Monday 23 November 2020
[David Mundell in the Chair]
Covid-19: Restrictions on Gyms and Sport
I remind hon. Members that there are some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and dispose of them as they leave the room. Members are also asked to respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members can only speak if they are on the call list. This applies even if debates are under-subscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list.
I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that Members stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken. This is to help manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that in so doing, they may prevent Members in seats in the Public Gallery from moving to seats on the horseshoe.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 333869 and 309851, relating to Covid-19 restrictions on gyms and sport.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. The two petitions we are debating have a combined total of almost 1 million signatures, and they speak to a very deep concern: that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb when it comes to physical and mental health. The first petition, on preventing the closure of gyms, was started by Liam Brannon from north Lincolnshire and has over 614,000 signatures. The second, to exempt golf courses from covid-19 restrictions, was started by Monty Florin from Donnington and has over 257,000 signatures.
During this pandemic, it has become very clear just how much people value sport and exercise. It keeps us fit, helps us maintain good mental health, and is crucial for our resilience to the virus. With sports facilities closed during the first lockdown, many took up running and cycling. Joe Wicks is now a national hero, with an MBE to prove it, leading PE classes from our living rooms. However, it is the ongoing support and inspiration from gyms and other sports that motivates many people and keeps them active.
My inbox has been flooded with correspondence from people keen to see facilities reopen. To share just a few from my constituents, Malcolm, 69, says:
“I try to keep as healthy as I can, especially during the current situation. I go to the gym 3 times a week. Senior citizens like myself should have access to facilities.”
“Leisure centres, gyms and swimming pools are an essential part of our community and have massively helped with my mental health. It’s a place to go to burn off energy and be in my own head that I just cannot achieve in my home environment.”
The power of petitions has clearly paid off, with the Government announcing today that gyms and outdoor sports will be able to get going again. That news will come as a relief to many, but it is not the end of the challenge. From financial support for struggling fitness venues to tackling health inequalities and ensuring sport is truly open for all, there is still much more to do, and I urge the Government to step up and use this opportunity to build back fitter from the pandemic.
Despite Joe’s best efforts, we know that people have been less active this year. Sport England research shows that more than 3 million people did less exercise during the first lockdown. Shaun, a personal trainer in my constituency, has had a similar experience. He says:
“I have 80 members who exercise regularly at the gym but during lockdown very few of those keep up with exercise. The average weight gain of my members during the first lockdown was 18 pounds.”
As Huw Edwards, chief executive officer of ukactive, has warned,
“the closure of the sector is creating a second public health crisis”.
Many community gyms and sports facilities are now in a very precarious position. The sector usually takes £7.7 billion in membership fees, which have crashed during the pandemic. There are 60,000 self-employed workers whose livelihoods have been destroyed, and many missed out on the self-employment income support scheme, whereas ukactive has warned that without urgent Government support, up to 20% of facilities could close permanently by the end of the year. The earlier support package from Sport England has been welcome, but many providers, particularly charities and social enterprises, have fallen through the cracks. Although the £100 million fund for leisure centres announced last week is positive, there are still big questions around eligibility. Will councils have the freedom to provide help where it is needed most, or will it be a case of devolving that money but with strict criteria attached?
The early months of the year are especially crucial as many fitness businesses make good on all those good new year intentions. Many people sign up to the gym in January, motivated to get fitter. As the Government finalise their plans for the Christmas period, the science says that tougher restrictions might be needed later. It would be a catastrophe for many businesses if we faced a spike after Christmas and the Government then said that they were shutting down again. As Martin, a gym owner, told me,
“if we are closed for January—we will probably have to close our doors permanently.”
Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between managing the spread of the virus and the wider public health risks, so I ask the Minister whether the Government will consider the wider consequences of shutting down the sector in any future lockdown.
The concerns of individual sports are wide and varied, and I will do my best to summarise them in the time that I have. Gyms are where many people spend their fitness time. The sector has put in place stringent measures to be covid-secure. As petitioner Liam told me, gym users are following the safety rules to the letter because they do not want their gyms to close. Data from Test and Trace suggests that that is working, with cases from venues relatively low in comparison with those from other settings.
Golf is a comparatively safe sport played in wide-open spaces. Petitioner Monty questions why people are permitted to walk across a golf course as a public right of way, but cannot play a game with members of their own household. As one of my constituents put it, “Why is it safe for me to sleep with my wife, yet I can’t play a game of socially distanced golf with her?” The sport is especially popular with older people, helping them to stay active later in life.
Swimming is one of the most popular physical activities, with 14 million adults going swimming every year, but in many communities swimming pools have not reopened since lockdown. West Denton swimming pool in my constituency is one of those. The not-for-profit operator has warned that it could remain permanently closed. There is a real danger that we will be left with a situation in which facilities in more affluent areas can reopen while those in more disadvantaged areas stay closed, worsening the health inequalities that we know we need to work hard to address.
The tennis sector was pleased to reopen in the summer as a naturally socially distanced sport with a relatively low risk of transmission, but restrictions on sporting activity have hit revenues for community tennis venues, coaches and organisations that help to deliver the sport. Grassroots football clubs have lost significant pitch time this year. The Government must lift the ban as an immediate step. There are concerns that without community support through spectators, clubs will struggle to generate the income that they need to survive. The spectator funding package announced last week is welcome, but the support must reach clubs at every level so that no community is left out.
Gymnastics clubs are a popular place for fitness activity, especially for our young people who have had a particularly difficult time during the covid-19 crisis. Even amateur athletes need to be able to continue their training to maintain their strength and ability. I have also been contacted by the horse-riding sector, which is deeply concerned that horses should not just be left in the stables for weeks on end. There are so many other sports and activities—I am sure we will hear of many from hon. Members today—but it will take much more than just lifting restrictions to make sport accessible for all.
I am particularly concerned about the impact that all this has had on children. We know that children lose up to 74% of their fitness over the summer holidays when they are away from PE, with those from the poorest backgrounds affected the most. Swimming lessons have been cancelled, dance classes postponed, and footballers are unable to get together. With venues and facilities at risk of permanent closure, inequalities could deepen further.
What action do we need from the Government? First, we need clarity on their strategy and the scientific basis for restrictions. The reopening of gyms and sports is welcome and crucial for the physical and mental health of the country, but the sector needs to know that that will continue and that it will not face another round of restrictions after Christmas.
The pandemic has been tough on many sports and businesses, so the second thing that they need is financial support. The extension of furlough has helped, but there is a time bomb of rent going into next year. Some facilities have found that they do not meet the prescriptive criteria to access Government support. We have already seen established providers such as Xercise4Less calling in administrators. Action is needed before more facilities close for good. The Sport and Recreation Alliance is calling for a sport recovery fund to support clubs and facilities across the country.
Other helpful measures would include business rates relief, in line with other sectors, and a cut to VAT to support ticket sales and cashflow, but beyond that direct financial help there is a strong case for promoting exercise and fitness more widely, whether that is inducements to buy home exercise equipment or support for gym memberships. Just as eat out to help out was a boost to the hospitality industry, an equivalent to encourage fitness in the new year would be a boost to not just the fitness economy but the health of this country.
People have faced huge pressures throughout this crisis, and physical exercise is one of the best tools that we have to stay healthy and resilient to deal with them, but without renewed effort to get people fit and active we are storing up bigger public health problems for the future. We also risk reinforcing health inequalities as community leisure centres battle for survival.
After a difficult year, we have the opportunity to build back fitter from this pandemic, to make a collective new year’s resolution to get fit and active, and to support local sports clubs, gyms and fitness facilities to ensure that sport truly is accessible to all. I urge the Government to take the health and mental wellbeing of our country seriously and make this a national priority.
Thank you, Mr Mundell. It is fantastic to follow such a good speech from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). She captured so much of what the debate is about and what people around the country are feeling. There is a sense that we appreciate something only when it has been taken away. That certainly applies to gyms.
Rather perversely, my attendance at the gym went up slightly with the lockdown, because I had to make an appointment to go and then felt that I had to keep that appointment. It helped to a small degree, but I would hardly recommend having this lockdown approach just for that reason.
A great many of my constituents have been in touch on this matter, which shows how much it affects their lives. It is not just about the obvious effects on physical health, but the effects on mental health. When so much else in society has been taken away, this is one of the areas that could and should have been left open, especially because of the very limited evidence that there is transmission within the pub—[Interruption.] Well, in the pub as well, but there is very limited evidence of transmission in the gym environment. We need evidence-based policy, because that is how we give confidence to people to follow the rules and instructions.
We also need to recognise just how much time and effort gym owners and their staff have put into making these environments covid-secure. It is phenomenal. The people working in gyms and the people attending them are so conscientious in what they are doing. The equipment is spaced out and people clean it afterwards. There are certain things that we would like people to carry on doing after this covid phase has washed through entirely.
There is another indicator of the importance of gyms and why they should be left open no matter what future national lockdowns we have. Other people in the Chamber can speak far more clearly and articulately than I about the experience of the Liverpool city region, but the outcry in Liverpool when the decision was taken to close gyms, in contrast with what happened in Greater Manchester and Lancashire, really showed the importance of keeping gyms open. I am glad that gyms reopened in Liverpool.
From the evidence across the board, it is so clear now that gyms and other exercise venues are incredibly important. This is not just about gyms, but other forms of sport, such as team sports. Golf was already highlighted. I will not use the same analogy as the hon. Lady’s constituent, but people could go for a walk and visit every tee on that 18-hole golf course, which is legal, but they cannot knock a ball, no matter how long it takes, from the tee to the green. That is not realistic. It is not seen as a serious consideration when dealing with covid-19. These flaws ought to be resolved. We can understand why the decisions were made in the short term, but they need to be corrected.
With team sports, those who have been doing the sport for a while share that experience with the next generation coming through. If we put a brake on that sharing of experience, it will be difficult to get those teams back up and running, especially if this draws on and on. There is so much more to say, but I am conscious of time. I am not overly keen on the phrase “building back better”, but we all ought to focus on building back fitter.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and the Petitions Committee for giving us the opportunity to have the debate, as well as those people who signed the petition.
Throughout this period in Parliament, it has been difficult as when we get the opportunity to speak—when we are successful in the ballot—we often must speak about the biggest ticket issue. Due to the nature of the virus, the pandemic and the medical emergency we are going through, speeches are often limited to those subjects and we do not get the opportunity to speak about others. This subject is very important, but it has been difficult to speak on it.
I have two concerns. The first is about the lack of Government long-term strategic planning since the beginning, which has impacted people’s health and wellbeing. The second is about the nature of gyms and their importance going forward. That first concern has been an intense frustration to me, as I represent the community of Hove and Portslade, which had the first outbreak of covid-19 in the second week of February. We had the first so-called super-spreader at the time, which dominated the news. I benefited from daily briefings from the deputy chief medical officer and Ministers, because of the focused nature of the situation.
They told me then that their strategy at the very beginning was to delay. They wanted to delay in order to learn from the foreign experience, because things were occurring elsewhere first and fastest. As the pandemic rolled across the continent of Europe, I saw that testing, tracing and contacting people was crucial. The second thing we learned in that period was that a third of people who died in Spain and a quarter of those who died in the first wave in France, before the outbreak here, died in social care. The Government did not put a protective ring around those institutions.
I understand that the challenges were overwhelming. Gyms had to be closed and exercise had to be limited in the first wave, because of the nature of a first-wave response. Over the summer, however, rather than preparing for the next stage, summer was all about, “Show some guts and get out on to the beach. Get down to bars and restaurants.” None of it was about a national debate on what the second wave would look like. In every single pandemic for which we have data the second wave was larger than the first, including the Spanish flu in 1918. It was entirely predictable that we would be in this situation, but we did not prepare for it.
On my second concern about gyms and their nature, health and wellbeing is important. The Prime Minister himself learned that the hard way. Being healthy helps you survive illnesses, including covid-19, yet no preparation went into keeping gyms open during the second wave. There are ways of doing it, because of how modern gyms operate. The gym that I use has electronic entry systems and, since February, it has limited the number of people who can be in the gym at any one time.
I asked the Government over the summer whether they could devolve responsibility for which gyms can stay open and are safe to local authorities. Local public health officials should have been able to make an individual assessment of whether gyms could do social distancing. We could have had additional measures, such as wearing masks inside the gym, allowing fewer people in, and closing changing rooms, where it is quite difficult to socially distance. All those measures could have been put in place; all could have been consulted on way in advance of the need for a second lockdown, but that did not happen, which is why we are in this position—not by accident, but because of bad planning.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.
I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate. She pointed out that about 1 million people had signed the various petitions we are considering today; I suspect that I am not alone in this Chamber in feeling that all 1 million of them have been emailing me personally.
I very much welcome the announcement today on gyms. Gyms are important not only for mental health but physical health, and as the nights draw in it becomes increasingly difficult to engage in activity and exercise outside safely. Also, as others have already said, gyms have done a great deal to try to make themselves covid-secure, so it is very important that we had the announcement today that they can reopen. That will be welcomed, certainly by the very large number of people who have been emailing us all.
Amateur sports teams, of which there are many in my constituency playing football, rugby and other sports, have been suffering sorely from the restrictions. Constituencies like mine, and I suspect that that includes the hon. Lady’s constituency, are rather poor, so the clubs’ inability to take in funds has an effect on their long-term viability. Leigh Centurions is very much looking forward to reopening. It is not in the dire circumstances that other rugby league clubs have been in, due to both Government help and the sound financial management of the club itself. It would be remiss of me not to mention the club’s attempt to join the Super League this year, which would be a tremendous boost to the physical and mental health of all my constituents, as well as to the economics of the town.
This has been an incredibly difficult year and restrictions on the return of spectators will continue, especially for those in tier 3 areas, but we are getting there. Hopefully, the vaccine will come along in the new year and we will be able to transition back to normal by Easter. I hope that we are able to make that transition as smooth as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate.
I voted for the current lockdown and I do not regret that decision. Indeed, the scientific advice was that it should have been imposed earlier, so my only regret is that Parliament did not support Labour’s proposal for a two-week circuit-break shutdown in October.
One of the sectors hardest hit by the lockdown is the gyms sector—Members can obviously tell that I go to gyms a lot. I have received a considerable number of letters from constituents—both owners and users of gyms—outlining the problems that they have faced.
From the owners, there has been one major complaint. During the full lockdown that began in March, many of them did not receive the financial support that they needed to survive. Notwithstanding the financial support systems put in place by the Treasury as the lockdown unfolded it became clear that many of the Treasury’s conditions and subclauses fell well short of the fulfilling the Chancellor’s original promise of, “Whatever it takes.” As a result, many gym owners were forced out of business. For gym users, the issue was more to do with the fact that exercise is a vital element of both physical and mental health, and the longer gyms remained closed, the more people’s health suffered.
If gyms have to be closed during this second lockdown because they are a major source of infection, then so be it—I am clear about that. But the period between lockdown 1 and lockdown 2 raised my suspicion that the Government have not followed the science. They did not provide any data to show that, during the tier system, gyms were a major source of infection. Even worse, when gyms were forced to close as my constituency was placed in tier 3, gym owners were given less financial support than previously, despite many having spent considerable amounts of money to make their gyms covid-secure. It seems the Government were more concerned about allowing grouse shoots to go ahead than about the amenities vital to the health and wellbeing of my constituents.
That double standard was dramatically exposed when Lancashire went into tier 3. As gyms were closed in my constituency, I expected the same rules to apply. That has been sorted out today by the Prime Minister, but could Lancashire County Council be so different from the Liverpool city region and Birkenhead? No reason was given and gym owners on Merseyside were handed hefty fines for breaking the rules—a classic example in the Dominic Cummings mould. One rule for them and another rule for the rest of us.
I was deeply concerned by that, and with other MPs from the city region I challenged the Government to explain why there were tiers within tiers and to show the science. No business should be breaking the lockdown, but once it is over, we must guarantee that gym owners are given the financial support they need to survive. They and other indoor and outdoor sports, such as tennis and football, should be provided with scientific advice on any possible risks, so that they can take the necessary safety measures in line with covid rules and restrictions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the petitioners, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and, of course, the 1,659 people in my constituency who signed the petitions.
I recognise that this unprecedented situation has required us to take unprecedented steps to protect the public, including temporarily curtailing some freedoms. However, physical activity and sport play a critical role in building individual resilience and tackling obesity, in addition to the excellent benefits to mental wellbeing. It is vital that that is recognised.
Loughborough, including its world-renowned university, is synonymous with sporting excellence and is home to a number of national governing bodies. It should therefore come as no surprise that many of my constituents are passionate about health and wellbeing. That is especially true of the large student population. Mr James Greer, the Athletic Union president of Loughborough students’ union, recently explained to me that organised sport is important to the wellbeing of all students, not only those who are world champions in their chosen field.
From correspondence I have received, local residents agree. People from all walks of life want gyms and sporting facilities of all types to be back open as soon as possible, so I was ecstatic to hear the words of our Prime Minister earlier today. Earlier this month, local sporting facilities followed the new rules and closed. That included CrossFit gym, which is in a converted warehouse and has a huge bay door that could remain open for ventilation, in addition to the social distancing already practised. I urge that we look at a risk assessment of individual venues in any future arrangements, rather than implementing a blanket ban on the operation of all sporting facilities.
I have been contacted by Swim England, which set out a compelling case for why it is particularly important for swimming facilities to remain open throughout the outbreak. It has explained that the unique properties of water mean that swimming pools are an ideal place for people who may otherwise struggle to be active on firm ground. Furthermore, swimming pools are chlorinated controlled environments where the risk of transmission can be successfully mitigated. That has been proven by the safe way in which they operated between the first and second lockdowns.
The impact of the strict restrictions on pools is exacerbating the existing problem of permanent pool closures. Before covid-19, Swim England was already forecasting a 40% reduction in the number of swimming pools by the end of the decade. The Government’s announcement of £100 million for public leisure centres is welcome, and I am hopeful that that will alleviate the situation. I am keen for swimming facilities to be available, now and in the future, as a key element in the education of every child and as a much-needed facility for many adults.
I put on record my support for Swim England’s calls for swimming pools to be allowed to remain open throughout any restrictions. I also support starting from the presumption that gyms and other sporting facilities and activities should stay open, unless their particular circumstances mean that it is unsafe.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and the Petitions Committee for securing this important debate.
I am proud to chair the all-party parliamentary group on parkrun and I have seen at first hand the impact that parkrun can have on deprived communities. In a pre-pandemic world, 170,000 people were taking part in this fantastic activity across the UK. On many Saturday mornings at 9 o’clock, I ran for 5 kilometres around our beautiful Parc Bryn Bach in Tredegar in Blaenau Gwent, and 18,000 children took part in junior parkrun on Sundays. I have regularly volunteered on both days. It is a delight to encourage young people to get active.
The joy of parkrun is that it is free to join, accessible to all age and ability groups, and led by the community itself. There is a further incentive at Parc Bryn Bach, where people are given a free piece of toast to have with their tea. As well as being a fun weekend activity, parkrun also has a proven record of addressing health inequalities. Research has shown that parkrun attracts even the hardest-to-reach groups: those who live in deprived areas, those who were previously inactive and those who fit into both those groups. Even better, participation in parkrun is often a catalyst for further physical activity.
Like all sports organisations, parkrun is ready to get back to what it does best—encouraging people to get active and to stay healthy. It is particularly keen to restart events for children and young people. Children may not be the face of the covid-19 pandemic, but they have certainly been among those who have been hardest hit. In areas like mine, keeping children active is a vital part of tackling inequality. Involving children in sports when they are young helps to maintain healthy habits throughout their lives, and prevent issues, such as obesity, before they arise. Parkrun wants to restart events for primary school-aged children from January, because it knows that early intervention works. Getting children running again would be good for their wellbeing and mental health, and good for our communities.
This strange year has reminded us of the importance of our health and wellbeing like no other. Sport needs to be a fundamental part of the covid-19 recovery, not an afterthought. Organisations such as parkrun, and many others, want to restart as soon as it is safe and feasible to do so, but they must be supported.
I am sure there are many keen parkrunners in the Government, as there are across the country. I can see some running colleagues from across the House here today. I ask them to reflect on the important contribution that parkrun makes and to work to support the organisation as it plans return. Getting active again benefits us all. I look forward to my first parkrun back as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to be here with you in the chair, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing the debate and speaking in the way in which she did at the beginning of it.
Very many of my constituents—well over 4,000—have signed the petition, and hundreds also contacted me separately to ask me to be here today to put forward their concerns. We have had a difficult situation in the Liverpool City Region, because we have had a bit of hokey-cokey: open, closed, open, closed, open again next week. We need more stability for our gym businesses and to at least understand the evidence on which they have been closed so frequently.
Advice from the meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on 21 September was that closing gyms would have a “low to moderate impact” on the spread of covid-19, and that closing gyms could lead to
“potentially increasing health inequalities for…groups that do not engage in outdoor physical activity due to safety concerns.”
We are now entering winter. It is particularly cold in here at the moment, which reminds us that it is about to get a lot colder outside, and perhaps many people who would want to exercise will not feel like doing so in the cold, the wet and the dark and in the ice and the snow. If gyms can be safely opened, we want them to be open all the way through the winter and for as long as possible thereafter while it is safe.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said, the Government have not set out the basis on which they said gyms ought to close. My understanding from the industry is that since gyms reopened on 25 July they have had over 50 million visits, with a virus prevalence rate of 1.38 cases per 100,000, which is not bad compared to some other settings. Given the physical and mental health and wellbeing advantages of having them open, perhaps there is a balance to be struck.
At the end of the lockdown, we may be going back into the tier system and there may be more national lockdowns in the new year—we do not know yet, but that cannot be ruled out at this stage—so will the Minister say whether, if there does have to be another national lockdown, gyms will be expected to close again, or are the Government now satisfied that they are safe places and that it is worth keeping them open for their mental and physical wellbeing and health and fitness advantages? Should we be watching out yet again for gyms to close?
One thing that affects those businesses more than anything else is the uncertainty of being open, then closed, then open again and then closed again. Nobody can plan sensibly in that situation. I hope the Minister will have something to say about that. It is welcome that the Prime Minister announced—when his sound was working—that gyms are to reopen next week. Will the Minister say whether the Government are now satisfied that they are safe, even when there has to be a broader lockdown?
Finally, local councils in deprived areas are often the custodians and operators of gyms and fitness facilities, but they have had only half of the costs of covid reimbursed to them. Even though they have deprived communities with more people at risk of ill health, their financial situation means it is toughest for them to keep their gyms open. Will the Minister say what the Chancellor will do next week to ensure that leisure and sporting facilities can stay open in our most deprived areas?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this timely debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle). We have heard some excellent points about the merits of exercise for our physical and mental wellbeing—I will take a personal note of all of them. The communities I represent in East Devon in the south-west depend on their local gyms and leisure centres regardless of their age. For example, constituents in their 80s have contacted me this month, really disheartened about not seeing friends at weekly aerobic classes or swimming. They are some of the 1,000-plus signatories to the petition from my area.
More than 500 members of the LED leisure centre group, supported by East Devon District Council, have emailed me asking for the physical activity centre to be recognised as essential and able to remain open safely over the winter months. It is important to recognise that we must stay healthy, but it is important that we do so safely in an environment designed to help people reach their goals.
Gyms and leisure centre owners such as Cranford Sports Club in Exmouth are desperately worried that, having received welcome Government funding since March to keep afloat and keep staff on their books, money is drying up. They sometimes feel that their role in our communities is underappreciated. Cranford Sports Club is so much more than just its title: it hosts Help for Heroes, Parkinson’s support groups and disabled rackets sports, as well as junior and teen tennis and badminton. It is also a centre for GP referrals from the two nearby medical practices. Those recovering from serious medical conditions have closely supervised exercise sessions in small groups, which reduces the burden on our NHS. Close proximity to the new Deaf Academy in Exmouth has already meant that children facing profound difficulties are being taught to swim safely in a small pool with their carers. The new Move Forward Gym in Ottery St Mary offers memberships to NHS-referred cancer patients, as well as special programmes for cancer survivors. Great work is being done locally across East Devon.
The Government have announced a £100 million support fund for leisure centres, which will help to cover losses incurred in the pandemic. While we await specific allocations, councils including East Devon District Council should also look to the discretionary grant funding scheme to support local gyms and independent leisure centres.
I know that the members of Cranford Sports Club in Exmouth would welcome the support.
We should welcome the move from national to local restrictions next week. I believe that Devon should be in the lowest tier of restrictions to reflect the hard work and significant sacrifices that we have made to suppress the virus. As the Prime Minister announced, leisure centres and gyms will reopen next week—I may even sign up myself—but councils must explore every opportunity to safely reopen leisure centres to support those that they do not have a hand in running.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on introducing a very timely debate. I will speak about rugby. My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (James Grundy) mentioned rugby league, but I will talk about rugby union. Both codes have their birthplace in my constituency.
Rugby union is normally played on Saturdays, and there was a pretty good win by England on Saturday, if you noticed, Mr Mundell, but the busiest day for a rugby club is Sunday. On Sunday mornings, hordes of young people take part in mini rugby, at the youngest levels often chasing the ball like bees around a honeypot. We often think of rugby as being a game of big men running into each other—
Forgive me, but I was going to draw attention to the fact that rugby is a sport for players of all sizes, and we have the mini game, the junior game, veterans, and women’s rugby, which is part of every club. When the principal rugby club in Rugby got into financial difficulty, it was the community game—the youngsters and the women’s game—that kept the club alive. Neil Back’s book “The Death of Rugby” draws attention to that.
Rugby is one of the most social of games, and among its values is loyalty to teammates. We sometimes see a bit of argy-bargy on the pitch, but after the game it is traditional to meet in the clubhouse and have a drink with players from the opposing side. Many players have missed the social side as much as they have missed the action on the pitch. The top tier of the game has resumed. We have a new international tournament and the premiership—all without spectators, although they are who the major clubs rely on for money. Local clubs, of course, rely tremendously on hospitality and bar takings. All levels of the game welcome the package announced by the Minister only last week, which is much appreciated.
I mentioned the different versions of the game. The one that I did not mention is golden oldies—the version played by the parliamentary rugby team. That game enables old people to continue playing. There is less contact, and with less contact we have a safer game. Many of the players in the parliamentary team are old players who know what to do but are not fit enough to do it. That is where gyms are important, because we go to the gym to make certain that we are able to do what we know we should be doing.
I have had a huge number of representations from members of gyms in my constituency. The biggest site, and the one I have had the most contact from, is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Centre, which is owned by Rugby Borough Council, the local authority—I think another Member raised that issue. It is operated by Greenwich Leisure Ltd under the “Better” brand. That is where I have my membership.
Like many, I missed the gym during the first lockdown, and I have seen the substantial measures that the club has put in place to ensure that it is safe. There are booked timeslots, there are no showers or changing rooms available, the machines are set apart and sanitiser is readily available, with a trigger spray immediately adjacent to most machines. I see everybody honouring the etiquette of wiping down before and after use. Many constituents have told me how important going to the gym is to their mental, as well as physical, health. We welcome the measures that have been announced today, which will enable us to return on 3 December.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing the debate. We are hearing today that we will exit a national lockdown and move to a tiered approach. I am anxious how that will be prescribed. As a member of the Covid Recovery Group, I am pleased that some of our concerns seem to have been met: looking at the 10 pm curfew, opening up outdoor sports, opening up covid-safe gyms, and opening up covid-safe retail.
Covid-19 is a deadly disease—many in this room will have lost family and friends to it—but, just as we want to limit the spread of the infection, we need a long-term strategy for living with the virus that goes beyond Christmas. Our sports and gyms sector needs that certainty.
I will raise four cases with the Minister. First, on gyms, Daniel Sanger, who lives in Uckfield, wrote to me asking how we can justify that a takeaway such as McDonalds, which serves fast food, can be open, whereas he has had to close his business. Of course, he is grateful for the furlough scheme, but people have been limiting their subscriptions and a business like his may have to face further financial damage and lay off people in the future. Of course, the Minister knows that Wealden is stunning, and we have lots of golf courses. Mr Robert Hessey wants to know how he can walk down the street with one of his golfing friends but cannot play golf with them at one of our stunning golf sites in Wealden. Hopefully the Minister can explain that away.
We have a couple of local football clubs, which I want to talk about. They are low-key, local football clubs doing great work for our community. Uckfield, Crowborough and Hailsham football clubs have been put under extreme hardship with the uncertainty of lockdown. Perhaps the Minister will explain how the £550 million that was going to go to local football clubs and associations will be spent in an area such as mine.
I want to move on to the bigger picture. I hope the Minister will answer these questions, which I will try to put in the most constructive way possible. It is not rare that when large organisations face huge risk, the managers, our Ministers, tend to go native—that is, they start to become deal-makers rather than deal-questioners. Deal-makers ask what should and should not stay open, but deal-questioners ask what the real scientific evidence is behind the decisions we are taking.
Given that, I would like the Minister to address three key things. Will he work with us Back Benchers on the evidence that shows us the real impact on people’s livelihoods of every restriction that is put in place? Will he work with the Government to show us the full cost-benefit analysis of every proposed restriction? Those affect not only people’s livelihoods, but their mental and physical health. The lockdowns have been particularly harsh in East Sussex and for my Wealden constituents: we have had a very low infection rate and few beds have been taken up, but people’s livelihoods have been lost.
Finally, I ask the Minister to work with the Government to publish the models that inform the policies that they are taking forward. We, as Back Benchers, should be able to review the data that is made available to Ministers and the Government, so that we can make the best judgment on behalf of our constituents.
The cure of endless lockdowns, which we are prescribing, runs the real risk of being worse than the disease itself. It is time to start removing these restrictions. It is fantastic news that our vaccine is coming down the line. We need to ensure that people can live their lives to the fullest. Every restriction needs evidence. Surely that is the basis of good democracy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and a delight to be in another debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell). Perhaps like you, Mr Mundell, being a rugby fan and a Scotland supporter, I did not have such a great weekend. However, we must go forward. We live in hope with the navy jersey and the white thistle every week. One never knows one’s luck.
Like the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), I have two golf courses in my constituency and many upset constituents who are unable to keep taking their constitutional. That also refers specifically to the indoor piece: gyms, leisure centres, indoor tennis and cricket centres, and, of course, swimming pools. In these brief remarks, I will focus on swimming.
The hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) has outlined the lifelong benefits of swimming, but as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on swimming, may I thank the Minister for twice attending the APPG and listening carefully, and crucially, for ensuring that school swimming continued during this second lockdown? It is so important that we do not lose a cohort of children, some of whom would carry a lack of swimming ability through their secondary school years and beyond, and perhaps end up in Spain or somewhere during a gap year and tragically lose their lives because they had never learned to swim.
I am really pleased that, in theory, swimming lessons have continued, although that depends on people’s access to a swimming pool. We know that the statistics on swimming pool sufficiency have dropped over the past decade, owing to austerity and to developers not building enough pools under their section 106 and community infrastructure levy agreements. I hope that when the Minister gets a chance, he and his officials will look at the issue of swimming pool sufficiency, because there are lots of regions in the UK where children will not have access to this crucial hardware, so that they can actually learn to swim.
I also hope that the Minister will use any time that might be available to be strategic and look at the role of swimming instructors, paying those people properly and having them in proper arrangements, whether through local authorities or the third sector.
The other element of the announcement I am pleased about is the fact that the third sector will be able to apply for funds. Obviously, all our local authorities are really stretched, so given that some money has had to be spent—I would hope—on mitigating the impacts of covid, there has not been enough to cover all the leisure estate in many of our local authority areas.
I am pleased that the provider in my local authority, which is the charity Fusion, will be able to apply to the Minister for funds. In my constituency, I have an active outdoor swimming group, the Park Road Lido User Group, which is vocal about how much it is missing its swimming and keen to get back in the pool. A case study has been carried out by Hesketh Benoit, one of our key swimmers. He swims every morning—he is up at six, then down to the swimming pool—and also runs basketball and other sports for young people during the summer. He is a fantastic example of a lifelong swimmer.
I pay tribute to those workers who look after our swimming pools locally. I am thinking of West Reservoir in Hackney, the ponds on Hampstead heath, and all these outdoor swimming areas, because research has come out recently that suggests outdoor swimming can play a role in preventing dementia—something I recommend that the Minister look at.
I hope that, as the fund is brought forward, the Minister will come back to this House and tell us exactly how it has been spent, and hopefully that our disadvantaged communities will have access to sport in the same way that everybody else does.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I was sorry to miss the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and congratulate her on having secured the debate.
We had a few delays in the main Chamber, which I think colleagues have mentioned, but I am glad to be here because we have discovered, as has also been referred to, that sport will be coming back. That is a very welcome development, but it still raises the question of why it was cancelled in the first place, because the one thing we know about sports and exercise is that there is scarcely anything better when it comes to a defence against covid, whether practised by older people or children. A comprehensive ban on an activity that helps against covid is a mystery.
That mystery is deepened further when one considers that outdoor sport was—and at this moment, still is—prevented from taking place as well, especially as the incidence of covid transmission out of doors is virtually unknown across the world. Again, the environment in which we can feel most secure and safe from this dangerous and serious disease is the outdoors. The fact that for the last month the activities that have been enjoyed by our constituents up and down the country have been suppressed for, it seems to me, no good reason is something that we need to learn the lessons of, to prevent this situation from happening again.
However, this is not the first time that this has happened. During the summer, I was supported by Members from all parties in the House when I asked why cricket had again been banned in leisure settings involving children and adult teams across the country. Again, it is difficult to imagine a more covid-secure sport.
On the Select Committee that I chair—the Science and Technology Committee—we know that Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance have both commented on the very low incidence and risk of infection from outdoor sport, and that outdoor sport’s impact on the R rate, in so far as it can be modelled, is negligible. However, one of the things that they said that concerned me was that their advice was at a general level—a strategic level—and they did not give specific advice on activities such as sport. That is a concern because, as has been evidenced by the subscription to and participation in this debate, sport is of great importance to all our constituents. I completely respect the expertise of our leading scientists, but we need to have the ability to influence these decisions, and to scrutinise the evidence that is being adduced to cause lockdowns, and we should not just to have to accept this as a fait accompli.
I hope that the Minister, whose commitment to and passion for sport is known to all Members of the House, can take from this debate a resolution that in the future it will be possible to consider the views of Members and to share with them the evidence on which important decisions are based, so that a return to sport will endure and we will not again be subject to these unexpected and, it seems to me, unnecessary restrictions. I hope that his closing remarks might confirm that the lifting of restrictions that we heard about in the main Chamber today—indeed, just a few moments ago—will extend to spectators at amateur clubs and children’s sporting events.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) referred to Crowborough Athletic Football Club. She will know that the much-awaited derby match between Tunbridge Wells Football Club and Crowborough is on Boxing day. I will be there to support my home team.
Exciting as the occasion will be—indeed, it will be a red letter day—I suspect that there will be social distancing outdoors. I hope that there will be no other restrictions on our being able to support that event and the many other sports that have been referred to in this debate, including rugby, tennis and golf. Indeed, I hope that many of us will be able to enjoy that event on Boxing day and other sporting events on many weekends ahead.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and to follow the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I will concentrate particularly on gyms, rather than making general comments on sport, although I support all those we have heard.
Also, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who, before she even stood up to speak, had persuaded the Prime Minister to do what she asked him to do in this debate. [Laughter.] Nevertheless, we need to hear a bit more detail from the Minister, given the arbitrary nature of some of what has gone on in the last year, particularly with respect to gyms.
I will mention Nick Whitcombe, who owns and runs Body Tech Fitness in Moreton and who is a constituent of mine, and Thea Holden, who runs EmpoweredFIT. She is also a constituent of mine, although her gym is close to Arrowe Park Hospital, which I believe is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley). We all know how important the battle against obesity is if we are to make covid-19 less of a problem, and how important it is for people to have a chance to become fitter, which is guaranteed if you manage to get yourself embroiled in a gym.
I want to talk about the mental health benefits of being able to work out, which have been alluded to and are very well known everywhere. Both Nick and Thea Holden, my constituents, would attest to that. There is another aspect: going to the gym can help people to deal with health conditions. Thea, who runs her own gym, suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which results in multiple joint dislocations. She was confined to a wheelchair and on medication before discovering that the disease could be managed by going to the gym. She is now drug-free, wheelchair-free and very fit as a result of the work that she did. She helps clients with the same issue and keeps them out of wheelchairs. When I spoke to her the other day, she told me that some of the people that she helped have been going backwards, because the gym has closed and they cannot get the workout that they need.
Thea has clients with mental health problems. One had a history of self-harming, attempted suicide and other mental health conditions. They could not relate to many people, but found that the atmosphere in the gym, the friends they made there, the effort they put in and the support they got there were very good for their mental health. Thea worries that, with her gym closed, people are really missing out and being put in danger.
Nick, who runs Body Tech in Moreton, asks why we cannot make health and fitness an essential service—not like a blue-light service, but in terms of the role that it plays in physical and mental wellbeing—and protect it more. Will the Minister tell us the scientific basis for the decision to close? Will he admit publicly that we now know more about the disease, and that the prevalence of covid was very low over the summer months, making it much safer, with the process that has been put in place, for gyms to remain open? I hope he will say that, even in tier 3-plus, gyms can look forward to remaining open.
I will do my best to do that, Mr Mundell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for leading the debate. She made a compelling argument, and as my very good hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned, it is good that she has already persuaded the Prime Minister. What more could we ask for? I thank all Members for their excellent contributions. We had a huge number of speeches from Members from all over the country, but I feel that Merseyside has been represented well this afternoon. It is possibly the sporting capital of the nation, so we would expect nothing less. [Interruption.] It is the home of the champions—just saying.
The debate is very important. It comes at a slightly odd moment in the day, after we have heard the Prime Minister announce in the Chamber some of the details of the next phase of our pandemic response, including the important details that we have heard Members discuss. However, we have yet to see how that will affect our daily lives in practice. None of us knows exactly which areas will be in which tiers, so we are still at a loss to understand how the announcement will affect our sporting and physical activity, and our constituents. That feeling is not new. Too often during this crisis, sport and the physical and mental wellbeing that comes from it has felt like an afterthought. That is not good enough. Every Member who has spoken today has said that it is a fundamental part of life for many of us in this country, so we need better. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North and others have said, we need clarity from the Government on what is going to happen, not just at the end of this month and into December, but in the months to come.
I have questions for the Minister that I hope will help us to get clarity. First, while the return of sports and gyms is welcome, we know we are not out of the woods yet. What will happen to sport if further lockdowns are required in January? Will sport be cancelled again? Will team sports be cancelled? Will gyms be affected again?
As the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) asked, what is going on with spectators? We have seen the Secretary of State’s tweets saying that spectators will be back, but why have those limits to the number of spectators been chosen? I will not ask any further questions about this now, because we have not got time for all the questions that there will be in the coming days about the return of spectators to sport. The issue is very important to people, so I know we will return to it, potentially on Wednesday, when we will be talking about football.
Secondly, we need to consider the possibility of a third wave. We hope it will not happen. We all hope that the vaccines that are being worked on, and the mass-testing, which Merseyside has been trialling, are going to work, but if there is a third wave and we face a future lockdown, what will happen? A number of leisure centres up and down the country—they were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle)—have been shut since March. Many of them serve some of the most deprived communities in our country. Several have been mentioned in the House by hon. Members. Will the Minister commit to getting in touch with each of those Members, and to shifting heaven and earth to get those leisure centres open? I know he has allocated £100 million, but there is a difference between paying the money out and getting the doors open. Will he work with me to get the doors of those leisure centres open?
Thirdly, I mentioned mass-testing. Can the Minister say what conversations he has had with Mayor Steve Rotheram, Mayor Joe Anderson or the director of public health for Liverpool, Matt Ashton, to work out how we can apply the lessons coming out of mass-testing to sporting participation? That has to be part of the answer. Will he have those conversations with people in Liverpool?
Fourthly, sports have made huge changes to their coaching processes to make themselves covid-safe. Has that work been a waste, or will the Minister encourage sports and others to work with him on plan B? If we go back into lockdown, those covid-safe measures can help us keep sport open.
Fifthly and importantly, as several Members have asked, what conversations has the Minister had with the Schools Minister? As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey said, our kids have lost out massively from this. Will the Minister explain what steps his Department is taking with the Department for Education to make sure that every child has sporting opportunities, if not before Christmas, then in the new year?
While we are talking about our children and the health of the nation, we need to look at the facts about what this virus has done, not just to those who are vulnerable, but to all of us. It has had an impact on the health of every single one of us, so, sixthly, what work has the Minister commenced with the Department of Health and Social Care to understand the physical health of the nation, to assess where sport can help, and to create a proactive plan?
The Conservative manifesto, published last December, included promises about sports facilities and an allocation of money. This is an issue close to my heart, Mr Mundell, so forgive me for banging on about it. Grassroots football is in dire need of better facilities. There were promises made in the Conservative manifesto about that. Can the Minister say where he is up to with that plan? As ever, we are a constructive Opposition, and if there are things that he wants to do to improve our sporting facilities, I, for one, will help him.
I come to my seventh and final question for the Minister. I hope to finish a little under time to give the Minister plenty of time to answer my questions fully. The right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells rightly said that the chief scientific officer and others can give broad advice, but not specific advice on the sporting issues that have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is clear that we must go much further if we truly care about the health of the nation.
We need a proper plan. The future of our country, including its economy, happiness and longevity, depends absolutely on the wellbeing of us all. I ask the Minister—he has heard me ask this before; I am sorry to be boring about it—for a cross-Government, comprehensive plan for future wellbeing beyond the virus. Is he prepared to create that, and where is it? The Government have spent far too long running from crisis to crisis. Frankly, when it comes to sport—and everything else—we need much better than that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for leading this important debate, to the hundreds of thousands of people—nearly 1 million—who have signed the petitions, and to the hon. Members who have spoken so eloquently today, and with whom I have had many conversations over the past few weeks and months.
It is worth noting that since the debate was scheduled, we have entered a four-week period of national measures, which means that almost all businesses, including gyms and leisure centres, have had to close their doors to the public. As all hon. Members present are aware, the national lockdown, with its vital purpose of protecting our NHS and saving lives, will last until 2 December.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced in the main Chamber earlier—in fact, I think he is still on his feet—organised grassroots sport will be allowed to resume from 2 December. There will be some restrictions on higher-risk activities in very high alert level areas, and on indoor adult sports, but this is a good day for sports. Gyms and leisure centres will be allowed to reopen in all tiers. As ever, we expect social distancing and the requirements for heightened hygiene to remain in place. More detail will be available on the announcement in the coming days.
The importance of sport and physical activity for the nation’s physical and mental health has never been more apparent, as many hon. Members have mentioned. Sport can be one of the most powerful defences against the covid-19 pandemic, and we will need raised levels of fitness among the population as we prepare to return to our normal lives, now that an effective vaccination programme looks imminent.
As we have said before, nobody, including me as Sports Minister, wanted to introduce further national restrictions, or restrictions on sport. However, as the Prime Minister said when introducing the second lockdown, with the virus spreading faster than expected, we could not allow our health system to be overwhelmed. We introduced very serious lockdown measures; there was no question of making exceptions. We needed to go into lockdown and allow people out for only a very strict and limited number of reasons, including going out to exercise, albeit not necessarily the exercise that everybody would personally desire.
The national restrictions are designed to get the R rate under control through limiting social contact and reducing transmission. For the measures to have the greatest impact, we all need to sacrifice, for a short period, doing some of the things that we would like to do. As the Prime Minister announced today, it will be for a short period; after 2 December, we can go back to some of those activities.
Unlike in the previous lockdown, sport is still taking place behind closed doors. At schools, which are still open—I have spoken, and speak regularly, to the Schools Minister—PE lessons are able to take place. Exercise can be done with one other person; that recognises that we are in winter, and many people, for safety and other reasons, wish to exercise with another person outside their household.
Sport has been and will continue to be a priority. Even during peak lockdown in March, in this country, unlike in many others, exercise was still an absolute priority and could be taken by everybody. That was not the case everywhere around the world, and it shows how important sport and physical activity are to the UK.
There have been many calls, from many sports representatives and the public, for exemptions to the current restrictions, some of them giving highly plausible reasons why their sport should be exempt. I heard many of those arguments again today, and of course the petitions are good examples. I have heard the arguments for gyms, golf, tennis, swimming, basketball, children’s football, parkrun, cricket, rowing and many other sports. That exemplifies why we have had the problem and the issues that we are facing. As I am sure hon. Members will understand, the difficulty is that when we unpick one thing, the effectiveness of the whole package of restrictions is compromised. When we keep taking individual bricks out, the whole wall falls down. Instead of there being one exemption for one person to conduct their preferred activity, all of sudden there are tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of potential additional interactions—the very thing that we wanted to avoid.
The focus had to be on minimising the number of potentially risky interactions. That is not to say that any individual sport is high risk—quite the contrary. If we thought that, we would never have allowed them to take place. The point, as many have mentioned, is that there is a very small risk of the infection spreading in each of those interactions. We therefore had to take action, and the Prime Minister was very clear that there should be no exemptions, for clarity, and to ensure that everybody understood that this is a deadly serious lockdown.
Unfortunately, that meant that everybody had to make compromises. I know that closing these facilities was incredibly inconvenient, compromised people’s health and was very upsetting and disturbing, but there is no doubt that the restrictions that we have all had to live under for the past few weeks, and for the next week or so, will have saved lives, so that inconvenience, I think, was worth it.
A number of colleagues have raised concerns about evidence and data. The Minister talks about the risks that interaction poses. There must now be data and evidence, accumulated over the last nine months. A report could be published and shared on the evidence of the impact that opening clubs and gyms would have on covid transmission.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Many people have asked for the data. I think I have articulated that the point is the possibility of there being a risk. As the chief medical officers and others have said, there is always a risk with any social interaction. We saw death rates go from a dozen or so a day in August to dozens a day—in fact, there are now more than 500. That is the evidence. That is why we had to take significant action.
I have always said, though, that as soon as it is possible to start lifting restrictions, grassroots sport will be among the first things to return. That has been confirmed by the Prime Minister today, as promised. I pay tribute to all the hard work carried out by sports’ governing bodies and clubs across the country to ensure that we were ready for the return of sport—from gyms, leisure centres and pools, to rowing and badminton clubs.
The hon. Lady raises an important point, but let us be “glass half full”, rather than “glass half empty” on this issue. We are at the point at which we are reopening sport. She and everybody knows that we have to respond to circumstances; it is ridiculous to ask a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and make promises based on future hypothetical scenarios. We will base decisions on the information at the time, but we are now in a pattern. We have the vaccination coming. I am very confident that we are looking to a much more positive future, and that is what the Government will be focused on.
I pay tribute to the hard work and effort of so many sports bodies and clubs that have made their facilities as safe as possible and minimised the risk. It has involved a huge amount of work for them at not inconsiderable cost to ensure that social distancing, improved hygiene and other measures have been implemented to increase safety and lower the risk to their members and, indeed, their staff. I thank all those who have played their part, many of whom volunteered to go the extra mile for the work that has got us this far.
This is a simple question. The Minister thanks sports groups for their work, and I agree with him. If we have future lockdowns, either the work done to make sports covid-safe is good enough that they will not be included, or they will need to prepare to be included if there is a future lockdown. Which is it?
What everybody is going through at the moment—the sacrifices everybody is making—is precisely to reduce the chances of a future lockdown. I appreciate the work that everybody is doing.
The return of golf has had a tremendous amount of support from the public, as seen by over 250,000 people signing one of the petitions that led to the debate. Golf has great reach across society for all ages, backgrounds and abilities, bringing people together to experience the great outdoors. Like gyms, leisure centres and pools, the golfing community has made strenuous efforts to ensure that its players can take part safely. Once again, I pay tribute to its shared efforts. I say to the hon. Lady that every piece of effort and energy that has gone into making grounds and sports facilities safe has been well worth it. That is exactly why we have been able to make the progress we have so far. The Government recognised those efforts and the importance of golf by ensuring that golf courses were among the first facilities to reopen following the lockdown in the spring.
Sports and physical facilities are at the heart of our communities and play a crucial role in supporting adults and children to be active. The Government have provided unprecedented support to businesses through tax reliefs, cash grants and employee wage support, which many sports clubs have benefited from. However, many leisure centres have faced acute challenges during the pandemic, which is why on 27 October the Government announced a £100 million support fund for leisure centres affected by the pandemic, which many hon. Members have mentioned today. My Department is currently working closely with Sport England and MHCLG on the design of that scheme. Further details will be released shortly. Once the funds are open, I urge local authorities to bid for the money. I hope that people will make the most of these precious local facilities once they are open again.
That funding is all on top of what DCMS’s arm’s length body Sport England has already provided, which has comprised over £220 million directly to support the sport and physical activity sector, with £35 million set aside as a community emergency fund for our very important sports clubs and exercise centres through the pandemic. We continue to work with organisations to understand what they need and how we may be able to support them into the future when restrictions are lifted.
I am in regular dialogue with representatives from sports’ governing bodies, member bodies and providers of leisure facilities and gyms through the DCMS-hosted sports working group, which provides a forum for representatives from the sports sector to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the sector and allows members to put questions and suggestions directly to me and the Department. I am grateful to all those involved for their continued advice and support.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions and interest in helping to get sport and physical activity up and running again. I look forward to further increasing our efforts, particularly with the increasingly good news about vaccines. People from all backgrounds and of all levels of ability should have the opportunity to play sports and keep active, and that is a commitment of this Government.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members for what has been an excellent debate, putting the arguments on behalf of all the petitioners who live in our constituencies and many who are not represented in the Chamber because there are not enough spaces for all Members to come and speak. Members of the public have been emailing their MPs in huge numbers, which is a powerful way of conveying the strength of feeling on this issue.
My personal inbox is now pinging with emails from local sports clubs—those for my children’s swimming lessons and my daughter’s gymnastics—that are getting in touch to say how delighted they are that they will be able to reopen. That is why it is hugely concerning that we are not really getting any certainty from the Government that that could be long lasting in any way. I absolutely appreciate—we all appreciate—that we cannot predict the virus or how things will go, but we have learned some things over the last nine months. I would have thought that one of the lessons that we have learned it that it is absolutely fundamental that people stay fit, active and healthy. That is not a nice-to-have or a leisure activity, but a fundamental part of people’s health, mental wellbeing and ability to stay resilient and resistant to the virus.
I had hoped that the Minister would be much clearer that any of the relaxations announced today will not mean that the very sports that are delighted about finally being able to reopen may have to close down again in January. That is just unthinkable, to be perfectly honest. I really hope that the Minister will take that away and that, once the Government have been able to iron out all the detail on the relaxations being announced, they will give greater clarity, certainty and reassurance to those sports clubs that they will not be open just a matter of weeks, until another spike after Christmas. That spike could come as a result of the relaxations, but also because of the inability to track and trace the virus properly through a system that truly works.
My final point, which has been made by colleagues, is about how vital it is that we have resources in place to ensure that every community—not just in those where people can pay—can keep a whole variety of sports, gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools afloat. The Government should commit not only to ensuring that every community that had those facilities before the pandemic still has them afterwards, but to building on those facilities, making them even better, so that we come out of the pandemic knowing not only that sport, health, fitness and mental wellbeing matter in this country, but that we are truly going to build back fitter and even better than before.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 333869 and 309851, relating to Covid-19 restrictions on gyms and sport.
Nigeria: Sanctions Regime
[James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 554150, relating to Nigeria and the sanctions regime.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the 220,330 people who have signed the petition—when I last checked it this morning—especially the 853 who are my constituents in Chipping Barnet. This petition has been prompted by disturbing events in Nigeria over recent weeks. There have been widespread protests regarding the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian police, known as SARS.
That unit has a deeply controversial reputation and the hashtag #EndSARS started to appear prominently on social media in 2017. Reports of violence and human rights abuses by SARS date back several years, but these latest protests followed circulation of a shocking video in early October, which many believe shows a man being killed by SARS officers.
On 11 October, President Buhari announced plans to disband the unit. However, such promises have been made in the past, yet SARS has seemingly continued to operate. This would be the fourth time the unit was abolished. Many protesters felt that disbanding SARS—even assuming it happens—would not be sufficient to tackle long-standing problems with police brutality, particularly if SARS officers are simply assigned to different parts of the police service. Activists are now calling a complete overhaul of policing in Nigeria. They also want police officers responsible for beatings, killings, extortion, unlawful detention and other crimes to be held to account.
The protests continued and thousands of Nigerians, mostly those under 30, took part in peaceful marches, candlelit vigils and multi-faith prayer sessions. People came together despite having different social, cultural and tribal backgrounds. Supportive comments flowed in from the Nigerian diaspora around the world, including from celebrities, and the #EndSARS movement quickly widened beyond the initial concerns about policing. It started to capture the general frustrations of a young population demanding an end to poor governance and corruption.
I am afraid, however, the situation became far graver on 20 October when the Nigerian army and police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration at the Lekki tollgate in suburban Lagos. What happened is disputed, but Amnesty International has tracked events through photos and video footage posted by protesters. These show army trucks approaching the protesters from both sides of the tollgate and blocking them in. Shooting with live rounds started almost immediately with no warning.
A local musician, Obianuju Catherine Udeh, was streaming the events live on Instagram as it happened. She later said:
“There was a guy that was running and he just…he fell, and we looked at him. He was shot in the back”.
Several people are looking for missing loved ones, including Elisha Sunday Ibanga. An eyewitness told CNN that Elisha’s brother, Victor, was shot in the head during the protest and his body taken away. The US broadcaster reported that it has seen and geo-located a photo of Victor Sunday Ibanga lying in a pool of blood and wrapped in the white and green Nigerian flag, one of the same flags held by protesters earlier in the evening as they sang their national anthem. Similarly, and equally tragically, Peace Okon has not seen her younger brother, Wisdom, since he went to the demonstration on the night of the shootings. She said:
“I’ve gone to hospitals, I’ve gone to police stations, I’ve gone to everywhere. I can’t find him”.
It is not clear how many were injured or lost their lives at Lekki, but Amnesty International estimates that 56 people have died since the protests began, and it has documented many instances where excessive and disproportionate force has been used to try to control or stop protests. The shootings at the Lekki tollgate shocked many in Nigeria—it has seemed like the last straw. The Government there have promised judicial panels of inquiry to investigate what happened, but there is widespread scepticism about whether these processes will be effective in holding to account those responsible for the bloodshed and human rights abuses that have occurred. That concern, I believe, is felt by many constituents here in the UK, especially those with Nigerian heritage or family links to Nigeria. That is illustrated by the huge support for the e-petition we are considering this evening, which asks the UK Government to consider imposing sanctions.
As I read it, the petitioners are asking for Magnitsky-type sanctions against known individuals within the Nigerian Government and security forces. There is a recognition that generalised, old-style sanctions applied to the country as a whole might cause hardship to ordinary people not in any way responsible for the problems highlighted by the petition, so this debate is a vital opportunity to hear from the Minister and have her respond to the urgent appeal from the e-petitioners that the Government consider imposing targeted sanctions against certain individuals believed to be culpable in relation to the violent and excessive police response to peaceful protests in Nigeria.
The new Magnitsky sanctions regime started to operate in July, and I believe its creation is one of the best and most important foreign policy decisions made since the Conservatives returned to Government in 2010. It puts us ahead of many other countries in showing how seriously we take human rights abuses around the world; I gather that it even earned us praise from Guy Verhofstadt, which is undoubtedly a rare thing. I believe that the petitioners have a credible case for the imposition of individualised sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes. Of course, I appreciate that there are real sensitivities about anything that might be considered interference in the domestic affairs of another country, especially where there was a previous colonial involvement. However, I still hope that Ministers will give serious consideration to what the e-petitioners request.
My second ask of Ministers is that they provide reassurance about UK aid and security programmes which involve Nigerian police, military and security forces. In their responses to written questions on this matter, the Government have emphasised that these programmes are intended to improve transparency and accountability, as well as strengthen respect for human rights, the rule of law and protection of minorities. However, my constituents who have signed this petition want more clarity and certainty about what these UK programmes have achieved and how they are assessed. They will be reassured if we have a clear statement that UK taxpayers’ money cannot be misused by security forces in Nigeria or, in any circumstances, used on activities that suppress peaceful protests.
My third question for Ministers is what representations they have made, or are prepared to make, to the Nigerian Government about human rights abuses against Christians. Charities such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Open Doors have documented a worrying increase in attacks on Christian communities in Nigeria by terrorist groups over recent years, and their plight must never be forgotten.
Fourthly and finally, I ask Ministers to step up engagement with the Nigerian diaspora in the United Kingdom. There are many British Nigerians who want to deploy their knowledge and understanding of the country to help shape the UK’s response to unfolding events in Nigeria. Worried about the situation and distressed about the Lekki tollgate tragedy and other loss of life, they are brimming with enthusiasm to help, to make a difference, and to be involved in building a better future for Nigeria. In this regard, I particularly want to thank my constituent Lara Ayodeji Akindiji for contacting me to share her concerns and offer her help—her support and briefing for this debate has been invaluable. My final request is therefore to ask the Minister to meet me and a group of constituents to discuss these matters further.
Nigeria is a country with so much going for it: a young and hugely talented population, massive natural resources and a rapidly developing economy. If the #EndSARS protesters secure the reform and improved governance they are demanding, Nigeria could become a formidable economic powerhouse, and the diaspora community here can be a vital bridge linking our two countries in a brighter future of increased trade and prosperity in the years to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for her passionate opening speech. I also thank Silas Ojo for creating the petition, which now has more than 220,000 signatures, including from almost 2,000 of my constituents in Edmonton.
I am sure that I am not the only Member to have been inundated with messages from constituents in recent months urging them to do whatever they can to lend their voice to the #EndSARS protests. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Nigeria, I was keen to speak in the debate and highlight the need for the UK to stand with the Nigerian people against an increasingly cruel and brutal regime.
The situation in Nigeria is incredibly serious, with tragedy after tragedy unfolding on the streets in state after state, as the Nigerian Government and their security forces take ever more repressive measures to end a protest movement that has given hope to millions across the globe. The #EndSARS movement is not just about disbanding the Special Anti-Robbery Squad; it is a movement led by the youth of Nigeria who took to the streets peacefully to demand an end to brutality, extortion and extrajudicial executions, and a truly democratic Nigeria. The bravery of the youth-led movement will never be defeated.
Today, we need to consider how the Government should respond to both the movement and the violent actions of the Nigerian regime, but we must also take the opportunity to look beyond sanctions to the way that development funding is spent in Nigeria. Instead of funding corrupt security services and investing in projects that do not benefit ordinary Nigerians, we need a new focus on poverty relief and anti-corruption programmes.
It is vital that we recognise the role of the UK in how these events have unfolded in Nigeria. Despite previously stating the opposite, the Government have now admitted to funding SARS units for the last four years. That funding included not only the provision of training to those units, but the supply of equipment. At the very moment that Amnesty International declared SARS units to have been involved in extrajudicial killings, corruption and torture, the Government were using the aid budget to train and equip those units. In fact, between 2016 and this year, more than £10 million went towards programmes from which SARS units benefited.
That not only is immoral, but makes it harder for the UK to play a positive role in Nigeria during this vital period. How can the Government call for an end to violence against protesters with a straight face, having helped to train and equip the security forces that are carrying out the violence? I hope that the Minister will publicly apologise today for the decision to fund the SARS units, and pledge a full and independent inquiry into the matter.
The day of 20 October 2020 will be remembered for the Lekki tollgate massacre—the day a deliberate and coldly calculated attack on peaceful Nigerian civilians was carried out by the Nigerian army. The Nigerian Government have since taken part in an attempted cover-up of the massacre. Security forces in Nigeria make muted responses to the murder of protesters. While Governments across the world have called on the Nigerian Government and the security forces to stop killing protesters, the UK Government have hedged their bets and issued only weak and timid statements. It is therefore a gift to the Nigerian Government when our Government fail to explicitly condemn them for killing their own citizens. Will the Minister today finally condemn the Nigerian regime for its part in the tollgate massacre and the continued killing of peaceful protestors in Nigeria?
The Nigerian Government say that they have disbanded SARS, but the corruption and brutality of the security forces continues. The Nigerian Government’s violence against their own citizens appears only to be intensifying. The Nigerian Government need to stop freezing the bank accounts of key protestors and illegally detaining them. The Minister for the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture went on record to state that the CNN reporting of the massacre was “fake news”. That is undemocratic conduct that needs to be called out.
I ask the Minister to use this opportunity to end the UK Government’s neutrality on this issue. The UK must never be neutral when it comes to human rights abuses. Are the rights, needs and dreams of young Nigerian people not the same as those of young people here in the UK? The UK should not be safe haven for anyone who denies their own citizens the same freedoms they have come to enjoy in the UK.
All too often, when a repressive regime is targeted with economic sanctions, it is the civilians who pay the price, while the regime itself becomes more entrenched and less open to change. The UK Government can use the sanctions under the global human rights regime that targets individuals involved in human rights violations and abuses. If the UK’s position is as a global force for good, then I ask the UK Government to add the names of the Nigerian Government and the security services to the designated list of those responsible for the worst human rights abuses.
To close, it is time for the UK to change course and stand in solidarity with those fighting for a new Nigeria. Let us stand together and get rid of corruption, extortion, extra-judicial murders and massacres, because it is time for a new Nigeria.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Gray. It is a pleasure to follow my friend, the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who speaks quite rightly with passion about one of the world’s great countries, which is sadly being wracked by violence against young people.
There may be some debate about this, but I argue that the greatest book in the English language is “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian writer. The beauty of that book is the way it explains the challenge to changing generations of living together, and the way it speaks about values falling away and community being eroded by outside pressure.
What we are seeing in Nigeria today is part of that story. It is a tragedy that we are all watching and witnessing. As we see things falling apart, the pressure this time is not foreign colonialism, but corruption, violence and attempts at control. I totally agree with my friend, the hon. Member for Edmonton, that we need to call out the corruption and use the powers we have in this country to stop those who are profiting from the wealth of that great nation, and hiding it here.
Some people will remember when General Gowon left Nigeria with half the Central Bank of Nigeria, so it is said, and moved to London. We know that today, even now in this great city of ours, there are some people who have taken from the Nigerian people and hidden their ill-gotten gains here. Sadly, we know that our banks have been used for those profits and for that illegal transfer of assets. That means that the UK is in an almost unique position in being able to do something to exert pressure on those who have robbed the Nigerian people.
This puts a particular onus on my hon. Friend the Minister, and I know she knows it. Using Magnitsky sanctions today is not just about protecting Nigeria, although it is. It is not just about respecting Nigerian young people who have been robbed and murdered by the SARS units. It is about protecting the United Kingdom, because what happens in Nigeria matters fundamentally to us here.
This country is the third country of the Commonwealth and has 200 million people. It will be the great economic powerhouse of Africa and one of the great economic powerhouses of the world. Its wealth is not just in the oil of the Rivers state, but in the imagination and creativity of its people, as witnessed every day in Nollywood and, perhaps more my style, at the great University of Jos. It is a country that gives so much to the world already, despite the fact that it is ill governed, brutalised and robbed. Imagine what it could give if the Plateau state was not a scene of conflict and anti-SARS movements, but instead was the global centre of learning that it really and truly could be, and indeed was up until the 1960s.
This is an opportunity for the UK to do something real, not just in the interests of Nigerians, although it would be, and not just in the interests of Africans, although it would be that, too, but fundamentally in the interests of the British people. This is a moment when the petitioners have got it absolutely right. They are not just arguing for the rights of young Nigerians who are claiming their own rights, but for the rights of democrats, free people, and honourable people everywhere. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleague, the Secretary of State, will listen, look at the sanctions regime and choose carefully where they apply.
It is a pleasure to speak in this meaningful debate and to follow the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat).
The events surrounding the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria have caused global concern and outcry. Last month, mainly young Nigerian people took to the streets in a peaceful protest against police brutality. On 20 October in Lagos and in other parts of the nation, the military are alleged to have attacked peaceful protestors with disproportionate force, and to have killed and injured civilians. The world watched the horrific videos, saw the awful pictures from the scene, and heard the eyewitness accounts from survivors who managed to escape the horrors of that night. Human rights agencies such as Amnesty International have supported those claims.
Despite overwhelming evidence, the Nigerian Government and military initially denied that the military were at Lekki and labelled the events as fake news. Media companies received a memorandum from the Nigerian National Broadcasting Commission to silence them, telling them not to embarrass individuals, organisations and the Government, or to cause disaffection or panic in society at large, following reporting on the events of that dreadful night.
Some media houses that did report on the events were fined. The bank accounts of some organisers involved in the protests have been frozen by the Central Bank of Nigeria pending investigations. Some organisers have been arrested or harassed by the authorities. Such actions equate to the prevention and indeed stopping of free speech and the right to peaceful protest by the state. That is unacceptable. Peaceful protests are vital to the functioning of democracy and are a fundamental human right. Such rights should be upheld and respected.
Many of my constituents who have a Nigerian background are in great distress. Those that have relatives and friends in Nigeria are concerned about the safety of their loved ones and have contacted me about the situation. I have close friends in Nigeria who are also deeply concerned and have contacted me about this. They all ask for one simple thing: that the UK Government defend the right to peaceful protest and free speech and ensure that those within the Nigerian Government and army are held to account for the atrocities committed against peaceful protestors.
Given the shared history between the UK and Nigeria, and given that Nigeria is a fellow member of the Commonwealth and our ally, the UK has a duty to stand up for the human rights of Nigerian citizens. In the case where Nigerian officials are avoiding accountability over the killing of protesters, I believe that the UK should consider imposing sanctions on state officials involved in the human rights abuses of Nigerian citizens.
In July, the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs introduced the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020. Under this statutory framework, priority themes relate to cases that threaten media freedom and human rights defenders. Furthermore, another priority theme considers cases where the relevant jurisdiction’s law enforcement authorities have been unable or unwilling to hold those responsible for human rights violations or abuses to account.
The Government clearly have the tools to ensure that Nigerian state officials respect the constitutional and fundamental human right to protest and free speech. If those who ordered and facilitated the killing and harming of protesters are not held accountable, the UK Government should advocate for independent investigations to take place, and following such investigations any individuals found responsible for these atrocities against human dignity must face sanctions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and it is really good to see you looking so well.
I, too, thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for introducing this debate and for her passion about the subject. I also thank all my hon. Friends for their passion and expertise, and for the clear demands that we are all making today in this Chamber. It is good to hear that the demands are being made unanimously and across what is sometimes a divide.
As we know, the SARS police unit was suspected of abuses against thousands of innocent Nigerians over the past 28 years. Sadly, it is clear that Nigeria has a serious problem with abuses of state power and corruption that goes way beyond SARS. The protest movement that we are seeing rise in Nigeria wants all these abuses to be addressed.
SARS and other police forces in Nigeria were well known for targeting young people for arrests, extortion and beatings, almost at random. I am told that if someone is young and has the wrong hairstyle or clothes, or if they are driving a car and playing music, they could be targeted. Their money or possessions could be seized without any evidence, and people know that if they resist they will be beaten and possibly killed.
SARS created an environment of fear and injustice, and until the protests there was no real sign that those in power were listening or prepared to act. Sadly, it appears to be just the same with many other issues in Nigerian society. There is terrible unemployment, little access to healthcare or education and a poverty rate as high as 70%, according to Oxfam. The people of Nigeria have the right to come together and call for an end to those injustices. As we know, however, in recent months their powerful but peaceful actions have been met with horrific violence. Amnesty says that at least 56 people were killed during the recent protests, including at least 10 in Lekki.
I have been fortunate enough to hear from a young journalist with direct knowledge of what happened at the Lekki tollgate. I will read out her words: “It was devastating—something you don’t want to imagine. The protesters did not know that the cameras and the lights were going to be removed. There were no cameras to witness anything.” Then, as we have heard today: “The soldiers opened fire on the crowd of protesters, and my contact said, ‘One of the survivors jumped in the water, but the soldiers kept on shooting’. For days after, a friend of mine didn’t come online because of the shock and the fear, and it took him a long time to come to Facebook and say, ‘Thank God I survived. I did not think I was going to.’” She said: “Someone else I know left the tollgate with a bullet in him, and later they moved all the bodies so that there would be no evidence. For them to close their hearts and kill protestors like that is simply unforgiveable.”
The response from the authorities, who feel threatened by the protests, has been insidious, as we have heard. Media agencies have been fined for telling the truth. Bank accounts of activists have been suspended because they supposedly finance terrorism, and Government spokespeople have even blamed the protesters for a rise in food prices. Those in power will clearly do anything to ensure that the movement ends now and that SARS is technically disbanded. They are terrified that the calls for action on corruption and police brutality will go on and on.
My plea to the Minister is that we stand with the young people of Nigeria who are demanding change far beyond the closure of SARS. They are demanding a future worthy of their courage and leadership, and here in the UK we need that too, because Nigeria is a massive, fast-growing, youthful country, which has massive potential. It is a country that will play a leading role in decades to come, not just within Africa but in our world. For that positive leadership to happen, the sense of justice that motivates the #EndSARS protests must prevail, to shape Nigeria’s future and our future too.
I do not think that words from the Government today will be enough. We have to demonstrate our solidarity by identifying and targeting those who we know are responsible for the terrible violence and abuses that the activists have faced. The least we should do is ensure that those who have murdered Nigerians and deprived them of their human rights cannot benefit from trade or travel to the UK. In my view, that should include the leaders of the Government and the military, who are even now refusing to allow transparent and fair investigations to happen, and justice to be implemented.
I want to hear from the Minister that a list of Magnitsky —I never say that word properly—sanctions is being created, and action against those on that list will be taken in weeks, not years. Our role must be to work with everyone we can to identify those responsible and ensure that justice is done. I would be so very grateful if, on this occasion, the Government act decisively.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), who spoke so passionately in favour of justice for Nigerians. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for securing this very important debate. This was, of course, a popular debate, and it is unfortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) was not called to speak in it. She sends her solidarity to the #EndSARS movement.
I must begin by addressing the horrific violence inflicted on young Nigerian civilians who were peacefully expressing their fundamental human rights against police brutality. We have seen on media platforms armed military officers discharge live ammunition at those peaceful protesters, injuring and killing them. It is unfortunate that, as of today, both the federal and state Governments in Nigeria have issued conflicting statements on the events that occurred at the Lekki tollgate, which has left us with a series of yet unanswered questions. Who exactly ordered the military to shoot live ammunition in a civilian territory? Why were the bank accounts of some individuals who partook in the protests frozen?
If a democratic country deprives its people of their aspiration, livelihoods and voices; strips them from their loved ones; forces them into hiding; and instils in them fear of retribution through violent attacks on free speech, that country can only be a dictatorship disguised as a democracy. Is Nigeria a dictatorship? Having asked the question, I will leave the Nigerian public to decide for themselves.
On sanctions, which we are here to discuss, if we can ensure that they will not negatively affect civilians—directly or indirectly—I support a travel ban and asset seizure sanctions for individual officials who are found responsible. Although our discussion of sanctions is crucial to determining how we as a nation respond to the violence that has cumulated in the recent #EndSARS movement, it can only be the tip of the iceberg. We must use our platforms to hold the Nigerian Government accountable through more than just sanctions. We must do the right thing by the people in Nigeria who are protesting for their human rights, and ask the questions that we have been given the platform to ask. What role do the Nigerian Government play in these attacks? Will there be an independent investigation into the 100-plus cases of torture, rape and extrajudicial executions throughout the #EndSARS protests?
The world knows about the violent attacks on Nigerian protestors because civilians at the Lekki tollgate massacre bravely risked their own lives to post videos on social media. Only a few Nigerian news outlets even reported the stories and were all subsequently fined, before the Nigerian Government denied the attack’s existence and began silencing reporters. Agencies and individuals have since blamed one another; no one seems to be taking responsibility. Nigerian civilians risked everything to give themselves a voice that they used to expose the atrocities inflicted upon them, and today, 4,000 miles away, the Nigerian Government propose to strangle that voice with a social media censorship Bill. We must demand transparency about what is happening to civilians and amplify that news using our platform.
We must continue to seek clarity about what happened on 20 October, when power was cut from the Lekki tollgate, and SARS police forces began spraying with bullets the protesters gathering there. I am sure that many of us have seen the footage of peaceful protesters linked arm-in-arm, singing the Nigerian anthem, while they were indiscriminately gunned down. Now is the time to hold officials to account for the crimes against humanity that they have embarked on, so I am calling for an impartial UN investigation into those human rights violations, to begin a process of securing justice for the victims and their families.
As we try to make sense of those incidents, we must ask ourselves uncomfortable questions. I am referring to the fact that British officials trained SARS officers from 2016 to 2020, as well as the Nigerian army. What did that training entail? Could it have prevented escalation of this kind? Standing here as a proud British Nigerian, I implore the Minister and colleagues across the House to pursue answers to those questions and to do what they can to facilitate Nigerians’ fight for freedom.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Gray. It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi). I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for leading the debate in response to the petition, which calls for sanctions against the Nigerian Government and officials. It is a very timely debate that needed to be had.
The atrocities in Nigeria in recent months are, understandably, very worrying for my constituents, many of whom have friends and relatives in Nigeria and want our Government help to ensure their safety. I firmly believe that we have an obligation to condemn violence and human rights abuses wherever we see them, which is why I have publicly condemned the violence that took place on 20 October, when young people’s right to protest was tragically suppressed.
Some 4,469 from Erith and Thamesmead have signed the petition—the highest number of petitioners from a single constituency—and I have been contacted by dozens of individuals who want to see action to ensure that human rights are upheld in Nigeria. One constituent recently wrote to me to say she had watched a documentary on how the Nigerian military opened fire on unarmed children who were happily and peacefully demonstrating and carrying Nigerian flags. Many were killed mercilessly. She cried, and she said, “This could’ve been anyone.”
My constituents are right to demand long-term action. As hon. Members have said, a statement of condemnation is not enough. As a country that subscribes to international human rights law, we must be quicker to act to support those around the world who are having their rights infringed.
Accountability is the cornerstone of democracy. I was pleased that the Minister for Africa, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), wrote to me to confirm that the UK Government will continue to work with the Nigerian Government and international and civil society partners in support of police reform. However, it is clear that suitable accountability methods have not been implemented. It was only yesterday that the Nigerian military admitted that soldiers fired live bullets at anti-SARS protesters on 20 October. However, there is still no confirmation of the number of young protesters who tragically lost their lives. According to the Nigerian officials, two young people were killed in the shooting, but reports by Amnesty claim that 10 lives were lost. How can it be considered there is appropriate accountability if we cannot even reach a consensus on the number of lives taken at Lekki toll plaza in Lagos in October?
I do not believe that placing economic country-wide sanctions on Nigeria will help address the ongoing issues of police and military violence. The UK Government should first call for an independent investigation into allegations of misconduct by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. Organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have followed the abuses taking place in Nigeria for years, should be consulted, with their evidence collated alongside an independent investigation to form a judicial review. Furthermore, that investigation should look at the wider issues of violence and human rights abuses by military and police across Nigeria.
The UK Government should regard the findings of an independent investigation with the utmost seriousness and take action to implement sanctions against individuals identified as responsible for those atrocities. They should also make appropriate adjustments to the overseas security and justice assistance funding and the training of any Nigerian military security and policing organisations that may have committed violations in line with their guidance to ensure that OSJA funding meets our human rights obligations and our values.
This issue does not begin and end at Lekki toll plaza on 20 October. There have been reports of violence by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad since 2017, and there continue to be serious consequences as a result of the protests that took place earlier this year. Young people have reported intimidation by the Nigerian Government and, as hon. Members have said, there have been reports of bank accounts being frozen, social media being banned and people being detained in prison for their involvement in speaking out against police violence and calling for accountability for those wrongdoings. Those actions are unacceptable in a democracy.
No action can replace the lives that have already been lost, but that does not mean that we should not take action. I hope, at the end of the debate, we will get a commitment from the Minister that the UK will follow up its actions by holding officials in Nigeria responsible.
Finally, I take the opportunity to raise the case of the Nigerian DJ and songwriter, DJ Switch, who has had her life threatened for her role in speaking out against military and police violence. The prominence of young Nigerian females at the forefront of the #EndSARS protests has highlighted the need to take more action to end violence against women and girls in Nigeria. Will the Government take this opportunity to ensure that their actions to uphold human rights around the world extend to protecting women and girls against violence?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to take part in such a cross-party consensual discussion. I am glad to have heard some excellent contributions from right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House about events in Nigeria. I, too, warmly congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing the debate and the drafters of the petition. Above all else, I commend the #EndSARS movement, which has done so much to shine a bright light on the corruption and oppressive practices of the regime in Lagos.
I have read the Government’s response to the petition carefully and I have some concerns. Nigeria is not a far-off place of which we know nothing. The UK has clear links to the issue and to Nigeria, historically and in future. We have influence and we could use a lot more of it. We know that the UK funded, supplied equipment for, and trained the police and paramilitary forces that we now know have been involved in abuses. At the very least, we need an urgent review of the UK’s involvement in those programmes. I would be glad of an undertaking from the Minister this evening that such a review is under way.
On the Magnitsky sanctions that have been called for, the Government’s response to the petition says:
“This sanctions regime will give the UK a powerful new tool to hold to account those involved in serious human rights violations or abuses.”
I have yet to hear any hon. Member speak against the Magnitsky regime; we all support it, but it is only a tool if it is used. I appreciate that speculation is unhelpful, but we need some announcements.
I am glad that in his discussion with the Governor of Lagos on 11 November, the Minister for Africa, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), called for an investigation into the specific instances that we have heard of. Can we have an update on how that investigation is going? Can we also have an undertaking that there will be consequences of the findings of that investigation and that if it has been insufficient, there will be an independent review?
More generally, we need to look in the round at whether the UK’s actions help or hinder the aims of the #EndSARS protests. Between 2015 and 2020, the UK licensed arms exports and riot control equipment to the tune of £43 million. At the very least, pending a review of our actions and the effect of the UK’s foreign policy and trade policy in Nigeria, we should surely suspend arms exports to the country.
The #EndSARS movement could be a new Arab spring for Nigeria. Given the demographic and economic forces in play, the enthusiasm is there. We must learn from history and not let the #EndSARS movement down as we did the Arab spring. That would be a tragedy and would bring culpability on us even more.
It is not enough to express solidarity while aiding, abetting, arming and funding the oppressors. The UK has a case to answer. We need to look at the consequences of our actions and make sure that we do all we can to ensure accountability on the ground. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for introducing the petition today and all hon. Members for their incredibly powerful and passionate contributions on a crucial issue. I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for his comments, and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Nigeria, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), who has done so much to speak out on the atrocities and, long before they happened, on the wider SARS movement and the brutality that it has exposed.
We have heard incredibly powerful speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), for West Ham (Ms Brown), for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), and indeed the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith). As has been pointed out, other hon. Members would have been here who have been speaking out equally powerfully on the issue.
I also thank the more than 200,000 individuals who have signed the petition and its creators, which includes many significant signatures from the Nigerian diaspora in the UK and many others who share deep concerns about what is happening in Nigeria and about wider human rights abuses around the world. This is not a country that will turn a blind eye when such atrocities happen. The scenes we have witnessed and the reports that have come out of Nigeria of the response by the police and the army against protesters in the #EndSARS movement have shocked us all.
We have heard from colleagues about the events of 20 October, when it appears a group of #EndSARS protesters were fired upon by members of the Nigerian army at the Lekki tollgate plaza, after the CCTV was taken down and the lights were turned off. That resulted in tragic deaths and injuries. I spoke to those who had been in the vicinity of those incidents, who saw and witnessed first hand the brutality meted out by SARS and those attempting to defend them. I can tell you, Mr Gray, that they were shocking testimonies. Many of us have witnessed the video footage and pictures of the events, which are absolutely horrific.
Despite having denied it for over a month, the Nigerian army has been forced to admit at the judicial panel inquiry that soldiers were deployed to the tollgate protest with both blank and live ammunition. As many hon. Members have pointed out, some of those protesters are still in detention today, and many others have had financial restrictions on them and other actions taken against them. I would be interested to know what assessment the Minister has made of the situation of those who were involved in those protests.
As hon. Members have explained, this massacre and the other atrocities that we have seen are part of a picture of brutality that has gone on over a number of years—extraordinary brutality and violations by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS. The report from Amnesty International documented 82 cases of human rights violations between January 2017 and May 2020, including various methods of torture against detainees such as hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing victims into stressful bodily positions, sexual violence and rape.
That is a shocking record of behaviour, yet few of those cases have been investigated and hardly any officers have been brought to justice on credible accounts of torture and other ill-treatment. The authorities have promised investigations, but often they have not occurred. The Federal Government of Nigeria have repeatedly promised to reform SARS but have failed to do so. The recent protests originate not only in that record of brutality, but in other documented incidents across the country, in Delta and Oyo states. In recent days, I have received reports of extra-judicial killings, allegedly by the Nigerian army in Oyigbo in Rivers state. What assessment has the Minister made of the most recent reports? This is still carrying on after the shocking events we saw just a few weeks ago.
The violent repression of protesters in Nigeria is unacceptable and has rightly garnered international condemnation. President-elect Biden has called on the Nigerian Government to end the violent crackdown. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has said that Nigerians’ right to protest peacefully needs to be guaranteed and that police brutality needs to stop. The official Opposition absolutely agree with that sentiment. The violent crackdown on these protests must end and there must be accountability for those responsible for such brutality and loss of life.
The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), have made it clear that the UK must act as a force for good in the world, in line with our international partners and multinational organisations, whether the United Nations, the African Union, the UN Human Rights Council or others, to encourage and strongly advocate for the end of violence in Nigeria, to end police brutality in Nigeria and, crucially, to call for independent investigations into these violations by Nigerian policing, security and military forces. It would be better if we had confidence in the systems of investigation within Nigeria, but the ongoing failure and the record of the Nigerian Government in dealing with SARS underlines why many people do not have faith in that process. That is why independent investigations will be crucial.
The petition refers specifically to sanctions. The official Opposition welcome the Foreign Secretary’s establishment of a Magnitsky-style sanctions regime, which we have been calling for since 2018, to allow for targeted sanctions based on attacks on human rights, and to enable us to target the wider network of perpetrators, including all of those who facilitate, incite, promote or support such crimes. That extends beyond state officials to non-state actors, as well.
At that time, the Foreign Secretary told us in the House that those sanctions would be used to target
“those with blood on their hands.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 663.]
It is clear that individuals do have blood on their hands in relation to the activities of SARS and these atrocities over the past few months. Given the allegations against members of SARS and the growing evidence of the atrocities that were committed, we urge the UK Government to use their full investigative capacity, including by drawing on the evidence provided by independent human rights organisations in Nigeria and elsewhere, to identify individuals responsible for those atrocities and, if appropriate, designate them for sanctions under our Magnitsky regime. We cannot stand by in the face of such wilful perpetration of human rights violations and killings. Not least given our close political, economic and security relationship with Nigeria, we cannot be a disinterested or unconnected party.
I turn now to the UK’s role in relation to SARS. We have heard about this from a number of hon. Members in the debate. Despite initially denying it, the Minister for Africa has admitted that through the conflict, stability and security fund in Nigeria, SARS members were trained as part of the Nigeria policing programme and that the UK Government have been involved in training of members of SARS, despite that happening during a time when there were ongoing public, well-known allegations of extrajudicial executions, extortion, torture and rape by this unit. I am sorry to say that although this is shocking, it is not an entirely unexpected revelation to me. It is also not surprising—I have the review of the programme here—that this programme was led by the Foreign Office rather than the Department for International Development.
UK support for security and justice reform in countries around the world can have positive impacts, but what is absolutely obvious is that in a growing number of cases, it is not clear what impact we are having or whether, in the worst cases, we are actually supporting agencies that have a role in committing atrocities or human rights violations. What we are discussing today is just one example. Whether it is this example, the ongoing supplying of arms to the Saudi Arabian Government for use in the Yemen crisis or the training of the special investigation unit in Bahrain, which has been complicit in the torture of prisoners—of course, that country uses the death penalty—the UK Government are having to repeatedly come and justify their involvement with organisations and institutions that appear to breach our own standards, let alone international law and human rights.
Can the Minister tell me whether she has considered suspending support and training for such programmes for Nigerian security, military and justice institutions until she is absolutely satisfied that they are not supporting individuals and organisations that have been implicated in these atrocities, and will the Government commit to a review of the effectiveness of OSJA—overseas security and justice assistance—projects? It was extraordinary to find, while reading the summary, that the programme was listed as scoring an A and an A in 2018-19 and to read that the risk was only medium. That sounds completely out of kilter with the facts that we have heard today and have been hearing for many years.
Looking beyond Nigeria, given the deeply concerning news coming from locations across Africa in recent weeks, what measures are the Government taking to protect human rights across the continent and to tackle those responsible, whether it is those responsible for atrocities in Ethiopia, those who are involved in suppressing the democratic process in Tanzania and Uganda, or whoever? We cannot have impunity for those causing or carrying out atrocities or war crimes, whatever their role or status, whether that is official or unofficial—whether they are official Government forces, official military forces, or irregular forces who are acting on behalf of different groups, and whether those are central Government, regional government or rebel groups. It does not matter who they are—we cannot have impunity for the people who are carrying out these atrocities.
It appears to be a double irony that we are seeing support for wrong programmes like this one when the Government, we hear, are proposing to cut the right programmes; they are proposing to cut the 0.7% target and support to development and peace programmes across the world. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that that will not happen.
From the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA to the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria, it is clear that any democratic Government must respond to the needs first and foremost of their citizens in providing policing and security. They must be accountable to the people they serve and not hold themselves above the law. They must defend the law and conduct themselves in line with the principles and values that underpin it. We stand on the side of all those in Nigeria who are calling for peace, for democracy and for the rule of law to be upheld. Killings must end. Democracy and the rule of law must prevail, and the UK should be a partner to all Nigerians seeking peace, justice and development.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your excellent guidance and chairmanship, Mr Gray, so thank you. Let me begin by saying that I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for securing the debate and to all the hon. Members who contributed today. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), from the hon. Members for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for West Ham (Ms Brown), and from others. I will endeavour to answer as many of their questions as I possibly can—I cannot say “within the time allowed”, because we are doing quite well on time at the moment, Mr Gray, but I know you will keep me in good order and not let me get carried away.
This is an important debate. The Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), has asked me to offer his apologies to Members present, as he is away on ministerial business and is therefore not able to attend. However, he has a very close interest in this topic, and I feel sure that he will be paying great attention to this debate, as we would expect of the Minister for Africa. I will therefore respond in his place on behalf of the Government.
We are grateful to the nearly 220,000 members of the public who signed the petition and enabled this debate to take place. Quite rightly, there is significant public concern about the recent protests in Nigeria, especially the issue of police brutality. I also acknowledge the strong feeling about this issue in this place, and am thankful for the contributions made by all colleagues today. As I said, I will try to respond to all of the points that have been raised, but I will first set out the Government’s position on the protests and on police reform, and will then address the topic of sanctions.
I assure the House that the Government have been following developments in Nigeria very closely since the protests. We are deeply concerned about violence during the protests, which tragically claimed lives, and I am sure right hon. and hon. Members present will join me in passing on our condolences to the families of those affected. The UK supports the right to peaceful protest. We condemn violence by any party, and in doing so make an important distinction between the rioting and looting that took place and the original, peaceful protest movement.
We have raised the protests and the response to them at the highest levels in the Nigerian Government. The Foreign Secretary issued a statement on 21 October calling for an end to the violence. He called for the Nigerian Government urgently to investigate reports of brutality by its security forces, and to hold those responsible to account. The Minister for Africa spoke to Foreign Minister Onyeama on 23 October to reiterate his tweets that recognised the Nigerian people’s democratic and peaceful calls for reform, and encouraged the Nigerian authorities to restore peace and address concerns regarding brutality towards civilians. The British high commissioner in Abuja continues to raise the protests with senior representatives of the Nigerian Government, including our concerns about intimidation of civil society groups and peaceful activists.
We welcome President Buhari’s decision to disband the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, the police unit at the centre of recent protests, and it is important that historical reports of police brutality and violence during recent protests are investigated fully. We also welcome the emerging dialogue between state governors and young people: in a country where more than 50% of the population is under 25, that conversation is important in understanding the concerns of the next generation. We also welcome the President’s request for his Cabinet Ministers to do the same in their home areas. Lastly, we welcome the establishment of judicial panels of inquiry to investigate all the alleged incidents.
I can inform Members that the Minister for Africa spoke to the Governor of Lagos on 11 November, and also spoke to the President’s chief of staff, Ibrahim Gambari, on 21 November. He stressed the importance of police and military co-operation with the panels, and expressed the urgent need for panels to progress investigations, including into the incident at Lekki. As Members can see from the Government’s written response to this petition, we continue to monitor these investigations and their outcomes very closely. We also continue to monitor progress on police reform, and support Nigerian-led reform. Earlier this year, for example, we supported civil society efforts to secure the successful passage of the new Police Act. Implemented effectively, that Act will be an important step towards a more transparent and accountable police force.
I would like to set out the Government’s position on sanctions. On 6 July, the Government established the global human rights sanctions regime. In a statement to Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out its full scope. It gives the UK a powerful new tool with which to hold to account the perpetrators of serious human rights violations or abuses. It is a long-standing practice not to speculate on future sanctions designations, as doing so could reduce their impact. The sanctions regime complements our ongoing human rights activities around the world and demonstrates this country’s commitment to being a force for good, and we will continue to keep all evidence and potential listings under very close review.
I am grateful to the Minister for being here this afternoon, given that the Minister for Africa, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), was not able to be with us because of foreign travel. All of us have asked for sanctions. It would be courteous if the Minister for Africa wrote to us to outline the Government’s position on this issue, and to explain why we are not being assured this afternoon that sanctions will be imposed.
Order. Although that is a perfectly reasonable question, and no doubt the Minister will read Hansard, it is not actually in order to call for that letter in this debate. It is a perfectly sensible thing to ask for, and no doubt it may well occur, but the Minister is not required to answer that specific point.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I am grateful to the hon. Lady. As I said, I am sure the Minister for Africa will be following the debate. I will make a few more comments about sanctions, but if the hon. Lady will bear with me, I want to answer a few more of the other questions.
I reiterate that it is long-standing practice not to speculate on our future sanctions, as it could reduce the impact of those sanctions. Right hon. and hon. Members raised the issue of corruption; I agree that tackling corruption in Nigeria is absolutely critical to the country’s prosperity and security, and to reducing poverty and inequality. Work is under way to consider how a global corruption sanctions regime could be added to the Government’s armoury.
Several Members gave examples of intimidation that had been highlighted to them, and we are aware that some protestors have reported facing intimidation. The British high commissioner in Abuja continues to raise our concerns about the intimidation of civil society groups and peaceful protestors with the Nigerian Government, because it does not build an environment for groups and protestors to come forward and help build genuine accountability. I can assure Members that we are aware that some protestors face intimidation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and others raised the matter of UK aid. I reassure her that no UK taxpayers’ money goes directly to the Nigerian Government. The UK provides assistance to Nigeria to meet immediate humanitarian needs, and to address long-term structural issues. While I am on the topic of aid, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) tried to tempt me to speak about the Government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid. As I am sure he anticipated, I will not speculate ahead of any spending review.
Will the Minister elaborate on that? I appreciate that she is not the Minister for Africa, and that she will be less familiar with the specific programmes, but it was very clear in the Minister for Africa’s letter to us that the UK Government were funding training programmes that directly involved SARS, despite the allegations. Does she not believe there is a problem with our wider security and justice assistance programmes across the world? There is example after example of their impact being questioned, or, worse still, of our being implicated in some way when organisations do not uphold our standards.
The hon. Gentleman pre-empts part of my notes, as I will touch a little more on the SARS programme, and I hope to give a bit more detail about work that we are doing and supporting.
Before I come to that, I want to note quickly that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet raised the issue of the persecution of Christians. That is another important topic, and I reassure her that we have made clear to the Nigerian authorities, at the highest levels, the importance of protecting civilians, including Christians, and human rights for all Nigerians.
I will now discuss the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. The UK supports police and justice reform in Nigeria. All assistance is compliant with our human rights obligations and values. Through our Nigeria policing programme, funded by the conflict, stability and security fund, which ended in March 2020, federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad officers participated in training on amended Nigerian police guidance designed to improve human rights, training on public finance, and community policing workshops. The Nigeria policing programme was part of our security and justice reform programme, which is working to help to deliver a criminal justice system that will better protect the human rights of all Nigerians.
As a result of the programme, relationships between communities and the police improved in four states. Trust was built, with communities and the police working together to resolve safety and security issues. The Nigerian police force’s recent adoption of the community policing framework developed by the Nigeria policing programme is a positive outcome. Our support to civil society was instrumental in the President recently passing the Nigeria Police Act 2020, which provides for greater citizen protections and improved police training, which we believe will benefit Nigerians.
Through the CSSF-funded north-east public safety and security programme, part of which is delivered jointly with USAID, radio equipment was issued to Borno police command. That was for police units working to improve local security, and to counter violent extremist organisations, including Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa. Borno police command distributed free radios to the local FSARS unit, which were returned after FSARS was disbanded. The north-east public safety and security programme is part of our north-east Africa security, conflict and stabilisation programme, working to help to stabilise one of Nigeria’s poorest and most fragile regions, affected by Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa.
I acknowledge and understand the strength of feeling in the House and among the public. The UK and Nigeria have a long and close relationship that extends beyond our Governments to our people, especially through the British Nigerian diaspora community, which contributes so much to this country. The diaspora was also mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet. The UK is home to more than 200,000 members of the Nigerian diaspora, who contribute much to the country. As I am sure you will be aware, Mr Gray, my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), was the first British Nigerian Minister.
As to communications and engagement with the diaspora, on 18 November my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa led a virtual business roundtable with members of the Nigerian diaspora business community, the better to understand challenges in increasing trade and investment between the UK and Nigeria. That roundtable was joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who is the UK trade envoy to Nigeria, and the British deputy high commissioner in Lagos. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet asked about requesting a meeting with the Minister for Africa, and it would perhaps be wrong of me to commit him to that, but I can certainly pass on her request.
This Government will continue to press the Nigerian Government and their security services to uphold human rights and the rule of law; to investigate all incidents of brutality, illegal detentions and the use of excessive force; and to hold those responsible to account. We will closely monitor the judicial panels of inquiry, and will continue to advocate for investigations of police brutality. The Government will consider their options as the panels’ work progresses.
The Government will also continue to work with the Nigerian Government, and international and civil society partners, to improve the accountability and transparency of the Nigerian police, for the benefit of all Nigerians.
Like others, I believe this has been an excellent debate, with well-informed contributions and real insight from Members on the Back Benches and Front Benches.
I will take the last minute to urge the Minister and the rest of the team at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to use all diplomatic means available to get the message to the authorities in Nigeria that they need to listen to what the protestors are asking for. While the Minister, for all sorts of reasons, has felt unable to make commitments on targeted sanctions today, there is a strong case for putting them in place. I hope that behind the scenes, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will continue to pursue this, so that we see an announcement about it in the not-too-distant future.
In the debate, we heard disturbing accounts of what happened at Lekki, and about a long history of brutality and extra-judicial killings. Particularly grim accounts were given by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I hope that we also take away from the debate the optimism that everyone has shown about the future of Nigeria. It has so much potential. As the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) said, there is potential for a new Nigeria and a better future. I hope that these protests signal a change in addressing concerns around corruption, brutality and poor governance. If there is real progress on those issues and they are resolved, we will see a Nigeria that is successful and flourishing, not least economically.
It has been my privilege to lead this debate. I thank everyone who signed the e-petition. This is a great example of the e-petition process working effectively, because nearly a quarter of a million people signed that petition. We in the mother of Parliaments get the opportunity to urge and advocate for change and reform in Nigeria, and it has been my privilege to take part in that process.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 554150, relating to Nigeria and the sanctions regime.