Tuesday 14 May 2019
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, if there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes. Perhaps I may be allowed to say that that seems unlikely.
Vaccinations and Health Screening Services
Question for Short Debate
My Lords—or perhaps I should say “My Ladies”, because all contributors to this debate are women—earlier this month the Public Accounts Committee in another place published a report about adult health screening. It commenced as follows:
“Health screening is an important way of identifying potentially life-threatening illnesses at an early stage. Yet the Department of Health & Social Care … NHS England and Public Health England … are not doing enough to make sure that everyone who is eligible to take part in screening is doing so, and do not know if everyone who should be invited for screening has been”.
I could not put it better myself, and this is a very sorry state of affairs when we know that timely health screening can save lives by early identification of disease, and save money by avoiding conditions becoming severe.
On vaccination, the other highly successful way of avoiding disease, it is clear that the NHS has been aware of its failure to meet targets for some time because paragraph 1.11 of The NHS Long Term Plan promises a review of GP vaccination records. My first question to the Minister therefore is: when will this commence and can she commit the DHSC to funding whatever is necessary to help GPs reach their target?
I turn first to screening programmes, of which there are 11. Four of them were considered in detail by the committee, none of which reached their targets, and there is unacceptable variation in different parts of the country. The committee concluded that the IT system used to identify the eligible population for screening has been unfit for purpose since 2011 but has still not been replaced. That probably means that the reach is even worse, because some people who should be called for screening are not being called. So my second question to the Minister is: what is being done to replace the IT system? The committee’s recommendation was that the department should find out why performance is poor in some areas and less so in others and then do something about these inequalities. Has the department set about doing that and is it going to make use of the large amount of data in the hands of local authorities, which could help?
When I first laid this Question for debate, I was concerned about the fact that only 71.7% of women eligible for a cervical smear were attending. Many years ago I worked in this service, so I have an interest in its success. Today things should be better because the treatment for symptoms has much improved. However, recent figures show that only one of the 207 CCGs meets the target of 80% attendance and that about half of women do not receive their results within the target time, despite the fact that the job I used to do is now done by artificial intelligence. This programme saves lives. It saves children losing their mothers. It saves suffering, and its cost-effectiveness is not in doubt. Why is NHS England not holding local providers to account for this poor record, as it has the responsibility to do? Of course we all hope that the administration of the HPV vaccines to girls—and very soon to boys too—will bring about a massive fall in this disease but, in the meantime, we need to do a lot better.
Breast screening—mammograms—also saves lives. The IT system that supports the breast-screening programme gives great cause for concern, yet the NHS plans to replace it only by 2020, three years later than planned, at a cost of £14 million. The state of the system undoubtedly contributed to the shambles in May last year when the then Secretary of State announced that 450,000 eligible women had not been invited for screening. The shambles was further demonstrated by the fact that the number turned out to be closer to 122,000. This caused a great deal of anxiety to women and who knows whether it contributed to any deaths. Will the Minister encourage her department to get a move on and replace this system with all haste?
Both of these screening programmes have suffered from a fall in attendances—a 21-year low in the case of cervical screening—yet it appears that none of the national health bodies has asked women themselves why they are not attending, offering instead platitudes about women having busier lives. This just will not do. In addition, there is a serious shortage of technicians to do the breast screening. What steps are the Government taking to address that?
I turn to health screening programmes for children. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health sent a very helpful briefing, which emphasised the importance of the routine screening of children for height, weight, vision and hearing, and encouraged expansion of the national child measurement programme. In the light of the health inequalities in this country and the high proportion of overweight and obese children, these programmes are vital to ensure that each child gets a healthy start in life. Can the Minister answer two questions: what is the coverage of the national child measurement programme compared to its target, and why are children not also screened for dental decay, given the large number of children who have to be admitted to hospital to have teeth removed?
Vaccinations are the best way of protecting children and adults from serious and potentially fatal diseases. The routine schedule for babies—MMR, the six-in-one vaccination and the one for meningitis—is absolutely vital to protect each individual child, as well as providing herd immunity for the whole population. Failure to reach the desired immunisation rate resulted a few years ago in some serious measles outbreaks, for example in Swansea. The uptake of both doses of MMR has now decreased for four years in a row. Also, participation in the six-in-one vaccine was nearly 2% below the WHO target of 95% and has fallen for five consecutive years. These rates are not high enough to maintain herd immunity, according to the royal college.
A recent study of vaccination uptake among children linked lower immunity coverage with higher socioeconomic deprivation. Could the Minister say what is being done to address this? The royal college recommends that every contact between a child and a health worker should be utilised opportunistically to ensure he has had the full range of vaccinations. However, this requires a robust data collection system and interoperability between different parts of the digital health records. Could the Minister say how far we are from that being available?
The royal college believes that confidence in vaccinations is not falling but that the fall in numbers is instead attributable to a complex web of access to services, cost of travel, competing pressures on families, an ineffective system of reminders for parents, and workforce and resourcing pressures. What is being done to untangle this and get the numbers going up again? Are system-led changes being considered, or are we just using targets and pressure on hard-pressed GPs?
One important adult vaccination is the flu vaccination, which is available to all adults at a modest cost but is free to children aged over two, elderly people and other vulnerable people. In 2016-17, 16,000 people died of flu, yet many people with chronic lung disease are still not getting the vaccine. Compared to an uptake of 72.6% among other people aged over 65, just 50.8% of those with chronic respiratory conditions were vaccinated in 2017-18. This is another area where there is regional variation—the figure in Wales falls to 48.6%. Uptake among children from reception to year 4 varies significantly between NHS regions: from 47.8% in London to 70.7% in Wessex. My GP recently told me that last winter, she had to provide flu medication to a larger number of people than usual. Whether this was because fewer people were vaccinated or because it was a more virulent strain than usual, she did not know, but she was worried. What is being done to improve the coverage of flu vaccinations?
I would have liked to ask about bowel cancer and prostate cancer screening, but I fear there is no time. Instead, I end by asking the Minister when we will be getting the Green Paper on prevention. Will it contain proposals for flexible initiatives to improve the uptake of health screening and vaccinations, especially among harder-to-reach communities?
My Lords, let me be the first to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for introducing this important debate. I also pay tribute to her expert knowledge in this field, given all that she has said.
For some of us, what has happened with immunisation and vaccination is a mystery. I am looking at the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who was a Minister shortly after I was. One of the great battles that my then boss, Kenneth Clarke, had was with the GPs on introducing the new contract after 1987. It was about incentivising GPs to increase child immunisation and cervical cancer screening. There was a great hullabaloo that they were motivated only by feeling for their wallets, or whatever the expression was at the time. The fact is that there was a rapid increase in child immunisation and cervical cancer screening. I remember being summoned by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to a meeting of Finchley GPs in the Prime Minister’s room behind the Speaker’s Chair in another place. They all gave their views on the programme and whether they had been coerced into following the cervical cancer rulings, and so forth. Whatever was said, it did the job.
Nearly all of us in this Room, who are working women, know that our lives and our families’ lives have been freed from all those infant diseases that held back women at home for so many years. Vaccinations are an extraordinary success story. They have an amazing ability to leave people free from disease if a sufficient number create herd immunity. Smallpox is the only infectious disease to be eradicated completely among humans through deliberate intervention; it was wiped out through a global programme. In 1988, there were 35,000 cases of polio globally but in 2018, there were only 33. I remember the wonderful work of the rotarians and their PolioPlus campaign, spreading the polio vaccine all around the world. It seemed as though this was an unstoppable course to having healthier citizens through a civilised approach.
Some 150 potentially life-saving vaccines are currently being tested, which is absolutely phenomenal. So now we have to study the extraordinary phenomenon of vaccine hesitancy, which for many of us really is a paradox. Why should people be against vaccinating their children? Some believe that vaccines are no longer necessary or that they cause autism, but Andrew Wakefield has been comprehensively discredited for his work that tried to connect autism and bowel disease to MMR. It was a really disgraceful piece of work. Some believe that doctors and scientists cannot be trusted; that vaccines contain harmful levels of toxins; or that they can overload a child’s immune system. It seems as though, once again, this is an adverse effect of our wonderful, modern and interconnected world of social media. Scare stories are thrown up and it is almost impossible to rebut them.
There may also be a lack of trust in doctors and nurses. But goodness knows, their figures for inspiring confidence and being trusted, at 96% and 92%, are a lot better than those for government Ministers or politicians, which are at 22% and 19%. I still think we should hold on to the doctors and nurses to promote the programme.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about the worrying fall in levels in the UK despite our comprehensive National Health Service, our focus on prevention and so forth. The World Health Organization has devised a 3Cs model in its vaccine communications working group, referring to complacency, convenience and confidence. We do have a degree of complacency. In the UK, before vaccines were introduced, each year 3,500 people died of diphtheria, 200 of tetanus, 1,000 of pertussis, 200 of polio and 60 of haemophilus influenzae. Perhaps people have lost the fear factor that has been there for so long.
On convenience, we have a comprehensive health service. There is of course always room for improvement, but it is there for all. On confidence, the evidence is absolutely there.
I congratulate the Government on some of the recent vaccinations that have become available. The service is phenomenal. Now, we have vaccinations for children’s flu, rotavirus, shingles, MenB and MenACWY. Similarly, I congratulate them on some of their screening programmes. I campaigned long and hard for screening programmes for abdominal aortic aneurysm, bowel cancer, breast cancer and so on.
What must we do to promote this issue and encourage people to live up to their responsibilities? We have the convenience and I have the conviction. I want the Minister to let us know what not only the Government but all of us can do to help to bring back urgency in taking up these wonderful opportunities.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on securing this important debate.
I want us to look back in history. In 1796, Jenner took fluid from cowpox pustules and gave it to a child. He then tested whether that child had immunity by giving him fluid from smallpox pustules—an experiment I do not think would get through any ethics committee anywhere in the world today but which marked the beginning of immunology as we know it. There were anti-vaxxers then, who made his life hell and gave him a really hard time. There are still anti-vaxxers today. I am afraid that people are living with the human tragedy of their activity. Smallpox seems to have been eradicated; it was declared as such in 1980.
I want to focus on five diseases in my five minutes. What have we got now? There is polio. The vaccination against polio was introduced in the 1950s, too late for a friend of mine whose paralysis has completely crippled his life. He is still alive but with long-term complications through paralysis from polio. It is a terrible disease. Before the introduction of the vaccination, there were more than 7,500 cases of paralytic polio a year, with up to 750 deaths. Each one of the people who got polio carried with it the damage. This is not about statistics; this is about human lives.
People think of diphtheria as something of the past. It was absolutely terrible. Before the vaccine was introduced in 1942, there were more than 55,000 cases a year and 3,500 deaths. One of those cases was an aunt in our family, who described to us what having diphtheria was like. The terrible legacy of her disease was that she came home with it and gave it to her younger sister, who died. She recalls having diphtheria and watching her younger sister dying. It is incredibly contagious. Sadly, it is now breaking out in parts of the world among refugee communities, particularly Rohingya Muslims.
Why do we need herd immunity? We need it because it acts like a firebreak, and we need it above 95%.
We have sort of pretended that measles is a disease that is not still there—but it is. The latest figures show that between January and October 2018, there were 913 laboratory-confirmed cases of measles in England; that represents a steep rise compared with the 259 cases the previous year. Measles is not a trivial illness. The pneumonia leaves people with permanent lung damage that will blight the rest of their lives; they will be prone to infection if they survive it. It is a terrible thing to see children ill and dying of measles. I worked in paediatrics; I have seen it. In Ukraine, following the death of a teenager not related to vaccination but attributed to it, in combination with political unrest and health service corruption, the actual rates fell to one in six of all children.
I will go back for a moment to Jenner and TB. Jenner lost his eldest son, two sisters, Mary and Anne, and his wife to tuberculosis. Today there is the BCG—bacille Calmette-Guérin—vaccine against TB, but that is not actually as good as we need it to be. It perhaps helps against TB meningitis in children, but I have seen a child dying of TB meningitis—it is absolutely terrible. BCG is not as effective as one would hope. The problem is that rifampicin came along; everyone thought it was wonderful, and now we have drug-resistant TB.
In my last seconds I will touch on HPV. I was privileged to be working with Les Borysiewicz and Malcolm Adams in Cardiff when they were doing the early work on cervical cancer. They showed that invasive cancer instance was dropping dramatically—by 80%. We now need to lower the age of vaccinations for this age group, because we know that children are sexually active below the age of 14. We need to introduce it at 10 to 12 years. We have the tools to keep herd immunity, and we are just ignoring them.
I learned so much from the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for tabling this debate.
When I put my name down for this I realised that I had a vaccination schedule pinned to my fridge. It has every vaccination that your child has to have between birth and five years of age. I cannot tell you where I got it from; I imagine I must have got it when my last daughter was born. I realised with a certain degree of guilt that is uniquely gifted to mothers—perhaps that is why this debate is all-women—that I had forgotten to book my third daughter in for her three years and four months old vaccination. While listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, I also realised how lucky I was not to know what some of these diseases are. My generation has taken that for granted. I will of course rectify the fact that we need to have this vaccination—we are still in time.
It struck me that we spend so much time and energy in public life and politics talking about anti-vaccination fake news campaigns in social media and about how to tackle them. It is right that we fight them, but do we spend enough time, as the noble Baroness said, really focusing on the nitty-gritty of ensuring that the system for take-up works as efficiently and seamlessly as possible?
I cannot base my entire speech on mother’s instinct, so I was very pleased to have the briefing from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. It was most helpful, particularly in stressing the point about making every contact count. We need to think more deeply about the way we talk to pregnant women and parents at the start of their journey. By the time you go into the room to give your baby his or her first vaccinations, you are actually already quite a long way into the parenting journey and will usually have had quite a lot of interactions with midwives and health visitors. While I am not letting fathers off the hook in the slightest, we know that maternal health is vital to determinants of child health. What are the Government doing to ensure that health visitors and midwives have the training, confidence and space within those consultations to press the need for maternal immunisations, which do not get a lot of coverage, and then to start those early conversations about child vaccinations?
More broadly, so many of the messages that we aim at first-time mothers in particular—I do not aim this just at the Government but across charities and public life—focus on childbirth and breastfeeding. These are obviously very important, but it would much better to prepare parents for at least the next five years, not simply saying, “You just get to the other side of the delivery suite”. This is where the system-wide approach is crucial. What systems are in place to collect the data and remind parents along the way that vaccinations are due, and what methods are being used to support those who may just be struggling to navigate or access services? There is debate over whether we should exclude non-vaccinated children from schools, but are we missing the practicalities, including perhaps a more effective method of using the school or nursery entry check to ascertain children’s vaccination status and using that as a reminder or trigger for boosters?
I would have loved to have had more time to talk about screening. We need to look at public health as a whole. I happened to be shopping earlier this week and was in the beauty department of House of Fraser. When I made my purchase, I got an NHS card reminding me to go for cervical screening, which I am up to date with. However, can we not think more creatively about ways to get to people that do not just involve opening a letter from the NHS? We need to be much better at thinking laterally about what is going on in people’s lives. I thank the noble Baroness for initiating this conversation and hope that we get more opportunities to talk about this subject.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, because I agree very much with what she said. I want to speak mainly about vaccine hesitancy and the important role of vaccines in the developing world. I do not want to bowl the Minister a googly but the Question relates to the Government and vaccines. Through DfID we have an enormously important role in the use of vaccines in the developing world, where for millions of children they are a matter of life and death.
I agree very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld, that the reducing rates of vaccination in this country are not solely the result of the dangerous and destructive cod science peddled on the internet and elsewhere; they are also the result of the difficulty that some families have in accessing services and our inability to bring together in that smooth and creative way that the noble Baroness talked about the services that families need. When families and the NHS are under pressure, people will fall through the net, and we cannot simply blame them for taking bad advice. Like others, I would like to hear from the Minister exactly what the department will do to differentiate between and gain an understanding of these low rates in particular areas or localities or among certain types of families and how we will target measures to improve them.
I also agree that mandatory vaccination is not the way forward. However, it is important to look at specific instances. I have a grandchild who goes to a nursery-type play group where one child, recently admitted, has multiple food allergies. The nursery has decided to ban the other children from bringing any food into the nursery, and all children who have lunch there eat a diet that suits that individual child. This is done to protect one member of that community whose life could be in danger. Where a nursery, for example, has an immuno-compromised child as one of its members, I think it is perfectly reasonable to look very carefully at whether it is responsible to admit to that nursery children who are not vaccinated and to put that child’s life at risk. I am not talking at all about universal compulsion but I think that there might be instances where it is important to take responsibility as a community for particular children who need us to do that.
Huge efforts are being made—I have already mentioned DfID’s work—through the global alliance on vaccinations, the Vaccine Alliance, UNICEF and the WHO to save the lives of millions of children across the world. We have programmes that have halved deaths from measles and tetanus since 2010, in less than 10 years. We are investing in new vaccine development that is absolutely essential if we are going to deal with malaria, TB, dengue and Zika. There are parallels here, but the obstacles are different. Because of false information, polio vaccinators have been killed in Pakistan and there has been difficulty in administering the Ebola virus during the current outbreak in DRC. When there is conflict it is difficult to get to families.
Finally, I hope that the Minister and her department will take notice of the work of Professor Peter Hotez. He is not only a vaccinologist and a paediatrician; he also has an adult daughter with autism. Personal testimonies are tremendously important. He has written a book called Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism. He will be in London at the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society for Tropical Medicine next month. I hope that the department will listen and learn from what he has to say.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Walmsley for the opportunity to take part in this extremely well-informed debate.
As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health, I start on a sad note. Some Peers are aware, but others are not, that the FPA—formerly the Family Planning Association—has gone into insolvency this week. This means that a charity which for many years has been the source of important information and advice for women, and men, about sexual and reproductive health, screening and all that has ceased to function. I say to the Minister that I am sure there are other professional bodies, such as the royal colleges and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, which will have to look in coming months at how the work which was done by the FPA can be covered.
As the figures we have on cervical screening—particularly from Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust—show, it remains extremely important to have informed, accurate messaging systems to the public. Sometimes the NHS does a good job, but sometimes it is not the body to talk to people, particularly young people, in ways they understand in order to make them understand the importance of screening and prevention services in particular.
The figures for women attending cervical screening are going down. This is worrying. It is even worse in some minority communities. I want to take the opportunity to focus on my minority community. I am worried because I hear of instances of lesbians and bi-women being wrongly told that they do not need to go for screening and that they cannot get cervical cancer. This is not true. When someone is told that, it is not unreasonable that they might not go along and take part in a procedure which is not particularly pleasant. However, that has potentially fatal consequences. Having said that, there are other women who register really good treatment. When they have come out and been open about their sexuality, their doctors have been fine and open with them. This is a hopeful sign that we have moved on, but it should not be a matter of luck for a patient to be treated well. It should be system-wide. I commend some NHS staff who, in the absence of leadership from the top of the NHS or their professions, have tried to take matters into their own hands. They have their NHS rainbow badge initiative —100,000 of them are now wearing the badge—to give a direct indication to patients that if you happen to be LGBT it is safe to talk to them—not to everybody, but to them. I hope we shall see some more of that.
We are very lucky to have our National Health Service and national screening but, looking at the papers that my noble friend Lady Walmsley referred to, we do not seem to allow very much for variation. In particular, we have either a national screening programme or nothing. We do not seem to be able to concentrate some of our efforts among people who are perhaps more likely to be at risk than others. For example, I think of the work Macmillan Cancer Support has done on lung cancer screening. We do not have a national lung cancer screening programme, but Macmillan Cancer Support has been trying to identify ex-smokers to try to give them check-ups and to catch cancers early. I hope that through the reorganisation and sustainable transformation projects, the NHS might get to be much cannier about the way it uses the resources it has to begin to focus them.
I will make one final point about variation. I understand that there is a new test for bowel cancer screening called FIT—faecal immunochemical test—and that it will come in in Northern Ireland in 2020 but will not come to England. Will the Minister say why, if in Northern Ireland it has been identified as a more accurate test, it is not being rolled out here? We have a national service; we could use the resources in it in a far more targeted way to greater effect.
I declare an interest as a member of a CCG. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on this important debate, which, as one would have expected, has been very well informed and wide-ranging. I, too, will focus on vaccination.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, reminded me that when I started school in 1956 as a rising five—noble Lords can work that one out—I was the eldest of four children. My mother says that she had a sick child for the whole of the following winter because I brought home measles, chickenpox and mumps. It was an absolute nightmare for her. Of course, I gave my siblings all my germs.
This week, the headline in my local freesheet is: “Lives at risk as vaccine rate drops”. It is not often you see that in your local freesheet, but that is what it says. One of our local doctors is quoted as saying that he and his colleagues are faced with the troubling task of telling parents that their children could die from preventable diseases, but still people refuse to have their children vaccinated. In our patch of London, I fear we might be heading for the statistic that means herd immunity will be compromised, which has implications for children throughout the borough, including my granddaughter.
The vaccination rate has fallen for four years in the UK and is declining across Europe. Will the Minister tell us the minimum percentage of cover for vaccinations that provides herd immunity? I think we know that. How close are we to it in the UK? How many areas are there where coverage is less than or close to the minimum for herd immunity?
I reminded myself in preparing for this debate of the response of the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackwood, to a recent Question posed by my noble friend Lord Faulkner:
“The UK has one of the most sophisticated vaccination programmes in the world and we constantly guard against threats that may reduce vaccination rates. I am pleased to say that 93% of parents trust NHS staff and advice. The Government recognise the threat posed by disinformation and the upcoming online harms White Paper will set out a new framework for tackling this”.—[Official Report, 1/4/19; col. 2.]
I beg to differ because the evidence points us in a different direction. If 93% of parents trusted NHS staff and advice, we would not be in a situation that could easily become a great health emergency. How can it be that 93% of parents trust the NHS when the Royal Society for Public Health says that one in five parents, including those who have had their child vaccinated, still believe that the jab is,
“likely to cause unwanted side effects”?
The Royal Society for Public Health’s chief executive, Shirley Cramer, said:
“We need to counteract health misinformation online and via social media”.
She also said,
“social media companies should take responsibility for misinformation about vaccines in the same way that they are doing for mental health”,
“four out of five adults agreed … that social media platforms should take steps to limit fake news regarding vaccinations”,
so the public are calling for this too. What are the Government going to do? Frankly, waiting for a White Paper and the legislation that might follow does not quite answer the point.
Furthermore, the RSPH recommended more education in schools on the value and importance of vaccinations to help bust the myths surrounding vaccines. Is that happening? Is the Department of Health talking to the Department for Education about this? We have a healthy schools programme in my borough; as a member of a CCG, I will talk to schools about the fact that they need to work with us to ensure that we get vaccination rates up. We want to see whether vaccinations can be offered in different locations, such as high street pop-ups, gyms and community centres. Finally, the public health budget has been slashed in recent years. Is it sufficient to respond adequately to what might become a serious health emergency?
My Ladies—I like saying that rather than “My Lords”, so I will go for it—I echo noble Baronesses in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for securing the debate and I thank noble Baronesses for their fascinating and well-informed contributions.
I want to take this opportunity to emphasise the Government’s efforts to promote the uptake of vaccines and health screenings. Keeping uptake rates as high as possible is one of our top priorities; we are constantly reviewing ways to do so. We are committed to ensuring that everyone who is eligible takes up that offer. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, reminded us of her friends and family members who have been personally affected by the absence of vaccination. Last night, I was talking to my noble friend Lady O’Cathain, who cannot be with us today; she remembered the introduction of the first polio vaccine when she was 10 in Dublin, but then arriving at university and seeing one of her childhood friends who had not had the vaccine suffer in the way the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, described.
Overall, our routine vaccination programmes in England have a high uptake, with over 90% coverage for almost all childhood vaccines. In addition, more than 11 million people benefit from NHS screening programmes every year and record numbers of people receive life-saving NHS interventions. Local teams in the NHS work incredibly hard to make this happen and find out where improvements are needed. As well as to the work of the great NHS staff, I also pay tribute to the many charities that fight on behalf of those whose lives have been changed for ever by a range of diseases; for example, meningitis charities such as Meningitis Now and the Meningitis Research Foundation, and cancer charities such as Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, Breast Cancer Now, Breast Cancer Care and Cancer Research UK.
Although such programmes are promising and are core components of our health protection offer, there is still a lot to do, as noble Baronesses pointed out. There is still regional variation in our programmes—as seen between those in London and those in rural areas—room for improvement in providing services to underserved groups and, regrettably, a slow decline in both vaccination and screening coverage. We are continually taking action to improve uptake of these programmes. However, a number of complex factors need to be addressed. As the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Hayman, pointed out, there are difficulties in accessing immunisation and screening services for some people. There can also be difficulties in accessing the right information on the benefits and safety of screening and immunisation. In certain areas, particularly London, we face population mobility and particular groups which are underserved. As has been quite fairly pointed out, the robustness of the IT that supports our screening and vaccination programmes is challenging.
Before I turn to those points, I will try to answer some of the questions that have been raised. The noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Finlay, asked about herd immunity. There are different levels for different diseases. For measles it is 95%; the UK programme’s objective is obviously to reach 95% for most childhood vaccines. In 2018, when measured among children aged five—I appreciate that there are risks below the age of five—coverage for measles, mumps and rubella was close to this threshold at 94.9%, while coverage for the primary immunisations was above it at 95.6%. However, we are not complacent and Public Health England, together with NHS England, is working to reverse the decline that we have seen among some younger children. If I may, I will come on to talk about where we will capture the data under what we are doing to address IT.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Hayman, talked about regional variations. We are absolutely aware that although our overall screening and immunisation rates are encouraging, there are differences in regional uptake, particularly in London. This is in part due to a transient population, which potentially results in GP databases becoming quickly out of date, and a younger population who may, understandably perhaps, feel that the risks they face are less great. We are doing a great deal to try to share information across different areas. If time permits, I will try to give a couple of examples of that.
A number of noble Baronesses talked about misinformation, including on social media—not only in this country but, as many of us heard on the news this morning, in DRC in relation to Ebola. There is a troubling rise in misinformation, as my noble friend Lady Bottomley pointed out. It is hard for us to be accurate about its impact but it is clearly negative, and clearly so across a number of countries; look at the trend in measles, not only in this country but in Europe and the United States. We are trying to counter this with our own social media campaigns and training for health professionals, which my noble friend Lady Wyld asked about. If I may, I will write to her with more details about the exact numbers for the training of health visitors and midwives.
A number of noble Baronesses asked about using our imagination, I think it was, in trying to find different ways of offering vaccination and screening. I will give one example of this in relation to cervical screening. There is now a partnership with the health and well-being app, Treatwell, which is to introduce conversations about the importance of cervical screening among 25 to 34 year-olds—one of the groups where take-up is very low.
I hear the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about trust in doctors and nurses, but we have done a number of studies on this and believe that 93% of parents feel that the health professionals they work with give them accurate information. That confidence is crucial.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, mentioned options around compulsory vaccination. She will be aware of the remark made recently by the Secretary of State that nothing is being ruled out. I felt she gave a helpful and interesting example.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, talked about low levels of uptake of cervical screening. We share her concerns. My briefing advises that the HPV vaccination is now routinely recommended for all girls between 11 and 14 years old, so if I understood her rightly, that is a slightly lower age than she mentioned.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, raised a very valid point about getting information from people whom you can hear, so to speak, and it not being a matter of luck. There are charities, such as Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, which are training community champions so that someone who looks like you or me talks to you or me about cervical screening. She also talked about FIT testing. I think there may be a misunderstanding there. That is going to be introduced in this country in the summer of 2019. I hope that that is good news.
I am looking at the time. I have not even started my speech and I am running out of time.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and other noble Baronesses asked what is happening to improve IT. It fits into two boxes. One is incremental improvements and the other is step-change improvement. The department is working incredibly hard to make sure that the end point we get to is the right end point. I shall give an example of incremental improvement. Work is going on with GPs to look at how they are incentivised to carry out immunisations and screening, including recall processes, reminders using text messages and being a bit more agile. In terms of a step-change, the beloved red book for children that many mothers in the Room will remember is going to be replaced by a digital red book. My noble friend Lady Wyld looks unhappy about that. I have still got my red books. That will be an important improvement in infrastructure. We are also developing a new IT system for cervical screening and breast screening.
I will have to write on the other points. I apologise that I was unable to cover them. They include the important issue of underserved groups.
I thank all noble Baronesses for their contributions; it has been a pleasure to respond to their questions. Although we believe that we should be proud of our successes in this country and of the public health benefits that our screening and immunisation programmes provide, we are absolutely not complacent and are working hard to improve these services for the future.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am profoundly grateful to all noble Lords speaking in this debate and to many other noble Lords who have expressed their support but are unable to be here today.
This is a sensitive and complex subject, which is important to raise on behalf of so many women and girls who have endured horrific crimes and who are still waiting to receive the support, protection and compensation they so desperately need. In Rotherham, hundreds of children were sexually exploited between 1997 and 2013. Girls as young as 11 were raped by multiple attackers, trafficked to other towns and cities, and abducted and beaten. Some were doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, while others were threatened with guns, made to watch brutally violent rapes and warned they would “be next” if they told anyone.
Repeated calls have been made for the Government to provide sufficient resources to support victims and survivors. Yet still, in October last year, Rotherham Abuse Counselling Service had 260 people on its waiting list, with an average waiting time of seven months. Additional funding is clearly needed for children and young people’s services to meet the needs of victims. To quote Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham:
“If there had been an earthquake affecting the lives of 1,400 children in Rotherham, we would have got emergency funding from the Government to help with their recovery. However, with no such money forthcoming for child abuse, we are largely leaving victims and survivors to get on with the recovery themselves”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/2/19; col. 304.]
Can the Minister therefore say whether Her Majesty’s Government will increase their funding to support victims of grooming gangs, many of whom endure long waiting times to access mental health services, at the very time when they say they need it most? Will they provide additional funding as a matter of urgency to facilitate multi-agency support for victims involved with legal investigations?
Child sexual exploitation occurs in many places. Some estimate that grooming gangs operate in 73 towns, from Plymouth to Liverpool, from Cambridge to Glasgow. However, there is currently no single dataset that distinguishes between “grooming gang offences” and other forms of child sexual abuse, many of which occur in families and are unreported. This means that specific statistics are difficult to ascertain.
However, we know that between April 2017 and March 2018 the police recorded over 16,000 cases of rape of children under the age of 16 in England and Wales. This implies 44 child rapes per day. Ministry of Justice statistics over the same period suggest that few of these rapes resulted in a criminal conviction. In 2017, only 544 rapists were convicted. What is more, victims and their families often have to endure lengthy delays and uncertainty, both before and after court hearings. In 2017 the median time from offence to completion for cases of child rape was 2,115 days. That is close to six years. It is important to stress that these figures do not necessarily relate to grooming gang offences, but the scale of abuse and the time it takes to prosecute offenders raise serious questions about the criminal justice system’s ability to meet the needs of victims.
I have had the painful privilege of being alongside and trying to help some of those who have suffered horrific abuse by grooming gangs. They have described, in heart-wrenching detail, the vulnerability of young girls to persistent, brutal and repeated rape. Noble Lords may be aware of the case of Sarah—not her real name—which has been reported as one of the worst sex grooming cases on record. She describes how she was kidnapped aged 15, imprisoned in a house, forced to learn the Koran and beaten when she made mistakes. She was held as a sex slave for 12 years and was repeatedly raped by different members of the grooming gang. She had three forced Sharia marriages, eight forced abortions and two live births. Her abusers referred to her as “white trash”. They forced her to wear Islamic dress and permitted her to speak only Urdu and Punjabi. She has not received the help she needs from social services and is frequently suicidal.
Noble Lords might also be aware of the case of Caitlin Spencer—another pseudonym—who had the courage to write of her experiences to try to help other vulnerable young girls. Her book, Please, Let Me Go, was recommended in the Sunday Times as a bestseller. The book is in your Lordships’ Library.
Caitlin has described to me how, from the age of 14, she was groomed, sexually exploited and trafficked around this country by gangs of men. She said:
“I have flashbacks all the time. It started when I was so young and to be honest, I’m not even sure it’s over. They have done so much damage to me—emotionally, physically, psychologically—that I think I am probably broken beyond all repair”.
Given that Caitlin still sees her abusers driving their taxis with impunity and that other victims similarly see perpetrators living freely and intimidating them, what more will the Government do to bring these perpetrators to justice?
Caitlin did not receive the help that she needed following her horrendous trauma. She had to fund her own psychotherapy, with help from friends. The same is true for many others. I gather that the Government have recently allocated up to £12 million in funding sexual violence support services, yet the estimated scale of abuse means that each victim would receive the equivalent of only £48 each year. What steps are being taken to ensure adequate support for the victims of these horrific traumas?
The majority of Caitlin’s abusers were men of Pakistani origin. Likewise, in Rotherham, according to the Government’s own findings, abusers came largely from the Pakistani heritage community. Evidence collated by Sikh Youth UK suggests that cases of abuse against young Sikh females by grooming gangs have also been perpetrated by those primarily of Pakistani or Muslim heritage. If media headlines are to be believed, the same is also true for the horrors perpetrated in Telford, Rochdale, Oxfordshire and a growing list of other places.
I must emphasise that that does not mean that all abusers fit the same profile. Child sexual exploitation is not exclusive to any single culture, community, race or religion. However, when it comes to understanding the past and what can be done to prevent future cases, we must be able to have an honest debate. We cannot betray the victims and their families by shying away from the facts.
Over the course of decades, not enough was done to stop these tragedies in Rotherham and other towns. Council staff, social workers and the police allowed the mass gang rape of children to continue. It seems it was far less politically complicated to keep quiet. Many victims did not receive support because of the state’s reluctance to interfere in supposed cultural practices. Agencies downplayed ethnic or religiously identified dimensions of abuse. They also applied generic labels such as “Asian” to the perpetrators, which is a source of great concern to Asians who would never indulge in or condone such horrible crimes.
In the tragic cases of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholics or Anglicans, there is no inhibition about identifying these faith traditions, yet there appears to be a degree of censorship when it comes to identifying abusers who call themselves Muslim, or who use warped interpretations of Islam to justify their abhorrent acts. This kind of political correctness is a source of profound frustration and hurt for those, such as Sarah, who have been abducted, raped and trafficked by grooming gangs. Presumably, it is fear of accusations of racism or Islamophobia that has resulted in the religious identity of these abusers being hidden. However, it is important to recognise reality, because this characteristic often affects the nature of the abuse and suffering inflicted. It is also to be hoped that Muslim leaders will take ownership of policies to prevent these atrocities perpetrated by some Muslims bringing such suffering to vulnerable girls and shame on their faith. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that agencies are not inhibited in the protection of vulnerable women and children by cultural sensitivities or fear of being labelled Islamophobic?
Many victims also report feeling let down by the police and social services. They have often been met with a lack of understanding and feel that their stories are not believed. Some are told that they “brought it on themselves” or that they “must have consented” to being raped. This is profoundly disturbing. The success of prosecutions depends on witnesses and survivors coming forward and testifying. Young girls who have already suffered so much must not be deterred from reaching out for help. Can the Minister therefore clarify the practical measures that are in place to support those who have the courage to speak up, and can she say what is being done to ensure that convictions are obtained and justice achieved?
The scale of suffering far exceeds the preventive measures and support for victims that are currently in place. Until comprehensive action is taken, politicians’ promises of “never again” will continue to remain unfulfilled and vulnerable girls will continue to suffer in ways that would make our suffragettes turn in their graves.
My Lords, I had little notice of this debate’s time limit of three minutes so I will not go round the houses. I must say that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said everything that I believe in. I have met so many victims of this horrendous crime. It saddens me that we label everybody a different sort of victim in all this. Abuse is abuse; it does not matter how you label it.
I have worked closely with Sammy Woodhouse and Louise Haigh, the shadow Policing Minister. Unfortunately, even today, the victims we have highlighted who appeared in the press—we know the cases and the offenders—are still suffering the same abuse but, this time, by the criminal justice system and local authorities. Will my noble friend say whether we can use modern slavery legislation to be more effective in looking into perpetrators? We have lots of county lines and issues around child protection but we are going through the same issue. These victims suffer on a daily basis. There is a lot of internal fighting because they are not getting the correct support; that costs them a lot of money which they cannot afford. I have also met the parents from these terrible families. They feel ostracised because they are worried about their children, but their behaviour is not looked at; it is then labelled as bad parenting.
I visited Operation Stovewood in 2015. I was surprised at how few police officers were on the case but very appreciative of the excellent work they were trying to do. It was hit and miss but we cannot window dress an issue that needs to be thought of as a long-term process. Some of the victims who have been abused and had children by the offenders are being sent to parenting classes to understand what is going on; they cannot interact with the classes, so are labelled as hard people to talk to. The thought of that has never left me. Of course the victims will not interact with the father of the child because he has raped, abused and used them. What is the mentality in saying that better parenting is needed? The victims then self-harm because everybody is saying that it must be their fault—but they want to be good mothers to their children.
Indeed, as we speak, Sammy Woodhouse is facing a huge issue with a local authority. It has gone into a prison to see if the father of her son wants to have care proceedings, so that he can have contact with their son. He was jailed for 35 years. She had no knowledge of this. We must look in this debate at having synergy in all the court processes. We might have the criminal court process but at the end of the day, the family courts do not synergise. As I step down now as Victims’ Commissioner, there is a lot of evidence that we need to look at inquiries into the family courts to see what they are doing to protect the victims of these abusers. More importantly, we must fully understand and support both victims and families. Moving them away does not support them; it hinders them because the perpetrators and the rest of the gangs will follow them.
I would like to know whether police officers are getting the funding they need to carry out these processes to stop more victims being abused. Most importantly, I found when I met police officers that they had put in an application for a fusion centre, representing a multi-agency approach, but it was turned down. I would like the Government to look into more funding.
My Lords, in a three-minute, much-truncated contribution, I want to deal with the money issue. I understand that Rotherham’s expenditure on child social care increased by 90% between 2010 and 2016, and that, in the current year, it is having to spend a further £27 million over and above its 2015-16 budget. Where will the money come from?
In a Commons debate on 5 February, Nadhim Zahawi was forced to admit that the council would have to pay the lion’s share, at a cost to other services. In 2015-16, the Government paid £750,000 to deal with local pressures. They are setting up two national reviews into funding long-term children’s services and into needs and resources—what I call manaña money. They are establishing an assessment on demand arising out of Operation Stovewood, an NCA inquiry into exploitation by criminal gangs. Some £4 million is being allocated nationally for innovation and child exploitation services. This is simply not enough. The crisis is national, not only in Rotherham. The Government should be spending substantially more money in this area.
Sarah Champion has championed the position of people in Rotherham on this matter. In the debate on 5 February, she said:
“If MPs query what the extra money I am requesting is actually needed for, then I beg them to visit their local children’s social care teams and listen to what social workers say”.
In a very moving contribution on behalf of her constituents, she also said:
“I therefore beseech the Minister to recognise the value in children’s care services and recognise that every child in this country deserves an opportunity to thrive, and that that takes persistent sustained and ambitious intervention from Government to achieve”.
“Will the Minister agree today to ask the Chancellor to meet this shortfall in the spending review?”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/2/19; cols. 306-07.]
Finally, on the question of the review, I want to refer to some council taxes which the Minister might have in mind. In Rotherham a former council house in Band C, valued at £53,000, pays £1,528 per annum in council tax. In Westminster a Band H flat in Knightsbridge, worth £120 million, pays £1,507 a year. It is a disgrace. The money is there; the money is in London and it should be transferred out to the provinces to help in the areas where there are major difficulties.
My Lords, we have had two very good briefings for this debate, one from the Library and another from Sarah Champion. I am very grateful for the points she made in her briefing, in particular with regard to the fusion centre. The Government should perhaps relook at this multi- disciplinary approach.
I have some responsibility for this, in that I took the decision to put the commissioners into Rotherham and I asked Louise Casey to do the report. I do not regret that for a moment; we all owe her a great debt. I still think it would be worthwhile re-reading what she said because we have taken too narrow a view of this. What we saw in Rotherham, and have seen in other parts of the country, is a complete breakdown of governance and of local government. Local government and national government are there to protect people, not to abandon them. The noble Baroness referred to some of the perpetrators who called the victims “white scum”. They are not the only ones. The people in charge in Rotherham regarded those girls as not worth looking at or protecting, and not worth thinking about. She is quite right to say that they also had racist views and stereotypes about people of Pakistani origin. It was because they held those racist views that they were too frightened to take issue with people of that origin.
There are four things that we need to do. I do not disagree with anything concerning compensation for the victims but we need to recognise that this is a more widespread problem. We need to root it out. We need to look at the root causes of it and, in particular, to recognise that there must be a multidisciplinary approach. We can see that social services, the health service and the police are working together but, to be frank, we need to recognise that the granting of a taxi licence or a fast food licence is just as important. When the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked an Oral Question, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, made the profound point that we might be able to control taxis in one local authority, but if the number of taxis in another local authority is growing, there needs to be a look right across. In terms of bringing this under control, the number of taxis was brought in. Next, we need to increase the esteem of those young girls and be positive about it. Finally, we need to tackle this within the family.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is surely one of the great humanitarians in our House and perhaps in the country, and it is a great pleasure to speak in her debate. I congratulate her on her speech. I have had to take a lot out of my speech because she has covered so well the terrible violence and the terrible life offered to these poor children in Rotherham. The nightmare of bullying and threats makes one so depressed when one hears about it. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has a committee dealing with problems with Sharia law and marriage, which I attend when I can, and a week or so ago she introduced a young woman who had been one of the abused. She had initially been abused at about eight, I think, and had been set upon by men for sexual purposes. When she came and spoke to us, I think she was probably about 17. She spoke so well and so clearly; it was really quite moving to hear her. I am so glad that she survived and was in a condition to speak in that way. After that, I had great difficulty sleeping at night, but I have somehow become inured to these things.
The Home Secretary at that time was Amber Rudd. She set up an inquiry to which evidence would be given. It was a very surprising episode because she appointed two very eminent women to examine the situation and come to some conclusions, but she chose badly. She chose Professor Jay, who is very eminent in her field, who was later joined by Dame Lowell Goddard, who we all read about in the newspapers. She was from New Zealand and had a very distinguished record in the law. It was odd that as soon as she was appointed to the inquiry, Dame Lowell said that she really could not go ahead with it. I appreciate what she said: she said that she had been chosen for her experience, but, as I understood it, her experience was incompatible with that of Professor Jay, so it became a rather distracting sideshow to something so serious and worrying. That is the situation in which we seem to have ended up.
As the noble Earl is quite rightly pointing at his watch, I will end by saying that there are two questions that need to be answered as early as possible. First, why did the police delay pressing charges for so long after the events? Secondly, why did the Home Secretary decide to go along the route that I have described, with its results? She should really have stopped and started again. I hope something will start again soon.
My Lords, I speak in this debate for two reasons. One is that I have an enormous regard and respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. She has courage and the persistence of a terrier, and long may she retain both that courage and persistence.
My second reason for speaking is that I have three granddaughters and I cannot begin to imagine how appalled, distressed and burnt up with anger I would be if one of those children were violated. We have to remember that, when a child is violated, the man or youth who does it violates his own religion and whatever claim he might have to be a civilised being. When we look at the members of communities in this country who have brought so much to our civilisation and diversity, as the Jews did before the last war, it is deeply distressing that these people are disgracing themselves and their wider community, as well as the British community of which they have become a part. No punishment is really adequate for them.
The most appalling thing that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said was when she talked about the taxi drivers going around with impunity, their guilt widely accepted and known, yet nothing being done to bring those perpetrators to justice. I hope that the message that will go out to both local and national government from this brief debate and the series of brief speeches is, “You haven’t stepped sufficiently up to the mark”. If it takes seven months to bring a perpetrator to justice—the noble Baroness referred to that—and if the compensation is so insultingly derisory, we do not honour ourselves as the upholders of a civilised community and a civilised system.
No one should ever be able to shelter behind the word of religion. Be he Christian, Muslim, Sikh or anything else, the violation of a child destroys any claim that that man might have to being an upholder of his religion. The noble Baroness has been extremely brave. Long may she continue, but may we soon see real priority being given to protecting the weak and the innocent and to punishing the evil.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on her courage in introducing this debate and on the sensitivity in the way that she did it.
I start with the assistance the Government are giving to the victims of grooming gangs in Rotherham and elsewhere. The noble Baroness suggested that this could be as low as an average of £48 per victim, but a Written Answer to me—HL12518—on 20 December 2018 points to a much lower figure, because £4.7 million of the £12 million mentioned by the noble Baroness was a one-off payment. Therefore, the basic support seems to be running at some £7.2 million per annum, and that is for the victims of all sexual abuse, not just for the 250,000 victims of radical Muslim grooming gangs, which in itself is probably an underestimate.
I say that because, if you take the accepted figure of 1,400 victims in Rotherham alone and extend it across the country, you come to a much larger figure. Indeed, Rotherham’s MP, the courageous Sarah Champion, has put the figure at 1 million. The amount spent on helping each of them now becomes derisory. In fact, the vast majority are getting no help at all from the Government. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. It is still going on. I have contacts on the ground in Rotherham who say that grooming gangs are still active there. Traffic wardens turn a blind eye to Muslim taxi drivers who park on yellow lines, and so on.
Turning to what can be done to stop this colossal social scandal, I fear we must start by accepting that the perpetrators are indeed radical Muslims. They should not be confused with other, decent men of Pakistani and Asian origin. Noble and Islamophiliac Lords may not like me saying that, but the excellent Quilliam Foundation found that it is true of 83% of the criminals concerned. If anyone is in any doubt, they should read Peter McLoughlin’s 2016 masterpiece Easy Meat: Inside Britain’s Grooming Gang Scandal, which should be compulsory reading for the Government. Indeed, I brought a copy with me and will give it to the Minister at the end of this debate. I trust that her civil servants will read it too.
I also suggest that we should look for more help from within our close-knit Muslim communities, which pretty much know what is going on and should be very ashamed of what their radical menfolk are doing. I suggest we might also try to learn to talk openly about the tenets of radical Islam. I have mentioned before in your Lordships’ House the tenets of abrogation, Taqiyya, Al Hijra, the lesser jihad and the pursuit of a world caliphate. However, there is another, which may lie at the root of the grooming gang scandal: namely, the radical Muslim tenet known as,
“what your right hand possesses”.
I am advised that this allows Muhammad’s followers to have sex slaves among their captives and among non-Muslim, or kuffar, girls.
The trouble is that as soon as you start talking about radical Islam, you are immediately accused of Islamophobia, even if you can say what you like about any other religion. Perhaps we can return to this when the Brexit muddle is over. In the meantime, we should heed the words of the Home Secretary. If we turn a blind eye to the fact that the vast majority of grooming gang criminals are radical Muslims, we fuel the voices of extremism. That is exactly what is happening.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for securing this very important debate. If we want to address any issue affecting society, we need to understand the cause. For example, cholera was endemic in the mid-19th century and was effectively tackled only when it was shown to be linked to poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water. The problem of gross physical abuse of young women and children by organised grooming gangs also affects lives, and to tackle it, we need to identify responsibility and motivation.
To me, it is a matter of real concern that, instead of pinpointing responsibility, the media, government and other authorities, including the police, absurdly mask the identity of the perpetrators out of misplaced political correctness, calling them “Asians”. We do not refer to the perpetrators of the genocide against Jews as “Europeans”. Why diffuse blame for the actions of mainly Muslim grooming gangs on innocent communities?
I believe the real problem lies with negative cultural attitudes which attach themselves to religion. Negative, demeaning attitudes towards women are still all too prevalent in the subcontinent of India, particularly in that part of it that now forms Pakistan. The Sikh religion started in that part of the world and the Sikh gurus condemned the demeaning attitudes towards women, stressing their dignity and complete equality. Despite the clarity of such teachings, negative cultural attitudes still sometimes exist, even in Sikh families and, indeed, in western society. The presence of grooming gangs in the Muslim community arises from these negative cultural attitudes to women, which leads some to believe that they are part of the religion and that there is nothing wrong with the demeaning treatment of women and girls, particularly those outside the community.
Having identified the perverse culture behind grooming gangs, what work do we do to tackle the problem? More rigorous policing and application of the law can help, but it cannot eradicate deeply ingrained cultural attitudes, and well-meaning attempts to do so can easily be seen as an attack on religion. It is the Muslim community, particularly Muslim leaders, who must take the lead. It is not easy to take on centuries of negative culture wrongly attached to religion. We must help these leaders place the teachings of a great faith in the context of today’s times to stamp out the scourge of sexual grooming, with its negative impact on victims and the fair name of Islam.
My Lords, time is short and I will be brutal. The greatest threats of child sexual exploitation are from within families and online. Grooming gangs exist in all communities, and just as it would be unfair to characterise the Anglican Church as a centre of child abuse, even if 18 members of the clergy were convicted of offences over a 50-year period in the diocese of Chichester alone, it would be similarly unfair to highlight any other religious or racial group as responsible for child sexual exploitation.
Victims are far more likely to be disbelieved because of their standing in society compared to that of their perpetrators than because of political correctness. At the time, no-one believed Sir Jimmy Savile OBE could do such things, for example. When CSE results from a failure in safeguarding, the temptation for responsible authorities to deny it happened at all may be strong.
I commend the NSPCC website for setting out so clearly what needs to be done. Compulsory sex and relationship education in all schools, without an opt-out, to teach children what is and is not a healthy relationship so that they realise when they are being exploited is essential. CSE within families is a major area of concern and perpetrators will not want their children to realise that they are being exploited. Education about the realities of membership of criminal gangs and county lines should also be taught. The Government must raise awareness of the signs of CSE among the public and professionals, and clearly signpost how to report it.
The Government must also take steps to reduce the susceptibility of young people to being exploited. In-work poverty—having to work 16 hours a day to make ends meet—means that parents cannot always be there for their children, who then look elsewhere for the acknowledgement, recognition and acceptance they need. Criminal gangs, terrorist groups and predatory sex offenders create the illusion of providing what these young and vulnerable people are seeking. The Government must do more to tackle inequality and to provide healthy alternatives to gangs and groomers by better funding youth services in local authorities.
In addition to the lack of support for victims that so many noble Lords have highlighted, the Government must do more to ensure that we have enough appropriately skilled and experienced detectives to identify and prosecute those responsible for what can be difficult and sensitive investigations. The whole issue of child exploitation is a national disgrace for which no one group, or community, can be held to blame.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on securing this debate and on her campaigning skills. I support the thrust of her comments on the issue of victims and their families. Vulnerable people who have been encouraged or forced into crime as part of their exploitation should not then be treated as perpetrators of criminal acts but as victims.
A further issue is why vulnerable people who are meant to be being protected still end up being subjected to awful exploitation in the first place. This debate relates to grooming gangs, but on the overall position the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse estimates that 15% of girls and 5% of boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16. The National Crime Agency has said that, at a conservative estimate, around 80,000 people in the UK present some kind of sexual threat to children online. However, there seems to be a lack of reliable up-to-date information on the extent of child sexual abuse, much of which seems to occur in the home. Do the Government have any plans to obtain more reliable information on the nature and level of child sexual abuse?
The Library briefing for this debate contains a speech by the Home Secretary from last September on online child sexual exploitation, in which he said:
“I will continue to make sure that the police have all the powers and tools they need to fight child sexual abuse and to bring offenders to justice”.
“Tools” must include resources. Can the Minister therefore confirm that it is actually the Government’s view that the police currently have all the necessary resources, both human and financial, to fight child sexual abuse and bring offenders to justice, and that there are therefore no issues on that score? In that same speech the Home Secretary referred to the,
“horrendous abuse perpetrated by gangs”.
He went on to say:
“I’ve instructed my officials to explore the particular contexts and characteristics of these types of gangs”.
In answers to an Oral Question last October, the Government said:
“Child sexual exploitation is not exclusive to any single culture, community, race or religion; it happens in all areas of the country and can take many forms”.
I agree. The Government went on to say that,
“we must look at the perpetrators and understand the characteristics. On 3 September, the Home Office tasked a working group to look at what characteristics are involved”.—[Official Report, 18/10/18; col. 562.]
I have some questions about this working group, assuming it has not reported already. Who is on it and who chairs it? What is its budget? What are its specific terms of reference? Does it cover just grooming gangs, or the perpetrators of child sexual abuse across the board? How many times has it met? Within what timescale is it due to make its findings known? Has it issued any interim findings or conclusions? Will its findings be made public?
I ask these questions since things seem to have gone very quiet since the Home Secretary announced the creation of the working group, yet one would have thought that the work it is apparently doing was crucial and urgent in addressing the horror of child sexual exploitation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for securing this important debate. It is a shame that we have only an hour to talk about it, because we really could give an awful lot more time to discussing the Government’s efforts to tackle the terrible crimes of child sexual exploitation. Cases such as Rotherham and all the others we have heard about are really shocking, with some of the most vulnerable in society being preyed upon by ruthless individuals—mostly criminals.
Vulnerability goes to the heart of what we are talking about. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been quite clear—the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, alluded to this—that cultural sensitivities should not get in the way of dealing with this issue and bringing perpetrators to justice. However, we must also be quite clear—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for widening this out—that grooming gangs are not confined to any particular colour, creed or geographical location. To assume they were would be not to get a grip on this issue. The noble Lord talked about how the Catholic Church and the Church of England are not clean in this regard. We have also heard about some of the colleges of music near where I live and the media figureheads who have or have not been brought to justice, as the noble Lord mentioned.
The noble Lord, Lord Singh, talked about leadership. I totally agree that no one area of society has its conscience clear on this. Whatever the organisation or the religious sector, its leadership needs to show real leadership in this regard. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about the victims being treated not as perpetrators but as victims. It is quite clear that some of those victims can come to be seen as perpetrators because of some of the things that they have to do as victims of sexual abuse, quite often as children.
I want to pay tribute to the victims and survivors, some of whose stories have been outlined today, for the incredible effort and strength that it takes to come forward to report what has happened and actually share their experience, having gone through such trauma. It is the Government’s priority to ensure that all victims feel that they can come forward to report abuse and that they will get the assistance they need. Whether they are male or female, a child or an adult, the same principle must apply.
To answer a question from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, no, we do not think that we are there yet. So much has been uncovered in a historical sense that we clearly have an awfully long way to go. That is why the cross-government Victims Strategy, published last September, outlined our commitment to improve support services for victims of sexual abuse. We are also working across government and with the NHS to implement the strategic direction for sexual assault and abuse services, and to deliver the vision of radically improved access to services for victims and survivors of sexual assault and abuse, supporting them to recover, heal and rebuild their lives.
My noble friend Lord Pickles talked about a multidisciplinary approach. I was a great fan of the troubled families programme when I was in the MHCLG—when he was my boss, in fact. I have always been a huge supporter of a multidisciplinary approach to get to the heart of child protection in particular and to deal with some of the things that these children have to endure. We have increased grant funding for victim support services across the country to support a service which victims and survivors can access throughout their lifetime to cope with and, as far as possible, recover from the terrible impact of abuse.
The noble Lord, Lord Pickles, raised the licensing of taxis. Taxi drivers may be licensed on one side of the Pennines and operate in another, in this case in Rotherham. Do the Government have any further measures in line to strengthen the law and stop this happening?
No, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has raised a valid point. Taxi drivers can not only operate in another local authority but cross local authority boundaries into the one where they originally perpetrated the abuse. I will take that back because I do not know what the up-to-date position is on taxi licensing. I take it as a valid point but perhaps I can go on to talk further about funding, because a number of noble Lords have raised that.
In the last three years, the Government have provided over £7.2 million in funding for rape support services, which I think were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. This supports victims and survivors of rape and sexual abuse across England and Wales. These services provide independent, specialist support to female and male victims of sexual violence, including victims of child sexual abuse. Our ambition is to support victims and survivors wherever and whoever they are. That is why, from April this year, government funding for these support services has increased by 10% to a total of £24 million over the next three years. This will ensure, for the first time, that there are government-funded rape and sexual abuse support services in all 42 of the country’s police and crime commissioner areas.
Why should Rotherham have to pick up the lion’s share of this bill when this is a national problem and it already has high council tax arrangements, while other parts of the country with very low council tax, such as here in Westminster, do not have to pay or make any contribution at all? Surely the balance is completely wrong.
I remind the noble Lord and others that we are now seven minutes into my 10-minute response, so there will be a number of questions that I will not get to. Of course, the amount of council tax set is entirely a matter for local authorities. I was always proud that Trafford had the lowest council tax in the north-west. It is a matter of individual decision-making. We could have a whole discussion on council tax, but I will not go there. I will say that it is an individual matter for local areas, and that the Government will increase spending from £31 million in 2018 to £39 million in 2021 to improve services and pathways for survivors and victims of sexual violence and abuse who seek support from sexual assault referral centres, regardless of age or gender.
Recognising the devastating impact of sexual exploitation by organised groups, the Government have also awarded £1 million through the tampon tax fund to the organisation Changing Lives to provide trauma-informed support to vulnerable women who have been groomed by groups of men for sexual exploitation in locations across the north-east and Yorkshire, including Rotherham. The project will result in the production of a toolkit to enable the approach to be replicated nationally.
We also remain committed to providing specialist services to support victims of child sexual abuse. In each of the last four years we have provided £7 million of funding for non-statutory organisations that support victims, and we have invested £7 million in the pilot of a “child house” model in London, which provides a victim-centred multiagency approach to supporting child victims of sexual abuse under one roof, based on international best practice.
However, ensuring offenders do not get the opportunity to exploit our children is key. Prevention and disruption are crucial parts of our response to tackling child sexual exploitation. That is why we launched our trusted relationships fund, which supports local authority-led projects working with children and young people to build resilience to harm through fostering healthy, trusting relationships with adults, protecting them from sexual exploitation, gang exploitation and peer abuse. As part of this, over £1 million has been awarded to Rotherham for the four-year programme.
The Government have also launched the new tackling child exploitation support programme to help safeguarding partners in local areas to tackle a range of threats to children from gangs, sexual and criminal exploitation, online grooming, trafficking and modern slavery. As part of our £40 million package in the child sexual exploitation progress report, we have recently published a child exploitation disruption toolkit, which brings together existing legislative powers to help local agencies to disrupt, deter and tackle sexual and criminal exploitation of children. Since 2016-17, we have provided £23 million of special grant funding to South Yorkshire Police towards the cost of Operation Stovewood, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours.
In September 2018 my right honourable friend the Home Secretary committed to providing an extra £21 million over the next 18 months to improve how law enforcement agencies pursue the most dangerous and prolific offenders. This includes further funding of regional organised crime units to tackle online grooming of children. The 2019-20 police funding settlement provides the biggest increase in police funding since 2010, including more money for local police forces.
The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, asked why the police delayed pressing charges in the Rotherham cases. The key principle underpinning our policing model is the operational independence of the police and the CPS from government, and that they carry out their duties free from political interference, but it is a matter for the police to review what went wrong and, where appropriate, make a referral to the Independent Office for Police Conduct to investigate misconduct.
My noble friend Lady Newlove asked about the link between modern slavery legislation and this issue. We published a child exploitation disruption toolkit that brings together legislation, including the NRM and the modern slavery legislation, that safeguarding agencies can use and explains how they can use it to protect children from sexual and criminal exploitation. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made a very good point about RSE: if children do not know what a healthy relationship looks like, they will not know when they are being exploited.
The final point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. He asked what the Government are doing to improve the understanding of the true scale of child sexual abuse. We recognise that there is a need to better understand the scale and nature of it. Looking at some of the mistakes of the past, scoping reports published by the centre of expertise in 2017-18 found that, due to inconsistent definitions and research methods of previous surveys, it is currently very difficult to make comparisons and track trends over time. Better data is most definitely needed. The centre of expertise is working with partners to develop a detailed proposal for a national prevalence survey on child sexual abuse.
I realise that I have gone a minute over time. I will provide the noble Lord with the answer on the group that was set up, and share it with the Committee. I once again thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox.
Attacks on Journalists
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, shortly after the London CHOGM, I was approached by the Commonwealth Journalists Association—the CJA. It briefed me on its work on Commonwealth principles on freedom of expression and the role of the media in good governance. It was concerned that, despite its efforts to gain a commitment to enshrine Commonwealth media principles in the final CHOGM communique, no consensus could be found among the Commonwealth Heads of State. With more than 100 journalists killed in eight Commonwealth countries between 2006 and 2015, mostly with impunity, there was a strong call for the UK, as chair-in-office, to build that consensus to ensure that the principles relating to the role of the media in good governance are considered at the Rwanda CHOGM in 2020, in accordance with the Commonwealth fundamental values. The promotion of accountable Governments, as well as independent media, can be successful only if political participants show leadership in safeguarding those democratic standards. The CJA set of principles drew on existing Commonwealth declarations, international commitments and soundings with experts from many countries. What progress has been made since CHOGM in achieving a consensus among Commonwealth Heads of State on freedom of expression?
To understand the extent of press and media persecution, just refer to the reports of Reporters Without Borders. Its World Press Freedom Index evaluates the state of journalism in 180 countries and territories every year. For 2019, the index shows how hatred of journalists has degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear. An intense climate of fear has been triggered, which is prejudicial to a safe reporting environment. The hostility towards journalists expressed by political leaders incites increasingly serious and frequent acts of violence. Norway is ranked first in the index for the third year running. The UK has improved slightly from last year’s 40th position, while the USA has slipped from 45th to 48th. Many authoritarian regimes have fallen in the index. Only 24% of the 180 countries are classified as “good”, compared to 26% last year. Threats, insults and attacks are now part of the occupational hazards for journalists in many countries. What measures are the Government taking to accelerate the rather mediocre position of the UK and to lift the country into the top echelons of European nations?
Punish the Crime not the Truth: Highlights from the 2018 UNESCO Director-General’s Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Dangers of Impunity makes grim reading. Some 94% of all killings were of local journalists covering local stories. Nearly one quarter of killed journalists were freelancers, widely considered to be more vulnerable, frequently working alone without media staff back-up. In 2016-17, a journalist was killed every four days; the total reached 182. Impunity for these crimes remained a huge challenge. Of the 1,010 killings recorded by UNESCO in the past 12 years, only 115 were followed by a judicial procedure, leaving 89% unresolved. The overall effect is to impede progress towards “public access to information” and “fundamental freedoms”, an agreed target in SDG 16.10. UNESCO stresses that increasing the safety of journalists worldwide and combatting impunity for crimes committed against them requires a concerted effort of all stakeholders. What measures are the Government proposing for that aim in their freedom for the media campaign?
In 1993, 3 May was established as World Press Freedom Day, in response to a call by African journalists who in 1991 had produced the Windhoek declaration on media pluralism and independence. This year, the day took place under the theme “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation,” aimed at highlighting the current challenges faced by the media in elections. What were the outcomes of those deliberations and what actions were agreed to tackle these issues collectively?
In November 2018, the Foreign Secretary, writing in the Evening Standard, said that defending a free media must be a central element of British foreign policy and outlined the links between a free media, good governance and defeating corruption. He wrote:
“Hard evidence shows a striking overlap between the countries with the least corruption and the countries with the freest media”.
The Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place is undertaking an examination of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and global media freedom following the Foreign Secretary’s statement. Written evidence from the BBC and the National Union of Journalists is now in circulation. The NUJ has produced a comprehensive 83-point statement, concluding with a request that the previous Foreign Secretary’s £l million scheme to boost press freedom be published—assuming that it has been launched and is still operating. Will this be done?
The BBC World Service produced a comprehensive written submission to the committee with an overview of particular concerns for their Persian journalists and their families. The BBC points out that it remains the most trusted global news provider, with its news services reaching more people than ever, some 347 million. I can confirm from my experience in years gone by that whenever you are in a country where there is a problem, with riots or whatever, it is the BBC news service you turn to first. Will the Government work closely with the BBC in its quest to preserve, maintain and expand free media globally? The Foreign Secretary stated that his aim was to bring together the countries which believe in the cause of defending a free media in order to mobilise a consensus behind the protection of journalists, with Britain as the chain that links the nations who share our values, by alerting public opinion and imposing a diplomatic price as an incentive. Does the Minister agree? Does the Foreign Secretary propose to start with Commonwealth countries who share the Commonwealth values of freedom of speech and expression but have yet to sign up to them post-CHOGM? Would that work?
The Foreign Secretary also cited work undertaken by the Government and British embassies to support media freedom worldwide. He announced £8.5 million funding for essential work in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to lead the struggle against propaganda and the misuse of the internet. Can the Minister be more specific about what this work entails? There has been much comment in recent weeks about the engagement of contractors from Asian countries, China in particular, in work of this nature, which is, I imagine, not something we wish to encourage.
In Addis Ababa on 3 May—World Press Freedom Day—the Foreign Secretary announced a new Chevening fellowship programme for 60 media professionals across Africa. It will focus on promoting and protecting media freedom and improving the safety of journalists. As an extension of the much-admired Chevening scholarship programme, this has to be all to the good, provided that the scholarship programme is not diluted to fund these fellowships, as has happened with ventures of a similar nature in the past. Can the Minister give an assurance that the fellowships will be funded with new money and not by syphoning funds from existing budgets of the Chevening scholarship programme?
Finally, we should welcome the initiative of appointing Amal Clooney as the United Kingdom’s first special envoy on media freedom and chair of a new panel of legal experts in April. The timing attracted some cynicism, as it came within hours of Wikileaks warning about the potential expulsion and likely arrest of Julian Assange, but that is no matter. It so happens that I had the opportunity to talk with officials, and latterly Mrs Clooney, at some length in February. I was clear that the Clooney Foundation for Justice, and TrialWatch can provide a new initiative in cases where courts are being used as tools of oppression against government critics and minorities. While it was clear that this would not be a campaigning programme, there was interest in liaising with parliamentarians engaged with these wider issues, for example, by jointly contributing to media freedom events organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on the Commonwealth and on Africa. Will the Minister agree to meet me at a later date to explore the potential scope of this initiative?
My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for the way in which he has introduced today’s debate with his customary expertise and skill.
Central to any debate looking at press freedom and the harassment of journalists is Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
These last three words “regardless of frontiers” remind us that this is a transnational obligation which all states are duty-bound to uphold. This obligation is given even sharper definition in the internet age, as journalists face ever more danger—intimidation, imprisonment, violent attacks and even murder—in reprisal for their work. Only yesterday, in the Times there was a report on the death of an Afghan journalist, Mena Mangal, who was shot dead in Kabul. Fifteen other reporters and media workers were killed in Afghanistan last year.
Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, is to be commended for marking World Press Freedom Day, launching a global campaign to protect journalists doing their job, and promoting the benefits of a free media and especially for hosting in July the world’s first ministerial summit on media freedom.
The urgent need for this initiative was underlined at the Legatum Institute’s Courage in Journalism award which I recently attended. It was given posthumously in recognition of amazing bravery. Poignantly, the ceremony was being held a few days after Lyra McKee’s funeral in Northern Ireland. One of the judges, the award-winning journalist, Christina Lamb, recalled the death of her colleague, Marie Colvin, killed in Homs. Reflecting on her own 32 years as a journalist, she said that the job had become much more dangerous. The judges highlighted 70 deaths during the past year. Christina Lamb said:
“From Afghanistan to Mexico, from Palestine to Somalia, and from Brazil to India, journalists on assignment were shot in the back, blown up by car bombs or died in suicide attacks”.
In 2018, according to the Foreign Office, 99 journalists were killed, 348 detained and 60 taken hostage by non-state groups. Although there are conflicting figures, all agree that 2018 was the deadliest year ever for journalists.
All of us here are too well aware of the lethal dangers in countries such as North Korea and Pakistan. I declare an interest as co-chair of two relevant All-Party Parliamentary Groups. However, this is an issue in Europe as well. In October 2017, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta’s best-known investigative journalist, was killed when a car bomb exploded after she had reported on government corruption, nepotism, money laundering and organised crime.
The 2019 Legatum award was given in memory of a brave young man, Ján Kuciak from Slovakia. He was just 27 when he was murdered, along with his fiancée, following an investigation in which he linked the Italian mafia to the City of London and Slovakian senior government advisors. His reporting led to the fall of the Slovakian Government and rallied many in the nation to get behind press freedom.
Reporters Without Borders, reflecting on its index of 180 countries, says that the line separating physical from verbal violence is dissolving. By way of example, its index states that, in the Philippines—ranked 133rd—President Rodrigo Duterte, “constantly insults reporters”, outrageously warning that they are “not exempted from assassination”.
Even in democratic societies, the use of intemperate vituperative insults and dog whistles creates a climate of rancid hatred, and politicians need to think more carefully about their use of language.
When the Minister replies, I would like him to comment on these examples from Afghanistan, Malta, Slovakia and the Philippines, and the situations in Papua, Iran and China. Last week, here at Westminster, representatives of West Papua meeting the noble Lord, Lord Collins, me and others described,
“appalling restrictions on foreign journalists from visiting Papua and surveillance and controls on Indonesian journalists”.
On 3 February last year, three BBC workers were deported from West Papua after commenting on the humanitarian health crisis in Asmat, during which around 100 children died. My noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries, who chaired the meeting last week, will no doubt say more about this in due course. The BBC also faces restrictions in Iran—we heard about them from the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey—which has been systematically targeting BBC Persian journalists, based mainly in London.
What of China, let alone North Korea, which boasts of its complete information blockade? Reporters Without Borders says that under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China exported,
“its tightly controlled news and information model in Asia”,
enabling other countries near the bottom of its index, including Vietnam, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, to continue their suppression of criticism and dissent. RWF says that its index has never previously had to classify so many countries as very bad. That is reinforced by Freedom House, which says that only 13% of the world’s population lives in a country with a genuinely free press, while 45% of the population lives in a media environment that is not free and that global press freedom has declined to its lowest point in 13 years.
All that illustrates why the Government’s initiative, like this debate, is to be welcomed, why we must be more energetic in upholding Article 19, and why we must safeguard a freedom that is a cornerstone of open, free and democratic societies.
My Lords, I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for bringing this important debate forward today.
To build on the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, free media is essentially a key human right, which, as he said, is outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in our own Human Rights Act. It is a core component of democracy that performs a series of functions: scrutiny and oversight of government, business and organisations; informing the public; enabling the public to form their own political views; and keeping the spotlight on important issues.
However, far from media freedom developing, we live in alarming times, when there is more and more pressure on journalists, as noble Lords have made all too clear. Half of the top 10 most inventive countries are also in the top 10 for media freedom. Media freedom results in creativity, business opportunities and innovation. This is a time when we, protected by the BBC—a great safeguard and beacon around the world—are seeing journalists increasingly under threat.
There was great relief when we heard that the two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were released after 500 days in custody after reporting on the Rohingya crisis. However, as has been said, the number of journalists in prison because of their work has increased steadily since 2000. At least 251 journalists are currently in jail in countries that include China, Egypt and Turkey. However, more alarmingly, as has been said, 95 journalists lost their lives last year in targeted killings. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned Marie Colvin but there are many others: last year, Ján Kuciak, who the noble Lord mentioned, was killed in February; nine journalists were killed in Kabul in April; five journalists were killed in June in Annapolis, Maryland; and four journalists were killed in December in Mogadishu.
Perhaps the most grotesque of all was the murder of Jamal Khashoggi last year. Most of those killed are local journalists—only 7% are foreign. But this particularly distinguished man, US-educated and working for the Washington Post, was dismembered in the most macabre way in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. What is so striking is that President Erdoğan, rightly, was outspoken and determined in condemning the violent murder of a journalist in Istanbul.
However, there is a deep irony when one considers Turkey’s track record in this area. Over the last few years Turkey has consistently been the worst and largest jailer of journalists. The Istanbul-based NGO P24, co-founded by the distinguished Andy Finkel, believes that 146 journalists and media workers are currently detained. Recently Turkey has gone beyond its crackdown on journalists to begin targeting NGOs, civil society organisations and charities involved in highlighting the existing threat to free expression. Ten senior employees of human rights groups were arrested during a workshop in the summer of 2017, including the director of Amnesty International Turkey. It is the first time that Amnesty International has had both a director and chair in the same country behind bars at the same time. The Open Society Foundations were forced to cease operations last year. Osman Kavala, a Turkish businessman, philanthropist and pillar of society, has been languishing in pre-trial detention for 18 months, while 1,419 locally incorporated civil society organisations closed in the autocratic consolidation in the aftermath of the failed coup.
Our relationship with Turkey is important. I accept that the Foreign Secretary and Ministers have a close relationship. Turkey is a member of NATO and an important trading partner. However, we cannot overlook the appalling treatment of journalists. Turkey is perhaps an extreme example. It is not only that we see incarceration; journalists are also under pressure. They abandon political stories, withhold information and tone down coverage in response to threats of violence or coercion. Countries refuse entry to journalists or deny them permits. There are all manner of ways in which intimidation and threats take place.
Like others, I therefore greatly welcome the leadership that the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has given on this subject with a really forceful commitment to supporting press freedom around the world, a central element of British foreign policy. He spoke, as has been said, at the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day in Addis Ababa. Mention has been made of the important Chevening Africa Media Freedom Fellowship scholarships and of the appointment of Amal Clooney, a hugely effective and very impressive woman with competence and skill but also the ability to garner attention and throw a spotlight on to this desperate situation.
UNESCO has suggested that supporting freedom of the press follows six key priorities: public awareness; standards creation and policy development; monitoring and reporting; capacity building within member states to prevent attacks and prosecute perpetrators; academic research; and strengthening coalitions. In my view, the example being set by our Foreign Secretary, anticipating the Global Conference for Media Freedom in July this year, gives us a splendid platform on which to act. It is ironic that at a time when many in this Parliament regret the toxic effects of social media, there are many countries where it is social media, alongside the BBC, that provide the opportunity for true and accurate evidence.
My Lords, my particular concern is the protection, or lack of it, for interpreters and translators working alongside many journalists in conflict zones. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.
The role of interpreters in conflict situations is vital but poorly understood and rarely acknowledged. They are unsung heroes. I am quite sure that journalists would be happy to confirm how important interpreters can be for them, just as members of the Armed Forces have been fulsome in their praise for the interpreters working with them in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. However, it is not sufficient to classify interpreters as “media workers” or “media professionals”, as they have been under various UN resolutions on the safety of journalists. On the contrary, subsuming professional civilian interpreters within the media generally has added to their invisibility and lack of status. Neither can they rely on the Geneva conventions for their protection, whether during or after a conflict, because they are simply not ordinary civilians any more than journalists are.
When foreign correspondents leave a conflict zone, the local interpreters are left to fend for themselves. Although we have some statistics on the appalling level of violence towards journalists, the vulnerability of interpreters, on whom many journalists would be the first to admit they depend, is undocumented. Interpreters are often the victims of distrust, discrimination and threats from all sides. Indeed, there is even a syndrome known as the translator-traitor mentality—in other words, the assumption that the local civilian translator or interpreter is not doing a neutral, professional job but must be working for the other side, whoever that happens to be.
I pay tribute to the work of Red T, an international NGO based in New York that monitors incidents involving the translator-traitor mentality. In 2012, it produced the first ever conflict zone field guide for linguists and users of their services. Some of the guidance is about very small details but ones that can make all the difference as to whether an interpreter is wrongly perceived. For example, users, including journalists, are asked to be aware of how they position themselves physically, making sure that eye contact is between the two parties and not with the interpreter, which might give rise to suspicions about impartiality.
Red T has also called for a UN resolution conferring special legal status on interpreters in conflict zones, similar to Resolutions 1738 and 2222 about journalists and the media and their safety. The Minister has been kind enough to discuss this issue with me before and to facilitate contact between Red T and our ambassador at the UN. I am very grateful for his interest and concern, but I ask him now whether he will undertake to raise the profile of this issue and give it greater momentum by adding the support of Her Majesty’s Government to that of other countries—so far, Sweden, Spain and Belarus—in calling for a Security Council resolution along the lines I have mentioned. I believe that the UK is currently the penholder at the UN for the protection of civilians, so, in my opinion, it would be an excellent example of leadership to take this issue forward.
I do not wish for one minute to deny or undermine in any way the vulnerability of journalists we have heard about, and I fully support the call for stronger measures to increase their safety and protection. However, I urge the Government—and, indeed, the media as it reports and comments on this whole issue—also to acknowledge the vulnerable position of local interpreters and to make common cause with them. As George Packer of the New Yorker magazine said about foreign correspondents and interpreters:
“Both are considered spies, but one is only an infidel, while the other is something worse—an apostate, a traitor”.
I would like to give three examples to illustrate that. In 2006, the journalist Jill Carroll was abducted in Baghdad, together with her Iraqi interpreter, Allan Enwiyah. Carroll was released physically unharmed after nearly three months, while the interpreter was found dead with two bullets in his head. In the same year, Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo and his interpreter were captured in Afghanistan. Mastrogiacomo was rescued in a deal that swapped him for imprisoned Taliban. The interpreter was beheaded. In 2015, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, an Iraqi interpreter, was kidnapped along with two British journalists who were working on a story about clashes between Kurdish youth and the Turkish security forces. The journalists were released after six days, but the interpreter spent over four months in prison and was freed on bail only because media and human rights organisations campaigned forcefully for his freedom and his life.
I hope that the Minister will reassure me that he is willing to inject a greater sense of urgency into the call for a Security Council resolution. I would also be grateful if he would agree to meet Red T the next time he is in New York on ministerial business at the UN. Finally, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for tabling this debate and for giving me the opportunity to raise these important issues.
My Lords, for me, the best place to begin thinking about this subject is at a small altar in St Bride’s, Fleet Street. On the altar are the photos of journalists who have been killed in the course of their work, with candles burning beside them. It is sobering and moving to stand there for a few moments. Sadly, in recent years there has been a record number of journalists killed, with 2018 the deadliest year yet: 99 lost in that way. In addition, of course, is the increasing number who have been imprisoned: 348 in 2018. What adds to the shocking nature of this is the way that so many states restrain, detain and sometimes kill journalists as a matter of course—of which the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy by agents of the Saudi Government was only the most brazen.
Attacks on journalists come in three different forms and need to be thought about in different ways. First, there are the deaths of journalists reporting in war zones or situations of conflict, such as the recent sad death of Lyra McKee. Then there are the attacks on journalists as a result of their investigation of organised crime. Thirdly, there are attacks on journalists by the state itself.
In relation to the first kind of deaths, steps have been taken by international journalists’ organisations to encourage states to offer special support to reporters working in areas of conflict or at times of special tension. In South Africa, for example, there are stronger penalties for attacks on journalists at election time, setting a very good example of something that could be put into effect.
In relation to the second kind of attack—on journalists investigating criminal activity—I wonder whether it would be possible to enlist greater state help in the protection of such journalists. However harsh a regime may be when it itself is attacked, few actually welcome organised crime, which can also be a threat to the Government themselves. I am of course aware that in some countries, Governments, or at least some people in those Governments, are indeed linked to organised crime. Also, it is of the essence of much journalistic work that it has to go on under cover and in secrecy, so it may be counterproductive to look for state protection in any form. That having been said, any Government who refused to sign a covenant offering support and a measure of protection to journalists investigating organised crime would hardly enhance their reputation.
Thirdly, there is the most serious and difficult form of attack: that organised by Governments themselves. Here, the only protection available at the moment is unrelenting exposure of what is happening, and ceaseless campaigning. A Government may feel that they can ignore bad international publicity about the way in which they imprison journalists, but none welcome having such a reputation, especially if they are linked in the public mind with states that they themselves condemn. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, pointed out, there is particular irony in the criticism of Saudi Arabia by Turkey, because Turkey detains more reporters than any other country in the world: 68 at the moment.
India prides itself on being the largest democracy in the world, yet, partly as a result of increasing Hindu nationalism, it is increasingly difficult for journalists to report what is happening. Six or possibly seven were killed in 2018, with a number of attacks on journalists in the lead-up to the recent elections. Attacks on women journalists were particularly marked. This is true worldwide. The International Federation of Journalists’ survey of women journalists revealed that 48% had experienced gender-based violence in their work and 44% had suffered online abuse.
In a globalised world, we know that we have to have some kind of relationship with the most unsavoury Governments, and trading relationships with many of them, but we look to Her Majesty’s Government to take every opportunity to raise issues of press freedom with them and, when reporters are detained, to press for their release. In some countries, we continue to have influence and leverage. Take Egypt, for example, where President al-Sisi rules with the support of the army and the general support of the international community as seeming to offer greater stability than the Muslim Brotherhood. On the basis of that support, we need to remind the President that Egypt is now 161st out of 180 in world rankings of press freedom, with 25 journalists in jail.
Some countries do not appear to have many journalists detained because there is no freedom to report at all, of which the most notorious is West Papua, where the press, like NGOs, are not allowed in—and, if they get in, they are quickly deported. Even the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, was barred from visiting West Papua. All foreign media were explicitly banned from reporting the conduct of the recent elections there.
When President Joko Widodo visited Parliament in 2016, I was able to talk to him about the lack of media access to West Papua. I pointed out that, although he had assured the world that access would be given, it was in fact being blocked. He said that he would try to address this, but nothing has happened. Now that he is about to be re-elected—I think that the results officially come out next week—it is time for Her Majesty’s Government to press him very seriously on this to allow proper, unfettered access. He needs to see that his standing in the international community depends on movement on this issue.
Just outside the rebuilt Broadcasting House is a fine statue of George Orwell, with some of his words carved beside it:
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
In a world of increasing untruth, where lying or gross misrepresentation are taken for granted, the fearlessness of those willing to support the truth is more needed than ever. We salute those who risk their freedom and put their lives on the line to do this.
My Lords, I will speak very briefly in the gap. I refer in particular to a case raised by my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries. In doing so, I declare an interest. I visited the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua for seven successive years as an adviser to BP on the development of its large gas reserves there.
I will say this about the Indonesian ban on international journalists going to the provinces of Papua and West Papua: it is totally counterproductive. It does not stop terrible stories—sometimes accurate, sometimes less than accurate—about human rights abuses in those two provinces. It merely ensures that they are more luridly reported. There was no benefit to Indonesia from this ban that I could see from the times I went there. I therefore echo the appeal by my noble and right reverend friend that, if and when the President is re-elected for a second term, the Government should seek to persuade him to lift the ban on journalists going there.
The second case I will mention was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Alton: the harassment by the Iranian Government of the families of Persian TV journalists here. They are subjected to all kinds of harassment. It is extremely unpleasant. One of the journalists here was prevented from visiting her father on his death bed. It is intolerable. We are, quite rightly, taking the view that the nuclear agreement with Iran must be defended and sustained. I am not suggesting that one should be traded against the other, but the Iranian Government should be reminded that we are taking quite a lot of flak from our closest ally on this matter, and they are doing nothing but harass BBC journalists.
My Lords, it is standard in debates such as this to congratulate the noble Lord or noble Baroness who brought the debate. Naturally, I will do that this evening. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Chidgey for doing so, but it is also a particularly timely debate because, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, we heard only yesterday of the death of another Afghan journalist, Mina Mangal.
Press freedom and freedom of the media affects all of us. It is not just an international issue; it comes closer to home. In preparation for this debate I did a little bit of research, as other Peers will have done, but rather than reading the Library briefing I looked elsewhere to see what other issues we might want to think about. I remembered that Laura Kuenssberg, a BBC journalist here, at one point two years ago had a protection officer going to a party conference. In the 21st century, there is surely something wrong when a journalist in this country feels that they need protection. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, made clear, freedom of expression is a human right and should be completely uncontested for the media in this country.
However, this debate is clearly about wider issues of media freedom. The most egregious cases are not in the United Kingdom but in parts of the Commonwealth and other parts of Europe. My noble friend Lord Chidgey started with a discussion of the Commonwealth. It may not surprise noble Lords that I will mention a European country, a country that has aspired to membership of the European Union in the past: Turkey.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, pointed out that Turkey is one of our allies in NATO, but it has also aspired to be a member of the European Union. For it to do this, it is vital to accept democracy, human rights, rule of law and freedom of expression. If a country wants to be part of the western community of nations, imprisoning journalists for no good reason is clearly not a way to do that. We all need to stand up and call out repression of the media. In addition to what we are doing in the Commonwealth, what are the Government doing with our NATO partners?
One of the countries with the greatest problems is Iran, particularly regarding the BBC Persian Service. Many of us have had the briefing from the BBC. What representations are the Government making to the Iranian Government? I know that the previous and current Foreign Secretaries have been involved, but can the Minister give us any reassurance that Iranians and British Iranians are being adequately assured about their safety?
It is vital that journalists are free to do their jobs and do not fear for their lives. As the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, so eloquently pointed out, it is not just about the journalists. The lives of the people who enable the journalists to do their jobs—the interpreters, whose role we so often ignore—are potentially in greater danger. What are the Government doing to ensure that interpreters are being supported?
Furthermore, it is important for us to remember to think about the issues of imprisoning journalists and curtailing freedom of speech. Governments with whom we have relationships are doing these things, be it Turkey or Saudi Arabia. We should not simply turn a blind eye to these issues. The most egregious attacks on freedom are only the most difficult cases. It is important not simply to ensure that journalists do not fear for their lives and being put in prison; they should also feel assured that they can speak the truth and speak truth to power. That is the key role of any journalist. It is essential that we have freedom of the press in all parts of the world. If the leader of what used to be known as the western world, the President of the United States, calls out the media and claims that there are “fake news” issues, it damages freedom. It also undermines the democratic process: if we cannot trust journalists, who do we trust to speak truth to power?
It is essential that the press be free in all parts of the world, and that leaders lead not by calling out the media but by responding to appropriate questioning from it. Might the Government raise that issue with Donald Trump?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for this extremely timely debate. Many of us read the briefing and the IFJ report, In the Shadow of Violence: Journalists and Media Staff Killed in 2018. The numbers are horrendous and up from the previous year; 95 journalists were killed in 2018. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, said, we should not forget those who have been imprisoned, particularly in China, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Syria—the countries with the highest numbers of imprisoned journalists.
Reporters Without Borders pointed out that only 9% of the world’s population currently live in countries where journalists enjoy a favourable environment and are able to practise their profession freely and independently. Does the Minister agree with its call for the creation of a UN special rapporteur with responsibility for monitoring the protection of journalists and press freedom? Of course, the recent murder of Lyra McKee in Derry was the first recorded killing of a journalist in the UK since Martin O’Hagan was shot dead outside his home in Northern Ireland in 2001. That killing reminds us that attacks on journalists are not restricted to state actors. Earlier this year, the NUJ reported on,
“an alarming spate of recent incidents of intimidation, threats and violence carried out by far-right protesters systematically targeting the media, especially photojournalists”.
It has asked the Metropolitan Police and the National Police Chiefs’ Council to engage with the union and its members to discuss how policing can be improved to better protect journalists. Have the Government taken any steps to facilitate such engagement?
Like other noble Lords, I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s plans for the Global Conference for Media Freedom, set for London in July. To achieve maximum impact, the Government should adopt an inclusive approach, engaging with a range of stakeholders, including industry representatives and the TUC. I was concerned to read in the briefing that, apart from one informal meeting, the NUJ has not been asked to participate in further work on shaping the conference; nor has it been invited to attend the FCO advisory groups. I hope the Minister agrees that engaging with the NUJ and the IFJ should be central to this work and not marginalised.
Jeremy Hunt’s special envoy on media freedom, Amal Clooney, will chair a high-level panel of legal experts on this issue. Will the Minister suggest that she also meets the NUJ and the International Federation of Journalists? I note that the panel may also propose mechanisms that raise the cost of non-compliance with media freedom, including advising on sanctions targeting regimes that abuse journalists, the creation of a special body that investigates crimes against reporters and restrictions on trials against reporters. Amal Clooney singled out India and Brazil as two large democratic countries where journalists have been targeted; like noble Lords, she also pointed to the brutal murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. It is over six months since his murder but we should not forget why he was killed—simply for writing articles criticising the war in Yemen and the rule of Crown Prince bin Salman. Can the Minister tell us what conclusions the Government have reached on who ordered his murder?
Of course, crimes against journalists often go unpunished. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the assassination in Malta in 2017 of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, which remains unsolved, with the Maltese authorities still resisting calls for a public inquiry.
There is also another issue. We talk about press freedom, but of course journalists are not now working simply for the press; they increasingly use social media to spread information. It is important that repressive Governments are not able to cut off access to social media to quell what they see as unhelpful reporting. What steps are the Government taking to promote online freedom globally? What reassurance can the Minister give those concerned about the impact on press freedom of the Government’s White Paper proposals to tackle online harm? What has been properly reflected in this debate is that whatever we say for other countries, we must do ourselves. It is important that we in this country protect all aspects of press freedom.
Finally, I too want to associate myself strongly with the comments of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on West Papua. As the Minister knows, I raised the reports from West Papua about the use of white phosphorus, which is potentially a war crime. The issue in West Papua is that there is no access to investigate or discover what is happening. No independent journalist has been able to report, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, has told us in the debate. I know that the Minister promised to write to me about those allegations in West Papua, but I hope he will also be able to reassure us today that he will strongly argue, when the new President has been elected, for proper access for the media to that province.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for tabling this debate. I recognise and acknowledge his outstanding commitment to international affairs over many years. He keeps me on my toes regarding all aspects of the Commonwealth, and today is no exception. By his doing that, I have come to value his input and insights on issues across the board, particularly those relating to human rights. Today’s debate is no different.
It is poignant that we are meeting just a day after the death of Mina Mangal, as several noble Lords have pointed out, including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, my noble friend Lady Bottomley, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. Those who knew Mina will pay tribute to her incredible work in Afghanistan. I am troubled by the challenges presented by the rekindling of the strength of the Taliban. What hope does that hold for brave and courageous journalists such as Mina? We pay tribute to her work and to her courage, but she has become yet another statistic as a journalist who has been killed simply for doing her job. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, among others, pointed out, this is not just the situation abroad, as indeed Lyra McKee’s murder showed. It is not just about state actors; rather, it is a challenge we face at home as well.
We all recognise the vital contribution that a free media can make to a healthy democracy and society as a whole through seeking out and exposing the truth to inform the public and hold the powerful to account. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, in introducing the debate, last year alone some 99 journalists were killed across the world, while 348 were imprisoned and 60 taken hostage—and those are just the reported figures. Restrictive laws are being used in more and more countries to stifle freedom of expression and to prevent the functioning of an independent media. I pay tribute to all noble Lords who are speaking in this debate for their work to ensure that we remain focused on this important human right.
The international framework around media freedom and the protection of journalists is well established at the United Nations. Clear provisions on the freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are contained in several human rights treaties and in multiple resolutions from both the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly. Alongside that framework is the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. It offers states a blueprint for how to create a safe and free environment for journalists and media workers, including interpreters, by putting in place legislation and safeguarding mechanisms. Clearly, though, having frameworks is not enough; actions need to happen, and therefore I share the frustration expressed by many noble Lords that so much more still needs to be done to provide legal protection, safety and security to journalists around the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, rightly raised the issue of the UK itself and undoubtedly, our current status in the rankings is not something that we accept. He asked what progress was being made. We are committed to improving our ranking in the index. For example, we are committed to repealing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act at the earliest opportunity. We are also consulting with civil society on the online harms White Paper, which was a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. That is why, as noble Lords acknowledged, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, together with his Canadian counterpart, launched the global campaign to defend media freedom to protect journalists doing their jobs, to raise the costs to those who would silence them, and to promote the benefits of a free media.
The centrepiece of our campaign will be the world’s first ministerial summit on media freedom, as the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, mentioned, which will be held in London on 10 and 11 July. The noble Lord may be interested to know that a key focus of the summit will be strengthening the legal protection of journalists. Therefore, we were delighted that the international human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, agreed to serve as the Foreign Secretary’s special envoy. I was at a meeting recently at the UN where I was able to speak directly with Amal, and we look forward to welcoming her in London and continuing our work with her. I know that many noble Lords welcome her appointment.
We are also continuing to take action in other ways to defend media freedom and protect journalists. Last December, as chair of the Human Dimension Committee of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the UK steered through the OSCE’s first ever media freedom commitment and its first specific human rights decision since 2014—the Ministerial Council Decision on the Safety of Journalists. Importantly, this politically binding commitment recognises the link between the safety of journalists and security within and between states. The UK is an active member of the OSCE’s Group of Friends on Safety of Journalists, which we helped to establish.
We also give support to the Council of Europe’s excellent online Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists and use our influence at the UN Human Rights Council to support media freedom. Indeed, I announced our campaign to defend media freedom there in February and spoke at a panel focused on impunity organised by ARTICLE 19.
The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, asked about the Commonwealth and the work that has been done since CHOGM last year. We are actively supporting efforts by the Commonwealth Journalists Association and the CPAUK, among others, to build consensus on the 12 Commonwealth Principles on freedom of expression and the role of the media in good governance. We very much hope these principles can be adopted at the Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali next year.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, raised the issue of specific action in countries. For example he asked about organised crime. In Mexico, our embassy is working closely with the federal protection mechanism to develop plans to prevent violence against journalists. We already support local protection mechanisms in Mexico, where the main challenge remains organised crime. In addition to action in multilateral forums, as I just said in the example given on Mexico, we work through our network of embassies and high commissions. Indeed, two weeks ago, our posts across the globe held events to mark World Press Freedom Day, including in Ethiopia where my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary celebrated the positive example that the country has shown in embracing media freedom.
The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, asked about Chevening scholarships and the new scholarships that the Foreign Secretary has announced. I assure him that they are new, in addition to the existing ones we offer. In eastern Europe and the Baltic states, our Conflict, Stability and Security Fund has devoted more than £20 million over the past 12 months to supporting media development and countering disinformation. In Iraq over the last 12 months, the British embassy partnered with a local NGO to deliver 15 media workshops, and other work is being done across the Middle East, including in Syria.
The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Hannay, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised the issue of the BBC in Iran, as did my noble friend Lady Bottomley. I assure noble Lords that the Foreign Secretary specifically raised concerns about the harassment of BBC Persian staff and the families in Iran with his Iranian counterpart during his visit to Tehran on 19 November last year. Officials at the embassy in Tehran continue to raise these issues. I note with deep interest the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about the current situation we confront in Iran. I assure him that we are making our commitment to support the JCPOA very clear to Iranian counterparts.
Other countries were mentioned, including Malta, as was the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. I assure the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Collins, that we continue to raise her case regularly with the Maltese Government, including at ministerial level, and our high commissioner continues to raise this issue regularly.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, also mentioned Slovakia and Ján Kuciak. The UK has offered National Crime Agency assistance in this regard. The offer was appreciated but, regrettably, it was not taken up. We will seek other opportunities to press Slovakia to address corruption and promote media freedom.
My noble friend Lady Bottomley and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised Saudi Arabia and Jamal Khashoggi. I assure noble Lords that we continue to raise this case. The Foreign Secretary raised in on 12 November in key meetings, including with King Salman and the Crown Prince. It was again raised by the Foreign Secretary in a visit in March and again with Minister of State Al Jaber when he visited London. Turkey is an ally, but we continue to raise issues of journalistic freedoms. I have done so directly. We are working very closely with civil society groups. We have seen some success with our work on human rights defenders through Amnesty International. I assure my noble friend Lady Bottomley and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that it is because of that engagement that we continue to raise these issues, at times publicly and at times privately. As we have seen, it produces results.
I pay tribute to the strong advocacy by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on interpreters. She asked about me meeting Red T at the United Nations. I would be delighted to do so. I will also see how we can include and involve it in the summer conference here in London. I assure the noble Baroness that we plan to consider the protection of journalists and interpreters at a side event during the UN’s annual protection of civilians week this year. I will work with the noble Baroness to see how we can work further on her proposal.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, rightly raised the issue of women journalists. In opening, I talked about the sad fact that we are meeting the day after the murder of a woman journalist. We need to ensure that special conditions and security are offered to journalists. We hope this will be part of our focus in the July conference.
The noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Collins, raised the issue of West Papua. The response to a particular question by the noble Lord is in progress and I will follow up on it. Egypt was also mentioned. I wrote to the Egyptian Assistant Minister for Human Rights on 28 April expressing our concerns about media freedom in Egypt. While we welcome the opening up of certain spaces, particularly in religious freedom, that does not mean that we will not raise broader human rights issues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, spoke about the United States. We have a strong, open relationship with the United States through which we have discussions on all matters. I will certainly take note of her suggestion.
Noble Lords will recognise that media freedom is one of the key human rights priorities for Her Majesty’s Government. I am pleased that we have been able to invite all Foreign Ministers, with the exception of those of one or two countries. Whether they will come or not, I do not know, but it is an open conference where we hope to have an open and candid discussion of this important human rights priority, including the issue of women journalists. It is in all our interests that all journalists are free to go about their work without fearing for their safety, because what is at stake is not only their lives but the freedoms and protections that they provide. There should be no impunity for those who attack journalists. That is why this Government are taking action to raise awareness of the issue and to strengthen legal protections through our Defend Media Freedom campaign. I look forward to working with friends, allies and civil society. I specifically take note of the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on the NUJ. We will seek to involve it directly in the conference. I will welcome the continued inputs of all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate today as we plan for the July conference and beyond.
I once again thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for obtaining this important debate.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I had an interesting letter the other day about the International Year of the Salmon. It said, very politely, “Dear Lord Shrewsbury, do you remember the days of wild salmon in abundance”—oh my God, yes I do—“watching those magnificent fish making their epic journeys upstream to their spawning grounds?” If only. There was a wonderful picture on the front of the largest salmon I had ever seen.
I am most grateful for the opportunity to discuss the problems facing the wild Atlantic salmon, the wonderful king of fish. The problems revolve mainly around fish in the United Kingdom, especially in this, the International Year of the Salmon. I declare an interest as an avid angler—an extremely unsuccessful one—and a member of Salmon & Trout Conservation.
I tabled this debate for two reasons. First, like many keen anglers, I am increasingly concerned about the demise of both salmon and sea trout in United Kingdom, especially Scottish, waters during the past decades. Secondly, I hoped that the subject would attract some excellent speakers of considerable knowledge to highlight a most serious situation. I am delighted to see the speakers’ list and am extremely grateful. I intend to be brief and wish to concentrate on a few suggestions and thoughts. I intend simply to open up a wider discussion, for in this room we have a number of experts, be they anglers, landowners, riparian owners or knowledgeable enthusiasts and conservationists, and time restrictions are tight.
There can be little doubt that the Atlantic salmon is under increasing and unprecedented threat. The figures produced by the Scottish Government, the Environment Agency and Salmon & Trout Conservation make for dismal reading. In terms of rivers being described as “at risk”, the 2014 Environment Agency assessment of salmon stocks showed a decline to the lowest levels on record. Thirty-eight of England’s 42 principal salmon rivers were classed as either “at risk” or “probably at risk”. This is not restricted to England; it is a situation mirrored throughout the United Kingdom.
Many of the problems facing the salmon are acknowledged as being caused by man’s actions: global warming, which is thought to affect feeding at sea; poor water quality through pollutants and the run-off from agricultural land; the proliferation of protected predators; the overfishing of sand eels; and burgeoning numbers of seals and sea lice from fish farms.
Does the noble Earl realise that, although much of the salmon farming in this country is owned by the Norwegians, they have started in Norway to breed salmon in tanks on land, thus avoiding the problems of pollution and escaping? That does not seem to be happening in this country.
I am most grateful for that interjection. I did know that.
All these matters and more can, and must, be addressed with great urgency if we are to stem the decline of this great fish. Taking water quality, for instance, one only has to look at the successes achieved on the Rivers Tyne, Mersey and Don to see that it is possible to restore water quality and physical river habitats. In Scotland, the Deveron, Bogie & Isla Rivers Charitable Trust has done remarkable work in bank restitution and other physical reparation works. Where the Deveron has her source in the Cabrach hills, much damage was inflicted many years ago by tax break-funded afforestation. I have been fishing that river for well over 40 years. In the old days, the Deveron was celebrated as one of the best salmon and sea trout rivers in Scotland, where Mrs Tiny Morison caught her record-shattering 61lb salmon in October 1924 at the Wood of Shaws, Mountblairy; I have tried like mad and never had a touch in that particular pool. When I first fished the Deveron, the water rose slowly and fell slowly, designed perfectly by nature. These days, she rises fast and falls away fast, leaving a horrible, black, acidic, peaty water, often lasting for days, which the locals reckon sickens the fish. Since protection came in, the population of mergansers, goosanders and cormorants has ballooned. The damage these birds do to salmon parr is immeasurable.
I have a friend, Robert Shields, who owns a place called Avochie half way up the Deveron. I quote from his email to me this morning: “We stopped our hatchery, funded by anglers, because it was made clear that there would be no funding from central government if we continued. It is a sad fact that since our fishing lives have been taken over by scientists, there has been a relentless decline in returning salmon. Our tracking results point to smolt survival being dire. Smolts are being devoured by goosanders, mergansers and cormorants, and little or no control is taking place, as getting a licence is made so very difficult”.
Progress is being made with radio tagging. In 2016, the trust acoustically tagged 50 smolts and 40% survived to sea. 2017 saw 40 smolts tagged; 42% survived to sea. In 2018, 100 smolts were tagged and, with very low water conditions, only 9% reached the sea. This year they have just finished tagging 100 smolts as part of the Atlantic Salmon Trust’s Missing Salmon Project, which will track them all the way out to sea, but tagging is incredibly expensive and cannot be achieved by donations alone. In addition, surely it is time to take effective action to control the seal population to sensible, sustainable levels. Does my noble friend have any information on this that he can share with me?
This speech is simply a précis: this is such a wide-ranging subject of such importance that I am sure it would warrant a two-and-a-half-hour debate in the main Chamber. Today simply does not give enough time to cover it properly. In conclusion, I applaud the Environment Agency’s five-point approach for action to conserve and enhance the United Kingdom’s salmon population. Successive Governments have made all sorts of flowery, encouraging remarks over many years but have done absolutely nothing. In my view, the only way forward is a partnership between all interested parties, including landowners, farmers, water utilities, Defra and the Environment Agency, supported financially by the Government. With the dreaded B-word in the background—I hate to mention it—maybe if we eventually leave Europe and Mr Gove decides at that stage that he will rejig the subsidy situation for agriculture, there might just be some cash left to put into the environment and to save salmon. Now is the time to act, and without delay. Failure to do so will commit this great national treasure, salmo salar, to the history books. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing this timely debate. There are a multitude of possible reasons for the decline in Atlantic salmon. We have heard that fish farms may be a factor, with pollution and crossbreeding. We know that the rise of the seal population is not helpful, neither is the rise of the goosander population, and of course climate change may have an effect, as rivers have become warmer. However, it is clear that the most important factor is probably netting of salmon out at sea, far away from the British Isles. We need a co-ordinated policy from the Government to look at this issue and deal with those who oppose remedial action. It is surely wrong that we should allow people to oppose licences for the culling of cormorants, particularly those of non-native species, or, for example, a licence to cull seals when they swim up a river—far away from their natural habitat.
The angling community has played its part: nets have been bought out at quite large expense. The question we have to ask is where the fish that were netted have gone, because they have not come up the river. They have actually disappeared. If we take that into account, the decline in Atlantic salmon is even direr. Something must be done. As I said, the angling and fishing communities have carried out work to allow more spawning and have opened up rivers for fish parties. A great deal has been done but, unfortunately, it does not seem to be having an effect. I have studied the Environment Agency’s laudable five-point plan but, again, I am afraid that it is not producing clear results. It may be that it will take a longer time, but we have to go further.
The Environment Agency seems to have a mixed view on hatcheries in managed rivers and I would like to ask the Minister about this. The Environment Agency manages its Kielder hatchery, which has been responsible for a large increase of salmon on the Tyne, but I understand it wishes to close other hatcheries—for example, one in Yorkshire on the River Ure. What is the Government’s policy? Some claim that hatcheries are a last resort and should not be used until then, but perhaps we are in the position of last resort now. We need to use hatcheries, which allow us to tag more fish and to learn more about the life of the Atlantic salmon. They are not the whole answer but they must be part of it. We need to understand what the Government’s and Environment Agency’s policies are on this.
My family has a small spate river on the west coast of Scotland, which we have in the past successfully restocked. I cannot prove it—I have no idea why—but it seems to work. It certainly does not do any harm. There are those who claim that when you restock there is not enough food for the fish. Given the decline of fish in our rivers, even with a little restocking there would be plenty of food for them to feed off. With careful restocking, you can also use the genetic fish in the rivers. This is important. I am sure that others will talk about the economic value of salmon to tourism and to jobs in their areas, but we need a more co-ordinated policy from the Government. It should be an international policy because it affects Ireland, Norway, Iceland, America and Canada. To go forward, we must work together with those countries to come up with a solution.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on securing this debate. Three minutes would hardly give one an opportunity of landing a decent salmon, let alone making a serious contribution to this debate. I have had the privilege and pleasure of fishing for salmon in Scotland for over 50 years, initially with Hardy’s on its Junction Pool on the Tweed, then for a number of years in Arthur Oglesby’s courses on the Spey and, over the past 20 years, taking a beat on the wonderful Hendersyde beat of the Tweed, just below Kelso.
I wish briefly to talk about the economic and environmental consequences of a reduction in the adult salmon population. The reduction in the population of salmon means a greater number of unlet fishing days, fewer anglers, reduced income for the riparian and heritable owners and reduced spend, obviously, in local hotels, tackle shops and clothing shops. It potentially puts at risk the staffing levels of gillies and others employed by the owners. More particularly, taking the longer-term view, it could have a possible deleterious effect on the stewardship of the rivers because during the course of the year the riparian and heritable owners and their staff—the ghillies—maintain the paths along the river, the banks, the weirs and the croys to the benefit of not only the angling community but the local community and the wider visitor population.
It may be that the effects of the Environment Agency barring netting off the Northumberland coast will be of some help. Those nets take something like 5,000 salmon each year. I wish the Tweed commissioners every success in the noble work they are doing to try to rebuild the salmon stocks and population of the Tweed.
My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. I served on the Caithness District Salmon Fishery Board under the excellent chairmanship of my noble kinsman, who will follow me in speaking in this debate.
Salmon stocks are at risk all across the north-east Atlantic, whether it be in Portugal, Spain, France, the UK or Ireland. Part of the problem is that it is international, through climate change, acidification of the oceans and far too much overfishing at sea. So what can we do at home? Fishing is a devolved matter in Scotland but it is worth noting that the catastrophic decline in salmon catches on the west coast of Scotland coincided with the rise of aquaculture. Scotland is the largest producer of farmed salmon in the EU and it is big business there, but it has consistently got away with rule-breaking, which threatens the environment and wild migratory salmon. Marine Harvest reported that, between 2012 and 2017, sites breaching the national sea-lice trigger level increased from 15% to a horrific 69%. Grieg Seafood admitted to constantly breaking the trigger levels from November 2016 to August 2017. The two Scottish parliamentary committees involved in last year’s inquiry into salmon farming were clear that effective regulation of salmon farms was imperative. It is time for the Scottish Government to fully enforce their regulations, particularly in the International Year of the Salmon.
I turn to England. Today, as we speak, Salmon & Trout Conservation is launching the river fly census. I refer that to my noble friend the Minister because it will be dreadful reading for him and the Environment Agency. It identifies that there is a huge insect species loss and that four out of five rivers in England and Wales are failing ecological health standards. It identifies that more than 300,000 regulated chemicals are currently in use but that only 45 are checked in our rivers. It tells us that atrazine, which is banned in the UK, is still found in water samples. Following the point made by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury, it tells us about the difficulty that sedimentation is causing to all our wildlife. It also tells us that 45% of rivers exceed phosphorus standards; the Environment Agency does not monitor phosphorus in riverbed sediments. That is horrific reading for any Government. For salmon to survive, they need help from us humans. The Environment Agency is doing its best to make the Government not the greenest but perhaps the dirtiest on salmon fishing.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness—the chief of my clan—and more importantly to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, on securing this debate in the year of the salmon. I declare a number of interests. The first is as chair of the Caithness District Salmon Fishery Board and owner of the River Thurso. The second is that I am chairman of VisitScotland and therefore responsible for the economic side of tourism.
I will make two points on, first, the economic importance and, secondly, the environmental importance. This morning I got in touch with the VisitScotland office and said, “Give me the figures we’ve got”. I can do no better than read out the bullet points they gave me. Fishing tourism delivers in excess of £130 million per year in spend and forms a really important source of income for the Scottish tourist industry. There are 233,000 visits by domestic anglers from the UK, representing 1.5 million bed-nights. Some 41% of all anglers take a fishing break at least once a year, and £500 is the average sum spent by an angler trying to catch a Scottish salmon—that might be going up. More than £24 billion is spent on fishing and sports fishing by fishermen in Europe. The average Scottish angler spends £110 per day during each of his 17 annual days on fishing trips, and Scotland received the highest rating as an angling destination by participants in the TNS activities panel research. One other vital point is that the majority of that spend is made in rural areas, where the jobs and the value of the jobs are of particular importance. I congratulate the Scottish Government on allowing VisitScotland to support salmon anglers, and on the regulations that have been passed over the last three years preventing fish being taken from rivers that are not graded 1 on the grading system.
The main point I wish to make regards the importance of the juvenile biomass in the river. In 2012, Thurso got a £30,000 grant from the Crown Estate. As a result, we have electrofished, using a three-part system under a noted scientist, every year since then. We have added in to the sites of our own choosing last year the sites chosen by Marine Science Scotland. Each of those years’ results are published on our website, and are available to see.
In the very small amount of time available, I will only say this: for every year the juvenile biomass of combined fry and parr have been recorded at the maximum that the environment was capable of looking after. Therefore, for us, there is no point in hatcheries because there are no more territories or food left. We are at 100% capacity at the juvenile stage. However, we have observed a great many other movements and differences that added to our knowledge. For me, the key point is to understand that we are producing juveniles to go out to sea, but we do not know how much of the harvest is now failing to come back. That is the critical point. Climate change, interception at sea and man-made degradation of the riverine habitat are the three great things that we have to face.
My Lords, I have listened to the debate so far, upon which I congratulate the noble Earl of Shrewsbury. However, I have not heard mentioned what I feel may be another cause of the salmon’s decline in Scotland.
Before the clearances some 200 years ago, the highland economy depended largely on cattle, with very few sheep and deer but an abundance of fish and other wildlife by today’s standards. Sheep replaced the cattle and did very well on the rich ground they left behind. Deer started to increase because the men were no longer there to kill them. Most of the highland catchment areas were gradually taken over by sheep and deer, which prefer the short, nutritious grasses, while cattle eat the longer grass, particularly purple moor-grass—molinia caerulea—which otherwise grows tall and shuts out the light, forming an unhealthy mat when it dies back each autumn. It lives naturally in wettish ground but gradually colonises drier ground, which should carry heather, berries and many other plants, if it is allowed to. It grows quickly and establishes itself in a couple of years after large-scale muirburn, smothering much of what was there before. Cattle then turn it into rich manure—much richer than the droppings of sheep and deer—letting in the light for the benefit of other plants and breaking up the unhealthy molinia mat with their hooves. Earthworms and other insects do well under cowpats, even on acid soil such as ours, whereas they can hardly live under the meagre droppings of sheep and deer.
Some years ago, we ran an experiment, putting cattle back into the catchment area of an old spawning stream. The molinia reduced from 52% cover in 1993 to 13% cover by 2005. The effect on the water quality was less obvious, but there were signs of improvement by the time the experiment ceased in 2009. We are now planning to start another, much longer one, perhaps for 25 years, looking particularly for any increase in the food available for alevins when they finish their yolk.
I should add that our experiments take place in the head waters of the Tay, on Rannoch Moor, which consists of deep peat sitting on granite. Only 60 years ago there were still quite a few salmon; they are now almost extinct. I suppose that spawning streams that run off richer mineral-based rock may not have been so affected by the absence of cattle in their catchment areas, but by the other factors that noble Lords are mentioning. We gave a major conference on our first experiment in 2008. I would be happy to send the Minister the resulting brochure, in case anyone in his department is interested in looking into whether this could be yet another factor in the decline of such a noble fish.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, on securing this important debate. I declare my interests as a director of the Galloway Fisheries Trust, chairman of the Fleet District Salmon Fisheries Board, an owner of a stretch of the Water of Fleet and, perhaps most importantly, a keen fisherman. I will raise an issue that has been particularly devastating for many of the smaller rivers of Galloway and south-west Scotland. It does not seem to be widely known about, although the noble Earl touched on it in his excellent opening speech. I am referring to the impact of large-scale conifer reforestation on river catchment areas.
While planting trees is generally a good thing, commercial conifer reforestation can lead to serious acidification, erosion and saltation of river systems in certain circumstances—there is not time to go into the complexities in this debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, will know, most of the rivers of Galloway have been very seriously affected following the widespread deforestation of the area in the 1960s and 1970s. Salmon and sea trout catches declined dramatically. In fact, there are parts of the river systems where the water is so acidic that fish life is now extinct. Salmon are particularly vulnerable, but other endangered species such as eels and lampreys have also been seriously reduced or, in places, wiped out. We have heard about the other factors such as predation, overfishing at sea, fish farming and so on, but if the river ecology itself does not allow fish to spawn successfully all other remedial actions will fail.
The Galloway rivers have been studied intensively for some years. Action is being taken and is helping to improve the situation, but there is a very long way to go and problems remain, particularly around the requirement to replant after felling, which means that the underlying peatland never has a chance to recover. New planting rules are greatly improved, including the restrictions that have come in on planting trees on peatland, but they remain far from perfect.
The situation in Galloway is obviously a devolved matter for the Scottish Government, but there are very important lessons to be learned for the rest of the UK. I greatly welcome the Government’s plans to plant billions of trees in the coming years, but it would be a tragedy if, in planting those trees, we inadvertently destroy our fragile river ecologies. This is as relevant to the rest of the UK as to Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will consider the lessons from the Galloway rivers and ensure that they are taken into account when planning the large-scale tree planting that they rightly aspire to?
My Lords, the tight timelimit precludes me commenting on some of the very important points raised in this valuable debate. I have no interests to declare, but I have to declare that for more than 40 years I represented a constituency in which salmon played a major role in the economy and still has a significant place, with the Tweed, the Aln, the Coquet and the Till and every kind of fishery to represent—river and estuary, net and coble, fixed engines, drift nets at sea and, of course, rod and line, in the form of both highly priced let beats and long-established local fishing clubs whose members enjoy their sport at moderate cost.
All shared concern about the future health of the wild salmon population and had done for many years. Unfortunately, that concern often took the form of all those who fished for salmon believing that all other categories of people fishing for salmon should not be doing so. As a result, there was a tendency to assume that removing one fishery or another would solve the problems that have been so well described today.
Falling numbers in both the Scottish fisheries and most of the English rivers suggest otherwise. On the Tweed, all but one of the 20 or more netting stations have closed. This year comes the complete closure of the north-east drift net fishery, with no licences being issued from this year on. None of this alters the basic facts about salmon stocks, about which our knowledge is still very incomplete. That is why the research that the noble Earl mentioned—on smolts, for example—is extremely valuable. The Tweed Foundation is tracking smolts as they move downriver in the Tweed. It has recorded that they travel mostly at night and can cover 40 kilometres in two nights.
Research is also trying to establish the extent of cormorant and goosander predation of salmon. You can see predation by seals in plain sight in the estuaries and, increasingly, upriver. It is surprising how far the seals will go. We need more attention on habitat issues: sand and gravel extraction, water levels, water temperature—for which we do not really have any control—and water quality. Very noticeably, the Tyne became the best salmon river in England through a combination of improved water quality and the hatchery that was described earlier.
However, we know too little about what determines the total numbers, survival rates and return rates of salmon over the large areas of sea they traverse. We have concerns about disease and the impact of escaped farm salmon. We also have to note that catch figures are not a completely reliable guide to stock figures, and counting systems have presented many problems over the years. We still have some uncertainty in our knowledge of the precise levels of stocks.
Salmon fishing has been part of the lifeblood of north Northumberland. Part of it has been an ancient craft practised in traditional ways by netsmen. The world has now changed, and we are increasingly reliant on the very significant contribution that rod angling makes to the economy of the area. My noble friend Lord Lee described some of that, and it is valuable. We all still wonder at the beauty, ingenuity, magnificent migration skills and endurance of the salmon. We need to do everything we can to help, rather than hinder, its presence in our rivers.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, for tabling the debate and to all noble Lords who have, in their own ways, spoken passionately about the challenges faced in conserving our wild salmon stocks for the benefit of ourselves and future generations. They are indeed magnificent creatures, as anyone who has stood in the shallows of a Scottish river and watched them leaping as they travel upstream can attest. It is one of the most dramatic cycles of nature, from the rivers where they spawn to the oceans where they feed, then back again. Yet over the decades we have waged a war of attrition against them by draining and damming rivers, building on riverbanks, overfishing streams and allowing millions of genetically inferior farmed fish to escape and mix with the wild population. This has had a disastrous impact, given the concentration of disease and sea lice infestation predominant in farmed fish.
Although it was news to me until this debate was tabled, I am not surprised that it was felt necessary to have an International Year of the Salmon. The evidence of declining wild salmon stocks is clear, as the noble Earl and other noble Lords have described. As many noble Lords have said, we will need more robust action than the previous proposals put together on a multi-agency basis following the UK salmon summit of November 2015.
This is a bigger crisis than the decline of a single species, magnificent though it may be. The UN report published this month spelled out the huge drop in biodiversity that is undermining the very existence of life on earth. Rather belatedly, we are understanding our interdependence on the other species we have neglected or destroyed. This is true in the marine environment as much as on land. Chronic overfishing by commercial fleets on a global scale is permanently depleting fish stocks. In the UK, fish farmers demand a ready supply of fishmeal to feed to their captive stocks and we still allow dredging of the seabed to supply the nation’s expanding appetite for scallops.
Add to this the impact of climate change—with warming waters, drying up rivers and rising sea levels changing the natural habitats in which salmon thrive—and it becomes clear that action on a global scale is necessary. I hope that the Minister can demonstrate that the Government understand the true nature of this challenge, are ready and willing to act, and have the means and determination to reverse this trend. I look forward to his response.
My Lords, I am pleased to respond to this Question for Short Debate. I thank my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury for initiating it. I am also conscious of the knowledge and experience of many Peers who have spoken this afternoon on this subject. Perhaps they can be described as a forum piscarium.
I start by acknowledging the importance of the north Atlantic salmon and why we need an international year of the salmon. North Atlantic salmon are a protected and iconic species. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, their epic migration is one of nature’s greatest stories. Each spring, juvenile salmon swim thousands of kilometres from their home rivers to feed in cold north Atlantic waters. Once mature, the salmon return—or are supposed to return—to the same rivers to spawn. However, the Government are concerned about the widespread decline in salmon stocks that is currently seen not just in UK rivers but throughout much of the north Atlantic.
The marked decline in the abundance of Atlantic salmon has occurred over the past 20 to 30 years. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was estimated that around 1.3 million adult salmon were returning to rivers in the UK each year. This has fallen to fewer than 500,000 today. I do not know whether many noble Peers saw “Countryfile” last Sunday. I just happened to switch it on. It was an initiation as it is a new subject for me. It was interesting to see how they measured the smolts to be sure that they were the right size for tagging. The smolts were then anaesthetised, tagged and released. It was a fascinating programme and process.
As has been mentioned, a key cause of the decline has been a large increase in the mortality of salmon during the marine phase of their life cycle. I must be frank that the precise reasons for this are unclear, although they are considered to be multifarious. As my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury said, they are likely to be man-made. However, broad-scale changes in ocean conditions and plankton communities have been documented, along with related impacts on fish communities. The underlying cause is most likely to be climate change.
While countries are looking to take whatever action they can to minimise factors that might impact on salmon during the marine phase of their life cycle, we have more control over the pressures on salmon when they are in freshwater and coastal environments. Extensive measures have been introduced throughout the UK in recent years to reduce salmon exploitation to more sustainable levels and to ensure that as many returning salmon as possible survive to spawn. Water quality improvements have enabled salmon to recolonise some rivers that were previously impacted by pollution. I am particularly mindful of the success in the River Tyne. These successes demonstrate that, through careful management and partnership working, salmon stocks can recover even in the context of poor sea survival. Set against this backdrop, the International Year of the Salmon aims to bring people together globally to share and develop knowledge more effectively, raise awareness, particularly among underrepresented groups, and take action to protect all salmon species.
I now turn to the pertinent question raised by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury. Fisheries policy within the UK is devolved and, as such, national Governments produce annual salmon stock assessments in their respective areas. These assessments reflect the state of stocks within our rivers and estuaries. Scotland has the largest wild salmon resource in the UK and carries out annual assessments on 173 rivers or small groups of rivers. In contrast, 64 principal salmon rivers are assessed each year in England and Wales and 16 in Northern Ireland. Despite the devolved nature of fisheries policy, the UK and Scottish Governments are looking to address the depletion of stocks—indeed, our respective officials are due to meet again tomorrow to discuss this very issue.
Another important forum for UK-Scottish government co-operation is the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization—NASCO—with which Peers will be familiar. In assessing salmon stocks in line with international guidance from NASCO and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—ICES—each jurisdiction has established so-called conservation limits. These define levels, measured in terms of spawning fish required, below which stocks should not be allowed to fall.
Compliance with conservation limits requires an assessment of the number of salmon returning to each river. Ideally, such information is derived from fish counters or traps, but where these do not exist—noble Lords will note that counters and traps are very costly to install and run—assessment is based on reported catches and population modelling. These assessments provide local managers with the information that they need to manage individual river stocks. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and others said, verification of the numbers is far from perfect, as I think we would all acknowledge.
The collated data is also utilised by ICES in providing scientific advice to NASCO to enable it to meet its responsibilities in managing the high seas fisheries. Unfortunately, recent annual salmon stock assessments provide ongoing cause for concern, as has been mentioned today. For 2017—the last year for which we have compliance assessments for all UK countries—only around half of those assessed met their conservation limits. More recently, as my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury said, the hot, dry summer of 2018 provided unfavourable conditions for returning salmon, and only 14 rivers—22%—met their conservation limit in England and Wales, the joint lowest figure on record. Other stock status indicators, such as information from fish counters and juvenile surveys, also indicate declining trends in many UK rivers. In summary, therefore, stocks in all parts of the UK are currently considered to be in a depleted state.
I shall now detail what the UK Government are doing to address the fall in stock levels, and I hope it is a better picture than the one painted by my noble friend Lord Caithness. Perhaps I may answer one question that he raised about sedimentation and chemicals in rivers, and the Environment Agency, in his words, not monitoring phosphorous levels. The Environment Agency undertakes rigorous testing of chemicals within the aquatic environments, including monitoring activity within its five-point plan, which was mentioned this afternoon. Details of the specific monitoring of phosphorous and other chemicals can be provided in writing following this debate, and I would be delighted to send a letter on that to all Peers who took part.
Internationally, the UK Government’s commitment to salmon conservation is evidenced through their membership of NASCO. Parties to NASCO currently include the United States, Canada, Norway, the Russian Federation, interestingly, the European Union and Denmark in respect of the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Measures agreed by NASCO have resulted in great reductions in fishing effort for salmon in the North Atlantic and the adoption of international best practice.
Domestically, I have already touched on the need to address pressures on salmon in their freshwater phase. Improving the environment, as set out in the UK’s 25-year environment plan, is key to improving salmon stocks. These environmental improvements will build on the work that has already been done to significantly reduce salmon exploitation.
Regulations introduced in England in December 2018 closed the north-east drift net fishery, a mixed-stock fishery that annually took more than 9,000 salmon, and it means that all coastal mixed-stock fisheries have now closed—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Lee, raised. I think that our figures are slightly greater than his but we can talk about that later. The regulations also cover a number of smaller net fisheries and were introduced in tandem with increased catch and release by anglers. Regulations introduced by the Scottish Government for the 2019 fishing season require that mandatory catch and release will apply to 94 rivers and river systems across Scotland. In addition, the regulations continue the prohibition on coastal netting of salmon, introduced in 2016.
I should like to move on to talk about predation—an important subject that was brought up by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury—and what we are doing to address it, specifically in relation to seals and cormorants. As he will be aware, seals in England and Wales are protected under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970. Additional measures apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The 1970 Act prohibits taking seals during a closed season, except under a licence issued by the Marine Management Organisation. Fishermen may shoot seals during the annual closed season only if serious damage is being caused to catches or gear. During the remainder of the year, seals may be shot provided that an appropriate licensed firearm is used.
In response to growing concerns, trials with acoustic deterrent devices—so-called ADDs—have been conducted on several occasions in Scotland to try to prevent seals swimming up salmon rivers. Another approach has been to sweep seals back to the sea using a boat fitted with an ADD, and this has proved successful in some trials. In addition, a robust and portable seal trap has been built and tested under field conditions, so work in this respect is ongoing.
My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury also talked about damage by birds and what government funding there might be for this. Licences are available from Natural England to shoot cormorants and goosanders. In England, approximately 2,600 licences were issued last year out of a total of 3,000 available. Special licences can be—and are—issued during the salmon smolt run. No licences were issued in England to shoot mergansers due to their very small population and lack of significant impact. I have received advice on this particular point but I want to double-check that information for myself. I will then write to noble Lords.
My noble friend Lord Astor raised the question of government policy on the closing of hatcheries. He will know that this is a devolved issue for Scotland but the Government’s policy in England is not to issue permits except in exceptional circumstances. Nothing is allowed in Wales. Hatchery on the River Tyne has not been a principal factor in the recovery of the Tyne stocks; an improvement in water quality was the key reason for that. Hatcheries reduce genetic fitness in wild populations.
My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, in particular made an interesting point relating to afforestation; I thank both noble Lords for highlighting its impact. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, cares deeply about this matter, particularly in relation to Galloway, and has raised it with my noble friend Lord Gardiner. As he will know, forestry is known to influence the degree of acidification in soils and nearby water courses. Reductions in emissions of acidifying atmospheric pollutants have brought about improvements in water quality, but acidification has caused the loss or reduction of Atlantic salmon populations.
I realise that my time is running rather short. I will finish by thanking my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury for securing this important debate. Make no mistake, salmon stocks are in perilous danger. However, the Government believe that we have sound assessment and management procedures in place for UK stocks, although there is clearly more work to be done. The Government remain fully committed to salmon conservation, both nationally and internationally, and intend to remain an active member of NASCO, particularly after we exit the EU. As was said, we must all continue to work together nationally and internationally to tackle this great problem.
We have plenty of time left. As a recent convert to “Countryfile”, would my noble friend note that one of its producers is very keen on preventing any form of pest control? Would he encourage the Environment Agency not to listen to this producer?
I thank my noble friend. I was not aware of that. I will go back and find out about it. I will take note but I will not promise necessarily to follow up on it. Salmon are a resilient species. They survived the Industrial Revolution and now we need to help them bounce back from their current decline.
Committee adjourned at 7.23 pm.