have raised. My noble friend Lady Chisholm asked about mental health training for GPs. That is something NHS England is working on actively with the Royal College of General Practitioners. She will also be aware, I hope, of the Prime Minister’s really important and signal announcement, which outlined that there would be mental health training for mental health first aid in secondary schools. However, I very much take the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, who talked about that going into primary schools too.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, also talked about the impact of social media and social networks. My oldest child is nearly nine years old and I am frankly terrified by the prospect of her joining social media. There is a kind of fascination with devices and everything that goes beyond it. You try to explain to them that there may be more bad out there than good, but they are desperate to be part of it.
The Prime Minister announced initiatives on digital mental health services, but clearly there is much more that we can do through the Green Paper and she was quite right to point out that businesses need to take responsibility, too, whether that means the social media businesses themselves—I can imagine that she is a forceful advocate for that on the board of Twitter—or other businesses. The Prime Minister has asked the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, and Paul Farmer from Mind to carry out a review on mental health in the workplace.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans asked about support for parents. Some 90% of the local transformation plans that I have mentioned have parenting and early years programmes. Clearly, for this to be an effective strategy, it must involve getting to parents and families early, before problems arise, so that parents and young people, as they get older, have the skills they need to spot and deal with mental illnesses as they arrive.
My noble friend Lord Farmer asked what else the Government are doing to support families. There is a troubled families programme and, since 2010, there has also been the healthy child programme, which provides health visitor support in the home. As well as that, there is the Family Nurse Partnership, which provides targeted support for young mothers who are vulnerable.
The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, highlighted the issue of LGBTI people suffering from worse mental health. I admit that is something I was not aware of prior to this debate. I am grateful to him for raising it. I understand that in general there is a problem in mental health, in both prevalence and treatment, when it comes to equalities issues, which fall under my brief. That is something I will certainly look into. It is critical that we reflect that in policy.
The noble Lord also raised mandatory sex and relationships education and PSHE. That is a debate I engaged with when I was on the Back Benches. I do not want to reprise the whole argument now, not least because I am in a rather different role, but the issue is one of quality, not necessarily making something compulsory if it is not very good. We need to focus on making it good, then the argument to make it compulsory may be easier to make.
I hope I have answered the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, on waiting times targets. I apologise: it was my noble friend Lady Fall who made the point about this applying to primary schools. She also asked about drop-in centres. I hope she will have noticed that in the Prime Minister’s announcement on mental health there was rather an interesting and innovative idea about supporting crisis cafés and drop-in centres, which are precisely the kind of informal setting that it might be easier for a young person to access to get the support they need.
There is so much more that could be said on this subject. I hope I have given noble Lords confidence that the Government are taking this seriously. We have this wonderful opportunity of a Green Paper. We have to develop it. I do not know what a pre Green Paper is called, but we are in that phase. It feels to me that there is a large and important bucket that can be filled with brilliant ideas. I have some more ideas for how we might do that, but I hope this is the first of many debates on this issue. I am absolutely open to all Peers to discuss ideas they may have to make that a real milestone in mental health services, mental health treatment and building resilience in this country. I look forward to working with noble Lords to make sure parents play a central role in that strategy.
My Lords, I am profoundly grateful to all noble Lords who are speaking in this debate and to those, such as my noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond, who have expressed their support but are unable to be present. I am also grateful to another former British ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, who has provided invaluable briefing.
My concerns arise from a visit last September in response to invitations from the Melkite Patriarch, the Grand Mufti and leaders of Christian and Muslim communities in Aleppo. Our programme was arranged by friends in Syria and was not organised by the Government. We met many Syrians in Damascus, Aleppo, Maaloula and Latakia, including representatives of Muslim, Christian and Yazidi communities; members of government and internal opposition parties; civil society organisations such as the senior council of doctors in Aleppo; IDPs in Latakia who had fled for their lives from ISIS and ISIS-related militias; and survivors of ISIS attacks in Maaloula.
We also met President Assad, a meeting for which we received vehement criticism in the media and by the FCO. We stand by our decision to meet the President, not because we are uncritical but because only by meeting can one raise concerns and learn about current and proposed policies.
Many noble Lords will have seen newspaper coverage this weekend condemning Assad for atrocities—including the killing of 13,000 people in Saydnaya prison—citing a report attributed to Amnesty’s Beirut office. Time permits me only briefly to address three issues related to those allegations.
First, the fact of torture in Syrian jails is well known, is cause for genuine concern and is in no way condoned, but there is a serious asymmetry in these reports. There is no mention of the conditions under which Syrian soldiers and many civilians are held by Islamist militants or of the atrocities perpetrated by those militias, including torture, beheadings and slaughter of civilians by suicide bombs. When we were in Syria, a suicide bomber attacked the checkpoint at Homs, killing more than 30 people, presumably including families burned alive in their cars in the queues. Secondly, these reports are accepted uncritically as true. However, in 2014, photographs of an oddly similar number of corpses were proven to be a farrago of half-truths. The third issue is timing. The report, apparently a year in gestation, emerges now, when it can do maximum harm to the chances of success of the peace process emerging out of the recent talks in Astana.
The report by our group which visited Syria is widely available and I want to highlight our priority concerns, which are still relevant despite the seismic changes which have taken place since September. First, everyone to whom we spoke in Syria was deeply disturbed by the UK Government’s commitment to regime change. But Her Majesty’s Government retain their unabashed commitment to a transition culminating in the departure of President Assad. Transition is therefore just a euphemism for regime change.
Leaving rights and wrongs to one side, it is delusional to pretend that Assad will have to step down. Following the recovery of eastern Aleppo, he is now in a commanding position on the battlefield, with domestic and external support bolstering his position. HMG should realise that were Assad to do as they wish, the first to suffer would be the Syrian people. Everyone whom we met was deeply afraid that Assad’s departure would cause implosion of the regime, leading to catastrophes similar to those in Iraq and Libya. I ask the Minister why Her Majesty’s Government are not listening, for example, to the faith leaders in Syria, both Christian and Muslim, almost all of whom are urging the international community to engage with the Syrian Government.
Secondly, there is widespread, understandable dismay and anger over the UK continuing to provide opposition Islamist militias with practical assistance, including training, equipment, help with propaganda and diplomatic support. Helping to sustain the armed opposition can only prolong the suffering of the Syrians to no purpose whatever. So many people told us: “War is terrible. People die from shelling on both sides. But here, you die from shelling or you die from shelling and beheadings. And we don’t want the beheadings”. I therefore ask the Minister why the UK is continuing to support the Islamist “rebels”, when the consistent word from the Syrians, who have suffered under their brutal tyranny, is that the “moderates” no longer exist and the vast majority of these groups have extreme ideologies and no intention of creating a democracy in Syria.
Thirdly, there has been widespread dismay over the long-standing reporting by the BBC and other Western media which is perceived to be very biased, focusing on the suffering resulting from military offences by the Syrian and Russian armies, with no comparable coverage of the suffering inflicted by ISIS and other Islamist military offensives, including the use of cluster bombs and chemical weapons. The latest case of indiscriminate abuse of an innocent population has been largely ignored by the western media. It is the month-long poisoning by diesel fuel, and later the complete cutting off, of the water supply to Damascus by so-called moderate jihadists between late December 2016 and late January 2017. Water supplies were restored only after the Syrian military diverted significant forces from other fronts and retook the Wadi Barada springs from the jihadists in a major military attack.
The bias in media reporting seems to be intent on demonising President Assad and his Government and drawing a veil over the atrocities perpetrated by the Islamist forces. On 13 December the House of Commons held an emergency debate on Aleppo. The Foreign Secretary underlined condemnation of the offensive against eastern Aleppo, the importance of protecting civilians and an ongoing commitment to bring about a political settlement in Syria. That statement by the Foreign Secretary raises many questions. Why do the vast majority of civilians from east Aleppo chose to flee to government-controlled areas if they are all so terrified of the Government, apart from a small minority who joined the evacuation of terrorists to Idlib? Why, after months of lamenting the plight of 300,000—a grossly exaggerated figure, by the way; it turned out to be 130,000—civilians in east Aleppo, has there been so little media coverage of what had actually been going on?
Reverend Andrew Ashdown, who organised our September visit, was in Aleppo as the city was liberated. He visited areas of east Aleppo including the Jibrin registration centre and other reception centres, as tens of thousands of refugees from east Aleppo fled to government-controlled areas. I quote from his report:
“The voices of the civilians emerging from ‘rebel’-controlled East Aleppo were absolutely consistent—of the brutal murder and execution by the ‘rebels’ of anyone who opposed them; the killing of men, women and children who tried to flee; regular torture and rape of civilians; the withholding of food to civilians, or selling food at exorbitant prices; the withholding of medical aid to those in need even when they begged for assistance; telling civilians that they would be killed by the army if they fled to government-controlled areas; and, that if they did not adhere to the ‘rebel’ ideology, they were not real ‘Muslims’ but were ‘infidels’ and deserved to die. Also those refugees who fled from East Aleppo who knew of the widely acclaimed ‘White Helmets’ (many didn’t) repeatedly said that ‘they only helped the terrorists’. They were all visibly delighted to be free, and were being given food, medical assistance and shelter on arrival. The narratives of these people directly contradict all that the western media were reporting for months previously”.
In the last month, efforts at restoring facilities, opening schools and making areas of eastern Aleppo habitable have already begun. Many people are asking why no one is reporting these positive developments in post-conflict situations in east Aleppo.
Her Majesty’s Government’s position is coupled with an insistence on maintaining sanctions. These greatly harm Syrian civilians, who cannot obtain medical supplies such as prostheses, more than they harm the Government. It is also sometimes claimed that Assad is not really fighting ISIS. To that, I say: tell that to the brave defenders of Deir ez-Zor, the people of Palmyra or the inhabitants of Damascus and the Homs countryside, for whom all that stands between them and beheadings are the government forces.
I take this opportunity to record that the people of Syria are profoundly grateful to Russia for taking ISIS seriously and assisting them by defending their people against its barbarities. I ask the Minister: what is Her Majesty’s Government’s position with regard to the Astana talks, which appear to be the only current initiative likely to deliver a policy capable of defusing the present situation?
In conclusion, I open this debate with a heavy heart and with deep sadness because I have seen a glimpse of the suffering of the people of Syria under the onslaught of ISIS and related Islamist jihadists. I am all the more sad because I have seen that suffering exacerbated by UK polices of support for the jihadists, and I am deeply saddened by Her Majesty’s Government’s continuing commitment to regime change, by whatever name, which is profoundly dreaded by the people of Syria. Will Her Majesty’s Government reconsider their entrenched position, which has exacerbated the suffering of the people of Syria, and allow the people of Syria the democratic right and the dignity to choose their own future? If that involves re-electing President Assad, that is their right to do so and a right that we should respect.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. She is absolutely right to highlight the extent of the humanitarian horror of the Syrian crisis. I applaud her for her efforts on behalf of the Christian community that is left there, and in essence agree with her vision. I personally mourn the death of a great friend, the Archbishop of Aleppo, who disappeared and was presumably killed.
In 2000 I attended the funeral in Damascus of President Hafez al-Assad, representing the Opposition. It was the first time that I met his son Bashar, and there were great hopes that he would modernise the economy. Indeed there was some progress, and the new President fully protected the minorities. However, when minor demonstrations broke out in Syria, and after some hesitation, President Assad ruthlessly cracked down, and the rest is history. It was a grotesque misjudgment and wholly unnecessary. Had we and others taken out his capacity to rain cluster bombs, barrel bombs and chemical weapons on his population by bombing his airfields, he would have been forced to the conference table. We never did, though, and our support for opposition groups was limited and sometimes wholly counterproductive.
As a result of the Russians moving in substantially in 2015, Assad is now on his way back to controlling the country. It is a tragic and ironic situation that the man who had so much to do with the destruction of his country should now be seen as part of the solution. It now appears to be recognised even by us that he is there to stay, as expressed by the Foreign Secretary. However, I immediately praise Her Majesty’s Government, who have so generously committed money to good humanitarian efforts to alleviate the plight of the refugees. We can be truly proud of the generosity, added to by private funding and care. I was very pleased personally to help in raising money for relief.
However, we are where we are, and we have to face the clear reality. When a recent meeting took place in Astana, it was essentially led by Turkey, Iran and the Russians, whose influence and role in Syria is now decisive. I therefore ask the Minister if she is in a position to clarify what the next stage will be. I understand that additional meetings in Geneva were planned, but may have been postponed to cement a ceasefire. Do we know if the anti-Assad opposition is to be involved? This would be appear to be essential to make progress, and of course it would be under UN auspices. President Trump has advocated, with the support of Saudi Arabia, the establishment of safe zones to provide some degree of security for refugees. Do we agree with this? I understand that he has commissioned a report to be ready by April.
Of course there will simply be no progress without the agreement of Russia and indeed President Assad himself. The Foreign Secretary reiterated his view that President Assad ideally should go, but we now have to accept the new reality of his staying. Indeed, all I can say in retrospect is that all of us should pray and yearn for this unspeakable horror and heart-breaking situation to end.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for tabling this debate. She spoke about her concerns that arose both during and subsequent to her visit to Syria. My own interest and concerns with Syria go back considerably longer, and long before the war. When I went to see if there was at the time any possibility of rapprochement between Israel and Syria, it was clear that there was. I came back and told the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, but when he sent out Sir Nigel Sheinwald, what was engaged in was the kind of finger-wagging diplomacy that informed the President that if he did not do what Britain wanted, it would be the worse for him. I mention that because it seems to me that the attitude of Her Majesty’s Government to Syria and the regime there has been part of the problem rather than part of the solution, going back a very long way. To come to the view in almost any conflict, particularly in the Middle East which I know quite well, that there are good guys on one side and bad guys on the other, simply lines you up with one side or the other so that you become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
When the war itself broke out subsequent to a failed attempt at revolution—indeed, apart from in Tunisia, none of the attempted revolutions in the Middle East has been positive and successful—I urged Her Majesty’s Government not to engage militarily or make any intervention. Of course, the House of Commons subsequently made doing so impossible. However, I agreed that support should be provided for our allies on the front line, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, because without supporting them the situation would get worse. The Government were not able to engage militarily because of the decision of the House of Commons, but that did not mean that we have not engaged through military training, materiel and intelligence operations which have merely made the situation worse. I recall having discussions in 2012-13 with some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues and one of them saying to me at the time, “John, you say it could be worse, but I don’t believe it could be any worse if we were to intervene”. I replied by saying, “Not only could it be worse, it will be much worse because what we are seeing is a descent into chaos that will not be restricted just to the Middle East”.
We are already some years into a third global conflict and we are merely contributing to the difficulties around it. It is not really a Sunni-Shia fight because there are Sunnis on both sides. We are contributing to something which, if we are not careful, will ensure that Christians who have been living in communities in the country for two millennia will be driven out.
My question for Her Majesty’s Government is in many ways a simple one. When will the Government understand that the policy they have been following through several Governments has failed? Continuing with it is not going to help the situation either for the people in the region or for this country because of how it is perceived in the wider region and indeed by some within our own communities. I have just a little hope, given the Statement made recently by Prime Minister Theresa May that it was not for the United Kingdom to engage with the use of force in order to change the way other people run their countries, that perhaps some reflection is beginning to take place in Her Majesty’s Government.
I was an eyewitness in Jazira in north-east Syria in May 2015, Diyarbakir in Turkey in November of that year, and in government-controlled Syria in September 2016. I met the Jazira canton administration, all the political parties, young people learning democratic theory and practice, as well as refugees from ISIS. In Diyarbakir I saw military damage to the historic mosque at Sur and learned of the bulldozing of cemeteries where militants were buried. Since then, MPs, mayors, lawyers and journalists have been arrested and tens of thousands of state employees dismissed. Last September, along with others including my noble friend Lady Cox, I visited the four main Syrian cities. I am amazed that Her Majesty’s Government refuse to visit Jazira and Kobane. How can they understand the political and humanitarian situations without direct contact? In Turkey, they fail to address the causes of civil unrest and armed uprising, which have lasted with only short intervals since 1984. Our Government have asked for proportionate measures, and Turkey has replied with field guns and bulldozers, besides aiding and abetting Islamist fighters in Syria.
Of course there have been atrocities on all sides, yet the western media still place all the blame on the Assadists. No one can deny that outside states have helped many foreign jihadis to enter Syria and provided arms and explosives in large quantities. For these reasons, I welcome the ceasefire agreed by the Assad Government with Russia, Turkey and Iran, although of course it leaves the war against ISIS quite unresolved. I would urge the Minister when she comes to reply to say all she can on that subject.
The conclusion I draw is that all have lost the war, though Assad and his allies have won most of the battles. He has the support or the acquiescence of most Syrians. All the religious and ethnic minorities prefer him to a possible extreme Islamic Government. All are war-weary; they want to get on with their lives and fear chaos or Islamist dictatorship. For those reasons I urge our Government to re-establish at least some level of diplomatic representation in Damascus.
My Lords, I also add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for giving us the opportunity to discuss the recent developments in Syria. Whatever the Government’s assessment of what is happening there, in a country of shifting alliances and international power play there are no easy or simple answers. There is one constant, though: the misery being endured by the proud Syrian people. I will confine my remarks to the efforts being made to secure as meaningful and sustainable a future as possible for those dispossessed by this awful tragedy.
Just over a year ago, the world met here in London for the second Syria donor conference, where the huge generosity both in hard currency and in spirit towards those fleeing terror was enormously welcome and much needed. One of the key objectives of our Government, whose commitment to this appalling situation is something of which we should all be proud, is that alongside aid and refuge we need to put in place practical solutions that give Syrian refugees and their families not just hope, but a sense of purpose and a chance to rebuild their shattered lives, and which supports the countries in the region to which they have fled.
One of the ways we are doing that is through the Business Taskforce, set up by David Cameron and being not just continued but actively supported by the Prime Minister and her Government and chaired by two Secretaries of State, my right honourable friends Liam Fox and Priti Patel. Here I declare my interests as a member of that task force and as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Jordan. The task force is charged to secure,
“an ambitious package of measures that would spur economic growth and enable … Syrian refugees across the region to work”,
and study. Those are the very people that are needed to rebuild Syria, when this tragedy is one day—soon, I hope—over.
As well as the enormous sums of money being donated by the Government—to date, £2.3 billion—and the generosity of the British people, so rightly highlighted by my noble friend Lord Risby, a great deal of time, effort and innovative thinking is being put into practical solutions to further these aims. If we support refugee families in the region—who are the very people needed to rebuild Syria, as I said—that will not only build economic capacity in the countries that have so generously offered them refuge, but reduce the risk of too many people gambling their lives in hazardous journeys to Europe and, if they make it, an uncertain future.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for securing this debate. My main reason for speaking is to draw your Lordships’ attention and, especially, Her Majesty’s Government, to a recent report by the World Council of Churches, The Protection Needs of Minorities in Syria and Iraq. It is a serious piece of field study that has gathered the first-hand views of some 4,000 people, over 2,000 of them Syrians from minority communities: Christians, Yazidis, Druze, Turkmen and many others. I was in Baghdad and Irbil last month as part of a World Council of Churches delegation to test the findings of the report with community leaders and members, as well as with UNAMI and locally based NGOs, and confirm the soundness of its recommendations. I have every reason to believe that the report’s analysis of the Syrian situation is as credible as we found its Iraqi analysis to be. Therefore I ask the Minister that the Government engage with this robust report.
It was quite an uncomfortable visit for a British person to take part in, because of the great sense among the minority communities of our own culpability in the chaos in Iraq. I can well imagine the strength of feeling that was expressed in the noble Baroness’s visit to Syria. The research showed that despite the manipulation of sectarian tension in Syria by government and armed opposition, there still remains greater confidence among minority communities—including even Christians—in Syria than in Iraq that they have a future in their land, although that confidence is diminishing. The report argues that protecting the minority communities and preserving their place in Syrian society needs to be mainlined into the humanitarian response. This requires a differentiated approach to the particular security, economic and social needs of diverse communities, based on accurate assessment tools that capture distinctive ethno-religious vulnerabilities.
Those needs are large and complex; critical among them is housing. It is not only the horrific damage to the property that is the problem but the loss of property, either through being forced into selling at low prices by stronger communities or by confiscation by malign activities. Sensitive processes of property reallocation will need to be found. That is only one example of the restoration of the diversity of Syrian society that will be needed in the years ahead—a task too great for its own resources to bear. Will the Minister therefore confirm that Her Majesty’s Government are committed to the long-term pursuance of a just peace for all Syria’s people, forging an international coalition of reconstruction—physical and psychosocial—to work with whatever political settlement emerges to ensure a safe Syria for all?
My Lords, whatever the position of Her Majesty’s Government vis-à-vis President Assad, I hope it is uncontentious to say that a future for Syria that protects and respects religious minorities is essential. This should be part of Her Majesty’s Government’s strategy overall, and of our refugee policy in particular.
In 2010, the population of Syria was 21 million. According to the US State Department’s international religious freedom report, Sunnis made up 74% of the population, other Muslim groups 13%, the Druze 3%, and various Christian groups constitute the remaining 10%, although there were estimates even at that time that due to migration it may have dropped to 8%. There were also around 100,000 Yazidis and a small population of Jews. Five years later, in 2015, the same source reported there are now just under 18 million people in Syria; 74% of the population remains Sunni Muslim, the other Muslim groups still amount to 13%, and the Druze are still there at 3%. However, reports of Christians fleeing the country as a result of the civil war suggest that the Christian population is considerably lower than 10%. There is no reliable information to confirm the continued residency or the current size of the Jewish population. Media reports suggest that the figure for Yazidis is higher, as many Yazidis from Iraq have fled into Syria.
There is therefore a disproportionate decline among Christians in the population of Syria. Accordingly, among Syrians outside of the country there will be a proportionate increase in the number of Christians. That is not surprising, as they have no regional ally. Sunnis have the support of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and Shias the support of Iran. In addition, the attacks on Yazidis, Christians and Mandaeans by Daesh have been of particular ferocity, and there is a growing intolerance in the local population. This is why it was not religious preference but a statement of particular vulnerability when the 2015 Conservative manifesto pledged to defend freedom of religion or belief for all but made a specific commitment to support persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
The United Kingdom statistics on the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement scheme state that between September 2015 and September 2016 we have taken 64 Christian Syrians out of a total of 4,175, or 1.5%. The United States has taken 19,336 Syrian refugees over the last three years: 108 Christian Syrians and 46 Yazidis. That is 0.55% Christians and 0.24% Yazidis.
Her Majesty’s Government rely on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to assess refugees against the vulnerability criteria. However, at the end of last year, DfID produced its own assessment of the effectiveness of that UN agency. The categories are very good, good, adequate and weak. DfID rated it as good on matching the UK priorities index, but only adequate on the organisational strengths. Will the Minister at the very least confirm that this agency has tracked the religious minorities in the region so we know where they are, and will she please invite the new commissioner for this office to come to the United Kingdom Parliament to explain the disparity within these statistics?
My Lords, representatives of the international charity Aid to the Church in Need, of which I am a trustee, have just been in Aleppo. They learned that the Christian community there has fallen from around 250,000 to barely 30,000, and that in Syria as a whole from around 1.8 million before the war to an estimated 300,000 now. As my noble friend Lady Cox said in her eloquent and compelling speech, ISIS has waged a bestial campaign of genocide against Christians and other minorities for nearly three years. The terror group has carried out its slogan: “We will break your crosses and enslave your women”. As His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales warned in his Christmas broadcast, such ancient communities face total annihilation. I ask the Minister: how can we make the protection of minorities and the re-creation of the plural, diverse communities that existed in places such as Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq before these events a greater priority?
In April 2016, by 278 votes to zero, the House of Commons officially designated ISIS as responsible for genocide against various religious minorities. I press the Minister to say what specific actions arose from that resolution of Parliament to help those who are cruelly suffering. In particular, on an issue that was raised with the noble Baroness yesterday during Questions, is the United Kingdom willing to encourage the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate fighters not currently being prosecuted from signatory nations to the treaty of Rome? Has there been any progress concerning the role that the Iraq Government might play in pursuing an investigative mechanism for crimes committed by or against their people in Syria? Will the Minister also tell us what progress has been made in severing ISIS supply lines to Raqqa and in securing its liberation?
My first visit to Syria was in 1980, as a young Member of the House of Commons. Our ambassador was Patrick, now the noble Lord, Lord Wright, and we met the previous President Assad. If we can have a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang and Sudan, the leader of which has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, why, as my noble friend Lord Hylton asked, do we not have a senior diplomatic presence in Damascus? Why is that still the case, in the light of the changed policy position of Her Majesty’s Government following the evidence that the Foreign Secretary gave last week, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Risby? Prioritising persecuted religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis, and upholding our highest ideals in offering refuge to genocide survivors—as I proposed in an all-party amendment in your Lordships’ House exactly a year ago—will serve justice and ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes face their Nuremberg moment.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and support her views. I start by asking my noble friend: when will Her Majesty’s Government recognise the reality of the situation after six years of war? Assad, his Government and his people dominate all the cities, towns and most of the countryside. They are, of course, assisted by their long-term ally, Russia, and by Iran and Hezbollah, because they are Shia Muslims. Our Government have failed from the start to understand and recognise that this was, frankly, no more than the fourth Shia-Sunni war in that troubled country.
On top of this is the policy of the Arab spring, which we all know and recognise. In my judgment, the failure of that policy in Libya, Egypt, the Maldives and now Syria shows that we should never have interfered in the first place. Do Her Majesty’s Government recognise that France, our closest ally on so many issues, now has an embassy in Damascus? The information I have is that it is not just one man and a dog but a full technical support team. Is it ready for the rebuilding of Syria? From what I can see, we appear to be sitting on our hands, thinking of war crimes and worrying about what our allies in the Arab world would think of us. Are we going to go back to Damascus? If not, the whole of the United Kingdom’s Brexit approach in the Arab world will be somewhat undermined. If our policy is to deal with Daesh—my colleague on the other Benches clearly raised this issue—surely we have to have the Syrian armed forces alongside, at least working or communicating with us. Are we once again waiting for somebody to say something? Are we waiting for President Trump to give his views on what we should do? Surely we have enough experience of the Arab world to decide for ourselves.
We all know that peace is coming. We all know Assad is staying and, yes, we all want to see elections. Above all, we also want to see Syria rebuilt again. Frankly, Her Majesty’s Government should take the initiative and look for the equivalent of the Marshall plan, as in Europe after the Second World War. That way, we can bring back these poor refugees from the Middle East who are sitting in the cold and get them out of the camps and back into their own country. If we do not, Syria will be a living hell, just like Libya is today. Surely, we should let the Syrians themselves settle their own structure and we in the West should stop interfering, but we should give some generous aid in rebuilding and have that presence in Damascus—on the ground—so that at last, for once, our English and United Kingdom firms will also benefit from any Marshall plan equivalent.
My Lords, I welcome the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on the facile narrative that underlies much of the western media reporting. As she has noted, in Syria, we have for several years collectively promoted a demonised portrayal of one side and a highly romanticised version of its opponents. That leads to my general theme—that of legitimacy.
For several years, the British and the United States political leaderships have maintained that this war is largely a matter of a dictator killing his people. It is the accepted line whereby western Governments have sought to promote the policy of regime change to their public. By contrast, what has most impressed me on my visits to Syria recently is the overwhelming and objective evidence of deliberate programmes of assault by ISIL or Daesh, by al-Nusra, as it was, and by other, largely external, forces. It is an assault aimed at dismantling the Syrian state, and the very concepts of Syrian society, identity and culture. This is why it is so crucial to focus on getting hold of genuine facts, evidence and contributions from Syrian citizens and representatives of civil society. They know, none better, what destruction has been inflicted by the militants on their educational infrastructure, for example, deliberately to ensure that ignorance and illiteracy prevails in what is being called a lost generation of students. They know and have seen what is being done to their women, who are carted around the streets of Aleppo in cages for public humiliation—and worse—by the groups we call moderates. They know that those moderates seldom control or influence an area or constituency larger than the extent of this debating Chamber, whatever they may claim in Geneva as they negotiate with our diplomats.
This assault on the structures of the state is, for Syria, an existential war for its identity. The British Government have repeatedly said that Assad can have no legitimacy among his own people. That is a judgment that I believe history will show to be suspect and one which will in due course be put to the test, if there are elections. I have seen little evidence of a craven personal loyalty to Assad in Syria, but there can be no doubt that where the Syrian Government and army have established enduring control, there is order, health provision, schooling and none of the takfiri horrors that the armed militants impose. These are public goods that are welcomed with respect and command large support.
It is often said that Assad would not survive were it not for Russia, Iran or Hezbollah. I myself have seen no evidence that either Russia or Iran has an unshakeable, personal loyalty to President Assad. They support the existence of a coherent Syrian state. If another figure, hypothetically, were to replace Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran would undoubtedly continue to uphold the state. But what we have really been implying all along is that we want not simply Assad’s departure but some kind of popular movement—fomenting a resistance to illegitimacy that we endorse—that will effect regime change. This is not going to happen. It is an illusion we should not continue to entertain. I think of Ariel Sharon’s warning to President Bush after the last Iraq war that if Bush intended to go about the same dismantling of Syria as he had effected in Iraq, he would create an explosion throughout the Middle East.
I have gone on too long already. We need to engage in a thorough, probably painful reappraisal of what the structures of Syrian statehood should be, which we will support, and the conditions of their legitimacy that we can recognise.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, most warmly for giving us a chance to mourn for Syria. This war will end, yet I suggest the conflict will remain. As the right reverend Prelate said, this is a very difficult war. It is very unlikely that, when the bombs stop, the people’s minds will change immediately and become peaceful towards each other. We will have a society where the torturers and the tortured perhaps live side by side. Physical reconstruction begins immediately. That is the easy bit. But the conflict remaining is the thing we should think about.
I turn to Mr Attlee’s noble words in the preamble to UNESCO’s constitution, and remind colleagues that,
“since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”.
I offer a model that has been proved to work. Next door to Syria, not far away in Baghdad in the middle of the war in 2004, the AMAR Foundation, which I have the honour to chair, began to work on health for all. Why? Because this is the opposite of the inequality of men and races in ISIL’s doctrine. We go for the common welfare of mankind here today. Peace in the minds of men can be best reflected by helping the tortured person in physical and mental pain.
We began immediately in July 2004 in Al-Suwaib, where there had been no health anywhere ever. It was a completely confused society—violent, bullying, war, nothing at all. By February 2005 we had 12,000 patients. We moved on to the next centre, keeping that one going. By 2010 we had 30,000 patients. The second was Al-Jahadi. In June 2005 we had another 30,000 patients. They were all new builds—25 across the whole of Baghdad, with 500,000 medical consultations every year by 2010. We worked closely with and were financially supported by the 1st Cavalry Division, General Chiarelli, General Joe Anderson, General Odierno, General Mattis and General Petraeus. There was no interference, just support and understanding. The US military, like the British military, understands that at the end of the story it is hearts and minds, not bullets and bombs.
The creation of a peaceful and productive society has resulted in this. Compare Baghdad with Mosul and tell me that all these revolutions in Baghdad are just not happening. All those medical centres are still working. Indeed, the AMAR Foundation now has 1 million patients over the whole of society. On top of that, you add all sorts of other things as you build, train and replicate. You add culture, the education of humanity, the wide diffusion of culture, chess, music, dancing and writing. You train, teach and enhance. I tell noble Lords that by building on the base of terror and destruction, you can create peace, love, harmony, smiles and joy. I recommend this model.
My Lords, civil wars are dreadful. We lost 800,000 in the English Civil War. To put that in context, that would be 9.1 million people killed if we had a civil war like that today. UK policy has prolonged the Syrian war. It has failed. It needs a rethink. Assad is loathsome, yes, but he is a fact of life on the ground. The other players are just as bad. There are no good guys in this sort of situation. At least Assad’s regime was secular. Our failure has allowed the Russians to become the powerbrokers in the region. We absolutely must change our policy or the war will go on and people will die.
My Lords, I will be brief, as I want to leave as much time as possible for the Minister to respond—and obviously in three minutes we have time to ask only a few questions. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for initiating this debate. It is our responsibility to try to create the conditions for the people of Syria to decide their own future. Every act of genocide or crime against humanity needs to be investigated and the people responsible to be held to account for their actions. Impunity must be challenged; we cannot have a situation where years and years of crimes against humanity are ignored. I accept that there are two sides to this equation but, as we have heard in the debate, the sides are very complex—it is not just the people of Syria who are involved in this crime.
I have heard coverage on BBC Persian news and in the Afghan media about Iran coercing Afghan refugees to fight on behalf of—and in favour of—the Assad regime in Syria. Many are young children; the youngest I have heard about was 16. The Iranians promise these Afghan refugees citizenship and money and then send them to fight in Syria. Can the Minister tell us whether these claims have been investigated by the British Government?
I am also very aware of the need for humanitarian support, and I have supported the Government’s actions in the region. I particularly want to hear from the Minister about what more we can do to support the host nations and to save their economies and societies from collapse from the weight of refugees currently in those countries. One obvious matter on which we need to hear the Government’s assessment is the progress of talks and the parties being brought together—we know that there can be no settlement without the Russians and the Iranians, but the Saudis need to be involved as well. We know that this conflict has wider implications.
However, at the end of the day, we cannot allow this situation where the crimes that have been described in this debate go on without action—we cannot allow impunity to be the watchword for the future in the Middle East. I hope that the Minister can assure us that work will continue to collect and retain evidence so that we can ensure that justice will be done in the end.
My Lords, I congratulate noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on securing this debate. Working for a solution to the crisis in Syria remains a top priority for the Government. We recognise the realities of the situation across the whole of the Middle East and the implications of the displacement of so many millions of people, as well as the generosity of counties such as Lebanon and others which have hosted those forced out of their own country. The conflict has now lasted nearly six years and caused appalling human suffering, as noble Lords have graphically set out today: over 400,000 people have been killed, half of the country’s pre-war population has been displaced and millions of Syrians are in need of urgent humanitarian help.
The military offensive against eastern Aleppo before Christmas was one of the worst episodes of this terrible conflict. For over five months, more than a quarter of a million people were besieged and cut off from food and medical supplies as the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers blocked access to humanitarian convoys. I was asked about Iran and the way that it recruits people to fight in Syria. I will certainly follow that up—I had not seen that particular newspaper report, but I will make inquiries. In Aleppo, every hospital in the eastern part of the city was put out of action by air and artillery strikes—it is only the Assad regime and its backers that have access to air and artillery strikes. Hundreds of civilians were killed. As the UN has shown, in October last year, there were 400 casualties in that one month alone.
That is across the range; I am not picking out particular groups, rather I am adding to the descriptions given by noble Lords about the impact of what happened. Ultimately, tens of thousands of people were forced to leave the city. All this was justified by the regime and its backers in the name of fighting terrorism. We reject that explanation, and indeed even Russia’s own figures show that terrorists accounted for only a tiny fraction of Aleppo’s population. The real targets were the moderate opposition forces. Far from combating terrorism, the actions of the regime, Russia and Iran have served only to fuel it and worsen the suffering of the Syrian people.
In reality, the regime and its backers are responsible for the vast majority of deaths and civilian suffering in Syria. I am not going to go into the detail of what happened in the prison highlighted in the Amnesty report, but any form of torture is wrong. Tens of thousands of people disappeared from their families and the streets into Assad’s clutches, and goodness knows what happened to them. The fact is that the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have confirmed that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. I understand that Daesh may have done so as well, but it is wrong for anyone to use them.
Even after the fall of eastern Aleppo, some 700,000 people remain in besieged areas across the whole of Syria, the vast majority of them trapped by pro-regime forces. The UK’s policy has always been to support a sustainable, Syrian-led political settlement to the conflict while doing everything we can to help and protect civilians in the country. We are not and never have dictated to the Syrian people what they should decide as to the outcome and what should happen to Assad, rather we have expressed our view that he has failed to protect his people. He has military backing from Russia and Iran, and without it he would be nowhere. Moreover, he does not care for his people as a leader should. That is our view and it is what we have always said. Any process to rebuild the country must be Syrian-led. I also take very much to heart the words of my noble friend Lady Nicholson. She said that even after a treaty has been signed, conflict remains afterwards, so it is about rebuilding. I agree with her that conflict remaining is what we should be thinking about today. There can be no military solution to the conflict; you can win a war, but you do not win a peace.
Recent developments have confirmed our assessment that the only way to bring back stability to Syria and thereby address the terror threat which is here and present with us today in the UK, and to allow the millions of refugees to return home, is a political settlement which ends the civil war so that we can then start to rebuild. As the Foreign Secretary has consistently said, it is our view that there can be no sustainable peace in Syria while Assad remains in power. Strange things have been said in the debate about the Foreign Secretary saying that Assad must stay. No, he has not. He has reaffirmed our belief that Assad cannot lead the country but that it is for the people of Syria to decide. That has underlined all our work throughout the peace negotiations. Those negotiations would include, in our view, the right of the 11 million people who have been displaced as a result of conflict to take part in free and fair elections. It may be some way off, but let us hope that we can all help Syria to reach that point.
My noble friend Lady Berridge raised in particular the question of displaced Christians and minorities. We are not in a position to track exactly how many and from which minority or faith have been moved and to where, mostly of course because as people have travelled and their groups have fragmented, no records have been kept either in the refugee camps or indeed where they have now settled in western Europe and beyond. As some noble Lords have reminded me on previous occasions, some people are scared to reveal their ethnicity and their minority status. We should think of that very carefully indeed when we think about rebuilding. I understand why my noble friend raises these points. It is right for noble Lords to ask about Syria surviving as an entire country. If Syria is to survive as an entire country, not with a little bit picked off by Assad because he likes that bit and does not like the rest but as a country in which Syrians are able to determine their own future, it needs to continue to adhere to its history of respecting different ethnicities and different religions. Over the last few months, it has been my privilege to meet senior faith leaders who represent a wide range of orthodox Christian faiths. They are very brave people. Having come here to give their views, they go back to Syria to tend to their flocks.
At the UN Security Council, we have consistently advocated for action to bring about an immediate ceasefire and enable humanitarian access for all those in need in Syria. At the Human Rights Council, the UK has led efforts to monitor human rights violations and abuses committed in Syria and to call for accountability for those responsible. My Whip is very kindly saying that I have only two minutes left. I think that I have a little more, but not much more. As she is my mentor, I normally obey her immediately.
In October we proposed, and secured the adoption of, a Human Rights Council resolution which mandated the UN commission of inquiry to investigate and report on violations and abuses during the siege and offensive against eastern Aleppo. We continue to support the important work of the UN commission of inquiry.
Humanitarian support was raised by many noble Lords. I say merely that it is vital that we all support that. I was very interested in what my noble friend Lady Morris said about the Business Task Force. That is a very practical way forward.
As regards recent progress, it was right for noble Lords to concentrate their minds on Astana and the progress that has been made there with the ceasefire. The ceasefire is not a political solution. It is valuable in itself. It would have been so much more valuable if, as a result, Assad had allowed humanitarian access, but still people are being starved. Those taking part in the Astana process recognise that the real progress is to be made by the Geneva talks. I welcome their recognition of that. The UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has announced that he plans to reconvene talks between the Syrian parties in Geneva this month. We fully support those efforts.
I was also asked whether we should have an embassy in Damascus. I have answered that question in some detail on the Floor of the House. The simple answer is that we have no reason to trust Assad. To establish such an embassy would be a sign that we felt that he was the way forward. Our view is that he is not and that we must allow the Syrian people to make that decision. What decision the Syrians reach, we should then follow. It is as wrong to dictate to the Syrian people that they must keep Assad as it would be to dictate to them that they should get rid of him. We should listen to the people. We are a democracy. Let them be one.
My Lords, I have had the opportunity of visiting Sudan and South Sudan a couple of times in the last few years. During my visits to Khartoum, Darfur, Merowe, Juba and Rumbek, I had an insight into Sudan’s environment and culture. It is a vibrant, open culture with males and females working side by side in schools, colleges, universities, the media, politics and all other aspects of life. A visit to the Republic of Sudan completely changes the perception held by many in Europe and other western countries. I was particularly impressed by the large female representation in the parliament and the education from diverse cultures. The role of the arts and music in Sudan’s culture shows a moderate face of contemporary Islamic society that is unique to Sudan.
However, Sudan has long been beset by conflict. Two rounds of the north-south civil war cost the lives of 1.5 million people, while the continuing conflict in the western region of Darfur has driven 2 million people from their homes and killed more than 200,000. Sudan is taking significant steps to improve its relations with the breakaway state of South Sudan. The presidents of both countries are talking to each other more often. Both countries are co-operating with African Union efforts to resolve the outstanding disputes between them. The Government of Sudan are engaged in a process of national dialogue with more than 100 political parties and rebel groups and are committed to developing understanding and consensus among all the parties on national issues. We learned that armed confrontation between the rebels and government forces has reduced significantly.
African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur representatives in Al-Fasher were not able to verify any aerial bombardments by the Sudanese air force taking place in the six months prior to our visit to Darfur. That does not mean that they did not take place, but UNAMID could not confirm any. In an answer to a specific question about getting access to reports of aerial bombings, the UNAMID representative said after a careful calculation that approximately 2% of the time, access is denied by government forces.
Decades of civil war have resulted in the breakaway of South Sudan into a separate country and the loss of 75% of oil revenue to Sudan. Oil was the main source of income for the country. Despite huge potential in the exploration and production of oil, gas and minerals including copper, silver and gold, the people of Sudan have suffered enormously under sanctions imposed by the United States which effectively barred Sudan from carrying out any trade with most European countries. The effects of those sanctions are visible in health, education and many other sectors.
On the question of extremists and the terrorist threat, one of the challenges Sudan currently faces is how to interrupt the networks and cells of groups which operate across the region and prevent them using the country as a transit area or destination for their operations. The Horn of Africa is one of the most unstable regions in the world because of war and civil conflict. Somalia suffered from a long and devastating civil war that left the country very underdeveloped. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bitter war over their border which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties on both sides and the situation yet to be resolved. South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, is in a real crisis with a bloody ethnic conflict still going on.
A number of terrorist groups are quite visible and active in the countries around Sudan. To the west, Boko Haram’s activities are increasing in Nigeria and other west African countries; Daesh has a highly visible presence in Libya; al-Qaeda is active in the Maghreb region, and Daesh and other extremists operate in the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. The Somali Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen movement is roaming the Horn of Africa, although Kenya and Uganda witnessed the deadliest attacks by al-Shabaab several years ago. Conflicts and political instability produce an atmosphere conducive to the growth of extremism, but factors such as underdevelopment, lack of access to education and employment, and marginalisation can all fuel the tendency towards violent extremism.
Sudan has been the victim of terrorist attacks in the past. An extremist group attacked and killed two US embassy staff in Khartoum in January 2008, and several Sudanese police officers were killed in a raid on a terrorist training camp in eastern Sudan in December 2012. Sudan was one of the initiators and founders of a very important regional structure comprised of security agencies on the continent known as the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa. Among other things, CISSA is tasked with strengthening co-operation in countering terrorism and extremism by providing information and analyses on the security threats posed by extremist groups and suggesting possible courses of action.
Since 2000, Sudan has engaged in close co-operation with the United States in countering terrorism. This co-operation has been acknowledged and appreciated by the US itself in an annual report issued by the Department of State on international efforts to counter terrorist activity. Sudan has constantly featured in these reports as working closely with the United States in combating terror. More recently, the executive order issued on 13 January by the then President Barack Obama, in which he announced the easing of US economic sanctions on Sudan, referred to the actions taken by the Government of Sudan in addressing regional conflicts and jointly countering the threat of terrorism as one of the main factors behind the decision. Sudan’s experience in combating religious radicalisation through rehabilitating and reintegrating extremists into the mainstream has attracted much attention as being effective in addressing some of these issues.
Christopher Shays, a former Member of Congress who chaired the National Security Committee of the Government Oversight Committee, and Richard Swett, who is also a former Member of Congress and former US ambassador, attested to this fact in their article “Enough already on Sudan sanctions”, published on The Hill website on 23 January 2017. They stated:
“Sudan has been among the most stable and consistent partners of the U.S. intelligence community in the war against terror in this century as the State Department has annually reported”.
One of the factors Sudan counts on in its counter-radicalisation efforts and in fighting extremism is to invoke the Sufi background from which Islam in Sudan derives its moderation and tolerance.
I am glad that in recent months the British Government have taken some positive steps towards a policy of engagement with the Government of Sudan. We have seen senior-level exchange visits, most recently by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development led by FCO Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Simon McDonald and DfID Permanent Secretary Sir Mark Lowcock. I was pleased to hear Sir Simon say:
“Relations between the peoples of Sudan and the UK are deep and historic, and our meetings over the last two days reflected that breadth. In addition to Sudan-UK bilateral interests, we also discussed human rights, conflict, migration, humanitarian and development assistance, economic matters, and the situation in the region. I am confident that our bilateral relations have a positive future”.
On that note, I have two questions for the Minister. First, in the light of the positive engagement by the Government of Sudan with regional countries and the USA in relation to deradicalisation and rehabilitation of extremists, will our Government use their good relations with the new American Administration to lift permanently the remaining sanctions imposed on Sudan? Secondly, what are the Government doing to establish stronger economic ties with Sudan?
I will be the first to extend thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hussain. I also declare an interest as a long-standing member of the All-Party Group for Sudan and South Sudan. I have come to respect the Sudanese people over many years, since working with NGOs back in the 1970s, mainly visiting refugee camps and health projects. I have also been on formal parliamentary visits.
Sadly, the country has been torn into pieces by three civil wars for most of its independent life. As a group, we get regular information from intrepid travellers, including our own noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and many other contacts in Sudan, on the tragic effects of aerial bombing and attacks on civilians. We are currently preparing a report on the UK’s relations with Sudan, and I propose to touch on one aspect of this relationship.
Although I am a critic of some of the policies of the Government of Sudan—the GOS—I am also encouraged that the GOS can take criticism, and on occasion even listen to it. We should not judge other nations too much, because they too have to follow their own traditions. I recognise that Sudan has to defend itself from enemies, but at the same time there are international rules prohibiting human rights abuses and violence against people who correctly choose to follow those rules. Clergy, students, journalists, activists and individuals who speak out are always at risk of imprisonment and even torture.
I have long worked with NGOs, and I feel it almost personally when Sudanese or any other NGOs are persecuted. They are part of the fabric of civil society, and to me they belong to the future of any nation, working to promote the rights of women, the role of students and improved conditions for the poor and the oppressed. Every religion understands this as charitable work, and in Sudan there are many voluntary agencies and faith organisations.
To their credit, in the last three years the GOS have made a new attempt—for the benefit of the outside world as much as that of Sudan—to set up a national dialogue, theoretically to draw in the many groups that might be termed the opposition. Even four neighbouring heads of state, with varying experiences of democracy, were invited to a recent conference. But the dialogue has consistently failed to attract key opposition parties such as the National Umma Party, which, along with the international community, insists that any dialogue must depend on a peace settlement in Darfur and the Two States.
The Government of Sudan’s disregard for the work of the United Nations over many years is astonishing—witness the most recent report from the UN panel of experts, which conducted 10 missions but was unable to obtain visas to enter Sudan. The panel complained about aerial bombardment in Jebel Marra, which is primarily against the Abdul Wahid branch of the SLA, but it was unable to investigate allegations of crimes against civilians and displaced persons.
Washington may be softening its approach to Sudan, but it still maintains economic sanctions and insists on progress with peace negotiations. The EU takes a similar stand, and the UK can hardly do less. In their own strategic dialogue with the GOS, we all expect Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that standards of human rights are maintained, and the views of civil society are fully taken into account. I am sure we will hear about that in the reply to the debate.
The Khartoum process, on which we intend to report fully in two weeks’ time, is a labyrinthine EU exercise, which the Brexiting UK may ultimately prefer to avoid. Intended to rein in so-called terrorism and migration towards the Mediterranean, it may have the unexpected consequence that our country will be more closely identified with police, border guards and soldiers than with the Sudanese people, or the migrants.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, for securing this timely debate. Undoubtedly some noble Lords will address the threats posed by Islamic militants in the countries that surround Sudan. Its physical location places it at the heart of Africa.
The importance of an ally such as Sudan in the war on terrorism has always been clear. It was Sudan that identified, arrested and extradited Ilich Ramírez Sánchez—Carlos the Jackal—to France in 1994. It is also a matter of record that Sudan offered to arrest and extradite Osama bin Laden to Washington—an offer refused by the Clinton Administration, with disastrous consequences. Sudan has signed and enforced all relevant international anti-terrorist protocols. Sudan has co-operated on counterterrorism issues for two decades. As early as November 2001, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage stated that Sudanese co-operation on counterterrorism was “really terrific”. Sudan’s importance in the war against terrorism has intensified in the past few years. In 2012, Jean-Claude Cousseran, the former head of the French equivalent of MI6, said:
“Africa will be our neighbourhood Afghanistan”.
It is right that we look at the threat posed to Sudan by extremists in the surrounding countries, but we must also address the elephant in the room. We must look at the role played by British foreign policy in enabling the terrorist threat faced by Sudan and other African countries. British foreign policy in this respect has been nothing short of disastrous.
In 2011, the new coalition Government chose to unpick one of the few foreign policy successes of the Blair years—the containment of the Gaddafi Government in Libya, the abandonment of their nuclear programme and Tripoli’s wholehearted co-operation on counter- terrorism. Her Majesty’s Government chose to wage war against the Libyan Government in support of several anti-government Islamist militias with al-Qaeda affiliations.
In an article in the Guardian, I warned at the time that it was a dangerous assumption to believe that the Libyan rebels were all Facebook idealists. In their more candid moments, Western political and military leaders admitted at the time that they knew next to nothing about the gunmen for whom NATO was acting as a de facto air force and whom they were militarily equipping.
As clearly documented in Paul Moorcraft’s 2015 study, The Jihadist Threat, Her Majesty’s Government’s Libya policy demonstrated another clear contradiction. The United Kingdom has some of the most draconian anti-terrorist legislation in the world. While it is illegal for a young Briton of Pakistani descent to as much as look at a jihadist website in his bedroom, the British authorities turned a blind eye to the hundreds of young Britons of Libyan descent travelling from Britain to undergo jihadist military training and political indoctrination in training camps in Libya, Egypt and eastern Tunisia that were no different from those in Afghanistan. Many of those British citizens then went to fight with al-Qaeda-aligned militias against Gaddafi forces. The Daily Mail ran an article with the headline:
“Why do so many Libyan rebels seen on TV speak with British accents?”.
When I asked in a Written Question in mid-2015 whether Her Majesty’s Government were aware of any British Libyans who took part in overthrowing Colonel Gaddafi, and whether any of them had since returned to the United Kingdom, the Government stated that,
“we do not hold any information on this matter”.
The reality is that British foreign policy continues to create and enable not just our enemies but extremist forces that Governments such as that of Sudan will have to confront.
My Lords, Sudan lies at the heart of a troubled region. A number of terrorist groups are visible and active in the region, including Daesh, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda. It is of course imperative that we do all we can to support the Sudanese in this respect. However, we must also build our relationship with Sudan more widely. Issues such as poverty, lack of education, lack of employment opportunities and wider community underdevelopment can fuel the marginalisation and frustration of young people, which can lead to the formation of extremist ideology. It is therefore only right that we seek to help Sudan improve its stability and provide opportunities for its people.
Last year, I led a delegation from your Lordships’ House to Sudan. Following our visit, we have established the APPG for Sudan, and I am the co-chairman of the group. The APPG has met Tobias Ellwood and formed an excellent connection with the FCO and our ambassador in Sudan. As someone who regularly promotes bilateral trade, I believe that much can be gained by both sides from increasing trade links with Sudan. I am pleased that a trade mission from the Middle East Association visited Sudan in December, and that a further mission, organised with the co-operation of our ambassador to Sudan, is scheduled for April. However, our Government should now send a trade mission to Sudan. There is also a keen interest in Sudan in establishing educational links between academic institutions. Following our delegation, Sudanese links are already being established with two major universities in England.
I welcome the fact that the United States has now agreed to lift the economic sanctions previously applied to Sudan. This is due to Sudan’s progress in improving humanitarian access, ceasing hostilities and enhancing co-operation on counter-terrorism. On that note, we must bear in mind the steps that Sudan has taken, and continues to take, towards combating the extremist threat. Sudan has developed an effective re-education and rehabilitation programme to reintegrate former extremists into mainstream society.
We should also acknowledge some of the good work already taking place between the United Kingdom and Sudan. We are the second-largest humanitarian donor to that country. We support health and medical programmes, many of which help children and displaced persons. Our APPG is sending a delegation of women parliamentarians to Sudan to look at issues relating to the health of women in Sudan.
Sudan still faces a number of challenges to do with extremism and other matters. We must, however, acknowledge the progress already made and help Sudan advance further. Adopting a hostile and isolationist policy towards Sudan will only make the country more vulnerable, threatening its people and the wider region. We should engage with Sudan and establish greater links, to the benefit of both countries and to help establish peace and stability in the region. Finally, I ask the Minister: what progress is being made on trade links with Sudan?
My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Sandwich I am an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sudan and South Sudan, and a former chairman of that group.
The implication of the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, is that Sudan is an island of moderation surrounded by Islamists. In reality, the reverse is true. In 2015 the report by the United Nations Panel of Experts on Sudan warned that the regime was providing “fertile ground” for Islamist extremists in neighbouring nations. For 30 years the regime has waged war on its own people. That is why the International Criminal Court has indicted Field Marshal Bashir on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is a scandal that he can travel with impunity and without fear of arrest to face those charges.
When I first visited South Sudan 20 years ago during the civil war, I saw schools, clinics, homes and churches that the regime had bombed, where between 1.5 million and 2 million people perished. That is why the country was torn in two. Later I travelled to Geneina in Darfur, where I saw a fraction of the 2 million who have been displaced and met the loved ones of some of the 200,000, mainly Muslim, people murdered. This is not history: last year there were more than 100,000 newly displaced people in Darfur and 3.2 million long-term displaced nationwide. Meanwhile, the aerial bombardment continues in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and humanitarian access is still denied. Furthermore, I have sent the Minister Amnesty International’s report on the alleged use of chemical weapons in Darfur. I hope that the noble Baroness will address both issues in her response.
Consider also the life sentence and other lengthy sentences given to three Christians only last month. Will the Minister tell us what we are doing about this travesty of justice? What have the Government of Sudan done to implement the recommendations in the 2016 universal periodic review? What have we done to urge the Government of Sudan to implement the religious freedom protections codified in their interim national constitution, especially in the light of the 2016 USCIRF report listing Sudan as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in systematic and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief? In this context, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, I am appalled. However, according to the noble Lord, Lord Price, in answer to a Written Question from me earlier this week,
“the UK will consider opportunities to promote trade with Sudan”.
He should recall Churchill’s warning that it is dangerous to feed crocodiles if you hope that they will eat you last.
There are two faces of the Government of Sudan. They claim to have disavowed the worst forms of extremist ideology but, as academician Suliman Baldo said, the Sudanese Government have become adept at engaging in intelligence sharing with important international partners while tolerating Salafist groups internally. The International Crisis Group says that Sudan tolerates radical Islamists and, most recently, supporters of IS when it is politically advantageous to do so. Extremism comes from within Sudan and from the highest levels: Field-Marshal Bashir has said it is his ambition to turn the entire country into a sharia state. Extremist groups operate with the approval of Sudan’s religious scholars committee, while the journalist Gill Lusk says the regime uses,
“the Salafist … and other splinter groups both as deniable policy instruments and as bargaining chips”.
In the long term, the fight against extremism in Sudan will depend on an inclusive, democratic transformation that is sustained by a free and active civil society. It is that development we should be supporting, rather than propping up an indicted regime. Sudan is playing a dangerous double game, to which the international community should be wary of falling victim. Beware the crocodiles.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, on securing this debate and declare an interest as a founder of the All-Party Group for Sudan and South Sudan, along with Hilton Dawson MP. I am now a member of the All-Party Group for Sudan.
My first experience of Sudan—indeed, my first experience of a developing country—was as a very new MP in 1998. In south Sudan, I lay on the floor of a tent in a village compound at night and listened to the sound of drums, which I was told were warning of another attack from the north by militia who travelled down on the train to Wau to terrorise the south, sent by the Sudanese Government. They were the “baddies”, I was told. The message I got was that it was a simple fight for independence. I think not. I have since learned that the Sudanese Government were right in their scepticism that the south could form a stable government —I shared that view, and the Nuer and the Dinka have demonstrated that in recent years.
That is not the only problem for the Sudanese Government, with rebel tribes and individuals trying to wrest power from the Government all the time. It is a huge and diverse country. Sudan has problems to face both within its own country and from neighbouring countries and the terrorism they export—others have pointed that out during the debate, so I will not repeat it. I add only that there are other counties that deserve our censure, far more than Sudan perhaps. These are countries we happily trade with and enjoy friendly relations with—Saudi Arabia heads my list at the moment, currently causing famine in Yemen and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Why is the Foreign Office not speaking out about this?
I want now to say something completely different, as a tribute to Professor Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician who made statistics fun and bearable. He died two days ago. It was he who first explained to me, with his wonderful graphics and bubblegrams, the clear link between maternal health, family planning, smaller families, and more girls accessing education and being able to contribute to their country’s economy, which then grows. The clear link has been made between women’s reproductive rights and economic progress. Sudan has indeed listened to Han Rosling’s message and, for this reason, should be encouraged. According to the World Health Organization, maternal mortality has more than halved in 10 years, and the under-five mortality rate and neonatal deaths have also declined. All these rates are, of course, still very high—they started from that high level—but the plan to further reduce them was devised by the Sudanese Government in 2013 and it is to be encouraged and commended. Despite laws in the Sudan banning both FGM and child marriage, they still contribute to maternal deaths and morbidity but the Sudanese Government are trying hard on these issues. Led by the wonderful Ahfad University for Women, which is near Khartoum, and many women parliamentarians—I think their percentage is in fact higher than we have here—a lot of progress is being made for women in the Sudan but, as I say, there is a long way to go. We should be helping Sudan in every way we can, not condemning the Government.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord for this opportunity to discuss issues related to Sudan and the relation of Islamist extremist nations with Sudan, and vice versa. Given that it is widely believed that neighbouring Islamist regimes support President Bashir because of his commitment to make Sudan a unified Arabic, Islamic nation, it is not irrelevant to focus on his Islamist extremist policies of the ethnic and religious cleansing of indigenous African peoples and Christians, traditional believers and Muslims who do not support his Islamist ideology. I would also mention that in Nigeria, it is widely believed that Sudan supports the Islamist Boko Haram.
I have recently returned from a visit to Sudan, and obtained first-hand evidence of the implementation of its genocidal policies. The Government of Sudan are blatantly violating conditions required by the United States for the lifting of sanctions by their total disregard of the ceasefire with continued fighting in Darfur, including the attack in Nertiti by the Sudanese Army under the command of Colonel Mohamed El Tayeb. The best estimate is that in that attack, 16 civilians were killed and some 72 to 75 civilians were wounded.
This is an intentional policy. On 22 December 2016, President Bashir delivered a speech at the military Merowe archery festival, in which he vowed to continue seeking a military solution for the internal conflicts and bragged that the unilateral cessation of hostilities would terminate within a week, irrespective of Khartoum’s declaratory policies. That has been proven true in Blue Nile, with the fighting in January 2017 a direct continuation of clashes started in early December 2016. There was no pause or reorganisation of Sudanese armed forces—that is, the ceasefire did not exist for them operationally. On 9 January, while we were in the region, the Sudanese army launched a major offensive on the SPLA-North forces in Arum, Blue Nile state, and villages were bombed sporadically.
In the Nuba mountains, there are numerous reports of continuing missile attacks on civilians, creating such terror that families have been forced to flee their homes and live in snake-infested caves with no medical care and acute shortages of food. Three weeks ago, I climbed one of those Nuba mountains to meet families hiding in those caves. I met a girl who had been bitten by a cobra; a woman dying of malaria with no treatment; and a man whose five children had been burnt alive when a shell hit the place where they were sheltering. People would not be living and dying in these appalling conditions in Sudan unless forced to do so because of continuing military offensives by Khartoum.
This highlights the crisis of humanitarian need: UN officials acknowledge that because of the ongoing disagreements over humanitarian access points,
“the civilians in the war-affected areas continue to suffer”.
The UN now estimates that over 600,000 people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance in the southern and western parts of the Nuba mountains and in Blue Nile state. This raises the issue of the continuing, urgent need for cross-border aid, an issue I have raised repeatedly with Her Majesty’s Government. But nothing has happened so far and people continue to die because of a lack of food and healthcare.
The international community has the responsibility to protect and to provide. It is manifestly failing on both counts by allowing the Government of Sudan to continue to slaughter their own civilians with impunity and by failing to ensure the provision of life-saving medicines and food for hundreds of thousands of civilians. Will Her Majesty’s Government at last take urgent action to ensure cross-border aid, and to end the impunity with which the Government of Sudan are continuing military offensives despite their alleged commitment to the ceasefire?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Hussain for initiating this debate at a time when our own Government are rephrasing their relationship with Sudan. I express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Ahmed for his remarkable and long-standing commitment to the people of Sudan and for introducing me to that beautiful country with immeasurable potential. We have a long history with the Sudanese people that they have not forgotten. During our visits, we met a number of women parliamentarians and, together with the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, who is not able to take part today, through the wonderful team at IPU we were able to organise a successful visit of six powerful women parliamentarians to our Parliament. I do not need to labour the importance of such exchanges to noble Lords but both these visits provided a great insight into women’s presence in the political, business and education sectors. While we cannot overstate the impact of international sanctions as barriers to women’s equality and well-being, women across Sudan are successfully working within those constraints to advance women’s rights. The impressive work of the British Council should also be noted here.
On our last visit we were able to see staff and students at the University of Khartoum, meet families in Darfur itself, witness an architectural excavation in Jebel Marra and meet UNIMID peacekeepers. On neither of these visits did we witness an Islamic state; clearly the President of Sudan has failed for 20 years to Islamise the whole country. What I was not prepared for was the effect of the crippling sanctions on the Sudanese people themselves, with basic healthcare not available, from maternity provision and eye drops to diabetes drugs and asthma pumps. I visited a hospital unannounced, having chosen it out of three or four, and I was utterly shocked—I was almost in tears— at how empty the building was. It did not lack patients, thousands of whom lined its corridors, but the medicine cupboards in the treatment rooms were bare. I therefore welcome the latest pathways to lifting international sanctions. The people of Sudan deserve to be free of these constraints and suffering that are not their fault. After two decades, it is time.
Britain should take a lead in this new era of co-operation as China and Saudi Arabia are already present in the region with investment. Crucially, the increasing threat of terrorism in Africa and the Middle East, with the presence of Daesh, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram among others on Sudan’s border, have rendered compelling the need for international actors to encourage Sudan in its anti-extremism drive and its threat against its neighbours. Sudan is now at the forefront of countering irregular migration and human trafficking, and we can achieve peace and reconciliation and the protection of human rights only if we assist Sudan post-sanctions with the necessary skills and resources.
Given the current theatre of conflict and wars, which as we have witnessed have brought nothing but death, destruction and enmities, I no longer believe or accept that continually and complacently adding further to these conflicts does any justice to the people of Sudan or our own regional presence and interest. Sudan is an important strategic partner in fighting terrorism and radicalisation, and is managing significant numbers of incoming families from South Sudan, Libya and elsewhere. It does not call them refugees. Let us not be self-righteous about individual countries when we so often suffer from selective amnesia about the impact of our own history. Today we know what has happened to minorities in many Gulf and Middle East conflicts.
As negotiations progress, I wish to see us work with the Sudanese Government to ensure that they embody human rights and the rights of minorities at their core. We can do that only if we are at the forefront of the partnership to rebuild Sudan. We should do so alongside the impressive Sudanese diaspora, many of whom see this as a glimpse of hope. I am glad that through the APPG on Sudan we aim to continue to strengthen our ties with the many professionals who are willing to utilise their talents and skills for a safe and secure Sudan.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for initiating this debate. Sudan is a country that has a more or less constant history of civil wars, military coups and human rights abuses. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, President Bashir has been indicted under the International Criminal Court. We all hope that Sudan is on a road map, and we have of course heard about the African Union’s road map. Can the Minister tell us more about how that road map might lead to greater peace and security in a country that deserves far better?
We have heard in the debate about the recent visit to Sudan—just a few weeks ago—by Sir Simon McDonald from the FCO, who was accompanied by the DfID Permanent Secretary, Sir Mark Lowcock. In their exchanges with the Government of Sudan, and also with opposition leaders whom they had the opportunity to meet, we are told that they raised the question of human rights and migration, and humanitarian and development assistance. What is the Government’s assessment of those discussions in relation to human rights abuses? What assurances did they get on how these might be addressed?
We have also heard in the debate about bringing Sudan back more formally into the international community. We heard recently that President Trump had included Sudan in his ban on visitors to the US; what is the Government’s assessment of the impact that the ban might have in terms of giving succour to the terrorists? The Home Secretary described the ban as a “propaganda opportunity” for ISIS. As we have also heard, DfID spends nearly £50 million a year in Sudan. I hope that the Minister can tell us what the Government’s assessment is of the impact of that aid in transforming the country economically and, more importantly, in terms of civil society and defending human rights.
My Lords, I also join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, on securing this debate. As he made clear, extremism is a global problem. In all its forms it attacks the fundamental values that bind us together as a global community and undermines our efforts to build a better, more tolerant world. The UK Government are committed to working with our international partners to tackle the threat posed by extremism both here in the UK and overseas. Today I will therefore reflect on the current situation in Sudan and the region, which has been set out by noble Lords—I would say set out clearly, but there is disagreement among noble Lords about some of the major parts of the detail, but hearing these differences is part of the importance of debates such as this. I will also reflect on the work of the UK Government as we try to help that country tackle extremism.
Sudan forms part of the fragile Sahel region, which is blighted by internal conflict, weak governance, violent extremism, and the spillover of conflicts outside its borders—most notably, as we were reminded, from Libya and Nigeria. Continued instability there poses a threat to security in the wider north and west Africa region. Currently, the main terrorist threat in the Sahel is from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. A number of other terrorist groups also operate in neighbouring Egypt, primarily targeting Egyptian state and security officials, and in Libya. In particular, of course, we have to mention Daesh.
In Sudan itself, the long-running conflicts in Darfur and the Two Areas have created a dire humanitarian situation across the country, with approximately 5.8 million Sudanese in need of humanitarian assistance. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in this respect. She has been consistent in the assistance she is trying to give to the country. It is important for the Government of Sudan to be committed to the international proposal for improving humanitarian access to the Two Areas. They most recently expressed support for that when the Foreign Minister, Ghandour, spoke in a meeting with the UK special representative to Sudan on 24 January. We continue to urge the SPLM-North to agree to these proposals to guarantee medical supplies brought directly to the areas under its control as a way to unblock the whole system and obtain a broader agreement for long-term access. As I have mentioned recently in the House, there was an opportunity for an agreement whereby USAID would have delivered humanitarian support, but it was SPLM-North that walked out of the talks, which was disappointing.
There has recently been a reduction in the level of armed conflict between the Government of Sudan and armed movements. That is encouraging, but I understand the concerns of noble Lords. We fully support the peace process led by the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel. It is vital that all sides reach agreements on the permanent cessation of hostilities and unrestricted humanitarian access to the conflict areas. Sudan’s national dialogue has the potential to solve this matter. We were pleased to hear that the next stage will remain open and inclusive for all Sudanese political parties, and we urge all sides to commit to it fully.
We are concerned, however, by the arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders and opposition party members in Sudan. We have raised our concerns with the Government of Sudan and will continue to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, rightly raised concerns about the three Christian men who were sentenced on 29 January. We continue to work closely with human rights lawyers working on cases relating to freedom of religion or belief, and we will continue to raise cases of concern directly with the Government of Sudan as part of our ongoing human rights dialogue. It will not surprise the noble Lord to hear that we are in contact with the Czech Republic, because of course it is one of its nationals who has been sentenced. Clearly, we are extremely concerned by the results of those trials.
Sudan’s central position between east and west Africa means that it has historically been a crossroads between these two regions, as well as Libya to the north. It is not just a crossroads for ordinary traders; it is a key facilitation hub for organised criminality, such as smuggling and trafficking in people. These routes are highly susceptible to exploitation by terrorist groups. We have been working with our international partners and other regional Governments to help to defeat terrorism and bring stability to the Sahel. In the past, the Sudanese Government have failed adequately to co-operate or confront the problem of Islamic extremism and human trafficking. That is why it is crucial that the UK engages with the Sudanese Government to encourage them to work more closely with the international community. I believe that progress is being made.
Questions were asked about the lifting of US sanctions. It is clear that progress has been made—national dialogue is an important development and no one should ignore it, and the ceasefire is holding to the main part. There is an issue about Nertiti—I understand that—but there is a problem with getting evidence on it. In the Two Areas, we are hearing from the SPLM-North that there is no breach of ceasefire. So let us recognise the progress made by the Government of Sudan when we can. The fact is, however, where the Government of Sudan have begun to show that they are willing to co-operate with the international community to counter violent extremism, the international community has to re-evaluate its position. The previous US Administration did that and made progress with temporarily lifting some of its more damaging economic sanctions. If made permanent, the lifting of US sanctions is considerably likely to strengthen Sudan’s economy, which in turn could increase the resilience of the country to violent extremism.
I am advised that yesterday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously extended the mandate of the UN sanctions regime on Sudan, including the panel of experts. I say again that there is some sign of progress. While the panel has faced obstacles from the Sudanese Government, it has now received visas to travel to Sudan to monitor the implementation adherence with sanctions. We will continue to urge the Government of Sudan to co-operate fully with the panel of experts and to adhere with the UN sanctions regime. I feel that it will not only be the Government watching that—noble Lords here will monitor it very carefully with some of their excellent contacts.
We can also play our part, but we have made it clear to the Government of Sudan that the current conflicts, human rights abuses and business environment remain obstacles to a sizeable increase in interest from British companies. We continue to urge the Government of Sudan to make progress on all the issues raised by noble Lords today around threats to the human rights and security of all people in Sudan. It should not be some ethnic groups that have the ability to prosper—it is for all.
I assure my noble friend Lord Sheikh that we are working towards promoting and protecting good governance, the rule of law and human rights as the best way to ensure our collective security. Our work is focused on two areas. First, on ending conflict and, secondly, on improving resilience. In that way, there must be room for us at some stage to work further with the Government of Sudan to make sure that the national dialogue works, is open to all and that we see an improvement in human rights. It is only that improvement that will enable further engagement. Our strategic dialogue provides an important platform for us to discuss areas where we would like to increase co-operation with the Sudanese Government, such as countering violent extremism and migration. We will continue our conversation on these issues at the next dialogue in Khartoum in March.
Radicalisation within Sudan is another issue of concern. Extremist groups could seek to exploit vulnerable communities in order to incite political unrest and anti-western sentiment. Here too we are taking practical action. We are working with staff, students and graduates at the University of Medical Sciences and Technology in Khartoum to raise awareness of the issue and suggest options for tackling the risks. As part of our engagement with the university and its alumni, we have also continued to provide outreach material on countering violent extremism to students, staff and parents, and supported the visits of expert speakers to Sudan from the UK, including the imam to the British Armed Forces.
In conclusion, violent extremism is a growing concern in many parts of the world. That includes the Sahel and extremist groups operating in the region which continue to pose a threat to Sudan. It is important that the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, worded his Question for Short Debate to put Sudan within the wider context of threats around the region, so that instead of focusing only on Sudan, we consider the Question against the background of threats that Sudan faces and how we need to build resilience across the region. We are encouraged by the new willingness of the Sudanese Government to co-operate with international partners on these vital issues. Through our strategic dialogue with the Government of Sudan we will continue to promote further co-operation. By working together, we will overcome intolerance and build peaceful and prosperous societies for all our citizens. It takes all of our energies in government to do it; I know we can count on the energies of noble Lords here to join in that work.
Education: Maintained and Independent Schools
My Lords, I declare at the outset my interest in the subject of this debate. I am a former general secretary of the Independent Schools Council—the ISC—which both accredits, and works on behalf of, some 1,300 of the 2,500 independent schools in our country today. Although more than 80% of pupils being educated in the independent sector attend ISC schools, it should be noted that there are more than 1,000 other schools in the sector which prefer to go their own way. I am also president of the Independent Schools Association, one of the ISC’s constituent bodies. I thank all noble Lords who will be contributing to this debate.
I sought this debate primarily to provide an opportunity for the further discussion of partnership work between ISC and maintained schools, which featured quite prominently in the debates in 2015 on what is now the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act. At the Report stage on that measure, which took place on 20 July 2015, important commitments were given on behalf of the ISC and the Government by my noble friend Lord Bridges of Headley. I thought it would be useful to revisit those commitments and review progress.
I would also like to comment briefly on the proposals relating to independent schools in the Government’s remarkable consultation paper, Schools that Work for Everyone, which was published last September, and on the ISC’s response to it. The document’s remarkable features include poor drafting that invites stern rebuke from the nation’s English teachers. Its opening sentences embodies a tiresome party political catchphrase:
“This consultation sets out the Government’s ambition to create an education system that extends opportunity to everyone, not just the privileged few”.
The Government cannot possibly believe that the aim of education reformers since the 19th century—Liberal, Labour and Tory—has been to fashion a system that serves the interests of only a privileged few.
Partnerships between the two sectors of education have existed for a long time. When I arrived at the Independent Schools Council in 1997, exactly 20 years ago, I found a well-established tradition of encouraging work with maintained schools and local communities. An annual audit was published. It occasionally got a small paragraph in the press. For the first time, the Government started to show interest. In 1998, the then Labour Minister of State for School Standards, Stephen Byers, established an advisory group on independent/state school partnerships which awarded modest grants to specific projects involving schools in both sectors.
I circulated a paper in 1998 on behalf of this group. It stated: “The general perception has been, for far too long, of two education sectors working separately towards the same goal—the success of their pupils. Since all schools are in the business of trying to secure the best education for their pupils, each sector has a wealth of skills and expertise from which the other could benefit”. The stress that was laid on the value that both sectors can derive from partnership was—and remains—crucial. It became one of the themes of Labour education policy.
What we lacked over the years was really authoritative, detailed information about the extent of partnership work. The need for it emerged clearly during the debates in 2015, to which I have referred. Some noble Lords, who felt strongly that not nearly enough was being done, pressed for legal compulsion, particularly in the spheres of music and sport, where much is now being done in partnership but where undoubtedly still more could be achieved. Facts were required. As Dr Mark Bailey, High Master of St Paul’s School, has said recently:
“It’s an area of education that is particularly vulnerable to wide generalisations and a lack of full understanding”.
In July 2015, the ISC committed itself to developing a website which would, for the first time, provide a platform where partnership work could be exhibited, and to which schools in both sectors could contribute. The website, entitled Schools Together, was launched in January 2016; 1550 projects now appear on it. Furthermore, the ISC is, as it promised in 2015, now gathering fuller information than ever before from member schools—information that it is sharing with the Charity Commission. For its part, the commission has produced fuller guidance on public benefit and now requires partnership work to be reported to it in greater detail.
In all this, it is essential to bear one point above all in mind: independent schools vary so greatly in size, in income, in areas of particular expertise and much else besides, that uniform obligations in respect of partnership work could not be laid equitably upon them. As the ISC has put it in its response to the Government’s consultation paper:
“We have found that successful partnerships rest on strong local relationships and freedom for schools to support them according to their particular circumstances and capabilities”.
That has always seemed to me the right approach. I hope this Government agree with it.
One further commitment was given in July 2015. My noble friend Lord Bridges announced that the Charity Commission would carry out a research project so that discussion could be based,
“more solidly on a better understanding of what is actually the case”,—[Official Report, 20/7/15; col. 974.]
where partnership work is concerned. He added that the research would be published and debated in the House. The Minister will no doubt report on the progress of this important work when he comes to reply.
I have spoken disrespectfully about certain aspects of the Government’s consultation paper. I do not have undivided admiration for the section of it which sets out proposals for independent schools. Though proper acknowledgement is given to existing partnership work, the proposals are expressed in the language of intimidation, not partnership, which is astonishing from a Tory Government. The message is unambiguous: work hard to add,
“extra capacity to the state sector”,
and create masses of free places in your own schools, or your charitable status will be at risk. Nowhere is there any recognition of the fact that the total annual benefit arising from charitable status is some £150 million, while ISC schools, some of which do not even have charitable status, devote over £850 million to means-tested bursaries and fee remission.
The ISC has replied to the Government in the language of partnership. It has proposed jointly funded free places and consortia of schools to help create more good places in the maintained sector. Discussions between the ISC and the Department for Education are in progress. I hope they reach a satisfactory conclusion.
Back in 1997, the Labour Government set out three guiding principles: first, “the high standards being achieved in independent schools must not be compromised”; secondly, “change must be voluntary”; and thirdly, “there must be no imposition from above”. The Government should stick to those well-tried principles.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for securing this debate and for introducing it so well.
The Prime Minister has spoken often about creating a meritocratic Britain. By this she means that a good education should be within the reach of all our children. It is therefore a scandal that nearly 90% of our independent schools are rated good or outstanding and 80% of them outstanding, but only 20% of state schools are regarded as outstanding. This leads to a waste of talent because state schools do not produce outstanding children. It leads to a shortage of skilled labour and, more importantly, to resentment and frustration among a large number of state school pupils who feel that they are not getting their due for their talent.
It is striking that it is the threat of Brexit that has alerted us to the enormity of this danger and, as the Prime Minister said, now that Britain is about to embark on a new adventure it is time to rethink all the old certainties. It is unfortunate that a question of this magnitude should come up in this context, which is polemical, polarises the country and does not allow us an independent assessment of the two concepts of schools.
When we talk about independent schools it is also worth bearing in mind that there are about 2,300 and 50% of them are pretty small—with fewer than 150 pupils—which educate between them just under half a million pupils aged five to 15. The partnership between state schools and independent schools has to be seen in that context. So how do we improve state schools? Various Governments have come and gone and floated all kinds of ideas and we have more or less agreed that if we are going to improve state schools we will have to think in terms of allocating more resources to them, with better teachers, greater autonomy and leadership at the top, and increasing parents’ say in how they are run. Independent schools can and do contribute to this, but not for the reasons that are generally cited. The reason cited is that independent schools get charitable status; they get relief from business rates and therefore, as a kind of contractual quid pro quo, they should give something back to the state which has given them so much.
I do not think that argument particularly works or is even particularly valid. The independent schools if pressured could say that they are not interested in accepting the business rate relief and the charitable status. What do you do then? Go back to square one? They might say that the concession they are getting by virtue of not having to pay business rates is so small that it is not worth the bother. What do we do then? Are they completely exempted from all the obligations that they have to state schools? I suggest that to couch the argument in terms of a contractual quid pro quo is dangerous for both independent schools and state schools.
We should rather think in the following terms. First, independent schools by virtue of the fact that they are outstanding and getting wonderful results have certain moral obligations to their fellow citizens. I emphasise the importance of moral obligation because it cannot be denied that those schools that have the resources and the capacity ought to be able to contribute to those which have fewer resources and less capacity.
I also think of the argument articulated in the language of enlightened self-interest. If the distance between state schools and independent schools remains as large then there is going to be resentment and constant hatred for independent schools, and that is not the climate in which independent schools will be able to function. There is also crude self-interest, because independent schools are increasingly becoming homes for the children of foreigners. I was told recently that the number of overseas nationals, especially Chinese and others, whose children are admitted to our schools, either here or in their campuses abroad, is much larger than it used to be—about 33% larger over the past five years. If this is the situation they are going to be reduced to then it is rather important that they should think in terms of collaborating with state schools in our country.
The question therefore is to articulate why it is important that the two sets of schools should be able to co-operate. I think they can co-operate at various levels, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, pointed out, and I want to add one or two other ideas. They can lend their staff, especially in minority subjects; provide access to facilities—for example, in science labs, sports facilities, or music; extend a larger number of scholarships than they have done so far; provide teaching, coaching and career advice; and share best practices. These are some of the ways that independent schools can help state ones; there are many others.
Let us remember one important thing. The two sets of schools are never going to be complete partners. Rivalry is built into their structure. Independent schools are in the business of recruiting fee-paying pupils, and fee-paying schools are decidedly what state schools are not. Given that there is this rivalry and that independent schools are going to be looking for children who are prepared to pay, why should they raise the standards of state schools? If the standards are raised to a high level, why would anybody want to go to independent schools? On the continent of Europe, in France and Germany, very few students go to independent schools, because state schools are considered sufficient. I am not saying that it is in the interest of independent schools to impoverish or keep state schools parasitic on them, but I emphasise that there is a relationship of patron and client. It is not a relationship of equals, but has an element of rivalry. Consistent with that, we should certainly think of collaboration between the two, but not raise our expectations too high.
My Lords, when I put my name down for this debate, I wondered whether I was getting into very deep water. I can now confirm that I am at least up to my waist. When we talk about independent schools assisting the state sector, we are talking about something that has happened, or where there has been a far higher degree of interaction than most people realise. I do not know whether it is an advantage, but I have the experience of knowing how, for instance, the private, independent providers have assisted in things such as provision for those with special educational needs. It is also worth noting that certain independent schools have been a resource that has been used, even though that was often in state boarding schools, for those with severe problems who are identified and can get through—and have done a pretty good job in many cases. That is probably because the state system has not provided for those problems.
How do we develop a relationship where somebody is providing a service—and charging, to an extent—for somebody not doing so? As has already been mentioned by virtually everybody today, there is a degree of clash here. Many of the smaller schools that did it have disappeared as provision got slightly better in the state sector. That is a conflict. More specialist providers, for people who have failed within the state system, still have a role—the recovery centre, effectively. How do we take that expertise and use it?
Another subject is sport, although the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has beaten me to that. It is something of a scandal that, if you want to win an Olympic medal, you can up your chances by going to an independent school. It might be that most of the sports that are attracting the mainstream and are easy to access do not have very high Olympic status—football being the classic with rugby league following rapidly. If you have schools that are not going on to that pathway, how do we provide support and help? If we are not going to start sending people on sporting excellence education pathways, how do we provide the assistance? Asking the independent schools, “What are you doing that identifies here?”, and trying to bring that identification process into the state system would be very interesting. We also need to identify that some of these answers will not be readily available if you are in a state school. In the sporting world, you will be much better off if that independent school talks to the school and the local sports clubs. You are not identifying someone with raw talent; technically, you are identifying someone who enjoys training. That is much more important in the modern sporting environment. Roy of the Rovers kicking a ball around the pitch has gone, certainly if he wants to be an international-quality sprinter.
How can we bring the expertise in this environment forward to help in this sector? If we are to take over and help to run schools, which from what I have read has not been a totally successful experience so far, how can we get this expertise brought in? To go back to special educational needs, for instance, are those with less severe needs better dealt with by the independent sector? What if they go to a state-run school that is bigger, with more people, and is being told to be more flexible, perhaps by allowing better technology into the classroom? How does that fit into a classroom? I will not go into a diatribe about SATs and the English-language testing that goes on for dyslexics at the moment—I shall save that delight for the Minister on another day—but how do you build flexibility into the current very regimented system? How do you apply that?
These are difficult tasks. If we find a way forward, that is great, but if we cannot, what are we doing? Are we encouraging the independent sector simply to offer more bursaries? That might help some individuals, but will it help the majority of schools? No. How are we to get that interaction and expertise through? If the Minister has good examples of pathways that bring in expertise in general fields to the places where we know we do not do that well—in the state sector especially, as the independent sector does better—I am all ears.
It is the identification of how to apply the extra information and expertise to these schools that will be very interesting. If we do that, I hope we will establish a path that in a short time does not need the independent sector. That brings us right back around to the competition level. I speak with some knowledge on this: you do not go to the independent sector if you think you will get the service in the state sector. Good state schools often have very careful application processes for getting you in there—that is, where you live and house prices. If we can ensure that we have this identification pathway going through, we are doing something good here. If we do not, it will be window dressing.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for instigating this debate. I remind noble Lords of my education interests in the register.
I entirely support independent schools giving assistance and advice to schools in the state sector. My noble friend and other noble Lords have given examples of good practice in this area. However, I have several concerns. I would want to be sure that independent schools did not feel under pressure to join in. My noble friend’s speech today has caused me some anxiety, because charitable status could be in danger if schools do not co-operate with the Government’s wishes. Some are fearful that the reporting procedures could lead to the construction of a league table of achievement in the help they are able to give to the state sector.
At the moment, in principle, the removal of charitable status means that a school’s assets could be sequestered and given to another charity. That is unlikely to happen, as we know, but such a threat is still felt by independent schools to be in the air.
Charitable status brings with it certain fiscal advantages—usually cut-price local taxes, exemption from corporation taxes and the ability to obtain gift aid on donations towards certain charitable ends, although not of course on fee income. However, that is not the huge subsidy that some newspapers seem to imagine; independent school governors estimate that those tax advantages account for about 3% of income. There can be few schools which do not spend this on pupils from homes that cannot afford fees. Nationally, charitable status brings independent schools an annual notional tax saving of some £100 million; however, research suggests that they spend more than £260 million on bursaries—bringing it to the sum that my noble friend mentioned.
Independent schools have to tread carefully when assisting state schools. First, they have to reassure fee-paying parents that such a charitable effort is worth while and the cost of it unlikely to diminish their own children’s education; secondly, they have to be extremely careful not to give the appearance of patronage. However, if handled carefully, all this can be extremely beneficial. I have seen wonderful projects involving the teaching of reading by independent school sixth-formers at local primaries, from which the older students gained as much as the younger ones. A good number of cadet units in independent schools have been instrumental in setting up CCF companies in local secondaries. In several cases these now meet as joint forces.
We have heard a great deal in the past, although little today, about charitable independent schools being able to prove public benefit. A landmark judicial review quite properly defined such benefit rather more liberally than the then chairman of the Charity Commission had promulgated. It is true, however, that the modern conception of charity somehow sits uncomfortably with independent schools, which are often seen, usually unfairly, as the preserve of the wealthy. This was guyed really rather well by Ian Hislop in a spoof charity appeal in which he said, “A gift of only £50 will buy a boater for Henrietta”.
On 12 September last year, I asked the Minister whether independent schools that wish to do so will be able to opt out of charitable status and thereby demit the 3% or 4% of their income. His reply was that they will. This is good news, and I suggest that the law could assist those who so wished to opt out by allowing them to keep their current assets and be given the status of what I believe in Scotland are public trusts with no tax advantages. I asked because the governing bodies of independent schools—I was for some years the chairman of one—tend to take a very long-term view. Many of them have survived for hundreds of years by so doing. Threatened in the not-too-distant past by the Charity Commission, some have told me that they fear that threat will someday come again and that they would value being able to opt out, even if it meant the loss of fiscal advantages. Most charitable schools in the independent sector will doubtless wish to remain as charities, with the advantages and possible disadvantages brought by this, but those that do not should, in my view, have the option.
There is one great gift that schools in the private sector can give to the state sector, a gift that costs them nothing. It is the example they set, especially in the use of their independence. Each is a separate, autonomous corporate body; even those schools in groups such as the Woodard Foundation retain their clear individuality. Decisions about financial priorities, staffing, curriculum, buildings and plant are made by the governors and professionals on the spot, without reference to any local or national bureaucracies. This was the freedom that first the grant-maintained schools movement of the 1990s and then its successor, the academies programme, promised state schools and there is no better way of raising standards in them. There is every possible good reason for state and independent schools to work closely together, but it must be made very clear that such arrangements are purely voluntary on both sides.
My Lords, I declare my interests: I am chair of a musical education charity, Voces Cantabiles Music, and my wife is a director of a multi-academy trust in Bradford.
I became involved in this issue partly because I had to answer for charities and I worked with charities when in the coalition Government, but I also followed the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, in tabling an amendment to the charities Bill in 2015. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has asked me to give his apologies today as he is unfortunately not able to be with us as he has to leave for a foreign visit this afternoon.
Since then, the situation has moved on. The Prime Minister made an astonishingly strong speech last September:
“Through their charitable status, private schools collectively reduce their tax bills by millions every year. And I want to … enact a tougher test on the amount of public benefit required”.
She noted that,
“these schools have become more and more divorced from normal life”,
with a rapidly rising percentage of pupils with rich parents from overseas countries.
Paragraph 7 of last September’s consultation document, referring to independent schools, states:
“We should expect these schools to assist the state-funded sector more directly … by building capacity in the sector”.
A later paragraph states that,
“these requirements will be built into existing agreements, so that … the ability to … maintain the key benefits associated with independent schools’ charitable status, is explicitly linked to doing more”.
If a Labour Government had said that, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph would have been all over it, but I note that this was a Conservative Prime Minister, and I agree with her. The Independent Schools Council has depicted this as a threat: I would call it much more a reminder. If a school is a charity, it should be fulfilling charitable purposes. A great many of our best independent schools were founded as charities and have moved some way from their original objectives at their foundation.
Independent schools have responsibilities, apart from being charities, to the well-being of this country—their corporate social responsibility, if you like—and to their communities. The best independent/state school partnership I have seen, in York, is partly because the independent schools in York are Quaker and have a very strong sense of their social responsibility and of their responsibility to their community in particular.
I am conscious that there is a great deal of variation across England. The situation of independent schools in London and south-east is very different from that in Yorkshire and the north of England. I am also conscious that the partnerships I have seen and heard of depend very much on individual leadership. A good person pushing something does extraordinarily well and then when he or she retires things very often fall away. It is a patchy record, but I welcome the Government’s encouragement of more active engagement. I hope the Minister takes that fully on board.
There is resistance on both sides. We have seen that, and I have heard from people in independent schools about unfortunately or unintentionally giving the impression of being patronising. I have heard from left-wing teachers in state schools that they do not want anything to do with the independent sector, et cetera, but in a number of places, partnership now works extremely well. The one I know best is Westminster Grey Coat—a foundation of two state schools and three independent schools—in which the director of the foundation says very strongly that they have mutual benefit and learn from each other all the way across. I was at Emanuel School the other week for the foundation’s sixth-form essay prize, in which the boys from Westminster City School, a state school, won more prizes than any other school. It was very impressive and pleasing. That is precisely the sort of thing one should be citing.
Social awareness and social integration within our divided national community are part of what this is all about. There is no single model. Different forms of co-operation will fit different communities and different circumstances. The best model is certainly not to sponsor academies or to offer free places, although in some areas where sixth forms are in short supply, experimenting with providing free places for sixth-formers might be part of the way forward. Jointly funded bursaries are not a priority either, although, again, in rural areas for able students one might perhaps experiment. Fundraising for bursaries at independent schools is part of the way forward. Those that have endowments are, in a number of cases—Eton College being the most striking one—funding a number of scholarships of this sort and perhaps more should be done in this way.
There is excellent best practice from, for example, Rugby, Eton, York and Wimbledon: specialised teaching; extra subjects and topics, such as “masterclasses” in York, which I have sat in on; shared music, drama and sport; shared school governorships, as in the model of Rugby and others; and sharing of teaching best practice. This could develop further, with shared careers advice, shared attachments to local employers for work experience, and so on. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, said, there is resistance from parents and governors in what one might call the second division of private schools—I will not name the schools where I have heard this. They say that they have paid good money to buy educational advantage and they do not see why others should share it for free. It is a sentiment that I have heard particularly in Yorkshire, which would probably not surprise noble Lords.
There is a schools partnership across Bradford, but when I was talking to head teachers at state schools there, they said, “That’s fine; if a private or grammar school wants to come and join us it is welcome—but it had better ask first”. In fact, independent schools in the north of England are not as well plugged into this network as one would like. I regret that we do not have as much evidence as possible on what is going on— I look forward to the ISC survey coming out.
I was upset, I have to say, when talking to the head teachers of a number of state schools, to hear them saying things such as, “If I had the spare capacity or the spare money for this, I would love it, but I am more concerned about how I prevent my school going bankrupt in the next three years and how I avoid losing half a dozen teachers because of the squeeze on our budget”. Of course, there are similar pressures on a number of independent schools, particularly those outside the south-east, and boarding schools.
I conclude from this that we are in a changing situation—the structure and situation of independent schools are themselves changing—but we nevertheless want to encourage partnerships of this sort as much as possible. I am glad to see that the Government are doing this and that charitable status—charitable schools—is a part of this. But it is not the only part, because we expect all schools to share the responsibility for what happens in their communities and in our society as a whole.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for sponsoring this debate and pay tribute to him for the pithy way in which he introduced what has been an interesting debate. I may surprise quite a few people, not least in my own party, when I say that I believe that independent schools are currently doing quite a good job in terms of partnership work with maintained schools. That is not to say that more cannot be achieved because it always can, but given that 1,112 schools out of 1,280 members of the Independent Schools Council are already engaged in partnerships in varying forms with state schools, then that at the very least demonstrates a willingness to engage. That engagement is of course by both sectors because, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said, there is value that both can derive from these partnerships.
The facilities that private schools have can be of particular benefit; by that I mean not just the recreational facilities referred to by noble Lords, but teachers specialising in the creative arts, from the performing arts to fine art, music tuition to film and media. All too rarely do maintained schools, or academies for that matter, have anything like the range of subjects available in the independent sector and it is right that in return for the benefits of charitable status, private schools should make a contribution in whatever way they can. It is to be hoped that the traffic is two-way in a physical sense also. While there are benefits for state school pupils attending classes at independent schools in subjects that are perhaps not available in their own school, it must also be of value for teachers in independent schools to visit publicly funded schools not just to impart knowledge and skills but to gain a better understanding of the conditions under which their state sector counterparts operate.
There has been an increase in the amount of crossover activity since the passing of the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act 2016, referred to by both the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. That legislation has led to an increase in the extent to which independent schools engage with local communities and state schools to share resources, expertise and facilities. It has also resulted in the development of a website called Schools Together which promotes and encourages partnership working between schools. It now has the added benefit of being a resource to which any school, state or independent, can refer if they want to gain a clearer impression of what kind of joined-up activities can be established.
That was then, but it is fair to say that to a significant extent the landscape changed with the publication last September of what the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, pointedly called the Government’s “remarkable” consultation paper, Schools That Work for Everyone. He talked of the paper’s stated ambition to create an education system that serves not just the privileged few, and I think he exposed the vapidity of the document’s title. I agree with him, but I have a more fundamental complaint about the consultation paper—its very title. I have raised this with the Minister before: to name it Schools That Work for Everyone is a cruel deception because not once in its 36 pages do the words “special educational needs and disabilities”, appear. So whoever it works for, it is not everyone.
The consultation paper was remarkably strident about the independent sector in referring to what was expected of it, adopting a tone that I think everyone noticed was markedly different from that of the aforementioned Charities Act, when the Government were much more sympathetic to private schools. Perhaps the change in approach had its roots in the fact that for the first time ever we have a Prime Minister and a Secretary of State for Education who were both educated at comprehensive schools. Yes, the Prime Minister attended a grammar school, but she was in the privileged position—even though I suspect it may not have seemed that way to her at the time—of experiencing a school making the change from a grammar school to a comprehensive.
While acknowledging that partnership working was under way, the consultation paper came up with the hitherto unknown idea of telling independent schools with the capacity to do so to sponsor academies or set up new free schools and be responsible for ensuring that they were rated good or outstanding within a certain period. Alternatively, they could offer a proportion of places with fully-funded bursaries to those whose families are unable to afford the fees. The Independent Schools Council showed an ability to think outside the box and proposed the creation of up to 10,000 free places in independent schools every year for children for whom those schools would not otherwise be an option. As in many similar situations, though, there was a catch: it would be a jointly funded bursary scheme to which the Government would contribute no more than the cost of a state school place. The independent school places will be available across the age groups and will be non-selective except in terms of ensuring that a child can cope with the independent school’s expectations, although what that may mean was not explained.
Sceptical as to its ability to establish new schools, which of course is not an area in which it has expertise, the ISC offered to,
“work with ministers, regional schools commissioners and others in putting together consortia of suitable and willing independent schools to help co-sponsor new state-funded schools”.
On the basis of the ISC’s proposal, the cost to the taxpayer would be £5,500 per child, roughly the amount that state schools receive annually for a pupil. However, average private school fees are around £15,500, so funding would be subsidised by the private sector by around £80 million a year. That is a sizeable amount to target at state-educated children and should not be dismissed lightly, but it raises the question of just who would benefit from the plan. It sounds remarkably similar to the assisted places scheme in the 1980s and 1990s which required children to pass ability tests. As a result it did not help poor children so much as bright children who happened to be poor. The ISC claimed that the scheme would be non-selective, but if so, how will children moving from the state sector to the independent sector be chosen? Bright children tend to do well wherever they are educated, and creaming off the top of the state sector, as grammar schools do, achieves little more than those left behind being denied the benefit of learning beside and gaining from their more able classroom colleagues. That is why comprehensive education was introduced and despite its current problems, many of which I remind the Minister could be solved by adequate funding, its benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.
We recognise that the Independent Schools Council has made meaningful proposals in this regard, but we remain sceptical about the contention that independent schools can have much of a direct impact on standards of education in state schools. Private schools are academically successful largely because they educate the children of the wealthiest section of society who have enormous social capital. Private schools can afford to sustain small class sizes, have the benefit of substantial resources to support their pupils’ education, and pay staff salaries with which the state sector often cannot compete. There can be no comparison with the challenges that state comprehensive schools face, particularly those serving the most disadvantaged communities.
For that reason, while it is understandable that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State believe that the independent sector should be asked to justify the benefits of their charitable status, we believe that establishing new schools or sponsoring academies is not the way to do so. On the other hand, partnership working should continue to expand, to the benefit of both sectors.
My Lords, I am very pleased to answer this Question for Short Debate. It is timely that the Committee considers this matter. There has been considerable progress, but the Government want a lot more partnership between state schools and the independent sector. We want that growth to reflect a new attitude towards the role that the independent sector can play in educating our nation’s children. As a Minister, I have seen many excellent examples of such partnerships, and the successful ones always contain some key ingredients: enthusiasm on both sides; staff willing to play their part; mutual benefit, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said; and a focus on outcomes for pupils. Although partnerships can have other benefits, such as helping a school to meet its charitable status and its public benefit test, the primary aim of partnership must always be improvement in pupil outcomes.
We live in a highly divided and immobile society. Alan Milburn tells us that we live in the most socially immobile society in the developed world. As the Sutton Trust has told us repeatedly, 7% of the population is educated privately and gets nearly 60% of the top jobs in our country. As has already been mentioned, they are massively overrepresented in sport, in our Olympians, in music and in many of the top professions. What is more, because those pupils have these top jobs when they grow up, they are much more likely to exercise their perfect right to send their own children to private schools. It means that the vast majority of the people at the top of our big employers in this country have no direct or indirect experience of the state sector at all. This has undoubtedly contributed to a situation where, historically, our state sector has lagged behind, because a considerable proportion of customers who would otherwise have been highly demanding, vociferous and influential have been absent.
It cannot be right that we have such a divided society. This is not just, or mainly, about money. It is about all of us—independent schools, universities and employers—doing more to build a much more integrated and united society, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said. That is why our consultation paper, Schools That Work for Everyone, starts from the expectation that all children in England will have a good school place, and that the independent sector, among others, will play its full part in achieving our aim, both by improving access to schools for those unable to pay full fees and by widening its partnership activity. In the consultation paper we put forward some suggestions as to how that should be encouraged and achieved. We have had an enthusiastic response. We will be publishing a full analysis of responses and setting out the Government’s preferred way forward in the spring. I cannot anticipate what the document will say. However, I shall identify some of the themes we intend to pick up from the responses. It is only right, however, that I acknowledge the degree of partnership which is already taking place.
What we include in the term “partnership” is very wide. At one end of the spectrum are small-scale partnerships, sometimes fired by a single teacher’s enthusiasm, which might allow for pupils from a maintained school to take a subject otherwise unavailable. We funded start-up costs for several of these at primary level in 2014-15. Many partnerships are much more ambitious—for example, the wide-ranging and highly impressive partnership I have seen for myself at King’s, Wimbledon. At the other end of the spectrum are initiatives which affect or create whole institutions—for example, the creation by Eton College of Holyport free school, which is partly boarding; the support by Brighton College of the London Academy of Excellence in Newham, and now by Highgate for LAE 2 at Tottenham; and Harris Westminster. Only this morning I visited Lancot Challenger Academy, Dunstable, in the Challenger MAT. To champion character in the state sector, it has been working with schools such as the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, Ashford School and Shrewsbury School to build capacity in this vital area of school life. Many academy sponsors, to pick up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, are bringing many of the curricular and extra-curricular practices of the independent sector to their schools.
As my noble friend Lord Lexden said, independent schools provide many bursaries. I saw this myself when for many years I was a trustee of the Eastside Young Leaders Academy in Newham, an after-school club looking after, at any one time, more than 100 black boys and now some girls right on the edge of exclusions from school. We were approached by Patrick Derham, who was then the head of Rugby School, to take two of our boys as boarders. We initially thought that this was a bit of mission creep but we thought, why not? It was a great success and the academy has now sent more than 100 boys and girls to private schools around the country.
I am very keen to encourage local authorities to use both independent and state boarding schools for pupils on the edge of care. We have an active programme under way in the department, very ably run by Colin Morrison, called the Boarding School Partnerships. It encourages local authorities to do this because they can often be fully funded by bursaries. On the point of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, we have approved nearly 50 new, special state schools, backed by good sponsors under the free schools programme.
As my noble friend Lord Lexden and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, have mentioned, so greatly has the Independent/State Schools Partnership grown that it now has its own website. With seed corn funding, we set up this website so that information on projects would spread and help generate further initiatives. As my noble friend has said, as of last week, the Schools Together website has nearly 1,600 projects on it. Although not all are involved in both state and independent schools, we welcome them all.
Each year, however, the Independent Schools Council conducts its census and asks its member schools, which educate around 85% of pupils in the independent sector—although they are only about half the schools, as my noble friend mentioned—about the partnership work they do. The results of the 2017 census are not yet available, but I imagine they will show a further advance on the 1,100 ISC schools that in 2016 were in some form of partnership with the state sector.
As my noble friend Lord Lexden and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, mentioned, the Charity Commission will have access to the ISC’s 2017 census data about the extent of partnerships later this year. These data will enable analysis of whether partnership activity has increased since the guidance was revised and the Schools Together website was created. Before commissioning research, the Charity Commission will review its plans in the light of any changes made by the Government following their consultation on the document Schools that Work for Everyone.
The partnership between state and independent schools is alive and well. Some people have understandably asked why, in that case, Schools that Work for Everyone not only asked independent schools to do more but suggested that if they do not various sanctions might be deployed.
It is worth setting out some of the principles on which we are considering responses and the best way forward. First, it remains our position—set out in debate last year on the charities and social investment Bill—that a partnership works best when it is the result of genuine enthusiasm, co-operation and willingness on both sides, and meets needs on both sides. This means that in taking forward the consultation proposals, we are looking for ideas and responses that will encourage and support partnership to make it grow in volume and effectiveness. Secondly, although many independent schools are engaged, that is not always the case. We want to ensure that whatever system we arrive at brings pressure to bear on those schools that have the capacity and capability to do something but, for whatever reason, do not see it as part of their role. Despite the excellent work already going on and what my noble friend Lord Lexden said, there clearly are schools that could do something or more but do not. The independent charity sector enjoys many freedoms and privileges and it is only right that all schools within it should recognise their wider obligations to society.
Finally, my noble friend Lord Lexden said that independent schools vary considerably in size and capabilities. We are naturally conscious that some independent schools genuinely do not have the capacity to enter into useful partnership with a state school. They may have poor standards or facilities or could be under regulatory action designed to improve them. It is right that such schools concentrate on putting their own house in order and we do not intend to do anything to push them into pointless partnership arrangements before they are ready.
In closing, I assure your Lordships that we want to build on what has already been achieved and enable the independent schools sector to play the greatest possible role through sensible co-operation and partnership, so that we really do have schools that work for everyone.
Committee adjourned at 5.54 pm.