Thursday 28 June 2018
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I was pleased to secure this debate as I led a parliamentary delegation to Sudan in April 2018. I would like to declare my interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sudan. The visit was primarily a fact-finding mission. We also wanted to discuss how we can advance relations between the UK and Sudan. We found the Sudanese to be very friendly people. Currently, relations between the UK and Sudan are fairly positive.
Since 2016, the UK has been involved in a policy of phased engagement with the Government of Sudan. There is a biannual UK-Sudan Strategic Dialogue meeting, which is the main mechanism for this engagement. During our visit to Sudan, the delegation met the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who said that the meetings are an effective mechanism for the convergence of views. Following this policy, Sudan has opened additional humanitarian corridors to famine-affected areas of South Sudan, held productive discussions on human rights issues, and looked into co-operation on migration and the promotion of trade and economic reforms. On our side, the UK promotes conflict resolution in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile through our role in the troika. The UK also provides support to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel to achieve permanent cessation of hostilities. DfID plays a key role in Sudan and provided £58.5 million in aid during 2017-18 for humanitarian assistance. It also has a £50 million portfolio to help with rural and urban water sanitation programmes, and has provided an additional sum of £12 million over five years to deal with issues relating to female genital mutilation.
We were told by the Sudanese that Sudan is perhaps the best state in the region on human rights. With that said, there are issues relating to human rights which do concern us. On human rights, the leadership of Sudan has shown that they are willing to listen to the international community. We need to work positively with the Sudanese to improve their human rights record. In January, opposition activists, leaders and protesters were arrested to curb demonstrations. Members of the APPG for Sudan who were concerned about human rights violations made representations to the Sudanese ambassador in London.
As mentioned previously, the delegation had a meeting with the Sudanese Foreign Minister. Members of the delegation raised the question of people who have been detained, including some who hold dual nationality. The Foreign Minister informed us that he was made aware and had noted our representation to the Sudanese ambassador. He said to us that the detainees would be released within a day or so. Two days after our meeting, the detainees were indeed released. This shows what can be achieved through dialogue instead of confrontation.
On religious freedom, the delegation met the representatives of the Churches in Sudan and enquired about infringements and restrictions on practising their faith. The leader of the Council of Churches told us that there is complete freedom for Christians to practice and that they enjoy peaceful coexistence and religious tolerance. No church or mosque is demolished if it is correctly owned.
It is important to note that Sudan has made progress on counterterrorism and human rights issues. That led to the US Government revoking a number of economic sanctions. As part of our visit, the delegation met the charge d’affaires for the United States of America in Sudan. We were told that the United States would consider the removal of Sudan from the state sponsors of terrorism list if it continues to make progress on certain key issues.
I would now like to talk about peace. As part of the visit to Sudan, the delegates visited South Kordofan state. Its governor emphasised that the insurgency in the area had ceased and there had been peace since 2016. Peace and stability has enabled the state to provide basic services relating to education, health, water and electricity. The example of South Kordofan shows how Sudan is moving forward from war and insurgency to peace.
The Sudanese Government remain committed to enacting their unilateral ceasefire announcement, which was last renewed by a presidential decree on 19 March 2018. They have remained committed to the cessation of hostilities for the last two years, despite the rebel attacks in some pockets of Darfur, particularly in Jebel Marra, where the elements of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army-Abdel Wahid are hiding. Sudan is also making efforts in the region to eradicate terrorism, and this should be admired. It has adopted various methods to fight terrorism and has played a role in combating al-Qaeda and ISIS. As part of that strategy, the Government have created a new and effective deradicalisation and rehabilitation programme for detained extremists.
While Sudan has made progress with regard to countering terrorism, it looks for direct co-operation with the UK on intelligence. During the fifth meeting of the biannual UK-Sudan Strategic Dialogue in April, both sides agreed to continue working together to counter terrorism and violent extremism. I welcome that agreement and hope that in future the British Government will work closely with Sudanese security teams to combat radicalisation.
I would also like to talk about how the UK can help Sudan progress with regard to education. In addition to business, I also have an academic background. The delegation visited three Sudanese universities. The vice-chancellors are keen to set up links with universities in the UK. Particular mention was made of exchange programmes and joint research activities. Setting up a chair for Sudanese studies at a university in the United Kingdom should be considered, as there is an appetite for it.
The economy of Sudan is a subject dear to my heart. The secession of South Sudan and international sanctions have left Sudan’s economy structurally weak. The lifting of sanctions opens the door to restored confidence in the Sudanese economy and increased foreign direct investment. That said, the country desperately needs more trade and an increase in business activity. We are leaving the European Union, which will be a vital opportunity to increase our trade with Sudan. To promote trade between the two countries, we should encourage banks, insurance organisations and legal firms to go and get established in Sudan. We should also arrange trade conferences and delegations to encourage this process. In December last year, a trade conference was held in London for Sudan. It is time to consider whether another conference should take place at a suitable time in future. Furthermore, consideration should be given to sending a trade delegation to Sudan.
With that said, I should like to talk about the culture of Sudan. During the visit, we visited the National Museum, which displays Sudan’s ancient heritage. Efforts should be made to promote this ancient history in the UK. There are also archaeological sites in Sudan, and links should be established with institutions in the United Kingdom for study and excavation. The successful Sudanese diaspora in the UK should perhaps think about setting up a Sudanese centre in this country to promote the history and culture of Sudan.
Perhaps I can still ask some brief questions to the Minister—I have left some bits out. I ask my noble friend for information on the following points. First, can he explain what is being done in Sudan to tackle radicalisation, and is anything more envisaged? Secondly, is there anything more we can do to help Sudan to improve human rights in the country? Thirdly, can we work with Sudan to deal with the dire situation in South Sudan? Finally, what are his views on how we can enhance our relations with Sudan?
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, on securing this debate and giving your Lordships an opportunity to debate some important issues. On 27 June, precisely two years ago, the All-Party Group on Sudan, for which I am an officer, issued a calling notice for evidence for an inquiry into the future of UK-Sudan relations. Our inquiry was called to look at the changes there had been in the level of UK engagement with the Government of Sudan, the drivers for change and their likely ramifications.
At the time, the Government’s objectives included building on the Khartoum plan, working in a troika with Norway and the US to help curb the migration issues in Sudan, and tackling unresolved issues from the comprehensive peace agreement. The objectives extended to the conflict areas in Darfur, Abyei and eastern Sudan, tackling terrorism and extremism, and the UK Government’s priorities of humanitarian issues and human rights, as set out in the universal periodic review. Since then we have, unfortunately, progressed to a fifth Minister for Africa and a second ambassador to Sudan. All the while, government policy continues to be “phased engagement with Sudan” in the belief that Sudan wishes to repair relationships with the international community and is reaching out to Western nations.
As of three months ago, a considered view was that while the Khartoum process sought to improve people’s conditions in Sudan, there were broad and far-reaching concerns about human rights, migration, terrorism and economic reform. There was little chance of investment in Sudan due to the volatility in the Sudanese economy. There had been no measurable benefit following the lifting of UN sanctions. While Sudan remained on the state sponsors of terrorism list, there could be no UK Government involvement in trade promotion. Can the Minister give us a specific example of positive UK influence on the Sudanese regime’s actions? Can he name one area on which Sudanese officials have acted—as opposed to promising reform—after representations from the UK? The UK-Sudan strategic dialogue makes it clear that any engagement with the Government of Sudan must be bolstered by rigorous, enforceable human rights benchmarks, together with engagement with a young, diverse civil society. Can the Minister provide us with examples of tangible advances in these areas?
The lifting of sanctions must go hand-in-hand with efforts to tackle corruption. Sudan currently ranks 175th out of 180 on the Transparency International corruption index, which I can vouch for as an associate of TI (UK). Sudan is more corrupt than, for example, Libya, North Korea and Eritrea.
Just over a month ago, Jeremiah Mamabolo, head of UNAMID, the African Union-UN peacekeeping mission, reported that fighting between Sudanese Government forces and the Sudan Liberation Army-Abdel Wahid rebels had left villages such as Gobbo, Kawara and Kiminjtong in south Darfur and others in central Darfur burned and the villagers displaced. This is all despite the unilateral ceasefire announced by Khartoum in March, which applies to Darfur, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. Washington is reported to have condemned the fighting, which it said has resulted in thousands of new internally displaced people.
Meanwhile, the Sudanese Government’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that, in May, inflation increased to an annual rate of 61%. The bureau’s economist, Dr Sidgi Kaballo, said that this was leading to starkly diminished purchasing power, increased poverty, worsening health conditions, and growing rates of migration and unemployment. Dr Sidgi noted that the implementation of far-reaching austerity measures in 2018 has led to the price of bread and other basics doubling and to the price of some medicines tripling. Sudanese across the country took to the streets, and police used tear gas and live bullets to disperse the demonstrators. The World Bank has estimated that Sudan’s external debt now stands at $52 billion, or 112% of GDP. That is hardly conducive to investment.
Sudan is in a dire state, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia organising emergency supplies of food, aid and other measures. In his response, will the Minister advise us of the Government’s reaction to Sudan’s perilous situation and what positive assistance they are providing to one of the United Kingdom’s oldest friends on the African continent?
My Lords, I will give a slightly different perspective on this. I first went to the Sudan in the 1950s as the son of a British administrator. An indelible impression was left with me of a very decent people, for whom any British person who worked with them formed a great deal of affection. I recall Islam and Christianity existing side by side, living in peace with no difficulties at all. I recall also being taken to the opening of the first parliament of the Sudan in the early 1950s and watching the excitement of the Sudanese. Looking back over more than five decades, it is impossible not to express great disappointment at some of what has happened in the Sudan.
Among some leaders, there has been contempt for their own people. The country has now divided into two and there have been serious abuses of human rights—notably in Darfur and the Two Areas, as the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, mentioned. The humanitarian situation is bad, with displacement on a big level. There is poverty, with 50% of people earning just $2 a day or less. Corruption has been bad and there has been little respect for the eternal UN universal values.
Having said all that, I think the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has done us a service by focusing attention on what we can do in a positive way and on what the Government are doing through the strategic dialogue between the United Kingdom and the Sudan. I want to reinforce the arguments for this, because, in an age when we are suffering internationally from immense problems of refugees and migration, we need to go back to the source of where these problems emerge and work with those countries to improve the situation and lesson the tensions. That is true particularly in Africa, where the population is increasing very fast. I suggest that there are an awful lot of countries which we would have no relationship with if we did not talk to leaders whose values and policies we did not always agree with. It makes sense that as we were the country with the most responsibility historically, in an imperial age, we should take responsibility and lead on this internationally through the troika and the African Union.
I support the strategic dialogue and it is right to make it comprehensive. As we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, it covers: human rights; freedom of religion; migration; extremism; how we develop cultural, educational and trade ties, which are very important; and, importantly, how we help them to develop their economy. Getting the balance right, and making a sustained effort to talk and to make progress on a comprehensive scale, is very important. You cannot, of course, talk about human rights if you do not also talk about the participation and consent of the people, and the rule of law. All these things go together. I support, therefore, Government-to-Government dialogue but, alongside that, it is essential that we develop a strong people-to-people dialogue. That is as important as anything. After all, I think that the diaspora here in this country numbers 50,000 and many of those people have great skills, professional knowledge and experience. They can contribute an enormous amount to their country of origin; indeed, I hope that one day conditions will be good enough to enable them to return.
The British Council can do an immense amount. Education and scholarships have been mentioned but I would have thought that when developing trade, helping to teach business skills and other skills is just as important as the bigger scholarships. Then there is civil society. Although it may be difficult in terms of rapport with the Government, that needs to be developed as strongly as we possibly can.
Will the Minister, from time to time, report on the progress of these talks and the benefits they may bring to both the Sudan and our relationship with it? We need to be clear about the benchmarks for measuring progress in this dialogue so, if he could say something about that, it would help. For example, will there be international monitoring of the 2020 elections? That could be treated as a benchmark, which might contribute to more stability in the Sudan. I look forward to the Minister’s response. The people of the Sudan deserve better.
My Lords, it is a real privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Luce. I respectfully agree with much of what he said. I am pleased to take part in this timely review of the current situation in Sudan. In the minutes I have available, I will curtail myself to speaking about the women of Sudan.
All local and international conflict inevitably means that it is women and their families who suffer grave poverty and injustice. They lack access to basic medical needs and they miss out educationally and, not least, on social and economic growth and prosperity. Noble Lords may wish to note that I have visited Sudan on two occasions, with a view to making a specific assessment of the impact on women of the prolonged and unjust sanctions that have crippled Sudan’s basic infrastructure and services, with a severe impact on child and maternal health and education, as well as hampering the well-being of all the people of Sudan.
The Committee should note the presence of women in leading roles in all sections of society—the family has always been firm in Sudan—and the resilience of women in Sudan, even though a difficult period of history has curtailed access to office for some of them. It is worth noting that women were enfranchised in 1953 and that they currently occupy 30% of the seats in the assembly. Constitutionally, Sudanese women’s rights are enshrined in Sudan’s legislation. Sudanese women also occupy numerous positions within the civil services, including in diplomatic missions and the African Union Commission, and they were pioneers in the judiciary on the African continent and the Arab world, setting a precedent with the first female judge in modern history in that region. Alongside numerous senior female judges, 40% of legal counsellors and prosecutors in Sudan’s Ministry of Justice are females.
The Ahfad University for Women, which I am sure my noble friend will talk about later, stands as an example of the pioneering advances in female education in Sudan. Established in 1907, it was elevated to university status in 1966 and currently hosts more than 6,000 female students, who are enrolled from Sudan, the region and the rest of the world. According to UNESCO, the gross enrolment ratio of female students in secondary education in Sudan is 45%, compared to 46% for males. Their presence within the national dialogue is most noteworthy as Sudan emerges from the dark days of sanction and isolation.
I commend the UK’s ongoing strategic dialogue and the British Council’s programme, alongside our joint collaboration to counter regional extremism. Can the Minister say how many women are involved in these programmes and whether any of the expert group of trainers and negotiators who we may be sending are from the diaspora? How many are Sudanese women? I accept that, post conflict, Sudan requires many facets of assistance and aid. No doubt the rules of engagement apply to the exchange of our financial support, training and trade. Can the Minister give an assurance that those rules of engagement have undergone some kind of transformation since the bygone era of our colonial past? The ethos of “We know best” does not stand up to scrutiny in the current world order and I hope that our work will be collaborative, avoiding any relics of the colonial policies of the past.
We must ensure that in all future programmes experts have a stake in developing Sudan, not keeping it under our thumb for the next generation. The expertise must come from the Sudanese and African diaspora and should in particular include women in equal numbers in the leading positions. Given our current international priorities and ongoing development support, I would like to see the needs of women and families addressed in our overall strategic priorities.
I note that many of the complexities that have been mentioned are ongoing and require our continuing collective co-operation to resolve many issues as we forge ahead in our relationship with Sudan. Can the Minister tell us how women’s economic empowerment and leadership can be further strengthened and supported by our Government’s initiatives, both those already in place and those for the future? How many women are benefiting from the Chevening scholarship programme and what, if anything, is already in place as a part of our package of trade, education and other forms of support to ensure that women can freely access health and social care for their families and play their part in civil society? How will the noble Lord ensure that, instead of our usual experts being sent out to meet the perceived needs of Sudan, we rely on internal and diaspora experts to ensure that the future leaders who emerge value and respect one another as well as international standards and common values?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has been a consistent advocate for Sudan and is to be congratulated on bringing us the results of his recent visits. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, mentioned that he and I were in Sudan a few years ago as part of a group that visited both the north and the south of the country. I am delighted to learn that the Inter-Parliamentary Union is supporting a visit by the group this September.
Sometimes human rights issues can dominate our debates, so the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, is right to stress some of the more positive aspects of the Sudanese scene. It is good to learn that Sudan is a country that still attracts a lot of attention in the UK. In the all-party group we meet regularly with representatives of the diaspora, besides our own diplomats and other visitors. I know that the Sudanese Government are now much more concerned to be listening and responding to criticism, not least because transparency on human rights has contributed to the lifting of US sanctions. However, the continuing injustice that distorts the political process, fetters the opposition and sustains war in at least three regions can hardly be overlooked.
I intend to focus on the forgotten east of Sudan, where a fragile peace agreement signed in 2006 is coming to an end. The refugee situation has changed since I visited the UNHCR camps for Eritreans and Ethiopians near El-Gadarif and Kassala back in the 1980s, but I know that it is still serious and that some of the same families are still there—rather like the Palestinians. Recently, a large group of donors was able to visit the Shagarab refugee camps and the Gergef reception centre on the border with Eritrea. The donors were able to speak with asylum seekers who had newly arrived and with refugees who have been in Sudan for decades. I am sorry to say that the UK was not represented except through the EU, but representatives from France, Germany and Norway were there.
According to the UNHCR, altogether Sudan hosts 379,000 refugees and asylum seekers, primarily from South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Syria and Yemen, as well as internally displaced nationals. By May of this year, the UNHCR’s appeal to meet the needs of refugees in Sudan was only 14% funded, which is very low. I hope that the Minister can say that we have given generously to this appeal.
A large proportion of the refugees crossing into Sudan are escaping religious persecution and other human rights violations in Eritrea, many ending up in Europe and in this country. The change of government in Ethiopia has raised some hopes of improvement in Eritrea, but the situation is still bad. I can only summarise what the Mauritian human rights special rapporteur, Sheila Keetharuth, has recently recommended to the UN Human Rights Council. She calls on Eritrea to release all prisoners of conscience, including those in prison for religious beliefs, unconditionally, to put an immediate stop to arbitrary arrests and detention and to release immediately all those arbitrarily detained—more specifically children, the elderly and women.
The EU is hoping to put a brake on migrants crossing the Mediterranean by means of the Khartoum process, a project with which the UK has been closely associated, although we may well withdraw from it because of Brexit. As an all-party group we have already expressed doubts about this project, which sees Sudan, under its emergency law, harnessing one of the most feared government-sponsored militia, the Janjaweed, to back up the police, border guards and others attempting to catch traffickers. The Janjaweed have notoriously struck terror into the people of Darfur and elsewhere through rape, torture and murder. According to the Beja Congress, which has represented the semi-nomadic Beja people for many years, the Janjaweed have immunity granted directly by President Bashir, who is their commander-in-chief. It says:
“Victims who fled from the human trafficking gangs stated that the Janjaweed, after robbing them, deliberately abandoned them to [those] gangs. This means that the Janjaweed, in place of fighting the crime, are involved in it”.
The Beja Congress has its own defence force and receives arms from Eritrea. It also urges EU donors to think about the reasons that drive refugees north in the first place. It says that they,
“should solve the causes of the problems in the countries that export refugees by implementing in them democracy, human rights law and sustainable development, industrial plants and agricultural projects to open opportunities for young people to work in place of dying in the sea”.
In Sudan you can find some of the poorest places on earth and one of them is the region around Port Sudan. The best boast for the Government in Khartoum is development in those areas, which may be the only ultimate cure for migration.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, on securing this debate and thank him for giving me the opportunity to look at the conditions for women and women’s health in the Sudan on our visit.
The situation for women in Sudan has changed little in the 10 years since I was last there despite over 30% of parliamentarians being women, many occupying important positions, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. The maternal mortality rate is around 300 per 100,000 live births. That is very high and has not reduced in the 20 years which have seen the maternal mortality rate in the rest of the world reduced by 40%. This is due to poor healthcare, early marriage and the complications of childbirth, all of which are made worse by the practice of FGM.
The fertility rate—that is, the family size—is above five and contraceptive use is only about 12% of the female population. Abortion is permitted only in cases of rape, incest or to save a woman’s life—that is if they can get anywhere near a hospital, which is unlikely. Many women will die from unsafe abortion as a result. Sudan is a bleak place for women. Only one-third of Sudan’s women access secondary education.
The President, however, produced a maternal health strategy and showed it to us when we were there. The preamble is worth reading. It says:
“Mothers are the source of life/mankind, and our children are the country’s future. No nation will prosper if it does not place their health and welfare at the heart of its development agenda”.
However, as an enthusiast of free choice for women, I found no mention in this strategy of any family planning to be made available, which the World Bank and all development agencies now state is the single most effective way of promoting economic development in a country. I do not apologise for repeating this message: to empower women, they must be given power over their own bodies—and that means access to family planning. If women have free access to contraception they will have fewer children, and they and their children are more likely to access education and eventually contribute to their country’s wealth.
When we met Dr Faisal Hassan Ibrahim, the representative of President Bashir, I broached this subject with him and was rather depressed to be told that: “Sudan is a very big country and needs many more people. Women are needed to have children”. He added that men could have four wives too, and that helped. In other words, women are breeding machines. The Government of Sudan should listen to the World Bank more often.
Finally, I commend the work of the Ahfad University for Women in Khartoum, which my noble friend Lady Uddin spoke about, and especially its work on maternal health. The obstetric hospital there, which we visited, is attached to the university’s faculty of medicine and displayed really excellent modern practices—with protocols such as we have here—but in grossly overcrowded conditions. Women in labour had to share beds; there were at least two to a bed, which must have been quite an experience. The men were in the yard outside and were called in when their women gave birth; there was no room for partners anywhere near the obstetric ward. The training which students receive there is excellent and our NHS benefits hugely from over 6,000 Sudan-trained doctors practising over here. This made me rather ashamed because Sudan needs its doctors desperately—much more than we do.
Therefore, what can our Governmen do to promote maternal health and family planning in Sudan by using the Ahfad University, which is respected all over the world? A new private hospital is planned, but more accessible facilities for women’s health are needed, countrywide. There needs to be a network through which they can get treatment and family planning. I welcome DfID’s emphasis on maternal health and family planning and congratulate it on that. However, could this please be extended and increased to the Sudan as we loosen sanctions and try to encourage that wonderful country?
I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for securing this debate, for taking a keen interest in Sudan and for helping to establish the APPG on Sudan. His continued work in that country is highly appreciated.
I have visited the country twice in the last few years. The first time that I went, I knew very little about it and was encouraged by some Members of this House to attend a conference at the University of Khartoum. The information available at the time from the Foreign Office was not very encouraging: British citizens were advised not to make trips there unless they were necessary. The only information I could rely on was from Members who spoke about the country in the House of Lords. In many cases, this was very terrifying. From their contributions, I believed that the army ran the country, one would find armoured vehicles and armed men all around the streets, women had absolutely no rights, and so on. I landed in Khartoum about three years ago with a very dark picture. However, from the outset, at the airport, in immigration and at the hotel, I saw men and women working side by side. That was surprising for me, against the backdrop of the information I had gone with.
In the university where the conference was held, I again saw no distinction between men and women working at all levels. Subsequently we met many Ministers. I particularly wanted to visit the downtown market, to see how ordinary people live in Khartoum, and it was a pleasant surprise not to see much difference between it and other Arab or Muslim countries. There were many cultural similarities, and I could have taken it for Cairo, say. Women were working alongside men in all aspects of life.
We went on to learn more about the country—for example, that when South Sudan separated from Sudan it took 70% or more of the oil revenue, leaving Sudan with very little of its major source of income and little to run the country with. It is no wonder that we hear that Sudan is suffering from poverty.
The international community supports the liberation of South Sudan; that is what the people chose in a referendum and it is proper and fine. I wish it had happened in other parts of the world too, particularly where I was born—Kashmir is still waiting for the United Nations to implement its resolutions—but I am of course glad that South Sudan is to get its UN resolutions implemented in the end. In the case of Sudan, not only were the UN resolutions implemented—South Sudan got its independence—but it was clobbered with economic sanctions. Once you have had 70% of your oil revenues taken from you there is nothing much left to run the country, and these sanctions do not help at all.
I am running out of time and need to move on to my next visit, when I accompanied the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and other parliamentarians on a trip that included Darfur. When we met the UNAMID officers in Darfur—I may have mentioned this previously—I asked them about the aerial bombardment that we often hear about in this House, and the answer was that in the past year two incidents had been reported to the United Nations forces. I asked what had happened. They said that they could not get much information. I asked them to explain further, and they replied that when they went to the first incident that was reported they found a hole in the ground. They could not establish what had made the hole. In the second case, they went down to a road where they had been told that an incident had occurred and were told that no, it was not here, it was a few miles in the other direction, and so on. Eventually, the officers had returned with no evidence of any bombardment.
That raises a big question about what to believe when people tell us things about countries that we have not visited. When you visit a country it makes a great difference, and I suggest that, if they have not already done so, noble Lords should visit Sudan at their earliest opportunity.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for initiating this debate on Sudan, a country where more than one-third of the population still lives in poverty. As I have no doubt the Minister will remind us, the UK is an important donor, giving £50 million each year that is focused on humanitarian assistance to over 500,000 internally displaced people and South Sudanese refugees.
The Minister said at the end of last year that the Government continue to work with the international community to reform the approach to long-term displaced persons in Darfur. What is the Minister’s assessment of that process in achieving collaboration internationally?
On human rights in Sudan, Amnesty International has said:
“The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly were arbitrarily restricted”,
and that there are,
“widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law”.
The Government have argued—we have heard it in this debate—that the UK-Sudan Strategic Dialogue represents a shift from the stick to the carrot, and that real change in Sudan could come only through engagement, a point reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Luce. Clearly, the Government of Sudan are gaining a great deal of credibility from these high-level ministerial exchanges. Can the Minister provide us with a specific example of where such engagement from our Government has brought about a positive change from their Sudanese counterpart?
After the fourth session of the strategic dialogue in October last year, agreement was reached on the clear steps that the Government of Sudan would take to address human rights issues. In relation to the five key issues of humanitarian access to conflict-afflicted regions, non-interference in South Sudan and maintaining the Government’s cessation of hostilities in Darfur and the Two Areas, is the Minister satisfied that progress continues to be made? The UK also raised specific issues, including sexual and gender-based violence, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and the convention against torture. At the time, the Minister also stated that corruption was discussed. Sudan currently ranks 170th out of 176 on the Transparency International corruption index.
Following April’s fifth meeting of the strategic dialogue, the communiqué stressed trade and investment. Trade promotion in Sudan must be paired with macroeconomic reforms to ensure that any growth dividend is evenly shared, and it must not result in a watering down of human rights concerns. What steps will the Government take to ensure that such reforms are implemented to prevent the benefits of this trade going solely to the narrow elite that has ruled the country for almost 30 years?
I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that it is important that we support civil society. It is critical to sustaining meaningful peace and dialogue for the future, and this should be the focus of UK policy in Sudan. UK aid has funded a £1 million British Council project to strengthen,
“cultural and educational development by building skills and capacity and by creating new opportunities and connections with the UK”.
The UK Government, through the Chevening scholarships,
“enables students to pursue postgraduate study at UK higher education institutions”.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, I would particularly like to know how those students are selected. We have been supporting only 14 students, who are mainly from Khartoum. Will the Government commit to expanding the programme and ensure that the students are drawn from a much wider group of the population, particularly from Darfur and the Two Areas of eastern Sudan?
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Sheikh for tabling this important debate. I pay tribute to him for his continuing support for the development of relations between the United Kingdom and Sudan. I am pleased that he, together with other noble Lords, had a productive and constructive visit to Sudan, and I put on the record the thanks of Her Majesty’s Government to the APPG for its report and recommendations on this matter.
I shall now address the various questions raised by noble Lords in what has been a debate of hope and optimism, as well as one of challenge and realism. I turn, first, to the cultural and educational ties between our countries. Noble Lords have alluded to the population of Sudan. The median age in Sudan is under 20, more than half the population are under the age of 24, and nearly 40% are younger than 15. Therefore, picking up on a point raised by my noble friend Lord Sheik and others, education is vital if the country is to fulfil its full potential. The noble Baronesses, Lady Tonge and Lady Uddin, mentioned the importance of gender equality in education and opportunities for girls in particular. They and all noble Lords will be aware of the priority that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has laid on 12 years of quality education, which we continue to emphasise not just in our bilateral engagement with Sudan but across the world. That is why the British Council also runs projects that now train 4,600 teachers, improving the standards across science, maths and English of 6,500 teachers, and providing English textbooks at all levels in schools across the country.
In higher education, we provide opportunities for Sudan’s brightest young people to stretch themselves at world-class British universities. As was acknowledged by my noble friend Lord Sheikh and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides funding for Chevening scholarship programmes. The number of scholarships offered each year has tripled since 2014. The specific issue of numbers was raised, but in recent years the trajectory has been upward, and that will continue. More generally, the British Council encourages educational and scientific co-operation between Sudan and the UK, and promotes cultural ties through projects that include supporting the digitisation of Sudanese historical records, and refurbishing museums. That adds to growing stability in the country.
My noble friend Lord Sheikh raised the important issue of trade. Our bilateral trade is worth in the region of £90 million. I assure him that we are actively considering the best way to support business links between the UK and Sudan, and encouraging Sudan to make improvements to the business and regulatory environment to promote inward investment and improve Sudan’s economy. We welcome active contributions and further ideas from noble Lords, of course.
Let me be clear, however, that the UK is not prioritising trade over human rights, a subject raised by the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Chidgey. As the Human Rights Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I can say that improving human rights in Sudan continues to be a key priority of the UK’s bilateral engagement. Our human rights priorities will include respect for the rule of law, which will further people’s rights—especially women’s, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge—and encourage investment. We believe strongly that trade can help to open up closed-off political and economic systems, and thereby improve human rights through the creation of wider employment opportunities.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we are very much committed on technical support for economic reforms in Sudan. That was discussed in detail at the fifth round of the UK-Sudan Strategic Dialogue in April, which I know that all noble Lords welcomed. The UK has been working with international partners to galvanise support to help Sudan commit to, and deliver, macroeconomic reforms while simultaneously managing the impact on the poorest in society.
In the immediate term, we are concerned at the increasingly acute economic issues that Sudan faces, including shortages of fuel, which we predict will affect the 2018 harvest. Concern about that was expressed by several noble Lords. We will of course continue to work with the Government of Sudan on the necessary macroeconomic reforms and wider reform programme. Our other main priorities in our engagement with Sudan are helping to resolve its conflict and addressing human rights concerns.
The challenges in Darfur were raised by the noble Lords, Lord Chidgey and Lord Hussain, among others. The security situation there remains fragile despite a recent reduction in fighting between government forces and armed movements. We remain concerned by continuing reports of clashes between the Sudan Liberation Army–Abdel Wahid—and government forces. I assure noble Lords that we continue to raise the matter bilaterally with Sudan, because it is important to recognise—as we all do—that civilians continue to bear the brunt of this appalling violence. Many have been killed, villages have been burned and it is estimated that nearly 9,000 have been internally displaced. The joint UN-African Union mission in Darfur is a key focus for that, and it is unacceptable that its humanitarian actors have been prevented from accessing affected populations.
We all acknowledge that there is no military solution to the conflict. The UK, alongside our troika partners—the United States and Norway—calls on all parties to immediately cease military action. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, mentioned Jebel Marra in this respect. We believe that all parties should engage meaningfully with the peace process. We are also working with international partners to provide humanitarian assistance to Darfur.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, raised the issue of South Sudan and Sudan’s role in the peace process. We welcome Sudan’s role in hosting the latest round of talks in Khartoum and its constructive role within the region. We have taken note of the agreement.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, raised the issue of East Sudan. I can assure him that we have not forgotten the people of the east, which remains a major challenge. DfID support is now focused on providing water infrastructure, which will benefit both the local communities and the refugee population that he mentioned, and we continue to provide wider humanitarian assistance.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also raised the issue of South Sudanese refugees. I acknowledge the support Sudan has provided in this regard, both through the opening of humanitarian corridors and allowing those fleeing from that conflict to seek shelter, in the northern regions in particular.
On the humanitarian situation, in 2018 the number of people in need of humanitarian aid in Sudan has risen to over 7 million, and nearly 2 million are internally displaced in Darfur. Sudan is also providing shelter, as I have said, to many South Sudanese refugees. The UK is an important donor, and last year we provided nearly £60 million to help communities to meet their basic needs and to sustain their livelihoods and resilience to crisis. I shall write to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, on the issue of the UNHCR and how much we have given, but we remain one of the largest contributors to the Sudan humanitarian fund.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, raised the important issue of women’s health. As she may be aware, through DfID the UK continues to provide support to women and their families. We reached over 600,000 women, children and girls last year with nutrition and food interventions. She will be pleased to learn that we also fund projects to end the practice of FGM.
The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Darfur continues to make progress and to support the gradual reconfiguration of its mission. The noble Lords, Lord Sheikh and Lord Chidgey, mentioned extremism. Countering extremism will continue to figure in our strategic dialogue. Human rights will also be primarily focused on, including the issues of freedom of religion, freedom of expression and sexual and gender based violence. This was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Luce and Lord Collins.
We have seen real progress. For example, the case of Nora Hussein, has been a positive example. Her death sentence has been overturned, which we all welcome. The noble Lords, Lord Chidgey and Lord Collins, referred to positive influences, and that is one of them. We also welcome the release of Dr Ibrahim.
Specific questions of detail were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, on the issues of equality and ensuring greater support for women and girls. I can assure her that that remains a key priority for the Government.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, raised the issue of the 2020 elections. We agree that these will be a critical milestone in Sudan’s reform process. Former President Mbeki, who leads the AU’s peace process, is focused on enabling the opposition to participate in a fair way. The UK expects, and will continue to lobby for, monitoring arrangements to be a part of this process.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Tonge and Lady Uddin, rightly focused on many issues around girls’ education and health and on ensuring protection for women under the rule of law. I assure them, as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict situations, we will continue to encourage Sudan to ratify the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and we will continue to employ a greater level of support for equality in all levels of education.
This has been a constructive and positive debate. Too often when we draw attention to different parts of the world there is great negativity and no recognition of the positive steps that have been achieved. All contributions from noble Lords have underlined the importance of progress and the need to be vigilant in ensuring that progress continues to be made. The UK welcomed the US decision last year to permanently lift economic sanctions. However, debt relief can only realistically be expected to come after Sudan demonstrates real evidence of macroeconomic reform. The UK is now assessing whether there is sufficient commitment by the Sudanese Government to make the necessary reforms. We will continue to champion this through dialogue, including an emphasis on women’s rights.
I assure all noble Lords that we will continue to work constructively on progress in Sudan. We will continue to observe constructive engagement in all areas, which can, over time, lead to greater security, stability and prosperity for all Sudanese people.
Health: Stroke Survivors
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank noble Lords and the Minister for giving up time for this debate. I remind your Lordships of my registered interest as the chairman of the stroke charity ARNI, Action for Rehabilitation from Neurological Injury.
We know that in the UK over 150,000 people have a stroke annually. But happily, people do not die nearly so often from stroke as they used to. In fact, some 85% of those who suffer a stroke survive it. They do so because: first, there is a greater recognition out there of what a stroke looks like, and the importance of immediately calling the emergency services; secondly, ambulances get stroke victims to hospital more quickly; and thirdly, when they are there, hyper-acute stroke units can carry out rapid diagnoses, first-class scanning and excellent treatment.
The net result of this upsurge in the welcome ability to save lives is that we have a very large number of stroke survivors. In this country, some 1.2 million people are living with the effects of stroke at any one time. It is the biggest disabler of all. It is those people whom I want to discuss this afternoon for, if the clinical treatment of stroke patients has been a great success story, sadly, helping them to live as near normally as possible afterwards has not been so.
Rehabilitation starts typically with physiotherapy and, if required, speech therapy. It begins for most people in hospital; they then continue as out-patients or receive treatment at home, but it is very much time limited. The health watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, has produced guidelines based on recommendations by the Royal Society of Physicians, which suggest that patients should receive 45 minutes of each therapy that they need every weekday, for as long as their disabilities require it. This is a huge ask of course but, typically, we are told that stroke survivors average the equivalent of just 16 minutes per day of physiotherapy, 12 minutes of occupational therapy and 12 of speech therapy. Moreover, on leaving hospital, many have to wait six weeks before community therapy, such as it is, is initiated. The Stroke Association says that, at this stage, many are forced to pay for private care.
One-quarter of all strokes in the United Kingdom happen to people of working age, and one-fifth of these are under 45. Stroke therefore reduces employment prospects for the future for its sufferers, with all that means for society. It has a knock-on effect for family and friends involved in a patient’s care and who are usually, of course, unpaid in this role. The estimated aggregate costs of stroke are a substantial £25 billion. There is still a commonly held misconception, however, that people cannot significantly recover from the effects of having a stroke and that they are stuck with whatever mobility they have after hospitalisation and its consequent physiotherapy for the rest of their lives. However, well-established evidence shows that neuroplasticity of the brain can be utilised to augment recovery, leading to better function and action control even some years after the stroke has happened.
Stroke-specific physical training, applied at home, which targets upper and lower limb deficits can be the key to a better quality of life and for readmission to employment. In short, active approaches where patients are highly involved in their own rehabilitation and do many hundreds, sometimes thousands, of specific repetitive actions can lead to positive neural adaptation, whereas those where survivors are merely the recipients of predominantly traditional therapy are much less likely to do so.
It is precisely these active interventions which my own stroke charity, ARNI, does so well and with such heartening results. ARNI was created in 2001 to ensure that there is a growing body of qualified exercise instructors available for stroke survivors. They go into homes to help people to rehabilitate and we now have more than 100 therapists and professional instructors across the country, many of them running group classes as well.
This kind of rehabilitation works with people of all ages, including those whose strokes happened some years before. Here is the testimony of John Scrivener, an elderly former paratrooper who suffered a massive stroke in 2012, losing the use of his left arm and leg. Two years later he was introduced to ARNI’s exercise techniques at which he works hard and regularly with his instructor. He says:
“I can now go up and down awkward steps with no handrails. I have no difficulty in going into strange environments and I can even get up unaided from the floor. I am astonished by the changes that have made such a difference to my life”.
The broadcaster Andrew Marr has said publicly and often how ARNI’s exercise regime helped him enormously after his own stroke and gave him better gait, balance, grip and strength, the better to be able to cope with his arduous public life.
Last year I saw Harry Baker, then 16 years of age, start his rehabilitation with my charity. He had significant limitations and could hardly lift his hand. A year later, after determined and repetitive special exercises, he has improved so much that he has had the confidence to join a martial arts class, where I witnessed his agile kicking and dextrous handling of a football. The appalling and depressing effects of a stroke, probably the result of a sports injury, were felt deeply by this teenager whose social life was reduced to zero. Normal life beckons for him once again.
One simple ARNI technique reported at the World Stroke Congress has improved the lives of hundreds of patients and saved many thousands of pounds in public funds. It is called “off the floor” and enables stroke-impaired patients to get up from a fall by themselves. Typically, before learning it, many would lie immobile for hours or, often with huge embarrassment, had to rely on calling 999 for paramedics to help get them back up.
Stroke survivors rely on charities like my own for this kind of long-term rehabilitation because it is not available from any other sources. I pay tribute to the Stroke Association, which last year began its £2 million project of Life After Stroke grants, having been sponsored as the Royal Mail’s charity of the year. These grants of £300 each can enable longer-term rehabilitation such as that which I have mentioned to take place. We badly need two things: first, the recognition that disabilities caused by stroke can be much improved by techniques such as those I have described, and secondly, grants from public funds to make this happen. As always, such investment will save money even in the medium term by reducing the number of people who are expensively re-hospitalised by injury or physical decline, by reducing their reliance on the ambulance service, and by reducing the burden on carers. Above all, it will help to give survivors of all ages back the dignity of being able to live more normal lives physically and socially, and even the ability to return to the world of work.
We are extremely good at dealing with the immediate effects of stroke, but now we must deal just as effectively with its long-term effects as well.
My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages. I quite understand if, at this point, other noble Lords wonder if I have wandered into the wrong debate, but please bear with me as I hope to convince noble Lords that there is an important link between the recovery of stroke victims and languages. This is borne out by robust research and has the potential to bring significant benefits to patients, as well as leading to some cost-effective decisions for the NHS.
In January this year, the All-Party Group on Modern Languages heard from a panel of experts on the cognitive benefits of learning a second or subsequent language. The panel comprised, among others, the neuroscientist Dr Thomas Bak of Edinburgh University, who is president of the cognitive disorders research group of the World Federation of Neurology. His main clinical research interest is the relationship between language, cognition and the brain. He was accompanied by Dr Dina Mehmedbegovic from University College London’s Institute of Education. She is developing interdisciplinary work with neuroscientist colleagues to provide a broader evidence base for advocating the cognitive benefits of lifelong language learning.
The bottom line is that people who speak more than one language recover cognitively from strokes more successfully than those who do not. In Dr Bak’s study of 2015:
“The percentage of patients with intact cognitive functions post stroke was more than twice as high in bilinguals than in monolinguals”,
“bilingualism emerged as an independent predictor of poststroke cognitive impairment”.
For the sake of clarity, I emphasise—with Dr Bak’s authority—that the word “bilingual” in this context means simply having the ability to communicate, not having a perfect command of a language. His detailed findings included that 40.5% of bilinguals had normal cognitive functions after a stroke, compared to only 19.6% of monolinguals. Looking at that the other way round, he found that that only 49% of bilinguals had cognitive impairment after a stroke, compared with 77.7% of monolinguals. This research was reported in 2015 in the American Stroke Association journal. A further significant finding was that late acquisition of another language has a similar protective effect to early acquisition. It is never too late to start learning another language in order to benefit in this way.
Research has also examined the impact which learning and using more than one language had on delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and found that it can indeed cause a delay of four to five years, including for vascular dementia, which is the type caused by strokes. Similarly with aphasia, a common language disorder caused by brain damage such as stroke, bilingualism leads to less severe impairment and better recovery. This finding was reported by Paplikar et al earlier in 2018. Dr Bak is involved in a project in Scotland, in partnership with Alzheimer Scotland and Edinburgh University, and supported by an ESRC grant. It is called Lingo Flamingo, and teaches languages to Alzheimer’s sufferers to improve their cognitive resilience.
Will the Minister consider supporting a similar initiative in England and Wales for stroke survivors? Drs Bak and Mehmedbegovic argue that, by increasing multilingualism in the population, we could expect to reduce the incidence of dementia, saving billions of pounds. I understand that the current total cost of dementia care is around £26 billion a year. Exactly the same argument can be made for the long-term treatment of stroke survivors, and I hope that the Minister will agree to take this proposition back to the department.
As always in scientific research, there are some discrepancies in findings across different studies, but on this proposition—that learning and using more than one language improves long-term recovery after a stroke—there is now converging evidence from different studies, different populations, different countries and even different continents that supports the conclusions that I have highlighted. However, to transform the research findings into practical policy, we need to change the general attitude towards language learning in the UK. I am pleased to say that, following the APPG meeting that I referred to earlier, Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, requested further details of the research for the Department for Education to consider. The DfE’s interest of course lies in the cognitive benefits of language learning for children, of which there are also plenty, although not for elaboration in today’s debate. However, the Minister here today will, I hope, be sufficiently interested and intrigued by my contribution also to want to follow up this innovative research and find out more.
Dr Bak says that,
“promoting language learning and use is one of the cheapest, simplest and most effective means of improving cognitive functions across all ages”,
and he points out that the work of the Lingo Flamingo project is scalable, so if funds were available for a pilot project for stroke survivors, he could have it up and running within months. This would be a fast and measurable initiative. Is the Minister tempted to find out more and would he like me to arrange a meeting for him with Dr Bak?
My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, that it is an absolute joy to take part in this debate with him this afternoon.
Following on from the noble Baroness’s comments, I can recount that about 20 years ago a lady called Mary Anne MacLeod Trump woke up in a hospital ward in New York following a stroke. Most of her nurses thought that she was speaking gibberish, but she was very lucky because one of her nurses was Irish and knew that she was speaking Gaelic. In fact, Mrs Trump had been born on the island of Lewis in Scotland and, unlike her son, did not routinely speak gibberish—it was just the effects of a stroke—and she recovered. The noble Baroness is quite right.
The noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, set out for us the state of stroke care in England and Wales today. However, one point is so obvious that he did not make it: we have a national health service and, consequently, we are in a uniquely good place to gather information about the detection, diagnosis and treatment of stroke and about people’s recovery from it. That is something that we often overlook but it is very important. Just in the last 10 years or so, the work that the noble Lord, Lord Darzi, has done in London in reorganising stroke services has had a measurable effect. Our National Health Service is able to measure, at scale, the effectiveness of new thrombolytic or clot-busting drugs as they come in. That is why we have a real forward steal on the rest of the world in this highly complex area.
In another place back in December, MPs talked a lot about the development of mechanical thrombectomy —I am pleased that I got that out; it is not the easiest word to say. It is a marvellous step forward in the acute treatment of stroke. The ability of surgeons to remove clots and stop further neurological damage makes an immense difference to patients and their recovery.
We are, unfortunately, able to have a 24 hours a day, seven days a week, service in only very few places. Like the noble Lord, I am very lucky to be living up the road from St George’s Hospital: we are okay. Other places are not. The ambition, surely, ought to be to make that service available at specialist neurological centres around the whole country, and easily accessible to the majority of the population as soon as possible.
A particular problem with thrombectomy is that it requires the input of several different medical disciplines, specifically surgeons and others who are not normally part of a stroke response unit. Far be it from me to accuse the NHS of territorialism, but getting surgeons to change their ways is not the easiest thing to do. I ask the Minister, therefore: will thrombectomy services be commissioned via specialist commissioning, and if the provision of the service requires redesign and redefinition—not just of the services but of the medical roles in the team—how that will happen? Does he believe, as I do, that STPs may well face a real battle to get so many people from different disciplines to change the way they work?
My understanding is that the department has not yet decided to refresh the stroke strategy; it is relying on the 2013 cardiovascular disease outcome strategy. Does the Minister believe that that is an adequate way for the department to require the NHS to look at some pretty significant changes among staff?
I also refer the Minister to the experience of some MPs who looked at provision in their local areas. They mentioned the tension between university hospitals and district general hospitals. It requires the might not just of NHS England but the department to look at this problem.
My next point is on research. We have one centre of excellence in research—certainly in thrombectomy—which I think is the University of East Anglia. It is one of several across Europe. I am a Liberal Democrat spokesperson and am therefore bound to ask what the Government are doing to make sure that, post Brexit, research and research collaboration continue? I know that the Royal Society is looking across the piece at the impact of Brexit on research, taking an unbiased and pragmatic view of it. I simply ask the Minister to tell us how the Government will keep an eye on that.
My third observation is that in 2016 Stanford University reported remarkable results from a very small-scale study—about 16 patients—on the use of stem cell therapies. These are often considered to be wonder solutions to quite an array of neurological conditions. I would not go that far: there is a lot to be done by neuroscientists before they realise the potential of stem cell therapy in all sorts of conditions, but principally such neurological diseases as Parkinson’s and possibly Alzheimer’s. If and when those trials are replicated on a larger scale and get to a further stage, where they might lead to some form of therapy, will the NHS build on its track record of work in stroke treatment by taking advantage of such developments?
On the question of rehabilitation, much of what the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, said pointed to a system in which we have highly skilled staff but not enough of them. We have highly skilled therapists, physiotherapists and nurses—I have been in awe of the ones I have had to deal with—but we need to enable them to impart information first to care workers and secondly to family members, who are there in that golden six-week gap in which recovery can be advanced if people know what to do. To what extent are we asking our NHS acute staff, as part of their duty of care, to pass on information to carers to make sure that they can be there to assist and improvise with things which work?
What do the Government intend to do about the collection of data on post-acute service provision as part of the overall stroke strategy? The bulk of stroke recovery happens in the weeks and months afterwards.
The difference between acute provision and community provision would be that acute provision will help you deal with a physical deficiency, and a community service will help you deal with a lack of confidence. For most people, life after a stroke means living with a lifelong lack of confidence, but that can be aided, helped and treated.
We have done a lot in this country of which we should be proud, but with clever thinking we could do a lot more.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord on securing this debate and on his informative speech. This is a key opportunity to focus on rehabilitation—that is, life after stroke. Like me, he is a strong admirer and supporter of the Stroke Association on stroke research, prevention, treatment, care and support. As usual, I am grateful for its briefing in support of this debate and for the key background documentation from the Lords Library.
I have spoken on a number of occasions about the importance of renewing and updating the 10-year national stroke strategy, which ran out last year. It has taken time but the strong and determined national campaign for this has resulted in the association and others from across the healthcare system now working closely with NHS England on a national plan for stroke.
There is no doubt that, despite the huge progress in the reorganisation of acute stroke care services as a result of the 2007 strategy, post-hospital support, rehabilitation and ongoing long-term community support for stroke survivors is an area that has seen least progress. It is vital that this be a declared ambition of the new plan and given urgent priority. Can the Minister update the House of progress on the national plan and a timeframe for its development and publication?
As we have heard, stroke is the fourth-largest single cause of death in the UK and is the largest cause of long-term disability. It results in over half of all stroke survivors having some form of disability. With major strokes disability is often profound and severe and, in this context, perhaps I may digress slightly and mention haemorrhagic stroke. Some 85% of strokes are ischemic strokes. Only 15% are brain haemorrhages and there is currently no acute treatment for them, despite their being associated with the most serious strokes and the worst patient outcomes. It is a significantly underfunded area of research into prevention, treatment and rehabilitation and I make a special plea for the Minister to look at this issue.
It is relevant to consideration of whole care pathways and long-term support for stroke survivors, especially those with the severe disabilities that result from a brain haemorrhage. It is also relevant to me as my partner is hemiplegic as a result of a major haemorrhage 10 years ago. He benefited from the early days of the FAST campaign and the successful reorganisation of London stroke services, which was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. This meant that he received the emergency and stabilising care and treatment in hospital he needed within the four-hour period. Ten years on, I am pleased to say that he has a very good quality of life, lives well and is a part of the community. I single out four key basics that have led to that outcome for him.
The first is a good, reliable package of personal care, including washing and dressing, and a domiciliary agency that, overall, provides a good service with a regular team of care workers who we both know and trust. The second is a strong and active connectivity through the local community centre, with its excellent stroke support group, and other voluntary sector support. The importance of staying in touch in keeping well cannot be overemphasised as the key to rehabilitation. The third is weekly assisted disability exercise support through a local charity, which helps maintain his limited walking ability. It is not physio but movement exercises by trained assistants. Fourthly, he has the home adaptations and the disability aids he needs, such as a profile bed and splints, plus a power wheelchair, which means that he can get out and about locally on his own. I also add to the list his amazing assistance dog, who has made such a huge contribution to his mobility, independence and confidence, and pay tribute to the charity Canine Partners for its work in training such dogs and supporting disabled people in this way.
Of course, many other elements are involved in supported care at home, such as GP and primary care support, but the current support available is under huge pressure, as noble Lords have pointed out. We know that it is medical and reactive rather than proactive and focused on rehabilitation and staying well—on wellness rather than illness, as the Committee on the Long-term Sustainability of the NHS put it.
The noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, cited the Royal College of Physicians national guidance 2016 as the gold standard. It calls for stroke survivors to have,
“at least 45 minutes of each appropriate therapy … for as long as they are willing and capable of participating and showing measurable benefit”.
Hospital patients typically receive only one-third of that: the equivalent of 16 minutes a day of physio, 16 minutes a day of occupational therapy and 12 minutes a day of speech therapy. We know that, in the community, those therapies mostly have to be self-funded or obtained in the private sector.
The NHS RightCare Pathway included in the Library pack cites earlier RCP guidelines on what should be expected of NHS commissioners, which are clear and unequivocal. The guidelines stress:
“Commissioning organisations should ensure that their commissioning portfolio includes the whole stroke pathway from prevention (including neurovascular services) through acute care, early rehabilitation, secondary prevention, early supported discharge, community rehabilitation, systematic follow-up, palliative care and long-term support”.
It is vital that more CCGs and the STPs commission services that meet what is set out in the guidance. I should like the Minister to respond to that.
As all speakers have stressed, stroke is a recoverable condition. Many stroke survivors see improvements physically, communicatively and cognitively for months and years afterwards. The often-repeated adage that I heard when my partner first had a stroke—sadly, from both the public and some professionals—was that stroke improvements will not take place after two years. That is wrong. Improvements can and do happen with the right motivation, support and help along the care pathway.
I ask the Minister some questions on this issue. First, will he comment on the large regional variations in the availability and quality of community services for strokes shown in the latest national stroke audit? Secondly, will he comment on the unacceptably high waiting times for starting speech and language therapy post hospital—two months in some of the worst performing areas? Thirdly, will he comment on the 12-week waiting time for psychological support for stroke survivors across the country—up to five months in some areas, when the target is two weeks? Fourthly, will he comment on the action being taken to deal with CCGs which, despite the strong national guidance, are not commissioning ESD to provide intensive, multidisciplinary stroke-specialised rehabilitation and support for patients, carers and families? Forty per cent of patients should be eligible for this, but do not receive it. These are key questions, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is small wonder that 45% of stroke survivors say that they feel abandoned when they get home from hospital, lacking in confidence, information and support. I can certainly relate to that. Fifty-one year-old Philippa Haslehurst, who had a stroke four years ago, received just two NHS sessions of physiotherapy and occupational therapy before having to pay for private treatment. She said:
“I felt like after a couple of rehabilitation sessions, the NHS had wiped its hands of me. I had made hardly any progress and I was still dealing with the debilitating after-effects of my stroke. If it wasn’t for private physio, I wouldn’t be walking now, let alone be back at work. I believe physio saved me”.
I also ask the Minister about the personalised care plans that stroke survivors are supposed to receive for their ongoing post-hospital treatment, care and support, and the findings of the recent Neurological Alliance survey that over 70% of patients are not offered one. Surely this should go hand in hand with the ESD plans for personal and domiciliary care support and generally to ensure that patients are discharged into a safe environment. Can the Minister also explain what action is being taken to ensure that all CCGs commission the six-month post-hospital review of stroke survivors’ progress and problems? Less than a third of stroke survivors receive this review and only half of all CCGs actually commission it. NHS RightCare guidance includes follow-up annual reviews, which are obviously needed if a patient’s progress is to be monitored effectively.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, one of the key issues arising from this debate is the lack of post acute-stroke data in comparison with that for acute care. We need strong and consistent data on the provision of the different types of therapy, treatment and rehabilitation as well as on measurable patient outcomes; its lack is seriously hampering progress in this area. Can the Minister outline what work is being done and will the recommendations in the national stroke plan include ensuring that this key aspect is addressed?
This has been an excellent, thoughtful and wide-ranging debate, despite having few contributors, while we wait for the national stroke plan to be finalised and for the publication of the social care Green Paper, now promised for the autumn. I hope that the Government will recognise that prioritising effective rehabilitation for stroke survivors will achieve significant long-term savings across the health and social care system as well as being of huge benefit to stroke survivors themselves.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lingfield on securing this debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, has just pointed out, it has been short but sweet—rather, we have had a small cast list but a high quality of output. The experience of the noble Baroness and that of her partner has been invaluable, while the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked some searching questions, which I shall attempt to answer. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, will be amused to learn that in my briefing it states of her, “Does not normally ask health questions”. I am absolutely delighted that she is here, because hers is a perspective that we have not had before. I hope that it is not the last time that we see her taking part in a debate of this kind, and I shall come to the very interesting ideas that she mentioned. Along with other noble Lords, I recognise and applaud the work of charities like ARNI, while my noble friend also referred to the Stroke Association, Canine Partners and others. They make a valid and vital contribution to care in this area.
We have talked about the impact of stroke. In England some 80,000 people a year are being admitted to hospital. We also know about the impact that strokes can have not only on the lives of sufferers themselves, but also on their families, friends and carers. The statistic that stroke leaves half of those affected with a disability is a sobering one. We know also that the difficulties are not just physical. As we have discussed, they include communication difficulties, psychological cognitive fatigue and others. Indeed, stroke is the leading cause of complex disability, as well as the fourth largest cause of death, which is why it has quite rightly been the focus of successive Governments.
It is worth saying that major improvements have been made in stroke prevention, treatment and outcomes since the publication of the 2007 strategy, for which the then Labour Government deserve much credit. I shall highlight one or two of those outcomes, because they highlight some of the questions which have been asked. Over the past 20 years, the 30-day mortality rate has dropped from 30% to 13.5% in 2015-16. There is now better compliance with the occupational therapy standards, from 56% to 83%, while physiotherapy standards have risen, along with speech and language therapy. However, it is notable that even with speech and language therapy, where compliance has doubled, it remains at less than 50%, which goes to the heart of some of the points about variations in provision which noble Lords have pointed out. While improvements have been made, it is clear that a lot more needs to be done.
As several noble Lords mentioned, one way that we can improve rehabilitation is to get the care right in the first place. The noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Wheeler, mentioned mechanical thrombectomy, which is highly effective at preventing severe disability. The statistics are interesting: for every 100 patients treated, 38 will experience a less disabled outcome than with the best medical management—an extraordinary improvement—with 20 more achieving functional independence. Having national coverage is clearly important, and I will come on to how we try to achieve that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, talked about how her partner had benefited from Public Health England’s Act Fast campaign. That is reducing the amount of time between someone having a stroke and arriving at hospital. The campaign has been going for about nine years now, during which 5,365 fewer people have become disabled as a result of a stroke, saving the equivalent of 12,200 quality-adjusted life years. This is quite an achievement for a public health campaign. The third area on the acute side where big improvements have been made, and which noble Lords have spoken about, is the centralisation of services, including hyper-acute stroke services. The noble Baroness mentioned the work which our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Darzi, did in London. Because of that, a significantly higher proportion of patients are receiving care compliant with the guidelines and processes. That alone has delivered a 5% relative reduction in mortality at 90 days, another significant improvement.
Those things are at the acute end, but the topic for today is rehabilitation. As has been mentioned, there are over 1 million stroke survivors. Not only do half of those have a disability but half are also living with four or more co-morbidities. The question is: how do we get their lives back on track? We know that rehabilitation delivers better outcomes, improves quality of life and reduces health inequality. It also provides good value for money; it is the right thing to do on every level. It is also important to approach this with an optimistic mind set. As noble Lords have pointed out, stroke can be a recoverable condition, with survivors continuing to improve for months after their stroke.
We know from stroke survivors and the charities that represent them, and we have heard today, that they need early and ongoing rehabilitation and support. The testimony of the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, and her partner brought this to life. This includes holistic reviews of progress; a personalised care and support plan which is regularly updated; the provision of information; the availability of the right therapies; and so on. This obviously has to happen in the acute setting but, more importantly, it needs to happen in the post-acute setting as well.
My noble friend Lord Lingfield and the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, talked about the stroke working party guideline of 45 minutes, but they also said that that is being missed all too often. What are the Government doing about it? The governing document has been the strategy which began in 2007, which has now been replaced with the stroke programme board, established in March this year. It is chaired by the national medical director of NHS England and the CEO of the Stroke Association and is developing a costed stroke plan to address the challenges of prevention, service reconfiguration, optimising rehab services, workforce development and data. I do not have a date at this time, but I shall endeavour to write to the noble Baroness and other noble Lords with that.
The board is looking at some changes. It has been said, quite rightly, that there needs to be seven-day availability of the right workforce. We need to make sure that nurses, therapists and other medical staff are there round the clock. As we know, there is some silo thinking on clinical expertise in the NHS. As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, pointed out, the availability of mechanical thrombectomy is hampered by a shortage not just of skilled neuroradiologists but of other trained consultants. Reconfiguration can deal with some of that, but we need to do more to deal with it at a national level.
Through the work of the programme board we intend, first, to include stroke-specific plans within workforce strategies and to support integration across care settings. Secondly, we will establish training pathways from other medical specialties to increase the interventional neuroradiology workforce. Thirdly, we will include experience in stroke medicine early on in the undergraduate curricula of foundation medical training programmes, to encourage early career choices to pursue stroke training.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Wheeler, also talked about the need for better data. That is absolutely right, and is happening in a couple of ways. First, a new national clinical audit of cardiovascular disease prevention in primary care is being instigated. Secondly, in reference to one question that was put, we are making sure that the research strategy of the NHS will address key evidence gaps in stroke, particularly around post-acute care. I shall certainly take away the suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, about a specific type of stroke and the under-resourced or under-researched nature of it.
Much of the funding for research comes through the National Institute for Health Research—a domestic source, although this issue is international in scale. As for Brexit, following our exit from the European Union, we are looking to achieve participation in the next iteration—the successor programme to Horizon 2020. Third countries are already participating, so it is within our grasp, as was set out in the Government’s Collaboration on Science and Innovation: A Future Partnership Paper.
On commissioning, which was also mentioned, NHS RightCare: Stroke Pathway was published in October 2017 and is the governing document. We need to ensure that the guidance that includes information about early supported discharge and community provision is adhered to. I do not know what the mechanisms are by which we will improve compliance, some of which is quite good and some, frankly, too low. That is a topic of work for the programme board. I shall write to noble Lords with its ideas on how it intends to make that bite, so that there is CCG compliance in commissioning frameworks.
Finally, we need a different approach to rehabilitation, one that is collaborative and integrated across health, social care and, critically, the third sector. In addition to rehabilitation, stroke survivors need a very broad set of services, including spasticity services, psychology, orthoptics, pain and continence services. As we have also heard, stroke survivors often need help with housing adaptations.
We have, therefore, three goals to achieve this rehabilitation revolution. First, we must make sure that there is proper commissioning of stroke specialist rehabilitation of the required intensity seven days a week for stroke victims through their in-patient stay, as recommended by the clinical guidelines. That will be driven by NHS England. Secondly, we must ensure that stroke survivors have access, within 24 hours of discharge from hospital, to a stroke specialist rehabilitation service that can provide support for the early discharged patient at the same rehabilitation intensity as stroke unit care, seven days a week. Thirdly, we need to develop a national service specification for the structure and process of stroke specialist rehabilitation services provided immediately after discharge, including early supported discharge, that describes appropriate staffing levels and, critically, addresses rurality. We must not only set those guidelines but make sure that they are complied with.
I shall briefly answer questions where I have not yet had a chance to do so. My noble friend Lord Lingfield asked about grants from public funds to rehab charities. Local authorities do that kind of work through their social care function. I am not aware of what CCGs and the NHS itself do, but I will endeavour to find out what support is available.
The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, took us on a very interesting journey into the power of language, and second languages. I knew about its benefits for dementia sufferers, but not about its benefits for stroke sufferers. I shall certainly be happy to find out more about the scheme and whether we can help. It sounds like a fascinating idea; considering the annual cost of stroke, and what the cost of educating children in a second language at school would be, the cost-benefit analysis looks quite good. It is something to think about, and I am glad that my right honourable friend Nick Gibb is enthusiastic about it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about stem cell and gene therapies. It is a really good question. We have a fantastic network of biomedical research centres, funded by the National Institute for Health Research. I do not know if she has had the opportunity to visit any of them but I thoroughly recommend it. Sometimes we are a bit hard on ourselves in this country in asking ourselves whether we really have access to cutting-edge, world-leading therapies in cancer, stroke, cardiovascular, or whatever. This is where it happens—where the translation from lab to the clinical setting happens. People here are among the first in the world to get these therapies. I thoroughly recommend seeing that, and if the noble Baroness were to get in touch I would be delighted to recommend a suitable one. We have the opportunity to be involved in this field, and a good track record in it.
Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, asked several questions. I hope that I have responded to most of them. If I have not, I will of course follow up with a letter.
I close by once again thanking all noble Lords for their contributions. It has been a fascinating and useful debate. With the programme board in place, I think that we have the opportunity and the leadership to make sure that we improve stroke services. We are in the happy position of knowing what is necessary; now, we need to deliver it. I am sure that, working together, we can start to transform rehabilitation care so that it is of the intensity required and provides a lifeline to stroke sufferers.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I declare my interests as listed in the register. As I cannot do it later, I thank all noble Lords who will be speaking. The fact there are so many is testimony to the importance of this matter.
I wish to highlight the plight of the UK’s often forgotten passerines, more commonly known as songbirds, or little brown jobs—LBJs—to the bird-watching community. We do not hear much about the problems faced by many of our LBJs, as they are not spoken of in the same hushed, reverent tones used to describe our “iconic” birds of prey, charismatic seabirds or enigmatic waders, wonderful though they are. LBJs are those that delight many of us on our back-garden feeders and nesting boxes and on farms or other landholdings. They range from the cheeky house sparrow—once a common sight wherever we chose to live in our cities, towns and countryside—and the glorious skylark with its uplifting song of pure liquid gold, immortalised by Shelley and Vaughan Williams, through to the suite of summer migrants, such as the nightingale and other warblers that fill many a wood, glade, marsh and reed bed with the glorious dawn chorus, the avian sound of spring and summer.
The numbers of many of our most cherished and emblematic songbirds have crashed or declined alarmingly in upland, farm and woodland landscapes since systematic records of their numbers began to be compiled in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As examples, house sparrows, song thrushes, skylarks, spotted flycatchers and corn buntings are all down between 50% and 90%, depending on the species. Worst of all, the turtle dove is almost certainly doomed to extinction, with 98% gone in less than two generations. Overall, our farmland bird populations have declined by 56% and our woodland birds by almost a quarter over this period.
Since the rapid decline in the 1980s, efforts have been made to arrest the trend. Over 70% of England’s farmland is under countryside stewardship schemes, 7.2 million hectares of UK land is managed to benefit wildlife, and the size of broadleaf woodlands is increasing. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on environmental stewardship agri-environment schemes, or AES, and woodland grants. This has been backed by millions of pounds of donations spent by NGOs and some tremendous work by farmers given freely. Given that, this debate should be celebrating a rise in the songbird population, but it is not. My noble friend will doubtless highlight some of the successes but he will be the first to agree that the songbird decline continues remorselessly, year on year. We must ask why this help has not delivered as expected.
Many of our farm and woodland ecosystems are currently unbalanced. In stark contrast, the results achieved by the Allerton Project—scientific research by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust over 25 years on a farm in Leicestershire—show a different and better way forward. Improving the habitat combined with good management, including sufficient all-year food supplies and targeted predator control, have not only allowed both the arable land and woodlands to be improved in condition, while remaining profitable, but benefited a whole range of wildlife, not just songbirds. The problem for farmers in England, in stark contrast to the more enlightened regime in Scotland, is that the current AES cover only habitat. The project has demonstrated conclusively that good management is needed as well.
In the absence of the apex predators, which mankind eliminated, it is our duty to intervene to maintain balanced ecosystems and accept responsibility for managing wildlife, just as we did successfully until the latter part of the 20th century. Such a policy still works well in other countries, and the Government and NGOs have recently employed it to good effect in South Georgia. The results of the project are a winning blueprint for farming, wildlife and the environment, and thus for us. Will my noble friend use this template when bringing forward proposals for the new farming regime that is needed soon?
In urban areas, our gardens are habitat havens for all-year resident LBJs, as well as for migratory and seasonal visitors. With the huge pressure for new homes, will the Government ensure that detrimental proposals such as the Mayor of London’s “grab a garden” for development planning guidelines, which have so little thought for wildlife, are blocked? While on planning, has my noble friend pressed MHCLG to impose a buffer zone of 400 yards against any new development around sites where species of conservation concern nest, to protect them from irresponsible humans, their dogs and especially cats? I have spoken twice recently about cats. I merely add that, of the 29 predators of songbirds, cats are the worst, killing about 55 million songbirds annually, but should be the easiest to control. I merely say that I thought my noble friend’s recent letter to me on this was peely-wally. There is scientific evidence that predation by cats is having a real impact on bird populations. The very least the Government should do is proactively support the efforts of charities such as SongBird Survival, which is working to mitigate it.
I welcome and have encouraged the planting of more broadleaf woodlands. However, as Robbie Burns wrote,
“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley”.
Due to poor management, they have become safe havens for our already too numerous predators and inevitably have provided more trees for grey squirrels—a non-native invasive species—to gnaw. As broadleaf woodlands can support some eight to 18 squirrels per hectare, we have helped them considerably. In addition, they are very bad news not only for our native red squirrels but also for our nesting songbirds. Ring-necked parakeets outcompete native songbirds and other hole-nesting birds for nesting spaces and at garden feeding stations. It is a sad indictment that the most commonly encountered mammal in our royal parks, just a few hundred yards from here, is that destructive grey squirrel, and that the dominant birdsong and call heard there is that of the domineering ring-necked parakeet. They are both overabundant, oversexed and over here.
Returning to habitats for birds, rhododendron ponticum growing wild is a particular issue for ancient and native woodland. It results not only in the loss of native plants and a decrease in bird diversity but also in reduced populations of woodland species. Muntjac and fallow deer destroy the understorey and vegetative layer that the threatened native nightingale, wood warbler and other nesting birds rely on.
In 2010, the estimated annual cost of alien species to the British economy was £1.7 billion per annum. For comparison’s sake, that is about the same as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s budget for that year. On page 63 of their report, A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, when referring to non-native invasive species, the Government state:
“Where it is not feasible to eradicate these species because they are too widely established, we will seek to neutralise their threat by managing them effectively”.
What policies does my noble friend have in mind for these species and, just as importantly, what are his policies to mitigate the arrival and establishment of other species? Page 57 of the same document states that HMG will,
“support nature’s recovery and restore losses suffered over the past 50 years”.
That must apply particularly to songbirds.
We are an urban-oriented population, much of whose knowledge comes from books, the internet and television rather than from hands-on experience. If the Government are serious about protecting our environment, which includes the songbirds, they must heed more the advice of farmers and landowners, and the AES should be based on the Scottish model. Furthermore, would my noble friend agree that a substantial programme of education is needed, including active support for those NGOs already working in this field, as too many wildlife programmes are tainted by the syrupy anthropomorphism of celebrity presenters who deny the reality of rural life?
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, particularly with regard to the land that I manage and run in Caithness. I thank the noble Earl for raising this very important subject, for two reasons. First, the decline in songbirds in particular but many other species, such as waders, seabirds and others, is a direct indication of the state of the environment, and an indicator of biodiversity and the environment generally. The decline is therefore worrying in itself, but it is also a red pointer on the environmental dial. The second reason why I thank him is for having caused me to read the excellent Library brief that was produced. I thought that I knew a little about this subject but, having read that brief, I realise that I have a great deal more to learn.
I would like to use my time to stray a little from what the noble Earl describes as the little brown jobs and talk a bit about some of the excellent work being done in Caithness to help to preserve and protect some other species of birds. The noble Earl is absolutely right to call attention to the need for sound environmental management as part of putting together the package that is going to help our species. The problem that I have always found is that we humans are extremely keen on an instant and usually simple answer. Across the 40 years when I have been responsible for management in the Flow Country, I have observed a great number of well-intentioned schemes from a variety of different areas, all of which have been found over time to have negative consequences. At one time, we planted conifer trees everywhere. We are now taking them out and restoring the blanket bog through ditching. At one time, we declared that we should take all the sheep off. We are now putting them back, because we need properly grazed land in order for the waders to survive. In all those areas, observing nature and walking quietly over the land is probably the best way to manage.
Some 20 years ago, I sold a piece of ground to the RSPB to add to its reserve at Blar nam Faoileag, of which I shall give the Hansard writers the proper spelling afterwards. It means “the bog of the seagull”. In selling it, I came to an arrangement with the RSPB whereby I had a sporting lease on that ground and continued to do low-intensity grouse shooting, and it has a management agreement over the whole of my estate. We work together very happily, and have done for 20 years. I am delighted that, as a steward of that area, I have pairs of golden eagles, hen harriers, buzzards and many other iconic raptors. I have a film of a sea eagle taking a salmon out of a pool, which is quite something to observe. I delight in them, and delight that the way in which I manage with the RSPB allows the game management that I want to do to work alongside that. We have all come together with the Caithness Wetlands and Wildlife Initiative, the Scottish Agricultural College, the RSPB, a couple of other NGOs and landowners like myself. Since 2010, we have been working to preserve the wildlife and enhance the habitat—and I am delighted to say that it is a very good partnership. Notwithstanding that, many of our iconic species continue to decline, so we are working as far as we can together to try to work out what other land management steps we can take to get back to where we used to be.
In my view, and my experience of some 20 years of working with SNH government bodies and NGOs such as the RSPB, it is entirely possible to work constructively to arrive at a point where all parties involved can get what they want out of that management co-operation. In conclusion, and in thanking the noble Earl for raising this subject, I say that how we manage is vital, but taking time to work out what is right is equally vital. It is often better to wait and do nothing until we are surer of what we are going to do. Sphagnum moss is the greatest eater of carbon that there is, and replacing it with trees was wrong. I hope that we will go forward and use sound management, which will help the songbirds as well as my waders.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Earl for securing this debate on a troublesome subject. I have to declare one interest as the holder of a licence: a ringing permit from the British Trust for Ornithology. For over 50 years, I have been handling LBJs in migration stations in the Firth of Forth.
That there is a serious decline in the numbers of our songbirds is undeniable. Some species are more affected than others but I cannot think of a single songbird species that is more abundant than it was over 20 years ago. When I think about the reasons for this, threats from non-native species are not high on my list. On my list are the various challenges, almost all manmade, which affect birds that migrate and affect the places where they wish to breed when they get here.
Almost all our songbirds migrate to some extent but the worst affected are the insect-eating birds that migrate south to Africa. They face increasing obstacles that affect their ability to survive the journey. Climate change dries out areas where previously they could rest and feed; there are changes in land use; stopover sites which were previously available leave them starving for food which they need as fuel for their journeys. Then there is the appalling slaughter of birds in some parts of southern Europe where the traditional pursuits of capturing and killing songbirds still live on, despite the EU directives. It has been estimated that more than 11 million birds are killed or captured in the Mediterranean region every year. Can the Minister assure us that we will continue to press the Governments of the countries involved to stamp out this practice as vigorously as possible? The environment that the birds breed in once they get here is vital too. We need to conserve the hedgerows and meadows where our birds breed and replace those that have been lost. Are we doing enough in that area?
Predation by our own native species plays a significant part. I think of magpies, sparrow-hawks, stoats and hedgehogs. We have to accept these as part of the way that our natural environment works. On the whole, birds learn to cope with these hazards. I worry about magpies, however, a huge increase in the numbers of which seems to have coincided—at least in my area—with the decline in songbirds. I wish that something could be done to control their numbers but the Minister may agree that to try to interfere with the course of nature among our native species, so as to prefer one over another, would set an unfortunate precedent.
What about invasive non-native species such as the ring-necked parakeet, to which the noble Earl referred? It is non-native and, in some places, invasive. I would be interested to know, however, how much they affect the survival of songbirds. They compete with other hole-nesting birds but not all our songbirds nest in holes. They compete with those that rely on bird feeders and bird tables but not all our songbirds look to bird tables for their feeding; they feed on insects instead. Parakeets are by nature vegetarians. In India, where they come from, they take only seeds, flowers, fruits and nectar. For these reasons, I am not sure that there really is a case for controlling parakeets because they are a threat to songbirds. Of course the grey squirrel is the main non-native species that one might be really concerned about and there is a case for controlling their numbers. In my area of Scotland, we are fortunate because the squirrels are red but the threat of grey squirrels is very present not far away. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what progress has been made in controlling the numbers of grey squirrels.
This is a serious problem. I have two other interests that I should declare at this time: I am a member of the Scottish Ornithologists Club and of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, both of which do great work in trying to promote the interests of songbirds.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Caithness on securing his debate today. He is a great supporter of all rural and agricultural matters. I listened to him carefully; his contribution was excellent and most knowledgeable. Forgive me if my glasses fall off—they have stretched. My noble friend discussed a wide variety of issues from habitat and land management, through winter feeding to predator control. Personally, as a countryman I was fascinated and impressed. I agree with everything that he said. I refer noble Lords to my interests as a member of the NFU and the Countryside Alliance, and to my involvement past and current with various shooting associations.
Before I go slightly off piste, I must concur with my noble friend about the enormous contribution that the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust makes. I have known it for many years and was a local chairman. The late Dr Dick Potts was a world-class act and a titan in his area of knowledge. He was the guiding light behind Loddington Farm and the GWCT’s working farm in Leicestershire, from whence so much expert advice has come over the years. I should declare my interest as a member of the GWCT.
I am a shooting man. I know that shoots, by their nature, whether you love them or loathe them, are conservationists. They have to be. They have to provide a good habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. In the process of establishing and enhancing hedgerows, conserving and promoting woodland, promoting insect production, vermin control, coppicing and a raft of other practices, they do all the things that assist in the promotion of songbirds.
Plenty of predators prey on songbirds. Where I live, on the borders of the Peak District National Park, we have numerous magpies. I watch them at nesting time sneaking down the hedgerows, robbing eggs and fledglings. The magpie is a thoroughly vicious bird. We cull them as much we can. Buzzards, too, although protected, cause many problems. I am told that the buzzard is purely a carrion gatherer. That is not so. I have watched him take young chicks and pheasant poults. He will circle over a release pen and all the poults will cower in a corner and smother to death. The buzzard population is out of control. Indeed, just the other day, I counted 11 over the 15-acre wood behind my house.
Among the various songbird predators, and there are many—my noble friend mentioned cats, but where I live, the cat is a minor problem; I think it is more of an urban issue—we have the fox, which has no natural predator. The only method by which we can protect other species which he preys on is by human intervention and control. The grey squirrel, which has already been mentioned, is also a predator on songbirds. They have little fear of predation, save for in the north-east of the country, where they are scared stiff of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. He is a highly successful predator of the grey squirrel and a great supporter of the red of the species; perhaps that is a little illiberal of him. I practised that line so many times.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, realised a number of years ago that the wild English partridge was becoming close to extinction, so he produced a programme on his land to engender a revival of the species. He is truly an expert and fascinating to listen to on the subject. He commissioned new hedgerows, planted on a ridge so that ground-nesting birds would not have their nests flooded and chicks would survive in heavy rain conditions. He established beetle banks and wildflower strips around headlands, ensuring that there would be an abundance of natural insect life for feeding birds. He also used sensible and proportionate predator control. Because of that initiative, the songbirds found a friend. I could go on, because I am passionate about this, but I am very much time limited.
In attempting to reach a conclusion, I suggest to my noble friend the Minister, who has always been a great supporter of rural issues, that Brexit provides an ideal and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a view on rural financial support. Surely future subsidy—I think it should be called support—should be targeted away from the large farmers who benefit from economies of scale and pointed to the small to medium-sized farms, uplands and less favoured areas, perhaps focusing on wildlife and habitat schemes designed by the GWCT, which is a world leader. Perhaps that body could be paid fees through an environment support fund, where landowners and farmers would be rewarded for the quality of their stewardship or penalised for their lack of it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, with his noted wisdom in this subject area and good turn of phrase. I, too, add my congratulations to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, on securing the debate in this important area which we discuss all too rarely, having had other things to discuss recently. I declare my interest as chairman of the United Kingdom Squirrel Accord and of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust.
The UK Squirrel Accord is a collaborative organisation with 35 signatories, which comprise the four national Governments, their nature entities and the large voluntary and private sector bodies. It has the twin aim of dealing with the threats to broadleaf trees in the UK and to red squirrels, both of which are posed by grey squirrels. I note that, according to the Mammal Society, there are now 2.7 million grey squirrels in the UK, and the number is growing. In 1875, there were none.
The SongBird Survival trust on its website has a section entitled, “impact of non-native species”. The first bullet point says:
“Grey squirrels eat songbird nestlings and eggs, compete for food, destroy broad-leaved trees, and are out-competing our native red squirrels”.
In summary, the two main problems are the eating of nestlings and eggs and the destruction of songbird habitat.
Turning briefly to the first, I was horrified to see last night when I typed: “Do squirrels eat birds?” into Google Images, the results were a terrible array of grey squirrels eating. The anecdotal evidence is so strong yet, frustratingly, the hard scientific fact as to how much a contributor grey squirrel eating habits are to the dreadful songbird number reductions remains elusive. Where songbird habitat destruction is concerned, scientific facts are banned.
Estimates for the timber value destroyed by grey squirrels over the last 10 years in the UK are between £100 and £200 million. The Royal Forestry Society is trying to update these currently, and I understand that the early signs point to a very significantly upward revision. Grey squirrels ring bark broadleaved trees aged between approximately 10 and 40 years to get at their sap, which destroys the trees. In southern England, effectively, there is no commercial planting of these species happening today, so native songbird habitat is not being replaced. I know this well, as this is why the UK Squirrel Accord was formed three years or so ago. The work of the accord is thus directly related to songbird habitat. The accord has many strands of co-operative work going on, aimed at controlling grey squirrel numbers.
As a UK-wide body, we are involved in commissioning scientific research of various types to assist. The most exciting and innovative in the world stage concerns fertility control. On our behalf, 18 months ago, the Animal and Plant Health Agency started a five-year project aimed at grey-squirrel-targeted fertility control. The work involves an existing fertility control drug in use in the USA, injecting this inside pollen, which is a new UK technology, mixing the pollen into a paste—and feeding the paste to grey squirrels in a specially designed species-specific hopper. The research is going well and it is hard to praise enough the team of exceptional scientists involved. In addition, this is a public-private project, with the squirrel accord committing to raise £1 million or so. Many generous individuals and trusts have helped fund this vital research. I believe this will be a key part of a strategy to help with the songbird habitat problem over what I regret will be a long haul.
In closing, I ask the Minister to comment on the research paper, which he had a very important part in commissioning himself.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Caithness for introducing this issue. It is, as the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, pointed out, an indicator of other, much deeper problems for our environment here in Britain.
We know that 16 species of our favourite songbirds have declined by more than one-third since 1995, including such iconic birds as the cuckoo and the wood warbler. To address this decline, and all the other linked environmental issues, we need massive changes to land use in our country. Part of that relates to the issue of land ownership. Too much land has been concentrated in too few hands. The vast majority of our land is still held by a small number of hereditary families, possibly including some of your Lordships. Many work very hard. I know of one Peer who has a 50-acre wildflower meadow, which is extremely difficult to create and maintain. Many large landowners improve their land for now and for future generations. But there is an inequality that has to be tackled. Margaret Thatcher used to speak of the home-owning democracy; perhaps the time has come for a land-owning democracy. I am using a Conservative link, so that it feeds into the Government’s ears.
Perhaps the biggest impact a freeholder could make is to lease parcels of land—the rocky, sloping marginal bits that you cannot work out what to do with, or that do not have any obvious use. If you lease a parcel of this marginal land to someone with ideas and enthusiasm, they can manage it in an ecologically friendly way. That is what happened in Old Sleningford Farm in north Yorkshire, where a 17-acre smallholding is leased and managed in a revolutionary way. In exchange for a peppercorn rent, this patch of rocky dirt has been transformed into what is called a “food forest”, with over 250 species of fruit and nut trees being grown organically. The freeholder himself loves it, and gets chickens and bacon and an endless supply of fruit; the leaseholders have crafted a successful local business; and local people visit to get involved in tending the land, as a sort of social exercise.
We are still stuck in the 20th-century mindset brought about by the World Wars when maximising production was the sole purpose of agricultural policy. We have to move on from that and think in a more modern way. We know how to fix the problem of climate change, but we are not doing it fast enough. The longer we stall, the worse things will get and the more it will cost to remedy. Some people think that it is crass to talk about nature in monetary terms, because it is worth much so more than money can ever reflect, but it is a simple fact that our environment and ecology have an immense economic value in terms of the products and services that nature provides to us for free. It represents billions of pounds-worth of natural capital. In the end, our natural capital is the only infrastructure that really matters—more than all the roads, rail, electricity and internet. We can lose all those things, and all the money in the world but, if we lose our environment and ecosystems, everything else becomes worthless.
We have big opportunities over this Parliament, with numerous Bills dedicated to farming and the environment. We will literally shape the future of our country with the words in those Bills. We showed in the withdrawal Bill that we will improve legislation in the face of stiff government opposition, and I hope that we will continue in that spirit as we address the challenges of our environment and ecosystems.
I went to a farmers’ market yesterday and was lobbied very heavily by a beekeeper. He outlined the problem that in Britain we import far too many bees and do not encourage our own natural bee population. No bumblebees are currently commercially produced in the UK, and the substitution of home-grown produce has commercial, biodiversity and biosecurity advantages for the whole country. Apparently, subspecies of honey bees are also being imported, with a resulting loss of quality over succeeding generations: bad temper, swarminess and lack of local adaptation. This goes way beyond songbirds; it is about every single part of nature, and we have to protect it.
My Lords, at first glance I thought this Question was rather daunting, and that the reference to invasive, non-native species was a sort of new bird-Brexit talk. Having heard the excellent speeches which preceded mine, I now understand exactly what people are talking about. From the perspective of someone with a 95-foot garden, I am not equipped to talk about a lot of the things which large landowners will mention in this debate. I have noticed extraordinary changes in my garden over the nearly 30 years that I have lived there. I have not found a particular problem with the invasive ringed green parakeet on the bird table, although there is an awful lot of noise and pushing around. The only confrontation I have seen was with a greater spotted woodpecker, who stood and maintained his ground. There are very few songbirds—and I agree that there is probably an overall decrease in them. Of course, they eat insects more than they go to bird tables.
My interest in birds began at a very early age. My father took me to the coast, close to where we lived in Devon, to try and take the oil off the feathers of puffins, whose wings had become immobilised. I was only three years old, so I was hardly fit to judge whether he was very effective at that, but I enormously admired his efforts. From that point, birds have been an important part of my life. I luckily ran pretty well free and without discipline through my childhood during the Second World War, as both my parents were involved in the war effort in one way or another. Birds were one of my interests when I was in both the south of England and Scotland. I had all the necessary books to identify them and to pontificate to my friends on the subject, and that was maintained throughout my life until I went to an organised boarding school. What shocked me there was that I saw very little of birds outside but I saw a lot of stuffed birds, stuffed fish and stuffed everything—stuffed teachers, if you will. So that was a bleak period, except that I qualified for a bicycle by joining the natural history society. I used to say that I was using the bicycle to watch the mallards at the Binfield brickworks, but that was an excuse for going to the cinema in Bracknell, which at that time was a one-horse town.
One notable time for me during my bird-watching life was when I went to Africa on business, and I went to Lake Nakuru and saw the flamingos. Back then, in the early 1970s, there were between 2 million and 3 million flamingos. It was a fantastic sight and they made a fantastic sound. Their food source was the algae in the alkaline lake. Unfortunately, the lake has been subject to pollution in east Africa, and now there are just a few flamingos around the perimeter of the lake. So the reduction in bird numbers is a worldwide problem.
I end by saying that the public need much more information about birds. I highly praise the BBC for its “Springwatch” and “Autumnwatch” programmes. The other day I spoke to the chairman of the BBC and said, “That really is a star programme. Do keep up the good work”. I think that he was quite grateful for my words.
That is all I have to say. I continue with my bird interest in the mornings. I sit there with my porridge and coffee and have my field glasses to hand. I look at my garden and the bird table. I agree with the noble Earl, who in his excellent speech made a point about cats. That is where education is needed. People who have cats need to realise that they need to be controlled and kept away from the birdlife.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for tabling this debate today and for his excellent contribution. I also thank all noble Lords for their considerable expertise. As ever, I have learned a great deal from listening to this debate. It follows the excellent one that we had last week on the survival of bees and other pollinators. Many of the issues are the same. Disease, habitat loss, climate change and pesticides have all had an impact, and of course, where insects decline, there is an inevitable consequence for the food source of birds.
As noble Lords have said, the populations of farmland and woodland bird species have fallen dramatically over the last 50 years. Undoubtedly, intensive farming and the tearing out of hedgerows, which were encouraged in the past, have taken their toll, and the widespread use of pesticides has exacerbated that decline.
Thankfully, if rather belatedly, more recent Governments have started the process of reversing that damage with the support of farmers. Hedgerows are now being recreated, field borders are being left to grow wild, farmers are being rewarded for creating wildflower meadows, and the Government have listened to the science and banned the use of neonicotinoids for pest control.
All this is a start but clearly, as we have heard in this debate, there is a great deal more that we can do. For example, does the Minister agree that there is a growing need for a review of the use of all pesticides to take account of the negative effects, as well as the advantages, that they can bring? Does he also agree that, when we invest in science, we need to make sure that we harness the less damaging ways of tackling persistent weeds and pests by building on nature’s own natural biodiversity?
The Government’s plan to grow more trees, creating in particular more broad-leaved woodland areas, will also have a positive effect where they are appropriately managed. I take the point made by several noble Lords about that important caveat. As the Minister might acknowledge, currently the Government are some way off target on meeting their ambition to plant 11 million more trees. At the same time we need to make a concerted effort to make urban areas more attractive to wildlife. I absolutely take the point about communicating with home owners and the importance of programmes like “Springwatch”. Home owners need to be encouraged to abandon decking and concrete and to find new pleasure in birds and insects that will make their gardens come alive again. The planting of dense vegetation encourages songbirds to nest.
Finally, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, reminded us all of the particular threat to songbirds of invasive non-native species. While many non-native species are harmless, occasionally there are those which creep up on us and pose a threat to our native biodiversity. One detrimental impact which has already been mentioned is that of non-native grey squirrels, although again cats and rats also play their part in raiding nests, eating eggs and killing young birds. A number of references have been made to magpies and raptors. I have to say to noble Lords that the research I have seen is rather less decisive on this point, although I am sure that it is a debate for another occasion. Noble Lords have referred to parakeets and we know the effect they can have by chasing native birds away from food sites and excluding endemic birds and bats from nesting cavities. It has been suggested that there could be a cull of parakeets, but I hope that we can take other measures which are not quite as drastic as that. I am sure that the Minister will be able to tell us what more the Government are proposing to do about this issue.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the actions the Government are taking to tackle the threat of non-native invasive species and I hope that he will acknowledge some of the ideas which have been presented in this debate. They give us more hope of looking forward to the return of native songbirds as a welcome part of our lives.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on giving us a lead to share our delight in songbirds and I acknowledge their importance. I have to say that I had always thought that “All the way with LBJ” referred to an American President, but I am now better informed.
Songbirds are a much-loved part of our wildlife and are to be found in a diverse range of habitats: farms, wetlands, woodlands, gardens and urban parks. The crescendo of the dawn chorus and birds feeding in our gardens, the robin and the blackbird waiting alongside the garden fork appeal to our senses. Indeed, the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, gave us a fascinating account of his early years with birds.
Songbirds are a diverse group of around 300 species of small to medium-sized birds, making up just under half of the UK’s bird species. We should be concerned about the decline in many species of songbirds since the 1970s. The trend since the mid-1990s is more mixed with a low or no overall change in abundance, although while many populations are now stable or increasing, some individual species have continued to decline. For instance, I see more goldfinches and long-tailed tits but fewer greenfinches. I am delighted this year to have two nests of spotted flycatchers on the front of the house. Declines in songbirds are due to a combination of factors, including changes in land management practice, land drainage, loss of biodiversity, overgrazing by deer in woodlands and invasive non-native species. All have had an impact.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, raised the important factor of the effect of climate change on migratory bird species, and only today a report has been produced on our efforts in our military bases in Cyprus and the steps being taken. The UK’s network of 273 special protection areas protects the most vulnerable and threatened wild bird species and their habitats, while our network of sites of special scientific interest provide valuable habitats for a range of bird species. Indeed, overall 3.3 million hectares of land in England are protected, providing important habitat for species.
In the wider landscape, agri-environment schemes are the principal mechanisms by which we support the conservation of songbirds by providing food and nesting resources. Since 2015, over 2,000—or nearly half—of new countryside stewardship agreements included the wild pollinator and farm wildlife package. The Forestry Commission and Natural England have produced countryside stewardship woodland bird guidance for applicants, to create the optimum conditions for songbirds, such as tree pipits and the wood warbler.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, spoke of some of the clear evidence of successful recovery of some farmland birds due to land management funded by the agri-environment schemes. My experience is now with advances in agri-tech and precision farming, basing our decisions on pesticides on independent and the best available scientific advice. That is the basis on which we will take these matters forward.
An independent study in 2012 found that provision of winter food resources with over-winter stubble and wild bird seed crops resulted in a positive effect in local populations, as I saw on a visit to the Cotswolds, when seeing a profusion of linnets and yellowhammers. Indeed, I am reminded of the work at Loddington, to which my noble friends Lord Caithness and Lord Shrewsbury referred. I am very much looking forward to a forthcoming visit to Arundel to see what our noble friend the Duke of Norfolk is undertaking on his estates.
Another interesting point of success—we are always very worried about the declines, and rightly so—is the ninefold increase in the numbers of cirl buntings. Indeed, a new reintroduction in Cornwall of now over 1,000 birds is considered the first successful songbird reintroduction in Europe. My noble friend Lord Caithness has highlighted concerns about the impact of predator control and its effectiveness, and has suggested that we should consider our options in this matter. I share the view that targeted management of predators, using a mix of land management methods, can benefit the conservation of bird species, especially ground-nesting species.
I am also conscious of ecosystems and the natural world, in the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and I very much hope that she will be involved in “Bees’ Needs” week. She will forgive me if I do not go down her line of country in terms of land ownership, because I would definitely be on a different page. However, we are united in wanting the best for the natural world.
Leaving the EU, whatever our view, undoubtedly presents an opportunity to devise new environmental land management schemes as a cornerstone of future agricultural policy. I was, of course, particularly taken with what the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, said of his experiences in the Flow Country, and how success can be secured with what I call sensible collaboration with all interested parties. That point was also made by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury.
In the 25-year environment plan, we are committed to developing a strategy for nature covering our land and freshwater habitats and to take forward our international commitments to halt the loss of biodiversity. As with Biodiversity 2020, the new strategy will seek to enhance our natural habitats, and ensure conservation and recovery.
My noble friend Lord Caithness referred to planning and the potential use of buffer strips. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, made the point in terms of the urban situation as well. The Government are looking at how embedding a net-gain principle in planning could contribute to nature recovery alongside facilitating housing development. This approach could help to address the impact of development on songbird habitats by improving incentives to retain habitats within development sites or by increasing the amount of habitat enhanced or created.
My noble friend Lord Caithness also mentioned cats, and the joint project between SongBird Survival and Exeter University to look at this issue in more depth. Last week, when I attended the all-party group that deals with cat welfare, I was brave enough to raise this matter and explain that there would be a debate in your Lordships’ House on songbirds. My officials and I are very interested to see what the Exeter study concludes.
Invasive non-native species such as grey squirrels and muntjac deer have had a profound impact on songbirds and can undermine conservation. The pipits and pintails are back in such numbers in South Georgia—where I would love to go one day—for one reason: we tackled the invader. It is extraordinary how nature has recovered so dramatically in but a few years. I have seen at first hand the impact muntjac have had in the overgrazing of the under canopy, which means that nesting sites for birds such as the nightingale are disappearing.
My noble friend Lord Caithness has raised the matter of the loss of songbirds. Our country has long been the most active country in Europe in addressing invasive non-native species. The EU invasive alien species regulation, which our country was instrumental in developing, sets out strict restrictions on the keeping and sale of species listed under the regulation, as well as prohibiting their release to the environment. To me, biosecurity means that a key priority must be to reduce the risk of new species entering the country and to control the spread of a number of established species.
Under the joint grey squirrel action plan for England, Defra and the Forestry Commission are committed to working with landowners and other organisations to implement a package of measures to support targeted grey squirrel control. We should thank my noble friend Lord Kinnoull and all those involved in the Squirrel Accord for what they are doing. He referred to research into the development of an immuno-contraceptive. The research continues to progress well, and I acknowledge the exceptional scientists who are so engaged in this vital work. APHA is working with the UK Squirrel Accord and its donors. The formulation for the vaccine has now been identified and tests are under way with captive grey squirrels to ascertain the longevity of the vaccine and identify any potential side-effects.
I am informed that there are more deer in this country than at any time since the Norman conquest. We believe that the management of deer is clearly best carried out by local deer management groups, so that the natural flora and fauna are kept in balance. My observation is that traditional country people—who care about the land and about wildlife—appreciate that it is all about balance. If something in nature becomes out of balance, problems start to occur, as we are seeing in some areas with corvids and magpies in particular. Deer species such as the muntjac are causing damage because of their prolific breeding. It is important to look at these matters through the Deer Initiative, which brings together local groups to ensure that deer management is sustainable and effective.
We humans have the capacity to do much good. We also have the capacity to do extraordinary harm to the natural world. It is surely the responsibility of all of us to act as good custodians of the natural world and to foster it for future generations. My noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned education. This is an issue about which the next generation feels very strongly. The balance and management of nature and the wise use of land is so important. It requires a collaborative approach at home and abroad between the different UK Administrations and landowners, farmers, non-governmental organisations and members of the public. Songbirds are surely a true glory of our natural heritage. Everyone should be able to enjoy ready access to a better environment with an increasingly healthy songbird population. That is our task and our responsibility. I am so grateful to my noble friend Lord Caithness for ensuring we could debate this.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the British Council Building Young People’s Resilience to Violent Extremism in the Middle East and North Africa, published on 12 December 2017, what are their priorities for preventing and countering violent extremism.
My Lords, I declare an interest as an office holder of the All-Party Group on the British Council. I was a member of a sub-committee of the all-party group which worked under the able chair, David Warburton MP, on putting together a report with my colleagues, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hodgson and Lady Suttie, and, for a period, the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, all of whom are in their places. Together we forged a degree of consensus after receiving a great deal of evidence from witnesses, to whom we are grateful. Our report, which was published last year and formally earlier this year, I hope is a contribution to a debate which will continue to be of considerable importance not only for the United Kingdom but for our allies and partners across the MENA region. That work was ably supported by Siobhan Foster Perkins and Zafran Iqbal, who was at the British Council at the time. Without their support we would not have been able to put together our recommendations and conclusions.
Two weeks ago, 8 million children across the Middle East and North Africa sat their end-of-year school exams. Many will have done so after overcoming significant challenges—displacement, poverty, child labour, poor school transportation, overcrowding, lack of teachers and facilities and low-quality education. One in five of all children across the region live in conflict-affected countries. Those children do not only deserve our admiration but consideration of the role we can play to help them grow up in a safe, stable and prosperous region where they can realise their ambitions.
It might be only a tiny proportion of these young people who become violent as a result of being radicalised, but their violent behaviour has an impact on the wider age group across the whole of the region. The all-party group sub-committee therefore considered the best ways of improving resilience among young people to overcome this and whether our government policy needs to be reviewed. I am pleased that the Minister will be responding to this debate. He commands a great deal of respect not only from myself but across all parts of the House.
Nearly a third of the region’s population is aged between 15 and 29, with a further third aged below that. This demographic momentum, therefore, will last for at least two decades. The phenomenon of some young people using violence as an extension of their extreme views may also now be a long-term issue that requires long-term solutions, given the scale of violent conflict affecting the area. The sub-committee found that there was a need for new thinking. However, often the debate has not been helped by casual terminology. While we found a lack of consensus around definitions and language, we settled on the broad descriptions used by the United Nations on countering violent extremism by focusing on the so-called pull factors of the individual and preventing violent extremism by focusing on the so-called push factors of the wider community. However, even that division is too simplistic. We considered carefully whether we have the correct balance between CVE and PVE. We found that without undermining the security considerations of CVE, once extremism has exhibited itself, the balance should rest upon the priority being on PVE to reduce the risk factors in an individual’s capacity and the society’s ability to reduce vulnerability to violent extremism.
Those risk factors within the society fall within three broad areas—economic, civic and social. The economic factors in the region are stark. Research by UNICEF shows that in 11 League of Arab States countries, the under-18 population stands at approximately 118 million, or 6% of the world’s child population. Of those 118 million, 82 million—70%—live in acute or moderate poverty. There is no evidence to make a direct link between poverty and violent extremism. Nevertheless, countries afflicted by conflict and with such acute economic difficulties often present fertile ground where extreme ideology, and those who use it as a tool, can develop. A further complexity is that we know through research that the majority of the most extreme violent young people have educational qualifications. Simply looking at access to education will therefore not be so revealing. Rather, witnesses told the committee that the type and quality of education available to young people in the region was of the greatest importance.
The risk factors associated with the civic sphere are plain to see for anyone visiting the region. Too many young people see their respective Governments as unresponsive, unrepresentative, corrupt and distant. A body of research presented to the sub-committee suggests that this is likely to be a major continuing factor of risk in the region. The state capture of non-state actors is also very present. Social risk factors often receive the most publicity. The simplistic, often verging on the Islamophobic, characterisation of religious radicalism belies complex and multifaceted issues concerning young peoples’ beliefs, identities and loyalties. Work in Tunisia by the peacebuilding charity Search for Common Ground, which we met over there, shows clearly that young people in the region are not a homogeneous group and that drivers for radicalisation are often localised and differ from one community to another.
Given this highly complex set of circumstances in a deeply troubled region, we found that focusing on upstream activity—in other words, on the building of greater strength and capacity in communities and societies, and on the individual herself or himself—is a more effective route to follow than countering it once it has materialised. It is not, however, the straightforward route. The UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism states that,
“there is no authoritative statistical data on the pathways towards individual radicalization”.
However, we learned of clear evidence of programmes delivered by the British Council itself or by UK-based or international NGOs where interventions to reduce the risk factors for individuals and the community have worked and are continuing to work. I want to put on record my admiration for DfID’s staff and others within the charity sector who are doing sterling work.
The sub-committee made a number of recommendations which we believe would help build on this work, informed by our witnesses and the evidence we received. Our principal conclusion was that there needed to be scaled-up activity in preventing violent extremism along with better co-ordination of effort by both donor and recipient Governments as well as the international NGO community. This reflects our view that while there are many complexities and cross-overs between the push and pull factors in addressing violent extremism, we believe that the principal focus on investing in building the resilience of communities and the individuals living in them is the most effective way to build the capabilities of young people and the stability of their community, so that they reject the proponents of violent extremism and the ideology which they promote. They can also recover more quickly from violent extremism when it manifests itself in the community or their country.
I cannot do justice to the 28 conclusions and recommendations in the report, nor will I try to rattle them all off for the benefit of the Committee, but I know that neither will the Minister be able to respond in detail to them all today. I wish to highlight some which I feel are important, and I am sure that colleagues will highlight those that they consider to be the most important to them. First, relating to the risk factors within the economic and education systems in the region, we found a need for much greater co-ordination among its education ministries on data, statistics, skills gaps and curriculum reform. We believe that an annual MENA education forum, supported by the British Council and the Government, would have merit.
We also saw many examples of excellent programmes to support young people, but there has been insufficient consideration of how they can be scaled up. That is not easy but it is necessary. In the civic space, we saw that the benefits would be much greater collaboration between NGOs and Governments on the rollout and use of participation programmes, and we suggested consideration of a MENA-wide national citizen service. In the social sphere, we recommended that more work should be done to identify individual risk communities within countries and to share this data.
A recommendation to our Government is that they should set out a clear UK strategy for and approach to preventing violent extremism and offer more clarity on what programmes they fund and why. To address what we found to be the continuing lack of an evidence base on effectiveness, we called for donors to invest more effort into ensuring that programmes are evidence-based and carefully evaluated, with their impact being properly judged, and to publish the lessons learned for future programming.
We argued for much more work on the violent extremism theory of change and seeking consensus based on a much greater level of sharing good practice. To help bring this about, we called for a violent extremism community of practice, and I am delighted that the British Council has accepted this recommendation and will be convening it soon. I hope that the Government will offer their full support. This could be extremely valuable and, I believe, is the first of its kind. We also recommended that the Government should encourage other Governments in the region to commit to a whole-government response rather than the agenda being led by the security or interior ministries. Finally, we believe that all of this could be enhanced by the UK promoting a PVE charter which would show consistency of language and a consensus on the effectiveness of interventions, and would work in parallel with the UN.
I returned from the region at lunchtime today. Every time I visit the area I see small pockets of hope in a deeply troubled region. Those 8 million children who sat their exams will be just as anxious as our children will be later in the summer when they get their results. What our kids take for granted in this country, we should make every effort to ensure that children in the MENA region can also take for granted: a safe, open and tolerant society in which their ambitions can be fulfilled.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for securing today’s debate and so ably introducing it. As he said, like him, I was a member of the inquiry into building young people’s resilience to violent extremism in MENA, and I thank the British Council for setting up the inquiry and those who worked on it.
The rise of extremism in recent years has been shocking in terms of both what has happened in the Middle East and the attacks that have taken place in Europe. Daesh and its intention to establish a caliphate had a devastating effect in the Middle East, with its brutal, barbaric acts traumatising local populations. In some places, as with the Yazidi and Christian populations, its operations could be described as genocide. Sadly, it is not the only actor in the Middle East committing such crimes and, in this global, interconnected world, what happens in another country runs the risk of affecting us all.
This is a subject that we need to keep high on the agenda. Although Daesh appears to have been defeated, we should not be lulled into considering that it has been overcome. While many are in prison in Iraq, many thousands of fighters streamed out of Raqqa, apparently just allowed to go, and we are already seeing the effects in places such as Afghanistan.
Without doubt, Daesh’s message was targeting young people, described to me by one journalist as being an enticing message of “glory, God and gold”, drawing people from many countries, including those from Europe and the UK. While considering how to address this in other countries, we also need to consider how to address it domestically.
The inquiry took a hard and fundamental look at why some young people had been attracted to these causes. As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, highlighted, we identified three areas of risk factors: economic, civic and social. In many countries from which the young were recruited, there was a lack of opportunity and employment, corruption and weak government, and the young felt marginalised.
We live in a time when there are more refugees and IDPs than at any other time since World War II. I am sure that others here, like me, have visited refugee camps. It is a sobering experience. People have fled with nothing, and those with nothing have nothing to lose. These places are breeding grounds for radicalisation. But the majority of refugees and IDPs are not in camps; they are hidden among the population, hard to identify, hard to reach and thus hard to help. Many of them will be refugees and IDPs for years, either because of conflict in the country, because their homes have been destroyed or because they are stuck with no means of return.
As we have heard, youth is not a homogeneous group. The political urgency for Governments to respond to the threat of global terrorism is at times in danger of producing unnuanced, counterproductive policy responses. It is suggested that systematically addressing exclusion is one of the best means to prevent violent extremism.
We must not forget the particular challenges that women and girls face in contexts of violent extremism, because of the exacerbation of pre-existing inequalities and exclusion from decision-making. I declare an interest and draw attention to the latest report of GAPS—Gender Action for Peace and Security—Prioritise Peace: Challenging Approaches to Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism from a Women, Peace and Security Perspective. Addressing underlying drivers of violent conflict from a gender perspective is essential to building the resilience of young people. Cultural and educational programmes can engage young people in at-risk communities and make a difference to addressing the underlying economic, civil and social risk factors. I am pleased that following the inquiry the British Council is expanding and improving its resilience programming to new countries in the Middle East and north Africa, especially in the areas of soft skills and entrepreneurship. What support are Her Majesty’s Government providing to the British Council in this expansion?
Time is short, so I will touch briefly on communication. Daesh recruited very effectively on social media. What messages do we, as a society, put out? Are we welcoming, open-minded and inclusive? Do we counter the alluring messages of the young by pointing out the advantages of living in an open, democratic country? What image do they get of us when reading our press?
It is easy to focus on the negative, but Gareth Evans’s quote in the report reminds us that for every case of extremism there are innumerably more cases of people from different cultures and backgrounds living harmoniously together. We need to celebrate, foster and speak up about this inclusivity: it is a strong narrative that counteracts the divisive messages of the few. Once again, therefore, I give enormous thanks to the British Council for setting up this inquiry. We should be fantastically proud of the work that they do around the world.
My Lords, I confess to being wary of the practice of certain commercial groups that provide secretarial help for busy parliamentarians, with a view to ensuring that the resulting report contains conclusions and recommendations that accord with their interests and image. This report is decisively not in that category. The British Council strives successfully to promote the public interest by soft power initiatives, and has an excellent track record in MENA. I therefore congratulate my fellow parliamentarians who produced this valuable report, which is both a helpful source of information and a stimulus to all who work in the field.
All our European partners wrestle with the same problem of addressing young people. President Macron’s initiative, announced yesterday, on national service for 16 year-olds in France, may be seen in the same context. The starting point is surely that there is no simple or short-term answer to violent extremism, and it is useful not just to examine the message and the messenger but to go upstream and look at the overall environment—and, yes, to examine the effectiveness of these initiatives.
The choice of Morocco and Tunisia to examine is interesting: both emerged positively from the Arab spring—almost alone, save Jordan—with reformist Governments and relatively democratic constitutions. It is puzzling, however, that both Morocco and Tunisia send a disproportionate number of recruits to Daesh in Iraq and Syria and to terrorist groups in Europe. I was saddened to read in the report that, in spite of so many positive factors, the majority of young people interviewed in Morocco wanted to leave their country for better opportunities, and not to return to contribute to their country’s future.
I make a few observations on the report, in a constructive spirit. Others have covered the same ground as this report with broadly similar conclusions. I think particularly of the five UNDP reports on Arab human development published between 2002 and 2009, which are still valid, particularly on the role of women. The group might also have consulted our parliamentary colleague, Liam Byrne MP, who has written persuasively on the subject.
The authors might also have asked why some countries, or parts of countries, are more prone to violent extremism. It cannot just be a booming youth population, since the whole of Nigeria would then suffer, not just the north. It cannot just be socioeconomic problems, as in many ways Zimbabwe, for example, fares less well than MENA countries but does not have the same extremism. This suggests a religious link, which, perhaps because of the sensitivities involved, the authors chose to exclude from their remit. Surely we need trusted, local religious leaders on board. I note that Morocco, for example, has set up a centre for training moderate local imams.
Much of the same ground has already been covered by international organisations. The authors acknowledge the 2016 UN plan of action, but not the work of the European Union and the Council of Europe. There must surely be an exchange of best practice and a co-ordination of efforts across civil society to prevent an insular approach to this problem. In March this year, after publication of the report, a relevant major symposium was hosted by Birmingham University and that initiative is worth examining. Investment in human rights, the rule of law and democracy are among the soft power tools with which the British Council has already made a positive impact, together with the work of the arts, sport and technical and language training.
Finally, young people need to be listened to if they are to be valued. The upstream work set out in the report is wholly relevant to our national interest. If we do not go to them, they will come to us, including in destructive ways.
My Lord, I too would like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed on securing this extremely important debate. If I may say so, the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, illustrates the amount of thinking that needs to be done on this subject. It affects this country, as well as beyond. I declare an interest as a vice-chair of the APPG for the British Council. I refer noble Lords to my interests in the register in relation to my work in the MENA region, as well as to my visits to the region in the context of this inquiry.
Like my noble friend Lord Purvis, I should like to thank David Warburton MP, who so eagerly chaired the inquiry and to pay particular tribute to Siobhan Foster-Perkins and Zafran Iqbal from the British Council—who are present this afternoon—for their work in tirelessly steering this inquiry towards its conclusions, and for doing so much of the spadework in producing the excellent report we are discussing.
At the beginning of this British Council APPG inquiry, we spent quite a lot of time analysing the nature and causes of violent extremism. The reasons are multiple and complex. Although unemployment and poverty can be major factors, there have also been examples of perpetrators coming from fairly middle-class backgrounds. Indeed, the causes often have as much to do with issues of identity and psychology—often relating to a background of trauma and mental illness—as they do with economic impoverishment or religious fanaticism.
One of the core findings of the inquiry, as other noble Lords have said, is that an effective approach to tackling violent extremism should pay particular attention to programmes and interventions that tackle the underlying causes of radicalisation at source. In other words, prevention is better than cure and interventions to build resilience in potentially vulnerable communities are a much more effective approach.
The APPG report makes several specific recommendations on targeting economic, civic and social factors. Given the time constraints this afternoon, I shall concentrate my remarks on the importance of education and educational reform. It is perhaps a paradox that in the extremely well-educated populations of north Africa, unemployment is particularly high among the graduate population. That alienation can become particularly dangerous in a highly educated, but seemingly underappreciated section of society.
I remember speaking to a young Tunisian university lecturer at the British Council’s annual Hammamet conference, who explained to me his frustration that there was such a mismatch between the education system provided and the skills currently required for his country to move forwards. Research shows that critical thinking and the development of soft skills can play a pivotal role in building resilience to violent extremism. Projects such as the British Council’s Young Arab Voices programme, which does so much to assist young people in their English language skills, while simultaneously developing their critical thinking and debating skills, are the kind of low-cost, positive initiative that can make a serious difference on the ground.
Increasing funding for young leadership programmes, such as the excellent Chevening scholarships, allows young people from the region to benefit. I hope the Government will give serious consideration to the report’s conclusion on increasing the intake of Chevening scholars from the MENA region.
Can the Minister say in his concluding remarks whether the Government support the conclusion in the report that the British Council should be supported by the Government to play a stronger role in education reform in the region—not least through additional funding for specific work of this type, working closely with the Ministries of Education in the region?
In my remaining remarks I will say a few words about anticipating future areas of recruitment for violent extremism, rather than, as so often sadly happens, reacting post fact to where the recruiters have already done their work. We know it is not a coincidence that countries with high levels of conflict and large numbers of displaced people and refugees, as well as the refugee camps themselves—like the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, I have also visited these refugee camps in Jordan—can be fertile recruiting grounds for violent extremism. What measures are the Government taking right now in Iraq and Syria, as well as in the camps situated in neighbouring Jordan and Turkey, to support young people and to provide training and skills development for alternative pathways? Finally, what plans do the Government have to enhance British Council and other programmes in regions such as central Asia, where support now to help to develop young people’s skills, as well as for educational reform, could have such a beneficial impact?
My Lords, I follow all other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for initiating the debate and thanking him and his colleagues for all the hard work that went into this most valuable report. I declare an interest as an adviser and participant in an outfit called the European Foundation for Democracy, which is based in Belgium. It was instrumental in being set up by a now deceased friend of mine, Anne-Marie Lizin, a Belgian politician who, 30 years ago, was in north Africa promoting the very values we are trying to promote today. Part of that is that a European approach is needed to what is largely a European problem. It is not just a British problem. The European Foundation for Democracy believes very much in having a cross-cultural, cross-country approach.
I and the foundation welcome the report. We acknowledge that fundamental religious ideological beliefs are among the pull factors that encourage radicalisation of young people in this region, but we could have somewhat stronger recommendations on cultural and educational interventions that could be tailored alongside those in the report to help us to tackle the problem.
Although economic, civic and social factors play a role in violent radicalisation and recruitment processes, we should not forget the significant role played by ideology. Religious leaders and groups play a significant role in those communities. Their interpretation of religion is a key factor in driving people towards taking radical or moderate positions. Research shows that prominent jihadis come from the background of non-violent Islamism, the former exploiting grievances that are not necessarily legitimate as they can promote a utopian, sharia-based state approach that goes against the principles of the rule of law and fundamental rights. In such cases, rather than addressing the grievances and compromising on them, we should be promoting alternative narratives. For instance, I draw attention to the first draft of the Tunisian constitution, which mentions the complementarity of women with men, but after consultation and debate this was changed to the equality between men and women. That was done within that society as a result of debate about the way the different genders should be viewed, all within an Islamist viewpoint. It is possible.
We share the aim of devising programmes to strengthen democratic accountability and good governance and to promote debate and dialogue. To implement those, we should recognise and be ready to counter the ideologies that act against such values. The report rightly focuses on prevention. To do that, we cannot focus only on violent extremism. We also need to take a step back and look at non-violent, extremist ideologies. How is it that among the millions of poor and marginalised individuals from all over the world, some—quite a small minority—decided to embrace violence? We need to try to tease out the ideological triggers so that many people who personally believe in extremist ideology do not then carry that forward into violent action.
I have already mentioned to the Minister that I wrote to him on 13 June, asking whether he would meet representatives from the European Foundation for Democracy to explore how we can all work better together towards our common goal of a peaceful and prosperous community of equal citizens and well-adjusted families in a tolerant UK, Europe and world. I hope that he will agree to such a meeting, because I finish where I started, by saying that this is a European problem. We have much to learn also from each other and I hope that we will do that in combating this difficulty, which faces so many of us.
My Lords, my entry in the Lords’ register notes a number of engagements that would have an impact on this topic. I mention my role as vice-president of UNICEF UK and its role in supporting children and young people throughout this region. I deeply regret not being able to continue as a member of the committee throughout the inquiry, but I am delighted to see the report and the recommendations not only published but welcomed so widely over recent months.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on securing this debate and also for his comprehensive and passionate introduction, which I will try not to duplicate in any way because he says these things far better than I ever could. However, I associate myself with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, about the role of women and girls and the need to have that dimension central to any strategy to try to prevent the growth of and actions resulting from violent extremism.
In the past couple of years or so, I have spent time in communities in Mombasa, Kenya where young people were being radicalised and recruited by al-Shabaab to go to Somalia and where programmes were diverting them from that cause, as well as more positively into productive, economic activity; in schools and prisons in northern Nigeria where similar attempts by Boko Haram and others were being countered by positive economic, social and cultural initiatives; in the IDP and refugee camps in Iraq—the issue of internally displaced persons there should resonate with us, as politics and conflict associated with identity clashes have resulted in the mass movement of people inside countries without the international support that refugees have—and, most recently, in Gambia following a visit to Sicily last summer, where I discovered that the third highest country of origin for the young people going on the boats across the Mediterranean was Gambia—such a small country—which I went to in February. I spoke to young people there about why they start off on that horrific journey: up through north Africa, to the hell that exists in the camps in Libya, and then the boats across the Mediterranean before they are then mostly—at least culturally—rejected in Europe as they arrive.
I wanted to bring to this debate a number of things that come from that experience. The first—I believe this very strongly—is that no one is born a terrorist or born a violent extremist. You cannot bomb or, through violent means, attack the ideas or grievances that have led people into that course of action, whether it is inadvertently or deliberately. The idea that we can in some way go to war against these young people and force them to change their minds and ideas by getting rid of their grievances through violent means ourselves is just wrong. We have to understand that we have to inspire and engage these young people if we are to change the course of action that they have adopted as a way of life.
My second point is that when I was a teacher I had a head teacher who used to tell the kids every year in the opening school assembly about stickability—that was his key word. He wanted them, whatever their level of ability or interest, to stick at it all year—to have stickability. I think we need more stickability in our international programmes in this area. I do not believe that one, two or even three-year programmes change the lives of adolescents. Donors across the piece, whether they are working in schools or prisons or trying to deal with the movement of young people across west and east Africa through north Africa to Europe, need to have more consistency and a more long-term approach to really make a difference.
My third and final point relates to peace building. When these countries go through a democratic transition, that is, yes, a moment of hope but also one of extreme vulnerability. Working with those young people to inspire and engage them is important but the international community also needs to work with Governments, institutions and organisations so that they are more stable, more open, more tolerant and more able to deal with the divisions in their societies. Our support internationally for these transitions to more democratic societies is not yet good enough and needs further attention.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Purvis for bringing us this topic today and the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group for producing this thoughtful and extensive report. I pay tribute to all that the British Council does around the world. I am currently hoping that we can encourage the British Council back into Angola, but here we are looking further north, at the Middle East and north Africa.
A number of years ago, DfID shifted its focus to the poorer sub-Saharan African countries, but we now see the importance of investment in what the EU terms our near neighbourhood. What happens in the MENA region is important in itself but also has a direct effect on Europe, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, emphasised. Discontent, conflict and poverty in the region have been driving migration into Europe. Violence in the region has spilled over into our continent.
Yet, as others have said, there was great optimism and excitement when the Arab spring swept through the region. Regimes that seemed completely entrenched were suddenly overthrown. That enthusiasm for what might have seemed possible turned sour as those who rose up, divided and inexperienced as they were, were not well placed to take advantage of the overthrow of dictatorial regimes. It enabled others to take their place and made regimes very wary of similar movements. That can be clearly seen in Egypt; Libya descended into bloody chaos; and Saudi Arabia clamped down on dissent. Some positive developments can be seen in some countries, including Tunisia and Morocco, but things are very fragile, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, noted.
It is excellent that the British Council has sought to engage across these countries. Young people, better educated than their parents, with expectations that their lives would be different and with the information they could now glean from social media—something that had contributed to the rapid spread of the Arab spring—have often found that their opportunities are in fact extremely limited. Unemployment was and remains unacceptably high and, in such circumstances, discontent and disconnect are fostered.
The report emphasises that violent extremism needs to be tackled upstream. This is surely compelling, although it poses huge challenges, since only the thorough-going social, political and economic reform of these countries would be likely to achieve this. The economic challenges of the demographic youth bulge, high youth unemployment and the serious education and skills deficits to which the report points are difficult to tackle without huge investment. Tinkering around the edges will not do this. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, is surely right about long-term engagement—what he calls stickability. I note the need for research into the wider causes of extremism and how best to tackle them. Can the Minister fill us in on both the UK and the EU’s financial contribution to north Africa? I am not asking for the rest of the Middle East to be added in, as the huge investment into Syria and the Palestinian Territories will obscure what investment is going into north Africa.
The report concludes that fostering the economic growth of the region, encouraging investment and improving the jobs market are vital. So, too, is investing in education and skills, including for women and girls, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, rightly noted. The report emphasises the importance of higher education for the already educated Syrian refugees. Can the noble Lord comment on what is being done in regard to this group?
Clearly, corruption and injustice not only undermine young people’s view of their countries and their futures but make it difficult to encourage inward investment. Can the noble Lord tell us where the MENA countries are in the ease-of-doing-business tables—maybe the ones particularly across north Africa?
As we know from the United Kingdom—for example, as we seek to tackle destructive knife crime—systematic engagement is vital. Even so, young people do not necessarily calibrate things as we might expect. Getting them safely to their mid-20s helps. Serious engagement on identity politics and ideology, as my noble friend Lady Suttie emphasised, is clearly vital. It is not a simple economic matter. I was very glad to receive from the British Council its full response to the report. It is clearly well placed to play a key role here and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for introducing this debate. I also thank all his colleagues on the British Council APPG for an excellent report highlighting the critical role of soft power in preventing and countering violent extremism in the Middle East and north Africa. The report makes a powerful case for tackling extremism overseas at its source by confronting the fundamental factors that increase people’s susceptibility to extremist ideology: economic problems, civic problems and social factors.
In an earlier debate on Sudan—not many noble Lords present would have had the opportunity to hear it, but the Minister did—I stressed that it is important to support civil society. It is critical to sustaining meaningful peace and dialogue for the future. I will do the same in a later debate—the one immediately following this one—because democracy is not limited to parliamentarians. Civil society, including trade unions, women’s groups and faith groups, is often the most important defender of human rights. It is the abuses of human rights that often catapult people into extremist behaviour.
In Sudan, UK aid has funded a £1 million British Council project to strengthen,
“cultural and educational development by building skills and capacity”.
As we have heard in this debate, the effect of promoting projects that build skills and support economic growth, encourage civic behaviour and strengthen community ties among young people can significantly counteract the underlying environment in which extremism is currently able to flourish.
I totally agree with the report’s conclusions that all our organisations carrying out this range of work, including the British Council, should collaborate to build a joint base of evidence of its impact to determine which interventions work best in which contexts. I certainly agree that the UK Government should work with the British Council to scale up its cultural, educational and civil society programmes in the region and I hope that the Minister will respond to the questions in that regard.
I have just a couple of questions to raise. In particular, I want to focus on the £1 billion Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, used by the Government to finance programmes in areas of conflict and instability. Concerns have been raised by groups such as Reprieve, as well as the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, about the unpublished spending of the fund. According to both, some CSSF programmes could have led to human rights abuses, which in turn might spur extremism. Will the Minister undertake to provide greater transparency on the fund and perhaps ensure that we utilise it to promote exactly those programmes which we have been talking about and which are encouraged in the APPG report?
The other element that the APPG report has highlighted is climate change. Both CAFOD and the ODI have reported about the level of spending in developing countries on fossil fuels. What steps are the Government taking to ensure investment in sustainable renewable energy, particularly by DfID and the CDC? I am pleased to see the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, here. I hope that in the next debate he will pick up these points.
The use of education as a tool to tackle extremism is well established and is discussed heavily in the APPG report. The Global Partnership for Education has provided grants totalling $8.4 billion since 2003. Unfortunately, the UK’s recent pledge to the GPE was lower than expected and attracted criticism from a number of development charities. I hope that the Minister recognises—I am that sure he does, bearing in mind what he said in the previous debate—the role that education plays in tackling extremism. I hope that he will respond more positively on the need to back up such programmes abroad and to give more backing to the GPE.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, for tabling this debate, for his valuable contributions in the production of this report and for the role he plays within the scope of international development and foreign affairs. I welcome our exchanges during Commonwealth Week. I also pay tribute to the helpful work of the sub-committee of the All-Parliamentary Group for the British Council, whose report we are debating today. I add my sincere thanks to all noble Lords who have taken part in this excellent debate for their insightful contributions. While I have limited time, I shall seek to cover most of the issues, and on anything that I am not able to cover I will write to noble Lords.
Let me set out the Government’s approach to countering violent extremism. Everyone normally declares an interest before they begin, and mine is a ministerial interest. I was the first Minister for Countering Extremism appointed under the Cameron Administration in the Home Office. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, talked about it being a European challenge; I contextualise it as a global challenge. That means that we have to work on global solutions.
While the threat from Islamic extremism receives a great deal of attention, the challenge also remains from extremism of other types. The rise of the extreme right that we have seen not only in this country but elsewhere, particularly in Europe, is also extremely troubling—and, yes, it also influences young minds. We must not lose focus on that. It is therefore right that the Government’s approach seeks to tackle all forms of extremism in all its ugly guises. This poisonous ideology uses narratives which often seek to divide societies, communities, faiths and people. It causes hatred among communities but often appeals to the most vulnerable young people in society.
The United Kingdom Government take a comprehensive approach to countering extremism. As noble Lords know, our priorities include preventing extremism at its source. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, in particular, will be pleased to know that we stand with and work with all our international partners and, importantly, civil society. An all-of-society response is required to meet this challenge.
Noble Lords will also be aware that on 4 June the Government launched their revised Contest strategy, which follows a fundamental review of all aspects of counterterrorism and its drivers. Violent extremism leads to terrorism and often, vulnerable minds are influenced to commit these heinous acts and crimes. We have an all-of-government approach, whether it is through the Home Office or ourselves—I am the Minister responsible for countering violent extremism, and for PV and counterterrorism internationally. We work hand in glove with our partners in the Home Office and across the Department of International Development. You can see how much we work in tandem. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, has joined us for this debate as well.
At this point, I want to quote the DfID Secretary. In a speech in April, when she talked about the Government’s approach, she said that,
“we will go further as part of cross-government efforts to directly tackle national security threats such as conflict, terrorism, violent extremism and organised crime. We will create new country-level programming targeted at specific communities and locations vulnerable to extremism”.
The Government are taking that joined-up approach in tackling this important issue. We share the view expressed by the APPG sub-committee in its report that it is vital to focus on the underlying causes of extremism. We need to tackle those causes, which often lead to young people resorting to violence.
Overseas, a key part of the work of the British Government is supporting projects that are designed to build young people’s resilience to extremism. Let me assure all noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, that we will continue to strengthen our close work with the British Council to create opportunities, build trust and provide positive pathways for young people to play a positive role in their communities—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. Too often, the emphasis is on negatives. We should also turn the lens to the positive changes that take place. In Syria, the FCO has supported the British Council’s Active Citizens programme—I am sure that my noble friend Lady Hodgson will be pleased to learn that—which gives young people the tools to make a positive difference in the marginalised communities in which they live. It includes the development in Syria of networks of young leaders, who will maintain peace between different communities.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked about the evidence base when we act in this regard. Let me assure noble Lords that the Government draw on the latest evidence in the design and implementation of the programme. Indeed, DfID specifically looks at that evidence base for initiated programmes. On CVE, we are looking at understanding and addressing the context for specific drivers of violent extremism; that is being shared across government.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about the CSSF and its funding and transparency. I am sure he will acknowledge that where the Government see that these funds have been used in a manner that is not conducive to the resilience we want to build in communities—for example, in Syria, where we are lending support to organisations such as the White Helmets in helping to build resilience and human rights accountability—we will suspend that funding and carry out a fully comprehensive investigation.
In Morocco, we have also supported young people in marginalised communities to become active community members. As a result of our work, we have seen real progress in neighbourhood associations, empowering young people and encouraging them to build bonds of friendship—not just through what one would term “traditional channels”. We must look for broader solutions, whether through the arts, theatre, or—let us not forget, as the World Cup is under way—sport.
What are the drivers of radicalisation? I want to give a personal reflection. I grew up as a young Muslim, going to a church school and learning about different communities—some of all faiths, some of none. In meeting this challenge, we often pose ourselves the obvious question of why today’s generation is impacted on when other generations—such as our parents’ generation, if I were to personalise it—did not struggle with this. The challenge starts in the home, but so does the solution. We must also seek to improve capacities, not just in UK homes but internationally, to help parents to be part of the solution. They cannot be excluded from this.
As articulated so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, this requires a one-community solution. That means bringing in communities and faith leaders, not leaving them marginalised, and making them feel that they do not just have a buy-in to the process but are intrinsic to it. That is why, as noble Lords will know—again, the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, will know this in the context of Syria and Iraq—we launched national action plans with other countries that focus on the issues of gender equality. Excellent work is being done across government on the women, peace and security agenda, where the MoD, DfID and the Foreign Office come together to build resilience, communities and opportunities in such countries. It is part and parcel of rolling out better solutions to tackling and countering violent extremism—indeed, preventing it. However, as the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, so aptly put it, it is about identifying those communities and the young people themselves. I was with the noble Lord in Gambia, where we saw how young people must be intrinsic to building the solutions. I assure noble Lords that our commitment to that is absolutely 100%
I turn to other countries. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and my noble friend Lady Hodgson asked about specific programmes. In Tunisia, we are working to improve the economic prospects of young people in a number of ways. We are funding an initiative to support young entrepreneurs by providing training and mentoring, to help them succeed. As the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said, employment must be part of the solution. We are also supporting a pilot project aimed at preventing the problem of young Tunisians dropping out of school early, and at re-integrating those who already have. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, mentioned that 100,000 young Tunisians are impacted in this way each year. We must focus on helping their early learning. I have three children of my own. Children are receptive; their minds are like a sponge. However, I also echo the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who spoke about coercion in the way we teach young children. The approach, tone and method through which young children are taught are equally important.
In Lebanon, we are supporting improvements in education for refugee children, to build their resilience against extremism. In the light of our findings about the link between conflict and radicalisation, in Jordan we have been supporting a Mercy Corps project to teach conflict management techniques in 30 communities where Jordanians and Syrians live together. This reduces the risk of intercommunity tensions and marginalisation. We are also working internationally. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked about a PVE charter. I would welcome a further discussion with him in that regard, but I assure him that we are working closely with the UN Secretary-General’s initiatives on PVE and extremism. There may be an opportunity to see how we can tie this together.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, asked about UK and EU financial contributions. The Strengthening Resilience in MENA programme represents about €3.3 million over 2015 to 2017, but I will write specifically to my noble friend and the noble Baroness about that. We also have a very successful project in Tunisia, a three-year programme funded by the cross-government North Africa Good Governance Fund, which is one of the alternative pathways that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, mentioned. I totally align myself with the sentiments she expressed about the Young Arab Voices programme. In the interests of time, I will write to the noble Baroness about specific support to the British Council in areas such as central Asia.
I have received my noble friend Lord Balfe’s letter. We will be responding accordingly and I look forward to discussing his proposals in more detail. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, the Government are investing quite specifically in programmes addressing countering extremism in Iraq and Syria, and our project work is well known.
In conclusion, I concur totally with the sentiments of noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, knows my view on this: education is central to everything we do, but it is not just about educating young people. What is important is what we teach them, how the education is delivered and who delivers it. I thank all members of the all-party group for their excellent report and look forward to working with them on this international challenge, which requires an international solution. I remain ever optimistic; together we can defeat the scourge of extremism as it besets us.
International Widows Day
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I declare an interest as founder and chairman trustee of the Loomba Foundation and as the main proponent and instigator of International Widows Day, which takes place on 23 June each year. This is a very timely debate, coming just after that date this year. International Widows Day was launched by the Loomba Foundation here at the House of Lords in 2005. After a tireless campaign, the United Nations adopted 23 June as UN International Widows Day at its 65th General Assembly in 2010.
Now in its 13th year—its eighth under the auspices of the UN—the day is one for coming together and advocating for the rights of widows worldwide; it is a global day of action, raising the profile of widows and the awareness of their plight. From Kenya to Nigeria, and even in Australia, events have taken place to mark the day and give widows a voice. The Loomba Foundation held events in Delhi, attended by India’s Vice-President and its Union Minister for Law and Justice, and in London, attended by the noble Lord, Lord McFall, Senior Deputy Speaker of the House, and other dignitaries in the River Room. I was very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Bates, Minister of State for International Development, also joined us. I thank him.
It may appear strange to some to have a day focused solely on widows, when International Women’s Day on 8 March covers all women, but there are very many reasons why 23 June was granted official status by the UN. In the early days of the Loomba Foundation there was little awareness of what was happening to widows—“invisible, forgotten sufferers”, as our 2010 book on the subject described them. The book, written with the sole purpose of bringing the issues that widows face to the attention of the UN, showed why such a day is needed. It is the precursor to the Global Widows Report 2015.
Back in 2010, there was no mention of widows and the problems they suffer in the millennium development goals. These problems are humanitarian issues on a global scale, from ostracism by their communities to ritualistic cleansing that is really nothing other than rape by a family member or by the community. Widows are often blamed for bringing bad luck to the family and for causing the death of their husband. Land is taken away from them and they are left without any means of providing for their children and dependants. Their dignity is stripped away and at what is a difficult and traumatic time in their lives, on the death of their husbands, they are often left destitute, without the moral and practical support needed to stabilise their lives. These rituals and cultural practices happen in many countries in Africa, south Asia and South America and in many other developing countries. It is for these reasons that the UN recognised that widows should receive special status, due to the double discrimination they face—not only because they are women but because they are widows facing even worse trials and tribulations.
I am pleased to say that today widows are being considered more thoughtfully by Governments, NGOs, stakeholders and global institutions. For example, the Supreme Court of India is currently considering a petition about the welfare of widows. Some 10,000 widows from all over India wrote to the Prime Minister for International Widows Day this year, asking for a widow’s pension. Another example is of a philanthropist in Nigeria who has announced a widows’ economic and empowerment project worth $500,000, while an NGO called Helpline Foundation for the Needy in Abuja has offered 5,000 widows interest-free loans to start businesses.
Awareness of the plight of widows and their children has increased since International Widows Day was established. I feel strongly that without more progress and action to tackle the issues that widows face, it is unlikely that the SDGs will be fulfilled by 2030. The UN, recognising this point, urges Governments to undertake:
“Programmes and policies for ending violence against widows and their children, poverty alleviation, education and other support to widows of all ages”,
especially in the context of action plans to accelerate achieving the SDGs.
Why is it important to consider the SDGs in relation to widows at a time when so much has been achieved in alleviating poverty and on other elements of the SDGs? Well, their numbers are increasing. As the Global Widows Report shows, since 2010 their numbers have risen, in particular due to conflict. The estimated number of widows in 2010 was more than 237 million, but that number had significantly increased by 9% to more than 258 million in 2015. More importantly, it recorded that:
“All regions of the world showed an increase”.
Three years later, with many conflicts going on, it is not hard to imagine that these numbers are still on the rise. The UN reports that:
“Vast numbers of women are widowed due to armed conflict”,
“In some parts of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, it is reported that around 50 per cent of women are widows, while there are an estimated three million widows in Iraq and over 70,000 in Kabul, Afghanistan”.
The World Widows Report for 2015, published by the Loomba Foundation and presented to the UN Secretary General and the Prime Minister of India, showed that there is a lack of reliable information on widows in many countries, including the UK. This lack of information underlines the low value placed on issues relating to widows and their children. For International Widows Day, I call on the British Government to examine and monitor the treatment of widows and their children in developing countries, especially with reference to local customs and traditions that discriminate against these women and hold them back from leading fulfilling lives.
I would like to ask the Minister what the Government are doing to promote International Widows Day and to help with the points I have raised. Widows need education and empowerment to make them self-reliant, and thus give them the dignity they deserve. Widows have done nothing wrong and in their moment of sorrow we should stand by them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for calling for this debate and pay tribute to the work of the Loomba Foundation as it works to highlight the specific needs of widows. Losing a partner will often be the most traumatic experience a person faces and can lead to detrimental effects on a person’s mental and physical health.
For many of the estimated 258 million widows globally, this grief and loss can be coupled with crushing poverty and persecution. For the estimated 584 million children of these women, this poverty can be extremely difficult to escape and can significantly affect the prosperity of the next generation. Around 11% of the world’s population live in extreme poverty, but globally almost 15% of widows live in extreme poverty where they are unable to meet their basic needs. The number of widows and the situation widows find themselves in are often symptomatic of wider issues in their society, and an effective response cannot fail to consider this within a wider context.
Countries where the number of widows is the highest are those scarred, as the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, has just said, by significant past or current conflict, for example Afghanistan and Ukraine. The Legatum Prosperity Index clearly demonstrates this—I refer to my interests as set out in the register. It shows that a lack of safety and security in a country is the most significant barrier to development and prosperity. The countries at the bottom of the index are those, such as Yemen, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Afghanistan, which have experienced significant conflict. For many women recently widowed in conflict, their situation will be compounded by the effects of that ongoing conflict. Many will become refugees and be at serious risk of being trafficked; 71% of the detected victims of human trafficking are women and girls, and it is known that traffickers prey on women, such as recent widows, who are not accompanied by men and find themselves in vulnerable situations. Many trafficked women may have started their journey as a refugee fleeing war, having lost their partner.
It is also no accident that many of the countries which find themselves in the bottom third of the Legatum Prosperity Index are among those with the poorest record on women’s rights, education and economic empowerment. It is evident that a nation cannot fully reach its potential when only half of its human capital is empowered. When women are unable to access education, are unable to join or strongly discouraged from joining, the workforce and their ability to own or inherit property is diminished, it is unsurprising that the loss of their spouse is devastating. In Yemen, women make up less than 8% of the workforce; in Syria, it is 14%. It is unsurprising therefore that being widowed in those nations compounds an existing economic issue by removing the main source of income with little recourse to making a living in a way that their society accepts. According to UN data, in 28% of developing countries, existing statutory and customary laws do not guarantee women the same inheritance rights as men, and many more countries have societal norms that hinder them.
When women lack rights and equality when their husband is alive, they are even less likely to be afforded them when he dies or is killed. Where widows are the most stigmatised, women are generally stigmatised, so the situation is significantly exacerbated by the additional stigma of widowhood. The Loomba Foundation’s work to empower widows by developing skills is one of the ways in which we can ensure that women’s lives do not spiral into poverty with the loss of their husband.
Attitudes across the world are slowly beginning to shift, however, as the economic sense of women’s empowerment becomes clear. During the genocide in Rwanda, more than 250,000 women were horrifically raped, but now 64% of parliamentarians in that nation are women—the highest proportion of any Parliament in the world. Women across Rwanda played a vital role in rebuilding the country. Gender rights are enshrined in its constitution and changes in law have given women the right to inherit land, share assets with their spouse and obtain credit. This is a key example, which other countries should follow, of the need for and potential of women and widows in rebuilding post-conflict societies.
It must be recognised that the journey to prosperity for nations has to be one of lifting all their peoples and empowering all members of society. The social and economic potential of women and widows globally is enormous. We must make sure that it is harnessed.
My Lords, I should note my entries in the Lords’ register, including my role as vice-president of UNICEF UK and my support for the Welsh-based charity, Positive Women, which of course works with widows.
I acknowledge the remarkable role of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, not just in securing this debate for another year to ensure that we recognise International Widows Day here in your Lordships’ House but for the incredible way in which, over the years, he pioneered, championed and then delivered this recognition of the importance of the position faced by so many widows around the world. He first established the day without the support of the UN and then made sure that the UN came in behind it, so that it has become a global phenomenon. His courage and determination is inspiring to me and I am delighted to take part in this debate today, in solidarity with his efforts.
I want to focus my remarks on young widows. There is an incredible amount of data and important analysis in the report. The speeches by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, have outlined a lot of the detail in the overall picture and I do not want to duplicate them. But I am struck by the fact that in a world where one in five girls will be married before the age of 18, and where many of them—perhaps a majority—will be forced into those marriages in countries that are susceptible to violence and conflict, the number of young widows today continues to increase rather than decrease. This is because of those forced marriages and the likelihood of their husbands being involved in conflict, which will lead to them dying and the women being left alone—in many cases, as teenagers with two or three children already by the age of 17 or 18.
When we reflect on the overall situation of widows, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, there is discrimination and inequity, rape and abuse, and the theft of their assets by members of their husband’s family after they are widowed. Given all these terrible things that happen, we can only imagine with some difficulty how much worse that must be if you are 15 or 16 years old. They then face a life with decades of exclusion and discrimination, being shunned by their society and in some cases barred from the ability to practice their faith locally. In many places they are not allowed to accumulate assets or even work, yet they have to look after the children who are the product of a marriage that, even if it was a happy one, ended so abruptly.
There is a real need to recognise that internationally as we work towards the sustainable development goals, as the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, rightly identified. At the core of those goals is the idea that no one should be left behind. Internationally, when people talk about that objective of leaving no one behind, there tends to be a focus on marginalised ethnic communities in remote places, or on marginalised people with disabilities in societies where there is little in the way of legal rights or the provision of services for them, or other groups that perhaps come to mind more readily. It seems to me, however, that these young widows are one such group—one that could so easily be left behind unless given a particular focus over the next 12 years through the sustainable development goals.
We need, therefore, to do two things. First, as highlighted by the content of the World Widows Report, but also by some of the statements and analysis published in the run-up to International Widows Day this year, we need to disaggregate the data—to work towards disaggregation—so that we get not just the total number of women who become widows, or the total number in poverty around the world, but the breakdown by age, which is a particularly useful tool in designing programmes and strategies to help young women left in this situation. I wonder whether the Minister thinks that is a good idea and whether we could influence the work going on internationally towards disaggregation of the data.
Secondly, we need programmes. I am struck by the new global executive director of UNICEF, who has made a particular effort during her first few months to talk about the need for UNICEF to do more with adolescents. While politicians, governments and international agencies have focused globally on the early years over recent years—as was noted in the previous debate—the importance of working with adolescents, in all sorts of difficult situations around the world, should not be ignored.
These young widows, however, who are essentially adolescents with children, and no legal rights in many cases, need attention from UNICEF and other international bodies. I would be interested to know from the Minister what we can do globally, either to bring donors together or to work to ensure, through our influence in the United Nations, that young widows get the attention that they surely need.
My Lords, I became a widow very recently. The only thing I have suffered from is a bit of loneliness, which is something all widows go through. It is not a big deal, actually, because I have your Lordships’ House and no complaints. Many widows, however, who have no access to lots of other things can suffer greatly from loneliness, especially in this country where there are no family links as there are in other communities. I have known widows who have nobody—nobody ever comes to see them. That is the important issue for the developed countries. Becoming a widow does not mean that you do not have enough to live on or are on the street, but it can mean that often you do not have people to look after you for your own sake. That is important, and it is important to focus on finding family links.
I will, however, just go through some rather more horrible things that happen in other places. In India, for example, a long time ago—actually not so long ago: in the 18th and 19th centuries—they used to burn the widow on the husband’s funeral pyre. Someone called Raja Ram Mohan Roy stopped that. He made the British Government stop the burning of widows. Another extremely important thing that he did for India—I am sad that he is not better known—was that he made sure that English remained a language in India. We should remember how important that has been for India. He was a great man. He has a little memorial in Bristol because he died there and at that time there was no cremation—the burning of bodies was not allowed, so he has a little memorial in the cemetery in Bristol.
Other horrible things of this kind are still going on, to a lesser extent. One of the most horrible is child widows. A girl is betrothed to a boy when they are seven, eight or nine years old. If the boy dies, she is left a widow and cannot marry again. How ridiculous and stupid that is. When I was young, there were lots of ladies who were child widows. They either worked in people’s homes or joined a religious community and spent their lives like that. When I remember them, I think, “What kind of life did they get?”. These things are still happening—not much, but there are still child widows, which is utterly horrible.
The main problem in India, as my noble friend Lord Loomba has said many times, is that a woman has no status. Once she becomes a widow, she becomes a non-person. She is not a human, she is something which has no position in society. If you are rich, it does not matter, but even the rich treat their widows very badly. If you are poor, you are sent to Varanasi, for example, to beg. You sit on the roadside and beg. You have no opportunity to do anything else. Some are taken into temples where they pray and sing at the right moment and get food for doing so. This is no way to treat any woman.
In many places in Africa, when the husband dies, if the woman has something in the house—objects, clothing or anything that can be used by others—the man’s family comes and takes everything. They will empty her house. I know this for a fact because I know women who have gone through it. Nothing is left. They do not have anything they can sell to live off for even a few days. These things are going on around us, and I believe that they will just keep going on. I do not know how you stop the things that people do to each other. We do horrible things, and one of those is what we do to widows.
Before my mother became a widow, my father had very bad dementia and was not in good health. She wanted to have a ritual prayer—I do not know how to translate it into English—for his longevity. She disliked him intensely: she had never liked him. My brother said, “What are you saying? The man is in no state to go on living. He is not enjoying life. He has nothing to live for, but you want to increase his life. Nothing doing”. He stopped her, but she was all ready to carry out a big ritual to keep him living. She was of course very upset when she became a widow, despite the fact that she did not care for her husband at all. She broke her glass bangles, as they do. The saddest thing is that even a woman who should be thinking, “My God, I am free now”—could not do that. I know that my mother-in-law felt that way, but then she was well off and never suffered as a widow because her children were good to her.
I will stop because I have to stop.
My Lords, the speech of my noble friend Lady Flather deserves to be widely read. She has made a number of important points, not least about the position of widows in our own society and the way that toxic loneliness can affect so many people, particularly the elderly. One report suggested that as many as 1 million elderly people do not see a friend, neighbour or relative during the course of an average week. As my noble friend has just said, we all know from personal experience about the importance of family support in those situations.
I thank my noble friend Lord Loomba for securing this timely debate on the issues that women face when they are widowed. As others have done already, I commend him on his tireless efforts in achieving United Nations recognition of International Widows Day and for bringing the issues that widows face to the international agenda. I first met my noble friend in the 1970s at the Hindu temple in Edgehill in Liverpool, a neighbourhood I served as a city councillor and went on to represent as a Member of another place.
On Monday, as we have heard, at an event in your Lordships’ House to celebrate International Widows Day, Mrs Cherie Blair said that on first encounter it might be easy to underestimate my noble friend. Anyone who is aware of what he has personally achieved, and of the work which his Loomba Foundation has undertaken, would know that behind his shy, unassuming modesty are a consistency, tenacity and resolve that have turned around thousands of lives for the better.
International Widows Day, on 23 June, is important on many levels. It raises awareness of the injustices faced by many of the world’s 259 million widows—up, as my noble friend said, from 237 million just in 2010. It is also a way of improving their lives and of shining a spotlight on their situation. I hope that as a country we will do more in the future to encourage and promote it. The fear is always that specially designated days become rather tokenistic, but they do not need to be, and they can be used to spearhead public awareness and change. That is what my noble friend has tried to do. However, it is for the Government not just to settle on a day but to look particularly, as I hope the Minister will do, at what markers we have in our DfID programmes for establishing the totality and impact of spending on programmes on widows. I applaud the sterling work that DfID does to provide education and programmes to lift women and girls out of poverty, but I would like to hear from the Minister the facts and figures in relation to widows. What money is being spent and how is it spent to improve the lot of widows? When we know the metrics, we can then see what is being done and be certain that widows are not overlooked in international development and are not “invisible and forgotten” within the projections, calculations and minutiae of our foreign aid budget. That is an increasing challenge.
Through wars in places such as Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the number of widows is rising exponentially. In Syria there have been 400,000 fatalities, and in the Syrian Zawiya Mountain district alone—a string of about 36 towns and villages on a plateau in the Idlib governorate—one-quarter are widowed women. In all those areas of conflict, women suffer disproportionately, and widows even more so. Let us take Africa as an example. Earlier today, I, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, raised the horrific escalation of violence in Nigeria. Boko Haram and the Fulani militia are leaving a trail of widows behind them. I specifically referred to it in our earlier debate, and others referred to the treatment of those widows in places such as displacement camps.
That brought to mind a visit that I made to Sudan during the civil war, when 2 million people died. In Darfur, I interviewed a widow who told me how her husband had been killed by the Janjaweed militia. She graphically described how she was subsequently raped as she collected firewood to take back to the camp. I have also visited the DRC, where 6 million have died in conflict, and I have heard comparable heartrending stories from widows there.
However, as my noble friend said, it is not just about conflict. Ritualistic practices in Africa play their part too. When Clare Tumushabe, from Uganda, saw her husband die, relatives told her they were taking her six children, along with the land on which she grew her family’s food, and that she would become the third wife of her husband’s oldest brother. That is reminiscent of the points that my noble friend Lady Flather made about the situation in India. After refusing, she was physically attacked. Ultimately, she won a long legal battle and one of the men who attacked her went to jail.
There are other situations where women find themselves thrown on the mercy of others—for example, through de facto widowhood brought on by “wilful neglect”. By that I mean where husbands have abandoned their wives to their fate, left the family home and for all intents and purposes are dead. A few years ago, in my role as the honorary patron of the UK Coptic Association, I had the opportunity to visit a Coptic project in Cairo run by an amazing Coptic woman, Maggie Gobran—often called the “Mother Teresa of Cairo”. There, she helped de facto widows to get back on their feet again, to achieve a meaningful legal status and to be able to provide for themselves and their children. Often “invisible and forgotten”, and robbed of any chance of providing for themselves, they need practical enablement and empowerment, in line with the development goals. We need markers in national and international programmes to say precisely what resources are being set aside to provide elementary dignity.
Countries such as India are making strides to improve the position of widows, but the Supreme Court of India has rightly lamented the lack of interest in the position of widows, calling on the Indian Government to ensure that they are properly trained in skills in order to contribute to the life and prosperity of the country. At the moment, the Loomba Foundation is petitioning for further help for widows from the Indian Government. As my noble friend said, the case is to be heard in the Indian Supreme Court at the end of July. If successful, it will give widows special status as a minority group and allow them the extra help that they so badly need.
Like many, I was brought up to believe in the importance of widows, of orphans, and of aliens in our midst. It is a view shared by many faiths and by people of no faith. It is one whose principles I hope will guide Government policy.
My Lords, I would like to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, not only on commissioning this debate, but also for the work of the Loomba Foundation, which shines a light on many dark practices, which I am sure much of the world is ignorant of.
Widows are often invisible, and the privations that they suffer are largely unknown. But let us face it—poor treatment of widows is not just confined to developing countries. It is found in the west, too. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, spoke about the loneliness of widows everywhere. In America, widows with low educational qualifications can live lives of great financial hardship and insecurity. President Obama observed that many Americans were,
“one medical emergency away from bankruptcy”.
This is even truer of widows. Even here in the United Kingdom, the erosion of the welfare state and the 40% reduction in funding to local councils means that widows can be left to subsist on a fraction of their husband’s pension. There can be disproportionate suffering in the reduced care facilities and benefits.
But our problems in the west pale into insignificance compared with those of developing countries. We have organisations like the Loomba Foundation to thank for exposing the true extent of the problem. I have to say that learning about the way widows are treated in some parts of our planet has left me shocked and distressed. Cultural practices designed to further demean and even endanger the lives of widows abound in some parts of the world. For example, there is the so-called cleansing process, which has been widely documented across sub-Saharan Africa, where she has to drink the water used to cleanse her husband’s body—think of the Ebola epidemic—and perform sexual intercourse with another man, regardless of whether the husband died of AIDS or other infections. Dispossession, destitution and even death can await these women as the husband’s property is removed and she is married off to a male relative, or even cast out, with her children.
I do not want to spend too long describing the plight of these women and their children. Much more important is what can be done by a watching world to help them. Many customs in developing countries are illegal but, in a country of isolated and mostly illiterate communities, they need to know what the laws are, and there has to be some kind of authority to enforce them. Where no formal laws exist on property rights, government needs to pass them and ensure that those responsible for enforcing them, as well as those to whom they apply, understand that these laws override some of the old customs.
I have not talked yet about violence against women and girls. Last year, with VSO, I worked with NGOs and the police in Pakistan to encourage women victims to come forward and to change attitudes. It is a slow process, but who said changing attitudes and culture would not be? But in Pakistan we now have women’s police desks in police stations, and even women’s police stations. Widows have such a key role to play in all societies, but especially in AIDS-torn countries, where they may be some of the few adults left to care for children. They deserve status, and I believe that the strongest card we have to play is through women’s economic empowerment. If widows are equipped, and permitted, to make an economic contribution, they can cease to be seen as a burden and, instead, as an economic asset to the family and community. Very small investments—small to us, but huge to them—combined with education and skills training, can transform the future for both the widow and her children.
The UN, UNICEF, NGOs and Governments can work together to empower widows and raise their status in their communities from a burden to an asset. That is a win-win, for the widows, their communities, the economy and the world.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this debate; it is because of his commitment that we have International Widows Day. I have had the privilege of participating in this debate in previous years. It is often a time to reflect on the journey that we have been on ourselves. My mother was widowed in the 1960s with four young children. When we talk about economic empowerment, it was certainly needed then. We lived in a tied house because of my father’s job and she faced eviction and searching for a job, but she had community support to ensure that she had that economic empowerment. She also had support because she soon joined a trade union and it was that sort of community that enabled her to continue the fight for women’s empowerment.
The 2015 report, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, highlighted the increase in the number of widowed women as a result of conflict and the severity of their living conditions as a consequence. All over the world, women and girls suffer the most from conflict and underdevelopment. In the MENA region, conditions are desperate—we have had many debates about this, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has been one of the initiators of those debates. We have also seen the widespread sexual violence inflicted on Rohingya refugees fleeing Rakhine state in Myanmar. The perpetrators, of course, act with impunity, something on which I hope this Government will always continue to push for action.
Successive UK Governments of different political persuasions have championed international women’s rights on issues including girls’ education, preventing sexual violence in conflict and family planning, an important aspect of women’s empowerment. It is important that we build on this record by using our influence as a country to ensure that the gains of recent years are not lost. The progress we have made is under threat, from the Trump Administration’s “global gag rule” on reproductive rights to moves to relax the laws on child marriage in Bangladesh. Many noble Lords in today’s debate have highlighted the problem of child marriage.
The denial of the rights of women and girls remains the most widespread driver of inequalities in today’s world. Gender-based violence, taking many forms, is a major element of this massive and continuing failure of human rights. While it is important to focus on SDG 5 on gender equality—as we have in this debate—the advance of women’s and girls’ rights manifestly makes a substantial contribution to efforts to meet all the SDGs: poverty reduction; improving health and education; and securing peace and security. In particular, on SDG 8 on sustainable development and economic empowerment, support for women and girls provides real opportunities to have choices.
As is often stressed by my noble friend Lord McConnell, we must ensure that the sustainable development goals run through all development priorities in all Whitehall departments, and ensure that the public priority given by the Government to women and girls runs through every one of the SDGs. The Government, through the national action plan on women, peace and security, say they will be putting girls and women at the heart of their work to end conflict in nine countries, including Iraq, Nigeria and South Sudan. We have referred to these countries in debates today, but can the Minister tell us how DfID will promote equality in countries beyond the nine specifically targeted in the national action plan, particularly, as raised by my noble friend, ensuring that no one is left behind?
The national action plan champions girls’ education, a crucial part of DfID’s activities in transforming the lives of those caught up in conflict and promoting global stability. DfID is of course targeting the poorest countries to provide 12 years of education for girls. What work is being done to replicate any successful policies from these schemes, to improve access, specifically to technical and vocational education, as a means of helping to provide employment for girls and women? We have heard about the impact of widowhood on young girls, but is DfID looking at older women, many of whom are widows, to remove the specific barriers to training and employment that deny them the opportunity of economic activity and therefore economic empowerment?
I conclude by repeating my mantra from previous debates: we must work with like-minded Governments throughout the world, but we also need to ensure that all aspects of civil society, including trade unions, church groups and women’s groups, are able to stand up and argue the case for full women’s emancipation.
My Lords, I join others in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba. I had the privilege of being in the River Room, along with several other noble Lords here, for what was a wonderful occasion. There were some really passionate speeches and lots of concrete examples and testimony of the work that the Loomba Foundation has been doing to help those in need around the world. We are all hugely grateful to the noble Lord for tabling this important debate in the week of International Widows Day, of which he has been a tireless advocate, helping to secure it in the international calendar against incredible odds.
It has been a moving debate. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, began by illustrating how often, when people arrived needing compassion, they met stigma and rejection. He called for more data. He also talked about the progress that has been made in India and Nigeria. My noble friend Lady Stroud talked particularly about the crisis in conflict situations, about security and refugees in displacement camps. She also gave some positive examples of progress that has been made in Rwanda since the terrible genocide there. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, challenged us about young women, with his picture of how, because of early, forced marriage, they often become widows in their teenage years. It is almost difficult to comprehend that they could be both mothers and teenagers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, moved us by talking about her own experiences: I am sure we all send our condolences to her, but also assure her of our compassion and friendship. She talked particularly about loneliness as a scourge on society and went on to give examples. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave some staggering statistics about the situation in Idlib in Syria. A quarter of women in that area are widows, and he talked about ritualistic practices. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, reminded us to have an element of humility in recognising that this is not exclusively a problem for the developing world: we have our challenges here in the west about this, which of course is why the SDGs apply just as much at home as they do abroad.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, reminded us of the importance of human rights; that older women should not be overlooked or neglected; of the central role of women and girls and of their right to progress on all the human rights which were addressed. Widows are too often invisible. The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and others have begun to make them visible. The UN estimates that there are 285 million widows around the world, with more than 115 million of them living in poverty. As has been outlined, widows can be particularly vulnerable and marginalised, facing stigmatisation and deprivations purely because they have lost their husbands. Once widowed, they often confront a denial of inheritance in respect of land rights, a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt; degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rights, which again the noble Baroness referred to; and other forms of abuse which makes the loss of a husband only the first in a long series of traumas in their ordeal.
We know that children of widows are often deeply affected, both emotionally and economically, with the daughters of widows facing increased vulnerability to abuse. The Government are committed to tackling the harmful social mores and deep-rooted gender inequality that is at the heart of much of this cruelty and hardship. Achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is the right thing to do and is in our national interest. The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, made the point that no society can ever hope to lift itself out of poverty by leaving half the population behind—often its most productive half. It is at the heart of tackling the barriers and discrimination faced by widows and their children. It is fundamental to building good global prosperity and peaceful society. It is a key part of a value-based global Britain.
In recent decades, the world has made progress towards gender equality. However, we need look only at the findings of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, on global widows to know that we have not gone far enough and that special focus needs to be paid to reach the most marginalised if we are to ensure that no one is left behind.
The UK is an international leader on gender equality. In March, the Secretary of State for International Development launched DfID’s new strategic vision for gender equality. The vision articulates our commitment to ensure that we reach the most marginalised women and girls, which includes widows as well as other groups such as women and girls with disabilities. It also commits us to stepping up our work on gender equality in conflict and crisis situations. It outlines our commitment to continue the work of our interlinked foundations, which have had a transformational effect on the poorest girls and women, the elimination of violence against women and girls, access to sexual and reproductive health rights, girls’ education and women’s economic power.
It articulates our commitment to do more on women’s political empowerment, including to increase women’s participation in leadership, conflict prevention and peace-building processes. As noble Lords have often pointed out, conflict and war is the greatest destroyer of wealth that has ever been conceived. Women and girls are often more vulnerable than men at the front line, who are often armed and trained. This builds on our strong record of helping women and girls, which I readily acknowledge to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has been built on by successive Governments. We can all be proud of that.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked for details on what help had been provided. Between 2015 and 2017, UK Aid supported 9.8 million women with water, sanitation and hygiene programmes, and reached 7.3 million women and girls with humanitarian assistance. We are also reaching the world’s most vulnerable women and girls with emergency food assistance, education, financial services and large-scale programmes to improve their land and property rights. In Bangladesh, we have helped more than 96,000 extremely poor households headed by widows with cash grants for business, enterprise, skills training and nutritional awareness. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and others will be proud to know that 85% of the households we have supported have graduated out of extreme poverty.
We are also providing increased support to grass-roots, women-led civil society organisations, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned and is also something which the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, urged me to consider further in the debate that we had on this subject in February. Through the recently launched Jo Cox memorial work we have a particular focus on loneliness, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, referred. I think that is a fitting memorial to that great parliamentarian who was so tragically killed.
Recognising the sad reality that humanitarian crises are increasing and conflicts are increasingly protracted, we are stepping up to help more women and girls affected by conflict and crisis. This includes large-scale programmes of support to Rohingya refugees, which will include funding for psychological support for women suffering from the trauma of war and survivors of sexual violence, to which the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, referred.
At the same time, we are investing in improving even further our ability to reach the most marginalised. In order to know who, where and why people are at risk of being left behind, DfID is investing in data which can be disaggregated on the basis of sex, age, disability status and geography, as the noble Lords, Lord McConnell and Lord Alton, requested us to do. We are working with other partners, including the World Bank, to improve statistics, which will enable us to know where help is most needed and where we need to empower vulnerable and marginalised groups, including those in need of assessment and programming. This is particularly important for widows, who are too often invisible in our data and often face multiple forms of discrimination.
We are also fighting for women’s rights on the international stage, helping to secure an ambitious outcome for the Commission on the Status of Women. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked us about the national action plan and which countries will be impacted by it. Through a number of organisations, which the United Kingdom Government are proud to be part of, we were able to raise it, for example, through the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, and at the G7 summit in the first half of this year. We also work with our European friends and colleagues in addressing these issues through the Foreign Affairs Council. We will soon also hold the first Global Disability Summit on 24 July, where gender equality will be a cross-cutting theme.
In this way and across our UK aid portfolio, the Government are leading international efforts to accelerate progress to make discrimination and inequality a thing of the past for all girls and women, giving particular attention to groups such as widows, who are so often the most marginalised and vulnerable, and to offer them hope and a future in a world where no one is left behind. If we do not succeed, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, will be back again on 23 June next year to hold us to account.
Committee adjourned at 5.57 pm.