Wednesday 13 January 2021
[Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]
School Closures: Support for Pupils
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing is respected. Members must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the winding-up speeches, provided that there is space in the room, which it looks like there is today. Members are asked to respect the one-way system around the room; please exit by the door on the left. Members should sanitise their microphones, using the cleaning materials provided, before they use them, and dispose of those materials as they leave the room. That rule has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance, and I intend to see it observed, if possible, in the current circumstances. Members in the later stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move into the horseshoe when seats there become available. Members can speak only from the horseshoe. I remind Members that they are strongly encouraged to wear a face covering when they are not speaking.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for pupils’ education during school closures.
May I congratulate you, Dame Angela, on your new status, which is well deserved? Thank you for chairing the debate this morning. Yesterday, it looked as though it might not proceed because of the uncertainty over Westminster Hall debates, so I thank the House authorities and all the staff for being present here today to enable this sitting to happen. I hope that good sense will prevail later today over future arrangements.
I start by paying tribute to the extraordinary professionalism and commitment of the teaching staff and senior leadership teams in all our local schools and colleges. Like our health professionals, they are very much frontline workers and have worked relentlessly during the past 10 months. In today’s debate, it is essential that we recognise the importance of schools in addressing the inequality gap.
It is estimated that in the first lockdown some 575 million learning days were lost; the average loss was 65 days per pupil. All of us, having been through the education system, can think back to those days and recall a particular piece of information being imparted by a teacher and how that registered with us. We can also think of the days that we missed when others attended school and what we subsequently learned from them. We felt a sense of loss that we were not there to participate, so the fact that children and young people could have lost 65 days is of course quite significant for their future development.
The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, concluded in her report in December that just five days had been lost on average across schools in the autumn term, but in some places it may have been up to 10 days. Certainly in Warwickshire, primary schools on average saw 92% attendance, state secondary schools averaged 82% and special schools averaged 80%. But just looking at the autumn term, we see indications quite early on that the trends were concerning. By the week ending 16 October, some 400,000 children were off school, with 50,000 estimated to have covid and the remainder self-isolating, and by the last week of November, 1 million children were out of school. At one secondary school in my constituency, just 63% were physically present.
Of course that has a disproportionate impact, as the Children’s Commissioner said. It has considerable consequences for children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that is particularly concerning when the UK has one of the worst levels of inequality in the developed world, as highlighted by the United Nations interlocutor in his report back in 2019. We have 4.2 million children living in poverty, 600,000 more than in 2010, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, so even before the pandemic, UK schools faced considerable challenges.
With the introduction of the third lockdown, we are seeing more children being sent to school than attended during the first lockdown. The figures that we have show attendance of between a quarter and a third of pupils in school; that compares with 10% to 15% in the first lockdown. A main driver has been the change to the definition of what constitutes a critical worker, or what is necessary attendance, putting schools in the difficult position of having to assess this on a case-by-case basis. Parents are also having to make decisions based on financial demands rather than the guidance. A headteacher in my constituency believes it is an absolute scandal. They quoted the Department for Education, which states that
“we are reducing overall social contact across…the country rather than individually by each institution”,
which is leading to the overloading of our schools and their acting almost as care workers for younger people to support that.
The much higher attendance rates have resulted in staff being in school when they should be teaching from home. If teachers are delivering face-to-face learning to a blended age group of pupils and are expected to provide digital content, they are effectively doubling their workload. In turn, schools are having staffing issues due to illness and the need to self-isolate, and often the staff themselves face childcare issues. The other principal driver of the increased numbers in school is that those without laptops or space to study are now eligible to attend school. That has led to unions such as the National Association of Head Teachers highlighting how the high numbers will simply undermine the purpose and effectiveness of the shutdown itself. That is why online learning and the tools to enable it are so crucial.
May I also add my congratulations to you, Dame Angela, on becoming a dame? I did not know until just now. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to intervene. Does he not agree that in rural constituencies such as mine in Strangford, where broadband connection is a massive issue, steps need to be taken to ensure that every child has access to stable connections to be able to learn remotely, and, if not, there must be a place for them in schools with functioning broadband? If we have to have an alternative, we need a system in place that enables that to happen.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who always makes such valid points. I will cover that issue in a moment, but he is absolutely right. Access to broadband internet is an essential provision and should be a part of our critical infrastructure so that every household has it. Whether someone is working or studying from home, it is as important as getting gas, electricity or water to the household.
It has been clear from the outset that with the majority of children removed from school and college settings, there is a huge challenge in delivering educational learning in terms of both channel and approach, both from the delivery and the receiving end. According to Ofcom, up to 1.78 million children in the UK—about 9%—do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. Almost 900,000 of those live in a household with just a mobile internet connection.
According to the education charity Teach First, four in five schools with the poorest pupils are hit the hardest and do not have enough devices and internet access to ensure that those self-isolating can continue to learn. However, recent Government announcements have been more positive, including that on 560,000 laptops and tablets, and a further 300,000 were announced yesterday. That is welcome. Perhaps the Minister will confirm the Department’s total cumulative number since March and April against the objective of 1.78 million.
The move by Three UK, followed by British Telecom, Vodafone and many others, to provide free data and unlimited broadband in support of the hardware is also very welcome and should be applauded. But why did it take the Government so long? Why did they dither and delay when the need was there from March last year? The initial announcement in April, when the Government stated that they would seek to ensure that disadvantaged pupils would benefit from free laptops or tablets, was immediately challenged by the Good Law Project, a legal campaign group, which said that the numbers announced were a “drop in the ocean”. The group went on to say that it found the lack of details about the scheme troubling as only a small subset of pupils would benefit.
Back in June I raised the issue with the Minister’s Department in a written question and I followed it up in the Chamber. In reply to my written question I was told that 200,000 laptops and tablets had been ordered on 19 April. However, a Government document entitled “Devices and 4G wireless routers data: Ad-hoc Notice: Laptops, tablets and 4G wireless routers for disadvantaged and vulnerable children: progress data”—Members may not have seen that report—stated:
“The first devices were ordered on 15th May, and the first devices were dispatched on 18th May.”
It is still not clear to me what happened, and which was true. Was it 19 April or 15 May? It certainly seems that the Government were slow to react to the challenge and to recognise the ongoing need.
At the same time, in Warwickshire, I was told that 1,463 laptops had been requested, but that by early July only 45 had been received. By 1 June the Government had certainly missed their target of delivering 230,000 laptops and tablets. On 21 October the Secretary of State said that he would deliver 500,000 laptops, noting that 200,000 had already been delivered, but by early November the Government had announced that they had slashed the allocation of Government-promised laptops for the poorest and most vulnerable children across the country by a staggering 80%. My question to the Minister is why the number was reduced. Why was that announcement made?
As I say, more recent announcements have been more positive, but for schools in my constituency there is clearly a long way to go. In Warwick and Leamington, on average, 17% of pupils do not have access to digital equipment or broadband for home working. In the absence of Government support, 83% of schools, according to my own survey, have provided laptops out of their own funds. Those are hard-pressed funds in schools. One primary school that will remain nameless confided that it has almost 50 children without devices, and has received just four in total.
Of course it is all too easy to think of the issue as about purely the supply of laptops, but even when a household has a device and internet access that does not mean that the pupil can make use of them, because of such factors as low parental computer literacy, parents who work from home needing to use the device, school- age siblings also needing to use it, or simply access to broadband capacity. Perhaps there may also be a lack of access to printers or other hardware in the household. That is all understandable. For many there is simply the problem of broadband or mobile internet access, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. In particular, there are certain buildings in remote rural areas where mobile signals are limited.
Finally there is the question of content support. It is worth highlighting this week’s positive move by the BBC to deliver an education offer to children, teachers and parents through CBBC and “BBC Bitesize Daily”, while BBC2 will provide programming aimed at supporting the GCSE curriculum. That is all immensely welcome and will complement greatly the online teaching that is being facilitated through Oak National Academy and other providers such as the website Hungry Little Minds. Naturally, there is also a need to deliver online teaching, which in turn leads to demand in relation to training needs for the delivery of the new channel for learning.
Many schools are also reporting significant financial pressures. In the survey that I conducted across Warwick and Leamington during the autumn term it was apparent that there were immediate and significant costs—operational costs, but also a need for capital support. As for operating costs, a couple of primary schools faced additional costs of £20,000, but the average figure across the board was something like £13,000, or £1,400 per month—the additional cost of sanitising, cleaning, and ensuring that the physical environment is safe and usable for pupils and teaching staff alike. However, all schools reported a significant unmet staffing need because of budget limitations, and 83% stated that they had faced staffing shortages.
Schools also said that there was a greater need for them with respect to their responsibility for protecting children and ensuring their general wellbeing, and while mental health is of course a particular and obvious concern, there is also the issue of the increased risk of harm to children. According to a report for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in the first lockdowns there was a 22% increase in the number of counselling sessions relating to physical abuse, and a threefold increase in the number of Childline counselling sessions per week about child sexual abuse within the family. Those are all areas where we need to provide greater support for pupils, young people and teaching staff.
There have been pressures on school leadership teams, who faced the responsibility of undertaking flow testing of pupils and additional tasks alongside the ongoing pressures they already have. I highlight the need for more support for special schools, which face huge pressures having to teach face-to-face in intense environments, and where there is a real need for more financial support, for additional staffing and, I would advocate, for the vaccination of teaching staff and pupils.
On the point about nurseries, the transmission data, from October 2020, is outdated. According to the Office for National Statistics, transmission among zero to five-year-olds is now the same as among five to nine-year-olds. Funding is needed to support our nurseries.
I will move on to the situation with free school meal vouchers. One of the implications of pupils not being in school is for their health and welfare while they are at home, possibly alone, where many will go without a decent hot meal that would have ordinarily been provided by the school. That is why the provision of free school meals has been so important, in particular via the vouchers during the first wave. It is surprising that the Government and, dare I say, their Back Benchers voted not to continue with that provision in subsequent holidays and into the future, until there was the Marcus Rashford-inspired U-turn.
With so many pupils out of school again, the need to provide the equivalent of free school meals is significant and many schools are urging that cash payments be made. The Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East echo that call for cash payments as a replacement for free school meals, as they know what children need and that allows choice, accessibility, discretion and safety, all of which are valued by families.
The news stories this morning were full of the value of the voucher scheme and of the food that has been delivered to children, saying that it does not have the necessary vitamins and nutrients. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that that should be looked at to ensure that the vouchers and the food stuffs that are going out satisfy the child and give them the nourishment that they need?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am about to come on to that point. The figures quoted in the media in the last 24 hours, about the profiteering that is taking place by some of the companies that have moved into the sector, are obscene. The claim is that the food has a value of £30, when in fact people could pick it up for £5 to £10.
The Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East echoed the call for cash payments. In research conducted by the charities, 81% said that direct payments worked better than grab bags or vouchers. When it comes to grab bags, or “hampers”, as they are now euphemistically known, there has been yet another shocking revelation about the company Chartwells, which has been providing food bags for £30, when the content would barely register a fiver or a tenner at the till, and the association of some people with that business and BlackRock.
Speaking to local schools, families are desperate and the schools are angry that the Government have not acted faster. As one headteacher put it to me:
“The Government communications have been poor. They knew schools were shutting, so why have plans not been made for free school meals?”
He was on a call with 20 other headteachers across the region and they were all of the same view. Certainly, some believe that the Edenred scheme worked fairly satisfactorily by comparison.
I would love to spend more time on the exam situation, but the position in which colleges and schools found themselves at the beginning of this term, particularly in regard to vocational subjects and BTEC exams, challenged them. They felt let down by the Department for Education. There are real concerns among students, as well as schools and teaching staff across the board, about the plans for the summer exams and how they will be measured against their learning performance.
Finally, I want to look at protection for teaching staff. We talk about support for pupils, but we need support and protection for teaching staff. There is a need for vaccination and all staff in schools, including support staff, must be a much higher priority. I raised that on 3 December, and again on 30 December, with the Secretary of State.
In September, an GMB union internal survey of over 600 teaching assistants showed that 55% of them said they did not feel safe at work. Elsewhere, Unison has highlighted that the hardest hit are likely to be school support staff, as they are often agency workers, older, disproportionately black, Asian or of mixed ethnicity and come from more disadvantaged backgrounds. If there is the political will for schools to remain open—of course, we all want them to reopen as early as possible—school staff must be placed at a higher priority than they are presently.
The past year has been far from academic, Dame Angela. The support needed for pupils’ education is considerable and complex, but it is not mission impossible. I am afraid that the Government’s work through the course of the pandemic has, on occasion, been of little merit. Perhaps it could be described, in its own right, like coursework: late submission, no shows, confusion and, in the eyes of school staff and governors, a tragic failure of leadership from the Secretary of State. This generation of children must not lose out any longer. These are some of the most important days of their lives, which are precious to their development and the realisation of their potential. The Government must dig deep, and not short-change their long-term future.
I, too, congratulate you, Dame Angela, on becoming a dame. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing this important debate.
If 1870 is remembered as the start of universal elementary education and 1944 for secondary education for all, then 2021 must be remembered as the year that online standards for education were set. If schools are to be closed and pupils are to be at home, they need devices, reliable network coverage and a secure platform for schooling to be delivered. We need a set curriculum, oversight and support for pupils, and a structured feedback loop from pupils to teachers. If standards are not set, this generation of political leaders and educationalists will be failing to live up to not only the laws of the land, but the educational path that this country has set for its children for over a 150 years. There cannot be lockdowns and school closures, with no full-time alternatives at the ready.
The Government have taken steps. Laptops are going to pupils, guidance is in place and there are independent educational providers coming forward—Oak National Academy, BrainPOP, Creativebug and the BBC—but there is not a comprehensive system in place.
A survey conducted in the last week by the Sutton Trust has reported today that only one in 10 teachers feels that their pupils have adequate access to laptops. A similar percentage feel that their pupils have adequate access to the internet. We have falling standards and a division in provision. The National Foundation for Educational Research found the average learning lost for all pupils was three months, but that more than 50%- of pupils in the most deprived areas had lost four months or more. They also said that while 1% of pupils in the wealthiest areas had lost an estimated six months in effective learning due to the lockdown, in the poorest areas more than 10 times as many were affected as badly.
If we believe in social mobility—and I certainly do—then this is not good enough. We need to act to support our pupils, and at pace. Education is the great equaliser. We have to adapt and adapt quickly. I say that because I look at how businesses have adapted to cater for their customers and upgrade their capability. Online demand has increased by over 100% in retail and for online video subscriptions. Microsoft Teams has grown from 20 million users in November 2019 to 115 million daily active users in October 2020.
If businesses can develop, adapt and meet the need, then schools must do exactly the same thing: they must react with speed to give pupils the education that they need. Like it or not, online education is here to stay, and once developed it could become an exceptional resource with wider uses, such as allowing children to catch up at home if they have been ill or helping to cater to the 60,000 pupils who are taught at home—that number leapt up by 13% in 2018-19. It could even support pupils who have an exceptional capability in a subject to surge ahead.
Where do we begin? We have to get teachers, unions, Ofsted and the Government to come together to set out that standard, because if unions, teachers and local councils are arguing for pupils not to return to school, and with the Government’s announcement of a third national lockdown, they must come together to provide for a full, accessible online curriculum. There is joint responsibility; therefore, joint action is needed. The Government need to reinstate their manifesto pledge of 1 gigabit capability for everyone by 2025, so that pupils, irrespective of where they live, can get a proper online connection.
In 1969, the Open University was created to give open access to higher education, increase social mobility and support the economy. We need a similar game-changing moment now in online education, where we could become a global leader. The Open University now qualifies as one of the world’s largest universities and has a £3 billion benefit to the UK economy. It is time we took a leap forward in online education, and 2021 needs to be the year that happens. Will the Minister meet me and my Blue Collar Conservatism colleagues to set out the new online curriculum that needs to happen, and the online connection and devices that need to be given, to ensure that social mobility happens and that we have an education fit for all?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I, too, congratulate you on becoming a dame in the new year’s honours, which was very well deserved. I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing the debate and on his opening remarks, which covered all the issues that I believe need to be addressed. I also thank and congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on their work on this issue.
This is an urgent issue, and one that many colleagues have been talking about since the start of lockdown. Just yesterday I heard from one of my headteachers, who said that she was still waiting for the 114 laptops that the school had ordered and that were due to arrive last Wednesday. That is despite assurances given to Members of Parliament that laptops should arrive within 48 hours of being ordered. It is clear that the Government have inexplicably failed to plan ahead, once again putting kids last, not first, in this pandemic.
I am also disappointed that the Government seemingly took their foot off the accelerator in supporting kids to learn at home, following the easing of lockdown. They had a woefully slow start in March, which is on public record, with only 51,000 of the 200,000 laptops promised in March delivered by the end of May. I had to put in a freedom of information request to find that out. That was compounded by chaos in the supply of free school meals during lockdown, and a lack of guidance for teachers and support for parents.
Roll the clock forward nine months and it appears, on one level, that not much has changed. Incremental progress has been made, but it is utterly piecemeal and still far too confused. That has continued to be a hallmark of this Government. While the Department for Education should be making administrative decisions with clarity and forward planning, it instead lurches from crisis to crisis. It is not an excuse to say that the new variant took us by surprise, because a variant was expected. The NHS had sought to plan ahead; the rest of the Government clearly had not.
I do not want to hear today from the Government—I am sorry to be stern about this—about what has gone on that is to be applauded: the Oak National Academy, BBC provision, and Google, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and others putting on learning options. Much of that learning also has to be focused and directed by teachers, and it has to be accessible. To do that, we need laptops and broadband sufficient for every child, not every household, because every child has to be online and has to be able to learn for as many hours as they need.
We need an honest and clear conversation about what is not going well, and how the Government need to tackle the remaining gaps at the speed and scale needed. First, the Government must have a proper plan to support hybrid and remote learning, because this issue is not going away. There has to be a long-term and sustainable solution for the provision of laptops and devices to all children who need them. That includes the broadband connectivity that will be required not just during the lockdown, but on an ongoing basis. The virus is going to be with us for at least this year and maybe well into the next academic year.
When I say every child, I mean every primary and secondary school pupil. It may be that they cannot get access because a sibling is using the home computer or laptop to study, or a parent might be using it to work at home. Those are the same families that might have used free wi-fi in libraries but, under the current circumstances and conditions, cannot do so. Children are also on cycles of lockdown and self-isolation. We have seen that all the way through since September. As many as 20% could have been off in one day due to the need to self-isolate.
Catching up is also vital, and I congratulate the Sutton Trust and others on the work they have done. Research by the National Foundation for Educational Research showed that at the start of last term, poorer pupils were three months behind on their learning, showing that the digital divide plays a huge part in poorer children falling behind. As well as keeping up, they also have to catch up. They need the time to be able to study in order to do that.
Secondly, laptop support must be at scale and of quality. I am surprised at the number of complaints from teachers about the spec and quality of laptops they have received, and the difficulties they had in reimaging them and getting their children online. Will the Minister outline the quality of provision the Government are providing, the tests and criteria they have set out, and how they are monitoring complaints received from schools, in order that those issues can be ironed out for further cycles?
The benefits are clear and it is heartening to read what children have to say. Last April, in the gap between the start of lockdown and laptops starting to arrive, local charity Hounslow’s Promise started a scheme to secure business and individual donations of laptops. That project is ongoing, working with the Hounslow Education Partnership of headteachers.
I want to quote Victoria Eadie, chief executive officer of the Tudor Park Trust, who has worked on the project from the start:
“During the first lockdown when we rolled out the first computers in April we saw significantly increased engagement in learning by pupils who previously had no access… They went from no engagement to medium or full engagement. It made a huge difference.”
The feedback from young people has also had an impact and has led to the project continuing. One pupil said:
“Before I received a laptop from school, I was struggling to complete work that was being sent by post. This meant it was difficult for me to complete my work and receive feedback. Once I received my laptop it was easier to do my work and access help online. I am very grateful for the laptop; my mum is also very grateful as my little brother also uses it for his learning.”
Another pupil said:
“It has been absolutely brilliant. I was stressed because I couldn’t do the work as I only had my phone. Now I can do the home learning.”
A third pupil said:
“This is a life saver because I travel between mum and dad and this makes it possible for me to keep up with my schoolwork in either home.”
Thirdly, we need a proper plan for connectivity. We need to tackle data poverty. That is not an unknown inequality, yet it is another social injustice that the pandemic has shone a light on, dividing rich and poor, and haves and have nots, whether young or old. Children who are unable to learn from and with their parents are learning far more slowly than their peers.
I believe there is a lot more to do to ensure that there is a sustainable solution. I appreciate and am grateful for the support from Three and others, which are now coming together with the Government to provide some free access to broadband during this period, but there has to be a solution that is ongoing and sustainable. We need a proper national schools connectivity scheme at low or no cost, so that schools can be confident that they will be able to support all their pupils to get online.
This is indeed an unsettling time for children, and it would be hugely beneficial and easily achievable for tech firms and broadband suppliers to help children stay connected to their school and their friends. Not only will it support their learning; it will positively impact on their confidence and wellbeing.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela, especially as it is your first time in the Chair—your opening night. It is a real pleasure to be here. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for securing this timely and important debate. I must say that it was unclear whether we were going to have the debate, but for the sake of my young constituents who are struggling with home learning, I am grateful that we went ahead.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the teachers, the teaching assistants, the heads, the parents, the BBC and others for their fantastic online lessons—all supporting our children to get an education during this new lockdown. Teachers have had to redesign lesson plans at the last minute and get to grips with a new way of teaching, while maintaining standards. Although many children are still going to school—the children of key workers and others—there are thousands back at home with their parents, potentially without resources to learn.
We know that the digital divide is real, and the lockdown has identified that inequality. Many of the most disadvantaged children rely on schools and libraries to access the internet. With those closed, children and young people are now struggling to get online. The need is urgent, and I reiterate the point made by the Sutton Trust: just one in 10 schools across the country says that its pupils have access to technology. It is urgent, and it is a crisis.
As a young girl growing up on a council estate in Batley, on free school meals, I definitely would have been one of those youngsters who did not have the tech. I know the impact it would have had on my prospects. This is about lost potential. I definitely would not be standing in this place if I had had to scramble around for tech or share a mobile phone with my sister, my mum and my dad. This is a crisis for this generation.
Only last night, I received an email from Andrew Barker, a parent at my old school, Windmill Primary School, which is an outstanding, excellent school with great leadership. He asked whether I could help him and other parents source 20 recycled, used or spare devices for children who might not have access at home to learning and the devices to support it. Andrew, a software company owner, has also offered his tech support to help the school and teachers. I thank him and so many other parents around the country who are using their skills to support teachers—something that is desperately needed. As we have just heard, Ofcom and SHINE, the Leeds-based charity, have said that 1.78 million children lack access to a laptop, desktop computer or tablet. That is a seriously depressing number, given that children were already lagging behind their peers before covid. Now, after five months of missed education, they will be even further behind.
It is not just about the tech, is it? It is also about supporting the educators, the teachers, the teaching assistants and the mums, dads and carers, many of whom may not be natural teachers or may have a job to do at home while also trying to home school their children. They will need support. Leaving pupils without tech and their parents without support means the deprivation gap will only widen. Kids will suffer not just in terms of their education, prospects and future; potentially, their mental health will suffer too. A telling admission of failure was when the Education Secretary told children that if they did not have laptops at home, they could go to school, whereas the Government’s plan was to close schools to all children except vulnerable children and those of key workers.
Of course, the pledge to deliver 750,000 laptops to families without a suitable device is extremely welcome, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating—those children should have had them already. We cannot forget either that Government deliveries to special schools have not been fit for purpose. The Government have offered desktop computers to children who are not mobile and able to use desktops. Those children need tablets or smaller devices.
Councils around the country have had to step in where the Government have failed to deliver. My local authority, Kirklees, has distributed 3,857 devices since lockdown, but it decided that that was just not enough and allocated its own substantial funds to deliver tech for schools.
It is not only councils that have stepped up to the plate, but community organisations in every region and constituency—none more so than the Dons Local Action Group, the AFC Wimbledon supporters who have supplied more than 1,000 laptops during the lockdown.
There is no greater champion of access to tech than my hon. Friend. We are all enormously grateful for the work she has done, the letters she has written and the pressure she has put on the Government, so I thank her for that.
This is absolutely about social mobility. There is a correlation between children being on free school meals and their access to tech. There are more than 62,113 children on free school meals across West Yorkshire, so it is evident that the need is great, but it did not have to be that way. The Education Secretary and his Department knew that this crisis was coming. The Minister will probably point to the mutation, which caught us all by surprise, but another lockdown was predictable and scientists raised the alarm long before the new variant was identified.
Our children need care, but they also need resources. Our families need practical support. Schools need timely, realistic guidelines. We need an Education Secretary who is on top of his brief, but so far we have seen the Government continue to fail the children of Batley and Spen and West Yorkshire, whose futures and destinies depend on their leadership.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela, and I congratulate you on your damehood. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for securing this important debate.
I pay tribute to all the schools in my constituency and to the two local authorities, South Tyneside and Gateshead Councils, which reacted quickly to ensure that children and families are as supported as possible during the latest schools closure. I of course pay tribute to all the parents and carers, including my wife, who are home schooling their children at this very difficult time.
However, schools and families still face huge challenges in ensuring that every student has individual access to reliable and high-quality digital devices and the internet. This is, of course, not a new issue. The digital divide existed prior to the pandemic and left many children struggling to complete homework. The pandemic has highlighted the digital divide and other inequalities on a national scale, and effective action must now be taken to address that wide-reaching educational inequality.
Although this debate about digital exclusion among young people, alongside other things, is vital, let us not be in any doubt that it alone will deal with the deep-seated inequalities that having no face-to-face teaching creates. Online is no substitute for many, which is why it is vital that the Government ensure that pupils have guaranteed face-to-face contact time with their teachers online. Research conducted by the Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East in May 2020 showed that school closures further exposed and exacerbated the gaps in education caused by low income, and left children unable to access or engage in learning because they did not have adequate resources or an appropriate set-up at home.
It seems a long time ago now that a demand for everyone in the UK to have a right to access the internet, irrespective of income, was considered by some to be “broadband communism”. Fast forward a year and many children across the country are not able to gain access to laptops and the internet when it is so desperately needed. That is no surprise when Ofcom estimates that between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children in the UK—around 9%—do not have home access to a laptop, desktop or tablet, and more than 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point. Does she agree that, with the closure of so many libraries in our communities, we easily forget just how important access to information and knowledge is, and how so many in our communities are being isolated from that access? That is why the provision my hon. Friend is describing is so crucial.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Libraries are so important to our communities.
In June 2020, the National Education Union, the Labour party and others called on the Government to urgently address the digital divide and provide laptops for all pupils who needed one. Seven months on, that has not been properly addressed. How long does it take to order and distribute laptops?
Delivering devices alone does not fully address the issue of connectivity, with 880,000 children and young people living in a home with only a mobile internet connection. Schools have reported that take-up of additional SIM cards has been low among families in certain areas. Even with mobile companies expanding data plans, this still means that children’s learning is dependent on phone reception, which can often be unreliable or slow. That is preventing children and pupils from fully participating in lessons.
The Government’s decision to cut school laptop allocations in October last year—a decision that was fortunately eventually reversed—combined with schools previously being able to request laptops only for isolating pupils, left many schools and pupils unprepared and without the right resources to move quickly into an extended period of remote learning. Echoing much of the Government’s handling of the pandemic, this has been a story of dither, delay and indecision, and it is our children who are now paying the price. I agree with the Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East that the Government must commit to rapidly increasing the distribution timetable for the 440,000 purchased devices that are currently available to schools and ensure that every child across the country has access to a device for learning and other essential items.
The CPAG and CNE have outlined some very basic ways in which the Government could achieve that goal. First, the number of devices schools can apply for should be increased, enabling them to meet the needs of their school communities. Cash grants could be provided to parents to allow them to purchase the ICT equipment that is needed—not just laptops, but wi-fi, printers, printer ink, paper and so on—so that pupils can learn from home. Child benefit could be increased by at least £10 a week to ensure that families have enough money to meet the additional financial pressures placed on them as a result of children learning at home. Will the Minister commit to those reasonable requests, to ensure that no child is further disadvantaged by forces that are completely out of their control? Nearly one year on since the start of the crisis, the Government’s failure to deliver the digital resources for school children’s learning must not continue at this critical point in their lives.
Finally, I will turn to free school meals. I echo the concerns so eloquently outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, and add that, surely, the easiest way to ensure that children, through their parents, receive the full level of their allowance for free school meals is to use vouchers. That will allow parents to make sure that the food given to their children is nutritious and balanced and that it is food their children will eat. It will also mean that unscrupulous companies no longer benefit at the expense of our children—literally taking food from their mouths.
I would need longer than the next few minutes to express my anger at the Government’s shambolic provision of remote education for schools, but I hope that I have long enough to propose three immediate, practical, tangible actions.
The first is zero-rating, which is a mechanism to make a website freely accessible, even if the user is without data. I congratulate BT, Three, Vodafone and O2 on their work on zero-rating the Oak National Academy, and particularly BT on its work to zero-rate BBC Bitesize. The Minister must urgently encourage all other providers to follow suit.
The second is data. Families streaming online lessons on pay-as-you-go can expect charges as astronomical as £37 a day, so I welcome the free data offered by the biggest providers, but the devil is in the detail. While they are offering unlimited data to all customers in need, Sky Mobile’s offer is limited to 1,800 customers and they have to be on a monthly contract. I say to the Minister that someone’s contract cannot be boosted if they do not have a contract in the first place. The families without connectivity are not on monthly contracts. They pay as they go. Where is the offer from the likes of Giffgaff, Lebara, Lyca and Asda Mobile? We are beginning to understand that poorer people pay their bills differently. Just as they pay their gas and electricity on a key charging meter, they pay for their connectivity on a pay-as-you-go basis.
I offer all hon. Members in this debate a table that Harry and Dan in my office have put together of all the offers by all the companies. It shows that companies that overwhelmingly provide services to poorer people on pay-as-you-go make no offer at all. Even though some of the leading companies make great offers to people on contracts, they make no offers to people on pay-as-you-go.
The third action is on devices and dongles, because no matter how many websites are zero-rated or how much data is offered, remote education remains completely inaccessible to the 1.78 million children without a device. And no matter how expensive, how smart or how modern the device distributed, it is educationally useless if it comes without the data or dongle needed to connect from home. Why on earth have just 40,000 routers been delivered? In a country with free state education, how is it acceptable for remote education to be dependent on a lottery of support and for the Good Law Project to have to resort to legal action due to the poorest parents having to choose between their child’s education and their family’s health? If they do not have data or computers, they go to school.
So many Members have referred to the research from the Sutton Trust and Teach First. Just 10% of teachers report that all their students have adequate access to a device—just 5% of teachers in state schools, compared with 54% in private schools. Meanwhile, a principal in my constituency wrote to me only yesterday to tell me that an astonishing 350 children at her secondary school had to share a device in the household. I rang her to confirm, because I thought I had misunderstood. Unfortunately, I had not.
I welcome zero-rating and I thank those networks stepping up to boost contracts, but ultimately nothing replaces a teacher teaching their own pupils. It is utterly unjust that that is available to all but the poorest pupils on the wrong side of the digital divide. Every pupil receiving a laptop in the weeks ahead is a child that has been failed in the six months that they were off school without one. The Minister knows that the number provided still does not meet the need, and tens of thousands of other children will be without the connectivity they require to use the device in the first place. Stop passing the buck on to schools and teachers, and provide the data and dongles urgently needed, so that no child’s education is dependent on their internet connection.
May I congratulate you, Dame Angela, on your recognition in the new year’s honours? It was richly deserved. It is a genuine pleasure to serve with you in the Chair. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for securing this really important debate. It says a huge amount about the concern that people have about the state of education in our country at the moment that Members have travelled from right across the country to participate in this debate because it is so important. I, too, thank the House authorities for facilitating this sitting. I hope that sense will prevail and that we can find a way to have virtual participation in Westminster Hall as well as the main Chamber.
Members will know how strongly I feel about where we have got to in the education response to this pandemic and the serious challenges facing children and young people across the country, as well as parents, educators, staff and schools, who have bust a gut throughout the year to keep children learning. I am angry because it did not need to be this way. We have always said that closing schools ought to be a last resort. They should be the last to close and the first to reopen. We reached that last resort because of the Government’s failure to manage the public health crisis.
What are the lessons here? Being too slow to act leads to greater cost overall. We have seen that in terms of lives and livelihoods, and we are now seeing it clearly in terms of learning. Unless we act quickly and decisively, we all pay a greater price. It is outrageous that children and young people across the country, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, will suffer the most.
We all agree that school is the best place for children to be. That is the view of not only hon. Members who are passionate about education, but every single teacher and member of support staff across the country. Indeed, even when they were warning the Government that schools were no longer a safe place for pupils to be if we wanted to manage and contain the spread of the virus, every single union representing teaching staff, school leaders and support staff made it clear that school is the best place for children and young people to be, and we need to get on top of this virus to get them back there as quickly and safely as possible.
As we know from the Children’s Commissioner and from Ofsted, and from all the evidence from the first lockdown, that when children and young people are not in school, it is particularly the most vulnerable children we are concerned about. Even with reports of high numbers of children and young people still turning up to school this week and last week, we know that children from the most vulnerable and at-risk backgrounds are still failing to show, with serious concerns flagged for social services.
Even for children not from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, this has not been an easy time; in fact, it has been a very challenging time, as any parent would agree who is trying to juggle their work and their responsibilities around the home with educating their children at the same time. If ever there was a time to be grateful for teachers, it is right now, and parents across the country are appreciating first hand that teaching is not an easy job
Children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are the most excluded. That is what makes the Government’s failure to prepare for remote learning inexplicable and inexcusable. It is not only their competence that is in question, but their values and their ambition for pupils across the country. We know from Ofcom that around 1.8 million children are without a device to study from at home, and around 880,000 children live in households with only a mobile internet connection, with all the challenges that that presents. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), who has been an outstanding champion in highlighting the digital divide, made that clear in her powerful speech.
Why was it not a national priority to get every child online? Why did the Department for Education have a target of providing only 230,000 laptops by the end of June last year, and, worse still, why was that target missed? We now know that 700,000 laptops have been delivered in total—100,000 of them this week, so the pace is picking up. The Government have committed to 1.3 million in total, but when will those be delivered? Why does the summit of the Government’s ambition still fall short of delivering for the 1.8 million children whom we know are without a device in the home? Only 54,500 4G routers and 9,930 wi-fi vouchers had been delivered by Christmas. Why? How is that acceptable?
We know that children cannot get online. Why are we relying on the goodwill of mobile phone providers to help their customers, because that is clearly not working? As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, many of them are not even bothering to try to help their customers, so where does that leave those children from the poorest and most disadvantaged backgrounds?
Why is it that, even at the start of this term, we had reports that families and schools had not been able to order laptops for primary school pupils? Why is it that sixth-formers were not also given priority for laptops but put at the bottom of the pile? As the research published by the Sutton Trust and Teacher Tapp shows, just 10% of teachers report that all their pupils have access to a device, and that proportion has barely shifted across the entirety of the pandemic. We know that what the Government have been doing has fallen well short of the need of our children and young people.
The digital divide, of course, is not new. If one thing must come out of the pandemic, it should be an understanding that access to online services, education, resources and entertainment cannot be restricted only to those from comfortable or well-off backgrounds; everyone needs to benefit. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) raised the digital divide. There are plenty of examples of local authorities, such as Hounslow and others, that have grasped the nettle and worked hard to get their local families and citizens online. What will the Government do in the wake of the pandemic genuinely to tackle the digital divide and to ensure that we get not only every child online, but every family?
I am also really concerned about the support available for special schools. For obvious reasons, being open to their pupils presents all sorts of challenges for the safety of both the staff and the young people they serve. I know, from speaking to the heads of special schools in my constituency and across the country, that they have not felt supported by the Government, they have not felt funded by the Government, and they certainly have not felt trusted by the Government. The Government need to focus on and prioritise the provision in special schools, and to trust headteachers to make sensible decisions about managing the flows of children and young people in their school, making assessments about risk and vulnerability and ensuring that children receive the support they need—a point made well by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin).
Getting every child online is about access not just to kit but to high-quality teaching. I recognise that the Government have put in place a remote learning framework, but there is a lack of understanding of how digital education can best be delivered. It is not always about live lessons, although I know that many schools have done a great job in providing continuous online provision; it is about giving people access to high-quality lessons, which can be delivered by brilliant providers such as the Oak National Academy and the BBC, and, crucially, following up with good-quality contact time with a teacher, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow said in her fantastic speech. That has been somewhat overlooked by the metrics in the framework.
Well, that really does bring me on to the final section of my speech, which is about the performance of the Education Secretary and his leadership. I thought it was appalling, actually, to announce on the Floor of the House to parents across the land that if they were dissatisfied they should pick up the phone and ring Ofsted, without even speaking to Ofsted first. Its inboxes have been absolutely flooded, and no doubt its phones are ringing off the hook—interestingly, not so much with people ringing to complain, but with parents horrified at the heavy-handed treatment of the Government ringing to say, “I want to say thank you for the work that my school and the teachers are doing.”
There has to be a focus on standards. I strongly agree with what the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) said about the importance of education, and of consistently high-quality education. I have heard from young people themselves examples of where the standard has fallen well short of what is provided by other schools. We should make no bones about challenging that, but the Government have to support schools to provide that high-quality education.
The truth is that, while schools have bust a gut for their pupils throughout this crisis, the Secretary of State for Education has either been missing in action or actively harmful to the work that schools have been doing. He was too slow to act on funding and support, so headteachers in particular had difficult decisions to make about the funding of safety measures versus the funding of ongoing learning and teaching, particularly in the context of rising staff costs because of regular staff having to self-isolate and the need to recruit more expensive supply cover.
It is also about the lack of planning and preparation. The Opposition recognise, and have always recognised, that lots of challenges are thrown up by this pandemic that make Ministers’ lives really difficult, but when someone is a Secretary of State, particularly in a crisis like this, when they have all sorts of things coming at them and their Department, it is their job to sit around the Cabinet table, listen to what is going on, understand the spread of the virus and the challenges it poses for their Department, and look ahead, forward plan, scan the horizon, and think: “What do I need to do now to make sure that the interests governed by my Department aren’t harmed further than they need to be? What action can I take to mitigate?”
The truth is that too often the Secretary of State has not had a plan A, let alone a plan B. That was clear in the case of exams. Right now, children and young people need to know what they are working towards and they still do not. Even with the letter published this morning to Ofqual and the evidence that the Secretary of State has given to the Select Committee on Education, they still do not know quite what they are working towards.
This is a Secretary of State who announced—in fact, I think the Prime Minister gazumped him; I am not even sure that the Secretary of State knew what was going on—that exams were to be cancelled in the week when pupils were sitting BTEC exams. It is almost as if the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister had never heard of BTECs, but pupils and students were going off to sit their BTECs, wondering on one evening whether they would be invited to turn up at school or college the next day.
It seemed to me that it was only when the Government were reminded that BTECs existed that they thought to say something about it. Even then it was not a clear direction; it was up to schools and colleges. What chaos! We said to the Government long before Christmas, “You need a plan A for exams to go ahead, and they need to go ahead fairly. We know it’s difficult, but you need to try to mitigate the amount of lost learning.”
My hon. Friend is making a very important point about the chaos and confusion caused at the time of the BTEC exams in January. I had three schools that each told me something different. The first told me that it had stopped the exams, the second that they were going ahead, and the third that it was asking children to choose whether they wanted to sit them. That is utter chaos for secondary schools, all within one constituency.
I strongly agree, and it was desperately unfair on students. I think we all remember the stress of exams, however long ago they were. I cannot imagine what those students—who, on the eve of an exam for which they were preparing, were not even sure whether it would take place—have been through. It seemed that BTEC students were a total afterthought, but frankly so were all other students across the country. We said to the Government, clearly, “You need a plan A for exams to go ahead, and to go ahead fairly, but it may be, through circumstances beyond your control and the spread of the virus, that they can’t happen, so you need a plan B.”
What we see now, after the Prime Minister cancelled exams, is that not only was plan A deficient, but there was no plan B in existence. Only now are the Government scrambling to make it right. We had a hasty announcement from the Secretary of State before Christmas that there would be a working group to look at the inequalities and the challenges presented for sitting exams. That work has probably been overtaken somewhat by subsequent announcements. The fact is that we never saw the working group, never saw the membership and never saw the terms of reference. I am not sure it met. I am not sure whether it still exists or whether it is due to report. The point is that the Secretary of State should have been announcing the results, the recommendations and the actions from such a working group before Christmas, not simply announcing that he was setting one up.
Free school meals have also been an afterthought for the Government throughout the pandemic. They had to be shamed into action not just by Opposition politicians and, indeed, politicians on the Government side, but by Marcus Rashford and food poverty campaigners, yet we see just this week a repeat of the exact same debacle that we saw last March, so it is not just the case that the Government are making mistakes and oversights and are not on top of support for some of the most vulnerable children. They do not even learn from their mistakes; they just go on repeating them.
As for school closures—goodness me, Dame Angela. We have all accepted how important it is to keep schools open and to have a plan in place to achieve that. Let us just rattle through the timeline. In the final week of term, the Government were threatening to sue local authorities that were warning us that the virus was out of control and they needed support. The Secretary of State could have just picked up the phone. The Prime Minister said on 21 December that he wanted to keep schools open and they would reopen at the start of January. A plan—if we can call it a plan—was released on the last day of term for the roll-out of mass testing. Then, on 30 December, there was an announcement that primary schools in some areas would not reopen as planned. On 31 December, the Education Secretary was saying that he was “absolutely confident” that there would be no further delays in reopening, which should have been a clue that there absolutely would be. The very next day, the Secretary of State announced that all London primary schools, not just those in certain parts of the city, would remain shut to most pupils at the start of term.
On 3 January, parents were told to send primary school age children back to schools, which remained open despite growing calls to close them. Then the very next day, it was announced that they were closed, which I can tell the Minister was an absolute pain in the backside for parents who often get grandparents involved in supporting their caring responsibilities, as many grandparents said, “I’m really sorry. I would love to help, but I can’t—they’ve been back at school for a day.”
It is a total and utter shambles—the lack of forward planning, the lack of thinking ahead and the lack of any consideration about the impact that Ministers’ decisions have on the schools, the parents and the pupils, the children and young people, who have been victims of those decisions. There has been no consideration whatever.
I want to conclude by saying that, very self-evidently, this is not good enough. We have to ask serious questions about how it is, after this litany of failure, the Secretary of State is still in his office. It does not reflect well on the Prime Minister, who seems to cling to incompetence rather than challenging and tackling it. We have to be more ambitious. It should not just be the Government being ambitious for themselves and their own prospects; they should be more ambitious for our country. If we are not ambitious about the futures of children and young people, if we are not ambitious about getting every child online, and if we are not ambitious about having a national education recovery that seeks to repair the damage of more than a year of disruption to education, we really have to ask ourselves what on earth we are here for.
As the right hon. Member for Tatton said so powerfully in her speech, in so many ways throughout our history this country has led the world in the provision of education. We still have a great international reputation for the quality of our education, but there is a real risk that under the present leadership, without a serious change of course and a change in personnel, we will not see this country build on that proud history a brighter future for children and young people across the country. After the year of misery that they have had, I think we would all agree that they deserve so much better.
May I add to your embarrassment, Dame Angela, by adding my congratulations to you on your very well deserved damehood, and say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this morning? I congratulate also the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing this debate.
Education is a national priority for this Government. That is why we have endeavoured to keep schools open throughout the pandemic. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the inequality in education that existed even before the pandemic. That is why closing the attainment gap has been the driving force behind all our reforms in education since 2010, which had led to the attainment gap closing by 13% in primary schools and by 9% in secondary schools since 2011.
During this period of restricted attendance in schools, early years settings will remain open, as will schools for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. All schools and colleges in England have switched immediately to remote education for students who do not attend face-to-face provision. Preparations and expectations for that were set out in revised guidance last year.
Despite restricted attendance, lateral flow testing should continue for students and teachers who are attending schools, and from 4 January, rapid asymptomatic testing has been successfully rolled out for secondary schools and colleges, alongside weekly testing of staff and daily testing of close contacts for staff and pupils who test positive. That rapid testing programme will help to identify asymptomatic positive cases, and will further help to break the chain of transmission of the virus and minimise further disruption.
We recognise that teachers are under enormous pressure in dealing with the impact of covid-19 on their schools. I join the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington in paying tribute to staff in our schools for their enormous efforts since the beginning of the pandemic. We know that significant time in the classroom has been lost already, and that will continue as the pandemic continues. It is critical that we mitigate the impact on students of being out of school, through high-quality remote education. Most pupils are now receiving education remotely, and schools have made huge progress in developing their remote education provision, so it is right that we increase the expectations of what pupils receive.
In October, the Secretary of State issued a direction under the Coronavirus Act 2020, placing a legal duty on state-funded schools to provide remote education. In our July guidance, which was again updated last week, we set out clear expectations, including a requirement that schools provide between three and five hours of teaching a day, depending on the child’s age. Schools are now expected to provide remote education that includes either recorded or live direct teaching.
Teachers and heads have gone to enormous lengths since March to improve the quality of remote education. Ofsted’s report on visits to schools during the autumn term commended the increasing sophistication in schools’ approaches to remote education. I would, of course, be delighted to discuss with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) and the Blue Collar Conservativism group the future opportunities that online education can bring to our schools.
To support remote delivery, we are investing more than £400 million to support access to remote education and online social care. We have bought more than 1.3 million laptops and tablets, and by the end of this week we will have delivered three quarters of a million devices, more than half a million of which had been delivered by December last year. That has been a huge procurement exercise: more than 1.3 million computers bought to order on the global market.
We have targeted support at those who need it most. On top of the 1.3 million computers, schools already have 1.9 million laptops of their own and an estimated 1 million tablets, all of which can be lent to their pupils. As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) pointed out, we have partnered with mobile phone operators to deliver zero rating for the Oak National Academy and BBC Bitesize, and the free data uplifts for disadvantaged families. We are grateful to EE, O2, Sky Mobile, Smarty, Tesco Mobile, Three, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone. We continue to invite a range of mobile network operators to support the offer.
As every child and young person in the country has experienced unprecedented disruption to their education as a result of covid-19, they will need support to catch up, alongside remote education and the delivery of devices. The Government have introduced a catch-up package of £1 billion, including a catch-up premium of £650 million for all state-funded schools. Schools will be able to tailor the funding for specific circumstances and target the pupils who need it most. To support schools in making the best use of that money, the Education Endowment Foundation has published a covid-19 support guide for schools, with evidence-based approaches to catch-up for all students.
All schools should use their catch-up premium as a single total from which to prioritise support for all pupils, guided by individual need. That will often focus on pupils from deprived backgrounds, but will include other pupils, especially those facing challenges, such as those with a social worker, young carers, and those with mental health needs.
Alongside that, we have the £350 million national tutoring programme for disadvantaged pupils, which will increase access to high-quality tuition for the most disadvantaged young people, helping to accelerate their academic progress and tackling the attainment gap between them and their peers. The national tutoring programme for schools was launched in November 2020, and nearly 90,000 pupils are now confirmed to have enrolled in it. It is estimated that, this academic year, approximately 15,000 tutors will support the scheme, offering tuition to more than a quarter of a million pupils. During this academic year, the national tutoring programme is also providing funding to support small-group tuition for 16 to 19-year-olds and the improvement of early language skills for reception-age children.
We know that time out of the classroom affects disadvantaged children and young people most significantly, and the Government remain committed to ensuring that they continue to be supported. In March, we took the decision to continue to provide free school meals to eligible children while at home, and to extend that during the Easter holidays and the Whitsun half term. The national voucher scheme that we introduced has distributed some £380 million of vouchers for families, and with the prompting of Marcus Rashford we extended the voucher payments during the summer holiday, too.
During the current national lockdown, schools should continue to provide meal options for all pupils who are in school. Meals should be available free of charge to all infant pupils and pupils who are eligible for free school meals who are in school. Furthermore, we are providing extra funding to schools to ensure that they continue to support eligible children who are at home. Schools can work with their school caterer to provide food parcels, or they can consider local arrangements, such as vouchers. Schools will be able to claim for reimbursement of those additional costs. The centrally funded national voucher scheme will reopen from next week to ensure that every eligible child can access free school meal support while schools are restricted from opening to all pupils.
The quality of the food in the photographs shared on social media is totally unacceptable and does not reflect the high standard of free school meals that we expect to be sent to children. Chartwells has rightly apologised and admitted that the parcels in question were not good enough. My colleague the children’s Minister met its chief executive officer yesterday, and they assured her that they have taken immediate action to stop further deliveries of poor-quality parcels. Chartwells will ensure that the schools affected are compensated and provide additional food to the eligible children, in line with our increased funding.
Vulnerable children and young people are strongly encouraged to attend their school or college, but where a child does not attend, school absence will not be penalised. We expect schools to follow up attendance where absences are not related to covid-19, as they would normally do when schools are open. We have asked all social workers to strongly encourage those in care to attend school. Children with at least one parent or carer who is a critical worker can go to school if required, and schools should speak to parents and carers to identify who needs to go to school. If critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time, they should do so.
We know that every school will have a different number of children of critical workers who need to attend, so it is important that on-site provision is provided for those pupils. There is no limit to the number of those pupils who can attend, and schools should not limit the attendance of those groups. That is because, as the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) said, we are reducing overall social contact across areas and the country, rather than individually by each institution.
The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) raised exams. We recognise that the decision to restrict access to schools means that primary assessment cannot go ahead as intended. We will therefore cancel the statutory key stages 1 and 2 tests and the teacher assessments planned for summer 2021, including the key stage 2 tests in reading and maths. We remain determined to ensure that every young person, no matter their age or background, is provided with the education and opportunities they deserve, despite the challenges faced by schools. We know that schools will continue to use assessment during the summer term to inform teaching to enable them to give the necessary information to parents.
Yes. That will be made clear in the exchange of letters between Ofqual and the Secretary of State this morning. The hon. Gentleman will see more detail of the proposals for private candidates in the consultation document that will be jointly published by Ofqual and the Department for Education this week.
Although exams are the fairest method we have of assessing what a student knows, we cannot guarantee that all students will be in a position to sit exams fairly this summer. That is why GCSEs, and A-level and AS-level exams, will not go ahead as planned this summer. We have confirmed that we will use a form of teacher-assessed grades, with training and support provided by exam boards, to ensure that they are awarded fairly and consistently. This week Ofqual and the Department for Education will, as I have said, publish a consultation document setting out the details of the proposed arrangements for awarding grades. We have been working on those proposals for many months in anticipation that we would be in the position we are now in. There are similar proposals in relation to vocational and technical qualifications, but they are varied and different forms of assessment, and we have a separate consultation on that, to be published this week as well.
To give the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington time to respond, I will conclude by saying that we have taken the steps I have described to help to mitigate the impact of covid-19 on pupils. The measures will ensure that they can continue to have access to a high-quality education and that we shall continue to close the attainment gap across the country. I again thank and pay tribute to all our dedicated teachers, school and college leaders, and support staff for the extraordinary work that they are doing to help to minimise the impact of this terrible pandemic on the education and life chances of their pupils.
I thank everyone who has participated in today’s debate, in incredibly difficult circumstances. It is clearly an important debate, and the fact that we have been able to hold it is testament to the need for it. I guess we all share some frustration when the Chambers are not available to us, and about not holding the Government to account. The Minister is a decent person, and will understand that the concerns of the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), for example, are constructive. They may be critical, but we want the best for our children and communities. That is why it so important to have such debates.
I want to give particular recognition to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who has done such sterling leadership work on child poverty and in the education sector. I thank her, having listened to her speak in the Chamber many times. She leads the way on many fronts and is worthy of special recognition.
I shall not go through the individual contributions, but I reiterate my thanks for Members’ participation and for so many important points. I will perhaps summarise just two areas. On free school meals, I understand the Minister’s point about Chartwells and the meeting that took place yesterday, but when businesses apologise, those apologies can be cheap. There are serious amounts of money involved, and profiteering is going on to the detriment of the children and families involved. I urge that the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee should look at the issue. It is a scandal, and a blemish on the work that the Minister is doing—as the Department. I hold the Minister in good regard, but it is right that the matter should be looked at most carefully.
I want to focus on the issue of laptops and digital access. There is poverty in many parts of our modern lives, but in this day and age the idea that the sixth wealthiest nation should have digital poverty and exclusion seems quite wrong. I think back, and perhaps I can put the matter simply by framing it in this way: for a child not to have an exercise book provided by the school, or access to a textbook in class, would be wrong. The school would not allow it. We have to think differently and recognise that digital access through the internet and broadband is crucial—laptops and digital access. Therefore, it should be mandatory for the Government to provide them to every child in our schools.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for pupils’ education during school closures.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered discharges into rivers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I am pleased to have the opportunity today to discuss the issue of discharges into rivers.
My constituency of Blaydon is bounded on the north by the River Tyne, and on the south and west by the River Derwent, which marks the border with County Durham. Across the constituency, there are other inland waterways, including the River Tees. Our long industrial history has, over the years, taken its toll on our rivers, but thankfully much work has been done to make our rivers cleaner and more pleasant.
As I walk along the Keelman’s Way, alongside the River Tyne, from Clara Vale, past Ryton and Stella, to Blaydon, the river is tidal at that point. In less difficult times than the present, it is a real pleasure to see so many people enjoying the river, watching the wildlife, looking out for the seals and rowing on the river, from the rowing clubs that have grown up alongside the riverbank. At Blackhall Mill, on the County Durham border, there are green and pleasant riverbanks, enjoyed by the community.
Although Blaydon is not a coastal constituency, we can see how our rivers flow into the sea, and the vital link between the health of our local waterways and the health of our seas and oceans. Not far away from us, we have wonderful coastal beaches, so keeping our rivers clean and healthy, and free from sewage, is important to us.
Last year, I was shocked to see, in information circulated by Surfers Against Sewage, the number of discharges of sewage into rivers all over the country through combined sewage overflows. Many were permitted, but many were accidental. As Surfers Against Sewage say:
“CSOs are emergency infrastructure assets permitted to discharge untreated wastewater.”
CSOs are permitted to work only under periods defined in the original EU urban wastewater directive as “unusually heavy rainfall.” Surfers Against Sewage go on to say:
“CSOs are an essential part of our sewage infrastructure designed to prevent sewage backing up into homes when there is an extreme rainfall event.”
However, recent research by many organisations has shown that the water companies are using these CSOs alarmingly frequently. The Guardian found that water companies discharged raw sewage into the UK’s rivers 200,000 times in 2019. Surfers Against Sewage’s “2020 Water Quality” report shows that there were 2,523 coastal CSO discharges recorded in England and 387 coastal discharges in Wales between October 2019 and September 2020.
Research undertaken by the World Wildlife Fund in 2017 shows that 8% to 14% of overflows are spilling sewage into rivers at least once a week, and between a third and a half at least once a month. Continued population growth and more extreme events caused by climate change will only increase the pressure on existing infrastructure.
Research undertaken by the Rivers Trust in my constituency mapped the locations where combined sewer overflows, operated by Northumbrian Water, have discharged into water courses in the constituency or in upstream catchment areas, which flow into the rivers Tyne and Derwent. The Rivers Trust research shows that in 2018 there were 109 storm overflows, with 1,383 spills. The duration of spill hours was 3,219, with the worst performing site for spill duration being Hamsterley Mill pumping station’s Riverview CSO, discharging 56 spills over 539 hours into the Derwent.
That is sewage flowing into our rivers, reducing our water quality and ability to safely enjoy our inland waterways. An increasing number of people across the UK, and in my constituency in particular, are using our waterways for recreational purposes, whether that be swimming, kayaking or canoeing. That they should be partaking in activities in water of low quality is a major public and ecological health concern. The larger the amount of discharge, the larger the likelihood of contracting viruses or harmful illnesses, and the presence of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.
It is not right or acceptable. We need to find new and effective ways to stop CSOs and discharges into rivers. We must also find better ways of improving our sewerage infrastructure, so that sewage cannot back up into homes when we have extreme rainfall events. That is why I welcome the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, a private Member’s Bill tabled by the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), which is due for its Second Reading on 22 January, although I fear it may be lost, following our deferred vote later today. That is why I am especially pleased that I am able to speak about it now.
The Bill would place a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is no longer discharged into England’s inland waters. It would require water companies to set out plans to progressively reduce their reliance on combined sewer overflows. It would also ensure increased transparency, as firms would be mandated to report publicly on the number, condition and quality of the sewage discharged from CSOs and any other sewage catchment assets.
In addition, the proposed new law would require the Government to investigate further steps that can be taken by stakeholders, such as the Environment Agency, to improve water quality. That could include designating at least two inland bathing waters every year to drive forward standards and set legally binding targets to increase the number of bathing waters classified as good or excellent.
Until we have such a law, it is right for each one of us to work with our local water companies and other stakeholders to press for improvements locally. I am pleased to say that, on receiving the information from Surfers Against Sewage last year, I contacted the chief executive of Northumbrian Water, Heidi Mottram, to raise my concerns about discharges affecting the rivers in my constituency. At the end of last year, I met with officers of Northumbrian Water and Ceri Gibson, chief executive of the Tyne Rivers Trust, to discuss the current position locally and to look at how they could reduce the number of discharges.
Northumbrian Water is already working to reduce these incidents, and I was very glad to hear of further plans to work towards zero discharges. I thank Northumbrian Water for its positive approach to our discussions and the commitment to work further on reducing discharges, and I will continue to follow up on this issue. I know that my constituents who take a keen interest in environmental issues will also be looking out for further progress. I thank Ceri Gibson, chief executive of Tyne Rivers Trust, for her help and look forward to working with her, and the trust, in the future.
At this stage, I want to mention Northumbrian Water’s “Bin the wipe” campaign, because what we put down the loo makes a difference to our sewerage system and to what is discharged into our rivers and seas. Too many wet wipes and other items are claimed to be flushable, but while they may flush away from our loos, they are not biodegradable. They create huge problems in the sewerage system, contribute to the growth of fatbergs and cause problems down the line. These days, we are probably all using many kinds of wipes to sanitise our work places and stations, so it is important that we get the “Bin the wipe” message over. I invite the Minister to join me. It is part of the broader issue of CSOs too.
The Environment Agency has an important part to play in dealing with CSOs, of course. Many of these incidents are permitted. The Environment Agency has a responsibility to follow up on incidents and to take action to reduce and eliminate CSOs, permitted or not. That is why it was worrying to read about Environment Agency funding concerns in The Times on 28 December.
“The state of the environment in England is getting worse and waste criminals are taking advantage of a lack of enforcement to dump pollutants, the Environment Agency has admitted in a letter to the environment secretary. Emma Howard Boyd, the agency’s chairwoman, wrote to George Eustice in August saying that more people and businesses were failing to be prevented from breaking the law and that serious pollution incidents had risen. She said the agency’s ‘capacity to visit and tackle polluting businesses is now significantly reduced’ and that it ‘now has only the resources to attend the most serious environmental incidents’. Key indicators of environmental health are flatlining or deteriorating, with serious incidents up 27 per cent between 2017 and 2018, she said. The letter, obtained under freedom of information laws, also said that ‘water company performance, which had been improving for most of the last decade, has now gone into reverse, with more pollution incidents last year than in previous years, for which we and the government are being increasingly heavily criticised’.”
What are the Government doing to ensure that the Environment Agency is properly funded to play its part in reducing CSOs and to carry out the rest of its hugely important work?
I was also concerned to read in The Independent last year of a speech made by the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, who in August called for less rigorous measures to determine water quality in England’s rivers, lakes and beaches after Brexit, which he said would allow the Government to classify more water bodies as high standard. Where are the Government in all of this? We need to hold water companies to account. We are in a climate and ecological emergency and our biodiversity is in a dire situation. With COP26 coming up, we need bold leadership and action, not to crawl back on standards.
Here are my asks of the Minister. First, end sewage discharges into rivers. It is high time we put an end to this practice and improve the water quality of our rivers. Will she require all water companies to take real action to resolve this issue? Secondly, increase funding to the Environment Agency to properly monitor, investigate and take enforcement action on any incidents. Thirdly, commit to not watering down environmental regulations —we need to up our ambitions for improving our environment, not lower standards. Fourthly, we have to change the approach taken by the Government and regulators to future environmental challenges if we are to meet them. Fifthly, as Northumbrian Water says, we have to “Bin the wipe”. We must create enforceable standards, so that manufacturers cannot make misleading claims, and in the meantime make sure the public know that flushable does not mean biodegradable.
In this year of COP26, we should really be making an effort to improve water quality in our rivers and oceans. I hope the Government will rise to the challenge.
It is a pleasure to be here with you this morning, Dame Angela, albeit with a very small crowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing the debate on this important issue. She painted a fine picture of her constituency—the River Tyne, the wonderful wildlife and the value that they have for local people, especially at this time. People now realise how important our river landscapes can be for our health and wellbeing. I thank her for bringing this subject to us, because water quality is dear to my heart. As the Environment Minister, I am doing a great deal of work on it, particularly on issues relating to sewage discharges, as I will explain. I hope she will see that I am putting this subject under the microscope in various ways.
We have been given a lot of information about the damaging impacts of uncontrolled sewage discharges into local rivers and streams. River health and the impact of sewer overflows is an absolute priority for me as the Environment Minister, and I am absolutely determined to take action on it. In my view, it has been overlooked for far too long, and it needs to rise right up the agenda. The debate gives me a great opportunity to talk about some of the related issues.
It is clear from what the hon. Member says that this issue is really important to local people, too—not just Surfers Against Sewage, which has gathered some really valuable data, including about the coast of the west country, where I come from. It has been working on this problem for years and should be commended for its work.
I will first describe some of the challenges that we face in resolving the problem of excessive sewage discharges. Without adequate treatment, wastewater discharges into our rivers can have serious impacts on the natural environment can cause long-lasting damage to the ecosystem. There is even a potential risk to human health—the hon. Member mentioned the water-borne bacteria and viruses—so effective treatment of wastewater at wastewater treatment works is vital.
Before wastewater reaches the treatment works, there are storm overflows within the sewerage system, which the hon. Member mentioned. Storm overflows were a design feature of Victorian sewers—they date back a very long way. They are still being used, and they remain an integral part of our infrastructure today. Many of our sewer systems are combined systems, wherein sewage is combined with rainwater, and following heavy and prolonged rain the capacity of those systems can be exceeded. When that happens, the storm overflows act as a relief valve to discharge excessive sewage, combined with rainwater, into our rivers and the sea. The idea is to protect properties from flooding and prevent the unpleasant backing up of sewage in the system into our streets and homes during heavy storms. Reliance is increasing on the storm overflows, however, largely due to escalating population growth and the consequent urban development, together with more frequent storms due to climate change and more frequent sudden weather events. All that is putting more pressure on our sewerage system and increasing the use of storm overflows.
Eliminating the harm from overflows will be challenging. It would involve disruption and high costs, which would impact on customers’ bills, but recognising the scale of the challenge is the first step towards addressing it. That is what the hon. Member has highlighted today, and that is what I am working on. We are fully committed to bringing at least three quarters of our waters closer to their natural state as soon as is practicable. That is why over £30 billion has been invested by the water industry since 1990 to protect the environment, covering improvements in sewage treatment and sewage overflows. As a result, we have seen improvements in our water quality over the years, as the hon. Member recognises. I am pleased to say that we have already achieved a 67% reduction in the amount of phosphorous in our rivers, and a 79% reduction in the amount of ammonia discharge from sewage treatment works since 1995.
Around 98% of our urban areas are now in compliance with the waste water treatment regulations’ standards, and in 2019, around 98% of our bathing waters met at least the minimum standard of the bathing water directive. Of those, 71% were classified as excellent, which is the highest water quality standard. Ofwat has also allocated £4.6 billion to water companies for the 2020-25 period to improve the water environment, and water companies plan to spend this money. Already, many have jointly committed £1.1 billion specifically to tackle storm overflows. That means that in every single water company region in England, investment is being made to address the problem we are discussing.
We are also making progress on understanding the scale of the problem. Water companies have installed event duration monitoring technology on the majority of storm overflows to improve our understanding of when storm overflows discharge sewage, and to trigger investigations and improvements when overflows operate too frequently. Increasingly, as the hon. Lady said, members of the public want to know more about their local environment and the pressures on it. We need to do more to make this information on storm overflows available to people in a consistent and user-friendly way. Indeed, I have received a great amount of correspondence regarding issues with storm overflows from people all around the country and MPs on every side of the House. However, we need the right data on that: water companies are already collecting lots of information and making it available, but I would like to see more progress in this area.
I have outlined a lot of the positives, but despite the improvements that have been put in place, I know that if we do not take further action reliance on storm overflows will increase, as will the number of sewage discharges from storm overflows across the country. We need to plan carefully, while also making sure that every step provides good value for money and leads to better outcomes—outcomes that mean more people enjoying our lakes and rivers, the sea, and the beautiful coast that the hon. Lady described. That is why, through the Government’s Environment Bill, I am placing a statutory obligation on sewerage companies to make drainage and sewerage management plans. A key objective of these plans is to ensure better management of sewage discharges into our waterways. Interestingly, water companies have had to have plans for their water—what comes out of taps—but not for sewage. Now, they will have to, and I think that is going to be really important in tackling this issue.
I recognise there is a strong desire to make even wider and faster progress. As such, last August, I set up the taskforce on storm overflows. consisting of Government regulators, water companies and environmental NGOs, in an attempt to bring together all the key stakeholders—the people who are affected by this issue and can influence this space. Our taskforce is developing clear proposals for achieving a transformation in sewage treatment and management for the benefit of us all. It will explore what actions could be taken, building on the findings of a research project, and will report back on what actions it believes ought to be taken. That will add a great deal more detail to what we want to do. I have also recently met with the CEOs of the water companies, basically to rattle their cage: to say we need more, and serious, action on tackling water quality, and that they must reduce the use of these overflows in extreme weather. In addition to that, the Environment Bill sets a legally binding duty on us to set targets, so we will be setting targets to do with water quality.
The hon. Lady touched on the private Member’s Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for—
I was going to say Ledbury—almost the right part of the world. I have had an awful lot of discussions with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) about that Bill. Obviously, dates are changing now for Friday sittings and private Members’ Bills, but I and my officials are continuing to discuss it with him. Of course, he raises some very good issues.
On wet wipes, and the “Bin the wipe” message, the hon. Member for Blaydon raises a great subject. I am fully supportive of her. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been working with the water industry and the wet wipe industry to improve labelling and consumer information, and even to come up with a “fine to flush” standard, so that if a manufacturer comes up with a wet wipe, to meet the standard of being okay to flush it has to be biodegradable and the manufacturer must prove that it does not do any damage to the environment. I fully support her on that, because we can do something about it.
The Environment Agency has a framework for all its monitoring. The hon. Lady is somewhat critical of the EA, but it has a legal framework for enforcing environmental legislation and working with the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Obviously, I will continue to hold their feet to the fire as the Minister, because we rely on their reporting back.
Yes, of course it does, and the EA is funded. There is a framework through which it operates, but of course if we can stop the storm overflows being used so much and we can work with the farming community to reduce the pollutants that they release into the water space, all of those things will help to reduce overall pollution.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for introducing this debate on sewage discharges and the impact on water quality. I hope that I have conveyed to her that it is a subject that I am taking extremely seriously and working on. Measures are being put in place. I urge her to keep up her work, too, because the more of us who work on it the more success we will have.
Of course environmental standards are crucial, as is the monitoring that goes into informing us about what is happening in the water space. We have left Europe now, as she knows, but that does not mean that we will in any way reduce our environmental standards—indeed, I believe that we can strengthen them. We can have much more bespoke systems for the whole environmental space.
I hope that the Government have demonstrated, even in the past couple of months, how much we are putting the environment at the top of the agenda. Even in this very difficult time for us all, we have committed to protecting 30% of our land space and 30% of our waters. A raft of measures and our green recovery challenge fund demonstrate that the Government are putting the environment and all that that encompasses right at the top of the agenda. I thank the hon. Lady again for raising the subject.
Question put and agreed to.
[Esther McVey in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered online anonymity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who originally intended to lead this debate. I am pleased to step in this afternoon but saddened that we will not hear from him on this important subject.
We need to debate if and how Government could and should tackle anonymity online. We must do so, as the public are already living through the hate and misinformation in debate on a daily basis. If we do not tackle anonymity, the horror, the suicides, the bullying, racism and misogyny as well as people being put off jobs and democracy being undermined will continue unchecked. In 2021, the public expects proper leadership on tech.
An Ofcom report last year said that the average adult spends 4.2 hours a day online, with children spending even more time on their screens. Since the covid lockdown required us to work, play and learn online, I expect that the average daily screen time has shot up even more across all demographics. Yet, bizarrely, using tech more is not increasing confidence. More than three quarters of UK adults express a concern about going online, and fewer parents feel the benefits of being online outweigh the risks for their children, with the proportion falling from 65% in 2015 to 55% in 2019.
Research shows that 47% of children and teens say they saw content that they wish they had not seen during the first lockdown. Tech companies know that but have failed to do enough to protect people. What is the impact of the internet being the wild west at home? When children want a social media account, it is trolls, hate, abuse, bullying and exposure to criminality that keeps parents up at night, not their kids’ ability to express themselves freely. When smart individuals consider going into public office, journalism or for a promotion that that will be media facing, they will hesitate and perhaps not apply, as they have seen somebody’s appearance, voice, height and intelligence eviscerated on Twitter.
During the pandemic, families must work out whether what they are reading is credible or from covid deniers and anti-vaxxers, and we constantly have to undo the damage that scammers cause. Governments around the world are dealing with the impact of online actors who are attempting to subvert the democratic processes. Anonymity is, of course, not the sole cause of all these problems and, in some important circumstances, it enables people to speak freely to protect themselves or the public. Freedom of expression is integral to our society. However, if people are asked whether anonymity is a big problem online, the answer will be yes. The Minister might say that anonymous nasties will be dealt with by the coming online harms legislation. The Government will legislate to require social media platforms to take more effective actions against abuse, whether that is anonymous or not. That is quite right and there is much to praise in the Government’s White Paper. The focus on protecting children and empowering adults to stay safe online is incredibly important. The ministerial online harms work, though overdue, is to be commended.
I do not believe the proposed Bill goes far enough on a range of issues. The White Paper barely addressed the issue of anonymity, despite accepting in the document that anonymous abuse is on the rise. I was also surprised to note that the Government’s consultation did not specifically ask about anonymous abuse. That was a missed opportunity. Most men and women on the Clapham omnibus would expect Government to address anonymity fully when considering online harms. That said, respondents to the consultation told the Government what they thought anyway. The paper says,
“Respondents put forward arguments both for and against preserving online anonymity, particularly in regard to protecting the identity of those individuals who flag harmful content.”
It would be useful to know more about respondents’ comments about anonymity to this and other Government consultations. We should consult properly on this subject.
The new legislative framework for tech companies will create a duty of care to their users. The legislation will require companies to prevent the proliferation of illegal content and activity online, and ensure that children who use their services are not exposed to harmful content. As it stands, the tech companies do not know who millions of their users are, so they do not know who their harmful operators are, either. By failing to deal with anonymity properly, any regulator or police force, or even the tech companies themselves, will still need to take extensive steps to uncover the person behind the account first, before they can tackle the issue or protect a user.
The Law Commission acknowledged that anonymity often facilitates and encourages abusive behaviours. It said that combined with an online disinhibition effect, abusive behaviours, such as pile-on harassment, are much easier to engage in on a practical level. The Online Harms White Paper focuses on regulation of platforms and the Law Commission’s work addresses the criminal law provisions that apply for individuals. It is imperative, in my view, that the Law Commission’s report and proposals are fully debated prior to the online harms Bill passing through Parliament. They should go hand in hand.
Standing in Parliament, I must mention that online abuse is putting people off going into public service and speaking up generally. One reason I became interested in this subject was the awful abuse I received for daring to have a baby and be an MP. Attacking somebody for being a mum or suggesting that a mum cannot do this job is misogynistic and, quite frankly, ridiculous, but I would be lying if I said that I did not find some of the comments stressful and upsetting, particularly given I had just had a baby.
Is there a greater impediment to freedom of expression than a woman being called a whore online or being told that she will be raped for expressing a view? It happens. It happens frequently and the authors are often anonymous. Fantastic groups like 50:50 Parliament, the Centenary Action Group, More United and Compassion in Politics are tackling this head on to avoid men and women being put off running for office. One of the six online harm asks from Compassion in Politics is to significantly reduce the prevalence and influence of anonymous accounts online.
It is also worth looking at cases where anonymity is not abusive, just bizarre or mean. These people often fly just on the right side of not committing a crime, so it cannot be touched, but they are no less stressful, damaging or awful to deal with. For example, last week I posted a picture of my nephew Rhys on social media. Some hon. Members may have seen it. I did this with my sister’s permission, I add, because she is stronger than I am. Rhys has Down’s syndrome and is clinically vulnerable. I wanted to show the happy face of a young man who had just had his first vaccination in Berkshire—not in my patch. I wanted to do this partly to praise the NHS and Government teams, which are doing such an awesome job of rolling out the vaccine, and to show that as the vaccine programme moves forward, it is not just elderly people who are receiving protection.
An anonymised account—interestingly, called “The truth”—immediately called foul. Within a few tweets, I had been accused of pulling rank and helping my family to jump the queue. They said that there is no lowness that Tories will go to. “The truth”—he, she or bot—copied in LBC journalists, a barrister, Piers Morgan, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). Was that to bring me down? I do not know. It was bizarre.
I personally feel sorry for “The truth”—the account, not the truth itself—and I did not personally feel stressed by that. However, others may not feel the same. Anyone, in my view, who can look at the smiling face of a young disabled person and immediately feel negative, angry or want to make political points is a very sad individual, but I will never know what damage that account has done by attempting to discredit the vaccination system and an elected Member of Parliament.
Millions of anonymous accounts spend all day sending messages that are not abusive, but also not true, in full knowledge that other mad people will join in with them. This can be debilitating for people to deal with. It causes a lot of stress. We know that such behaviour would not be acceptable offline and the people behind anonymous accounts would rarely say these things to our faces in person; it is also not okay online.
In conclusion, I think we agree that decisive action needs to be taken against racism, antisemitism, misogyny and other forms of hate crime. What is illegal offline should be illegal online. On anonymous accounts, I am not convinced that we must put up with the downsides because of the advantages. The application of anonymity in the context of whistleblowing, to an investigative journalist or to an authority has little in common with anonymity that deliberately destabilises, attacks people and whips up emotions on social media.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister, but I am not convinced at this stage that the Government have done enough to investigate this matter. I do not feel that they have done enough to understand the public’s views, to pressurise tech companies to take action or to give users all the choices to have anonymity-free social media experiences, if that is what they want. Some people love to use anonymous accounts and some people love to follow them. They should probably be allowed to do that, but let us give people the choice. As I said at the start, if we do not tackle anonymity, the horror, the suicides, the bullying, the racism, the misogyny and people being put off jobs will continue unchecked. We have the tech to do it and it can be done, so let us do it.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey.
I thank the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing the debate and his excellent stand-in, the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), for a compelling and comprehensive introduction to why we are debating this subject today and why we need to take more action. As she said, we now live in a world where online interaction plays an ever more important role in our lives. It seems likely that when we get some normality back, online communication will still play a huge role, particularly in the world of politics.
I confess that I use Twitter. If I were not a politician, I probably would not, but it is a useful way to get a message across to a wide audience, as quickly as possible. I start from the basis that anything that helps us to communicate with the world has to be a good thing, but that has its downsides. As we have heard, it is a cesspit of abuse, hate and harassment that would not be acceptable in any other walk of life. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, that has real-life consequences. The appalling statistic that she read out, about 47% of teenagers having seen something they wish they had not seen during the first lockdown, is concerning and something that we should be looking to stamp out. She described it as the wild west; that is a thought that has crossed my mind a few times, because it seems that, like the wild west, there are no rules, no norms and no standards. That is surely not what we want to see in what should be a positive thing for the whole world.
I get a bit of abuse directed at me, like every Member, I suspect. It is nowhere near the appalling level that some Members get. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, most of the Members who get the worst abuse are women, because these trolls are often misogynist and prejudiced. They use their anonymity to project their hate on to those people. I do not mind a bit of robust debate; that is what democracy needs, but, as we saw over the pond last week, there is a line that can have serious consequences when crossed.
In my mind, there is a correlation between some of the most extreme abuse online and the anonymity of its authors. They say things they would not dream of saying to somebody’s face, and they do it behind a cloak of anonymity because they are cowards. They are inadequate people. I imagine that if the people who received the abuse read it back to them, they would feel ashamed of what they had said. They say things that they would not dream of saying to a person’s face because they have the security of a keyboard and a monitor in front of them, which seems to mean to them that there is no limit to what they can say.
Because everything online is there for us all to see, it has an impact—on occasion, a devastating one, as we have head. It is the modern equivalent of taking out a full-page advert in a newspaper. It is my view that when people are given platforms, the providers of those platforms have a responsibility to ensure that they are not abused.
I will give an example of someone who tends to post abusive posts to me most days, usually in reply to a tweet I have sent. I am not going to give them the oxygen of publicity that they obviously desperately crave by repeating what they say, but when I see those tweets they are often lies, usually highly defamatory ones. I click on the report button on Twitter, so that they are aware of my objections. Regrettably, I end up having to report that person’s tweets most days. Do I ever get any kind of response from Twitter? No, I do not. I do not know whether hon. Members have ever tried to speak to someone at Twitter or even find an email address, but it seems that it specialises in not making itself approachable. For a communications company, it is pretty awful at communicating with people who want to talk to it.
That is the point: it seems that Twitter is indifferent to the problems that its platform creates. Yes, on a few high-profile occasions it acts, but the majority of the time the most heinous lies, the most disgusting abuse and the worst forms of harassment carry on unchecked because there are no consequences for it as an organisation. If it were a newspaper, it would be sued continually and would have gone bankrupt a long time ago, but because our laws are yet to catch up with the technology, it continues to be a vehicle for lies and abuse. I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud: there needs to be much stronger regulation. The amount of fake news that has been spread during the coronavirus outbreak should be the prompt for us no longer to delay introducing the legislation we need to create some kind of accountability for the consequences of the words transmitted by these platforms.
Finally, I just want to say something about how we conduct ourselves, because we have a role in this. We must take a lead and be responsible. I have to say that the way debates are conducted in this place is always respectful and courteous. Of course, people occasionally lose their cool, but there is always an apology afterwards. That should be the standard that we want to see outside this place—not just for ourselves but for everyone involved in politics. When we see those standards slip, we should not hesitate to call it out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Ms McVey. I look forward to doing so on many further occasions. I thank the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this exceptionally important debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) for her opening remarks, which were more than those of a stand-in. They set out the concerns and the personal experience really well and illustrated why this is such an exceptionally important topic to debate. I am sure that many more Members would be here had it not been for the confusion about whether this debate would be taking place. I know that this is an issue of personal, professional and constituency concern to many Members on both sides of the House; it is not a party-political issue.
I want to start by citing the right hon. Member for East Hampshire, who is aware of the challenge of online anonymity for bullying and negative self-perception among young people. He has spoken often about that, and he noted that in 2018 the OECD found that English schools have the highest reported rates of cyber-bullying out of 48 countries. As we debate online anonymity today, we have to keep in mind the deeply troubling human impact that anonymous presence online can have, not least on our young people.
The Government ought to know about the challenge of online anonymity, because their own Commission for Countering Extremism published academic work in 2019 that noted:
“Increased anonymity is associated with increased extremist …language”
on Twitter and YouTube. Tackling abuse and extremism online must mean tackling the worst parts of anonymity online.
We do not have to rely on academic work or the OECD to know the pain and harm that online anonymity can cause. The hon. Member for Stroud set out some of her experiences, and I would just like to say how sorry I was to hear of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) set out some of his experiences with Twitter, and it is highly regrettable—it is not the first time I have heard it—that Twitter does not take complaints from Members of Parliament or members of the public seriously enough.
Just last month, we heard the strong testimony of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), who highlighted over 90,000 posts aimed at her. Many were antisemitic, misogynistic and ageist, and many were posted by people hidden behind anonymous screens. We know from several colleagues, from the valuable testimony of groups such as the Antisemitism Policy Trust, and from painful personal experience that online anonymity too often accompanies online abuse. Like almost all Members of Parliament, I have experienced abuse online, particularly when I dare to say something that some people might consider to be controversial. I have never been able to find out who was behind the most violent instances of such abuse.
As the Government note, there can be trade-offs in regulating online anonymity. Anonymity can be a shield for brave whistleblowers, for victims finding online refuge, or for children and minorities finding courageous self-expression. We must not forget that the internet and social media applications have many positive consequences for people who can use them. They are free and widely available, and they allow communication across generations, geography, countries and all kinds of barriers. Simply banning online anonymity is unlikely to be workable or desirable. We have to be sensitive to the trade-offs here. Protecting privacy is as much a priority in those cases as protecting against harm is in abuse cases.
However, I would say to the Minister that inaction is the worst trade-off of them all. The Secretary of State said:
“It is a challenging area, this point about anonymity,”
and that the Government will do nothing on it in the proposed online safety Bill,
“But of course we will continue to keep it under review.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2020; Vol. 686, c. 157.]
The Government are evading tough trade-offs altogether. That inaction means turning a blind eye to misinformation online. It means a failure to look at victims of abuse online—young people, minority communities and our fellow Members of Parliament—and a failure to assure them that we will do better by them. It is a failure to stand by the victims in these horrendous examples.
It does not have to be this way. Protecting whistleblowers does not need to come at the cost of protecting people who perpetrate abuse. We could do things differently. Indeed, there are already legal provisions that seek to balance anonymity and online responsibility. Norwich Pharmacal orders, or NPOs, can help obtain the identity of a party in court cases where there is alleged wrongdoing. The regulations in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 give public authorities the ability to access communications data for potential criminal investigations. As we know, however, the sheer scale of online abuse and extremism means that there is more that we could and should do.
This is not a new issue. As I may have said in the past, my background before coming into Parliament was working in technology, particularly on the networks that now form the internet, for 20 years. The rights and wrongs of anonymity on the internet is a question that is as old as the internet itself, which we should remember is now decades old—it is no longer a rebellious teenager.
Three years ago, I attended a conference held by Ditchley on our rights and responsibilities on the internet, and the right to identity was a particular issue. One of the things that I want to emphasise to the Minister is that, as well as considering the right to anonymity on the internet, we must also consider the right to identity. For example, people should be able to prove who they are when they need to. Companies, services and Governments have a right to ask for identity in certain circumstances, as we do in the physical world. Anonymity should not be treated as a zero-sum concept, but should be qualified by the question, “Anonymous to whom and for how long?”
In real life, we can walk through a crowd without the people around us knowing who we are, but we accept that we are not permanently anonymous. If, for example, a police officer has a reason to review CCTV footage of the area, or we go into a bar and look young enough that we are asked about our age, we may be asked to prove our identity. We would not expect to be able to take out a loan or mortgage without proving our identity. Different degrees of anonymity apply to different situations in the real world. Why should we not reveal on the internet as much of our identity as is appropriate to the situation?
In some ways, as well as a question of principle, this is a question of design, on the way in which permissions and information are required and set out for applications on the internet. It is up to the Government to support a debate about how a spectrum of identity and anonymity should be implemented. A key aim should be to increase the friction that cyber-criminals face when pursuing crime. I do not think anyone is arguing that putting in place identity requirements and appropriate measures to support identification will end cyber-crime or cyber-abuse, but it would increase the friction associated with the crime, and that would help to reduce it.
We should consider a number of areas to address that, some of which have already been raised by the hon. Member for Stroud and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. We should consider a requirement for companies to know their customers’ identities. Contrary to the Government’s position, requiring users to selectively share their identities with online platforms does not mean that users share their identities with the world at large. Platforms can still protect users’ anonymity on the public platform while having direct access to their identities in the event of harmful behaviour.
We know that the business model of a lot of online tech giants is based on sharing and utilising user information commercially. Does that not show that there must be a way of getting enough information on individuals? The information does not need to be circulated, but that shows that it can be found.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and one that I was just about to make by citing the “know your customer” verification requirements in financial institutions, which are part of efforts to prevent money laundering, for example.
Financial institutions, although they have improved immensely in technology over the past few years, are nowhere near as knowledgeable as the great tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google in scooping up and managing data, although they tell us that they manage the data in privacy-conscious ways. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, their business models are driven by access to data. There are real concerns about the consolidation and monopoly control of data, which are not within the remit of this debate, but, as he suggests, the idea that these organisations cannot obtain and protect effectively the identity of their users is clearly ridiculous.
Such checks would not even require platform companies to hold user identity data themselves. Instead, as in financial services, secure, expert identity verification services could allow users to share only aspects of their identity—the minimum required to access online platforms. Again, anonymity would be guaranteed relative to other users. The fact that my bank did a “know your customer” check would not mean that my bank data was suddenly accessible to other customers. I think we accept that principle. At the same time, identity would be available to relevant law enforcement authorities in the event of suspected wrongdoing. The very act of requiring a “know your customer” check would also deter malicious agents from using the cloak of anonymity and would therefore increase the friction in the system.
As a complement to those ideas, we could require platform companies to put up deterrents against abuse and harm, ensuring that customers know that their identity could be shared with law enforcement agencies in the event of wrongdoing. I know that the Minister’s online safety legislation, which is in development, will put a duty of care on the large platforms. Perhaps she will tell us why she does not feel a more proactive duty to prevent and deter harm and abuse would not be appropriate, as it would require platforms to know their customers.
It is important to recognise that people are always customers. Even if those who use Twitter and Facebook are not paying for the service, they are still customers and are effectively paying in an exchange of data, so I feel that the model of “know your customer” is particularly appropriate. We could also consider imposing appropriate forms of liability on companies in the event that they are unable to provide identity information where courts and law enforcement require it.
None of those policies would obstruct the privacy of whistleblowers, children expressing themselves or victims finding solace and solidarity online. None of them would require companies to identify customers on their platforms to other customers. Some of them would not even require companies to have the identity data themselves, allowing the possibility of secure identity solutions held outside of these companies. Some of them are likely to be practices that already happen, but voluntarily and not systematically.
The point is not to pursue one specific policy. The point is for the Government to have a consultation and a debate that sets out policies that achieve those objectives, with a robust set of sophisticated digital identity options that can be statutorily enforced. Inaction, which is the Government’s current default of delaying action in this area, is a choice that evades trade-offs, avoids actions and lets victims down, so I ask the Minister to use this moment to tackle online anonymity head-on. We must grasp this opportunity, and to do so we must answer three questions.
First, what is the right identity verification required to place on online platforms with user-generated content? Can we ensure that those cover what might be needed for effective action against illegal and, in some instances, harmful behaviour? How can those requirements on platform companies have impact, with the right mix of incentives and sanctions for companies?
Secondly, how can we ensure that those online platforms are best co-ordinated with law enforcement authorities, where needed? Should Ofcom’s oversight of platforms’ duty-of-care performance cover how effectively companies work with law enforcement authorities? I understand, for example, that Twitter charges law enforcement officials to provide information on the identity of its users. Will the Minister verify that?
Thirdly, what confidence do we have in the jurisdictional coverage of existing and potential identity verification requirements? Do those apply to the range of internationally headquartered and popular platforms, or are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter able to evade coverage as a result of country-of-origin principles?
I hope that the Minister will answer those questions, as the right answers could materially improve our public sphere and address the examples of online harm and abuse that have been raised in this debate. Platforms would be able to verify users easily, law enforcement authorities could pursue justice appropriately, those hiding online abuse behind anonymity would be deterred and, most of all, users would navigate online platforms with far greater assurance of no abuse or extremism.
With that final point, I will close, because the pandemic has demonstrated that our lives are lived online to an extent never before seen. Even when we return to social contact—we all hope soon—as opposed to social distance, the internet, the web and social media platforms will continue to play a greater part in our lives. The hon. Member for Stroud set out the enormous increase in online activity that we have seen as a consequence of the pandemic. I want my constituents to be able to have trust and confidence online, and in those they meet and engage with online. I want them to feel secure in their online and digital lives, because without that they will be handicapped and prevented from engaging as full citizens in what is increasingly a digital world. I ask the Minister to ensure that that digital world is as safe for everyone as the real world is.
It is a great pleasure, Ms McVey, to serve under your stewardship for the first time—I hope the first of many. I wish to put on the record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing the debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) for taking the baton so brilliantly and moving the debate forward.
Anonymous abuse online is such an important issue, and one that the Government and I take incredibly seriously. I feel that the Government’s work on online harms is more important now than ever, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud articulated, the online world, the digital world, has been very much the solution to so many of our problems since the outbreak of the pandemic. It has enabled us to learn online, to work online, to socialise online and to be entertained online, but it has also been the cause of a whole range of problems. That is what we need to seek to protect people against through our online harms work.
I also put on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud for standing up to some of the dreadful abuse that she has received online—for committing the awful crime of becoming a mother. It just goes to show the depths to which people will stoop to undermine our democratic way of life. In fact to operate much more democratically and better represent the people of this country we should of course have representatives among everyone, across society, including mums. The fact that she should be attacked for that is outrageous and I thank her for sharing her experiences with us so we can understand the depths to which some people will stoop, to prepare their own particular barbs. I also loved the post that she shared about her nephew, Rhys, a very joyful photograph of somebody who had just had a vaccination. Please do not ever let these dreadful people stop her making such posts, because I think they give heart and encouragement, and sustain others through an incredibly difficult period of time.
The Government recognise that there are users who hide behind this veil of anonymity to abuse others online. A minority of internet users rely on anonymity to spout hatred to, at the moment, spread anti-vax content—I have just come from a meeting about that—and to encourage dreadful things: to encourage others to self-harm or take their life. There are people up and down this country—I have spoken to the parents of young people—who have been put through the most extreme misery and have even taken their lives as a result of that, and I know that Members of Parliament are not immune in any way from such abuse from anonymous individuals. In fact, it happens across a range of different parts of society.
As, I think, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said, in the first half of 2020, the Community Security Trust recorded an increase in online antisemitic abuse—the highest ever recorded. Much of that abuse was carried out anonymously. That behaviour is absolutely unacceptable and we are clear in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and right across Government, that being anonymous online does not give anyone the right to abuse others. That is why we are taking steps through the online harms regulatory framework, but also through other aspects of Government work, to ensure that online abuse, whether anonymous or not, is addressed.
Our starting point, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) pointed out, is that companies must take action against harmful anonymous abuse online, but at the same time it must be recognised that anonymity is important for many vulnerable individuals who want to protect their identity, such as, as has been said, a victim of domestic abuse who wants to seek support anonymously, a young person or child who is questioning their sexuality and does not want their parents to know, a whistleblower from a range of potential backgrounds, or a journalist from a country where their life could be in danger for sharing their words. To correct the hon. Lady, the Government are not evading those sorts of trade-offs. We want to confront them head on, and we hope that the measure in question will be a good starting point, to enable us to begin doing it.
A range of important issues have been raised today and I want to speak further to some of them, to outline how the Government are addressing them. If I do not reach all the answers, because I do not necessarily have all the facts and figures in front of me, I will write to the Members I miss out.
In December, we published the full Government response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation, setting out the new expectations on companies to keep their users safe online. The new framework will give digital businesses robust rules of the road that they can follow, so that we can seize the brilliance of modern technology that I have talked about, to improve our lives without fear, threat, discomfort or misery. Social media websites, apps and other services that host user-generated content or things that allow people to talk to one another online will need to remove and limit the spread of illegal content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content. All companies will need to tackle illegal anonymous abuse on their services and all companies will also need to assess the likelihood that children will access their services. If they do, the companies will need additional protections for them. Companies that provide services with the largest audiences or with the highest-risk features will have a legal responsibility to take action in respect of content or activity that is legal, but harmful to adults. This is because certain functionalities, such as the ability to share content widely or to contact users anonymously, are much more likely to give rise to harm, and the regulator, Ofcom, will set out in codes of practice how companies can fulfil this duty of care. This will include what measures are likely to be appropriate in the context of private communications. This could include steps towards making services safer by design, and we know that the technology in this area is improving all the time: it is becoming much easier to get people to prove who they are, verify their age, and do things like that. We are really keen on making sure we can use this technology to limit the ability of anonymous adults to contact children, for example, and for a range of other purposes as well.
We are working at pace to move forward with this online harms work. DCMS and the Home Office are working together to prepare this legislation, and it will be ready this year. It is absolutely vital that we get it right, for all the reasons that have been articulated by the small—but beautifully formed—number of people in this room today.
I will get to the end of my sentence, then I will absolutely give way. We want all parliamentarians to feed into this significant and important piece of work, so this is a starting point. We will continue to work with Members of both Houses to listen to their concerns as we move forward, and as hon. Members will be aware, the Secretary of State is minded to undertake legislative scrutiny on this. We want that to start quite shortly.
I did not mean to interrupt the Minister in full flow; indeed, I am grateful for the way in which she is responding to the many issues that have been raised. There was an exchange today about whether or not exceptions to the online harms legislation would be enabled through trade deals with the US, for example, and there seemed to be some confusion over that. I wondered whether the Minister would like to take the opportunity to clarify that point.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to do so. We absolutely stand by our commitment on online harms, and are completely dedicated to it, so nothing in any trade deal—particularly the US trade deal, given that so many of these big social media companies originate there—will impact that. We will continue to promote appropriate protections for consumers online and ensure that internet users, particularly children, are safeguarded from harms. We are keen to maintain very high standards of protection for personal data, including when it is transferred across borders, and those data protection standards would never be lowered as a result of any deal with the US. I hope that that reassures the hon. Lady about our position, and I am grateful that she has given me the opportunity to put that on record.
The other thing I want to put on record is that we are very passionate about our belief, and our willingness to put out there, that companies should not wait for legislation to be in place before they start taking action to tackle online harms. I have said many times that this legislation is coming down the track, and we are not the only country in the world that is bringing forward such legislation. A vast range of measures are already available for platforms to use that could keep their users much safer online, if they want to. To help them with that, alongside the full Government response, we have published interim codes of practice on things such as preventing terrorists’ use of the internet and child sexual exploitation and abuse. Those codes of practice are voluntary, but are designed to bridge the gap until the regulator is operational, fully up and running, and able to produce its own statutory codes. My strong message to online providers is that they should start getting their house in order now, rather than wait for the legislation to bring that about.
Of course, being anonymous online does not give anybody the right to abuse others. The police have a range of legal powers to identify individuals who attempt to use anonymity to escape sanctions for online abuse where the activity is illegal; I have not heard before that Twitter charges for supporting that work, but I will certainly look into it. The Investigatory Powers Act allows police to acquire communications data such as an email address and the location of the device from which the illegal anonymous abuse was sent, and they can use that data as evidence in court. In fact, in 2017-18, the majority of communications data requests from public authorities were for subscriber information. Subscriber information requests seek to identify the user of a telephone, an email address or a social media account, for example. In 96% of cases, the applicant identified the subject of the request as the suspect in the investigation.
The Government are undertaking a review with law enforcement to ensure that the current powers that it has are sufficient to tackle illegal anonymous abuse online. Because the online world is so fast-moving, we want to ensure that our law enforcement agencies are fully equipped to be able to do that. The outcome of that work will inform the Government’s position in relation to illegal anonymous abuse online and, of course, the online harms regulatory framework.
In addition, to ensure that the criminal law is fit for purpose to deal with online abuse, we have instructed the Law Commission to review existing legislation on abusive and harmful communications. The commission has highlighted in its consultation the fact that it acknowledges that anonymity online often facilitates and encourages abusive behaviours. It combines with—the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston pointed this out—the lack of restraint that an individual feels when they are communicating online, compared with communicating in person.
I have had experience of that myself. People have posted on Facebook, “I’m going to go and see that Ms Dinenage and give her a piece of my mind. I’m turning up here, at this time, on this date. I’m going to be there.” That has never materialised in real life, for which I am very thankful, but you can imagine how frightening it is. People have a lot of bravado when hidden behind a screen or keyboard, and it is very difficult to know whether that bravado could tip over into real life. There is a lack of restraint online, compared with in person, and abusive behaviours such as pile-on harassment and cyber-flashing are much easier to engage in, at a practical level, via the anonymity of these platforms.
As part of the review, the Government have asked the Law Commission to examine how the criminal law will address the encouragement or assistance of self-harm as well. That is something that is incredibly distressing. As the Minister who took over this role, I have found that one of the hardest conversations that I have had to have is with young people who have been incited to self-harm or, indeed, to take their own life online.
The Law Commission has consulted on its proposed reforms, and a final report is expected early this year. We are going to consider very carefully using the online harms legislation to bring its final recommendations into law where it is appropriate to do so. We are really committed to tackling all harms online, including anonymous abuse. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central talked about sanctions. We want to ensure that Ofcom has the ability to use sanctions. They are tough—up to 10% of global turnover. We will not shy away from that—it is more than is being proposed by the equivalent European legislation, for example—because we know that anonymous abuse can have such a significant impact on victims. We have all seen a little bit of it ourselves, but we know that there are people outside the House who are much more broadly affected than we are. Whether someone is a member of the public, a high-profile public figure or a child subject to the most awful abuse outside the school gates, where they just cannot escape it, it is really important that we have a regulatory framework that adequately addresses this issue, while also protecting the value of freedom of expression. We have always to keep that in our minds as well. It is vital that we tread that line very carefully. It is vital that we get the legislation right.
We want all parliamentarians to be able to feed into this really significant and important piece of work. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central said, there would have been a lot more people here today in normal circumstances. My door is always open, because I want to continue to work with Members of both Houses to listen to their concerns as we move forward.
I thank the Minister for giving way again, and thank her again for the tone in which she is responding to issues. May I summarise the position—without putting words in the Minister’s mouth—by saying that online anonymity is not currently directly addressed in the proposed legislation, but it could be if there was thought to be sufficient reason to do so? Is that a fair summary?
That will be addressed in a number of the broader protections. I was very taken with what the hon. Member said—I wrote down the words she used—about the importance of the right to identity, as well as the right to anonymity.
We really want to get this piece of legislation right. The other day, somebody raised with me the analogy of the invention of the motorcar. The internet is such a big invention that it is almost like that. With the advent of the motor car, we did not put in place seatbelts, airbags, the highway code or even the driving test—my grandfather did not take one—from the outset. Some of those innovations had to come down the track, but I really want to put in place as many protections for the internet from the outset as we can. I want to make this piece of legislation as robust, powerful, far-reaching and successful as possible. That is why I am not taking anything off the table. I want genuinely to put this legislation through pre-legislative scrutiny, take the comments of both Houses and ensure that, when we move forward, we do so in the best possible way. That is why we will continue to keep the area of anonymity under review as we progress with the online safety legislation.
I will not take much time. I really appreciate all the contributions and listening to the Minister and the shadow Minister. It is quite clear from listening to even the few people here that this is a really complex area. There is no one solution or quick fix that we can make. It was also helpful to hear from the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) about the part that tech companies need to play. This cannot and should not all fall to Government. The tech companies are smart-thinking and already have the tech at their fingertips. They can act, they can respond to people and they can fix things far quicker than they already do.
The Government are clearly doing an awful lot of thinking about anonymity and how to protect people from abuse from anonymous accounts. However, I respectfully suggest to the Minister that I do not feel that that flows through in the paperwork that we have for the White Paper, or the consultation so far. This is such a big area, and such a focus of the public when we talk about online harms, that it would be helpful if, when mentioning online harms, anonymity is addressed specifically and we think through the regulations and the particular actions that the tech companies and Government can take to address it, because it is important. Thank you, Mrs McVey, for your stewardship.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered online anonymity.
War Memorials: Desecration
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of desecration of war memorials.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
“Every war memorial in every village, every town and every city across our country is sacred and serves to remind us of the immeasurable gratitude that we must afford to our armed forces, both past and present.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 1215.]
Those are the words I spoke in the House of Commons on 23 June 2020, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) by my side, as we submitted our private Member’s Bill for a specific law to punish the desecration of war memorials.
A lack of comprehensive reporting of vandalism of this nature means that it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of incidents each year, although the War Memorials Trust does an excellent job of documenting them. My hon. Friend and I came together after images were beamed across the nation of a hooligan standing on the Cenotaph and twice attempting to set alight the Union flag on 7 June 2020.
Mr Sang has since pleaded guilty to attempted arson. For that, he received a two-year conditional discharge and a fine of £340. I am sorry to say it, but the punishment simply does not fit the crime. It is a slap in the face of our brave and gallant men and women from not just the UK but across the Commonwealth, who gave their lives in the face of tyranny. The Cenotaph is a symbol of the nation’s gratitude for the sacrifice of their tomorrows for our todays.
When I saw the hon. Gentleman’s name down for this debate, I was keen to come along to participate and support him, and I sought his permission to do so. Does he not agree that the desecration of the Churchill memorial in Parliament Square was disgraceful? Our sincere thanks must be given to the couple who took the time to try to clean it with water and soap as a mark of respect. Does he also agree that the message must be strong not only in this place now, but in the legislation put forward, that if people vandalise, whatever their reason, they will be prosecuted? They should be prosecuted heavily and made to do community service, as well as paying any fine.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman was a co-signatory—a sponsor—of the private Member’s Bill. I completely agree that what we saw happen with the Churchill statue was wrong beyond all measure. If only I could play the video of the Churchill statue filmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) as he was standing outside. Clearly, were it not for Winston Churchill, swastikas would be flying above this very building and we would be living in a very different country. We owe Churchill a huge debt of gratitude for bringing together a nation, the Commonwealth and our allies to fight the tyranny and racism of, sadly, those who ran Nazi Germany.
The image of the Cenotaph is beamed into our homes and around the world on Remembrance Sunday, with Her Majesty the Queen, her family, our political leaders, Commonwealth representatives, heads of faith communities, and past and present armed forces personnel standing in silence to pay respect to the glorious dead. Rightly, therefore, many across our nation were sickened and angered by the actions of Mr Sang and the unduly lenient sentence that followed. That has only emboldened my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell and me to seek justice for our glorious dead.
We were shocked to learn that the law was severely lacking in this area. Although there is provision in existing legislation to hold criminals to account for damage to property, and offenders have been successfully prosecuted, relatively few are held to account for the severity of the aggravating circumstances that come with criminally damaging something as sacred to the nation as war memorials.
For damage to war memorials, my hon. Friend’s and my Bill proposes exemption from the £5,000 damages threshold under the Criminal Damage Act 1971; removal of a maximum fine in favour of an unlimited fine; and establishment of a maximum custodial sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. It is important to stress that we are not calling for every offence to be met with 10 years’ imprisonment; we are enabling our judiciary to use their discretion to decide whether the offence is worthy of being moved to a Crown court, without the £5,000 threshold barrier blocking its way. Let us join our friends in Australia, the United States and Canada by paying the respect that we owe to those who died in the freedom fight against tyranny.
My hon. Friend and I are very grateful to the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor, who have worked closely with us. We were delighted to see the intent in Government to create a specific law in this area in the sentencing reform Green Paper. We are therefore seeking from the Minister a cast-iron guarantee that this proposal will progress unamended into the Green Paper and any legislation, and that it will be made law as soon as possible. If we are given that assurance and see it in black and white, we will withdraw our private Member’s Bill on Second Reading to enable the Government to pick up the baton, and to give them the space to pass this legislation in haste.
The price of war is immeasurably high. I saw that at first hand when a young man from Stratford-upon-Avon, Private Conrad Lewis, lost his life in Afghanistan in 2011. The pain felt by his friends and the community stays with me to this today. Those of us who value freedom of thought, speech and expression know that we can never repay the debt that we owe to these men and women. All we can do is immortalise their memory and display our gratitude for their sacrifice.
In the constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, which I am honoured to serve, I witness every year the importance the community places on remembering our past and present armed forces personnel. In Kidsgrove, the Royal British Legion, on its own initiative, has set up a beautiful war memorial garden that is used all year round. Every November, thousands of members of the community line the streets and come together to lay wreaths and remember our fallen. In Smallthorne, the superb veterans breakfast club at The Green Star pub, run by Martyn Hunt and Paul Horton, serves all veterans across Stoke-on-Trent as a way of bringing our heroes together to share their stories and lend support to one another.
In Norton Green, the local community came together when the local church, with the names of their fallen, was sold to a local developer. The residents’ association took it upon itself to create a memorial on the village green. Working with Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, it now has a symbol of great importance at the heart of its community. Councillor Chandra Kanneganti and I hope to do that with the residents’ association of Goldenhill and Sandyford.
At Chatterley Whitfield colliery, the Chatterley Whitfield Friends, made up of former miners on the site, have created a beautiful memorial to remember those who lost their lives not only abroad but at home while bringing much-needed coal to support the war effort. In Ball Green, local councillors Dave Evans, James Smith and Carl Edwards are looking at helping to contribute funds to restore the memorial in that former mining village. Last but not least, in Butt Lane we have the Reginald Mitchell peace garden. Thanks to Councillor Kyle Robinson, the memory of Butt Lane lad Reginald Mitchell, who invented the Spitfire, which won us the battle of Britain, will never be forgotten.
I am proud to have family who served their country to protect our liberty. My great-great-uncle, Alan Gullis, who lives today, is a D-day veteran, and my grandfather, Terrence Gullis, served in the Royal Marines during the Suez crisis. I remember growing up and sitting on my grandad’s knee, listening to his tales about life in our armed forces, hoping one day to serve, but sadly unable to do so due to being deaf in my right ear. I also remember the exciting trips to the D-Day Story museum in Portsmouth with my dad, Malcolm, and touring the D-day beaches across France one summer.
Damage and desecration of war memorials is not about the financial cost to repair them. It is about the harm done to a community and nation, which no monetary value can ever be put on. Memorials stand in great, solemn, eternal remembrance of the glorious dead. We cannot bring back those lives or erase the grief of families and communities. The very least we can do is ensure that memorials are adequately protected and punish those who would do them harm.
It is great privilege and honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). His energy, passion and determination to see this Bill introduced is unrivalled, and it is a great privilege to serve alongside him.
At their core, war memorials serve to remind us of the sacrifices made by so many to keep this country safe. Men and women who go overseas perhaps have no idea of when or how they might return. They leave behind their families and loved ones to fight an unknown enemy. Those people do not do it for the money, the gratitude or the glory—far from it. They do it because they believe they are doing something for the greater good. It is called service. They put their lives on the line, day in, day out, as a means to a better future for the rest of us.
Memorials in the UK abound. We have the Cenotaph, the Armed Forces Memorial at Staffordshire, the Unknown Warrior in Westminster, the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge in the highlands, and more than 100,000 memorials throughout the UK, all preserved and cared for by the War Memorials Trust. Overseas memorials are cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The UK rightly takes remembrance very seriously. We have asked so much of our armed forces, and the very least they deserve is that their memory is honoured. Those people had other options in their lives; they made a real decision to walk into their careers office, to sign up to volunteer, to embrace the national imperative and to leave behind the comforts that we enjoy every day to go to places that most of us would never dream of going to.
To reiterate, this is a free country. If people do not wish to personally pay their respects to those who did not make it home, no one is forcing them to. In fact, these men and women died so that we can be free to think and say exactly what we please. However, what is non-discretionary is the vandalising of objects erected in their memory. That is why they must be preserved and better protected in law.
This Conservative Government is determined to be a resolute defender of our culture and heritage. We believe in acknowledging heroism and protecting its memory, so it is right that we will. As for the legislation itself, as my good friend from Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke mentioned, not all actions will merit a 10-year sentence. What it does, however, is give more freedom to prosecutors so they are not shackled by limits. Removing the £5,000 barrier for damage is crucial. Previously, damage was required to be greater to warrant prosecution, but that is nonsense. Giving judges increased powers, whether in a magistrates court or a Crown court, is fundamental, allowing them to use their judgement.
I served for 26 years as a regular Army officer and deployed on multiple operational tours, so I do know a bit about the need to commemorate those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Every single war memorial, irrespective of nation, faith or location, serves as a visual reminder of the horrors of war and the appalling conditions that people face when fighting for their country. Aside from the fear, anxiety and terror experienced by so many in the service of others, each memorial carries the legacy of those who fell on the battlefield and did not come home.
These names are not just an inscription on stone, but actual human beings who lived, loved and were loved. These heroes had friends and families and were in the prime of their life when they were taken. Each memorial bears testimony to lives cut short, the anguish suffered by families, the potential that was never fulfilled, the children that were never born, and the guilt suffered by those who did come home. That is why we must ensure that memorials are sufficiently protected in law and that those who seek to damage them through wilful ignorance or stupidity are brought to justice.
One of the most profound and proudest moments of my life was when I attended the D-day 75 commemorations in Portsmouth in June 2019. It was a magnificent event. Veterans were there in their hundreds, although sadly declining in number. They were resplendent in their uniforms—shiny brass and medals, and polished boots. The twinkle in their eyes conveyed some pretty powerful testimonies of life gone by. It was great to be among them, but two things struck me. First, every single veteran I spoke to underplayed the magnitude of their achievements. They were, to quote them, just doing their job: “I did what I was asked to do and nothing more.” That humility, for me, was very profound. Secondly, what became apparent to me—it was a really powerful moment—was the guilt that these great people have carried all their lives for the fact that they came home and others did not. That is why we must protect the memorials in law.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I begin where my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) began, with a sincere thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing a debate on this really important subject and for his strong campaigning on it. He made an excellent speech, if I may say so. This is the second time I have had the pleasure of listening to him. I was in the main Chamber for his private Member’s Bill in June, and then, as now, he spoke with force and authenticity on behalf of his constituents.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell, who gave an excellent speech as well. In particular, he gave a powerful reminder of the abiding commitment to service that underpins the ethos of our armed forces—it underpins it now, and it underpinned it in the past, not least during the D-day landings, which he referred to.
Let me turn first to the context. As hon. Members are aware, during a variety of demonstrations last summer, protestors targeted statues, including war memorials and other commemorations of cultural significance. The Government were appalled to see the violence and vandalism at those protests because, however noble a cause a person believes they are supporting, there can be no justification for defacing statues or unlawfully damaging symbols of British history, still less desecrating memorials to those who died serving our country.
Quite apart from the hurt and pain caused, those are lawless and mob tactics. Such behaviour subverts our democracy because it corrodes the basic norms of due process that make this a free society under the law and, indeed, the kind of country that many hundreds of thousands of Britons have fought to defend.
I listened to the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and was inspired and moved by their comments. Wherever attacks on war memorials may be—in Northern Ireland, for instance, where I know the hon. Member for Bracknell served—those attacks will be raw for those back home, because the names of people they have loved will be on those memorials, and the names of family members or friends will be on them. The effect is not just what is done to the war memorial; there is also an effect on the family.
I absolutely agree. One of the great pleasures in this place is to have the opportunity to hear from hon. Members who have either served on the frontline themselves or have personal experience of what loss means for relatives. Our debates are enhanced by those contributions.
As I was saying, this kind of behaviour corrodes our democracy, far beyond the mere monetary value of the damage caused. Memorials matter. I will make a brief personal point. As I cycle home from Parliament, I pass by the Rifle Brigade war memorial, which is parked on a busy junction in Victoria. Every time I pass, I am struck by how modest is that physical tribute to those who gave so much. Although dignified, it is unobtrusive, austere even. One could easily miss it. Yet, it honours a full 11,575 men who died in the first world war and more than 1,000 who died in the second world war—more than have died in the British armed forces in all the conflicts since 1945. The least the living can do is defend and honour such memorials. We have a duty to do so, not least for the sake of the dead, who can no longer speak up for themselves.
In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell referred to those who served who had loved and were loved. That is an echo of the poem by John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”. That came to mind because he summoned the voices of the fallen in that poem. He expressed what the dead might say, if only they could speak. The last three lines are:
“If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
We must not break faith with those who died.
Memorials are not just limited to our war dead. The public is also rightly concerned about upholding respect for other memorials, including statues, gravestones and other matters. Such memorials can have historical significance as part of our national heritage, or other symbolic, cultural or emotional importance. When damage or desecration occurs, the law must be equipped to recognise the range and level of anguish that is caused.
As I have indicated, that anguish goes beyond mere pain to individuals or damage to property. In so many cases it can represent an attack on society. I regret to say that too many people feel able to lash out, to take the law into their own hands and to do so with relative impunity. That is why it has become clear to the Government, not least because of the excellent campaigning of my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Bracknell, that the law as it stands is inadequate, and we intend to act.
As I mentioned, on 23 June, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North introduced a private Member’s Bill, supported in this House by others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The Desecration of War Memorials Bill seeks to create a specific offence of damage or desecration of a war memorial.
The Lord Chancellor has indicated, as indeed has the Prime Minister, that we wish to take action in this field. The Prime Minister himself made it explicit at Prime Minister’s questions on 17 June, when he said that the Government are
“looking at new ways in which we may legislate against vandalism of war memorials”.—[Official Report, 17 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 796.]
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North indicated, the Home Secretary has made similar statements. The Lord Chancellor wrote an article in The Sunday Telegraph on 21 June, committing to ensuring that
“laws around criminal damage are fit for purpose and that the punishment for vandalising memorials fits the crime.”
He went on to state that the Government would need to legislate, and that
“now is an opportune moment to think about memorials more broadly and make sure that all acts of vandalism that cause widespread disgust can be appropriately punished by the courts.”
There are various approaches that the Government could adopt to tackle this issue. We have been considering all options to stop those who seek to attack emblems of our national sacrifice and pride, including the proposed Desecration of War Memorials Bill. We want to make sure that any vandalism or attack on property can be met with the full force of the law, so that the courts are equipped with the tools they need to do justice on the facts of the case before them, which was an excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. No one is suggesting that all cases and all examples need to be dealt with by a maximum sentence; that would be absurd. The courts will do justice, but they need to have the powers so that they can do that justice on the facts as they find them to be.
As such, although the Government fully support the intention behind my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill and firmly agree with the action that needs to be taken, we want to go further and protect a wider range of property. As announced in the sentencing White Paper, “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”, which we published on 16 September 2020, we will be reviewing the law, not merely the guidance, on criminal damage to ensure that where memorials are damaged or desecrated, the courts are able to sentence appropriately at every level for this particular type of offending. As we indicated in that White Paper, we will be legislating on this matter this year—in the early part of this year, I think it is possible to say—setting out the approach that we will be taking to deal with this issue. When the private Member’s Bill on the desecration of war memorials returns to Parliament on Second Reading next month, the Government will confirm their position on the Bill in accordance with the required parliamentary process, and I am confident it will address the points my hon. Friends have so ably made.
To conclude, the Government intend to deal decisively with this issue, and I thank my hon. Friends for their shared commitment to tackling this crime. I will close by saying that those who take the law into their own hands—who vandalise our heritage, lash out at symbols they disagree with, or demean and dishonour our war dead—should be on notice. We will give the courts the power to do justice on behalf of all: the dead, the living, and those who have yet to be born.
Question put and agreed to.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the political situation in Kashmir.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I will not take interventions, as this is a short debate and I want everybody to have an opportunity to say what they want and need to say.
I am sure we have all caught ourselves at some stage moaning about lockdown, but for the people of Kashmir it is not something new and, unlike here, in Kashmir lockdown is not about safety; it is about control. In our lockdown, we talk about Netflix, FaceTime and Zoom. In Kashmir, it is very different. The lockdown of 2019 shut off entire communities and their communications to the outside world. Around 7 million people have been silenced and cut off. There were families worried about loved ones. Students studying in Luton were unable to get fees paid by parents in Kashmir, as banking ceased. There are curfews to control people lives, not a virus—a lockdown enforced by half a million soldiers.
When Narendra Modi stripped Kashmir of its autonomy and statehood in August 2019, he also cancelled Kashmiris’ rights to land and jobs. Along with the loss of rights came the loss of dreams for so many. It has also laid bare the true motivation for such a removal of freedoms for the entire world to see—see, yet say nothing about, and, in most cases unfortunately, do nothing about as well.
I have attended numerous meetings with people living in Luton and internationally—those who live in Jammu and Kashmir, those who have loved ones there and people who just care about human rights. A person does not and should not have to be Kashmiri to care about their struggle for self-determination—their struggle to live safely and freely. What happens in Kashmir is felt across the world and in communities such as mine in Luton North.
The pandemic has not slowed the reports of human rights abuses. In some cases, it has exacerbated people’s pain. Muslims have reported being turned away from hospitals. That is shocking at the best of times, but especially so during a global pandemic. There are spates of unexplained and uninvestigated killings. The recent killing of two young men and a 16-year-old boy, Athar Mushtaq, must be investigated. Will the Minister join the call for a transparent investigation into their deaths? Will he make that call clear to his relevant international counterparts?
As with all war, sadly, women are the silent casualties. The situation in Kashmir is no different. There are numerous reports of Kashmiri women and girls being raped. Senior officials in the Bharatiya Janata party have put on record their intentions to make Kashmiri women a part of the conflict. The Chief Minister of Haryana said:
“Some people are now saying that as Kashmir is open, brides will be brought from there. But jokes apart, if [the gender] ratio is improved, then there will be a right balance in society”.
That is appalling. I have heard from women in Kashmir who are terrified of being assaulted by the thousands of soldiers on their doorstep. Women fear for their lives and do not feel safe.
We often hear about the UK’s commitment to women’s rights, but will the Minister’s actions match the rhetoric? What guarantees can he give that rape claims in asylum cases from Kashmiri women will be taken seriously by his colleagues at the Home Office, especially after the worrying reports from Women Against Rape that thousands of asylum-seeking women were either disbelieved out of hand or not routinely asked if they had suffered sexual violence in asylum interviews? I sincerely hope that changes.
I want to raise with the Minister an issue not often discussed regarding Kashmir, but which is incredibly important in the world we live in. What are the Government doing to tackle the use of social media sites, in particular WhatsApp, which are used to stoke the flames of division and further weaponise Islamophobia in the region? Online communication is now part of modern-day warfare. We regularly see states and leaders—not just Trump—use online propaganda as part of their arsenal. On the flip side, Kashmiris’ freedom of speech online is suffocated to the point that any criticism of the Indian Government risks terrorism charges. Will the Minister commit to work internationally on online propaganda, fake news, the spread of racism and the measures taken to silence news coming from Kashmir?
The fight for Kashmiris to determine their own future is now decades-long, and that outcome looks further from reality than ever before. I wish we were here to talk about what the future of Kashmir could look like—how its people could rightly shape and be in charge of their own destiny. What would come next? However, given the current political situation in Jammu and Kashmir, it is clear that we are a long way from realising that hope.
Until the people of Kashmir have the most fundamental of all human rights—to live safely and to be free from fear—we must, and we will, continue to stand with the people of Kashmir. I say to Kashmiris, whether in Kashmir or in Luton North, you have not only my solidarity, but my enduring friendship and commitment to keep fighting until your human rights are protected, now and in the future.
As people can see, there are eight people on the call list wishing to speak. I want to get to the Front-Bench spokespersons by as close to 5.10 pm as possible, so we will start with a limit of five minutes, which will probably have to be reduced. I call James Daly.
Thank you very much, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this important debate, and I agree with absolutely every word that she said in respect of this issue.
The voices of individual MPs in different parts of the country are so important. I have a large Kashmiri diaspora in my constituency. Throughout the general election campaign, the most important issue for that section of my population—they are the friendliest, most entrepreneurial and most positive, decent people whom I have had the pleasure to meet—was the issue of Kashmir. It came back to the issue of human rights, which is what I want to talk about today.
It will not surprise you, Mr Davies, that the first speech I wrote was far too long and wordy. It was a history lesson that we do not need to hear today. What we need to concentrate on is that this is a human rights issue. I am lucky enough to be an officer of the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group. It seems a long time ago, but we went to Kashmir in February and March of last year. I went with my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) and Labour Members. The reason we went—I hesitate to speak on behalf of my hon. Friend—is that it is not enough to say to our constituents, “Yes, I can read about this in a book.” After speaking to my constituents during the general election, I wanted to go to the frontline to ask people who are affected by the crisis and the ongoing human rights disaster what was going on. As one example, we went to a refugee camp in Kotli and met people who had suffered the most grievous injuries. We are talking about hundreds of people, not people who were in a queue provided by some political organisation. They told us that these appalling acts are happening.
The hon. Member for Luton North was absolutely right to say that the lockdown in Kashmir is not like our lockdown. It is a lockdown that attacks the fundamental rights that we all take for granted in this country. The Government have quite rightly expressed in the last few days their views on China’s treatment of the Muslim population in that country. We must take a similar stance in respect of Kashmir and put the obvious human rights abuses at the top of our agenda. Thousands of our fellow citizens are from a Kashmiri background and have family members there who are affected on a daily basis by the acts that take place.
As a lawyer, I have a long list of human rights abuses—things such as detention without trial. There are people in Kashmir who have been waiting 15 years for a trial—15 years! There is not a word from the international community in respect of that. Torture is commonplace, and young people are disappearing, yet we do not see that on television screens in the western world—we do not see it on the BBC. Quite rightly, we recently saw coverage of the issues in Hong Kong and other places. Kashmiris are people who we represent—they are our friends, and this issue affects their daily lives. We must take a stand.
All I ask from the excellent Minister—I know how committed he and the Government are to standing up to human rights abusers throughout the world—is that whatever our relationship with other countries, and whatever the political dimension to this, we cannot be deflected from the task of working with our international partners to come up with an appropriate way to protect the interests of children. I have heard appalling stories of rape and sexual violence against women—it is absolutely appalling. As an international community working with our European partners with President-elect Biden in America, we have the opportunity now to come up with an international programme through the United Nations that will give succour and hope to those poor people in Kashmir who for 70-plus years have been going through the most awful, appalling hell.
There is always a temptation, in all debates, to blame this or that person. I would like to finish by saying we can draw a line in the sand and join together on a cross- party basis. We can be united by a determination to help, with regard to anti-Muslim persecution in Kashmir. We can be united in our desire to protect human rights everywhere but certainly in that region. The geopolitical issues there are perhaps the most severe in the world, with two nuclear powers. Therefore I welcome this debate. I know that the Government are committed to human rights, and that the Minister is. I thank all colleagues for their contributions. Let us all stand and do this together again and again.
I welcome the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, on this important debate on the political situation in Kashmir. As a constitutional entity, the so-called Azad Jammu and Kashmir, which is better known to the world as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, is not just strange but unique. It has been given the trappings of a country, with a President, Prime Minister and even a legislative assembly, but it is neither a country with its own sovereignty nor a province with its own clearly defined devolved authority from the national Government. Under section 56 of the AJK interim constitution of 1974, the Pakistan Government can dismiss any elected Government in AJK, irrespective of the support it might have in the legislative assembly.
Strangely enough for an entity that purports to be a country, the constitution bars anyone from public office and prohibits them from participating in politics unless they publicly support the principle of Jammu and Kashmir acceding to Pakistan. Imagine that: a country all of whose politicians can be politicians only if they say they do not want to be a country. It will therefore come as little surprise to colleagues when I say that all the major civil and police administrative positions in AJK are held by Pakistani civil and military officers. It may also come as no surprise to them to find that that putative country has no representation in the Parliament of Pakistan. The territory’s local representatives are excluded not just from the Pakistan Parliament but from even those Pakistani bodies that negotiate inter-provincial resource allocation and federal taxes. So much for “No taxation without representation”. It is not a country. It is not a province. It is not a state. It is a satrapy. Were I not a British MP, conscious of the fact that much of this mess is a legacy of our colonial past in the region, I might almost describe it as a prize of war; but then, of course, that is precisely what Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is.
Yesterday in this Chamber we held a debate on religious persecution. Religious minorities in Pakistan have been systematically marginalised. Pakistan, while calling itself an Islamic republic, actually had a secular constitution in 1956. It was only after the ethnic civil war in 1971, which saw the division of the country and the secession of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh, that Pakistan adopted Islam as its state religion under a new and less democratic—and much less secular—constitution. Stringent blasphemy laws mean that many religious groups face the death penalty if they are even accused of denigrating the Prophet, peace be upon him. Sadly, the infamous case of Asia Bibi is not unique, and the rights of women are of course governed by the Offence of Zina (Enforcement of Hudood) Ordinance 1979 penal provisions, which prevent women from exercising their marriage choices.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal records that, of the 42 identified terrorist training camps located in Pakistan, 21 were located in Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Those camps belong to three main terrorist groups: Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul Mujahideen. One of the key areas around which the camps are located is Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. According to Human Rights Watch, the Pakistani Government repress democratic freedoms, muzzle the press and practise routine torture within Azad Jammu and Kashmir. According to the world press freedom index, prepared by Reporters Without Borders, Pakistan ranks 142nd out of the world’s countries. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 2019 “Human Rights and Democracy” report noted that the human rights situation continues to worsen, and pointed out that freedom of expression and intimidation of journalists continue to be a serious problem. The report speaks of widespread intolerance, violence and discrimination, and Pakistan is one of the countries of deterioration, as they are called by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The situation moved on. Despite further conflicts in 1965, the Simla agreement was signed in 1972, when both countries committed to resolving all differences bilaterally and peacefully. That is what they should do, and it is what UK policy is and should be: to let them resolve their differences without political interference from either side.
I deplore the way in which some have always tried to import the conflicts of the subcontinent into our domestic politics. In my borough of Brent, our council leader is a fine and devout Muslim whose family is from Pakistan; our chief whip is a wonderfully authoritative Bangladeshi woman; and our Greater London Authority representative is an enormously respected Hindu.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this debate and introducing it so well. It is very noticeably a cross-party assembly here, and we will be hearing many views from all sides. Frankly, this is not a matter of left and right; it is a matter of right and wrong.
We are not against India. It is a huge country with an incredible history and limitless potential, but that does not mean that we should not hold the Indian Government to account for their abusive behaviour, especially in Kashmir. We also reject any argument in relation to Kashmir, the Punjab or the Uyghurs in China that these are internal matters and of no concern to those outside. Human rights are actually a universal matter and universal concern. That was unambiguously established 75 years ago this week, just across the road from here, when the United Nations had its first meeting of its Assembly and its Security Council.
Britain, of course, has a special place in raising this matter, not just because of our history but because of the concern of thousands of our constituents, who are desperately worried about their families in Jammu and Kashmir. It is made even worse when communications are shut down and they have to spend weeks and sometimes months with no idea what has happened to their loved ones. Obviously, that is of deep concern to them, and that is why it should be of deep concern to us.
Can we be clear? The current crisis has been deliberately instigated by the Indian authorities with their rewriting of the long-standing constitution, which has been left by parties of different stripes in India before. That has undermined the autonomy of Kashmir. There has also been the change to property law, to try to change the facts on the ground in Kashmir, fundamentally by changing the population and therefore trying to secure a different outcome from a possible referendum.
Then, in the face of understandable opposition, there was a dramatic and brutal shutdown of communications and there were beatings of individuals, shootings—including many well attested cases of people being hit by birdshot and blinded as a consequence—arrests and disappearances, which I have to say were also an appalling feature of the crackdown in the Punjab after the assault on the Golden Temple. And many report that this is still going on.
So bad was the situation that for quite a long time Indian opposition politicians were denied the right to visit the area by the authorities. In spite of condemnation from around the world, oppression continues to this day, and we have the dangerous situation of two nuclear powers facing off and shooting against each other across the border. Clearly, not only is that a matter of concern to those in the area, but it should be of great concern to the international community as a potential threat to world peace and international order.
I hope that the Minister will acknowledge in his reply the suffering of the people of Kashmir—previous Ministers have indicated that they have raised the issues strongly with Indian Ministers—and his concern. Will he tell us what the Government intend to do to bring about peace and justice to this beautiful but troubled land, and to bring peace of mind to its people and to their families here in the United Kingdom?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful to be following the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar).
I am a member of the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group, and we have worked proactively to promote human rights across all parts of Kashmir. I travelled with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) to Pakistan. We went to the line of control, and I was able to witness at first hand what my constituents have been telling me for a long time. These are truly heartbreaking stories to hear. We need to be doing all we can to support people. I will be very frank and honest: it was one of the most sobering experiences of my life, especially when we visited the refugee camp.
One of the moments that will stay with me forever was when we arrived. A man was pulling at my arm for me to take notice of him. It is difficult to talk about, but he pulled up his trouser leg and explained how, when he was tortured, his leg was cut off. He showed me that. Then I had the women and children begging me, pulling at me. My hon. Friend can confirm that too, because he saw that happening—they were desperate for my help, and they were begging me.
That should not be happening. We are in the 21st century, and we need to be doing something about it. It is awful, and it has been for years. The citizens of the region have been living in the world’s most militarised zone, with the fallout damaging the lives of the men, women and children of Kashmir with curfews, a ban on communications access, the closing of media outlets, and widespread arrest of politicians and human rights activists. We have seen similar treatment before by authoritarian states, but let us be clear that today’s oppression could get worse. As an advocate of the Kashmir region, I have been pleased by the human rights activism of charities such as Amnesty International. It is welcome that some progress has been made in recent months, especially regarding the communications blackout. Nevertheless, the people of Kashmir should never have been placed under such strict rules.
As many know, over the past year the number of political and human rights detainees has increased into the thousands. What is more worrying is that those political and community leaders are not being offered a fair trial. Under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, the court rules specify a 14-day limit for lodging an application for a hearing, but that process has not been followed, meaning that people are still in prison, with no prospect of a fair trial. That failure of the courts has become particularly urgent since a shocking wave of arrests in October last year.
Yesterday, our Government took a positive step in condemning the Chinese Government’s treatment of religious minorities, as UK businesses will face fines if their products are linked to forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region. However, more needs to be done, otherwise millions of Muslim people will continue to live in oppression, fearing for their constitutional freedom and, ultimately, for their own lives.
I will close by echoing the points made already. We need to remember that two nuclear powers are involved in the tension. It must become more of a concern to the international community. We must ensure that we do all we can to protect the fundamental human rights of the Kashmir people.
Thank you, Mr Davies, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this debate.
In 1945, the world set up the United Nations, with peace, justice and international co-operation in mind. At the signing of the UN charter, which was signed by 50 nations, including ours, President Truman famously said:
“If we had had this Charter a few years ago—and above all, the will to use it—millions now dead would be alive. If we should falter in the future in our will to use it, millions now living will surely die.”
For Members across this House and to those who listen to my words after this debate, the charter lives on today but, tragically for the people of Kashmir, the will to use it does not.
UN Security Council resolution 47, which provides for the right of a plebiscite for the people of Kashmir, has existed since 1948. The will to implement still does not. Seventy-four years on, the trajectory for the people of Kashmir is leading to a future far from a right of self-determination and closer to one of non-existence. But let us put history to one side for a second. In 2019, India unilaterally revoked article 370, removing the special status of Kashmir, outrightly defying the United Nations resolution, setting back previously agreed international resolutions such as the Simla agreement, arresting Kashmiri political leaders, enforcing curfews, implementing a media blackout, and denying internationally agreed principles of human rights for Kashmiri people. I ask this House and our Government: apart from the words of condemnation, what else do the people of Kashmir get?
From the start of 2010 to the 2019 siege, the Kashmiri people have been shut off from the entire world—occupied by more than 600,000 Indian soldiers, in the largest military operation in the world; Kashmiri women targeted for rape; 250 Kashmiris killed; 1,500 injured; 657 houses destroyed; 4,815 cordon and search operations during the past one year alone; political leaders under house arrest and put through kangaroo courts; thousands of non-Kashmiri Hindus of India issued with domicile certificates; and the Indian Government proactively changing the very demographics of Kashmir, leading only to a path of ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri people. Without the UN rapporteurs allowed into the region, and with every report out of the region censored, how can anyone assure this House that a genocide in Kashmir is not taking place?
From 2015 to last year, Britain sold more than half a billion pounds-worth of arms to India, which will contribute to shedding the blood of the Kashmiri people. Without the reassurances from the UN, we cannot be sure that we are not contributing to a genocide. As a proud daughter of Kashmir, I simply ask the Minister whether the Prime Minister, who has now cancelled his visit to India, will follow on and cancel the shipment of arms to India? We do not need international leaders and Governments protesting with words; we have activists on the streets for that. We need international leaders and Governments with the will to take action and stop genocide taking place. The time to act is now. Will the Minister act now while there is still time, or history will not be so forgiving?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for securing this really important debate. I want to say a huge thanks to all my constituents who contacted me specifically on this issue. I know it sits very close to their hearts.
Kashmir has been living under heavy lockdown restrictions since August 2019, following the special status of Jammu and Kashmir being revoked by India. We should be clear about what these lockdowns actually mean. No foreign journalists are being allowed into Kashmir by the Indian Government. Thousands of people have been arrested and face harassment and imprisonment without due cause: lawyers, small business owners, journalists, students and of course human rights activists. Phone lines have been blocked and internet access taken away. Although some communication has been restored, it is patchy and heavily controlled by the Government.
Legal reforms have been made so that residents’ property rights can be revoked. Properties have been destroyed and innocent people are losing their lives. It is reported that nearly 300 Kashmiris have been killed and over 1,600 injured, and more than 900 houses have been destroyed since special status was revoked. That, quite rightly, is causing a huge amount of concern for many of my constituents across Keighley. These stories are being reported to me—to all of us, as we have heard—and they are harrowing.
Of course, as elected politicians in the United Kingdom we cannot decide on domestic policy in another country, but we can use our influence to ensure that this terrible situation is investigated and that our Government use their weight to put on pressure to reach a solution. The UK’s fundamental values are freedom and democracy. That applies not only to the situation in Kashmir, but around the world. Only yesterday, I said that to the Foreign Secretary during his statement on the terrible situation in western China.
I say to the Minister that now is the time to hear the allegations of human rights abuses from both sides of the line of control, but particularly from the Indian side. Only last October, speaking in the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, the world heard the President of Azad Kashmir accuse India of genocide. It is not in India’s interest for those allegations to go stated without investigation. I call on the Government to take this issue extremely seriously.
I would like to see UN human rights officials get access to both sides of the line of control, to find out the facts. Of course, India and Pakistan are both longstanding friends of our country. That is strengthened by the large Indian and Pakistani communities across our country. But a solution to the situation in Kashmir must be sought—after all, both countries are nuclear powers—and it must be sought at speed.
I know the Prime Minister is due to visit India at some point. I hope that he will raise the issue directly with Prime Minister Modi and seek his reassurances that all is being done to seek a solution. The UK must stand for freedom and democracy. That applies around the world, including in Kashmir.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for securing it.
For the sake of time, I will not give hon. Members a history lesson on this part of the world. The central point I want to make is that what happens in Kashmir matters in the UK. It matters in Peterborough, because my home city has a large and vibrant Kashmiri population. That diaspora has many friends and family members on both sides of the line of control. Whatever community they are from, people cannot grow up in Peterborough without being touched by this issue. If it matters to the large Kashmiri diaspora, surely it matters to British parliamentarians and the British Government. The area is bordered by three nuclear powers and the UK also has an historical responsibility for the region.
Most of all, this is about human rights, murder and torture. The Government take seriously what is going on in China with the Uyghur Muslim population, and the same must apply in this case. I stand with the hundreds of millions of Indians across the world who are equally concerned about human rights abuses in Kashmir.
It certainly cannot be in the interest of the Indian Government for allegations of human rights abuses to be made repeatedly. Why do they not allow them to be independently investigated? My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) was planning to raise that point today, but, regrettably, he is self-isolating. Muslims in the UK must feel that atrocities and crimes affecting fellow Muslims across the world are a priority for this Government. What the Government have done with the Rohingya and Uyghurs, as well as persecuted Christians, they must now do for Kashmir.
India is a friend of the UK, and friends should be able to talk honestly and openly with one another, so I would urge Ministers to raise with their Indian counterparts the arbitrary detention of Kashmiri political leaders, the 18-month arbitrary enforced lockdown on the Kashmiri people, the ban on access to 4G and the internet in that part of the world, the crackdown on a free and fair media and the allegations of appalling human rights abuses.
Finally and briefly, I would like to counter a narrative that I have heard many times before, which is that the resolution to this dispute is a bilateral approach between India and Pakistan. On the Falklands, the UK Government assert that self-determination is a universal right enshrined in the UN charter and applies in the case of the Falkland Islanders. On Gibraltar, Spain insists on a bilateral agreement with the UK over sovereignty, whereas this Government will discuss sovereignty only if the Gibraltarians themselves are included in these discussions. Surely, what is good for the people of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar is also good enough for the people of Kashmir.
If you had asked me at the beginning whether I would get five minutes, I would have told you I would only get three, Mr Davies. I am pleased to have the five, and I will probably take the whole five as well, just to let you know, and I thank you for calling me to speak.
I thank the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for raising this important issue. I congratulate her on setting the scene so well. I state my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Pakistani minorities and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. My work with both groups has led me to be very concerned about the human rights situations in both India and Pakistan. I want to give a broad-based account of both, if I can. I had the privilege to lead a debate yesterday on the persecution of minority groups in India, and some hon. Members in the Chamber participated in that. I also travelled with colleagues to Pakistan in 2018 to raise similar issues.
I will focus my comments on instances of persecution and human rights violations within both the India and Pakistan-administered areas of Kashmir. I had the opportunity to meet the governor of Pakistan-administered Kashmir and got a good insight into what was happening. With regards to the India-administered area, I am concerned about the incredible loss of life over the last decade. Some 1,081 civilians have been killed by security forces in extrajudicial killings between 2008 and 2018. It is deeply concerning that according to UN reports there seem to be no investigations of the use of excessive force by authorities and no prosecutions. It does not even appear that Indian security forces have been asked to re-evaluate or change their crowd control techniques or rules of engagement.
Beyond the violations of the right to life, many other human rights concerns emerged following the Indian Government’s unilateral annulment of the semi-autonomous states of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. In order to prevent protests about the decision, authorities initiated a massive deployment of troops and arbitrarily arrested hundreds of Kashmiri leaders and activists. They even detained 144 children—my goodness me. What threat is there in children? The Indian authorities also imposed broad restrictions on freedom of movement, banned public meetings, and shut down telecommunications and educational institutions.
The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that in the first three months of the lockdown the economy lost $2.4 billion, which is an enormous loss to bear for any country. While most of those arbitrarily detained by authorities have been released, there are still more 400 people who remain in custody under the draconian Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978. That is clearly a violation of human rights. There is also a freedom of religion or belief element to the human rights violations of Kashmir, such as the shutting down of many mosques and restrictions on gatherings at Muslim shrines or at religious festivals. I express my concern about that.
Turning to the Pakistan-administered territories of Kashmir, they are not lily white. I have to say that and I want to make some comments on it. They have problems with poor relationships, too. They amended their interim constitution in 2018 to define who is a real Muslim—I expressed concern about that when I was in Pakistan—and used that definition to discriminate against the minority Ahmadiyya community, who are the loveliest group of people who you will ever meet, Mr Davies. Their motto is “love for all, hatred for none”; we could all take that as our motto and live it out.
The same blasphemy provisions that were often misused to persecute both religious and non-religious groups in Pakistan are still a problem in some provinces. According to the UN, members of nationalist and pro-independence political parties often report threats, intimidation and even arrest for their political activities at the hands of local authorities and the intelligence agency. There is credible information about the enforced disappearances of people from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. All those things are backed up by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. They have the facts and the evidence, and they say it.
I might slow down, because I know I have a minute left. I have lots of concerns about freedom of expression. Journalists in Pakistan-administered Kashmir continue to face threats and harassment in the course of carrying out their professional duties. The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) referred to that, and there is no need to say it again, but I believe that it violates the right of freedom of expression. I want to put on the record that it is clearly a gross violation of freedom of expression for the constitution to determine what political views it is acceptable for citizens to express.
I want to end by expressing my sincere hope that the United Kingdom Government can use their influence with India and Pakistan to help improve the human rights situation for all those living in Kashmir. I look to the Minister, who gave us an excellent response to our debate yesterday, and we appreciate that. I believe it is time that our Government encouraged authorities to grant access to all EU and UN independent experts and international human rights monitoring mechanisms. Let us do our best for the people in Kashmir. They deserve it. Every one of us wants to ensure that their civil rights and human rights are protected.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) on securing this vital debate. She made a powerful speech that painted a harrowing picture of the plight of the Kashmiri people and the human rights crisis that they are facing. I also thank the other contributors to the debate, who made a number of compelling points— not least my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah).
The Labour party’s new foreign policy puts the rule of law, democracy and human rights at the very heart of our global agenda, and we of course apply those principles to Jammu and Kashmir, as we do consistently to every other part of the world. The situation in Kashmir is defined tragically by a long history of political and military conflict. In 1947, the British state was a signatory, as the departing colonial power, to the instrument of accession, which gave Kashmir a high degree of autonomy, while granting India control over Kashmir’s communications, defence and foreign affairs.
Countless attempts have been made to resolve the Kashmir issue through UN resolutions and by other means. Perhaps the most significant was the Simla agreement, which was concluded following the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. The Labour party strongly supports the conclusions of the Simla agreement and agrees that issues involving India, Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir should be negotiated between the parties, and that no state should deploy force or act unilaterally. We also recognise that the UK has a particular responsibility to do all it can to help secure a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
If we fast forward 50 years from Simla, we see that the situation on the ground in Kashmir is bleak. At 72 years, the conflict is the longest unresolved conflict on the agenda of the United Nations. Some accounts claim that as many as 95,000 have been killed in the past 30 years alone. Kashmir is the most militarised place on earth. Moreover, it has become a political football in almost a great game, a great power competition between India, China and Pakistan, all of which have nuclear capability. This is a very dangerous game to be playing.
On 5 August 2019, the Indian Government’s Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill unilaterally revoked article 370 and replaced the autonomous state of Jammu and Kashmir with two new union territories governed directly by New Delhi: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Further to that intervention, Jammu and Kashmir has been in an Indian army-imposed lockdown, with the Indian Government citing security risks and the need to prevent violence. The lockdown, along with a communications blackout and an internet ban, has had a profound and far-reaching impact on every aspect of life in Kashmir, including health services, school closures and media freedom. The Indian Government maintain that their decision to unilaterally revoke article 370, and the ensuing lockdown, is an internal matter, as such actions do not interfere with the boundaries of the territory or the line of control. India also cites security concerns, based on attacks by what New Delhi believes to be Pakistan-backed militant groups. Indeed, we recall with sadness the tragic suicide-bomb attack on 14 February 2019, which targeted Indian soldiers in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, the Labour party recognises that those who are opposed to the revocation of article 370 and the subsequent lockdown are understandably angered by what they see as a unilateral act of aggression on the part of the Indian Government. I assure hon. Members that the Labour party will always speak up vociferously in defence of the human rights of the people of Kashmir. We also recognise the hardship faced by those living in Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir, where the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Elections Act 2020 clearly contravened universal freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
In a letter to the Muslim Council of Britain on 8 May, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear that all sides must play their part in ending the conflict, which has gone on for far too long. He said that
“the Labour party will always uphold and respect international law and will always stand up for human rights and for the rule of law.
Our position on Kashmir has not changed, we support and recognise previous UN resolutions on the rights of the Kashmiri people but maintain that if we are to find a lasting settlement, to end this ongoing conflict, that can only be achieved”
“India and Pakistan working together, with the people of Kashmir.”
What can the UK Government do to support the peaceful resolution of this conflict and defend and uphold the human rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir? Well, let me ask the Minister a few questions. Will he impress on his Indian and Pakistani counterparts the need for a plan to demilitarise the larger Kashmir region, and ask what steps the Indian Government are taking to uphold human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in the light of the events of 5 August 2019? That conversation must include the rights of political prisoners.
What meetings has the Minister had with human rights organisations about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir? Does the Minister give support to the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir, which seeks to address the human rights situation in Kashmir following the events of 5 August 2019? Does the Minister have any plans to send his own UK delegation to Jammu and Kashmir to assess the human rights situation and report back to our Parliament? Finally, will the UK Government commit to doing all they can to support and work with, wherever helpful and necessary, representatives from India, Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir, including all five regions, to deliver justice, peace and resolution to that terrible conflict. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for securing the debate, and to all hon. Members for their contributions. We have heard some really passionate speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (James Daly), for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe), for Keighley (Robbie Moore), and for Peterborough (Paul Bristow), from the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), and from the hon. Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
The situation in Kashmir undoubtedly elicits strong feelings and is of great concern to the Government. I assure the hon. Member for Luton North that my colleague, the Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, regularly discusses Kashmir with representatives of the Governments of India and Pakistan. I hope to be able to address many of the issues that have been raised by hon. Members, and leave a bit of time for the hon. Lady to sum up at the end.
Pakistan and India, as we all know, are magnificent countries, as I said in yesterday’s debate. We enjoy incredibly strong and enduring ties with both countries. We have long-standing partnerships with India and Pakistan, based on a wide range of shared interests, including trade, security, development and investment. The Indian and Pakistani diasporas are the largest in the UK, with over 3 million Brits having Indian or Pakistani heritage. These vibrant diaspora communities make a vital contribution to the richness and diversity of British society and the broad and deep relationships between our countries, and those ties enable close co-operation between our Governments. That was evident—as I am fully aware, because it happened within 72 hours of my taking on this role—when we supported the return of thousands of British nationals from India and Pakistan in the wake of the covid-19 outbreak.
Just before turning to the detail of the debate, it is important to highlight the impact that covid-19 has had in Kashmir. According to official figures, there are nearly 3,000 cases of covid-19 in India-administered Kashmir, and 13,000 cases in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. We are in regular contact with both Governments about the situation, and also discussing the economic and health implications of the pandemic in those countries.
Turning to Kashmir, I stress that the Government’s policy remains stable; it is unchanged. We continue to believe that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to the situation, one that takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people: as the hon. Members for Brent North and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) mentioned, this was laid out in the 1972 Simla agreement. It is not appropriate for the UK Government to prescribe a solution or act as a mediator in this regard, but it would be wrong to not acknowledge that there are serious human rights concerns in both India-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This has been confirmed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in his reports, and has also rightly been raised by the hon. Member for Aberavon.
The situation in India-administered Kashmir has been of particular concern to many here today, including this Government, especially since the revocation of article 370 of the Indian constitution in 2019 and the introduction of a number of restrictions on assembly and communications by the Indian Government, which has been raised by many Members. We understand that some of these restrictions may have been relaxed, with broadband internet partially restored, along with some access to social media. This is welcome news, but more should be done, as the hon. Member for Luton North rightly says. There have been recent elections to the District Development Council in India-administered Kashmir, the first to take place since the revocation of article 370.
However, we are concerned that some restrictions remain in place, including on internet connectivity. This was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, and I thank him for speaking up on behalf of the people of his constituency on the issue of Kashmir. We in the UK Government call for these restrictions to be lifted as soon as possible.
The Minister mentioned the DDC elections. Would he confirm that over 50% of the population freely took part in those elections, and that the largest single party—as opposed to the combined parties—that won in those elections was, in fact, the Bharatiya Janata party?
I do not have the exact results of the election to hand, but I suspect the hon. Gentleman does, and I am more than happy to go along with him.
Since 2019, we have closely followed reports of detentions in India-administered Kashmir—I think my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North, who again has been a real champion on behalf of his constituents on the issue of Kashmir, raised this. We welcome the release last year of former Chief Ministers Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. According to the Indian Government, all individuals who were detained under so-called preventive measures since the constitutional changes have now been released. That is welcome, but of course we will continue to monitor the situation closely.
The hon. Members for Luton North and for Bradford West rightly raised the issue of violence against women and girls and the use of rape as a weapon of war in Kashmir—a point that would also have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who we have heard today is, sadly, self-isolating. He has long been a champion for Kashmir. Affecting one in three worldwide, violence against women and girls is one of the most systematic and widespread human rights violations of our time. Any allegations of human rights violations must be investigated promptly, thoroughly and transparently.
We are aware of the media reports that the hon. Member for Luton North raised that an Indian soldier has been charged with murder, kidnap and criminal conspiracy after the deaths of three Kashmiri men. We welcome assurances from the Indian Government that the army is committed to ethical conduct in its operations and that disciplinary action will be undertaken in accordance with the law where necessary.
We have repeatedly raised our concerns about detentions and restrictions with the Indian Government. The Foreign Secretary has raised Kashmir with his counterparts, including during his visit to New Delhi last month, when he discussed the situation with his counterpart. He has urged, again, India and Pakistan to resolve their differences through dialogue. My noble friend Lord Ahmad is in regular contact with his counterparts, Indian and Pakistani Ministers and senior officials and most recently raised our concerns about the human rights issues with the Indian Foreign Secretary on 3 November. We reinforce these concerns through our high commissioners in New Delhi and Islamabad and here in London.
The hon. Member for Aberavon asked whether I would be trying to facilitate a visit. We are requesting permission for officials from our high commission to visit Kashmir as soon as the situation permits.
It is incumbent on all Governments to ensure that domestic laws are in line with international standards. Any allegations of human rights violations or abuses must be investigated promptly, thoroughly and transparently.
We heard a very moving speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn about her visit to Kashmir. She is an excellent advocate for the region. We call for all restrictions in Kashmir to be lifted as soon as possible.
The hon. Member for Luton North mentioned religious discrimination. We condemn any instances of discrimination, regardless of the country or faith involved. We urge India and Pakistan to exercise restraint across the line of control, to de-escalate tensions and to improve their lines of communication.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough spoke passionately about Kashmir on behalf of his constituents and urged us to raise those issues with the two sides. I can confirm that the Prime Minister has spoken with Prime Minister Modi of India and Prime Minister Khan of Pakistan about the importance of keeping channels of communication open and the importance of managing regional tensions.
The people of Kashmir deserve the opportunity to thrive and succeed, so, more broadly, we welcome the commitment that the Indian Government have made to the economic and social development of India-administered Kashmir. We continue to seek further details of their plans.
Let me end by reassuring hon. Members that the situation in Kashmir remains an important issue for the Government. We continue to talk frankly to the Governments of India and Pakistan about our human rights concerns and to call for all remaining restrictions in India-administered Kashmir to be lifted as soon as possible. We strongly believe that everyone everywhere should enjoy equal rights and protections under the law.
I thank the Minister for his response. May I ask for a follow-up meeting to discuss some of the issues we did not get to touch on today? An hour is far too short to discuss an issue as complex as Kashmir.
I thank hon. Members for their heartfelt contributions and concerns, which are cross-party, as has been mentioned time and again. That goes to the heart of the point that this is a human rights issue and is not something that divides us politically. If we care about human rights, it does not matter where in the world the human rights abuses are taking place or who is being abused, we have to stand up and stand up loud and proud for those human rights.
On that note, I make a particular mention of freedom of expression. What we are seeing in Kashmir is only a snippet—it is only the surface of what is happening—because of the lack of transparency and the lack of freedom of expression.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).