I beg to move,
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I place on the record my thanks to Madam Deputy Speaker for allowing flexibility this afternoon, enabling us literally to move from one debate to another, rather than this second debate starting strictly at 3 pm, as would normally be the case. That flexibility allows Members to contribute and indeed allows us to have a full and proper debate.
The only shame, of course, is that the Government have chosen to put on a debate in the main Chamber today on a very important topic—the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement—rather than allowing us to debate these matters there. Nevertheless, we have been elevated to this Chamber as a result, and I am glad to see many Members here to contribute to the debate.
At this time of year, we of course remember the late Sir David Amess, who would give a valedictory performance in these debates. I am afraid that I will not attempt to cover the number of subjects that he normally covered—
The hon. Member may regret saying that by the time I sit down. [Laughter.] However, I will seek to raise a number of topics.
Let me kick off with the excellent performance of Harrow Council. In less than a year, it has managed to balance the budget overall, saving itself from bankruptcy, and ensuring that there is transparency in putting residents first in the delivery of services.
Over the Easter holiday, more than 1,000 free places will be available for children and young people aged five to 16 at the various different local clubs and activities for the school holidays. That will entertain children over the holidays, help them make new friends, allow parents to work, and help with childcare costs. Each space will include a free, nutritious meal per day. More than 20 organisations in my borough have received funding to deliver the activities, which include sports, arts and crafts, skills workshops, cooking clubs, theatre and other trips, and much more. There is also much-needed provision for those with special educational needs.
As the weather improves and spring is upon us, Harrow Council is embarking on the reworking of 37 tennis courts in 13 parks in the borough, bringing them up to a high standard. Thanks go to the Lawn Tennis Association for funding that, because at the moment 11 are literally unusable. Encouraging people to play safely outside and to play more sport has to be good news as we enter the summer months and as we look forward the Wimbledon championships.
On a less happy note, antisocial behaviour has clearly grown in recent years across the country, including in my borough, although I welcome the Government’s strategic plan on combating antisocial behaviour, which was announced this week. At the moment, 11% of my casework is on antisocial behaviour, and it is the second most recorded crime in Harrow—second only to vehicle crime. This year, 5,550 incidents have been reported to Harrow Council and the police.
I welcome Harrow’s positive measure of consulting on a public spaces protection order aimed at tackling antisocial behaviour. The order would result in fines of £100 for anyone caught urinating, defecating or spitting anywhere in the borough. The council is also considering imposing restrictions on bird feeding and requiring dogs to be on leads in parks. The consultation runs for eight weeks until 15 May and seeks the views of Harrow residents and businesses.
The council aims to crack down further on antisocial behaviour, such as fly-tipping, which is endemic in Harrow and I am sure in many other places; street drinking; and uncontrolled dogs. The order would allow immediate enforcement action to be taken, including against those who drive over and damage footpaths, making them unsafe for walkers, and those who fail to pick up dog mess after dogs have been around.
Of course, we are in the run-up to the expansion of the ultra low emission zone. Unfortunately, we have not had a proper response from the Mayor’s office to the 41 constituents who wrote with detailed questions and concerns about the ULEZ. All those were sent to the Mayor’s office some months ago but, instead of a personalised response answering each constituent’s concerns, in a Kafkaesque move, we received a generic send-to-all copy-and-paste, and now we are simply being ignored when we send chasers.
I am pleased to have launched a ULEZ poll and petition. In just three weeks, we have had more than 250 responses. Surprise, surprise: 96% do not support the ULEZ expansion, with only 10 people—none of them with a car—saying that they do support it. More than 260 people have now signed the petition calling on the Mayor to reverse the ULEZ expansion to Harrow. Despite that, cameras are going up across the borough, to the obvious dissatisfaction of residents.
To good news once again, Mr Mundell: Home Office responses to casework are improving. The list of Home Office cases with which my office is dealing is down from more than 180 to 26. We are still struggling with some long-standing cases, which are more complicated—the oldest started on 23 July 2021—and urgent and last-minute cases, one of which was referred to in the main Chamber this morning, on matters such as urgent visas, funerals and fast-track services that are not being dealt with in the time promised.
As the protests in Iran rage on, I visited the Iranian Ashraf 3 refugee camp last month to meet Maryam Rajavi. It was deeply overwhelming to visit the museum that details the torture and deaths of as many as 120,000 MEK—Mojahedin-e-Khalq—supporters over the years of struggle for a democratic Iran. In 2015, Iran launched a 40-rocket attack against Ashraf 2, the camp’s previous home, sited in Iraq, leaving 24 dead and forcing the other refugees to move to Albania. Albania does not always get good press in this place, but let us thank the Albanian Government for allowing Ashraf 3 to be set up and enabling those refugees to settle.
I unreservedly condemn the Government of Iran’s actions in suppressing the protests in their country, and I deplore the violent behaviour of the Iranian police. I continue to be deeply concerned by reports of threats made to organisations in the UK that support the rights of protesters in Iran. I will continue to urge the Government to include the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of proscribed terrorist organisations and to work with our international counterparts to ensure that further sanctions are placed on Iran without delay.
The recent attack on the Indian high commission was more than just a hullabaloo. The hooliganism of some Khalistani demonstrators outside the Indian high commission is a disgrace to this country. This is the sixth time in as many years that it has been attacked in a similar way. Security guards were injured, windows were smashed, an attempt was made to remove the tricolour, and further damage was caused. I drew attention to that at business questions last week. I was very careful about my words—I said that these were Khalistani militants—but sadly the people who put subtitles on social media decided to substitute “Sikh” for “Khalistani”. I made it very clear that the vast majority of Sikhs in this country are law-abiding citizens who behave properly and appropriately. Indeed, this country owes a big debt to the Sikh community for coming to our aid during the great war and the second world war.
The fact is that these militants operate across Canada, the United States and Australia at the same time. We are harbouring a number of organisations that are proscribed by India—our friend. They are terrorists, and they should be proscribed and prevented from taking further action. I commend the bravery of the officials at the high commission, who, rather than protect themselves during the attack, simply replaced the flag with an even bigger version, demonstrating that they would not be cowed by the demonstration.
Last week, I welcomed a group of Romanian MPs and ambassadors to Parliament for a series of meetings on Romania. They also participated in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office conference to strengthen our bilateral relations. In Harrow East alone, we have 11,000 Romanians, who contribute positively to society and our economy. One thing that shocked me was the lack of a Romanian GCSE in this country, despite the fact that there are about 350,000 Romanian young people living here. There is already a Polish GCSE, so why are we discriminating against our Romanian friends? I have raised this matter already with the Education Secretary. I trust that her Department and the Government will continue to look at the opportunity.
I am pleased that my private Member’s Bill—the Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill—has gone through the Commons and will enter the other place on 21 April. I have been consulting local authorities, providers and stakeholders in the sector regularly to continue resolving any concerns or questions they have. I hope my Bill will fly through the other place. Lord Best is piloting it, as he did for my previous private Member’s Bill. It is crucial that rogue landlords are regulated to protect vulnerable tenants from exploitation. I recently learned of two tragic homicides as a result of irresponsible and negligent landlords. That highlights how important the Bill is to the supported housing sphere.
I have been lucky to visit India on several occasions recently, and I am pleased to have met a wide range of people: Government officials, ambassadors, businessmen and women, and the general public. It is clear that both countries are extremely supportive of the potential for the India-UK free trade deal. We are now on the eighth round of talks on the deal. Although we were promised it would be signed by Diwali last year, let us hope it will come into operation by Diwali this year. I chair the all- party parliamentary group for India (Trade and Investment). We plan a delegation in the very near future, and I am sure that parliamentarians will continue to strengthen and champion relations between the countries.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and for taking my earlier intervention in good humour. Talking about India and trade, would he also be interested in the newly formed all-party parliamentary group for kabaddi? The British Kabaddi League has now been set up, and my constituent Prem Singh is very active in it and is liaising in India to promote the sport of kabaddi both here in the UK and in India.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I noticed the setting up of that all-party parliamentary group, and I confess that I was ignorant of the sport. I will certainly look at and consider participating in it.
Let me also mention smoking, which remains the biggest cause of cancer and avoidable death, with 78,000 people dying as a result each year. Reducing the number of smokers will benefit the NHS, the individuals’ health and the health of those around them considerably. This is a cause I am very passionate about, because both my late parents died as a result of smoking-related cancer. For me, this is deeply personal, and I will continue to champion the cause.
Indeed, I proposed a ten-minute rule Bill that would mean, were it to be passed by this place, that any retailer looking to sell tobacco goods would have to hold a licence, as is currently the case with alcohol. That would mean that, to ensure that their licences are not revoked, vendors would have to be aware of the importance of proof of age when selling products. Further, I hope it would eradicate the sale of fake or copy tobacco goods, which are often cheaper and remain untested and very harmful materials. As we approach a year since the eye-opening Khan review, I hope that the Minister will consider the proposals and publish the Government’s long-awaited tobacco review plan imminently. I utter a “gardyloo”—we are growing impatient for that tobacco control plan to be implemented.
Finally, I wish everyone who is celebrating a very happy and healthy Eid and Easter, because we are of course not only celebrating the festival of Ramadan but breaking for Easter. We also have the festival of Passover, which Jews will be celebrating, and today is Rama Navami—a tongue-twister if ever there were one—when Hindus celebrate, once again, the triumph of good over evil. I trust that everyone will be able to relax and enjoy some time with family, friends and loved ones over this period, as well as of course to campaign in the local elections. Most importantly, I hope that hon. Members can take time for reflection, whichever religion they follow, so that they come back refreshed and in a better mood.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for ensuring that this important opportunity to raise issues is taking place in this Chamber today. I have two particularly very personal issues, and then a couple of others that affect a wider group of constituents. I would ordinarily have liked to raise them in an individual Adjournment debate, which is another reason why I am grateful to raise these important matters.
[Martin Vickers in the Chair]
The first is a very tragic case, and the wider issue is about how schools support pupils with medical conditions. The issue arises because my constituent Lorna Williams lost her nine-year-old son, Rasharn, who died at a school in my constituency in October 2014. Rasharn had a heart condition that the school knew about, but when he fell ill after dancing at the school disco, an ambulance was not called immediately, and he died later that evening in hospital. I pay huge credit to Lorna and her family. Despite suffering the most unimaginable loss, Lorna still wants to campaign to ensure that no other mother goes through what she has had to live through. She has had to go through the many inquiries and processes that surround a death of this nature, and in the middle of it was her lovely little boy Rasharn. While those inquiries progress, it feels like a long time before any answers come. In many cases, there are more questions than answers, as was indeed the case for Rasharn.
Lessons need to be learned from Rasharn’s death, and we need the Government, schools and education authorities to take them on board. The first lesson is the importance of clear and accurate record keeping in respect of medical conditions, so that everybody in a school—the teachers, the support staff; indeed, where appropriate, other pupils—understand the actions that need to be taken in different circumstances for different children, so that all staff are aware of that information. They cannot all be aware in the moment, so there need to be proper records; that way, staff can access the records on an individual child at the moment a crisis strikes.
It seems there is not always clear guidance to schools on how individual healthcare plans should be formatted so that it is easy to find the right information at the right moment. Lorna remembers sometimes coming back from hospital appointments with updates on Rasharn’s condition and never being quite sure if it was going to be filed in the right place or that it would be passed on to the special educational needs teacher or the classroom teacher. Parents of all children, but especially those with special health problems, need to have the confidence that the school will handle that information consistently and properly.
Looking to see if any statutory guidance could be provided, we had a meeting that was very productive, on the face of it, with the then schools Minister, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), and officials in January 2022. We were grateful for that meeting, which was still online because of lockdown restrictions. When we discussed this idea, the Minister and officials were receptive to it, but we have had little follow-up since. Of course, there have been rather a lot of Ministers since then, which has not helped the situation. One reason I want to raise this issue today is that we cannot forget this matter. Obviously, it matters to Lorna Williams, although for her it is too late, but it also matters for the children following.
First, what we would like to see—what Lorna, particularly, would like to see—is clarity on what information schools hold and, as I have said, ensure that it is very accessible. We are also considering whether it is possible to have wristbands or some other clear identifier—where a parent and child agree it, of course, as there are privacy issues; not every child or parent might want that. Where that is accepted by the parent and child, such a measure would allow the school to see, if a child falls over in the playground or has an incident, instantly whether there is a particular need to action a very quick process to call an ambulance, if appropriate, or the relevant authorities.
Nothing can bring Rasharn back, but what Lorna Williams needs is a clear hearing from Government. I ask this for her today. We have had that first conversation, but I look to the Minister today to raise this with the Department for Education to see what we can do. We are not after masses of extra bureaucracy for schools, because we know that would be counterproductive; however, we need to see what can be done better and done more consistently so that other children and parents do not go through this situation.
I have a second issue to raise, Mr Vickers—it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, too. I have seen off one Chairman already. This issue, again, is a personal matter for a constituent of mine who worked in the Secret Intelligence Service—the SIS—from 1975 until 1984 with a record of high performance and positive feedback from his superiors. He has since seen his own personnel records, and I have seen notes from those records. In 1984, he was offered a fantastic opportunity to serve at a station abroad. While discussing that opportunity with his personnel officer, my constituent disclosed that he was gay. Very shortly afterwards, his employment was terminated, and it was expressly explained that his sexual orientation was the reason for his dismissal. That dismissal, as we all now know, was an injustice, but it was within the rules of the SIS at the time.
I have seen correspondence between my constituent and various officials, and I have also raised this through the system. I think there is genuine embarrassment now about the calumny that was visited upon my constituent and others. To be sacked from one’s job simply because of one’s sexual orientation is unacceptable.
There have been a number of consequences for my constituent. He had what looked like a potentially glittering career, because he was a very good civil servant and was very good at his job. That ended, so he has not had the opportunity to progress in something that he absolutely loved doing. Crucially, he has also been denied the right to continue to build up his pension.
As recently as 2019, the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service apologised for the historical treatment of LGBT+ people in the secret services. He has said clearly—I hope we all agree with this—that the security bar on LGBT staff until 1991 had been “wrong, unjust and discriminatory”. An independent review is currently under way to examine the effects that the pre-2000 ban on homosexuality in the UK armed forces has had on LGBTQ+ veterans, so there is precedent for looking at what the impact has been on people who, through no fault of their own, were sacked or had to hide their sexuality and be something that they were not at work.
The Government have accepted that the historical policy of banning homosexuality in the armed forces and the secret services was wrong, but they are not reviewing the situation in the secret services, so I believe that the review on the armed forces should be widened to include civil servants who have been affected by the Government’s treatment of LGBTQ+ staff in the past, such as my constituent. If that is not possible because it has gone too far down the line—although there are so many similarities that it would make sense logically and financially, and for expediency, to include such people in the same review—I would call for a similar independent review on the non-military civil servants affected in this way. I imagine that it is a relatively small number. It has been difficult to get information on this issue, because a lot of people would not have declared their sexuality in the first place. They may not even have joined the service in the first place. This issue matters massively, but I do not believe that a large number of civil servants will have lost their pension rights as a result.
The Government need to right this wrong by addressing the issue across the board. Tackling it on a piecemeal basis will be a lengthy process for the Government and those involved, and unjust for those who have missed out, and we need a standard approach and recognition across Government that the calumny of the past is righted. I hope that the Minister can secure me a meeting with the relevant Minister to see whether we can make progress. I could forgo the meeting if the Government write back and say they will agree to address the issue, but I might accept a meeting in the interim.
My next issue causes misery for many of my constituents: delays to lift repairs. I sense recognition from around the Chamber. There are often issues with obtaining key electrical parts for lifts, because they are in short supply and difficult to obtain, and there are problems with the supply chain. But having looked into this because I was so concerned—whichever landlord I am dealing with, there are problems with lifts—I have discovered a bigger issue. I should just highlight the impact on people. I have a constituent who lives on the seventh floor of a tower block. One day, he went out to visit a friend when one lift was out of operation. When he came back three hours later, the second lift was out of operation. He had to walk up seven flights of stairs with his oxygen, so this issue is having an absolutely huge impact on people’s lives. If a lift is not working and someone lives high up, they are effectively trapped in their home and cannot go out.
I have raised this problem with a number of landlords, and I have picked up that four main lift providers dominate the lift market in the UK: Otis, Schindler, KONE and ThyssenKrupp, also known as TK Elevator. The lift providers want the landlords and developers who buy the lifts to take out maintenance contracts with them, which sounds a bit like a cartel. Independent contractors, who may be more on the spot in Hackney, Harrow, Newport, Reading or Congleton, have issues accessing technical information to maintain the provider’s lifts, and the providers often say that they will nullify the insurance policy on a lift if any other contractor gets stuck in and tries to resolve the problem.
Instead of the closed protocol system, I would like to see an open protocol system that offers customers, landlords and developers a greater deal of flexibility, as they could choose from a variety of suppliers. They could also choose from a range of engineers. Virtually any trained engineer can do these repairs, which will ensure that they choose whoever offers the most value for money or expertise. Crucially, it would open up the market. The Government would want to see that to ensure we can create jobs in this area.
The closed protocol that the four main providers insist on is much more insular. Customers can only install components from the same company that provided the overall system due to compatibility issues. That can often be very expensive for the customer as there is a lack of market competition to help drive down costs. It needs to be resolved. I was surprised when I started looking into it; I thought it was going to be about other issues. There was another issue about the availability of semiconductors. However, the main issue is that we should ensure more competition in the market, and that there is not this closed approach. That would make a difference.
Finally, I turn to an issue that I raise, sadly, very often at such debates and in the House: housing in my constituency. I have more private renters than homeowners, and around 50% of residents in my constituency are social housing tenants. There is talk about the renters reform Bill coming through. In that Bill, I want to see greater rights for tenants. We are hearing some good noises from the Government, but then we keep hearing some backtracking here and there. Maybe the Minister can even give us some answers today, as we keep being told that legislation is imminent. We need to see longer-term tenancies—homes that people can raise their families in. They should not be worrying every year that the rent will go up so much it will become unaffordable for them to stay there, or that they will be evicted.
We need certainty over rent levels. I favour a rent escalator model. Just as we know that social housing rent will go up by the consumer prices index or the retail price index plus 1%, we could at least have a similar model for private rented housing, which would give certainty to both sides of the equation. We also see some properties in very poor repair. According to work done by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office, 13% of private rented properties nationally in England are posing an actual risk. There is a quality issue. In fact, there is just a crisis in the private rented market generally.
Overall, we need a much bigger housebuilding programme and more social housing. We need social housing in Hackney in particular because private rents are so high that they are unaffordable. If someone gets a job they suddenly cannot afford the rent, and the cap on housing benefit means that they cannot pay rent on any family-sized home within my constituency.
The number of households in temporary accommodation in Hackney is over 3,100. Over half of those are sadly housed outside the borough due to a lack of supply. I am not talking about a lack of supply of housing overall; that is just a lack of supply of temporary housing, often including hostel spaces. That equates to 3,528 children in temporary accommodation—enough to fill eight primary schools and equivalent to 1% of Hackney’s total population.
The number of households seeking support for homelessness has risen by 44% from 2017 to the end of the last financial year. Hackney Council anticipates that the number of approaches will continue to increase at around 8% a year. That is unsustainable. We need to see properly affordable housing. With a decent home over their head, someone can get a job. They can study. Their mental health improves. It is the key to solving many of society’s crises. It is the key to families establishing themselves and being able to live their lives as they choose. It gives them freedom and independence.
I want to touch on rent figures in Hackney. The average two-bed rent for a private sector property is around £2,000 a month, but there are currently fewer private rented properties available due to many issues, which I will not go into today. I will touch on overcrowding in a moment, but the average waiting time for council and housing association housing for homeless households is three years for a one-bedroom property, 12 years for a two-bedroom property, nine years for a three-bedroom property, 13 for a four-bedroom property and a notional 39 years for a five-bedroom property. That is notional because by the time a person gets to 39 years, those are nonsense figures.
It is unbelievable that people have got no hope. I have visited families week in, week out on doorsteps, meeting people where they live. I recently met a woman who was living high up in a block with four little girls in two bedrooms, one living area and a tiny kitchen. One child slept with the parents and the three other girls shared bunk beds in one room. Similarly, I have seen adult children in that situation, where three adult children are sharing a room and the parents live in the living room. We have many households where one family live in the living room and another in the bedroom, and we have families staying with someone from their church because that is the only place they can get accommodation. Even if they had recourse to public funds, which can be an issue for some people, that is not the barrier; the barrier is the lack of quality, affordable social housing.
I give credit to the Mayor of Hackney, Phil Glanville, for his work in trying to resolve this issue. He is planning to build 1,000 council homes, with 350 near the De Beauvoir estate that are part way through the process. That is great, but it is a drop in the ocean. Because of a lack of Government funding for social housing, one has to be built for sale to provide one for social rent.
We talk about affordability. There are about five or six categories of affordable housing, but let me be clear what I mean by affordable: it needs to be affordable for someone on a reasonable wage to pay. We have people who are working and who can barely afford to pay their council rent, let alone ever being able to afford to rent privately. This gives them no choice and locks them in overcrowded conditions. It is bad for their mental health, it can impact on their ability to work and it has a huge impact on their children. Children grow up in such situations until they are in their 20s, and then they cannot move anywhere—imagine growing up like that.
This is the crisis of a generation. This is the Government that delivered home ownership to the masses through right to buy, which I will not go into today. The Government have totally failed on housing provision for people, whether they are private renters, those who rent socially or many others who are locked out of the home ownership market. On every level, the Government have not acted. I hope the Minister can give us some hope from the legislation that is coming through, as well as some insight into the discussions between the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Treasury over his ambition, as we have read, to provide more social housing and the Treasury’s ambition to trim his spending. It would be helpful to have some sense from the Government as to the direction of travel. It is little comfort for my constituents who are trapped in housing, but we need to ensure the next generation get the homes they deserve.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I would like to speak to just one concern today, and that will probably come as a great relief to the Minister. I want to speak at some length, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so. It relates to my role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief—a role I hugely enjoy and count as a great privilege, having the potential to make a real difference to some of the most oppressed and vulnerable people on earth.
My mandate from the Prime Minister refers to three strands of work, and I want to raise my concern regarding progress on one of them, which is my duty to support the implementation of the Truro review. The review was initiated in 2019 by my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) when he was Foreign Secretary to improve support within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for persecuted Christians and, by extension, all who are persecuted across the world, of whatever faith or belief.
I will touch on the other two strands of my role. They are to work on
“how the UK government can protect and promote this fundamental freedom internationally”
and to work with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, as I do. This growing alliance of countries is appointing ambassadors or envoys like myself—I am working on hopefully being promoted to ambassador, but for the moment I am content to be an envoy. There are 42 countries that have committed to promoting and protecting this freedom around the world, championing its good use and calling out its abuses. Both the number of countries and the substance of our work is growing. It is my privilege to have been elected chair in 2022 and re-elected for 2023.
On another occasion, I would like to talk much more about our work, but I will briefly touch on it before I move on to my main concern about progress on the Truro review. The FORB special envoy team is myself, the Prime Minister’s deputy special envoy, David Burrowes —the only deputy special envoy there is—my parliamentary aide Chloe Black and my private secretary from the FCDO, Sue Breeze. We work together, and I commend the tremendous dedication of my colleagues in the special envoy team to this work. I am greatly encouraged by the progress we have made over the last two-plus years, since my appointment and that of David Burrowes, to ensure that the UK continues to be seen as a leader across the world in addressing freedom of religion or belief. As a special envoy team, we are working with others across civil society—non-governmental organisations, academics and my counterpart envoys and ambassadors from the alliance countries—because we all recognise that nothing is achieved alone in this challenging sphere.
We have developed a number of areas of action since the London ministerial conference last July. Time sadly precludes my going into the detail of those areas of action, but I will list them. We are developing education materials on FORB for the very youngest children. That is being piloted in four schools in this country, including one in my constituency.
We are inspiring the next generation of FORB ambassadors by planning for a global virtual conference this autumn, which will involve 1,000 young people joining virtually from around the world—including those in countries such as Myanmar and Pakistan, where they are experiencing real-life persecution—who will be able to share their experiences with other young people. Hopefully, we will galvanise young people from around the world to speak out, particularly using the social media tools they have so effectively used in challenging issues regarding climate change.
We are championing individual prisoners of conscience, such as young Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, who is 19 and in Nigeria. He is actually a little older than 19 now, but at 19 he was arrested on a charge of blasphemy, because one of his friends shared some music he had written. He was taken to court without any legal representation and he has been sentenced to death by hanging. We are supporting his appeal to the Supreme Court. We are building an international network of FORB roundtables, including a particularly strong one in central and eastern Europe around the countries where Putin is attacking Ukraine. Those countries that suffered under communism and know what it is not to have freedom of religion or belief are very exercised about this issue right now.
We are networking human rights defenders, engaging the media on FORB, working with lawyers on legislative reform and protecting religious and cultural heritage. I have recently written to every one of our UK diplomatic posts across the world, and I am greatly encouraged by the responses I have had to date showing that they are increasingly aware of the importance of freedom of religion or belief in their missions.
All of that is good news, but I will return to the main purpose of my speech. My concern is that while so much progress is being made internationally, and with the UK playing a leading role, the same sadly cannot be said for progress on implementing the Truro review in the FCDO. Indeed, work on the Truro review, which is a manifesto commitment, appears to be stalling.
Five written parliamentary questions were recently raised by one of our senior parliamentary colleagues, my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). Those questions specifically requested progress on recommendations 4, 5, 6, 12 and 17 in the Truro review. Disappointingly, all five questions received the same answer—a generic reply that did not address the specific questions or recommendations raised at all. I know that concerns about the need for further progress on Truro are shared by other parliamentary colleagues and by the Bishop of Truro himself, who remains actively and admirably engaged on this issue—in fact, he has just returned from several days in Greece, where he has been speaking about the issue.
One year ago, an independent assessment was undertaken of progress on the Truro review. It was a three-year assessment, required by the Truro review under recommendation 22, to measure progress. It was conducted by three world-renowned FORB experts, including the then UN special rapporteur on FORB and the current UN special rapporteur on FORB—one cannot get much more expert than that. Their detailed expert assessment clearly indicated that there was, and is, still much to do to implement Truro and honour our manifesto commitment.
That detailed assessment contained many constructive suggestions for progress and best practice. When it was published, I pressed for those to be acted on, particularly the experts’ recommendation for a comprehensive operational action plan on FORB in the FCDO—that is not the same thing as a FORB strategy. I pressed for the need for better co-ordinated work on the part of those in the FCDO working on FORB; for greater engagement at a more senior level in the FCDO; and for the implementation of appropriate working groups, including jointly with other Government Departments where FORB matters.
The then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), in a written ministerial statement published at the time of the ministerial conference on FORB in July 2022, accepted the expert assessment and its conclusions in full, stating:
“We welcome and accept this expert review on progress and in line with the findings, accept their assessment for the need to continue to work to promote and strengthen Freedom of Religion or Belief as a fundamental human right for all…we will continue to ensure that the changes we have made are embedded and to look for opportunities to make FoRB central to the FCDO’s wider human rights work.”
At the time of the very successful FORB ministerial conference in July 2022, to which 88 countries sent official delegates, expectations were raised internationally and domestically about the UK championing FORB and fully implementing the Truro review. In September 2022, I raised a question in the House about progress on Truro and the adoption of the experts’ recommendations in their three-year assessment. My hope was to politely nudge people about the fact that the work needed to continue and, indeed, to be more focused. I again raised my concerns more explicitly and in more detail in a debate in this room in November when I said, among other points:
“The Truro review is a manifesto commitment and there are still outstanding elements to be fulfilled. I hope that the Minister will concur with me—indeed, it is in accordance with the Prime Minister’s determination to address outstanding manifesto commitments—that work on the Truro review should be completed. It is about promoting not just freedom of religion for Christians, but freedom of religion or belief for all.”
I went on to say that it was “well over six months” since that expert assessment was completed,
“and action on the comprehensive operational action plan needs to be taken forward. A lack of joined-up working within the FCDO on FORB means that resources are not being used as efficiently as they could be, and that needs to change.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 369WH.]
I most recently raised a question on Truro’s progress earlier this month. Sadly, none of my interventions to date appear to have initiated an appropriate degree of action, hence my need to be more forthright today. To quote one my colleagues:
“We cannot simply shuffle Truro off half-done.”
The Truro review was considered a landmark document when it was published in 2019, and it made an international impact. I know from my travels in my role across many countries that it continues to be hugely respected. At the same time, many across the world are watching to see how it is implemented. We must continue to work on it. If we do not, we will not only be perceived by others to be going backwards in an area on which we have led internationally to date, but we will actually slip backwards. There are best practice suggestions in Truro to ensure we keep our feet to the fire; it is an ongoing piece of work.
It was, as Ministers know, a great disappointment to me that freedom of religion or belief was omitted from the recent integrated review refresh. Yes, I understand that that document was meant to be an evolution from the 2021 integrated review and that Ministers did not want to make it too long, but it is actually only half the length of the 2021 document and, however we nuance it, the omission of FORB has sent out a signal. Renewed energy in the implementation of Truro would help to address that.
I have one specific suggestion to make to Ministers for immediate action, please. This relates to recommendation 6 of the Truro review, which recommended that the role of special envoy on FORB be established permanently. The expert assessment of that in the review three years later noted that
“‘no substantial action has been taken, to date’ with respect to delivering this”.
If we are to ensure that the role I hold is not at the discretion of an individual Prime Minister—although it has been my great privilege to serve under three Prime Ministers—but is embedded in statute and continues under successive Governments, a short Bill is required in this Parliament. That would send out a clear public statement internationally about our continuing commitment to FORB and, indeed, to the implementation of the Truro review. Will Ministers work with me to ensure that? I am optimistic about such a Bill being passed, and hopefully with the support of all parties, given the substantial cross-party support in this House for freedom of religion or belief—something that I now know is unique across the world and that we should rightly be proud of.
In addition to work on recommendation 6, there is much outstanding work on the other Truro recommendations. I hope that Ministers will similarly support me to ensure that that happens. I should mention that in expressing these concerns about the implementation of Truro, I am not in any way disparaging Ministers’ commitment to FORB. I know that every Prime Minister under whom I have served in this role, every Foreign Secretary and all other FCDO Ministers are absolutely committed not only to the UK’s wider FORB work, but to the Truro review in particular. That includes Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister with responsibility for human rights, whom I work alongside and who is personally seized of the importance of this issue. I look forward to continuing to work with them and to ensuring that our manifesto commitment, which states that we
“will seek to protect those persecuted for their faith and implement the Truro Review recommendations”,
is honoured and fulfilled in full.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. May I start by commending the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for her work in championing the rights of people who face persecution—both Christians and others around the world—and by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), who is campaigning on a number of important fronts? Not only do I wholeheartedly support that, but many of my own residents face the same enormous difficulties with the high cost of housing in London and the south-east, and people face enormous overcrowding in Reading town centre.
I want to take this opportunity to champion a very important local campaign in Reading and Berkshire. I have been pursuing this for some time and have had enormous support from the right hon. Member for Reading West (Sir Alok Sharma), Reading Borough Council and many local groups in our community. It is the campaign to save Reading gaol and to turn the famous Victorian gaol into an arts and heritage hub, so that we may celebrate the heritage of Oscar Wilde and the other important national and local heritage that is part of the gaol and the surrounding site, for the good of the community, to celebrate diversity and to support the LGBT community and the arts across Berkshire and the wider UK.
I want to update the House briefly on where I am with the campaign, but also to point out some of its important features and urge the Government to support the local bid for an arts-based solution for the building—it is currently mothballed—rather than the commercial redevelopment favoured by the Ministry of Justice, which would like the Victorian building to be turned into a hotel or possibly into luxury flats. As anybody who has been through our area recently will have seen if they travelled on the train, or as colleagues from Wales who travel on the motorway may have seen, Berkshire is dominated by a large amount of urban development. Many flats are being built, but we do not have a major hub for our wonderful arts community to perform in and put on stage productions. We have some centres, but they are dispersed around the town and the area. Similarly sized cities and towns in the south-east of England, such as Brighton, Oxford and Southampton, have large arts organisations based in purpose-built theatres, and much bigger centres than the ones we have in Reading, although we are the second largest urban area in the south-east of England after the Greater Brighton area.
I turn to the history of this important site. Reading gaol was the county jail for Berkshire. It was built on the site of Reading abbey, a major medieval building that was one of the largest abbeys in England in medieval times. It was founded by King Henry I and was a centre of pilgrimage throughout the middle ages. Indeed, Henry I is believed to be buried there. Rather like Leicester, Worcester and a number of other medieval towns and cities—I am sure this applies to Scotland and Wales too—we have a monarch buried in our town centre.
The gaol was designed by the architect who designed Pentonville and St Pancras station. It is a masterpiece of Victorian gothic architecture. Anyone who walks past it or goes in will see scenes that remind them of “Porridge”, if, like me, they are a fan of it—younger Members may have dabbled in UK Gold and seen it fleetingly. Reading gaol has all the echoes of a Victorian building; people can walk through it and feel that presence. It is rather grim in some ways, but it is historic and very important.
The gaol was opened briefly in 2014, and was used for art installations. An amazing arts organisation called Artangel used each individual cell to house installation art. It also put on performances in the prison chapel, and it had a number of other activities. It was incredibly powerful. I walked along one of the metal landings, which are reminiscent of “Porridge”, behind a very famous BBC arts presenter—I will not name him—and it was quite wonderful to hear what he said. As I said, we suffer from a lack of institutions to support our amazing local art scheme. He was on his phone to his friends back in London, and he said something along the lines of, “I’m in Reading, in the gaol, and it’s actually really rather interesting.”
Like many towns and cities around the country, we suffer from a lack of support from the national arts establishment. It would be wonderful to see that sort of provision permanently in our town. It could be a venue for local young people, community groups and charities. We have had a lot of interest from the local LGBT community, which wants to use part of the building as a hub for its activities, and other historical and community groups would like to take part in the same way.
The tragedy is that although Reading Borough Council has put in a bid for the wonderful building—we have also had an offer of help from Banksy, who put a mural on the wall of the gaol about 18 months ago, to enormous excitement, and there is the possibility of other support from philanthropists—unfortunately we do not have the go-ahead from the MOJ to start negotiating. It is instead working with a preferred bidder, which is sadly a commercial developer. The site has had a history of somewhat disappointing commercial bids constructed around the idea of gutting the old building or changing it dramatically, so we would sadly lose the history.
At the moment, people can walk into Oscar Wilde’s cell and spend a moment there thinking about how he was treated, and about his amazing writing and his ability to turn what happened to him into incredibly powerful prose and poetry. If the gaol were changed dramatically, we would sadly lose that. That would be an utter tragedy not only for Reading but for people from across the world, who visit his house in Dublin and the cemetery in which he is buried in Paris. Sadly, a great piece of artistic heritage would be lost, and that would be a shame. It would be deeply disappointing for us and the country as a whole. I urge the MOJ to have another look and to reconsider how it manages procurement.
We have had a number of meetings, most recently towards the end of last week when the deputy leader of Reading Borough Council talked to the MOJ about this important issue, but it is still refusing to budge. We would like the MOJ to think about it deeply. We understand that under the Government procurement rules, a Department has to receive best value for selling off buildings and land. However, is it not possible to think about the wider context? We are not expecting any special favours; the MOJ just needs to look at it in the round and to see the possibility for this amazing building. We are hopeful that we will be able to offer a suitable sum to pay for the level of capital receipt needed for the site.
I urge the MOJ to think again and to work with Reading Borough Council, me, the right hon. Member for Reading West, and local arts and community groups to redevelop this wonderful site. The MOJ has spent a long time thinking about it, and the building was mothballed back in 2013, so in many ways it is high time for another look—indeed, it is somewhat overdue. In a meeting with the MOJ, the right hon. Member for Reading West made the point that if we consider the upkeep of the gaol during that time, a lot of money has sadly been lost to the public purse, because of how the MOJ mothballed it and has not been willing to engage in a more thoughtful discussion about its reuse.
As I am sure the Minister is only too aware, it is also Government policy to reuse historical buildings, and in a creative way. Other Departments, such as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, are fully behind such an approach to heritage buildings, so I hope that, given the wider thrust of Government policy, it will be more than possible for the MOJ to look at this and to reconsider how the project is being discussed.
I will briefly mention one or two other community issues; they are also on heritage, given that I already spoke about social work in our community in the previous debate. I want to point out the potential as community buildings of some other, currently derelict sites in the Reading area, Cemetery Arch in particular. It is an amazing early Victorian building in the eastern part of our town that has the scope to be redeveloped and turned into something for the whole community. Proposals are being looked at the moment, and I thank residents and others who completed my survey.
We also have the exciting opportunity of the former BBC listening post. The hon. Member for Congleton might well be familiar with its work, because she is so abreast of foreign policy. Caversham Park was the site of BBC Monitoring. News of many recent historical events that happened in remote parts of the world was first broken from there, including—I know she is interested in Iranian society and history—the Islamic revolution in 1979. The very first reports of it were translated by Persian-speaking staff at the BBC.
The Caversham Park site has been empty for some time. Similar to the gaol, there is enormous potential for it to be redeveloped. Thankfully, there is a very sympathetic developer, Beechcroft Developments, which wants to use the old building as a piece of sheltered accommodation, together with flats for people who can look after themselves and are somewhat older. I support its efforts and those of Reading council to preserve the building, reuse it and turn it into something useful, with community access to the amazing parkland near the site.
My final local example on a similar theme is in Woodley, the other town in my constituency. Woodley was famous as the airfield where Douglas Bader was injured before world war two. It also featured in the war as an important site for manufacturing aircraft and for training of personnel. There is some scope for reusing some of the airfield buildings on the site and I thank the local volunteers taking part in that project.
I have talked a lot about local history in our area. To sum up, I point out the importance of community. I have been talking about one aspect of that. We are all are discussing different aspects of our local communities and the importance of them in our lives and our work. I thank you, Mr Vickers, for the opportunity to speak today. I could talk about many other things in my community, but I am sure other Members would prefer that I did not. This has been a wonderful opportunity to talk about one aspect of life in Reading and Woodley, and I thank others for their contributions, which have been many and varied. I look forward to enjoying a happy Easter, and I wish a very happy Easter to all Members present.
I have learned since coming into Parliament that there are many pleasant surprises in this place—indeed, your becoming the Chair during this debate, Mr Vickers, is one—and it is another pleasant surprise to see the Deputy Chief Whip, the Treasurer of His Majesty’s Household, my right hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), here in Westminster Hall to respond to us. I am much more accustomed to seeing him sitting next to me as we fight for the A5 to be improved between Tamworth and Hinckley, in my patch.
Today, I will talk about my surprise at the constant phone calls I have received about the use of TikTok. There is no more timely or pleasant a surprise than to have at least an hour in which to talk about the ins and outs of TikTok. I come at the subject as someone without any technical expertise in digital programming, but with a curiosity and an appetite to keep up with the times and to try to hold on to my youth by picking up these tools. When Facebook first came out in the UK, I was on it, starting in 2004. I try to use these kinds of tools to find out a little bit more about them, which I find interesting.
With so much going on with TikTok, the likes of social media and, of course, artificial intelligence, we as a society are left in a very interesting place as to how we should deal with these things. I am privileged enough to be able to ask questions of the people who matter and to try to come up with some ideas about how we can deal with such issues. Over the next hour—well, probably the next five minutes—I will talk a little bit about my background, including how I became interested in this area, what I see at the moment and the way I see things going in the future.
I came into this area through my work on body image. Many Members will know that I campaign about social media and the warped sense that we create around the body, particularly body proportions—simply, scaling up biceps, slimming down waists, making breasts larger—in our pursuit of what we as a society deem beautiful. This also has an impact on mental health. More recently, my work has led me to consider the use of steroids. We know that there are between 500,000 and 1 million people in the UK using steroids, mainly to try to fit an aspiration of what they want to look like. Such issues lead to huge problems societally, from people simply feeling bullied or not good enough, which leads to anxiety, depression and—in the worst cases—to suicide, eating disorders, and heart attacks and strokes if they are addicted to steroids.
Social media has a lot to answer for. I knew nothing about TikTok when I came into Parliament. I did not meet TikTok representatives until, after I had met Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, they offered to meet me during the pandemic. I thought that I needed to know a little bit more about what TikTok was, because, like many people, I assumed that it was just people—particularly young women—dancing and talking. How wrong could I have been?
TikTok is an incredible community, because it is so varied and diverse. It is no wonder that at least 16 million people in the UK use it and that it is still growing very fast. The reason for that is the ability to seek knowledge and to learn very, very quickly on such a user-friendly platform. It is engaging, exciting and really easy to use. That is where I saw an opportunity, from my side, to try to explain the role of Parliament. What do we do on a daily basis? How is legislation introduced? Why do we only shake each other’s hand once? Why do we turn round in Prayers? What even are Prayers? How do we form an opinion? What does a Committee look like? How does a piece of legislation go through? What does a parliamentary private secretary do? I have shared videos on all those subjects. There is even the question of how we decide where we sit, when we sit and what that looks like. There is a huge amount of public fascination out there with how we deal with and what we do in our niche, which is politics.
To give Members an idea of how powerful TikTok is, a simple video about how people sit in Parliament and where the Speaker is was seen by 750,000 people. However, it goes even further than that. During the tributes to the Queen, I was the 274th speaker out of the 283 speakers on the day, sitting there for 10 hours, explaining that and reading a poem that had gone viral on social media. My video about all that has been seen by 1.9 million people. That is the power of this app.
TikTok is so user-friendly is because it is easy to interact, to duet or to stitch—that is, people can made videos straight away with someone else when they are both looking at TikTok. That is the beauty of it, but, of course, that in itself is part of the problem.
Where does that leave us now? In the last few weeks, I have seen a lot of concern and caution, and hype and hysteria. That came out particularly in the congressional hearing in America. I have not watched all four or five hours of the CEO taking questions, but having spent three years on a Select Committee, I have some understanding of how those questions are formulated, the briefings and what people are trying to elicit. What struck me was that lack of understanding from some on the panel and the lack of clarity from the tech companies that were answering the questions.
What do I mean by that? For hon. Members who have never used these apps, some of the questions might seem quite silly, but they have a serious undertone. It is important to ask how the apps connect to the wi-fi, but a child would know that apps need to connect to the wi-fi. The question underneath that needs to be: once it is connected to the wi-fi, what else can it connect to?
One of the questioners asked about following pupils and using facial recognition. The CEO is completely right to say that they need that to map pupils to know where the sunglasses go. Anyone who has played with the app, particularly the “bold glamour” filter, which has gone viral, will know that it is incredibly powerful in changing one’s shape and the way one looks in a very subtle way. Naturally, the technology needs to be able to pick up those facial points to be able to do that, so the CEO was correct to say that the app follows the user’s face. The question is, what happens with that data? When is it being done, and when else is the company using it? Those questions were not answered in that hearing. In my private meetings, I cannot get answers to those kinds of questions. There lies the concern. This is not just aimed at TikTok; it relates to Instagram and Snapchat—all the platforms have a similar problem. When we flick on and load up an app, it asks for permission to use the microphone or camera, and we have to do that to interact with the app, but to what end, how far and what does that mean? That is the crux.
I will bypass the issue of where the data goes and TikTok being owned by ByteDance—frankly, even as a politician, I do not know whether the Chinese Communist party has access to that data. After listening to the hearing, I am not sure that anyone else is quite sure either. Those are some of the obscurities in the debate. We need to think much more about what we need to know, what can be done with this technology and, more importantly, what is being done with it. The realms of possibility and probability are very different.
That comes down to managing risk. The public and, indeed, politicians have a particularly poor grasp of the difference between absolute and relative risk. As a GP, I spent a lot of my time dealing with this issue. If I told someone that the risk of taking the contraceptive pill had gone up twofold, they would panic, but if I told them that it had gone up from one in 20,000 to two in 20,000, that is not as scary. We need to know the absolute and relative risks of using this data, and for whom.
It is right for the Government to ban an app on Government devices if the risk is high, given the fact that the Prime Minister is probably a high-value target, but does that apply to a teenager who is watching educational videos? We simply do not know, and that is the problem for someone sitting in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and trying to find the answers to such questions. By shining a light on this issue and having this debate, I hope that we can get some transparency on what is going on with our data, what it looks like and what the capabilities are.
That leads me on to where we should be going in the future. We are at the forefront of the AI technology revolution. In this debate at Christmas, I delivered the first speech written by OpenAI with ChatGPT. We are already on the fourth iteration of ChatGPT. For hon. Members who do not know what that means, it is quite literally able to design an app by looking at something written on a napkin. It will deliver speeches. It will write copy. Many MPs may well be using it to answer hundreds of items of correspondence and give their opinions, because it can source data from across the internet, condense it all and use it in a practicable way. It is fundamentally changing the way in which we as society use this data.
Some Members may have seen that Elon Musk has put out a letter saying that we should pause AI development for six months because of the dangers of AI. Now, I think that is probably an exaggeration, but he makes a point for this House to consider: we need to think very hard and very quickly about how we can ensure that AI development is done safely, but in a way that does not stifle innovation and investment or stop the UK being one of the world leaders in this field.
I am pleased to see the Government bringing forward Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill and their AI White Paper. Fundamentally, underneath this whole issue are two parts: data and algorithms. The sheer scale of the data we can draw on means that inherent biases are built in and no one can give an answer as to why an algorithm has made its decision. With some probability, they will be able to say it is likely to have made a decision, but if it is scouring the entirety of the Department for Work and Pensions’ records across the Department’s existence to decide the right amount of support someone should receive without rigorous human oversight, we are going to be in real trouble. Imagine that happening with passport applications or applications to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and even into the financial world and back into social media.
This is all happening at pace right in front of our eyes. We, as the public and as legislators, need to better understand what data we have, who it is about and who it is for, why we are using it and how long we are going to allow people to do that. While that will start to help with transparency, for the algorithms themselves we need much more accountability regarding who uses them and how they are used. When I put this to the likes of TikTok, Facebook or anyone else in the click-based economy, I am simply told, “It’s commercially sensitive,” or, “We have a team. It’s very complicated and difficult over here.” That simply is not good enough, because either maliciously or by accident people are being sent huge amounts of content and we rely more and more on algorithms.
To my mind, as a simple person who has stepped into this with no expertise but with the privilege of having the opportunity to ask questions to those who lead and think in this field, there is space for a regulator of algorithms to link the issue to data—not in every single Department or looking into every single niche, but to try to bring this all together. There is a danger that if we outsource this issue to the finance world, or have specific ones for social media or health, they may diverge. We need the specialisms in how this works, but we also need to work in a similar fashion to the way the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency dealt with the vaccines: we must regulate as we move forward at the pace of industry. If we can do that now that we have the Brexit benefits of being free to set our own regulation, we have a real opportunity to set the course for the rest of the world on this area.
To come full circle, I will follow the Government guidance and keep using TikTok. We must think very carefully about how we should secure and use our data, but, of course, as that advice changes as we learn more, we should all take that on board. We should all think very carefully about what we are doing and make those changes accordingly.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as there will be a number of topics where that will be relevant.
First of all, I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for opening the debate and doing his best impersonation of Sir David Amess, who was a great man. He was always one of the highlights of these Adjournment debates, as he often managed to go through 47 issues in his allotted time, which meant 47 press releases during the recess in the Southend newspapers. I even found myself in those newspapers through one of my exchanges with Sir David, which is probably one of the pinnacles of my parliamentary career so far.
I thank everyone else who has contributed. A couple of issues have leapt out for me. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) reminds us that there are still injustices that affect the LGBTQ community, and I thank her for raising those issues. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) continues to raise issues of persecution and religion. I really enjoyed the excellent speech from the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) on the history of Oscar Wilde in gaol and all of that.
The hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) talked about body image. I regularly attend secondary school citizenship events, where school pupils present issues of concern to elected Members, and body image comes up on every single occasion. There is always a group of young girls who have an art project and want something to be done about issues to do with body image. It is very encouraging that young women are doing that.
The thread running through many of our debates over the last few weeks is that, frankly, the cost of living crisis is still biting. It is still affecting far too many in society, and the economy is struggling. The Resolution Foundation recently published a report that shows that after 15 years of stagnation and austerity, workers are £11,000 a year worse off than in our European neighbours. That is a staggering statistic—one that all of us should contemplate in our recess. I should say at this moment to those watching that it is a recess, not a holiday; there is a big difference between the two. Ipsos MORI polling of 6,000 adults suggested that two thirds think the UK economy is going to get worse in the year ahead; it also found that one in four are struggling on their current income, and nearly half are worried about their financial situation.
I have always believed that, as an elected representative, I have a duty and a responsibility to try to tackle some of these issues. That is why I work with Feeding Britain and Good Food Scotland. We have now opened three larders, and will be opening a mobile larder, in Glasgow South West: we have one in the Linthouse area, one in the Cardonald area, and we have the Threehills larder, which in June will become Scotland’s first community supermarket. This work is about giving people the opportunity to buy food at cost and helping them to make their money stretch a bit more, as well as providing wraparound services, so that people can get help on related issues. For example, there are staggering statistics that show that many of our constituents across these islands are not claiming pension credit. We all have a responsibility to deal with these issues. I encourage the Government to keep pushing and to make sure that those who are entitled to support get it.
I am glad that the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, is listening to me, as this also leads me on to some of the other issues and hobby horses that I have been raising for a long time. Universal credit deductions are a nonsense. There is this nonsensical position where people are either told they have to wait five weeks for their first universal credit payment or they can get a loan after two weeks. It is a loan; Government Ministers keep telling me it is an advance, but when someone is given money and they are expected to pay it back, that meets the dictionary definition of a loan.
How we got into this situation, where far too many people who are struggling are paying back through deductions over a long period, really needs to be addressed. I encourage them to go through the report of the Work and Pensions Committee, which recommended that the starter payment should be paid within two weeks. I would be very interested—I anticipate an intervention from the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, for example—to know the costs of the whole administrative exercise of the deductions system.
The hon. Gentleman prompts me to raise a concern. What he highlights is something that we often raise on the Committee. There can be a Whitehall decision on what a policy looks like, but once it hits real people’s lives, the picture can be very different. He and I would probably agree that we need to see much more understanding of real people’s lives when policy is being made. Whitehall can seem very distant from our constituencies, and this is a case in point.
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words. It is the duty of every parliamentarian to speak truth to power and to highlight real-life experiences, because that is the only way we can make policy better.
That brings me to the issue of sanctions on those who are going through the social security system. We have seen a huge increase in the number of sanctions. How do we know that? We know from parliamentary questions that I tabled in November 2022, which gave statistics that showed that sanctions were ramping up incredibly.
The hon. Member raises a very important issue. The Public Accounts Committee has looked at sanctions, which do not do what Government Ministers often think they do. They are actually ineffective. There are other ways to encourage people into work, but sanctions are a blunt instrument that does not work.
I agree, and I think the Government should look at providing incentives rather than having a blunt instrument approach of harming people with sanctions.
It will not surprise those of us on the Opposition Benches that when I recently tabled a parliamentary question to get an update on the figure for sanctions, to see whether the numbers had increased again since November, I received a response that many Opposition Members will be familiar with. The Government said that they were no longer going to provide the figures, because to publish them would be at disproportionate cost—yes, our old friend “disproportionate cost”. That tells me that there is a huge increase in sanctions, so much so that they can only be published at disproportionate cost. What an absolute, complete and utter nonsense and outrage. I anticipate another intervention from the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
I point the hon. Gentleman to the National Audit Office, which has access to a lot of data that often the Government do not necessarily wish to put in the public domain. It has complete access rights. I am shocked that the Government will not release information on sanctions. It is actually a vital piece of management information that we should have.
Absolutely, and I hope that the Government will reconsider.
There is one last issue that I want to raise, because I am conscious of the time. As chair of the PCS Parliamentary Group, I hope that the Government will start to negotiate with their own workers and their own workers’ trade unions, particularly the PCS. The Government are alienating their own workforce. The same workers who were applauded as heroes during the pandemic now find themselves with an employer that is seeming to dig its heels in during the worst cost of living crisis in recent memory.
In the coming weeks, there is going to be strike action at the Passport Office, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, Ofgem, the British Museum, the British Library and the Government Digital Service, and further UK-wide action will take place at the end of April. I hope Ministers see that it is not a sustainable position when so many workers feel they have been so mistreated over pay, pensions and other issues that many—indeed, 130,000 civil servants—are having to take industrial action. I hope that the Government will put real and new money on the table to resolve those issues.
As the hon. Member for Harrow East reminded us, it is not just Easter coming up; other celebrations of other religions are going on, such as Passover and Eid. I hope that all hon. Members from across the House have a good recess and do the great work that we all try to do for our constituents.
I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for leading today’s debate. As always, we have discussed a great range of issues. It has been a really interesting debate, and I am certainly learning a lot. It is good to see the pre-recess Adjournment debate on tour here in Westminster Hall, although I hope that we get back into the main Chamber in the future.
I will start with a short apology to the pupils at Caldicot School. I was originally due to be with them this afternoon for their Easter musical “Back to the ’80s”, which was the decade in which I misspent my youth. I am sorry to miss it, and I send my good luck to them. To follow on that theme, I know that the Conservative party is often keen to turn the clock back to the 1980s, but I am proud to represent a party that looks to the future under the leadership of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). Whether it be making our streets safer, kickstarting a green industrial strategy with support for things such as steel, which is important in my constituency, or breaking down the barriers to opportunity at every stage and working for sustained growth in the G7, we have a confident vision for the modernisation of our economy and our public services to prepare Britain for the years ahead.
Speaking of looking ahead, I know many of us will be looking ahead to Easter, as will the congregations of the churches and chapels in my constituency of Newport East, who will be gathering to celebrate the most important time of the Christian calendar. I put on record my thanks to the Christian congregations across my constituency for all they do. In doing so, I praise the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for all her work as the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. In her contribution to the previous debate this afternoon, she raised some important cases. It was fascinating and valuable to hear about her work, and I hope that the Minister takes up the points raised in the Truro review.
Last weekend, I hosted a surgery at St Julian’s Methodist Church. It is one of several churches running warm hubs in my constituency, offering people the chance to stay warm. These kinds of initiatives run by volunteers typify the way our churches continue to offer people help and hope. They offer a helping hand during worrying times in a cost of living crisis, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said. We have a host of initiatives across our communities, with campaigns on behalf of vulnerable and persecuted people across the world, including the many persecuted Christians in Africa and Asia who will be unable to worship in freedom this Easter.
I will highlight one project before referring to other hon. Members’ speeches. The Sanctuary Project is based at Bethel Community Church in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones). She is not present today, but had she been she probably would have spoken in the previous debate. Sanctuary is another example of that kind of community work. Run by the brilliant Mark Seymour and Sarah Croft, it offers practical support, advocacy and friendships to refugees and asylum seekers in Newport. With the team last week, I met one of the Afghan interpreters who has settled in Newport—we have had a community for quite a while now. The interpreter outlined to me just how many brave interpreters who worked with the Ministry of Defence and have been accepted under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy are still waiting in UK-sourced accommodation in Pakistan, all these months on. They are awaiting entry clearance visas, which can be issued by only the Home Office. With no income or right to work in Pakistan, some are resorting to the treacherous small boats journeys that we have talked so much about to claim asylum in the UK, in the hope of having a quicker journey. The same is true of some former Afghan military personnel who were trained by and worked with the UK forces. It is in the UK’s moral and security interests to address this dire situation 18 months on.
Volunteers at the Sanctuary Project are dismayed by the Illegal Migration Bill. I also had lots of letters about it this week from year 5 pupils at Lliswerry Primary School in Newport, who are fundraising for the Sanctuary Project. It was disappointing that the Government voted down the amendments to the Bill this week, including the amendments on improving support for victims of modern slavery, removing the Home Secretary’s power to detain and remove unaccompanied children, and the creation of a new national crime agency unit to crack down on the smuggler gangs. I hope that the Government will think again in the Bill’s remaining stages.
The hon. Member for Harrow East mentioned response times. The end of term presents an opportunity for the Government to reflect on their responsiveness to communication from hon. Members—whether that be in the form of oral or written questions, or correspondence to Ministers in the hotlines that we and our staff use. I have raised the issue of responsiveness in previous Adjournment debates as shadow Deputy Leader. There has been some improvement in some Departments. Notably, the Department for Health and Social Care picked up in 2022 after a pretty dismal record in 2021.
However, we know that others are still lagging behind or not disclosing up-to-date information on how quickly they respond to inquiries and questions from MPs. The Home Office is one prominent example, but there are so many Departments, including the DWP, the MOJ and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that say they are committed to increasing response times—even that they are undertaking regular training with the parliamentary capability team—but will not provide up-to-date information on responsiveness to us. We are a few months too late for new year’s resolutions, but a commitment to greater Government transparency going forward would be most welcome.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West mentioned that away from the workings of Westminster, as I am sure we will all be aware, people up and down the country are still experiencing a very real cost of living crisis. He was quite right to quote and highlight the figure from the Resolution Foundation that people are £11,000 worse off since 2010.
It is always difficult to pull together the full range of contributions, but I will say to the hon. Member for Harrow East—as mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West—that he did indeed live up to the record of the late, great and wonderful Sir David Amess in this debate. He talked about the excellent facilities in Harrow and antisocial behaviour. That allows me the opportunity to say that building up really good neighbourhood policing teams, which is a Labour promise in the next general election, is very important. My force has been cut by 40% since 2010, and Operation Uplift is possibly just bringing us up to where we were when we were cut. It is really important that we do that. The hon. Member for Harrow East also represents a diverse community, and it is always interesting to hear about a range of issues, not least the suggestion of a GCSE in Romanian.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) spoke about the tragic case of Rasharn, sending love to his family, and about the need to learn lessons in record keeping. I really hope that that particular issue for Rasharn’s mother is taken up by the Minister in his closing remarks, as well as the awful case of historical discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That is completely unacceptable. My hon. Friend has done a good service to her constituents in raising that today, as well as the issue of housing.
That issue was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), who gave a really compelling case for an arts-based solution for using Reading jail. It is an excellent idea, and I wish him well with that campaign. It reflects the importance of preserving the significance of our historic buildings; for instance, in Newport we have the Westgate Hotel, the home of the 1839 Chartist uprising, where our Chartists fought for democracy. I think we all share that view about saving those really important buildings.
I have been to the drop-ins of the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) on body image. I am most grateful to him for the work he does, not least as the parent of two teenage children who use social media. He does a great service there, and he made some really important comments about TikTok. There are questions with that going forwards, which I am sure will be heard. His was indeed the first AI speech, but it was quite amusing watching my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan); he had done precisely the same thing, but the hon. Member for Bosworth got there first.
Finally, I wish everyone across the House and all staff on the Estate a very happy Easter. I know it is a special time for many other traditions, too. I met recently with the Kurdish-Turkish community in Newport and celebrated Newroz at the weekend. The Muslim community is currently observing Ramadan, and I am going to various iftars next week, and the Jewish community will soon be marking Passover. I hope that wherever we are and however we are commemorating the days and weeks ahead, we all have a restful but constructive working recess, and I will see everyone in April.
Thank you for your guidance, Mr Vickers; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on the excellent speech with which he opened the debate. It was absolutely in the spirit of the late, great Sir David Amess; I think he would have thought that you did him proud. My hon. Friend did say that he would not have as many subjects as Sir David, but I think that is possibly not the case, if I may mention that. I will endeavour to answer as many of his points as possible, and those made by other Members, in the time that I have available.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned Harrow Council. It is excellent to hear about the great job that it is doing on the activities and support for children across the holidays and on the upgrading of tennis courts and other sports facilities. We all know that Conservative councils deliver better value services and cost the council tax payer an average £80 less, so I hope that in this year’s local elections the Conservatives will be supported on the basis of quality services, lower council tax and the value for money that they provide.
Antisocial behaviour is a scourge on communities across the country. I am glad to hear about the public space protection orders in Harrow. That fits very well with the Government’s work on antisocial behaviour, which includes increasing the penalties for fly-tipping and the ban on laughing gas. Not only do many people suffer the effects of canisters being strewn across playgrounds, pavements and roadsides, but laughing gas is an extremely dangerous thing to use.
My hon. Friend also mentioned ULEZ, which is hurting his most disadvantaged constituents and many others across London. The Mayor of London does not seem to be listening to residents, and it is pretty scandalous given the 9.5% increase in the precept that he has put forward this year. I heard what my hon. Friend said about the Home Office as well. It is good to hear about the improvement in casework—long may that continue. I have found that that seems to be the case as well. He also mentioned the Romanian diaspora.
The Minister raises the issue of Home Office responses. Many of us deal with the Home Office—I am one of the top six customers on behalf of my constituents. One reason why there has been a degree of improvement is that our constituents get the opportunity to meet caseworkers one to one, face to face. Although that is a welcome temporary stopgap, it is not a sustainable way for the Government to operate, so does the Minister acknowledge that there still needs to be a lot of work done to improve the process? I have constituents who have been waiting years for responses.
There is always work that needs to be done, and a significant amount of investment is going into that.
To go back to the Romanian diaspora in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, he spends a massive amount of time supporting various diasporas in his constituency, and I know that they are very grateful for that. I am sure he will continue to press the case of the Romanian GCSE.
In terms of private Members’ Bills, my hon. Friend will recall the success that we had with the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. I took that through for the Government and was proud to do so in support of my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill. It has made a big difference to people that face homelessness and the risk of homelessness. I understand what he says about rogue landlords, and I hope that his private Member’s Bill will fly through the House of Lords.
He mentioned the Indian trade deal—I think talks are continuing on that. It will massively boost trade between our countries. He also mentioned smoking prevalence and what we can do to reduce that, but it is at a record low of 13%. I have never even tried a cigarette or any form of smoking, but I acknowledge the damage that it can do. We have the independent Khan review of 2022 and Ministers are in the process of considering a response to that.
I was very sorry to hear about the tragic and sad death of Rasharn Williams in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier). My condolences certainly go to Lorna Williams and her family and friends, and the friends of Rasharn. It seems like a terrible situation and extremely tragic. There are procedures in place for schools to support pupils with medical conditions. The statutory guidance is clear that governing bodies should ensure that written records are kept of all medicines administered to children, and that the school’s policy sets out procedures to be followed when it is notified that a pupil has a medical condition and that it covers the role in individual healthcare plans. I certainly hear what the hon. Lady says and will make sure that her comments are fed back to the Leader of the House of Commons, so that they can be followed up on. Hopefully another meeting can be arranged with the Schools Minister. That would be important and worthwhile.
The hon. Lady mentioned a constituent who has been severely disadvantaged because of his inability to serve in the diplomatic service because of the completely misguided perception that LGBT people were more susceptible to blackmail and would therefore pose a security risk. That is an awful case, and I commend her for taking it up. In terms of what can be done now, there are a number of issues that would go across a lot of Departments. I will therefore try to find out who the best person would be to engage on that issue and will ask the relevant Minister to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this important case—a sign of previous times rather than times today, thankfully.
On lifts, the hon. Lady mentioned an awful example. Providers of lifts should provide better support to their customers. As a Conservative, I think the more choice we have in being able to procure such items and the more resilience there is, the better. I am sure the Minister responsible for that area will consider her comments.
On the renters’ reform Bill, as the hon. Lady knows that will come forward in due course. While there are real challenges with housing, 632,600 affordable homes have been built since 2010 and the Government have a £11.5 billion fund for an affordable homes programme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is a passionate advocate for freedom of religion and religious rights. She is a passionate envoy for the Prime Minister. She mentioned that she wants to become an ambassador. For me to confirm that position today would be slightly above my pay grade, so I will not do that at this point, but I commend her and her team, particularly our friend David Burrowes, who was a valued Member of this place just a few years ago. It was good to hear about the education element of the work she does in galvanising young people to speak out about religious persecution. It was sad to hear the case about the young man who was sentenced after he sang a song and put it on social media. Clearly, the Foreign Office takes up such cases on a regular basis, but it would be interesting to speak further with my hon. Friend on that case, perhaps after the debate.
In terms of the implementation of the Bishop of Truro’s review, I hear what my hon. Friend said, and the passion with which she said it, in particular when it came to recommendation 6. I will speak to the Leader of the House and ask that a follow-up meeting is arranged for my hon. Friend so that she can take up those concerns with the Minister responsible.
What the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) said about the project in his constituency, which he and my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Sir Alok Sharma) are trying to get up and running, sounded like an interesting prospect. I am someone who wants to protect heritage and bring heritage buildings back into use. I could not quite picture what the hon. Member was describing until he mentioned “Porridge”, which was one of the best comedy series, probably ever. That gave me a picture in my mind of the type of building we are talking about. It was great to hear his passion and to hear about the link to Oscar Wilde, who served his sentence there.
As I understand it, at the time Oscar Wilde was sentenced, the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name” was quoted. That is clearly something that we would not recognise today. It therefore sounds fitting—if I can put it that way—that the suggested project is one for community, arts and the LGBT+ community. Clearly there is a decision to be made by the MOJ, and I am not in a position to give a view on that. I will ask the Leader of the House to ask the MOJ Minister responsible to get back to the hon. Member for Reading East and my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) made a fleeting reference to our local campaign about the A5—I will not mention that again today. He mentioned a lot about TikTok and other social media sites and made some really serious points about body image and the challenges around that. The work that he is doing on that front is well recognised in this place. He also made good points about how those companies use the information that they glean when someone signs up or uses such apps. There are lots of unanswered questions, which is why the Government have decided not to allow the use of TikTok on Government mobile devices. That is the right thing to do until those questions are answered. My hon. Friend also mentioned AI; the Government White paper sets out clearly the work the Government are doing to ensure that people are protected, while trying to bring forward a technology that could make a massively positive difference to our economy.
Very quickly, in the time I have left I will touch on the fact that the cost of living was mentioned by the hon. Members for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and for Newport East (Jessica Morden). We are providing £94 billion to support the cost of living. We are raising the state pension by a record level in cash terms. It is the 13th year that fuel duty has been frozen; we have actually cut fuel duty by 5p this year, saving people £200. The Government are doing everything they can, but the best thing we can do is bring inflation down. [Interruption.] The Chair is asking me to finish, so on that basis I wish everybody a happy Easter and I wish well all the other religions that are taking part in religious ceremonies in April.
Thank you, Mr Vickers, for your chairmanship of this debate; no doubt you would have liked to have participated in it. I thank everyone who has contributed; it demonstrates the value of these debates, which allow Members to raise a whole range of subjects within the timeframe. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. On many of the issues that I mentioned, I am the chair of their respective all-party parliamentary groups. I wish everyone a very happy and relaxing time away from this place; I hope everyone comes back refreshed, whatever their faith.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.