Thursday 27 May 2021
The Grand Committee met in a hybrid proceeding.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now begin. Some Members are here in person and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes. The time limit for the first debate is one hour.
Climate Change: Targets
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I start by thanking all noble Lords who will be speaking in this debate. I look forward to their contributions, which will fill in some of the gaps left by mine.
This year presents a unique opportunity for the UK to really grasp the nettle of collaborative global action on climate change. It is an existential issue for our planet and we owe it to our children and future generations to get this right. For us to lead the world we must, when all eyes are on us, present a clean domestic scene, which means some good housekeeping. My husband will testify that I am no domestic goddess but I can dust—maybe not behind fridges—and I can hoover a bit. So let me tell noble Lords why I think a bit of housekeeping is in order.
During my time as Lib Dem spokesperson for international development I came across various anomalies, the most egregious of which was the fact that at the same time as we were spending ODA to combat dreadful climate-related disasters overseas, such as the effect of famine in the Sahel due to increasing desertification, we were also investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure in Africa and elsewhere in the world, including in the North Sea. What really struck home was the injustice of those least responsible for climate chaos being the ones who suffer most.
According to Global Justice Now, since the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed, approximately £568 million of UK aid has been invested in fossil fuel projects overseas. If we include export credits provided by UK Export Finance for fossil fuels, that figure rises to £3.9 billion. This makes a nonsense of our commitments to tackling climate change—not just the Paris Agreement but the sustainable development goals and our own Climate Change Act. We cannot be serious about keeping global temperature rises to between 1.5 and 2 degrees centigrade, or about domestic net-zero targets, if we continue to export fossil fuel infrastructure, the ultimate source of the problems we face today.
The situation is worse than that. Our domestic legislation has incoherencies that reverberate here at home. In 2019 I tabled my Private Member’s Bill, the Petroleum (Amendment) Bill, the essential aim of which was to stop the issuance of new licences for oil and gas exploration, to put in place plans to safeguard jobs and livelihoods of communities as we start to phase out existing fossil fuel infrastructure, and to stop UK support for new fossil fuel projects abroad.
For now, I will focus on what is happening here at home. Existing legislation currently pulls government Ministers in different, incompatible directions. For example, the Petroleum Act 1998, as amended by the Infrastructure Act 2015, confers a duty on the Oil and Gas Authority to maximise revenues from petroleum, while the Climate Change Act commits Governments to aim for a target of net-zero carbon by 2050. To tidy up this anomaly, my Private Member’s Bill proposes that the Petroleum Act 1998 be amended so that its principal objective is no longer maximising economic recovery of UK petroleum, but instead is aligned to the otherwise competing statutory aim for a target of net-zero carbon by 2050 in the Climate Change Act 2008, as amended in 2019.
Since the Bill was tabled, the OGA, in July 2020, carried out a consultation to revise its MER UK strategy. It published its response to the review in December. Can the Minister confirm that the principal objective of the OGA is still to maximise economic recovery? If so, how can the Government continue to justify the OGA’s remit to, in effect, extract every last drop of petroleum from the North Sea, given that our existing fields alone will take us over our nationally determined Paris commitment?
On 24 March, the Government announced a new deal with the oil and gas sector, very much in line with the OGA response to its own review. In essence, the sector should reduce its own carbon footprint, deliver carbon capture and storage, and support the development of blue hydrogen. This came as a bitter disappointment to many climate campaigners, because it does not address the fundamental issue that the sector’s raison d’être—the extraction of fossil fuels—is the fundamental root of the problem of greenhouse gases that we face today. Nor does it recognise that carbon capture and storage is not a proven technology at scale. It remains decades away and is technology for the future. The Government’s deal with the sector shows little appreciation of the urgent need to act now. At the very least, we must draw a line under the issuing of new licences, as the International Energy Agency has done in its very recent landmark report, Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy System. What will be our response to the report? Does the Treasury intend to publish its own road map to net-zero emissions by 2050? Such an exercise is sorely needed and would concentrate minds on how we will go about this issue.
While I am on the subject of the oil and gas sector, I should mention tax breaks, and some other supports and subsidies that the sector enjoys. It was good to read in the media that the UK wants to lead discussions at the G7 to end fossil fuel subsidies. Sadly, the fossil fuel industries still get huge government subsidies. Annual fossil fuel subsidies were valued at £5.2 trillion dollars in 2017, equal to 6.5% of the global economy, according to the IMF, which also found that more efficient fossil fuel pricing in 2015 would have cut carbon emissions by a whacking 28%. The impact of success at the G7 and, one hopes, the G20 that follows, will be huge.
However, in this regard, the UK has, up to now, been a bit of a laggard, with a major sticking point on how subsidies are defined. What definition will we be asking our G7 partners to sign up to—the IMF’s, the OECD’s, the WTO’s, or will it be custom made? Also, is cutting the tax on North Sea profits, a policy introduced by George Osborne in 2015-16, a fossil fuel subsidy? Today’s tax rates in the UK are so low that in some years, the tax take is less than the subsidies, making UK oil revenues negative. As a result, UK oil and gas extraction is more profitable than most other UK sectors, is more profitable than oil and gas are in most other countries and enjoys benefits not extended to companies producing renewable energies. Rather than requiring companies to clean up after themselves, the UK taxpayer pays roughly half the cost of decommissioning oil platforms and cleaning pollution. Will these anomalies be addressed at the G7 leaders’ summit? These serious issues must be addressed if we are to match fine words with commensurate action.
In the short time I have left, I shall say a few words about planning, because it is so important to get this right. The Government have indicated they wish to reform the planning system and have plans to introduce a new planning law within this Parliament. However, what is needed more urgently is to bring existing planning rules into line with net-zero legislation. The national planning policy statements, which cover large projects, are a gaping hole and urgently need to be updated. The fiasco surrounding the Cumbrian coal mine decision is a salutary reminder of how badly things can go awry when legislation at all levels of government is not tightly aligned to the net-zero targets.
In conclusion, what does the Minister think of the Swedish Government’s climate action plan, published in December 2019, in particular their commitment to review all relevant past legislation and objectives for their compatibility with the plan, as well as to align future legislation? Our children deserve no less.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, for securing and introducing this important debate.
The climate crisis is the single greatest long-term challenge we face. We know the importance of aligning legislation with our climate change targets. We noticed recently, however, that some legislation was absent from the recent Queen’s Speech; in particular, the energy Bill was not included. Only a couple of months ago, the Minister himself said:
“The government intends to bring forward an Energy Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows. The Energy Bill will aim to enable progress to be made on commitments made by the Prime Minister in his Ten Point Plan as well as deliver policy commitments set out in the Energy White Paper.”
What happened? Will progress now be stifled rather than enabled without it? Regardless, the central challenge is whether targets are matched by the scale of action required in this decisive decade. The biggest concern is the growing evidence that there is a wide gap between rhetoric and reality. We are way off meeting our fifth and sixth carbon targets. The Green Alliance estimates that policy announcements will lead to only 26% of the reductions necessary to get the UK on track for 2030. How far off does the Minister think we are from meeting our fifth and sixth carbon budgets?
We desperately need a comprehensive plan for the massive task of retrofitting and changing the way we heat millions of homes, with the finance to back it up. The heat and building strategy was supposed to be published this year, but it has been delayed and delayed. Can the Minister promise that when it is finally published, it will contain the plan we need? The Treasury’s crucial net-zero review was due in autumn 2020, then promised in spring 2021. It is still not delivered. When will it finally see the light of day? From the underinvestment in hydrogen to the uncertainty of when 60% of our offshore wind will be domestic, the examples go on and on. Ultimately, we need a comprehensive green new deal. Only this will allow the UK to meet its climate change targets.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, for securing this very helpful debate.
I have raised on several occasions the urgent need for the Government to publish their hydrogen strategy, which presumably will require legislation to put into effect. As Bill Gates said in his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, significant investment in research into new technologies will be necessary if we are to reach net zero by our target date. He also said that some of the investments will be very costly and high risk; therefore, they will have to be funded by Governments. He also said that private investment will do lots of the heavy lifting in terms of investment, given appropriate government support. Does the Minister agree with Bill Gates’s assessment? Do the Government yet have a date for the publication of their long-awaited hydrogen strategy to move things along? Does the Minister understand the urgency of this issue? I am sure he does.
Another very important issue is the size of the hydrogen target by 2030. Why is this country’s target so low, at five gigawatts? This is the same as for Scotland alone, for example. Can we really not do better than that? The Government have claimed that their forthcoming hydrogen target will be world-leading—really? If so, some urgent work surely needs to be done to revise substantially upwards the five-gigawatt target. Finally, the energy White Paper set a target of one gigawatt of low-carbon hydrogen by 2025. Can the Minister spell out how the Government expect to meet this target? Is he content that the target is adequate if we are to achieve our final target for 2030? The Minister knows that this country has a brilliant opportunity to create lots of high-quality jobs across the UK in the hydrogen industry. I would be grateful if the Minister could give the House a clear indication of when the hydrogen strategy will finally be published.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, on calling this debate and on her excellent introduction. In my brief time today, I would like to urge the Government to consider the use of pension scheme assets in our battle against climate change. They are the ideal long-term capital source to mitigate risks and prepare for both the known and unknown unknowns that we are facing. Climate change is potential catastrophe, both for us and for countries globally, and for future generations. We perhaps have an opportunity, if my noble friend agrees, to use our huge sums—more than £1 trillion—in pension assets, which are significantly larger than those in most other countries, to build back better; to ensure that traditional investments in global industries do not become worthless in the transition to low-carbon economies; and to address some of the inconsistencies in our policy stance, outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan. Pension assets could support a hydrogen strategy; they could encourage fossil fuel reduction and encourage traditional energy companies to diversify and build alternative sources of energy before their assets become stranded. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, has been working on some of this for a while and talking about capital requirements and risk-weighting for such assets. I would be grateful if my noble friend could give the Committee his thoughts on those.
I have two further quick points. Do the Government have targets for building new, eco-friendly homes, especially for older people to downsize to, while ensuring that existing housing stocks can be retrofitted and upgraded to be more energy efficient? Do the Government have plans to ban cryptocurrencies from all regulated activities, given the measure of carbon emissions entailed in this socially worthless exercise?
My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chair of Peers for the Planet and add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, on her ongoing work in this area. This week we have seen a spotlight on disaster planning and crisis management. In climate change, we face an even greater potential catastrophe than Covid—what the Government themselves this week called the planet’s greatest threat. We need a response that is comprehensive, systemic and integrated, and brings together disparate contributions from many sectors into a coherent whole. It requires leadership from the Government, and a climate lens on all policies and legislation, if we are to ensure delivery not only of our domestic agenda but of our international aims for COP 26, leading, in the words of President Biden,
“by the power of our example.”
In regard to legislation, we are not there yet. Two crucial Bills in the last Session contained no reference to climate obligations whatever until changes were made in this House. That problem continues in this Session, with silence on the issue of climate in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill and a potential lack of consonance between the Environment Bill and the planning reform Bill.
Can the Minister say today how the Government intend to ensure early and comprehensive scrutiny of all policies and legislation against their green agenda? Are they, for example, looking at the work being done in this area by other countries such as New Zealand and Sweden? Finally, can he assure me that the Cabinet Committee on Climate Change, which has met so infrequently, will now be fully engaged in leading the systemic co-ordination and integration that is so urgent?
While there is no doubt about the ultimate objective of our climate change agenda, there are many choices—some very expensive, and some improbable of coming to fruition. People with possible solutions are keen to sell but, drawing on recent experience with the supply of PPE and ventilators during the pandemic, a willingness to sell does not equal a willingness to sell the right product at a competitive price.
How do Her Majesty’s Government propose to rank ideas as to their cost and deliverability? Are they aiming to establish a hierarchy of schemes to which resources should be targeted? I am anxious that we gather lower-hanging fruit first, because that has the greatest effect. I remind the Minister of the interest I expressed the last time we spoke in whether Ofgem’s objectives do in fact conform to the objectives of the Government’s policy on climate change.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, for securing this debate and particularly for the way that she framed it as ensuring that legislation aligns. That seems to point us towards the Queen’s Speech and the need to mainstream climate and environmental issues in everything.
I want to pick out three Bills from the Speech, two obvious, one less obvious. The noble Lord, Lord Lennie, referred to the lack of an energy Bill in the Speech, although there is of course a Bill addressing energy, the draft downstream oil resilience Bill—so the only energy Bill we have is about oil. It talks about working with the sector and, in particular, about transferring to abatement technologies. Will the Minister acknowledge that the Bill is talking about the hard, inefficient way to store carbon? What we have with carbon capture and storage is oil, gas and coal in the ground—and leaving it in the ground is by far the cheapest and most efficient way to store carbon.
I move on to the planning Bill. This seems to divide the country into two areas: open-slather development in some parts, with a few other parts protected. It is a “sparing and sharing” approach. Yet we have seen the Government recently adopt—after a great deal of campaigning—a new nature target, which would seem utterly incompatible with allowing any more trashing of our desperately nature-depleted country.
Finally, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, I come to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. I spent this morning talking first to the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum about food security and then to Building magazine about a national retrofitting strategy. Both stressed the need for skills, the need for people and the terrible shortage of labour supply. This Bill contains plans for a flexible, lifelong loan scheme. We need these workers and these skills; surely with education being a public good, we should not be asking people to take on the weight of loans—to have debt hanging around their neck as a burden. Surely, to deliver our climate and nature targets, we should be looking to fund this education from public spending.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to those offered to the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, on securing this important debate. There is no greater challenge facing humanity than containing and reducing global warming. I want to focus the lens on maritime, an area of significant challenge but one of great opportunity for the UK. Before I start, I pay tribute to the Minister, who kindly made time to meet me and some maritime colleagues last year—here, I should declare my unremunerated maritime interests as declared in the register promoting the UK’s maritime industries.
Maritime is now, very properly, being brought into government legislative requirements. The industry is committed to playing its part. Although it can be said that maritime is a lesser sinner in terms of emissions per tonne mile of freight moved, due to the scale of the industry, it has been estimated that it accounts for 2.5% to 3% of global emissions. It is early days, and the technology for zero-carbon main engines has not yet been commercialised. An additional challenge is to lay on power at ports to supply ships that are alongside with electricity.
So far, the Government have awarded £3 million to the maritime research and innovation institute and have set up a £20 million clean maritime demonstration competition, which is currently open. These initiatives are of course welcome to the industry. I should also mention one significant example of government support: £30 million from BEIS for a Strength in Places bid from Artemis in Belfast to build high-tech ferries. This is not specifically a green investment, but I believe there will be a green beneficial outcome.
These investments represent a start, but they are small and must be regarded as only a start, and they are less than those of competitor states. If we are to be successful in meaningfully reducing carbon output from shipping, a fundamental problem that we face is that vessel charterers and users are unlikely to pay for expensive new ships with as yet untried technologies, with owners therefore discouraged from investing. Carbon pricing is the elephant in the room. The industry needs urgently to know what form carbon pricing in the UK will take. It is essential that any funds realised from the maritime sector are reinvested in shipping and maritime.
Does the Minister agree that, with the right policy framework, Britain can attract international owners as well as orders for the shipyards that government and all of us are so keen should flourish?
My Lords, I commend the Government on their climate change ambitions and the leadership they have shown by increasing our commitment to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 and achieving net zero by 2050.
As we prepare to host COP 26, which is now less than six months away, we must make sure that we have the proper legislation to deliver on our climate change goals. This means that we must work to support specific Bills in both Houses, such as the Environment Bill and the Education (Environment and Sustainable Citizenship) Bill, as well as making sure that our environmental commitments are properly considered in other legislation.
In New Zealand, all policy proposals going to Cabinet must have a climate impact policy assessment. Can my noble friend the Minister comment on the Government’s willingness to consider a similar process in the United Kingdom? Such checks would help us not only to meet targets but to avoid unintended negative impacts that could undermine our ambitions. They would also show the rest of the world that we were serious about being an environmental leader and encourage other countries to take similar steps.
In 2020, 78% of respondents to a Local Government Association climate change survey said that a lack of skills was a barrier to them tackling climate change. Does my noble friend the Minister have any comments on this, and can the Government tell us how they plan to address this knowledge and skills gap? We must make sure that policymakers, civil servants and those working in local government are properly trained so that legislation can be adequately in line with climate change ambitions and be properly implemented. Furthermore, we must drive forward legislation that develops proper skills for green jobs. Does my noble friend agree?
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, on raising this important debate. I want to raise the issue of subsidies in two areas: wood and waste food. Currently, burning wood in power stations is much costlier than genuinely non-emitting and renewable electricity technologies. Burning wood exacerbates climate change and puts at risk our net-zero target and our desire to be a climate leader. It degrades forests and is a nightmare for wildlife. Black bears and pine martens are suffering in America, from where we get a lot of wood. It also emits deadly air pollution, which is linked to an array of health problems.
We direct scarce funds in the wrong direction. When he was a Back-Bencher, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, led the charge against these subsidies, yet new data reveals that the UK is the top subsidiser of bioenergy in Europe. We spent more than £1.9 billion in 2019 on such stuff, primarily to burn wood imported from overseas forests at places such as Drax power station. In 2020 Drax earned £832 million in direct government subsidies for biomass, and it benefits from multi-million-pound tax breaks, calculated to be worth £258 million in 2020. The Secretary of State is not powerless in this. He could amend the renewables obligation—the RO—and apply the GHG emissions intensity threshold. None of the pellets burned at Drax would qualify.
I now want to use my final 30 seconds to ask why we are still subsiding food waste for use as fuel. Currently, low or negative gate fees charged by AD plants for food waste collection disincentivise using food waste to feed people because they lower the cost of disposal. Some AD plants pay for food waste so that they can fulfil government contracts for energy. About 8 million tonnes of edible food waste occurs in the UK and 1.9 million tonnes of this currently goes to AD although a lot of it is edible.
In a recent survey, the public said that they find this an intolerable situation. Eight out of 10 said that the Government are completely hypocritical in continuing to facilitate forest loss in other countries, thereby potentially preventing other countries meeting their goals. I would like the Minister’s view on this.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, on securing this debate. In the Queen’s Speech, the Government laid out many commitments for updating and toughening climate change legislation. That Speech focused on green investment and jobs, with particular reference to the existing measures set out in the Government’s 10-point plan. It sought to reiterate the UK’s commitment to achieving net zero by 2050 and to provide global leadership in tackling climate change. However, the Government have not made entirely clear how the legislative programme will be carried out and co-ordinated between departments, allowing for the climate and biodiversity goals. It seems nothing but an empty promise.
As time is constantly running out for action to be taken to achieve the net-zero goal by 2050, it is paramount that the Government begin immediate action to ensure that the existing legislative programme aligns with climate change targets and objectives. Will the Minister indicate what immediate action will be taken to do just that? Will it be before the international climate change conference in Glasgow later this year? There are at least 15 Bills in the Queen’s Speech that need to be aligned. It is worth noting that the Dasgupta review states that for the UK to change its legislative direction towards nature-positive outcomes, it is clear that the Government have to make system choices about investment and production processes in the public and private sectors. Will the Minister say whether the Government are up to that challenge of ensuring that the legislation meets the climate change and biodiversity challenges of this era?
My Lords, this year, we are organisers of both the G7 summit and COP 26. The UK has an obligation to demonstrate global leadership on climate and environmental policy, and build on our existing strengths to help others to face climate change risks. We are the first country to commit to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, for initiating this debate.
Do the Government agree that government and the private sector need to work closely together on this? The CBI, of which I am president, welcomes the industrial decarbonisation strategy. We await the Government’s net-zero strategy and look forward to the heat and building strategy, the decarbonisation of transport plan and the hydrogen plan. On Monday, the CBI launched Seize the Moment, our economic vision for the next decade, whereby decarbonisation will be a key pillar in the years to come. We urge the Government and industry to make the most of this unique time and focus on building future growth and prosperity. We need ambitious private partnerships, sustainable financing and innovative clean tech solutions. We need to cut emissions, not only in the power sector but in transport, buildings and industry. Do the Government agree?
The CBI is happy to support the National Centre for the Decarbonisation of Heat at the University of Birmingham, of which I am the chancellor. Do the Government support such an initiative? Decarbonising heat is perhaps one of the most significant challenges on our journey to net-zero emissions. We must make progress on decarbonising emissions associated with our buildings; their heating is a significant factor.
At COP 26, the CBI would like to see progress on international negotiations so that countries are aligned in setting and delivering ambitious targets for emissions reduction. Two weeks ago, as president of the CBI, I was privileged to host the B7 summit. Climate change was of course one of the key themes. There was a lot of enthusiasm across the international business community for a more sustainable future. I repeat what I said on 17 May:
“The Prime Minister said at the B7 last week that the race to net zero is not a zero-sum game. In true Boris style, he also said: ‘Green is good.’”—[Official Report, 17/5/21; col. 381.]
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Sheehan for initiating this important debate and underlining, as other noble Lords have, the lack of alignment between policy and legislation on the one hand and our ambitious climate targets on the other.
In the short time I have, I want to focus on taxation and regulatory policy. Today’s Financial Times reports that the Chancellor has commissioned work on a carbon border tax. Can the Minister tell us when this work will be completed and how the Treasury will consult stakeholders? Can he also tell us what discussions the Treasury is having with our friends in the EU who are currently working on the same issue?
Secondly, can he tell us what consideration the Government are giving to fiscal measures to incentivise energy efficiency in homes, such as a stamp duty rebate for home owners who raise the efficiency band of their home within a certain period of purchase, as the Liberal Democrats have proposed?
Thirdly, can the Minister explain how the Government’s 2017 decision to scrap the graduation in vehicle excise duty by fuel efficiency—except for the first year—and their current proposal to scrap air passenger duty on domestic flights align in any way with our net-zero policy?
Fourthly, will the Government look at reforming the renewable transport fuel obligation so that not just green hydrogen produced from electrolysers directly connected to a renewable source but green hydrogen produced with electricity from renewable-only contracts qualifies? Will the Government consider waiving grid fees for electrolysers and scrapping VAT on green hydrogen? This is an important area, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said.
Finally, will the Government look again at how the regulatory system prices the cost of capital in relation to climate change risks? At present, we have the absurd situation where funding loans for new fossil fuel exploration and exploitation is often significantly cheaper than financing the new industries and technologies that we need to tackle climate change. If the Minister does not have time to answer all these questions and those from other Peers in his response, I would be grateful if he could write to us.
My Lords, I have been impressed by many of the preparations for COP 26, but I am also struck by the fact that the policies and strategies of the Government, and of most individual departments, do not seem to reflect that priority; nor did the recent Budget; nor does the legislative programme for this parliamentary Session. The drafts of those Bills which we have seen so far do not do so either, including the supposed flagship in this context of the Environment Bill itself.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, I will focus on MHCLG and the so-called reform of planning. The noble Baroness emphasised the national planning statements, but it is also true that, currently, individual development proposals do not have to have mandatory net-carbon reduction criteria. Yet building construction, demolition and subsequent building use, if taken together, add up to nearly 40% of all emissions.
Developers propose schemes that do not have net-zero objectives or even an assessment of the greenhouse gas effects; the same is true of biodiversity. Local planning authorities increasingly nod through schemes whose carbon effect has not been properly assessed, let alone whether they would create a net reduction. The contribution to net zero should be written into all planning legislation and planning procedures, decisions and appeals. At the moment, it is a very low priority.
The big developers and big housebuilders favour demolition and rebuild over retrofit and refurbish, which is usually more environmentally sensible. The materials they use for much new build and rebuild are steel, glass and a lot of plastics. The glass, steel, concrete and hydrocarbon manufacturing processes take a lot of heat, most of which is currently based on fossil fuels. None of that is weighed in the assessment of major development projects. I could say the same about the building regulations from the department. My main point is that we need a powerful, concerted, cross-Whitehall structure to ensure that saving the planet is indeed a priority for all Whitehall departments and for the country as a whole.
My Lords, as I made clear to the House just a few weeks ago, climate change remains one of the most pressing issues of our time. While we of course presently find ourselves in the midst of a fairly vicious health pandemic, we will not abandon our climate change goals and risk further crises down the line. Let me reaffirm the point I made to the House a few weeks ago: this Government are absolutely determined to play their part in upholding the Paris Agreement and driving down our own greenhouse gas emissions.
To this end, we recently passed a significant milestone by beginning the process of enshrining the UK’s sixth carbon budget in law, proposing a target which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. This is a huge commitment which the Government are working flat out to achieve. Despite the considerable challenges that we face, we can leverage our strengths to deliver a greener and stronger economy, and go further and faster to level up and accelerate the transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, I am pleased to confirm that on 31 March 2021 the UK Government implemented their new policy and will no longer provide any new direct financial or promotional support for the fossil fuel energy sector overseas. This applies to any new ODA and investment, including support provided by UK Export Finance. We are working hard to drive down demand for fossil fuels. However, there will continue to be ongoing demand for oil and gas, which is recognised by the work of the independent climate change committee.
Through our recent landmark North Sea transition deal, we are the first G7 country to set in place an ambitious partnership to back the oil and gas industry to transition away to clean, green energy while supporting the tens of thousands of highly skilled jobs that exist in this sector. I agree that it is an existential issue and that we need to get it right. The foundation for delivering net zero is through the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for the UK to lead the world into a new green industrial revolution. This innovative programme sets out ambitious policies, backed by £12 billion-worth of government investment.
To respond to the point on legislation, and to a similar point made by my noble friend Lord Sheikh, this is key to delivering our climate change goals. We were the first major economy in the world to set a legally binding target to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across our economy by 2050 and in April we laid the draft legislation for the UK’s sixth carbon budget. As I said earlier, it proposes a target which would reduce emissions by 78% by 2035.
Under the Climate Change Act 2008, we have made significant progress in meeting our climate targets. We confidently met the first two carbon budgets and we are projected to meet the third out to 2022. We exceeded the required emissions reduction in the first carbon budget by 1.2%, and in the second by nearly 14%. Now is the time to double down and decrease our emissions further and faster.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, we do recognise the need for further action to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. Our forthcoming sector decarbonisation strategies and our wider plans that deliver a green economic recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic will contain further proposals to support delivery of carbon budgets 4 and 5. We will also publish a comprehensive net-zero strategy ahead of COP 26, setting out the Government’s vision for transitioning to a net-zero economy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Oates, talked about the UK’s plans to develop hydrogen production. Working with industry, the UK is aiming for five gigawatts of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030. This is stretching but credible for the UK. We welcome the Scottish Government’s ambition, which will be important in developing low-carbon hydrogen production at scale within the UK. Our ambition will be supported by a range of policy measures, including the £240 million net-zero hydrogen fund, which was confirmed out to 2024-25, for co-investment in hydrogen production. We have committed to consulting on our preferred hydrogen business model in 2021 and set out a revenue mechanism to enable our new business models to bring through private sector investment. The noble Lord will be aware that we are developing our hydrogen strategy in partnership with industry, because while our ambition is important, the key ask from industry is that we have a clear revenue/business model to support delivery. That is why we are not rushing ahead with a strategy.
My noble friend Lady Altmann spoke about using pension scheme assets to assist in the battle against climate change—indeed, she has spoken about this a number of times before. Trustees of occupational pension schemes are, as she is well aware, independent of government and not bound by the commitments which the Government have signed up to. However, given the significance of the financial risks posed by climate change, the Government expect all investment decisions made by pension scheme trustees to take climate change into account. As of 2019, trustees of pension schemes with 100 or more members have been required to set out in their statement of investment principles policies on stewardship and on environmental, social and governance considerations, including climate change.
In the Pension Schemes Act 2021, the DWP took powers to require trustees to manage climate risks and opportunities to their savers, and to report on how they had done so. After two consultations, the DWP will lay the required regulations next month. If approved, they will come into force in October 2021 and will require larger occupational pension scheme trustees to undertake governance activities, assess how their scheme will fare in different temperature rise scenarios, calculate the emissions of their portfolio, and set targets. They will need to make annual disclosures about these activities in line with the TCFD recommendations. This will make the UK the first major economy to mandate TCFD reporting for its pensions sector.
The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, also asked about the Government’s plans for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. As always, we stand ready to respond to emerging risks or changes in the market, and we will continue to monitor how cryptoassets are being used in the UK. Regarding the emissions they create, it is of course important to consider this in the context of the UK’s success in decarbonising the power sector. As she will be aware, between 1990 and 2019, the sector saw a reduction of 71% in emissions.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, spoke about balancing our ideas to reach net zero with their cost and their deliverability. Our ambition to protect the planet goes hand in hand with supporting economic growth and prosperity across the UK. The 10-point plan will also help develop the cutting-edge technologies needed to drive down emissions in industries across the United Kingdom, such as through the significant investment in hydrogen that I spoke about earlier, and in carbon capture technologies through our £1 billion net-zero innovation portfolio. We have developed our plans to reach net zero centred around the UK’s strength, and there is huge potential in boosting innovation and advancing technology to help meet those ambitions. At every step on the path to net zero, we will of course put affordability and fairness at the heart of our reforms.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, analysis from the Climate Change Committee shows that to achieve net zero, GGR methods will be required to balance residual emissions from some of the most difficult to decarbonise sectors—for example, some parts of agriculture and aviation.
Last year, it was my pleasure to meet the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, and his colleagues to talk about the maritime sector, so let me respond to the points he made about the maritime industry. The UK will continue to play a prominent role in international forums, including at the International Maritime Organization, to encourage action from other countries to cut emissions from this sector. We will invest £20 million in the clean maritime demonstration programme to develop that clean maritime technology. We are already running hydrogen ferry trials in Orkney and we are due to launch a hydrogen refuelling power plant in Teesside, as we seek to revitalise our ports and coastal communities. The clean maritime demonstration competition includes feasibility studies on our sites, such as Orkney and Teesside. The competition will support the development of hydrogen and alternative fuel shipping hubs across the UK, enabling a number of clean maritime clusters.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, on legislation being key to delivering our climate change goals, I remind them that, as I said, we were the first major economy in the world to set a legally binding target and in April, we laid draft legislation for the UK’s sixth carbon budget. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, we have made significant progress in meeting those climate targets. As for the point the noble Lord raised about requiring every policy submitted to have a climate impact assessment, net zero has become an increasing priority for this Government. For the first time, we now have two Cabinet committees, chaired by the Prime Minister and the COP president-designate, to turbo-charge the net-zero transition and co-ordinate action across government. As the lead department for net zero, BEIS works in the centre of government and other key departments to ensure that net zero is factored into all our key policy decisions and future plans.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, also raised the point that in order to deliver on net zero, we must ensure that local authorities and the devolved Administrations are adequately involved and trained in delivery of net zero. We are working closely with our partners in the DAs and many local authorities to achieve those climate goals. Local authorities are key delivery partners in projects ranging from electric vehicle charging infrastructure to heat networks and energy efficiency schemes.
Unfortunately, I am running out of time, so I shall write to those noble Lords I have not had a chance to answer and that will be a more effective use of our time. I am grateful for the time of the Committee.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded, or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House, the Committee will adjourn for five minutes. The time limit for this debate is one hour.
Child Poverty: Ethnicity
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the review by the Office for National Statistics Child poverty and education outcomes by ethnicity, published on 25 February 2020, which found that Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black ethnic groups have a higher percentage of children living in low-income households than the national average; and subsequent to this, what assessment they have made of the importance of tackling child food poverty over the upcoming six-week school holidays.
I thank noble Lords for giving me the opportunity to begin this crucial debate. I wish it were longer, but an hour is better than nothing. I am particularly pleased that we are having this debate in the week of the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd—nine minutes and 29 seconds that moved the world. Some of us hope that it will change the world, but that remains to be seen. After his death, in front of our eyes, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young people, black and white, marched on the streets of cities and towns in countries around the world. Central to their demand was that our institutions, our Governments. our people look at systemic inequality, particularly race inequality. That is why today’s debate is important.
To look, as we should, at child poverty in general, as many noble Lords know, 14.4 million people in this country are living in poverty. When we drill down to black, Asian and minority ethnic families and children, the data is stark. We should not only acknowledge and confront this but have the bravery to close those gaps and unleash the talent within our communities. I was struck by the data that the Social Metrics Commission unleashed on us about a year ago, which said that half our black families are living in poverty, many in deep poverty. I tried to get an image of what deep poverty looks like. It is not just about people going to the food banks that we have seen; it is the way that people look down on them when they go. It is also about their housing. I found data in a recent report showing that as many as 13% of black people are living in damp, poor accommodation. For Africans the figure is 10% and for Pakistanis 9%. That compares with 3% in white communities. We see the gulf in food poverty, in housing poverty and in unemployment. The TUC stated that black people have been hit four times harder by Covid-19 in being made unemployed. Unemployment rates for young black men are now rising. The national average is 4% and the figure is about 13% for young people, but for young black men it is nearer 40%.
We know how that pans out. We know where that goes, when people have no hope and no dignity. We see them being vulnerable. We see unscrupulous gangs waiting for them in the wings to take them under their spell and lead them to no good in this double pandemic of Covid-19, which has devastated black, Asian and minority ethnic communities disproportionately, and the George Floyd murder and protest. It has been a double pandemic—a perfect storm, if you like. Historians will look back at this time and ask but one question: when the systemic inequalities were laid bare by this double pandemic, what was our response? What did we do?
We have three choices. We can do nothing, we can do a little or we can do something great. For me, it is not good enough to build back better. I have seen the data from back then, and it was not great then. It was made worse by Covid-19. We parliamentarians have got to build a new better. We must have that 1945 moment, when we built the National Health Service, but we cannot do that if we are not brave. We cannot do it if we are steeped in denial, like Dr Tony Sewell, who saw all this evidence in education, health, jobs and housing and then confronted you and me, saying he found no systemic racism. We cannot deny the lived experiences of many out there, black and white. We must not.
We have an opportunity when bad things happen. We have a unique opportunity before us to have the greatest conversations and the greatest unity ever. Will we take it up? I have been fantastically impressed by that young man, the footballer Marcus Rashford, who has, in his own way, changed our world by demanding that we look at those uncomfortable truths—and he still plays great football and keeps on his track to guide us. Will the Minister listen to the range of experts, supermarkets and charities that make up Marcus Rashford’s End Child Food Poverty coalition and expand free school meals to all under-16s with a parent or guardian in receipt of universal credit or an equivalent benefit? They are slipping through the cracks, and that is on our watch. We cannot let that happen.
I want to be bigger than that. I know noble Lords want to be bigger and bolder than that. We have done right in disregarding the Tony Sewell report because we know it is dishonest and disingenuous and seeks to blame people for their situation, rather than to have an adult conversation. I hope we can have a conversation and meet the Minister and relevant experts in the field to have broader discussions and to formulate, in the absence of a race equality strategy, a framework that deals with these uncomfortable truths, so that we join the dots where Covid has laid them bare. We know where we need to look. We join the dots, in the short term, to make sure that kids do not go hungry; in the medium term, to start building; and, in the long term, so that all our young kids, families and communities can say that in 2021, after the anniversary of the tragedy of George Floyd, we came together—bigger, bolder, more creative, non-political and shoulder to shoulder—to have a plan that will deliver for all our communities. I thank noble Lords for this special time.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for tabling this QSD, which raises important questions about child poverty and ethnicity.
In addition to the sobering ONS statistics that it highlights, recent analysis from Leeds University shows how children from black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds are at the greatest risk of deep poverty—to which the noble Lord referred—which is increasing among children generally. Indeed, the latest official data showed that two-thirds of the growing number of children in poverty are in deep poverty. What steps are the Minister’s department taking to address this growing problem?
Although the recent attention given to child food poverty is welcome, it is but a symptom of what the New Policy Institute has called a “child poverty disaster”, as earlier progress made in reducing child poverty has been all but wiped out in the past six years. The Trussell Trust, which has done so much to draw attention to growing food insecurity and reliance on food banks, is clear that the problem is not one of food but of people not having enough money for basics. The answer, it believes—as do others—lies at least in part in improved social security support, especially for children.
According to the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, social security spending on children has been cut by £10 billion in real terms since 2009-10. Analysts agree that social security cuts, both the general freeze and cuts targeted at larger families, have been a key driver in worsening child poverty. What assessment have the Government made of the likely impact on child poverty of: first, ending the £20 universal credit uplift this autumn as planned; secondly, retaining the two-child limit, when just yesterday three of the UK’s Children’s Commissioners called on the Government to scrap it, arguing that it is a clear breach of children’s human rights and pointing to its disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic children; and, thirdly, refusing to review the benefit cap as a matter of urgency, as was called for by the Economic Affairs Committee back in December? Again, the cap has a disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic children.
Tackling child food poverty, including among black and minority ethnic children, requires a comprehensive cross-departmental child poverty strategy that goes well beyond paid work, which is increasingly failing to provide protection against poverty. Where is it?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, on his excellent speech.
This ONS report is very interesting. I want to focus on food poverty. I particularly value the granularity of the data because it allows us to explore which elements of a child’s experience and background affect their educational attainment. The ONS has made a clear the link between poverty in general and educational attainment and, within that, the excessive representation of certain ethnic groups.
First, I believe that the provision of free holiday meals should be extended to all holidays when schools are closed for whatever reason. Children do not get hungry only during the major holidays. Secondly, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, that we should increase eligibility for free school meals and do more to encourage the parents of children in poverty of all ethnicities to apply for them. However, the ONS found that pupils who were eligible for free school meals —FSM—made less progress between the ages of 11 and 16 than those who were not eligible. This indicates that it is the poverty, not the meal itself, which affects educational attainment. However, free meals help to alleviate poverty and help with children’s health, albeit in a small way. For those reasons, will the Government consider reintroducing free lunches for all primary pupils at least, as was done for a time under the coalition Government? There was evidence of better attainment during that period. That may have been because, by removing the barriers to application and the stigma, more pupils who really needed a free meal got one.
However, the ONS found that educational outcomes for Bangladeshi and Pakistani children did not follow this lower attainment trend, since children of those ethnicities who were eligible for FSM had higher Progress 8 scores than the national average. Since the ONS also found that these children are more likely than average to live in low-income homes, this indicates that there is something else operating here to overcome the poverty effect. It is not that these ethnic groups have higher incomes than other Asian groups, but it could be something about the home background and the extent to which the parents positively engage with the child’s education. We need more research to find out whether this is the case. Can the Minister tell us if that will happen?
Of course, when we talk about child food poverty, we are not talking just about free lunches. It is important to make sure that children get a good breakfast by increasing support to the excellent voluntary organisations that provide them to ensure that they are available everywhere and throughout the holidays.
Finally, because all aspects of a child’s life link together to predict their life chances, it is vital to tackle child poverty in the round through housing, special education provision and all the other things that contribute to education and health inequality. Will the Minister comment?
My Lords, it is obviously concerning that certain ethnic minority groups still have a greater percentage of children in low-income households than the national average and illuminating that children from Pakistani and Bangladeshi households perform higher than the national average at GCSE level despite this. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley has just indicated, there is a disparity here. Also, white Irish and white British pupils have the largest gaps between average educational outcomes for students eligible for free schools meals and those who are not, while Chinese, black African, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students have the smallest gaps. In other words, income is only one determinant that should be of interest to policymakers.
This further substantiates evidence from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that certain ethnic groups, such as black African, Indian and Bangladeshi pupils, perform better than white British groups once socioeconomic status is taken into consideration. The commission partly attributes such achievements to “immigrant optimism” and greater devotion than the native population to education as a way out of poverty. It recommends that the Government invests in research to understand what factors drive the success of high-performing pupil communities, including black African, Chinese, Bangladeshi and Indian ethnic groups, and how this can be replicated to support all pupils.
The CRED report has proven controversial for many reasons, but it contains important messages that we ignore to the detriment of those whom policy should support. Its findings and those of the ONS highlight that poor white British populations should also be seen as ethnicities deserving of policy attention. Poor white people in the north-east of England are the largest group with multidimensional disadvantages, such as income and life expectancy. Importantly, the north-east also has the largest proportion of lone-parent families in England after London. The CRED report made the neglected point that family breakdown is
“one of the main reasons for poor outcomes”,
“Family is also the foundation stone of success for many ethnic minorities.”
Those ethnicities that are doing better educationally also have lower numbers of families where there is only one parent; for example, 40% of black African families and 6% of Indian families, compared with 60% of black Caribbean families. Strengthening families must be central to effective policy to tackle social inequality. As co-founder of the Family Hubs Network, I welcome the Government’s adoption of family hubs as official policy and their continued funding of the reducing parental conflict and supporting families programmes. Will the Minister say what the Government are doing to ensure that family hubs and these other strands of policy are outworked in a way that fully includes families from all ethnicities?
My Lords, today, the political community reels from accusations made by the Government’s former most senior adviser that so many lives were cut needlessly short by a wanton disregard for their value during last year’s pandemic management. Surely we can at least come together with the pledge that no child should ever have their life blighted by hunger in the sixth wealthiest jurisdiction on the planet.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, a legendary campaigner for social justice, for this timely provocation, and I congratulate him on his new role in Cambridge. The Minister knows of my respect for her and my belief that she is one of most genuinely compassionate voices in a less-than-compassionate Government. I therefore ask her today whether she will consider using her voice to urge the Government to legislate for a right to food in the United Kingdom. I ask her to consider the enormous public health, educational and life expectancy benefits of providing a nutritious pre-school breakfast and a lunch for every single child in compulsory education. I urge her also, in the interests of better scrutiny and governance, to consider a new statutory duty on the Secretary of State to set out how much of any welfare benefit or legal minimum wage has been calculated for food. Will she meet me and other right-to-food campaigners after the Recess to discuss our proposals for the most basic levelling up of all?
As for the forthcoming half-term holiday, I wish all noble Lords safe and peaceful breaks, but I also fear for all those children and families who will undoubtedly struggle adequately to feed themselves during this period. How can we justify being a country of food banks next to investment banks? How can we justify even those in work on the front line of infection struggling to feed their families? How can we give thanks for a single meal with our own families while so many children go badly nourished or undernourished?
I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and endorse every word she uttered. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Woolley and congratulate him on his new role.
Noting the ONS report, I wish specifically to highlight the educational achievements of Bangladeshi people, particularly in Tower Hamlets, notwithstanding the evident consequences of poverty, poor social outcomes, a lack of quality housing and, even more stark, unequal opportunities for employment. Experiences of institutional and structural racism, whether or not it is recognised by the Government, also have a profound impact on educational outcomes.
However, there is a parallel narrative. Through the efforts of my generation of councillors in the late 1980s and early 1990s, inspired by the historic struggles of Eric and Jessica Huntley, Bernard Coard and Professor Gus John, the Tower Hamlets parent and community team revolutionised and mobilised the delivery of education through supplementary schools and made it available to Bangladeshi children, who also suffered significantly as a result of the disgraceful ESN designation and the continuance of pupil referral units.
This report speaks of poverty without acknowledging the pernicious effects of discrimination, which blights and impoverishes children’s lives. They look on their schools and institutions, still disgracefully lacking representation, and the message to them remains that they do not belong to their society, that they do not have any stake in their institutions and that they are lesser citizens. We live in the shadow of the wealth of Canary Wharf, the City of London and Broadgate. I have raised this matter time and again. Despite an educated workforce and educated Bangladeshi graduates being available at arm’s length, more than 70% of those who work in these areas come from at least 70 miles away. These are uncomfortable facts which cannot be denied. We cannot be complicit with the endemic effects of institutional and structural discrimination on children’s futures.
What discussions can the Minister and her department undertake to ensure that employers in this area take seriously the Government’s agenda to strengthen these communities and eradicate the endemic discrimination which is harming our children’s futures?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for instigating this debate and shall focus my comments on the section on page 6 of the report highlighting low income and material deprivation, the self-reported inability of individuals or households to afford 21 particular goods and activities. For children, these include, in order of weighting and priority, outdoor space or facilities nearby to play safely, a hobby or leisure activity and organised activity outside school each week. These factors, when considered with wider concepts of material deprivation, demonstrate that children in Bangladeshi households are the most likely of all ethnic groups to come off worst. Their material deprivation scores in the ONS study before the Grand Committee today stand at an appalling 29%. This is almost three times as high as white households.
The importance of play and investment in green spaces so that children can play safely in the community must be strengthened in the new planning system which will come before Parliament shortly. We must transform lives and communities through sport, recreation and physical activity for all our children. We must increase school sport and PE provision. We must tackle the growing crisis of obesity. We must improve teacher training in this context, especially in primary schools. We must transform lives and rebuild the younger generation, who carried the greatest burden of the coronavirus epidemic for the rest of us. They suffered from obesity, poverty and, above all, boredom, being cooped up with escalating mental health issues, to protect old generations and the most vulnerable from even greater hospitalisation and death rates. We must recognise the vital contribution of an active lifestyle to alleviate poverty, and we need policies for the communities which are most affected by material deprivation.
For all this, we urgently need a Cabinet Minister for children. We need the development of a youth well-being strategy that considers the wide discrepancies in our society highlighted in this report. They are heart-breaking. The interests of children are served by many government departments, local authorities and the voluntary sector, yet co-ordination of policy formulation and policy initiatives is too weak. It is time for action. It is time for a voice for children at the cabinet table.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for securing this debate and for so powerfully introducing it. The noble Lord referred to the lived experiences of systemic racism, something which has been built on centuries of discrimination, discrimination that very much continues, as powerfully testified by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.
In this debate, I feel that I need to respond to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, particularly in the light of the fact that your Lordships’ House has recently spent a great deal of time and energy on the Domestic Abuse Bill. It is important that we do not send any kind of message that we need to continue families no matter what, given the damage that might be done to the individuals within them. We should acknowledge the impact of discrimination and poverty on the rate of family breakdown.
However, I want mostly to focus on two positive solutions. To ensure that I was taking a different approach from other noble Lords, I went to two research institutes in Sheffield. Both are associated with the University of Sheffield: SPERI, the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, and the Institute for Sustainable Food. I want to focus on one sentence in a report from SPERI in December 2020 on food vulnerability during Covid-19. The report said that
“it is important to revisit, once again, the heated debate around the role of food charities as frontline responses to a lack of economic access to food.”
That has been carefully phrased in the form of academic discourse, but I put it to the Committee that, in the context we are talking about, none of us should rest until the last foodbank closes because of a lack of demand.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, food poverty is poverty. The underlying problem is a lack of income. She also talked about maintaining the boost to universal credit; that is a start, and the Minister will be well aware that I would much prefer universal basic income, but we need to look at incomes.
Secondly, the Institute for Sustainable Food focuses on the local as the site of food security resilience. I would like to point here to a group in Sheffield called Kenwood Community Growers, which was set up at the start of the pandemic and has been supplying community kitchens in Sharrow and areas with a large BAME community. What are the Government doing to focus efforts towards local food production and local growing, with people being able to produce food for themselves and have access to land and the resources that they need? Our BAME communities have skills, talents and energy that need to be utilised, supported and encouraged.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for this debate and for giving us the opportunity to consider the ONS report and, of course, systemic inequality in general. Hungry children cannot learn as effectively and efficiently as those who are well fed, or at least adequately fed and nourished. Teachers and teaching assistants know this only too well; they deal with hungry children in their classrooms every working day of their lives and respond by providing food, often at their own expense. Hunger in the classroom is, alas, not a new problem but education staff observe it to be an increasingly prevalent one.
As we all know, the pandemic has exposed significantly different health outcomes by ethnic group, while the ONS report has shown that Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black ethnic groups have more children living in low-income households than the national average. These children must therefore be exceedingly likely to be disproportionately affected by hunger daily. As we all know, it took a young man better known for football than politics to draw on his own lived experience and push the Government to do something on food which they had no intention of doing originally. Marcus Rushford is no longer just a football star but a champion for the right to food—and now food for the mind, too, with his campaign on reading and access to books.
The pandemic has hit many families’ finances hard. Eight out of 10 teachers say that they have seen this impact. We know that many schools have organised foodbanks and delivered food parcels to pupils in their homes—some, of course, even before the pandemic. We cannot allow our children and their families to languish in hunger during the summer break. Local authorities can be well placed to provide recreational and educational programmes and include food as part of that offer, but they need sufficient resources provided in a coherent and timely manner, and on an ongoing basis throughout the summer and during the autumn half-term. In fact, this should happen in all school holidays to ensure that no child or family slips through the cracks.
If the levelling-up agenda means anything, it must mean an end to child and family hunger and poverty. It must mean a right to food and an end to systemic inequality, which has left so many facing a future in which their own future is less bright than it could and should be.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, on securing this important debate. I will focus solely on one aspect of child food poverty, which is somewhat “offline”. I declare my interest as a lifelong sufferer from coeliac disease. This is an autoimmune condition; it is difficult to diagnose and is not an allergic reaction. There are a growing number of children, across all ethnicities, who suffer from gluten intolerance. For those from ethnic backgrounds, reading the small print on labels to check for the presence of wheat can be a challenge, especially if English is not their first language. When I was a child, a very limited range of gluten-free products was available and only on prescription. The Minister will know that a large number of clinical commissioning groups no longer provide gluten-free prescribing. Supermarkets now stocking a range of GF products is given as the reason. This assumes that those with gluten intolerance have money in their pockets.
Supermarkets dedicate sections to “free from” foods, including GF products. Although there are different types of GF pasta, sliced loaves, chocolate biscuits, et cetera, their cost is very different from that of products containing gluten. In the case of a loaf of bread, this can be three to four times as much as a loaf made from wheat. For families who are living on benefits, the cost of GF cereals, bread and flour may be beyond their reach. For a recently diagnosed child, the family may find the cost of the new diet prohibitive. A child usually having a packed lunch at school may find they cannot afford a gluten-free sandwich due to the price of the bread, so just what are they going to have for lunch? Would the Minister consider pressing her colleagues in the Department of Health to seriously reconsider returning gluten-free products to the prescription list?
There are those not qualifying for benefits who have fallen on hard times during the pandemic; the food banks are keeping them alive. It is important for the long-term health and welfare of coeliac sufferers that they stick to their diets at all times. A GF parcel from food banks will be essential for these sufferers.
Lastly, I turn to the school holidays. A child may have qualified for a GF school hot meal during the week, but what will happen to them during the school holidays? I urge the Minister to take account of the importance of regular, proper, balanced meals during those six weeks. As Marcus Rashford has demonstrated, it is a dreadful thing for a child to go to bed hungry. We are one of the richest countries in the world and should be ashamed that this is happening to large sections of our communities. I look forward to the Minister’s positive response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for securing this debate and for the powerful challenge with which he kicked it off. The picture painted by these ONS statistics is both politically unacceptable and deeply sad. I note the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, about the educational results in the north-east and I look forward to seeing more action to support my region. However, what struck me most in this report was the clear reminder that child poverty has a disproportionate impact on certain minority-ethnic communities in the UK. Noble Lords have referred to the fact that children from Pakistani and Bangladeshi households are the most likely to live in low income; a higher proportion of children in black and other UKME households are more likely to be living in low income; and children in Asian households are two and a half times as likely as the national average to be in persistent low income. That is huge. These figures came out in February last year, before the pandemic even kicked in, showing that, even by that point, progress in the UK had stalled.
We know that, when kids grow up in poverty, there is a greater risk that all areas of their lives will be adversely affected. This includes lower grades and fewer opportunities and, later on, lower wages and poorer health. However, the Government are still sticking with policies, such as those outlined by my noble friend Lady Lister, that have already resulted in 4.3 million of our children growing up in poverty, and they are still planning to cut another £20 a week for millions of families in September, which will make things worse still. Given this evidence that poverty is not equally distributed, can the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of whether and, if so, how that £20 cut will disproportionately hit black, Asian and other UKME people?
We know that kids cannot learn well on an empty stomach. Just this week, new government data showed that 500,000 more children became eligible for free school meals during the first year of the pandemic—more than 11,000 children each week. However, again, this is not evenly distributed. The 2020 ONS figures showed that black pupils were the most overrepresented group in the free school meals population, so can the Minister tell us what the picture is for black pupils now that we have had a year of the pandemic?
The Government plan to give food and activities to children eligible for free school meals, though during just half of the summer holidays. Why will they not give cash transfers for free school meals to ensure that families get the full value of this support and can buy the food and activities best suited to their children? As has been mentioned by other noble Lords, do the Government plan to extend eligibility for free school meals to all children from a household getting universal credit or with no recourse to public funds?
We need action to tackle child poverty. We need reform of our social security system to give everyone the help that they need. However, we also need action to target structural inequalities, including differential rates of poverty, unemployment, low pay, job insecurity and so much more. How will the Government address those underlying problems? Indeed, how will they identify them? Labour suggested various ways, such as a race equality Act or a strategy. If the Government do not like those ideas, that is fine, but what are their ideas? How will they identify the problems and address them? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for securing this important debate and introducing it so eloquently and powerfully. I also thank those noble Lords who have contributed to today’s discussion of this important issue.
I share the concern that has been expressed that children from some ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be in low income than their peers. It is absolutely right that any Government are held to account for their record on tackling poverty.
Over the past year, our priority has of course been to help all families, regardless of their background, to withstand the financial hardship brought about by the pandemic. Such unprecedented circumstances have called for an unprecedented response. I believe that this Government are delivering this by spending more than £407 billion on support measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, including the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. This has helped to protect jobs and to keep businesses afloat and has helped families to get by. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, issued us with a challenge: we can do something little or we can do something great. I believe that the Government are doing a good job in trying to support people in this incredibly difficult time.
That spending also includes the additional £7.4 billion injected into the welfare system further to support those most in need, raising our total spend on welfare support for people of working age to around £111 billion. The noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Sherlock, referred to the £20 uplift. I must tell them that it was always intended to be a temporary measure. As such, as far as I know, it will cease in September.
We have done other things to support families and children. We fully recognise the profound impact of this hugely challenging period on people’s lives. We have taken further substantial action to support the most vulnerable children and families, wherever they live and whatever their background, to ensure that they are able to access food and other essentials.
My noble friend Lord Farmer raised the important issue of family stability and the good work that family hubs are doing. The Government are working to expand these hubs and continue to invest in the reducing parental conflict programme. The hubs continue to grow at pace. There is a cross-government department team working on family hubs and RPC: I am a member of that group. Somebody pleaded with me to use my voice; it is loud and clear on these issues, and I would be very happy to meet any noble Lords to talk about hubs and the reducing parental conflict programme.
To strengthen the welfare safety net, in December 2020, my department introduced the Covid winter grant programme, which had an additional £229 million of local welfare funding and has enabled local authorities to provide targeted support to vulnerable households, keeping them warm and well fed over the winter, focusing particularly on disadvantaged children and families, whether that support is needed in term time or in holidays. Recognising that some restrictions on the economy are still in place, a further £40 million of funding has been allocated to the Covid local support grant fund.
The noble Lord, Lord Wooley, was very challenging in his speech, as other noble Lords have been, about educational attainment and free school meals and breakfast clubs. We have put in place extraordinary measures to ensure that disadvantaged children receive the support they need to learn, whether that is in home or in the classroom. In England, this has included spending an additional £500 million on food vouchers so that children had access to food when schools were closed during lockdown. This is in addition to the usual funding schools have continued to receive to provide free school meals for more than 1.6 million pupils from the lowest income families and universal free school meals for all children in reception, year 1 and year 2. As well as lunchtime meals, the Government also support breakfast clubs in more than 2,450 schools. The Department for Education has recently announced another £24 million to continue the successful breakfast club programme.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, talked about the summer holidays. Looking ahead to this summer, we recognise that many vulnerable families need additional support during the longer school holidays. Following three years of successful pilots, the Department for Education’s holiday activities and food programme has been expanded for 2021. The programme launched at Easter and will provide support during summer and Christmas this year at a cost of £220 million. This programme is available to disadvantaged children in every local authority. Wider support is available, including our healthy start scheme, and we are exploring any additional support that may be needed throughout the summer.
I now turn to some of the specific points made by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, talked about unemployment rates for ethnic minorities. We have committed to level up skills and opportunities across the country for people of all backgrounds. Using data from the race disparity audit, updated annually since October 2017, and our own analysis, we are continuing to help those underrepresented in the labour market.
We were challenged in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and others about expanding free school meals. We think it is important that free school meal support is targeted at those who need it most. Free school meals are an integral part of our provision for families on low incomes and of our wider actions to promote social mobility.
On the help we are giving to ethnic minorities, particularly to get into the labour market, we have identified 20 target areas using our own research and data from the race disparity audit. Lessons learned are rolled out, where appropriate, across the country. Each area has a high ethnic minority population and a high gap between the ethnic minority and white employment rates. Together, they represent more than half of the national ethnic minority employment gap. We are also considering the recommendations of the independent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.
Again, I am sorry to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, that I have no information that the two-child policy is going to be changed. I know it will be disappointing to her, but the Government feel quite strongly that a benefit structure adjusting automatically to family size is unsustainable.
We have the same view on the benefit cap. The proportion of individuals capped remains low in comparison to the overall UC case load at around 3%. This is in spite of the significant action that DWP took early in the pandemic to protect those financially impacted, including the temporary uplift in the UC standard allowance and increases to local housing allowance rates. The most vulnerable, who are entitled to benefits for disability and caring, are obviously exempt from the cap.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised a point about free school meals for all primary school children. I am afraid I have no information that that is planned. On the other points the noble Baroness raised, I will write to her.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, raised the poverty strategy and cross-government working. Here I might raise a smile, I think. As we recover from the pandemic, departments will continue to work together to deliver a number of key cross-cutting outcomes linked to the 2020 spending review. These outcomes include addressing poverty through enabling progression into work and increasing financial resilience. DWP is leading this work in collaboration with other departments, including, in particular, HMT, DfE, MHCLG and Defra.
My noble friend Lord Moynihan raised the issue of a Cabinet Minister for children, which other noble Lords have raised. The Secretary of State in the Department for Education has responsibility for children and families and takes it very seriously. I will ask my noble friend Lady Berridge to write on behalf of her Secretary of State to say what is being done there.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, urged me to use my voice. I will always do that. I can confirm to her, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that we will consider all the recommendations of the national food strategy and respond fully within six months of the publication of the next and final national food strategy report. I will come back to the noble Baroness in writing.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, a passionate campaigner, for her contribution. In my working life, trying to help people back to work, the business community at Canary Wharf has been outstanding in its support for its local communities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, made a point about gluten-free products on prescription. I am very happy to write to the Department of Health. I make no promises, but I will write, and I will copy the noble Baroness in on the letter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, talked about the impact of the pandemic on levels of poverty being clear and asked whether we will publish our evidence and act on it. Estimating the impact of Covid-19 on relative and absolute poverty requires estimates of income for all people in the UK, which are not yet available. We are wholly committed to supporting people on lower incomes. We spend an estimated £111 billion on welfare, including an additional £7.4 billion on Covid-related welfare policies.
I always finish these debates by apologising for not being able to answer every point, and I always promise that I will look at Hansard and write to noble Lords on any matters I have not dealt with. I hope noble Lords understand that this Government are absolutely committed to helping those who need help most—those in poverty—and my door is open at any time for noble Lords to make representations.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. If there is a Division in the House—which we are not expecting—the Committee will adjourn for five minutes. The time limit for the next debate is one hour.
Covid-19: People with Neurological Conditions
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on people with neurological conditions and their access to health and care services; and what steps they will take to restart specialist neurology services.
My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate this matter today in order to hear the Government’s plans to restart specialist neurology services after the devastating pandemic. I thank all Members who are taking part and I look forward to their contributions.
I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Parkinson’s, which is the fastest growing neurological condition in the world. It is a complex and debilitating condition with no cure, so quality health and care services are vital to help people with Parkinson’s manage their condition. By quality neurological services, I mean that people should be able to access consultants, specialist nurses, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and mental health professionals. These services are also vital to people with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, motor neurone disease, migraine and other disorders of the brain, spinal cord and nervous system that affect at least one in six people in England.
The 2019 Neurological Alliance report, Neuro Patience, described the variability of health and care services for people with neurological conditions in England. It also highlighted how overstretched the neurology workforce is and indicated that people with neurological conditions have a poorer overall experience of care than those living with other long-term conditions.
We know the pandemic has affected everyone. However, those living with neurological conditions have seen their symptoms worsen. Since March 2020, people with neurological conditions have been locked in their homes; in many cases, their physical state has deteriorated and they have been without access to the vital therapy services that help them maintain their well-being. Emerging research suggests that some people with, or recovering from, Covid-19 can experience neurological symptoms, which will add extra pressure to the already overstretched services.
Like many health charities, Parkinson’s UK conducted a survey of how the pandemic affected their supporters in 2020. One in four said that the Covid restrictions negatively affected their mental health and a third said that it impacted their physical health. Over a third of people with the condition experienced increased symptoms including slowness of movement, stiffness and fatigue, and over a quarter experienced increased tremor and sleep problems. One in 10 people with Parkinson’s also reported having distressing hallucinations. Family members, friends and carers, particularly spouses or partners of people with Parkinson’s, were also affected by the pandemic. Nearly seven in 10 took on more caring responsibilities, and almost half of the people with Parkinson’s receiving social care support at home received less care during the pandemic.
In fact, recent NHS data shows an increase in waiting times for access to specialist services for people with neurological conditions. The data shows that more people are being referred for specialist care by their GP. However, it also shows there has been a significant increase in the number of people waiting more than a year for treatment.
Neurological services are struggling to cope with the number of patients. Can the Minister say what progress is being made by the NHS England/NHS Improvement neuroscience transformation programme, provide details about how it will improve care for the one in six people living with a neurological condition and tell us when it might conclude? What proportion of the extra funding awarded to the NHS has been allocated for neurological services to restart? How will the Government address the workforce issues?
Will the Minister also commit to introducing a national strategy for neurorehabilitation, with strong leadership in the NHS to drive forward this vital work? We know from NHS data that access to neurosurgery —and, in the case of Parkinson’s, deep brain stimulation, or DBS—was impacted by the pandemic last year. On average, 20 new DBS procedures were completed per month in England in 2019. However, that fell to around 135 new procedures in total for the whole of 2020. DBS can be a life-changing treatment for some people with Parkinson’s. It is not a cure, but it can drastically improve the physical symptoms of the condition and reduce the amount of medication a person takes each day.
Further delays to the restart of DBS and other neurosurgery could be disastrous for people with Parkinson’s and those with other neurological conditions. Even a few months delay can mean that some people are no longer suitable for DBS or other neurosurgical procedures. I understand that the NHS March guidance said that elective procedures should be restarted, and payments were introduced to incentivise integrated care systems to schedule them. Can the Minister explain what this will mean for the restart of neurosurgical procedures, in particular DBS for people with Parkinson’s?
Although I am sure that many will welcome the move to virtual healthcare appointments to maintain the well-being of patients, NHS data shows that there are significant variations in access to these appointments based on where one lives. While many people with neurological conditions welcome these virtual appointments as they reduce travel time to hospital, not everyone benefits from them. Some may be unfamiliar with the technology or find that it does not work. Charities have heard reports of connectivity issues, and people may not have the necessary equipment to take part in these virtual appointments. Others with neurological conditions have also shared their concerns about the security and privacy of virtual appointments.
People with neurological conditions and professionals have said that a phone appointment, for instance, cannot accurately assess people with movement-related symptoms. Many professionals have said that it is harder for them to assess how the individual’s carer is managing, and I know from Carers UK’s insight and research that carers have faced increasing pressure during the pandemic. For treatments such as speech and language, physiotherapy or where a professional manipulates muscles or joints, face-to-face appointments are the most effective. It is therefore crucial that patients have the right to choose how they interact with their health professionals. Can the Minister give a commitment to ensuring that patients are given that right?
I have posed several questions to the Minister, the answers to which people living with neurological conditions are desperate to hear as they look to the future. I hope that the Minister can respond to them today. However, to explore them further, would she be prepared to meet with me and others with an interest in this subject? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I declare my interests as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders, of which there are more than 200 known types. Some 25% of those who have died of Covid-19 in the UK also had some form of dementia, and more generally there is increasing awareness that Covid-19 affected people with dementia quite differently from non-dementia patients. There is still much we do not know about how Covid-19 and dementia interact, and much more research is needed in this area.
Sadly, research funding for dementia has reduced by 75% since the start of the pandemic, as charities and other private organisations which fund this research have lost money over the past year and cannot fund efforts to continue this work, so it is really serious. And it is not just dementia research funding that has suffered during this pandemic. According to the MS Society, 70% of research into other neurological conditions has stopped, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, so ably described. The Government have pledged to double dementia research funding as part of the dementia moonshot. Will they also commit to similar funding increases for other neurological conditions? I hope the Minister can tell us that they will.
The number of people dying of neurological conditions generally has increased significantly in recent years. Dementia is now the single highest cause of death in the UK, according to ONS figures. Thousands more are now living with neurological conditions. In some cases, if diagnosed or treated early, they can continue to live a productive and independent life. We know, however, that during this pandemic access to specialists and other medical help has not been easy due to the pressure on the NHS. The problems predate the pandemic, though, as for many years this country has had a shortage of neuroscience specialists. According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, it takes two years, on average, to diagnose someone after they have developed dementia. This diagnosis time will have become much longer during the pandemic, meaning that chances of early prevention that may improve quality of life are sadly lost.
The human mind is something of which we still have only limited knowledge. Much more research is needed to help us really understand the human mind and how to treat neurological conditions. Our health systems also need to prioritise brain and neurological health, as increasingly these areas are becoming our greatest health challenge as a society.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. I refer to my entry in the register as a vice-president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.
I also have a personal interest. It is not an exaggeration to say that I owe my life to my then GP, Dr Christopher Baillie, who referred me for an emergency MRI 25 years ago. I saw him in the morning; I had the MRI at the local NHS trust that evening. Within days I had an appointment with a neurologist, who diagnosed life-threatening compression of the brain stem. Another couple of months, and the damage would have been irreversible; another six, and it would have been lights out. In my case, major neurosurgery meant that I am still here, but I am acutely aware that, had I been one of the more than 150,000 people who were waiting for a neurology appointment in March 2021, 10,000 of whom have been waiting for more than a year, it would have been too late.
It is imperative that, as we address the severe backlog in appointments and treatment caused by the immense Covid-19-induced pressures on our NHS, we also optimise people’s prospects for recovery post-treatment through access to rehabilitation services. According to a report on people’s experiences of accessing speech and language therapy, for example, during the first UK-wide lockdown, published by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists in March this year, 80% of people living with neurological conditions had had no face-to-face speech and language therapy since June 2020. No wonder 40% of people living with neurological conditions said their needs had got worse.
Will the Minister commit to reappointing a national clinical director for neurology? I echo the call by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for a national strategy and a national leadership position to be put in place to drive improvements in neuro-rehabilitation.
My Lords, I shall concentrate briefly on the effects of Covid-19 on people living with motor neurone disease and where we go from here. Covid-19 has seriously reduced face-to-face GP appointments, which may well explain why, just as an example, at King’s College Hospital there has been a drop of some 35% in referrals to the motor neurone disease centre. That was compounded by the fact that there was a four-month period without any therapy clinics, leading to 200 fewer therapy contacts. No doubt that pattern is reflected throughout the country.
Motor neurone disease, as we know, is a rapidly progressive disease, with diagnosis difficult at the very best of times. Covid-related delays in referrals and delays in access to medication, to therapies such as physio and speech therapy, for example, and to other treatments and support mechanisms make it really difficult for people with MND to maintain function and maximise their quality of life. That is the backdrop—perhaps inevitable, given the need to deploy staff during the crisis—but what to do now? That is what I know noble Lords will want to hear from the Minister. What is the plan to restore neurology services as soon as possible? I understand that a recovery plan is in place for cancer services. Will the Government commit to a similar plan for neurology services? Will they commit to working with NHS England, with NHS Improvement and with appropriate patient groups, healthcare professionals and commissioners to get us back as quickly as possible to pre-pandemic levels?
We hear a lot of the mantra “build back better” these days. Well, there is much to build back better in the health service and, within that, a clear need for a firm commitment, as has already been said, to build a national strategy for neuro-rehabilitation in the National Health Service. Much as I am an admirer of Professor Sir Bruce Keogh and his many good works, I think he was wrong in recommending the abolition of the post of national clinical director for neurology, and the Government were wrong in adopting that recommendation. It is imperative, in my view, that we have an end to the long government neglect of neuro-rehabilitation. We must have a national clinical lead to drive real improvement, and I hope the Minister will have something positive to say in that respect when she comes to her winding-up speech.
My Lords, this debate is a salutary reminder of the range of neurological conditions that have been affected by the pandemic. I speak in my capacity as the president of SUDEP Action, a local charity in my former constituency of Wantage. SUDEP stands for “sudden death in epilepsy”; it is perhaps astonishing to learn that 21 people a week die suddenly of epilepsy, often in the prime of their life, and that 50% of those deaths could be avoided with proper treatment. In fact, epilepsy is the second most frequently reported potentially treatable cause of death. The number of women who are pregnant and dying of epilepsy has also doubled in the last few years.
SUDEP Action has led international research on the pandemic’s impact on epilepsy and bereaved communities throughout 2021, along with the University of Oxford and Newcastle University. These statistics will echo some that have already been cited for other conditions: 40% of people with epilepsy had worsening health during the first wave of the pandemic; almost all epilepsy sufferers have reported increasing mental strain; a third have experienced issues with accessing care; a quarter have trouble getting their medication; and one in five have not seen a health professional in a year.
Two decades ago, the Government had a national audit of epilepsy death, which brought these deaths out of the shadows, but only recently have steps been taken to implement some of its recommendations. Of course, as has been echoed in other speeches, the opportunity to implement those changes has been severely put back by the impact of the pandemic. SUDEP Action has put in place a number of protocols to help people suffering with epilepsy. It works with 1,200 health professionals to ensure that those suffering from epilepsy can use a checklist to check their health, and works with an app that allows it to monitor the condition of 4,000 patients. This wonderful charity that I work with would clearly like to see—like many other charities, I suspect—that, when the eventual inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic takes place, we look not just at Covid deaths but at the deaths of people who suffered from other conditions and whose healthcare has been impacted.
More long term, we need to level up epilepsy services and care provision, providing access in the community to a named co-ordinator of care for each individual with epilepsy. A vital levelling up of tailored communications of the risk of epilepsy is also needed nationally, just as we broadcast the risks of asthma or diabetes. These resources already exist but they require national rollout and implementation, and support from government.
My Lords, 22q11 syndrome is a common neurodevelopmental disability hiding in plain sight because it is massively undiagnosed, yet 128,000 people in the UK are estimated to be affected. A prevalence of one in 500 of the population is reported—twice that of Down’s syndrome and almost six times that of cystic fibrosis. Its effects, unique to each individual, range from fatal heart defects, catastrophic immune deficiency and severe learning difficulties through to mild behavioural problems, speech and language issues and facial characteristics. Neurodevelopmentally, these children have challenges in learning, with developmental delays in speech, cognition and motor development. Many are affected by behavioural and psychiatric issues. It is a multisystem disorder and the greatest genetic risk factor for schizophrenia.
The lack of awareness of 22q11 syndrome means that there is an extreme lack of specialist services and, often, a lack of understanding of children’s learning challenges. Many were asked to shield during the pandemic and the services they need were greatly affected. Appointments were either lost completely, with hospital clinics shut down and therapy services unable to proceed, or substituted with telephone conversations. Many missed months of school due to their medical issues. Home-schooling packs were often inadequate for meeting their needs and did not cover the requirements under their educational healthcare plan or individual education plans. Their mental health often suffered and parents reported more behavioural issues. Progress was already slow, compared with their peers, and many have fallen back even further educationally.
The long-term outcomes will likely prove more severe than previously expected, meaning a greater difficulty in attaining the baseline levels required to enable them to progress into post-16 education. Given the difficulties for children and young people affected by neurodisabilities such 22q11 to catch up and recover lost education, how will the Government support them to ensure that they achieve their best possible educational outcomes? What reassurances can my noble friend the Minister provide to those families that support will be forthcoming?
My Lords, I would like to raise an especially neglected area of neurology: autonomic dysfunction. This neglect has been exacerbated, but not created, by the pressures of the pandemic. I declare my interest as chair of Genomics England and an autonomic patient myself. I thank Professor Chris Mathias in particular for his help in preparing this contribution.
Autonomic dysfunction describes several conditions that cause malfunction of the autonomic nervous system, which controls the automatic survival functions of the body that we do not consciously think about, such as heart rate, blood pressure or kidney function—processes that we all take for granted until they go wrong. Autonomic dysfunction can be intermittent; it ranges from mild inconvenience to severe disability. For example, those with mild autonomic mediated syncope can faint once or twice in their lives, but others can faint several times a day, risking falls, broken bones and, sometimes, traumatic brain injury. Postural tachycardia syndrome, which I have, causes a wide range of autonomic symptoms. It is a deceptive, invisible illness that disproportionately affects young women; they can look very healthy when not symptomatic so are often diagnosed with anxiety or eating disorders and disbelieved. However, researchers compare the disability of PoTS to that of COPD or congestive cardiac failure.
Autonomic dysfunction can also occur as secondary to neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s, spinal injuries and MS, as well as common conditions such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. It is not rare: it affects 70 million people worldwide, but it is accepted that the true prevalence is higher due to underdiagnosis. In most cases there is no cure, but it is possible to improve symptoms with medication and lifestyle adaptations. However, despite the high prevalence and significant disability, most patients take years to be diagnosed due to poor clinical and public awareness.
Even when diagnosed, getting treatment is extremely challenging. The few clinics that do exist are simply overwhelmed. Patients from Derriford Hospital autonomic clinic have contacted me in desperation because their clinic is being closed without a further plan for autonomic patients in that region. It is the only service in the area; other autonomic clinics are not taking referrals due to demand. It is a picture of a few specialists offering pockets of excellence and responding to aspects of autonomic dysfunction, rather than integrated services that can fully respond to the multisystem challenges that the condition presents. I believe that UCL now has the only integrated autonomic unit in the country.
Low awareness among non-specialists, especially in primary care, means that patients often have inconsistent management and difficulty in accessing special care. Together, this means unnecessary deterioration for patients. This is widely reported by patients and clinical experts but noble Lords do not have to take their word for it. The DWP’s own guide to medical conditions states:
“Although 25% of people with PoTS are unable to work or attend education, 80% to 90% will improve with treatment and 60% will return to previous levels of functioning.”
The opposite is of course true. It could not be clearer: autonomic dysfunction is a common condition that causes significant disability but, with diagnosis and treatment, symptoms can be mitigated and managed. Despite this, our clinical services, training and awareness are woefully inadequate, and autonomic patients are suffering serious inequalities as a result. I ask the Minister in her response to acknowledge the inadequacy of autonomic services and set out her plan to rectify this, including the publication of a national neurology strategy and clear national leadership.
My Lords, I declare that I am a patron of the Motor Neurone Disease Association and a vice-president of both Hospice UK and Marie Curie. We are all most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for securing this important debate because the pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on services.
Most hospice services are largely funded through charitable donations—that is, hands in pockets from the thousands of families around the country who are eternally grateful for the excellent services that they received and continue to receive. However, in the pandemic, the money dried up. The Government were extremely supportive and provided funding but there is a real worry that, over time, the overall level of donation will not return to previous levels.
We have seen delays in support procedures for patients with motor neurone disease, such as gastrostomy, which can be essential for nutrition and hydration. Two-thirds of MND specialist centres reported that end-of-life care has been compromised during the pandemic. Some hospices did not have the required level of specialist trained staff to admit patients using non-invasive ventilation or even suctioning or were confused about the specific PEE they needed, and beds closed, highlighted in Marie Curie’s recent report, Better End of Life.
Added to this, the messages from campaigners for assisted dying have been particularly frightening, controversial for some people and at times misleading, especially for those newly diagnosed and coming to terms with their illness. Specialist services do a remarkable job of empowering people to live well, with technology assistance allowing people to continue to work, write books, run businesses and remain active participants in their families’ lives. The Motor Neurone Disease Association signposts people to empower them, as well as driving research forward.
I hope that the Government will confirm that, as the Covid-19 threat is lowered, they will work with NHS England and NHS Improvement, commissioners, healthcare professionals, professional bodies and patient groups to ensure that services are restored to their pre-pandemic levels as soon as possible. Where possible, these services should be improved to plug gaps. This means that NHS England and NHS Improvement must develop a recovery strategy for neurology services, matching—as the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie, has said—the recovery plan developed for cancer services.
Finally, can the Government confirm that they now recognise that hospices and other palliative care providers are providing a core clinical service that needs secure NHS funding to provide high-quality palliative and end-of-life care for everyone who needs it? That care is needed early in a disease, so that people are adequately supported. This is not just about the last phase of their illness.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, on securing this very important debate. When Covid-19 first struck in 2020 and we began the first lockdown, I do not think that enough was known—for very obvious reasons—about the impact that Covid-19 has on the brain and, necessarily, on neurological conditions that already exist. We have seen how it can affect people who have neurological conditions after they recover, but the impact on those already diagnosed did not appear to be that well recognised. I hope that, now we are this much further on, the Government will ensure that we capture data more effectively to make sure that those who are doubly at risk because of a neurological condition are safeguarded.
During that first lockdown in 2020, I was a carer for family members with Alzheimer’s and with epilepsy. I can testify to what is, 15 months on, a very clear diminution in their mental health state and, particularly regarding Alzheimer’s, the ability to be aware enough to enjoy life as we would hope. I therefore ask my noble friend to ensure that the Government listen to what is said in this debate, because we need to capture that data and make sure that, in future, the warning goes out to all those who are severely at risk.
In particular, I think it is worth mentioning that, when somebody with dementia needs intensive care in hospital, there is a very big question mark on the part of doctors as to whether that is advisable, because of the impact of the treatment itself in intensive care on somebody with dementia—certainly somebody with advanced dementia. I hope that we will, in future, widen that list of people who are vulnerable and who need to be doubly careful.
May I also add my support for the reappointment of a national clinical director for neurology? There are so many diverse conditions that come under the heading of neurology and it is absolutely essential that there is some control at the centre with somebody who can take a wider view across the country.
My Lords, 40 years ago this year, my eldest daughter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She is the vice-chairman of the Multiple Sclerosis Trust and has been active in its work.
I know that this past year has been a massive challenge for everyone; nowhere has this been more acutely felt than in the NHS, especially by neurological patients and those awaiting medical treatment. The House of Lords briefing, which was contributed to by the Neurological Alliance, states:
“In February 2020 … just 38 people had been waiting more than a year for a neurology appointment, 169 for a neurosurgery appointment. However, by March 2021, according to recent NHS England and NHS Improvement data, more than 150,000 people were waiting for a neurology appointment and more than 60,000 for a neurosurgery appointment. More than 10,000 have been waiting for more than a year … This has profound implications, and could mean delays to diagnosis and treatment … Without access to specialist expertise patients cannot receive a confirmed diagnosis and begin accessing treatment and support for this complex and often rapidly progressive condition. In multiple sclerosis (MS), delayed diagnosis could mean a delay to access treatments which could slow or even stop the progression of the condition.”
We have seen how NHS staff have been so resilient in this pandemic. We are for ever grateful for their individual and team efforts. For some patients, online consultations have been beneficial as the patient has not needed to travel and is seen on time. However, medical appointments cannot replace a physical exam and the nuances of a face-to-face appointment, which are so important in helping with diagnosis or treatment in neurological cases. It is important that patients are allowed face-to-face appointments once more to enable health professionals to do their job as effectively as possible.
I urge the Government to restore care and access to physical consultations for those with neurological conditions to pre-pandemic levels; to look at a co-ordinated approach across departments and care, from rehabilitation services to earlier access to social or mental health care; and even to consider a national clinical director for neurology to pull all these services together and work across organisations, as neurological conditions come in so many different guises.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for securing this important debate.
We have heard reports from noble Lords of the impact of Covid on neurological services, as well as of the shocking numbers of people who have not had the appointments, diagnoses or treatments they needed to manage their disease during the disruption to the NHS during the pandemic. It is important to recognise that, over the past 14 months, doctors, special nurse practitioners, speech and language therapists and other allied healthcare professionals working with those with neurological conditions have often been moved into different roles during the pandemic—and for many months. We owe them a particular debt of gratitude. Not only have they been working very long hours; they have also had to learn new skills rapidly and work in often distressing circumstances. We salute them.
In my brief contribution, I will focus on services for babies and children with neurological conditions; this includes children with epilepsy and stroke. It is understandable that many services have had to move to online consultations. One young mother, whose baby had had a stroke in utero, told me that online physiotherapy last autumn with her three month-old baby was virtually impossible, because she did not know the micromovements that the physio was looking for and the quality of the screen meant that the physio could not detect them either. Speech and language therapy online is also very difficult with small children, but critical so that they do not slip behind, as there may be a knock-on effect on their days at nursery and early years at school.
Many primary care services have also gone online and, in some areas, the health visitor one-year baby-check assessments are now a paper checklist for the parents to download and complete themselves. Again, for babies with known neuro conditions, parents are not trained to spot problems. Worse, where there has been no diagnosis at all, it is possible that parents and health professionals inevitably miss the warning signs, so it is vital that there are immediate returns to in-person appointments and the funding to go with them.
It is essential that the Chancellor of the Exchequer guarantees extra catch-up resources for all long-term conditions, not just cancer, important though that is. Many neurological conditions are life-limiting and their impact mitigated by treatment and medication, but substantial catching-up needs to happen to prevent much more serious deterioration that will, in the end, cost the NHS much more money. I ask the Minister whether the Department of Health and Social Care is pressing the Treasury for these extra catch-up resources. If not granted, the health costs for society will be substantially more.
I first congratulate my noble friend Lady Gale on this debate and pay tribute to the work that she had done on Parkinson’s disease, over many years, including championing it in your Lordships’ House. It is lovely to see the noble Baroness, Lady Blackwood, speaking with her usual eloquence and knowledge. I always felt that she knew much more about anything than I ever did, when I faced her across the Chamber.
Covid-19 has undoubtedly had a profound effect on people with neurological conditions and the services they need. There are three issues that we need to consider: first, catching up on missed appointments, therapies and treatment; secondly, ensuring that the rapid referral to which my noble friend Lord MacKenzie referred is restored; and thirdly, working out how much the neurological and neuropsychiatric manifestations of Covid-19, which are still emerging, are likely to further increase demand on services, both in hospitals and in the community. We also need to recognise that neurological research has been significantly disrupted, which is compounded by the financial pressures on charities.
The report from the National Neurosciences Advisory Group published last month found that, since the onset of England’s first lockdown in March 2020, people with neurological conditions have been directly impacted across all areas of their lives—their access to food, ability to work, social interactions and support, and access to essential health and social care services. Many have been shielding or self-isolating because of the virus, increasing anxieties, loneliness and isolation, which is sometimes exacerbated by unclear and inconsistent messaging and advice. This has also led to increased pressure on family members, carers and the charities and patient organisations providing support services.
However, while we recognise that support from the NHS and social care has been restricted, we have also heard many stories about health and social care professionals across the country finding new ways to maintain contact with people with neurological conditions remotely, and patient groups have found new ways to facilitate peer-to-peer support. It is vital not to lose those as we move out of the pandemic.
There is an estimated backlog of more than 225,000 neurology appointments and 58,000 neurosurgery appointments at the end of 2020. The motor neurone disease figures are particularly concerning. Referrals have dramatically fallen, which means that diagnosis, support and help for this dreadful condition are being delayed, which is exactly what we want to avoid. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated longstanding barriers to social care that people with neurological conditions and their families face. There are some serious challenges here. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the many questions that she has been asked.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for securing this important debate, recognising her tireless commitment to championing neurological conditions, including through her many years of service as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Parkinson’s.
As this debate has illustrated, the pandemic has resulted in unprecedented pressure across the health and social care system. All noble Lords recognise the outstanding work done by staff and volunteers across the NHS, social care and the voluntary sector at this difficult time. Early in the pandemic, NHS England and NHS Improvement advised that in-person consultations
“should only take place when absolutely necessary”.
This decision ensured that care was provided to those in greatest need during extremely challenging times. Neurology services saw new models of care emerge, with triage processes to ensure that patients receive appropriate care and are seen in outpatient settings closer to home. Providers rolled out remote consultations, using video, telephone, email and text message services, including for patients with neurological conditions. To support these new models of service provision during the pandemic, from March 2020, the Association of British Neurologists, the Royal College of Physicians and the Chief Medical Officer’s team produced guidance for clinicians, including recommendations on where services could be temporarily paused or moved from face-to-face, and where normal practice should continue. This was updated to ensure that it continued to meet the scale of the challenge and maximise the quality of care offered.
However, we all recognise that these were necessary but undesirable decisions that were taken to deal with the pandemic, and the Government completely recognise that this has resulted in delays to elective care, including non-urgent surgery, which has been impacted throughout the pandemic. Neurosurgery activity levels fell by 29.8% between 2019-20 and 2020-21, representing a reduction of about 30,500 completed patient pathways, and as noble Lords have noted, the waiting list has grown from 34,600 to 43,200 in the same period. However, it should be noted that urgent care was maintained throughout the pandemic to ensure that those requiring emergency care still received it. I will come on to our plans to address the backlog shortly, but a small sign of improvement is that median neurosurgery waiting times have dropped from a peak of 19.5 weeks in July 2020 to 14.3 weeks in March 2021.
Moving into the recovery phase of the pandemic, the Association of British Neurologists has published specific guidance on recommencing neurology services, including assessments on which services and patients require urgent prioritisation, considering the severity and onset of symptoms. As the NHS transitions from pandemic incident management to recovery of services, our priority is addressing the pressures caused by the pandemic. On 18 March, we announced an additional £7 billion to support pandemic recovery and £1 billion for elective recovery in 2021-22. While this funding is not allocated towards specific specialities, it will go towards services that benefit people with neurological conditions. NHS England and NHS Improvement are currently developing recovery plans across all services, including for patients with neurological conditions. Specialised services are setting a clear approach for recovery of services which ensures that patients are treated at the correct time in the appropriate setting, while balancing the ongoing Covid-19 pressures and front-line staff well-being.
I cannot say what the plan is for specific treatments, such as DBS for Parkinson’s, but I would be happy to follow up to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, on that point in writing. I can say that, based on current information, neurology inpatient services should be fully restored to pre-pandemic appointment levels by the end of September this year, if there are no further significant Covid-19 outbreaks.
A number of noble Lords have expressed how challenging the past year has been in its impact on individuals’ mental health and well-being, including those with neurological conditions. The Government will continue to do our utmost to ensure that our mental health services are there for those who need them. Although talking therapies are available remotely, the NHS is working to ensure that the option of face-to-face support is provided to people with serious mental health illnesses where it is clinically safe to do so. For those with severe needs or in crisis, all NHS mental health providers have established a 24/7 urgent mental health helpline.
In March 2021, we launched our mental health recovery action plan, backed by an additional £500 million for this financial year, to ensure that we have the right support in place. We are committed to our ambition in the long-term plan to expand and transform mental health services, including by investing an additional £2.3 billion a year in mental health by 2023-24.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, rightly highlighted, it is also imperative that we have a skilled and resilient neurology workforce. In August 2022, improvements to the neurology curriculum will be implemented. During their five-year training programme, trainees will accredit dually in neurology and internal medicine and obtain sub-specialty training in stroke medicine. Based on current numbers undergoing neurology training, this will mean that each year from 2028 onwards at least 40 neurology trainees each year will complete their training in neurology and stroke and be eligible to lead stroke services—a major boost to the workforce.
Furthermore, over recent years we have increased the number of funded medical school places in England by 1,500, a 25% increase. In the process, we have delivered five brand-new medical schools across the country. This expansion completed in September 2020 and will significantly increase the pipeline for doctors, including neurologists and other doctors treating neurological conditions, in future years.
As noted by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, we are also keen to understand any neurological impacts of Covid-19 and are aware of studies that suggest the potential for longer-term neurological symptoms developing in people who have had Covid-19. It is for this reason that we are providing more than £50 million of research funding and are working with world-leading scientists better to understand the virus and its long-term effects and how to treat them effectively. One such study is the Covid-19 clinical neuroscience study, which was awarded £2.3 million by UK Research and Innovation and the Department of Health and Social Care. It will look at 800 patients in the UK who were admitted to hospital with Covid-19 and had neurological or neuropsychiatric complications to understand how these problems occur and to develop strategies to prevent and treat them.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Greengross and Lady Thornton, also raised broader research funding, and I reassure them that the Government are committed to providing funding towards innovative research in neurological conditions. DHSC funds research into these conditions through the National Institute for Health Research, and funding was at £56 million in 2018-19. However, this is not the only route of research funding that we provide. We also provide funding through the Medical Research Council and UKRI, through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which supports a diverse portfolio of neuroscience research and innovation totalling around £30 million per annum.
Longer term, a variety of improvements are under way for neurological conditions. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, raised the important neuroscience transformation programme, which was intended to be a five-year programme and launched in 2018. At present, the programme is working with key stakeholders and patient groups to develop a collaborative model of care to improve local neurology services, improve care closer to home and reduce variations in access and treatment within and across systems. In light of the pandemic, the programme is currently reviewing its approach and priorities to align with the overall service restoration and recovery work.
The NHSE/I specialised neurology service review is looking at the optimal model for neurology services with the aim of ensuring patients are seen quickly in the most appropriate setting and carrying forward lessons learned during the pandemic. This review is now complete and NHSE/I is considering its recommendations. NHSE/I also supports the National Neurosciences Advisory Group, which is a collaborative leadership group for neurosciences in England. The overall purpose of the group is to improve outcomes for patients living with neurological conditions.
In April this year, NNAG published a report into the effects of the pandemic on neurological services and care pathways. The report highlighted the benefits of remote care methods but also recommended a fuller evaluation of remote care which, as a number of noble Lords have highlighted, is not appropriate for all people with neurological conditions. The report’s long-term recommendations are for NHSE/I to lead a national neurology plan in collaboration with NNAG and its members to develop and invest in a national rehabilitation plan, which the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, also raised, and to develop a clinically-led, pragmatic system of clinical classification of outpatient episodes. NHSE/I will be considering these recommendations as part of its ongoing recovery and restoration work and the future transformation of neurological services.
To respond to the point raised by several noble Lords about patients having the right to choose how they interact with health professionals in the right setting, the Government are committed to ensuring that patients have personalised care that considers their needs and preferences. That is why it is embedded in the NHS constitution and set out in the long-term plan.
I fear that I am running out of time. A number of noble Lords raised specific conditions. My noble friend Lord Vaizey mentioned epilepsy and my noble friend Lady Blackwood mentioned autonomic dysfunction. Many other conditions were also raised. I say to noble Lords that we are committed to improving services for people with these conditions. We acknowledge that, particularly where people have specialised conditions, further work is needed to acknowledge those conditions, raise awareness of them and improve their treatment. On specific points on any of those conditions, I will write to noble Lords.
I close by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, once again for securing this debate and thank all noble Lords who have taken part in it.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid Grand Committee will now resume. Some Members are here in person, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing. If the capacity of the Committee Room is exceeded or other safety requirements are breached, I will immediately adjourn the Committee. The time limit for this debate is one hour.
Genocide: Bringing Perpetrators to Justice
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, in opening this short debate I must declare that I am a patron of the Coalition for Genocide Response, and thank its founders, Luke de Pulford and Dr Ewelina Ochab, for their briefing note. I also thank the Library for its briefing note, and all participants, who will bring great expertise and knowledge to our proceedings. I also serve as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Burma, Uyghurs, Rohingya, and Hong Kong, and as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea.
Dag Hammarskjöld, a truly inspirational Sectary-General of the United Nations, once said that the United Nations
“was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”
But as we will hear this evening, from Xinjiang to Burma, from Tigray to Nigeria, from Iraq to Sudan, and in many other parts of the world, the international community has fallen a long way short in saving millions of people from the hell of genocide and from atrocity crimes. While the victims suffer appalling violations, the perpetrators strut the world stage, confident of their impunity and the triumph of mercantile and other interests over our convention duties to prevent, to protect and to prosecute those responsible for these heinous crimes.
In the post-war years, men such as Raphael Lemkin, and women such as Eleanor Roosevelt, bequeathed the institutions that emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz—notably the International Court of Justice and, later, the International Criminal Court. It is to those bodies that the United Kingdom Government defer, stating as recently as this week, in reply to a Parliamentary Question, that
“The UK is fully committed to honouring its legal obligations under the Genocide Convention. The Government’s longstanding policy is that any judgment on whether genocide has occurred is a matter for competent courts. These include international courts, such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, and national criminal courts that meet international standards of due process.”
But as became clear during our proceedings on the genocide amendment to the Trade Bill, this is simply a convenient sleight of hand, disguising the shameful inability—or perhaps unwillingness—to bring perpetrators of genocide to justice. The Government cannot plausibly offer that response, simultaneously telling us that Russia and China will invariably use their Security Council veto to close routes to the international courts, while the Government themselves close routes to domestic courts.
The all-party genocide amendment to the Trade Bill offered a way out of the cul-de-sac and a route to our national courts, and it was given three-figure majorities in the House but opposed by the Government. My noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead, a former Supreme Court judge, and others, told the House that the current arrangements simply do not work and that our High Court was perfectly capable of adjudicating on whether a genocide is under way. When the proposal came within a whisker of defeat in the Commons, the Government offered the compromise of a committee to examine allegations of genocide. I have given the Minister notice that I would like to know when such a committee will be established to examine whether the Uighurs, for instance, are subject to a genocide. Can he also confirm that, even if a parliamentary committee determines that a genocide is under way, the Government will still not accept such a determination and intend to continue to say that it is just a matter that the courts can determine?
The Committee should note that a legal opinion from Alison Macdonald QC and Essex Court Chambers concluded that there is credible evidence of genocide in Xinjiang. We should also note that, on 22 April, the House of Commons voted to declare the crimes against the Uighurs in Xinjiang to be a genocide. The United States, Canada and European countries such as the Netherlands and Lithuania have all done the same, but not the United Kingdom Government.
On 27 April, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, appeared before the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence. I asked him whether it was his intention to accept the Commons declaration. In reply, he said that
“Parliament should hold the executive to account on all these matters. That has been our position all along. Our long-standing position is that a court should make judgments on genocide. Fundamentally, genocide creates obligation at the state level”.
Yes, he is right—we have treaty obligations at the state level—but we and others repeatedly fail to meet them, and refuse to reform our domestic and international mechanisms to address this lamentable failure.
When Mr Raab told the committee that he is an “ardent … reformer”, I asked him what we are doing to increase the efficacy of international institutions, to gather support for the proposed code of conduct regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and in combatting genocide. On the code of conduct he said:
“We are a signatory to the accountability, coherence and transparency code of conduct … That allows all members of the Security Council, permanent and non-permanent, to make public commitments not to vote against credible resolutions intended to prevent mass human rights abuses.”
Perhaps the Minister can tell us this evening what progress this proposal is making and whether, realistically, in the absence of support by China or Russia, he honestly believes it will save a single life.
Mr Raab rightly warned the committee about the potential misuse of the word genocide. It is precisely because the definition is exacting that I agree with the Government that a court should evaluate the evidence and make the determination. But there is no point identifying the problem without willing the solution. This has become a circular argument, and it was to break this vicious circle that noble Lords tabled the genocide amendment—and why we are here again today. Voluntary codes of conduct are all very well, but at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Dominic Raab rightly said that what is happening in Xinjiang is “on an industrial scale”. That needs much more than a voluntary code of conduct. The Foreign Secretary told us legislative attempts in both Houses had “shifted the dial.” Perhaps, with the Biden Administration, we can push the dial further.
We have already worked together on Magnitsky sanctions, announced on 6 July 2020, and for which the Foreign Secretary, and indeed the noble Lord the Minister, deserve credit, but those sanctions are not a response to genocide. I have sent the Minister a recent Financial Times review of Geoffrey Robertson QC’s new book, Bad People. In summary, he argues that the sanctions regime is too opaque and liable to be used against soft targets rather than the worst villains. It does seem passing strange that a functionary such as Chen Quanguo, the CCP party secretary in Tibet and then Xinjiang, remains unsanctioned, as does Carrie Lam, in Hong Kong. Oversight of the Magnitsky sanctions by a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House is urgently needed.
I note, incidentally, as someone who has himself been sanctioned by the CCP for drawing attention to genocide against the Uighurs, that the European Parliament has frozen the EU-China infrastructure deal until sanctions against their parliamentarians are lifted. By contrast, in the UK, our Trade Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, tells us it his ambition to deepen trading links with a state credibly accused of genocide. Let me ask the Minister quite directly: does he think that it is ever licit to seek to deepen trade with a country credibly accused of genocide, or, for that matter, one which uses slave labour?
Will the Minister also provide a response to the recommendations in the Coalition for Genocide Response briefing? I would especially like a response on what it says about universal jurisdiction; prosecution in UK courts of Daesh fighters for their involvement in the genocide against Yazidis, Christians, gay people and others; and the importance of establishing a mechanism for evidence collection and preservation, about which I have written to the Minister, and which is urgently needed in Tigray, where there are reports of mass graves, rape as a weapon of war, summary executions and the targeting of religious figures—these are all detailed in the briefing provided by CSW to noble Lords.
It tells us all we need to know that China and Russia blocked attempts to discuss the allegations about what is under way in Tigray at the United Nations Security Council, while the 2016 recommendations of the UN commission of inquiry on Eritrea, which is now embroiled in Tigray, have never been implemented.
Can the Minister also say what we are doing to bring Burma’s illegal junta to justice and, in the light of the atrocities against Rohingya and Kachin, what we are going to do to take forward the Gambia’s admirable decision to pursue the Burmese military at the ICJ?
The dial may be shifting, but it is not fast enough for beleaguered and suffering people in Burma, Tigray, northern Nigeria, Xinjiang and elsewhere. Dag Hammarskjöld’s ambition to create effective mechanisms
“to save humanity from hell”
remains unfulfilled, but we must not throw in the towel. We have clear duties to hold to account those responsible for atrocity crimes and genocide, and in meeting those obligations we must redouble our efforts. Once again, I thank all noble Lords who have entered the list to speak tonight.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and as a trustee of Burma Campaign UK, I will focus on Burma.
For decades the Tatmadaw has been committing human rights violations that break international law. The impunity it has enjoyed only encouraged further crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The genocidal campaign against the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017 caused thousands of deaths, and over 800,000 fled to Bangladesh.
Last year more than 100 parliamentarians of all parties and none, including many in this House, wrote to the Foreign Secretary urging him to formally support the Gambia’s case against Myanmar at the ICJ to protect the Rohingya. Regrettably, the British Government have not fully implemented the recommendations of the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar, set up in response to the Rohingya genocide as well as the unlawful violations against other ethnic groups in Kachin and Shan states. The letter warned that it was essential to uphold the genocide convention to deter further crimes by the Tatmadaw. Sadly, since then the military has removed the democratically elected NLD Government from office, has imposed military control and is indiscriminately killing Burmese of all ethnicities.
The Minister may reply that the UK has welcomed the Gambia’s case at the ICJ, but he needs to explain why a formal UK intervention may not add value. Furthermore, as a member of the UN Security Council the UK should use its diplomatic standing—especially with our history in Burma, as well as our expertise with the PSVI initiative—to join this action with Canada and the Netherlands. Failure by the UK to show leadership and uphold human rights by formally joining the ICJ case sends a dangerous message that ethnic cleansing and genocide are acceptable tools for repressive Governments around the world. The UK has an historic opportunity to make this a watershed moment in international law, and I hope we take it.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for all the work he does in this area and for the passionate way in which he introduced this debate.
I will start with a quote:
“The United States will provide no support or recognition to the International Criminal Court. As far as America is concerned the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority.”
Not surprisingly, those are the words of Donald Trump, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018. In 2020 President Trump issued a sweeping executive order authorising asset freezing and family bans against Fatou Bensouda, the ICC chief prosecutor, and took away her visa. Trump said that anybody who assists ICC investigations risks the same sanctions. Of course, this has had a broad, chilling effect on co-operation with the ICC.
Trump indicated that his policy of sanctions might extend to allies—specifically Israel—and demanded that the ICC change its course. The ICC prosecutor concluded in December 2019, after examination, that all the statutory criteria to proceed with a formal investigation in Palestine had been met, but the court is currently seeking a ruling on jurisdiction.
Not surprisingly, neither China nor Myanmar submits to the jurisdiction of the ICC, although 123 countries have ratified the Rome statute. The threat of investigation by the ICC prosecutor resulted in a significant change of government policy under the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which was recently before us, when genocide, torture and war crimes were at the last gasp omitted from the presumption against prosecution. That they had ever found their way into that Bill is a disgrace.
The most effective thing that can be done just at the moment to tackle genocide is for this country actively to persuade the Biden Administration to take up the responsibility and to ratify the Rome treaty. Is this happening?
My Lords, I have joined this debate to show my support for the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who attack the problem of genocide with fantastic energy, and also to urge the Minister to take more notice of what is being said. I urge him to look at the report of yesterday morning’s sitting of the International Relations and Defence Committee, when the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, gave evidence in respect of China.
I find it embarrassing that, as a Government, we say that we want to be global leaders, but we leave it to Lithuania, Canada, the United States and Holland to call out the genocide that is occurring in China. I say to my noble friend that I have a suspicion that the Government would be prepared to do a bilateral trade deal with China even if it were guilty of genocide—so perhaps he will make it absolutely clear that we will never do a bilateral trade deal with any country accused of genocide.
During the passage of the Trade Bill the Government gave a commitment to set up a committee of both Houses. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to that. Why has it not happened, and when will it happen? Last week we were able to put in place 33 committees on the nod—so why have we not been able to set up either a committee of this House or the joint committee proposed by the Government?
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I agree with every word he said. I hope that the Minister will not come back in this debate and repeat the same arguments about genocide being a matter for the courts, when he knows perfectly well that the perpetrators and those who support them will prevent that being achieved internationally.
My Lords, I strongly support the argument made by my noble friend Lord Alton: the failure to hold perpetrators of genocide to account gives them a green light to continue. The failure of the international community to respond to the Armenian genocide emboldened Hitler to embark on the Holocaust, with his infamous remark,
“Who … speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Yet Her Majesty’s Government still refuse to recognise the Armenian genocide and have done nothing to end the impunity with which Turkey and Azerbaijan commit genocide against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, as argued by Genocide Watch. We hope there will be a much more appropriate response to Azerbaijan’s recent incursion into the sovereign state of Amenia, with the killing and capture of Armenian soldiers.
In Myanmar the military regime continues its aggression. Since February, more than 785 civilians have been murdered, including at least 52 children, 5,000 are detained and tens of thousands displaced, in addition to the mass exodus of Rohingya refugees. Time only allows one example of military aggression. In the town of Mindat, in Chin State, as reported by Dr Sasa, speaking on behalf of the National Unity Government, homes were destroyed by tanks and helicopters, anyone trying to help the wounded was arrested, screams of pain were heard as captured civilians were tortured, and many were used as human shields. Dr Sasa pleaded:
“When will the world stop the military generals before they commit another genocide?”
A similar question applies to Nigeria’s Middle Belt, with escalating attacks by Islamist groups, thousands of Christians killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced. Many Muslims who refuse to adopt an Islamist ideology have also been killed. Will Her Majesty’s Government therefore fulfil their obligations under the genocide convention to prevent, protect and punish? The longer we tolerate these massacres and atrocities, the more we embolden the perpetrators, giving them a green light to continue their genocidal policies with impunity.
My Lords, I want to say something about timing, referred to in the moving introductory speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for which we are very grateful.
We face two problems in bringing perpetrators of genocide to justice. One is the length of time it takes for such atrocities to cease, as it is extremely difficult to stop acts while they are happening; it is only after the genocide has ended that moves to accountability seem to kick in, and then it takes years to gather evidence while the perpetrators run free. What is needed is a far more effective early warning system that triggers action much sooner to stop the genocide in its tracks before it does more damage. With modern communication, surely it is not hard to learn of and know of these atrocities; the problem comes in preventing them continuing when access is likely to be denied, lies are told to cover the evil and attempts at intervention are resisted by claims about the sovereignty of the nation state.
I learned recently of an attempt in World War II to intervene in a totally unconventional way. Some may know the extraordinary story in a book entitled The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather. It tells of a Polish man, Witold Pilecki, a farmer, husband and father of two who allowed himself to be arrested in order to be sent to Auschwitz. Despite much personal suffering, he tried to persuade the outside world of the atrocities he was witnessing through sending a series of smuggled messages, but the horror was so great that many people did not believe what he was saying—even here in the UK. So nothing was done to begin with, and the genocide continued.
A similar story surrounds Emily Hobhouse, who came from the UK. She visited South Africa but, when she returned here, she was not believed when she reported on the concentration camps and tactics employed by the British Empire against the Boers. She found herself ostracised here and returned to South Africa, where she is feted and memorialised.
An atrocity can sound so extreme or even unlikely when it is reported that it is not believed and is allowed to run on for too long while nothing is done about it; or, having learned of an evil, it seems that there is nothing anyone can do but pray and wait. While we ask the Minister to speed up the route to justice for perpetrators of genocide, may I seek an assurance that effort will also be given to finding ways to intervene and stop genocide while it is actually taking place, and so save and protect precious lives?
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this important debate and thank him for all that he does.
I commend the Government on its proactive work on UN Resolution 2379, establishing an investigative body on Daesh’s atrocities in Iraq, and for the good work that has been done collecting and preserving evidence for future prosecutions. However, similar steps need to be taken in the case of the atrocities in Xinjiang; I urge Her Majesty’s Government to create a mechanism that will collect and preserve the evidence of the atrocities against the Uighurs for future prosecutions. I acknowledge that while China has the P5 veto, the Security Council may not be the right vehicle for such a mechanism, but I urge my noble friend the Minister to examine the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
If we want to ensure that justice is done in future, we must ensure that evidence is not destroyed and witnesses are not pressurised into silence. However, we must be consistent. After the atrocities of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, the perpetrators, including high-level government officials and other key figures, fled to Europe and North America. Some returned home to Rwanda to be tried. Others were extradited back to Rwanda or prosecuted in domestic courts of the country of their residence under the principle of universal jurisdiction—but, sadly and embarrassingly, not here in the UK.
Since 2006, efforts to extradite the five known Rwandan suspects alleged to have been involved in the genocide against the Tutsi have failed, as have efforts to try them here in the UK. The newly constituted All-Party Parliamentary Group on War Crimes is campaigning hard to urge Her Majesty’s Government to do the right thing. Five suspects accused of heinous crimes against humanity are living peacefully on our shores. I ask my noble friend the Minister: what is the point of campaigning for justice abroad if we fail to deliver justice at home?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate and for his tireless work on genocide and other egregious human rights violations. We are legally bound by the 1948 convention to take all reasonable steps to punish and to prevent genocide. How many times have we said “never again”, despite inadequate action to break the cycle of it? Nothing will change unless we find a route to legal accountability and justice.
Regrettably, the Government’s actions fall short of their own rhetoric; they are slow to bring forward Magnitsky sanctions and are avoiding reform of supply chain legislation. They are in defiance of the House of Commons recognition of genocides and your Lordships’ overwhelming support for a judicial route to determination. They have prioritised their ability to enter trade negotiations with China over a process to assess the Uighur case. The Government hold an untenable position on the determination of genocide. You cannot say “genocide determination is for a court” when, with Chinese and Russian vetoes, no court will ever hear the case. Their policy is inoperable and now they must come forward with credible alternatives. They must continue to explore all legal routes to justice.
There are options. My honourable friend Stephen Kinnock urged the Foreign Secretary to introduce a UNGA resolution requesting an advisory opinion from the ICJ on the question of Uighur genocide and to explore legal avenues through other treaties and conventions, like the Convention against Torture, to which China is a signatory. If there was sufficient evidence against individuals, and they were to travel internationally, countries could assume jurisdiction to try those responsible for Uighur policies. France created a genocide unit to investigate and prosecute such offences and in May 2020 arrested a suspect in connection with the genocide in Rwanda.
Another option is bringing cases against Chinese officials at the ICC. China does not accept that jurisdiction, but, as a basis for jurisdiction, lawyers for exiled Uighurs claim some victims were kidnapped from Cambodia and Tajikistan, which do recognise the court. If not these, what credible alternatives do the Government have?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on being the conscience of not only the House of Lords but the Government on this issue of genocide. I do not need to explain to all the wonderful legal minds in this Committee that, in English law, the accomplices who aid, abet, counsel or procure an offence are charged jointly with, and face the same maximum sentences as, the people who commit the criminal act.
This night, the UK Government and the arms industry are culpable for genocides and other atrocities committed across the world. There are very few such atrocities that are committed independently of the global arms trade, of which the Government of the UK are a major component. In your Lordships’ House earlier this week, I mentioned the case of the UK aid sent to Mozambique to create a fossil fuel plant. Not only is this a disaster for our planet, it has also created more unrest in a very unstable area. In 2020 the plans actually encouraged an increase in the number of violent incidents; there were 570 in 2020 alone, of which one was 50 people beheaded on a sports field over the course of one weekend.
The conventional arms industry is bad enough for this, but then there is the nuclear weapons industry, the whole purpose of which is to facilitate global nuclear annihilation. Any high-flown promises about justice for genocide are empty while those same people who made the promises support the arms industry. It is time to rein in the military industrial complex and stop facilitating the killing of people across the world. That really would benefit the reputation of the UK Government.
My Lords, I personally went through two traumatising experiences of genocide in the 1990s when I was Britain’s representative on the UN Security Council: Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995. That is why I strongly support and welcome my noble friend Lord Alton’s debate today. If proof was needed that the lack of any enforcement provisions in the 1948 convention against genocide left a wide-open door to that most reprehensible of crimes, that was it.
Since then, attempts have been made to remedy that lacuna, with the establishment of regional courts and then the International Criminal Court, and with the endorsement by the 2005 UN summit of the emerging norm of the responsibility to protect. But, as the evidence before us of genocide committed against Iraq’s Yazidis and Myanmar’s Rohingya, and of the threats to the Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Tigrayans of Ethiopia, demonstrates, these attempts have fallen short of what is needed. So, what should be done to bring perpetrators of genocide to justice and thus strengthen the deterrent effect which the 1948 convention was intended to have?
Here are four suggestions. First, the UK, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should press for the council to extend the jurisdiction of the ICC to cover countries which have not signed up to the Rome statute, but in whose territory genocide may have been committed. That route was used successfully in the cases of crimes in Sudan’s Darfur region and in Libya; it should now be used in the cases of Iraq’s Yazidis and Burma’s Rohingyas. Secondly, the UK should also maintain its support for the French initiative to get the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to agree not to use the veto when the risk or actuality of genocide was involved. Thirdly, our Houses of Parliament should prepare the ground to make use of the opening in the Trade Act to consider allegations of genocide by any proposed trade partner. Fourthly, we should tighten up our own immigration and residence legislation and its enforcement so that never again, as was shamefully the case with some of those accused of genocide in Rwanda, could perpetrators find impunity in the UK.
I hope that the Minister can say at the end of this debate whether the four points I have identified—others have mentioned most of them too—are part of the Government’s agenda.
My Lords, who could fail to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and with the sentiment that the perpetrators of genocide should be brought to justice? After all, did we not sign up to that principle at Nuremberg, when the sentiment was translated into sentences?
Three images come to my mind when I think of bringing perpetrators to justice. The rows of senior Nazis at Nuremberg is the first; the other two feature Radovan Karadzic. One is of him smiling with Ratko Mladić—the butcher of Srebrenica, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, referred—both of them assuming that they would never be brought to justice. The third image is again of Karadzic, this time at The Hague as the judgment was delivered. There was no smile then. But Xi Jinping must be smiling today because, while we debate, the Uighurs die. While we agonise over their genocide, they suffer the agony of despair. Time is of the essence, but will we act before it is too late?
Bringing perpetrators to justice is essential, but that inevitably means the crime has already been committed, as we have heard. It is far better, surely, to ensure that there are no perpetrators to bring to justice in the first place. Unless and until we translate sentiment to sentencing for the crime, there will be no deterrence, no prevention and no justice, and yet more genocide will be perpetrated again.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for securing this debate. I am sure the Minister will have heard the frustration from every speaker who has yet spoken with the current impasse, where we are going nowhere on doing anything to properly prevent genocide.
I want to pick up the theme of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn on the tricky issue of what the international community can and should do, particularly where genocide is a slow burn. It does not happen all of a sudden. It starts with removing human rights protections from certain groups, mainly ethnic groups; then by imposing new laws that impinge on their ability to live and work freely in society; then by using new laws to deny these peoples and groups the right to inhabit a society in security and freedom. Usually, the culmination is violence to drive them out and/or bring about their extinction. That is the course we have seen throughout the 70 years of the convention and before it, under the Nazis and the genocide of the Jewish people. So also in Darfur, in Rwanda, with the Yazidis and now with the Uighurs in China, it follows the same course. China is of course more egregious in many ways, as those people have nowhere to flee.
My question to the Government, borne out of the frustration of the ineffectiveness of the UN in this regard, is that, since the Security Council is incapable of consensus on these matters, will they work with like-minded countries such as those in the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group, to establish a risk register to monitor the slow burn of genocide so that human rights violations in a given country that point in the direction of genocide can be monitored? The international community can then use responsibility to protect and other measures in coalitions of the willing to take the necessary actions that they may need to before the act occurs.
My Lords, I thank my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for arranging for this debate today and for the leadership he has given across party in the House of Lords on all these issues and on others.
Her Majesty’s Government are second to none in paying eloquent lip service to bringing the perpetrators of genocide to justice. The value of this question is that it focuses attention on accenting this in practice. The Government’s record is lamentable. The rights of victims are valueless without effective remedies. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and his four points, which the Government must look at clearly. There has to be effective machinery both to identify the perpetrators of genocide and to bring them before the courts, but this is not happening. We should ensure that we set up the Joint Committee, as promised by the Government recently, as soon as possible. Further, we should look at all trade deals so that we do not trade with countries that are committing genocide or about to do so. We know from various indexes when genocide is starting to be perpetrated. The killing of women and children by the perpetrators is always the first sign that something is wrong, because they are such cowards. I ask the Government to look again at the trade deals and to look at the four points of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. We cannot be a world leader and continue to let this go by.
My Lords, the Minister can be in no doubt of the feeling of Members of your Lordships’ House about the question of genocide. My noble friend—I do call him a friend—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has on so many occasions raised the issue of genocide. Many of these issues that we have talked about this evening have been rehearsed again and again. The Government in the integrated review and in the gracious Speech stressed that they want to play an important role in the world and be a beacon of democracy and human rights. To do that, we need also to be able to take a stand on genocide, upholding our own commitments under the genocide convention of 1948, and finding a way to hold regimes to account when there are cases of genocide.
On so many occasions, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and others pointed out, the Government have claimed that decisions need to be made by a court, and yet the nature of the UN Security Council and the vetoes of the P5 countries, when we know that China and Russia and the US under Donald Trump would not accept any moves on genocide, mean that we need to look again. Can the Minister tell us whether there has been any thought in the Government about taking up the French idea of the veto not being used in cases of genocide? Can the Minister tell us when we are likely to see the joint parliamentary committee, so that Parliament can begin to take a stand on genocide and hold the Government to account in their decisions and actions in this area as well?
My Lords, I very much welcome the continued focus on issues of genocide from the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Sadly, however, there is too often a gap between what Ministers say and what they do. Despite the Gambia putting forward a case to the International Court of Justice, as my noble friend Lady Nye highlighted, in which Myanmar stands accused of genocide, the UK has so far been unprepared to support the case. Why?
The Government have not gone far enough, considering the evidence of genocide in Xinjiang. Despite the sanctions, many perpetrators will be untouched. Much more must be done to ensure that UK business supply chains do not involve forced labour in Xinjiang. What steps are the Government taking to strengthen Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act?
In my amendment to the Trade Bill I sought guarantees that we would never sign agreements with the worst abusers of human rights. In response to my amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, said that the FCDO’s annual human rights and democracy report was the right place to report on human rights and trade. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, agreed that the report would be strengthened to include a greater focus on trade. I hope that the Minister will repeat those assurances and confirm that the forthcoming report in the summer will include trade negotiations. As we leave the EU, this will be an important part of our negotiations and of how we determine to fight these human rights abusers. Human rights abuse is the start of where genocide is the end. We must stick to our word and hold these people to account.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for tabling this debate. He can be assured that, as the Minister responsible for, among other things, human rights, I not only have listened to the sentiments expressed by noble Lords in this excellent debate but will reflect on them and take them back to ensure that they get due consideration.
From the outset, I express what I am sure are the sentiments of all: accountability for genocide and, indeed, all atrocities, is an important and impassioned issue. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, knows my great and deep respect for him personally and for his strong advocacy for human rights across the world over many years. So it is absolutely right that the Government continue to respond to debates such as these and to calls to lead the charge for accountability for perpetrators of serious international crimes. I assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, that we are focused on the important issue of atrocity prevention. I will come to that in a moment or two.
The pursuit of international criminal justice and accountability remains at the heart of our foreign policy. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the human rights report; that was a timely reminder, as it is currently coming across my desk. I hope that the noble Lord appreciates my personal commitment to ensuring that human rights remain very much at the heart of the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and of the Government. The Government remain committed to the principle that there should be no impunity for those who perpetrate the most serious crimes of international concern, and we remain at the forefront of efforts to hold perpetrators of such crimes to account.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, put forward four important points. I will pick up on just one: the veto. I have heard the sentiments of others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, on this. We should certainly lead by action. The United Kingdom has not exercised its veto and it is right that, through our actions, we now have a determination to influence others in this respect. However, as I have directly experienced as Minister for the UN, the ability of the five member nations to exercise the veto remains a real challenge, particularly on some of the issues discussed previously, including the situation in Myanmar.
The UK policy remains, as has been said by a number of noble Lords, that the determination of genocide should be made by competent courts, not non-judicial bodies. This includes international courts, such as the ICC, and, indeed, national criminal courts that meet international standards. I hope that noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Forsyth, while not perhaps being fully content with my response, will appreciate that while the determination of genocide remains for the courts, and it is important they consider all the available evidence, we do not stand and wait for that determination. We act, as our approach to global human rights has shown, with the introduction of our own independent sanctions regime.
It is important to stress, however, that our approach in no way undermines the UK’s commitment to the principle that there should be no impunity for perpetrators of the most serious crimes, as illustrated by the various situations in countries highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Let me assure her and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that we remain true and will uphold our obligations under the genocide convention. When atrocities occur, our approach is to seek an end to them and prevent further escalations, irrespective of whether they fit the definition of a specific international crime.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Smith and Lady Goudie, my noble friend Lord Forsyth, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, rightly raised the progress being made to create the promised mechanism of a parliamentary committee to examine allegations of genocide. The provisions relating to trade agreements and genocide within the Trade Act will commence from 30 June 2021. The relevant commencement order has now been made. I will write to noble Lords, in the interest of time, on what the processes will be thereafter.
We do not agree with one central premise—and I am sure that other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Browne, will share this view—that we should act only when there has been a determination of genocide. Today’s debate has demonstrated the importance of early intervention. The United Kingdom, notwithstanding the challenges I have heard today, has been at the forefront of calling out crimes and, indeed, strengthening international action. We have demonstrated this, as my noble friend Lord Polak acknowledged, against the unspeakable actions of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and also in calling out the appalling human rights violations in Xinjiang, among other areas.
Turning to the situation in Xinjiang, we led the first two UN statements on this issue. I know from personal experience because I led on one them. An increased number of countries now support us, but I will be clear that the challenge remains very real. Sadly and tragically, when it comes to the biggest internment of the Muslim community anywhere in the world, there are many across the world, including a large part of the Muslim world, who remain silent. We must therefore persevere in our actions to ensure broader support. In answering the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, let me assure her that we work directly with our partners to strengthen an international alliance of the willing to speak out against human rights abuses and in the case of China’s human right violations, to increase pressure on China to change its behaviour.
As noble Lords will be aware, the Government have, as I have already said, put in place national sanctions to back our actions and words. The sanctions regime calls out serious violations and human rights abuses. On 22 March, under our global human rights sanctions regime, the UK imposed asset freezes and travel bans for the first time on four senior Chinese government officials and an asset freeze on one further entity. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly asked about the Modern Slavery Act and tightening supply chains. That is under way, and I have previously given a commitment that colleagues from the Home Office and the Home Secretary will be leading in that respect. On 12 January—which was the preamble to that action—the Foreign Secretary announced measures to help ensure that British businesses are not complicit in human rights violations or abuses in Xinjiang.
Noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned various live situations of concern about human rights abuses around the world. I know that recently there has been much correspondence about Ethiopia’s Tigray region and what is happening there. As I assured the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in the Queen’s Speech debate, I am taking forward specific responsibilities in my capacity as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence by sending a team now, not after, to ensure that evidence can start being collected according to international standards. I can also share that I have had a summary report. Nick Dyer, who is our special envoy on humanitarian issues and famine relief, has just returned from the Tigray region.
The UK continues to support the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on her efforts in Tigray and, as noble Lords will be aware, particularly in ensuring access to areas such as Xinjiang. We continue to lobby further support in that respect.
The UK has also been a strong supporter of accountability mechanisms. We have contributed nearly £2 million so far to the team operating to investigate Daesh in Iraq. The Government have also been clear that there must be accountability for the actions of the Burmese military and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya community that has taken place. On 1 April, we announced a funding boost of £500,000 to the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar. Our autonomous Myanmar (Sanctions) Regulations prohibit the provision of military-related services, including the provision of technical assistance, that benefit the military regime. Support for international justice remains at the heart of our approach in this regard.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nye, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others, raised the action of the Gambia at the ICJ. We are supportive of that. There are various dates, including the right of Myanmar to respond to the initial report. I assure noble Lords that we continue to consider where we would consider, at the appropriate time, the formal support of a UK intervention in this respect.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, talked about the International Criminal Court as a read-across to certain situations, including those of Israel. We have been clear that any international court must ensure that its mandate and its jurisdiction are upheld; it is our view that the ICC does not have jurisdiction in this case. However, we of course support the independence of the ICC and its officials. The noble Lord quoted the US position, and the UK position is clear: we provide political, financial, and practical support for the International Criminal Court. I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords regarding the excellent Joanna Korner being elected as a judge recently, backed further by our success in ensuring the first ever election of a prosecutor who is also British, Karim Khan QC.
Regarding situations elsewhere in the world and bringing perpetrators to account, my noble friend Lord Shinkwin rightly raised issues of justice and time. But we should be heartened that in 2016, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found Radovan Karadzic guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war, committed during the conflict in and around Bosnia and Herzegovina. This conviction brought accountability for some of the horrors of the Yugoslav wars and, following a request to the UK from the successor body to the tribunal, Radovan Karadzic will be transferred to a prison in the UK to serve his sentence. I hope that this underlines that no matter when such a crime takes place, we will continue to pursue international criminals, uphold the rule of law and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
I also accept the premise rightly raised by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Polak, on Rwanda and those who seek to be or are currently in the UK. While that case is under way, it would be remiss of me to comment too deeply, but I assure my noble friend that this was the direct purpose of a conversation that I had with President Kagame while I was in Rwanda, to give him the assurance that he needed of our commitment to ensuring that all perpetrators are held to account.
The issue of preventing atrocities was raised by the right reverend Prelate, my noble friend Lord Shinkwin and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner. I assure all noble Lords that we work quite systematically on this important agenda, from early warning mechanisms to diplomatic engagement and development programme support, as well as defence: we use all those to strengthen the international system. They are all part of our approach to ensure that it is not just waiting; it is about acting early and quickly. As set out in our integrated review, we are committed to a more integrated approach to our work on conflict and instability, placing greater emphasis on addressing the underlying causes and strengthening the resilience, particularly of fragile countries, to external influence.
I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that, both through our trade and, indeed, our arms export licences, we remain consistent to our obligations under international law. We remain consistent in terms of the regimes in which we operate, and certainly I, as Minister for Human Rights, remain very much committed to ensuring that the issue of human rights is at the centre of our thinking, both when it comes to issues of trade and issues of arms sales. That is a case we continue to make and I know my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is cognisant of that.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised various matters and asked specific questions. I will write to him. I have mentioned the Modern Slavery Act, but I will write to him, if I may, on specific dates and timelines. I noted the commitment and the passion, and I assure noble Lords that Her Majesty’s Government remain committed to ensuring accountability and justice; within that, we work with communities on the ground to support reconciliation on the ground as well. We will demonstrate this through our political, financial and practical support to international justice and accountability mechanisms, including those of prevention, to ensure not just that the suffering of those communities around the world can be lessened but that we can prevent future atrocities from occurring.
I assure all noble Lords that we will continue to work with our international partners to ensure that, where we can, we end atrocities and that, where we can, we prevent atrocities and ultimately alleviate the suffering of those being impacted. We will never wait for the determinations of specific international crimes before taking action. It is early days on our global human rights sanctions regime, but through the 70-odd sanctions that we have currently levelled and our partnerships—we are working with key partners such as the United States, Canada, and our partners in the European Union—we have demonstrated the importance of working together with the like-minded. I hope that that provides a degree of assurance to all noble Lords who have participated in this important debate. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the importance of partnerships, of working and listening to your Lordships’ House and our colleagues in the other place, and I assure the noble Lord of my commitment in that respect.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, had the first word and, in my summing up, he should have the last word. He quoted, among others, Eleanor Roosevelt, and there is one particular quotation of hers that really stays with me:
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
We must ensure that those who suffer at the hands of others never lose sight of their dreams. Let us help build those dreams.
My Lords, that completes the business before the Grand Committee today. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
Committee adjourned at 6.42 pm.