Thursday 22 July 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, others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask Members in the Room to respect social distancing, which remains in place in Grand Committee. 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.
Cultural and Education Exchanges
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, having started my Question by referring to “cultural” exchanges but wishing to focus on educational exchanges, I requested—just to be on the safe side—that the debate be answered by the Department for Education. I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, is here to do so. However, in truth, on reflection, my Question could have been directed in some sense at almost every government department, including, and perhaps especially, the Home Office—I will come back to that.
I first became aware of the term “cultural exchange” in the 1980s, when there was a trend for exchanges of artists between countries. From my time in Sheffield, I remember that there was a huge interest, there and elsewhere, in the culture of countries that are less visited or difficult to visit, including those behind the Iron Curtain or just released from it. Georgia was one such country.
However, one of the things that you quickly observed was how cultural exchange can, at least potentially, get very complicated because the artists concerned have this new, exciting relationship but might also have quite another relationship with their own respective countries—they do not necessarily represent them. One was particularly aware of these undercurrents at the time, even if the wider world then took little notice, at least on our side.
I detect an echo of this today, in a more reverberative way, in the fairly clear unwillingness of our current Government during negotiations to sign up to those aspects of Erasmus+ that they would have been uncomfortable with. Therefore, they could not sign up to Erasmus at all, certain that the schemes would, to the ears of some Brexiteers, have sounded a little too much like an overly cosy relationship at best, and EU propaganda at worst.
My belief is that the reason that the Government dropped Erasmus+ had very little to do with money, as they claim, but everything to do with ideology. Educational exchanges are cultural exchanges and, as with physical borders, this Government are just as keen to control the borders of such exchanges if they feel that their side of the border is in any way threatened. Curiously, they have a very different view of scientific collaboration, with our continuing membership of Horizon Europe, into which we are ploughing large sums of money. This is perhaps ironic, given that science subjects are as much affected by the decision to drop Erasmus+ as any other.
We presently seem to be in a kind of lull between the loss of Erasmus+ and discovering the results of Turing applications. On the plus side, relief has been expressed that something, at least, has been put in place. Also on the plus side is the appointment of the British Council and Ecorys to oversee the scheme, providing both experience and the possibility of a degree of continuity, at least. However, the debit side is long. From what we have heard, Turing woefully lacks the range, depth and ambitions of Erasmus+. The greatest apprehension concerns the potential loss of the links built up over many years by staff and colleges and through associated projects.
One of the major claims for Turing is that it will be global, but figures from 2017-18 show that four out of the five most popular destinations for students are the US—by a wide margin—Australia, Ireland and Canada. Remove the English-speaking countries and France, number 3 on the list and our closest neighbour, becomes the most popular. The language barrier, then, acts to some extent as a disincentive to the majority of UK students. The point here is that emphasising that Turing is to have a global reach only confirms a bias that is already there. Moreover, many universities already have arrangements with other countries, and Erasmus+ itself now reaches beyond Europe. The non-English speaking countries are the ones that really need targeting.
Knowledge of languages, as I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, would point out, is a key factor in deeper cultural exchange, and is, moreover, hugely important for academic and scientific advancement. As someone very interested in the contemporary arts across Europe, I am aware of how much language differences can be a barrier to understanding. Yet, as a number of recent reports point out, language learning in the UK is decreasing. Andreas Schönle, of Bristol University, says:
“A particular concern … is the increasing social divide in foreign language ability. Yet bilingualism opens many doors and fosters social mobility”.
This is an important point to consider, if educational exchanges are also to help the disadvantaged.
In an answer to a Parliamentary Question on 17 June, the Universities Minister wrote:
“The Turing scheme is targeted at all students, particularly the most disadvantaged. While the UK was part of Erasmus, the most privileged were 1.7 times more likely to benefit from studying abroad”.
I ask the Government: what is the evidence base for that statement, and are they referring only to UK students?
A major intention of Erasmus+ is to help the less well-off, and there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence to support its effectiveness in this respect. A 2019 survey of 31 colleges by the Association of Colleges found that three-quarters gave that programme full marks for benefit to their institution. How will the Government monitor their intention to help the disadvantaged through study abroad, particularly in Europe, where post-Brexit logistical difficulties may well deter many, including the disadvantaged? Perhaps a better measure of success would be in absolute numbers, rather than ratios.
An interesting aspect of what has happened since the announcement about Erasmus has been the divergence in terms of opportunities available to students and others within the UK, across England and the devolved nations. The £65 million promised by the Welsh Government in March for the period 2022 to 2026 is not just an influx of money; it is an attempt, alongside Turing, to restructure opportunities according to the Erasmus+ model, and not to lose out on the partnerships that have already been built.
The press release, rather pointedly called “New International Learning Exchange programme to make good the loss of Erasmus+”, has this to say:
“The Programme will provide funding to enable students, staff and learners across universities, Further Education and Vocational Education and Training, Adult Education, youth work settings and schools to undertake a period of structured learning or work experience overseas, as well as enabling strategic partnerships … A fundamental principle of the programme will be reciprocity. Where necessary, the programme will fund costs related to the inward mobility of learners, teachers and young people from partner organisations abroad. This will enable existing partnerships which have been built up under Erasmus+ to continue and help to create new ones”.
Quite simply, Wales is trying to recreate Erasmus+. Scotland has said it wants Erasmus+ back, and Northern Ireland looks as though it will get both Erasmus+, courtesy of Ireland, and Turing. Meanwhile, England, without the direct political representation that could make the case for itself, as is increasingly true on so many matters, is left having to make do with Turing on its own, with no promise of further development of that scheme.
I have some other questions. The applications for Turing have now closed, so when will the Government publish detailed statistics, including the educational establishments participating, the number of participants involved per country, and the numbers per type of exchange? How will they monitor the effectiveness of Turing, and what criteria will they use? Will they commit to a longer cycle of funding? Will they, as Wales has decided to do, expand the scheme to take advantage of the links that already exist, and include other types of exchange, as well as the staff trips that so many colleges, including further education colleges, have, through Erasmus+, found so valuable in developing new ideas?
Will Turing be expanded to include partnerships and collaborative projects, such as the skills sector partnerships, crucial to the identification of emerging skills gaps across Europe, including gaps in digital skills? For so many current projects simply to be dropped through the loss of Erasmus+ would surely be a massive waste and a blow to educational development in this country—not to mention the jobs that would be lost. Will Turing reintroduce reciprocity in funding? That would be a key aspect of any claim for it to be a viable cultural exchange programme. I look forward to the Government’s response.
Finally, with regard to school trips from the EU, it is, again, the obsessive need to control our borders—we come back to the Home Office—that has led to the passport and visa changes on 1 October. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said in the House on 9 June that this would not lead to a fall in trips to the UK, and the Minister here today may back that view up, but the people we should all listen to are surely those who run the relevant businesses. The Guardian reported on 4 June the trip organisers’ view that there might be up to 375,000 fewer trips. The noble Baroness’s response —that the Government were bringing the regulations into line only with those for non-EU countries—was disingenuous, because within Europe the EU identity card is used as a passport, while on both sides the loss of the list of travellers scheme will mean the cancellation of trips, because some students will not be able to participate.
It will be the less well-off students who lose out—the opposite of what the Government claim they intend to achieve on our side with the Turing scheme. Will they monitor what effect these actions have on the number of school trips from Europe? If the numbers do fall, what effect will that have on the economy, including that of cities such as Canterbury, which depend so much on education?
My Lords, I just want to thank the noble Earl for introducing this debate. It is not the first time we have talked about this matter. The last time I spoke to it was on 9 June in the Chamber, when the Home Office was dealing with it. I simply want to say that because I was foolish enough to think that the existing arrangements that allow people to come from schools in Europe might be extended to pupils anywhere in the world. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, who is a perfectly lovely woman, rapped my fingers and slapped my wrists and made me aware of my own ignorance on such matters—whereupon I undertook to find out whether such school groups on collective passports can continue to enjoy the benefits that the noble Earl so eloquently adumbrated.
Those inquiries yielded this fact: the Council of Europe, through a 1961 treaty, holds a reciprocal arrangement—still valid—whereby countries that ratified it are able to use collective passports. Those countries are Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The Council of Europe has also confirmed that the United Kingdom has expressed no intention to withdraw from the treaty, in which case the collective passport is still valid, the visits can still take place and the fears the noble Earl expressed for poorer pupils can be met. What is to stop us doing it? I hope that the noble Baroness from the Department for Education will not rap my wrists in the same way the Home Office did, and will give us some assurances on this point and on how well they can take the publicity for this forward at present.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, on what will be a brief but important debate. The Government must up the offer on the Turing scheme so that it becomes the equal or better of Erasmus+. To take away a successful scheme and replace it with a lesser one is unforgiveable. Yes, on the plus side, the new Turing scheme widens the potential destinations from the EU to worldwide; that is a big plus but the losses are greater.
No longer will the scheme include teaching and college staff and youth workers. UK students will still have to pay tuition fees while they are studying abroad and the scheme is funded for only its first year. I am sure that noble Lords more knowledgeable than I am will talk to the advantages, if any, and disadvantages—many—of the Turing scheme.
What I really want to say to the Government, however, is: invest more in our young people. Make sure that we create restless minds and an understanding of culture and cultures other than our own, promote different experiences, and ensure that all young people have this experience and opportunity.
Erasmus versus Turning is but part of a bigger picture, which paints a reductionist attitude to our future by the Government. It is as though they do not understand that the future well-being of our nation rests on the quality of young people’s thinking, understanding, behaviour and ability. These are terrible times, particularly for our young people, and I really fear for their future. We need to show them that we care and that we want the best for them, setting them an example of leadership, generosity, understanding and empathy. For now, however, and for this debate, I will be happy if the Government make the changes that ensure that Turing is the equal or better of Erasmus+.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Earl on securing this debate. I declare an interest as an academic. I have taught, and do teach, exchange students. I also had the benefit of doing one of my degrees in the United States, at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was a Thouron scholar.
As we have heard, existing exchange programmes are wholly beneficial for the student, the sending and receiving institutions, the local community and the sending and receiving nations. As a nation, we benefit enormously from overseas students.
I advocate utilising more of the overseas aid budget to fund exchange scholarships. This could be through using aid to allocate scholarship vouchers to developing nations, enabling them to send bright students to study at UK universities. The vouchers would be wholly redeemable at UK higher education institutions. The developing nations would gain graduates who can contribute to the economic well-being of the nation; aid would thus be an investment for the future. UK universities would benefit from having these students, as would local economies where the universities are based. The United Kingdom would benefit from the expansion of soft power, and utilising aid in this way would avoid problems of tracking where the money is going.
We already have some excellent scholarship programmes for overseas students. Expanding substantially what we already offer is in everyone’s interest. I hope my noble friend the Minister will indicate a willingness, at the very least, to discuss the proposal with colleagues and feed back the result of her deliberations.
My Lords, this year’s language trends survey, just published by the British Council, shows that the pandemic has exacerbated the decline in international opportunities for primary and secondary schools in England. This includes trips abroad, partnering with a school abroad and involvement in cross-cultural projects.
Some 64% of primaries and 38% of state secondaries reported no international activities at all, compared with only 11% of independent schools. These experiences give pupils an opportunity to use the languages they are learning, which helps motivation and access to a different culture. Nearly two-thirds of language students at university say they were inspired by an exchange trip at school.
In addition, the journal Schools Week has reported that “One little-noticed casualty” of Brexit
“is Britain’s lost access to the EU’s ‘list of travellers’ scheme, which lets non-EU migrant pupils travel on school trips without usual visa rules.”
Some pupils now risk exclusion from school trips, with disadvantaged pupils the most affected. Can the Minister comment and raise this with the Home Office?
Problems at school affect languages at university. UCAS figures show a staggering decline in MFL applicants, and one of the main reasons is the end of UK participation in the Erasmus+ programme, which took students to well over 100 countries—not just Europe. Language skills and cross-cultural experience gained during the year abroad are qualities that employers value. Graduates who have spent a year abroad are 23% less likely to be unemployed than those who have not.
The replacement Turing scheme is full of uncertainty. Echoing some of the questions asked by other noble Lords, I ask the Minister to say whether there are any plans to make Turing reciprocal, as Erasmus+ was, and if not, why not; whether there are any plans to continue its funding for more than just one year; and whether its scope will be as broad and inclusive as Erasmus.
Trips and exchanges enhance language learning and benefit the students themselves and their employability and mobility, but also the UK more widely as we seek to redefine our post-Brexit place and influence on the international stage.
The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and other colleagues have clearly laid out the risks of our young people, especially artists and students, being disadvantaged by the loss of the Erasmus scheme and the difficulties in accessing work and travel visas. I declare my interests at Oxford University, as noted in the register.
However, it is not the particular needs of students and the issues relating to the replacement Turing scheme to which I wish to refer. Before Brexit and Covid, there was already a widespread move away from international and cross-cultural engagement towards nationalism and what one might call community introversion. Like many other problems, this has been exacerbated and accelerated by the pandemic, not only because of the difficulties of travelling but because, when faced with the anxiety created by the risks of travel and engagement with others we do not know well, turning back towards known people, places and activities is only natural.
We cannot therefore assume that, in the post-pandemic era, people will naturally create, or even take up, opportunities to engage with other communities, countries and cultures, despite it being hugely enriching and maturing. We will need to provide extra encouragement and facilities for young people to engage with those in other countries.
There are already networks that could facilitate this with those young people less likely to go to university. I am referring to international networks associated with faith communities—among Christian communities, the Scouting and Guiding movements, the Boys’ Brigade, the Girls Brigade and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme—and those organisations of other faith communities. My early experience of other cultures came through such networks, and the value and connections were maintained long after the visits. They are inexpensive because accommodation is often provided by families associated with the organisations. Can the Minister advise us whether the Government are prepared to consider including such approaches to enable our young people to expand their cultural awareness and experience?
My Lords, as the noble Earl confirmed, the issue here goes much further than simply school and college cultural exchange visits, although all the points he and others made about the disaster that will follow the lack of Erasmus+ and all the human, cultural and institutional contact that will be lost rang very true, as did the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, about the need for reciprocity.
Many Members of your Lordships’ House have been appalled by the way the Government sold the cultural sector, one of the most important and vibrant sectors of our economy, down the river when the Home Office refused to allow in the EU-UK trade deal a sensible, pragmatic and mutually beneficial visa and associated permits system for those who wish to perform abroad—something that operated successfully since 1972, as many others said.
The noble Lord, Lord Frost, has repeatedly answered questions on this at the Dispatch Box. He continues to blame the EU for the failure to arrive at a deal on this, although all the evidence seems to say otherwise. He has said at the Dispatch Box that, absent a pan-EU- UK deal, bilateral agreements are the way forward, but details are extremely hard to establish. Which countries are involved? Where are we with each of them? What is the timescale? Has the Home Office agreed with the approach? Is it prepared to offer the reciprocal arrangements and visas necessary for EU citizens to visit this country?
As others have said, the Minister has a reputation for openness and transparency at the Dispatch Box. The issue before us is vital to the creative industries. I hope she can give clear and unequivocal answers to the questions I have asked and the others that have been raised today.
My Lords, I remind the Committee of my interest as master of Pembroke College, Cambridge. This is an important if brief debate, founded on a simple and important truth: young people, especially students, have their education and personal development enormously enriched by meeting and sharing experiences with people from other cultures and backgrounds, especially if they themselves experience that culture and background too.
Of course, we had a programme that delivered precisely this: Erasmus+, which many noble Lords referred to. In 2019, 30,000 UK students and trainees travelled to all parts of Europe to take up places on the scheme. No less importantly, 17,000 EU students came here. More than 4,000 university institutions across Europe participate in Erasmus. Yet we have thrown it all away, all in search of some kind of little Englander, pure Brexiter mythology.
The Government claim that their replacement Turing scheme will be better and more global, but here is the rub: it is a pale shadow of Erasmus. The UK Government are putting in less money than the EU put into Erasmus just for the UK. Universities up and down the land are already doing exchanges across the globe. It is not either global or EU; it has been, up to now, both, but no more. This is a tragedy for our young people. We have thrown away access to the largest, most active and best-developed exchange scheme in the world. Our country and our life chances are diminished by this decision.
My Lords, like the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, who introduced this debate, I urge the Government to have a cross-party, cross-departmental approach to address the issues being raised today, particularly those involving the Home Office. For a number of years now, I have had a link with a school in the suburbs of Paris, in a disadvantaged area, where an inspirational teacher has done so much to open the eyes of her pupils to other countries and cultures. Every year, she has brought a class over to London, sometimes just for a day, to learn about Parliament and our system of government. The Home Office’s recent announcements seem to have cast a pall and caused doubt about whether these visits can continue, particularly when they involve pupils from disadvantaged and least prosperous backgrounds. My noble friend Lord Griffiths of Burry Port put some very interesting points to the Minister, and I hope she can be reassuring about the continuation of such group and class visits in her reply.
The other issue I want to raise is the au pair system. It allowed opportunities for young people to learn our language and become familiar with our culture while being part of a family. However, the system no longer functions as far as our European neighbours are concerned, given that, under the Immigration Rules, au pairs now come under the category of skilled workers who need to show that they will earn £20,000 a year to be admitted. Au pair agencies across the continent have reported drops of up to 90% in applications as a result, with many French newspapers carrying articles deploring the Home Office’s stance, which is seen as yet another way in which the Government seem intent on portraying Britain as an unwelcoming country. Will the Government think again very carefully about these two issues—school visits and the au pair system—and come up with a much more generous and welcoming policy?
My Lords, given the time limit, I will focus on the student part of this debate, particularly in higher and further education. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, for securing this debate.
I pay tribute to the many contributors to the session of the Westminster Higher Education Forum on the Turing scheme, which I chaired last week. They are too numerous to name individually, but much of what I am about to say draws on their thoughts. There was universal agreement that the Turing scheme is far inferior to the Erasmus+ scheme that it half-heartedly replaces, that we had by international standards, even under Erasmus, a low number of students going to study abroad and that that level is sadly likely to decline. When we are thinking about our productivity, international competitiveness and quality of life, that is a serious disadvantage as the academic and social benefits of studying overseas and having contact with overseas students and academics is well documented.
It is clear that 100% of students would benefit from cultural and educational exchanges. It is obvious that not 100% will be in a position to travel overseas, so we need a far more creative, flexible, effective and better funded scheme than Turing as currently structured, particularly one that brings foreign students and academics here. We need to give home students the opportunity to benefit from classroom and informal exchanges with overseas students and staff as a practical alternative and cheaper method to ensure that crucial contact. We need stable, steady funding, not based on competition. There are all kinds of reasons for that, one being that when students are considering which institution to attend, they need to know what that institution will be able to offer throughout the course in terms of international exchanges. We need to involve students and academics at all levels. This should be part of our efforts to offer reparations to the global south for our previous damage.
We also need to see Turing covering virtual exchanges. An excellent example I came across is called the Australia- Indonesia Co-operation for the Preservation of Underwater Cultural Heritage. It saw students and academics from across the archipelago joining Australian counterparts to explore an area of work which is, as yet, little developed in Indonesia to the benefit of all. We need something much better than what we have now.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for introducing this debate, as we too often take for granted the impact of living in another country or another culture. Perhaps the Covid pandemic has helped to highlight how much we have all missed the value of cultural and educational exchanges, as international travel has been so curtailed.
As my children were growing up, I recall the pen pals they each had: another secondary school pupil abroad, to help improve their French skills. The excitement of the visit when the pen pals would finally meet, and each child would play host in showing off their hometown before a return visit, had a great impact on their lives and their understanding of other cultures.
I have also been lucky enough to see first-hand the benefits of the Rhodes scholarship, which was first awarded in 1902 and is perhaps the most prestigious international scholarship programme, enabling young people from around the world to study at Oxford University. A great-nephew and a great-niece have been awarded this scholarship in recent years—the latest, Freya Willis, arrives this September to take up a place at Oxford to study gender, race and political economy in care work. In each of these cases, we can see how much an individual brings, learns and shares of their culture and ours. We are all the richer for the experience.
I must comment that I had a lot to do with au pairs in the days when my children were young. The points just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, are important. I look to the Minister to assure the Committee that visas, where required, will be easily available so that these exchanges may continue long into the future.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Earl on securing this debate. I am going to speak about school trips from abroad. My younger daughter is a schoolteacher at a small rural lycée in the Sarthe region. She has lived there nearly 28 years and has a French husband and three children, who have British and French nationality. As a result of Brexit, she has become a French citizen.
Every other year, travelling by Eurostar, my daughter used to lead a party of her 16 to 18 year-old students to visit London. There were never fewer than 21 in the party; the largest group had 43. Typically, they stayed for five nights at a youth hostel in Canada Water. During the week, they visited all the major museums in London, the Cabinet War Rooms, Roman London, the Houses of Parliament, Camden Town, the National Gallery and much more. A lot of what they visited reminded them of the common history and close links of friendship between the people of France and the United Kingdom. I asked my daughter: what was the value of the visits? She said, “It’s hard to put into words how much it gives them. So many have barely left the region. So many have never taken the train before. The majority come from simple backgrounds with few opportunities for travel. Going to London is just such an amazing experience for them”.
The visits have now stopped and French schools are turning to Ireland instead as an English-speaking destination. A major problem is the British refusal to accept the French identity card, as almost none of the students holds a passport. The disappearance of the European health insurance card from the UK is another major obstacle.
Open-mindedness, cultural and linguistic enrichment, the building of character and increased independence and confidence: that is how my daughter describes what the visits give her pupils. The UK is now barely offered as a destination, so future generations of international pupils are being deprived of a wonderful opportunity. This is also the case for European and British students, who of course can no longer participate in the wonderful Erasmus programme.
My Lords, I take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, on securing this important debate about the value and benefit of cultural and educational exchanges. I do not think the comparison can be well made between the Erasmus programme and the forthcoming Turing programme, because it is generally felt that Turing is a substandard replacement for Erasmus and replicates only the university element. This means that, in many instances, it is not available across the board to lots of young people who have been able to avail themselves of the Erasmus programme.
In Northern Ireland, young people will be able to avail themselves of Erasmus with the help of the Irish Government. However, to evaluate fully the benefits and value of such exchanges, I talked to young people, youth workers and teachers. They told me that the importance of the programme is that it develops personal, professional and academic attitudes; broadens horizons to understand and appreciate other cultures; develops cultural awareness and open-mindedness; improves and enables the gaining of new language skills for use in future workplaces; boosts employability opportunities through a broadened CV; and gains and gives new perspectives and understanding, to the benefit of these young people’s degrees. Moreover, youth cultural exchanges provide those who would not normally be able to holiday in continental locations a means of visiting and appreciating other cultures.
I urge the Minister to look at the possibility of regaining and returning to Erasmus+ because of the many benefits gained from it right across the devolved regions and in England itself.
My Lords, an exchange has benefits of all kinds, both tangible and intangible. Among the tangible benefits, it increases the employability of the individual concerned, makes them familiar with the international markets and tastes of other societies and gives them the capacity to imagine new products and relationships. It also increases their contacts.
However, the intangible benefits are far more important. An individual grows up in a particular culture. We are able to see its strengths and limitations, but they can do so only if they are able to step of their country. However, they cannot step out of their country because there is no cross-cultural Archimedean standpoint from which they can look at their culture and observe its strengths and limitations. The only mini-Archimedean standpoint is another culture. If you look at your culture from the standpoint of another, you get to see its strengths and limitations. In so doing, you acquire a new pair of eyes, a new pair of ears and new sensitivity. This is why I think the word “exchange” is quite appropriate. You exchange—you give up your old self and acquire a new one. For all these reasons, an exchange creates a new individual, a new self. Through him, it has an impact on his family and on the social environment in which he lives and functions. It has a transformative effect on the entire community of which he is a part.
I end by asking two or three simple questions of the Minister. First, exchanges are not limited to university students, although they have tended to be thanks to Erasmus+. Exchange can be a lifelong activity, beginning at the age of 15 or 16 and going on for a long time. Secondly, we could change our visa rules and regulations; we cannot afford to be too stuffy about them. Thirdly, of course, there are the ethnic minorities. There will be a temptation to send them to their own countries of origin, which would be counterproductive. We need to devise more imaginative ways. Fourthly, and more importantly, we will need to think of a variety of countries and cultures to which individuals can be exposed. They cannot simply be sent to countries like their own. A variety of civilisations is just as important as a variety of communities.
My Lords, having spent many years in the higher education sector—at Universities UK, with the British Council, on the Fulbright Commission and as chair of International Students House—I have seen the impact and huge benefits of cultural and educational exchanges. Every speaker today has reinforced that, and I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge it.
I will make two points to the Minister. The first is in relation to home students. In a recent report, Universities UK compared the academic attainment and employment outcomes of students who were mobile during their studies against those who were not. It argued that there was a clear correlation between “outward mobility” and improved academic and employment outcomes. This was particularly true—in terms of both graduate- level jobs and earning more money—in relation to disadvantaged and black and minority ethnic students. Yet, despite that great advantage, those students are unfortunately much less represented in the schemes available. Could the Minister say what the Government are doing to ensure that these opportunities are available to all students who can benefit?
Secondly, for international students coming to this country, there are still negative messages, particularly in relation to the visa programme—several speakers have made this point. Will the Minister reinforce the need to be more open and welcoming in our approach to international students coming here for what should be a life-changing experience? Will she act to integrate messages across government departments?
Finally, we should be enabling these students to get out into their local communities, experiencing local activities—not mentioned at all in the International Education Strategy. I hope that the Minister agrees with this and will encourage greater integration, to the benefit of institutions and localities as well as the students themselves.
My Lords, if I were to declare all the interests that would be relevant this afternoon, I would go well beyond my two minutes. Therefore, I am minded to give just one: a school exchange transformed my life and, without it, I would not be sitting here today. On 1 April 1984, I went on an exchange—I remember the date because someone put a fish on my back, which is the French equivalent of an April fool. It changed my life because it gave me the confidence not just to speak French but to understand other cultures. I teach European politics and have worked abroad, and this is all thanks to a school exchange.
How many people are being deprived of that in the 21st century? Things that were second nature when I was at secondary school and when your Lordships were at school are now no longer as possible. Surely, if Brexit and “going global” are to mean anything, we need to find schemes that are not just as good as Erasmus or individual schemes but even better, as my noble friend Lady Featherstone said.
Exchanges are about cultural exchange and understanding. They matter for the individual and society, as my noble friend Lord Alderdice pointed out, but they also matter for the economy. What “assessment” have the Government made, in the words of the Question of the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, about the impact of exchanges on the economy, individuals and the ability of the FCDO to recruit? If we want the best diplomats, and to engage internationally, surely we need people to have developed linguistic skills. Finally, if the Welsh Government can replicate Erasmus+, why cannot Her Majesty’s Government?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, for his introduction to this debate, in which he made a persuasive case for cultural and educational exchanges, underscored by my noble friend Lord Parekh and backed up by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, speaking so persuasively, as she always does, on foreign language exchange and its effect on us. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lady Warwick, who talked about the power of outward student mobility. I hope that the Minister has listened, can respond thoughtfully to them and can give good answers to the excellent questions from my noble friend Lord Stevenson on the creative industries, my noble friends Lord Griffiths and Lord Faulkner on school trips and my noble friend Lady Quin on au pairs. These questions affect the lives of very many people, and they deserve answers.
Brexit did not mean that the UK had to leave Erasmus+—we could have carried on as a programme country or a partner country—but we chose to throw it away, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, put it. Ministers made great claims for their alternative, but the reality is much more modest, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, highlighted very clearly. Turing is very much Erasmus-minus. Theoretically, it has a global reach, but so much about it constrains our students, such as the failure to provide funding for tuition fees. This was not an issue with Erasmus, which was reciprocal, but Turing is not. If another country wanted to send its students to England in a non-reciprocal deal, would the Minister advise English universities to waive their fees? If not, why should they do it for us?
We have heard wonderful celebrations of the Welsh Government’s decision to invest £65 million in an ambitious and genuinely reciprocal exchange scheme. Are Ministers looking to Wales for inspiration? Might the Government think again about reciprocity or tuition fee support?
Unlike Erasmus, support for travel costs is offered only to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Can the Minister clarify who this is? The Turing website specifies:
“Learners with low household income or low socio-economic status (including those with an annual household income of £25,000 or less)”.
What are the criteria, other than income?
We have heard lots of criticism of the short notice and the short duration of funding. If we cannot have Erasmus, let us at least make sure that Turing is sustainable. That means longer commitment and plenty of notice. Does the Minister agree?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, for bringing to your Lordships’ attention the important matter of cultural and educational exchanges. International exchanges in education open up new and exciting possibilities for participants, broadening their horizons, exposing them to new cultures and languages and, by doing so, developing critical new skills—and perhaps even shaping a career, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, outlined.
I agree with the noble Earl that he could have had a selection of government Ministers sitting in my seat this afternoon. Although I will make the utmost attempt to answer noble Lords’ questions, I am afraid I will have to write to noble Lords or ask my colleagues from the Home Office to write on all the specific questions relating to visas. I will not attempt to answer them in the time available or with the information I have to hand.
We agree that there are life-changing benefits to students from having the opportunity to study abroad. The Turing scheme is backed by £110 million, and we will provide funding for 35,000 UK students in higher education, further education and vocational training. The latter two groups have not had much focus this afternoon, and it is important that we make clear that the proportion of funds that Erasmus+ dedicated to these different groups is remaining the same under the new Turing scheme. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, mentioned schools. Schools can travel abroad for these life-changing educational exchanges from this September.
This pioneering scheme represents a landmark step in developing our vision of a truly global Britain, enhancing our existing partnerships while forging new relationships to provide exciting opportunities for students, who will benefit well beyond their time in education. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton for his comments on the other countries we have relationships with. The FCDO already funds a number of Commonwealth and Chevening scholars to come to the UK.
I turn now to the Turing applications. The application period for the first year has now closed, and we are pleased to say that we have had a good number of applications from across higher education, further education, vocational training and the schools sector, indicating a strong national appetite for placements across the globe. We will announce the details of this in the next few weeks, and I will make sure that noble Lords are further updated. We have not seen the decline in applications from these sectors that noble Lords’ comments and fears might have led us to believe, even bearing in mind that during this time many educational institutions have of course been dealing with the effects of Covid.
In relation to further questions from the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, the evidence base for our saying that the most privileged were 1.7 times more likely to benefit from studying abroad was Universities UK International’s Gone International: Rising Aspirations report from 2016-17. Using data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, it stated that 9.5% of students from more advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds were mobile, compared with 5.6% of students from less advantaged backgrounds—so that is where that statistic come from. We will of course evaluate the first year to see whether it has met the aims and outcomes we wanted.
Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, mentioned that it is just one year of funding. That is because we were given a one-year spending review. There is nothing more sophisticated than that, and we anticipate having a multiyear spending review later this year.
As many noble Lords have outlined, the Turing scheme is not, though, a like-for-like replacement for Erasmus+. We have focused on and prioritised pupils, students and learners to ensure that as many students as possible can benefit. We have focused on those elements, including on widening access to disadvantaged students, as we recognise that they provide value for money. I know that many noble Lords will not agree, but one of the reasons we did not proceed with Erasmus+ is that over seven years, we would have put £2 billion more of UK taxpayer money into the scheme than we would have received out of it.
There were questions from many noble Lords about the effects on foreign tourism and whether there is a decline in school trips, which are relevant to the economy of many areas of the UK. I will raise these matters again with colleagues from BEIS and the Foreign Office and update noble Lords. But the Committee, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, may be interested to know that one of the initiatives from the Department for Education has now helped 38% of all schools. They are part of the self-insurance scheme that the department set up, I believe, under my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Agnew. That scheme is to make it easier for schools to get insurance and protection when they undertake these activities, such as school trips. Of course, we have been much involved in paying out to schools under that scheme when they had to cancel trips. We are doing structural things to help the sector have the confidence to organise those school trips as well, which are important.
We also want to ensure that students have the kinds of opportunities to go to the countries they want to go to, and not be limited by the EU. As many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, have said, the scheme will enable schools and education settings to be global and students to go to a wider number of countries. I understand that well over 150 countries have been suggested in the bids that we have received. Already, five of the top 10 destinations for UK university students who undertake a mobility are outside the EU. Students who have participated in the Turing scheme will, we hope, return to the UK more motivated and independent, with new skills to add to the global job market.
In relation to the specific points raised about disadvantaged students, the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, mentioned the evidence that students with such experiences then do better academically and in employment. Yet under Erasmus, the most privileged students were 1.7 times more likely to participate in study abroad. No young person should be excluded from that kind of opportunity because of their family’s income.
The Turing scheme is designed for everyone but reaches out especially to the most disadvantaged. It should increase the participation of disadvantaged students by asking providers to demonstrate in their application how their project will support widening access. The scheme additionally provides financial support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, including increased grants for living costs. We are introducing funding for travel costs for disadvantaged students, as well as for extra related costs, which are often barriers to disadvantaged students, such as visas and passports, regardless of the destination.
Finally, we have reduced the minimum duration of higher education outward mobilities compared to Erasmus+ from one term to four weeks; we identified this as a barrier to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For instance, they may have caring responsibilities or a part-time job alongside their studies. The Turing scheme also provides funding to help meet additional costs for students with disabilities. This is not only to pay the costs of any adjustments needed when they get their destination; we have added on the costs of a preparatory trip that might be necessary for staff to assure themselves that those adjustments have been made before the young person arrives.
Funding is not ring-fenced, therefore providers across all nations of the UK can competitively bid—with no cap on the amount of funding that institutions in each nation can potentially receive. The UK Government intend to deliver a scheme that will see all parts of the UK flourish, by tailoring it to UK needs and targeting promotion on areas which did not previously have many students benefiting from Erasmus+. If I have left any of the definitions in relation to disadvantage unanswered in replying to the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, I will write to her afterwards.
The scheme is demand-led and education providers have the flexibility to form partnerships that will offer the best benefits to their students. Successful applications will also receive funding towards the cost of administering the scheme on behalf of those students. I add for the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that we are the second-most popular HE destination, after the United States, so we are confident of our attractiveness.
UK education providers may use the Turing scheme funding to support mobilities for any student, regardless of their study subject. This is great news for students, including those studying languages—the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, referred to them; she is known for her interest in modern foreign languages—so that they can do exchanges and visit those countries. Obviously, languages provide an insight into other countries, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, mentioned, and can open the door to travel and employment opportunities. Exchange can enrich the languages curriculum and provide exciting opportunities for students.
We are grateful for the continued role of the British Council, a provider known to and trusted by many noble Lords. It helps us to administer schemes such as UK-German Connection, Connecting Classrooms and the Singapore head teachers exchange programme, all of which help to develop a generation of globally mobile, culturally agile people and professionals across the systems.
The noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Griffiths, mentioned the youth side of things. Although it is not part of Turing, DCMS is leading a youth review; it was specifically commissioned by the Treasury to do so in last year’s spending review. Within that will be consideration of the opportunities for youth groups outside educational settings, such as the Scouts, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, outlined.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions on this matter. I am aware that I have left many questions unanswered due to the time allowed, but I will seek to answer them. I look forward to working with noble Lords to help to ensure that all disadvantaged people in the UK have access to life-changing international experiences.
I just want to add that I first got on a plane as a result of a school trip. I had never experienced an aircraft before. I did not know what I was doing; I did not know that I could leave my seat on such a vehicle. That was through a school trip. I think we all have testimonies as to how valuable these can be.
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 3.35 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
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, which remains in place in Grand Committee. 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.
Cadet Forces: Funding
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am so grateful to noble Lords, who have given up their time on the last day of term to discuss the importance of the cadet services. I remind your Lordships of my registered interest as chairman of CVQO, the Cadet Vocational Qualification Organisation, which I shall address shortly.
It is now two years since I last addressed your Lordships on cadets. There have been several significant developments since then, which are worth discussion. However, first, I will praise the extraordinary way in which the cadet services have risen to the challenges of the pandemic. The Sea Cadet Corps, the RAF cadets, the Army Cadet Force, the Combined Cadet Force and the Volunteer Cadet Corps have all offered contact, support and activity for thousands of young people remotely.
Among the many projects of which I am aware, I was particularly impressed by the bands and corps of drums and bugles of the Army Cadet Force, of which I am honorary colonel. Their officers, under the leadership of Colonel Mike Neville, sent out musical scores to hundreds of cadet players, who performed their parts individually in their bedrooms, gardens and kitchens throughout the country. Via the technological wizardry of their adult leaders, these performances were mixed into a number of concerts, of which that from Scotland, with its screen full of young bagpipers, was particularly inspiring. It was especially good to see so many girls taking part. We tend, too often, to think of cadet activities as boy pastimes, yet 34% of cadets are girls and they form an even greater proportion of our bands.
In March this year, I asked a Question of the Minister concerning when cadets will be able to start face-to-face activities again, given that schools were about to resume. However innovative and useful the virtual training programmes such as those I have mentioned are, I hope she reassures me that we will see cadets able to parade once again soon and to attend some regional camps.
Central to our previous debate on cadets was the cadet expansion programme for schools, to which I turn next. It is a joint departmental programme, run by the DfE and the MoD. When it started, I had doubts that co-operation would be easily achieved. I need not have worried, and I pay sincere tribute to officials from both departments for progressing the programme extremely well. The target was to establish enough new Combined Cadet Force units in schools to create a total of 500, and that has been achieved. Around 300 of these are from state schools. The next aim is to grow the number of participating students from around 45,000 to 60,000, it is hoped by 2024, although the pandemic may set this back.
What would the barriers to such an expansion be and what challenges will have to be overcome? Because the majority of current CCF units have been established lately, their roots are rather shallow and their continued existence is finely balanced. Some could find it difficult to survive now that Libor-funded grants have ceased.
Cadet leaders report that four enabling elements can lead to an individual school’s success in building its cadet corps. The first necessity is to identify and incentivise teaching staff to become adult volunteers. Secondly—this is vital—there is a need for a paid, hopefully full-time school staff instructor, or SSI, to support the teachers and other adults involved. The third element is the availability of dedicated regular training from armed services sources to ensure that programmes for young people are up to date, exciting, varied and, of course, safe. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, in this area. However, we need the Minister and her colleagues to consider further interim funding, especially for SSIs, if all the new CCF units are to succeed.
There is a fourth element. It cannot be overstated just how much cadets love sea, air or field training, and how much that is exciting and memorable they gain from it. This is especially important for army cadets, who form the majority of school-based units. It can involve live firing on ranges and the use of training areas and camps. The sad fact, however, is that the condition of some of those training sites is very poor. Indeed, one that I visit regularly has changed very little since I first saw it when I was 15. The MoD has, quite properly, had to reduce its expensive holdings of land and buildings, but I hope that the field training needs of cadets and their officers are taken into full account when decisions have to be made about which parts of the defence estate have to be sold off.
Another significant event since our last debate has been the publication, just two months ago, of the results of a four-year research project on the cadet forces from all services, commissioned by the Ministry of Defence. A reading of this, which considers What is the social impact and return on investment resulting from expenditure on the Cadet Forces in the UK?, spurred me to apply for this debate.
The main conclusions of the excellent Professor Simon Denny and his colleagues at the University of Northampton, who conducted the review, are that participation in the cadet experience has very significant and positive impacts on young people—especially, as we have always suspected, on those who suffer “economic and other disadvantages”—and that expenditure on cadet forces is
“a very good use of taxpayers’ money”,
and supports social mobility and social cohesion.
Among the findings of the report are that the joining of a cadet unit often led to improved school attendance, especially for boys and those for whom English is a second language, better behaviour, with consequential better educational outcomes, and improved career prospects. The research also revealed that participation in cadet forces leads to a better ability to communicate and to lead others, to be resilient when a situation is difficult, to work as a team member, to use social skills to achieve positive outcomes, and to accept diversity freely.
For many cadets from disadvantaged backgrounds, there is a real sense of belonging—of being part of a group that is not a street gang. All this is immensely encouraging, and provides an excellent example of the Ministry of Defence’s corporate social responsibility.
The Cadet Vocational Qualification Organisation—the CVQO—directed by Mr Guy Horridge and funded mostly by the Department for Education, has a very special value for cadet training. It enables young people, via their local units, to take qualifications at levels 1, 2 and 3, which add greatly to their employability. Some 12,000 undertook courses—online, inevitably—during the past year.
Teenagers are not the only people to benefit from CVQO’s work. The five cadet forces together have some 29,000 adult volunteers, to whom we own an enormous debt. Of these, last year some 1,300 took CVQO qualifications, of which 126 were at graduate or master’s level. I hope very much to be able to confer their awards at Sandhurst in the autumn.
The first cadet units were founded in about 1860, and had their roots in the rifle volunteer battalions for defence. Their aim was to grow good soldiers. Today, 160 years later, the aim is to grow good citizens, and they all do it extraordinarily well. I hope your Lordships will agree that public money expended on cadets is extremely well spent.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for this debate and I acknowledge his most loyal, persistent and influential work for the cadet movement. I declare an interest as president of our superb local sea cadets and the training ship “Tuscan” in Flintshire and a 40-year close connection with 2247 (Hawarden) Squadron ATC. I was also president of the Army Cadet Force Association in Wales for some five recent years. In these matters, one noted the continuing relevance of the reserve.
Our cadet movement is at the very grass roots of our towns and villages, and this is certainly so in my homeland, the lovely land of Wales. In five years, Lady Jones and I attended 15 cadet camps, three per year, across the length and breadth of England and Wales, covering thousands of miles. One saw hundreds of cadets close up. It was instructive, inspiring and informative. One also saw the annual British national cadet rugby sevens championship at Christ College Brecon. Of course, the Wales seven always won. In a packed theatre, the England and Wales annual cadet band concert celebrated the anniversary of Rorke’s Drift with 90 young women and men displaying superb musicianship. It was an event of powerful emotion with the cadets proud of their achievement. The annual national sports meeting showed the advancing numbers and achievements of the many female cadets.
The noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, emphasised the true worth of cadet life. It is truly worth its weight in gold and just a scintilla of MoD gold can prolong the most useful life. For example, prosperity is unevenly shared across Wales. Some former steel and coal communities are still readjusting to fundamental economic and social change, and some communities are just getting by. Here, cadets and their dedicated professional leaders are making a magnificent contribution through, for example, funds for charities, help for pensioners, linking with the high sheriff for remembrance parades and civic service. It helps, it counts and it is acknowledged locally. Cadet life is gift for British youth. When she or he presents for a job with a cadet record of achievement, that CV will always gain a positive response from the prospective employer. Cadet life encourages fitness, teamwork, co-operation, smartness, discipline and confidence. There are certificates, too, and always humour.
Finally, from our steep-sided Welsh valleys, the open central heartland—cefn gwlad—the slatey slopes of the Snowdonian massif and the urban townships of the eastern border, cadet life does great good. Like the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, I hope very much that we might keep it.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for once again drawing the attention of the House to the cadet forces. He is a great champion of cadets and his enthusiastic support is greatly appreciated. I declare an interest as I chair the cadet health check team and my late husband started his brilliant RAF career with the cadets. He had a gliding licence and a pilot’s licence while still at school and always took a keen interest in the cadet force as he progressed up the ranks.
I followed that interest. For some years I have been a member of the council of the Air League which supports air cadets and other young people fascinated by aviation. The Air League offers scholarships and bursaries for flying, gliding, engineering and drones. It aims to change lives through aviation, particularly for disadvantaged and disabled young people, wounded and injured service men and women and now veteran offenders. The Air League’s recent Soaring to Success initiative, in partnership with Barnsley Council in South Yorkshire, saw a pilot project. Some 600 young students aged 14 to 16 attended an event organised by the Air League and a number of aviation and aerospace companies, including British Airways, DHL Aviation and Rolls-Royce. Some then obtained a fully paid short training bursary to participate in an air experience day at gliding clubs in South Yorkshire and the Peak District, nearly 170 were awarded a flying lesson and the most eligible were selected to fly a powered aircraft.
The purpose was not to train young people to be pilots as such, but to cause students to believe that such an achievement was possible and inspire others to do so too. More than 1,000 young people have been involved in the programme so far and we are aiming towards over 3,000 each year in the future. The video of these youngsters was inspirational: the sense of achievement and palpable pleasure from young people unused to achievement or praise made us realise that the social impact of these activities is immense, especially since the driving force is to encourage aspiration and achievement. Of course, the Royal Navy and the Army have similar exciting programmes too.
Our role on the health check team is normally to visit as many cadet meetings and camps as we can. This year, of course, that has not proved possible. As the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, indicated, we have been heartened to be invited to virtual meetings to witness the wonderful enthusiasm and engagement of cadets and the inspiring adults who give so much time and energy to ensuring that young people get cadet opportunities. The ingenuity of the activities was mind-boggling, and the cadets responded by turning up smartly in uniform on Zoom and throwing themselves into whatever exercise or activity was proposed.
Of course, many of the most senior military personnel started their careers with the cadets, both men and women, so we always hope that funding is secure, but perhaps the Minister can say something about cadet accommodation, some of which is very substandard and dilapidated.
Our health check team was very grateful to the University of Northampton, which again the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, mentioned, for the independent report on the social impact of the cadet forces, which concluded that expenditure on the cadet forces was
“a very good use of taxpayers’ money that supports social mobility and community cohesion”,
and that particularly for cadets who suffer economic and other disadvantages
“it is very possible that being a cadet is … a key factor that enables them to achieve positive life outcomes.”
Among the benefits the report named were “reduced vulnerability”, for example to bullying and to criminal or extremist organisations, “increased social mobility” and “enhanced employability”. Surely these are all very good things for our young people. Of course, there are benefits for the hard-working adult volunteers who support the cadets. Adults and cadets can now access qualifications. These, too, can be life changing.
I am proud and delighted to be involved with the cadets. I trust, with the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, that they will increase and flourish along with all the benefits they bring to society.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has withdrawn, so I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, on securing this debate, following on from Questions on 1 March. I am very encouraged when I see people of the calibre of the noble Lords, Lord Lingfield and Lord West, and other Peers in your Lordships’ House take such an interest in voluntary youth organisations such as the cadet force, which are based on the fine traditions of the British Armed Forces but, of course, are not part of them.
I pay tribute to all those who give up their talents and time in promoting our cadet force. I do not overstate it when I say that it is a wonderful organisation that the whole of the United Kingdom can be rightly proud of. The Government say that it offers challenging and enjoyable activities. This statement could not be bettered.
My remarks will centre on the Army Cadet Force, or ACF, because as a teenager I was a member of the ACF located in a small rural town in the west of Northern Ireland—a town then, in the 1950s and 1960s, with a population of fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. It was there, through the dedication and commitment of volunteers, that I learned many important lessons that would stay with me for the rest of my life. The late Captain McAfee, our dedicated senior officer, instilled in all those under his command the importance of living lives that will enhance the lives of others. He sought to make good citizens of us all and in most cases that is exactly what resulted.
The briefing notes provided by the Library state that an independent analysis suggests that the cadet forces
“provide benefits both for participants and wider society”—
something I know to be undoubtedly accurate. The notes continue:
“An ongoing government scheme aims to increase the number of cadet units in state schools.”
I hope this can be extended beyond our schools and into wider society. The unit I was privileged to belong to was not attached to any school but was part of the whole community of that small rural town in Country Tyrone in Northern Ireland.
I encourage the Government to take a closer look at the funding for our cadet forces with a view to investing in more resources and funding. New incentives should be adopted to encourage more of our youth to join the cadets and ensure the future of our voluntary youth organisations. A study by the University of Northampton, in a report commissioned by the Ministry of Defence, concluded that
“expenditure on the Cadet Forces is a very good use of taxpayers’ money that supports social mobility and community cohesion.”
Others have already quoted this. In addition, cadets are able to access the Cadet Vocational Qualification Organisation—known as the CVQO—which can equate to GCSEs; the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, mentioned this.
I conclude simply by saying that cadets provide an excellent and positive return on the expenditure of taxpayers’ money. The benefits of being a cadet cannot be overstated. I look forward to our cadets being fully operative again, subject to the conditions of the pandemic permitting.
My Lords, I speak as one who has been a member of a school CCF and a university TA regiment. I also spent a short time as a police special constable, so there are no guesses as to where my loyalties lie in this short debate, so well brought by the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield.
My more recent experience came about through a visit to some sea cadets when I was High Sheriff. I was approached by a man and a woman after a cathedral service, asking if I could inspect their charges on the water in a parade thereafter. On the water, I saw two boats being rowed by the cadets. One was a lightweight fibreglass vessel, the other a heavy, wooden, corked lifeboat. Neither was fit for purpose—both were barely usable—but the commitment given to the rowing effort and the enjoyment derived from it was palpable. There were too many sea cadets for places in the boats.
They were then called off the water. After a short while, they all reappeared in immaculate pressed and clean uniforms, and a well-drilled parade took place. My evening finished with a request for help find £2,000 to buy another boat—the most modest financial request to provide a fantastic opportunity for those cadets, and future ones, to feel like valued members of a team and to enjoy a feeling of self-worth.
I mention this visit to illustrate a wider point. The two adults who originally approached me were volunteers who ran this branch of sea cadets with 70 young people, boys and girls, in their charge. “In loco parentis” is no exaggeration. Nearly all the young people were latchkey kids whose parents—they were lucky if they had two—would be working when they came back from school. Without the camaraderie, sense of belonging and palpable pride in being part of such a disciplined and purposeful organisation, they would have been exposed to all the temptations of the drug and gang culture by which they were surrounded.
The most recent figures from the House of Lords Library show that the direct cost to the MoD of the ACF, the ATC and the CCF is a mere £175 million, with indicative benefit figures to society of £479 million—a return that speaks for itself. Furthermore, as the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, mentioned, a report from the University of Northampton on the social impact of the cadet forces showed significant educational benefits deriving from the CVQO that were, in many cases, potentially life-changing. Enormous value can thereby accrue to those not necessarily talented in the schoolroom, so it is good to note that more than 500 schools have involvement of some sort with cadet forces.
The sadness is that membership figures have fallen—from 130,000 in April 2020 to 120,000 in April 2021—as has the number of adult volunteers, which has fallen from almost 29,000 to 27,500 in the same period. This cannot be put down to Covid-19, nor to government, since all parties have supported the increase in cadet numbers. Anyone who has been closely involved with cadet forces of whatever association can see for themselves the hugely beneficial social impact that they bring about, as I saw with those sea cadets. We must all do whatever we can to encourage making this opportunity available to everyone, as it was to me.
My Lords, I declare an interest as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports; I have two cadets annually as my Lord Warden cadets. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for securing and initiating this important debate.
There can be no doubt that the sea, Army and RAF cadets are a force for good for our country. I intend to focus mainly on the sea cadets, but much of what I have to say applies equally to their Army and Air Force counterparts. My general point is that they are all invariably a credit to the uniforms they wear and that, over time, thousands of young people who might otherwise have gone astray or not realised their potential have had productive and fulfilling lives as a result of having been cadets.
When looking at youth interventions, there is a perennial problem of whether the difference made is a sustained change to someone’s life into adulthood, and therefore whether it is good value for money. However, earlier this year we saw the publication of My LegaSea: Launching into Life, a report launched by former Prime Minister Theresa May. It involved independent research with 3,000 20 to 90 year-old former sea cadets and found clear evidence of sustained positive change for former sea cadets, long after they left their cadet forces.
The current reopening of society from Covid is leading to an increase in demand without the resources to respond. Children and young people have spent months locked up, so unsurprisingly there is a massive interest in engaging with youth work. Waiting lists are now growing and overall sea cadet numbers are already up by 3% from 1 April. Maybe it is the same for the Army and Air Force cadets. Right now there are increasing funds to kick-start the economy, but nothing is being applied to help kick-start the cadet youth sector in the same sort of way.
As an independent charity, Sea Cadets has been able to innovate to develop new models to reach out to hard-to-reach groups. For example, its On The Water outreach programme will support 1,200 hard-to-reach young people in Liverpool, Birmingham and London in July and August. The programme is pretty well externally funded by trusts, foundations and corporates, such as the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation, the Gosling Foundation and Capita, but if there were some government funding for these sorts of programmes, they could be scaled up substantially.
Across the cadet forces, a massive amount of value is added through volunteers, but the processes are not in place to unlock more volunteering. They are not what is increasingly becoming the norm in youth work: a brief intervention over a few weeks. Instead, adult volunteers work with young people over years to give them the skills they need to face the world. The biggest barrier to expansion is often insufficient adults coming forward. These volunteers provide a remarkable resource. For sea cadets alone, volunteers contribute the equivalent of over £54 million of work per year. The scale of the work of cadet forces would simply not be possible without them.
When thinking about funding cadet forces, it is vital to think about how we can unlock interest in volunteering. Examples of this could include providing tax incentives to employers to make it easier for their staff to volunteer, providing income tax breaks for the volunteer or introducing volunteering leave as a standard practice. Any discussion about the funding of cadets must take into account supporting the whole cadet ecosystem, not just the bottom line.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, on securing this important debate. I declare my interest as president of City of London Sea Cadets and a vice-president of the Marine Society & Sea Cadets, the charity that runs sea cadets in the UK. Sea cadets are the Royal Navy’s main MoD-sponsored cadet force, receiving a grant in aid equivalent to 49p in the pound of the total cost of the delivery of sea cadets, with the balance funded by the charity.
We have heard a cascade—a litany—of tremendous tributes to the value and positive impact of cadets. Following the noble and gallant Lord, my case study is also substantively the sea cadets, but I hope I may add some points to our debate.
Three essential elements make the work of the sea cadets so critically valuable at this time. First, it delivers structured youth activity that lets young people try something challenging, but in small chunks and a supportive environment. Secondly, they become a part of the sea cadets community at unit, regional and national levels, cemented by trusted adults—the volunteers. This is particularly important for some of the hardest-to-reach young people, who often lack strong mentors elsewhere. Thirdly, it is all bound up with the customs and traditions of the Royal Navy, with a rank structure helping to encourage ongoing engagement and development, and with the uniform making everyone feel part of something special.
After the last year and a half, structured, well-supported youth work is really important to all young people. The sea cadets, for example, are seeing a substantial upswing in demand as the nation reopens, as we heard from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce. It would be wonderful if some resources could be made available across the cadet movement to help finances.
I will particularly focus on the work of cadet forces in relation to disadvantaged backgrounds, which I have witnessed at close quarters in my City of London unit. The sea cadets have created a system that is truly open to all, irrespective of background. This has paid off, with really strong representation from young carers, looked-after young people, autistic cadets and white working-class students—all groups that can be incredibly hard for youth workers to reach.
The three core themes I mentioned earlier provide a fantastic equalising factor, helping cadets to mix with people from different backgrounds, creating a real sense of unity among young people and reducing so many of the divisions that can lead to longer-term entrenched inequality elsewhere. This is all delivered alongside effective outreach. Noble Lords heard from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, about the On The Water programme, which will be very valuable and offers potential, if we can encourage others to join such activities.
Most importantly, as the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, mentioned, we know that membership of cadet organisations has substantial impact. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, explained, the findings of the sea cadets’ recent My LegaSea: Launching into Life research report reveal that this is not just a brief, flash-in-the-pan difference for young people; it gets sustained throughout their life, long after they have left, with some of the most sizeable differences for cadets from disadvantaged backgrounds.
As we have heard from some speakers, cadet forces all over the UK are able to provide this intense, high-quality work at such scale only due to their amazing volunteers, whose commitment and talent is truly impressive. However, the backgrounds that they come from are also important, offering role models from the same communities as the young people. Without these volunteers, it would be impossible to deliver this work at scale, and noble Lords have heard what their contribution in hours monetised represents: £54 million a year. It is just as important to think about how we could encourage more volunteering.
This type of long-term intervention with some of the hardest-to-reach young people is critical to help to build back better and avoid the disproportionate impact of lockdown on our most left-behind young people, creating a chasm of inequality and reducing life chances. Providing support to help to scale up this sort of work should be an essential part of responding to this present need.
My Lords, unlike every speaker so far, I have no interests to declare in this debate: I was not a cadet and have not had the opportunity to engage with cadets. I am a member of COMEC, the Council of Military Education Committees, through my role in Cambridge, so I have had the opportunity to discuss, to an extent, the role of cadets and OTCs.
Of course, it is very clear that, despite the fact that the MoD partly funds the cadet forces, it is not intended to be a route to membership of the Armed Forces, although for my late friend and my noble friend Lady Garden’s late husband, Lord Garden, there was an opportunity to learn to fly as a cadet. Then, of course, he became a distinguished air marshal, so occasionally there can be a route from being a cadet to the Armed Forces. However, what we have heard so powerfully is that the cadet movement is hugely important in giving opportunities to young people, particularly those who are perhaps less advantaged, to take on challenges in “small chunks”, as the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, put it. These are opportunities to do activities that they would otherwise perhaps not have—particularly the opportunity to be trained in things that will be exhilarating.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, mentioned the importance of shooting ranges. As a member of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, I, along with other parliamentarians, have had the opportunity to go out on a shooting range and be taught how to shoot by members of the Army. It is very rewarding when you suddenly realise you have got it and managed to hit a target. If I can feel like that in my 50s, what must a young person feel like when they are able to say, “I’m able to do that. That’s a skill I’ve acquired”? There are huge opportunities.
Several noble Lords have assisted the Minister to look at the financial benefits of the cadet forces, but the question asks what assessment the Government have made of the social impact. Have the Government looked at the social impact and to what extent, particularly in the context of 18 months of Covid? What are the Government thinking about ensuring that cadet forces go back to their normal activity? It is great to hear, as my noble friend Lady Garden said, that air cadets are attending Zoom meetings in their uniform and looking smart, but when will they be able to meet again in person? What are the Government doing to ensure that?
Have the Government given any thought to making sure that the new cadet forces formed in schools in the last decade are consolidated? If I read the briefing correctly, about half of school-based cadet forces are recent and are likely to be the most vulnerable. What support is being given to keep them going and, in particular, to support the adult volunteers who are crucial to ensuring that they are really successful?
I pay all tribute to the cadets and to the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for bringing this debate. I look forward to the Minister’s answers.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, for tabling this debate. I was not privileged to be a member of a cadet force at school, but when I went to university I joined the university air squadron and it shaped my life. The experience, at a young age, of excitement and the military environment shapes one in a special way, and my whole life has related to that.
On the last day before recess, it is a pleasure to take part in a debate on such a positive subject matter. We on the Labour Benches strongly support the opportunities that the cadet force offers our young people to socialise and learn skills, including leadership, resilience and team- work. For reasons that are only too clear, it has been a particularly difficult, disruptive and isolating past 18 months for our young people. Have government departments provided any support to the cadets to ensure that activities can go ahead in a Covid-safe way for the cadets and volunteers involved, and that organisers are supported in responding to changes in guidance and restrictions?
Covid-19 has clearly been difficult for cadets in limiting their access to face-to-face activities. Can the Minister give the Committee an overall assessment of the impact of Covid-19 and what plans the MoD has to ensure a rapid recovery?
I once again put on record our thanks to the volunteers who give up their precious time to make cadets possible. I am sure the Minister agrees that it is rare to read a report that says that government money is being so wisely spent. The report from the University of Northampton on the social impact of investment in cadet forces is extremely welcome. Our key concern should be ensuring that as many young people as possible access these opportunities. As other noble Lords mentioned, the report cites that
“The impact is particularly strong for those cadets that suffer economic and other disadvantages.”
I ask the Minister about the funding announced in April for the expansion of cadet programmes in state schools: what specific strategic planning will go into ensuring new places are made available to children from disadvantaged backgrounds?
The report also focuses on the life-changing potential of the vocational qualifications that can be accessed through the Cadet Vocational Qualification Organisation. The University of Northampton suggests that for the 2018-19 cohort, these qualifications added value in the region of £27 million for girls and £82 million for boys. This is welcome, but one cannot help but notice the discrepancy in impact due to the smaller number of girls who accessed these opportunities. What is being done to increase the participation of girls in the cadets? I look forward to the Minister’s reply on these points and those raised by other noble Lords.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lingfield for securing this debate and pay tribute to him in his role as chairman of the CVQO—the Cadet Vocational Qualification Organisation. I pay tribute to the fine work that organisation does to ensure that the skills individuals gain through cadet forces are recognised and rewarded. I also thank other noble Lords, not just for their valuable contributions but for the excellent support that many of your Lordships provide to the cadets. I and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, felt humbled listening to this. I am afraid that I too cannot claim a direct involvement—although part of my role as a deputy lieutenant is generic support for the cadet movement.
We all know, instinctively, that being a cadet provides outstanding opportunities and that the cadet forces offer young people the chance to develop key life skills. That is right across the United Kingdom, as the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, so properly and rightly observed. Cadets are not just a fine component but a superb representation of the United Kingdom.
In the MoD and within CVQO, we wanted to go beyond the anecdotal and not only look holistically at the benefits the cadet experience provides for young people but assess the impact that the cadet forces have on society as a whole. So in 2016, the Ministry of Defence and CVQO commissioned the University of Northampton to carry out a four-year longitudinal study, the final report from which has just been published. A number of noble Lords referred to that report.
Thanks to this excellent research—again, I pay tribute to all those who worked on it—we now have clear evidence that being a cadet is not only fun and engaging, as many of your Lordships graphically and interestingly described, but transforms lives by improving social mobility, success in education, well-being and career prospects. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, gave a marvellous illustration of the varied activity possible. She also asked about cadet accommodation. Having looked through my briefing, I have no specific information but I undertake to investigate and to see what I can find out.
I was delighted to learn of the positive conclusions from this fascinating report. It emphasises the importance of the cadet programme for young people and the adult volunteers, and shows that participation in cadets leads to greatly improved communication and leadership skills, self-discipline, personal resilience and self-confidence. It can be clearly seen that many of the values which we recognise in our Armed Forces can benefit so many of our young people, with skills that they can rely on well into adult life. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, spoke of that. This, for me, is one of the biggest benefits of the cadet movement. It is why we continue to invest in sustaining the cadet forces in the community, while seeking to increase the opportunities available to pupils in schools in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country.
One of the key findings from the report concerns the concept of self-efficacy—or, as I like to call it, believing in and empowering yourself. That is what it means: it refers to an individual’s confidence, motivation and self-esteem, and their belief in their ability to exert control over their environment. Generally, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds score lower than their peers on measures of self-efficacy, but the research revealed that there is no statistically significant difference in self-efficacy between cadets from disadvantaged backgrounds and more fortunate cadets from more affluent backgrounds. That is significant. It suggests to me that cadets who suffer economic and other disadvantages have improved self-efficacy because of the activities they undertake in the cadet forces and the people they meet as a result of that.
A number of your Lordships rightly identified the specific effects of being a cadet, as noted in the report. The report clearly demonstrates how our cadet forces benefit young people by broadening their horizons and unlocking their potential. As a result of participation in the cadets, young people experience positive outcomes including improved mental and physical well-being. It shows further that participation in the cadet forces develops many important attributes, such as the ability to lead a group of people to achieve an objective—many of us in political parties might envy that attribute—the resilience to keep going when things go wrong and the ability to work as a member of a team, sharing views and helping others. The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, highlighted these benefits.
An important element of being a member of the cadet forces is an understanding that people are not all the same, and that leads to an acceptance of diversity. The report disclosed that participation in the cadet forces can also reduce a young person’s vulnerability and increase their resilience to bullying and extremism. Cadets form an important part of the communities they represent, with membership helping to forge inclusive community links across ethnic, religious and socio- economic dimensions. The noble Lord, Lord Jones, eloquently exemplified that with the support that he and his wife have been giving to that activity in Wales.
Society as a whole is also a beneficiary of cadet activity. My noble friend Lord Colgrain alluded to this. The research shows that participation in the cadet forces is associated with increases in school attendance and improved behaviour, particularly for those who are economically disadvantaged. It is also linked to a reduction in school exclusions. This can lead to enhanced employability and increased social mobility, promoting levelling up in disadvantaged groups. It is worth noting that school-based cadet units deliver personal development outcomes that are directly relevant to the Ofsted inspection framework.
I have to tell noble Lords that government departments and the private sector can also reap benefits from the MoD’s investment in the cadet forces. For government departments, there may be decreasing reliance on certain of their public service provisions. An important message to get across to employers is that cadets and adult volunteers have skills and behavioural attributes that are very valuable in the workplace. I certainly urge employers to look favourably at young people with cadet experience who are applying for jobs and to appreciate the value of adult volunteers who are either already working in their companies or seeking employment.
The report notes that although the calculation of the value of social impact is not an exact science, it is clear that the return on the Ministry of Defence’s investment in the cadet forces, some £180 million per year, is a very good use of taxpayers’ money. Estimates from the research include, for example, that activities associated with improvements in the health and physical and mental well-being of cadets and adult volunteers produce an indicative annual return on investment of more than £560 million. We also have to note the consequential benefits of cadet vocational qualifications, which deliver an extremely positive return on investment for the lifetime of a cadet.
A number of your Lordships raised the matter of funding. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, asked about that. He is aware of the level of current investment, and the level of funding for the cadet forces has to be seen in the context of competing priorities within the defence budget; I know he is sympathetic to that. We see our continuing strong support for the cadet forces as an excellent demonstration of the MoD’s corporate social responsibility, but as the noble and gallant Lord will be aware, our support is more than just funding. We are there to offer advice, encouragement, support and help—and that is what we have been trying to do during the difficult period of the Covid challenge.
The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, raised the vital issue of the adult volunteers, and of course, none of the benefits that I have just been describing would be possible were it not for the 27,000-plus adult volunteers who are the lifeblood of the cadets. I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to them for their tireless efforts in running the individual cadet units and allowing our cadets to have such wonderful opportunities and experiences.
This is all hugely positive and very encouraging, but most of your Lordships have identified the major challenge of the last year: the Covid pandemic. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, specifically asked about how we have tried to support the cadet movement through that difficult time. We have always been available with advice, and many people, in times of uncertainty, sought that advice.
As for restarting activities, we are beginning to see the relaxation of lockdown restrictions, and we are identifying road maps to return us, albeit cautiously, to a more normal delivery of the cadet experience. We are certainly looking at the opportunities available. Your Lordships will all understand that the responsibility for youth and education is devolved to the various Governments, which have different approaches, whether that is in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Throughout, the cadet forces in the UK have followed the appropriate rules and guidance. They are all doing their best to go forward positively.
The adult volunteers have been vital during this difficult time in maintaining activity and keeping morale going. They have been innovative and imaginative in finding ways to continue activity when physical social proximity was denied to us.
There is good news: a small pilot scheme run by the army cadets in Surrey resulted in 58 volunteer and 186 cadet applications, from over 600 expressions of interest recorded in one month. There are good things happening.
In conclusion, the cadet forces are indeed the embodiment of resilience. The effort now under way to recover the ground lost over the past year means that it is particularly important that we capitalise on the University of Northampton’s report, and exploit this good news story. I thank my noble friend Lord Lingfield for tabling the debate, and enabling your Lordships to do just that, and to conclude our debates on defence matters on, as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, observed, a positive, upbeat and optimistic note.
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 4.40 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
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 while remaining in place in Grand Committee. 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 following debate is one hour.
Human Rights Situation in India
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the human rights situation in India; and in particular, of the impact it is having on (1) academics, (2) non-governmental organisations, (3) Muslims, (4) Christians, and (5) marginalised groups, such as the Dalits.
My Lords, I have enormous admiration for the people of India, especially for the resilience and sheer joy shown by so many of them even when living in dire poverty. I recognise the early birth of its culture 4,500 years ago in the Indus valley, and note the brilliant contribution of Indians in the fields of mathematics and astronomy over many centuries. I appreciate the long tradition of public debate and intellectual pluralism in India, as illustrated by Amartya Sen in his wonderful book, The Argumentative Indian. I marvel at the way in which a country of 1.4 billion people can hold democratic elections in which nearly 70% of the people vote. I also believe that many aspects of British policy and behaviour during the imperial period are deeply shaming. As Gandhi responded when asked what he thought of western civilisation, “It would be nice”.
So it is with real sadness that I have to bring this Question before the Committee this afternoon, sadness that, over the past few years, India has joined the growing list of countries that have combined an increasingly autocratic rule, an appeal to a narrow nationalism and a denial of fundamental human rights.
Fundamental to human rights and the long tradition of Indian public debate and intellectual pluralism is academic freedom. There are now numerous reports showing how this in increasingly under threat, with academics who hold views that the Indian Government do not like being put under pressure to resign, and with permission from the Government now being required to hold an international webinar if it relates to certain sensitive subjects. A recent headline in an Indian newspaper asked, “Is academic freedom any longer viable?” Another cited what can happen even in a privately funded Ivy League-equivalent university such as Ashoka. When Pratap Bhanu Mehta was pressured to resign, he said:
“After a meeting with founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability. My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university.”
I should also mention journalists. Between 2010 and 2020, 150 were arrested, detained and interrogated, 67 in 2020 alone.
NGOs—in India, they are called civil society organisations—are another group being put under great pressure. Even before Covid, they were finding it difficult to obtain visas. Since Covid, they have been harassed by new laws against protesters, and some have had their bank accounts frozen. So serious is this that Amnesty International, for example, has had to stop its work in India.
A no less serious cause for concern is the position of Muslims. There are some 200 million Muslims in India—about 14% of the population. One recent survey revealed that 35% of Muslims in north-east India said that they had experienced discrimination over the past year and were now adopting a survival strategy in the realisation that an anti-Muslim Hindutva policy was now the dominant narrative.
Christianity in India is not a western import. Christians have been there for 2,000 years, and were certainly well established in Kerala by the sixth century. There are 28 million Christians in India—about 2.3% of the population. They, too, are suffering from the present Hindutva policies. Their stigma is increased not only by the fact that they are not Hindu but because they are sometimes regarded—quite wrongly—as a legacy of western imperialism and because many of them are Dalits who converted to Christianity, as others converted to Buddhism, partly to escape the stigma of being treated as untouchable.
So I come to the Dalits and other marginalised groups, such as the tribal peoples. It must be emphasised that the Indian constitution is in many ways admirable, in particular its emphasis on equality for all India’s diverse peoples. Its architect was the polymath, scholar and jurist Dr Ambedkar, who was recently honoured by having a new portrait unveiled at Gray’s Inn, where he studied. He was born into a family of what were then referred to as untouchables in 1891, and wrote:
“Untouchability is far worse than slavery, for the latter may be abolished by statute. It will take more than a law to remove the stigma from the people of India. Nothing less than the aroused opinion of the world can do it.”
His constitution was a step towards achieving that but, despite that constitution, Dalits continue to suffer disproportionately by every indicator. The policies and practices of the present reveal that the stigma is still there and being reinforced.
When it comes to access to clean water and sanitation, Dalits lag far behind; when it comes to access to education and health, again they are disproportionately failed. The conscience of India can rightly be aroused when a student on a bus in Delhi is abducted, raped and murdered—as happened not long ago—but rapes of young Dalit girls in isolated villages happen frequently and get very little publicity. A high proportion of Dalits are bonded or day labourers—groups who are particularly vulnerable to violence. It is particularly distressing when Dalits try to get justice for some outrage and, again and again, fail to achieve it. A Dalit Christian village might be burned, as has happened, and the perpetrators known, but justice is delayed and delayed.
At the moment, more than 24 Dalit rights activists are in jail on unproven charges, including 80 year-old poet Varavara Rao and, until he died on 5 July, 83 year- old Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy. Father Swamy spent nine months in jail under the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, was denied bail and medical care and was transferred to a hospital only when his condition became critical. At the time of his arrest, Stan Swamy was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease, significant loss of hearing in both ears and other serious underlying health issues. His death in custody and the continued incarceration of other defenders is a tragic indictment of India’s human rights record and the global community’s human rights commitments. India sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council and the United Nations Security Council, which carry specific human rights commitments.
As I said at the beginning, it is a real sadness to note what is happening in India today. I believe that all true friends of India should protest about this and make it clear to the Mr Modi that this is a denial of what is best in Indian culture and is totally unacceptable. I know the Minister very much shares this concern about human rights, and I look forward to hearing from him about the action that Her Majesty’s Government are taking. I beg to move.
I call the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. I regret we cannot hear you, Lord Parekh. If you are on mute, could you unmute yourself? I call the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, again. We can hear you now.
I am happy to participate in the debate initiated by my good friend, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, on the human rights situation in India, especially as it relates to academics, Muslims, Christians and Dalits. I will take these four groups in the order in which I mentioned them.
I need hardly remind the Committee that human rights have long been an integral part of the Indian constitution and inform every Indian citizen’s political inheritance. The Supreme Court of India has acted as the custodian of those rights and been vigorous in enforcing them. Religious minorities enjoy far better rights in India than elsewhere. They enjoy religious freedom and the right to set up educational and constitutional institutions, and are governed by their own personal laws.
However, this is the formal side of it only; at a more substantive level, Hinduism, Islam and other religions have interacted and created a composite culture, to which they all have contributed and in which they all participate. For example, the law of karma, which is supposed to be a Hindu doctrine, is shared by 77% of Muslims. As a result, it has become ridiculous to talk about Muslims or Christians “in India”; they are Muslims or Christians of India because India has shaped them.
Obviously, in a country with a population of 1.3 billion, incidents are bound to occur when minorities—and even majorities—feel oppressed or treated unjustly. The task is not to exaggerate those incidents but to ask whether the system has the robustness to deal with such situations. The Indian institutions—the Supreme Court and others—have robust capacity to deal with these situations.
I come to Dalits, who for centuries have been subjected to high caste oppression. Independent India devised a host of policies for their uplift, including positive discrimination in government jobs and university admissions. Dalits have occupied positions of power and influence, and have fought for their rights with determination. Obviously, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, pointed out, India still has a long way to go in this direction and could do with a greater sense of urgency, but public opinion will not be silenced. It is beginning to mount and put pressure on the Government. It is also worth bearing in mind that even after 200 years the Americans are still struggling with the legacy of racism, as witnessed by the Black Lives Matter movement.
I turn to academics. There have been cases of government agencies leaning on university authorities to harass or get rid of inconvenient academics. My good friend Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who had to step down as vice-chancellor of Ashoka University, is a good example of this. Some professors have suffered in this way. But although I regret all this, it is worth bearing in mind that these cases have been very few in number. Many academics have freely criticised the Administration of Mr Modi, but none has come to grief. My own family foundation has given 3 million rupees to Jawaharlal Nehru University and we have not come to any grief, nor have we done so for giving 1 crore rupees to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. We must also remember how much Edward Said had to suffer—or how much my good friend Henry Louis Gates has to suffer now—at the hands of Harvard University for supporting the Palestinian cause.
All I say to my good friend, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, by way of ending is that we are not on opposite wavelengths. How can we be? We are on the same wavelength. We all feel grieved and pained when things happen in India that should not happen, but it is a society with a great civilisational depth, a great heritage in the shape of Gandhi, Nehru and others, and shaped by certain values. That kind of society cannot be swept off its feet so easily or be dominated by a single, simplistic ideology. That kind of situation was shown recently when the Prime Minister, who is immensely popular, could not carry the state of West Bengal in the recent elections. He was defeated by Mamata Banerjee.
India welcomes critical advice—if not, it should welcome critical advice—provided that advice is accompanied by humility, is not condescending or patronising, and is based on a sympathetic understanding of India’s problems and predicament. It is very important that India should remain true to its democratic and pluralistic legacy, which can happen only if the watchful eye of Indians abroad and their good friends remains critically focused.
I too thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for introducing the debate. India’s current human rights record paints a very dark picture in many areas. According to a June 2021 report by a Christian advocacy group called Open Doors, daily life for many Christian and Muslim communities in India has become an unbearable struggle to earn a living and practise their faith while remaining alive and under the radar of the far-right Hindutva organisations that now dominate the Indian public and political sphere.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which provides citizenship to religious minorities, excludes Muslims, the largest religious minority in India. Furthermore, millions of people, most of them Muslims, are being put at risk of becoming stateless by the enforcement of the most controversial National Register of Citizens. This could potentially create another Rohingya-like situation.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described the CAA as “fundamentally discriminatory in nature”. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said that it was “deeply troubled” by the Act. Violence against the Dalit community never ends. An Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report of April 2021 said that the Dalits are
“born into a life of discrimination and stigma”,
highlighting the plight of the Dalit community in India.
Kashmir continues to remain an open prison, under the siege of an army with extraordinary powers granted to it by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Regular cordon and search operations of the Indian army, detaining and torturing young people, blowing up residential properties, injuring and killing civilians and assaulting men, women and children, have become the norm in Kashmir. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights have reported extensively on the human rights abuses in Kashmir.
On 5 August 2019, the BJP Government unilaterally revoked Articles 370 and 35A, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian constitution. This was done by totally locking down the state, cutting off all external communication systems—including telephones and the internet—and imposing a curfew. During the course of this, thousands of political workers and leaders, including Shabir Shah, Yasin Malik, Asiya Andrabi and others, have been detained on trumped-up charges.
Shabir Shah has spent most of the last 33 years in detention. In 1992, he was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Mr Yasin Malik, who visited the UK, the United States and many other countries after his release in 2006, after many years of detention, has been arrested again since 2019 and is kept in the high-security Tihar Jail in New Delhi. Both leaders have millions of followers at home and abroad, and they believe in the democratic right of their people to decide about the future of their state, according to UN resolutions. Both suffer from serious health conditions and have cardiac issues, which make them more vulnerable to Covid-19.
Asiya Andrabi is a middle-aged lady suffering from hypertension and asthma. She has been held in Tihar Jail in New Delhi since 2018, charged under various sections of the Indian penal code. Evidently, the Indian Government are violating the UN charter, the Geneva convention and the values and principles of the Commonwealth.
I ask the Minister why, despite all that, India is not even mentioned in the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s latest annual report on human rights. Will he ask the Indian Government to, first, withdraw the most controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens to prevent another human catastrophe? Secondly, will he ask them to release all Kashmiri political prisoners, including the popular leaders I mentioned? Thirdly, will he ask them to demilitarise Kashmiri cities, towns and villages? Finally, will he kindly share the response of the Indian Government with the Members of this House by putting a copy in the Library?
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for this debate. It is always a great pleasure to listen to my dear friend the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and the wise way that he lays out India and its citizens.
Over the last seven or eight years, the current Indian Government have visibly gone to great lengths to remove deep-bedded cultural beliefs and traditions that prevent all people from progressing. Ensuring access to education, particularly for girls, has been at the centre of this Government’s mission through their first and second terms. The fact that they have pushed hard to enable women from the Muslim faith to get protections in the triple talaq legislation is a testament to ensuring that, regardless of their faith, women have access to their rights. This is a Government who, in the past eight years, have pushed hard for pensions and for the poorest in India’s communities to have access to bank accounts so that they can have pensions directly put into their accounts.
Of course, India is a huge country of 1.3 billion to 1.4 billion people. The birth rate is at a pace that is not keeping up with the needs of the people of India and it is right and proper that while we question the injustices and discrimination that people face, we need to do it in the context of the economy, social progress and economic progress, and of making sure that the barriers that prevent people being able to access and fulfil their potential are removed. We sit on the outside lobbing charges into India without contextualising all the progress that has taken place over the past eight or nine years.
I am one of those people who are incredibly critical of discriminatory policies of any kind, whether in India or here. I am a proud person who was born in India but has spent her whole life in the UK fighting discriminatory policies and barriers. We need to be incredibly mindful that, when we start pointing fingers, we first and foremost look at our own institutional discriminatory barriers.
When the Minister responds, will he remind us all that we have long-embedded relationships with India and other countries in the region and that all countries in the region are facing challenges? I am not going to start another debate today, but I ask the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, to look at minority communities in other countries in the region and see how they are faring and what is happening to them, so that we can have a wider debate on barriers to all communities and see how we as British parliamentarians and good friends of all those in the region can help cement cohesive internal growth.
I have often listened to some of the commentary that comes from your Lordships’ House and I ask one thing—that when comments are made, they are made on the basis of proper evidenced reporting because we do not want to add to the inflammatory discussions that take place across the waters where we have no say.
Citizenship legislation has been alluded to. If a country is to know the needs of its citizens, it needs to know who they are, where they are and what the population looks like to be able to service them properly. I have run out of time. This is a much bigger debate. I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for raising it.
My Lords, any friend of India must be sad about the direction of the BJP Government in the past few years. There is plenty to be sad about, as my noble and right reverend friend said, especially the continuing discrimination against so many minorities, including the Dalits, and the attacks on the media. Journalists covering protests now get arrested alongside the protestors, just as if they were in Belarus, even during the pandemic. I am sorry about the feebleness of the opposition—Congress and the smaller parties—which ought to be able to stand up to the Prime Minister, but I am sad above all about the treatment of Muslims.
During the year my wife and I lived in India, mainly in Mumbai and Delhi, we made many Muslim friends. I regret having to state the obvious—that they are people of great honesty and integrity. I have to say it because there is an almost universal, mainly unspoken, prejudice against Muslims among many Hindus in India and here in the UK, and in France, hidden under the thin veil of anti-terrorism. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 led to violent communal riots in Delhi, costing many lives. It specifically excluded Muslim refugees from Indian citizenship and was condemned by the UN and human rights groups, as well as Indian Muslim leaders, as discriminatory.
In such a climate of fear, it should be up to that Government to face up to their own constitution, reassure Muslims and counter prejudice. But that would not fit in with the history of Prime Minister Modi, a member of the RSS who left a trail of persecution when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat back in 2002. He was widely accused of condoning the violence in Ahmedabad which left over 1,000 dead, on a conservative estimate, although he was personally acquitted by India’s Supreme Court.
We know that the Minister has dropped polite hints to South Block—Whitehall’s opposite number in New Delhi—about the virtues of human rights and democracy, and rightly so. We have a long, shared history, and we should be able to speak out much more bravely and frequently than we do. The high commission has done well in putting on programmes such as the interfaith leadership programme and cultural events promoting minority rights, and that is absolutely right.
A free trade agreement is in the offing and our expensive visa regime still presents Indian students and businessmen with an enormous obstacle. But we need more action, specifically to condemn the injustice and discrimination against Muslims, now being encouraged at a very high level.
The Indian Government should also amend their invidious Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, the FCRA, which regulates foreign donations in India. As my noble friend said, it restricts all international NGOs and has a damaging effect on local civil society. Amnesty has had to suspend its operations; even the Commonwealth human rights initiative, based in Delhi, had its FCRA certificate suspended and its bank account frozen. The Minister will be well aware of this; I expect he has mentioned it during his human rights dialogue. I would be grateful to hear whether that still continues.
Finally, I expect that the Minister has already perused the study by the Ethical Trading Initiative of India’s business and human rights framework. It is just the kind of quality academic work which can bring together all stakeholders, UK and Indian, including those benefiting from the new FTA. With that, I wish the Minister a restful summer holiday.
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing this timely debate. I share his admiration for India but also his sadness. The criticisms that I offer in this short contribution, I offer as a friend of India. But it is true to say that in India civil society organisations, international institutions, multilateral organisations, human rights groups and others have publicly voiced their concerns that the situation has not improved on human rights. The Indian Government have ignored calls from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for states to release persons detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and those detained for critical, dissenting views, to prevent the growing rates of infection everywhere, especially in closed facilities such as prisons and detention centres.
The BJP-led Government have increasingly harassed, intimidated and arrested human rights defenders—as has already been outlined—journalists, peaceful protesters and other critics, including under draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws. Civil society organisations that have questioned or criticised the Government’s policies have faced similar challenges under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. This Act was envisaged in 2010 as a means to regulate foreign donations in India, but has now become an effective tool to silence Indian civil society.
As has been mentioned, in September 2020 Amnesty International India was also forced to halt its work in the country. Last week, it was announced that the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, based in Delhi, had its FCRA certificate suspended and its bank account frozen, effectively suspending the payment of all staff salaries and thereby the organisation’s ability to carry out its important work. The Indian authorities have also, sadly, enacted discriminatory laws and policies, referred to earlier, against Muslims, Dalits and other minorities. The appalling treatment of the Dalits has already been documented by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries.
Yet despite the deterioration of the country’s human rights record under Prime Minister Modi, the Indian Government have so far shielded themselves from international criticism. It has been able to shield itself from widespread international condemnation is because some countries are desperate to strengthen trade and economic ties with India. Therefore, I seek the Minister’s specific reassurance that the United Kingdom Government, when negotiating a free trade agreement or strengthening economic ties with India, will ensure that there is a specific human rights clause within any such agreement, as is the case in EU free trade agreements. Such human rights clauses enable the parties to effectively raise human rights concerns and respect the international standards on human rights, and ensure that we never negotiate away the rights of those most in need and most at risk. Human rights clauses in any of our trade agreements say as much about our own country as they do those we partner with.
I remain deeply concerned about deteriorating human rights not only in India but around the world, and the accompanying demonisation and misrepresentation of minorities. As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, said, we are witnessing such misrepresentations here in the United Kingdom where, sadly, some government Ministers and elements in our media pit one minority against another, misrepresent NGOs and deride those who take a stand against discrimination. This stoking of cultural wars must end. It harms individuals, puts lives at risk, diminishes all concerned and lays us open to charges of double standards when we raise human rights abuses in other parts of the world. There must be no double standards on human rights, in particular the rights of all minorities, wherever they may be.
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for securing this important debate. Partition of the subcontinent on the fallacy of irreconcilable religious difference gave a green light to religious bigots in India and Pakistan. In 1984, Indira Gandhi’s mass appeal to bigotry led to the killing of hundreds of thousands of Sikhs, in what former PM David Cameron described as the greatest blot on post-partition history.
In 2001, Narendra Modi, a member of the RSS, a paramilitary Hindu fascist group, was elected Chief Minister of Gujarat. He was considered to be implicated in the killing of thousands of Muslims throughout the state and for some years barred from entry to the UK and the USA. Years earlier, the paramilitary RSS, modelled on the Hitler Youth, had demolished the centuries-old Muslim Babri Masjid. A compliant Supreme Court has now given permission for a Hindu temple to be built on the site.
Narendra Modi went on to become Prime Minister in 2014 and was re-elected in 2019. Backed by the growing power of the paramilitary RSS, he has never made any secret of his desire to turn India into a Hindu state—a view echoed by other Hindu leaders. The Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, openly refers to Muslims as “termites”. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 denies citizenship to thousands of Muslims. Christian worship is under constant threat in a supposedly secular state. Dalits, the lowest of the low in the Hindu caste system, are treated with brutality and contempt, and their women frequently raped.
Attempts are made by threat and flattery to absorb Sikhs into the Hindu fold, despite clear Sikh teachings repudiating the caste system, idol worship and discrimination against women. Some years back, I wrote to the Foreign Office about a young Sikh from Glasgow who was arrested and tortured by the Indian police for supposedly questioning the government line. He is still incarcerated.
Religious minorities are not the only targets of India’s arrogant new rulers. For more than a year, farmers from across India have been camped on the outskirts of New Delhi in the largest and longest mass demonstration ever seen, to protest against the Government’s unconstitutional rigging of the market to enrich their supporters. Water and power are routinely cut off, and demonstrating farmers savagely beaten by the RSS, under the watchful eyes of the police. Effigies of human rights activists, such as singer Rihanna, have been burnt by mobs for interfering. Amnesty International has been barred from India.
Judges who dare to call out this criminal behaviour are routinely moved. University lecturers and students who protest against India’s growing intolerance are subjected to police brutality. Such brave people are India’s best hope for the future. They deserve our support. They deserve more than the usual Foreign Office response—either “India is the world’s largest democracy”, or “We take these matters extremely seriously, and are in touch with our counterparts in India”.
My Lords, I thank my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries of Pentregarth for initiating this important debate. As he said, India is a truly great country; it is one for which I too have great affection and admiration.
One of the greatest Indians was Dr BR Ambedkar, the Dalit who became a lawyer—an alumnus of Gray’s Inn—a parliamentarian and a social reformer, and who crafted India’s constitution. Last month I was honoured to take part in the unveiling of a new portrait and the opening of a room at Gray’s Inn, dedicated to the only Indian ever to be awarded such an honour. Dr Ambedkar’s great-grandson, Sujat Ambedkar, was present. Santosh Dass, Ali Malek QC, the Master Treasurer of Gray’s Inn, and the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK, all deserve our congratulations for bringing this project to fruition.
For all Indian citizens, the story of Dr Ambedkar and his constitution is an inspiring route out of enforced misery, a pathway out of servitude, and a road map to emancipation, justice and equality. It signposts the way to social, economic and political justice, to liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship, to equality of status and of opportunity, and above all, to the fraternity and dignity of India’s citizens.
However, as Dr Ambedkar once said,
“If I find the constitution being misused, I shall be the first to burn it”.
He would surely be greatly disturbed that millions of Dalit and tribal people still remain excluded from their rights, as guaranteed in that constitution, and that the BJP Government have presided over the steady erosion of those hard-won gains. Take the incarceration of human rights defenders, academics and lawyers, referred to earlier, who are in jail, without bail or prospect of an early trial. Dr Anand Teltumbde, Dr Ambedkar’s grandson-in-law, is one of those incarcerated without bail. He is 71.
Those jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case have consistently and robustly denied the charges against them. Yet some have been in jail for years, without bail, under dubious sedition laws—bequeathed, regrettably, by the British—on trumped-up charges and flawed evidence. Many are elderly and have medical health conditions. Along with Dr Teltumbde, there are the 80 year-old human rights activist and poet Varavara Rao and the 60 year-old trade unionist, activist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj. All of them are languishing in jail; all are in extreme danger of catching the Covid virus there, and all have been denied bail.
Think of Father Stan Swamy, who has been referred to before, and about whom I was in regular touch, and correspondence, with the Minister, who tried incredibly hard to be helpful in this case. Father Swamy spent his life defending the rights of tribal people in India. He was a frail 84 year-old man with Parkinson’s yet despite applications on health grounds, the authorities denied him bail. His death was unjust and it needs to be investigated impartially.
Following Father Swamy’s death in custody, Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, said:
“There is no excuse, ever, for a human rights defender to be smeared as a terrorist, and no reason they should ever die the way Father Swamy died, accused and detained, and denied his rights.”
I echo those remarks.
The rape and punishment of Dalit and tribal women and girls also must be of the gravest concern to us. I welcome the reply that the Minister gave me on 19 July about the British high commission’s project to provide legal training for Dalit women to combat violence against them. I really hope that this will make a tangible difference that can be measured in due course.
Finally, like other countries, India has suffered grievously under Covid. We have all seen the heartbreaking reports. The long-term health and economic effects on Dalits and tribal peoples, who would frequently be the daily labourers or bonded labourers, should surely be examined and researched. The human rights that Dr Ambedkar championed all his life must be protected.
I will end with this. In his book, Annihilation of Caste, Dr Ambedkar said:
“A just society is that society in which ascending sense of reverence and descending sense of contempt is dissolved into the creation of a compassionate society.”
My Lords, I too thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for securing this debate and for his sensitive though probing introduction.
India is a close ally, an important member of the Commonwealth and a rising economic and political power. Its path to development and prosperity, as cited by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, is indeed remarkable. Nevertheless, there are concerns about actions that the current Government have taken. Just as human rights are judged to be universal and the UN adopts the responsibility to protect, we cannot close our eyes—wherever in the world human rights are under threat.
The amendment to the Citizenship Act in India provides fast-track citizenship for certain religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan yet, as others have noted, the change does not extend to Muslims. The Minister, whom I believe is now listening and will respond at the end of the debate, said in February 2020 that he had raised this with the Indian high commission and that the Government would continue to monitor the situation. Can he update us on that? Can he also update us on the situation for Amnesty International, which, as others have mentioned, had its funds frozen, severely impacting its ability to work in India?
In August 2019, the Indian Government revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, removing constitutional autonomy from Jammu and Kashmir. This was followed by considerable unrest, as my noble friend Lord Hussain mentioned. Indian troops were deployed and there were worrying reports of human rights abuses. Transparency was hampered because phone and internet services were shut down. Politicians and others were arrested.
This followed the 2018 reports from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which were updated in 2019. They recommended that human rights abuses should be investigated. What action are the Government urging? Can the Minister assure us that seeking a potential trade deal with India now that we have left the EU is not standing in the way of our flagging potential human rights abuses? Surely the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, is right to insist that we must have human rights clauses in any trade deals.
I commend the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, on his long commitment to the Dalits. It is partly what led to the International Development (Gender Equality) Act. India has passed legislation to improve Dalit status, but I certainly saw that there was a very long way to go when I visited DfID projects supporting Dalits, particularly women. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that Dr Ambedkar was remarkable in achieving what he did, given all that was against him. That is surely right. We now hear that Dalits have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Is the FCDO adhering to the gender equality Act I just referred to in its ODA funding?
We hear, too, of an increase in hate crimes against Christians as far-right Hindu groups persecute them. I too was very sorry to hear of the death in custody of 83 year-old Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy. Indeed, his death should be investigated. As we hear, the pressure on academics, NGOs and others is clear.
We know, too, of huge concern when agricultural laws were passed. Some 400 protestors were reported to have died and a number of journalists were arrested, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, noted. Those laws were subsequently suspended following a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court. As the noble Lord, Lord Singh, said, discontent must not be stoked against the judiciary, as has happened in the UK. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, that I agree that we need to hold the UK Government to account as well.
Freedom House has this year downgraded India’s status as a democracy and free society to “partly free”, noting that the Indian Government
“appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader”.
Given the importance of India globally, that must give us all cause for concern. We need India’s leaders to be playing a full part globally in pursuit of human rights, countering climate change and supporting the rules-based international order. I hope that the United Kingdom is assisting in that aim, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I too thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for initiating this debate and for his welcome opening remarks. He is right to point out the rich and varied traditions of India. As noble Lords have pointed out, India is the world’s largest democracy and will soon become the world’s third-largest economy. I am sure the whole Committee recognises the value of the long-standing relationship we have with it, but our relationship must be deeper and reflect our values of democracy, human rights and the primacy of international law. We need to work with India on issues such as security and climate change but also to recognise that, as part of any trusting and respectful relationship, we have the confidence to raise issues around human rights and religious freedoms.
Any functioning democracy must include a free civil society, and that is why India’s recent clampdown on NGOs is so concerning. When Governments fail in their most important task of providing safety, security and freedom for their people, it is always civil society which leaps first to their defence. Last year, Amnesty International ended its operations due to reprisals following the freezing of its bank accounts. Amnesty had previously warned that other human rights advocates in India had been subjected to counterterror raids. My noble friend Lord Cashman was absolutely right to raise this and its context. I hope the Minister will tell us exactly what steps the Government are taking to protect civic space in India.
It is equally important that the UK uses our relationship with India to support the principle of free religion. Free religion is not about just the right to practise a religion; it is also about the right not to practise a religion. Human Rights Watch has presented repeated evidence of mob attacks on religious minority groups, and police in Delhi have been accused of ignoring attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods. The noble Baronesses, Lady Northover and Lady Verma, mentioned the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what assessment the Government have made of the application of the Act, given that it has now been in place for 18 months.
It is also right that we should call on the Indian Government to stamp out caste discrimination, to which noble Lords throughout the debate have referred. It includes violent attacks against the Dalit population and, in particular, Dalit women. The UK has a very strong priority policy on violence against women, and I hope the Minister will particularly address this issue. According to the BBC, 54% of Dalit women have been physically assaulted, 46% have been sexually harassed and 43% have faced domestic violence. In the light of the Government’s strategy, I hope the Minister can give us some more detail about what we are doing to ensure that violence against Dalit women, in particular, ends.
My Lords, I begin my apologising to your Lordships for my delays and technical faults. The joys of virtual participation meant that, for some reason, I had been linked into a rather interesting debate in the Chamber, as opposed to the Committee. Nevertheless, I am delighted to join noble Lords and I heard a major part of the debate. I start, as have others, by acknowledging and recognising the role of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion and belief, inter-faith relations and human rights. In his opening remarks, he again reflected on the importance of these principles in the wider context of human rights.
I also welcome, as ever, a robust, open and challenging debate, which I am accustomed to on the broader issue of human rights. Today, we have heard various insights presented and questions rightly asked about our relationship with a standing partner and friend, the Republic of India. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and my noble friend Lady Verma, among others, on the importance of our strong relationship with India—bilaterally, as a Commonwealth partner and in the multilateral sphere. As the Minister responsible for our relations with India, as well as human rights, I assure noble Lords that our relationship is strong, which allows for a candid and measured exchange on important issues. That relationship with India goes both ways: for India in asking the United Kingdom, which my noble friend Lady Verma alluded to, and equally for us to raise important issues of human rights, as we continue to do.
As was pointed out by a number of noble Lords, Indian citizens are rightly proud of their history of inclusive government. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about the history of inclusive government. Let us not forget the secular constitution, which protects the rights of all communities, including minority communities, within India. It guarantees equality before the law, which we are proud of in our own democracy in the UK.
Our shared values and vibrant democracy sit at the heart of the transformational relationship between the United Kingdom and India and the comprehensive strategic partnership we work towards, launched at the virtual summit between Prime Minister Johnson and Prime Minister Modi in May. In June, at the G7 summit and in the 2021 Open Societies Statement, both Prime Ministers again highlighted our countries’ shared belief in the importance of human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law. They recognised the role of human rights defenders in promoting fundamental freedoms and our rejection of discrimination. We all recognise—and, again, my noble friend Lady Verma alluded to this—that human rights is never a job done. We have to be constantly vigilant, both at home and abroad, about this important agenda. I assure noble Lords that this remains a central priority of my work within the FCDO.
Along with G7 partners, we committed to co-operation to strengthen open societies globally, including by tackling all forms of discrimination. Media freedom was a key component of the statement and communiqué issued by the G7. As the integrated review made clear, open societies and human rights remain a priority for the UK. This month, as was acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, among others, we published the Human Rights & Democracy report.
It has been a challenging year. As several noble Lords mentioned, Covid-19 remains a challenge in its erosion of human rights and democracy and has amplified existing hardships and inequalities. In response, I assure noble Lords that the UK stepped up its efforts as a force for good in the world, championing those core values we hold so dear. We very much stepped up in our close collaboration with India, when it came to Covid-19, in supporting the supply of oxygen mini-factories to places such as those in Rajasthan to ensure that, in its time of need, we stood with India, as India stood with us during the early Covid-19 challenges.
The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, specifically asked about the human rights report. Just because a country is not mentioned within that report—and specific criteria go behind the inclusion of a particular country—it does not mean that we do not raise human rights issues with countries across the world.
I turn to human rights in India specifically. The UK Government engage on a range of human rights matters. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, mentioned Kashmir; I assure him that we continue to raise issues, including the detention of leaders in Kashmir. We were heartened by the fact that Prime Minister Modi invited some leaders from the state to join him in Delhi. We believe it is very much a first step towards progress in Kashmir. Whether it was the internet being suspended or the release of those held in political detention, we continue to monitor and work with the Government of India in ensuring early resolutions. Through our high commission and network of deputy high commissions, we work with the union Government and, importantly, state Governments and NGOs to build capacity and share expertise.
I have visited India twice since my appointment as the Minister for India, and I assure noble Lords that human rights have formed a regular part of my direct engagement with Indian counterparts in Delhi. We look towards the Indian Government to continue to uphold the freedoms and rights guaranteed by India’s constitution and the international instruments to which it is a signatory.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned human rights defenders and Father Swamy. I assure noble Lords that his passing is a point of deep regret for us all; I mentioned it in a statement I put out at that time. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we raised this matter directly with the Indian authorities.
It is thanks to our deepening relationship that we have been able to engage on such sensitive matters with Indian counterparts on a regular basis and as sovereign equals. The Government of India also raise direct concerns with us. To give noble Lords some insight, in December the Foreign Secretary discussed a number of human rights issues, including those relating to Kashmir, with Indian Minister of External Affairs Dr Jaishankar, on 5 January our acting high commissioner in New Delhi spoke with officials from India’s Ministry of External Affairs about minority communities in India and on 15 March, while I was visiting India, I discussed the situation for different religious communities, including Christians and Muslims, as well as the situation in Kashmir, with India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kishan Reddy. These were both productive and constructive engagements.
In October and December last year I raised concerns with the high commission about NGOs. The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, rightly raised Amnesty International and the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. I have requested that all Amnesty International accounts be unfrozen while the investigation is ongoing and have stressed the important role that organisations such as Amnesty International play in any democracy. I meet quite regularly with representatives of Amnesty International here at the FCDO.
In my capacity as Minister for South Asia and Minister for Human Rights, I regularly have frank discussions on the topic with the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and the Indian high commission in London. Most recently, this month we also had discussions about this during my visit to New York with the Indian Permanent Representative to the UN in New York.
As noble Lords will be aware, in our human rights work key priorities for the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and me are freedom of religion or belief and promoting respect between different religious communities. The British high commission regularly meets representatives of all faiths to understand their perspectives. The excellent team on the ground undertakes a variety of projects to promote interfaith dialogue. For example, in 2020 we hosted a virtual round table with leaders from faith communities.
This year, the British high commission hosted a multifaith virtual iftar during Ramadan. I was very pleased to speak at that event, which included leaders from across India’s Muslim community and the wider religious tapestry that makes up modern India today. We continue to support interfaith leadership programmes for a cohort of emerging Indian faith leaders, creating a dialogue—I know the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, will appreciate this—to tackle shared challenges and promote not just tolerance but respect.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lords, Lord Singh and Lord Alton, raised the situation with the Dalit community. Our recent project work with the Dalits has included the provision of legal training for over 2,000 Dalit women to combat domestic violence and the creation of the first ever network of Dalit women human rights defenders trained as paralegals. We will continue our support in this respect. The British high commission also held an event on empowering Muslim youth, which saw over 100 educational institutions participating in six three-day workshops.
I turn to academic and journalists’ freedom, raised by my noble friend Lady Verma, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that academia and a free media are two further elements of a successful democratic society. Here again, India and the United Kingdom share fundamental values. We regularly engage with the Indian media, which promotes lively debate—[Inaudible]—directly during my visit by members of the Indian media fraternity.
The annual South Asia Journalism Fellowship programme, under our flagship Chevening brand, is central to our activity in this regard and has been since 2012. We also engage with India’s academic community, as expanding academic co-operation is among the principal aims of the 2030 road map, which was agreed between the two Prime Ministers. I regularly speak at universities; indeed, on one of my earlier visits to India, I spoke at a Muslim university.
To conclude this debate, I assure noble Lords that we will continue to engage with India across a series of areas, including on issues of trade. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and others have said about the issue of human rights within the context of our future trade agreements. I assure them that human rights remain central to our thinking, as we negotiate trade agreements around the world.
We will also continue to work with the Government of India to ensure that the rights of all minorities, as according to their constitution, continue to be upheld in the rich tradition of religious inclusivity, which I know full well from my family’s experiences remains alive and well. Indeed, during my last visit to India, I convened a round table of religious leaders in Punjab.
I give noble Lords the further assurance that was sought: we will continue to monitor human rights directly though our high commission in New Delhi. We have a strong relationship with India and a relationship of being partners and friends with it. When we have concerns, I assure noble Lords that we will continue to raise them. On occasion, as I have said before, we do so privately because we believe that that is the right thing to do. Where there are more general issues of concern we will continue to raise them, not just in the context of our relationship with India but further afield.
When it comes to human rights, our principle is clear. It is central to our thinking and we remain steadfast in our opposition to any form of discrimination, for it is our common values, shared by India, and our common belief in international rules and norms that will continue to govern our growing and strengthening partnership with India.
My Lords, the Grand Committee stands adjourned to enable the technicians to make arrangements for the next debate. I remind Members to wipe their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.
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, which remains in place in Grand Committee. 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 the following debate is one hour.
Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the possibility of joining forces with the governments of (1) France, (2) Germany, and (3) the United States of America to persuade the government of Russia that it is in its interest to push for new elections in Belarus.
It is a great pleasure to introduce this debate, which is overdue. By way of background, all my political life—in fact, all my life—I have been involved in some aspect or other of foreign affairs. I include in that a short time in a very junior position in the Foreign Office, 25 years in the European Parliament and, since I came into this House, my time as a member of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, so I have a reasonable amount of experience. During that time, I have visited Belarus on a couple of occasions and Moscow on more than a couple, most recently in December 2019 using the facilities made available by this House to pay for visits to members of the Council of Europe. There, I met a number of members of the Duma and the upper house.
Belarus is, of course, the only country that is not a member of the Council of Europe. This is largely because of its refusal to suspend the death penalty but that also seems to have become rather convenient, because it has placed Belarus in a position where few queries are ever raised as to its policies et cetera. The election that took place some time ago, however, gave rise to a lot of controversy.
Let me say at the beginning that I am indebted to the Chatham House unit, which has supplied me with opinion polls and other data, as well as to Dr Mikalaj Packajeu and Dr Alan Flowers, who provided me with a briefing around the subject of this debate. I am sure everyone will notice that is not condemnatory; I am looking for a way through the woods here.
The first question is: why should we listen to Russia? I like to think I am a pragmatic person, and one good reason to listen to Russia is that it is the next-door power and it, frankly, has its own version of the Monroe doctrine. In the last few days, the United States has been gleefully celebrating its misplaced policy of 60 years in Cuba. It could have achieved what it has now much more quickly, had it been more flexible. Russia similarly regards the countries on its border as those in which they want, at least, to keep powers not hostile to them. That is one of the difficulties with Belarus.
Another factor about Belarus that we must face up to is that no fewer than 79% of the population has either a positive or a very positive attitude towards Russia. Some 58% think that Russia should stay neutral in the present dispute but—according to a poll provided by Chatham House, not an internal poll of Belarus’s people—32% of the population of Belarus support a union with Russia. Some 46% would like to be united to both the EU and Russia. But one sees from this no outright rejection of the big neighbour next door, and we need to bear that in mind when tackling this problem.
The Lukashenko regime is undoubtedly unpopular, and on a very wide basis. One of the results of this will certainly be what has happened in other former Soviet countries—an increasing brain drain. Repressive countries lose the best of their middle class, and this has been demonstrated time and again. I live in Cambridge and it is full of people from other parts of Europe who are the cream of their societies and have chosen to leave to live in what they rightly see is a free society. The first danger for Belarus is that it will lose its population by people just leaving the country.
The election in Belarus was not wholly supported in Russia. The day after, 9 August 2020, Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the election circumstances “were not ideal”. For a Russian, that is a strong statement. When the main leader of the opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, met Macron, she called on Vladimir Putin
“to play a constructive role in the crisis resolution.”
This is the key: if there is to be a resolution there, we need Russia on board. At the moment, for Russia, Belarus is dependable, even if not particularly savoury. It is rather like the old American phrase, “He may be a something, but he’s our something”. We have to make it possible for the people of Belarus to change their Government. Crucial to this is whether the Russians can be persuaded to treat Lukashenko in the same way they treated Yanukovych—in other words, to give him a way out of Belarus, because he is not going to leave voluntarily.
The next thing that I think is important is that if he is replaced at the helm, it has to be with a Government who will be pragmatic in their approach to Russia. This is where the gist of my resolution comes in because the big powers, so to speak, of Europe, which are France and Germany, I hope with the assistance of Britain and the United States, must put their work behind an optimal solution. This must be accompanied by a strong message to go to the Belarusians.
I know that in June the IMF board discussed a proposal for a historic $650 billion general allocation of special drawing rights. Some of that, roughly $1 billion, is due to go to Belarus, and this will be voted on early in August. I think, following a precedent in 2019 when the IMF denied Nicolás Maduro access to $400 million of special drawing rights on the grounds that the international community did not recognise him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, the IMF should not decline, but should freeze for the time being that allocation of special drawing rights. I have signed, together with a number of other Members, a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer asking him to look at Britain taking that position within the IMF. In other words, in looking to change the regime in Belarus, we have to be firm as well as fair. We cannot be soft, but at the same time we must not indulge ourselves in some sort of hate fest, and we certainly have to realise that, unless we can bring Russia on board, we are very unlikely to succeed.
Lukashenko has become a very toxic ally for Moscow. He is not popular there, and I was told when I was in Moscow that the chemistry between him and Putin is absolutely awful, but at the same time, he is the only leader the Russians have—he is their only dog in this fight—so we, as responsible western nations, have to make it possible to construct a solution where we can get a regime change in Belarus that is acceptable to the Russians. I suggest we ask the Russians to help with an exit strategy for Lukashenko, and I hope the Foreign Office will work with its colleagues in Europe and Washington to form a common position which can lead us to a desired result.
My Lords, first, I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who, as he said, is a UK delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, as, indeed, I am. I thank him for tabling this important subject for debate today. As he said, in PACE we have debated the situation in Belarus on a number of occasions and we have received strong support for the kind of action he is calling for today and, indeed, for going further.
The presidential election held in Belarus on 9 August last year, which saw Lukashenko returned based on the so-called official result was described by independent observers, and indeed by our Foreign Secretary, as neither free nor fair. I particularly commend the United Kingdom Government for rightly describing Lukashenko’s subsequent inauguration as fraudulent. However, the protests against the regime in Belarus have resulted in an unprecedented series of arrests of innocent political prisoners and a vicious crackdown on journalists—and, in particular, against civil society activists and opposition politicians.
Indeed, the lengths to which the dictator will go to clamp down on opposition activities reached a new height on 23 May with the hijacking by the regime of Ryanair flight FR4978 to detain an opposition activist, Roman Protasevič, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. It was an unprecedented, astonishing state hijack, widely condemned by the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States and almost everyone—with the notable exception of Russia, which considered it an “internal matter” for Belarus.
What can we do, here and now, to respond to these acts of repression and barbarism? First, as individuals we can protest. But even more usefully, as parliamentarians we can give some hope to individual prisoners—as I am doing, along with others here in Westminster and around Europe, by adopting one of them.
Ten months ago, the prisoner I adopted, an arborist called Stepan Latypov, was arrested on a trumped-up charge because one of the chemicals that he uses for his work as an arborist can be combined with others to make explosives. He was brought to court limping, with bruises and a bandaged hand resulting from the way he had been treated. He was threatened that if he did not admit his guilt, his relatives would be persecuted. He then attempted suicide. Meanwhile, pressure is exerted on him by refusing visitors, controlling correspondence, round-the-clock surveillance and limiting access to showers and other facilities.
The delay in bringing Stepan to trial puts more pressure on him; however, it also looks as if they are playing for time. The fact that he and other prisoners know that we are monitoring their situation gives them some hope and, I hope, lets the regime know that we are watching. Specifically, will the Minister arrange for our ambassador in Minsk to request a visit by an official from the embassy to Stepan in prison, to report back on his condition and whether and when he is to be charged? I hope he will deal with that in his reply.
As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, we need to go further collectively to help all the prisoners, journalists and opposition activists. We also need to get new, fully democratic elections in Belarus, as was in fact demanded by another of our colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in his report to the parliamentary assembly.
Along with other Peers, including the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and Members of Parliament I have written to the Chancellor, urging stronger financial sanctions on the Lukashenko regime. We should be using our position on the IMF board to veto the billion dollars due to be allocated to Belarus. As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe said, the IMF previously denied funds to the Maduro regime in Venezuela, so there is clear precedent for taking such action.
In spite of Brexit, London remains one of the key financial centres, so our Government should look at further ways that we can bring pressure on Lukashenko to move quickly to accept the inevitable, because it is inevitable that he will have to go. I support the proposal in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that we should join with the French, the Germans and the United States to pressure Russia to accept that there must be new elections in Belarus. But we also need to take our own action, individually and collectively here in the United Kingdom, to put pressure on the Lukashenko regime. I hope that we will get a positive response from the Minister on that action too.
My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. We have just been debating in Grand Committee matters relating to the democratic state of India—a country of 1.4 billion people and a far cry from what brings us together now.
I intend to broaden the debate. I fear that President Putin will not be persuaded by the question before us. Free and fair elections in Belarus would be followed by an increasing call for free and fair elections in Russia, presenting existential threats to the personal survival of both leaders. While it is to be applauded, therefore, I fear that the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is mission impossible in the short-term. However, he has presented us with a helpful opportunity for a road map in the longer term. The challenge was articulated in an interesting recent piece in the Financial Times, which said:
“Nationalist autocrats need enemies abroad to justify political repression at home, and the Russian president has long found his in the west.”
If perceived wisdom is correct, Moscow is targeting de facto absorption of Belarus into Russia. The situation in Belarus has now become, therefore, a test of autocracy over democracy, tyranny over decency, and self-preservation. The Kremlin’s gameplay of taking control of Belarusian security institutions—the KGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the armed forces—is, in addition to the aim of ensuring that Lukashenko retains power, demobilising the protest movement through mass repression.
Messaging from Minsk or Moscow about constitutional changes and new elections will only ever be on Moscow’s terms. Any proposed constitutional changes will only ever be paving the way for greater economic integration with Russia, with the omnipresent risk of invasion—either under cover of darkness, or, more radically, in order to discourage all such countries from moving geopolitically westward.
How, therefore, can we support the people of Belarus while managing the relationship with President Putin’s Russia—recognising that the ploy of disruption is Kremlin gameplay, but still responding to it with a tough approach on ground and sea, not just with words? The recent Black Sea right of passage exercise is clearly a starter for things to come, as part of a grand strategy. We must be prepared to stand up for what we believe in, beating the drum with parallel savvy engineering and diplomacy. The principle of critical dialogue must on all accounts be maintained. We must be consistent, and address the fundamental lack of trust on both sides.
President Macron and Chancellor Merkel—with her somewhat conflicting messaging—suggest that a culture of automatically blaming Russia for everything is wide of the mark, and a consequence of the current relationship. They are making heavy weather of it. News today that the United States and Germany have reached a truce over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has sent shock waves through energy security concerns. This could conceivably put Ukraine back on a journey into the Russian fold, notwithstanding a surety from Berlin to impose sanctions on Russia if Moscow threatens Ukraine on energy security. If I were President Putin, I would see this as a potential chink in the armour, with the West undermining its position.
I do not profess an immediate solution to the desperate Belarusian issue, other than to publicly urge President Putin to support ideals built on decency and accountability, which could be turned into a quick win for Russia and lead to a more constructive relationship throughout.
Global leaders must learn from history. The time has come to understand what has happened to put us in the situation in which we now find ourselves, based on the many examples that exist—Myanmar being just one current example—and to devise whatever channels that, with strict conditionality, could be best made to work, including, if necessary, a surety of freedom from prosecution in return for free elections.
The international community should then enact a “citizens first” global charter with a courts-based system to adjudicate when leaders clearly demonstrate failure to uphold their responsibilities to their people. We must not give up on this, but the time has come for like-minded actors to up their game and to be more smart—but not Machiavellian—about it. A fundamental reset is required. Now is the time for a new world order, supported by actions, not words. Let Belarus be the test. Failure will spell trouble.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, whose name is next on the list, has withdrawn from the debate, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Northover.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for securing this debate. He made an extremely interesting contribution, based on long experience. But here we are, out of the EU, trying to engage over a problem in our neighbourhood. So I first ask the Minister: are there any plans yet for a formalised structure so that we can co-operate and gain support from the whole of the EU on foreign affairs, or are we doomed to have to make individual approaches to one country after another, in the middle of the many other issues that we have to deal with? We know that the EU would have been happy to have such an arrangement. I am glad that we now recognise the EU ambassador as such; I commend the Minister for any efforts he made in that regard.
We have the challenge of the elections in Belarus. Such outcomes are not unknown, of course, but then we have the absolutely extraordinary situation of, in effect, the state-sponsored hijacking of a European commercial airliner. On its way from Athens to Vilnius, it was diverted by military planes and forced to land and hand over two of its passengers, who were then taken into detention and later showed signs of abuse. This was in our neighbourhood. Dealing with this is indeed immensely challenging. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said about engaging with Russia, but I also note what the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said about individually supporting prisoners of conscience in Belarus so that they feel less alone.
On the election, in September 2020, 17 countries—including the UK, the US and France, as members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—invoked the “Moscow mechanism” to investigate possible human rights abuses in Belarus at the time of the election. The Moscow mechanism rapporteur presented his report in November 2020, concluding that
“allegations that the presidential elections were not transparent, free or fair were found confirmed.”
He stated that new elections should be organised according to international standards. We know that this has not happened and that the President makes no moves to do so, despite widespread protest in his country. Opposition leaders have been arrested or have fled.
In May 2021, this was followed by the hijacking of the Ryanair plane and the arrest of Roman Protasevich, along with his girlfriend. Mr Protasevich is a former editor of Nexta, which sought to promulgate news even when the Government were imposing blackouts. Sanctions have been imposed by both the EU and the UK. Can the Minister tell us what effect these may be having and whether the Government are considering further action? In response to the arrest, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs described it as a “domestic affair of Belarus”. I note the polling evidence from Belarus, cited by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on what relationship people wish to see with both the EU and Russia.
On 8 June 2021, the EU delegation to Belarus, together with the embassies of the UK, the US, Switzerland and Japan, issued a joint statement after meeting the Belarusian Foreign Minister. They called on Belarus to halt the persecution of all those engaged in pro-democracy movements, independent media and civil society, and to start a credible and inclusive political process resulting in free and fair elections. Can the Minister tell us what the response was, if any?
The Foreign Secretary has expressed concerns about Belarus becoming even more of a client state of Russia. Can the Minister comment on the implications of those concerns? Do the Government see merit in what the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said? What further action does the Minister feel can be taken? This is an unstable and concerning situation right on EU borders. It certainly needs European countries to co-operate and strategically work out how best to put pressure on the current leadership in Belarus.
It is difficult not to see Putin’s leadership in Russia as a major block even if he is seeking to defend himself against the West, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said. Putin’s interests in destabilising the West and the pumping out of disinformation and dissent, whether about vaccines or other matters—they can so easily be spread through social media—serve as a warning, as the integrated review emphasised. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, made the point well: autocrats traditionally find enemies without in order to shore themselves up at home.
Clearly, we need to work closely with our EU partners, as well as the USA, on this matter. This crisis, like others around the world, is unresolved when we have so many issues on which we need to work together, not least in tackling climate change.
I am sure that the Minister is looking forward to his summer holiday. Who knows what foreign affairs crises may emerge during that time? That said, I wish him a peaceful and hopefully enjoyable summer. I thank him and his team for their engagement. I also wish the same to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the other noble Lords here, as we conclude the last debate in Grand Committee before the Summer Recess.
My Lords, picking up on that last point, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, in wishing everyone a happy, peaceful and restful Summer Recess.
In the past year, since the fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus, we have seen the incredible defiance shown by activists and opposition leaders. Here I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Foulkes, who has been consistent in raising the cases of individual opposition leaders and activists. As he said, we need to ensure that they know that they are not alone and that their voices are heard. The mass protests have been met with violent repression and attacks against the Belarusian opposition. Noble Lords have referred to the absolutely outrageous forced landing of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius basically to kidnap two passengers. The UK Government have been right to impose sanctions along with our allies, but much more needs to be done to support the people of Belarus.
Of course, in February and May this year, we had short debates on this question. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, raised the OECD report, the Moscow mechanisms and the actions. In both February and May, the Minister responded to those Questions; I hope that he can give us a more detailed update on exactly where we are with the full implementation.
Of course, one of the other things that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and my noble friend referred to was the Council of Europe. Belarus is the only European country to be excluded from it—because of its appalling human rights record—yet, unlike Russia, it has not invaded two neighbouring countries or poisoned people on British soil. I hope that, in responding, the Minister can also tell us what has happened to the implementation of the Russia report; we have yet to see that happen. Of course, while we need to co-operate with countries on important issues, we also need to ensure that they understand our determination to stand up for international law and agreements.
I know what the Minister will say if I mention sanctions and the fact that London is still the home for a lot of corrupt moneys. I know that the mantra that is normally repeated is, “We do not talk about prospective sanctions”, but I hope that he can tell us a bit more about our discussions with allies about how we can co-operate, including on the initiatives raised by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, in terms of debt relief and IMF policies. They are really important.
However, we need to stand up for the rights of the Belarusians better. The UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur has warned of
“a full-scale assault against civil society, curtailing a broad spectrum of rights and freedoms”.
We hope that we will absolutely focus on the conditions that Roman Protasevič has been subjected to; I hope that we will ensure that our diplomatic staff monitor that situation as effectively as possible. I also hope that the Minister will be able to report on recent steps at the UN for this particular action. Also, what assessment have the Government made of the recent attacks on civil society, including on trade union organisations?
Finally, I repeat the call from all noble Lords to use all available means to ensure and push for new democratic elections. Earlier this week, Belarus’s main opposition leader met the US Secretary of State. The US Government are encouraging support for a democratic resolution. Could the Minister tell us what recent discussions the Government have had with our allies on collective steps to support fresh elections in Belarus? Finally, I once again join the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, in wishing everyone a good, long and peaceful Summer Recess.
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Balfe for tabling this debate and all noble Lords for their valuable contributions. The Government share the many concerns that have been raised in today’s debate about the situation in Belarus. I hope that my comments and responses to the questions asked provide further clarity on many of the salient points that were made.
As noble Lords acknowledged, it has been almost 12 months since the presidential election in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities manipulated that process for the sole purpose of ensuring that Alexander Lukashenko retained his grip on the structures of power he has held since 1994. To be frank, there was nothing democratic, free or fair about those elections. Such was Lukashenko’s fear of a genuine, open, contested popular presidential election that other candidates and their supporters were jailed during the campaign. Others were prevented even from registering as potential candidates. As a consequence, I join the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and his consistent raising of such issues. I will come on to political prisoners, in a moment.
We saw tens of thousands courageous Belarusians take to the streets in peaceful protest, whose voices were suppressed simply because they called out their right to determine how they are governed. Lukashenko’s regime has flatly refused to listen to them. Instead, it launched a brutal and sustained crackdown against peaceful protesters, democratic opposition leaders and supporters, as well as independent media, journalists and civil society. It has been a devastating assault on democratic principles and the rule of law, and it continues to this day.
The consequences for the Belarusian people have been extraordinary and the scale of the brutality is truly shocking. Just reflect on what has happened since: more than 35,000 people arbitrarily detained, more than 550 people imprisoned on politically motivated charges, the forced expulsion of opposition leaders and countless credible reports of physical mistreatment and torture by security forces, which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted in her report to the Human Rights Council in February 2021.
As noted by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, this shameful charge sheet existed before we even consider the forced landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 on 23 May and the subsequent arrest of journalist Roman Protasevič and his partner or the raids on human rights organisations. I know the noble Lord, Lord Collins, feels passionately about the role of civil society organisations, and rightly so. Sadly and tragically, those raids included the detention of members of the internationally respected NGO Viasna.
Noble Lords are aware of the role of Russia, which was alluded to by my noble friend Lord Balfe in his opening remarks. Russia and Belarus have close historical, cultural and economic ties, and Russia has been one of the few countries to continue to back Lukashenko. Putin was one of the first leaders to congratulate him on his alleged electoral victory. He also continues to host visits from Lukashenko and has provided more than $1.5 billion of loans, amid talk of closer economic integration. Clearly, Russia has influence on Lukashenko, but we do not foresee Putin using his influence constructively—as alluded to by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley—to resolve any human rights issues in Belarus peacefully or to address the injustices around last year’s flawed election.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, raised the specific issue of those who are prisoners and have been imprisoned in Belarus simply for exercising their right to peaceful expression. He mentioned the case of Stepan Latypov and the recent charges and sentences imposed against political prisoners. They are indeed tragic examples of the repressive actions of the Belarusian authorities, which are criminalising opposition voices for the sole purpose of protecting Lukashenko’s regime. I assure all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that the Government continue to call on the authorities to release all those wrongfully imprisoned and bring an end to the crisis through peaceful and inclusive dialogue.
The UK equally supports new elections that are free and fair. We welcome the important work of my noble friend Lord Blencathra, who has undertaken it as the rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; we appreciate its work on the need for widespread and achievable electoral reform in Belarus. To support this objective, we are implementing sanctions, which I will come on to in a moment. However, on the specific question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on Mr Latypov and others, I assure the noble Lord that, through our embassy, we have made repeated requests for access to him and the other prisoners being held. I will ensure that I keep the noble Lord updated on any progress in this regard.
My noble friend Lord Balfe and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, raised the issue of Russia. Notwithstanding our differences, it is important that we continue to engage in dialogue. We do so: we have raised the situation in Belarus in our discussions with Russia. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary did so with Foreign Minister Lavrov on 17 June. The Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas also discussed Belarus during her visit to Moscow last November and in her recent discussions with the Russian ambassador on 5 July.
The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, also talked about partnership and joint working, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. The UK has responded to events in Belarus swiftly, robustly and in lockstep with our international allies and partners, particularly France, Germany and the United States. It was the UK, on behalf of 17 participating states, that invoked the independent investigation under the OSCE Moscow mechanism.
It was no surprise that the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, spoke of the need for international collaboration, not least with our closest neighbours in the European Union; she has been a long-term advocate, and I pay tribute to her in this respect. We continue to work in a co-ordinated fashion with our colleagues and friends in the EU. Indeed, earlier today, we saw how concerted action has also taken place in response to the other challenges we face. On the broad issue of human rights, we have acted in concert with both NATO and EU colleagues, as well as the United States and other like-minded partners.
The independent report produced by the OSCE Moscow mechanism has also shown and produced a series of recommendations, which provide a pathway to peaceful resolution and free and fair elections. To deliver on the report’s recommendation of a mechanism for a long-term investigation into the human rights violations, we are also working closely with Denmark and Germany to bring together a consortium of international NGOs to form the International Accountability Platform for Belarus. I can share with noble Lords that this platform now has the support of more than 20 states.
We have also worked very closely with the wider international community, co-sponsoring a new mandate to investigate human rights violations and acts of torture at the UN Human Rights Council in March, with a view to assisting accountability. That area was raised specifically by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in terms of continued multilateral action.
The Belarusian authorities believe they can operate in an environment of impunity, but accountability is clear: perpetrators of violations will be held responsible. As the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others have noted, we have already implemented sanctions—indeed, over 100 sanction designations in response to human rights violations and the suppression of democracy in Belarus. We have done so hand in glove with our closest international partners.
The UK, in co-ordination with Canada, was the first country to implement sanctions against the leadership in Belarus, including Lukashenko himself, during the immediate fallout from the election. Most recently, we implemented further sanctions on 21 June in co-ordination with Canada, the European Union and the US, following the diversion of flight FR4978 and the arrest of Roman Protasevich and his partner.
It is important that we continue to speak out on the international stage and shine a spotlight on what is happening in Belarus. That is why, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has noted, we initiated a G7 statement on Belarus, and, as co-chair of the Media Freedom Coalition, led 47 nations in the condemnation of attacks against journalists and the independent media in Belarus, as well as rightly honouring the Belarusian Association of Journalists for its continued courage, advocacy and work. The democratic opposition have also been courageous, fearlessly continuing their peaceful struggle for a democratic future.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of civil society. We have increased our financial support for civil society and independent media organisations to help develop and protect specific democratic ideals. We are very much looking forward to the forthcoming visit to the UK of prominent opposition activist, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The UK supports all those in Belarus who seek democratic change.
We call on the Belarusian authorities to cease their repressive campaign and enter into negotiations that can pave the way to electoral change. We want to see a reformed Belarus that has a good relationship with Russia and other European partners. We will continue to work with our partners to further urge Russia to impress on the Belarusian authorities the need to create space for political dialogue, including mediation by the OSCE. However, I fear there is unlikely to be a change in Russia’s stance towards Belarus any time soon, but our efforts and co-ordinated actions on this will remain.
I finally acknowledge and thank all noble Lords for their continued engagement and participation on this important issue. In responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I thank them for their continued support and direct engagement, as key voices for their respective parties in your Lordships’ House. I also thank all colleagues, across all Benches of your Lordships’ House, for engaging on the important and broader agenda of the policies, programmes and initiatives within my work, as the Minister of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
I reciprocate the best wishes for a restful, peaceful summer. We have all become used to being stars of the House of Lords on screens big and small, but I am sure we all very much look forward to some degree of resuming business as usual. I look forward to seeing colleagues—may I say friends?—in your Lordships’ House, once the Summer Recess has ended. Until that time, you have my best wishes for the summer.
My Lords, that completes the business before the Grand Committee. I remind Members to wipe their desks and chairs before leaving the Room. The Committee is adjourned until September. Good wishes have been extended by Members for the holidays that lie ahead. I endorse them as regards all contributors to this debate and the Grand Committee’s excellent officials, who serve it so well.
Committee adjourned at 6.38 pm.