Wednesday 30 June 2021
[Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]
Palestinian School Textbooks: EU Review
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been changes to the normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates.
I remind Members participating, physically or virtually, that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate and that they will be 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 using them and before leaving the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the EU Review into Palestinian school textbooks.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. It is a privilege to speak in this place, and I do so today with a keen sense of responsibility. Very recently, yet more Palestinian and Israeli lives were lost to conflict and citizens left traumatised. The ceasefire has held, mercifully, but in the words of Mahatma Gandhi,
“If we wish to create a lasting peace, we must begin with the children.”
Children’s education is a long-term, strategic first frontline for all parties and all agendas. As far back as Aristotle, that has been understood. He said:
“Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”
In the context of this debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) first raised the alarm about radicalisation in the Palestinian curriculum in the European Parliament, 20 years ago. Last year, a debate in this House on the same subject highlighted shocking examples in the educational materials in use by British-funded teachers in Palestinian Authority schools. The answer to this, we were told then, would be found in the EU review—the long-awaited work of the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research. Ministers publicly vowed to take action if the report found evidence of material that incites violence. The report on that review has just been published, and it does.
In opening the debate, I want to bring into the light examples of the troubling findings cited in the report, share wider analysis and critique of the review itself, which casts a yet longer shadow, and demonstrate that we are not alone in our challenge to the Palestinian Authority. On a personal level, I should note that I am a teacher by profession, and for many years before coming to this place I worked as a school inspector, scrutinising the curriculum and evaluating learning. I should also note that I visited the region a number of years ago with the Conservative Friends of Israel and had the opportunity to speak with both Israelis and Palestinians.
The EU review rests on an analysis of a sample of 156 textbooks and teacher guides published between 2017 and 2019 by the Palestinian Ministry of Education and, later, a further 18 that were released online in 2020. The review seeks to establish whether textbooks meet international UNESCO standards, UNESCO’s mission being
“to contribute to the building of a culture of peace”.
The EU report clearly identifies evidence of anti-Jewish racism within the curriculum. It says of a chapter in one textbook that it
“sends the message that the Jews as a collective are dangerous and deceptive, and demonises them. It generates feelings of hatred towards Jews and…must be characterised as anti-Semitic.”
Of that particular reference, the report’s authors note that a 2019 revision—the exchange of a photo—certainly does not de-escalate the messaging.
The report identifies examples of terrorists glorified as role models, most notably Dalal Mughrabi, who was responsible for the murder of 38 Israelis in one of the country’s worst ever terror attacks. The report highlights maps of a territorially whole Palestine as an imagined homeland that negates the existence of the state of Israel—a denial of reality. The report finds that one history textbook features a doctored copy of a landmark letter sent by Yasser Arafat to his Israeli counterpart during the Oslo peace process, with Arafat’s commitment to peaceful co-existence free from violence and all other acts that endanger peace and stability removed.
All subjects in the curriculum at all levels lend themselves and pivot to the conflict, whether it is around the environment and pollution, prepositions, illiteracy, or graphical visualisations or pie charts in maths. At first glance, there appears to be positive change and an increased focus on human rights coverage. There is a recognition that human rights are a universal notion, but there is no carry-through or discussion of the rights of Israelis. It is used only as a prism for understanding violations and where most examples are carried out by Israeli protagonists.
The report states that what is problematic is the phrasing,
“which implies systematic violations of children‘s rights reaching all the way to torture and murder, and this has the potential to dehumanise the (Israeli) ‘other’.”
It goes on:
“Above all, the textbooks fail to engage with the question of whether violence carried out by Palestinian actors might equally constitute a violation of human rights.”
Textbooks call for tolerance, mercy, forgiveness and justice, but they are not applied to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The position of the international community is considered unfair because it sides with the “Zionist occupier” by keeping quiet about its crimes. At the end of a lesson on children’s rights, pupils are asked in an exercise to monitor and list Zionist violations against children in Palestine by following news pages or social media, and then read them to classmates.
Observations noted in the report indicate that the peace process has in fact gone backwards or been downgraded since 2014. The report states:
“In the entire body of textbooks examined for this Report…the depiction of peaceful attempts to resolve the conflict is limited to a few pages”.
The unilateral disengagement of the occupation of Gaza in 2015 is pitched as a positive development, but, critically, without mentioning Israel.
The report’s findings on material are deeply problematic, but there are also problems with the report itself. Glaring omissions, phantom changes, the scale of the review and the seeming mismatch between the review’s conclusions and the evidence on which it rests are all in the frame.
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the deficiencies of the material, which are outlined comprehensively and in a very balanced way in the Georg Eckert report, but does she accept that the overall conclusion of the report is that,
“the textbooks adhere to UNESCO standards and adopt criteria that are prominent in international education discourse, including a strong focus on human rights”?
If she is inviting the House to accept the material that she quotes, should she not also invite the House to accept the conclusions of the authors of the report?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, which strikes at the heart of the point I was making: although there is increased coverage and focus on human rights, that does not extend to the Israelis. Actually, the very point that I rested on was that the conclusion rests on a report that offers up, in its body, example after example that contradict those UNESCO values. We need to understand that and challenge it.
My hon. Friend is making a really important point. To underline it, is it not the case that when we read the report—the executive summary, the main body of the report and the conclusions—it appears that there is a disconnect between what the executive summary says and the conclusions and the real evidence, which is contained deep in the body of the report? That is the concern and that is what we should be discussing today.
I concur entirely. What is required is a full reading of the body of evidence, because the executive summary does not seem to reflect that evidence. In fact, it must be contested that the textbooks adhere to the UNESCO standards when they simultaneously espouse a narrative of resistance to Israel and display antagonism towards it. How can the report’s conclusion be reconciled with the extensive evidence within the body of the report?
There are other issues with the report. A wider analysis highlights glaring omissions—or apparent omissions. The justification of the Munich Olympics terrorist attack as an attack on Zionist interests abroad is not covered. On the 2020 claims, the report suggests positive editing and improvement in the most recently published textbooks, but are these criticisms put forward? Are these phantom changes? Are they based on books that reportedly are not in the curriculum, or on books that do not appear on the Palestinian Authority’s official Education Ministry online portal? Is the scale and scope of the review sufficiently robust? For example, 15% relates to the coverage of the 2020-21 textbooks.
Notwithstanding the discordant finding of the report, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), last week, following the completion of the EU review, the Foreign Office issued a statement acknowledging that anti-Israel content remains. The UK is not alone in reaching that conclusion. Norway has already cut its funding and the Biden Administration are now making aid conditional on the removal of incitement of antisemitism from educational materials.
My hon. Friend makes a particular point about Norway reducing its funding and the US completely removing its funding, but does she agree that removing our funding is probably not the right way to go and that we should instead ask for the reforms that we really need to see, to make sure that every child in the Palestinian Authority area gets a meaningful education?
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent question, and I concur. Education is absolutely at the heart of this process; it is mission-critical to establishing a peaceful resolution in the region. Change is possible where there is political will and leadership. From Tunisia and Egypt through to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, there is a clear trend across the region for improving curricula through the removal of anti-Israel and racist narratives, and instead promoting peace and co-existence. There is a better way.
Positive change could also be inspired through engagement with the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. This project, which has widespread cross-party support here and in the US, is exactly the sort of programme that the UK could also support if it wished to deliver on its goal of a lasting and meaningful peaceful two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. I have seen at first hand the value of peaceful co-existence projects; the day-to-day interactions that they afford Israelis and Palestinians are invaluable. Projects such as Seeds of Hope, Hands of Peace and Hand In Hand are all remarkable projects that work through education to change lives and create positive interactions.
I look forward to the rest of the debate and to hearing from the Minister, for whom I have some specific questions. What assessment has the Department made of the review? Does he recognise or share the concerns expressed over its shortcomings? Does he believe that the Palestinian Authority’s curriculum, as presented, supports or harms the UK’s long-standing goal of securing lasting peace? Given the promise of action, what new and different steps are being considered? Thus far, raising concerns has failed to elicit the change we need. Nothing perpetuates conflict as much as seeding it in generation after generation of children and young people.
The report as a whole is clear: the Palestinian curriculum remains deeply problematic. It is my sincere hope that the UK Government and their international partners will use the review as the catalyst for change. As things stand, British taxpayers have been directly funding the teaching of a curriculum that actively undermines the peaceful two-state solution that the Government strive to support. Surely, in the light of the violence of recent months, there must be renewed urgency in our resolve to promote peaceful co-existence, and that must focus on the curriculum and textbooks. As the report authors state, textbooks are particularly relevant in conflict
“where discourses have considerable potential to contribute to violent escalation or conflict transformation”.
As John F. Kennedy said:
“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.”
In order to get everybody in, I am not going to impose a time limit at the moment, but I will call the Front Benchers from 10.23 am. If colleagues bear in mind that allows four to five minutes each and try to keep to that, I will be most grateful.
Thank you, Dame Angela. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for bringing this debate on the important topic of Palestinian textbooks. Let me start by saying that I condemn any incitement to violence, whether of Palestinian children, Israeli children, or any children in the world. I condemn antisemitism and anti-Arab Palestinian hate speech.
The research for the review started in September 2019, and the textbooks were published between 2017 and 2019, so the report it is looking at a picture of several years ago, and the picture it paints is complex. I agree with the hon. Lady that there is conflicting evidence in the report, but its conclusion is that the Palestinian Authority have shown a commitment to improving the quality of textbooks, and notes that in recent textbooks things have improved. That needs to be placed on the record.
There has been much discussion of this issue, including in debates in the Chamber. In that context, use was made of a report by IMPACT-se—the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education—but that is a completely discredited organisation. Former UK Minister Alistair Burt said in a written answer on 12 September 2018:
“Our assessment is that the IMPACT-se report was not objective in its findings and lacked methodological rigour. For example, some claims were made on the basis of partial or subjective reading of the text, some findings are presented out of context.”
Overall, IMPACT-se’s report is noted as generalising and exaggerating.
There is no doubt that there is room for improvement, but there is also room for improvement in Israeli schools. That is the nub of the problem. I recently saw footage on social media from a religious school in Israel where children taking part in a question and answer session were caught saying that in 10 years’ time, the al-Aqsa mosque would not be there, a temple would be built on the site, and the only Arabs surviving would be slaves. We have to look at this picture in the round and from both sides of the argument. It is fair to say there is room for improvement in the education of children, within both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
I feel strongly that our country and Government must do everything we can to try to stop the incitement of violence among children and to head towards a two-state solution, as the hon. Lady said in her opening statement, but I firmly believe that, rather than textbooks, taken out of context, the biggest issue is the reality of Palestinian children’s daily lives.
This year, up to 66 Palestinian children have been killed in Gaza, with 600 wounded. Palestinian children have been beaten up and arrested in the west bank, and they still endure midnight raids, interrogation, detention and military trial. They go to school under threat from Israeli settlers, and 53 Palestinian schools in the west bank are subject to threats of demolition. As the hon. Lady said, those measures are also funded by the British Government through EU funds. I believe they have far more impact on the reality of inciting violence among Palestinian children. They need to be addressed urgently by our Government in their conversations and in the pressure they bring to bear to end the 54-year occupation. That is what will bring peace in the region, and that is what will bring peace for Palestinian children and Israeli children.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for securing this important debate. Like her, I visited Israel with the Conservative Friends of Israel and spoke to Israelis and Palestinians on this and many other issues.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians last month demonstrated just how important it is that we promote de-escalation, reject violence and inflammatory rhetoric, and encourage moderate leaders who are willing to be credible partners for peace in the region. Although the recent EU report on Palestinian textbooks recognises that some improvements have been made, it shows that the Palestinian Authority still has some way to go to live up to those goals. Both the 2019-20 curriculum and the textbooks of the most recent school year are riddled with antisemitism, glorification of terrorism as heroic struggle, and negation of the state of Israel, including in maps that erase Israel’s presence; references to the Oslo accords have been removed.
This is not the first investigation into Palestinian textbooks, and the report serves only to confirm what we have known for some time about the Palestinian curriculum. The contention by the authors of the EU report that the curriculum meets UNESCO standards and that improvements were seen in the 2020 editions is false; close reading of the main body of the report proves as much. When arguing that the textbooks have improved, the EU report cites a particularly egregious example of incitement that has been removed, in which fourth-grade pupils are asked to calculate the numbers of martyrs, including suicide bombers, from the first and second intifadas. On the face of it, that would be a welcome change, but the reviewers show that it has been replaced by a maths question about Israel stealing land from Palestinians. That is not an improvement, and the reviewers concede that they were unable to verify that it is even in circulation in hard-copy textbooks. It turns out that the maths question about terrorists is still in use, as confirmed by the PA’s official Ministry of Education portal online. Such content is indefensible, and I struggle to see how it benefits the Palestinian population, including its children.
We could understand it if, in the history curriculum or other elements of the curriculum, contentious issues were presented in a way that was unfavourable to Israel. That would be understandable, albeit unwelcome. But to get such things into the maths curriculum indicates a conscious will and effort to do so. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I do agree. We must remember that young minds are very absorbent and they tend to take on board and trust what they are taught in school.
Members who have asked questions over the past four years have been told to wait for the publication of this report and assured that this is an important issue, which is why we are having this debate. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that, with the release of the report, the Government’s long-standing stance on this issue may require some reassessment.
I am, however, grateful and thankful that the report has provoked an international discussion about linking aid to the PA and UNRWA—which runs a number of schools in the west bank and Gaza and uses the same curriculum as the PA—to the removal of antisemitic incitement from the Palestinian curriculum. It is important to highlight that linkage. The United States has said that it will do this for its aid to UNRWA—it will delink—and the European Commissioner responsible for aid to the PA and UNRWA has said that the EU should look at doing so for its funding to the PA. In the light of this report, it may be time for this country to look again at our aid to the PA, ensure that we do not fund the curriculum that is in place while also encouraging the PA to reform their curriculum in a more positive and constructive manner.
The events of the past month have underscored how far we will have to go to heal the divisions in the region and put a permanent stop to the death and destruction. The need to tackle Hamas in particular is as clear as ever, but a lasting peace depends on a Palestinian Authority who take seriously their commitment to co-existing alongside Israel. We have to encourage the PA to demonstrate that this is taking place not just with words but at all levels of society, including education. I therefore hope that Ministers will take this report and build on its efforts to promote moderate, pragmatic Palestinian leadership, working with the PA to improve their textbooks and curriculum. However, they must also ensure that our aid money is not funding an existing curriculum that is morally objectionable and runs against our and all peace-loving people’s aspirations for the region.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on having secured this debate. I think that she, like I—and, I suspect and hope, everybody in this debate—holds the view that we would ultimately wish to see a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. I gently suggest to her and others that if we are ever to achieve that, the role of this country has to be limited. For us simply to take one side or another in that debate just serves to make things worse: it does not help us move towards that two-state solution.
I say that because I am slightly concerned that the hon. Lady seemed quite happy to take various examples from the Georg Eckert Institute report that it had concluded were problematic and wrong. The report also found instances of antisemitism—that has been acknowledged—but found that others had, in fact, been removed, which represents the progress to which the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) referred. However, I say to the hon. Member for Eastbourne and others that if we accept the report and the bona fides and independence of the Georg Eckert Institute, we do not do great service by picking and choosing those parts of the report that we like. The report’s overall conclusion, having examined extensively the material that was made available to the institute, was that the materials of the Palestinian Authority did conform to UNESCO standards. That is important. I would hope that nobody who has read that report would say that the materials were beyond reproach, but the conclusion reached by the institute through its independent analysis should not be dismissed so lightly.
One of my great frustrations about this debate, as with others about Israel-Palestine, is what I generally call what-aboutery: when someone says, “Here’s something bad that was done by one side,” and somebody else pops up and says, “Well, what about the other side?” I am going to resist the temptation to indulge in what-aboutery, but I want to put on the record my concern that there are instances of that, and there has not been the same rigorous analysis of educational standards within Israel. It is often said, and other analyses have highlighted, that maps often include the lands of the west bank as part of Israel as a whole, rather than the 1967 borders, which are generally regarded internationally as the ones to adhere to.
If we are to make a difference in this debate, it has to be out of a genuine concern for the education of young people and children in Palestine today. It is a sobering fact that a 15-year-old in Gaza will have endured five major wars, as well as several others, in their lifetime. Civil society groups have to run training programmes for Palestinian children on explosive remnants of war. Just think of that: if hon. Members sent their children to school in Gaza, part of what they would be taught, regardless of what is in the curriculum, is how to deal with exploded and unexploded ordinances. That is the day-to-day lived experience of children in Gaza.
Just this week, the Save the Children Fund issued its report on the impact of home demolition on Palestinian children, titled “Hope under the rubble”. I hope that the Minister has a copy of it, and that if he has not read it yet, he soon will. As the hon. Member for Cheadle rightly said, young children absorb their lived experience, and their education goes well beyond what they see in the classroom.
Let me give a few key findings from that report. Some 80% of children feel abandoned by the world and have lost faith in the ability of anyone, from their parents to authorities and the international community, to protect them and their rights. Some 78% of older children said they feel hopeless when they think about the future. Some younger children told the Save the Children Fund that they often take their toys to school out of fear that they might lose them in the rubble during the day. Some 70% of children reported feeling socially isolated, with no connection with their communities and land after losing their home. Some 60% of children reported that their education had been jeopardised or interrupted following the demolition.
If we really are concerned about the impact on young Palestinians, I say to the hon. Member for Eastbourne, and in particular to the Minister, that we should be considering that many Palestinian children may soon be fortunate to have any schools at all in which to have textbooks, because the hard fact is that no fewer than 53 Palestinian schools are slated for demolition by the Israeli Government. If there are no schools, frankly the content of textbooks becomes pretty academic.
Thank you, Dame Angela, for your permission to leave this debate early to attend another meeting. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela.
The teaching of Palestinian children to hate Israel and Jews and the incitement of violence within the Palestinian Authority’s official curriculum are unacceptable and are having and will have extraordinary real-life consequences on Palestinians and Israelis today and in the future. At least 31 Palestinian schools are named after terrorists, and three after Nazi collaborators. They teach young Palestinian children that such actions are honourable and will be rewarded with respect and glory. In addition, children are taught about Newton’s second law through textbook images of a boy aiming a slingshot at an Israeli soldier.
The EU report contends that the presence of national resistance fighters masked by a traditional keffiyeh scarf
“suggests that the liberation of Palestine might be achievable through violent resistance.”
It concedes that these images present “highly escalatory potential”. Addressing concerns about the prevalence of references to jihad across the curriculum, the EU report also finds:
“One in eight references to jihād in Social Studies…relates to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East: ‘the Palestinian freedom struggle as jihād’.”
Another textbook, “Islamic Education”,
“contains a whole lesson on jihād in the context of military fighting.”
Those alarming examples have a tangible effect on Palestinian children. Students at UNRWA schools have been quoted as saying things such as:
“I am ready to stab a Jew and drive over them”,
“I am prepared to be a suicide bomber”.
They have also said that everyone needs to attack the Jews until there will not be one left in the land, and called the Jews liars and dogs.
The words in these textbooks must have no place in an UNRWA school, nor in a peaceful future for the middle east. Sadly we have seen, all too painfully, how this belligerent rhetoric has even led children to commit acts of violence and terror. In the last five years, Palestinian minors have been involved in as many as 116 terror attacks, which killed five Israelis and injured dozens. Stone and Molotov cocktails, stabbings and shooting attacks on Israeli citizens have been undertaken by Palestinians as young as 11. Along with his 14-year-old cousin, a young boy from East Jerusalem’s Shuafat neighbourhood stabbed a light-rail security guard in November 2015. Once detained, he recounted how he wanted to “die as a martyr”, while his cousin said:
“I wanted to kill the Jews who are torturing us.”
We are united in this place in our shared search for peace in this troubled region, and halting the indoctrination of Palestinian children from these deplorable textbooks must be a central pillar of that process.
It is a pleasure to be under your chairship, Dame Angela. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) says, I am sure that everybody here wishes to see a two-state solution. We may have different routes to that. I would like to see immediate recognition of the Palestinian state, adherence to international law by all parties—Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority—and, above all, the end to the occupation.
The textbooks have an important role to play in that. They are part of educating the next generation. The report generally comes to positive conclusions, saying that
“the textbooks adhere to UNESCO standards and adopt criteria that are prominent in international education discourse, including a strong focus on human rights…they express a narrative of resistance within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and…they display an antagonism towards Israel.”
“The Israeli opponent is portrayed as aggressive and hostile. The language is however, for the most part, objective in tone and avoids inflammatory expressions.”
There are regrettable passages. The report notes that one textbook has antisemitic motifs, but that is one out of 156 examined and it has been addressed by the 2020 analysis. The Palestinian Minister for Education has said that any recommendations in the report will be implemented.
What I see here is that yes, there are problems and issues, but there is a willingness to address them and it would be wrong and counterproductive to exaggerate them. We should be building bridges. There are faults on both sides. The issue of maps has been mentioned. In the same way as it is clearly wrong not to include Israel on maps in Palestinian textbooks, it is wrong for many in Israel to show the non-existence of the Palestinian state. Senior members of the Government, including the Prime Minister of Israel, do not appear to believe in that and view the west bank as Judea and Samaria. We do not know about Israeli textbooks, but we do know that textbooks in East Jerusalem have been doctored by the Israelis, including the removal of entire chapters on regional and Palestinian history, because they have control there.
Above all, there is an inequality of arms. What the Israelis have been able to do to the Palestinians over 53 years of military occupation, with 650,000 Israelis in illegal settlements, and many other things during this crisis, needs to be addressed. That is the real root of the problem that has to be dealt with. Yes, of course we need to see children in Israel and Palestine being educated so that they are brought together and not set apart, but let us not cherry-pick support. Let us take the best out of this and go forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing this important and timely debate.
For years, Members from both sides of the House have raised concerns about problematic examples of what is being taught in Palestinian schools and how that fosters a culture of hate and violence and works against the aims of many Governments around the world who support a viable two-state solution in the middle east. I remember a debate early last year when my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) referred to the fact that she had first started raising concerns about the Palestinian curriculum when she was a Member of the European Parliament 20 years ago. It is not only British parliamentarians; parliamentarians all across Europe, including in Sweden and Germany, and the United States have raised similar concerns. There are serious and real issues to address.
I have sat down with different Ministers and officials over the years to talk about these issues, and at different times the responses have ranged from trying to downplay the seriousness of some of the examples that we raised, to suggesting that the problem was historical and had been fixed, or was in the process of being fixed, to suggesting that, because the UK Government do not fund educational materials directly—we only fund the salaries of Palestinian teachers—it is somehow less of a problem for us to be concerned about. Each time, it felt like we were being put on the back foot.
The review we are debating was supposed to be the critical moment when an objective look could be taken and the UK Government, in partnership with other Governments around the world, could take a strong and unified approach. The contents of the report are problematic, as has been said, and I am pleased that Members with different viewpoints on this subject agree that there are problematic examples.
The Minister is very experienced and knowledgeable and is deeply committed, as I hope we all are, to humanitarian support around the world. I want to hear from him a clear message about what the Government intend to do now. For years, when Palestinian Authority Ministers have reassured us and suggested that we should move along and that there is nothing to see, we have wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. The truth is that there is something to see, and we need a clear and well-defined position from the Government about what we intend to say and do with our friends in the Palestinian Authority.
I support a strong aid budget. Now is not the moment to open up the 0.7% issue. However, I put on the record that, at a time when we are making deep cuts to important humanitarian programmes overseas, we are protecting funding for the Palestinian public sector. If we are going to do that, surely we should demand the highest possible standards, to really foster that culture of tolerance and respect and to work against hate and violence, which risks dragging that region back into old cycles.
I thank the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for setting the scene so well. I am going to speak exactly to the title of the debate, and will do so at some length. I am unashamedly a member of Friends of Israel. I have been a member during my time here at Westminster but also in my former role in the Assembly back home. I strongly support them and will speak from their point of view.
As many Members have stated, the findings of the GEI review on Palestinian textbooks are damaging. The analysis of 156 textbooks and 16 teacher guides published between 2017 and 2019 by the Palestinian Ministry of Education is thorough and detailed. The information is there—the secret is in the title—and the evidential base is quite clear. Eight out 10 sections of the executive summary—from “Compliance with the principles of global citizenship education”, to “Representations of violence differ according to subjects”—offer an authoritative assessment of Palestinian education.
While the report informs, it does not come as any surprise to me. On countless occasions, these issues have been raised here and in the main Chamber, and Ministers have consistently refuted any suggestion that UK aid funds have been used to support incitement and violence. Most of those assertions offered by former Ministers did not convince then; they certainly do not convince me now. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has also left itself wide open to question through implication.
On countless occasions, the link between generous UK aid funds and payments to terrorists has been denied. Even when the FCDO claimed it was paying the salaries of some 85,000 named Palestinian civil servants listed through the EU’s PEGASE system, with no evidence that such a list existed, it has yet to justify such claims as to why UK aid directed funds elsewhere without being sanctioned.
We have a bilateral aid program to the Palestinian Authority—I understand that—and a team of highly paid former civil servants. However, education for children is critical, and there are books that denigrate Israel, acknowledging human rights for others, but seemingly not for Israel. While some have withdrawn funding, I believe that funding should be conditional on the change that should be brought about. As Iran, Hezbollah in Palestine and other terrorist groups try to achieve their annihilation of Israel, I instead stand with Israel against that terrorism—against the evil targeting of Israel. Palestinian textbooks are part of that evil and must be addressed today.
I ask the Minister these questions very quickly. What does it say about the ability of this institution to hold the Government to account? What does it say about the Ministers who have steadfastly stood in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber denying that such links existed? Was it through mere incompetence on the part of civil servants who passed what we now know were misleading answers to various Ministers at the Dispatch Box? Why was there an inability to spot and call out the incitement, antisemitism and hatred of the Palestinian curriculum between 2017 and 2019?
The motive appears to be ensuring a continual flow of money, even with the knowledge that the way in which the payment of UK aid was being carried out breached the rules contained within the memorandum of understanding between the Palestinian Authority and the UK Government. I certainly look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope that he can answer the questions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing the debate, and draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, particularly as chair of the all-party Britain-Israel parliamentary group and as an officer of Conservative Friends of Israel.
I have been raising these issues in relation to Palestinian textbooks on behalf of my constituents for many years. It has become abundantly clear that the children of the Palestinian territories have been cruelly let down by those who have responsibility for their education. As we have heard, there are extensive examples within the EU report that the Palestinian curriculum is deeply flawed and, sadly, rife with material that passes hatred and prejudice on to the new generation of young people. That just exacerbates the conflict and must not continue.
The curriculum is deeply problematic. It is exacerbated by the fact that the educational resources are essentially the same as those used by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Last year, we gave around £20 million to fund Palestinian teachers’ salaries, and £63.6 million to UNRWA to support the education of 320,000 children in 370 schools. In January this year, it was discovered that the additional educational material produced and published by UNRWA for schools in the west bank and Gaza, and distributed to the Palestinian children to aid home learning during covid, glorified terrorism and incited violence against Israel. Those supplementary resources—three in Gaza and one in the west bank—were even more extreme than the official PA curriculum, and again in breach of the UN values.
UNRWA has tried to defend the existence of that so-called “inappropriate” material, saying that it was “mistakenly” distributed to students at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. It has been widely available now for more than eight months. The UK was joined by Germany and Norway in expressing concerns, while our allies Australia and Canada launched investigations. Subsequently, the US Secretary of State has confirmed that the Biden Administration’s renewal of funding for UNRWA is conditional on its making “very necessary reforms”.
Despite that, further accusations have been made about the material that has been available. In one exercise, pupils in the ninth grade were taught to condemn Arab-Israeli peace and normalisation initiatives and to claim that they serve only to weaken the resolve of Palestinians. It goes without saying that that is in direct contravention of the UN values. In the light of that, I ask our Minister what the Government will do to pressurise UNRWA into pursuing those very necessary reforms. Does he agree that UNRWA has a responsibility to nurture young Palestinian minds, rather than feed them with the poison of hatred and violent ideology?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing this important debate and on her excellent opening speech. Like her, I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution, which is exactly why I believe that we must take urgent action now to address the issue of extremism in the Palestinian school curriculum that the EU review so damningly documents.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I visited Israel and the west bank just over a year ago. I was struck by the work being done on the ground to make peace a reality. I was fortunate enough to visit the brilliant MATI, which provides life-changing support to Palestinian entrepreneurs in East Jerusalem and exemplifies exactly what we should be doing to support Israelis and Palestinians by working together to create positive social change in the middle east. It is absolutely contemptible that such vital work is undermined by the Palestinian school curriculum, which has such a prolific acceptance of and support for violence, antisemitism and the rejection of peace.
The report concludes shockingly that textbooks refer to violence against Israelis, including civilians, and acts of heroic struggle, as part of a narrative of resistance. One textbook for year 8 pupils presents the wounding, or even killing, of the opponent in a positive light. It is striking to observe that the state of Israel is rarely mentioned by name. The EU report actually outlines how Israelis are consistently referred to in a pejorative way. Elsewhere, it details one antisemitic exercise in which students learn that “the Jews” desecrated the tombs of Muslims. That was altered for the 2020 edition. The report fails to mention, however, that the words “the Jews” was replaced with the equally offensive and inflammatory “the Zionist occupation”.
This Government have a proud record of taking decisive action to tackle antisemitism wherever and whenever it occurs. The UK’s recent decision not to attend the notorious Durban conference is a welcome and important announcement. The Government also deserve praise for their untiring efforts to promote the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism across the UK. There appears to be a blind spot, however. The Palestinian Authority’s promotion of antisemitic ideas, which I have identified, goes largely unchecked—that is indefensible. If we know one thing about fighting prejudice, it is that it must be stamped out everywhere and immediately, no ifs, no buts. Will the Minister explain why his Department has failed to take action on the curriculum for two full decades? How does he plan to tackle that issue? Will he commit to supporting the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, to ensure that projects such as the one I described can continue to expand and deliver real-life change?
Let us not lose sight of a two-state solution. It is essential that we do not lose another generation to conflict. If it is right that we are stamping out antisemitism in the UK, how can we fund it abroad?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing this important debate. It is a particular pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), who captured so many of the important issues, including a particularly important reference to rejecting the Durban conference and its agenda.
A quote from the beginning of the Georg Eckert Institute’s report captures the importance of the issue:
“School textbooks play a crucial role as transmitters and indicators of the hegemonic knowledge that a society deems appropriate for teaching to the next generation, particularly when it comes to topics relating to peace and conflict…‘for millions of people they are the first, and often the only, books that they read’.”
If the material is a source of information that people will take with them through the rest of their lives, it is so important to get it right from the beginning, so that those problems, failings and introduced concerns are not there. The evidence in the report is clear that in the textbooks, as well as in the teaching guides, those materials should be characterised as antisemitic. They delegitimise and deny the state of Israel. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) highlighted, room can be found in the mathematics curriculum to promote or highlight the use of slingshots—that is absolutely extraordinary, and it is not by accident, but by design. It is toxic and runs through so many of the materials.
That division cuts through generations: as one generation learns, so will the next. We have to find ways and mechanisms to cut that out immediately. We have influence and the ability to apply pressure on the Palestinians. My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) really captured what we can do and how this debate can and should have an impact.
We used to talk about being an aid superpower. Aid ought to bring influence. It ought to help to persuade and be a mechanism for trying to convince our friends around the world, but other players too, that receiving it is contingent upon the correction of these materials, because they are wrong. Indeed, I think everyone speaking today has said that they are wrong and need changing, so I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to make a clear statement about how he will use aid to correct these failings.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on securing today’s important debate and refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Two years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Israel and the west bank, and I can honestly say it was one of the most inspirational weeks of my life. The character of the people and the richness of the culture left a deep and positive impression on me. But despite all that is truly wonderful about both Israelis and Palestinians, one cannot escape the reality of the tensions and conflicts that are ongoing. During the recent escalation of violence in the region, we even saw the consequences of inflammatory rhetoric on the streets of the UK, as the Jewish community faced a deplorable rise in antisemitic attacks as a result of events occurring thousands of miles away in another country.
We must look at what is fuelling the hatred and division between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Why has this conflict continued for so long, throughout the generations? One does not have to take a particular side in the conflict to see that there are some fairly considerable barriers to a peace settlement, but it need not remain like that if the next generation of children and young people, both Palestinian and Israeli, grow up to believe that peace is possible and desirable. For that shift to happen, it is vital that children in the region are taught about their history and heritage in a way that is truthful and neutral, and does not stoke hatred of the other side.
Yet sadly, we see that the opposite is happening. The findings of the EU review point to what is being taught in schools as a major contributing factor to the ongoing conflict. There cannot possibly be progress when young minds in the Palestinian territories are being infected by poisonous ideology and children are being taught to hate their Israeli neighbours. The review indisputably substantiates the level of extremist ideas in the Palestinian Authority school curriculum, with abhorrent glorification of terrorists and violence.
It does not have to be that way. An independent textbook monitoring organisation has found that textbooks elsewhere in the region have been changing in a positive direction. There has been a move across the middle east and north Africa towards a more progressive, peace-driven narrative, details of which I would set out if I had time. These changes are not perfect, but they are a clear step in the right direction. So why are young Palestinian minds continuing to being poisoned with the rhetoric of violence, division and hatred? This situation is prolonged as long as Governments around the world continue to tolerate it by failing to hold the Palestinian Authority to account. In the UK, it is time to fully recognise this issue and say enough is enough. Wounds do not heal if they are constantly reopened. We must give children the chance of peace.
It is pleasure to see you in the Chair for this morning’s debate, Dame Angela.
As many hon. Members have said, this is not the first time that this issue has been discussed in the House. In the past 20 years, there have been accusations of widespread antisemitism and incitement to violence and hatred contained in Palestinian school textbooks. They have been repeatedly raised by pressure groups and politicians, so it was right that the European Union, being understandably vigilant, should ask the independent Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research to carry out a study of the issue.
Despite highlighting some legitimate areas of concern, the Eckert report says that, while still not perfect, the changes recently made to the curriculum show that the Palestinian Authority are heading in the right direction, and the report significantly tempers some of the wilder accusations and allegations that we have heard from certain quarters about the PA routinely using the curriculum to incite violence and hatred or promote antisemitism. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, the Eckert report concludes that
“the textbooks adhere to UNESCO standards and adopt criteria that are prominent in international education discourse, including a strong focus on human rights”.
In terms of antisemitism, the report specifically mentions two examples, both of which were deemed to be and were rightly condemned as antisemitic. They should never have been there, and it is absolutely right that both have now been positively altered as the report says, or removed completely from the latest editions of the books—a fact recognised by the Georg Eckert Institute.
Let me be clear: we in the SNP believe that wherever antisemitism is found, it must be called out and condemned absolutely and unequivocally. There must be zero tolerance of antisemitism and we must all be vigilant in guarding against it. Although not complacent in any way, I am reassured that in the context of Palestinian school textbooks, the Eckert report says that, while there is recognition of the long-standing political and military conflict, antisemitism does not seem to be as widespread as was first feared, there are signs of improvement and it does not appear to be the endemic problem that some would have us believe.
As I said, the Eckert report does identify other areas of concern, but when addressing whether the textbooks are guilty of promoting or glorifying violence, it says that although there are “escalatory” examples in the textbooks, it did not find that, in the context of a region where, for the best part of a century, there has been active armed conflict, the depiction of the “other side” in the school textbooks as an aggressor or as violent necessarily equated to that igniting hatred. Indeed, the report goes on to say that it is important to acknowledge that such indicators are generally very rare and that there are also numerous instances of the school textbooks calling for tolerance, mercy, forgiveness and justice.
As we have heard, one of the main sources of the allegations is the Israeli organisation IMPACT-se, the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, a self-described
“research, policy and advocacy organization”,
whose main aim appears to be to lobby parliamentarians and media outlets across Europe and the United States to, I would argue, exaggerate and amplify these claims in order to get them on to the political agenda—rather successfully, it would appear. Let us be in no doubt about IMPACT-se. On page 15 of the Eckert report, it says that IMPACT-se research is
“marked by generalising and exaggerated conclusions based on methodological shortcomings.”
It recommends that any future IMPACT-se investigation be based on a
“comprehensive examination of the textbooks, contextualising the specific passages”
that it uses, as well as recognising those elements within the textbooks that
“promote tolerance and peaceful coexistence.”
Of course, as we have heard, IMPACT-se has form. The shortcomings of its methodology and its lack of objectivity have been commented on before in this House. As recently as September 2017 in a written answer, the ever honest and hugely respected former Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said that the Government were sufficiently concerned at what an earlier IMPACT-se report had alleged about Palestinian textbooks to decide to meet with it to discuss its findings. However, the UK Government in 2017 concluded that the IMPACT-se report was not objective in its findings and its methodology lacked rigour, before observing that
“some claims were made on the basis of a partial or subjective reading of the text”
“some findings are presented out of context”.
Yet, immediately on publication of the Georg Eckert Institute’s lengthy and nuanced report last week, IMPACT-se was straight out of the blocks, telling anyone who would listen that the report supported its claim that
“the Palestinian Authority systematically incites…a million children to antisemitism, hate and violence every school day.”
It is a ridiculous analysis of a serious report and one that probably tells us more about IMPACT-se and how it operates than anything else. Although it is perfectly legitimate to disagree with the findings of the Eckert report—I am sure that all sides will find plenty to argue about—what is not acceptable is to deliberately distort and twist what the report says. I find it deeply concerning that such a brazenly partisan group is still being listened to and is still able to find such an unquestioning audience.
I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate, he will reassure the House that the UK Government still consider IMPACT-se not to be a trusted source of reliable information and, its having been so discredited for the inaccuracies and inadequacies in its research, no UK Government funding will go towards that group.
We have heard many times this morning that anti-Palestinian groups have been raising in the contents of these books for years. As the Eckert report makes clear, there are areas of legitimate concern and some important changes are needed. However, attempts to portray Palestinians as somehow uniquely hateful and violent are utterly nonsensical. Ironically, those making them have been engaging in exactly the same sort of demonisation and distortion that they allege of the Palestinian textbooks.
We could go through the Eckert report line by line, arguing over every last dot and comma but, as other Members have said this morning, there is a much bigger picture here: the continued illegal occupation of Palestine, which is now in its sixth decade. I just wish that those parliamentarians most vocal about the content of Palestinian children’s school textbooks were as vocal about the destruction of Palestinian children’s schools.
I have seen the ruins of a Palestinian school. I have walked among the rubble of the demolished school buildings of the Bedouin village of Abu Nuwar. I have seen the pain, the fear, and the devastation that the demolition of a school causes for an already weak, poor and defenceless community. I cannot help but wonder where the outrage on the Benches opposite is when Palestinian schools are demolished by the Israeli army in order to make way for more illegal settlements? Why are they so silent when Palestinian children are being killed, beaten, arrested and detained without trial? Often their homes are being bulldozed. Where is the condemnation and outrage about the 66 Palestinian children who were killed, or the 600 who were injured during the bombardment of Gaza? Where are the debates and demands for action about the 141 schools in Gaza that were damaged, or the 53 schools in the west bank that have been earmarked for demolition?
Perhaps we would pay greater heed to the howls of protest from the Benches opposite about the content of Palestinian children’s schoolbooks if they were equally vociferous in calling out the outrageous human rights abuses that those same Palestinian schoolchildren face every single day of their young lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dame Angela. I, too, am pleased that today’s debate has been secured and congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) on doing so.
Even though this is a European Union review, Members across the House have been asking questions for some time about what was happening with it and why it was delayed for so long. Indeed, I have asked parliamentary questions myself. It is right that questions have been asked, because the UK Government fund much of the Palestinian National Authority’s educational work. That funding might not pay for the textbooks themselves, but it pays the salaries of up to 39,000 civil servants on the west bank, including 33,000 Ministry of Education and Higher Education civil servants and teachers.
It is also right that we are concerned about the content of educational material. I speak as a former teacher and educationalist myself when I say that education is vital in helping to inculcate understanding in children of the world in which they live, the values that should define their future lives, and their participation in society. It is important to realise, however, that formal educational textbooks are only one of the influences on children in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
To truly understand what Palestinian children are subjected to, one must understand the repressive and unfair nature of the Israeli military occupation and the impact of the Israeli military detention system on young Palestinian people. I strongly urge Members to read the excellent report by Save the Children, and also the report to which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for Orkney and Shetland referred, which clearly shows the impact that demolitions and evictions have on Palestinian children.
Today, however, we are discussing the EU report. It is a detailed report, and I believe it is objective in its approach. That is what I would expect from an expert, specialist institution such as the Eckert Institute. The report is nearly 200 pages long, and it paints a complex picture of the content of educational material. However, the report’s executive summary indicates that it is possible to define and identify three overarching features. The first is that
“the textbooks adhere to UNESCO standards and adopt criteria that are prominent in international educational discourse, including a strong focus on human rights.”
Secondly, the report says the textbooks
“express a narrative of resistance within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.
Thirdly, the examples that the report has analysed
“display an antagonism towards Israel”.
Those are the essential conclusions of the report.
In its examination of the textbooks and other educational material, the institute found that there was extensive coverage of global citizenship education. Throughout the textbooks, calls for tolerance, mercy, forgiveness and justice are to be found. There are positive examples of progressive representations of various social, cultural and religious groups living together. These include a diversity of skin colour, gender and physical abilities. The report says that the textbooks
“affirm the importance of human rights in general”,
but that the universal idea of human rights is
“not carried through to a discussion of the rights of Israelis”.
The textbooks rightly support international conventions with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in many cases they unfortunately adopt what can only be described as a one-sided representation of Israel. In fact, the term “Israel” is seldom used. We see more regularly the use of the terms “Zionist” and “Zionist occupation”, which are frequently found in the textbooks examined. What is also worrying is the unsatisfactory way in which Israel, and the renunciation of terror, is dealt with.
The report says there was a good discussion of the peace process in the middle east in a textbook for year 10. It traced a number of statements and declarations since 1977 that indicated the steps taken towards the recognition of Israel and the renunciation of violence and terrorism by the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The recognition of Israel’s right to exist in peace and security is documented clearly in the letters from Yasser Arafat to Yitzhak Rabin, to which the textbooks refer. Although that is a good example, it stands in contrast to the questioning of the legitimacy of the state of Israel, which is expressed in other passages and textbooks.
Although there are accurate and positive references to Jewish people historically and contemporaneously, there are also disturbing references that can only be described as antisemitic. The report also found disturbing references to the concept of jihad. The report noted that the term is rarely connected to the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but that there were instances where the term was used, which can lead only to a potential escalation.
The report also found that references to violence were treated differently, depending on who or what was being described. In the report’s words, textbooks in the Arabic language
“contain emotionally leading depictions of Israeli violence that tend to dehumanise the Israeli adversary”.
Not only is this approach dominant when it comes to covering conflict; it is also the case when discussing the British mandate. Throughout the textbook for history, geography and social studies, the Israeli opponent is portrayed as aggressive and hostile. That is surely wrong, if we are concerned about movements towards peace and realising our long-standing commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
I have to say that I am mildly encouraged by the paragraph in the report that states that, after initial completion, an overview was conducted comparing 18 more recent textbooks, which showed real measures of improvement. In the newer textbooks, there was an increase in the representation of women and Christians and a reduction of the text and images that had the ability to cause escalatory potential, including the removal of antisemitic content in several points of the narrative. The report also refers to other improvements and modifications.
Despite those changes, there is still cause for concern. The question is: how do the Government respond? The UK Government have a memorandum of understanding with the Palestinian Authority that says that the PA must adhere to the principles of non-violence and respect for human rights. Under the MOU, the Department for International Development—now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—is required to take action when the PA is not adhering to those principles. In December 2018, DFID stated that it expects textbooks
“to be academically rigorous and they must not incite racial hatred or violence under any circumstances.”
I know the Government have a regular dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, but I ask the Minister to make it abundantly clear that the significant issues that this report has highlighted must be addressed quickly. Furthermore, will he indicate whether he will initiate an ongoing review so that the content of textbooks is monitored and evaluated regularly?
It is great to be back in Westminster Hall. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) for securing this debate, for her work in support of peace and stability in the region, and for the knowledge that she brings as a teacher, a school inspector and an excellent parliamentarian. She teed up an excellent debate.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) asked for a balanced debate. I did think that a debate with the words “EU” and “Palestine” in the title was unlikely to be balanced, and was much more likely to be polarising, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the speeches that were balanced, and those that were not were balanced out by one another.
There have been a number of contributions, and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), who spoke virtually, most if not all Members have been to the region. I visited it as part of the International Development Committee, as the junior Member of the Conservative MPs on that Committee. Unfortunately, one of those Members had to leave—he was offered a job by the Labour party and went to the Lords—and the other has recently left the Conservative party, joined the Labour party and hopes to go to the Lords, so I seem to be the last man standing from that little delegation.
The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), would have loved to be here to take part in this debate. He apologises that he cannot do that as he is elsewhere on ministerial duties. It is a pleasure for me to respond. I will discuss all the issues with him when he returns to the Department, and with officials.
The Government welcome the publication of this report, which has taken some time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) says that I may downplay this issue—well, I will not. He says that I may say that the issue is fixed—I will not. He says that I will pray in aid the fact that we fund the teachers, not the books, and I will do that. I will come to the issues that he and others raised about conditionality later in my speech.
We urged our European partners to publish these findings, and I am happy that they have done so. It has been a long time coming. I suspect there will be more debates on this subject. There have been many before. Hon. Members referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers). Sorry—I was going to say Chipping Norton; I have spent far too much time there, as other colleagues have recently. This debate is part of the process, not the end of it. I will not be able to say definitively to colleagues, “This is something that happened in the past, and these are the 10 things we’re going to do that solve the problem,” but I will hopefully give an indication of some of the changes.
I recognise that changes to the curriculum will be immensely difficult, but what hope does the Minister have that we will see changes when the Palestinian Prime Minister has vowed to continue the printing of the textbooks, and to pay for them with water, telephone and electricity bills if that is what it takes?
I am not sighted on that statement, but I am naturally an optimist. The report talks of the progress made as well as some of the very real and unacceptable problems that remain.
Reflecting on the report, the Georg Eckert Institute is a specialist organisation that looks at textbook analysis. It was instructed to undertake a robust and impartial review of the contents of those textbooks. Hon. Members have talked of the period being 2017 to 2019. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) said that there was nothing more up to date. Some bits were more up to date. A smaller sample of textbooks from the most recent academic year was included, but they were principally from 2017 to 2019.
The aim was to provide a comprehensive and objective basis for the dialogue with the Palestinian Authority and to promote quality education, addressing the issues of incitement. There has generally been an acceptance of the value of education—we heard historic quotes from a number of Members—and of the power of getting it right, but part of that is getting the textbooks right. It is positive that the textbooks analysed were found to adhere to UNESCO guidelines on human rights and generally to promote political pluralism and cultural, social and religious values that support co-existence. However, it is very clear from the examples used today that there are concerns. My hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mary Robinson) and for Henley (John Howell) voiced concerns specifically about maths textbooks and the issue of the use of maps, which I am sure the Minister for the Middle East will want to review in more detail and perhaps discuss with colleagues.
There is an acceptance that the report found that there continues to be anti-Israel, antisemitic comment in those textbooks. That clearly is not acceptable to the House or to the Government. The UK Government continue to have zero tolerance for incitement to hatred and antisemitism in all forms. I thank hon. Members who referred to the Durban conference as an example of that.
I hesitate only because I have not gone through the conclusions forensically, but we agree with the broad thrust of the report that there has been progress and there are still areas where progress needs to be made. If the right hon. Gentleman has a concern over any particular conclusions, on which he particularly wants to press the Minister, I urge him to speak to the Minister for the Middle East directly, or to raise it by way of secondary intervention.
Overall, yes, but there were examples where they did not. We agree with the thrust absolutely.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who is very experienced in these matters as a former Minister and MEP, asked us to continue the regular dialogue and raise this issue specifically. The Minister for the Middle East raised it with the Palestinian Education Minister, to whom the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) referred, on 5 May. The Foreign Secretary also raised it with the Palestinian Foreign Minister on 26 May. Hopefully that gives an indication of how active the Government are. It is particularly important as part of our commitment to education overall.
I put on the record, as others have done, that the Government do not—I repeat, do not—fund textbooks in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but, as hon. Members have referred to, we do provide money for teachers.
I shall not bite at the EU point, but on the broader and serious point, there clearly needs to be ongoing work—this is not the end of the process, with some clear conclusions that are going to put an end to the matter. That may be through our EU partners. We work with other international partners. We work with the UN, the Americans and we will continue to work with the EU.
I reassure the House that teachers are carefully vetted. Our money to support education and health went into a specially dedicated bank account. It is only paid to individuals who have gone through the vetting process through the EU mechanism. I note the point of the hon. Member for Caerphilly about the future, but we are still contributing to the EU budget as part of the transition, so can quite reasonably expect to participate as a more direct and historic partner, as well as a partner in the broadest sense.
Each payment is independently audited to make sure it goes to the intended recipients. Although I do not want to negate the points made about textbooks, it is the teachers who are absolutely crucial.
We remain committed to a two-state solution. Making sure that children are educated in the best way is very much part of that. The contrary is also the case. There is a real risk, if children are not educated in an inclusive way, that it will make life worse.
This has been an interesting debate. Many perspectives have been brought forward and there has been challenge. I thank the Minister for affirming that the UK taxpayer funds teachers, but teachers are delivering lessons and exercises based on the very textbooks that are of concern. To separate teachers from their teaching materials is to try to separate bone from marrow. The textbooks underpin the curriculum. They reflect its aims and objectives. They are more far-reaching than a mere teaching aid or prop. They are incredibly important.
I am pleased that there was not a formal acceptance as such of the conclusion of the report, because while the report finds “generally” or “overall”, if we are to maintain a position of zero tolerance, we cannot tolerate the evidence brought forward by this esteemed institute—evidence that reflects antisemitism and hatred of Jews and does not provide the understanding or the opportunity to reflect and learn to the youngest generation in Palestine.
This youngest generation are the leaders of tomorrow. They are the teachers of tomorrow. They are the peacemakers we need to look to. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) made an excellent point. She said it is vital that peace is seen not just as possible, but as desirable. Currently, it is not seen at all. Unless and until that is part of the education experience of Palestinian children, there will be a ghost train.
I am slightly confused about what the hon. Lady is saying now and what she said in her opening speech. She relies on evidence within the report, but she seems to find the report on the whole unsatisfactory. Which is it? Does she accept the report or not?
I find the report conflicting. I find it difficult to reconcile. In the body of the report, and in the words of the esteemed institute, there is example after example of inciting hatred, as recognised by Members. It talks about how
“Jews as a collective are dangerous and deceptive”.
How can that be reconciled with a conclusion that says the curriculum meets standards? It clearly does not. Zero tolerance is the position of the Government, and that must be our aspiration for the Palestinian curriculum.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the EU Review into Palestinian school textbooks.
I remind hon. Members that there have been changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their cameras on for the duration of the debate and that they will be visible at all times—both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the trans-Pennine route upgrade and Northern Powerhouse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I am sorry that I am unable to attend this important debate in person, but I am self-isolating.
The trans-Pennine route upgrade and Northern Powerhouse Rail are two crucial transport infrastructure projects for the north of England. The latter is vital to the economic prosperity of Bradford and my constituents in Bradford South, as well as the wider region and the nation as a whole. I raise these matters today amid fears that that important high-speed rail project is set to be cut back, bypassing Bradford altogether, but the work for a diluted version of Northern Powerhouse Rail is being prepared by the Government under the guise of the trans-Pennine route upgrade and the smokescreen of the National Infrastructure Commission.
A report seen by the Yorkshire Post newspaper revealed the Government’s thinking. Documents for the trans-Pennine route upgrade setting out development and capacity improvements for NPR between Ravensbourne and Dewsbury are among the key elements of that scheme. I am not arguing against the trans-Pennine route upgrade—far from it: the modernisation of the existing cross-Pennine rail route is long overdue and desperately needed. It has been on and off the Government’s agenda—upgraded, downgraded, paused and rethought at regular intervals—and I am pleased that it might at last get the green light to go ahead. But that must be as well as, not instead of, Northern Powerhouse Rail.
I suppose I should not be surprised by the revealing of the Government’s intentions; after all, this has become an all too familiar pattern when it comes to investment in transport infrastructure spending outside London and the south-east. I am, however, outraged and, frankly, incredulous—outraged that yet again the Government plan to short-change the north and think they can get away with it, and incredulous at such short-sightedness.
The transport infrastructure of the north has endured decades of under-investment and generations of unfulfilled economic opportunity as a consequence, and yet the potential of the north of England to deliver not just for itself but to provide a national uplift is unparalleled. The north is home to seven of the UK’s 20 largest cities, and Bradford is one of them. Despite the short distances between them, the economic interaction of those cities has been restricted. With £343 billion in economic output, eight of the UK’s top research institutions and 27 universities, the potential of the north is right there for all to see.
Time and again in this House I have raised the north-south economic imbalance in our country. Time and again I have had acknowledgment of the problems that Bradford and the north face. I have had promises, but no action. Time and again, I have asked Ministers to confirm that the Northern Powerhouse Rail would get the go-ahead and that it would include Bradford, not pass it by. Time and again Ministers have responded with warm words, but nothing concrete. Let us have no more shallow promises.
We need action more than ever before. Instead of the commitment required to address the inequality at hand and reap the benefits of investment to change it, we have seen prevarication, fudge and delay. Earlier this year, the Department for Transport told Transport for the North that it must delay submission of its strategic outline case for Northern Powerhouse Rail until after the Government had published their integrated rail plan. This kicking of the can down the road, coming after the National Infrastructure Commission raised questions about what can and cannot be afforded in the current national rail budget, does little to engender either confidence or trust. First expected by the end of 2020, the integrated rail plan remains a mystery.
As details of the DfT’s thinking about the trans-Pennine route upgrade now emerge, there is clear cause for concern that the Government are contemplating not a levelling up, but a levelling down of rail infrastructure investment in the north. Today, we must have the truth about the Government’s obligation to tackle the imbalance of this nation’s north-south economic inequality and their commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail, because the two are inextricably linked.
Northern Powerhouse Rail is the very essence of levelling up. It is not about trains: it is about people. It is about unlocking potential, attracting investment and creating jobs. It is a catalyst for a regional and national economic boost: integration, rather than fragmentation, of the great cities and economic powerhouses of the north. To put it bluntly, upgrading existing lines will not fulfil the manifesto promises that the Government made or provide the transformational improvement that the north needs and which our nation needs the north to make, too.
Transport for the North, England’s first sub-national transport body, said that its preferred Northern Powerhouse Rail network will
“deliver close to £5bn in economic benefit, by helping the North operate as a single economic unit, and £14.4bn in gross value added (GVA) by 2060. It will create a net gain of 74,000 new jobs in the North, and over 57,000 new jobs across the UK as a whole.”
The preferred route for Northern Powerhouse Rail—the one that delivers the greatest economic boost to the region, as set out by Transport for the North with the backing of northern leaders and both the West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire metro Mayors—includes a city centre stop in Bradford, which is currently the largest UK city without a main line station. Bradford is the UK’s youngest city, and its fifth biggest. It is home to more than half a million people and 17,000 businesses, and has £10.5 billion in its economy. It was PwC’s most improved city in 2019, and was listed among The Sunday Times’s best places to do business. It has a strong manufacturing base, especially in my constituency of Bradford South. It has high business start-up rates, and it is among the UK’s top exporters. However, its capacity for growth is constrained by poor connectivity. Analysis by Transport for the North of a Bradford city centre stop on Northern Powerhouse Rail points to additional gross value added across the Bradford district of £2.9 billion per year in today’s money by 2060. That is equivalent to increasing the size of the local economy by a third.
The reduction in journey times between Bradford and key cities in the north and the UK would be transformational, enabling a journey from Bradford to Leeds to take seven minutes. Currently, that journey takes 20 minutes, between two cities that are about eight miles apart as the crow flies. It would be possible to get from Bradford to Manchester in 22 minutes—it currently takes an hour—and from Bradford to Liverpool in 50 minutes; it currently takes two hours.
Across the wider regions, the proposal would put around 10 million people and more than a quarter of a million businesses within 90 minutes of four or more northern cities. Northern Powerhouse Rail will also support carbon-free and sustainable travel, contributing to the net zero carbon goals of not just northern cities, but the whole of the UK. One of the largest city-to-city journey to work flows in the country is between Bradford and Leeds, mostly by car. At scale, Northern Powerhouse Rail supports a 400% increase in rail travel and takes 64,000 car trips per day off the road.
Done properly, Northern Powerhouse Rail will create an integrated urban area larger than Birmingham, linking Bradford and Leeds to form a coherent economic unit, with a labour market of more than 1.3 million people, and more than 600,000 jobs. Done poorly and half-heartedly or—as increasingly seems to be the Government’s aim—on the cheap, with the very least they can get away with, it would fail to support the economic and societal advances we require.
Northern Powerhouse Rail is a game-changer for the north and Bradford: a key part of rebalancing the economy and the country. A watered-down version would expose the reality of the Government’s real commitment to levelling up. Put simply, it is not acceptable. In west Yorkshire on Monday, when asked about Northern Powerhouse Rail, the Prime Minister said that he could not give
“chapter and verse on exactly where the stops are going to be”.
That response from a Prime Minister who famously does not do detail, though he does do populism, suggests that a decision has been reached and it is not going to be popular. The Prime Minister told the reporter that he would have to get back to her. I ask the Minister, who has responsibility for Northern Powerhouse Rail and the trans-Pennine route upgrade, to give our Parliament today the detail that the Prime Minister this week committed to provide to a journalist. It is time for the Government to level with the people and the cities of the north. They are either going to deliver in full on Northern Powerhouse Rail or they are not. Which is it to be, Minister?
I thank the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) for leading this important debate. She set the scene very well. I, too, was concerned when I read newspaper reports about the potential downgrade—that is, an upgrade of the trans-Pennine route as it exists rather than a new route. The hon. Lady quoted part of the newspaper interview with the Prime Minister; he also said that there is definitely a commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail and a huge investment in railways in the north, so I was more reassured.
It is quite understandable that the Treasury should look carefully at where we spend taxpayers’ money. On the face of it, why do we need two railways running across the Pennines? It is a fair question to ask. Having spoken to the Chancellor before he took that role, I know he was always committed to east-west rail links across the north. I do not think for a minute that Northern Powerhouse Rail is under threat. The Minister will no doubt reflect on that when he makes his comments.
The key is the agglomeration effect, as economists call it. It is a critical mass, which is what we need. It brings 10 million people together, in exactly the way that London has 10 million people together who are highly connected. It shows the economic opportunity based on that. As the hon. Lady set out, cities such as Bradford would be left behind without it. Bradford cannot be connected into the rest of the north without Northern Powerhouse Rail.
Key to it are all those young IT-savvy people connected so easily to places such as Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Hull, York and many others. That makes perfect sense and it is vital we get that agglomeration effect. I know Bradford quite well, and its city centre is in desperate need of investment. A shiny brand new station in the middle of Bradford would attract lots of other private sector investment, which is critical. We have seen the investment at King’s Cross and St Pancras and all the investment that came off the back of that. That is what would happen to Bradford. That is critical investment, and not just for Bradford—there are similar arguments for Hull, Liverpool, York, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds. This is an important and welcome debate, and I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say from his perspective. I know he is a massive champion of investment in rail in the north.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on securing this important debate. I am sure we all agree that investing in rail across the north of England and improving connectivity between all communities is vital.
I reiterate the Government’s commitment to levelling up the north of England as we build back better from the pandemic, delivering real, tangible improvements for people across the region. That is one of the Government’s top priorities. The Government are committed to enabling the north to reap the benefits of record levels of investment in our rail services. The trans-Pennine route upgrade and Northern Powerhouse Rail are just two of many infrastructure projects that will better connect communities across the north of England. The integrated rail plan will soon outline exactly how these major rail projects, alongside HS2 phase 2b and other transformational projects, will work together to deliver the reliable train services that passengers need and deserve.
However, we are not waiting for the integrated rail plan to get on with investing in, and delivering significant improvements to, transport across the north of England. Building on our £29 billion investment in northern transport since 2010, we recently announced £15 million for two new stations outside Leeds, at White Rose and Thorpe Park, providing a springboard for regeneration, housing growth and economic activity and jobs in the surrounding area. We announced a further £317 million of funding for the trans-Pennine route upgrade, which I will talk more about shortly, and more than £1.2 billion from the transforming cities fund to improve connectivity across the north. In addition, we are investing £137 million in the Hope Valley line to improve capacity and connectivity between Manchester and Sheffield, and £34 million has been pledged to rapidly progress plans to reopen the Northumberland line, which closed to passengers in 1964 as part of the Beeching cuts.
Transforming railways in the north will significantly impact national infrastructure by releasing capacity, improving journey times and reducing our carbon footprint. The trans-Pennine route upgrade is a multi-billion pound programme and is expected to be the largest investment in our existing rail network over the next five years. It aims to tackle the problems that rail passengers experience today by delivering a step change in the performance and reliability of this key east-west rail artery, enhancing journeys for passengers and providing opportunities for the growing population up until the 2040s. Funding of £589 million was announced in July 2020, enabling design and development work to continue and delivering extensive reliability, capacity and journey time improvements between Manchester and York via Huddersfield and Leeds.
An extra £317 million investment into the programme was announced in May. The bulk of this funding will commence early works, including electrification and upgrades between York and Church Fenton, one of the busiest stretches of track in the north of England, as part of delivering a more reliable and resilient railway for passengers. This funding, which has already been committed, will see the programme progress rapidly into the next phase, with early benefits delivered for passengers as early as 2025. The Department continues to work through the design and development phases of the programme. A further update to the business case, to make recommendations for the next stage of works, is due in the coming months.
I turn to the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme, otherwise known as HS3, and to the recent media reports cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and the hon. Member for Bradford South, which inaccurately speculated about the Government’s commitment to NPR and that money has been reappropriated from the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme to finance HS2. I am pleased to say that those claims are categorically untrue. The Government remain absolutely committed to the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme, which represents a further opportunity to invest in northern communities, to level up the economy, and most importantly, to improve connectivity and reliability between key northern hubs, allowing the north to reach its full strategic and economic potential both at home and abroad.
The integrated rail plan will outline the investment blueprint and the delivery profile for a host of major rail projects in the midlands and the north over subsequent decades, including the NPR programme, the trans-Pennine route upgrade and HS2 phase 2b. Once it has been published, the Department for Transport will work closely with Transport for the North to finalise a strategic outline case for the NPR programme that is consistent with the policy and funding framework established by the integrated rail plan, which will allow more rapid alignment around single-route options for NPR and an accelerated delivery timetable that will allow us to get spades in the ground and realise benefits for communities across the north of England sooner than was previously seen as possible.
As for the content of the integrated rail plan and the recommended way forward for the NPR programme, final decisions are yet to be made and Ministers continue to look very closely at the evidence, including that provided by Transport for the North and leaders from the north and midlands. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have met northern leaders—including those from Leeds, Bradford and Manchester—and leaders from the midlands several times this year to discuss their priorities for investment in rail infrastructure and in the integrated rail plan.
I myself have met Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe on three occasions this year and I know that my officials have had much engagement with her officers in both Bradford Council and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. I am grateful for their ongoing constructive engagement. We have had productive discussions on understanding the evidence base that is being presented.
That applies to all Northern Powerhouse Rail corridors, including Bradford and the Manchester-to-Leeds NPR corridor. The Government recognise the importance of improving rail connectivity to Bradford—for the local community, for passengers and for the regeneration opportunities that it could bring.
On that point, I really emphasise my support for having a station stop in Bradford, because of the absolute benefits it would have for my constituency of Keighley; as the MP for a neighbouring constituency, the Minister will be well aware of those. However, this process is not just about things such as the NPR; it is also about the Skipton-to-Colne railway line, which he will also be very familiar with, and opening up the links between the east and west.
Wonderful—I welcome the contribution from my constituency neighbour, who represents Keighley. I am happy to say that I completely agree with him about the importance of Bradford, not only to the whole north of England but as an integral part of our rail network. I will not comment on the Skipton-to-Colne line; I have a vested interest, because it goes through my constituency. I will leave that one there, but he makes a very strong case for the reopening of that railway line.
We would all agree that Bradford is a vibrant city with plenty to contribute to the wider development of the north. Combining the local economies of Manchester and Leeds, it has an important role to play in creating an economic powerhouse to rival anywhere else in the country.
There remain a range of options that are under robust evaluation as part of NPR. That is why, when the Prime Minister visited west Yorkshire earlier this week, as the hon. Member for Bradford South mentioned, he did not talk about specifics. But he did say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned,
“There is definitely a commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail, and a huge investment in railways in the North.”
That speaks very clearly to the Government’s commitment.
Ensuring that investment in Northern Powerhouse Rail benefits the widest possible range of places is the responsibility of Ministers; we take it very seriously, which will be reflected in our decision making. As I have mentioned previously, the integrated rail plan will set out how major projects across the north and the midlands will be sequenced and delivered, and it is the Government’s ambition that the benefits of Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 phase 2b are delivered to communities and passengers in the north more quickly.
I am aware that hon. Members and local leaders from across the midlands and the north are eagerly awaiting the publication of the integrated rail plan. Let me assure my hon. Friends that we are making good progress and intend to publish it soon.
As somebody who served in the Government Whips’ Office for two years, I think I will stick with the language of “soon”. However, it is definitely our commitment to have the integrated rail plan published.
The one thing I would say, though, from having had conversations with many leaders across the north of England, is that many of them have said that they would rather we get the right answers and the right solutions rather than rushing things. This plan will set an investment framework for decades, so we have to get it right— and if that requires a little more to-ing and fro-ing and a little more negotiation, I think that is a price worth paying. Nevertheless, we are very keen make the announcement soon.
As I say, it is important that we continue the negotiations and carry on reflecting on all the evidence. We must also consider what the National Infrastructure Commission said in the “Rail Needs assessment for the Midlands and the North”, the advice from Transport for the North, the views of northern and midlands leaders and the Government’s own analysis before making any final decisions.
Growing economies and levelling up the north and the midlands are at the heart of what we are trying to achieve. That is why I am also happy to confirm that Ministers from both the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Treasury have been closely involved in drawing up the integrated rail plan. This process is not just about building railways but about taking a holistic view of how to capitalise on our investment, and how to help boost regional economies.
I hope that I have convinced the hon. Member for Bradford South and my hon. Friends the Members for Thirsk and Malton and for Keighley (Robbie Moore) of the Government’s commitment to both Northern Powerhouse Rail and the trans-Pennine route upgrade, and to delivering the benefits of these transformational rail investments to passengers and communities in the north more quickly. Decisions on these schemes will be set out in the integrated rail plan, which we intend to publish soon, but in the meantime we are already getting on with levelling up the country and delivering investment and improvements to transport across the north of England.
Question put and agreed to.
Children from Low-Income Families: Education Support
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
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 amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate.
I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive at the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate, and that they will be visible at all times both to each other and to us here in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall clerks, at westminsterhallclerks@ parliament.uk.
Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I would also like to remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for the education of children from low-income families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I rise to speak on this issue as a parent and, like all of us here today, as someone who wants the best for our schoolchildren, and to ensure that they are not limited by their background or their parents’ income.
I stand in awe of the incredible work teachers, school staff, parents and early years practitioners have put in over the past 15 months to ensure that children in school do not miss out. They have adapted to social distancing measures in classrooms, regular testing and isolation periods, all while ensuring that children feel safe and can learn. Sadly, we have not seen the same commitment from the Government.
In common with almost all other Government Departments in their response to the pandemic, there has been a catalogue of Conservative failures in education, including school closures without an effective plan for distance learning; a promise to primary schools that they would return before the summer holidays last year, then backtracking on that promise; and preventing families from accessing food vouchers during school holidays, only to do a screeching U-turn after outrage and condemnation from across our nation. How could we forget the exams fiasco for both A-level and GCSE students, leaving thousands distressed about their future? In addition, the Conservatives presided over legal action to force schools to stay open, only to shut them weeks later; in their catch-up plan, they provided less than £1 per day when children were out of school; and they ignored the advice from the expert adviser, Sir Kevan Collins, to allow children to properly recover from the pandemic, forcing him, unfortunately, to resign. As one Slough headteacher, commenting on Government behaviour on education, noted:
“Communication is last minute, it’s ill thought-out and it hasn’t included our voice in the whole process.”
Schools have had to cope with all that in the space of just over a year. It would be almost comical if the impact of this incompetence was not on our children’s futures. Each delayed or poor decision has resulted in worse outcomes for a generation of schoolchildren who have been left to suffer. The impact of these decisions is real, and the consequences are even more severe for those who were already disadvantaged and come from low-income families.
The most recent figures show that since October 2020 the number of pupils eligible for free school meals has increased by over 100,000. At the same time, support and funding for such pupils has fallen, with the Government moving eligibility for pupil premium support back from January to October. Schools, which have already been left bruised by cuts to their resources since 2010, therefore miss out on additional funding for any child who began claiming free school meals after 1 October 2020, leaving them short-changed to the tune of millions.
As the Lawrence report proved last year, children on free school meals are already at an economic and educational disadvantage. That factor has a real and profound impact on pupil attainment across all ethnicities. In 2019, just 25% of pupils who had been eligible for free school meals, or who had been in care or adopted from care, received grades 9 to 5 in GCSE English and maths, compared with 50% of other pupils. After brutal cuts and the cynical moving of deadlines, is it any surprise that disadvantaged schoolchildren are struggling?
One Slough parent who lost their job and was reliant on food vouchers expressed their turmoil to me, saying:
“My daughter has been left out by the very government that we rely on to keep us and our loved ones safe.”
Instead of investing to ensure that families in Slough have adequate support to ensure that their children are clothed, fed, and can attend school, the Government have continued to cut the support on which they rely so heavily. The move from legacy benefits to universal credit means that just half of the children in the poorest fifth of our population are able to get free school meals. Sadly, this Government seem intent on savings, rather than on investing the potential of future generations.
While that neglect of our poorest families continues, the gap between them and their peers widens. In my constituency of Slough, the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates is 2.4 months for early years, almost six months in primary schools, and in our secondary schools it has reached more than 11 months. Those tragic facts were set in motion way before the onset of the pandemic, and we have yet to see the long-term impact that the pandemic may have on our children. Researchers from the Education Policy Institute have identified that the increasing proportion of disadvantaged children who are in persistent poverty has contributed to the lack of progress in narrowing the learning gap.
Ensuring that parents get the proper financial support that they deserve is essential to children’s attainment and achievements in later life. A Slough mother contacted me recently to attest to that. She was living on just £120 a month and was unable to properly feed or clothe her children. She was desperate for empathy from the Government and adequate support to better the lives of her family. If children experience difficulties at home, they are in no position to be ready to learn.
We must give children the resources to thrive, not leave them to struggle through a pandemic, like the thousands who were unable to get the devices that they needed to access their schooling when the Government’s laptop allocation promise was slashed by 80%. Back in January, Labour’s calls to get every child online fell on deaf ears. As I mentioned earlier, 100,000 pupils have not returned to school full-time following schools reopening. All along, there has been no plan for the education of the most vulnerable in our society.
I am a great believer in the power of education, and in Slough we have some of the best schools in the country. Without support from the Government in what has undoubtedly been the most difficult time for education and disadvantaged families in recent years, the opportunities that a good education can deliver are being missed. We should be realistic about the dire and lasting impact that continued Government inaction will have. A Royal Society report suggests that the impact of school closures on 13 cohorts of students has the potential to affect a quarter of the entire workforce for the next 50 years, and disadvantaged pupils are particularly at risk of falling into poverty.
It is possible to turn the tide with a properly funded catch-up plan, not one that will reach just 8% of pupils, less than half of whom are on free school meals. We need action proportionate to the serious times ahead to ensure that children from low-income families do not miss out even more and to improve the outcomes of future generations, ensuring that they are better off than their predecessors and that they can access and achieve their ambitions, not be held back. The Government will never improve the prospects of our nation by leaving disadvantaged children behind
The debate can last until 4 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 3.27 pm and the guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then the mover of the motion will have three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. But until 3.27 pm, we are in Back-Bench time and our first contributor will be Siobhain McDonagh.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this incredibly important debate.
Right now, there are 385,500 pupils off school and isolating because of coronavirus, some of them for the second, third or even fourth time. That means weeks of lost learning after their already missing months of school through the lockdowns. For many of these children, being sent home means a return to remote learning, joining their isolating classmates behind a computer screen, but children on the wrong side of the digital divide will be isolated not just from their classroom but from their education. Why does this matter? It matters because those who were the furthest behind before the pandemic have fallen even further behind their peers during the lockdowns, with every click widening the attainment gap. Sir Kevan Collins has indicated that in September, 200,000 children will make the transfer from primary to secondary school unable to meet their reading age or target.
The Minister and her colleagues have regularly pointed to the Government’s tech roll-out—the Secretary of State for Education did so yet again in the answer to today’s urgent question—but that roll-out was so ineffective that almost a year after schools first closed, the Daily Mail had to run an emergency campaign to secure more laptops for the children who were being failed by this Government. Before the Minister points to the success of the roll-out, may I remind her of the utterly damning National Audit Office conclusion that the Department for Education did not even aim to provide equipment to all the children who lacked it? Meanwhile, the latest data reveals that 80,224 of the devices provided in the roll-out arrived after schools had reopened in March.
With hundreds of thousands of school pupils now isolating, the problem of the digital divide has clearly not gone away. In my constituency, the children in year 6 at Saint Mark’s Primary School have all been off school from Friday because of coronavirus, but 23 of them are still without the kit and connectivity required to log in and learn from home. How does the Minister expect these pupils to join their classmates in remote learning? The answer is simple: they will not; they will simply fall even further behind.
We know that it is not just Mitcham that is affected. The front page of The Daily Telegraph today unsurprisingly reveals that youngsters in the most disadvantaged areas are almost twice as likely to be forced to self-isolate as their peers in wealthier areas. However, these children are also the most likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide, with 8% of children aged between five and 15 not having access at home to a desktop computer, laptop or notebook that is connected to the internet. I ask the Minister in her winding-up speech to specifically address what support is available for the children in year 6 at Saint Mark’s today, and indeed for any children who are self-isolating and who do not have the kit or connectivity required to log in and learn from home.
This is not just a problem for the 10 days of self-isolation. The days of pen and paper are long gone and the technological age that we now live in is here to stay. Homework, research, resources, catch-up—so much is now online. The consequence for children on the wrong side of the digital divide is that they are now even more disadvantaged than before. Today’s debate is on support for the education of children from low-income families, and I am calling for every child entitled to free school meals to have internet access and an adequate device at home. Free school meals may not be a complete measure of need, but I believe it is the best measure we have. This would be a huge step forward in closing the digital divide across our schools. Social mobility, levelling up—call it whatever you want, but surely the pandemic has taught us that no child should miss out on their education in our tech-reliant society simply because they are on the wrong side of the digital divide.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this hugely important debate.
Time and again, children and young people have been failed by this Government. The UK is one of the world’s richest economies, but 4.3 million children and young people are growing up trapped in poverty, with 30% of children, or nine pupils in every classroom of 30, having to combat hunger and stress before they even arrive at school. In my constituency, nearly half of children—almost one in every two pupils in every school—suffer from poverty. That is a damning indictment of this Government’s failure to provide a stable foundation for our children and young people to flourish. Poverty has a lasting damaging impact on the life chances of children and intensifies systematic inequalities.
This has only worsened during the pandemic. A recent National Education Union member survey found that more than half of respondents have seen an increase in child poverty at their school or college since March 2020. The Resolution Foundation predicts that by the next general election, 730,000 more children and young people will be caught in poverty’s vicious cycle. Poverty is holding too many children and young people back, limiting their life chances and creating barriers to their accessing education. A recent survey found that three quarters of teachers said their students had demonstrated fatigue or poor concentration in school as a result of poverty. Shockingly, more than half of surveyed teachers said their students had experienced hunger or ill health because of poverty, while more than a third said their students had been bullied as a result of it. Children accessing free school meals are also 28% less likely to leave school with five GCSEs graded A* to C than their peers from wealthier households. The coronavirus pandemic has increased the pressure facing families on low incomes. A fifth of UK schools have set up a local food bank since March 2020, while 25% of teachers report personally providing food and snacks to their pupils to ensure that they have eaten during the school day.
It is vital that we recognise how young people of all ethnicities have repeatedly been failed by this Government. That is why I was deeply alarmed by the report published last week by the Education Committee, which used selective data to support a preconceived and divisive conclusion that attempts to pit working-class communities against each other. It is true that poor white children struggle academically, which requires urgent focus, yet the Education Committee’s decision to attribute that to use of the term “white privilege”, rather than a decade of Conservative cuts to the services that children and young people rely on, obscures the reality of how class and race intersect in our education system. One only has to look further to see that racial disparities exist across educational attainment, school discipline and university admissions. Poverty disproportionately impacts children and young people of black African, Caribbean and Asian backgrounds, 46% of whom are trapped in poverty. Instead of attempting to create unhelpful divides among children based on their race, we must honestly accept that children from all working-class backgrounds have been badly let down by decades of neglect.
It was not “white privilege” that cut youth services by 73% since 2010; that was the Government. It was not “white privilege” that cut school funding per pupil by 9%; that was the Government. It was not “white privilege” that closed more than 750 youth centres, more than 800 libraries and more than 1,000 Sure Start centres; that was the Government. It was not “white privilege” that scrapped educational maintenance allowance and maintenance grants, and trebled tuition fees; that was the Government. It was not “white privilege” that announced a catch-up funding package that is a tenth of what the Government’s own education adviser said is necessary to make up for the disruption of the coronavirus; that was the Government.
The Government’s neglect of children and young people is a generational betrayal, yet they are now determined to distract from the rampant racial and class inequality that their policies have exacerbated with a trumped-up culture war that is designed to stoke the flames of division. We must oppose this damaging agenda and fight for a future in which all children receive the tools to build a happy and secure life.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing today’s important debate.
Over the past decade, the Conservative Government have inflicted the largest cut to school funding in 40 years. As a result, they are failing to tackle poverty and ensure that a quality education is accessible to all. According to End Child Poverty, 37% of children in my constituency are living in poverty—the Government should be ashamed that that figure has increased by 3% since 2014—and this is having a real impact on their learning. In 2019, a National Education Union survey found that more than three quarters of respondents stated that their students had demonstrated fatigue or poor concentration. That is because of poverty.
The fact is that the Government are failing children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Children eligible for free school meals are 28% less likely to leave school with five A* to C GCSE grades than their wealthier peers. Before the pandemic, the estimated learning gap in Luton between disadvantaged students and their peers in early years was three months; in primary school, it was seven months, and in secondary school it was 17 months. The pandemic has exacerbated inequality and the attainment gap.
By the end of the pandemic, and as a result of the lockdowns, most children across the UK will have missed more than half a year of in-person schooling. We know that lost learning disproportionately impacted children from disadvantaged backgrounds who did not have the necessary digital equipment or study space for remote learning. It was the Government’s responsibility to prevent disadvantaged young people from suffering digital exclusion due to the restrictions. Instead, excellent charities such as Luton Learning Link had to step in to make up for their failure to distribute enough digital devices.
Learning from home has also increased the economic burden on low-income families. Additional outgoings, such as high bills for electricity or mobile data, have hit families at the same time as economic insecurity in the labour market has increased. In Luton, as a consequence of the pandemic and the particular impact on the aviation and hospitality industries, the claimant count has increased from about the national average to the fifth-highest in the country, and the proportion of children receiving free school meals has increased from 21% to 27%. Those children deserve to have the same education as those in wealthy families.
Tackling the educational attainment gap as part of our recovery must be the Government’s top priority. No child should be left behind, but the Government’s current measly offer will not provide the ambitious recovery that is needed. Although others have spoken about the level of funding required, I will focus my remarks on where the funding should be allocated.
Children’s ability and confidence in spoken language is the bedrock of their learning and social and emotional wellbeing. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on oracy—speaking well. A report by the all-party parliamentary group on oracy found that two thirds of primary teachers and nearly half of secondary teachers say that school closures have undermined the spoken language development of their most disadvantaged students, compared with one in five teachers saying that it impacted their most advanced pupils.
An increased focus on oracy is an opportunity to accelerate the academic progress of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Education Endowment Foundation states that
“pupils who participate in oral language interventions make approximately five months’ additional progress over the course of a year”,
rising to six months for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I have seen examples of this, such as the impact of the Level Trust’s SMASH summer scheme on building the confidence and creativity of children in Luton, and I was lucky enough to give out those awards last summer. Alongside a comprehensive strategy to fund schools properly and expand support services, Labour’s education recovery plan would contribute to developing children’s oracy by expanding school facilities to deliver breakfast clubs and after-school activities, from arts and sports to book clubs, board games, learning through play and communicating.
Expanding access to creative education for children from low-income backgrounds would also help to reduce the attainment gap. Creative subjects can improve a young person’s cognitive abilities by up to 17%, supporting their development in other subjects, such as English and maths. Young people who do not have access to arts and culture are disadvantaged both economically and educationally. The arts should not only be for privileged young people from wealthy families, so will the Minister explain in her closing remarks how the Government intend to fully integrate oracy into all stages and phases of education to help close the educational attainment gap, and whether she agrees that the Government should urgently invest in improving access to creative education, in order to contribute to reducing that gap?
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. You are always very kind, and I appreciate your kind thoughts. First of all, may I say how pleased I am to make a contribution to this debate, and that I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on having secured it? He is a very active MP in this House. Certainly when it comes to questions in the Chamber or debates in Westminster Hall, he is always there, so I wanted to come along and support this debate and my Opposition colleagues.
As a father, I feel very strongly about this issue. My boys are now young men in their 20s and early 30s, and the education of my own children was always very important to me. We as parents know that we would do all we can to see our children succeed, because that is what parents do: we want to see our children do well. We want to see them settled and in a job, and we want them to have happy lives. I am very fortunate that my three boys have achieved that, although I must give credit to my wife Sandra for the rearing of the children and the supervision of their education. I was not there often enough to have the input that I should have had, but certainly my wife was.
Although circumstances can sometimes get in the way of this happening, it is crucial that as policy makers in this House, we do all that we can to support those families who are struggling. The education of children should be a priority for us, and we should not forget about low-income families—that is what this is about. I always think that my job—I believe that others subscribe to this as well—is to look out for those who have no one to look out for them. In this House, we bring forward issues on behalf of our constituents in such a way that the Government can perhaps respond and help in all the ways we would like them to, and take additional steps to make our constituents’ lives easier. As the Minister knows, I am pleased to see her in her place: she has a deep and sincere interest in this subject, and I am very confident that she will be forthcoming with the responses that my Opposition colleagues hope to receive.
I understand that the Minister does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland, and therefore any comments I make are not for her to respond to, but I want to add to this debate a perspective on life in Northern Ireland, and perhaps reinforce and replicate the issues to which hon. Ladies and Gentlemen have already referred. I want to highlight the struggles that many have faced, especially in my constituency of Strangford. Over the duration of the covid-19 pandemic, those struggles have been at an all-time high. I am very fortunate to have the former Education Minister Peter Weir in my constituency back home, so I have been able to work alongside him to try to address some of these issues, but it has been difficult throughout the covid-19 pandemic to know how to respond and know what the right things to do are.
I want to highlight some of the things that the community has done to help, in partnership with others. Many residents have contacted me about the struggles of at-home education, a feeling of helplessness because of lack of income, and the pressures of having to stay at home either because they have to self-isolate or because the rules mean that they are not able to got out as often as they would like. I am not quite sure whether that is a sign that not enough has been done. I think that the Education Minister back home probably did try to respond wisely, ever knowing that the covid-19 coronavirus and how to respond to it was a complete unknown. However, the education of the children of our nation should be at the forefront of our priorities.
I acknowledge the work that has already been done by the Departments for Education here on the mainland and back in Northern Ireland. Free school meals and uniform grants have been instrumental in helping parents. More than 1.4 million children in England are eligible for FSMs. We have to give credit where it is due, and I give credit to the Education Departments for the things that they have done correctly. I also gently encourage them to address other things in the same way. They have allowed for additional nutritional meals for pupils during school time. I am very pleased to say that that has been extended in Northern Ireland until Easter 2022. We are taking it into next year back home, which is an indication of the importance we attach to the issue.
I would like to make hon. Members aware of the work done by my colleague back home, former Education Minister Peter Weir MLA. He introduced the “A Fair Start” report, which examined the links between educational underachievement and socioeconomic background. The Chair of the Education Committee referred to that issue last week when discussing his Committee’s report, which I was very impressed with. I am sorry but I cannot remember the name of his constituency—I referred to him yesterday in the education debate.
Thank you for reminding me, Mr Hollobone. I was just trying to remember that while on my feet. The right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has grasped the issue. We have that problem in Northern Ireland and it is very clear that it has become a problem for education here as well. I thank him for raising it.
In today’s Education questions in the Chamber, it was encouraging to hear the Secretary of State thank the former Education Minister Peter Weir for his work back home, and to hear that the Secretary of State has a good, strong relationship with the regional and devolved Administrations—in particular with my colleague Peter Weir.
“A Fair Start” wholeheartedly engages with teachers and pupils to focus on early education, while maximising the potential for all pupils across Northern Ireland. A recent report has shown that £180 million will be needed to tackle underachievement in Northern Ireland over the next five years. I know that the Minister cannot respond to that, but money for education is given out across the United Kingdom and we get a part of that through the Barnett consequentials. It is vital that additional funds are allocated to the devolved nations in order to tackle this issue, as there is little more important than the future of our children.
I praise the work of our local food banks, an issue that other hon. Members have also mentioned. I have a wonderful working relationship with the food bank in my constituency, which has been instrumental in supporting low-income families who are going through difficulty. They tell me that the first Trussell Trust food bank in Northern Ireland was in Newtownards in my constituency and that it has received more referrals than any other in Northern Ireland.
In the financial year 2020-21, more than 1.5 million emergency food bank parcels were distributed across the United Kingdom—48,000 of those in Northern Ireland. The Trussell Trust, which works through the Thriving Life Church in Newtownards, has done incredible work. It has worked very closely with my office throughout the pandemic to provide food parcels, as well as other assistance. It also does debt assistance and has a clothes bank and a toy bank. Do you know what that shows me, Mr Hollobone? It shows me that the crisis of the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has brought out the good in people. That is what I have noticed. I can see the negatives and the problems, but I also see the positives, and the positives are that good people came together. The churches, community groups and Government bodies came together, and collectively they were instrumental in ensuring that assistance for struggling low-income families was available. Notably, most were struggling financially because of the pressures of furlough and job losses. I want to put on the record my thanks to the Thriving Life Church food bank for all it has done.
It is crucial that action is taken to maintain a level of support for the education of children from low-income families, whether it is through free school meals or underachievement strategies. The children of this nation are the future. I say that as a grandfather of five. It is a good generation to deal with because at 7 o’clock at night you can give them back and not have them for the rest of the night, which is probably an advantage. At different periods in our lives we have children and then grandchildren. I have become very conscious of the future in the past few years as the grandchildren have come along. We want them to succeed and to have the opportunities that my boys had. I want them to have opportunities for the future as well. We are really privileged to have the job here in this place to plan strategies and lobby Government and Ministers to ensure that these things can happen.
I again thank the hon. Member for Slough for initiating this debate. I very much look forward to engaging with Ministers and Members on further action that we can take to improve the education of our young people. As I said earlier, they are our future and we have to do our best for them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing today’s very important debate. I know that in parts of the UK children are still in school for another few weeks. In Scotland our children are already on summer holiday. Many of the issues we are discussing today apply not just to the UK but to the world at the moment. I believe that the pandemic has hit children and young people hardest of all, particularly when we look at food inadequacies and things such as limited access to technology in order to undertake their digital learning.
We need to look at how advantage has made a difference. The attainment gap exists everywhere between advantaged and more disadvantaged children. Do we treat the symptoms or try to cure it? Countries that have more radical, socially just policies have seen the attainment gap narrow, and that is what we should look at. It is pretty sad that it took a footballer, the fabulous Marcus Rashford, to press the Government into taking more action for children’s free school meals.
We have heard about various concerns this afternoon. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked about the Ofcom report and specifically about accessing digital technology and broadband. Even when young people have the kit, if they cannot afford the broadband connection there will still be problems. Unfortunately, we are hearing that many children did not have the kit that they needed to start with. Earlier in this Session, I was pleased to support the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) seeking social tariff for broadband, because that is what we need to be looking at. We need to be considering broadband as an essential service to every single home. If people cannot afford it, something has to be put in place to ensure that they can.
The hon. Members for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) talked about specific issues with child poverty in their constituencies and how they had seen that increase during the pandemic. Certainly I can join them in that, because in Glasgow North West and across Glasgow, we also saw some of the issues with child poverty being made more acute. I will speak more about that in a moment. And we had, of course, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), talking about his ambitions for his children as a parent and, now, as a grandparent. He gave a lot of credit to his wife, but I am sure that some credit also has to go to him for the raising of his children.
The Ofcom report that talked about the number of young people without access to digital technology was pretty stark. It showed us how big an issue that is. In Scotland, we have tried to tackle it. I would like to see the UK Government taking more action. Every child in Scotland was provided with a digital device, and many were given mobile wi-fi devices to ensure that they could actually access wi-fi as well. I know teachers around Glasgow who actually hand-delivered these devices to young people in the constituency. This has been really important.
The Scottish Government have also acted quickly to try to alleviate issues that have been reinforced by the pandemic, such as by providing free school meals to all primary children. That is what we need to be doing—providing not just free school lunches for some people, but breakfasts and lunches for everyone so that there is no stigma, that it is just what happens at school, and that we know that all young people going to school are fit to learn because they have food in their stomach. The Scottish Government are going further, because they will enshrine in law that right to food. During the summer holidays, which we are now in, in Scotland, young people and children in Scotland will be supported by a £20 million Scottish Government fund that will create opportunities for them to socialise, play and reconnect with one another, because their health and wellbeing is of equal importance to their academic progress. We need to ensure that that is right, so that they are ready to start the next school term come August.
The UK Government must ensure that there is more support for children in low-income families who need it. As of May 2020, more than 6,000 households in Scotland had their benefits capped, with those households losing, on average, £2,600 a year. Just over 4,000 of the households included lone parents and children. The Scottish Government will tackle that head-on with the Scottish child payment. That is a world-leading payment, but we are going further because it will be doubled to £20 a week for every eligible child. These are major steps, and steps that the UK Government should be mirroring. Of course, the universal credit uplift, which has been an absolute lifeline, must be kept in place. Removing that will wipe out much of the benefit that the Scottish Government are putting in place with the Scottish child payment.
The Scottish Government have acted quickly to provide the learning tools and access to technology, but we need the UK Government to do more, so I have a few questions for the Minister. First, I would like to hear what discussions she has had in her Department about a social broadband tariff, because that would be transformational for children who are learning at home—not just in pandemic times, but in other times. I would like to hear about discussions she might have had with the Treasury about retaining the universal credit uplift, which has been a lifeline for parents and families. Finally, I would like to hear what plans she has to mirror the Scottish child payment, which is going to go up to £20 a week per eligible family.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. First, I would like to say a big thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing this important debate and for his tireless work in Parliament to raise the issues facing children and young people. He made a powerful speech about the Government’s neglect of poor children in Slough and the impact on headteachers. The quote from the Slough headteacher, who said that communication is ill thought out, resonated with me because it is echoed by a lot of teachers in my constituency. The Slough parent who said that she feels let down by the Government reflected something that I have heard over and over again from parents in my constituency.
I thank all our colleagues who have taken part in the debate and spoken up for children from low-income families in their constituencies. The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) spoke movingly about the shocking inequality and poverty among children in her constituency, and how poverty is limiting the life chances of her young constituents. That also applies to my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that parents simply want their children to do their best, and to do what is best for their children in life. However, that is very difficult to do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) spoke in her passionate speech about the shocking 37% of her young constituents who live in poverty. If the odds are against people from the start, it is hard to do well in life, and it is hard for parents to ensure that their children do well in life. My hon. Friend was right to point out the enormous increase in the attainment gap for disadvantaged children in her constituency, and across the country. It is commendable, but in equal measure shameful, that organisations such as Luton Learning Link have had to step in, because that should be the job of the Government.
Perhaps the most shocking betrayal of children from lower-income families is the stealth cut to the pupil premium that the Government have pushed through. By moving the date for calculating the pupil premium back from January to October, the Government have cut funding for more than 100,000 children who qualified for free school meals in between, and that is shocking. The Department for Education’s own calculations show that that will mean schools losing out on £90 million of funding, with those in the most deprived areas being hit the hardest.
To put it in simple terms, the Government have directly withdrawn money that is intended to support disadvantaged children, who, as we have heard from contributions across the Floor today, have struggled most during the pandemic and who most need the support. That comes after a decade of Conservative Governments which have implemented a real cut of 9% to school budgets, not to mention slashing funding for local authorities, which has led to the decimation of services that children rely on to progress with education, among other things.
The Government’s woeful education recovery package will do little to address the funding gaps that have arisen as a result of those shameful choices, and the National Audit Office is concerned that even their national tutoring programme is not reaching enough pupils on free school meals.
The huge rise in eligibility for free school meals, which now totals 420,000 children since the start of the pandemic, shows that many more children are living with hardship and relying on the hot meal they get at school each day. The truth is that children cannot learn if they are hungry, yet Ministers have had to be shamed time and again into delivering food support to children at home, and making that available during the summer holidays in the pandemic.
All of us in the Chamber remember the shameful scenes of woefully inadequate food parcels being delivered to children who qualified for free school meals back in January. Unbelievably, the Government are set to repeat their mistakes by offering only 16 days of food support over the entire six-week summer holiday, with no guarantee that it will be given to every child who qualifies for free school meals. Ministers do not even appear to be listening to Labour’s repeated calls to offer all children breakfast clubs before school.
Children who qualify for free school meals are far less likely to have access to a laptop or internet connection, effectively preventing them from learning remotely when they cannot go to school. Despite over a million children not having the digital access they needed at the start of the pandemic, the Department for Education delivered just 600,000 laptops by Christmas. Government schemes ensured that only between a third and half of those who needed a laptop got one. Ministers slashed laptop allocations for self-isolating pupils by about 80% in October. As of January, one in five parents still reported not having access to enough digital devices for children to learn remotely—a shocking statistic.
This is not picking over ancient history. School absences have quadrupled this month. Last week, a shocking one in 20 pupils were forced to miss school for coronavirus-related reasons. Many of those are now at home unable to learn because this still has not been sorted. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for her truly inspirational work over the past year and a half to highlight the digital poverty that many children on free school meals have been living in. My hon. Friend has relentlessly brought it up time and again, and my only hope is that the Government are listening to her.
I will briefly mention the Government’s chronic underfunding of early years education over the last decade. Secret documents, unearthed through FOIs by the Early Years Alliance, show that that was done deliberately in the knowledge that it would drive up childcare costs for parents, drive down the quality of education for young children, and destabilise the early years sector. We have already lost 2,500 nurseries, childminders and other early years providers in the first five months of this year. Research by the Sutton Trust shows that providers in the most deprived areas have been most likely to face financial difficulties in the pandemic, and be threatened with permanent closure—10% to 15% higher than in the most affluent areas.
Children from all socioeconomic backgrounds have faced huge challenges in the pandemic, whether trying to learn without the structure of a classroom for much of the year, or facing the mental health challenges of isolation. It is all too often the case that when problems arise, or a crisis such as coronavirus engulfs us, children from lower-income families fare the worst, whether through hunger, difficulties with digital access and access to tutoring, and all the other issues that colleagues have repeatedly and passionately pointed out.
The impact on educational outcomes is there to see. According to the Sutton Trust, more than half the teachers at the least affluent state schools reported lower standards of work during school closures, compared with 40% at more affluent ones, and 30% at private schools. The attainment gap had stopped closing before covid, after a decade of Conservative Governments, but is now set to widen without bold action straight away.
Labour’s £15 billion children’s recovery plan would reverse the stealth cut to pupil premium funding, double it for children in transitional years and more than quadruple the early years pupil premium, give more funding to schools to support tutoring for all children who need it, provide breakfast clubs for every child and deliver free school meals in full in holidays during the pandemic. Those measures would make a big difference to disadvantaged children in my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, and across the country. We have not heard anything remotely close to that level of ambition from the Government, whose catch-up proposals will support fewer than one in 10 children. It is no wonder that Sir Kevan Collins felt he had to resign over this.
I finish by asking Minster directly why she thinks the Government’s own education recovery chief decided to resign. Has she reflected on whether the Government need to rethink their approach to supporting children from lower-income families in the light of that vote of no confidence?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this important debate.
Children from lower-income families have been at the centre of my Department’s policies since the day this Government took office in 2010. Our ambition has always been to promote a world-class education for every child, irrespective of their background, that sees them fulfil their potential and get set for a successful adult life. Some pupils face greater challenges at school, including looked-after children, children with special educational needs and disabilities, and many of those from lower-income homes. We are committed to levelling up opportunity and outcomes for all pupils.
The best way to open up opportunity for children is to give them the education and skills that can set them up for life. We should never forget how much the last Labour Government failed to do that. Back in 2010, only 68%—two out of three—of our schools were good or outstanding. That figure is now 86%—nearly nine out of 10. The majority of disadvantaged pupils now attend a good or outstanding school. That is not a coincidence. Since 2010, we have taken a dual approach to tackling the attainment gap. First, we have prioritised levelling up the standards in teacher training, because research shows that excellent teaching has a disproportionate positive benefit for disadvantaged pupils. At the same time, our reformed qualifications ensure that all pupils access only the best, most worthwhile qualifications, and the underpinning curricula.
At the same time, we have directed extra funding and support towards those from low-income backgrounds, in recognition of the additional challenges that they often face. For example, we introduced the pupil premium, which gives additional funding to schools to improve the academic attainment and wider outcomes of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. We introduced the national funding formula, which ensures that core school funding better reflects the socioeconomic context of each school, and we introduced and sustained the opportunity areas programme, which brings together local partners to break down entrenched low social mobility and educational achievement.
Will the Minister explain why, if her Government’s policies have been so successful, children on free school meals leave school on average 18 months behind their classmates, and will she address the issue of the 200,000 children transferring to year 7 and secondary school in September who will not meet the reading level required?
Let me come exactly to those points. Let us look at what children on free school meals are achieving today compared with what they were achieving a decade ago. Last year, one in five of our children on free school meals was successful in their application to university—a 53% increase over a decade. On reading skills—
Let me just make this point: one of the most important things that we can do for children’s reading skills is invest in their early education. This Government introduced the two-year-old offer, which provides 15 hours of free childcare a week for 38 weeks a year to disadvantaged two-year-olds and children with a disability or special educational needs. Children who take up those 15 hours a week of free nursery or pre-school are likely to have better educational outcomes, and that early experience in their youngest years can have a positive impact on their educational attainment throughout their entire school career, even at secondary school.
However, the proportion of eligible two-year-olds using that offer of free early education varies hugely across the country. The hon. Member for Slough introduced the debate. In Slough, in January 2020, before the pandemic, the proportion of two-year-olds taking up that incredibly generous offer from the Government was only 49%—the fourth lowest of the 151 local authorities in the country. The take-up in Leicester East—the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) spoke today— is only 57%. I say to the hon. Member for Slough and other hon. Members that if they really care about the educational attainment of children in their constituencies, they should start from the very earliest years and invest their effort in getting out to their constituents and encouraging parents on the lowest incomes to take up the Government’s generous offer of 15 hours of high-quality early education experience in their local nursery or pre-school. We fund it, and it will benefit their kids for the rest of their academic career.
I am enormously proud that the last time we assessed our five-year-olds, nearly three out of four of our country’s children were achieving a good level of development by the end of reception.
I will take some interventions in a minute, but there are some important points that I need to make.
Back in 2013, when we assessed them, it was only one in two children. To put it another way, one out of two children who were born in the last years of the Labour Government was already falling behind by the time they started big school. Now, three out of four are excelling and exceeding.
I thank the Minister for her comments about the extra funding. However, would she not concede that schools in Slough have had their funding cut in real terms? On many occasions, people have not been able to access the free school meals provision simply because of the manner in which it has been categorised. On how the schools themselves have been funded, would she not concede that the decimation as a consequence of the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme has meant that many schools have leaking roofs, have not been able to undertake maintenance work and have had to delay emergency works?
A few other Members mentioned free school meals, including the hon. Members for Leicester East and for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). This Government have extended the eligibility for free school meals more than any other Government for the past 50 years. It is this Government who introduced universal free school meals and expanded free school meals to those in further education. During the pandemic, we also widened the provision to many children who normally have no recourse to public funds. The Government have also provided funding to local authorities during the pandemic to ensure that the hardest-hit families are supported with food and essentials through the covid local support grants. That has even supported them during the school holidays. Those grants have been extended through the coming holiday at a cost of more than £100 million.
I want to get back to the point that the hon. Member for Slough made about Slough. Slough children’s services have been enormously challenging for many years. The Department for Education has provided significant investment in children’s services in Slough—nearly an extra £7 million over the past two years. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it transferred the ownership of Slough Children First, the trust, to Slough Borough Council in April. I call on him to get behind the relationship between the trust and the local authority. I, as Minister, have signed off millions of pounds to give that support to Slough children. He should work with the trust to put Slough children first in his constituency.
The Minister is boasting about free school meals and how much the Government have done. Will she admit that her Government were forced, kicking and screaming, to extend free school meals because Marcus Rashford and the Labour party shamed them nationally, which is why they felt they had no choice but to extend free school meals? They resisted that until the very last minute.
The hon. Lady has said this again and again, and it is simply not true. Let us look at the facts, okay? This Government, when I became the Minister for children, and over the past 10 years, had already extended free school meals to more children than any other Government during the past 50 years. We set up the national voucher scheme during this pandemic—a thing that had never been done before—to make sure that, when schools were closed to most children, they could still access food at home.
The holiday activities and food programme, which we had already been trialling for three years, is going live across the country this year. It was a manifesto commitment to increase this holiday and wraparound childcare, which we are doing.
I have huge respect for Marcus Rashford and his great passion to make sure that children are properly fed and cared for. I am enormously grateful to him for shining a light on this issue and indeed for the video he made just last week supporting the Government’s holiday activities and food scheme and encouraging children to take part, because it is a great scheme. However, using language saying that I personally was dragged kicking and screaming to care for children, when caring for children is what I do every day and what my Department does every day, is not appropriate, and it scares children.
Let me just get back to the point. We have made many interventions over the past decade to support children, and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it has made a difference. It is not just us saying that; the OECD recognised our progress. The latest programme for international student assessment, or PISA, results show that the proportion of pupils from low-income households who succeed academically in England is well above the OECD average. Since 2011, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and others has narrowed by 13% in primary school and 9% in secondary school. And, yes, it has remained broadly stable in the past couple of years; it widened by 0.5% in primary between 2018 and 2019, but it narrowed by 1% in secondary between 2019 and 2020.
However, we know that the pandemic will have widened that attainment gap. In order to minimise the pandemic’s impact, we kept schools open for vulnerable children, as well as for the children of key workers. We have also announced three further funding packages—a total of more than £3 billion—to provide extra resources to help pupils to make up ground. I remind Members that that comes on top of the £14 billion of extra investment in education that had already been announced by the Government over a three-year period.
In this £3 billion package, we announced—first in June 2020 and then in February 2021—£1.7 billion to support education recovery. That included £930 million in flexible funding for schools to use as they see best, while another £200 million was weighted so that schools with more disadvantaged pupils receive more funding. There was £550 million for tutoring, £200 million for summer schools and another £22 million to scale up evidence-based practices. We also invested in over 1.3 million laptops for disadvantaged children and young people. I know that Labour Members often call for more, but let us remember that this was a massive procurement effort at a time of unprecedented global demand.
No, because I want to respond to the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) about the issues that she raised regarding rural broadband and broadband access across the country. I remind her that only yesterday the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which is the Department responsible for broadband, announced a further £1 billion upgrade to mobile connectivity. That will particularly benefit rural areas of Scotland, Wales and north-east England, and is again a reminder of why it is so important that we work together in a one-nation approach to support people across the Union.
On the recovery programme, the evidence is clear that investment will have the most significant impact for disadvantaged children in two areas: high-quality tutoring and great teaching. That is why the latest announcement of an additional £1 billion for tutoring will help to deliver more than 100 million tutoring hours for children and young people across England over the next three years. That will expand high-quality tutoring in every part of the country so that it is available to every child who needs help catching up, not just those who can afford it. Another £400 million will provide half a million teacher training opportunities for schoolteachers and evidence-based professional development for early years practitioners.
The hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) spoke really clearly about the importance of oracy and early language. I absolutely agree with her that the development of early language and communication skills is crucial to a child’s journey. Indeed, that is one of the reasons why, even in the lockdown at the beginning of this year, we were so keen to keep early years establishments open for children—they are so key.
What the hon. Lady may have missed is what we are doing about that issue. One of the interventions we have put in place through the national tutoring programme is the Nuffield early language intervention. That is a very specific programme, and our evidence very much shows that it works. It is targeted at children in reception year who are behind others in their early language skills. I have been to see it being delivered across the country. Forty per cent. of schools have already signed up and are taking part, covering around 60,000 children at the moment, and nearly a quarter of a million children have been screened across the country.
I wrote to the hon. Lady last week—I wrote to Members from all English constituencies—including the list of schools in her constituency that are doing the NELI programme. The evidence shows that it adds around three months’ learning. I also asked her if she would promote it to other schools, because we are expanding it. The deadline is the end of July, so please put it out there.
I appreciate the Minister’s comments on early years. My point, which is set out in the report by the all-party parliamentary group for oracy, was about opportunities for clear oral communication throughout education, as well as in social settings and formally—for example, even young teenagers should have the opportunity to debate, as we are doing today. I hope the Minister has access to the report and understands that it is not just about early years oracy—although I accept her points about its importance—but about the opportunities throughout education that have been missing for many pupils, in both school and college. I hope that she recognises that wider issue.
I would be delighted if the hon. Lady sent me a copy of the report. We know that early language skills are so important. Indeed, of the £1 billion catch-up package that we announced this month, £153 million will go into teaching and training for early years staff, including to expand the level of knowledge of our brilliant early years staff in things such as speech and language early development. We are also improving the curriculum in that area.
The evidence shows that supporting a child into reception and primary school with early language skills helps them to pick up reading. As we know, reading has improved significantly over the past decade, partly since we introduced mandatory phonics training in schools. Clearly, without the early language skills, learning to read through phonics can be really challenging. I urge the hon Lady to visit one of the primary schools in her constituency that is delivering the NELI programme. I would love to hear her feedback.
We want to do even more, and we are doing so. We are introducing significant reforms to technical education and creating high-quality options for young people aged 16 to support their progression, as well as meeting the needs of employers. We are also introducing the holiday activities and food programme across the country this year.
No. I have taken many interventions, and I am going to speak about the holiday activities and food programme. It provides healthy food and enriching social activities and has been particularly targeted at supporting those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. We have been trialling it for the past three years, and we have structured it in a way that suits what parents and families want. The evidence from the past three years is that taking part in the holiday activities and food programme improves children’s wellbeing and helps them to make a better start when they come back to school in September for the new term, so it helps to close the attainment gap that I have spoken about.
The hon. Member for Slough will be interested to know how much is being invested in his local area—I noticed that he did not mention the holiday activities and food programme much in his speech. In Slough, the investment is £587,720. We are working with authorities such as Slough—indeed, with all 151 local authorities across the country—to help them to prepare and build capacity as we get towards the summer, because we want every single part of the country to have a really rich mix of provisions—different offers—for our children and young people and to really engage and excite them to have a very enjoyable summer.
This summer we are also funding face-to-face summer schools, focusing in particular on children and pupils transitioning into secondary schools. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned year 6 pupils, whom the summer schools will be particularly focused on.
I am grateful to the Minister for rattling off a whole series of programmes and the funding available, including to my Slough constituents. However, will she concede that these numbers, as good as they are, are simply not enough? The Government’s own catch-up education tsar, who is no longer in his post, and experts within education, including headteachers, all acknowledge that, as wonderful as all these sums are, they are simply not enough. Will the Minister concede that we need to invest more in our children if they are not to fall further behind?
Let us look at the detail of what the hon. Gentleman says. I mentioned the NELI programme, which is working in 40% of the schools in the country. We have offered it to any school that wants to sign up. It is for any child from reception that needs it. Schools have identified a quarter of a million children for screening, and they are screening them and finding out which ones will benefit from the programme and then offering it to them.
In terms of wider education catch-up, we have already invested in the teaching and tutoring elements, because we know from the evidence that those bits benefit children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds most—this debate is obviously about children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The hon. Gentleman will know, because we have said it many times, that we continue to look at the time element—should we increase the length of the school day? There are mixed views about that. The evidence is less well known, and that is why we launched a consultation. So, again, I encourage him, instead of saying that it is not enough, to get his teachers to look at the consultation and give their views, because that is exactly why we are doing it. We have invested record amounts in our schools.
The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, used very strong words when speaking about early years funding. Members should remember that it was a Conservative-led Government that introduced that the 15 hours of free childcare for two-year-olds and the 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year olds when the parents are working. That is a significant, £3.5 billion investment in early education because we know that it has such benefit for our children. It is a huge increase on what was ever invested during the last Labour Government.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the changes we made to the census date for the pupil premium. The census date has changed to give schools more certainty about what funding they will be getting over the entire financial year. It has been subject to significant media reporting over recent months, much of which has been both inaccurate and deeply misleading. The total pupil premium funding is increasing to more than £2.5 billion in 2021-22, up by £60 million from last year. It is not being cut. Furthermore, pupils who became eligible for free school meals between October and January will still bring pupil premium funding with them, starting in the following financial year, and will continue to attract funding for six years.
The impact of this census change should not be viewed in isolation. The ambitious education recovery programme that has gone hand in hand with it is worth £3 billion to date—many times more than the impact of moving the census date. That includes £302 million for the recovery premium, with £22 million to scale up proven approaches. That £302 million is further to support disadvantaged pupils with their attainment.
I say to Opposition Members that we are speaking about children. Children have had a very difficult time, and it is incredibly important that we do not mislead them, we are accurate in our allegations and we do not scaremonger.
May I ask the Minister who used these words?
“The support announced by Government so far does not come close to meeting the scale of the challenge and is why I have no option but to resign from my post…When we met last week, I told you that I do not believe it will be possible to deliver a successful recovery without significantly greater support than the Government has to date indicated it intends to provide.”
I thank the hon. Lady for quoting those words back to me. I say again that we are hugely grateful to Sir Kevan for his work in helping pupils to catch up and recover from the effects of the pandemic. The funding that we have announced this month, since his work, supports his recommendations on tutoring and teaching improvements. As I have just discussed, we are consulting on the time-based element of his proposals.
I would again like to thank the hon. Member for Slough for the opportunity to discuss this subject. I have endeavoured to lay out all the different elements of what has been, and continues to be, a very extensive programme over the past decade to support children from low-income backgrounds.
There is no doubt that this pandemic is the biggest challenge this country has faced in my lifetime and since the second world war. By staying at home during lockdowns, respecting class bubbles and limiting their contacts with friends, our nation’s children have saved lives. They should be so proud of what they have done in the past 18 months. We will stand by them as we all recover from this.
My gratitude, Mr Hollobone, for the excellent manner in which you have chaired today’s debate. I also send my gratitude to Mr Speaker and the House authorities for allowing this important debate to take place.
I extend my best wishes and thanks to right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in today’s debate and particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). She spoke with gravitas about the impact of the digital divide, which is felt even more now that one in 20 schoolchildren are out of school self-isolating, with many still not able to have access to devices and broadband internet. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) spoke passionately about the damage being inflicted on poverty-stricken families in her constituency, and pointed out that three quarters of teachers are suffering from fatigue and that children are suffering from hunger and a lack of ability to concentrate. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) spoke eloquently about how these are the largest cuts to education in 40 years, about the devastation wrought on low-income families and about the impact, in particular, on the oracy of all our children. As a fellow member of the oracy APPG, I thank her and others for the incredible work they are doing to highlight those issues.
In his own inimitable style, the hon. and distinguished Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about the comparison with what is happening in Northern Ireland—the steps taken there to tackle underachievement, the food and toy parcels being delivered by the likes of the Trussell Trust, and the work of the voluntary sector in general. I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), the Scottish National party spokesperson for education, for the SNP perspective on socially just policies and how more radical policies are required—in particular, the social tariff for broadband, free school meals for all children, the delivery of devices, and the right to food being enshrined in law.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), the Labour spokesperson for education, spoke articulately and with great experience of this subject, gained over so many years. She highlighted how £90 million had been lost because of pupil premium recategorisation. She also spoke about Labour’s transformative policies with regard to the children’s recovery plan, breakfast clubs, digital access for all, free school meals, and much more besides.
I am grateful to the Minister for her remarks today and for her perspective that it has always been her ambition and priority to level up and to look after children from more disadvantaged sections of our community. As I said during the debate, a great number of programmes and figures have been rattled off today by the Minister, but I feel that she has been sent out on a very sticky wicket, in the sense that the Treasury has hampered much of what the Department for Education would like to be doing and what many of us as Members of Parliament would like it to be doing.
After this debilitating pandemic, which has without doubt hit children in our communities the hardest, the catch-up fund that has been proposed is simply not enough. Even the holiday activities and food programme the Minister mentioned, which Slough constituents can avail themselves of, unfortunately provides only 16 days of food support over an entire summer holiday period. That is why, as hon. Members have pointed out, the Government’s own appointed education recovery tsar has been forced to resign.
On the subject of the holiday activities and food programme, it is really important that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents understand that we run it for four weeks, for four days a week, because we have been trialling it for three years and that is what parents and families have tended to want. They do not tend to want to attend every day. In addition, this summer, the covid local government support scheme will be there—as it has been at Christmas, Easter, spring half-term and last half-term—to make sure that families that need access to extra food and support can get it, so please stop this “We’re only there for 16 days of the summer holidays.” That is not what we are doing: we are making sure that our children can get these activities and food, which are so much better for them, as we have seen from the evidence.
I thank the Minister for that clarification, but I come back to the same point: it simply is not enough. That is why we have to carry on in this endeavour.
I thank everybody once again, and I humbly suggest to the Minister that we need to do more than just 10% of whatever it takes: we need to go the whole hog to look after and enhance the prospects of children.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Southport to Manchester Rail Services
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the hybrid arrangements. Members should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rail services from Southport to Manchester.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to have obtained this debate about train services to and from my constituency to Manchester, particularly the Manchester Piccadilly service, which is critical for my constituents and local businesses. Many of my constituents use that train service for employment, particularly in Wigan and Manchester, for education and for leisure. Local businesses also rely on the train service to bring potential customers, employees and other visitors to our tourist economy. All they want—indeed, all they deserve—is a direct train to the south side of Manchester.
My hon. Friend the Minister is aware that I have campaigned on this issue since I was first elected as a Member of Parliament. The good news is that, over that time, we have repeatedly fought and won to secure the future of this important service. I owe much credit to the Southport and Ormskirk rail travellers association and to the numerous Rail Ministers who have preceded my hon. Friend, including my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), the former Member for Orpington and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I know he shares an interest in this particular line, as its alteration impacts his constituents as it does mine.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), who has led on this issue with me, and my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Bolton West (Chris Green) and the hon. Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for their support. When there have been problems with rail timetables, we have collectively done our best to respond and force changes to the benefit of our constituents.
The bad news is that I cannot set out that glistening picture today because the service is once again faced with the prospect of being downgraded. In January, the Department for Transport, in partnership with Network Rail and Transport for the North together, having already established the Manchester recovery taskforce, launched a consultation on timetable options to improve rail performance in the north of England. That represented a major backward step for many of my constituents, who had only just secured the return of their direct services to Manchester Piccadilly. As one of my constituents said: “The most frustrating thing is that we only secured the return of the direct rail service to Manchester Piccadilly back in December, and whilst it was far from perfect, we had direct rail services to Piccadilly. Less than a month later and our town’s rail services are back on the table like a poker chip.”
The key issue is not about having a consultation, but about the reason behind it and the front-loaded way in which the options to change the routing and frequency of some existing journeys have been too heavily stacked against my constituents from the start. All three options presented by the Manchester recovery taskforce would remove my constituents’ direct rail service to Manchester Piccadilly.
Before I address that point, I will set out for the Minister the nature of the problems that my constituents currently face. Manchester has five city centre stations. For many years, the Southport line had two daytime services to Manchester—one to Victoria in the north of the city and one through Piccadilly on the south side to Manchester airport. The service specification for the Northern franchise let in 2016 meant that the long-standing Southport airport service was withdrawn and all trains from my constituency were to be routed to Victoria.
A campaign challenged that change, conducted passenger surveys and, in collaboration with the rail authorities and train operators, analysed travel data, which proved journeys to Manchester were destination-specific to one of the five city centre stations for reasons of work, business, study, health, leisure and, in the case of Piccadilly, connections to the rest of the country. Two thirds of Southport and Lancashire residents travelling to Manchester usually required the south side.
In April 2017, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, who back then held the responsibility for our country’s rail services, recognised the issue and directed the franchisee, Arriva Rail North, to present a business plan that would deliver an already identified solution. Following my election as Member of Parliament for Southport in June that year and with ARN dragging its feet, I asked the campaign group to draw up a business case, which I sponsored and presented to the Secretary of State for Transport in January 2018.
The case was accepted by the rail industry. By then, it was committed to the May 2018 timetable debacle, which included the withdrawal of the Southport airport service. Two morning and evening services were retained. The services were restored incrementally up to the completion of the reinstatement in December 2019, but that did not include services directly to Manchester airport. When emergency key worker timetables were introduced with the first covid lockdown last year, the Southport line services, like many, were halved. Significantly, in recognition of the line’s importance, the train operator, which is now Northern Trains Ltd, devised and implemented a non-standard train path and timetable to maintain a direct key worker service to the south side. Since the pandemic, the Southport line has been one of 12 operated reliably and punctually through the Castlefield corridor.
Those are issues with the current service, but I come now to the fundamental problem of the Manchester recovery taskforce’s consultation and the proposed timetable changes to and from Southport: the downgrading of our direct rail services. When it is fully running, the line will benefit those of my constituents who want to get on a train at Southport station and sit on it as it carries them through to Wigan or perhaps the north side of Manchester. That might be of benefit to some of my constituents. However, for those who do not want that or who want a faster service to Piccadilly, such proposed timetable changes were never the answer. My constituents have been asked to forgo a service that takes them to one of the three stations in south Manchester and within a five to 10-minute walk of their workplace, the universities and the hospital. They are now being asked to use a rail service that will take them to a place they do not want to travel to, on the wrong side of the city, which will add a further 20 minutes to their overall journey time.
Allow me to provide the Minister with a bit of context. Piccadilly is the busiest station in central Manchester and the only one in the north-west region that provides connections to services everywhere in Britain. It is not a backwater at the end of the metro service. Manchester Piccadilly is a crucial stop that promotes my constituency’s tourist economy and acts as a pathway to tens of thousands of visitors each year, including to the Southport Air Show, the Southport Flower Show and, I am proud to say, The Open, which was held at the Royal Birkdale in 2017 and attracted almost a quarter of a million visitors. The station is also crucial to my constituents’ having the opportunity to attend good universities and access employment opportunities. There is now talk of a fourth compromise option, but the MRT should not be planning for Oxford Road to be the main Manchester station for my town. The demands of my constituents and visitors is driven by destination—simply put, they need to be where they want to be.
The idea that the industry will decide what sort of service people can get confirms that, for so long, it has felt that it enjoys playing trains until it concerns the passengers. However, passengers are key, and those who choose to use the service must have it available to Deansgate, Oxford Road and Piccadilly along the Castlefield corridor. Similarly, my constituency should not be seen as a scapegoat to alleviate congestion along a busy stretch of line, for which there is no operational argument. I was deeply concerned when the MRT reported timetable changes that showed that it had always been the intention to remove my town’s direct rail links to Manchester Piccadilly under the caveat of consultation, and that the main destination of services from my town would be Oxford Road.
That was never made clear in the consultation, but it absolutely confirms my constituents’ fears that the Manchester recovery taskforce’s consultation was nothing more than a caveat to removing my town’s direct rail services. At some stage, it was always going to turn around and say, “We want to remove the direct rail service to Manchester Piccadilly. You can get off at Oxford Road instead.” I rejected the idea in 2017, when I was first elected, and I reject it now, as do the overwhelming majority of my constituents who responded to the consultation.
I urge the Minister to ensure that the Northern franchise continues to provide a direct service between Southport and Manchester Piccadilly on the mainline, and not just for Oxford Road. There has to be a sufficient number of services at the right time and with enough seats, so that people can use the service that they need. My constituents want the services restored and, at best, strengthened. Some might say it is natural for me, as the local Member of Parliament, to stand up and say that for my constituents, but it matters beyond my constituency.
Some people using the services to Manchester Piccadilly are not from my constituency but get on at my station. As I have said, this issue affects a number of hon. Members’ constituencies, just as it affects large areas of Lancashire and Merseyside. Instead of using the trains, some of my constituents have already started to drive to Manchester because of the reduced service. If that is the trend, it will likely increase the chance of one of the three proposed changes put forward by the Manchester recovery taskforce being implemented. How does that help our 2050 climate target? How does that achieve levelling up?
We want more people to use the trains, but we will not achieve that if services are cut off from entire communities such as mine. We want the country’s economy to thrive. It is right that we level up across the UK—an idea that my constituents fully support—but levelling up is not a wonderful esoteric prize that only a few should benefit from. It must apply to all parts of the country. Good train services matter to my constituents, and are crucial if we are to build back better from the pandemic and strengthen our economy for us all. I urge everyone involved—the Minister, Transport for the North, Network Rail and the Department for Transport—to do everything to ensure that my constituents continue to have the train services that they need. We must continue to see people using the trains bringing people from Manchester and Wigan to my constituency, and from Southport to Manchester, to provide opportunities to access good jobs and education.
This debate is all about the destination of the train. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This is my first time responding to a debate in this place, and I look forward to going back to Westminster Hall. Some would say I look forward to its coming home—forgive my voice; I might have been singing that a bit last night.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) on securing this debate on rail services between his constituency and Manchester. As he demonstrated in his words, he genuinely is a hard-working, straightforward representative of his constituents. He does not mess around. I have enjoyed my interactions with him. He always finds a way of getting his way, and I hope that I can work with him to assuage some of his worries. Currently, there are just not enough passengers on our trains, so we need to get people back.
As my hon. Friend is aware, we have a rich railway history that put this country on the world stage with its Victorian pioneers, its ingenuity and engineering achievements. To continue that legacy, the Government have outlined plans that will continue to take our rail network forward. Thanks to record levels of funding that will help us to build back better, as my hon. Friend said, as we recover from the pandemic, we will also deliver the biggest modernisation programme that the railway has seen for more than a century.
Since 2010, we have invested £29 billion in northern transport. The 2020 Budget also committed to invest £4.2 billion in intra-city transport settlements from 2022-23 through five-year consolidated funding settlements for eight city regions, six of which are in the north. Capacity funding, confirmed at Budget 2021, is supporting city regions and preparing them for the settlements, and 70% of capacity funding has been allocated to city regions in the north.
More than £22 billion has been invested in phases of HS2 to deliver the essential north-south connectivity, and cross-regional rail has received a much needed boost thanks to the upgrade of the trans-Pennine mainline. Only last month we announced an extra £317 million to improve that vital route for freight and passengers, which connects Manchester, Leeds and York via Huddersfield. That comes on top of the £589 million that was put into the programme last year. A lot of investment is happening in our railways, especially in the north.
The Government are committed to levelling up the country, which is why we are planning to spend, on average, more on transport in the north compared with the south, the midlands and the east of England. A strong, effective railway is central to that ambition. As the country moves out of the pandemic, it gives us an opportunity to introduce a new era for the railway that puts the passenger at the heart of everything we do.
My hon. Friend will no doubt have heard about the plans to reform Britain’s railways with a new public body, Great British Railways, which will simplify our railways and deliver more simple, modern fares, and will bring about a financially sustainable railway that is fit for our times. The plan for rail will prioritise punctuality, reliable services and the passenger. Our trains in the north are already delivering that. Records show that more than 90% of services have been on time in recent months. However, there is much work to be done. Passengers travelling on some areas of the network are not getting the service that they deserve, and for too long people in Manchester and wider afield have suffered train delays and cancellations due to the congestion that my hon. Friend outlined around the city.
In January 2020, a taskforce made up of industry experts was formed to identify options to tackle that. I do not have to remind my hon. Friend what happened in May 2018, when infrastructure not being delivered, overpromising on a timetable and industrial action combined to deliver unbelievably poor service and cancellations on the rail system for his constituents and many others across the whole country. We need to avoid that, because when passengers come back they will expect to travel on a reliable, resilient and very clean railway. The work that commenced in January 2020 is focused on Manchester, but it recognises that the issues of rail congestion in the city itself are felt across the whole of the north, including my hon. Friend’s constituency of Southport.
At the centre of all this is the need to improve immediate rail performance in the north to provide a train service now, as well as an infrastructure plan for the medium term, that works for passengers and freight, and that will support the growing economy of Manchester and the north as a whole. With that in mind, the taskforce conducted a root-and-branch review of the timetable and consulted on three possible options, as my hon. Friend said, earlier this year. In doing so, the taskforce, which includes Transport for the North and Transport for Greater Manchester, aimed to strike a balance between providing a high-performing railway that will benefit all passengers into Manchester—before the pandemic, more than 150,000 people a day—versus changes in journey patterns for a relatively small percentage of people.
That is a big choice. It also aligns with Greater Manchester’s 2019 rail prospectus, which recognised that a simpler service pattern on the Network Rail network was necessary in the short term. That may mean that passengers need to change between services to complete their journey, but it will ultimately result in services that are reliable and punctual, which is always at the top of people’s list of priorities. The taskforce estimates that a regular commuter into Manchester could benefit by up to one hour a month in reduced delays compared with the pre-covid timetable that performed so poorly.
More than 800 people and organisations gave feedback to that consultation, which has been invaluable in developing a solution. Indeed, my hon. Friend gave great feedback to it, along with a host of experts that he brought to the table, once again, as he would say, to make that point. Although there was broad acceptance that we could not go back to the old timetable, one of the strongest areas of feedback was on access to the southern side of Manchester from Southport and Wigan. I have met my hon. Friend on a number of occasions, with and without officials, to discuss the matter. We had a very long meeting in March following a one-to-one briefing that was arranged between Northern Rail and a representative from the Ormskirk, Preston and Southport Travellers’ Association to explain the thinking and choices involved in option development.
The taskforce has really gone out of its way to reflect carefully on the representations, and continues to work closely with local transport authorities on revisions that aim to address as many concerns raised as possible, including those of my hon. Friend and his constituents. We have also given room for extra consideration by agreeing to defer any major changes until December 2022, so that we have the time to get this right. The revised proposals for a new timetable structure will soon be considered by the political leaders in Transport for the North, as well as by me and other Ministers, after which I hope to make a public announcement, including a formal response to the consultation. The train operators will then lead a further consultation in the autumn on the fine detail of a new timetable, before moving towards implementation.
It is recognised that that is not a long-term fix. Manchester is a major railway hub that fuses the needs of inter-city travel with local commuters and a huge and growing amount of freight traffic. There is no easy solution to the congestion problems, but improving the infrastructure will be critical. To address that, we are developing an ambitious programme of infrastructure improvements across the decade. The first business cases are being finalised now; once they are agreed, the work will be finished around 2025. It includes improvements from new passenger information technology to extra platforms across Greater Manchester and the city centre.
But there is much more to do to make Manchester’s network ready for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. The plans for the medium and longer term include resignalling and remodelling some of the busiest stations and reconfiguring very complex junctions. The designs and business cases are also being developed and are expected to be ready by 2023.
Work is happening on the ground now. In March, Network Rail was instructed to start work on lengthening platforms across Greater Manchester to accommodate the longer six-carriage trains that are now a regular feature across the north. We are making sure that stations have the platform capacity to accommodate them; work on that is due to finish in 2023. As part of a £500 million investment, TransPennine Express has introduced three new fleets into its passenger service, providing 13 million extra seats a year.
Likewise, another £500 million has been invested in 101 new trains for Northern, providing more space for customers, including wheelchair users, and consigning the old Pacers to history—something my hon. Friend both worked towards and campaigned for. Those longer trains can carry more passengers and are faster, and they use the latest technology to reduce emissions and journey times. They have also created new jobs in the region, as can be seen in the recently opened state-of-the-art maintenance and servicing depot, which is important to what we are doing at Wigan. These changes are significant, but by working together on a package of projects that deliver reliability and reflect passenger demand, they really will make a difference.
Elsewhere, I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that his bid to the restoring your railway ideas fund to improve connectivity by reinstating the Burscough curves is currently being considered. Outcomes of the bidding round are expected to be announced in the next few weeks.
I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend for securing this debate and rightly shining a spotlight on rail services between Southport and Manchester. The railway provides a vital lifeline for many people across the north, and the Government are committed to modernising the network as part of their wide-reaching levelling-up agenda. I reassure my hon. Friend and the House that a tremendous amount of work is being done, which aims to provide for a faster, more reliable network for all. Through a combination of infrastructure work and timetable changes, it will make a positive difference to everybody who travels on our services across the north. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend to make sure that it works for his constituents as well.
Detention of Jagtar Singh Johal
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the debates. There will also be suspensions between debates. Members participating either physically or virtually must arrive at the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
I must also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their cameras on for the duration of the debate and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to those of us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address, which is: westminsterhallclerks@ parliament.uk. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
There will be a time limit in this debate, which I will advise after the Member in charge has finished speaking, but I warn Members now that it is likely to be between two and three minutes.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the detention of Jagtar Singh Johal.
It is good to see you, Mr Hollobone, in the Chair and to see that so many Members have been able to join us, either physically or virtually. Members joining the debate today, either here in the Boothroyd Room or online, will be glad to hear first that I intend to keep my contribution relatively short today. I only really have one question to ask the Minister, and I think that Jagtar’s case will be best served by allowing other diverse voices from across these islands to speak on his behalf and to demonstrate to the UK Government that there will be no let-up until Jagtar is released.
Let us get to my question for the Minister, which I will ask again when I sum up: why have the UK Government deemed that Jagtar Singh Johal’s detention is not an arbitrary one? Of course, many other questions today will flow from this one and I am sure that we will hear it being asked in other guises over the next hour. But the Crown’s Minister must answer it.
I have raised the case of Jagtar Singh Johal with Ministers almost 20 times since my first point of order about it on 15 November 2017. The week after that, I first raised it at Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions, when the allegation of torture was still fresh. The House of Commons was told by the then Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who was responsible for consular policy, that
“We will work very closely to investigate the matter and will, of course, take extreme action if a British citizen is being tortured.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 858.]
That Minister is no longer in the Government—indeed, he is no longer even a member of the Conservative party. Nevertheless, when a Minister speaks from the Dispatch Box, we should be assured that their words will be believed. I still remember my own surprise that day at hearing the use of the words “extreme action”, but both the Singh Johal family and I would be content right now with a simple ruling of arbitrary detention and for the concomitant obligations to kick in.
I have spoken at length about many aspects of this case on many occasions, most notably in an Adjournment debate on the first anniversary of Jagtar’s detention on 27 November 2018. I do not intend to go over too much of that material again, but it is worth remembering how this case began.
Jagtar was a young man from Dumbarton, fresh from his wedding that week, who was enjoying his time with his new bride in Jalandhar, until suddenly a group of unidentifiable men in plain clothes leapt from a van, hit him and took him away. I am sure that we can all appreciate the terror and helplessness that his wife must have experienced in that moment—it would be unimaginable. The next few days, as Jagtar was held incommunicado, must have seemed like an eternity. Allegations of torture—and more recently, the reality of covid in an overcrowded maximum security prison half a world away—have weighed heavily on the family. I must say that their resilience in the face of this ordeal has been extraordinary.
By my reckoning, Jagtar has now been detained for 1,335 days without any substantial charges being brought in the case—that is coming up to four years. We know that the FCDO had been looking at a designation of arbitrary detention and, from conversations with Ministers of all levels, we know that they have been thinking about this for some time. This issue must surely have grown more recently. In January, we were glad of the estimation made by the charity Redress that Jagtar’s detention was an arbitrary one, and even more so when a cross-party group of 140 MPs signed a letter to the Foreign Secretary asking him to ensure that the FCDO intervenes to secure Jagtar’s release, as he himself is on record restating the policy quite recently.
Given that it is the opinion of Reprieve and Redress and their legal counsel that Jagtar’s detention is a clear breach of categories 1 to 4 of the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention’s definition, I again ask the Minister why the UK Government do not share that view. I expect the Minister to speak about many of the things that the UK Government have been doing for Jagtar, so please let me put on the record—I also do so on behalf of the family—that the work of the FCDO staff, both in post and in the prisoner policy and human rights team of the consular directorate here in London, has been immense. There has been immense support for the family and myself. They have diligently undertaken all that has been asked of them—and gone above and beyond on occasion, as I am sure they will know. I am only sorry that convention does not allow me to thank them by name.
However, these are civil servants who pursue their work through a framework established by their political masters. It would be remiss of me not to mention some of the issues that FCDO Ministers have either allowed to pass by or should immediately seek to remedy, beginning with the failure to ensure that an independent medical examination was undertaken to establish the facts around the allegations of torture made by Jagtar against the Punjabi police. There is the continuing lack of private consular visits, and the continuing reluctance of the Secretary of State specifically to meet with Jagtar’s family and myself, as his predecessor did. Finally, there is the decision of the Prime Minister not to raise Jagtar’s case with Prime Minister Modi when they last spoke virtually in April.
Taken together, these issues tell me that we have a group of FCDO civil servants who are ready and able to implement Government policy, but senior Ministers who are reluctant to escalate representations beyond simply raising them with the Indian Government officials. If they can do so with Governments of other countries where UK nationals are arbitrarily detained, why can they not do so with the Republic of India? Doing so would not be intervening in the internal affairs of the Republic of India unnecessarily. I have been clear from the start of this case that all we ask for is transparent due process and rule of law. When at least two of these elements are missing, as was so clearly demonstrated at Jagtar’s 161st pre-trial hearing today, it is my responsibility as his local MP to ask why. Neither the Singh Johal family nor myself is asking for the “extreme action” that, as I mentioned, we were promised by the UK Government at the start of this process: we are asking them only to recognise an obvious fact.
This week, Jagtar was able to speak by video call with his brother for the first time since his incarceration. He was as good as could be expected under the circumstances, but most of all he wondered when he would get to see his family again in the flesh. That was a sobering moment for me. Jagtar Singh Johal is a husband, a son, a grandson, a brother, an uncle, and a son of the Rock of Dumbarton. He is arbitrarily detained in India. Why can the United Kingdom Government not recognise that? Let us get Jaggi released: let us bring him back to Scotland and let him see his family.
The debate will last until 5.50. I am obliged to call the Front Benchers no later than 5.27, and the guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister, after which the Member in charge will have three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. There are nine Back-Bench contributors. If there are no interventions during Back-Bench speeches, we can have a three-minute time limit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
While in India for his wedding on 4 November 2017, British citizen Jagtar Singh Johal was shopping with his newly wedded wife when he was bound, hooded and bundled into a car by plain-clothed police officers. Leaving his wife with no explanation why he had been taken, Jagtar was taken into police custody and denied his right to see a lawyer, family members or a representative from the British high commission. Once imprisoned, Jagtar reported being tortured by police. He said crocodile clips were placed on him, with electricity fired through his body. Such was the severity of the torture that Jagtar had to be carried out of the interrogation room. To make the pain stop, Jagtar reports that he was forced to confess to the alleged conspiracies.
Why has he faced these basic violations of his rights? Prior to his arrest, Jagtar was involved in raising awareness of human rights abuses against India’s Sikh population. Human rights organisation Reprieve fears that he has been targeted for exercising freedom of expression and his right to it. It has already cost him four years in prison without trial. He has endured torture and now there is a real risk that confessions extracted through torture could be used to sentence him to the death penalty. Jagtar now languishes in prison, where mass covid-19 outbreaks have triggered calls for states to protect vulnerable prisoners.
In the face of these humans rights abuses, what have the British Government done? Rather than standing up for the rights of British nationals overseas, they have failed to follow Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office policy to lobby for arbitrarily detained UK nationals overseas, and ignored calls from myself and 139 colleagues earlier this year to do precisely that. The Government have even failed to secure an independent medical assessment of Jagtar to judge the severity and extent of torture, and to secure private consular visits with him for over three years. The Foreign Secretary has failed to meet with Jagtar’s family and despite calls from human rights organisations to raise the issue, the Prime Minister failed to challenge Indian Prime Minister Modi on Jagtar’s detention and treatment in a meeting in April.
This is a shameful dereliction of duty, Mr Hollobone: a pattern of what is happening in India and how the British Government are failing to stand up for human rights. In recent years in India, there have been a growing number of arrests of humans rights defenders, student leaders, trade unionists, journalists, and others critical of the ruling Government. In occupied Kashmir in 2019, the Indian Government unilaterally revoked articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing this important debate and for his tireless efforts.
Many residents in my constituency are deeply concerned about Jagtar’s continued detention. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on British Sikhs, I know the ongoing work that that group has done. In a previous Parliament, I spent an extraordinary amount of time lobbying for the release of my constituent Billy Irving, wrongly detained for years in an Indian jail. I know the horrendous impact of that ordeal on his family and can imagine that the impact on Jagtar Singh Johal’s family is similarly huge.
Let us remember that Jagtar was taken from the street where he was walking with his new wife, who was not even given an explanation for her husband’s detention. They had just got married and were looking forward to their future home in Scotland. Even more concerning now is the analysis by his legal counsel in India confirming that he faces a possible death sentence on at least three of the charges levelled against him. Forced confession, allegedly extracted through torture, is the primary evidence on which these death penalty charges are based, so his fair trial rights have been gravely violated and detention is clearly arbitrary. Despite the fact that the UK Government’s policy is to lobby for the release of arbitrarily detained British nationals overseas, the Foreign Secretary has not yet done so in Jagtar’s case. I would like to hear from the Minister why the UK Government have failed to implement their own policy on arbitrarily detained British citizens.
Of course, we are looking at all this through a particular prism, because covid puts an urgent complexion on everything. I can only imagine the anxiety that Jagtar and his family face knowing that he is so far from them—with covid rife and them unable to do a thing to keep him safe. He is in a horrifically overcrowded prison. Even though the state government has recognised the challenges that covid is causing and recently sanctioned the emergency release of thousands of prisoners—even those accused of murder—Jagtar was not included and remains incarcerated.
I applaud all the efforts of the family and of the all-party parliamentary group on British Sikhs, and I applaud the sterling work of Sikhs in Scotland and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire and others who have been working on this issue. So much effort has been expended, but what we really need is action in India. For that to happen, we urgently need this UK Government to take these issues on board, to listen and to act. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing the debate and for his advocacy on behalf of his constituent. There is a great deal that I could say about this case, but time is short. I will limit myself to three brief points.
First, I understand the concerns that the Minister will have with regard to the apparent interference in the criminal justice system of another sovereign state. That is well rehearsed; it is not new territory for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. However, I bring to his attention the quite remarkable and wholly inappropriate briefing note circulated to Members of this House today; it was brought to the Deputy Speaker’s attention by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. I gently suggest to the Minister that it demonstrates, in the way in which it is constructed—both in terms of its highly misleading and inaccurate content and how it strays into discussion of the procedure and indeed substance of the case against Jagtar Singh Johal—that in fact the Indian Government themselves do not have great regard for the propriety of the independence of their own criminal justice system. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when he formulates his own position with regard to it.
Secondly, the absolutely most crucial point, made by the hon. Member, is that Jagtar Singh Johal has been the subject of very strong prima facie arbitrary detention. As has been made clear by counsel instructed by Reprieve and Redress in the briefing they provided for Members today, this is caught by categories 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the guidance produced by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. I was in legal practice myself for long enough to know that lawyers can come to different conclusions, so if the advice given or the conclusions drawn by the Minister and his staff are different, I hope he will explain exactly where these differences come from.
Thirdly, Jagtar’s position is undoubtedly grim, but he is actually in a much better position than just about everybody I have ever campaigned for and worked with when they were facing the death penalty, because he has not yet been through the judicial process. I have looked at just about every death penalty case I have ever been part of and thought, “Dear God, if only we had got to this at first instance.” We are well ahead of that point at the moment. The Government should be implementing their own policy with regard to arbitrary detention. They have rightly done it for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others often enough. Why are they not doing it for Jagtar?
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
For Jagtar Singh Johal, it is hard not to feel angry, defeated and despondent. I cannot imagine how difficult it has been for his family—and his wife in particular, who has not heard from her beloved husband since he was snatched and detained by plain-clothes officers in India just three weeks after their wedding in October 2017.
As we know, Jagtar is a British citizen, a loving family man and valued citizen of Dumbarton, but the UK Government—the Government of the country of Mr Johal’s birth—have fallen silent and deserted him. Why have the Government not demanded the release of their own British citizen? Our Foreign Secretary has not so much as met Mr Johal’s grief-stricken family, despite his predecessor accepting that Mr Johal had no chance of a fair trial and was in grave danger. However, in their attempts to strike new trade deals the Government seem to have damaged our global moral standing and neglected our humanitarian responsibilities. It is dangerous brinkmanship of the highest order, but it is also what we have come to expect. It seems the UK Government would sooner allow Mr Johal’s death than jeopardise any future trade deal. As recently as April this year, the Prime Minister met the Indian Prime Minister remotely and once again neglected to raise Mr Johal’s case during the meeting.
It is time for the Government to act to secure Mr Johal’s release. They must work towards a medical assessment of Mr Johal and of the facility in which he is imprisoned, and they must push for a private consultant to visit and gain access to where Mr Johal is confined. At the earliest opportunity, Ministers should meet Mr Johal’s family. The Government’s silence is a moral outrage and an unforgivable dereliction of their duty to protect a British citizen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing this vital debate. We have spoken privately about this issue in the past, and I wholeheartedly agree that its importance cannot be overstated.
That a British citizen can be arrested and held for so long in another country with no indication of when his case will finally be resolved by due process should shame our lazy and hands-off Foreign Secretary. What is more, the Home Office attempted to add to the family’s burden by trying to expel Gurpreet Kaur, Jagtar Singh Johal’s wife, which shows the contempt with which this Government are prepared to treat those in peril.
Many of my Coventry constituents will be deeply concerned about this matter because two of our neighbours face a similar prospect this year. Two brothers resident in my constituency were hauled into custody after raids on their homes last year. That has traumatised their families and sent shockwaves through our local community in Coventry. As British citizens who have lived in our country their whole lives, they deserve from the Government the same protection that we all receive, but they are now languishing in custody ahead of extradition later this year, and they are profoundly worried about what the future holds for them.
Ministers have offered the stock assurances that the brothers will be properly treated by the Indian authorities and that they will not face the death penalty, but none of what they or their families have been put through can be said to have inspired confidence in promises made by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office or the Home Office. Given that the two men in question have been investigated previously and the Home Office decided that there was no further case to answer, it is not surprising that so many in the community are asking why the arrests took place. Those doubts have been reinforced in the minds of many by the simple fact that in the week before the arrests were made, the Foreign Secretary visited India and met Ajit Doval, a key national security adviser. What is the Foreign Secretary sacrificing in his haste to wrap up a trade deal with the current Indian Government?
If the Government will not stand up for British citizens abroad, how can any of us be safe? Those constituents of mine, and all who are in the same position, deserve fair treatment and a Government here at home who are willing to fight for them to secure due process. Instead, they are left in fear for their lives because this Government prefer to purchase new friendships abroad, setting at naught inalienable in their attempts to revive our faltering trade relationships. It is time for the Government to offer some leadership on this issue, instead of importing sectarian politics from abroad into our debate here in the UK. Minister must assure for all our citizens, regardless of their background, the fundamental right that defines being British.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on securing this hugely important debate.
Jagtar Singh Johal, a British citizen and a Sikh human rights advocate from Dunbartonshire, sought to use his platform to raise awareness of historical abuses carried out against the Sikh population. In 2017, he travelled to India to get married, and three weeks after the ceremony plain-clothes police officers abducted him on the street. According to the human rights organisation Reprieve, the police brutally tortured Jagtar with electricity and brought petrol into his cell, threatening to burn him alive. To make the pain stop, he signed blank pieces of paper and recorded video statements confessing to the charges against him, some of which carried the death penalty.
Jagtar’s imprisonment clearly amounts to arbitrary detention under international law. He has now been detained for more than three years without trial. When a British national is arbitrarily detained and tortured and faces a potential death sentence, all on the basis of trumped-up political charges, the British Government must make it clear that that is unacceptable. Despite it being Government policy to lobby for the release of arbitrarily detained UK nationals overseas, the Foreign Secretary has yet to do so for Jagtar.
Will the Minister explain why the Government failed to implement its policy to seek the release of arbitrarily detained British citizens in Jagtar’s case? This is even more urgent after a mass outbreak of covid-19 in the prison in which Jagtar is detained. The World Health Organisation and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have called on states to protect vulnerable prisoners during the pandemic, to immediately release those who have been arbitrarily detained and to secure non-custodial alternatives to detention.
In April, I wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to raise Jagtar’s case during a meeting with his counterpart, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government raised Jagtar’s arbitrary detention with the Indian authorities, either at that meeting or at any other time?
Although the UK Government are anxious to improve relations with India so they can secure a post-Brexit trade deal, the UK-India relationship, and indeed all our diplomatic efforts, must be deeper than just trade. They should be based on the promotion of democracy, human rights and upholding international law. The Government must do all they can to ensure Jagtar’s safety and release.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing this debate and representing his constituents so passionately on this matter.
Since the arrest of British national Jagtar Singh Johal in November 2017, I have raised his detention on numerous occasions with Ministers in the Chamber. I hope the Government will take note of our collective concerns and take some steps to address this situation. I am extremely disappointed that we are here once again raising Mr Johal’s detention with the Government. Despite the serious allegations of torture and mistreatment, and the fact that he potentially faces the death penalty, the UK Government have done very little to support Mr Johal’s family and find a solution to this difficult situation. In fact, the Foreign Secretary is yet to meet his family, even though it has been over three and a half years since his arrest.
This matter is of huge importance not only to those directly affected but to the wider Sikh community. Indeed, many of my Slough constituents have contacted me to express their anger and dismay at the Conservative Government’s inaction over Jagtar and his family. I share their concerns. Reports that Mr Johal has been subject to torture are deeply worrying, and must be treated with the utmost seriousness. We must be clear that there is no place for the use of torture or mistreatment anywhere in the world, yet this Government do not seem to want to raise that with the Indian authorities or seek to verify the claims. Mr Johal must be able to meet privately with the British consular staff so that he can raise concerns about his treatment. What have the Government done to facilitate that? Hopefully the Minister will answer that.
Those worrying reports, alongside delays to legal proceedings and the need for a fair trial for Mr Johal, should be conveyed by the UK authorities to the Indian authorities, yet I fear that that has not happened. I hope the Minister will assuage our concerns today. The UK Government must set an example to the world when dealing with such situations, and reassure hon. Members of this House and British citizens everywhere that their Government will not abandon them as soon as they set foot outside the UK.
I am cognisant of the well rehearsed and acknowledged stance that we cannot intervene in another nation’s judicial process, but time and again this Government have claimed to represent the views and voices of all Brits, while in practice many are voiceless within the international arena, as the Government fail to ensure that their basic human rights are respected. The Foreign Secretary must meet Mr Johal’s family and listen to and act on their serious concerns, rather than continually failing them.
I am here because of my personal concern about Mr Johal, but also because of the scale of representation that I have received from my constituents. The Government need to recognise the truly immense worry in our own country about this case. People are concerned because they have witnessed how Mr Johal can be picked up in this way, detained and deprived of his liberty. They feel that if it can happen to him, it can happen to any one of them, especially those who have raised real fears, concerns and criticisms about the current Indian Government’s human rights practices.
Those of us with family connections to India have immense affection for the country and its people. It pains me to see the reputational damage that has been caused to India by the actions of its Government in relation to Mr Johal’s case. I just want to ask a few basic questions about where our Government go from here.
First, in the light of the failure of their representations on Mr Johal’s case so far, can the Minister explain to us the strategy the Government will now pursue for effective representations from our Government directly to the Indian Government? Secondly, can the Minister explain their strategy to co-ordinate the representations from other countries and international bodies in order to create a climate of opinion that will, hopefully, force the Indian Government to act? What is the strategy to co-ordinate the work of human rights bodies to investigate and report on the adherence or non-adherence to basic human rights standards by the Indian authorities in relation to this case? Finally, if there are continued delays, what sanctions are the Government now prepared to take—politically, diplomatically, and if necessary economically—to either secure the release of Mr Johal or at least ensure that justice is done in this case?
There is a sense of frustration now within our own communities at the failure of the Government to act decisively. That is undermining confidence that our Government will actually protect their citizens when they travel abroad. I urge the Government strongly to listen to the representations that have been made so eloquently today, which I fully agree with, and to act. For goodness’ sake, we need speedy action on this appalling case.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on bringing it forward. When he had an Adjournment debate on this case some time ago, I was there to support him, and I am here today to do the same thing.
I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The Sikhs are one of our stakeholders, and I want to put that on the record. I have come here to support them.
It is tragic that yet again we are debating the violation of an individual’s human rights. The fact that Jagtar Singh Johal was detained—kidnapped, basically—from the street by balaclava-covered men, thrown in a van, taken to a prison cell, tortured and forced to sign a confession is absolutely unbelievable. I am my party’s spokesperson on human rights as well, so I am here to register my support for the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire and his constituent.
We live in an age in which most of the major human rights treaties—there are nine core treaties—have been ratified by the vast majority of countries, but it seems that yet again the human rights agenda has fallen short. This case involves a British national—one of ours—and his family, for whom we must stand up and speak out. Why have the Minister and the FCDO refused to meet with Jagtar Singh Johal’s family?
Mr Johal has been detained without evidence of any wrongdoing. India is the world’s largest democracy and is rarely considered to be among the major human rights-violating nations, yet Mr Johal has been subjected to torture and forced to sign false confessions while being held in a prison that is now suffering an outbreak of coronavirus. The Indian Government must be held to account. What actions has the Minister’s Department taken to protect Mr Johal, given his pre-existing health conditions, following the outbreak of coronavirus in Tihar prison? Do they include an independent medical examination and psychological evaluation? It is really important that we give the same treatment to all our citizens wherever they are in the world.
The prohibition of extrajudicial torture and killings is fundamental to human rights law. I acknowledge that the appalling treatment has been done not as a matter of official policy, but as a matter of practice, which is even worse. It is unacceptable that the Indian authorities are ignoring international legal obligations regarding torture and detention despite a lack of evidence. Is the Minister aware the Mr Johal is under the threat of the death penalty? What actions has his Department taken since learning of this situation?
India has a judicial system in which the process must be that if suspected criminals are formally charged, they appear in court. Courts might be slow and underfunded and police might be under pressure to convict, but that is no excuse to employ inhumane and degrading treatment of those in custody. That must not be accepted or tolerated.
We are sending that message to the Indian Government from this House today. I hope the Minister will do the same. India is clearly in breach of article 9 of the universal declaration of human rights. We must be told what actions have been taken by the Government at the United Nations to raise g the case of Mr Jagtar Singh Johal. I thank the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire again. We speak today for someone who is one of ours, who has been mistreated and is under threat of the death penalty.
It is truly a pleasure to sum up this incredibly important debate on an issue that is very close to my heart. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance.
First, I offer my deep and profound sympathies, as well as my solidarity, to the family of Jagtar. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on securing the debate and on all the work he has done to fight for Jagtar and his family. He has been utterly tireless.
Members have rightly spoken passionately in this debate about the rights of British citizens abroad, and what happens to them when they find themselves, through no fault of their own, killed, injured, incarcerated or—as in Jagtar’s case, although we have heard from many Members that the UK Government, shamelessly, will not recognise this—arbitrarily detained without trial, often by oppressive regimes that routinely breach or abuse human rights.
We should be absolutely clear about what the detention of Jagtar is. As my hon. Friend said, it is a flagrant breach of his human rights by the Indian authorities and Government, and they should be ashamed. It is vital that that message has gone out from all Members who have spoken in the debate today.
Jagtar has spent four years without a trial—four years away from his family in, as we know, appalling conditions, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) highlighted. Seeing this through the prism of covid and the experiences that Jagtar has had in prison make the case all the more distressing and appalling. He is one of so many who are apart and isolated from their family and friends, and ultimately without the support they need from the UK Government. As the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, this is an issue that should concern us all. If it can happen to Jagtar, it could happen to anybody.
Jagtar’s experience is, sadly, very familiar. As chair of the APPG, I took evidence from more than 60 families who had lost loved ones abroad or whose loved ones were incarcerated. We heard from a number of organisations, including Redress, who I know have given significant support to Jagtar’s family. The message was very clear, and there was a common theme. All the families we took evidence from felt terribly let down by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. They felt helpless and abandoned. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) alighted on a key point that we heard from a number of families whose loved ones were incarcerated. This Conservative UK Government are putting trade deals before human rights and that should shame us all.
I worked in a consulate myself—I worked for the US Department of State in the consulate in Edinburgh—and I have seen at first hand how hard consular staff work. There may be many things that we can criticise the United States for, but one thing I learned from my experience was that they look after their own, without fear or favour. This Government could learn a lot from that.
I have also met consular staff and ambassadors who work for the FCDO. I know how hard they work and how difficult and challenging their job is. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire also said, I know how hard they have worked for Jagtar and his family, but they are being cut to the bone and their resources are being drained by this Conservative Government.
In 2019, a report by the British Foreign Policy Group, which was backed by many prominent diplomats and former Foreign Secretaries, proved that funding of the diplomatic service was at its lowest in 20 years. In the last 30 years, staff have been cut by 1,000. That is hardly the advert for global Britain that the Conservative Government seem to punt left, right and centre. The reality is that the Government leave British citizens high and dry, because they do not give their staff or missions the funding and resource that they need. Not only are they abandoning British citizens; they are abandoning their own staff. The issue of consular assistance is a grey area. That is why I and others have called for a legal right to consular assistance, which would strengthen the rights of our citizens and make the Government have a legal responsibility to look after our citizens abroad.
The Government have to answer for their lack of action. As Members have said, they have to answer for the fact that the Prime Minister has met the Prime Minister of India and not raised the case of Jagtar. A Government’s first duty should be to look after their citizens in their time of need. Otherwise, what use or value does being a British citizen hold? Will the Government accept that Jagtar has been arbitrarily detained, according to the very clear international definition of arbitrary detention, and explain why they have failed to implement their own policy to seek the release of arbitrarily detained British citizens, as in Jagtar’s case?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As the shadow Minister who has been lobbying the Government on this issue, I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing this vital debate about his constituent Mr Jagtar Singh Johal. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for their important contributions.
The Labour party is deeply concerned about the Indian police’s incarceration of British citizen Jagtar Singh Johal, who has been held without trial for more than three and a half years. Although the Labour party does not involve itself in the internal matters of other countries, we will always stand up for human rights, democracy and international law everywhere, and we will always stand up for British citizens wherever we feel that their rights and freedoms are being violated. We value our country’s long-standing relationship with India, which we see as an important partner in the decades ahead on trade, security, climate change and, critically, the joint promotion of democracy, human rights and upholding international law. However, a strong relationship is worth having only if it means that each Government are able to engage frankly with the other and to challenge each other and take robust positions wherever necessary.
That brings me to the issue we are discussing, which is the deeply troubling case of a UK citizen incarcerated for more than 1,300 days without trial, and with the threat of the death penalty looming over him. Jagtar’s story is heartbreaking, as has been the experience of his wife and wider family, not least his brother, whom I have had the privilege of meeting on a number of occasions over the past year. We have all heard the facts of the case, and they are deeply disturbing for all manner of reasons. It is also worth noting that the United Nations shares our concern. On 29 January 2018, the UN working group on arbitrary detention, the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and the special rapporteur on torture sent an urgent representation to the Indian Government. It expressed concerns over the lack of detail on the factual and legal basis for Mr Johal’s arrest and detention, and it questioned the measures that are being taken by the Indian authorities to safeguard him from torture. On 9 November 2019, the United Nations working group and special rapporteurs sent an urgent representation to the Indian Government, insisting that there had been over two years of delay through an unfair legal process, and that the Indian Government must provide the right to due process, a fair trial and independent medical examination, yet there has still been no movement towards either a fair trial or Jagtar’s release.
Given the facts of the case and those UN interventions, I find it astonishing that the Foreign Secretary has refused to meet the family and that the Government Minister responsible in the other place has refused on two occasions to answer my questions on whether the case amounts to arbitrary detention—first, in a letter that I sent to him last autumn, and then in a letter in January of this year, which took the Government three months to reply to. I therefore ask the Minister today whether the Government recognise Jagtar’s incarceration as a clear case of arbitrary detention. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has made it clear that in death penalty cases where the detainee is detained on spurious grounds as a political statement, or in circumstances of clear human rights violations, the detainee’s country should make representations to the detaining state that the detainee should not be in detention or facing charges at all. Are the UK Government acting on that guidance? Do the UK Government intend to implement their own policy?
Three and a half years is more than enough time to gather evidence and bring a case to trial. Jagtar’s continued incarceration is a clear and obvious breach of international human rights law. He is clearly a victim of arbitrary detention and as such should be released immediately. The UK Government must also remind the Indian authorities that international human rights law prohibits the reliance on evidence that has been gathered under torture. Jagtar and his family have been through far too much already. Today is the moment for the UK Government to demonstrate that they are genuinely committed to standing up for a British citizen whose human rights are being violated.
As ever, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in this very important debate, and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing it. I pay tribute to him for his tenacious support for his constituent Mr Johal since his arrest in India. I am also grateful for the contributions of all right hon. and hon. Members who have been in contact with the Foreign Office, either in writing or through formats such as this, and I will try to respond to the points raised in my remarks.
Before coming to Mr Johal’s specific case, I will set out our consular policy in general terms. Clearly, consular assistance is central to our work at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year our staff endeavour to give advice and practical support to all British nationals overseas and their families here in the UK. We aim to treat every consular case with equal importance and tailor our help to the individual circumstances of each person who is in need of our support, in normal times and in times of crisis. For example, from March to July 2020, the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office ran a repatriation operation unprecedented in the post-war era. We were proud to be able to return 38,000 people on 186 charter flights from 57 countries and territories back to the UK, as well as enabling 1.3 million British nationals to return via commercial routes.
The Government do not have, and have never had, a legal duty of care to British nationals abroad, because our ability to provide consular assistance is always dependent on other states adhering to the Vienna convention on consular relations and the laws of that host country. Consequently, a right to consular assistance in English law would not help those caught up in complex consular cases. In a similar vein, the FCDO does not seek preferential treatment for British nationals. We do not and, as we have heard from several hon. Members, must not interfere in civil and criminal court proceedings. It is absolutely right that we respect the legal systems of other countries, just as we expect foreign nationals to respect our laws when they are in the United Kingdom.
Our policy in respect of how to engage on complex detention cases, such as that of Mr Johal, is clear: the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office makes no judgment on the innocence or guilt of any British national who is detained overseas. Our priority is always the welfare of the UK national concerned. We look to ensure that they are receiving food, water and medical treatment, and that they have access to legal advice. With their permission, we can raise concerns about mistreatment or torture with the prison authorities, and request an independent investigation into any such allegations.
We will always consider making representations to the local authorities if detainees are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards, including if trials are unreasonably delayed compared with local cases, and as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire will know, we have provided Mr Johal and his family with extensive consular support since his arrest in 2017. We will continue to do so until this case has been resolved. That resolution must include an independent investigation into Mr Johal’s allegations of torture and mistreatment, and the transparent progress of judicial proceedings against him.
What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that we have consistently raised the need for an independent and impartial investigation into those torture allegations. The Foreign Secretary himself most recently highlighted this to Indian Minister of External Affairs Jaishankar on 6 May, and we have made many representations in this case. Officials or Ministers have raised Mr Johal’s case on almost 70 occasions.
I appreciate, however, that there are calls for the British Government to do more in Mr Johal’s case. I would therefore like to reassure the House that ever since his arrest in India in 2017, our staff have worked hard to provide effective assistance to Mr Johal and his family in the UK. We take these allegations about torture and mistreatment incredibly seriously. The allegations go back to 2017 and were made again in January this year. There are causes for concern in Mr Johal’s case, and we also share right hon. and hon. Members’ deep concern about the continued delays in the legal proceedings against Mr Johal.
I accept everything that the Minister has said about interventions with regard to the Indian criminal justice system. That is why the point about arbitrary detention is so important, because as the spokesperson for the official Opposition, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) have both said, in the event that that is the view of the Government, they have a duty to intervene. Is that the view of the Government, and if it is, why have they not intervened? If it is not, what points of distinction would they make?
The Government take all allegations of human rights violations extremely seriously, and we raise concerns with the authorities on the ground where appropriate. The assistance we provide is assessed on a case-by-case basis, and it entirely depends on the circumstances of the case. It is for this reason that we have persistently advocated for Mr Johal’s welfare. We have raised his case regularly at the highest levels and with the Indian Government.
I am very grateful to the Minister for taking my intervention. May I go back to the point that has just been made? He was asked whether the UK Government accept that this is an arbitrary detention. If not, what is it about the situation that they do not agree with? That is what we need to hear from the Minister.
As I said, the action we take in a consular case in relation to allegations of arbitrary detention is tailored to individual circumstances and situations, and what we judge to be the most effective in each case. Although the FCDO cannot investigate allegations of human rights abuses overseas, we have carefully considered all available information on the arbitrary detention allegations, including the Reprieve determination. We will continue to raise concerns regarding human rights directly with the Indian authority as we judge them to be effective and appropriate in Mr Johal’s case.
If I may, in the couple of minutes that I have left, I will move on. We have persistently advocated for Mr Johal’s welfare. We have raised his torture allegations and his right to a fair trial with the Government of India on more than 70 occasions since his arrest. Most recently, the Foreign Secretary raised the case with the Indian Minister of External Affairs on 6 May, and Lord Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, with the high commissioner on 8 June. The previous Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the International Trade Secretary have all raised Mr Johal’s case at appropriate opportunities during his detention. I further assure right hon. and hon. Members that we have thoroughly considered concerns regarding arbitrary detention and the death penalty in this case.
The Government take all allegations of violations of human rights seriously. We raise them with the local authorities where appropriate. We also cover welfare issues. In Mr Johal’s case, in-person visits to prisons in India, which hon. Members referred to, are restricted due to the pandemic, but we have replaced them with phone calls. We most recently spoke to Mr Johal on 11 May. We will continue to pursue regular welfare visits with the authorities for as long as he remains in prison. We appreciate that his family have suffered considerable distress throughout his detention. The high commissioner to India most recently met Mr Johal’s brother Gurpreet on 30 April.
A question was raised about trade and human rights. It is clear that the relationship with India is important and is based on trust and collaboration. It is important that human rights and complex consular cases form part of our dialogue. As such, the 2030 road map for India-UK future relations, agreed in April by our two Prime Ministers, includes a commitment to promote closer co-operation in consular matters and to resolve long-running or complex consular cases.
I recognise that this remains an extremely difficult time for Mr Johal and his family. I assure the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, to whom I will now give the Floor, and Mr Johal’s family that we will continue to do all that we can to support Mr Johal and to ensure that he is treated in accordance with Indian and international law. His case remains a priority for the UK Government, and it must be resolved in line with due process and without unreasonable delay.
I am very grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have participated, and to the Front Benchers, my good and hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). As a member of the Defence Committee, I am very much aware of the importance of the relationship with India, but it has to be a frank and upfront one. The Minister mentioned consular support, which I also mentioned in my speech, but it seems that arbitrary detention is clearly different when someone is held by Iran or China. He also mentioned the Government’s issues in relation to English law. Clearly, it is a pity that my constituent is not being assisted by Scots law.
With all due respect, the Minister for Asia, whose portfolio does not cover my constituent—it is covered by that of the Minister for South Asia—has failed to answer the intrinsic question: is this deemed arbitrary detention? The Government have failed to answer that question time and again. Time is up. We have had three Prime Ministers, four Foreign Secretaries, and so many Under-Secretaries that I have lost count. What will it take for the UK Government to answer the question: is this, or is this not, arbitrary detention?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the detention of Jagtar Singh Johal.