Tuesday 20 April 2021
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
Elected Women Representatives: Online Abuse
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been slightly amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating, physically and virtually, that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall—although, of course, not when you are speaking. Members attending physically who are in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery initially and move on to the horseshoe when seats there become available. Members can speak from the horseshoe only where there are microphones to facilitate Hansard.
It is my pleasure to call Maria Miller to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered online abuse of elected women representatives.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, which was called for by members of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament. It is a great privilege for me to be able to open the debate. May I, in advance, thank hon. Members for their overwhelming support for the debate today? I also thank the organisations that have provided briefings, including the Local Government Association, the Centenary Action Group, the Fawcett Society and Compassion in Politics.
Parliaments are at their best when they are diverse. King’s College London’s global institute for women’s leadership, chaired by Julia Gillard, put it well when it showed the evidence that equal participation of men and women strengthens our democracy. We have made huge progress here: one in three of our Members is now female. Record numbers of women stood for election in 2019, and record numbers were elected to this place. They were inspired to make a difference to their community and their country; inspired not to accept the world as it is but to put themselves forward, despite the barriers that remain, to be here and to be able to change things; and inspired by many of the right hon. and hon. Members taking part in the debate today. Many Members, including in this debate, do not want to accept politics as it is today —a politics in which aggression and abuse are part and parcel of our working day. That is not the democracy that we have signed up for. We want a democracy that relies not on that, but on reasoned debate.
The evidence is also clear that online abuse is not only a factor in preventing women from taking on careers in politics; it is also cutting short the careers of those who stand and are successful in being elected. Members of the APPG on women in Parliament called for this debate because tackling online abuse, particularly when it impacts the freedom of speech of elected Members, needs to be a bigger priority, not only for the Government but for Parliament.
Mr Speaker has done an incredible amount of work to improve the physical security of Members. I very much welcome in particular the statement on 9 March 2021 by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, updating the House on progress on tackling intimidation in public life, but three years on from the original review, we are still waiting for a cohesive plan, with Parliament and Government working together. We need to redouble our efforts in this area, ensuring that we have a comprehensive package of the right laws to tackle online abuse, the right support and awareness of the law that is in place, the right punishments for those who seek to silence democratically elected representatives, and the right support for staff and colleagues who are victims of these dreadful abuses.
Let us be clear about what this abuse looks like. It is not offensive language. It is not strongly held views in political debate. For some colleagues, online abuse is a threat of rape, murder, stalking, or physical violence towards them or their families. At other times it is mass co-ordinated online harassment by groups. Online anonymity means the police can find it difficult to take action swiftly. Above all, online abuse is an attempt to keep women away from contributing to political life. As elected representatives, we condemn those who take that approach, and we need to redouble our efforts to stop them.
I want to be clear: MP or not, there is absolutely no place for any vile abuse online and the law needs to protect everyone better. I look forward to the introduction of the Government’s online harms Bill as soon as possible. Legislation needs to specifically address online abuse, which is designed to bully, intimidate and silence. When it comes to elected representatives, we need to recognise that the impact of that abuse is particularly concerning and unacceptable. In a free and open democracy, no elected representative should ever be intimidated or feel constrained in speaking out on behalf of their constituents, but that, at the moment, is exactly what happens.
This debate is about elected female representatives who endure online abuse disproportionately, but I know that many, including the Local Government Association, are concerned that those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, members of the LGBT+ community and those with disabilities are also being particularly targeted.
The current police advice is to remove victims’ social media presence, which is completely unacceptable as it prevents candidates from campaigning online and engaging effectively with residents once they are elected. It is clear that action is needed swiftly, well before the next general election, if we are to stop that unacceptable impact on our democracy.
Let us look at the evidence before us. Elected women MPs already report that the levels of online abuse and treatment from the media that they experience would have stopped them putting themselves forward for selection if they had known the extent to which it would affect them and their family lives, according to research from the Fawcett Society, which might help to account for why women’s tenure as Members of Parliament is significantly shorter than that of male Members. Unfortunately, the abuse is not limited to them. Family members, children and often staff members are also subjected to harassment, and it puts women off standing in the first place.
In its Equal Power project, the Fawcett Society found that almost 70% of respondents cited abuse or harassment as a reason for not pursuing a career in politics. The evidence is really clear. Although the rise in abuse impacts all candidates, the increase in hate and abuse towards women over the past three general elections was almost double that experienced by men, according to data from the Constitution Unit at University College London. The University of Sheffield’s research has shown that rising abuse against women MPs has persisted during the pandemic. The role of online media in delivering that abuse is significant.
The Minister will no doubt say that what is illegal offline is illegal online, so the police can and do take action on threats to murder, rape, sexually assault and stalk. There have been many cases of online abuse involving female MPs and many convictions in the past 12 months. There is no definitive figure, however, on the number of reports, the number of cases taken forward, and the number of convictions. If Parliament is to take its equality duties seriously, it should closely monitor that, and commission research on why male and female elected Members are treated so differently on social media to ensure that measures are in place to deal with it.
This is not just a UK problem. In 2016, a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that 82% of women politicians surveyed in 39 countries had experienced some form of psychological violence. Indeed, 44% had received death threats, or threats of rape, beatings or abduction, and 65% had been subject to sexist remarks. In our year of hosting the G7, let us use this opportunity to draw nations together to voice our solidarity with women across the globe by pledging our support for democratically elected women, and to advocate laws and support that stop the abuse worldwide.
Gone are the days when we did not know what to do about online abuse. We know. We need to have clear laws and the Government must not only promptly bring forward the legislation to introduce the new electoral sanction on intimidation, but use the online harms Bill to recognise the harm faced by women and elected representatives when they deal with social media.
Research by the think-tank Compassion in Politics found that more than one in four people is put off posting on social media because of dreadful abuse. We cannot have an open and honest pluralistic political debate online in an atmosphere in which people are scared to speak up. I hope the Government will also look to tackle anonymous social media accounts in the online harms Bill. I support the idea of giving people the opportunity to create verified accounts by supplying a piece of personal identification, and also of having the ability to filter out unverified accounts. Does the Minister agree that we need to change the culture from the police recommendation that victims move offline, and move to social media platforms banning abusers, with sanctions to incentivise social media platforms to act quickly when abuse actually happens?
The House of Commons itself has a role as an entity to play in this issue. Online abuse must be treated as workplace harassment, a safety hazard by the House of Commons authorities, who should provide training and support—not only to MPs but to our constituency staff, who often have to deal with this abuse on a daily basis—so that we can all feel safer, more prepared and better able to protect ourselves. Political parties have a role, particularly when it comes to candidates. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) has already made significant changes in the support provided by the Conservative party. The House of Commons has a duty to protect our democracy and should routinely collect and analyse data that breaks down why we fail to have a fully representative Parliament, including the impact of online abuse on female MPs.
I want the Government to think about how we fund the programmes to tackle online abuse. According to the Office for National Statistics, the new digital services tax of 2% on tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter raised £29 million in the first month of operation alone. Let us take the polluter pays principle and use the money yielded from that to provide the sort of support against online abuse that women and girls need more generally, but that is also needed to protect democratically elected women both at local and national level.
Sixteen months ago, we celebrated record numbers of women being elected to Parliament and we still celebrate and encourage more women to stand for election. All the main parties agree that a 50:50 Parliament would be a better place, but the facts speak loudly. The Fawcett Society’s Equal Power project found that almost 60% of women surveyed said they were unlikely to stand as an MP and 44% were unlikely to stand as a councillor. Nearly a year on from that, those numbers have risen to 74% and 62%, respectively. This is a worrying state of affairs, particularly when we see that 69% of respondents cited abuse or harassment as the key reason for not pursuing a career in politics. Online abuse is a significant part of that. This is a barrier that has to be lifted, for the strength of our democracy. It is in our power to tackle this. Parliament, Government and parties have to work together to do just that.
Before I call our next speaker, who will be Caroline Nokes—just to give her early warning—Members will have four minutes to speak.
Thank you, Mr Paisley. I pay tribute to my near neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for leading this important debate today.
The Women and Equalities Committee has recently launched an inquiry into the cultures underpinning male violence against women and, sadly, I see the online abuse of female parliamentarians as part of that same culture. Trolling might lead somewhere, and the reality is that none of us either in this debate today or in Parliament more widely knows which of our online trolls might turn into a stalker or who, indeed, might in due course turn into somebody who attends our office, our surgery, our home and threatens us physically. This week’s troll could be next week’s attacker. While I will always glibly say that the solution to the online abuse that we receive as female parliamentarians is simply to use the block and the mute button, the reality is that we cannot do that in every case and, in so doing, we might miss the person who is a physical threat to us .
I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend talk about diversity, but I regret that she stopped short at one point. We know that female parliamentarians are more abused than their male counterparts, but we also know that black female MPs receive the most abuse of all, and that the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) receives more abuse than every other parliamentarian put together. That is a stark reminder that there is still in our country an undercurrent of misogyny and racism. We also know—my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke was right to point it out—that those who have disabilities and are LGBTQ also face more abuse. We have to stamp out these awful discriminatory, bullying, harassing tactics for good.
I do not pretend that the block and the mute button are the solution—they are not. They may be part of it on an individual level, but we need effective legislation. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place, but I have grave concerns that the online harms Bill will not do the job. We know that it aims to crack down on the illegal, which is good, and prevent young people from accessing harmful content on the internet, but we will have to be explicit about what we are trying to achieve when it comes to stopping the abuse that we all receive on a daily basis.
There is real merit in stamping out anonymity. I think that is one of the massive challenges that we face. People are emboldened when they can hide their true identity. We know they are also emboldened when they are behind a screen. While I do not wish today’s debate to turn into a whinge-fest of who has the worst story, the thing that struck me about two of my most prolific online abusers was that the day I met them in the street, they stared at the pavement and shuffled past. Of course, that is what we know about bullies—at heart, they are also cowards. If they cannot hide behind anonymity, it will stamp out their cowardice because they will have to reveal who they are and I do not believe they are brave enough to do so.
The problem exists across the globe. I remember meeting female parliamentarians from Jordan who experienced exactly the same as we do in the UK. We have to learn from what is being done internationally and work as a global community to stand up for our democracy. We have to stand up for those women who are brave enough to enter public life, but make sure that the legislation is there to protect them and keep them safe from this sort of abuse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I applaud the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for introducing this debate and once again drawing attention to this important matter. I know she has spoken and written extensively on this subject and we are all grateful for that.
While the debate is focused on elected representatives, perhaps we should again recognise that women across public life are being bombarded by abuse on a daily basis, whether they are journalists, police officers or politicians. On International Women’s Day when speaking about cracking the various glass ceilings, my party leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, said:
“The biggest obstacle to being a woman in public life today is the constant stream of commentary on your appearance, the hourly trolling, and monthly idiot who makes a ‘this is what I’d like to do to you today’ threat. … What concerns me more is the growing evidence of online lynch mobs controlled by dark forces who are unleashed on female public figures like a pack of lions to do as much damage as they can to the public figure and the cause that they represent.”
Such lynch mobs exist to spread misinformation and destabilise their opponents. Their existence is to be condemned, and those who sponsor the mass trolling of women in public office must be exposed and condemned.
Such mobs are able to exist only because social media platforms permit anonymous accounts. I join others in calling for verified accounts, whereby users can interact incognito if they need to, but the platform knows their true identity. Although we have redress through defamation actions in Northern Ireland, we must first identify the troll. Then it is slow and very costly, and the threshold for success is high.
Finally, online abuse directed at females is serious, because in my experience it is like an addiction. The addict needs a monthly fix, then a weekly fix, and eventually an hourly fix. Sadly, as the abuse gets more regular, it also gets more poisonous. We need to send a stern message to those poisoning the public space that they cannot abuse with impunity.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this really important debate.
How free do we think online speech is at the moment, when posting something on Twitter results in comments such as:
“I’ll beat you like a ginger stepchild”
“I hope that you have the worst Christmas, you Tory-supporting”—effing—“freak”?
Those are the experiences of my friend Charlotte, who is standing for the council. How often has a woman not posted a thought or view because they cannot be bothered to, or cannot, deal with the fallout? And what greater impediment to their freedoms than dealing with rape threats and death threats, just because they either want a job or have a job?
When Annabel Tall stood in Bath, she received trolling about her son. They said that he looked like he was in the Hitler Youth. Another candidate, standing for the first time in May this year, describes the posts she receives as “eye-wateringly cruel”. She removed herself from Twitter. She is a strong and fantastic military veteran. She is exactly what we need in our local authorities, and exactly what we hope to have in Parliament in the future, if she continues.
Nothing naffs me off more than seeing people with #BeKind or #MentalHealthMatters in their titles who then go on to give people the worst, most vicious attacks just because they do not agree or they are feeling morally superior on that particular day. It absolutely has to stop. People are not applying for these jobs. We heard the figures from my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. We have to get those women into Parliament and into our local authorities.
Whenever I visit schools in my constituency, I leave so inspired. The young women from Stroud High, Thomas Keble, Rednock, Maidenhill and Marling—they are fabulous. It is not just because all of us here know that, in local authorities and in Parliament, we can make real changes to our communities and our country; it is because those women are already campaigners. They are already leading the way on so many important issues. They teach me things and they inspire. It is no longer that we want them here; we need their voices here and we need them here, so we have to make changes.
I am very supportive of the proposals that many Members have put forward today. To be honest, I think the Government should be looking at everything, and I really applaud what they are doing. The Minister and I have had lots of conversations about this issue and the online harms Bill. While I do not want to see that Bill dressed up like a Christmas tree so that it falls down, because what it is trying to achieve is too important, it can do more.
One area that I have spoken about on a number occasions is anonymity, and I support the previous comments about that. I suggest that we should look at verification. I was very disappointed that there was no meaningful consultation on the impact of anonymous abuse accounts or the options to tackle them in the online harms consultations. That is something that should be rectified, however the simple steps that I suggest would not mean banning anonymous accounts or people losing their sassy username—they can be Princess Whatsherchops if they so want to.
In my view, we should do three things. First, we should give all social media users the option to verify their identity. Secondly, we should make it easy for everyone to see whether or not a user has chosen to verify their identity—we have already done that with Twitter’s blue ticks, so we know it can happen. Finally, we can give users the option to block interaction with unverified users if that is what they want to do.
This is not about blocking, but about choice and the future of our country and our democracy. We need those women in Parliament and in our local authorities, and do not want them to be put off.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on being a continual champion of women in Parliament and on bringing this extremely important debate to Westminster Hall today.
This debate is timely, of course, because we currently have our elections in the Scottish Parliament, and only recently a survey undertaken by Holyrood magazine found that nine out of 10 female MSPs had feared for their safety. These are absolutely catastrophic figures, and I believe that things are only getting worse, so many fine prospective female candidates are likely to be put off entering public life, as we have heard today.
I would also like to draw the Minister’s attention to the importance of intersectionality in these matters, particularly with religion. Unfortunately, as a practising Christian and an individual with a Jewish family history, I can speak from personal experience regarding this abuse. Personal abuse and attacks often focus not just on my being a woman, but on those very aspects of my being and religion.
Since 2015, I have received numerous death threats online, like many others who have spoken today. Unfortunately, and unacceptably, this has even extended to death threats towards members of my family. After conscience votes, I have openly been targeted for abuse and harassment. In relation to antisemitism, I recently received an email from an individual citing themselves as SS, saying that Jews are witches and calling for extermination of the Jews as a mandate of the United Nations.
However, this does not just happen online, unfortunately. What I want to emphasise—I hope that the Minister can recognise this, because we are working on the online harms Bill collectively in Parliament—is that online abuse is very much a gateway for some individuals, whose behaviour escalates to direct harm. Online abuse has changed our culture and, with the anonymity that has been spoken about, is now almost considered acceptable, because there are no consequences. People continue, become emboldened, and, for a significant proportion of individuals, it is very much a gateway to behaviour that escalates towards direct harm.
For example, I await the sentencing next month of an individual who harassed me and my staff via emails, then acted aggressively in person at my surgery. During the 2019 election, my election leaflets were posted back through my door to me covered in swastikas. In fact, it was being investigated by the police at the same time that the local newspaper editor wished to run a story on where election candidates lived, and I had to raise fears for my family’s safety once again.
Over the last parliamentary term, I have really prioritised my role as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on religion in the media. I would ask the Minister to look at the excellent report published just last week by the APPG. At its launch, I was also heartened that Alison Phillips, editor of Mirror Group Newspapers—the first female editor of such a large corporate newsgroup—will be taking forward training for journalists on diversity and religious inclusion.
We can agree that today it is horrendous. Being a woman in politics carries a risk of violence, and often direct threat to the woman and her family. It puts too many excellent candidates off. Would I recommend a career in politics to my daughters at this point in time? Not a chance. I do hope, however, that the dire risks are fully addressed and that the Minister can listen to the many poignant experiences of the individuals speaking today and take action, because online abuse is that gateway to actual harm.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing the debate.
Since my election in December 2019, I have seen horrific abuse of colleagues of both genders, but I have been especially disturbed by the nature of the abuse targeted at my female colleagues. We need to separate the standard political online abuse from the sort of messages that are aimed specifically at women, typically involving threats of sexual violence or insults about their physical appearance, or questioning whether they should be in politics at all because they may want to have children or because of their other family circumstances.
Sadly, it is not just in the UK that female representative face such abuse. A quick bit of internet research shows the extent of abuse faced by female colleagues around the world. I spent a thoroughly depressing evening reading all about it in numerous articles from Canada, Kenya, Finland, the USA, India, Chile and Japan—every single country that I could think of. A study by the National University of Ireland in Galway last year found that 96% of female politicians in the Republic of Ireland had faced online abuse. Shockingly, 40% of those interviewed reported being threatened with sexual violence as part of that abuse.
Study after study shows that such abuse puts decent, community-minded people off politics. I speak to those people regularly. If I meet a fantastic community activist, I will ask them why they do not think about standing as a councillor or Member of Parliament. The abuse is raised as one of the main reasons that they do not step forward. I have faced abuse. I am sure that we all have our little mantras that we repeat. In order for someone to upset me I have to respect their opinion, which wipes out a lot of the abuse, but we all have bad days when we are exhausted and it is difficult to brush it off. Sadly, many women leave politics, and cite the abuse that they have received as the reason.
Another result of the abuse is that it makes politicians more distant from the people we represent. Many people are leaving social media platforms. Social media should and could be a brilliant way to keep people informed and engaged with their community, but I fear that without further action we will have less engaged politicians. What more can social media providers do? I do not support a blanket ban on anonymity. Online anonymity is sometimes very valuable, if someone is seeking help for a highly sensitive matter or is a victim of domestic abuse.
However, perhaps we need better tailoring of regulations, filters and the ability to block, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) referred to. That could go with the blue tick. Perhaps people interacting with verified accounts could have a filter button, to turn them on and off. Perhaps lowering the temperature for public figures will improve the internet for all users, because nobody should face the sort of abuse that we all face very regularly.
This debate should send a message from all parties in Parliament to our colleagues around the world and to those involved, and wanting to get involved, in politics. It was lovely that recently the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) was defended from all corners of the House when faced with a horrific episode of abuse. When all of us call abuse out, especially when it is to Opposition colleagues, that sends a powerful message that we will not tolerate it. We can all do our bit to defend our colleagues in every corner of politics.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Mr Paisley, for the first time. I echo everyone else’s words in thanking the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for all that she does in this area.
Almost six years ago, on 3 June 2015, Jo Cox, our much-missed colleague, made her maiden speech. She famously said that the thing that
“surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]
I owe a lot to Jo, from a place on the leadership scheme set up in her name following her tragic murder to the courage to attempt to follow in her footsteps just a few months later. The least I can do is remember her words, and I have done so every single day—a phrase to remember before walking into a room or attending an event, which has never failed me, from the times I have talked with Brexit-voting constituents who share my frustration at the reality to meetings with Conservative parish councillors who share my love of the Kent countryside and also want to protect our green spaces. It is not difficult. We all share something and can empathise with others’ stories or their lived experiences.
Against that approach the futility of online abuse is brought into sharp relief. What a moronic and infinitely stupid waste of energy it is for someone to use their precious time to indulge in the equivalent of playground bullying on a keyboard, because they shot to fame on a reality game show or consider themselves an intellectually superior media commentator who is always right. They would be better off challenging themselves to live with Jo’s words ringing in their ears, rather than having the baying roar and constant applause of their echo chamber confirming their absolute correctness over and over again in the gladiatorial arena and narcissistic hall of mirrors that is social media.
In 2015, I met Frances Scott, the founder of 50:50 Parliament, and we became firm friends. I became the first 50:50 ambassador to the electors, as an MP. I have hosted, chaired and spoken at many great events where we ask women to stand for public elected office, but this year, for the first time, I hesitated before accepting a place on a panel. I was not completely sure that I wanted anyone to go through what everyone speaking here today goes through in the form of online abuse every day. I was not sure how honest I could be about what it takes to be bombarded with vitriol, sexism and plain spite. Spite is undoubtedly the driver of many comments not remotely related to political issues—as are basic old-fashioned sexism or racism, even when they are disguised and restyled as factional left-wing politics for the many.
Sexism online tries to close off female mouths, attempts to no-platform us, and quickly resorts to jibes about dumb blondes or skin colour. Online abuse is not simply nasty name calling. It has grown spikes and evolved into self-indulgent wordy blogs written by those who feel compelled to opine, even libellously, on personal aspects of our lives that have nothing at all to do with the work that we carry out daily. At first that may seem too ridiculous to bother with, but when it is shared by blue-tick bully boys and we have to stop our families reading it, it becomes altogether more sinister.
I urge online platforms, political parties and trolls alike to do better, clean up their platforms and membership lists and start to support women in political life, so that the experiences heard about in the debate will be a thing of the past.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing this incredibly important debate.
As we have heard, social media is getting out of hand, and it is intimidating. It was fine when Facebook and Twitter started—just 17 years ago for Facebook and two years later for Twitter. I mention them as they are the most popular platforms, and have been useful for engagement in discussion—but no longer. Like others, I have come off Twitter. There was no point in looking at comments designed to hurt one personally rather than deal with politics.
I know that Twitter brought in measures to help, but I shall not be returning as a public figure for the foreseeable future. I have learned to hide abusive comments on Facebook and will continue to do so until people write in a polite and considerate way. As the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), has said, we would not be that rude in person, so why do it online? We are all open to criticism, and we accept that others do not agree with our view, but there are ways of putting it.
My concern is that what is happening puts people, and especially women, off entering public life. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke has already mentioned, the Fawcett Society sent some figures this week stating that the number of women unlikely to stand as an MP has risen to 74% from 59% in 2019, and in relation to standing as a councillor it has risen to 62% from 44%, with 69% citing abuse or harassment from the public or other parties as a reason for not pursuing a career in politics. That is appalling. If it stays on that trajectory, we will not have any women who want to stand and we will go back to the days of men dominating the corridors of power, just as we were beginning to make inroads with female representation, even if it is only at 34%.
If a woman raises her head above the parapet, it triggers even more abuse, so many of us wonder whether it is worth talking about a controversial topic. That is stultifying discussion, especially given that the diversity of a woman’s perspective is often helpful. The online harms Bill will help, but we need more recognition that online abuse is harassment that is affecting our workplace, our decision making and our wellbeing.
It is not enough to say, “Toughen up. You should expect to be tough as a public person.” I have heard that before. We are tough as politicians, but we are also human beings. Many of us have families whom we want to protect as well as ourselves, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). It is the responsibility of everyone, not just the Government and social media companies, to call it out and say it is not acceptable. I challenge every single person to confront this unacceptable behaviour, otherwise we will have to put further consequences in place to combat it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing the debate.
When I gave my maiden speech in the House, I made a promise to my constituents that when I saw injustice, I would turn anger into action. What is the point of our being here today if that is not our aim? I do that to the best of my ability. When I do, I often have to advise my staff not to read our emails on a subject, not to check my Twitter mentions and not to take the contents of my postbag to heart. I know that it affects my staff, not just me. We face a sewer of hateful, racist and misogynistic abuse not once in a blue moon or on an individual issue, but regularly. It is normality; it is a fact of life. You get up, you check your phone and you try not to let the hatred get to you.
In research by the Centenary Action Group and the Equal Power campaign, 69% of the women surveyed said that abuse and harassment by the public or other parties was a barrier to pursuing a political career and seeking election. Colleagues have echoed that throughout the debate. In the six weeks before the 2017 general election, Amnesty International found that black and Asian female MPs received 35% more abusive tweets than white women. Online abuse is disproportionately experienced by women from an intersectionality identity. The statistics are alarming and unacceptable. The online harms Bill is a pivotal opportunity to tackle abuse against women and girls. It must include gender-based abuse as a priority harm rather than the categorisation of separate issues.
The Labour Women’s Network, which I have worked on, supports and trains women for public office. Half of our gold standard training programmes now focus on resilience and self-care because online toxicity requires it. LWN’s campaign to defuse abuse against women in public life calls for cross-party action to stem the escalation of misogynistic abuse, especially that aimed at ethnic minority MPs and councillors. We support calls to use 10% of the digital services tax to fund measures to reduce online hate against women and girls and to support the Jo Cox Foundation’s work to improve standards in public life.
I thank organisations such as Glitch, which has been spearheading the campaign against online abuse. It was founded by Seyi Akiwowo, a graduate of the Jo Cox women in leadership scheme. Online abuse has to stop. It is time for action and not anger on this issue. It is time to legislate against the targeted abuse that women have to face. As our sisters have said throughout the history of female political action, it is time for deeds, not words.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this hugely important debate.
While it is an immense privilege, as a feminist I am conscious of what it means to be the first female Member of Parliament for the constituency of Leicester East in my home city of Leicester, and the first black woman elected to represent the entire county of Leicestershire. The 2019 general election had the highest number and proportion of female MPs ever recorded, yet still only 34% of the House is female. I am incredibly proud to be part of that cohort alongside many inspiring colleagues, but we cannot be complacent. We must ensure that women, women of colour and women from disadvantaged and marginalised communities feel empowered to engage in the political system. Only 35% of local councillors in England and Wales are women.
Women face unique, unacceptable challenges in political life. I have faced horrific, violent, misogynistic and racist online abuse throughout my time in Parliament and in politics. That has intensified since becoming an MP to include death threats, trolling, threats of rape and lynching, targeted far-right hate and organised attacks from the worldwide web. My perpetrators hide behind pseudonyms, and it is even more shocking when the mainstream media embolden and give oxygen to the abuse with attacks that ridicule my politics. History tells us that it does not take long for intimidation, bullying, threats and psychological violence to lead to actual physical harm or even death. They want me to be silent, but while I genuinely fear for my safety every day, I refuse to be silenced.
In 2016, a study for the Inter-Parliamentary Union of 39 countries found that 82% of the women politicians surveyed had experienced some form of psychological violence, 44% had received threats of death, rape, lynching or abduction, and 65% had been subjected to sexist remarks.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Diane Abbott) has been crucial in facing down many of the problems facing women in politics since she was elected as the first black woman MP in 1987, and she is a true giant of the feminist and activist movement. We are all indebted to her. The unprecedented level of vile racist and sexist abuse she endured as shadow Home Secretary accounted for half of all online hate directed at female MPs. That shows how much work there is left to do if we are to end the twin evils of racism and misogyny.
An analysis of tweets undertaken by Amnesty International found that in the six weeks prior to the 2017 general election, women MPs in Westminster from African, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds received 35% more abusive tweets than white women MPs, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington received 46% of all abusive tweets sent in the run-up to the election.
It is vital that the barriers to women’s representation, including the threat of or experience of violence, abuse and harassment, are removed. Diversity thrives more effectively with inclusive policy making, allowing Governments to better represent the populations they serve. Social media companies and the Government must work together to root out the online abuse that plagues the online political sphere, and that disproportionately targets women. The true identity of those who use social media platforms must be known.
When we look at the gendered and racial inequalities in the UK and across the world, we know that there has been an unacceptable breakdown of our social contract. The Women’s Budget Group found that women have shouldered a shocking 86% of the burden of austerity cuts. We face three urgent crises: coronavirus, climate change and crumbling social infrastructure. Women, particularly women of colour, are at the forefront of those crises. Only radical solutions will address the systemic gendered and racial inequalities. We need women leaders with the strength and courage to recognise that our responsibility is not to mediate an unjust system but to transform it.
Online abuse stands in the way of that future. Polling shows that women are often deterred from running for office because of abuse and harassment. We cannot accept that. The time has come for the Government to work seriously with social media giants to bring this epidemic of misogynistic abuse and violence to an end.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate.
I will quote briefly from a 23-year-old candidate who is standing in the election in Scotland:
“I think that online abuse was one of the biggest things in my mind when I was preparing to stand. I have grown up with the internet and I think I was prepared for what I was getting into, and when I thought about standing I did think that this was going to be quite tough from a social media point of view. This is something that many women will think about, and it’s not an easy decision. However, I don’t think anyone is quite prepared for the first time you get piled on with abuse on Twitter. I think of myself as being pretty resilient, but who I worry about are my friends and family, because they didn’t sign up for any of this.”
That person is Molly Nolan and, as I said, she is 23 and a candidate in the Scottish election. Colleagues might be pardoned for thinking that I am making a party political point; I am not and I want to broaden it out.
In 2016, I stood for the Scottish Parliament and was beaten fair and square by the Scottish National party candidate Gail Ross, who for the past five years has served the constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. The online abuse Gail has suffered is beyond belief. I have seen some of it and it is disgusting. At one point, somebody stole her Facebook identity, masqueraded as her online and started dealing with vulnerable constituents. Nobody like Gail deserves anything like that.
I am glad that Gail and I have stayed friends throughout all this. This morning, I asked her permission to mention her in this debate, which she gave with alacrity. That is the nature of our deep and lasting friendship. She made a point that I had not thought about before. The highlands are made up of small, scattered communities. Wick, where she lives, is one of the bigger ones but most people there know each other. What really hurt Gail and drew blood was the fact that people known to her in her community were saying and doing these dreadful things. That must be a sickening thing to live with.
My second point is brief and I will abuse my position as a Member of this place. In a former existence, I was a councillor in the highlands a long time ago. I suppose I could say that Highland Council was possibly somewhere where misogyny might thrive a bit. I remember that one lady councillor called Mrs Isobel Rhind, a superb councillor who represented Invergordon, was held back because she was female. My point is that misogyny back then has turned into online abuse today; it has been empowered and made worse. I have longed for many years to put Mrs Isobel Rhind’s name on the record in Hansard. She is probably the best councillor Invergordon ever had—there, I have said it.
Today Molly Nolan, the 23-year-old candidate for my party, soldiers on. She is coping with the abuse. Other candidates of all parties have had similar abuse and are getting on with it, but it is not easy. Gail Ross has just been appointed the communications director for Dounreay, which is new career move for her. I hope we can work together across party boundaries. I will work with Gail and use every means at my disposal to fight this fiendishly awful thing in our society. I hope we can sort it out, because if we do not, as others have said, we are just going to make life a hell of a lot worse.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for securing today’s debate.
More women stood in the 2019 general election than ever before, and more female MPs came through as a result. This is progress, but to keep more women coming forward, we need to do more urgently to tackle the abuse that politicians have to deal with online. Forty-nine per cent. of candidates in the 2019 election reported that they suffered some form of abuse, harassment or intimidation while campaigning—up 11% from 2017. Worryingly, female politicians face far more abuse than male ones. We also report more acts of intimidation, threats, physical violence and mental abuse. Is it any wonder that the average female MP resigning in 2019 had served a full six years less than the average resigning male MP?
At my selection to represent North Devon, I was given an article entitled “Abuse, stalkers, death threats—who’d be a female MP?”. I did not read it. Indeed, that is how so many of us deal with the abuse—we ignore it. Heaven forbid that we should choose not to, read what is written about us, which bears no resemblance to the truth, and attempt to fight back. We do our best to joke with other female colleagues about how many death threats we have received. My voodoo curse was a particularly unusual one. Although MPs have to be thick-skinned, that should not be a normal conversation.
We do our best to laugh it off, but others read the comments. A charity that I was supporting this weekend observed on my arrival how much hatred people must have to write abuse on my Twitter feed following my support of its charitable event. On moving in, my new neighbours popped their head over the wall and said how sorry they were for the dreadful comments I received on Facebook. They could not believe what people wrote. More important still, other women and girls who might aspire to follow in our footsteps read the comments and have to assess that as part of their decision to put themselves forward.
Local female candidates in North Devon have stood down, and it is pretty hard to get female candidates to stand up in the first place, but why would they want to put their friends and families through such abuse? I speak today not for myself or even for my constituents, but for women everywhere. I am speaking to ensure that our Parliament continues to better reflect the wider population. I am speaking to encourage more to be done to tackle the cowards who hide behind anonymous profiles. I am speaking out because it is the right thing to do. Although I am proud to be the first female MP for North Devon, I do not want to be the last.
The analytical mathematician in me wonders why people do it. It is unpleasant, unnecessary and upsetting. We must call it out wherever we see it. We must not let it go unchallenged. We must not accept that this is normal. As a former teacher, I say that we should call out the online abuse that we all endure as the bullying it truly is. If we want Parliament to better reflect society, retain the additional women elected in 2019 and go on to achieve a 50:50 ratio, we cannot accept that ignoring our social media feeds is the new normal.
The silent majority believes that too. I hope it will find its inner keyboard warrior and speak up, particularly for female politicians of all political persuasions, the great majority of whom work tirelessly for the people who elected them. In the words of the great Michelle Obama,
“When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”
I thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for this important debate.
Women are under-represented at all levels of decision making, which means that action is urgently needed from the Government and all political parties to ensure that the voices of women in all our diversity are heard. Only 34% of MPs, and only 35% of elected councillors in England and Wales, are women. Those statistics matter because when women are not equally represented in positions of power, we do not get an equal say in policy making, which inevitably leads to unequal outcomes.
It is crucial that we do all we can to remove the barriers to women’s representation in politics, including online threats and the experience of violence, abuse and harassment. Violence and abuse against women in politics, both online and offline, not only prevent women from standing for election; they drive those who have already been elected to leave politics early, as we have heard. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) contributing to this debate. It is a real shame that his is the only contribution from a male colleague, other than my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), of course.
It is a sad fact that women politicians who are black, Asian or from an ethnic minority background face an increased risk of abuse based on their race, as well as their gender. As highlighted by Amnesty International, in the six weeks prior to the 2017 general election women MPs in Westminster from those backgrounds received 35% more abusive tweets than white women MPs.
Those statistics become even more shocking when we consider that there are just 37 ethnic minority MPs in the House of Commons right now. That is just 5.7% of all MPs. Once again, the well documented disproportionate impact of the pandemic on BAME communities highlights why it is important that barriers preventing women of colour from standing for office are also broken down so that policy can be effectively influenced in this area by those with a diverse lived experience.
I hope that the Minister can share the Government’s wider strategy on the increase in online abuse and extremism due to lockdown. It is clear that the increase in online abuse is posing a real threat to democracy and equal participation. Equal Power data shows that there has been a big increase in the number of women saying that they are unlikely to put themselves forward in an election in the space of the last 18 months. In December 2019, 59% of women surveyed said that they were unlikely to stand as an MP, with 44% saying that they were unlikely to stand as councillor. That figure has risen if there were an election within the year—just a year on from the start of the pandemic—to 74% unlikely to stand as an MP and 62% unlikely to stand as a councillor.
I agree with the Centenary Action Group that the online harms Bill is an opportunity to tackle online abuse against women and girls, including elected representatives. However, there is concern that the White Paper falls short when addressing the disproportionate levels of online harm faced by women and those with protected characteristics. I hope that the Minister can agree that the online harms Bill must include gender-based abuse as a priority and recognise the compounding harm experienced by those with multiple protected characteristics rather than characterise them as separate issues. Abuse of any nature, online or offline, is unacceptable. It damages both democracy and equality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Paisley. I was not planning to speak in this debate. It has been my preference not to speak about the online abuse that I face, because frankly I have never really wanted to give these people credence by even acknowledging it. That is my choice, which suits me. Others, as we have heard very eloquently, have chosen differently, and I say good for them. We should all deal with this nonsense in whatever way we feel is best.
I decided to speak today because I had agreed to speak in an event later this week organised by Women 5050. I felt that were I to stand up and tell them that it was all fantastic being a public representative and not mention the cesspit that is online commentary, I would be a bit dishonest and a bit of hypocrite. Just to be clear: I love my job. Let us also be clear that we know, as politicians, that we have chosen to be in public life. That brings with it an acceptance of public criticism, but that should not be an acceptance of threats or abuse.
Although it is the biggest privilege of my life to represent people in my local area and to be part of a party and movement that I believe in so strongly, and I would obviously encourage others to take that step too, it is not all sweetness and light. Maybe calling it out, at least sometimes, makes the road for the next woman coming along a little smoother.
I will dwell a little on Women 5050, whose website makes stark reading. It says:
“Today, despite making up 52% of the population, in Scotland women only make up 42% of public board members, 25% of public board chairs, 35% of MSPs”.
That is not good enough, and I am delighted by the steps that the Scottish National party has taken and is taking, whether that be on our gender-balanced Cabinet; Nicola Sturgeon, who works so hard to push on equality; the central focus on women in our Holyrood manifesto; or our gender balance in candidate selection.
Of course, the Westminster Parliament has so much further to go to achieve equality, but whether it is in Holyrood, Westminster or council chambers, or in political discussion anywhere, statistics show us that this is a real issue across the world. We have a problem with online abuse, harassment and worse. If we do not tackle it, we are going to lose out. We need to take steps now and to make our Parliaments look much more like our countries.
When Women 5050 approached me, it mentioned that my colleague Fatima Joji had been involved in its work. That settled it for me in terms of participating in its events and in the debate today. As well as being an excellent candidate in the Holyrood election—she would make an outstanding MSP—as a young black women in politics, Fatima has been subjected to even more nastiness, bile and abuse than other women in the public eye, but she persists and we are all the better for her participation and that of all the other women we have heard about today.
We have heard clearly today that our female black and minority ethnic representatives in particular experience such a lot of disgraceful abuse—it is not on. Politics is not for the fainthearted, nor should it be for robots devoid of human feelings. It is not just in Parliaments that women are disproportionately impacted by this online bile. Our council chambers and political movements are full of women who are subjected to nastiness, name-calling, lies and threats. It needs to stop. I discussed this yesterday with a woman friend who is a local councillor and the sad thing is that we spoke about it as if it was completely normal. Of course, it is normal in our experience, but it really should not be.
One of the things that can be so difficult is the nameless, faceless nature of a lot of this. Apart from the fact that abusers are clearly complete cowards hiding behind their wee avatars, it is obviously much more difficult to deal with when we have no idea who it is who feels so emboldened by their anonymity to post things that they would certainly never have the balls to say in real life to their wife or with their mum listening in or to their friendly local police officer. As we have heard, it sometimes spills off social media to other corners of the internet, or off the internet completely, which can be very concerning.
I have been actively involved in politics since 2014 and there is no doubt that there is more and worse abuse now than there was then. Rather than the terrible murder of Jo Cox being the catalyst it should have been for a reset, which was surely the only appropriate response to such an awful event, we see now that it has actually been amplified with a good dose of fake news stirred in, because plain abuse on its own is not good enough.
We sometimes know the people online who feed on hate or feel brave enough to send stuff our way would struggle with if it came back in the same direction. Sometimes, there is not a law against it, because it skirts pretty close, but it is unedifying none the less. Facebook is pretty rubbish, frankly, at dealing with it. It is not really interested in that any more than it is in dealing with the fake news. Twitter is only marginally better.
It was telling at the recent International Women’s Day debate, which was a very sombre affair in the shadow of Sarah Everard’s murder, there was a palpable scunner—I do not know how better to express that—at the online crap that every single woman in the Chamber that day, no matter our variety of political opinions, knew all about. That day it felt like we were collectively worn down.
We need to do something. I say again, I am fortunate to do the job I do. I know others say they might not have pursued their career again if they had known. I understand that, but I am delighted to be here today. I am delighted to speak, because, although it is against my better judgement in some ways, we have to stand up and say that we will not allow this to prevent women from getting into politics and making a difference. I am also delighted with the work the SNP Scottish Government are doing to try to improve fairness and political representation. It makes a difference and is very powerful.
We support the ambitions of the online harms Bill, especially when it comes to the issues that affect vulnerable people and children. We urge the UK Government to take it further and be stronger. Do not let big tech shirk away from its responsibilities. The points about the ways in which we can clean up the internet—giving people the opportunity to verify their identity and making it easier to block unverified users—are well made, although they do not come without their own challenges. Whatever the solution, not only for elected representatives but for other vulnerable people in danger of harm online, the real danger is that if we do not stand up and take steps, it will only get significantly worse.
I do not know whether Hansard reporters know the word “scunner”, but I will try to inform them from across the sheugh what it was you actually said. Thank you for your contribution. I call the Opposition spokesperson, Christian Matheson.
It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) and for Jarrow (Kate Osborne). I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate. I pay tribute to the consistent leadership that she has shown in this House and in public over many years. I know it is appreciated by hon. Members across the House.
Let me reflect on two matters. First, the issue goes to the heart of our democracy. If hon. Members in this Chamber went on an election monitoring visit and they were outside a polling station where there was an armed militia outside preventing a section of society from either voting or getting involved in democracy, they would give a black mark against the quality of democracy in the country they were monitoring. That is exactly what is happening here—a section of our community is being prevented from full participating in our democracy.
Three years ago we remembered the 100th anniversary of universal women’s suffrage. That of course referred to women having the vote. I like to think that these days suffrage means full participation as well. If we have not got full participation, we do not have the women’s suffrage that we celebrated the 100th anniversary of. It goes to the heart of the quality of our democracy and should be a matter for us all.
I also want to reflect on something that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow mentioned. I am a white male MP. The truth is that I do not know the half of it. I know there is a problem, but I cannot claim to know the half of it. You, Mr Paisley, and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) might feel the same, but we do not understand the intensity, the ferocity and the incessant nature of the abuse that women and also black and minority ethnic MPs receive day after day. I lay down a challenge to male hon. Members from across the House: let us understand how incessant and ferocious the abuse is, or at least accept the fact that we do not understand it and listen to our female colleagues. Male Members understand there is an issue, but the severity, the ferocity and incessant nature of it is not understood.
We know of the benefits of the internet. During lockdown it has kept us in contact, and we have been able to continue shopping, learning and working, but we also know how dark it can be and how that corrodes society. We have heard reference to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s 2016 survey: 39 countries found that 82% of women politicians surveyed had experienced some form of psychological violence; 44%—almost half—had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction; and 65% had been subjected to sexist remarks.
As we have also heard today from hon. Members, those from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background face an increased risk of abuse on the basis of their race as well as their gender, and there has been reference to the Amnesty International report and the number of tweets that women from those backgrounds have received. Behind every one of those statistics is an individual, a family or a staff member who faces the abuse, as I say, almost daily. Nobody should have to worry about their safety or their family’s safety when they come in to work, but, as we have heard today, that is the reality for women representatives.
Research indicates that Parliaments are much more likely to substantially tackle key issues such as violence and harassment against women when an increased number of female legislators are elected. However, those issues put off many women from standing to be elected. We have heard that 34% of MPs and 35% of local councillors in England and Wales are women. We all want more diversity to drive more effective and inclusive policy making. But we have also heard today about the report from the Fawcett Society on this issue that says that the number of women unlikely to stand as an MP has risen to 74% from 59% and that 69% of respondents said that abuse or harassment from the public or other parties was one of the main reasons for not pursuing a career in politics.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) asked an interesting question about why people carry out this abuse. I know that the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), has talked about facing down bullies involved in it. The mentality behind it perplexes me, but it is something that we need to try to understand. A report from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate shows that there are people who seem to enjoy causing harm to others. That psychological trait is known as negative social potency. When those people see that their abuse has caused someone harm, that gives them the validation that they are looking for. Perhaps more worryingly, the report also talks about purposely organised online hate networks. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate found a playbook, published on a far-right website, that instructed readers to target abuse at high-profile public figures as a way to generate more publicity for their extremist ideas.
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter are now part of our daily lives. Yes, they may bring benefits, but we have allowed them to become a safe space for sexism, misogyny and racism. That cannot be the norm. Online, a person can become anyone or no one if they like, with no consequences for their actions. Increased anonymity online leads to increasingly hateful and abusive language. People online feel that they can hide behind a mask and get away with language and actions that they would not otherwise do, as the Chair of the Select Committee illustrated when she faced down some of her abusers in the street.
Tackling abuse and extremism online must mean tackling the worst parts of anonymity online. The hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), who is not in her place, and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) talked about anonymity. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East also talked about some of the benefits of anonymity—for example, for whistleblowers, victims finding online refuge, or children and minorities. There are downsides to banning anonymity, and we have to find a mechanism for exposing identity where that is necessary but protecting anonymity in those cases in which it is important.
The individuals behind online hate and abuse are of course guilty of this unacceptable behaviour, and it is the huge foreign tech giants that need to start taking responsibility for the hate that exists on their platforms. No matter how vulnerable or well informed people are, they have little control over the content, which is curated by tech platforms, allowing the spread of disinformation, sexual exploitation, fake news, extremism, hatred and other harmful content—the misogyny that we are talking about today.
The main reason why tech giants refuse properly to tackle hate on their platforms is clear. Unsurprisingly, that is driven by their financial interests. They are reluctant to spend money hiring moderators, although they accept that that is part of the solution. When Germany passed a law to fine social media companies up to €50 million for failing to take down abusive content within 24 hours of its being reported, Facebook set up the content moderation centre in Germany, its largest in the world, and hired 1,200 moderators to staff it. That proves that it is possible to tackle online hate if the companies are willing to do so. When there is a financial incentive, they will hire people to remove abusive messages more quickly.
The Government need to stop cradling foreign tech giants and instead take action on online hate, so we are awaiting the online safety Bill and we will support the Government where they take the necessary action. We do feel that it has been too slow, so I ask the Minister whether she can tell us precisely when the Bill will come to the House and when we can crack on with work to support the new legislation.
This is not just about the big tech giants. It is about individuals and their being forced to take responsibility for their actions, and their corroding our democracy, corroding the lives of women who are trying to do their best in whichever area of public life, forcing them to step away from public life, and therefore damaging our democracy. It should not take the death of a young woman on the streets for us to start talking about street harassment towards women. It should not take someone taking their own life because of the online abuse that they have received for us to start talking about online harassment and abuse. This is an issue that is happening now. The Government need to start taking urgent action to deal with it, and we will support them in that urgent action.
The Chair of the Select Committee talked in her speech about abuse that starts online and then becomes physical. It is bad enough to be bullied online and bullied out of public life. We cannot take the risk that that will go further. I therefore challenge male MPs to start taking this more seriously and to start understanding the ferocity and the level of the abuse that women face. I will work with the Minister on the online safety Bill to give maximum protection, for the sake of women everywhere and for the sake of our democracy.
Before I call the Minister, I thank every single Member who has contributed to what has been a powerful debate. These things needed to be said, and they have been very well said.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this incredibly important debate. I know that she has always been a passionate campaigner in this area, and she is also the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in Parliament, which leads such important work to protect women in Parliament—online and offline. I thank her for everything that she does in this space, and I also thank all Members who have taken part in the debate.
All the speeches were incredibly heartfelt and brave. They show the will across the House to address this pernicious and distressing issue. Sadly, this is one of those issues that bear out the words of our former friend and colleague Jo Cox in a most unpleasant way, because we
“have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]
Is it not tragic that that is the case? It is sometimes hard to fathom how the faceless and cowardly abuse of those in the public eye has almost become part of the job description. It has become a fact of life. It has become something that almost goes with the territory. How messed up is it that we feel that way?
As many Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, have said, the word “abuse” seems almost insufficient to describe what so many female MPs and others in the public eye experience: threats of rape, violence and death to themselves and their family members. The number of contributions to the debate highlights the scale of the problem. Of course, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who chairs the Select Committee, said, it is always impossible to know whether such online threats will tip over into real life. That is what is most chilling.
The Government are absolutely clear that online abuse, and particularly abuse targeted at women, is utterly reprehensible and completely unacceptable. The abuse can have such a significant impact on female representation in all walks of life. It silences women from speaking out. It prevents them from sharing their experiences online. It deters them from pursuing certain roles or, in this case, from seeking election or office at every single level. It can also hasten an early departure from this job, as we have also heard.
When I quoted my friend Gail Ross, I was also thinking about her small boy. I hope he does not know what was said, but if he did, would that not put another generation off politics? They would not touch it with a barge pole.
That is such an important point, and it is actually something that I was thinking about as I was listening to the contributions to the debate. I took an almost conscious decision not to put my children on my social media, for that very reason. I do not want what I do as a job to have an impact on them. How messed up and crazy is it that we feel that we cannot share things about our lives because of the impact that it will have? Of course, that has a dramatic impact on democracy when it puts people off standing for election at every single level. That affects women and stops their voices being heard in this Chamber and in society more broadly. As other Members have said, our success as a Parliament utterly depends on our having elected figures who better reflect the communities that we represent.
I know there are organisations that have led studies on abuse targeted at women, such as Glitch, Amnesty International and the Centenary Action Group. This work has such an important role to play in strengthening our understanding of the scale and prevalence of abuse targeted at women representatives and others, and my Department has been supporting research led by the University of Sheffield that assessed online abuse during the 2019 general election campaign and the covid-19 lockdown. The findings suggested that abuse directed at MPs has increased. I think we all recognise that. From the 2017 and 2019 general elections it was clear that there are some MPs who are more affected, and that particularly includes, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) said, those with intersectionality. Women from minority backgrounds were particularly targeted. Bizarrely, as we have been sitting here I have noticed that a colleague in Parliament has tweeted:
“Today’s mailbag with photos and photos of beheadings that would make you sick. It’s not unusual for MPs to be dealing with racists and this stuff isn’t new to me, but today I feel exhausted.”
I think that we all feel exhausted by it, Mr Paisley.
As the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) said, the additional research shows that over the lockdown period individuals, and prominent women in particular, were still receiving high levels of abuse. It has got significantly worse. Of the 26 MPs who received sexist abuse only four were men, with women receiving high volumes of personal attacks—attacks on their credibility, and sexually explicit abuse. Although men are a greater proportion of MPs, women get much higher volumes of abuse, which is of course unacceptable. There is some support for Members in managing their online and offline security through the parliamentary channels, but of course much more needs to be done at that level.
All that only goes to underline how vital the Government’s online safety Bill is. It will protect women and all users online. We published the full Government response to the Online Harms White Paper consultation last year, outlining our fundamental commitment to taking forward a new legal duty of care that companies will have towards their users. That will mean that companies must have robust systems and processes in place to tackle illegal content, including illegal online abuse and anonymous abuse. They will need to remove content quickly, or face enforcement action from Ofcom, which will be the new regulator. Companies with the largest audience and the most high-risk features will have to address legal but harmful content for both adults and children. That will include online abuse that does not cross criminal thresholds but is still harmful for users and could leave a significant impact on victims.
Companies will also need to ensure that they have effective, accessible mechanisms through which users can report concerns about harmful content. That has always been a big issue. People do not know how to report such things. It is all very murky and needs to be much clearer. They need to be able to challenge wrongful content take-down as well, and raise concerns that a company has failed to fulfil its duty of care.
I understand clearly, and sympathise enormously with, calls for compulsory user verification for social media, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson) raised. However, there are concerns that it would prevent legitimate users such as human rights activists or whistleblowers from protecting themselves, dissuade vulnerable users such as victims of domestic violence from seeking support, or deter young LGBT people who are not ready to come out to their friends and family from seeking the information and support they need. However, I am keen to look at imaginative and innovative ways to tackle the issue. There must be some way to square the circle. I would gently like to say that online platforms do not have to wait for legislation to move on the matter. If they want to put it right, they could start to put their houses in order now, to rebuild the trust. Surely they have a moral duty not to stand by and let such things continue to happen.
We are working at pace to prepare the Bill. It will be ready later in the year. The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) asked me about that and we want to get it out as soon as possible. It is, however, vital to get it right, and we want all parliamentarians to contribute to that important work.
I want quickly to mention our work with the Law Commission and how the criminal law will improve protection for women and users online. It is reviewing how the criminal law relates to harmful online communication and has consulted on reforms that include new ways to tackle pile-on abuse, cyber-flashing and self-harm. I know that that will be of interest to Members. The final recommendations will be published this summer and we are looking at where it would be appropriate to bring those things into law.
Finally, the Government will in due course legislate for a new electoral sanction that will help to protect women who contribute to our public life from intimidation and abuse, in person and online. That means that someone convicted of intimidating a candidate, future candidate, campaigner or elected representative will be banned from standing for or holding elected office for five years. That new sanction is just one part of the Government’s programme of work against political intimidation. We are working with partners to provide security guidance to support the elections that are coming up next month, ensuring the delivery of a safe and inclusive democratic event.
This Government are absolutely committed to protecting female representatives, both online and offline. The disproportionate abuse that women receive online, which we have heard about today, has absolutely no place in a thriving and tolerant democracy. We will do all we can to protect not only women representatives, but all users, as part of the online safety Bill. We are working at pace to deliver the new electoral sanctions and to prepare that legislation, and we will ensure that Members across both Houses can contribute to those vital pieces of work.
We normally have to rise at five to the hour, but I will give Mrs Maria Miller one minute to wind up.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in the debate. The Government need to get the law right, and we have heard from the Minister, but Parliament and the House of Commons need to play their role, too. Online abuse is an affront to our democracy, and it is a workplace safety issue. We cannot allow women to be bullied out of public life by online abuse, because that weakens our democracy. The House of Commons needs to up its game in monitoring and supporting Members and their staff, and the APPG stands ready to assist with that work.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered online abuse of elected women representatives.
Office for Investment
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. I remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should of course email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall, unless you are speaking.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of the Office for Investment.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and a real pleasure to be able to debate this issue, which is of huge importance to, and presents huge opportunities for, our country’s future growth. I am especially pleased to be having this debate not only because foreign direct investment—FDI—is so important to the national economy, but because it is so relevant to many of my constituents. We in Hertford and Stortford are part of the world-renowned innovation corridor, and our local life sciences sector is one area of particular opportunity and attractiveness to foreign investors.
The Government unveiled their plans for the Office for Investment in November last year, specifically designed to attract FDI into the UK. The aim is to connect public and private sector expertise in order to drive investment into all parts of the UK. I am particularly pleased that that has such strong and specific support from the Prime Minister in No. 10 and the Treasury. It is a Government priority at the highest level. We have long been a global centre of FDI in this country. FDI stock levels reached £1.6 trillion by the end of 2019. We have traditionally been the top FDI destination in Europe, and according to the World Bank we are second only to Denmark in offering the best business environment in the world. That has been so crucial to the success of our start-up ecosystem, and it is why so many businesses want to come here.
We have maintained our FDI leadership in Europe when many thought that we could not, or would not, post the EU referendum. FDI markets reported that between July 2016 and September 2020 foreign investors announced nearly 5,000 UK projects, more than Germany and over 50% more than France over the same period. The impact that that success has had on UK venture in particular has been huge. It has helped to fuel a world-beating venture sector that has insulated the UK’s start-up and scale-up communities from many of the global shocks of the past decade. Interventions of the past decade to usher in new FDI have made major contributions to our world-renowned and highly enviable start-up and small and medium-sized enterprise ecosystem, which has in turn nurtured and enabled so much growth in new, and sometimes brand new, parts of our economy.
However, covid has taken its toll on FDI right across the globe, including here in the UK. There was a 49% global drop in FDI flows in the first half of 2020, which will already have had profound consequences for our economies and prospects for future growth, but it is true to say that negative trends had already started to emerge before the outbreak. Between 2018 and 2019, the UK’s FDI flows had already fallen by £6 billion, well before we had even heard of covid. We cannot blame covid for all of a trend that had already begun, and we have to respond with purpose. That is fundamental to the short-term health and recovery of our economy, as well as to our long-term growth prospects. Central leadership is needed to unblock the most complex cases and put FDI at the top of the UK’s agenda. The Government have set out how this new office will provide that leadership, and I am sure the Minister will confirm that the Government will ensure that the Office for Investment is given the necessary prominence to make a real difference and command the authority to work with Departments beyond the Department for International Trade to truly work across Whitehall, catalysing activity across all Departments.
The UK’s overall history of FDI is a story of success. Even now we are competing well, despite a recent dip, but a closer look at data reveals a divided country, which poses problems for the UK’s future. Since 2016, London and the south-east has increased its share of total FDI projects to more than 51%. That clearly has an impact on regional inequality and the spread of opportunity—an issue that I know the Government and the Minister are well aware of and are determined to address. Could the Minister explain how the Office for Investment will use its influence to guide investment to different parts of the UK? Data also shows that devolved Administrations have an advantage in securing FDI, compared with English regions outside London. I should be very interested to hear how the Minister intends the office to work for the entire country, to elevate areas previously left behind and provide a coherent, co-ordinated strategy.
Bringing new investment to all parts of the UK is at the heart of the Office for Investment’s purpose. I am keen to use a little more time to discuss the importance of a regional approach to FDI, because it is in the regions that we will discover the most untapped new potential. Most new wealth over the next few years will be created through emerging industries such as green energy; it will not come from the already saturated markets that make up most of today’s FTSE 250. London’s market simply does not have as much capacity for new growth as those of the regions. Off the back of the pandemic especially, we have a great opportunity to develop new powerhouse regions to match the might of London. Right now, the gap between the most and least productive local enterprise partnerships is growing, but a balanced FDI strategy can help reverse that trend and level up our economy and regions.
It seems obvious that FDI is one of the keys to scaling the success of the many positive and innovative announcements made in the Budget last month, such as the super deduction and freeports. For every FinTech hub in London we need a thriving life sciences sector somewhere else. With better levels of FDI in regions, skills will follow investment, providing new opportunities to retain the best talent and attract it from afar.
It is equally important to recognise that FDI is not just vital for the start and scale-up sector of business. The biggest and most established companies also seek opportunities to expand and invest around the globe. We are right to demonstrate our ambition and commitment to get them investing here, where their FDI will create more jobs, improve productivity and unleash research and development investment.
As important as a regional approach to FDI is to the future of our economy, equally important are the sectors that the Office for Investment will target. To compete globally in 10 and 20 years’ time, we have to pinpoint the right markets that will one day lead the world. It may be that the FTSE is stocked with establishment banks and oil companies at the moment, but it will not be those industries providing the high-growth success stories of the next decade and more. New wealth will rely on fledgling, disruptive sectors—some growing now, some to be established and some just dreamed of. Could the Minister explain how the Office for Investment will better enable the UK to attract FDI in those strategically important sectors for our long-term growth ambitions?
I was extremely pleased to see that we have secured the new sovereign investment partnership with the United Arab Emirates, announced last month. From the Government’s £200 million investment in life sciences we have leveraged a further £800 million, giving a total investment inflow of £1 billion, all negotiated through the Office for Investment. This is a blueprint for success, which is so impressive and so important.
As a cricket fan I have used cricket analogies before, but I feel it bears repeating today that the role we play in this place to secure future FDI in growth in strategically important sectors is somewhat akin to that of a cricket groundsman. As I see it, we are the groundsmen and women whose job it is to prepare the wicket for our batsmen to thrive. Cricket fans will recall how England’s batsmen felt the wrong end of a rough wicket at the hands of Indian groundsmen recently; the groundsmen prepared their wickets to suit their bowlers and make life harder for our batsmen. In much the same way, it will be the job of England’s groundsmen to prepare our wickets to suit our own batsmen, not their bowlers, during the return fixture. That is the home advantage principle, which we should be applying in this place too. It is our job to set up advantages for our businesses, communities and regions by preparing a wicket to suit our ambitions. Admittedly, we are on quite a sticky wicket at the moment, but with every rough patch that emerges, there is an opportunity for the most creative of spinners to take advantage of the new landscape.
That is what I believe the purpose of this office should be, and indeed is, and I read with great interest the initiatives that are being rolled out by the Office for Investment to that end. The foreign investment summit will, I believe, be the largest gathering of investors to meet in the UK ever. Its focus on clean technologies is a clear signal that the Government understand where their attention should be focused in order to capitalise on the biggest future growth opportunities.
When I worked in corporate and international banking, my role was to engage senior investors with high value opportunities, so I understand how important a statement this summit makes in telling the world that the UK is open for business and in nurturing and developing strategically important relationships. We cannot overestimate the huge dogfight for FDI currently taking place across the world. Global competition for FDI has never been fiercer as countries try to recover from covid-19. It is for this reason that I believe now is the time to prepare our wicket effectively, to make sure that the UK is on top of its game. The Office for Investment and set pieces such as the foreign investment summit can be a central plank of that ambition. With that in mind, would the Minister expand on the single front door strategy, and explain how the Office for Investment will be given the prominence and capacity it needs to lead this work and navigate the UK through the currently incredibly competitive climate?
I welcome the establishment of the office and what it says to the world about the UK’s priorities for the future. We are a country that is open for business on a global scale and inviting of others to add value to that endeavour. Given the title the Office for Investment, I wonder whether we might even be practical and prudent to extend or replicate the UK’s domestic investment centre. So much wealth is already under management in the UK: nearly £10 trillion worth of assets. To challenge the US as the best place to grow new innovation and technology, we need to encourage more FDI, but we also need to encourage more domestic investment at an earlier stage to catalyse growth.
A relatively small proportion of the £10 trillion-worth of assets under management in the UK is ever directed at UK venture, and yet we still have one of the world’s largest venture markets: $13.2 billion was invested in UK venture in 2019, making it the fourth-largest market in the world by inward investment. Imagine, though, how much potential could be catalysed if we were to channel a larger portion of assets under management into venture. A domestic version of this office, to include examining changes to the domestic regulatory landscape, could encourage a greater flow of capital into UK-backed venture. Various Government-led initiatives could be considered that encouraged or even obliged the biggest investors in the UK, such as institutional pension funds, to include venture as an asset class in all they do. That might fall outside the Minister’s current purview at the Department for International Trade, but I would be interested in his thoughts on the potential of a dual approach, to look at foreign and domestic investment.
This is a very positive step forward for the UK’s FDI strategy. It will provide clear leadership in Government and a clear and obvious door for foreign investors to go through. The office has my full support and I look forward with great optimism to the foreign investment summit, which I believe will help to position the UK as the natural choice for foreign investors.
The rules state that with the permission of the Member opening the debate and the Minister, a Member may make a short speech, so I call Marco Longhi.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley.
The Office for Investment will bring a real focus on delivery and inward investment. Evidence shows a direct correlation between job creation and foreign investment. If there ever was a time for that to happen at pace, it is now. Let me draw a loose parallel between the Office for Investment and directly elected Mayors. When they were first proposed in the early 2000s, I was set against them. In most ways I was wrong. I saw the whole thing as a replication of a failed tier of government—county councils—but the proof of the pudding has been in the eating. In the West Midlands we have had a dynamic Mayor in Andy Street. He makes things happen. A straightforward example of that was his intervention in the demolition of a large derelict block of offices known as Cavendish House in Dudley—a blight on the Dudley landscape for 15 years, which nobody was seemingly able to remove.
The creation of the Office for Investment under the leadership of Minister Lord Grimstone, working hand in hand with No. 10 to attract investment, is absolutely key. In some respects, it is a similar functional role—a supermayor, if I may suggest it, although Members of the other place would never think that of themselves. So much depends on the quality of the individual selected. We need only look at London to see the stark difference between the dynamic former Mayor that we used to have and the depressing failed existing one.
The other focus that the Office for Investment can bring is the strategic nature and application of investments around the country. Opportunities in technology, advanced manufacturing, services, green research and development and digital are all strong areas of growth that are aligned with Government priorities for productivity and a greener economy, and their development across the country is key. That brings opportunities to areas where there has been relentless decline over many years—forgotten areas such as mine in Dudley and the Black Country—levelling up.
The Office for Investment has a big job to do and it has my full support. It represents a single front door to the UK for investors, who can confidently look at the UK with deliverability and speed of return at the heart of their investment in UK plc.
As I would like the Minister to have time to make his speech, I call on the hon. Member for Strangford to make a short contribution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I spoke to the Minister before the debate, but I would like to put it on the record and congratulate him and our Government on their sterling efforts with the Office for Investment. It has created some 2,000 jobs in Northern Ireland. We are eternally grateful for that, because those jobs have been in technology, in the cyber sector and others. As well as my encouragement, I am sure that you, Mr Paisley, as an MP for Northern Ireland, will look forward to seeing how that develops. Some 3,000 jobs were created in Scotland, so Northern Ireland is punching above its weight. We have had opportunities in the past to discuss this issue with the Minister, so I look forward to what he has to say.
In Northern Ireland we are fortunate to have low rates and high skills, particularly among young people, who are eager and progressive in their outlook and wish to succeed. This is an opportunity for them. How can we increase those jobs beyond the 2,000? All these points make Northern Ireland the ideal place, with the best people, for increasing jobs, opportunity and investment.
I am very keen to know what the UK-wide strategy will be, as Northern Ireland is ready and waiting and has delivered in the past. There are many young people, and those who are of a middle age as well, who have the wherewithal to be part of the increase in investment jobs through the Office for Investment. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson) is right that jobs and skills follow investment. We want to make sure that Northern Ireland is part of that. Perhaps the Minister could indicate in his response how Northern Ireland will be part of that great strategy for all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Obviously, as an MP for Northern Ireland and particularly Strangford, I want to see jobs coming to us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Paisley. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson) for securing this debate and for all the contributions, which were focused on the importance of investment to the livelihoods, the prosperity and quality of life of people in Members’ constituencies and beyond. It is a privilege for me to be able to speak about the role of the new Office for Investment, a joint venture between No. 10 and the Department for International Trade, to cement the UK as a global hub for investment.
The UK’s approach to investment is driven, and needs to be driven, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford laid out, from the top—from the Prime Minister—who is showing the world that the UK is open to investment, and that Global Britain is a vision and a reality, not just rhetoric. As we seek to build back better in the wake of covid-19, we have to use our newfound freedom to go further and faster than ever to drive jobs and growth across the country.
The Government are determined to secure more investment opportunities in order to level up every region and nation of the UK with new jobs and businesses. The Office for Investment is very much focused on the levelling-up agenda, as the whole of Government needs to be.
We do not in any way want to surrender the power, attraction and magnetism of London and the south-east. When I was Minister for Investment, the majority of investments into the regions came as a secondary investment from companies that had previously invested, often, into London and the south-east. This is about keeping the best of what we have. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford said—she may even have understated the point—not only are we the leading investment destination in Europe, but by size we are probably the most attractive foreign direct investment economy in the world. Only the United States and China-Hong Kong have higher levels of FDI. We know that the FDI tends to lead to more research and development; it leads to more exports; and it leads to higher wages, which we would all support.
The Office for Investment lies at the heart of making that happen, by identifying and tearing down the barriers faced by top-tier investors. It sends a big signal, which is important, and it is tied to the Prime Minister, but the aim is not that it should grow into a behemoth. It is a very small, strategic group, working, through my colleague Lord Grimstone, with DIT, which, in various guises over the years and now as a dedicated trade Department, has been at the heart of delivering the offer to investors. The Office for Investment is bringing that signal, with the imprimatur of the Prime Minister. By being at the top of Government, it brings the convening power that only the Prime Minister’s Office has across the rest of Whitehall. As colleagues have suggested, this is about having a coherent offer. It is pointless to have a great initiative here if a very slow response elsewhere ruins the pitch, which should be carefully crafted and prepared, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford pointed out.
It is estimated by industry that in the first three months of 2021 alone, the UK FinTech sector—my hon. Friend highlighted the importance of venture—raised more than £2 billion in more than 100 investment deals. How are we going to be successful in the long term? It seems to me that science, innovation and technology—and I would include education in the piece—are at the heart of how we shall deliver competitiveness for the UK in the longer term. That is at the heart of our offer. Venture is so important. Even last year, in the pandemic, we saw another rise in venture investment into the UK. It is creating that science, innovation and culture here, and having a strong educational offer that brings in the brightest people from around the world, that all adds to the UK having a uniquely favourable role to play. Then what is needed is to put in place the funding to make this the best place in the world from which to start one of those businesses and grow to scale.
We want to put in place those factors and the finance. I think that NASA called the growth path for businesses the “valley of death”. We want to ensure that we have all the steps covered going forward. That is why it is so important that we look to partner with others—the Office for Investment plays a critical role in that—and that the Treasury and others show flexibility in the new sovereign investment partnership with the UAE, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford rightly highlighted. It is precisely in order to put such funds in place to support UK business that the OFI can deliver in a way that we have perhaps not seen before.
The Office for Investment will help drive forward our recovery to the benefit of people up and down the UK. It comprises a crack team of specialists who are working hard to land big investment opportunities. The OFI is there to help influence the overall environment but, in terms of particular projects, it is aimed at the top end. The aim is not to fall. It is working hard to land those big opportunities, while continuing to uphold the highest standards in scrutiny and security. As has been said, officials report directly to my good friend Lord Grimstone, in his role as joint Minister for Investment at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the DIT. The Office for Investment will bring together the best in the business from across Government and around the country to drive forward our investment-led recovery.
The Office for Investment is already delivering results. It was great to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the thousands of jobs that have been created in Northern Ireland, but we want to go further. That is why we are setting up a DIT trade hub in Belfast to ensure that Her Majesty’s Government are working closely with Invest Northern Ireland in a more effective way, to ensure that the global reach of the UK Government and the staff we have in more than 110 countries can maximise the investment that comes into Northern Ireland.
We have seen the UAE investment. We hope we will also see investment from other high-growth markets. If I had to think of what DIT’s fundamental role is, it would probably be hitching or aligning—whatever word we choose—the UK with the fastest growing parts of the world. That is what we have the opportunity to do, and we have to use our flexibility. In the same way that that flexibility has allowed us to lead Europe in vaccines, we have to ensure that every time we make the same brave judgments and create the conditions to deliver success.
I should give my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford a minute to reply, but are there any questions I should pick up on?
The Minister is not under any obligation.
Okay. I think I have touched on the levelling-up point. It is facilitating and helping to package the offer around the country. That is why we have our high potential opportunities scheme, whether that is rail in Doncaster or life sciences in other parts of the country.
I think we have dealt with the fledgling sectors and their importance. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford. She was right to say it is beyond my purview to set out domestic policy, as DIT is entirely internationally focused. However, I am sure colleagues have heard her recommendations of creating frameworks that incentivise more UK investment in those ventures. My hon. Friend asked how the single front door will be resourced. The OFI will continue to be small, elite and strategic, not a big organisation. It relies for most of the work on DIT and BEIS and other Departments across Government, but has that convening and co-ordinating power, with the authority of the Prime Minister behind it.
I think that is enough from me, Mr Paisley. I am delighted to participate in this debate, and it is fantastic to see colleagues getting behind the Office for Investment and all the opportunities it brings to raise livelihoods and the quality of life across the nation.
As much as I would like to give the Member, Julie Marson, a minute to wind up, I am not able to under the rules for the 30-minute debates. I know she is more than happy with that and does not take it personally from me in the Chair.
Question put and agreed to.
Elective Surgical Operations: Waiting Lists
[Esther McVey in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room, and take the wipes with them and bin them. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall. Members attending physically who are in the later stages of the call list should also use the seats in the Public Gallery and move to the horseshoe when seats become available.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered waiting lists for elective surgical operations.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey. Covid-19 has had a “calamitous impact” on patient access to surgical care. That is the view of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and it is what I want to focus on today. The Government need to receive that a message loud and clear. It is a message that needs to be repeated time and again, that cannot and should not be ignored, and that resonates with millions of people. I look forward to the response from the Minister, who I know takes this matter seriously.
The Government are not responsible for covid, but it is the Government’s responsibility to mitigate its effects through a variety of interventions. The question is whether they have fulfilled that responsibility. I imagine that the independent public inquiry will help us pin down that particular question. Let us hope that, as and when it happens, it is independent and full. The Royal College of Surgeons represents about 30,000 members in the UK and worldwide and, in this respect, it has a pretty good insight into the current calamitous situation facing millions of people, as it puts it.
I am sure it will be helpful if I contextualise the current situation facing patients. The most recent waiting time statistics published by NHS England on 15 April 2021 are worrying, but if taken with the hidden statistics, the position becomes almost overwhelming in magnitude. That is the challenge for the NHS, the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and, of course, for the Government’s commitment to ensure that the NHS gets all the resources it needs, as promised by the Prime Minister. I know that trusts and clinical commissioning groups, as well as NHS England, Public Health England, the Department of Health and Social Care and other NHS-related bodies have worked hard over the past year to ensure that services are being delivered as best they can, notwithstanding the unprecedented circumstances. My reason for initiating this debate is to highlight issues of concern. It is a challenge for us all.
What do the statistics say? A record 4.7 million patients were waiting for hospital treatment in February 2021. There were nearly 400,000 patients waiting for more than a year, which compares with just 1,643 people waiting for more than a year in February 2020. That is a significant rise, if ever there was one. Only 64.5% of patients waiting for hospital treatment were treated within 18 weeks in February against the Government’s target of 92%, which was last achieved five years ago. In total, 387,885 people are now waiting for more than 18 weeks. Those patients are our constituents. Each and every one of us will have numerous patients or would-be patients affected by this dire situation.
In my clinical commissioning group area, which covers my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), there were 1,374 people who had been waiting a year or more to be seen in February, compared with eight in April last year. It is a huge increase. All specialities are affected, but notable ones are ophthalmology, trauma and orthopaedics. It is important to note that what is not included is the impact on overdue follow-up activity and routine surveillance outside referral treatment.
We cannot overestimate the strains and stresses that such waiting puts on patients and their families, who do not know whether they will get the operation that is needed, or when it will happen. That point about what the situation means for patients was clearly made by the Royal College of Surgeons. There is a breakdown from NHS England, by specialty, which illustrates the situation that we and, more importantly, millions of our constituents face. In the trauma and orthopaedics surgical specialty that I have mentioned, more than 600,000 people are waiting, including 288,000 who have been waiting for 18 weeks or more and 84,000 who have been waiting a year for treatment. The percentage treated within 18 weeks, compared with the 92% target, is 52%. The figures are much the same for general surgery: 394,000 people waiting, with 60% treated within 18 weeks. I will not go through all the figures—I think hon. Members get the gist.
Such waits affect people in a variety of ways, mentally and physically. There is the obvious issue of pain that can be persistent, draining and debilitating for month after month. Also, of course, there are psychological effects such as distress or worry about deterioration in health, and concerns about the impact on a person’s employment status and the financial costs that might follow from the loss of a job, and subsequent loss of income. Of course, there will be an impact on family members or carers, who in turn have to cope or deal with the impact on the patient. There is the worry that an extended wait for surgery will bring more risks of deterioration in the patient’s condition. In certain situations the patient might need more complex surgery later. Moreover, there is always the concern that in certain circumstances a patient might die while waiting for an operation or other intervention. Those are serious, substantive and worrying issues that we, and particularly patients, must all face.
The parlous state of pre-covid waiting lists has made the covid situation worse, but it is not just a question of the impact of covid on lists. There is also the matter of underlying issues faced by the NHS, which covid has greatly exacerbated. In November 2020, making a comparison with 2019, the Health Foundation estimated that there were 4.7 million “missing patients”, as it calls them, who have not been referred for treatment. In other words, if 75% of those patients were included, the waiting list could grow to 9.7 million in 2023-24. That simply reaffirms the point that I made earlier about the need to plan now.
Many people have not referred themselves during covid to their GP. Getting a slot has often been challenging, to say the least. That element could become a significant factor in relation to cancer surgery: it has been estimated that the number of patients with suspected cancer referrals fell by 350,000 compared with the same period two years ago. That point was made not only by the Royal College of Surgeons but by other health-related organisations. The Royal College of Surgeons is not an outlier, and if the Government do not recognise the calamitous situation that patients now face, they will be ill-equipped to resolve it. I do not suggest that they are in danger of putting their head in the sand; but they are, if they are not careful, in danger of underestimating the scale of the crisis facing the country.
I take my hon. Friend’s point about the Government not putting their head in the sand, but I think he referred to the need to plan. Is the real issue that while perhaps they are not putting their head in the sand they need to demonstrate that they are starting to plan right now?
That is a fair point, and I will touch on it later. I know that the Minister is well aware of the situation and has his own challenges in getting the point home to his colleagues in the Treasury, among others. We will give him the support that he needs when he has those conversations.
In terms of support to weather this crisis, the Government cannot put the brakes on this vital area of public expenditure. Given the figures I have outlined, it is better to pre-empt this tsunami, because once it comes, it will be all the more damaging. Putting it right after the fact will be more expensive, more difficult and lives will be in danger, not to mention the ongoing economic impacts for the nation. If we have learnt anything from the covid-19 crisis, it is the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) that assessment and planning, followed by focused, comprehensive action, are required.
I have set out the issues as many in the health field have them set out. They are not my figures, they are not made up, they are in the public domain. The Minister knows the organisations concerned, as do hon. Members, so I will not list them.
I have attempted to be as concise and factual as possible and to set the scene, but there is a second element: how the issue can be tackled. The rest of my time will be spent on that. Again, this is not me making this up—is is not the hon. Member for Bootle’s version. It is, in a sense, the health organisations’ view. In this respect, the Royal College of Surgeons has set out a clear way in a comprehensive fashion. Other royal colleges and health organisations have expressed their views too. I have no doubt that the Minister will listen to those voices, which will be helpful and constructive. However, they are also unambiguous in their view of the need for the Government to act now with specific proposals that go beyond a balance-sheet approach. I believe the time for details and proposals is fast approaching.
I want to highlight four recommendations. The first is increasing NHS bed capacity. For many years in the run-up to the pandemic, the NHS was far too close to capacity. It was running hot, to use that phrase. International comparisons, which I acknowledge do not tell the full story, but do give a partial story, show that the UK has 2.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people, which is well below the OECD average of 4.7, and behind countries such as Turkey, Slovenia and Estonia. Remember, beds have been reduced from 108,000 in 2010-11 to 95,000 in 2021.
Secondly, during the pandemic the Royal College of Surgeons of England called for the setting up of green or covid-light sites with a separation of elective surgery from emergency admissions. As the college says, there is, “evidence of the risks to patients if covid-19 is contracted during or after surgery, including a greater risk of mortality and pulmonary complications”. In this regard, covid-light sites are critical to process ongoing planned surgery, given that patients and staff are segregated from situations where those who have the virus are treated. In addition, there is a regime whereby patients self-isolate and test negative before any surgical intervention is in operation. Meanwhile, staff without symptoms are regularly tested.
The third recommendation is for surgical hubs. During the pandemic, professionals have worked in partnership to provide mutual aid during periods of intense pressure, thereby enabling a seamless process of surgical intervention. Because of the multi-agency, multidisciplinary co-operation, trusts have also been able to designate certain hospitals as surgical hubs. As such, a capacity for particular types of elective procedures has been facilitated through skills and resources coming together in one place in covid-secure environments. While this hub model, as it is called, is not a total solution, it is none the less a practical way to enable many geographies and surgical specialities such as orthopaedics and cancer to work together.
The fourth recommendation is support for patients, and I touched on that earlier. Again, the Royal College of Surgeons has welcomed the prioritisation of patients in NHS England’s 2021-22 priorities and operational planning guidance. None the less, I agree that we need to go further and provide more guidance about how to develop and expand the options to address those waiting longest, and to ensure that health inequalities are tackled throughout the plan.
In my view, there should also be cross-departmental work on more comprehensive support for those directly affected by covid isolation requirements and people whose livelihood is threatened by longer waiting lists. Before I go on to summarise the four recommendations I have just put to Members, I emphasise that I am aware, and appreciate, that NHS England and NHS Improvement have been working on an elective recovery frame- work covering workforce logistics, clinical prioritisation, patient focus reviews, waiting list validation and patient communication. I welcome that, as will other hon. Members. I acknowledge that the NHS has completed almost 2 million operations and other elective care in January and February this year, and non-urgent surgery times have begun to recover.
In summary, there are four recommendations arising out of the narrative. Recommendation one: the Government should urgently invest in increasing bed and critical care bed capacity across England. Recommendation two: the Government should consolidate covid-light sites in every integrated care system region, and ensure that at least one NHS hospital acts as a covid-light site in each integrated care system in England. Recommendation three: the Government should widen adoption of the surgical hub model across all English regions for appropriate specialities, such as orthopaedics and cancer. Recommendation four: all integrated care systems should urgently consider what measures can be put in place as soon as it is practical to support patients facing long waits for surgery. I would like to put on record my thanks to the Royal College of Surgeons for its advice, information and support in relation to this matter.
Finally, the whole question of workforce-related issues—numbers, pay, conditions at work—needs a comprehensive, fair, equitable and inclusive review. The Secretary of State can initiate a wholesale review of organisational structures in the NHS in the middle of this crisis, which is causing angst and concern across the NHS—we cannot pretend that is not happening. He can therefore initiate a review of the terms that I have suggested.
Many lessons need to be learned from this crisis. I stress the value, commitment and professionalism of all staff in the NHS. Staff across all professions, disciplines and sectors are feeling drained after a year of hard, unrelenting work and we need to thank them for that. Without them, in particular, this country would be in an even worse social and economic predicament than it already is. We owe it to them to ensure that they get all the support they need to support the rest of us. Who could disagree with that?
Before I call Back Benchers to speak, I remind Members that in this 90-minute debate we will be calling the Front Benchers no later than 3.40 pm, and obviously Peter Dowd will be winding up again after the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing this very important debate. I fear many of us will end up repeating some of his points, but hopefully I shall be digging into one or two of those points in a bit more depth.
I start by paying tribute to and thanking our incredible NHS staff up and down the country—not least in my constituency—for their incredible commitment, resilience and hard work. Frankly, they have all gone well above and beyond what they are paid to do and what they signed up for throughout this pandemic, both in treating those with coronavirus and in rolling out the phenomenal vaccination programme. Also, despite what we are discussing today, we must not forget that urgent treatment, urgent surgery and A&E visits were still taking place throughout the pandemic. We must not forget that, so a heartfelt thanks to them.
We often hear that the NHS has coped throughout the pandemic. Indeed, we did not see those awful scenes that we saw in Italy of people being treated in corridors and makeshift tents. I would say, though, that the NHS has coped, but at what cost? We have heard the startling figures of 4.7 million people waiting for treatment. We know that about 2.3 million of those are for elective surgery, and there are all sorts of estimates, of anywhere between 4 million and 6 million or 7 million hidden patients, or those who have not yet necessarily presented. There is that pent-up demand for treatment. We know that two thirds of those waiting for treatment have been waiting for more than 18 weeks, and just shy of 400,000 have now been waiting for over a year. As has already been outlined, the impact on patients’ quality of life, in terms of mental health and excess deaths, cannot be overstated, but I would also like to touch on the workforce impact, before moving to solutions and finance.
As the hon. Member for Bootle has stated, it is estimated that approximately half of those with cancer did not contact their GP in the first wave. In fact, I heard a story the other day, via a friend of a friend, about somebody whose cervical smear test was cancelled last year. She was trying to contact her GP with symptoms earlier this year, and was fobbed off. She has now been discovered with stage 4 cervical cancer. I suspect that those stories will be replicated up and down the country. Macmillan Cancer Support has estimated that there are 15,000 missing diagnoses. We all know the importance of early diagnosis. I used to work for a cancer charity and in a pharmaceutical sector that had a big interest in oncology. We all know that surgery, often combined with early chemotherapy and radiotherapy, is absolutely critical in improving life chances and sometimes in being curative.
On the subject of hip and knee replacements, we know that the second and third most common operations are hip and knee replacements. The vast majority of patients needing that kind of surgery have osteoarthritis. Again, waiting lists in those areas have gone up exponentially. It is clear from talking to health service leaders on the ground that these cases are not necessarily in the priority category, which is understandably where cancer resides. As we have heard, though, there is an impact on quality of life, in terms of pain and reduced mobility. A survey by Versus Arthritis found that over 50% of those waiting had increased pain and reduced mobility, and more than three quarters experienced a deterioration in mental health and wellbeing. The longer-term impacts on the NHS and, critically, the social care sector, which was already struggling and on its knees, will be huge. The direct and indirect cost implications, therefore, will be huge, not to mention further complexity from late surgery.
Although this debate is about surgery, it would be remiss of me not to mention mental health. The Minister knows that I have a personal interest in and passion for mental health. We all know that mental health waiting times were pretty dire before the pandemic, particularly for children and young people. Now they are worse still. I am hearing from parents week in week out about not just children, but young people—often those who have crossed from the CAMHS age to being young adults—who cannot access services and are waiting a year or more for treatment. Again, without early intervention and action on these problems now, we are storing up problems further down the line. We know from the Royal College of Psychiatrists survey that two fifths of those waiting for treatment have ended up contacting crisis services. That is not the best way to treat people with mental health conditions. The hon. Member for Bootle mentioned excess deaths, and modelling from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies suggests that we could have 18,200 or so excess deaths that are not covid-related. I implore the Minister to make sure that we start to count excess deaths that are not covid-related. At the moment they are hidden by the covid figures, but I suspect that these delays to treatment are causing a huge number of excess deaths.
The other big issue that I want to talk about is the workplace impact. We know that staff morale is through the floor at the moment. I recently had a meeting in south-west London with other south-west London MPs, organised by the local Royal College of Nursing branch, at which we talked to nurses. I heard from one after the other about how they are struggling in terms of their mental wellbeing and morale. We know from an RCN survey that a third of its members are considering leaving. We already had huge numbers of vacancies in nursing and other parts of the NHS before this pandemic, and the turnover will increase. I have made the case, as have many Opposition Members, for a better pay settlement for our NHS workers—1% is frankly an insult and a pay cut, as we keep hearing again and again. I implore the Minister once again: pay is important, but so is greater support for NHS workers’ mental health and wellbeing. I know that local NHS leaders are trying to do what they can, but further support and a commitment from the Minister would be welcome.
Finally on the impacts, I want to touch on health inequalities. Covid has massively exposed the health inequalities in our country. The thing that I fear most is that those who know how to shout the loudest and navigate the system, and have access to the sort of remote technology that is being increasingly used, will be able to access the treatment they need. I say that as the MP for a relatively affluent part of London, where I suspect a higher than average number of people have access to private healthcare and health insurance, and will be able to get treated through that route. Those who have been worst hit by covid will be worst hit by these waiting lists.
On solutions, I have touched on the need to treat our staff better in terms of pay and mental health support, and reduce the turnover. Importantly, we need to give staff time to recover. That is what I keep hearing from the chief executives of hospital trusts and community trusts on the ground: they need time to recover.
That leads me to my second point on the solutions. I would love to hear the Minister explain why the block contracts with the independent sector ended at the end of March. I would have thought that continuing to use independent sector capacity in the short term would help. A number of the stakeholders who briefed us for today’s debate have raised concerns about the fact that independent sector provision is largely concentrated in the south-east, London, the south-west and the east of England. That is not ideal and could exacerbate the inequalities that I have talked about, but something is better than nothing. If it helps to reduce the pressure on the NHS, it is important that it is looked at as a solution.
Thirdly, I would like to talk about transparency. We need an honest discussion with the public about these waiting lists, and clear reporting about the waiting times for the different waiting lists. We have talked about support for patients who are waiting for treatment, and good, clear, regular communication is an important part of that. I mentioned the need for transparency about excess deaths as a result of people waiting for treatment. The Government need to level with the public if there are tough choices to be made around the prioritisation of what treatment people will get within a certain period of time, or if they will have to travel for treatment. They need to be up front and honest with the public, because that is the only way we will maintain public trust.
That relates to a point that I want to make about communication. We must continue to communicate with the public about whether it is safe to go to hospital for treatment, and we must look at how we engage hard-to-reach groups that might not be embracing some of the digital technology that is increasingly being used to improve efficiency, not just because of infection control measures.
There must be better local collaboration. I want to thank the two acute hospitals that serve my constituency: Kingston Hospital and West Middlesex University Hospital, which are part of South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust, and London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust respectively. I know they are working incredibly hard on community diagnostic hubs and the surgical hubs that we have talked about, and they are ensuring we have covid-light sites, and so on, in line with the NHS operational guidance. That is to be welcomed, championed and supported. We have touched on having greater support for patients waiting for treatment.
NHS providers have said that we need a bold, transformative approach to tackle these waiting lists, and ultimately that will need to be supported by cash. I will pre-empt the Minister, who will stand up and say, “We have committed £4 billion”—I am sorry to steal his lines. Yes, that is fantastic and to be welcomed, but last autumn the Health Foundation estimated that we will need about £10 billion to deal with the backlog.
We saw in the late 1990s and the early 2000s that the way to bring down waiting lists is huge injections of cash. The Chancellor said he would give the NHS whatever is needed. We know that a lot of these problems come from an underlying lack of funding in the NHS over the long term and that, for four years, the NHS has not met the target in the NHS constitution that 92% of patients should wait no longer than 18 weeks to start elective treatment. That was an underlying problem pre-pandemic, but it has been exacerbated. That is why at the last general election the Liberal Democrats suggested that we should raise income tax by a penny in the pound specifically for the NHS and social care.
I am sure that the Minister has the Chancellor on speed dial, just like the former Prime Minister does, and I know that the Secretary of State has the Chancellor on speed dial. I implore him to make the case for the cash injection needed to tackle waiting times and improve the health of the nation. I am sure he does not need my help, but I and the Liberal Democrats stand ready to help him to make the case, just as the hon. Member for Bootle has already offered.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I intend to make some constructive comments and look forward to the Minister’s response. I thank the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for setting the scene so very well and reflecting the opinion that we all have. The Minister does not have responsibility for health in Northern Ireland, but I will give him a couple of examples from Northern Ireland as they are replicated elsewhere.
As the hon. Member said, the figures, which we are all aware of, were clearly in the press last week. I had the opportunity to ask the Secretary of State about them yesterday. I did so because of the backlog of operations—I mentioned tonsillitis and children waiting for their adenoids to be removed—with waiting lists growing not just here in the mainland but indeed across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Those who have spoken have mentioned the concerns and pressures that I have, and they will be reiterated by those who come after. The Secretary of State in replying said that £7 billion would be made available—the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) will be interested in that figure—and through the Barnett consequentials we in Northern Ireland will get some benefit.
The Secretary of State did acknowledge that there is an absolutely massive backlog, but I think that as we slowly get out of covid-19 through the vaccine roll-out—we put on record our thanks to the Minister and the Government for all they have done on that—we need a strategy in place that addresses the backlog of those waiting to be seen. From waiting lists to see consultants to surgery dates being pushed back, coronavirus has brought us from teetering on the brink of surgical collapse to being under the rubble. It is as serious as that, certainly in Northern Ireland, where the waiting lists are gross. The Secretary of State referred to how it is a problem not just in England but in every region in the United Kingdom. We welcome how he and the Government recognise the problems, but we look to the Minister, with no pressure whatsoever, to tell us what is going to happen and how the strategies will address the backlog.
The Secretary of State always tells me that he has regular contact with Health Ministers in the devolved Administrations. I know that he does, and I welcome that close contact, being on the phone every week—maybe two or three times a week—but I want to ensure that the strategy and the co-ordination are working across all the regions. I will give two examples to illustrate what the issues are.
One of those examples happens to be from one of my own staff, who has two wee girls. One of them is a five-year-old, Lily, who was choking on her food and her drink. After another bout, her mum looked into her throat and saw that her tonsils were the size of golf balls. Those are her words. For a wee girl of only five years old, one would panic right away. She rang the GP, was seen and got an urgent referral to ENT. She then paid to go private, which meant she had to borrow money. Not everybody can do that. She was told that the waiting list was over a year long just to get a consultation. She went to the consultant and was sent home with a sleep monitor, to see where the problems were, which would report back to the doctor. She gave back the monitor after three nights, as requested, and was contacted within two days to say that Lily needed urgent surgery, as her oxygen levels had dipped dangerously low during the night.
Lily’s mother rang the hospital and was told she would have to have surgery in the first urgent slot in April. We are more than two weeks in from the beginning of April, and it has not happened. Lily is still waiting for her surgery and her mother has installed a baby monitor, which speaks, with an on-and-off movement. What a way to live a life, heart in mouth, on eggshells over a five-year-old, listening to the baby monitor all through the night, almost afraid to sleep in case of missing something.
The stress to the family resonates across every one of them. Simple surgery would rectify that. Despite being first on the urgent list, Lily is still waiting. I know the Minister is not responsible for that. The hon. Member for Bootle, who set the scene and had lots of examples, did not go into them all. I suspect that he would have examples very similar to the one I am referring to. Lily’s mother has sleep-interrupted nights to ensure that her child is breathing. A simple procedure would be the solution but, for some unknown reason, the year has passed and we do not seem to be any further ahead.
My second example is a 42-year-old market trader who has worn kneecaps. His business employs 13 local people. He has told me that unless he gets his operation, he will have to close one of his shops, as he cannot physically load and unload the vehicles, and he is losing business. The impact of not getting an operation in time not only affects children but those involved in industry and the economy.
The hon. Member for Twickenham referred to cancer diagnosis. I know of people who had cancer in the past year and, unfortunately, because they did not have their operations, they are no longer here. That is a fact. When the hon Lady mentioned that, I could relate to it and understand, because I know people who are not here today because they were unable to get an operation. I understand that the Government have a responsibility to look after the covid situation, but the time is coming when we need to look beyond that. We need to have a strategy in place, and I look to the Minister for a response on that.
With regard to knee replacements, that 42-year-old market trader is an example of those who need it right now, not years in the future. I also make that point for cataract surgery. Lots of people are not just waiting for the surgery, they are waiting for the appointment to diagnose when it can be done, knowing that they are going blind. Simple cataract surgery can change their lives with real, dramatic and positive effect. We need to be on the ball with these things.
I understand the reference the hon. Member for Twickenham made to mental health. I have seen in my constituency the effect on the mental health of children, some as young as primary age. Schools are suffering tremendous mental health problems. This problem does not only affect Northern Ireland. Just under 4.7 million patients are waiting for hospital treatment in England, as of February 2021. That is the highest number since the referral for treatment data series started in 2007. Although a relatively sharp decrease in numbers waiting was observed from April to June 2020, the numbers have since increased to that record level of 4.7 million in February 2021. It seems likely that the dip from April to June 2020 was due to limited new referrals during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
I always try to be positive when I come to debates. We get the background and examples to set the scene and show what the problems are, but everyone who has spoken so far has very honestly and admirably put forward solutions. I think we are all in the business of solutions. It is about the glass half full rather than half empty.
We need investment. We also need access to private clinics—at some time we will have to look to them—and facilities, and we need action now. With every day that passes, more people are in need; more are in pain and more are in fear, and we must get a hold on the situation. The lists continue to grow as more people’s names are added.
We need a clear strategy that prioritises the backlog of elective surgery. We need the £7 billion that the Secretary of State referred to in the Chamber, which is extra money for this particular purpose. We want to see how that pans out. We need to employ more staff, and extra surgeons as well. What do we have to do to do it? There must be a plan. We have a responsibility. As my party’s health spokesperson, I am very keen to see these matters addressed. I know the Government can do it. If they put their minds to the issue, they can make it happen, but each and every one of us in the House wants to see it sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair this afternoon, Ms McVey. I extend my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), who opened the debate so well.
Once more the NHS has been pushed to its limits these past few months, and once more it has delivered an unprecedented response. Every single person working for the NHS has strained every sinew at every hour of every day and night to support as many people and save as many lives as they could. I know how staff in York’s NHS services have stretched their known capability, skill and knowledge, have extended their capacity to care and support, and have served our community without complaint or restraint. For that reason, I echo hon. Members who have said that those staff need to be justly rewarded with a well-overdue pay rise.
At York Teaching Hospital, 1,974 covid-19-positive patients were treated between September 2020 and the end of March 2021, in a very challenging clinical environment, where infection control measures tested staff and the system. The hospital is already a challenged site, and that experience indicates that conversations must commence on the future of the hospital estate in the city. It serves a growing population, and I hope that the Minister would clock that and be open to early discussions about how, over the next decade, we can develop plans to meet the health needs of our city. Already, year in, year out, over the winter crisis it is challenged, but covid-19 has really pushed it to its limits.
As the latest phase of the crisis abates, the next mountain must be conquered. The pressure it causes is relentless. Elective surgery, which was stood down at the beginning of the pandemic, continued through the rest of the period. However, we know that the number of cases has built up.
In York, the independent sector is used to provide some of the cancer care. Good cancer networks were built with the local establishment. It would be good if the Government would publish the amount they have spent on contracts with the independent sector throughout the pandemic. Has it been at cost or at an escalated cost to the state? We need that information so that we can understand the extent of the use of the independent sector and so that lessons can be learnt about the need for national contingency in public health facilities, and about how the private sector is drawn on and whether there are better models out there for procuring services.
While staff have had to be redeployed to respond to covid-19 and address clinical priorities, which is absolutely right, York managed to continue with its planned surgery through the national phase 3 elective services restoration period up until March 2021. It has done really well: it has delivered 96% of the planned elective in-patient activity—ordinary elective and day cases—and 108% of the planned out-patient activity. That equates to the delivery of nearly 3,000 ordinary electives, 36,000 day cases and nearly 400,000 out-patient appointments over the six-month period. That is an incredible feat, because of the constraints—indeed, due to the sharp rise in covid cases in York, particularly following the Christmas period, 564 elective procedures were delayed—but those figures dwarf into insignificance compared with the scale of what is needed now. Nationally, there is a reckoning that it could take about five years to clear the list. And of course the Minister is planning a reorganisation of health services in the midst of all that, which may have some implications. I trust that, in his response to the debate, he can say how that will be bridged.
As we went into the pandemic there were already significant backlogs in elective care, as a result of austerity measures—cuts—being applied to services. That has had its implications in York. We have a high level of recruitment and retention in York—the vacancy rate is just 6%—but clearly there are implications due to the rationing that was applied. As a result, our clinical commissioning group, Vale of York, has applied rationing to services, and I want to dwell on that for a moment, because many procedures are no longer available in the city, but also many involve restricted access for those with a BMI over 30—in the case of hip and knee replacement surgery, it has now been lifted to between 30 and 35—and for those who smoke. We know that that discriminates disproportionately against those who experience socioeconomic disadvantage.
I have debated the issue many times in the House, but to this day I hold, as does the Royal College of Surgeons, that these should be clinical decisions, and should not be based on algorithms to weigh the clinical risks. Of course we all understand that smoking and obesity lead to significantly higher risks in surgery, but far more needs to be done to support people with weight loss and smoking cessation. With surgery already significantly delayed because of the pandemic, to deny people access to a waiting list removes the clinical support that they need. They also need additional support to address the risk factors, not least because we know that, for many people who smoke or are overweight, that is the case because they are dealing with the presentation of their illness. For instance, they may not be able to exercise and mobilise because of pain, which makes them more susceptible to putting on weight—or perhaps because of stress and depression.
We need to see those issues addressed. We need to see far more intervention in the form of prevention at these points, but also it needs to be understood that people should not have to wait even longer for the elective surgery that they need. We know that, over the last 13 months, there has been a serious drop in the number of people accessing diagnostic tests, out-patient appointments and other clinical services, so they are set back even further. And of course it is not just those cohorts of patients who are affected; we know that the effects have gone to so many other areas. As we have heard, the impact on cancer diagnosis has been significant as well. We know that today there are many people living with undiagnosed conditions who will, when they present, have greater risk and poorer outcomes unless this situation is attended to urgently.
Altogether, the waiting lists could double—none of us knows exactly what will happen—for clinical procedures once community referrals catch up. That would just break the system and therefore we need to see more reparation being put in place. I know that the Minister is looking at those issues, but by the time someone receives surgery they are likely to have more complexities, more underlying health conditions and a poorer prognosis. As we have heard in the debate, approximately 18,000 people could also see premature mortality as a result of this. Of course, there is a significant loss to the economy, loss of jobs, loss of income, loss of lifestyle and loss of social connections, leading to mental health challenges as well. We need to make sure that during this period people have access to social prescribing and support for wider needs as well as their clinical needs.
Bearing that in mind, I want to dwell on the issue of diagnostic testing and the fact that attendance in some areas was already low. Will the Minister look at how specialist clinics and testing centres could be set up to screen the population? Just imagine if everyone who had their covid-19 vaccine had a thorough health MOT at the same time. That would have been transformative. I ask the Minister: what can be learned from the vaccine roll-out to be applied to screening programmes and out-patient backlogs, to ensure that the NHS gets back on track with the provision of services as they are needed, and perhaps as a model for the future, too?
I want to raise one more point before I return to elective surgery; that is the issue of research. Research has been significantly shelved over the last year. We know that surgical advances will assist by cutting waiting lists, reducing the risk of procedures and reducing the need for surgery in the first place. I urge the Minister to ensure that there is significant investment in clinical research, and that it is stepped up, not cut back.
To return to elective surgery directly, first, on staffing, we know that we have an ageing workforce and many of those who have stepped up this year are now stepping back. Other staff members are exhausted and, frankly, shattered by their experience over the past year, so we need to ensure that we see that growth in the workforce. I trust that NHS planning and commissioning of training will increase, and not just to ensure that we address the current crisis; that could be extended into the future shape of healthcare. We need to get those figures right and not see the famine and feast that we have often seen in the past—although I cannot quite remember a period of feast. However, we certainly need to see proper provision of staffing.
As for facilities, we cannot dismiss the fact that over the past decade, about 12,500 beds have disappeared from our NHS. Cuts do have consequences and we have paid heavily for that. This is an opportunity to look again at how we configure our services, both on the acute side and in rehabilitation, to ensure that facilities meet needs. All surgery carries risk, so critical care support must be available, but we also need to ensure that more is done to support rehabilitation centres of excellence. Often we see patients being discharged far too prematurely, only to bounce back into the system or not fare as well as they could have done, had they had more rehab before going home. I speak as a former physiotherapist, so obviously I am passionate about that, but it really does make a difference.
In the past, patients undergoing hip, knee and other orthopaedic procedures have often gone to rehabilitation centres. Some of those centres no longer exist. For us in our profession to put people through their paces and gain the confidence they need, we need to make sure that they have those skillsets before they are discharged home. That is because we know that when people get home, the biggest risk from those procedures is that they just sit in a chair and do not mobilise at the level that they could, which of course undoes all that has been achieved. What a waste of money, but also what a waste of opportunity in somebody’s life.
Community provision is still patchy and we know that the sufficiency is not there to give people the time and investment that they need in a domiciliary setting. Following elective surgery we need to optimise not just acute care but the rehabilitation process, and make sure that post-operative care is at an optimum.
Just before I close: as many have said, the numbers are significant, they have risen sharply and the situation requires significant investment. We are moving into a new model of health provision over the next period. It is really important that we get it right and that we ensure that, before the legislation comes to the House later this year, we have the levers in place to address this form of care, locally as well as nationally. It cannot be business as usual. The next crisis is here and needs as much attention as the Minister and his team have given to the last.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing this important debate. I agree with much of what has been said. I am particularly happy to follow my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who has spoken so well about assessment, diagnostics and rehabilitation from a clinical perspective—a crucial factor to bear in mind.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about Northern Ireland. In my own work in Northern Ireland looking at health visiting services, the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland history and the ability to make difficult decisions about reconfiguration and so on and to move services on, as well as the legacy of the conflict, meant that there were some severe challenges making it more difficult for people working in Northern Ireland health services to catch up, even before the pandemic.
I pay tribute to the remarkable job done by the NHS, particularly my colleagues in Bristol, and the way that new pathways and new ways of working have been adopted so quickly. We must maintain and build on the innovation and flexibility that we have seen. As a former manager, one of my previous tasks was to try to get digital technology into the service some 10 years ago, looking particularly at dermatology. It was a gargantuan task. It was not bureaucracy and it was not people not wanting to do it that stopped it happening—it was the way the money works. The way the money works in the system does not always reward innovation. That is one of the things we need to learn from this particular crisis.
I also worked a lot with primary care to try to improve telephone communications, in the days before we had all heard the name Zoom. There is quite a lot of evidence about primary care telephone consultations and how they could help meet the demand for primary care, and about clinicians being willing to undertake them. Patients are often a bit reluctant to undertake them. The evidence has not always been clear. What a massive amount of research opportunity we have now to enable us to understand when people like telephone conversations, when they are helpful, how they support primary care and how we can have new levels of resource.
I know from older members of my family that, despite receiving a lot of phone calls—I have a lot of respect for GPs who have been making those calls—people still want to see people. They want that reassurance. So much of healthcare is about reassurance and making people feel more in control of their healthcare and that they understand what is happening. We need to bear that in mind as well.
We know that we have a large backlog, but we do not know how large. Others have given some estimates. I met leaders at the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire clinical commissioning group last week. They are meeting NHS England this week to talk through the levels of backlog and the size of the recovery. My message to those leaders last week is the same as my message for the Minister: locally, we must have very honest, clear conversations about what that backdrop means. Figures of 5 billion, 7 billion and 10 billion mean nothing to local people. We want to understand the impact on our own healthcare system and what the size of the problem is. That openness and transparency—and involving local people in the difficult decisions that are now with us—is absolutely crucial. It is the only way forward.
I have long advocated open, transparent conversations with the health service, and a more locally accountable NHS. When the Minister is looking at his White Paper in the next few months, he might think about having locally elected leaders on the new integrated care partnerships, to bring some of the local democracy that we need, and the accountability of health services, to local people. Local people understand priorities. They understand what has happened. They understand that there is a huge cost and that difficult decisions have to be made. We need to involve them in those decisions. The answer, unfortunately, for some of this recovery is a huge uplift in staffing, facilities and, of course, money, but that must be offset against what happens if we do not ensure that. I know we are all keen to help the Minister do that.
I was a non-executive director during those days of the Labour Government in the early 2000s, when the effort needed to tackle waiting lists was absolutely phenomenal. There was an enormous effort at both strategic and operational level. The clinical and clerical assessment of the lists required control both from the centre and locally. I am told that regular assessment of the lists is being done in Bristol, but it requires more managerial, administrative and clinical staffing models. When phoning patients to see whether they still require treatment, sometimes people will have died. The people who are making the phone calls and contacting people on those lists need to be hugely sensitive. They need to have experience, and they need to be skilled.
Doing this sort of work is not a basic, low-level, ad hoc and temporary admin job. We need to train people properly to do it. They will be communicating difficult decisions and trying to secure an understanding of the level of need in a community. Sadly, during the covid crisis we have seen poor communications around “do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation” decisions. It is problematic having difficult conversations with people, but we have to trust patients and involve people, so let us learn some of those lessons.
I am old enough to remember the Tory Prime Minister who proudly told us in the late 1990s that we would not have to wait more than 18 months—imagine—for our treatment. We in the Labour party thought that we had banished those days to history. We do not want to go back. Our constituents deserve much better, and I am worried that we will go back to those days and to those terrible lists.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) said, we know that there is a resource issue. We will support the Minister in making those text messages, phone calls and emails—however he decides to communicate with his colleague in an up-front, honest and legal way. We will support him in those discussions with the Treasury. He needs to assure us that he understands the size of the problem, that he will be working with leaders locally, and that when those conversations are happening with NHS England and NHS Improvement, we as local Members of Parliament will have full access and an understanding of the level of need, demand and resource in our communities. That has been my challenge to my local leaders of the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire clinical commissioning group. If they turn around and tell me they cannot tell me that because someone at NHS England tells them they cannot do so, I will get straight back to the Minister, whose phone number I have, by text message and email to demand answers.
As a fellow Cheshire MP, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey.
Every Member who has contributed to the debate has spoken with great knowledge and sincerity about the challenge we face as a society. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) for securing the debate and for his excellent introduction. As every Member has pointed out, he was right to say that we have record waiting lists. We should never forget that we had already seen a huge rise of over 40% in the decade before the pandemic. As some Members mentioned, it is possible that covid is masking an even worse situation. We know that the number of referrals plummeted around this time last year, as the NHS rightly focused all its intention on the pandemic.
As Members have said, we know that the NHS aims to ensure that no more than 8% of patients wait more than 18 weeks for treatment. That is a target that has not been met for five years, so this situation cannot be laid entirely at covid’s door. Indeed, just over a year ago, in February 2020, 17% of people on waiting lists had been waiting longer than 18 weeks. It is clear that the past year has had an impact, because the figure has now doubled to 35%.
Sadly, it is now the case that over a million people have waited longer than six months for hospital treatment. There are now 388,000 people waiting more than a year. Again, that is the highest number on record. That is nearly 400,000 people waiting for things such as knee and hip replacements. As Versus Arthritis points out, they
“are in extreme distress, with many struggling to cope with pain which is impossible to ignore, worsening mental health and reduced quality of life.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle set out clearly some of the implications not just for physical pain, but for mental health and uncertainty about job prospects. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) eloquently set out the reduced outcomes and difficulties we will face if the process is not followed as well as we would like and patients enter the system at a later date.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle said, this is an issue that cannot and should not be ignored. He described the challenges as possibly overwhelming—an apposite description, given that the Government’s strategy for the last year has been to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed. As that challenge was met, we hope that this challenge will be met as well. He also made the important point that, if we do not get this right, it will cost us more in the long run and will have economic and as well as physical and social impacts. The lessons learned from the pandemic ring true in that respect as well.
When we look very closely at the figures, we see that around 18,000 people are now waiting longer than 18 months. The figures we have relate to people waiting more than a year. Obviously, I have discussed this with the Minister on previous occasions and we hope that we will get the official figures shortly. We must remember that at the moment, we only have details for people waiting over a year, but the information I have suggests that more than 175 people have been waiting for more than two years. Those figures are slightly out of date, as they are from January, but that is a horrendous situation and I hope it has got better in the last few months. If it has got worse, I hope and expect that the Minister will be on the phone to those trusts inquiring exactly why people are waiting over two years to receive their treatment.
The importance of dealing with the backlog quickly cannot be overstated, because of the likely pressure that will manifest itself over the coming months. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle said, the Health Foundation has estimated that there could be as many as 4.7 million missing patients. If only three quarters of those are referred to treatment, that would lead to a waiting list of 9.7 million people by 2023-24. Obviously, that is an estimate, but if the Minister has done his own calculation, can he tell us what it is?
Over the last year, the NHS has adapted fantastically to the challenges of covid in a way that has rightly won the respect of everyone in this place and in the country. That has meant decisions have been taken about how treatments should be prioritised. We have seen appointments cancelled, operations postponed and staff redeployed, but even with those challenges, the NHS managed to carry out 1.9 million operations in January and February this year, which Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, said is
“a testament to the hard work and dedication of staff”.
I join him in paying tribute to those staff for delivering that. However, even with that fantastic effort—to put into context the challenge that we face—the number of routine operations in January was down 54% on last year and in February it was down 47%.
Thankfully, I think we are past the peak of the third wave and there are only just over 2,000 patients with covid in hospital, which is the lowest since last September. However, the NHS is still under enormous pressure, with so many people now waiting for treatment, stricter infection control measures and, as many Members have referred to, an exhausted healthcare workforce. We have to be realistic: this could take years to address unless there is a credible and costed plan in place at the earliest opportunity.
Modelling by the NHS Confederation suggests that the sustained impact of the pandemic will leave a backlog of care in excess of anything seen over the last 12 years and that to maintain any sense of control over its waiting list, the NHS will need to increase capacity considerably above levels that have previously been sustained. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) referred to the huge efforts that were made by the previous Labour Government to get waiting lists down. It seems that a strategy at least on a par with that will be needed.
The NHS Confederation has said:
“Without a comprehensive new plan, the government faces the…legacy of hundreds of thousands of patients left with deteriorating conditions”.
It warns that the additional £1 billion agreed in the spending review will not be enough to clear the backlog. The chief executive of the NHS Confederation Danny Mortimer said:
“health leaders are clear that the NHS will be recovering for years to come, and this must be appropriately resourced in the long-term.”
He called for
“investment in growing and maintaining the workforce”.
NHS Providers has said that the situation could take three to five years to resolve. Its chief executive, Chris Hopson, said:
“Trusts believe they can clear the backlog within a reasonable period of time”,
but that treating this like another waiting list initiative, relying on overtime and private sector use, will be insufficient. He said that the NHS will need to transform “how it provides care” and that the Government will need to provide
“the extra funding required to enable that transformation.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle set out, a number of practical steps can be taken to deliver transformation, but they come with a price tag. The Prime Minister was quick to pledge that the Government will ensure that the NHS has the funds it needs to beat the backlog, but how can we have confidence in him when he has already gone back on a promised pay rise for NHS staff? NHS England said that although the £1 billion fund will help, it will not be enough. Of course it will help and it is welcome, but helping is not the same as solving. Nobody, probably not even the Minister, believes that what is on the table represents a solution.
There is no doubt that the NHS has a monumental task ahead of it to restore services, meet demand and reduce the care backlogs, but it also must support staff and take steps to reduce inequality in access, experience and outcomes. Now is the time for the Government to deliver on their promise to deliver to the NHS whatever it needs. It certainly is not the time for another expensive reorganisation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South said. If that is the road we go down, it is important that patients’ voices are put front and centre of those new bodies, particularly if they are forced to deal with some of those extremely tricky issues.
As many Members said, 10 years of underfunding have left us in this precarious position. The challenge is there for the Minister. The experts say that we can tackle the backlog, but it will need funding. If the Minister can confirm any specific figures, that would be wonderful. I suspect we will not get that today, but at the very least will he confirm on the record that he agrees that the £1 billion that has been allocated so far is insufficient?
To pick up on what Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said about relying on the private sector, we know that huge sums were provided last year. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said, we have never had transparency about what that money was spent on. Can the Minister tell us how many NHS patients were seen in the private sector last year, and how many procedures were carried out using taxpayers’ money? I am sure that he is as keen as all of us to ensure that the best value has been achieved.
Many Members said that none of the backlog will be tackled if we do not have the staff to do it. A recent Institute for Public Policy Research report based on a YouGov poll of 1,000 healthcare professionals said that a third more nurses and midwives are leaving the NHS than a year ago. Those figures are scaled up across the workforce—that means 100,000 nurses and 8,000 midwives leaving. With 40,000-plus vacancies already, we cannot afford to lose one more, never mind 100,000 more.
Dame Donna Kinnair of the Royal College of Nursing said that that is
“The reality of a failure to properly invest in the nursing workforce”
and must be a
“wake-up call to the Government.”
It should indeed, especially when we are still waiting for the publication of the substantive long-term workforce plans to deliver a lasting solution to recruiting and retaining the workforce and ensuring there are enough skilled staff to provide safe and effective care now and in the future. That is why it is vital that Ministers bring forward a fully funded plan to tackle the backlog—we have been calling for that for a long time: an NHS rescue plan that will bring down waiting lists and ensure that patients can receive the quality of care that they deserve. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central put it, we cannot carry on with business as usual.
Let me end with the important comments from Dr Rob Harwood, the chair of the British Medical Association’s consultants committee:
“Without further financial support and investment in increasing staffing numbers, patients will be waiting even longer for care, and there is a risk that patient care becomes unsafe the more exhausted staff become. The future of our NHS, already walking wounded, must not be put in jeopardy.”
The NHS is the jewel in our crown, but it needs protecting, sometimes as much as the patients it treats. We need financial support, a detailed people policy and a credible plan to deal with the backlog if we are to avoid coming back in 12 months to talk about an even worse situation.
I call the Minister, mindful that we will have a winding-up speech from Peter Dowd at the end.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey.
May I start, as other hon. Members have done, by congratulating the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing the debate on this hugely important subject? As colleagues have said, this subject is so important not just to hon. Members, but to all our constituents. Given its importance, I suspect that it will not be in 12 months’ time that we next debate it. I would hope that, in the coming weeks and months, we will continue to debate the progress on reducing waiting lists and getting waiting times down, because that is important. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s typically reasonable and measured tone. I know that he takes a close interest in these matters, working with the all-party parliamentary heath group. If it is helpful to him, I am happy to meet him outside the Chamber to have further discussions about exactly what he said.
I of course join hon. Members in paying tribute to the amazing work of all those who work in our NHS. Once again, I thank them for their tireless efforts throughout the pandemic. Like other hon. Members, I make no apology for reiterating those thanks every time I have the opportunity to do so.
As the hon. Gentleman set out, and as the House will know, our goal throughout the pandemic has been to protect the NHS and save lives. At the peak of the pandemic, we focused on caring for covid-19 patients, while seeking to continue to prioritise urgent treatments such as surgery for cancer and other life-saving operations. The temporary pauses in other elective activity, and the reduction in the volume of such activity, were put in place to limit the number of patients and to help prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, as well as for infection control. We have to be very clear, however, as hon. Members have been, about the impact that that necessary action has had on many tens of thousands of our constituents. All hon. Members have alluded to the fact that their constituents have suffered not just pain, but anxiety, nervousness and the impact that such delays can have on mental health.
By the summer of 2020, the NHS had started to recover elective activity after the first wave. Having learned from the first wave, it was able to keep elective activity going at a higher level, albeit not as high as some might have wished, through the second and subsequent waves. The situation is looking better for our NHS: there has been a huge fall in hospitalisations and deaths from covid-19, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), alluded to in his remarks, and the success of our vaccination programme means that more people now have longer-term protection from the virus.
Once again, the NHS has done incredible work in keeping as many services as possible going at a time of unprecedented strain. Despite the pressure of the pandemic, by December 2020, the NHS has recovered to carrying out nearly 80% of elective treatments compared with the previous year’s figures. As we continue on our journey to recovery, we must focus on addressing the pressures beyond covid that have been caused by the pandemic. To do that, we are providing the funding, the support for staff and the legal foundations to help our NHS build back better.
We as a Government, in partnership with the NHS, have turned our focus to recovering the activity that was lost following those necessary reductions in activity and, in some cases, the halting of elective treatments. As part of that, we encourage the public to please come forward, through campaigns such as “Help Us, Help You”, and to contact their GP if they are worried about symptoms, especially if they are potential cancer symptoms. The hon. Member for Bootle was absolutely right to highlight that this is not just about surgical procedures in an acute setting, but about the entire patient journey: getting people through the front door of their GP’s surgery; giving them a diagnosis or a provisional diagnosis on the phone, with diagnostic tests; and then the treatment that follows.
We know that waiting lists continue to grow for elective services, as all hon. Members have set out, with 4.7 million people currently waiting for treatment. Of course, we and the NHS are working incredibly hard to reduce that backlog. We will rightly continue to prioritise patients according to their medical needs as well as how long they have been waiting.
We have already seen promising recovery in services—the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston alluded to that—but it is also important that we recognise at this point, as hon. Members have done, the huge strain that staff and the NHS workforce have been under throughout this pandemic. As such, it is very important that in seeking to recover levels of activity, we do so in a way that enables those staff to have the time and space they need to recover physically and mentally from what they have been through.
I want to reassure hon. Members about the funding and the fact that there is a plan. That plan is being developed on the basis of evidence and pilots that we saw undertaken in London, for example, which I will turn to a moment. On 18 March, as part of the spending review, we announced a further £7 billion of funding for healthcare services. Over the next six months, the NHS will receive £6.6 billion to support that recovery. That comes on top of the funding increases that are already hard-baked into the NHS Funding Act 2020. At the last spending review, we announced an additional £1 billion investment to further kick-start recovery and begin addressing backlogs and tackling long waits. Looking at the shadow Minister, I reiterate from this Dispatch Box the words of the Prime Minister making it clear—very clear—that the NHS will have the resources and funding it needs to do the job.
As well as funding, we have been supporting the NHS to innovate because, as has been alluded to, funding alone is not the answer. We need to look at how we tackle the backlog, the care pathways and the approaches we adopt. That planning is already happening, working with the frontline. In elective surgery, the NHS is basing its approach on lessons learned from the London pilot programme that ran in October 2020 to redesign treatment pathways. Of course in that context I pay tribute to Professor Tim Briggs for his work on the Getting it Right First Time programme, which offers a huge opportunity to reform and improve the way we deliver care and those care pathways.
We have seen some great examples of innovation. I spoke to Tim Briggs this morning and he highlighted some of them, such as joint replacements and the impact that treatment can have on people. The Queen’s Hospital in Romford, the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in Oxford, the United Lincolnshire hospitals and the Royal Cornwall Hospital are all using innovative approaches to try to tackle that backlog. Croydon Elective Centre physically separated emergency and elective theatre units in what was the hospital’s blue zone, enabling it to run at 120% of pre-lockdown activity levels for routine procedures, including cancer, cardiac and hip operations. It is only one example, but it is an example of what the system is doing to innovate and try to get activity levels back to where we would like to see them.
During the pandemic last year, the out-patients programme avoided 18 million face-to-face appointments through the use of virtual appointments and reduced the number of unnecessary appointments, but I take the point made by the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) that there will always be some people or some people’s medical condition that will result in their wanting or needing to see a GP or a practitioner face to face.
On diagnosis, we are rolling out 44 community diagnostic hubs with the plan to deliver over 1 million additional scans and tests across CT, MRI, X-ray, ultrasound and ECGs. These are just examples, but these numbers are already helping the NHS to recover, and they have the potential to play a key part in the long-term approach to tackling waiting lists.
In the few minutes I have before the hon. Member for Bootle winds up, I will deal with some of the specific points he raised on behalf of the Royal College of Surgeons. On the first issue—urgently increasing bed capacity and critical care bed capacity—we continue to work with the NHS very closely to ensure we have sufficient beds to meet future demand, with hospitals flexing their bed capacity as required. It is important to note that one of the points Professor Briggs made to me is that the ability, with modern medicine and approaches, to tackle more elective procedures in day case surgery maximises the use of theatres and eases the pressure on beds. Where previously somebody might have been kept in overnight, the beds can be used for patients having procedures that require overnight stays.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the consolidation of covid-light sites in every ICS region and talked about widening the adoption of the surgical hub model across all English regions. NHS England continues to design and refine the future operating models in the light of ongoing levels of community infection. The London region pilot has been looking at exactly that model and testing it. We have to make sure it does the job and delivers the results, as we want this to be an evidence-based recovery plan, but the early indications are promising. Using surgical hubs and separating out elective services through hot and cold sites are key components of the London region pilot.
A number of Members rightly said that we must not lose sight of health inequalities in our plan and our approach to tackling the waiting list backlog. We believe that the accelerated restoration of elective services and innovations in primary care will play a key part in improving local health outcomes and tackling health inequalities. That is an explicit part of what I am looking at as I draw up the plan with colleagues.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman talked about ensuring that all ICSs urgently consider what measures can be put in place to support patients facing long waits for surgery. We continue to work very closely on this. The hon. Member for Bristol South is right that many people who are communicating with patients are doing an extremely challenging and sensitive job, so it is absolutely right that we give them the support they need to know how to do it to the best of their ability, so that they, just as much as the patients, do not find it any more difficult than it inherently is. Local systems have been asked to plan their recovery as quickly as possible and in a way that supports those patients through their waits.
On statistics, the shadow Minister was kind to me. He raised a point of order a couple of weeks ago about statistics and over 52-week waits, but he did so very gently. When answering written questions, we are required to use published data, and at the moment it is not cut in the way that he wanted, which is fortnightly or weekly— 52 to 53, 53 to 54 and so on. He raises an important point, and I will write to him shortly to set out what we can do to increase the transparency with that level of granular data in the coming months. Again on a point made by the hon. Member for Bristol South, it is absolutely right that everyone can see what the challenge is at a local level, what approach is being taken to address it working in partnership with those local systems, and what progress is being made against the targets and the backlog.
In the 10 seconds or so that I have before I hand over to the hon. Member for Bootle, let me say that recovery of NHS elective services is one of the greatest challenges, but also one of the greatest opportunities that we have to transform patient care. We are completely committed to building the NHS back better, learning the lessons from the pandemic and doing all we can to ensure that patients—our constituents—receive the best possible treatment as quickly as possible, and that we reduce the waiting lists and waiting times.
This excellent debate has brought out so many things. I thank the hon. Members for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol South and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for contributing, and I thank the Minister for his replies. He has a pretty good feel for the strategic and organisational issues, and the hon. Member for Strangford and my hon. Friends set the scene for particular areas. This has been a qualitative debate—it has been about the quality rather than quantity of Members, and we have had a rich tapestry.
Finally, I want to say to the Minister that if he wants to include us in his ministerial WhatsApp group, he can do so. If he wants to give us the Prime Minister’s mobile number and the number for the Treasury team, we would be happy to take them. We will give him all the backing he needs in continuing to make the case for the resources we all want the NHS to have. Thank you very much, Ms McVey, for the opportunity to speak today.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the scope of the proposed Turing scheme.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. As one of the first beneficiaries of the Erasmus programme, this issue is close to my heart. I spent a year in Italy, where I not only improved my Italian, but made lifelong friends. I played rugby at Benetton Treviso and expanded my understanding of different cultures, not just European ones. As an undergraduate at Exeter University, the opportunity to study at Ca’ Foscari at the University of Venice was a huge opportunity for a comprehensive schoolgirl from Llanelli.
Over the past 34 years, Erasmus has given an opportunity to more than 250,000 students from the UK, not including those who have benefited from work placements through Erasmus+. Although it is a predominantly European Union scheme, placements are offered in 190 countries worldwide, whereas Turing is an exclusively inward-focused scheme, so where does that leave inward students? The loss of income from incoming students has been estimated by Universities UK to be £243 million per annum. How can we retain the links that have been built up and nurtured over many years when we go it alone?
In the absence of reciprocal funding, we will also be relying on students at European partner universities to come to the UK, despite the lack of financial support for them. What happens to them? Arrangements collapse or organisations introduce fees for our students. The Minister needs to address whether the costs will be covered for our students. The belief that countries will continue to want to come to the UK when their students already benefit from being part of Erasmus with no extra barriers is naive of the Government, and it will ultimately harm the future of students looking to study abroad. Understandably, the Government have talked up the benefits of the Turing scheme, but when it comes down to it, there will be less funding available for students to study abroad. Instead of £125 million a year as part of a seven-year funding cycle through Erasmus+, UK Universities have access to only £100 million in a single-year cycle.
The application process is very different from Erasmus. The added uncertainty around being selected for funding as a result of a more detailed application will prove a barrier for less advantaged students. If someone does not know whether they will get the funding for their year abroad, they are less likely to apply for a course that requires study in another country. It will be uncompetitive, with relatively limited funding available in comparison with Erasmus. Students from less privileged backgrounds will be penalised.
I think about my son and the many students studying foreign languages at A-level now, who are planning and looking ahead to go to university. What does the future hold for them? The Government have failed to address the issue of visas for students wanting to study and work abroad. Who will be responsible for the associated fees for them? Is there a limit on the number of students who will come to the UK through Turing, and will that ultimately affect UK students wanting to take a year abroad?
The timing of the announcement caused consternation for many. The announcement of the new scheme so late last year came too late for applications from those wanting to study on their year abroad in 2021. The funding model that the Government have put in place is not fit for purpose. The short-sightedness of a single-year system makes recruitment to modern foreign language degrees and other subjects that offer a year abroad really difficult. As a linguist and a modern foreign languages graduate, I feel for the students. It is an area where we have issues in recruitment and we have to look at that.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. I want to make two points. First, the Government have said that the scheme will be advantageous to disadvantaged students. Does she agree with me that we have not seen any indication of how that is the case? Does she also agree that it is not just language students who benefit from Erasmus? Students like my son, who studied physics in France, had huge benefits. Those collaborations and relationships that are built in other subjects, particularly STEM, are extremely important.
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. That is key to one of the points I want to make. I was a pure languages graduate, but is it not wonderful to push girls especially to study STEM subjects? When such a subject is put with a language that allows travel around the world, it is really powerful. We are taking those opportunities away from people with disadvantaged backgrounds because there is less money in the pot, from what we have seen so far. How is it going to work, Minister? For future generations of students across the United Kingdom, I want to know what the Government are doing.
The deadline for applications has been extended twice, which demonstrates the lack of planning and understanding by the architects of the scheme of how it was to work. It seemed like a kneejerk reaction to many of us. The application process is highly complex, not only for educational institutions; imagine what it is like for a student to fill it in. The Turing scheme limits the cohort of people who can apply to study abroad, whereas Erasmus+ also opened up opportunities to those in adult education, in schools and sports courses, and those involved in youth work. The Turing scheme does not cover those areas.
I was a teacher for 20 years and we offered those opportunities and had grants that we were able to access for exchanges. Gone are the days of taking comprehensive school children to France under schemes that I have used for their benefit. Those were children who would not even think about going on holiday there, let alone staying in somebody’s house and experiencing school in another country. Those were unique experiences that our children will now miss out on. My good friend Professor Claire Gorrara, who is the chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, said of the Turing scheme:
“The current scheme risks decades-long deeply nurtured partnerships with other European universities for the modern languages community. These partnerships have supported excellent student exchanges that have transformed young people’s lives, improved their languages skills and given them amazing opportunities as global citizens.”
The Turing scheme’s lack of reciprocity also risks staff exchanges, which are the bedrock of these exchanges. I benefited from this when I prepared a project working with a school in Treviso. I had the opportunity to visit beforehand, to ensure that everything was in place for the safety of the children and their educational experience. Without long-term and reciprocal arrangements, and relationships for continuing exchanges in Europe and beyond, the Turing scheme will not be able to deliver on the Government’s global Britain ambitions, which we fully support.
We are now facing a situation where students in England must work only within the parameters of Turing. The devolved Administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have already said that they will provide additional support. as a Welsh MP, I am obviously interested in Wales., The new international learning exchange scheme in Wales will provide assistance for staff who want to spend time abroad, which is not covered under the Turing scheme.
The exchange of staff not only benefits them, but it leads to a stronger relationship between institutions, with years of relationships from which pupils and students benefit. That provides students with a wider perspective on their learning. The Welsh scheme will benefit from £65 million between 2022 and 2026. That will allow them to try to cover tuition fees when they are imposed on Welsh students—another area where the Turing scheme diverges from Erasmus+. In view of the apparent flaws of the Turing scheme, it seems likely there will be significantly reduced opportunities for learners, seeking to benefit from placements in Europe and elsewhere, and for colleges and universities, hoping to exchange experience and knowledge.
The Government need to rethink their decision to withdraw from Erasmus. Many may think it is futile for me to stand here and ask, given the Government’s ambition to create a global Britain. It really is extraordinary to think that we would withdraw from any relationship at all with a programme with 190 full programme and partner countries.
The UK will continue to participate in Erasmus until 2022 through projects that were approved up to the end of the transition period in 2020, but we need to look to the future and to argue for an Erasmus protocol to be drawn up in parallel with the new EU Horizon R&D programme, which could take effect from 2022-23. It seems likely that the Government and the Minister—I hate to say it—will plough on regardless with the Turing programme, but we need to argue for improvements to it. It is not the finished article, and we do not want it to be the finished article. We want to see improvements and to monitor its implementation.
A wide range of concerned people have been raising issues in this paper since the Government took their decision. The all-party parliamentary group on Erasmus is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi). Parliamentary questions have been tabled by the former shadow Minister for further and higher education, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), and others have raised issues about the likely impact of the lack of reciprocity and the income for students in Turing. What evidence is there that the Government have analysed the extent and impact of withdrawing funding from the really important transfer and development activities funded under Erasmus?
I do not want to be all gloom and doom about the Turing scheme. I want the opportunities that were there for me to be there for all people in the United Kingdom, and especially young people. There could be advantages to it, specifically in the flexibility that the scheme offers, which some institutions have welcomed. However, to provide the certainty that universities and students need, the Minister must address the issues raised by many I have spoken to. There is a pressing need for a resolution that allows for certainty.
I will bring up a few issues raised with me. How soon will it be known whether Turing can be extended beyond its first pilot year? A longer timeframe may help the programme to establish more sustainable international partnerships. Will reciprocity ultimately be considered as a feature for the Turing scheme? Will staff exchanges be considered for any future iterations or Turing? How can global Britain leverage its new international trade connections to help cement Turing mobility partnerships? There is a core of colleges with experience of Erasmus projects and partnerships in Europe but not always further afield. Other colleges are also working worldwide. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing the debate on the scope of Turing. As she knows from her membership of the all-party parliamentary group on Erasmus, the Government are committed to international education exchanges. International exchanges and mobilities open up new and exciting possibilities for students, enabling them to develop their cultural awareness and broaden their horizons while also developing transferable skills. That is why we are funding the Turing scheme as an alternative to Erasmus+.
It was always made clear that our participation in the next Erasmus+ programme was the subject of our negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship, and participation in Erasmus+ would have meant us paying in around £2 billion more than we would have got out over the course of the programme. That simply did not provide value for money for the UK taxpayer. Turing, however, is a global scheme backed by £110 million in its first year, which will provide funding for about 35,000 UK students in higher education, further education, vocational training and schools to travel abroad for life-changing educational exchanges from this September.
I just want to point out that 35,000 is actually less than the number of those participating under the Erasmus scheme. Does she agree that that is not good enough?
I am more than happy to send the hon. Member the link to the statistics. If we look back over the last five years, the average was 32,000, and we are pledging around 35,000, which is a similar number to under Erasmus+. It will be demand-led. Our delivery partners are the British Council and Ecorys, who are able to use their experience from having worked on Erasmus+, which I am sure the hon. Member will welcome. Turing also offers fantastic opportunities for young people across the UK and a key objective of the scheme is to reach areas of the UK that did not engage as much with Erasmus and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as disabled students and students with special educational needs. At its heart, Turing is about inclusivity and opportunities.
We have had some very good responses from the sector—we have worked with them to ensure that the scheme works for all. Members do not need just to take my word for it. Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International said:
“The new Turing scheme is a fantastic development and will provide global opportunities for up to 35,000 UK students to study and work abroad. It is a good investment in the future of students—not only those in universities but in schools and colleges, who will also benefit.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said:
“The Turing scheme opens the world’s door to work and study placements for college students. This is an important part of ‘levelling up’ the life chances for all of our young people—whatever their background.”
What if other universities are not going to offer places because there is no reciprocity? Is that something that is going to be addressed?
If the hon. Member allows me to make a little progress, I will come on to that point.
Today’s debate is about scope. Turing is truly global and is not limited to the EU, unlike Erasmus+, which was 97% in the EU. Offering a broader range of countries, cultures and languages can only be to the benefit of young people in the UK. We know that there is clear demand. Already, five of the top 10 destinations for UK university students undertaking mobility placements are actually outside the EU.
More than 500 applications have already been started across higher education, further education and schools, showing that there is strong demand from the education sector to take advantage of the opportunities offered, so, far from being naive, as the hon. Member for Gower suggested, universities, further education colleges and schools have been putting in their bids and working with international partners on those relationships, despite the lack of reciprocity. Universities have until tomorrow to apply for the funding.
One of the questions that keeps coming up is how the Government will encourage those from more disadvantaged backgrounds to engage with the Turing scheme. It would be really useful to know what the Government’s plans are to promote it in the sector and to monitor its success within those groups.
I will get to that point. There are several ways in which we are going to achieve that, as it is a key objective of the Government’s Turing scheme.
I am thrilled to say that, at the start of the week, we already had more than 80 applications submitted from universities. Schools and colleges have until 7 May to apply for funding. I strongly invite all UK schools and colleges to bid into the scheme to make the most of these fantastic opportunities available for their learners and pupils. Students do not have to apply using the system that we have created—the hon. Member for Gower suggested that was the case. As with Erasmus, students apply directly to their educational institutions.
Global educational experiences broaden students’ horizons, expose them to new cultures and, by doing so, help them to develop crucial new skills. The evidence shows that students who have international experiences tend to do better academically and later in employment. Yet, under Erasmus+, the most privileged students were at least 1.7 times more likely to participate in study abroad. We as a Government believe that is simply not good enough. Mobility and the opportunities it opens up for our young people should not be limited to those from privileged backgrounds. Instead, we have designed a scheme that is for everybody, including the most disadvantaged, because no young person should be excluded from expanding their horizons based on their family’s income.
I realise time is tight. It is all well and good talking about engaging with people from different backgrounds, but how will the Government go and find young people and motivate them to want to participate?
I was just getting to that point. The desire to boost participation from disadvantaged backgrounds is one of the fundamental ways that this scheme will be better than Erasmus. We have done that in a number of ways. First, we have made it an objective that providers must meet and prioritise when they put in their bids to be given approval.
Secondly, the scheme provides additional financial support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds by providing an increased grant for living costs. Unlike Erasmus, we will also be introducing funding for travel-related costs for disadvantaged students, no matter the destination. We will also cover things that they might have to pick up, such as visas, insurance and passport costs—all the additional things that can be barriers to some students.
Thirdly, we have reduced the minimum higher education duration of outward mobilities compared with Erasmus+ from one term to four weeks, which we have identified as a barrier to students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who have other responsibilities, such as caring responsibilities. Additionally, we are focusing extra support and communications in areas of the UK that have traditionally not engaged as much with mobility schemes. That is the work of the Department, the Government and the British Council. There is also funding available to help meet the additional costs for students with disabilities, such as preparatory visits to help ensure that reasonable adjustments are made to suit the individual student’s needs.
On how the scheme will actually work, it is, like Erasmus+, demand-led, and providers will have the flexibility to form partnerships that will offer the most benefit to their students. Institutions in all four nations can bid competitively, and those that are successful will receive funding towards the cost of administering the scheme for their students. All participating students will receive grants, dependent on the destination country, to contribute towards their living costs. The grants are marginally above those given to Erasmus+ students. With Erasmus+, higher education students received a monthly grant equivalent to £320 to £365, with an additional contribution of £105 for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Under the Turing scheme, we will provide a grant of between £335 and £380 per month, plus a disadvantaged supplement of £110 per month. We will also cover the added extras, as I outlined a moment ago.
Although we wanted to devise a flexible scheme, we envisage that the majority of higher education mobilities will be done as exchanges, so there will not be the loss of inward mobility that the hon. Member for Gower identified. To be clear, students will not be faced with additional tuition fee charges. Instead, institutions will waive their fees, which is certainly what is happening on the ground. The institutions telling me that they have put their bids in have managed to achieve that, so we know it is working in practice. This is not a new model, as higher education institutions both in the UK and overseas routinely arrange to waive their tuition fees as part of their exchange partnerships outside Erasmus. All we are doing is scaling up an existing successful model and funding it with additional taxpayer money, to both widen access to opportunities offered to students across the UK and to extend the scope.
Just one question, then: what are the Government going to do? Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are supplementing the scheme. What will the Minister be doing in the UK to make it equivalent to what students in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be having?
I believe that in Northern Ireland it is not being supplemented. There will be access, in part, to the rest of Erasmus, but that has not been ironed out yet. We obviously await what will happen in Scotland, as that is a manifesto commitment and there is an ongoing election. What is happening in Wales is not starting till 2022 and is only £16.5 million per year.
Let me address some of the points that the hon. Member outlined about the differences between Turing and Erasmus. Yes, Turing is an outward mobility scheme for UK participants, but as we will fund UK participants to go abroad, it seems reasonable that we would expect other countries to do the same. Let us not forget that we are the second most attractive destination for international students, and more of the world’s top universities are in the UK than in all of the EU combined. A number of countries have schemes that they can use to fund inward mobility, and some Erasmus funding can be used to send students to the UK, as we are a recognised partner country.
I have spoken directly to several international organisations, including the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, Heidelberg in Germany and the Sorbonne in France, as well as many other institutions across the Commonwealth, such as the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, York University in Canada and the University of Sydney in Australia. They are some of the world’s best higher education institutions and are eager to learn more about Turing, to engage with it and potentially to participate.
We will harness our appeal as a destination to deliver an international education exchange programme that has genuine global reach. That will strengthen the UK’s research and education sector and provide better experiences for students in the UK. International opportunities for young people outside formal education settings and youth activity are being considered as part of a youth review led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, because the Turing scheme is an international educational mobility scheme. That youth review was commissioned by the Treasury in the 2020 spending review.
It is important to note that Erasmus+ Sport is a very small part of the programme, representing only 1.8% of the overall budget in the 2014 to 2020 programme. We are also already investing significant sums of money in sport programmes that align with Erasmus+ Sport themes and objectives. For example, through Sport England, we are investing more than £1.2 billion between 2016 and 2021 in grassroots sport and physical activity programmes.
To address the issue raised about staff mobility, Turing will not fund staff as outlined, apart from those staff who are necessary to chaperone student placements. We have done that because we have decided to prioritise taxpayers’ money to ensure that as many students, learners and pupils as possible have access to life-changing mobility to support them in developing the skills that they need to thrive, focusing particularly on enabling those students from disadvantaged backgrounds. That includes young people who have never even left their county let alone their country. The Government think that it is vital that they, too, can experience these life-changing opportunities.
The Turing scheme will ensure continuity of international exchanges while strengthening the UK’s educational sector and building on the UK’s considerable international appeal as a study destination. The spending review last year was only a one-year spending review, as I am sure hon. Members appreciate, given the pandemic. They will know, however, that the Government are 100% committed to international mobility, so be under no illusion: this is a long-term plan for the Government. That is exactly why we have created a bespoke UK-wide scheme that will support and encourage participation of students from all backgrounds to go across the globe, provide greater value for money to the UK taxpayer, and boost student skills and prospects.
Question put and agreed to.
Arms Trade: Yemen
Order. I remind hon. Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of the debates in Westminster Hall. Members are also expected to remain for the entire debate. I remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room, and please take wipes with them and put them in the bin. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall. Members attending physically who are in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move to the horseshoe when a seat becomes available. Members can speak from the horseshoe only where there are microphones.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the arms trade and Yemen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Ms McVey, and I am delighted to have secured this extremely urgent debate on the arms trade in Yemen. I thank hon. Members who are present here, and those attending virtually, for speaking today.
Liverpool is a proudly international city, and I am proud to have grown up in, and now to represent, such a diverse place, where there is a history of solidarity between our many communities. The Yemeni community in Liverpool, as with so many linked to our docks, has a long and rich history. It is often said in the city that Yemenis are the Scousers of the Arab world. Long before the war in Yemen started, Dr Najla Al-Sonboli came to Liverpool to complete her masters and PhD at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, alongside many other Yemeni medical students. She made Liverpool her home for many years, before returning to Yemen. When the war broke out in 2015 some Yemeni medics such as Najla were offered a chance to return to safety in the UK. However she, like the others, decided she had a duty to remain and help treat the sick and suffering in the dire humanitarian crisis brought on by the war.
The community in Liverpool sprang into action. A tiny Liverpool market stall based at Granby Street market in Liverpool 8, run by a small group of fantastic women from Toxteth, began fundraising for the al-Sabeen children’s hospital in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. Dr Najla is at the heart of that incredible, selfless work at the al-Sabeen hospital. Her work, supported by staff from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the women running the Habibti stall, has helped to meet the needs of one of Yemen’s only remaining free-to-access medical facilities that is still open. The staff there have had no salaries for more than five years. Many have suffered deeply, with some dying of cholera or covid, or from the bombings. They are doing everything they can to continue serving their patients. Some nurses even walk for two hours to reach the hospital, because they cannot afford the bus fare.
The money that the Habibti stall raises—even moving online to keep funds coming in during the pandemic—keeps the hospital going and ensures access to vital supplies, such as PPE, medicines, blankets and clothes. On top of the humanitarian crisis in hunger and war casualties, the conflict has resulted in a large-scale public health crisis. Severe, acute malnutrition has exacerbated a spiral of infectious diseases including the worst cholera outbreak ever recorded, with more than 2.5 million suspected cases since October 2016. Coronavirus cases are hard to track. Oxfam has reported that thousands of people are likely to be dying from undetected covid cases, as health facilities are overwhelmed and infrastructure is on its knees.
Nearly every patient who comes through the hospital’s doors, from neonatal babies in the intensive care unit to children as old as 15, and their families, are in desperate need. When Dr Najla was last asked what support she needed, the Liverpool fundraisers expected calls for PPE, extra antibiotics and perhaps an increase in expenses for the staff; but no, her answer was one word: food. I ask the Minister to take a moment to consider that devastating situation and the road that has led there, including many choices made by the present Government. The hospital has had a massive increase in patient numbers, having taken in people from all over the country, and has been targeted in air raids in which at least four people have died.
I tell this story not just because of the fierce pride that I have in my community and the actions that they have taken to support vulnerable people trapped in a hellish war, but because too often this conflict is reduced to numbers, framed in humanitarian crisis. That conceals the truth of the political decisions that created this catastrophe—political decisions in which our Government have a considerable amount of influence. I turn now to the crux of this debate: this Government’s unwavering commitment to keep supplying Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies with arms and training that have repeatedly been proven to violate international law and without a doubt are fuelling this invisible and protracted crisis.
Since the war began six years ago, nearly a quarter of a million people have been killed by the conflict, the blockades and the resulting disease and food shortage. The published value of UK arms export licences to Saudi since the war began is £6.8 billion, but the opaque and secretive open-licence system means that the true value is much higher, with some estimates as high as £18 billion. Research by Oxfam has shown that the medical and water infrastructure in Yemen has been hit hard during air raids—almost 200 times since 2015, equating to one raid every 10 days—affecting hospitals, clinics, ambulances and water drills, tanks and trucks. Dr Najla from the al-Sabeen children’s hospital has herself had to move home several times.
Figures from the Ministry of Defence’s own tracker database show that the Government are only too aware of these alleged instances of breaches or violations of international humanitarian law. I could take this opportunity to ask why—the evidence is laid bare—this Government continue to sell arms to members of the Saudi-led coalition even as the US and Italy have suspended their arms sales and several other countries have restricted them, but I have asked them that many times before, as have many of the hon. Members present at the debate today.
I could also ask why, despite the fact that 80% of the population in Yemen need humanitarian assistance, with 50,000 facing famine conditions and a further 5 million only one step away, the UK has taken steps to nearly halve the amount of aid that it has pledged to Yemen. Other G7 countries have increased their aid budgets. The UK Government, faced in Yemen with what they agree is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, have cut their aid budget by 60% this year to £87 million, and £43 million of that will go as cash for food to alleviate the famine and £22 million to address malnutrition. Children now have irreversible stunted development because of malnutrition. The cut in aid will impact seriously on this, with remaining funds going to prevent economic collapse and support the peace process.
The decision to cut 60% of aid was taken by all Ministers in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on the grounds that the UK needed the money to recover from covid expenditure—while the Government were handing out billions of pounds in contracts to Tory donors, family members and their mates. The announcement came mere weeks after they granted £1.35 billion-worth of arms licences to Saudi Arabia. I could ask the Minister whether he considers it the utmost hypocrisy that the UK is the penholder on Yemen at the United Nations Security Council. It has taken food from the mouths of starving children with one hand while, with the other, handing fighter jets, bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia and its allies—that has resulted in 60,000 airstrikes in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, and 30% have hit civilian targets—and profiting directly from the unimaginable suffering of the Yemeni people. I could ask the Minister how he sleeps at night, knowing that the Government could do so much more to alleviate the suffering of so many millions.
Funding of relief agencies’ work in Yemen ended on 31 March—a decision made in November—and agencies are still waiting to find out what support they will get. But we have asked these questions for years. We know their answers; they have become wearily familiar. Shrouded in spin, they are shameful excuses. The reality is that this Government have a choice—to be part of the problem or to be part of the solution. The fact that the Government continue to license billions of pounds-worth of military equipment and that they continue to cut aid are devastating symptoms of a deeper problem: their lack of interest in ending this conflict. That is what we have to challenge, and I welcome the fact that hon. Members from across the House are here today. That shows that there is a will, and where there’s a will there’s a way.
As the penholder on Yemen at the UN, the UK is a crucial player on the international stage. With the right political intent, we could make a major stride in ending the fuel blockade, improving the humanitarian situation and getting the key players around the negotiating table to agree the terms of a just, inclusive and sustainable ceasefire.
I want to end my contribution by turning to the escalating situation in Marib, which is teetering on the edge of a cliff and threatening to unleash yet another wave of unimaginable misery, death and protracted conflict. Two million internally displaced people, most living in refugee camps, are at risk. Hundreds of thousands will be forced to flee, with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. The community of Liverpool understands that. No more excuses. Will the Minister go back to his Government and ensure that they commit aid that will significantly alleviate the humanitarian crisis, and ban arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition?
Before we come to other Back Benchers, I remind everybody that we will start the Front-Bench speeches at 5.30 pm. We have an incredible number of Members who want to speak, so time will be limited in order to get everybody in. We will start with three-minute speeches, but they will probably have to reduce to two minutes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) on securing this debate. As hon. Members know, I have always taken a close interest in Yemen. I was born there and, like many other Members, I have followed the progress of the civil war with horror. Like all civil wars, it is fought by a mix of combatants, following the 2011 Arab spring awakening, including the Houthis in the north, who are dissatisfied with the lack of investment in infrastructure in the north of Yemen.
The legitimacy of the official Yemeni Government response, led by President Hadi, is recognised by the UN under Security Council resolution 2216. The coalition forces of the Yemeni Government have been helped by Saudi Arabia and, previously, by the United Arab Emirates as Gulf Co-operation Council members.
As we move towards the peace process, the country has become increasingly complicated, with the Southern Transitional Council in Aden, another group led by Tareq Saleh, nephew of the ex-President Saleh, in the west, and various tribal militia, all looking for a voice in the peace process. At the same time, we have al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS, so it is not as two-sided as hon. Members may think. In fact, the attack on Marib is largely because the Houthis tried to increase their negotiating power in any future peace process. The Saudis are working with the existing Government to protect the citizens in Marib.
It is a complex situation, but one thing is clear: arms sales by the UK did not start the war, and the UK’s export regime is not preventing the Houthis or any other party from accepting a negotiated outcome to it. It is not in the interests of any of the outside powers that the war continues. Our exports to any destination are checked against the consolidation criteria, which are very clear about respect for human rights, preservation of regional peace, security and stability, and the existence of armed conflict.
The granting of licences resumed only after international humanitarian law analysis. Other countries, including the US, continue exports where they judge them legitimate. President Biden has recently reaffirmed US military exports to Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have been firing missiles into civilian areas in Saudi Arabia, which has every right to defend its country and borders.
We have to end this civil war now. Britain is the UN penholder and is leading on this. I salute the tireless work of Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy. We need a coherent strategy that aligns every interested party in Yemen. All parties must come to a ceasefire and work on a peace process. That is the only way to bring this conflict to an end and begin rebuilding Yemen.
The Saudi-led war in Yemen has been raging since 2015. Since the beginning of the conflict, more than 100,000 people have been killed, including about 20,000 civilians killed or injured in direct attacks. The war has also created one of the worst man-made humanitarian crises in the world today, with about 24 million people in severe need of humanitarian relief and 4 million people displaced from their homes.
Over the course of the conflict, many gross violations of human rights have been committed by both sides. In particular, the Saudi-led coalition continues to carry out indiscriminate attacks on civilians and bomb civilian infrastructure in Yemen. Homes, schools, markets, mosques, weddings and funerals have all been targets. Shamefully, they have been doing so using arms supplied to them by the UK.
As a major defence trade partner, the UK has sold to Saudi Arabia a range of aircraft missiles and bombs that have subsequently been used to attack and kill civilians in Yemen. It a source of immense shame that the UK has played such a fundamental part in the murder of civilians. That is why I, along with many others in this country, am calling for an immediate end to all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. We must do all in our power to bring this horrendous conflict to an end. Ceasing our arms trade with Saudi Arabia is an obvious and important starting point. The UK should play an active global role in upholding and protecting human rights, and work alongside international organisations to broker sustainable peace in Yemen.
The political and humanitarian situation in Yemen is intolerable for the civilian population, with multiple groups fighting for control of the country at the expense of civilians. That has resulted in serious human and civil rights abuses committed by Houthi groups as well as Saudi-backed forces. With no legitimate democratic solution in sight, it is essential that the United Nations and other international organisations help to build a lasting, peaceful and democratic transition.
It is in our interests to stop all arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately and unconditionally and, instead, work towards facilitating a negotiated peace between the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Saudi-backed coalition.
Moving forward, the time limit on speeches will be two minutes. I call Marco Longhi.
Where arms are sold, there will always be questions asked, and rightly so. But armaments and technologies are advancing at such a pace that once a country decides to tie itself to another for that supply, the supplying country can exert influence. We account for about 20% of Saudi arms imports. I submit to colleagues that it is far better for stability in the region and for jobs at home that it is the UK that has that influence.
I know Labour Members hate capitalism, but if we withdraw sales from Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia will simply seek suppliers from other countries—that could be Russia or even China. Do hon. Members really want Russia and China to fill that supply vacuum? We have seen their behaviour in Crimea and Xinjiang.
The middle east is a highly complex geopolitical arena that requires long-term solutions, not short-term political opportunism. The Government are using all their diplomatic and humanitarian expertise to bring an end to the conflict in Yemen and alleviate the humanitarian crisis. We do not ignore those in need, even when facing domestic financial pressures, with over €1 billion in aid committed to support affected rural households and individuals in Yemen.
The consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria are taken very seriously by the Government when assessing all export licence applications. Every application is assessed on a case-by-case basis, using a range of information, including reports from non-governmental organisations and our overseas network. Those original frameworks were set out in law through Acts of Parliament by the then Labour Government in 2002 and 2008, yet it is the Labour Opposition who now take issue with the frameworks and their application. Is it their own laws that they are unhappy with, or the application of those laws by highly trained civil servants?
Yemen has been and remains the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis. Millions have been forced to flee their homes, face severe malnutrition and need urgent assistance. On top of that, Yemen must face the coronavirus pandemic with a broken healthcare system. Far from being a helping hand, or even idly standing by, the UK Government have actively facilitated the conflict time and again by continuing to supply arms, training and technical support to Saudi-led forces perpetrating the Yemeni people’s ongoing suffering.
The Government have, on multiple occasions, faced honest and reasonable cause to end the arms trade to Saudi Arabia, they but have consistently failed to act. Last July’s decision to blankly dismiss any risk of Saudi Arabia committing war crimes as “isolated incidents”, and using such a judgment as a basis to resume selling arms, flew in the face of the comprehensive findings of the UN group of eminent international and regional experts on Yemen, who found consistent breaches of international law through the very real harm being caused to civilians.
With the US now having halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, the UK is at risk not just of isolating itself internationally, but finding itself on the wrong side of a moral line. This is not a moral line with any ambiguity—there is no grey area here. The suffering in Yemen at the hands of British-provided Saudi arms is plain and clear for all to see.
Finally, halting arms to Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies is a step in the right direction. The UK has a responsibility to do everything it can to bring about a just and lasting peace in Yemen and the wider region.
Colleagues have rightly spoken about Saudi Arabia and the effects of arms sales on Yemen. I agree with the comments of my colleagues on restricting sales, but with time so short, I want to raise the role of the United Arab Emirates, which I do not want to be forgotten in this debate.
The UAE has recently concentrated its efforts in southern Yemen and the island of Socotra, establishing a military presence on Socotra and supplying arms to militias on the island. The Socotra archipelago has a population of 50,000 and an almost unique biodiversity —700 species found nowhere else on Earth. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. The UAE controls maritime access to the island and there are reports that UAE ships supplied military vehicles to local militias as recently as last month.
In the US, Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Dianne Feinstein have tabled a Bill that could block the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates due to their involvement in Yemen. The Bill targets a pending deal that includes 50 Lockheed Martin-made F-35s worth $10.4 billion. The UAE is one of the UK arms industry biggest customers. The UK’s 2015 national security strategy and strategic defence and security review made a commitment to establish a permanent British defence staff in the Gulf, which is based in Dubai. The UK sold £144 million-worth of arms involving 122 companies in the last three years. It would be remiss of the UK Government to consider restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, without also considering the UAE.
I beseech the Minister to reverse the decision to almost halve humanitarian aid to Yemen. If any country should be exempt from cuts to aid, it is Yemen, although I absolutely oppose abandoning our commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid. However, with UNICEF stating Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 24 million people— 80% of the population—needing humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children, it is up to us to act. Our country has a noble history of assisting people in countries ravished by famine and war. People in this country have voluntarily donated hundreds of millions of pounds in the past four years to save people from starvation. The Government should back the will of the British people and not cut a penny, especially as the UN penholder.
I thank my good friend and neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) for securing today’s debate on this hugely important matter. Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It is a human crisis that requires every bit of will and determination the international community can muster. We remember those who have been lost in the scourge of this war and redouble our efforts in the fight for the living.
For too long, a once proud people have been pummelled by fear in the form of bombs and pain; starvation and death. It is a real honour for me as a Liverpool MP to extend our solidarity and hand of friendship to the Yemeni people, especially the Yemeni community in my city of Liverpool. That community has a long and vibrant history in our great city, extending as far back as the 19th century. We recognise their contribution today and every day, as we take a moment to share the great pain they suffer.
As the conflict in Yemen enters its sixth year, I want to take a moment to reflect on the struggle to live a life free from fear, free from the fear of violence on the streets and destruction raining down from the air, and free from hunger, disease and death itself. As human beings, the common bonds that unite us cannot be denied. Whether in Yemen or anywhere else, we all aspire to live a fulfilled life based on love, compassion and family.
It is our responsibility as a former global power and current major player in the arms trade to step up and take our responsibility to preserve human life seriously. That means cancelling all arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately. Even President Biden has ensured that the arms sales are suspended in America. It is time that we followed President Biden’s example on this issue. This country is becoming ever more isolated on the matter. I implore the Minister today to do the right thing and stop the arms sales.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I call Mick Whitley.
Thank you, Ms McVey. As hon. Members have said, six long years of war have pushed Yemen into the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands have died, including nearly 10,000 killed by Saudi-led air strikes. Infrastructure has been crippled, and 50,000 people are living in near famine-like conditions while millions of others stand on the brink of starvation.
Since the Saudi bombardment began, the UK has approved £6.8 billion-worth of arms export licences to Saudi Arabia. Planes built in Britain have delivered death from the skies above Marib and Aden. Typhoon fighters, Paveway bombs and Brimstone missiles built here in the UK have all been brought into the service of Saudi Arabia’s brutal assault on Yemen, and all while private shareholders grow rich from the suffering of millions and the deaths of thousands.
I have spoken many times about the vital role that defence spending has to play in supporting domestic industries and improving defence capabilities, but this does not blind me to the importance of ensuring that the arms we manufacture should not be handed to the tyrants who have no regard for human life. British trade policy must have respect for human rights at its heart. Ministers can claim to champion international law and promote democracy abroad, but that does not seem to match their deeds. They seem desperate to abandon the UK’s long-standing humanitarian commitments. In the past year alone, the Department for International Development has been thrown on the scrapheap, the foreign aid budget slashed to a measly 0.5% of national income, and human rights concerns pushed aside, so that the UK can strike trade agreements with regimes that are responsible for brutal abuses. Of course, the greatest stain on our international reputation is our continued complicity in the war in Yemen while we are slashing financial aid to the war-torn hell on Earth.
I hope that the United States’s recent change in strategy regarding arms exports to Saudi Arabia will have caused our Government to rethink their callous policy on arms sales. Sadly, however, British firms are still allowed to export billions of pounds-worth of weapons for use in Yemen, so I join my hon. Friends in urging the Government to change course now. It is time for Britain to stop reaping profit from this human catastrophe, and to start bringing pressure on all parties involved to broker a just and lasting peace.
The ongoing war is intolerable. Although we know that almost £7 billion has been spent on arms sales, the figure is probably more like £20 billion, because many of those sales are not even recorded with the open licences. Even the lower figure means that, on a VAT rate of 20%, £1.3 billion has been gained for the Exchequer, and we have spent only £1 billion on aid. If it is the larger amount, £4 billion has been made by the Exchequer on tax from those deals. The taxpayer has profited directly from the misery and the deaths of people in Yemen, and we have not even bothered to give a scrap of that back, let alone the full amount.
Of course, we now know that many arms agreements were illegally made. The Court of Appeal said that those licences were illegal and required the Government to suspend them. The Government failed to suspend them and broke the court order, so the Court required the Government to go back and apologise. Now, rather than actually changing anything, the Government have found a loophole to continue arms sales, and another court case will have to progress. I am afraid that anyone who says that officials or the Government are following the consolidated criteria—those great criteria that were partly developed by Robin Cook—is delusional. They are on a different planet, because that is not what the courts, the researchers and the people on the ground in Yemen are saying.
Most importantly, our allies are begging us to withdraw. Germany has suspended arms sales, and we saw the disgraceful situation of our Foreign Secretary begging Germany to continue to allow arms sales where parts were made for Britain’s weapons. The Biden Administration have now done the right thing and suspended arms sales, but the fact is that we train many of the fighter pilots.
The Saudi-led war in Yemen has continued for more than six years, backed by the sale of British arms to Saudi Arabia. In 2016, my predecessor as MP for Cynon Valley, Ann Clwyd, said:
“Saudi Arabia—using British bombs and planes—may have committed war crimes on Yemeni civilians”
and here I am today in 2021 saying the same. Over the period, there has been much bloodshed. In December 2020, the UN estimated there had been 233,000 deaths in Yemen since the conflict started. Last month, a health emergency was declared in Yemen due to a second wave of covid-19 infections. Yemen is in no position to cope with a sudden rise in cases.
Yemen is experiencing the world’s worst food security crisis, with more than 20 million Yemenis, including 13 million children, facing starvation. Recently, fuel shortages have created difficulties in providing the humanitarian aid on which 80% of the population are dependent. Despite withdrawing many ground troops in 2019, Saudi Arabia has continued its use of airstrikes in Yemen; almost a third of those airstrikes hit civilian targets. In June 2020, the High Court issued a landmark ruling forcing officials to pause arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to concerns that the weapons would be used in violation of international humanitarian law. Despite that, the Government rushed out a report in a matter of months that absolved them of guilt. It seems implausible that the Government were satisfied with the findings and resumed arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In the three-month period following the resumption of sales, the Government authorised £1.4 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
On a global stage, the UK is isolated in its continued support for the Saudi regime while others such as America and Europe have suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The money gained through those arms sales has been dwarfed by the moral cost of their use. Until now, Britain has been complicit in the war crimes perpetrated in Yemen, but that does not need to, and must not, continue. The UK Government need to act urgently to end their support for Saudi airstrikes and suspend all sales of arms to the Saudi regime.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) for securing this important debate. I also acknowledge the vital work of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which has helped to shine a light on the UK Government’s central role in the conflict. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is a tragedy and a stain on the reputation of the UK due to the arms that flow continually from our shores and fuel the unrelenting and one-sided bombardment by the Saudi regime.
Instead of using their place on the world stage to stand up to the atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia, the UK Government have been complicit in those war crimes, all because they profit from every single bomb that is dropped in Sanaa and beyond. Britain’s largest arms company, BAE Systems, has a gruesome track record in the region. It has sold £17.6 billion-worth of aircraft, weapons and services to the Saudi military since 2015, when Riyadh first began bombing Yemen. Despite the UK Government’s posturing and pronouncements against Mohammed bin Salman following his orders to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the reality is that, just four weeks later, the International Trade Secretary met BAE Systems to discuss how to facilitate further arms sales to Riyadh.
I am sure that the Minister will refer to the temporary embargo that was in place last year on new arms licences. Despite that, a recent report by Declassified UK revealed that sales continued with renewed vigour and helped BAE earn a further £2.6 billion from the Saudi military last year alone—an increase on its morbid success in 2019. Furthermore, the Campaign Against Arms Trade believes that BAE’s total sales to Saudi Arabia over the six years of conflict could total £19 billion when cyber-security deals and the company’s share in missile manufacturer MBDA are included. At what point will the Government acknowledge their shameful role in the crisis and stop the relentless flow from British companies who are helping to arm the conflict? It is time for the Government to act. It cannot be left to bloodthirsty companies like BAE, which grow ever larger while supplying the Saudi air force. I urge the Government to take immediate action.
Instead of profiteering from the war in Yemen, the Government need to concentrate their efforts on diplomacy and aid. Instead, they have simultaneously continued to trade in arms and slashed their humanitarian aid spending in Yemen by 50%, despite international condemnation and the fact that 80% of Yemenis—24 million people—are in urgent need of food and healthcare. The Government are well aware that the cut in aid will undoubtedly cost Yemeni lives, and their unlawful arms sales to the Saudis continue.
More than 100,000 people have died in the conflict, including tens of thousands from disease and famine. The UN has already reported that the UK is “aiding and assisting” the catastrophe in Yemen. So much for the UK’s global sanctions regime when it knowingly arms slaughter.
The Government may feel a little bit like Macbeth: that they are
Steeped in so far that, should I wade no more
Returning were as tedious as go o’er”.
But it is not too late. The Government could even now do the decent thing—the moral thing—and suspend all existing contracts and stop this trade in death and human suffering. No other course of action is morally justifiable. The Government should also restore all necessary aid to Yemen.
The Yemeni conflict is not only the world’s largest humanitarian crisis but one of the worst atrocities of the modern era. The conflict has displaced more than 4 million people, while 24 million people—a staggering 80% of the population—need aid and protection, 16.2 million people face severe food insecurity, and 20 million people lack reliable access to clean water, making disease prevention almost impossible. In November 2020, the United Nations found that more than a quarter of a million Yemeni people have died over the last six years. This is a disaster.
It is therefore shameful that Britain is complicit in this war crimes atrocity, especially as the UK is a penholder on Yemen at the UN Security Council, and should therefore be ensuring the country’s safety, not funding its misery. The UK has licensed at least £6.7 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2015, with Oxfam estimating the true value to be more than £15 billion. In contrast, at the recent UN high-level pledging event for the humanitarian situation in Yemen, the UK Government’s pledge of £87 million was almost half the £164 million pledged at the same funding conference last year, and a reduction of £131 million since 2019.
That is the real-world impact of cuts to the UK’s aid budget, which the UN Secretary-General described as a “death sentence” for Yemen. It comes just weeks after the UK Government announced £1.36 billion in new arms licences to Saudi Arabia. The Government’s duplicity is shameful. With one hand they sign resolutions and speak of their desire to end the conflict, yet with the other they continue to facilitate the suffering of the Yemeni people by providing the weapons that rain down on civilian houses. Now is the time for all of us in the UK to say, “Not in our name will the unimaginable suffering of the Yemeni people continue.”
The Government must accept their complicity in this humanitarian catastrophe. They must follow the lead of countries around the world, ensuring that no weapons made in our country are used in the conflict by doing all that they can on the international stage to bring an end to this horrific war.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) on securing this very important debate. The situation in Yemen is truly devastating. According to the UN, 233,000 people have been killed by the war, the blockade, and the resulting food shortages and disease. Estimates state that at least 8,759 civilians have been killed by Saudi-led forces in bombing attacks. The UK Government must recognise that they are contributing to this catastrophe. The Government licensed arms exports worth more than £1.65 billion to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the second half of 2020. That includes £1.4 billion in the ML4 category, covering bombs, missiles, grenades and countermeasures.
Alongside the UK’s arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition, the UK aid cuts have undermined the UK’s diplomatic efforts towards a political solution. The UK Government’s pledge of £87 million in aid at the UN high-level pledging event for the humanitarian situation in Yemen—almost half the funding pledged at last year’s conference—came just weeks after the UK Government announced £1.36 billion in new arms licences to Saudi Arabia. The decision to slash humanitarian aid to Yemen is disgraceful. In Yemen, 16 million people live in food insecurity and 20 million people lack reliable access to clean water. Nearly 50,000 already face famine conditions.
The UK is the penholder on Yemen at the UN Security Council. We should be showing global leadership by stepping up to tackle the humanitarian crisis and stopping arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition, as the US and Italy have done already. Will the Minister explain how the Government can justify cutting UK aid when they have issued at least £6.8 billion in arms export licences to Saudi Arabia, thereby directly profiting from this catastrophic war?
I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) for setting the scene so well. As we are all aware, the UK is not a member of the Saudi-led coalition. However, we are all equally aware that Saudi armed forces are using UK-built and licensed arms in Yemen, including Typhoon aircraft, missiles and bombs. It seems difficult to reconcile our obligations to Yemen, in terms of human rights aid, with the profit received from the arms trade. The licences include £1.4 billion in the ML4 category, which covers bombs, missiles, grenades and counter-measures—a 500% increase on the previous six months.
At the same time, 16 million Yemenis live in food insecurity, 50,000 are already facing famine and a further 5 million are only one step away from hunger. Two thirds of the population rely on food aid to survive. It is estimated that some 24 million Yemenis—80% of the population—need humanitarian assistance, which is being thwarted by the Saudi-led coalition’s air and naval blockade of the country. It is absolutely ridiculous what they are doing.
More than half of Yemen’s 30 million population is currently going hungry. UNICEF warned that the number of malnourished children in Yemen could rise by 20% to 2.4 million by the end of 2020 because of the shortfall in humanitarian funding. Some of the television programmes that I watch tell us about the famine and are looking for charitable help. When we see the pictures of those wee children who are on the verge of starvation and dying, we would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved. I want to make a plea today for all those young wee children—those 2.4 million.
Continuing to export arms to the Saudi-led coalition is a direct contradiction of the integrated review’s claim that the UK must be a force for good. To make that happen, we must support open societies and defend human rights. That means that steps must be taken to deliver humanitarian aid and stop this arms trade in the interim. I fully support the hon. Lady in what she said.
I want to take this opportunity to remind colleagues of the human consequences that the arms trade and conflict in Yemen can have on people. Four years ago, in April 2017, my constituent Luke Symons was stopped at a Houthi checkpoint in Sana’a and detained. He has been held in prison ever since for no reason other than that he holds a British passport.
Luke’s is a very typical Cardiff story in many ways. The rapid growth of Cardiff as a coal exporting port in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought many Yemeni and Somali sailors to the city. Luke comes from one of those Cardiff Yemeni families who still have relations in the country. On a visit to Yemen in 2014, he met his future wife and settled there before the conflict broke out. They desperately tried to leave, but were unsuccessful before Luke was detained.
I appeal to the UK Government to redouble the efforts they have already made to secure Luke’s release and secure safe passage for him and his wife and child to the UK. I thank the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), for their efforts so far.
I also appeal to Luke’s Houthi captors, during this holy month of Ramadan, to release him. His grandfather, Bob Cummings, who has a deep and abiding love for the people of Yemen and the middle east from his time as a merchant seaman, has campaigned tirelessly for Luke’s release. Luke’s grandmother, Sheila, who played a big part in his upbringing, is very ill and deeply worried about his welfare. It would be an act of mercy and compassion and would show the Houthi leadership in a good light if, after four years of this sad affair, that young man of 29 years, who is simply caught up in events and has committed no crime, could be reunited with his wife and child and wider family. That is the plea from the family to his Houthi captors, and I sincerely hope it will reach them and their hearts.
We have managed to get all the Back Benchers in, but the Front Benchers will have to shave down their time to four minutes and then eight minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I hope that, since my election to this place, I have demonstrated, particularly in foreign affairs, that where I agree with the UK Government’s position, I am vocal in that agreement. Equally, where I disagree with the UK Government’s position, I will be just as vocal. On arms sales to Yemen, the Scottish National party has a fundamentally different view of the policy being taken forward by the UK Government, and we oppose the direction that the UK is in.
I start by praising what the UK has been doing to foment efforts towards a just peace. I know that significant efforts are being made to try to broker a peace between the warring parties. The UK is a significant donor of aid and there are significant efforts going forward to ameliorate the situation. But that aid is being cut. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has confirmed that the aid is being cut from £164 million to £87 million this year. That is a 50% cut to one of the most war-torn and desperate situations in the world.
Yemen is a humanitarian disaster. According to Oxfam, in a full briefing received by all of us, 24 million people—80% of the population—need aid and protection, and 10 million people are facing severe food insecurity. The conflict has displaced over 4 million people, two thirds of the population are reliant on food aid to survive, 20 million people lack reliable access to clean water, making disease prevention almost impossible, and then there is covid on top of that. It is one of the most desperate situations in the world, and the UK has contributed to it.
The most significant export from the UK to Yemen is, sadly, arms, via Saudi Arabia. I am close to the region: I grew up in Riyadh and I know the region well. I carry no torch for anybody except for a just peace. The fact is that the UK has sent billions of munitions to the region, to a place in the world that has the least possible ability to withstand it. The UK is not a neutral, honest broker in trying to create a just peace. It is a partisan, actively contributing to the disaster. It is shameful that the issue has not been properly looked at in the round.
The UK is also behind the curve internationally on the matter, as several countries have stopped the arms trade to Saudi Arabia precisely because of humanitarian concerns. The US, Germany, Finland, Canada, Denmark, the UN and the European Parliament have all called for the trade to stop, but the UK stands almost alone in contributing. I take the point that other countries might fill that gap. Indeed they might, and we cannot stop them. But the UK is grossly hypocritical in its stance on Yemen. That is the fact of the matter. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. To my mind, the UK should institute an arms embargo to Saudi Arabia, pending these concerns. I disagree with the cut to aid full stop, but the UK should exempt Yemen from those cuts. It is one of the most benighted places in the world, it needs our support, and the UK has not been a force for good in Yemen.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) on securing the debate. She is already known in the House for strong and challenging interventions, and her speech today will only add to that reputation.
My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali), for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) all underlined in their contributions the fact that the humanitarian situation in Yemen is desperate. A decade of fighting has produced the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and over 230,000 people have already been killed by the war, and the resulting food shortages and disease. Millions of people are still at risk of starvation and disease.
If the situation in Yemen was not bad enough, covid and the failure thus far of ceasefire negotiations is quite clearly exacerbating the terrible crisis still further, particularly in the oil and gas region of Marib, where up to 2 million people are sheltering from the intensifying conflict. At this stage, I echo the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West that his 29-year-old constituent be released from prison and allowed to return home. I am sure the whole House supports his call for that to happen.
The failure in the beginning of March of the UN’s annual appeal for emergency funding to match last year’s pledges is deeply worrying. As Members have highlighted, the decisions of UK Ministers to impose an almost 50% cut in our aid to Yemen is striking. Many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world are in Yemen, and our country has a strong and long history with the people of Yemen.
As the House knows, the Government’s failure to implement their own laws relating to arms exports led eventually to the Court of Appeal ordering, in July two years ago, the Department to stop granting licences for exports of arms to Saudi Arabia. The Court of Appeal’s decision was based on a long catalogue of attacks on the civilian population since 2015. Thousands were killed in air strikes. Weddings, funerals and markets were all targeted. One year after the Court’s judgement against the Department, the Secretary of State published a new internal assessment of the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, it was claimed that despite “isolated incidents” where international humanitarian law may have been broken, there was no pattern of activity that would lead her to question the intent or the capacity of the coalition to comply with international humanitarian law.
It is striking that, despite our requests, the Secretary of State has still not published any of the analysis that she undertook on the Saudi bombing campaign. She has repeatedly refused to publish a list of allegations that her new analysis examined. She has also refused to disclose which incidents she classed as possible violations of international law. I urge the Minister to publish that evidence, even at this late stage.
Arms sales resumed very quickly, reaching their highest total compared with any of the previous 19 quarters put together, before the Court of Appeal’s decision. As other hon. Members have made clear, a series of countries—not least the United States—have taken the decision to suspend arms sales. It continues to be surprising that the UK has not followed suit. I look forward to hearing the Minister attempt to justify that decision.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey? I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) on securing the debate and, in particular, on her warm words about the Yemeni community in Liverpool, whom the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) also mentioned. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate.
Let me begin by stating the obvious: the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is nothing short of appalling. That is a matter on which all parts of the House will resoundingly agree. The situation was well described by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, as well as by others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). The number of civilians killed, and the cholera and covid situations, have piled misery upon misery.
Yemen is a beautiful country of proud people, a point that was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley, who grew up there. Yemen has contributed so much to the historical and cultural fabric of our global community. As all speakers have said, anyone who has heard or read about the harrowing plight of the people of Yemen cannot fail to be moved by the unimaginable suffering experienced there daily. Their dire struggle against a seemingly relentless charge of civil war, natural disaster, hunger and disease is truly unthinkable.
For there to be any prospect of peace or any notion of normality for the Yemeni people, it is clear that there must be a sustainable political settlement. That is the only way to address the worsening humanitarian situation and bring real long-term stability to the country. That is why the UK Government are straining every diplomatic sinew to help to bring an end to the conflict in Yemen. The increased engagement that we are seeing from the US and Oman is certainly timely and welcome, and the UK Government were pleased to see Saudi Arabia making clear its commitment to a peace deal in recent public comments. We continue to provide our full backing to Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy, in his laudable efforts to reach a peaceful settlement, a point that was well made by many others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley, and the hon. Members for Liverpool, Riverside and for Enfield North (Feryal Clark).
On overseas aid, despite financial pressures—not least from covid-19, which has stolen lives and livelihoods in this country and across the world—the United Kingdom has maintained its position as one of the leading aid donors to Yemen. In this financial year, UK Aid will feed 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month, support 400 healthcare clinics, and provide clean water for 1.6 million people.
We recognise the concerns about our arms sales policy, and I assure hon. Members that the Government take our arms export responsibilities very seriously indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) said. It must not be forgotten that the UK’s defence and security industries make an important contribution to the economy, enhancing our global competitiveness and boosting our economic growth, not to mention sustaining tens of thousands of highly-skilled manufacturing and engineering-based jobs across the UK. A lot of the speakers in this debate come from the north-west region, and many of those jobs are located there, in Lancashire, particularly around Preston, as well as in Cheshire and other areas in the north-west of this country.
Our policy on export control is not to frustrate or hamper the ability of those responsible companies to trade, but to make the world a safer place for us all by operating a clear, proportionate and robust system of export controls in the UK.
We rigorously assess every application on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, known as the consolidated criteria, first introduced by Robin Cook in 2002 under the last Labour Government and updated by Vince Cable in 2014. The consolidated criteria provide a thorough risk assessment framework for evaluating export licence applications and require us to think hard about the impact of providing equipment and its capabilities. As part of the assessment process, we draw on a range of sources and information. That includes insights from non-governmental organisations, international organisations and our overseas network. Decisions on export licences are not taken lightly, and we have been clear that we will not license the export of equipment where to do so would be inconsistent with the consolidated criteria. The Government’s position on arms exports to all countries remains that such exports require an export licence and that all export licence applications will continue to be carefully assessed against the consolidated criteria on a case-by-case basis.
On scrutiny, contrary to what the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said, the UK operates one of the most transparent export licensing systems in the world. We publish official statistics both quarterly and annually of all our export licensing decisions, including details of export licences granted, refused and revoked. UK export licensing is also accountable to Parliament through a statutory obligation to provide an annual report on strategic export controls. Parliamentary oversight is provided through the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which are made up of members of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and International Trade Committees, as well as members of the International Development Committee. That arrangement ensures that appropriate scrutiny from a range of perspectives can be applied.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) mentioned the case of Luke Symons. As he knows, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is in contact with the Symons family, and I am delighted that he has had the opportunity to meet the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), and the Foreign Secretary. We warmly endorse his words calling for Luke Symons’ release, particularly during this holy month of Ramadan.
I hope, Ms McVey, that I have impressed upon you that the Government take their export responsibilities seriously. The Export Control Act 2002 requires Government to give guidance about the general principles to be followed when exercising licensing powers, which we do through the consolidated criteria. We have been abundantly clear that we will not issue a licence where to do so would be inconsistent with the criteria. For the avoidance of any doubt, our assessment of licence applications also carefully considers our obligations under the United Nations arms trade treaty and other rules of international law.
The Government desperately want to see a long overdue end to the conflict in Yemen. We fully support Martin Griffiths and the United Nations in their efforts to broker a ceasefire and kick-start the political process to secure a pathway to peace. From the passionate contributions we have heard today, I know that Members from all parties across the House will echo that sentiment and share our high hopes that an end to the conflict in Yemen is on the horizon.
I thank all hon. Members for their impassioned contributions. I disagree with the Minister and the hon. Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) on continuing to support arms sales to the Saudis. The UK has a responsibility to do everything to bring about a ceasefire, and the escalating situation in Marib threatens another decade of destruction. The Government have the power to do the right thing, cease arms sales, increase aid to its full amount—the Minister did not mention that—and not make any more flimsy excuses. If we are not part of the solution, we are going to be part of the problem. We need to make those changes now to stop the destruction and the major humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the arms trade and Yemen.