Wednesday 8 May 2019
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Children’s Future Food Inquiry
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Report of the Children’s Future Food inquiry.
The children’s future food inquiry has for the past year listened to young people tell us about their experiences of food insecurity. The result is the children’s #Right2Food charter, which was launched two weeks ago in Westminster with Dame Emma Thompson, who has done a fantastic job as the inquiry’s ambassador.
I pay particular tribute to Lindsay Graham, who has been running holiday hunger schemes and lobbying for a long time—she was the inspiration behind this—the Food Foundation, which did a lot of the work, and particularly the young ambassadors, whose involvement was absolutely fantastic. A number of other Members present were members of the panel, as was I, so I do not want to take up too much time. It is important that they contribute, particularly as some of them were more involved than I was, so I will try to be relatively brief.
I will start by underlining the scale of the problem, which led us to feel the need to do the inquiry. One in three children in the UK—4.1 million—live in relative poverty, and the number living in absolute poverty has increased. UNICEF estimates that 2.5 million of those children live in food insecurity, meaning that at times their families cannot afford to put food on the table or cannot buy the full variety of foods needed for a healthy diet. The Food Foundation, using UNICEF data, says that the UK has the highest percentage in the European Union of children under 15 living in a severely food insecure household, which we ought to be deeply ashamed of as a country.
Hunger has an impact on children’s mental and physical health; it affects their attainment at school, their attendance and their behaviour if they are too tired, too hungry or exist on a diet of junk food. Severe obesity at ages 10 to 11 is at its highest level since records began—I heard that we now have more obese 11-year-olds than the United States. Almost one in five children are obese by the time they start primary school, and one in three by the time they start secondary school. Typically, the most deprived areas have double the rate of childhood obesity compared with the least deprived, and one and a half times the rate of underweight children. It hits both ways; it is about malnutrition and obesity.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which served on the inquiry panel, recently published an update to its 2017 “State of Child Health” report. Two years on, it highlights grave concern that no progress has been made on reducing child poverty and inequality in the UK. We cannot tackle these health problems, particularly childhood obesity, without tackling child food poverty.
Evidence for the children’s future food inquiry was gathered from workshops with nearly 400 children in 13 different locations across the UK. It also included an academic review of child food insecurity, polling of young people, more than 100 submissions from people working with children, a UK-wide policy review and a secondary analysis of Government data on the affordability of a healthy diet. Children told the inquiry how debilitating constant hunger can be and how it affects their ability to concentrate in class. There were children who had been forced to shoplift, scavenge or barter, just so that they could eat.
Since securing the debate, I have been contacted by a number of people who wanted to add to the information that the inquiry was given. One new teacher emailed me and told me of giving Christmas dinner to
“a suspected severely neglected child”
“also has many learning difficulties. I have never seen a child eat his food so quickly (the term ‘wolf it down’ does not compare to what I saw). I asked him why he was eating it so quickly and he said that he hadn’t had a meal this big in days. It was not a grand-sized meal in the slightest. Once he had completed eating the Christmas dinner, he pulled out one of those plastic Chinese takeaway boxes with the remnants of some broken-up crisps (they looked like Doritos) and he asked if he could then eat them. I said he had just eaten a full meal and was he still hungry—he said yes, he was and that he didn’t know it was Christmas dinner day, and that they would have been his lunch.”
The teacher goes on to say:
“It’s awful the situation we are seeing. It cannot go on any longer.”
Parliament’s digital engagement programme has done a brilliant job of reaching out to people for comments using social media and has sent me a list of responses. Some are from people personally affected by food poverty while others are from people working at food banks, teachers or headteachers at schools, or people involved in trying to help families. Many of the responses highlight problems with the benefits system, particularly work capability assessments and sanctions, and especially the roll-out of universal credit. One respondent working in family law said
“families are poorer today than I have ever seen”.
Another, who volunteers at a food bank, said
“this problem seems to be escalating at an alarming rate”,
and that they are
“seeing a massive increase in referrals since the introduction of universal credit in the area”.
Many of those experiencing food poverty were in employment. Some spoke of the particular difficulty in catering for special diets—for example if their children were gluten intolerant; a child with autism who had to have a special diet was mentioned—and others spoke of having to choose between heating and eating. Laura said:
“It has been the worst of times. Sat at home, considering if I should top up gas and electric; but then if I do, what will myself, my partner and my 2-year-old little boy eat? What is the use of having gas with no food to cook? But what is the use of having food but no gas?”
Another respondent who is in ill health with respiratory and arthritic illness, so has to keep the house warm, said:
“Our food budget is the only variable I’m able to hold back on. We feed a family of four on £100 a month”.
A woman from Reading said that she and her young daughter
“are literally being fed by mum”.
She has a full-time job, but after taxes and childcare she takes home £30, which goes on travel to work. Sarah, a grandmother, says:
“I have become broke with debt trying to bail my daughter and grandchildren out.”
The children’s future food inquiry has five key asks, as set out in the children’s #Right2Food charter. First, we ask for the healthy lunch guarantee. Children said that the £2.30 free school meal credit was not enough to afford healthier lunches or to cover breakfast if they did not get it at home. The Minister was at the launch with Emma Thompson and the children ambassadors, so he will have heard a lot of this. Today we heard from Citizens UK that children on free school meals lose out on £65 million a year because they are not given change if they buy a meal that comes under that daily limit; the money is kept by meal providers at the end of the day, rather than being given back to the child to roll over and spend the next day.
Our inquiry found that 23% of children who are not eligible for free school meals—because their household income is deemed just that bit too high, or because they have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status—go without lunch because they cannot afford it. Many families of children who have no recourse to public funds who approached their local authority for section 17 support were refused. Some schools step in and pay for the child’s meals, but some, particularly in areas of high immigration, cannot afford to do so. We heard that packed lunches are often much less healthy than a cooked meal; just 1% of school packed lunches meet school food standards. I think the example that stuck in all our minds was that of the child whose packed lunch apparently consisted of just two cold fish fingers.
Many families struggle to feed children over the school holidays. The lost value of free school meals in the 13 weeks of holidays is approximately £150 per child, which is a lot of money for parents on low incomes to find, especially if they have more than one child. The inquiry makes a number of recommendations; it is quite detailed, and I am sure that other panel members will go into detail on some of the other recommendations, so I will outline only a few of them.
The inquiry recommends: providing free nursery meals to children who are entitled to free childcare, and introducing mandatory food standards in all nurseries, as in Northern Ireland; increasing the offer of free school meals to a wider group of children, including migrant and undocumented children without recourse to public funds; expanding the school fruit and vegetable scheme so that all children can benefit; and supporting holiday provision. Many of the details of the places that were successful in applying for this year’s Holiday hunger pilots were announced earlier today. We are disappointed that Bristol did not qualify, which I will mention again later.
Secondly, we ask for the healthy food minimum, which is about supporting parents and carers to put healthy food on the table. The inquiry recommends expanding the Healthy Start voucher scheme. At the moment it reaches only a third of young children living in poverty, and the voucher is worth only £3.10 a week, which I understand has not been adjusted since 2009. It is not index-linked, and it is not aligned with the Government’s own estimates of the cost of fruit and vegetables, so clearly something needs to be done to ensure that it is meaningful.
We also need to look at housing. Nearly 2% of households in England live with children in private rented accommodation that fails to meet the decent homes standard. Families in bed and breakfast, such as those supported under section 17, will not have access to cooking facilities. Even in other rented accommodation, there can be limited access to such facilities or cooking equipment, or families cannot afford gas or electricity.
Thirdly, we are calling for a new, independent children’s food watchdog, the role of which would include monitoring and inspection of school and nursery meals, development of a national menu designed by young people to meet school food standards, and looking at the school eating environment. I was surprised by the extent to which that came up during in the inquiry. Children, particularly in secondary schools, said that they were being rushed during lunchtimes, did not have time to finish their meals and were being forced to go back to the classroom having not finished eating. Such things could easily be looked at. Also, the Government still have not introduced their healthy rating scheme, which they promised in their childhood obesity plan would be introduced by September 2017. I hope that the Minister will update us on that.
The fourth ask of the children’s #Right2Food charter is headlined “Health before profits”. It is about prioritising children’s health before the profits of those big business that try to sell them junk food. We know what a pervasive effect they can have. That would include stopping marketing aimed at children on packaging, such as breakfast cereals with cartoon characters; ending promotions of unhealthy foods and replacing them with health warnings; and tackling the marketing of junk food on television.
People in many quarters are calling for a 9 pm watershed, because we know that a lot of children do not watch only Cbeebies or wherever the children’s TV programmes are; they are watching reality TV shows and programmes at 7 and 8 o’clock at night. A watershed of 9 o’clock is therefore proposed, so that 59% of food and drink adverts shown during family viewing time would be banned from children’s TV. That shows how children are exposed to all those adverts banned on children’s TV but not at times when the whole family is watching a programme.
On fast food outlets near schools, I know that a lot of places are looking at exclusion zones—the standard is about 400 metres, but a lot are considering 800 metres. One of the suggestions was to increase business rates for fast food outlets near schools, using the funding to support food education and extended school day projects.
Fifthly, “Stop the stigma” is about ensuring that children who experience food insecurity and have to have free school meals do not feel ashamed about that. One of the things that stuck in my mind when talking to some pupils was that their school had a free salad bar. The idea was that the children could spend their money on the unhealthy food or go to the free salad bar, but there was a stigma attached—people were seen as only going to the salad bar because they were poor, not because they wanted healthy food. We need to look at that.
Talk about that ask included renaming free school meals as the school meal allowance, increasing the allowance to at least £4 per day, and allowing it to be carried over, as I said. Another recommendation was banning water being sold in schools. It is shocking that some school dining halls do not have water fountains. If children were thirsty, they had to spend what little they had—£2.30—on bottled water. The plastic alone means that such bottles should not be there, but the fact that a school cannot provide free tap water is pretty shocking. Also, poverty-proofing our schools would ensure that all children may take part in activities such as cooking, and those on free school meals should be kept anonymous.
I want to draw to a close soon, but I will first say a few things about what we are doing in my city with the Feeding Bristol pilot, which was set up a couple of years ago and stems from the Feeding Britain project that came out of the all-party group on hunger and food poverty and the work of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). We had a breakfast club initiative, in phase 1 of which we provided free food to 15 schools in high need. That was led by the chief executive of FareShare, which, as the Minister knows, takes in surplus food to distribute it to people in need. In phase 2, which will start later this year, we will target a further 20 schools in high need, increasing the nutritional value of the food distributed and offering it for free to about 30 to 50 children per school. Also under the auspices of Feeding Bristol, for the Christmas just gone FareShare distributed 56 free hampers across four children’s centres for those in most need.
We are also setting up FOOD—Food On Our Doorstep—clubs, based on a Manchester membership-type model, which is funded by Family Action. Two clubs will launch in July and the plan is for another two later this year. The clubs are a way of providing a top-up of groceries at very low cost—families pay about £3.50 a week per customer to get groceries worth about £15 to £20. The first two clubs will based in two children’s centres. We will then find another two sites. We have also funded two community engagement workers through the Big Lottery. They are based in community organisations and provide support to families in need, helping them to build independence into their food security.
Holiday hunger is the final thing to mention. As I said, we are rather disappointed that Bristol did not qualify for the funding this year; last year, we got £30,000 from the Department for Education, which we used to feed 2,200 children—a total of 15,000 meals—over the six-week summer holidays. The Minister’s office was in touch with me, because the announcement was made just gone midnight this morning, but I would be interested to know the criteria, because we felt that we did a good job with the money last year. We are now trying to crowd-source the funding and going out to city institutions because we want not only to replicate that this year, but to roll it out into something bigger.
A couple of weeks ago we had our huge annual Feeding Bristol event, with well over 100 people—perhaps 150—from all the organisations involved. That was not just people working in food banks and the charity sector but those involved in local food-growing projects, which we are keen on, or those who teach cooking skills or want to do communal cooking in cooking centres. The pilot is a brilliant initiative, and I know that we are not the only place trying to do such things.
The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, spoke out when expressing his disappointment at us not getting the funding again. He said:
“It is evidence of a defunct model of leadership where a city…has proven its commitment and ability to deliver, further plans are put in place but…they are dependent on London-based decision makers—who then took a judgment not to fund, which in turn poses a major challenge... Our efforts to end child hunger should not be undermined because we are thrust into a zero-sum competition with other cities and towns. What is more, it undermines the stated national objective.”
That is true. We did all we could to deliver the programme, and we are keen to roll it out, but this time I think in the south-west it was Plymouth that secured the funding, which is great, but it should be mainstreamed and not subject to the whim of bids.
The Minister came along to the launch, and he was praised for his willingness to engage. I know that he was keen to take part in the debate today. I hope that he has had a chance to reflect more on the findings and that he will come up with some firm commitments.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on her speech and on bringing this important subject before the House of Commons. She is absolutely right to do so, because the Food Foundation, among others, has pointed out that public policy has in effect withdrawn from the food sector over the past 20 years or so. That is not right, because the area is important and we need to do better in many parts of it.
At the very start of life, as we know from the report, the UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Mothers’ milk, or formula milk, is the most important food that children get to start with. As a man, I feel particularly passionate about defending the rights of breastfeeding mothers to feed in public or at work—women should not be shut away. We are moving on, but we still have to challenge one or two people who do not stand up for mothers who want to breastfeed.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I am sure he was in the House, as I was, when the Equality Act 2010 was passed. The Act made it lawful to breastfeed wherever bottle feeding a child was allowed. Is he as disappointed as I am that the Act still has not been enforced properly?
Yes, I am. We need to go further. If any employers are not giving mothers breaks at work to breastfeed, they should change their practice. The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue.
As children’s lives go on, the problem gets worse. When children start primary school, 10% are obese, but when they leave at the age of 11, 20% are obese. A quarter of all children starting primary school are overweight or obese, yet one third are when they leave. Cancer Research UK and others have said that, based on present trends, half all children in the UK are set to be overweight or obese by 2020.
Sadly, obese children are five times more likely to remain obese as adults, and therefore more likely to have diabetes, cancer, heart or liver conditions, or perhaps mental health conditions associated with those issues. There are 3.1 million people with diabetes. That has gone up from 2.4 million in 2010. Every week in this country we amputate around 170 lower limbs due to diabetes. That is 9,000 a year. People are having their feet or lower legs cut off because their diabetes has got so bad. That should shame us; it is an appalling state of affairs, and the number has gone up from 7,200 amputations in 2010. The trajectory is getting worse.
Our food sector is not working in the way it should. We know from the work of the Food Foundation and others that unhealthy food is on average three times cheaper than healthy food. Let me put that the other way around: healthy food is three times more expensive than unhealthy food. That is simply not good enough. People in poverty and those with low incomes will buy what they can afford. If they are forced to buy unhealthy food, children set off on the wrong trajectory, which is why being obese and overweight is a huge social justice issue. For the first time in our nation’s history, the poorest are the most overweight and obese. That should set red lights flashing across Whitehall that our food policy is not working.
In most constituencies, fast food outlets, many of which unfortunately do not sell the healthy food they should, average about a quarter of all places to buy food. The figure varies from only 7% in the Isles of Scilly to 39% in Blackburn with Darwen, where nearly four in 10 food outlets are fast food outlets, selling primarily unhealthy food.
The UK does badly internationally, too. I am grateful for the research from the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity in its report “Bite Size”, which came out a couple of months ago. It compared London with capital cities around the world for childhood obesity rates. It is not a happy story. In Paris, 5% of children are obese; in Hong Kong, it is 7%; in Sydney, it is 10%; in Tokyo, it is 12%; in New York, it is 21%; and in London, it is 22%. We are worse than New York for childhood obesity, and more than four times worse than Paris, which is just the other side of the channel.
There is a particularly European dimension to the problem. I will not talk about Brexit, but about what is happening with food policy in Europe. I am grateful to the Food Foundation for its “Broken Plate” report, which came out a couple of months ago. In that, a lady called Kathleen Kerridge wrote:
“Across mainland Europe, cheap foods are healthy choices. It’s sensible that a kilo of tomatoes should be cheaper than a kilo of sausages. In the UK, however, the opposite is true”—
or it is often true. Why is that the case? She goes on to state:
“I would like to see the UK take note of the European model. I think with food education and more affordable fresh produce, we could turn the tide for the poorest households and see us all eating ‘well’.”
I have considerable issues with the food industry in this country. I commend the work of the Obesity Health Alliance in calling for the 9 pm watershed and for restrictions on multi-buy promotions, both of which the Government are consulting on. That is excellent, but we need to get through the consultation and take action. As the Obesity Health Alliance says, these are serious and important issues.
Let me give praise where praise is due. One supermarket in Europe is doing the right thing—the Dutch retail chain Marqt, which operates 16 stores in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Haarlem in the Netherlands. It has become the first chain in the Netherlands to ban the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. Its chief executive Joost Leeflang said:
“Marqt helps consumers choose products that are produced with respect for people, animals and environment and this includes helping customers make healthier choices.”
He went on to say:
“Tempting children to choose unhealthy products doesn’t fit with how we want to help our customers.”
Mr Leeflang is a private sector entrepreneur running a business, and he is appealing to people’s better instincts—to parents to do the right thing for their children. Frankly, if he can do it, I want to lay down that challenge before the supermarkets and fast food outlets up and down this country. If it can happen in the Netherlands, it can happen here.
As a member of the Health Committee, I went to Amsterdam, where the deputy mayor, Eric van der Burg, a centre-right politician, has brought in a major, city-wide programme to deal with obesity. That meant having free water available in schools—the hon. Member for Bristol East is absolutely right about that. In fact, only water is allowed to be drunk in schools there. That meant educating the parents, helping low-income and immigrant communities to learn to cook properly and banning the advertising of unhealthy foods on the metro. It is a city-wide approach that is producing results, as is happening in Leeds—encouragingly, we learnt last week that the poorest children are starting to lose weight the fastest. There is hope that lessons from Amsterdam are coming over to the UK.
I hear what the hon. Lady says about people living in food poverty. We have to make sure that people have enough income to eat properly. We need what I would call prosperity with a purpose and inclusive growth—there is no point running a free market system that does not benefit the people working in it. That has to be part of what we are about; it is what I am about, and I know it is what the Minister is about in his role in Government.
There is more we can do. We could learn from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme in the United States, which gives vouchers for farmer’s markets in the USA. I have farmer’s markets in towns in my constituency, which often provide lower cost, healthy food. We need more of that. Let us look around the world and take best practice. Let us not just leave this issue to the free market alone. Let us encourage the people who are doing the right thing, such as Mr Leeflang in the Netherlands, and encourage UK retailers to follow his excellent example.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing this important and very timely debate, and for her excellent opening speech.
Two weeks ago, as we have heard, we launched the children’s future food inquiry and it was widely welcomed. A huge number of people attended the launch, including a number of us here, and the Minister, who everyone was pleased to see. I co-chaired the inquiry with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East and for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) were members of the inquiry committee. The report is unique, because it is the first to include children and young people from low-income backgrounds—in fact, it is all about them and their voices.
The young food ambassadors were instrumental in the development of the report—so much so that we produced the children’s #Right2Food charter, which contains the voices of all the young people who contributed. They shared their experiences of food insecurity and hunger with such bravery, and ensured that not only their voices but those of their friends and peers who had experienced food insecurity were heard. They were so articulate in telling us about their experiences at home and school. They told us things that shocked even the most hardened and clued-up MPs on the inquiry committee; I think a number of us shed a few tears at those sessions.
I cannot mention all the things we heard during the inquiry, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East has already highlighted a number of them, so I will focus on three things that stood out: free school meals; the availability of free water, which we have already heard about; and the affordability and availability of food at home.
Hon. Members will know that I chair the all-party parliamentary group on school food. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, who helped me set up that group 10 years ago, is one of its vice-chairs. We have campaigned for more than a decade with Members across the House to ensure that children have access to a hot and healthy meal during the school day. I am pleased that that campaign has developed to include provision for breakfast and meals throughout the school holidays for the poorest children.
I am very pleased by the Minister’s announcement overnight that the Government will provide £9.1 million this year for holiday activities and food, following last year’s £2 million. I was also pleased to see that two of the successful bids—those from Gateshead Council and StreetGames in Newcastle—were from the north-east. It will be really interesting to follow those programmes and see the difference that I know they will make to some of the most disadvantaged children across the country.
However, I want to focus on the provision of free school meals. As we know, on average, free school meal pupils receive around £2.30 a day. That rate was introduced in 2014 and has not increased since, so pupils have to stretch their allowance further each year to get a meal. However, the young food ambassadors told us that, more often than not, the cheapest food on the menu is the unhealthiest food. As the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, we see the same in wider society with supermarkets and takeaways, for example.
One young ambassador told us that she would usually get a sausage roll, chips and beans, because that was all she could afford on her free school meal allowance that would actually keep her full. She was looking for fullness, not healthiness. The Minister will know that that is not the best example of a nutritious meal for a young person who is growing up and preparing for an afternoon of lessons. It is fine once in a while, but we do not really want a child to be eating that day in, day out just because it keeps them full. Will the Minister therefore have cross-departmental discussions with his colleagues to ensure that, especially in schools, the cheapest food is not the unhealthiest food on the menu, so pupils on free school meals have the opportunity to eat the same healthy food as their peers, even if some healthy items have to be provided at a loss? The situation in schools must be different from the situation in the supermarkets.
We also heard that schools did not value lunch time as part of the day but saw it as an inconvenience to be rushed and got over with. Unfortunately, for thousands of children, the only meal they get each day is the one they eat at school. That is not right, but we know it is the case, so school meals should not be rushed or dismissed. However, the young ambassadors told us that they sometimes had their lunch time as late as 1pm. That is an excruciating time for someone who has gone to school hungry to wait—even we cannot always wait until 1pm—and makes it impossible for them to concentrate on lessons in the morning. It probably wastes the whole morning’s learning.
Most shockingly, we also heard that those very same pupils then had only a half-hour lunch break, a lot of which was spent queuing for food. If they had not finished their meal by the time the break was over, they were made to throw the remnants of their food in the bin. Imagine that—imagine having to throw some of the only meal that is available to you that day in the bin because you do not have time to eat it. It is just gut-wrenching.
One young ambassador also told us that pupils could be forced to take their detentions during their lunch break, further limiting the time they have to eat. Schools should not turn lunch time into a chore, something for pupils to dread or a time to punish pupils. Lunch time should be an integral part of the day—a time for children to get nourishment, to wind down and to spend time socialising with their friends. Let me be frank: children simply cannot learn if they are hungry and thirsty.
That takes me to my next point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East eloquently raised—its absurdity has exercised a number of us. We must remember that children from low-income families who are on free school meals are not the kind of children who have fancy reusable water bottles that they can refill as and when. They may also be from chaotic homes and, as we heard, some of them are child carers who have many responsibilities before they get to school, so finding a bottle to fill will not be foremost in their mind. In fact, it was the consensus among the young ambassadors that, even if they did have a reusable water bottle, there were no facilities at school where they could fill it with fresh water. The Minister heard that for himself when he met the young ambassadors at the launch of the report. I know he was shocked by that and said it was against school standards, but that is the reality that those children face. Sadly, I am sure the situation is the same in other schools.
If a child manages to bring a water bottle to school, there is often nowhere to fill it, so they have to buy another bottle. As we heard, that can cost them up to 90p—a huge proportion of their £2.30 allowance for a free school meal, especially when they are battling with hunger. We were also told that, similarly to food, unhealthy drinks options such as juice and milkshakes are available and—guess what?—they are often cheaper than water, at 50p or 60p.
In the Netherlands, where the healthy food programme is called Jump-In, they allow only water in schools, they get parents on side, and they are very successful.
There is indeed a lot we can learn from other countries. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham and I visited Sweden at the start of our parliamentary careers, and that is what drove us to campaign to improve things here. In Sweden, not only was all the food free and healthy, but there were not millions of choices, so it was affordable to provide. The children all ate it, and there was water and milk on tap, totally free.
Clearly, there is a disparity in the messaging to pupils. They are told they have to eat healthily but they feel that a healthy diet is totally unaffordable for them. That brings me to my final point, which is about the availability of affordable food at home. Some 4.1 million children in the UK are growing up in poverty. That is a fact. That means that one in three children lives in a household that struggles to afford to buy enough healthy food to meet the official nutritional guidelines. Those families would have to spend 42% of their disposable income after housing to be able to consume a healthy diet. It is outrageous that a healthy diet is so far out of reach for millions of families. One young ambassador, who was a child carer, told the inquiry that food was so scarce at home that she rationed her food so her mum and siblings had enough to eat. I hope the Minister agrees that that is not a position any child should be put in.
Finally, will the Minister commit to setting up an independent food watchdog to look at these issues, to cost policies and to prevent children from going hungry? It is one of the five asks of the children’s #Right2Food charter contained in the report. I will not go into those asks, because my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East spoke about them in detail. As the report highlights, if we do not act now, we will lose an entire generation to food insecurity and hunger—and, in turn, obesity, because hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin: malnutrition. I implore the Minister to act now to help future generations.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing and opening the debate. She set the tone for a thoughtful discussion. I pay tribute to all of those who served on the inquiry, which has produced an excellent report with many worthy recommendations.
Food poverty and food provision are topical, and I want to bring a few reflections from my constituency to the debate. I want to touch on a number of issues relating to providing free school meals, tackling holiday hunger, providing breakfast clubs and promoting breastfeeding.
I was heartened to hear the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) promoting breastfeeding, in the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who does a huge amount of work on the issue, although she cannot be here due to Committee commitments. I want to help fly the flag for breastfeeding. When we are having a conversation about infant and child nutrition, we need to think about breastfeeding. It is important that it is on the agenda, but there was no mention of it in the obesity strategy published in 2016.
The report rightly points out that the first 1,000 days of a child’s development, from conception to their second birthday, are critical. We know, because the science tells us, that breastfeeding is second to none in terms of protecting a baby’s short-term and long-term health. Yet, as the hon. Gentleman said, our breastfeeding rates are stubbornly low, and many people are not breastfeeding up to two years, in line with World Health Organisation guidelines. However, I do not want to be despondent on that point, because we have some truly dedicated health professionals in my constituency, such as Christine Walker and Lesley Davidson, who are doing some outstanding work to promote breastfeeding and help mentor peer-support volunteers alongside colleagues in the Breastfeeding Network.
I absolutely agree with the report’s point about the loose regulation and legislation concerning formula companies, which have been allowed to ride roughshod when it comes to advertising and promotion. In the previous Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central introduced an excellent Bill that sought to rein in some of these outlandish claims made by the formula industry. The Minister would do well to look at that.
Let me turn to diet and the provision of fruit and vegetables. On bank holiday Monday, I was enjoying a picnic in the park with my wife and kids and reflecting on aspects of my own childhood. One of my most vivid memories from primary school—admittedly, that was only in the 1990s—was of the first time I saw a real pineapple. I was the son of a single parent, living in a deprived community, and fruit and vegetables were seen as a luxury or too expensive. In many respects, they still are. The report references testimony saying:
“I’ll choose something that I know they’re gonna like because I can’t afford to do something and for them not to eat it.”
I remember that day in primary school when my teacher, very much off her own back, brought in some fresh fruit for my class to try. I recall being fascinated by these exotic fruits: kiwis and pineapples. For some reason, the pineapple blew my mind—because until then I genuinely thought it just came from tins. I was in primary 4 in Glasgow, and I had never seen a pineapple before.
I say that because I was recounting the story to my wife and son on Monday. We make a conscious effort to promote fruit and vegetables with my son, who, I am delighted to say, always chooses fruit over chocolate. In many respects, we are able to do that because we are a higher-income family, and I am conscious that many families see buying fruit and vegetables as an expense that they do not want.
Parents are able to have only so much influence when it comes to the provision of food—the report makes that point—so let me turn to the provision of meals in the education environment, where we have made some progress but we have got further to go. Thankfully, free school meals have moved from the stigmatised dinner tickets being handed out at the front of the class to the less well-off kids and are moving towards universal provision. In my class, the vast majority of us were getting free school meal tickets, but it must be welcomed that we are moving away from that and to universal provision.
In Glasgow, the city council has committed to ensuring free school meals for all primary school pupils by the end of this council term, which demonstrates an ambition to provide warm, nutritious school meals to every child regardless of their background. Likewise, my own son, Isaac, attends a Glasgow City Council nursery, where, until recently, there was a small charge for lunches. However, those have been abolished, which is good news for family budgets and ensuring equality in the early years. That point is made in the report.
I am glad that our ambition is not restricted to school or nursery meals, because we have recognised that holiday hunger is a major issue, too. The roll-out of Glasgow’s £2 million holiday hunger programme has been hugely successful in meeting the demand for food provision and in bringing together partners to run community activities during the school holidays. Last summer, my church, Parkhead Nazarene, ran an incredibly successful programme of activities called Parkhead summer connections, providing warm, nutritious meals for families in some of the worst SIMD—Scottish index of multiple deprivation—areas in the country.
I am conscious of time constraints, but I want to touch on one other issue, which relates to breakfast clubs and how they tie into the education system. I was recently delighted to welcome a group of children from Quarry Brae Primary School in the east end, who were in Westminster to receive an award from Kellogg’s for the best breakfast club in Scotland. More than 40 children attend Quarry Brae’s breakfast club every morning, which makes a massive impact in ensuring that our young people are at school with a full stomach and ready to learn. Likewise, at Oakwood Primary School in Easterhouse, the headteacher, Vanessa Thomson, absolutely gets this, too. Working with local partners, she has ensured that free toast is available before the school day starts to help ensure that kids, many of whom live in a high SIMD area, are getting some form of nutrition before the start of the school day.
There is a lot more I want to say, but I was keen to offer a view from Glasgow’s east end, where we know we have so much more to do. I finish by quoting Aaron Ross, aged 20, from Easterhouse, whose words are in the report. He told the inquiry:
“People struggle to afford to pay rent and buy food for their families and themselves. Most people don’t want to ask for help as they are too ashamed or embarrassed about the issue. I want to be a part of this project to bring awareness to the rising issue of food poverty, and to help by providing better support to those in need.”
Aaron and many others have given of their time, opinions and experience, and it falls to us to ensure that the report’s recommendations are acted on and that we deliver.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing this important debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for all the work she does. I want to acknowledge at the outset that she is a real champion of this issue.
Here we are again in this Chamber, talking about school food. However, this time it is wonderful that we have the children’s future food inquiry report. I thank Dame Emma Thompson and Lindsay Graham for the huge work they did on the inquiry, but I pay most tribute to the young people who talked to us and gave us the evidence. It was a hard listen for all of us—even for those of us who have worked on school food and children’s hunger for many years. We heard about their life experiences and about how, in many respects, the school system made things worse in terms of school food, when it could have offered a wonderful, nutritious experience for those young people. What they said was powerful; we are lucky to have those ambassadors.
School food has been an issue for me all my life because my mother was a school cook. Interestingly, I think we understood more about the importance of nutrition for learning 60 or 70 years ago than we appear to now as a society, which is dreadful. The issue was brought home to me when my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West and I visited Sweden in 2006. We were newly elected MPs and keen to get this issue on the agenda, and we were staggered by the way those in Sweden thought about school food. Young people came along in the morning. They got breakfast and lunch; it was provided free to them all. Their teachers sat down with them so that they learned social skills as well as having a nutritious meal.
Obviously, we were a bit shocked and said, “Oh, this is amazing.” They said, “How is it amazing? Children can’t learn when they are hungry.” Having a nutritious school meal in the middle of the day is just as important as having a desk, chair or anything else that we provide as part of the education system. We must take that on board—I hope the Minister is listening—because 13 years later we are still having to make the same arguments about the importance of a nutritious school meal, including breakfast and something later in the school day.
What is different at the moment is the context in which we are making this argument, because we know that hunger is rising in this country. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2019, Durham County Council allocated almost 20,000 emergency food supplies from food banks, including almost 7,000 to children. That was just in Durham—it is a huge number. I raised the matter with the Prime Minister some weeks ago, because teachers in my constituency are reporting children coming to school who have had nothing to eat since they were at school the day before. Teachers are providing breakfast themselves, and the situation cannot continue. In the north-east, almost a quarter of families are living in poverty, which for a lot of them means poor housing conditions and poor health, including mental health. They might not live in an area where it is easy to access shops or affordable, good-quality food, so we must consider the whole picture.
Some things that came out of the children’s future food inquiry are worth emphasising, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East did a good job of that. For example, school lunch may be the only proper meal that a child receives, but what children eat during the day affects their concentration and performance at school. Entitlement to free school meals varies hugely across the UK, and thousands of extremely vulnerable children are excluded from accessing them because of their immigration status. I hope the Minister will consider that point.
As others have said, the free school meal allocation, at around £2.30, is not enough to enable children to buy a hot lunch, particularly if they have to buy water as well. I am glad that issue has been well aired this morning, because it is a disgrace that children at school in this country have to spend up to £1 to buy water at lunchtime. Private water companies must take that on board. The money might add to their profits, but what it is doing to children is outrageous. We also found that free school meals still carry a stigma, often because of the way they are organised. We have the technology for that not to be the case, so why do schools still do it? Perhaps we should think about how to rename free school meals.
Meal times are not valued as part of the school day, and they should be. We heard story after story of young people who simply do not have enough time to purchase a proper school meal at lunchtime, or time to eat it, as that often competes with other things they need to do. Young people also want a say in what type of food is delivered at school—that was more about cultural preferences than them wanting pizza and chips all the time, and they recognised the importance of having a proper meal.
One reason we are still here making the argument again and again for universal free school meals is the naysayers, and we will have to take them on if we want to make progress—Amanda Platell’s recent article in the Daily Mail is a good example. People say we have high levels of childhood obesity in this country, so we cannot have hungry children. As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, however, those are two sides of the same coin. A lot of children from poorer backgrounds are not able to access good-quality food, and we therefore have a huge obesity crisis.
The last time we debated this issue in Westminster Hall, I and others were told that it was an abrogation of parental responsibility, because it is the responsibility of parents to feed their children properly at school. Practically, it is quite difficult for parents to give children a hot meal during the day, and we should think about education more generally as a societal responsibility.
People might say, “They can send children in with a packed lunch,” but as my hon. Friend knows, only 1% of packed lunches were found by a report on school food to be as healthy as the food provided within schools. It is almost impossible for parents to send in that healthy food.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.
There was a universal free school meals pilot for two years in County Durham, and it transformed behaviour in school. It was incredibly important for the children to learn those social skills, and attainment levels across the school were improved in a short time. The evidence is there. I hope the Minister will look at it and think about providing universal free school meals. It is great that additional money is going to address holiday hunger, but none of that is coming to County Durham, which is the poorest county in the country. Will the Minister consider that issue?
What children have asked for in the charter is modest, and I hope not only that the Minister will consider implementing it, but that he will have higher ambitions in terms of properly serving the needs of our young people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this important debate, and all members of the panel and other organisations on producing the report.
Far too many children across the country live in poverty, which we know can have a variety of extremely detrimental effects on their wellbeing, development and life chances. Nowhere is that clearer than with the issue of food poverty and food insecurity. Across Bradford, 21.8% of children live in poverty. In my constituency, 25% of children—more than 7,000—live in poverty. Exact figures for how many children experience food poverty and insecurity are harder to come by, but it is likely that a high proportion of those who live in poverty have experienced food insecurity and, ultimately, hunger.
I will turn to some of the ways that is damaging children in my constituency, as the report rightly makes clear the link between food insecurity and attendance, achievement and attainment at school. What children eat during the day affects their concentration and performance in school. Children who are hungry are significantly more likely to misbehave or lose concentration and attention during lessons.
Hunger during term time is further compounded by hunger in the holidays. The long summer holidays are thought to contribute to weeks’ worth of learning loss for the most disadvantaged children, and many teachers report its effects when the school year begins again. It is clear that food insecurity and going hungry is holding our children back from achieving their full potential. In my constituency, which ranks at the very bottom of all English constituencies for school-age social mobility, this is having a devastating impact on life chances for children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. If we are to address the urgent problem of poor social mobility in this country, highlighted recently by the Social Mobility Commission’s annual report, we must ensure that as a bare minimum no child goes hungry.
One of the great strengths of the report, and what sets it apart from others, is that it prominently features the contribution of young people who have themselves experienced food poverty. Their testimony is both heartbreaking and powerful. I commend their dignity and I hope that their stories will be a wake-up call for all politicians to act now. I endorse the children’s #Right2Food charter that was developed as part of the inquiry. All children, whatever their background, deserve nothing less than a healthy and balanced diet. We must consider a range of policies that can further this goal, and I support the calls to expand free school meals and the Healthy Start voucher scheme.
I agree with the inquiry’s conclusion that the Government must act with more urgency and focus on this issue, for instance by establishing a new watchdog and including young people in its leadership. Our ultimate ambition must be that no child experiences poverty of any type. That will require wholescale effort by the Government that reaches across all Government Departments. As a start, reinstating and properly funding Sure Start and investing in our early years programme is a must. While children continue to live in poverty, the very least we must do is ensure that they do not go hungry.
As we have heard, 2.5 million children in the UK are living in food insecurity. I was honoured, along with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), to co-chair this inquiry. I am also vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty.
The inquiry heard from 400 young people across the UK. We met 15 young ambassadors, who were absolutely amazing and so articulate in explaining their experiences. Listing to them was harrowing. In the session that I chaired I kept having to put my glasses on to hide the fact that I was crying. They talked in an unemotional and down-to-earth way, because sadly this is their daily experience.
It is clear that the allowance for school meals is far too small, ranging from just over £2 to £3. Just some toast for breakfast can cost from 40p to over £1. Many young people mentioned that a bottle of water can cost 90p. In a country that has clean water, that is ridiculous. No water should be sold. Water coolers should simply be provided, as already ordained in law, and children should be given something to drink from, whether clean cups or water bottles. That is absolutely critical. It is important to hear those young people describe the headaches they were getting from dehydration. We also heard about many catering services being outsourced. It was all about having a canteen that made a profit and not about one that was providing nutrition.
There is a cliff edge that means that even a tiny change in income can suddenly mean that children do not qualify for free school meals. Dev talked about coming to school feeling embarrassed because his packed lunch box had hardly anything in it. Working out who is eligible for free schools meals has become a lot harder since the introduction of universal credit. My local authority used to have an automatic system based on the benefits people received, but there are no ways of triggering that any more. We also heard about not having enough time to eat and food therefore being thrown away, while other children who were feeling hungry watched.
There is stigma. I lost my father a week before my third birthday, so I grew up on free school meals when there were different coloured tickets and those eligible stood in a different queue. People have mentioned that there are ways of avoiding that stigma, but, as the young people mentioned, everyone knows very quickly who is on free school meals; there is no hiding it. The simple approach is to make free school meals universal. England and Scotland have that system up to the age of 7, but Wales and Northern Ireland do not. In fact, investing in universal free school meals would be the most effective way of contributing to closing the attainment gap. Children who are mentally stressed or malnourished cannot learn. As I said at the launch of the report, I defy anyone to solve algebra when their stomach is hurting them because of hunger.
Governments have direct control over what our young people eat in school and that is where they could make changes. Outside school, Government do not have direct control, although they do have a lot of powers and levers. They could fund local authorities to tackle holiday hunger. In my constituency, North Ayrshire Council provides 23 centres that are open throughout the summer, providing activities and warm meals; that is an important provision in tackling holiday hunger. The APPG undertook a report two years ago, which has stimulated discussion at least. As was said earlier, when those children come back to school they have lost out educationally over the holidays. They are not being stimulated either, as there is no access to activities, and they are filling themselves up with carbohydrates, which are cheap. They may actually have gained weight over the summer.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned breastfeeding, which is the start of a young person in life, but the mother’s nutrition is also important, as that life actually starts at conception. People forget that if a pregnant woman is carrying a female child, that child will have all her eggs from the start; a woman is carrying two generations at one time. Therefore, if that child is malnourished during pregnancy, that is hitting two generations. Then comes breastfeeding, which requires promotion and support, as well as a health visitor or someone to check that the mother is not having problems. In England, half of infant feeding lead jobs have been cut and there is no breastfeeding strategy. In Scotland, we started at a worse level—as is often the case—but in the last 17 years breastfeeding has risen by 20%. In England the figure is drifting down, and we need to turn that around.
We heard that healthy food is three times more expensive than unhealthy food. Some 46% of advertising is about rubbish food and only 2.5% about fruit and vegetables. It is critical that we have a 9pm watershed. We have debated that for the four years that I have been in Parliament, yet there has still been no action. We need to tackle that or we will face an epidemic of type 2 diabetes, which results in people losing feet or legs. Having worked in a vascular unit, I spent two years of my life being part of those awful operations. People get stuck in hospital or stuck in care, and the quality of their lives is awful. The management of diabetes already costs NHS services £10 billion. Why do we not invest more of that money in our children, by making them healthy early in life?
It is critical that we have an independent children’s food watchdog. It must involve young people, be allowed to explore different innovative approaches across the four UK nations and produce reports that the Government must promise to listen to. If that does not happen, we will pay the price in trying to support those children when they are struggling when they are older. We need to invest in our children now, and we need to start by listening to their words in this report.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing such a vital debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for the amount of work she has put in, over a considerable number of years, to chairing the APPG. Special thanks also go to the 15 young food ambassadors, all the young people and stakeholders who have offered their insights to this valuable report, and of course Dame Emma Thompson for giving the matter such a strong media profile, as well as for her impassioned work on the subject.
As we have heard, the report is an excellent and engaging piece of work, and it is all the more important because it involved young people so closely. As a result, it is something that all parties should give serious attention to. We on the Labour Benches would very much welcome the inquiry report and the #Right2Food charter’s being submitted as a contribution to our current review of social security, and I hope the Government and other parties are also giving the report’s findings serious consideration, and action in some parts of devolved Government.
It has been clear for some time, and made even clearer today, that we are facing a child poverty and child hunger crisis in our country, right from birth. For babies and pre-school years, the report raises serious concerns over support for breastfeeding—highlighted by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous)—policies to support babies in low-income households and food provision in early years and preschool environments.
The report goes on to find that free school meal provision is inconsistent across the Westminster and devolved Governments, while expressing concern about the way the free school meal policy works, including concerns that the allowance is not sufficient to buy a meal, as hon. Members have pointed out, and the higher price of healthier food options. It also highlights issues related to advertising and access to cheap, fast food. For example, the report states that children from the poorest families are
“more exposed to fast food outlets and more affected by the relatively higher costs of healthy food”.
Children, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire rightly pointed out, are becoming more obese, comparing London with the likes of Paris. Of course, that has drastic consequences for our nation’s health.
These findings should come as no surprise. Last month, the Trussell Trust published its annual statistics on food bank use, which show that in 2018-19 the trust distributed almost 1.6 million food parcels, of which 578,000 went to children—a fact highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), who noted that 7,000 such parcels were distributed to local children in Durham. That is the highest level since the charity opened in 2013-14 and nearly a 75% increase in the past five years.
Furthermore, the Government’s own figures for households below average income, released in March, tell a shocking story. Child poverty is at 4.1 million, half a million more than in 2010, and beneath that headline charities such as the Child Poverty Action Group and others have even more concerns. Despite Government claims that work is the best route out of poverty, 70% of children in poverty now live in working households, up from 67% last year. Every time we hear a Government Minister talk about record levels of employment, they are also presiding over record levels of families working, only to continue in poverty.
The Child Poverty Action Group also finds that the face of child poverty is getting younger; the proportion of children living in poverty who are under the age of five has risen from 51% to 53%, representing over 2 million children. We know that these early years often define our children’s outcomes and expectations for a lifetime, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) argued.
Indeed, the inquiry report tells us:
“Up until their second birthday children’s brains and bodies are developing fast and laying down the foundation for the future. The food, energy and nutrients which children eat during this period determine how well they grow, how well they do at school and are also a good predictor of long-term health.”
Tragically, under the current Government, those years are increasingly being damaged by poverty and empty stomachs.
The picture is worsening for larger families too. The risk of poverty for children in families with three or more children has also gone up, from 32% in 2012 to 43% today. Will the Minister admit that his policies, such as the two-child limit, the benefit cap and universal credit, have helped to drive this scandal? If so, will he commit to doing something about it and reversing these unfair and callous policies?
Poverty and food poverty are, of course, about more than just numbers. Behind the statistics, as hon. Members across the Chamber have pointed out, are real children, real families and real experiences. The inquiry report gives us some chilling examples and experiences from the food ambassadors about their experiences of going hungry, or of living and working alongside children suffering from not having enough to eat.
We have heard many other stories from colleagues here today. Hon. Members have given us examples of families having to choose between paying for heating or for eating. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West spoke about the need for water dispensers, with thousands of children going thirsty day after day in the school environment. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) spoke about children’s experiences of being stigmatised by the way free school meals are currently administered. Those tales show us just how important it is to ensure that, in one of the richest countries in the world, all our children can have access to that most basic of rights: enough to eat so that they can live and learn without the pain of hunger.
Related to that point is the shocking observation in the report that children living in households who have migrated to the UK and been granted leave to remain with no recourse to public funds cannot claim free school meals. That is affecting thousands and thousands of the most vulnerable children—something the Government must address. Will the Minister commit to recording that data, which is not currently recorded, so that we can have a true picture of some of the starkest examples of hunger in this country?
Will the Minister also commit, as hon. Members across the House have advocated, to extending holiday provision throughout the UK and funding all local authorities to do that? We certainly welcome the announcement of the increase from £2 million to £9 million, but let us go further.
I will finish by once again thanking all those who have contributed to the report and the several hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I await the Minister’s answers with interest, while also recognising that we all have a responsibility to understand the true picture of child and food poverty in our country and to improve that picture for the future. We are certainly committed to doing so on the Labour benches, and I hope that the Government will respond as a matter of urgency to the five asks in the report.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this important debate. I know it is an issue close to her heart, as a member of the committee for this important inquiry. I also take this opportunity to thank the young people and everyone else who contributed to the report.
I thank two people who are not in the room, Lindsay Graham and, of course, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), for their work in this area. The right hon. Gentleman certainly left an impression on me from the moment I got this job as the Children and Families Minister, and much of the work on the holiday activities and food programme is testament to his passion and commitment to this area.
I attended the launch of the inquiry’s report the other week—it has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members—and I was especially lucky to meet some of the young food ambassadors in person. They have been mentioned several times today, and I want to echo what has been said, extend to them my congratulations and state my commitment to continue to listen to them as they continue their work. I was struck by the bravery of those young people, how articulate they were and their commitment to work with one another to improve the lives of other children in their communities. I know that many of them, including Dev, whom the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) mentioned, are interested in pursuing a career in politics. All I can say is that if that is the calibre of politicians in the future, we are in safe hands.
The Government are committed to delivering a country that works for everyone, and all children should be able to access healthy and nutritious food at home and at school. I am determined to ensure that we target our support as effectively as possible towards the children who are most in need.
Will the Minister give way?
I have very little time and I want to address a number of the issues that were raised and, obviously, give the hon. Member for Bristol East a couple of minutes to respond, so I apologise, but I will not give way now. If I can at the end of my speech, I will certainly take interventions.
Clearly, there is much more to do. That was highlighted in the report, which raised some serious and important issues that we need to address. At the launch event, I promised to take the report away to consider it in detail and to formulate an official response. Although this speech does not constitute our formal response to the report, what I can say is that I have asked my team to work with the Food Foundation to look into setting up a working group to explore how we might provide greater oversight of children’s food, involving the young food ambassadors and other relevant Departments. I am happy to meet representatives of the Food Foundation to discuss that in more detail before the end of this month—diaries permitting, of course. I will also write to schools to remind them of their responsibilities on school food, including the need to provide access at all times to free, fresh drinking water. That issue has been mentioned several times today. I will respond formally to the report by the start of the new school year. That will give us a chance to test the response with the young food ambassadors when they meet in the school holidays. My Department is committed to ensuring that all children can access healthy food, both at school and beyond, and has put in place significant resources to ensure that that happens.
The holiday activities and food programme is exploring how we can better support children and young people during school holidays. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) mentioned expanding it. This is the second year of our research, and we will continue to try to understand what works. Last year, we awarded £2 million, as he mentioned, to holiday club providers to deliver free healthy food and enriching activities to about 18,000 children across the country. We have more than quadrupled the funding for the summer of 2019, when, as people may have heard earlier today, we will work with 11 organisations in all the regions of England. I am pleased to be able to tell the House, if hon. Members have not already heard, that the organisations and areas that we will be working with this summer are StreetGames in Newcastle—that organisation was mentioned by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson)—Gateshead Council; the Leeds Community Foundation; Transforming Lives for Good, in Bradford; Edsential in the Cheshire West and Chester area; the Happy Healthy Holidays consortium in Birmingham; Barnardo’s in Leicestershire; Suffolk County Council; Family Action in Croydon; the Romsey School in Hampshire; and Plymouth City Council. Those organisations will co-ordinate and fund—
Will the Minister give way briefly?
I will right at the end, I promise, if I can just get through this speech. There is a lot that I want to respond on, including why Bristol East, unlike Plymouth, did not get the funding—
And Durham. The organisations that I have listed will co-ordinate and fund provision across their area to ensure that those who need it can access it. They will work with providers to ensure that they meet our new set of minimum standards, including that the food they offer meets school food standards, and that children and young people attending the clubs—and their families where appropriate—are being taught about the importance of healthy food and given the skills, through cooking classes, to ensure that they can put those lessons into practice at home.
I have spoken before about how enormously proud I am of the breakfast club programme, which has been mentioned today. We are investing £26 million. A good breakfast sets children up for the day ahead, as colleagues have mentioned, and where children do not get that at home, we are committed to ensuring that schools are able to provide it. The breakfast club programme is setting up or improving more than 1,700 breakfast clubs in schools in the most disadvantaged areas across the country. I recently visited one such club in Battersea, and everyone involved was overwhelmingly positive about the impact that the club has had.
Free school meals have been mentioned. The Government are also committed to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children receive a healthy and nutritious lunch time meal at school. Last year, more than 1 million disadvantaged children were eligible for and claimed a free school meal. We have recently expanded free school meal provision to include further education colleges and implemented, as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned, universal free school meals for all infant children in state-funded schools in England.
We estimate that under our revised criteria, introduced last April, for free school meals, more children will benefit from free meals by 2022, compared with the previous benefits system. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale talked about that. We have also introduced generous transitional protections, so that all children will keep their free meals during the change to the new criteria.
Another recommendation from the report was that any unspent free meal allowance should be carried over for pupils to use on subsequent days. Free school meals are intended as a benefit in kind, rather than a cash benefit; our primary interest is that schools meet their legal duties to provide nutritious free lunches to eligible children. However, schools absolutely have the freedom to do this if their local arrangements allow it, and I know that Carmel Education Trust, up in the north-east, is one body that has adopted this practice.
My Department’s school food standards mean that the food that children and young people access at school is healthy and nutritious and foods high in fat, salt and sugar are restricted. We are going even further by updating the standards to reduce sugar content even more. Of course, I acknowledge that these issues are related more to child health and obesity. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke so eloquently about that and the relationship with diabetes and the scourge of that illness. But as we all know, obesity and poverty are related issues. Many colleagues have mentioned that they are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, many of the young people asked why unhealthy food is cheaper and more readily available than healthy alternatives. I was shocked to hear the young food ambassadors talking about not having access to free water at school, and I will include that in my letter when I write to schools.
My time is limited. I thank all colleagues who have spoken. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West spoke about free school meals and the allowance. We will look at that in the spending review. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) eloquently told his pineapple story, as I will refer to it, and quoted a young man named Aaron. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) referred to her own mother’s experience of being a school cook and talked about holiday activities, which I will hopefully write to her on. The hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) talked about behavioural challenges. I have been to that wonderful town to look at our opportunity area there.
I want to end there to allow the hon. Member for Bristol East to respond. The only other thing I will say is that I have lots of responses to colleagues’ points and I will write to them if I have not responded fully in my remarks today.
In the very short time I have, I do not want to appear churlish, but as has been made clear, my brilliant hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) have been campaigning on this issue since we were all elected in 2005. I am sure that the young food ambassadors and the Food Foundation will seize the opportunity that the Minister has suggested, but I do not think we need pilots to find out what works on holiday hunger. I do not think we need working groups. I think we need to get on with tackling the problems that have been identified and particularly the underlying problems, which the Minister has not mentioned at all. I am talking about things such as the roll-out of universal credit, benefit sanctions and so on. I urge the Minister to look at those, too.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the report of the Children’s Future Food inquiry.
Military Aircraft Manufacturing
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of military aircraft manufacturing in the UK.
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. To avoid any doubt, if during the course of the debate I refer to the Eurofighter, I am referring to an aircraft and not to Euro-fighters such as yourself—a Euro-fighter in a very different context.
The aerospace sector in general is a key driver of the UK manufacturing economy. In 2017 the industry contributed £6.6 billion to the UK economy, amounting to about 4% of total manufacturing output. Across the length and breadth of our nation, 900 businesses were involved, employing in excess of 90,000 people. I want to focus on the defence and military section within that.
The aerospace sector has accounted for 87% of defence exports over the past 10 years. The UK combat air sector has an annual turnover of over £6 billion, supporting 18,000 jobs. In the supply chain on programmes such as Typhoon, more than 10,000 full-time equivalents have been employed over the past 10 years, with 40,000 people involved at the peak of the programme. There are over 1,000 companies nationwide, in defence, aerospace and associated industries.
My constituency of Fylde is home to the Warton and Samlesbury business units. In Warton, BAE Systems employs 6,200 staff, who focus on Typhoon, Hawk and the future air platforms currently being worked on by the Government. At the Samlesbury business unit, the F-35 programme is being generated. Between those two sites, over 10,000 people are employed. I am very proud that my part of Lancashire plays an integral part in the UK’s defence manufacturing sector.
The purpose of this debate is not to criticise the Government’s work, because the Government have been very committed. I commend the current Minister and his predecessors, as well as the Prime Minister, for the focus that has been given to military aircraft strategy. It is important that the Government recognise the importance of retaining sovereign defence capability. Any fool can go out and buy aircraft that are manufactured overseas, but it takes something quite remarkable to invest in this country’s sovereign capability.
It is very important that we do not lose sight of the fact that we retain such a significant work share in the F-35 programme because of the capability that the United Kingdom was able to put on the table. That capability had been generated over decades from programmes as far back as Harrier, as well as the Typhoon programme. Without investing in sovereign capability in design, build and development, if we seek a place at the table on another country’s defence aircraft platform, we might get the crumbs rather than the lion’s share.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is making an interesting and excellent speech. The economic benefits are obvious to see, as are the benefits of having those capabilities for domestic defence. Does he agree that having those world-leading sovereign capabilities also allows us to influence strategic decision-making processes on an international basis?
My hon. Friend is very modest. He also represents a constituency with a substantial defence footprint, and he has dedicated much of his career in this place to fighting for the workforce and the interests of the companies he represents. His point is solid. Across the whole range of skills and technologies that building a modern, sophisticated aircraft platform gives us—whether in avionics, engine design, low radar signature and so on—it is critical that having that sovereign capability not only allows us to influence the manufacturing programmes that we may become part of, but is an incredible part of the UK’s strategic relationship with our key allies. That is something we must never lose sight of.
The combat air strategy, which the Government outlined in Farnborough in 2018, sets out the ambition for a new combat aircraft, expected to come into force in the 2030s. Government and industry have pledged over £2 billion over the next decade to the future combat air systems technology initiative. Team Tempest has also been created. That is welcome, but it is not likely to remain sovereign, due to cost; the reality is that we will need international partners, as we have done with Typhoon and Tornado, and with programmes as far back as Jaguar. It is incredibly important that the United Kingdom plays a significant role in shaping Typhoon, so that we do not lose any of that ability, which we hold so dear.
When it comes to sovereign capability, we are reaching a point where our workforce, which holds the skills required in the sector, may run out of work, and redundancies will follow. That is why it is crucial that the Government continue their support for the Typhoon export programme. The work currently taking place at Warton is for our export partners, which, in the case of Typhoon in Warton, is Qatar. If the supply chain is allowed to grind to a halt due to lack of export orders, we will lose not only the people and skills, but the ability and cash needed to innovate and invest.
Therefore, it is important that those who lament or complain about the United Kingdom’s defence export strategy do not lose sight of the tens of thousands of men and women—and apprentices—whose jobs depend on that carefully controlled export strategy. I urge the Government to work closely with our partners in Germany, to ensure that their decision to block export licences to some of our key export partners does not have a catastrophic impact on the UK’s defence manufacturing system.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Everyone here will be aware of the work of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, including the dinners that it hosts here, and those who sponsor those events. At those events we gather knowledge and we get a sense of the importance of those companies to all the regions of the United Kingdom. There is a labour skills base in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which we need to utilise to its full capability. Does he agree that, when it comes to the advantages of military aircraft manufacture in the UK, every region has a part to play?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point.
I will now focus on the national value framework aspect of the combat air strategy, which states that the UK must consider a number of items. For example, it is important to maintain military capabilities and our ability to respond quickly and effectively to threats. We must maintain choice in our future combat air capability and acquisition. We must sustain investment in highly skilled jobs throughout the supply chain, the contribution to the UK’s science, technology, engineering and maths skills base, the development of high-end technologies, and the influence on international and trade relationships.
Above all, we need to ensure that we protect the UK’s operational, technological and economic advantage, and the ability, when required, to act independently, freely and at will. As part of any future strategy, we must also ensure that the needs and future requirements of the RAF are central and critical.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is making a powerful speech and I agree with everything he has said thus far. Does he agree that to sustain the supply chain, which is an important focus of the national value proposition that he has just made and of his earlier remarks, it is important that the Government’s combat air strategy is backed up by contracts? That will allow the primes involved in Team Tempest and the supply chain that will support them to start investing to ensure that we maintain the design and engineering skills at the highest level for such a strategy to have an effect.
It comes as no surprise that my right hon. Friend’s intervention is full of facts and knowledge, because he speaks as a former Minister for Defence Procurement. He is right that the people involved in the early stage of the development of platforms such as Team Tempest need that assurance and they need contracts to come through. It is important that the money that the Government have already committed at Farnborough, which I understand is part of the overall £2 billion envelope, begins to feed through into live programmes and work, and not just at large organisations such as BAE Systems, but at many of the smaller organisations within the supply chain. An aircraft supply chain is not a light that can be switched on and off; we have to maintain the drumbeat and ensure that programmes have work coming through and that innovation has a purpose.
On Team Tempest, is it possible for the Minister to update us today on where we are at with regard to building partnerships with other partner nations? What does that international collaborative effort look like? Where does he think we can go in terms of not only building a platform that is flexible in meeting the needs of the RAF, but ensuring that the platform is highly exportable and can take on the likes of France and the United States, which have several aircraft platforms that will fulfil a number of key segments of the export market? If we do not have an exportable aircraft as part of our future programme, and we rely solely on RAF orders or orders placed by partner nations, the programme will not be able to sustain the UK manufacturing sector in future.
I thank the Minister for the work that he and his predecessors have done to drive innovation within the manufacturing sector, but I urge him to look at programmes such as Hawk. Although it is not as shiny or exciting as future programmes such as Tempest, it is the solid trainer aircraft that we have depended on for the past 30-plus years, and it is fair to say that it is the only military aircraft that the United Kingdom manufactures throughout.
I pay tribute to the trade unions representatives, particularly from Brough, who come down, speak to members and get their points across. I urge the Minister to continue to work with the trade union movement in the military aircraft sector to ensure that we have a united team building a platform for the future and ensuring the UK’s manufacturing base. With that, I will conclude and give him time to respond.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on securing the debate and on his work for many of his constituents. He often grabs me in the corridor to raise issues that are of concern to him and them. As he rightly said, his constituency has a proud tradition in military aviation. Over recent years, BAE Systems Military Air & Information at Warton has been the central assembly facility for the Eurofighter Typhoon. That was one of the first visits I made when I was appointed to this job, and the passion that goes through that company was clear, from the management to the workforce. We should be proud of what it has done.
The area has a strong heritage. Warton was originally the base of English Electric and the testing ground for the legendary Lightning fighter—the supersonic interceptor of the 1960s and 1970s, rather than today’s world-beating F-35 Lightning II stealth jet. It is doubly appropriate, therefore, that the debate has highlighted the proud history of the UK in the field.
Let us make no mistake that the UK remains a global leader in military aerospace for three reasons. The first reason, which my hon. Friend touched on, is innovation. We have a long heritage of leading the world in aerospace thinking—in taking cutting-edge industrial, technical and scientific know-how from the drawing board to cutting-edge military capability. The first purpose-built air-to-air combat fighter was designed and built in Britain, as was the first vertical take-off and landing aircraft. That heritage remains undiminished.
The second reason is our history of successful international collaboration in producing some of the best military aircraft in the world, such as Jaguar, Tornado and Typhoon, with our partners on the continent, and now the F-35 with the United States, as my hon. Friend pointed out. The third reason is the strength of our domestic combat air sector, which has created skilled jobs and prosperity not just in his constituency, but across the nation.
It is worth mentioning the recent successes for the UK industry in the sector. Programmes such as the F-35 are creating considerable industrial benefit, with 15% of the value of more than 3,000 airframes being built by British industry. The Government are also delighted with the UK’s recent success in securing another batch of F-35 avionic and aircraft component repair work, which will bring an additional £500 million of work to north Wales and secure hundreds of skilled jobs. Overall, the combat air sector has an annual turnover of more than £6 billion. It directly supports more than 18,000 skilled jobs across the UK and many more in the wider supply chain, which are equally important.
To maintain and strengthen the sector’s competitive international position, the Government established the £2 billion future combat air system technology initiative following the “Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015”. That initiative sustains investment in the sector to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of developing the next generation of technological capability.
Last year, the Government further demonstrated their commitment to the sector by launching the combat air strategy at the Farnborough international airshow, as my hon. Friend said. The strategy defined a clear vision for the sector that preserves our long-standing national advantages in the field and our freedom of action in deciding how our combat air capability is delivered. All future combat air decisions will be based on a national value framework that takes full account of our armed forces’ requirements, the contribution to the nation’s industrial capacity and prosperity, and the significant benefits that military aviation provides to our international influence.
As the Minister knows, the Defence Committee is quite worried that not enough is being done to protect the defence industrial base. In advance of his appearance before us on 21 May, when we will look into some of these subjects, can he tell us how much consideration is given to the knock-on benefits of investing in production in the UK rather than buying off the shelf, given that the money spent is then channelled back into the British economy?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention, and I say with some trepidation that I am looking forward to appearing before his Committee in a couple of weeks’ time. He is absolutely right to raise that important issue. We are doing a tremendous amount of work across the Department, and a lot of it is of course the focus of the fantastic report by our right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) on the important prosperity that the defence industry can bring. We are also engaging a lot with small and medium-sized enterprises around the country to encourage more of them to take part in many of the competitions, and to ensure that they do more business with defence. Wherever we build new platforms, we are encouraging wider prosperity among those in the supply chain in the United Kingdom.
I know there has been some controversy about some of the platforms we are buying from overseas, but we are working with these industries to ensure that they work closely with the UK supply chain, so that we can increase the prosperity that comes about because of the platforms we are buying. For example, Boeing recently took a lot of SMEs over to the United States to talk through how they can bid for business from that company. Of course, Boeing has made investments in this country, but we want to see even more of that happening, and I will be happy to develop a bit more of that when I come before my right hon. Friend’s Committee.
I am grateful to the Minister for taking an intervention on that point. I apologise to him for having been delayed in a Select Committee, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I was very interested in the answer the Minister gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) vis-à-vis investing in the defence base of this country, and, of course, I agree 100% with that. However, with regard to the combat air sector, I was encouraged by the Minister’s comments about Team Tempest. Could he update the House as to whether there has been any further discussion as regards international partners in that programme going forward?
I will come on to those points in a minute. A number of points were raised in the debate that I will happily respond to when I have finished these remarks.
As part of the wider strategy programme, my Department has now launched its next-generation combat air acquisition programme. This will develop the capabilities that the RAF will need to replace Typhoon when it goes out of service in 2040. The programme’s two-year concept phase has now begun, following my approval of the strategic outline case.
Furthermore, new forums have now been established to explore the possibilities for collaboration with other military aerospace partners. Early discussions have gone well, and my Department will provide more detailed updates in the summer. However, I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) that we are having very detailed conversations with a number of our partners around the world because we recognise that, for this process to be effective and, importantly, affordable when we deliver it, and, probably even more crucially, because of the importance of interoperability, it is vital that we have partner nations on board. However, as I say, those discussions are still ongoing. I hope I will be able to update the House on them later this year.
Will the Minister acknowledge that, although the commitment the Government have shown towards the Tempest programme is to be welcomed, if the project is to come to fruition, that will require much more investment by the Government than they are presently committed to?
We are in the early stages at the moment, and I will shortly talk about some of our engagement with industry, to respond to his point a bit further.
The other thing that is really important, and it is in parallel to this work, is that fact that my Department is actively identifying and monitoring the health of the sector’s skill base, which my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde mentioned. When I visited Samlesbury, I was very impressed by the BAE Systems training centre next door. That centre is helping not only the sector but a lot of businesses around the Lancashire area, and it really is a model that we should see from other businesses in the defence sector. The aim of our work is to inform crucial decisions on future skills investment in a fast-moving international environment, where technological practice changes continually.
I will just come on to some of the points that were raised in the debate. The first was the issue of exports. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde was absolutely right to say that this is an incredibly important part of the work that we do. Personally, I have tried to invest a significant amount of my time in support of some of the export campaigns. We are working with Finland at the moment to see whether we can be successful in their competition, which is worth in the region of €6 billion to €10 billion. Finland has launched a competition for the acquisition of 64 fighter aircraft to replace its ageing fleet. That competition is a closely fought one, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we will do everything we can.
As for Saudi Arabia, we continue to make progress on the Typhoon batch 2 negotiations. The latest offer is a very strong package, and it would provide enduring industrial capability in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which would also establish many of the industrial components needed to realise that country’s vision of 2030.
My hon. Friend was right to mention the export issues and the licensing issues, and we are working closely with the German Government to ensure that those are resolved. Equally, we are working together with Airbus on the campaign to supply Canada with a replacement for its F-18—it is currently running a competition to find that replacement.
Other points were raised in the debate. There was the issue that my hon. Friend mentioned to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow and the prosperity agenda. We are working closely with four main businesses at the moment: BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo and MBDA. Recently, I was pleased to attend a Team Tempest industry day, which over 150 companies attended so that they could get the briefs they needed and the capabilities and skills that will be required to facilitate the next generation. The Tempest partners are now very actively engaged with about a hundred of those companies. So that engagement is happening and, as I have said, I hope we will be able to make more announcements in the coming weeks.
I have talked about the partner nations. The innovation side is obviously incredibly important. The innovation fund is helpful, and the whole aspect of this future combat air strategy will be incredibly important for that.
My hon. Friend also mentioned Hawk, which I know has been a challenging issue. I have visited Kuwait on two occasions now, trying to personally support the very active campaign that BAE Systems and the Government have pursued there. I pay tribute to the trade unions; they are very active in making their case. I also pay tribute to BAE Systems, which is trying to keep things going at Brough while we see whether we can make any announcements.
I hope I have demonstrated in this debate, which I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde on securing, that we are doing everything we can to maintain the necessary skills and knowledge, as well as to retain our ability to have the combat air sector that we really need. I assure the House that the Government will continue to work in full partnership with our world-leading military aviation sector, maintaining its position at the cutting edge of technological development, and supporting the jobs and prosperity that it brings right across the UK.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of military aircraft manufacturing in the UK.
Commonwealth Personnel in the Armed Forces
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fair treatment for Commonwealth personnel in the armed forces.
I am pleased to have been granted this debate today, Mr Sharma, and to speak under your chairmanship. I thank right hon. and hon. Members who have joined us for today’s debate.
We often speak in this place about the need to support veterans and their families after they have served our country. However, there is now clear evidence that the Commonwealth personnel serving in the armed forces are being left behind. It is a duty of this and any Government to support all those who serve in the armed forces, including those from Commonwealth nations who serve with distinction alongside their comrades from the UK and Ireland. Commonwealth citizens have long made significant contributions to the defence of the United Kingdom, including during the first and second world wars. They continue to play an important role in the UK armed forces, serving in operations worldwide.
The tradition of soldiers recruited from across the Commonwealth and other former colonies serving in the British armed forces is the legacy of a time when Britain had an extensive military role in garrisoning and policing the largest empire in the world. Indeed, the Brigade of Gurkhas has celebrated over two centuries of continuous loyal service to Britain, initially under the command of the East India Company from 1814, then within the British Indian Army from 1895, and continuing within the British Army after the 1947 decolonisation of India until the present day.
Commonwealth soldiers, like all members of the armed forces, are prepared to sacrifice their lives for the defence of our country. I believe that all armed forces personnel, regardless of their background or country of origin, should be treated equally and with gratitude. Much like ordinary civilians, Commonwealth soldiers are being unfairly treated by the Home Office, which is not doing enough to end the hostile environment it has created at immense cost to society. Given the ongoing recruitment crisis and the Government’s recent decision to recruit more Commonwealth personnel, it is all the more urgent that the Government review any recruitment barriers. The Labour party recognises the immense debt that we owe to all personnel, veterans and their families, and the need to ensure that they have the very best support. Today, I call upon the Government to do the same.
According to the Royal British Legion, over 6,000 personnel from foreign and Commonwealth countries are currently serving in the UK armed forces, with more recruited each year to fill technical and specialist roles. In 2018 the Army employed approximately 4.5% of its personnel—or 5,290—from foreign and Commonwealth nations. Although the Army has been the main recipient of Commonwealth recruits, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force also recruit from Commonwealth countries. The majority of those recruits come from countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Nepal and Fiji in the Pacific; they are also generally concentrated in non-commissioned ranks and within infantry units. That is despite the Conservative Government cutting the size of the regular Army from a peak of 114,000 in 2010 to a target size of 82,000 by 2020, and privatising recruitment to a company called Capita in 2012. However, in July 2018 the Army was 5,600, or about 7%, short of the number of regulars needed, and it is highly unlikely to meet its target headcount for 2020.
The Army and Capita have not recruited the number of regulars and reserves needed to sustain the required headcount in any year since the contract began, even though that headcount has been heavily reduced. The total annual shortfall has ranged from 21% to 45% of the Army’s annual requirements. To illustrate the contrast, in the two years before the contract with Capita began, the annual shortfall was just 4%. In late 2018 the Ministry of Defence announced its intention to increase further its reliance on Commonwealth personnel, as home recruitment continues to chronically underperform. It aims to recruit 1,350 personnel per annum, including expanding the Brigade of Gurkhas by more than 800 posts and extending the right for women to join, too.
However, the immigration status of the Gurkhas and other Commonwealth personnel has been a significant matter of contention over the past two decades, led most notably by the Gurkha Justice Campaign. Until 2004, Gurkhas were not allowed to settle in the United Kingdom. The Labour Government under Tony Blair changed the rules to allow Gurkhas who retired after 1997 to settle in the UK, because 1997 was the year in which the Gurkhas’ brigade headquarters transferred from Hong Kong to Britain. In May 2009, following a campaign by Gurkha veterans, Gordon Brown’s Labour Government announced that all Gurkha veterans who had served four years or more in the British Army before 1997 would also be allowed to settle in Britain.
It seems to me extraordinary that our country placed such barriers to citizenship in the way of those who served this nation so gallantly in the first place. In my opinion, this situation reveals a latent neo-colonial mentality in the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office when it comes to championing the equal right of those who have served us in uniform to become British citizens.
Commonwealth personnel are exempt from UK immigration controls throughout their service, but that exemption is removed immediately upon discharge. Former personnel who wish to stay in the United Kingdom indefinitely, whether with their family or alone, are required to apply for indefinite leave to remain. In alignment with civilian applicants for indefinite leave to remain, veterans are subject to several requirements, including four years’ qualifying residency in the United Kingdom—which, of course, is obtainable via four years’ service in the armed forces. However, veterans are also subject to a non-refundable fee of £2,389 per person. Fees for indefinite leave to remain have risen by 127% in the past five years, to £2,389 per person—since they were introduced in 2003, those fees have risen by 1,441%. The Royal British Legion has said that it provided £36,000 in grants over the past year alone to help pay for those visa fees, which is money that could have been spent on any number of better and more direct veteran support services. What an appalling diversion of time, effort and resource.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he rightly highlights, Commonwealth soldiers have long made significant contributions to the defence of our country, including during the first and second world wars, and they continue to do so to this day. However, they are now being charged exorbitant fees by the Government when making Home Office applications, which is frankly appalling given their immense sacrifices. Does he agree that it is high time the Government ended the hostile environment that they have created?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, and for reiterating the frustration that many feel about the Government’s wrong-headed position.
I am slightly conscious of the manner in which the debate is already going. I simply interject about the use of the words “hostile environment”, because I hope that there will be cross-party consensus on where we want to take this issue. I invite the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) to urge caution on such language. The fees for those from the Commonwealth who serve in our armed forces are the same fees that everybody must pay, no matter where they are from. Those people are not being targeted, and nor are those fees part of any form of hostile environment. I simply invite the hon. Gentleman to keep the debate as elevated as possible, rather than getting down into some political rut.
I thank the Minister for his sentiments. The term “hostile environment” is born of persistent and comprehensive observation of the behaviour of the Home Office across a number of different fronts. It does not pertain particularly to service personnel; that is merely another permutation of how it harms quality of life, including that of our armed forces personnel. I am encouraged by the Minister’s aspiration to reach consensus on this issue, which I share, but I also acknowledge that there is a significant problem within our immigration system. I believe that our armed forces personnel should be treated as exceptional cases. That is the thrust of my argument today, which I will elaborate on further as we go forward.
I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) about the costs associated with service leavers applying for indefinite leave to remain. A service leaver who wants their partner to join them with indefinite leave to remain faces a bill of £4,778 to continue to live in the UK, even before children and further dependants are taken into account. Furthermore, immigration rules state that a foreign worker must earn an income threshold of £18,600 to apply to bring their spouse to the UK. In addition to that £18,600 threshold, the minimum income requirement to bring over one child is £22,400, with an additional £2,400 for each child thereafter. To put that into context, a soldier’s basic pay after training is just £18,600 a year; as a single person, they are right on the threshold.
It is difficult to understand just how vital the support of friends and family is to serving personnel who, during tours of duty in conflict zones, work antisocial hours in conditions that are often appalling. Impeding the opportunity for those who serve to have their families living with them, providing that close emotional support, seems to me particularly callous. Considering the general concentration of Commonwealth troops in the lower ranks, and the fact that they require permission from their superiors and commanding officers to take up weekend work in order to earn sufficient money to achieve those income thresholds, doing so can be exceptionally difficult and put those troops under significant emotional hardship.
The Army Families Federation, which has also been investigating the issue, believes that up to 500 troops are affected. The AFF told The Times that it has been contacted by around a dozen soldiers separated from their children, and that Army chaplains and welfare officers have reported tearful troops in despair over their situation. There are also concerns that Commonwealth soldiers are not always aware of the issues prior to joining the UK armed forces, and it comes as a very unwelcome and distressing shock when they realise the limitations they face.
A recent Defence Committee report recognised that the vast majority of veterans leave the services with no ill effects. It is important to acknowledge that reality, but the report maintained that although the Government have made improvements in the care available to personnel leaving the armed forces, it was none the less the case that
“some serving personnel, veterans and their families who need mental health care are still being completely failed by the system.”
That is not good enough. It might not be typical, but it is certainly not good enough.
For some Commonwealth veterans who struggle with mental health, there is also a serious threat of deportation in addition to any other concerns they might have. I have spoken several times of the struggles that many veterans experience with their mental health. It has often been discussed in debates—some familiar faces are here. I have personal experience of people who have suffered and been affected by those problems. As I have mentioned before, the Royal Regiment of Scotland lost four soldiers and ex-soldiers last year through a spate of suicides. That caused great concern and worry about what that meant for the wider generation of soldiers who have served on operations in recent years. Reflecting further, more than 70 veterans have taken their own lives in the past year, which is very troubling. The death toll has exceeded the number of battlefield fatalities in 11 of the 13 years that British forces were operational in Herrick in Afghanistan. That is a pretty devastating statistic.
Four in 10 service families who have requested access to and been referred for mental health care have had difficulty accessing that treatment. That is not good enough and we need to do more. Many of our veterans experience great frustration when it comes to mental health support. Having approached people to get that level of support, they do not get the level of rigour that they deserve, leading to the despair we have seen, culminating in spates of veteran suicides. No veteran deserves that—not those originating from the UK, and not those from the Commonwealth. It is heartbreaking that some individuals could have their mental health affected by the lingering threat of deportation and immigration concerns after retiring from the armed forces.
I was pleased to see that a cross-party group of more than 130 MPs, co-ordinated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), have written to the Home Secretary calling for the fees to be scrapped. I would like to add my late support to that today. I did not have the opportunity to sign the letter itself, but I thoroughly endorse its sentiments. The letter is indicative of the scale of the problem and the groundswell of support from Members from all parties who want to see this issue gripped and properly addressed with the greatest sense of urgency.
I will therefore finish with some direct questions to the Minister. First, will he speak to the Home Secretary and the Home Office to secure a reply to the cross-party letter on the issue of visa fees, because Members are yet to receive a reply? Will the Government do the right thing and immediately scrap visa fees for armed forces veterans applying for indefinite leave to remain and, furthermore, grant them the unique right to apply for immediate British citizenship without limit of time? Finally, will the Government, in recognition of the huge debt we owe to our veterans, issue an apology to the veterans from the Commonwealth and their families who have been forced to pay these extortionate fees, despite their service to our country, and set up a mechanism to compensate those who have suffered financial detriment?
The Windrush scandal and ongoing examples of the Home Office’s policies in this regard demonstrate that our asylum and immigration system is badly failing and appallingly lacking in compassion and efficiency. Anyone who represents constituencies with a large population of immigrants or people seeking asylum will be all too aware of how the Home Office treats them. The situation with service personnel is just the latest manifestation, harming the very people who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice by laying down their lives in defence of our country. The very least we can do in recognition of their service is to grant them and their families the right to full British citizenship at the end of their service and to bring true equality to all those who serve in our armed forces, regardless of their country of origin.
I should declare an interest at the beginning of my speech, because, possibly like you, Mr Sharma, I am, to some extent, a child of the Commonwealth, having spent my early years in Kenya. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing this debate for all of us in a crowded Commons diary. This is an important issue for those who most respect the role of the Commonwealth and of the UK in the Commonwealth, and the contribution the two make together to the world. In particular, through the peacekeeping efforts of our armed forces, our Commonwealth servicemen and women make a contribution to global peace. It is also worth referring to the fact that the hon. Gentleman is, I think, one of only three Labour party reservists on the Benches of the House of Commons. He has served in the Signals and the Royal Regiment of Scotland, so he knows of what he talks, and I think we would all recognise his contribution.
I want to focus on one aspect of the role of Commonwealth servicemen and women in our armed forces, which is the one that the hon. Gentleman referred to. It refers back to the cross-party letter that I organised with the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who has a distinguished role in the NATO Parliament. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East has decided to add his signature to that letter today, which takes the number of Members of Parliament who have signed to 134, remembering always that those on the Front Benches on both sides are unable to sign such letters. It is fair to say that the letter is representative of a large body of feeling in the House of Commons.
The key points on the visa fees for Commonwealth armed forces personnel have been alluded to by the hon. Gentleman, but I would like to add two or three things. First, I did not start on this issue—nor did the hon. Member for Bridgend—from a position that Commonwealth servicemen were being unfairly treated, and least of all that they were in a “hostile environment”. That was not really our starting point, if I might distinguish the tone of the letter we wrote from the opening speech in this debate.
In fact, our issue is more about the fact that they are treated exactly like everyone else, including Commonwealth policemen and women or others in different occupations in this nation. Our point was that, since those who join our armed forces do so in the knowledge that they may be required to risk life and limb for our country, they therefore hold a special place in the respect of the nation and of all of us who serve in the House of Commons representing our constituents. In a sense, they occupy a special place.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who would give their lives in defence of this nation. Does he agree that the position in this country sits uneasily with that in other countries, such as the United States, where service in the military, either during peacetime or on active service, entitles that individual, ordinarily speaking, to be naturalised as a US citizen for the payment of no money at all? That is a proper expression of the debt of gratitude that a nation owes to those who serve in its armed forces.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as so often, in highlighting the issue. It boils down to a perception, at the least, of meanness on the part of our state. That does not reflect the respect that we hold for our Commonwealth servicemen and women, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East highlighted, and as my hon. Friend rightly reiterates. That is an issue for us, particularly at a time when we are in the chair of the Commonwealth. We are responsible for having created the Commonwealth, and play such an important role in it. It is important that we recognise the value of the contribution that Commonwealth personnel make, and the risks that they run, as highlighted by the recent armed forces presence in Afghanistan, for example.
It can, of course, be argued that we should not use longer term access to indefinite leave to remain in this country as, effectively, a recruiting incentive. That should not be the primary reason why Commonwealth servicemen and women join our armed forces, and I am very conscious of that. I do not believe that that is the case, but it is something the Home Secretary will have to balance. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to the cause of ensuring that fees are, at the very least, kept to minimum, if not, as I and the hon. Member for Bridgend hope, effectively abolished completely. He will no doubt wish to comment on that.
Let me touch on one or two relevant issues, which the Home Secretary will have to consider. First, there is the issue of equality. If a special case is made for those serving in our armed forces—there is a perfectly good case for that on precisely the grounds already mentioned—the Department will have to be sure that that would not trigger a series of legal claims from those serving in other Departments where there are different risks, such as the police.
The campaign that we have triggered through the letter is also, importantly, a campaign of the Royal British Legion, which has a large membership and following in this country, and has been extremely helpful in providing me and others with relevant information, partly through freedom of information requests. One of the difficulties for the Royal British Legion, and for us, in bringing this issue alive through the media and social media is the shortage of case studies, because most of the people involved are serving servicemen and women who do not necessarily want the publicity that would go with that. That makes this a harder campaign than others with which I, and others Members present, have been involved.
Although the responses from Ministers in the Ministry of Defence are incredibly helpful, and I hope the Minister will be able to share his support and enthusiasm for this cause, it will ultimately be the Home Office’s responsibility to make a decision. I suspect that the Home Secretary will have to consider other issues, including the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East on the income levels of those coming to live in this country. That will open all sorts of other issues more widely than just in the armed forces.
I do not think for a moment that the Home Secretary is delaying his response to the campaign that the hon. Member for Bridgend and I started. I spoke to him earlier today. He will respond formally, and will meet the hon. Member for Bridgend and I, and the Royal British Legion, shortly on this issue. He will do his best to find the best way through the various challenges, and I do not doubt his instinctive sympathy and support. However, as we know, it can sometimes be hard to find a precise way through what appears to be a relatively simple issue, owing to the legal issues involved.
I hope all Members present will continue to engage with local branches of the Royal British Legion to show support for its campaign. I have encouraged the Royal British Legion to do various things that will bring the campaign alive, such as sharing through social media photographs of as many Commonwealth servicemen and women as possible, in different units of our armed forces, so that our constituents have a wider understanding of how many people from the Commonwealth are serving our country to the best of their ability. Anyone who has not yet signed the letter to the Home Secretary is welcome to do so, even though it has already gone, to show their support for this campaign with the Royal British Legion, and to support the debate that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East has rightly brought to the House today.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who has clearly put over his support for the campaign. I, too, thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) for presenting the case very well for all Members who will speak in the debate. I am very pleased to see the Minister in his place. I echo the thoughts that he expressed earlier: we can reach consensus today, and move forward in a constructive and helpful way. I also declare an interest as a former part-time member of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Territorial Army.
I am honoured to stand side by side with my brethren—I use that word very clearly—in every arm of the armed forces, from the Parachute Regiment, which is facing persecution, to the Gurkhas, who fought for years for recognition. One of those campaigns is concluded; the other is still to be concluded. It is my belief that every person who wears a uniform and honourably serves deserves the gratitude and support of a nation that sleeps safely in bed due to their sacrifice. It is very simple for me; I think it is very simple for us all.
I have had the chance to participate in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, along with other Members present. Through that scheme, we meet many serving Commonwealth members who qualify for the British Army because of their Commonwealth attachments and their years of service. I am encouraged by those I have met, and by their clear commitment. Part of what we are trying to do today is to support their families—we cannot ignore them.
Mental health and suicide were mentioned earlier. Does my hon. Friend agree that the welfare of our soldiers is vital, as well as that of their partners, children and families, who may go through the trauma of losing a loved one, or of a loved one sustaining life-changing injuries? I am sure that he agrees that it is important that families are looked after as well.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I wholeheartedly agree with that, as I think all Members in the Chamber would.
The background to this issue is clear. In November 2018, the five-year residency requirement for Commonwealth personnel wishing to enlist in the UK armed forces was removed in the hopes of increasing the number of Commonwealth recruits to 1,350 per year. Having met some of those recruits and serving members, I realise just how important it is to have Commonwealth soldiers in our British Army.
That seems simple enough, but for Commonwealth soldiers who wish to bring family to the UK a number of requirements must be met for those family members to enter and remain. That is the crux of this debate. The Library produced a helpful briefing, which summed up the requirement admirably, stating:
“In addition to a valid passport and visa, individuals must also meet the English language requirement and suitability criteria relating to certain criminal convictions, including previous breaches of the UK’s immigration laws. Primarily, however, there is a Minimum Income Requirement which a Commonwealth soldier must meet before they can bring family to the UK”.
We know the minimum requirement, because we deal with constituents in our offices every day, but in the particular case of soldiers, gross annual income must be at least £18,600, with an additional £3,800 for the first child and an additional £2,400 for each additional child thereafter. For a partner with no children, it is £18,600. For one child in addition to the partner, it is £22,400. For two children in addition to the partner, it is £24,800. For three children in addition to the partner, it is £27,200. There are no exemptions from the requirement, and the guidance states:
“If you cannot meet the requirement, then you are advised not to apply to bring your family over”.
If we have asked that person to come and serve in the British Army, is it not right that they should be able to bring their families? I think it is. This debate is clearly trying to arrive at that.
As a result of the requirement, many Commonwealth soldiers leave their families at home, and some are taking second jobs to meet the affordability criteria. I will mention one such soldier later.
I was pleased to hear that there has been a move to improve awareness of immigration issues in the chain of command, and I thank the Minister for that, but I stand on the armed forces covenant, which I have spoken about in the House many times, and the current scenario that separates families in service is, in my opinion, a clear breach of that covenant. It is unfair to separate people who serve in the British Army and their families, wherever they may be. To pay our Commonwealth soldiers a wage that does not allow them to qualify for immigration, or to expect to be able to bring their families with them, is unacceptable.
I want to tell hon. Members about one of my constituents. A little child from a Commonwealth nation, whose daddy serves the Queen and this country—and does so exceptionally well—cries because she has not seen her daddy in two years. Her daddy also works in a Chinese restaurant to get extra money to get his savings up to the level to allow him to qualify. On top of that, it costs £10,000 in fees to apply to get his family to join him, which is difficult enough to raise to start with, but the fact that he has to do that through a second job illustrates where we are. That is a wee girl crying for her daddy for two years. He cannot get his family here until he earns the money and saves £10,000 for fees.
There is something drastically wrong with a system that—rightly—allows asylum seekers an opportunity to safely reside here, but takes out of the hands of people who have put their lives on the line the ability to have their families with them here, in this nation. It is wrong. For the benefit of everyone, I emphasise again: it is wrong, and it cannot be accepted.
I do not want to hear that the Ministry of Defence is aware that it is wrong and is thinking about it; I need to hear that the MOD is working with the Home Office to change it. I think that the Minister will tell us that, and I am looking forward to his response.
I stand with the cross-party delegation and demand that the fee for applications is reduced or scrapped for Commonwealth entrants. I am very conscious of how it works. Fees for indefinite leave to remain have risen by 127% in five years, to £2,389 per person. Since they were introduced in 2003, the fees have risen by 1,441%. While it is beyond admirable that the Royal British Legion, of which I am a member, and other charities have stepped up to the mark, providing £36,000 in grants to help to pay for visa fees last year alone, it is not the role of the soldiers’ charities to do that, although we are very pleased that we do. It is the House’s role to lay out in legislation that the armed forces covenant applies if someone was born in Birmingham, Belfast or Barbuda, and they have a right to live here with their families.
At a time when we are watching our armed forces being tried before juries for following orders in operations—I find that abhorrent to watch—the message must be clear to those who consider signing up for Queen and country that we will not leave them high and dry. We will support them and their families better than we are supporting Soldier F and others for different reasons. We will do the right thing by them and will put that into legislation to ensure that successive Governments will also do the right thing.
If ever our armed forces needed clarity about the feelings of this House towards them, it is now. This debate gives us the opportunity to say that very clearly. Let us stop talking and begin acting, and do the right thing by our soldiers, whether they are born here or born elsewhere.
In the time-honoured words of this place, Mr Sharma, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I listened to the highly informed and thought-provoking speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) with the greatest of interest, as I have to the other contributions. This is therefore a classic example of someone having to change his speech because others have said what he wanted to say before he got there.
I, too, am, if not a child, then a grandchild, of empire. I had a cousin who commanded the 10th Baluch Regiment in the second world war. In one of the Arakan offensives, he got cut off with his soldiers behind Japanese lines. Japanese propaganda reported that he had committed suicide—cut his throat, as they put it in the English language propaganda they dropped from aeroplanes. He did not; he fought his way out of the jungle and got his troops out. I knew him as an old man, and he told me of the incredible bravery of the Baluchis and about what fantastic soldiers they were. To his grave, he said that there was nothing better.
Although my own father came from the north of Scotland, he also found himself, through a series of events, in India, in 1941. He also spoke of the extraordinary professionalism and valour of Baluchi, Punjabi and Sikh—of all manner of parts of what was then the British Indian Army in the sub-continent. He was proud to have been a member of the 14th Army—the Forgotten Army—commanded by Slim in its latter days. He was in the second wave going through Imphal, and he told me about Imphal and Kohima and what it meant. Kohima is rightly described as the Stalingrad of Britain. We beat the Japanese, but it was done with the fantastic soldiers from the Indian sub-continent and other parts of the world. Although today is the anniversary of VE-day, and Commonwealth troops contributed to the downfall of Hitler and his brutal regime, it is when celebrating the anniversary of VJ-day in a few weeks’ time that we should remember just what their contribution was, because it was absolutely massive.
On a lighter note, one of the abiding things that has stayed with me through my life is that, early on in India, my father decided that the European food in the mess was absolutely disgusting and that he was going to learn how to cook curry properly. He went through to the kitchens—it was highly disapproved of for a British officer to do that, but he did, because he was a bit eccentric and different—and he learnt to cook curry. Through all of my life, I have eaten an enormous amount of curry cooked by my father. We used to joke in my family that he could probably have curried an old boot and made it quite edible.
I too have been, in my small way, a member of the reserve forces, so I know a little bit about them. It was quite a long time ago, but I was a private soldier in the 2nd Battalion of the 51st Highland Volunteers. When I was a member of another place—I do not mean next door; I mean somewhere in Edinburgh—I was very much involved in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I served for a number of years on the executive committee. I saw first hand just what an important institution the Commonwealth is, as other Members have said. It is a civilising, peace-making, teaching influence throughout the world, and one of the greatest things that we and all Commonwealth countries contribute to the good of the world.
Much has been said today—better than I can say it—about the role of Commonwealth soldiers. Like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I saw that with my own eyes when I went with the armed forces parliamentary scheme to Estonia to spend some days with other hon. and right hon. Members and the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment. I met soldiers from Commonwealth countries—from west Africa and from across the Atlantic. I remember talking to one young man who was the gunner on a Warrior—the Minister and other Members will know what I am talking about. I said, “That’s a pretty cool job, isn't it?” He said, “Yes, it is. This is a cool job to have.” I then made a fatal mistake. I said, “I expect when you are in your No. 2 uniform, you are very smart.” This is not very politically correct, but I said, “That may well help you when it comes to talking to the opposite sex.” He reprimanded me and said, “I don’t need my uniform to pull the girls!” I am sorry if that story has shocked people.
The point is that the Commonwealth troops that I and others saw in Estonia were really good soldiers. Yet, if we look at the stats, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East said, it is clear that we are not getting those soldiers beyond non-commissioned rank. Only 2.46% of officers are from a minority ethnic background or Commonwealth countries. We are missing a trick here.
I close with one suggestion. We need to sort this out. We need to get the career progress for those soldiers, sailors and airmen right from the bottom to the top of the service. I have made this point again and again in the House: as and when we have a successful serving person, they should be encouraged when they get leave to go back to their school or their country, wherever that is in the Commonwealth, to say to pupils, “This is the career I am pursuing, and it is a good career. Why don’t you think about doing it as well?” We do not do that very much in the UK, and we are missing a trick.
The Government’s policy of going out to recruit Commonwealth servicemen and women is absolutely a good idea. It has a long history, as I and other Members have mentioned. We have a rich seam that we can mine, but if we are to do it properly, we have to get over the message that it is worth while—as other Members have said, “You will be remunerated properly and honoured in this country and in your own land. It is a great service.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing this extremely important debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on his campaign and on raising the issue with many of us in this place. It is an extremely important campaign, which we support.
Commonwealth citizens who risk their lives in our service are valued members of our society. The Army Families Federation observes:
“Commonwealth members of our Armed Forces make up a significant and vital part of the UK’s Defence capability and, as a nation, we ask them to make significant sacrifices to do so.”
Their families pay a high price, too, and many find themselves living across the world from their partner or loved one. Those of us who have experience of military life know that the family is a support for serving members of the armed forces. It is a no-brainer that we should do everything in our power to ensure that the families are able to be there as the support that serving personnel need. We should be celebrating the contribution of our Commonwealth service personnel who have come to this country to serve in our armed forces. Instead, we find the Government separating members of our armed forces from their families and, on top of that, hitting them with exorbitant visa fees.
We know there are serious issues in recruitment, as has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East. The Defence Committee noted that the Government’s 10-year partnership with Capita
“has been abysmal since it started”
and that Capita has
“failed to meet the Army's recruitment targets every single year of the contract”.
The Army has embarked on further recruitment campaigns across the Commonwealth to meet the minimum troop numbers required to defend our nations. Commonwealth citizens who have stepped forward to fill the gaps and to serve in the country’s armed forces deserve to be rewarded, but it seems as though we punish them instead.
The Government must reconsider the income requirements for Commonwealth serving personnel. The minimum income requirement has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who talked about the requirement for an income of £18,600 for a spouse and the additional costs of £3,800 for the first child and £2,400 for additional children. If we look at the military pay scales and assume that Commonwealth members enter at the lowest rate, it could take up to six years before they earn the £24,800 required for a typical family to join them. The Government’s current advice to Commonwealth personnel earning below the thresholds is simply: “If you cannot meet the requirement, you are advised not to bring your family over.” We can surely do better than that.
The application fee for veterans to settle with their families has more than doubled in the past four years to £2,389 per person, so we are talking about nearly £10,000 for a typical family of four. Those figures are simply not attainable for people earning £24,800 per annum.
In addition to the Commonwealth personnel here, the families living in the Commonwealth are greatly affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) recently campaigned for his constituent, Denis Omondi, a British citizen and a serving solider in the British Army, who was denied a visa for his daughter in Kenya, for whom he had uncontested custody, to come and live with him. Thankfully, after my hon. Friend’s campaign, the Home Office made a U-turn on its decision to keep them apart, but such cases are not unique. We need to deal with such issues and look at them in a more serious manner.
One of the things that has surprised me most about the letter campaign—the hon. Lady kindly signed the letter—is the number of Fijian servicemen who have logged on to my Facebook page and expressed strong support for the campaign. Pockets of servicemen and women from different countries are much more focused on this issue than many of us in the House realise, so I support what she says.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We could also mention the Hong Kong service personnel caught up in this. They are not able to apply even for British citizenship, despite the service they have given to our nations’ armed forces. There are many examples.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) talked about his personal experience of Commonwealth personnel. I want to add to his story and say that the person who taught me to cook curry properly was a Commonwealth submariner from India, who spent an afternoon showing me how to mix and crush and all sorts. Unfortunately, I do not have much time these days to make a proper curry, but I remember it well.
The Minister for Immigration said last month:
“it would be unfair if certain applicants or routes benefited from free applications or reduced fees”
at the expense of others. Such inflexibility does not reflect well on the Government. Veterans from the Commonwealth should not be prevented from settling in the UK, or forced into debt by ridiculous fees, which the Government should commit to abolishing. It is not up to them to get veterans into debt and not up to veterans’ charities to help veterans pay the fees, which simply should not exist.
We know that the Home Office is in need of drastic reform. The Minister has mentioned that he does not like talk of the hostile environment, so I will not refer to it directly, but I will say that we have had immigration scandals that have highlighted the deficiencies in our system. Scrapping the income requirements for Commonwealth armed forces personnel is an essential place to start. As I said at the start, it is a no-brainer.
We have a debt of gratitude to the people who have chosen to serve. That, coupled with the positive contribution that Commonwealth veterans will make in our society, means we should ensure that indefinite leave to remain is granted without charge, for both personnel and their families. All of us here this afternoon are keen to hear how the Minister is collaborating with the Home Office to ensure that that takes place. I look forward to hearing his contribution and what positive steps are being taken to sort out this—I will not call it an injustice—serious issue for our Commonwealth personnel.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing the debate and on his detailed and compassionate opening contribution. I pay tribute to all Members who have spoken for their thoughtful and constructive contributions, and in some cases for sharing very personal stories about the issue. Those include the hon. Members for Gloucester (Richard Graham), for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi).
It is fully acknowledged that throughout the 20th century and through to the present, British armed forces have recruited from Commonwealth nations to support British intervention in major global conflicts, from world war one to the present day. Those personnel continue to provide important and significant support to our armed forces. As we have heard, statistics from the Royal British Legion show that more than 6,000 personnel from foreign and Commonwealth countries currently serve in the UK armed forces. That number is increasing year on year to fill a range of technical and specialist roles. In 2018 the British Army employed approximately 4.5%—5,290—of its personnel from foreign and Commonwealth nations. There are many Commonwealth recruits in the Army, as well as in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Labour Members believe that all armed forces personnel, regardless of their background, should be treated equally, and it is therefore extremely disappointing that Commonwealth soldiers are being treated unfairly by that Government. I shall return to that point.
The Government have done nowhere near enough to tackle the ongoing recruitment crisis, and given their recent decision to recruit more Commonwealth personnel, they must urgently review the barriers to recruitment and retention. Commonwealth personnel are exempt from UK immigration controls throughout their service, but once they are discharged that exemption is removed. Former personnel who wish to stay in the UK indefinitely, whether with their family or alone, must apply for indefinite leave to remain. As the Minister rightly pointed out, in alignment with civilian applicants for indefinite leave to remain, veterans are subject to a number of requirements, including four years’ qualifying residency in the UK, which is obtainable via four years’ service in the armed forces and a non-refundable fee of £2,389.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East and others have outlined, there are difficulties with the immigration rules because a foreign worker must earn £18,600 to apply to bring their spouse to the UK. The minimum income requirement to bring over one child is £22,400, with additional costs for each child thereafter. A soldier’s basic pay after training starts at £18,600 a year, but in many circumstances that income is unachievable, as the majority of Commonwealth troops in our armed forces are in the lower ranks. As my hon. Friend outlined, the Army Families Federation believes that around 500 troops have been affected by those circumstances, and that Commonwealth soldiers are not routinely aware of such issues when they join the UK armed forces. The Government need to consider that issue sympathetically, to show our country’s gratitude to those Commonwealth personnel who have served.
A recent Defence Committee report recognised that the vast majority of veterans leave the services with no ill effects. It also noted, however, that although the Government have made improvements to the care available to personnel leaving the armed forces,
“some serving personnel veterans and their families who need mental health care are still being completely failed by the system”.
One important welfare issue that particularly affects foreign and Commonwealth personnel is that of non-freezing cold injuries. Ministry of Defence guidance warns that
“African-Caribbeans may be at greater risk than Caucasians”
of non-freezing cold injuries, and states that commanders should have a heightened awareness of the higher risk. Despite that guidance, many Commonwealth soldiers continue to feel let down. The Government are fully aware that African-Caribbean soldiers are more susceptible to such injuries, but they do not always provide them with a better kit or remove those susceptible from exercise when they complain of cold symptoms, and neither do they nor undertake hand and foot inspections at the time or when weather conditions are bad. Injured soldiers are often discharged, and in many cases they struggle to retrain for jobs that they can manage with permanent cold sensitisation.
In 2015-16 the Government paid out £1.49 million to servicemen suffering from that condition under the armed forces compensation scheme, which was a 20% rise on the previous year. Since 2006, 1,235 armed forces personnel have received compensation from the Government for such injuries. Last year saw a 16.7% rise in the total number of service personnel awarded compensation by the Government, and over the past 10 years claims have risen by a staggering 1,650%—evidence of the scale of the problem and the need for something to be done.
Labours Members are also concerned about the disparity in war gratuity payments given to black soldiers of the East Africa Force, which was formed in 1940, and their white counterparts. There are reports that white soldiers were paid up to three times more than their black counterparts. The shadow Secretaries of State for Defence, for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and for International Development have written to the Government calling for an investigation into the issue, an apology for those affected and—most importantly—for the veterans to be paid what they are entitled to before it is too late. The issue has also been raised a number of times by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton). He received a reply from the Ministry of Defence that simply passed the buck to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which had previously passed it to the MOD. Disappointingly, no response has been received by those shadow Secretaries of State.
This issue rightly causes anger and concern, and there is also a sense of urgency, given the age and relatively small number of surviving veterans affected. All these years later, it is a disgrace to discover that the reward for that brave service was so callously calibrated according to the colour of those soldiers’ skin. I hope that the Minister will provide clarity on the issue. It is important to work together on a cross-party basis and to do everything possible as a country to repair that shameful episode.
All Members will recognise the immense debt that we owe to all personnel, veterans and their families, and the need to ensure that they have the best possible support. The Government must do more to protect all soldiers, but they should pay particular attention to Commonwealth soldiers who suffer from the issues I have raised this afternoon. A number of important and legitimate concerns and questions have been raised today, and I hope that the Minister will provide clarity and assurances on those, and show that the Government are not passing the buck for historical grievances that affect Commonwealth soldiers. The small number of surviving veterans who were affected by racially-based disparities in the payments given to them in the second world war deserve an apology at the very least, as well as a thorough investigation into and acknowledgement of their unfair treatment.
It is a pleasure and honour to respond to this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing it. I also thank him for his service. In this country we do not pay tribute often enough to those who put on the uniform and serve their country—perhaps we are shy compared with the Americans—so I am grateful for that. The hon. Gentleman brings a level of expertise and understanding to this debate, which is very welcome.
As the Prime Minister did today during Prime Minister’s questions, I wish to pay tribute to Guardsman Mathew Talbot, who was sadly killed on duty in the Liwonde national park in Malawi, where he had an important role in the counter-poaching efforts in which we are involved. His work was a reflection of the symbiotic relationship that we have with so many Commonwealth countries with which we work, not just on security aspects but on the other detailed challenges that we face, including poaching. This is a very sad moment, and our thoughts and prayers are very much with Mathew’s friends and family. It is a reflection of the bond that we have with nations of the Commonwealth when dealing with modern-day problems.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East spoke of the history of the Commonwealth countries, and of the bonds that go back to before the East India Company and have matured into something very important that goes beyond trade; it is the strength of trust that we have. It is a relationship that we value very much, to the point that we invite them to work with us—to be in the trenches, on the factory floors and in the diplomatic corridors—and serve together for the greater good, and to stand up to ill across the world.
I look back on my own service. The first sergeant who I came across in the Royal Green Jackets, Sergeant Morrell, was a big, burly character from Fiji. He could do things with a Northern Ireland glove that kept discipline in line in our platoon. It would probably not be allowed nowadays, but it was nevertheless a fantastic introduction to the contribution that the Commonwealth made. Another person in my platoon was from St. Lucia. He was a wonderful character of the same size as Dwayne Johnson, also known as The Rock, who is a big, burly actor in all the movies at the moment. My colleague was his own deterrent: whenever he stood behind me when I had a disagreement, things were somehow resolved very quickly.
It is important that we begin this debate by paying tribute and giving thanks to our Commonwealth friends for what they bring to this country, which is all the more reason why we need to get this particular issue absolutely right. I will answer some of the general questions that were asked and then dive into the detailed matter, if I may.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East touched on the mental aspect, which is something that is quite important to me. I hope he acknowledges the advancement that we have made on stoicism and the difficulties we have in the armed forces environment of talking about mental health. Our new strategy is about recognising that it is all right to put one’s hand up and say there might be something wrong with one’s mind, as one does if there is something wrong physically; greater prevention in the resilience that we build up in preparing people for the battlefields and theatres of operations in which they might be involved; and better detection, so that we can treat people and get them back to the frontline without their fearing that putting their hand up might affect their career prospects. Although the hon. Gentleman raises this matter, I hope that we have made progress. More work needs to be done, and we look forward to sharing some of the work we have done with the arrival of Mental Health Awareness Week next week.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke of friends and family, which perhaps goes to the heart of this matter. Individuals from the Commonwealth come here with the anticipation that perhaps one day they might wish to bring their families. Questions then arise, because financial challenges are suddenly imposed. I know that one of the reasons people choose to depart the armed forces is the eventual pressures on the family unit, including children at school and spouses. We are working to ensure that the welfare support we provide to people in uniform extends to the wider family support unit, which is so critical.
Hon. Members touched on matters that are not the purview of the Ministry of Defence, which I think is recognised—for example, the Home Office has responded to Windrush. I hope he recognises that I cannot respond to such questions. I will do my best to answer some of them in the time we have. If I cannot, I commit to writing to hon. Members with the details, should that be helpful.
I do not understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) is still on the Back Benches, because the knowledge that he brings to debates is phenomenal, which I hope is recognised. He spoke about his background in Kenya, and I know he also spent a bit of time in the far east—he is a real internationalist. Every time he adds value to these debates, people listen. He made the most important point: this is not just about our armed forces, but applies to anybody who wants to come and work in our NHS or for the police. The very same challenges exist in those arenas. We have to recognise that other Departments will be queuing up to say, “I’ll have some of that too, please, if you don’t mind.” That is the wider context of this debate, so I was very pleased that he raised that point.
The Minister is giving a powerful response, as I would expect. He is right to say that there is a risk of a floodgates argument. Does he agree that people who put their lives on the line in the service of this country are in a special category, which ought to be reflected in the way their visa applications are dealt with?
I do not want to kill my own argument, so of course I am going to say that my hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We need to recognise that people joining our police forces or fire services would claim something similar. We need to find a solution that is amenable to all, but which also recognises—this issue was raised earlier—the challenges for recruitment and retention. I will not deny those. At the moment, we are doing better at recruitment, but not so well at retention, which is partly to do with improving the actual contract that we have with people to ensure that we retain them for as long as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester also mentioned the campaign that the Royal British Legion has done, and it was a pleasure to meet Charles Byrne yesterday to discuss these and other issues. I am very grateful for the work the RBL is doing to highlight this issue.
Can I press the Minister on that point? In my own contribution—I did not put it quite as eloquently as I should have done—I said that if somebody at the bottom could see a career path that would take them up, it might improve the chances of retention.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I will come on to address such issues. He allows me to jump ahead and thank him for his contribution and the valuable point that he makes. People who arrive here tend to be singles—individuals on their own. They have signed up, but their circumstances might change. What happens then? It is a communication issue as well. We need to make sure that those who are embarking on this journey and signing up to join our armed forces are fully aware of what is happening. We have found out, particularly from the families’ federations, that they arrive here unaware of the financial consequences, which is the first step we are trying to resolve.
My good friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), mentioned the role of the Gurkhas. They are not part of the Commonwealth, but we have a unique relationship that has developed over time. Through various campaigns, they have gained parity with our armed forces, which is very important indeed. He also mentioned that everybody who serves in Her Majesty’s armed forces deserves the gratitude of the nation, and I could not agree more.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) spoke of the importance of the families’ federations. I meet with them on a regular basis and will be seeing them tomorrow. I think we are meeting some in the near future to talk about aspects of the charities’ work. The three families’ federations give some of the most important input I receive—a reality check on what life is like in our armed forces. It is critical that we keep that communication going.
In terms of the nation at large understanding the scale of the Commonwealth contribution to our armed forces, would the Ministry of Defence consider creating a digital map of the some 4,700 Commonwealth servicemen and women, and the different armed forces or units they are in, to give an example of the scale of what I think is roughly 5% of the Army alone?
That would certainly be an interesting reflection of the importance of the contribution they make. I think the current number stands at about 4,500. There are also 3,000 Gurkhas—as I indicated earlier, they are an incredibly formidable and extremely professional force, and I had the privilege to serve with many of them.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West spoke of the Capita contract. We have debated this many times, and it is a concern of ours as well. I am genuinely concerned, because I fear that there is a gulf between our capability and the threats we face, which needs to be recognised if it is to be filled. We need to ensure that we retain and recruit, and that we procure the necessary equipment, in order to close the gap. Given that we have a spending review coming up, that is exactly what the new Defence Secretary is focusing on. I hope hon. Members will be supportive of an increased defence budget.
I spoke of our historic relationship from a military service perspective. At Sandhurst, Lympstone, Dartmouth or the staff college at Shrivenham, one can see myriad representatives from the full spectrum of Commonwealth countries. Those people are not just in our armed forces, but also train officers, for example, and work alongside their British comrades, which is exactly as it should be. British personnel also go to staff colleges in other countries around the world. At any one time, a number of British officers are at the staff college in India, for example. That is an important advancement of our relationship.
Another reflection of our gratitude is the number of Victoria Crosses awarded over the years. Some 280 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to people from 13 different Commonwealth countries, including William Hall from Canada in 1857, for his contribution in India, and more recently, Johnson Beharry, who was in Al-Amarah in Iraq in 2004. That shows that once they are in uniform and working alongside us, they meet the same standards, values, professionalism and bravery that we expect from our own troops.
The terms and conditions for Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and air personnel are exactly the same as for their British counterparts, as are their pay, accommodation and service eligibility criteria. They fulfil a wide range of roles, whether technical or from an infantry perspective, which is why it is so important, in this day and age, to recognise that and give thanks to our Commonwealth citizens.
Commonwealth citizens with five years of residency are eligible to join the armed forces—between 2013 and 2015, 650 joined. Last November, the Government announced plans to significantly expand the number of Commonwealth personnel to 1,350, which reflects the challenge of recruiting in the UK. That required the removal of the five-year UK residency criterion for Commonwealth participants.
The Minister makes a good point about those numbers. I understand that every year, roughly 400 Commonwealth servicemen and women apply for indefinite leave to remain. If the cost for a family of four is roughly £10,000, the total cost would be around half a million pounds. Although that is a lot of money for any individual, it is a relatively small figure in the overall scheme of Government spending, so I hope that the Minister agrees that whatever judgment the Home Office reaches, it will not be because of financial pressure.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, with which I was going to conclude. We are not talking about huge sums of money to rectify the problem—it will not completely break the bank, but it will require answers. At the moment, the ball is in the court of the Home Office, which is looking at the issue, but he suggests exactly how we would like it to go.
The immigration status has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. Non-UK personnel are granted an exemption from immigration control by the Home Office once they have joined, and can come and go from the UK without restriction for the purposes of their duty. The exemption is valid for the entirety of their regular service. Commonwealth personnel can apply to naturalise, using their time in the UK and while serving overseas towards the five-year UK residency criterion. That is not offered to other groups living and working in the UK, so it distinguishes us from police and NHS recruitment. Non-naturalised personnel can apply for indefinite leave to remain if they have completed a minimum of four years’ service upon discharge. Applications can be made up to 10 weeks before discharge, so indefinite leave to remain can normally be granted quickly following the last day of service.
The minimum income requirement was also raised by a number of hon. Members. The Home Office introduced new family migration rules, including a minimum income threshold—now known as the minimum income requirement—that individuals need to meet to sponsor visas for non-EU dependants to enter the UK. The minimum income requirement is £18,600 for a spouse or civil partner. That rises to £22,400 for a spouse or civil partner plus a child, and further £2,400 is required for each individual child beyond that. The minimum income requirement is designed to ensure that sponsors can support their dependants financially, so that they do not become a burden on the UK taxpayer. The requirement has been tested and upheld by the Supreme Court.
The starting salary after training for regular soldiers is £18,850, which is above the minimum income requirement. Any individual soldier who comes here and passes their basic training is not affected by the minimum income requirement, because they earn the right amount of money. The problem is if they want to bring their other half or any children—that is the dilemma that we face. For lower-ranked soldiers, sailors and air personnel, it can take up to four years for an individual salary to meet the minimum income requirement to bring a child to the UK. I agree with hon. Members that that is too long and needs to be addressed.
The immigration issues that impact on our personnel and their families have been raised as a key priority under the armed forces covenant, which we should recognise. Progress is being monitored through meetings, such as those of the Covenant Reference Group and the Ministerial Covenant and Veterans Board. We have raised the matter at every necessary level and are in discussions with the Home Office to explore whether armed forces personnel can be exempted from minimum income requirements to allow non-UK and non-EU citizens to bring family members to the UK, and whether the costs of visas during service and applying for settlement after service can be waived.
I cannot make it clearer than that. That is what I want to achieve and what we need to do if we are to meet our moral obligation and sense of gratitude to those who serve alongside us in peace and in war, to keep our country and their countries safe, and to keep our adversaries at bay. I will do my best to review what hon. Members have said and will write to them. I hope I have been clear about where the MOD and I sit on this issue. We will work with the Home Office to conclude the matter in a positive manner.
I congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members on the excellent, insightful and, in some cases, very moving contributions they have made about their own experiences. The key is recognition of the service of Commonwealth soldiers, Gurkhas and others, who serve this country with great gallantry and bravery. The notion that their service or welfare could be undermined by the restrictions and impositions of the Home Office must be addressed with the greatest urgency. It is important that this House has recognised those concerns, and I welcome the spirit of the Minister’s approach to the debate as well as his sentiments.
The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) noted the potential knock-on effects on other Government Departments—it relates to the police and the national health service in particular—and how special exemptions for the armed forces might bleed over into challenges. I strongly echo his sentiment: the armed forces are a special case and, frankly, we as a nation should have the common sense to recognise the unique nature of their contribution and the gallant nature of their service, which is quite unique, compared even with the police. We ought to introduce special exemptions as a matter of urgency.
The Minister said that he is in discussions with the Home Office about the income thresholds. That is a welcome measure—to everyone—but a wider concern is the continuing cost of visas. It seems unacceptable to me that a veteran bringing, say, three dependants into the UK can be subject to a cost of £10,000. That seems thoroughly unreasonable. We would welcome the Minister considering the recommendation to amend the immigration and nationality fees regulations as a short-term measure to exclude recent members of the armed forces and their dependants from such costs. We are talking about some 500 people a year, which would not be a massive or onerous cost.
The Royal British Legion has stated that it spends thousands and thousands of pounds, from its own money, supporting veterans with those costs, and I am sure that many of those who donate to the RBL will be frustrated to learn that the money they donate goes back to the Home Office in fees—not a particularly useful way to spend their funds. To dispense with those fees altogether would be better and more efficient. I hope that is another aspect of the Minister’s discussions with the Home Office of a more sensible approach.
I welcome the sentiments expressed today, and there has been great consensus in the Chamber about how we need to proceed. I look forward to following developments closely.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered fair treatment for Commonwealth personnel in the armed forces.
High Speed 2: Hollins Green, Culcheth and Croft
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of High Speed Two on the villages of Hollins Green, Culcheth and Croft.
It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to have been granted this debate on the impact of the proposed High Speed 2 line on villages in my constituency. For the record, although I live in the village of Culcheth, our home is not one of those affected by the line. Nevertheless, many of us have believed for some time that what we call “the spur”—the Hoo Green to Bamfurlong section of the line—simply does not stack up economically, or in any other terms, and that the decision to join the main line north of Warrington, rather than north of Crewe, is flawed.
I have previously questioned the costings for that part of the line. I do not propose to go through all that again, but suffice it to say that if HS2 is seriously arguing that this part of the line will cost only 28.6% of the costs elsewhere, when a viaduct has to be built over the Manchester ship canal and the M62 and the East Lancashire Road have to be crossed, it is highly unlikely to be correct. In fact, many of us have believed for some time that the real justification for the spur was to avoid the constituency of a certain former Chancellor of the Exchequer, of this parish. Now, with the decision to make Crewe a main transport hub and to abandon plans for any depot at Golborne, it makes even less sense than it did.
Even so, neither HS2 nor the Government have taken full account of the concerns of people who live in the villages. One bit of the line was tweaked following representations from the owner of the Taylor business park just outside Culcheth. That mitigated some of the impact on some houses in Culcheth but increased the problems in Croft. However, the decision allowed the business park to be sold for an undisclosed sum, reported by local newspapers to be more than £19 million—without any gain, I suspect, to the British taxpayer, since the last time I looked most of the shares in the business park were held by a company registered in Belize. We often ponder why notice was taken of one person, and not of the representations of the rest of the community.
That part of the line, however, has serious implications for all three villages. That is what I will concentrate on today. For example, Wigshaw Lane is proposed for permanent closure. It is the route that leads from Culcheth to Croft, going on towards the centre of Warrington. Traffic will therefore be forced on to the other route towards town, which is the A574, despite the fact that that road is already at a standstill at peak times. An accident on the motorway or the East Lancashire Road can gridlock traffic all around the village. It is simply not sustainable to force more traffic on to an already congested road which is used as a cut-through by HGVs.
Importantly, Wigshaw Lane is also the direct link between Culcheth and Croft, and closing it will have a serious impact on people’s ability to access services in Culcheth village. For example, many people in Croft come into Culcheth to shop and to use the doctors’ surgeries there. Culcheth High School is the nearest high school to Croft and is attended by many of the young people from that village. They will be forced on to a much more unsafe route to school, and the road closure will have a particularly adverse impact on elderly and disabled people who come to shop in Culcheth.
There will of course also be problems for people who want to move the other way, from Culcheth to Croft and towards town. For example, the hospital is in the centre of town, and young people who want to access post-16 educational provision, whether at Warrington and Vale Royal College or Priestley College, need to go into the town centre. How people will get to early appointments in Warrington, or young people to classes, when the road is congested and often at a standstill is something that no one appears to have considered properly.
In fact, young people will be disproportionately affected by the closure because they move between the villages of Croft and Culcheth for sport and recreation, as well as education. Local air cadets, for example, are based in Croft. People go there from Culcheth and all around the town. The cadets are well respected—one member of my staff learned to fly with them—but the direct route there will be closed. Similarly, for young people who want to come from Croft to Culcheth to access after-school activities and sports facilities, there will be no direct route.
If that were not enough, another proposal is that the area known as the Oaks—which is on the alternative route, the A574—will lose more than 20% of its area. Culcheth Athletic junior football club has 23 teams that play there. The idea put forward by HS2, that they can all move to Shaw Street recreation ground in Culcheth, or the Culcheth sports and social club, which we call the Daten, is nonsense: four out of six pitches and the parking facilities are to be lost. It is interesting that the Government want people to be more active and for young people to take part in more sport and in the cadet forces, yet they are set on making it more difficult for them to do so in the area.
Another part of the community that will suffer a serious impact is the Catholic population. St Lewis Primary School is in Croft, as is St Lewis parish church. When the direct route is closed, young children will no longer have an even moderately safe route to school; they will be forced on to the congested A574. Older people and others who want to go to mass will be seriously inconvenienced. That is direct discrimination against the Catholic community, which goes against HS2’s declared policies.
If that were not enough, there is a proposal to put a construction depot on the A574, close to Newchurch Primary School and the residential houses that abut that road. That will increase not only traffic—yet again on a road that is already congested—but air and noise pollution for the primary school and the people who live in that area. Anyone who knows the villages would say that the proposal simply is not feasible.
As far as Hollins Green is concerned, there is a proposal to build a viaduct over the Manchester ship canal, despite the fact that on the nearby M6 the Thelwall viaduct often has speed restrictions because of high winds. It would be interesting to know how HS2 thinks that is feasible. Previous plans for a motorway in the area were rejected by the then Secretary of State on grounds that remain relevant to HS2: namely, that it would have an unacceptable environmental impact, and would cause a loss of green belt and a harmful effect on village life. That viaduct and its associated embankment will tower over the area. It will cut through a historic parish and it will destroy a network of footpaths between Hollins Green and Glazebrook.
As well as the environmental impact, there will be an economic impact on the villages. It might help the Minister if I explain that Culcheth is the centre village for Croft and Glazebury and, in some sense, for Glazebrook too. Lots of people from outside those areas come to the village because they are attracted by its mix of local shops and nice restaurants and pubs. When Wigshaw Lane had to be closed a few years ago for bridge repairs, there was a serious impact on local businesses, which lost a lot of trade. Culcheth also has a thriving night-time economy—because of the restaurants and so on. People come to the village from quite far away. That trade will be reduced if one of the main routes out is closed.
The new route will go straight through the Partridge Lakes fishery—a thriving family business built up over many years, which has also planted thousands of trees. Other businesses are situated there, too. For instance, there is a store that sells prom dresses—I think that is a thing now, although when I was growing up we just went to the pub when we left school. People come from all around to get their dresses there. There is a yoga studio and there is the Black Sheep Wools craft centre. The key thing to remember if those businesses go to the wall is that they encourage people to go to Culcheth village and spend money in the shops and restaurants. It would be a double whammy.
In Hollins Green, the Black Sheep pub will have the route going straight through its car park. People go to that pub from outside the village, and it holds a thriving farmer’s market that brings people into the village. We are constantly told that HS2 is beneficial to the economy. I do not think it is beneficial to the economy of these villages. Although I keep asking questions about the economic impact and the assessment that has been made of it, I do not get very satisfactory answers. The cost-benefit ratio of the line is estimated at between 0.5 and 0.8, but with the effect on those businesses, many of which will experience a serious loss of trade and some of which may go to the wall, that analysis changes. I hope the Minister will look at that very seriously.
There will be an impact on people’s health. The loss of the footpaths in Hollins Green, the loss of access to the linear park, which is used by walkers and horse riders, and the loss of the fishery where people are welcome to walk around, look at the wildlife and have a coffee, will have a serious impact on people’s access to green space. HS2 accepts that most anglers tend to be older men and a high proportion are disabled, although the fishery has done sterling work with young offenders to try to get them interested in the sport. We know that being out in the open air is beneficial not only to our physical health but to our mental health. Many of those benefits will be lost in those villages. We will pay the price in worse health, but in the end the country will pay the price in increased costs to the NHS.
It cannot be right that HS2 can come up with plans that anyone who knows anything about these villages thinks are unworkable. They take no account of the traffic situation, the economy of the villages and people’s health. They are just not feasible. In addition, many of them ignore HS2’s own stated equalities policies, because they have a disproportionate impact on young people, older and disabled people, and the catholic community.
There is a way out of this situation. As the costs escalate, Ministers need to look at the cost of this part of the line. In fact, in previous debates I have undertaken, Ministers did agree that the costs needed to be looked at. The original cost of the spur was estimated at £800 million, whereas joining the main line north of Crewe was estimated at £750 million. The cost of the spur has risen to £1 billon. The original justification for not joining the main line north of Crewe was that a lot of work would need to be done to make Crewe station viable. Since the Higgins report, it has been decided that Crewe will be a main transport hub, so that work will have to be done anyway.
The other justification for the route was having a depot at Golborne, so that trains could turn around and come out of that depot. There is no longer going to be a depot there. I urge the Minister to look seriously at that. It has been said often that HS2 is of great benefit to big cities but not much benefit to towns. There is something in that. By looking again at the possibility of running trains out of Crewe to Chester, north Wales, Liverpool and up through Warrington, many towns could benefit much more, and the impact on villages could be avoided. If the Minister cannot do that, I strongly urge her to look at HS2’s plans for building the line and the impact on those villages. I sincerely believe that they will be disastrous for village life and the whole thing needs to be considered again.
The debate can last until 4.23 pm. Before calling the Minister to speak, I congratulate the hon. Lady on giving a detailed and knowledgeable speech for just under 15 minutes without referring to any notes whatsoever. I call the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing this important debate on the effect of High Speed 2 on the villages of Hollins Green, Culcheth and Croft. She gave us a lovely picture of her constituency.
I sympathise with the concerns the hon. Lady has raised with me, my Department and previous Ministers, and with HS2 Ltd itself. I shall provide an overview of why the project is important and then move on to the questions she asked. If I fail to respond to them all, I hope she will allow me to correspond with her in writing to ensure that everything is down on paper. I do not doubt for a moment that she will continue to champion action on behalf of her constituency.
HS2 is a critical project for our country. It will be the backbone of our national rail network. It really will help to rebalance our economy, create opportunities for regeneration and lessen the north-south divide. The strategic case for HS2 is that it will increase capacity on our overcrowded rail network and improve journeys into and between the major towns and cities of the midlands and the north. It will connect eight of our 10 biggest cities, and it will more than double the number of seats from Euston in peak hours, carrying more than 300,000 people every day.
I know the hon. Lady raised concerns on behalf of her constituents, but we are already starting to see the benefits of HS2. More than 7,000 people are working on the line and more than 2,000 businesses are working to deliver the new railway. Opportunities for jobs and apprenticeships are being created across the country; I am pleased to say that more than 250 new apprenticeships have been created so far. The project is critical. It will connect half of our country’s population. Even though the hon. Lady’s constituents may be asking, “What’s in it for me?”, they are among that half of the population that the project will impact by helping to rebalance the economy.
HS2 is an essential component in the delivery of the Government’s and Transport for the North’s plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail. For example, the current designs for NPR use HS2 infrastructure into Manchester and Leeds. If we did not build HS2 phase 2b, we would need to send NPR back to the drawing board. The two projects are complementary and will work in tandem to transform connectivity across the north, bringing towns and cities together. If the hon. Lady does not want to take my word for it, I have a recent article by Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and Steve Rotheram, the Mayor of the Liverpool city region, in which they talk about the benefits that I hope she will—
Let me just go through the quote. I have many more—too many for this debate—but this one is important, because it mentions the benefits in the north. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram wrote:
“The economic output of Greater Manchester could double to around £132bn by 2050”
because of HS2,
“contributing at least 40,000 new jobs. Liverpool city region forecasts £15bn of economic growth and 24,000 new jobs.”
You will be surprised to learn, Mr Hollobone, that we often read criticism of HS2. It tends to come from the press, which tends to be based down here. Importantly, in their article, those leaders of the north wrote:
“We don’t need London commentators telling northern leaders what we need.”
It is important to reflect what is wanted and needed beyond London and the south-east.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; she is very kind. However, I think she is making my point about HS2 benefiting big cities rather than towns. Warrington is in neither Greater Manchester nor Merseyside—it is in Cheshire—and it will not have a station on the line. As my constituents have argued, areas that are getting a station might be able to weigh the benefits against the costs, but for areas that are not getting a station and already have an hourly service to London, as we do, the situation is much more difficult.
The hon. Lady raises some important points. I note that she does not actually criticise HS2 but expresses a desire for a station. Unfortunately, if I provided a station to everyone who wanted one, the project would not be going anywhere very fast anytime soon. There are already 2,000 businesses and 7,000 people involved in the project, and at its peak there will be 30,000 people building this railway, so I do not doubt for a moment that every part of the country will be touched in a positive way, whether it is by the economic opportunities or the jobs that HS2 provides.
Let me turn to the questions the hon. Lady raised. She made a robust argument about the Golborne link. The Government will continue to invest in upgrades to the conventional rail network, including the west coast main line, in addition to their proposals for the development and delivery of HS2. However, only HS2 will be sufficient to meet the long-term growth in demand that is forecast on the existing network. HS2 is the right intervention to address the capacity constraints on the west coast and east coast main lines. The Government have already considered alternative schemes to HS2, including upgrading the existing railway, but no other option can deliver the same scale of benefits as HS2 phase 2b.
The Golborne link is the most effective way to deliver the much-needed capacity on the west coast main line. It has two key purposes: it avoids a constrained section of the west coast main line, improving capacity and reliability on that line, and it delivers faster journey times for destinations north of the connection, such as Wigan, Preston, Lancaster, Cumbria and Scotland. The hon. Lady mentioned costs and benefits. Proposed alternatives to the Golborne link would reduce the benefits of HS2 without necessarily saving money. Early analysis shows that delivering the same benefits, such as the published journey times to the north and Scotland, without the Golborne link may add an extra £0.8 billion to the cost of HS2.
Let me move on to some further points the hon. Lady raised about HS2 and Warrington. HS2’s arrival is becoming integral to local plans in Warrington and the surrounding area. Warrington stands to benefit from HS2 services, which will cut journey times between Warrington and London to just over an hour, supporting enhanced growth in and around the town. HS2 is already driving employment opportunities, with approximately 80 businesses in the north-west now working on the early stages of the project. Decisions about service patterns will be taken in the future, taking into account factors such as demand and local considerations. The HS2 indicative train service specification shows Warrington Bank Quay being served by one HS2 train per hour in phase 1, which it will continue to receive when phase 2b opens.
I turn now to some of the important local points that the hon. Lady raised. I must place on record the fact that she has campaigned on behalf of her constituents by writing to raise arguments with the Department, especially since I have been there, and no doubt with the previous Minister, too. The local issues she has raised are very important to the Government and HS2 Ltd. I was particularly struck by some of the cases she made, and I will raise them directly with HS2 Ltd. I will ensure that I get a detailed response to all the points she raised if I am able to; otherwise, I will invite her to have a conversation with me about anything that is outstanding.
We are mitigating particularly in the following areas. On Wigshaw Lane, we are acutely aware of the issues the proposed road alignment presents and are currently working on alternatives. HS2 Ltd is already engaged with Warrington Borough Council on the closure of Wigshaw Lane. It is also looking to change the alignment of the viaduct in the Hollins Green area to move it further away from Hollinfare cemetery and the local community. The alignment of the viaduct would also be adjusted north and south of that point.
On the construction compounds near Hollins Green, the location and dimensions of some of the compounds shown in the working draft environmental consultation are being considered in the light of local feedback. That includes trying to reduce the size of compounds in the area. Developments to the design will help move compounds further away from residents in Hollins Green. The details in the draft code of construction practice, which formed part of the working draft environmental statement consultation, will help provide residents with reassurance about some areas of concern with construction compounds.
More broadly, we have already consulted on the working draft environmental statement for phase 2b. That consultation, through which we sought views from local stakeholders and residents along the route, closed at the end of last year. My officials and HS2 Ltd are analysing the responses and will continue to listen to the concerns of local people through HS2 Ltd’s engagement teams and meetings with local councils. I will ensure that the hon. Lady has a link into the HS2 Ltd team so she has an individual to direct her concerns to, and ensure that community meetings take place at the appropriate time.
The hon. Lady raised an important point about the viaduct versus the tunnel. That issue has been raised by many local stakeholders. Boring under the canal would require a particularly large land take either side of the canal to support tunnelling to the depth required. That means that much more land would be required in the area by a tunnel than by the proposed viaduct. That would have an impact on land and property in the area. The soil conditions in the area would also make tunnel construction difficult; the area around the tunnel is peat, so the tunnel would have to be very deep and constantly drained.
The hon. Lady made an interesting point about the depot no longer being situated at Golborne. The decision to relocate the depot to just north of Crewe was made in response to consultation feedback—particularly from local stakeholders—about open spaces and public amenities. The route through this area is still the Secretary of State’s preferred route and is not dependent on the depot being located at Golborne; that is a completely separate issue.
The hon. Lady raised an important point about the environment and the mental and physical health of her constituents. HS2 Ltd has a target to ensure that there is no net loss of biodiversity. Substantial funds are in place in the earlier phases to ensure that we are greening as we go along. HS2 launched a green corridor along phase 1 of the route, which includes 3,340 hectares of wildlife habitat, a 33% increase on existing habitat. HS2 is also committed to planting 7 million trees and shrubs along the line.
The hon. Lady mentioned pitches. HS2 Ltd is aware of the reduction in available pitches and is exploring options to re-provide those. I was moved by the points she raised, so I will keep a close eye on that and do my best to ensure that we get a positive outcome. Otherwise, I am more than happy to meet her to ensure that her points are, at the very least, heard and responded to by HS2 Ltd.
As I said earlier, this project is crucial for our country, especially in smashing the north-south divide. I appreciate that that will not provide succour for the hon. Lady’s constituents when she returns home this weekend. The Government are already spending more than £48 billion on our existing rail network, but that is not enough. We need to build extra capacity. HS2 is not just about passengers; it is about freight, taking cars off the road and encouraging people to use the railway instead of taking flights.
I am loth to read out another quote, because the hon. Lady will say, “It’s not close to home for me,” but let me reference Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds City Council, because it is appropriate.
That’s definitely not close.
It is not about being close; it is about the importance of the project for our whole country and for the north in particular. Judith Blake said HS2 is
“the opportunity to transform the prospects for the north—perhaps a once in 200-year opportunity.”
Politicians are often criticised for not thinking long term, planning for infrastructure on a large enough scale or understanding what our country needs going forward. HS2 addresses that. It is a large project. I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, but HS2 Ltd is tasked to ensure that it mitigates its impact on the environment and communities.
I welcome the opportunity the debate has provided once again to reflect on how important HS2 is. We must remember that it has cross-party support: when the Bill for phase 2a went through Parliament, only 12 MPs opposed it. It was in all three main political parties’ manifestos. It is right that we continue to focus on delivering it, and it is also right that HS2 Ltd works appropriately, with humility and sympathy, with the communities it will be building the line through.
Question put and agreed to.
West Papua: Human Rights
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in West Papua.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am delighted to have been granted this extremely important debate about human rights in West Papua. As I understand it, this is the first ever debate in the House of Commons on this topic. I am pleased to welcome colleagues from across the House who have come to support the debate, and I am grateful to them.
There have been a couple of brief debates in the other place over the years, but this is the first time that we, as elected representatives, have debated West Papua, despite having held some 3,455 debates in the last 50 years on issues great and small, of national and local significance. That is illustrative of the lack of attention this issue has received, when it ought to have had attention both at home and from the international community. I hope that today, in our small way, we can start to shine a light on the West Papuan cause and to give a voice to the people of West Papua.
I referenced the last 50 years, and there is a significance to that, as 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called Act of Free Choice. That Act is a defining moment in the West Papuan story and forms the context within which the current situation in West Papua must be viewed. I will set out some of that context and give a brief history of West Papua, before discussing the current situation. I will conclude with two key actions I suggest the UK Government consider taking to help improve the human rights situation in West Papua.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way before he starts on his historical exposé. I want to set the current situation in context, as he is coming on to describe it. Is he aware of two human rights situations? The first was illustrated in a video that went viral, which showed a West Papuan freedom fighter being tortured with a snake by the Indonesian army. Is he also aware that, as a result of Indonesian activities in Nduga, 30,000 refugees have been created in just that area?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am aware of both the fact and the incident; they illustrate, in microcosm, the importance of this debate and are vivid examples of what is happening this very day in West Papua.
West Papua is the western half of New Guinea, which is the second largest island on earth and one of many thousands of south Pacific islands that are collectively known as Melanesia. Papuan people have inhabited the West Papua region for over 40,000 years. It was slowly drawn into the Dutch sphere of influence, and by the end of the 19th century the Dutch had established permanent administrative centres in the region as part of the Dutch East Indies.
When Indonesian nationalists declared independence from the Dutch empire in 1945, they included West Papua in the list of territories that would form the newly born country. That declaration sparked a four-year-long war between the Indonesians and the Dutch, which ended in 1949, when Indonesia was granted international recognition as an independent state at The Hague roundtable conference. However, this only heightened the divisions that existed on the status of the West Papua region. Indonesia argued that the region should be included in its new independent state, but the Dutch refused to cede the territory. At this point, I ought to mention that the West Papua region is home to the largest gold mine and the second largest copper mine in the world.
No compromise was found in the years that followed Indonesian independence, leading to a further fraying of tensions between Indonesia and the Netherlands. That led to Indonesia building up its military capacity, largely from weapons acquired from the Soviet Union. In the conflict that ensued, the United States, although originally supportive of the Dutch cause, eventually changed its position to ensure that Indonesia would not be driven towards the Soviet Union, in the context of the cold war.
Talks between Indonesia and the Netherlands followed in 1962, with the UN acting as the official mediating power. This resulted in the signing of the New York agreement, according to which the administration of West Papua would be assigned to the United Nations for a minimum of seven months, before being passed to Indonesia. Crucially, article 18 of that agreement stipulated:
“Indonesia will make arrangements, with the assistance and participation of the United Nations Representative and his staff, to give the people of the territory the opportunity to exercise freedom of choice.”
It went on:
“Such arrangements will include...formulations of the questions in such a way as to permit the inhabitants to decide (a) whether they wish to remain with Indonesia; or (b) whether they wish to sever their ties with Indonesia.”
Article 18 also noted that the consultation had to ensure the
“eligibility of all adults, male and female, not foreign nationals to participate in the act of self-determination to be carried out in accordance with international practice.”
I thank the hon. Member for securing this important debate. I have long held an interest in West Papua, going back 15 or 16 years into my previous life. Is not the root issue self-determination, which is an international human right? Having an ethical foreign policy that protects that vital human right is important for any Government, including the British Government.
Self-determination is a fundamental human right. That has been the case for many hundreds of years, as most famously enunciated at the beginning of the 20th century, after the first world war. It is a guiding principle in foreign policy for all countries, but particularly for the United Kingdom since that time. Self-determination is at the heart of the issue we are discussing, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.
It is difficult to say that what happened in 1969—the so-called Act of Free Choice—was carried out in accordance with international practice or captured the true democratic will of the West Papuan people. Despite the New York agreement explicitly requiring Indonesia to
“guarantee fully the rights, including the rights of free speech, free movement and of assembly, of the inhabitants of the area”,
that guarantee was not fulfilled, because Papuan political parties were banned at the time of the Act of Free Choice.
A one person, one vote system, which is international practice, was not granted. Instead 1,025 representatives were selected by the Indonesian military to vote on behalf of the Papuan people. The representatives voted unanimously in favour of Papua becoming part of Indonesia. However, numerous reports from foreign observers and Papuans suggest that it was not a free consultation. It is claimed that those who were selected for the vote were blackmailed into voting against independence by means of threats of violence against their person and their families. Representatives were taken away from their families and communities for several weeks before the consultation.
Diplomatic cables from the US ambassador to Indonesia reported at the time that the Act of Free Choice in West Papua
“is unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained.”
The ambassador went on to say that the Indonesians
“cannot and will not permit any resolution other than continued inclusion”
of West Papua
“in Indonesia. Dissident activity is likely to increase as the climax is reached but the Indonesian armed forces will be able to contain it and, if necessary, suppress it.”
The ambassador continued by saying that the Indonesian armed forces had “no intention of allowing” West Papuan choice
“other than incorporation into Indonesia. Separation is unthinkable.”
British diplomats in the region took similar views and drew similar conclusions at the time.
In a House of Lords debate in 2004, the then Foreign Office Minister, Baroness Symons, made this admission in responding to the then Bishop of Oxford:
“He is right to say that there were 1,000 handpicked representatives and that they were largely coerced into declaring for inclusion in Indonesia.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 December 2004; Vol. 667, c. 1084.]
I would be interested to hear in due course from the Minister whether that is still the position of the UK Government, although I see no reason for it to have changed at this stage.
After making that admission, Baroness Symons went on to say that these things had occurred many decades ago and that, rather than dwelling on the past, it was important to look to the future and improve matters in the here and now. While I have some sympathy with that sentiment, it does perhaps miss the key point—that in the eyes of many West Papuans, the fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the so-called Act of Free Choice undermine the very legitimacy of Indonesian rule in West Papua.
We are now in the 50th anniversary year of the Act of Free Choice, which is understandably seen as an act of great injustice by the people of West Papua, who refer to it ironically as the “Act of No Choice”. In the past 50 years, the West Papuan people have been subjected to serious human rights violations, which have only fuelled and heightened that sense of injustice. Those human rights violations include the repression of free speech and peaceful assembly, impediments to a free press, arbitrary arrest, and even cases of torture and killings, as we have heard.
The human rights abuses in West Papua are in large part down to the fact that the region is de facto controlled by the Indonesian military. The University of Sydney has estimated that around 15,000 troops are currently deployed in the region. When human rights violations occur, there are inadequate systems of redress for Papuans, so violations often go unpunished. An Amnesty International report on West Papua noted that there is a lack of effort to investigate accusations of human rights violations and to try before civilian courts police officials accused of violations. Furthermore, it noted that allegations of human rights abuses committed by the military in West Papua often go unchecked or are dealt with before military tribunals with no transparency, leaving many victims of human rights violations awaiting justice.
We will all be aware of the case from earlier this year, which we heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). Footage emerged of Indonesian police interrogating a young Papuan boy, who was on the floor and in handcuffs while officers wrapped a large snake around him. The child was alleged to have stolen a mobile phone. In the video, he is heard screaming in fear as officers laugh and push the snake’s head towards his face. In responding to the incident, a UN panel of human rights experts stated that it
“reflects a widespread pattern of violence, alleged arbitrary arrests and detention as well as methods amounting to torture used by the Indonesian police and military in Papua”.
They went on to explain that those tactics are often used against indigenous Papuans and that the incident is “symptomatic” of the discrimination West Papuans face from the Indonesian authorities.
Papuans are regularly arrested for peacefully expressing their opinions on the political status of West Papua, including through peaceful demonstrations or attending meetings in which the matter is discussed. The simple act of raising the symbol of West Papuan independence, the Morning Star flag, carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years. Pro-independence political leaders have routinely faced persecution and even assassination at the hands of the Indonesian authorities.
At this point, I would like to introduce someone who, I am pleased to say, is in attendance today—Benny Wenda, leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, who came to see me recently, along with my constituent Richard Samuelson, who was the first person to bring the situation in West Papua to my attention, and his fiancée Elaine, who are also in attendance. I thank them.
I pay tribute to Richard for bringing this issue to my attention; without going off on too much of a tangent, it shows one of the greatest things about our parliamentary system. Many of us, when we raise issues in the House, do so because they are brought to our attention by constituents in our surgeries, and this is one such case. Richard and Benny made a powerful, moving case to me, and I am only too pleased to raise this issue before Parliament today.
I make that point during this debate as a reminder of the democratic rights and freedoms we enjoy in this country. Richard and Benny could come to see me and make their point freely, knowing they would not be persecuted and that their representative could and would take up the matter on their behalf. Those are rights and freedoms that, sadly, are not enjoyed by too many people around the world.
Benny’s story would bring a tear to the stoniest eye. Benny’s father was, in fact, one of the representatives hand-picked in 1969 to vote in the Act of Free Choice. Benny says that he still remembers his father telling him how he had been threatened and told that he and his whole family would be killed if he voted for Papuan independence.
During our meeting, Benny told me the tragic story, which he says is permanently fixed in his memory, of when, at just three years old, he saw many of his fellow villagers, including most of his family, killed during an Indonesian military operation. Years later, Benny became the leader of the Papuan student independence movement. After being imprisoned, he was able to escape to Oxford, where he was duly granted political asylum by the United Kingdom.
When I met Benny, he expressed with great emotion the gratitude he felt to the United Kingdom, and he spoke with admiration of our values of freedom and the rule of law—principles he said he was determined to see his people in West Papua enjoy. Benny was the one who, earlier this year, presented a petition to the United Nations calling for an independence referendum in West Papua. The petition contained the signatures and thumbprints of some 1.8 million West Papuans, which represents approximately 70% of the entire population.
I turn now to the Minister. What can the UK Government do? I have explained the history and set out the present situation. The question is, what can we do to ensure that the human rights situation improves in West Papua and that the future is brighter for the Papuan people? I accept that the United Kingdom’s power is limited, but I think there are two key areas where we could—and should—apply diplomatic pressure.
We should not downplay our influence. The United Kingdom is a close and important friend of Indonesia. A recent BBC poll found that over 65% of Indonesians take a positive view of the UK’s influence, making Indonesia the country with the second most favourable perception of the United Kingdom in Asia. Therefore, we have a role to play in having these conversations with our Indonesian friends, difficult though they may be.
The first thing I ask the Minister to consider doing is to push for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit West Papua. That should not be controversial; indeed, in a February 2018 meeting with the then UN High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Indonesian President Jokowi invited his office to visit West Papua. Sadly, some 15 months on, that visit has not taken place, and the former UN High Commissioner expressed concern about that in his update to the 38th session of the Human Rights Council.
The Foreign Office, and our representatives in the United Nations, should encourage their Indonesian counterparts to honour that invitation and permit the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit West Papua. The UN High Commissioner’s assessment of human rights in West Papua will be critical to informing the world of the situation on the ground and bringing about positive change in the region. I ask the Minister today if he would please commit to raising the issue of this invitation with his Indonesian counterpart and encouraging them to honour it.
The second area where I would suggest the United Kingdom could have a positive influence is in pushing for increased press freedom in West Papua and particularly for greater access for foreign journalists to the region. At present, foreign journalists are essentially banned from West Papua. The few who are granted access are closely monitored by the Indonesian military and by no means allowed to report freely. The BBC’s Indonesia editor, Rebecca Henschke, was granted a special permit to report on a malnutrition crisis in the region last year but was expelled shortly after arriving after posting tweets that “hurt the feelings” of soldiers.
It is therefore unsurprising that Indonesia ranks 124th out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index of the press freedom charity Reporters Without Borders. The charity concludes that President Jokowi did not keep his campaign promise to address media freedom in West Papua, with his presidency instead seeing drastic restrictions on access for foreign journalists and growing violence against local journalists who seek to report abuses by the Indonesian military.
A free press nurtures free societies. Now, more than ever, we must defend it. That was the message of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last week as we marked World Press Freedom Day. Never has that been more true than in the case of West Papua. We simply must ensure that journalists are able to report freely in the region, shining a light on wrongdoings when they occur, and generally scrutinising the actions of the authorities in West Papua. Ensuring that that happens will go a long way towards helping to protect the human rights of the West Papuan people.
The UK is in an ideal position to take action on this issue. Last month, the UK Government announced that Amal Clooney had been made a special envoy on media freedom by the FCO and would head up a panel of legal experts looking to repeal anti-press freedom laws abroad and ensure that journalists across the world are free to report the truth. I therefore urge the Minister and the Foreign Secretary to ensure that this important panel, when it is established, investigates the situation in West Papua as a top priority. The panel, which is a wonderful initiative, can look at the restrictive laws that the Indonesian Government have put in place in West Papua, which have essentially created a media blackout in the region, and press the Indonesian Government to repeal them, enabling a free press, transparency and accountability in West Papua.
The simple fact is that the human rights situation in West Papua cannot improve until President Jokowi delivers on his promise to allow greater press freedom in the region, which has thus far failed to happen. The panel therefore represents a golden opportunity to hold the Indonesian Government to their promises, ensuring that their warm words turn into hard action. Ultimately, a free media can prevail in West Papua, and I therefore hope that the Minister will assure me that he will make strong representations to the Foreign Secretary and Amal Clooney that West Papua must be an area of focus for the Defend Media Freedom panel.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is extremely generous. Will he add to his wish list the suggestion that the British Government use all their efforts and influence in Indonesia to secure access to West Papua for non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and the Red Cross? They have had difficulty visiting the area to see what is going on.
That is a very sensible suggestion. I wonder whether the Minister will add that. Ultimately, I think the hon. Gentleman and I are looking for transparency, access and freedom, all of which are tied together.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend will add to his list of things that could be done something that the University of Sydney has called for: a comprehensive investigation into the killing of Papuans by Indonesian forces. At the moment, we are left with the Asian Human Rights Commission, which produced a report in 2013 showing the savagery of Indonesian forces in dealing with this situation.
I am grateful for that suggestion. I am keen that the Minister takes away two or three things that we may be able to achieve in the near future, and I am of course happy to add that request to the list. Ultimately, I think we are all making the same point, which is that an investigation carried out by an NGO or the press will achieve largely the same ends: transparency, clarity and an understanding of what is taking place in West Papua. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for adding that suggestion to the list.
In conclusion, I leave the Minister with two modest requests from myself—and two from hon. Members—which, if followed through and achieved, could be immensely significant. They ought not to be controversial, as they essentially ask the Indonesian Government to honour promises they have already made. The first request is that the Minister encourages his counterparts in the Indonesian Government to honour that February 2018 invitation to the Office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights to visit West Papua, and the second is that he ensures that the new FCO panel for press freedom investigates the situation in West Papua as a top priority.
If we can ensure the free access of international media and independent human rights observers to West Papua, we will have taken an enormous step forward in protecting the human rights of the Papuan people, putting the region on the road towards a more free and prosperous future. I hope the Minister will be able to assure me and all others who have attended the debate—I note that the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on West Papua, the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), is here, and I welcome him—that he will take up these issues on behalf of the people of West Papua, whose cries for help have for far too long gone unanswered. The debate has helped give a voice to the voiceless. I hope the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be able to help too.
The debate can last until 5.30 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 5.8 pm. The guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesperson, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition’s spokesperson and 10 minutes for the Minister. If the Minister will allow Robert Courts two minutes at the end to sum up the debate, that would be fantastic. Until 5.8 pm is Back-Bench time. Two Members are seeking to contribute, so there will be a time limit of six minutes each.
We think we know all about the great injustices of the world: people who have been killed, had their human rights transgressed, been illegally imprisoned and seen their calls for a right to self-determination unanswered. However, West Papua is the forgotten struggle. I thank the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for giving us the opportunity to highlight the plight of West Papua, for his explanation of the history and an overview of the actions of successive Indonesian Governments against West Papua, and for the requests he made to the Minister, which I shall add to. I will not repeat any of those points, but I will say that, in the 50 years of Indonesian control, there is significant evidence of genocide.
Yale Law School, in a 2004 report for the Indonesia Human Rights Network, found
“in the available evidence a strong indication that the Indonesian government has committed genocide against the West Papuans”.
The Indonesian military have also carried out widespread acts of torture and sexual assault against the native Papuans—a point I made in a debate yesterday on women human rights defenders.
The people of West Papua have been campaigning since 1969, and many have had to flee and campaign from their new homes. A united campaign representing all those in the West Papuan diaspora and in West Papua, the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, was formed in 2014, bringing together all the campaigns. The Free West Papua campaign is based in the UK and supports the all-party parliamentary group on West Papua, which I chair. As the hon. Member for Witney said, Benny Wenda, who lives in Oxford, is the chair of the Free West Papua campaign and the United Liberation Movement for West Papua. I put on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) and her predecessor, Andrew Smith, for their years of support for Benny and the campaign.
The bringing together of the organisations has led to major steps forward recently, one of which was the Westminster declaration calling for an internationally supervised vote for independence, signed in 2016 by representatives of Governments of four Pacific states and parliamentarians from around the world; since then, other parliamentarians, including me, have signed up to the declaration. As the hon. Gentleman said, West Papuans, in secret and often in fear of discovery, collected a petition calling for the right to vote for independence, which was signed by 1.8 million people. That petition has now been presented to the UN. I thank the Minister for the meeting prior to that petition being presented, and look forward to future meetings regarding the petition.
However, my main comments regard incidents in Nduga province. I recently met members of the World Council of Churches on their return from West Papua, who gave me a report that highlighted that Indonesian security forces allegedly fired large-calibre machine guns and dropped grenades from helicopters in areas inhabited by indigenous local communities. While the Indonesian military continue to deny access to the province for human rights organisations, journalists, human rights defenders and observers, a rescue team consisting of local government and civil society representatives was able to collect data in some of the affected areas.
According to recent reports, security forces killed at least nine indigenous Papuans, while at least five indigenous Papuans, including two minors, have been reported missing since the commencement of military operations. Witnesses have stated that many displaced villagers continue to hide in the jungle, where they live in small groups in improvised huts. The men leave the shelter during the night and walk long distances to collect sweet potatoes and taro. They do so under fear of murder. The harsh climate and food scarcity in the central Papuan highlands have particularly affected women and children. According to local human rights defenders, at least 13 have died because of starvation after fleeing villages.
I want to use this opportunity to highlight the fact that Indonesian armed forces have been accused of deploying chemical weapons—suspected to be white phosphorus, banned under international law—in West Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost territory. I am referring to international humanitarian law, because this is an issue of contention. Under the convention on the prohibition of the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and on their destruction, which Indonesia has signed and ratified—in fact, it sits on the committee—states are banned from using and stockpiling chemical weapons.
ABC, which is the Australian equivalent of the BBC, reported in December claims that wounds may have been inflicted by white phosphorous. The report had photos of the canisters and wounds. I have more photos, from the World Council of Churches, which I can provide to the Minister. I wrote to the Minister regarding this situation, and he responded to me, but I feel that the Minister’s letter could have been written by the Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Information Technology.
Before I wrote to the Minister, the Indonesian embassy wrote to me, saying:
“I deeply regret that such motion was based on groundless reporting, most notably by Australia’s The Saturday Paper throughout its January to February 2019 articles. No significant evidence has been subsequently produced despite the strong claims made by the authors.”
In the Minister’s letter to me, he said:
“We are aware of a media claim, first made in The Saturday Paper on 22 December 2018, about the possible use of white phosphorus”.
It was not just The Saturday Paper, which is a small paper in Australia; it was ABC and many other media outlets that reported the claims. I am sure that the Minister would not want people to think that the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office was subservient to the Indonesian Government on these matters, so I once again urge the Minister to write to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to ask it to investigate this issue as an international priority. I request that the Minister immediately send an official request to the OPCW, asking the organisation to verify the incident and investigate the suspected breach of Indonesia’s obligations under the chemical weapons convention. If no investigations are conducted, if no light is shone into the dark underbelly of the military occupation of West Papua by Indonesia, how will we know what is going on?
Before I have to finish, I want to make just one more point about the letter from the Minister. He says:
“The use of white phosphorus is not banned under international law”.
I ask him whether the UK Government are going to call for the banning of white phosphorous, because when it is used against civilians, it is a chemical weapon; it is exactly that type of weapon and should be banned under international law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to follow the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel). I thank the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing the debate and for the very powerful contribution that he made in setting the scene for us and explaining his interest in the subject. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. We recognise his commitment to his role, which he carries out very well. We often say this, but it is the truth: I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks.
I am very interested in human rights issues and always have been. That has been one of the big issues for me in my time in the House. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, but today I will speak about human rights issues; I want to put those on the record. Whether we are talking about discrimination or abuse and whether it is emotional, physical or financial, I am happy to take whatever opportunity comes my way to speak up for people—to be, as the hon. Member for Witney said, a voice for the voiceless, and to speak for those whom no one else is speaking for, at least in this place.
According to Amnesty International, the people of Papua are subject to severe human rights violations at the hands of Indonesian authorities. Amnesty’s 2002 report on Indonesia found that counter-insurgency operations by security forces in West Papua had resulted in gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detentions.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the elections as well. In Northern Ireland some time ago, in the early years of the troubles—1969 or thereabouts—people used the term “gerrymandering”, as in gerrymandering the democratic process. I am reminded very much of that, except that in this case, the result was very final. As terrible as it is to fix elections by intimidation and threats of violence, the reality for West Papuans is even worse. A paper prepared by Yale Law School in 2004 found evidence that strongly indicates that the Indonesian Government have committed genocide against the West Papuans and that, at the very least, the Indonesian Government have committed crimes against humanity against them.
Despite those crimes, authorities in West Papua operate with impunity. In March 2018, the mysterious death in police custody of Rico Ayomi, a 17-year-old student, from alleged alcohol poisoning underscored the police’s lack of accountability for deaths of Papuans. From 2010 to 2018, security forces were responsible for an estimated 95 deaths in 69 incidents, 39 of which were related to peaceful political activities such as demonstrations or raising the Papuan independence flag. No security force personnel have been convicted in civilian courts for those deaths, and only a handful of cases have led to disciplinary measures or military trials. It is outrageous and unacceptable that none of those cases has been answered. Those who have committed crimes need to be brought to the courts for those crimes—for their brutality.
The brutality of the Indonesian Government in cracking down on separatists has created an environment in which anyone suspected of supporting Papuan independence can become subject to human rights violations by police and security forces, including unlawful killing, torture and beating. Thus the rights of West Papuans to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are heavily curtailed. In today’s debate, we are speaking for those people and ensuring that their voices are heard. Many people are imprisoned simply for having taken part in non-violent demonstrations or expressed their opinions. Here we are expressing our opinion, and we can do that freely. Why should they not be able express their opinion?
Similarly, international human rights organisations and journalists face severe restrictions on their ability to work freely and visit the area. Human Rights Watch reports that just last year, two foreign journalists were harassed for alleged illegal reporting. They were BBC correspondent Rebecca Henschke, arrested in February, and Polish freelancer Jakub Fabian Skrzypski, arrested in August.
The oppression of the media and freedom of expression ensures that the terrible oppression of West Papuans continues away from the international community’s awareness. I do not believe that we, as part of the international community, can sit back and do nothing. That is why this debate and those in other parts of the world are so important. It is vital that we take every opportunity that we have to publicly stand in solidarity with those who are suffering in West Papua and to say to the Indonesian Government, “The world is watching you. We will not simply forget.” The opportunity to speak for the people of West Papua has been given to us today. We look to the Minister for a response and we hope that the influence that we can exert on Indonesia can bring about change.
I thank the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and congratulate him on initiating this debate. As he pointed out, it is the first one that this place has had on this subject ever. I appreciated the very powerful remarks that he made and I am glad that they are now on the record. I look forward to hearing a response to some of the points that he raised with the Minister, who I know takes this matter seriously as well.
As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just said to us, it is important to have a voice, because we have to tell the Indonesian authorities that the world is watching; the world is paying attention. It is important to raise and highlight human rights violations and lack of self-determination wherever that occurs in the world. That is what makes this debate on West Papua so timely.
The SNP unequivocally condemns any human rights violations, regardless of where in the world they occur. We find the reports that have come out about human rights violations incredibly concerning. We have seen some reports about the use of chemical weapons as well. The hon. Member for Witney quoted a comment from the UN panel of experts:
“This case reflects a widespread pattern of violence, alleged arbitrary arrests and detention as well as methods amounting to torture used by the Indonesian police and military in Papua”.
That should be hugely concerning to all of us. The hon. Gentleman was right, as were other hon. Members, including the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on West Papua, the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel). He and his colleagues are doing good work in pushing for a full investigation of the situation.
The hon. Member for Witney was right that self-determination goes to the heart of this issue. The right of people to choose how they are governed is a fundamental pillar of the international rules-based order. We should all be significantly concerned that the decision to unify with Indonesia—the act of free choice, as it was called, or the act of no choice, as others have referred to it—was made with one in 800 citizens having the vote. Even those one in 800 voters, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out and as Mr Wenda has testified, may not have had a free and fair vote. That is a very significant issue. What moves does the Minister have to raise that issue of self-determination, which is so important in this case? What discussions has he had with the Indonesian authorities and representatives of West Papua?
I apologise for not being here for the whole debate. I had commitments in Committee and the main Chamber. I first met Benny Wenda several years ago when he visited the Scottish Parliament. He was hosted by our good friend Aileen Campbell, who is now a Minister in the Scottish Government. I had the pleasure of meeting him again this morning with his colleagues.
Self-determination is crucial. Regardless of an individual’s views on whether a given community should be an independent state or country, the people who live there and self-identify as part of that nation or community should have the right to a free and fair choice. Understandably, the Scottish National party has always been very proud to support that.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I want to add that Mr Wenda is always very welcome in the Scottish Parliament. I also add my voice to the key actions raised, including pushing for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit. That visit must take place. I know that the Minister will make that point in the strongest possible terms. The press must also have the freedom to visit. If there is nothing to hide, they should show that. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) made a good additional point about letting international NGOs, such as Amnesty International and others, be part of any delegation.
I want to leave time for the Minister to respond. I add my voice to the points that have already been made. I know that the Minister has heard those points loud and clear.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on raising an extremely important issue, which he did very well. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who is an extremely energetic champion for the people of West Papua.
Several hon. Members have talked about the history and I agree with their analysis. There has been some discussion of the human rights situation. It is extremely disappointing that the human rights situation in West Papua is still so bad, because the situation in other parts of Indonesia has improved significantly over the past 20 years. One would hope that the people of West Papua would have benefited from that as well.
I want to raise a couple of particular episodes. First, at the beginning of last December more than 500 Papuans were arrested after peaceful demonstrations to commemorate the birth of the West Papuan nation in 1961. Days later West Papua Liberation Army militants attacked and killed 20 construction workers in the Nduga region. Some 300 villagers had to flee to escape the subsequent military sweep following the attack.
The British Government have slightly more power than the hon. Member for Witney suggested, because the UK is currently the penholder in the UN Security Council for the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Innocent West Papuans are clearly not getting the protection they so badly need. They are being treated as legitimate targets by the Indonesian military. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain what his Department is doing about that.
In a letter to me the Minister described that incident as “proportionate”. Would my hon. Friend describe the actions of the Indonesian army as proportionate or disproportionate?
They are most clearly disproportionate.
I want to talk about the use of white phosphorous. I believe that white phosphorous was used inappropriately, because I had meetings with Octovianus Mote, the deputy chairman and former general secretary of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, who had direct testimony from people in the area, and with Ian Martin, the former head of the UN mission, which conducted the self-determination referendum in East Timor.
We need to be really specific about this matter: white phosphorous is not banned under the chemical weapons convention, but its military use is circumscribed by protocol III of the UN convention on certain conventional weapons. However, it is prohibited in all circumstances to use it against civilians. It is also prohibited to make any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by air-delivered incendiary weapons, which is what happened on this occasion. I entirely support those calls to send in experts from the UN and the OPCW, to look at what happened. I heard stories of old people being burned out of their homes.
Furthermore, I would like the Minister to suggest to the Indonesian military—it seems to be out of control in West Papua—that peacekeeping duties be assigned instead to the local police. As well as the UN-led investigation into white phosphorus, we need to see the release of political prisoners and the recognition of local political parties, to facilitate the development of a political and civil society in West Papua. I hope that the Government will review any sales of military equipment to Indonesia.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for securing this important debate. I am also grateful for the insights and contributions of the hon. Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and for the Front-Bench contributions. I will endeavour to answer all the questions, and I will respond in writing to those that I do not answer now.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the UK and Indonesia. I am very pleased to say that the relationship is flourishing. Indonesia is an important democratic partner in the G20 and, for the next two years, on the UN Security Council. In that context, we follow the situation in Papua very seriously. We welcome President Joko Widodo’s commitment to a peaceful and prosperous Papua, but we recognise that the historical challenges are significant. Many of those challenges stem from the disputes over resources and governance, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, and from unresolved human rights grievances.
Although the UK Government wholeheartedly respect the territorial integrity of Indonesia, with the province of Papua and West Papua as integral parts, it is important, within that framework, that the authorities address the needs and aspirations of the Papuan people.
We are concerned by the sporadic outbreaks of violence in Papua, and by reports of alleged human rights violations by the security forces. We will continue to press the Indonesian authorities to strengthen their human rights protections and to address the legitimate concerns of the people, including by ensuring that they benefit from sustainable and equitable development, and of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) in relation to the building of a civic society that allows free political parties.
There are serious and long-standing concerns about the influence and actions of the Indonesian security forces in Papua. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and I believe that it is regrettable that, despite improvements since the restoration of democracy in Indonesia in 1998, there remains persistent reporting of worrying human rights violations in Papua. Meanwhile, there has been no real accountability for the serious abuses of the past.
When I met the Indonesian ambassador to London in January, I raised those issues with him, not least because I had recently met with the all-party group, and in the light of the contemporary violence in Nduga, where armed groups had attacked construction workers, resulting in the deaths of 19 people. We urged the Indonesian authorities then to ensure that any security response is proportionate. As has been rightly and universally recognised, however, under successive democratically elected Governments there has been a noticeable improvement in the overall human rights situation across Indonesia and an end to the debilitating conflicts in East Timor, Aceh, Ambon and elsewhere.
During their recent phone call, the UK Prime Minister praised the President of Indonesia for the peaceful conduct of the presidential and legislative elections in April, which represented the single largest one-day democratic event anywhere in the world, with an 80% voter turnout and more than 800,000 polling stations operating across the archipelago. Although there were some localised delays to polling, including in Papua, there has been no evidence to suggest that it was anything other than a well-run and credible election. Nevertheless, we will continue to raise our concerns about issues such as the freedom of expression and assembly and the rights of persons belonging to minorities.
In reference to media freedom in Papua, which was raised by several hon. Members, UK officials regularly raise the importance of media access to Papua with the Indonesian Government, and they will continue to do so. Our embassy in Jakarta is active in promoting press freedom across the entirety of Indonesia, where there is already a vibrant media environment. To mark World Press Freedom Day last week, the embassy arranged a full programme of activities to celebrate the work of Indonesia’s journalists, media organisations and regulators in that regard.
Although President Jokowi has said that foreign journalists should be allowed to access Papua without pre-conditions, unfortunately we understand that Indonesian officials continue to place substantial practical obstacles in the way of that taking place. Transparency and media access are important to give us a fuller picture of the situation. We also encourage all Indonesian journalists to write openly and frankly about Papua to ensure that local perspectives are properly heard and are part of the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witney made a point about the panel to defend media freedoms, which has not yet had its first meeting, as I understand. It will be for its members to determine its work and to plan its initial areas of focus. It would not be appropriate for the UK Government to seek to dictate them, because in many ways that would undermine the important sense of its independence.
We regularly press for the release of political prisoners across Papua. Under President Jokowi, the number has fallen from 37 in 2014 to fewer than 10 today. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have acknowledged that positive trend, but we continue to make the case that 10 political prisoners remains 10 too many. Moreover, we are concerned that three people were charged with treason in January after apparently taking part in a peaceful prayer event. We call, here and now, for all political prisoners to be released immediately, and for the Indonesian authorities to ensure that all detainees are given the right to a fair trial.
We will continue to request updates on the historical human rights cases in Papua that President Jokowi has committed to resolve. We will keep the pressure up in the aftermath of the elections. Initial investigations have been conducted by the National Commission on Human Rights, but they need to be properly dealt with by the Attorney General’s office.
On phosphorus, I am happy to have further conversations with the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland and for Leeds North West about the issue, but our investigations have not substantiated the media claims that it was used in violation of the chemical weapons convention—as was rightly pointed out, it is prohibited in all cases against civilians. Therefore, we do not believe that there is a case for referral to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, but I am more than happy to look at any additional written or other evidence that the hon. Gentleman has. Clearly, we would then be happy to take the matter up.
As has been pointed out, President Jokowi has visited Papua 10 times during his first term, which is far more than any previous Indonesian President. He has made a number of important democratic commitments, including to establish a constructive political dialogue with Papuan groups. That process represents a credible opportunity to address long-held grievances, and in our discussions with the Indonesian Government we will urge them to deliver on those commitments. I very much hope that the recent sad but peaceful passing of Pastor Neles Tebay, the Papuan priest who has been at the forefront of attempts to create a peaceful dialogue on the future of Papua, might inspire progress to honour his legacy, led by the team that the President has appointed to foster a dialogue.
I agree that the Act of Free Choice was an utterly flawed process, but I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, and to the Chamber, that there is no desire in the international community for reopening the question. The UK, along with other members of the UN, supports Indonesia’s territorial integrity.
We will continue to support efforts by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and her officials to arrange the visit to Papua, at the invitation of the Indonesian Government. Officials in our embassy in Jakarta have discussed the proposed visit with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and have encouraged Indonesia to agree dates as soon as possible. I also undertake to raise the proposed visit with my Indonesian counterparts. I hope to make a substantially long visit to Indonesia later in the year.
Facilitating a visit to Papua would help the Indonesian Government to demonstrate their commitment to the rights and freedoms of those residing there. It would also help to underline the seriousness with which they take their candidacy for a seat on the Human Rights Council. Being a member of the UN Security Council also provides us with an opportunity to speak fairly openly in New York on the issue.
It is clear that economic factors are a major source of grievance among the Papuan people, and a source of strain in their relationship with the central Government and local authorities. That is why we will continue to support Indonesia’s regional governments to develop a green economy in which people can make a living without over-exploiting their natural resources, and in which there is greater regulatory oversight of the timber industry, which has been fundamentally linked to the social conflict.
I end by saying that the Government will continue to take a close interest in human rights in Papua. I am pleased that a number of MPs are passionate about that. I enjoy their passion and it provides us with the opportunity to make a serious case to our Indonesian counterparts, which we will do. Above all, that expression of interest is in the interests of all the people of Papua and the rest of Indonesia.
I thank the Minister for his full and comprehensive response, and every hon. Member for taking part. Once again, I welcome Benny Wenda and my constituent Richard Samuelson to the Public Gallery. I thank them for having initiated the debate and I hope that they think it has advanced the cause of human rights in West Papua.
I am grateful to all hon. Members for their points. I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) for what I will summarise as his robust response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his point about access to justice; the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) for underlining my points about the visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and press freedom; and the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for making the point about political prisoners.
I assure the Minister that I have heard everything he has said and I am glad that the FCO regularly raises the issue of press freedom. I underline the point that the Act of Free Choice lies at the heart of the real repression and the feeling of ill-justice, which are central to the cause. In the 70th year of diplomatic relations, I hope that the Minister and the FCO will continue and redouble their efforts, having heard how strongly hon. Members feel. On the panel to defend media freedoms, I understand its independence; I do not ask that the UK Government dictate to it but merely make suggestions.
We have made great strides today. I am grateful to you for having listened to us in detail, Mr Hollobone. We have cast a searching gaze on the human rights situation in West Papua. We must ensure that we do not look away.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights in West Papua.