Tuesday 9 May 2023
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
Ukraine: Special Tribunal
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential merits of a special tribunal on Ukraine.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies.
It has become a cliché for politicians across the House to refer to “Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine”. Today we should unpick that phrase a little so that we can consider how states such as the UK might respond to the full-scale invasion, aside from our ongoing provision of materiel to Ukraine. I would like to spend a few minutes talking about the crime of aggression, and I intend to set out why accountability for that crime should be sought by way of a special tribunal.
Last September, along with a few other Members of the House, some of whom are here today, I attended the Yalta European Strategy conference in Kyiv; I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Yalta European Strategy conference brings together politicians, academics and others from across Europe to discuss Ukrainian and European security—we also remembered a time, back in 2013, when the same conference was held in Yalta, Crimea. But talk to historians about Yalta and they are more likely to think of the conference that took place between the UK, the US and the Soviet Union in February 1945, which President Roosevelt approached with an aide-mémoire on the punishment of Nazi war criminals. The Yalta memorandum urged the use of the judicial method against the Nazi leaders because
“Condemnation of these criminals after a trial…would command maximum public support in our own times and receive the respect of history.”
The first international military tribunal at Nuremberg opened in November 1945. Major-General Nikitchenko from the Soviet Union was the presiding judge. He came from a small village about 50 miles from the border between Russia and Luhansk, and was reported to have said in the days before the opening of the trial:
“If the judge is supposed to be impartial, it would only lead to unnecessary delays.”
Thankfully, other parties to the international military tribunal disagreed with him and due process was followed. The London charter of the international military tribunal set the laws and procedures for the conduct of the Nuremberg trials, and they defined three categories of crime: war crimes, crimes against humanity and—the closest to aggression—crimes against peace.
A special tribunal for alleged aggression against Ukraine would be the first aggression-focused tribunal since Nuremberg and Tokyo, which prosecuted the leaders of axis powers after world war two for crimes against peace. These days, there are courts and tribunals that have jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity and allegations of genocide, and they include the International Criminal Court. However, there is no international body before which individuals may be tried for the crime of aggression, because the ICC cannot exercise jurisdiction over the crime of aggression unless both the victim state and the aggressor state have ratified and accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction over aggression. That is not the case for Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Russia is not a party to the ICC, and referrals to the ICC by the UN Security Council would be vetoed by Russia.
On 17 March 2023, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin for the war crime of illegal deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia. Although that was very welcome, it starts a process that can run in parallel with the initiative to create a special tribunal. It does not change the fact that there is currently no international body before which those responsible for the crime of aggression can be brought from Russia or Belarus. Various acts of aggression can be traced back to the February 2022 full-scale invasion. If proven in court, those acts of aggression could constitute what the Nuremberg trials termed the “supreme international crime”.
A crime of aggression consists of
“the planning, preparation, initiation or execution by a person in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State, of an act of an aggression.”
That can include manifestly illegal acts of aggression such as invasion, attack or occupation. It is the crime of aggression from which other international crimes flow, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Bluntly, the videos circulating on social media in recent weeks of the apparent beheading, allegedly by Russians, of a Ukrainian soldier who was still alive show an atrocious act that was unlikely to have happened in the absence of the original aggression. A special tribunal would be the surest route by which to try the Russian leaders for international crimes. Trying senior leaders for war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide is difficult. It is difficult to link the crimes committed by soldiers on the ground, who might be ill disciplined, to senior military or political figures, who are often well aware of the risk of having crimes attributed to them. No, a special tribunal would focus on the single crime with respect to a narrow clique of perpetrators.
Russia’s use of force against a sovereign state constitutes an illegal act of aggression. It was not authorised by the UN Security Council. It was not an act of self-defence. Aggression is considered a leadership crime. Those exercising control over or directing political or military action with respect to the acts commit the crime of aggression.
Russia is not ignorant of the UN definition of aggression. At a meeting of the UN Security Council in March 1999, during the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, quoted the 1974 UN General Assembly resolution that defined aggression. Mr Lavrov said:
“No consideration of whatever nature, whether political, economic, military or otherwise, may serve as a justification for aggression.”
The UK Government announced in January that they are joining a core group of partners to shape thinking on how to ensure criminal accountability for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Three primary models for a special tribunal have emerged, and I will outline those briefly. The first option is a tribunal that would be based on a multilateral treaty involving Ukraine and those states willing to support it; that is how the international military tribunal at Nuremberg was set up. It would be a strictly international tribunal—these days set up, perhaps, on the recommendation of the European Union or the Council of Europe through a treaty with Ukraine.
The second option is establishing a free-standing tribunal that would be based on an agreement between Ukraine and the UN. We could pursue endorsement through a resolution of the UN General Assembly. Precedents include tribunals established by agreements between the UN and Sierra Leone.
The third option is creating a special hybrid tribunal that would be based on Ukrainian domestic law, but which would incorporate international elements. The UK Government appear to have supported that third option. Yes, such a tribunal could be created without an international agreement and without statute, without applying strictly international law, and without using significant international prosecutors or judges. However, a tribunal based on Ukrainian domestic law would face various problems. It would be difficult to overcome immunities for key senior leaders in Russia and in Belarus. Ukrainians argue that establishing such a tribunal would not be possible given the domestic constitutional changes required of the Ukrainian Parliament. However, to my mind the main objection to a hybrid tribunal is that other states might feel emboldened to create their own hybrid tribunals in the future, which would have little or no significant international support. The hybrid model is too easy to replicate, unlike a strictly international tribunal.
We also know that Ukraine itself does not support the so-called hybrid model. Last week, President Zelensky called for the creation of a special tribunal in The Hague. Let me quote Zelensky’s Netherlands speech of 4 May:
“Not hybrid promises instead of human rights, but real freedom. Not hybrid impunity and symbolic formalities, but full-scale justice. Not hybrid peace and constant flashes of violence on the frontline, but reliable peace.”
The international nature of a special tribunal would serve to flag a degree of impartiality for the special tribunal. It would more easily overcome issues relating to immunity for serving Heads of State and Governments.
Setting up a special tribunal is alleged by some to risk sending a message that the west’s goal is regime change in Moscow. I do not accept that the call for a special tribunal is somehow tantamount to signalling an interest in regime change. At no point have Ukraine’s allies suggested that we are seeking regime change in Moscow. Kremlin propagandists are already depicting NATO as seeking to threaten Russia’s existence, to tie in with Russia’s victory day today, 9 May—the commemorations of the Soviet Union’s contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany. The Kremlin is already considering that its options are to win, or to lose power and then face prosecution. I do not accept that the model that the UK proposes for the special tribunal will affect Russia’s suggestion that we seek regime change. We do not.
How to go about creating a special tribunal? The Foreign Ministers of the G7 said in a statement in April, just a few weeks ago:
“We support exploring the creation of an internationalized tribunal based in Ukraine’s judicial system to prosecute the crime of aggression”.
Solidarity across the countries allied with Ukraine is absolutely crucial at this time. Just as the UK has firmed up opinion among Ukraine’s partners in relation to providing equipment to Ukraine, it would be good to see the UK championing the special tribunal cause, which should be as international in character as possible. A special tribunal would signal the disregard in which aggressor states are held. Support for the special tribunal could give aggressors pause for thought in the future.
The late Paddy Ashdown visited Slobodan Milošević several weeks before NATO military action against Belgrade in 1999. Ashdown commented that Milošević
“seemed more frightened by the threat of indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, than … of NATO bombing”.
Writing in a more idealistic era, he wrote:
“these new courts and tribunals which the world has established in recent years…have the potential to become instruments not only for justice, but also for prevention, since they can represent a … warning to belligerent or tyrannical leaders.”
Thank you, Mr Davies.
It is a real pleasure to speak in the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) for setting the scene so well. I was happy that he asked the Backbench Business Committee for the debate, and to support him in that, and it is good that we are having it today. What will be more important is if this debate leads to the action that the hon. Gentleman has referred to. I hope that it will.
I join all hon. Members in the Chamber in stating our ongoing and unwavering support for the Ukrainian people at this time. The attendance of Olena Zelenska at the coronation was a timely reminder that, while it was right and proper that we celebrate the passing of the Crown in this way, the problems of the world continue and so do our responsibilities to address them where we can. I believe that one of those responsibilities is to hold Russia to account for its aggression.
For too many years, Russia has pushed the boundaries and, in the desire for peace, little has been said or done to remind it that there is a line that should not be crossed. That line was crossed last March when Russia invaded Ukraine. It was crossed whenever Russia invaded Crimea. I am always reminded of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant)—he is not here today, but he was one of the outspoken Members at that time who highlighted the importance of what was happening in Ukraine. I agreed with him that we should have taken action to support Ukraine. We did not, but certainly the United Kingdom Government, NATO, the United States and everyone else has now come in and supported Ukraine, and that is really good news.
We continue to see the boundary being pushed further, as Russia’s media machine, ably assisted by its allies in North Korea, Belarus, Eritrea and Syria, seeks to spin the war as a noble endeavour and the rape and destruction of Ukraine as a simple casualty of war. It is more than that. That is not the truth at all. The truth is that this war is a violation of peace and should be internationally recognised as such; the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton set that point out very well. For that reason, and because each time I see on TV women and children standing by as their homes and future are decimated due to the greed of Russia, my resolve hardens. I was watching that on TV this morning. The hon. Gentleman referred to the missile attack on Kyiv and across all of Ukraine. It is obvious that Russia is, again, hitting civilian targets, and that really grieves me.
Another thing that grieves me greatly is the indiscriminate attacks by Russian soldiers on innocent civilians and the sexual abuse and rape of women and girls. The evidential base is there in some quantity, regarding girls as young as four and women as old as 83. How can that be the world that we live in, where there is no respect for women and young girls? That grieves me.
I would love to see Russia being made accountable in the courts, wherever that may be. The hon. Gentleman asks for that; I ask for that. As a Christian, I am also minded that, while the perpetrators might escape justice in this world, they certainly will not escape justice in the next. They will burn in the fires of hell. I would like to see that happening sooner than it is happening at the present time.
I was delighted to see our Government acknowledging that a special tribunal is a possibility; I would like to see it become more than a possibility. However, for it to become reality, the idea must be driven by all the nations, including ourselves, and not simply be bandied about as a matter of words.
I was very happy to see our UK Government announcing their membership of the core group of states seeking to achieve criminal accountability in this situation. However, that acknowledgement must be followed by action. The Minister is a good Minister, and he always responds in a very positive way; when he responds today, I am hoping he will reinforce our requests to have the words become action. That is certainly what I and others wish to see.
The crime of aggression is, first and foremost, a violation of international law’s prohibition of the use of force. Article 2 of the UN charter proscribes the use of force, subject to narrow exceptions. The UN General Assembly definition of aggression, in article 5, states:
“A war of aggression is a crime against international peace. Aggression gives rise to international responsibility.”
We all know that Russia has been guilty of a crime against international peace and against the innocent peoples of Ukraine. The UN General Assembly definition further states:
“No territorial acquisition or special advantage resulting from aggression is or shall be recognised as lawful.”
It is very clear what the words say. If those words say that, our Government need to make sure that we have the law in place to make those people accountable, and to make Russia accountable.
The prohibition is given teeth by imposing criminal liability on individuals responsible for significant breaches of it. There have been many. It is very pleasing to see Ukraine, President Zelensky and others gathering evidence that will convict people when the opportunity arises. It is clear that the definition is absolutely applicable to the action taken by Russia against Ukraine.
Although I recognise the Government’s position that any new tribunal would also need sufficient international support and must not undermine existing accountability mechanisms, some available options do allow for that. I urge that we make our position clear and, further, that we begin the actions of making this a reality.
The United Kingdom cannot do this on our own—our Government cannot do this on their own. They can do it with the help of the EU states and the fellow members of NATO, of the United States of America and those countries from other parts of the world who have also lent their support to Ukraine. There is a united body that wants to see the accountability process in place. There is a body of countries who want to see a special tribunal for Ukraine in place for the actions of those in Russia who have carried out despicable crimes.
I gently say to the Minister that the upshot of today’s debate should not be simply another resounding message of support for Ukraine. It should be the taking of the action spoken about by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton and this crime of aggression being processed as such. The world must quickly recognise that these actions will not be ignored and that the perpetrators will be held accountable—that includes President Putin, the generals and every soldier who carried out the acts.
In conclusion, the support that we lend Ukraine through weapons and aid is essential. We do it well. I commend previous Prime Ministers, the present Prime Minister and our Government for what they have done in galvanising support across the world to help Ukraine. We need to stand up against evil actions in law, and today’s debate should be the first step. I very much support what the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has said.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. This is an interesting subject, and an appropriate time to raise it. In just under two weeks’ time, a summit of the Council of Europe takes place in Reykjavík. It is only the fourth summit in the history of the Council. High on the agenda is Ukraine.
We have two issues. The first is how we can deal with crimes against humanity. As we have heard, that is already taken care of; there is an established precedent for that. The second is how we can deal with crimes of aggression. We heard some examples of how crimes of aggression can be dealt with, but the problem is that none of those precedents can be transposed on to the situation in Ukraine. It is legitimate to point out that there are substantial differences between the situation at hand and those precedents. Much caution is required even in drawing analogies between how those tribunals ran and how they can be set up now.
One organisation above all—this will gladden your heart, Mr Davies—is able to take this role. It is not the UN, from which it is almost impossible to believe that there will be an agreement to take this forward. It is the Council of Europe. The Council has already committed to going for a tribunal of aggression, both at the level of the Parliamentary Assembly and at the level of the Committee of Ministers, which is the equivalent of a second Chamber to the Assembly.
It is perfectly legitimate to point out that national defence does not fall within the normal scope of the Council of Europe, which has long stated that it is not a defence organisation. However, the Council has on a number of occasions expressed itself on Ukraine, and has said that it wants to help the situation there. With your permission, Mr Davies, I will reaffirm a number of those statements. First, the Council of Europe has reaffirmed the need for a strong and unequivocal international legal response to the aggression against Ukraine. It has already said that aggression is a crime, and we need to deal with it. It permits no place for impunity for serious violations of international law. Secondly, the Council has stressed the urgent need to ensure a comprehensive system of accountability for serious violations of international law arising out of the Russian aggression. I will come back to that and give a suggestion on it.
The Council has noted with great interest the Ukrainian proposals to establish an ad hoc special tribunal for the crime of aggression against Ukraine, subject to what will be decided at the Reykjavík summit. Thirdly, the Council welcomed ongoing efforts, in co-operation with Ukraine, to secure accountability for the crime of aggression against Ukraine, and to secure full reparations for the damage, loss or injury caused by Russia’s violations of international law in Ukraine. Those ideas of accountability and full reparations are crucial to what the Council summit will be able to decide.
The Council of Europe is looking to set up a register of goods and buildings destroyed by the Russians during their war of aggression. One may think, “Why is a register necessary?” It is necessary, first of all, so that we can work out the scale of reparations. We cannot pluck a figure for reparations out of the air; it must be based on actual evidence. The Council of Europe stresses very much the need for accountability, which is why it thinks that a tribunal is a good idea.
The summit will be attended by a very senior member of the Government. Representatives of leading countries are going, including President Macron and the President of Germany; the President and Prime Minister of Iceland will be there as well. The summit will cover setting up that register, the ability to deal with reparations, and the accountability of Putin. I read a legal treatise that says that the Council of Europe is perfectly legitimately set up to deal with matters within the prism of accountability for the commission of an international crime, and with the crime of aggression. That is not outside the Council of Europe’s scope. That means that the Council would not be acting ultra vires in concluding an agreement with Ukraine for the creation of such a tribunal. That is an important note on which to finish my comments.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) for securing this debate on an issue of vital importance, not only to achieving natural justice for the people of Ukraine, but to ensuring that crimes of aggression, such as those committed by Vladimir Putin and his regime, are not without consequences. Regardless of what we think of any sort of international order or universal values, that sort of barbarism is not to be tolerated. I am glad to say that I think that feeling is shared by Members from across the House, by people across the islands of the north Atlantic, and certainly by my colleagues in the Scottish National party. Our members unanimously passed a resolution at our conference last year calling for exactly that sort of action to be taken against this aggressor, who has caused so much pain and suffering to people with whom he has claimed fraternity.
We have heard all too often, including this morning, that there is one obvious stumbling block to establishing a tribunal: the lack of a suitable venue. To be blunt, with the United Nations and even the International Criminal Court unlikely to accept the case for what some would call crushingly cynical political reasons, it would be a test of judicial dexterity to ensure accountability.
I was glad to hear the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and for Henley (John Howell), mention the Council of Europe as a venue. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned the requirement for more dexterity in the legal process. I am mindful of the agreement between the UK and the former Libyan regime, which allowed a sitting of the High Court of Justiciary in the Netherlands. It had special jurisdiction over other territories; that was based on Security Council resolution 1192. That agreement allowed what was then the highest court of Scotland to sit in another country to bring about the conviction of the Libyan bomber. The difficulty of going through the UN in this case is that the Russian Federation would veto that.
It is important and appropriate to acknowledge the work of the investigators on the ground in recording the crimes perpetrated by the Russian Federation, whether they are domestic or international law-and-order units or ordinary Ukrainian people. Their ability to carry out such an exacting job in the face of demonstrable and abject horror needs to be commended. Any international tribunal will rely on their work, and they know that. I imagine that, in any circumstances, that is what keeps them going.
Those of us who grew up with those who remembered the horrors of the second world war did not think we would ever be in such a position again. I grew up with a father who was a first-hand witness to one of the largest Nazi atrocities imposed on a civilian population during the second world war, namely the Clydebank blitz. The idea that, in an age of smart munitions, civilians would continue to be targeted so indiscriminately is unfathomable, yet there is a litany of reports, often accompanied by heartbreaking images, of targeting of residential areas of no military value. It could be no clearer that these atrocities are happening nearly daily. There can be no question but that my party and I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to joining the core group set up to further investigate avenues. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that point, and any other commitments that the Government can give. It is important that we challenge ourselves.
I appreciate the possibility of creating a precedent for the further investigation of possible war crimes committed by other countries, even the UK. Many would note that that would probably include places such as Iraq. I marched against that conflict for many reasons, and the precedent it set was clear to me at the time. No one in this place should shy away from ensuring that justice is done, whenever and wherever. I hope that when colleagues sum up, they will echo my sentiments.
There are those who say that in laying the foundations for such a tribunal, we close off the potential for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine, because Putin will not agree to terms that see him come before this tribunal. I understand that rationale, but I simply cannot see any alternative in the face of such evildoing. The idea has not stopped him planning to travel abroad, whether to occupied Mariupol or even South Africa. After the failure to take Kyiv within 72 hours, I do not think he was in any doubt that there would be no return to the status quo ante. Either Putin will be removed by an internal opponent, of which there are increasing numbers, or he will face justice for his crimes in Ukraine. I hope he faces justice.
I finish by reiterating my party’s unwavering support for the establishment of an international tribunal that will ensure accountability for the litany of crimes committed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine. I hope to see not only the liberation of all regions of Ukraine under occupation, but justice for those who have suffered.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Davies. You are wearing an excellent tie; there are a number of good ties on display. I thank the hon. and gallant Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) for securing this critical debate, and thank all colleagues for their valuable and insightful contributions. I also declare an interest: I travelled on the same trip to Ukraine as him. It gave us a huge insight into the reality of the devastation of Putin’s brutal actions against the civilians and people of Ukraine.
Over the weekend, we came together in this country to celebrate the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III, and to look forward to the future. It was a time of celebration, hope and optimism. In Ukraine, tragically, this weekend could not have been more different. Ukraine had to withstand yet another series of barrages against civilian areas. Yesterday morning alone, Russia launched 16 missile strikes on cities and regions, including Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odesa, as well as 61 other airstrikes—barbarous actions that are feared to have killed even more civilians.
As we have seen throughout the conflict, Russia’s brutality truly knows no limits. Such damage has been done to the people and the country of Ukraine. Families have been torn apart, lives have been lost, injuries have been caused, and devastation has been inflicted on cities, towns and villages. There is also the impact on the economy. At the root of that is the flagrant disregard that Russia has shown towards Ukrainian sovereignty. Its actions are those of a tyrant who continues to believe that he and his regime are outside any legal or moral standard—outside the parameters of accountability. We need to show him and the Russian regime that that is not the case. That is why today’s debate is so integral to our efforts, and those of our allies and partners, to hold him to account for the atrocities being committed in his name.
As you will know, Mr Davies, the Opposition have been clear since the war began that the Government would enjoy our full support if they strengthened the UK’s position on the conflict in Ukraine, and the response to Russia’s actions. There is a great deal of unity across the House, whether on sanctions; tackling illicit finance; providing military, technical and humanitarian support to Ukraine; or expanding and emboldening our diplomatic coalition. The first lady of Ukraine will have heard that again when she attended the coronation at the weekend.
I have a series of questions for the Minister on the issue of a special tribunal. As far back as March last year, days after the latest phase of this brutal invasion, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) joined others in calling for the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute President Putin and others in the Kremlin regime for the crime of aggression. We welcome other ongoing efforts, which have already been discussed. That includes individual war crimes investigations and prosecutions in Ukraine domestically. The International Criminal Court has taken the welcome step of issuing an arrest warrant for the utterly brutal alleged crime of the illegal deportation of children. We have to accept that we can pursue distinct, potentially complementary, legal routes to ensure that Ukraine and its people receive justice.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said at the start of the conflict that the establishment of a special tribunal would be critical to holding Putin to account for the original sin—the crime of aggression. We and others have listened, and have added our voice to the growing international chorus that backs that practical and necessary step. I was going through the Library briefing on the issue. There have been a lot of questions and debates on this issue in the House, but we have yet to hear the Government’s thinking on a special tribunal. As has been mentioned, the Government have joined this core group, but the commitment appears to concern a hybrid model. It is important to note, and we have said all along, that we want to be led by Ukrainians—what Ukrainians want and what the Ukrainian Government want. President Zelensky has been very reluctant to have a hybrid model. Indeed, he recently said:
“only one institution is capable of responding to the original crime—the crime of aggression. A Tribunal! Not something hybrid that can formally close the topic…Not some compromise that will allow politicians to say that the case is allegedly done…But a true, full-fledged Tribunal. True and full justice.”
Throughout, we have listened to and been led by the wishes of Ukraine’s leaders and its people, and that needs to happen on this issue as well.
In February, the President of the EU Commission also announced that he would establish the International Centre for Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression against Ukraine, which will be headquartered in The Hague. We have heard about the excellent work going on in the Council of Europe and other international examples, some of which I will come to later, but we have yet to hear a clear position from the Government on this. It is very important that we do, because we have heard about the potential weaknesses and limitations in some of the other models. The ICC alone does not have jurisdiction over the crime of aggression unless both the victim and aggressor have ratified and accepted the Court’s jurisdiction over a specific crime, so another way forward must be devised if we are to hold the regime to account.
It is beyond any reasonable doubt that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its ongoing use of force against Ukrainian sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence is an act of aggression amounting to a violation of article 2(4) of the UN charter. Russia has irrefutably breached the threshold amounting to the legally defined crime of aggression under article 8 of the Rome statute of the ICC, which relates to the
“planning, preparation, initiation or execution, by a person in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State”.
Similar questions can be raised about others who have been involved. Will the Minister comment on the situation with regard to Belarus and its aiding and abetting of the Russian regime, particularly as we saw in the early stages of the war and the attempts to capture Kyiv?
The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on 2 March last year, which:
“Deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine in violation of Article 2 (4) of the Charter”.
The Minister knows that that carried the support of 141 states and was a clear, incontrovertible and significant decision by the United Nations General Assembly.
The hon. Gentleman speaks of other states being involved. Is he aware that a big impetus for the tribunal comes from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? That is partly to support Ukraine, but it is also seen as a defensive measure should Russia invade those countries.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Indeed, he tempts me further forward, but let me refer to some of the other international support. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania made a joint statement on October 16 last year. I have mentioned the European Union, and the President of the European Commission made a statement on 20 November 2022, as did France. Indeed, there has been a growing chorus of other Governments, academics, legal experts and those who have been involved in similar processes in the past.
We can look at other tribunals that have been created, such as the special tribunals that were created for the former Yugoslavia and for crimes in Sierra Leone and Liberia. There are distinct differences, but we can learn important lessons from them. Indeed, the House of Commons Library refers to the Dutch Government’s willingness to hold a special tribunal. Although that is distinct from the ICC and its position in The Hague, the seat of international justice, the Dutch Government have indicated their willingness.
We have heard about the different options during this debate. That includes, first, amending the ICC’s Rome statute, although there are serious workability issues around that; secondly, a so-called hybrid model, but, as we have heard, President Zelensky does not feel that that is the right way forward; and thirdly, an international court established by the UN General Assembly with the agreement of Ukraine. We could also have a treaty between interested states, creating a special tribunal, and we have heard of a fifth option, which is the model that the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) referred to in relation to the Council of Europe.
There are two critical issues that we would need to address in any model. First, there is the issue of immunities. There are questions in some of the options about whether immunity would come into play. Secondly, there is the question of selectivity, but I do not think that those need to necessarily stand in the way of the model. As has been said, a number of international legal experts and countries believe that those can be overcome by the special tribunal model.
Let me be clear that the brutality—the sheer wickedness—of what we have seen in Ukraine requires some very creative, robust and ambitious thinking. That is why Labour Members, and many hon. Members across the House, have supported the Ukrainian proposal for a special tribunal. These are some of the worst crimes that we have seen and the most incontrovertible case of aggression. Also, establishing a special tribunal and finding against Putin and Russia, as I very much hope it would, would lead us to a place where we can potentially take further action to give practical help to the people of Ukraine—for example, on the sequestration of Russian state assets. If we can establish and prosecute that original sin—that original crime of aggression—it could help to underpin the international legal basis for other actions that could lead to direct support for the Ukrainian people, as well as achieving the fundamental aim of justice for the country and its people for the crimes they have suffered.
I will end by quoting President Zelensky. In recent days, he said:
“But we know that the lasting peace after victory is achieved by nothing else but the strength of values. First of all, it’s the strength of freedom and of law, which must work to the full to ensure justice. Not hybrid promises instead of human rights, but real freedom. Not hybrid impunity and symbolic formalities, but full-scale justice. Not hybrid peace and constant flashes of violence on the frontline, but reliable peace. When one respects values—true freedom, true justice, true peace is respected”
and that is
“exactly what we need now.”
We should show the same ambition and the same passion for justice, the rule of law and a lasting settlement for the people of Ukraine, after the brutality that they have faced. I am very interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the processes leading towards setting up a special tribunal.
It is an honour to serve with you in the Chair once again, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) on securing this important debate and on the considered views he set out, as well as other hon. Members. I will do everything I can to respond to the points that have been raised.
Across the House, we are all horrified by the horrific acts, war crimes and atrocities being committed in Ukraine. It is great to continue to see that level of cross-party support in calling out and condemning these acts of aggression. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) talked about the experiences of his family during the second world war. My mother grew up as a little girl in occupied Denmark. We need to condemn these acts; we should learn lessons from the wars that have taken place. There is a lot more that we need to do to call out these indiscriminate attacks on civilians, widespread sexual violence, torture and execution.
We are appalled by Russia’s continuing strikes against Ukraine, including missile attacks on Kyiv in the early hours of this morning and over the weekend, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) highlighted. We will continue to do all that we can to support Ukraine in the face of this assault on its sovereignty and territory. The United Kingdom stands with the people of Ukraine in their desire to see justice done. President Putin, the Russian leadership and the forces committing these barbaric acts must be held to account. Responding to that challenge requires a co-ordinated international approach on several fronts. That is why, over the past year, the British Government have been a leader on accountability. Working with our international partners, we have taken action on several fronts. I will set out some of the steps that we have taken.
First, we are supporting the Ukrainian justice system. It is clear that the majority of allegations of atrocity crimes committed will be investigated and, where there is a case to be made, prosecuted in the courts of Ukraine. Ukraine’s prosecutor general recently announced that Ukraine has already registered close to 80,000 cases of war crimes. Sadly, that number will increase. It is important that the Ukrainian justice system is able to rise to that considerable challenge. That is why we established the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group with the EU and US and provided a £2.5 million UK support package. By co-ordinating among the partners, we are better able to ensure the effective and expedient deployment of resources and skilled personnel in response to the needs of the war crimes units of the office of the prosecutor general.
Through our support, more than 100 Ukrainian judges have been trained in war crimes prosecution and management and nearly 80 members of the national police of Ukraine have been trained on the forensic response, which must not be forgotten. Our package has also supported 14 mobile justice team field visits within Ukraine, including at Kherson, thereby helping to gather and protect evidence that may be used in Ukraine’s investigations. We have assisted civil society organisations to deliver psychological and legal assistance to survivors of horrific sexual violence in conflict.
We are also supporting international justice mechanisms. In March last year, within weeks of Russia’s invasion, the UK led efforts to refer the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court. That referral has now secured the support of 42 other countries, and it enabled the ICC prosecutor to proceed straight to investigation without the need for judicial approval. With the ICC investigations under way, we have intensified our support for the Court, including by organising meetings for international Justice Ministers, to encourage and co-ordinate offers of support.
The UK has led from the front. Last year, we made a £1 million voluntary contribution, on top of our £10.5 million of annual funding. That funding increased the ICC’s capacity to collect evidence and provided enhanced psychosocial support to witnesses and survivors of traumatic atrocities. In March this year, a conference in London hosted by the former Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), generated more than £4 million in voluntary contributions and new offers of practical support for the Court and its independent investigation. That included a £1 million contribution from the United Kingdom.
The ICC is an independent judicial institution and it is for the ICC prosecutor to determine the nature and focus of the Court’s investigations. Those investigations are now well under way and it is clear that they are making progress. The ICC arrest warrants for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children that were issued for Putin and his children’s commissioner in March demonstrate that the international justice system is working and moving forward.
Let me turn to the issue of how to ensure accountability for the crime of aggression, about which many contributors to this important debate have talked. Ukraine wants accountability for the illegal, unprovoked invasion from which the war crimes stem. We share that goal and recognise the challenges in achieving it. The ICC does not have jurisdiction over the crime of aggression that has allegedly been committed in and against Ukraine. Under other circumstances, I believe the UN Security Council would have referred this act of aggression to the International Criminal Court to give it that jurisdiction. Russia’s position as a veto-holding permanent member of the Security Council means that that will not happen, which is why we are exploring other options.
In January, the UK accepted Ukraine’s invitation to join a core group that it created to shape thinking on criminal accountability for Russia. I am pleased that there is cross-party support for the Government’s engagement in that respect. The work of the group includes exploring whether a special tribunal on the crime of aggression against Ukraine might be feasible. The hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton and for Cardiff South and Penarth indicated that the Government might have formed a definitive view. I should explain to colleagues that the Government have not declared their support for one particular option. We joined the core group to discuss how best to hold Russia to account for the crime of aggression, and the group will consider all options. These are of course complex issues of international law.
I accept that complexity is inherent and that serious work needs to be done, but will the Minister assure Members that he has listened to what President Zelensky and, indeed, others, including the prosecutor general and Justice Minister of Ukraine, have said very clearly on this issue and the question of a hybrid model?
The hon. Member makes an important point, as always. We have listened to the President, to other people who have made important points on the options and, of course, to hon. Members here about their thoughts on these matters. We are playing an important role in the core group, which Ukraine has said is the main platform for exploring the legal and technical issues involved in creating a tribunal. UK legal experts are working with their opposite numbers from other states to help to shape the proposals.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has called for action. He always does, in many debates, and we are grateful for that. I can tell him and others that as we speak today, an online summit of leaders of members of the core group is taking place, with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary among those to send a message of support. With Ukraine and our partners in the core group, we share the goal of exploring ways to ensure effective accountability for this crime. As has been said, there are significant challenges, including complex issues of international law, which must be resolved if any new mechanism is to be successful. The core group is the right body to address those issues; the details will matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) has discussed with me on a number of occasions his very important work at the Council of Europe. We recognise that the Council of Europe is among those advocating for a tribunal and is keen to be involved. Clearly, at the moment, its role has not been agreed; there is more work to be done to shape thinking and develop options, as I have said. It is important that any new mechanism complements the ICC investigation and that the UK and Ukraine’s other partners maintain our support for the existing international judicial system.
Let me reflect for a few minutes on the wider situation on the ground and the UK’s support for Ukraine. Putin’s army is on the defensive. Ukraine’s heroic armed forces have recaptured thousands of square miles. We are working with our allies to ensure that Ukraine has the support that it needs to win this war and to secure a lasting peace. The hon. Member for Strangford made important comments in highlighting that.
We have committed £6.5 billion in military, humanitarian and economic aid since the start of the invasion. We have also made available £1.7 billion in fiscal support to Ukraine, including £1.6 billion through four World Bank loan guarantees. We have been leading work on humanitarian assistance, and helping to build an international coalition to call out Putin’s invasion and in support of Ukraine. I was privileged in January to speak at the UN Security Council in favour of the UN charter and of the rule of law, which we all hold dear in our hearts. We need to ensure that other international actors show their respect for those important institutions and laws. Of course, we have also put in place an important and unprecedented set of sanctions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley talked about the importance of recovery. We are pleased to see broad support—the UK gave its support at the UN General Assembly on 14 November—for the establishment of a register of damages. That will be vital to work on recovery mechanisms to help the people of Ukraine after the conflict. Of course, we look forward to co-hosting the next Ukraine recovery conference in London next month.
It is welcome that the recovery and reconstruction conference is taking place here, but of course one of the crucial issues at the conference will be the finance for the huge amount of reconstruction needed. One reason why we support an international special tribunal and other legal mechanisms is that they can provide a firm foundation for action to sequester and seize Russian state assets, rather than just freezing them. Can the Minister update us on the Government’s thinking about the legal process for that? We have had a lot of stalling and flummery and there has not been a clear position on the issue, which will be critical for the conference.
I understand the point that the hon. Member makes. Clearly, the asset seizures have been important. We need to work out how they could be used in the recovery. He knows—he is very astute on these matters—that there are complex issues, but we are working away on this, just as we are on the other issues that we have talked about during the debate.
The hon. Member also talked about Belarus. We are taking every opportunity to remind the Belarusian regime that there will be serious consequences if it becomes more directly involved in Russia’s war.
The UK is determined to hold Russia to account for its illegal and barbaric actions in Ukraine, and to ensure that justice prevails. That includes providing support for the Ukrainian and international justice systems, and working with the core group established by Ukraine to consider accountability, including the possibility of a special tribunal. Meanwhile, we will continue to supply aid to help the fightback and crack down on supporters of the war through sanctions, all while remaining at the centre of diplomatic efforts to secure the strongest possible support for Ukraine across the international community. We share Ukraine’s determination that Putin’s illegal invasion must fail and that justice must be done. As President Zelensky said last week in The Hague,
“there can be no peace without justice”.
I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions to this interesting debate. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reflected on the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and suggested that we should have been much more active in thinking about justice at that point, rather than waiting until the full-scale invasion in 2022. Perhaps the difference between those invasions is that in 2014 Russia denied the presence of its troops in Ukraine; what makes the invasion in 2022 so outrageous is that Russia did not seek to hide the enormous military presence it had put into Ukraine.
I agree with the hon. Member that we should not simply bandy about the term “special tribunal”; we should really drive it forward and seek action. I also very much liked the fact that he referred to the UN charter and to article 2(4) on the prohibition of the use of force and the importance of territorial integrity.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for his contributions about the Council of Europe. He pointed out that Ukraine will be high on the agenda at the Council of Europe summit meeting in two weeks’ time. He mentioned that there can be difficulty in getting agreement at the UN General Assembly. I accept that it can be difficult to get a majority or a super-majority in that body, but we proved last March, when 141 states came out and condemned aggression, that achieving these things is not impossible. I appreciate the Council of Europe’s reaffirming the need for strong accountability.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for pointing out that we have to think about how aggression can set a precedent. We have to think about how, if we leave this particular aggression to go unchecked or unaccounted for, it could encourage other states to perpetrate aggression in the future. The hon. Member will correct me if I have misunderstood him, but I think he cautioned against timidity for fear that future leaders in the UK and elsewhere might be subject to prosecution. I agree that we must not be timid in that respect. Of course, both his party and mine have opposed some invasions that this country has been involved in during the last 20 years, and one in particular.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) spoke about the original sin. I very much liked the way he put that. He quoted President Zelensky on some of the shortcomings of the hybrid model. I liked the way that the hon. Member talked about “true and full justice”, and I agree that that is what is required.
The Minister talked about the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group. It is very welcome that the UK is taking initiatives in support of prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity. I am also grateful to the Minister for reminding us of the additional £1 million contribution by the UK to the ICC for such things as psychosocial support for victims. That is all very noble, but I was pleased that he turned to the crime of aggression. I was particularly pleased to hear him say that the UK Government have not declared support for a particular option for a tribunal. That is welcome.
Back in January, the Foreign Secretary talked about supporting a special hybrid court so long as it did not duplicate the work of the International Criminal Court. I think that we have demonstrated today, as others have elsewhere, that there is no duplication here, and that a special tribunal will be complementary to the work of the ICC. With that in mind, I look forward to the UK Government being a strong voice in support of a special tribunal that will be as international in character as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the potential merits of a special tribunal on Ukraine.
A46 at Tewkesbury
I beg to move,
That this House has considered proposed changes to the A46 at Tewkesbury.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrusb Davies.
I thank the Minister for attending. He will be relieved to know that, unusually, this is not a debate during which I will ask the Government to fund a road scheme—at least, not yet. The main point of my debate is to ask the Minister to reject a business case that has been presented to him by Gloucestershire County Council.
I am told that my constituency, or at least the borough in which it falls, is without doubt the fastest growing in the country in terms of housing. Infrastructure is therefore needed to ensure that we have balanced and sustainable growth. In the southern part of my constituency, the Government are providing about half a billion pounds to fund a solution to the so-called “missing link” problem. That involves implementing a major road scheme along the A417, which will bring an end to the huge daily congestion and to the number of tragic deaths and accidents that, for far too long, have occurred on that stretch of road.
The Government have also agreed the improvements to junction 10 of the M5 in the middle of my constituency, as well as to the A4019, which serves it and goes from there into Cheltenham; that will serve the increased housing planned for the area and the proposed cyber park. That project involves, among other things, upgrading junction 10 from a two-way junction to a four-way junction, an improvement that provides some important context for the points that I wish to make about the A46.
That is happening in the south and middle of my constituency, but what about the north, with the A46 through Ashchurch and into Tewkesbury? I mentioned that my area is the fastest growing in the country, and much of that growth is taking place around junction 9 of the M5, which is served by the A46. Those roads are already very busy, with traffic queues to leave the motorway and often long and slow queues along the A46. A lot of housing lies alongside and close to that road, with much more to come. There are also some major industrial sites along the road and near the junction—companies such as Moog, L3Harris and DHL, to name just three, but there are many more—employing a great many people. In the past few months, a company called Dobbies has opened a garden centre right next to junction 9, and it has already started to build a retail outlet on the same site. It is a great development that will attract thousands of people to the area, but obviously it generates a great many vehicle journeys to and from the area.
I welcome such growth and activity. It is a tribute to local people and businesses that so many industries and people want to work and live in the area, but as I say, infrastructure is needed to support development—infrastructure that includes not only schools, flood prevention schemes, drainage systems and water service schemes, but roads infrastructure.
Some time ago, Tewkesbury Borough Council made an application for a garden town project and that was granted. It will involve the building of a further 10,000 houses in the area, which will of course increase road usage. When I spoke to the council at the time, some five years ago, I made my position clear: I would support the project, but with two provisos. First, because my area is subject to flooding, as the House will remember, no garden town proposals should make flood risk any worse; and secondly, improvements should be made to the already congested A46.
Since then, I have waited for the improvements to the A46 to be proposed. Covid slowed everything down, but work proceeded at the county council level. Tewkesbury Borough Council obtained about £3 million from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and passed that money on to the county to develop a scheme for improving the A46. However, although the county then proceeded to spend not only that £3 million but a further £6 million on developing the proposals, a very poor business case has been presented to the Government. My main reason for securing this debate is to ask the Government to reject that business case and to explain why.
The business case contained four options—the blue option, the orange option, the pink option and, rather troublingly, the grey option or grey route. The first three options—blue, orange and pink—are basically bypass options. The business case contains no proposal to increase the capacity of the A46 itself. Furthermore, the grey option unbelievably proposes reducing junction 9 to a two-way junction. Even with the current level of traffic, that is ridiculous and completely unnecessary; with the future extra traffic that I have discussed, it is beyond belief. Yet, for some reason, that seems to be the favoured option. I wish to explore why.
As I said, a garden centre has been built right next to the junction, and an outlet centre is to be built on the site next to it. If we add the extra businesses that are expanding on that route and the proposed 10,000-plus extra houses, the proposal to half-close the junction really is extraordinary. In addition to half-closing the junction, the proposal suggests a link road to a further half-junction just south of junction 9. The link road would be built on land that floods badly; it would run alongside two schools, including a special school, that have almost 2,000 pupils; and pylons would have to be moved. All that, and for what purpose?
The theory behind all the options is that some traffic comes from the Stratford area along the A46 to join the M5 at junction 9 and then goes south, and building a bypass would relieve the A46 of some of that traffic. The evidence for that theory has not yet been provided to me, despite all my requests over a couple of years. To accommodate the bypass, farmland would have to be built over, villages would be blighted and a railway line would need to be crossed. It is necessary to produce the evidence that such a bypass is needed, before I could support such a scheme.
I am not against the bypass in principle, if the evidence is there to support it, but even in those circumstances there is no need to half-close junction 9. There is a £220 million scheme turning junction 10 from two-way to four-way just a few miles south of junction 9. What is the logic in doing the opposite at junction 9?
Furthermore, a bypass would not solve the problems being created by local traffic—the point that those who are proposing the scheme appear to be missing. Even if drivers wanted to access such a bypass, they would have to use the already inadequate roads to do so. As I said, local traffic already queues to get in and out of Tewkesbury; that situation will worsen significantly, for the reasons I have given. That is why a proposal to increase the capacity of the A46 itself is needed, but despite having spent £9 million on the proposals, that option is not being considered.
Who exactly are proposing this scheme? I am told that the county council is responsible for making the proposals to Government, but is that the entire story? I have seen evidence that National Highways is very much in favour of promoting the grey option. Extraordinarily, the leader of the county council, Councillor Mark Hawthorne, has told me that he does not support the inclusion of the grey route in the considerations—he gave me permission to say that publicly. Will the Minister confirm that, at this stage, National Highways is not involved at all in designing the proposals and has no interest in promoting one route above another?
Last year, the county council proposed putting the four options out to a non-statutory consultation. It withdrew the proposal to consult on that basis, presumably after protests from me. Let me restate that there was no option of increasing the capacity of the A46 in the proposed consultation. It is important to make that point, because a number of people and parish councils were understandably disappointed that the consultation did not go ahead; they thought it would be a better consultation than it was. I was surprised to find out a few weeks ago that the county council intended to put the same options forward in another non-statutory consultation in June. That prompted me to secure today’s debate. Perhaps because the debate is taking place, that plan has—for now—been halted.
Let me clearly state my position: there must be a scheme to increase the capacity of the A46 as it goes through Ashchurch to Tewkesbury, to deal with the local traffic. In addition—not instead of, but in addition—a bypass could be considered, provided that there is evidence that the traffic indeed comes from the north-east of Tewkesbury and that it could not be redirected along the M42. The grey route—the proposal to half-close junction 9—should be taken off the table completely. To ensure that a better business case is produced, the existing business case, which is with the Government, should be rejected.
The county council is reluctant to withdraw the business case because it has spent so much money to get to this point, but that business case is deeply flawed and there is no point throwing even away more taxpayers’ money in pursuit of it. If the county will not withdraw the business case, I ask the Government to reject it and to instruct the county council to go back to the drawing board to develop proposals to increase the capacity of the A46. I would be the first to accept that increasing the capacity of the A46 would not be without its challenges, but far too little consideration has been given to the possibilities and the potential to upgrade that road.
I shall end where I started: in areas of development, particularly those with high growth, infrastructure must be in place alongside the development—not years later, but as areas are developed. We need improvements to the A46 at Tewkesbury and Ashchurch, but those improvements need to be made to that road. We need more evidence before we commit ourselves to a bypass, and we must reject any thoughts of half-closing junction 9.
News of this proposal will come as a great surprise to many people living in the area, and they will be greatly worried by it, so let us act now to remove those fears. I can only support that growth, including the garden town, if the right infrastructure is in place. That has been my consistent line all along. I ask the Minister to reject the business plan and ask the county council to take a fresh look at a scheme for the area. Such a scheme will need to be in place to accommodate growth of the kind that the Government themselves wish to see.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for introducing the debate on the proposed changes to the A46 in his constituency, and for his very clear speech. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
My hon. Friend seems to have been incredibly successful in getting extra Government funding for major schemes in his constituency. Not long ago, he and I were talking with our right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) about junction 10 and the A4019, and my hon. Friend has already mentioned the missing link and the funding, which will be of huge benefit not just for his constituents, but across the country.
I welcome the opportunity to talk about this important road project involving the A46 and the proposals being developed for it. My hon. Friend has a keen interest in the proposals for the A46 in his constituency, but I should say at the outset that the proposals, as his comments reflected, are very much led by Gloucestershire County Council. There is an important principle that we have to follow, which is that it is for the council to make decisions on its objectives, options and consultation plans.
My hon. Friend asked what role National Highways has played to date. I want to make it clear to him that, at DFT’s direction—because of the size of the scheme—National Highways has been advising extensively and supporting the council, as the scheme impacts broadly on the strategic road network and the M5. National Highways has been feeding into the council, but I need to emphasise that the route options being put forward are the responsibility of Gloucestershire County Council, not National Highways. I also need to emphasise that the Department’s processes to assess the business case for the scheme put to us by the council, and to decide whether to approve it, are not yet complete. We are not at that stage, but my hon. Friend can certainly consider me and my officials lobbied about his clear steer on that. I can therefore talk more about the process through which the scheme is progressing than about the merits of the scheme itself, but I want to be clear about some aspects of that.
One of the things I want to be clear about is that I have looked into this issue, particularly the grey route. If the council wants to remove or change the grey route, that is absolutely fine by the Department for Transport. We will happily consider that, and it does not need to be included in the options that we look at as part of the business case. That can still happen, and I am sure the council will have heard my hon. Friend’s comments today. Given that a large new garden town with 10,000 houses is being built to the east of Tewkesbury, this is clearly an important scheme and he is absolutely right to want to get questions around infrastructure answered before other developments go ahead.
I recognise the important role that the A46 plays both strategically and locally, and the challenges it faces. The A46 runs for over 150 miles, from its junction with the M5 in my hon. Friend’s constituency all the way through to Grimsby in Lincolnshire. It performs many important functions, including providing access to both the Port of Bristol and the Humber ports, and to important connections between the M1 and A1 in the west of the country. It is therefore unsurprising that the A46 is part of England’s strategic road network, which comprises most of our motorways and larger strategic A roads, as my hon. Friend will know. As part of the role that National Highways fulfils in maintaining the network, it is soon to complete electrical works at the A46 Teddington Hands junction that will provide new and renewed light-emitting diode lighting, and has previously undertaken some resurfacing work on the A46 between the junction and the M5 in my hon. Friend’s constituency. National Highways knows how important the road is.
Approaching Tewkesbury, the A46 not only plays a vital role in facilitating long-distance journeys but, as my hon. Friend said, acts as a major local road for the communities in Ashchurch and Tewkesbury. The business case for the council’s current proposals for the road, which are under assessment by my Department, reports that there are concerns about how the road performs: delays can be experienced on the A46 between the Teddington Hands roundabout and junction 9 of the M5, and there can be poor journey time reliability on the approach to and from junction 9. As my hon. Friend knows, this is also an area with significant growth plans, which he reflected extensively in his speech. Some of the developments have already gained consent but, as he said, the further large-scale plans are still going through that process at the moment.
It is in that context that the council has been developing its business case around junction 9 of the M5 and the A46 Ashchurch scheme for consideration as part of the Department’s major road network and large local majors programme. Through the programme, I am pleased to say that the Department provides substantial funding to local authority-led highway schemes right across England. Such schemes can help alleviate issues such as congestion, improve road networks and provide important infrastructure improvements, particularly for public transport, which we hope will include better integrating active travel options such as walking and cycling into our broader road network wherever possible.
In September 2022, the council submitted the strategic outline business case for the scheme—the first stage of business case development—to the Department for approval. As my hon. Friend is aware, it puts forwards a shortlist of route options that would be considered further if the scheme were to progress. That is now going through the Department’s rigorous consideration process, including to assess its compliance with the Green Book, value for money and strategic fit. But as I said to my hon. Friend, it can still be adjusted.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response and how he is addressing the issue. He mentions that bits could be taken out of the business case—one of my big points was that the grey route should be taken out—but can things be added at this stage? What is missing is any proposal to upgrade the capacity of the A46 itself.
I would be very happy for my departmental officials to meet further with my hon. Friend, and I am sure we can look at other options. This is at SOBC stage, so it is very much about the strategic case for the road and outline proposals for schemes. At this stage, I am sure we can look at such questions, particularly if, as my hon. Friend says, the leader of the GCC is happy to consider different options and the proposal comes from the council, which is, in the end, the lead authority. I cannot force the council to do it, but I will ensure that my officials do everything possible to work with my hon. Friend to provide as many of the right options as possible so that they can be considered by the Department. All the options also need to provide value for money for taxpayers. We will then decide on whether to agree to the scheme going further, and the necessary Treasury approval will be sought down the line. I expect that the process will be completed this year.
As I have already noted, this is the council’s scheme. It is for the council to decide on the options it wishes to propose for consideration in its business case, while having regard for the Department’s guidance, and I suggest that my hon. Friend should keep pushing the council in that direction. Similarly, decisions on the timing of public consultation on the scheme are for the council. The Department’s role is to assist the council with the large local schemes that have an impact on our strategic road network and to consider the business case down the line as the council has asked us to do.
Given that any scheme would mostly affect the strategic road network, the expectation is that in the long term the scheme’s detailed design and construction would later be led by National Highways, after being led in the early stages by the council, which would of course be subject to satisfactory business case development. As I said, National Highways has been extensively advising and supporting the council on these developments, focusing on providing advice and assurance for the project, but I must be clear that the options shortlisted to date are the council’s options. I also understand that at this early stage options have been shortlisted for further, more detailed appraisal. I wish to reassure my hon. Friend that no decisions have yet been made on a preferred option. I am sure that the council will want to take note of the other points he raised, particularly on flooding and broader impacts on the A46, as it progresses further with this scheme.
If the scheme progresses, it will be considered for inclusion as part of the next road investment strategy, alongside other schemes in the area. On 9 March, the Secretary of State for Transport laid before Parliament a written ministerial statement announcing that overall affordability issues mean that although schemes originally being considered as part of the RIS3 programme pipeline will continue to be developed, we will be looking at RIS4 timescales for their construction. That announcement applies to the scheme, as the council has already been made aware.
Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for providing an opportunity to discuss these important proposals for what is clearly a key road in his constituency. I hope that I have provided some assistance in how he can best engage and work with the council on behalf of his constituents, as he always does, to ensure that the plans reflect local needs and desires. I hope I have also provided some reassurance as to we have in place for possible delivery in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
School and College Funding: The Midlands
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered school and college funding in the Midlands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am pleased to have secured this important debate and grateful to the House authorities for granting it. I welcome to Westminster schoolteachers from across the midlands who have come down to listen to the debate and to hear what the Government have to say about how they will fix the crisis in our schools and colleges. I hope their journey will not have been wasted.
Before I go on, I put on record my huge admiration for our teachers, teaching assistants, lecturers and everyone who dedicates themselves to education in our schools and colleges in the midlands and beyond. They deserve so much better than their treatment by successive Conservative Governments. I also put on record my absolute support for and solidarity with the teachers and education staff in the National Education Union as they fight for fair pay and for the future of our schools and colleges. Teachers do not take action lightly; they take it as a last resort, and only because they have been pushed to breaking point while watching their pupils be failed by Ministers. They are taking action because of their commitment to education, not in spite of it. Polling shows that the public know this too—the majority back striking teachers.
I sought this debate because I want to address a simple fact: our schools and colleges are in crisis. The reason why they are in this state is no mystery. Between 2010 and 2020, school spending per pupil in England fell by 9% in real terms, funding per student aged 16 to 18 in further education and sixth-form colleges fell by 14%, and funding per school student in sixth forms fell by a whopping 28%. The consequences are all too clear: secondary school class sizes are the highest they have been in over 40 years, and primary class sizes are the highest in Europe. At the same time as pay was cut, year on year, teachers have worked more unpaid overtime than any other profession in the UK.
The impact on students and staff is hard to overstate. Teachers who went into the profession because they love education and teaching are finding it harder and harder to go on. One teacher from the west midlands told me
“the expectations are huge…the pressure unmanageable…and the rewards diminishing in every sense.
It is becoming harder and harder to find the positive every day.”
Another told me of the vicious cycle that develops: underfunding results in bigger classes and less support for students with special needs, which leads to more pressure on teachers and more staff absence.
The demands on teachers go way beyond what we should expect. While teachers’ pay has been cut, Government underfunding means that teachers increasingly have to dip into their own pockets to buy supplies. One in five are now estimated to buy everything from books and pens to rulers and glue sticks, and nearly half even buy food, clothes and soap for poorer pupils—stepping in where the state has catastrophically failed.
All of that has a predictable result. Staff recruitment and retention is in crisis and set to get worse: a quarter of all teachers and school leaders say they are considering leaving the profession for reasons other than retirement. That is backed up by the Government’s own statistics, which show that retention rates have declined since 2011 and that fewer than 60% of teachers are still in the profession after 10 years. Recruitment is in dire straits, too. The Government are now reaching less than 60% of their own target for secondary recruitment, and for some subjects the figures are even worse—just 36% for modern foreign languages, 30% for computing and an astonishing 17% for physics. That impacts learning, with a rising proportion of lessons being taught by teachers who do not have a relevant qualification. The problem has got so bad that one Coventry teacher told me of a student who by Wednesday had 10 out of their 15 lessons taught by cover staff. Perhaps nowhere in Coventry is the crisis in staff recruitment and retention felt more severely than at Coventry College.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. She is making an incredibly important point about recruitment. We recently saw the Prime Minister out with his strategy for getting more maths taught, but the Government are already failing to hit their own targets for maths teachers. Does it not say everything about this Government that we have, on the one hand, a big announcement about what is going to happen in schools and, on the other, abject failure to recruit maths teachers?
I completely agree. It is a slogan without substance, and the Government have had to accept that those targets will not be met.
Coventry College recently announced that it would cease offering apprenticeship provision from August, citing the extreme difficulty in recruiting and retaining teaching staff. This will have a severe impact on young people in the city, depriving them of opportunities, and it runs contrary to the Government’s own skills mission as set out in the levelling-up policy agenda.
Again, there is no mystery about what is happening with recruitment and retention: educators are voting with their feet after working harder and harder for less and less. Alongside rising workloads, teachers have seen their pay cut year after year—by around 13% in real terms since 2010. The Government’s pay offer would only make things worse. In September, they offered a “pay rise” of 5%, when inflation was, of course, running at 12.6%—that so-called pay rise was really a 7% pay cut. The Government’s latest offer of an additional one-off cash payment of £1,000 would not even be consolidated into pay next year, and is dwarfed by the average energy bill alone. What makes it even worse is that, according to NEU calculations, these proposals are not even fully funded; instead, they would require most schools to make further cuts to pay for them.
It is therefore little wonder that the latest pay offer was rejected by a staggering 98% of voting NEU members. This decisive rejection must surely make the Government come back to the negotiating table with an above-inflation pay rise. That would only start to undo the damage of a decade of falling pay, as the Government must also restore pay for further education teachers and help to address the severe challenges faced by colleges across the country, including Coventry College.
It is not just staff recruitment and retention that have been impacted by Government underfunding. Just last month, a Conservative Member secured a debate in this very Chamber to highlight that inadequate school funding had resulted in a severe decline in the quality and quantity of free school meals, impacting children’s health and education. The Member cited a school in his constituency that pays £2.80 a meal, but receives just £2.41 a meal in funding. I am an active campaigner for free school meals to be extended to all children, guaranteeing every child a hot, healthy meal each day. However, those meals must be just that—healthy and nutritious—and that requires funding. Just like funding our schools and colleges more broadly, this is an investment from which we all benefit, with studies showing that healthy free school meals improve children’s learning and health, helping with concentration and behaviour.
Just as the meals that children eat at school are affected by underfunding, so too are the buildings in which they are supposed to learn. The latest annual report published by the Department for Education says:
“There is a risk of collapse of one or more blocks in some schools”,
with the Department escalating the risk of incident from “critical—likely” to “critical—very likely”. Again, there is no mystery as to why this is happening. The House of Commons Library calculates that, between 2010 and 2022, overall capital spending in schools declined by half in real terms. There have been reports of minor collapses in recent years, but it surely should not take a more serious incident, injuring staff and children—or worse—before action is finally taken.
Staff, students, parents and the public deserve so much better than crumbling school buildings and paltry school lunches. They deserve so much better than their dedicated teachers working overtime but barely making ends meet. They deserve better than record class sizes and dwindling opportunities. That means having a Government who show they care about education by putting their money where their mouth is and investing in the future of our young people and the professionals who dedicate themselves to their education. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s plans on how to address those fundamental challenges.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) on securing today’s important debate.
As MP for Stafford in the west midlands, I am delighted to speak on school and college funding in the midlands. I strongly welcome today’s debate, especially as fairer funding for schools and colleges has been one of my top five pledges as MP for Stafford. I am delighted that the Government recently announced that Stafford College would secure £28 million of new funding. That is for our new skills and innovation centre, which I recently visited and which will officially open later this year. That brand-new centre will develop construction and engineering workshops and hybrid vehicle technology facilities. It also has a 300-seat auditorium. I am confident that those new, state-of-the-art facilities will do much to foster and encourage digital and manufacturing skills across the midlands.
I am particularly grateful that Stafford College was chosen out of 16 colleges in England to receive that funding as part of the Government’s £1.5 billion further education capital transformation fund, which was launched to rebuild and transform colleges into fit-for-purpose spaces that meet the needs of today and the future. I was delighted that the Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), visited me in my constituency a few weeks ago to see this fantastic site and the progress it has been making over the past few months.
The Secretary of State told me that nothing demonstrates the Government’s commitment more than equipping young people with the skills they need by investing in this new building. I would also like to thank Craig Hodgson, the principal of the college, for hosting us and Councillor Jeremy Pert from Stafford Borough Council for all the work he has done to support me on this project.
During her visit, the Secretary of State took time to speak to a group of students who are studying for apprenticeships, A-levels and T-levels. She spoke about her experiences of studying for an apprenticeship course, which inspired my local students. She listened to what they had to say about what they wanted the Government to invest in, the courses they were studying, the skills they hope to gain and their plans for the future. I thank her for her visit to my constituency, which was a fantastic example of the Government listening to what residents have asked for—investment in our further education.
In addition to supporting Stafford College, I have invested a lot of time over the past three years as MP for Stafford in visiting local schools, including Barnfields, St Patrick’s, St Pauls, Flash Ley, Marshlands and, just a few weeks ago, Wolgarston High School in Penkridge. There I met the headteacher to discuss funding needs for the school and to understand the struggles she faces when teachers go on strike without notice. I also spoke to the school’s mental health and wellbeing officer, who provides important support to the students. I am a long-term advocate for mental health in Stafford, and I call on the Government for more support in schools for mental health. It is not mandatory in every school. Wolgarston is a fantastic example of a headteacher taking the issue very seriously and choosing to invest time and money. I hope the Government roll that out in other schools. I also met very ambitious A-level politics students, whose questions were more aggressive than those on “Question Time”, and I enjoyed being kept on my toes by those local students.
Lastly, I want to touch on another area of education that I strongly support: special educational needs and disabilities. I welcome the Government’s SEND and alternative provision improvement plan published in March. I recently met the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), who understands the importance to families of knowing the level of support they can expect for their child.
We discussed some of the casework on autism and mental health that has come up in my recent surgeries. The improvement plan will provide more consistent provision across the country. We know that some students do best in mainstream schools, but the Government have now recognised that some need that additional support, and I welcome the thousands of extra specialist school places. The Government have also announced a plan to invest in 400 educational psychologists to speed up assessments, and I am pleased that that plan is backed by real funding.
We all know that education is critical, and I thank the Government for investing in Stafford and taking seriously the needs of my constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) on securing this important debate. I, too, echo her words and thank all the fantastic teachers, support staff, lecturers and many others who work in the education profession, from nursery through primary and secondary school to college and university, across the great city of Stoke-on-Trent and wider north Staffordshire, including Kidsgrove, Talke and Newchapel. It is an absolutely fantastic profession, and one that I was proud to spend nearly nine years in on the frontline, working day in, day out with our fantastic young people, who we were looking to make sure excelled into the future.
I am therefore proud to declare my interest as a paid-up member of the NASUWT and as someone whose partner works as an employee of Teach First, a fantastic teacher training organisation. She was also a secondary school teacher at a number of schools in Birmingham and London. I hope all those declarations are now on the books.
The reality is that school funding has increased by 44% per pupil since 2010-11, to £7,460 per pupil. The educational budget in 2023-24 is £57.3 billion, up 64% on 2010-11. In the 2021 spending review, it was a remarkable achievement of the Department for Education to secure £7 billion in additional spending. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor then came in to add another £4 billion on top of that over the next two years—2023-24 and 2024-25—which even the Institute for Fiscal Studies says is an 8% increase in real terms for England and Wales. The IFS also noted that spending in England kept pace with the 13% rise in pupil numbers between 2010 and 2023.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for quoting the IFS, because that same IFS report said that the loss of funding in the further education sector was the biggest of any education sector, and that even the extra funding in 2020 and 2021 had been eroded by the rapid growth in student numbers. He needs to provide a much fuller description of that IFS report if he wants to refer to it, as I shall be doing when I make my contribution.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me the opportunity to repeat the fact from the IFS that, in England, spending kept pace with the 13% rise in pupil numbers between 2010 and 2023. That is in answer to his specific question. It is positive that we are in a place where the IFS has recognised the investment that has gone into the education sector.
Ultimately, for levelling up to be achieved fully and to be delivered in places such as Mansfield or Stoke-on-Trent, we must create young people with the knowledge and skills they need to access the higher-skilled and high-wage jobs that we are so proudly bringing to our local area, such as the 9,000 jobs created since 2015 under Conservative rule of both the city council and the Government, including 2,000 linked to the Ceramic Valley enterprise zone and 500 thanks to brand-new Home Office jobs. We are tapping into the talent pool through colleges, local jobcentres and our university to ensure that we have local people in local jobs, which will be fantastic for our local area. That is exactly what we want to see.
At the Conservative party conference last year, I sat next to my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic champion of the T-level programme. The Minister—I served on the Education Committee when he was in the Chair—was also a fantastic advocate. T-levels such as the digital T-level offered by the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College will truly transform people’s lives with that access to on-the-job training as well as the in-classroom opportunity. It is a fantastic scheme. I fully support the Department in all its efforts and success to date in rolling this out. As I promised, I give way to the hon. Member for North Shropshire.
The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate speech. I have met the headteachers of all my secondary schools in North Shropshire, and they tell me that last year’s pay rise was unfunded and that they are really struggling to recruit teachers in the key areas of languages, maths and science. Does he find that the teachers in his area are reporting the same kinds of difficulties and concerns about educating their young people going forward?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her fantastic intervention. Of course, her area faces challenges different from those faced by the city of Stoke-on-Trent, given that hers is a much more rural constituency with, I assume, higher rents and house prices in some areas than the average of Stoke-on-Trent.
When I was at the Department for Education, albeit for only 51 days under a certain former Prime Minister, I was delighted that one of the briefs was the recruitment and retention of teachers. In my very brief time there, I signed off on the 5% pay increase, as put forward by the independent pay body review, which was accepted in full—the highest increase in teacher salaries in 30 years—as well as on the manifesto commitment to deliver a £30,000-a-year starting salary, which is so important if we are to drive recruitment.
Of course, recruitment and retention have been an issue for many years, particularly in science, maths and certain other subjects. One of the challenges is that, rather than getting into the game of “Who’s going to give more grants, and to which subjects?”, we need to have a frank and honest conversation.
Ultimately, the Labour party says that it has a plan to recruit and retain more teachers. I would be delighted if Labour Members could reveal the specific details. They have told me where they will get the money from: they are going to remove the non-dom status—that is fine; that is their entitlement. What they have not said is what they will do differently. Are they going to increase salaries, including starting salaries? Are they going to increase the grants? Are they going to give more grants to more subjects? Are they going to nick talent from around the world by paying people to come here from other countries? That is their prerogative if they so wish, but the detail has yet to be supplied, despite the fact that I have repeatedly asked for it on the Floor of the House and been given some brush-off answers designed to get some Twitter clip—I seem to trend on Twitter quite successfully, almost as successfully as the hon. Member for Coventry South.
The devil is always in the detail, and I look forward to hearing from the shadow Minister about what the non-dom-status money is specifically going to do. If that money drops year on year, how will the funding be covered by any loss incurred by people moving outside the country? These are harsh realities that we have to address and accept.
I go back to the issue of the midlands area. It sometimes feels as if Stoke-on-Trent is rather unfairly treated as the ugly duckling of the west midlands, but we are the gatekeepers to the northern powerhouse, based on where we are located geographically. In the midlands, £6 billion has been allocated for in-forecast schools with higher needs funding—a 7.4% increase from 2022-23. There has been a 5.7% per pupil increase in the west midlands, but the city of Stoke-on-Trent is getting 6.8%, so we are getting 1.1 percentage points more than other parts of the region. That is great news for our schools and, most importantly, for our pupils, because local authorities will have the teachers and resources they need to invest in their local communities and schools, and to deliver the world-class education that, ultimately, is so important.
Of course, it is important to remember that there is a £5 billion education recovery fund, which includes £400 million for teacher training, £1.5 billion for tutoring and, thanks to the Education Endowment Foundation, £2 billion for evidence-based interventions that we know make a difference on the ground. The tutoring was indeed a problem. When I was on the Education Committee, I was as critical as anyone else about the fact that the Government needed to introduce reform and give the money directly to headteachers, who could either bring in their own tutors or pay teachers additional money to work beyond their normal hours.
When I was the Minister for School Standards and spoke to teachers on the ground in Sandwell, Wolverhampton, London and elsewhere about why they had put themselves forward, I heard that it was because they knew the pupils, their background and the support needed. They felt that they were able to deliver the best. The Government legacy has to be a long-term plan for tutoring. If we do not get that right, the gap between advantage and disadvantage will, sadly, continue to grow after all the hard work that the Government did between 2010 and 2019, when the attainment gap narrowed drastically. That is something I was certainly proud of when I was in the classroom and working day in, day out on the frontline.
It is also important to remember that we have to look at teacher numbers. We know that there are 465,500 full-time teachers in the workforce—up 24,200 since 2010. That is more teachers in the classroom, which is a good thing for us all. As I say, there are all the grants that we are handing out, including around £28,000 for some science-based subjects, in order to bring in more people. There is also the new starting salary and, in education investment areas, the levelling-up premium: an additional, tax-free, bonus salary given to the subject areas where we struggle most, so that someone in Stoke-on-Trent and possibly Mansfield—I am guessing that Mansfield is an education investment area.
It is—fantastic! I am glad to know I got the right place. Those are the types of areas that can offer something unique—something to put on the job advert that says to people why they should come to our area.
Of course, there is also the PE and sport premium for primary schools. I keep referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield because I enjoyed watching him from 2017 being a doughty champion for education when I was in the classroom. That £600 million, two-year funding settlement means that more primary schools can better plan for what they are going to do to invest in young people. I thank the Lionesses and Baroness Sue Campbell for their incredible diligence in leading that campaign. I thank the fantastic local companies in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, such as Bee Active, which delivers the high-quality PE lessons that young people truly deserve—not just in Stoke-on-Trent, but across Staffordshire. That is fantastic, and it again shows that the further investment going into our schools is creating healthier bodies and minds.
There is also the holiday activity food programme, which has been excellently led by the Hubb Foundation. Former Port Vale football player, Adam Yates, has been leading the charge, ensuring that nearly a million meals have been provided across the city to those who need them. In nearly every single school holiday, that programme has been providing thousands of opportunities for young people, working with local schools to target the pupil premium and the free-school-meal students who most deserve those opportunities. That is education at its finest, which is why we should be using the school building more. We should use the building when it is holiday time. We should see the building used to its full potential.
The hon. Member made a point about free school meals. Scotland, Wales and even London have a policy of extending those to all primary school pupils. Can I count on the hon. Member’s support for my campaign to extend that provision to all primary school pupils in England?
It is important to remember that there are far fewer young people in those areas than there are in England. I do not support the hon. Lady’s campaign, and I will say clearly why. Ultimately, why should my children, who are currently aged one and two—it is not long before they could be receiving infant free school meals—get a free school meal given that their father is earning around £85,000 a year and their mother is earning around half that? Why should they be entitled to a free school meal?
I would rather my money went to getting a free school breakfast and a free school meal to people legitimately in need. By targeting the support to those who need it most, we can help the most. Blanket giving people something does not help those most in need; it helps the middle and upper classes, ultimately. That is where it is wrong. I want to see those on lower incomes get the help and support that they need.
One of the things we need to do in our schools is tackle the fact that we have corner shops all too ready to sell big bags of Doritos and Pringles, massive chocolate bars and 1.5 litre bottles of pop to young people. I used to confiscate them by the boatload. I was able to throw parties at the end of every term for year groups because of the amount of confiscated stuff. Corner shops are profiteering from unhealthy junk food targeted at those young people; parents are working hard to give children their hard-earned cash, but those young people are not putting that cash on to their fingerprints, which is how people pay for their meal in most schools now. That is not right; that is wrong.
I want young people to get the support and help they need—those who truly deserve and need it. The vast majority of my constituents will absolutely deserve a free school meal in most cases. Sadly, the average wage is still well below where it should be in Stoke-on-Trent, despite the fact that it increased by 11.8% between 2015 and 2018—outperforming the west midlands and UK averages. I am working hard to bring in those high-skilled jobs. Of course, someone like me has absolutely no right to have their child get a free school meal. I would be embarrassed for a school to give its hard-earned money to my children, when I can afford to put food on their plates. If I cannot, I have failed as a father, frankly, in the position I am fortunate enough to be in and with the money that I earn.
I must tell the hon. Lady that in all my time in the teaching profession—and I was a head of year, so I dealt with behaviour and attendance—I never once had an incident where a pupil came to me to say that they had been singled out because they were on free school meals. Ultimately, that was never publicised. Unless the pupil shared that information, other pupils in the classroom were unaware of it. The pupil went up to the till, put their fingerprint on, and no one else knew what was going on; there was money in the account as far as the other students were aware. There was no stigma attached, and there should be no stigma attached.
Everyone needs help and support in their lives at some stage. During the covid pandemic, my own father had to rely for the very first time on the welfare state to prop him up; he had been working as a music teacher contracted out to teach individuals and could not do face-to-face teaching. As he is caring for my stepmother as we speak—she has had quite serious surgery—the welfare state is propping him up after the years he has paid into it. Those are appropriate moments to use the welfare state, and the welfare state should support those most in need, but of course I accept the importance of ensuring that a child has food in their belly in the morning. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind about that.
The Education Endowment Foundation fully backs up what the hon. Member for Coventry South, the hon. Member for North Shropshire and I want to achieve. If students have food in their stomachs, their concentration levels, attendance, behaviour and ability to achieve are better. As I say, free school meals should not be given to those who can afford to put food on their children’s tables. That money should be used to provide breakfast and lunch for those most in need, because those children deserve it.
Does the hon. Gentleman not see a contradiction between his saying, “I would be embarrassed as a parent if my children needed free school meals,” and on the other hand saying, “There is no stigma attached to having free school meals”? The reality is that there are many parents who do not apply for free school meals and might not consider that they are in poverty but who may well be eligible for them. Do the hon. Gentleman’s comments not rather miss the point?
I am sure that the hon. Member would never want to mislead this Chamber, and I accept that there was probably a mistake there. I think that I was perfectly clear when I said that, with the money that I earn, I would be embarrassed if I was unable to put food on my children’s table, day in, day out. I think that that was perfectly clear and the transcript will show it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on his words. If I were to see my words misconstrued in any way, I would have to contact Mr Speaker’s office to get remediation, because it would be wrong to politically twist what was said abundantly clearly. Hansard will pick up my words. I would be embarrassed, personally, if I was unable to put food on the table, based on the salary that I earn. That would be taking a meal out of the mouth of a child in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, who rightfully would deserve that meal. That is why I would be embarrassed: it would mean that those who need it most would not get the level of help that they truly deserve.
My mother was on a council estate in London, and she got off it thanks to grammar school—something that the hon. Member for Coventry South herself will know well about, having been such a beneficiary of that world-class education, which I hope to bring to Stoke-on-Trent. My father, who failed his O-levels, went back to being a cleaner at his school during the day and did night school in the evening. He went all the way through to becoming a council worker while doing night school for his A-levels, and then he went to the Open University and became the first ever in my family to get a degree.
My grandfather spent 93 hours a week driving lorries, my grandmother worked in hotels, my other grandmother was a teaching assistant, and my other grandfather, sadly, passed away when my mother was 17 years old. That is exactly why I am proud of my legacy—of what my family have done to give me every advantage that I have had in life. I am aware of the privilege that I have had, and I want to ensure that the pupils I am proud to represent in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke get everything that they deserve.
I want Stoke-on-Trent to be great. It is a small but mighty city, and levelling up will be achieved only by getting the education in our sector right. That is why I am so damning of the “Not Education Union” spending its time convincing teachers to walk on picket lines rather than being in classrooms and helping pupils to recover from the pandemic. We have accepted that the gravest mistake was that pupils were not in the classroom during the pandemic. Face-to-face learning is so critical, and the quality of provision was a postcode lottery for some pupils—whether they were given virtual lessons immediately or months down the line. That was no fault of the hard-working teachers. Sadly, it was the fault of Ministers who decided not to let pupils and teachers into the classroom together. I hope that we will never again see a day when face-to-face teaching is brought into disrepute.
I hope that Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted can put their bias and political game-playing to one side. They are living out their socialist utopian fantasy that they are so desperate for—
Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that the scope of this debate is quite narrow? I am sure that he would like to pursue what he is discussing, but I am afraid that today is not the time. We need to stay within the scope of the motion. I am sure that he wants to get back to funding for his midlands constituency.
Thank you very much, Mr Pritchard; yes, I am happy to go back to the funding that has been so important to our local area. We are lucky that the schools in Stoke-on-Trent are quite new, so we are not in the desperate situation that, I accept, other areas are in. I believe that £1.8 billion of additional funding is now going into improving the school estate, which is important to improving our local areas. In Stoke-on-Trent, I want that funding to look at the challenge of the day, which is workload.
Money is going into schools. We now know that there has been an increase, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies itself has said, of above 8% in real terms. We know that that is keeping pace with a 13% rise in pupil numbers. Stoke-on-Trent has seen a 6.8% increase. The money is in the system. Now I want to see that money go where it is needed most. Schools obviously got support through the energy bill relief scheme; up to potentially 40% per month in the case of some schools was the saving from the cap on energy costs, which was a huge intervention. The total figure was about £500 million, if I remember correctly.
I want the money now to be used to think about workload. How can we drive down workload to free up teacher time—to ensure that teachers are spending more time in the classroom and more time doing interventions, rather than getting caught up in unnecessary, bureaucratic meetings? This is where I challenge the Minister to go to the DFE, print off every single piece of guidance issued and have a challenge to halve it. I asked the Department to do that when I was there. People laughed and said that it would fill up my office. It is a concern if schools have to deal with that level of guidance. That means that they cannot spend their time or money focusing on what really matters, which is why we need to ensure that we get the guidance halved.
Of course, there is also the issue of behaviour. Investing in behaviour hubs and behaviour specialisms is massively important to improving outcomes, because it is what is driving teachers out of the classroom and preventing people from coming into the profession. Sadly, they hear too often from Opposition Members how bad teaching is, how terrible teaching is. Talk about a negative advert for the teaching profession—talk about an advert to say why people should not go into teaching! When you are telling everyone how bad it is, do not be shocked that no one wants to go into it. What we need to do is to invest in behaviour hubs, so that we can ensure that young people have good law and order in their classroom, the teacher feels safe and secure and, ultimately, every single pupil has a right to learn, rather than one pupil having a right to disrupt and disregard the ambitions of everyone else.
Thank you, Mr Pritchard, for my time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) on securing this really important debate. It is a pleasure also to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), whose constituency includes Kidsgrove and Talke—we have to ensure we get all of them in or he tells us off. His passion for this subject is visible for us all to see. I thank him for his kind words about my advocacy around education. You will be pleased to hear, though, Mr Pritchard, that I will be significantly briefer than he was. He managed to talk for 20 minutes, and still I agree with every single thing that he said, so I am grateful that he did.
The first thing for me to say is that I never intended to be in this place. If anyone has ever listened to any after-dinner speech that I have given, they will know that I never wanted to be an MP. I always wanted to be a teacher—that was my intention all the way from primary school, in fact. It is only by pure accident that I have ended up in this place instead. Therefore it is absolutely clear to me that education should be the biggest priority of any Government. I have always said that if I had just £1, I would put it into schools; that would be my first priority. I had the privilege of serving on the Education Committee when it was under the chairmanship of the Minister and I know his passion for education, too.
I have been in this Chamber many times advocating around teacher recruitment and retention in particular. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North is absolutely right when he says that teacher workload is so important and often overlooked. We always talk about pay, but actually most of the teachers I speak to recognise that we have some of the shortest school days in Europe but some of the longest teacher working hours. That cannot be right. There must be something that we can do to reduce that workload and give teachers back autonomy and the ability to be in the classroom and to teach, instead of dealing with paperwork and data. That must be an absolute priority for the Minister.
I want to highlight some of the positive progress in my constituency, because there has been positive progress. There has been a particularly positive trajectory in the number of schools that are rated good. Certainly we could count the number of those secondary schools on one hand prior to my election in 2017, but we have made good progress. We have had a Government agenda on education that benefits constituencies such as mine—not least the shift towards technical and vocational qualifications and towards what I often call cultural capital, as opposed to just the academic. It will take time to embed it in our schools and our education systems, but so often it is the most disadvantaged children who just do not have that life experience to be able to achieve more, to be ambitious and to understand all their options and opportunities in life. I am grateful that Ofsted has started to shift slowly in that direction as well.
I am grateful also for the early years funding budget, which was increased in the Budget earlier this year, because our education system is not just schools and colleges; it starts right from day one of a child’s life. Thinking of some of the most disadvantaged estates in my Mansfield constituency, I know that our early years provision in particular is the key to ensuring that children have a fair shot in life.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed in the autumn statement that schools will receive an extra £2 billion over the next two years. School budgets will rise by £3.5 billion next year, which is absolutely massive. That is why this Labour rhetoric around school cuts winds me up. The language of “school cuts, school cuts”, the websites with misleading figures, and all the rest of it suggest that somebody in Government has taken a decision and said, “No, we’re not going to give money to schools anymore,” but that could not be further from the truth. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North listed the figures: since 2010 education budgets have been increased by about 60%. There has never been more money in our education system.
It is not fair to suggest that Ministers have decided to cut schools. Saying, “We can’t keep up with 12% inflation when our public services are massively squeezed,” is not a school cut. Ministers have not decided to take money away from schools. Highlighting that difference in intention is really important to our public conversation. It is just not true to suggest that Conservative Ministers are not willing to invest in our schools.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, Ashfield and Mansfield are education investment areas. The aim is to improve outcomes in parts of the country where, unfortunately, literacy and numeracy are poor. Eleven local authorities in the midlands are part of that programme. More local funding is good, but I say to the Minister—I want to drive the Government to do this—is that it is always best when there is local autonomy in how funding is spent. In my constituency, some of the funding has been spent on structures, supporting the governance of academy trusts and things such as that, but I would love it go to classrooms. I would love it to be given to schools so that teachers and heads can use it at their own discretion, as that is the most effective way to spend schools funding.
I am pleased, therefore, that there is local autonomy when it comes to the new budget uplifts. Mansfield is getting just over £3 million in extra funding for schools in the next academic year, as part of the £2 billion uplift. I think the first payments are landing this week, which is excellent news. Schools will have the freedom to choose whether to spend the money on extra staff, better pay or whatever else they decide. It has always been my view that it should be for schools to decide.
In my part of the world, there has also been significant capital investment in school buildings and facilities. Over £13 billion has been invested since 2015, but we are always playing catch-up, because the schools estate in much of the country is very old. I have always found it very frustrating that when I when I take some of the most difficult examples to the DFE, I am told, “You think that’s bad? Go have a look at X down the road. There are so many examples.” That is frustrating, but there has been significant capital investment in the schools estate around the country.
I was delighted when, in December, three Mansfield schools—the Meden School, the Garibaldi School and All Saints’ Catholic Academy—were selected to be among the 239 to be rebuilt or substantially refurbished. That was brilliant news, but I urge the Government and the DFE to help us accelerate that programme, because the sooner that investment is visible on the ground, the better. I have spoken to the schools about their plans and they are good to go; they are ready. They are applying for planning permission, and as soon as they get the word from the DFE, they will start to build.
That programme is so important for students and communities, not just because of the state of school buildings and because they will get new classrooms, but because of the feeling it generates that somebody is investing in the community, particularly in areas of significant disadvantage. There are levelling-up outcomes when people can say, “Somebody has put millions of pounds into my community, and invested in my children’s futures.” That is so meaningful and powerful for communities. It demonstrates a commitment to Mansfield and communities like it.
In the recent local elections, I spoke to a lot of people on the doorstep who said, “Look, there are lots of conversations about this stuff and I hear about the figures, but show me the buildings and the outcomes.” That is what we need to achieve by the next election. We need to grow our communities’ confidence so that they support us for another term. Let us get those schools built.
Across Nottinghamshire, two new primary schools are opening in September, and new extensions and secondary places in existing schools have been funded in no small part by central Government. I am also grateful for the energy price support provided to help us to face this difficult economic challenge: £500 million has been shared out for energy efficiency measures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned facilities, and in particular sports facilities. I am a huge advocate of opening up school facilities to our communities. Our schools are not just education providers; they are hubs of our communities. That is particularly true of primary schools. Engaging parents in education when their children are of primary age is so important. For many estates in my constituency, the school and school fields are the only sports provision and community buildings, so let us get them open for as many hours as possible. Let us get partners, councils, community groups in there, delivering more on evenings and weekends. Let us use those taxpayer-funded facilities to their maximum. I am grateful for the additional funding for that.
I mentioned the direction of travel on skills and technical and vocational education. I am a massive believer in work-based learning. For many people, technical and vocational qualifications—apprenticeships and similar such qualifications—will provide far better outcomes and life opportunities than university. The key thing for many students in my constituency is choice and having the right information to help them get the best outcome. The Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 has started to drive things in the right direction, getting more careers advice and third-party organisations into schools. That is hugely important.
I want to highlight the good work of West Nottinghamshire College in Mansfield. When I became a Member of Parliament six years ago, the college was in financial trouble and was really struggling. Under new leadership it has grown and developed into an incredible asset for our community. It is important to recognise the good work of the principal, Andrew Cropley, who has turned a failing college into a huge asset by opening the facilities for the community. It is not just about our young people, their learning and what can they deliver; it is about wider investment and regeneration work. Andrew leads the place board, delivering on levelling-up fund and towns fund outcomes.
The college has become a centre for growth and change in our community. It has also become a university campus, which is game changing for the young people in my constituency. These figures are a few years out of date now—they are pre-covid—but used to be that only 11% of people in Mansfield went to university, and typically they went to university somewhere else and never returned to Mansfield. That is hugely damaging to our economy, our culture and our fabric, and has massive, wide-reaching implications. I lead the council, so I know this means that there is nobody to look after older people, which is hugely problematic.
We are providing education locally, not by setting up a “University of North West Mansfield” and delivering junk qualifications that will not get people anywhere, but by working with the award-winning Nottingham Trent University via a local campus, where people can earn and learn and get on with their higher education while staying in Mansfield. We are building pathways from school through college into higher education, so people can get their qualifications and then go to work at the hospital next door. These opportunities are amazing and game changing for young people in my community. Both Andrew Cropley and Edward Peck at Nottingham Trent University deserve a lot of credit for their commitment and investment in Mansfield. It is hugely important.
The colleges get significant capital investment as well as the NTU presence, which means better access to higher education. We are delivering new centres for advanced manufacturing and automation and training for aerospace roles in Newark, just down the road. There is a Mansfield knowledge exchange, which provides training opportunities for science, technology, engineering and maths and innovation through the levelling-up and towns funds. It is not just Department for Education funding that is going towards these outcomes; there is a wider range of Government support through the levelling-up agenda.
I have not even had a chance to talk about lifelong learning, the change it will deliver for many people in Mansfield and the opportunities it will bring for jobs and growth. There is also the STEP fusion energy programme, which is a £20 billion investment in creating jobs in clean energy in my constituency. Those kinds of jobs and opportunities have not existed for decades—since the pits shut, quite frankly. It means that I am confident that young people in primary school in Mansfield now will have better opportunities than their parents and their grandparents. That is hugely important in the wider levelling-up agenda.
We all recognise that there are significant economic challenges right now. I am sure everybody in this room would agree that our pounds should be put into schools and our young people. They are the future, and we need to deliver opportunities for them. It is not always easy. We have to balance all the other services we deliver. I am a local authority leader, and I see that we are trying to deliver children’s services, which is my passion and the area I want to work on and deliver in, as well as adult social care and trying to sort out the roads and everything else. These are not easy equations to balance, but it is clear from the figures that the Government have sought to support and invest in schools.
I hope I have highlighted some examples of positive things going on in my constituency. I know the Minister agrees that education and schools and colleges should be a huge priority for the Government. I look forward to working with him to deliver on that. For some of these projects, capital builds in particular, the money has been announced and we have 18 months or so to get things built in our constituency. I hope the DFE will drive forward those outcomes and help to accelerate things like the school rebuilding fund, not put barriers in the way of schools delivering. That will be hugely important as we get into the second half of this Government’s Administration.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) for securing this really important debate. She has neatly separated out the views from across the House on the issues facing our schools and the funding they receive. I respond to the debate in not only as the shadow Minister for further education and skills, but as the Member of Parliament for Chesterfield in the east midlands. Funding for schools and colleges in the midlands is an issue I feel passionately about and am very much aware of.
I will reflect first on some of the contributions made by hon. Members. My hon. Friend spoke about a number of issues that together show the scale of the challenge facing our schools. She spoke about the 9% reduction in school spending per pupil, the 14% fall in college spending per pupil and the even bigger spending cut of 28% in our sixth-form colleges. She reflected on the reality facing many of our teachers: one in five routinely buy equipment for their pupils. We all see that when we go into our schools and speak to teachers or they come to our surgeries. We see the extent to which people who were originally trained as educationalists are increasingly taking on that social work function and are expected to be the last line of resort for pupils in poverty. Pupils turn up unable to study because they are hungry or because of the social issues they face. Her speech was powerful in that regard.
My hon. Friend spoke about teachers being on strike, and there were differing views. There is a strange contradiction I hear from Conservative Members between their lauding of teachers when they are teaching pupils and their sense that these same hugely impressive people are somehow being persuaded by trade union leaders to rush out and strike with no idea of what they are doing, despite their education and their knowledge of the schools. The Government think school teachers are so weak as to rush out to strike because a trade union tells them, but what we are actually seeing is a powerful balance.
My hon. Friend hit the nail on the head on this and it was something I read recently in a letter from one of my constituents. If the pay offer was fully funded and teachers were not being told, “Your pay offer will be based on us taking money being used to educate children out of the school,” that would be an entirely different thing, but they can see every day that their school is struggling to get by, being told that it will have even less money because the pay offer will come out of the money that would previously have been spent on equipment, teaching assistants, special needs or other aspects. The offer is unacceptable in the extreme and teachers are turning it down because they recognise the impact it will have on schools. That reflects their commitment to their students.
Order. I apologise to the shadow Minister. I know he was replying to the intervention by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), but I called him to order because the intervention was outside the scope of the debate. It is incumbent on all Members to reflect on their contributions. They should be in the context of the motion drawn up by the mover who applied to the Speaker for the debate. The debate is about funding for schools and colleges in the midlands. I encourage everybody to focus on that out of respect to the shadow Minister.
I understand your point entirely, Mr Pritchard, and I will of course stick to your strictures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South also spoke about Coventry College being in a position where it can no longer offer apprenticeships. That is so powerful and so damaging. We recognise the incredible importance of apprenticeships. We also recognise that in many areas there are huge difficulties in accessing apprenticeships, particularly for small businesses. Oftenm it is the colleges that are best at getting those small businesses—the non-levy payers—in to do apprenticeships. [Interruption.] I am sure I am not the only Member with a post-election cold, so please excuse me. My hon. Friend’s point on Coventry College ceasing to provide apprenticeships was incredibly powerful.
Moving on to the contribution of the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), I was delighted to hear about the new facilities at Stafford College. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that new facilities make a huge difference, so it is good to hear about the progress being made on new capital spending at that college. I thought the comment she attributed to the Secretary of State for Education—that nothing demonstrates the Government’s commitment to young people like the amount they spend on capital equipment for colleges—was incredibly powerful. For precisely that reason, it is appalling that we have had a massive reduction in capital equipment spend on both our schools and our colleges under this Government. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) referred to the IFS report in November 2021, according to which funding for students aged 16-18 saw the biggest fall of any sector, and the increases only reversed a fraction of the cuts we have had. The hon. Member for Stafford is absolutely right; I will join her in holding this Government to account on their capital spending and use that to demonstrate the extent to which they have let a generation of young people down.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North gave a memorable speech. It was, frankly, most misleading of him to suggest that schools are being generously funded. Schoolteachers in his area will have listened to his contribution aghast at his argument that there has been generous funding under this Government. It is one thing for the Government to say it was an economic decision to introduce austerity and that they had to do it; it is quite another to actually suggest that all these schoolteachers are going on strike and leaving the profession at a time that the sector is being generously funded.
The hon. Gentleman asked about additional funding for schoolteachers. Removing the tax perk on private schools would actually fund an extra 6,500 schoolteachers. Look at the record of the last Labour Government: the reality is that we did not see losses in the sector on the scale we have seen under this Government. There has been a massive reduction in the number of teaching assistants and pressure is increasing on schoolteachers. All that has an impact. Look at the massive expansion in social problems in our schools—again, that creates pressure on schools. The idea that this is simply about providing a little bit more money and then schoolteachers’ lives will be better is just missing the point entirely.
The hon. Gentleman has outlined, fairly so, that if Labour was in government, it would recruit an extra 6,500 teachers, having put VAT on private school fees. I mentioned non-doms earlier; I apologise for the mistake in the policy idea. Can the hon. Gentleman say what specifically Labour would do with the money it raised that is not already being done?
I was in the process of answering precisely that question. As I was saying, it is not that if there were simply a little bit more money and we had these extra teachers, everything would be resolved. The entire approach that this Government have taken to schools has led to a massive decrease in morale that has meant lots of teachers leaving the profession and has led to a reduction in the number of teaching assistants, while the Government’s social policies have led to far more children turning up hungry than there were 13 years ago. All those additional pressures end up diminishing the morale and experience of schoolteachers—they all add to the problem. Frankly, if the hon. Member does not mind my saying so, the very transactional approach that he suggests misses the point about this Government’s failure on schools.
It is a great pleasure, however, to say that there was something I agreed with in the hon. Member’s contribution, which was about the use of buildings in school time—a really important point. In the all-academy world that we largely inhabit in terms of secondary schools, there are pressures that make that different when they are run by local government. None the less, he made that point well.
I will return to the point on which we had a debate. The hon. Member rather missed the point with the tone of his rhetoric on free school meals. I checked again what he said: he said that he would be “embarrassed” if he could not put food on the table with his salary, then created the straw man that his family receiving a free school meal would take it out of the mouth of another child. That is not what universal free school meals do at all. The hon. Member needs to reflect on his language if he genuinely does not want parents and children to feel that free school meals are something to be embarrassed about.
The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) spoke about teachers he had met who recognised that they had short days and long holidays. It almost beggars belief to suggest that the reason that lots of teachers leave the profession is that they think they do not work hard enough and their holidays are too long. That does not bear any relationship to the schoolteachers I have met, who suggest that the huge workload outside their teaching time is one of the reasons that they are leaving the profession.
I will seek to correct the hon. Gentleman on what I said. I do not wish to chastise the hon. Gentleman, who I like very much, but in a similar way to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, I am afraid that he has inadvertently misrepresented what I said. I said that it was a travesty that schools in our country have the shortest days while teachers work the longest hours in Europe, that that is not right, and that we should seek to reduce that bureaucratic burden on teachers to allow them to spend more time in the classroom with our children. I do not know many teachers who would disagree with that point, but it is not what the hon. Gentleman said my comments were.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was able to set the record straight on that.
There can be no doubt that 13 years of Tory Government have left England’s school and college buildings crumbling, left many teachers and their support staff demoralised and left our schools robbed of the funding needed to support the opportunities that all our children deserve. I see that in the facilities every time I attend a school in my constituency. One of the very first things I recall from when I came to this place as a new MP in 2010 is the chaotic announcement from the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) about the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future projects.
Every single month at Education questions, it seems that there is another Conservative MP coming to their feet to reflect on how appalling the school building is in one of their schools, and saying, “If only the Minister could take the time to address that,” without recognising that it is the entire system of capital funding, not the individual case, that is a failure under this Government. There is a stark difference between the facilities that children have at Outwood Academy Newbold and Springwell Community College in my constituency, with brand-new buildings secured under the last Labour Government, and the 13 years without a single new secondary school building in my constituency, which have meant schools such as Brookfield Community School and Parkside Community School soldiering on in inadequate facilities despite the best efforts of their staff.
It is not just school buildings that have been left to rot. The Conservatives also cut off the fledgling Building Colleges for the Future programme on their arrival in government. Both statistically and anecdotally, the failure under this Government is there for all to see. The attainment gap between disadvantaged secondary school pupils and their better-off peers has widened to its largest level in years. Under the Conservatives, teacher vacancies have risen by 246%, with the Government missing their teacher recruitment target again this year, recruiting just 59% of their target for secondary schools.
In late 2021, research published by the headteachers’ union, the National Association of Head Teachers, found that schools across the west midlands have been forced to cut staff or activities because of a lack of funding. One in three schools said that they had made cuts to balance their budget, while 38% expected to make cuts in the following year. Last November, similarly, a Unison report revealed that councils across the east midlands faced a collective funding gap of £181 million in the next financial year, forcing them to cut essential services including early education. The extent to which schools have felt totally unsupported with the increase in energy prices is just one example.
Inasmuch as there has been any recovery in funding in recent years, it does not begin to address the shortfall over which the Government presided in the previous 11 years, and it comes in the context of huge cost of living crisis pressures, which mean that it has been swallowed up. Only last week, the Sutton Trust found that essential school staff and activities are being cut as a result of funding pressures inflicted by central Government. Such measures can only have a detrimental effect on our children’s futures. The IFS analysis to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred showed that schools in England still face a significant budget squeeze.
You are very generous, Mr Pritchard. I am not sure that sitting down will make it much better, but we are approaching the end, you will be glad to know.
What would a future Labour Government do? An incoming Labour Government will end tax breaks for private schools and invest that money in more teachers and excellent state education for all. We are committed to recruiting more than 6,500 new teachers to fill vacancies and skills gaps across the profession; to ongoing training for school staff, including in support for children with special educational needs; and, as I say, to an entirely different approach to schools, which we hope will support teacher morale and mean fewer teachers leaving the profession, as that has been one of the major issues over the past 13 years. In addition, we will recruit more than 1,000 careers advisers to give every young person in our schools and colleges professional careers advice, as well as two weeks of work experience. We will give every child access to a qualified mental health counsellor at school. Labour wants every parent to feel confident that they can send their child to a great local state school where they are supported to achieve and to thrive.
As last week’s election results demonstrated, 13 years of Conservative mismanagement have taken our schools to the brink. Only a change of Government will bring about the improvement in education that the midlands and many schools across our country so desperately need.
It is an honour to serve under you today, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) on her impassioned speech, and I look forward to responding to her debate.
I will go through the details of what is going on, but it is important to talk not only about funding, but about how educational standards are improving. As of December last year, 88% of schools were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, which is up from 68% in 2010. In the west midlands, 86% of schools are now rated good or outstanding, up from 60% in 2010. I am delighted to report that in Coventry, 86% of schools are rated good or outstanding, up from 55% in 2010. The hon. Lady will know Hereward College, which is not in her constituency but is in the Coventry local authority area and is rated good.
I was surprised that the hon. Lady did not mention that Coventry was an education investment area. She talked about encouraging more teachers, and 36 secondary schools in Coventry benefit from the levelling-up premium, which is available in maths, physics, chemistry and computing to teachers in the first five years of their career. Payments are worth up to £3,000 tax-free each year from academic year 2022-23 right up to 2025. Connect the Classroom has 17 schools upgrading their wi-fi access, and the trust capacity fund is helping trusts to develop their capacity to grow. Furthermore, the Thrive Education Partnership was awarded funding of more than £290,000 for Corley Academy.
The hon. Lady also mentioned Coventry College. Sadly, as she knows, it received an inadequate grade for apprenticeships, which is why it is no longer offering that provision. Apprentices accounted for 4% of its overall provision, and learners have been transferred to other local colleges and providers. I should, however, congratulate the principal and CEO, Carol Thomas, who has overseen the improvement of finances at her college from an inadequate health grade in July 2020 to a good health grade in July 2022. The college was also nominated by Barclays bank for a financial turnaround award, which is important news.
I will respond to the hon. Member for Coventry South further, but I just want to respond to some of the other hon. Members who spoke. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) made an impassioned speech. She is a champion for schools and education in her constituency—she is well known for it across the House. She mentioned the £28 million for Stafford College that she personally lobbied for. The Secretary of State recently visited the new site following her invitation, which is a credit to what she has achieved for her constituency. My hon. Friend will also know about the additional capital funding for schools in her constituency of over £800,000.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) made an impassioned speech. I absolutely agree with him that free school meals need to go to those who most need them. The hon. Member for Coventry South mentioned free school meals, and I understand her campaign, but we are spending over £1.6 billion on free school meals, and 1.9 million pupils, or 22.5%, are claiming them, which is more than in 2021. We introduced free school meals under the universal infant free school meals policy. That happened under a Conservative Government. When I was a Back Bencher in the last Parliament, I personally campaigned for free school meals for disadvantaged FE college pupils, which we introduced as a Conservative coalition Government. It is also important to mention the multimillion-pound package for breakfast clubs, especially in disadvantaged areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North is right about workload—I am absolutely convinced that my colleague the Minister for Schools will be getting a printer in his office to print out all the examples of bureaucracy that he talked about. I congratulate him on his speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) knows that he and I agree—I think there is a card separating us—about skills and FE. He knows that I am an honorary professor of Nottingham Trent University, and I am particularly impressed with its brilliant work with Mansfield College. He talked about West Notts College, which has also done impressive work in offering T-levels in business, construction, digital education, engineering and manufacturing. He made some wise points about schools and skills, and I thank him for his speech.
To return to the hon. Member for Coventry South, she will know that in the autumn statement we announced £2 billion of additional investment for schools in 2023-24 and 2024-25, over and above the increases already announced for schools at the 2021 review. That means that total funding across mainstream schools and high needs will be £3.5 billion higher in 2023-24 than in 2022-23, and that is on top of the £4 billion year-on-year increase provided in 2022-23. Together, that is an increase of £7.5 billion, or over 15%, in just two years, and school funding will increase further next year, so that by 2024-25, funding per pupil will be higher than ever in real terms. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has been quoted, but its independent analysis shows that total school funding is growing faster than costs for schools nationally this year and next.
I thank the Minister for giving way; I recognise that he speaks on this topic with a great deal of experience. I also particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) for securing this important debate. In the midlands, four in five schools are set to have to cut their education provision to cover costs this coming year. In 2020 in Nottingham, secondary school teachers left schools at a rate of 33%, which was one of the highest in England. Does the Minister accept that the situation is completely unsustainable and is damaging children’s education? Will he look again at funding for schools and teachers’ pay?
I thank the hon. Lady, who has listened very carefully to the debate. I will be setting out the extra funding going into the midlands. She will know that schools in Nottingham East are attracting over £69.7 million through the schools national funding formula. On top of that, schools will see £2.3 million through the grant. Also, 90% of schools are rated good or outstanding, up from 77% in 2010. I should add that I was pleased to work with the hon. Lady as a Back Bencher on green skills in school, which I know she cares about deeply.
We are levelling up school funding and delivering resources where they are needed most. Nationally, per-pupil funding for mainstream schools is increasing by 5.6% in 2023-24 compared with last year, and the east midlands and west midlands are both attracting above-average increases of 5.7% per pupil. Alongside those increases to revenue funding, we are investing significantly in schools’ capital. We provide funding to support local authorities with their responsibility to provide enough school places in their area. We have announced £2 billion for the creation of places needed in the next four academic years. The east and west midlands regions are receiving over £500 million of that funding.
We are also investing £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025 to support the delivery of new and improved high needs provision for children and young people with special educational needs. We have allocated over £15 billion since 2015, including £1.8 billion committed for financial year 2023-24, to improve the condition of the school estate. As part of that investment, Coventry City Council has been provisionally allocated £3.5 million for financial year 2023-24 to invest across its maintained schools. We expect to publish final allocations shortly.
The school rebuilding programme is transforming buildings at 500 schools, prioritising those in poor condition and with potential safety issues. We have announced 400 schools to date, including Bishop Ullathorne Catholic School in Coventry South, which is one of 91 schools in the programme across the east and west midlands. We also allocated £500 million of additional capital funding for schools and FE colleges to help improve buildings and facilities and so to help them with energy costs. Schools in Coventry South were allocated over £900,000 of that funding.
On post-16 education, the further education capital transformation programme is delivering the Government’s £1.5 billion commitment to upgrade and transform the FE college estate. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) obviously knows that his college in Chesterfield has had £18 million, which I am sure he is delighted with. The FE reclassification and energy efficiency allocations have committed over £200 million in new capital funding to the sector. That has meant a £2 million capital investment in the FE college estate in Coventry, with Coventry College and Hereward College benefiting from that investment.
We also want to ensure that every young person has access to an excellent post-16 education. The 2021 spending review made available an extra £1.6 billion for 16-to-19 education in 2024-25 compared with 2021-22. That is the biggest increase in a decade, and we have made significant increases in funding rates. The national funding rate, which was £4,000 in 2019-20, will rise to £4,642 in academic year 2023-24. Over £1.3 billion has been allocated for 16-to-19 education in the midlands area for the current academic year, and £43 million of that has been allocated to institutions in Coventry.
The hon. Member for Coventry South rightly always champions social justice. In 2023-24, we have targeted a greater proportion of the schools national funding formula towards deprived pupils than ever before: 9.8%—over £4 billion—of the formula has been allocated according to deprivation. That means that over the coming year of 2023-24, schools with the highest level of deprivation have, on average, attracted the largest per-pupil funding increases. That is not even including the pupil premium funding, which has increased by 5% in 2023-24, a £180 million increase that takes total pupil premium funding to £2.9 billion. High needs funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities is rising to £10.1 billion nationally in this financial year, an increase of over 50% from the 2019-20 allocations. This year, Coventry is receiving an 11.5% per-head increase in its high needs funding compared with 2022-23.
The Minister is being very generous with his time. On SEN funding, local authorities in England are facing a £2.4 billion black hole in special educational needs. I had the pleasure of visiting a SEN school recently, Rosehill School in my constituency, which had the same story to tell. What will the Minister do to improve that situation?
As the hon. Lady knows, we are spending many millions more on special educational needs funding. She will have heard the statement by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho); that will help significantly in dealing with special educational needs.
In 16-to-19 funding, we include factors in the funding formula to help institutions recruit, retain and support disadvantaged students. That includes an uplift for those from disadvantaged localities and those with low prior attainment. The 16-to-19 bursary fund targets financial support at disadvantaged young people. In the academic year 2022-23, £152 million in bursary funding was allocated to institutions. That includes £33 million for the east and west midlands, of which just under £1 million has been allocated to institutions in Coventry. The amount has been further increased for the academic year 2023-24, with a 10% rise in the rates per instance of travel, disadvantage and industry placements compared to the 2022-23 academic year, to help with rising costs.
We briefly discussed T-levels. We are currently working with the FE sector and others to roll out T-levels. There are 42 colleges, schools and independent training providers across the west midlands that are planning to deliver T-levels in the next academic year. Coventry College will offer T-levels in digital and education, and the WMG Academy for Young Engineers will offer T-levels in engineering and manufacturing. I also mention Mansfield College for my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield.
We have invested over £500,000 for providers in Coventry South to purchase industry-standard equipment for teaching T-levels. We have also funded nine T-level projects in the west midlands to help create state-of-the-art buildings and facilities. Overall, T-levels are backed by revenue funding of up to £500 million a year, and we have also announced a 10% uplift in T-level funding rates over the coming year to support providers as they scale up delivery.
We are backing institutes of technology, with over £300 million in capital funding going to 21 institutes across the country, including £9 million to the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Institute of Technology and £18 million on the Black Country & Marches Institute of Technology. We plan to spend £13 million on the East Midlands Institute of Technology.
We talked about apprenticeships. It is brilliant to see that there have been 9,000 apprenticeship starts in Coventry South since 2010, and over 1 million starts in the east and west midlands in that time. We want to support even more apprentices and employers to benefit from high-quality apprenticeships, which is why we are increasing funding for apprenticeships to £2.7 billion by 2024-25.
We have also removed the limit on the number of apprenticeships that small and medium-sized enterprises and small businesses can take on, making it easier for them to grow their businesses with skilled apprentices. That will benefit the small businesses and apprentices in Coventry South. We continue to provide a £1,000 payment to employers when they take on apprentices aged 16 to 18, and we are increasing the care leavers’ bursary from £1,000 to £3,000, so that they have the chance to do an apprenticeship.
I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to discuss these important issues. Despite the narrative set out by the hon. Member for Coventry South, we are investing huge sums of money in her constituency and across the midlands for school funding, which will be at its highest ever level by 2024-25. Funding for 16 to 19-year-olds will see the biggest increase for a decade, and we are investing in capital funding for schools and colleges. I have carefully highlighted the huge investment we are making in the hon. Member’s constituency and across the midlands so that we have high-quality places, and I believe that the investment we are putting into schools and skills will have a transformative effect for children and young people in the hon. Lady’s constituency, the midlands and across the country.
I will keep it brief. I thank you, Mr Pritchard, for chairing this debate, and colleagues who took part. I began my speech by saying that I hope the teachers who came down from the midlands would find hope, and I appreciate the tone of the Minister’s remarks, which provided a contrast to some of the other contributions we have heard. The Minister listed several funding arrangements, and the Government boast that real-terms education funding will match 2010 levels by 2025, but I do not think that 13 years of decline and wasted potential is much of a boast. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) said, our schools are struggling and teachers have felt abandoned by the Government. At the heart of this, our young people’s potential and opportunities are being stifled.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome), who is a tireless champion of her constituents. She highlighted the unsustainable situation around teacher retention and investing in SEN for the most vulnerable in our constituencies.
I hope that the Minister will hear the calls of teachers and parents; acknowledge what has happened over the past 13 years, where underfunding in real terms has affected educators and children alike, selling them short; and commit not just to investing in our education, but to putting learning and teachers at the heart of everything the Government do. Hopefully, when a Labour Government come into power, that will be our aim too.
Before we conclude, I am sure that hon. Members will join me in wishing the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) a speedy recovery. It was a great performance—bless you.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered school and college funding in the Midlands.
Victims’ and Offenders’ Rights
I beg to move,
That the House has considered victims’ and offenders’ rights in the criminal justice system.
It is a pleasure to serve with you as Chair, Mr Pritchard, and to open this debate. I thank Mr Speaker for granting it.
Mr Pritchard, I am sure you will know that every once in a while a case comes along that captures the reason we go into politics: to right a wrong that grabs our sense of justice—that makes us want to strive with all our might and use every single tool we have to ensure that justice is done. It might start with a case, but that case can go to the heart of the misapplication of Government policy, flawed decision making and the possible misapplication of the Human Rights Act, which in this case has left the victim/survivor with fewer rights and in a worse position than the offender. Highlighting case studies is always useful because policies can be changed as a result, and I hope there will be a review not just of the case I will discuss but of how Government policy is applied.
I will briefly set out the background. It was 26 June 2014. A young BAME woman who worked in a public-facing role in the public sector was trying to help a person get into work. It was the second time she had seen the person. She called him over, and as soon as he came to her desk he pulled her by the hair and stabbed her with an eight-inch knife. She said,
“I was covered in blood, hysterical losing consciousness until the police and ambulance were called; started to lose my sight and hearing; I thought I was dying.”
She was then taken to hospital, where she was in theatre for over two hours. She had 22 stitches in her neck and was told the wounds were 2 mm from her main artery. She also had three operations on her hand.
Added to the situation, there was a delay in the criminal justice system. It was reported that the police used to pick up the offender for being drunk and disorderly because he wanted food and shelter, which he would get from the police or in the cells. When he first came to this country, he had a septic abscess removed from his stomach, but later wanted to sue the hospital because he thought staff had removed his kidney; they had not, but he engaged solicitors to make a claim against the hospital.
The criminal justice system held the first hearing in the woman’s case on 2 October 2014. The offender did not enter a plea and wanted a medical assessment. On 14 November, the same thing happened: a psychiatrist asked for more time. On 12 December, no plea was entered and the hearing was adjourned until 6 February 2015. That date was moved to 20 January, when he entered a plea of not guilty. The trial was set for April, but the judge was so incensed by the delay that he brought it forward to the end of January, and there was a three-day hearing in which the victim gave evidence. The offender entered a plea of not guilty, but after a very short time the jury found him guilty of attempted murder. He showed no remorse and was sentenced to an indefinite hospital order, but despite the fact that the judge made an order on 15 May 2015 authorising the offender’s detention in hospital and restricting his discharge without limit of time, he was conditionally discharged by the mental health tribunal; worse—he would not be recalled even if he broke the conditions, because he had not come from prison.
I will briefly set out the offender’s immigration status. In 2004, he claimed asylum. It was refused. The appeal was allowed and he was recognised as a refugee in 2008. In April 2013, he was granted indefinite leave to remain. I have raised this case on a number of occasions with a series of Ministers, who have reaffirmed the Government’s policy that it is a stated objective to protect the public by removing foreign nationals who have committed criminal offences. In a letter to me, one Minister said that
“all restricted patients who are also foreign nationals must be considered for deportation before their restrictions are lifted.”
In 2018, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes)—the then Minister, who I thank for all her help—met me, the survivor and the survivor’s family. She took proactive steps to look at ways to deport the offender, and wrote to us saying that he was being considered for deportation.
According to gov.uk,
“Government policy is to pursue deportation on grounds of criminality where the person…has been convicted in the UK or overseas of an offence which has caused serious harm”
I am sure you will agree, Mr Pritchard, that attempted murder is a serious harm. There is a prima facie case for deportation, so it is not clear why the letter of the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North has not been followed. Remember—the victim was born and raised here and worked in the public sector, helping people—no matter who they were. One would have thought that she, too, has rights. But the trial was delayed, and, as the victim said, the offender was given access to a psychiatrist, benefits and a place to stay, while she had post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled to access support. In fact, she said that she had to pay for that support herself.
The latest letter from the Immigration Minister rubs salt in the wounds, as he says that the offender has rights under article 3 of the Human Rights Act, on the prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment —and that human rights here will affect human rights in other countries. I am sure there is case law in this regard, but we obviously do not have time to go into it. The letter set out no reasons, so it is difficult to see how the Minister came to that conclusion, which would mean that under Government policy no one can ever be deported anywhere, even to a third country. Is that the Government’s policy? In the case that I have mentioned, the offender cannot be deported to his original country because it is in flux, but the Home Office has never answered the question of whether we are the third country. So far this case has not followed Government policy. The offender has more rights than the victim under the Human Rights Act. Can the Minister tell us whether she has rights under article 2—the right to life, which is also an absolute right? The former Minister, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North, said that she would speak to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees so as to remove the offender’s status.
Effectively, the Government are saying that the offender, who has tried to remove someone’s right to life under article 2, will gain article 3 rights. Do the Government have a policy for foreign national offenders who have committed a serious offence such as attempted murder? Can they be deported under current Government policy? Are an offender’s rights under article 3 greater than those of a victim under article 2? Is the threshold for engaging article 3 so low that no other decision, under any other legislation or Government policy, can be given in this case? I hope, in the interests of justice, that there are grounds for review or, indeed, for ministerial discretion.
We have an offender who is free to move around and a victim who lives in fear. The offender currently has more rights than the victim. I know that ministerial responses can vary, but I consider the latest decision to be flawed. Will the Minister look at this case and at the implications of Government policy and of competing rights under articles 2 and 3? The Government may have to review their policy and say that no one can ever be deported because they have article 3 rights, even if those rights have not been engaged and alternative approaches could be taken. For instance, someone who has committed an offence could be deported to the first or second country.
There must be a way for justice to prevail in this case. The courts have decided on the case, but why do the Government consider the victim and her rights to be secondary to those of the offender? The victim—a survivor of attempted murder—is crying out for justice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing this debate and for flagging some of the key issues yesterday. Although many of the issues she raises fall within Home Office policy areas and are not matters on which I have any authority, I will endeavour to answer as much as I can. If I am unable to do so, I undertake to ensure that the relevant Home Office Minister is given a copy of the transcript of the debate, with the right hon. Lady’s comments on the latest response she has received from the Immigration Minister highlighted, and asked to address any outstanding points in correspondence with her. I will, however, endeavour to address as many of her points as possible.
Let me begin by saying that, as the right hon. Lady has alluded to, behind every crime is a real person who has suffered harm, a real person picking up the pieces and living with the trauma of having survived that crime. We must always keep that in mind in our response to victims of crime. To quote the strategy that I brought forward as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice in 2018:
“The message from victims is clear: they want to be treated fairly, properly and with dignity. They want clear, timely and accurate information. They want the opportunity and the support to make their voice heard”
and their rights upheld. That is reflected in what the right hon. Lady has said about her constituent.
I believe that this Government have a strong track record on victims’ rights. The Government have fulfilled their commitment to introduce the Victims and Prisoners Bill. I do not wish to tempt fate, but I suspect that the right hon. Lady may well take advantage of the opportunities to debate it. If she is not on the Bill Committee, I suspect that she may well raise her points on Second Reading and Report. The Bill will enshrine the principles of the victims code in law, and require key criminal justice agencies to promote awareness of the code. That will send a clear signal about what victims can, and should, expect from the criminal justice system.
The right hon. Lady raised an important set of points centring on the specific, horrific and deeply saddening case of one of her constituents. I am grateful to her for sharing some of the background, and I offer my deepest sympathies. Although I cannot comment on the detail of that specific case, I will try to address some of her broader underlying points. As I said, I commit to ensuring that Home Office Ministers respond to any points to which I am unable to respond.
I will try to set out in broad terms the Government’s stance on foreign national offenders, the protection of human rights and mental health considerations to set the context for how some of these decisions are made. As the right hon. Lady said, the British public rightly expect that we put the rights of law-abiding citizens who are victims of crime above those of criminals. We are clear that foreign criminals should be deported from the UK wherever it is legal and possible to do so. As such, the removal of FNOs—if she will allow me to use the acronym—is a Government priority, with 13,000 deported between 2019 and 2022. My Department continues to work closely with the Home Office to increase that number.
Any foreign national who is convicted of a crime and given a prison sentence is considered for deportation at the earliest opportunity. FNOs can be removed from the UK via three main routes before the end of their prison sentence. Prisoner transfer agreements enable prisoners to be repatriated during their prison sentence, and they continue to serve that sentence in their home country. We have over 80 agreements in place with other countries. They also operate to bring British national offenders back to the UK. The early removal scheme and the tariff-expired removal scheme allow for FNOs to be removed before the end of their sentence, subject to a minimum time served. They are subsequently barred from re-entering the UK, and we are clear that any illicit entry will see them returned to prison.
Ideally, we would look to negotiate PTAs with all countries to allow all FNOs to serve their sentences in their home country. However, both the negotiation of new agreements and individual transfers require the agreement of the receiving country, and, as such, an appropriate and functioning Government with which to engage. That means it is not possible in all circumstances.
We are prioritising countries with the highest volume of FNOs. Our new PTA with Albania entered into force in May 2022, and we are working closely with the Albanian Government to speed up the removal of Albanian offenders, freeing up space in our prisons and reducing costs to the British taxpayer. In addition, we are looking to negotiate new prisoner transfer agreements with key EU member states and wider-world countries. We signed a new protocol to the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons in October 2021 to widen the scope of transferring prisoners without their consent.
We are now going further to ensure that FNOs cannot frustrate their removal process. Last year, under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, we expanded the early removal scheme to allow foreign national offenders to be removed up to 12 months before the earliest release point of their sentence, instead of 9 months. Their sentences will be paused following their removal and reactivated if they ever return. We also introduced the priority removal notice, giving those liable a cut-off date by which they must inform the Home Office of any additional grounds for their protection and human rights claims to remain in the UK, with evidence. The Act also allows for disqualification from the receipt of a recovery and reflection period available to victims of modern slavery, for any FNO who receives a custodial sentence of 12 months or more.
We are using the Home Office’s Illegal Migration Bill, which is currently passing through the House of Lords, to take further action. The Bill proposes that the disqualification from protection for modern slavery victims applies to all FNOs who receive a custodial sentence of any length, and it requires the Home Secretary to declare as inadmissible asylum or human rights claims from countries designated as safe states. From what the right hon. Lady has said, I understand that many of those factors would not apply in the case of her constituent, but it is important to set out the context. My understanding is that the Home Office’s policy of transferring asylum seekers to Rwanda—a designated third country—is not applicable to FNOs in this context.
I will turn to some of the human rights considerations that the right hon. Lady alluded to. The Government are committed to protecting and respecting human rights and the rule of law at home and abroad. The UK is a state party to the European convention on human rights, and is responsible for securing for everyone within its jurisdiction the rights set out in it. I will turn to articles 2 and 3, as far as I can, in moment. However, the deportation policy is subject to several exceptions, including where it would be deemed a breach of a person’s rights under the ECHR or the UK’s international obligations under the refugee convention. Individuals can be returned to their country of origin only when the Home Office and, where applicable, the court deem it safe to do so. When someone is removed from the UK, although certain rights, such as article 8, are qualified and can be balanced against the rights of others in the public interest, such as the rights of the victims, some rights are absolute under the ECHR and the HRA, which sits behind it, and cannot be limited or balanced in such a way.
In line with our international obligations, under article 3 of the ECHR, which is an absolute right, the UK Government cannot legally remove any person to a country where they are found to be at serious risk of torture or inhumane or degrading treatment. The right hon. Lady will have to forgive me for not being able to give her a definitive answer to what constitutes a third country or a third party in that context. I will ask that Ministers in the Home Office respond to that detailed legal point, and I hope that they will do so expeditiously.
Articles 2 and 3 rights are absolute rights that, in this case, can be deemed to be potentially contradictory. My understanding is that the victim—the right hon. Lady’s constituent—has article 2 rights, as we all do, in this context. In the deportation case, the question would have been focused on the article 3 rights of the FNO because the deportation case relates to the foreign national offender. Legally, that is what would have had to be considered. As I said, the article 3 right is an absolute right, and because that individual was the focus of the deportation, and therefore the party to the deportation, that right in that case becomes the absolute right. It is not the victim who is the subject of the deportation proceedings; it is the FNO. If I recall correctly, the right hon. Lady has a legal background, so she will understand the complexities of that. It may—how shall I put it?—sit uncomfortably with her, but in that case, legally it would have to be matters relevant to the FNO that are relevant to the decision.
The right hon. Lady touched on mental health issues and how the Mental Health Act 1983 works in this context. It is important to note what must be taken into consideration when a person is detained in hospital, rather than prison. I understand from what she said that that is directly relevant to this very unfortunate case. Under the Mental Health Act, a court can make a hospital order as an alternative to a prison sentence if it considers that it is necessary to do so to protect the public from serious harm. The decision to discharge will be made only after the consideration of detailed evidence from clinicians, social supervisors, the MOJ, nursing staff and any other parties that will have a direct interest in the management of the patient in the future, and only if it is believed that the patient no longer requires treatment in hospital for their mental condition, and that they do not pose a risk to the public that cannot safely be managed in the community.
Although those protections are of course necessary for any decent country, we remain committed to protecting the rights of victims of crime. The Human Rights Act 1998, which was a significant achievement of the previous Labour Government—I am always willing to acknowledge where these things have been done—incorporates into UK law rights drawn from the ECHR that protect the rights of victims of crime in the UK.
The victims code—a statutory code of practice—includes an entitlement to be referred to services that support victims. Although it is not appropriate to deal with that on the Floor of this Chamber, that is within the MOJ’s responsibilities, so if the right hon. Lady wants to speak or write to me about her constituent’s experience of not getting the support they needed, I am happy to look that separately. The MOJ provides police and crime commissioners with annual grant funding to commission local practical, emotional and therapeutic support services for victims of all crime types.
The issues discussed today are of incredible import, and we have a strong focus on and proven record of putting victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. We do, however, remain bound by international law, where some of those rights and absolute rights may appear contradictory or in conflict with one another. There will always be complex and difficult cases where those two commitments meet.
In respect of the services that the constituent of the right hon. Member for Walsall did or did not receive, I am happy to pick that up with her separately to understand what happened. I appreciate that it does not change what happened, but it will enable me to look into it and hopefully to address some of those concerns. In respect of her point about a third country and the UK’s status in that context, that will be for the Home Office but I will ask that it addresses the point specifically, rather than generally, if it is able to. As I say, I have set out the broad context for the article 2 versus article 3 rights and why it would be the article 3 right that was applicable, because it was the FNO who was the subject of the deportation order. If she would like further detail on how that works in a letter from the relevant Minister at the Home Office, I am equally happy—she may nod assent or not at this point, given her legal background—to ask for that. [Interruption.] She is nodding assent, so I will ask again that that is included in more detail. Given her legal background, as I say, she may wish to interrogate that further, and I suspect she will.
I hope the right hon. Member will also convey my sympathies to her constituent for what was, on the basis of what she has been able to say, a horrific attack on someone doing their job—doing a job where they were seeking to help members of the public to improve their lives and get them the support they need. No one in any context should be subject to such a horrific attack. I hope the individual is recovering, in so far as she is able, from the trauma of being a survivor of such a crime, but where it crosses into Ministry of Justice policy I am happy to engage with the right hon. Lady and see if I am able to assist in any way.
Question put and agreed to.
Yemen: Humanitarian Situation and Children’s Rights
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in Yemen and children’s rights.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Labelled the world’s “forgotten humanitarian crisis” by the World Health Organisation, the catastrophe in Yemen is often overlooked in foreign policy discussions at both domestic and international levels. Many people, indeed, would struggle to point to Yemen on a map. But eight years of intense conflict, economic collapse and a crumbling social support system have brought about unimaginable suffering for Yemeni civilians, and children are paying the heaviest price. The gravity of this humanitarian situation and the necessity for rapid action cannot be overstated, and it is for that reason that I tabled the motion.
Since 2015, Yemen has been ravaged by intense fighting between the Houthis—a militant group assisted by Iran—and the internationally recognised Government, which is backed by the Saudi-led coalition and supported through arms sales by this UK Government. Yemen is divided: the Houthis control the north-west and a combination of Government forces and the Southern Transitional Council, which is backed by the United Arab Emirates, control the south and east. Since October last year, Oman has been facilitating peace talks, and last month’s events, which included constructive discussions between the Houthis and the Saudi delegation in Sanaa, as well as notable prisoner exchanges, are cause for cautious optimism. The focus of this debate, however, is not the military course of the war, nor the complex political negotiations, but the human aspect—Yemen’s children, whose lives have been upended and who are in desperate need of urgent and direct humanitarian assistance.
Currently, there are more than 2 million malnourished children in Yemen—as many children as live in London. Of those, 540,000 are under the age of five and are suffering from such severe hunger that, according to the WHO, they face a direct risk of death. Because of the country’s crumbling infrastructure, millions of Yemeni children lack access to basic healthcare, clean water and sanitation. Indeed, nearly half the health facilities across the country are either completely out of service or only partially functioning.
Children’s education has also been severely disrupted. Some 2,500 schools have been damaged, and according to UNICEF around 2.5 million children are not at school. It is no surprise to many Members here that girls are particularly impacted. When girls cannot access education, they become much more vulnerable to child marriage.
I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate; it concerns a great subject, and there are lots of things to sort out. Last year, a human rights watchdog, SAM for Rights and Liberties, recorded over 30,000 violations of children’s rights in Yemen, including killing, forced recruitment, kidnapping, arbitrary detention, and lack of access to education and healthcare. Does she agree that the situation has only deteriorated in the last 12 months, and that we now need a massive movement from the international community to help those children in Yemen?
The hon. Gentleman highlights the very nub of the debate. It is not just that the money is not going in; one of the big issues is that non-governmental organisations on the ground are struggling to be in Yemen. We need proper international dialogue to get aid in and reverse some of the aspects that he has highlighted.
Liverpool, Riverside has a long-established Yemeni community, and Habibti has been funding a children’s hospital in Sanaa for many years. Given that Britain has earned eight times more from arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition than it has spent on aid to help civilians—particularly children—caught up in the conflict, does the hon. Member agree that the UK’s role in this war is a dark stain on our foreign policy?
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. I will come on to the arms trade with Saudi Arabia and Britain’s role in that, but we cannot just be seen as a benevolent overseer here. The UK actually has its fingers in the pie in Yemen, and it is certainly not helping to broker peace while it is still arming the Saudi-led coalition.
Coming back to the subject of girl brides, according to Girls Not Brides, many girls in Yemen have been married off as a source of income during the conflict as families are driven deeper into poverty and desperation. There have also been reports of girls being trafficked through so-called tourist marriages with wealthy men from the Arab Gulf region for the purpose of sexual exploitation. These people are desperate, and it is unfortunately the most vulnerable who will suffer. Currently, 9% of Yemeni girls are married by the age of 15, and nearly a third are married by their 18th birthday.
However, the war does not just affect girls; it casts its lethal shadow over the entire nation. Landmines and unexploded ordnance have killed and continue to kill hundreds of children, and instability has resulted in the internal displacement of 3.2 million people. According to UNICEF, one child in Yemen dies from preventable causes every 10 minutes; during the course of this debate, another six children in Yemen will have died needlessly.
The situation on the ground is devastating. Children’s rights to life, food, security and basic healthcare are under threat. Against this backdrop, the UK Government stand by their decision to cut official development assistance funding from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%—in doing so, slashing aid to the most vulnerable. In 2020, the UK pledged £214 million in aid to Yemen; this year, that figure is only £88 million. In 2020, when the ODA cut was initially enacted, many colleagues across the House—a number of them are here in the Chamber—deemed it inhumane and hoped the policy would be short-lived. It certainly seems inconsistent with this Government’s eagerness to project a global Britain that defends universal human rights, supports conflict resolution and tackles extreme deprivation. Three years on, this unethical aid cut remains, and global Britain seems no more than empty rhetoric. I am aware that, alongside the US and Germany, the UK is one of the major contributors of aid to Yemen—I will say that—but we are providing far less than we did previously. The longer the shortfall is maintained, the slower and more limited our humanitarian reach in Yemen will be. According to the former UN emergency relief co-ordinator, Sir Mark Lowcock, “there is no question” but that the decision to cut ODA has increased civilian loss of life in the country.
The UK’s desire to be a force for good must be underwritten by concrete action, and it demands that we do more. If inadequate humanitarian funding is one moral failing, the Government’s decision to arm the Saudi-led coalition is another. Air strikes by the coalition have hit hundreds of civilian targets. The Saudi air campaign alone has killed around 9,000 civilians, including hundreds of children, which has elicited strong condemnation from the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres.
Is the hon. Lady aware that United Nations resolution 2216 actually demanded the withdrawal of the Houthis and gave recognition to the coalition under President Hadi to restore the legitimate Government to Yemen? It was actually a UN resolution in the first place that brought in Saudi and the Gulf states.
It is useful to have that background; I thank the hon. Lady for that. To be honest, I am not here to point fingers at other states—apart from the ones we are arming and involving in this conflict. There is a very complex situation in Yemen; there are lots of different factions involved, and its history is very coloured. We need to look at how we can help to resolve the situation, rather than throwing petrol on the fire.
There is overwhelming evidence of repeated breaches of international humanitarian law, but the UK Government continue to supply the coalition with weaponry. The published value of arms licensed for export to the Saudi coalition since bombardment began is £9.4 billion, but according to estimates from the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the real value is nearly triple that figure. The Government are prioritising economic advantage over children’s futures. This Government rightly condemned Moscow’s aggressive bombing of a Ukrainian maternity hospital, but where was the condemnation of Saudi Arabia when Yemen’s civilian infrastructure was targeted?
The recent calls for a ceasefire are welcome, but the necessity of ending arms sales is no less urgent. I hope that the recent progress and talks between the warring parties bring about new peace and prosperity so that lives can be pieced back together.
The hon. Lady is again expressing her compassion for the people in a very significant way. The UN has said that the agreement of a truce between the Saudi-led military coalition and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels last April is the first and best chance to try to find peace. Does she agree that there is a real risk that the talks that the UN are putting together will break down, and that we need to do everything in our power to avoid a repeat of what has happened in Sudan over the last few years?
All of us here are optimistic about where this might go. Even if peace is brought about by the coalition and starts tomorrow—the UK is the UN penholder for Yemen, we have a role—it will take many years to rebuild all the infrastructure, get children back into school, start supporting families and ensure that these children have a better future than they do currently.
Writing in The Times just over a week ago of his harrowing visit to the malnutrition wards in Sadaa in Yemen, the Minister for international development, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), argued that the Government “remain committed” to the human rights-based UN development goals, stating:
“It is frankly obscene, that in the 21st century and in our world of plenty, children are facing famine.”
I could not agree more. Surely the Government recognise the contradiction in their position. How can they talk about eradicating famine while continuing to enact devastating aid cuts? How can they affirm their commitment to human rights while arming a state that continues to undermine them?
What discussions has the Minister had with the Chancellor about reinstating ODA to 0.7% of GNI? What impact assessment has been made of the effect of the cut in ODA on the children of Yemen? What plans does he have to get emergency aid to NGOs working on the ground to deliver vital supplies? What discussions has he had with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia regarding its targeting of Yemeni civilians? How effective does he feel the licensing criteria for arms sales are, given the repeated breaching of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia?
Children in Yemen are starving; they are losing out on an education; and they are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Surely any profits from arms sales are rendered worthless when the cost is Yemeni children’s lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, I think for the first time. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing the debate.
As the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and I were born in Yemen, we have taken part in many debates on Yemen over the years. It is good to see that there has been some progress: there has been no return to major fighting since the ceasefire formally ended, although localised fighting, score-settling and crime are still contributing to the suffering of millions of Yemenis. Major seizures of weapon shipments to Ansar Allah indicate that the conflict has potentially been paused rather than ended, which I hope is not the case, but we have seen the recent tragedy in Sanaa, in which 78 people died in a crush at an event where aid was being distributed. Many of those people were from the very poorest part of Yemeni society: the Muhamasheen. That something so tragic should happen at a charitable event is horrifying. My thoughts are with the victims and their families.
I am pleased that our Government have been a leader at the UN in promoting a settlement. I also thank the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for its work on the international women and girls strategy and its recognition of the appalling situation for women and girls in Yemen—it has finally been included on the list. The way in which the conflict has entrenched gender inequality is absolutely horrendous, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North West mentioned. The position of women and girls in Yemen was dire before the civil war began in 2013: 35% of women were illiterate and only 670,000 girls were in education, out of a school-age population of around 9.5 million children. It is education that I want to concentrate on first.
A quarter of Yemeni schools have been damaged or destroyed. Access to education is now so poor that more than 2 million, out of 10 million, are out of school. Some 33% of the whole population is barely literate or has only primary school education. Teachers have been paid only occasionally, and the salaries given do not sustain a family above poverty level. About 70% of Yemen’s children live in areas controlled by Ansar Allah, which has rewritten the school syllabus to focus on its own ideology—in particular, that fighting and dying for the Houthi cause is a direct route to heaven. Children are encouraged to join summer camps, where they are given physical and military training, and many older children drop out of school completely and have ended up joining the conflict.
We know that children elsewhere in Yemen are at risk of indoctrination, especially in schools in the south, which promotes its own secessionist ideology. Payment is now required in many places for a child to go to school, and the cost of providing essential textbooks and stationery also falls on families. Like everything else, they have nearly doubled in price over the last year, so I hope that we focus our aid on funding teachers, schools and equipment. Above all, education is absolutely crucial if Yemen is to build its way to being a successful, modern and 21st-century economy based on quality employment in modern businesses. We need to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Some of the neighbouring countries have achieved great things. Let us hope that we can do the same in Yemen.
Moving on to humanitarian issues, Yemen is suffering from spikes in the prices of essential goods. In some places, flour can now cost up to three times as much as it did before the invasion of Ukraine, and diesel costs between two and three times as much as it did this time last year. There has been no growth in wages or household income since the start of the ceasefire, and Yemeni families have no insurance against rising prices. Although it is good news that the blockade of the Red sea ports has lifted, the Houthis have now banned the movement of many goods by road from Aden and Mukalla, in order to guarantee Ansar Allah’s revenue stream from the port at Hodeida.
However, there are some signs of progress. The recent prisoner exchange has freed over 900 people on both sides of the conflict, many of whom were political prisoners or simply hostages. There remain several thousand people in jails and camps across Yemen, and the accounts of human rights violations from those released in the exchange are still a cause for concern. We must make sure that those who perpetrated atrocities are brought to justice. Politically, we need continued progress in the negotiations between the Houthis, the Presidential Leadership Council and Saudi Government in key areas, including re-establishing a unified central bank and currency, without which the Yemeni economy will remain crippled. We need to help when required.
I would like to close by returning to the incredibly dangerous situation with the oil tanker FSO Safer in the Red sea off Hodeida. I have brought this up many a time with Ministers. The UK has been a leader at the UN in raising funds to empty the oil from that ship into a secure tanker and dispose of the Safer. The replacement tank is on its way and has been exempted from canal tolls by the Egyptian Government. However, there is still a shortfall of around $20 million for the required work. Will the Minister ensure that we keep up the pressure at the UN? The last thing Yemen needs when we are still a long way from the end of the civil war is a major ecological disaster.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) not only for securing this debate but for making an eloquent and touching speech. I endorse everything that she said. The situation is tragic and ongoing.
I wish to start by putting on record a press report. I have a cutting that says:
“Gross violations of international law. Missiles raining down on houses. Kleptocrats laundering their ill-gotten gains through London and buying political influence. Aggressive, powerful states attacking a poorer neighbour; backing separatist rebels; illegally occupying its land; dropping cluster bombs and conducting crippling cyber-attacks.”
The article asks if that sounds familiar. But that is not Putin; it is not Bakhmut. It was a year ago and written with regard to the war in Yemen. We see support and the flags flying, even here, for Ukraine. We have hosted President Zelensky. We have condemned President Putin unreservedly, and rightly so. Yet everything that is going on in Bakhmut is being replicated in Yemen, and little is being done.
The comment has been made that it takes two to have a fight, and I am not here to support one side or other, but, as other hon. Members have mentioned, the bulk of the danger is being created by the weaponry, especially of the Saudi Arabians and the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are principally supported by the British military, and that is something that we have to address. We are providing aid to Yemen and commenting on the ongoing horror, yet as other hon. Members—especially the hon. Member for Glasgow North West—have said, we are fuelling and funding that situation by providing the weaponry that is wreaking the horror there.
I mentioned earlier that the situation in Yemen is completely incomparable to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This was very much under UN resolution 2216. The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned the fact that Iran has also contributed weapons to the Houthis.
I condemn Iran for its role, as I condemn it for its drones that have been causing horror in Ukraine. But we all bleed the same. A Houthi or a Yemeni bleeds the same as a Ukrainian or a Russian, and we have to recognise that. We cannot exculpate ourselves by saying that they are slightly different.
I wish to put on record the importance of recognising the role that the UK and, indeed, Scotland, is playing. The UK is the principal arms supplier for Saudi Arabia, which is why we turned a blind eye when Khashoggi was murdered: “Who cares? Let us look away and invite Mohammed bin Salman or whatever—it does not matter so long as we continue to sell.” The hon. Member for Glasgow North West and others have rightly put that on record. The tragedy is that Scotland has a role in this. As the report I quoted goes on to say, we are aware that missiles provided by Raytheon are causing death and misery in Yemen, indiscriminately killing children from whatever side. The fact of the matter is that the laser guidance systems for Raytheon’s missiles are made at Glenrothes, in Scotland.
I was born in Aden and lived the first 10 years of my life there. I want to thank hon. Members who, throughout the time that I have been here, have raised the issue of Yemen, which does fall off the agenda. Hon. Members have done a good job—whether the Government or the Opposition or even Back Benchers, we have put it on the map. We are getting to a position now—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees—where people are talking, and it is much better that they talk than they fight.
I have not been allowed to go back to Yemen, but the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and I and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson are possibly going on a trip, and that would be an incredible thing for all of us because we have not been back there. I hope that the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) accepts that it is becoming a safer place—it will never be completely safe until everyone is around the table and accepts the rule of law—but at the heart of this debate is the fact that there are children suffering and people starving. We see pictures of babies who are skeletons. It is quite horrifying. I just gently remind the hon. Member that all hon. Members are aware of the suffering that is occurring. It is why we are having this debate today. I thank him for allowing me such a long intervention.
I am happy to accept that intervention and, indeed, to put on record that I welcome progress being made. The right hon. Member obviously knows much more about this than I do. Any progress is to be welcomed. I am also aware that the deaths and misery being inflicted on children come more often not from weaponry but from disease and all the disasters as a result of the fragmentation and breakdown of society. But the UK does have a role, both in funding and providing support and in diplomacy. I just wish that in other conflicts we would listen more to Pope Francis, and perhaps seek to take his guidance.
We have to put on record, as has been done, that the UK has a role in arming Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is also important to put on record that Scotland has a role due to the provision of laser-guided missiles from Glenrothes by Raytheon. I was in the Scottish Government when Raytheon was there, and I have to confess that my hands are implicated in this, but times have moved on. I was a Minister from 2007 to 2014; we are now in 2023. I recall some seven years ago, when I was not in politics at all, writing in defence of the Scottish Government that it is very easy to be condemnatory, but one has to accept that there are quality, skilled jobs that cannot be easily replaced in Glenrothes, where there will be high unemployment. I wrote that there were people working hard there and we had to provide protection.
However, there must come a time when we say that this cannot go on. We have been funding Raytheon; we have been giving it grants to come to Scotland and stay there. There has to come a time when we say, “No, we won’t.” We cannot simply say that it is wrong that the United Kingdom provides armaments to Saudi Arabia, but that it is okay that we in Scotland are prepared to fund Raytheon to provide the laser guidance for the missiles that will be fired. I have to put that on the record. Do I expect Raytheon to up and move out of Glenrothes? No, that would be an economic disaster for the area, but we have to say that we are not going to fund it any more, and that we will try to encourage it to find a better use for the site.
There has to come a time when Scotland recognises that it is not enough simply to say that the role of the United Kingdom is wrong. Scotland must say that it also has a role, albeit smaller and far less serious. The kids who die do not care where the missiles came from. They just want them stopped. That is what I want to put on record. I fully accept the comments that have been made by hon. Members, and I fully endorse the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for bringing forward this important debate. It feels like it has been too long since we had a debate about Yemen.
The conflict tracks fairly evenly the time that my hon. Friend and I have been in Parliament. Over the past eight years, the crisis in Yemen has been constantly on my radar. It came to my attention because a constituent came to my surgery to tell me that the Home Office had refused his status and wanted to send him back to a war zone. Things were just breaking out at that point. I think often about him and his family, as well as the many families in Yemen whose lives, livelihoods and adulthoods have been marked by this conflict. These have been a very long and hard eight years in Yemen. While other conflicts have come and gone and moved on during that period, Yemen’s has persisted.
As hon. Members have pointed out, the UK has a special role as the penholder for Yemen at the United Nations and as a supplier of arms to parties to the conflict. We have an important role in rebuilding and providing aid, and in doing what we can for the future of Yemen.
I want to pick up on a few points that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West was right to point out the vulnerability of children in the conflict. Children’s futures have been hampered, and in many cases destroyed, by the lack of access to education, medical care and ordinary things such as vaccinations, which are more difficult to get. During the conflict it has been difficult to get things across Yemen; the parties to the conflict have put in place roadblocks and barriers, preventing movement of food and goods that would have been helpful to young people.
In the absence of those things, 2.7 million children have been left out of school, education facilities have been bombed, and mines have been left in many parts of the country. In a helpful briefing, Save the Children states that casualties from mines increased from one every five days in 2018 to one every two days in 2022. There has rightly been a lot of focus recently on the impact of landmines in Ukraine, but we also need to invest in de-mining capacity in Yemen. Without that, people cannot live safely and go back to the lives they once had.
The key to this issue is funding. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West talked about the reduction in official development assistance, and the cruel way in which UK aid funding has been diverted to pay for the asylum backlog rather than to help those in Yemen stay there and live their lives—robbing Peter to pay Paul. The cut in the budget from £214 million in 2020 to £88 million in 2023—a period in which the need in Yemen has increased—is particularly cruel.
In its most recent briefing, the World Food Programme states that its needs-based plan is just 20% funded for the next six months, from May to October 2023. It needs significant funds. I appreciate that the UK Government do give money to it, but, as the penholder, the UK should be trying harder to get more people to provide money so that food can get to those who need it.
Save the Children points out that only 6.8% of child protection needs in the humanitarian response plan were funded last year, which makes it all the more difficult to rebuild the lives of children and young people in Yemen. As my hon. Friend mentioned, that affects girls particularly, because they get married off at a younger and younger age and are unable to get the education they need and to progress as they want, but it also severely impact boys, who are recruited as child soldiers.
I pay tribute to Mwatana for Human Rights, which has done a huge amount to document human rights abuses by those on all sides of the conflict in Yemen. It has documented numerous incidents of child recruitment by different parties to the conflict, who have used children in security, logistical or combat roles as part of military operations. Between March 2015 and March 2023, it documented a total of 2,615 incidents, involving the recruitment and use of 3,402 children, including girls. The Houthis recruited at least 2,556 children, and the Saudi coalition forces recruited and used 284 children. There are also 552 children apparently recruited by forces of Yemen’s internationally recognised Government. All sides in this conflict are causing harm to children and young people in Yemen. The harms caused include abuses against women and against people right across the board.
The hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) talked about the arbitrary detention and some of the prisoner swaps that have been happening. That is incredibly important, because it builds trust and faith that people can be released from prison and get their lives back. It can also help to rebuild the family unit in cases where the main breadwinner has been taken out of the unit and arbitrarily detained; in many cases, the family do not know whether they are dead or alive. Allowing those breadwinners to come back to their families and to support the women of the family to feed the children is very important. I hope that we will see more of that facilitated by the International Red Crescent and others; without families being brought back together, it will be very hard for Yemen to move forward.
Furthermore, there needs to be accountability for the war crimes carried out in Yemen by all sides. Important to that—I seek an answer from the Minister—is reinstatement of the group of eminent experts on Yemen, which was an important part of accountability, ensuring that things were investigated properly and that people were held to account for what they had done in the conflict. Again, without the accountability and that judicial system, it will be difficult for people to rebuild their lives. I ask the Minister for an update on whether that is possible.
Also on accountability, the Committees on Arms Export Controls have asked that they be a stand-alone Committee, so that they can interrogate how the UK Government are using and selling their weapons, and whether they are doing so properly. I hope that the Government will support that in some way.
I want to mention briefly the important situation of the Safer, which the hon. Member for Meon Valley mentioned. I understand that there were meetings last week in London, so it would be useful to get an update from the Minister. This is not just about a boatful of oil threatening to leak out all over that part of Yemen, but about people’s livelihoods. Many people on the coast are dependent on fishing for their livelihoods and incomes, and if the oil tanker were breached, as has been threatened for some time, a whole swathe of people would be prevented from earning a living, which will be important in moving forward.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West for securing the debate. I also thank the hon. Members for Meon Valley and for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill)—he mentioned important aspects of the arms debate—and the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who has done so much for this cause, along with her brother the former Member for Leicester East, who chaired the all-party group for Yemen and kept it on the agenda. It is for all of us to keep pushing the Government, because a lot more needs to be done.
The UK Government have important responsibilities as the penholder at the United Nations, which means that they ought to be an honest broker, rather than a supplier of arms to one side. I urge the Minister to do more, even in the face of the other challenges for the Government with international conflict, to ensure that Yemen does not slip off the international agenda.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing this important debate and for her thoughtful and probing speech. I also thank Save the Children and UNICEF for their briefings in advance of the debate.
It has been just over a year since the truce was signed in Yemen. While it only lasted officially for six months, many of its components continue. Thankfully, there has been no return to large-scale conflict. The prisoner exchange involving about 900 detainees, ongoing truce negotiations and the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran bring hope for a more durable ceasefire. However, more than two thirds of the population of Yemen require urgent humanitarian assistance and more than 350 children were killed last year alone. Children continue to face acute malnutrition, displacement and disease with the near collapse of the health system in Yemen, and we should not forget that a generation of children has grown up in a brutal war that has caused deep psychological wounds.
The conflict in Yemen has been marked by unprecedented violations of children’s rights by all parties. Those violations have included killing and maiming, the recruitment and use of children in war, the attacking of schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access. Save the Children estimates that the conflict has resulted in more than 11,000 verified cases of killing and maiming of children and that 11 million children are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. We all share a responsibility to address that dreadful situation.
It is important to emphasise that the UK has a unique role to play in Yemen due to its membership of the Quad—together with the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—and its roles as penholder for Yemen on the UN Security Council and as a leading member of the Human Rights Council. It is important to consider all that in our discussions about Yemen and the actions that the UK can take.
I will first draw attention to areas of key concern, starting by setting out the situation with regard to nutrition. Widespread acute food insecurity plagues Yemen. According to Save the Children, 2.2 million out of the 3.4 million children under the age of five are suffering from acute malnutrition. The food crisis has both immediate and long-term consequences, as malnutrition during childhood can lead to stunted growth and cognitive impairments and can increase vulnerability to illnesses.
That brings me to the health crisis faced by children in Yemen. The UN has reported that, as of April this year, 46% of health facilities across Yemen are either only partially functioning or completely out of service due to shortages of staff, funds, electricity or medicines. It has also reported that disease outbreaks of measles, diphtheria, dengue, cholera and polio are accelerating Yemen’s deepening health crisis. The disease outbreaks are being worsened by mass displacements of people, the overburdening of health facilities, ongoing disruptions of water and sanitation networks, and low immunisation coverage. We know that malnourishment also has an impact on immunisation. The lack of immunisation for children increases the risk of outbreaks of preventable diseases.
Access to education for school-age children has been impeded by years of conflict and the near collapse of the economy in Yemen, a point well made by the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). I know how much she and my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) care about what is going on in Yemen, particularly to children. The education system is also on the verge of collapse. According to Save the Children, more than 2.7 million children are out of school and 1.5 million are internally displaced. Many have had their education disrupted multiple times, and 40% of displaced children do not attend school.
The UN stated that more than 2,700 schools have been destroyed, damaged or used for non-educational purposes, affecting the learning of about 1.5 million school-age children. One in five schools can no longer be used as a direct result of the conflict. Meanwhile, functional schools suffer from classroom overcrowding: in some areas, there are more than 80 pupils per classroom. The irregular payment of teachers’ salaries also continues to affect education. Save the Children estimates that 61% of teachers have been irregularly paid since 2016; many have opted to leave to pursue other activities.
Adults’ abuse of children by recruiting them into war is without a doubt one of the most upsetting human rights abuses in Yemen. Save the Children has reported that child soldiers are used for various tasks and are often subjected to brutal training and indoctrination and exposed to violence. Although the Houthis and the internationally recognised Government of Yemen have signed action plans for children in armed conflict, both parties continue to recruit children into their ranks. Between October and February, Save the Children documented more than 50 cases of child recruitment in the south. It seems that child recruitment is even more rampant in the north, where children who have died while fighting are celebrated as martyrs.
The recruitment of children into armed groups exposes them to severe risks and causes harm to their physical and mental wellbeing. History has taught us how cycles of abuse and brutalisation tend to repeat themselves. For there to be any sort of enduring peace in Yemen, the abuse of children recruited into war must be addressed.
Another extremely distressing result of the war and the humanitarian crisis is the sexual violence faced by children in Yemen. As a result of the war, children face an increased risk of sexual violence, including rape, early forced marriage, sexual abuse and torture. Last year, Save the Children provided support to a 15-year-old girl who was displaced due to the conflict. She was raped and subsequently gave birth to her attacker’s child. While in hospital, security reported her to authorities as an unmarried girl with a child, after which she was taken, along with her newborn baby, and imprisoned. Such disturbing cases are likely to be under-reported and are of extreme concern.
Another key concern is landmines and unexploded ordinance. Last year, Save the Children found that unexploded ordinance was responsible for more than half of all child casualties in Yemen. The physical and emotional impact of such injuries is devastating.
There is so much more I could say about the dire violation of children’s rights in Yemen, but in the interest of time I will move on to the political context. Despite the violations I have outlined, Yemen is one of the only conflicts in the world without some form of independent international accountability mechanism—a point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). For comparison, Ukraine has nine accountability mechanisms. It is a year and a half since the Human Rights Council failed to renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, which effectively leaves violators of international human rights and humanitarian law free to continue their actions with impunity, perpetuating the cycle of violence and abuse.
I therefore conclude by asking the Minister the following questions. As a leading member of the Human Rights Council, will the UK hold the perpetrators of violations of international law, international humanitarian law and international human rights law to account? Will the Government support the re-establishment of an international, independent and impartial accountability mechanism? We cannot sit back and allow a generation of children in Yemen to have their childhoods stolen. Will the Minister therefore also commit to the UK Government taking all actions to encourage a lasting peace in Yemen? I look forward to the Minister’s responses.
It is an honour to serve with you in the Chair once again, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her for her commitment in highlighting the challenges in Yemen and the rights of children there and for her powerful and moving speech. I am also grateful for the contributions of other Members in the Chamber, and I will seek to respond to the points raised. I also express my gratitude to Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who do not often get praised for the work that they do, and to civil servants for their sterling work and support—and to their parents, who might be listening. I leave that thought with hon. Members.
We have had other debates about Yemen in the fairly recent past. A debate on 3 November, which I had the privilege to be involved in, allowed me to find out more about an area that I do not always cover in my ministerial responsibilities. We talked about the issues. As has been said by some Members, notably the dynamic duo—the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond)—some progress is being made. We do not want to get carried away with it, but some progress is being made. From a personal perspective, I very much hope that, at some point in the near future, they will fulfil their ambition of visiting this great country again.
It has been over a year since the UN successfully brokered a truce between the warring parties. The truce has delivered many tangible benefits. It allowed many Yemenis to live more securely and to travel more freely than at any time since the war began. The reopening of Sana’a airport enabled commercial flights to resume, which allowed Yemenis to reunite with loved ones and seek urgent medical treatment abroad. Those are important things. The reopening of Hudaydah port has enabled oil to flow into the country, allowing public services to restart and bringing down the towering oil prices that were unaffordable for most people. The cross-border attacks, such as those on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have also ceased.
It was therefore disappointing that the Houthis refused to agree an extension to the truce last October. In the November debate, we were concerned about that. The refusal jeopardised progress and threatened to dismantle what had been built over the previous 13 months. However, it is encouraging that the parties have not returned to full conflict and that truce-like conditions have continued. Saudi-Houthi talks are showing positive signs, including the recent large-scale prisoner exchange, which has been referred to, and the door to a formal ceasefire and progress towards a lasting peace settlement remains open. We are cautiously optimistic of a transition to a series of intra-Yemeni talks under UN auspices and, ultimately, to a negotiated political settlement. That is the only credible route to a sustainable solution to the conflict, and we urge the parties not to squander the opportunity.
Political progress is essential for alleviating the immense humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people. UN appeals for Yemen have been some of the largest in the world. This year’s appeal for £4.3 billion is second only to the appeal for Afghanistan. However, at the annual Yemen pledging conference in February, only £1.1 billion, or approximately 27% of the total, was committed. We continue to investigate new aid partnerships, including with countries in the Gulf with which we can pool resources and expertise to have the maximum impact. That was an issue that was raised during the debate.
As a result of the war, Yemen is now one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. More than 21 million people need humanitarian assistance and protection—two thirds of the population.
Food insecurity has been highlighted by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), among others, and malnutrition remains severe with 17 million people experiencing acute food insecurity. There is a clear risk that the country could tip into famine. The requirement under mahram law for women and girls to be accompanied by a male guardian has been increasingly enforced in Houthi-controlled governorates. That violates the rights of women and girls, preventing them from moving freely, working and accessing healthcare. It has particularly harmed the humanitarian effort, hampering aid delivery, particularly to women and girls.
Amid the dire humanitarian circumstances, Yemeni children are among the worst affected. While the de facto truce is a cause for hope, Yemen remains one of the most dangerous locations in the world to be a child. Last year, at an event hosted by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, we heard from a 13-year-old Yemeni boy, who stressed the importance of peace, saying his
“childhood has been missing for seven years”.
All he wanted was for the war to stop so that all Yemeni children can have a childhood and enjoy an education.
In areas of conflict, children are nearly 20 times more likely to die from diarrhoeal disease than from conflict itself, and Yemen is no exception. Facilities and services have been ravaged by eight years of war. Yemen has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, as has been highlighted today. Child brides are at a greater risk of partner violence, and pregnancy at an early age is a key driver of maternal mortality. A UN panel of experts reported that over 1,200 children were recruited and trained as child soldiers by the Houthis between July 2021 and August 2022. Yemeni children have suffered tremendously after eight years of destructive conflict. Many will live with injuries for the rest of their lives and others will suffer the psychological impacts of abduction and sexual violence. They have also been denied access to education, which was rightly highlighted by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley. The children of Yemen need the long-term support of the international community.
With your permission, Mr Pritchard, I will pick up on a couple of points raised during the debate. I know there are some concerns about the level of ODA targets. However, we continue to be a leading donor in the world. This year, our allocation to Yemen remains the same as it was in 2022-23. It will help provide food for at least 100,000 Yemenis every month and treat 22,000 severely malnourished children.
The Minister is comparing last year’s figures with this year’s. In my speech, I highlighted that the current figures are actually a third of what they were in 2020, so we have had a real significant cut to ODA funding. Against the backdrop of everything he has heard today, and indeed his own comments, what is he doing to push Yemen’s case for additional funding?
As I said previously, we have maintained our expenditure in a difficult fiscal situation. We are working hard to encourage other countries to get involved with vital partnerships to help provide the humanitarian support that is required in Yemen. As has been said, the real way forward is to ensure that we secure a long-term and sustainable peace. That is what will really deliver the benefits that all of us want and will tackle the terrible tragedies that young people, children and even adults are experiencing.
We take very seriously all the allegations of violations of international humanitarian law, including those involving children as referenced by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West. We have a robust decision-making process that takes those allegations into account, incorporating a wide range of information from the UN, NGOs and partner Governments. Several points were made about the importance of accountability mechanisms, and the mandate of the group of eminent experts on Yemen, which was sadly not renewed. The UK voted in favour, and spoke in support of the resolution during the voting, as the group played a crucial role in providing ongoing reporting on the actions of parties.
We continue to urge the parties involved to investigate allegations that arise, and to take action to promote and protect human rights. The UN panel of experts plays an important role in identifying those allegations. The UK is grateful to the panel for its essential role in ensuring accountability in Yemen. We strongly advocated for the renewal of that panel’s mandate in February, and were pleased to see that that resolution was passed.
We also heard some questions about the Safer oil tanker, which I know is of particular concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central. The UK is not only keeping up the pressure on the UN but leading international efforts to fully fund the salvage operation. Last week, the UK co-hosted a fundraising event with the Netherlands, which raised almost £8 million of additional funding and allows the UN emergency operation to salvage the tanker to now start. Clearly, more needs to be done, but the good news is that the work is progressing.
All of that shows that Yemen is a humanitarian priority for the UK. We have supported millions of vulnerable Yemenis with food, clean water and healthcare, and our aid spending this year will provide food for at least 100,000 Yemenis every month. Our flagship food security programme provides lifesaving cash assistance to those most in need, and builds resilience against famine.
Our Yemen women and children programme tackles the greatest causes of excess mortality and suffering among women and children, including malnutrition, disease and gender-based violence. It supports over 1 million Yemenis a year. We have also supported the UN’s programme to end child marriage in Yemen since 2016, helping to reach more than 20,000 adolescent girls and provide them with education and life skills that reduce their vulnerability to child marriage.
We have worked with the specialist NGO, War Child, to tackle the use of child soldiers and provide safe spaces and psychosocial support for recruited children in Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city. That programme has provided support to more than 4,500 children.
We have also seen some progress since the advent of the truce, with the Houthis signing an action plan with the UN to end the use of children in conflict. The latest expert UN report suggests some signs of buy-in from the Houthis. Those are encouraging signs.
We will continue to use all our diplomatic channels to press all parties to cease the abhorrent practice of recruiting children into their armed forces and to halt grave violations against children. Children cannot—and should not—continue to be victims of brutality in this conflict.
I conclude by reiterating our calls for all parties to continue to engage meaningfully in efforts towards a negotiated political solution to the conflict. The de facto truce shows how things could improve for the people in Yemen if peace could be placed on a solid footing. Some Yemeni children are experiencing relative peace for the first time in their lives. That offers hope, and a reminder to all sides of why this opportunity must not be squandered.
I want to start by thanking all Members who have contributed today to ensure that this so-called forgotten conflict remains high up the political agenda. That is the first thing, which is very important.
I thank the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for their specific expertise and for talking from their own experiences. That was very helpful. I also thank the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for his passionate speech about how we must consider what we do with arms. Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who has done so much work on Yemen since we were elected in 2015. I urge the Minister to use his position to ensure that the UK is a force for good in Yemen.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in Yemen and children’s rights.