Tuesday 19 July 2016
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Persecution of Religious Minorities: Middle East
I beg to move,
That this House has considered persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East and its effect on the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank all hon. Members who have made the effort to come to Westminster Hall on such a lovely day. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), in her place and look forward to her contribution. I congratulate the Minister on his elevation to his new post and very much look forward to his response to the debate. When he held other ministerial posts, we held him in high esteem. We still do, and we look forward to hearing a comprehensive response, like those he has given us previously in reply to other matters.
The persecution of religious minorities in the middle east and its effect on the UK is a massive issue. It is one that we are greatly concerned about and one that we want to debate fully. I speak as chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, in the knowledge that this human right—a right for all—is key to stability in the middle east. I shall talk about that freedom in the middle east and the effect on the UK. I make this speech very much on behalf of my Christian brothers and sisters who live in the middle east. They have been persecuted over many years and their numbers have been greatly reduced. Other Members present will be aware of that and may wish to address it in their contributions.
While we watch, and are deeply saddened by, the recent horrific terrorist attacks that have rocked the world—in Nice, Dhaka, Medina, Baghdad and Istanbul, among other places—we must continue to bear in mind those throughout the middle east whose lives have been radically changed forever. We think especially of people in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, 1 million Christians have been displaced and dispersed all over the world. Just on Sunday past, I was talking to a gentleman from Canada who told me that Canada has taken in 30,000 Syrians, many of them Christians. Other countries around the world have also taken in Syrians. Many of those 30,000 will never return home; they will be settled in Canada and wish never to go back to their home country.
We are very aware of the situation in Iraq, which is one of those countries in which Christians are a small minority. Where do they feature in an Iraq where Christians are attacked or murdered and their churches destroyed? They are under a lot of pressure when it comes to education and employment. The Iraq displacement tracking matrix found that, between January 2014 and 22 June 2016, there were more than 3.3 million internally displaced individuals—more than 550,000 families—dispersed across 100 districts in Iraq. Such has been the impact of the persecution of Christians and religious minorities in the middle east. I shall also discuss other religious minorities, because so many people are displaced and/or under pressure.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on an issue that is so very important, not only to us parliamentarians and the wider community, but to Christian communities in the middle east. Does he agree that we would like the Minister to say in his response that the Government will utilise all their diplomatic and trade links to protect religious minorities from persecution?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and for pre-empting a later part of my speech. When we give aid to countries around the world, we need to ensure that it goes fairly to all people in those countries. We have previously debated spending by the Department for International Development, and I want to make it clear that we support that spending and the commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on foreign aid.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Alongside the aid that will go to the countries and whatever trade agreement is established, there needs to be an agreement on the persecution of Christians, and if that is breached or infringed, there needs to be a proper investigation and those found guilty need to be held to account.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, which I know many of my constituents are following closely. Does he agree that the UK can use its authority to ensure that there is respect for human rights and for political and civil rights in Syria, Iraq and the wider middle east? We must ensure that enforcement of the international covenant on civil and political rights is seen as a fundamental that we expect to be upheld in countries to which we are offering aid and support.
I thank the hon. Lady for those wise words. That is exactly what this debate is about: the opportunity to consider human rights in the countries to which she referred and throughout the middle east. We will mention some others in the course of the debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he is being most generous—and congratulate him warmly on securing this important debate. Does he agree that we need to know the extent of the problem in terms of people coming to the UK? Is he aware that the Home Office does not compile statistics on claims for asylum on the basis of religious persecution? Does he agree that we should perhaps consider doing so?
I shall address that issue later in my speech. The all-party group of which I am chair recently published a report called “Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds”, which contains lots of information. In it, we make 10 salient points that we feel are important. We will hold a meeting with the new Minister to discuss these matters and ensure that those points are taken on board. I am sure that other hon. Members will speak to them later in the debate as well.
Weak governance in Syria and Iraq has left societies in which violent terrorist groups wreak havoc and implement their own rule of law and punishments, in blatant violation of international human rights standards and law. Although it is not a legally binding statement, last month the UN commission of inquiry on Syria determined that Daesh is committing genocide against Yazidis. The commission also found that Daesh’s abuse of Yazidis—a small ethnically Kurdish religious community—amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am sure he would agree that Daesh’s archaic interpretation of sharia law permits the enslavement of non-Muslim women and children. Such enslavement has been suffered by Yazidi people, as well as others. Treating people as the spoils of war is a war crime. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in calling on the Minister to ensure that the UK plays its part in making sure that evidence is available so that the International Criminal Court can bring rapists and enslavers to justice?
The hon. Lady feels, as we all do, very passionately about the Yazidis and the terrible crimes, brutality and violence that have been carried out among them. We will have the opportunity to speak about that; I intend to discuss it later in my speech.
We had a number of meetings, and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and, I think, some other Members were present. One could not fail to be moved by the stories that were heard—they were heart-wrenching and would have made a grown man cry. Many of us did shed tears for those who are under threat, face discrimination or, indeed, fight for their lives.
But it is not just the Yazidis who are suffering, it is the ancient religious communities, including the Syriac Catholics, the Mandaeans, the Baha’is, the Shi’as and Sunnis alike, the few remaining Jews in the area, the Protestants and the non-religious individuals as well. All their sacred sites are in danger of being wiped out. Less than a third of the 1.5 million Christians who were in Iraq in 2003 now remain. Looking at Iraq, the numbers have decreased dramatically—they are down to something like 250,000. And what about the destruction of all those ancient monuments and sites, and the destruction and burning of the ancient books that hold centuries of information? They destroy them all with a blatant disregard for how important they are.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He talks about the destruction of the heritage. His motion is, of course, about the impact here in the UK, so does he agree that as well as fighting the discrimination and standing up for the minorities we—our heritage organisations, our museums and so on—have a responsibility to find ways of preserving the heritage and the areas that have been destroyed, and of commemorating that here in the UK?
That is absolutely right. In fairness, the Government have made some movement towards doing that. The Minister might be able to respond on that point. I think there are steps afoot to ensure that some of the monuments can be restored and some money sent that way to make it happen.
I would like to put on the record thanks to many organisations—I hope I do not leave any of them out. They are the churches from my area that support the middle east physically, practically and prayerfully, Release International, which does great work with Christians, Open Doors, which works in Christian solidarity worldwide, the Barnabas Fund, and the Elim charities that work on behalf of Christians across the whole middle east.
I mentioned other ethnic minority groups. The Baha’is in Iraq and Iran are subjected to unbelievable discrimination and hatred by those in positions of power. Let us look across the cauldron of the middle east and think of all the countries that are there. Indeed, eight of the 12 worst countries for persecution of Christians listed in a report by Open Doors are in the middle east. That is a list that no one wants to be in, because those are the places where persecution is more rife, rampant and deliberate. The right to freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right that nearly all the countries across the middle east have ratified and have made a commitment to uphold, but the reality is very different, with lots of lip service being paid.
When one group of individuals is discriminated against or persecuted on the basis of its religion or belief, that often signals conditions in which all but the deemed orthodox are oppressed and persecuted for their beliefs by the Government and/or non-state actors. Clearly, we must focus on those countries in the middle east that have ratified the fundamental human rights—referred to by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—but where we do not see much evidence of that ratification. Let us have evidence from those countries that have committed themselves to human rights freedoms—unfortunately, they do not always follow through.
Plurality of religion and belief is a crucial ingredient for a stable society, and the Foreign Office recognises that in its pledges for UN Human Rights Council membership from 2017 and in its current human rights structure, where the freedom of religion or belief team is housed under the human rights for a stable world stream. Last year the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief participated in a conference in New York, which almost 100 delegates from some 65 countries across the world attended. That was an opportunity for all those people to come together. In this House we come together as groups, and we encouraged similar groups from other countries across the world to come together, including from Canada, the United States, south America, Africa, the middle east, the far east and some of the eastern countries of Europe.
In countries where freedom of religion or belief is systematically violated, societal tension and violence frequently follow, leading to a more polarised society, with individuals retreating into their dogmas. Let us focus, again, on the group of which I am chair. The group had the chance to carry out an inquiry and produce a booklet on Pakistan and on how freedom of religious belief is looked upon there. The more we look at Pakistan, the more we feel for our Christian brothers and sisters and for other ethnic and religious minorities there. I know that the Minister has read the report, and I appreciate the time he has taken to do so in preparation for the debate. From a job and an education point of view, those who adhere to a religion outside the norm are the lowest of all the castes there are in Pakistan. The booklet, which we produced just last year, is another indication of why we need to look more deeply at Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.
The hon. Gentleman is obviously right to focus on the middle east—indeed, he is talking about Pakistan and Iran. Is it also worth remembering, however, that a significant number of religious minorities who come to Europe—to this country—continue some of those battles here on home soil, and that we also need to keep an eye on that? I was struck by something that happened when I was in a school classroom in Marylebone five or six years ago. I was already being told that Shi’a and Sunni Muslim schoolchildren were ganging up against each other in the playground. We have to recognise that a lot of the problems may be transported closer to home.
The right hon. Gentleman brings a salient point into the debate. Yes, we need to be aware of that. We need to be aware of integration into society and of how we can do it well. We also need to be aware of the problems that come off the back of that.
When working with partners in the middle east, it is crucial that we discuss means for individuals to be free within their own nation’s context to manifest their religion or belief and that we build and implement action plans for each context. Although traditionally less of a focus in political and diplomatic discussion, long-term strategies that integrate lessons from the past must be encouraged and supported in Iraq and Syria and across the whole region. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that. To truly secure human rights and restore long-term peace, not just emergency responses but a long game and a considered perspective are necessary.
As chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, I encourage DFID—the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) referred to this as well—to be sensitive to the complexities that religion brings, particularly to political action, which in many cases is contradictory to international law, that people use religion to justify. Even in the recent Turkish coup, we saw turmoil used as an opportunity to target and attack churches in Trabzon and Malatya. Using that and countless other incidents across the middle east to dismiss religion as too tricky and to determine that it is the main cause of violence and wrongdoing is simplistic. The underlying political motives must be recognised and tackled.
Let us just look at the coup in Turkey. The coup is over, but many, looking from the outside in, will say, “Is this a chance to suppress human rights in Turkey?” Many of us feel that it could well be a chance to clamp down on all opposition. Is that what we want? Is it what should be happening? No, it is not. Is Turkey a safe place for religious groups at this moment in time? The evidence says that it is not.
Will the hon. Gentleman also reflect on the fact that Turkey’s Government used to be very secular and that there are now many disturbing indications that religion is being used as a battering ram to bring about intolerance within society to help the political elites?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We all would concur with what he said, and we thank him for his intervention and for reminding us.
It is good sometimes to look where the story is beyond the headline stories and the media. The real story of Turkey is suppression, the denial of human rights and deliberate discrimination against other ethnic and religious groups. We have to look beyond the 6,000 people who have been arrested and the coup that failed because people did not want it and turn our attention to what will happen off the back of it.
The Department for International Development already works with faith communities to eradicate poverty, but I urge it to ensure that, where aid is provided or contracts are awarded overseas, those things are channelled to civil society organisations and Government programmes that can demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of freedom of religion or belief and how their work will have a positive rather than a negative impact. That will not only help DFID’s November 2015 strategic objective to strengthen global peace, security and governance but will help achieve sustainable development goal 16, which is to secure peace, security and global justice.
The all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief this year brought out another document entitled “Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds”, which I intend to speak about, because the motion we are debating is about the
“persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East and its effect on the UK”.
We need to look at how can we help influence what is happening in the middle east and best ensure that those coming here also have the opportunity to have their freedom.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Home Office’s approach to applications for asylum from some of these persecuted minorities is crass and clumsy? There is a need for much greater training of Home Office staff so that simplistic approaches to assessing whether people have suffered religious persecution are abandoned and so that we have a much subtler understanding of the trauma and why people might find it difficult when they apply to express what happened to them.
The hon. Lady is very much tuned into the report, because it says that. Before the debate started, I spoke to the Minister and made him aware of the 10 points that we asked to be considered. I do not want to trivialise the work that the Home Office does on asylum seekers, but some of the questions are almost a Bible trivia quiz. People are asked, “Can you tell us the books of the New Testament?” or, “Can you tell us the names of the 12 apostles?” Let us be honest: some of us in this room might be challenged to do that.
I am not going to give you the names of all 12 apostles, Mr Stringer. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. What he is saying reminded me of “The West Wing” episode “Shibboleth”, in which persecuted minorities wanted to go to the United States from China, and President Bartlet brought one of them in and challenged them, and they got the question right. That ignores the fact that there is also cultural persecution, not because of someone’s personal and strong faith but because they are identified with a greater collective community. The questions are completely erroneous and do not touch the heart of the persecution that people suffer for their family or community connections or the fear that they have.
May I just allay some of the fears? I asked some questions, and in assessing claims based on religious persecution, caseworkers are expected to ask appropriate and sensitive questions based on an understanding of religious concepts and forms of religious persecution. Where the credibility of a conversion to a particular faith needs to be established, an interview is far more an exploration of a claimant’s personal experiences and journey to their new faith in their country and the UK than it is a test of religious facts, such as, “Name the ten commandments.” Those are not the sorts of questions we are asking.
If things have changed, that is good, but the evidence so far indicates that perhaps they have not. I am being respectful. We have asked for a meeting about this issue, and I hope we will have it with the appropriate Minister. I think that is the Minister who is here today, now he is in place. We look forward to having the opportunity to develop the 10 points we raised with our inquiry. They indicate that some things need to be put right.
We all have a great passion for the idea that there is terrible religious persecution across the world, but it is legitimate for any immigration authority, which is the Home Office here, to recognise that a minority of people—a small minority, but none the less a minority—will try to use persecution as a means of getting in when that is not justified. To have a process in place is entirely legitimate from a Home Office point of view.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that there needs to be a process. We are not saying that there should not be a process; we are saying that it needs to be effective and to take into account the trauma of those who have been persecuted. It needs to reflect an understanding of the circumstances and why they are here. It is about how we do that in a compassionate way that gets the answers to the necessary questions and enables that person, whoever they may be, to apply for asylum and be granted it.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the fact that these questions are being asked is a clear indication that the person asking the questions does not understand the essence of what it is to be a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew? None of those things are about memorising facts. Is it not the case that his all-party group’s inquiry also found evidence that sometimes the person asking the questions had to google the answers half an hour before the interview took place?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way once again. This debate and this issue in particular raise article 9 of the Human Rights Act. In that regard, does he agree that the championing and protection of human rights in the UK are vital if we are to protect those same values in other countries, particularly in the middle east?
All the hon. Lady’s interventions have been applicable to the issues, and I thank her for that. It gives us a focus. I am conscious of time, Mr Stringer, so I will try to head on.
Despite the systematic persecution of religious or belief groups in Iraq—some expert bodies think that the situation with the Yazidis amounts to genocide; I think that, too, as do many others in the House—the UK’s Gateway, Children at Risk and Mandate resettlement schemes have helped only a few hundred in the past year or so. While some Iraqis may fit all the criteria under the current Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, they are not eligible for asylum in the UK because they are not Syrian nationals.
The all-party group that I chair is urgently calling for a modest expansion of the Syrian scheme to create an Iraqi vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. That would permit Iraqis who fit the current vulnerability criteria and are recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be made eligible for asylum in the UK. That would be a small change and a small number, but it would be a significant move that would enable those subject to persecution to have an opportunity. In the wake of the Chilcot report, the UK cannot absolve itself from assisting Iraqis. Prioritising Iraqis alongside Syrians for resettlement in the UK is the least we can do. Daesh does not discriminate depending on whether individuals are Iraqi or Syrian, and neither should we.
Finally, the all-party group’s latest report, “Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds”, which I referred to a few moments ago, highlights what happens when individuals who have been persecuted for their religion or belief reach the UK and claim asylum, and the lack of understanding and misperceptions of religion and belief among decision makers working in the UK asylum system. We are trying to be constructive. We are not pointing the finger or trying to be nasty. We want to point out where constructive changes could be made to help the system and those people who have every cause to be here and can no longer live in their own country. In religious persecution cases, Home Office caseworkers have often based their decision on whether an asylum seeker is genuine on quick internet searches, as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, on informal staff-made crib sheets and, in the case of Christians, on Bible trivia questions including, “What colour is the Bible?” It could be black, white or red. Does it matter what colour it is, for goodness’ sake? What is in the Bible is what matters. The word that it contains is the important issue. I sometimes wonder how these things happen. Such methods limit the capacity to differentiate between individuals who are genuinely part of a religious community facing persecution and those who have learnt the “correct” answers, as has already been referred to. Misinterpretation also plays a large role in the errors occurring in such cases. I urge the Home Office to recognise its genuine shortcomings and equip itself with well-trained staff and suitable translators to ensure a fair hearing of all cases.
I hope that the Minister agrees with the importance of addressing persecution in the middle east in both short and long-term strategies so that we in this House can, in conjunction with our partners abroad, secure the most stable world possible.
I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate, and for his faithfulness in highlighting the issue in this place over some years.
The most recent report from Aid to the Church in Need, “Persecuted and Forgotten?”, which analyses persecution in 22 countries, notes a serious deterioration since its previous report in 2013 of a deepening cycle of persecution. It states:
“The vast exodus of Christians from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East highlights the very real possibility that Christianity could soon all but disappear from much of its ancient homeland.”
It states that the cause is in large part
“the product of an ethnic cleansing motivated by religious hatred.”
The actions of Daesh, which have acted tragically to instil a fear of genocide, do not just impact on Christians, as we know, but have affected many other groups: Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, Mandaeans, Yazidis, Baha’is, Kurds and others. What should be our response to the suffering of those people? I want to briefly address three points.
First, we should speak out. Holding a debate such as this is valuable because it tells our brothers and sisters who are persecuted for their faiths that they are not forgotten. But we need to do more. Secondly, we need to work together with others, particularly internationally, for the religious freedom of those who suffer persecution. Thirdly, we need to work for justice and ensure that the actions of the perpetrators are stopped and that they are brought to justice. I want to speak briefly about those three issues.
First, on speaking out, here in Westminster Hall at the end of June we held the national prayer breakfast, which 740 community leaders from all over the country attended. The theme was the Church in the middle east and the aim was to highlight the concerns about persecution there. It was notable that 150 parliamentarians attended, the most of any national prayer breakfast. That highlights the concern that colleagues in this place have about this issue.
The keynote speaker was Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK. He spoke powerfully about the importance of the role that we all have to play in speaking out honestly and graciously to express our concerns. He called for us to work together. He said:
“Christians in the Middle East are indigenous people and reject minority status. They see themselves as intrinsic members, and indigenous peoples...We need to address the reality of this situation...there has been a systemic, yet gradual prejudice, marginalisation and alienation of Christians and minorities allowed to continue over decades. This does not have to continue on our watch...We must realise that the current situation is greater than us all; it needs us all to work together…There can no longer be a concept of ‘over there’ because families of those affected in the Middle East are members of your constituencies, our Churches, and our society as a whole…We are one very large community…our paths cross, our experience is one and our journey is one that we must share. Regardless of which House one sits in, which Church one worships in, or...which faith one does or does not have, we must work together for the freedom and dignity of human life and speak with a collaborative voice.”
He particularly emphasised the oneness of the human family and how there is no more space for a “Muslim East” and a “Christian West”. He emphasised how we are now all members of a global community; our world is now intertwined. What happens in each part affects all the others and we must promote human dignity, equality and respect.
The speech was powerful; many in the room were deeply moved and looked to how they could take forward their responsibility in this respect. I shall now briefly touch on how the UK could work with others.
The United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, said:
“Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.”
He has focused on the need for global attention to deal with the plight of religious minorities, particularly in Iraq and Syria. He has challenged the world to
“find the resources to help those harmed by these atrocities.”
Knox Thames, who has been appointed by him, has within the past few days put out a call, together with the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the US, David Saperstein, and they are convening a conference on 29 July at the State Department in the US, entitled “Threats to religious and ethnic minorities under Daesh”. The purpose of the meeting will be to advance intergovernmental efforts to protect religious minorities in Iraq and Syria and to discuss with the international community what additional actions can be taken to help ensure a future for religious diversity. More than 20 countries will be represented, many at ambassadorial or head of department level.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way because I want to raise a point that I fear may not otherwise come up. I am sure she shares my concern that encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram are being used to sell Yazidi and other non-Muslim women as sex slaves alongside weapons and pets. One message shared with a Daesh group carried the description:
“Virgin. Beautiful. 12 years old...Her price has reached $12,500 and she will be sold soon.”
This is an area where every step must be taken not just to hasten the rescue of these women, but to ensure that the global digital platforms that are being used to carry out these atrocities are held to account and that this is prevented. There is a global role in this.
The hon. Lady makes a very pertinent point. The Yazidis have suffered particularly in this respect. The younger the girl, tragically, the more valuable the price extorted.
Will Her Majesty’s Government be participating in the conference organised by the US State Department on 29 July? Will the Minister ensure that we are indeed represented and that a report is brought back?
On ensuring that we work for justice for those who are oppressed, I will refer back to the debate on 20 April that has already been mentioned today. In that debate on the actions of Daesh as genocide, I called on the Government to make an immediate referral to the UN Security Council with a view to conferring jurisdiction upon the International Criminal Court so that the perpetrators could be brought to justice. Time inhibits my referring to everything mentioned in that debate, but we heard that girls as young as eight were raped; that a two-year-old boy had been killed and his body parts ground down and fed to his mother; and that mothers were seeing their own children crucified. No one could deny that these atrocities are genocide. Executions, mass graves, assassination of church leaders, crucifixions, systematic rapes, torture of men, women and children, beheadings—there are so many acts of violence that the evil seems fictional and medieval. Yet, despite the vote that day in the House of Commons—279 to nil in favour of the motion calling on the Government to refer Daesh’s genocidal atrocities to the UN Security Council—still no referral has been made.
The new Foreign Secretary, in an article in The Daily Telegraph on 27 March 2016, said that Daesh
“are engaged in what can only be called genocide of the poor Yazidis (though for some baffling reason the Foreign Office still hesitates to use the term genocide).”
The debate called on the Government to ensure that the unanimous will of Parliament was implemented. It was not. Now that we have a Foreign Secretary who has made such a clear statement of his view that Daesh’s actions against the persecuted constitute genocide, will the Government register the referral that has been requested by a unanimous vote of Parliament, with the UN Security Council, so that action in the international community can be accelerated to bring the perpetrators to justice? We know that recognition of genocide brings with it obligations on the part of the international community to prevent, punish and protect.
Finally, I ask all colleagues in the House to sign early-day motion 346 on the recognition of genocide by Daesh, which I placed in the Table Office yesterday. It expresses profound concern that our Government have still not called upon the UN Security Council to take such action.
I am extremely grateful to be called in this very important debate. I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing it forward and for the leadership that he displays on this issue, alongside many others in the House. The salience of this issue means that it has been spoken about many times both in the Chamber and in this place, and the story of recent years is a tragic one. It reflects the importance of the issue against the historical backdrop.
I welcome the Minister to his new role. He has always been a good and decent Minister in any Department, so we welcome his leadership at the Home Office.
The middle east has suffered at the hands of sectarian and religious-based conflict for centuries. Sadly, religious persecution remains a prevalent issue across the region. Minorities have suffered from sectarian strife, with whole communities being destroyed in Iraq. Up to half of Christians have fled, many to Syria, where today they face new threats. The situation greatly deteriorated last year with the escalation in the conflict and the rise of Daesh.
Daesh has been one of the most lethal organisations in the history of the middle east and is engaged in the persecution of anyone who does not espouse its medieval, corrupt and extreme Islamist theology. It has particularly targeted minority religious and ethnic communities, including the Christian, Yazidi, Shi’a, Turkmen and Shabak communities, who are especially vulnerable. Daesh has threatened the whole region, but Iraq’s stability has been at particular risk from this abhorrent organisation.
Human rights and religious freedoms have been threatened—Daesh’s violent religious and political ideology allows no space for religious diversity or freedom of thought or expression. As the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) mentioned, the group has deliberately expelled minority communities from their historic homelands, forced them to convert to its version of Islam, raped and enslaved women and children, and tortured and killed community members. It has deliberately targeted Iraq’s smallest religious minority communities. That could well mark the end of the ancient religious pluralism displayed by communities in northern Iraq.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this scourge has contributed to more than 3.3 million internally displayed people within Iraq alone, who have fled their homes since January 2014, in addition to the more than 1 million people who remain displaced since the sectarian conflicts of the mid-2000s. There are 230,000 Iraqi refugees in countries across the region. It is important to note that these are only the Iraqis registered by the UNHCR in camps in Egypt, Gulf Co-operation Council countries, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. As the International Development Committee recently noted, many refugees, particularly Christians, avoid refugee camps out of fear of persecution, and so, many vulnerable people may not even be considered for resettlement—as refugees in host communities are less visible to relevant authorities. We, as an international community, need more creative solutions to assist those people, although that is not to say that those in refugee camps are not also vulnerable and in need of refuge. In this country, our response should include a modest extension of our current Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.
The House recently unanimously voted to describe what is being done to Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria as
“genocide at the hands of Daesh”.
Estimates put the number of Yazidis in Iraq at between 500,000 and 700,000, with the vast majority concentrated in northern Iraq, in and around Sinjar. In Syria, the number of Yazidis is estimated to be a tenth of that. Despite the fact that the majority of Yazidis in the region are overwhelmingly Iraqi, they are not eligible for the VPRS, simply because they do not live in Syria.
In 2015, 102 Iraqi refugees were resettled under the Gateway protection programme and four under the Mandate scheme and 216 grants of asylum or other forms of protection, at initial decision, were given to Iraqi nationals. In contrast, official statistics show that, by the end of March 2016, nearly 1,900 Syrians had been resettled under the VPRS in the UK, including 1,602 who arrived since October 2015. The current levels of resettlement in the UK provide persecuted Iraqi minorities considerably lower levels of protection than Syrians. That is a simple fact, and it is particularly disconcerting given that Syrian and Iraqi minorities have both suffered from Daesh. The former can qualify as part of the 20,000 that the previous Prime Minister spoke of. To be consistent and fair as a country, as we should be in the world community, the VPRS should be extended to include Iraqi minorities suffering from Daesh.
On that point, and the hon. Gentleman’s previous point that many people of a particular religious persuasion are not going to the camps because they feel at risk, does he recognise that that is particularly true of women and girls, because of the threat that they face? Does he also recognise that the German Government have been much more responsive in respect of Yazidis and other Iraqis, not only offering them refugee access but making sure that they have pathways to counselling and therapy?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The particular vulnerability suffered by women and girls is visible inside and outside the camps. They also need safe passage to areas where they may gain asylum. Some scary numbers—for example, the number of young women travelling into Europe and disappearing, many of whom will inevitably be forced to trade their own bodies to enable their survival—should make us especially concerned about that group.
On the Iraqi minorities and the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, we should consider that the previous Prime Minister himself drew no distinction between either side of the “line in the sand” between Iraq and Syria. Indeed, this Parliament determined, in its decision on air strikes in Syria, that if Daesh were not respecting that line in the sand, neither should we in our counter-extremism tactics. We need to respond to that inconsistency in the existing VPRS.
Whatever people’s view of the decision in 2003—personally, I was opposed to the war in Iraq at the time—we have a continuing responsibility to the sovereign state of Iraq. The UK should not absolve itself of responsibility, especially given the recent Chilcot finding that the UK decision to embark on the programme of de-Ba’athification and the demobilisation of the Iraqi army exacerbated sectarian divisions, contributing to many of the problems in Iraq today. Making Iraqis eligible for resettlement through a modest extension of the VPRS is an appropriate and modest response, and entirely consistent with the decent man that I know the Minister to be.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate.
Religion causes all wars. We have heard that, have we not? A throwaway comment at a dinner table, or something overheard in a conversation? It is historical nonsense. It is a calumny of the highest order. Economics and doctrine, and their perversion, have been the root of most wars in the past 100 years, in our experience. The second world war was not caused by religion. In the first world war, religion had a marginal impact, perhaps in the tertiary areas of the conflict zone. In the 16th century, even the French wars of religion did not have all that much to do with religion.
The reality is that religion, which is about hope and about people trying to find a path through life and a way, with their loved ones, to a truth that they can believe in, is being used for the darkest of all possible purposes. It is, in effect, being perverted in the most extreme circumstances. It is being used to hang other issues on.
What we are experiencing in the world, however, is perhaps also a result of the 24-hour news culture, with this thing in our faces all the time, making us much more aware of the daily tragedies going on in the world. Furthermore, persecution on religious grounds seems to be more acute now than at any time in living memory, perhaps going back even beyond the Armenian genocide at the time of the first world war. Religion has become the basis for, or a means of bringing about, conflict, replacing conventional war, which has been put aside.
Given the changing nature of conflict, it is important for us as a sovereign, democratic and just society to stand up and say when we believe that something is terribly wrong. Therefore, what has happened to the Yazidi people in Iraq and beyond, and the Christians, is genocide. That is clear, and we absolutely should be saying so as a nation.
What do we do, apart from using that word and calling something genocide, rightly to force a programme on those who are indulging in such abominable acts? When Robin Cook was Foreign Secretary, we had an “ethical foreign policy”, which seemed to have a hint of post-imperial angst about it. To me, an ethical foreign policy should be one in which we link our aid and economic engagement to how countries treat their minorities. Surely a litmus test for any society is how it treats its minorities.
If intolerance reigns in a society, frankly, there will be little rule of law, or contract law, and little good governance. From a corporate viewpoint alone, that is a bad investment; from a moral viewpoint, it is also a bad investment. We should therefore think carefully about how we position our international aid budget, which I am glad to see that we have kept at 0.7%. I want to see us use it in future to target countries that show they will protect the rights of minorities in their societies.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. He is absolutely right that we should be looking at religious persecution as a cause of poverty, displacement and many other degrees of suffering. Does he agree that if DFID did so, and looked more carefully at it as such a cause, we could prevent, down the line, a great deal of not only suffering, but humanitarian aid expenditure by the international community?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which returns to what I was saying about how the countries that indulge in such activities are actually bad investments. In effect, they are proving themselves to be unworthy of the aid that we are giving them. We need to be thoughtful about exactly how economically engaged we are with those countries.
In Turkey, we have seen increasing intolerance. Under Atatürk, the formation of modern Turkey was about a secular society—religion still played an enormous part in society, but the governance of Turkey was secular. It is now moving away from that and, too, hanging on to religion some of the darker elements in that society. We have to be very aware of that in an important neighbour on our doorstep. In 1999 or 2000, I think, when we were looking at the crisis in the Balkans, we were saying, “Isn’t it horrific that this goes on on Europe’s borders?” but Turkey is on Europe’s borders as well. We should be thinking about that in connection with our sphere of influence.
To conclude, we need to consider the APPG report. When we deal with individuals—after all, this is about individuals—we have to be much more thoughtful and better trained in how we do so. The better statistics help, so that we know the reasons why people are coming to this country—are they fleeing religious persecution?—as does better training for Home Office and UK Border Force personnel, in particular to assess whether an asylum seeker is a victim of religious persecution.
I imagine that it can be difficult for people to speak up, especially if they are members of a minority and have had to hide their religious light under a bushel. When they come to another country, the person they are seeing is not only in a uniform—perhaps not the reassuring figure that we might see, but a threat and authority—but someone from whom they would have kept things quiet, and now they are having to open up, often in a foreign language, and in a completely alien environment. I understand how people might find that incredibly difficult and their silence might be perceived as something different. We need to spend time with such individuals, and we need to support our staff to do so, in order to help all such people not only in our country, but in the camps, close to the conflict zones.
Thank you very much, Mr Stringer. I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate. Not for the first time, particularly in Westminster Hall debates, I am struck by the agreement and unanimity around the Chamber. I think that we have heard speeches or interventions from Members of six different parties—apologies if there have been more and I have missed any.
We are agreed that the world is facing genocide. That should strike at the hearts of us all. It does not matter whether it is happening on the borders of Europe, the borders of Asia or the borders of London; when our fellow human beings are being persecuted as mercilessly and brutally as the Yazidis, Christians and other minorities are, we should all feel the pain and we should all resolve to give them whatever help we can and not to allow the climate in other parts of the world to continue to evolve so such persecution happens again. Earlier this year, as we always do in January, we commemorated the holocaust with the words, “Never again,” but what are we doing to prevent the climate of hate, fear and ignorance that allows holocausts and genocide to be perpetrated again and again from being allowed to develop in the first place?
I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) not only for securing the debate but for the work that he and others have done to remind us that persecution, which in fact used to be described as martyrdom, is happening in several parts of the world. We are talking today primarily about the middle east, but the majority of cases in which it is established that Christians were murdered because of their faith are actually happening in parts of Africa. However bad persecution in the middle east is in numerical terms, there are other parts of the world in which it is as bad or worse.
I think that history will show that what Daesh is doing is on a par with what the Nazis did in occupied Europe. The numbers may not get quite as horrifically high, but I think that Daesh’s brutality and dehumanisation of human beings will be proven to be every bit as horrific and evil. That is why the United Kingdom Government and other Governments should not hesitate to say, “This is a genocide, it will be treated as a genocide, and the perpetrators will be pursued to the ends of the earth and brought to justice”—not by a court that owes its legitimacy or sovereignty to an individual nation state but by the court of the world: the International Criminal Court. These are crimes against humanity, and it is both the right and the responsibility of all humanity to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.
As was mentioned earlier, where a climate of persecution is allowed to arise, religion is often used as an excuse, and it always has been. The massive upheaval that these nations saw in the 17th and 18th centuries was supposedly about religion, but it was not. It was about different tribes—essentially, different dynasties or political parties—fighting over power, but it was always presented as a war about which kind of Christian should sit on the throne. That is not a new phenomenon.
I do not know of any major world religion that instructs or even permits its followers to kill innocent human beings simply for being different, and if anyone can contradict me, I would be interested to know. I am a Christian, and there is nothing in the Christian faith that allows anyone to commit the crime of murder against an innocent person. If anything, Islam is even clearer: the taking of innocent life is not permitted under any circumstances. As well as being crimes against humanity, the atrocities that Daesh is committing are among the worst crimes that can be committed against the Islamic faith.
Just about all the religions that have been mentioned have in their scripture or teaching the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself.” That is not trite; it should be fundamental to the way we all live our lives. Perhaps if that rule were respected a bit more, there would be less need for such debates.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. It is important that as part of the healing process, victims are helped to understand that the people who persecuted them—those who raped them or murdered their families—were not acting in the name of Islam, Christianity or any other faith. If they were acting in the name of any ideology at all, it was the ideology of Satanism—the ideology of pure evil. For victims to understand that helps the healing process, and it also helps in the very difficult task of ensuring that victims are not left with a lifelong feeling of anger or hatred towards others from the religious community that they hold responsible for their ill treatment.
I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The debate is in part about the effect of persecution in the middle east on this country. Does he agree that in a climate in this country in which my Muslim and other constituents are reporting a rise in hatred and abuse directed at them because of their faith and ethnic background, it is important for the UK Government and authorities as clearly and often as possible to make exactly the point that he is making: that these acts are not carried out in the name of Islam or any faith?
I am grateful for that intervention. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has been sneaking a look at my notes over my shoulder, but I am going to come to that point. To be honest, I am sometimes uncomfortable with that line of argument about the impact that persecution in the middle east has in the United Kingdom. We all have a responsibility to speak out and act against that persecution, regardless of whether it threatens anything about our way of life on these islands. It is more important to look at the impact that the United Kingdom can have on areas in which genocide and persecution are happening, and whether what happens in these nations is creating a climate that makes such horrors more or less likely in future. I must say that as an example of a tolerant, pluralist society, we do not do anything like as well as we sometimes like to think we do.
Our approach must be founded on significant humility and shame about what has been allowed to happen on these islands in the name of good government, not just back in the middle ages but much more recently. I have mentioned before in a Westminster Hall debate that within my lifetime, a magazine was criminally prosecuted in a United Kingdom court for printing a poem that was deemed to be offensive to Christians. I personally found that poem offensive, but that is no ground to threaten to throw someone in jail. Within my lifetime, citizens of the United Kingdom have had to flee their homes in fear because of persecution and harassment from their neighbours for following the wrong religious tradition, and there were jobs that people were not allowed to take if they were of the wrong religion. We might like to think that we have moved on from those days, but we have not moved on that far and we did not move on that long ago. When we look at other parts of the world where intolerance has grown to extreme levels, let us not forget our own often shameful recent past.
In specific reference to the comment by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), what does anyone think was the impact on tolerance and understanding when a newspaper complained recently that Channel 4 had the temerity to allow a Muslim woman to report on a terrorist attack? What effect on understanding and tolerance does anyone think could possibly have been created when one of the United Kingdom’s highest paid newspaper columnists wrote an article suggesting that the celebration of Ramadan was somehow a threat to our peace and security?
We cannot afford to be silent about this undermining of tolerance—this deliberate and systematic attempt to create a climate of fear, of misunderstanding and, yes, of contempt and hatred of people who happen follow a different religion—right here in this city, because apart from anything else, that is presented as the attitude of the typical westerner, the typical United Kingdom citizen and the typical Christian and used as an excuse by the extremists in Syria and Iraq.
To persecute a minority, the first thing that the persecutor has to do is to create a fear of that minority. The Nazis could never have got the acquiescence of so many people for the persecution of the Jews had they not been able to make people scared of the Jews. There are journalists and others on these islands and in this very city who are embarking on a deliberate attempt to make us scared of the Muslims in order to make us hate the Muslims. At the same time as we speak out and act against the persecution of minorities in the middle east and elsewhere, we must recognise that that fuelling of hatred against religious minorities on our own islands has an impact on the way that conflicts and oppression can be addressed elsewhere.
I wish we did not have to have this debate. I would love to think that our successors two or three parliamentary generations from now will never have to have this debate. I am not convinced that we as a society—I include myself—are doing nearly enough to deal with the seeds of hatred, ignorance and intolerance in their early days to prevent them from growing into the unbelievable barbarity that we have heard described. I pray that one day, when we say “never again”, it really will be never, ever again.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on bringing these issues to our attention in his own, traditional way, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who also has a wonderful track record in this House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) on also bringing forward these issues.
I agree with the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) that the debate has been cross-party in nature. I am sure we all agree on the question of genocide; the question is how we go forward from here to the main Chamber. He was quite right to say that the true Islam in the Koran displays an extraordinary respect for human life, which is unfortunately not what we see under the practices of ISIL/Daesh.
Many Members mentioned the coup in Turkey. Just yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and I spoke with members of the Alevi community here in London. We are hearing of a number of attacks by jihadists on Alevi communities in Turkey and huge concerns about the lack of order and insufficient policing. If the situation is not contained, I fear it could lead to further loss of life. That is why it is so important—the hon. Member for Congleton challenged us on this today—that we should somehow bring the question of genocide back to the House. If we are seen to stand by, then later on other atrocities will somehow seem to be acceptable.
I want briefly to address some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South. He is quite right, so may I press the Minister on the question of Syria versus Iraq and what priority the Government are giving to people who genuinely have faced the same issues, yet seem to be getting different treatment at the hands of the Home Office? I share my hon. Friend’s concern that we must listen to people’s individual stories and make a judgment on those, rather than whether they were one inch or two on the side of a porous border.
We know, too, that women and girls have suffered particularly badly at the hands of IS/Daesh, so I wonder whether the Home Office could learn some lessons from the investment in post-traumatic counselling and therapy in Germany. What can we do to learn from that, exchange ideas and, above all, genuinely invest in those approaches? We know that over the longer term people can settle much more successfully into British society if they have had that initial counselling and support, following some of the most vile crimes which women and girls have experienced.
The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned Archbishop Gregorios, who I know very well. I was with him at St Barnabas day in my constituency. He being Cypriot, from Famagusta originally, he is quite right to say that the tragedy for Christians—for us all—is that the indigenous nature of Christianity across the middle east seems to be disappearing and, with that, so many traditions, beliefs, beautiful art and wonderful cultural heritage. That is something we must stand up for, in the way that we stand up for all other groups as well.
Finally, may I press the Minister on the question of training for the Home Office? There is a great deal of pressure on the asylum team—they have many different pressures on them—but will he please tell us whether, as highlighted in the APPG’s report, he is 100% confident that individual casework officers, who make crucial decisions on people’s lives, have the right training on freedom of religion and that they understand the different religious groups and the persecution? Will he will underline his commitment in this debate to high quality decision making, and not just “That will do; let’s get through the pile of decisions”? As Members of Parliament, we know that people come to us in our advice surgeries desperate for a decision and desperate for their personal situation to be looked at. Will the Minister please give me his assurances that the training is up to date, that the decision making is on target and that he will pursue the issue of high quality training and retention of really good staff? We know that a lot of people have left the Home Office since 2010. I look forward to his response on that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, as I lose my virginity as Immigration Minister. I hope you will be gentle with me.
First, may I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for calling a debate on this important issue and for giving me the opportunity to respond? I pay tribute to him for his role in the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, and for all the hard work that went into producing the report to which he referred. I entirely agree that the Government should do all they can to help those fleeing persecution, whether they are targeted because of their religious beliefs or for other reasons, especially given the threat posed by Daesh in Syria. This has been a useful debate, in which I have been made aware of a number of issues, which I will ponder over the summer.
The UK has a long and proud history of providing protection to those who need it. For example, since the war in Syria began, we have granted protection to over 6,500 Syrians and over 900 Iraqis in the UK. Indeed, since 2013, over 400 Iraqis have been resettled under the Gateway and Mandate resettlement schemes. Iraqi nationals will also be eligible for resettlement under the vulnerable children at risk scheme that my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), announced earlier this year.
However, our priority must be to seek an end to the conflicts in the middle east through diplomatic efforts, and to bring peace and security to the region to allow people to remain in their homes or to return to their homes without fearing for their lives. We must also continue to exert diplomatic pressure on foreign Governments to protect minorities and uphold fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion and belief.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) asked specifically whether the Government will participate in the conference in the US later this month. We will consider that and I will ask my officials to raise that with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I welcome the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) to her place. She spoke about staff training. May I make it clear that we are committed to continuous improvement in decision quality? UK Visas and Immigration recently rolled out improved training on how to assess credibility in asylum claims, which covers the types of questions to ask during an interview.
It strikes me that there may be lessons to learn from the police. If someone comes forward to any police force in the UK and says they have been raped, sexually abused or assaulted, the police use specially trained interviewers who can also act as counsellors to help the person tell their story with the minimum of distress. Will the Minister tell us how the training of asylum and immigration officers compares with that given to those specialist police and civilian staff?
There may be some similarities in the skills needed, but specifically we need to train people working for UKVI in the type of work they are doing. Not only is there the extensive five-week training programme for new caseworkers, which addresses all aspects of asylum decision making, including religious-based claims and religious conversion, but we also need to look at some types of interpreters who may be antagonistic to the religion of the person, where that person has converted, and ensure that if the interpreter is not appropriate, we find an appropriate person to provide that service.
The Government are committed to delivering a robust, comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh in Syria and Iraq as a leading member of the global coalition of 66 countries and international organisations. We are attacking Daesh militarily, squeezing its finances, disrupting the flow of fighters to its cause, challenging its poisonous ideology and working to stabilise areas liberated from its control. Our strategy is working. Thousands of people have so far been freed from Daesh’s rule and have been able to return safely to their homes.
The UK is leading the international policy debate. We are pursuing a comprehensive approach, both responding to the immediate humanitarian crisis and using our aid programmes to bring stability, jobs and livelihoods, reducing the pressures that force people to migrate. In February we hosted the Syria conference, which not only raised more in a single day than any previous event, but established a new approach to providing long-term support to neighbouring countries and the displaced Syrians to whom they are hosts. Our commitment to the 0.7% aid target ensures that we have the resources to demonstrate our global leadership in responding to emergencies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton wondered whether the Government agree that evidence must be collected for prosecutions against those who persecute religious minorities, and we are clear that those responsible for the heinous crimes that are committed—whether or not those are formally declared to be genocide—must face justice and be held accountable for their crimes. The UK co-sponsored a UN Security Council resolution to refer all those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, regardless of affiliation, to the International Criminal Court, and we will continue to press that.
Will the Minister kindly undertake to discuss with the new Foreign Secretary the motion unanimously passed by the House of Commons on 14 April, asking the UK Government to honour Parliament’s request to refer Daesh’s actions to the UN Security Council as genocide?
There are a number of issues that I should like to discuss with the new Foreign Secretary, and that is one of them.
We continue to deliver a huge humanitarian aid programme and have been at the forefront of the international response to the conflict in Syria. We have pledged more than £2.3 billion—our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis—which is delivering vital assistance to refugees in neighbouring countries, on the ground, right now. We are also providing £79.5 million in humanitarian support in Iraq. That is the best way to ensure that our efforts have the greatest impact on the majority of refugees who remain in the region; and we believe that our focus needs to be on providing support through humanitarian aid to countries that are facing particular pressures, while offering resettlement to vulnerable people for whom return and local integration is not viable. To that end, we operate several discretionary resettlement schemes in partnership with the UNHCR—Gateway, Mandate, the Syrian resettlement scheme under which we are resettling 20,000 Syrians, and the recently announced vulnerable children at risk scheme, which focuses on identifying and resettling vulnerable children and their families from the middle east and north Africa region. We have committed to resettling up to 3,000 individuals at risk under that scheme over the lifetime of this Parliament. It is open to all at-risk groups and nationalities, including religious minorities.
I thank the Minister for the responses he has given about the Iraqi vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, but if that scheme were to be carried out in a way similar to the Syrian one it would enable some 300 Iraqis to qualify. Will the Minister consider that?
We certainly keep all those matters under review. I note the comments that have been made about a line in the sand, and I dare say that things may not be written in stone; we need to keep all matters under review as the political and military situation develops in the region.
Our resettlement schemes provide refugees with a direct and safe route to the UK, enabling them to avoid risking hazardous journeys into and across Europe. UNHCR works in the region and has expertise in working with refugees and vulnerable minority groups and in identifying individuals for whom resettlement is the best and most durable solution. It also ensures that our resettlement efforts are co-ordinated with schemes offered by other countries, so that the biggest impact is achieved for the most people.
It is important, however, that those in need of protection first register with UNHCR or claim asylum with the national authorities in the first safe country that they reach. Encouraging individuals to seek asylum at an embassy or high commission is not the correct approach; nor is it a practical one. First, under the refugee convention, someone must first be outside their country of nationality before they can be considered for refugee status. That is a matter of international law. Secondly, the Government’s approach is to alleviate the need to flee countries in the middle east by working to find political solutions while, in parallel, providing aid to the affected regions. A concerted effort from states to address the large movement of refugees and migrants will be discussed during the UN and Obama conferences in September.
The cases of those who claim asylum in the UK are carefully considered on their individual merits by caseworkers who, as I mentioned, receive extensive training and are expected to follow published Home Office policy guidance. I am encouraged to hear it acknowledged that we already have appropriate guidance for caseworkers. That guidance makes it clear that appropriate and sensitive questions must be asked, based on an understanding of religious concepts and forms of persecution. In particular, where a claim is based on religious conversion, the interview must explore an individual’s personal experiences and journey to their new faith. I agree entirely that that needs to be reflected in practice and I can assure hon. Members that I and my officials take the findings in the all-party group’s report extremely seriously. I will continue to improve training provided to caseworkers to ensure that policy guidance is followed in practice. Indeed, I undertake to create an early opportunity to see the processes being carried out, and to learn more about the challenges that we face in that regard.
I am very clear about the fact that we understand that conversion is often a journey or process—not a damascene moment, when someone sees the light. The interview questions and conversations seek to find out about that. It is not, as I said, just simple questions such as, “Name the 12 apostles,” or “List the ten commandments.” That is not the process we undertake.
The process provides a summary of the human rights situation in the country and clear guidance on the types of claim likely to lead to a grant of asylum, to support effective decision making and to ensure that we provide protection to those who are in genuine need. For example, we have recently revised our country information on Christians in Pakistan, following consultation with partners. I am grateful to the all-party group for its considered report on such an important topic and I have asked my officials to investigate the cases raised in it and to continue engaging constructively with members of the group.
We welcome the positive relationship that the Home Office has with the Asylum Advocacy Group and other interested parties. However, I do not think that there is a refusal culture or that the problems are endemic. UK Visas and Immigration works hard to ensure that all claims are considered fairly and sensitively, in line with Home Office policy. In the year ending March 2016, UKVI decided more than 26,000 asylum claims and more than 10,000—40%—were granted asylum or an alternative form of protection. In his latest report on asylum casework, the chief inspector of borders and immigration noted asylum caseworkers’ professionalism, dedication and commitment to fairness.
It is of course vital that we get decisions right and grant protection to those in genuine need, but we must also tackle abuse of the asylum process. Those who lodge false claims based on religious belief or conversion to delay removal when they have no right to remain here are undermining not only our immigration rules but also the places of worship that they approach to obtain support for such claims.
I hope that I have gone some way to provide reassurance that we already have a robust framework for the proper consideration of asylum claims and for granting protection where it is needed. We are not complacent, and are committed to continuous improvement in guidance, training and quality assurance processes to make sure that we get vital decisions right. We will provide a formal reply to the all-party parliamentary group’s report shortly, but I can say that I accept most of what is asked of us in the recommendations and have asked my officials to take that forward in close consultation with interested partners.
I am reminded of the scripture text Isaiah 41:10:
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
I thank the Minister sincerely for his response, which has been excellent and in which there were some good things, including his remarks about the resettlement scheme, in response to an intervention. Daesh does not discriminate, and neither should we. I assure the Minister of the support of all-party group members, of whom there are many in this House and the other place, and its staff. Along with the work of the UNHCR, and in the light of the recent report and the work of top international refugee law professors, we want to help ensure that those who are persecuted for their religion are given the asylum assistance they need. May I kindly comment on the new training that has been discussed: several organisations working on UK religious persecution asylum cases say there is still room for improvement.
I thank the Front-Bench spokespersons and all hon. Members who have taken the time to come and make a speech or intervene, for their excellent contributions, and I will close with another scripture text: John 14:31:
“Arise, let us go hence.”
Let us and the Minister work on behalf of our Christian brothers and sisters.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of Channel 4.
It is a pleasure to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer; I believe it is my first debate with you in the Chair. This is clearly an important issue. In the post-Brexit politics we are in, a number of issues are not being given the merit they deserve, and one of those is Channel 4, which, like many of our public services, is under attack by the current Government. I feel that we ought to have debates on our public assets and services, and today is an opportunity to have one.
I have initiated this debate on the future of one particular public service that I cherish—Channel 4. It is a public service that is the cornerstone of Britain’s world-renowned broadcasting ecology, but one that the previous Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), was hellbent on privatising during his time in office. We need to test the Minister on whether he is going to continue along the path followed by the previous Culture Secretary in respect of Channel 4. Although we have since had the reshuffle, in which the right hon. Gentleman was removed from that position, no doubt due to his unpopular desire to wield the royal charter review against the BBC, we cannot be complacent about preventing his ambitions from being realised.
We have good cause. A recent freedom of information request, seen by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, revealed that the new Culture Minister met the previous Culture Secretary in secret to discuss Channel 4 reform options last September. It is important to put that on the record because we need to know where we are going. This is not a fresh start; there have obviously been conversations in the past and I think Parliament ought to be told what those conversations were about. It is for that reason that I called for this short debate on Channel 4’s future before the House adjourns for recess. I am sorry that it is in the first week of the Minister’s new duties; I congratulate him on getting the job but, for the reasons I have outlined, it is important that we have this conversation before we go into summer recess. I look forward to his comments, particularly on his conversations with the former Culture Secretary, and perhaps we can begin a debate about the future of Channel 4.
To begin with, what is Channel 4 and how does it fit into the UK’s broadcasting ecology? Channel 4’s statutory remit requires it to deliver high quality, innovative and alternative content, and throughout its history it has been incredibly successful in fulfilling that. Its glittering record of airing fantastic programmes has provided the channel with a consistent viewing share of 11% over some 30 years.
On that specific point, we should pay tribute to Channel 4’s commitment to showing more than 700 hours of coverage of the Paralympic games. More than 75% of its presenters will have a disability and will have been trained and they are the best in their profession, which will encourage and entice other media outlets to join Channel 4 in creating more opportunities for disabled people.
That is an intuitive and well-made point. I was going to come to it further in my speech, though not with such eloquence and detail as the hon. Gentleman. Besides the Paralympics, long-term programmes such as “Dispatches” have been highly successful, and Film4 productions have been critically acclaimed so it is of little surprise that Channel 4 has been unfailingly popular since its creation. What is more, as a publicly-owned but commercially-funded broadcaster, it continues to air such innovative content in a sustainable manner. Because Channel 4 is funded by advertising and is financially self-sufficient, taxpayers can watch high-quality programmes at no cost.
I, too, am a fan of Channel 4, for all of the reasons that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) have already mentioned, and because Channel 4 supports something like 19,000 jobs and spends more—some £600 million—on content from independent producers than any other channel in the UK. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if it ain’t bust, don’t fix it?
Mr Stringer, I assure you I did not distribute my speech in advance of the debate, but that is a further point I will go on to elucidate. The hon. Gentleman made the point I am going to make about the financial benefits of Channel 4 and the fact that it is an aggregate benefit, operating as now in the public sector but with private funding, and it is an asset to the public.
The model is unique within the UK’s broadcasting ecology. Unlike other organisations, Channel 4 operates as a publisher-broadcaster, meaning that it does not produce its in-house programmes. Instead, it commissions all of its content from independent production companies from across the UK private sector and works with more independent producers than any other channel. As a result, Channel 4 supports a vast network of small and medium-sized enterprises. Since its creation in 1982, it has spent £12 billion on content and, as the hon. Gentleman said, it spent a record £600 million on content last year alone, of which £455 million was spent on British programming. While other public service broadcasters have cut their investment in UK content, Channel 4’s model has enabled it to weather market forces and increase its investment, and it therefore makes a huge contribution to the wider economy. Indeed, its own analysis has found that it adds over £1 billion to the UK’s gross added value and supports 19,000 jobs per year, as the hon. Gentleman said.
Just as Channel 4 occupies a crucial space in the UK’s broadcasting ecology, it also play a vital role in ensuring that the ecology is representative of our society. According to Trevor Phillips, a former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Channel 4 has been at the forefront of promoting minorities within our national media. Its news has a higher proportion of young and black, Asian and minority ethnic viewers than any other public service broadcaster. It is the only public service broadcaster whose overall viewership is getting younger, and its transformative impact on social attitudes, by presenting the viewpoints of BAME and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as people with disabilities, has been remarkable.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend about standing up for democracy and for minorities against those at the top. That is an issue that we are both going through at the moment, in that we must have that conversation and support those within a pluralistic environment who wish to express a minority view. Of course, I am referring not only to Westminster and to the broadcasting ecology but to my own party. We must support pluralism, and Channel 4 does that. As mentioned by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), the Paralympic games this summer is a fantastic example of just what Channel 4 achieves; 66% of the on-screen talent and 15% of the production team will be people with disabilities. The coverage will be more accessible than ever for disabled viewers, and Channel 4 has even set aside £1 million to encourage advertisers to make their commercial airtime more inclusive of people with disabilities.
Channel 4’s success in representing people across the UK is no more evident than in its engagement with regional talent. Apart from the BBC, it is the only broadcaster with a specific commitment to invest in production outside England. Indeed, in the past five years Channel 4 has invested £720 million in content outside London. Last year alone saw Channel 4 spending £149 million on production in the nations and regions and broadcasting over 50% of its hours from those areas. It runs a dedicated nations and regions team in Glasgow and operates a growing sales team in Manchester, and it works with a range of production companies across the north of England and Scotland. Channel 4’s direct investment in those areas is equally impressive. From the Northern Writers’ Awards and its creation of regional hubs to its funding of the Leeds-based company True North, Channel 4 is at the forefront of promoting regional talent.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I wonder what impact people watching “Eurotrash” 20 years ago had on the referendum, but we will park that for one minute. He rightly referred to Channel 4’s work in the regions. What does he think of suggestions that the headquarters should move out of London?
Any decisions specific to Channel 4 need to be thought through. I am not for immediately saying, “Oh yes, that’s a good idea,” but as an MP from the Manchester region, I would welcome investment in my region and taking the headquarters out of London, as was done with the BBC. Of course, every MP would want industry to be relocated to their constituency from somewhere else. If we are to move the centre of Channel 4 out of London, it has to be done in a reasonable, organised and logical way, but I am not averse to that argument.
Channel 4’s promotion of regional investment is impressive, and its model has produced a history of fantastic northern TV. As programmes such as “This is England” or “Phoenix Nights” testify, it represents a rare example of the Government’s so-called northern powerhouse at work. The nub of the issue is that privatisation would threaten Channel 4’s contribution to the economy and its success, and would certainly represent a threat to its model of promoting all these things.
Selling off Channel 4 would naturally transform its operational model from not-for-profit to for-profit. Its content would suffer as a result, since Channel 4 would have to cut its expenditure on programming by £280 million per year if, like ITV, it was to return a 28% profit margin to its shareholders. Channel 4 has a turnover of £1 billion—a 28% reduction would mean a huge cut in its commitment to regional programming, talent, supporting not-for-profit programming and all the good stuff that it does. Since the broadcaster is essential for sustaining the independent production sector, that would result in a reduction of funding for small and medium-sized enterprises and reverse Channel 4’s success in job creation.
A Channel 4 dictated by the needs of profit would also undermine its promotion of diversity. Under the current model, Channel 4 balances socially valuable but loss-making programming such as the Paralympic games with its more commercially successful broadcasting. However, under privatisation, programmes would be not only squeezed financially but determined by the shareholder, rather than societal value, as representatives from Sky and ITV have recognised. Channel 4 is distinct and different. That privatisation would be both economically nonsensical and socially irresponsible is made even clearer if we consider the country’s recent vote to leave the European Union, since Brexit has increased economic uncertainty and revealed stark divisions between our regions and nations.
Given that the UK requires economic stability and regional representation now more than ever, will the Minister press on with the privatisation of Channel 4, effectively destroying the organisation as we know it—one that has repeatedly weathered economic storms and helped to bridge the gulf between the capital and our regions—or will he put to rest rumours of privatisation and end a period of uncertainty that is having such a negative effect on Channel 4’s commercial activity? If he is going down the privatisation route, I will be very interested to know how he is going to do that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) for his contribution and for bringing me to Westminster Hall on day two of my new job. As he mentioned, I have had discussions about this issue with the previous Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and we decided as a Government to ensure that we would look at all options on the following bases.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I cherish Channel 4. It was introduced by a Conservative Government and we are proud of what it has achieved over the past 34 years. I want to see Channel 4 continue to thrive and have a sustainable future. The question is, how do we best do that? I am focused on the challenge of ensuring that the public service broadcasting system, with Channel 4 at its heart, can continue to play a leading role in the UK’s cultural life for many years to come.
We are committed to public service broadcasting in the UK, which is a key driver of one of the most successful TV markets in the world. Ofcom reviews consistently show that public service broadcasting is valued by the public. Its 2016 review, which was published only last week—I am sure the hon. Gentleman has seen it—found that last year, 84% of the TV population aged over 4 watched some of the main five PSB channels in a typical week; 86% of viewers believed PSB news programmes were trustworthy; and 83% of viewers felt PSB channels helped them to understand the world.
Channel 4 is a fundamental part of the PSB system because of the range of programmes it broadcasts, its reflection of the UK’s cultural identity and its distinct and different offering. As the hon. Gentleman said, it performs a role in challenging the establishment. That is something I have had direct experience of, and I have always enjoyed the rigours of the challenge that Channel 4 provides. It stands up to authority through, for instance, “Dispatches”. I also endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) on the coverage of the Paralympics in 2012, which was outstanding.
Channel 4’s commitment to diversity in all its forms—in terms of not only gender or ethnic background but also, for example, LGBT diversity—is a valuable and important part of its remit. Channel 4 has developed a unique character since it was established under the then Conservative Government 34 years ago. From “Countdown” to “Gogglebox”, “Father Ted” and “Unreported World”, Channel 4 is known for its innovation, originality and outspoken nature. It has also played a key role in the development of the independent production sector, which is now a huge sector that exports around the world and is worth more than £3 billion to the UK economy.
We need to think about this more broadly than just the channel. Through Film4, the Channel Four Television Corporation has played a role in some of the British film industry’s biggest successes—“Slumdog Millionaire”, “Four Lions” and “12 Years a Slave” come to mind, but there are many others. The importance of Channel 4 is recognised across the industry and across the House.
I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. In his first week in the job, may I suggest that this is an opportunity to preserve the innovative legacy of Mrs Thatcher when she created Channel 4 in the 1980s, and to make a name for himself by creating certainty for what is, as he and other hon. Members have commended it for, the most successful, diverse, creative, youth-engaged and innovative British-backed broadcaster, by saying once and for all that Channel 4’s future in its current form is safe in his hands?
My hon. Friend tempts me, but the broadcasting market is changing rapidly. That is why the previous Secretary of State decided to look at all the options. It would be a bit previous of me, on day two in my job, not to consider where that work has reached in our goal of a sustainable future for Channel 4.
I accept and respect that this is day two of the Minister’s current job, but he had previous conversations about Channel 4 with the former Culture Secretary in his previous ministerial post, so it is not necessarily day two. Is he ruling out or ruling in privatisation and a sell-off?
It is also day two for my Secretary of State. The issue needs to be considered realistically in the face of the facts. Channel 4 acknowledged the risks facing its business model in its 2015 submission to Ofcom’s PSB review when it said:
“Channel 4 believes the potential downside risks associated with…factors, such as a faster shift to on-demand viewing, the emergence of new disruptive entrants, faster fragmentation of audiences, production cost inflation outpacing funding, and structural changes to the licence fee of TV, outweigh the potential opportunities. Moreover, Channel 4 is arguably the PSB most likely to face the future first, given its focus on risk-taking and trying new things, and also its targeting of young audiences, who are the most avid users of new technologies and platforms.”
That must be true. Some 94% of its total revenue comes from TV advertising, and with so much of its revenue coming from advertising, an open question remains about how Channel 4 is affected by shocks to the economy, such as Brexit. It is our duty to make Channel 4 sustainable.
I want to follow up on this interesting exchange. I recognise the passage that the Minister read from Channel 4, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that its position going forward is that it wants to change its model. Channel 4 executives are happy with the current ecology and want it to remain. They respect and see the challenges going forward, but at the moment their preferred option, by a considerable margin, is as we are, not for change.
As a Conservative, I understand the arguments against change. They exist in almost any circumstance, but that does not mean we should not look to the future and at the risks and opportunities it provides, and the way things are organised so that they make the most of the opportunities and mitigate the risks. That is what we are doing. I hope the hon. Gentleman has heard in the tone of my response that it is our approach to do that in a way that supports public service broadcasting and some of the unique attributes that Channel 4 brings to that broadcasting.
I reiterate the point about the executives being happy both with being scrutinised and with wanting surety for the market. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) that we would like to hear that Channel 4 is safe in our hands. Its achievements include issues such as transgender, and it is making its future safe with “Come Dine with Me”, which I think is funding most of the opportunities for diversity that the company is bringing forward. I absolutely applaud the Minister for continuing to look at all the options, but I hope he comes back to the option that we are already at.
It is important to get this right and to take the time to come to the right conclusion. After all, the main channel, Channel 4, where most public service broadcasting resides, has seen its audience fall from more than 10% to under 6% over the last decade. We must take such things into account.
There are some concerns about the remit. Key to driving the public service broadcasting aims of Channel 4 is the remit, which has evolved over time. There are concerns, for example, about Channel 4’s performance against the requirement to provide content for older children. Ofcom has repeatedly raised this concern and the Lords Select Committee on Communications recently concluded that Channel 4’s current programming in this area is unsatisfactory. We must go into the full details of how the remit is executed to make sure we have got that right.
Ofcom also found that spend on first-run UK-originated children’s programming has fallen by 45% since a decade ago. Older children’s programming is an important part of the remit as written.
This is an interesting debate. On the Minister’s point about falling viewing figures in the last decade, there is now, of course, a plethora of choice and channels. It is natural that, for example, if in his West Suffolk constituency there are 10 candidates on the ballot paper, everyone receives fewer votes, but if there are two candidates, everyone gets more. It is a bit like television channels.
The Minister says that viewing figures have fallen, but that is because of the plethora of offers available. The key point is that Channel 4 is not making a loss. It is still breaking even on its viewing figures. That is a key issue that we need to and should remember. It is not losing viewing figures and money; it is losing viewing figures because of diversity across the platforms, but it is not losing money. It is still providing wonderful content, which is probably better than 10 years ago.
The viewing figures I set out were a proportion of the market. The hon. Gentleman is right about Channel 4’s current financial status, but it acknowledges the risks because such a high proportion of revenue comes from advertising, which is, as everyone knows, a highly cyclical part of business and there may be shocks to the economy, not least the impact of Brexit, which is as yet impossible fully to ascertain. I take his point, but the matter must be looked at in the round.
I hope I have demonstrated the Government’s commitment to Channel 4 following its rich and proud history, our acknowledgment of and support for its work in promoting a plural and diverse element of our national life, its holding authority to account with rigour and innovation, and my personal commitment to Channel 4 and seeing it thrive sustainably. We will certainly take on board the points that have been raised from both sides of the Chamber. We will consider them over the summer with a mind to ensuring that Channel 4 has a strong and sustainable future. I have no doubt we will have the opportunity to discuss these matters again.
I have been remiss in waiting until the last minute of this debate to welcome to the Front Bench the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who has a long history of involvement in these issues. We will make sure all views are considered and that, as we consider how the remit should be set going forward and how to ensure that Channel 4 is strong and sustainable in future, all voices in the debate are heard.
Question put and agreed to.
Contribution of Poles to UK Society
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the contribution of Poles to UK society.
It is a great pleasure to introduce this debate. First, I acknowledge the tremendous work that the Polish ambassador, Mr Witold Sobków, has undertaken during the past four years in cementing bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Poland. In my estimation, Mr Sobków has been one of the best diplomats to the Court of St James’s. Unfortunately, we are losing him shortly, because he is going back to Warsaw to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but this great Anglophile has worked tirelessly to promote relations between our two countries, and I take this opportunity to thank him for his contribution to Anglo-Polish relations.
On behalf of the Opposition, may I associate ourselves with those comments about His Excellency Witold Sobków? We entirely endorse the very generous comments. He has been an excellent ambassador. He is a man who has been not just a great friend to this country, but a great representative of the Polish people in this country. On both sides of the Chamber, we are honoured and delighted to associate ourselves with the hon. Gentleman’s words. [Interruption.]
I think this is the first time that I have heard applause from the Public Gallery, but that just goes to show what a popular figure His Excellency is.
As the first ever Polish-born British Member of Parliament, I take great pride in my Polish roots, and I feel a sense of responsibility, given my Polish background, in sometimes putting to the fore, in the crucible of the House of Commons, issues pertaining to Anglo-Polish relations, but also the wellbeing of the huge Polish diaspora who currently live in the United Kingdom. I remember that 16 years ago, when I was first considering standing to be a Member of Parliament, I was told by a very senior person that I would never become an MP “with that completely unpronounceable Polish surname” and that I would have to change or anglicise it if I was ever to be elected as an MP in this country.
I refused to do so. I told that person in no uncertain terms that I would refuse to change my surname, because I am very proud of my Polish roots; and I have to say, having been elected now on three separate occasions by the people of Shrewsbury to represent them, I think that is testimony to the way English people, British people, treat outsiders who have come into this country and welcome and accept them. That is a wonderful thing. I think we are one of the most tolerant nations in the world. I went on business to more than 90 countries around the world before I became a Member of Parliament and I think the British people are among the most tolerant and welcoming of any in the world.
From one colleague with a difficult-to-pronounce name to another, may I very much welcome what my hon. Friend is doing this afternoon? Just from a historical perspective, the contribution of Poles to this country goes back to the Spitfire pilots in the second world war. The Polish community club in Dunstable in my constituency is a very welcome and important part of the community. All of us completely and utterly reject the reprehensible attacks that we have seen from a small part of the community on some Poles in this country.
In the same vein, may I say that, as my hon. Friend may be aware, unfortunately a few weeks ago a vile racist action occurred in my constituency of Huntingdon and led to anti-Polish leaflets being distributed. I want to thank him for giving us the chance today to set the record straight and for giving me the chance to give the view of the overwhelming majority of my constituents, who were horrified by that unacceptable activity in our town, which has no history of such behaviour, and who welcome, applaud and value our Polish residents for their hard work and their significant economic and cultural contribution to our local community.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will say a little about some of those issues later.
Some Polish journalists say to me, “How can you, as someone of Polish origin, have campaigned for Brexit? How could you have done that when, by extension, it will prevent more Poles from coming to the United Kingdom?” I can understand why some Polish media commentators complain about some of us campaigning for Brexit, but I am not going to be prescriptive here. It is not for me to tell all 850,000 Poles living in this country where their loyalties ought to lie, but for some of us who have come to this country and settled here and whose families have been born in this country, our loyalties have moved to the United Kingdom.
I will give way in a second. I think it is very important for those Poles to understand that when some Poles have moved to the United Kingdom, although we will always cherish Poland and our roots and links with that country, our new loyalties must lie with the United Kingdom.
On that point, in my constituency of Airdrie and Shotts we have a thriving Polish and eastern European community. I have been concerned to receive some correspondence from Poles and other nationalities who are concerned about their residency future. Does the hon. Gentleman believe, as I do, that the Government could be doing more to reassure those residents and workers in this country, including in my constituency, of their ongoing future in this country?
Yes, and I will refer to that specifically in the main body of my speech, so let me get on with it before I take any other interventions.
With regard to the Brexit vote in the referendum, I believe that the main reason was taking back control—my constituents in Shrewsbury wanted to take back control—but there is no doubt that immigration played a part in it. I have had many discussions with the Polish Government, the Law and Justice party, which is affiliated to the Conservative party in the European Parliament, and I have tried to make them understand that although the free movement of people is a very important concept and a fundamental right enshrined in the European Parliament—by the way, it is even more important for Poles, who were locked behind the iron curtain for 50 years—we have to have an immigration policy that is managed and sustainable. It is not in the interests of Poland or the United Kingdom for there to be completely unmanaged flows of people between these two countries.
I will give way in a minute; I just want to finish this point. I could take people now to Polish towns and cities that have been completely depopulated and where there are real risks, dangers and difficulties in being able to provide certain services as a result of the brain drain of young Poles away from Poland; and I could take people to communities in Britain where so many EU nationals have come that there is a real strain on local schools, public services and housing stock. I make this point because I think it is very important. If we are to convince the nationals of both Poland and the United Kingdom that their rights will be enshrined going forward, we need to demonstrate that we can get a grip on immigration in the interests of both countries.
We should not lose sight of the fact that, certainly for the last 100 years, the Polish community or their descendants have made a major contribution in this country. There were Polish children in my class at school, and in the area that I represent and the Binley area in particular, there were Polish miners. More importantly, the Poles made great sacrifices during the war—at Monte Cassino, and in the RAF at the battle of Britain—so we should do everything in our power to stop any discrimination, not only against Poles but against other nationalities.
Absolutely, I agree with that. The hon. Gentleman may disagree with me. He may believe that there ought to be free movement of people in perpetuity. I do not: I believe that immigration has to be managed and controlled for the interests of the state.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Polish people who are already here, including in my constituency in Cheltenham, are making a superb and vital contribution to our society? Does he agree that we need to make it clear to them, as soon as possible and given their contribution, that they are welcome, valued and secure in our country?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Polish communities in this country have integrated themselves into British society extremely well? Part of that is due to the excellent work ethic that Poles have shown. For example, in my own service, as it were, I have members of the Polish community, and I would find it very difficult to find a British person who had the same work ethic.
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. May I dare to venture that if we wanted the ideal sort of immigrant, it could possibly be a Pole? Hard working, ethical—I will come on to all the attributes that my constituents talk about Polish workers here having, but yes, they make a huge contribution.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing this debate, but I am finding it difficult to follow his argument. This is a debate about the contribution of Poles to the United Kingdom, and now he seems to be wanting to stop the free movement of Poles to the United Kingdom. Clearly, for myself and my colleagues from Ealing, my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), with the largest Polish communities in the country that simply does not make sense and is out of touch. Will the hon. Gentleman say whether he supports, while we are in the EU—not just up to 23 June, but while we are in the EU—and will accept the free movement of Polish citizens to this country?
I will come to that point later in my speech, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am sure that when we do pull out of the European Union there will continue to be opportunities for highly skilled Polish workers, who will ultimately be able to apply for work permits to come and work in the United Kingdom if their skillsets match our skill shortages. I do not see a dichotomy in what I am saying.
Let me make progress. I am not going to take any interventions for a few minutes.
During the battle of Britain, the Polish 303 Squadron got the highest number of kills. Let us just reflect on that. The 303 Squadron shot down more enemy aircraft than any other squadron. Winston Churchill talked about how there was
“so much owed by so many to so few.”—[Official Report, 20 August 1940; Vol. 364, c. 1167.]
That is a phrase that certainly I have remembered and it sent a very poignant message. Ten Polish fighter squadrons supported the British war effort and they flew alongside their British comrades not only throughout Europe, but in North Africa. In 1941-42, Polish bomber squadrons formed an astonishing one-sixth of the manpower available to RAF Bomber Command. Again, I would like colleagues to contemplate that: one-sixth of the manpower for the whole of RAF Bomber Command came from Poland. That is something that Poles are very proud of having contributed. We will come on later to talk about what they are contributing to Britain now, but that was a historic contribution.
No other country sent as many airmen and soldiers to fight in the battle of Britain as Poland. That is something we should celebrate, and we should thank the Poles for that unique contribution. When we talk about the differences between what Britain will be like post-Brexit and what it is like now, that is a drop in the ocean compared to what our country would have been like if we had not defeated fascism in 1940. One can only try to envisage what sort of society we would be living in now—not just here, but in Poland and across the whole of Europe—if those brave airmen had not, in certain cases, sacrificed their lives in order to fight and defeat fascism.
Of course, many of them had left Poland, their country brutally occupied, taken over and suppressed, but they did not give up. They did not just sit back and take it; they left Poland, sometimes via very dangerous routes through Iran and the Soviet Union, and they came here to continue the fight. Some of them were described as “kamikaze”—a word that I have heard repeated on many occasions—because they had lost everything. They had lost their families, their homes and their country, so they came here to continue that struggle against fascism.
Nine hundred Polish servicemen lost their lives serving Bomber Command and by the end of world war two, 19,000 Poles were serving in the RAF. Poles are very proud that their country contributed so much to the British war effort. That is recognised because we have a Polish war memorial at Northolt. I have to say that the Cabinet Minister who has been with me to the Polish war memorial most often, and who has engaged with the Polish diaspora on more occasions than any other—from my interpretation—is the current Foreign Secretary. As Mayor of London, he understood the importance of the Polish diaspora to our capital city, and he has been with me on many occasions to engage with the Polish diaspora. I very much hope that his experience of engaging with the Polish diaspora in London will help him, in the important coming months and years, to cement bilateral relations with Poland, despite the fact that we are disentangling ourselves from the political union that is the European Union.
My hon. Friend may not know that in Southampton there are more than 13,000 Polish nationals. In fact, Southampton is the home of the Spitfire, which was flown by so many Polish aircrew. They contribute positively to our community and are very welcome. On the subject of the EU, which is my reason for intervening, I voted to leave the political structures of the EU, but I did not vote to repatriate UK nationals who live in the UK. Will my hon. Friend join me in celebrating our Polish communities and the significant contribution they make in cities such as Southampton, and condemn those who seek to create division where no divisions exist?
Absolutely. I know that my hon. Friend has engaged with the Polish diaspora on a number of occasions and is a great champion of them in his constituency. I completely concur with his sentiments.
It was not just the battle of Britain; it was not just the pilots flying during the battle of Britain; it was the Enigma code. Many people think that the Enigma code was broken at Bletchley Park. The first crack of the Enigma code took place in Poland and when Poland was occupied, Polish cryptographers, mathematicians and experts came from Poland to Bletchley and continued their work assiduously there. That contribution by the Poles in Bletchley has been marked recently, because relatives of those who served at Bletchley have been invited to services there to commemorate the contribution of their relatives. There are plaques, and more information is now being disseminated to schoolchildren visiting Bletchley about the unique contribution made by Poles to the British war effort. Breaking the Enigma code must have saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives. If we had not broken those codes, the war would have been protracted for potentially many more years. By breaking those codes we finally began to understand what the German strategic battle plans were and react to them. Again, the Poles played an extraordinary role.
One of the most moving things I have done in the 11 years I have been a Member of Parliament was to visit the war cemeteries in Libya. I spent an afternoon walking along the rows of British and Polish tombstones. Many young Polish and British men died together, in the desert in Libya, far away from their countries but in solidarity together to defeat fascism. That will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I realise that if we are going to talk about Polish heroism, we will need a lot more than an hour and a half—we would need a week and a half, at the very least. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will come on to Monte Cassino and General Anders, but can I ask him to place on record his appreciation for the Polish navy, which very seldom gets appreciated? Let us not forget that it was Commodore Francki, commanding Blyskawica, who sank the Bismarck and that it was Polish naval forces who defended the city of Glasgow during the Clydebank blitz. The Polish navy made an enormous contribution, but they seldom get thanked and recognised. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would wish to do so on this occasion.
I am very grateful for that intervention; I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In representing one of the Ealing seats, he knows a great deal about the Polish community. I know that he loves paczki very much—that is the Polish for doughnuts—and he and I have often shared doughnuts from Poland. He is very assiduous in understanding his Polish community and I pay tribute to him for the interest that he has taken in representing so many Poles in Ealing.
Today, we have over 2,500 Polish doctors and many Polish nurses working in the United Kingdom. I would like to share an example of something that happened to me in Shrewsbury. The head of one of our most successful care home organisations—it has care homes across the whole region—came to me and said, “I would like you please to put me in touch with a Polish agency that can help me to find care workers for all our care homes.” I said to him, “Why do you want Polish care assistants?” I rather suspected that it may have been a monetary issue. He said, “To be honest with you, we have done surveys among all our residents and they have asked specifically for Polish care workers, because they are so attentive, kind and understanding, and they want to engage with residents and treat them with dignity.”
Every country has its strength and weaknesses, but as somebody who was born in Poland, who lived there and who goes there many times throughout the year, I think the way in which Poles are educated from a very young age about the importance of looking after the elderly, and how they are schooled by their families and society about the importance of care for the elderly, is second to none. I talked about how Britain is tolerant to outsiders and how other countries can learn from us; I think other countries can learn an awful lot about how Polish people treat the elderly. It is ingrained in them from a very early age, so I was very proud when the care home owner said to me that his residents had specifically asked for Polish care workers.
Poles have a reputation for having a very strong work ethic, for honesty and integrity, and for being polite, professional, punctual and non-exorbitant. Think about it: whether someone is looking for a plumber, a doctor or a dentist, or any other professional, those are very good adjectives to describe the sort of service that one would hope to expect from a professional. My message to all the Poles, whether they are plumbers, bricklayers, fruit pickers, doctors, lawyers, technicians, engineers or chefs, is that they all contribute—each and every single one of them—to this country and I am very proud of the contribution that the 850,000 of them make to our country.
Of course, it is still to be determined whether Scotland will be leaving the EU or not—[Interruption.] Well, that is still to be determined. The Ethnic Minorities Law Centre in Glasgow has reported to me that since the EU referendum, a number of Polish citizens have been to it with concerns about what will happen when the UK leaves the EU. In Glasgow, the Polish community has made a fantastic contribution to our city. Does it concern the hon. Gentleman that many Polish people are going to the Ethnic Minorities Law Centre with those concerns?
Yes, it does, and I will finish off my speech by raising that issue.
Mr Davies, with your permission, I will read out a brief statement from a colleague of ours from the Tory Benches—the Minister of State, Department for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). He was not able to come today because of ministerial duties, but his statement, which he wanted me to read out, better exemplifies the contribution of the Polish diaspora than I could ever have done. He is very eloquent in what he has written, which is about Harlow, the constituency that he represents so well. He says:
“I have a fantastic Polish community in my constituency of Harlow. They have opened up some wonderful shops in an area where the high street was otherwise empty and closing down. Their butchers, delicatessens and health spas in the town centre have really helped to regenerate the area for the better.
They also pay a local state school in the Town for the use of their facilities on a Saturday to run a brilliant Polish school. The children who speak perfect English, are taught Polish, and their parents, whose first language is Polish, are helped to improve their English. I went to visit this school a couple of weeks ago to hand out their end of year awards. It was an honour to meet such hard working teachers, students and parents who contribute so much to our society.
However, it saddened me when someone I met there asked whether they would be allowed back in to the UK if they went back to Poland to visit their family for a holiday in the Summer and to hear others tell me about racist incidents they have had to deal with. I did my best to reassure them that they are welcome here and that nothing would change if they left for a holiday.
We should be celebrating all of the hard work and positive contribution of migrant communities that greatly benefit our society. I believe it is the responsibility of those in public life, of politicians, journalists, and anyone with a voice, to stand up and speak out against racism and to promote and celebrate the massive benefits that Polish, and other migrants, give to our country.”
Finally, I will come on to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and deal with Brexit and the renegotiation. According to the House of Commons Library, there are 3.03 million EU citizens in the United Kingdom, as we speak—so, a little over 3 million—and there are 1.7 million UK citizens in the European Union. By the way, this is where I disagree with the Scottish National party—I have heard both the SNP and the Mayor of London speak about this. Both the Mayor of London and the SNP are singing from the same hymn sheet in saying that we must give a blanket assurance to all these EU nationals before we know how our own citizens are going to be treated in the European Union. I disagree with the SNP line and the Mayor of London’s line. I believe that our priority, first and foremost, should be the 1.79 million British citizens living in the EU. It would be highly irresponsible for us to give any assurances until we know that our own citizens’ rights have been protected in remaining in the EU countries where they have selected to live.
However, one crumb of comfort that I can give to the hon. Gentleman is that of course I understand the uncertainty that many of these hard-working Poles are facing as a result of the changes that are taking place. I believe and very much hope that the Minister will take back to the highest levels of Government—this is my message and the nub of my argument to him—the message that the rights of EU nationals must be at the forefront of our renegotiation. When we start this renegotiation process, because we are talking about human beings, their rights and their ability to stay and work, I very much hope that this can be catapulted to the very front of the renegotiations that are going to take place.
Well, I disagree with that. I do not know what happened in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but in my constituency of Shrewsbury, we had a very professional debate. We focused on constitutional matters and the ability to take back control. Actually, in my constituency there was very little discussion about immigration. Admittedly, we do not have many migrants in Shrewsbury, but immigration was not the predominant issue that resonated at public meetings that I attended.
The hon. Gentleman spoke earlier about a care home that specifically wanted Polish workers. It is a fact that a great number of Poles now work in the national health service, care homes and many other services. Does he agree that, in the uncertainty about what will happen during the course of Brexit, there is a real danger that those people will decide to go back to Poland or elsewhere in the European Union, leaving us with the problem of filling their posts? Whatever happens elsewhere, it is important to ensure that the people we now rely on are allowed to stay in the United Kingdom.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I just made the point to the Minister that when we start the renegotiation processes, it is vital that the interests of the 1.79 million Brits in the EU and the 3 million EU citizens here are at the top of the agenda.
Yes, of course. Where I disagree with the Scottish National party and the Mayor of London is that they have called for an immediate determination of the rights of the EU nationals in our country without even securing the rights for our citizens in the EU. That is simply wrong. We are talking about human beings and I am sure that, in the renegotiation process, we want to end up with a mutually respectful and beneficial outcome for the residents and citizens of the EU and Britain.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has paid much reference to Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, there is a presumption—maybe a negative one—that there are still two tribes or two communities at odds with each other. In fact, a host of new communities are coming to constituencies such as mine to work and to make a life for themselves and their families. In south Belfast, there are many good, hardworking and decent Polish people who make an enormous contribution to our life and the economy, and we would be much worse off without them. There is also an active Polish consul, working for integration throughout the community.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is quite a bit to be learned from the Northern Ireland experience about the interaction and integration of foreign nationals, particularly of the Polish community? That experience could be transferred, and some of those lessons— successes and failures—might be useful in the broader UK context.
I very much agree with that. I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has taken the time to explain the situation in Northern Ireland, which I did not touch on as I focused predominantly on England, where my constituency is. I am heartened. The Minister has seen the number of hon. Members who have come to this debate to highlight the impact of the Polish diaspora in their constituencies.
The overall sentiment of MPs here today has been to acknowledge the contribution that the Polish diaspora makes to our country, and to highlight concerns, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) so eloquently described, about the attacks on Poles that we have read about in the media. We want assurances from the Minister that everything will be done to stamp out and penalise those who seek to commit such offences and, at the earliest opportunity, we want the Government to reassure Polish nationals that if they were in the country before 23 June, their rights to remain will be protected.
That is very kind of you, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this timely and important debate. He paid tribute to the Polish community and its contribution to this country in war and in peace over a considerable amount of time.
It is right that we remember the contribution of the Polish armed forces in the second world war: in the air in the battle of Britain, which is well known about; on land at Monte Cassino; and, indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North mentioned, at sea, including in the battle of the Atlantic and at many other important and pivotal points of the conflict. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham also mentioned Enigma and Bletchley Park.
The contribution of Poles to the victory in the second world war cannot be overestimated. There is a history of Polish migration before the second world war, but when we look at the issues that now face the diaspora community, it is particularly important that there has been continuity since that time, especially in west London—including my constituency of Hammersmith—where perhaps the largest Polish community in the country is based. In tragic circumstances, fleeing not just Nazism but communism, the community came here, settled and has contributed in an extraordinary way since that time, so we have what are generally known as the old Poles as well as the new Poles in west London.
There are now not just shops and many famous restaurants, such as the Patio Restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush; there is the Polish Social and Cultural Association— POSK—and the St Andrew Bobola church in Hammersmith. There is a settled and established community that contributes in every way. We probably do not acknowledge that enough, but in a way it speaks for itself.
What has happened since the Brexit vote concerns me, which is why I intervened on the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. I asked quite how he squared his strong support for Brexit—I think he was a remainer originally and then became a Brexiteer—given that the overwhelming response from the Polish community in Hammersmith, whether they are now British citizens or are still Polish citizens, has been one of dismay and despair, partly because of the insecurity that the vote has created. I will come to that in a moment and address some questions to the Minister but before I do, I want to talk about the physical and emotional impact of, and the response to, Brexit.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate. A number of people have spoken to me, saying that they just do not feel welcome any more. It is difficult to get that across and to change attitudes. I have spoken to a vast range of people, many of whom are investing and creating jobs in the country, and if they do not feel that they have a future in the country, they will leave and go somewhere else, and we will lose those jobs.
I do not want to be melodramatic or exaggerate matters because that does not help. The Polish community is modest and stoical in the way it conducts itself, and the last thing it wants is to have attention drawn to some of these matters. On the other hand, we have to speak out because we must reassure people and speak out against the abuse, outrage and violence that is happening. If people do not accept that that is happening, they should do what I did: Google for five minutes. I came up with about a dozen incidents, and, of course, the problem affects other EU and non-EU communities. Brexit has given destructive forces in our society licence to make racist and other attacks across the board, not just on EU nationals. On the whole, it is not intelligent people who are doing this.
I will give a few examples. A Polish shopkeeper was taken to hospital after he was abused in his shop in Leeds. In Huntingdon, as was mentioned earlier, there were cards that read, “Leave the EU, no more Polish vermin”. There have been verbal and physical assaults, with the Metropolitan police and police forces across the country reporting a substantial rise in incidents and racist attacks. A family in Plymouth were targeted when a fire was started in the shed next to their house.They managed to escape without injury but with substantial damage to the property. An eight-year-old child in Humberside told his classmates to go back to Poland. In Yeovil in Somerset, in the west country, a Polish man was asked whether he spoke English before being repeatedly punched and kicked. He required hospital treatment for potentially life-changing eye injuries and a fractured cheekbone.
Such incidents are happening every day in our country in a way that I would not have imagined. I am afraid it is a consequence of Brexit. It is not the behaviour of people who voted leave; it is a licence that dark forces in our society feel they have been given by the vote that took place. I feel particularly strongly about this because of what happened to the POSK centre in Hammersmith. It has been there for 50 years. I went to school opposite. I have been going there for 50 years. I used to perform on the stage there. I eat there, I drink there, I socialise there, as do many non-Poles across west London. As a hub for the Polish community, there is nowhere that is more integrated than that centre, and yet it was sprayed with racist graffiti, in a way that has never happened before, directly after the Brexit vote. So we have to act.
I want to praise my local authority in Hammersmith, which, provoked by the incident at POSK, brought together all communities—there are more than 100 communities and languages spoken across Hammersmith—in what we called a unity day. On that Sunday, more than 4,000 people came and marched through Shepherd’s Bush and Hammersmith and ended up at Ravenscourt park for a celebration of what makes us stronger. I am pleased to say that Wiktor Moszczynski, who many people know from the Federation of Poles and as a former west London councillor, spoke on behalf of the Polish community on that day. The event addressed the issues that I am speaking about and it meant that we felt we are much stronger and louder and have more powerful voices than those forces that would divide us. I thank everybody in the communities who took part in that event.
Time is short, so I will end now with two or three questions to the Minister. First, we must have an answer to the question of security for EU citizens in this country. I have a great deal of time for the new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and I respect his work on civil liberties, but the comments he made at the weekend, about how new EU migrants who come to Britain could be sent home to stop a pre-Brexit immigration surge, have added to the confusion. We need to know not only what will happen to Polish and other EU citizens who were in the UK prior to 23 June, but what happens to those coming here now, and certainly up to the time, which could be three or four years hence, when we exit the EU. I do not know whether the Minister is able to answer that today, but he should say as much as he can.
Secondly, the Minister should say what the Government are doing to reassure communities that feel under threat and unwelcome in a society where they may have been not just for years, but for decades. Thirdly, what specifically will be done about Poles who are studying here at universities and paying a reduced fee because they are EU citizens, but whose courses may take them beyond Brexit? Will they suddenly be asked to pay hugely higher fees? What will be done to reassure employers who employ Polish people, but who will be thinking, “Are they going to be sent back? Should I be investing in their training? Should I get rid of them sooner rather than later?” All those issues are for today, not for two or three years’ time.
I am extremely grateful for this debate. We are united in highlighting the contribution that Poles have made to this country, but we have created a problem not just for the Polish community, but for many other migrant communities here. Whatever our views on Brexit, it is the job of the Government and all of us to solve that problem, and I would like to hear about that from the Minister today.
This morning one of my constituents, a lady called Kamila Avellaneda, emailed me. She is of Polish origin and she asked me to please go to the debate on Poland in Westminster Hall. I thought, “Why not?” My wife is half Polish. Her maiden name is Podbielski and she is now called Claire Podbielski-Stewart to keep the name alive. So I have a half-Polish wife.
I was an intelligence officer when Poland was a member of the Warsaw pact, and we considered Poland to be the least reliable Warsaw pact member. We thought, “If we have to go to war with the Warsaw pact, the bloody Poles would come on our side, Mr Ambassador.” That is what we thought and we considered that to be a real credit to Poland.
When I was the commander in Bosnia, I also had a Polish major as my interpreter. He was an extremely good interpreter and very good at drinking slivovitz.
We have already talked about the second world war, so I will try to avoid repetition. However, as an intelligence officer, may I reiterate the point about what happened south of Warsaw on 25 July in the Kabaty woods? I hope I pronounced that correctly. The Kabaty woods is where the Polish bombe—an ice-cream, but actually a machine—was handed over to the French and the British and was ultimately responsible for helping us to crack the Enigma code. The Poles did it. They started it. The French, the British, the Americans did not have it, but the Poles had it.
When Poland was invaded on 1 September 1939, followed by the Russians coming in from the east on the 17th, a Polish Government in exile was started. Mr Davies, how long do you want me to speak?
It will not be more. It will be five minutes, I promise.
The Polish Government in exile was outstanding. They built up the fourth-largest army in Europe after the United States, the British and the Soviet Union. The Polish army recreated branches of the forces not only on our side of the divide, but in the Soviet group of forces. Polish forces were part of the Soviet forces heading towards Berlin via the Vistula and across Ukraine, and of course through Poland, and they stayed there until the Nazi menace was defeated. It is extremely interesting that 6,339 Poles are considered to be Righteous Among the Nations, because a large number of Poles tried very hard to defend the Jews in their country. Let us remember that Auschwitz was set up for the Poles, not for the Jews initially.
We had magnificent fighters pilots: 303 Squadron with its 126 German kills has been mentioned, and there were many more squadrons. The army was outstanding. The Polish army, working with the British army, was outstanding at Tobruk. It went into Narvik with my uncle, who was an army commander. Mind you, my uncle did have problems later. He may have got a Military Cross, but he also got two years in Strangeways for bigamy. [Laughter.] I am afraid my family are pretty disreputable.
The Poles took the top of Monte Cassino. Has anyone looked at that mountain? Can you imagine what it was like to go up those broken sides with all that fire raining down on you? But the damn Poles did it, and they put the Polish flag on the top. God, they were great. The Poles dropped at Arnhem and we had Popski’s private army. I think he was Polish; I cannot remember, but I think he was part of the Special Forces.
I have 30 seconds left to say what I think of Poland. I think it is a damn good country. We are very lucky to have it as an ally. The Poles are really decent people. I visited it for the first time three months ago and—my God—I am going back there, and I am very grateful that we have such wonderful people as part of our NATO alliance.
Guilty by association, Mr Davies, I think you will agree.
I want to thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). I have been in Parliament a year now, and I have had the opportunity to meet and know the hon. Gentleman and to work with him in the all-party group on Poland. He obviously has a strong personal connection to the country, but he has worked tirelessly for the UK Polish community and for the social integration of those who believe in this country. Aside from the difficulties and the negative comments between Opposition Members and the hon. Gentleman about Brexit, no one can challenge his devotion and commitment to the country or the results of that commitment.
As Lord Mayor of Belfast, I was pleased to host events such as independence day for Polish citizens in the city. We have a wonderful honorary consul in Northern Ireland, Jerome Mullen, who does great work, particularly at difficult times. We have had numerous incidents of race hate-filled attacks in my constituency and throughout Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham knows that that is part of my motivation for being involved in the all-party group and trying to build the bonds to bring to an end such unnecessary hate in my city.
It was a huge privilege to welcome the ambassador to my constituency and to Titanic Belfast for the first ever Northern Ireland-Poland business conference, just over a month ago. It was encouraging to see how many businesses from across Northern Ireland have built up relationships and connections and are trading. They have the tenacity to ensure that when we leave the European Union, the connections, relationships and bonds will strengthen still, no matter what. We must be politically committed to achieving that.
In view of the negative press, if there is anything I can do in the next two and a half minutes, I think it is to challenge many of the myths that abound in Northern Ireland and, I am sure, in communities throughout the United Kingdom. There is a champion of Polish integration in Northern Ireland called Eva Grosman, who has committed herself to the Unite Against Hate campaign. She does remarkable work in Northern Ireland. She sent a tweet earlier in the week asking how many Northern Ireland MPs would attend the debate. I indicated that I hoped many would—and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) has attended. We received quite a lot of abuse, along with misconceptions and downright lies. Such things—along with the facts—are laid out in a document I want to draw on, by Professor Peter Shirlow and Dr Richard Montague, called “Challenging Racism: Ending Hate” and published by the Unite Against Hate campaign.
The social attitudes survey replicated in the study said that 70% of people in Northern Ireland believe that EU migrants and migrants generally are a drain on services—that they steal our houses and jobs. That is nothing new. We will all have heard similar things quoted. However, in Northern Ireland, not even 2.5% of the population—43,000 people—hails from the EU. The figure for migrants is 4.3% of the population, but they have only 4% of the jobs, so they cannot be stealing the jobs. They are not stealing the jobs. As for social housing, we have 89,000 such homes in east Belfast, yet Polish migrants occupy 337. Does not that put into perspective the bile put about in our community? EU nationals contributed £8.8 billion a year more to the UK economy than they cost to services. In Northern Ireland from 2004 to 2008, there was a £1.2 billion addition to the local economy through ingenuity, hard work, the determination to strive, and the belief in British principles and the ideals of this country. Coming to Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom; believing in our people but, more importantly, believing in themselves—that is the contribution that Poland makes to this great country.
Poles are welcome in this country. Let that be the message that comes out from today. We appreciate and value that community in this country. Those bonds, forged in blood at a time of war, cannot be broken. For me, one of the great tragedies of the present situation is that the Polish community, which I have known all my life, is going through so many changes now. When I first met Poles, they were disguised. I am talking about the ’50s and the early ’60s: every Pavel was called Paul, every Malgorzata was called Margaret, every Marek was called Mark. They did not wear their Polish heart on their sleeve. We had the Polish churches, Polish national day and Polish celebrations, and even the Government in exile, but the Poles were quiet people. They got on below the radar, with the Polish Saturday school, gradually leading up to the Polish church, the Church of our Lady Mother of the Church. It was not until the Polish millennium in 1966 that the Polish community began to gain the confidence to stand proud and be Polish. I can still remember many of my Polish friends wearing England shirts in 1966. They told me it was not so much that they supported England—but we were playing Germany.
In 1995, an enlightened mayor of Ealing known as Stefan Funt, Polski burmistrz na Ealingu, actually placed the Polish eagle on the mayoral chain of the London borough of Ealing. One of Mr Ambassador’s predecessors, His Excellency Ryszard Stemplowski, kindly authorised the placing of that crown, that 10 zloty piece, on the mayoral chain. For me, the sadness is that, whereas that community has grown in strength and confidence and has grown roots in the London borough of Ealing—which is twinned with Bielany Warszawa in the Masovian Voivodeship—all those links are now under threat.
My daughter teaches at Cardinal Wiseman high school in Greenford. A pupil went in to see her two weeks ago and said, “Miss, am I going to be exported?” That is a boy whose grandparents fought for this country. They came to this country in the fight against fascism in the hour of our need. Go to the Polish war memorial on the A40. Go, if you can bear it, to the Katyn memorial in Gunnersbury, commemorating the horrors of Katyn in 1940. Go to see all the physical evidence of the Polish community, who have made such a vast contribution, and then pause for a moment and say, “What are we doing? What can we do individually to say to our Polish friends, ‘We respect you, we want you—do not leave us. We will not desert you. We are not asking you to leave. We are holding you closer into our arms.’?” Why? Because this is a community that has given so much. It is not a community that has asked or taken; it is a community that has given.
Sheltered housing has been mentioned. Maximilian Kolbe House was created by the Polish community for elderly Poles, not by going to the council or the Greater London Council or London County Council, or whatever it was in those days, but by creating something themselves. I could mention the Marian Fathers and Our Lady Mother of the Church, or POSK, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) mentioned and which I remember as the King Street Baptist church back in the day—I never appeared on stage, but I used to play football against them. Look at Courtfield Gardens. Look at everything that the Polish community has given.
I will never forget meeting members of the Polish community when Robin Cook was Foreign Secretary and we arranged for compensation and reparations for the forced labourers. I spoke to elderly Polish ladies of incredible, unimpeachable dignity, wearing fur coats that still smelled of mothballs in many cases, showing me the passes that they had been issued with when they were taken from Lwów to Bavaria as forced labourers. This is a community that has suffered so much, but which has the strength, courage and confidence to rise above that suffering and stand proud, not just in Ealing but throughout the United Kingdom. I associate myself strongly with the remarks of the former Lord Mayor of Belfast, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson).
Have we come to the stage now where those proud people, who gave and suffered so much, and who have paid the price of citizenship in blood and their effort, look to the future in fear and trepidation? I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for giving us the opportunity to place on record the fact that we respect the Poles and want them to stay. We need them in this country and wish to hold them in our arms. Poland, we respect you. Poland, we love you. Poland, we thank you for all that you have given. Your home is here. May it forever be so.
The word “Ealing” has popped up in almost every other sentence in this debate. As the third Member of Parliament for the borough, I wanted to put some remarks on record.
The last Office for National Statistics figures show that Ealing is 6.4% Polish, which is more than the national figure of 1.2%. Those are the statistics, but I also grew up with Polish people. I had a Polish maths teacher at Notting Hill school, Mrs Siemaszko, and a Polish physics teacher, and the Dabski-Nerlichs and the Dunin-Borkowskas were my best friends at school. Poland has also shaped Ealing’s cultural landscape. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) mentioned what is known as the Windsor Road Polish church. Originally a Victorian Gothic church from 1834, it had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s. It has become the highlight of my year to go to the civic mass there, and there are also community facilities. The most recent time I went was for a sad occasion, and the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) came. He is doing an inquiry into the emboldened post-Brexit racists.
I echo everything that has been said about the attack on the POSK centre. One of my constituents, John Zylinski—if we are going from A to Z—was on the ballot paper for the London mayoralty. I am sure the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski)—with whom I share an unpronounceable name and, possibly, “unlikely MP” status—would agree that Polish people should integrate into mainstream parties, not run as separatist independent candidates. Maybe the Minister could adopt some of the issues on which Zylinski stood. He is someone I get on with personally, and he wanted a statue to the ex-servicemen whose history we have heard about from both sides of the House today. Maybe that could be considered; I do not know whether it is in the Minister’s jurisdiction.
We have several Polish newspapers in Ealing—[Interruption.] My two minutes has elapsed. I could have gone on for so much longer. I used to lecture in two-hour bursts, so two minutes is difficult for me. I salute the Poles of Ealing and worldwide. The modern diaspora lives on.
I am pleased to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate.
We have heard a lot about the second world war, but the connections between Scotland and Poland go back much further; indeed, Bonnie Prince Charlie was partly of Polish descent. We must also remember that, for example, two of the UK’s major stores were founded by Poles: Michael Marks of Marks and Spencer was a Polish Jewish refugee, and Jack Cohen of Tesco was also Polish, the son of a tailor who emigrated to London. Many of us will have seen the first episode of Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” on BBC this Sunday. Conrad was also a Polish immigrant to the UK, and was not fluent in English until his twenties.
In my part of eastern Scotland, there is a substantial community of Polish descent. Like many others here, I went to school with several children of Polish parents who had come to Scotland, fleeing the Nazi invasion of their homeland, to continue the fight as part of the UK’s armed forces. During that period, Scotland received a huge influx of Poles. Although we have heard much, rightly, about the contribution of Polish airmen to the war effort, they also made a huge contribution in the other branches of the armed services.
As the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said, the Polish navy also came to Scotland. In September 1939, after the invasion of their homeland, four Polish destroyers sailed into the Forth port of Leith. Polish ships were stationed at Rosyth, Port Glasgow, Greenock and Dundee, and throughout the war they fought alongside the Royal Navy. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) paid tribute to the heroism of Polish naval personnel in fighting the Luftwaffe during the terrible blitz of Clydebank during his recent debate in memory of that terrible event. He said:
“So precise was the Luftwaffe’s delivery, in a spread-out formation, that of the thousands of bombers, only two would be shot from the sky in an valiant attempt by the crew of the Polish naval destroyer, ORP Piorun, in the dock of the greatest shipyard on the Clyde, John Brown’s.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 925.]
A plaque in Prestwick commemorates the Polish seamen who perished in the battle of the Atlantic. As has been noted, Polish troops took part in the ill-fated expedition to Norway in 1940, and in the battle for France. After the fall of that country, many came to the UK to continue the fight. Some were stationed in Scotland, as far afield as Cupar, Leven, Milnathort, Auchtermuchty, Crawford, Biggar, Duns, Kelso, Forres, Perth, Tayport, Lossiemouth, Arbroath, Forfar and Carnoustie. You will note, Mr Davies, that many of those places are in eastern Scotland, as the Polish division was given the specific task of protecting east central Scotland from a German invasion. That is why we find so many of Polish descent in my part of the country.
In the Angus county town of Forfar, a plaque outside the courthouse commemorates the occasion in March 1941 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth joined the Polish commander General Sikorski to take the salute from Polish troops. The 10th Armoured Brigade under General Maczek—I hope I am pronouncing it right—were stationed in the town at the time. Other units stationed in Angus included the 10th Cavalry Brigade, the 10th Mounted Rifle Brigade, the 24th Lancers, the 14th Lancers, the l6th Battery Field Artillery, the 10th Engineers, the 10th Signals and a field ambulance unit. Nearly every town and large village in Angus has a connection with the Polish forces.
Those forces played an important part in the protection of the UK and the eventual liberation of Europe from the Nazis. Indeed, General Maczek commanded the First Polish Armoured Division, which fought from Normandy to Germany. After the war, many did not return to Poland but remained in the UK—some because, in the way of these things, they had met and married locals and settled in our nations, others because they had been loyal to the Polish Government in exile and could not return safely to a Poland ruled by a Stalinist dictatorship. General Maczek had his citizenship stripped from him. He settled in Edinburgh and lived until he was 102.
The descendants of those brave soldiers are now second and third-generation Scots, and they are as Scottish as I am. They have made an important contribution to our nation that should be celebrated. In recent years, the number of Polish people settling in Scotland has risen again, due not to war, thankfully, but to economic reasons. According to the 2011 census, Scotland’s Polish community has grown by 52,000 since 2001, but to put that into perspective, that makes up around 1% of Scotland’s entire population.
Scotland has suffered from years of population decline, but the population is now growing, partly due to new immigrants. We see that as a positive thing. Many of those new Polish immigrants are the most economically active. They work hard, pay their taxes and contribute to our society. In Angus, many have worked in the farming and fish processing industries, but many have also worked as doctors, dentists and other professionals. Many of our rural areas have a problem attracting such professionals. They are very welcome to assist in maintaining our public services.
These new immigrants are becoming part of our local communities, forming ties like their wartime predecessors. Many times when out canvassing in my constituency, I have come across families where the adults’ English is not good, so they call for their children, who speak to me in a strong local accent and translate for their parents.
The hon. Gentleman mentions his canvassing experiences. My first experience as a candidate was being lobbied by Wiktor Moszczynski, who has been referred to, on this Government’s plans to abolish the Polish A-level. It is a welcome U-turn to add to their list of U-turns. Has he come across that too?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. The point I was making is that those children are part of our future. Many were born here or have spent most of their lives here. We should welcome the contribution that their parents also make to our nation.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned Brexit and what will happen to Poles and other EU nationals. It is not only in those people’s interests that the situation should be clarified. Polish immigrants make a huge contribution to our society through work and in our professions; it is in our interests as well to make the situation clear. If we do not do so—if those people leave our country en masse and go to other European Union nations or back home to Poland—it will have a devastating effect on our national health service, in our care home sector and in many other sectors. We owe it to them and to ourselves to make that point clear now. Whatever our view on our future with the EU, we should all stand together and tell those who are here—those who have made their home here—that they are welcome to stay and that there is no chance of them being thrown out if and when we leave the EU.
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this debate and I thank him for the comprehensive briefing I received from his office. The passion he has for his culture shone through his speech. Indeed, I have rarely heard such passionate speeches in Westminster Hall. I would like to associate myself with the passion of all the speakers in this debate and say that we welcome the Polish people, we embrace them; we feel we want to put our arms around them and hug them.
Let us be honest: in the aftermath of the vote for Brexit, many people have been left uncertain about what is to come. Polish people have lived and worked in the UK for many years, but they are being made to feel unwelcome in their own communities and some are experiencing blatant racial abuse. I have received feedback from people who tell me that they have had notes put through their door telling them to go home. Who can forget the vandalism of the Polish centre, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) referred to? It is appalling that that should have happened just days after the Brexit vote. Less than two weeks ago, a Polish family living in Plymouth were subjected to an arson attack; their shed was set alight just metres from their home. A note was put under their door, telling them, “Go back to your … country.” It was not the first xenophobic attack that that family had experienced.
I voted to remain in the EU and am disheartened by the result, but nevertheless we have to respect the vote. But we should not use it as an instrument for hate crime. In my own city of Swansea, which I share with the esteemed Chair, we have a proud multicultural background. We became the UK’s second official city of sanctuary in 2010. We have a large Polish community, among other cultural groups, all of whom play a really important part in our local economy.
Earlier this month, the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), asked the then Home Secretary—now Prime Minister—to reassure EU nationals currently living in the UK that they had a right to remain. There was a vote, which was overwhelmingly in favour—245 votes to just two. Both public and business organisations benefit enormously from the contribution that all EU nationals make, many of whom are from the Polish community. They make a difference to our lives every day. Our NHS benefits greatly from them; more than 55,000 of the 1.2 million staff employed by NHS England are EU nationals. A report by University College London revealed that European immigrants made a positive financial contribution of £4.4 billion to the UK between 1995 and 2011. Many EU migrants, Polish people among them, contribute far more to the UK in taxes than they will ever receive in benefits and services.
All the foreign nationals who come to live and work in the UK are of important economic benefit to us all. They provide the diversity and the culture that make Britain great—be they Polish, European, Asian, African, Australian or whoever. I believe all foreign nationals contribute greatly to our society, and long may that continue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing this important debate, and I thank hon. Members for their many and varied contributions. This has been an extremely good and constructive debate.
The Polish contribution to the United Kingdom is absolutely woven into the fabric of our society. Even when we check the weather on the BBC, we see Tomasz Schafernaker, who, like my hon. Friend, was born in Poland. When we go into our towns and on to our high streets, we visit Tesco and Marks and Spencer—both companies founded by Polish Jewish immigrants to Britain. We should welcome the contribution that Poles have made and continue to make to our country. This is a long and proud relationship, born out of both adversity and entrepreneurial desire.
We have Poland to thank for one of our most famous medieval kings, King Canute the Great, who was the son of a Polish princess and the nephew of Boleslaw I of Poland. We have King Canute, ruler of Denmark, Norway and England, to thank for bringing comparative peace and prosperity to these isles at the time. By the 16th century, we imported most of our grain from Poland, and Polish merchants and diplomats came regularly to London. Poles were such an established part of everyday life by that time that even Shakespeare thought they were worth a mention in “Hamlet”. By 1608 Polish craftsmen helped the first permanent English settlement in the Americas—Jamestown—to thrive.
We can find evidence of the early Polish contribution to British society right here in London. After the battle of Vienna in 1683, a pub in London’s Soho was named after the King of Poland, and soon afterwards the street on which it stands was named Poland Street—it exists to this very day. Britain has been a place of sanctuary for Poles for centuries, including in the 19th century, when many Poles fled the Russian empire in search of political sanctuary. That cemented Britain’s place as one of safety for Poles, as well as many other communities, which continues today.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, thousands of Polish men and women made a crucial contribution to the allied war effort, which directly led to the formation of the Polish British community as it exists today. In 1940, with the fall of France, the exiled Polish President, Prime Minister and Government all transferred to London, along with the first wave of at least 20,000 soldiers and airmen. Poles formed the fourth-largest allied armed force after the Soviets, the Americans and the combined troops of the British empire. In Poland’s time of despair, they did not give up; they came to Britain in their thousands, to help to fight for the future of our continent. Poles were the largest group of non-British personnel in the RAF during the battle of Britain, as a number of hon. Members have said, and the fearless 303 Polish Squadron was the highest-scoring RAF Hurricane squadron in that battle.
May I recommend to the Minister the book “Wira of Warsaw: Memoirs of a Girl Soldier”, by my constituent George Szlachetko, about his mother Danuta, who was part of the underground resistance? She was a teenage girl soldier in the war. I warmly recommend that book, which I went to the launch of recently.
I thank the hon. Lady for that recommendation. With the summer coming up, that may well be a good read. I will come in a moment to a very important point about the very situation that she mentions, but first I would like to continue on the theme of the battle of Britain.
Bramcote Airbase, which was on the edge of my constituency, Nuneaton, is where the RAF was responsible for training all the bomber aircrew for Polish forces in 1940, with four Polish bomber squadrons formed there. In fact, there was an air crash around that time; in the cemetery at Nuneaton, there are Polish airmen buried along with German and British airmen. We still commemorate those losses every year, to make sure that we remember the contribution that the Polish made at that time.
The reason why the Royal Air Force had so many Polish pilots was that they were extremely well trained and had fought for us in the battle of France before the battle of Britain. They were very well trained and we were very grateful that they were with us.
I defer to my hon. Friend’s superior knowledge. He knows far more about such matters than I do. What he said is borne out by the fact that the Polish squadron was the highest scoring RAF Hurricane squadron in the battle of Britain.
It was not just in the air that the Poles excelled in the second world war. Girls and women today would do well to look at the contribution of one of the Special Operations Executive’s most daring operatives, Christine Granville, otherwise known by her Polish name, Krystyna Skarbek. She proved that being brave and fighting for one’s beliefs is not just a male preserve. On the battlefields, the Polish army, under British High Command, was instrumental at the battle of Monte Cassino, which was mentioned by colleagues, and at the battle of Arnhem, among many others. Perhaps most importantly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and several other colleagues highlighted, we have Polish cryptographers to thank for cracking the early versions of the Enigma machine. That laid the foundations for subsequent British successes in deciphering German military signals, which proved a key factor in many allied successes during the war.
Poles were with us in our darkest hour, as they were with thousands of Polish Jews in theirs. More than 6,000 risked their lives to save Jews from the horrors of the holocaust. Poles constitute the largest national group within the “Righteous Among the Nations”, an honour bestowed on recipients by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the holocaust. Considering the harsh punishment that threatened rescuers, it is an extremely impressive number.
To ensure that the murder of millions of Polish Jews is never forgotten, the Department for Communities and Local Government is working with From the Depths to preserve the memory of the holocaust and give a name to those who were murdered, particularly those, including many Poles, who were placed in unmarked graves. That will offer some level of closure to the remaining holocaust survivors—including in Polish communities in this country—who have never known their loved ones’ last resting place. There are an estimated 10,000 sites of mass murder in eastern Europe, with only around 30 commemorated in the past three years. The project we have undertaken will rectify that.
Along with many others in this House and throughout the country, I reacted in absolute horror to the spike in incidents of hate crime following the EU referendum. My colleagues Baroness Williams, the then communities Minister, and Lord Ahmad, the then Minister for Countering Extremism, saw at first hand the effects of such mindless acts when they visited the Polish Social and Cultural Association—POSK—which my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned earlier in the debate. They met the Polish ambassador, His Excellency Witold Sobków, who I am really pleased to see in the Public Gallery.
I want to make it absolutely clear that we will not tolerate those few individuals who target people because they are different. Our police forces are on alert and have encouraged people who have experienced hate crime to report it to the police. We have zero tolerance for all forms of hate crimes, whichever community they are perpetrated against. Just as Polish men and women stood by us during the second world war, we will stand by those who have come more recently and who have contributed to our national life.
Our communities must be open, tolerant and welcoming. I am pleased to say that my Department is working with Near Neighbours to fund projects that promote integration and support social action—projects like the one in Birmingham run by the Polish Expats Association, which is holding a series of events to promote Polish music and culture, along with that of other communities. The project will also hold fundraising events to help the homeless community in Birmingham. I am pleased that, in his capacity as chair of the all-party group on Poland, my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham will meet my departmental colleague, Lord Bourne, to discuss how we can continue to counter hate crime and promote integration in communities throughout the country.
Today, there are thousands upon thousands of Polish citizens and people of Polish origin making a difference to the UK. My hon. Friend and others have highlighted their vital contribution. That is nowhere more true than in the NHS, where, according to the figures we have from the Department of Health, more than 6,700 Poles work.
I am glad that the Minister mentioned the NHS. He will no doubt have seen the article in today’s Daily Telegraph by the NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, in which he wrote:
“It should be completely uncontroversial to provide early reassurance to international NHS employees about their continued welcome in this country.”
Will the Minister address the concerns I raised about employees and students, and about the reassurance we are giving to Polish nationals in this country about whether they can stay?
The Cabinet Office, the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued an extremely important statement on 12 July. If the hon. Gentleman reads that statement carefully, he will see that it provides significant reassurance to members of the Polish community, and quite rightly so.
Poles are known for their entrepreneurial skills. In 2014, it was estimated that 22,000 companies had been set up by Polish-born entrepreneurs, with a further 65,000 registered as self-employed. Poles are employed throughout our society, including right here in this very House. Polish people have enriched our country, and while the UK remains in the EU, all its citizens continue to enjoy the rights and status they had prior to the referendum. The Government want to be able to guarantee the legal status of EU nationals who are living in the UK, and we are confident that we will be able to do so, but we must also win the same rights for British nationals living in European countries. It will be an early negotiating objective for the Government to achieve those things together. Some Members have expressed concerns that that might not be a high priority for the Government, but I hope I can reassure them that it will.
I have been clear in demonstrating that the Government absolutely want to ensure that we guarantee the status of the EU nationals living in the UK.
In conclusion, I am sure that all Members present, as well as the people in the Public Gallery, will wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham for bringing this important debate before the House. We have always welcomed law-abiding migrants to this country, and the contribution of the Polish community to this country should absolutely be celebrated.
I am grateful to the Minister for the way he has tried to answer some of the questions we have posed to him. I look forward to working with him over the coming months to ensure that the Polish diaspora is protected. I am very heartened by the number of colleagues who have attended the debate and highlighted what is happening with the Polish diaspora in their constituencies. I am proud of the support I have received today and look forward to seeing the issue with the diaspora settled as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the contribution of Poles to UK society.
Squash and the Olympic Games
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered squash and the Olympic games.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and it is great to see the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), in her place. I know how passionate she is about sport and I promise not to mention how well Wales did in the football.
So there I was in the newly built Bridgend recreation centre in the summer of 1975, working as a part-time sports assistant in the summer holidays, earning money to get me through university. Sport has always meant so much to me. I was very shy when I was a child and was bullied, so my mother sent me to judo classes to strengthen me up. I got a black belt first dan when I was 13 and a fourth dan in 1974. I may come across as being rather feeble but I do have a dark side, so be very scared.
I went on to represent Wales schools in hockey, tennis and athletics. Sport gave me a focus and confidence, and it made me a team player, so working in sport is an absolute pleasure. And now it is difficult to stop me talking.
Anyway, I was teaching in the main hall of Bridgend recreation centre when I heard this “thud, thud” noise, so I went to investigate. I climbed some stairs to a balcony and saw two men in a room using strangely shaped tennis rackets to belt a little rubber ball into submission. It was love at first sight—with the game, not the men. I hired a racket, scrounged a ball and spent every spare minute between shifts on court, teaching myself to play squash.
The players at Bridgend recreation centre adopted me and I joined the squash club. I made the men’s team and was spotted by Squash Wales, which invited me to the trials for Wales ladies. That was in early December and I did not hear anything afterwards, so I assumed that I had not made the grade. Then, just before Christmas I was reading the sport section of the national newspaper, as you do, when I saw, “Chris Rees makes home international team after playing squash for only six months”, so I thought, “Ah, that’s a really nice story,” before realising that it was referring to me. The selectors had forgotten to tell me that I had been picked.
There began a long career. I represented Wales more than a hundred times, playing at No. 1 for the team in some matches, and I won some titles, including the Dutch Open. However, I lost the Welsh Closed Final eight years in a row, which takes a bit of doing. I seem to remember that one year I was two games up and 8-0 up with match ball, and I managed to lose 10-8 in the fifth game. That was a classic Rees performance.
Squash has given me so much: fun; fitness; friends; and a job. I retired as a player in the 1990s and in 2004 I called Squash Wales as I was looking for an old friend. The director of coaching and development, Mike Workman, said, “Chris Rees! Haven’t heard from you for over 10 years. Thought you were dead! We need more women coaches. There’s a course tomorrow—I’ll put your name down.” So I said, “No, I’m a player. I can’t coach. I haven’t picked up a racket for 10 years.” Somehow I lost that argument with Mike and I lost many more when he subsequently became my boss.
I ended up on that course and many other coaching courses. I became a level 3 coach, a tutor, an assessor and a Welsh national coach. I also had the honour of being awarded Sport Wales Female Coach of the Year in 2008. I am the only racket sport coach to have received that award—so far. Playing for Wales, representing my country and pulling on that red shirt was one of the best experiences of my life, but finding a youngster and coaching them through from being a beginner to playing for Wales, and watching them develop skills and tactical maturity, is much better.
It is difficult to choose just one player to speak about today, but Josh Lee was only nine when I started coaching him. He was so small that he used two hands to hold the racket, on both the forehand and backhand sides, but he was so talented that he was beating children much bigger than himself by being clever. Nevertheless, being two-handed restricts a player’s range of shot and their ability to reach for the ball, and it is very wearing on the hips. I knew that if Josh wanted to make the Welsh squad, I had to turn him into a one-handed player, but that meant he would have to go back to square one and lose to players he had never lost to before. I explained to him what I was doing and he understood. So we used a cut-down racket. He felt stronger with his left hand, so we tied his right hand behind his back. Then we spent many hours recreating his swing and grooving his shots. He went on to become a fine player and represented Wales. I am so proud to have helped Josh and all the other children I have coached.
Many people are surprised to learn that squash is not an Olympic sport; they assume that it has been in the Olympics for many years. Sadly, that is not the case. Squash is gladiatorial, dynamic, physically demanding and mentally challenging; it is like chess on legs. It teaches players strategy, tactics and how to outmanoeuvre an opponent, so it is an ideal grounding for a political career.
Squash is the only racket sport where players share the same space and it is a sport for life. Children as young as four are taking up squash and there is a masters circuit for everyone from the over-35s to the over-75s, with competitions in many countries, as well as the world and European championships. Welsh men became the over-70 world champions; they were all skill, trickery and bandages, but there was not much movement.
Over the years, the rules of squash and the dimensions of courts have become standardised, although some would argue that the rules are open to interpretation and manipulation, which sounds a bit familiar. Just ask our Squash Wales world referee, Roy Gingell, who has refereed some of the toughest and most competitive matches on the world circuit. He used to have hair like mine when he started refereeing; now he has a “Wayne David haircut”.
Why is squash not in the Olympics? It is a complete mystery to me. The International Squash Rackets Federation was formed in 1967; it is now called the World Squash Federation and is recognised as the international federation for squash by the International Olympic Committee. We now have over 50,000 courts in more than 185 nations, from the Arctic circle to the bottom tips of South America and Australia. Squash is a genuinely global sport that is played by millions of people all over the world. There have been male and female world champions from every continent. Last year, 47 countries hosted professional senior tour events, featuring players from 74 nations.
Being another retired squash player myself, I have listened to my hon. Friend’s speech with great interest. Does she agree that squash is more in keeping with the Olympic spirit than synchronised swimming, and that when squash was introduced to the Commonwealth games in 2002, both singles and doubles matches were hugely successful and enjoyed by both the public and the participants?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate. We are really dragging out the old squash players today; I, too, have loved the game for many years. We have watched golfers pulling out of the Olympic games; I understand why they are doing so, but not their comments about the Olympics not being the pinnacle of their sport and in a sense not being valuable. If squash was in the Olympic games, the Olympics would be the main tournament in the squash calendar. Squash would take its place as an Olympic sport more readily than golf and many other sports have done.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It would have been the pinnacle of my career to win a medal at the Olympic games. I do not understand golf. It involves spending five hours on a golf course, hitting perhaps 100 balls, while on a squash court it is 100 balls in five minutes. I am sorry, but I do not get it. That is my personal opinion.
There are more than 750 players from 69 countries competing on the men’s and women’s professional squash tours. The World Squash Federation—WSF—world junior circuit for boys and girls embraces world, regional and national junior open events. We have WSF world and European rankings for seniors, juniors and masters. Squash has full gender parity and has begun to offer equal prize money for major competitions. The sport is fully World Anti-Doping Agency—WADA—compliant.
SQUASHTV is a WSF bespoke production, with staff who travel to all major events, providing quality and consistency. We have super-slow-mo replays, multiple camera angles, in-play stats, live web transmission and full-match video-on-demand uploads. Super HD was introduced in 2015, and Sky, Fox, Al-Jazeera and others have broadcast agreements. The world series finals were shown live in 47 countries in Europe by Eurosport.
State-of-the-art all-glass show courts have been introduced, with glass floors and side door options. Squash is very cool now; it is presented very differently on the professional tour from how it was when I used to play. There is music, lighting and MCs. An old friend of mine, Robert Edwards, started the cool commentaries, and became known as “the voice of squash”. There is a great connection between players and spectators. Para-squash is well established; for example, deaf squash has its own world championships, and the German squash federation is making excellent progress with wheelchair squash in an effort to meet the requirements of the International Paralympic Committee.
Squash has been a Commonwealth games sport, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) mentioned, since 1998, a Pan American games sport since 1995 and an Asian games sport also since 1998. The WSF has been working with the International Olympic Committee—the IOC—since 1986 to get squash included in the Olympic games, but at that time the sports included were set in stone, so it has been an uphill task to get squash in.
How does it work? The decision on which sports are included in the games is made at the same time as the successful bidding city is announced. In 2005, London won the bid to host the 2012 games, and the sports for 2012 were announced, with squash coming top of the shortlisted sports to be included. To be included would have been amazing, because at that time James Willstrop of England was ranked No. 1 in the world and Nick Matthew of England was ranked No. 2—gold and silver Olympic medals. Jenny Duncalf of England was ranked No. 2 in the world and Laura Massaro of England was ranked No. 3—silver and bronze medals. I must admit that our Welsh players were not quite as highly ranked.
It was not expected that any places would be available among the then 28-maximum sports to be included in the London Olympics but baseball and softball were taken out, so we thought that squash would be in. However, we then fell foul of a rule that new-entry sports should have a voting threshold of 75%, which none of the shortlisted sports had, so London ran with only 26 sports.
Then, in 2009, the two vacant spots for the 2016 games were filled by rugby sevens and golf. Some may say that that was commercially attractive after the 2008 crash. It was then decided that a sport would be removed from the 28 sports in the 2016 games to make room for a new sport in the 2020 games. Wrestling was removed, but then added back in to a shortlist of eight. The list was then reduced to three sports: wrestling, baseball and softball—now combined—and squash. But in 2013, wrestling—not a new sport—was voted back in, when squash was, in fact, the only new sport on the shortlist.
Baseball is a major sport in Japan, so Tokyo was very keen on baseball. The IOC gave the host country the right to nominate new sports. Originally these were squash and baseball because they were the two on the shortlist, but Tokyo was encouraged to open it up to any sport. The city selected a shortlist of eight from the 25 sports that had applied. In August 2015, each sport gave a presentation to the IOC, and in the September Tokyo selected five sports, not including squash. They were baseball and softball combined, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing. Surfing does not even have an international federation that is recognised by the IOC and, because of concerns over the level of waves in the Japanese ocean, a wave-making machine like the Snowdonia model might have to be installed. We cannot get away from Wales, no matter how hard we try.
The host for 2024 will be decided in 2017. The front-runner appears to be Los Angeles, but we have no idea whether there will be any space for new sports. Squash would be inexpensive to introduce, with men’s and women’s singles draws of 32 each. The competitions would take place on two courts over six days with two spectator sessions each day, and only 20 refereeing officials would be needed. Existing squash court venues could be used or glass show courts could be set up. Each show court could accommodate 4,000 spectators, using steep seating to create a fantastic atmospheric arena. There is no need for a warm-up venue because players train on the courts on which they compete. Imagine what two show courts in Horse Guards Parade would have added to the London games.
I understand that the co-vice-chair of our new all-party parliamentary group on squash and racketball, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), had some discussions with Mr Speaker to see whether a show court could be set up in Speakers Court, so that MPs, peers and staff could have the squash experience. But that might have caused a few by-elections. Will the Minister pledge her Department’s support to squash at both grassroots and elite level? Will she shed some light on what has gone wrong with the bids to include squash in the Olympics, and will she help us to campaign for squash to become an Olympic sport?
We had a World Squash Day in 2015, on Saturday 10 October. This year’s day has not been announced yet, but perhaps the Minister would be able to join us. We would be honoured if she would join our APPG on squash and racketball.
Yet again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on securing the debate. I am slightly concerned that two of the three parliamentary squash players who contributed to the debate are Welsh. When the hon. Lady invites me to play squash in the future, we ought to have regional competitions to see what happens. To be perfectly honest, I do not fancy my chances against the three of them, and I used to play squash.
The hon. Lady need not apologise for Wales’s performance in the Euros. I think that for a while we were all Welsh, somehow or another, and we should take this opportunity to congratulate the Wales team on their performance. They did the whole country extremely proud.
There is no doubt that the case to include squash as a future Olympic sport has been made with great passion and conviction today. I am aware of the hon. Lady’s great interest in squash and recognise the valuable contribution she has made to the sport as a top-class player and as a coach—I am now slightly in awe of her sporting CV. It is a tribute to her commitment that she is the only squash coach to receive the Sport Wales female coach of the year award to date, although I hope that the accolade will be awarded to her successors, building on her great work in the sport.
Squash is indeed an exciting, dynamic sport and it has a rich heritage in this country. The national performance centre in Manchester is helping to build world-class strength in depth, and three men and six women are currently in the top 20 rankings. Recent British world champions, including Nick Matthew and Laura Massaro, are great exponents and role models, and inclusion in the Olympics would be an excellent showcase to help grow the sport further. However, it is right that the decision to add any new sport to the Olympic programme is a matter for the International Olympic Committee—the IOC. It would not be appropriate for the British Government, or any national Government, to become involved in that process, or to lobby for any particular sport’s inclusion, especially given the varied sporting landscape that we enjoy in this country.
I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that lots of different sports lobby me to lobby other organisations. It is difficult to go along having a preference for one or another. It is right that we do not get involved and that it is an independent process, but that said, it is open to the relevant national governing body, along with the appropriate world governing body, to make a case for the inclusion of its sport. I understand that that may be under consideration for the 2024 Olympic games.
Nothing is guaranteed, and the incentive to be included on the Olympic programme is one that many sports may wish to aspire to. We are now just over two weeks away from the Rio games, which I am sure will be a wonderful spectacle for athletes and fans alike. In the debate last week, I said that the whole country would be right behind Team GB and indeed ParalympicsGB in Rio. Preparations over the past four years have gone well, with UK Sport working hard, alongside the British Olympic Association and the British Paralympic Association, to confirm Britain’s position as one of the leading Olympic and Paralympic nations in the world. While competition in Rio will be strong, I know that our athletes are ready to give their all and make the country proud.
I can well understand why an exciting global sport like squash would wish to be included in this wonderful sporting panorama, reaching a global audience of billions and inspiring audiences at home. Squash has embraced innovation in recent years to make it a more televisual sport, and it is also in the lead on gender parity, along with other racket sports such as tennis. Indeed the success of the UK Sport-funded men’s world championship held in Manchester in 2013 has resulted in the event again being awarded to the city. It will host the men’s and women’s world championships next year, which will further boost interest in the sport in this country.
The success of the 2014 Commonwealth games in Glasgow further demonstrated the strength of the sport in the home nations and its enduring popularity across the Commonwealth. There is a possibility that the Commonwealth Games will be held again in the UK in 2026. That would be another chance to promote the sport domestically while showcasing the UK’s ability to host major events to a large international audience. It would also offer economic benefits to the nations.
Increased participation is vital to the lifeblood of any sport and helps to feed the élite level from a healthy grassroots base. That is why in December 2015 I published our new sport strategy, which puts increased participation at the heart of the long-term direction of sport. The cross-departmental strategy will use sport to improve and measure the physical and mental wellbeing of people, as well as offering individual, social and community benefits and economic development. Although UK Sport does not fund squash currently, it supports the sport domestically in bidding for major events such as the world championships and in the field of international relations.
Home nations sports councils such as Sport England and Sport Wales also invest money in the sport at the grassroots level, encouraging participation and fostering talent. England Squash was awarded £13.5 million by Sport England for the four-year period of 2013 to 2017—£8.5 million for participation and £5 million for talent. Sport England’s £5 million funds the talent pathway, supporting 4,000 young players aged 11 to 18, and the élite programme.
Great work is being done to encourage new players into the game and to address the recent decline in participation numbers. Squash 101 is a new programme to get more people playing—developed by England Squash and funded by Sport England—through group sessions. It delivers a fast-paced, intense workout without the need to play with a specific partner or within leagues. It includes formal and team challenges. Sessions are fun, informal and different every week. I suggest that that is how we do it in the all-party group to encourage more MPs to be active. They can come along and play a fun and innovative game of squash.
England Squash has also engaged with Sport England’s successful “This Girl Can” campaign to deliver “Squash Girls Can”. It is a fun beginners’ session for women and girls. The sessions run for six to eight weeks, regardless of age or experience, and are a great introduction to squash. Sport England continues to discuss potential ways to develop facilities with local providers, such as those in my constituency, where they are exploring ways to develop facilities, including a temporary show court, which is extremely exciting. From the perspective of the hon. Member for Neath, I know that Sport Wales has also done its bit to encourage participation, coaching and elite performance in the Principality. It has two top 100 players in the men’s and women’s game.
There is certainly a case to be made that such an innovative and exciting sport should be able to grace the world’s biggest stage, and the chance to win medals for Britain would of course be a popular outcome from the Sports Minister’s perspective. However, the right and proper procedures must be followed to secure that global stage for squash, as with any other non-Olympic sport. Squash certainly has a strong case to make to the IOC, should it so choose. More widely, I assure the hon. Lady that the sport is healthy in this country. With the new sport strategy now in place, I expect that health to continue to improve and to deliver not only world-class performance internationally, but more opportunities across the country to enjoy playing this wonderful game.
Question put and agreed to.
EU Referendum: UK-Ireland Border
I beg to move,
That this House has considered implications of the UK leaving the EU for the UK-Ireland border.
It is a privilege to be able to move the motion for debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. The debate covers one of the many acute aspects of the decision by Britain to leave the European Union. It is one of the most acute for me.
The recent referendum result to leave the EU sent shockwaves right across the world, economically and politically. In my opinion, and in that of so many people, it was a bad decision taken for all the wrong reasons. In Ireland, we define a referendum as a process that gets the wrong answer to a question that was not asked in the first place. That seems to be a very appropriate definition of what has happened here.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and thank him for his generosity to me on many occasions in the past. I thank him for being here today and welcome him to his new post. I and others in my party will be seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discuss all the issues involved in the aftermath of the referendum, but the future of the Irish border is a specific issue for which the Home Office has a particular responsibility. It is critical that the Home Office is fully engaged with the Northern Ireland Office, the parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government, on all the questions around the future status of the border.
The political, legal and economic complexities of a British exit from Europe are sobering, to say the least. The challenges that lie ahead will not be easy to surmount for Britain or Ireland, but they are particularly difficult for Northern Ireland. The effects of the vote for Britain to leave the EU are already being felt, with markets suffering and the sense of uncertainty turning off would-be foreign direct investors. The pound has lost almost a sixth of its value against the dollar. I have no intention of perpetuating “Project Fear”. Instead, I am asking myself how the delusions of “project fantasy” managed to persuade so many voters that leaving the EU would be truly in their best interests.
It is unfortunate that many of the key protagonists in the leave campaign have now jumped ship and absolved themselves from taking any responsibility whatever for the damage that I believe they have caused—but I am not surprised. When the size of the task at hand dawned on them and the result became clear, they seemed totally overwhelmed. They had no plan A, let alone a plan B. What has become patently clear is that the leave side did not believe for one moment that they would succeed. Secondly, they did not have any coherent plan for steering us through the very choppy seas of the UK in post-leave mode.
I do not claim to have all the answers to the uncertainty—I am struggling to find some as I go—but the uncertainty that we now face is worrying. I am determined to do all that I can to ensure that the economic and social damage to Northern Ireland, as a result of the intended withdrawal from the EU, is minimised. After all, the majority of people living in Northern Ireland believe that the UK is better off in the EU—56% of them voted to remain.
During the EU referendum campaign, my colleagues and I in the Social Democratic and Labour party worked tirelessly to ensure that we had a high remain vote right across Northern Ireland. I have a particular sense of pride that my constituency had an excellent turnout, with more than 70% of those people voting to remain.
Personally, I have always thought that the EU is not perfect and requires much reform, but the reality is that if we were to dismantle the EU in the morning, we would have to find a new way of reinventing it the next day. People take all the benefits of the EU for granted and will only become fully aware of them when we have left. I urge our new Secretary of State to be cognisant of that fact, and fight, and fight again for the interests of people in Northern Ireland, to ensure that our unique circumstances are considered throughout the forthcoming negotiations. I believe that Northern Ireland’s interests cannot receive the full protection they deserve unless Northern Ireland has at least one, and preferably two, seats at the negotiating table as we go forward.
Prior to the referendum, at Prime Minister’s questions, I asked the former Prime Minister what assurances he could give us about the Irish border. I asked because many of my constituents were writing to me. They and I were deeply worried that there could be a return to a hard border and passport checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which would be damaging to both parts of Ireland, economically and socially. In his response, the right hon. Gentleman warned of the checks along the Northern Ireland border with the Republic and of the possibility of people travelling from Belfast to other parts of the UK having to provide documentation in the event of an exit. The referendum result has created a major uncertainty about border controls and what they might look like. I welcome recent remarks by our new Secretary of State, who has said that there should be no border controls between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. On immigration and customs controls, there will be some changes.
If we were not depressed before we came into this debate, we certainly will be now, listening to the hon. Gentleman. I congratulate him on obtaining the debate. Does he not accept that we are now not going to have the tanks and the guns and the barbed wire at the border? There is a new opportunity now for the United Kingdom as a whole to move forward and create a better country for the future of our young people, and to control our own destiny.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us an example of “project fantasy” and the delusions associated with it. Those are the very delusions that we have put up with for a number of months, on the fairyland that was going to be created post-exit. The only thing he missed out on was telling us the tooth fairy is going to come round, and that Santa Claus is going to come round next week and give us all a bag of money.
I am not depressed or being depressed—I am looking quite simply at the facts. It may be a giggle for the Democratic Unionist party, but it is not a giggle for a lot of people. On the Sunday two days after the result became obvious, I got 200 emails screaming at me— 200 emails on a Sunday. I might normally get one email on a Sunday, if I am lucky, but I got 200, which were screaming at me and demanding to know what I was going to do about the mess that had been created. That is coming from the people I am elected to represent. Perhaps they have got it wrong—but I see no evidence of that. I see an awful lot of make-believe.
We have two or three simple options. If we do not have a hard border in customs and immigration terms, we have to have checks and controls at Larne, at the airports, and possibly even at Dublin, Dún Laoghaire and other places. An alternative option might be that the barriers are created somewhere about Dover and similar points of entry.
The issues, however, are serious, and make-believe and delusions will not help solve them. We will require a serious discussion with countries that remain in the European Union to ensure that we go forward with a positive agenda. That agenda will not be helped by delusions or aggression; it will require honest engagement and honest dealing with the facts.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate, because it is an interesting one, especially for those of us who live in Northern Ireland, as well as in the Republic of Ireland. I understand some of the concerns, but will he also acknowledge that since the exit referendum some people living in the Republic of Ireland have said that because “Things have settled down quite well and quickly in the United Kingdom,” perhaps it is time for those in the Republic of Ireland to reassess their position in the European Union? Some are saying, “Maybe we should have a referendum on our membership of the European Union as well.”
I remind the hon. Gentleman that 56% of the people in Northern Ireland want to remain in the EU, and I guess that a significant number of those in southern Ireland would also want to remain. The referendum, frankly, was a mistake; it has opened a can of worms, which it will be difficult to sort out, and Britain will be much worse off at least economically, if not socially as well.
Remarks about what might, could or should happen are not a clear, definitive statement on, or a commitment to, what will happen. That clarity and assurance is why I asked for the debate today—we need clarity and the public want clarity. People are still in a degree of confusion. The vote has happened and stands, but an awful lot of the detail is missing.
Never before have Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland had a situation in which one is in the EU and the other outside it. Also, references to the common travel area simply do not cut any ice with me. We are in uncharted seas—circumstances we have never been in before—and the prospect of people undergoing passport checks as they move between the north and the south, or between Northern Ireland and Britain, is extremely concerning. It would be unwise to create obstacles to the free and seamless travel that now exists between north and south, and between Ireland and Britain, and which is critical for cross-border workers, students, traders and all the social networks that exist at all levels between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Queen’s University Belfast is in my constituency, and students from Northern Ireland move to the south, to Dublin and other places, such as Galway and Cork, for university education—vice versa, students from the south travel to Belfast, Coleraine and Derry. The practicalities of how changes to the border will impact on them as individuals, and more widely on our economy, have not been fully assessed, and they need to be assessed and fully considered.
The EU referendum result cannot be allowed to erode the massive progress in benefits over the past 20 years, especially the good work of the peace process and the benefits that have flowed from the Good Friday agreement—or the Belfast agreement, as some might wish to call it—including the political process that has evolved; and that still has some way to go. Many of my colleagues have a living memory of a hard border across Ireland. It is not a good memory by any means. On the crucial issue of the border, however, I stress to the Minister that we need a post-Brexit situation for Britain and Europe to resemble the pre-Brexit situation as closely as possible. We want to minimise the damage and disadvantages that can arise.
Free movement of people has transformed the island of Ireland, and it is a central tenet of the Good Friday agreement. That agreement is rooted in European legislation and set in a broad European framework. A UK exit from the EU risks severely compromising the 1998 settlement. There is potential for erosion of its terms and benefits for all if and when Britain leaves the EU. The prospect of an exit has also brought us huge legal and financial uncertainty. Further uncertainty around what the border will look like in 10 years’ time leaves us vulnerable to those who would seek to take advantage of that uncertainty and our weakened state, including dissidents and other paramilitaries—that is not a threat, but an observation.
No one present wants to see a return to the darker days that we came through, but we must be aware of the delicate balance in Northern Ireland, the unique political settlement we have there and how it became destabilised after the referendum. Dragging a region that voted solidly to remain in the EU out of the EU—against its wishes—flies in the face of the principle of consent, which is at the very heart of the 1998 settlement. The new Home Secretary, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Irish Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, must work closely on the issue to ensure that all concerns to do with the border are resolved in a functional and effective way that secures safety, and with it the freedom of all our citizens, north and south, in Ireland.
On customs and the border, leaving the customs union would necessitate customs checks on the border and, therefore, significant restrictions on, barriers to or limitations on travel at the border. We need to look seriously at an option for Northern Ireland to have a special customs status, whereby it is treated as being in the customs union for goods and services travelling solely within the island of Ireland. There are many precedents, but the one that comes to mind is Büsingen, a small German town on the Swiss border, which is treated as part of Switzerland for customs purposes. All sorts of options are available, with other places having various arrangements, but that is one example. It is essential, for our small businesses trading across the Irish border, that we remain within the customs union, and for our exporters, that we remain in the single market.
Throughout Northern Ireland, 56% of our electorate voted to remain. The democratic will of the people in Northern Ireland cannot and should not be airbrushed out of the debate. Northern Ireland can, and might well have to, make common cause with Scotland and Gibraltar. I am looking carefully, along with others in Northern Ireland, at establishing an effort to discuss how we steer our way through the problems that exist already and that will present themselves—for Northern Ireland especially—in the future.
I sincerely hope that the EU will look at some kind of special access arrangement for Northern Ireland, given its unique constitutional status and its geographical location. All sorts of special EU arrangements are in place for the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and a series of French dependencies throughout the world. The needs of our people and the future of our children depend on our getting the post-Brexit situation right, and doing everything we can to reduce the adverse consequences of Britain leaving the European Union. Our peace, security and economic prospects are in the balance. My plea to those present in Westminster Hall is to get this right—let us do everything necessary to ensure that the post-Brexit situation is minimally removed from the pre-Brexit situation.
Order. The debate is due to finish at 5.30 pm. I shall call the first of the Front Benchers to speak at 5.7 pm. The Scottish National party has five minutes, Her Majesty’s Opposition five minutes and the Minister 10 minutes, and then Dr Alasdair McDonnell has three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. Five people are standing, so I am afraid it will be a time limit of three minutes each, if we are all to get in—
You have probably chosen the wrong person to do that, Mr Hollobone, but thank you for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
Despite the fact that we have blue skies outside and are probably experiencing a heatwave, the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) has brought clouds of doom and downpours of gloom to this room today. May I say just three things? First, he has made a big play of the fact that the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, but the important thing is that the majority of people in the United Kingdom, in a United Kingdom referendum, voted to leave the EU.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman said that we are already experiencing the shockwaves from that vote. Given that since the day the referendum result was announced, we have had an outpouring of efforts to talk the economy down by the bad losers in this debate, it is surprising that the economy and other things have not been far worse. Let us look at some of the rays of sunlight that are already coming through the gloom that he has brought in today. The biggest investment in financial services by a far eastern company—£24 billion—has been announced this week. Already, Australia, America, New Zealand and other countries are talking about new trade agreements. And rather than jumping ship as he said they were, some of the people who were at the forefront of the referendum debate are now in the lead. They are at the helm of the ship, and I have no doubt that it will be steered to a safe haven.
Thirdly, let me deal with the border, which was one of the scare stories used by those who tried to persuade people in Northern Ireland that leaving the EU was not in their interests. We have heard the same rhetoric today, but there is no substance to it. Here are the facts. The Irish Government have said they do not wish to have border controls. The British Government have said they do not wish to have border controls. The Northern Ireland Assembly has said it does not wish to have border controls. Historically, the common travel area has worked effectively and ensures that there is no need for border controls. The Irish Government chose not to be part of the Schengen arrangements. Why? Because they value the free movement of people between Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and the Irish Republic.
Why would the Irish Government wish to open their doors and allow people freely to move into the Irish Republic, hoping that if they were economic immigrants, they might move on to the United Kingdom, or if they were coming in to do terrorist deeds, they would not do those deeds in the Irish Republic? It is in the interests of the Irish Government to do checks at ports of entry. Indeed, they already do them, and I believe that that is possible. When the previous Government—the spokesman for the Labour party, the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), may accept this—talked about e-borders, the first thing they did was to negotiate with the Irish Republic about how the e-borders arrangements for the United Kingdom could effectively be policed at points of entry into the Irish Republic, and the Irish Republic Government showed a willingness to do that and to work with those arrangements. We have had such checks historically, and I believe that we can negotiate to ensure that those stay in place.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) on securing the debate and his leadership on this important issue more widely.
Contrary to what we have just heard from the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), several serious concerns and questions have arisen since the Brexit outcome, and those have been addressed by people looking at these issues. He seems to blur and conflate the questions of a customs border, a migration border, the common travel area and the free movement of goods. Those things are distinct and should not be conflated. We had the common travel area in circumstances in which we still had customs borders and controls, and various exchange controls.
Committee B—the European affairs committee—of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which met in Malahide in the aftermath of the referendum, commissioned a report on visa systems. It is a very good report, and I commend it to the Minister, who has just taken up his post. If he wants a good understanding of the true history of the common travel area—without the false assumptions and impressions that are given, as though the area has had a singular, linear and even history, which it has not—he would do well to read that report. I pay tribute to that committee’s two current rapporteurs, Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD, who represents Sinn Féin in the Dáil, and Baroness Harris from the other House. Her predecessor as rapporteur was Lord German. The report is a very thorough investigation of the issues.
In case other hon. Members care to know this, the committee is chaired by the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who was not in the alarmist camp in relation to the leave prospectus. The report states that
“as already noted, the Committee is not currently in a position to draw clear conclusions or make recommendation on the implications for the CTA of the UK leaving the EU. The Committee therefore hopes to explore this issue in more detail as part of any future inquiries it holds on the wider implications for British-Irish relations of the UK’s vote to leave the EU.”
Committee B will not be the only committee of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly to look at those issues, but it would be wrong of anybody to pretend that there are not issues or that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South is trying to conjure up or exaggerate some of these problems.
I hear an acceptance, at least, from both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) that the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will be implemented. We are now talking about how that will be done and the mechanisms for doing that.
We are talking about the implications of the referendum result—a referendum, remember, that we were told at the time was constitutionally advisory. Let us be very clear that the people of Northern Ireland voted clearly to remain in the EU. They did so when they voted in the referendum, and they did so previously when they voted for the Good Friday agreement, which took the UK and Ireland’s common membership of the EU as a given. That is written into the fabric of the agreement between the two Governments; it is there in the preamble and it is there in strand 1, strand 2 and strand 3. That agreement itself depended on the principle of consent—the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, as well as the consent of the people of the south—and that consent was binding. It is a bit much for people to say that the rest of us should take it as a matter of passing lightness that Northern Ireland could be taken out of the EU against the clear wishes of its people and with potential damage to the Good Friday agreement.
Remember that, as well as the European Union being written into the Good Friday agreement, so too was the European convention on human rights, and we know that there are people in Government who want to dispose of that as well. Those are not mere stud walls to be knocked through but supporting walls of the institutions that we have and the Good Friday agreement, which was given democratic legitimacy—it is a democratic high-water mark—by the unique and overwhelming endorsement that it received from the people of Ireland, north and south, in 1998. No one has dared to contest that since. Those are not matters that we should in any way take as given.
Those who are now grinning like horses chewing thistles because they have got the leave result that they wanted cannot pretend that there are not issues and complications. The rest of us want to minimise and mitigate those, and ensure that people in Northern Ireland are in the best position. It is clear from what my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South said that that is what we are doing. We are looking for flexibility and a space that allows us to maintain access to the EU and its benefits, which a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to retain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) on making the debate possible as this issue has been debated across these islands. I welcome the Minister to his new position. For the record, I declare an interest, in that I am an officer of the all-party group on the Irish in Britain. I speak in the debate not only as an MP representing a Scottish constituency with a large Irish diaspora but as someone with Irish grandparents—a common occurrence for those of us in the west of Scotland.
From a Scottish perspective, during the European Union referendum campaign, the messages those of us on the remain side from across the usual party political divide conveyed were of the many economic and social benefits of being a member of the European Union and how best our country and our people can interact with our neighbours across that Union. Critically, free moment of people and goods are, and continue to be, important benefits, and ones that affect many of my constituents. I have no doubt that that was one of the contributing factors that led to such a large vote to remain, not only in my constituency but across the nation of Scotland.
The status of EU nationals living in this country must be urgently addressed to reassure those living, working and paying their taxes that their future is secure. While the issues facing Scotland and the status of EU nationals can be appreciated in Northern Ireland, the fact that the Province shares a border with a European Union country opens up a new layer of complex issues.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady, as access to a stable economy creates stable communities. As I said, while the EU nationals issue can be appreciated in Northern Ireland, the fact that the Province shares a border with a European country opens up a new layer of complex issues, involving local businesses, communities and the people themselves that needs to be addressed. The situation brings challenges for both the Irish and United Kingdom Governments as well as for the Northern Ireland Executive. A coherent strategy across all three must be in place to meet the issues that arise from the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union. The impact of Brexit on the Good Friday agreement is still unclear. The United Kingdom Government must address the concerns that any possible hardening of the border will have a detrimental impact on the protections contained in the Good Friday agreement.
The second piece of legislation I will touch on is the common travel area.