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Grand Committee

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023

Grand Committee

Thursday 6 July 2023

Arrangement of Business


My Lords, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes. I remind noble Lords that the clocks are not working, so noble Lords should exercise self-control.

International Widows Day

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in response to the United Nations’ International Widows Day and to empower widows to achieve economic independence in the face of continuing discrimination and prejudice affecting their opportunities and life chances as well as those of their dependants.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chair and founder trustee of the Loomba Foundation.

I was only 10 years old when my father died in India in 1954. It was a tragedy for my mother and my siblings, but for me, the shock of what happened next has remained with me all of my life. On that same day, before my father had been cremated, my mother had to remove all her jewellery and bindi—the sign of a married woman in India—and to wear only white clothes to signify her for ever as a widow. I had always known my mother as a happy and fulfilled person. Now she was instantly transformed into a troubled widow, shunned and facing imposed obstacles. My mother was determined to make sure that we were not harmed by the tragedy and she devoted all her resources to ensuring that all of us—boys and girls—received the best education possible.

As I came to realise years later, we were the lucky ones. Tens of millions of widows from poor backgrounds face penury, with customs and traditions making it difficult for them to support themselves or to pay for their children’s education. Many fall into destitution, with very little opportunity for their children to escape a similar fate. So, in 1997, after my mother passed away, my wife and I established a foundation in my mother’s memory to help poor widows and their families.

Our first target was to fund education for children of poor widows throughout India, and we built a programme that has transformed the lives of more than 100,000 people. We soon came to realise, however, that this is a global issue, with widows facing serious abuse and discrimination in countries all around the world. There was little or no prospect of this changing. The problems of widows are invisible—not seen or acknowledged anywhere.

A 2001 United Nations Development Fund for Women report noted that widows are painfully absent from the statistics of many developing countries and rarely mentioned in reports on women’s poverty, development, health or human rights. We have since worked in dozens of countries on four continents to support and empower widows and to counter cultures of discrimination, such as customary “cleansing” rituals in which a widow is required to drink the water used to wash her dead husband’s body, or to be raped by one of his relatives. These practices, common in some countries, violate the dignity of widows and are a public health issue.

Widows are also regularly accused of killing their husbands—including by transmitting HIV/AIDS—in India, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and sub-Saharan Africa. Systematic seizure of property and evictions by the late husband’s family remain widespread in 18 African countries as well as in Bangladesh and India.

In many sub-Saharan African rural societies, widows are literally “inherited” through forced remarriage to a brother of the deceased husband to keep the property of the husband and his children inside the husband’s family. Among the Luo ethnic group in Kenya, this is encouraged because women are expected to continue bearing children—a widow’s status and security depend on having many sons.

Customs and prejudices that feed discrimination against widows is so deep-rooted that the support of Governments, international organisations and all people of good will is needed to bring about significant change. This means not just changes in laws or giving aid but altering prevailing attitudes and cultural norms around widowhood. We need a sustained global campaign to address egregious violations of human rights.

That is why on 26 May 2005, at an event here in the House of Lords, the Loomba Foundation launched International Widows Day. After five years of tireless campaigning together with Loomba Foundation president Cherie Blair, 23 June was unanimously adopted as International Widows Day by the UN General Assembly, the day my dear mother became a widow.

Over the last 14 years, UN member states have worked to tackle the issue, but the problem still affects more than 1 billion people, with more than 100 million widows and their dependants living below the poverty line. I have been grateful throughout this time for the support of the UK Government, who have expressly recognised that widows suffer double discrimination, both for their gender and their status as widows.

International Widows Day was born in this building, and the Government have played their part in making it an official effort of the international community. I was grateful for the opportunity to put an Oral Question last week and to raise this Question for Short Debate today. However, it is noteworthy that while a Motion on International Women’s Day is tabled by a Minister each year, properly addressing the plight of widows on International Widows Day is left to the lottery of Questions submitted for ballot by noble but ordinary Members of your Lordships’ House.

We can and must do much more to address the plight of widows. We must stop treating them as a subset of gender discrimination. We must see that we are talking about the poorest of the poor, who often have no one to turn to or speak for them. We must see that widowhood, which hangs over all women, drives discrimination against girls from the day they are born, leading families to prioritise education and opportunities for sons over daughters. We must realise that without specific action on widows, we will never achieve the ambition of the UN sustainable development goals to leave no one behind.

I have three simple questions for the Minister. First, will he support a focused study of changes in legislation and attitudes in UN member countries over the last two decades to inform effective policy development? Secondly, will he support an international campaign of education and awareness based on the evidence? Finally, will he consider scheduling a debate on International Widows Day next year from the Dispatch Box?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for initiating this debate. I thought I would raise two issues with the Minister and make some other points. We have been talking about widows for a long time in this House. Those of us who come from the Indian subcontinent vividly recollect what it means to be a widow and the kind of suffering women have to go through, so this is not a new subject. It is a very painful subject, and we have raised it again and again. I want to ask two questions which have not been asked before.

First, who is a widow? I am told that a widow is somebody whose husband has died. What is a husband? The manner of thinking and talking about marriage and social relations is undergoing fast changes, partly because of the impact of feminism and partly because of radical ideas, so that the old categories of married/not married/widowed/divorced make less and less sense. For example, if two people have been cohabiting and one of them dies, is the cohabitee a widow? In same-sex marriages, if two men are married to each other and one of them dies, is the other man a widow? If he walked into my office and said “Professor, I am a widow”, I would be horrified to hear that. So the first question that this House, with its distinguished concentration of intelligence and wisdom, will want to address is who is a widow and whose future and whose past are we talking about.

My second question is far more important. A widow is a cultural construction. To be a widow in India is a very different experience from being a widow in the United States. As the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, said, what does being a widow in India mean? I speak from experience, because I saw what happened with my grandmother and other widows. You will not wear fancy dress. You will not eat fancy food. You will slowly withdraw from public occasions. You will not allow your shadow to be cast on newly born children or newly married couples. In other words, you lose all your human rights. What do you do? To be a widow means to be not just depersonalised but depersoned. You no longer count as a person. What do we need to do to improve their condition? The suggestion that they should somehow be economically better off or economically empowered simply does not do. The problem is not economic. My grandmother suffered those handicaps, and having a lot of money would not have helped her.

The problem requires a revolutionary change in the culture. It is a cultural problem, not an economic one. It is a cultural problem in the sense that people in the community hardly ever recognise that widowhood is a social condition, not an identity. That is an important difference. Old age is a social condition but if you turn it into a matter of identity, that entails rights and obligations and all sorts of things, as is increasingly happening in the modern world. So when widowhood is turned into a matter of identity, it has to be counted as such. That can be done only at the cultural level, not the economic level.

I end by suggesting that the revolutionary cultural change required to deal with the problems of widows is enormous. In India, which I observe regularly, the problem has been with us for at least 300 years. In the 19th century, one of the greatest reform movements was the remarriage of widows, because widows were not allowed to remarry. Not only that, but a widow was seen a threat because she would seduce your husband or entice him or other members of your family away. What do you do? The widow was not only an ill omen but a threat.

In those kinds of situation, how do social reformers fight those ugly practices and beliefs? That is precisely the point—cultural change requires fighting the beliefs and practices through which people define themselves. I suggest that economic power is useful but not enough.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing this debate. I will focus my contribution on African widows. In Africa, irrespective of ethnic group, widows are among the most vulnerable and destitute women in the world.

It is a common concept throughout Africa that death does not end a marriage. While the widow may have no rights to ownership of her husband’s property, she is usually expected to fulfil obligations towards her deceased husband through participating in traditional practices. In return, she may be allowed to remain in her home and to have rights to cultivate land. In the past, this pattern of shared duties and obligations in an extended family protected the widow and her children. Today, the custom is more likely to be used to oppress and exploit them. The low status, poverty and violence experienced by widows stems from discrimination in inheritance, custom, the male-controlled nature of society and the domination of oppressive traditional practices and customary codes, which take precedence over constitutional guarantees of equality, modern laws and international human rights standards for women.

Widow abuse is visible across ethnic groups, income, class and education. Legislative reform in compliance with international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women has largely failed to take precedence over local interpretations of customary law. In some cases, widowhood may deprive women of their home, agricultural land, assets and even their children. The poverty of widowhood causes children, especially girls, to be withdrawn from school.

A wave of genocide created 500,000 widows in Rwanda. Some 60% of adult women were widowed by the wars in Angola and Mozambique. After the genocide, many widows became victims of their husband’s male relatives, who, rather than protect and support them, denied them any access to their husband’s land or property.

Through the association of widows NGOs, widows’ inheritance has been the subject of reforms in the law of many countries in Africa. Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe are among those whose Governments have legislated for equality in inheritance rights, in compliance with obligations under the Beijing platform for action and human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

However, it is clear that at local level, discriminatory customary rules on inheritance still apply, even though constitutional guarantees or modern laws exist. In rare cases in which courageous women have defied threats of violence and taken their cases to court, some independent and creative judges have decreed that international law, as laid down, takes precedence over custom and religion. On the other hand, many widows have shown remarkable determination and courage in the face of tragedy and, either individually or in co-operation with other widows, become self-supporting entrepreneurs, running small businesses, farming and supporting their children and other dependants.

The strength of widows’ groups in Uganda, such as the aid organisations, is a model of what can be achieved when widows organise themselves. Widows’ groups in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Swaziland are heightening awareness of these issues and providing training and income generation, health, care and shelter for destitute widows and their families. More of these groups need to be encouraged to develop so that widows are not seen as recipients of welfare relief but women whose contribution to the economy and potential role in society should be properly acknowledged.

However, taboos on discussing such intimate topics have allowed for little research on this aspect of widow abuse in Africa. In the light of this, can the Minister say what more can be done with the help of international partners to obtain some reliable data on the state of widows in war-torn countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia?

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing this debate and for his determination to raise public awareness of the economic plight of so many widows across the world. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition which has shaped the values that undergird our country, there is a strong tradition of caring for “the widow, the orphan and the stranger”, and we find that trio of vulnerable individuals recurring throughout Scripture. To put it another way, one of the litmus tests of a society is how it treats those who are most vulnerable to exploitation— those without obvious defenders.

With regard to widows, in the New Testament we are encouraged to make financial provision for those over the age of 60, which is the origin of the historic qualifying age for female retirement pensions, now long since superseded thanks for our increasing longevity in Britain. As we have heard from other noble Lords, provision for widows across the globe varies enormously. However, this debate gives me the opportunity to ask the Minister about our own situation with pensions. I am under the impression—I hope not mistakenly—that all the main parties are committed to maintaining the triple lock on old-age pensions. Can the Minister confirm that His Majesty’s Government are indeed committed to this, lest in lecturing other nations, we be at fault ourselves?

Discussion of the empowerment of widows to achieve economic independence can act as a sort of mirror on the values of a culture. For example, in our own culture, the glamourisation of the young, the famous and the beautiful is having the unfortunate effect of sidelining older people in our communities, whose voice—apart from in your Lordships’ House—is often under-represented. When a society glamourises the young at the expense of older members in the community, it is in danger of losing sight of the gift of experience.

Of course, widows are not a homogenous group, and we should be wary of talking about them and all “older people” in an undifferentiated way. Above all, we need to challenge the narrative that caricatures older people as a burden and instead talk positively, using the language of gift and blessing. Older members of a society have a honed wisdom which should not be squandered. Taking seriously this challenge could positively impact thinking across various policy areas, including health, social care and end of life care.

Internationally, as we have heard, the picture is very varied, and widows can be very young. The UN estimates that of the approximately 258 million widows globally, no fewer than 1.36 million are children. The consequences of widowhood for children given in marriage before they are 18 can be severe and lifelong. Even for those women who are not children when they are widowed, many face complex and harmful prejudices, as we have heard, and financial instability. One in 10 widows worldwide lives in extreme poverty.

In that context, I will highlight an organisation doing inspiring work. Five Talents works with the Anglican Church in rural areas of eastern Africa, Myanmar and Bolivia to help those with no access to financial services to begin savings groups. They receive training and microfinance loans to set up and grow small businesses. Five Talents works with the marginalised and no less than 78% are women, many of them widows, who go on to run successful businesses. It is a superb example of empowering women towards financial independence.

With so much to draw on, I hope that this debate encourages widows in every land to share their insights. Their experience should be a toolbox from which we all gain wisdom.

My Lords, as previous speakers have said, we owe a debt to the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for raising this issue today. We should also put on record our thanks for the work he has done through the foundation, in his mother’s name, to put this issue before us. It clearly does not get the attention it deserves. Thanks are due to the noble Lord for obtaining this debate today and for his dogged determination to ensure that this is not a one-off. Having another debate next year so that we can assess progress is clearly important.

One of the big successes of the noble Lord’s campaign was the establishment of International Widows Day, the purpose of which is to educate people about this issue—as we are doing now—to mobilise changes and the resources to achieve them, and to celebrate the successes that are possible. That is why this debate is important.

When someone is widowed, they obviously have to deal with grief and loss, but all too often there is economic uncertainty beyond that. I said uncertainty but I mean poverty, and that is the problem: it leads to poverty all too often. This brings me to the focus of my remarks: a large part of that is about pensions and inadequate provision for people who have to face the problems of widowhood.

In this country, the concept of a pension gap between men and women is receiving additional attention, but we still have a long way to go before achieving solutions. It is clear that the same pattern is being followed around the world. In fact, in preparing for this debate, I was somewhat concerned by—but ought to have known about—the lack of work being undertaken in this area. There is a lot of work on pensions, such as researching their effectiveness and changes in policy, but work on the specific issue of how the pension system works for widows is conspicuously lacking. The noble Lord asked the Minister to promise more research in this area, and more information is clearly needed so that the problems are clearer.

We do know about some of these problems. The fact that women are discriminated against in pay means that they end up with worse pensions; and women, in practice, tend to undertake more caring responsibilities, which, as things stand, rarely give rise to pension rights. That is the central problem. What to do about it and where the money will come from is the area that needs more work.

In the UK, pension rules by and large do not discriminate against women, although the fact that the rules as they apply to widowhood are extremely complex is a de facto problem. Probably hundreds of thousands of women—I think the DWP has acknowledged this—face problems accessing their rights because they do not know them or the system is so difficult to negotiate.

However, the biggest problem is the whole concept of derived rights. Women do not accrue pension rights in their own right. All too often, the pension system is established on the basis that the man is the breadwinner and the woman the caregiver. We are moving away from that. There is still a big historical legacy of that in the UK system, but it is endemic in pension systems throughout the world. We need to do research on derived rights and contingent rights: women need rights to a pension that is not linked to their marital status. The third area where more work needs to be done is lack of awareness. All too often, when someone is widowed, they simply do not know what is available, or there is no advice or access to advice, or to the information that would enable them to obtain the help available.

There is a focus on innovation and technology for gender equality, and we can very much look to technology to provide the information and support that people need to access the pension rights to which they are entitled.

My Lords, every time I hear my noble friend Lord Loomba in these debates, I feel that he personifies international development at the ground level, where it matters. Poverty, hunger and ill health are the three issues heading the UN’s priority list of sustainable development goals. Gender equality is also on the list. Women and girls who have suffered violence or rape, or been widowed or separated, deserve much more attention at the international level, and this is what they are receiving through International Widows Day.

No one can have anything but admiration for the work of the Loomba Foundation and the efforts that my noble friend has made not only in changing lives in India but in influencing our Government. This was especially true during the coalition, when we had a real department for international development that began to focus on gender equality and violence against women, including widows. I expect that our new Minister will say that this policy continues, but this week’s news that our core aid programme, including the one helping women and girls, is being raided yet again to assist, in this case, the climate change budget, is not encouraging. I hope that the Minister has a few words ready to reassure us on that subject.

Normally, when visualising a developing country, we think of a static rural or urban population, small enterprises, the cultivation of crops and schemes such as water conservation. I remember from my time in India that widows often joined credit and loan schemes in which women played a leading role, often well ahead of men, in accountancy, saving money for funerals and communal activities. We in the West, with our demands for separate living and housing, still have a lot to learn about community and the need to back up weaker members of society.

I raise the case of another neglected group: the widows of migrants and widows who themselves become refugees or migrants. In the case of migrants, it is their death that separates husband and wife and leaves the family divided. It is not an easy subject for the FCDO, but it is also connected to the UN agencies. This week we have been discussing the Government’s plans to prevent migrants coming to the UK, and even the present Bill allows exceptional or vulnerable cases. I argue that widows separated from migrant husbands are an exceptional category. If possible, they should be identified by the UNHCR well before they leave detention centres and climb into small boats.

I have seen research which shows that both the UN and the EU, in an attempt to slow migration, have been financing detention centres, mainly in Libya. These centres separate men and women, including husbands and wives, and torture and maltreat people even though they are in so-called care. They are denied food and medical facilities offered by the UN itself. It is mainly the men who risk their lives on boats; in many cases, they leave their widows in these centres, which are often run or dominated by the local militia or traffickers demanding enormous sums from families via mobile phone.

I have visited refugee camps in different parts of the world and have seen the excellent work they do. However, after reading about Libya, I am less charmed by the UN agencies, even the International Organization for Migration, for which I had a lot of respect. The irony is that European policies are being turned on their head. Detention centres, by becoming a source of aggression or a playground for militants, simply aggravate the problems of migrants, many of whom are being turned into refugees. Only a very small number happily return to their homes. Surely it is time for an international conference to bring the relevant countries together to tackle the crisis of migration.

Finally, in Darfur, Sudan, reports show that women and girls are suffering violence, rape and murder on a daily basis, but access is so difficult that they are beyond international protection. I know the FCDO is doing its best to maintain programmes for them in Sudan.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, on securing this important debate and on all his work in establishing International Widows Day, drawing attention to it and addressing the issues faced by widowed women. He set out very clearly so many of the problems that widowed women are still facing.

The United Nations reports that armed conflicts, the Covid-19 pandemic and displacement and migration have left many more women newly widowed in recent years. I will focus my remarks on the plight of Afghan women. Today, the situation of women’s and girls’ rights in Afghanistan has reverted to what it was pre-2002, when the Taliban previously controlled the country. Any progress on women’s rights in the intervening 20 years has been rolled back.

We recall that restoring rights for women was one of the cornerstones of the United Kingdom’s invasion of Afghanistan. Now, over two decades later, girls in Afghanistan have been banned from secondary school and women from tertiary education. Women and girls have been banned from entering amusement parks, public baths, gyms and sports clubs. Women have been banned from working for NGOs. Since the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in August 2021, women have been excluded from public office and the judiciary. Today, Afghanistan’s women and girls are required to adhere to a very strict dress code and are not permitted to travel more than 75 kilometres without a mahram. They are compelled to stay at home. They are invisible.

Over 2.5 million women in Afghanistan have been widowed by decades of conflict and war. They face political and economic insecurity, educational inequality, sexual violence and poor health. That is especially pervasive among Afghan women and children, who were left displaced, illiterate and facing severe post-traumatic stress disorder from living in a war zone for so long. Most of these women were forced by their circumstances to marry young and have children, only to become the sole breadwinner of the family after their husband’s death. Infant mortality is extraordinarily high in Afghanistan—it is the highest in the world—particularly in rural areas, where only 3% of pregnant women are attended in their deliveries by a skilled professional.

Save the Children gives the example of a 26-year-old widow with four children who has no male guardian to escort her when she leaves home. Therefore, she now finds it very difficult to access humanitarian aid. Save the Children reports that it has been unable to restart the majority of food security and livelihood projects which provide life-saving assistance to women like this one and her children.

The ban on female NGO staff in Afghanistan has been disastrous as the country faces a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, with an economic crisis, severe drought, high food prices and extreme poverty. Households supported by women have much lower incomes than families supported by men, and a staggering 96% of female-headed households are not eating enough food due to these restrictions. Women and children are now malnourished and, in many cases, starving. They are being sentenced, as one Afghan woman put it, to “death in slow motion”. This death sentence for Afghan women and girls can be lifted only by major and wide-ranging policy changes by the Taliban.

What efforts are we making together with the international community to continue to provide essential support to Afghan women, to prioritise women’s and girls’ rights in all engagements with the de facto authorities, and to demand the immediate reversal of those edicts and policies that abuse women’s and girls’ rights? Are we taking proactive measures to support Afghan women to engage in decision-making processes in Afghanistan about Afghanistan?

We know that, when equipped with vocational and economic tools, women can change their lives and those of their children, often regardless of their circumstances. We have heard some very good examples today, and historically around the world there have been some very good examples of women being able to do that if they are given the support and the right tools.

These women have, in effect, been abandoned by the West. I am in touch with quite a few charities that support widowed women and their children. They are small charities run by other Afghan women, mainly from this country, who are trying to make a difference. However, such small charities are only the tip of the iceberg, so I ask the Minister what efforts we are making to alleviate this suffering.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for all his work on establishing International Widows Day and for his ongoing work with the Loomba Foundation and in particular the World Widows Report, which has been a regular feature of our debates and the information we have had.

As this debate has recognised, widows can face multiple forms of abuse, stigmatisation and hardship following the loss of their partner. One particularly nasty aspect of that discrimination can include losing their home. Often without property rights, they lose their homes, which are taken away by family members.

We have heard in previous debates and Questions about how the FCDO’s new international women and girls strategy will support grass-roots, women-led civil society organisations to reach out to the most marginalised women and girls. One aspect which I am keen for the Minister to reply on is how that civil society reaches out to organised women’s groups and in particular trade unions, which have been active, particularly in Bangladesh, in supporting widows into work. It would be good to hear from the Minister on that.

The eradication of discrimination against widows is critical to achieving the UN sustainable development goals—as we have heard in the debate—of ending poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality, reducing inequalities and creating sustainable communities. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, has stressed today and in other debates, policy-making must be based on evidence. When the Loomba Foundation embarked on its International Widows Day initiative, it simultaneously began a research programme to shine light on the issue, uncovering its scale, its many forms, its roots and its devastating impact on the economy of many countries. Its World Widows Report has provided researchers, aid agencies and Governments with the means to understand the issue and to form policies capable of addressing it.

It is clear from the evidence that a number of the sustainable development goals adopted by the UN in 2015 will not be achieved unless specific and urgent attention is paid to this issue. How will the Government continue, through British expertise and research, to help UN member states develop and implement effective evidence-based policies, as urged by the noble Lord, Lord Loomba?

I conclude with reference to the responses we heard when the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, asked an Oral Question earlier this year. The noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, referred to the 2019 Commission on the Status of Women, which saw the UK directly help

“secure the first-ever UN-level recognition of the need to invest in adequate measures to protect and support widows”.

He also referred to the UK helping

“to ensure that widows’ rights were recognised in the 2022 Commission on the Status of Women’s agreed conclusions”.—[Official Report, 26/6/23; col. 453.]

We all support these good policies, but can the Minister tell us how we are turning them into concrete action that will address the issues that noble Lords have highlighted in this debate?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for tabling this debate to mark UN International Widows Day, and all noble Lords for their contributions. I also personally thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for his time today discussing the incredible work of his foundation.

Before I get into more detail, I will answer one of his questions which I know is so important to him. He asked if we will give consideration to scheduling a debate on International Widows Day next year from the Dispatch Box. He will be aware that it is customary for the Government to schedule a debate on this subject. I certainly hope this will be possible next year, if parliamentary time allows. He has my personal support, and I will make sure that the Chief Whip is aware of this representation.

UN Women estimates that there are 258 million widows worldwide, and the UK Government recognise that many of them face multiple forms of hardship, stigmatisation and abuse. We have heard many stories and examples in this debate. Protecting their rights and improving their situation is a core element of our work promoting women’s rights and gender equality around the world.

At this stage, I would like to answer the question from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter on the triple lock. The Prime Minister has promised to stick to the triple lock policy, which ensures that state pensions increase each year in line with the highest of the previous September’s inflation, wage growth or 2.5%.

Today, we are specifically focusing on the economic independence of widows. There are of course many biological and cultural reasons why there are more widows than widowers, and why they are more likely to be disadvantaged economically. Starting from an early age, girls are more likely to miss out on education in some parts of the world, reducing their chances of gainful employment as adults.

In many societies, as we have heard today, women tend to marry older men and are less likely to remarry. There are an estimated 1.3 million child widows who married before their 18th birthday and have lost their husbands to conflict, natural disaster or illness.

In the workplace, women are more likely to be paid less than men and more likely to have paid an economic price for having children and caring responsibilities. These economic disadvantages are compounded into old age by the fact that women tend to outlive men. Globally, one in four women are legally covered by a comprehensive social security system, and UN Women has estimated that nearly one in 10 widows worldwide lives in extreme poverty.

In many countries women are disadvantaged by laws and customs that restrict their rights to inheritance and land ownership, as well access to employment, credit and banking facilities. This inequality and lack of provision hurts most women, but it has a particularly bruising impact on widows of all ages, as well as their children and future generations.

In our country’s gender and social inclusion analysis, we aim to highlight the specific local and overlapping discriminations faced by vulnerable populations, including widows and widowers. This absolutely includes those who have lost same-sex partners and partners who are not legally married. This would cover the cultural point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, as well as economic vulnerabilities. We support efforts to address all forms of discrimination against these groups, as part of our efforts to secure their human rights.

The UK Government are committed to promoting gender equality and the rights of women and girls around the world. In March, the Foreign Secretary launched the Government’s first international women and girls strategy. It sets out how we will use our diplomatic and development levers to stand up for the rights and opportunities of women and girls throughout their lives. To tackle poverty and leave no one behind, we are focused on the three Es—educating girls, empowering women and girls and championing their health and rights, and ending gender-based violence. We target our interventions towards the main life stages to achieve lifelong and intergenerational impacts.

The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, raised three questions and I will answer the second and third ones together. Through the international women and girls strategy, we are committed to using world-leading research to deliver quality programmes and policies for women and girls and to share the UK’s expertise and technical knowledge globally. While we do not have a dedicated research platform on issues facing widows, we support the efforts of other researchers in this space to help both our efforts and those of other development partners to leave no one behind.

The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, raised the issue of widows in Africa and empowerment. The economic empowerment of women is key to their independence and a central part of our new strategy. I was particularly interested to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter talk about Five Talents. The UK Government are investing in female entrepreneurs, women’s businesses and decent jobs in key sectors employing women, such as agriculture and manufacturing. For example, since 2017, our Work and Opportunities for Women partnerships have benefited more than 115,000 women, providing them with access to more diverse and lucrative jobs and improved working conditions. Since 2018, we have invested more than £31 million in schemes to raise rural incomes and improve food security for agricultural communities, targeting a 50% participation rate by women farmers.

We have also advocated for and invested heavily in providing 12 years of quality education for girls in developing countries. The UK Government have spent £885 million over 10 years in the global education challenge and £38 million to support the crucial work of women’s rights organisations around the world. In July 2021, the UK co-hosted the Global Education Summit with Kenya and raised $4 billion for the Global Partnership for Education. The UK remains a key donor to the GPE.

We have allocated up to an additional £18 million to the UN Global Programme to End Child Marriage, on top of the £39 million we had already invested. This flagship programme has supported 8 million adolescent girls across 12 countries. Two-thirds of them have demonstrated increased knowledge and skills on their rights, relationships, sexual and reproductive health, and financial literacy. Some 744,000 of the most at-risk girls were supported to access or remain in formal or informal education.

The UK’s development finance institution, British International Investment—BII for short—also supports the economic empowerment of women in developing countries. BII aims to ensure that at least 25% of its investments between 2022 and 2026 align with the 2X Challenge. This aims to mobilise $3 billion from the private sector to provide women with better jobs and improved access to leadership opportunities, finance and enterprise support, as well as products and services that enhance economic participation and access.

Prejudice, sexual harassment and gender-based violence are all barriers to women finding and staying in work, as we have heard today. In 2022, the UK ratified the Istanbul convention, which is the gold standard for combating violence against women and girls. We also ratified the International Labour Organization’s violence and harassment convention—the first international treaty to recognise the right of everyone to work free from violence and harassment, including that which is gender based. The UK Government are also investing a further £67 million in the What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls programme, which will systematically scale up proven approaches to prevent violence against women and girls worldwide.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, raised the issue of pensions and social protection. We are working with partner countries to help to strengthen their social protection systems. Since 2019, we have invested £19 million to support countries to build social protection systems that are better able to respond to the specific needs and potential of the most vulnerable women and girls, including widows and those in communities gripped by conflict and other crises.

I reassure the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that the FCDO will continue to prioritise spending on women and girls to ensure a strong focus on gender equality in our programming. Our human rights diplomacy in the UN and beyond and our revised disability, inclusion and rights strategy also support the rights of older women and widows.

To conclude, the UK Government recognise that many widows around the world face exclusion, economic hardship, stigmatisation and abuse. Through our strategies, development programmes and diplomacy, we are promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls around the world so that they can realise their full potential throughout their lives and achieve economic independence. We will continue to empower women, provide them with economic opportunities, challenge social norms and laws and dismantle barriers until every woman and girl is able to enjoy their rights and freedom and realise their potential. I end by quoting from the Loomba Foundation website, which says that,

“the first International Widows Day was never an end in itself: it was the beginning of a journey”.

Sitting suspended.

Trade Unions: Skilled Professional Graduate Workers

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to support the lives and prospects of skilled professional graduate workers who are members of a trade union.

My Lords, I apologise for the slight delay. We have a technical issue with the clocks which we had hoped would be resolved by the start of this debate, but I am told that that has not happened. We are relying on smoke signals and messages on the officials chat. I call the noble Lord, Lord Balfe.

My Lords, it is unusual to begin a speech by congratulating someone on a speech they have not given, but I would like to be the first person to congratulate my noble friend Lady Swinburne on the maiden speech that we are going to hear and commiserate with her that it has to be in reply to a debate rather than her having 10 minutes all on her own.

Secondly, I remind the Committee that I am president of BALPA. I know I do it often, but I am told that I often ought to do it, so I remind noble Lords of that. I thank BALPA. I also thank Prospect, which did a special brief for me for this debate; the House of Lords Library, which supplemented its already extensive brief; and other organisations including UNISON, the BMA, the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association and the British Dietetic Association, which I was president of at one time, and sundry others.

We have just had Question Time. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, spoke about the eternal policy of making the poor more comfortable. This is not about that. It is about the forgotten class of Britain, as I think of them: the 3.9 million of the 6.3 million members of trade unions affiliated to the TUC who are graduates earning well. In the minds of many, particularly in the Conservative Party, the average TUC worker works down the pit or in some awful occupation. That is not true today. The majority are graduates and are a highly intelligent, very influential bunch, of whom almost 2 million vote for the Conservative Party. Therefore, they deserve to be represented on this side of the Room.

In recent times, they have moved from where Theresa May put them—“just about managing”—into just not managing, because we forget this terribly important group of people who are the backbone of the country. They provide skills. They go to work every day and want a better life for their families. They work extremely hard and get very little. Teachers, civil servants, air traffic controllers and people in the heritage sector, as Prospect calls them, who work to keep our museums and our country’s heritage together, are middle and upper income earners, but not rich income earners.

For instance, a recent Prospect survey showed that 28% of its members were receiving some sort of support from their wider family to keep going, particularly if they have children. Some 13% of them had rising credit card debts because their situation is so difficult. Today, of course, virtually every family in the middle-income group is faced with a rising mortgage bill, not by £10 or £20 but often £100 or more a week. I speak from experience—my daughter and son are both on the receiving end of this, and the bank of grandpa, which can always be more generous, is sometimes called into use.

Let us look at a family of two children with a parent who earns £60,000 a year. People say, “Oh, that’s a lot of money—aren’t they rich?” and so on. It is not a lot of money. When they got to £50,000, they started losing their child benefit. They came into the higher tax rate at £50,270, and from then on, their tax rate was 42%—40% tax, 2% NI. By the time they got to £60,000, they had lost all their child benefit, at a marginal tax rate of 61%, higher than anything that is paid for even by those in the top tax bracket. Therefore, £10,000 more income from working hard to get from £50,000 to £60,000 yielded that family £3,900—they got to take home 39% of their money.

People talk about 10% pay increases. In fact, it is a 5.8% pay increase when you take off just the tax, so it is not a huge increase. In addition—I direct this to my noble friend—the Government have pledged to freeze tax rates until 2028, for five more years. Last year, half a million people became higher-rate taxpayers. At this rate, another 2 million to 3 million will be higher-rate taxpayers by 2028, all of them worse off. If I was the policy director of the Labour Party, I would be saying, “This is an excellent policy. We must really get the Government to stick to it because it is the one way of them losing the election, as people will get so fed up with high tax and no remission”.

We are going to have an election in 2024. At the moment, the Government are going to go into that election saying, “Your tax is going to be frozen for four more years while your income, hopefully, might go up a bit”. If my noble friend wants a recipe for losing an election, she very much has it here, and if she wants to change that, she had better change it around a bit—I am sorry; I am trying to keep an eye on my automatic timer.

I get an email virtually every day of the week from the people whose priorities are our priorities—that is the Government’s slogan. They want to halve inflation—fine; that would be nice. They want to grow the economy; there is not much sign of that happening. They want to reduce debt. That sounds good, but why? There is nothing sacred about debt. We are not as indebted as many European countries and we do not have to make all the working people pay for reducing the debt. We could quite easily reduce it at a much slower rate, and I suggest that we should.

We want to cut waiting lists, but maybe we should look at what is on them. Perhaps we are trying to do a bit too much. If there are really umpteen hundred thousand people waiting for hospital appointments, maybe we are trying to do too many. The NHS has never had more money than at present or more crises than it appears to have at present. The one thing that is popular is stopping the boats. Most people do not object to immigration, but they do object to unfairness; they see crossing the channel as unfair. It would be nice to think that government policy will stop the boats, although I have grave doubts about whether it will make any difference at all.

I always like to finish by quoting someone other than myself. GK Chesterton comes to mind:

“Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;

For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet”.

These people will speak next year. Unless the Government pull their socks up and get some decent policies into play, they will not like the message.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for tabling this debate and for his thought-provoking introduction. I also add my advance congratulations, or commiserations—I am not sure which—to the noble Baroness, Lady Swinburne, on her maiden speech.

This is an opportunity to shine a light on the aspirations of skilled and professional workers, who, according to the latest census, now make up the single biggest occupational group in the UK. Surveys show that professional workers want more hybrid and team working and upgrades in technology so that their skills can keep pace, but also the right to switch off and a more humane work/life balance. The threats of casualisation, management by algorithm, e-surveillance and burnout no longer discriminate between what used to be called white collar and blue collar.

Graduate workers feel money pressures too, as we have heard. Student loans are repayable at the higher RPI rate of inflation, not CPI, as junior doctors highlighted when calling for restoration of their pay. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, will know of airline cadet pilots on bogus self-employment contracts, taking out company loans of tens of thousands of pounds to pay training fees. One cadet I met had always dreamed of becoming a pilot but had no bank of mum or dad to draw on; he slept in his car to save money.

Many young people from working-class backgrounds with ambitions to join a profession, especially young black people, can face tough barriers to entry. Industries such as fashion and journalism have become gentrified. Too often, an unpaid internship is the ticket in, but few can afford to work for free. Five years ago, the Government announced a crackdown on this form of exploitation. I hope they will tell us how many employers who flout the minimum wage law on unpaid internships have been prosecuted since then.

More positively, I have an example of what can be achieved through unionisation. The broadcasting union BECTU, now part of Prospect, has done ground-breaking work to tackle “old school tie” recruitment practices. The union organised events for hundreds of young black and ethnic-minority creatives from ordinary backgrounds, giving them the chance to pitch ideas directly to top TV programme commissioners. Could Ministers acknowledge that, for a worker, one of the best ways to succeed at work is to join a trade union?

In a changing world, continuous professional development is ever more important. One of the TUC’s proudest achievements was the launch of our Unionlearn organisation. At its peak, it provided training opportunities for 250,000 people every year. Workers from all walks of life, especially apprentices and young professionals, benefited enormously. Women returners gained confidence not just to get back into work but to go for promotion. Despite appeals from a host of employers and unions and independent evaluation showing that Unionlearn was top of the class on value for money, student retention and results, the then Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, axed the £12 million grant. A wise Government would reinstate that support.

Here is something else the Government could do. Political parties have long used independently run online votes, as have businesses and a range of other organisations, but, uniquely, by law, unions are prevented from doing so for statutory ballots. In the 21st century, tech-savvy professionals and, indeed, union members in general, think that this is complete nonsense. What is worse is that this ban on safe and secure e-ballots risks degrading union democracy. Any true democrat should support ways to boost turnout and maximise membership participation.

Finally, skilled workers and professionals are rightly proud of their work, and they want to feel valued by their boss and wider society. In Germany, for example, the status of engineers is widely celebrated; in the UK, sadly, not so much. What about valuing our public service professionals—health staff, teachers, train drivers, firefighters and civil servants? Are Ministers setting a good example in how they talk to and treat these trade unionists? After years of understaffing and real-pay cuts, we are witnessing something of a professional worker rebellion, but the Government’s response is, “Obey work orders to strike-break, or face the sack”.

Playing politics with liberties and livelihoods is no way to run a country. Workers are not just commodities; they are human beings. They have knowledge and skills that can help rebuild Britain but, in return, they expect to be treated with respect. They also expect their trade unions to be treated with respect.

My Lords, I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for his work to promote the role of trade unions and their members in the rather desolate area of the Conservative Party, which is not necessarily receptive to his ardent cultivation of this cause. I have known him for many years and was his predecessor as president of BALPA. My predecessor was Stanley Clinton-Davis, who was also a Member of this House. It is with pleasure that I take part in this debate. I add my warm welcome to the Minister and I wish her well for her speech.

I will concentrate on BALPA for a moment because it is an admirable union and professional association. It is not the only one; there are others, and they should be recognised as such, as has just been said. BALPA enhances its profession and is embedded in the aviation industry. It is very active and skilled on health and safety, and very well regarded throughout its industry. It is militant when it has to be. A couple of years ago at a BALPA reception, I was quite amused to hear Lord Tebbit tell us that we should be more militant in BALPA on the issue of drones near airports. He said, “I wouldn’t put up with it”. I think we took his advice and got a result.

One feature of the work of BALPA is that it aims to stop employers, whether airlines or manufacturers of aircraft, from acting expeditiously and taking shortcuts. At the same time, it makes sure that pilots do not automatically get the blame when there is a crash. There has been a tendency for airlines and manufacturers, in the event of an accident, to try first to pin it on the pilots. That is unfair and wrong, but a feature that an expert union can help to prevent.

BALPA is not an outlier in the trade union movement and is not different from the unions that you read a lot about in the newspapers. It is not an elite; it is part of the diverse family of trade unions in this country, including small, specialist unions. I have a particularly fond memory of the Sheffield Wool Shear Workers Union, which had 12 members. I visited them in Sheffield once. Unions across the world are also very diverse.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is keen to point out that Labour does not command the automatic loyalty of trade union members. In fact, I think that this country is blessed by not having a political trade union movement. In many continental countries, your membership of a particular trade union is determined by your political views. We do not do that; politics are secondary to industrial and occupational interests.

This country used to have what was called an aristocracy of labour, with craftsmen—and it was always men—and often manual workers keen on demarcation and keeping other people away. I have never liked that model of trade unionism. I have never wanted to see the British class system alive and well in this or any other part of our country; I have wanted to see a more egalitarian and open approach to problems. Now, as has been pointed out, many trade union members are graduates, rather than joining through traditional ways. I am always suspicious that some people might try to develop new hierarchies, which would not be in the interests of the country or of workers. I hold to the view that the emphasis should be on teamworking, common action and a joint approach to problems. A pilot, after all, needs skilled maintenance, traffic controllers and the rest to help.

Other than the quest for skills, recognition is important. It is important to recognise that this group is not an elite but is struggling like many others, as has been pointed out. I remind your Lordships, as we talk about those who we regard as middle class, what it looks like for the people on £20,000 a year, never mind £50,000.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, on securing this debate and on his eloquent opening speech, and the noble Baroness, Lady Swinburne, on her much-anticipated maiden speech. I will speak about something that is of concern both to skilled professional graduate workers and to all workers—collective bargaining.

I start with the definition of a trade union from page 1 of Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s seminal History of Trade Unionism in 1894:

“a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working lives”.

A union is an institution in which a combination of workers seeks to redress the inevitable imbalance of power in setting the terms and conditions of engagement at the workplace between the worker on the one hand and the employer on the other. Statute recognises this by defining a trade union by reference to its principal purposes, which must include

“the regulation of relations between workers and employers”.

This objective is achieved by the process of collective bargaining, which, to be effective, must include a real threat of taking industrial action. Without that threat, collective bargaining is reduced merely to collective begging.

Seeking to set terms and conditions in combination is, of course, the antithesis of competition. Hence unions have been protected in UK law since 1971 and in EU law since 1999 to permit collective bargaining in the face of competition law. The right to bargain collectively is recognised in international law ratified by the United Kingdom: ILO Convention 98 stands out prominently, as does Article 6 of the European Social Charter. Both are fortified by the obligations that the UK undertook in 2021 in the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU. The European convention also recognises the right to bargain collectively as an essential element of it—that was the case of Demir and Baykara v Turkey.

The Canadian Supreme Court usefully reiterated the purpose of collective bargaining in the Mounted Police case in 2015, which derived the right to bargain collectively from the guarantee of freedom of association in Section 2(d) of the Canadian charter of rights. The chief justice speaking for the majority held that

“we conclude that s. 2(d) guarantees the right of employees to meaningfully associate in the pursuit of collective workplace goals … This guarantee includes a right to collective bargaining … s. 2(d) functions to prevent individuals, who alone may be powerless, from being overwhelmed by more powerful entities, while also enhancing their strength through the exercise of collective power. Nowhere are these dual functions of s. 2(d) more pertinent than in labour relations. Individual employees typically lack the power to bargain and pursue workplace goals with their more powerful employers. Only by banding together in collective bargaining associations, thus strengthening their bargaining power with their employer, can they meaningfully pursue their workplace goals”.

In the United Kingdom, from the end of the 19th century until the 1980s, it was the policy of successive, indeed all, UK Governments to promote collective bargaining, starting perhaps with the Conciliation Act 1896 and Trade Boards Act 1909—those bodies becoming the wages councils—and progressively extending after the First World War.

In parallel to those statutory developments, voluntary collective bargaining was stimulated by government policy following the First World War, with the reports of JH Whitley as part of the post-war reconstruction setting up joint industrial councils, or simply “Whitley councils”, on a sector-wide basis. Those councils had extensive reach in many industries, particularly in the public sector. There were other mechanisms, too: the Fair Wages Resolutions of the House of Commons, the extension of collective agreements to non-parties and obligations placed on nationalised industries to bargain collectively in the Acts establishing them.

By 1975, some 85% of the UK workforce had one or more terms and conditions set by collective agreement. By reason of government policy since then, collective bargaining coverage has been reduced to less than 25% of the UK’s 30 million workers. This is practically the lowest level in Europe. In the EU, it is now law that states with coverage of less than 80% must formulate an action plan to remedy that situation.

I stress that this is not a matter of individual repudiation in the UK of trade unions or collective bargaining, since surveys show overwhelming support among working people for trade union representation. The disastrous decline in collective bargaining coverage has instead been brought about by government policy; restrictive legislation on the ability of trade unions to take industrial action; campaigns for derecognition; abolition of the wages councils; repeal of the extension mechanism for collective agreements; ending the fair wages resolutions; outsourcing; privatisation; and so on.

The consequences have been the degradation of terms and conditions of work, precarity, stress and damage to mental health among workers, and, of course, damage to levels of pay. The average value of wages is lower now than in 2007, and there are more people claiming benefits in work than there are out of work. The current wave of strikes is a reaction to the fall in the value of wages. Poverty among working people is now endemic.

The collapse of collective bargaining is bad not just for working-class people—including professionals—but for business too, since wages are spent on consumption, which increases demand in the economy. Will the Minister undertake to enter into formal dialogue with unions and employers with a view to extending collective bargaining coverage in the future?

My Lords, my first task is of course to thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for bringing this subject to us. My second task is an odd one: to congratulate in advance the noble Baroness, Lady Swinburne, on her maiden speech. Of all the ways to make a maiden speech, this is probably the most awkward—so may the wind get under the noble Baroness’s wings on this one. Having had a brief look at her CV and her experience, and indeed the number of letters after her name—I think there are nine, if I counted correctly—she is probably an appropriate person to comment on this debate.

We are now encouraging more and more people to go to university, so we should not be surprised at the huge rise in the number of graduates in the workforce. Anybody my age or older may be surprised at the fact that trade unions are now full of graduates, and one of the most unionised bits of our world is the graduate bases. Nursing is now a graduate profession, as is teaching. These big public service unions tend to be the ones best represented, as are the unions in the big employers. Increasingly, the average member of a union is a person with qualifications at level 6 or just below.

This debate sits clearly between a couple of bits of legislation. One is the strikes Bill, which has been mentioned, or at least alluded to, quite frequently today. To put it bluntly, if the Government are taking away such a fundamental right, I hope that they let us know what we are getting in return, if we agree that in certain cases it is appropriate to take it away. I do not think I have heard that argument fully put forward so far. The one example that comes up is the police. If the Government were to improve pensions and retirement provisions, they might have a case. I have not caught any sniff of that from them. What are they going to do to make sure that people get some sort of compensation for this? What is in it for the worker? These people are highly skilled graduates who have invested deeply in their own training; let us not forget that. They are engaging with the system—they have been told to do that—and they are coming back.

There is the Lifelong Learning Bill, which I do not think anyone has alluded to in this debate, in which we are looking at expanding the way we train and extending the training structures slightly further throughout the system. We should remember that when we are talking about this issue. We have a lot of graduates, but they have to de-skill slightly to get employed in certain occupations. Maybe trade unions will help them. Trade unions would be an excellent vehicle for making sure that people know when to get extra qualifications and change or update their skills. They are perfectly placed; it is part of the job they should be doing. However, if you have an antagonistic relationship with the unions, among other things, the chances of getting this done properly are lowered and there will be more barriers.

A trade union, as has been said, has potential advantages, and we have already heard about collective bargaining. There is less bureaucracy, quicker decisions and people know what they are entitled to. All of this is in the potential of a trade union. None of the trade unions and associations really inspires the idea of “red in tooth and claw” socialism marching down the street—barristers have had a go, for God’s sake, as have doctors. Their whole nature is changing. The days of the mass meeting with hands going in the air are long past.

I hope the Government will give us some idea of how they will involve themselves in the continued professional development of these groups, which have complicated training structures, want to do more and will need to upgrade their skills. The trade unions and trade associations are a vehicle by which this can be done, and there will be some engagement. I hope that the Minister, in replying to this debate, recognises that the Government are responding to a new employment reality and has some idea of what that constitutes.

We are talking about a complete change in the way the workforce is organised. The government sector will probably have the most contact with the union body for the foreseeable future. But we all know that the one way to make a totally wrong prediction about the future is to imagine it as a tarted-up version of the present. We do not know what is coming. The gig economy was supposed to remove all need for trade unions, but it is clear that in certain large sectors, it has not. We are not going to have a gig economy National Health Service any time soon—or at least, I hope not. How are we going to get this interaction? How will we establish good relationships?

I will not mention factors such as pay, as I suspect that any member of a political party who did so would be going the right way about getting themselves shot. However, we have had austerity for many years—my own party was part of this—and it is continuing. There is going to come a point where people rebel. I hope the Government have some idea not only about negotiation, but when they think the hand of government pay restriction will be lifted. Some predict that life is going to get a bit better; that might be an interesting thing to take out of this. I look forward to the maiden speech from the noble Baroness; I only wish that it was in a more conventional circumstance, so that we could give her the praise it probably deserves.

My Lords, I too welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Swinburne, to her place and congratulate her in advance of her maiden speech. She is very welcome in this House, and I am sure we all look forward to working with her in the months and years to come. It is great to see her here this afternoon.

It has been a very interesting and welcome, as well as slightly unusual, debate. When I saw the title, I admit to not being sure quite where the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, was going to take us this afternoon. But it has been a really good opportunity to talk about the changing nature of trade unionism, as well as the Government’s attempts to thwart it, and the changing nature of work. It is a shame that we have had only one hour in which to do so, but it has been a very well-informed discussion led by leading trade unionists; I am not going to say “former” because they are all still leaders in what they do, and they bring a wealth of experience to our discussions.

We know that middle-income earners and those in permanent jobs and larger workplaces are more likely to be members of trade unions. My noble friend Lord Monks warned us against any notion of a hierarchy of workers and spoke about the benefits of the British system of trade unionism. He is right to remind us that trade unions are a vital part of the fabric of our democracy. This was put further into context by my noble friend Lord Hendy who gave a geographical and historical reminder of how we got to where we are today.

Crucially, we have been reminded about how anti-trade union legislation has been weaponised by the Government to undermine organising in the workplace. The Government sometimes treat trade unions as pantomime villains from a bygone era and seek out conflict, provoke it and sometimes prolong it. Workers lose out, but so do patients, children and the public. Here is the thing: I think the public are seeing through that this time. They are not buying the rather lame government rhetoric.

That is because trade unions have changed, and so has work. The journey from school gate to factory gate with jobs for life, working alongside the same people for decades, has gone. There are positives as well as negatives to this. There are more opportunities for cleaner, safer and more highly skilled occupations. Moving between sectors is no longer unusual. Our creative industries, design, healthcare, universities and science are providing amazing chances for young people that their grandparents could never have imagined possible.

However, with that comes disconnection. The shared experience and identity that once bound workers and communities together is disappearing, and organising in the workplace and recruiting members to trade unions are completely different today. When short-term or zero-hours contracts, insecure work, the gig economy and self-employment—sometimes genuine, often not—are commonplace, the foundation of trade unionism, the idea of a stable community with a common interest working together to improve conditions for everyone over time, changes. Trade unionism is adapting to the challenges of the rapidly changing workplace as well as to what it is confronted with by the Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, is right to alert the Government to the modernising face of trade unions. I have heard him advise his Conservative colleagues that they should make peace with the movement. He is right about that because there are many benefits to employers and the Government from a constructive, respectful relationship, not least the absence of industrial action, but also safer workplaces with fewer injuries, lower staff turnover and lower absence rates.

My noble friend Lady O’Grady made a compelling case for e-ballots. We are all democrats here. It is indefensible that we do not allow them when we can access healthcare and banking services and do so many things through apps and online, yet trade unionists are not allowed to take part in democratic processes using well-established means. There is no defence of that position, and I urge the Minister to look into this urgently.

There is no doubt that organising in the workplace is harder now than it was in the past and that trade unions need to adapt how they operate to appeal to a new, younger workforce, but that is happening. Work recently undertaken by the TUC exploring ways to engage with a younger, more diverse potential membership offers an exciting and different vision of trade union activity. However, the Government do not seem to want to see this innovation or care about the benefits of trade unions and prefer to fight some sort of culture war. Rather than respectful negotiation, the Government pass unnecessary and counterproductive legislation that will not resolve disruption and makes negotiation harder. Sadly, we have seen that again just this week.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, has drawn together the various strands of trade union membership, the changing nature of work and the cost of living crisis. We know that mortgage holders are facing increases of on average £2,900 per year for their mortgage, and we have to wonder about a Government who are prioritising an uncosted tax cut for people with pension pots of more than £2 million in that context.

To end on a positive note, this has been a helpful discussion, reminding us of what trade unions are really all about and the value and benefit they bring to the workplace and wider society. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for enabling it and look forward to the Minister’s maiden speech.

My Lords, it is a huge privilege to be a newly introduced Member of this House and to be making my maiden speech in drawing this debate to a close. I am humbled that others have thought me worthy of contributing my expertise to this House and have trusted me with the role of Baroness-in-Waiting from the outset. I give grateful thanks to all those who have helped me along this journey to date and to the numerous colleagues and staff who have been very generous with their time and in sharing their knowledge.

I have been very fortunate to have had numerous careers since my bilingual years at Llandysul Grammar School. Little did I know then that my love of science and medicine would lead me to the City of London, that my science and finance expertise would lead me into local and then European politics, and that, finally, my accumulated knowledge would lead me to this historic place.

Throughout my varied career, I have had numerous mentors and champions who have taught me much about helping others and giving back. My early political career was supported by Women2Win; I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington, who, with my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford, acted as my supporter at my introduction. As a newly elected Welsh politician in 2009, another Welsh female leader, the late Cheryl Gillan, was an important ally. I hope she would have been approving of my new role. Supporting women leaders across all sectors has been and will continue to be one of my areas of focus. I have benefited from opportunity and will endeavour to help others to do so. I firmly believe that where you come from should not limit your ambition or determine your future success.

With that in mind, I will respond to the Question posed by my noble friend Lord Balfe on the Government’s plans to support the lives and prospects of skilled professional graduate workers who are members of a trade union. I ask noble Lords to bear with me, as this will bear no resemblance to my original speech with all the changes I have made in incorporating, I hope, answers to noble Lords’ questions.

The Government recognise the challenges people across all groups are facing with the cost of living and high inflation, and we are absolutely committed to providing support and finding solutions. We also recognise the important role that trade unions play in representing and supporting workers from a range of different occupations and all income groups, increasingly including those from higher education backgrounds and professions over the last decade, as we have heard.

While the issues we are debating inevitably affect wider society, my noble friend Lord Balfe raises some powerful points about the increased pressure on middle-income earners. We recognise these concerns, especially about the higher costs of childcare and mortgage rates. That is why the Chancellor met with major mortgage providers last week and has agreed a mortgage charter covering 85% of the market. This gives peace of mind about extending an existing mortgage or moving on to an interest-only mortgage for six months, giving respite to those who are worried about repayments. It also offers new protections from repossession through a minimum 12-month period from the first missed payment to repossession without consent.

Increased pressures, especially on working families, are also the reason why we have introduced landmark childcare policies, including offering eligible working parents in England access to 30 hours of free childcare per week from when their child is nine months old to when they start school. Alongside all of this, we are committed to ensuring that people keep more of what they earn while ensuring the UK’s economic stability. We have an income tax system that is already highly progressive. We have made large rises to starting tax thresholds, ensuring that they are historically high, which also means that middle earners benefit.

These are just some examples, and we remain committed to considering a range of solutions and working with different industries on the support available. The support we have already provided to all households has reached £94 billion, or £3,300 per household on average, across 2022-23 and 2023-24.

Noble Lords are right to identify that the critical driver of these increased pressures on individuals is inflation. That is exactly why one of the Prime Minister’s priorities is to halve inflation this year. That is the single best way to keep costs and interest rates down for people across the spectrum. We have a clear plan to deliver that, which includes our steadfast support for the Bank of England as it takes all necessary action to return inflation to the target of 2%. It also includes ensuring that monetary and fiscal policy work together. That is why we are making difficult but responsible decisions on tax and spending to manage our borrowing and get debt falling.

There was a question about why we need to concentrate on debt falling. Ensuring that debt as a share of GDP falls over the medium term is essential for us to provide the foundations for sustainable growth.

Finally, decisive action is required on the drivers of inflation—for example, tackling high energy prices by holding down energy bills for households and businesses, alongside investing in long-term energy security.

Through these three major steps we are on track. The majority of major forecasters agree in forecasting inflation to halve by the end of the year and subsequently to return to target. Taming inflation is not just beneficial for families and businesses now but a prerequisite for future growth. That is why we have a plan for long-term growth and are focused on securing a pipeline of talent for high-growth sectors of the future, such as digital and financial services, as your Lordships have mentioned, which drive productivity gains and, I hope, lead to higher wages and greater opportunities for individuals.

As referenced by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, we are investing £3.8 billion over this Parliament to strengthen further and higher education so that everyone, including skilled graduates, can access high-quality opportunities to upskill and, if necessary, retrain throughout their lives. Many noble Lords referred to the aviation sector, which I imagine is also covered by this. I would be happy to write to the noble Lord on his point about how the DfE is helping to support graduates have the skills to join the workforce. We will continue to interact with your Lordships on that.

In addition to support with growing costs and inflation, a number of your Lordships also referenced the important role that trade unions play in supporting individuals. The Government recognise this role and we have always been and will remain willing to engage with the unions. For example, there were constructive discussions with the unions and the TUC during Covid, to which I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, will attest. Workers have the right to join a trade union. That right is protected under our law. All union members have the right to participate in union activities and individual workers can enforce these rights at an employment tribunal.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, suggests, collective bargaining is an important tool. It is largely a matter for individual employers, their employees and their unions. Most collective bargaining in the UK takes place because employers have voluntarily agreed to recognise a trade union and bargain with it. However, where they refuse to recognise unions voluntarily, legislation provides for a statutory recognition procedure. Unions that wish to obtain that statutory recognition can apply to the Central Arbitration Committee, which has dealt with over 1,200 cases since the statutory procedure was brought in back in 1999. This is fundamental: if a majority of workers in a workplace, whether graduates or otherwise, want to organise and be represented by a trade union, they have the right and the practical means to make that happen.

I was invited to agree to enhanced dialogue on collective bargaining. In light of what I have just said, the Government do not believe that a formal dialogue with unions and employers to extend collective bargaining is necessary at this time.

I think we can all agree, however, that organising in this way should never result in the blacklisting of trade unionists. That is unacceptable and I am glad that we have legislation that protects against it, including the reinforced powers in the more recent Data Protection Act 2018, which protects the use of personal data, including information on trade union membership. The Information Commissioner’s Office regulates this and has the power to take enforcement action. Anyone who has evidence of this occurring can present that information to the ICO.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, asked about electronic balloting. I can confirm that the required consultations have now occurred and that we are considering Sir Ken’s recommendations and will respond in due course.

I close by once again thanking my noble friend Lord Balfe for his important Question. This Government are committed to supporting all workers with the immediate challenges that the country faces, while also setting the conditions for long-term prosperity. This requires us to cut inflation and focus on long-term growth. It also includes us recognising the valuable role that unions can play in helping their members across all groups.

Sitting suspended.

Geothermal Heat and Power

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the geothermal potential for heat and power in Great Britain; and what plans they have, if any, to make use of it.

My Lords, first, I thank everyone, including the Minister, for taking part in this important debate. Apparently, I am not allowed to say anything at the end, so I thank noble Lords now.

The importance of what we have to say is evidenced by the fact that heating and hot water make up around 40% of the UK’s energy consumption and nearly one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions. That is quite a large proportion, so this area needs a lot of focus. However, so far, compared to our continental neighbours—who, like us, are blessed with geothermal potential—we have done little to harness the power lying waiting for us: the heat beneath our feet.

In Holland, they hope to meet 23% of their heat demand by 2050 using geothermal heat. I realise that we cannot hope to match that because of our more dispersed population and our dispersed geothermal resources—population centres and geothermal resources do not always occur in the same place—but, with the right policies, there is considerable potential, which I will come to in a moment.

Meanwhile, the deep aquifer under Paris is supplying geothermal heat to around 250,000 homes, while in Munich and its surrounding communities some 130,000 houses now have geothermal heating. France currently has 74 geothermal plants and aims to increase that by 40% by 2030. The Netherlands has 21 plants and major increases planned, and Germany has 190 plants. But in England, only a few buildings are currently heated geothermally, although a few schemes are currently being developed around the country. Given the heat resources beneath our feet, it is a pretty poor record so far.

The UK has good potential in terms of enhanced geothermal systems—that is, 5 kilometres down, or more. A mere 2% of this potential could cover the current UK energy demand for over 1,000 years. We have two pilot schemes in Cornwall: one near Eden and one near Redruth. This heat is very expensive and difficult to tap into—right now, a lot of drill bits are wearing themselves out on our Cornish granite—but both these projects should eventually provide large amounts of meaningful heat, not only for direct use in homes, businesses, biospheres and hospitals, but, I hope, with temperatures capable of driving a turbine to produce electricity. We shall see.

While some of our very deep rocks have potential, the greatest potential for heat lies in much shallower aquifers. The geothermal gradient in the UK averages—I stress that word—27 degrees per kilometre, so temperatures at 1,000 metres, 3,000 metres and 5,000 metres underground are usually 40, 90 and 150 degrees centigrade respectively.

Even a small amount of heat combined with a heat pump is worth harnessing. For instance, our family home in Scotland is heated with a water-based heat pump using an aquifer only some 20 metres down. It was cheaper to install than a flat surface loop in the field, and the aquifer water temperature is 9 degrees centigrade, compared to the normal flat ground loop temperature of 5 degrees centigrade, which therefore minimally reduces the cost of our hot water.

More to the point, many major population centres in the UK live above, or are adjacent to, hot sedimentary aquifers at, say, 500 to 2,000 metres’ depth, with temperatures usually in the range of 25 to 60 degrees centigrade. These, combined with an at-scale community heat pump, have huge potential to produce heat for hundreds of thousands of homes, plus factories, hospitals, greenhouses and so on.

A recent report by Dr Mullan MP identified the enormous benefits available from such heat sources and made the point that these resources are, luckily, predominately available in areas suffering from a lack of economic resilience—in other words, areas which would qualify for levelling up and where these geothermal projects would, therefore, do the most good. But at the moment we are doing little or nothing to tap into these resources: the heat beneath our feet.

Cutting to the chase, we need, first, a proper, detailed subsurface survey of all our geopotential. This geothermal atlas should identify all the opportunities in detail, and it then needs promoting so that businessmen, builders and local authorities are aware of the local potential. The recent fuel crisis must surely give properties with cheap heat potential an advantage in the marketplace, and the marketplace needs to be informed of that potential advantage.

Secondly, the Government must then set themselves targets for the development of geothermal wells—so many per year to be developed. That is what they have done in Holland. Then the Government must promote these opportunities and put in place a firm long-term plan of support. This sustained support is very important and could include some form of initial grants, subsidies—perhaps in the form of FiTs or CfDs—or investment assistance. For some reason, energy projects do not qualify for EIS relief, which seems to make a mockery of the Government’s ambitions to make the UK a green and renewable energy investment hothouse.

Drilling is the most expensive bit, and in that context, with the expertise available from our now hopefully fading oil and gas industries, we should have an advantage. France, the Netherlands and Germany have all used national risk insurance schemes to attract private capital. For instance, for every £1 paid by the French Government, £42 has been leveraged from private investors. The Mullan report indicated that our potential investors are not attracted by this route, and it is not for me to tell the Government and the industry how to achieve their target number of geothermal wells. Setting a target and delivering it are the important bits, along with some sort of stable but long-term support or derisking measures.

Thirdly, the UK must deregulate. It is absurd, for instance, that in England and Wales you still need both an abstraction licence and a discharge licence to take water out of an aquifer and put it straight back in again. In Scotland, under general binding rules, abstractions and discharges in an open loop system do not need any licence or permit, provided that the water is discharged back into the same geological formation from whence it came. Furthermore, the planning system in a heat network zone should encourage and facilitate the harnessing of our geothermal resources, rather than cause delays.

Fourthly, in order to build the supply chain, the Government should zone areas which have geothermal resources, and then put in place in those heat network zones effective legislation compulsorily to reduce the long-term carbon output from all new buildings and, where possible, older ones as well. This legislation should look to promote communal heating systems—I really do not know why we have so few such systems in this country—or it could promote the use of geothermally heated water with so-called shoebox heat pumps. I always prefer to encourage rather than compel people to do the right thing, but in the Netherlands, which is virtually one large geothermal zone, they have already prevented all new-build houses connecting to the gas grid. There must be a lesson there. In this country, we are too hooked on the gas grid.

Fifthly and finally, the UK Government must involve local communities and get people and planners involved in heat network zoning. This should be part of a drive to grow the demand and the supply chain. Tapping into geothermal heat should become part of national thinking in the architectural, planning and construction worlds. We have geothermal resources in the UK: we have the heat beneath our feet. We also have the drilling skills left over from our oil and gas exploration. The UK geothermal industry is poised to deliver growth, renewable heat and employment; it just needs a small amount of government focus and pump priming.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject, and to my honourable friend Kieran Mullan for all the work he has done in exploring its potential. I am going to approach this as a former investment banker because I think we are looking at an extremely investable set of projects, but one which needs some government support at the beginning.

Once we get going and are in the state they are in on the continent—when we know the state of the underground aquifers and know that they are permeable —we are looking at producing a long-term stream of income, which is essentially index linked. By long term, I mean 100 years or so. Essentially, these projects have low costs to keep them going. Such a project is an extremely attractive asset for big insurance companies, pension funds and others, but one that they are not used to. They need talking through, educating and working into this so that they are prepared to pay a really good price for what should be, for them, an excellent asset. That is work I hope to encourage the Government to do.

The second side is the initial risk. For instance, looking at southern England, we know that there is a good layer of carboniferous limestone. We did a lot of oil exploration in the layers above it, so we have a pretty good picture, but we do not know that the fracture zones are permeable. We could get down there and find that it is all gummed up. I do not think it will be. The British Geological Survey produced some recent mapping, which gives me a lot of confidence that that and other strata throughout the UK will prove to be productive, but we just do not know.

Although we have experienced crews from the North Sea, they are not experienced in this geology. It will take them longer to drill the first hole than the 10th hole, by which stage it will be falling off a log for them, as it were. You just do not know, when you are drilling a first hole into a stratum, exactly what it will feel like and how it will work. There are risks there, which are likely to increase costs. For the first well, there are very substantial equity risks. In a stable situation, you will get one bad hole in 20 and you can insure against that. They do this on the continent; the insurance system covers it, and you know what the picture is. But for the first hole in a new geological province in the UK, you just do not know.

There is a real role there for the Government to stand as a very expensive equity investor—not to say, “We will give you a grant or a subsidy”, but “If we are taking the risk, we want a proper return from this. If you can do better on the commercial market, then do better on the commercial market, but we will be the first equity investor because we as a country need to get this started”. If that is an attractive idea to the Government, I hope they will agree to a meeting because I have been running around the City looking for people who would respond positively to such an opportunity. There appears to be no great shortage of them.

I am optimistic that we can make this happen, even below London. We do not know anything about what happens below London. The first well there will be a complete unknown, but if we can show that there is a geothermal resource beneath London, that is a superb place to start heat networks. We can, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, start to chew into the 40% of our energy that is going on heating, most of which is coming from fossil fuels. We could provide maybe up to 10% of total UK energy demand from geothermal resources. I encourage the Government to take this seriously and do what it takes to get it started. It could be a complete bust, but without their help, we will never know.

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and I am grateful for the opportunity that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, has provided for this debate.

My civil engineering days are decades past but I did a lot of rock drilling in my youth. Technology has moved on, but even in those days it was quite simple and straightforward. Of course, the geology varied. Looking at the application to the production of energy that we are talking about today, it has one thing in common: there is a plentiful supply of drills, drilling and expertise—there is plenty of water underground. It could eventually be cheap, and of course it is safe; it is nothing like fracking, which people get worried about. It is all to do with water. I appreciate that the capital cost to start with is high, as other noble Lords have said, and some of the drills may be noisy, but on the other hand, you do not need much space, the technology is well proven, and as we move forward and get a plentiful supply, the costs will come down.

The other interesting thing that many people forget is that the temperature of the water that comes out can vary dramatically. I think that at Eden, which the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, mentioned, it is 85 degrees centigrade, which is pretty hot—plenty hot enough—but even lower temperatures not so far down are hot enough for many purposes. I live in Cornwall and in the Isles of Scilly and I have been to see this project in Eden. The drill was, frankly, enormous, very impressive and fast, and it is now working. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, mentioned Redruth; the first one was in fact in Penzance. Noble Lords may know that there is a rather interesting open-air swimming pool next to the sea, part of which is heated with geothermal water, and there is a queue of people to go to it. There is not as much water as there might have been because they are experimenting with air-drive and water-drive drills, but it works, people like it, and it is available.

We spend a lot of time in your Lordships’ House talking about storage—hydroelectric is one solution, and underground gas storage another—but this stuff does not need storage. You just switch it on and off; it is a pump. There are an awful lot of benefits here. The fact that it can provide 40% of the UK’s energy consumption means that we really need to take this more seriously. It can be used in many parts of the country. Cornwall is probably the best, because the water is hottest, but it is worth looking at many other places and—as I think the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said—doing a proper mapping of this country from a geological point of view.

This is a way forward for many of our energy needs. I would just like to reflect on the fact that many communities in this country say, “Let’s have a series of windmills to give us electricity for the community”, or “Let’s have a solar farm and get cheap electricity”. You could just as easily have one or two of these geothermal wells to give you hot water, and that is all you need to keep your homes warm and to get a hot bath or shower. Before noble Lords say, “That’s not very much”, that is 40% of our energy requirements. I hope the Minister will find a way forward so that we can all benefit from this.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a director of Peers for the Planet. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, for giving us an opportunity to debate the potential of geothermal for heat and power in the UK. We have only to look across the channel to see what is possible. France, Germany and the Netherlands share the same tectonic plate as us and have harnessed this deep heat source far more ambitiously than we have. That said, I want to concentrate on the potential opportunity of using the shallow geothermal energy under our feet—not necessarily as far down as even a shallow aquifer but just the heat differential that exists between the air and the ground.

Ground source heat pumps use ambient stored solar energy in the ground, where temperatures remain constant 24/7, 365 days a year, regardless of air temperature changes. The Government have invested much energy and enthusiasm—and, I think, money—into trials for hydrogen boilers in towns in the north-east. These are riddled with challenges, not least that of explosions from the leakage of a notoriously leaky gas. That is unsurprising, as hydrogen is the first, and therefore lightest, element in the periodic table.

I cannot help but compare the hydrogen trial to the Heat the Streets pilot in Stithians, Cornwall, carried out by the Kensa Group. This essentially uses the proven technology of ground source heat pumps to see whether it can be deployed at mass scale to retrofit whole streets with typical mixed housing stock of any tenure; that is, in a realistic UK town or village scenario.

We are used to hearing about ground source heat pumps in a single property where a ground loop is installed in someone’s garden. Imagine that you can pay for a heat pump in your home without the headache of sorting out the details of where the ground loop would go because someone else would do that part for you. In essence, the networked model of heat pumps is the same as the gas grid model. A white box ground source heat pump is installed in your home, and you pay a standing charge to connect to the street’s underground loop infrastructure, which has already been installed by experienced engineers. Consumers have total control over their heating. For utility companies, it is an investment that will last for decades, as shared borehole ground arrays have a lifetime of up to 100 years. For landlords, it means no more split-billing or metering requirements for tenants. I should add that the technology can easily switch to cool homes, which is becoming more necessary. In an FT article, the BBC’s Roger Harrabin referred to the Stithians scheme as “simple and elegant”. It has much to recommend it.

Such ground source heat pumps have many advantages—I shall list only a few of the most important ones. They last a great deal long longer than air source heat pumps, and therefore work out cheaper in the long run, and use 40% less electricity. Most importantly, there are advantages at an energy system level. With demand shifting and heat batteries, networked ground source heat pumps could reduce peak electricity demand by 37 gigawatts, which could save up to £15 billion a year in reduced generation and grid infrastructure costs, something that I am sure is of great interest to the Government.

It is appropriate at this stage to welcome the heat network zones that the Government have proposed in the Energy Bill, but they should be extended to cover all the UK and make a stab at identifying the right technology for the right place, working together with local authorities.

In Committee on the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, I tabled two amendments asking for government support for pilots for a renewable-powered new town and an existing town, both using networked ground source heat pumps to provide heating. Does the Minister, who I believe is pretty conversant with this technology—probably far more so than I am—agree that properly constructed trials are essential to carry out evidence-based assessments for potential solutions that merit government support? That will be essential to evaluate which projects could meet our fast-approaching decarbonisation deadlines. I end by saying that I intend to retable my amendments to the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill on Report.

That is all right—a glass of champagne later will make up for it. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, for this debate, as it will give us the chance to show the world just how rubbish this Government are on climate change and cheap energy. They are eco-stupid. I cannot in five minutes begin to explain how deep that eco-stupidity goes.

For example, they have just scrapped £11.6 billion of the climate pledge and at the same time are giving £11.4 billion as a tax break to oil giants to extract more fossil fuels. How is that common sense when climate change is making life more difficult for millions of people? We have been discussing the Illegal Migration Bill. The number of people moving around the planet now will be as nothing when climate change hits faster. People will not be able to live where they want to if they cannot farm or find water there.

Part of the Government’s problem is an inability to see the global impact of climate change and our role in it. Part of it is the straightforward corruption of several million pounds of donations to the Conservative Party buying influence, North Sea oil licences and the demolition of our net-zero target. This resistance to all things green is often disguised as innate conservatism, but it is pure hypocrisy. They love open-cast coal mines and giant fracking wells but find large windmills an ugly addition to our traditional landscape.

Self-reliance used to be a conservative value, but that was before the party was dominated by billionaires and the vested interests of the fossil fuel industries. A village that generates its own power with a few wind turbines or a solar farm undermines corporate power and the ability to extract huge profits from consumers. Community energy becomes a real possibility with new technology, such as geothermal. This Government are resisting that as they see a threat to the profits of the oil and gas industries. The UK is ranked last for heat-pump installation out of 21 European countries. That is shameful.

We are constantly told by the Minister that we are doing really well on the environmental stuff, but the Environment Minister at Defra, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, told us recently that the problem is not that the Government are hostile to the environment but that the Prime Minister is simply uninterested. That is more concerning. If they at least had some interest, they would understand the problems we are facing.

Our failure to deal with energy demand is exactly why we expect to import more gas in the coming decade. That failure is costing consumers a lot of money. Insulation, along with technologies such as geothermal, could cut those costs dramatically. Other countries can see the long-term savings and strategic benefits of being more reliant on their own clean energy sources and less reliant on volatile, foreign-owned fossil fuels. Above all, they can see the end of fossil fuel use and are making it happen faster. They are not applying the brakes in the way that our Government are.

Why not have a street-by-street, town-by-town, city-by-city switch to heat pumps? We did it with the massive switchover from town gas to natural gas. It can be done. Why not talk to people in towns and villages with the right geology about going geothermal in powering their homes and communities and why not ensure that those communities benefit financially from investment in geothermal plant? It is a win-win for communities, people and the planet.

I have been in your Lordships’ House for 10 years, banging on about ways to make energy cheaper and reduce people’s costs in their homes by putting in insulation and about how to make us a better country in terms of our impact on the rest of the world. Somehow, the message just does not get through. Can the Minister tell me what language to use to make this Government listen? If they are not even listening to the head of the UN, António Guterres, who says that carrying on with oil and gas production is economic and moral madness, who are they listening to? Who on earth can get through to this Government that they are on the wrong path and must stop as soon as possible?

It is such a privilege to both precede and follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. I am sure the Minister welcomes having one or two additional points to answer from the noble Baroness, but maybe I am the only Conservative whom she would support for doing something for the environment. When I was Minister for Energy in 1990, we had the first round of the non-fossil fuel obligation, which introduced renewable energy into the UK through a competitive round of tendering.

Geothermal power was at the heart of that. It has been important since the days of the Camborne School of Mines and its hot dry rocks project, which was the precursor to the United Downs Deep Geothermal Power project. That continues to this day in Redruth, Cornwall. At the time, it was important for the Government to encourage that technology to be developed and provide the right framework for it to be taken forward. I hope that we will both be able to celebrate its start with a glass of English sparkling wine—I prefer that to champagne. I agree with the noble Baroness that we should have gone a long way further in the ensuing 30 years, but it was an important start. It was important for United Downs in particular, because that project, by mid-2023, has the opportunity to generate between 1 and 3 megawatts through its power plant. It will be sold to the national grid via the UK’s first power purchase agreement for deep geothermal electricity with Ecotricity.

I support geothermal energy, but it is important to continue the debate and look at a number of points. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, the British Geological Survey has undertaken quite a significant geological survey, but more work can be done. I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on whether the Government could support its further mapping of the geothermal heat potential in Great Britain. It is undoubtedly significant and the resource could contribute to meeting a substantial proportion of the country’s heat demand. As we have heard, the temperature gradient below the surface increases by an average of 25 to 30 degrees Celsius per kilometre depth, indicating good potential for heat extraction throughout the United Kingdom.

The key issue, which we have known about from that time, is economic viability. We need to look at that, so I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on his and the Government’s view of the economic viability of geothermal projects at the moment—their exploration costs, drilling expenses, installation costs and the potential revenue from heat or power generation. Technical feasibility is also important, because drilling depth and reservoir permeability are critical factors. We do not have the advantages of many of our neighbouring countries, but there are significant opportunities for ground source heat pumps nevertheless, as we just heard.

Lithium is also relevant to this important debate. The United Kingdom has significant potential for lithium production and exploration. Lithium-bearing brine deposits and potential hard-rock lithium sources are most prominent in Cornwall and, through the projects that we have been discussing, have the potential to produce both lithium and renewable heat and power. I very much hope that we do not ignore their benefits for this country and ensure that we not only manufacture the batteries used in electric vehicles and energy storage systems in the UK but develop the lithium resources that are so critical to their success. They come from the work that we have been discussing today in the context of geothermal electricity and energy. If the Minister could comment on that in closing, it would be much appreciated.

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, has given us the important opportunity of this debate. I will focus my remarks on shallow geothermal, although deep geothermal is also highly efficient and has a low visual impact and no noise or emissions when installed. One cannot say that about wind turbines.

Eighteen years ago, my husband and I built a little wooden house in Aberdeenshire for family holidays. We installed shallow ground source heating, which began my love affair with capturing heat from the ground and cutting electricity bills while contributing to saving the planet. It has never let us down, even when the air temperature was well below zero. At that time, few contractors could install such a system, but we found one—although we used a Swiss heat exchanger as there were no British ones then. The contractor complained that it was hard to get skilled installers and there was no help from the Government to train them.

Today, that technology has developed and is even more important as we aim for net zero. Hydrogen will not be our saviour when we stop burning gas for space and water heating, as it takes six units of electricity to get one unit of hydrogen. In contrast, one unit of electricity will get us four units of heat from the ground.

What is the answer on the scale we need? My family’s individual solution had a higher upfront cost than most people can afford, so others in off-grid locations in rural areas will need some government support. In streets where houses have little or no garden, in terraces where individual air source heat pumps cannot be installed and in blocks of flats, the answer is ground source heat networks, as my noble friend Lady Sheehan said. Networks provide a utility in the street to which homes can connect as easily as connecting to the gas mains. The Kensa Group, the British manufacturer and installer, has just completed a demonstrator project, supplying the first village in the world, Stithians in Cornwall, with its own clean heat network. My noble friend explained how it works. The company is growing and creating many jobs, although the UK is a long way behind France, the Netherlands and Germany, so opportunities for UK growth are being lost. We are well behind the curve again.

Although deep geothermal is currently costly, costs are coming down as technology develops. Pilot schemes are happening in areas with the most potential heat gain, such as Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent, but shallow ground source is appropriate in all locations. Just as wind and photovoltaic technologies were supported by the Government to help them scale up, the ground source industry needs the same. We also need funding for training installers. Crucially, the energy efficiency of ground source will reduce future pressure on the national grid, but only if we realise its full potential. The technology is cost effective in the long term: deep ground source infrastructure will last for 100 years, and shallow for at least 25 years, compared to 15 years for air source. The industry is aiming for subsidy-free growth by the end of this decade, but it needs help now to enable it to get there, just like solar and wind did before, so what can the Government do?

First, when will the Government decide on the future homes standard so that the market knows that no new homes will be connected to gas from 2025 and when will gas boilers in existing homes be phased out? Secondly, despite their lower energy efficiency, gas boilers are still cheaper to run because of the artificially large disparity between electricity and gas prices. The Government could tackle that; will they? Thirdly, most heat pumps will be installed in existing properties, so we need a proper incentive for GSHPs. The current five schemes have poor uptake and are badly designed for ground source. Will the Government work with the industry to develop a scheme to help the GSHP industry become subsidy free by 2028?

The Commons Environmental Audit Committee concluded that the Government were too slow to exploit the potential of geothermal and had not integrated it into the net- zero strategy. Will the Minister respond to that challenge, particularly in light of the need for improving the energy security of this country given recent events? Nobody can take away the heat beneath our feet in our own ground—not Russia, nor China—but we have to exploit it.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, for setting up this debate. Geothermal energy offers opportunities as a sustainable and reliable energy solution. We all know that, with possibly one or two exceptions, a decarbonised power system is the key to us achieving net zero. This means that our Government, whoever they are, must give focus to different low-carbon solutions. The current Government are simply not doing enough of this.

One of the potential solutions is geothermal energy. It is regarded as environmentally friendly because of its lower greenhouse gas emissions compared with carbon-based sources, minimal air pollution, efficient energy conversion, lower water use than other conventional technologies and reduced land requirements. It is also considered a renewable source of energy that harnesses the earth’s natural heat to generate power. This heat is continually renewed through geological processes, such as radioactive decay, and residual heat from the planet’s formation.

It is argued that geothermal energy projects not only contribute to emissions reductions but provide job opportunities across the supply chain. As has been said, in Germany the geothermal industry has generated €14.9 billion for the economy and created 24,000 jobs this century. In the Netherlands, which was also cited by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, there are claims that for each direct geothermal job a further two or three indirect jobs are also created. According to the International Energy Agency’s 2021 geothermal Annual Report, this country has an estimated 43,700 GSHP systems installed which generate approximately 1,330 gigawatt hours of energy per year, which is less than 0.3% of the annual UK heat demand. By comparison, Germany had more than 440,000 systems installed in 2020, while France had around 210,000 systems.

What is geothermal energy? We have heard that shallow geothermal systems typically involve the use of ground source heat pumps to modify the temperature obtained from the resource, but just last week it was reported that the Government’s boiler upgrade scheme managed to award only half the number of grants to help households it targeted switch from boilers to heat pumps. The £70 million left over from this policy due to grants not being issued cannot be used in future years and will be returned to the Treasury.

In order to meet the UK’s climate change targets, the Government want to install 600,000 low-carbon heat pumps annually, but the current rate is about one-ninth of that. In December 2022, the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee launched an inquiry into the boiler upgrade scheme and found that the scheme was seriously failing to deliver on its objectives, with a disappointingly low take-up of grants. The committee called on the Government to take a number of steps: to provide clear guidance and information to industry and consumers regarding viable options for low-carbon home heating; to roll over the remaining budget from the first year of the scheme into the second year; and to establish a review to consider an extension to the scheme. Have the Government responded to these asks from the committee?

Deep geological systems are, as the name implies, at greater depth where the heat is more intense but cost significantly more to produce. By way of an example—we have also heard Redruth being cited—there is an active project in Auckland in the north-east of England. It will involve geothermal energy being sourced four miles underground. The water temperature is 73 degrees centigrade at Auckland Castle, and there is the aim of ensuring that Bishop Auckland becomes the first fully decarbonised town. That is exactly the sort of project the Government should be investing in if levelling up is to have a real practical meaning, particularly in former mining communities such as those in the north-east.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has judged that the Government have been slow to exploit the potential of geothermal energy and have not integrated it fully into the net-zero strategy. It went on to argue that the Government appear to be holding back a sector which could have a transformative effect upon the UK’s capacity to meet climate goals and grow the economy. With the Government missing their target towards achieving their aims, without a change of direction, geothermal energy will remain a peripheral influence.

My Lords, first, I join noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, for securing this debate on a fascinating and exciting topic. I do not think there is any difference between us. I think we all share a passion for renewable energy and for the green transition. That undoubtedly includes geothermal energy which is, as noble Lords have pointed out, a significant store of energy beneath our feet.

Before I get on to the topic of the debate, as always, I greatly enjoyed the contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. It was typically entertaining; it was of course total nonsense but very entertaining none the less. I have a couple of facts for the noble Baroness. We have not scrapped our contribution to international climate funds, and we do not give tax breaks, as she described it, to fossil fuel producers. In fact, the opposite is the case: they pay increased levels of taxation compared with other businesses. I am very proud of our decarbonisation record, which is in fact the best of all the G7 countries. Of course, the noble Baroness is perfectly entitled to push us to go further and faster, but let us not pretend that we are not doing anything. We have the best record in the G7, and it is much better than in some of the countries where the Greens are in government—I could point out Germany as an example.

However, back to the subject of the debate, the Government recognise the massive potential of geothermal energy in many parts of the UK. It has the potential to deliver low-carbon heat and power, as well as many critical minerals such as lithium. In the British Energy Security Strategy, the Government set out that they would explore renewable energy opportunities afforded by our geography and geology, including geothermal. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, that geothermal technologies that generate power are in fact eligible for contracts for difference awards, which is the Government’s main mechanism for supporting low-carbon electricity generation.

I can also inform my noble friend Lord Moynihan that evidence from my department suggests that geothermal is one of the cheaper emerging technologies that are eligible for the contracts for difference scheme. That builds on the point from my noble friend Lord Lucas that we are also exploring a range of other support mechanisms to de-risk and bring down the high capital cost of drilling down—there is a lot of risk there for private investors.

The UK’s first geothermal plant that will generate electricity, located at the United Downs site in Cornwall, is set to start generating next year. It is expected to deliver a baseload capacity of 12 megawatts, roughly the equivalent of 12 onshore wind turbines, which will rise to 25 megawatts by 2028—a project supported by the Government.

The most significant potential for geothermal energy within the UK lies in extracting geothermal heat for use with heat pumps in district heating or heat networks, as a number of noble Lords mentioned. This resource is more widespread, closer to the surface and more economic to extract. Accessing geothermal heat at scale will rely on the existence of heat networks to distribute the heat—the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, was right about that.

I did not quite understand the point the noble Baroness made about heat network zoning; she suggested that we should spread it to the whole of the country but of course we are extending it to all the country. I apologise if that was the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan. The noble Baroness often calls on us to work with local authorities; the Energy Bill will give local authorities the power to designate heat network zones throughout the whole of England in particular—obviously it is devolved in the devolved nations—but it will be up to local authorities to decide whether they wish to designate heat network zones in their areas. We will of course support them in central government, and we are in talks and discussions with a number of local authorities —dozens of them—that are interested in doing exactly that.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, for highlighting the importance of heat networks and zoning. As I said, the Energy Bill will enable all of local government to designate heat network zones.

I am also grateful for the support, on this occasion, from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for community heating and enabling towns to bring this forward. That is indeed why the Government have provided funding to many local authorities through the Heat Networks Delivery Unit to support them to develop heat networks in their own towns. These heat networks will of course also need to correspond to the suitable geological conditions; I can confirm to my noble friend Lord Moynihan that we have in fact supported the north-east LEP to commission research into the potential contribution that deep geothermal technologies could make in the United Kingdom.

The British Geological Survey has been a lead author of that study, which is due to be published later this month—I am sure that the noble Lord will be interested to read it. It has considered many of the options for supporting the industry that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, summarised in his excellent opening speech. The Government will use it to consider the next steps to support what at the moment is a nascent industry. That includes the provision of easy access to geological data. It will contribute to our understanding of the possible benefits and the options for achieving them, and it will inform future policy development.

We are actively supporting and encouraging the development of geothermal heating projects through the current Green Heat Network Fund, which supports the development of low-carbon heat networks. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, correctly referred to the tremendous potential of Cornwall. Through the fund that I have mentioned, the Government have announced £22 million of funding to Cornwall Council to develop the Langarth Deep Geothermal Heat Network, connecting to the United Downs deep geothermal site. This will be the UK’s first heating system to use deep geothermal energy and it will heat nearly 4,000 local homes and public facilities.

I am pleased to tell my noble friend Lord Lucas that the Government support his view that this opportunity can deliver benefits for communities across the country. The Government have previously awarded funds of £5.9 million and £4.3 million through the Heat Networks Investment Project to shallow geothermal schemes in Gateshead and Seaham, respectively. The noble Lord, Lord Lennie, referred to the opportunities in our home region, in the north-east of England. On his way home to Tynemouth, he could stop off in Gateshead and look at one of the government-funded schemes that is delivering excellent heat network funding for a mine water recovery project. In fact, if he looks over to his right when he crosses the Tyne Bridge, he will almost be able to see the project from the train—another government-supported project that is delivering precisely the benefits that he suggested.

I am also happy to confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, that there is value in supporting new renewable heat sources to come forward. One of the major benefits of the Heat Networks Investment Project has been the range of networks that have been supported through its funding.

My noble friend Lord Moynihan asked me about the economics of deep geothermal. He is right: at present, the cost of extracting the heat is uncertain, due to the uncertainties associated with the geology until it is tested. Uncertainty in capital costs, operational costs and revenues means that very few projects have been shown to be financially viable without government support. The potential for costs to reduce with scale is also uncertain and it depends on what we will learn from some of the early projects that I have mentioned that we are already supporting with considerable government funding.

My noble friend also made a very good point about the potential for battery-grade lithium extraction from the waters pumped by geothermal plants. That shows great promise. Some predict that geothermal lithium extraction could account for up to a quarter of domestic demand and help drive transport decarbonisation—another happy benefit of some of the geothermal schemes. Geothermal Engineering in Cornwall has been successful in securing £12 million from the Government’s Automotive Transformation Fund for precisely that purpose.

I thank again the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, for securing this debate today as well as all other noble Lords for their insightful contributions. As I set out today, the Government recognise the tremendous potential of geothermal energy in many parts of the UK and we remain committed, as set out in the British energy security strategy, to explore the renewable energy opportunities afforded by our geography and geology, including geothermal. Despite the challenges currently experienced by the sector, we believe that there is an opportunity for geothermal energy to be one of the wide range of technologies that we can deploy to help us to meet our climate change targets and provide energy security—and, you never know, in the meantime, we might even keep the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, happy.

Sitting suspended.


Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of Sino-British relations following the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June, and the recent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong.

My Lords, in rising to ask the Government this Question, I particularly look forward to the contribution of my noble friend Lord Leong, who has a greater understanding of this issue than anyone else I know.

Hong Kong’s aptly named 1997 bar, which I confess I visited in the late 1980s and which later became Club 97, closed in 2016 after 34 years, during which time that bar witnessed the trepidation and then the hope—or even optimism—of 1997, followed by disappointment. The bar was there in 1989 when the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre took place in Beijing. There, it is simply known as the June 4th incident—an early, Orwellian version of Russia’s “Special military operation”.

On that June day, brave men and women called for greater democracy and basic freedoms, standing against the Chinese Communist Party and risking imprisonment and death. We should never forget such bravery, nor its cause. As late as 2019, thousands of people participated in a commemorative vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, the last place in China where the Tiananmen Square anniversary could take place peacefully. But these demonstrations have been banned since 2020, with many Hong Kong people jailed for participating in such vigils.

Since the 2020 national security law, protestors and pro-democracy activists have been arrested, media outlets silenced and the judiciary’s independence compromised. So it is right that today we acknowledge and applaud the courage of individuals like Jimmy Lai, founder of Hong Kong’s most popular newspaper, Apple Daily, and a pro-democracy advocate who has been targeted and imprisoned, including for participating in a peaceful vigil in May 2021. He has been imprisoned for violating the national security law and today, he still faces charges of foreign collusion and sedition, which risk life imprisonment. Despite his being a British citizen, Beijing has overruled a Hong Kong court’s decision that he can be represented by a British lawyer.

It is sad that Hong Kong, once seen as a potential beacon of freedom and democracy in the region, has instead witnessed the erosion of its autonomy and civil liberties, with the “one country, two systems” principle promised under the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration completely undermined and dissent silenced. Thirty-four years after Tiananmen Square, we see how the 2020 national security law, imposed by the Chinese on Hong Kong, has restricted human rights, press freedom, civil liberties, freedom of expression and the rule of law. It criminalises a swathe of activities and has led to the closure of nearly all Hong Kong’s independent media outlets. It has given powers to authorities to monitor individuals, allowing warrantless searches, electronic surveillance and interception of communications—all undermining privacy and interfering with personal data.

Crucially, it is eroding the independence of the judicial system, allowing certain cases to be transferred to mainland China, where fair trials and due process rights are far from guaranteed. The appointment of judges and prosecutors is subject to political vetting, compromising their impartiality and independence. In a chilling echo of Tiananmen Square, there have been crackdowns on pro-democracy activists, dissidents and opposition figures, with the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of people following peaceful protests, online expression or political activities. Nearly 250 people have been arrested and many more forced to flee.

For years, the only 4 June commemoration took place in Hong Kong, where today even books about it, or on Hong Kong’s own protest movement, were removed from libraries in the lead-up to the 34th anniversary. In May, the Pillar of Shame statue commemorating Tiananmen Square which stood at the university was seized by the national security police as supposed evidence in an incitement to subversion case.

We are seeing events that we had hoped would not occur in post-1997 Hong Kong—indeed, we thought that was guaranteed. The trial of 47 democrats involved in unofficial primaries in 2020 opened in February this year. Most of them have been detained for two years, and they stand accused of conspiracy to commit subversion. What are their crimes? Participating in electoral activities: clear evidence of the fear of those in authority.

Indeed, we see fewer and fewer elections taking place as the proportion of democratically elected seats on district councils has been slashed from 90% to just 20%. This week, Hong Kong police issued arrest warrants for eight democracy activists living overseas, three of whom are probably living in the UK. It is unacceptable for individuals, peacefully and lawfully resident here, to be threatened in this way, and for supposed actions carried out not in Hong Kong but while in exile. The charges carry a maximum life sentence, but perhaps as chilling is the bounty on these people’s heads, with the police offering a reward of £100,000 per person.

The latest FCDO six-monthly report emphasises that the Government remain committed to protecting Hong Kongers’ rights and freedoms as part of the Sino-British joint declaration. However, the Foreign Secretary’s proposed visit to China demonstrates the Government’s failure to hold the CCP accountable for its repeated violations of basic human rights in China and Hong Kong. It also sends the wrong message to Hong Kongers who have fled here and are being targeted on British soil. They are at risk of surveillance and intimidation because of the extraterritorial clauses in the national security law, which claims universal jurisdiction.

This House, and the Government, must hold China accountable for its continued actions in China, Hong Kong and even the UK, violating human rights and disregarding the values that protesters stood for in Tiananmen Square. The Government cannot merely discuss human rights and democracy with Hong Kong and Chinese officials while taking no action. HMG have declared China to be in a state of “ongoing non-compliance” with the joint declaration but have yet to take steps to hold the Chinese Government accountable for these breaches. The UK has a unique responsibility to Hong Kong as signatory to the joint declaration, and a moral and legal obligation to uphold the autonomy and freedoms in the handover agreement of 26 years ago. We must remember the hopes exhibited in that 1997 bar and by its people.

In a way, Hong Kong is the canary in the mine. China’s rise poses a great challenge to many of our assumptions as its growth has been matched by greater repression at home and assertive behaviour abroad—in Hong Kong but also in Taiwan and the South China Sea. These actions concern us, but the Government appear divided and inconsistent, flip-flopping between tough talk and muddled action.

We need to be strong, clear-eyed and consistent on China, as Labour will be if in government, starting with a clean, full audit of our relationship. Of course, we will look at our economic and security policy, engaging where it is in our national interest on climate change, trade and global health. But we will stand firm on human rights and will champion the values that we hold so dear and which were lacking in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989 and are lacking in Hong Kong today.

I look forward to hearing the views of others and, in particular, to hearing the Government’s response to the question I posed.

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in making my brief contribution. I thank her for her initiative in bringing this debate to us and for setting out the issues so well.

I am a patron of Hong Kong Watch and a vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Hong Kong and Uighurs. My family and I have been sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party.

In 2019, I was part of the international team that monitored the last free and fair elections in Hong Kong. Earlier today during Question Time, I highlighted the fate of some of the legislators and pro-democracy activists whom I met. Some, such as British citizen Jimmy Lai, whom I know, are among the 1,200 incarcerated in Hong Kong jails. Others are among the exiles, such as Nathan Law, who is resident in the United Kingdom. On each of their heads a bounty of 1 million Hong Kong dollars has been placed. Their only crime is to believe in democracy.

The Chinese Communist Party has suppressed every last vestige of democracy, free speech and the rule of law, turning its courts into a mere tool of the CCP in implementing the draconian national security law. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who said last night that those remaining British judges lending respectability to the CCP’s courts should search their consciences.

By contrast, the admirable, courageous heroism of the defenders of Hong Kong’s freedoms is of a piece with the protestors who were massacred in Tiananmen Square in April 1989. Who can forget the solitary defiance of “Tank Man”, who stood in the square in front of a CCP tank? Such individual acts inspire and keep alive the hope that, as in Berlin in November 1989, even the most solid-looking walls can be brought down.

My friend Bob Fu was among the protestors who survived the massacre and subsequently escaped. He says:

“It was really absolutely shock because we had never imagined, by sitting in the peaceful Tiananmen Square—which, translated literally, is Square of Heavenly Peace—our so-called people’s government would send the so-called People’s Liberation Army to shoot its own people”.

Until July 2020, Hong Kong was one of the remaining cities in China where, as we heard, people were free to publicly commemorate Tiananmen and to honour the lives of those who were murdered at the hands of the CCP. For organising the candle-lit vigils in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, activists such as the lawyer Chow Hang-tung are now behind bars facing the prospect of many years in prison under the national security law.

All this is of a piece. The silencing of British parliamentarians, exiled legislators and activists all demonstrates that the CCP is literally scared stiff of dissent. That is why they are using bounties, arrest warrants and threats of extradition to close down debate. It is why they try to remove all references to Tiananmen and to censor schoolbooks and the internet. Add to this the way in which the CCP tries to extend its long arm to reach overseas and threaten the well-being and safety of pro-democracy activists who are under the protection of the UK Government, and it is pretty clear what kind of authoritarian regime we are dealing with.

I include in that number the significant BNO community and students at universities such as Southampton, who were recently set upon by CCP thugs. I remind the Minister of the attack on peaceful protestors outside the consulate in Manchester, by consular officials. As I noted in my remarks during our defence debate last Friday, disappointingly, the United Kingdom Government continue to send the CCP very mixed messages when it comes to the value that I know the Minister places on human rights and the international treaty guarantees that supposedly uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy, which the CCP has trashed.

The genius of “one country, two systems” has been replaced by the totalitarian model of “one system, one party”. Is it any surprise that the CCP thinks it can get away with this, and with encouraging the illegal use of bounty-hunters on UK soil and threatening the safety of British overseas nationals, when, for instance, we continue to drag our feet on stripping out a million Chinese-made surveillance cameras from government departments and the public sector supply chain? Does Xi Jinping take the UK seriously when, after three years of a relentless and unprecedented crackdown in Hong Kong, the Foreign Secretary is chomping at the bit to visit Beijing to sign investment and trade agreements with China—a country with which we have a trade deficit of over £40 billion? So much for promoting national resilience and less dependency.

Does the Minister believe that it is licit to do business as usual with a country credibly accused by the House of Commons and President Biden, among others, of committing genocide against Uighurs in Xinjiang? If not, why was a Minister from this House sent to Hong Kong to deepen trade deals? Can we really claim that we take national security seriously when so many of our academic research institutions continue to pursue sensitive research partnerships on dual-use technology with Chinese universities with links to the People’s Liberation Army?

Ministers and officials are responsible for the safety of our citizens at home and our international treaty responsibilities overseas, but in two reports from our House of Lords International Relations and Defence Select Committee we concluded that British policy represents “a strategic void”. When it comes to keeping its word on these issues, you cannot believe a word that the Chinese Communist Party and its chairman Xi Jinping say. Tiananmen, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan all reinforce that message.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town for securing today’s debate. As has been referred to, 34 years ago, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed peaceful pro-democracy protesters were killed in Tiananmen Square. Tens of thousands of demonstrators in cities across China were arrested and imprisoned. We all remember the unknown man standing alone in front of a line of tanks and the journalists’ reports physically smuggled out in those pre-internet days.

Some 26 years ago, after 150 years of British rule, Hong Kong became a special administrative region under Chinese control. Through the principle of “one country, two systems”, China agreed to maintain for 50 years the human rights protections, democratic freedoms and economic prosperity enjoyed by 6.5 million Hong Kongers. However, an increasing authoritarianism crept from mainland China into the territory. This has driven tens of thousands to leave, many asserting their rights as British nationals overseas to settle in the United Kingdom.

Just three years ago, on 1 July 2020, the Chinese Government imposed the national security law on Hong Kong. This authoritarian charter enables the authorities to arrest, detain and imprison anyone for four vaguely defined crimes: secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with foreign forces”. No time has been wasted in exercising these repressive powers. As many noble Lords have brought to our attention, thousands of protesters, hundreds of activists and journalists and many influential individuals have been arrested, detained and intimidated into pleading guilty.

We even have examples of Chinese Government-supported activity on our own soil, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, at the consulate in Manchester, at Mandarin schools across the United Kingdom and in some of our universities. Just four days ago, as we have all heard, the Hong Kong authorities issued arrest warrants and bounties under the national security law for eight activists who reside in the UK, Australia and the US. These bounties of 1 million Hong Kong dollars to lead to their arrests are just appalling.

China is extending its reach far beyond its capital city. Stretching through Hong Kong, its talons are probing into other countries and hovering around our shores, seeking to grab our own citizens. By seeking to supress reports on its actions within and outwith its borders—with worrying echoes of 1989—China is testing the willingness of the international community to hold it accountable to international standards. Unchallenged, China’s example will encourage like-minded authoritarian regimes in developing and developed countries. Their collective goal will be to destabilise democracies and make the world a less dangerous place for dictators.

Faced with this escalating situation, what should Britain do? England is, famously, the “mother of Parliaments”. I will for ever be honoured to have a place alongside your Lordships in the British legislature, one of the oldest democracies in the world. We must, as individuals and as a nation, be fearless to defend our values.

When I gave my maiden speech in the Chamber, I reflected on the complex nature of my dual national identity. For many years, I have been challenged and questioned on my loyalty to China. While I am proud of my Chinese heritage, my loyalty lies with Britain and the British values which make this country a beacon of democracy—values not shared by the current Chinese regime.

For too long, we have been cowed and indecisive. We have sometimes talked tough, but have baulked at taking effective action. My noble friend Lord Collins of Highbury last week called for a comprehensive audit of our UK-China relationship across the private sector and national and local government. China’s economic might is considerable but it can be overstated, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, and we should not allow our democratic values to be held to ransom by an imperfect understanding of our economic relationship. With greater clarity, we can build a robust strategy to challenge, compete and co-operate with China—one which is aligned with our democratic principles and our commitment to freedom and fundamental human rights.

In closing, I will quote the opening verse of “Glory to Hong Kong”. It has become the anthem of their struggle. Brave individuals in Hong Kong have been arrested and detained for singing it. The Chinese Government are trying to remove all traces of the lyrics online. I know that if I say them here, in this Chamber at the heart of the mother of Parliaments, these words will be forever recorded in Hansard. This will, I hope, encourage those brave souls, by demonstrating that their voices are being heard on the other side of the world despite Beijing’s attempts to silence them:

“We pledge: No more tears on our land,

In wrath, doubts dispelled we make our stand.

Arise! Ye who would not be slaves again:

For Hong Kong, may freedom reign!”

My Lords, what rousing words to follow.

I declare my position as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for securing this debate. She could hardly have known how precisely timely it would be given that, as has already been referred to, a few hours ago, two men who now face a 1 million Hong Kong dollar bounty on their heads were in this very place speaking about the experience that they are going through.

It is interesting to make a comparison; I did not know until this point that rewards for catching people who have committed criminal acts in Hong Kong is quite a traditional part of their justice system. Therefore, there is a reward of 300,000 Hong Kong dollars for information leading to the prosecution of a man accused of murder, and for two men wanted in connection with an arson case that killed 17 people there is a reward of 400,000 Hong Kong dollars. We can contrast that with the 1 million Hong Kong dollar bounty that is being offered for the capture of people who are advocating freedom and the rule of law.

I was not able to be at the press conference, but I followed reports of it closely. I particularly want to raise with the Minister an issue raised by both the men there. One of them is Finn Lau, who has lived in Britain since 2019 and is a BNO visa holder. He reflected on the fact that he has been sent screenshots of Chinese nationalists discussing kidnapping him. No doubt the eight people affected are hoping and believing that the states they currently reside in will not extradite them to China in the face of this Chinese action, but they have to live in fear of bounty hunters: private people. We need to think about—I am sure the Government are, but I really hope they are thinking hard—the security of these individuals.

I also note the comments made by Christopher Mung, who has lived in the UK since 2021 and is also a BNO visa holder. He noted that this attack on eight people is a much broader effort to silence and cause a ripple of fear among the greater Hong Kong diaspora. I hope the noble Lord may be able to address this. Again, I hope the Government are thinking very hard about how to provide both security and confidence to the many people we have, I am happy to say, welcomed from Hong Kong to the UK.

Not all of those people are necessarily intending to be permanent residents. It is interesting that there has not been much discussion of the fact that this year a record number of students have come from China to study in the UK: nearly 152,000 people. I am not going to address the potential security issues that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, touched on. I will leave that to other people. I am concerned about the experience those students are going to have in our system. Some of them will be from Hong Kong. It is possible that some of them will be from Uighur or Tibetan backgrounds. It is possibly less likely, but there are probably a few. Those students have to be kept safe here in the UK. They have to be able to enjoy the freedoms we expect all students to enjoy in the UK.

More than that, if we think about students from any part of China, students are young people. They are being exposed to new ideas; that is the whole idea of studying and studying overseas. They are being exposed to ideas about our democracy. When I have been handing out Green Party leaflets in Sheffield, I consciously give them to people who I think are probably Chinese students because direct examples of democracy in action are a really useful experience to have. Are we able to ensure—and do the universities have the right advice to ensure—that those students, if they start to explore democratic ideas and if they say slightly the wrong thing in front of another Chinese student of a different political persuasion have the right security and support? Is there help for universities, which will not necessarily have the political understanding and knowledge to realise just what the risks are? Are the Government doing enough to support all that?

I have just about run out of time, and I have lots of things here. There is one other thing I want to talk about in the rest of my time. This morning, I spoke to a group of King’s College London summer school students about the wonderful development of Magnitsky-style sanctions. They arose from civil society campaigning and are a social innovation brought about through the activities of civil society. The Government have followed along and adopted them. I am not going to ask the noble Lord the obvious questions because I know exactly what formula answer I will get. I will simply point out that the UK has yet to impose sanctions on anyone implicated in the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and that in responding to the bounty announcement, James Cleverly said:

“We will not tolerate any attempts by China to intimidate and silence individuals”.

The background briefing to the press release states that

“the UK continues to lead international efforts to stand up for the people of Hong Kong”.

Do we really? Where are the Magnitsky-style sanctions?

My Lords, I endorse everything that has been said by previous speakers. I have a number of questions to ask the Minister, who represents the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. How will the UK Government work to enforce the safety of those eight individuals who have just had warrants issued against them and who have this bounty on their heads?

I am very concerned about when they travel. They are professional people who are advocates for democracy—some of them are lawyers and so on. What is going to happen? We recently had the experience of Paul Rusesabagina, who travelled through Dubai for medical treatment. He was arrested there, manhandled on to an aeroplane and returned to Kagame’s regime in Rwanda, the place to which we relish sending asylum seekers. His trial was in no way in accordance with due process. He was put in jail and has only recently been released because of the interventions of many organisations around the world and President Biden. He was given clemency because of his ill health and at the urging of others. What will happen to those people as they go through places such as Dubai? Are they safe? What will we do to protect them?

How will the UK Government respond to the Chinese Government’s claims that we are harbouring criminals? That is what we have been accused of. How offensive is that to the United Kingdom? I want to know what we are saying about the bounties. The pursuit and enforcement of bounties by a foreign Government is illegal in this country. I cannot emphasise that enough.

I am very pleased that the Foreign Office has declared that the national security law in Hong Kong is a clear breach of the joint declaration that we signed with China, but it is an endorsement of what the UN Human Rights Committee has said—that that legislation should be repealed because it is overbroadly interpreted. Every country is entitled to have security legislation, but there is a lack of clarity about the national security law and we know it is basically being used to punish individuals who are democrats.

I am anxious that we translate some of these good words into real actions. Mention has been made of the failure to sanction anybody in Hong Kong. There has been a sort of buckling of the institutions in Hong Kong under the pressure of an erosion of the rule of law. Today, we even have the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Law Society of Hong Kong saying that, in the light of these warrants having been issued, they are going to conduct their own investigations into those who are lawyers, presumably with a view to disciplining them or stripping them of their professional status. Do we do that before people are convicted? Our professional organisations do not tend to do that normally. Not a peep is being said by either of those organisations about the idea of putting a bounty on people’s head and thereby putting them at serious risk.

What assessment have the Government made of the financial assets of Hong Kong and Chinese officials in the United Kingdom? That is one of the things that will help us assess who should be sanctioned, yet I do not see any indication that that is being done. What action are the Government taking about Jimmy Lai? I have come to know his son Sebastian, who has come to speak in Parliament. I recently spoke with him at a conference about attacks on media freedom and journalism around the world. In Hong Kong, we have seen a great diminution in freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Jimmy Lai’s presses were seized without a warrant or any due process in the courts. How does that speak for the rule of law?

We have great judges in this country, and our retired judges greatly enhanced the senior court in Hong Kong, but I hope that they will look to their position now. Any lawyers who are invited to go out there to prosecute or defend cases should look at what is happening to the rule of law and consider whether they are adding window dressing to a failing system. I know they feel great loyalty to their professional colleagues there—the judges and lawyers—but that is not a good enough reason to do that. It discredits the legal system altogether.

I wanted to ask about the consulate in Hong Kong. Are visits by consular representatives to prisoners allowed under the security law? We know that a large number of people are currently awaiting trial under the law. Many of them hold British passports. Are they getting access to the consular services?

I would be grateful if the Minister gave us some sense of what happens in discussions with China and Hong Kong about what is taking place there and how people will not want to do business there if the rule of law is not protected and respected by judges and lawyers.

I add my voice to those of everyone else: I am in great despair about what is happening in Hong Kong at the hands of the Chinese Government.

My Lords, I declare my interest as someone who went to Hong Kong for the first time when Britain was clearly running it with what one has to say was benign authoritarianism. I went to China for the first time as it came out of the period of deprivation and seemed very optimistic about coming to terms again with, and opening themselves to, the world. We all know that has now been disappointed, but we do not yet know where China is going.

I am conscious that there is a contested history of British-Chinese relations, and that in the Chinese reassertion of its role as a dominant power in east Asia after a century of humiliation, Britain helps to serve as one of the past humiliators. That is part of our problem in developing a different relationship with China.

We have in this country a large and significant population of citizens of Chinese ancestry or birth who contribute a good deal to our economy and society, not all of whom have links with Hong Kong. It is of great interest to all of us how we protect them, both within the United Kingdom and when they travel abroad. Perhaps the Minister could say something about the problem we have with the way other countries treat British citizens who are dual nationals. Both Iran and China appear not to recognise the validity of the British citizenship of people who were born with Iranian or Chinese nationality. How do we help to protect British citizens in those circumstances?

I think that we have a degree of consensus. We now recognise that China has taken a very unfortunate turn. We all thought that economic development and education would lead to a more open and tolerant society and less harsh government, but China has demonstrated that authoritarianism and state capitalism go with the deepening repression of dissent and religious and ethnic minorities and, so far, it has proved effective.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggested that the Communist Party in China is running scared. We do not know how strong or how nervous the current regime is. I suspect that the answer will depend partly on whether the threat of a recession in China becomes real and whether the property market goes down, because economic delivery has been part of what has given the current regime its legitimacy.

We also agree that the regime’s behaviour in Hong Kong and, even worse, in Xinjiang has breached human rights in all sorts of ways and that Chinese attempts to interfere within the UK in monitoring the behaviour of Chinese students and pursuing our own citizens are completely unacceptable. I think we also agree that China is nevertheless too large and important and too powerful a player in the global order and the economy, and important in combating climate change and managing pandemics, to isolate or to attempt to exclude. We have to continue to engage, however difficult it is at present.

I am not sure whether we also agree that the UK is now too dependent on China in economic and industrial terms, and that derisking, by reducing our dependence on imports of goods, food and materials from China, is now necessary. I recognise that this would mean the Government accepting elements of an industrial policy to counteract the evident mercantilism of Chinese policy.

I note that the British Government and the British economy have limited opportunities to expand exports to China, given Chinese resistance to industrial exports and given the limits to accepting services provided from abroad at present. The width of the current trade deficit is such that the only option appears to be derisking by reducing imports. I welcome what the Minister has to say on this.

We must clearly work with others as we respond. I hope that we are working with our European partners, but I see that the European Union is now developing a policy to reduce dependence on rare earths and a number of other resources that come from China. I hope we are associated with that.

I agree strongly with the refresh of the integrated review that we need to develop “China capabilities” in government, but also in universities and think tanks, so that we can try to understand what is happening in China, even if my friends in universities who are China experts all tell me that they really do not know what is happening. That is extremely worrying. The prospect is that, at some stage, China will perhaps take another turn, reopen and turn away from its current aggressive approach to international co-operation. We need to be there for that.

I will end with two questions for the Minister. What does the IR refresh mean by its reference on page 31 to

“the review of how we can protect our higher education sector”?

When will that review be presented to Parliament or published?

Secondly, we know that the Intelligence and Security Committee has completed its report on China and presented it to the Government. Can the Minister give us any assurance that this will be published and presented to Parliament before we all rise for the summer?

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Hayter for securing today’s debate, which reflects huge cross-party consensus. I welcome all the contributions today. When Parliament speaks with one voice in condemnation of human rights abuses and the erosion of liberties, it is heard loudest in Beijing.

If I had had the opportunity to intervene in today’s topical Oral Question from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I would have asked why the Government will not commit to publishing a stand-alone China strategy. As I have said before, instead of flip-flopping between tough talk and muddled actions, we need to develop a strategy in which we challenge, compete and, where we can, co-operate. The global threats that we face need that sort of co-operation, but we need those three “C”s. As my noble friend Lord Leong asked, does the Minister accept that the first step should be a complete and comprehensive audit of the UK-China relationship, not restricting ourselves to government but including the private sector and local government?

Since the Sino-British agreement, the critical liberties promised have not materialised. In fact, the passing of the national security law in 2020 saw a step-up in both Beijing’s direct interference in Hong Kong affairs and the curtailment of what little remained of the liberties that the people of Hong Kong enjoyed.

The national security law has another tool for internal repression in Hong Kong. It is being used to detain those perceived to be a danger to the authorities, including journalists, booksellers, businesspeople, pro-democracy youth activists and elected representatives, as we have heard. As my noble friend Lady Kennedy mentioned, the law has notably been used to charge Jimmy Lai—a British citizen and the founder of Apple Daily, one of the last mainstream, widely sold print newspapers in Hong Kong.

Against this dark backdrop, it is no surprise that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers have fled in recent years, and many now call the UK home. Certainly, the Opposition welcome the changes governing BNO passports, rightly opening up a pathway for citizenship for BNO passport holders and providing hope for a new life away from China’s erosion of Hong Kong’s way of life.

The bounties used by the Chinese Communist Party that we have heard about today highlight the significant concern in the community of Hong Kongers in the United Kingdom that they are still at risk of intimidation from the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party. I am afraid to say that the Government’s response to this mounting fear has been lacking. I echo the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett: we need a clear, truly concerted cross-government approach to this growing threat to ensure that Hong Kongers and, indeed, other groups seeking refuge in the UK from the Chinese Government, are protected, whether they are working, studying or campaigning.

I echo and emphasise the points raised by my noble friend Lady Kennedy—in particular, what are we doing, working with our allies, to ensure that people in transit are not put under arrest or detention? We need to hear more from the Government on that. Also, as my noble friend said, we should not turn our backs on British citizens such as Jimmy Lai and give carte blanche for further breaches of international law. What recent discussions have the Government had with allies—specifically, the US, Canada and Australia—that also criticised the treatment of Hong Kong and the implementation of the NSL? I hope the Minister will update us about the level of consular access that Mr Lai is receiving.

We have also heard in the news that the Human Rights Council’s special rapporteurs recently raised concerns about the potential use of forced labour in Tibet. What assessment has the Minister made of human rights protections in Tibet? I hope he will be able to respond to that.

We will always be united in calling out the Chinese Government for their breach of the Sino-British agreement and the curtailment of liberty in Hong Kong, specifically since the NSL was passed. We should make it clear—I hope this debate does so—that the Chinese treatment of Hong Kong should not be cost free.

My Lords, first, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this short but very important and—as has been said—timely debate. I put on record my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for securing and introducing the debate. Many of the issues and concerns that she raised resonate strongly with me and His Majesty’s Government, although I say from the outset that the word “flip-flop” has been used twice, and I must admit that it is not a reflection of what I have seen of the UK’s position. I will elaborate on some of those points. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, articulated the approach that would be taken if the party of His Majesty’s Opposition were in Government, and that very much reflects the key principles being pursued by His Majesty’s Government today.

I will try to cover as many of the points raised as possible in the few minutes that I have. Where more details are required, I will of course write to noble Lords in the customary way and lay a copy of that letter in the Library.

As we reflect on the Tiananmen Square massacre, we are all moved by those who lost their lives. We all remember it in our own way. The noble Lord, Lord Leong—I really respect his valuable insights—put it very poignantly. The image we saw of that individual standing in front of a tank defined what we saw happening in China and shaped much of our thinking.

We often take the fundamental principles of human rights and the right to protest as a matter of course in the United Kingdom. Every time I cross to the Foreign Office, there is always a protest of some nature taking place—it varies. I think it is a real strength of democracy. Visiting Foreign Ministers often ask me: “Tariq, are you not worried and concerned?” I am not, because it shows the strength of our democracy. Right outside the mother of Parliaments—as the noble Lord, Lord Leong, referred to it—we have the right to protest peacefully, in accordance with the law but forcefully and seeking to change the mind of the Government of the day on a particular policy or to influence Parliament. Long may that be protected. That was the very right which was protected within Hong Kong, which has been the subject of many of the contributions today.

I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, that we are very clear-eyed in our relationship with China. I will turn to the issue of human rights, but I agree with both of them that we need to co-operate with China. It cannot be ignored. It is the second-biggest economy in the world. There are not just intrinsic issues in supply chains and dependency for the UK and European economies but, as I said earlier in the Chamber, a reliance of many countries around the world, particularly developing states, on China’s economic power. If we are to be serious, we need to ensure that there are alternatives they can rely on.

China is, I accept, becoming more authoritarian at home and more assertive overseas. On the integrated review and a China strategy, I accept that there is no stand-alone China strategy but we have been very clear in the refresh and the original integrated view about our view on China. I will come to that in a moment. China is exerting more influence over people’s lives globally. How we handle that in terms of military, diplomatic and economic activity presents us with a generational, epoch-defining challenge. That challenge includes China using its economic power to coerce countries. We have seen this recently here in Europe in its disagreements with Lithuania, for example. We will work closely with others to push back against attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to coerce or threaten other nations.

The point about universities was made by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. Of course, it is important to ensure students can work and express freely. On the specifics of extended university support, I will write to the noble Lord about what is currently there. If particular issues are identified in any institution, it is important that that is fed back to government so appropriate action can be taken and that the appropriate colleges, universities or educational institutions can equally be informed of these issues.

However, we must continue to engage directly with China towards open, constructive and stable relations. The Foreign Secretary has been delivering this in a number of discussions he has had on foreign and security policy with Director Wang Yi, Foreign Minister Qin Gang and Vice-President Han Zheng on a number of occasions recently. I assure noble Lords that our approach is rooted in our national interest and co-ordinated with like-minded partners, including our European partners and the US. It reflects China’s importance in world affairs as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We have seen this, and I have directly experienced it in some of the work we are doing on important issues, such as Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine.

I turn to UK interests. We understand the issues and concerns which have been raised by all noble Lords. I take on board the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and say directly to him that I respect him greatly but understand the direct challenges he has faced through the sanctions that have been imposed. I said earlier today that the Government and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will engage with those under sanctions to address specific concerns as they arise.

On the issue of transiting through countries, it is important that we invest in those countries. We do not recognise the national security law or any extradition treaty. We have suspended that. That was direct and it was the right action to take. Equally, we have to be vigilant and ensure that that message is received loud and clear by other countries as well.

Our own national security is also critical. We have included new powers to protect our critical industries under the National Security and Investment Act; bolstered the security of our 5G network through the Telecommunications Act; and trained—importantly; it was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace—170 civil servants in Mandarin.

The Integrated Review Refresh takes this even further. We will double funding for Chinese expertise and capability in government, so that we have more Mandarin speakers and China experts. This will boost skills and knowledge for government staff in relation to China, including on economic, military and diplomatic policy, as well as Mandarin language skills, which are important.

Today has been the first time I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Leong, speak in extensive debate—and here is to many more—and share his background and insights, some of which I can relate to. Too often, challenges are posed to those who have made the United Kingdom their home. It is right that we celebrate the rich diversity of the United Kingdom, which we should recognise as a strength and not a weakness of our great nation.

The noble Lord’s Written Question earlier this month on Sino-British relations following the anniversary was an opportunity for us to highlight how appalled we were by the recent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong. It is right that we take a moment to reflect on the situation in Hong Kong and the pace of change in recent years. Tragically, it has been a regressive path.

China’s imposition of the National Security Law has seen opposition stifled. Three years on, we have seen how this opaque and sweeping law has undermined rights and freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration and indeed Hong Kong’s own Basic Law. Alternative voices across Hong Kong’s society have been all but extinguished, and changes to electoral rules have further eroded the ability of Hong Kongers to be legitimately represented at all levels of government. Governance, rights and social systems are now closer to the mainland norms of China, a point made extensively and poignantly by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy.

Monday saw attempts to reaffirm the purported extraterritorial reach of the National Security Law, as the Hong Kong police announced bounties—how appalling. We think of bounties as the bastion of films of the past, with bounties put on people’s heads. This is not how you do international relations. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was right to make a very clear statement on this. On the bounties on British citizens, including the three who are here in the UK, let me be absolutely clear: we will never tolerate attempts by Chinese authorities to intimidate or silence individuals in the UK and overseas, and we will make that point forcefully.

In response to the introduction of the National Security Law in 2020, to which I have already alluded, we acted quickly and decisively to introduce a bespoke immigration route for BNOs. I am proud of the role that many played; I was also involved in that. Some 150,000 BNO visas have now been granted and about 146,000 have arrived. We welcome—because, again, it enriches our country—the valuable contributions made.

The Foreign Secretary made plain our views on Hong Kong to the Chinese Vice-President on 5 May and at the UN Human Rights Council on 27 February. We stand for the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, as we agreed in the Sino-British agreement.

I am conscious of the time, so I want to mention Jimmy Lai, whose case was raised. He is one of Hong Kong’s most successful businessmen and former publisher of the Apple Daily. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Leong, with his own publishing career, relates quite directly to that. Mr Lai has been prosecuted on multiple fronts. He is an inspiration for what he is doing. Let me make it clear: he is a British passport holder. As was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, many countries do not recognise that status, but we are making very clear his rights to consular access and representation as well as rights under detention in accordance with principles and the Geneva conventions, which China should also recognise as forming the base of the international order. The Foreign Secretary has repeatedly made these issues clear in his direct interactions with senior members of the Chinese Government, and our diplomats in Hong Kong have attended Mr Lai’s court proceedings since his arrest in 2020 and will continue to do so.

Briefly on sanctions and asset seizures, and as a final point, I cannot give any more detail, but, of course, we look at all these elements. As we look at the security of individuals both at home and abroad, we keep these matters under very careful review. I cannot speculate on what happens in the future, but we exercised sanctions when it came to the issues relating to Xinjiang. On Xinjiang and human rights more generally, we have been at the forefront. I know that, because I led the first ever statement on the Human Rights Council, and we have sought to broaden our support.

Much more needs to be done, but I assure noble Lords and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in particular that we are very clear-eyed in our policy when it comes to China. China is an important partner on climate change; it is an important partner when we talk of the economic interdependency of the world today. Equally, where there are violations of human rights, be they in Tibet and Xinjiang, or against our own citizens, I assure the noble Baroness that we will stand by those people and always call out such violations.

Committee adjourned at 5 pm.